This Week at the Movies

'The Hobbit' is enjoyable, but more lightweight than the original 'Rings' trilogy, while 'Lay the Favorite' is a rare misfire for a great director.

Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is a pretty good – but not great – companion to his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Much like the director’s previous three adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, “The Hobbit” has an epic-length running time. But while the previous films were often filled with long close-up shots of its blue-eyed cast and sweeping panoramas of New Zealand’s terrain, Jackson’s latest is primarily one chase scene and special effects-laden battle after the next once its story kicks into gear.

I’m not panning the film, but those who loved the original trilogy should approach “The Hobbit” with lower expectations.

For those unfamiliar with the source material, this story follows Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he undertakes an adventure with wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a group of wily dwarves who plan to revenge the death of their former king at the hands of a vicious orc and retake their kingdom from a massive dragon.

No further plot description is necessary as much of this first of three films merely follows Bilbo and his companions during a series of run-ins with orcs, elves, goblins and, in the film’s brightest moment, Golem (Andy Serkis), who becomes enraged after losing his “precious.”

Some of the special effects are quite stunning, despite their overabundance, while others are simply filler. And Jackson made a curious choice to shoot in 48 frames per second, which, once combined with 3-D, gives the picture a visual style more in common with, say, the “Paranormal Activity” films than the original “Rings” trilogy.

“The Hobbit” is enjoyable enough, but those who believe the original three pictures were the “Star Wars” of their generation might find Jackson’s latest to be more comparable in quality to George Lucas’s second trilogy.

Speaking of a downgrade in quality, it’s difficult to discern how Stephen Frears came to direct “Lay the Favorite,” a lightweight sports gambling drama that barely registers.

Frears’s resume includes “The Grifters,” “High Fidelity” and “The Queen,” so what drew him to his latest picture is beyond my comprehension.

In the film, Rebecca Hall plays a former stripper who lands in Las Vegas and gets involved in two separate gambling operations run by Bruce Willis and Vince Vaughn.

Also thrown into the mix are Willis’s jealous wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and a love interest for Hall’s character (Joshua Jackson).

Frears has proven his ability at directing a comedic script before, so it’s odd to find “Lay the Favorite” to be so tone deaf. The movie also slips back and forth between humor and dramatic material, but not very gracefully.

And the performances of varied tone from the film’s talented cast often give the impression of a series of characters who wandered off their own movies and all ended up on the same set.

Frears is a talented filmmaker, so I hope he finds better material for his next outing.

“The Hobbit” is playing at Midway Theater on Queens Boulevard, while “Lay the Favorite” is screening at Cinemart Cinemas on Metropolitan Avenue.


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