Minireview: “Aftershock”

Nowadays, in the age of ‘destruction porn’, a solid survival/disaster horror is hard to come by. The main stream of disaster genre has been taken over and beaten to death with the likes of Roland Emmerich with their epic slant, bloated budgets and overwhelming pathos, so that it was even more refreshing to have watched “Aftershock” directed by Nicolás López. It turns out, a solid disaster flick requires only a creative touch to bring about the suspense and terror, not millions of dollars.

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“Aftershock” plays it straight with a bunch of young characters (mostly unknowns and Eli Roth) being thrown together to wander around Valparaiso, Chile. While they are out enjoying life, sex, drugs, and alcohol they are caught unawares by a powerful earthquake that swiftly turns the holidays of their lives into the worst kind of nightmare. Not only will they have to face the immense power of nature by trying to survive around collapsing buildings, fires and related ‘natural’ threats, but it will be other survivors and escapees from the destroyed prison they will have to fear the most.

It is my personal belief that, contrary to popular opinion, the B-movie look in actuality adds immense value to “Aftershock”. It turns out we don’t need to resort to flooding the screen with special effects to build the sense of danger; what we need is a refreshing look at the genre. I couldn’t help but draw immediate parallels between “Aftershock” and “Hostel” in terms of the story progression and handling of the characters. In fact, the film plays out almost exactly like a horror movie with the extensive exposition in the first act, the major left turn the story takes with the earthquake, and with the aftermath drawing vastly from the slasher genre.

I don’t quite understand the universal criticism towards “Aftershock” for being a cheap knock-off, where in reality it makes for a quite decent horror with all the genre staples, such as the archetypical cast of characters, typical plot points, ‘the unlikely heroine’, the prison inmates as the threat, copious amounts of violence and gore with a healthy dose of humour, and a strong use of practical special effects. If seen in that light, the complaints about cliché characters and the cheap look seem completely out of place. If anything, “Aftershock” among other slashers looks quite unique and refreshing.

Hypothetically, if this film had been done on a 9-digit budget, I don’t necessarily think it would be any better than it is now. Sure, it’s nice to look at CG buildings crumbling and the tsunamis laying waste to everything in their path, but horrors don’t really need that to be memorable. “Aftershock” most certainly is with its classic practical tricks and little restraint with violence. In combination with a cast of characters being picked off in a suspenseful and imaginative way, “Aftershock” kept me at the edge of my seat all throughout its running time. A tight ride it was.

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“47 Ronin” proves once more that certain things should never be Americanized…

I know I’m a sucker for nerdy fantasy and sci-fi and at times my opinions might be heavily biased, which I believe is OK, so long as the reader understands where my standpoint is coming from. Therefore, despite panning reviews and my personal disdain to Keanu Reeves’ acting skills, I decided to give “47 Ronin” a go – simply enticed by the story founded in Japanese mythology and enhanced with fantasy elements. What more could you possibly want from your fable-like fantasy film, if not a vivid world, solid mythology and a compelling story? Well, a good execution would be nice, I might add, and maybe a hint of trust towards the viewer, but I’ll get to that in a second.

In theory, “47 Ronin” should have been a fantastic film material, just because of how the old Japanese legend plays out. Especially for us – westerners – it would have been amazingly refreshing to see the exotic take on morals, the sense of justice and its price, simply because only in Japan those values are taken to such extremes. If you’re interested in the legend of 47 Ronin, I think it’s best to start with a Wikipedia article and go from there. The film, however, adds a lot on top of the original and takes it into a world of magic, supernatural creatures, and dragons, all the way up to a point where the only thing this film has in common with the actual tale is the backbone and a couple of major plot points.

