The Hobbit : The Battle of the Five Armies  (2014)    73/100

Rating : 73/100                                                                       144 Min        12A

Despite the rather bombastic advertising poster shown above for Peter Jackson’s conclusion to The Hobbit trilogy, it does not feature very much in the way of the rather fine example of dragonhood depicted, which, needless to say, was disappointing. Similarly, the methods by which the hero of Laketown, Bard (Luke Evans), attempts to defend it are PRE-POST-EROUS, in fact the humans throughout the film are easily the worst aspect and by far the least interesting. Who cares about Laketown? Let it BURN, they were asking for it anyway, dragons like to sleep a lot but we always wake up eventually. I do, however, like the central concept that Middle-earth hears on the grapevine that the dragon has finally awoken and left the doors to his gargantuan hoard of treasure agape, thrusting the titular five armies together to duke it out for the spoils – it makes sense, and it’s a good excuse for an almighty clash.

What it should have been, though, is the five armies versus me, I mean, Smaug – which might have been close to a fair fight. Through working together they could all have become better friends – the humans could have been regaled by the comedic wit of the dwarven leader Billy Connolly (he plays Dáin), the elves could have come to take pity on their inbred and fucked up cousins the orcs and offered them counselling, and the eagles, well, fuck the eagles the stupid little creatures, they can provide a tasty little snack for the dragon – the whole blood soaked affair is their fault anyway, ‘the eagles are coming!’, well they took their sweet time about it and best make the most of it because they’ll bugger off again in exactly two seconds anyway. All the while Bilbo runs off with both the Arkenstone and The Ring and secretly masturbates with them in a corner somewhere (we never really learn what the hell the Arkenstone actually is, only that’s it’s EVIL and essentially the MacGuffin that allows for lots of hammy acting surrounding its corruptive influence) – this all would have made for a better story, as would Bilbo then becoming the new dark lord.

As it is, all the characters come together for the big fight and everyone gets to do their bit and a commendable amount of creativity has gone into some of the choreography, although throughout the film there is the constant feeling that we are supposed to be more moved than we are – in fact comparing this to ‘The Return of the King’ (2003: the conclusion to Jackson’s earlier ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy) where there were many audible tears falling, only a single poor sobbing soul sounded around the auditorium for this and indeed no more than three people stayed for the credits at the end, compared to the truly unique sense of atmosphere generated at the screening of ‘The Return of the King’ where not a single person moved until the entirety of the credits had played through.

This is, nevertheless, a fitting conclusion to the trilogy, even if it still feels like a watered down and aimed at a slightly younger audience version of the previous one – though this is in fitting with the source material. I think overall the new technology used for the films with its super high frame rate was a huge mistake, with many parts looking tarnished and tawdry by its use, but it is possible that it will work better on the small screen. As with ‘An Unexpected Journey‘ and ‘The Desolation of Smaug‘ there are numerous tie-ins with the story in the rings trilogy which I think fans of Tolkien’s universe will appreciate (notwithstanding the silly looking ‘flashing Sauron’ sequences) and despite various criticisms of the liberties taken with the novel I believe the embellishments as a whole add more than they detract and are at least faithful in spirit.

Indeed, there is a huge wealth of material for further development so don’t be at all surprised if Middle-earth is readied for adaptation once more in the not too distant future. Above all else, it is the audience’s reintegration within a fantastic world where the devotion of the filmmakers, in particular Weta Workshop, really tells, together with enduring tales of friendship, adventure and courage that make the films work and will no doubt ensure their ability to be enjoyed many times over, continuing a long established Christmas tradition for many fans of both Tolkien and Jackson’s overarching and monumental works. Evoking the spirit the films were made in, Billy Boyd (who played Pippin in the Rings trilogy) wrote ‘The Last Goodbye’ and performs the song as it plays over the credits, a member of the family aiding The Hobbit to conclude its epic three year journey.

Some interesting background mythology regarding the lore and characters of Tolkien’s fantasy realm :

How to Train Your Dragon 2  (2014)    57/100

Rating :   57/100                                                                     102 Min        PG

The Red Dragon feels the need to debunk the hubris of this animated franchise (this of course follows up on 2010’s successful, and quite enjoyable, ‘How to Train Your Dragon’). Dragons cannot, point of fact, be trained, least of all by humankind. At best we might lead you on a little for our amusement, or because we enjoy toying with our food before we devour it, but the idea that someone can push the right bits of our bodies and mystically have us at their beck and call is, I’m sorry to say ladies and gentlemen, an erroneous construct of the movie industry in an attempt to satiate those such as myself and supply us with a never ending stream of playthings. The possible exception to this would be the case of particularly attractive human females who like to engage in the activity of dragon riding bareback for private reasons, as this strokes our egos as well as said reasons.

