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The Hobbit – The Battle Of The Five Armies (2014)

batt1At last, the great battle of our age arrives upon our shores – the critics versus Peter Jackson’s studio mandated drive to expand a charming icon of children’s literature into nine hours of computer mandated mayhem. Having recently consumed the enhanced Blu-Ray of The Desolation Of Smaug I’m sorry to say that my antipathy toward the second film in this bloated trilogy has shifted from mild antipathy to outright hostility, with the introduction of redundant characters and set-pieces making me scream as effectively as any twisted Mordor torture merchant. The fact that it has taken me five days to see this film given my legendary love of all things Tolkien (I read LOTR again this year for probably the dozenth time in my life and I’ve reached Volume VIII of the associated Christopher Tolkien collection) speaks volumes I think, yet I’ll admit there was still a pleasant pang of anticipation as I attended the local multiplex this afternoon for one final journey – those swift and deep running waters of my adoration of the people and events of Middle Earth run deep as the falls of Rauros. I’ve been tempted to cleave this piece into a purist and pedestrian version, but given my exasperated sense of disappointment with this final installation of the sextet I cannot muster the strength of will to offer you anything but something of fan-boy rant, so with all my critical neutrality abandoned I must seek your star-kissed blessing – if you seek an impartial opinion of the films merits or lack thereof then you’d best cast your gaze elsewhere.

batt4When we last left Bilbo (Martin Freeman playing Martin Freeman), the resourceful and hardy gentlemen of the Shire co-opted into a diminutive adventuring career by the manipulative crone Gandalf The Grey (Ian McKellan playing Gandalf The White) events were hotting up as the great Fire-drake Smaug was speeding to the waterlogged hamlet of Dale to wreck his terrible vengeance. The thirteen dwarves led by the imperious Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage who tries his best with some flat and uninspired writing) have secured the ancient stronghold of Erebor from the wyrm whose vacation becomes permanent in the opening set-piece of the film, a seismic shift in the geopolitical balance of Middle Earth where the various races of the sundered realm now hungrily seek the gold in them there stone hewn hills. The elven lord Thranduil (Lee Pace) desires the return of an ancient heirloom of his people from the legendary treasure haul, while the newly elected lord of Laketown Bard (Luke Evans) seeks financial restitution for his hungry and homeless people. To complicate events an ancient power has awakened and has ordered his minions to march upon the lands as a strategic move in his charcoal tinged return to terrible power, setting the stage for an epic showdown that will echo throughout the ages.

battle2Like Thorin’s poorly explained and redundantly resolved gold sickness Jackson is now fully a slave to his digital whims, inserting events and influence at the expense of the genuine magic and wonder which flickered into life in the original trilogy – now doesn’t that sound familiar? It might be obvious but the spectre of Lucas and his unchallenged interference casts a familiar shadow over this series, as no-one seems to have had the courage to challenge Jackson or his screenwriters Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh that their additions are flatulent and frail, and ultimately drag this series into the dark pits of mediocrity. There isn’t a jot of emotion or nuance in the film sneaking around the pixellated pyrotechnics, very little of magic of the Teleri going to the shores or the majestic battle at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm or even the soaring last march of the Ents which distinguished LOTR with some genuine moments of awe and wonder. Maybe its just cynical ole me but I simply don’t care about Bard and his tedious children, I don’t care about Alfred the weasel and his ‘hilarious’ sneering (who gets far too much screen time in this picture with precisely zero effect or narrative resolution), but worst of all is the fledgling romance between Kili and Tauriel, an entirely invented notion which is embarrassing in the extreme. Now as I’ve said before I have no problems on paper with indoctrinating some lurve dimensions to presumably woo a wider audience demographic as they did with Arwen and Aragorn in LOTR, in the original trilogy this actually wielded a deeper dimension to the hidden  ancestor of submerged Númenor whom is a something of cypher in the books, but the weeping and lamenting in this movie is intolerably bad, and cleaves the emphasis into grotesquely bad film territory. There is zero evidence of the genuinely moving and sacred romance of Beren and Lúthien – proof that in that classical, mythological sense Tolkien could conjure up some vivid emotions beyond the fantasy trappings – while the ninja acrobatics of Legolas and his set pieces eliminate any sense of threat as he tediously dispatches his opponents with all the intangibility of his CGI foes.

