Sunday, 25 January 2015

FILM REVIEW: Ex Machina


When Mary Shelley published Frankenstein in 1818, she set a template for stories about man playing at being God that has lasted for nearly two centuries. Her doctor was concerned with the reanimation of man, an experiment which resulted in the earliest science fiction novel, asking big questions about man's place in the world, the nature of humanity and the way in which society's nurture can alter it. The inspiration for Ex Machina is clear as first-time director, long-time screenwriter Alex Garland remoulds Shelley's tale for the 21st century, melding her Romantic sensibilities and philosophical searching with a technological sheen that re-examines the age-old question of what makes us human.

The film finds a computer programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) winning the opportunity to spend a week in the company of his reclusive billionaire boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). As is so often the case, all is not what it seems and Caleb discovers he is to be the human component in a Turing test, the ultimate test to see if artificial intelligence can pass for being human and all that entails. The artificial intelligence in question is a humanoid construction called Ava (Alicia Vikander). As Caleb progresses through the test, he finds himself questioning everything he has been told so far and forming a curious relationship with the inquisitive Ava.

Meticulous in its construction, not a single word of Garland's screenplay is wasted, building the tension between the three leads beautifully as the story unfolds. It deftly combines exposition with the action itself and considering the subject matter, it neither belittles nor leaves its audience behind. Garland has an impressive track record with genre screenwriting anyway, but he more than proves himself as a director too, intricately building the claustrophobic world of Nathan's retreat. That world-building ensures that the film not only excels narratively, but thematically too.

The location and design of Nathan's house is a perfect microcosm of the way in which Ex Machina sets binary opposites together seemingly in harmony. Conversations about evolution and the natural world take place within a location that itself sees the meeting of the chaos of nature and the order of the modern world. Nathan's house is all clean lines and carefully arranged rooms with the natural world jutting in through a stylishly designed rock formation as part of a wall or a tree growing through into a small courtyard. Floor to ceiling windows allow its occupants to see out to the mountains, the forest and all of the impressive scenery beyond. The message of this house is clear; this is a place where nature is controlled and kept at bay, a fitting house for a man attempting to play God.

Ava, the figure at the heart of the film, is another example of this meeting of opposites. Impressively designed and realised via Vikander's performance, Ava is a combination of human features and metal bodywork, glimpsed through transparent panels on her arms, torso and legs. It is an uncanny version of humanity and Vikander captures both facets of the character masterfully, given her an almost mechanical physicality with a none-more human personality. The casting of Vikander also builds in a layer of objectification regarding both Caleb and Nathan's interaction with her; it's something Garland casts a critical eye over. It builds into a voyeurism at the heart of the film, one which not only casts Ava within the male gaze of Nathan and Caleb, but also the entirety of humanity. Nathan's search engine, Bluebook, can code and quantify human needs, constructed solely from the profile their use of the internet constructs.

Both starring in a certain blockbuster sequel later this year, 2015 looks set to be a big year for Isaac and Gleeson. In this smaller, confined world, Gleeson brings a wide-eyed naivety and a warm performance to the film. As the human component in the Turing test, his innate goodness filters through and he makes for a sympathetic narrative focus. It also helps that he has an exceptional chemistry with both Vikander and Isaac. Isaac may have broken through with the morose Llewyn Davis, but he proves his versatility here, giving a performance that is operating on several levels all at once. Mercurial, sinister and broodingly physical, he brings a masculine posturing to the film that produces an excellent counterpoint to Vikander's soft femininity. 

Ex Machina is fascinating, multi-layered piece of work and Alex Garland's directorial debut is extremely impressive, combining thematic explorations with a chilling, twisting narrative. It's an intelligent new spin on a Frankenstein-like tale and will stand as an example of the kind of clever science fiction that enthrals and bewilders in equal measure.

- Becky

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Friday, 23 January 2015

FILM REVIEW: Into The Woods


After watching Into The Woods, Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 musical, it seems to me that ‘The Woods’ aren’t so much a place, but rather a state of mind. A place of suspended disbelief, where stories are mixed up and characters wander in and out of narratives as they please.

