REVIEW: “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

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The biggest question swirling around Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy has been centered around the amount of content. Is there enough of it in J.R.R. Tolkien’s book to warrant three Jackson-sized films? That question has lingered in the back of my mind as I’ve watched each of the ‘Hobbit’ movies. The first two films sometimes struggled to suitably fill their time yet they managed to keep me engaged. Now we have Peter Jackson’s third ‘Hobbit’ film and final trip to Middle Earth. It’s “The Battle of the Five Armies” and I can see where people would say it is stretched too thin.

But to the question – Could “The Hobbit” have been adapted into two movies instead of three? I think the essential material could have definitely been covered in two installments. But at the same time “The Battle of the Five Armies” actually manages its time better than the previous films. Essentially it’s the trilogy’s big action-packed ending. The vast majority of the film is spent building up the climactic battle and then letting go with an epic-sized blow out. I had fun with it and it was far from the snoozefest I feared it would be.

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The film picks up exactly where the last one left off. There is no time jump. There is no setup. Smaug the dragon is loose and attacks Laketown. Bard (Luke Evans) guides the displaced people to safety and becomes their de facto leader. Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his band of dwarves have taken back The Lonely Mountain and its immense deposits of gold and riches. Problem is Thorin has gone mad with what is called “Dragon Sickness” and refuses to share his new-found wealth with Bard so that the people of Laketown can rebuild.

Then you have Thranduil (Lee Pace) and his elf army who come to the mountain to claim a white diamond necklace from the treasure. A blinded Thorin refuses and would rather fight than give up one piece of the mountain’s riches. With war about to break out between elves, dwarves, and humans, Gandolf arrives bearing news of a massive Orc army coming to take the mountain. The question becomes can they put aside their differences and come together to fight a much bigger and more deadly threat?

It’s hard to call this film a standard sequel considering the way it’s structured. It is much more of a direct continuation and I simply can’t objectively look at it as a stand-alone movie. It’s impossible to separate it from the previous film, and anyone watching this one without seeing part two will undoubtedly have a lesser experience. But as a follower of the series I think the film does a good job of picking up the story and bringing it to a conclusion. The performances are strong and steady and the effects are simply incredible. The action-fueled final hour features some great sword play and a cool host of creatures.

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But let’s face it, the series has several things working against it. It’s almost impossible to keep from comparing it to the superior “The Lord of the Rings”. First let’s take the characters. I love Bilbo, Thorin, and Gandalf, but the secondary characters, while good, aren’t up to those in LotR. Then you have the big conclusion itself. This big sprawling final battle is extremely cool, but it carries almost no connection to the previous two films. In LotR the buildup to the big finale started in the first film. Everything worked towards that epic point. In this film the battle doesn’t carry near as much weight, and I wasn’t left feeling quite as satisfied. But is it really fair to compare this film to LotR? I don’t have a good answer to that.

I do think this is a stronger film than some give it credit for. It’s a tighter and more focused movie and runs 20 minutes shorter than either of the first two Hobbit films. More importantly it feels in tune with the previous movies and offers us an exciting and fitting conclusion filled with great action and emotion. Could the series have been better as a whole? It probably could. But I find it hard to point a finger at this film as the reason for that. Narratively speaking this may be the best film of the three. It just had the difficult task of also wrapping everything up. It certainly did that well enough for me.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Guardians of the Galaxy”

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I don’t know if anyone expected Marvel’s cinematic universe to be the humongous global success that it has become. The comic book giant’s first wave of films brought most of its heavy hitters to the big screen and millions of people to the theaters to watch them. Most critics have responded positively to these films while also showing signs of growing weary of them. But Marvel has started their second wave of movies which will feature some of their more obscure characters. “Guardians of the Galaxy” is one such film and I truly felt Marvel was overreaching. But an over $90 million opening weekend proved me wrong. But as the Transformers franchise has proven, a big box office take doesn’t always represent the quality of the movie.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” is a very different installment into Marvel’s movie world. It stands apart in a variety of ways including its tone, its setting, and the characters it brings to the table. It’s overall different feel may have been one of the things that has attracted audiences to it. That being said, it won’t take you long to recognize some pretty familiar plot points wrapped in the film’s shiny, CGI-heavy packaging.

At its core “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a story that you’ve seen before. A ragtag group of misfits must overcome their criminal pasts and personal animosities and join together to quell a cosmic threat. It’s that basic and you can see many of the plot angles coming a mile away. But for me a familiar story can be overcome if its centered around good characters. As luck would have it, good characters are one of the film’s greater strengths.

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Chris Pratt continues to deservedly catch people’s attention. Here he buffs up but maintains that lovable goofiness that seems inherent in every character he portrays. He plays a petty space pirate named Peter Quill, a.k.a.Star-Lord. After swiping a mysterious orb, he finds himself being pursued by the henchman of an alien fanatic known as Ronan (Lee Pace). Ronan has made a deal with the ominous Thanos (Josh Brolin) to retrieve the orb in exchange for power to destroy a rival planet.

Peter gets in way over his head and as his circumstances worsen he finds himself joined by a raccoon bounty hunter named Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and his tree sidekick Groot (Vin Diesel), an alien assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana,), and a revenge-fueled warrior named Drax (Dave Bautista). The dysfunctional team begin working together each for their own personal reasons, but as you can probably guess, a proper bond begins to form between them as things move along.

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For me the characters are what anchors this film. Each are unique in their own way and each contribute to the undeniable personality of the movie. There are times when the script does them no favors. There are some corny lines and there are times when the jokes fall flat or feel forced. But there are other times where the chemistry between the characters and between the performers just clicks. These are the moments when the jokes work and the camaraderie is entertaining. I also loved the 70s and 80s culture references sprinkled throughout the film. I did find myself wanting more in terms of backstory from the group (aside from Peter). I also thought Ronan, while extremely cool, was an incredibly bland villain who won’t be remembered past the end credits. But ultimately I liked the characters and am interested enough to see them together again (something that is certain to happen).

