THE HOBBIT: The Desolation Of Tolkien


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Before anyone gets too excited or too defensive over the title of this post, let me start by proclaiming that I am not only a massive fan of Tolkien’s masterworks, but I am also a big fan of Peter Jackson’s filmic interpretation of THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. Now I’m speaking of the Extended Editions, of course. For those who have only seen the Theatrical Cuts, I can only say that you haven’t seen the actual films and can, therefore, only offer a limited judgement of the work that was done in bringing that story to the screen. 

The Extended Editions, particularly of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, were vast improvements over the shorter versions. What disappointed and seemed like a loose veil of a story wrapped around a series of poorly staged battles at first, suddenly blossomed into the emotional character adventure and exploration — with full social and historical commentary intact — that had made the Tolkien books so compelling. Were the films as good as the books? Of course not! If you expected that, then you believe in the impossible. So, given realistic expectations, I found the films to be an extraordinary achievement on a massive scale. I loved them and have happily returned to that 12-plus-hour cinematic adventure on several occasions. Not that I didn’t initially enter in to Jackson’s world without some serious concerns.

When I first heard that Jackson was going to tackle this beloved piece of literature, I was more than a little worried. With the exception of HEAVENLY CREATURES, I was not a huge fan of Jackson’s work. His combination of darkness and comedy rarely worked for me. I like my coffee black. Cream and sugar not only waters down the taste, it changes the taste completely. I had every reason to believe that Jackson would infuse these films with a goofball humor that would consistently undermine both the integrity and gravity of the books and the stories they contained. But to my jubilation and astonishment, Jackson — with one or two exceptions — created what I found to be a very dark, enthralling and epic motion picture experience.

When I then heard that Guillermo del Toro was tapped to direct THE HOBBIT, I worried again. While somewhat fascinated with elements of Del Toro’s work, I have never quite connected with his style or instincts as a filmmaker and was more than a little concerned that he would take THE HOBBIT in a direction I would not like. When he backed out and Jackson stepped back in, I was both relieved and thrilled.

Unlike many others, I was fascinated by the notion that Jackson and company were not only going to film THE HOBBIT, but many of the other tales that connected that first book to the trilogy; they were going to take Tolkien’s other writings of Middle Earth and expand on that initial story written for a young audience. What remained in question was whether Jackson would attempt to capture the childlike sense of play that separated THE HOBBIT from its more adult follow-up, or whether he would focus more closely on allowing the filmed version to exist more as a prequel to his own LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. Was it possible to do both? It seems Jackson has tried.

I must say here that I actually enjoyed the first HOBBIT film. Not nearly as much as THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but I so love this world and these characters that venturing back was, quite simply, a joyful and pleasurable experience for me. What kept that film from matching its predecessors, however, were those goofy elements that Jackson had been known for in the past that were responsible for allowing me to drop out of so many of his other films: a self-consciousness; that recurring “wink” to the audience; a schizophrenic tone shift that always felt more adrift to me than it did daring, a pubescent sensibility that I was thrilled seemed almost absent in his LOTR films. I was vastly disappointed in both Jackson’s KING KONG and his adaptation of THE LOVELY BONES. They both missed their marks for me by wide margins. But I still believed that Jackson’s connection to Tolkien’s work brought out something different in him and, as a result, I chose to hope and, to an extent, trust his work and vision in this department.

My gravest issue with Jackson’s first installment of THE HOBBIT — to address this in more detail — was that, for me, many of the action scenes stepped too far out of the reality of the created world. Reality. An odd word for a story that takes place in a mythical land of elves, hobbits and dragons, I know. But each and every world has its own set of rules. Break them and the pieces crumble. Jackson allowed the most dangerous and life-threatening sequences to devolve into moments of silliness and a defiance of gravity meeting flesh and bone that, for me, undermined the threat of the dangers themselves, thus vastly decreasing the tension and forcing me to take the lives of the characters far less seriously. Was Jackson giving in to his own worst sensibilities that had kept me at arm’s length in the past? Or was he simply trying to honor the fun, playful aspects of Tolkien’s book in his own way? I truly do not know. For me, Jackson walked a fine line in that first HOBBIT film. Luckily, he teetered on the better side of it and left me wanting more (i.e. excited about the next HOBBIT installment).

Yesterday I returned to Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien’s world with THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG.

What. The. Hell. Happened?

