The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, while somewhat self-indulgent, is a better experience at the movies than the first Hobbit installment. It’s somewhat more intense, more cohesive as a story, and the acting has settled nicely.

That said, there’s a bit too much CG where there could have been creatively shot live action.

In any case, you will enjoy The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug if you liked:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Lord of the Rings trilogy
John Carter

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released December 13, 2013

Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro, based on the books by J.R.R. Tolkien

Directed by Peter Jackson

Starring Evangeline Lilly, Cate Blanchett, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, and Adam Brown

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Thorin (Armitage) and his dwarves (all those guys), along with Bilbo (Freeman) and Gandalf (McKellen) made their escape from the albino orc and have made it past the Misty Mountains. Now they have to continue their journey to the Lonely Mountain by first passing through the realm of the elves. These elves are led by Thranduil (Pace), an ancient elf who has murky motivations and at one point reveals that there is definitely something amiss in his world. In Thranduil’s realm are Tauriel (Lilly) and Legolas (Bloom), who appear to have a budding romance going.

The dwarves are taken captive by these elves, although Tauriel and Kili (Turner) seem to hit it off rather well. In fact, Tauriel feels the dwarves are being mistreated. Meanwhile, Bilbo was not taken captive, since he was invisible, and so he sets about freeing the dwarves.

At the same time, Gandalf is out trying to find out what’s going on with the necromancer (Cumberbatch) and get to the heart of what seems to be a defeated enemy’s renascent power.

Soon we get to the barrel escape, which is fun and exciting, particularly considering the addition of the orcs on the dwarves’ trail. Legolas and Tauriel get to join in the fighting, adding even more fun.

Eventually our merry group arrives at Lake Town, with the help of a smuggler named Bard (Evans), who might have a heritage he is hiding. As the dwarves finally get to the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo now has to find the gem that they have been seeking, while at the same time Bard is trying to keep his town safe from corruption and the evil dragon that he is sure the dwarves are going to wake in the Lonely Mountain.

Sure enough, Smaug (voice of Cumberbatch) awakes. After a truly excellent sequence in Smaug’s lair, which includes a great exchange between Smaug and Bilbo, Smaug is angered and then he heads out to go wreak havoc. The dwarves try to stop him, but– well, he’s a massive dragon.

The story pauses with Smaug’s emergence.

Critique

So, we’re back in Middle Earth– and honestly, that’s all that matters to many people. Truly, the production values and overall finely tuned experience is all kinds of fun and is exactly what most people want out of these movies.

Add in the great fight sequences, some very nice group dynamics, heroism, astonishing visuals, a great dragon, and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Peter Jackson in the opening scene– and you have a fun movie-going experience.

Is it as rich and satisfying as the Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies? No. Nothing can ever reach that level of power, storytelling, detail, emotional arcs, and character depth.

Does Jackson use CG too much when he could be shooting live action? Yes. There are a few scenes where you just want to see a real thing in your fantasy movie.

Do we want our elves to be less unbelievably kick-ass? Actually, yes. Legolas is a little god-like, which is clearly the intent, but some risk of failure would be great.

Are these movies a little too long? Yep. The power of the stories being told is lessened because of this indulgence.

That said, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug has enough going for it that the time passes without a problem. Action, fun characters, great attention to detail–

Plus, we’re back in Middle Earth.

Content warnings: Plenty of fantasy violence, mostly without gore.

Writing: 4          Acting: 5           Overall: 4.5

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Star Trek: Into Darkness

Star Trek: Into Darkness is very aptly titled. The title makes you wonder: is this flick going to be grim and challenging? Are difficult things going to test the mettle of our heroes? Or maybe the villain leads the entire universe into darkness.

Is it going to be as grim as The Dark Knight Rises?

The title might also be referring to the final scene as the crew set forth on a historical journey.

What is so splendid about Star Trek: Into Darkness is that it is very intelligently made, and the multi-layered title is simply a symptom of the delightful disease we call ‘smart and polished film-making.’

