Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the latest visit to Middle Earth and is based on JRR Tolkien's book of the same name. As usual, I saw the 2D version as I'm not willing to spend money on an experiment that might not work (thats my use of the 3D glasses, not 3D film that seems to be a lost battle:-)).

As the film opens we're in the Shire with Old Bilbo (Ian Holme) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) talking about Bilbo's adventures in the East and a description of the Dwarven kingdom that once ruled there, followed by its fall without a mention of a ring given to the line of Dain. We don't get to see Smaug properly, normally just a shadow on the ground quickly followed by a blast of fire...

We then go to the opening of the story proper with Younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) sitting on his doorstep and ending up in a discussion of the various uses of 'good day' with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) and Gandalf getting annoyed with the stodgy person that Bilbo was becoming. The dwarves were introduced in small groups with Bilbo becoming more unsettled as the evening passed. Finally all the dwarves and Gandalf are assembled and after a truly heart stopping scene where the dwarves are clearing up the pottery in a fashion guaranteed to give Bilbo a heart attack. They then settle in for a bit of strategizing and planning about taking back the Mountain from the dragon. Bilbo basically doesn't impress the dwarves as he collapses when presented with the contract detailing his potential injuries. He was going to be hired as the burglar but he hadn't impressed anyone yet...

For most of the film, they've stuck very closely to the book in terms of both action and dialogue. Some of the dwarves are less serious than presented by JRRT and less noble, though in a Henry the Fifth moment, Thorin Oakenshield (an impressive Richard Armitage) tells his company that they are his true companions, especially as the rest of the dwarves were a bunch of craven cowards, refusing to risk facing the dragon. The major departures from the book were the subplot where the orc Azog (Manu Bennett) and his merry band chase the dwarves all over New Zea..., ah, I mean Middle Earth was an embellishment on the book. We also see Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), transposed from the LOTR trilogy. From the BBC Radio 4 broadcasts of LOTR I see Radagast as a young wizard but in this, he's of an age with Saruman and Gandalf, if a little more addle-pated (much more reasonable really). The White Council meeting wasn't mentioned directly in the book, just in passing and they managed to insert the lore of the istari quite neatly.

This film takes us through the Misty Mountains and an encounter with the creature Gollum, and the finding of a plain golden ring. Rather than the (by now leaderless} goblins of the mountains chasing them down the mountainside, Azog catches them up once more and the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf are treed, only to be rescued by the eagles who take them straight to the Carrock and their first sight of the Lonely Mountain, where the credits roll and we have to wait for another year to see how things continue. Bilbo makes one of those comments you know that you are going to really, really regret Well, the worst is over now. before were transported to the halls inside of which, a dragon is waking up...

When I heard that they had spread the story out over three three-hour films and scavenged the LOTR appendices to fill out the time, I was wondering how well it would hold together, but if they can maintain the quality of this film, then we should be in for a real treat over the next few years (the BBC production was around four hours). As an aside, Thorin in the film is pronounced as TH whereas the Beeb used the pronunciation Torin and, as one of their arts and entertainments editors shares the name, Id probably have gone with that...

