Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

*** out of ****

I can’t really disguise my enthusiasm. Without any objectivity, I’ll geek-out out at the beginning of the review. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is pretty damn cool. Everything from the film’s opening - which features the familiar setting of “The Prancing Pony -Inn & Pub” - to three-hours later when a dragon is preparing to destroy a town – is filled with amazing production design and thrilling sequences. Even one of the movie’s dumbest sequences, in which the dwarves fend off vicious orcs as they roll down a white water river in barrels, had me amused.

In the second installment of this new trilogy, Bilbo Baggins (played by the excellent Martin Freeman) and the dwarves continue to evade the orc hunting party as they take the dangerous path through a dreadful forest where they are briefly taken captive by the woodland elves. After escaping, they are successful in a making their way to a town on a lake which is just shy of their final destination, The Lonely Mountain –where there is treasure and terror in store. Meanwhile Gandalf (Ian McKellen) parts from the group to find the powerful source of evil, which is beginning to spread through Middle Earth.   

This is a movie that is bound to take just as much criticism as the first Hobbit, for being a product of post-Avatar experience-cinema, where narrative strength takes a backseat to thrilling spectacle. It’s also hard to ignore the fact that this is a dark epic action odyssey based on a light-hearted children’s novel. There’s something a little messier about this series than the previous trilogy, but I look forward to having it in all in my Blu-ray collection to save for those days when I’m under the weather and desire nothing more than something lengthy, beautiful and mindless as I drift in and out of consciousness on the couch.

An issue I take with most of Peter Jackson’s films is something that a lot of action filmmakers don’t seem to understand: Showing characters survive impossible odds may seem fun, but the more they escape danger in one piece, the lower the stakes are. We need to feel afraid for them and if they’re invincible, we feel nothing.

I love Peter Jackson but like all excessive directors, his tendency to stretch things out has its ups and downs. Sometimes, special effects shots look less polished than others. His comic silliness can be successful just as much as it falls flat. New characters can add emotional strength or they can bore us. Throwing the character of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) into this story actually makes sense but his character overstays his welcome and would have been better as a cameo. The subplot involving the Elf-hero and a love-interest, Tauriel (the gorgeous Evangeline Lilly) is interesting but could have been scrapped for time.

What’s wrong with The Hobbit Trilogy is that it’s a trilogy and should have been one movie. An average person who goes to see it just wants to enjoy a simple adventure story. There are so many subplots in this film that I’m trying to figure what small percentage of the movie actually featured Martin Freeman as our title character. People may enjoy binge-watching an entire television season at home, but at the movies, they expect a more condensed design. This film’s anti-climax only frustrated the people who surrounded me in the theater -maybe more than the thirty-minute-climax of The Return of the King.

Like Jackson’s remake of King Kong, I like what it delivers, but I doubt the majority of the audience is as enthusiastic. If the studio really wanted to cash in, they could have tried simultaneously releasing a two-hour cut for impatient people and a three-hour cut for people like me, who just can’t get enough. Maybe the longer cut could have been reserved for the High Frame-Rate 3D version only. 

Speaking of HFR, I’m in awe of movies being shot at twice the motion quality of what we’re used to. At the same time, I fear that Jackson may have damned it by using this film series as its debut. My strongest opinion of HFR is that it creates a greater contrast between what is real and what is simulated. From digital effects all the way down to excessive camera movement, I feel hyper-aware of what is being controlled. HFR shines when the camera remains still and the content is authentically captured without special effects. I have not seen such potential for the advancement of cinema in all my life. I hope that it catches on and that it allows filmmakers to discover non-traditional approaches to shooting a movie. Believe me, like the last Hobbit movie, there are parts when it works wonderfully.

1 comment:

  1. Good review Bennett. Can't say that I'm utterly shaking in my shorts for the next movie, but I do hope it's as fun and as tense as it seems to be promised as being.