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There And Back Again: The Unexpected Return of the Lord of the Hobbit and King’s Ring

Ahead of this week’s big release of the final instalment in The Hobbit trilogy, There And Back Again— sorry, quick name change to The Battle of the Five Armies, Owen has rewatched the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy and first two Hobbit films as preparation.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

gollumApologies for the profusely long title, but I felt it only fitting given the epic length of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth saga. Fans of these modern adaptations of JRR Tolkien’s iconic fantasy adventure novels are no strangers to things being stretched out for longer than is probably necessary. For example, within the last four weeks or so, I’ve sat through the DVD extended editions of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy (682 minutes all in all) and re-watched the first two Hobbit movies (a modest 369 minutes by comparison). With the release of the third and final part of Bilbo Baggins and his merry band of dwarves’ journey appearing in cinemas this Friday, re-titled The Battle of the Five Armies after it was decided There And Back Again made little to no sense any more since being split from two films to three, I will have spent a total of 1195 minutes in the company of hobbits, wizards, elves, orcs, trolls and dragons. In that time I could have re-watched the entire first two seasons of HBO’s massively successful and increasingly popular fantasy series Game of Thrones! And I’d have seen more boobs. A lot more boobs.

Before I get any further, a bit of context as to my position on the Lord of the Rings movies prior to this not-so-unexpected journey through the series is probably in order. As I explained on one of our recent podcasts, whilst I appreciated the scale and ambition of the projects, I would not have considered myself a fan. “Hobbity tosh” was a phrase an old colleague of mine used to describe them – and I would nod in agreement whenever he said it. Quite how I ended up really enjoying both An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug (in all of its 48 frames per second glory) when seeing them in the cinema is anybody’s guess! But I did. I mean, I really enjoyed them and was a little taken aback by how much fun I had with them when expecting so little.

It was with the release of The Battle of the Five Armies looming that I decided to give the entire series another chance. I reached for the unwatched copies of the extended edition DVD’s on my shelf (that I had stolen off my dad in 2012 with the intention of watching them before the first Hobbit film came out) and made my way through each of them. Starting with…


fellowship of the ringThe Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) (208 minutes)

Well blow me down. It seems the only reason I can fathom as to why I did not enjoy Fellowship of the Ring the first time around is that it was missing 30 minutes of extended footage, because I really enjoyed what is the start of Frodo’s adventure. As I mentioned on the podcast when I reviewed it last month, it genuinely wasn’t a chore trying to finish it. I know that may sound like a back-handed compliment, but for such a long film, every bit of it was entertaining to watch. From our four heroic hobbits and their first encounter with Stryder, to Legolas and Gimli’s banter, to Bormoir’s battle with the orcs, it was (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) fantastic. I’m still not 100% certain that I like Elijah Wood’s performance as Frodo Baggins, bearer of the one ring on a quest to destroy it before Sauron enacts his dastardly plan, but everyone else seemed perfect. Perhaps none more so than Sir Ian McKellen who was born to play the part of the wise old wizard Gandalf the Grey. It was still as impressive an achievement as I remembered, with some gorgeous New Zealand scenery and beautifully framed shots, but it was probably the first time I really took notice of just how good a movie this is. A genuinely pleasant surprise.


The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) (223 minutes)the two towers

Whilst my colleague Gerry may disagree given his thoughts in our Decade In Film series, I personally found that there was a noticeable drop off in quality during the first half of The Two Towers. A title that I found slightly confusing, given the fact there are more than two towers in the film. In an article I read just this week, it seems that Tolkien himself was also of the same opinion that it was a rubbish title. The film started slowly, with perhaps the opening 90 minutes offering little more than a build up to what was to come. Pacing issues dragged this movie down to essentially a story about walking. Albeit one with a number of redeeming features. There’s more humour here than in Fellowship, particularly involving scenes with Pippin, Merry and Treebeard whose light-hearted scenes help brighten an otherwise dark tale of Mordor’s imposing presence as Frodo and Sam draw nearer. Speaking of whom, Gollum’s appearance also marks a turning point in the story as the fork between their relationship, foreshadowing what is to come of Mr Baggins (Sméagol’s dark and twisted nature) and what he once was (Sam’s friendly disposition and naivety). Narratively, its timing couldn’t have been better as an injection of life suddenly surges through the movie. Of course, also helping this film find its large and hairy feet is the political struggles between Madril and Théoden, Saruman’s corrupting influence (played sublimely by Christopher Lee) and the extraordinary Battle At Helm’s Deep. To coin a football cliché, it’s not just a film of two towers, it’s a film of two halves. The first, plodding and uneventful; the second, increasingly magnificent.


