The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug by Peter Jackson

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug by Peter Jackson

The dwarves, along with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey, continue their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, from Smaug the Dragon.

To start off, I am not a Lord of the Rings fan. I haven’t read any of Tolkien’s works and only have seen the Peter Jackson’s film trilogy once. I am, however, a Sherlock fan and originally elected not to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in silent protest of it delaying the third season of Sherlock for an entire year. A friend invited me to a free screening of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug two days before its premiere, so I quickly caught up with the previous installment and read up on the film’s production online to prepare for its sequel. So this is going to be a review of the first film too. Let’s crack on…

My biggest problem with An Unexpected Journey is it launched its story retrospectively from Lord of the Ringsstarting with an older Bilbo Baggins telling the story to Frodo Baggins just before the events of The Fellowship of the RingThe Hobbit is not a prequel, it was written first before Lord of the Rings. It’s the true “part one” and yet it’s being framed as if it was a prequel to a great trilogy. This effectively echoes throughout the two Hobbit films as I am constantly being reminded about what’s to come. It’s distracting and by association makes The Hobbit seem less important.

Whether it’s Peter Jackson’s completist approach to expand the story or a corporate decision from the financiers to cash in on the success of the LOTR trilogy, The Hobbit is too long.  Often the story takes big steps backwards before being able to move forwards. It took forty minutes in the first film to start the journey and for someone who is not coming in sheer excited fandom, the slow pace is a lot of work on the audience’s part.

This is the typical pattern of one story movement in The Hobbit series thus far: 1) An imminent crisis or problem faces our heroes  2) Backstory is given in context to our heroes to the crisis. 3) The group tries to persevere and just as they fail or are about to give up, Bilbo does something that solves the problem  4) The group rejoice about the pure spirit of Hobbits and how impressive it is, cue flute music 5) A new problem comes along. Repeat.

Throughout both films, I had an internal monologue that kept screaming, “Let’s go! Hurry up!”, as if I was watching someone play a video game at snail’s pace. Die-hard LOTR fans will say that I am wrong about this but it’s why those DVD extended editions exist. Even though we’ll never know, Guillermo Del Toro’s original idea of directing the The Hobbit as two films sounds better. But this is just something I’ll have to accept. That’s the extent of my issues because when The Desolation of Smaug is good, it is very good.

Martin Freeman is a great Bilbo Baggins. The role requires exactly what Freeman plays best: acting quizzical from being one mental step ahead of everybody but always feels socially awkward about pointing out the obvious. Freeman’s reactions are entertaining and overall I find Bilbo a much more engaging protagonist than Frodo; he gets things done.

Smaug the dragon is frightening. Benedict Cumberbatch injects an immense sense of threat and power into Smaug’s voice, combined with its gigantic size, creates a memorable movie villain for the ages. It was bone-chilling watching the dragon slither around in the dark, with the imminent feeling he can squash Bilbo at any moment. Hands down, the Smaug scene is the best scene in all five films so far.

The beautiful Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel is a welcome addition to the series. Despite of being Jackson’s creation, she is a well-rounded strong female character that adds a love story. Orlando Bloom returning as Legolas is neither her or there for me. He isn’t an interesting character and seems to exist for his fighting abilities. Both elf characters are unnecessary filler material, but make entertaining filler no less. The dwarves are more fleshed out in this installment, which is an improvement because there was nothing to distinct them apart from each other in the first film.

Another minor quibble I had was the decision of using CGI in the action scenes. The orcs are computer-generated and the action sequences look digitally layered and video game-like. They’re well designed and are well-paced action scenes. But the LOTR trilogy previously established a real world look with its use of  New Zealand landscapes and creature make-up, and I wonder why Peter Jackson decided to go with more CGI as it doesn’t match with the previous films.

