The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

The HobbitHaving unleashed Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) on the unsuspecting denizens of Lake Town, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his company of dwarves can only watch in horror as the dragon decimates the town below. All, that is, except their leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who is more concerned with reclaiming his birthright the Arkenstone — unaware that Bilbo has already picked it up and put it in his pocketsies. Lake Town is not completely defenseless, however, and as Smaug circles above Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) looses a special arrow that soon slays the beast. With the Lonely Mountain now empty, save for a hobbit and a handful of dwarves, convoys of both men and elves descend on Erebor keen to repatriate items stolen by Smaug. Thorin, though, is unwilling to part with even a single coin, leaving them little choice but to unite as the two camps prepare for war. Elsewhere, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is freed from the Necromancer by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee); Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) investigate a swarm of giant bats at Gundabad; and Bolg (Lawrence Makoare) leads an orc army to Erebor to avenge his father.

JRR Tolkein’s The Hobbit was such a simple story, perfect (indeed specifically designed) for bedtime reading: a humble homebody is tricked into joining twelve dwarves on an adventure to reclaim some treasure from a dragon. There were one or two complications along the way, admittedly, but save for a fateful encounter with a cave-dwelling riddler and the subsequent acquisition of a magic ring nothing of particular import. It should come as something of a surprise, then, when during Peter Jackson’s adaptation — ostensibly split into three parts with the express purpose of elucidating on Tolkein’s words — you find yourself wondering what on Middle Earth is going on. Where is Legolas going, and why? When did Galadriel become strong enough to banish Sauron? And, most worryingly of all, given the subtitle — The Battle of the Five Armies — how many armies are there? Does the alliance of man and elf constitute one army, or are they counted as two? Is the second orc army a separate entity? Whose side are the eagles on? Surely — having dispensed with the dragon in the first thirty minutes — the least Jackson could have done was use the other two hours to draw distinctive battle-lines.

After all, it’s not as though he’s using his movie to tell the story of the eponymous hobbit — Bilbo’s barely had a look-in since he faced off against Smaug. He spends at least twenty minutes of the final battle unconscious, and most of the rest of it either invisible or simply unaccounted for. He pops up with Gandalf occasionally, but only to give the camera an excuse to be in any particular place at any particular moment — just in time for some CGI beastie to take a swing at another. By this point in Jackson’s own Lord of the Rings trilogy the hobbits were very much front and centre, yet you were so invested in the rest of the ensemble that you didn’t mind the occasional cuts to the returning king, the two towers or the remains of the fellowship. Here, however, you don’t particularly care about anyone — heck, half of the character’s you can’t even name, let alone relate to. Part of the problem is the sheer size of the ensemble, and the lack of attention given to anyone but Bilbo and Thorin, but mostly it can be attributed to the dismal casting of the two leads. Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage are terrible actors, the former gurning gurrulously while the latter fails to display any emotion whatsoever, and they are at their worst here.

It’s genuinely amazing just how divergent the two trilogies are in terms of quality. Whereas with each new instalment of Lord of the Rings the series gathered momentum, grew in complexity, and both encouraged and exploited technological advances, the prequels have become increasingly staid, silly and unsophisticated. It doesn’t help that Jackson — unperturbed by all evidence to the contrary — is steadfast in his support of 48fps as a viable filmmaking format. The unconvincing special effects shots are at least cinematic, in the sense that the best video games cut-scenes might be described as cinematic, and facilitate a suspension of disbelief. Every time Jackson cuts to a practical effect, however, you are immediately distracted by how uncannily theatrical it looks and the illusion is shattered. How is it that a series of films shot over ten years ago look more realistic than a similar series shot in the present day — by the same director and a largely identical creative team, no less? There are shots of Legolas fighting on a crumbling tower that look as though they belong in The Matrix Reloaded, while Billy Connolly is unrecogniseable in all but voice when he appears as a pixilated dwarf king. Pixar did a better job of animating him in Brave. The final battle is already narratively incomprehensible (it’s never obviously won; it’s just suddenly over), but WETA have succeeded in making the interminable action sequences visually confusing, too.

Unlike The Battle of Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II or even The Battle of New York in Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, The Battle of the Five Armies never feels like a separate or even distinguishable story in and of itself. A failure of pacing, staging and acting, The Hobbit 3 doesn’t just fail to justify its existence (Tolkein’s book barely supported two movies, let alone three) but to engage with its audience on even the most basic level. Somebody summon Peter Jackson a giant eagle, it’s time he was saved from himself.