Oddly, the film’s main problem also concerns this aspect. Having well established with the first film (where everyone was originally engaged in conflict with one another) the notion that dragonkind and mortals can exist cooperatively by virtue of each being reasonable entities, this foundation is then turned on its head with the introduction of an ‘Alpha’ dragon which can effectively tell the other dragons what to do and they will obey zombie like each command. This does not work. It completely obliterates the previously central concepts of friendship, morality, reason and, most importantly, free will. Imagine what the sales pitch to create an accord between the species must now become – ‘Yes, seriously they can be trained and become your new best friend that will be loyal until the very end. Unless there is an Alpha in the area in which case YOU ARE TOTALLY FUCKED, and should find the nearest cave to hide in unless you want to watch your family being barbecued’. Worse yet, this concept is used to deploy one of the most hackneyed plot devices for upping the ante and drama in a sequel (no spoilers).

The movie eventually tries to atone for this egregious error of balance but it’s too late by then, and it’s symptomatic of a lot of the loose writing going on. The trailer shows the appearance of main character Hiccup’s long lost mother (played by Cate Blanchett with one of the weirdest pseudo Scottish accents ever) but it turns out she was swept away by a dragon (yes, she too likes to ride dragons, Cate Blanchett could also definitely fit into the exceptions category mentioned above) during an attack on the Viking village leaving her infant son and husband (chief Stoick the Vast played by Gerard Butler) to assume she was eaten. She wasn’t. Her flimsy excuse for allowing her family to think she was dead for twenty years is that the dragons became her friends and she didn’t believe the rubes in the village would change their ways. C’mon. She obviously found something she wasn’t getting at home.

The central storyline focuses on the discovery of an old long forgotten bad guy who’s building an evil dragon army, and our young hero will once again try to find a peaceful solution. Jay Baruchel returns to bring Hiccup to life but, as he speaks predominantly through his nose, he does not make a natural choice for voice acting, and he also plays him in the exact same way he does all his characters – the hopeless geek routine that will have you wanting to gouge your eyes out at points as he tries to tell people utterly crucial things that they need to know and continually lets them interrupt him – spit it out for God’s sake!

There are nice moments, and the animation is colourful, detailed and slick. All of which makes this exactly the same as most of Dreamwork’s output – skilled but with everything undermined by woeful writing. It’s not even morally robust enough to recommend for family viewing unfortunately.

Maleficent  (2014)    74/100

Rating :   74/100                                                                       97 Min        PG

Disney’s latest live-action take on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale sees much more made of the villain they themselves created for their 1959 animated version, the eponymous Maleficent (the definition of whose name is the very embodiment of evil), played in a truly wonderful performance here by Angelina Jolie. It’s possible to take the various myriad renditions of the tale in all sorts of directions – I was always told the version where Prince Charming kisses the princess and nothing happens, then a few weeks later she wakes up pregnant (dragon fairy tales do not paint a favourable picture of mankind – although see the 2011 Australian ‘Sleeping Beauty’ for more on this particular theme), oddly Disney decided not to run with that one, and instead we open with a charming back story for Maleficent, the soon to be powerful fairy ruler of the enchanted moorland realm which borders the human kingdom, and the two often being at odds with one another doesn’t deter the protagonist from falling in love with a young, Scottish I might add, boy who has wandered into fairy land intent on nicking something, the little urchin – suffice to say, things do not work out as hoped.

Time passes and we are introduced to Aurora (aka, Sleeping Beauty) and what unfolds is actually quite a touching and emotive drama about love, betrayal, hatred, rage, faeries, and yes, even dragons, all the good stuff really, and bar a couple of iffy moments near the beginning it manages to be entertaining throughout. It’s directed by special effects wizard Robert Stromberg (who won the Oscar for art direction twice, for 2009’s ‘Avatar’ and 2010’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’) in his directorial debut and he has done a great job overall, with the attention and dedication given to the effects and the art, make-up, and costume departments really paying dividends – in fact it looks pretty wonderful from start to finish.

