Film 2019: The Hobbit – The Battle of the Five Armies


And so it goes.

There’s a greater sense of closure about the end of the third Hobbit film than there is about its equivalent in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, even though technically it’s only the halfway mark. There’s a much stronger feeling of we-shall-not-come-here-again that leaks in from outside where, save the unlikely event of Jackson and Co. signing on to do any kind of adaptation of ‘The Silmarrillion’, we will not be in Middle Earth after this.

Funnily enough, I have little to say about the third film. When I saw it in the cinema, I found it overwhelming, and that was just the theatrical release. I said at the time that whilst it wasn’t the best film I’d ever seen, it was the first one that I would have paid to see a second time on condition they started it immediately.

Though I’m not blind to the film’s major flaw, it is a stunningly visceral experience, throwing itself at you and refusing to let your attention slip for the least moment. It feels at least an hour shorter than it is in reality because, despite the breadth of its scenes, it’s a single-minded film. The sub-title says it all: build-up, battle, aftermath, that is the whole of the film and it benefits from an absence of diversion.

Well, not entirely. The film opens in media res, a direct continuation from the second part’s cliffhanger, and that’s the film’s single biggest awkwardness. In The Lord of the Rings, Jackson greatly offended Christopher Lee by cutting the scene of Saruman’s death from The Return of the King, yet when you see it restored in the Extended Edition, you see that it’s right: the scene belongs in The Two Towers and is an awkward, out-of-place tailpiece shoved in upfront.

The same goes for Smaug’s attack on Lake-town, and his death. The whole sequence takes twelve minutes of this film, and it’s spectacularly done in all respects, but it’s still a holdover. It’s part of The Desolation of Smaug and it should have played out in that film, not this. It’s significant that the title card The Battle of the Five Armies doesn’t come up until that part’s finished.

From then on though, I’m on the ride and there’s no getting off and I’m incapable of analysing things any further. Except to say that, even in comparison to Billy Connolly’s wonderful cameo as Dain Ironfoot, my favourite scene is still the battle of the White Council in Dol Guldur, saving Gandalf, confronting the Nazgul, and banishing Sauron to the East, and to Mordor. And the one reference in all the films to the renegade Valar, Morgoth.

Of course, the old argument still prevails, in respect of which I continue to disrespectfully disagree with those who sneer, and would pose them a question. Three of the Dwarves who set off on this foolish expedition die during the Battle, Fili and Kili, the two youngest Dwarves and Thorin Oakenshield’s nephews, and Thorin himself, King under the Mountain. His line is ended. In the book, all we are told is that Fili and Kili died: how, where, doing what, not a thing. Thorin’s death is given hardly more detail. Given the significance of those deaths, their importance to the story, how would you have wanted a single film faithful to the nature of the book  to have represented them? By thrusting them out of sight as Tolkien did for his audience of children?

To date, I have not seen one person who has slagged The Hobbit off for its ‘elephantiasis’ make any practical suggestion as to how the story might be adapted in the way they think appropriate. And this is without answering the question of how such an adaptation might be made to be consistent with its filmic ‘sequel’?

No, I’ll take my Hobbit the way Peter Jackson served it up and be content, though I remain intrigued by the thought of how Guillermo del Toro would have proceeded had he remained in charge of the film and its original two-part concept. Especially the second film, which would have occupied the sixty year gap between the two books. On day, if I ever get the chance to visit Earth-2, I shall report back to you.

Film 2019: The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug


Middle films are always a bugger. They start in the middle and finish in the middle: pitched directly into the action without any suitable scene-setter and lacking any wholly-satisfying conclusion. Not every extended trilogy has a Battle of Helm’s Deep to provide the perfect pseudo-climax. The Hobbit does its best in ‘The Desolation of Smaug’, with the terrifically constructed battle between the Dwarves an the Dragon inside Erebor, but it still has to depend upon a cliffhanger on which to halt. I found it a disappointment first time round and it’s still the same now, when the final film’s another Sunday away, not another December.

That said, Part 2 is a decided uplift on Part 1. It has an awkward double-start, first a very clever flashback, like the Smeagol-Deagol scene that opens ‘The Return of the King’, to Bree in the rain, Thorin Oakenshield in the Prancing Pony and a ‘chance’ meeting with Gandalf the Grey. This is taken from one of those scenes that Tolkien couldn’t fit into the book and which turns up in the Appendices, and at greater length in Unfinished Tales.

Straightway from that, we go to the Dwarf party on the run again from Azog and his pursuing Orcs and rapidly holing up with Beorn. It feels awkward because it has no independence and it’s dealt with too quickly and back-ended with a bit of comedy, reflecting the original children’s book that’s really out of place this far along.

