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The Shelf: THE HOBBIT, A FIELD IN ENGLAND, EARTHFLIGHT

This week, we have several adventures in far away lands, from fighting to slay a dragon to trudging across grass high on mushrooms to soaring in the air with our fine feathered friends. We’ve also got family squabbles, old guys punching each other, more found footage, and some cinema classics. The breadth of this week’s Shelf is the stuff of legend.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

That journey that was not prepared for continues in the second part of Peter Jackson’s second Middle-Earth trilogy, this time finding Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), and the Dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) encountering a lot of the darkest parts of the realm, including the terrifying forests of Mirkwood and its giant spider invasion. They also happen across the elves of that forest, who are less friendly than you might think, despite the aid of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lily). Eventually, they do come across the very dragon of the title of the picture, and it’s quite the thing to behold.

I really found that I loved this second Hobbit movie right away, unlike An Unexpected Journey, which I had to watch a few times to really dig. The issue with the first one was mainly how long it took to get going, with all of its preparation and introduction and song-singing and the like. This one cuts right to the chase and is almost action from start to finish, which I greatly appreciate. The sequence in which the escaping Dwarves traverse a raging river in empty barrels whilst a whole horde of Orcs attack from the shore is some of the best frenetic mayhem I’ve seen in ages.

And, of course, how can you beat the scene with Bilbo and Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) talking? Much like his meeting with Gollum in the first film, Bilbo’s confrontation with the massive, gold-obsessed beast who speaks very eruditely is the highlight of this film. Jackson and WETA do a truly great job of giving the CG character the heft and scope he needs to be terrifying. There are shots with him walking around in the distance, searching for Bilbo while the Hobbit is hiding, and they’re particularly tense.

While the movie’s not perfect, and could certainly have excised some of the ancillary narratives (the sudden forced attraction between Kili and Tauriel is a prime example), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a very worthy entry into the Middle-Earth canon and a very enjoyable flick.

The Blu-ray release (which also comes in 3D, if you’re interested in that) has two hours of special features consisting of Jackson’s online production diaries, a tour of the set, and excerpts from the live internet event that was held about a year ago in which the director answered questions for people who bought the first film on Blu-ray. Pretty impressive, though you know the extended cut will have so much more.

To read and watch all of our coverage for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, please click this link.

A Field in England

British director Ben Wheatley’s fourth feature film, A Field in England is a black & white period piece set in the English Civil War of the 17th Century and includes some of the trippiest imagery since Eraserhead. In fact, this seems very akin to the work of David Lynch, with its quirky characters, its sparse and industrial soundscape, and its ability to leave an audience saying “WTF?!” But, while there’s some Lynchian aspects, the film is very much an auteurist piece from one of film’s most unique voices.

The story follows Whitehead, played by Reece Shearsmith, an apprentice alchemist and affirmed coward, who at the beginning of the movie climbs through some hedges onto a deserted English field to escape a bloody battle happening at all times just beyond the shrubbery. He’s also hiding from Trower (Julian Barratt), a captain who is forcing Whitehead to help them find another alchemist who has committed many thefts. Quickly, Whitehead encounters three others who have abandoned their posts in the battle; Jacob (Peter Ferdinando), a drunk with all manner of 17th Century maladies, Friend (Richard Glover), a dolt who sings a lot, and Cutler (Ryan Pope), a highwayman. As they walk further into the field to find an ale house, Cutler suddenly makes them pull on a large rope attacked to a wooden stake in the ground. After yanking on what seems like nothing, they soon see that it was, somehow, attached to a man, O’Neil (Michael Smiley), the alchemist Whitehead was after.

Cutler is O’Neil’s second, and they are looking for buried treasure somewhere in the field. They mean to use Whitehead’s abilities, gifted at alchemy and science as he is, to locate the spot they are to dig. After some ungodly violations, Whitehead is overcome by some force and runs around the field until he claims the dig site. Add to their peril, the only thing they have to eat are psychedelic mushrooms which grow in the field. Is it magic? Is it a bad trip? Is any of this really happening? We never quite know for sure. Or do we?

I don’t know entirely what to make of A Field in England, but I do know that it’s a movie I’ll be mulling over for the foreseeable future, and that’s pretty much all you can hope for from a film these days. I look forward to seeing what Ben Wheatley does next, which looks to be directing the first two episodes of Doctor Who Series 8. They probably won’t be this disturbing, but if they’re done as artfully and adeptly as this, everyone will be in good hands.

Here’s an interview with director Ben Wheatley that I didn’t do, even though it says I did.

Earthflight

My, how I love BBC Nature documentaries. I never get enough of them, from Planet Earth to Frozen Planet to Blue Planet to other things that have nothing to do with the word planet. Their latest Blu-ray release, which is actually from a documentary series that aired three years ago in Britain, is Earthflight, which takes a look at, and flies side by side with, birds from all the different continents on which there are birds that fly (sorry, Antarctica).

Narrated by David Tennant, this series uses the most up-to-date technology available to capture what it must be like to fly with and like our avian friends. The shots are truly amazing, especially the ones where they’ve clearly fastened a small camera to the back of a bird. It’s astonishing. You can watch as geese migrate across North America, vultures attempt to steal a kill from a hungry lion only to get it stolen by hyenas in return, and how certain storks choose to live around humans. You also get to see amazing and weird social behavior, like how bald eagles toss duck carcasses back and forth midair as a bonding ritual or how cranes in Holland do a mating dance of jumping up and down flapping their wings, which gets the rest of the flock excited and soon it’s a like a feathered House of Pain concert.

Really a terrific six-episode series, which, as with all of their series, looks amazing on Blu-ray.

ALSO AVAILABLE

Zero Charisma – Nerdist Industries’ first film as a distributor comes out to DVD today! Roll the dice and play by the rules.

August: Osage County – If you like watching a bunch of great actors be the most dysfunctional family on record, then this is the movie for you.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones – The first spinoff for the long-running and enduring horror series of found-footage scares.

Grudge Match – What if two guys who were in the most well-known boxing movies got together in their late 60s to beat each other up again? Then you’d get this movie, in which Sylvester “Rocky Balboa” Stallone and Robert “Jake LaMotta” De Niro square off with each other with Kevin Hart as the promoter. You know what you’re getting.

The 400 Blows – Francois Truffaut’s French New Wave masterpiece tells the story of a young boy’s fall into petty crime when he’s left alone too long. Really touching movie and the first appearance of Truffaut’s go-to protagonist Antoine Doinel, played by Jean-Pierre Leaud.

Night of the Hunter – Actor Charles Laughton’s one and only directorial effort finds Robert Mitchum as a criminal posing as a devout Southern preacher in order to get at a widow’s fortune. Her kids know where the loot is, and the boogieman of a charlatan will do anything to get it from them. It’s a chilling and disturbing Noir-ish horror movie with fantastic performances from everyone involved.

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