Cinema Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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DIR: Peter Jackson • WRI: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro • PRO: Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Zane Weiner • DOP: Andrew Lesnie • ED: Jabez Olssen • DES: Dan Hennah • MUS: Howard Shore • CAST: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch

The second of the three Hobbit films actually begins with a scene which takes place before the start of the previous film, possibly as some sort of joke at the expense of people who think these movies are already needlessly long. Regardless, we soon pick up where the last film ended with the Fellowship, the Company and the titular Hobbit on their adventure to the Lonely Mountain to fight a dragon. On this increasingly circuitous journey they stumble across numerous secondary characters and plotlines which latch on to them like lost children, one of which involves a shadowy, evil force growing in power…

Okay, let’s get the praise out of the way first so that we can move on to the rant because this film is going to receive near universal praise and rake in money no matter what anyone says. Part of me wishes that Jackson and his production team were only making the original trilogy now because, even though those films have aged reasonably well, these films only continue to get better and more impressive-looking with each instalment. The set designs and their believability are only matched by the simply superb CGI. Even with the best examples of CGI a slight disconnect between the real and the generated always remains. In this film (and to a lesser extent its predecessor) you really have to stare in wonder at the work that’s gone into the likes of Smaug (Cumberbatch). The only reason you really know it’s CGI is because there are (sadly) no dragons to put on film. I realise how trite this all sounds but after so many films in the last decade getting by on acceptable CGI, it’s truly a pleasure to be gobsmacked by what can be achieved with it all over again.

Speaking of Smaug, it would be remiss not to report that yes, Benedict Cumberbatch as a dragon is as wonderful in practice as it sounded on paper. He’s very reminiscent of Hopkins’ Lecter in his initial encounter with Bilbo (Freeman); dripping with menace but hiding it behind a polite yet powerful demeanour that’s almost mesmeric due to his careful, drawn-out enunciations. The rest of the cast are, as expected, almost all wonderful. Freeman continues to prove a stroke of genius casting, embodying a far more charismatic and innately humourous lead than Elijah Wood ever was. His comic timing but more importantly his use of physicality for comedic effect is a delight to watch. Ian McKellen gives it his all in a role where any other actor his age, playing a character like that would simply phone it in. The one glaring weak-link is the (pointlessly) returning of Orlando Bloom who still can’t emote to save his life and looks simply hilarious in action scenes where he’s clearly trying to come across as every bit the stoic, badass action hero that he very much is not. Bless.

Sadly, Bloom’s acting is only the tip of the iceberg. Honestly, I don’t think that I would in good conscience recommend this film to anyone but the most die-hard of Tolkien fans. The first film got a pass because it seemed (from the three titles of these movies at any rate) that Hobbit Pt. 1 would get the dull stuff out of the way leaving an entire second film for the Smaug portion of the plot (read: the only portion of the plot the more casual viewer is truly interested in) and yet here we are two films in and Smaug has had maybe fifteen minutes screen-time and an infuriating ‘to be continued’ right as the film is reaching what seems to be its action climax. To describe the film as slow and meandering is laughably inadequate but it’s forgivable (or at least tolerable) when you know it’s building toward something big and exciting. Pulling such a cheap, money-grabbing (better pay to see next year’s sequel, kids!) stunt after so very many, intolerable, unnecessary, and increasingly screen-time-cluttering scenes tips the scales right into ‘unforgivably boring’ territory. The end of this film would be akin to the first Hunger Games film being split in two and ending the first part right as Katniss entered the Games. Sure the die-hards will still enjoy all the talking and world-building but the large portion of the audience made up of less invested viewers who came to be entertained will be very angry and likely bored.

The prequel nature of these films also raises some issues. The side plot (one of the dozen or so that seems to be on-going at any given moment) involving Gandalf (McKellen) sees him investigating a mysterious enemy who goes conspicuously unnamed for most of the film but if you really can’t work out who it is, you’re just not trying. The problem is that these scenes are utterly devoid of any tension or peril because of who ‘the Enemy’ is and any danger Gandalf seems to be in by his hand is just more time-killing because we all know nothing of consequence can happen due to this being a prequel. Raising the question of why they even bothered to include (or at any rate, include so much of) these scenes. There is certainly a point in the last half an hour to forty minutes where there’s just so many simultaneous plotlines being followed that it descends into a Phantom Menace-style mess of trying to juggle all of them with equal screen-time when really there’s only one or two of any real importance or interest. Many of which are simply left hanging mid-scene to be picked up in next year’s sequel. And when the film does reach its final, infuriating shot we’re left with another thoroughly unsatisfying cinematic experience which, like the previous film, simply stops and fails to have an actual ending. It’s almost three hours of people running from things without any real beginning or ending.

