"The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" (PG-13) ***(out of four)
The end of the road has finally come for Peter Jackson and the big-screen versions of J.R.R. Tolkien's tales with "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies," a crowd-pleasing final chapter in the impressive six-film Middle-Earth saga that began with "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" in 2001.
Picking up at the cliffhanger ending to 2013's "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," "The Battle of the Five Armies" sears through the final half of fiery conflict with the dragon, Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch), a scorching scene that merely sets up the epic battle that the title promises. "Battle" largely examines dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield's (Richard Armitage) descent into madness and blind thirst for riches, leading to the ultimate standoff involving Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), as well as dwarves, elves and humans against bloodthirsty legions of orcs heading toward the riches-filled Lonely Mountain.
"The Battle of the Five Mountains" continues the welcome, energetic momentum of "The Desolation of Smaug," which was a vast improvement over the underwhelming first chapter in the trilogy, "An Unexpected Journey." Jackson throws everything on the table for his Tolkien swan song, including a breathtaking 45-minute mother of all battle scenes which, not surprisingly, features the best visual effects of the trilogy.
Not lost among the chaos, thankfully, are memorable performances by Armitage, Ian McKellen as Gandalf (the only character to be featured in all six films), Christopher Lee as Saruman, and Lee Pace as the elven king Thranduil. Also welcome is the luminous Cate Blanchett in a cameo as Galadriel and the always great Freeman – even though it feels as if Bilbo's role has been diminished among the mega-cast of characters.
The most pleasant surprise of the film is the introduction of Dain Ironfoot (the hilarious Billy Connolly), the dwarf cousin of Thorin who rides headlong into the climactic battle in rip-roaring fashion to help save the day.
While "The Battle of the Five Armies" is sure to impress its younger demographic new to the Tolkien big-screen experience, it'll probably feel like old hat for those enthralled by "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy in theaters in 2001, 2002 and 2003. As likable as the characters are in "The Hobbit" trilogy, they're really just not as "precious" (as Gollum would say) as the ensemble of the classic "Rings" trilogy. As wonderful as the film saga has been, it's time for a new set of movie tales to rule them all.
"A Night at Museum: Secret of the Tomb" (PG) 3 stars (out of four)
Ben Stiller returns as a night security expert of a museum where all artifacts come to life with "Secret of the Tomb," the third and perhaps final installment in the "Night at the Museum" series, at least with Stiller's involvement, it seems.
Stiller returns as Larry Daley, who discovers after a disastrous fundraising event involving his lively museum exhibits that the magic is wearing off. It turns out that the Golden Tablet of Pharaoh Akhmenrah – which has the power to bring the exhibits to life at night – is eroding, causing the the likes of Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher) and the mischievous capuchin, Dexter (Crystal the Monkey), to behave very strangely.
After finding out from Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek), that the Egyptian prince's father, Merenkahre (Ben Kingsley), can help preserve the tablet, Larry embarks with his son (Skyler Gisondo) and a crate of prized exhibits on a trip to a London museum to consult the elder – only to run into a whole new set of problems spearheaded by the newly-awakened exhibit of Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens).
While "Secret of the Tomb" never quite captures the charm of the original "Night at the Museum," it's still a vast improvement over the disappointing "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian." The cast of regulars – which also includes Ricky Gervais, Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan – are at their charming best, and a surprising cameo elevates the movie to new heights in its final act. "Pitch Perfect" star Rebel Wilson is also a brilliant addition to the cast as the London equivalent to Larry's night security guard, and will no doubt lead the cast if director Shawn Levy decides to direct a fourth "Museum" film.
Despite its laughs and family-friendly action and adventure, "Secret of the Tomb" is ultimately a bittersweet affair, given that it's Williams' final screen performance. Expect to shed some tears as Williams bids farewell to Stiller near the end of the film, which sadly in a way, feels like he's saying goodbye to us, too. Make sure to stick around for the end credits for a dedication to Williams, words that couldn't ring any more true given the mystical subject matter of the movie.
"Annie" (PG) 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
You're gonna find out (tomorrow, or whenever you see it) that "Annie" – the time-honored musical updated by director and co-writer Will Gluck – is creatively re-imagined for its day. Assembling a diverse cast that includes Jamie Foxx, Quvenzhane Wallis, Cameron Diaz and Rose Byrne, Gluck, for the lack of better words, has created one harmonious film.
While the tunes throughout the film are the same ones that fans know and love, Gluck has no doubt shaken up the narrative of "Annie," changing the setting from a depression-era orphanage to an modern-day apartment in Harlem where Annie (Wallis) and a small group of young girls live as foster kids under the hap-hazard guidance of Hannigan (Diaz), a boozing, mean-spirited, former '90s pop star.
Also gone from the original tale, at least in name, is Daddy Warbucks -- and in his stead is a billionaire cell phone magnate, Will Stacks (Foxx), a clumsy, but well-intended tycoon who is also making a bid for New York City mayor. Suffering in the polls, Stacks' popularity skyrockets when by accident when he saves Annie from getting hit by a car on a busy city street.
Seen as a game-changer by Stacks' shrewd campaign manager, Guy (a delightfully slimy Bobby Cannavale), the mayor wannabe is reluctantly talked into being a temporary foster parent for Annie in order to gain the public's favor, only to come to realize that he really does care for the young girl.
An Oscar nominee for "Beasts of the Southern Wild," Wallis more than carries "Annie" on her 11-year-old shoulders, proving that her success was definitely no Hollywood fluke. She not only has great chemistry with Foxx – who nails his bumbling billionaire role – but the infectiously sweet Byrne, who brings even more heart to the film as Grace, Stacks' lonely business advisor. Diaz is the film's weak link in an over-the-top performance as Hannigan, although once the character begins to get her priorities straight, her shtick becomes much more tolerable.
While "Annie" is meant to make you laugh, have you hum along to the tunes and get your toes tapping in the aisles, get ready to break out some tissues, too. "Annie," no matter what time period it's set in, is a sweet and poignant story that never seems to have trouble capturing your heart.
Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for BringMeTheNews, “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.