The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

120px-Film-stripThis was my birthday treat, though the best seats had gone by the time we booked my actual birthday so we went the day after. Big KFC for dinner and an effects-heavy movie on an IMAX screen for dessert. Lovely.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

“I am King Under the Mountain!”

Plot in a nutshell: Small people approach mountain, old beardy guy stirs up evil things

See it if you like: Well, dur. The other LotR films

Credit must first be given to the poor announcer at the Glasgow IMAX. For reasons that I can’t grasp, they still insist on making one of the members of staff stand at the front with a microphone immediately before each screening whose job is to tell you how big the screen is. I can see the damn screen. It’s huge.

Thing is, despite the screen being brilliant the microphone wasn’t working which the poor sod didn’t notice until enough people yelled at him. Some switch fiddling followed by “Is it working now?”

“No!”

“OK, I’ll have to shout… ENJOY THE FILM!!!”

He got a cheer for that.

Anyway, the film.

It’s the best of the LotR films so far. Honestly. Yes, I know they’ve added stuff in that’s not in the books, such as the intriguing Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), and they’ve stretched a small book out to three films. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to lack entertainment value.

As with the first film in this second trilogy, the effects don’t quite match up in quality to those of the Lord of the Rings films. Creatures, in particular, when in the distance appear to move unrealistically. However, this is only a minor niggle as the effects-work is done incredibly well.

The highlights by a mile are the last thirty minutes featuring the titular Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch who also plays the CGI Necromancer) and the barrel/river sequence which plays out like a computer game according to some of my work colleagues. They’re not wrong, though.

Martin Freeman has taken the role of Bilbo as his own in this film and the character really stands out in a way he didn’t in the first installment. In addition, the other characters – Thorin especially – are really developing.

Add to this the links being forged to events in the previous trilogy (the events of which, of course, occur chronologically after The Hobbit) are both pleasing and well done. They tie things together in a way that Tolkien simply couldn’t do at the time.

It’s far faster-paced than the first installment, and the dialogue is also more entertaining. Peter Jackson makes his obligatory cameo (I won’t tell you where) as well.

The IMAX was worth it for the “surround vision” experience, although not a lot of use was made of the 3D. However, it seems impossible to see anything at IMAX that’s not 3D these days. Thankfully it’s the only 3D that actually works and doesn’t screw with my eyes. Do note, though, that if the only seats available are right at the front or way off to the side that you’re best off skipping the showing. You want to be slap bang in the middle.

I’m very much looking forward to the third and final part which I think is due out in the summer. And I reckon we’ll cough out for the IMAX again.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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The entire world will have seen this one by now, so I’ll probably keep the review quite brief. Following on from the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson returns with the “prequel”.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

“I’m looking for someone to share in an adventure.”

Plot-in-a-nutshell: the beginnings of the LotR story, with lashings of dwarf-related humour

See it if you like: deep, expansive, spectacular fantasy

I read The Hobbit when I was about 11 years old, so don’t expect any comparisons to the original text. For the record, I’m now 39 (my birthday was the UK release date for the film!) and my memory rarely stretches past last week, let alone nearly three decades. Reading up on the trivia via IMDB, it’s clear that Jackons has been slightly free with the adaptation as he was with the first trilogy. Some characters are in the film that weren’t in the book, some don’t appear, some bits are jiggled around slightly… In fairness, he did a good job before and the changes – which may have upset purists – helped the story spread more evenly across the films.

Indeed, one of the first tweaks appears at the very beginning where Frodo is seen pestering his uncle Bilbo. Frodo isn’t in The Hobbit at all, but this scene is purely to link the previous trilogy with this precursor.

But what of the rest of the film?

Well, my overall opinion was that it was like a kiddie-friendly version of its big brother. Which, in fairness, is how the books work out. The violence is far less bloody, the plot a little simpler and – dare I risk the wrath? – the effects not as good as the LotR trilogy.

Yes, there are scary monsters and there are a few be-headings here and there… but there’s little (if any) blood. Swords slash and stab, yet come out clean every time. Things move forward more quickly from action scene to action scene with less (though some) time spent in serious conversation. In fairness, the actual start of the film is slow.