For those already enamoured with Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth, this is just more of the same and will likely make for perfectly pleasant viewing. For everyone else there are certainly enjoyable aspects but they don’t remotely justify the overly-indulgent, unashamedly money-grabbing, dragging-out of a story that didn’t need it. For anyone still unsure if it’s worth seeing, watch it at your peril or rather the peril of your patience and your bladder.

(A brief note on the HFR issue. It seems to have been largely fixed from the last film. The ‘fast-forward’ effect is almost entirely absent though some of the faster moving action scenes have a habit of descending into a headache-inducing blur. The only major complaint is that it does its job too well in places and everything looks too real i.e. sets look like sets rather than locations and the whole enterprise ends up looking very televisual on occasion.)

Richard Drumm

12A (See IFCO for details)

161  mins

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is released on 13th December 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Official Website

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Cinema Review: West of Memphis

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DIR: Amy Berg WRI: Amy Berg, Billy McMillin PRO: Amy Berg, Lorri
Davis, Damien Wayne Echols, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh DOP: Maryse
Alberti, Ronan Killeen ED: Billy McMillin Cast: Damien Wayne Echols,
Jason Baldwin, Jesse Misskelley, Lorri Davis, Eddie Vedder, Peter
Jackson, Henry Rollins

With an estimated population of 26,245 according to a 2010 census,
West Memphis is the 17th largest city in the state of Arkansas. It has
a strong connection to the Civil War, but is perhaps most notable in
the modern age for the case of the West Memphis Three, who were
convicted in 1994 of the murder of three eight-year-old boys in the
Robin Hood Hills area the year before.

Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin were given
sentences that ranged from life imprisonment plus two 20-year
sentences to the death penalty following their trial for the murders
of Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers, in spite of
some very inconsistent evidence and factual information to support the
prosecution’s case.

With the help of a number of well-known faces, however, a series of
campaigns and appeals were set up in their favour, and as a result of
new forensic evidence presented in the case during July 2007, the
possibility of their name being cleared suddenly became a realistic
possibility.

A successful 2010 decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court regarding
newly produced DNA evidence led to the West Memphis Three reaching a
deal with the prosecutors. On August 19, 2011, all three entered
Alford Pleas, which allowed them to maintain their innocence while
acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them.

While this didn’t quite give them the clean slate that they had been
hoping for, it did finally offer freedom to the accused, and their
extraordinary 18 year journey to redemption is documented in Amy
Berg’s utterly compelling documentary, West Of Memphis.

Though the same subject has been covered quite thoroughly in the HBO
trilogy Paradise Lost, Berg’s film will now give the story the wide
audience that it fully deserves, and with every detail of the case
examined meticulously, it will provide you with all the tools you need
to form a decision about the case by the time the end credits role.

With that in mind, it is important to state that, while the film is
clearly designed to make you believe that these three men are innocent
of this appalling crime, it does offer the families of the victims
(and the prosecuting attorney) ample opportunity to show why they feel
justice was served at the first time of asking.

Indeed, the contrasting emotions felt by those closest to the case do
hit home very early on in the film, but what is perhaps most
remarkable about the story is how involved those on the outside have
become in trying to prove the innocence of the West Memphis Three.

The multi-talented Henry Rollins (a musician and talk show host who
featured prominently in Michael Mann’s Heat) has been a major public
campaigner on their behalf, along with Pearl Jam front man Eddie
Vedder, who has been an outspoken supporter of the movement from day
one.

However, the two interviewees who extended themselves beyond the call
duty are, without question, Peter Jackson and Lorri Davis. Jackson,
seen by many as the one of the world’s leading fantasy filmmakers, is
one of the film’s producers along with his wife and production
partner, Fran Walsh, and has thrown his considerable clout around the
case to an extraordinary extent.

So involved is he in the quest for justice, that he helped to hire a
private investigator to look into the possibility that Terry Hobbs,
stepfather of victim Stevie Branch, may well be a potential suspect in
the murder of Branch and his two friends.

