Monday, November 4, 2013

Oblivion

This is a very delayed review, as it's been sitting in my drafts begging to be edited and posted, and I only just now finally got around to it.

As I was sitting down to begin this piece, it occurred to me that I have no idea why the movie was entitled Oblivion. From my understanding of the definition, it didn't seem to fit the post-apocalyptic sci-fi film, so I asked my faithful friend dictionary.com. The definition at the top of the list reads "the state of being completely forgotten or unknown."

I suppose Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is living in such a state. He lives in a pristine little apartment with one other person on an otherwise deserted and desolated earth. The rest of the humans are living off-planet, having evacuated after earth lost its livable conditions in a war against alien invaders. Whoever Jack's friends once were, they have forgotten him. Not that he minds-- he was subject to a mandatory memory wipe for security purposes, so he remembers nothing prior to his assignment to earth, and is far less eager to get off the planet than his partner Victoria. Jack is your typical Tom Cruise action-hero character: quiet desperation, resistance to the system, "moral" core, military fitness, unsolved mysteries of his past, etc. Naturally there is a reason for this, as there always is, and we're given the basic story about halfway through. As for Victoria, all we know is that she is paranoid of the outside world, and dresses for the office every day despite the fact that she never leaves the apartment. She might know more than she lets on, but we never really find out for sure.

This is one of those cases where the trailer to the movie unfortunately gave away too much, at least for me. For example, when we first glimpse the "aliens" dashing in the shadows, we already suspect that Morgan Freeman is somehow behind it. And due to the trailer, I also already had a few guesses about the real plot, and for the most part I was spot-on. I guessed a scenario similar to The Island involving false incentives and dark purposes, and I was correct. Even saying that just now is a huge spoiler for anyone who hasn't seen it, but it wasn't that hard to guess. The point is, going in to the movie I was already suspicious of the setup, so there were a few less surprises for me.

The few surprises that Oblivion did manage to pull off were very Isaac Asimov-ian, but excellent. If you don't know what I mean by that, think I, Robot. Dangit, that's another spoiler. BIG SPOILER WARNING: At the heart of Oblivion is not aliens, but sentient machinery, which is exponentially more terrifying. I don't just mean that this technology has been well-programmed for a variety of scenarios; it is in fact self-aware and frighteningly intelligent. In a way, the main collective consciousness known as "Sally" (similar to V.I.K.I. of I, Robot) is presented as an evil deity full of wrath, that sees all, knows all, and double-crosses its own pawns when they step out of line.

All in all, I would call Oblivion a pretty good and fully enjoyable popcorn flick. Mostly, it just plays like an action summer flick that uses Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman to make it look like a big-budget blockbuster. It also tries to follow the trend of using the captivating one-word title to sound intense. It's not great-- just pretty good, and that's really no one's fault. The fact is, originality is running out. With a few added elements, Oblivion felt like a union of The Island and I, Robot. It was definitely enjoyable, but not entirely novel.



Thursday, October 24, 2013

Star Trek: Into Darkness

Upon exiting the theater after my first viewing of Star Trek: Into Darkness, I was fairly certain that there would be absolutely no point in seeing any other movie for the rest of the summer, convinced I had already seen the best one. While purists of the original series might be experiencing mental short-circuits at some of the turns Into Darkness dared to make, as a sci-fi piece Into Darkness is one of the finest that the genre has produced in recent years, with or without the Star Trek title. Purist readers (you know who you are): remember what alternative universe means. Things can be different. Moving on.

Into Darkness moves seamlessly and rhythmically from mood to mood, gliding from comical to heart-pounding to melancholy. Kirk's violation of the Prime Directive leaves a primitive tribe in a state of comical confusion, and then, with no transition or explanation, we're shown how far into darkness and depravity a man will go to save his dying daughter. This is where the story really takes off and sets up the theme of the movie: the needs of many vs. the needs of the few, and the true meaning of sacrifice.

With all the main characters already well-established, Into Darkness doesn't waste too much time with expository cutscenes or dialogue except with the antagonist Harrison. Otherwise the audience is thrown right into the story with familiar knowledge of all the returning characters. Although some of Spock's decisions might surprise Kirk, they're not really surprising to the audience, and likewise with Spock's surprise at some of Kirk's decisions. The friendship between the two is still young and developing, but at least at the start of the movie they like each other, which is an improvement.

Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Scotty, Dr. McCoy, Chekhov, and the rest of the Enterprise crew are all as good as they were last time, but the real show-stealer here is John Harrison, ingeniously played by Benedict Cumberbatch. While it's certainly no spoiler to reveal that he is in fact the villain (shocking!), that knowledge somehow didn't prevent me from occasionally wondering if he might be just misunderstood. This is especially impressive when one considers that he enters the movie as a terrorist who first manipulates a desperate man into setting off an explosive, and then flies a small aircraft right up to Starfleet Headquarters and proceeds to fire upon a gathering of officers, taking the life of one in particular. And yet despite these introductions, his mysterious demeanor demands investigation and intrigue, maybe even fleeting sympathy. He has believable motives that almost justify his heartless extremism, and the course of the story reveals that he is not the only heartless villain at play; the Enterprise is merely caught in the middle.

Harrison's manner is regal, edgy, and cold. He seems both tigerish and serpentine, yet undeniably admirable. Whether supremely evil or just driven to extreme measures by strong loyalty, he commands respect but also, caution. While his motives can be guessed at, they are not fully revealed until the movie's third and most heart-racing act, where momentum has built to warp-speed, and the victory or defeat of the Enterprise is at a breaking point. And someone's head is at breaking point.

Paramount to a great movie is a great villain, and Into Darkness has a great villain. Although his origins are based on a previous Star Trek nemesis, Cumberbatch takes the character in an entirely new direction, leaving only a few basic elements of his history to resemble the previous portrayal of the character. Truthfully, the moment when "Harrison" reveals his true identity, there was a sharp intake of breath all across the theater, and I applaud the writers for not giving it away too early or giving too many hints to spoil that surprise.

One of the most delightful things about Into Darkness besides its compelling plot, is how it pays homage to the original series and gives allusions to some of the most famous moments of the vintage Star Trek movies, without being too obvious. For example, Dr. McCoy casually mentions a Gorn, tossing a bone to a classic moment in the original series. Dr. Marcus mentions Nurse Chapell, who never features onscreen, but would be well-known to a real Trekkie. As would the mention of a tribble, the true identity of officer Carol, and so on. Other moments deliberately play off of well-known scenes, but steer in an opposite direction. This is a parallel universe after all, so no one is bound by needing to remake anything-- things can play out in any variety of ways. For that reason, I toyed back and forth with how I felt about the appearance of Nimoy-Spock. In some ways it seemed to be just a memo to the Trekkies that this is still Star Trek. In other ways it seemed to serve as a brief reminder of what happened in that Spock's universe when they were in a similar situation, so as to prep the audience for what occurs shortly thereafter to the current Enterprise.

With a sterling plot, excellent twists, well-timed comic levity, sweeping cinematography and solid performances throughout, it can be honestly stated that the only flaws to this film are the overuse of solar flare effects, and the superfluous shot of Carol in her underwear. Apparently a lot of Trekkies took issue with the latter, and everyone else with the former. These are minor flaws in an otherwise shining piece of science fiction entertainment. Star Trek Into Darkness does justice to its genre and its legacy, at least as good if not better than The Wrath of Khan.
Whoops!
Spoiler...


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Gamble of Part Four

Good morning readers!

In case you haven't noticed, which I doubt anyone has, I've been slacking off from blogging lately. And oddly enough, it has nothing to do with having no good movies to write about. Maybe it's that I have SO much to say about Les Miserables and Star Trek: Into Darkness that my overwordy brain just can't put that much glorious entertainment into words just yet. I might take a stab at Iron Man 3 here soon, but for the moment I'd rather ramble.

Recently in a discussion with a coworker at my job that has almost nothing to do with entertainment (although we find entertainment in our own odd way), I posed the question "has there ever been a good 'part 4' of anything?" My coworker quickly replied "The Land Before Time" but when I asked him what that was even about, he replied "dinosaurs." Indeed. I pretend that The Land Before Time never had sequels, because it was one of my favorite movies as a kid and I feel my memories being violated every time one of these inane pieces of toddler fodder comes forth.

But back to the more serious point, has there ever been a good part 4 of anything? And by part 4, I don't mean stories that are at heart one big story, like Harry Potter, or stand-alone films featuring continued characters like James Bond.

Let's break it down. The first part 4 that comes to mind is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. At the risk of losing all but one follower, I will admit that for the most part, I rather enjoyed it. However, I will also admit that it seemed to be more on par with The Mummy Returns than the original Indiana Jones trilogy. Personal opinion aside, I can't deny that the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, though not terrible, simply didn't turn out worthy of its iconic title character.

