Read George Byrne's verdict on the final installment of The Hobbit, St Vincent and The Grandmaster
THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES (Fantasy. Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Evangeline Lilly, Hugo Weaving, Billy Connolly, Lee Pace, Orlando Bloom, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott. Directed by Peter Jackson. Cert PG)
Well, here we are at last. Peter Jackson's cinematic adventures in Middle Earth have finally reached a conclusion (surely to God he couldn't try adapting the utterly unreadable The Silamrillion?) in a suitably epic fashion. The question is: Was slicing The Hobbit, a charming book which could easily be read in an afternoon, into three parts over almost eight hours of cinema actually a good idea?
The Lord of the Rings trilogy benefited greatly from characters being dropped from the story because they didn't fit the narrative arc of the project but in this case Jackson and his screenwriters raided Tolkien's notes and appendices from other stories to pad out what is essentially a very simple tale into a sprawling epic. Also, the original trilogy locked together perfectly as an extended saga but each film could stand on its own whereas this time out Jackson insisted on cliffhangers, a device which can be extremely frustrating for the casual viewer.
The first instalment took an age to get going, the first hour mostly consisting of dwarves eating dinner, while The Desolation of Smaug featured a wonderfully realised dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) but left us with said creature flying off in the direction of Laketown while a forlorn Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) intoned "What have we done?", which is no way to end a movie in my book. So, with no 'previously in Middle Earth' to provide a recap, Jackson hurls us straight into the action and, in fairness, things do get off to a spectacular start, with Smaug wreaking devastation on the people of Laketown.
However, the seemingly unstoppable Smaug meets his match in the shape of Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), defending his home and family like a true leader. After that opening 20-minute salvo, though, things begin to drag in a sorely disappointing manner.
Unless you've given yourself a recent refresher course in Middle Earth lore (something you simply shouldn't have to do when you're heading to the cinema) you may be slightly baffled trying to figure out just who everyone is and what their motivations are.
Well, with Smaug gone the dwarves (I think) are intent on returning to their mountain home of Erebor, but first their leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) must retrieve the Arkenstone, which is now in the possession of Bilbo. There's also the matter of Thorin being driven mad by the hoard of gold in the mountain while the king of the elves, Elrond (Hugo Weaving), may have plans of his own for the mountain.
So, we've got men, dwarves, and elves all circling each other while an army of evil Orcs are heading in their general direction. Er, by my reckoning that makes four armies rather than the five indicated in the title but, according to my informant in the Nerdverse, there is a late intervention to the conflict which saves the day but which must have bypassed me completely.
Actually, when the big battle does arrive it does kick off rather convincingly. Part of the problem with such grandly orchestrated CGI mayhem is that it's largely uninvolving, becomes repetitive really quickly and, ultimately, is about as entertaining as watching someone else playing a computer game.
Orlando Bloom is as lifeless as ever as the elf warrior Legolas, although he does appear to possess the jumping skills of a mountain goat, while his fellow elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a character completely invented by Jackson and his writers, possesses no depth of character at all.
The Battle of the Five Armies isn't a bad film as such, it's always good to see veteran thesps like Ian Mckellan giving it socks as Gandalf, while Billy Connolly makes a brief appearance as a dwarf king fond of loafing his Orc opponents, just a very unnecessary one. It's too long, too dreary, unnecessarily convoluted and while a technical marvel it simply doesn't engage the emotions at all.
(Drama/Comedy. Starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O'Dowd, Jaeden Lieberher. Directed by Theodore Melfi. Cert 15A)
There can be no denying that Bill Murray has one of the great faces of contemporary cinema. That hangdog expression can lift even the most mundane script and, when he's given the right material - Groundhog Day, Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers being the three best examples - he's unsurpassable. Even when the story is predictable and slightly schmaltzy he can bring something superior to the party and that's certainly the case with St. Vincent.
Here Murray plays Vincent, a Vietnam veteran who appears to be one of life's more irascible curmudgeons, a fact we glean early on when he's desperately mean to Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), a single mother who's just moved in next door with her 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), a rather weedy kid who's being bullied at school.
Gradually, Vincent takes Oliver under his wing, a fact which initially fills the hard-working Maggie with trepidation, especially given that her nasty neighbour has regular trysts with a pregnant Russian prostitute (Naomi Watts giving it a game go on the accent front) and would appear to be the epitome of a bad influence.
But, wouldn't you just know it (well, you've been given a major clue with the very title of the film) that despite jaunts to race meetings and teaching Oliver to defend himself in fights, a genuine bond develops between Vincent and Oliver which belies our initial suspicions. Murray is ideally suited to playing a grump with a heart of gold and works well alongside his young co-star but the real surprise here is Melissa McCarthy.
Proving that there's more to her than drawing attention to her size and insulting people (this year's Tammy being even worse than her almost self-parodying turn in The Heat, a sequel to which will be upon us next year), she gives a performance of genuine warmth as the concerned, struggling Maggie and almost steals the show from Murray, which is saying something.
Ultimately though, St. Vincent is too safe and sentimental to really make the most of Murray, McCarthy, Lieberher and Watts and once we're past the first half you know exactly how things are going to pan out.
(Drama/Action. Starring Tony Leung, Ziyl Zhang, Chang Chen, Wang Qingxiang. Directed by Hong Kar-Wai. cert 15A)
Extensively re-edited from the director's initial cut, with producer Harvey Weinstein lopping almost 30 minutes off the version which Hong Kong audiences saw, The Grandmaster tells the frequently confusing story of Ip Man, a martial arts expert who taught the young Bruce Lee the Wing Chun style of kung-fu.
Taking us from Foshan in south China through several decades, the film deals with the horrors of the Japanese occupation and while Kar-Wai regular Tony Leung is excellent in the title role, there's a touching love story between him and Ziyl Zhang, the film's drastic narrative jumps make for an unconvincing watch, despite several brilliantly choreographed fight sequences.