The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

What is it with “Part 2″‘s right now? They seem to be everywhere. 2013 – the year of the Part 2-er. Mainly, this comment is coming off the back of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire releasing only a few short weeks ago. Back in that review I mentioned the curse of the second in a trilogy, so I’m not going to trip over myself reciting what I’ve already written. Go on – go and have a look, and then come back. Good? Good! Essentially… there’s a lot of pressure on a Part 2. However, the pressure is doubled when one of Part 1’s best characters, Gollum, played by Andy Serkis never appears again in the trilogy. Time to introduce a bloody big dragon voiced by Benedict Cumberbach then right?

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Yes, The Hobbit: The Desoluation of Smaug, or The Hobbit 2 as we’re going to go ahead and call it to save us typing out that long, long subtitle over and over, picks up where The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ended. Thankfully, we don’t need to retread the same turid opening scenes as the first entry though. Further, now that I’m used to the “slightly too fast” 48fps filming, it was much easier to get into than the first entry. This is a solid gold star in The Hobbit 2′s homework book. Essentially, our titular Hobbit, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) must now continue his journey with his band of dwarves so that he can enter through a hidden door in The Lonely Mountain and steal back a jewel for them so that they can restore the glory of the Dwarven Kingdom. Only problem is that a huge fire breathing dragon is sleeping atop it… and he gets disturbed easily.

At the outset, this description would make out that The Hobbit 2 is far more action-packed than its predecessor. And indeed, it certainly begins with a damn sight more action than its predecessors “let’s lay the table and have a sing-song” scenes. This time you have giant bears, orcs and spiders. Take THAT last film. But… well… these action sequences just didn’t captivate me in the same way that the original Hobbit’s eventual action scenes with goblins, orcs, trolls and stone giants did. In the original Hobbit these scenes blew me away or made me smile and laugh. Here? Not so much. Spiders? Yeah, we’ve seen those before in the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. They’re not giant golems are they?! Sure, the film’s eventual climax / third features the huge dragon, and there is some orc action, but for me it wasn’t at the same level as before.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

At least the plot whisks along fairly well and we don’t become stuck in a mire for too long, unlike the first entry. One minute we’re with the elves in the forest, the next we’re in barrels, then a human settlement – it’s all rather brisk. We also get reunited with our favourite archer Orlando Bloom, who takes up a rather central role in the film and becomes involved in a weird love triangle that doesn’t seem to actually go anywhere. Lots of tension, not much affection!

Visually, the film is as you would expect: beautiful. Particularly, Benedict Cumberbach’s Smaug “feels” real enough and is one of the most animated and well-realised dragons that I can remember. You truly feel his personality coming through. Which, for a CGI dragon, is pretty tough to do. Whilst on the subject, it’s probably worth talking about the acting. Arguably, this film belongs to the titular dragon. Martin Freeman is likeable, sure, but he’s not really a “star” here. No, once again, the title of “best character” for a Hobbit film is computer-generated. Cumberbach provides the perfect voice for this character: very English, but at the same time distorted to such a degree that it’s truly menacing and intimidating. Indeed, the FINAL lines of the entire movie are fantastic.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

But that’s the thing… once again, we have a cliffhanger ending. More of a cliffhanger than The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and about on par with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Audience members were left bamboozled and disappointed, again. But at least it shows they were engrossed in the story I guess! To me, the film just felt a tad… empty. There were no closing of story arcs (at all) and too many threads were left open. Sure, keep the majority going, but close some, at least? The film just didn’t sate me in the way that I expected it to, which is a shame. But then again, I’m sure next year’s conclusion can pick up where this left off.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a more immediately accessible watch than Peter Jackson’s first foray into prequel-ville. You’re thrown right into the action, and it never relents. However, I just felt it somewhat lacking. The creatures didn’t impress as much as in the first entry into the trilogy, but at least the 48fps shooting rate wasn’t a distraction this time around. Also, once again, we have a mo-capped character as my favourite. Replacing Gollum was hard… and I’m not saying Smaug totally makes up for this… but at least he’s there to draw the eye and the mind.

