100 Films @ 10: Most Effective Director’s Cuts

Whether they be director’s, extended, ultimate, or any number of strung-together adjectives someone in marketing thought sounded exciting, direct-to-home-media alternate cuts of movies are all the rage nowadays. They have been for quite a while, actually — thanks no doubt to the booming sales of the DVD era — so for today’s top ten I thought I’d run down some of the most effective. I don’t necessarily mean the best (these aren’t “the ten best films that happen to have extended editions”), but rather the ones that have the biggest positive impact on the end result — which is sometimes the same thing, of course.

I know the initially stated point of these top tens was to look back over the last ten years, but this time I’ve widened the remit to include all extended cuts, mainly because that only added one title. Losing out because of that is X-Men: Days of Future Past – The Rogue Cut, which does contain significant changes, especially to the climax, but didn’t really belong because I actually think the theatrical cut is smoother.

10
Léon
Version Intégrale

To undermine my introduction right away, the extended version of Léon doesn’t actually make massive changes to the movie. Some of the additions bolster character development, but the film wasn’t shortchanged on that in the first place. It is great though, but it’s also just more greatness. Does that mean it shouldn’t be here? Well, if you’re watching the US Blu-ray, it’s the longer version that has the proper title card, which is reason enough to prefer it in itself.

9
Watchmen
Director’s Cut

There are three cuts of Watchmen, but it’s the middle one that is director Zack Snyder’s preferred version of the film (aptly, given its subtitle). I’ve still not got round to the semi-experimental Ultimate Cut so can’t truthfully comment on whether Snyder’s right, but when I reviewed the Director’s Cut I asserted that, thanks to “a little extra room to breathe and a few worthwhile extensions, and in spite of the odd tweak that doesn’t work, this is the superior cut of the film.”

8
I Am Legend
Alternate Theatrical Version

The extended cut of I Am Legend has one of the most meaningless subtitles of all — it wasn’t released theatrically, so how is it an “alternate theatrical version”? That said, “alternate” is definitely a more apt descriptor than “extended”: although this version is longer, the biggest change is a completely different ending. That makes a difference to the film’s tone, as well as paying off some subplots. But it only changes the movie so much — those misguided CGI creatures are still there, after all.

7
Salt
Director’s Cut

This middling action-thriller starring Angelina Jolie is not the first film that’s going to come to mind to most people (for any reason, ever), but it exists in three different cuts that make some striking differences. I discussed them in depth in my review, but on balance the one they labelled the Director’s Cut is best.

6
Alien³
Assembly Cut

The second Alien sequel was a fraught production for a number of reasons, which wound up in an obviously-compromised theatrical version. A little over a decade later (doesn’t sound so long with hindsight, does it?) the original “assembly cut” was released — not a director’s cut because, understandably, David Fincher wants nothing to do with the movie. The different version doesn’t save the film entirely, but it does clarify some of it, thereby improving it.

5
The Lord of the Rings
Extended Edition

From Fellowship onwards, the extended versions of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic are the preferred versions, deepening characters and expanding the rich world of the story. But by the time of the third and final movie, they’re essential: in a rare misstep, Jackson chose to completely excise one of the trilogy’s primary villains, Christopher Lee’s Saruman, from the theatrical version of Return of the King, so only in the extended version is the storyline of a major character actually resolved. That film won Best Picture nonetheless, which is why these aren’t ranked higher: the extended cuts are better, yes, but the theatrical versions are an incredible cinematic achievement regardless.

4
Sucker Punch
Extended Cut

Zack Snyder again, with another director’s preferred cut only debuting on the home release. This time he had to cut the film for censorship, revising it multiple times until the MPAA gave it the necessary PG-13. In the process, he removed several lines and scenes that helped to clarify what the hell was going on, which is rather helpful in such a crazy-ass movie. I’ve never bothered with the theatrical cut, but — in its extended form if no other — I think it’s something of an underrated movie.

3
Blade Runner
The Final Cut

Arguably the daddy of all alternate cuts, Blade Runner’s so-called Director’s Cut wasn’t really anything of the sort — Ridley Scott was busy and couldn’t be properly involved, merely providing notes for a studio after a fast buck. Years later, he was able to do it properly, resulting in the aptly named Final Cut… which is kinda just a polished version of the earlier Director’s Cut, but there you go. (Incidentally, there are some people who prefer the theatrical version. I’ve still not got round to it myself, but… well, there are also some people who prefer the theatrical cuts of Lord of the Rings. What I’m saying is, there’s no accounting for taste.)

2
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Ultimate Edition

Guess who’s back? Zack Snyder’s third entry on this list is his most effective revised cut he’s yet done. There are aspects of Batman v Superman that mean some people will never like it, but it’s hard to argue that the Ultimate Edition isn’t an improvement, clarifying plot details and character motivations left, right, and centre. Seriously, though, what is it with Zack Snyder and cutting scenes that explain the plot?! At least when he does a director’s cut (which is most of the time) he really makes use of it.

1
Kingdom of Heaven
Director’s Cut

Guess who’s also back? The other great proponent of the director’s cut, Ridley Scott — though he’s more prone to using and abusing the term than Mr Snyder (the director’s cut of Alien is, famously, nothing of the sort). I’ve never seen the theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven so can’t actually vouch for this myself, but, by adding a massive 45 minutes of material, Scott’s lengthier cut turned a theatrical dog into a film some regard as a masterpiece. I can’t think of another director’s cut that has ever instigated such a thorough reappraisal of a film’s critical standing.

Tomorrow: ten good scenes and no bad ones.

The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #53—55
Peter Jackson | 685 mins | New Zealand & USA / English & Sindarin | 12 / PG-13

For obvious reasons, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is usually listed as the three separate films it was released as. But in the same way J.R.R. Tolkien considered it one long novel that had to be split up for the sake of publication, so too the movies work well — best, one could even argue — as a single 11½-hour experience.

Having inducted the trilogy’s individual instalments into my 100 Favourites series over the past week (and a bit), I’ve covered most aspects of this epic moviemaking endeavour pretty thoroughly already, so here are links to each of my previous entries:



The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #55

The Journey Ends.

Country: New Zealand & USA
Language: English & Sindarin
Runtime: 253 minutes (extended edition)* | 201 minutes (theatrical version)
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13
* 263 minutes with the interminable fan club credits.

Original Release: 17th December 2003 (UK, USA & others)
First Seen: cinema, December 2003

Stars
Liv Tyler (Armageddon, The Incredible Hulk)
Miranda Otto (Love Serenade, War of the Worlds)
Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth, Blue Jasmine)
John Noble (The Monkey’s Mask, Risen)
Ian Holm (Alien, Hamlet)

Director
Peter Jackson (The Frighteners, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey)

Screenwriters
Fran Walsh (Heavenly Creatures, King Kong)
Philippa Boyens (The Lovely Bones, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies)
Peter Jackson (Braindead, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug)

Based on
The Lord of the Rings, a trilogy of novels by J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Story
The Ring’s evil influence over Frodo intensifies as he and Sam allow Gollum to lead them on a difficult path into Mordor. Meanwhile, Aragorn and Gandalf try to unite the world of men against Sauron’s forces, hoping to at least buy Frodo and Sam the time they need…

Our Heroes
It’s an ensemble cast so there are heroes aplenty, but this is the film where Sam really comes to the fore. Although wronged by Frodo, whose Ring-induced confusion allows him to be convinced by the machinations of Gollum, Sam repeatedly comes through to rescue his friend. “I can’t carry it for you… but I can carry you!”

