Thoughts on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Overall, I really enjoyed The Hobbit. I can, however, sympathise with many of its critics. For the Lord of the Rings films, Jackson (et al.) had to exclude parts of the story to fit it all into 3×3+ hour portions. For the adaptation of The Hobbit, a lot more material was brought in to stretch it to a second trilogy.

Cynically, one could assume that this was done for commercial reasons. From what I know of Peter Jackson though, I imagine the decision was made to make the most of what may be our last chance to see films set in the world of Middle Earth.

Aside from The Hobbit, the only other Tolkien book that could have provided suitable and sufficient material for additional footage, would have been The Simarilion. However, it seems that these rights are still held by the Tolkien family and they aren’t great fans of the movie franchise.

So, Jackson took The Hobbit and stretched it. Much of the extra material comes from the appendices of Lord of the Rings, so can reasonably considered “canon”.

In most cases, I think this works very well. Radgast the Wizard was a nice inclusion. He was mentioned in The Hobbit and was fleshed in the appendices. There were really only small embellishments to his part.

I have mixed feeling about the action sequences. While they continued the tone and feel of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, they were a far stretch from what we read in the book.
I have heard one explanation for how to reconcile these mismatches. A critic suggested that we remember that the in-world book “There and Back Again” (the fictional version of the real book, The Hobbit), was by Bilbo Baggins. The book, both in-world and real, was targeted at children. As a result, much of the action would have been toned down appropriately. In this context, The Hobbit movies can be considered as showing the story as it ‘really happened’.

This makes some of the differences between the book and the movie far more palatable. The extended Jackson-esque action sequences can be better understood from this point of view. No, they weren’t in the book, but perhaps the book self-censored them.

So while I won’t criticise the action sequences as deviations from the novel, they do reveal the biggest problem I had with the film. Many of The Hobbit characters are modified in ways that are off-putting. In the book, the dwarves were bumbling fools. In the film, they are portrayed as awesome warriors.

Ironically, this is the opposite of a grating change that Jackson included in the Lord of the Rings. Gimli of those books is a great dwarven fighter. The Two Towers movie turned him into comic relief and weakened his character unnecessarily.

The character change that I found most jarring, was Gandalf’s beefed-up role as deus ex machina. In a number of scenes he arrives just in time to save the day. For me, this ruined the climax of the one of the best scenes in the book, that with the trolls. The book has Bilbo show his value to the troop with his bravery and quick thinking. He uses his wits to distract the trolls long enough for sunrise to petrify them into statues. The movie robs Bilbo of this victory by having Gandalf turn up with unnecessary flair to a contrived solution of cracking a boulder to let the sunlight in. Further, this gives more foreshadowing of Gandalf’s power than was necessary.

The Hobbit could have been squeezed into a single, Jackson-length film. The original plan was for two films, which probably would have been the right number. We won’t know until 2014 as to whether the choice for three films was the correct one, but so far it looks like Jackson’s gamble may pay off in movie quality, not to mention financially.

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Thoughts on Avatar

So Swiss movie theatres have a slightly evil habit of having a 15 minute break in the middle of every movie. It’s the cinema’s way of taping you on the shoulder and saying: “Stop! Don’t get too immersed! It’s only a movie. Perhaps you should take a breather and go out and BUY some ICE CREAM.” I can perhaps forgive them for a break in the case of Avatar, since the movie is longer than the 30-year war.

Another terrible part of the break is the inevitable question that your movie-going neighbour asks: “So… what do you think of the film so far?” For a plot or character driven movie, I hate this question. No: I do not want to judge a film until it has finished; I don’t want to articulate my half-formed thoughts on the movie until it’s over.

Not so for Avatar though. The first half is an aesthetic experience and the mid-film review a simple emotional reaction: the movie is just beautiful. The 3D is stunning and used to exquisite effect creating a magical and completely immersive world. Some of the scenes literally brought tears to my eyes.

Parts of the world reminded me of underwater seascapes seen whilst diving. The most obvious being the jellyfish/tree-seeds. The spiral plants that retract when you touch them also exist in tropical waters, unfortunately the real ones are only 1-2cm in size, not 1-2m. I guess the underwater inspiration shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise since James Cameron has an obsession with water and the undersea world.

After the break came the second half of the movie.

It’s as if the writers gave up and handed the unfinished script to a couple of teenagers along with a book of movie clichés. The remainder of the movie lacked the slightest hint of originality. The movie lost me from the moment that Jakesully fulfils his destiny by harnessing the beast-that-has-only-seldom-been-tamed and uniting the tribes that have only once-before-been-united. The gung-ho cry “This is our land!” seemed incongruous with the earlier tone of all-living-creatures-are-precious-gifts.

The first half of the movie talks about the “interconnectivity of all living things”. While this makes a nice metaphor or spiritual belief, it loses a lot when it is used in the climax of the film to “kick some ass!” as mother nature opens a can of whoop-ass on the technologically superior humans.

