“CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR” (2007) Review

 

“CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR” (2007) Review

Eleven years ago, I first learned about how a Texas congressman named Charlie Wilson led the effort to drive the Soviet Army from Afghanistan after nearly ten years. I learned about Operation Cyclone from the 2007 biopic, “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR”

Operation Cyclone was the code name for the C.I.A. program to arm and finance the mujahideen in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, prior to and during the military intervention by the USSR in support of its client, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. The program leaned heavily towards supporting militant Islamic groups that were favored by the regime of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in neighboring Pakistan, instead of the less militant Afghan resistance groups that had also been fighting the pro-Marxist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan regime since before the Soviet invasion. Operation Cyclone proved to be one of the longest and most expensive covert CIA operations undertaken during the agency’s history.

Directed by Mike Nichols and based upon George Crile III’s 2003 book, “Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History”“CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR” began in 1980, when Congressman Charles “Charlie” Wilson (D-Texas) became aware of the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan during to trip to Las Vegas. But it took an old friend of his, Texas socialite Joanne Herring, to encourage him to finally get involved with driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan. First, Wilson pays a visit to Afghanistan, where he visits a refugee camp and the country’s leader, President Zia-ul-Haq. Upon his return to the U.S., Wilson recruits the help of veteran C.I.A. agent Gust Avrakotos to help him kick start an operation that would provide aid – food, medical and especially military – to the Afghans. And finding military aid would mean enlisting support from both Israel and Egypt. At the same time, Wilson is forced to face a Federal investigation into allegations of his cocaine use, as part of a larger investigation into Congressional misconduct.

I must admit that I did not have a very high opinion of “TIMELESS” when I first saw it over ten years ago. I honestly did not know what to expect. I certainly did not expect a comedy-drama with a lot of wit and snappy one-liners. Or perhaps I was expecting something a little more . . . intense? Who knows. But looking back on the film, I finally realized that my opinion of it has increased over the years.

I enjoyed how the movie went to a great deal of effort to provide details of Wilson’s efforts to aid the Afghans, especially the Mujahidee (Afghanistan’s freedom fighters). Whether those details were historically accurate or not – I have not the foggiest idea. But I found Wilson’s efforts to find ways to provide aid and help the Afghans throw out the occupying Soviets without the rest of the world finding out about U.S. involvement very interesting . . . and rather amusing. This sequence of events included a rather humorous first meeting between Wilson and his C.I.A. liaison, Gust Avrakotos. Another aspect of the film that I found humorous were Wilson’s efforts to curb his friend Ms. Herring’s patriotic and religious fervor over the program – including one scene in which she bluntly assured her guests at a fund raiser that President Zia-ul-Haq was not responsible for the death of his predecessor, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. For me, one of the film’s most interesting and hilarious scenes featured Wilson’s meeting with both Israeli and Egyptian representatives in order to acquire arms for the Mujahidee – a meeting that included an Arabic dance (belly dance) from the daughter of an American businessman.

Judging from the movie’s Oscar, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations, one could see that “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR” was not exactly a front-runner for Academy Award nominations during the 2007-2008 movie awards season Philip Seymour-Hoffman earned the majority of the film’s major nominations. Julia Roberts did earn a Golden Globe Awards, but nothing else. Did it deserve more acclamation? I do not know. Mike Nichols did a competent and entertaining job in allowing moviegoers peeks into C.I.A. policies, Washington and international politics. Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as C.I.A. operative Gust Avrakotos) all gave excellent performances. Well . . . Hanks and Hoffman struck me as entertaining and excellent. But I really enjoyed Roberts’ performance as the colorful Houston socialite. It seemed a shame that she was only nominated for a Golden Globe Award. The movie also featured solid performances from Amy Adams, Ned Beatty, Om Puri, Christopher Denham, John Slattery, Ken Stott, Shaun Tolb, Peter Gerety and Emily Blunt.

But if I must be honest, the movie did not give me a charge. I enjoyed it very mcuh. I mean, I really found it entertaining. But I did not love “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR”. I remember while leaving the theater following my first viewing of the film, I had this feeling that something was missing. I do not know. It could have been the unsatisfying ending, which I found to be rushed. It could have been James Newton Howard’s score that seemed too treacly for a borderline black comedy about a U.S. congressman, the C.I.A. and the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan. Or perhaps I found the movie’s ending even more treacly than its score. Either Nichols or the movie’s producers – Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman – lacked the balls to portray the consequences of Operation Cyclone.