Our Villains
With Saruman out of the picture, the focus falls back on the Big Bad big eye, Sauron. In the extended cut we’re also treated to his rather disgusting Mouth. Special mention also for the Witch-King of Angmar, who reckons he can be killed by no man. Of course, despite Tolkien’s reputation, not every character is a man…

Best Supporting Character
Women get short shrift in Tolkien’s world on the whole, but Miranda Otto’s Éowyn gets a relatively strong role through Two Towers and Return of the King, here riding into battle (in disguise) and (spoiler alert!) avenging the murder of her uncle, the king.

Memorable Quote
“My friends, you bow to no one.” — Aragorn, to the Hobbits.

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Fool of a Took!” — Gandalf

Memorable Scene
With the Ring destroyed and Sauron defeated, the film takes the necessary time to walk us through the ultimate fates of the surviving characters. For the conclusion of an eleven-hour story, The Return of the King has a proportionally appropriate number of endings. Stop bloody whinging.

Memorable Music
Howard Shore completes his fantastic score. This time, memorable moments include The Realm of Gondor (in Ascension), heard best as Gandalf rides into and up the city of Minas Tirith; and The Edge of Night, sung by Pippin (Billy Boyd) as Faramir leads a futile charge on Osgiliath (another strong contender for Memorable Scene, that).

Technical Wizardry
The Fellowship of the Ring was one of the films that pioneered digital grading, a process which pretty quickly became standard (and now is fundamentally unavoidable, what with digital photography being the primary movie production format). Return of the King demonstrates the full power of the form, however: After the final battle, Pippin finds Merry on the battlefield. In the theatrical cut, the scene takes place during the day; in the extended cut, new and rearranged scenes means it takes place at night. It’s the same footage, graded differently, and it works seamlessly in either cut.

Truly Special Effect
Creating the trilogy’s many epic battle sequences required the ability to computer generate hundreds of thousands of soldiers fighting, a gargantuan task and a problem that hadn’t had to be solved in filmmaking before. This is what led to the creation of MASSIVE — short for Multiple Agent Simulation System In Virtual Environment — a computer program which creates thousands of characters who are capable of acting as individuals, responding to their surroundings through the use of pre-programmed actions and animations. The kit has been used in many sci-fi/fantasy films since, including Avatar.

Letting the Side Down
I’ve never really bought all the stuff with the ghost army, and apparently Peter Jackson agrees. Although he hated it because it was so unbelievable, he kept it in so as not to disappoint fans of the novel.

Making of
Although most of the trilogy was filmed as part of one massive shoot before the first film was even released, pick-ups and additional filming were later done for both parts two and three. Ultimately, the final day of filming for the trilogy (to get one additional shot for the extended edition of Return of the King) actually occurred not only after the final film had already been released, but after it had swept the board at the 2004 Academy Awards, too. Apparently it amused Peter Jackson to be shooting footage for a movie that had already won the Best Picture Oscar.

Previously on…
The story began in The Fellowship of the Ring and continued in The Two Towers, of course.

Next time…
Jackson and co returned to Middle-earth to adapt prequel tale The Hobbit in three parts, which has a framing device that places it… before Fellowship. So this remains the chronological end of the line.

Awards
11 Oscars (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Makeup, Score, Song, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects)
5 BAFTAs (Film, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Visual Effects, Audience Award)
8 BAFTA nominations (Supporting Actor, Director, Music, Editing, Production Design, Costume Design, Sound, Make Up/Hair)
9 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Actor (Elijah Wood), Supporting Actor (Sean Astin), Director, Writing, Music, Make Up, Special Effects, DVD Special Edition Release (for the extended cut))
5 Saturn nominations (Actor (Viggo Mortensen), Supporting Actor (both Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis), Supporting Actress (Miranda Otto), Costumes)
7 Teen Choice Award nominations (including Choice Movie Liar and Choice Movie Sleazebag (both for Gollum))
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form

What the Critics Said
“the invisible wizard Peter Jackson makes use of every scene to show us the meaning of magnificence. Never has a filmmaker aimed higher, or achieved more. The third and last installment of the screen epic based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary classic redefines — steeply upward — the very notion of a major motion picture. […] To write about this culminating chapter of The Lord of the Rings is to risk gushing in a public place. Still, I’ve never seen a movie like it, or been so struck by a filmmaker’s generosity and the prodigality of what he has done. Yes, the running time is long, and yes, those many endings in a slow, dreamy coda left me feeling spent — better spent than I can ever remember.” — Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal

Score: 95%

What the Public Say
“When I talk about any of the Middle Earth films, I’m referring to the extended edition because, despite Jackson’s dissembling, they’re the movies he always intended to release and are uniformly better than the theatrical cuts. Nowhere is this more true than with The Return of the King which, despite winning Best Picture, was made infinitely better by its extended cut, which does clock in at a whopping four and a half hours. It’s a wonderful end to one of the most epic tales in all of fiction (and if I hear anything about the “five million endings” I’ll reach through your screen and slap you unless you can tell me how you would have ended an 11 hour film better).” — David Yaeger, Killing Time

Verdict

Return of the King is widely regarded as the best Lord of the Rings film, which is an opinion I can’t agree with. At its simplest: there’s nothing I’d change about Fellowship to improve it, whereas RotK could stand to lose the Army of the Dead and (were it not for the fact it comes from Tolkien) no one would mind. Still, that element aside, this is a fantastic conclusion to Tolkien/Jackson’s epic saga, bringing numerous plots and characters to their conclusion, and rounding out one of the most impressive feats of filmmaking we will likely ever see. There are very few things I could imagine watching for 12 hours straight (without it feeling like a chore, anyway), but The Lord of the Rings is certainly foremost among them.

#56 will be… ロストイントランスレーション。

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #54

The Journey Continues

Country: New Zealand & USA
Language: English & Sindarin
Runtime: 224 minutes (extended edition)* | 179 minutes (theatrical version)
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13
* 235 minutes with the interminable fan club credits.

Original Release: 18th December 2002 (UK, USA & others)
First Seen: cinema, December 2002

Stars
Andy Serkis (Burke & Hare, Rise of the Planet of the Apes)
Bernard Hill (Titanic, Franklyn)
Christopher Lee (Dracula, The Wicker Man)
Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, V for Vendetta)
David Wenham (The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, 300)

Director
Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures, The Lovely Bones)

Screenwriters
Fran Walsh (The Frighteners, The Lovely Bones)
Philippa Boyens (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey)
Stephen Sinclair (Meet the Feebles, Braindead)
Peter Jackson (Bad Taste, King Kong)

Based on
The Lord of the Rings, a trilogy of novels by J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Story
Frodo and Sam continue on their way towards Mordor, guided by the duplicitous Gollum. Meanwhile, the surviving members of the Fellowship attempt to bring the kingdom of Rohan into the fight against the hordes of orcs Saruman is assembling.

