Jackson gets his groove back with Hobbit 2: The Smauggening

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

hobbit-posterThe Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Galaxy (opens Friday 13)
4 out of 5

Unlike Peter Jackson’s previous Tolkien trilogy, The Hobbit has raised many eyebrows. Sure, the public is still buying tickets in droves, but more than a few critics have suggested that turning the rather thin prequel to The Lord of the Rings into a full-blown trilogy was an act of greed rather than artistic necessity.

The first film supported that belief. A lengthy, unexciting slog with a large segment dedicated to dwarves having breakfast, An Unexpected Journey was a dicey proposition at best. And Jackson’s 48 frames-per-second ploy didn’t add much to the adventures of Bilbo and co. — it mostly made the movie look off-puttingly plastic.

But somehow, everything comes together in the second film, The Desolation of Smaug: the 48-FPS hyperrealism allows for unbelievable detail, the unwieldy fellowship becomes sturdier and every new addition to the cast is a positive one. Even the saga’s MacGuffin, the Arkenstone (a great jewel shaped long ago by the dwarves) — which initially seemed like a pretty weak excuse to justify the journey — leads to a meditation on the value of a life over attaining power and riches.

En route to the Lonely Mountain, home to the evil dragon Smaug (who stole the Arkenstone), Bilbo Baggins, Thorin Oakenshield and the rest of the dwarves have a run-in with the wood-elves, including Legolas (Orlando Bloom). The elves won’t support Thorin’s quest to restore the Kingdom under the Mountain, but they can’t prevent one of their own, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), from becoming smitten with one of the adventurers.

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) demonstrates his value time and time again as a burglar, but has little idea that his ultimate purpose is to steal the Arkenstone from Smaug. And Gandalf (Ian McKellen) isn’t there to help, either — he’s occupied with the Necromancer, who’s responsible for the multitude of orcs the travellers have been facing.

The scene where Bilbo and Gandalf face their nemeses (Smaug and Sauron respectively) — in parallel confrontations and with the odds stacked against them — is easily the most thrilling moment of the franchise so far. The visuals that accompany the introduction of Sauron are a testament to Peter Jackson’s inventiveness. He’s uniquely skilled at mixing CGI and practical effects, but that’s nothing compared to his knack for creating worlds: the woodland realm and Laketown feel real and lived-in (as opposed to Asgard in Thor, for example).

But the real star of the Hobbit is Smaug. The dragon has to be the most complex creature ever created for cinema (Spielberg’s dinosaurs look like crayon drawings next to this fire-breathing monster), and the motion-capture performance and slithery voice of Benedict Cumberbatch make Smaug simultaneously threatening and seductive. (It’s also a kick for Sherlock fans to see Martin Freeman and Cumberbatch facing each other in radically different circumstances.)

The Desolation of Smaug hits the ground running and offers few opportunities to catch a breath throughout. As a Peter Jackson movie it’s of course unnecessarily long, but for a flick without a beginning or an end, it’s quite a triumph.


Apocalypse Emo

howilivenowHow I Live Now
Opens December 13 Rainbow Cinemas Studio 7
3.5 out of 5

Two promising artists in dire need of a comeback converge in How I Live Now, a depressing young adult drama that might actually appeal to grownups, unlike those unbearable romps with daylight vampires. Once a promising teenage actress (Atonement), Saoirse Ronan has found herself in a rut. After consecutive projects bombing (The Host) or not even released in theatres (Violet and Daisy), it was fair to wonder if she would go away as suddenly as she appeared.

Director Kevin McDonald wasn’t having a good time either. While his movies have been uniformly solid (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play), McDonald doesn’t have a single hit to his name, and funding is bound to dry up with a record like that.

Surprisingly, the gritty McDonald and the prim Ronan are a perfect match for How I Live Now. The world faces a new global conflict and Europe is set to be destroyed. The dramatic events barely register with Daisy, an American teenager whose noise-cancelling headphones seem an extension of her body. The girl religiously follows a list of self-imposed rules she believes will help her improve herself (drink seven glasses of water, avoid gluten and dairy, don’t look too interested).

Stuck in a cottage with her British cousins for the summer, Daisy slowly comes out of her OCD shell and falls in love, just in time for all hell to break loose. The countryside is occupied by the military while threatened by unseen forces, and Daisy is forced to take charge of her younger relatives.

How I Live Now tackles the matter in realistic fashion. The film is particularly good at portraying the impact of war on teenagers, but the broader context is never made clear and the lack of answers (partially determined by the budget) becomes frustrating. That said, as love stories go, millennials could do (and have done) much worse. /Jorge Ignacio Castillo


Burn Bridges Burn

llewyn-davisInside Llewyn Davis
Coming Soon
4 out of 5

Following the most commercially successful film of their careers (True Grit), the Coen brothers come back with a very niche drama. Set against the ’60s folk scene in Greenwich Village, Inside Llewyn Davis is a character-driven drama in which the lead is basically a black hole.

Llewyn Davis (a career-making turn by Oscar Isaac) is a man ahead of his time. Folk music is about to explode thanks to the likes of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary, but for now, Davis can barely make a living. His lifestyle involves taking gigs in cavernous clubs and couch-surfing between shows. But in spite of his precarious situation, the singer/songwriter is continually burning bridges — meaning the number of available sofas is falling at an alarming rate.

He’s not without talent, but Davis isn’t a good person. He’s impregnated the wife (Carey Mulligan) of one of his hosts and now is trying to finance her abortion. Davis sees people as little more than a means to an end (and may or may not have been involved in his musical partner’s suicide).

But the Coens make us care for this unsavoury character — inspired by real-life folk singer Dave Von Ronk — with the assistance of great songs by T-Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford, and a terrific supporting cast. Isaac, meanwhile, delivers a perfectly calibrated performance as a man just gifted enough to prevent others from giving up on him, but who overplays his hand.

The film is also gorgeous to look at, as the perpetually overcast cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Dark Shadows) enhances the inhospitable environment Davis faces. Perhaps Llewyn’s own lack of passion leaks into the movie — preventing it from becoming an instant classic — but it’s still a must-see. /Jorge Ignacio Castillo