By default, some people will gel with this quite happily, where others won’t. It’s worth remembering that, despite the variety of upside-down, what-happened-next fairytales available for our viewing pleasure, Into the Woods was very much a forerunner back in the day. 

But back to the film. The ‘Prologue’, introduces us to James Corden’s baker and his wife (Emily Blunt) a childless couple, who are one day visited by a witch (Meryl Streep) who claims responsibility for the curse on their house which has rendered them childless all these years. They are set the challenge of retrieving certain magical items (you can probably hazard a guess) by the next blue moon in three days’ time in order for the curse to be lifted. Along the way, they meet some familiar fairy-tale faces, albeit with a twist each time, from an indecisive Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), to an arrogant, slightly sinister Prince Charming (Chris Pine), to an emotional Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) via Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) of beanstalk fame, whose best friend is a cow.

Personally I’d be hard pushed not to enjoy something Sondheim has had even the smallest involvement in, as the many questionable performances of ‘Being Alive’ I’ve watched on youtube is a testament to, but arguably as strong a draw with this production is the all-star cast. And that proved a worthy notion, although not entirely in the way you would expect. Most of the pre-release hype has been focused almost entirely on Meryl Streep, calling to mind that highly appropriate Tina Fey and Amy Poehler Golden Globes joke ‘Meryl Streep can’t be here tonight… She has the flu – and I hear she’s amazing in it’.

And amazing indeed she is, veering between cackling, spell-casting and flashing her disturbingly long nails –all your traditional witchy activities – and genuine, heart-felt laments at the loss of her beauty and youth. Oh and her magic beans, of course. She’s quite keen on them. Her performance of the powerful ‘Last Midnight’, a typically complex Sondheim number full of quirky rhymes (see ‘witch’ and ‘hitch’, ‘hunch’ and ‘bunch’) and neat summaries of just about everyone else in the plot along the way, is particularly awe-inspiring.

But I’d be willing to bet that it is Emily Blunt’s performance audiences are still talking about on the bus home. She plays the childless baker’s wife with vulnerability, warmth and vitality, all whilst cracking out a singing voice I certainly had no idea she possessed, providing some really gorgeous harmonies in the group numbers in particular.

And it’s not just Blunt who takes us by surprise. Chris Pine’s performance of the out-loud ego-trip ‘Agony’ alongside Rapunzel’s Prince Billy Magnussen was an unexpected triumph (‘Agony! Far more painful than yours, when you know she would go with you, if there only were doors’), as were almost all songs performed by the younger actors - Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood and Les Miserables’ Daniel Huttlestone as Jack. Film viewers know Anna Kendrick has a lovely voice through Pitch Perfect, but it’s great to see her stretching her cinematic comfort zone a bit here, and using those Tony nominated Broadway vocal chords to full effect. 
You can also play an excellent game of ‘spot the character actor’ in Act II, if Johnny Depp (who else?)’s performance as the infamous big bad wolf wasn’t enough for you.

Marshall has played a sensible game here in striking for the fun, playful angle in Into The Woods, rather than overly focusing on the themes of storytelling or the innate darkness in children’s stories – Cinderella’s ugly sisters cutting off parts of their feet in order to fit the slipper, anyone? The darker scenes are there, granted, but they never feel like the main focus.

This is by no means a perfect film, you do get the slight sense at times that there's a little something missing, but you can't quite put your finger on what.

With that in mind, if you enter the woods looking for a good time, you won’t stray far from the path. 

★★★★

Jen

@jenniferklarge

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Friday, 16 January 2015

TV REVIEW: Broadchurch - Episode 2


Alright there at the back? Have we still got everyone?

Granted, we’re only at Episode 2 of ITV crime drama Broadchurch’s second series, but I must admit I’ve found myself behaving slightly like a fretful tour-guide this week whenever I’ve spoken to a Broadchurch viewer. Are we still all here? Are we still following?

The answer appears to be a resounding yes so far, although don’t worry, I’ll keep checking we haven’t accidentally left anybody in the loos.

