“The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies,” a review

The last film of the forced trilogy that is Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” has marched onto our screen to mixed reviews.

Before considering other views, here’s mine. I love the “Lord of the Rings” books and Tolkien’s world and mythology.  The films are fantastic, unforgettable cinema, which had me looking forward through an entire year for the next instalment.  They were event cinema of the highest order.  As soon as the “New Line”/ “Wing-nut” logos appeared on the screens to the sweeping strains of Howard Shores score, I was hooked.  Then there were other landmarks through the year, the dvd release, and the extended box set releases.  The LOTR films were not perfect; to me the Battle of Helms Deep was punctuated by daft action sequences (sliding down stairs on a shield, tossing a dwarf, etc.) that ruined the tension, and Return of the King almost entirely squandered near three hours of epic cinema with a ridiculously rambling ending full of hugs, lingering looks and dewy eyes.

And yet what works is outstanding, unforgettable cinema, capturing the grandeur and poetry, horror and pathos of the book, and that has you returning again and again to the films, showing them to your children, who in their turn are hooked.

All the above that was wrong, and what worked, to a lesser degree, is present with “The Hobbit” trilogy.  First to an obvious problem that was not present with LOTR. The source material was not a trilogy but a shorter children’s book.  And as a children’s book it did not have the height, weight or depth of LOTR, although a loved classic in its own right.  To stretch to this epic length is a forced manoeuvre that has led to justifiable accusations of cash raking cynicism on the part of the film makers, and led to the lengthy longueurs, especially in the first film, and the need to invent extra characters and scenes.

But, and this is a big but, Peter Jackson has preserved the integrity and the poetic and spiritual and human truths of the source, whilst providing, again, spectacular event cinema that has us looking forward through the year to the next film (or did).

It is also Jackson’s middle Earth, recognisably so, so those fans of his LOTR films feel at home and know exactly why they are going to the cinema and to a large measure what they will get.  To me this disarms the oft quoted current criticism of the Hobbit films that this is nothing new, and we have seen it all before.  Well, yes, that is largely the point.  We go to the cinema sometimes because we want to see a certain vision, we return to a certain country because we want to see a certain landscape, here a language we love, meet a people we recognise, encounter strangeness and grandeur that thrills us.  So it is with Jackson’s Middle Earth.  We return there with “The Battle of the Five Armies” because we know it is a finite journey that’s coming to an end, and we want to be immersed in an experience we have loved one last time.

Another magnet of hostility lies with the source material itself.  It is more childish, shallower in places and is more fantastical and less humanistic than LOTR.  It is a children’s book with dwarves as heroes with silly names.  But then there are enough people presumably who understand that and want to see this made into cinema.  If the tone of the original source offends that much, then avoid the films, in the same way that if you are easily squeamish, avoid gory horror.  Whether it justifies three films is the most valid criticism in my book.  Apparently, Guillermo del Torro was once slated to direct and said he would have gone with two films, which echoes the structure of the book much better, and perhaps this would have been a wiser move.

However, we are where we are, three films have been made by Peter Jackson, so how does “Battle of the Five Armies” stand as a conclusion?

We begin as “The Desolation of Smaug” ended, with Smaug swooping in on Laketown, much to the dismay of the Dwarf and Hobbit onlookers.  It’s an incredible opening of sound and fury, as Smaug unleashed a firestorm on the largely wooden town, and the Bard (integrity and understated heroism from Luke Evans) struggles to escape from the local jail whilst the Master (Stephen Fry) looks to escape with the gold.

These set pieces manage to maintain a sense of narrative coherence in the middle of broiling chaos, and much is made of shots of helpless children shouting for their “Da” to stoke up our emotional investment.

Meanwhile, back at the Lonely Mountain, Richard Armitage’s Thorin Son of Thrain struggles with the “Dragon Sickness,” a madness which is an overwhelming lust for riches brought on by too much exposure to “mountains of gold over which a serpent has brooded” and his desire for “the Arkenstone.”  This plot strand gives the film some added resonance, and is like an extreme example of the recent madness that our “Black Friday” shopping orgies have aroused in people.   In fact it’s not an extreme reflection but an accurate one!  It is a disturbing mirror back on ourselves on how our lust for riches or objects, be they tech, cars, or whatever, can skew our humanity and perspective.

Bilbo (the excellent Martin Freeman) looks on aghast at what is happening to his friend, as Thorin barricades the company in the mountain against the needy refugees from Laketown.  Martin Freeman nails Bilbo, and we can see why Peter Jackson was determined to secure him for the role.  His “wait a minute” deadpan comic timing, his charm, vulnerability, courage, homesickness and stoicism, Freeman delivers, and we miss him when he is not on screen.   Meanwhile, armies of elves led by Lee pace’s Thranduil, arrive to reclaim some of their treasure from the mountain.  Thorin resists and calls for a Dwarf army back-up.  Meantime armies of Orcs march on Lake-town manipulated by Sauron.  Can the warring factions unite under Gandalf’s prompting against this common foe?

See how much there is going on?  I haven’t mention Tauriel’s (the lovely, graceful, fast and deadly Evangeline Lilly) rebellion and banishment by Thranduil.   Allied with Orlando Bloom’s reliable heroic lead Legolas, they strike out to trace the Orc army to its source.  These elves, of course an addition to the text, work on the movie level, providing a neat link with LOTR, and having some cracking action scenes that rely on their grace, agility, and speed.  Then there is a battle between Sauron , his Wraiths and Galadriel and pre-turning to the dark-side Saruman (Christopher Lee) to rescue Gandalf.  It’s impressive to see the elder Lee in action hero mode, smiting the dark forces with his staff.  There’s an effective scene with Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel as she speaks the dark language against Sauron to banish him.

