The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Review

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Unless you’ve been chained up in the dungeons of Barad-dûr for the majority of the year, you’ve no doubt been assaulted by ads for the newest entry into The Hobbit franchise, The Desolation of Smaug. After an exhaustive press tour, a myriad of online fan events, and carefully timed sneak peeks, the film was released in December, becoming one of the 50 highest-grossing films of all time. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why.

Peter Jackson returns to helm this second installment of the trilogy, along with an ensemble cast including Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, and Richard Armitage. Jackson wants The Hobbit in it’s entirety to be an epic on a grand scale, but all he seems to be able to accomplish is the visual aspect of that goal. When An Unexpected Journey was released in 2012, a big hubbub was made about it having been shot at 42 frames per second as opposed to the more mainstream 24 frames per second. From the instant that fact was announced, we all should have known that The Hobbit, as a franchise, would be one when emphasized style over substance. But more on that in a moment.

Joining the fray this time around are Orlando Bloom, reprising his role as Legolas from the original Lord of the Rings films, and Evangeline Lilly as willowy Elven warrior, Tauriel.   As far as the acting is concerned, if you’ve seen one of Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, you’ve seen them all. Elves do the typical Elven thing; that is, communing with the forest and delivering noble monologues while staring wistfully into the camera. Dwarves, conversely, are all gruff manly-men who hate the Elves. The only real sign of newness that we’ve got here is a budding romance between Tauriel and Kili, played by Aidan Turner, though it’s hard to get invested when both characters have the charisma of kitchen appliances and share a tiny amount of screen time.

I said a moment ago that The Desolation of Smaug is a film more concerned with flashy visuals than engagement on a narrative level, and that sentiment becomes abundantly clear in this movie, even more so than its predecessor. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the CGI gets downright embarrassing in parts, and more importantly, it’s pretty distracting. I feel kind of insulted, really. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was nothing short of a visual masterpiece, and I can’t imagine what would compel Jackson change up his tried and true formula in favor of something vastly worse. Absolutely no one was chomping at the bit for 42 FPS and the apparently shitty CG that comes with it. Now, while I can appreciate Jackson’s desire to innovate, I can’t help but feel that that innovation was added solely so he could skimp on content while still delivering a debatably engaging final product. You know what this movie is? It’s a sightseeing tour of all the wonderful places in Middle-Earth with a sign at each one which reads “The ensuing battle must be *this* exciting to continue.”

Speaking of engaging, that’s really my main problem with The Desolation of Smaug. There’s not nearly enough substantive content to fill this two-and-a-half hour long movie. Instead, Jackson chose to fill the intervening time with battle scenes that are drawn out mercilessly. Ultimately, they end up fading into an incomprehensible miasma amid all the samey, frenetic action that’s crammed into the film. What this essentially means is that about 45 minutes of every hour could be removed and the plot would have progressed just as far.

Bizarrely, Jackson tries to splice a completely unrelated storyline into the already flat narrative in the hopes of padding out the movie even more. I’ll provide a warning for SPOILERS here, if the review thus far has convinced you how badly this movie needs to be a part of your life. In Tolkien’s appendices to his novel, Return of the King, he explains that Gandalf left Bilbo and the Dwarves to travel alone and unaided through the forest of Mirkwoord while he himself investigated a growing threat at the ancient fortress, Dol Guldur. The film diverges into a completely irrelevant and tedious descent into the fortress, where Gandalf is confronted by the Necromancer, whereupon another interminable, prosaic action sequence takes place. But to what end? We know that eventually Gandalf must eventually rejoin the Dwarves’ party and we’ve get very little payoff for that particular story arc. To me, it’s all such a blatant attempt at padding an otherwise emaciated story that I feel a little taken advantage of.

It seems to me that Jackson takes for granted that we’re invested in The Hobbit franchise for the long haul- and to a certain extent he’s right. That does not, however, give him a legitimate excuse to make a flashy but ultimately hollow film. Jackson is no doubt waiting for the final installment to bring out the big guns, and maybe the final installment, There And Back Again, will finally be the Hobbit film we’ve all been waiting for.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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World War Z Review

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Understandable, it was hard to get excited about this movie.  Between all the pre- and post-production woes this movie has faced, the multiple last minute script rewrites, and the general trend of terrible summer blockbusters, World War Z was sure to be another in a long line of disappointments.  Imagine my surprise as it proved to be not only a perfectly competent and well-plotted film, but also one of the better films I’ve seen all year (take this with a grain of salt, as this speaks more to how terrible everything else has been this year than how good World War Z is).  Though World War Z has its weaker moments, mostly issues of plot and quality of acting, it is in many ways a fantastic summer blockbuster, and a very pleasant surprise.

