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The Desolation of Smaug; or, Time Someone Bitch-Slap Peter Jackson

The Desolation of Smaug; or, Time Someone Bitch-Slap Peter Jackson

Despite the heading of this blog, I liked The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  It is, without a doubt, better than the first entry in this series.  Smaug is a good film.  That’s the problem.  It’s good, when it should be great.  And it is for the first half.  The movie begins back in Bree at The Prancing Pony (with Peter Jackson’s requisite cameo), where we see Gandalf setting Thorin on his path.  Gandalf does meddle, and as established in The Lord of the Rings, he will put in danger other characters in order to further his own agenda.

The film jumps back to the present, some days after events in the first film have ended.  Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves are about to enter Mirkwood Forest.  They are helped along by the skin-changer Beorn, and once they are in the forest, attacked by spiders.  This is one of the best sequences in the film, even though it seems too short.  After the dwarves are freed from their cocoons, we see Bilbo feeling the first effects of the ring.  This is one of the additions to the novel that really works.

Legolas (Orlando Bloom) arrives to fight off the spiders.  With him comes Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly).  This is our first encounter with the she-elf.  The character is another Jackson addition.  While some characters were given bigger roles in the Rings Trilogy (compared to the novel), Tauriel is the first flat-out Kiwi invention.  One reviewer of the film wonders if she will become these prequels’ Jar Jar Binks.  The Hobbit films will not escape comparison to the Star Wars prequels.  But the expectations for Jackson’s films weren’t as high.  And rest assured, Tauriel is no Jar Jar Binks, and even though Jackon’s films present multiple missed opportunities, I’d rather stare at a bowl of diarrhea for six hours than sit through George Lucas’ abominations again.  Tauriel kicks ass, and is very much in line with another Middle Earth woman warrior, the Rings’ Eowyn.  Like Legolas, she provides a character we can identify with amongst the otherwise nondescript Woodland Elves. 

That’s all fine and dandy…but then love enters the picture.  After coming home from seeing The Hobbit yesterday I flipped through the newest Entertainment Weekly.  The critic Owen Gleiberman gives it an “A-“.  That’s nice.  But the review itself left me wondering if we saw the same film.  Tauriel is identified as Legolas’ love interest.  Uh?  Ah, no.  She is clearly Kili’s love interest.  Yes, Kili.  One of the dwarves.  After a two minute conversation with Kili in his jail cell, the 600-year old elf becomes so smitten with him she disobeys her king and rushes off to save him hundreds of miles away after he is shot with a poisoned arrow.  Yeah, none of that was in the novel.  With good reason.  Not only is it utterly preposterous, I find it misogynistic as well.  Yes, in LOTR, Arwen hooks up with the human Aragorn, but their courtship goes on for decades.  And yes, we have an elf on dwarf bromance, but neither Gimli nor Legolas will admit their friendship for each other until they face what they believe is certain death at the battle in front of the Black Gate.  Jackson introduces Tauriel as an empowered female, an ass-kicking super hero, and the only Woodland elf who recognizes the danger of King Thandriel’s isolationist policy.  But after two minutes with Kili, who is “taller than other dwarves,” her fragile little heart goes all pitter-patter and she rushes off to save him.  She doesn’t give a shite about his quest, his friends, or the looming disaster.  Apparently, even she-elves can only be motivated by love for males.  Two minutes worth.  For a being already 600 years old.  It’s revolting.  To Peter Jackson:  want to rectify this idiocy?  Have Galadriel, a real she-elf, show up in the third film and slap the shit out of Tauriel.

Much of the rest of the film has only a passing semblance to its source material.  The best bits follow Gandalf and his quest to figure out what’s going on with this Necromancer he keeps hearing about.  Bilbo and some of the dwarves finally make it to the Lonely Mountain.  Some of the dwarves inexplicably are left behind in Lake Town, I guess so the loins of Kili and Tauriel can get all tingly together.  Bilbo and the gang find the hidden door, and the brave little hobbit makes his way down into Smaug’s lair.  This is perhaps my favorite sequence in Tolkien’s novel: Bilbo has an intense cat and mouse game with the deadly dragon while the dwarves cower in fear outside.  Given the fantastic Riddle Game sequence in the first film, my expectations were very high.

