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THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES

Producer: Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson
Director: Peter Jackson
Writer: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro
Stars:  Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Benedict Cumberbatch, Luke Evans
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures

B

By the standards of Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” series—not, by any stretch of the imagination, the equal of his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy—“The Battle of the Five Armies” isn’t bad. In fact, it’s the best of the lot, provided that you don’t mind watching roughly two hours of sustained CGI battle scenes (including a few one-on-one confrontations tossed in for variety’s sake) without much else to intrude on the mayhem. Despite the frenetic action, it’s actually easier on the eye than the previous installments, the first of which suffered from the still-imperfect 48-frames-per-second 3D format.

The movie picks up exactly where “The Desolation of Smaug” left off, with the dragon attacking the human-populated Laketown, whose buildings are incinerated or crushed while the residents attempt to flee, at times successfully. Only bowman Bard (Luke Evans) chooses to try to bring the beast down, assisted by his equally courageous son Bain (John Bell). Meanwhile the band of dwarves led by Prince Thorin (Richard Armitage) have taken possession of Smaug’s treasure within the Lonely Mountain that dominates the kingdom of Erebor, and Thorin, increasingly possessed by the greed the gold induces, grows despotic, refusing to share the hoard with anyone and demanding that his fellow dwarves find the much-desired Arkinstone. His personality change distresses peaceable Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the hobbit who’s accompanied the dwarves at the behest of Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and has in fact discovered the stone, though he keeps it to himself.

Soon elf king Thranduil (Lee Pace) shows up with his army to demand that Thorin hand over some jewels that are part of Smaug’s trove. Bard tries to mediate, but much to Bilbo’s unease Thorin refuses any compromise. The forces of Thranduil and Bard prepare to assault the mountain fortress, but Gandalf, freed from captivity through the intervention of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee), arrives to warn of the approach of a huge orc army led by Azog (Manu Bennett) that they must face together. The engagement is further swelled by a dwarf host led by Dain (Billy Connolly), and eventually by a flying squadron of Great Eagles led by Radagast (Sylvester McCoy).

While all this tumult is going on, Thorin must overcome his lust for power to join the fray, while the romantic triangle involving elf bowman Legolas (Orlando Bloom), lovely Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) will be decided as the three engage in combat against some brutish orcs. And, of course, the narrative must be taken to the point where it can act as a springboard to the “Rings” trilogy, while Bilbo’s return to the shire has to be added as a genial postscript, which allows for the brief return of Ian Holm as his older self, always an ingratiating sight.

It will aid your enjoyment of “The Battle of Five Armies,” of course, if you recognize all the curious characters named above and understand their relationships and past encounters. But even if you don’t, the movie still can entertain with its virtually non-stop action set-pieces, which are meticulously choreographed and rendered with Jackson’s customarily exquisite CGI work, though they do tend to go on to the point of near-exhaustion, especially since the addition of one new contingent after another can grow wearisome. One can also appreciate the sweetness of Freeman’s performance , and some might find Armitage’s stentorian Thorin impressive, though there’s more than a hint of low-grade Shakespeare in his ravings. A few might even be amused by Ryan Gage’s sniveling Alfrid, the erstwhile aide to Laketown’s mayor (Stephen Fry, in what amounts to a cameo), although most will probably find his antics more grating than funny. Otherwise the actors—even the hammy McKellen—play second fiddle to the visuals.

