Monday, December 30, 2013


Movies that take their material from real life can be tricky.  Documentaries are often dismissed by the general public as boring in their relentless sincerity or too one-sided in their coverage.  Feature films that focus on the events of a real person's life ("biopics") can likewise be tricky.  Two recent biopics - Lincoln and 42 - dodge this problem by not trying to tell the whole story; instead, both films focus on a small, incredibly important, slice of the life of their subject.  (I reviewed Lincoln here and the Jackie Robinson film 42 here, by the way.)

Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom takes another path.  The film attempts, in less than two and a half hours, to tell most of the life story of an incredibly influential, complex man.  Such a task cannot be completed in that time frame, although Mandela tries mightily.  Make no mistake - this is a good film and has much to recommend it - but it wobbles slightly under its own weight.  Then again, how could it not?  Nelson Mandela is nearly a creature out of myth.  An educated man who bristled under the yoke of a blatantly unfair society, he first sought to change the system peacefully, but eventually turned to violent means.  Arrested and convicted, he was imprisoned under harsh circumstances for 27 years, yet never surrendered his dream of a more just society.  From behind bars, he became a global force to be reckoned with, due in no small part to his commanding presence, sharp intelligence, and uncanny ability to listen and file information away.  Released, he became South Africa's first black president and (with former Archbishop Desmond Tutu) established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help heal the deep, festering wounds left by apartheid.  It's all too easy to make Mandela into some sort of saint who spent his time on Robben Island quietly contemplating the birds in flight.

Director Justin Chadwick tries hard to resist the pull of a simplified myth and this Mandela (played magnificently by Idris Elba) has some warts.  He's a skirt-chaser early in life and his unfaithfulness, as well as his near-constant absences from home, led to the breakup of his first marriage.  He's also a shrewd politician - notice how Mandela listens to everything and often says very little.

Elba is a wonderfully accomplished actor who has brought a certain gravitas to his recent roles, including Heimdall the Guardian in the Thor franchise, but this role is a whole new level and Elba rises to the occasion.  The same can be said for Naomie Harris, who played Eve Moneypenny in the recent Bond flick Skyfall.  That was a fun role, to be sure, but sensitively portraying Winnie Mandela, who embraced violence in the name of social change long after her husband nigh-miraculously renounced it - well, that's a job to be proud of.  The film does a good job of showing just why Winnie Mandela was led to continue advocating violence - it's not just something that happens, but it is a stark reminder that we so often make our own monsters.  She chose necklacing to silence her political opponents; he chose the ballot box.  While South Africa continues to have problems galore to deal with, the country is much better off for Mandela's leadership during that crucial time.  Go see this movie.

(By the way, following Mandela's death in early December, I was shocked (for in many ways, I remain naive) at the vitriol and sheer hatred that poured forth from some of the human family who denounced Mandela as a communist and terrorist, thereby completing ignoring (1) the sheer inhumanity of the apartheid regime, (2) the desperation people can be driven to, and (3) the role politics plays in history.  Chadwick's film is not perfect, but it's well worth seeing.  It's likely to spark some uncomfortable discussions and that's a very good thing, for history does not disappear by being ignored. Instead, it becomes twisted and distorted, thus requiring a good cleaning.  And truth is the best disinfectant.)

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Hobbit, Part 2

. . . . you know, the one with the dragon.

Peter Jackson's decision to turn J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit into three movies has been (justifiably) criticized.  The book focuses on Bilbo Baggins, the meek hobbit who has any number of adventures, including obtaining the infamous One Ring, which he later gives to his cousin Frodo, an act that would launch the Lord of the Rings ("LotR") adventures.  It's worth noting that the novel, which was originally written for a younger readership than LotR, is roughly the same length as any one of the three LotR novels, all of which were a single film each.  (Side note - and they were masterful!)

Herein lies a problem.  In order to stretch the story - which is a straightforward "hero's journey" tale; I've referred to it as "Campbell for beginners," and I mean no disrespect by that - Jackson has to pad the story.  In the first film (reviewed here), that was done primarily by having lots and lots of scenes that were quite possibly described in the script as "They walk through New Zealand.  A long way.  And they keep walking."  Jackson expanded the source material to include Tollkien's numerous appendices and The Silmarillion - the man created an entire world for these tales and he was nothing if not thorough about it.  Even so, this film felt long in places.  I enjoyed The Desolation of Smaug a bit more than the first film; probably because I was ready for the padding.