At least this is the end of sequelitis for now. Oh, wait… it isn’t. No, not with the new Anchorman on release right now. Sure, we’re heading out to see that soon – but thankfully, it’s not the part of a trilogy. Or so we’d hope. It never stopped The Hangover did it? And look at how well THAT franchise turned out! Thankfully this precious little franchise isn’t even in the same game as thos imposters…

Phage Factor:

3.5 Star

The World’s End (2013)

The World's End (2013)

It’s weird how most successful film franchises come in threes. It seems we all like a trilogy, but get a bit bored when a series hits four or five films, for some odd reason. Indeed, the era of the four-to-five film franchises seems to have ended in the early 1990’s / late 1980’s. Well, on the whole anyway, as it seems that horror movies have no problem pumping out sixth and seventh instalments in franchises (I’m looking at you Saw). But then again, they’re typically low budget, high return films, so it’s no surprise. That’s not always the case with the pricier films. So with all that said, we now see a film emerging to conclude a trilogy. And this is no typical trilogy. In fact, the only tenuous link between the three films are its two lead actors and director / writer… oh, and an obsession with talking about that classic coned ice cream treat: the Cornetto. Yes, the thrilling conclusion to the The Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy is here… enter, The World’s End.

Strawberry, vanilla or mint? Pick your flavour!

Strawberry, vanilla or mint? Pick your flavour!

Confused how this is a trilogy? Can’t remember the films that went before? How can this be true?! Almost a decade ago we had the awakening of Shaun of the Dead: a film about romance set to the backdrop of the zombie apocalypse in London. Three years later we had Hot Fuzz, a buddy cop movie about life in rural England with murderous, bombastic undertones. And now, some six years later, we have The World’s End, a film about a pub crawl with an apocalyptic setting. What ties the films together? The Cornettos, the acting talent on display and the most valuable asset of all… British humour.

The World’s End, at its core, stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, along with director Edgar Wright who co-writes with Pegg. This time around, Pegg plays Gary King – the leader of the gang (from school). He’s intent on reliving his youth and completing a 12-pub pub crawl he couldn’t finish with his buddies when he was 18. So, he reunites the gang, rounded out by estranged best friend Andy (Nick Frost), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Peter (Eddie Marsan) and Steven (Paddy Considine), to once again undertake his crawl some 20 years later. But things are awry in Newton Haven (a typical British town)… everyone’s acting somewhat oddly. Yes, Gary and the gang uncover a somewhat sinister secret of a global takeover by an extra-terrestrial force. Best reach for the Cornettos then.

The World's End (2013)

Shaun of the Dead is a hard act to follow for Pegg, Frost and Wright. I’d argue that Hot Fuzz didn’t live up to my expectations and fell somewhat flat. Others would say that Hot Fuzz was superior to the zombie-fuelled exploits that went before it. And obviously, people will argue where The World’s End fits into this threesome. Plus, for the sake of argument, we’re not including Paul in this debate, as Wright had no part in the film… and it’s set in the US. We’re strictly British here I’ll have you know! Where do I figure that The World’s End lands? Keep reading… Or skim to the end if you’re bored of reading already.

What I particularly enjoyed about The World’s End was the dark tone of the movie, particularly Simon Pegg‘s Gary King. In previous films you’ve been able to warm to Pegg‘s character almost instantly. Particularly in Shaun of the Dead. But here? I found myself strongly disliking him almost immediately. I was worried actually, as the first 20 minutes dragged somewhat for me, as I found myself unwilling to take Pegg‘s King under my wing and care about him. He has issues. He needs to grow up. And therein lies the message of this film… we all have to grow up and move on at some point. Life marches onwards and sometimes you have to march on alongside it or be left behind.

The World's End (2013)

Sorry, I went a bit deep there didn’t I? Aside from Pegg‘s character and the plot’s undertones, the film is replete with laughter-inducing moments. Not many belly laughs, I must add, but a lot of smiles and sniggers. But then again, I’m a hard Phage to impress; some might say I’m a snob for comedy. What I like? I really like. What I don’t? I detest. But The World’s End worked in the humour stakes. It also worked well in the plotting stakes too. The film constantly twists and turns to try and buck the viewer off its back, right up to the final scenes. I like this. Especially when it’s coupled to the deliciously British dark humour that the film draws on.