thorinThere are some pleasing moments however which I’ll explore more fully in the SPOILER section below, an early peak is the White Council’s sojourn to free Gandalf from the clutches of the dark power lurking in the caverns of Dol Gulder which invokes that sense of pure, unalloyed fantasy cinema onanism that the rest of movie sorely lacks, alas that sense of momentum swiftly dissipates as we lurch back to the sodden drama of Dale and Bards reluctant refugees – the holistic pacing of the film and his shifting moves on the chessboard marks Jackson as a very poor DM. For a movie titled The Hobbit there is remarkably little of Bilbo in it, as the witness to these scene setting events of the increasing shadows of the Third Age he should be the focus of the entire trilogy, and this is where the film and trilogy as a whole fail and bring the whole bloated edifice toppling down. Truth be told I initially supported the expansion into three films as a Tolkien fanatic (and maybe this helps explain that foolish decision), I was feverishly pondering the guilty prospect of witnessing more of the legendary creatures and characters get more screen time, but I was wrong, so very very wrong as the lack of emphasis and emotion focused on the central quest renders the series as little more than an uncomfortable blockbuster uncertain of its ultimate intent, oscillating between battles and ballistics at the expense of essential emotional infrastructure.

battle3SPOILER SECTION – It would be churlish of me not to shiver in delight at some of the legendarium logistics exquisitely rendered on-screen, the scene of Galadriel, the only witness to the epic fluctuations of the First Age facing off with Sauron was certainly a powerful cinematic nerd elixir, and some of the combat sequences get the pulse pounding even as they shatter canon at the altar of amazement. The ideal of the wielders of the rings of power initially meleeing with the Nazgûl disrupts historical canon if you’ve diligently poured over the revelations of Unfinished Tales, but I confess that the wider illumination of Angmar’s history in the film and Saruman’s acrobatic animation made me grin with glee – yes I’m a penitent purist but fun can sometines be Fëanor inflected fun. Unfortunately this trust is corrupted in a distinct lack of any further connecting membrane, when the focus understandably orbits back to Erebor the emphasis remains micro rather than macro, and there is zero lip service to the original trilogy apart from one scene of Legolas being advised to go north and seek out a promising sounding ranger with a secret name. To spin all these webs may be beyond the disgusting vomit of Ungloiant even with the ruinous run-time, and I’m certain that Jackson et al have tried but failed here, with Gandalf’s portentous proclamations of the great battle of their time failing to muster the wonder of Smaug’s humongous appearance or the Riddles Of The Dark perfection. SPOILERS END.

battle5A quick aside as I loved this of course, despite the hollow challenge of naming two of the immortal Valar landing with the feeble impact of an empty  gauntlet echoing in the distant halls of Mandos – any true Tolkien nerd demands a far deeper and crueller challenge than that. Turning our will and spirit back to the film it may be unfair as a personal aesthetic clash but I have never cared for the design or presentation of Bolg and Azog, in fact the whole introduction of them as the primary antagonist’s within the chase narratives of the first and second tier of the series was another fundamental failure, the chief symptom of the films emphasis on green screen and compositing techniques when once Jackson blended models and CGI enhancements to convincing effect. My tolerance for Jackson’s penchant of dialing up the slow-motion portentousness in alignment with the angelic choir of Howard Shore’s lazy score had me gritting my fangs in frustration, he hasn’t grown as a visual or storytelling artist whom continues to fall back on the same tired tropes. It’s all so unfortunate as they nailed some moments in this second trilogy – Smaug was wonderful, Riddles In The Dark had some of the ancient magic and some of the nods and references to the wider legandarium are gleeful consumed – but the whole reduction of the dwarves to Scottish brogued comedic sidekicks (and don’t can me started on Billy Connelly’s Dain fucking headbutting steel helmed orcs to death in this bloody film) throughout this tier of films just makes me exasperated beyond the healing power of A Elbereth Gilthoniel.

