The road goes ever on and on-Things I liked about the last Hobbit film [SPOILERS]

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I’ve waited until now to make my judgement on the last Hobbit film (well, at least the written version of it). Overall, it wasn’t particularly easy. I liked the first Hobbit film, and I disliked the second one. The third movie, called “The Battle of the five armies” was kind of like a mix of the two. So, to keep this short….er, and to make it easy for myself, I’m gonna tackle the good things in this post, and then we’ll look at what went wrong after.

1. The acting

Some moments of the Hobbit films have been guilty of the worst acting in the entire Middle Earth franchise. Mostly this has been down to a bad script, and a lot of the rest of it is either poor casting choices (Billy Connolly? Stephen Fry??) or working the plot wrong. Even so, it’s actually been overwhelmingly positive. In the battle of the five armies (BOTFA), Martin Freeman (Bilbo) and Ian McKellen (Gandalf) give their usual five star performances, and it’s safe to say there will NEVER be another Gandalf quite like Ian.

Richard Armitage performs consistently as the dark and vengeful Thorin Oakenshield, who spends most of the movie lusting after the Arkenstone (or king’s jewel). Aidan Turner (Kili) and Ken Stott (Balin) play their respective role as dwarves in the company very well, and are given lots of screen time in this installment. Aidan Turner in particular has went from strength to strength with each movie, and he even somehow manages to improve on the overall feel of the elf/dwarf romance that is Tauriel and Kili. Himself and Richard Armitage stand out in the action scenes, with Graham McTavish (Dwalin) also good in this respect.

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I think one of the most memorable performances in the franchise is given by Luke Evans as Bard the Bowman, who is blessed with the liberty of far more to do than his paperback compatriot. His nemesis Smaug, who is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, is also wonderfully portrayed, which brings me to my next point…

2. That first 40 or so minutes

It wasn’t until the second watch that I truly appreciated it, but the first half an hour/forty minutes of this film is actually well up there as a contender for the best portion of the trilogy, and even has a Lord of the Rings kinda flavour to it that has been so glaringly missing from these three movies.

There are many bad ways to start a film (or end it a la Desolation of Smaug), but BOTFA has to be an example of how to do the exact opposite. It opens with the imminent attack of Smaug on Laketown, which (and I rarely say this) is VISUALLY AMAZING. That’s right. These scenes was so well done that I couldn’t help but notice. The sequence is a bit marred by Stephen Fry, but other than that it is perfectly constructed. The interplay between Smaug and Bard gives the dragon the hubristic tone seen widely in the novel, and though in large sections of the trilogy the heroes seem impervious to danger, with these scenes there really is a constant threat raging amid the dragon fire. After the death of Smaug, we get a fitting introduction to Thorin’s lust and greed, and then it is off to Dol Guldur where in the second movie we saw Gandalf captured by the now revealed Sauron. The sudden arrival of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) sets up what is uncharted-but-touched-on territory in Tolkien’s work, with the concept of the White Council banishing Sauron being very real, but the execution of the scene obviously fabricated by Jackson et al. It turns out quite well on screen, outside of the epileptic inducing Sauron that has become a stereotype of this trilogy.

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3. location, location, location

It normally goes without saying that Middle Earth is beautifully represented by the New Zealand landscape, but hell, I’m gonna say it anyway. It is noticeable that there is far more CGI work in the landscape, yet even so, the city of Dale has an Osgiliath ruins-like feel to it, while Erebor itself is one of most vividly created parts of all six movies. Gundabad has a nice Cirith Ungol look to it, which for many LOTR fans was one of the best settings in the original films.  Dol Guldur is unique as compared to some of the other locations, and its effect is mirrored onto Mirkwood well to show the spread of Sauron’s sickness.

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4. Some of the action scenes

Although as a movie, there is way too much of a reliance on CGI, some of the action scenes do still have that LOTR effect. In particular Tauriel’s scene on Ravenhill was well constructed, and Thorin vs Azog on the sheet of ice was a great way to lead up to the finish. I think the most obvious reason the look of the battles (as well as their credibility) has improved is that Jackson cannot escape the ending of the book. It is inevitable that Kili, Fili and Thorin had to die, and so in the latter part of the movie there was more of a desperate feel in the battles with Azog and Bolg. Bard’s fight scenes alongside the other men of Laketown were reasonably well done, so that in the end they were not dissimilar from the Siege of Gondor fights in Return of the King. It was the “setup” parts of most battles that stood out, but once the armies engaged it was a little hard to keep track. Still, the battles hugely improved on Desolation of Smaug.

