THE first instalment of The Hobbit felt like the cinematic equivalent of taking a long walk off a short pier.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Benedict Cumberbatch
* * *
Giving JRR Tolkien’s slender, single-volume children’s adventure the same epic treatment that he gave his mammoth adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson plunged us all into a sea of extraneous detail that drowned any storytelling momentum and cast Bilbo (winningly embodied by Martin Freeman) adrift in his own story.
But having taken the 11th-hour decision to transform what was supposed to be a two-part adaptation into a trilogy, Jackson does at least get things moving quickly with The Desolation of Smaug. Casual viewers may still have to take it on faith that that the epic length (this one clocks in at around two hours and 40 minutes) is going to prove justified in the end, but at the very least, Jackson places a higher premium on action and adventure than washing dishes and singing songs this time round.
Kicking off with a brief prologue that beautifully distils the plot of An Unexpected Journey into a couple of lines of dialogue (thus negating the need to ever watch it again), Jackson cuts to the chase almost immediately by rejoining Bilbo, Gandalf and the Dwarf army as they continue their quest to reclaim the kingdom of Erebor from the fire-breathing dragon whose desolation of the surrounding landscape has provided this film with its subtitle. Of course, that’s also a bit of a tease and it’s a while yet before we’ll get even a glimpse of Smaug.
But as a desperate rush to outrun a ursine “skin-changer” (the sometimes-bear/sometimes-human Beorn) results in Bilbo and co soon facing off against the giant spiders of the black forest of Mirkwood (a magnificently trippy set-piece that recalls the spider pit sequence from Jackson’s excellent King Kong remake), the film proves that this kind of fantasy storytelling doesn’t have to comprise long-winded scenes of po-faced exposition.
It also helps that Freeman is given a little more to do this time out. For the first half at least, the dramatic tension generated during his earlier confrontation with Gollum is sustained as the Ring begins to exert its seductive power over Bilbo. Here, Freeman clearly relishes the chance to go a little darker. An early exchange with Gandalf shows how reluctant he is to share the knowledge of the Ring’s existence and Freeman’s transformation from the fastidious hobbit of old to someone who is struggling to control his darker impulses adds to the portentous atmosphere of the film as a whole.
That said, even though Bilbo is a more active participant in his own story, once again there comes a point in which the film becomes all about Thorin (Richard Armitage), the dwarf king-in-waiting. Indeed it’s Thorin who drives much of the action. His quest brings his mini-army of followers into contact with the Elves of the Woodland Realm, and also leads them eventually to Lake-town, a frosty, water-bound dump that looks like Venice after a nuclear winter (it’s lorded over by an amusingly oily Stephen Fry).
Gandalf, meanwhile, absents himself from this quest and reteams with hallucinogen-addled wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) to investigate dark rumblings involving an Orc army and a shadowy Necromancer. These scenes see Jackson forging further links with The Lord of the Rings, something he reinforces elsewhere with the re-introduction of Orlando Bloom’s impetuous Elvin prince, Legolas.
All of this ensures the action never lets up, so much so that by the time Smaug does finally make an appearance it’s both a treat and a slight disappointment. Voiced by a deliciously malevolent Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug looks and sounds magnificent, but it’s as if Jackson’s determination to prevent the film’s other characters from monologuing for the duration of the film has resulted in Smaug being unable to stop flapping his gums. Verbally jousting with Bilbo and Thorin instead of simply frying them to a crisp, he doesn’t half blow a lot of hot air for a literal fire-eater.
That said, when fiery battle does commence (within the cavernous halls of Erebor), it’s stunningly rendered. Indeed, throughout the film Jackson reminds us why he’s such a great showman. One action set-piece, featuring Bilbo, Thorin and the rest of the dwarves escaping from the Elves in some barrels, is on a par with the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers and the T-Rex smack-down in King Kong. Indeed, as they crash and bob their way down some fierce white water rapids, it feels oddly symbolic of the way Jackson is no longer treading water.
Directed by: Spike Lee
Starring: Josh Brolin, Samuel L Jackson, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley
Ever since remake rights for Park Chan-wook’s Cannes-winning revenge movie were sold a decade ago, the prospect of an American version making it into cinemas without its demented story being softened seemed unlikely – and so it proves. Spike Lee might pile on oodles of ultra-violence, but he tries to make the sick twist at the heart of the film more palatable with a redemptive ending out of kilter with its South Korean source material.
His one vaguely interesting choice is casting Josh Brolin as the film’s pathetic, alcoholic protagonist, Joe Doucette. In the early scenes, Brolin riffs on his turn in W., playing Doucette as a debauched, better-looking version of George W. Bush in his frat-house days. Thenceforth the film makes a hash of translating the strangeness of Park’s film to an American setting. Samuel L Jackson is terrible as the proprietor of the private prison where Doucette is incarcerated, and District 9’s Sharlto Copley is even worse as the billionaire nut-job determined to mess with Doucette’s head.
The Broken Circle Breakdown (15)
Directed by: Felix Van Groeningen
Starring: Johan Heldenbergh, Veerle Baetens, Nell Cattrysse
* * *
Jumping back and forth between two different time periods, this Belgian effort uses the local bluegrass scene as a backdrop for a tale of familial angst in which a couple’s relationship is tested by terrible tragedy. Johan Heldenbergh (adapting his own play) stars as Didier, a musician who falls for tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens) over their shared love of music.
Their lives, like their voices, seem in harmony, but when their child is diagnosed with cancer, things go out of tune. The film goes to great lengths to avoid being as manipulative as its set-up could have been, particularly given the drama hinges on the health of a young child. Nevertheless, as it skips around in time, juxtaposing early moments of relationship bliss with later scenes of emotional hardship, the story can’t help descending into melodrama. Still, the music and the setting, not to mention committed performances by the leads, make it a worthwhile watch.
¡Vivan las Antipodas!
Directed by: Victor Kossakovsky
* * *
This documentary curio examines four pairs of geographical antipodes around the globe to see if being diametrically opposed to each other throws up any points of interest. Director Victor Kossakovsky lets his camera drift slowly across these different locales (as well as observing the people who inhabit them), in order to draw parallels and contrasts with their counterparts on the other side of the world.
The most striking are the first pair: a remote piece of Argentinian scrubland occupied by two brothers who collect tolls from the local ferry, and a busy Shanghai cityscape through which cars zip at a dizzying rate. It’s lovely, lyrical stuff, the sort of film-making that works best if you let the images wash over you and allow the connection to percolate away in your brain.
Fill the Void (15)
Directed by: Rama Burshtein
Starring: Hadas Yaron, Yiftach Klein, Irit Sheleg
Fill the Void is one of those arthouse films easier to admire than love, except in this case, the results are so austere that even this proves tricky. Written and directed by Rama Burshtein, it revolves around an Orthodox Jewish Community in Tel Aviv where patriarchal prominence is so pronounced that women are still thought of as baby factories and little else. So intractable is this attitude that when a young woman, Esther, dies giving birth to her son, her 18-year-old sister, Shira, finds her own future even more restricted
when her mother decides she should marry Esther’s widowed husband,
Yochay. Though the film seems thoroughly embedded in this world, the resulting claustrophobia makes it a little inscrutable and, as a result, harder to engage with Shira’s predicament.