The Hobbit : The Battle Of The Five Armies – A review

A review, of sorts. Of a film, of sorts…

I write this disappointed, having come from Vue in Eastleigh this afternoon feeling somehow glad that I used Nectar vouchers to  pay the admission price, rather than actual pieces of gold. It’s frustrating that I should feel let down by this film, because I am and always have been a fan of Tolkien and latterly Peter Jackson whose work on The Lord Of The Rings brings effectively to life a lot of the scenes, relationships, images and strategies that have developed in my head after reading the books about every five years.

It’s time I read them again, to be honest.

And I am currently half way through The Hobbit, slightly sceptical of the film’s chances of success before I even watched it given that 20 pages of narrative are stretched out over 150 minutes of film…

But this is the film, not the book. I recognise the different media, the possibilities, the expectations etc and I have been stunned, impressed, blown away and generally very excited over the five films to date.

The first twenty minutes are breath-taking and dramatic as Smaug unleashes his vengeance on Laketown and is ultimately destroyed by Bard the Bowman. It’s not in the same league as the superb opening sequence of The Two Towers when Frodo and Samwise are unwittingly pursued by Gollum, but the dragon animation is genuinely brilliant and chilling.
But once Bard unleashes the black arrow , the beast – and sadly I fear the rest of film – is doomed to the Curse of the Old Hat.

Some of the introductions from olde Unfinished Tales into this film are interesting and bring a new dimension (such as Bard’s family, Galadriel’s rescue of the imprisoned Gandalf and Thorin’s reflective dream and subsequent change of heart) but I didn’t think any of them was really given enough time to develop and fulfill any kind of promise. To that end, the film could comfortably have been even longer. It felt rushed at times – the battle scenes perhaps unnecessarily long in some places and short in others.

What, for instance, happened to the thousands of Orcs coming from The North, threatening Thorin, Filli and Killi when they head up to attack Azog and Borg? They didn’t appear – or were they taken out by the eagles? Oh, the eagles. “The Eagles Are Coming” which makes everything alright. Never mind how…

Bard’s family are good and influential, developing him as a passionate family man. That bit works and was a Good Idea. I was touched by the relationship with his son.
But Cate Blanchett’s reprise of Galadrril, while welcome and well written in, is just a  bit ‘corny’ I felt. And to be honest, I don’t really like the effects used when she turns all Wicked Witchy and casts the scary spell that banishes Sauron back to ‘the east’ – but I made the same criticism of that in the LOTR trilogy.
I’ve got a green and white filter, and I’m gonna use it.
Hammer Horror – I don’t know,
Is this the right thing to do?

Then there’s Thorin’s dream in his stronghold under the Mountain. That fails after about 30 seconds… I was also a little bemused by the discussion that took place between Dwalin and Thorin – when did Dwalin become Thorin’s second in command? A good idea, and it could have been given more time and space which would have made this scene less incongruous. As a general commentary on all three films, I really think more character developments and insight into the relationships of the fellowship of the dwarves would have been welcome.

I think the less said about Tauriel’s relationship with Killi the better. Distinctly un-Tolkein I thought, unless it exists as a vehicle to introduce a forging of the bonds between Elves and Dwarves upon which the future of Middle Earth depends. But I don’t recall that form the subsequent three films. Just no, then really. A concession perhaps to the funding of MGM? Superfluité abominable.

Rant almost over – I don’t like Jackson’s treatment of endings. I know this isn’t an ‘end’ as such. Perhaps that is another factor in its lack of conviction. Therein lie my disappointments.

Skip to the good bits and have it done in 90 minutes. There are plenty of those – Bard is a good watch, and I enjoyed every scene with Alfrid in, despite his ridiculousness. The elves of course elevate the film and add grandeur and a sinister elegance. The giant elk mount of Thranduil is inspired. Despite the character’s relative wooden acting, his role is a clever narrative technique. Bilbo’s relationship with Gandalf is touching if almost incidental and the Hobbit hole at Bag End is of course as charming and perfect as ever. Bolg and Azog are great – the epitome of Jackson’s evil orc lords, and even Billy Connolly’s cameo as Dwarf-lord Dain worked despite my reservations.

Initially, I came out of the theatre with a 7 out of 10, but on reflection its down to a 6.

Shame really – I was expecting better things.

Nightingale Variations – A Kooky review

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Glapthorn Cow Pastures, Northamptonshire. A Place Of Remembered Beauty that I used to know well.

In the late 1970s and early 80s I would be among those birdwatchers climbing over the rusty wire fence into the woodland, creeping through the blackthorn and overgrown clearings to experience the atmosphere of an overlooked, wild and mysterious place.
It was home not only to Nightingales, but also the shy, rare and sibilant Golden Pheasants that have long since disappeared. Nightingales become mere sparrows when we got one of these magnificent woodland creatures in the open, unaware of our presence, which we concealed by lying in one of the many ditched and furrows that traversed the pasture. I have no doubt that there were elves and ghosts in there too, quietly watching us watching them.

But it was the Nightingales we returned for, several times every spring as April blossomed into May. Occasionally armed with tape recorders (ask your Dad…) which we would set up at the edge of thickets and play the bird song back to the hidden singers. And they would come, inquisitive, aggressive and territorial males – popping out of nowhere onto the deck to sing. And sing. And sing again.

NIGHTINGALE VARIATIONS opens with a wonderful minute of this birdsong, which in turn introduces the gently treated minimalist piano of John Foxx – an artist who has an endearing habit of appearing on these ‘obscure’ compilation projects alongside artists with silly names that you’ve never heard of. The tracks submitted to similar in the past 30 years are often among his best work too, arguably more creative and ‘free’ than the stuff that sells his Metamatic label. More importantly, these projects serve as portals to other worlds, parallel universes of beautiful, creative, challenging and experimental music populated by little-known musicians whose work is an integral part of our cultural biomass.
Through albums like ‘From Brussels With Love’, ‘Meridians’, Orphee’ and ‘Sugars’ I have found myself wandering in a world of undergound sound-art that is utterly engaging and informative. Nightingale Variations is absolutely no exception.

Foxx piano accompanies the bird In A Small Wood In A Big World, whose vocal weaves in and out of focus across the channels. Layered, looped and lovely.

Over there. Shhh.. what’s that? The shadowy figure of Michael Tanner, tolling a bell. Listen. tense, a little frightened. Apollyan in D – mournful, delicate string washes accompanying the laboured, whispering breath of a vagrant spectre.

Fly recreates the birdsong with percussion and plug-ins, building up an almost dance-able pop tune from which it restrains just in the nick of time. Till the beat kicks in, and moves everything up and onward. Mark Refoy’s lyrics celebrate the joyful freedom of being a bird – sadly his vocal doesn’t quite carry the message.

Matthew Eaton from Pram returns to a more ethereal dimension. His interpretation finds the listener beside a stream carrying leaves of static and glitches, flowing faster as the track builds and Amiga soundtrack bleeps and squelches replace the song of the subject.

Over there by that huge briar is Mark Tranmer, a versatile musician of many aliases. This time out, as usuisubari he plays it rather safe. Nice. Pleasant and summery. More of a blackbird…

From here, the woodcraft folk take the stage and I struggled to ‘get much on it’ as we birders would say. A little brown job that flitted across the binoculars without making much of an impression.

Windy and Carl take the project further into the dark underworld of Current 93 on a drone piece called ‘Night’ that engages despite initial resistance. David Tibet meets Nico. Enchanting melancholia. Thus we are introduced to Andrew Liles, who leads us from the heart of the woodland via a labyrinthine path of textures, surrealist cameos and strange, discomforting noises. The voice of ‘Annie’ – guardian of the pheasant people – encourages us to leave her secret place with haste, and we feel the urge to run…

The Durutti Column’s Laurie Laptop brings back the ambience with a haunting, ethereal piece that is as delightful as it is disturbing, echoeing John Foxx early distant piano. I wanted the album to end here when I first heard it, and I think after a dozen hearings I have returned to wishing it did.
Oliver Cherer’s ‘Judy Makes Three’ is a pleasant enough folk-pop tune and brings us back to why we came to this other green world. But its dark now and getting cold. My thoughts turn to home, but I know that if I leave with too much haste I would miss the last magical of the last minute or so.

They say the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and Nightingale Variations is a charming and absorbing example of exactly that. The individual contributors each bring a different approach, their own trademark styles, encouraging us to wander off with them into the undergrowth.
I think I prefer the instrumental tracks but as a whole, it is mesmering, flourishing and rich and I will be forever indebted to visionary curator Phil Cleaver.

I haven’t been to Glapthorn for twenty years now, and I am aware that it has information signs.
There may be a management strategy at work in the blackthorn and glades, but I expect its still haunted…

The Nightingales return in the same numbers every year and enchant new generations of bird lovers.
But don’t go there for those alone.
Watch out for the black hairstreaks and fungi among the oak and ash.
Feel the secrets and the history. Engage and react.

Experience the Variations and you will be forever enriched.