The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Extended Edition (2014/2015)

2015 #180a
Peter Jackson | 164 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 15 / R

I just started shooting the movie with most of it not prepped at all. You’re going on to a set and you’re winging it. You’ve got these massively complicated scenes, no storyboards, and you’re making it up there and then on the spot […] I went to our producers and the studio and said […] ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m doing now.’

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies - Extended EditionSo says Peter Jackson in the special features accompanying this extended cut of his trilogy-closing saga-ending sixth Middle-earth movie, as widely reported on the set’s release back in November. Similar comments are echoed repeatedly throughout the special features, like how on Lord of the Rings they had racks and racks of metal orc helmets finished a whole year before they were needed for filming, whereas on The Hobbit they were delivering such props to set on the morning they were required for the shoot.

Another revelation: by making the late-in-the-day decision to split the intended two Hobbit movies into three, Jackson gained a whole year to prep and shoot the gigantic (sub)titular battle scene that forms the climax to his telling of Tolkien’s story. Various reasons have been suggested for Jackson and/or the producers’ trilogy-making decision, from genuine artistic intent, to poorly managed storytelling, to pure greed. In the wake of those special features, this new one — that everyone was making it up as they went along, too deep in to see the bigger picture, and desperate for a way to gain some time to get a handle on what they were doing — seems the most plausible of them all.

In the end, The Hobbit films are what they are. What, if anything, does extending the last one by 19½ minutes bring to the table? Well, as with The Desolation of Smaug, the third film counterintuitively doesn’t feel as overlong (note: as overlong) in the extended cut as it did in the theatrical, but I’d attribute that more to the re-watch factor than the extra scenes and moments making it magically quicker. The new material isn’t scattered about as freely as it is in the Lord of the Rings extensions, but instead is largely confined to three or four wholly-new scenes and some short additions throughout the battle, plus largely-immaterial alterations to the effects in existing footage. Anyone interested in a six-page account of every little change can find those details here.

War, huh, what is it good for? Chariots.Most obvious, and most discussed, is the dwarves’ war chariot action scene, whose bloody decapitations saw the film earn an R in the US and 15 over here. A seven-minute action sequence in the middle of the battle, it’s by far the largest single addition, and is mainly notable for all that blood and its use of the word “jambags”. Somewhat ironically, the sequence was a last-minute addition (the physical chariot was the last thing built for the films), which even as they’re shooting it Jackson acknowledges is an indulgence, and then of course it got bumped to the extended edition for being just that.

Elsewhere: the brief funeral scene at the end is good; more Billy Connolly is more Billy Connolly; an extended fight at Dol Guldur proves you didn’t need the Smaug confrontation to provide some up-front adrenaline; some extra comedy is uncomfortably, inappropriately silly; I don’t think there’s more of Ryan Gage’s over-featured Alfrid, thank goodness, other than that he’s treated to a death scene — hurrah! Fans who had hoped for more of Beorn fighting in the final battle get their wish… for all of ten seconds (literally). No wonder they weren’t best pleased.

In the comments on my review of the extended second film, I assessed that film’s new scenes between Gandalf and Thorin’s mentally-fractured father Thrain should pay off in the third film when Gandalf re-encountered a gold-mad Thorin. And… they don’t. At all. Gandalf the warriorNot a sausage, unless I missed something. It didn’t bother me too much because, quite frankly, I can’t quite remember what it was all about; but when I inevitably watch the extended trilogy back to back one day, it may do then. That said, I can’t imagine it’s a major fault, but again highlights the built-on-the-fly, ill-thought-through state of expanding The Hobbit 2 into The Hobbit 2 and 3.

That The Battle of the Five Armies feels less overlong on a second viewing demonstrates how draggy films come about in the first place: sat in an edit suite for weeks or months, watching a film over and over (and over) again, the material must become so familiar that you lose any sense of perspective about its length or pace. Nonetheless, I still feel The Hobbit would’ve been best served in two films, or by allowing Parts 2 and 3 to run considerably shorter than your usual Middle-earth excursion. Fans have already cut together book-faithful edits of the entire trilogy, which I believe run something like four hours. Maybe that would’ve been best of all.

