The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies review

I’ve fallen behind in blogging again because of travel over the past month, the holidays, and being ill. Fortunately, I have no shortage of topics to write about!

Last week, David I.S. & Sandra K. drove from Rochester, N.Y., to visit Janice and me in Waltham, Mass. Dave was the very first friend I made at college, and our New Year’s celebrations have become something of a tradition.

On Tuesday, 30 December 2014, Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. and Thomas’ brother Tony joined us for a potluck dinner and fun conversation. On New Year’s Eve, we took it easy because Dave & Sandra were suffering from bad colds (that Janice and I later caught).

On New Year’s Day, Janice, Dave, and I went to the AMC Burlington Cinema 10 for a 3-D matinee of The Hobbit [Part 3 of 3]: The Battle of the Five Armies. We mostly enjoyed the finale of Peter Jackson’s adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal fantasy novels.

Battle of the Five Armies
Parties to the battle


As with the previous installments, An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug, it’s assumed that viewers are at least passingly familiar with Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Jackson’s films for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In addition, the audience should have seen the first two Hobbit movies (even more than read the relatively brief children’s book) before watching Battle of the Five Armies.

The story draws from Scandinavian and Germanic mythology, fairy tales, and the extensive world-building and linguistics research of Prof. Tolkien. The Battle of the Five Armies sticks with the major threads from the book. (Note that some of the enclosed links lead to “spoilers.”)

The Wizard Gandalf has sent Hobbit Bilbo Baggins across the dangerous wilderness with a band of 13 Dwarves to help them reclaim their treasure and lost homeland from the fierce dragon Smaug. On the way to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, they encountered vile Goblins, haughty Elves, various monsters, and the scruffy humans of Lake Town.

Once Smaug is awakened from his slumber by Bilbo and company, the angry dragon incinerates Lake Town. Only the human Bard the Bowman is brave enough to face down the huge beast, even as Orcs and Elves rouse troops to wrest control of its hoard at Erebor.

Here are the five armies of the title battle, in order of appearance on the scene:

  • DwarvesThorin Oakenshield‘s band of former exiles (and Bilbo), plus eventual reinforcements from his kinsman Dain Ironfoot
  • Men — refugees from Lake Town and the lost city of Dale, led by Bard
  • Silvan Elves — from Mirkwood, led by King Thranduil and including his son Legolas and scout Tauriel (a character created for the movies)
  • Goblins/Orcs and Wargs (giant wolf-like steeds) — from Gundabad, plus Trolls/Giants and unnatural bats
  • Great Eagles — plus the shapeshifter Beorn (and Wizard Radagast the Brown, present only in the movie)

Meanwhile, to the south of Mirkwood in the ruined fortress of Dol Goldur, the White Council finds the Necromancer, who is revealed to be the evil Sauron. Gandalf, Elven nobles Elrond and Galadriel, and the Wizard Saruman the White fight the incorporeal Sauron and his nine Nazgul, the spirits of corrupted human kings.

Can Bilbo find a way to keep Thorin’s lust for treasure from getting their company killed? Can Gandalf and the White Council defeat Sauron? Can Dwarves, humans, and Elves put aside their differences long enough to deal with the Orc hordes, and what casualties will result from the battle? If you’ve read the book or noticed any of the foreshadowing in the previous Hobbit movies, you’ll know.


There are no major additions in this movie, but there were a few good moments for Sherlock‘s Martin Freeman as good-hearted burglar Bilbo, Robin Hood‘s Richard Armitage as proud Thorin, and Pushing Daisies‘ Lee Pace as isolationist Thranduil. As before, Bilbo’s scenes are closest to those in the book, and I even began to feel sympathy for elk-riding Thranduil.

I would have liked Thorin’s “gold sickness” be more of an opportunity for the other Dwarves to react than an explicit echo of Smaug’s words. With three long movies’ worth of screen time, there should have been more character development for all 13 Dwarves.

While I approve the addition of Lost‘s Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel in a male-heavy cast, I would have preferred less of a forced love triangle with her, Orlando Bloom’s ageless Legolas, and Being Human‘s Aidan Turner’s young Dwarf Fili.

I understand that the slapstick scenes with Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown and Ryan Gage as his slimy assistant Alfrid were meant to contrast with the virtue and courage of Luke Evans’ Bard, but they were a bit too broad for my taste. Of course, they wouldn’t be out of place during most fantasy tabletop games.

Spartacus and Arrow‘s Manu Bennett (whom I’ve met) and John Tui remained menacing as Orc chieftains Azog and Bolg — mostly through motion capture, I assume. Busy Benedict Cumberbatch had less voice time as the Necromancer and Smaug this time around.