The effects and makeup are genuinely good particularly with Rocket and Groot as well as the host of alien side characters three of which are played by Djimon Houndou, Karen Gillan, and one of my favorite character actors Michael Rooker. I do wish Marvel would shake up their standard formula for big action endings. It seems that every film ends with a huge 20 minute CGI blowout that leans more on chaos than coherency. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the ending of “Guardians” doesn’t work. It just felt a bit generic and almost what I’m starting to expect out of every Marvel movie.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” marks Marvel’s first real foray into their rich cosmic universe. It is in the same universe as the other Marvel pictures yet it feels strikingly different. That is part of the charm the movie possesses. It aims to be unique and features characters that I’m not that familiar with. But how that unfamiliarity influenced my response to the movie compared to other Marvel films is hard to figure out. In fact my response to the film as a whole may seem confusing. There are some glaring flaws and shortcomings but at the same time I was entertained enough through the film’s 2 hours. In that respect “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a success. Yet I can’t seem to shake the feeling that it just barely missed true greatness.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

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Excitement, intrigue, skepticism, and division. These are just some of the words that describe the reactions to Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy. Was there enough material to stretch out into three films? Was there enough character depth? I’m certain you’re familiar with all of these debates and concerns. With the tablesetting done in the first film, the attention now turns to the second installment. In many ways this is the film that will tell whether the trilogy decision was a mistake. With the first movie set around introduction, does the second film have enough meat-and-potatoes to satisfy an audience especially considering Jackson’s format of near 3 hour movies.

The short answer to that question is an emphatic yes. “The Desolation of Smaug” is another huge sprawling Middle-Earth epic loaded with special effects and ambition. Better yet, it’s actually a nice step up for the trilogy. The film carries with it a true sense of adventure and I felt a much greater sense of urgency and peril than in the first film. These were big reasons why I really liked “The Desolation of Smaug”. While the first Hobbit picture was a fun and entertaining experience, I felt it lacked the big dynamic threat or plot driving exigency. That’s certainly not the case here.

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After a strange but brief opening flashback, the story picks up right where the last film left off. Gandolf, the hobbit Bilbo, Thorin Oakenshield and his twelve fellow dwarves continue their quest to retake their home within The Lonely Mountain. Hot on their trail is the pale orc Azog and his troops. Their journey takes them through cursed forests, ancient runs, and expansive mountains. They encounter skinchangers, giant spiders, elven warriors, and of course a deadly fire-breathing dragon named Smaug. The urgency grows, the stakes get higher, and by the end we are set up for what should be a tremendous final chapter.

I have to admit I was really surprised at just how well the story moves along and how much ground is covered. I’ll admit there were a couple of points where things slowed down a tad and Jackson does buy some time while his camera pans around admiring the beautiful scenery or impressive set pieces. But as a whole these things didn’t bother me. The story is compelling and the excitement moves from one great action sequence to another. The best is an amazing barrel escape down a white rapid river as an army of orcs attack our heroes from the shores. It’s an incredible spectacle to watch.

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I think the decision to include sections from Tolkien’s “The Return of the King” appendices was a key reason this worked. Having read neither “The Hobbit” nor the “Lord of the Rings”, I can’t say how well the film melds the contents of both books. But from a cinematic standpoint the appendices do a great job of not only adding more content and weight to the story but also connecting it to the three “Lord of the Rings” films. Some have taken issue with this creative choice but for me it worked very well and it helps bring together Jackson’s massive cinematic universe. There is a clear link being formed between the two trilogies which go beyond simple references. Old favorite Legolas (Orlando Bloom) has an action-packed presence in this film. The true corrupting influence of the ‘one ring’ begins to surface. And there are several other cool connections that I wouldn’t dare spoil.

Once again the characters of the story are a real treat. Ian McKellen is great as always although he is given a few too many overly dramatic lines. You know the ones – the camera zooms in on his face and he utters an intense one-liner about the peril that lies ahead. Martin Freeman hits another home run as Bilbo. There is a real transformation (both good and bad) going on in the character and Freeman’s performance wonderfully captures that. But perhaps my favorite performance again comes from Richard Armitage as Thorin. This strong but emotionally driven character is tough as nails but he is constantly trying to reign in his sorrow, anger, and thirst for revenge. It’s a great character and a great performance.

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But there are also some really good new characters introduced. Evangeline Lilly plays Tauriel, a headstrong elf who can certainly hold her own. Then there is Luke Evans who plays Bard, a single father who finds himself thrust into the middle of Thorin’s quest. Both have significant roles and add a lot to the picture. I also like Lee Pace’s small but intriguing part as an Elvenking from Mirkwood. And then there is Benedict Cumberbatch who voices Smaug the fearsome, treasure-hoarding dragon. There simply couldn’t have been a greater choice than Cumberbatch. Then you have the twelve other dwarves. Thankfully we do see an expanded role for a couple of them, but unfortunately the majority of them remain indistinct making empathy for them rather tough.

So let me get back to the original debate. Could “The Hobbit” story be told in two films? Probably so. Am I glad they expanded it to three by adding content from “The Lord of the Rings”? Absolutely! “The Desolation of Smaug” is a solid answer to the questions and criticisms thrown its way. The special effects are superb, the action sequences had my heart racing, the danger and imminence is there, and we spend more time with some wonderful characters. On the flip-side there are a couple of lulls and the indistinct tag-along dwarves still bug me. But those gripes do little to hurt the overall experience and Peter Jackson has me hooked for what the third installment will bring. It should be a blast.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS