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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Ralph Fiennes (the esteemed actor now best known for embodying Voldemort in the Harry Potter films) gave himself no small challenge for his first directorial effort. Coriolanus is a dense political Shakespeare play modernized by Fiennes and writer John Logan (Gladiator The Aviator Hugo) into a raw bloody war movie. The film maintains the play's original text a theatrical speech that manages to both heighten and impede the drama in certain instances. But Fiennes injects the material with unfiltered energy and even when the story is lost in its own intricacies it's visceral and commanding.
Presented against the nightmarish backdrop of "Rome " a Children of Men-esque land devastated by raging battles Coriolanus follows the troubled political career of Caius Martius Coriolanus (Fiennes) a general who fights resistance movements butts heads with local protestors and evades attack from influential statesmen. Martius is driven by one goal: to defeat his former friend and long-time nemesis Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) leader of the opposing Volscian army. Rather than attend to the city's rioting population the general joins his military squad to breach the Volscian's walls in hopes of going mano a mano with Aufidius. Martius achieves victory after victory (without putting an end to his Aufidius troubles) becoming a hero to his government. Eventually through his overbearing mother's persuasion Martius is convinced to put down his semi-automatic and begin an ascent to political greatness. It doesn't go so well.
Even if the abridged version of Coriolanus presented in the adaptation was a slow-paced talky drama every detail of Shakespeare's complicated narrative may still be difficult to parse but Fiennes isn't looking to hold any hands. He shoots his movie with the kineticism of a Bourne movie or the recent Hurt Locker full of shaky cam movement and too-close-for-comfort close-ups. He uses the extreme presentation of 24 news networks to replicate in Shakespeare's expository asides while bombarding our senses. He has a cast who can deliver The Bard's poetic dialogue with a cadence that fits realistic setting. The sound and feel of the language is as important as the meaning.
Fiennes isn't as concerned with audiences registering every last minutiae of Coriolanus and he takes every opportunity he can to let his cast off their leash to dig into the drama's inherent intensity. The director/actor plays Caius Martius Coriolanus like a rabid dog—crazed behind the eyes and ready to unleash a barrage of hellfire and spit. Butler's Tullus Aufidius is a low-key foil but when the two finally butt heads neither gentleman holds back. The real stand out is Vanessa Redgrave as Martius' mother Volumnia whose hushed manipulation is even more terrifying than Martius' over aggression.
Coherence isn't the priority in Coriolanus and attempts to connect with the characters becomes a chore but Fiennes's first foray into directing is enjoyable in the exhilaration it delivers to a time-honored text. Forget your memories of 11th grade English—this is unique adrenaline-infused Shakespeare.
This smart remake/update of a 70 year-old play and movie may not win any Oscars but it turns out to be as gorgeously entertaining as its title indicates. Based on the play and 1939 movie of the same name that skewered upper society women of the era writer/director Diane English has kept the bones intact but updated it all to include women of various places in life. Women who are still trying to find love and happiness and above all else female friendship. In their world life seems to revolve around Tanya (Debi Mazar) the gossipy manicurist at the Saks Fifth Avenue Beauty Salon who spills the beans to magazine editor Sylvie (Annette Bening) that her best friend Mary’s (Meg Ryan) Wall Street tycoon husband has been catting around with voluptuous perfume “spritzer girl” Crystal Allen (Eva Mendes). Deciding in tandem with Mary’s other pals--the housewife Edie (Debra Messing) and writer Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith)--to tell Mary Sylvie sparks an incident that sets off fireworks in all their lives with betrayals career crises pregnancy retreats revenge and forgiveness all figuring into the male-less proceedings. The Women’s entire ensemble cast is pure pleasure and it’s exclusively made up of some of the best comedic actresses around. Even all the extras are women but then that’s sort of the joke of the whole premise. Estrogen flows freely in this group led by Meg Ryan as the victimized wife and mother whose husband plays around on her and whose own father fires her from her job. Talk about a tough week! With money lines like her declaration of sexual prowess “I can suck the nails out of a board ” Ryan has some of her best moments in recent years playing nicely off co-star Bening. As Mary’s best friend she’s the workaholic but aging editor of a women’s magazine that’s on the edge of change she can’t seem to keep up with. Bening beautifully reflects the quandary of a career woman who has to watch her back at every moment. Messing and Pinkett Smith round out the fearsome foursome and each gets some choice comic material to play particularly Messing’s histrionics as the pregnant Edie. Suffice to say the inevitable but riotously funny delivery scene is well worth waiting for. Mendes plays the vamp bit for all it’s worth stunning in all her cunning. Mazar though is a bit too laid back as the manicurist with all the secrets. Cloris Leachman delivers some prize one-liners as Mary’s loyal housekeeper and Tilly Scott Peterson is very funny as the Uta the nanny. Carrie Fisher as a gossip columnist and Bette Midler as a tough-talking Hollywood agent make the most of their brief screen time as well but it’s English's Murphy Brown star Candice Bergen who steals the show as Mary’s wise but plastic surgery-addicted mother. A post face-lift scene with Bergen counseling Ryan is priceless stuff. Writer/director Diane English says she spent 14 frustrating years trying to bring this sassy update of Claire Booth Luce’s creation to the screen. Timing is everything and now with female bonding films all the rage The Women circa 2008 could be just the ticket. Certainly it’s strength is the comic savvy of English who spent several seasons on Murphy Brown honing her skills. It pays off here with a talented cast delivering her snappy lines with expert comic timing. Sure even updated as it is The Women still has the creakiness of a vehicle that peaked in 1939 but for whatever reason the old-fashioned craftsmanship still works even in an era where women have gone on to achievements not dreamed about when Luce wrote the play. As a director English is all about protecting her script and it’s the tight pacing of one amusing sequence after another that makes this little trifle sail by right down to the final sight gag. See it.