But they are marvelous visuals, done up in the cutting-edge technology for which Jackson has become famous (or infamous, if you dislike such razzmatazz). His special-effects team have worked their usual wonders, from the fire-breathing Smaug to the many varieties of grotesque orcs, and there are some stunning scenes of massed elf archers and the Lakeside city ablaze. And this time around, the images are unaffected by the problems the craftsmen faced in the first “Hobbit” entry, where the high-frame rate 3D gave extra clarity to the bigger scenes but otherwise resulted in an artificial, plastic look. Here virtually everything is crisp and clear, although there are a few instances in which the computer-generated simulacra of real actors fashioned for stunts no human could manage look like the CGI creations they are. (That’s particularly evident in the culminating fight scene for Bloom’s Legolas, though the actor certainly isn’t at fault.) For the most part, though, Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography is top-drawer, and editor Jabez Olssen is to be congratulated for bringing in the picture at 144 minutes—relatively short when compared to the earlier, more meandering and digressive, installments. Once again Howard Shore contributes a score that complements the action sequences while making use of some pleasantly scaled-down melodies in the relatively rare intimate moments.

All told, “The Battle of the Five Armies” represents the pinnacle of Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy, even though it still can’t match any of the three “Lord of the Rings” installments. Nevertheless that’s a better outcome than George Lucas’ second “Star Wars” trilogy managed.

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS

Producer: Peter Chernin, Ridley Scott, Jenno Topping, Michael Schaefer and Mark Hoffam
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian
Stars: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Maria Valverde, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Isaac Andrews, Hiam Abbas and Ewen Bremner
Studio: 20th Century Fox

C

When back in 2007 I reviewed “The Reaping,” a horror movie about a Louisiana town visited by the Biblical plagues, I advised viewers to Passover it. That was a terrible pun then and it remains one today, but it’s even more fitting when applied to Ridley Scott’s elephantine misfire about Moses leading the Jews from their bondage in Egypt. Cecil D. DeMille told the story before—twice, in fact—and though in his second (1956) version he took more than an hour longer than Scott does, compared to this lumbering effort “The Ten Commandments” seems to breeze by. “Exodus: Gods and Kings”—the silly subtitle is apparently designed to distinguish it from Otto Preminger’s 1960 spectacular about the birth of Israel—also comes up short beside this year’s other big-budget Old Testament epic, Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” which might have been slightly loony but at least was daring in its deviations from Holy Writ (of course, the story of the ark in far shorter and less detailed in Scripture than that of Moses, so the invitation to invention was admittedly greater).

Daring is hardly an adjective that could properly be applied to Scott’s film, though it certainly diverges from the source to refashion the tale into something very like a modern action movie. It skips the back story of baby Moses’ survival in a basket, but follows DeMille in portraying the strapping young general he’s grown up to be (Christian Bale) as the favorite of his supposed uncle Pharaoh Seti I (John Turturro), who has greater confidence in him than in his own son Ramses (Joel Edgerton). Indeed, in this version, Moses earns Ramses’ jealousy by saving him in battle against the Hittites—an interpolated battle sequence that Scott stages with his usual flair—thus fulfilling a prophecy that suggests he, not Ramses, will rule in Egypt. When Moses is sent to look into why the captive Hebrews are working so slowly on the regime’s latest construction project, he’s told his true identity by Nun (Ben Kingsley), a Hebrew elder. Unhappily, the news is also relayed to Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn), the effete viceroy Moses intends to denounce for his venality, and he uses it not only to save his own skin but eventually to ensure that Moses is exiled by Ramses, who soon becomes pharaoh himself.

Barely escaping the desolation of the desert and the assassins sent after him, Moses finds domestic bliss in Midian with the lovely Zipporah (Maria Valverde), who bears him a son, but though a rationalist who’s never believed in gods, whether they be Egyptian or Hebrew, he’s called to duty by Yahweh, who enlists him as a divine general with a mission to free the Hebrews from bondage. According to Scott’s revision, that involves his training the Hebrews as a guerilla resistance army (attacking grain supply stations and boats, for instance)—a curious invention which, in the present historical situation, almost makes them seem the equivalent of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation, and which brings upon them Ramses’ wrath, in the form of random executions. It’s only when this “war of attrition,” as Moses inelegantly puts it in one of the unfortunate modernisms that pepper the script, drags on without the desired result that God intervenes himself with the plagues that will ultimately force Ramses’ hand—a plot twist that merely leads one to question why Yahweh didn’t go that route in the first place.