4 out of 5

In case you missed it, my review of the theatrical cut can be read here.

What We Did on Our Holiday (2014)

2015 #26
Andy Hamilton & Guy Jenkin | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | UK / English | 12 / PG-13

What We Did on Our HolidayOutnumbered: The Movie” is the pithy way to describe this comedy from writing-directing duo Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin (the pair behind the successful BBC sitcom), which sees divorcing parents Doug and Abi (David Tennant and Rosamund Pike) playing happy families when they take their three children to Scotland for the 75th birthday of his dying father (Billy Connolly). Their separation is a secret from the extended family, and who better to keep a secret than three young kids?

It’s hard to miss the Outnumbered parallels early on, as a middle-class London family with two girls and a boy (a mere inversion of the series’ two boys and a girl) battle with the kids’ oddities as they try to load the car for a road trip. There’s a suspicion that Hamilton and Jenkin are returning to their half-improvised TV show’s early glory days, when the natural kids said funny things and the adults had to react. If anything, however, the more Kids Say the Funniest Things: The Sitcom tendencies of early Outnumbered are toned down for this movie, which (like later seasons of the series) is very story-driven much of the time.

This comes particularly to the fore in the second half, following a midway ‘twist’ that threatens to turn the rest of the movie on its head. Doug and AbiFor some, the shift may scupper things. For me, it only makes it better: the story’s pathos and emotion are brought into focus, and the humour becomes all the funnier for punching in as tonal relief. It often seems to me that movies struggle to stay amusing for a full feature running time (there’s surely a reason all TV comedy comes in 30 minute chunks), but this story allows Hamilton and Jenkin to spread the laughs out a little without them feeling few or far between.

The three kids aren’t as instantly memorable as Outnumbered’s — there’s no Karen (for my money, one of the greatest sitcom characters ever) — but that’s not to sell their talents short. They may not get the same volume of funny lines, but they’re wonderfully naturalistic and un-stage-school-y. As the eldest, Emilia Jones has the most to do, bridging the gap between the kid-like young pair and actorly adult (much as Jake did on TV, indeed). She’s already been in Doctor Who, Wolf Hall and the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean, and will soon be seen amongst the starry cast of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise. One to watch? Maybe.

The adult cast are no slouch either, mind. Oscar-nominee Pike is the headline now the film’s being released in the US, with the always-popular Tennant joining her as the other nominal lead. Arguably they’re the straight men to both the kids and the array of comedy actors in supporting roles, idealised fun granddadincluding the likes of Ben Miller, Amelia Bullmore (getting the best subplot), Annette Crosbie and Celia Imrie. The real grown-up star, however, is Connolly. You get the sense he’s as scriptless as the kids are, improvising away with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, like some kind of idealised fun granddad. The scenes with just him and the kids are certainly one of the highlights, among the most amusing and the most affecting.

I wouldn’t have really objected if What We Did on Our Holiday had no higher aims than being Outnumbered: The Movie, though trying to recapture the alchemical comedy gold of the series’ early days may well have been a hiding to nothing. Hamilton and Jenkin are on a slightly different tack here, however, even if fans of the series may find it’s a variation on a theme. It’s a theme that stands repeating though, and by mixing in musings on loss and change and how, sometimes, the innocence of kids is more grown-up than the formality of adults, the writer-directors find enough to make their feature debut stand on its own merits.

4 out of 5

What We Did on Our Holiday is released in US theaters tomorrow, and is available via all the usual home entertainment choices in the UK.

The Man Who Sued God (2001)

2010 #3
Mark Joffe | 97 mins | TV | 15

The Man Who Sued GodI always assumed this was British, probably because it stars Billy Connolly and has a suitably quirky premise — one can see it fitting in with the school of British comedy that’s brought us The Full Monty, Saving Grace, Kinky Boots and the like. But no: it’s actually very much Australian, which, considering its suitably quirky premise and that it stars Billy Connolly, isn’t that surprising either. And director Mark Joffe’s best-known/most-seen other work must be the first 10 episodes (ever) of Neighbours, which just cements the Anglo-Antipodean relation.

