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The Hobbit

The Hobbit

Synopsis

The first part of a trilogy from Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which is the prequel to The Lord of the Rings.  Bilbo Baggins entertains dwarves and travels with them and Gandalf.  The dwarves want their Kingdom back.  Bilbo comes along because he can steal.  There is a dragon, it’s name is Smoug.  They meet giant trolls, then the Brown Wizard who helps them when Orcs attack.  They have adventures in the Orc cave, elves help them, Bilbo encounters Gollum.  More fights with Orcs…

Criticism

Critics have complained that Jackson’s Hobbit is too long but this, I think, misses the point.  The forest is a place you can linger in whether or not you are a fan. Furthermore making three films from a much shorter book than Lord of the Rings might seem like using a pile driver to crack an egg, but I don’t agree, why can’t Jackson expand the original story which is hardly great literature in the first place.  This is as much Jackson’s film as Tolkein’s story.  Admittedly the dwarves’ party at Bilbo’s house does last too long but generally The Hobbit goes along at quite a pace.  The trolls are disgusting giants, there’s nothing antiseptic about this world, for all the ‘Dingley Dell’ cutesiness of the language.  I bet such giants would stink terribly.  Bilbo is played by Martin Freeman who is quite down to earth and likeable, which is a relief after those google eyed midgets from The Lord of the Rings.  Ian McKellan is a wizard for all seasons and anchors the film with his good acting.  He is like Bilbo’s father and he is his mentor, effortlessly assuming these roles.  The dwarves themselves are the usual prosthetic midgets with too much beard and anger issues.  The ‘Tolkein Scary Appearance Award’ must go to the Orcs who hound Bilbo and the dwarves.  The big King of the underground has a huge goitre and the Orc leader who chases them has a creepily detailed face.  The Orcs in Hobbit look more individualized than those of Lord of the Rings with their indistinguishably dripping wax masks.

There is general agreement that the star of The Hobbit is Gollum, played by Andy Serkis.  It’s truly entertaining to watch the latexed lemur facial expressions.  He crawls around like a white tanned anorexic in a squirming snivel, compensating for deviousness with pantomimic wit that usually runs rings (pun intended) around hobbits.  The Brown Wizard is covered in birdshit and looks like a fairytale maniac as he drives around on a sled drawn by rabbits.  We had a lot of running  around in Lord of the Rings and we got the same here, but the forest scenes are quite impressive, dense with fantasy.  The elves are a bit of a joke, they’re so pompously dignified you hope a dwarf will chuck rotten fruit at them.  Cate Blanchett looks like a fashion statement on tranquilizers, her sonorous intonations can be unintentionally funny.  It’s nice to see Christopher Lee upsetting the elfish pieties at the council table, no doubt preparing for his future as a bad guy.  The elvish Kingdom is all pre-Raphaelite spectacle.  This film is good fun.

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Posted by on December 30, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Take This Waltz

Take this Waltz posterSynopsis

Margot (Michelle Williams) meets David (Luke Kirby) going to Nova Scotia.  It turns out that they live on the same street in Toronto.  Margot lives with her husband Lou (Seth Morgan) who writes about chicken meals.  Margot keeps meeting up with David, using his rickshaw, then at his place and they form a relationship.

Criticism

This is a love story set in the more colourful arty side of Toronto.  The buildings are painted in dense colours Frida Kahlo would have favoured, and the interiors are full of arty bric-brac that Poppy in Happy Go Lucky would have liked.  Margot’s meetings with David are a sort of poetic sparring, his dialogue is quirky.  By contrast Lou seems a bit uptight.  Margot has mixed feelings about their relationship.  When Margot meets David at the airport she tells him she doesn’t like being between places and she carries this into her relationship, she seems indecisive and capricious.  The point here is that the very ambivalence is an emotional state which must be taken on its own terms.  In films and in life we expect some kind of resolution, that the emotional trajectory will end in decision based on affirmation or rejection but the indecision in itself an emotional state we shouldn’t try to manipulate.  David is frank about is feelings for Margot but Lou is married so he feels he can be taciturn in not needing to affirm his marital prerogatives.  Margot chafes at Lou’s quirks and his predictable routines, he cooks chicken dishes all the time.  The sex between Margot and David has been criticized for being coldly jarring with the subleties that precede it, but I think that its very perfunctoriness is a joke on the more pompous coyness you get in rom coms.  They make love in art gallery bohemia to the music of Leonard Cohen’s Take this Waltz with its melancholy violin and its appropriately allusive imagery.