Our Heroes
As the Fellowship go their separate ways, you could argue that The Two Towers is where Aragorn really comes into his own: the self-exiled royal unveils his leadership qualities as he persuades the people of Rohan to abandon Edoras for the safe haven of Helm’s Deep, and leads the defence of that stronghold.

Our Villain
Once-good wizard Saruman is lent villainous credence by Christopher Lee — really, who else could it be? In one of Jackson’s few missteps, he deleted Saruman’s defeat from the theatrical cut of Return of the King… but the extended cut restores it, so that’s alright then.

Best Supporting Character
Although he’s covered by CGI in the final film, it’s Andy Serkis that really brings Gollum — and his alter ego, Sméagol — to life. It may have led to Serkis becoming the go-to expert in performance capture, but it’s also a great acting performance, full of light and shade, and creating sympathy for an ultimately villainous character. (See also: Truly Special Effect.)

Memorable Quote
“Where is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? They have passed like rain on the mountain, like wind in the meadow. The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow. How did it come to this?” — Theoden

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation #1
“Po-tay-toes! Boil ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew.” — Sam

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation #2
“My precious…” — Gollum

Memorable Scene
The climactic battle of Helm’s Deep is surely one of the greatest battles ever put on screen, as thousands of orcs attempt to storm a fortress defended by a small force of soldiers supported by a ragtag gaggle of old men and boys. Like the ninth episode of a season of Game of Thrones, it plays out over about an hour, but doesn’t flag because it’s so well realised.

Memorable Music
Howard Shore’s excellent score continues to evolve and develop, with the stand-out theme this time being for the realm of Rohan. Also of note is the track that plays over the credits, Gollum’s Song, hauntingly sung by Emilíana Torrini.

Technical Wizardry
Although Lord of the Rings features expanses of excellent CGI, much of it was also created with miniatures — or “Bigatures”, as production nicknamed them, due to the massive scale of some that they built (the largest was 9 metres tall). It lends the final images a physicality and realism that demonstrates why a combination of multiple techniques is often the best way to create a superb end result.

Truly Special Effect
Just a couple of years after The Phantom Menace featured the first major all-CGI character, Weta perfected the form with Gollum, a fully believable creature and an essential part of the narrative. (See also: Best Supporting Character.)

Letting the Side Down
The problem with being the middle part of a series is the story can lack a beginning or an end. Two Towers handily makes up for the latter with the epic battle of Helm’s Deep and the Ents conquering Isengard, but the former is an issue — the film takes a while to get up to speed.

Making of
The prop gate of Helm’s Deep was so well built that a real battering ram failed to knock it down. The door had to be weakened to get the required shots. On the film’s commentary track, Peter Jackson notes that if he ever had to defend a castle he’d want Weta Workshop to build the door.

Previously on…
The story began in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Next time…
The story ends in The Return of the King.

Awards
2 Oscars (Sound Editing, Visual Effects)
4 Oscar nominations (Picture, Editing, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Sound)
3 BAFTAs (Costume Design, Visual Effects, Audience Award)
7 BAFTA nominations (Film, Director, Cinematography, Production Design, Editing, Sound, Make Up/Hair)
4 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Supporting Actor (Andy Serkis), Costumes (tied with Star Wars: Episode II), Make-Up)
6 Saturn nominations (Actor (Viggo Mortensen), Younger Actor (Elijah Wood), Director, Writing, Music, Special Effects)
1 Broadcast Film Critics Association Award (Best Digital Acting Performance (Andy Serkis, obv.))
4 MTV Movie Awards (including Best Virtual Performance (Gollum, obv.), Best Action Sequence (Helm’s Deep))
1 Kids’ Choice Award nomination (Favorite Male Butt Kicker)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form

What the Critics Said
“Gollum is a wonderful creation: voiced by Andy Serkis, and given the most heartbreakingly expressive face, he’s far more than a digital effect: he’s really there, taking up space, displacing air (part of the impact comes from the meticulous care with which all the creatures of Middle Earth are scaled relative to one another). Gollum is a vile mixture of servility and malice, yet watching him being beaten, throttled, kicked by almost everyone he encounters is as distressing as watching a child being hit. Frodo, for all his faults, is kind to Gollum, seeing in him his own disturbing likeness; Sam, for all his virtues, is cruel.” — Suzi Feay, The Independent

Score: 96%

What the Public Say
“The tricky thing with being the second film in a trilogy is that there is no beginning and end. It is almost as if the entire story arc is getting sidetracked by some other battles and new creatures and characters to be met. The film is a intense adventure film but the emotional pull of the two main characters and their journey is out on hold. What makes the Fellowship of the Ring one of the most completely amazing films is because there is a both an emotional and a physical journey the characters take. In the Two Towers we are constantly being told by an assortment of characters that a real war is coming and what they are experiencing are just small skirmishes. Are the filmmakers deliberately teasing us with the excitement of the next film or attempting to do the story its rightful justice?” — Brian Baumann, brianbaumannmoviereviews

Verdict

I was less than impressed by much of The Two Towers when I first saw it — the first hour or so drags, and the intercutting of the deathly dull Entmoot slightly hampers the momentum of Helm’s Deep. Nonetheless, there’s an awful lot to commend it, and the pace becomes less jarring with multiple revisits (when the Extended Edition first came out I even watched both cuts back to back on the same day, which is very unlike me). Some of the trilogy’s best characters first appear here, bringing with them plenty of plot developments that make my notion it was all almost done at the end of Fellowship seem suitably foolish. And, of course, the Battle of Helm’s Deep can’t be beat.

A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship… but it is not in #55.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #53

One Ring To Rule Them All

Country: New Zealand & USA
Language: English & Sindarin
Runtime: 208 minutes (extended edition)* | 178 minutes (theatrical version)
BBFC: PG (“Battle violence and fantasy horror may not be suitable for under 8’s”)
MPAA: PG-13
* 228 minutes with the interminable fan club credits.

Original Release: 19th December 2001 (UK, USA & others)
First Seen: cinema, December 2001

Stars
Elijah Wood (The Ice Storm, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
Ian McKellen (Richard III, X-Men)
Viggo Mortensen (G.I. Jane, Eastern Promises)
Sean Bean (GoldenEye, Black Death)
John Rhys-Davies (Raiders of the Lost Ark, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale)
Orlando Bloom (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Kingdom of Heaven)
Sean Astin (The Goonies, The Colour of Magic)
Dominic Monaghan (I Sell the Dead, X-Men Origins: Wolverine)
Billy Boyd (Urban Ghost Story, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World)

Director
Peter Jackson (Bad Taste, King Kong)

Screenwriters
Fran Walsh (Meet the Feebles, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey)
Philippa Boyens (King Kong, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug)
Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies)

Based on
The Lord of the Rings, a trilogy of novels by J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Story
Legend tells of a ring, created by an ancient evil that gave its wearer the power to enslave the world. Believed lost for centuries, it has now been found… in the possession of one Frodo Baggins, a Hobbit of the Shire. With an evil force thought long-defeated on the rise, and hunting for the Ring to cement his power, Frodo will do what few of his kind have ever done: venture beyond the confines of their homeland. Joined by eight companions, they must travel across Middle-earth to destroy the One Ring once and for all.

