Film Pop: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Year: 2013
Director:  Peter Jackson
Stars:  Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch (voice) et al.
IMDb

Yesterday for my birthday I was treated to a trip to the cinema to see The Desolation of Smaug, the second part of the big budget Hobbit trilogy.  Having only managed to catch 2012’s An Unexpected Journey a little over a month ago, I was well prepared for this two-and-a-half-hour journey into epicdom.

Following a Bree-based flashback, the film opens with Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Bilbo (Freeman), Thorin and the dwarves (Armitage et al.) fleeing from the goblin hordes before sheltering in the house of dwarf-hating shape-shifting smaugposterbear-man Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt).  Fortunately Beorn’s hate of dwarves is surpassed by his hate of orcs, so he protects the party and advises them that the only route they can take on their quest is through Mirkwood, the forest of the dwarf-hating elves (I’m sensing a pattern here).  Before entering Gandalf heads off on one of his characteristic mysterious quests, promising to meet up afterwards (pull the other one, wizard).  In the forest the elves, captained by the ever-popular Legolas (Orlando Bloom), help rescue the troupe from giant spiders but soon lock up the dwarves in their forest fortress.  Bilbo, by virtue of being able to turn invisible (some sort of magic, I suspect), evades capture as always and cunningly engineers everyone’s escape by floating them downriver in empty barrels, despite the combined efforts of elf and orc.  This is in fact the best sequence of the film, as we get to see the bloodbath everyone loves mixed with some beautifully choreographed scenes only made possible by dwarves in barrels.  They float to the mouth of a lake, and are smuggled into conveniently-named Laketown by the unpopular Bard (Luke Evans).  After winning over the  town, the dwarves make the journey to the Lonely Mountain minus the wounded Kili (Aidan Turner), caught in a love triangle between Legolas and she-Elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), his loyal brother Fili (Dean O’Gormann) and Bofur (James Nesbitt), who drank too much and overslept.  Thorin, driven by Boromir-esque greed, brings the others into the mountain to reclaim the Arkenstone from the great dragon Smaug (Cumberbatch), while Laketown is ambushed by orcs and Gandalf confronts the Necromancer (also Cumberbatch) in a duel he can never win and ends up trapped (sound familiar?).  The picture ends with Smaug heading off to wreak havoc on Laketown, just like Bard warned.

Of course as the middle film of a trilogy there are no real conclusions of any sort, but there’s enough action to stand the movie mostly on its own and the character development, notably absent in the first film, is admirable in the second.  Perhaps this is a vote in favour of stretching the novel into three movies, as it would be nowhere near enough time to devote to more than a couple of characters were this not the case.  This is seen particularly in the case of young dwarf Kili, and, unlike for example Frodo and Galadriel, Legolas’s reappearance is actually worthwhile.  The introduction of Lilly (another TV actress) as Tauriel, a character not really seen in the book, surprisingly adds a welcome softer element to a film that might otherwise have been too action packed (i.e. the previous film).  It still retains the moments of humour, mostly provided by Stephen Hunter’s Bombur and Stephen Fry’s Master of Laketown.

smaugfry
This Guy.

Overall it’s fair to say that it’s pretty pointless watching this film if you haven’t seen An Unexpected Journey and don’t plan to see next year’s conclusion, There and Back Again.  In fact, it’s a bit pointless reviewing the film at all because if you’re interested in the series you’re obligated to watch it and if you’re not then it’s a waste of (quite a lot of) your time.  But I think it’s a promising improvement on the first film, and I think the average Tolkien-lover will find The Desolation of Smaug very enjoyable, which I can definitely say I did.

My Rating:  8/10

Film Pop: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Year: 2011
Director: Stephen Daldry
Stars: Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock
IMDb

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the Oscar-nominated tale of a young boy coping in his own peculiar way with the death of his father in the September 11th attacks. Thomas Schell (Hanks) is always setting little challenges for his nine-year-old son Oskar (Horn) in order to teach him about life. After Thomas is caught attending a meeting in the World Trade Centre on “the Worst Day”, young Oskar is thrown into personal chaos, rejecting the affections of his mother (Bullock) to go on an epic adventure he believes his father intended for him. He is soon joined in his quest by his grandmother’s mysterious mute “renter” (Oscar nominee Max von Sydow), and the two journey throughout the five boroughs of New York in a seemingly impossible search for answers. They encounter a whole host of interesting characters (most of whom share the name Black) and learn a lot about life, each other and themselves.