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In “47 Ronin” we are introduced to Kai, a young boy (half-white, half-Japanese) found in the demon forest by a local lord Asano (Min Tanaka) and his men. He is feared to possess some sort of supernatural powers, so even though he is allowed to stay on Asano’s land, he lives in solitude in the woods. Kai eventually grows up to be a fine young man (Keanu Reeves), whom Asano’s daughter Mika (K­o Shibasaki) secretly loves. One day, a tournament is to take place in Asano’s castle, where Shogun Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is supposed to be a guest of honour. However, a strange set of events put in motion by an enigmatic witch, wherein Lord Asano (being under a spell) assaults an unarmed guest in his house (neighbouring Lord Kira, played by Tadanobu Asano). As a result, in order to redeem him himself, as well as to save his people, Asano is forced to take his own life. His samurai led by Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) are stripped off their ranks and banished, Kai is sold into slavery, and Mika is forcefully taken by Lord Kira. In order to restore the good name of Lord Asano’s, Oishi will eventually have to gather the remnants of his men and fight their way to face off against Lord Kira and the scheming witch. However, to stand a chance against the supernatural forces, the 47 Ronin will require the help of Kai and his mysterious abilities.

In my humble opinion, a story like that, with the added benefit of being a proper regional legend, and decorated with high fantasy elements, should translate to film without any difficulties. With powerful story arcs and a very compelling idea of a band of renegades working toward a goal knowing very well they would not come out of it alive, “47 Ronin” should be a delight to watch… And the legend of 47 Ronin has been adapted for the screen so many times already, that it just begged for a big budget treatment.

Well, it isn’t a delight to watch, I’ll tell you that much, with the main culprit being its target audience, because someone out there figured it would be a very good idea to have all the Japanese actors speak (with varying degrees of proficiency) English instead of their native tongue. It pains me even more, because apparently “47 Ronin” was initially filmed in Japanese (so a freshman director Carl Rinsch looks to have had a proper idea in mind), but it was then re-shot in English. Well, if it was a Weinstein production I would maybe understand it, because this guy is already well known for messing with foreign films, so that they are “understood in Kansas”. I mean, it borders on a joke, because none of the lines make sense in the context of the flow of the story. All the dialogue was clearly envisioned to be spoken in Japanese, which would have added to the story’s authenticity and created the sense of immersion in the world on screen.

I genuinely believe that if I had the opportunity to see “47 Ronin” done (maybe not necessarily by the Japanese, but) in Japanese, it would have been a completely different beast to tackle. It is quite clear to me that the entire photography, stylized scenes, costumes and direction was meant to look completely different, but with the substituted  English captions, it makes “47 Ronin” look like a poorly-dubbed westernized anime, but live-action. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it would like to see the same exact script but remade into a proper anime, and I bet it would be superior to this. I simply couldn’t get past the horribly mutilated English quotes spoken by genuine Japanese actors. Hell, I can even give Keanu Reeves a pass, because (even though his character is pivotal to the story) he blends into the crowd of the titular Ronin to make space for Oishi’s character to take the lead, and as a result, his shoddy acting didn’t bother me that much.

No amount of stunning vistas, cool CG monsters, dragons and supernatural forces could get “47 Ronin” up from its knees. I think the entire premise of making the story so accessible to the semi-educated western audiences who refuse to read the subtitles was a suicidal move for the film’s authenticity. And it’s not, as if the story could have been instead implanted in the western setting all that easily, because the moral values at its roots are completely idiomatic and wouldn’t make any sense outside Japan. We simply don’t value our honour in extreme ways the Japanese samurai used to.

At the heart of any fantasy story, there lies the idea of immersion in the world. Without it, everything about it will look silly: trolls, elves, dragons and all that… However, when we are allowed to lose ourselves in these mythical circumstances, we can easily take any supernatural characters and settings as they are presented and let the story flow. “47 Ronin” for all its efforts with special effects, costumes and the solid story material falls flat on its face when it comes to making the viewer take a plunge into its world. In the end, everything about this film looks and feels dumb and if it hadn’t been for my admiration towards the Japanese culture and style, I’d hate it wholeheartedly.

