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Peter Jackson has been busy of late. The New Zealand director’s steampunk-inflected adaptation of the fantasy novel Mortal Engines will land this Christmas, while cinemagoers lucky enough to live close to a screening have recently been treated to his moving, fascinating documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, for which he has assembled and retouched archive footage of British soldiers that was recorded during the First World War.

The film was jointly commissioned by 14-18 NOW, an organisation set up to commemorate the centenary of Armistice Day, and the Imperial War Museum, the holders of the visual footage (audio recordings, made by the BBC after the war, also feature). As well as restorative work such as sharpening the images and conversion of the archive material to 3D, the director and his team have also colourised much of it, the switch from black and white to colour that occurs around ten minutes in being one of a few coups de cinema here; otherwise, little attention is drawn to the technical achievements that have taken place, which allows the viewer to focus more on the subject matter instead of the obvious prowess of Jackson’s team.

I’m not much of a fan of artificial colouring (though a black and white rendering of the world in the first place is no less artificial as a process) and I’m ambivalent about 3D more generally, but here it undoubtedly brings the men to life. We see them eagerly signing up to go to war, taking part in training exercises and then confronting the horrors of trench life at the Battle of the Somme. It is – was – a harrowing journey.

The conspicuous cameras that trundle before the men are often trained on large groups or smaller clusters, as opposed to individuals, and the camera operators were particularly drawn to the now-sharply-rendered faces of the soldiers, lingering in front of them. Typically, the men stare back at the lens, the result of their own fascination with a nascent technology; presumably most of the people we see here were being filmed for the first time in their lives. To bring the footage to life even more, Jackson’s expert lip-readers have figured out what the soldiers were saying, and actors have been employed to add their voices to the soundtrack; apparently much care has been taken on getting the right accents to tally with the regiments that are shown on screen. This is augmented by the aforementioned testimonies by soldiers that were recorded later, when the men had some literal and figurative distance from the events.

Such striving for authenticity – along with the technical prowess – makes this a fine attempt at enhancing a historic record, though of course the colouring will turn off some people, the 3D will turn off even more and its worth pointing out that the recollections of the soldiers cannot ultimately be relied upon (stress and time may mean that their testimonies are not 100% accurate).

That said, there is valuable insight here into the lives of British combatants (we only see dead or captured bodies of German counterparts, and never hear from survivors). The footage of life in the trenches is startling: the camera captures the nameless dead strewn around on the ground in No Man’s Land, shells constantly exploding nearby, rats everywhere and terrible unsanitary conditions (though there is something amusing about the line of men using the long-drops together, the ideas of privacy and comfort having long disappeared); but the awfulness of war contrasts considerably at times with the often upbeat mood of the men, who were eager to fight for their country. The film ends, oddly and ironically enough, by addressing their dismay at the end of the war. Many were unemployed and lost the sense of purpose they had while serving in the military; some men speak of the general lack of understanding when they returned home, with the general public unable to understand what they had been through. It may be 100 years too late, but this gripping, vital work does at least begin to address that issue. (5/5)

Cinemas in the UK have been – and still are – showing They Shall Not Grow Old with a recorded Q&A between critic and broadcaster Mark Kermode and Jackson, but the BBC is screening a 2D version on Sunday evening for those in the UK. (BBC2, Sunday 11 November, 9.30pm).

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES

As the camera rests on a hand-scrawled map of Middle Earth and Peter Jackson’s director credit flashes up on screen one last time I must admit to feeling a degree of sadness that this staggering project to film the unfilmable world of Tolkien has come to an end, though I have to admit it was offset by a little sigh of relief as well. The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies is, of course, the third instalment in Jackson’s beefed-up, fan fiction-y adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, but also the sixth and final Middle Earth-related film made by the director, following the earlier Lord Of The Rings extravaganza. As such this last effort feels more like a giant full stop for the entire group of films rather than merely being the end of this later trilogy, and the filmmaker has pulled out all the stops, ensuring a grand spectacle that attempts to make the battle sequences in The Two Towers and The Return Of The King look like drunken midnight scraps in a pub car park.

I must admit to feeling conflicted about something else, too. I rounded on Interstellar a few weeks ago and (in a nutshell) moaned that Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster was completely representative of the current bloated, overhyped nature of blockbusters and mainstream cinema. For many people Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy would probably be a more deserving target of such ire, given that it has ballooned from one film to three and has been padded-out with new characters, interminable sing-alongs, unnecessary sub-plots and extended fight sequences as a result, but I’ve actually enjoyed this series in spite of myself. Jackson has managed to forge many common links between the two trilogies, some spurious and some not so spurious, and when The Battle Of The Five Armies ends at the same point that The Fellowship Of The Ring begins it’s hard not to think warmly about his achievements during the past 15-20 years. Naturally all of Jackson’s Middle Earth films share the same look and scenery, but The Hobbit has gradually taken on the same darker, adult-oriented tone as The Lord Of The Rings, as well as the more obvious adoption of many of its characters. For me this is the end of six films, not three.

