BLACK PANTHER (2018)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Prolonged Sequences of Action Violence, and a brief Rude Gesture

Directed by: Ryan Coogler

Written by: Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole

(based on the BLACK PANTHER comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker & Andy Serkis

BLACK PANTHER is the eighteenth(!) entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and final installment before the hotly anticipated INFINITY WAR hits in May. Superhero fans previously got a glimpse of Black Panther a couple of years ago when he showed up in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (which is easily in the top 5 best MCU films). Now, Black Panther has finally received an origin film…sort of? I mean, he was already Black Panther in CIVIL WAR, but he really becomes Black Panther in this film I think. It’s hard to explain, because even though BLACK PANTHER isn’t technically another Marvel superhero origin film…it certainly has the feeling of one. That’s not necessarily a compliment either.

In the hidden African kingdom of Wakanda (which is highly advanced thanks to an endless mine of vibranium – the strongest metal on earth), warrior T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has returned to take his rightful place on his deceased father’s throne. However, T’Challa/Black Panther also finds himself hot on the trail of international terrorist Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). T’Challa’s problems don’t stop there, because the newly crowned king encounters leadership difficulties and uncovers long-hidden secrets. To boot, a mysterious violent-prone villain Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) has somehow made his way into the Wakanda and intends to take it over. Things are hitting the fan and it’s up to Black Panther to save the day!

Even though it suffers from a motherload of superhero clichés, BLACK PANTHER benefits from an imaginative setting and really cool action scenes. Aside from a couple of baffling bits of shaky-cam (which seems to be a recurring issue in pretty much every Marvel film), BLACK PANTHER’s action sequences are terrifically exciting. My favorite scene is easily a car chase through the streets of South Korea and that’s preceded by a series of violent confrontations in an underground casino. One-on-one fights are also well choreographed, while an inevitable climactic showdown/battle nails its spectacle in crowd-pleasing ways.

Though he was a small part of CIVIL WAR, Chadwick Boseman really gets to shine as Black Panther here. Boseman’s protagonist is given some development and has a natural arc to follow. There is effort put into scenes that portray him speaking with his ancestors. The film does something similar to a lesser effect with the villain Killmonger. Although some people have praised Killmonger as one of the best Marvel villains so far, I’m a bit baffled by this reaction towards him. I felt like Killmonger could have been an awesome villain, but he just wasn’t given enough time to make a strong impression. His motives are sympathetic and his methods are monstrous. However, he only really gets 10 minutes of remarkable screen time in a movie that runs over two hours. I actually thought that Andy Serkis’s one-armed Klaue left more of an impression.

BLACK PANTHER contains a fair share of strong supporting characters with big talent backing them up. Angela Bassett, Forrest Whitaker, and Martin Freeman all have roles to fill. Freeman reprises his CIA agent from CIVIL WAR, but gets more to do in this outing. Meanwhile, Letitia Wright serves as hit-or-miss comic relief. Some of her jokes earn laughs and other bits feel like she’s just referencing memes for the sake of referencing memes (including a cringy “what are those!?!” line). Lupita Nyong’o fills the role of obligatory love-interest/former flame. However, Danai Gurira is a complete bad-ass as the head of an all-female secret service and is a definite highlight of the action scenes.

Not all is good in BLACK PANTHER though. I already mentioned the forgettable villain, who felt like the victim of wasted potential. However, BLACK PANTHER’s story is very basic for lack of a better word. If you’ve seen five superhero films (it doesn’t matter which five), you’ll likely be able to predict every single scene, revelation, and beat of the film before it happens. The script sloppily sets up obvious plot points and feels like it’s spoon-feeding the viewer. In other words, it’s treating the audience like a bunch of morons. This is especially true of a 20-minute chunk where Black Panther takes a backseat in his own movie, while the supporting characters drive the film forward. This reminded me of how Ultron was railroaded for about half of his AGE in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

At the end of the day, the mind-blowing amount of critical acclaim for BLACK PANTHER seems unwarranted. There are positive qualities. Chadwick Boseman and most of the cast put in strong performances. The action scenes are mostly fantastic, with some annoying shaky-cam aside. The villain has a cool backstory and motivation, but unfortunately feels underdeveloped and wasted. Mostly, BLACK PANTHER suffers from being too damn predictable and generic. This is an entertaining movie, but you’ve seen this plot many times before. BLACK PANTHER Is a fun superhero story, but let’s hope that Marvel does better in their upcoming entries.

