Saturday, December 27, 2014

Movie Review The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies

Movie: The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage

The Battle of the Five Armies finally brings Peter Jackson’s grand Hobbit trilogy to a close, and while there’s more than enough fighting and orc cleaving to keep action aficionados on the edge of their seats,  the rest of us are left shaking our heads as the film (almost) collapses under the weight of weak characters, awkward pacing, and its own overinflated bombast.

The opening lands us right where we left off in The Desolation of Smaug, with the enraged dragon-in-question torching Laketown to the ground.  Unfortunately, we’re denied Cumberbacht’s deliciously hammy performance that made the last movie such a delight to watch;  this time around Smaug’s more interested in chewing buildings than chewing the scenery, all in preparation for his swan song at the hands of Bard the Bowman.  Our would-be dragonslayer had just escaped from prison and was mounting an admirable (and convincing) Last Stand atop the bell tower against the bellowing beast with help from his courageous son, Bain.  Meanwhile, Turiel, Kili, and the remaining Lakeside dwarves struggle to stay afloat amidst falling debris and panicked inhabitants, while  back at Erebor Bilbo Baggins and Company could only look on helplessly as the city burned.   I am sad to say that these first 15 or 20 minutes of the movie, right up to when Bard pierces the dragon’s heart with the infamous black arrow, were the single best stretch of film for the entire movie.  The action, while perfunctory and predictable, was still engrossing, and I was eager to see who would be left standing, despite knowing full well how it would end.  Luke Evans had a big part to play in this, for it was his rendition of Bard - a man both noble and pragmatic, a quintessential anti-hero played with depth and understatement - that held my attention throughout the entire first act of the movie.  

It’s just too bad that the rest of the cast couldn’t quite cut the same mustard.  Turiel and Kili have a “touching” farewell at the lake’s shore after Smaug’s demise, where the dashing young dwarf gives his hilariously dimorphic mate a keepsake for him to claim later.  The whole scene was stomach churning, and not simply because the attempt at romance came off as tacky and formulaic.  I suspect that Turiel was introduced in order to bring some “gender balance” to a largely male cast, but in truth she was little more than a vestigial appendage for Kili and Legolas, initiating a ridiculous semi-love triangle and saturating every moment of her screen time with the threat of becoming a plot tumor.  Thankfully, her appearances in this film were brief and Kili-centric; the title of “Most Extraneous Movie Irritant” is reserved for another character introduced  by Jackson and his writers: Alfird, the Master of Laketown’s parasitic Yes-Man.  No doubt intended for comic relief, Alfrid’s cowardice, greed, and general nastiness moves him well beyond “love to hate” territory and lands him squarely in the realm of “seething hate.” The pain of his presence is significantly compounded by his overexposure; for the first hour or so of the movie, he arguably has more screen time than Bilbo himself.  It didn’t help that otherwise sensible folk like Bard and Gandalf entrusted him with duties he was obviously unqualified to carry out.  Alfrid seemed to serve little purpose other than to further hammer home Jackson’s rather heavy-handed treatment of The Hobbit’s light fable against avarice and greed - which, quite frankly, could have been better served through a much less annoying avenue.

The rest of the movie’s first half was thoroughly unremarkable, with the resettlement of Dale by Laketown’s survivors, the arrival of Thranduil, and the retreat of Thorin into the ruin’s of Erebor so as to sharpen his insanity rendered rushed and incidental by Jackson.  A notable exception was the rescue of Gandalf, in which Elrond, Saruman, and Galadriel all flexed their fighting muscles and faced off against Sauron and his Ringwraiths.  Jackson is a master of battle scenes if nothing else, and watching the most powerful beings of Middle-Earth duke it out while keeping the light show to a merciful minimum was a refreshing reprieve from the general monotony of the pre-Battle build-up.  Thorin’s descent into “dragon sickness” also deserves special mention, though the results are a little more mixed.  The film does a fair job at incorporating symbolism and proximity in order to show the gravity of Thorin’s sanity slippage: bedecked in robes matching his grandfather’s, he roams the halls of his ruined kingdom in a similar wild-eyed fashion, in the process wrecking himself and his relationships with the rest of his Company by account of his greed for the Arkenstone.  Thorin’s moral decay bears a rather Shakespearean countenance, which is impressive considering Peter Jackson is hardly known for his literary subtlety.  Throughout Thorin’s breakdown, Bilbo remains a convincingly conflicted character; although our Hobbit hero is purposefully out-of-focus for the final film, his scenes, especially in the company of Thorin, showcase Martin Freeman’s aplomb for both pathos and bathos.  Bilbo, who had kept the Arkenstone hidden for fear that it would hasten his friend’s unraveling, wavers between guilt over lying to Thorin, and conviction that keeping the stone from him is for his own good, and the brief interactions between the characters are truer to Tolkien’s subtle tracks against covetousness than any of Alfrid’s inane acts of bastardry.  Still, at times Thorin’s sickness can feel a little too put on, often to the point of near parody; a particularly cringe-worthy example occurred when Bilbo, after yet another failed attempt to talk some sense into him, heard him repeat Smaug’s lines of “not parting with a single coin” - complete with dragon voice to boot.  Thorin’s sickness would have perhaps been more poignant had the film drawn closer analogies with the greed of his deceased grandfather King Thror, rather than the original sin of a giant reptilian war machine.  Likewise, his quick and complete recovery in very little  time made the whole episode feel like a plot contrivance, one to be shed when no longer needed.

Of course, Thorin’s sickness was a plot device in the strictest sense, a hurdle to surmount in order form him to participate in the titular Battle of the Five Armies.  As the principal draw of the movie, it’s hard to say anything negative about the fight itself, whose highlights include Thorin’s boisterous cousin Dain Ironfoot, smashing Orcs with a warhammer while astride a pig and bellowing in gleeful bloodlust the entire time, as well as the triumphant return of Azog the Defiler.  The Pale Orc’s inclusion in the film series was met with great  resistance from fans, especially as he proved inapposite to the flow of the first film and was mostly absent for the second.  Now, during the movie’s recognized climax, he was both a competent strategist and a brutal adversary, and his various ploys and misdirections were what kept the fights from becoming too wearisome.  Still, this was a 45-minute long fight scene, when all is said and done, longer than most television programs and largely bereft of anything resembling character development.  And here, in all honesty, lies the core problem with The Battle of the Five Armies: minus the few aforementioned gems, the entire movie feels like a rushed setup for the final fight, which, clocking in at nearly an hour, rode out for entirely too long.  Despite the film’s shorter length compared to its predecessors, the lack of proper pacing made its final act seem endless.  It was as if everything rose to a crescendo far too quickly, and then carried the wave - and the audience along with it - to the point of rot.  Was the action good? Yes, admittedly; and yet, for anyone not fully committed to the repeated chopping of flesh with sword, 45 minutes is entirely too much, and it’s likely even the action connoisseurs would shift uncomfortably in their seats had the scene extended 10 or 15 minutes further.  When the inevitable character deaths eventually happened, it was hard to truly feel anything at their passing - both for the lack of any character depth, and the fact that riding the war film wave for three-quarters of an hour drains one of even the capacity to mourn.

It’s hard to call the Battle of the Five Armies a bad movie; any who came into it expecting, well, a battle, and nothing more were likely not disappointed, and after two years of Jackson's bloated offerings, good character development was probably the last thing on anyone’s mind.  Still, this bookend to the Hobbit Trilogy highlights to a greater degree than the others the problems inherent to transforming a short children’s book into an extended film series. 

Grade: C

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