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5. The ending

The first time I watched this movie, I was really unhappy with the ending. I know people go on and on about the last LOTR film dragging on, but this ending felt like a purposeful attempt to do the opposite. The second time, it still is obvious the ending could use work. The resolution after Thorin’s death is far too quick, and much of the cast is just kind of rushed off screen. There is no real finishing of the Bard, Thranduil or Dain storyline. Saying all that, I think Bilbo and Thorin’s last scene was really well done, as was Gandalf’s goodbye to Bilbo. Including the auction when Bilbo arrived home was a definite boost for the “there and back” theme of the whole thing. The final scene, which is one of the opening scenes of the Fellowship of the Ring looked at from within Bilbo’s house, was a touching (albeit slightly cheesy) note to end on. It was not a bad way to end it, and they did provide the link between the trilogies they wanted.

Next time, I’ll look at all the bad things, which is likely gonna be a much longer blog with far less structure. Until then.

Tales From The Perilous Realm- A J.R.R Tolkien book review

If you ask the ordinary fantasy fan to think outside the box when it comes to Tolkien, most would return with answers such as The Silmarillion or The Children of Hurin. When imagining Tales from the Perilous Realm, one must command the fan to imagine themselves standing outside the room which holds our original box. In short, it wouldn’t be the first on anybody’s list, but having read it, I feel it shouldn’t be anybody’s last.

This novel features five unique short stories as written by Tolkien, each based around the world of Faerie, a land we commonly associate with The Brothers Grimm etc. In stark contrast to this land of pixies and toadstools, Tolkien presents a meticulous essay outlining concretely what Fairy stories actually are, and how we should consider them as literary pieces.

The first tale presented is that of Roverandom. Featuring a dog named Rover, the story revolves around the animal becoming caught up in wizard dealings and being whisked away from his normal country lifestyle. What Tolkien succeeds in here unsurprisingly (if one reads The Hobbit) is perfectly building a world for a child’s imagination. Rather than soaking the piece in meticulous detail or filling every corner with aspects of his higher writing, Tolkien maintains a lighthearted tone throughout, and manages to turn a very average plot into a memorable story suitable for all ages. Though not my favourite form the book, the piece deserves praise nonetheless.

Farmer Giles of Ham definitely feels far more like the Tolkien we are used to, with its slightly dark undertone and a plot brimming with swords, kings and dragons. Similar to a world of Frodos and Bilbos, the tale focuses on how the ordinary man gets caught up in a world of valour and higher powers, simply based on how much love even the smallest man can show for their own homeland. Farmer Giles is Bilbo-like showing quick wit and a good humour, while his exchanges with Chrysophylax the dragon are hauntingly familiar if one has read The Hobbit to the finish. Suspense was maintained throughout which kept the tale moving and so the whole thing felt far shorter than Roverandom itself. Perhaps for those who enjoyed The Hobbit this would be a welcome read.

The Smith of Wooton Major dabbled most in what Tolkien considered the faery world to be. Based around a master cook living in a small town, the plot takes us into a parallel world of Faery, all accomplished through the magical ingredients of a special cake! The further the story progressed, the more the tale stood out as thematically impressive and not just a easy read. If Tolkien had delved more into the adventures that did occur in the world of Faery, the story would have benefited undoubtedly. However,given it was intended as a short piece (in which connection to the early paragraphs seems essential to grasp the overall feel), he might have chosen correctly in keeping the length short.

The literature then shifts to poet format, with a series of nearly twenty short stories being fed to the reader on a verse by verse basis. Some of these tales seem by themselves interesting, while others leave much to the imagination but succeed from a poetic point of view. Of all the pieces in this book, this would probably appeal least to the everyday reader. However, for those Tolkien fans who understand deeply that this man valued language far more than he did archers and cavalry, the section is a valuable insight into Tolkien’s ability.

The final piece presented is that of ‘Leaf by Niggle’. Tolkien was always quoted as saying he hated allegory; that is the intentional pursuit by a story etc to give the reader some sort of message (and in many cases the value of the story lies solely in this message). That being said, it is often argued this tale is a highly allegorical one, with its entire plot echoing the recesses of an aging Tolkien’s mind. Tolkien did once quote that for many pieces allegory is itself not presented, and any meaning found in the piece by the reader is purely coincidental, and evidently down to personal interpretation (as given in a note to fans in later LOTR publications). This is reasonable, but one would be hard pushed to read Leaf by Niggle and not come away feeling the whole tale circles around a painter who mirrors Tolkien himself; a man who was awash with worry, unhappiness and regret with not having finished his epic Silmarillion before his death (with this book being if anything the primary part of his legendarium). Just like Niggle, Tolkien continues to tack pieces onto his original work, filling in details here and there as he goes, never really settling on a defined picture/image and always looking to expand when he should consolidate and finish. The ending is too good to spoil, if one really wants value for reading.