Davis, on the other hand, first became involved in the case when she
corresponded with Echols after seeing the first Paradise Lost
documentary in 1996. From there, she played a major part in helping to
secure their release, and would become romantically involved with
Echols. They married in 1999 while he was still incarcerated, but they
are now free to continue their lives as a couple in the outside world.

With a running time of 147 minutes, it is always difficult to maintain
the attention of audiences on a consistent basis, but at no point is
the film anything less than gripping, and is at various times
endlessly thought-provoking.

Despite being a fact-based account, it also works quite well as a
drama, and the numerous twists and turns in the story (such as the
potential implication of Hobbs by his close friends and extended
family) are as effective as anything you will find coming out of
Hollywood in 2013.

20 years on, the West Memphis Three are still to be fully exonerated
despite the freedom they enjoy today, but West Of Memphis highlights
exactly how the actions that led to their initial conviction were
badly handled, and is a must-see for all those with an interest in a
deeply fascinating subject.

Daire Walsh

147mins
West Of Memphis is released on 29th March 2013

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Cinema Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

 
DIR: Peter Jackson • WRI: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro • PRO: Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Zane Weiner • DOP: Andrew Lesnie • ED: Jabez Olssen • DES: Dan Hennah • CAST: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, Andy Serkis

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey plays its valuable nostalgia card early and frequently thereafter. Director Peter Jackson uses the opening scenes to revisit Hobbiton literally moments before the events of Fellowship of the Ring, with Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) preparing for a certain eleventy-first birthday party. Bilbo is trying to put the finishing touches on his memoirs, which also include a very thorough history of dwarven society for some reason. The extended prologue over and done with, the film jumps back a half-century. A younger Bilbo (a charming Martin Freeman) is asked by everyone’s favourite wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to accompany the friendly conjurer on an adventure. The hobbit semi-politely declines. But when a dozen hungry dwarves arrive on his doorstep later that evening, Bilbo eventually agrees to embark on the eponymous journey to confront a legendary dragon. An eventful and extended saunter across Middle Earth inevitably follows.

 

The most immediately noteworthy aspects of the film are visual, and unfortunately it’s a real step down from the beautifully realised preceding trilogy, at least on Cineworld Dublin’s new and misleadingly labelled ‘IMAX’ screen. Shot on two-dozen RED Epic cameras – a more than capable camera with the right post-production tinkering – the film looks distractingly digital from the off. Those who lament the decline of film grain will be appalled here. The film is riddled with unconvincing CGI (from hedgehogs to landscapes) and cartoonish setpieces. The sweeping landscapes and beautiful miniatures of Lord of the Rings are sorely missed. As for the much-heralded 48 frames-per-second presentation? For an hour or more it is intensely disorientating – intriguing yet undeniably distracting. However, given the film’s technical shortcomings, I would argue that this was not the film to introduce the new technology with – especially when the nasty artefacts of 3D neuter the benefits of high framerate motion. In trying to increase his film’s naturalism and sense of immersion, Peter Jackson has ironically only drawn attention to its artificiality. It’s rare to criticise a film for looking too clean, but here it’s a warranted complaint. It really looks like a bad TV show. More traditional screenings may look better.

 

An Unexpected Journey’s second serious problem is the one many of us feared – the film’s running time is bulked up beyond all reason. Stuffed with insufferable Middle Earth lore and uninteresting characters, the film’s pacing has undoubtedly suffered from the decision to craft three lengthy films out of one brief novel. Several times the movie grinds to a halt as a result of clunky exposition and misjudged tangents, especially during turgid flashbacks and a dull revisit to Rivendell. The dwarves are –unavoidably – not the Fellowship, while two too many battles conclude with allies ‘unexpectedly’ swooping in to save the day (the old Helms Deep trick). Tonally, the film aims for a more lighthearted adventure than LotR, but alas the jokes consistently fall flat. The cameos from familiar faces add further bulk to an already bloated production, while the decision to have the vast majority of adversaries speak in ludicrous cockney accents diminishes the sense of threat significantly.

