Drama

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (2013)

Posted on

I rarely blog sequels, but since I defended Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit installment, I feel obligated to comment on the second part of The Hobbit.  Or whatever it is you want to call that ridiculous thing I watched yesterday…

The Good:
The dragon animation was awesome.  Also, Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice is simultaneously sexy and soul-crushingly terrifying.

The Bad:
Pretty much everything else.

Naively, I defended part one of The Hobbit trilogy.  “It’s not an adaptation of The Hobbit,” I thought.  “It’s a prequel to LOTR, bringing in material from the Appendices and The Fellowship and the Sillmarillion!”  And for part one this was true.

But wiser people said “What will they do in Part 2 and 3?  Where will they get the content?”

Naively, I thought, “Maybe their adventures in Mirkwood will lead us to a new understanding of the elves with bits of the elf history that was alluded to in the LOTR films but much more detailed in Tolkien’s writings.  Maybe we’ll see Aragorn kidnap Gollum, or form the Rangers, or just generally do all of the awesome stuff he does before the start of the Fellowship.  Or maybe we’ll get to see the start of Aragorn and Arwen’s relationship and finally come to understand why on Middle Earth he would prefer her over Eowyn!”

But no.

Instead we get 2 hrs of stuff that was not even alluded to in the books with maybe 30 minutes of content that was loosely based on events from the book.  Very loosely.

And here’s the kicker it wasn’t even a good film.  Maybe I can accept that it was a terrible adaptation (although really, I can’t, because the LOTR films were such good adaptations and should have been much, much more difficult to get right). But it was also completely useless as a stand-alone film.  There was absolutely no story arc.  The company traveled several miles, fighting orcs pretty much non-stop; they got to the mountain and fought the dragon for a bit; and then the movie ended.  There was a lot of action, but nothing was achieved and no characters were developed–except for some minor characters who were barely mentioned in the books or completely made up for the film.  

And it kills me because I know that Peter Jackson can do story arc.  I think the adaptation of The Two Towers was brilliant.  He took a book which has no real climax, consisting as it does of two largely unrelated adventures told in separate halves of the book (no offense to Tolkien–his story arc is really more in the entire three book work as a whole).  But by entwining the stories together, Jackson created a powerful story arc.  He even helped assuage the utter, agonizing, boringness of two hobbits hiking across Middle Earth for hundreds of pages (at least a little).  Another great example of his good story arc sense in the LOTR films is his choice to end The Fellowship with Boromir’s death and Frodo and Sam striking off on their own while the rest of the company follows the trail of the kidnapped Merry and Pippin.  Tolkien splits this content between the end of the Fellowship and beginning of the Two Towers–he doesn’t care about the story arc in the individual books and instead lets them run together.  Peter Jackson saw the superior breaking point, completing the collapse of the Fellowship in film one and setting us up for the new quests in film two.

And as for character development, look what Jackson did with Aragorn in the LOTR films.  In the books, most of Aragorn’s development as a character has occurred prior to the start of the plot.  He comes into the Fellowship holding the sword of Elendil proudly and takes command of the quest.  He goes into every battle confident of victory, and he always wins.  He is the triumphant battlelord/king of Medieval lore.  But Jackson makes some bold changes in his adaptation.  He takes away Aragorn’s sword, makes him self-conscious, full of guilt, and reluctant to command.  Jackson gives charge of the quest to Gandalf, even giving the wizard a bunch of Aragorn’s lines (notably, it is Gandalf, not Gimli who wishes to travel through Mordor and Aragorn who cautions against it and predicts Gandalf’s death).  But gradually, Aragorn gains confidence.  The battle of Helm’s Deep is not just a pit stop on the road to victory, but the turning of the tide when King Aragorn comes into his own.  These are pretty big changes, but they are purposeful.  They create a story that is a little bit different from Tolkien’s, but powerful and more accessible and inspiring to a modern film audience.

