Category Archives: Fantasy

Movie Review: “The Hobbit – The Battle of the Five Armies”

Going into this final chapter in Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy, I will admit to feeling a sort of resigned obligation. After the almost-wholly-unmitigated disaster that was “Desolation of Smaug,” I was prepared for a travesty engineered to turn the stomach of any true Tolkien aficionado.

As it so happens, however, I was wrong. While “Battle” isn’t without its share of issues, it manages to outdo its predecessors in both thematic depth and stylistic execution, and ultimately emerges as the prefatory chapter “LOTR” deserved all along.

In a breathtaking opening sequence that really should’ve served as a climax for “Desolation,” the mighty dragon Smaug is slain. The Dwarven adventurers – and lords in exile – successfully retake their home kingdom and its vast hoard of treasure. It soon becomes clear, however, that Dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage) has no intention of allocating some of the treasure to pay for the nearby townsfolk’s property destroyed by Smaug. To make matters worse, an army of woodland Elves soon appears on Thorin’s doorstep, demanding the return of historical treasures stolen long ago and kept within the Mountain.

It is through this leadup to the eponymous conflict – and particularly through the resulting exploration of the dynamics of race, history, and territory – that “Battle” offers a genuinely unique contribution to the fantasy-cinema landscape. Many fantasy worlds suggest racial conflict between sentient species (the original LOTR trilogy hinted at Elf/Dwarf animosity between side characters Legolas and Gimli, for instance). In most cases, however, these themes are only explored on the most superficial of levels (“I never thought I’d die fighting side by side with an Elf,” grumbles Gimli in a dark LOTR moment. “What about side-by-side with a friend?” returns Legolas). Themes of persistent tension between groups, and not individuals, typically go unaddressed or serve simply as worldbuilding background.

“Battle” boldly suggests that ethnocultural identity is, to some extent, contingent upon the physicality of place. Questions of land and property ownership surrounding the past Dwarven diaspora, heirlooms belonging to a longstanding heritage, and a generalized racial “right of return” (as offered by Thorin to his Dwarf kinfolk) echo real-world tensions between cultural groups. The concept of “home” has been a long-running (and heretofore fairly uninventive) prequel series theme; here, it expands from simply a longing-for-hearth into a sober meditation on the core values of nation-states (a term used here in the technical sense, referring to a group whose ethnic identity is contiguous with its political borders). In the end, “Battle” provides a surprisingly mature, nuanced exploration of group-based cultural politics that never lapses into demonizing any of its participants.

And then, of course, the battle begins: an incipient three-way conflict between Elves, Dwarves, and Men quickly turns into a “good guys vs. goblins” tableau in the tradition of LOTR. It was grand stuff ten years ago, and it remains so today: for all his faults, Jackson knows how to stage a breathtaking battle scene, and the massive conflict does not disappoint. It lacks the emotional gravitas and world-shattering stakes of LOTR, but that doesn’t change the fact that “Battle” is frequently very exciting and very entertaining. Howard Shore’s booming score is also a great highlight.

The egregious vices of the previous “Hobbit” films are not absent here. The motion-capture Orcs and trolls still look awful, a far cry from the menacing makeup-and-prosthetics creations of Jackson’s earlier trilogy. The dialogue remains somewhat wince-inducing (especially in the context of the ill-advised romance between handsome Dwarf Kili and Elven archer Tauriel), and it’s still impossible to shake the feeling that this should never have been stretched into three films. Jackson’s recent tendency to substitute comedic pratfalls for real drama remains omnipresent, culminating in a ludicrously overwrought display of Elven acrobatics.

But when the Elf arrows start flying and the ancient Dwarven lords charge across the bloodied landscape, hacking through legions of savage monsters, it’s impossible to not be swept away in the sheer Wagnerian bombast of it all. Honestly, what Middle-earth devotee doesn’t want to watch the White Council defy a circle of ghostly Ringwraiths, or see Galadriel channel her immortal power to banish Sauron from his fortress stronghold? Jackson throws up screen after screen of pure grandiosity, sending pulse rates skyrocketing whether or not he’s earned any serious emotional payoff. By this point in the franchise, I’ve come to terms with the realization that “The Hobbit” will never outdo LOTR in any meaningful sense; having acknowledged that, it’s entirely possible to appreciate this third installment for what it is…and flawed though it may be, “Battle” is a ride to remember.