Jaws, The Revenge. There's a reason you probably haven't heard of this. In fact when I mentioned this during my conversation with Coworker, his response was "there's a part 4?" I go into some detail about the flaws of this film in an older review called "Sequels: The Movie Murderer," so you can check that out and save me the trouble of re-ranting how bad it was. Suffice to say, the fact that Michael Caine hasn't paid someone to wipe this film out of the archives is a testament to his great sense of humor.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides left off on a note that indicated we might even be in for a part five, but there has been not even a whisper about it since part four's fiasco of a movie. Zombies, mermaids, and the fountain of youth was a little too much even for this ambitious franchise to pull off well.

When I googled movies that have a part four, I discovered several from somewhat well-known trilogies that had a part four as an afterthought that didn't even go to theaters. That's saying something when you consider that every Free Willy movie until part four did go to the big screen.

But then again, one of my horror movie aficionados tells me that Resident Evil: Afterlife was good if you like that sort of thing, but since I don't like that sort of thing I can't really comment. And I would argue that Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol might well be the best since the original (I actually enjoyed it more since I've seen the first one 10 too many times). It might be fair however, to say that had M:I IV not had the familiar names that it did, and instead struck out to make a movie with the same story-line without using the familiar title and characters, it probably wouldn't have done well. I can't say I would have paid much attention to a movie simply called Ghost Protocol that looked like a cookie-cutter action/intrigue movie.

So what's the verdict? Well clearly there have been terrible part fours. But there have been good ones too, just not enough to redeem the pattern. Successful fourth installments don't seem to have a steady formula, but unsuccessful ones almost always carry the common ingredients of being an afterthought, a desperate attempt at more money, or drawing out an already overdone story-line. It seems that although there are a handful of acceptable 4ths, it's a rare enough occurrence that it ought only to be attempted now and again when a truly original idea surfaces.


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Oz, the Great and Powerful

It can be said with certain confidence that there has never been a decent companion film, palatable sequel, or  acceptable film adaptation of the historic classic The Wizard of Oz. The most watched film in history has been often imitated, never duplicated. That being the case, it was a gamble on Disney's part to attempt a prequel to the iconic film, trying to tell the story before the story that every movie-watcher knows well. If anyone could pull it off, Disney certainly could.

Oz the Great and Powerful follows the classic format of the original Oz movie, starting in black and white, and then taking the viewer into a world of vibrant color and music. In the black and white world of Kansas where everything is as it seems to be, Oscar "Oz" Diggs endeavors to rise above the standard "good man" and be a great one. Somewhere along the way however, he has become a self-centered, money-mongering con man who charms women and swindles customers, using them all as stepping stones on his path to greatness. Oz is discouraged about his traveling circus gig, his inability to do real magic, and his life of trickery and rootlessness.

Soon, a twister takes hold of Oscar's escape balloon, and whisks him away to a land of wonder, glorious color, strange animals, and real magic. When he arrives, he is immediately hailed as the savior of the land of Oz-- the wizard who will be king and restore the land of Oz to its former fearless glory. His first acquaintance is the mesmerizingly beautiful and unfortunately named Theodora. She is young, naive, and idealistic, and when he uses his charms on her, she is completely besotted. His eloquent flattery, winning personality, and showbiz charm leave her dreaming sweetly of becoming his queen when he is the king of Oz. A dance and a kiss later, Theodora believes herself in love and declares to him that they belong together and will rule the land of Oz together as king and queen. As the audience, we have seen his ways back in Kansas, and know that he has no real intentions towards Theodora, but he has no real concept of the damage he is carelessly inflicting, though it is easy enough to predict the long-term results.

Oscar has a weakness for women, that much is clear. The minute he crashes into the land of Oz he charms young Theodora, but he jumps ship quickly enough when he meets the much harder-to-get Glinda, who is a reflection of the one that got away back in Kansas. As the audience, it isn't too hard to figure how things will turn out, but it is interesting to go that road with Oscar and see what he sees and watch him grow. He, like a few of the characters he meets in Oz, is a charlatan- a faker with an agenda, and he quickly learns he isn't the only one. But as he travels through the land, he realizes that true magic is resourcefulness and ingenuity, and maybe his brand of "magic" is just what the land needs.