return of the kingThe Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) (251 minutes)

Winner of eleven (yes, ELEVEN) Oscar’s at the Academy Awards in 2004 – that’s seven more than Fellowship of the Ring and nine more than The Two Towers – including the big two (Best Picture and Best Director), it is arguably the most successful film in the entire trilogy. Or, possibly, a recognition of the trilogy in its entirety. The challenge Peter Jackson faced with this final instalment mainly consisted of topping what has preceded it in terms of narrative structure, visual flair and erstwhile adventure, whilst roundly bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion. From its opening scenes with Sméagol and Déagol discovering the Ring, to its climactic battle sequence closing the movie.. or was that catching up with the gang back in the Shire? Or was it Aragorn’s ceremony? Or Gandalf shipping former ring-addicts Frodo and Bilbo off to the Elven rehab facility across the water (all in slow motion for some reason)? Or was it… you get the idea, there’s a lot of potential endings to this movie. Even so, from start to finish it was a truly deserving final piece and quite nicely ended the journey without feeling inclined to leave unresolved cliff hangers, include cheap shock twists near the end or unfathomably long indistinguishable CGI fight sequences. If Two Towers momentarily made me question whether or not I would actually enjoy completing the series of films, then Return of the King swiftly put to bed any such thoughts and converted me to a genuine fan of this Hobbity tosh I once pompously sneered at.


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) (182 minutes)121118_publicity_still_002.tif

As I stated earlier, upon exiting the cinema on 21st November 2012, after just seeing this film in 3D expecting to be bored half to death three hours earlier, I was practically giddy about how much fun I had with Jackson’s triumphant return to Middle Earth. This was my first time rewatching the film since then and whilst I’d forgotten just how slow the opening 50 minutes were, as dwarf upon dwarf arrives at Bilbo (Martin Freeman)’s Hobbit Hole (careful now). It was something I didn’t mind too much in the cinema. It set the tone and jovial atmosphere that would penetrate most of what proceeded through these prequels, but witnessing it for a second time, it was rather tedious. However, things pick up once everybody has been introduced (or re-introduced as the case may be) and they hit the road, beginning Bilbo’s unexpected journey to the Lonely Mountain to help the dwarves reclaim their home from Smaug the dragon. What still holds up well, and has been one of my favourite aspects from any of these films so far, is the performance of Andy Serkis as Gollum (which is even more creepy than Peter Woodthorpe in the 1978 rotoscoped animation Lord of the Rings, of which I also squeezed in a rewatch of before starting on The Hobbit). His utter disgust at being accused of sneaking in Return of the King is topped only by the game of riddles with Bilbo. It becomes the stand out moment across either Hobbit film so far and remains as darkly amusing now as it was the first time I witnessed it.


desolation of smaugThe Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (187 minutes)

Just as An Unexpected Journey was a fun frolic through a fantasy world I had slowly become attached to, so too was its follow up from this time last year. In fact, I’d say that this was the much better film out of the two. The pacing was more even and the world expansion seemed more rapid and interesting. Suddenly these worlds and characters we’d glimpsed previously became worthwhile additions as Bilbo no longer had to keep proving himself to Thorin (Richard Armitage) over and over again. Meanwhile, Kili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) added some much needed romance to these stories. It’s not often I say that, but (excuse the euphemism) it had been a bit of a sausage-fest up until this point. Bromance can only take you so far in a world that explores all manner of creature and race. It also gave Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and his moody glances a reason to be here. I can quite safely say that it also has some of the most exciting and amusing battle sequences from any of these five films. There’s never been any questions about Peter Jackson’s ability to shoot these moments; whether it’s a priest battling zombies in Braindead, or the sweeping epic Battle of the Pelennor Fields from Return of the King, it’s clearly an area he excels in. Here, there are numerous encounters that are immensely enjoyable. A barrel ride down some rapids, for example, is as fun as it sounds like it should be. A close-combat sequence in a Lake-town house between some orcs and elves is also fiercely engaging, even if it did look a bit too weird in 48fps. And, of course, the moment the audience were waiting for with Smaug’s awakening and subsequent run-around with the dwarves is totally engrossing, setting up a finale that just made me wish Battle of the Five Armies was due out a few weeks sooner so I could watch it straight away!