I cannot say that “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR” was a great film. I do not know if I would regard it as one of Mike Nichols’ best efforts. But I found it very entertaining, thanks to Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, Nichols’ direction and a first-rate cast led by Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman. And if one is intrigued by a peek into American politics during the 1980s, I would highly recommend it.

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“THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” (2014) Review

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“THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” (2014) Review

When New Line Cinema and Warner Brothers first released the news that Peter Jackson would adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel, “The Hobbit” into three films, I had not been pleased. I thought the novel could have easily been adapted into two films or even a single film. Now that Jackson’s third film, “THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES”, I realized that my feelings had not changed.

I still believe what I had originally stated . . . an adaptation of Tolkien’s novel could have easily been limited to a single film. I believe I would have enjoyed it, considering my feelings for Tolkien’s tale. But you know what? I do not regret that Jackson had spread the story into the three films. A single movie or a trilogy, I enjoyed Jackson’s take on the story about Bilbo Baggins and his involvement with a group of dwarves under the leadership of one Thorin Oakenshield. But when I learned that this third film would feature a long, detailed conflict known as “the Battle of the Five Armies”, I found myself not looking forward to the story’s conclusion for the first time, since the release of the first movie. The problem is that I still had memories of the battles featured in the last two movies of Jackson’s adaptation of “THE LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy – “THE TWO TOWERS” and “RETURN OF THE KING”. I did not enjoy watching them over a decade ago. And I felt certain that I would not enjoy watching the “Battle of the Five Armies”.

There were aspects of this third HOBBIT that made it less enjoyable for me than the first two films. First of all, Bilbo and his traveling companions reached their destination in the last act of the previous film, “THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG”. Which meant that the story ceased to be a road trip. With the exception of a few scenes that featured Gandalf the Gray at Dol Guldur and Smaug’s destruction of Laketown, the majority of the film was set at the dwarves’ kingdom of Erebor and the nearby town of Dale. A bit disappointing. I also found the movie’s limited focus on Thorin’s company of dwarves rather disappointing as well. With the exception of Thorin and one of his nephews, Kili, the screenplay focused less on the dwarves and more on the other characters – especially Bard the Bowman and King Thranduil. Another aspect of the plot that disturbed me, was that it made a big deal of Thorin’s greed in the form of “dragon sickness”. Yet, it barely focused on King Thranduil’s willingness to go to war against the dwarves for an elven necklace of white gems inside Erebor. Worse, the movie’s plot brushed aside Laketown resident Bard’s own greed. Yeah . . . I said it. I believe Bard had developed his own greed for some of the treasure inside Erebor. During the movie’s first half hour, he made it clear to Alfrid Lickspittle that he had no interested in the Erebor treasure (which he had regarded as cursed) and only wanted aid in the form of food, shelter and medicine from Thorin. Yet, within another half hour, he was demanding some of the treasure for himself and other Laketown survivors. What led to this turnabout in Bard’s demands? Why did the screenplay fail to explain it?

Remember when I had predicted that I would not like the battle sequence featured in this movie? Well . . . I was right. I did not like it. Let me correct myself. I did not like most of it. I found the majority of the so-called “Battle of the Five Armies” ridiculously long and overblown . . . just like the other battle sequences in “THE TWO TOWERS” and “RETURN OF THE KING”. Now that I think of it, the movie’s battle sequence also reminded me of “the Battle at Hogwarts” featured in the 2011 movie, “HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – PART II”, with the constant number of interruptions that allowed the battle to last longer than necessary. It is only by the grace of God that I was able to tolerate the “Battle of the Five Armies” a bit more than the Helm’s Deep, Pelennor Fields, Black Gate and Hogwarts battles. And I will tell you why.

What made the Battle of the Five Armies a little more tolerable for me? One, it had began under unusual circumstances. Instead of a battle in which the Erebor Dwarves fought side-by-side with Men of Dale and the Woodland Realm Elves against the Moria Orcs, Goblins and Wargs; the battle nearly became a conflict between the dwarves and an alliance between the Dale men and the elves over the treasure inside the Erebor mines. But the appearance of an army of orcs, goblins and wargs led by Orc chieftain Azog quickly led to a shifting of alliances. I found that rather interesting. The Battle of the Five Armies may have began with rather odd circumstances, it ended with a good deal of poignancy and tragedy that left me in tears. And I cannot say the same for the battles featured in “THE TWO TOWERS”, “RETURN OF THE KING” and “DEATHLY HALLOWS – PART II”.

I have never read “The Hobbit”, so I have no idea if J.R.R. Tolkien had any plans to write “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy around the time when he wrote the 1937 novel. But I have to admire the way Peter Jackson and the movie’s other screenwriters – Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro – set up the events featured in “THE LORD OF THE RINGS” movies, both in this movie and the previous two films. This was especially apparent in moments that featured Bilbo’s use of Sauron’s One Ring; his eventual reluctance to inform Gandalf about it; Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman’s encounter with Sauron, during their attempt to rescue Gandalf from Dol Guldur; Saruman’s doom-filled decision to deal with the fleeing and formless Sauron; and Thranduil’s post-battle suggestion that Legolas meet with a young Dunedain ranger named “Strider”. The movie even ended where “AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” began – on Bilbo’s 111st birthday, setting in motion, the events of 2001-2003 movie trilogy. I have to say . . . good job.

However, what really impressed me about “THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” was how the screenwriters handled the political chaos that seemed to mark the story. I am not criticizing the story in any way. I just found it rather amazing at how Gandalf’s concerns over Smaug, Thorin Oakenshield’s past history with Azog and his bout of “dragon sickness” brought about so much political chaos in this story. And I must say that Jackson and the other three screenwriters handled it so well. The continuing romance between Thorin’s younger nephew Kili and the Silvan elf guard Tauriel is also handled well in the movie. Their time together seemed less than it was in “THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG”. But thanks to Aidan Turner and Evangeline Lilly’s performances, there were two scenes featuring the pair that really impressed me – Kili’s plea to Tauriel that she follow him to Erebor and their efforts to save each other from the Orc called Bolg. Aside from Kili and Tauriel, one of the most interesting relationships in the movie was that between Bilbo and Thorin. In fact, their relationship has been interesting since the moment Bilbo first rejected Gandalf’s suggestion that he join Thorin’s companay as a burglar in “AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”. Thorin’s bout with “dragon sickness” came close to seriously undermining the pair’s friendship that had thrived since the company’s escape from Moria in the first film. Which is why I found their reconciliation and final scene together so poignant, thanks to Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage’s performances. But the one scene that really left me in tears featured Bilbo’s final good-bye to the dwarves that were part of Thorin’s quest. I felt surprised by how much I truly grew to like these guys. Even more so than the members of the Ring Fellowship from “THE LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy.

“THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” only earned one Academy Award – namely a Best Sound Editing for Brent Burge and Jason Canovas. One technical nomination? One? That was it? No nominations for special effects, costume designs, or editing. There was not even a nomination for Andrew Lesnie’s outstanding cinematography, as shown in the following image:

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I discovered that “THE LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING” received eleven Academy Award nominations . . . and won all of its categories. And I am appalled. Why? Despite its flaws, I still hold “BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” in a higher regard. Now I realize that I am not the last word on the quality of any movie. But I am entitled to my own opinions. I am sorry, but I simply have a higher opinion of “BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” than either the second and third films in “THE LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy. And I cannot take the Oscars seriously if the only nomination they could give this film was for Best Sound Editing.

I certainly had no problems with the performances featured in the movie. Although I was slightly disappointed by the decreased presence of most of the dwarves in Thorin’s company, they still managed to give first-rate performances . . . especially Graham McTavish as Dwalin, Dean O’Gorman as Fíli, and Ken Stott as Balin. Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee reprised their roles as Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman the White and gave solid, but not particularly earth-shattering performances. I could also say the same about Ian Holm, who returned as Old Bilbo in the movie’s final scene and Sylvester McCoy, who briefly appeared as Gandalf’s fellow wizard, Radagast the Brown. Two performances in the movie struck me as particularly funny – Ryan Gage as the greedy and imaginative Laketown official Alfrid, and Billy Connolly as Thorin’s loud and sardonic cousin Dáin. Lee Pace gave a colorful and fascinating performance as the complicated and not always likable Elvenking of Mirkwood, Thranduil. And Benedict Cumberbatch continued to send chills down my spine, thanks to his exceptional performance as the voice for the malignant dragon, Smaug.

