Category Archives: Family entertainment

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug film posterSynopsis

The second Hobbit movie in which Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) try to reclaim their Kingdom of Erebor and its gold from Smaug the dragon.  On the way they’re imprisoned by the elves led by Orlando Bloom, and they get to the Kingdom ruled by Stephen Fry.  Smaug is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch.  Bilbo must face the dragon.


There is no Gollum in this, so we get no eccentricities at a tangent, just different confrontations.  The visual effects are spectacular, especially the forest.  The obvious thing about making a fantasy film is that you make it appear as unworldly as you can, otherwise it is just actors in fancy dress walking through an everyday forest. You can’t do this if your budget is restricted, but if that is the case maybe it’s better not to do it at all.  Peter Jackson of course has a limitless budget.  The elves’ kingdom is spindly and cathedral-cavernous, the only permitted tone is portentous and breathy even if you were to read out a supermarket shopping list.  The elves talk like they’ve undergone brain removal surgery but the visual distractions compensate.  The dwarves escape in barrels rolling down the river then they face the Orcs (who look like rugby players after a white mud bath), but they look scary.  The fishing village is peopled with Volvo types and their cute Harry Potter Britishness, so I was glad to get to Erebor and here the visual spectacle is breathtaking (if a little like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom magnified).  Smaug is somewhat domesticated by familiarity but the scene still holds the attention.  Martin Freeman is good as the ordinary hobbit, who could be punching above his weight if he didn’t have that peskily unsporting gold ring with him.  The dwarves are all militant rectitude, so shop worn since the glowering antics of the downtrodden, squeezed out any wit in Braveheart and it’s ilk.  Their militant hairy rectitude gets a little wearisome.  Gandalf’s talent for avoidable danger leads him into the usual perils that we know he can overcome (this plot device ultimately scuppers Harry Potter).  Good entertainment.

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Posted by on March 14, 2014 in Family entertainment, Film Reviews


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The Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger film posterSynopsis

Based on the TV cowboy series of The Lone Ranger and Tonto and how they start out in 1870 Texas.  Tonto rescues John Reid from bandits and they battle with corrupt army and railroad crooks and Comanches.  Helena Bonham Carter helps out with an ivory leg.  The film is a story that the ancient Tonto tells to a child in the San Francisco of 1933.


It’s appropriate that this film starts in 1933 San Francisco since The Lone Ranger started out as a radio show in that decade.  Then it became a 50s TV show starring a masked cowboy in tights, his Comanche friend Tonto called him Kimo Sabe.  The masked cowboy rides a white stallion called Silver.  This western is a fantasy for children about the Wild West, as opposed to other western films which are fantasies for adults about the west.  This film succumbs to an over elaborate foundation myth for the TV series, Johnny Depp as Tonto delivers his narrative like Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man who also told quirky stories about the old days, happily mixing myth and history.  Depp tries on another comic performance, in Pirates of the Caribbean he is drunkenly flamboyant, whereas in  Lone Ranger he pokes fun at the stereotype of the stolid frowning Indian.  Depp’s got a dead crow stuck on his head and he also wears white face paint, a fashion which no other “Indian” feels inclined to follow.  How could you make even a slightly serious film about this subject.

Special effects are nicely blended with Monument Valley shots like at the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  This Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) starts out as a naive lawyer who wants to ‘tame’ the west (like Jimmy Stewart liked to play), and he ends up as an improbable hero on a white horse which is made to gallop on top of railway cars whilst being immune to all bullets.  The Lone Ranger is similar to the reluctant heroes of Shane and High Noon.  The mask and the hat are silly enough so there’s no attempt to put him into tights.  The villains led by Tom Wilkinson are like those of Heaven’s Gate, corrupt capitalist barons who use outlaws to destroy native Americans and rape the land of its minerals.  We get a sort of re-enactment of the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 (shown in the film Soldier Blue) so it can be a bit serious as it entertains.  We also get a fantasy encyclopaedia of oddities like a Barnum circus:  flesh eating rabbits and H Bonham Carter’s ivory leg which shoots bullets.  The classical Western backdrops make the film feel like a moving diorama of Charles Russell paintings.  Buffalo Bill’s wild west circus originated this vision of the west. The rail chases, gunfights, mining camps, and wild west towns all invite us to think of other western films we’ve seen.  The realistic ‘wild West’ was of course a radically different world, perhaps McCabe and Mrs Miller approximates to the real thing.  Lone Ranger is a child’s fantasy realized in CGI and it works as a good entertaining film.


