The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

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DIR:  Peter Jackson • WRI: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro • PRO: Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Zane Weiner • DOP: Andrew Lesnie • ED: Jabez Olssen • DES: Dan Hennah • MUS: Howard Shore • CAST: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Evangeline Lilly, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom
 

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies starts with an ending – or what seems like it should have been an ending. Smaug’s attack on Laketown is a deeply peculiar choice to open the film with. Everybody’s in the middle of doing something, and we have no time to catch up as we’re breathlessly thrown into an elaborate action setpiece. The strange thing is, as soon as it’s over – and it doesn’t account for much more than 15 minutes of screentime – it feels like the film proper has started too, with the pace mellowing (temporarily) and plenty of time given to re-establishing the characters and their new motivations.

The entire Laketown arc would have worked well as one entity – whether as the ending of one film or the beginning or middle of another. Split as it is, with a gap of a year since the pointless Desolation of Smaug cliffhanger and its resolution, the sequence here serves as an ill-judged prologue. It’s separate from the rest of the Smaug story for no obvious reason other than some perceived need to open with an action spectacle – something that can’t help but seem surplus to requirements in a film where a good half the running time is given over to action spectacle anyway (the clue’s in the title).

It is but one more symptom of a problem that has been obvious since An Unexpected Journey, arguably even since the announcement of the three film plan – The Hobbit never needed three films. There’s one, maybe two, good films buried in here somewhere, but they have been smothered as a result of the method of delivery. Some of it will play better when all three films are available to watch in quick succession – better yet, when somebody does a much-needed, clinically brutal fan edit (it won’t be Peter Jackson, who has released Extended Editions for these films which badly need the opposite approach). But watching them in the cinema with a year between releases, The Hobbit has been a slog – worse, a trio of slogs.

I consider this pretty faint praise, but The Battle of the Five Armies is probably a little better than its predecessors. Not insignificant is that it’s a good bit shorter than either of the first two films, meaning it’s less top-heavy in terms of ‘stuff’. Adjusted expectations also surely factor into that, along with the fact that there have never been any illusions that the film was going to be much more than an extended battle scene. There’s more to it than a five army melee, but not much more.

The battle itself… well if you’ve seen The Lord of the Rings you know what you’re letting yourself in for. It’s an hour-long affair, cutting back and forth between the various factions a la the battles of Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith.  While there’s plenty of individuals to follow, to Jackson’s credit he allows us relatively lengthy unbroken stretches with most of them, meaning it doesn’t feel as disjointed or hyperactive as it could have been. The battle itself is fine, I suppose – it’s pretty standard fare, enlivened by a few imaginative moments (a new twist on the Orc battering ram stands out). There’s still an over-tendency towards having characters swoop in at the last second to manufacture drama – a trick Jackson has overplayed throughout the series.

The eponymous battle also serves as a firm reminder of Jackson’s over-reliance on CG, which has been another major sticking point throughout The Hobbit saga. While generally far less cartoony than the other films, there’s still a real lack of physicality to much of Five Armies’ action and characters, the Orcs particularly. Although this is often obvious during the action – one shot of Legolas running across a collapsing bridge is very poor indeed – it’s almost worse during a number of dialogue-heavy scenes where actors are clearly standing in front of green screens. The The Lord of the Rings struck the perfect balance between CG and practical effects, makeup and locations. The Hobbit feels overly artificial, comparable to – dare I say it? – the Star Wars prequels of all things.

On either side of the battle – and even occasionally during it – there are some solid character moments, however. Bilbo’s relationship with Thorin is well handled (bar a misjudged ‘dream’ sequence that fumbles badly in its attempt to visualise Thorin’s descent into madness), and gives Martin Freeman in particular some great material – that’s a good thing, considering he has often been relegated to the sidelines in a film where even the title declares him to be our protagonist. Near the end, Freeman also enjoys a great, almost silent scene with Ian McKellen as Gandalf, albeit one undermined slightly by a less impressive follow-up a couple of minutes later. There are plenty of subplots to resolve, but the film does not spend quite as much time on them as Return of the King did, which is a relief.