That was my mistake.  In the film, once Bilbo enters the lair, Jackson proceeds to rip out page after page of the novel and wipe his ass with them.  You want to cut things, Jackson?  Fine.  Want to add things?  Fine.  But why dramatically change one of the sequences which make the novel so memorable?  You’re not dealing with an unknown work.  The Hobbit was published in 1937, and is still loved today.  Fans want to see their favorite sequences on film.  That’s what we’re paying for, you dick!  Well, Bilbo has a bit of a cat and mouse game, but not before Thorin shows up beside him.

And therein is perhaps the biggest problem in Jackson’s films.  Jackson’s Thorin is not a dwarf.  He’s nothing like the other dwarves in the company, let alone Gimli.  He doesn’t look like a dwarf.  He doesn’t talk like a dwarf.  He doesn’t act like a dwarf.  He’s a dude with a height deficiency.  That’s it.  Jackson concocts some ridiculous plan for the dwarves to encase Smaug in a pool of molten gold.  This entails getting a bunch of mining equipment working again after rusting in a dank mountain for sixty years.  The whole sequence is implausible and poorly conceived.  Why does Jackson do it?  In his mind, Thorin is a Bruce Willis type of action hero.  Action heroes do things; they don’t cower outside the mountain while little hobbits do their dirty work.  His fear is one of the things that make Tolkien’s Thorin so interesting.  Jackson flattens him into a cartoon character.  I can’t wait for him to die in the third film.

By the way, Smaug is impressive, as his the pile of treasure he sits upon.  Problem?  It’s nitpicky, but there’s so much gold in Smaug’s lair that even it represents 99% of the gold in all of Middle Earth, it would be totally worthless.  There’s simply too much of it. You might as well trade in blades of grass.  Bigger isn’t always better, Mr. Jackson.  Don’t worry.  I’ll be amongst the millions waiting in line for the third film next year.

 

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The Hobbit: A Better than Expected Journey

The Hobbit: A Better than Expected Journey.

At latest count The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has a 65% score on Rotten Tomatoes.

That’s about right.  Disappointing, but not surprising.  If critics had gone into the film without knowledge of the novel’s length or of the films’ troubled production history, or of Peter Jackson’s last minute decision to turn two films into three, they would have graded it higher.  I can’t imagine seeing the film as it is and not recommending it.  Does it measure up to The Lord of the Rings?  Hardly.  (But to be fair The Hobbit the novel doesn’t measure up to The Lord of the Rings the novel either.)  

Jackson’s film is far from perfect.  I can’t think of one scene in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (theatrical version, at least) that’s truly off the mark.  The same can’t be said about The Hobbit.  The dwarves’ escape from the Goblin King in the Misty Mountains is just plain ridiculous, an ugly hybrid of some of the sequences in the second and fourth Indiana Jones films and those crappy Pirates of the Caribbean sequels.  Jackson tries to mix terror with humor.  It simply doesn’t work.  (Much like the Paths of the Dead scenes in the extended version of The Return of the King.)   The changes he makes to the stone trolls’ sequence falls flat as well.  The novel has Gandalf throw the voices of the trolls, tricking them into a long argument, and making them forget that dawn is nigh.  In the film, Bilbo suggests different ways in which the dwarves can be cooked, thereby initiating a very short, and not terribly compelling, argument.  Before this, the dwarves all rush in and slash up the trolls in very nasty ways, but by the time the trolls start to argue they don’t seem hurt at all.

The film begins with Ian Holm and Elijah Wood reprising their roles from LOTR.  The older Bilbo tells Frodo that he doesn’t know the whole story of his adventures with the dwarfs.  This becomes the hook into the film.  Problem is, at the end of LOTR Frodo adds his story to the very book Bilbo is writing in in The Hobbit…So yes, Mr. Jackson.  Frodo did know the whole story.  Logic aside, bringing back Frodo and the older Bilbo simply wasn’t necessary.  The history we get of Smaug the dragon conquering Erebor is one of the film’s strongest sequences, but we could have gotten it during the unexpected party with the dwarves.

