Review – The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

As good a writer as JRR Tolkien was, he wouldn’t have got very far in Hollywood if his description of the epic battle of orcs, elves, dwarfs, men and anyone else lying around was anything to go by.

And so we come to the end of Jackson's Middle Earth fellowship. LOTR-lite it may be, but fantasy cinema is all the richer for The Hobbit having been in it

And so we come to the end of Jackson’s Middle Earth fellowship. LOTR-lite it may be, but fantasy cinema is all the richer for The Hobbit having been in it

Passed off by Tolkien in just a few words, Peter Jackson obviously had other ideas when imagining how he’d like to conclude his stint as Middle Earth’s resident director.

It’s a decision in keeping with the whole exercise of making three movies out of a 300-page book, which is ironic when you consider he originally envisaged making two films out of The Lord Of The Rings; a three-book saga spanning more than 1,000 pages.

The loyal band of dwarfs prepare for war in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

The loyal band of dwarfs prepare for war in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

That said, Jackson has thrown everything and the kitchen sink into this final chapter of his prequel trilogy and, while there is much to enjoy, it won’t change anyone’s opinion that The Hobbit ultimately remains the poor cousin of LOTR.

We pick up where we left off last time, with the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) on his way from the Lonely Mountain to smite Laketown and its terrified folk. It’s a breathless opening salvo, arguably the best sequence in the entire trilogy as Bard (Luke Evans) desperately tries to bring the beast down as the town is incinerated around him.

Watching on helplessly are hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his dwarf companions, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who disturbed Smaug’s slumber in search of untold wealth and the coveted Arkenstone, a precious gem Thorin is desperate to reclaim.

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) looks on worried in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) looks on worried in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

When word spreads of Smaug’s death, an elf army under Thranduil (Lee Pace) marches to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim lost treasure, while a separate force of orcs led by Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) also approaches. While all hell breaks loose outside the mountain, as men, dwarfs and elves go to war against the vast numbers of orcs, inside the mountain an increasingly unstable Thorin exasperates his fellow dwarfs and Bilbo by refusing to see sense.

Just as Jackson coiled the spring in the first half of The Return Of The King before unleashing CGI-infused mayhem, he employs a similar approach in The Battle Of The Five Armies. Characters look either pensive or defiant as they talk of impending war, while Jackson cranks up the expectation by regularly cutting to the orc hordes drawing ever nearer to the Lonely Mountain.

Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) looks his usual grumpy self in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) looks his usual grumpy self in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

When it finally does come, the battle is everything you expect; brutal and frenzied, with seemingly endless waves of orcs pitted against the dwindling alliance. However, as visually impressive as it is, it doesn’t involve you as much as the epic battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers.

The stakes may be just as high, but the clammy terror of a band of brothers fighting for their lives against an implacable army of Urak Hai is what sets Helm’s Deep apart. Too often, Jackson is content to pit CGI army against CGI army; an impressive enough site to be sure but one that will never grab you as much as seeing real people at each other’s throats.

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) look worried in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) look worried in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

While the skirmish is the film’s key selling point, it works best when boiling things down to the struggle going on inside Thorin’s mind. Overcome by ‘dragon sickness’, his slide into mental illness is convincingly played by Armitage, who shows enough of the old Thorin to convince Bilbo (a conversation between the two that starts with an acorn is a standout) and co that he’s not gone completely off the deep end. Jackson has brilliantly played up the possessive effects ‘precious’ treasure can have on otherwise strong-willed characters throughout his Middle Earth saga and the lightning bolt moment Thorin experiences during a surreal hallucination is particularly effective.

Freeman does his best with the limited screen time Bilbo is given and lights up every scene he’s in, but once the battle kicks in he’s pretty much sidelined in favour of head-butting dwarves and snarling orcs.

Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and fellow elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) go in search of orcs in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and fellow elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) go in search of orcs in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Also left on the sidelines is Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, whose rescue from the clutches of Sauron by his fellow White Council members (most notably Cate Blanchett’s luminous Galadriel) is an early highlight, but feels rushed (ironic, I know). Once Gandalf joins the party at the Lonely Mountain he soon gets swallowed up in the rest of the action.

And so we come to the end of Jackson’s Middle Earth fellowship. LOTR-lite it may be, but fantasy cinema is all the richer for The Hobbit having been in it.

Review – X-Men: Days Of Future Past

Marvel’s most well-worn franchise is back to the future and back to its best in this exhilarating time travelling romp that resolutely refuses to take itself too seriously.