Aidan Turner and Evangeline Lilly continued to generate sparks as the two star-crossed lovers, Kili and Tauriel. I found them especially effective in two scenes I had earlier mentioned. Both Orlando Bloom and Luke Evans gave excellent performances as Elven prince Legolas and Laketown archer Bard the Bowman. For the first time, I also noticed that the pair could have easily portrayed cousins. Honestly. Ian McKellen was excellent as usual portraying Gandalf the Grey – especially in his scenes with Richard Armitage and Martin Freeman. I like to think that the latter made his mark as the reluctant adventurer, Bilbo Baggins. Freeman did an excellent job of developing his character from the prissy homebody to the clever and brave Hobbit. But my vote for the best performance in the movie would go to Richard Armitage for his complicated and fascinating portrayal of the Erebor Dwarf king, Thorin Oakenshield. Actually, I feel that Armitage had been knocking it out of the ballpark since the first film. But in my opinion, two scenes in “BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” featured his best performances as the ambiguous Thorin – namely the latter’s final struggle with “dragon fever” that I found absolutely brilliant and the poignant farewell between his character and Bilbo.

I cannot deny that “THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” is my least favorite of the three films based upon J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel. But despite its flaws, I still managed to enjoy it very much, thanks to Peter Jackson’s energetic direction, excellent production values and some superb performances from a cast led by Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage.

The 19th Century in Television

Recently, I noticed there have been a good number of television productions in both North America and Great Britain, set during the 19th century. Below is a list of those productions I have seen during this past decade in alphabetical order:

THE 19TH CENTURY IN TELEVISION

1. “Copper” (BBC America) – Tom Fontana and Will Rokos created this series about an Irish immigrant policeman who patrols Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood during the last year of the U.S. Civil War. Tom Weston-Jones, Kyle Schmid and Ato Essandoh starred in this 2012-2013 series.

2. “The Crimson Petal and the White” (BBC) – Romola Garai starred in this 2011 miniseries, which was an adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2002 novel about a Victorian prostitute, who becomes the mistress of a powerful businessman.

3. “Death Comes to Pemberley” (BBC) – Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell-Martin starred in this adaptation of P.D. James’ 2011 novel, which is a murder mystery and continuation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice”.

4. “Hell on Wheels” (AMC) – This 2012-2016 series is about a former Confederate Army officer who becomes involved with the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad during the years after the Civil War. Anson Mount, Colm Meaney, Common, and Dominique McElligott starred.

5. “Mercy Street” (PBS) – This series follows two volunteer nurses from opposing sides who work at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Josh Radnor and Hannah James.

6. “The Paradise” (BBC-PBS) – This 2012-2013 series is an adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1883 novel, “Au Bonheur des Dames”, about the innovative creation of the department story – only with the story relocated to North East England. The series starred Joanna Vanderham and Peter Wight.

7. “Penny Dreadful” (Showtime/Sky) – Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Josh Harnett star in this horror-drama series about a group of people who battle the forces of supernatural evil in Victorian England.

8. “Ripper Street” (BBC) – Matthew Macfadyen stars in this crime drama about a team of police officers that patrol London’s Whitechapel neighborhood in the aftermath of Jack the Ripper’s serial murders.

9. “Underground” (WGN) – Misha Green and Joe Pokaski created this series about runaway slaves who endure a long journey from Georgia to the Northern states in a bid for freedom in the late Antebellum period. Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge star.

10. “War and Peace” (BBC) – Andrew Davies adapted this six-part miniseries, which is an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1865–1867 novel about the impact of the Napoleonic Era during Tsarist Russia. Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton starred.

“THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG” (2013) Review

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“THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG” (2013) Review

The second part of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 fantasy novel, “The Hobbit” recently hit the theaters. After watching it, I am amazed that I was ever against the idea of a three-film adaptation of the Tolkien’s story. 

Titled “THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG”, the second film began not long after the first one left off. I take that back. The movie began with a flashback featuring a meet between the wizard Gandalf the Gray and the Dwarf prince, Thorin Oakenshield at the Prancing Pony Tavern in Bree. Those familiar with the trilogy, will remember that Froddo Baggins and his fellow Hobbits were supposed to meet Gandalf at the Prancing Pony and ended up meeting Strider aka Aragon, future king of Gondor. The audiences learn in this flashback that it was Gandalf, who originally kickstarted the adventure by convincing Thorin to obtain the Arkenstone in order to unite the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain.

