Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Of Furry Feet & Long Journeys

I went into Peter Jackson's The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey with high expectations.  Jackson will forever be known as the man who brought Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy to the screen (and also threw Andy Serkis into the stratosphere) and fans everywhere eagerly awaited his take on Hobbit.

I may be in the minority on this one - and that's okay - but I found Hobbit to be middle of the road.  (See how I avoided the cheap pun there by not saying "middle (Earth) of the road"?  It was hard to resist, let me tell you!)  Hobbit is being split into three - count 'em, three - movies, which I find astounding.  Jackson is managing to do this by straying far from the actual text of Hobbit to bring in material covered in appendices (and, quite possibly, more than a touch of The Silmarillion).  This film, the first of the three parts, clocks in at a hefty two hours and forty-six minutes and in parts, I felt every second on it.  New Zealand looks gorgeous, but let's just say there's a lot of walking through it in this film.

I can't fault the actors - Martin Freeman is up to the task of playing Bilbo Baggins (the stay-at-home hobbit who discovers a bit of his wilder Took side), Ian McKellan and the aforementioned Andy Serkis resume their roles as Gandalf and Gollum in splendid fashion.  Other old friends appear as well and, while some purists will howl at the departures from the Tolkien book, I was willing to run with it.  Let's face it - book adaptations are always tricky - (what to keep, what to discard, what to condense are major questions to answer in crafting the script and you know that, no matter what path you take, you're going to make someone angry), and that's even more true for a work that includes "Tolkien scholar" among the credits.  Still, some of the humor falls flat for me and feels forced rather than springing from the scene itself.  On the plus side, I loved seeing Bilbo's "hobbit hole" invaded by a host of unexpected (and ravenous) guests.

Two items to mention:  the "riddle scene" between Bilbo and Gollum and the appearance of Thorin Oakenshield.  The Bilbo/Gollum scene is a the heart of all of the LoTR books, for without it, nothing else really matters.  We've got to get that ring to Bilbo so it can go to Frodo so that, so that, so that.  It was apparently the first scene Freeman filmed and it's marvelous.  Andy Serkis has had years to master Gollum and the technology of motion-capture continues to develop.  Utterly compelling.  On the other hand, let's discuss Richard Armitage (who played the villainous Sir Guy in the recent BBC production of Robin Hood) who plays the leader of the dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield.  I enjoyed his performance quite a bit, but I disliked how he stood out from the other dwarves.  Sure, it's a yeoman's task to distinguish 13 dwarves, but while other dwarves appear to be - well, dwarvish - Armitage has matinee-idol good looks, flowing dark locks, and overall appears to simply be a somewhat short human, rather than a member of another Middle Earth race.  I dislike this - it seems that Jackson didn't trust that the audience could accept a hero who didn't look like us.

In short (ha! Well, one pun's okay, I expect), Hobbit looks great and does a credible job of storytelling, although it also drags in places.  Big screen?  Maybe, but don't pay full price.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Ho, Ho, Ho!

Hung with care - check!
Okay, let's get one thing straight.  In a world which has entire radio stations switching their format to Andy Williams and Bing Crosby to saturate the airwaves with Christmas songs, there's really not a war on Christmas.  Don't believe the hype - Christmas is so far from being under attack in the USA that it's nearly laughable.  Retailers expect to turn a profit for the year based on sales made in the final six weeks of the year - the very name "Black Friday" comes from a business turning a profit (recorded in black ink) as opposed to running at a loss (red ink) and they certainly want to welcome Christmas shoppers.  (Note:  They also want to welcome Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and, I daresay, Solstice shoppers.  It's the desire for profit that drives the more inclusive "Happy Holidays," not some sort of animosity towards the Christ Child.  Face it - Santa sells.) For further evidence, I live in the American South which seems to have an entire cottage industry based on turning out bizarrely festooned Christmas sweaters.  And yes, I own a couple, so I know of what I speak.

Radio stations aren't the only media to hop on the Christmas bandwagon.  The world of the Christmas special is upon us and I thought it would be a good time to mention ten of my personal favorites.