I loved this movie. You will too.

Here’s a trailer (as if you haven’t already seen every trailer for this flick):

The deets:

Released May 16, 2013

Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof. Based on the original TV show by Gene Roddenberry

Directed by J.J. Abrams

Starring Zoe Saldana, Alice Eve, Nazneen Contractor, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Noel Clarke, and Benedict Cumberbatch

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Kirk (Pine) and his crew on the Enterprise, Starfleet’s flagship vessel, have been out on missions for some time since the last time we caught up with him. Into Darkness opens with Kirk fleeing some natives of a distant planet, accompanied by Bones (Urban). They are trying to lure the natives out of the kill zone of an exploding volcano, but at the same time they must not violate the Prime Directive, which is to remain unseen and not alter the course of a society’s evolution.

Meanwhile, Spock (Quinto) is going to descend into the volcano with a high-tech fusion device that will stop the volcano from erupting. Piloting his shuttle is Sulu (Cho) and helping him prepare is his love interest, Uhura (Saldana).

They succeed, of course, in their mission, which it turns out was totally in violation of rules. Now Kirk is demoted and becomes first officer to his mentor, Pike (Greenwood). But there’s a bad guy named John Harrison (Cumberbatch) who seems to have it in for Starfleet, and Admiral Marcus (Weller) specifically. After Harrison commits some dastardly deeds, Kirk and his crew are sent to deal out retribution. But things are complicated, and Scotty (Pegg) finds he has to take a stand against some questionable technology– whereupon he resigns his post on the Enterprise, and Chekhov (Yelchin) must take his place.

As the quest to get Harrison begins, a new science officer shows up without being asked for. She is Carol (Eve) and she might know more about the questionable technology and John Harrison than she should.

A series of events take place, through which Kirk becomes uncertain of himself and where his loyalty really ought to be. Uhura has to face down some Klingons, and the crew of the Enterprise becomes stuck between two massively powerful enemies and they have to somehow stop the bad guys while saving lives.

And that’s all I can say without spoilers. But believe me when I say this is an intricate plot that surprises and delights.

Critique 

Star Trek: Into Darkness is not as fresh as the first one in this rebooted franchise. It’s not an origin story, but is instead a story about a bunch of people who have to reassess who they are and come to a greater understanding of what is important to them. It also handily positions the Enterprise and her crew for the next film in which they hopefully are doing actual exploration– as is their mission.

The script is nearly flawless, with the exception of two problems, both of which center on Carol. First is the idiotic underwear scene. Alice Eve is a beautiful woman and this scene is dumb. Second is her British accent, which is totally unexplained by the script. For a professionally trained linguist, this is irritating.

Other than those issues, the script takes the time to set up conflict, try-fail cycles, character development, and solid resolutions that satisfy. It’s an intricate plot that Kirk and his crew have to uncover and stop, but it all makes sense at the end.

One interesting tidbit is that some people will take issue with a Spock who is not quite as alien and dispassionate as he was played by Nimoy. This is true, but this is a different Spock in a different timeline who lost his ENTIRE PLANET. Get a grip, people.

The acting is great, with more being asked of Pine than to be a rogue and a brash hero. His scene after the devastating attack on the Starfleet Council is just excellent. Cumberbatch is wonderfully larger than life and is truly awesome in his iconic role. Simon Pegg gets to do a lot in this film as well, with his truly excellent Scotty being an unsung hero throughout the story. Karl Urban, again, is a surprisingly good Bones. Saldana adds some very nice, tough layers to Uhura that we only started seeing toward the end of the original Star Trek TV show’s run. Quinto is also a very good Spock.

The fact that these films have focused on the relationships, particularly the legendary friendship between Kirk and Spock is wonderful, and the actors have a great chemistry. This is an ensemble film and you might be surprised at how much is asked of characters who are not Kirk and Spock.