One of the most interesting aspects of Oscar's growth as a character is how he learns to feel his own humble worth. In the style of the original Wizard of Oz, characters from the black and white world of Kansas reappear in the land of Oz, albeit in different forms. Most striking are two female characters that appear in both worlds, and bring Oscar to a place of humility and compassion. For example, back in Kansas a young crippled girl asks him to heal her and make her walk. Naturally, he can't, reminding him of his own insufficiency, and they call him a fake. But in the land of Oz when he encounters a live china doll whose legs are broken, he restores her to walking by gluing her legs back on. She calls him the great wizard. Also back in Kansas is a sweet country girl who is clearly special to Oscar, and not just another woman he has effortlessly charmed. In Oz, she is none other than Glinda the Good, who ultimately spurs Oscar to be who everyone believes him to be. With her help, he truly does become that man.

Not that the road is easy. The ramifications of Oscar's self-centered actions are far-reaching and long-lasting; lasting even beyond the movie's timeframe. Fans of The Wizard of Oz will easily guess the character development and evolution, but it makes it no less interesting to see how each character became who they will ultimately be defined as. For example, even the Wicked Witch of the West wasn't always evil, or green for that matter. She starts out rather nice, but she has someone (her less than innocent sister) whispering in her ear that she is evil at her core, and eventually she yields to that, albeit somewhat against her will.

Artistically, Oz the Great and Powerful does an excellent job of making the land of Oz feel familiar without imitating the original too closely. This Oz has creatures and characters that for all we know, were in Dorothy's experience, we just never saw them. The filmmakers do such a smooth job of recreating Oz, that at no point did I really feel like they reinvented it or wrote in details that were inconsistent with the classic telling. There are a few foreshadowing references here, but for the most part very slight, and such that Oz the Great and Powerful barely feels like a prequel at all other than the continuity of characters.

On a closing note, the biggest theme of Oz, the Great and Powerful is that goodness is greatness. Being a good man might seem too small for an ambitious person like Oscar, but by the time the credits roll, Oscar has chosen to become a good man, and in so doing, becomes a great man. Goodness is greatness, and goodness is power. When Oscar learns this and accepts being good, he becomes The Great and Powerful. As a movie Oz the Great and Powerful hit as a one-time popcorn flick for me. It was fun, and only remotely thought-provoking because I occasionally choose to look for such things in strange places. Great movie? Not really, but good enough. Not quite enough to make it to the DVD shelf, but then again... The Wizard of Oz doesn't grace my shelf either! 


Monday, March 11, 2013

Welcome Back Mr. Bond

I've never been a fan of James Bond really, but Casino Royale changed that for me. Ever since Daniel Craig put on the tux, 007 has been more interesting, more compelling, and just better in general. While the follow-up to Casino Royale was horribly disappointing, Bond's return in Skyfall comes back with such a bang, it may well be one of the best Bond movies ever.

One of the most compelling aspects of Skyfall was the side of James Bond that has to this point never been seen before. In the past, Bond may occasionally meet with a nefarious villain or world-scale conflict, but he remains suave, debonair, and usually cocky to the end. Not so now. 007 has suffered a hit, and it's a major one. For the first time ever, Bond doesn't seem invincible-- he seems human. Bond has been shaken and stirred by four life-changing words; "take the bloody shot."

"Agent down."


Bond spends the next few months pretending to be dead and allowing everyone to believe that he is. What is so interesting is how this emotionally affects him. When he returns, he doesn't shoot straight and he can't pass his psychological or physical exam, but he has a dangerous look in his eye. Something in him truly has died, and something else has awakened. While we don't learn much about Bond's past, we learn enough to understand just a little, why he became James Bond. While Skyfall has its elements of global ramifications pending Bond's success or failure, Skyfall is on most levels, personal.

M, always masterfully portrayed by Dame Judi Dench, is often forced to make difficult judgement calls that sacrifice a few for the good of many. It was such a judgement call that left James Bond for dead, but he isn't the first to suffer from one of M's judgement calls. And a less loyal victim has returned to make M, and many MI6 agents around the world, suffer for her choices. Global ramifications: agents around the world are being exposed and executed. Personal vendetta: it was M's judgement call that turned a loyal agent into a sadistic lunatic who doesn't care how many lives it takes, he will have his revenge on M.