Grade: B

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of Violence, Action and Mayhem.

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Directed by: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

Written by: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely

(based on the CAPTAIN AMERICA comics by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Tom Holland, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Bruhl, Martin Freeman & Marisa Tomei

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is the thirteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has hit varying degrees of quality throughout the years. While a couple of MCU installments have been disappointing, none of them have been downright bad and Captain America currently has the best entry with THE WINTER SOLDIER. CIVIL WAR is very much a CAPTAIN AMERICA film and never loses sight of that, but also happens to feature most of the Avengers and even introduces a few new faces into the mix. With all of these characters, lots of action, and a fast-paced narrative, CIVIL WAR is a hugely entertaining ride for superhero fans!

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Set a year after AGE OF ULTRON, we open with a handful of the Avengers botching a mission to wrestle a biological weapon away from havoc-wreaking terrorist Crossbones (Frank Grillo). In the chaos, some innocent civilians are accidentally killed. This disaster results in 117 countries coming together to establish the Sokovia Accords, which would give the United Nations control over the Avengers. While Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and other Avengers (Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany) see this as a bittersweet necessity, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and the remaining Avengers (Anthony Mackie, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen) find themselves at odds over the potentially unethical side to this political deal. When Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) re-emerges, the Avengers literally fight amongst themselves and Captain America discovers that other dangerous forces are also at work.

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Seeing as this cast of characters contains a whopping twelve superheroes and ten of those are returning faces, I’m only going to mention my personal points of interest so we’re not here all day. It was nice to see Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) receive better treatment here than they got in ULTRON, while Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) delivers a stand-out moment that generated thunderous applause from the audience in my theater. The already established rivalry between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers becomes even more heated and fists are thrown. CIVIL WAR does a fantastic job of forcing the viewer to understand the two differing points of views and sympathizing with both of them. There were multiple moments where I was emotionally confused as to who I was rooting for, because I loved these characters so much and didn’t want to see either of them get hurt (let alone by each other). You’ll probably have your loyalties tested and I was certainly switching sides during a couple of key scenes.

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CIVIL WAR also introduces two hotly anticipated superheroes into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, these being: Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). I didn’t know much about Black Panther walking into this movie, but enjoyed seeing this clawed hero in action during a handful of stand-out moments, including one very tense chase. As the third big-screen incarnation of Spider-Man, Tom Holland is far and away the best Peter Parker we’ve seen yet. Besides a great-looking suit and trademark webbing, Holland’s version of Spidey is armed with the perfect amount of quips and a smart-aleck sense of humor. Though he has a short amount of screen time (three scenes), Holland definitely stands out as one of CIVIL WAR’s biggest highlights and I’m very excited to see him  take center stage in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.

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CIVIL WAR falters when it comes to the antagonists, because all three of them are undeveloped. William Hurt reprises his role as a bland government official who sees the Avengers as a potential threat and wants to exert some form of control over them. Frank Grillo shows up for a glorified cameo as Crossbones, which was a disappointment when you consider the character development he received in WINTER SOLDIER. I won’t say much about Daniel Bruhl’s character for fear of spoilers, but I will say that the film dishes out little details about him until one big exposition dump. While I liked his character’s motivation and plan, these were both revealed in a heavy-handed manner that opened up a few minor plot holes.

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One of CIVIL WAR’s most impressive qualities is that it never comes close to overstaying its welcome. This is the longest movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and never feels like it. Packing twelve heroes into one script might signal a potential overcrowding problem, but that is far from the case here. Even brief side characters receive their time to shine. CIVIL WAR gives me faith that the Russo brothers will pull off INFINITY WAR with more skill than Joss Whedon utilized in the overlong and overcrowded ULTRON. My only other complaint with this third CAPTAIN AMERICA outing is evident in earlier scenes, which rely on quick editing and annoying shaky-cam that slightly obscure the action. These problems are quickly remedied during the second half, when the camera becomes steadier.