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Filling the blanks in 2013: “Don Jon”

Just because you know how to drive a car, doesn’t mean you’ll know how to fix it, let alone build one. I think every actor, who desires to make the transition to the other side of the lens, should be told exactly that, and having seen “Don Jon”, I believe Joseph Gordon-Levitt should have seriously considered staying where he was. Surely, there has been a number of film stars who succeeded in taking that step (Mel Gibson, Tim Robbins, George Clooney, Clint Eastwood, or more recently Ben Affleck, to name a few), but the ability to perform simply does not warrant one’s ability to direct other actors and build a film from start to finish.

Just to set the record straight, at no point before seeing “Don Jon” (formerly known as “Don Jon’s Addiction”) had I been subconsciously discrediting this work and I was secretly hoping it would be as good as the raving Sundance reviews built it up to be. But let’s be honest – the idea of an actor going for a triple whammy as a début writer/director and a lead star in a comedy (dramedy?) based around a concept of the social perception of online pornography did raise a few flags – at least for me. I find it quite sad, because it could have been much more interesting, if done right.

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In essence, “Don Jon” is supposed to be a story about a guy with a problem. Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a young, attractive stud that works out regularly, goes to night clubs with his buddies, picks up chicks for the purpose of banging, swears in his car, attends Sunday mass, and has regular dinners with his parents. Oh, I almost forgot… He also frequently, diligently and shamelessly jerks off to the ‘tune’ of online porn. It’s not that he’s a loser who can’t bed a girl – he’s just the opposite, but the real stuff never does it for him, because real girls would never do anything remotely close to what he can see online.

At some point, Jon finally finds ‘The One’, Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), who has it all – hot, funny, (a little too) bossy… the whole caboodle. She convinces Jon to finish a degree and get a better job and basically turns him into a nice little boy-toy. Everything falls apart, though, the minute she discovers Jon’s little dirty secret, as she feels betrayed, because her man needs to seek satisfaction in the arms of virtual bimbos. This brings Jon to a defining moment in his life, where he will have to find out, whether he can do without his addiction. Weirdly enough, at the same time he befriends Esther (Julianne Moore) at his evening classes, who seems to be struggling with vices of her own.

The biggest problem I have with “Don Jon” is its story, or more to the point – its lack. I think it is more accurate to call whatever-this-is an idea stretched out to 90 minutes rather than a fully fleshed out story with compelling character arcs and an interesting (and more importantly – deeper) discussion on problem of the social and emotional disconnect between the online fantasies and the reality of a relationship. For some reason I don’t think Gordon-Levitt had a clear idea of where he wanted his characters to go, because past the setup the story goes exactly nowhere and the direction slides more into chaos with every minute of running time.

It seems to me that Gordon-Levitt was more concerned with filling the film with bullshit irrelevant dialogue instead of making it work in service of the characters, or the story as a whole. There is not a single minute within “Don Jon” that is not carpet bombed with unnaturally fast-paced dialogue (or the off-screen narration, equally fast). I could maybe see it as inspired by David O. Russell’s work, but it takes much more than putting four characters in a room and have them yell at each other to have it look good. In reality, the notion of leaving no silence between the lines comes across as awkward instead of brisk and refreshing, as though he was genuinely afraid of having his characters play without words. And it gets tiresome after a while, because nothing else really happens in this film – people just talk and whenever the story needs to take a step forward, we will see a character on screen spell it out for everybody. I mean, we are not that stupid, you know, and we can figure stuff out from the context, or body language, but I guess this is the ‘new guy thing’. As a result, “Don Jon” instead of touching on an important problem, it glosses over it in a morally infantile manner, thus making it look more like an after-school special about the dangers of masturbation.

Gordon-Levitt’s inexperience spills out onto basically every other aspect of the film. I can’t seriously blame the actors for their wooden and over-the-top performances, because they are for the most part very good actors. I know for a fact, Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore cat act brilliantly when directed by a seasoned veteran who has the balls to enable them in a best way possible. Having your characters speak all the damn time and shout over each other doesn’t really come close to the level of the previously mentioned David O. Russell’s craftsmanship.