arkThis film needed more Beorn to make his blink and you’ll miss it return to the tale tangible, it required more context around Dol Gulder and the wider presence of the enemy’s return (I mean why did Tauriel and the ridiculous looking CGI enhanced Legolas even travel to Angmar in roughly ten minutes of film time? It makes no sense), and as a general purist point the entire personification of Sauron is troubling – in the books it is the threat, the lurking metaphysical and indomitable force, the overwhelming ancient power whom  doesn’t translate as the pure personification of wrath and pride which they just about managed in the original trilogy in his never being directly witnessed. To be charitable some of these problems and the abbreviated, detached and soulless conclusions of the film may be fixed in the extended cut, but that doesn’t absolve Jackson and his crew from what is a deeply troubling final installment.  Unlike the LOTR series where I exited the cinema moved and dazzled by the devotion to the books this is now the third time I’ve trudged out with a metaphorical scowl of disappointment on my face, these films play as computer game cut scenes when they should be yearning for Illuvatar’s song of celebration, Jackson the Melkor of modern movie hubris who has brought this beloved franchise to its fundamental knees;

Knight Of Cups (2015) Trailer

Well now this is a pleasant surprise, a trailer for a new film from the ever elusive Terry Malick;

Anna Calvi, St. Johns Church Hackney

Took down my sixth and final gig of the year last night, some more ethereal warbling from the powerful Anna Calvi. Interesting venue which added to the ambience, and not being a music journalist you’ll forgive me for pulling the old hybrid metaphor but she was like a crooning cross between Julie Cruise, P.J. Harvey and This Mortal Coil;

I don’t know if this is her best known track but it was the highlight of the evening for me, even if David Byrne didn’t turn up to perform. Lazy;

Dystopian Dreams

Just to keep the SF momentum orbting until my next screening here is a wonderful little montage which made me a little concerned. So gentle readers we now live in the 21st century, the state and corporations spy upon our most private moments 24/7 and manipulate our every move, and an acquiescent media vomits out brainwashing propaganda as a bread and circus distraction that would make the ancient oligarchs of Rome proud. But where’s the tradeoff? I mean nothing looks anywhere as cool or awesome as any of these future, consciousnes obliterating nightmares. Conclusion – the 21st century sucks. Recommendation – Get into the spirit of things and drown yourself in soma / soylent green / Johnnie Walker Red Label as applicable.

Dystopian Utopias (Movie Montage) from ClaraDarko on Vimeo. PS – I may be drunk. Now where’s my fucking hoverboard……

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) Full Trailer

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, when next year’s bit hitters begin to drop their trailers down our expectant chimneys, if you enjoyed as I did the teaser which dropped back in late summer then Max is absolutely furious by this point;

Yeah……that looks like it’s gonna be a lot of fun. The SF just keeps on coming don’t it? I’ve only got a couple more BFI season items to write following a final deuce of screenings next week, somehow I’ll also have to fit in Jackson’s epic final sojourn to Middle Earth which opens tomorrow……

Do Not Go Gentle…..

While I continue to engineer my galactically detailed films of the year post let me regale you with some continued star gazing, courtesy of this epic little montage;

CINEMA SPACE TRIBUTE from Max Shishkin on Vimeo.

BFI Days Of Fear & Wonder Sci-Fi Season – Forbidden Planet (1956)

fp1When I was first admiring the constellation of the BFI’s Days Of Fear & Wonder SF season a few highlights immediately streaked across the atmosphere, demanding my artificial attention. Apart from the numerous special panel events and Q&A’s the chance to take down another Kubrick was eagerly pursued, and then we had the individual movie screenings themselves which required some careful planning around my pre-existing schedule. If there was one period I was anxious to patrol it was Science Fiction’s so-called golden age of the 1950’s, that irradiated era of the fear of the bomb, with associated species threatening terrors grotesquely gorging the silver screen, as it wasn’t just the Japanese who had some distinct anxieties about the era. Alongside these behemoths the first flushes of sub-orbital travel to distant worlds and civilisations began to flower, a plucky sense of Eisenhower post-war optimism that could bring a little old-fashioned American imperialism to the inferior indigenous people, aligning with one of the other great genres of the studio system – the Western. One of the key missions of the period is Forbidden Planet, a major influence on the likes of Star Trek in both small and cinema screen incarnations, alongside such diverse pictures as Galaxy QuestPlanet Of The Vampires, Pitch Black and maybe even a little of the non-corrosive DNA of Aliens. Screenwriters Irving Block, Allen Adler and Cyril Hume were inspired by Shakespeare’s final play The Tempest and its treatment of starry-eyed travellers washed up on dangerous shores, and the film has been admired for its advanced genetic coding of psychosis and psychology in the orbits of genre cinema,

