Monday, 15 December 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, 2014, New Line Cinema. Directed by Peter Jackson. Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett, Lee Pace, Luke Evans.
Perhaps I’m being mean, but on some levels, The Hobbit was always going to be somewhat of a disappointment. The Lord of the Rings breathed new life into fantasy and changed the game for blockbusters over the course of the decade in terms of aesthetic and marketing a trilogy. It was bold, exciting and showed what could be done with a bold, exciting director and a cast ready and willing to throw themselves into a world that, treated with too much reverence or too much flippancy, could have just looked a bit silly.

Eleven years since Return of the King, Battle of the Five Armies has taken the final bow for Middle Earth, and though it’s not quite with a whimper, it’s certainly not with the same bang. Much has changed in fantasy since 2003 and The Hobbit has never quite managed to stake its claim away away from Lord of the Rings and its ever lengthening shadow.

After Smaug has been desolated himself, people start to take a lot of interest in the Lonely Mountain and the riches therein, with just the one line of dialogue given to how this mountain is actually the gateway to the evil kingdom of Angmar (which is why two lots of Orc army want it). Thorin, overcome with all that glitters, backs away from his promise to the people of Laketown to share Smaug's wealth and decides it’ll be much nicer kept all to himself. Thranduil (Lee Pace, manfully battling with the largest eyebrows in modern cinema) wants a necklace with special gems in it and will quite cheerfully wage war over them, despite not mentioning them before or since. Some more dwarves turn up to lend Thorin a hand and then the film meanders as various creatures hobble each other under a moody sky. 

Hi friend! We have very little motivation to be here!
 So really, in the conclusion to the Middle Earth saga, there’s a battle, a bit with a dragon and Bilbo doing his very best John Watson impression. How they managed to cram this all into two and a half hours is a miracle of editing.

It all feels very tacked on, which is a problem that stems from the source material. In the book, Bilbo misses the battle entirely, and so therefore does the reader. However, the previous films spent so long leading up to Smaug, when he’s dismissed in a spectacular pre-credits scene, there is a sense of a scramble to keep everyone’s interest. If there was more build up to the bad guys in Angmar, maybe there wouldn’t be such a feeling of loss when the dragon goes down, but as it stands the Big Bad is gone before we have a bigger bad to take his place.

Which leads me to the good side of Five Armies; it’s chock-a-block with really cool bits, Smaug being its crowning glory. Benedict Cumberbatch is obviously having an enormously good time being the most awesome dragon ever and he is breathtaking as he takes out an entire town in three minutes. Legolas, after a wobbly start in the previous film, is in full swing here; remember how cool it was when he took down a battle elephant in Return of the King? He’s way cooler here, unburdened with clunky dialogue this time around as he lets his sword do the talking – his fight scenes are full of air punching moments and it’s nice to see him kick ass and take names again. Even Galadriel gets to show her awesome side in a scene that highlights just how terrifyingly powerful she really is.

I don't have anything in particular to say here, I just wanted to show you how cool Smaug is
And the ending is perfect. This, more than all of the portentous chatter about a gathering darkness, ties this trilogy to The Lord of the Rings. It’s beautifully judged, brimming with affection and really lifts the entire film. Without it, it could have been quite unsatisfying. Now, it really does feel like things have come to a close that can leave people happy.

No, it’s not another Lord of the Rings and I doubt it will inspire a generation of filmmakers to get out there and make their own mark on the cinematic landscape. But it’s fun, it’s worth seeing on the biggest screen you can find and it’s one more trip into Middle Earth before Peter Jackson puts his toys away for good.

Friday, 31 October 2014

The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods, 2012, Lionsgate Films. Directed by Drew Goddard. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Connolly, Fran Kanz, Anna Hutchison, Bradley Whitford.

It’s telling how much people care about a film when there are very few spoilers kicking around about it despite its age. It’s entirely plausible for someone to be able to watch Psycho in 2014 and not know anything about it apart from the shower scene; the consensus is that you should watch Psycho for yourself and enjoy it as it is.

This rule seems to also apply to The Cabin in the Woods – you have try quite hard to spoil this film for yourself, which I find comforting in a world where films yet without scripts are picked over like so much carrion. All everyone says about Cabin is that it’s really good and whatever you’re expecting, it will not be that. And oh my, they are so right.

