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 – 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 World’s End

The Cornetto trilogy comes to a minty conclusion in this typically homage-heavy sci-fi comedy about bars, buddies, brawls and beer – lots of beer.

“Where Wright, Pegg and Frost go together from here who knows, but as the Cornetto trilogy’s final flavour The World’s End is sweet indeed”

Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost followed-up their cult TV series Spaced with the 2004 rom-zom-com Shaun Of The Dead, a slice of genius that embraced George A Romero’s Dead films while at the same time doing something truly original with the formula.

They teamed up again three years later for the even more successful Hot Fuzz, an action comedy that winked in the direction of cop buddy movies like Lethal Weapon and Bad Boys, but was still very much its own quirky beast.

Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steve (Paddy Considine), Gary (Simon Pegg), Andrew (Nick Frost) and Pete (Eddie Marsan) prepare to get annhiliated in The World's End

Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steve (Paddy Considine), Gary (Simon Pegg), Andrew (Nick Frost) and Pete (Eddie Marsan) prepare to get annihilated in The World’s End

As the years have ticked by, Wright, Frost and Pegg especially have eclipsed their humble TV beginnings to become Hollywood figures, but that hasn’t stopped them from getting the band back together one more time for this long-awaited final chapter in the Cornetto trilogy (so named for the appearance of the famous ice cream brand in each film).

The film starts with a lengthy exposition-heavy voiceover from Pegg’s Gary King, the rebellious cool kid who led his four mates Andrew, Steve, Oliver and Pete on an epic post-school quest to traverse the ‘Golden Mile’, a perilous pub crawl encompassing 12 pubs in their hometown of Newton Haven. Despite a brave attempt, the gang failed to make it to The World’s End, the Golden Mile’s final watering hole.

A young Gary (Thomas Law) and Andy (Zachary Bailess) consider what's to come of their lives in The World's End

A young Gary (Thomas Law) and Andy (Zachary Bailess) consider what’s to come of their lives in The World’s End

Now approaching 40, Gary tracks down his estranged buddies and convinces a reluctant Andrew (Frost), Steve (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman) and Pete (Eddie Marsan) to finally conquer the Golden Mile. An uncomfortable start to the crawl, made more awkward by the arrival of Oliver’s sister Sam (Rosamund Pike), suddenly takes a loony turn for the dangerously extraterrestrial.

Gary (Simon Pegg) unveils the map of 'the golden mile' showing all 12 watering holes in The World's End

Gary (Simon Pegg) unveils the map of the ‘Golden Mile’ showing all 12 watering holes, culminating at The World’s End

It would have been so easy for co-writer/director Wright, Pegg (also a co-writer) and Frost to have reheated the magic that made Shaun… and Hot Fuzz so adored, but to their credit they instead go off in another direction entirely, while still delivering the sort of joke rate that most ‘comedies’ don’t get anywhere near.

Gary is a pathetic character, an adult straightjacketed by stubborn arrested development who’s never been able to get past 1990. Still wearing the same goth clothing and still driving the same clapped out car he had as a teenager, Gary’s obnoxious, hard edges are softened out by Pegg’s sympathetic portrayal.

Gary (Simon Pegg), Oliver (Martin Freeman) and Steve (Paddy Considine) realise something is rotten in Newton Haven in The World's End

Gary (Simon Pegg), Oliver (Martin Freeman) and Steve (Paddy Considine) realise something is rotten in Newton Haven in The World’s End

The top-notch cast work splendidly off each other, each bringing their own unresolved baggage to what gradually turns into a painful, but necessary reunion for them all. Normally cast as resentful and/or angry, Marsan lets his hair down in a role that actually allows him to have a giggle, while Frost shows that when he’s given the right material (usually co-written by Pegg and Wright) he’s an actor with range.

Sam (Rosamund Pike) kicks butt in The World's End

Sam (Rosamund Pike) kicks butt in The World’s End

The film cleverly manages to have it both ways; in the one hand it drums home the message that there’s little point dwelling on the past, while at the same time wallowing in the nostalgia of its early 90s soundtrack, in particular Primal Scream’s seminal track Loaded.

Wright has cited the legendary sci-fi writer John Wyndham as a big influence and there are definite nods to his paranoid tome The Midwich Cuckoos (turned into the classic movie Village Of The Damned), while other 1950s sci-fi classics Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and The Thing From Another World are also interwoven into the film’s DNA.

Despite being very amusing, The World’s End isn’t as instantly likeable as either Shaun… or Hot Fuzz. Maybe it was the special effects getting in the way, or the increasingly bonkers plot, but something felt missing. That being said, the first two chapters in the trilogy improved with age, so there’s no reason to think The World’s End won’t become a richer experience on repeated viewings.

Where Wright, Pegg and Frost go together from here who knows, but as the Cornetto trilogy’s final flavour The World’s End is sweet indeed.

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.