Wed 17 Dec 2014
Peter Jackson attempts to finish his second Middle-earth trilogy in grand style, but the result is minor at best. Plus, a quick review of the Cannes winner, Winter Sleep
Endings are notoriously difficult to get right, especially when those endings are dragged out over two-and-a-half hours. That’s the situation with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which attempts to expand the slender final chapters of J.R.R. Tolkien’s slender fantasy adventure into an epic spectacle on the level of…well, Return of the King, the last installment in director Peter Jackson’s previous foray into Middle-earth, The Lord of the Rings. Of course, that’s been Jackson’s M.O. throughout this entire second trilogy; many complained about the lengthy preamble that opened An Unexpected Journey (with the dinner sequence earning particular scorn—undeservedly in my opinion), while the dwarves-in-barrels river rafting portion of The Desolation of Smaug seemed more like the director dropping in a random set-piece to pad out the runtime—and testing out ideas for the tie-in video game—than a vitally necessary plot point.
In the past, I’ve mostly taken the excesses of The Hobbit series in stride. Fact is, I’m an easy mark when it comes to these movies; the Lord of the Rings series remains one of my all-time favorite cinematic film series both for aesthetic reasons (the world-building, aided by the spectacular New Zealand backdrops, remains impressive and immersive) and personal ones (my wife and I were middle row center for The Fellowship of the Ring on its first day in theaters and have seen each subsequent film on or prior to opening night…and sometimes multiple times afterwards). And while I was mildly disappointed when Jackson decided to return to the director’s chair, displacing original filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, I also was genuinely thrilled to see him back on familiar ground, particularly after such unsteady post-LoTR projects as The Lovely Bones. I wasn’t blind to the imperfections of Journey or Desolation, but I was perhaps, forgiving to a fault. I so relished the opportunity to step back into Jackson’s version of Middle-earth that I tuned out the plodding narratives and focused on the expansive vistas and beautifully crafted sets that Bilbo Baggins and his dwarf companions travelled through en route to the Lonely Mountain, where treasure and one very angry dragon awaited.
With The Battle of the Five Armies, though, I think Jackson has finally made a Middle-earth set movie I can’t forgive. Part of the problem is that the journey part of the story is long since over, with the characters instead spending the bulk of the movie’s runtime hanging around a single location waiting for the titular battle to begin. Deprived of the variations in scenery and settings that enlivened the previous two installments (not to mention the LoTR trilogy), Armies has a disappointing sameness that’s not at all helped by the absence of urgency from the storytelling and performances. For the first time, I clearly saw the ponderous, heavy-handed carnival of F/X that others have accused the previous Hobbit movies of being. Characters talk to each other without communicating anything of real value; scenes drag on without a clear purpose or apparent end in sight; long stretches of tedious battle footage are interrupted by a single striking image only to allow torpor to set in again. Up until now, Jackson’s movies have fired up my imagination—this one seems intent on shutting it down.
I can’t pretend to know exactly what was going through Jackson’s mind and the minds of his regular collaborators (including co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens and jack-of-all-trades effects specialist, Richard Taylor) while they were ushering The Battle of the Five Armies to completion, but I don’t think I’m entirely off-base in detecting the same weariness from them that I experienced watching the movie. This is the work of a team that’s putting on a good show of seeming engaged and enthused, but deep down can’t wait for the credits to roll and the whole thing to be over and done with. If anything, that palpable sense of exhaustion grows stronger every time that Armies makes overt attempts to stoke the audience’s excitement with direct and indirect references to established Middle-earth cinematic lore. Whether it manifests itself as a tossed-off reference to Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn, a peek at the origin of the so-called “Vagina of Doom” (a.k.a. Sauron) or the return of the always fashionably-late giant eagles, these token shout-outs to fans come across as the filmmakers scraping the bottle of the barrel for fresh ideas.
Worse still, Jackson squanders the few original elements he has left. Martin Freeman, for example, has been doing fine, understated work as Bilbo throughout the entire trilogy, and while it’s in keeping with Tolkien’s story that the character has a reduced presence for the bulk of the five-army skirmish, he’s sidelined in both the pre and post-battle scenes as well. (It’s particularly upsetting that the actor doesn’t even get a proper send-off, with Jackson instead choosing to end the movie with a Fellowship bookend that swaps him out for Ian Holm’s older Bilbo. Nothing against Holm, who is a terrific thespian in his own right, but Freeman really should be the last face we see.) Richard Armitage is also turning in a more carefully calibrated performance than the material he’s been handed really allows and the movie undercuts his efforts by having him repeat emotional arcs he’s already played out in the preceding chapters, whether it’s his distrust of Bilbo or vengeful need to out-duel the Orc chieftain Azog. And if we’re talking about wasted potential, it’s almost shameful how the movie handles Billy Connolly, who shows up for maybe five to ten minutes as another dwarf king, brays in his familiar Scottish brogue and then vanishes into the battle scum never to be seen or heard from again.
Jackson remains enough of a showman to stage some rousing moments amidst the fog of CGI-enhanced war. (My personal favorite involved Lee Pace’s elf king using the horns atop his enormous steed as a handy beheading device.) But in terms of its scope and stakes, the Battle of the Five Armies is no Battle of Helm’s Deep or Battle of Pelennor Fields. At best, it’s a minor skirmish, one that would perhaps be impactful as the climax to the first installment of a trilogy, but barely registers as the crescendo to the grand finale. “The Defining Chapter” boasts the myriad posters for The Battle of the Five Armies. Try “The Forgettable Chapter,” instead.
At 196 minutes, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Palme d’Or Winter Sleep is only 50 minutes longer than The Battle of the Five Armies, but it seems to move much more quickly, even though it largely consists of two or more people in various rooms talking for ten to fifteen minutes at a stretch. It also boasts an equally (if not more) exotic backdrop than The Hobbit‘s Middle-earth: a remote region in Anatolia filled with stark landscapes and few luxuries. The one notable attraction within a 20-mile radius is the mountainside hotel owned and operated by failed actor Aydin (Haluk Bilginer). From here, the businessman and minor despot lords over his run-down surroundings, providing one of the few sources of income for residents in the area and flexing his political muscle by writing even-tempered screeds in the local paper sounding off on the issues of the day. He may downplay his impact on the community, but it’s clear he wants to be viewed as an authority—a serious man of serious social weight. But the people closest to him, including his younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) and embittered sister Necla (Demet Akbag), see through his faux-benevolent guise and butt heads with the egotistical control freak that resides within.
All of this familial and societal tension unwinds itself in the film’s epic conversations, which weave around, under and through all manner of subjects, from philanthropy and art to adventure tourism and, of course, money. “Gripping” isn’t the right word to describe the experience of watching Winter Sleep, but it is consistently involving, at least for the first two acts. But my attention started to wane in the final 40-odd minutes, after Aydin and Nihal have an apocalyptic argument that seems to explode their fragile marriage once and for all. After that, they temporarily go their separate ways, he to get drunk with a bunch of buddies, while she to make a grand gesture of charity that backfires in spectacular fashion. It’s not that these separate sequences don’t track with what we know of the characters—it’s that they ultimately function as circuitous routes that lead them back to where they started. That’s almost certainly deliberate on Ceylan’s part, but it’s also strangely unsatisfying, in a way that stirs annoyance rather than fascination. Winter Sleep might whiff its ending, but the way it sustains its many and varied conversations over the course of three hours is almost as impressive a filmmaking feat as any of The Hobbit‘s digital trickery.