The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Director: Peter jackson (2014)

Fighting on too many fronts is never a good idea and this epic fantasy trilogy comes to an underwhelming close.

Scale is epic and design is stunning and performances suitably large and loud but sadly the massive battles and computer effects are better than the storytelling of the human (elf, hobbit or dwarf) dramas.

This should be a straightforward tale of greed set against the backdrop of a brutal battle. But instead it becomes confused and stuck in a quagmire of subplots as too many minor characters fight for screen time.

Fili or possibly Kili aside, the company of dwarves are lost in the morass while cowardly Alfrid lickspittle (Ryan Gage) is crow-barred in to offer comic relief and clutter the over-stuffed cast list.

Hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is virtually a spectator and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) does little better. This is a shame as Freeman brings rare moments of contemplative quiet among what is otherwise a ferocious and overextended dust up.

Elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) is levered in to silly effect and the dwarf/elf romance between Fili or possibly Kili and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is developed and is even more unconvincing than it sounds.

Five Armies begins where the last film, The Desolation of Smaug, ended, with a brilliantly exciting attack by the dragon Smaug on Laketown.

He is stopped by heroic bowman Bard (Luke Evans) and with Smaug’s death, dwarf Thorin (Richard Armitage) becomes king of Erebor but his obsession with gold is turning him insane.

Elf lord Thranduil (Lee Pace), riding a giant moose and heading his golden army, joins up with Bard’s men to  challenge Thorin.

But they all unite when legions of orcs arrive and the skull-splitting slaughter begins. Arrows fly, swords crash and heads roll as armoured trolls, goats, pigs, eagles and a free-falling bear drop into the action.

The action and design are spectacular and the film dovetails nicely  into the first Lord of the Rings movie.

By trying to hit too many targets, the previously sure-sighted director Peter Jackson misses the mark.

☆☆

Pompeii

Director: Paul WS Anderson (2014)

There’s not an ounce of originality in this ridiculous Roman romp – but you can’t help being swept away on waves of lava-hot fun.

It shamelessly borrows scenes, images, fights and even jokes from Ridley Scott’s epic Gladiator despite not being fit to tie its sandals.

Pompeii is also poorly acted and badly written, with ramshackle dialogue and a plot that makes very little sense.

But Geordie director Anderson doesn’t waste time in getting to the main act – Mt Vesuvius blowing its top.

As choking-hot death rains down on Romans in an orgy of brilliant and gleeful destruction, I was grinning like a loon.

Plus it has Keifer Sutherland camping it up as a Roman Senator so resolutely evil that he has a English accent. (At least I think it’s supposed to be an English accent.)

The plot follows a Celtic – that is, British – child Milo who is captured after his family is butchered by Roman legionaries. lead by the evil Corvus (Sutherland).

Suddenly it’s 17 years later and he’s has grown up to become a feared gladiator known simply as ‘The Celt’ (Kit Harington) with the baddest rep, hardest abs and best hair.

Before you can say Maximus Decimus Meridius he is whisked off to Pompeii to fight in a computer-drawn city of unconvincing interior sets.

Milos falls in love with beautiful bland party-girl Cassia (Emily Browning). Her father Severus (Jared Harris) wants Corvus (now a Senator) to finance a new arena. But Corvus wants Cassia as part of the deal and plots to have Milo murdered.

Milos foils Corvus’s bid to kill him with the help of gladiator Atticus (Adewele Akinnouye-Agbaje). With the hero’s fate in the balance, the volcano erupts and everyone legs it for the docks to escape.

Except Milo, who must rescue Cassia, get revenge on Corvus and avoid being turned into ash with everyone else.

’71

Director: Yann Demange (2014)

Collusion, coercion and violence are tied together by a compelling central performance in this tremendously tense British thriller.

With a pared-down plot it’s an action movie without a love interest, barely any humour and a great deal of pain. Assured pacing and confident editing complement a script remarkable for its sparse dialogue. It allows for Jack O’Connell to use his native accent and makes the most of his physical screen presence.

Private Gary Hook (O’Connell) is a raw recruit enduring a gruelling training programme. It’s mercifully brief and included to underline how unprepared these raw recruits are.