fb3In the sleek future of the 23rd century mankind has conquered the stars, but not his darkest, deepest impulses. A gallant bunch of quasi-military explorer types is traversing the galaxy in their circular spinning silverlode, commanded by the stalwart Captain John Adams (Leslie Nielsen in a rare non-humorous performance) the crew are assigned to visit the nearby planet C-57D, communications having being lost with the intrepid colonists some years before. Touching down on the abundantly imagined planet (and if you squint you can see the early flowerings of Avatar) the team make contact with the imperious Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pigeon), a hostile and suspicious sort whom alongside his curious daughter Altaria (Anne Francis) are the only survivors of the nascent colony due to a rampaging and murderous secret phenomenon which has been dormant for years. Many cycles ago the colonists had unearthed the immensely advanced technology of an ancient alien species known as the Krell, and in the process unleashed an invisible force which wrecked carnage throughout the encampment, and even with his enhanced alien intellect not even Morbius’s technological marvel Robbie The Robot can defend them from the dormant evil that is surfacing from again from the depths of the id, a physical manifestation of some secret, sequestered desires…..

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Over the decades Forbidden Planet has been torpedoed with a photon spread of readings and analysis, even its title suggesting territory secretive and illicit, our sensors detecting just how canny those screenwriters were back in those days in smuggling contraband within the drifting capsules of genre. It’s quite clear from the plot strands that the monstrous invisible creature (fantastically rendered by animation guru Joshua Meador) is a manifestation of the Doctor’s deeply buried id, which only arises when his now adult daughter takes a sexual shine to this new breed of mysterious creatures known as ‘men’. The film is not implicit in these charges as the dialogue hand waves away the ignition of the beast as ‘man’s savage instincts’, but remember that until now the only other creature in Altaria’s life has been her father (the rest of the competitive colonists massacred including her mother) while some of the associated scenes see her frolicking and flirting with the crewmen in this alien displacement of a fallen, serpent strewn Eden. After a period of long solitude the fathers unconscious urges once again wreck a terrible trail of destruction, although maybe I think it was Freud who said ‘sometimes a Gamma Generation Class model X571-11 powerful phallic penetrating spaceship is just a cigar’. In serene planetary alignment the films 1950’s sexual politics are quite frankly hilariously dated, in this interstellar Norman Rockwell take on domesticity Altaria is obsessed with the production of elegant gowns and the seduction of a mate, a subservient coupling which chimes with most female expectations of the period across all genres and texts. It is these dimensions which lacerate the film’s submerged psyche, the Elektra complex writ large upon the stars. If you’d prefer you could probably move into deeper territory and elect Robbie The Robot as the asexual stabilising super-ego in the films psychosexual infrastructure, the intellectual force of reason of progress in conflict with the beasts instinctual desires.