With all that out of the way, the only thing left to write is that if you haven’t gathered already, I have converted from cynic to fanatic as I eagerly await the release of what is likely to be Peter Jackson’s farewell to Tolkien. Where is there left to go now? A biopic of JRR Tolkien is a possibility but not likely to fit into this fantasy series. With Jackson having repeatedly denied any intentions to adapt The Silmarillion, works that feature familiar characters from Tolkien’s world but was edited and completed posthumously by his son, not to mention the legal battles there would be over the rights to the book which have never been sold, it seems this is the end for Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf and co. Unless Guillermo Del Toro fancies a crack at it, of course…

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies will be in UK cinemas from Friday 12 December 2014, at which point Owen will return for a full review. It will also be featured as the main review on our next podcast, the Christmas Special episode featuring Matt Lambourne and Callum Petch.

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A Decade In Film – The Noughties: 2005

A series where the Failed Critics look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choosing their favourite films from each year of that decade.

When I was putting together the longlist for this article, I realised that this year seems to be notable for the number of eminently forgettable films it produced. That is, films I’ve watched that I’ve never had a desire to watch again or, worse, had forgotten that I’d even seen. Examples include Syriana, Wedding Crashers (come at me bro), Jarhead, The Island, The Business, Casanova, War of the Worlds, Revolver, Mr and Mrs Smith, The Producers, Robots, The Longest Yard, Assault on Precinct 13, Just Friends, Lord of War, Match Point, Cinderella Man, Wallace and Gromit, King Kong, whichever mediocre interpretation of Harry Potter was due that year…

Oh and apparently someone made a fan-film about how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader? And they even pretended to be George Lucas?! What a crazy idea. I’m just glad it’s not part of the official canon – I’d hate for the legacy of the Star Wars trilogy to be tarnished.

Anyway, my conclusion is that I may have watched more films from this year than any other so far, and yet I’ve struggled to pull together 5 films that are really amazing. Usually selecting 5 films is an agonising process. I just have very little emotional connection to many films – I’d say my Top 4 are strong and I chose the other fairly arbitrarily out a number of ‘meh’ choices. And please, as always, bear in mind that these are not supposed to be the ‘best’ films of the year but simply the ones I enjoy the most.

5. Kingdom of Heaven

kingdom of heavenThere will be a day when you will wish you had done a little evil to do a greater good.

I know this may be fairly controversial as many people I speak to think KoH is boring, but Ridley Scott’s epic tale of the Crusades has a lot going for it. Orlando Bloom is as good as Orlando Bloom gets (which admittedly isn’t all that great) and the historical world is lovingly created. Really though, I like this film because it has some awesome battle sequences, a rousing, sweeping soundtrack, and simply because I find that era of history utterly fascinating.

I won’t go into the historical accuracy or controversy about the film’s message on Western-Arab relations at a deeply sensitive time; far more qualified people than I have covered this in much greater detail. If you’ve not seen the film before or haven’t watched it in a long time, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of the Director’s Cut Blu-Ray and strap yourself in to the home cinema system for the film and accompanying documentaries.

4. A History of Violence

a history of violenceThere. You see how cozy it can be when you decide to play nice? Now come, Joey. Get in the car. You won’t need your toothbrush. We’ll take care of everything.

Criminally underrated by the general population but loved by critics, David Cronenberg’s film stars Viggo Mortensen as a man in a quiet town who responds with extraordinary, lethal skill when two men try to rob his diner. While not the most surprising or twist-filled narrative, the story is still gripping and as the film unravels, it is a pleasure to watch Mortensen’s consummate portrayal of the protagonist.

I’m not going to say any more about this film other than this: if you’ve not seen it, rectify this immediately. If you have, you’re probably overdue another viewing.