Sarah Silverman plays Margot’s sister in law Geraldine, and you feel she would have no time for Margot’s labyrinthine self involvement.  They do exercise in a swimming pool with elderly women, a cooperative fun activity in contrast with the self absorbed attitudinizings of Margot and her men.  A fascinating visit to the trendy Toronto middle classes.

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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The Hunter

The Hunter posterSynopsis

Starring Willem Dafoe as a scientist hired by a biotech corporation to track down the Tasmanian tiger, previously presumed extinct.  He is regarded as a ‘greenie’ by resentful locals fearful for their jobs.  Dafoe passes himself off as Martin David studying Tasmanian devils.  He stays with a family.  Frances O’ Connor plays Lucy the wife of a scientist who went missing on some field trip.  Defoe has to face the hostility of the locals over his relationship with Lucy as he helps restore the family to normal functioning.  Dafoe is initially accompanied by Jack Mindy (played by Sam Neill) as he goes into the wilderness.  Dafoe has to deal with a rival hunter.  He thinks he has tracked the animal to its lair…

Criticism

Like the film Into the Grey this is about a Jack London type story about a man up against the wilderness.  In films about hunters we usually get the macho loner on some professional and personal mission.  He is usually meticulous with details, indeed downright pernickity and antisocially jealous of his freedom.  He has a pedantically proprietorial attitude to his craft and suffers no fools (nearly everyone but himself).  He usually has a gorgeous woman in his life who waits patiently for him or she may be deceased.  Defoe’s character fits into this mould rather unsympathetically.  The Tasmanian scenery he works in is magnificent, the details of the grey and white wood acting as foreground or camouflage make it look like a great perceptual puzzle.  Defoe in the wilderness is dwarfed by its vastness resolving into hallucinatory detail, a vivid and strange gestalt.  He seems to compensate for his intrusive and threatening presence by his vigilance for the tiger, this ordeal initiates him into the rhythms of life in the rainforest.  The curiosity about the search for this animal is that it’s a tragic irony, the pursuit of it will probably guarantee its extinction, yet there are many plants and animals we could already save without searching for something which may not exist.  Still, I suppose the tiger becomes a sort of metaphor of the psychological ‘elusiveness of Defoe’s hunter’.  In searching for the tiger, if he finds it, what will he do?  If he leaves it alone, others will come, and if he finds it he will guarantee its harassment and unintentional extinction.  What he does is to resolve this dilemma in a tragic manner.

Defoe is up against that familiar role from central casting: the surly, resentful, local peasant/farmer/redneck who wants the new arrival to get lost or else.  Sam Neill plays that familiar stand by, the helper who may have a sinister agenda of his own.  Defoe as the rugged loner also has the Clint Eastwood role of surrogate father and mentor to a wild hippyish family.  He briefly brings contentment to the abandoned house, and after there is tragedy he might find love.  In spite of the familiarities, this is a spectacular and involving film, well acted as it holds attention throughout.

 
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Posted by on July 12, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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The Raid

The Raid posterSynopsis

Written and directed by Gareth Huw Evans.  It takes place in Jakarta, Java Indonesia.  It is about a police raid on a squalid multi-storey building.  The place is run by Tama (a crimelord), the gangsters who live there are his creatures.  A SWAT team turn up, run by an aging lieutenant.  The police are betrayed, undone by the vicious collusion between the police hierarchy and the gangland.  There are two brothers, one a cop and the other seems to be a gangster.  The good cop gets the better of a lot of people but meets his match at the end.