The Hobbit may be a marginally learner and sometimes meaner films that its predecessors, but that’s not to say there isn’t filler – in fact, there’s plenty. The screenwriters’ manufactured ‘star-crossed love story, and Legolas too!’ subplot is a dreary distraction, that amounts to little more than Evangeline Lilly’s character learning the meaning of true love. Blegh. Several characters could easily be excised to the benefit of the film’s pacing. That, for example, is true of Alfrid, played by Ryan Gage, and not coincidentally another of Jackson and Co’s own creations. He’s a crudely written stereotype even in a franchise that trades in archetypes, and bafflingly several of the film’s key characters repeatedly trust him to carry out important tasks despite the fact that he’s clearly a backstabbing rat and does little to disguise it. The sheer bulk of characters, meanwhile, means Jackson cannot possibly afford many of them much screen space, and hence they often disappear for huge swathes of the running time (the band of dwarves particularly suffer in that regard). In some cases, we don’t hear from them again at all for no apparent reason.

Battle of the Five Armies also continues The Hobbit series’ tradition of clunky callbacks to The Lord of the Rings. There are several remarkably unsubtle nods to what is to come – they could only be more obvious if the characters in question turned to the audience and remarked “this is a reference to what’s going to happen to me in The Lord of the Rings, by the way”, followed by a cheeky to-camera wink and a ‘To Be Continued’ title card. That said, the superfluous prequelising of the story does lead to what is easily the film’s – and possibly The Hobbit as a whole’s – best set piece. Several of Middle Earth’s most recognisable ancillary characters get to show off their fighting skills in a visceral supernatural showdown, with Jackson illustrating a sense of brutal visual panache barely seen elsewhere in the trilogy. It’s the climax of a redundant subplot spread out across all three films, but hey at least it concludes in style.

The Hobbit ends as it started – bloated and clunky, albeit with scattered moments that capture, however briefly, the alchemy that made The Lord of the Rings so successful. That’s a formula the new trilogy failed to replicate consistently or convincingly as it stretched a modest adventure story beyond breaking point. Maybe a fan edit will salvage it one of these years – creating the one great film The Hobbit could have, perhaps even should have been.

Anybody have Topher Grace’s number?

Stephen McNeice

12A (See IFCO for details)
144 minutes.
Battle of the Five Armies
is released 12th December.

Battle of the Five Armies – Official Website

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Cinema Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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DIR: Peter Jackson • WRI: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro • PRO: Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Zane Weiner • DOP: Andrew Lesnie • ED: Jabez Olssen • DES: Dan Hennah • MUS: Howard Shore • CAST: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch

The second of the three Hobbit films actually begins with a scene which takes place before the start of the previous film, possibly as some sort of joke at the expense of people who think these movies are already needlessly long. Regardless, we soon pick up where the last film ended with the Fellowship, the Company and the titular Hobbit on their adventure to the Lonely Mountain to fight a dragon. On this increasingly circuitous journey they stumble across numerous secondary characters and plotlines which latch on to them like lost children, one of which involves a shadowy, evil force growing in power…

Okay, let’s get the praise out of the way first so that we can move on to the rant because this film is going to receive near universal praise and rake in money no matter what anyone says. Part of me wishes that Jackson and his production team were only making the original trilogy now because, even though those films have aged reasonably well, these films only continue to get better and more impressive-looking with each instalment. The set designs and their believability are only matched by the simply superb CGI. Even with the best examples of CGI a slight disconnect between the real and the generated always remains. In this film (and to a lesser extent its predecessor) you really have to stare in wonder at the work that’s gone into the likes of Smaug (Cumberbatch). The only reason you really know it’s CGI is because there are (sadly) no dragons to put on film. I realise how trite this all sounds but after so many films in the last decade getting by on acceptable CGI, it’s truly a pleasure to be gobsmacked by what can be achieved with it all over again.

