Sunday, January 5, 2014

PETER JACKSON'S SELF PORTRAIT: a review of "The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug"

Based upon the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
Screenplay Written by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro
Directed by Peter Jackson
** (two stars)

In my latest batch of reviews for the films "Nebraska," The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty," "The Wolf Of Wall Street" and "American Hustle," I wrote repeatedly about the concept of purposefulness, essentially the core of the work that not only drives the film, but also the core of the wok that drove the filmmaker to even pursue this undertaking in the first place.

With the arrival of "The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug," Director Peter Jackson's second installment in his prequel Middle Earth trilogy, I find myself returning to this theme in earnest. Yes, the film is as visually resplendent as anything that you may have even grown to expect from a Peter Jackson adaptation of a J.R.R. Tolkien work of literature. But unlike his majestic "Lord Of The Rings" (2001/2002/2003) film trilogy, this new film is as emotionally empty as a hollow bark of the tallest mythical tree. Yes, dear readers, I did give a high rating to the first installment, last year's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," but I was also quite critical of not only that film's dead-in-the-water middle hour but I also seriously questioned the sheer purpose of making a full trilogy from one book. I worried if what we would be receiving would be a sense of overkill, perhaps Peter Jackson was being a bit too reverential to the source material of the original novel and extended appendices. But this time, around, it just became clear to me that reverence may not the issue. For all practical purposes, "The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug" is more of a roller coaster than the first film, I guess. But to what end? Was any of it at all necessary? What was the purpose? I am afraid that this time, Peter Jackson has forsaken passion for the art for the lure of cold, hard cash and the last thing Middle Earth ever needs to be is cynical and so underwhelming.  

"The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug" begins in breathless mid-stream as the titular Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and thirteen dwarves led by Thornin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) are continuing their quest to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their stolen fortune and homeland from the fearsome dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) while also being feverishly pursued by an army of vengeful Orcs led by Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett).

Now despite the returning presence of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the bow and arrow slinging Elf, Gandalf's uncovering of the return of the malevolently evil force of Sauron, thus foreshadowing the events of "The Lord Of The Rings" and also Bilbo's slowly increasing addiction to the One Ring, that plot description is essentially all there is to the film. Now truth be told, for a short spell, it all does indeed work pretty splendidly as "The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug" opens and moves with an urgency and building doom that was absent from the first film. The film's first foray into bleakness arrives when our heroes arrive at the forest of Mirkwood, where Gandalf leaves the group to perform some wizardry detective work and thus informs everyone to remain on the path no matter what occurs as the dark forces of the forest will definitely attempt to lead them all astray and possibly to their demise. Great stuff. Jackson approaches this sequence as if caught in a bad drug trip with hallucinogenic imagery clouding the minds of Bilbo and the dwarves and venturing further and deeper inside the very place no one would wish to travel...but it's the only way towards the Lonely Mountain that may keep them ahead of the Orcs. Great stuff still. And then, the giant spiders attack...

Throughout all of this, plus the arrival of the warrior elves Legolas and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) who aid the heroes in their battle with the spiders (which I will admit that I watched through my fingers that shielded my eyes), covers perhaps about the first 30 minutes or so of the film. What is most unfortunate is that there is about another 2 hours and 15 minutes remaining and the film buckles under its own weight as we are subjected to one battle sequence, daring escape and CGI frenzy after another and another that I found myself growing bored and saddened that now even Peter Jackson, a filmmaker who has performed so much better and definitely knows better, has delivered one more movie that is the same as most movies that arrive in our theaters these days: the soulless behemoth that for all of its considerable sound and fury, signifies absolutely nothing.

Let's face it..."The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug" is a film without a plot, and therefore, it is a film without any sense of real purpose. It is an an installment that does not deepen, broaden or build upon what we have seen in the first installment. It is really just a sequence of traps and escapes, while executed with the same visual dynamism that has now become Peter Jackson's trademark, it all felt so empty this time around. And again, the film also felt to be more than a little cynical, as if Jackson knew that there was not really any story to tell so if he just filled the nearly three hours with all manner of superfluous material, from action sequences to full characters, perhaps we would be fooled that we were seeing something thrilling and epic. It's really an awful concept to suggest, especially because we all know how very much Peter Jackson loves the world Tolkein created. But I really believe, even moreso than I did with the previous film, that there is absolutely, positively, unquestionably no need whatsoever to have turned this one book into a new trilogy when he could have utilized his massive artistic talents and made a great, tight and taut three to three and a half hour singular film instead. But why make one movie when you can make three movies that you know that absolutely everyone will see? Why make money on one when you can do it three times over? I really think that commerce won the battle this time out and that feeling is tremendously disappointing to me.