Finally, the story begins where the last movie left off, with Gandalf, Bilbo Baggins and the Dwarves evading the Orc chieftain Azog and his party. They eventually seek shelter at the home of a shapeshifter named Beorn, before they make their way to the Milkwood forest. There, Gandalf parts company with the others after discovering Black Speech graffiti imprinted on an old ruin. He heads toward the tombs of the Nazgûl in Dol Guldur, to investigate with fellow wizard Radagast. Meanwhile, Bilbo and the Dwarves get lost in the Milkwood forest and eventually captured by giant spiders. Using the One Ring to render himself invisible, Bilbo manages to free the Dwarves from the spiders’ webs. However, they end up being captured by a party of Wood Elves led by Legolas and Tauriel, who finish off the spiders. During the Dwarves’ captivity, Thorin gets into a conflict with the Wood Elves’ king, Thranduil; Kili becomes attracted to the Elves’ Chief of Guards, Tauriel. Again, Bilbo comes to the Dwaves’ rescue and help them escape, with their Orc pursuers close at their heels. And with the help of a barge man named Bard the Bowman (who is also a descendant of the last king of Dale), the travelers not only reach Lake-town, but eventually the Lonely Mountain and Smaug. Unbeknownst to Bilbo, Thorin and the other Dwarves, Gandalf is captured by the Necromancer of Nazgûl, who reveals himself as the Dark Lord Sauron.

Many fans and critics tend to view “THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG” as superior to the first movie in this new trilogy, “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”. If I have to be brutally honest, I do not particularly share this view. On the other hand, I do not regard the first “HOBBIT” movie as superior to this second one. I really cannot make up my mind on which film is better. “THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG” does not have a first act that takes its time in introducing the character. On the other hand, “AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” does not have an abrupt ending. And both films, in my opinion, are well written by screenwriters Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh and Guillermo del Toro. It featured further development of the major characters, development of the main narrative and some superb action sequences.

Before I wax lyrical over “THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG”, I might as well comment over its shortcomings. Thankfully, there are only a few. Two of them featured characters from the Wood Elves – Legolas and Tauriel. Orlando Bloom returned to portray the sixty years younger Legolas for this new trilogy. However, Bloom is over a decade older than he was when he portrayed the older Legolas. I wish I could say that he looked young enough to portray the younger Legolas. But I would be lying. And I am not being shallow. Bloom looked great. But I could tell that he looked older than he did in the “LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy. And for me, this did not gel very well, considering that he was portraying the same character at a younger age. I also had a problem with the new character, Tauriel, Chief Guard for the Wood Elves. I understand that she was created by Jackson and the other screenwriters, due to the dearth of female characters in this story’s chapter. Quite frankly, I have no problem with this, unlike the Tolkien “purists”. But there were times when I found her character a little too ideal. It is great that she is a badass. But aside from an initial show of bigotry toward the Dwarves, there seemed to be a lack of flaws in Tauriel’s characterization. Not only is she a badass fighter, she is the only Elf who seemed to be aware of a growing evil throughout Middle Earth and believes something should be done about it. Tauriel is practically a borderline “Mary Sue”. And like many moviegoers, I found the movie’s final scene rather perplexing. I realize that“THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG” is only the second of three movies. But Jackson had ended previous Tolkien movies – aside from “LORD OF THE RING: RETURN OF THE KING” – with the conclusion of a major action sequence. I had expected him to resolve the matter of Smaug before moving on to the last chapter of “THE HOBBIT”. He did not. And because of this, the movie ended on an erupt note.

As I had earlier stated, I cannot view “THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG” as superior to “AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”. On the other hand, I definitely do not view this second film as inferior to the first. First of all, it benefited from the establishment of the main characters and main narrative from the first film. I also have to give kudos to Peter Jackson for maintaining a steady pace throughout the movie – in both the action and dramatic sequences. I find that very impressive for a movie with a running time of two hours and forty-one minutes. The movie also continued Jackson’s track record with impressive production designs. I was especially impressed by Dan Hennah’s work for the Mirkwood Elves Realm, Lake-wood and the Lonely Mountain interior sequences. The costumes designed by Bob Buck, Ann Maskrey and Richard Taylor struck me as beautiful . . . especially those designed for the Wood Elves. I cannot forget Andrew Lesnie’s beautiful photography of New Zealand, which served as Middle Earth. And the makeup designs for the Dwaves characters and the Elves continued to impress me. But I cannot forget the visual effects used in this film. Most of the faces for the Orcs were computer generated, and I must say that I found that impressive. The visual effects team also did exceptional work for the Dol Guldur sequences – especially with Gandalf’s encounter with Sauron. And despite my dislike of spiders, I was also impressed by the visual work on the Milkwood Forest sequence that featured the protagonists’ encounters with the deadly beasts. But the one sequence that stands above the others – at least for me – proved to be Bilbo and the Dwarves’ encounter with the dragon Smaug. How can I put it? I found it breathtaking, mesmerizing . . . and extremely frightening. The visual creation of Smaug truly have to be the movie’s pièce de résistance. Benedict Cumberbatch’s superb voice performance greatly added to the terror . . . and I am being complementary.