Still, that’s the last of that. There are still comic scenes to come, mostly surrounding the Master of Lake-Town and his obnoxious, servile assistant Alfred (Alfred? Alfred? Beorn, Bard, Smaug, Bilbo, Alfred… Alfred? een if it is spelt Alfrid). This requires a double-act between Stephen Fry and Ryan Gage, one of whom I thoroughly do not like and the other who’s just too good in his role to be comfortable watching. Their humour is based on throwing in cheap rude words, like bollocks and cock, but it isa dimension away from the chilish slapstick Jackson has tried to take from the book.

After the scene at Beorn’s, Jackson stops trying to marry up any of ‘The Hobbit’s tone to the fillm and things are better for it. The Desolation of Smaug can then concentrate on its own tone, fast, dynamic and serious, letting the comedy arise from what’s on the screen, such as the brilliant barrel-escape down the elvish river, fighting off Orcs and Elves with unstinting glee and vigour.

Much of what Jackson et al. invents in this film is simply an expansion on what Tolkien has written that was treated perfunctorily. Bilbo frees the Dwarves, they escape in barrels, full stop. Another, incredibly effective scene is created out of even thinner justification: Cate Blanchett makes a tiny cameo as Galadriel to send Gandalf north as a revised justification for his leaving the Dwarves at Mirkwood, not for an off-screen White Counsel (unmentioned in advance) raid on Dol Guldur, but rather to urgently check the barely accessible and utterly creepy tombs of nine evil Kings. These are all empty: Nazgul…

And Gandalf’s investigation of Dol Guldur, his discovery of the half-mad Thrain, his encounter with the Necromancer and realisation it is Sauron, his capture, all these are drawn into this film where, in strict Tolkien mythology, they date from further back, but they are still all crucial elements of the overarching story that includes The Lord of the Rings, just placed onscreen rather than confined to deep background.

Where Jackson is on truly unjustified ground is in the creation of Tauriel, the elf-warrior-maiden and her ‘relationship’with the youngest and most normal-looking Dwarf, Kili (Aiden Turner). I’m dubious about the ‘love affair’ but as Tauriel is played by Evangeline Lilley, I can’t argue with the decision. Lilley is in her element, especially in the fighting scenes, where she’s as fluid and fearsome as Legolas (Orlando Bloom, another returnee). Jackson’s on firmer ground with having Legolas along: neither he nor Thranduil, his father, are named in ‘The Hobbit’ but it’s obvious in retrospect that they must have been there.

The middle film scores by speeding things up considerably, to remove the stodginess, kicking out the songs and (most of) the slapstick and showing a great deal more confidence in its decision to go for the tone of The Lord of the Rings overall. It’s still a middle film in Middle-Earth, with no real event to conclude it, but I still enjoy it thoroughly.

Film 2019: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey


Since the box-set of The Hobbit, like The Lord of the Rings, tells a single story over multiple films, there’ll be no jumping around with these films: today is the first of three successive Sundays devoted to this epic.

I’ll begin by disposng of the allegation that the adaptation of what was a short, and childish, children’s book into a three-film extravaganza was no more than elephantiasis, a cynical and commercial money-grubbing exercise in milking Middle-Earth for all it was worth. The argument is to be expected: the trilogy bears very little resemblance to the book, except that the latter’s spine provides the sequence of (greatly-expanded) events. Originally, when The Hobbit was supposed to be the work of Guillermo del Toro, it was to be a two-film project, one for The Hobbit tory, and one to bridge the sixty year gap between that and The Lord of the Rings. Short of the by now traditional trip into Earth-2, we’ll never know how that would have worked out.

But del Toro departed and Peter Jackson, who hadn’t previously intended to direct The Hobbit for precisely this reason, ended up taking over. The film grew in the telling, too much for some people. I like it as it is: I read The Lord of the Rings first and came eagerly to The Hobbit without seriously understanding the vast difference between the books, a gulf I’m still massively aware of whenever I return to them.

But the books were written in that order and the films weren’t. They exist in the same continuum, they are two parts of a single story separated by sixty years. By that token alone, The Hobbit had to be consistent with its ‘predecessor’. It would have been a colossal mistake to make a Hobbit film faithful to the tone of book, a silly, kid’s semi-comedy, told in archaically condescending tones that very few modern kids would stand for. It would have been ‘pure’, and almost certainly a pure disaster.

An Unexpected Journey was the first part of the story, and the most criticised, as slow and stodgy. I’d agree with that to a large extent, and of the six films I think this is substantially the worst, and a large part of that is down to Jackson compromising himself to be accomodating to the tone of the book. With one glorious exception, everything that tries to faithfully depict the more childish parts of the story drags the story down.