2-stars

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Dracula Untold (2014)

Dracula UntoldWhen Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) demands 1,000 Transylvanian boys for his army, and insists that the prince’s own son (Art Parkinson) join him at his place of residence, Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans) declines and in his act of disobedience all but declares war on the Ottoman Empire. In order to better defend his people, Vlad journeys to Broken Tooth Mountain and barters with a vampire (Charles Dance) — the strength necessary to overpower his foes for an unquenchable thirst for human blood, and potentially — should he succumb to his cravings — the creature’s freedom. Re-Christened Dracula, and given three days to play with his new powers unconditionally before they take a more permanent hold, Vlad engages Mehmed’s army.

It’s been a while since we last saw Dracula on the big screen — I think, since 2004 saw him take on both Blade and Van Helsing — and Universal seems to think that that’s really long enough. Not only has the studio decided to reboot the character, however, but to re-imagine its Universal Monsters series in a vein similar to Marvel’s mega-franchise. As such Dracula Untold has a fair amount riding on it, not just for the sake of any future sequels but for the stability of the Shared Universe it aims to cross-pollinate. We may not be able to draw conclusions on either matter until the Box Office receipts have been counted, but what can be assessed is the quality of the film itself — and, sadly, the prognosis is not good.

At no point does Dracula Untold feel like a fresh take on the character, let alone a definitive one, but rather a stop-gap to future adventures. It’s ninety minutes of preamble, of backstory, that will likely have no importance further down the line. The script is purely functional, the supporting characters largely interchangeable and the narrative entirely lacking in momentum or originality. Gary Shore’s film is more video game movie than traditional Hammer (or indeed Universal) Horror — complete with unconvincing CGI and incomprehensible editing — and seems completely unconcerned with provoking its audience, let alone scaring them. What’s more, the film’s two or three plot points are so predictable that even at little over an hour and a half in length it still feels plodding and over-long. It’s a far cry from The Mummy, anyway — the next film in line for a reboot.

It’s not all bad, however. Luke Evans is perfectly passable as Vlad the Impaler, and while it’s hardly an original idea to cast the Prince of Wallachia as Bram Stoker’s famous Count (he is after all widely believed to be the inspiration for the character) it is a nice touch to have him ‘impale’ other vampires, Slayer-style, in the final act. And then there’s the simple joy of seeing a vampire drink blood and shy away from sunlight, which of course applies to every vampire movie that’s not Twilight. The main highlight, however, is the epilogue — Universal’s attempt at the Marvel credits sequence. It sets up a rather more promising sequel, keeping the stronger elements (Evans, Dance…Evans and Dance) and leaving almost everything else behind; though whether this is enough to justify the £7 you’ve just spent on your cinema ticket, or encourage you to spend another £7 in two years’ time, is another matter.

Better than I, Frankenstein, at the very least, Universal Picture’s Dracula Untold is still an uninspiring and quite probably unnecessary resurrection of one of cinema’s greatest icons. On balance, an argument could certainly be made that this particular iteration of Dracula should have stayed that way…untold.

2-stars

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug (2013)

The Hobbit The Desolation Of SmaugDurin’s Day approaches, and if Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and company are to reclaim the kingdom of Erebor from Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) they are going to have to pick up the pace. They acquire ponies from a sympathetic skin-changer called Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) and continue west to Lake-town, a settlement of men which sits in the shadow of the Lonely Mountain. Their journey is not without incident, however, and along the way they encounter orcs, giant spiders and the Wood-elves of Mirkwood. They receive a cold welcome from the Elvenking, Thranduil (Pee Pace), and are temporarily incarcerated, but eventually resume their quest with Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), Chief of the Guards, and Legolas (all cheer for Orlando Bloom), The Elven Prince of Mirkwood, in tow.

Even before you consider the distracting nature of the higher frame rate, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a very difficult film to enjoy: the pace was glacial, the tone veered wildly from one extreme to another, and the CGI-heavy action scenes had no weight to them whatsoever. Happily, The Desolation Of Smaug is an entirely different story. The second film in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy is a real romp, and one that fills its almost three-hour running time with interesting supporting characters, Easter eggs for fans of The Lord Of The Rings series and spectacular special effects where its predecessor had only inter-changeable dwarves and lots and lots of walking.