However, “THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG” was not all about visual effects. The movie also featured some top-notch action sequences and superb dramatic moments. Not even my negative opinion of spiders could blind me from the first-rate sequence that featured the Milwood Elves’ rescue of Bilbo and the Dwarves. It was an especially good moment for actors Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lilly. Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage and those actors who portrayed the Dwarves had their chance to really shine in that outstanding sequence featuring Smaug within the great halls of Erebor. But my favorite action sequence featured Bilbo and the Dwarves’ escape from Wood Elves’ realm by traveling along a river inside empty wine barrels. Not even that brief, silly moment that featured Legolas balancing on the heads of two Dwarves, while fighting the pursuing Orcs could mar my enjoyment of that scene. If Jackson ever consider opening an amusement park, he might want to consider that sequence as an inspiration for an attraction. However, “THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG” was not all action and no drama. The movie certain featured some fine dramatic scenes. My favorites include two scenes featuring the growing romance between the Dwarf Kili and the Elf Guard Tauriel, Bilbo’s cat-and-mouse session with Smaug, and a wonderful moment in which Thorin manages to convince the citizens of Lake-town to support the Dwarves’ efforts to reclaim Erebor. But if there is one scene that really impressed me, it happened to be the stormy confrontation between the two leaders, Thorin and Thranduil, within the latter’s realm. I feel it was the dramatic highlight of the movie, thanks to superb performances from Richard Armitage and Lee Pace.

Speaking of performances . . . I really cannot say there was one that failed to impress me. Although I had some criticisms of the Legolas and Tauriel characters, I certainly had none regarding the two performers who portrayed them. Granted, Orlando Bloom may have been a bit old for portraying the younger Legolas, I must admit that I found his acting in this movie a lot more impressive than in the “LORD OF THE RINGS”. His Legolas in this film was a bit darker and more complex. And Bloom rose to the occasion perfectly. Evangeline Lilly’s portrayal of Tauriel was probably one of the best things in this movie. She has certainly come a long way since her early years as an actress. Tauriel might have been something of a “Mary Sue”, Lilly certainly injected a great deal of brilliance and excitement into the character. And she had great screen chemistry with Aidan Turner, who portrayed the youngest member of Thorin’s Dwarf band – Kili. Turner, who was such fun in the first “HOBBIT” film, did a marvelous job as the lovesick Kili. I especially enjoyed his one scene in which the barely conscious Kili not only poignantly expressed his love for Tauriel, but also his self-doubts about her feelings for him. Lee Pace added another eccentric character to his gallery of roles as the arrogant king of the Wood Elves, Thranduil. Mind you, Pace went out of his way to express Thranduil’s desire to protect his people from the growing evil. But he also did such a marvelous job in expressing Thranduil’s showy personality and arrogance.

Luke Evans made his debut in the trilogy as Bard the Bowman, an archer and descendant of the lords of Dale. And he was fantastic. Evans captured a great deal of the character’s grim charisma and presence with great ease. Some of the other actors who portrayed the Erebor Dwarves certainly made their presence felt in this film. Graham McTavish was deliciously surly as the aggressive Dwalin, the first Dwarf that Bilbo ever met. Ken Stott continued his outstanding portrayal of the elderly and very wise Balin. Dean O’Gorman continued his strong chemistry with Aidan Turner as Fili, Kili’s older brother. I was especially impressed by his performance in a scene in which Fili refuses to leave behind the injured Kili at Lake-town. A first-rate dramatic performance on his part. Stephen Hunter got to shine as the overweight Dwarf, Bombur. After his character was treated as a joke in the first film, Hunter had a great heroic moment when his character fought off several Orcs during the flight from the Milkwood Palace. Stephen Fry appeared in the film as the Master of Lake-town and gave a deliciously nasty performance as the self-involved and greedy leader of the community near the Lonely Mountain. In fact, I cannot recall him portraying such a negative character before. He should do it more often.