Setting aside the slightly needless set piece involving Magneto raising the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium and chucking it over the White House like a giant donut, X-Men: Days Of Future Past is a genuine contender for blockbuster of the year

Setting aside the slightly needless set piece involving Magneto raising the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium and chucking it over the White House like a giant donut, X-Men: Days Of Future Past is a genuine contender for blockbuster of the year

It’s been 14 years since X-Men arrived like a juggernaut into cinemas and ushered in a new paradigm in Hollywood that shows no signs of abating.

The franchise’s high water mark X2 (2003) still remains one of the most fully realised comic book movies. The same, however, could not be said of its sequel The Last Stand (2006) and the two standalone films featuring the evergreen Wolverine – all of which validated the law of diminishing returns.

1970s era Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) re-enters cerebro with Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

1970s era Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) re-enters cerebro with Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

As seems to happen with most money-spinning comic book series these days, the clocks were turned back and the reboot switch was flipped with X-Men: First Class (2011), an effective superhero flick that used recent history (the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis) to posit an alternative reality in which mutants played a significant part.

The golden thread that linked First Class and X-Men 1.0 was Hugh Jackman’s pithy cameo as Wolverine and the character inevitably plays a crucial role in bridging the two time periods for Days Of Future Past.

Military scientist and businessman Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Military scientist and businessman Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

The other golden thread is director Bryan Singer, who has come home after a patchy recent run that included Superman Returns (2006), Valkyrie (2008) and Jack The Giant Slayer (2013) and in the process delivered the best film in the franchise since his last turn in the big chair with X2.

Wolverine is zapped back in time to 1973 by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to avert a future wherein seemingly invincible man-made robots called Sentinels are within a hair’s breadth of wiping out mutant kind. The situation is so grim that friends-turned-enemies Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) have joined forces to make a last stand (not that one) against the metallic beasts.

Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) sets her sights in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) sets her sights in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Meanwhile, back in ’73, Wolverine must convince a younger, more disillusioned Xavier (James McAvoy) to break Magneto (Michael Fassbender) out of the Pentagon in order for him to help them stop the shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing military scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), whose murder convinces President Nixon’s government to implement Trask’s Sentinel programme.

Using time travel to change an event in the past in order to alter the future invariably brings to mind the likes of The Terminator and Days Of Future Past doesn’t try particularly hard in hiding its obvious debt to that film as the Sentinels turn the planet into a mass graveyard in its dystopian opening reel.

1970s era Magneto (Michael Fassbender) tries to stop traffic in X-Men: Days of Future Past

1970s era Magneto (Michael Fassbender) tries to stop traffic in X-Men: Days of Future Past

The film also owes a debt to Star Trek, specifically First Contact and The Voyage Home in its ambition to strike a tone between serious and light-hearted. It’s a tough balance to strike, but one the film carries off with aplomb.

The scenes involving a young Peter Maximoff, aka Quicksilver, are great fun and Evan Peters has a blast in the part of the mutant who’s faster than a speeding bullet. The slo-mo Pentagon kitchen sequence involving a gleeful Quicksilver concocting an elaborate way of getting past the gun-toting guards is an ingenious fusion of special effects, balletic choreography and music (Jim Croce’s Time In A Bottle) that pays off to highly satisfying effect.

A future Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

A future Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Singer just about manages to avoid things slipping into Village People ridiculousness, although Simon Kinberg’s script slips into over-exposition and needless anachronisms, to the extent you half expect Jackman to break the fourth wall and ask ‘are you keeping up?’.

A strength of the film, aside from John Ottman’s nicely judged score, is its ability to juggle a sizeable cast. With the exception of Halle Berry’s increasingly redundant Storm and Anna Paquin’s much-discussed reduction in screen time, pretty much everyone gets their moment to shine, in particular Nicholas Hoult, who continues the good work he put in during First Class as Hank McCoy, aka Beast.

Future Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Future Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Jackman, Stewart and McKellen slip into their respective roles as they would an old pair of shoes, while Lawrence gives Mystique a very human dimension and McAvoy expands greatly on what he did in First Class.

The biggest plaudits must go to the excellent Dinklage, who offers up a different sort of villain from the ones we’re used to seeing. Even the very worst of humanity think they’re doing the right thing and Trask is no different. Singer wisely cast Dinklage, whose diminutive size suggests a harmless industrialist, but whose character exbibits ambitions that are world-changing indeed.

Setting aside the slightly needless set piece involving Magneto raising the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium and chucking it over the White House like a giant donut, X-Men: Days Of Future Past is a genuine contender for blockbuster of the year.

