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Monday, 20 January 2014

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Directed by: Peter Jackson

Produced by: Carolynne Cunningham
Zane Weiner
Fran Walsh
Peter Jackson

Screenplay by: Fran Walsh
Phillipa Boyens
Peter Jackson
Guillermo del Toro

Based on: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Starring: Martin Freeman
Richard Armitage
Ian McKellen
Benedict Cumberbatch
Evangeline Lilly
Lee Pace
Luke Evans
Ken Stott
James Nesbitt
Orlando Bloom

Music by: Howard Shore

Cinematography by: Andrew Lesnie

Editing by: Jabez Olssen

Studio(s): New Line Cinema
WingNut Films

Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures

Release date(s): December 2, 2013 (Los Angeles, premiere)
December 13, 2013 (United Kingdom, New Zealand, United States)

Running time: 161 minutes

Country(s): New Zealand
United Kingdom
United States)

Language: English

Production budget: $600 million (also for An Unexpected Journey and There And Back Again)

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $834, 340, 000

Not much to say in the opening paragraph this time apart from all the usual shebang about what I am going to see in the cinema and on DVD before my reviews for the year go out. A lot to get through in Oscar season, catching up with both the major contenders and others from the whole of 2013. Also, at this stage, though whether or not you give a damn is another matter (I'm gonna tell you anyway), I've had a rather dreary day with a wretched cold, sneezing my lamps out with puffy eyes and an irritable nose at the best of times, so you'll have to excuse me if I make a mistake or what have you. Anywho, for all the latest and greatest in the movies, keep your eyes posted!

Excusing my cold, today's movie up for review is The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, the second of three parts comprising Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. I'll try to be relatively brief regarding the contextual details, but in my review for An Unexpected Journey (the first instalment), while admitting that it was still a very good film, had a number of criticisms regarding the movie and felt that though it was hardly the worst of the Middle-Earth motion pictures (that dubious honour must be bestowed upon The Two Towers), it still fell short of the greatness of The Fellowship Of The Ring and The Return Of The King. At the time, mainstream publications such as Empire and Total Film were giving An Unexpected Journey glowing reviews, and now, upon the release of The Desolation Of Smaug, which has had a far warmer reception, their publications are now saying things like "Middle-earth's got its mojo back" which, notwithstanding their gross rhetoric, are undercutting the work previously published under that banner. Yes, I know in both magazines there were different reviewers for each movie, but doesn't it seem a bit political that on both occasions the publications selected positive reviews for 'the big movie?' Anywho, I'll get down to a plot synopsis: following on from the events of An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Thorin Oakenshield's (Richard Armitage) company of elves are being pursued by an orc party, and take refuge in the house of Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a skin-changer who sometimes takes the form of a bear. It is here they discover they've to travel through Mirkwood in order to reach the Lonely Mountain and retrieve the Arkenstone from among the jewels of Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), but are diverted from their course when captured by a group of elves, led by Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). Shall we dance?