As a standalone piece The Battle Of The Five Armies is actually much narrower in scope than the earlier films, with almost all of the action taking place within a couple of square miles, around the kingdom of Erebor vacated by the well-spoken dragon Smaug (voiced once more by the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch). The story here picks up where it left off – most of Jackson’s films have wasted little time in taking care of business – with Smaug attacking Laketown in a thrilling sequence, which is defended primarily by the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and the human Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans). Meanwhile the company of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) takes up residence inside Erebor and prepares to defend the re-claimed palace from those seeking a share of its vast wealth, including an elven army commanded by Thranduil (Lee Pace), Bard’s rag-tag bunch of human survivors and a huge force of evil orcs under the stewardship of Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett). Thrown into the mix are the familiar, neutral characters Gandalf (Ian McKellan), Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) … and it doesn’t half kick off, with the big fight taking up most of the second half of the film.

Other old favourites given one last outing include Hugo Weaving’s Elrond, Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel and Christopher Lee’s Saruman. who combine in one fight sequence that finishes with some nice foreshadowing of later events in The Lord Of The Rings. Meanwhile familiar, eccentric faces from British TV – Stephen Fry and Sylvester McCoy – briefly return, and are joined this time (rather pointlessly) by Billy Connolly, whose dwarf leader Dáin arrives too late in the trilogy to make any real impact.

The emotional crux of this story lies mainly with Thorin, and this film continues to explore the dwarf king’s relationships with Bilbo and the company of men he has travelled with from An Unexpected Journey onwards. Driven partly mad through greed – a recurring theme across Tolkien’s work – Thorin’s see-saw finale is reasonably engaging, but the focus on the self-proclaimed dwarf king means that Bilbo, Bard, Gandalf and the others get a little sidelined, which is unfortunate – particularly with regard to Bilbo. Also unfortunate is the fact that out of all of the dwarves only a couple have ever really stood out from the pack, and as in The Desolation Of Smaug only Kili (Aidan Turner) is given a sub-plot to roam around in here. Still, Armitage carries the weight of expectation well enough; as this particular trilogy’s bearded, long-haired hero he has put in a commendable shift, and he has proved to be a worthy successor to Viggo Mortensen in that respect.

There’s a scene in Mike Judge’s Idiocracy where the future residents of Earth are found marvelling at a popular movie that consists of nothing but a large pair of on-screen buttocks for 90 minutes. The film is simply titled ‘Ass‘, and part of me wonders mischievously whether Jackson’s finale may as well have been titled ‘Battle‘ instead of the longer name that was eventually settled on. As a result of the gargantuan fight sequence there’s not much space in this movie for humour, and there’s a clear assumption that we have by now invested enough time elsewhere in the plight of these characters that a couple of individual issues and struggles scattered across the entire film will suffice. I began rolling my eyes by the time giant eagles arrived in the fight, but only because I was exhausted by the spectacle by that point. If you’ve enjoyed Jackson’s Tolkien films – particularly their biggest battles – then you’ll probably enjoy this one too, but those looking for more are advised to go back to the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Yet in fairness this one does ‘fighting’ well enough, it rounds the story off in a pleasingly neat fashion, and as you would expect it is technically very impressive indeed (I’ve found the high frame rate less of an issue as the series has gone on). But equally it’s all very safe, despite the huge number of effects, and in spite of the vast scale of the events. Cynics may be disappointed with the money-spinning decision to make three films where one or two would probably have sufficed (original director Guillermo del Toro was intending to make two), but ultimately Jackson’s achievements in making these films should be celebrated for a long, long time. It has been an impressive collective effort.

The Basics:
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, JRR Tolkien
Starring: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellan, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Aidan Turner, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 144 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 6.1

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It’s over 16 years since Peter Jackson first began work on his adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy, and his achievement in bringing those books to the big screen, as well as the first two of his equally visually-spectacular Hobbit films, remains a remarkable accomplishment.

Yet while his first trilogy of Tolkien adaptations were rightly celebrated by long-standing fans of the author, film geeks, highbrow critics and casual cinemagoers alike, reaction to the first film of The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey, proved to be mixed, to say the least. It was a troubled production, during which the original director Guillermo Del Toro left the project due to ongoing delays and actors union strikes also delayed filming. In addition, Jackson’s reasons for converting one book into three (long) films rather than the originally intended two have been oft-questioned, particularly because the ‘unexpected journey’ of the first film took an age to get going. Most notably Jackson came under fire for the baffling decision to eke out a dwarven dinner party / singalong / washing up sequence for what seemed like an eternity.

Still, the first film was not without its merits. Jackson sensibly retained much of the look and feel of his Rings trilogy, a logical decision given that both tales are set in the same fantasy world and feature many of the same characters. Several actors reprised their iconic roles; some of them appeared to be shoe-horned in cameos, but by and large fans seemed to enjoy the return of Sir Ian McKellan (Gandalf), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Elijah Wood (Frodo) and Andy Serkis (Gollum). The set design was similar, Howard Shore again scored the film, the special effects were often breathtaking and yet again the use of New Zealand’s landscape was as good an advert for tourism that the nation could ever hope for. Yet despite all the pieces of the jigsaw appearing to be available, the picture at the end just didn’t quite look right.