So I ask you, Peter Jackson, where was all of this brainpower when you were doing The Hobbit?  Here was a chance to create an awesome prequel trilogy for your Academy Award dominating masterworks and instead we experience Star Wars prequel-esque let-down.

At least the CGI dragon was cool. . .

GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell

Posted on Updated on

When the Civil War tears through Margaret Mitchell’s romanticized vision of the Old South, a noble civilization is burned to ash and swept away by the Yankee army.  The weak whither and fade in the dust of their lost world, but the strong rise from the ashes and reclaim the land that was their own. 

Before the war, Scarlett O’Hara is the belle of the county, desperately in love with Ashley who—despite his love for Scarlett—has chosen to marry the more practical Melanie.  Scarlett marries his cousin to spite him, but the war leaves her a widowed mother, impoverished, and compelled by her love of Ashley to help support his wife and child.  Realizing that money is the only thing that matters, Scarlett is prepared to lie, cheat, steal, and kill to build her fortune again.  The only person that she can’t seem to dominate is the infamous blockade runner, Rhett Butler, whose ego, sarcasm, and impropriety make him both attractive and infuriating.

Although I grew up loving the film, every time I eyed the 1,000 page tome on which it was based, I balked.  I don’t usually enjoy long books; I often spend half the time slogging through painfully verbose descriptions, wondering when the action will.  Additionally, I don’t usually enjoy romance novels, and romance certainly features prominently in Gone With the Wind. But when a fourteen year old boy told me that Gone With the Wind was one of the best books he had ever read, I was so intrigued that I picked it up.  And from that moment, I could not put it down.

As much as it is a romance between Scarlett and Rhett, Gone With the Wind is a romance between Margaret Mitchell and the Old South.  She wrote the book in the 1920s and 1930s based on stories told to her by her grandparents’ generation, and her romanticized fiction should not be mistaken for historical fact.  Deeply entrenched, lingering racism and classism is present not only in the thoughts of the characters but also in Mitchell’s omniscient narration.  But it is easy to see how the audience that read Mitchell’s book when it was released in 1936—people who had lost so many loved ones and sacrificed so much in a Great War of their own and were then living through a horrible period of economic uncertainty—found the story of the courage, pride, and survival so compelling. 

And the well-written, heartrending story still captures the imagination today.  The world Mitchell creates and destroys is so beautiful yet flawed, and her account of the ups and downs of the war so agonizing, that even knowing how it would end, I couldn’t put the book down.  But it is the characters that truly drive the story forward.  Scarlett’s self-interested passion and determination is a foil to Melanie’s quiet, selfless, and commanding strength.  Far more than in the movie, Captain Butler’s deep goodness shines through the mask of his weaknesses and vices.  It is difficult not to both hate and pity Scarlett for failing to see through his studied nonchalance to the love he conceals out of fear that she will manipulate him, as she does all other men. 

If you love the movie, you must read the book.  The movie is a good adaptation, but even 4 hours of film cannot capture the depth and nuance of this 959 page novel.  Additionally, Hollywood’s added “I love yous” and eliminated references to sex and pregnancy cause subtle yet important changes to the Rhett-Scarlett-Ashley love triangle.  Be prepared for a glimpse into the racism of the Old South (and the 1930s South), but also for a perhaps not-entirely-inaccurate view of the hypocrisy and ruthlessness of the Yankees.  And be prepared to watch in agony the slow demise of a relationship—and a civilization—due to foolishness, pride, and miscommunication.

Thank you for the recommendation, Max!  I will second your vote: this is definitely one of the best books I have ever read.

“SHERLOCK” (2010- )

Posted on Updated on

In a modern-day reimagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic mystery stories, consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and his retired Army doctor flat-mate, John Watson, work with (or in some cases, behind the backs of) the police to unravel London’s most enigmatic mysteries.  Although Sherlock’s inflated ego, abrasive personality, and very annoying and influential older brother, Mycroft, often make John’s life difficult, he finds that the thrill of investigating dangerous cases and seeing Sherlock’s impressive powers of observation in action provide him with a sense of purpose he has not felt since the war.  