A deterioration of the political and social situation in Northern Ireland sees Hook’s platoon packed off in an emergency deployment. Dumped on the front-line in Belfast we’re carefully reminded this war-zone is part of the UK, not a foreign land.

With the city divided by the notorious Falls Road with the friendly Protestants to the east and hostile Catholics to the west, the squaddies are warned of the paramilitaries on both sides. It’s a monstrously messed up environment of graffiti, burnt-out cars and teenagers throwing rocks and dirty (urine and faeces) bombs.

Their fresh-faced and middle class commanding officer Lieutenant Armitage (Sam Reid) is hopelessly out of his depth.

Hook’s squad assist the brutal Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) searching Catholic houses and a rifle is stolen. As a riot breaks out Hook loses his weapon and is separated from his team.

Attempting to return to barracks he must dodge bombs and rioters. Not all locals are hostile but all face repercussions if caught helping him.

The upper ranks of either side have a shaky control of events on the streets. There are betrayals, blackmail and executions as they race to find the lost soldier.

Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe colours a dingy, damp world with an autumnal palette. An eerie and disorientating soundscape by sound mixer Rashad Omar emphasises Hook’s weak and vulnerable state and creates a general air of confusion.

Set a year prior to the infamous Bloody Sunday civilian massacre, ’71 offers an explanation but not an excuse for those events.

There’s no gung-ho flag waving but a bunch of scared working class lads trying to survive a situation they barely understand and have no control over. ’71 is a superior film to the similarly themed and lauded American Sniper. No-one survives without being affected.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

Director: Francis Lawrence (2014)

She’s scared and angry but Jennifer Lawrence fights on as reluctant warrior Katniss in this third, darker episode of the spectacular sci-fi series.

Mockingjay resumes the story with rebels led by President Coin (Julianne Moore) regrouped in a huge hidden bunker in the desolate District 13.

The Hunger Games arena, where children fought to the death, has been destroyed and a popular uprising was crushed by soldiers from the Capitol.

Coin, whose silver hair and two-faced nature mirror despotic leader President Snow (Donald Sutherland) wants Katniss to be the Mockingjay, a symbol of rebellion to inspire the repressed districts to rise against the Capitol.

Despite her fears, Katniss agrees. But only if her traitorous best friend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is rescued and given a pardon.

As bombs and bodies start to fall, she and self-pitying soldier Gale (Liam Hemsworth) get closer and he volunteers to lead a daring mission.

Katniss is an expert archer and inspirational Games survivor yet, disappointingly, she barely fights because people are so protective. In the movie’s best sequence she is attacked when visiting a hospital.

There are speeches at the expense of action, the pace is thoughtful not thrilling and the story suffers as it is a bridge to the fourth and final film.

But the rebel base and splendid Capitol look excellent and Lawrence is so good that she makes ordinary actors like Hemsworth seem poor – and fabulous actors such as Sutherland and Moore look ordinary.

☆☆

The Wolf of Wall Street

Director: Martin Scorsese (2014)

Making money has never seemed so debauched as in this glossy, foul–mouthed and darkly comic biopic.

The fifth collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio colourfully captures the outrageous world of crooked Wall Street trader Jordan Belfort.

It’s a blisteringly charismatic turn by DiCaprio as Belfort, a rampant, ravenous and depraved monster whose ego dominates the film.

Margot Robbie plays his underdressed trophy wife Naomi, but to her credit she isn’t overwhelmed by DiCaprio’s gleeful grandstanding.

In typical Scorsese style, dynamic camera-work and a storming soundtrack thrust us through criminal, chemical and domestic abuse while dressed in trashy clothes and driving a fleet of flash cars.

It is Scorsese’s finest film since his mobster masterpiece Goodfellas (1990). It’s similarly structured and high with comedy – at times it’s hilarious.

As Belfort talks directly to camera while walking you through his life, the dialogue even features some of the same key words and phrases to underline how crooked Wall Street is.

A ruthlessly brilliant salesman – imagine Gordon Gekko on Class A drugs – Belfort’s rapid rise is powered by his ability to foster corrupt practises among his employees and his business partner Donnie (Jonah Hill).

He doesn’t bother to explain in detail to the audience how it works but points to his huge spoils to prove hat it does. There are beds full of cash, planes full of prostitutes, showers of drugs, monkeys on rollerskates and dwarf-throwing contests.