Jackson chooses to start An Unexpected Journey in the hinterland of his first trilogy, with the elderly Bilbo deciding to write the true account of his adventure sixty years before on the day of the Birthday Partythat will see him leave The Shire forever. Elijah Wood sticks his head in to establish the context for us, just before he runs off to meet Gandalf, and there’s one of those by-now standard time-shifts on the front porch, from pipe-smoking Bilbo to pipe-smoking Bilbo, from Ian Holm to Martin Freeman.

Now I like Martin Freeman, in The Office, in Sherlock, and the moment I heard he’d been cast as Bilbo, I said he would be perfect for the role, and I was right, so let’s just record that and save ourselves repeating it over and again. He holds the film together, even where it is dealing with scenes in which he is not represented: The Hobbit is about Bilbo in a way that The Lord of the Rings was not about Frodo but about a group of people with a shared goal.

Jackson begins with Bilbo’s uncomfortable encounter with Gandalf when the latter, unbeknownst to Bilbo, selects him as Burglar-by-Appointment to Thorin Oakenshield, and continues with the unexpected party that lends its concept to the film’s sub-title. This is the first of the points where Jaackson’s attempt to be faithful to Tolkien trips up over its stodginess. There’s a nod to the dwarves arriving two by two that rapidly gets tedious, so Jackson collapses (literally) the arrival of the last two-thirds of them into one go to spare patience.

This however has the effect of rendering the dwarves pretty indistinguishable. I mean, they are to a large extent in the book, but whilst the designers do a good job of making the dwarves visually distinct, and some of the actors – mainly Ken Stott as Balin and James Nesbitt as Bofur – get enough lines to establish their personalities, the majority struggle to be more than local colour, and it’s bloody difficult to remember which is which. I mean, James Nesbitt plays cheerfully Irish enough to stand out but the film’s half over before it registers that he’s Bofur and without the final credits I couldn’t tell you what the one with the ear-trumpet is called.

It’s deliberately silly, and the tonal shift to the serious elements is hard to pull off,, as is the awkward mixture of the songs. Jackson tries to incorporate some of the songs that interrupt The Hobbit book, an attempt thankfully abandoned by the second film, with the jokey blokey clearing-up scene as a jolly singalong then followed by the wholly different, completely serious and, in its way intensely moving incantatory song about Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, the haunt of Smaug, the home that draws each of these seemingly idiotic characters so powerfully onwards.

The party scene sets a scene, and Jackson stays faithful to the story: Bilbo’s mad dash, his discovery he’s forgotten to bring any handkerchiefs, the bit with the Trolls, the battle of the Mountain Giants, the Goblin King’s song in Goblin-Town (which works precisely to the extent that that is Barry Humphries under all that CGI, Humphriesing away with great glee, and no further), all of these come from the book, and all of them are awkward. The film’s heart is not really in them, because they don’t sit with the serious elements.

The one silly scene from The Hobbit that really works, and this is a combination of clever adaptation and fantastic acting, is the Riddle-Game, and that’s Martin Freeman alone and scared, standing up to Gollum, Andy Serkis reprising his role in glorious fashion. That this pair would fall into a contest of riddles is wholly believable, and almost inevitable.

But the film’s real heart lies in what it makes up out of whole cloth. This can be entirely serious, such as the meeting at Rivendell of the White Council, bringing together Gandalf, Elrond, Saruman and Galadriel, Iam McKellan, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett, or daftly comic, such as anything Sylveste McCoy does as Radaghast the Brown (I still love the Rabbits of Rhosgobel).

Of course, it’s not totally whole cloth, it is actually extracting things from the deep background that Toolkien passes over in the book, the boring stuff that constructs the story but which would bore his eager children stiff. Here, though, the writers and the director get the chance to shape these elements exactly to their purpose, without having to try to make something meant for little children nearly one hundred years ago work in their context.

The film goes furthest in building on gossamer material in its introduction of Azog (nicely played by Manu Bennett). The Defiler, the Pale Orc, has his proper place in Dwarvish history, but Jackson & Co build him out of almost nothing to become a personal rival to Thorin Oakenshield, a hated enemy, slayer of Thror, Thorin’s  grandfather. Azog’s place in the story does not become fixed until th final film, but of course The Hobbit was planned as a single story, necessitating Azog’s appearance long before he becomes crucial to the conclusion.

I’ve been critical of the film’s failings today, because they’ve seemed more obvious on a Sunday morning. In the cinema, in a crowd of excited, enthused people, the film was far more resistant to criticial response, and I do enjoy it. It has much that is great fun, much that is exciting, much that is extraordinarily beautiful: no time spent gazing at Rivendell, or at the New Zealand countryside at its most magnificent, could ever be regarded as wasted. But it is still the weakest film of both trilogies.

Which means that the next two Sundays will be even more fun.

Film 2018: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!