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is my third favorite film of the thirteen established Marvel Cinematic Universe entries thus far (falling behind WINTER SOLDIER and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY). Early action scenes and underdeveloped antagonists keep the film from reaching perfection, but the sheer amount of hero on hero conflict and strong writing cement CIVIL WAR as another winner for both Marvel and Captain America. You probably already know if you’ll be seeing this film and it’s bound to be one of 2016’s biggest money-makers (if not the biggest). It’s great to see a summer blockbuster that relies on more than special effects and fan service. CIVIL WAR contains both of those, but they happen to be executed with smart storytelling and emotional weight behind them. In the end, that makes a world of difference.

Grade: A-

HOT FUZZ (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: R for Violent Content including some Graphic Images, and Language

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Directed by: Edgar Wright

Written by: Edgar Wright & Simon Pegg

Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jim Broadbent, Paddy Considine, Rafe Spall & Timothy Dalton

In the realm of action-comedies, you really can’t do better than HOT FUZZ. The second installment of the so-called “Cornetto Trilogy” (also consisting of SHAUN OF THE DEAD and THE WORLD’S END) perfectly compresses tons of fun and clever humor into a perfectly paced two-hours. This feels like a British take on THE NAKED GUN with more action, an even better story, and non-stop laughs. Though I feel WORLD’S END may be the most emotionally executed and accomplished of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost’s Cornetto (a.k.a. Blood and Ice Cream) films, HOT FUZZ is my personal favorite entry!

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Nicholas Angel is an outstanding Constable patrolling the streets of London. His flawless arrest record and vast achievements are making all other officers look bad in comparison. Therefore, he’s unwillingly promoted to the position of Sergeant and moved to Sanford, a small quiet countryside town. Angel’s overachiever attitude draws frustration from his new laid-back department, scrutiny of the small townsfolk and admiration from dimwitted Constable Danny Butterman. After a number of suspicious deaths are ruled as mere accidents, Angel and Butterman try to capture a mysterious hooded assailant and prove that a murderous plot is occurring under the squeaky clean surface of Sanford.

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The script behind HOT FUZZ is a work of comedic genius and has multiple layers of jokes that reward repeat viewings. The film works as three distinct different genres at once. It’s an original flick that holds up on its own sense of humor, but manages to perfectly spoof action movie clichés in a way that simultaneously ridicules the tropes of the genre and shows love for them. Besides working as two distinctly different types of comedy, the film is also an action flick through and through. This is complete with gun-fights, a suspenseful mystery, bloody murders, and explosions. Just because there’s a sense of humor to be had, that doesn’t mean the violence is in short supply. This is a bloody movie that sports one of the most memorable gory kills of all-time, but it’s all played in a humorous way. The final 30 minutes are also something special to behold in one of the most amazing showdowns in cinematic history and I’m absolutely serious in that compliment.

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HOT FUZZ fires jokes like the high-speed of a machine gun. These laughs are hilarious during the first watch, but actually grow even funnier with each consecutive viewing. Lots of subtleties become obvious in clues thrown into foreshadowing bits of dialogue. This makes the film absolutely hysterical and reveals just how much attention to detail was paid during every step of construction. One running joke involving an escaped swan that pops up throughout different points of the action had me in stitches. Aside from being slightly better than SHAUN OF THE DEAD, this installment from Edgar Wright showcases a massive improvements on the technical side of things as the film looks slick (much like the action movies that it’s poking fun at).

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The real meat of the movie comes in the characters as every one of these people could be a star in their own movie. Simon Pegg shines as Nicholas Angel playing a completely straight-faced character and stand-up action hero the entire time. Some of the biggest laughs come from him being out of his element in the small country environment. Nick Frost could have just turned the character of Danny into a bumbling sidekick, but adds a sweetness to him that makes the viewer root for this good-natured moron to kick some ass. Other stand outs (all of the cast members are too many to list) include Timothy Dalton as a smug obvious suspect who throws out murderous puns in his dialogue and two lazy moustached detectives known as “The Andys.” Memorable little cameos also are sprinkled through the run time as well, including a particularly awesome one from Cate Blanchett that could easily sneak by unnoticed.

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Extreme attention to detail, smart writing, and well fleshed out characters make HOT FUZZ one of the best comedies to come out of the 2000’s and one of my all-time favorite comedies. This is one of those rare films that keeps increasing in quality with each repeat viewing, but was already perfect to begin in the first place. HOT FUZZ works as an action movie, a spoof of action movies, and a standalone comedy. If you haven’t seen this film yet, check it out as soon as humanly possible. Fun and laughs are guaranteed!