“Sherlock” is Steven Moffat at his best.  Using his own gift for piecing together complicated puzzles, Moffat draws from his detailed knowledge of Doyle’s works to craft new mysteries that allude to original Sherlock Holmes stories yet fit comfortably in the modern setting, twisting the classic tales in interesting and exciting ways.  Sherlock Holmes fans will not be disappointed by Moffat’s careful treatment of the characters and story lines but will love catching the allusions to classic Holmes cases.  If you are not familiar with Doyle’s works, don’t worry!  There is plenty to enjoy in this fast-paced, action-packed mystery series no matter how much you know about Sherlock Holmes.  

Six episodes of the mini-series have been released so far with a third (and possibly final) three-episode season to be aired Fall 2013.

LES MISERABLES (2012)

Posted on Updated on

Director: Tom Hooper
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 157 min.

In 1815, Jean Valjean is finally released from prison on parole; he has served 19 years as a slave in punishment for stealing a loaf of bread to save a family member from starvation.  As Valjean struggles to find employment and lodging, the startling kindness and mercy of a priest who reaches out to him moves him deeply.  Dedicating himself to the work of God and care of the poor, Valjean breaks his parole and begins a new life under a false identity. 

Several years later, Valjean has become a respected politician and businessman.  When a former prison guard, Javert, suddenly arrives in town, however, Valjean knows his true identity will soon be discovered.  Around the same time, he meets Fantine, a young woman who was fired from Valjean’s factory by a corrupt foreman and has since resorted to prostitution to provide for her young daughter, Cosette.   Realizing that Fantine is terminally ill, Valjean vows to care for Cosette.  Valjean and Cosette live a life on the run, pursued by Javert and attempting to find a safe haven in a society that is once again teetering on the brink of revolution.

An excellent film adaptation of an excellent musical! Unlike some stage-to-screen adaptations of musicals, Tom Hooper’s Les Mis keeps the focus on the music, even retaining the recitative portions of sung conversations between characters.  With the exception of the role of Javert, I never felt that either vocal talent or acting talent was compromised for the sake of the other.  Russell Crowe is undeniably a better actor than he is a singer.  Still, although his voice was sometimes overpowered by the other male voices, he was consistently on pitch and confident enough in his singing that it did not detract much from his overall performance.  And no surprises in the Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway!   A great film and fun to see on the big screen–I highly recommend this adaptation of Les Miserable.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (2012)

Posted on Updated on

Director: Peter Jackson
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 169 min.

When Gandalf the Grey and a roudy bunch of dwarves show up on his doorstep, the flustered Bilbo Baggins tries very hard to send them away.  He is not interested in any adventures, thank you!  Although the story of the dwarves’ lost homeland intrigues him, the fear of being roasted by the dragon who has taken over the Lonely Mountain makes him faint.  And he is certainly not the burglar that Gandalf has told the dwarves that he is!  But the next morning when he awakes to find the dwarves gone on their quest, something seizes hold of Bilbo and he runs out the door on an adventure after all.  

Unfortunately, the quest of the dwarves has not gone unnoticed.  An old orc enemy of their leader, Thorin, is determined to chase down and destroy the “dwarf scum.”  Further complicating matters, the dwarves will need the help from the elves to read an ancient map, and not all of the elves and wizards approve of their mission.  Meanwhile, the woodland wizard Radagast delivers concerning news that a dark power–a necromancer–has awakened somewhere in the South.  Gandalf fears that a sinister change is beginning in Middle Earth…

I thoroughly enjoyed this film.  If you are hoping for a faithful adaptation of The Hobbit, however, you may be disappointed.  While The Hobbit is a fairly lighthearted children’s book, the film is much darker and more violent–similar to the Lord of the Rings films.  While some aspects of the Hobbit quest are portrayed with acute attention to detail (such as the descriptions of the dwarves and their rowdy party at Bilbo’s house) and others are only slightly altered to be more action-heavy (such as the encounter with the trolls and the Stone Giants), there are huge plot threads added in–many coming from other Tolkien works.

