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

HOBBIT POSTER

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.

HOBBIT2

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.

HOBBIT1

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: “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

HOBBIT poster

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.

HOBBIT1

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.

HOBBIT3

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.

HOBBIT2

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

REVIEW: “Fast and Furious 6”

FAST 6 poster

I’ve tried on a few occasions to watch the earlier movies in the Fast and Furious franchise but I could never get into it. The whole underground street racing scene has never appealed to me and the barrage of Skittles colored cars and bikini-clad women gyrating in slow motion got old quick. Now clearly the series has an ardent following as evident by the four total movies that fit this description. I just couldn’t count myself among them.

But in 2011 the series took a sharp turn in the right direction with the release of “Fast Five”. Gone were the street car racing raves and gratuitous skin shots (with the exception of one obligatory homage of sorts). Instead director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan made the film into a full-blown old school action picture only with vehicles as the main weapon of choice. It was a great move and I had a ton of fun with it.

So that brings us to “Fast and Furious 6” (yes, there have actually been six of these films). Lin And Morgan return as does franchise stalwarts Vin Diesel and Paul Walker. After making his franchise debut last time, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson returns as do many other faces that franchise faithfuls are sure to recognize. The good news is “Fast and Furious 6” sticks to the same formula as the last picture. It’s loud, preposterous, and seemingly custom made for the summer popcorn season. I don’t think it’s as good as “Fast Five”, but it’s still a fuel-injected good time.

Fast 6 3

Once again an international location is chosen and our cast is thrown in it. Last time it was Rio. This time it’s London, England. Dom Toretto (Diesel) and Brian O’Conner (Walker) are still wanted men. They’ve both settled down in the Canary Islands with hopes of putting their former lives behind them. But that quickly changes when DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson) appears at Dom’s doorstep with news that an old acquaintance has appeared and is working for a powerful ex-military criminal named Owen Shaw (Luke Evans). Dom is persuaded to get his team back together and help Hobbs stop Shaw and find out about this mysterious person from his past.

There are several things about this film that are a given. Diesel grinds up his handful of lines in his familiar deep and gravelly voice. The Rock is given an endless supply of hammy tough guy one-liners and corny testosterone-laced analogies. And Paul Walker still has that sheepish and boyish vibe going. The rest of Dom’s crew aren’t asked to do any heavy lifting and that’s a good thing. Neither Sung Kang or Chris “Ludacris” Bridges are particularly good actors and Tyrese Gibson’s comic act grew old quick. But none of these performances are why people will go to see this film.

But I do want to talk about the two newcomers to the Fast and Furious world. I’ve just recently noticed him but I quite like Luke Evans. He gives a rock solid performance here as the main baddie. While his character is really nothing more than a thief and his overall motivations are shallow, Evans brings a pretty menacing quality to the role. And then there’s Gina Carano. Can I just go ahead and say I LOVE Gina Carano? Once again she’s tough as nails and she holds her own among the macho types. Just like Steven Soderbergh in the movie “Haywire”, director Justin Lin keeps her within her comfort zone and never stretches her beyond her bounds. She’s one of the high points for me and she gets her scenes to shine.

Fast 6 1

But enough about the acting. “Fast and Furious 6” is a straightforward action picture built upon some ludicrous yet spectacular set pieces and more flipping, jumping, and crashing of cars than you can count. The movie aims to be even more outlandish than the previous film and it succeeds. But it still keeps you glued to the screen as the vehicular mayhem amps up with each big sequence. Sure it’s sometimes dumb and always over the top. Some of the dialogue is high-end cheese at its finest and the jokes often fall flat. But it still delivers the pedal to the metal, “ride or die” adrenaline rush that has made it such a guilty pleasure.

I still say this film isn’t as fluid or as polished (if you can call any of these movies polished) as “Fast Five”. But I appreciate that the movie never pretends to be anything other than what it is. The filmmakers know the type of movie they’re making and there is no pretension or artifice at all. That’s key for the audience as well. If you know what kind of movie this is, you’ll know what to expect. Don’t think you’re getting a film with deeper, thought-provoking themes and top-tier performances. Understand that this film and this series is all about the wild ride and if you’re willing to get into the car, you’re going to have a good time.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

“The Raven” – 2 STARS

THE RAVEN POSTER

Have you ever had a movie that you didn’t really respond to but you had a hard time pinpointing why? This is the case with me after watching the 2012 period thriller “The Raven”. This is a movie that intrigued me from the start although I did keep it at an arm’s length. While the components for a unique crime thriller seemed to be there, I still never felt myself drawn to hurry up and see it. So as you can see, my fence straddling with “The Raven” started early. Well now I have seen this widely slammed movie. Is it as bad as the vast majority of critics made it out to be? I don’t think so. But unfortunately it’s missing some major pieces that are vital in making this kind of movie work.

In case you don’t know the story, it’s set in 19th century Baltimore, Maryland. A brutal and grisly double murder puts the police on the trail of a serial killer who patterns his crimes after the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Lead Detective Fields (Luke Evans) at first suspects the eccentric Poe (John Cusack) but eventually calls on him to help in the investigation. It’s a cat and mouse game as the two sift through the clues left at every new and horrible crime scene, each tied in to Poe’s writings.

The stakes are raised for Poe after his fiancé Emily (Alice Eve) is kidnapped and used as a pawn by the killer. Now this is a direction the story takes that should give the movie some emotional kick but that’s not the case at all. Poe and Emily’s relationship is cold and lifeless. They try to throw in some tension with Emily’s father (Brendan Gleeson) who despises Poe, but that does little to liven things up. Emily’s capture does lead to some of the movies most intense moments. But the underplayed romance between her and Poe strips the movie of a genuine and much needed sense of urgency.

RAVEN 2

I guess that leads into where my real problems lie with “The Raven”. It moves at a sharp pace. It captures the dark and moody tone that it’s going for. The crime scenes are perfectly unsettling. But in the end so much of the story feels manufactured. The relationships feel manufactured. The urgency feels manufactured. Even the ending feels manufactured (and a bit unsatisfying as well). But perhaps the biggest sin this movie commits is its overall lack of suspense. It’s hard to call a thriller a success if it lacks suspense. “The Raven” desperately tries to muster some but I don’t ever remember feeling it at any point in the movie.

I think “The Raven” is a movie that has some good ideas, but it doesn’t do much with them. It’s not a sloppy or lazy picture. But it also fails to step outside the bounds of conventionality, something that the material afforded them the chance to do. Now it’s decent enough to keep you in your seat, but it never does anything to put you on the edge of it. Again, I guess that’s where my biggest problem lies. There’s nothing suspenseful that grabs you and keeps you glued to the screen. That’s what I want from a thriller and I just didn’t get enough of it here.