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The Hobbit: The Desolation

Of Smaug • Nebraska

December 19, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

(** ½) PG-13

The good news is that Peter Jackson’s second chapter in his Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug, is a vast improvement on the initial installment. I found the first film to be a lumbering dinosaur, marred by overlength and a prolonged introduction to the story’s characters that was almost unforgivable. There was absolutely no reason why The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey needed to run just ten minutes shy of three hours, especially when one considers that the source material The Hobbit is based upon is one of Tolkien’s shortest books.

Hobbit, Number 2, is still marred by small lurches in actual plot development from time to time, but it also benefits from more clearly defined characterizations and some rousing action sequences, particularly in the film’s final section wherein the creature of the film’s title, the fire-breathing dragon Smaug, makes his anticipated appearance. It’s a mixed bag for sure but there are certainly worse ways to spend one’s time. At the least, Jackson is an inspired filmmaker and his love of the material comes through on multiple occasions throughout the film’s 161 minute running time.

In the second cinematic chapter of The Hobbit, the action picks up pretty much where it left off at the end of the first film. The Hobbit of the film’s title, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), accompanied by his entourage of thirteen dwarves of various sizes, are soldiering on to reclaim their ki

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins

ngdom Erebor from the dragon Smaug. Those pesky Orcs who pursued Bilbo and the dwarves in the first film are still on their trail as they attempt to thwart Bilbo and the gang’s plans. A new character, a human named Bard (Luke Evans), is introduced and he eventually joins the proceedings, although there is some discussion amongst Bilbo and the dwarves as to whether Bard can actually be trusted. Orlando Bloom also returns as Legolas from the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, which is something to put a smile on the faces of the series’ legion of die-hard fans.

As I said, although it’s a vast improvement on its predecessor, this isn’t a perfect film. There are sections where you feel as if Jackson is just biding his time and holding back on some things in order to have enough material to justify a third film. That doesn’t even take into account the ending, which is one of the most unsatisfying cliffhangers I can recall in recent memory. It really does feel like a deliberate cheat. So much so, that I audibly heard people behind me voicing displeasure at the way Jackson has chosen to end the film.

Of course, it goes without saying that all of the technical work is superb. However, from a storytelling standpoint, a little belt tightening would have vastly improved things. Fans are definitely going to love it but the rest of the movie going audience is probably going to be less enthralled.

Nebraska

(*** ½) R

Filmmaker Alexander Payne’s latest portrait of life in these great United States, Nebraska, continues his solid winning streak of crafting intimate films with just the right balance of humor and heartbreak. His last film, The Descendants, while no doubt a terrific film, lacked some of the bitterness and cynicism that had marked some of Payne’s earlier work. Nebraska does have more of that bitter edge, but still manages to find time to serve up some of the more astute dramatic observations that were found in The Descendants. I think it’s a terrific balance of both Payne’s earlier work and his most recent efforts and for me was one of the best film experiences I’ve had all year.

The plot in Nebraska, like all of Payne’s other films, is secondary to the journey that the characters make during its unspooling. The old cliché about it being about the journey and not the destination is never truer than in an Alexander Payne film and Nebraska is no exception.

Here the story is a deceptively looking simple one. Seventy-something Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), apparently in the early stages of dementia, gets a bogus letter (think Publisher’s Clearing House) alerting him that he’s won a million dollars. Everyone but Woody dismisses it until his son, David (Will Forte), finally agrees to make a road trip from Montana to Nebraska in order to prove his point. That’s essentially the plot but it’s only the tip of the iceberg as the trip provides many unexpected detours both comical and sad.

There are so many things to admire about Nebraska that it’s hard to know exactly where to start. First there’s Phedon Papamichael’s gorgeous black and white lensing. And since the pic is, after all, character-driven, the other obvious place would be the performances, which I don’t have to tell you are all first rate.

Bruce Dern and June Squibb in Nebraska

Bruce Dern, an actor who has spent too many of his years playing psychopathic second fiddles, is a perfect fit in the film’s lead role of Woody Grant. Woody is a good hearted man who, in the words of the film’s supporting characters, has spent too much of his life letting others take advantage of him, all the while alcoholically medicating himself to drown out the pain and disappointment of his own life.

Woodie’s wife, Kate (June Squibb), has a personality that’s the total antithesis of Woody’s and she isn’t afraid to stand up to others and put them in their place when the situation warrants it. Squibb, who also appeared as Jack Nicholson’s wife in Payne’s earlier masterpiece About Schmidt, brings a lot of very funny sass to the film and is given some of the film’s best one liners along the way.

Will Forte as Woody and Kate’s misplaced son David may not be the logical choice for a part such as this but he’s certainly an ideal one and holds his own quite well. The wistful tone of the film is greatly aided by what the actors bring to the proceedings. Bob Odenkirk and Stacey Keach also turn in some great work here.

In short, Nebraska is a terrific film filled with as much substance as you’re likely to see these days at the movies. I couldn’t recommend it more.

Nebraska is playing in Charlotte. The Hobbit is playing at the Carmike in Hickory and many other area theaters.

Questions or comments? Email Adam at filmfan1970@hotmail.com.

 

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