Following a flashback to Gandalf and Thorin’s first meeting, back in The Prancing Pony, which serves to reintroduce the conflict and stakes with almost alarming narrative economy, the film then picks up where the first left off with Bilbo and co. leaving the Carrock on their way to The Lonely Mountain. With Azog (Manu Bennett) and his orc legion hot on their heels, the group barely slows down as they race from one disaster to another: first, they run into Beorn the skin-changer, then they encounter a swarm of giant spiders, and then they’re imprisoned by elves. In the time it took them just to leave Hobbiton in An Unexpected Journey they’ve this time crossed half of Middle Earth. And there’s still the small issue of a fire-breathing dragon to deal with.

As exciting as the rest of the film is — and it really is exciting: the escape from Mirkwood, in which the dwarves ride the rapids in a series of increasingly battered and arrow-ridden barrels, is one of the most outstanding set pieces of the year — it’s Smaug that will have everyone talking. When an adaptation of The Hobbit was first announced, undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges faced by Jackson and his team was selling a talking dragon to an audience which had previously praised The Lord Of The Rings for its earthy realism. Happily, however, Cumberbatch’s voice-work, coupled with WETA’s astonishing final render, bring the character to life in a way that is as beautiful as it is genuinely frightening. Obviously, it also helps that Martin Freeman finally feels like Bilbo Baggins.

Whereas The Office actor struggled to carry An Unexpected Journey, his gurning performance jarring horribly with the seriousness with which everyone else approached the task at hand, here he feels considerably more ingrained in the action. Perhaps it’s the fact that he finally gets his hands (and face) dirty, and the scene in which he mercilessly stabs a young spider to death for daring to stand between him and his precious is alarming in its intensity. By the time he enter’s Smaug’s lair the characterisation is complete, and the sequence works in a way that his confrontation with Gollum sadly did not. Another explanation might be that he has slightly less to do this time around; newcomers Mikael Persbrandt, Evangeline Lilly and Luke Evans (as Bard the Bowman) help to lessen the load, and the film benefits enormously.

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is as good as any of The Lord Of The Rings movies, the stakes feeling more real and immediate and the characters feeling more alive and compelling than they did in the last film. Part of this is due to the return of more familiar faces (and one giant burning eye), but it is also the result of Jackson stepping out from the Rings‘ shadow — straight into Smaug’s.

4-Stars

Fast And Furious 6 (2013)

Fast And Furious 6Having tracked a terrorist cell across Europe to Moscow, Diplomatic Security Service agent Luke Hobb’s (Dwayne Johnson) seeks the assistance of retired criminal Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), using the reappearance of his supposedly deceased girlfriend to secure his participation. While Dom reunites his team — including ex-cop Brian (Paul Walker), fellow street racer Han (Sung Kang) and old friend (Tyrese Gibson) — to help save Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Hobbs and partner Riley (Gina Carano) set out to bring rogue British Special Forces soldier Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) to justice before he can strike again. Read more of this post

The Raven (2012)

Out of ideas and low on money, Edgar Allen Poe (John Cusack) splits his time between fighting for the front page and vying for Emily Hamilton’s (Alice Eve) hand in marriage. When a murder is committed in the style of one of his stories, Poe is embroiled in a police investigation as Detective Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) faces an ever-mounting influx of bodies. Poe cooperates in the inquiry, forced into action by the abduction of his future fiance during one of her father’s (Brendan Gleeson) annual masquerade balls. With instruction to fictionalise the police’s findings in a series of episodes to be printed in his usual newspaper, Poe tries to piece together the killers clues taking cues from his own collected works before the allotted time runs out and Emily disappears forever.

It’s not difficult to imagine the thought process that likely spawned The Raven; it is in fact the culmination of a number of contemporary cinematic trends. Following the likes of Journey to the Centre of the Earth and, more recently, John Carter in disregarding the fourth wall in order to immerse a literary giant in their own mythology, James McTeigue’s The Raven sees Edgar Allan Poe play protagonist in his piece de resistance, albeit one that should never make its way into his official bibliography. Discontent with merely pandering to one zeitgeist, the filmmakers have sought further inspiration elsewhere, throwing a cape around Poe’s neck and reimagining him in the vein of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, as a kooky genius as happy to brawl as he is to spout prose.