The premise as shown in the trailer doesn’t do it any favours – stereotypical college students escape to isolation, but little do they know they are under surveillance by a strange and shadowy organisation – so far, so ho hum, but the reviews and word of lightly lipped mouth tell a very different story and it’s now been held up as a modern horror classic, a title I think it deserves. It’s funny, dark and genuinely scary in places, with an amazing plot I simply won’t talk about further.

Not pictured: any spoilers whatsoever

So let’s talk about the cast instead; I make it a rule of thumb to only watch films with at least one Avenger in them, and Chris Hemsworth is enormous fun as ‘the sporty one’ with a perfect life and even more perfect jaw line. Anna Hutchison plays up to her role as ‘the slutty one’ with great aplomb and with just even knowing to stop the film from becoming distractingly sexist. Jesse Williams as ‘the nerdy one’ doesn’t seem to have much to grasp on to apart from that his character occasionally wears glasses, and as such he has the least interesting lines of the bunch. Kristen Connolly as ‘the virgin one’ is sparky and level headed – perhaps too level headed, as she seems to face down just about everything with a wide eyed stare; she’s no scream queen and the role was begging for someone with a good set of lungs. Fran Kanz as ‘the stoner one’ seemed to be the most obnoxious at first, but as the film continues he gallops away with the best lines, the best reaction shots and ultimately the best laughs. They’re an enjoyable lot, but Kanz steals the show from under everyone else’s nose.

Cabin careers along at an amazing pace, going further and further down the rabbit hole of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s minds and coming up with a weird, gruesome and thoroughly entertaining hour and a half of good old fashioned post modern horror. The film starts as it means to go on; a brooding, gothic horror title card for Lionsgate snaps to a fun but innocuous office conversation between Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, with the film title screaming over them in a very video nasty fashion. This slapping together of the everyday lives of the employees and the abject horror the college students face works brilliantly, the threat of not meeting your project deadline as real as the threat in the woods.

Finally, it’s nice to see a modern horror film rely on something other than shaky camerawork and mutilation to get its jumps and scares. It never takes itself too seriously and as such it’s more entertaining than disturbing. It won’t give you nightmares but it will make you laugh, shriek and jump with great gusto, and what more can you want for a casual movie night? Happy Hallowe’en!

Sunday, 21 September 2014

The Most Scottish Film Ever Made

Living in England, the last few weeks have been interesting; with the news plastered with coverage of Scotland and the Referendum and people talking about little else, I realised two things: 1, I miss Glasgow more than I would my right lung right now and 2, no one in England knows anything about Scottish cinema.

So in honour of Scotland choosing to stay in the Union for another ten years at least, I think it’s high time to talk about the most Scottish film ever made. 

And no, it’s not bloody Braveheart. The Battle of Stirling Bridge could have been good, except it wasn’t on a Bridge, and so was the Battle in a Field Somewhere Less Significant, which doesn’t really carry the same weight. I must have been the only person to watch Braveheart wondering when the English would just get on with it and kill Wallace, if only it meant the film would end at some point soon.

On top of this, it’s an American film directed by an Australian shot in Ireland. How Scottish.

That and Scots stopped wearing wode when the Romans left, which I'm sure they just put in to irritate history nerds at this point

No, not Braveheart. Or Brave, Trainspotting, Local Hero or Whisky Galore (although that film is glorious). Nah, it’s a Gaelic language film with minimal English dialogue, partly funded by Skye College and it’s utterly wonderful.

Seachd: The Inaccessible Pinnacle tells the story of young Angus, orphaned when his parents fall from the Skye mountains, and his relationship with his Grandfather, a man who mourns both his son and his dying culture. Angus’s life is filled with stories and Gaelic culture, but it seems bleak and isolated – it’s telling how exotic and distant places like Glasgow seem in Seachd, as if the idea of speaking anything other than Gaelic ill suits such a wild and ancient land.

Skye looks gorgeous throughout, Ian Dodd’s cinematography perfectly capturing the vastness of landscape whilst picking up on the small human imprints on this natural world. A car here, a cottage there and Agnus’s problems seem simultaneously enormous and insignificant.  It’s as much a film about Gaelic as it is Agnus, his Granddad using old Gaelic stories as metaphors, instructions and sometimes just to cheer up his sullen and lonely grandson.