In “Battle of the Five Armies,” Jackson had much to atone for. The disappointment that was “An Unexpected Journey,” and the rage-inducing nightmare that was “Desolation” had given me little hope that “Battle” would succeed. Yet somehow, the sheer bravura of this final chapter – from its unexpectedly rich sociological subtext to its thrilling scenes of medieval warfare – elevate it well above its predecessors.

I’ve rarely been so happy to be proven wrong.

VERDICT: 7.5/10
While “Battle” isn’t perfect, Jackson mostly sticks the landing. Recommended.

Normalized Score: 4.6

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Posted by on December 17, 2014 in Fantasy


Movie Review: “Hercules”

It is beyond question that if any man was ever born to play the role of Hercules, it would be Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, whose very presence in a movie is an inspiration to do more bench-presses. And accordingly, Brett Ratner’s big-budget epic doesn’t disappoint: the succinctly titled “Hercules” is a bang-up summer action pic with no pretensions of grandeur. (And, after all, there’s no better flick to watch at a bachelor party)

The film, set in the war-ravaged region of Thrace, picks up shortly after the completion of Hercules’ labors for King Eurystheus (Joseph Fiennes). While traveling with his ragtag band of mercenaries (a largely forgettable lot), Hercules is recruited by King Cotys of Thrace (John Hurt) to put down a violent insurgency. It soon becomes clear, however, that all is not as it appears.

Is the plot cliché-ridden and formulaic? Sure. That being said, “Hercules” has a few tricks up its sleeve that lift it well above “Clash of the Titans”-level.

For starters, the battles are great – really great. If you’re tired of the “shaky-cam” style that has plagued action cinema for the last several years, look no further than “Hercules”: here, in classical fashion, it’s actually possible to discern what is going on in the midst of combat.

Johnson is a surprisingly charismatic lead, and one who’s clearly enjoying himself immensely. While most of the other actors are forgettable, it’s worth pointing out that this is no joyless “300”-style affair: there’s enough humor and momentum to keep things lively even in the midst of crisis.

What’s more, there’s even some interesting philosophical material just beneath the surface.

In this reimagining of the legendary hero, Hercules’ famed labors have been shellacked with the stuff of legend. (The slaying of the nine-headed Hydra of Lerna, depicted early on in CGI-infused majesty, actually involved defeating a band of men in snake-inspired helmets). Given this, it may be easy to cast “Hercules” as a naturalistic subversion of the traditional mythology – a celebration of the human spirit rather than the divine.

This characterization, however, is not entirely accurate.

For starters, here there is a factual substrate underlying the legends that have arisen around Hercules: his labors clearly are more than folk accounts, even if some understand them with varying degrees of literalism. Moreover, the central contention of the Hercules legend – that he is the son of Zeus, and is a man in whom the blood of the gods flows – is not itself called into question: indeed, events near the end of the film drive this home with a vengeance. Who is to say, then, that the labors of Hercules are not still ways in which evil is defeated by the manifest power of divinity?

This theme – the participation of the spiritual in the material – is explored in a myriad of theological traditions. Sacramental theologies (Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, etc.) affirm the interaction between natural and supernatural elements of life: to use the Lutheran formulation, in Holy Communion the Body and Blood of Christ are present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. Conversely, newer strands of Protestantism are inclined to posit a neo-Gnostic disjunct between spirituality and materiality: hence the understanding of the Eucharist as solely a “symbolic memorial.” Such a rigidly dualistic sacramental framework is oftentimes coupled with a strictly literalistic biblical interpretation, in which miracles must be understood as dramatic violations of natural order.

An example serves to highlight this divergence in perspective: if it were conclusively shown that the first plague of Moses involved a dinoflagellate bloom (a toxic “red tide” that would have caused widespread destruction), rather than a literal “turning of the Nile to blood,” would it call into question the providence of God to the Israelites? Older Christian traditions would say assuredly not, since Divine power can and does work through the ordinary stuff of life – bread and wine, water and language.

And interestingly, this is the understanding suggested by “Hercules,” whether the film’s writers are cognizant of it or not. Hercules’ heroic acts are ways in which the supernatural is made manifest within the context of empirical reality – yet the empirical is not itself exclusive of the transcendent.

All that being said, most viewers won’t appreciate this dimension – and “Hercules” remains perfectly enjoyable regardless. (It’s probably worth noting, though, that this is a violent, frequently bloody movie that pushes the boundaries of its PG-13 rating). Fans of old-school war movies will find a great deal to enjoy here, as will those looking for undemanding late-summer entertainment.

Well worth seeing.

An energetic, entertaining reimagining of the Hercules tale. Recommended.

Normalized Score: 3.4

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Posted by on July 28, 2014 in Fantasy

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