Going Up: All these sequels might not be such bad news.

Image

It is not often that I can get through an article on the film industry and only disagree with the very last line. Laurence Caromba’s Studios with a licence to sequel (Published 7 March, I know I’m late to the party) gave me the opportunity to reflect on this fact, because it actually managed it. The article itself deals with Hollywood’s love affair with sequels and adaptations, eloquently laying bare the economic incentives and pressures that caused and propagate this state of affairs. It is a strong piece of writing that loses some momentum when it veers into value judgements. Not that value judgements are wrong. They’re things we’re all allowed to make.

It’s just that last line (and, to be completely honest, the preceding paragraph) that kept niggling at me. Is the new crop of films released by Marvel and Friends truly that “empty and soulless?” They are adaptation, sure. They are sequels, undoubtedly, but to compare them to Jaws and Indiana Jones is not only cherry picking, but missing another important consequence of the big Disney takeover.

When comparing today’s films against the charms of Indiana Jones, it seems that the writer is using quirk as the main criterion to bemoan the state of modern films. To be sure, Indy is chock-full of quirk and I love him for it, but a perceived shortage of the stuff is not exactly reason to bemoan the state of the industry.

It views the past through rose-tinted spectacles. Indiana Jones might be the archetypal adventurous romp, but that doesn’t mean that its peers are necessarily works of genius. There are more than enough examples of “original” drivel making tons of money in the past to seriously question the veracity of the claim that spec scripts are necessarily better.

Adapted material is also not necessarily worse. The Hunger Games franchise is coining it with films that are uncharacteristically nuanced for tentpole films. Would it have been better to rather make two original ideas? Maybe, but it’s doubtful that it would have necessarily resulted in better movies. It would almost definitely have resulted in less money.

Viewers are growing more nuanced. We are disillusioned with simple narratives about the world and expect films to mirror this. The upshot is that big dumb action movies are seemingly becoming less and less stupid. Take Iron Man, for instance. The third instalment in the series was as quirky and self-deprecating as Indiana Jones ever was, but with added nuance. Here we have a film built around giant action set pieces, while still managing to touch on issues like media manipulation, mass hysteria, PTSD, and obsession. Or the new Captain America: drone warfare, the patriot act, government espionage, moral culpability, and preventative violence are a few of the main themes explicitly tackled by the movie. Let’s not even get started on movies like The Dark Knight. 

I lament that wonderful original movies aren’t getting made as much. I wish the ones that are made didn’t often get overshadowed by the studio’s behemoths. Much of what the article says is very true and worrying, but not for the reasons posited. The big, brainless films will probably always be with us. It’s why most people watch movies. I don’t believe, however, that we are on a downward trend. I, like the article’s author, don’t expect these chart-toppers to be great works of cinema, but I do believe that we are getting closer and closer to the point where they actually are. 

Advertisements

Film Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a mop. No, that’s not a typo, it’s a metaphor.

You see, mops just have loose ends everywhere- so too does the movie. And that is how a metaphor works. Clever, right?

While it has improved on some of the more rage-inducing elements of its predecessor, The Hobbit 2 (as I will furthermore call it) falls short on a couple of levels.

Yes, I’m referring to those loose ends again. The film is rife with subplots which are all illuminated to varying degrees. It feels like the writing team wanted to squash a whole season of HBO into one movie. There are rivalries and political shenanigans, boiler-plate angst, interracial love triangles and dramatic digressions. It’s like Game of Thrones without the sex. Many would wonder, therefore, what the point is? The point, dear frisky reader, is to get you to buy a ticket next year.

It’s one giant open-ended thread-fest to try and beat your apathy so you’ll watch the  next one to see how it ends. Instead of actually focusing on specific subplots, teasing out the complexity that could very well be there, the filmmakers seemed to think that merely telling us very blatantly that they exist is good enough. Not good enough, guys.

This leaves the characters seemingly without motivation for their actions, or at worst motivated by the broadest possible reasons, which is basically the same thing when it comes to making me care about the person on screen. But that’s not all. The ending itself might actually have rivalled that of The Matrix 2 if we didn’t all already know how it’s going to end.

The ending follows on another game of set piece one-up, much like in The Hobbit 1. Because the film is structured like a roller-coaster and not a real story, the filmmakers must keep ramping up the crazy until you have insane dwarven cat-and-mouse with a dragon (Ooh, spoiler, there’s a dragon) that escalates quicker than an internet debate about homosexuality. It keeps building up to insane heights and then ends suddenlt with zero catharsis at the end. I felt cheated.

All of this after us coming along for what felt like an eternity of running and killings stuff; getting caught; getting sprung; lathering; rinsing; repeating.

At least it was properly silly and super serial when it wanted to be. None of those completely innapropriate jokes of the first film. It’s a better film for kids and adults when it’s not trying to be both at the same time. And I mean, what’s better than taking your kid to a movie where there’s no blood at all? Oh no, actually, the one character bleeds a bit as a plot point. Another gets a light nosebleed after a throwdown with a huge orc. But it’s all kid-friendly. Now the fact that several orcs get gleefully, violently decapitated doesn’t change anything, because there’s basically no blood.

I saw the movie in 4k (thankfully no 3d or high frame rate though). Holy Crap. Wait, that was actually a typo. Should have said hokey crap. So much of the film is ridiculously pretty. The CG is wonderful (Smaug is so awesome that it’s almost worth watching just for that), the scenery, sets, and costumes are amazing. Except when they aren’t. Then every flaw stands up and does the macarena while I gibber in my seat. There are shots that look like cheap computer game cut scenes, Character animation that doesn’t even look like the people they cut back to. It’s everywhere. Just when you relax a bit something new and horrible jumps out at you.

