Give Martin Freeman an empty room and he'll give you comedy. The best parts of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey — an admittedly mishandled movie in large — involved his subdued grimaces, his Chaplinian waddling, and the way he carried himself with equal parts neurosis and snark in every scene. If there is one primary misstep of An Unexpected Journey's terrifically improved sequel, The Desolation of Smaug, it is the spiritual absence of Bilbo Baggins.
Freeman's good-natured but disgruntled Hobbit takes a backseat to the Dwarf team in this chapter of Peter Jackon's three-part saga, distributing the heavy lifting among the front lines of the bearded mooks. Thankfully, we're not shafted with too much "Thorin's destiny" backstory, instead focusing on the trek forward, through far more interesting terrain than we got last time around. The Dwarves voyage through a trippy woodland that'll conjur fond memories of The Legend of Zelda's unnavigable forest levels and inside the borders of Lake-town, a man-occupied working class monarchy that is more vivid and living than any place we have seen yet in the series. And while Unexpected Journey's goblin caverns might have been cool to look at, none of the quests in Desolation feel nearly as close to a tangential detour. Every step the Dwarves take is one that beckons us closer to the central, increasingly engaging story.
Desolation is not entirely without its curiosities. While Gandalf's mission to meet the Necromancer serves to connect the Hobbit trilogy to the Lord of the Rings movies, the occasional cuts over to the wizard's pursuits are primarily distracting and just a bit dull. Although we're happy to welcome the Elf race back into our Middle-earth adventures, it's easy to imagine a version of this story that didn't involve side characters like Legolas and Kate... I mean, Tauriel... and still felt whole (perhaps even more cohesive). The latter's love affair with hot Dwarf Kili seems like a last minute addition to the canon, and one not built on anything beyond the cinematic rule that two sexually compatible attractive people should probably have something brewing alongside all the action.
But the most egregious of crimes committed by Desolation is, unquestionably, the shafting of Bilbo Baggins to secondary status. Yes, he proves himself a savior to his fellow travelers four times in the film, but long stretches of action go by without so much as a word from the wide-eyed burglar. When he finally takes center stage in his theatrical face-off with Smaug — an exercise in double-talk reminiscent of Oedipus outsmarting the Sphinx — the film picks up with a new, cool energy, with a chilling fun laced around the impending doom of their back-and-forth. We've been waiting since the first frames of Unexpected to see how the dragon material will pay off, and it does in spades... albeit in the final third of Desolation, but with equal parts gravitas and fun, to reunite us with our Tolkien passions once more.
Benedict Cumberbatch's dragon doesn't do much to subvert expectation — he's slithering, sadistic, vain, manipulative, and vaguely Londonian. But tradition feels good here. Smaug's half hour spent toying with the mousey Bilbo (who does get a chance to showcase his aptitude at small-scale physical comedy here) is terrific in every way.
Its Hobbit problem aside, Desolation proves itself worthy of Bilbo's past proclamation. "I'm going on an adventure!" more than pays off here, in the form of mystifying boat rides, edge-of-your-seat efforts in dragon slaying, and the most joyful action set piece we've seen in years. Twelve Dwarves, twelve barrels, and one roaring river amounts for enough fun to warrant your trip to the theater for this latest outing into Middle-earth.
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The new fall pilots haven't even premiered yet, but already the networks are looking forward to their next big task: finding the right pilots and scripts to order for the 2013-2014 season. Development season is well underway and has been for the past few weeks — although this season is marked by a declaration from some networks (namely ABC and NBC) that the typically order-happy suits would not be as quick to bulk up their pilot orders this year. In other words, less is more.
Most of the majors have already made their first-round choices for specific projects, and the trends that have emerged seem to be all about big-name attachments (e.g. Vince Vaughn, Jodie Foster, Ryan Reynolds), period dramas (e.g. Aztec empire, Cold War America, 1890s Europe), international transplants (from Israel, England and Scandinavia) and — in an interestingly-revived yet well-worn trend — book adaptations (including Dracula and two Sleepy Hollow reboots).