Now. There are a lot of explosions. Lots and lots. There’s a lot of physical conflict in this film. These explosions and this conflict are appropriate for a film that is about war and terrorism. This stuff isn’t glorified; it’s shown as ugly and devastating. Listen for the screams and confusion.

That said, the punches sound like thunderclaps, which will never stop irritating me.

You will laugh, cheer, and possibly even cry as you watch Star Trek: Into Darkness. It’s one of the best movies of 2013 and is a fitting sequel to the first one.

Content warnings: Some salty language and a bit of skin and sensuality. Plenty of scifi violence.

Writing: 5          Acting: 5          Overall: 5

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

A good friend said that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy should have been named “Painfully. Slow. Poorly. Explained.” I can easily see where he’s coming from, but my experience was so much different from his. I am a fan of espionage books, and I like John Le Carre. What’s more, I love nuanced and tight acting and I particularly love accurate depictions of old espionage, especially British style.

This movie gives me all of that, so I loved it. Here’s a trailer:


The deets:

Wide release on January 6, 2012 (Limited release a couple weeks earlier, I think to qualify for 2011 Oscars)

Written by (based on a book by John Le Carre): Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan

Directed by Tomas Alfredson

Starring: Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Ciaran Hinds, and Toby Jones.

*    *    *    *    *

Since this movie was released, albeit narrowly, in 2011, it is on my list of 2011 rankings. Incidentally, it is ranked at #12 for the year.

Story

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a spy film with zero explosions. It’s a thriller with about five gunshots. There are no six-pack abs, no bursting biceps, and one of the main, and best, characters is a terrified yet courageous gay man.

So you might guess that it’s not your normal spy movie. It is, some might say painfully, focused on accurately depicting the machinations involved in discovering who a mole is in British Intelligence at the height of the Cold War. It is slow moving, but that is an accurate portrayal of careful chess moves performed to try to not let the evil Soviet spies know what’s going on.

Essentially, the story follows George Smiley’s retirement and return. But the story is also secondary. Smiley is brought out of retirement to figure out who the mole is. He has to work around a new generation of zealous folks running MI6 (the Circus), and he also has to try to not let the Soviets know he’s onto them.

Critique

Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, a man forced into retirement, along with his boss, Control (John Hurt), after an operation goes very wrong and a star field agent is killed. This agent is Prideaux, played by Mark Strong, in the man’s easily most understated performance yet. He hits the ball so far out of the park with his performance that the ball might have achieved orbit.

Oldman’s performance is so plain, so humdrum, that you wonder if he’s acting. But then you remember his work in Harry Potter, and in the Dark Knight franchise, and you see he’s acting all right. He’s acting his socks off. Smiley is a deliberately plain man who has fought hard to rein his vanity, frustration, and fury in. He swims every morning in a murky looking river, maintaining an average shape. He wears plain business attire and keeps his voice under tight control. This deliberate personality-less-ness is wonderful and is cracked only when he gets new glasses. Watch closely! So good.

Then you have Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Toby Jones just taking your breath away with the depth of their acting. Colin Firth is so recognizable, so wildly loved from his Darcy work, that you will be surprised that you forget it’s him playing this part. He is a fine, fine actor. As is Toby Jones, who plays a sort of antagonist, but one that you understand and have no trouble empathizing with.

Then there’s Mr. Cumberbatch. His character is not made to be a field agent. But his loyalty and integrity will not let him not do his job. His scenes when he’s on assignment from Smiley are amazing.

What is wonderful about this movie is that the characters are so real, so present in the excellent production design, that you can’t tear your eyes away. And the mannerisms and insults and dialogue and things left unsaid are so honed, so very British, that I laughed and hooted and gasped.

I adored this film.

Watch for the toast. Really, watch for it.

Content warning: There is some nudity and far-off sexual activity. There is some matter-of-fact violence and blood and some language.

Writing: 5          Acting: 5          Overall: 5

Don’t believe me? See if my review matches those on Rotten Tomatoes.

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