I viewed this in 2D but you can tell from the way some scenes have been layered that a lot of thought has been given to the 3D production, so it could be that this is one of those rare films that are worth actually watching in 3D. All the performances are good – Sharlto Copley plays the grown version of Maleficent’s teenage beau, sporting a pretty decent Scottish accent, Elle Fanning plays Aurora with the perfect amount of youthful zest for life, Sam Riley is a henchman, and a raven, also with a convincing accent (Irish this time), with even the leading lady’s own daughter Vivienne playing one of the very young versions of Aurora, but this is ultimately Jolie’s show, and her full commitment to the role really shines through, winningly delivering the emotional resonance needed for it to work. A pretty great film, and a perfect one for families to go and watch together.

The Hobbit : The Desolation of Smaug  (2013)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     161 Min        12A

Lots to like and lament in this, rather like last year’s first instalment ‘An Unexpected Journey’, including the realisation that Smaug is not pronounced ‘Smawg’, which sounds great, but rather should be uttered as ‘Smowg’, which sounds crap. At least, if we are to believe Martin Freeman’s Bilbo, who finally meets the great red dragon in person (voiced by man of the hour Benedict Cumberbatch, and yes dragons can talk, as well as type). Having a particular vested interest in seeing how well the animated creature bears up, I have to say I am impressed – even if he does seem to be a little easy to give the run around, certainly the hubris of Bilbo and his dwarves to rob him of his rightful home and treasure is deserving of some toasty punishment.

Like part one, for the 3D releases (not for the 2D ones I believe – check with your cinema) this was filmed with a double frame rate (48 frames per second instead of the normal 24 that pretty much every other film in history has been made with) and director Peter Jackson has stated that he listened to criticism of the technology before and endeavoured to ensure the film had a more ‘cinematic’ look this time. Well, for large chunks of footage MISSION FAILED – the negative aspects of this high speed rate largely disappear as the film progresses, but initially there are several scenes where things are happening laughably quickly. A scene with Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen gives another fantastic performance as everyone’s favourite wizard) and Thorin in a Bree tavern (The Prancing Pony one presumes) sees sharp clear images that would be more at home in a made for TV episode of something, with the patrons zipping ludicrously about in the background. Surely someone working on it noticed it looked daft? Some of the effects (look out for the giant bumblebees that appear around Bilbo) also simply look fake, whilst others are fantastic: like most of the last third, and there is a scene featuring a captured orc at one point – the makeup and prosthetics would have us believe we’re looking at a real humanoid that once inhabited the Eurasian plate. In terms of the decision to even attempt a high speed frame rate – the cinematography from the original Lord of the Rings films was amazing, there really was no need at all to change it, and here, as well as the aforementioned misgivings, more could have been made of the natural beauty of Middle-earth/New Zealand in this instalment.

Jackson does seem to have listened to other criticisms and made better adjustments though – here the bad guys are nowhere near as squishy as before, although they remain pretty hopeless. We meet some new elves in the guise of Thranduil, played by Lee Pace, and Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly who was the absolute perfect choice for the part and seems to love every moment of her role, and the return of Orlando Bloom as a supposed to be younger but not really pulling it off Legolas. Those with a keen memory of ‘An Unexpected Journey’ will no doubt be puzzled as to why the eagles which saved the adventuring troupe did not take them all the way to The Lonely Mountain, and instead part two opens with them being chased by the same pesky wargs that the eagles purported to take them away from. This should really have been explained in the film, but the reason is either that the eagles believe in the balance of nature and don’t want to interfere too heavily on one side of any conflict, as Tolkien would ascribe to, or that they have a sense of humour, or indeed that they would also not really like a nearby, enormous sleeping dragon be woken up any time soon if it can be avoided.

The adventure is continued in a pleasingly convincing way, although I would probably suggest that seeing it in 2D is going to be by far the best way to enjoy it. It still feels like Lord of the Rings ‘lite’, a more palatable version for a younger audience which is in keeping with the novel but will still slightly annoy adult viewers. Nevertheless, the final part is set up to be the best of the bunch, and delving back into Middle-earth still feels suitably exciting.

Alas, there is no extra scene at the end of the credits. I certainly know what I would like to have seen a little sneak preview of ….

