The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies (3D) ****


It’s the end of an era – and an adventure for a Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (played by Martin Freeman – who has long dumped his The Office persona) that started in 2012. What better way to conclude it than an almighty battle to define all battles. This episode is much like writer-director Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) in grandeur – a right royal punch-up that delivers what its title suggests. It starts and ends with iconic scenes, very different in temperament, but both equally memorable, picking up from last time when the fearsome dragon, Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), is about to attack the village at the foot of the hills holding the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor.

Fans will know what to expect next in this finale, that of the dwarves, men of the dale, elves, orcs and shape-shifters having it out near the Lonely Mountain. This film does not disappoint with the character tension gradually building up to that point, but serving bursts of indifference to get you in the mood as sides fall out – and even allies.

Those not familiar with the novel but expecting more ‘back story’ after the last film, The Desolation of Smaug (2013), seeing the dwarves finally making it home might be disappointed as any jubilant homecoming is a bit thin on the ground. It’s not until gold-blinded legendary warrior and now appointed Dwarf King, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) charges out of his stronghold, Erebor to join his family member (hilariously voiced by Billy Connolly) that things get more interesting.

In the meantime, Jackson has something for every fan of each faction to delight in, seeing their heroes in action as greed takes grip (very topical in today’s consumer-led society) – or further evil unfolds in the orcs’ case. Among the fighting though, Jackson almost ‘pauses’ the mayhem to deliver key relationship nuggets of J.R.R. Tolkien’s infamous story that help break up proceedings.

The returning cast were never ‘away’ as such, having filmed their scenes concurrently, and all give splendid performances for the last time. Particularly praiseworthy is Luke Evans as Bard who gets an impressive opener. He then goes on to act as the definition of a mortal leader as the odds are against him and his townsfolk. Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is like the ancient uncle that won’t go away, more worse for wear, and seems to pop up and act in his own parallel universe (even in the midst of battle), once freed from captivity.

Apart from an oddly ‘animated’ Orlando Bloom – like some creepy, plastic-skinned avatar – the effects are outstanding as Jackson reproduces his armies of hundreds, never failing on detail for the sake of the action. The most iconic action scene has the least number of players, that of the clash between Thorin and leader of the orcs, Azog (Manu Bennett), on the ice. It has a certain ballet-esque beauty to it, even with two ungraceful warriors involved. It’s another emotional high point of the film, more subdued and sombre in delivery, considering the dispensing of evil thus begins.

Jackson has done justice to Tolkien’s novel’s final saga, giving it more personality in the midst of war, and more action to feast on in a big-screen environment. Indeed, the 3D works to add depth to the battlefields, and particularly the impressive architecture and landscapes. At the end, we are reminded how it all started, as a sigh of acknowledgement accompanies a feeling of sadness that we have now witnessed all that Jackson’s take on Tolkien has to offer.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Brave ****

As the tile suggests, this is a bold new animated concept from pioneering Pixar that moves away from the fantasy characters children and adults alike delight in, and more towards fabled ones that could come straight from the campfire stories of Scottish folklore. It’s also quite fitting with our women’s triumphant medal glory in 2012 that the lead character is a fiery, independent sportswoman of considerable talent herself, as handy with a bow and arrow in any archery competition as any Korean gold medalist. In fact, Merida our heroine (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) – who sadly bares a striking red barnet resemblance to shamed newspaper boss Rebekah Brooks – could give any of the Koreans a run for their gold in Rio in 2016.

Merida is a free-spirited princess who has the usual strained teen relationship with her parents, with the added pressure of having to be married off young to a suitor that will unite the clans. However, Merida who wants to make her own way in life has other ideas and doesn’t want to follow tradition. She suggests an archery competition to select the worthy male specimen from a very sorry trio. Even with duty calling, Merida still defies her mother, Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson), and flees into the forest, only to stumble upon a witch and her spell to that promises to ‘change’ her mother’s outlook. The result brings chaos to the kingdom and Merida must rely on her bravery and archery skills to end the curse and reunite her family and the clans.

As 3D effects should now be – subliminal and not the focal point of any film anymore, what Brave is left to do well is concentrate on the storytelling with some great characters to journey along with. However, the story is less fanciful and imaginative than the likes of Toy Story, which allows it a more ‘realistic’ quality. There is a lot of utterly charming humour and banter to enjoy with this tale that is naturally peppered with family values and morals that fit in nicely with its aim, rather than drum home the obvious in an eye-raising snooze fest.