Ian McKellen continued his elegant portrayal of the wizard Gandalf the Gray. Like the second film in the “LORD OF RINGS” trilogy, his appearance was more limited than it was in the first. But he had some marvelous moments during the sequence that featured Gandalf’s visit to Dol Guldur. Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Bilbo Baggins developed in a way that I found both satisfying and disturbing. I have to give Freeman kudos in the subtle manner in which he conveyed Bilbo’s growing confidence in his role as a member of Thorin’s company. At the same, audiences could see the growing negative imapact of the One Ring upon his character . . . especially in the Milkwood Forest sequence. Bilbo’s character was not the only one growing increasingly darker. As much as I enjoyed Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of the heroic Aragon in the “LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy, I must admit that I find Richard Armitage’s portrayal of Thorin Oakenshield more rewarding. The character is so rich in its complexity and Armitage does a superb job in portraying the Dwarf prince’s moral ambiguity. I found it interesting that in this second film, Thorin begins to rely a lot more on Bilbo to help the company through its travails. Yet, the closer the company reaches its goal in Erebor, the darker Thorin’s personality becomes. It is fascinating to watch Armitage take this character down a dark road.

It is a pity that “THE HOBBIT” trilogy has not garnered as much critical acclaim as the “LORD OF THE RINGS” movies. Quite frankly, I find them more enjoyable to watch. Unlike the trilogy from a decade ago, the two“HOBBIT” movies have managed to more than satisfy me. “THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG” may have possessed a few flaws, but it kept me fully entertained and fascinated right to the end. Right now, Peter Jackson seemed to be on a roll with this second trilogy. I only hope that the third and last film will not disappoint me.

“THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” (2012) Review

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“THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” (2012) Review

I had nothing against the news of New Line Cinema’s attempt to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel, “The Hobbit” for the screen. But I had no idea that the studio, along with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Warner Brothers would end up stringing out the adaptation into three movies. Three. That seemed a lot for a 300-page novel. The first chapter in this three-page adaptation turned out to be the recent release, “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”

Peter Jackson, who had directed the adaptation of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”trilogy over a decade ago, returned to direct an earlier chapter of the author’s tales about Middle Earth. He nearly did not make it to the director’s chair. Guillermo del Toro was the first choice as director. However, del Toro Del left the project in May 2010 working with Jackson and the latter’s production team, due to delays caused in part by financial problems at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He did remain with the project long enough to co-write the movie’s screenplay with Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens. To my utter amazement, the efforts of the four screenwriters and Jackson’s direction has produced a good number of negative backlash against the film. Ironically, most of the film’s backlash has been directed at Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie’s use of high frame rate for the film’s look. Others have simply complained about the movie’s length and its inability to match the quality of the “LORD OF THE RINGS” Trilogy released between 2001 and 2003.

“THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” began on the elderly Bilbo Baggins’ 111th birthday (shown in the 2001 movie), when he decides to recount the full story of an adventure he had experienced 60 years ago, for his nephew Frodo. Bilbo first reveals how the Dwarf kingdom of Erebor was taken over by a gold-loving dragon named Smaug. The Erebor Dwarves are scattered throughout Middle Earth. The Dwarf King Thrór was killed by an Orc, when he tried to settle his people in Moria. His son, Thráin II, was driven mad from one of the Rings handed over to his ancestor by Sauron before dying. Thráin II’s son, Thorin Oakenshield, became determined to not only recover Erebor from Smaug, but also recover their treasure. At Gandalf the Gray’s suggestion, Thorin and his followers traveled to the Shire to recruit Bilbo’s help in achieving their goals (they need the Hobbit to act as a burglar in order to get their Arkenstone back). At first, Bilbo was reluctant to join their quest. But he caved in at the idea of an adventure and eventually joined the Dwarves and Gandalf. Their adventures led them to an encounter with three Trolls; pursuing Orcs who want Thorin’s head for cutting off the arm of their war chief, Azog; a respite at Rivendell, due to the hospitality of Lord Elrond; and deadly encounters within the Misty Mountains with Goblins and for Bilbo, the current Ring bearer Gollum. The movie ended on the slopes of the Misty Mountains with a deadly encounter with Azog and his orcs.