That leads to the second basic narrative weakness of “Exodus”—its effort to secularize the tale, juggling naturalistic and supernatural elements uneasily. Consider, for example, the way it presents Yahweh. The burning bush is present in the initial encounter with Moses , but it’s off to the side, merely a visual aid. The actual deity appears in the form of a young boy (Isaac Andrews) with a distinctly petulant air, and he becomes even more irascible in later appearances. His attitude is arguably reflective of the wrathful God of the Old Testament, but the rationale behind his appearance as an adolescent is hard to fathom.

Moving on to the plagues this God inflicts upon Egypt, the film is careful to straddle between natural phenomena and miraculous ones by suggesting that they’re miracles that God produces through the use of nature. The Nile’s turning bloody, for example, occurs when huge crocodiles attack government boats cruising down the river, chomping on their crews. (The sequence is more redolent of “Jaws” than the Bible.) The other plagues are given similarly rational explanations, with the exception of the death of the firstborn, which could hardly be assigned one (but is depicted in much less imaginative fashion that in DeMille’s 1956 version). The plague montage is actually intriguingly done from a purely pictorial standpoint, but its overall construction is compromised by the choice to try to have things both ways.

The same problem prevails in the final Red Sea sequence, though here the result isn’t even very impressive visually. The Hebrew crossing is depicted as the result of a sort of low-tide event caused by a series of tornadoes that somehow suck the lakebed dry. (The effect is more “Into the Storm” than “Twister,” but that “natural” occurrence—the meteorological credibility of which I’m in no position to attest—is still clearly attributed to God.) It’s not, however, presented in images of equal clarity—and not just because the look of the picture—shot in gritty, earth tones by Dariusz Wolski—doesn’t lend itself to crystalline precision. Worse than the murky visuals is the fact that the events themselves are presented in garbled form. As huge waves threaten, Moses and Ramses confront one another in their chariots in what appears to be the middle of the path through the sea, but while others are shortly swept away, both of them survive with little more than a soaking. That’s characteristic of the messiness of the whole sequence, which certainly makes the effects in DeMille’s version look primitive but doesn’t match his vision in overall impact.

All these oddities of narrative would be mitigated, though, if Scott and his cast brought much energy to the telling. They don’t. The direction is mostly sluggish, and Billy Rich’s pedestrian editing doesn’t mold the footage—with the exception of the opening battle sequence and the plague montage—into anything very vibrant. Bale’s Moses is frankly dull, and Edgerton, with his puffy face and uncertain manner, doesn’t approach the authority, campy or not, that Yul Brynner brought to the role. And apart from Turturro, whose aging pharaoh has a certain gravity, and Mendelsohn, who hams it up as the swishy viceroy, no one else makes much of an impression—not even Kingsley, who seems to be on autopilot as the benevolent elder. Such usually watchable players as Aaron Paul, as Joshua, and Sigourney Weaver, as Seti’s wife Tuya, are curiously anonymous here.

“Exodus” is obviously a lavish production, and some of the sets, both interior and exterior, are quite impressive—a tribute to the work of both Arthur Max, the production designer, and Peter Chiang, the special effects supervisor, who must have worked hand-in-hand to achieve the convincing look of ancient Egypt on a massive scale. The art direction, supervised by Marc Holmes and Benjamin Fernandez, and set decoration, by Celia Bobak and Pilar Revuelta, are also first-rate, and Janty Yates’ costumes ably run the gamut from the glistening robes of the court to the rag-tag Hebrew garments. Alberto Iglesias’ score, though it spends most of the time hitting the usual genre beats, does its job.

But all that is essentially window dressing. Scott’s film ultimately fails because the director seems never to have made up his mind about what sort of picture he was aiming to make—a simple action movie or a revisionist Biblical epic—and so has tried to meld elements of both into a mixture that neither excites nor provokes. It just is what it is, and that isn’t much—more oy vey than Yahweh.