Beowulf  (2007)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     115 Min        12A

The Red Dragon has a very definite soft spot for this reimagining of the classic Old English tale, written sometime between the eighth and eleventh century. This is an enigmatic version, due in no small measure to a thundering score by Alan Silvestri and a powerful central performance by Ray Winstone as the titular epic hero himself (the etymology of his name has been ascribed to various possible sources, from the common bear, to ‘war wolf’ and even possibly a type of Scandinavian woodpecker). The casting of Winstone is not without a humorous irony in that at the time of filming he was in his fifties and, arguably, not in the best shape of his life, and of course here he is playing a buff, quintessential hero archetype. This was made possible by the animation of the entire film using motion capture technology, the same technique used by director Robert Zemeckis on his previous film ‘The Polar Express’ (04).

That technology has been updated, and here for the first time ever special electrodes were used that detected the electrical impulses controlling all of the visual responses within each actor’s body, and these signals were then used by computers to mirror realistic eye movements on screen, making an enormous difference to the believability of the 3D renderings as people, and to providing engrossing performances. It was one of the first films released in many theatres using the new 3D technology that we are all now familiar with, and it remains one of the best uses of it. Transferred onto a regular screen some of the graphics of the human characters don’t hold up too well, the queen, played by Robin Wright, for some reason looks particularly pallid and slightly eerie, but in general it still works, and the artistry, details and effects that make up the rest of the environment more than compensate for the, at times, lacking in realism rendering technology. Indeed, even on 2D there is a scene where a warrior on horseback thrusts his spear towards the screen, and it looks a lot more three dimensional than some of the purportedly 3D films out there.

The two disc DVD version is worth getting for a variety of behind the scenes featurettes showing how they actually made the film. The whole shoot was done within an open ‘cube’ inside a studio that was lined with infrared cameras firing relentless beams at the actors, with all the props being hand crafted wire meshes so that unnecessary interference with the beams was kept to a minimum. It seems to have been a hit with cast and crew alike, as scenes that may have taken hours to do on a location shoot could be wrapped in a fraction of the time. Indeed, John Malkovich who appears in a supporting role here (along with Anthony Hopkins, Crispin Glover, Angelina Jolie, and Brendan Gleeson, all really bringing their characters to life) tells of his frustration, partly due to his thespian roots, of so often having to simply hang around on sets waiting for hours to act for only a few moments, and how this method of filming is in many ways a Godsend for professional actors – he has something similar to say on the subject of digital filming in general in ‘Side by Side’.

The script is from screenwriter Roger Avary (who perhaps most famously shared the best original screenplay Oscar win with Quentin Tarantino for their collaboration on Pulp Fiction) and novelist Neil Gaiman. Not short on writing talent then, they decided to take large liberties with the original poem, very much at the bequest of Robert Zemeckis who had strongly negative memories of being forced to study the original in his school days. Without having similarly studied the virgin text, it seems their additions are really the points that anchor the whole story for this version, and in their view have raised it above what otherwise would have been a simple hack and slash bloodfest. The big alterations are with regards to the relationships of the monsters with the humans, and indeed the somewhat human relationships of the monsters, as well as the increasing role of Christianity in their landscape, a landscape which remains in Denmark rather than returning to the homestead of the Geats in Sweden, as in the poem. However, the final act in their original script continued these points through scenes that were mainly dialogue heavy, but when they were granted a larger budget than previously thought, Zemeckis told them to go wild. So, instead, we have over the top action replacing story, which is an enormous waste and it just becomes silly for that segment, with arrows being deflected by sword stroke and horses only just making the final jump over burning bridges etc. etc. At least the animation of a certain mythic beast in this section is fairly impressive…

A lot of subtlety has gone into the production, in fact some of it is perhaps too subtle to really notice, but the idea was to have some of it sink in subconsciously. The music plays a critical role, and it’s spot on, with some live singing from Robin Wright in there too. This is a Warner Brothers film, and, just as they have done with the Dark Knight trilogy and several of their other films, they set the tone with the music amidst the opening shots of their logo rather than waiting for the film proper, which is a very good idea. Much better than a lot of companies who have their insignias show accompanied with complete silence, resulting in either palpable awkwardness in the cinema, or irritation at those still chomping away on popcorn. Bear in mind there is a bit of a let down toward the end of the film, and a further indulgence with the ‘claws’ of Angelina Jolie’s character, but otherwise this is a very fine film.

Also, if you can’t make out some of the dialogue then fret not – several sentences of Old English were deliberately written into the script.