Our Heroes
Frodo Baggins lives a quiet life in the countryside idyll of the Shire, where the greatest drama is stopping his relatives from stealing the cutlery. When a dangerous artefact is found to be in his possession, however, the honest and good nature of his people comes to the fore. On his quest, he has eight friends and protectors: his best friend / bodyguard / gardener, Samwise Gamgee; two rambunctious but pure-hearted Hobbits, Merry and Pippin; the powerful wizard Gandalf the Grey; a mysterious ranger from the North, Strider, aka Aragorn; from the world of Men, warrior Boromir; elf Legolas, a skilled archer; and an axe-wielding dwarf, Gimli.

Our Villains
The Dark Lord Sauron is an almost intangible threat, though his manifestation as a giant flaming eye atop an imposing tower is pretty freaky. Of more immediate danger to our heroes are his armies of orcs, as well as former allies who may have been converted…

Best Supporting Character
In many ways the strongest character arc of this first film belongs to Boromir. From the kingdom of Gondor, who are on the front lines defending the world from Sauron’s forces, Boromir is understandably frustrated by the lack of support his people have received, and is eager to use the Ring — a power he is denied, because it is too dangerous. But the Ring’s temptation is hard to resist… At one point a threat from within, which ultimately tears the fellowship asunder, Boromir comes through in the end with a helluva death scene. (He’s played by Sean Bean, of course he dies.)

Memorable Quote
“One ring to rule them all. One ring to find them. One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation #1
“Keep it secret. Keep it safe.” — Gandalf

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation #2
“He is seeking it, seeking it, all his thought is bent on it.” — Gandalf (well, I use it all the time…)

Memorable Scene
In the Elven city of Rivendell, representatives from Middle-earth’s various kingdoms and races gather for a council to decide what to do with the Ring. Concluding it must be destroyed, they bicker over who will make the dangerous journey into Mordor to do so. As the arguments grow louder and more heated, a small voice pipes up: to Gandalf’s dismay, but not surprise, Frodo offers to carry the Ring.

Memorable Music
Howard Shore’s score across the trilogy is incredible, a well-considered and developed work of art that he’s even turned into a symphony. There’s at least one memorable motif in each film, but the first has the best of all: “The Fellowship” theme, which naturally resurfaces regularly throughout the film, is (for my money) one of the greatest pieces of film music ever composed. (For more information on the score, try this dedicated Wikipedia article.)

Technical Wizardry
The production’s dedication to creating the world of Middle-earth is extraordinary. It’s not just the faultless design work, which perfectly imagined the locations, costumes, weaponry, creatures, and so on, but the amount of effort that then went into realising those designs: they produced over 19,000 costumes, including linking 12.5 million plastic rings by hand to create all the chainmail; 48,000 swords, axes, shields, and other pieces of armour; 500 bows and 10,000 arrows… the numbers go on. Also, because Hobbits walk around barefoot, shoe-like fake feet were created for the actors — of which they got through 1,800 pairs.

Truly Special Effect
One of the biggest challenges for realising The Lord of the Rings on screen are the heights of the various races — Hobbits are under 4-foot tall, dwarves are a little taller, and men are… well, man-sized. Jackson and co achieved this by employing various techniques, including forced perspective, body doubles, and split screen, which of course necessitated building two versions of some sets, one of which had to be a precisely scaled up/down version of the other. Fortunately, all of the Hobbit actors were quite short and Gimli actor John Rhys-Davies is quite tall, so they were able to lump the Hobbits and Gimli together as being the same scale. On screen, the results are seamless.

Making of
Viggo Mortensen Method-ed his way through playing Aragorn, including living in his costume outside of filming, insisting on doing his own stunts and using a real steel sword instead of the significantly lighter aluminium and rubber duplicates, bonding with the horses before filming, and having the script revised so that more of Aragorn’s lines were in Elvish.

Previously on…
The Lord of the Rings was adapted as an animated movie in 1978, which I think has its fans but generally isn’t that well regarded. For various reasons it didn’t tell the whole story, either, leading to a TV movie adaptation of The Return of the King being produced in 1980. On radio, it was adapted by the BBC in 1955-6, in the US in the ’60s and again in the ’70s, and, most notably, by the BBC again in 1981. That last adaptation was so acclaimed that Jackson has said it was an influence on his film version.

Next time…
The Two Towers and The Return of the King complete the story. A decade later, cast and crew returned to adapt Tolkien’s preceding novel, The Hobbit, as a prequel trilogy. There are other Middle-earth books, but their film rights reside with people who aren’t fans of Jackson’s films, so that’s probably that for Middle-earth on the big screen.

Awards
4 Oscars (Cinematography, Score, Makeup, Visual Effects)
9 Oscar nominations (Picture, Supporting Actor (Ian McKellen), Director, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Editing, Song, Sound)
5 BAFTAs (Film, Director, Visual Effects, Make Up/Hair, Audience Award)
8 BAFTA nominations (Actor (Ian McKellen), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Music, Production Design, Costume Design, Sound)
3 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Supporting Actor (Ian McKellen), Director)
6 Saturn nominations (Writing, Music, Costumes, Make-Up, Special Effects, Cinescape Genre Face of the Future Male (Orlando Bloom))
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“Jackson has given himself a mountain to climb in tackling Tolkien’s obsessively multi-layered fantasy (intricate back-stories, made-up languages and all). On the whole he copes beautifully. The Fellowship of the Ring honours the text without being enslaved by it. The explanatory dialogue may creak on occasion, but the action scenes have a snap and pace that suggests a film-maker not scared to bring his own touch to the material. Physically, too, the film is a triumph: an art-department’s dream during its lovely interior sequences and a potent advert for the New Zealand tourist board when it heads into the great outdoors. […] Jackson’s serious, high-minded approach looks defiantly out-of-fashion; worlds away from kid-friendly Harry Potter (the season’s other big fantasy film about wizards). Instead, The Fellowship of the Ring boasts some more unlikely influences. At times, Jackson’s film could almost pass for the Anglo-Saxon cousin of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; lacking the dark, liquid exoticism of Ang Lee’s Chinese-language epic, but compensating with old-school blood-and-thunder and a rash of fairytale monsters.” — Xan Brooks, The Guardian

Score: 91%

What the Public Say
“everything about the film is of the highest quality. Both the visuals and audio blend together so well, to create an incredible onscreen world. The set designers did a wonderful job; iconic locations from the book became iconic film locations, such as the rolling green hills of The Shire, pulling you in like a dream, or the mystic and elegant Rivendell or the deep dark of Moria. All of these places and more truly are another world, and no matter what you think of the film the images of these places will stick with you forever.” — Ben Foster, BFFRAP

Verdict

Now that it’s fêted as one of the greatest film trilogies ever made, it’s easy to forget what a gamble a three-film, $300 million adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s unfilmable novel seemed back when production started in the late ’90s; especially as it was to be made by a director whose track record was low-budget horror films, with a cast mostly without star names, filmed on the other side of the planet, where little news leaked out to the wider world, and with all three films shot at once — no backing out if the first flopped. Then it was released and became an instant global phenomenon.