The mastermind villain here is Silva, diabolically played by Javier Bardem (a man who has a knack for playing psychopathic evildoers with preposterous hair-- see No Country for Old Men). Of all the characters that have been introduced into the new Bond franchise, from M to Q to Miss Moneypenny, Silva can be adequately praised as being a villain for the Bond ages. What I mean is, Bond villains have ranged from being criminal masterminds over global plots, to the downright comic bookish ones. Really, the most consistent characters throughout the many adaptations of Bond have been the women, but that's another issue altogether. The point is, the character of Silva feels very much like he could have been the star of a comic book movie adaptation (think the Joker) with his maniacal and titanic plots, but he's also frighteningly believable. Once the pet of M16, Silva was sacrificed for the greater good, and he has never forgotten it. Not that this makes him sympathetic by any means, merely realistic. His purpose isn't to take over the world, or to watch it burn, he wants M to watch her agents burn. His purpose is personal, vengeful, and believable.

Skyfall presents a realistic-enough scenario with believable ramifications, which is part of what makes it unique and strong to itself. What I mean is this: let's say that somehow a list of internationally assigned agents was leaked and put on YouTube. Is there really any doubt that the consequences would be any different than those portrayed onscreen? Unlikely. While at first glance the temptation is to write off the executed agents as casualties of war who knew the risks, the true implications are far deeper. In the Bond world at least, M16 is one of the greatest opponents of evil in the world, therefore the loss of agents across the globe not only means tragic loss of life, it undercuts MI6's ability to keep the forces of evil at bay.

Another aspect of Skyfall  that made the movie unique to itself, is how the story implies the cost of being an agent for good. While previous Bond film Goldeneye had some similarities to the base plot of Skyfall  in its portrayal of the emotional and psychological implications of being a surviving "casualty", Skyfall  really takes it to a new level. First, even James Bond himself is not untouchable; he is every bit as expendable as any other agent, and every bit as vulnerable. Not even 007 can hear the words "take the bloody shot", feel the bullet rip through his body, and not be affected. At no point does Skyfall try to indicate that Bond's reluctance to be trusting again is a sign of weakness, or that a better agent might have done differently. M might pass herself off as being cold and uncaring, but her regrets are evident.

Some critics have complained that Skyfall lacked a thick enough plot to be worthy of 007. Others have hailed it as one of the finest Bond movies yet. I would fall on the latter side of this argument. While it's true that Skyfall's main plot vehicle does not seem globally relevant, the implications are larger than they are presented as. And furthermore the personal revenge agenda adds an element of tension the absence of which would have rendered the entire film boring.Personal preferences on content aside (because I just have no stomach for Bond's womanizing ways), in terms of depth I rank Skyfall among the highest of the 007 movies.



Thursday, February 7, 2013

Review: the Hobbit

Some part of me must bitterly admit that out there in the world are those people who were glad when Return of the King was done, because it meant the Ring craze would finally die down. Well, sorry you un-nerdy philistines! It only took the better part of nine years to return to Middle Earth, but thanks to the tireless efforts of the visionary Peter Jackson and his brilliant creative team, the days of Middle Earth have returned to theaters. The result is an entirely new film consistent with the spirit of the novel, though not entirely consistent with the previously established Middle Earth of the Lord of the Rings movies. The results are fine, but… mixed.

Depending on your level of acquaintance with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you may or may not notice Middle Earth feeling a bit different this time around. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey goes to great lengths to identify itself closely with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, with cameo appearances by Lord of the Rings characters that strictly speaking, ought not to appear in The Hobbit from a purist's perspective.  But for the moment I won't trouble you my reader too much with talk of the book, even if it is one of my favorites of all time. Back to the point, while the Hobbit takes some creative opportunities to identify itself with The Lord of the Rings, it takes a few steps of its own that are entirely unlike The Lord of the Rings, giving The Hobbit its own distinctive style.

The first and most obvious of these divergences, are the villainous beastly orcs and goblins (the distinction between the two is especially hazy here). A goblin commander is introduced here named Azog the Defiler, who is tall and pale with battle scars and a nasty club grown into his elbow where his arm used to be. There is no doubt that this Azog is not just another growling goblin, but a hero to his side of the conflict. But I have a slight issue with Azog, beyond his presence contradicting certain details of Middle Earth history: he's too clean. Other than the club in his arm a few battle scars, he looks like he showers often-- his flesh itself is just very clean. I am not trying to indicate that every goblin and orc must aspire to be like the sordid leader of the Uruk-Hai from The Fellowship of the Ring, but Azog's lack of weathering fundamentally affected my perception of him. In the past these sorts were disgusting-- they looked sticky and wreaked of rotting flesh and unhealed wounds. Here they are still ugly, but more than capable of walking about in daylight as though they own it, without bothering to even think about lurking in shadows. As odd as Azog may have been, he was nothing compared to the Goblin King. 