Review – The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

We’ve had goblins and Gollum and now it’s time to enter the dragon for this breathless and sure-footed middle slab of Peter Jackson’s second Middle Earth saga.

The Desolation Of Smaug is a major improvement on An Unexpected Journey and, come the cliffhanger ending, you'll be eager to find out how they get there and back again

The Desolation Of Smaug is a major improvement on An Unexpected Journey and, come the cliffhanger ending, you’ll be eager to find out how they get there and back again

The bumpy beginnings of Bilbo Baggins’ unexpected journey were a worrying sign for this elongated adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s children’s novel.

However, just as The Two Towers was an an improvement of The Fellowship Of The Ring (and the best of the The Lord Of The Rings trilogy in this reviewer’s opinion), Jackson has rediscovered his Middle Earth mojo following the relative disappointment of An Unexpected Journey for this hugely enjoyable follow-up.

There's trouble brewing for Bilbo (Martin Freeman) in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

There’s trouble brewing for Bilbo (Martin Freeman) in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

The now standard near three-hour running time this time doesn’t feel like a slog as the film zips from one frenetic set piece to another, while the introduction of new characters and environments enrich this expansive universe rather than weigh it down.

No concessions are made for the uninitiated as the story picks up where it left off, with Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) accompanying a 13-strong band of Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their lost treasure from the dragon Smaug. Their journey is made more perilous by the fact they’re being hunted by a bloodthirsty group of orcs, while the identity of the evil Necromancer who has been marshalling the orc forces is revealed.

The dwarves of Erebor, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) at the door of the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

The dwarves of Erebor, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) at the door of the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

In spite of the film’s length, the first thing that’s apparent when watching The Desolation Of Smaug is its urgency. The decision to stretch a 300-page novel into a trilogy that in all likelihood will last close to nine hours still grates with many, but the flab that bloated much of An Unexpected Journey is trimmed down here.

In the time it took Bilbo to leave the Shire in the first film, our not-so merry fellowship has evaded orcs, encountered a mysterious ‘skin-changer’ and made it to the oppressive confines of Mirkwood. If anything, the film zips about too much towards the end and looses its direction as it attempts to juggle too many balls.

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) comes face-to-face with evil in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) comes face-to-face with evil in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

While the set pieces of An Unexpected Journey were largely underwhelming, The Desolation Of Smaug delivers a breadth of spectacle that reminds you why you fell in love with LOTR. The creepy giant spider sequence in Mirkwood is masterfully done and reminiscent of the nightmarish attack by huge insects in Jackson’s version of King Kong. It also offers Freeman’s one real moment to portray the dehumanising effect of the Ring as a horrified Bilbo recoils at the possessive fury he temporarily succumbs to.

Just as Jackson captures the dark and suffocating mood of the spider sequence, he switches things up in the tremendously entertaining barrel escape from the wood elves. Shot like a roller coaster ride and infused with as much humour as danger, it’s exhilarating stuff.

Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and fellow elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) on the trail of orcs in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and fellow elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) on the trail of orcs in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

And what of Smaug? As a work of CGI, it rivals Gollum and King Kong for sheer impact. Given voice by an oily Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug is amusing, arrogant and deadly in equal measure and provides the film with a rousing final act. The interplay between Bilbo, who has been sent by the dwarfs into the dragon’s lair to retrieve a priceless heirloom, and Smaug is laced with tension as the hobbit flatters to deceive in the vain hope the beast will let him leave unscathed.

Freeman has visibly relaxed into the role and gets some lovely moments with his dwarf companions who, by sheer weight of numbers, still struggle to make much of an impact, save for Ken Stott’s Balin and Aidan Turner’s dashing Kíli.

The scenery remains just as lovely in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

The scenery remains just as lovely in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

The sense of entitlement, as well as the desire for power and its poisonous consequences are themes present in much of Tolkien’s work and are touched on here through a subtle shift in Thorin’s character, nicely played by Armitage.

It’s a shame McKellen’s Gandalf isn’t on screen more as, just as in An Unexpected Journey, he’s the star attraction. That said, the portentous scenes of him investigating the identity of the Necromancer are among the film’s strongest. As well as McKellen, Orlando Bloom also returns as a more impetuous Legolas, who has a personal attachment to Evangeline Lilly’s strong-willed Tauriel (a creation by Jackson and his fellow writers, presumably to balance the male/female scales at least a little bit).

This is a major improvement on An Unexpected Journey and, come the cliffhanger ending, you’ll be eager to find out how they get there and back again. That’s all the middle section of a trilogy can do, right?