Speaking of Smaug, it would be remiss not to report that yes, Benedict Cumberbatch as a dragon is as wonderful in practice as it sounded on paper. He’s very reminiscent of Hopkins’ Lecter in his initial encounter with Bilbo (Freeman); dripping with menace but hiding it behind a polite yet powerful demeanour that’s almost mesmeric due to his careful, drawn-out enunciations. The rest of the cast are, as expected, almost all wonderful. Freeman continues to prove a stroke of genius casting, embodying a far more charismatic and innately humourous lead than Elijah Wood ever was. His comic timing but more importantly his use of physicality for comedic effect is a delight to watch. Ian McKellen gives it his all in a role where any other actor his age, playing a character like that would simply phone it in. The one glaring weak-link is the (pointlessly) returning of Orlando Bloom who still can’t emote to save his life and looks simply hilarious in action scenes where he’s clearly trying to come across as every bit the stoic, badass action hero that he very much is not. Bless.

Sadly, Bloom’s acting is only the tip of the iceberg. Honestly, I don’t think that I would in good conscience recommend this film to anyone but the most die-hard of Tolkien fans. The first film got a pass because it seemed (from the three titles of these movies at any rate) that Hobbit Pt. 1 would get the dull stuff out of the way leaving an entire second film for the Smaug portion of the plot (read: the only portion of the plot the more casual viewer is truly interested in) and yet here we are two films in and Smaug has had maybe fifteen minutes screen-time and an infuriating ‘to be continued’ right as the film is reaching what seems to be its action climax. To describe the film as slow and meandering is laughably inadequate but it’s forgivable (or at least tolerable) when you know it’s building toward something big and exciting. Pulling such a cheap, money-grabbing (better pay to see next year’s sequel, kids!) stunt after so very many, intolerable, unnecessary, and increasingly screen-time-cluttering scenes tips the scales right into ‘unforgivably boring’ territory. The end of this film would be akin to the first Hunger Games film being split in two and ending the first part right as Katniss entered the Games. Sure the die-hards will still enjoy all the talking and world-building but the large portion of the audience made up of less invested viewers who came to be entertained will be very angry and likely bored.

The prequel nature of these films also raises some issues. The side plot (one of the dozen or so that seems to be on-going at any given moment) involving Gandalf (McKellen) sees him investigating a mysterious enemy who goes conspicuously unnamed for most of the film but if you really can’t work out who it is, you’re just not trying. The problem is that these scenes are utterly devoid of any tension or peril because of who ‘the Enemy’ is and any danger Gandalf seems to be in by his hand is just more time-killing because we all know nothing of consequence can happen due to this being a prequel. Raising the question of why they even bothered to include (or at any rate, include so much of) these scenes. There is certainly a point in the last half an hour to forty minutes where there’s just so many simultaneous plotlines being followed that it descends into a Phantom Menace-style mess of trying to juggle all of them with equal screen-time when really there’s only one or two of any real importance or interest. Many of which are simply left hanging mid-scene to be picked up in next year’s sequel. And when the film does reach its final, infuriating shot we’re left with another thoroughly unsatisfying cinematic experience which, like the previous film, simply stops and fails to have an actual ending. It’s almost three hours of people running from things without any real beginning or ending.

For those already enamoured with Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth, this is just more of the same and will likely make for perfectly pleasant viewing. For everyone else there are certainly enjoyable aspects but they don’t remotely justify the overly-indulgent, unashamedly money-grabbing, dragging-out of a story that didn’t need it. For anyone still unsure if it’s worth seeing, watch it at your peril or rather the peril of your patience and your bladder.

(A brief note on the HFR issue. It seems to have been largely fixed from the last film. The ‘fast-forward’ effect is almost entirely absent though some of the faster moving action scenes have a habit of descending into a headache-inducing blur. The only major complaint is that it does its job too well in places and everything looks too real i.e. sets look like sets rather than locations and the whole enterprise ends up looking very televisual on occasion.)

