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Film Review – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his band of merry dwarves, along with Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) continue their quest to reclaim the dwarf homeland of Erebor from the clutches of the mighty dragon Smaug.

Stepping back into Middle Earth in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was like meeting an old friend after several years. However, just like bumping into an old chum, things often are never the same and you long for how they used to be. An Unexpected Journey was good but it definitely wasn’t to the standards we remembered from The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The good news is The Desolation of Smaug is a definite improvement over the first chapter, although there are still a few issues here and there.

One criticism of An Unexpected Journey was that it was too slow and plodding, particularly at the start. Well The Desolation of Smaug  has no such problem and jumps straight into the action, which is what you’d expect from the second part of a trilogy. This films also ramps up the threat level, which is another needed improvement over the first film. Here our heroes actually feel in danger whether from pursuing orcs or that scaly British dragon.

In terms of performances, everything is pretty much as before. Martin Freeman is still perfect as Bilbo, whilst the rest of the cast also perform admirably. This time around we do get a few new faces (and a voice) in Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel the elf, Luke Evans’ Bard and of course Smaug the dragon, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. Both Tauriel and Bard are interesting new additions and help to add depth to the overall story.

One issue that also cropped up in An Unexpected Journey is the use of CGI and how surprisingly poor it is. The Lord of the Rings trilogy tended to opt for more practical effects than CGI, but both Hobbit films thus far have significantly increased the amount of special effects and a lot of it looks rather cheap. Whether this is due to time or budget constraints is unclear, but the CGI often doesn’t blend well with its surroundings which does pull you out of the film. It should be noted, however, that Smaug himself, however, is superbly rendered and looks fantastic.

Is making The Hobbit into three films stretching the story too much? There is definitely an element of that, and certain sections of both films so far do feel overly long and drawn out. However, it’s still a pleasure to experience Middle Earth and if you’re a fan of the franchise then The Desolation of Smaug should keep you well entertained and eager for the final installment.

 Pros

  • Interesting new characters
  • Increased level of threat
  • Martin Freeman’s Bilbo
  • Smaug

Cons

  • Some dodgy CGI
  • Too drawn out at times

 

4 pigeons4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: The World’s End

Gary King’s (Simon Pegg) never did quite complete the ‘Golden Mile’, a 12 stop pub crawl in the sleepy village of Newton Haven ending up in The World’s End, but now he’s getting his old group of friends back together to finally complete the crawl. However, there’s something not quite right about the residents of Newton Haven, and not only do they put Gary’s quest at risk but also the very existence of the human race.

Since being released in 2004, Shaun of the Dead has become somewhat of a cult hit. Hot Fuzz then followed in 2007, which although still very good, didn’t quite hit the highs of its predecessor. Now Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have released the final part in what is dubbed the ‘Cornetto trilogy’ and the stakes have been raised significantly.

The World’s End is bigger and bolder than the previous two films in just about every way. The central cast is larger (or stays around for longer), the special effects are more grandiose and it’s probably expected to pull in significantly more money, too. But all of this does somewhat detract from what made Shaun of the Dead so loveable. Shaun felt like a few guys just throwing ideas together, much like their equally-loved TV show Spaced, but a much of The World’s End feels a little too forced, like they’re trying just a bit too hard.

Now that’s not to say it’s not a good film and that I didn’t enjoy it, because it is and I did, but too many of the jokes miss their mark, and when you know you should probably be laughing, more often than not a slight chuckle is the best you get. Sometimes it’s brilliant but it’s just a little too inconsistent. It seems they’ve gone with the attitude that if you throw enough jokes then enough will stick. And they do, but only just.

Where the film does improve on both Shaun and Fuzz is with the depth of its characters. Pegg’s Gary King has a pretty substantial backstory, of which all of other characters (particularly Nick Frost’s surprisingly straight-laced Andrew) are an integral part. Each of the other characters has their own little side story going on, but it’s as a part of Gary’s larger story arc that they really matter. Unlike those around him, Gary hasn’t grown up, and none of his ‘friends’ even really like him that much. He’s both an entertaining and a pitiful character; there’s much more to him than either of Pegg’s previous incarnations as Shaun or Nicholas Angel.

And it really feels as if the three writers have put a lot of love into the film. There’s plenty of lovely little touches that catch your eye and likely plenty more that will only surface after a few rewatches, which is one of the great things about all three films in the trilogy. They really do feel like films made by film fans, and The World’s End is no exception to that.

Perhaps it was because I was expecting too much, but The World’s End does feel like slight disappointment. I still had fun with it, and in some ways it’s a more developed piece of work that either Shaun or Fuzz, but it does lack just a little originality and spark. Just as similarly-named apocalyptic comedy This is the End is a joke starting to wear thin, The World’s End unfortunately feels a little the same.

3 and a half pigeons

3.5/5 pigeons

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Film Review – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit

Ah it’s good to be back. During the first 20 minutes of The Hobbit when Bilbo is, without choice, inviting a number of dwarves into his home, it’s as if Peter Jackson is doing the very same to us. We’ve been away awhile but we’re back and Jackson is inviting into the place he clearly feels most comfortable. He wants us to kick back, put our regular-sized feet up and return to Middle-Earth and, for the most part, he does a stellar job in making us feel like we’ve never been away.