As Film 2018 moves into the final quarter of the year, the pile of DVDs gets shorter and the choices narrower. It’s easier now to see where I haven’t been spacing out categories of films as well as I might, and the choice of a concluding film from those that remain becomes correspondingly more difficult to make.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! is one of four animation films remaining, another one of which comes from Aardman’s peculiarly wonderful brand of stop-go animation (can you guess what it is yet?). Watching it again this quiet, bright morning, I was shocked to see that it came out as long ago as 2012, as I have such vivid memories of watching it at Grand Central, and of laughing so hard in so many places that I seriously thought of going to see it a second time, just to catch the jokes I’d laughed through.

The film is an adaptation of the first of Gideon Defoe’s series of five comedy adventures about a band of inept pirates. It’s wonderfully silly, endlessly inventive and, in the true Aardman style, crams in visual background jokes in such profusion that you can’t guarantee to catch them all.

Essentially, the storyline is that The Pirate Captain wants to win the Pirate of the Year award but has no chance because a) he and his crew are rubbish at being pirates and b) they have no luck whatsoever. However, when they bump into a shifty Charles Darwin (who fears he’ll never get a girlfriend), he tells them that ship’s parrot Polly is not a parrot at all but a long-extinct Dodo, and a worthy winner of the Scientist of the Year award.

The Pirate Captain goes for it, even though that means going to London, home of the young Queen Victoria, who loathes pirates. And when the Pirate Captain wins, Vicky wants Polly, ostensibly for her Petting Zoo but in reality for the Rare Diners Club, a group of world leaders who like to banquet off the most endangered species they can find.

Seduced by a massive amount of gold booty, and a pardon (which promptly disqualifies him from winning the Pirate of the Year award, and from being a pirate), the Pirate Captain hands over Polly, which, when he’s forced to admit it, costs him his crew’s loyalty.

So, all on his own – well, with a reluctant but now discredited Darwin and his trained monkey, Mr Bobo – the Pirate Captain goes after Victoria’s heavily armed flagship, the QV1, to rescue Polly, which earns him his crew’s faith again.

It’s a light story but an ideal one upon which to hang the gags, and these come in a mixture of forms. There’s visual, there’s slapstick, there’s verbal and even a plethora of character-based gags, the last of which are put over splendidly by a very strong voice line-up indeed. The leading quartet are Hugh Grant, in splendidly self-satirical mode as the Pirate Captain, David Tennant in manly self-pitying/miserable mode as Charles Darwin, Martin Freeman giving a lovely, solid Dr Watson-esque performance as Number Two (aka The Pirate with a Scarf), and Imelda Staunton exuding surprising menace as Queen Victoria.

With the exception of Freeman, displaying his strengths as the solid anchor that keeps things from flying apart, everyone is encouraged to go OTT in various degrees, but not uncontrollably so. There are smaller vocal roles for people like Russell Tovey, Lenny Henry, Ashley Jensen, Brian Blessed (going seriously OTT but when does he ever do anything else?) and even Selma Hayek as the sultry Cutlass Lil.

The film was the second and final co-production with Sony Animation (in respect of which it was named The Pirates! Band of Misfits in America and elsewhere). This gave Aardman access to CGI for the sea-scenes and elsewhere, and slightly flattens the comedy though to no deleterious effect. The film was obviously set up for a sequel, and even a series, and Aardman did start work on scripting The Pirates! In an Adventure with Cowboys! (not taken from one of Defoe’s books) but Sony weren’t interested. Pity, it would have been fun.

The problem, I imagine, from Sony’s end, as the mucking about with the title evidences, is that ultimately Aardman are too British. It’s gloriously part of their appeal, and they stand foursquare in the great tradition of British absurdity/eccentricity. But it also meant that The Pirates! etc. ultimately brought in modest returns, worldwide, and especially in America, which made it not commercial enough for Sony.

Personally, I don’t care. This film is Aardman lightly watered down, but not to an extent that compromises their spirit or harms the comedy. To extend the series, I would expect Sony would have demanded a more diluted version. So maybe it’s best that The Pirates! In an Adventure with Cowboys! was never more than a giddy, gleeful, imaginary film where everything can be as pure as can be.

Let’s have a Ham Nite!

Uncollected Thoughts: Sherlock series 4, episode 3


Sometimes, no amount of words can be put together to explain a piece of work that you have seen. ‘The Final Problem’ went everywhere and nowhere. It played on fear, love, heartbreak, confusion and the ability of the mind to maintain an ordered account. I found it brilliant beyond my capacity to describe, and will not attempt to explain anything for or to you, when I can’t put it together in a way that does not overwhelm me.

I don’t know how long it will be before, or maybe if, these people can be got together for series 5, but I will do everything I can to live that long.