fp4It’s difficult to cast one’s mind back to the period but one computes that psychoanalysis and psychiatry were a supernova across popular and high culture in America at the time, from the deeper realistic performances of the method and the unreliable narrator in the great American novel, while in cinema film noir and Hitchcock had already been wrestling with our internal machinations and monologues, so it seemed only natural to see the fascination bleed through into other genres and movements. As more recent example you could argue that reality TV and the immediacy of verite in aesthetics has flushed into found footage horror pictures and the jerky scrappy aesthetics of the modern action movie, despite the fact that such ‘realistic’ material is as we know as controlled and manufactured as any costume drama or lavish literary adaptation. Ahem, well, we some to have gone off trajectory so to get us back on track I’ll assert that Forbidden Planet is an entertaining oddity with some fine craftsmanship, the famous production designer Cedric Gibbons (MGM’s star technician and the designer of the original Academy Award trivia fans) set the visual template for space movies to come, until a certain young Bronx born alchemist instilled a new sense of realism and science into craft, costume and creature design a decade later. However you read it the film is a master class in period production design and surprisingly effective SFX which has not dated nearly as badly as many of its B-Movie peers, it still sparkled on this occasionally grimy 1980’s BFI sponsored struck print, and unlike most of the 1950’s movie fleet it stands up to scrutiny both allegorical and aesthetic. I haven’t even got started on what a phenomenon Robbie The Robot was at the time as he ambled on for another decade of TV and big screen adventures, but that, as they say, is a story for another day…..

Films Of The Year Montage II

Heh, that pratfall from Inherent Vice make me laugh every single time, and I haven’t even seen the film yet;

Terminator Genisys (2015) Trailer

Crumbs, if you thought that the last Terminator movie was bad (I feel asleep during it) then crowning the next installment in the increasingly fatigued series ‘Genisys’ doesn’t exactly inspire confidence does it? What, have a couple of adolescent textspking cretins penned Ahnoldt’s return to the adamantium ubermenschen franchise? Umm, well….;

Well, I guess it looks and feels more like a Terminator film that the more recent outings, but it still seems a little lackluster doesn’t it? Maybe I’m just jealous that they’ve purloined an idea I (and I’m sure thousands of other nerds had years ago) to infiltrate the first film with a new one which could be fun given todays CGI abilities. I’m a little tired of the shoehorned franchise buzzwords though but yeah, I’ll still be reporting for duty on opening weekend like a pre-programmed sucker I suppose….

BFI Days Of Fear & Wonder Sci-Fi Season – Metropolis (1927)

metro1

Back in the deep midst’s of ancient time when I undertook my Film Studies A level we studied two specific and deeply influential areas of film history – Italian Neo-Realism and German Expressionism. Given the gothic and ghoulish framing of the latter I naturally gravitated more to those pre War Teutonic terrors rather than the sparse social realism of Vittoria De Sica or Roberto Rossellini, as much as the likes of Scorsese has championed their emotional achievements. I remember being rather perturbed that as part of the coursework of the examination we had to complete no less than six 1,500 word essays – two on each movement, two on films of our choice – an insurmountable Everest of word arranging over the nine month study period. Ah, the sweet follies of youth eh as such consternation makes me chuckle, if I set my mind to it I can throw together a 1,500 review in a couple of hours and have managed to churn out at least one article a week for the past few years. Why am I sharing this fascinating historical insight with you? Well, as you may have guessed one of the key films of the period that we covered was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the 1927 harbinger of things to come, a piece which intersects like a perfectly automated shaft piece between my continuing BFI Days Of Fear & Wonder coverage and my neglected Lang season, a piece which it amuses me to reconsider in the light of my initial academic instincts – hey, I did get a straight A on this essay if my turgid memory isn’t malfunctioning like a defective droid.

metro2Metropolis is an immensely influential picture in terms of the sheer bewildering scale and fathomless resources lavished on the production. There were thousands of extras (36,000 to be exact) toiling under the whiplash of Lang’s monocled gaze, all garbed in ornate and elaborate costumes (over 200,000 to be less exact) and millions of sq. feet of shooting stages. If the most precious resource in filmmaking is time then Lang was similarly blessed with an unprecedented full year of shooting which is just astounding for the period, although D.W. Griffith and Cecil B DeMille may have set the spectacle quotient high with their California lensed epics the Germans were nipping at their heels, with the full resources and professionalism on the magnificent UFA studios being wielded by Lang to craft one of the key films of the decade. Let the record show that this was a digital screening of the restored 150 minute cut of the interpositive 35mm print was discovered in Argentina a few years ago – now there’s a sentence that will get cinephiles gasping in anticipation – restoring the film to almost the full glory of Lang’s original 1927 premiere version of the film. It goes without saying that subsequent versions screened over the decades have been Frankenstein hybrids stitched together from numerous sources of varying quality, perhaps most famously the Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 rescored version introducing the film to a new generation of fans. The opening angular, art deco designed roaring engines and pounding pistons establish the films futurist industrial bend, the workers leaving the angular confines of the factory in a symmetrical slavery of the early 20th century.

