Category Archives: Sword & Sorcery

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) 2.72/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 69.6
Genre: Fantasy
Duration: 169 mins
Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage

After the success of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he was always going to find The Hobbit a tougher project not simply because of the difficulty in living up to the reputation of the earlier movies but because many a critic was just waiting for him to slip up. Not surprisingly, therefore, his decision to stretch the adaptation of that one book into another trilogy of three hour movies left those critics salivating and some would say with good reason. After all, what are you going to fill the movies with?

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey picks up decades before the events of The Lord of the Rings, and follows the adventures of Frodo’s uncle Bilbo and his efforts to help a motley group of wandering dwarfs reclaim their old kingdom from a nasty dragon Smaug who, years earlier, decimated their people and forced them to flee their homeland. This first installment is dedicated to the necessary exposition of the backstory and the early stages of the journey and, as a movie in its own right, it’s reasonably enjoyable if taken on its merits. Yes, there’s an extremely protracted buildup but if such a buildup is dedicated to the construction of character and relationships then it can be eminently watchable. Jackson and company make a modest attempt to do just that although it’s nowhere near as in-depth an introduction as we were treated to in The Fellowship of the Ring. Part of this is down to the source material which lacks the backbone and rich characterisation of the Rings trilogy. Simply put, it’s too lean a book and not as inspired to support the same class of story telling.

However, the real concern when it came to The Hobbit was whether or not Jackson could imbue this new film with the same magic and sense of distinct mythology that The Lord of the Rings trilogy was imbued with. In this respect, he was considerably more successful. An Unexpected Journey very much feels like the Middle-Earth we were introduced to 10 years earlier. There is of course a prevalence of more child centric manifestations of danger and wonder but this is an extension of Jackson’s integrity concerning the material because the book was aimed at younger audiences in the first place. But whereas many predicted this is where The Hobbit would fail, Jackson and his team of effects wizards (no pun intended!) use the more fairy-tale like material to give the movie a distinct personality and strengthen its connection to its audience. The concept design behind the various nasties and the visual effects are so rich and original in imagination yet governed so implicitly by archetypes that one can envisage them not only resonating with younger generations’ nascent notions of evil but coming to flesh out and further define those notions as they evolve through adulthood. Few films in the history of motion picture have done this and so, The Hobbit could even join the original Star Wars trilogy and the likes of Harryhausen’s ingenious incarnations in the echelons of keystone fantasy for this achievement alone.

But like Harryhausen’s films in particular, An Unexpected Journey also caters to the appetites of older audiences for there is much darkness implicit in the actions and words of the characters. Actions and words that skirt the edges of cannibalism and subtly disturbing indications of murder (the shot of Sting losing its glow as Gollum dispatches the Orc off-screen is particularly uncomfortable and must surely count as one of the more chilling devices to the depict something that Hollywood has – if truth be told – immunised us to). And actions and words that plumb more sophisticated ideas of inner torment and personal damnation.

The Hobbit scores big on the technical front too. As it was in the previous trilogy, Jackson’s action direction is superb, juggling fast and slow zoom and tracking shots into a whirlwind aesthetic which seem to ebb, flow, and grow intuitively to Howard Shore’s magnificent score. Needless to say, the tapestry of visual effects (and sound effects) are equally astounding and while not coming close the pinnacle of those served up in The Two Towers or The Return of the King, criticism should be reserved because this is the first story of a new trilogy and The Fellowship of the Ring wasn’t defined by any major set piece extravaganzas either.

Thus, for all the negativity surrounding its release, An Unexpected Journey isn’t nearly as bad as most have suggested. There are a few contrivances towards the end, their sole purpose to manipulate us into big emotions and it’s true that such cheap tricks were not typical to the first two instalments of The Lord of the Rings. They were however a feature of The Return of the King and this raises a salient point for those critics who fulfilled their latent ambition to take Jackson down a peg or two with The Hobbit. The final installment of the LotR’s was the one that garnered all the awards and most acclaim yet it was by a distance the weakest of the set. An Unexpected Journey with all its problems isn’t deserving of mention in the same breath as Fellowship or Towers but it’s certainly good enough to be compared to The Return of the King. At least as far as telling a story goes.

