The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Oh, what the Harry Potter film franchise hath wrought. First, it split the seventh story in the series the films were based on into two films to extend the life of the franchise. Then the people behind Twilight turned four books into five movies. The Hunger Games was a book trilogy, but there will be four films. And yet none of those cash grabs was as cynical as what Peter Jackson’s doing with The Hobbit. He managed to get through the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in three films and yet the one and only literary volume of The Hobbit has to be turned into three movies? IT’S CALLED AN EDITOR, BRO. HIRE ONE.
Anyway: This is the second installment of Jackson’s very self-indulgent film adaptation of The Hobbit. Titular hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and his buddies get chased by orcs and bears and ultimately run into also-titular dragon Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch).
I’d love to tell you more about the plot, but whenever I try to read it, my eyes blur. But maybe sci-fantasy is your thing? If so, and if you won’t be able to stand the wait for Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones, this should serve as pop culture methadone. Me, I’m going to watch Freeman and Cumberbatch in the third season of Sherlock again instead.
Wesley Morris: “Desolation of Smaug looks as dreary as the title would lead you to believe. The whole thing lingers in the memory as piles of sludge and ash.”
New and Notable
August: Osage County
Aging poet Beverly (Sam Shepard) arranges live-in care for his wife, Violet (Meryl Streep), currently suffering from drug addiction and oral cancer, and then leaves the house, never to return. Violet calls all available family members to come support her in this trying time — her sister (Margo Martindale), brother-in-law (Chris Cooper), and children (Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, and Julia Roberts) — so everyone’s at home when they get bad news about Beverly’s whereabouts.
It’s a pretty impressive list of stars: I count three Oscar winners, an Emmy winner, and an Oscar nominee, and I haven’t even mentioned Ewan McGregor as Roberts’s husband or Cumberbatch as Martindale’s son. Both Streep and Roberts were Oscar nominated for their roles here, though both lost, I suppose because the awards are for BEST acting, not MOST.
Wesley Morris: “What are the TV ads for this new Meryl Streep–Julia Roberts movie trying to tell us? For the record, it’s called August: Osage County, but no one’s going to say that, because what the hell is an ‘August: Osage County’? Besides, once you leave the theater you’ll just be calling it Meryl & Julia: SVU.”
If you really loved Robert De Niro in Raging Bull and Sylvester Stallone in Rocky (the first one), it’s probably because you like the gritty reality of ’70s cinema more than you like either of those guys or boxing. And yet lots of people got together and thought you would also love seeing the two of them box each other, as elderly men, in a screenplay polished by the guy who created Entourage. I am not so sure those people were right!
Stallone plays Henry “Razor” Sharp (of course) and De Niro is Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (obviously), aged former boxers who each beat the other when they were actually in the middle of having boxing careers, roughly 700 years ago. When they meet back up at a video game motion-capture session organized by promoter Dante Slate Jr. (the very busy Kevin Hart) and Slate sees there’s still no love lost between them, he gets the idea they should fight each other again. Banter, high jinks, and eventually fisticuffs ensue.
Wesley Morris: “I imagine that one advantage of a boxing movie starring two men well past their athletic peaks is that you gain a kind of authenticity in letting them appear to throw their own punches. They look very much as if they hurt. The match is remarkable because it’s better than you hoped and less pathetic, sad, or creepy than you expected. ”
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones
Paranormal Activity has already received the greatest honor that can be bestowed upon a horror film: a film parody with at least one Wayans. And with A Haunted House 2 about to hit theaters, maybe the time is right for you to get up to speed on what’s going on with the franchise that inspired it.
The fifth (!) installment of the found-footage horror series switches things up dramatically and is more of a spinoff than a sequel. The action moves to Oxnard, California, where a teenager named Jesse lives upstairs from Anna, generally believed to be a witch. Before long, a mysterious bite is giving way to evidence of a curse and everything goes to hell (literally).
Wesley Morris: “These movies fail every test of their own internal logic. They hide behind the found-footage device. Still, it’s smart and not too cynical to take whatever supernatural darkness these movies are building toward to places where a not-insignificant portion of the audience lives.”
Justin Bieber’s Believe
Historians may well look back on Justin Bieber’s latest concert film, Believe, as the moment the star’s career started its inexorable decline. Opening on Christmas Day — a prime slot on the schedule for movies targeted toward families — it grossed less than $5 million in its first five days, which represents a steep dip from the $29.5 million Bieber’s previous concert film, Never Say Never, took in over its three-day opening weekend just two and a half years earlier.
Bieber had already run into some legal troubles before this thing came out. But that was before the famous sassy deposition tape; was his drag racing really that big a deal breaker for parents that they forbade their kids from seeing it? Or have the former Beliebers moved on to One Direction? Or has everyone who cares to see a Bieber concert actually already seen one in person and therefore there’s no audience left for a concert film? I’ll leave that to the studio heads trying to decide specifically why there won’t be a third one.
Walking With Dinosaurs
It’s entirely possible there will never be another Ice Age movie, which would deprive half a generation of hearing John Leguizamo’s voice in a prehistoric animated film. OR SO YOU MIGHT THINK.
In Walking With Dinosaurs, a paleontologist takes his niece and nephew hunting for fossils … and then things take a turn. Ricky, the nephew, meets talking crow Alex (Leguizamo), who can’t wait to transform back to his prehistoric form and start telling the story of his life in the Cretaceous period. Karl Urban and Justin Long are also present.
Early/“In Theaters” Releases
Every now and then, Nicolas Cage takes a break from his Drive Angrys and his National Treasures and makes a movie that reminds the world that he’s a legitimate, Oscar-winning actor. So if that’s something you enjoy, you might want to make Joe last, because it could be a long time before another one comes along.
On demand simultaneous with its theatrical release, Joe stars Cage as the supervisor of a crew of forest workers whose job is to inject poison into dying trees. His sad, weird, isolated existence is disrupted when he becomes a sad, weird mentor to a 15-year-old boy who I have to think could do better.
Wesley Morris: “Cage isn’t the primary problem with this movie, but having him in the title role — with a beard that makes him look only nominally grizzled — provides depressing proof that no one on the project seemed to know what they were doing.”
If you’re sufficiently dubious about the prospect of seeing Kristen Wiig in her first dramatic role, there’s no reason to spend full-ticket price to see it: Hateship Loveship can be seen much more affordably at home on the same day it hits theaters.
Adapted from a short story by Alice Munro (with the wisely shortened title “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage”), the film stars Wiig as Johanna, who becomes a live-in caretaker for an old man (Nick Nolte) and his crabby teen granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). Before long, Sabitha and a friend decide it would be HILARIOUS to fake email love notes to Johanna from Sabitha’s father (Guy Pearce). If you’ve ever wanted to see how catfishing would work as drafted by Alice Munro, here’s your chance.
Wesley Morris: “In an attempt to perform Munro’s scrupulous interiority, Wiig seems body-snatched.”
Nymphomaniac: Vol. II
Has it really been more than a month since Nymphomaniac: Vol. I titillated/challenged/sleazed its way onto the on-demand list, depending on what you thought/heard/felt about it? It has. But you can soon find something else to do with the hand you’ve had poised at the ready all this time: Here comes (heh) Vol. II.
Available on demand the same day as its theatrical release (heh), Vol. II finishes (heh) the story of Joe and her life of sexual exploration. Joining Charlotte Gainsbourg in the cast are Turn’s Jamie Bell, Caroline Goodall, Udo Kier, and Gainsbourg’s Antichrist costar Willem Dafoe, who’s a real damn pro if he’s even willing to get in the same room with her again after that.