Watching it for the first time, unfamiliar with the story in all but the broadest sense, was an incredible experience. I remember it ending and having no idea how there could be two more films — it felt like Frodo and Sam were almost at Mount Doom already! Oh, how naïve I was. Anyway, for me Fellowship remains the strongest of the trilogy; the only one that feels like a complete work in its own right — even though it’s clearly nowhere near the end of the overall narrative, an awful lot of the plots and themes reach suitable climaxes. Finiteness aside, the quality of the work is unquestionable: this is exciting, funny, emotional, transportive, epic filmmaking of the highest order.

Next… nobody tosses #54.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Extended Edition (2014/2015)

2015 #180a
Peter Jackson | 164 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 15 / R

I just started shooting the movie with most of it not prepped at all. You’re going on to a set and you’re winging it. You’ve got these massively complicated scenes, no storyboards, and you’re making it up there and then on the spot […] I went to our producers and the studio and said […] ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m doing now.’

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies - Extended EditionSo says Peter Jackson in the special features accompanying this extended cut of his trilogy-closing saga-ending sixth Middle-earth movie, as widely reported on the set’s release back in November. Similar comments are echoed repeatedly throughout the special features, like how on Lord of the Rings they had racks and racks of metal orc helmets finished a whole year before they were needed for filming, whereas on The Hobbit they were delivering such props to set on the morning they were required for the shoot.

Another revelation: by making the late-in-the-day decision to split the intended two Hobbit movies into three, Jackson gained a whole year to prep and shoot the gigantic (sub)titular battle scene that forms the climax to his telling of Tolkien’s story. Various reasons have been suggested for Jackson and/or the producers’ trilogy-making decision, from genuine artistic intent, to poorly managed storytelling, to pure greed. In the wake of those special features, this new one — that everyone was making it up as they went along, too deep in to see the bigger picture, and desperate for a way to gain some time to get a handle on what they were doing — seems the most plausible of them all.

In the end, The Hobbit films are what they are. What, if anything, does extending the last one by 19½ minutes bring to the table? Well, as with The Desolation of Smaug, the third film counterintuitively doesn’t feel as overlong (note: as overlong) in the extended cut as it did in the theatrical, but I’d attribute that more to the re-watch factor than the extra scenes and moments making it magically quicker. The new material isn’t scattered about as freely as it is in the Lord of the Rings extensions, but instead is largely confined to three or four wholly-new scenes and some short additions throughout the battle, plus largely-immaterial alterations to the effects in existing footage. Anyone interested in a six-page account of every little change can find those details here.

War, huh, what is it good for? Chariots.Most obvious, and most discussed, is the dwarves’ war chariot action scene, whose bloody decapitations saw the film earn an R in the US and 15 over here. A seven-minute action sequence in the middle of the battle, it’s by far the largest single addition, and is mainly notable for all that blood and its use of the word “jambags”. Somewhat ironically, the sequence was a last-minute addition (the physical chariot was the last thing built for the films), which even as they’re shooting it Jackson acknowledges is an indulgence, and then of course it got bumped to the extended edition for being just that.

Elsewhere: the brief funeral scene at the end is good; more Billy Connolly is more Billy Connolly; an extended fight at Dol Guldur proves you didn’t need the Smaug confrontation to provide some up-front adrenaline; some extra comedy is uncomfortably, inappropriately silly; I don’t think there’s more of Ryan Gage’s over-featured Alfrid, thank goodness, other than that he’s treated to a death scene — hurrah! Fans who had hoped for more of Beorn fighting in the final battle get their wish… for all of ten seconds (literally). No wonder they weren’t best pleased.

In the comments on my review of the extended second film, I assessed that film’s new scenes between Gandalf and Thorin’s mentally-fractured father Thrain should pay off in the third film when Gandalf re-encountered a gold-mad Thorin. And… they don’t. At all. Gandalf the warriorNot a sausage, unless I missed something. It didn’t bother me too much because, quite frankly, I can’t quite remember what it was all about; but when I inevitably watch the extended trilogy back to back one day, it may do then. That said, I can’t imagine it’s a major fault, but again highlights the built-on-the-fly, ill-thought-through state of expanding The Hobbit 2 into The Hobbit 2 and 3.

That The Battle of the Five Armies feels less overlong on a second viewing demonstrates how draggy films come about in the first place: sat in an edit suite for weeks or months, watching a film over and over (and over) again, the material must become so familiar that you lose any sense of perspective about its length or pace. Nonetheless, I still feel The Hobbit would’ve been best served in two films, or by allowing Parts 2 and 3 to run considerably shorter than your usual Middle-earth excursion. Fans have already cut together book-faithful edits of the entire trilogy, which I believe run something like four hours. Maybe that would’ve been best of all.

4 out of 5

In case you missed it, my review of the theatrical cut can be read here.

The New-Look Monthly Update for June 2015

Say hello to the new-look, bigger-than-ever 100 Films monthly update! Well, partially new look — much is the same, but there are some exciting new regular categories, and image-header-things. I had some ideas; I’ve introduced them all at once. (They excited me, anyway.)

First new regular: a contents list!


What Do You Mean You Haven't Seen…?

Just one WDYMYHS film watched this month (so I’m still two behind) — it’s Martin Scorsese’s beloved boxing biopic (that I should’ve watched in 2013 but failed to), Raging Bull. I would make a brief comment on what I thought of it, but we’ll come to that in the Arbies…


June's viewing

Kingsman#75 Changing Lanes (2002)
#76 Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)
#77 The Expendables 3 (Extended Version) (2014)
#78 Ladyhawke (1985)
#79 Now You See Me (2013)
#80 The Interview (2014)
#81 Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
#82 Superman vs. The Elite (2012)
John Wick#83 Rush (2013)
#84 Whiplash (2014)
#85 Meet the Robinsons (2007)
#86 Before Dawn (2012)
#87 The Guest (2014)
#88 Raging Bull (1980)
#89 John Wick (2014)
#90 Fury (2014)


Viewing Notes

  • Meet the Robinsons is the 47th official Walt Disney Animated Classic, and the 39th I’ve seen. 15 to go…
  • I have a whole new format and I make this entire section look pointless with one “oh, by the way” bit of trivia, which is less than I normally have to say here, I feel. Ah well, what can you do?


Analysis

2015 continues apace with 16 new films watched this month. That smashes the June average of 7.14 — indeed, reaching #90 singlehandedly drags it up over a whole film, to 8.25. It’s the highest June ever, which also means it’s the 8th month in a row to beat last year’s equivalent (June 2014 had 11). It’s the 13th month in a row in which I watched more than 10 new films, and is tied with January as both the highest month of 2015 and the third-highest month ever (also tied with May & August 2010). That means that, at 2015’s halfway point, its monthly average is exactly 15.

Most excitingly of all, however, is that I’m now all but guaranteed to reach #100 in July. I’d have to fail my ten-films-per-month goal not to, and I’ve been doing really well with that so have plenty of incentive not to let it slip. More on what reaching #100 in July ‘means’ next month (hopefully!)