The World's End (2013)

As for the acting talent on show… we’ve got some fine British acting on show here. Recently, we’ve seen an explosion of talent marching across the world stage thanks to “newbies” such as Martin Freeman, Benedict Cumberbach and James McAvoy. You can also say the same of Simon Pegg nowadays, as he’s in hot demand, which is good to see. Arguably, it’s Nick Frost‘s character that was the highlight for me. A somewhat stifled lawyer who’s clearly shellshocked from his past. But when he lets rip? He lets rip. His character had the most interesting arc for me here. But having said that, the whole ensemble add real weight here thanks to Wright and Pegg‘s scripting fleshing out each character. Similarly, this is definitely an Edgar Wright film, from the stylistic shots of pints being pulled to the flavour of the dialogue. Let’s hope he can bring the same bold style to Marvel’s Ant-Man when that hits in 2015…

The World’s End will definitely be a hit with old Cornetto fans; it brings back the humour, the bromance and the clever social commentary that was present in the previous two films, but adds a new plot on top of it. Having said that, there are slow moments and it’ll take you time to warm to all of the characters, but once the film really starts rolling towards the apocalypse you’re sucked into the world entirely. Once again, us Brits show the world how humour should be done… less raunch, dick jokes and boobs, and more sarcasm, wit and use of the c-word. Yeah… we know how to offend and amuse in equal amounts!

So which Cornetto flavour is my favourite? Is it strawberry (Shaun of the Dead), vanilla (Hot Fuzz) or mint (The World’s End)? In the real world, I’d plump for mint. But perhaps it’s telling that my last trip to the supermarket saw me return with a box of five strawberry Cornettos (for 99p! Cheap!)… it was an omen. For me, Shaun of the Dead will remain the best in this series of three films, like your first true love, it’s sometimes hard to top (but can happen). The World’s End is a very close second though and is one I could go back and watch again. I’m always partial to a bit of mint, especially if its sprinkled with some truly dark chocolate / humour…

Phage Factor:

4 Star

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

It’s not unusual for a film to have that “marmite” effect, where you either love it or you hate it. For instance, whilst some (The Phage included) think that Tarantino‘s films are witty, well crafted slices of cinematic gold, others see them as films that just “try too hard” and are filled with superfluous dialogue. Another aspect of cinema right now that’s proving divisive is the use of 3D technology, as not many films use it to good effect and instead use it as a way to put their hands in your pockets and pry those extra coins out. Normally to make up for a lacklustre film. But now, a new contender enters the ring to compete for “Most Divisive Tool in Cinema”: 48 frames per second shooting and projection, thanks to Peter Jackson‘s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. But is the film worth the money in your pocketses? What’s in your pocketses? You stoled it! You stoled my moneys!! Brings me back my precious!!

The Hobbit (2012)

If you’ve been living under a rock for the past 24 months then you won’t have heard about Peter Jackson‘s latest foray into Middle Earth to tell the tale of The Hobbit – a small prequel to The Lord of the Rings. I’m going to get one thing out in the open right now: I’ve never read The Hobbit. Nor have I ever read The Lord of the Rings. So what you’re getting here is a completely objective (as possible) review of the film… and not a review blinded by sentimentality about a book. So shall we begin?

To cut a long short story short, The Hobbit is the tale of Bilbo Baggins, who was played by Ian Holm in the original trilogy (and reprises his role here as the older Baggins), and is now played by Martin Freeman. The story focuses on how Gandalf (Ian McKellan) tasks the young Baggins with a task to accompany Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his band of dwarves as they trek to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim a homeland for their race. Throw in a chunk of side-plots about a Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbach – you won’t really see him here) and an orc warrior that really has a score to settle with Thorin and you’re about there. And of course… you don’t forget about Gollum (Andy Serkis). Nobody forget about Gollum.