 

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Highlander (1986) 4.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 78.3
Genre: Fantasy, Action
Duration: 116 mins
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Stars: Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery, Clancy Brown

Great fantasy films are usually grounded in gripping concepts, the different elements to which usually drive the key scenes along the way. Highlander is a case in point. The story is based on the idea of immortals living secretly among humans for centuries, who instinctively battle each other through the ages until there is only one remaining. Christopher Lambert plays the 400 year old Highlander who becomes the subject of a police investigation after a man’s body is found decapitated. Gregory Widen’s script quite cleverly uses the progression of that investigation to present us with the uniqueness of the central premise and it is through the eyes of its forensic investigator, Brenda (Roxanne Hart), that we are tied into the story.

To say that Russell Mulcahy’s direction is superb is to completely understate the case. The level of innovation he demonstrates in sewing this story together and the sense of pacing he shows in balancing the savage momentum of the battle sequences with the more pensive emotional scenes are the hallmarks of a truly great director and one is left wondering how he didn’t rise to the lofty heights this effort promised. Coming from the music video business, it’s no surprise that he builds the film around its sound and when that sound is largely provided by Michael Kamen and Queen that’s no bad thing. In fact, when combined with its excellent sound production, Highlander is not just one of the most uniquely looking films of the 80′s but also one of the most uniquely sounding films.

Despite the muddling of who had what accent, the acting is first class with Lambert in top form and Sean Connery stealing the show as his ancient mentor. Furthermore, Clancy Brown is thoroughly menacing as one of the nastiest bad guys the medium has offered up. The action is phenomenal and thanks to Mulcahy’s seminal direction, it’s head and shoulders above anything delivered today. In fact, the training sequence alone would put most martial arts films to shame, such is its power and grace.

There are too many highlights to mention but one to look out for is the scene where Brenda learns the truth about Lambert’s character. No “Oh, so he’s immortal then” moments. Just a dull refusal to accept what she’s hearing and a seriously annoyed computer technician who (we are left to infer) either thinks he’s the subject of a joke or doesn’t like what she has made him face. Immortal? Definitely!

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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) 4.86/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 70.3
Genre: Fantasy
Duration: 201mins
Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen

Easily the weakest of Peter Jackson’s trilogy and by far the most over-rated, The Return of the King suffers from a tediously long ending, some rushed exposition regarding Aragorn’s decision to claim his birth-right, and Jackson’s decision to inlcude the undefeatable ghost army from the book which sucked the tension right out of the closing scenes of the central battle. Those three main problems aside this is a worthy climax to the great trilogy with all the characters remaining on form throughout. There are some stand-out sequences such as Gandolf shepherding the cavalry back to the White City, and that rousing speech from the great Bernard Hill’s “Theoden”. The subsequent battle for the White City is immense and the moment at which the Rohan smash through the Orc ranks will leave the hairs standing on the back of your neck. As with the first two films, The Return of the King is magnificently shot and the special effects are flawless which along with the pitch-perfect acting and tremendous story should ensure that this great trilogy will be enjoyed for years to come. Let’s just pray that Hollywood undergoes a serious culture change before some lazy executive decides to remake it.

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The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) 4.86/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 80.1
Genre: Fantasy, Adventure
Duration: 179 mins
Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen

Peter Jackson’s follow-up to the first installment of Tolkien’s trilogy may not be as complete a movie as its predecessor (bridging films never are) but it is without any doubt the most visually spectacular thanks to the gargantuan battle scene which the movie (throughout its entire duration) marches unerringly towards. The Two Towers picks up with Frodo and Sam as they now must trek towards Mordor on their own while being silently pursued by the creature Gollum. Meanwhile, in easily the more interesting side to the story, the remainder of the fellowship relentlessly pursues the Uruk-hai who kidnapped the other hobbits. The pacing of the film is intricate yet utterly flawless as Jackson sweeps with ease between the different elements to the story which begin to branch away from each other in this part of the trilogy before coming together again in the third. He also ratchets up the tension as each scene progresses, giving the movie a steadily increasing sense of momentum which brings you straight into what surely must be the most impressive battle sequence to ever grace the silver screen. The Battle for Helm’s Deep is everything an epic story promises but not often delivers in movie form and if anything, Jackson outdoes the book as he brings the Elves into the story thereby adding a touch of grace which perfectly counter-balances the brutal power of the Uruk-hai. The crowning achievement of this masterpiece in action cinema comes with perhaps the most potent demonstration of the power of concept in film as the White Wizard leads a cavalry charge down a vertical slope into the black midst of a seemingly unbeatable army of monsters. Wow!