As for those effects… well, maybe it’s just the scale of them but they look that bit more cartoony than what we’re used to. They’re still damn impressive, but the slapstick humour dial has been turned up a notch as well making it all a little more child-friendly.

The acting is superb, right across the board. Martin Freeman is a great younger Bilbo, but as ever it’s the older actors who steal every scene they’re in. Christopher Lee (yes, I know, Saruman wasn’t in the book but he’s in the film briefly) and Ian McKellen as Gandalf are both utterly superb. Andy Serkis returns for Gollum‘s “first” appearance (and then went on to become second unit director for the rest of the filming), and in this instance I would say that the effects have been pushed to their absolute limits. Gollum’s facial expressions are mesmerising.

The dwarves are a hearty bunch with a wide array of acting talent thrown about to make up the motley crew, though in honesty when looking down the cast the only name I recognise immediately is James Nesbitt. Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett complete the links to the “big brother” trilogy with their appearances as Elrond and Galadriel – neither of whom, again, are in the book.

Sylvester McCoy, however, turns the tables by playing Radagast the Brown. This time a character who appeared in the LotR books, but didn’t make it into the films. He’s been transplanted to play a part in this one instead, as a slightly bonkers hermit.

All are great performances, including those who – like Serkis – are portrayed almost completely as CGI characters. It may amuse some to realise that one of the the Goblin King’s alter-egos is a flamboyant cross-dresser who calls her fans “possums”…

In short (ha! short! *ahem*), is it as good or as impressive as, say, The Fellowship of the Ring? No.

Is it worth seeing? Yes.

The simple fact is that Jackson’s LotR films will stand pretty much untouched in their stature for many, many years to come. They were something incredible, something impressive. Something people thought was impossible. The technology used for the effects floored you. But in the years that have come since, such digital trickery has become commonplace and – sadly – that takes a shine off The Hobbit. Good though it is – and it’s bloody good – it’s just not as jaw-dropping or impressive.

Oh, and I saw the film in regular 2D. No eye-aching, headache-inducing 3D. No migraine-causing 48fps. Just proper, 24fps flat images. And it was fine.

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Nativity!

Sticking with the seasonal theme, Nativity! was actually the fourth of the films I saw today. However, it was by far the best.

Plot-in-a-nutshell: Primary teacher Mr Maddens (Martin Freeman) drops a clanger when he lies and says that Hollywood producers will be coming to see his nativity play… then has to live up to the lie.

It’s a simple basis for a comedy which throws in some cute kids, a bit of romance, a spiralling story, a bad guy and a Christmas theme. Heck, it sounds really weak when you think about it.

But I really, really loved it.

I think this could be for reasons in addition to the acting and story. I’m a student teacher – secondary though with hopes of doing primary also. I love kids. I think British comedy films are currently riding on an all-time high.

All of these combined to have me alternately giggling and near tears depending on what was happening on the screen. The basic story is so simple that it’s incredibly plausible. It only takes the tiniest suspension of belief to think “hang on, that could so easily happen”. Up to a point, at least.

The casting is superb. Aside from Freeman (who I can genuinely picture being an incredible teacher if he’s actually got that manner with kids), Marc Wootton is annoying yet loveable as the somewhat childlike teaching assistant, Mr Poppy. However, their performances are brushed aside by the simply fantastic children.

What makes them so good is the fact that they’re not perfect. They’re not the “look at us, we’re amazing and can do anything absolutely perfectly while looking so cute we’d make you sick” kids you expect to see in American films. These children look like a couple of classes of bog standard British primary school children. That is perfect.

Nativity! has the same feel-good factor at the end as such films as The Boat That Rocked and Still Crazy. In addition to both it’s got some adorable children who aren’t sickly sweet. Just cute. The story’s well-paced, it’s funny (laugh-out-loud in places), sad, moving, uplifting and simply just great entertainment.

I now want to teach primary more than ever before. If you’ve ever considered being  a primary school teacher, watching this film could be enough to make you start filling in the PGDE / PGCE application forms.

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