On the whole, it’s a lot like a 20 minute guitar solo. Technically proficient (Mostly), good in some places, but essentially self-indulgent and boring. It’s a novel in need of a good editor. It’s a tree in need of pruning. It’s a writer that doesn’t know when to stop abusing metaphors.

It’s a vaguely enjoyable way to spend 160 minutes, as long as you don’t concentrate too hard. I’m just waiting for the supercut where they take all 3 movies and make a single 3-hour film. That would be worth it.

Film Review- The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey

Image

The Hobbit has taken an unexpected journey. It has left the path of its beloved father films and taken a more obscure road to claim its long forgotten gold.

Now, any new offering from a beloved film franchise runs the risk of negative comparison to the originals. So too with this. Seen side by side with the Lord of The Rings trilogy, The Hobbit looks jovially bloated.

Which is apt, given the general demeanour of the dwarf troupe that refuses to leave Bilbo’s house for what felt like aeons. Yes, they perform a contrived juggling routine after destroying Bilbo’s larder, but somehow this doesn’t add to the story or my involvement with it. And therein lies the seed of the film’s failing.

The filmmakers have decided to stretch what was a pretty small book into the same timeframe occupied by the epic of Frodo and co. Even with the addition of seemingly every tidbit to be garnered from Tolkien’s appendices, you get the feeling that every scene is milked for time, rather than effect. Even the added material detracts from the overall films.

Once the quest finally gets underway, the filmmakers almost immediately take us away from it. Whole characters could have been cut without doing much damage to the film. If anything, it would possibly have allowed us to focus on the main story, which would have been wonderful. The constant back and forth distracts the viewer. We don’t know where we should be focusing and, as a result, can’t focus that well on anything. We’re not given the time to truly connect with our heroes and their quest.

Part of the problem is also the roller-coaster approach to set-pieces. Even the troll scene is turned into a larger than life fight, with dwarves jumping and somersaulting around the trolls like bearded children from The Matrix. All the fight scenes have been turned into ridiculous thrill rides, with swooping cameras and silly use of the environments reducing the scene to farcical slapstick. None of the fights have any real tension to them. It’s too ridiculous. And to top it off, the writers saw fit to include jokes in the most inappropriate of places. Since when is slicing something’s belly open with a sword the right time for two punch lines?

It’s obvious that the approach is meant to be more in keeping with the lighter lime of the source material, but its reliance on fart jokes and clumsy setups leave it feeling incongruous with the violence and darkness of its themes. If it had come before the LOTR trilogy, it might have worked. But after the grit of the original, there is no way we’re going to accept our heroes skateboarding down a precipice on a piece of rickety scaffolding. Even the massive impacts the characters suffer don’t seem to phase them at all. They are impervious to damage, it seems, so why are they even running away? And why are we still watching?

The only scene that really grips is the game of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum. Only there did I feel truly worried about our hero. Only in that dark, psychotic little game does the film feel like The Hobbit. Gollum is once again so beautifully rendered and brilliantly played by Andy Serkis, that it feels like a trial to return to the relentless shots of dwarves running.

And that is a shame. The film isn’t all bad. The cinematography and special effects are amazing (Excepting the albino orc, which looks like it escaped from a computer game’s cut scene). The acting is really good and the design is mind-blowing.

It’s not the little beads that are the problem. It’s the string on which they were hung. The film just doesn’t gel. It’s violent and aimed at children at the same time. It’s dramatic and yet stuffed with shallow jokes. It doesn’t even feel like the same world as the one occupied by Frodo and Sam.

In the end, making the story into 3 films feels mercenary and unnecessary. Rather than giving the fans more, it has just made the story less vibrant. And not even the overuse of oversaturated sunsets could remedy that.

The hands of friends

A week ago I once again discovered our interdependence. Because of my calling, I believe that this will be one of many such discoveries.

Film is a strange art form. Despite the amounts of prestige given to directors, there is never a single person who can be singled out as the culprit for a film’s success or failure. It starts with the idea that has to turn into words. The script is the loam on which the rest grows. Between the creative spark and the finished film, there are thousands of decisions made by people working towards some kind of imagined destination. A film is an organism. It can be twisted and guided into a shape, but the final product can never be exactly predicted.

Last weekend, I directed a 48 hour film. This entails getting a genre and other limitation handed to you on Friday night and handing in a finished film on Sunday. You have 48 hours to write, plan, shoot, edit, and finish a film. For those not intimately acquainted with the industry- this is ridiculously short. It forces a kind of headlong rush towards all aspects of filmmaking that’s almost comical.

You don’t sleep a lot. You work all hours that you are awake. People are tired and cranky and underappreciated.

And they never once complained.

I had been given the opportunity to work with people who are passionate about what they do. They did their part and then went the extra mile, without as much as a grimace. My own doubts were swallowed up in the experience of a working machine. I learned something again.

We are carried on the hands of our friends. I didn’t know a lot of the people before this, but after just a bit more than a weekend together I’d take any of them to war. Beside those working were the friends who just hung around, doing what was needed, smiling when I didn’t feel like it. It has been a profoundly humbling experience.

Man was not made to be alone. It is something experienced in the whirl of team sports, in the harmonies of a choir. Wherever two or more are gathered, we are given the opportunity to be something more than ourselves.

We are given the chance to be human.