The Goblin King was a spectacular display of the influence of Guillermo del Toro, but His Majesty was a bit too comical to be taken seriously as anything other than Jabba the Hutt with legs. After the capture of the dwarves, the Goblin King is seen dancing and stamping his feet as he sings a jolly tune about crushing their bones, only to be cut off abruptly from his lively song when someone's sword accidentally falls into view and scares him. This convenient diversion gives the company enough time to scramble about and collect themselves into fighting mode so they can slash and push their way to the exit. The Goblin King reappears menacingly, and then dies in a forcefully comic manner so anticlimactic, that even His Royal Ugliness could not come up with better parting words. 

Unfortunately, the rest of the goblins are not much better. Personally, I found it difficult to really accept most of the goblins and other orcs as flesh and blood. Perhaps it was the lack of ooze that I was accustomed to after three Lord of the Rings movies, but these goblins often felt like computer generated foes who possess too little wit to do anything but shriek and twitch and fight at the outsiders. When the band of dwarves make their grand escape and many goblins meet their doom at the tip of a sword, there is something amiss. In The Fellowship of the Ring for example, in the battle of Moria, each sword was plunged and clashed with conviction and fury. The heroes sweat with the exhausting efforts of defeating such great numbers. That factor that makes you wince when a being is sliced by sword, or the tension of knowing how much the character is putting himself out to defeat said foes, is simply absent. Ill-timed comic levity also breaks up the intensity of what could have been a very engaging fight sequence. 

Now that the goblins have had some roasting, I move my attention to the dwarves. The first thing I will say in praise of the dwarves was the wise idea to individualize each of the fourteen into distinctive characters. The most striking among them is Thorin Oakenshield, played excellently by Richard Armitage. Armitage gives the character Thorin the heart and depth of a convincing leader and courageous warrior, while still leaving room for development later on. For the most part, Thorin is a hard and somewhat edgy-tempered dwarf, but his eyes soften when he speaks of his home and his desire to reclaim it. He is just, in a word, passionate. He is passionate about his homeland and the mission to reclaim it, passionate about his hatred of elves, passionate in his leadership of the dwarves, and so on.

The rest of the dwarves are a mishmash band, most of whom look absolutely nothing like Gimli from Lord of the Rings. To be fair, fourteen Gimli look a-likes would be overwhelming and it was hard enough to keep track of them all with so many of them onscreen. That is why I said it was wise to individualize the fourteen into distinctive characters. Even then however, there are too many to keep up with. Aside from Thorin, Kili and Fili are the only ones who really stand out, and that’s because they’re the young whippersnappers and the most attractive. Seriously speaking, I strongly suspect that the overnight success of Orlando Bloom due to Lord of the Rings contributed to the casting choices here, as if someone said “we need some pretty faces…it will pull in the young female crowd and sell posters.” Not that I’m complaining—they both behave in a properly dwarvish manner, but with a bit more Merry and Pippin type look of mischief in their eyes. It was a good casting choice, but probably also a strategic one in terms of marketing. The oldest and most distinguished dwarf called Balin is the only other one that really makes an impression, and that’s partially because he narrates a bit of history. He’s also a nice old boy whom Thorin is quite tender towards, and sometimes shares the mantle of wise elder with Gandalf.

I had wondered on whether or not I should really mention this, but since I’m here I may as well and you may choose not to read it. It seems that along with deciding to cast the younger dwarves as attractive sorts, someone must have also determined that there should be a character to represent the metrosexuals and a character to represent those who were bullied in school. Yes, you read that correctly. There is a dwarf with finely combed hair who is a connoisseur of fine wine, and one rather skinny dwarf with a bowl haircut and no facial hair who talks with a bit of a stutter. By nature of the culture, dwarves are great stoneworkers, metalworkers, and smiths. The odd characterizations of the two mentioned above go against this significantly, and really do not add anything to the story.

The strongest performances and characters here are Thorin, Bilbo, and Gandalf. Ian McKellen reprises his role as Gandalf, with no real surprises. The only real surprise to Gandalf’s character this time around is how he comes off so carefree at times, and uncertain at other times. However, an important thing to keep in mind is that the times of The Hobbit are far less precarious than the times of The Lord of the Rings, and Gandalf’s attitude reflects that. He is overall less serious here, often contributing to the comic levity throughout.