It was nice to again see Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Christopher Lee as Sauruman, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, and Hugo Weaving as Elrond. The narrative framing device bringing back Ian Holm as old Bilbo was an even better tie-in to Fellowship of the Ring.


Because of the focus on the big set-piece battles, the pacing of Battle of the Five Armies seemed a bit smoother than in its predecessors. Smaug’s raid is rather short, and the evacuation of Lake Town and Dale by humans ahead of marauding Orcs is overly similar to Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers.

A combat between Thorin and Azog (rather than Bolg, as in the book) takes place on a frozen waterfall. As much as I liked 2004’s King Arthur and Battle of the Five Armies, I wish filmmakers would stop copying Alexander Nevsky‘s ice battle, which is based on real history.

Like his distinguished peers George Lucas, James Cameron, and Ridley Scott, director Peter Jackson has let technology overwhelm his sense of storytelling in this second trilogy. A good editor should be able to tell even established filmmakers when certain scenes go too long. Just because one can now realize a grand vision, if it doesn’t help the characters, setting, or plot, it doesn’t need to be included.

Perhaps some of the focus will be restored in the inevitable director’s cuts on DVD and Blu-ray. I also wonder how Guillermo del Toro might have handled the same material in less time, without franchise pressure from Warner Bros.


As noted above, the dragon, Orcs, and landscapes were all brought to spectacular life by WETA Studios. I noticed the computer-generated imagery less this time around, and 3-D worked fine for us (we didn’t find an IMAX showtime we liked). I do wonder what Battle of the Five Armies might look like at high frame rate.

Thranduil’s Wood Elves were too much like the shining hosts of the Second Age or the Sindarin of Lothlorien. Legolas’ gratuitous acrobatics, which have become a cliché since the Lord of the Rings movies, reminded me of why some role-players hated the smug, omnipotent Elves of the AD&D2 era.

Also, I would have liked to see more than telekinesis or blasts of wind during the White Council’s battle against Sauron. On the other hand, most magic in Tolkien’s books is more subtle than the pyrotechnics jaded audiences have come to expect.

Once the Goblins and Dwarves met in battle, it was hard to tell them apart, despite their difference in size (and we saw it in 3-D). I would have given each army more different armor or colorful surcoats. The overhead shots still felt too much like a video game.


The music served the story, but the themes that we noticed most were those that harked back to The Lord of the Rings. The fine art by Alan Lee and John How during the closing credits was well accompanied by “The Last Goodbye,” sung by Billy Boyd (Pippin in the first film trilogy, which takes place after The Hobbit).


Overall, I’d give The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which is rated PG-13 for violence, a B, 7.5 out of 10, or three and a half out of five stars. Despite some problems, the movie does tie up the prequel trilogy and shows the climactic battle for northern Middle Earth.

That said, I hope that filmmakers leave Tolkien’s work alone for a while before taking a fresh look at The Hobbit or parts of the Silmarillion. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation is the stronger work, and unlikely to be equaled anytime soon.

The previews we saw were decent, but nothing among the sequels and remakes jumped out as a “must-see” flick for 2015. I am curious about spy actioner The Kingsmen and Mad Max: Fury Road, but I expect to see fewer than the 19 movies I saw in theaters this past year:

Back at home, Dave, Sandra, Janice, and I also enjoyed The Edge of Tomorrow, a decent Tom Cruise vehicle that was indeed a mashup of military science fiction Starship Troopers and time-travel Groundhog Day. We also later returned to Burlington for dinner at the busy Border Café, one of our favorite local Tex-Mex eateries.

Janice and I didn’t come down with our colds until after Dave and Sandra left (taking more of my comic book collection with them for storage), but we had a nice time around the holidays. Now, just to shake it while getting back to work!

Interstellar review

On Saturday, 15 November 2014, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for a matinee of Interstellar at the Jordan’s IMAX theater in Framingham, Mass. We liked the relationship-focused highbrow science fiction film.


Interstellar follows Cooper, an astronaut turned farmer in an unspecified near future in which human spaceflight has faltered because of the urgency of feeding billions amid severe ecological degradation.

Widower Cooper’s son Tom is content to become a farmer, but his restlessness is mirrored in his daughter Murph. Despite being science-minded in an era focused on mere survival, Murph claims that a poltergeist is trying to send her messages.

An errant surveillance drone leads Cooper and his children to a secret NASA base, where his former colleague Prof. Brand and his daughter are working on sending a second wave of explorers through a newly discovered wormhole near Saturn to find inhabitable planets.

Aware of the relativistic effects of faster-than-light interstellar travel, Cooper gets his father Donald’s blessing and reluctantly leaves with the younger Brand and a small crew to try to save humanity….