Criticism

Once again, I’m wondering what the critics see in this macho silliness.  The martial arts (pencak silat) on display is practised in Indonesia and I just don’t get the attraction.  The fight scenes may be well ‘choreographed’, but it looks to me like hundreds of other martial films, a few of which I endured when I lived in China and Indonesia.  It’s Jean-Claud van Damme stuff.  I can only speak as I find on this subject, to me it looks like anti-contest, the mutual cancelling out of expertise which only demonstrates its own prowess.  When this goes on for an hour it looks like demented puppets trying to win a wrap around contest, and it sounds like they’re shackled to collapsible trolleys of kitchen ware . Jonathan Pryce nicely mocked it in the 1997 Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies when he flapped his arms around and snorted “pathetic”!  The good cop leaves lots of broken bodies in his path and we see his ever so sensitive side when he meets up with his brother and then they speak as if violence never entered their heads as a career choice.  The whole film is set in the bleak cement boxes of high rise squalor.  This setting acts as a primitive mural of blank concrete, and the gangsters scuttle round like cockroaches.  We get little in the way of a plot except the predictable corrupt collusion between gangster and cop.  The two brothers effect a sort of reconciliation but these encounters are absurdly sidelined by the relentless killing and maiming that goes on around them.  I kept waiting for an hilarious punchline.  I suspect there might be double standards about this, if it were set in Britain it would look like an absurd film about the SAS but The Raid is set in an ‘exotic’ Jakarta, so its poverty chic makes it look more meaningful.

 
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Posted by on May 31, 2012 in Film Reviews, World cinema

 

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Blackthorn

Blackthorn posterSynopsis

Starring Sam Shepard as Butch Cassidy as in the famous Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid partnership.  In this film Cassidy has not been killed in the shoot-out we see at the end of the Paul Newman/Robert Redford film of 1969, instead they both get away and we see in flashbacks how the Sundance Kid dies in the Andes.  Butch is living under the name Mr Blackthorn.  He lives in the Bolivia of the 1920s, and on his way from a bank he is shot at and loses his money.  He teams up with a Spanish engineer, Eduardo Noriega playing Eduardo Apodaca who worked for a mining company.  Butch and Apodaca will take $50,000 hidden in the mine.  Others are after them, and it turns out that the Spanish want to take money belonging to Bolivian miners and Butch learns about this.  In flashbacks we see him and Etta and Sundance, and their parting (Etta goes back to the US), after escaping the Pinkerton agent played Stephen Rea.  The agent meets up with Blackthorn.  Will Butch get away…?

Criticism

That Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid could escape from that gunfight with half the Bolivian army seems too preposterous, but that final scene has been contested by historians.  The jokey Paul Newman character is now played by the gloomily serious Sam Shepard like a man who has a long drawn out need for absolution.  He lives with a Bolivian woman and he has become a horse dealer.  When he withdraws cash from the bank, ironically the manager asks him if he has displeased him.  We see Cook’s travel brochure views of Bolivia: rain forest, gorges, pinnacles of rock, the Altiplano, and the salt flats.  Blackthorn is the loner with a secret.  When the Pinkerton agent meets up with him he will not be allowed to live down his past.  The film, I think, shares with US popular culture that ambivalence towards the outlaw, he is sometimes a thief but sometimes a class warrior like Robin Hood against corrupt authority, however, if your savings were taken by this person I suspect you wouldn’t have such a romantic view of outlaws.  In the Paul Newman/Robert Redford film the outlaws are told they belong to a vanished past.  In the Bolivia of the 20s Butch is simply a businessman who is law abiding.  His problems are more emotional than social.  He writes to Etta’s child (who might be his or the Sundance Kid’s child) and wants to see him in the US.  When he meets the Spanish engineer there is a sort of jokey relationship familiar from spaghetti westerns.  The pursuit of money in the mountains reminds me of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, except that in Blackthorn the indigenous people are not the amenable peasants of that John Huston film but miners who want justice with no time for obstructive gringos.  Butch is told by the Pinkerton agent who the real owners of the money are, so Blackthorn ensures justice is done.

The Pinkerton agent, McKinley, is shown sympathetically.  He has a thankless job chasing the clever and more glamorous outlaws.  McKinley is not vengeful, he helps Butch but one can sympathise with him.  Outlaws are often thieves and murderers, even if they can be likeable in the Ned Kelly mould.  A vividly impressive western.