Grade: A+

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 49 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Extended Sequences of Intense Fantasy Action Violence, and Frightening Images

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Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo Del Toro

Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Sylvester McCoy, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis & Ian Holm

Out of Peter Jackson’s recently completed HOBBIT trilogy, I haven’t actively disliked a single film. However, there’s one entry that was clearly padding out its running time to justify a decision to split one relatively short novel into a three long movies. This film would be AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY. Creative decisions and distracting tonal shifts don’t exactly work in this nearly three-hour long beginning to Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy. Though UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is far from terrible, it’s definitely the lesser film of the entire Middle Earth saga.

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An unnecessary prologue shows elderly Bilbo Baggins writing down the past adventure that changed him into the hobbit that he is today. Flashback to a younger than he looks 50-year-old Bilbo meeting Gandalf the Grey. This wizard forces him into hosting a dinner party for a ragtag team of 13 dwarves. These dwarves, led by the rightful king Thorin, are headed to a distant place known as the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their kingdom and treasure. Bilbo is recruited as a burglar and their journey begins.

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The first thing that is distinctly different about UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is its tone. This first film is more whimsical, merrier, and funnier than the rest of the Middle Earth series. Peter Jackson also feels the need to incorporate songs from the text into the film. This decision seems to have been all but abandoned in the sequels, which only goes to make it even more strange in the context of the film. We barely meet the dwarves and haven’t quite developed any of them as characters (other than Thorin), but they’ve already sung two very different tunes in the space of about 10 minutes. Jackson always uses epic scenery when tackling Middle Earth, but UNEXPECTED JOURNEY feels unexpectedly contained. There’s a visit to an elf city, a fight in a field, and encounters in a forest, but the scale is much smaller in this film. That isn’t exactly a positive.

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There are no major issues with the cast. Martin Freeman excels as the cowardly, but slowly improving Bilbo. After you’ve seen the sequels, it’s nice to revisit this film to see just how far his character has come from the beginning. Ian McKellen slips right back into his role of Gandalf. He’s so good in the part that I don’t even see McKellen, just Gandalf the Grey. Various dwarves are likable enough, though some come off as cartoon characters. Thorin is clearly meant to be the most fleshed-out of the bunch and therefore receives most of the dialogue besides Bilbo and Gandalf. Appearances from Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, and Christopher Lee feel like desperate cameos in order to remind the viewer that this is in the same universe as LORD OF THE RINGS.

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One character specific to this trilogy is Radagast the Brown and he’s absolutely horrible. This nature-obsessed wizard is the equivalent of Jar-Jar Binks with a beard. It certainly doesn’t help that Peter Jackson devotes damn near 10 minutes to watching this annoying quirky sorcerer as he tries to save the life of a hedgehog of pads the film out even further with a useless flashback. Speaking of useless scenes, the film drags its feet to even get moving. It takes a full hour before Bilbo even decides to leave his home with the dwarves. Adding to the pointless long running time is a prologue that only serves to showcase Ian Holm and Elijah Wood reprising their roles from the original trilogy. Three hours was far too long to stretch this opening film. There’s literally an hour that could have been cut out of the finished movie and released in the eventual Extended Edition that followed soon after.

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The best parts of UNEXPECTED JOURNEY come in the variety of threats that Bilbo and Thorin’s company encounter. These range from dim-witted trolls and strategic orcs to mountain wrecking giants and underground dwelling goblins. These might seem rather small when compared to the craziness that comes in the later films containing giant spiders and the scariest dragon that I’ve ever seen, but they’re solid here. The riddles in the dark scene between Bilbo and Gollum is also fantastically done with Andy Serkis reprising his signature role for one last time. The attacks and chase scenes are the best parts of this first entry in Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy, but they don’t cover the majority of this film as they do in the sequels. This wouldn’t be as a big a detraction, if the character development was interesting or fully entertaining.

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It may sound like I’m hating on THE HOBBIT or completely railing against UNEXPECTED JOURNEY and I don’t dislike it. However, it’s certainly dragging its feet with a running time that’s far too long for its own good. The whimsical tone is a bit off when compared with everything else seen in the Middle Earth saga. I do like the film, but it’s best as a first viewing in a marathon of otherwise great movies. Overall, UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is the most dull of the HOBBIT trilogy, but still enjoyable nonetheless.