Richard Drumm

12A (See IFCO for details)

161  mins

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is released on 13th December 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Official Website

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Cinema Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

 
DIR: Peter Jackson • WRI: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro • PRO: Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Zane Weiner • DOP: Andrew Lesnie • ED: Jabez Olssen • DES: Dan Hennah • CAST: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, Andy Serkis

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey plays its valuable nostalgia card early and frequently thereafter. Director Peter Jackson uses the opening scenes to revisit Hobbiton literally moments before the events of Fellowship of the Ring, with Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) preparing for a certain eleventy-first birthday party. Bilbo is trying to put the finishing touches on his memoirs, which also include a very thorough history of dwarven society for some reason. The extended prologue over and done with, the film jumps back a half-century. A younger Bilbo (a charming Martin Freeman) is asked by everyone’s favourite wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to accompany the friendly conjurer on an adventure. The hobbit semi-politely declines. But when a dozen hungry dwarves arrive on his doorstep later that evening, Bilbo eventually agrees to embark on the eponymous journey to confront a legendary dragon. An eventful and extended saunter across Middle Earth inevitably follows.

 

The most immediately noteworthy aspects of the film are visual, and unfortunately it’s a real step down from the beautifully realised preceding trilogy, at least on Cineworld Dublin’s new and misleadingly labelled ‘IMAX’ screen. Shot on two-dozen RED Epic cameras – a more than capable camera with the right post-production tinkering – the film looks distractingly digital from the off. Those who lament the decline of film grain will be appalled here. The film is riddled with unconvincing CGI (from hedgehogs to landscapes) and cartoonish setpieces. The sweeping landscapes and beautiful miniatures of Lord of the Rings are sorely missed. As for the much-heralded 48 frames-per-second presentation? For an hour or more it is intensely disorientating – intriguing yet undeniably distracting. However, given the film’s technical shortcomings, I would argue that this was not the film to introduce the new technology with – especially when the nasty artefacts of 3D neuter the benefits of high framerate motion. In trying to increase his film’s naturalism and sense of immersion, Peter Jackson has ironically only drawn attention to its artificiality. It’s rare to criticise a film for looking too clean, but here it’s a warranted complaint. It really looks like a bad TV show. More traditional screenings may look better.

 

An Unexpected Journey’s second serious problem is the one many of us feared – the film’s running time is bulked up beyond all reason. Stuffed with insufferable Middle Earth lore and uninteresting characters, the film’s pacing has undoubtedly suffered from the decision to craft three lengthy films out of one brief novel. Several times the movie grinds to a halt as a result of clunky exposition and misjudged tangents, especially during turgid flashbacks and a dull revisit to Rivendell. The dwarves are –unavoidably – not the Fellowship, while two too many battles conclude with allies ‘unexpectedly’ swooping in to save the day (the old Helms Deep trick). Tonally, the film aims for a more lighthearted adventure than LotR, but alas the jokes consistently fall flat. The cameos from familiar faces add further bulk to an already bloated production, while the decision to have the vast majority of adversaries speak in ludicrous cockney accents diminishes the sense of threat significantly.

 

Still, there are moments of respite amidst an avalanche of disappointment. The last hour is a significant improvement over the preceding ninety minutes. One stormy and mountainous battle is genuinely spectacular, while recognisable music cues will tickle many viewers’ nostalgia bones (the score on the whole is a tad incessant though). Although it could use tighter editing – like most everything in this regrettably paced film – the third act reappearance of Gollum is terrific, and amplified by a go-for-broke motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis. Freeman is a welcome new addition to a massive ensemble, if relegated to the sidelines far too often. McKellen is reliably excellent. A cliffhanger ending also teases that this saga will have at least one memorable and stunningly rendered computer-generated creation.

 

You have no doubt seen worse films than The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Many Tolkien fans will likely revel in the excessive fan-service offered by this lore-soaked prequel. And yet this reviewer cannot help but feel a sense of profound disappointment at Peter Jackson’s misjudged attempt to recapture the magic of Middle Earth. Worst of all, you know there’s a better, shorter film in here somewhere. Another six hours of this is, unfortunately, not the most enticing of prospects. An Unexpected Journey proves to be unexpectedly and frustratingly dull.

Stephen McNeice

Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)

166 mins

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is released on 13th December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Official Website

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