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Oz the Great and Powerful

Oz the Great and Powerful film posterSynopsis

Starts in black and white at a Kansas fair in 1905.  James Franco plays a fairground trickster who doesn’t want the responsibility of marriage to Rachel Weisz.  His magic is fraudulent.  He escapes from aggrieved colleagues in a balloon in which he gets into a tornado and ends up in Oz.  He meets two witches (Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz) and a winged monkey.  Later he rescues a porcelain girl.  He must prove himself to the Munchkins and the citizens of Oz against the wicked witches….


If MGM has the rights to the Tin Man, the Lion, and the Scarecrow, how come this film can show the Munchkins which MGM presumably has the copyright on?  Oz the Great and Powerful takes full advantage of its seventy five years of cinema technology over the Selznick film, so I suppose it’s unfair to compare them as spectacle.  This Emerald City is a green version of the red palaces of Tim Burton’s Alice.  It’s of course much superior to the painted cardboard of 1939 which was magical enough in the world of depression and impending war.  The new film is a highly efficient CGI extravaganza but cannot claim the earlier film’s magic.  We are too consumerist and sated, “less is more” is not a respected precept in today’s cinema.  The scene at the funfair in black and white is a throwback to the opening scenes of the Garland film, but that was the contrast of reality to dream whereas in this film it feels like it’s from gimmick to gimmick.  The only new character we get is a china doll and with this ‘Shrek-like’ midget we romp through the latest computer tricks with no human depth.  James Franco’s fairground magician reprises Heath Ledger’s role in Imaginarium, the film works like a Terry Gilliam project as we get reminders of that film.  Oz The Great and Powerful share the same limitations as other productions of the L Frank Baum stories in that the characters may look weird and a bit threatening but they lack the violence and terror (for children) of the books.  The Munchkins, the doll, and the monkey are all reduced to the lowest common denominator of bland amenability and acceptable character changes through predictable plot developments.  The bad guys look like cereal packet monsters and the good guys are the usual contenders for the Prom Queen’s favours.  In the end, love and sincerity must prevail over deceit of self and others, a conventional message of hope.  Sometimes fun but could have been more imaginative..


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Brave film posterSynopsis

Animation about a Scottish princess who will not conform to the conventional conduct expected of her by her mother (Emma Thompson) and a more indulgent father (Billy Connolly).  Her mother wants her to marry but the suitors are hopeless.  Then the princess gets a magic potion that turns her mother into a bear.  She can only change back if the princess can weave magically…


In the Disney tradition of feisty, independent girls who are superior to the men.  It carries on the good work of Mulan, The Frog and the Princess, and Rapunzel.  However I expected more, and was disapointed because it’s too sanitized for the global market.  It’s a tartan fantasy like an animated label on a whiskey bottle.  At least we were spared a smoothie Englishman who’s always an obvious villain.  It’s a film about Scots people and there are recognizable quirks in the characters.  The fairy story itself is familiar yet colourful.  The obvious answer to my earlier complaint is that it’s only a fairy story, but can’t even a fantasy get beyond the Mel Gibson clownishness of Braveheart.  Recent historians have insisted that while the Highlands were being cleared of people, the fantasy of tartan Scotland was born:  there must be kilts and bagpipes.  Tartan kitsch appears to be a 19th century invention.  This film is Brigadoon as animation.