Bilbo, ingeniously portrayed by Martin Freeman, makes for a lovable and connectable protagonist. Bilbo begins as a determined homebody, and really no one would blame him for loving his life full of good food and pipe weed. As a lead protagonist, I must say that Bilbo is extremely personable with his quirks, outbursts, and love of domestic life. Of all the scenes in the movie, the sequence with Bilbo and Gollum pitching riddles back and forth to each other is probably the most masterfully done. The life that Andy Serkis breathes into the mysterious Gollum is both comical and chilling. While the audience laughs at the dual-personality that is so brilliantly portrayed onscreen, the fact that he might turn on Bilbo and try to throttle him at any moment is still an ever-constant threat. Gollum's facial expressions captured by the miracle of technology are delightful, and make the character real and touchable. 

Thus far I have come down hard on what I perceived to be the missteps of the Hobbit, when in all reality, I did enjoy it quite a bit and greatly anticipate the release of the DVD. The music, costumes, and cinematography are every bit as stunning as the Lord of the Rings movies, and the production crew did an excellent job with continuity when recreating Hobbiton, Rivendell, and various other places around Middle Earth. The moment when Bilbo unknowingly acquires The One Ring is given adequate reverence, and the bit of added history did put some perspective on the dwarves and their long-standing bitter history with the elves (which is referenced throughout the trilogy between Gimli and Legolas. If you pay attention to names, you’ll make the connection that Legolas’s father ditched the dwarves in their moment of need, essentially costing them their homeland). The writers here draw attention to the cultural tendency of the dwarves to sing, and weave it in so seamlessly that at no point do their spontaneous tunes seem out of place. As a movie, it was certainly very well done and extremely enjoyable.

I understand that the tone and times of the Hobbit are not the same as the Lord of the Rings, and I honestly would not take issue with this if the movie had not labored to tie itself to the Lord of the Rings, and present itself as an equal epic. But because the Hobbit took very specific steps to ensure that the audience felt familiar with this Middle Earth, the changes feel a little out of sync with the previously established world. This presents a conflict in a few ways. The first is that The Hobbit rides the success of the Lord of the Rings, and therefore needed to tie itself to those movies in some way. However, had the Hobbit followed the same tone of the Lord of the Rings, it would have completely betrayed the spirit of the novel, which is starkly different than The Lord of the Rings. In light of all of this, I must conclude that The Hobbit does very well walking a bit of a tricky line, but falls off track a few times. The movie tries to elude to the fact that there is more stirring in the darkness of the world than a simple matter of a dragon’s invasion, but throws off the foreboding tone by presenting characters like Radagast. Radagast was a delightful character and brought an interesting twist to our perception of wizards, but at times he seemed that he belonged more in a Narnia movie than Middle Earth.

The result is that the movie is very very good, and although it doesn’t quite reach the same heights as The Lord of the Rings, there is enough of the story left that The Hobbit may still have some tricks up its sleeves. The movie closes with a long journey still ahead, and the greatest battles not yet begun. Therefore, as The Hobbit has a way to go before its journey is complete, I withhold my judgment of the trilogy until it is. It may yet make a place in movie history. As for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, did I greatly enjoy it? Yes. Could it have been done better? Yes. Will I be in line for the next installment the minute it comes out? Most certainly yes. 


Monday, January 7, 2013

The Horde of the Ring


While most of you were probably attending your second or third viewing of The Fellowship of the Ring, we were still waiting for it to make to the theater. 

Who were “we”? A small pocket of boarding school students in Kenya. 

Every Friday I would rush to the library to check The Daily Nation and inspect the theater listings. Week after week, nothing of interest occurred beyond the usual fruit thefts, but week after week there appeared a bold little asterisk that said *Coming soon: The Lord of the Rings, Fellowship of the Ring. Week after week, nothing. Yet the thrill of anticipation ran rampant throughout the school.

I had read and adored The Hobbit years before the release of the Lord of the Rings movies inspired a crazed Tolkien-trend among readers. I knew little of the trilogy except that it had to do with Bilbo’s nephew, who as far as I knew, was called Bono. Being that I lived in Africa, there was little or no chance of inspecting the book series for myself, and so I had to rely upon the word of an unenthusiastic college graduate who claimed that he could not get into Fellowship of the Ring as it was so painfully slow. Still, I knew enough about the story in general to identify the movie when I saw something about it by chance on CNN one day. That CNN blip was the first I had ever heard about movies being made from Tolkien’s works, and for the next two years, the news stories built and developed until my anticipation far surpassed even waiting for Star Wars. Magazine clippings and photocopies were soon tacked to my dorm room walls, and I began saving Coke bottles.