Country-of-origin is immaterial though, and what’s important is that The Man Who Sued God is funny, and righteous, and silly, and fantastical — in an “oh, if only it were true!” way — because in reality any such case would likely be laughed out of court and the insurance companies allowed to continue with their sorry and disreputable business. And some of these things which meant I loved it — the “only in a film” moral victories, the sillification of the church(es), and so on — will mean others hate it, or at least view it as a mediocre effort.

There’s a place for realist films — those that remind us of the constant victory of big nasty corporations, or obey the likelihood of the unjust justice system, and so on — but there’s also a place for the more life-affirming, the stories where the impossible happens and the ‘little man’ with a good point to make happens to encounter a like-minded system that means he can ultimately win through.

And putting the church in a position where their only sensible defence is to prove God doesn’t exist is always going to make for a good story.

4 out of 5

The Aristocrats (2005)

2008 #87
Paul Provenza | 85 mins | TV | 18

The AristocratsIt’s not unusual for films showing on TV to be prefaced with content warnings about language, sex or violence, but I don’t think I’ve ever previously seen one that feels the need to place such a warning after every single ad break. But if there’s one film that needs that treatment — or, rather, one film they could actually show on TV that needs that treatment — it’s The Aristocrats.

The Aristocrats is, apparently, an incredibly famous joke, well known to all comedians — and, generally, only told to each other, not to audiences — that is flexible enough for anyone to tell in their own way and still have it work. It’s also incredibly vulgar; in fact, the point is often to make it as vulgar as humanly possible. To explain much more would ruin the point of the film, which aims to expose and explain this cultish joke to the masses. Personally I’ve never heard of the thing, and for all I know The Aristocrats could be an elaborate Blair Witch-esque hoax — “oh yeah, all comedians know it”. Note this: the only people you’ll see throughout are comedians, and they all seem to know each other too.

Subject matter aside, there’s not much of a structure to the material presented. Mostly compiled from dozens of interviews, the resultant piece is a jumbled mix of comedians telling their version of the joke, comedians explaining variations on it (those whose telling completely changes it are the ones who succeed), comedians explaining why it’s funny, comedians explaining how it works, comedians explaining how and why it varies, comedians musing on the differences between male and female tellings of the joke…

On the other hand, even though there is a degree of repetition, there’s also a surprising amount to say about it — even by the end, when yet another comedian launching into their version has you reaching for the remote, there’s often another little titbit around the corner. In other notes: for British viewers, the biggest and most widely known names — Billy Connolly, Eddie Izzard — barely feature; for everyone, it features one of the worst ventriloquists I’ve ever seen; and a mime artist who singlehandedly makes the entire thing worthwhile.

The biggest problem with The Aristocrats — the film, not the joke — is quite a simple one: it’s about a single joke. Even the most meandering comedians tell several of those in an hour and a half. To compound the issue, said joke can vary so much as to defy a lot of comedy-killing “why’s it funny?” analysis. What you’re left with is repetitive retellings of a joke that, to be blunt, is rarely funny whatever you shove in the middle. It’s an insider’s film about an insider’s joke; for the rest of us, it rather over eggs the point.

3 out of 5

Mrs Brown (1997)

2007 #89
John Madden | 101 mins | TV | PG / PG

Mrs BrownPeriod drama focusing on the friendship between Queen Victoria and her Highland servant John Brown, alongside political threats faced by the British monarchy in the 1860s.

There are undoubtedly some parallels to be drawn with recent Oscar-winner The Queen (British Queen retreats to Balmoral to escape the public eye amidst political events threatening the monarchy’s future, etc), but the real treats here are the performances. Judi Dench is fantastic as ever as the Queen, a character more complex than the stereotypical “we are not amused” image; and comedian Billy Connolly is surprisingly effective in a rare serious role.

4 out of 5