American filmmakers Brenda Chapman, Mark Andrews and Steve Purcell really show an understanding of the Scottish ways of old, without sugar coating it for US audiences in some whimsical fashion. It’s easy to see how the Scottish tourist board will benefit from this film and its salt-of-the-earth characters and Highland landscapes – as well as a predominantly all-Scots cast. In true Pixar style, the colours are also as rich as is the scenery that adds to its enjoyment and our immersion into Merdia’s forested world.

There is a wonderfully unique touch to the whole affair that sees a mother-daughter relationship take the helm and restore equilibrium, rather than the usual male-dominated Pixar characters. The fact that the writers have also added a healthy dose of humour to female leads’ adventure too, along with lots of fun, gives Brave a strength of character to add to its characters’ appeal. It’s also great to see how Pixar handles a standard fairy-tale princess story in a modern way, giving little girls a heroine who can handle her own and deal with her own disappointments. As for adults, though the jokes and sequences may not be as fresh as expected in a Pixar vein, it’s the heart of Brave that keeps the story beating along nicely.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Gulliver’s Travels – 3*

Jack Black is an acquired taste. Let’s face it; if you’re not a fan, you wouldn’t even contemplate going to see a film, which is effectively another stage for self-depreciating Blackmania. The only issue is whether as a fan of the tale of Gulliver’s Travels, the version from director Rob Letterman – the man behind Monsters vs. Aliens and Shark Tale – will entertain or irk you. If you are loyal to the quintessentially English literary text, you may find the contemporary American (New York) spin a bit too brash, as Gulliver becomes a bungling mailroom employee with aspiring ideas of being a travel writer to impress the girl (travel sub-editor Darcy (Amanda Peet)), and is sent off to the Bermuda Triangle on his first assignment.

Low and behold, hapless Gulliver hits a waterspout in a vicious storm, and gets spat out on the shores of Lilliput, full of little people who think he’s a beast – well, he is a man giant to them. The rest is set for a fest of Black comic over-indulgence, Black flabby flesh over-exposure, Black eyebrow gymnastics, and Black taunts at the stuffiness of old English etiquette. The latter is what gets a little irksome at times, especially with when Gulliver revamps Lilliput in New York style with garish billboards and American casuals. Admittedly, the part where he goes all ‘School of Rock’ (Guitar Hero moves) is as amusing as an impatient kid trying to impress a parent. The re-enacting of cinematic classics, like Star Wars and Titanic for the Lilliput royal family as a theatrical re-enactment of the great Gulliver’s life back home get most of the satirical laughs.

What makes these moments are the impressive supporting cast of Brits in deadpan humour mode, including Emily Blunt, Billy Connolly, Chris O’Dowd, James Corden, and Catherine Tate – although, sadly, we get to see very little input from the latter lady. O’Dowd appears to match the Black idiocy for the British contingent as pompous General Edward, and Blunt complements as bored, but smart and very beautiful Princess Mary he’s betrothed to. But it’s fellow countryman Jason Segel as the love-struck Horatio yearning for Mary’s affection and as Black’s diminutive sidekick who often steals the scenes from Black, especially he wooing of Mary with a contemporary love song classic.

There is also one inspired moment in the film, where Gulliver wakes up in a dolls house and gets terrorised by a youngster that’s almost Lynchian in respect, but the rest of the film is pantomime fluff that still touches on the original tale’s themes of man’s treatment of man, petty differences between sides/religions and political corruption, but all done in a far lighter manner. Unfortunately, the film concept swings from Wild Wild West to Transformers – perhaps a precaution to keep the youngsters happy with a bit of robot wars? Prepare, also, as always, for the big morals at the end, delivered by Black who always comes to his adult senses for a mere split second, after a burst of childish lunacy.

Black does what he does best in Gulliver’s Travels; he’s a man-child at heart, employed to dumb down any tale for the kids. There is an uglier side in the shameless advertising throughout, targeting the adults who have nowhere to hide from their offspring in the cinema shadows, especially the Lilliput soldiers’ infatuation with Gulliver’s iPhone. Still, a jolly funny song and dance later reiterates that neither star nor cast have taken this seriously, and as a bit of family escapism on Boxing Day, it’s adequately entertaining, and far better than your local stage panto.

3/5 stars

By L G-K