And what stories they are. With this kind of film, it can be difficult to get across the importance of the message without it consuming the entire narrative, casting the entire thing into the dark world of important, but not very entertaining. Seachd balances the more serious tales of oppression, death and murder with a gentle sense of humour, particularly with the tale of the Spaniard and the McDonald, which is fun, funny and ends with an amazing pun which still makes me smile.

Where Braveheart is cynical and manipulative, Seachd is sincere and hopeful. It’s a film about local history and legend interwoven with a heartbreakingly real family drama and I honestly can’t recommend it enough. It’s lovingly crafted, warm hearted and small enough to feel personal to everyone who watches it whilst being undoubtedly and truly Scottish.  

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

And Now, The Shipping Forecast

Shipping, for those who have made better life choices than I, is the act of imagining, through art or writing, fictional characters in a romantic relationship for personal satisfaction, experimental purposes, or to annoy Anne Rice.  If two characters have ever existed, someone has probably written a thirty thousand word novella about how they’re getting their rocks off with each other. Some terms should be explained; a sailed ship is one that happens in the original work (Han Solo and Princess Leia, for example), a crack ship is one that could never happen in the original work (like, say, Jean Luc Picard and Elrond) and a slash is a gay pairing (named after the forward slash to show a pairing, such as Kirk/Spock). It’s staggering how many slash pairings there are across the lands of fandom and oh my, does it get weird quickly. If you cast your mind back to when Thor: The Dark World was released and this picture made the rounds on the internet:

     This was used in an actual Shanghai cinema by mistake, and it is even more glorious when you consider that  writing slash fiction is illegal in China

Did you ever stop and think that there’s an entire fandom around these characters having poorly described sex? That it is a robust fandom of art and stories? Were you aware it had a name? (Thorki. It’s called Thorki. I know that because this list is hilarious and ‘Stark Spangled Banner’ is a triumph of ingenuity over sense.) This is made even more puzzling when you consider the vast majority of fanfiction writers are straight American teenage girls; what gives?  

I don’t think there’s an epidemic of teenagers craving incest, if that helps. I think it’s a case that the best and most developed characters in popular fiction are male. Take Molly, from the former best thing on television, Sherlock. As the only female character attracted to Sherlock, you would have assumed that fangirls would have taken her up as an avatar for themselves in their stories. But as a character, she’s not as interesting or complex as John Watson and Sherlock, so she doesn’t grab the viewers’ imagination as much and therefore doesn’t warrant as much attention. Her emotions and feelings are ignored in favour of Sherlock and John’s in the show, so why should she be held as the fan's champion in their own work?

It’s not just teenage girls making boys kiss though; there’s a thing called a Ship War, and this is when groups of fans attack each other over whose ship is better. No, I’m not joking.

My own experience with Ship Wars started with the Harry Potter and the bloody, ruthless battles between those who shipped Harry/Hermione, and those who shipped Ron/Hermione in the mid 2000s. Non survived unscathed; daughter against mother, husband against wife, father against son (actually, probably not that last one). It was a dark time for a young Harry Potter fan to be exposed to literary atrocities on the Mugglenet message boards as fans tore each other apart in a desperate bid to prove that theirs was the real One True Ship. It didn’t matter when JK Rowling stepped in and wrote an entire book about who ends up with whom (Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is about 75% shipping), the Harry/Hermione crowd refused to be silenced, rising from the dead earlier this year when JK Rowling said she thought Harry should have ended up with Hermione after all.

And this is why shipping can get in the way of enjoying and discussing the original work. By spending so much time obsessing which fictional characters should rub their privates against each other, shippers ignore other creative outlets and analysis, which stunts wider conversation about the work. When Half Blood Prince did come out, I recall there was very little talk about the Orwellian nightmare occurring outside of Hogwarts, but there was a lot of energy put into why Lupin and Tonks were obviously right for each other from the beginning. This is not important in the real world by any sense, but when you’re trying to engage with a text, develop analytical skills and teach yourself how to think about literature and the media, it’s less than stimulating to find that all anyone else seems to care about is how much worthier their ship is.

Yeah, it’s mostly harmless fun. But if shipping is the only pleasure that can be derived from a TV show, film or book, then it might be time to look at it again and see if it’s worth the time, and perhaps start to ask more from your entertainment. Because, let's face it, the romantic relationship is usually the dullest part of any story, especially when there’s so much more fun you can have with it.