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Skyfall Review

This is the fiftieth anniversary for the Bond franchise and the third outing for Daniel Craig in the role.
We open with a pre title sequence set in Istanbul where Bond has been sent to retrieve a missing disk with the names of intelligence agents hidden in terrorist organisations – a bit more serious than the usual run of the mill laptop left on a train affair.
Bond chases the thief through the streets and over the roofs of Istanbul - if you saw the Top Gear Special on the cars of Bond you’ll have an insight of how this was done – a more traditional chase and fight aboard a train (or more particularly on the top of a train) before Bond is shot and falls off a bridge into the roaring torrents below.
Roll the opening credits.
Rather unusually, the pre credits sequence has an effect on the main action of the film as M starts catching political heat from the lost disk and her computer is hacked while she’s out of the office causing an explosion in MI6’s headquarters and the death of 6 officers. After this debacle, M is told by her political masters that once this current mess is sorted out she’s out of a job so going home she’s startled to find a returned Bond waiting for her. In their new headquarters (rather appropriately Churchill’s old wartime bunker) Bond’s given a complete physical and psychological examination which he’s told he’s passed and then told to get his new kit from Q (not John Cleese any more), a spotty faced kid barely out of University, and in keeping with the rather minimalist gadgeteering of the Craig years all he gets is his gun and an emergency radio transmitter. And a ticket to Shanghai. And the Walther is coded to work only for his palm prints, of course.
Although the Bond films are straight up action adventures (most of the time) the scenes in Shanghai may as well have been set on an alien planet, really bringing home the transformation in that part of the world in a way that the news reports of China’s economic transformation haven’t really managed.
The action then moves to Macao with a more traditional meeting in a casino with a pretty woman whose bodyguards were more intent on her than making sure she didn’t get into trouble. With three bodyguards against Bond, he finds himself almost overwhelmed until a Monitor Lizard takes a liking to one opponent and another finds stiletto heels almost as effective a weapon as the knife. Bond then takes up his lady’s offer of a sailing trip out to sea to meet his nemesis. As in an earlier Bond, this is an ex-agent gone bad (Six really needs to look into its retirement package…). Like certain politicos back home, this villain believes the days of the agent on the ground are over but after a deadly variation of the apple on the head trick Bond, and a trio of Apaches take villain guy prisoner and bring him back to London. Q attacks the heavily encrypted computer with a degree of gusto that a more experienced hacker might have worried about, though, to be fair, it’s Bond who gives him the clue to break the encryption. Meanwhile, M’s at yet more hearings into the future of the 00 branch. This part of the film was rather cool as we intercut between the hearing and the villain’s breakout as his computer subverts MI6’s systems, and the subsequent chase through the London underground. Although this film doesn’t really go in for mass shoot outs in the style of the Roger Moore films, the action sequences are brilliantly, ah, executed as demonstrated in the gunfight in the committee room. But the villain gets away!
As M is bundled away to safety, her aide-de-camp finds himself pushed out of her ministerial car as an unknown driver whisks her off. It’s Bond of course but in a government car fitted with all the latest tracking devices, they’re not safe and so Bond takes M to the lockup where his Austin Martin DB5 is revealed to a bar or two of the original Bond theme and ‘Yeah!’s of delight from the older males in the audience! With Q busily supplying almost an almost false trail for Bond’s opponent to follow, we find ourselves up in the wilds of Glencoe and Bond’s ancestral seat. Although the  house is stripped of most of the contents, we get a quick lesson on ‘IEDs and your house’ with M showing an alarming facility for mayhem – up to this point, I’d seen her as a bureaucrat but she’s clearly had field experience along the line. And then we get the major confrontation of the film as the house is invaded by the villain of the piece and his minions (where was he getting them?) aboard their helicopter gunship. This constitutes the major action scene of the film, and again, it’s relatively minimalist with Bond, M and the auld family retainer, played with an incredibly posh English accent by Albert Finney (IMDb reports that Sean Connery was considered for this role which may have been a touch too self-referential).
Alas Judi Dench’s M doesn’t survive the fight and the film ends with us being introduced to a new M (we’ll have to see if he does become the permanent actor for the part). This was a shame as Dame Judi has been a fine M, and never better than in this film but we’re all getting older.
We’re promised that Bond will be back. But how many more films for Daniel Craig? Apparently, at forty-three, he’s beginning to feel the strain…
This was a far more introspective film than we’re used to from Bond but I don’t feel it really suffered from this and getting someone of the calibre of Sam Mendes as director really paid off. According to IMDb’s article many of the plans to shoot scenes in foreign climes had to be scrapped due to the uncertainty of the survival of the franchise after the collapse of the studio but Britain stood in excellently on its own merits.

Monday, 19 March 2012

John Carter

I went to see this film a couple of weeks post release and at the earliest possible  showing of the two-dee version on a Sunday so I wasn't expecting the place to exactly crowded but there were only half a dozen of us in the particular screen. So fine views of the screen at least!

Once the ads and trailers were over we finally start into the film with an attack on the Helium aircruiser with the baddies' hellish new weapon then a meeting of Helium's Council to discuss the terms of the city's survival. As this involves her marriage to the enemy Jeddak, Princess Deja Thoris is somewhat unhappy with this. The film then breaks to Earth where we meet a youngish Edger Rice Burroughs being presented with his uncle's journal of the strangest gold hunter's dream ever. We then go back in time to the start of the Great Adventure. This bit we've seen in the trailers but John Carter is on Mars soon enough wondering just how come he can leap mountains and jump miles in a single bound...

Eventually Carter is found by one of the two main races on Barsoom, the lizard like tharks and after impressing their Jeddak with his strength he's sort of adopted and sort of taken prisoner. Of course being chained and unable to speak the lingo is no barrier to escape though shaking off the 'watch dog' might prove trickier. As Carter is about to be punished for the escape attempt, an attack on a Helium airship by their enemied diverts the attenton of the tharks and Carter meets Deja Thoris...

It was fairly easy to see where Disney had spent the money on the effects and if you can see homages to other films its also fair to recognise the debts their stories owe to the ERB originals. Of course, given modern knowledge of conditions on Mars, there are some serious suspension of disbelief issues to overcome but the story does largely do this IMO if not necessarily in terms of world sales figures - indeed Disney are looking to post a group loss after this.

You can read the originals as digital dowloads from Project Guttenberg.