Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

As we know, all good things must come to an end - and so, too, must The Hobbit trilogy.

After wowing us and taking over the world with his Lord Of The Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson is finally closing the book on Bilbo And The Trilogy That Should Not Have Been.

We're way past arguing the toss about whether Tolkien's shortest book was up to three films, but if Five Armies shows us anything it's that we were right. It wasn't.

Picking up where Hobbit 2 should have finished, Five Armies' pre-credit sequence is a showpiece of typical Jackson proportions as the town we left last December is laid to fire and waste.

And this bit is quite fun.

After that, there's a battle.

And that's pretty much the whole film.

Sure, there are lengthy conversations on friendship, loyalty, gold that makes you go mad and inter-species love, but these are all really just pauses for breath between all the fighting.

And given that Jackson has proved himself so adept at the epic battle set-pieces, it's a bit odd that this time round the whole thing feels a bit, well, detached.

Maybe it's the ongoing failure to really give us characters we love and care about, maybe it's the effect of trying to just simply do too much, but there are moments here when I was having flashbacks to my Warhammer days.

(For the internet generation amongst you, Warhammer is what we did before they invented World Of War Craft - it was hands-on dice-rolling model fighting-friends fun, rather than staring at a screen and yelling at strangers.)

If you've played the game, you'll know what I mean - but for the rest of you, the huge squares of soldiers are basically how we used to set up our armies back in the day.

Lord Of The Rings never made me think of that.

There are some good points, obviously.

For a start, the whole thing is shot beautifully. And while the odd effect might look just like an effect, the scenery is again so real you could almost smell the snow.

And Martin Freeman is, again, great as Bilbo Baggins.

Throughout these three films, he - along with Ian McKellan as Gandalf - has been the one consistent feature.

He perfectly encapsulates the reluctant adventurer, and through him any emotional pull the film may have is channelled.

Sadly this detracts from the love story Jackson felt the need to create - but this highlights the problem all three films have had.

It doesn't matter what Jackson, Fran Walsh and the other writers created to pad out the story to almost eight hours, they couldn't create anything that had the power and majesty of Tolkien's scribblings.

As a result, the characters don't mesh well.

While Bilbo, Gandalf et al are well formed and rounded, others like Tauriel have seemed flat.

Which is no reflection on Evangeline Lilly's performance, she's more than up to the task - it's just she's not been given much to work with.

Overall, though, the film is just one long battle scene.

And if that's your thing, you're in for a great time - but for the rest of us, the lack of coherent story is a massive failing.

I don't like being negative about the Hobbit trilogy, being a huge fan of the book and Jackson's ast trilogy, but over the three films it's become increasingly clear that this was a bad idea.

One film? Great. Two? Maybe.

But no more.

And I'd forgive Jackson the film's shortcomings if it wasn't for his attempt, right at the end, to tie the whole thing into the Lords Of The Ring trilogy.

You've filmed them in the wrong order, Peter, that's fine. Don't then try and make them "work" if you watch them in the proper order.

And it's that one line (you'll know it when you see it) that ruins the whole film. It makes you realise that, in essence, this trilogy has been created just to set up a trilogy we've already watched.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

St. Vincent (12A)

Bill Murray has, in the years since Ghostbusters, gone from great comic actor to the stuff of internet legend.

He famously can never be contacted (and yet has never been busier), he apparently steals people's chips (or fries, depending on where you live), and he buggered off for years to create a whole new acting persona.

What he also did was continue to be brilliant.

After shambling back to us with Lost In Translation - in itself another myth as he'd never actually stopped working - he has cemented his position as one of cinemas finest talents.

A position that will be further cemented (can that even be done?) after St. Vincent.

Playing a miserable old git (of course), Murray's Vincent is a loner who drinks, smokes, pays a pregnant lap dancer for home visits and generally ignores the world.

That is until Melissa McCarthy's Maggie and her son Oliver (played by the stunning Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door.

Then his life changes.

Albeit only as much as he wants it to.

Taking the old faithful 'odd couple' riff and mixing it in with staple 'old and young learn from each other' motif, on the face of it St. Vincent isn't doing anything a thousand films haven't tried to do before.

But the gift here isn't what they're doing, it's how they're doing it.

For a start, Murray is having the time of his life.

Understated as ever, he gets the laughs in early and keeps 'em coming, and when the time comes to bring out the pathos and emotion he delivers in every scene.

What could have been a two-dimensional caricature is fleshed out and made whole by Murray.

He is living and breathing the role of Vincent - and clearly having the time of his life doing it.

It's a measure of how well McCarthy does - and just how damn good Lieberher is on his full-length debut - that neither are overshadowed by Murray's presence.

In fact, in the same way this is probably Murray's finest role, McCarthy has stepped up several notches and shown just how good an actress she is.

We already knew she could make us laugh (you can't blame her for the Mike And Molly scripts), but here she shows she can do so much more, making you really empathise with the daily struggles of a single mum going through a messy divorce.

Lieberher, meanwhile, is one seriously talented kid.

Sharing most of his screen time with Murray, his transformation from shy and gawky Oliver to a more rounded, street-wise and bookie savvy Oliver is as sweet and endearing as it is funny.

He's so natural in front of the camera, he makes Naomi Watts looks like she's acting.

That's not to say her role as the Russian lap dancer cum Lady Of The Night isn't well done, but at times it feels like she's concentrating so much on the accent she's forgotten how to walk and talk at the same time.

Mind you, in her defence her's is probably the least well-rounded of the lead characters. And it doesn't help when a young boy is effortlessly upstaging you.

Of the supporting cast, Chris O'Dowd continues to do his good name no harm as the priest teacher - again understated, getting the laughs without feeling the need to go all Father Ted on us.

Terence Howard, meanwhile, continues to look and act like a man still struggling to understand how he managed to screw up being in the Iron Man franchise.

Howard, Watts and the schmaltzy ending, though, are no reasons to not see this film - their shortcomings are far outweighed by the heart and warmth that flood off the screen.

Yes, you know what's coming.

Yes, there are precious few surprises.

Yes, all loose ends get tied up in exactly the way you'd expect.

In fact, it is what it is.

But none of that is important.

What's important is how this film makes you feel.

You love Vincent from the off, despite all his flaws, and you are friends with Maggie the moment you see her.

And your heart will be stolen by Oliver the moment he mutters "This is going to be a long life".

As I said, the final 20 minutes or so a schmaltzy, but given that it still reduced me to tears I think we can call it good schmaltz.

A film doesn't have to be edgy, daring or ground-breakingly original to be wonderful and brilliant.

It can be, but first and foremost it needs to connect with the audience on an emotional level, so you care about what happens to each character.

And this film will make you care.

In fact it will grab you by the heart and refuse to let go (which is a lot nicer than it sounds, trust me).