The Princess herself has fiery red hair (naturally she’s Scottish).  Brave, whether intentionally or not, criticizes certain present day cultural practises:  she rebels against an arranged marriage and she doesn’t like her hair being hidden by a veil.  Brave treads the well worn path of the wayward girl learning love and maturity in the end (like in any Hollywood teen Film), but interestingly there is no boyfriend.   It’s all about reconciliation with a mother who is similarly chastened.  The message is clear, we must be true to our better instincts.  Nice to watch but offers nothing really different.


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We Bought a Zoo

We Bought a Zoo posterSynopsis

Based on Guardian journalist’s real life purchase of a zoo in Dartmoor and what happens to it.  Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee.  His wife has died and his son is in a state of grief.  His daughter is enthusiastic about him buying a house in the country and the small zoo that goes with it.  Their workers are Scarlett Johannssen, a feisty Scott (Angus MacFadyren), a teenage girl with a crush on the son and other willing helpers.  Tangled with issues of bereavement there is an ageing tiger.  There are bureaucrats, money problems and a storm threatens opening day………


This is a sentimental film, now set in California, in which everybody comes through emotional ordeals all the stronger.  They have to, this is a mainstream film.  Animals on film over the last half century or so, from Born Free (about a lioness) to zoo programmes, Tarzan and so on, have all shown a Disneyland view of animals.  Their activities are circumscribed by the requirements of sentiment, this film is not an exception.  A dying tiger becomes a sort of cathartic symbol of Damon’s grief management.  Other animals look like cute pets as their lives are controlled by culturally correct self-delusion, one is no longer allowed to call a cage ‘a cage’, but an enclosure.  A change of words doesn’t change the reality for the captive animal.  Bereavement is worked out by the usual guilt and remorse routine as the zoo itself becomes a sort of school of self therapy.  We are not shown the realities of looking after animals in a zoo, in this sanitized place there’s hardly a hint of bodily functions.  Those of us who’ve looked after an old pet know all about that stink and mess.  Scarlett Johannssen would get whisked off to the big city pretty quick and we get no insight into her chosen way of life, she is just a good egg who has a way with animals and who of course will straighten Damon emotionally.  It’s all very treacly and predictable.  We get the anti-bureaucratic feisty Scot and the sleazy bureaucrat who should be given their own compound labelled ‘lovable stereotypes’.  In order to avoid embarrassing lapses into what could look like goofy family camcorder shots, we get zingy pop songs which don’t have any obvious reference to what’s on the screen and we get relentless action like those quick fire adverts as if to avoid lingering lachrymosity.  Sentiment is frogmarched off between the toolbox and getting the job done.  There is a sort of nod to Noah’s Ark, as a storm threatens to maroon the zoo, then the sun comes out and everything is okay.  Undemanding but likeable.


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The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

Tintin posterSynopsis

About Tintin’s search for treasure.  The clue to this treasure is a map found in a bottle.  The pursuit of the treasure leads to a ship voyage where Tintin meets Captain Haddock.  They escape from the ship and fly to Morocco and track down the clues to the treasure there.