There was certainly a lot to take in this week, even for Broadchurch. The trial of Joe Miller (Matthew Gravelle) kicked off in earnest, now with a full quota of lawyers, DI Hardy (David Tennant) ramped up his mad mission to solve two crimes at once, orchestrating a meeting between Claire (Eve Myles) and Lee Ashworth (James D’Arcy), Mark Latimer (Andrew Buchan) continued to behave very oddly, as did Reverend Coates (Arthur Darvill), whilst poor old Ellie (Olivia Coleman) is still bearing the brunt of just about everyone’s anger. Oh and Beth (Jodie Whittaker) went into labour. 

So a quiet episode, really.

Admittedly, there was some silliness, with several reviewers astutely pointing out the show’s ever-increasing resemblance to a soap opera. And it is, really. The meet up between Claire and Lee was doomed from the outset, made obvious by how many times we were told in the dialogue exactly where Alec and Ellie were both standing, and how safe it all was. This is Broadchurch - nobody should be taking ‘safe’ at face value anymore.  The anger aimed at Ellie continues to defy all logic, at least as far as I’m concerned, mainly as I don’t see how anyone can bring themselves to shout at Olivia Colman in an orange anorak. Especially when she’s had nothing to eat but ‘a scotch egg and a Kit-Kat’. In its defence, though, it does neatly demonstrate the atmosphere of blame and paranoia in the town.

And I think that might be part of the reason why, despite its barmy-ness, the show is very much still working. We’re still feeling the aftermath of Danny’s murder, but if all the action was just inside the courtroom, it would get very boring very quickly. So we’re seeing other things. We’re seeing the continued extraordinary performances from Colman and Tennant in particular as their characters’ relationship strengthens further. So much so that it almost makes you wish you could see them detective-ing together in happier times. 

We’re seeing the relationships between the legal teams, flashbacks to the Sandbrook case, a theme of misanthropy as just about everyone is guilty of something unpleasant, lots and lots of beautiful coastlines, a few bluebells, and then Meera Syal turned up! Meera Syal on a bike, slapping on a judge’s wig and then basically delivering the ‘let’s have a good, clean game’ speech a la Madam Hooch. Brilliant, just brilliant.

For this, arguably, is where the show’s genius really lies. Despite its primary storyline being over, there’s still plenty going on that’s new. Amazingly, it somehow still pushes you into having theories, still having suspicions, even though the culprit has allegedly been caught.
  
For example, I personally want to know what Mark Latimer was doing between 1 and 4am on the night in question, what on earth he’s up to hanging out with Tom Miller (Adam Wilson) quite as much as he is, and who Sharon the lawyer (Marianne Jean-Baptise) was talking to on the phone in the hotel.

Oh and I wouldn’t trust the vicar as far as I could throw him, Arthur Darvill or no.

And that’s just me. There are masses of theories and discussions going out there and everyone’s got their own.

If it carries on like this, it’ll have us all hooked until the very end.


Jen

@jenniferklarge

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Thursday, 15 January 2015

FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Choices

Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Faith's on the dark side, Buffy and Angel's relationship is now very serious and the Mayor is hurtling towards his ascension as the gang look on without knowing what to do.




Another aptly titled episode finds the gang with offers from colleges on their respective doorsteps. Buffy has been accepted to Northwestern, Willow's got into just about every university going (including Giles Factory, Oxford) and Xander's decided to go full Kerouac. The Mayor is also a step closer to ascending, having to digest an entire box of weird demonic spiders. With Buffy wanting to take the fight to his door, the gang put a plan into action. This being an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it doesn't go entirely to plan.

It's the episode in which Buffy and the Mayor finally meet, a union that crackles with all the tension that has gone before it. Unable to attack her directly, he plants the seed of doubt in Angel's mind about his relationship with Buffy. It's an insidious technique and one which forecasts Angel's departure loud and clear. Of course, Buffy is trying to leave herself but realises before the end that she is unable to. The threat of their looming future is reflected in the threat of the Ascension itself and it's that darkness that hangs heavy over the episode.