Over in Prediction Corner: assuming I uphold my ten-per-month minimum, this year will reach at least #150, which would be my best year by some 14 films. In other words, we should know if 2015 is a new Best Year Ever by November at the latest. (Unless I mess up ten-per-month but then still pass 136 in December, of course.) Meanwhile, in the world of averages… well, we’re halfway through the year, so such a prediction would see my tally exactly double, clocking in at a quite extraordinary 180. (Extraordinary for me, anyhow — stow it, you “365 films in a year” people!)

I’ve been posting these regular monthly updates for over five years now, and in all that time they’ve been very much focused on numbers and stats — how many films have I watched, how does that compare to the past, what does it suggest for the future, etc. And that’s fair enough — as progress reports, it’s kinda their point to report my progress. But I’ve decided it’s about time to introduce some opinion into the mix, to liven things up a bit. So I proudly present…


The Arbies
The 1st Monthly Arbitrary Awards

So named because what I watch in any given month is pretty arbitrary, so the pool of contenders is a total whim rather than a genuine competition. Plus, each month two of the five categories are going to be arbitrarily chosen, just to compound the point. You’ll get the idea as we go along.

That’s Arbie on the right, by-the-way. In case that wasn’t obvious. (Turns out Arbie is also the name of the mascot of the Royal Bank of Canada. I don’t think anyone’s going to get us confused though, so on I go.)

For June 2015, the awards go to…

Favourite Film of the Month
I watched a number of very good films this month, several of them strong contenders for my year-end top ten, but when it came to the crunch there was a clear winner here: as anyone who read my review yesterday likely suspects, it’s The Guest.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
Although there were a couple of weak and/or disappointing movies amongst my viewing this month, and some I certainly liked less than this winner (or, rather, loser), for the greatest discrepancy between “expectation” and “what I actually thought of it”, this goes to Raging Bull.

The Most ’80s Soundtrack You’ve Ever Heard
Most months The Guest would have this sewn up, but oh no, not when Ladyhawke’s around. Can you imagine anyone doing a fantasy movie without a Howard Shore-esque orchestral epic soundtrack nowadays? Me either. In the ’80s, on the other hand… well, they sure did love their synthesisers.

Most “Oh, I Didn’t Know They Were In It” Cameo Appearance
If all you’ve seen of John Wick is the Keanu Reeves-centric posters, it’s probably riddled with moments such as these. Me, I somehow knew most of them, so this award goes to Jason “should’ve played James Bond at some point” Isaacs popping up in Fury as some kind of commander for a little bit. The Blu-ray has nearly an hour of deleted scenes; to my surprise, “the rest of Jason Isaacs’ role” doesn’t seem to be among them.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
Because if I didn’t limit it to new posts, this would be Harry Potter every month (across 2014 and 2013 (the year they were first published), my reviews of Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets accounted for 33.5% of all my page views).
This month: thanks primarily to being retweeted by a Keanu Reeves fan twitter, the victor is Man of Tai Chi.


from around the blogosphere…

I am shockingly bad at getting round to reading other people’s blogs, and when I do it’s often in fits and starts (as anyone who’s ever received half-a-dozen ‘likes’ from me on things they posted a month ago can attest). In the interest of being a better human being, then, I thought I’d start collating particularly interesting pieces from elsewhere and share them here, for whatever that’s worth.

There’s no particular rhyme or reason to my choices, just a handful of pieces that struck a particular chord for me this month. For one thing, there’s a pair of coincidently-thematically-similar pairings from the same two blogs. One of those is up first:

1976, the year it all started… @ the ghost of 82
ghostof82 tackles the emotions of what makes us love movies in the first place, through his own experience with Jaws in ’76.

Jurassic Park (1993) @ Films on the Box
Mike touches on a similar topic from a different angle: how films that are cinema-defining for a generation can appear to those outside said generation.

Evangelion June 22, 2015 @ Heather Anne Campbell
Monday 22nd June 2015 was “Evangelion Day”, the day on which the first episode of anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion takes place. In this write-up, Heather Anne Campbell explains what the series means to her and, in the process, outlines some of the reasons it’s so good and has endured for so long.

Ten of the Best – Noir Directors @ Ride the High Country
Whenever I read Colin’s blog I come away with a raft of new films I want to see. You can only imagine how many got added to my list after this well-considered overview.

Miracle Mile (1988) Review @ Cinema Parrot Disco
Who doesn’t love stumbling across something they’ve never heard of that turns out to be right up their street? No idea if I’d like Miracle Mile, or even if/when I’ll have a chance to see it, but table9mutant’s review has me suitably intrigued. And is it just me or are the ’80s everywhere at the minute?

Movies Silently’s Top Ten Talkies @ Movies Silently
Talking of, a) recommendations, and b) the ’80s, silent cinema doyenne Fritzi took a detour from her regular stomping ground with this list (technically from last month, but rules were made to be bent). Any list of favourites that includes Mystery Men is a good’un in my book, but the aforementioned ’80s recommendation is her #2 choice, medieval fantasy Ladyhawke. As you may’ve noticed above, it even managed to find its way to the top of my “must watch” pile (a rare feat). Full review in due course, but for now suffice to say I very much enjoyed it. I even thought the score had its moments.

RIP Christopher Lee @ Films on the Box
Finally, the second pairing I mentioned, on a sadder note. First, Mike pays fitting tribute to one of the great screen icons.

Remembering the Music of James Horner @ the ghost of 82
Last but not least, a personal tribute to composer James Horner.


Reviews


Archive Reviews


5 Iconic Music Themes

Film music has changed a lot down the years, but it’s been a pretty constant important element. Plenty of it is forgettable background noise, but some stands out so much it becomes famed in its own right. I recently re-watched the original Star Wars trilogy, inspiring this month’s top five: three film themes — plus two from other mediums — that, to me, are some of the most iconic of all.

  1. Doctor Who by Ron Grainer
    Doctor WhoDiddly-dum diddly-dum diddly-dum ooo-weee-ooo… For generations of British children, that’s the sound of Saturday night adventure. I guess to some people it’s just a children’s TV theme, but they’re wrong: it was a genuinely pioneering, important example of burgeoning electronic music (honestly). As a composition it’s surprisingly versatile: Delia Derbyshire’s original arrangement is still chillingly unsettling 52 years on; Murray Gold’s 2005 version (arguably perfected in the Series Four version) is an equally-perfect orchestral blockbuster.
  2. Star Wars (Main Theme) by John Williams
    Star WarsDooo-dooo dododo-dooodo dododo-dooodo dododo-doo… You could probably fill this list twice over with John Williams compositions — Indiana Jones, Jaws, Superman, Jurassic Park, more recently Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter, and so on — but undoubtedly the most iconic of them all is his main theme to George Lucas’ space-fantasy saga. Running it a close second is the same series’ Imperial March, perhaps the greatest villain’s theme ever. All together now: dum dum dum dum-dudum dum-dudum…
  3. James Bond Theme by Monty Norman
    Casino Royale teaserDang da-dang-dang da-da-da dang da-dangdang da-da-da daa-daa da-da-daa… A 53-year-old surf rock tune should by all rights be horribly dated, but I guess true cool endures. While the version used in the films has barely changed, there are an abundance of variations for trailers, etc. My personal favourite is the one created by Pfeifer Broz. Music for the Casino Royale trailer in 2006. The climactic use of a choir is one of those “how did it take someone 43 years to think of this?!” moments.
  4. The Fellowship Theme by Howard Shore
    FellowshipDooo-dooo dododooo, do-do-doo do-do-doo do-do-doo do do doo… The only one here that isn’t a title theme, but it’s indelibly part of the Lord of the Rings franchise — it has no reason to appear in The Hobbit trilogy, but I spent most of those eight hours missing it. It reoccurs throughout the trilogy (of course it does), but perhaps the purest version can be found in The Ring Goes South from the Fellowship soundtrack. “Only Peter Jackson and Howard Shore can make 9 people walking past a rock look epic.”
  5. The Secret of Monkey Island by Michael Land
    The Secret of Monkey IslandDoo-doo dodododo-doo do-do-do-doo… I’m certain this will be less familiar than any of the above to most people but, honestly, to me (and, I think, many other people who played the LucasArts games) it’s as iconic as anything else I’ve mentioned, including all of those other John Williams ones. The original was rendered in the style of its era — a digital MIDI thing — but it endured throughout the series and was transformed into some lusher orchestral versions. Try the version from the 2009 special edition, for instance.