Peter Jackson’s deep love for the material is felt throughout both films and this perhaps is the film’s most winning quality. After all, Jackson’s completist approach isn’t self-indulgent or obnoxious, but out of a genuine love, awe and wonder for Middle Earth and its mythology. It’s infectious and is probably the primary reason I was able to sit through the long running time.

Overall, I enjoyed The Desolation of Smaug more than An Unexpected Journey. There is less setup to be done, hence the story moves along much faster. And for that reason alone, I think I will enjoy There and Back Again even more when things begin to wrap up.

Colombiana by Olivier Megaton

Colombiana by Olivier Megaton

Colombiana by Olivier Megaton

Colombiana is another Luc Besson-produced action romp starring Zoe Saldana, directed by Olivier Megaton (the best director’s name ever).

The story: A young girl named Cataleya Restrepo’s (played by Zoe Saldana) parents are killed by mobsters in Colombia. She escapes to the United States and trains herself into an assassin with the help of her uncle Emilio (played by Cliff Curtis). Suffice to say, she exacts revenge on the Colombian mobsters.

There are ridiculous moments in the story that feign B-movie sensibilities but never goes extreme enough for it to register as funny to the audience. It throws the film off tonally. There’s a scene where a young Cataleya (played very nicely by young child actress Amandla Stenberg) pleads for her uncle Emilio to train her into an assassin. He agrees and registers her into an elementary school. She questions his actions, thinking he broken his promise. Uncle Emilio takes out a gun and unloads it into a car on the street until it crashes on the sidewalk. He turns to the young Cataleya and explains that to be an assassin, one must knows how the world works and the only way to learn that is in school. As he is saying this, the police are pulling into the street and interviewing bystanders about the accident. Cataleya and Uncle Emilio slowly walk away from the scene of the crime. Was I supposed to laugh at that? Or was that I supposed to be moved by Uncle Emilio’s mentorship on how to be an assassin? Shouldn’t assassins be discreet?

The editing is insanely frenetic, you end up getting a sum-up of the entire fight than experiencing the entire beats of an engagement. The action sequence that I really enjoyed was the one where Zoe Saldana makes a kill in a police station. She uses her slim frame to her advantage and that was a nice attempt to explain why an assassin might be that skinny. Even though that would be the only advantage when you stop to think about it.

Cataleya is a very determined but ultimately a very unlikable character. She is trying to avenge the death of her parents, but ends up doing something immoral in the third act that makes her come off more like a sociopath than a hero. The character lacked a moral code that was necessary for the audience to really engage with her. It was like if Batman threatened to kill a criminal’s parents in order to squeeze information out of him. What the movie supplants for character likability is that the film expects you to be  totally physically infatuated with Zoe Saldana. The film really hangs on that, which creates a very strong pornographic sensibility running beneath this film. There are many instances where Zoe Saldana is not wearing a brassiere and is “nipping” through her clothes and the cinematography is directed to gazing at her.

The love story between Zoe Saldana and Michael Vartan was unconvincing. She visits him in his artist studio apartment and they have sex. That’s the entire dynamic of their relationship. There’s a scene where he asks her to tell him something about herself and the film forces a deeper emotional connection that I did not buy. He tells a friend about her later in a cafe and can only describe her as “she has a great body, pretty face and I can’t stop thinking about her.” The film does not provide any humanity for Cataleya other than being very attractive and wanting revenge. The villains are not even developed either. Say what you will about Rambo 4, but the opening sequence in Burma where the soldiers bet on their prisoners walking across land mines made me hate them instantly. And that worked! This did not work, because I do not know the villains at all.

I am not the kind of guy that thinks a woman with a gun shooting people is equal to a strong woman. Having previously played  strong and much better written female characters (Uhura in Star Trek), Zoe Saldana really deserves something better. I liked the previous Luc Besson-produced action films such as Danny the Dog/Unleashed, Taken and yes, even From Paris with Love. They have done better than this in the past, so I can only say Colombiana was a bit of a miss.

On another note, I’m seriously considering legally changing my name to “Megaton”.