Friday, December 26, 2014

FOOL'S GOLD: a review of "The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies"

Based upon the novel The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Screenplay Written by Philippa Boyens & Fran Walsh & Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro
Directed by Peter Jackson
* (one star)

Peter Jackson, how could you?! Honestly, how could you?!

Dear readers, this review may come as quite a bit of a surprise to you regarding the harness of my star rating plus everything that I am about to write. I am certain that many of you will disagree with me and that is perfectly fine. I am certain that many of you will love or have already loved this final installment in "The Hobbit" trilogy and of course, that is fine as well. But for me, I felt to be so terribly cheated and frankly, now that it is finished, I am just glad the damn thing is mercifully over.

When Peter Jackson unveiled his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein's iconic trilogy The Lord Of The Rings between the years of 2001-2003, you would have heard my voice along with the massive choir that adored those films. In fact, not only did I think that "The Return Of The King" (2003) was the finest film of that year, I also felt that the entire film series consisted of three of the finest films realized in the decade of 2000-2009. It was a series that created an entire film universe with passion, grit, fire and a heart as wide open as the sky itself and believe me, I hung onto every single minute of the proceedings (including the extended editions) as the complete purity of Jackson's artistry was unquestionably evident.

As I have stated before on this site, those three films felt as if Peter Jackson would have been happy if those were the only films he would ever be able to make and he created them as if he would never make films again. Certainly a film adaptation The Hobbit was inevitable. But I was skeptical from the very beginning at the purpose and reasoning behind splitting an already slim novel into two films and then ultimately cleaved once more into three motion pictures. The mercenary aspect of this proposal just never felt right to me but I was determined not to judge until I saw the finished films.

Yes, I did give the new trilogy's first installment "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (2012) a high rating due to its more innocent, child's dream like tone of the film's leisurely first hour and the committed excitement of the film's third hour as anchored by the great "Riddles In The Dark" sequence, wonderfully performed by both Martin Freeman and the brilliant Andy Serkis, as the titular Hobbit Bilbo Baggins and the malevolent Gollum, respectively. However, it was during that film's turgid second hour that I had begun to have my problems with Jackson's approach this time around. The narrative ground itself to a complete halt and included familiar actors and characters not for any narrative necessity but obviously to provide links to the critical and audience beloved previous trilogy.

While quite a number of viewers felt that the second installment "The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug" (2013) was an improvement over the first, I found myself in sharp disagreement because for all of the CGI Sturm und Drangcharacters running every which way, and getting themselves into and out of one jam after another for nearly three hours, the narrative of the story barely moved even one inch. For Pete's sakes, Jackson never even bothered to fulfill the promise contained in that film's title, thus further proving that his approach to this new trilogy was more lucrative than artistic.

Now, we arrive with the final (please let it be true) installment entitled "The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies" and for my money, this film was a crushing disappointment. Now don't worry. I am not reacting like those so-called "Star Wars" fans who shriek that George Lucas somehow "raped their childhoods" with the arrival of the controversial prequel trilogy. No. I don't take these things that personally. But to assure you that I am not being hyperbolic in my personal assessment of this new film and perhaps feel that I am possibly being too harsh on Peter Jackson, know that I am indeed being this harsh because he knows better than this. And I know he knows better than this because he has DONE better than this time and again. For all of the lip service to the pure themes of friendship, honor, truth, loyalty and bravery contained within this new film, it is ultimately so disingenuous as it is all really and only about massive levels of greed, making "The Hobbit: The Battle Of Five Armies" nothing more than two and a half hours of soulless cinematic subterfuge.

"The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies" picks up precisely where the second installment left off as we at long last witness the true desolation of the behemoth dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) and we then begin to start the drums of war between the rising band of Orcs, the Elves, the goblins, the fishermen of Laketown, a Dwarf army and the small collective of dwarves led by increasingly ravenous and unhinged Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) now barricaded inside of the Lonely Mountain and surrounded by all manner of riches and gold.

That is essentially the plot of this third chapter and for nearly two and a half hours, Peter Jackson showcases precisely everything that is wrong about this new trilogy as explicitly as he is able. Don't get me wrong. The film is visually resplendent, as beautifully rendered as we would expect. You can see every penny of the production values upon the screen handsomely. All of the film's performances are excellent and I do have to give special credit to Richard Armitage who seemed to find the a truly lived-in blood and fire within the dwarf Thorin, that made the fullness of his arc over the three films resonate. Additionally, I also found Luke Evans as Bard The Bowman to be effective as well.

That being said, and as with the second film and an extensive portion of the first film, "The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies" is a hefty slab of excessive padding calling itself a movie as all the bluster does not add up to anything substantive. The love triangle between the Elven archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the warrior dwarf Kili (Aiden Turner) and the female Elven fighter Taureil (the needless Peter Jackson creation played by Evangeline Lilly) is negligible and in its own way, is itself somewhat sexist as this plot thread is only in the film to inject some estrogen and so called "romance" to potentially draw in more female viewers and not for anything purely story driven.

The film's titular battle sequence, with its morass of bats, monsters, falling mountains, flying arrows, clashing swords, creature beheadings and soaring eagles takes place for the duration of 45 minutes or so of the film's running time. One particular one-on-one fight between Thorin and Azog the head Orc (Manu Bennett) is as interminable as it is completely predictable and yawn inducing. And throughout all of the pyrotechnics, there is no stitch of urgency and it is as pulse pounding as watching someone else playing a video game...which in fact, we essentially are doing just that.