Ironically (given Jackson’s ability to create awesome battles) two of the strongest sequences are relatively simple.  One critic pointed out that “The Riddle Game” between Bilbo and Gollum is worth the price of admission alone.  He is absolutely correct.  It’s stunning.  Even though other critics didn’t care for the appearance of Radagast the Brown, I thought it was great, especially when the wizard explores the old fortress of Dol Guldor and has a run-in with a not quite resurrected Witch King of Angmar.  In this sequence we are also treated to our first glimpse of the Necromancer, played by Benedict Cumberbatch.  (Yes, Sherlock Holmes.  Martin Freeman, Bilbo in The Hobbit, plays his Dr. Watson in the current BBC series.) It’s a killer scene.  I only hope Sylvester McCoy (Doctor Who #7, by the way) appears as Radagast in the next two films.

A lot of critics complained about the length of just the film, since the novel is just a slim little thing.  In fact, when all is said in down, it’ll take longer to watch the trilogy then it will to read the novel.  I just reread the novel this week.  And you know what?  As is, it’s even more “unfilmable” than LOTR was perceived to be.  There’s very little characterization, and the plotting is crude, at best.  Most of the dwarves are just names on the page.  Characters only come into play when they’re necessary to the plot.  Some might not like the inclusion of the nasty orc that begins hunting the company in the film.  No, this is not in the novel.  Well, not exactly.  In the novel we find out that the orc army that attacks in the Battle of the Five Armies is led by an orc still pissed that Thorin (leader of the dwarf company) killed is father in Moria years earlier.  In the book you don’t find this out until the actual battle.  It’s presented as an “oh, by the way, the orcs are attacking, and this is why.”  You can get away with such things in a novel geared towards a young audience, but you can’t spring that on modern day film goers.   Jackson also knows he has to spend more time building his characters than Tolkien does.  In his LOTR, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Merry, Pippin, etc. are far more rounded than they are in the novel.

 Even though this first Hobbit film isn’t great, I’m willing to give Peter Jackson some leeway.  He understands something very important about Tolkien’s novels.  They’re not character driven.  They’re not even plot driven.  They’re world driven.  The films are about Middle Earth, not about individual hobbits.  Tolkien considered The Silmarillion his major work.  The HobbitThe Lord of the Rings?  Not so much.  He hoped those novels would simply be seen as a way into Middle Earth, with its history, its gods, its peoples, its cultures, its songs, its languages.  Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a sketch.  By the time he was half-way through writing The Lord of the Rings, he was already revising The Hobbit as shown through the appendices and the expansive back story in The Fellowship of the Ring.  In order to do The Hobbit cinematic justice, Jackson has to “flesh out” the story.  In doing so he’s doing homage to the genius of J.R.R. Tolkien.  So some people think nearly four hours was too long for the first Hobbit film?  I hope the next one is four.

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The Return of the King: Extended Edition