Here's what ABC, CBS, The CW, FOX, NBC and more have coming down the '13-'14 pipeline so far:
— Dumb F*ck: Single-camera comedy about an average Joe and his brilliant wife who move in with her intelligent yet emotionally stunted family of geniuses; written by Hank Nelken (Saving Silverman), executive produced by Vin Di Bona, Bruce Gersh, Susan Levison and Shaleen Desai.
— Burns & Cooley: Medical procedural about two New York neurosurgeons who compete as they strive to be the top in all aspects of their lives; written by Meredith Philpott (Awkward), exec produced by Matt Gross (Body Of Proof).
— Founding Fathers: Drama about a war veteran whose Texas hometown is in the hands of a militia group led by his older brother; written by Rich D'Ovidio (Thir13en Ghosts), produced by Lorenzo Di Bonaventura and Dan McDermott.
— Untitled McG Project: Retelling of Romeo and Juliet, revolving around two rival families fighting for control over Venice, California; written by Byron Balasco (Detroit 1-8-7), produced by McG (The OC, Supernatural, Nikita).
— Untitled Kurtzman/Orci Project: Drama about a mysterious game; written by Noah Hawley (The Unusuals), produced by Heather Kadin, Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci.
— Dracula: 1890s-set period piece about the iconic vampire; written by Cole Haddon, produced by Tony Krantz and Colin Callender; starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors).
— The Blacklist: Drama about an international criminal who surrenders himself and helps the government hunt down his former cohorts; written by Jon Bokenkamp, exec produced by John Davis, John Fox and John Eisendrath.
— Hench: Based on the comic about a man who becomes a temp for super villains; written by Alexandra Cunningham (Desperate Housewives), exec produced by Peter Berg and Sarah Aubrey (Prime Suspect).
— Cleopatra: Period drama about the Egyptian queen Cleopatra; written by Michael Seitzman (Americana), exec produced by Lorenzo Di Bonaventura and Dan McDermott.
— Pariah: Drama inspired by Freakonomics about a rogue academic who uses economic theory to police San Diego; written by Kevin Fox (The Negotiator), exec produced by Kelsey Grammer, Stella Stolper and Brian Sher.
— After Hours/The Last Stand: Medical drama about Army doctors who work the night shift at a San Antonio hospital; revisited from last season; written by Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah.
— Untitled Parkes/MacDonald Project: Drama about an interpreter at the United Nations who works with diplomats and politicians from around the world; written by Tom Brady (Hell on Wheels), produced by Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald and Ted Gold.
— Untitled Charmelo/Snyder Project: New Orleans-set drama, described as a "sexy Southern Gothic thriller"; created by Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder (Ringer), exec produced by Peter Traugott and Rachel Kaplan.
— Untitled Rand Ravich Project: Drama-thriller following a secret service agent at the center of an international crisis in Washington, DC; created by Rand Ravich (Life), produced by Far Shariat.
— Island Practice: Based on the book Island Practice: Cobblestone Rash, Underground Tom, and Other Adventures Of A Nantucket Doctor, about an eccentric doctor with a controversial medical practice on an island off the coast of Washington; written by Amy Holden Jones (Mystic Pizza, Beethoven), produced by Brian Grazer, Francie Calfo and Oly Obst.
— The Brady Bunch: Reboot of the series, about a divorced Bobby Brady who re-marries a woman with children of her own; written by Mike Mariano (Raising Hope), co-developed and exec produced by Vince Vaughn (Sullivan & Son).
— A Welcome Grave: Based on the book series about a private investigator who comes under suspicion when a rival turns up dead.
— Backstrom: Based on the book series about a House-like detective who tries to change his self-destructive nature; written by Hart Hanson (Bones), produced by Leif G.W. Persson (novel) and Niclas Salomonsson.
— Ex-Men: Single-camera comedy about a young guy who moves into a short-term rental complex and befriends the other men who live there after being kicked out by their wives; written and directed by Rob Greenberg; starring Chris Smith and Kal Penn.
— Sleepy Hollow: Contemporary reinterpretation of the Sleepy Hollow short story; written by Patrick Macmanus and Grant Scharbo, produced by Scharbo and Gina Matthews.
— Gun Machine: Based on an upcoming novel (of the same name) about a New York detective whose chance discovery of a stash of guns leads back to a variety of unsolved murders; written by Dario Scardapane (Trauma), produced by Warren Ellis (book author), Scardapane, Peter Chernin and Katherine Pope.