Overall, anyone who shows a good interest in Tolkien’s writing will enjoy this quick read, with Leaf by Niggle, Smith of Wooton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham standing out as a top three in my eyes. Next time I’ll be reviewing The City, a fantasy tale by Stella Gemmell, wife of the late writer David Gemmell.

 

The Desolation Of Smaug-or how Hollywood can make a hobbit even smaller (spoilers-obviously)

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Hello again, been a while. Anyway, never mind that. Two nights ago I went to “The Hobbit:The Desolation Of Smaug”. This is the second film in the Hobbit trilogy, for those who missed out on popular culture for the last three years or so. To say I was excited would be a massive understatement. At the age of eight, I was first exposed to Tolkien’s world when The Fellowship of the Ring was released in cinemas. Since then, it’s been an explosion of Tolkien into my life. Over the following two years I saw the other two films, and simultaneously read The Hobbit. But since then, it’s gone logarithmic. At this stage, I’ve read the Hobbit about ten times, the Lord of the Rings perhaps five. Outside of that, I’ve gotten through the Silmarillion, The Children of Hurin and am currently finishing up the Unfinished Tales. I bought “Tales from the perilous realm” the other day, though that’s a whole other story. Not that this is very impressive, but I guess it highlights just how much Tolkien has played a part in my life, so when ten years later “The Hobbit” was planned for cinematic release, ya..I was excited.

Last year we had our first taste, and granted, it was no LOTR, but not bad Jackson, not bad. When three films were announced, I was skeptical. Three is a lot. But then, we heard the appendices et al would feature, so I felt a bit more at ease. I myself knew one film would be enough to tell The Hobbit, but not very well. To me, in two films you could faithfully adapt the book and make two very good movies. Perhaps the break could have come at Mirkwood, though let’s not argue that here. What we have to work with is what’s given, and that’s three films. The second film came with a whole roster of changes, including extra characters, new plot lines and changes to original material. This always happens with adaptions. A book works slowly, and can have its effect in that way. On screen though, we need constant visual stimulation. Otherwise we grow tired. So I knew the original thing wasn’t gonna cut it in cinema. It was too formal, too organised and too moderated. Cinema needs more freedom than books do. But too much freedom and creative control can damage original material a lot, which I felt was the problem with The Desolation of Smaug (TDOS after this).

I have too much to say on all this, so I’ll go with numbers and try keep it short (hah, unlikely though).