At nearly an hour of extra footage, the extended version of The Return of the King is a serious time commitment. No biggie for those serious fans of Jackson’s film. But is it worth it to sit in the theater for 4 plus hours this Tuesday?
Probably. Unlike the extended versions of the first two films in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, ROTK is hit and miss. I wouldn’t say that the original theatrical version is superior, but there are a number of new and extended scenes that simply do not work. Here is a rundown of the major new and extended scenes, starting with some that work:
Death of Saruman: Christopher Lee was pissed when Jackson cut this from the theatrical version. For good reason. It’s a great scene. Sure, he’s not killed in the Shire (as he is in the novel), but his final impalement on a spikey waterwheel is very apropos. We also see another layer of Theoden when he offers pardon to Grima.
The Mouth of Sauron: Originally, Jackson had Sauron appearing at the Black Gate to lead his army. Luckily, he changed his mind. In this scene the Mouth of Sauron produces Frodo’s mithril shirt, “proof” that he’s been captured. The scene is set up in the tower when we see two orcs fighting over the shirt. Not sure why Jackson cut it.
Gandalf vs. the Lord of the Nazgul: This is another scene that is set up in the theatrical version, but strangely enough, finally cut. An orc asks the Nazgul about the White Wizard, who then replies: “I will break him.” In the theatrical version, we don’t see him break Gandalf’s staff. If you only see the shorter version, you might wonder why he’s not carrying it when he saves Faramir from the pyre.
Avalanche of Skulls: This scene in the Paths of the Dead isn’t in the novel, but it’s cool nonetheless!
Pelennor Fields: The best new bits include additional scenes of Eowyn and Merry kicking ass, as well as Gothmog calling for Grond after failing to bring down the gates of Minas Tirith.
Houses of the Healing: We get more than a subtle hint about the future marriage of Eowyn and Faramir when they meet in the hospital. Faramir looks a little too healthy to be not marching to the Black Gate, but I can live with it.
Frodo and Sam captured by orcs: In Mordor, Frodo and Sam wear Orc clothes. In this new scene they are mistaken for orcs and are impressed into the army. They manage to escape in a way more realistic than in the novel.
Now here are some of the scenes that don’t work:
Eowyn and Merry riding to Minas Tirith: Eowyn is supposed to be in disguise, since her king ordered her to stay behind. In the book, she and Merry ride behind the army. In the movie, she walks around in the middle of the army without her helmet. Stupid misstep.
Drinking game: This scene is kinda funny, but doesn’t really strike the right tone. And again, when I think of the scenes from the novel not included in the film, I’m extra critical about the ones Jackson adds.
Paths of the Dead: The skulls scene is cool, but when the three companions first enter the cave, we see Gimli walking gingerly while bones crack beneath his feet. The scene should be scary. Instead, it’s humorous and screws up the tone of the sequence.
Corsair ships: The Peter Jackson cameo is fine, but this is supposed to be a massive army, a serious threat to the defenders of Minas Tirith. But what does Aragorn see when he gets out of the Paths of the Dead? About ten little river boats. How many troops could be on them? 500? Given the hordes already on the Pelennor, this army would be less than a drop in a bucket. A little simple CGI could have easily fixed it.
Pelennor Fields: the added sequences before the death of the Witchking are great, but after? We see Eowyn crawling away from Gothmog. Right before he gets to her, Aragorn and Gimli slay him. Eowyn’s killing of the Witchking is one of the film’s greatest scenes. It’s been set up since the first time we see her in The Two Towers. Her desire for honor, her bravery, her resourcefulness all come to fruition. Jackson kills the significance of her role as an empowered female by having Aragorn come to her rescue. Tolkien knew better.
Aragorn and the Palintir: In this scene, Aragorn announces his presence to Sauron. It’s meant to distract Sauron, to keep his eye fixed on Aragorn, and away from Frodo and Sam in Mordor. In Jackson’s scene, Sauron turns the table and shows Aragorn a dying Arwen. So much for Aragorn’s revelation. Now he’s the one likely distracted.

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The Two Towers: Extended Edition