3. Hidden (Caché)

hiddenIsn’t it lonely, if you can’t go out?

It took me far too long to watch this film and I suspect many readers will be aware of the film without having seen it. As I said when raving about the film on a podcast many moons ago, the main feeling I was left with was simply awe at Haneke’s direction.

At the heart of the film is a mystery, a frighteningly real and possible mystery that it would be detrimental to discuss in case you, the reader, haven’t seen the film. Nonetheless, the way in which the narrative is unwound, meticulously, thread by thread, is a joy to behold. Without spoiling anything, I can say that the mystery continues right up until the final shot – which unlike most films doesn’t give the viewer closure but instead opens up a whole other line of enquiry for the viewer to ponder as they walk away from the film.

The beauty is therefore in Haneke’s intention; no explanation is fully satisfactory. There are flaws in any theory to answer the film’s questions, just as in life. If you’ve seen Hidden though, I’m sure you will be bursting with theories of your own and will happily engage others in a discussion/argument about it. And that, really, is the beauty of good entertainment, of a fine cultural artefact – enjoyable in the moment, just as enjoyable when shared with others.

2. Sin City

sin cityThe silencer makes a whisper of the gunshot. I hold her close until she’s gone. I’ll never know what she was running from. I’ll cash her cheque in the morning.

Stylish, brutally violent and full of smart dialogue, Frank Miller’s graphic novel series is definitely worth a read. And as the film is arguably the most faithful interpretation of comic/graphic novel source material you’re likely to find, it isn’t surprising to find it here on this list. Robert Rodriguez had spent a few years directing kids films by this point (interspersed with Once Upon a Time in Mexico) so this represented a powerful return to type.

Still notable nearly ten years on for the striking visuals thanks to being shot almost entirely on green screen, Sin City explores the dark side of urban humanity. RR managed to pull together an all-star cast (who interestingly weren’t all signed up when some scenes were shot, so RR digitally swapped them in for doubles later on) and in particular a great turn from Mickey Rourke after years in the wilderness, an absolute must given the disparate nature of the multiple narratives woven together. Plus it has lots of sexy ladies in it who, much like in Planet Terror a couple of years later, kick a lot of ass and aren’t just there purely as eye candy.

Sin City is like the most archetypal film noir ever made and yet completely unlike pretty much every film noir at the same time. Mostly though, it’s just terrifically entertaining.

1. Batman Begins

batman beginsJim Gordon: I never said thank you.
Batman: And you’ll never have to.

There was only ever going to be one winner here and we all know it. Just a few weeks ago I found that a significant number of my work colleagues consider BB the best of the Nolan Batman films and I know they aren’t alone in feeling that way. Personally I think The Dark Knight is superior but Begins will always have a special place in my heart as a Batman geek.

It may be difficult to remember now but Begins came out when superhero films were reaching a difficult stage. We’d seen the DC heroes (Batman and Superman) decline by the late 90s with the genre seemingly dead until Raimi’s Spiderman and the original X-Men films smashed a big-budget hole in the cinematic landscape. Suddenly cinemas were awash with shiny, polished interpretations of a whole range of comic book heroes. New special effects technologies transported us to incredible, fantastical versions of the world time and again, with huge ticket and DVD sales for even the mediocre efforts (for instance, the distinctly average Hulk took $245m). Warner Bros took a look at their big ticket hero. And they had a problem.

What on earth were they to do with Batman? Since Schumacher took on the mantle, the Batman of recent memory was all style, no substance – and the style was questionable. Tim Burton’s Batman films in the late 80s/early 90s had been a huge success but the landscape seemed to have moved on. The WB execs found a way to get back to that darker vision of Bats and gambled on audiences being fed up of the more superficial treatment prevalent at the time. Enter Chris Nolan, still relatively unknown by mainstream audiences despite the relative success of Memento & Insomnia, with a bold vision: to make a film about Bruce Wayne, not about Batman.

The rest is history. I could write a very long article about this film, about the series it spawned, about the brilliance of Nolan’s interpretation (I kind of already have). I may still do. For now, let’s just bask in the glory of Batman Begins, a film that changed cinema for the better and kicked off one of the finest trilogies in recent film history.