Uncollected Thoughts: Sherlock series 4 episode 2


I said last week that I couldn’t be objective about Sherlock and I still can’t. Last week’s episode got a lot of abuse for its ‘sexing-up’ and the Bond-ification of Sherlock, instead of the clever, witty, cerebral case solving that, apparently, was the only thing remotely interesting about the first series or two. Some of that criticism was the old, old thing about not letting things change or grow. Some of it, to be fair, was justifiable: I said I never liked the idea of Mary Watson, assassin and mercenary.

Well, given the nature of ‘The Lying Detective’, all about cerebral deduction and the careful trapping of a monster into confessing crimes that, though undetailed, were beautifully conveyed as monstrous by the simple device of having Greg Lestrade push back his chair and suspend the interrogation until the following morning, you’d almost think that Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat (writer of this week’s episode) had been playing for just such a response. Nah, they ain’t that clever, are they?

But this episode was undoubtedly clever, winding an astonishingly convoluted, yet very simple plot into so many curlicues, with hidden motivations and hidden crimes folded into it like the micro-dimensions of string theory, that it became impossible to believe that what we were watching took only ninety minutes of our lives.

To put it at its most basic: John Watson is having therapy for his appalling loss and the unbridgeable gulf it has created between him and Sherlock, only one of which conditions he wishes to resolve. Sherlock, in turn, is back on the smack, collapsing in on himself, driving himself towards death, unable to control his own intelligence.

Both appear to be hallucinating. John is carrying on conversations with Mary, despite her constant reminders that she isn’t real, nor is she independent of his mind. And Sherlock spends an entire night being put onto a complex case by the walking-cane carrying daughter of Culverton Smith, millionaire businessman/philanthropist/serial killer, only to discover that she, too, doesn’t exist (actually, the woman, Faith, does exist, it’s just that Sherlock’s hallucination isn’t her, she just looks alike. She’s not even an hallucination, but lets not get ahead of ourselves).

Sherlock sets out to prove that this highly respected public figure is indeed that most despicable of creatures, a serial killer. Toby Jones plays the part masterfully, a creature of vast intelligence, intellectually the equal of Sherlock, publicly streets ahead of him. Jones treads the delicate line of hiding in plain sight, his every utterance an invitation to see through him, if you actually dare think that. The message that, if you reach a certain level of power and public recognition, you can do anything, was written before Donald Trump was elected, but it’s ghastly apt.

John is drawn into this, against his will, constantly treading his own line between believing Sherlock’s deductive capacities and fearing that it’s all because he’s off his tits. John even puts Sherlock in the hospital where he is directly in Smith’s power, his frustrations leading him to smash Sherlock’s face in.

But it’s a game. An elaborate put-on, a fake. Yes, Culverton Smith is a serial killer, and yes, Sherlock has picked a fight with him because he is a big, powerful, evil figure who needs to be stopped, but that’s not why. It’s not why until we – and John – see the rest of Mary’s DVD, the one where she charges Sherlock with saving John. Where she identifies John Watson as a man who cannot be helped, who will not let himself be helped, but who cannot refuse to help. Who will move mountains to save Sherlock, if only Sherlock can create a scenario where he is in danger. Real, true, palpable danger.

And thus it all comes together, and in a manner that is wholly satisfying and completely believable (to the value of belief that this extraordinarily clever and mannered programme operates), the friendship is restored: Holmes and Watson live on.

Or do they?

There’s a third episode to come and there’s a handful of scattered clues lying around. There’s the hints of a third Holmes brother, Sherringford, that even John Watson susses out. There’s his therapist, with her French accent, the ‘hallucinatory Faith’ and her northern accent, not to mention last week’s girl on the bus with whom John text-cheated. She had a pronounced accent too. All the same woman, Sian Brooke, beautifully disguised.

And a killer. The real therapist is in the airing cupboard. She’s holding John Watson at gunpoint. Her real name is Euros (the East Wind). Her parents had a thing for convoluted names for their children. Euros. Mycroft. Sherlock. The third Holmes brother is a sister. John’s making a silly face. She thinks she’ll put a hole in it. She pulls the trigger.

Oh, mother.

I think we now know how Jim Moriarty has seemingly risen from the dead.


 

A Very Sherlock Xmas


That’s about it, actually. The BBC aren’t releasing their Xmas schedule until next week, and it’s not going to be full of innovative material, but it does include a ‘festive’ edition of Sherlock, so unless we’re talking about a repeat of the last one-off, get ready to clear the decks.

Ninety minutes of great TV is better than none.

Uncollected Thoughts: Sherlock – The Abominable Bride


If we’re only going to get one of these this tear instead of the customary three, then it’s a bloody good job this one was as good as it was. I’m not sure if any spoilers got out, apart from the long-trailed one about the episode being set in Victorian London, but if they did I managed to miss all of them. The Abominable Bride was happily virgin territory for me and I loved (nearly) every minute of it.

