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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Review

Peter Jackson's expanded take on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit comes to a conclusion in a battle epic packed with enormous action sequences that oddly distract attention from the much more engaging central plotline. By the time it thunders to its satisfying conclusion after nearly two and a half hours, there's a sense of balance restored, providing some powerfully emotional moments along with the thrills. But there's a lot of chaotic mayhem to get through first.

The action picks up immediately, as the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) roars into Laketown causing further desolation before being stopped by the heroic Bard (Luke Evans), who then leads the survivors back to their long-abandoned city in the mountains. Meanwhile, dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage) has reclaimed his throne and Smaug's enormous stash of gold, which consumes his soul with greed. But he abandons his promises to Bard and the elf leader Thranduil (Lee Pace), who assembles the elf army against him. So Thorin calls in a dwarf battalion to take them on. Meanwhile, the hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is trying to diffuse the situation and snap Thorin out of his avaricious funk. And wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) discovers that two waves of ruthless orcs are descending on Thorin.

All of this strategising and squaring-off feels fragmented and uneven, as Jackson cuts back and forth between the sprawling ensemble cast while trying to build momentum toward the earth-rattling collision of these five armies. Thankfully, there's also a lot of interpersonal stuff going on to hold the interest. Elf warrior Legolas (Orlando Bloom) is still caught up in a romantic triangle with his intended Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and her forbidden love, the unusually hot dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner). And there's some comic relief from Alfrid (Ryan Gage), a weaselly human who worms his way into Bard's inner circle for some inexplicable reason. Best of all is the push and pull between Bilbo and Thorin, which is very nicely played by Freeman and Armitage.

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Review

With wittier action and a few more sharply defined characters, this second episode in Peter Jackson's trilogy is more engaging than the somewhat over-packed An Unexpected Journey. Once again, the key to enjoying the film is to distance it from the beloved novel: this is a big adventure movie as opposed to Tolkien's light-hearted romp. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

There isn't much actual plot, as we are between the set-up and conclusion, so the film consists of a series of set-pieces as Bilbo (Freeman) and his band of dwarves continue their journey to reclaim the dwarf throne in the Lonely Mountain. Gandalf (McKellen) heads off to confront the shifty, shadowy Necromancer (Cumberbatch), while Bilbo and crew head into the creepy Mirkwood, where they confront gigantic spiders before being captured by wood-elves. This is where they meet Legolas (Bloom), whose feisty sidekick Tauriel (Lilly) falls for sexy dwarf Kili (Turner) as they continue their journey to Lake-town. There they get help from Bard (Evans) as they launch their final assault on the mountain, where the dragon Smaug (also Cumberbatch) is napping on the dwarves' vast treasure.

Jackson directs with a spark of energy and humour that holds our attention even when things begin to look a little too digitally animated (basic laws of physics apparently don't apply in Middle Earth). And each sequence also provides some depth of character, especially in the overall journey of Bilbo, nicely played by Freeman as a guy who is only just discovering his own ingenuity and bravery. By contrast, McKellen's plot is much darker as he faces off against unnerving evil. As in the first film, the other strong character is Thorin (Armitage), the heir to the dwarf throne grappling with the idea of a return to power.

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West of Memphis Review

Corruption, self-interest and rampant bigotry are so clearly portrayed in this riveting documentary that if it doesn't make you angry, maybe there's something wrong with you. As filmmaker Amy Berg explores a shocking case from Arkansas, the intractability of the American legal system is highlighted with a lucid and engaging account of the facts. And it's such a skilfully shot and edited film that it leaves us in no doubt about the truth.

At the centre is a multiple murder in May 1993, which the police claimed was the result of a satanic ritual. So they arrested three goth teens whose counter-culture lifestyle made them seem like the logical suspects. After the trial, Echols was sentenced to death, while Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences.  But observers noticed a string of anomalies in the case: the three 8-year-old victims were not acually killed in an occultic way, and there was plenty of proof that the three teen convicts were innocent. For nearly 20 years the cause of the "West Memphis Three" was taken up by lawyers and celebrities around the world. But the Arkansas court has refused to examine new DNA evidence and would only let the three now-men out of prison if they acknowledged their guilt.

Filmmaker Berg has a huge archive of material at her disposal, including footage from the original police investigation, press coverage, video of the trials and extensive interviews with everyone involved. Assembled together this gives us a remarkable big picture of the chain of events, not only letting us see that these three convicted murderers are innocent but hinting at who the real killer might be. The fact that the court still won't hear the facts is so mind-boggling that we begin to worry if the system in West Memphis is capable of justice at all. Especially when police and prosecutors so obviously twist the evidence away from the facts.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review

This first chapter of Peter Jackson's new Tolkien trilogy takes us back to the familiar settings and characters, inflating a simple journey into an epic adventure in the process. This film also looks strikingly different, shot both in 3D and 48 frames technology, double the definition of film. But it's the story we're really interested in.

The events take place 60 years before The Lord of the Rings, when Bilbo (Freeman) is a younger Hobbit enjoying a quiet life. Then he meets the wizard Ganfolf (McKellen) and everything changes. Suddenly he's invaded by 13 riotous dwarves led by Thorin (Armitage), who has decided to lead an expedition to reclaim their homeland from the sleeping dragon Smaug. Bilbo reluctantly agrees to help them, and their journey kicks off with a series of adventures as they are chased by wolf-riding orcs, captured by greedy goblins and terrorised by gigantic mountain-monsters. They also call in for help from the elf leaders Elrond and Galadriel (Weaving and Blanchett), and try to convince the sceptical wizard Saruman (Lee) to back their quest.

The film opens with familiar characters as the older Bilbo (Holm) chats with Frodo (Wood) before we flash back to the start. And Jackson continues to link the two trilogies like this, with connective characters and events as well as developing the simple novel into a much bigger epic, complete with tenacious villains. All of this is hugely involving, with tense moments that are nerve-shredding as well as scenes of dark emotion and broad humour. The best sequence is Bilbo's encounter with Gollum, which vividly reveals the progress in performance-capture technology over the last decade. We can even more clearly see Serkis in Gollum this time, and it gives the film a real kick.

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