 
 

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Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen posterSynopsis

Starring Ewan McGregor as fisheries expert Fred Jones, and Emily Blunt as Harriet who recruits him to introduce salmon fishing in the waterways of Yemen, the desert country in southern Arabia.  Fred is not happily married and he is persuaded to start this project for a Yemeni sheikh played by Amr Waked.  Kristin Scott Thomas plays the pushy PR chief who gets the government to back the scheme in the face of lobby opposition.  The project is unwelcome to Yemeni terrorists and they try to sabotage it.  Harriet’s boyfriend has returned from service in Afghanistan but she and Fred get romantic…

Criticism

This is a pretty lightweight rom-com.  I’ve been told it’s different from the novel in its romantic relationship.  For me it’s another of those irritatingly conservative and smug movies that could have been made in the 50’s starring Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna.  Ewan McGregor is a nice guy and works for UNICEF, so the only good this might do is to fund his UNICEF activities because it’s simply a vacuous waste of time.  It belongs to a world of social class deference when good looking stars are backdropped by servile helpers and good natured flunkies.  Richard Curtis is the chief culprit here, ever since Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill we get this nauseating romantic stuff that goes with the golf course and the country house.  The Yemeni sheikh looks like a benign Ben Kingsley, he becomes a sort of spiritual mentor to these hard eyed western atheists as he takes them around his Scottish estate.  The people of Yemen are ‘goodies’ because they help these westerners, or they are ‘baddies’ because they want to wreck the project.  Any cultural or political complexity is brushed aside.  Kristin Scott Thomas plays the smart-ass, fast talking, cynical politician obligatorily based on Alistair Campbell from Blair’s Labour government.  This is a lazy stereotype to stop the film from sagging.  Kristin Scott Thomas is another actor in danger of becoming like Helen Mirren playing the Queen, she should be careful.

Needless to say westerners overcome the baddies who want to damage the project and this strengthens their romantic interest.  This follows the plot line of too many films and so is wearily predictable.  It looks like a promotional DVD on how not to run an NGO.  Very missable.

 
 

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Headhunters

Headhunters posterSynopsis

Based on Jo Nesbo’s work and set in Norway. The voice over is Roger Brown (Askel Hennie) who works as a headhunter recruiting people for international companies.  Roger has a supermodel wife, Diana (Synnove Macody Lund), and he subsidizes her art gallery by burgling paintings.  Roger wants a certain Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coaster Waldau) to work for Pathfinder, a conglomerate operating from Oslo.  Roger also wants to steal a Rubens from him.  Greve is a special forces veteran who is after Roger, who found his partner in crime poisoned in his car. Roger has a needy girlfriend.  He is on the run from Greve, he hides in excrement, impales a dog attacking him, then is driven off a road and meets up with Greve.  Is Roger’s wife in a conspiracy with Greve to kill Roger…….?

Criticism

We’ve got used to Scandinavian detective stories and Nesbo seems to be even more violent than Stig Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo trilogy.  Roger’s view of his material success is cheerfully cynical, he admits he must compensate for his physical inferiority vis a vis his glamorous wife.  He is a Thomas Crown figure, suave and ready to outwit and undermine rivals.  This carefully contrived top baboon pose falls apart when he is on the run from the murderous Greve (who reminds me of the Edward Fox assassin in Day of the Jackal, the cold European killing  machine). The murderous pursuit turns into black comedy: Roger has to hide in shit and then drives a tractor with the dog he has killed impaled on it.  He survives falling off a mountain and realizes that Greve can track him because of transmitters in his hair, so he shaves his head.  Then there is the showdown with Greve which is a brinkmanship of deception and outwitting.  How is this different from the humorous attitude to violence in Quentin Tarantino films?  I suppose because it’s a comedy of accidents.  Roger has to cope with things going disastrously wrong, whereas in Tarantino there is a casually disdainful attitude to death and violence.  If you say that the showing of violence can be excused if it has a purpose, then why not just show only the results of the violence?  Purpose or not, this film is addicted to it.  Roger cannot trust anyone in the end.  Is his wife in league with Greve?

This is all obviously influenced by American crime dramas, their different formulae tried out in popular entertainment.  The difference between Nesbo, Stig Larsson, The Killing, Wallender, and their UK and US counterparts is that Scandinavia does seem gloomy (not much sun), tough guys cultivate nerdish weirdness and existential philosophy, and most of the characters seem either manic depressive or verging on it.  We were brought up in Britain with the view that Sweden, Denmark, and Norway are welfare state paradises and now we see their dark heart, but why now?  Nothing much is added to the crime genre, but it’s entertaining enough.

 

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