— Sleepy Hollow: Modern-day thriller based on the Sleepy Hollow short story, following Ichabod Crane and a female sheriff who solve supernatural mysteries; written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Fringe, Hawaii Five-0) and Phillip Iscove, produced by Heather Kadin and Len Wiseman.
— The Beach: Based on the 1996 novel and 2000 movie about a group of youths who try to start society over on a remote paradise; written by Andrew Miller (The Secret Circle).
— Hard Up: Single-camera comedy based on Israeli series about four twentysomething guys who are strapped for cash; written by Etan Frankel (Shameless), produced by John Wells.
— Lowe Rollers: Animated comedy about a struggling Titanic-themed casino in Las Vegas; written by Mark Torgove and Paul Kaplan (Outsourced) and Ash Brannon, produced by Ryan Reynolds, Jonathon Komack Martin, Steven Pearl and Allan Loeb.
— Untitled Chris Levinson Project: Cop drama about a detective who puts his life under surveillance when he begins to lose his memory; written by Chris Levinson (Touch), produced by Peter Chernin and Katherine Pope.
— Untitled Friend/Lerner Project: Drama set on an aircraft carrier following young naval officers and a female fighter pilot who tries to solve an onboard murder; written and produced by Russel Friend and Garrett Lerner (House).
— Untitled Ryan Reynolds Project: Half-hour comedy about a disgraced hotelier forced to manage a rundown airport hotel; written by Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay (Clash of the Titans), produced by Ryan Reynolds, Allan Loeb, Jonathon Komack Martin and Steven Pearl.
— Untitled Jason Katims Project: Romantic comedy about a single female attorney; written by Jason Katims (Parenthood, Friday Night Lights) and Sarah Watson.
— Getting On: U.S. adaptation of a British comedy about a group of nurses and doctors working in a women's geriatric wing of a run-down hospital; Big Love creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer to exec produce with Jane Tranter, Julie Gardner and Geoff Atkinson.
— Buda Bridge: Belgian-set crime drama about a woman who is found dead on a famous bridge in Brussels; written and directed by Michael R. Roskam (Bullhead), produced by Michael Mann (Luck) and Mark Johnson (Breaking Bad).
— Hello Ladies: Comedy about an oddball Englishman who chases women in Los Angeles; written, directed by and starring Stephen Merchant (The Office), produced by Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky (The Office).
— Angie's Body: Drama about a powerful woman at the head of a crime family; written by Rob Fresco (Heroes, Jericho), directed and executive produced by Jodie Foster, Fresco and Russ Krasnoff.
— Conquest: Period drama about Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, who clashes with the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II; written by Jose Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries), produced by Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Francie Calfo.
— Low Winter Sun: Based on 2006 British miniseries about the aftermath that follows the murder of a cop by a fellow detective; written by Chris Mundy; James Ransone, Ruben Santiago Hudson and Athena Karkanis to star.
— Those Who Kill: Based on Danish series about a detective and forensics scientist who track down serial killers; written by Glen Morgan, produced by Brian Grazer, Francie Calfo, Peter Bose and Jonas Allen, directed by Joe Carnahan.
— Untitled LaGravenese/Goldwyn Project: Legal thriller about an attorney who discovers new evidence that re-opens a sensational murder case; written by Richard LaGravenese, directed by Tony Goldwyn, exec produced by David Manson; Marin Ireland to star as female lead.
— The Americans: Period drama about two KGB spies posing as Americans in Washington, DC; created by Joe Weisberg, exec produced by Weisberg, Graham Yost, Darryl Frank and Justin Falvey; directed by Gavin O'Connor; Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys and Noah Emmerich to star.
— The Bridge: Based on the Scandinavian series, about a murder investigation opened up after a dead body is discovered on a bridge connecting the United States and Mexico; written by Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reid (Cold Case), produced by Carolyn Bernstein, Lars Blomgren and Jane Featherstone.
— Untitled Dr. Dre Project: One-hour drama about music and crime in Los Angeles; written by Sidney Quashie, exec produced by Dr. Dre.
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[Photo Credit: ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, The CW]