Yes, nearly. There’s always something, but we’ll get to that later on.

For the first near hour of the programme, going by the rough estimate of time I was making in my head, it was an immaculate spoof. It was a Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes in every respect, enlivened by a simple metafiction. Gatiss and Moffat took the step of translating their Sherlock and John and their modern relationship very precisely into Victorian terms and introducing this as the ‘real’ Holmes and Watson, both well aware of the public version portrayed in the latter’s immensely popular stories in ‘The Strand’.

Not once did this version of our leading lights lapse into anything verging on 21st century language or behaviour. The closest the programme came to overtipping its hand, and it was dealt with deliberately briefly in order to contain any audience twitching, was the revelation that 19C Mary Watson was herself a highly competent agent, working for the fat Mycroft Holmes.

Actually, the writers could have blown it seriously badly with Mrs Hudson, offended at the limited role given to her literary persona and indulging in bringing her restrictions over to real-life, but the conviction – and straight-facedness – that all the regulars brought to playing their alternate versions carried us over any hurdles this comic approach placed in the audiences’ way.

In fact, for as long as this phase continued, The Abominable Bride was shaping up to be the funniest thing on TV all year (I know this is only Day 1 of 366, but considering how little TV I actually watch now, it’s six, four and evens that it’ll still be so on 31 December).

But of course it wasn’t just a spoof. Why did we ever expect something so simple? The tag attached to the dead Sir Eustace Carmichael read ‘Miss Me?’ Given that the episode had started with a brief rundown of Sherlock-to-date, ending with those very words, was there a viewer who didn’t suddenly tense up and start wondering what was coming?

And a few achronological phrases between Sherlock and fat Mycroft, each commented upon by the other, rammed home that this was suddenly not an amusing little diversion at all. Enter Moriarty for a confrontation with Sherlock (I cannot say how much I love Andrew Scott in this role) and suddenly the plane bringing Sherlock home from his four-minute exile after the killing of Troels Hartman is landing and the whole thing has been a drug-created inner fantasy by 21C Sherlock, trying to work out how Moriarty can be back after blowing his own brains out at the end of series 2.

To do so, he’s built a memory palace to enable him to investigate an unsolved Victorian case where a suicide victim who used the same method as Moriarty came back to life to commit murder and where, by using Victorian methods to solve that riddle, he hopes to work out just how Moriarty survived his own suicide.

It’s been exceedingly clever, and perfectly written and performed up to date, and it retains that level throughout John Watson’s unspoken review of the list of what Sherlock has taken, but once Sherlock gets back into his ‘mind palace’ to conclude his investigation, the programme loses a level of conviction.

We’re invited back into what, so far, has been a perfectly-executed and inexplicable alternate world. Once we go back, we return with the knowledge that this isn’t ‘real’, that it’s all in Sherlock’s mind. The intrigue has gone, and taken with it the intensity, and the uppermost level of conviction. It’s not only not ‘real’, it’s an hallucination, and the rules for how this might happen are rewritten. Anything can happen. The episode has even taken the trouble, earlier on, to remind us of Holmes’ famous dictum about when you have eliminated the impossible…

Now, the show has eliminated the impossible as being impossible.

The Ricotti case is solved with absurd ease, giving 21C Moriarty his way out, but the Carmichael case is given a portentous and ultimately metaphysical solution that digs too deep into metafiction and political correctness. That’s not a term I like, nor one I usually use, but the deliberation in which the secret society is set up, and how it’s been foreshadowed by fat Mycroft as a dangerous, unstoppable opponent who will and must win because they’re right, means that PC is for once an apt term.

Many, myself included, have accused Moffat of being a misogynist writer and the awkwardness with which this solution is applied smells of being an intentional riposte to us critics. Sorry buddy, you need to be a bit more natural than that, especially within an episode that has demonstrated itself as being naturalistic.

Perhaps recognising that they had weakened their episode, Messrs Gatiss and Moffat decided to throw in a few extra levels of the fantasy, including a completely metafictional recreation of the Reichenbach Falls in which Moriarty outs himself as being dead but instead being the symbol of Sherlock’s failures. They’re about to go over the Falls together again when the symbol gets deliberately muddied by introducing 19C John Watson, with service revolver, to tip the balance. nd to tip Moriarty over the edge: it’s his turn this time, after all.

Let me emphasise that I emjoyed every minute of this, but I’m critically aware that the last thirty minutes didn’t hold up the first sixty, and given the closing scenes, I’m pretty sure Gatiss and Moffat were also aware of that.

First, we had Sherlock, refreshed after his O.D., walking away with John and Mary, telling them that he now knows what Moriarty has planned next: oh, by the way, he is dead, no-one survives blowing their own brains out. This neatly gets the writers off the task of coming up with an explanation of Moriarty’s survival, and making it different from Sherlock’s (which was never really explained in the end), though it makes it even harder to get Andrew Scott back for series 5 (I’m electing to treat this as series 4, sorry).