Review – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

After so spectacularly scaling his own personal Mount Doom with his revered Lord of the Rings trilogy, could Peter Jackson somehow capture lightning in a bottle again with this second epic excursion into Middle Earth?

From the moment Rings was wrapped, Jackson was being called upon to sprinkle that same magic on J.R.R Tolkien’s earlier, much leaner children’s book The Hobbit.

The Hobbit

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – very good, but not without its faults

The New Zealander originally wanted Guillermo del Toro to direct, but after the Mexican horror maestro left the project (he’s down as a co-writer), Jackson took it upon himself to oversee the mammoth undertaking. While it would have been fascinating to see Del Toro’s vision realised on screen, Jackson’s pedigree was irrefutable.

That The Lord of the Rings was made as a trilogy made perfect sense – three books, three films. However, when it emerged that Jackson was turning The Hobbit into not two, but three movies eyebrows were raised and questions asked as to whether this was a bridge too far. Now that An Unexpected Journey is finally here in all its many guises (3D, Imax, 24 or 48 frames per second, take your pick) does it succeed? Yes, but with reservations.

An Unexpected Journey walks a similar path to Fellowship of the Ring; a CGI-heavy prologue lays out the stakes, a hobbit is chosen to go on an adventure, a small band of diminutive people is forged and a life or death quest begins to achieve something bigger than all of them.

Watching An Unexpected Journey is akin to slipping on a well-worn pair of slippers; the restless, swooping camerwork, the stirring Howard Shore score and the jaw-dropping New Zealand locations (seriously, Jackson is a one-man NZ Tourism Board) are all present and accounted for and when the Shire appears on screen it’s like being reuinted with an old friend after a decade apart.

However, even old friends can get annoying as Jackson languishes in the Shire for what seems like an eternity. To be fair, a major reason for this is to introduce us to the 13-strong company of dwarves, led by the heroic Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who come calling at the home of hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) at the request of the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Bilbo is urged by Gandalf to join the dwarves on a perilous journey to reclaim their home and treasure from the dragon Smaug and, after much toing and froing belatedly embraces the opportunity.

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) reluctantly hosts a gang of dwarves in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) reluctantly hosts a group of dwarves in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

This overly-prolonged first act smacks of indulgence on Jackson’s part and has you wondering if three films really was a sensible idea. But once the gathering hit the road the film finally moves up the gears until a breathless last hour that promises much for next year’s The Desolation of Smaug.

As with his Rings trilogy, Jackson proves he’s no slouch when it comes to the big set pieces. The  stone giant battle in which Bilbo and co unwittingly become a part of is genuinely thrilling and underlines the dangers inherent on their quest, while the dwarves’ and Gandalf’s dizzyingly elaborate escape from the Great Goblin’s cave lair (amusingly voiced by Barry Humphries) and his sizeable CGI army is reminiscent of, though not as impressive as the Mines of Moria/Balrog scene from Fellowship.

However, An Unexpected Journey‘s finest spectacle is saved for the game of riddles between an uneasy Bilbo and the pathetic, wretched Gollum; a masterclass in building tension that pivots the whole film and is the hobbit’s true turning point. The wonderful Andy Serkis dons the motion-capture suit once more to reprise his role as Sméagol/Gollum, whose split personality is equal parts humourous, childlike and disturbing , not least of which when he realises his “precious” ring has been stolen.

Gollum (Andy Serkis) is the star of the show in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Gollum (Andy Serkis) is the star of the show in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The moment when Bilbo, invisible after wearing the ring, holds a sword to the unknowing Gollum’s throat and exercises mercy is really something. It’s at this point that Jackson’s faith in Freeman must have paid off. Freeman, previously best known for his TV work in The Office and Sherlock, shows his acting chops by conveying pity, disgust and humanity in a single look and affirming that this little hobbit is the part he was born to play. Bilbo is our Everyman and Freeman delivers just the right mix of self-doubt, wonder and fortitude.

McKellen is clearly having the time of his life revisiting the mischievous and good-hearted wizard and it’s good to see Christoper Lee and Cate Blachett reprising their roles as, respectively, Saruman and Galadriel; however, Ken Stott’s Balin and James Nesbitt’s Bofur are the only dwarves to make any major impact, while Armitage has yet to fully convince as this tale’s rugged hero in the way Viggo Mortensen managed with Aragorn.

An Unexpected Journey is very good, but it’s not without its faults and fails to match the heights of Fellowship. For many that will be more than enough, but Jackson still has some work to do if he hopes this trilogy will earn its place in cinema’s valhalla alongside his previous fantasy epic.