I’m already full of incredulousness at myself for leaving out Indiana Jones. Or Back to the Future. Or Mission: Impossible. And it may’ve been composed by committee, but I love the main theme from Pirates of the Caribbean (find it cleanly in the first film’s He’s a Pirate). And if we’re allowing TV themes, what about Games of Thrones? I mean, this is pretty much what I hear every time I watch the show. And also… oh, we’ll be here forever. What are you favourites?


Next month…

#100! Probably. Hopefully.

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)

2015 #32
Bryan Singer | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Jack the Giant SlayerThe influence of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings rumbles on with this attempt by director Bryan Singer to turn the fairytale of Jack and the Beanstalk into a fantasy epic.

In a plot that over-complicates the original tale to bulk up the running time, farm-boy Jack (Nicholas Hoult of About a Boy, Skins, the current X-Men prequels, etc) is entrusted with some ancient magic beans, which he accidentally drops and from them grow sky-high beanstalks. Unfortunately, the kingdom’s runaway princess (Eleanor Tomlinson, now known for Poldark) is with him at the time, and ends up at the top, kidnapped by giants. The king (Ian McShane, who I imagine is still Lovejoy to many) commands the head of the palace guard (Ewan McGregor) to lead a team up the beanstalk to rescue her, taking Jack along because… his name’s in the title? I forget. Anyway, they meet some computer-generated giants (the leader voiced by Bill Nighy, because of course), action sequences ensue, etc.

Despite being a moderately-starry big-budget Hollywood effort, Jack the Giant Slayer feels cheap as chips across the board. For starters there’s the woeful screenplay, with its first-draft-level dialogue and poor construction. We’re given little reason to care for quickly-sketched characters or the mission they set out on. The first act is rushed through, then unbalanced by an over-long and over-the-top climax. The quality cast ham it up, probably due to the under-written and over-familiar character types they have to work with.

Jack and the beanstalkA computer-animated prologue wants to be the one from Hellboy II, or the interlude from Deathly Hallows Part 1, but instead just looks like something from a ’90s kids’ CG TV series (think ReBoot, that kind of thing). The main film’s effects are little better — if you told me any of the CG-driven sequences were from a Syfy miniseries, I’d probably believe you.

Naturally the climax leans on these, for an epic-fantasy-wannabe giant invasion. The film would be so much better without this forced attempt to provide an epic battle — focus in on the quest to rescue the princess, which is the main story anyway, then end the movie with the beanstalk coming down and everyone returning home. Leave the giants up in their kingdom, leave the door open for a sequel — every studio exec loves the hope of a sequel, right? (I don’t think there should be a sequel, but that’s how you sell it.)

As a children’s movie, Jack the Giant Slayer would be passable. It should by all rights be a PG, but for some reason (well, for box office) it’s been pushed a little far (only a little far, mind) and insists on being considered as a 12A/PG-13. In that playing field, it’s not up to snuff. I don’t mean to imply kids only need or deserve sub-par entertainment — that’s certainly not true — but, for younger children especially, well-worn plots, They might be giantsoveracted characters, and bright-and-cheerful CGI are more or less acceptable, in a “it’s no classic but it’ll pass two hours just fine” kind of way. Produced on those kinds of terms, this might have passed muster for some. Might.

I didn’t enjoy Jack the Giant Slayer at all. I think I’ve given it a second star only because I like everyone involved and they have my sympathy.

2 out of 5

Jack the Giant Slayer featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2015, which can be read in full here.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

2015 #36
Peter Jackson | 144 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 12 / PG-13

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ArmiesPeter Jackson’s epic Tolkien adaptation blunders its way to a conclusion with an instalment some have declared the trilogy’s best, presumably because they really enjoy watching someone else play video games. That’s what about half of this sextet-completing movie feels like, as it concludes the three-part Hobbit narrative with a CGI-riddled rendering of the titular battle. It’s the shortest film in Jackson’s Middle-earth magnum opus, though it comes to something when a film the best part of two-and-a-half hours long is described as “short”.

Before said battle, the movie finds itself with some business to attend to: we pick up immediately where the second part left off, with giant dragon Smaug flying towards Laketown with destruction on his mind. Kicking things off with a gigantic ten-minute action sequence isn’t a wholly bad decision pacing-wise, but this particular sequence is the wrong way to do it. Really, it’s the second film’s climax displaced — once Smaug is dealt with, a whole slew of new developments and subplots grow out of it, and that’s where the material that feels like it belongs in this film commences. Of course, that means there’s a lot of talking and manoeuvring, both politically and literally as people and troops shuffle about the board. Were it not for the big opening, there wouldn’t be an action sequence for about half the movie, and I guess that’s not considered acceptable in the modern blockbuster environment.

Now, if you were to watch all three films in one sitting, I suppose it wouldn’t matter precisely where the breaks fall. But how many people are actually going to do that? Not first-timers, that’s for sure. And then you’d get the problem of massive action sequences butting up against each other: the one that opens this film, right after the dwarfs-vs.-Smaug sequence invented during reshoots to take its place at the end of Film 2. Surely there were two other options available to Jackson when he made the decision to extend from a duology to a trilogy: he could have ended Film 2 before it even reached Smaug, Smaug attacks!or he could have ended the second film with Smaug defeated and added more material to this third film to reach his desired running time. Or not even bothered adding stuff: if you lost the Smaug opener, The Battle of the Five Armies would still be over two hours long, which anywhere but Middle-earth is considered a decent length for a movie.

The rest of the film is a mixed bag for different reasons. For instance, Ryan Gage’s Alfrid is given a significant role — that’s the Mayor of Laketown’s assistant, if you’ve (understandably) forgotten who he is. Every minute that’s spent on his “comic relief” part is a minute wasted, and there are far too many minutes of it. Why that wasn’t left to the extended cut is anybody’s guess. It wouldn’t be particularly palatable there either — he’s just irritating, his actions predictable and unfunny — but longer versions are where there’s time for such indulgence. Conversely, Tauriel and Legolas are underused, wandering off on a completely aimless mission before wandering back for the battle.

