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« focus: Lucy McKenzie Exhibition @ The Art Institute of Chicago Chicago Speaks: American Sign Language, as Signed by Poet and Storyteller Peter Cook »

Column Fri Dec 19 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies & The Babadook

Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpg

This week's column was made a bit easier on me since for reasons I can't quite fathom, studios opted to screen by Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb and Annie last weekend while I was out town, so I didn't get to preview them for review. I'm sure they're both wonderful, but since I can't know that for sure, it's probably best that you avoid them until I've given them my seal of approval (and to discourage studios from only screening "family" films on the weekends). But here are two other options for your weekend viewing...

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

To say that the third and final installment in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit films is the best of the three is a bit of a "No, duh" assessment, since the film is about 40 percent full-on battle, and it nicely wraps up this story while leaving us just enough of an enticement to lead us into The Lord of the Rings adventures. The idea that The Battle of the Five Armies would serve as some sort of bridge between the two trilogies is not exactly the case, but there are just enough seeds planted to know what is to grow in years to come. Also, the idea that Five Armies is nothing more than epilogue is outrageous, to say the least. There's more actual plot in this film than in An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug combined, and the moments of actual epilogue only make up a couple of minutes of screen time.

We know from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King that Jackson has a true gift for staging battle sequences on a massive scale, and I don't just mean hurling CG orcs at whoever they are fighting in a particular film. Jackson is masterful at making certain we know the geography of the battlefield — where approaching armies originated, from which direction they will enter the fray, and who their direct opponents are at any given moment. He also has the keen ability of letting us know, through individual stories in the midst of battle, which side is winning at any given moment and when the tide begins to shift in the opposite direction.

In The Battle of the Five Armies, we have the humans from Laketown, led by Bard (Luke Evans), who deals with the whole Smaug the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) situation early in the film, but not before the town is burned to the ground; the elf army, led by Thranduil (Lee Pace), who only really wants certain treasures from the dwarf kingdom, as well as the outcasts Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom); the dwarves both inside the mountain, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who is suffering from a bad case of "dragon fever" stemming from the tainted gold that Smaug was guarding for decades, and outside (a new army led by Thorin's cousin Dain, played by Billy Connolly); and two waves of Orcs (which also includes a fair number of mercenary goblins and oversized bats, neither of which register as much of a fighting force).

With so many characters from all corners of Middle-Earth, the potential (more like the likelihood) for crowded confusion is fairly obvious. But as I said, Jackson keeps things pretty clear regarding who is fighting who where and for what stakes at all times. But he still manages to focus in on some key characters as well and navigate the emotional stakes of war as well. In particular, our hero Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freman) is a little less lost in his own story this time around, compared to the last film especially. He's an active force in trying to strike a peace between the dwarves and the combination of elves and men, both of whom want treasure that was promised them, but now Thorin is keeping from them out of pure twisted greed caused by his mental illness. There are a couple of great moments when Jackson draws a very direct line between Smaug's behavior with Bilbo and Thorin's newfound hunger for every coin of gold in his kingdom under the mountain.

But keeping Bilbo more in the foreground doesn't mean he's got the most screen time. Between Thorin's mad rants (at one point he even begins to suspect that one of his own traveling dwarf companions has stolen his precious Arkenstone), and Bard's trying to lead his people to safety in the long-empty town that lay at the foot of the mountain, I think they are the real focus of Five Armies. And I know it shouldn't work, but I found myself captivated by the love triangle concerning Tauriel, the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), and Legolas, which only intensifies in this chapter. While the film wasn't exactly in dire need of a love story, the unusual nature of this one serves to deepen certain emotional moments toward the end of the tale, and I believe it genuinely helps the movie.

If anyone gets the short shrift in Five Armies, it's Gandalf who doesn't have much to do during the actual battle aside from commenting upon it (for our sake, mostly). His best moments happen earlier when he is still being held captive by agents of the Necromancer (also voiced by Cumberbatch). His rescue by familiar magical forces is one of the film's most triumphant moments and sets into motion The Lord of the Rings storyline better than most of the other links in this chapter.

At a hair under two-and-a-half-hours running time, Five Armies distinguishes itself as the shortest of The Hobbit films, so it's no coincidence that it feels like it has less filler than the first two installments. That being said, you couldn't pay me enough gold to give a shit about the fate of the Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry, who is dispatched early in the story) or his weasel-faced deputy, Alfrid (Ryan Gage), who sadly lasts the entire film, mugging for the camera and being about as obviously greedy and self-centered as a broadly drawn character could be. Cutting him from the film (both this one and the last one, actually) would have been easy and made the story much tighter.