Additionally, cutting the film into three-second-long shots and overflowing the running time with the repetitive visual cues (as if ripped off from Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream”) does not make the film seem brisk and modern, but rather unoriginal and artificially cool. Then again, it can all be piled onto the curb of inexperience, because Gordon-Levitt clearly had no clue how to convey his ideas, so whenever he couldn’t have the characters say things out loud, he resorted to showing everything. Thus, whenever Jon watches porn, we see him watch porn. When he’s done wanking, we see a tissue. When he has a change of heart, we immediately see the obvious difference in his swearing in a car… The list goes on.

I could maybe give this film a pass if it wasn’t hyped up so much, because it evidently is a debut feature through-and-through. It’s flawed and full of rookie mistakes, with bland cliché characters and a very basic story arc, on which everything is hinged. Joseph Gordon-Levitt definitely needs to hone his skills before he can be recognized as a full-blown director and having the world raving about that rubbish film is not going to help him at all. If anything, he might end up with a severe case of Macaulaculkinitis, which we all know is fatal to one’s career.

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“Carrie” (2013) blew a perfect opportunity to make itself memorable…

Apart from the obvious, what exactly is the point of a remake? I completely understand it at the basic level of taking the easy way out to, by circumventing the creative step, come up with a brand new revenue-generating title. Now, I have always been a strong supporter (or a zealous opposition to lack thereof) of creativity in cinema, but I do believe that remaking already existing films has its place, so long as it brings something new to the table. But the world isn’t perfect and whenever there’s money involved, chances are the emphasis is not going to be put on refreshing a given title and adding to its artistic value, but rather on making sure all the boxes are ticked to attract the desired demographic.

Don’t get me wrong, especially when it comes to the horror genre, remakes and sequels don’t necessarily have to be all that bad and this year’s reimagining of Sam Raimi’s cult classic “Evil Dead” can be a perfect example of it. With the right people and a solid (and creative) idea, any classic can be raised from the dead (sic!) to the cheer of the collective fan-base of the original.

And with those exact expectations I walked in to see the remake of Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” (1976)… Now, the choice of words I used to describe “Carrie” (2013) is by no means accidental here, because even though both of those films are adaptations of the Stephen King’s debut novel, the remake has clearly drawn from its film predecessor, rather than the source material.

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Coming back to the issue of bringing something new to the table, in case of “Carrie” could have meant any number of things. Having recently watched the original (in preparation for the remake; I read the book years ago when I was a young lad), I can honestly say that any semi-skilled director with a half decent cast of actors could be able to make an improvement on the original – it’s that bad. In fact, it’s so bad I am willing to devote a separate occasion just to rant about how shitty De Palma’s film is, and how I can’t possibly understand how oh-so-many people cream their pants over it, as if it was a cult classic… Give me a break…

Now, with this year’s “Carrie”, the draw was supposed to be the fact that the original film was very sparse with the violence in the climax and due to budgetary and technological limitations, certain aspects of the story had to be cut, or reworked to fit the bill. Now, I was sold on this idea alone and I would have loved to see “Carrie” come to a climax on a proper scale. In fact, since the story was being shoehorned into the modern day, I would find it intriguing to see a ‘found footage’ take on it; maybe not in its entirety, but at least in the third act. Interestingly, such treatment would bring the film a bit closer to the book in character, because the original story is neatly interwoven with excerpts from newspapers, journals and what-not that referred to the events from the book, as if it was a real disaster of massive proportions. And the director Kimberly Peirce (known for “Boys don’t cry” and pretty much nothing else) promised me just that… “Carrie” was supposed to go beyond the original and depict the mayhem that ensued following the events from the prom night, and if it had done just (and only) that, it would have been much better off…

In spite of all the waffle that preceded its release, “Carrie” is not much more than a word-for-word retelling of De Palma’s adaptation, but in modern setting and with different (and way better) actors. It’s a story of Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz), a teenage outcast raised by a religious nut mother (Julianne Moore) who finds herself to possess telekinetic powers. Bullied at school by a bunch of bitchy cheerleader types, Carrie is slowly being brought to the brink of self-control, so in combination with cruel treatment she receives at home, it doesn’t take long for her powers to be used in destructive way.