That threat doesn't carry quite so well in the earlier scenes because the episode goes into a full-on thriller homage, beginning with Buffy's desire to steal the Box of Gavrok. The heist itself is a nice little Mission Impossible style spoof, from Wesley's plan to synchonrise watches foiled by Buffy and Willow not wearing one to Buffy's harness jamming in her Tom Cruise moment. The jovial attitude to it doesn't always quite work, particularly when Willow gets captured (though her interaction with the vampire is great and clearly an early prototype for Agents of SHIELD's Simmons' attempts at remaining cool under pressure). 

There are many little moments in this episode that I love. It's in the emphasis on the character quirks; Willow drawing diagrams for Xander and Oz's magic prep, Giles bringing a flask of tea on the Box heist and Snyder's war on drugs. The episode may not work entirely as a whole, but the character stuff is so good that the sudden shift in tone from jovial heist to hostage situations doesn't jar. Especially when Snyder barges in and begins accusing of everyone of being on a drug deal. For a man clued into the Sunnydale situation, he's remarkably silly. But that is why we love to hate him.

In fact, this is such a great Willow episode, despite it not being entirely about her. Given her growth over the course of the season, it's hardly surprising that she will readily stand up to Faith. Her speech about how Faith threw away pretty much any advantage she had is such a kickass character moment as well as going on to be the saviour of the day by stealing pages from the Books of Ascension. The episode is also the point at which Willow's future as a badass Wicca is cemented, deciding to stay in Sunnydale and help Buffy fight the good fight. That squeal and hug when she tells Buffy she's staying? Adorable. 

Quote of the Week:

Mayor: Where's the courier? I'm supposed to pay him.
Faith: I made him an offer he couldn't survive.

Let's Get Trivial: The death of the security guard marks the 8th death of a Sunnydale High employee since the series began.

- Becky

You can read Becky's look at Earshot here.

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Tuesday, 6 January 2015

TV REVIEW: Broadchurch - Episode One


The first series of Broadchurch came as a bit of a shock to everyone really. Built around the central mystery of the murder of Danny Latimer, the series took into account every aspect of the investigation from the police work involved, the reaction of the local and national press, to the emotional torment it placed on everyone affected. It explored some keenly observed themes, particularly in relation to journalistic and police ethics, as well as providing the kind of emotionally involving event television that had just about everyone who watched it debating who might have killed Danny Latimer. 

When the second series was announced, it heralded many jokes about Broadchurch turning into a coastal Midsomer, a town in which murders took place with such alarming regularity that no one would want to visit, let alone move there. Wisely, series creator Chris Chibnall keeps that close, emotional focus on the ramifications of Danny's murder as the audience checks in for Joe Miller's trial. 

Given how central he was to the community through his wife and detective on the Latimer case, Ellie, Joe's actions in pleading 'not guilty' to Danny's murder instantly throws the direction of the series towards a full trial. Meanwhile, in the background, Alec is haunted by the Sandbrook case, oft-mentioned but never explored fully in the first series, as the main suspect in that case returns to haunt his wife, whom Alec has under his unofficial protection.

When we were first introduced to Broadchurch, the town and its inhabitants were revealed to us through a fantastic tracking shot that followed Mark Latimer through his morning routine. It had a nice, flowing style that not only demonstrated the residents' closeness, but also the town itself; quiet, idyllic and rarely interrupted. The contrast to the opening episode of this series is stark. The audience is given glimpses of the characters' new dynamics following the outcome of the investigation as the action cuts between several of the main players in their respective and, importantly, distant locations. 

As ever, the performances are excellent, showcased perfectly in the court scene at the heart of the episode in which Joe delivered his unexpected plea. As the family torn apart by the murder of their son and the subsequent focus on them, both Jodie Whittaker and Andrew Buchan provide a solid emotional core, every new development etched in pain across their faces. Newcomers Eve Myles and Charlotte Rampling also make a strong first impression respectively, adding a gravitas to the two plots which will no doubt become the focus of the series.