Interstellar poster
Christopher Nolan’s latest SF movie


The cast of Interstellar is uniformly solid, with several actors from past Christopher Nolan productions. Matthew McConaughey is grounded as Cooper, despite the talk of imminent Armageddon, wormholes, and love and gravity transcending the dimension of time.

John Lithgow and Michael Caine are Cooper’s father figures as Donald and Prof. Brand, respectively. Anne Hathaway is emotional but strong as the younger Brand, and Mackenzie Foy plays a young Murph (named after Murphy’s Law — “Whatever can happen, will”).

As more time passes on Earth while the subjective time of the astronauts is shorter, the adult Murph is played by Jessica Chastain, and Casey Affleck is the older Tom. Murph and Tom react in different ways to their father’s absence. Matt Damon plays Dr. Mann, “the best of us” and part of the first wave sent through the wormhole.

Bill Irwin is also noteworthy as the voice of TARS, a former military robot among those retasked with helping the laconic Cooper’s mission. He brings a sense of snarky humor and potential menace to the proceedings, referring directly to HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.


Christopher Nolan’s meticulous style is similar to that of 2001‘s Stanley Kubrick or Prometheus‘ Ridley Scott. He’s more comfortable with high-concept speculative fiction in movies such as Inception, Duncan Jones’ Moon, or Rian Johnson’s Looper than with the emotional content of Steven Spielberg’s best.

Viewers waiting for action and suspense have to wait a while before the three-hour-long movie gets to it, and the parallels between Coop and Murph and Prof. Brand and his daughter are pretty obvious. When Donald or Prof. Brand fulminate on the human condition and our need to explore the universe, it’s clear that’s what Nolan thinks.

Still, even if I agree with the sentiment and understand some of the underlying science, I’d rather he spent less time explaining and more time engaging the audience. Overall, Nolan handles his cast and the narrative jumps in time well, but Interstellar feels more technical than passionate, and he’s unlikely to persuade any who might disagree.


Nolan’s true strength is with creating a believable universe. As with last year’s excellent Gravity, space travel is shown to be difficult, dangerous, and ultimately worthwhile. The psychedelic imagery during the wormhole travel is mercifully brief.

The visualization of “Gargantua,” a black hole around which some potential homeworlds orbit, is excellent. Any good science fiction movie should show us something we haven’t seen or maybe even haven’t imagined before. Much of the science is sound, and the distant planets reminded me of some documentaries about hazardous arctic exploration.

Sure, one could quibble with the environmental science, the description of gravitic propulsion, and the late appearance of O’Neill cylinders in the movie, but I was glad to see this movie on an IMAX screen with a full house. As other reviewers have noted, like Big Hero 6, some of the best parts of Interstellar are when it shows people using science to try to solve problems or mysteries.


As with Inception and many recent action movie trailers, Interstellar had the booming “bwong, bwong” sound to underscore important moments. I could have done without that, but I have to admit that the IMAX theater’s “rumble seats” were nice for the scenes when Cooper and company were flying by the seats of their pants.

There is no music quite as memorable as “Thus Spake Zarathustra” from 2001 or Vangelis’ themes in Blade Runner. As in Gravity, I liked the absence of sound during some of the space scenes.


I liked Interstellar more than Elysium and about the same as Contact, to refer to two Jodi Foster SF movies. It’s definitely part of a wave of more serious speculative fiction, providing a nice balance to the explosions of Star Trek: Into Darkness or comedy of Space Station 76 while I wait for the next cyclical revival of classic space opera.

I’d give Interstellar, which is rated PG-13 for some violence, a 7.5 to 8 out of 10, three and a half out of five stars, or a B+. I think that some critics were overly harsh, but I’m also more of an SF buff than the general audience.

Speaking of which, I’m still enjoying Jonathan Nolan’s cyber-dystopian Person of Interest on television, and I’m cautiously optimistic about his adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation for HBO. Also, it is with some sadness that I note the passing of Glen Larson, who created the original Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and many of the other genre TV shows I grew up on.

Belated 2014 Star Trek convention report

I had a good time at this past summer’s Creation Star Trek Convention in Boston, even though the actors I was most interested in meeting — Deep Space Nine‘s Avery Brooks, Quantum Leap and Enterprise‘s Scott Bakula, and Into Darkness and Being Human‘s Karl Urban — all canceled at the last minute.

Other cancellations included Voyager‘s Kate Mulgrew and Into Darkness‘ Bruce Greenwood. Still, the show was entertaining enough for any longtime Star Trek fan, and I wasn’t expecting this year’s event to live up to last year’s reunion of most of the Next Generation cast with moderator William Shatner (whom Janice and I just saw at the Rhode Island Comic Con).