“Men, build another pyre. There’s dry wood behind the stables. Then burn the dead. And seal the hall. Close the doors and the windows. And by the king’s order, there shall be no singing or merrymaking of any kind. This place reeks of death. The skops are singing the shame of Herot as far south as the middle kingdom and as far north as the ice-lands. I’ve let it be known that I will give half the gold in my kingdom to any man who can rid us of Grendel. … No. Unferth, no. No, the gods will do nothing for us that we will not do for ourselves. What we need is a hero.”   Anthony Hopkins/Hrothgar

“Demon! Your bloodletting days are finished… It speaks. It speaks!… I am ripper, tearer, slasher, gouger. I am the teeth in the darkness, the talons in the night. Mine is strength. And lust. And power. I, am, Beowulf!”   Ray Winstone/Beowulf

“This is not battle Wiglaf. This is slaughter. … We men are the monsters now. The time of heroes is dead, Wiglaf. The Christ God has killed it, leaving humankind with nothing but weeping martyrs, fear, and shame…. Leave him! You think it’s sport to mock your opponents in this fashion? Let him die quickly, with some honour still intact. … Stop! Let him up. You want your name in ‘The song of Beowulf’? You think it should end with me killed by some Frisian raider with no name? … Only if you kill me. Otherwise, you’re nothing. You think you’re the first to try to kill me, or the hundredth? Well, let me tell you something, Frisian. The gods will not allow my death by your feeble blade. The gods will not allow me to die by a sword or be taken by the sea. The gods will not let me pass in my sleep, ripe with age. Plant your axe here, Finn of Fresia. Take my life. .. You’ll what? Kill me? Well, kill me! Do it! Kill me! Kill me! You know why you can’t kill me, my friend? Because I died many, many years ago when I was young. Give him a gold piece and send him home. He has a story to tell.”   Ray Winstone/Beowulf

The Hobbit : An Unexpected Journey  (2012)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     169 Min        12A

The long awaited prequel to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy from director Peter Jackson finally hits the big-screen and delivers a faithful adventure back into the lush meadows and goblin invested caverns of Middle-earth. The story follows the youthful adventures of Bilbo Baggins, as he embarks upon the titular unexpected journey with Gandalf the Grey and an entourage of dwarven companions. The scope of the film is wonderful, and fans of both Peter Jackson and J.R.R. Tolkien will be glad to see that there are quite a few extras in the film taken from outwith the relatively small confines of ‘The Hobbit’ the novel, but still from the pages of Tolkien’s world of Middle-earth from other sources.

It has been said that spinning a much smaller story out over three films again (‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’, and ‘The Hobbit: There and Back Again’ will be released in 2013 and 2014 respectively) is simply a cynical attempt to make as much money as possible from a venture which is guaranteed to do just that, given ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was one of the most successful film franchises of all time, and the third film ‘The Return of the King’ one of the most successful at the Oscars in their history too. However, the new trilogy is also an opportunity for the fans and filmmakers alike to once again invest in a world they love, and to bring as much of it to life as possible, and with that in mind using material other than just ‘The Hobbit’ is not only valid but to be actively encouraged.

A major let down and problem with the film is, unfortunately, Peter Jackson’s style of shooting action sequences. Here there are many, many, confrontations of sword and magic, and though the details differ, they are all essentially one and the same thing. Believability and tension are the casualties of bad guys that are too easy to kill, and good guys that should by rights all be dead a thousand times over. In fact, one sequence seems to be an exact replica of one the director has already used in his version of ‘King Kong’ (05), a film that was good visually but was all but destroyed by nonsensical action set pieces.

It would have been much better to keep the action gritty and tense, even at the expense of the grandeur that has been put into the final version. In a sense, the action does fit with what is supposed to be the translation of fiction aimed at younger readers (‘The Lord of the Rings’ was aimed at a more adult readership compared to ‘The Hobbit’), but adult audiences will almost certainly find it dull and a little disappointing. Nevertheless, it is wonderful to see Sir Ian McKellen back on the big-screen as Gandalf, though they seemed to have used prosthetics to make him look older than in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, and yet they’ve sensibly used computers to make a lot of the other characters look younger.

The young Bilbo is played by Martin Freeman, who was head hunted for the role, and the dwarves feature a range of accents and talents from across the British Isles – no doubt we will come to know, and probably love, them much better over the next few years. Female readers might want to debate this list trending on Facebook at the moment – the-13-dwarves-in-the-hobbit-ranked-by-hotness.

An enjoyable sorte back into Middle-earth. Hopefully the action will have a little more bite to it next time round. Also, note the somewhat frugal use of transportation at the end…