 

At this point in time, when the visual cues known from both the overwhelmingly popular book and De Palma’s film have a somewhat iconic status ingrained in the popular culture, it’s pretty difficult to present this story in a novel way. In reality, in doing so one would seriously risk damaging the original, so the fact “Carrie” plays out exactly as its predecessor is not its biggest flaw. In truth, I think this year’s retelling of “Carrie” is far superior to the original in terms of acting performances, exposition and the overall flow of the story. However, it still feels alien to hear the line “It’s not over! Not by a long shot”, because regardless of how it’s delivered, it sounds bad. I mean, who talks like that? But then again, most of the dialogue is taken ‘as-is’ from the source material, so I can only blame Stephen King for how clunky and disjointed it reads on screen. Bear in mind, it was his first book…

Acting-wise, “Carrie” is pretty solid with a convincing performance by Chloë Grace Moretz as Carrie and Julianne Moore as her mother. In fact, I would have loved to see the mother’s character pushed a bit more towards the creepy kind of religious nut, but she played her cards quite well, even though she was at times ‘at eleven’. Sadly, almost every other character in the film was pretty forgettable and as a result, the main play between the bullies and Carrie doesn’t feel relevant at all. So in the end, when everything unravels, it almost seems to stem from Carrie’s traumatic home life, rather than the relentless torment at school, but once more the finger points at King.

All of that aside, the reason “Carrie” came to be remade this year was to go nuts in the third act. Therefore, I wasn’t too concerned with how we would get there, as long as the story would come to a satisfying climax. Sure, I can get on board with the story; swallow the awkward lines, and dodgy motives for the characters… I am more than willing to do the dance, provided there’s a reward at the end of it all. And here’s where everything falls apart.

I would have been so much happier, if the makers of “Carrie” had the balls to actually take some creative liberties with the source material. Not even that, because the book is not to blame here, but this film would have seriously benefitted from a good injection of gore and violence. Whenever the shit hits the fan and Carrie is ‘born in blood’, there’s so much potential for a satisfying and gruesome climax that would bring the story to a whole new level. We could have had some fun with telekinesis that hasn’t been shown before and “Carrie” played it as safe as it could. Give or take one or two scenes, it’s the same wet noodle of a climax, as shown by De Palma. Think about it: telekinesis could be a potential bag of gore just waiting to be opened. Skip the traditional moving objects around and throwing them at people – it’s all too emotionless! It’s 2013 and a “Carrie” film should definitely end in gory scenes of dismemberment, guts, blood and mindless violence. The story itself calls for appropriate ending and it should feel grand, scary, and revolting, so it pains me to say that the people behind the remake of “Carrie” failed to take a leap of faith.

However you’d want to retell it, the story of “Carrie” will always ride on its ending. None of the character development is really relevant, as long as we get to see the massacre at the prom. I know it might be hard for the ‘money people’ to swallow, but risking an R-rating is not exactly bad for the movie. In this day and age, being completely desensitized towards violence, we need to be properly shocked to get a kick out of a horror film. And if you go soft on a film like “Carrie”, the end result looks more like a mediocre teenage drama, and not like a ballsy all-out gore extravaganza. Maybe Fedé Alvarez should have had a go at directing it instead…

Christmas reflections and things…

Since Christmas is almost behind us and we’re definitely headed towards the end of the year, I think it’s as good time as any to sit down and have ‘a think’ about what’s going on with this blog. Sure, I could save it for the New Year’s or something, because resolutions and related promises-to-be-broken-sooner-or-later are what make New Year’s Day, but nevertheless… I’m extremely glad to be back typing away, as the things in life are starting to take shape, and as a result I get to save up some more free time. To me, this means more or less that I will get to watch more films again and get back to writing about them. Continue reading

