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 – Guardians Of The Galaxy

The Marvel Cinematic Universe lives up to its name in this star-spanning space opera that puts the fun back into a genre that had disappeared up its black hole.

A genuine pleasure, Guardians Of The Galaxy should give JJ Abrams something to think about for the next installment of  that other well known space opera

A genuine pleasure, Guardians Of The Galaxy should give JJ Abrams something to think about for the next installment of that other well-known space opera

The fact that Guardians Of The Galaxy is drawing so many comparisons to Star Wars is not only a testament to the high esteem it’s being held in by so many critics, but also to the fact that it’s so refreshing to watch a film of this ilk that resolutely refuses to take itself too seriously.

Too often, sci-fi filmmakers get bogged down in blindsiding their audience with Midi-chlorians, flibbertigibbets and unnecessary solemnity at the expense of an intriguing narrative and engaging characters. Although Guardians… isn’t averse to a spot of Basil Exposition (understandable considering it’s the first in what will undoubtedly become another Marvel franchise), it does so with a light and breezy air that avoids spoon-feeding the audience.

The A Team - Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

The A Team – Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

Abducted from Earth as a young boy following the death of his mother, intergalactic thief Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, (Chris Pratt) incurs the wrath of the super-evil Ronan (Lee Pace) when he steals a mysterious orb. With Ronan’s henchmen, and women, hot on the trail of the orb, including his lieutenant Nebula (Karen Gillan), Peter forms an uneasy accord with assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), genetically engineered racoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), the tree-like Groot (Vin Diesel) and warrior Drax the Destroyer (WWE star Dave Bautista).

When the extent of the orb’s power becomes clear, and Ronan’s diabolical plan reveals itself, Peter must turn his ragtag associates into a full-on fighting force to save the galaxy from destruction.

The heroic Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

The heroic Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

Marvel’s policy of trusting its multi-million dollar products to leftfield directors (Edgar Wright’s departure from 2015’s Ant Man notwithstanding) once again pays off. The edgy comic touch of James Gunn’s previous flicks Slither (2006) and Super (2010) is a perfect fit for Guardians‘ tongue-in-cheek sensibility.

The film takes great pleasure in sending up the clichés of the genre, such as the team’s slow motion walk towards the camera in which Gamora can be seen yawning. Gunn and Nicole Perlman’s meta script goes off on tangents, some funny, others less so, and concentrates on the relationships between the lead characters. This is a bunch of misfits we can believe in and the bond they gradually form is convincingly handled by the cast.

The evil Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and his loyal lieutenant Nebula (Karen Gillan) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

The evil Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and his loyal lieutenant Nebula (Karen Gillan) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

One of the more successful elements of Guardians… is its soundtrack of 70s and 80s classics, ingeniously crowbarred into the film as they form part of Peter’s beloved mix tape from his mother. Setting aside the fact that his Walkman wouldn’t probably survive 26 years and that AA batteries would likely be a little hard to come by in outer space, the music serves as a reminder that Peter, like Buck Rogers and John Carter, is a human in an alien environment and our way into this universe.

Gamora (Zoe Saldana) learns more about the mysterious orb in Guardians Of The Galaxy

Gamora (Zoe Saldana) learns more about the mysterious orb in Guardians Of The Galaxy

Despite trying a bit too hard at times to be Han Solo’s slightly less cool brother, Pratt is a good fit for Peter and proves a likeable lead. Saldana may look like a character from Star Trek, but she kicks ass and is proving a formidable presence in the world of big budget sci-fi, what with the Trek and Avatar franchises already in place. Cooper’s energetic, fast-talking voice work for Rocket is nicely played, while Diesel manages to give a new meaning to each new utterance of his singular phrase “I am Groot” and even non-actor Bautista does some solid work as meathead Drax.

Elsewhere, Gillan is impressively alien as Nebula, while Gunn makes sure to give his other supporting cast members something to do, especially Michael Rooker’s blue-skinned alien Yondu and John C Reilly’s corpsman Rhomann Dey.

A genuine pleasure, Guardians Of The Galaxy should give JJ Abrams something to think about for the next installment of  that other well-known space opera.