 

Still, there are moments of respite amidst an avalanche of disappointment. The last hour is a significant improvement over the preceding ninety minutes. One stormy and mountainous battle is genuinely spectacular, while recognisable music cues will tickle many viewers’ nostalgia bones (the score on the whole is a tad incessant though). Although it could use tighter editing – like most everything in this regrettably paced film – the third act reappearance of Gollum is terrific, and amplified by a go-for-broke motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis. Freeman is a welcome new addition to a massive ensemble, if relegated to the sidelines far too often. McKellen is reliably excellent. A cliffhanger ending also teases that this saga will have at least one memorable and stunningly rendered computer-generated creation.

 

You have no doubt seen worse films than The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Many Tolkien fans will likely revel in the excessive fan-service offered by this lore-soaked prequel. And yet this reviewer cannot help but feel a sense of profound disappointment at Peter Jackson’s misjudged attempt to recapture the magic of Middle Earth. Worst of all, you know there’s a better, shorter film in here somewhere. Another six hours of this is, unfortunately, not the most enticing of prospects. An Unexpected Journey proves to be unexpectedly and frustratingly dull.

Stephen McNeice

Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)

166 mins

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is released on 13th December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Official Website

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The Lovely Bones.

The Lovely Bones
DIR: Peter Jackson • WRI: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson• PRO: Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson, Aimée Peyronnet, Fran Walsh • DOP: Andrew Lesnie • ED: Jabez Olssen • DES: Naomi Shohan • CAST: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci

There is coldness at the heart of Peter Jackson’s new film as he presents his unappealing, vacuous, schmaltzy interpretation of a teenage girl’s afterlife alongside her abduction, rape and murder. It is a stomach-churning conflation of emotions that sends out far too many mixed signals throughout the film.

Saoirse Ronan plays Susie Salmon, a teenage girl in 1970’s white, picket-fence, suburban America, who is the victim of a heinous crime. After her murder, she finds herself in an afterlife limbo where she staggers between two states: her fantasies of lollipops, fashion, make-up and pop music with her other serial-killer-victim friends; and her need to find closure for both her and her family and expose her killer. Ok. New dress and a boogie? Find closure and expose killer? Oh, what to do…?

And so with the murder dealt with early on, The Lovely Bones proceeds to present the audience with the spectacle of Peter Jackson’s interpretation of an adolescent’s afterlife, as Salmon looks down on her mourning family from above. The special effects deployed to showcase Salmon’s afterlife fantasy world where everything is fine (all thanks to being brutally murdered) sees Jackson lose the plot and mishandle an embarrassing display of tacky hogwash. The scenes are crassly manufactured and rather than the visual feast Jackson laid on for us in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, we are instead served crude slop.

The film does nothing to justify its 135-minute running time. It’s all a bit of a mess  on earth as it is in limbo  with its awkward pacing, inconsequential supporting characters, unexplained and illogical actions, and an amazing ability to ignore the bleedin’ obvious. The story stumbles around the place crying out for the support of a better editor. The ending of the film is stretched out over a number of half-baked resolutions and descends into farce. And I have to mention that at one point Jackson steals David Lynch’s use of This Mortal Coil’s beautiful ‘Song to the Siren’. What for Lynch was a paean to unfulfilled desire becomes for Jackson a maudlin dirge for group hugs.

On the one plus side, Saoirse Ronan puts in a staggeringly emotive performance and consistently demonstrates the strengths of her acting talents. She elevates the material above the crass schlock it operates as. Apart from her performance, this film has Stanley Tucci playing the bespectacled, balding, neighbourhood weirdo with a performance straight from ‘Pervs R Us’ that Hollywood has produced so many times in its usual unsubtle way (God knows why he was nominated for an Oscar®). Mark Wahlberg has mastered the art of forehead acting and his cracking-up, vengeful father never rises beyond his limitations as an actor. Rachel Weisz gives nothing and seems to want nothing from the film; indeed she disappears from the family home at some stage. Susan Sarandon camps it up as the boozy jive-talking mother in her grating comic cameo role that merely adds to the whole distasteful tone of the film.

Hard to believe The Lovely Bones comes from the same director behind Heavenly Creatures. Whereas one is a fiendishly enchanting and imaginative exploration of adolescence, the other is nothing short of tasteless drivel. Perhaps David St. Hubbins was right in This is Spinal Tap when he said, ‘It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever’.

Steven Galvin

Rated 12A (seeIFCOfor details)

The Lovely Bones is released 19th Feb 2010

 

The Lovely Bones – Official Website

 

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