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 bad news is, you'll need to buy a new calendar — you were so excited to learn about the release dates of all of your favorite upcoming movies, you didn't realize that permanent ink was too bold a choice for the notations on that cats-dressed-as-townspeople planner you got gratis from the dry cleaners (you really should have learned after that whole Man of Steel fiasco). The worse news is, you'll have to wait an additional five months for the conclusion of Peter Jackson's Bilbo Baggins trilogy, The Hobbit: There and Back Again. But the good news: at least you'll get 2 Guns a couple of weeks earlier. So that's... something.
Thursday evening saw a slew of new release dates for the second half of 2013 go public, plucking two of the summer's anticipated titles from their slated releases. The Hollywood Reporter reports that Universal's Kick-Ass 2, originally planned to hit theaters in June, has been moved to Aug. 16, where the superhero flick's dark comic sensibility's will compete with the supremely cast coming-of-age comedy The to Do List and the next installment of the percy Jackson series.
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Meanwhile, a former occupant of the Aug. 16 spot will find itself releasing two weeks earlier: 2 Guns, the Denzel Washington/Mark Wahlberg film, also from Universal, has been relocated to Aug. 2, facing fellow action-heavy entries, the sequels of 300 and 2010's RED.
And although this isn't expected to affect its July 19 release date, Universal also plans to translate its supernatural crime comedy R.I.P.D. to 3D.
Later on in the year, we'll see Martin Scorsese's next jaunt vying for the awards attention it is likely to attract: Paramount's The Wolf of Wall Street, the director's Leonardo DiCaprio-starring biopic of infamous white collar criminal Jordan Belford, is hitting theaters on Nov. 15 — the heat of Oscar-bait season.
RELATED: 'Kick Ass 2' Set Photos: See Jim Carrey as the Movie's Villain
In the longer term, Warner Bros. has new plans for The Hobbit: There and Back Again, which has shifted most dramatically from its July 18, 2014 position to Dec. 17, 2014, in keeping with the releases of its predecessors (An Unexpected Journey hit Dec. 14 of 2012, Desolation of Smaug will take to theaters on Dec. 13, 2013).
But we're thinking we might mark these new dates in pencil... and maybe we'll go for a penguins-wearing-top-hats calendar theme this time around.
Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.
[Photo Credit: Warner Bros.]
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Deborah Brando's third attempt to "disturb the closed estate" of Marlon Brando was ruled improper in the State of California Court of Appeal last week (30Jul09).
A judge in the case ruled in favour of the Brando Trust and upheld Avra Douglas, Larry Dressler and Mike Medavoy as co-executors of the Brando estate.
Brando, who was married to the movie star's late son Christian, petitioned to revoke the decision of the probate May 2007 court orders and challenge the will and reopen the estate.
Her original challenge was denied when the probate court dismissed her first attempt in January, 2008.
The Court of Appeal awarded Douglas, Medavoy and Dressler their costs on appeal.
The trustees' attorney, Michael Brophy, tells WENN, "It is unfortunate that the appellant continued to seek to disturb the closed estate, even after the probate court explained that her action was inappropriate. The probate statutes are designed to provide certainty and to prevent untimely attacks like these. The statutory protections and procedures prevent disinterested parties from using untimely, false accusations to disturb settled transactions and distributions.
"We are delighted by the ruling of the Court of Appeal and look forward to continuing to carry out all of our responsibilities as co-trustees according to Marlon Brando's wishes.
"We have dealt with numerous lawsuits involving Marlon Brando's Estate since 2004 and we look forward to having the one remaining lawsuit resolved in the very near future so that the Trust can focus its time, attention and valuable resources on building a strong and successful business on behalf of the beneficiaries.
In May (09), movie mogul Medavoy told WENN he has found managing late pal Brando's estate difficult - because he and his fellow trustees have been hit with countless requests for cash from the late star's former business associates and hangers-on.
He said, "There's so many people sucking up to Marlon but he left the estate to 10 people. That's it.
"He made three people trustees and if I'd known all the things I have been through, I think I would have thought about it twice, and probably never done it. It comes with all these crazies.".