But as the film wraps up, the fighting narrows in focus to a select few great battle scenes, including Tauriel and Kili versus the Orc leader Bolg (Lawrence Makoare), which quickly turns into Legolas versus Bolg; and then there's Thorin's climactic showdown with Azog, which has been brewing across three films. I'll admit that my emotional bond with events at the end of this film wasn't as strong as the joy and sadness I felt at the many finales of The Return of the King, but there are a couple of key moments here (including the very last scene), as well as Bilbo's farewell to the dwarves, that nearly had me misty eyed.

The task before Jackson and his co-writers (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro) in adapting this version of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth was a near impossible one from the start. Should he attempt to match the tone of The Lord of the Rings movies, so that the six films hold together when viewed in succession? Or should he tone down a bit to make it more like a children's story, as the book was? From a purely cinematic standpoint, I think the correct approach was taken. (While the violence is largely bloodless, death is a major component of this final segment of The Hobbit, as most of you know.)

The Hobbit trilogy has had its ups and downs (I don't think I can watch the extended editions ever again, with all of the bubble wrap that padded those), but just because they don't match what The Lord of the Rings films gave us doesn't mean they are unwatchable — far from it, and especially not The Battle of the Five Armies, which is the most enjoyable and lean of the three. Do with that what you will, but give it a shot before you decry it.

The Babadook

The reason that so many people (critics and non-critics alike) are responding to and being willingly scared to death by The Babadook, the feature debut from writer-director Jennifer Kent, is because the film is secretly a family drama first and a horror film... well, tied for first. My point is that so many modern horror films fail miserably at generating any lasting response because the people that make them don't bother investing an iota of heart into their characters. And if the people that create these characters don't care about them, why should we? We're not looking for deep background and fully realized histories of each and every player, but we would truly feel like we're invested in their fates if you make them something other than hapless victims to the creature or evil force that you inevitably spent way more time creating than your human characters.

What makes the Australian-made The Babadook even more fascinating is that its two central characters (practically the film's only characters) are single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and her six-year-old son, Samuel (newcomer Noah Wiseman), who are living alone in a dreary house left all the more vacant by the sudden, violent death of her husband. Amelia's lasting depression is made all the more unbearable by Samuel active imagination at home and school, where he frequently gets into trouble for bringing homemade weapons to class.

The grey-walled, dimly lit home is a reflection of the mood of its occupants, or perhaps its the other way around. But things come to a head one night when Amelia reads her son a newly discovered children's book called The Babadook, a bogeyman story about an invading creature that comes knocking, seeking unsuspecting children. And before long, Samuel starts seeing signs that the real Babadook has come into his emotionally vulnerable life and home. For a time, director Kent allows us to consider the possibility that the Babadook is something that Sam only sees in his mind, but that doesn't last long. And before long, the mother-son team are fighting off whatever awful misdeeds this creature has in store for them.

In addition to the fine work from Kent, Essie Davis is the real find in this film (at least to American audiences; she's a fairly established, celebrated stage actress Down Under). She allows us to feel the very real, believable moments when parents find it difficult — even impossible — to love their children, especially ones who had frequent paranoid visions of monsters coming to kill them even before a real one actually was. The film exists both as an updated, realistic fairy tale and a skillfully crafted modern scare story, with Kent hitting every last tension-filled rhythm with perfection. But she also does an exceptional job capturing a certain look that borrows heavily from German Expressionism and the transformational makeup work of Lon Chaney. The Babadook is all about atmosphere and performance, and not about blood and guts and loud music crashes that signify nothing.

And Kent isn't intent on over-explaining exactly what or who the Babadook is. He appears when Amelia seems to be at the height of her sorrow and frustration, so the possibility that this monster has sprung from her emotional disruption exists. Or was it sent to remind her that she must love and protect her child, even when he seems intolerable? Or could it be all of these things, or none of them? Wow, it's so refreshing not to have everything spelled out for us, and actually allow us to use our brains to contemplate the bigger questions. The Babadook is not just the scariest horror film I've seen this year, but it's the best because it allows us to embrace these soulful characters in a way that we so rarely get a chance to in horror. The acting and production design serve to enhance Kent's worthy script, and you should all make the most valiant of efforts to find see it. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

To read my exclusive interview with The Babadook writer-director Jennifer Kent, go to Ain't It Cool News.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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