This is Spielberg’s version of Herge’s Tintin.  This style of animation, like that of Polar Express is neither real nor caricature fantasy, so it falls between the two.  The characters look like they’ve got stockings pulled over their faces.  The whole look of the film is Spielberg. The chase scene in Morocco is reminiscent of Indiana Jones.  It’s set at an electric pace, no time for a pause which might make you think of the creepiness of those faces.  Purists hate this of course, but I found it entertaining.  I suppose we are all purists about something (I hated the way the BBC rejected the Gothic appearance of Gormangast).  I suppose other purists’ anger is always baffling or amusing,  What’s the fuss about Tintin?  As far as I’m concerned he is a funny little racist (check out Tintin in the Congo), with a funny hairdo, golfing trousers, an irritating dog, and no girlfriends.  The culture of comics and comic books leave me cold.  To me, all the Tintin comics might be well drawn and exciting for kids but why such reverence for this kind of art?  You’d think Spielberg had desecrated the Sistine Chapel!  In the comics the individual scenes provide a backdrop in which things happen suddenly in different pictures, perhaps this was revolutionary at first, so I suspect that Tintin purists feel that cinema betrays this, but it’s understood that cinematic art works differently.  Spielberg seems to do his best to hold true to the spirit of the originals.  Of course the world of Spielberg and the 1930s world of Herge are very different but so what?  Herge himself had nothing against Tintin in cinema in the mid twentieth century.  Was Herge’s world superior?  In any case, each reader of Tintin took what they wanted from it, so Spielberg has the right to his personal vision.   Admittedly, the film works too much within present day orthodoxies but the characters seem pretty faithful to the comics.  Haddock is comically irascible in the film as in the comic, and you want the drunken clown to come out right.  Tintin is a reliable hero even if he does look like an escapee from a freak show.  We get the opera singer Castefiore and that mutt Smutty.

As a purist I eventually accepted that the directors vision of Gormengast was his own even if I didn’t like it, so why can’t Tintin purists join in the fun?


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Hugo posterSynopsis

Set in Paris in 1931, it’s about a boy living a reclusive life in the Parisian railway station, a bit like Quasimodo living such a life in Notre Dame.  He plays a battle of wits with the station inspector played by Sacha Baron Cohen.  Hugo keeps a mechanical man, and the blueprint for it interests Ben Kingsley, a shop owner who is interested in its design.  He is befriending a girl who reads adventure books.  It turns out that Ben Kingsley used to be involved in the origins of cinema in 1895.  Hugo learns of this.  There are a few life stories in the railway station which may have happy endings: Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour might get together.  Sacha Baron Cohen might get together with the flower seller.


Martin Scorsese’s tribute to cinema and it’s indebtedness to its origins in the Lumiere shows of 1895.  We’ve all seen the rocket flying into the eye of the moon.  Scorsese brings his documentary thoroughness to the story of early film.  The film’s tribute to film is illustrated by the little stories in the railway station: the orphan defying pompous authority, the kindly book-lending father figure (played by Christopher Lee), the Keystone cop figure, the friendship over a dog that can lead to marriage, the pompous policeman’s salvation through a flower seller.  These are the conventional plots of early silent movies.  The mythology of early Hollywood is enhanced by this because it shows ‘ordinary’ people overcoming adversity in a somewhat unreal setting yet at the same time that mythology is grounded in a more recognizable everyday reality.  Scorsese sets it up as close to a possible reality and has no need for melodrama to accentuate the sentimentality.

This is a charming fairy story where special effects are used to greatest effect in the palatial machinery of the railway station, the Gare du Nord with a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory makeover.  The streets of Paris in the snow look like an arty Christmas card.  I expected a sort of mechanical man take over of the Eiffel Tower where the boy could prance about like Quasimodo but that didn’t happen.  The mechanical man, who looks like the colossus in Metropolis, briefly comes to life to write about early cinema but Scorsese resists the temptation to have it take over the film as a sort of metal Pinnochio.  The mechanical man is like a futurist trophy, a promise of the technological possibilities of the 20th century with a hint of Faustian menace if misused.  Scorese tells us in this film that the First World War frustrated the development of Lumiere cinema, which was then inherited by Hollywood, and so this is Hollywood’s belated tribute.

Sacha Baron Cohen uses Pink Pantherish french, but he wisely doesn’t overdo it, he is a war hero having survived the trenches.  He is capable of redemption at the end.  Scorsese wants even the most unsympathetic figure to be capable of salvation and he wants to promote the power of cinema.  A superb fairy story.