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The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) 3.81/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 85.7
Genre: Fantasy, Adventure
Duration: 178 mins
Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom

A masterclass in screen adaptation, pacing, and the use of special effects to augment story, Peter Jackson’s first installment of the Tolkien trilogy just shades The Two Towers as the best of the three. It sets the pretext to the drama wonderfully (evil force creates ring to corrupt and rule mankind) with a long but compelling monologue and then eases you into the story (ring is found by a Hobbit and a powerful wizard who set out for the evil lair in which it was created to destroy it). This allows the audience to see the best of Middle Earth and, therefore, ensures that they genuinely lament its demise at the hands of the Orcs of the west. The Fellowship of the Ring literally redefined how every aspect of a fantasy story should be portrayed on film and in doing so, it gives us one of the most original and engrossing stories of modern times and in a manner that complements the talent that went into writing it. The cast is uniformly excellent with Viggo Mortensen and Ian McKellen doing particularly well as Aragorn and Gandalf respectively. The production and costume design are utterly flawless and the makeup and special effects have yet to be equaled. In the latter regard, Jackson and his team show all the discipline, restraint, and intelligence that made the adaptation itself so successful. Everything included in this film is there because it helps the story be realised. There is not a single instance where style is put before substance and the result is that the audience comes to completely trust the director. This is a rare accomplishment and perhaps most relevant to fantasy films where the audience must follow the director and story-tellers into often impossible territory. Fairy-tales work because they are told to us by those whom we trust implicitly. The Lord of the Rings trilogy works on screen for the exact same reason.

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Clash of the Titans (1981) 4/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 67.5
Genre: Fantasy
Duration: 118 mins
Director: Desmond Davis
Stars: Laurence Olivier, Harry Hamlin, Claire Bloom

As is the case with the vast majority of remakes, the original is by far the better film. In this case it wouldn’t be difficult because the remake is so poor but there are also plenty of good things about the original Clash of the Titans. If you’ve seen it when you were younger then you’ve got the nostalgia factor but even if you haven’t, you’ll appreciate the more cohesive story line as well as the craft and ingenuity that went into making the nasty creatures on show so scary. Davis’ use of shadows and sound during the Medusa and three witches sequences are particular standouts but it’s Ray Harryhausen’s masterful special effects which resonate so completely with the darker reaches of our psyches. Few effects maestros could tap our childhood archetypes for unnaturalness and evil like Harryhausen could and that’s demonstrated here better than anywhere. Naturally, there are a few moments where the creature effects come across as dated but for the most part this film still stands up as an epic Greek mythology movie and a triumphant example of classic special effects.

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Big Trouble in Little China (1986) 3.86/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 78.7
Genre: Fantasy
Duration: 99  mins
Director: John Carpenter
Stars: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun

You have to admire films where the rule book is thrown clear through the window. John Carpenter’s cult classic is a martial arts fantasy set in San Francisco and follows the fortunes of all-American truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) who gets mixed up in kidnapping, Chinese mysticism, human rights lawyers, and warring triads. Everything about Big Trouble in Little China is counter-conventional. The leading man is a loveable doofus who means well but ends up needing as much saving as he saves others. The action is straight out of the Chinese flying films that had only really begun to gain popularity in the East by the time Carpenter’s movie was being made. Throw in a few sorcerers, lots of neon lighting, a throne room with a real no-foolin escalator, and Carpenter’s sensational electric-guitar soundtrack and you’re left with one totally unpredictable kick ass martial arts romp.

Carpenter’s films are each defined by a unique energy and momentum and that was never channelled in a more fun and exciting manner than it is here. The kidnapping and pursuit sequence in particular is a perfect example of his brilliant unorthodoxy from the editing and camera angles to their coordination with the score, dialogue, and action choreography. In fact there’s not a single aspect to this movie that isn’t contributing strongly to its enjoyability. The fight scenes are terrific fun and for the most part just plain inspired, the chemistry between all the principals is spot on perfect, the dialogue and its delivery is of classic noir standard (seriously!), and the pace of the film never lets up for a second. Irresistible!

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