One grating scene has the human characters unironically declaring: “We have to save the Tree of Souls!” This shouldn’t come as surprise though as by this stage of the movie we’ve discovered that all the characters are one dimensional. The scientists are tree-huggers and the military personal all thugs. The exception of course being the protagonist and the pilot who, also stereotypically, fall in love with the beauty of the forest and realise the error of their ways

Avatar has been compared with Dances with Wolves. The key difference for me being that Dances with Wolves ended on a down note with the natives fleeing before the invaders and ultimately to their effective extinction. Avatar would have been a much better film if it had ended on a similar note.

Another parallel that can be drawn is that of the quagmire wars that the United States has gotten itself involved in – Vietnam and Afghanistan. This is another theme that James Cameron has touched on before – he declared that Aliens was Vietnam set in space. The message being that a technologically and military superior force can be brought down by a determined opposition with local knowledge, guerilla tactics and a love of their homeland. But this metaphor doesn’t work in the world of Avatar. After some half-felt wincing expressions the commander decides that the bottom-line comes before the lives of the locals. Both Vietnam and Afghanistan could have been won if the invading force decided they didn’t care about the lives of the locals instead implemented a scorched earth policy of wiping out the locals.

Another alternative ending that I would have found more satisfying would have been along the lines of Gandhi in India style of passive resistance. Sadly it seems that James Cameron didn’t consider himself a strong or daring enough film maker to create such a movie. Perhaps it was just commercial pressures on the studios. The current ending is certainly selling to teenage boys the world around.

In the mid-movie break, I declared that I’d happily see Avatar a second time. A complement formerly reserved for the Lord of the Rings movies. Given the disappointing ending, I think I’ll wait for a Director’s Cut where hopefully James Cameron decides a complete rewrite of the second half is required.

(500) Days of Summer

“(500) Days of Summer” is not standard romantic comedy fare. There are some amusing moments but they are more warm or touching rather than funny.

Zooey Deschanel is a delight as the film’s eponymous romantic focus. She brings a light quirkiness to the role that is very appealing. It’s easy to see why the protagonist, Tom, falls for her.

Unlike many romantic comedies, the protagonist is a guy and the story is told from his perspective. The film is written by two men and directed by another. The movie has a far from a macho take on romance though.

This may be appropriate as men tend be more romantic than generally given credit for. Contrary to common wisdom, on average, men tend to fall in love faster than women. Also men tend to suffer more after a break-up. I suspect there might be an evolutionary drive for women for fall in love later: women historically (think from hunter-gatherer times up until a few decades ago) bore a huge risk if they fell pregnant to a man not committed to them. From this perspective, not falling in love too quickly is a sensible precautionary measure. Men suffer more after a break-up probably because in losing their partner they typically also lose their best friend. Women tend to have a stronger support network of friends to get them through.

We certainly see Tom suffer through his break-up, despite the support of his friends. Very sweetly, he gets the most support from his baby sister. The wisdom she has gleaned from her high school years helps him work through the end of his relationship.

An appealing part of the movie is that the story is told out of sequence. The memories of the romance are played out in the way that they might be during a break-up – Tom’s mind flashes from the romantic beginning to the eventual disintegration of their relationship. Some events are revisited in his memory – romantic moments hold hints of trouble when analysed in retrospect.

I saw a reviewer criticise the movie for not being cynical enough and he objected to the ending’s ultimately optimistic view of love. This might say more about the reviewer’s love life that it does about the film. For me though, the message of the movie is that even though two people in a partnership will live out the same events, the experience of being in a relationship is ultimately a subjective and individual one. When these experiences diverge too widely, the result can be heart-break.

Thoughts on: Whatever works

Not a movie review – head over to salon.com’s review of Whatever Works for that – rather, my thoughts on the film, assuming the reader has seen it.
Despite a veneer of cynicism, “Whatever Works” is ultimately a optimistic philosophy of love. Indeed, the movie title is our protagonist’s view of love explicitly expressed in one of his speaking-to-the-audience asides. While that philosophy might be an admirable one, the movie labours the point.
This film is also more than a bit deceptive in its presentation of this view of romance: it’s not about two people finding each other and accepting each other for who they are. Rather, each of the main relationships in the film starts with someone falling in love based on some unknown initial spark – so far, so good: the ingredients for attraction are mysterious ones. However, the object of desire then conveniently finds a completely different, previously undiscovered, side of their personality. Each member of the Celestine family from Mississippi turns out to be one neurosis-resolution away from happiness and true love. While this may all be part of the joke, it comes across as more than a little contrived. The daughter, Melodie, discovers a suppressed intellectual curiosity. Her father has an almost insulting easy adjustment to the realization of his homosexuality. Melodie’s mother, in an entertaining performance, discovers her talent for photography. Apparently photographer-artists are obliged to live in polygamous relationships; this aspect of the film is lifted directly from Allen’s previous, and more satisfying, movie Vicky Christina Barcelona.
While a big part of a romantic relationship is self discovery, the personal growth resulting from the couples in Whatever Works is one sided. I’m not willing to credit Boris Yellnikoff’s (Larry David) realisation that “maybe loving a human being isn’t that bad” as being that much of a breakthrough.
My main problem with the film may be that the movie rests on Larry David’s character whom I struggle to appreciate. Again from salon, Heather Havrilesky points out that Jason Alexander plays the “Larry David” character – as “George” in Seinfeld – better than Larry David does. In the recently concluded television series “Curb your Enthusiasm” Larry David portrays himself. The character George comes across as a lovable loser. In contrast, we get to see how much Larry David delights in showing us just how cynical and unlikable he is really is – it’s the George character with mean-spiritedness replacing the goofy charm.
Overall, I didn’t get many laughs from the film. This may in part be because I watched it on a long-haul flight with crackly audio on Swiss airline’s mediocre entertainment system in economy-class squinty-vision. Comedies are usually better seen in a theatre to get the social proof of the rest of the audience laughing along.

