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In Theaters: THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES (2014)

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THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES
(US/New Zealand - 2014)

Directed by Peter Jackson. Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro. Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Ian Holm, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, Aidan Turner, Stephen Fry, Billy Connolly, Sylvester McCoy, James Nesbitt, Jed Brophy, Stephen Hunter, Ryan Gage, Manu Bennett, John Tui, Mikael Persbrandt. (PG-13, 143 mins)

"One Last Time" seems to be the resounding theme throughout this final chapter in the HOBBIT trilogy as well as in its advertising. The films in Peter Jackson's original 2001-2003 LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy stand--especially in their extended editions--among the most monumental achievements in all of cinema. But by splitting J.R.R. Tolkien's relatively light and quick-reading Hobbit into another colossal, epic trilogy and insisting on shooting them in the absurd 48 fps "high frame rate," a format that makes everything look like a live TV broadcast, really only works for expansive exterior shots and is preferred by no one with a name other than "Peter Jackson," Jackson seems guided more by hubris and self-indulgence than anything. The Hobbit isn't meant to be as huge as The Lord of the Rings. It's a smaller, more brisk story and by importing elements of Tolkien's The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, bringing Orlando Bloom back to play Legolas, a character not even present in Tolkien's novel, and even going so far as to invent his own entirely new character--the elf Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly--and granting her as much, if not more plot and screen time than the key principals, Jackson is only demonstrating that he doesn't know when or where to stop. It's great that Jackson loves Tolkien so much, but where his LOTR trilogy ranks with the original 1977-1983 STAR WARS trilogy, his bloated, three-part HOBBIT, while well-acted and enjoyable on its own terms, is his STAR WARS: EPISODE I-III, and like George Lucas, he's surrounded by yes-men and basically at the point where he's too rich and powerful for anyone to tell him "no." When Jackson made the original LOTR trilogy, he had an insane ambition and something to prove. Remove that and the HOBBIT trilogy feels like little more than an extended victory lap.


At least the third part of the HOBBIT trilogy, THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, is the shortest at a mere 143 minutes. Roughly half of the running time is devoted to the epic battle at Erebor, where Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) has reclaimed the Dwarven birthright following the dragon Smaug's (motion captured by Benedict Cumberbatch) rampage on Laketown and its subsequent death courtesy of the black arrow fired by Bard (Luke Evans). Thorin has been driven mad with power and is obsessively hunting for the Arkenstone, which has been stolen by Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who knows that it's dangerous for Thorin to possess. Meanwhile, Bard has led a large band of Laketown refugees to Dale, where he's formed a tentative alliance with elf king Thanduil (Lee Pace), who wants elven jewels being kept in Smaug's former stronghold. Legolas and Tauriel also turn up, with Tauriel still dealing with her forbidden love for the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) as Orcs launch an offensive and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) dispenses sage advice.


With FIVE ARMIES, Jackson attempts to send the trilogy off with multiple extended battle sequences that play like a bunch of Helm's Deeps strung together. There's some occasionally inspired bits of action and some dazzling visuals that look fine in standard, 24 fps 3D (though the waxy sheen and gauzy Barbara Walters soft focus on some of the actors, particularly Bloom, can be distracting), but after a while, it's hard for it not to become an exhausting, eye-glazing CGI blur, quite often looking more like a video game than a movie. FIVE ARMIES works best in its few small-scale and quieter moments, be it a smiling nod from Gandalf (again, McKellen has little to do here aside from "show up and be Ian McKellen," but he owns this role so thoroughly that even watching him phone it in is a pleasure) or Thorin coming to his senses and realizing that he's been treating his friends horribly. There's so many characters and intertwining subplots that Freeman's Bilbo more or less disappears into the ensemble until it's time for him to say goodbye to the dwarves and head back to his home at Bag End. Despite some good performances by Evans and Armitage, there's too little of the sense of emotional connection that worked so brilliantly in the LOTR trilogy, where its many scenes of friendship and camaraderie never fail to get the waterworks going for fans. It's not like the magic is gone, but the freshness definitely is, even with brief, shoehorned-in appearances by other LOTR alumni like Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Christopher Lee as Saruman, and Hugo Weaving as Elrond (their bits were intended for THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG but cut from it and edited into this film instead), and in using more CGI than ever in this closing installment (the shot of Legolas running along a bridge as it collapses is dreadful), there's a very diminished sense of humanity compared to before.


In his LOTR trilogy, Jackson paid loving tribute to Tolkien and captured the writer's voice and spirit with nothing less than absolute perfection. But by stretching THE HOBBIT from a 300-page breeze of a read to three films totaling around eight hours--even longer once you factor in the DVD/Blu-ray extended editions--Jackson is only paying tribute to Peter Jackson, capturing the voice and spirit of a gifted visionary who can no longer do anything without completely overdoing it, like a three-hour-plus KING KONG. I probably sound like I hate the three HOBBIT films, but I don't. They're entertaining and demonstrate flashes of past LOTR greatness (Cumberbatch's Smaug in the second film is probably the highlight), but the overall feeling is one of shrugging ambivalence. The LOTR trilogy is one that vividly entertains and still richly rewards. The nice-enough-while-you're-watching-it but forgettable HOBBIT trilogy is just there. People still talk about LOTR in reverent tones, but do you know anyone who really loves the HOBBIT movies and speaks of them as highly as the LOTR films? Everybody's gone to see the HOBBIT movies but it seems like we've approached this new trilogy more out of a feeling of obligation than out of the feverish excitement we collectively had a decade ago. I'm actually sort-of glad that it's done.





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