Grade: B-

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 24 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Extended Sequences of Intense Fantasy Action Violence, and Frightening Images

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Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo Del Toro

(based on the novel THE HOBBIT by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Graham McTavish, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee & Ian Holm

The decision to split J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT into a trilogy of films was an object of speculation to say the very least. While some hardcore Middle Earth fans were overjoyed to see Peter Jackson incorporating details from Tolkien’s THE SILMARILLION, others were upset about this prequel trilogy clearly being an excuse to bank for three years in a row. In all honesty, THE HOBBIT is not a long book and could easily be squished into two entries or one long film. However, I haven’t actively disliked any of Peter Jackson’s HOBBIT trilogy at all. UNEXPECTED JOURNEY felt stretched and was still enjoyable, but DESOLATION OF SMAUG turned out to be unexpectedly awesome. Though I can see where some folks might not care for BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, I found this final HOBBIT film to be a suitably epic conclusion to a wholly epic fantasy saga.

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When we last left Bilbo and his band of dwarves, they had invaded the Lonely Mountain and put up an intense fight against the ferocious Smaug who escaped into the sky. With the fire-breathing dragon being fast defeated at Lake Town by Bard in a stand of courage, the survivors of the now demolished community look to the dwarves for the treasure owed to rebuild their homes. The greed for his long-lost treasure is slowly corrupting dwarf-king Thorin, which ignites tempers on all sides. Bilbo tries to find a way to get the dwarves to make peace with the humans and elves (the latter of which want to recover relics within the mountain). To make matters even more dire, Gandalf has discovered that an orc army is coming to claim the territory and this rising evil puts everyone into an intense battle that will decide the fate of Middle Earth.

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We all know that the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy exists, so there’s little question to the day being saved or not. This being said, lives are still lost (including those of crucial characters from the previous two films) and the battle sequences are ragingly intense. Watching Bilbo, the dwarves, Gandalf, and elves return to the screen for one last outing almost feels like rejoining old friends at this point. There’s an epic setting in all of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth saga that feels sort of easy to take for granted sometimes, but BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES is an exciting pay-off to two good-to-great movies of build-up. After an hour into the film, you’re essentially watching one big war rage on-screen and it’s done in a way that doesn’t get repetitive in the slightest.

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A good way to describe how the title battle plays out is based in the structure of movies themselves. When you have a hero and a villain, you get everything boiled down to one intense final fight scene that echoes of everything at stake for both characters. BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES is loaded with multiple “final fights” between important characters. That’s not a bad thing at all and it makes up a third of the film. There’s Kili and Taurei vs. Bolg (the deformed second-in-command orc), Thorin fighting Azog the Defiler (the main orc leader), and the film even begins with Bard facing off against the enormous Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). Besides Smaug still being the coolest dragon that I’ve ever seen put on film, each creature has their own diverse look which helps make things more creative. There are orcs, trolls, and goblins fighting against elves, men, dwarves, and wizards. It helps that they don’t all blend into look-a-likes (which is what happens in the original LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy). The battle scenes kept me fully engaged and the suspense building to that breaking point was also very well done.

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The only two details that keep BATTLE slightly down from an A+ come in one distracting special effect that sticks out like a sore thumb and an annoying comic relief character. In the first third of the movie, an elf does something that comes off as very over-the-top and the special effect used looked like it might have worked back in THE TWO TOWERS, but doesn’t convince in 2014. Ryan Gage reprises his slimy role as the greasy-haired Alfrid is extremely annoying this time around. He and Stephen Fry provided a couple of good chuckles in DESOLATION OF SMAUG, but he’s just plain awful and tone-deaf in BATTLE. This character wasn’t bad enough to keep me from loving this film, but he was definitely a flaw.

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Though some people may rail on the excessive nature of BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES consisting of, well, one big giant battle that lasts for a long time, I thought this was a fitting conclusion to a solid fantasy saga. I can buy this as the last time that we’ll visit Middle Earth on film and am completely content with that. Peter Jackson provides a solid, entertaining, and epic fantasy film for one final time and I loved this movie!

Grade: A

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