To start off with the good, I don't think there is any doubt at this stage in the game that between The Lord Of The Rings films and An Unexpected Journey that Middle-Earth is one of the most glorious and brilliantly depicted of all film worlds. The standard we've come to expect over the years and that won An Unexpected Journey two awards last year in my year-end award for Best Costume Design and Best Make-Up/Hair is continued on in this film. However, while there is a consistency to the look of this universe, there's enough in The Desolation Of Smaug to make it stand out. Personally speaking, I thought the creation of the lake town of Esgaroth was the real highlight, which is a little Venice by way of shanty town, full of life and movement bobbing around on the water. Also, Smaug's 'chamber,' if you will, in the Lonely Mountain is a thing of beauty, a fine example of what computer animation can contribute to a mise-en-scene if used properly. Speaking of Smaug, the overall realisation of this character, from the CGI, the sound design and the vocal and motion-capture talents of Benedict Cumberbatch are up there with the work previously seen by the designers and Andy Serkis on the character of Gollum. Weta Digital's work in visual effects has always been of a high standard, but never have they had to produce a character quite to the scale of Smaug, and boy is he here in all his sheer size and glory. Furthermore, what Benedict Cumberbatch does for the character is add another layer of three-dimensionality; Smaug slinks around Bilbo like a large feline playing with a mouse, rather enjoying himself and the anxiety he is inflicting on the poor hobbit before he decides to go in for the kill. Vocally, Cumberbatch gives Smaug this regal quality, with a highly eloquent and witty diction that could make you imagine the dragon reading Shakespeare's soliloquies if he didn't spend much of his spare time wallowing in his treasures. In these scenes too, Martin Freeman really shines in his awkward attempts to charm the beast. Stumbling upon his words with a palpable breathlessness, Freeman is an engaging protagonist who wills us into engaging with the material. Welcome additions to the film include Stephen Fry, humorous as ever in the part of the dirty old slug that is the Master Of Lake-town, and Evangeline Lilly, who plays the character of the elf Tauriel, an original creation for the film series. Lilly is a fine actress carrying a real strength to the parts that she plays. As a performer, both from the physical sense of the choreography and the story, she fits right into the thick of things. Although parodied in the song Who The 'Ell Is Tauriel (which could be set to be the new They're Taking The Hobbit's To Isengard), I think that the character is a welcome addition to the franchise. Speaking of the story, I felt that the script this time round was much stronger than that of it's predecessor. Not bogged down with the basil exposition that took up SOOOO much of An Unexpected Journey, and apart from a short prologue involving Gandalf and Thorin, we are just thrown into the thick of it, and structurally the story is a lot tighter. Though doubtless it abides by the basic three-act model, it is done appropriately, the whole movie essentially being a buildup to the third act, which, for all the visual effects and splendour of Smaug, is rather low key and more or less just a dialectical jest between Freeman and Cumberbatch. Other aspects of the movie that are praiseworthy include the score by the mighty Howard Shore. Shore, who last year went into my Hall Of Fame for his work over the years, has always been and remains to be a composer who understands the central thrust and heart of a story, and the music here is no exception. Another point I'd like to mention is the cinematography by Andrew Lesnie and it's relation to the forty-eight frames per second frame rate. When the first movie came out there was a lot of groaning about how the movie looked like a video game, and now many critics are going back on their word, the 'improved' look more or less an admission to saying the film looked good in the first place and they've got used to it. I thought that this, like An Unexpected Journey, is a splendid looking movie, and that the 'high frame rate,' as it's being popularly marketed, gives it a look that is visually distinct from The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, so, thank you and shush! Also, the stunts and choreography in the movie are terrific. It was a great pleasure to see the dwarves' escape from the wood elves in empty wine barrels (one of my favourite sequences in the book) done with such gusto. It's one of those scenes that encapsulates The Hobbit and what's so good about the material: not only is it a great adventure, but it's also highly humorous. With this instalment, Peter Jackson has delivered a much tighter, more efficient and less distracted film, dictating the tangibles that come with the source text with real confidence and flair. By the end of the film, which is the best cliffhanger I've seen in a franchise film since Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part One, I was gripped and my heart skipped a beat as the film closed on the real note of uncertainly and expectation for the climactic instalment.

Now, as you can tell, I loved this instalment of The Hobbit film series. However, I would be amiss in saying that it is a masterpiece, great as it is. The central issue of detraction from the film is the fact that like the previous film I still haven't got a real feel for the characters of the dwarves. It's unfortunate, but when you look at how they juggled the wonderful characterisation of the nine members of The Fellowship and how you cared for each and every one of them, how you got a feel as to just who and what they were, you can't say the same for this bunch of vagabonds. Aside from Thorin, Dwalin and Balin, I couldn't tell you who any of the other dwarves are apart from the fact that one of them is played by Jimmy Nesbitt and another is implied into a sort-of love triangle situation with Legolas and Tauriel. Speaking of Legolas, this was a character whose absence I can't say was missed, and with the returning Orlando Bloom, who plays the part as rather two-dimensional and bland, I remembered why I didn't miss the character. At least Aragorn and Gimli had charisma!

Well, as with the last film, The Desolation Of Smaug certainly gave me a lot of food for thought and there was a lot on my mind regarding the movie. As I mentioned, I would be amiss in saying I didn't find the same problems with the characterisations of the dwarves as I did the first time round, with only two or three (including leader Thorin) getting any real depth, and while I'm sure some salivated at the prospect of a returning Orlando Bloom, I was not one of them. However, The Desolation Of Smaug is a fine film, another testament to the monumental achievement of Peter Jackson's loving depiction of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth, one of the most wonderfully realised of all film worlds. Weta Digital's visual effects are splendid, and works brilliantly with Benedict Cumberbatch's interpretation of the dragon Smaug. Also, like the last one, Howard Shore's score and Richard Lesnie's cinematography help contribute to the atmosphere of the film. Structurally too, the story is a lot stronger and tighter, with the ending being timed perfectly and being one of the best I've seen in a franchise film. Finally, while not quite at the upper echelon of the Middle-Earth film saga, Peter Jackson ensures that The Desolation Of Smaug is a welcome and distinctive addition to the tale.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.4/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Stuffy (my nose is doing my 'ed in!)

P.S. Speaking Ed, Mr. Sheeran's single written for the film, I See Fire, is a fine piece of work in it's own right, and is one of the best songs I've heard in a film from 2013.

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