The decision to film The Hobbit as a trilogy has had an effect on The Desolation Of Smaug, too; even though the pace is faster, at 161 minutes it’s not exactly a leaner, more taut affair than its predecessor. Many scenes are included which did not appear in the original book, or have been considerably altered due to the presence of certain characters, and Peter Jackson has included a lot of material that one BBC critic on The Film Show referred to last week as “very expensive fan fiction”. One difference from Tolkien’s book, for example, is the number of scenes that show Gandalf visiting the stronghold of Dol Gudur to battle the Necromancer (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch; the other day, at the exact moment that I was making the point to my wife that Benedict Cumberbatch suddenly appeared to be everywhere, I switched on the television and found Benedict Cumberbatch staring right back at me. “Fuck”, I muttered under my breath). Elsewhere Orlando Bloom returns as a younger Legolas (the character doesn’t actually appear in the source material) and a completely new elven character named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is introduced. Even though this kind of tampering may irritate the purists, the more open-minded will see that the presence of both Legolas and Tauriel helps the film considerably. The pair take part in some of the more thrilling action sequences, lessen the focus on the dwarves (which in turn stops them from becoming too irritating) and Tauriel adds much-needed feminine presence.

As mentioned above the pace is faster, and it is generally kept that way throughout as Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and their company of squat walking carpets continue their journey to the Lonely Mountain and the gold-laden dwarf city of Erebor, current resting place of the dragon Smaug (also voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, just in case you had forgotten that he exists).

Along the way they encounter a man named Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) who can apparently change form into a bear, killer spiders in the forest of Mirkwood, Elves who imprison the dwarves before they escape via a less-thrilling-than-you’ve-been-led-to-believe river run in barrels, the city of Esgaroth, or Lake-town as it is also known, and finally the giant, intelligent dragon himself, all the while pursued by a company of angry, bloodthirsty orcs.

These action sequences are quite enjoyable: it’s more family fun (with the occasional young-kid-troubling-beheading) played out in front of impressively-designed sets, all the while incorporating CGI successfully. It would seem as though Jackson’s achievements in bringing the cities of Middle Earth and events depicted by Tolkien to life are now being taken for granted, somewhat; the man is chastised for the misjudged pacing of An Unexpected Journey and now only sees lip-service paid to the epic realisations he continues to fabricate. After five Jackson / Tolkien films it’s possible that movie audiences are just a little tired of Middle Earth, which is unfortunate but also understandable. Still, I can think of quite a few films that suffer from worse pacing than anything Jackson has produced in the past 15 years, and equally I can’t think of many filmmakers that have matched the scope of his creative vision during that time.

I enjoyed the first Hobbit film (more than most, it would seem). I’m fully aware it sagged at times, but overall the experience of being transported back to Middle Earth was one I enjoyed. I also appreciate Martin Freeman as an actor, and he is on good, likeable form here; his blinks and occasional confused stares into the middle distance will be familiar to anyone who watched the original UK version of The Office, and his Bilbo is a reluctant hero that children and adults alike will be able to identify with.

The long running time might test the powers of concentration of younger children, but this time round Jackson just about includes enough action to satisfy those that found An Unexpected Journey a little slow and ponderous. The cast additions work out well; Bloom is a little blank at times but Lilly makes a decent fist of the Elven heroine written especially for the movie, and thankfully breaks up the Tolkien Boys Club. Stephen Fry is typically Fry-esque as the bellowing Master of Lake-town, though his appearance is only surprising for the fact that it has taken Jackson four films to employ him, and Luke Evans makes the most of his fairly sizeable supporting role as Bard the Bowman.

It’s by no means perfect, and it suffers a little from being a typical ‘second film of a trilogy’, offering no concessions to those who are not on board already and ending with a cliffhanger of sorts that will be resolved in the third film, There And Back Again, which made me feel a little frustrated as the house lights were turned on. Still, a few faults have been ironed out and the cast are still showing great conviction, bellowing out every one of Tolkien’s names, place names and made-up historical facts as if they were the most important things ever said. That kind of nonsense understandably puts a lot of people off, but for fans of Jackson’s adaptations so far, there is much to enjoy. It may be a lighter, less portentous series than The Lord Of The Rings, but many of the best elements of those films are retained as the Hobbit’s journey continues. I’ve never counted myself as a fan of the fantasy genre and I’m no big fan of Tolkien, which makes it easier to swallow some of the decisions taken by the director and the screenwriters, but Jackson’s interpretation still impresses me after five Middle Earth-related movies.

The Basics:

Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro, JRR Tolkien
Starring: Martin Freeman, Sir Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 161 minutes
Year: 2013
Rating: 
6.4

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