Then we cut back to Victorian London and Mr Holmes trying to convince Dr Watson that his mind-experiment of projecting the future 120 years hence is truly plausible. It’s a very lightweight attempt at a St Elsewhere ending which fooled no-one in the slightest, and thw writers’ lack of conviction showed by having 19C Sherlock looking out of 221b’s window onto a 21C Baker Street street scene.

But if this is the only one we’re getting until atheism-knows-when, then it were well that it be as good as it was, and it certainly was. And bearing in mind how badly Moffat has fucked up Dr Who for me, this was either a case of him remembering his mojo, or one of Gatiss carrying him like Sam carried Frodo up the slopes of Orodruin. I’d like to think it was the former.

Binge-athon – and a word of thanks


I’ve known all along that I was going to feel a little put out this Xmas without a new Hobbit film to watch, although the feeling was alleviated to some extent by having the ‘Extended Trilogy’ box-set to unwrap on Xmas Day (unwrap being in the sense of tearing off the brown paper used to package it by the guy on eBay from whom I bought it).

It’s a quiet Xmas, this year, and today I set the day outside to binge on the entire Trilogy. I’m not really a binge person, in that sense: I have been known, when off ill in the past, to watch as many as four episodes of The West Wing from the comfort of my bed, but this is my first attempt at a binge and I’m pretty sure you’re not meant to take an hour’s break between films 1 and 2.

But I needed to get the paper. And I surprised myself with 1,003 words of fiction, out of the blue.

Anyway, I might have a go at a repeat on Thursday, or Friday, with The Lord of the Rings.

I’ve also a word of thanks to make to you out there. This blog started rather quietly in April 2011, though it didn’t really get properly underway for almost a year, and didn’t become a regular thing until later that year. It’s sort of had three starts to get itself going, and it’s become something that’s given me a lot of fun along the way.

I’m under no illusions as to the possibility of this one day being discovered by the world at large and becoming a mecca for readers hanging on my every opinion, and it’s certainly never going to build any kind of audience large enough for me to tart making an income from my efforts.

As evidenced by the fact that, sometime during the course of today, whilst I was in Middle Earth, one of you became my 50,000th visitor.

It’s been a long time coming, though I hope it won’t take nearly five years for me to get into six figures. But to everyone who has at any time read a piece on this blog, and especially to those who have come back for a second visit, notwithstanding, you have my thanks.

In return, I promise to keep trying to entertain, enliven and sometimes, I hope, inform.

It’s been a great privilege to have all of you reading me.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Uncollected Thoughts


Now (read) on…

By an interesting but not unlikely coincidence, I saw last year’s second instalment in The Hobbit trilogy the day before my team’s Office Xmas Party, at which, in order not to spoil anything for those who planned to see it, I made only one comment. Which was: “Oh, wow!”

Twelve months on and I’ve returned from the final instalment, and yes, I’m off to the Party tomorrow night where, in order not to spoil anything for those who plan to see it, I will make only one comment. This time it’s going to be: “Oh, fucking wow!”

After watching the middle instalment, I mused about what Peter Jackson might find to fill out The Battle of the Five Armies, given that The Desolation of Smaug had finished – on a cliffhanger – a bit close to the end of the original novel. There were only three things left: the destruction of Lake-town and the death of Smaug at the arrow of Bard the Bowman: the build up to and the fighting of the Battle of Five Armies (no definitive article): and Bilbo’s return to Bag End in the middle of the Sackville-Baggins’ auctioning off its contents.

Jackson had created a hostage to fortune from himself in leaving Gandalf captured in Dol Guldur, which meant having to resolve his escape, and the attack by the White Council that drove the nascent Sauron from his older, less terrible fortress, which was not merely confined to offstage in the novel, but also very much to offhand. Still, that only made four elements.

And Jackson made his film out of those four elements only, and nothing else but sub-plots interweaved into one section or another.

The film starts where last year’s left off, right into the action, as if twelve months hadn’t gone by. Smaug circles the town then comes in for fire-breathing attacks, burning the wooden city in great sweeping lines, treading it under claw. Tauriel tries to get the dwarves and Bard’s kids away, the Master tries to get the gold away, and Bard saves the day by shooting the last Black Arrow unerringly into that single patch where the dragon is unscaled, killing him (Smaug promptly drops out of the sky and does even more damage to Lake-town, though he does rather propitiously land directly on the Master: I have made no secret of my lack of regard for Stephen Fry, and this is possibly a churlish thing to say, but if anyone should set-up a Kickstarter to fund a real-life enactment, they will not find me wanting.)