  1. First off, you can't go wrong with any of the Rankin/Bass stop-motion specials.  Rudolph (you know, the one with the elf who wants to be a dentist), Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, and The Year Without a Santa Claus - all are lovely tales, best served with cocoa.  Don't blame me if you find yourself thinking about misfit toys or humming the Snow Miser song.
  2. Don't forget the Grinch!  C'mon, Boris Karloff??  Cindy Lou Who?  Plan time for this one.  Plan time to ignore the Jim Carrey one.
  3. And let's not overlook the special that gave us the "Snoopy dance" - A Charlie Brown Christmas.
  4. The Muppet Christmas Carol.  Words cannot express how much I enjoy this one.  Gonzo the Great as Charles Dickens (helped out by Rizzo the Rat) was a wonderful idea, but to really make this one work, you need to understand the source material.  (Think of it this way.  You can enjoy Blazing Saddles if you've never seen another Western, but if you know the general structure and tropes of that type of film, the jokes become much, much funnier.)
  5. Another parody of Dickens' tale is the Bill Murray film Scrooged.  I love this one, mostly for the spin it takes in having television take the place of Scrooge & Marley's bean-counting firm.  Darkly comic and it retains the transformative message that is the hallmark (if you will) of the Dickens story.
  6. So what version of A Christmas Carol would I suggest?  Honestly, there are a lot out there to choose from (see this list!), but I like the George C. Scott version.  Really - watch this before you tackle the parodies listed above.    
  7. Buffy the Vampire Slayer never did "a very special episode," for which I've always been glad, but there is a lovely Christmas-themed episode ("Amends" in Season 3) that deals directly with whether redemption is deserved or a gift without strings - and what to do if you feel you don't deserve such a gift.
  8. Supernatural has a Christmas episode ("A Very Supernatural Christmas" in Season 3) that's become a recent addition to my "must watch" list.  It's irreverent and slapstick-funny in places, but also too violent for the smallest among us.  It's also bittersweet as you see the young Sam and Dean try to create Christmas in one of Supernatural's many cheap motel rooms.
  9. And the very first Doctor Who episode I saw was the Christmas special ("The Christmas Invasion") from Russell Davies' relaunch of the series - and the first full one with David Tennant.  
  10. Also, if you can find it, the short-lived 90s series My So-Called Life has a fantastic Christmas episode ("So-Called Angels") that's well worth seeking out.

There are many others, of course, but there's a decent start!

By the way, there's not a Christmas episode of Breaking Bad, for which I think we can all be grateful.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Life of Pi

There's an old saying in filmmaking:  Never work with water, children, or animals.  The conventional wisdom is that the first is too hard to film, the second is too hard to work with, and the third is just too unpredictable.  Ang Lee's lushly gorgeous Life of Pi breaks all three elements of this adage and thank heavens it does.  This film is many things - a adventure tale about a shipwreck, a story of spiritual searching, a coming-of-age story, a fantasy tale of man and animal - and yet it manages to take all these things and create a coherent whole from them.  Pay attention to the layers of names throughout - "Pi" creates his name to escape an even more outlandish one that his school friends twist and mock, "Richard Parker" is not who you think he is, and really - what exactly happened on that raft?  And to whom?  At the end of Life of Pi, we have answers, but we also have more questions.

The film does not shy away from asking the Big Questions, including Who is God? and Do I control my life? These are questions not usually found in a PG movie, but one well worth taking children to go see.  Not everyone celebrates the Divine in the same way, but I don't think that makes the path less genuine.  Pi is searching for the One True Faith and he finds that the road isn't all that well marked.  He is a resourceful young man who wants to live and discovers that requires a tremendous amount of work and fortitude - and not just when he's trapped in the middle of the Pacific.

In addition to the depth of the story, I was stunned at the out-and-out beauty of this film.  There are several astonishing sequences that play up the sheer size of sky and sea as well as the infinite, and deadly, beauty of that seascape.

Further, I believe I may have seen a film in 3-D that does what all the hype has been about.  In Pi, it adds to the story rather than jolting me out of it.  Lee and his team use the effect of 3-D to add depth to the frame, rather than using the technology as a gimmick to break out of the frame and have things fly at the audience.  In fact, the one time I actually jumped at the 3-D, an object - a very large object - was moving rapidly away from the screen into the back of the shot.  Plus, the film lacks the muddy darkness that I've come to associate with so much 3-D.  Maybe - just maybe - there's something to 3-D after all.*

*Then again, maybe not.  One of the previews before Life of Pi was for the 20th anniversary release of Spielberg's Jurassic Park in - that's right - retrofitted 3-D.  Sigh.  I really don't like this sort of thing.  I was against colorization of old black and white movies and for me, this falls into the same camp.  George Lucas has made and re-made the original Star Wars trilogy so many times that T-shirts have actually cropped up reminding viewers that "Han Shot First."  It's another example of trusting your storytelling.  If that's good, there's no need to "retcon" the story with shiny new tech.  And if it's not good, well, why bother with the expense?