The Hobbit (2012)

So far, so suitably epic. And I must say the film does deliver on that word: epic… eventually. The first 30-40 minutes of the film are incredibly slowly-paced and one would argue “tedious”. This is perhaps made all the worse by the new “marmite” of the cinema: 48fps. For those not in the know, you normally see a film at 24 frames per second (how fast the film is shot and projected) – it looks like a film. A bit grainy, but warm and fuzzy. What Jackson has decided to do is update the formula and shoot at double the speed. This should mean double the clarity and enrich the image. But if like The Phage, you’re not used to this style of filming, it’s extremely jarring. The opening prologue looked like it was being projected at 1.2x speed – everything appeared slightly sped-up and comedic. Not quite to the same extent to a Benny Hill sketch, but more like you’d accidentally sped up a DVD by a notch. As many have pointed out, it looks like a television sitcom or sci-fi (think 1970’s Dr. Who). You half expect Tinky Winky or La-La to stroll over the horizon banging on about “tubby custard” or that damn hoover that used to eat the pink gloop (yes, a Teletubbies reference on Film Phage… in 2012. Damn, we’re current!)

The ultimate impact of 48fps is the fact that yes, things appear much clearer… including the make up and prosthetics on the dwarves. Interior sets also look incredibly cheap and false – this is especially noticeable in the aforementioned 40 minute opening in Bilbo’s house. However… However… I warmed to this method of filming. Especially when it came to the large, lush New Zealand landscapes and anything featuring a CGI character, be they orc, goblin or troll.

The Hobbit (2012)

So whilst I speak of the CGI, let’s delve in here. Some hubbub has been made of the fact that the orcs here are 100% artificially generated. In the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, all of the orcs were extras decked out in prosthetics and they looked brilliant. You see, I’d argue that The Hobbit‘s orcs look even more fantastic – perhaps owing to that high frame rate. The same can be said of all trolls and wolves in the film too. All look simply amazing, so credit really has to go to the SFX crew working on the film. This brings us to what was, for me, the highlight of the film… Gollum.

The Hobbit (2012)Andy Serkis deserves some type of award. Or at least acknowledgement that he is a talent to be reckoned with. Whether it’s Gollum here, or Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the mo-cap performance he brings to the piece is phenomenal. Let’s also not forget his instantly recognisable accent for Gollum – perfection. The entire section revolving around him and Bilbo is cinematic gold. And the visual effects make Gollum look even more lifelike than ever before. You’d swear that he was in the room with Martin Freeman. It’s just a shame that by all accounts, this is the only time we’ll see Gollum in the rest of this prequel trilogy… a real shame. Bring on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes then!

Speaking of “trilogy”, I was initially sceptical of how a short story book could be adapted to fill three 3 hour films. It seemed a little over-the-top and very much like a cash grab. I still somewhat stick to those sentiments, but it’s interesting to see how many extra elements Jackson has thrown into the mix. From speaking with others (Phages never travel alone… like hobbitses), much of the material concerning the Necromancer and Pale Orc aren’t part of the original story – they’re part of the broader Tolkien universe. I’m looking forward to seeing how they develop as the trilogy progresses. I’m not sure it needs 9 hours to explain all of this, but I’m not as cynical as I once was… Maybe, just maybe, Jackson can pull it off again. At 48 frames per second.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey isn’t the masterpiece many expected it to be. The story lags in places and the decision to use 48 frames per second is a massive risk for Jackson. Luckily, I think it pays off once you’re able to immerse yourself in the story and get over the nausea-inducing opening gambit. Resist the urge to head to a 24fps showing in the next screen and strap yourself in. Once you see your first orc, you’ll be happy you stayed.

One thing I can guarantee is that you’ll leave the screening talking about one character, and that is Gollum. You’ll see children running around hunched over, talking to themselves, and lamenting the loss of their “precious”. A word of warning though. Don’t let them put their hands in your pockets whilst they search for the ring. I think that’s frowned upon in popular culture.

Phage Factor:

4 Star