It’s touching in parts, but a lot of the action seems unnecessary and perhaps the two-hour plus running time is a little too much for what it is. It’s also slightly annoying that, having no idea what the film was about beforehand, from the two names at the top of the DVD case I was expecting a little more Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. Instead I was made to sit through two hours of a somewhat annoying kid and this had me a little put out throughout. Nevertheless, despite the somewhat heavy subject matter the film displays an optimism in the face of adversity that can only serve to inspire even if it is a little hard to relate to some of the issues Oskar seems to struggle with.

This film marks the ninth of ten Best Picture nominees from 2011 that I’ve now seen, coming somewhere in the middle of a decidedly mediocre bunch (Midnight in Paris, the one I most wanted to see all along, has still managed to elude me and will probably let me down when the time comes). It was adapted from the novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, and as usual I haven’t read this (yet) so can’t pass judgement on that side of things. The theme of “child comes to terms with loss of parent” isn’t exactly an original one, but the approach is interesting and the emotive setting will certainly reach out to some perhaps more than it did to me.

So Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a little long and a little fantastical but I’d say it’s definitely one worth watching. At its best it’s highly moving, even if these moments are buried slightly too deep in dawdling drama, and at its worst it would be harsh to call it a bad film. Despite the feeling that I was tricked into watching it, it held my attention and came close to moving my emotions, which isn’t the easiest thing for a film to do. It’s not quite something I expect to watch again any time soon, but at least I don’t regret watching it in the first place.

My Rating: 6.5/10

Film Pop: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Year: 2012
Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage
IMDb

One word: Epic

Of course this film deserves more than a single word in summary, but if I had to give one word, it would be Epic.  Epic, however, should not necessarily be taken as positively as it suggests.

I should start by saying that although the book is one I read a number of times as a child and certainly enjoyed, it’s been a number of years since my eyes graced its pages (or should that be the other way round?).  I slip therefore between analysing the film on its faithfulness to the book, about which I may well be mistaken, the inevitable comparisons with the LOTR film trilogy, and on its own merit.  It’s hard as such to come at this film objectively, but I’ll try.

To begin with, I’m not sure I’ll ever be convinced of the necessity of three films (beginning with 2 ½ hours in the cinematic edition alone!) when the original trilogy (I feel like I’m talking about Star Wars now) was far longer in the books and gets essentially the same treatment movie-wise.  I feel like at least half an hour could have been portioned over to the extended edition without losing much in the way of plot (did I really have to see a mountain have a boxing match with itself for five minutes?).  And yet Bilbo’s stalling of the trolls, one of the more intelligent and funny scenes in the book is chopped down to almost nothing to squeeze in an unnecessarily long troll/dwarf skirmish.  Some of the homages to the first three films are at best overt and at worst ludicrous.  A scene in which Thorin and the Dwarves engage the Goblin army under Azog on the verges of Moria is basically the Last Alliance scene from Fellowship recast, right down to the pivotal Isildur/Sauron confrontation.

Some of the casting and characterisation of the film made me feel uneasy in a way that I can’t explain.  When Martin Freeman was cast as Bilbo I thought he sounded perfect.  And yet he, along with a number of the Dwarves, don’t make the transition from British sitcom actor to Hollywood blockbuster star all too smoothly.  Not that they don’t play their roles well.  It just seems a little amateurish at times.  A number of the original cast (Ian Holm, Ian McKellen, Christopher (freaking) Lee) weren’t young ten years ago, and I can’t put my finger on it but there’s definitely something wrong with Gandalf.  And nobody likes Frodo.

But don’t let this criticism disguise my enjoyment of the film.  I was smiling much of the way through the film, laughing often, and in awe most of the time.  However, I got the overwhelming impression that the filmmakers made the film into more of an action-packed blockbuster to reel in those caught by the hook of the LOTR trilogy, where the book (at least in my memory) is far more subtle and intelligent.  So although it wasn’t entirely what I wanted (but should have expected) from the film, I stand by my one word summary:

Epic.

My Rating: 7.5/10