Gerry (Brad Pitt) recently quit his somewhat hazardous job as a UN investigator to spend more time with his wife and two daughters.  However, Gerry is forced to flee New York with his family after witnessing the zombie apocalypse first hand.  After agreeing to help escort a scientist to Korea in hopes of finding a cure, Gerry is sent on a journey across the globe to investigate the widespread effects of the zombie outbreak.

World War Z is based on a Max Brooks novel of the same name, and while I haven’t read the book, it is essentially a compilation of short stories from survivors of the zombie apocalypse. The film is not a straight adaptation of the book, in order to deal with the fact that the novel does not have a narrative through-line; World War Z is a kind of adventure story putting one central character in a number of situations contained within the novel.  It sort of makes the movie a compelling story about globetrotting in order to figure some kind of solution out to the zombie epidemic.  It also adds an interesting element of global politics to the story as Gerry sees different nations handling the outbreak in different ways.

Even with its issues, the film still ranks among one of the best of the summer and is a very competent piece of zombie fiction.  Though perhaps not as memorable as some of the more “purist” zombie flicks, it’s certainly not plagued by the same gaping plot holes as many of the movies this summer; for that characteristic alone, it definitely merits a recommendation.

Rating: 4 out of 5

 

Poster courtesy of Chris Garofalo.

Much Ado About Nothing Review

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Experience has taught us that pulling off contemporary Shakespeare adaptations are phenomenally hard to do as evidenced by the device opinions on both Baz Lurhman’s Romeo and Juliet and Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus. This week, Joss Whedon of Avengers fame steps up to the metaphorical plate as he tackles Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing.

Several things are remarkable about Much Ado About Nothing purely from a production standpoint. For instance, the film was shot entirely at Whedon’s personal estate in Santa Monica, California. Additionally, and due in part to the very intimate scale of the production, filming was completed in just under two weeks- a remarkable timeframe- during Whedon’s contractually obligatory vacation after post-production of The Avengers. 

The film is beautifully directed, and one can tell that Whedon approaches the story with incredible enthusiasm. As is the case with much of Shakespeare’s work, the tempo of the piece is hugely important. Whedon proves that he has a clear vision of not only what the piece is supposed to look like, but he also gives special attention to the rhythm and the beauty of the spoken word. His actors, for the most part, do a masterful job of giving special emphasis to the language of the piece and the many complex and sometimes subtle exchanges between characters.

Starring an ensemble cast and featuring the talents of Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond and Fran Kranz, the film is a beautiful looking, light-hearted comedy with a fanciful, pseudo-noir feel. The trifecta of Denisof, Gregg and Kranz steal every scene they’re in and bring a fundamentally human element to Shakespeare’s sometimes unintelligibly highbrow dialogue. Performances were generally exceptional all around and were only dimmed by the only slightly stilled portrayals of the antagonists, Don John and Borachio.

I’ve heard it said that the style of the film- black and white with some chic and jazzy aesthetics- did nothing to serve the narrative and ultimately detracted from the experience. My thoughts, however, are the opposite. To me, it seems as though Whedon’s choice of a monochromatic color scheme is intended to allow the audience to focus more on the language and dialogue of the piece, rather be distracted by the set dressing. Speaking from my own personal experience, Shakespearian dialogue is often devilishly hard to understand, especially when we’re being introduced to new characters. Another possible reason for the aesthetic choices are to establish a tone of semi-fantasy- almost to a degree of magical realism. If you’re unfamiliar with the plot of Much Ado About Nothing, you’ll find that some pretty incredible things end up happening- things that might make more sense within the context of a sort of fanciful, magical world. Therefore, I believe Whedon’s choice was not only innovative, but practical as well.

I understand that the prospect of sitting through a two hour, black and white production filled with Shakespearian dialogue may be off-putting for some viewers, but I assure you that your fears are unfounded. Whedon’s interpretation of this classic comedy is smart, fun, expertly paced, beautiful looking, brilliantly acted, and genuinely funny. Much Ado About Nothing has made it’s way, quite unexpectedly, to my top films of the year and fully deserves and resounding recommendation.

Rating 4.5 out of 5