Most of the guest stars this time around were from the casts of Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise. Last year, I went with fellow blogger Ken G., who this year attended on Saturday, June 21, but I was busy with Free RPG Day. As usual, there were many excellent cosplayers.

Star Trek cosplay
Capt. Tzu Tien Lung and Adm. Montgomery Scott

Fortunately, I had gotten a discount ticket for this year’s event, and I still got to meet Deep Space Nine‘s Nana Visitor (Maj. Kira Nerys) and Terry Farrell (Lt.Cmdr. Jadzia Dax). Much of the cast of Voyager was also present, and Max Grodenchik and Aron Eisnberg did a hilarious standup routine as Ferengis Rom and Nog, respectively.

Star Trek 2014 photo op
Nana, Gene, and Terry

As with most genre entertainment conventions lately, there was a big crowd and numerous cosplayers. In fact, last year’s Super MegaFest got so crowded that it was often a challenge to move around the Sheraton in Framingham, Mass. Fellow blogger Ken G. and I did get to meet Manu Bennet from Spartacus and Arrow, Barbara Eden from I Dream of Jeannie, among others.

Even though Waltham’s annual steampunk festival was canceled this spring because of finances and construction downtown, we haven’t lacked for other shows, such as the funny Monty Python reunion concert that was simulcast in U.S. theaters. Creation will be taking a year off and returning with a major Star Trek confab in Las Vegas to celebrate the franchise’s 50th anniversary in 2016.

This year’s Star Trek convention was inspirational, since I’ve been running occasional “episodes” of my “Star Trek: Restoration” space opera scenario.

We’ll see what genre entertainment events I get to next year, and I’ve found it easier lately to follow the news online from huge events such as the San Diego Comic Con rather than deal with traveling to them.

Big Hero 6 review

After the Boston Christmas Craft Festival this past Saturday, 8 November 2014, Janice and I went to the Showcase Cinema de Lux in Dedham, Mass., for lunch at B. Good Burgers and Big Hero 6. We liked the animated superhero movie, which is one of the best since Incredibles.

Big Hero 6
Disney’s latest animated success


Loosely based on a title published by Marvel Comics, Big Hero 6 follows Hiro Hamada, a teenage underachiever who spends his time in underground robot fights in the city of San Fransokyo. A visit to his older brother Tadashi’s university impresses Hiro, who applies his genius to designing “microbots” to gain admission.

Tadashi has been designing Baymax, a cuddly android intended to help with medical emergencies. Hiro gets help from his brother and new friends at the university, but his successful demonstration is marred by the rivalry between Prof. Robert Callaghan and entrepreneur Alistair Krei and a devastating fire….

As you may have seen from the previews, Hiro and friends soon work with Baymax to defend San Fransokyo from a supervillain….


The voice cast includes a few celebrities, but they weren’t readily identifiable or distracting, and the characters are well-developed in both voice and visual design. Ryan Potter is a typical adolescent as Hiro, with moments of stubbornness and sentiment. Scott Adsit is cheerful and surprisingly insightful as Baymax.

Other actors include Jamie Chung as daredevil student GoGo Tomago, Daon Wayans Jr. as big control freak Wasabi, and Maya Rudolph as Hiro and Tadashi’s loving but distracted Aunt Cass. Star Trek: First Contact‘s James Cromwell lends gravitas as Prof. Callaghan, and Firefly/Serenity‘s Alan Tudyk is Alistair Krei.


Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams wisely decided to set Big Hero 6‘s San Fransokyo in a pocket universe rather than the live-action Marvel cinematic universe. While there are many nods to conventional comic books and anime, Big Hero 6 stands on its own.

Like Pixar’s Incredibles, Big Hero 6 presents superhero and science fiction tropes in an energetic way, with tragedy outweighed by the responsibility and fun of doing good. I was also pleased to see young scientists portrayed in a positive way. The story feels fresh, even if it the final act is predictable.


The character faces will be familiar to anyone who has seen recent Disney/Pixar films such as Ratatouille or Brave, but that’s no different than the house styles used by Aardman, DreamWorks, or Sony.

As each animated movie tries to top its predecessors for “eye candy,” Big Hero 6 stands out in the design of Baymax, who exhibits a surprisingly wide range of emotions despite looking like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, not unlike Wall-E.

The other area in which Big Hero 6 is noteworthy is its design of San Fransokyo and the nascent superhero team. Animators have been wisely avoiding the “uncanny valley” with cartoonish characters, but the hyper-realistic settings and frenetic action surpass most recent live-action movies. Big Hero 6 resembles a video game, but in this case, I don’t necessarily mean that as a putdown.