Instead of an adaptation of The Hobbit, the film is more of a prequel to the Lord of the Rings films.  The book The Hobbit was written before the LOTR books and explains how Bilbo Baggins acquired the ring of power, as well as introducing some of the characters and types of characters who would be major players in LOTR.  The film goes beyond this.  Assuming that viewers have already seen LOTR, the film traces not only the quest of Bilbo and the dwarves but also the early signs of the rise of Sauron and some of the backstory of the tensions that exist between the different races (elves, dwarves, men, etc.).  It also matches LOTR in tone–much darker than the Hobbit book.

Thinking of it as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings, I loved the film and am thoroughly looking forward to the next two installments!  There was still plenty of humor, Bilbo’s character development still moved from nervous, accident-prone, and useless toward confident, heroic, and repected by his fellows, and so many interesting themes from LOTR are picked up and explored.  If you liked the LOTR films, I highly recommed checking out The Hobbit!  See it in 3D if you can; it is not gimicky at all and adds a lot of depth.

DR. HORRIBLE’S SING-ALONG BLOG (2008)

Posted on Updated on

Director: Joss Whedon
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time 42 min.

In his super villain identity as Dr. Horrible, Billy dreams of joining the Evil League of Evil and disrupting the “status quo” of a society that is clearly complacent in its corruption and brokenness.  But he also dreams of asking out the gorgeous girl from the laundromat, Penny. Unfortunately, when a chance to talk to Penny finally presents itself, Dr. Horrible is in the midst of a major heist–one that could make or break his application to the League.  Even more unfortunately, Dr. Horrible’s nemesis Captain Hammer gets in the way on both fronts, foiling the heist and rescuing Penny who then agrees to date him.  Now in order to get into the ELE, make Penny fall in love with him, and of course fix the world, Dr. Horrible will need to do something drastic.

Thank you, 2008 Screen Writers Strike, for prompting the creation of this brilliant three episode web-series, now available through iTunes and on DVD.  If you love Joss Whedon/Firefly/Serenity/Buffy/any of the above, you will love Dr. Horrible (let’s face it–you’ll already have seen Dr. Horrible. . . .).  But if you like funny, quirky sci-fi and/or musicals (and don’t mind low budget!), give Dr. Horrible a try.  It’s one of my favorites!

THE IRON LADY (2011)

Posted on Updated on

Director: Phyllida Lloyd
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 105 min.

Margaret Thatcher was never content to sit on the sidelines.  After years of hard work that moved her from her father’s blue-collar world into the highest ranks of the Conservative Party, she rose to power as Britain’s first female prime minister and became famous for the uncompromising approach to politics that earned her both respect and many enemies.  Years after her retirement, Margaret remembers key events in her past, reflects on who she was and who she has become, and struggles with hallucinations of her late husband.

The Iron Lady is all about the acting.  As always, Meryl Streep’s performance is flawless, and particularly noteworthy in such a character-driven film,  The chronology is, at times, difficult to follow (intentionally, I believe), but the plot is not the focus.  This movie is for viewers who like character studies, especially nuanced imaginings of the inner thoughts and character development of well known political and historical figures.  But the film transcends its historical and political subject matter.  The most powerful themes of the film spring from the portrayal of Margaret Thatcher’s marriage–an exploration of love, sacrifice, loss, and the transience of youth.  I agree with the Academy on this one: although other films of 2011 were better overall, The Iron Lady is a powerful story, driven by Meryl Streep’s nuanced portrayal of Margaret Thatcher.