Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Two years ago the first Hobbit movie turned out to be a crushing disappointment. No one expected Peter Jackson to deliver something so lukewarm and bloated, and it was clear that cramming in three movies was never going to be the best solution for quality control. The second movie was a minor improvement, because it cut down the running time and Smaug was truly a visual and aural spectacle. It still wasn’t overall a very good movie though. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is the best of the three prequels, but that’s not saying much. And it probably feels like a better film mostly because the expectations from this movie were very low.

Five Armies picks up immediately where the previous movie left off – Smaug (once again voiced by Cumberbatch’s most excellent vocal cords), pissed off by the presence of Bilbo and the dwarves sets off to destroy Lake Town. Back in the Lonely Mountain Thorin, the leader of the group is seduced by the gigantic reserves of gold and the Arkenstone in Erebor.

It seems like the perfect setup for a huge finale – the problem is, it’s all very anti climactic. Smaug gets killed too fast. It’s quite frustrating, because we’ve been teased with Smaug’s buildup for two whole movies and he’s put down in a matter of ten minutes in this movie. The focus jarringly shifts to the Elves and the humans joining hands to attack Erebor, because Thorin refuses to give them their share of the gold. Thorin in retaliation calls a cousin and his whole army of dwarves to fight against the Elves and the men. Meanwhile Azog rounds up a huge army of his Orcs to attack everyone, making Erebor seem like a mixer grinder. It’s all supposed to be epic, and many of the ‘attack’ moments are quite rousing, but they all end in cringe inducingly limp ways. A few new creatures are briefly shown, and suddenly disappear. The Orcs organize an army of bats in various buildup scenes, and they’re taken care of off screen. It’s strange and it feels like Jackson had a lot of will power at the beginning and suddenly lost all interest in making the film.

The problems from the previous two films carry over to an even higher extent in the third film. None of those seven (or was it eight or nine) dwarves have any distinct personality, it’s impossible to distinguish who’s who, and when something bad happens to them you just can’t care. Combine that with a horrible love story between one of the dwarves and the Elf Tauriel and you have a melodramatic disaster on your hands. The trilogy’s core problem has always been the underwritten dwarves, and Jackson’s choice to constantly bring in characters, settings and the nostalgia from the previous trilogy than to make a new world here. LOTR worked because of its unforgettable characters, and it’s the opposite here. We knew in The Fellowship of the Ring itself that the dwarves ended up dead in the mines of Moria. Imagine how terrific this trilogy would have been had Jackson focused on the story of these dwarves rather than use them as placeholders to showcase the same people from the previous movies.

It’s also unclear as to whose eyes the Hobbit films are being told from. The film is called The Hobbit but it’s not about him. On one hand there’s Bilbo who is supposed to anchor the films but he’s shoved aside to bring in an LOTR element just when he gets interesting. The POV of the dwarves is nonexistent because they hardly matter. Plus there’s Gandalf doing his own thing, and the Elves too, and the humans as well, none of which is explored well enough to have any significant impact. They all just go through the motions in their green screen boxes, participating in the same narrative they did twelve years ago.

The only thing more frustrating than Jackson’s choice of telling a similar story again, is by telling it with a ton of fake looking CGI. It’s hands down, the biggest, most annoying element of these films. It’s been twelve years since the last LOTR movie and the visuals in those films look more real, more immersive than any of these films that have a threefold budget. What does work in this movie is the wonderful Martin Freeman, only because he’s the only one in the movie who seems to be in it for the story, not for the cash grab.

Gaffes aside, The Battle of the Five Armies is a harmless action movie. It’s fun in a few places and does a lot of fan service for those who’ve read the books. It’s just forgettable, but certainly unavoidable for those who’ve seen the previous five movies. Jackson treats this property as his precious, let’s just hope someone takes away the ring from him and he gets back in form with Tintin 2.    

(First published in Mid Day)

Movie Review: The Babadook

The reason why most horror movies are looked down upon (and rightly so) is that they have forgotten what the term ‘horror movie’ means. Most filmmakers don’t realize what turns a human being into a horror film buff. They assume horror means either shock or cheap thrills or gore. That is not what a good horror movie is about. What a good horror movie is about is creating a sense of unrelenting tension and uneasiness in you. Which is why the best horror movies are the ones which are more ‘creepy’ than ‘horrific’.

Films like Sinister, James Wan’s recent offerings, The Orphanage and even The Woman in Black all walked the tricky tightrope between creepy and horrific. The new Australian movie The Babadook nails both the elements to delightful perfection.

Directed with stunning precision and sensitivity by debutant Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is spine tingling hair-raising razor sharp entertainment. The plot presents itself as something very simple: a single mother (Esse Davis) who has lost her husband a few years ago has a hard time raising her increasingly disturbed kid. She lives in a fairly large house made of creaking floors, gloomy lights and dark corners. Sleep is hard to come by because her son is showing signs of sociopathic behavior. Things get even worse when she finds a children’s cutout book named ‘The Babadook’, which carries an eerie poem that warns them of a murderous Mr Babadook creeping in at night when you sleep.

The only way this scenario could transcend its clichés is by offering something more than you expect it to, and rendering the thrills in a manner that don’t feel hollow. Luckily, The Babadook does just that. There are no cheap jump thrills – the film actually feeds you the scares by making them probable (shudder). Mr Babadook himself is rather iconic – the way he moves and sounds is very satisfyingly alarming. The moment someone gets a phone call, a croaking voice says ‘Baaabaaa Dook Dook Dook’ and the rear section of whatever you’re wearing is moistened immediately.

You won’t see the ending coming, and even if you do you’re in luck – because Kent’s direction of the familiar elements is stunning. When a character is cowering in bed you know there’s something freaky above the sheets, but you can’t help squeal in fear because of the way Kent shoots the scene. When kids fall off a height she doesn’t show them dropping on the ground – the scene just cuts before you can react, thereby taking your breath away. Kent also nails the atmosphere and sound design to create constant tension in the film. She has assisted Lars Von Trier previously, so apart from the technical stuff, she’s also learned how to portray the intersection between the themes of grief and terror from the best.

You also don’t expect good acting from horror films so it’s great that Esse Davis delivers an absolutely powerhouse performance here, perhaps one of the best of the year. A sleep deprived single mother is the biggest cliché that an actor can get but Davis is impossible to look away from. When her character veers between uneasiness, melancholy and dread, you do too. Her character is itself very well written, offering a female standpoint that is seldom explored by Hollywood. She has no friends, her closest family member has a valid reason to be distant from her, ironically her problematic son who is the root cause of the depression in her life is the only one who genuinely loves her, and there’s a ghost in the house trying to kill both of them. So how does someone like this realistically deal with such a scenario? Call an exorcist? No - Kent goes much farther than the surface. Funnily, the scenes where you don’t see The Babadook work better than the ones when you do. It’s sort of like the case in Mama, where the fear of the unknown is taken away from you the moment the monster shows up. Most fun is the book itself that is featured in the movie – it’s beautifully designed, and really really freaky.

The Babadook has been garnering acclaim during its festival rounds the whole year, so we’re lucky it’s in Indian theaters. If you waste the opportunity and don’t see this film, you’ll hear three knocks on your bedroom door at night. Dook Dook Dook. Chances are, he’s looking at you reading this review, right behind you.

(First published in Mid Day)