“The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug” – a victim of its own story…

It almost looks serendipitously poetic to me and not at all accidental that I’m back to blogging with none other, than my take on “The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug”. Even though it doesn’t really feel that long, though, almost exactly one year ago, shortly after starting this blog I reviewed “The Unexpected Journey”. I wasn’t exactly blown away by it (the title of my review alone gives it away immediately), but now in hindsight I have nothing but fond memories associated with that particular film. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still not great (however upon a re-watch I grew to like it a bit more), but it is kind of special to me… Again, not because of its content…

Having drawn from my previous horrible experience with “An Unexpected Journey”, I decided this time round to willingly see “The Desolation of Smaug” in your bog standard mundane and unexciting 2D in spite of all that nonsense Peter Jackson seems to be forcing down people’s throats about how the HFR 3D is the future of cinema, and how it is merely a matter of time before the boring flat pictures will become a thing of the past. Somehow I don’t think so… If my own experiences are anything to go by, I can only say that – especially with “The Hobbit” – regular 2D is the way to go, even though in low light situations the backdrops look a bit grainy and blurry at times (as if purposefully crappified to make the HFR 3D look better in comparison). Could it be because the film was shot natively in 3D and needed to be ‘converted’ to normality? I don’t know.

“The Desolation of Smaug” picks up almost exactly where the previous one left off, and after some expositional flashbacks that reiterate the crucial plot points, we are back on the road with Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin (Richard Armitage), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the remaining 12 dwarves, who are still a long way away from The Lonely Mountain. In order to finish their quest, they will have to flee the hunting party of orcs, make their way through the spider-infested Mirkwood, and jump through a whole number of hoops before they could face off against the titular dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), who most assuredly would not give up his cosy new home under The Lonely Mountain without a fight. Meanwhile, in a seemingly abandoned fortress of Dol Guldur, sinister forces are brewing, as a mysterious necromancer has apparently made it his home. In order to find out the necromancer’s identity, Gandalf will have to split from the party of the small-sized adventurers and put everybody’s lives at risk…

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Now, reviewing “The Desolation of Smaug” as if it was a stand-alone feature seems a bit silly, due to its structure and the story arc progression, so it can only be seen in context of the previous instalment (and possibly of what is yet to come in the final act). Having said all that, this film is undoubtedly better than “An Unexpected Journey”… on all levels. Still, it doesn’t mean this one is superb, because it isn’t. However, it doesn’t seem to be overflowing with the prolonged inconsequential gimmicky action sequences (there’s still quite a lot of action), but most importantly, with its story development and a quite risky split into two storylines, “The Desolation of Smaug” cleared some of my doubts with regard to the validity of stretching “The Hobbit” into a trilogy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to jump on the wagon with the lot raving about how awesome this film is, because as a whole it fell beneath my expectations quite considerably. Why my expectations were that high, you might ask, and to that I’d say it’s because I always make an effort not to approach a film with biased views. “The Desolation of Smaug” is still very similar in style with the self-indulgent stretchy expositions and the artificial tension created by the fact, that our adventurers never catch a break. The only difference here that works in favour of “The Desolation…” is the fact that everything about it is simply more violent and darker. There’s quite a lot of beheadings and scenes of dismemberment, which makes all the action sequences a bit more relevant and less forgetful. Still, everybody knows that whatever happens, the main characters will always get away unscathed, regardless of the gravity of the situation they’re in, but at least the film doesn’t play out as a Disney cartoon.