Now before you all think that I am perhaps being too harsh or if I am taking this either too seriously or even to an unnecessary place, just think for a moment about what is indeed upon the screen. As with the appearance of Cate Blanchett in the first film, move which I felt to be a shameless and needless nod to "The Lord Of The Rings" films, please tell me why is Legolas, who, if memory serves me correctly, does not even appear in the novel, in this film at all other than to just have Orlando Bloom back in action?

Furthermore, why is Evangeline Lilly in this film as well? While she gives a fine performance, the character of Tauriel is a Peter Jackson creation and her inclusion in this story is not plot driven in the least and only seems to (again) shamelessly inject some estrogen into the male-driven proceedings as well as have a poorly manufactured love triangle between herself, Legolas and the dwarf Kili (Aiden Turner), clearly an echo of "The Lord Of The Rings" love triangle of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen),  Arwen (Liv Tyler) and  Eowyn (Miranda Otto).

And really, even with two films, can you still tell all of the dwarves apart, do you even know all of their names and honestly, do you even care? The two films this far, have had more than enough scenes of the dwarves running around in a panic and they have grown to be so tiresome, no matter how well they are presented. This film, in particular, features a breathless chase down the rapids as the dwarves are all encased in barrels with Orcs as well as Legolas and Tauriel in pursuit. And yet, what was the purpose? Did the story move any further than it did at the opening of the film? Nope! It was just so underwhelming and just so sad considering all of the considerable effort that was placed into the pacing and special effects that should have otherwise been placed into the actual storytelling.

Why, even moreso, is so much time being spent upon constructing the conflict of "The Lord Of The Rings" in a film series that is entitled "The Hobbit," and claims to actually be about this figure? This massive mistake, not only saddles the films with too much padding, we essentially have a film series in which the titular character is sidelined in his own story over and over and over again. There is considerable screen time in which Bilbo Baggins is not even present let alone a key player in other sequences where he is often shuffled to the background. And what a shame as Martin Freeman is again showing that he is more than up to the task of becoming a major figure in Peter Jackson's film universe. Freeman has the air of a light comedian combined with the skill of a a fine dramatic actor as he has so effectively displayed the shadings of an innocent slowly becoming increasingly corrupted and increasingly fearful with the discovery of the darker sides of his otherwise kindly and amiable personality. The best scenes of the series so far have easily been his riddles in the dark with Gollum (Andy Serkis) from the first film and the first stretches of his extended sequence with the greedy and gigantic Smaug but those scenes are in terribly short supply and again robs the series of its purpose.

Dear readers, I stumbled upon a theory while watching "The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug" that I wish to share with you. My distaste with this film arrives from the idea that all of Peter Jackson's previous films were ones made purely from the soul and the purity of his art. That with his film trilogy of "The Lord Of The Rings," we were given three films so astoundingly tremendous because we were in the hands of a director who was making films because he HAD TO MAKE THEM and in my opinion, "The Lord Of The Rings" film trilogy were a series of movies so passionately created that they all felt as if we were seeing the last films Peter Jackson would ever have the chance to make. Now...I think that same spirit continued with his remake of "King Kong" (2005) and his much maligned adaptation of "The Lovely Bones" (2009), a strange, disturbing film that did weave a dark spell over me and I found myself entranced by. Of course, having Peter Jackson direct a film version of The Hobbit was certainly inevitable but after the critical and box office failure of "The Lovely Bones," I am wondering if Jackson felt the need to improve and revive his Hollywood cache by returning to a sure thing. No one can question Jackson's passion for Tolkien but I am feeling that with "The Hobbit" film series, he is not making films because he just HAS TO. He is making these films just because he can. And while I would hate to think of him as being purposefully greedy, Peter Jackson definitely is smart and savvy enough to know that a massive fortune will arrive as a result of this new series no matter how good or bad they actually are.

I do think that it is more than telling that Peter Jackson has expressed in interviews that once this trilogy is completed, he desires to leave massive budgeted films and extravaganzas behind and will then make smaller, more personal films once again. With that bit of key information,  "The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug" may have actually shown that its purpose may not be entirely lucrative but also one that just may serve as a self portrait of sorts. Because with these films and Peter Jackson himself, at this particular stage of his career, what do we have but an actual metaphorical representation of Smaug himself:  lazy, bloated, surrounded and engulfed by more riches than he would ever know what to do with.

That is not a fate deserving of a Hobbit or of a filmmaker of the skill, talents and artistry of Peter Jackson. But we have one more film to go this coming December and what arrives after that...well, that's the real cliffhanger.

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