Eventually the FBI chase him for his insider trading and his career, house and marriage are at risk.

In his most exhilarating movie since Casino and his best since Goodfellas, Scorsese points out that the wolf can only exist as a result of our greedy gullibility.

It failed to win any of the Oscars it was nominated for; best film, director, male lead, male support for Hill and best adapted screenplay. As DiCaprio couldn’t win a golden statue for this titanic effort – he may as well give up trying.

Serena

Director: Susanne Bier (2014)

Love, madness and corruption collide with catastrophic results in this compelling Depression-era drama.

Based on the novel by Ron Rash, it brings together Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper as on-screen lovers for the second time in an exquisite exploration of the pernicious power of passion.

George Pemberton (Cooper) is a logging company owner in North Carolina. In the wake of the Wall St. crash he’s struggling to finance an ambitious business project in Brazil.

Meanwhile as he tries to fend off central government plans for a National Park on his land, the local sheriff McDowell (Toby Jones) is investigating his firm for corruption.

At a society party George is smitten by the beautiful, strong-minded Serena (Lawrence). Following an impetuous romance, he whisks her off to the Smoky Mountains where she wins over a sceptical workforce with her knowledge and attitude.

With his leading man looks decked out in stubble, leather jacket and wide brimmed hat, Cooper is solidly convincing as the panther-hunting entrepreneur. Lawrence has yet to deliver a poor performance and doesn’t disappoint here. There is an easy comparison to be made between the characters of Serena and Lady McBeth – but Cleopatra may be a better fit.

Talented and handsome, the leading couple share a resonant chemistry. They nicely underplay a ripe script which helps to navigate some unsteady plotting littered with symbolism and told at a measured pace.

The Swedish director is fascinated with cultural context, mixing superstition and religion with labour disputes and a keenly observed social hierarchy. It’s a shame the many interesting minor characters are too often pushed into the background.

Electricity, the railroads and mechanisation are changing a landscape filled with bears, eagles, snakes and horses; the impressive attention to period detail and epic landscapes are captured by the rich cinematography of Morten Søborg.

Gradually George’s devotion to his bride begins to cloud his judgement and she exploits every opportunity to encourage his independence away from his business partner Buchanan (David Dencik). An accident sees a hunting guide called Galloway (Rhys Ifans) declare his loyalty to her.

When Serena is unable to provide George with the healthy heir they crave; deceit, jealousy and murder follow.

Grace of Monaco

Director: Olivier Dahan (2014)

How is it possible to have made a terrible film like this out of such a remarkable story – the life of a Hollywood star who married into European royalty?

The tale of Grace Kelly, later Princess Grace of Monaco, has terrific elements – real-life drama, Tinseltown glamour, riches and royalty, fast cars, great locations, intrigue and international conflict.

But this is an insult to our intelligence. It is poorly cast and packed with unsympathetic characters who deliver dreadful dialogue with appalling accents. The script is terrible and the film looks like it has been edited with a hacksaw.

Stunningly beautiful and an Oscar-winner, Grace gives up her film career for a fairytale life in Monaco on the French Riviera. But now she is bored.

You need an actress who can make an audience sympathise with the plight of a beautiful, pampered, wealthy woman. Instead we get ice queen Nicole Kidman.

The self-pitying princess passes time watching videos of her wedding and, preposterously, is portrayed as an international diplomacy mastermind.

Alfred Hitchcock (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) pops by to offer her the title role in the film Marnie – playing a disturbed woman who was molested as a child. Grace, with the backing of her hubby Prince Rainier (Tim Roth), gladly accepts.

Dithering Rainier is trying to preserve his family’s lengthy rule by keeping Monaco as a tax haven for wealthy petrol-heads and gambling addicts.

However he’s driven to chain-smoking by the grasping president Charles de Gaulle (Andre Penvern) who wants to impose taxes on Monaco, exploiting the ‘scandal’ of Grace’s planned return to acting by trying to tax Monaco and threatening to blockade it.

In desperation, Grace takes a shopping trip to Paris and organises a jolly banquet to bring everyone together. Hoorah! And Marnie? In the end the role was taken by Tippi Hedren.

☆☆☆☆