The problem with this section is exemplified by the fact that it is only now, getting on for however long into the film it is, that the title card for The Battle of the Five Armies comes up on-screen. A decade ago, Peter Jackson caused a rift with Christopher Lee by dropping the death of Saruman from the theatrical release of The Return of the King, on the basis that it was a leftover from The Two Towers (and when you see the extended DVD version, it is obvious that Jackson is right).

The same applies here: Smaug’s death is a holdover from the previous film. No matter how much of a catalyst it is for what follows, it belongs at the end of The Desolation of Smaug: it’s sweeping up a loose end that would have been better concluded where it naturally belonged.

There’s no such reservation about the next section, which is made out of best Jacksonian whole cloth. I’m pretty sure that Jackson’s portrayal of the Council’s attack on Dol Guldur bears no resemblance to whatever Tolkien saw happening so far away from his jolly little adventure, but it’s the most eyepoppingest and jaw-droppingest part of the whole film, as Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee get to do some strutting of their stuff against the newly-resurrected Nazgul, before Galadriel blows Sauron far far away.

And I know how antithetical this is to Tolkien’s concepts, to the Three Rings that were never touched by Sauron but which were not instruments of war, but rather of defence and preservation, but damn! this is the three ringbearers in one place and it’s unbelievably powerful, and I’m prepared to overlook what is one of the largest overturnings of Tolkienian lore for how this is handled. Not to mention that, in having it be Galadriel – who alone of all those Elves is of the Noldor and has lived in the light of the Blessed Land – who finally drives Sauron out, tumbling through the sky, Jackson lays the most subtle link to his earlier trilogy, to her Tempting at her Well, so long ago in The Fellowship of the Ring.

As for Bilbo’s return to Hobbiton, it’s handled with simplicity and, above all, brevity, which other commenters have already welcomed as a contrast to The Return of the King‘s multiple farewells.

The rest of it, about two-thirds of the film as far as I could judge, was the Battle of the Five Armies, the actually fighting of which, in all its stages, took between and hour and ninety minutes of the movie. Proof, therefore, for those who have never accepted the application of the tone of Lord of the Rings to a cheap and cheerful children’s book, of the elephantiasis of Jackson’s handling of his subject.

Well, we disagree on that, and we’re going to have to continue to disagree, because I found it spectacular in every sense of that word, utterly riveting in every moment, and stunning in its execution. If you think that the Battle for Minas Tirith was colossal, when set against this it was no more than a local skirmish. If you’d asked me what subjective time the battle lasted, I’d have struggled to put it at above a half hour.

There was the most brilliant of cameos by Billy Connolly as Dain Ironfoot, Thorin’s cousin, and leader of the Dwarf army from the Iron Hills, approaching the forthcoming battle as if it were no more than a Saturday night punch-up outside a Glasgow pub. And there was death.

In The Hobbit, three of the dwarf-band die: Fili and Kili, the two youngest, Thorin’s nephews, and Thorin himself. It’s yet another thing that Tolkien placed offstage. Not so Jackson, as we knew would come. Fili, killed as provocation for Thorin to place himself in a trap, Kili in trying to save his elf-maiden love, Tauriel, and Thorin, redeemed of his dragon-sickness, in final single-combat with the Orc, Azog the Defiler, who killed his grandfather Thrain. There was only one way to do it: to get close enough to Azog to run his sword through the Orc’s black heart, Thorin had to allow Azog to deliver a fatal blow.

I very rarely cry at films, and if I do it’s nearly almost always in the privacy of my own home, but between this, and Tauriel’s grieving over Kili, and her desperate pleading not to love because she didn’t understand it could be like that, I was wiping away tears and glad I was sat alone in the dark and invisible.

So, from me, a yes. To be perfectly honest, whilst I’m not going to get carried away and say that this is the Greatest Film I’ve Ever Seen, because it’s not, I think it’s the first time that I would have been ready to go out, buy another ticket and walk back to watch the film all over again, as long as it began immediately.

There’s nothing to look forward to now for December 2015, except perhaps that by then the 12-disc DVD box-set of all the Extended Versions may be available and I can set aside a day to watch the whole thing, every extra minute, one after another.

Maybe in the future, Jackson and those of his closest collaborators who I’ve lumped into his name, will do it again. There is The Silmarillion, after all, and if there’s a problem about turning that into a Trilogy, it’s going to be in the sheer volume you’d have to leave out just to do as few as three films. Go on, Peter, just don’t leave it too long. I might not have another decade left in me, and I would dearly love to have another December Friday afternoon at the Cinema, cursing that there were another two Xmas’s before me to see the end of the film.

And I’m just trying to imagine the Dungeons of Angband, and the ever-smoking, triple tops of Thangorodrim, and the face of he who will become Sauron but who is merely a Lieutenant of Melkor, whose name is not spoken and who is named Morgoth…