As we all already know, The Hobbit is set before the events of Lord of the Rings. The film starts of with a prologue of sorts, providing some exposition that will become the basis of the film, much like there was in Fellowship of the Ring. The Dwarves’ homeland, Erebor, has been taken over by Smaug the Dragon. However, a band of dwarves, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) are determined to take it back. They team up with Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) who tells them that they should enlist hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as a ‘burglar’ to help them. Despite himself, Bilbo agrees and they go on their way.

Sometimes when you return years later to somewhere you have fond memories of, things might not be quite how you remember and you’re left feeling a little disillusioned. Not so with Middle-Earth. Within moments, you’re right back in the comfortable world of The Shire and Bag End, as if it’s nary been nine months, let alone nine years, since we last visited. The fields are lush and green, there’s whimsy in the air and the pitter patter of huge Hobbit feet in and around Bag End. And the first faces we’re greeted with are one we’re very familiar with, that of Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Bilbo (Ian Holm) exactly as we remember them in LOTR. This familiarity continues throughout as we meet other characters we’re already acquainted with, including Saruman (Sir Christopher Lee), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and, of course, Gandalf.

Bilbo and a few of many dwarvesHowever, it doesn’t take long (mere minutes, in fact) to establish that this story is to be told in a very different way. There are many similarities at this stage between The Hobbit and LOTR - a Hobbit joins a group who trek a long distance to achieve a seemingly unachievable goal – but this is handled with much more humour and lightheartedness than Frodo’s adventure. This is unsurprising considering Tolkien wrote The Hobbit primarily as a children’s book whereas LOTR was much more adult orientated. The dwarves add a layer of humour that wasn’t there in LOTR which does detract a little from the epicness of the story, although, again, this isn’t LOTR, it’s a different story altogether that happens to be set in the same world.

Unfortunately, it is when the film meets the few direct crossovers with LOTR that it really hits the high notes, specifically the Riddles in the Dark sequence. This is perhaps the most famous section of the book, where Bilbo meets Gollum and engages him in a game of riddles. It also absolutely fundamental to the entire LOTR story, giving it much more significance than most of the rest of the film, as we already know the consequences of the outcome. Andy Serkis is superb as ever as Gollum, his sinewy movements and raspy voice both creepy and mesmerising, adding a much needed darker layer to the story.

Whilst Andy Serkis’ Gollum was always a money in the bank moment, the other standout performance is Martin Freeman as Bilbo. Within but a few minutes of meeting our diminutive protagonist, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. Freeman displays the perfect combination of fussiness, humour and humility to perfectly embody Bilbo and make him a more interesting, identifiable and likeable character than Frodo ever was. Jackson’s casting has been consistently spot-on and it’s easy to see why he was so adament that Freeman was right for the part.

What has it got in its pocketses?Aside from the usual Middle-Earth stalwarts, many of the new characters are rather forgettable, specifically the dwarves. Simon Armitage does a decent enough job as Thorin Oakenshield, an Aragorn/Boromir hybrid, but many of the other dwarves simply don’t have enough about them. Of course, with so many of them (13 in total) it was always going to be difficult to give them each enough screen time and Jackson’s hands were somewhat tied by the book, but many of them are relegated to background characters and are really rather pointless.

One criticism many have had of The Hobbit is that it’s too long and there is some weight to that argument. There are a good few sections that feel lengthy and unnecessary, particularly during the first act when the story takes a little too long to get going. However, once it does find its feet, it rattles along at a fair old rate and is very well paced with several standout moments. Having said that, the action does feel a little samey after a while; each orc battle seems to blend into the next and having Gandalf turn up and save the day for the nth time feels a little too easy. It’s actually rather impressive that Jackson is spreading The Hobbit out over three films, although this means that he is incorporating sections that aren’t actually in the book. Gandalf’s wizard brethren Radagast, for example, actually only appears in LOTR rather than The Hobbit yet has a reasonably significant role. It’s not going to matter to most but may irk purists.

As part of a trilogy, The Hobbit doesn’t quite work as well as a standalone film as Fellowship did, but it’s still an immensely enjoyable experience. It genuinely feels like a worthy accompaniment to Frodo’s story; a separate story entirely whilst having its feet firmly in the same universe. Any misgivings this film may bring should be reviewed once the second and third films have been released, but this is a solid start that bodes well for the rest of the trilogy.

About the 48fps HFR

Jackson’s argument in favour of the new 48fps high frame rate is that it builds a much more immersive experience, but, to start with at least, it’s little more than distracting. At times, everything seems to be almost double speed with Bilbo scuttling around like a pint-sized Benny Hill. It also makes much of it look like a TV movie, which does detract from the overall experience a little. However, you do get used to it as the film goes on and it significantly improves the picture quality of the 3D. It makes everything look crystal clear which really increases the breathtaking scale of the amazing New Zealand vistas, although it does actually cheapen the CGI, making it evident that a lot of green screen action is going on. It’s an interesting experiment from Jackson but the old adage of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ springs to mind.

Chris

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