Movie review: Inglourious Basterds

Perhaps not a movie review, more my thoughts on the film.  As often, I’d suggest that the wonderful writers over at salon.com give a better review of Inglourious Basterds than I can. I’ll assume the reader has seen the film as I’ll refer to scenes and include lots of spoilers. That aside, let’s go!

Inglourious Basterds contains great acting, great dialogue and a compelling story. Tarantino has not so much borrowed historical facts as incorporated the mythos of World War II into his film. Most of the Nazis – and almost all the Germans in the movie are Nazis – are portrayed in a similar light as they are in computer games like Castle Wolfenstein. This isn’t an attempt to achieve a realistic depiction of events, rather the Nazis are deliberately used as a mechanism to embody a cartoonish good-vs-evil battle.

The Nazis that have the larger roles come across as almost universally unsympathetic. No tears are shed when they are slaughtered off brutally and individually, or on mass. The one bad-guy that Tarantino humanises is German war hero Fredrick Zoller (played by the likeable Daniel Brühl in his first non-German movie). Unfortunately, Tarantino doesn’t allow the audience to preserve their sympathetic feelings for him. In his final scene he is revealed as a chauvinist and just as evil as all the others. To emphasize the point, he is shot and in his dying moments manages to kill off the movie’s heroine.

Not that Tarantino has ever displayed any sentimentality towards his movies’ characters, the good or evil. Similarly here, almost every major character is bumped off. Tellingly, the only significant character that survives is Brad Pitt. I must wonder whether Tarantino would have allowed this character to live if it had been played by anyone other than a star of Pitt’s profile.

Brad Pitt does give a solid performance in the movie as Lt Aldo Raine. I have to wonder though whether another actor with less of a profile might have brought more to the role. Some of the scenes – in particularly, one where Lt Raine does an atrocious job of masquerading as an Italian film maker – seem overburdened by Brad Pitt’s ego.

Other actors in the movie are superb. Christoph Waltz is breathtaking as Col. Hans Landa, the Nazi “Jew Hunter”. He plays the role with subtlety and precision and his Best Actor award at Cannes is well deserved. It will be worth rewatching the film for Waltz’s performance alone. Many of the best scenes in the movie are based around clever dialogue building a delicious, almost unbearable tension. Waltz carries these scenes seemingly effortlessly.

An aspect of Tarantino’s movie making that I find less favourable is his compulsion to pay tribute to movies he loves. When done with a light touch, this can work well. The opening scene of Waltz interrogating a farmer and his family is masterful. It’s easy to imagine a similar scene set on a ranch in the wild west rather than a farm in occupied France. In other parts of the film, genre injection is more clumsily handled. Several characters are introduced by flashing up their character’s name in a yellow, stylised font. This is jarring for those sections of the film where Tarantino had otherwise immersed us in a WWII genre.

WWII is not a genre that Tarantino has worked with before. He largely handles it well. I particularly appreciated that the movie was acted in the language that the characters would have naturally spoken under the circumstances. This cosmopolitan mix of German, French, English and Italian is refreshing and brave for a Hollywood movie.

Some elements of the story of WWII came across to me as anachronisms. Lt Raine’s gimmick of carving a Nazi scar into the foreheads of released German prisoners doesn’t make much sense in context. Post WWII, with the defeat of the Nazis, the swastika became a symbol synonymous with evil. At the time though, it was representative of the Third Reich, one of the world’s superpowers. For the Nazis, the swastika was a symbol of pride and national strength.  How would Americans of today react if marines captured in Iraq or Afghanistan had the American flag tattooed on their forehead?

A similar anachronism was the willingness of Col. Landa to sabotage the German war effort. Before the D-Day invasion, the ultimate defeat of Germany was far from certain. Would a high ranking Colonel respected by his side as a hero really place such heavy odds on the Allies being triumphant?

The faults are really nit-picks though. Overall, Inglourious Basterds is one of the few Tarantino movies I’ve thoroughly enjoyed (Pulp Fiction being the other). Overlooking the scenes of wincing horror/violence, Tarantino has put his talents of pacing and dialogue to use to create a movie that establishes a new sub-genre in World War II films.