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The Soviet revolution was still fresh in the imagination of world and Marxist allegories infected the literature and art movements of the era, in this parable the scheming master of Metropolis is Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) whose engineered social divisions separate the gilded elite from the oppressed workers who toil away in the industrial hellscapes of the lower city levels. Fredersen’s son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) tires of idling away his tedious life in the heavenly plateaus of the pleasure gardens, so the arrival of a young woman named Maria (Brigitte Helm) with a soot soaked  group of workers’ children piques his curiosity beyond his sheltered privilege. Although Maria and the tykes are quickly ushered away Freder descends to the proletariat levels in a lusty attempt to find her, setting in industrious motion a chain of events which may lead to an intellectual and political revolution…..Although Maria and the tykes are quickly ushered away Freder descends to the proletariat levels in a lusty attempt to find her.

Mad scientists, emotionless automatons and severe social strife, what more does a SF classic need? In a rather convoluted manner Brigitte Helm is transformed in the film into one of the first iconic screen robots, with a design that spray tanned gold and afflicted with an estrogenic empathy chip might just have inspired a certain Lucasfilm legend. That SF trope of the trampled workers arising against their gilded, obscenely wealthy corporate overlords is not just a film trope but a common plot generator across a myriad of media, a buried proletariat fantasy which remains urgent to this day in the likes of Bong Jong-ho’s Snowpiercer the more things change the more they stay the same. What has changed is the sophistication of the delivery system, as class consciousness and political pandering tends to be buried in a films DNA rather than trumpeted from a monologing maiden, in Metropolis the films rather juvenile plea of urging the mediation between the head (the industrialists) and the hand (the proletariat) must be the heart (the bourgeois) – that’s not exactly a Nietzichian insight now is it?

metro5The film was clearly a influence on Chaplin and his rather literal lecture Modern Times with the human circuits trapped in the steam bellowing Gehenna of the industrial monster, not to mention the mad scientist Rotwang’s bubbling beaker filled surgery reminds one not just of Whale’s Frankenstein, but also Nolan’s The Prestige, with Bowie’s electricity wielding Nicoli Tesla heralding a new age of progress and danger. With those souls sacrificed to the relentless march of energy and so called civilization progress you can maybe read the film as some ancient, hieroglyphic sustainability screed, but given the proximity of the Nazi machine many have read those image of dark garbed masses marching into bellowing industrial ovens in an altogether more potent and powerful reappraisal. Although historians and scholars have recently begun to question Lang’s claim that Goebbels summoned him to the Reich Chancellery a decade later and offered him the full resources of the empire to continue his work for the Fuhrer (and his reaction which you can see here) his then wife and co-writer of the film Thea Von Harbeau was a committed Nazi, and they parted ways on that clandestine evening.

metroindustThis being Lang’s early masterpiece that intersection of the strong, powerful architectural angles erects the ambient visual techniques of his entire career, as it ambled off the production line in the same year as Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin this was quite a inspirational year for the art form – no doubt wiser souls than me have given the whole compare and contrast examination. I always find it fascinating to turn what modest critical credentials I’ve sharpened over the years to silent film as the grammar and pacing is just so modulated and alien to contemporary eyes. The wide eyed expressive performances, the signaling soundtracks, the tempo of the editing can all be quite difficult to accept, but once you settle into the ocean of the film it swamps you in pure wonder and sensation. Because there is no dialogue other than the odd interlacing title the emphasis is all on the image, the imagination and will of marshalling enormous resources to capture that succession of paintings that Lang transmitted from his curious brain. It is written in the stars that Lang is the godfather of SF cinema alongside Melies and his iconic classic La Voyage Dans Le Lune, without Metropolis there would be no Blade Runner, no 2001: A Space Odyssey, no Avatar and no Star Wars, it set the mould and tensed the tone and shape of things to come, a monumental, eternal marvel;

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