I'm sorry but I just find it inexcusable that for a film this lengthy and filled with this much bombastic sound and fury that the whole thing really signifies absolutely, positively nothing and isn't about much of anything other than its own cacophony. There was nothing for me to latch onto emotionally because when it all comes down to it, this contentious battle between the five armies is about nothing more than the possession of gold. Gold?! That's it?!

Within "The Lord Of The Rings" film series, we were given an adventure that created a palpable sense of mounting apocalyptic doom as the story, built from the epic good vs. evil struggle, held the entire existence of Middle Earth in the balance. There was truly something at stake, characters to root for and against and Peter Jackson, through the genre of fantasy, gave us an allegory to the nature, strategy, and sacrifice of war itself. Yet, for this new film, it's just about greed and gold and so what?! Who knows? Maybe Peter Jackson was also trying to create an allegory with this new movie too. Like let's take a look at the wars our country has been involved in over the last 10 plus years and what else are the motivations but greed, power and control? Look, I really just want to give him the benefit of the doubt as I really just do not wish to believe that he could make a film that was indeed this empty headed and hearted. But, unfortunately, I am feeling that indeed he did.

But, most of all, the greatest failing of "The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies" is an issue that has plagued this entire trilogy and that is the sad disappointment that for a film series that has called itself "The Hobbit," the titular character is just as inconsequential to the proceedings within the film as us in the audience. Martin Freeman makes for a wonderful Bilbo Baggins as his sly comedy and overall bemusement has remained a pleasure to watch, if only Jackson ever allows us to spend time with him. Again the issue emerges that this entire enterprise should have solely been ONE, tight, taut film instead of three severely bloated ones and with Bilbo Baggins clearly in the lead and we are viewing the spectacle entirely through his wide-eyed perspective. But, with what Peter Jackson has done with a whole trilogy is to completely sideline, and at points eject his hero from his own story for long stretches of screen time.

Bilbo pops up here to provide some information. He pops up there to offer some counsel. He races through his magical Ring netherworld for a spell and when Jackson clearly has no idea what to do with him next, he renders poor Bilbo unconscious for much of the war sequence. Come on, Peter Jackson, just be honest with us and just call the film what it really is: "THORIN AND THE LONELY MOUNTAIN " for these three films are truly about the life and times of Thorin, his pursuits, perils, potential downfall and redemption. For that matter, Bilbo could have just as easily stayed at home in The Shire and read about Thorin's adventures for as insignificant of a role he actually plays in the three films overall.

Furthermore, Peter Jackson also made a gargantuan error by trying so hard to make so much of this one film and the overall trilogy link up to "The Lord Of The Rings" film series and not focusing entirely on Bilbo's story in its own right. For this third time, it really felt that even Jackson himself didn't believe in the material he has taken such great pains to alert viewers just how devoted to Tolkein's creation he claims to be. This time, it felt as if even he knew that his previous trilogy was the better trilogy because over and again are clumsy signposts to the previous films through needless appearances of past actors and characters as well as an overall tonality that is favoring the darkness to come over the whimsy and wonder that exists in The Hobbit. Because of this, it just begs the question of why did Peter Jackson even make these three new films in the first place? And the answer is so painfully obvious, dear readers. It's all about those Middle Earth dollars flowing in three times over instead of once. It's just as pathetically uninspired as the war over the gold at Lonely Mountain and it makes for a film experience that becomes the same kind of over-stuffed shiny piece of crap that Michael Bay releases time and again, where commerce reigns and art is nowhere to be found. Like I said before, Peter Jackson knows better simply because he has performed better in the past and I just cannot let him off of the hook this time.  

You know, if there is a subtext at all to "The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies," it is possibly all about a war between Peter Jackson and himself. Is he really the gold lusty dwarf King Thorin or is he more truthfully the kindly Bilbo Baggins who wants nothing more than to go home, be left in peaceful solitude to plant an acorn and watch his tree grow over the years?

Peter Jackson has claimed that now that this trilogy is completed, his creative desires are to leave the big budgeted spectacles behind and now focus upon smaller films. Terrific. I hope to see those films. So were these Hobbit movies solely designed to make a fortune through its built-in audience to provide him with a financial safety net to make those smaller films? It seems more than peculiar to me that after the critical and box office failure of his adaptation of "The Lovely Bones" (2009), a film that I have found to be quite underrated and especially stirring, he jumped into directing these Hobbit movies after the original director Guillermo del Toro conveniently left the project. It just now feels more than ever that Jackson did not want to take any creative chances or risks and if he ever did feel like throwing some artistic caution to the wind in the future, he had to be financially set first. Only Jackson and those closest to him will ever know his true motivations for making this series, but for me, the war between the cynicism of the industry and the purity of his love for cinematic storytelling and Tolkein's works were decidedly at contentious play. And as far as I am concerned, cynicism won.

So, as I think about it, maybe Peter Jackson was not represented by Thorin or Bilbo at all. But more truthfully, by Alfrid (Ryan Gage), the greedy, cowardly resident of Laketown, a man ready to sell out the women and children of his home to the creatures that wish to decimate them all just to save his own hide and squander away as much gold as he is able in the process.

As I stated at the outset of this review, I hate to be so harsh but Peter Jackson knows better and "The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies" is a thunderous, pondorous cinematic disappointment.

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