That brings me to the main problem with “The Hobbit” in general. Now, I am willing to turn the blind eye on the discrepancies from the source material, just as I did with “The Lord of the Rings”, because in the context of the films, Peter Jackson has created a world of his own, and – for better or worse – it is logical to assume “The Hobbit” would adhere to the films, and not the books. However, simply because “The Hobbit” has been adapted to the screen after “The Lord…”, there’s no power in this world that would make its story seem relevant at all. With no global threat, there’s no actual gravity to whatever the characters do in “The Hobbit”. If they don’t succeed, the world won’t end and no-one’s lives would be affected… Apart from the handful of greedy dwarves who will remain homeless. And that’s a serious issue…

This is where I grew to appreciate the very controversial move to stretch this little children’s book into a massive trilogy. Initially, I too couldn’t possibly fathom, how and why anybody would do that, but if you look at it in the context of “The Lord of the Rings”, everything seems a bit clearer. In order to ramp up the pressure and raise the stakes, “The Desolation of Smaug” with the split storyline devotes a considerable chunk of its running time to develop a sub-plot that will directly tie into the previous trilogy. This way, “The Hobbit” will no longer be a stand-alone story within the Tolkien’s universe, but rather a prequel trilogy that leads into the events described in “The Lord of the Rings”.

I can finally understand the choice to include Frodo in the opening scenes of “An Unexpected Journey”, as well as Galadriel later on, and many other characters that should not have been in the story at all, because from the very outset, these films were supposed to be what the prequel trilogy was to the original Star Wars. We need those characters to establish the connection, just as much as we need the sub-plot that develops in the background, so that “The Hobbit” makes more sense in the context of the previous films. Sure, it is by far the bullet magnet for all the nay-sayers (that used to include yours truly) and it took nearly a year to finally establish the importance of this move.

As a result – and it only works in favour of the film – “The Desolation of Smaug” feels a lot more grim and ominous than its predecessor. In fact, the artistic choices of introducing the necromancer, the back-story to the orcs, all the way up to the confrontation with Smaug, serve perfectly to elevate the film’s ‘trilogy cred’. Without venturing deeper into spoiler territory, I can only add that “The Desolation of Smaug” is written like a textbook example of the middle chapter to a properly assembled trilogy, just as “The Empire Strikes Back” did. Now, sit back down and don’t get all pumped, because it is not my intention to compare the two in any way, but in terms of story progression, how everything plays out, and what it leaves the viewer with at the end, “The Desolation of Smaug” ticks all the boxes needed to lift its credibility, hence the comparison.

To my utmost chagrin, the fact “Desolation…” is a good middle chapter to the whole story does not make it a good film at all. Let’s not forget, this is not a TV show, where we can have a handful of filler episodes before the plot thickens, and every chapter of the story, while remembering its place in the grand scheme of things, should in fact bring something to the table. And this is where everything falls apart, because – yet again – apart from the abundance of action sequences, the surfing elves, beheaded orcs, and the mesmerising dragon, there’s not much to differentiate this film from the crowd of CG-ridden modern fantasy. It’s all been done before (and with a better outcome) in “The Lord of the Rings”, where we already saw the stunning vistas, adrenaline-pumping chase sequences, giant creepy spiders, or epic battles. Besides the titular dragon, everything about “The Desolation of Smaug” can be easily dismissed as forgettable entertainment and the end result does not feel epic at all, but rather tiresome and boring… And the running time of nearly 3 hours does not help in that regard either…

In summary, “The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug” is actually not that god-awful, especially in comparison to the first one. However, it lacks on all fronts, therefore I find it impossible to tick it off as a ‘good watch’, even though Peter Jackson made an effort to use this film to tie all of his previous work together. Well, if you are willing to overlook the excruciating running rime, indulgent lulls, a multitude of inconsequential characters, less than charismatic protagonists, and the gimmicky CG effects – then you’re in for a ride. Other than that, “The Desolation of Smaug” is merely a middle-chapter with no soul of its own, and that’s by far the only thing that still makes me want to show up for the final act. By the way, I reckon that Joss Whedon is not going to like this film either, especially with the gloomy cliff-hanger ending…

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