  1. Really childish action– This was probably the biggest flaw, one I’m sad to say carried over and multiplied from film one. Some would argue The Hobbit is a childish book, and so it’s OK, but since the tone has been adapted to fit LOTR, those people can go be wrong somewhere else. Every action sequence felt like a video game (that barrel one extremely looked like one too). There was no sense of danger like the Battle of Osgiliath, where anyone was fair game. Here the heroes felt invincible. There was no heroic and emotional sacrifice like Boromir, instead just a series of smiling dwarves killing orcs like they needed psychiatric support. It’s bad enough the poor characterization makes it hard to care for our heroes, but worse again that we know there is no chance they’re going to die. During the LOTR trilogy, I knew who would die and when, but even then I still doubted myself. Here, where again I know who dies and when, I sit completely calm as I know no number of orcs (of which there were many)  can stop our heroes picking them off in funnier and funnier fashions. That whole scene paved over one of the more well written and cherished chapters of the book, and replaced it with ten minutes of “kill orcs to win prizes NOW”. Orcs going down in twos and threes, orcs being flattened by barrels, and worst, orcs being catapulted up so Legolas can chop their head off. Did I say Legolas?
  2. LEGOLAS! Seriously though, why is he here? OK, I suppose considering they do go to Mirkwood, it is perfectly conceivable that a certain elf prince would be there. But that’s not why he is here. He is here, because somewhere out in the audience, people are going “he was in the other ones too!” Legolas was a good character in LOTR, now he has been cheapened down beyond comparison. No bit of his character has remained from the original trilogy, a fact I’m sure Jackson will say is due to “not being mature enough yet”. Yes, Jackson, I’m sure it’s perfectly conceivable that a few thousand year old elf would be obnoxious, reckless and all round annoying, but in seventy years completely change his entire personality because he “grew”. In the film series so far, he can only be described as a middle earth gatling gun, and a 2D one at that if we’re being honest. The fact he is given a love interest is even cringier, and no amount of “oh look he sees Gimli” is gonna make up for any of it.
  3. Tauriel- No, I’m not objecting to the presence of a girl in Middle earth (let’s face, we never see them). What I am objecting to is the idea that for the film to be good the producers felt she had to be there. And yes, that is why she is there. I’m sorry to anyone who loves this character, but her entire birth into the film is based on the fact that big corporate film makers think the normal population would be in uproar if a film ever went without both genders (because remember guys, Saving Private Ryan got horrible press..right?). What’s sadder is that in the modern generation, maybe they would be. Tolkien didn’t create Tauriel. Whereas Azog and the boys at least have some basis in the Appendices, this one is clean cut the creation of Jackson and co. When I heard it, I hated it, and then I was OK with it. After the movie, I hated it again. I think better film makers could have made it work, moulding the character into the story and making it realistic. I mean, real fans should have been worried enough when it was announced all her scenes were re-shoots. That just reeks of “We didn’t have it in their first, but then we showed it to our big producer daddy who said they wouldn’t put it on the fridge unless it had a girl”. I think Jackson went all out to show just how many orcs Katniss Everdeen Tauriel could kill in one film. We get it Jackson, girls can kill people too. Do they really have to carbon copy Legolas, who at this stage is a much better looking Rambo and nothing more, into a girl version just to spell out the most obvious message of the 20th century? All Evangeline Lily’s lines were weak, not her own fault, I mean after all, she had the huge task of convincing an audience this entire character fit into a story that they didn’t. But no, if only they stopped at the huge cliché that any girl in a fantasy film/book has to be either unbelievably attractive or a killing machine (bonus points here, they managed BOTH). Worse again, they stuck up their other middle finger to girls everywhere when they gave the character not one, but two romances. It is downright blatant sexism to include one girl in a movie, and then spend all of her lines having her fawn after elven Rambo and, well, what I would even admit is an attractive dwarf. As I quoted on another blog post, this was literally “I’m a strong independent elf who don’t need no other elf”. What she did need, it seems, is to cross cultural barriers put up by the author himself just to get across as many “nothing triumphs love” as humanly (should this be elvenly?) possible. There is really no end to the problems with this character, whose killing scenes well outrun any time given to Bilbo (remember him, he’s a hobbit isn’t he?). I feel most sorry for Evageline Lily, whose good acting skills would have been more than enough to portray Tauriel had she been included in a fair fashion. At the moment, she literally is stealing the show. If ever a character was so unflawed, it’s Tauriel. Her credits should literally roll as “Tauriel, played by (a) Martin Luther King (b) Mila Kunis (c) Mother Theresa (d) The entire team from the avengers (e) The concept of good will and kindness.” Arwen worked well in LOTR, but please Jackson, if you want to inject more girls into The Hobbit, please do it tastefully. (P.S. it is a huge plot hole to tell Tauriel she can’t have Legolas because she’s a lower class of elf, yet then have her as the captain of the entire royal guard…awkward).
  4. Bilbo…or lack thereof – Imagine my shock when, having watched TDOS, I walk out having seen nothing to do with a hobbit. On a serious note though, this film was the marring of the entire series, no matter how much the third one picks up. People will say the first one was long, granted, it was. But at least it felt like the book a little. Martin Freeman convinced me he was “on an unexpected journey”. It really felt like that childish sense of wonderment you get when reading the book. Film two abolished all that. Not only did Bilbo see as little screen time as possible (think Jackson’s cameo actually outran our eponymous hobbit), but anything with him was completely out of fell of the book. The only moment we even got close was during the Smaug scene, and even that was cut short by MORE action (more on that next). The whole second movie became for Bilbo what LOTR was for Frodo; a desperate struggle against the one ring. Only problem is that is literally not even close to what the books intends. The one ring wasn’t even “the one ring” when the hobbit was published. And yes, I’m aware Tolkien did later revisions to merge the books together, but still, only motivating Bilbo on the ring basically takes the entire book and shakes it upside down until all the substance falls out. It’s a shame that a chance at getting a real story on the underdog turned into “here are the overdogs doing their thing for the 234567th time this movie” (coincidentally, that’s exactly one tenth of the orcs that die in this movie).
  5. That last action sequence – If ever I thought in there Jackson had one more nail to drive in Tolkien’s coffin, I didn’t see it coming here. We were at the lonely mountain, all you have to do is put in those tantalizingly good exchanges between our dragon and bilbo and then send Smaug off to Laketown. BUT NO. Apparently the people need one last dopamine attack. Enter half an hour of unscripted action sequences involving a rather cumbersome Smaug chasing our dwarves (oh and Bilbo) around Erebor. If Smaug could breathe fire, he’d have killed them easy (oh wait he can! Are we sure?) But then it’s on to the grande finale. We’ve already accomplished destroying Tolkien’s work, we need something else to defy. Poor physics, never saw it coming. Watch as Thorin Oakenshield sails along a MOLTEN gold river on nothing more than an iron sheet. If dwarves can withstand this kind of heat, why not just bask in Smaug’s hell fire and get their tan on. I suppose their too busy trying to let loose an entire gold statue on Smaug by melting it (in the most ridiculous fashion of all time). Oh but look, heat didn’t kill a dragon. Damn, was sure that would work.