Composer Henry Jackman combines traditional movie music with pop styles, aided by the track Immortals by Fall Out Boy. The score also keeps up with the action and raises the emotional stakes when needed. Even though Big Hero 6 isn’t exactly a Disney/Marvel flick, there is a cameo after the final credits.


I’d give Big Hero 6, which is rated PG for action, 7.5 out of 10, three and a half out of five stars, or a B+. While The Lego Movie, The Boxtrolls, and The Book of Life were arguably more original, I found that this Disney movie did a better job of capturing the fun of superhero comics than, say, Man of Steel or X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Big Hero 6 beat Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar at the box office, but I hope to see the latter film with Thomas K.Y. and friends next weekend. Speaking of the uncanny valley, I’ll probably skip Paddington and Penguins of Madagascar, but Minions does look amusing.

The Book of Life review

On Saturday, 18 October 2014, Janice and I went to the AMC Burlington Cinema 10 for an early matinee of The Book of Life. We enjoyed the movie, which is the latest in a strong year for animation.

The Book of Life
Fondly remember the dead

Plot: The Book of Life begins in a modern-day museum as a clever guide gives a bunch of bored schoolchildren are some insight into Mexican lore. The story then shifts to puppet-like characters in a tale full of swashbuckling romance and otherworldly adventures.

Manolo, Maria, and Joaquin are three young friends in the village of San Angel, but they are driven apart by their parents’ expectations and two meddling immortals, La Muerte, ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba, ruler of the Land of the Forgotten.

Reunited as adults, matador Manolo would rather be a musician, and Joaquin is a decorated soldier, as was his late father. Maria returns from Spain and is wooed by both Manolo and Joaquin, but Xibalba’s schemes and vicious bandit leader Chakal send Manolo on a quest through the lands of the Remembered and Forgotten….

Cast: The summary above doesn’t do justice to The Book of Life‘s twists, colorful visuals, and strong acting. Diego Luna is properly soulful as Manolo (reminding me of Antonio Banderas), and Channing Tatum plays on his image as good-natured hunk Joaquin (not unlike Kevin Kline). Zoe Saldana is spunky as Maria, who refuses to be the passive object of the two guys’ affections and rallies San Angel against Chakal’s horde.

They are supported by experienced voice actors Kate del Castillo as seductive La Muerte, Ron Perlman as fearsome Xibalba, and Hector Elizondo as Manolo’s bullfighter father Carlos Sanchez.

In addition, Christina Applegate plays the museum docent Mary Beth, Ice Cube is the benevolent Candle Maker, and other characters are voiced by Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, and even opera singer Placido Domingo. There is some slapstick, but nothing really offensive.

Direction: Jorge Gutierrez does a decent job of pacing, from the initial prologue through Manolo’s eye-popping arrival in the Land of the Remembered through his more conventional final confrontations with Joaquin and Chakal.

Since Guillermo del Toro was a producer, it’s no surprise that the expansive scale, Mexican mythology, and emotional heart of The Book of Life are so well-handled. I was interested to see mentions of feminist and animal-rights ideas balanced against elements harking back to ancient Mesoamerica and even Greece and Rome.

Death is shown as not something to be feared, but as part of life. True heroism requires sacrifice, and respect for family and true love still conquer all. None of these messages come as any surprise, but they are delivered in a piñata of action.

Cinematography: Make no mistake, though, the fast pacing and clever visual effects are mainly for a younger audience. As I noted above, this year has been a particularly strong one for animated movies, including The Lego Movie, Frozen, The Boxtrolls, and now The Book of Life. (I’d put Mr. Peabody & Sherman and How to Train Your Dragon 2 only slightly behind them.)

The inventive character designs and divergent settings (San Angel and the lands of the Remembered and the Forgotten) are still impressive in an era when we’ve gotten used to hyper-realism or highly stylized computer and stop-motion animation.

Soundtrack: The music of The Book of Life is a great blend of Latin, classical, and pop tunes. Normally, I wouldn’t like the inclusion of the latter, but all three styles manage to help both the humor and romance of this movie.

Rating: The Book of Life is rated PG for rude humor and scary images. I’d give it an 8.5 to 9 out of 10, four out of five stars, or an A-. I liked it slightly more than The Boxtrolls and close to The Lego Movie. I’d strongly recommend The Book of Life to anyone who’s young at heart.

After the movie, Janice and I went to the Tex-Mex Border Café for lunch. (We also had Besito and Chipotle as options nearby.) I hope to eventually catch The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which is in limited release, and Big Hero 6.