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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2Synopsis

H.P. and chums finally battle the dark forces led by R. Fiennes as Voldemort with Helena Bonham Carter and co.  They attack Hogwarts and there is a final battle in which H.P. seems to die but meets Michael Gambon  and he survives though Voldemort thinks he has killed Potter.  Snape is killed and among the secrets about H.P. is that Snape loved Potters’ mother.  H.P. and co defeat the forces of evil.  At the end the adult Harry, Hermione, and Ron send their kids to Hogwarts.


For me this film repeats the limitations of the other films which I’m told, are not as good as the books.  This public school farrago with painted hats once again has actors pointing sticks at each other but this time they bring in some Lord of the Rings type trolls.  Voldemort looks like a latex Quasimodo.  Potter and his cronies look like lottery winners in a special effects bonanza.  I’m bemused as to why this Tom Brown’s Schooldays with Dr Who, has caught on globally.  The franchise has simply grown by a sort of populist osmosis.  Like a house pet it’s been around for years and acquired a cosy familiarity.

It’s all safe and unchallenging, too comfortable with its middle class preening.  There’s nothing disconcerting or innovative.  It’s too rooted in the early 21st century to be able to say anything universal about childhood or our fantasies.  Still, crticizing it makes you feel like the Christmas party pooper, the guy who mugged Santa Claus.

Rowling has become Britain’s Disney and she may do impressive things yet, but these films lack the magic that many of her readers find in her books.  Can’t say I’m sorry to see the end of these films.  This is the last, isn’t it?.


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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 posterSynopsis

Ralph Fiennes leads a Capone like committee of baddies who are out to get Harry Potter.  We see H.P. himself at his house and he must escape from Fiennes’ pursuit. Lots of pals assume H.P.’s appearance to throw pursuers off the scent.  H.P., Ron and Hermione  disguise themselves as adults to get into the Ministry of Magic where they take a locket. Then they go from place to place and camp out in a tent  Ron gets jealous and quits, leaving H.P. and Hermione to bond. Then H.P. and Hermione turn up at his parents’ on Christmas Eve and are attacked by a snake. Then they’re in a forest and H.P. gets a sword from a frozen pond and he’s rescued by the returning Ron.  They then chat to a sorcerer in his lonely house who tells a story of three brothers.  Then they’re attacked by Snatchers and taken to H. Bonham Carter’s jail where Dobby rescues them and he’s killed by Helena B.C.  Then R. Fiennes steals Michael Gambons’ wand, and we wait for Part 2.


If you try to critcize H.P. you feel like a mosquito trying to topple a brick wall.  There are a few enjoyable scenes:  the tale of the three brothers is done like an Indonesian shadow puppet theatre, it reminds me of Regers’ 1950’s fairy tale silhouettes.  The scene in the forest is quite atmospheric, the Forest of Dean in the middle of winter.  The rest is underwhelming.  The three leads are charisma deficient, prolonged scenes with them are an ordeal.  I watched this with a couple of H.P. fans and they told me that new material has been interpolated, other scenes have been changed from the book.  This is curious, since J.K.R. is known as a control addict, one of the reasons she split Book 7 into two films is to get the details from the book.  It seems the romance between Hermione and Harry threatens to elbow aside any fidelity to the text, not that it’s any great loss.

I think I’ve alluded to this before, but the curious thing about a story dependant on magic is that it can undermine narrative development because it pre-empts conflict and its resolution.  When you know you can always escape a situation, then is there any reason for engagement in the first place?  The scenes are disjointed from an overall incoherence so that they do not achieve the cohesion of successive episodes.  They are more like set pieces embellishing the real interest in the story:  the sexual tension between the three adolescents.  After all, the childhood audience for H.P. has grown up with these three leads so that’s the central concern, isn’t it?  If (like me) you don’t read the books then this film does not stand on its own.  There’s cross referencing and reporting back from the other books but the viewer hasn’t got that luxury if he/she watches this on its own.

