Knight at the Movies: The Hobbit; The Babadook; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2014-12-17


Benedict Cumberbatch voices the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures


Here at the end of The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, the third and final film in the trilogy—and the sixth cinematic visit to Middle Earth—there's inevitably the feeling of having survived a very, very long journey. It's been magical and visually dazzling, to be sure, but some of it admittedly has felt like an endurance test as well. That's not unexpected. By the time the credits roll we will have spent close to 16 hours in Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy world. That's a lot of time in Hobbitville.

"Fiddle dee dee. War war war. This talk of war is spoiling every party," Scarlett O'Hara groused at the outset of Gone with the Wind, and one might make the same complaint about this final Hobbit installment. Even at a crisp 144 minutes ( the shortest in the entire series ) this last outing is mostly taken up with the mega-war over the treasure buried within the dwarves' Lonely Mountain lair. Having already been through the war to end all wars in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a feeling of battle fatigue and déjà vu was probably unavoidable.

After the fire-breathing dragon Smaug ( voiced by an electronically altered Benedict Cumberbatch ) battles Lake Town hero Bard ( Luke Evans ) at the top of the film, pretty much everything focuses on those advancing five armies ( orcs, men, elves, etc. ) all laying claim to the vast fortune. Thorin ( Richard Armitage )—the king of the dwarves who is holed up inside the mountain fortress with the rest of his ragtag group—is affected by dragon fever ( aka lust for gold ) and isn't about to take any council from Gandalf, Bilbo or his dwarf compatriots, and he isn't about to let a bit of the treasure out of his grasp.

There are some nice diversions ( a forbidden romance between Evangeline Lilly, as a fierce elf warrior, and Aidan Turner as her equally fierce dwarf love interest; anytime Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett or Ian McKellen is on screen; some Lord of the Rings backstory; some nice reflective scenes with Martin Freeman as Bilbo, etc. ). And there are some unwelcome distractions, too ( a series of low comedy scenes with Ryan Gage as Alfrid, a cowardly henchman from Lake Town; too much focus on Thorin's greed, etc. ). But mostly it's all about those armies—advancing, preparing to fight, fighting, regrouping, fighting again with loyalties changing as allegiances are formed and frayed. Bilbo, natch, will play a big part in setting things to right as the action draws to its foregone conclusion.

Peter Jackson and his team once again provide moments both beautiful and thrilling, and action junkies are going to love the movie. I wasn't as enamored of this last edition as I have been of others in the series. ( It's like a blown up version of The Two Towers, my least favorite Hobbit film. ) But, that said, the movie does remind us once again how far Peter Jackson's Hobbit series has advanced the fantasy/action genre on the screen ( for my money, a lot further than the Marvel Universe—but that's an argument for another day ) and, ultimately, anyone with a taste for fantasy is going to want to see The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies on the big screen ( but skip the 3-D format unless you're a diehard ).

Finally, did I mention that the gay subtext is as thick as the smoke from Gandalf's pipe? Take a look at that cast again—Ian McKellen, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Richard Armitage, Stephen Fry, et al, and I think you'll catch my drift.

I can't let the most frightening film of the year go by without at least a mention. With the Australian film The Babadook, writer-director Jennifer Kent makes a stunning feature debut that eschews the typical horror movie tropes and goes the much scarier psychological route.

Amelia, a young widow ( a sensational Essie Davis, who was equally memorable in Girl with a Pearl Earring several years back ) is at her wit's end with her ( very ) strange kid Samuel ( Noah Wiseman ), who is fixated on magic, the death of his father in a car accident just as he was being born, and the idea that a monster is coming to kill them both.

The emotionally needy Samuel is driving Amelia up the wall. One night, Samuel badgers his frazzled mother into reading him a bedtime story from a pop-up book about a supernatural monster called The Babadook. Once someone becomes aware of The Babadook, the story reveals, it torments that person … forever. There's no killing it or sending it away or bargaining. Amelia, worn-out by Samuel's increasingly bizarre behavior, becomes convinced The Babadook is trying to invade their home. And suddenly, perhaps, the creature is.

Relying on in-camera special effects that date back to the dawn of film ( as Coppola did in Bram Stoker's Dracula ), Kent and cinematographer Radek Ladczuk ( who shoots the movie in monochromatic colors ) create a world of menace within the confines of Amelia and Noah's cramped house. As the film progresses and both Amelia and Noah struggle with reality, the sense of claustrophobia is palpable. There is nothing so frightening, Kent vividly shows us, as a mother at war with her own dueling emotions when it comes to a difficult child. She has made a movie that is both thought-provoking and scary. The Babadook opens Friday, Dec. 19, at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. Article Link Here

Film notes:

—I Am Woman, Love My Body: Women make up less than 5 percent of film directors and while it's becoming increasingly common to see movies told from the feminine perspective, those helming the stories are still overwhelmingly men.

The female viewpoint is one of the reasons The Babadook and why actor-writer-director Cathryn Michon's comedy Muffin Top: A Love Story are such refreshing finds. Michon, a Northwestern University graduate and Second City improv alum, stars as Suzanne, a cultural-studies professor desperately trying to get pregnant with the help of fertility drugs ( which have given her a dreaded "muffin top," or stomach bulge ). Her anxiety already in high gear, Suzanne finds out on her birthday that her TV executive husband has impregnated his co-worker ( who, naturally, is younger and thinner ) and wants a divorce.

As Suzanne slowly begins to recover, the first order of business is feeling good about all of herself—including the fact that she's supposedly a tad bit overweight. Then, there are tentative steps into the dating pool in image-conscious L.A. Michon's delightful, truly funny rom com ( with its cute tagline, "Love hurts, cake helps" ) is helped by a strong supporting cast of laugh-getters: Dot Marie Jones ( of "Glee" ), who plays a transgender hairstylist and one of Suzanne's closest gal pals, "Hairspray's" Marissa Janet Winkour, the late Marcia Wallace and David Arquette, among them. Michon will be in town for a one-night screening of the film Thursday, Dec. 18, at 7:30 p.m. at the Kerasotes Showplace Icon, 1011 S. Delano St.—off Roosevelt Rd. For those who can't make the screening, the movie is also available via online through various streaming sites. Article Link Here

—Tis the season: The Chicago Public Library presents a final free holiday screening of Scrooge & Marley ( which I co-wrote and which was Executive Produced by Windy City Times publisher Tracy Baim ) on Monday, Dec. 22, at the Bezazian branch, 1226 W. Ainslie St. The screening will be at 6 p.m. Members of the film's creative team will attend and Scrooge & Marley merchandise will be available.

Now available: The Best of Knight at the Movies: 2004-2014—a compilation book of more than 150 of my film reviews from a queer perspective for Windy City Times—is now available and makes for a great holiday gift! Article Link Here .


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