Unlike the director’s previous effort, the now iconic V for Vendetta, McTeigue’s The Raven comes not from one of Alan Moore’s esteemed graphic novels, but a screenplay from Ben Livingstone and Hannah Shakespeare. Rather than delighting in sharp satire and rhetorical revelry, The Raven lumbers under a mis-mash of lifted verse and fatuous fabrication that is far more smug than it smart. The dialogue is at times unspeakable, consistently evidenced by John Cusack’s uneven delivery. With the sole exception of a reasonable rendition of the poet’s masterwork, and the film’s namesake, very little of Poe’s genius makes it onscreen – an oversight that McTeigue thinks he can compensate for with a novelty fireproof racoon and a few trillion ravens.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves, for I have glazed over the film’s greatest flaw: Cusack. Like all of his films, The Raven has at its centre a black hole of truly staggering proportions. Nothing escapes the crushing density of the actor’s wilting persona, as both the wobbly wordplay and jarring physicality only serve to highlight Cusack’s crippling lack of diversity, and, for that matter, charisma. With his drone voice and expressionless face (not to mention that ridiculous haircut), you are faced with a character who is simply there, constantly, exhibiting little agency as he fauns half-heartedly over Alice Eve’s unforgivably vacant Emily or stands in the corner while Brendan Gleeson struggles thanklessly with an impossible accent. It is only Luke Evans who demonstrates any hold over the audience’s attention, as he tries to ground the tumultuous tone with what amounts to the film’s only passable performance.

But there’s clearly more to it than that: V for Vendetta was many things, but beautifully acted wasn’t one of them. Considering the wealth of prefabricated fiction at his disposal, McTeigue somehow manages to fumble the one thing his movie should have had going for it: Poe’s atmosphere. A steady stream of increasingly unwelcome ravens and disastrously unconvincing bursts of fog do little to compensate for the lack of interest and tension elicited by the film’s pace and plot. Despite a few grisly murders (including one which was executed to greater effect in the Saw franchise, of all places), there is little threat as it becomes increasingly clear our heroes are largely safe from harm. I don’t wish to understate just how tedious this mystery is; it’s 111 minutes and feels considerably longer. Murder, he wrote, at his own leisure. Angela Lansbury could have solved it in a quarter of that time.

Derivative, cynical and perilously overblown, The Raven has none of the finesse or force of Poe’s eponymous poem, dazzling only when Cusack puts pen to paper and lets the calligrapher do the talking for him. As if in answer to the Mad Hatter’s own ravenous riddle (printed 20 years before the poem itself), McTeigue assures us that this raven at least is as wooden as any writing desk.

Immortals (2011)

Having spent his childhood training at the instruction of Zeus (Luke Evans – in the guise of John Hurt so that he doesn’t break his own law forbidding divine interference), Theseus (Henry Cavill) finds himself thrust into battle when the King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) destroys his village and kills his mother in search of the legendary Epirus Bow. Joining forces with the virgin oracle (Freida Pinto) and a repentant thief (Stephen Dorff), Theseus must find the bow first and overcome the King’s army if he is to stop the Titans from being released and war spreading to the heavens.

Much has been made of the fact that Immortals is the new 300, the new Clash of the Titans and as such a joyless update of any old sword and sandal epic worth its green-screen. It’s true, just like its spiritual forebears, Immortals is almost uniformly devoid of recognisable pulse, expending disproportionately more effort on style and perfectly glistening sinew than it does on such elements as character and story. Essentially a mash-up of the most recognisable Greek myths (will someone please retire the poor Minotaur), Immortals may even boast the most derivative plot to date.

What most critics are downplaying, however, is just how striking  Tarsem Singh’s film actually is. While a particularly impressive example of set design or gorgeously composed set piece might be little substitute for an involving story, some of Immortals’ imagery goes beyond petty window dressing. Without wishing to sound conceited, there were moments during Immortals that verged on visual poetry: taken out of context, the images of writhing titans and herculean struggle verge on artistry – accidentally (very clearly accidentally) drawing comparison to such formalist works as Sergei Paradjanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates – unceremoniously spoiled by the Hollywood necessity for stock characters, truncated subtext and a creaky, uninspiring plot.

Immortals is intended as a tent-pole movie, however, and it is in this vein that director Tarsem Singh fails unequivocally; while it may boast a commendably unabashed portrait of the gods, and a cinematography that goes beyond 300’s chroma key technique, it lacks the personality of the infinitely more enjoyable Thor. Henry Cavill is more muscle than man; Freida Pinto a love interest before she is an individual and Micky Rourke, well, Micky Rourke is Iron Man 2’s Ivan Vanko transposed to ancient Greece. For all the slow motion, stereoscopy and needless grew, this couldn’t be any less engaging if it tried. There are no stakes, nobody to invest in and nothing to distract you from the encroaching tedium.

