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A film more accessible to non-Tolkien purists, "Desolation of Smaug" picks up nicely where "An Unexpected Journey" left off, and quite literally never lets up with the stunning visuals, fun set pieces, and interesting new characters. Where the pacing of "Journey" was slower (as are most 'origin' or 'introductory' chapters of some other film trilogies - how else are you to introduce people to characters without taking the time to let you get to know them?), "Desolation of Smaug" is more action-oriented, with the danger and stakes of the characters' choices becoming that much higher.
As to be expected, much of what Tolkien wrote in his novel of "The Hobbit" is embellished upon and extended for the film version (and especially in this middle chapter), but for good reason. As I have been reading the novel again during my re-watching of "Journey" and subsequent viewing of "Smaug", I have come to realize that there IS much for director Peter Jackson to bring life to. Meatier dialogue, drama, political machinations - literally taking a moment or two to let the viewer visually grasp the world of Middle-earth - are things that I felt were most welcome this time around. There were a few things that were in the book that I wish they had included in the film (the dialogue exchange between Beorn and Gandalf in the book was something I was looking forward to), but the addition of Legolas and Jackson-created elf character Tauriel were welcome. There is even a nice gag setting up a future relationship between Legolas and a "Rings" character that happens quickly and can be missed if you aren't paying attention.
As for the dragon Smaug - holy shit. The set piece alone is one of those scenes where, when I buy the extended Blu-Ray version of the movie when it's released late next year, I will be skipping right to in order to test my sound system. Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug is probably the scariest thing to come out of Jackson's five Middle-earth films so far. Humongous, vile, and like many other races of beings in that world - totally racist toward dwarves, the dragon poses a danger nearly as destructive as Sauron himself. And as for that...
...many of the 'comings and goings' of Gandalf's affairs that were left empty in the pages of the "Hobbit" novel itself (but touched upon in the Appendices at the end of the "Lord of the Rings" novels) are displayed here, with an outcome that ties these "Hobbit" films nicely together with the "Lord of the Rings" films.
In the end, the middle film in the journey of the twelve dwarves and their burglar, Bilbo Baggins, to reclaim their home in the mountain of Erebor, is a more urgent, faster-paced film with a good mix of visual effects and practical set pieces. Seeing the film in 3D (NOT the HFR format) does give the film a step up immersing us into the fantasy world, but regardless of which format you see the film in, any problems you may have had with the pacing, length, or jokey nature of the first part are rectified and darkened (as with many middle chapters) to make "The Desolation of Smaug" a much more accessible entry in the "Hobbit" trilogy.
I love my time spent in Middle-earth, both novel and motion picture.
As a side note, I do like how Jackson chose to show the power the ring is beginning to have on Bilbo, something that was not really touched upon in the book but would clearly be an issue in the whole aspect of the story. Another welcome and intelligent addition on Jackson's part.
The reason "Gravity" is a supreme exercise in the art of film making is simple - Alfonso Cuaron is one of the best directors we have working today, which makes it even sadder considering his resume is so small compared to soulless, shit-show directors like Brett Ratner, McG, and Len Wiseman. His handle on the realism of human emotion, through long, steady takes to allow the audience to envelop performances and scenery, as well as creative uses of the camera lens make him a true "actor's director".
Reading about the preparation for the film, Cuaron and Sandra Bullock went through months of training to assure understanding in the meaning of her performance, successfully drawing the audience in to her world through captivation and realism. Space feels real only because Bullock's performance is so real...and vice versa.
I'm concerned with a few websites, like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB, who labeled the film as 'science fiction', because "Gravity" is one of the most realistic films I have ever seen. Re-read that sentence again. Sure, the movie takes place in SPACE, but it is not an exercise in the horror of aliens, monsters, or interstellar demons - the movie is about SPACE in more than one context: Seeing the film in 3D, you get immersed into the experience of depth and height, so much so that I felt a little bit of anxiety in the first 15 minutes. The 3D really brings out the enormity of the vast expanses in the unknown darkness beyond Earth, and also makes us FEEL that we are thousands of miles above the ground. If you have vertigo or are afraid of heights, take a pill and see the film in 3D - the panic adds to the experience.
As for Bullock's performance, she is masterful in engaging the audience in her emotions. In a sense, the simple act of her breathing (much like Jodie Foster's performance at the end of "Silence of the Lambs", when her panic-induced breathing added greatly to the tension we felt in that moment) gave me a true understanding of the sense of realism. If Sandra's performance wasn't as good as it was, the film would have been a simple showcase in the wonders of visual effects. But because of director Alfonso Cuaron, a sturdy supporting turn by George Clooney (listening to his commanding and comforting words of support to Sandra makes his performance 'supporting' in more than one context), "Gravity" is able to achieve what many films this year have been unable to do - take what looks on paper like a 'sci-fi' showcase of visual effects, and turn it into a powerhouse of acting, tension, and a plethora of emotions that, with a proper use of 3D technology (FINALLY!), immerse us in Hollywood's most realistic space experience to date. In IMAX, I can only imagine the film is even more powerful.
An entry from the Marvel film universe that rightfully feels smaller in scope, "The Wolverine" is a film that is great in parts, but as a whole falls short of being something that could have been a subdued, character action/drama with more substance and gritty, visceral carnage than what it portrays. Hugh Jackman is fantastic as always, but the film suffers from the current attention to bigger, CGI-infested action. The first act sets the film up as a character-centric piece, one that would most definitely have benefited from an R-rating.
The story itself is satisfactory (as well as the inclusion of the post-credit scene that sets up a future "X-Men" installment), but the action cinematography suffers in the same way that fellow summer big-budget action film "Elysium" did - wildly erratic use of the shaky-cam shooting style that takes viewers completely out of the action, or in many cases, taking the viewers out of any scene that they had intended to watch the film for in the first place. What good are hand-to-hand fight scenes if you can't see what is going on?
Promise of a longer, unrated version of the film gives this film the extra half-star, but as an entry in the "X-Men" universe, it is much better than the "Origins" release and "X-Men: The Last Stand", but falls short of the storytelling and pace of "X2".