However, it is once again down to the fabulous Olivia Colman who steals every scene she's let near as the downtrodden and rightfully angry Ellie. Brimming with a quiet fury throughout the episode, Colman proves just how valuable she is to Broadchurch as a series, inspiring sympathy for a character who could quite easily have faded alongside the taciturn Hardy. Her chemistry with David Tennant has improved even further since their first outing together, antagonising and relying on each other in equal measure. Their scene in the bathroom allowed a grim levity to an otherwise mournful episode, further impacted by Ellie's inclusion into the world of Claire. 

Moving forward into the series, the two main plot strands promise plenty more intrigue and there are several suggestions along the way that factors from both the Sandbrook and Broadchurch cases echo and parallel each other. Mark has struck up a close, secretive relationship with Tom Miller, much like Joe's with Danny, that sets alarm bells ringing. Lee Ashworth, the main suspect in the previous case, was acquitted after his case fell apart, something which threatens Joe's trial and Ellie's post-murder investigation situation parallels Claire's, exiled and alone. And I'm still not convinced that Arthur Darvill's reverend isn't involved in there somewhere along the way. He's just a bit too shifty.

There is a slight concern that Broadchurch has traded in its usually realistic focus for something a bit more dramatic and thriller-lite, particularly given the return of the Sandbrook case's main suspect and its inherent threat to newcomer Claire. However, Broadchurch earned itself a lot of good faith in its excellent first series and it's a strong start to its second.

Jen and I will be alternating episodes once again and so I shall leave you in her capable hands for next week's instalment.

- Becky

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Thursday, 1 January 2015

FILM REVIEW: Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Already garnering plenty of awards buzz and nominations,  Birdman is an ambitious way to kick it all off, a riotous, blackly comic look at a frustrating theatrical process. Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) has long been defined by his role as the superhero, Birdman, an early 90s cinematic phenomena that has haunted him ever since. Literally. In an attempt to prove his worth as an artist, he decides to write, direct and star in an adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He's supported by his long suffering lawyer and producer Jake (Zach Galfianakis), his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) and a cast of egocentric fellow actors (Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough).

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu cannot be faulted for the sheer ambition of his project. Edited to look like one long take, Birdman captures a sense of theatricality within its play-like construction. Scenes flow into each other, shifting and changing as characters enter and leave. The camera swirls around them, fixing on their conversations, following their frustrations and invading the grimy corridors behind the grandeur of the theatre itself. There's a rhythm to the film, kept by the pulsating percussion score that pushes the tempo of the film. 

Metatextually constructed with a knowing wink to a cinema-literate audience, Birdman asks some big questions in amongst the increasingly farcical backstage antics of Thomson's production. The casting of Keaton as an actor most famous for playing a superhero is the most apparent nod, as well as casting the notoriously difficult Edward Norton as a notoriously difficult method actor. From this pairing, Inarritu allows his narrative to debate art versus authenticity, theatre versus film, old school publicity versus social media and even fantasy versus reality. It's a daring exercise in organised chaos that, to Inarritu's credit, never feels as if it is about to spiral out of its director's control, even as the plot and characters become ever more frenetic.

It's a delicate balance to strike, particularly given the film's one-long-take conceit, and the cast rise to the challenge that it presents. Keaton gives one of his best performances in years, making Riggan both infuriating to watch and yet entirely sympathetic. He commands the screen as both Riggan and the more comical Birdman, utilising his own Batman voice to distinguish between the two. He's matched capably by Norton as the egomanical Mike Shiner and their antagonistic chemistry also hints towards a huge amount of respect between the two actors, despite their onscreen counterparts engaging in punch-ups. 

It's also refreshing to see a film which offers its female stars a chance to explore flawed, neurotic characters in their own right, even within their relationships with Riggan. Stone's cynical wearniess acts as a great foil to the other, flightier characters and her deadpan delivery fits perfectly with the black humour of the film. Both Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough are afforded chances to shine and seize their roles with relish, even getting one of the best exchanges in the film. Even Lindsey Duncan in a small role manages to make her mark in just a couple of scenes.

Many films have delved behind the scenes in a fraught theatrical process, gleefully sending up pretentious, overbearing actors or directors, neurotic writers, exasperated producers and the bizarre nature of the theatre itself. Few have done so as inventively or as memorably as Birdman. It asks big questions of its audience and doesn't necessarily offer them any right answers, or indeed a tangible conclusion to draw upon. Instead, Birdman leaves us still searching, but entirely satisfied.