Never before did I have such high expectations for a film than the second in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. I was nervous before seeing The Fellowship of the Ring, but after discovering its greatness, its clarity of vision, my hopes for the second in the trilogy soared.
The first scene in The Two Towers doesn’t disappoint. Gandalf’s pursuit of the Balrog down into the depths of the Misty Mountains is one of the greatest opening scenes of any movie I know. I was mesmerized that first time, and still am. By the beginning of the closing credits, however, had I my Faramir action figure I would have whipped it at the screen. The film contains too much Arwen, and too many seemingly nonsensical changes to Tolkien’s text, which often create holes in logic. (The elves fighting at Helm’s Deep? Where’d they go after? Are we to believe that every single one of them died??? And if they were free to fight there, why don’t they join the battles at Pelennor Fields and the Black Gate? The silly “telepathic” conversation between Galadriel and Elrond leading to the decision to send the Elvish army is overly expository, and nearly kills the tension of the middle act of the film. And Faramir? Tolkien’s character is a philosopher/warrior. Jackson’s is a bit of a weasel-dick. And even though the second film is a bit longer than the first, it covers about half the text. Many of Jackson’s scenes don’t appear in the novel. Instead of being disappointed of what was left out, many fans of the novel were disappointed in what was added.
But I was willing to give the film another chance, and I’ve learned to appreciate more with each viewing. Of three films The Two Towers benefits the most from the new and extended scenes in the cut playing in theaters this Tuesday. Flashbacks help to broaden Faramir’s character. While he’s still not the spiritual being he is in the novel, his treatment of Frodo and Sam now at least makes sense.
The most memorable new bits involve Merry, Pippen, and the Ents. Jackson pays homage to Tom Bombadil and Old Man Willow in a new scene when a Huorn (a wild tree without the consciousness of Ents) tries to ingest the two hobbits. In order to free them, Treebeard invokes the same command Bombadil uses in the Old Forest in the novel. The Huorns don’t appear in the initial cut of the film at all, even though they finish off Saruman’s army after the battle at Helm’s Deep. The extended cut contains that scene. (On Leno, Elijah Wood admitted that he didn’t understand why Jackson cut the scene. It’s really short, and really, really cool.) We also get to see Merry and Pippen discover all kinds of goodies in the ruins of Isengard.
So should you see the extended cut in the theaters? Absolutely! Sure, it’s the weakest of the three films. (Not all agree with this. In fact, for many of my friends who haven’t read the book, The Two Towers is their favorite of the three films.) But it still captures Middle Earth to the letter. It has a very different look than The Fellowship of the Ring. The plains of Rohan seem so much brighter than the Shire and Lothlorien. While there are weak bits, the hunt for Merry and Pippen is really well done, and our first real experience of Gollum is unforgettable. Sure, the siege of Isengard is way too short, but at least we get some of it. And the battle of Helm’s Deep? That alone is worth the price of admission.

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The Fellowship of the Ring: Extended Edition

The Lord of the Rings will be hitting theaters again, one film over the next three Tuesdays. If you’ve seen the films already, should you go? Absolutely! These are the extended editions of each film, meaning each contain finely incorporated additional and extended scenes. Plus, the films will be introduced by director and co-writer Peter Jackson.
I’m going, despite the fact I’ve seen the extended trilogy dozens of times. Sure I have surround sound at home, a large flat screen television and all that, but nothing compares to seeing these films really big.

Tonight is The Fellowship of the Ring. This extended version includes about 25 more minutes than the original theatrical version. Arguably, of the three theatrically released versions, FOTR has the fewest flaws. The changes and most of the omissions from the novel Jackson made were logical. Many Tolkien fans were disappointed that there’s no Tom Bombadil, no Old Man Willow, no Barrow-Wights. But had Jackson dramatized those sequences the film would’ve been twice as long. (I wouldn’t have minded that…) You won’t see those sequences tonight, either. But the new and extended scenes you do get, by and large, are lifted straight from the novel, most notably at the beginning of the film, and during the Fellowship’s stay in Lothlorien. After the same brief history of the One Ring, we get a new start: Bilbo writing the chapter of his book, “Concerning Hobbits.” Much of this scene comes from the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings. It is a welcome addition for fans of the novel.

The other major extension deals with Lothlorien, an elf-realm, home to Galadrial, one of the oldest beings in Middle-Earth. When I first saw the theatrical release, I was disappointed that there was no gift-giving scene; the elves give the Fellowship some really cool stuff. The extended version restores the sequence. We find out about lembas, the elven rope, and the cloaks, all of which play important parts in the 2nd and 3rd films.

Many other cool little tidbits are sprinkled throughout the film, including Sam’s first sight of elves, the trolls turned to stone from The Hobbit, and Aragorn’s singing of the Lay of Beren and Luthien. The additions make a great film even better.

Be there! But please, no costumes…

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