At boarding school, the cost of a bottled soda was 30 shillings. Once you had consumed your beverage, you could return the bottle for a refund of 10 shillings. The cost of a movie ticket was 300 shillings. On Saturdays and special event days, my friends and I would scour the rugby field and bleachers for discarded bottles, and stash them in our rooms, saving for the movie ticket, when the movie should finally make its way to our forgotten theater in East Africa. Honestly speaking, I had a decent allowance and was not an extravagant spender, so I hardly needed to collect bottles to come up with the money for the movie ticket, but it added to the thrill of waiting.

And then it happened one Sunday (in February or March). The word spread through the campus quicker than the viral epidemics that we suffered from at least once a year: The Fellowship of the Ring was finally in the theater. Soon, everyone was calling their parents, friends, and anyone they knew with a vehicle and trying to beg, haggle, and bargain their way to the theater. I had connections—a good friend whose parents lived on campus as staff members and were going into town that very day. She found me at the last possible moment and excitedly told me they had a seat in the car and a ticket if I wanted to go. Soon, we were on our way, and standing in line with half the campus. The movie began, my heart leapt, and so began the first step in the journey through the films that would very nearly define my high school years.

I saw The Fellowship of the Ring in the theater three times. It was easily the most stunning movie I had ever seen, and everyone at school would not stop talking about it. Soon enough there was a waiting list at the library for the few copies we had of the trilogy. We did not have Facebook back then, so quotes were posted on desks instead. Every now and then someone would acquire some chalk and post a quote, doodle, or symbol on the outside of the cafeteria. The bottle-hording became a vicious battle of snatching and stashing for everyone that wanted to see the movie, and it was not uncommon to see students carrying trash bags full of bottles down to the student center for the refund. The hype carried us the whole way to the anticipation of The Two Towers.

By this time, a better theater had been built in Nairobi, and movies came much quicker than the previous three month delay. As such, I had the opportunity to see The Two Towers before returning to school for the second term, which began the second the week of January. The hype filled the air again, and no subject was untouched, much to the annoyance of my dorm parent, who had no taste for epic features of any kind, and quickly grew tired of the endless chatter. Although, I did have a rather funny orc impression that made her laugh. This particular imitation involving me bulging my eyes out and straining my mouth as wide as possible and saying “What ‘bout the legs? They don’t need those…” was such a hit with a fellow dorm mate, that she became one of my dearest friends overnight. The following year we roomed together and carried on long into the night talking incessantly about each movie, book, character, scene, costume, everything right down to the musical notes. We listened to the soundtracks during study hall, pasted our walls with pictures, and eagerly awaited the release of The Return of the King.

To say that Return of the King was a bittersweet finale would be a gross understatement. The roommate and I made arrangements to spend a day in town to see it together (though it was our second viewing each), and we sobbed together.  Say what you will, we were unashamed. And when we saw it for a third time, we were hardly less moved by the masterful finale to the epic saga. The analysis and dissection of every possible detail of the movie became a defining feature of my senior year. Sometimes we would listen to the soundtrack during study time and then both stop on an emotional crescendo and exchange knowing looks before sighing heavily and returning to our studies. We were scolded many times for talking when we should have been studying, or talking when we should have been sleeping, or talking when we should have been cleaning, or any number of more productive things, but we never learned. We just learned to be more devious. 

My time at boarding school ended a few short months after The Return of the King ended the trilogy. When the time came for me to depart, I knew I was going back to the land where there were no three month delays on movie releases, and so I gave my roommate and dear friend the One Ring. Well, it was a trinket from my bookmark, but for the hopeless imaginative zealots that we were, it might as well have been the One Ring. I handed off my guide to the Lord of the Rings monsters to my "little brother", whom I sat with many times looking at the various beasts in my book. These I left behind, and took with me sweet sweet memories of late nights with my friend, moments before lunch with my little brother, and stashing soda bottles. It wasn't about the movies and the books; it was about the memories we built because of them. 

And then I moved to the land of midnight releases, and was at the front of the line for The Hobbit.