- Becky

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Monday, 15 December 2014

FILM REVIEW: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies


As year draws to its close, we’re due to embark on yet another journey to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. All of that thanks to director Peter Jackson and The Battle of the Five Armies, the third chapter of his The Hobbit trilogy. In what is supposed to be a final film ever set in his fictional land (unlikely!) our Dwarven, Elven and Human characters are entangled in a massive conflict over the control of Erebor and hearth stored under the Lonely Mountain. Friendships are being tested, blood being shed, lessons learned. Virtually everything one can expect from grand finale like this.

It is, of course, na├»ve and unrealistic to expect that this film will rectify and reverse everything wrong about two previous chapters. Indeed, The Battle of the Five Armies suffers from many of the sins these films were plagued by – choppy narrative, bloated running time, an unnecessarily excessive use of computer graphics, uneven pacing. However, what where it does exceed is in its increased focus on single narrative, probably for the very first time in The Hobbit trilogy. It feels less scattered around, largely due to it being set mostly in one location. The board for ensuing conflict was set already by The Desolation of Smaug and there is no exposition as such. And that is something quite new for Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations.

Another strong point is an emphasis on character development and interactions, an ingredient criminally absent from both An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug, save for a few cursory elements. In The Battle of the Five Armies, the execution of those elements might still be somewhat clunky but at least it’s there. Both Richard Armitage and Martin Freeman rise to the occasion and provide their characters with some emotion. Bilbo, curiously underused in a series of films revolved around his character, finally gets to fulfil a role in those and adding some necessary good-natured hobbit warmth into the grim plotline. At the same time, Armitage gets to expand upon both gloomy and warm aspects of Thorin Oakenshield as he’s battling his inherited greedy sickness. The usual suspects Ian McKellen is always a joy to watch on screen and his Gandalf definitely doesn’t disappoint, as expected.

What doesn’t work quite so well, however, is the battle spectacle itself. While all Tolkien-based films used CGI heavily to help enhance epic struggles portrayed on screen, there is a sense that The Battle of the Five Armies was filmed almost entirely in front of green screen. Gone are the breathtaking and lovely landscapes of New Zealand. It’s hard to care for an hour of swarming animated characters fighting other animated characters, with occasional shots of live actors swing a sword once or twice. There’s hardly any drama or tension in that and Middle-earth feels smaller than ever.

What’s even more frustrating, it turns out that many plot points and characters from previous two films were introduced for absolutely no reason. Sylvester McCoy, so prominently featured as Radagast in An Unexpected Journey, barely makes a cameo in both subsequent films. Same with Mikael Persbrandt’s Beorn. One has to wonder why Peter Jackson even bothered including those two, given their contribution to the overall story is quite minimal and could have been achieved in more efficient ways. On the other hand, the completely new Elven character of Tauriel, as played by Evangeline Lilly, could have used an expansion. Fortunately, Luke Evans’ Aragorn-inspired Bard the Bowman and Lee Pace’s Thranduil get a lot more screen time this time and this film is so much better for it.

Technically, The Battle of the Five Armies is adequate but strangely unpolished in some areas. Many of the effects seem unfinished and unconvincing, especially the opening fiery destruction of Lake-town and climactic confrontation between Thorin and pale orc Azog. The musical score by Howard Shore, such a crucial ingredient of The Lord of the Rings, is an accomplished and intelligent as ever but feels lost and neglected in overcrowded sound mix. Editorially, this film feels a bit awkward and uneven, as did the previous two. It will be interesting to see if the extended cut, due late next year, will change that.

The final chapter in Peter Jackson’s six-film series is ultimately successful in its basic entertainment factor but it falls short as a piece of epic fantasy cinema. The ultimate failure of The Hobbit trilogy is not as painful as the one suffered by Star Wars fans a decade ago but there’s an undeniable sense that something went terribly wrong in the development process. Still, strong performances from excellent cast and significantly tighter and focused narrative make up for many shortcomings.

- Karol

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