How do I feel about “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”? Well for one thing, I still believe it was unnecessary for a three-movie adaptation of Tolkien’s 1937 novel. It is simply not big enough, despite the fact that this first film is shorter than the three “LORD OF THE RINGS” movie. I really do not see how Jackson would be able to stretch an adaptation of the novel into three movies, each with an average running time of 160-170 minutes. Judging from the movie’s first 30 minutes, I see that Jackson is going to stretch it as much as he can. Many people have commented on the new high frame rate that Jackson and Lesnie used for the film. Yes, the movie has a sharper and more colorful look. In fact, the film’s visual look reminded me of the use of Blu-Ray DVDs. Do I care? No. Hollywood critics and moviegoers have a tradition of ranting against any new film innovation – sound, color, digital cameras, CGI . . . you get the point. It has been ten years since George Lucas first used digital cameras for “STAR WARS: EPISODE II-ATTACK OF THE CLONES” and people are still bitching about it. Did I have a few problems with “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”? Sure. Although many people have problems with the movie’s first 20 to 30 minutes, claiming that the Shire sequence seemed to stretch forever. I only agree with that criticism to a certain extent. I had no problems with Bilbo’s humorous first encounter with the Dwarves. But I thought Jackson lingered unnecessarily too long on the sequence featuring the elderly Bilbo and Frodo. And although I enjoyed the mind game between the younger Bilbo and Gollum, I have yet to develop any fondness for the latter character. And if I have to be brutally honest, I found Howard Shore’s score for this movie less memorable than his work for the“LORD OF THE RING” films.

Despite the conflict over using three movies to adapt Tolkien’s novel and Jackson’s use of a new high frame rate, I have to say that I enjoyed “THE HOBBIT: AN UNDISCOVERED JOURNEY” very much. In fact, I enjoyed it more than I did the second and third movies from the “LORD OF THE RINGS”trilogy. Like 2001’s “LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING”, this new movie is basically a tale about a road trip. And there is nothing more dear to my heart than a road trip. Because Tolkien’s 1937 tale was basically a children’s story, “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” featured a good deal of more humor than was found in the “LORD OF THE RINGS” films. A great deal of that humor came from twelve of the thirteen Dwarves, whom Bilbo and Gandalf accompanied. Four of the funniest sequences turned out to be the Dwarves’ arrival at an increasingly irritated Bilbo’s home in the Shire, the traveling party’s encounter with three Trolls obsessed with their stomachs, the Dwarves’ reactions to Elvish food in Rivendell and Bilbo’s mental duel with Gollum. Like the “LORD OF THE RINGS” movies, “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” also featured some outstanding action sequences – especially the flashbacks about the downfall of the Erebor Dwarves; the traveling party’s efforts to evade the Orc hunting party with the assistance of a wizard named Radagast the Brown; and their battles with both the Goblins, and Azog and the Orcs.

The movie featured some solid performances from the cast. It was good to see Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving as Lady Galadriel and her son-in-law Lord Elrond again. Although I am not a fan of the Gollum character, I must admit that Andy Serkis gave another memorable performance of the malignant changeling. However, I am a little confused by his portrayal of Gollum with a split personality, since the character’s moral compass was not challenged by any acts of kindness in this film. Ian McKellen was commanding as ever as the wizard Gandalf the Gray. And it was also nice to see Ian Holm and Elijah Wood as the elderly Bilbo Baggins and Frodo Baggins again. I was a little taken aback by the presence of Christopher Lee reprising his role of the wizard Saruman, but merely as a supporting character and not as a villain. But I have to give kudos to Lee for revealing certain aspects of Saruman’s personality that made his eventual corruption in the “LORD OF THE RINGS” saga.

But there were four performances that really impressed me. I really enjoyed Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Bilbo Baggins. He did an exceptional job of projecting the character’s emotional development from a self-satisfied homebody to the adventurer who wins the respect of the Dwarves with his heroic actions by the end of the movie. I first noticed Richard Armitage in the 2004 television miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH” and have been impressed with this actor ever since. I realized that his character Thorin Oakenshield is being compared to the Aragon character from “LORD OF THE RINGS”. I would not bother. Thorin is a more complicated character. And Jackson chose the right actor – namely Armitage – to portray this heroic, yet prickly and hot tempered Dwarf. Thanks to Armitage’s superb performance, it was not hard to understand Gandalf’s frustrations over the character. If I must be honest, my memories of the twelve other Dwarves is a bit shaky. But there were two of them that stood out for me. Ken Stott was very effective as the elderly Balin, who provided a great deal of wisdom in the story. And I really enjoyed James Nesbitt as Bofur, who injected a great deal of charm and liveliness not only in his role, but also in the story.

I realize that “THE HOBBIT: AN UNDISCOVERED JOURNEY” has been receiving mixed reviews from critics. And honestly, I do not care. Mind you, it is not perfect and I see no need for a three-movie adaptation of Tolkien’s 1937 novel. But I really enjoyed watching the movie. It reminded me of the joy I had experienced in watching the first “LORD OF THE RINGS” movie, “Fellowship of the Rings”. And I believe that Peter Jackson and a first-rate cast led by Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage did an excellent job in adapting part of Tolkien’s novel.