Chuck Koplinski: Human element, dazzling visuals rescue 'Smaug'

It was once said of director Oliver Stone that he was much like Lennie from "Of Mice and Men" — that he could take any good idea and smother it to death just as John Steinbeck's tragic figure does to mice and lonely women who are desperate to be heard.

I would put Peter Jackson in the same category. There's no denying he's a very talented man and a gifted filmmaker, but he's not one to heed the advice that there can, in fact, be too much of a good thing. Epic in scope, meticulously crafted and sporting a nostalgic and reverent tone, his 2005 version of "King Kong" is too long by an hour — yet somehow generates the magic a film of that sort requires to work.

The same can be said about "The Desolation of Smaug," the middle segment of Jackson's three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit." Without question, it's a visual knockout as he and his army of computer artists have fashioned the most lush, gorgeous and horrifying world that pixels can create.

The director's meticulous (obsessive) nature is also on display as every single narrative event from Tolkien's novel — and some borrowed from others — is included, to the delight of the book's aficionados and to the discomfort of the rest of us.

The film picks up with Tolkien's band of heroes — the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and 12 dwarves led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) — in dire straits. They've set out to reclaim the mountain kingdom of Erebor from the malevolent dragon Smaug (voice by Benedict Cumberbatch) but are being pursued by the ever-ugly Orcs who wish to kill them. Fortunately, they find refuge with a were-bear who gives them provisions to continue their quest, which seemingly goes on forever.

Before reaching their destination, Bilbo and Company must travel through a forest that causes them to hallucinate, battle a nest of giant spiders (arachnophobes, abandon the notion of facing your fears and go get popcorn during this sequence — it is incredibly frightening), get captured by elves and deal with those Orcs, who are the personification of a bad penny.

Again, the movie is a wonder to behold, and to fully appreciate Jackson's vision, seeing it in the 3-D format is a must. To be fair, the story moves along at an acceptable pace until the third act when Bilbo finally reaches Erebor to confront Smaug.

What begins as a tense encounter ultimately becomes tedious as our hero and eventually Thorin and a couple of his vertically challenged friends traipse around the enclave on mountains of gold with the scaly serpent in hot pursuit. Jackson is obviously quite taken with his creation as he gives the character far too much screen time, making him less mysterious. His decision to end this segment where he does, while effective as a cliffhanger, is almost cruel in the way it treats its audience.

Still, there's enough of a human element at play to keep the whole thing grounded as McKellen continues to be the franchise's best friend, bringing a gravity to the proceedings that would devolve into silliness without him. Freeman is very good as well, as he does a wonderful job portraying Bilbo's slow descent into madness as he lets the magical ring he covets corrupt him.

For me, this is the crux of the epic, and thankfully Jackson tears himself away from his computer-generated creations to devote time enough on this theme.

'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' (3 stars out of 4)

Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry and Cate Blanchett.

Directed by Peter Jackson; produced by Carolynne Cunningham, Fran Walsh, Zane Weiner and Jackson; screenplay by Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro, Jackson and Walsh, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien.

A Warner Brothers release. 161 minutes. Rated PG-13 (pervasive action violence). At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

"Kill Your Darlings" a bracing look at the Beats. (3-1/2 stars) Early on in John Krokidas' fascinating "Kill Your Darlings," would-be poets Lucien Carr, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs take writer W.B. Yeats' notion that to be reborn you have to die first to heart. Impressionable and eager to impress one another, this trio sets out to turn literary, social and sexual conventions on its collective ears.

It's safe to say that they succeed, questioning their professors at Columbia University when they espouse the strength of traditional poetic rhythm, blatantly destroying copies of revered classics and foolishly embarking on a regime of experimental drug use, regardless of the consequences.

These three, along with Jack Kerouac, would form the core of what was to become the Beat Generation, the post-World War II literary movement made up of works that rejected accepted narrative standards, giving way to radical stylistic experimentation in the arts. Krokidas takes us back to the genesis of this crusade by examining the seminal events that created these authors' attitudes and approach.

As Carr, Dane DeHaan gives us a man on edge, smart enough to point others toward new frontiers but unable to accomplish them on his own. However, he has David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) for that, an older man who is obsessed with him, stalking the object of his affection from one city to another, willingly doing his schoolwork in exchange for sexual favors. Their relationship is at the core of "Darlings," as its tragic end pushes all involved to reveal their true selves.

Daniel Radcliffe confirms that he'll be able to put the "boy who lived" firmly in his past by showing us Ginsberg as a confused but eager young man who endures a trial by fire and emerges as wiser and a bit damaged. He ably shows that while going against the norm might have its rewards, the wounds that may result don't heal easily and create scars that are impossible to hide.

"Blue is the Warmest Color" far more than its rating suggests. (3 stars) At the beginning of Abdellatif Kechiche's "Blue is the Warmest Color," the students in a literature class at a French high school are discussing the notion of love at first sight and the consequences of not impulsively acting on this attraction. Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos), an unassuming, bright and attractive young woman is nonplussed by the discussion, the sort of behavior that the gods of literature can only reward with a case of bitter irony.

Not long after, while crossing a busy street, she lays eyes on Emma (Lea Seydoux), an older woman with handsome features and striking blue hair. The sight of her causes Adele to stand in the crosswalk, stunned at what she has seen as she unwittingly proves that there's some merit to the maxim that a woman can be attractive enough to stop traffic.

Much has been made of "Blue's" explicit sex scenes, which are graphic enough to earn it the rare NC-17 rating. However, these two five-minute sequences are a very small part of this engaging and moving story — not just of one woman's sexual awakening, but of the forming of her very character.

At 17 years of age, Adele is as confused as most of her peers, though she doesn't bother to hide it behind a false front of sophistication or world-weary cynicism. She senses she's different but cannot determine what it is that sets her apart. A dalliance with an attractive older boy leaves her unfulfilled, and it's only when she starts spending time with Emma that she truly feels comfortable.

While the film does cover about four years in time, at nearly three hours in length it's far too long, as narrative repetition sets in. To be sure, Kechiche is underscoring that monotony can be difficult for any couple to contend with, yet it bogs down the story as we can see where things are headed, and we wind up being eager to see how Adele and Emma will react to it all.

However, the performances from the two leads keep us hooked, as they are seemingly organic and wholly unaffected. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux are so at ease on screen and with one another, they create a sense of spontaneity that makes it seem as if we're eavesdropping on the most intimate details of their lives.

"Blue is the Warmest Color" succeeds in capturing the ups and downs that all relationships go through in such a poignant and natural manner that it's the quiet moments you'll take with you and remember, long after its salacious scenes fade from memory.

For DVR alerts, film recommen-dations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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