Dim spots - some woods elf scenes that feel just wrong.  I tried to just let go and enjoy without my Inner Grump saying, "But that's not in the book!"  I had a hard time.  Also, some of the action scenes are long and unnecessarily complicated - too much whirling and slashing without any accompanying thrills for the characters.  I want to at least think the characters are in danger and here, I just knew that everybody was going to be A-OK and the orcs were nothing but practice-meat.  That said, be warned against taking the very young.  I think you could read the book at an earlier age that you could see the movie.  Also, Jackson's cameo as "Carrot-Eating Threatening Guy" is a bit too telegraphed for my taste, but that's a minor nitpick.  The bigger problem is that this isn't really Bilbo's story - there are too many competing storylines happening here.  Bilbo needs to be the focus of The Hobbit and he's just one part of the story - to the point that I was thinking several times during scene shifts, "Meanwhile, in another movie . . . "  Martin Freeman does a yeoman's job here, but he needs more material.

Bright spots - Smaug.  Jackson has done a wonderful job here.  Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock to Freeman's Watson on the BBC, remember) is cast exactly right as the dastardly dragon (Necromancer, meh) and the way the audience is introduced to the sheer size of this beast is a spot so bright that it throws me over to the "go see it on the big screen" camp.

In short, an improvement over the first, but still - three movies is too much for this one book.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Walter White Wednesday 84

"And a Heisenberg in the Christmas tree!"
Greetings, Breaking Bad fans!  The "Walter White Wednesday" portion of this blog is about to go on a holiday hiatus to allow me to take care of end-of-semester things at the college, celebrate the holidays with my dedicated and exciting (rowr!) co-author, and work through the final proofreading check of Wanna Cook? prior to spring publication.  (Remember - we're available for pre-order at Amazon, Books-A-Million, and Powell's!)

But before I go away for a few weeks, let me say a heartfelt "thank you" to everyone who has read the posts, forwarded them along, commented, tweeted, +1d, and encouraged us.  Writing a book is an intense and often lonely job, even with two of us doing it.  Thank you for reminding us to take time to go look at the sunset, eat something that we didn't have to unwrap, and your kind, kind words.  The book isn't quite done yet, but it's soclose!  Of course, we'll be posting more about publication events and where to find it (and us!) after the New Year.  And the blog will continue - I'll still be posting about movies and TV here throughout the holidays; I'm just taking a Breaking Bad break from the Wednesday posts until the start of the New Year.

As the year winds down on the calendar, it's amazing to look back on where Vince Gilligan & Co. have taken us.  Walt's saga is over, but the lessons he taught us live on.  Many people have found unexpected wisdom and humor in Breaking Bad - here are a few of the resulting articles.  (Please note that I accept no responsibility for anything that happens as a result of following the guidelines in any of these.  I'm just the messenger.)

Of course, Breaking Bad has an official Christmas gift shop for all of your holiday needs.  (Guess it really will be a "blue Christmas"!)  Really - everything from an A1A air freshener to cuff links to some Los Pollos lunch bags can be yours!  Click here and happy shopping!

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Snow Queen Meets the Mouse

Walt Disney, through its various subsidiaries, now owns approximately 87% of the known world.  (OK, I made up the number, but I'm still pretty sure it's in the ballpark.  Click here for a list of holdings and let's just say that they've come a long way from a little animated mouse that was nearly named Mortimer.)  This holiday season, Disney has released Frozen, which is loosely based on the dark Hans Christian Andersen tale The Snow Queen.  It's a keeper.

Now, I have long lamented the Mouse's desire to round off the sharp edges of fairy tales, which were not originally for children.  These were meant to be cautionary tales full of danger, darkness, in which a prince's kiss usually brought more trouble than it was worth.  Still, I"m a sucker for a bouncy tune and Frozen is a nice addition to the Disney pantheon.

As far as I can recall, Frozen is the first Disney to have two distinct female leads.  (And the voices!  Swoon.  By hiring Idina Menzel, who was the original Elphaba in Broadway's Wicked, I suspect that Disney is positioning itself to go into full-scale Broadway production with this one, a la The Lion King.)  The bond of sisterly love, as opposed to step-sisterly-wickedness, is new. There is a honorable ice-seller, trolls, and a dastardly duke (voiced by Alan Tudyk, which ensured I'd be content.)  For sidekicks, there's a dim-witted, lovable snowman and a wise, goofy reindeer.

Honestly, Frozen is a delight.  The animation of ice, frost, and snow is a marvel.  The children in the audience were enraptured (as were the majority of the adults), and the message (and all films have messages; don't fool yourself into thinking they don't) is positive and worthy.

You could do far worse this holiday season.

(Still . . . go read the original Andersen.  Just maybe not out loud to the littlest among you.)