Said battle feels a long time coming, but when it arrives… well, it’s a long time happening. It’s an epic by default, due to its sheer length. There are good bits, like the effort that has clearly been put into working out the armies’ tactics and the ebb and flow they would create. Wide aerial shots showing legions of troops swarming in formation, directed by generals with flags and horns mounted on high, are rather effective. Generals mounted on highOn the ground, the meat of the conflict only occurs when individual heroes are parcelled off into one-on-one duels. None of these particularly stand out, however, other than Legolas athletically jumping around a collapsing bridge that’s all so much CGI. This is where my earlier video game comparison really comes into play.

Some characters die. The impact is little-felt because of all the noise and bluster. That’s partly because there’s not really enough time for all the characters, of which there are more than ever. As with the second film, there’s been criticism that Martin Freeman’s eponymous Bilbo is barely featured, and, as with the second film, I disagree. Freeman’s not especially well-served in the acting stakes — Bilbo’s character development remains completed by the first part — but there’s still a focus on the actions of the little hero, some of which are pivotal.

Coming out of things best is Richard Armitage as Thorin, who succumbs to the paranoid madness that has afflicted generations of his family. Can he overcome it to do the right thing? The extent of this is sometimes laid on a little thick, but that’s the filmmakers’ fault (maybe this is another place that would benefit from a few trims) rather than Armitage’s performance. As the leaders of two of the titular armies, Lee Pace (elves) and Luke Evans (humans) also get a bit of a part to play, but the remaining dwarfs are given short shrift. That includes those played by James Nesbitt, Ken Stott and Aidan Turner, He loves only gold...all of whom I’d thought would have more to do in the second and third parts of the trilogy. Turner, in particular, should have expected a bigger boost from Jackson’s decision to enrol him in an interracial romantic triangle, but it feels like they pulled back from that story thread a little after it proved unpopular in the previous film. It’s still obviously there, I just expected more of it.

On balance, The Battle of the Five Armies is probably the weakest of the three Hobbit films. Really, it’s just one big battle with a lengthy preamble. I can sort of see why Jackson felt like he could extend his original second film into a second and third — if you imagine them shorn of the reshoot-added bits, there’s still too much material for a single feature. The better solution, I suspect, would have been to accept splitting it into two shorter (i.e. regular-length) films, applying a bit of restraint in the process, rather than padding things further in an attempt to create two epics out of one ultra-epic.

As the credits begin, we’re treated to a sequence that emulates the one from Return of the King, with pencil sketches of the main cast alongside their names. On the Lord of the Rings concluder, it felt earnt; a special ending to a grand adventure. Here, it doesn’t. If anything, it feels like a reminder that the story we’ve just seen may have pushed to reach Lord of the Rings-level epicness, but is really just a tale of a small group going on an eventful hike, capped with a fairly large skirmish. A contemplative, momentous credit sequence does not feel warranted.

Legend tells of a ring...I was something of a defender of Jackson’s version of The Hobbit at first. I enjoyed An Unexpected Journey and stand by my comment that, while it’s not The Lord of the Rings, it is the next best thing. As the trilogy has dragged on, however, it’s been dragged out, and the shine has gone off it. I still think there are elements to commend it, but I also think it could have been executed better. It’s hard to imagine an even longer version will improve much this time.

4 out of 5

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on Monday.

My review of the Extended Edition can now be read here.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Extended Edition (2013/2014)

2015 #35a
Peter Jackson | 187 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 12 / PG-13

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - Extended EditionAt the start of their audio commentary on The Desolation of Smaug, co-screenwriters Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens note that, when the decision was made to extend the already-shot Hobbit duology to a trilogy, it wasn’t a third movie that need to be created but a second. That is to say, it was the middle instalment that required the most extra material, including a new prologue and climax. The theatrical version rather felt like that had happened, too, and now we have a cut with 16% more again.

Fortunately for new-stuff spotters, most of these additions come in the form of whole scenes, rather than tiny extensions here and there. In total, there’s almost 27 minutes of new material, plus a little over 90 seconds removed (all of it moments that seem to have been added to the theatrical edition to cover for now-reinserted scenes). That’s a pretty significant amount, and it does impact on some facets of the story, but not enough to change the overall feel. That said, I did like the film a little better, but I’d attribute that as much to simply watching it again: things that bugged me last time felt less irksome, like how long was spent on Legolas fighting orcs at the end, for instance.

One thing I never had a problem with, unlike some others, is the film’s proportion of Bilbo: some say the titular hero is sidelined, with too much focus on Thorin and Gandalf as a result. Two things: one, despite the title, this is clearly structured as an ensemble movie — of course other characters are going to get some of the focus. Second, there’s actually loads of Bilbo! He saves everyone from spiders in Mirkwood, he saves everyone from imprisonment by the wood elves, he’s the one who finds the keyhole at Erebor, he goes into the mountain and has a long confrontation with Smaug, he’s the first face we see after the prologue and the last we see before the credits. And those are just the highlights. Better BilboThe extended cut amps him up even more, with an extra part in Mirkwood and a moment where he stands up for Thorin in Laketown. In fairness, he doesn’t have as much character development in this film as the first, while Thorin is on a definite arc and Gandalf is off on his own side-plot, but he’s undoubtedly a key character. I really don’t understand that complaint.

Of the new stuff, however, the best addition is more Beorn, authoritatively played by Mikael Persbrandt. He felt underused and half-arsed in the theatrical version, like they’d cut out a book character to make way for more film-added stuff later on. I have no idea how big his role is in the novel, but Tauriel and her dwarven love triangle aren’t in there at all, so I can well imagine some would rather have more of the skin-changer (whether from the novel or not) than the interspecies romance. Here, we get more of a sense of him as a character, with two whole worthwhile scenes supplementing his sole one from the other cut.

Other notable additions include an extended bit in Mirkwood, where the party have to cross a river; some more of Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown; and a whole additional character encountered by Gandalf at Dol Guldur, played by renowned actor Sir Antony Sher, under so much make-up you’d never even know. There are more bits and bobs, including additional lines that set up some of the aforementioned new scenes, but nothing as significant as these. Some build on storylines first included in the extended cut of An Unexpected Journey, others are just on the level of “we shot this so here it is”.

Beorn againEven if some of the additions are worthless, on balance this is a better version of the film: more Beorn, more of the atmospheric Mirkwood, an additional character whose appearance will hopefully pay off in the extended Battle of the Five Armies (presuming it can’t have done in the theatrical version); plus simply watching the film for a second time helps iron out some of the pacing and emphasis problems I had on my first viewing. It’s still the weakest of Jackson’s Middle-earth films, and there are many issues with splitting one film in two (which I expect to rear their head again in the third film, with how some of the decisions pan out), but it isn’t all bad.

4 out of 5

In case you missed it, my review of the theatrical cut can be read here.

The concluding part of the trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies, is 2015’s #36. It’s released on DVD and Blu-ray in the US tomorrow and in the UK on 20th April. I’ll have a review nearer that time.