Then there is the battle of the five armies itself as things well and truly kick off.  How there is anyone left from Laketown as the evil forces of Orc and gigantic “War beasts” attack after their decimation by Smaug is anyone’s guess.  There are some truly epic scenes of combat.  A favourite is massed ranks of dwarves forming a tank of shields and spears Roman legionnaire style over which leap attacking elves.  The War beasts are gigantic and frightening creations, massive trolls outfitted in battle suits of catapults and huge sling shots, as well as those that charge head-down with pointed stone helmets to breach city walls.  The Orc’s and their leaders including Manu Bennett’s Azog and his prosthetic sword are also menacing, visceral beasts.

Events start to round off with some heroic duels between leads.  Look for a chilling comeback from under the ice, and Legolas’s videogame-like but still thrilling leaps between falling blocks of masonry.  There are some neat, if slightly contrived, tie-ins at the end with Fellowship of the Ring, the most ominous of which is an embattled Saruman vowing to hunt down Sauron by himself, and most touching in the final coda, as we begin where we came in.

Scenes with Ryan Gage’s Alfrid as the Master’s assistant are a little ill judged, and there’s a massively unfunny scene of cross-dressing that jars towards the end.  Jackson has always struggled in trying to bring the odd spot of light relief to his massive canvas, his comic scenes appearing forced and stilted and not defusing the tension but interrupting it.

How much you accept the deja-vous from LOTR depends on your buy-in to the Hobbit.  If you are a fan you will very probably accept and enjoy, if not, you will be probably be wearied by echoes of the displaced refugees from Laketown being seen before at Rohan / Helms Deep, and indeed of the epic battle and siege and huge beasts with those seen in the attack on Gondor in ROTK.

But on the whole this is fantastic cinema that shows respect and reverence to Tolkien’s vision.  It was a huge relief to me that one of the closing lines from the Hobbit is present in the film, as this is one of the underlying truths of Tolkien’s philosophy, and a lynch –pin for the whole narrative:

“You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

A review of “Choose Life: Christmas and Easter Sermons in Canterbury Cathedral” by Bishop Rowan Williams

“Choose Life” is a collection of the Christmas and Easter Sermons of Bishop Rowan Williams, when he was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 – 2012.

The book is split into two sections for Christmas and Easter, which makes it ideal for devotional or daily readings in Advent and Lent seasons.  This is what I did, and have found Bishop Williams to be a trusted and wise companion on these journeys.

His essays reference contemporary events, literature, and music to illustrate these events that changed the world.  He is preaching to crowds that he knows will crowd the cathedral pews with attitudes ranging from bored duty, scepticism and hostility, as well as devotion.  He knows he has to challenge and inspire his listeners, challenge them with the concept of God both becoming a vulnerable human baby, and dying a torturous death, and what it has meant and means to our world, and how we can respond.  If we listen to Bishop Williams, really listen, then indifference becomes impossible.  And that’s what he repeatedly asks for, that we stop, and see, that we step off the treadmill for a moment and leave room for reflection and wonder, leave room for God to plant a seed.  He knows that few will leave instant converts, that lasting change is often gradual change, a journey that is lived through a lifetime.  This I how I have come to see spiritual growth, a journey filled with joy and revelation and blessings and grace, yes, but also false starts, reversions, frustrations, doubt, pain, disillusionment.  The cock crows for us as well as Peter, but then time and again we find something that feeds us and sets us back on the path.

To me these essays have been an anchor in choppy seas, the counsel of someone who burns with intelligence, grace and God’s love.

A review of Darren Shan’s “ZOM-B Family”

Don’t read any further if you are new to Shan’s ZOM-B saga, as this review will be chock full of spoilers….

Beginning with the brutal betrayal at the close of ZOM-B clans, the ninth book in Darren Shan’s ZOM-B series sees B Smith taken prisoner by the vile Dan- Dan into a fortress at Battersea Power-Station.  There she finds an unholy alliance between surviving members of the Board, the Klan, the army, Owl-Man, and her Father.  Here at this base B must endure her most harrowing ordeal yet, one that will call on every ounce of her undead strength and living spirit.

B faces the emotional torture of facing up to her father and what he is, by showing him what has she become, a repudiation of all he stands for.  B also discovers the fate of her mother, in one of the books many unsettling and shocking scenes.

B refuses to join this “axis of evil,” to borrow a phrase, and is so given into the clutches of Dan-Dan. There then follows an extended scene of torture which is pretty audacious for a young adult title.  I kept expecting an imminent rescue or reprieve, but B finds no short-cuts from this.  It’s not a literal crucifixion but follows the slow torture of this execution, without the reprieve of death.  I would caution more sensitive readers (although those most easily offended won’t have made it this far in the series)!  However, the scene is not salacious, or cheap, in any way.  The focus is on B’s mental, emotional and spiritual endurance, and her repudiation of Dan-Dan’s evil.

Following this, there are more scenes of gladiatorial combat, more wrenching loss, and at the denouement, a siege which for B means out of the frying pan, into the fire…

This is probably the toughest and most unrelenting book of the series yet, but a gripping little page turner that once again shows how Shan is adept at switching from fast paced gore and action to pretty weighty moral content.  It’s the latter that is so refreshing.  Shan’s treatment of racism in particular, and the theme of the battle of the individual’s moral choices, is utterly refreshing, and timely, in today’s particularly xenophobic, other-hating political landscape.

Roll on” ZOM-B Bride.”