Another problem with this and other films is the comfortable familiarity of the scenes.  We either get modern British houses, public school Gothic in Hogwarts (but not in this film though) and a lonely ramshackle house in the middle of a bleak moor, a real forest and the Ministry of Magic entered by toilets.  We get jumps from place to place without any underlying continuum (which we get in the Alice books).  There is rationed visual novelty in each scene and what inventiveness there is, gets repeated in all the films:  the moving paintings and newspaper pictures, the Dr Who hi-tech wands, the oversized python.  There is plenty of gloominess which surrounds the eruption into hi-tech jinks which are merely frenetically extra contextual.  The Ministry of Magic looks like a mixture of a Victorian municipal palace and a posh toilet.  Dobby the elf looks like Vladimir Putin as a garden gnome

What. H.P. can offer is the chance for a well known actor to inject some of their own skill into the scene, and that can be a pleasure, although John Hurt only gets a few minutes.  There’s a real shrewdness and sharpness in some of the group dynamics but it gets spoiled by the three leads dumping their amateur acting across scene after scene.  Finally it’s all too much an expression of Britishness in the naughties, and those limitations will become starker as time goes by.  Arthur Mee with 21st century knowingness.


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Pirates of the Caribbean IV: On Stranger Tides

Pirate of the Carribbean: On stranger Tides posterSynopsis

Jack Sparrow  is in London and he is captured and meets George II to do a deal with Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) who wants to reach the “Fountain of Youth”.  The Spaniards are already searching for it.  Sparrow wants a ship but is abducted by Blackbeard’s daughter, Penelope Cruz.  They need the two cups of a sixteenth century explorer (Ponce de Leon) and the tears of a mermaid.  They capture a mermaid and eventually get to the fountain.  The Spanish want to destroy it because its promise of eternal youth is contrary to their religion.


This summation makes the film seem more coherent than it really is.  It is actually the usual Johnny Depp stand up comedy routine surrounded by sidekicks.  We keep being told that Depp copies Keith Richard’s voice (he makes a brief appearance) but it seems as if Depp has been studying a lot of camp British comedy.  Depp is quite funny and it’s quite something to make such a toe rag of British camp into a global franchise which has outdone Harry Potter.  As long as it keeps on raking in dosh, why stop it?  As entertainment it fills the void left by Indiana Jones.  It’s a board game fantasy in panto drag.  Depp and Rush do a creditable Robert Newton, who used to ham his way through Long John Silver.  It’s quite an achievement when you consider that Geena Davis’ pirate film of the ’90s bombed at the box office.  The pirate films of the ’40s and ’50s were unrealistic adventures, Pirates is a once inspired fantasy, which now just about justifies itself.   I would like to see a film about the reality of pirate life, but it wouldn’t be a money maker would it?  Still, it would have been a great improvement to see a breakaway from the formulaic familiarities.  The love interest is between a preacher and a mermaid, both bland and forgettable.  Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom have fallen off the treasure map.  There’s the usual list of Brit actors having a ride while they pick up a pay cheque.

Each scene is self contained which makes the film disjointed, so it’s like looking at discarded scenes from the latest Orange mobile phone adverts. The self parodies get tangled up in each other as well.  Depp minces his picaresque way through his slapstick routines and it would be nice to see him attempt some of the stunts that Burt Lancaster could do in The Crimson Pirate.  Depp looks like he’s stolen his clothes off a panto washing line and he does well with his stage props.  With all the money it’s made, Pirates could have been more inventive with surrealism instead of giving us unprepossessing mermaids.  This made it look like a stop gap for Harry Potter and Narnia.

For all Depp’s comic prowess, which makes the other actors look like sidekicks, I feel that Pirates cannot continue this way.  A fifth film would have to be a real change in the routine but I fear that as long as the money comes in it will outstay its welcome.  After the credits, the final scene of Pirates IV would appear to confirm one’s worst fears..


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