This really is encapsulated in the final conflict, in which King Hyperion’s needlessly colossal army lines up outside the Hellenic stronghold, the bow in their grasp. As Freida Pinto heroically sits the ensuing battle out, leaving Theseus to give one of the least convincing speeches ever written by a professional writer, we are left to watch as an endless reel of extras massacre one another to absolutely no effect. Even when our heroes – Theseus and the suddenly active Olympians – do battle with Hyperion and the Titans respectively, the fight scenes are so lacking in stakes that you really don’t care that Heaven is apparently short of a few gods. It’s not exactly what myths are made of.

While Immortals is unfortunately guilty of just about every criticism you are likely to throw at it – the glacial pacing, the hand-carved performances and the general inconsequence of its ending – there is one thing which ultimately marks it out as more than simply 300-lite and Clash of the Titans reheated: a genuine degree of artistic merit. A Greecian statue writ large, Immortals is as beautiful as is it is lifelessly rendered in stone.

The Three Musketeers (2011)

The son of a Musketeer, d’Artagnan is eager to follow in his father’s footsteps. Arriving in Paris with his father’s sword and the familial horse, he immediately attracts the attention of the last remaining Musketeers – Athos (Matthew Macfadyen), Porthos (Ray Stevenson) and Aramis (Luke Evans) – by inadvertently challenging each of them to a duel. Interrupted by the Cardinal’s (Christopher Waltz) guards, d’Artagnan and the Musketeers fight their way out of trouble, resulting in them being brought before King Louis XIII (Freddy Fox) to be punished. Spared and instead gifted with new uniforms, much to the Cardinal’s dismay, the King asks d’Artagnan for dating advice, having been lead to fear that the queen (Juno Temple) might be having an affair with the Duke of Buckingham (Orlando Bloom). Sensing the work of old nemesis Milady (Milla Jovovich), the Musketeers set off for Britain in order to foil the Cardinal’s plot to set up Queen Anne and initiate war with Great Britain.

When I say that I enjoyed Paul WS Anderson’s The Three Musketeers, it is with the same unthinking abandon with which I declare my enjoyment of the bucket of Coke and overpriced packet of Peanut M&Ms with which I watched it. I enjoyed it as a consumer rather than as a connoisseur: as a big, silly, disposable summer blockbuster, one that was at the very least narrative-shaped, passingly competent and that didn’t happen to star any of the ever-growing list of actors I can’t help but hate on sight (well, except for James Corden). I am also gleefully unfamiliar with Alexandre Dumas’ French classic, saving me from the truly harrowing sense that I am watching a true work of art be sullied by a man who couldn’t even make a good Resident Evil movie.

It’s terrible. Of course it’s terrible. The Three Musketeers paints a France that is jarringly devoid of French people, in which history is treated with the same lack of respect as the source novel, and in which Logan Lerman receives top billing. It is a film that stars Percy Jackson, Legolas and the third incarnation of Marvel’s The Punisher; a film that ill-advisedly gives Milla Jovovich more to do than try to out-act zombies; and that features an airship battle in which it takes the combatants TEN WHOLE MINUTES to aim for the giant gas-filled balloon holding the enemy in the air. Yes, you heard that right: airships!

Upon witnessing two boats as they become skewered atop the Notre Dame Cathedral, as our fancy-dressed heroes fight it out while sporting a series of ever more ridiculous wigs, the sheer preposterous of it all is absolutely astonishing, the steampunk element steamrolling over what was once – or so I have been told – one of the great literary romances. From an ignorant cinemagoer’s point of view, however, it is just really, really silly. The plot is contrived, nonsensical and overburdened with would-be antagonists; by film’s end it is almost impossible to comprehend what went before aside from the fact that it hung awkwardly upon one man’s rudeness towards a horse, and that it may or may not have involved actors.

But, however appalling it might have been (think Wild Wild West with worse moustaches), I didn’t hate it. There was no forced angst, no transforming robots and no sign whatsoever that the editor had ever worked for MTV. Yes it’s derivative, yes it’s daft, yes Milla Jovovich can’t sustain a believable smile – let alone an entire facial expression – but, and this is even less common and more important than you might imagine, it’s also harmless fun. There’s even a bit where James Corden gets shat on by a bird. Twice. Priceless.