I sat there gape-jawed and full of embarrassment as I watched what played out for me like every Tolkien-hater’s misguided vision of what THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT must be like. Jackson had, somehow, managed to turn this film into something almost indistinguishable from every other action/adventure movie oozing out of the fetid remnants of Hollywood today. STAR TREK, DIE HARD, THE HOBBIT… They’re all now just effects extravaganzas moving through tired, similar plots with action scenes that are played more for the humor and hijinks (and, again, winks to the audience), than they are for any true commitment to story or character or consequence. The action scenes in DESOLATION OF SMAUG are almost unwatchable in their entirety. Silly, tired and overdone, they come and go with little impact as eyes glaze over with the fog of the insipid and the mundane. As if Rube Goldberg had fashioned an action sequence for a prepubescent animated Disney film on a horrifically uninspired day. Even Martin Freeman, who was so charming and full of life in his depiction of Bilbo Baggins in the first HOBBIT installment, devolved into nothing more than a lifeless prop here, seconded only by the regression of Sir Ian McKellen‘s Gandalf into nothing more than a familiar face with a large stick and baggy robe. Was it the decision to turn the intended two films into three that caused this greatest of missteps? Was it Jackson’s over-attention to the 3D/48 fps process that distracted him from the actual storytelling that is to blame here? I truly don’t know. What I do know is that my personal experience of THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG was utterly and entirely disappointing and even somewhat painful. The reduction of this great story into something as tepid and weary as what I witnessed yesterday is something worth mourning. Not a global crisis, to be sure, but from a film/movie perspective, incredibly sad. My personal experience of this filmed version of THE HOBBIT is forever tainted in such a way that, unlike the LOTR, I will never go back to this prequel trilogy as I will not allow myself to submit to any of the feelings this middle film elicited in me. Some missteps I can push aside, oftentimes many. But some are far too great to dismiss or ignore.

This is one of them.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG is the film people who complain about Jackson’s reinterpretation have seen all along. The version I never saw. The version I dreaded.

Desolation, indeed.

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THE HOBBIT: The Desolation Of Tolkien

GRAVITY: 2D vs 3D


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When I first saw GRAVITY, I saw it in 2D. Or as it’s better known, NOT in 3D. I was told by friends who enjoyed the film and knew that I was not a big fan of the usual 3D experience, that GRAVITY need not be seen in 3D, that it would work just as well without it. Being that they never saw the film in 2D, there was no way they could have understood what a vapid experience GRAVITY would be for me in 2D.

Since that time, I’ve been told again and again by other fans of the film that the 3D experience of GRAVITY is essential; that the film cannot be separated from the experience. The film was made to be seen on a big screen in 3D and any lesser experience is not a proper reflection on the film or the filmmakers.

They were right.

Watching GRAVITY in 3D was a completely different experience. Shots that seemed pointless, gimmicky and empty in 2D, came alive in 3D and suddenly Cuarón’s visual choices made sense, they were effective. I felt a deep sense of vertigo watching the film in 3D that was barely even hinted at in 2D. Wow. I sat there thinking to myself, “Maybe I was wrong…”

Let me go back for a moment and explain why I don’t usually respond well to 3D. What happens is this: I find myself so caught up in the 3D experience that it takes me much longer to actually get into the story; I find myself far less attentive to the narrative and characters, dialogue comes and goes, I catch bits and pieces, but my brain is too busy processing the three-dimensional experience. The same was true with GRAVITY. I was so taken with the feeling of being in outer space, that most of what they were doing and saying slipped past me. Thankfully, having already seen the film in 2D, I already knew. In 2D, I followed the plot, the dialogue, relied on the characters to take me on my journey. And the truth of the matter is, for me, the story and characters in GRAVITY are not strong enough to carry this film. The 3D is. But only to a point. By the halfway mark, after the initial “Wow” factor had worn off, I realized that I was still left with the same poorly-written, empty experience that had been the 2D journey. Gillo Pontecorvo’s ageless observation has never been displayed more poignantly and aggressively than in GRAVITY:

”Technically U.S. directors keep improving. But this technical expertise hides an emptiness that keeps getting bigger. They’re very good at saying nothing.” –Gillo Pontecorvo

GRAVITY is the most effective use of 3D I have ever seen, seconded only by Wim Wenders’ PINA. The difference here is that PINA is about something. GRAVITY, on the other hand, seems to have nothing to say, nothing else to offer BUT the 3D. Why can’t we use this amazing technology to create an experience that is satisfying as a whole? Instead, critics and audiences are tricked into thinking they are seeing an incredible film when they are, in fact, seeing an incredible and creative use of an advanced 3D technology. But at the end of the day, Cuarón’s status as a storyteller remains diminished. With the exception of A LITTLE PRINCESS, Cuarón, for me, has proven to be a director who leaves me feeling empty, oftentimes gypped. There’s a lot of impressive camerawork in terms of long-takes and well-choreographed shots, but what lies beneath those shots and takes is nothing more than thin air. Lift the top off and the air just dissipates into nothingness. Gillo was right. In the case of GRAVITY, the amazing 3D hides an emptiness that just keeps getting bigger.

Oddly, in most Cuarón films, there is a moment toward the end when, despite my growing feeling of disappointment, he sets up what I believe to be the most perfect and daring ending. Almost as if the entire structure of the film were tailor-made for this moment, this conclusion. And as I watch it unfold, I think to myself that if the film ends now, if it ends this way, it will make up for all the other “lesser” moments that had been disappointing me so much. In fact, it may allow those seemingly lesser moments to now reveal themselves as having intent, perhaps even a poignancy that simply requires patience and trust in the filmmaker. But Cuarón takes these moments, builds them to the penultimate edge… Then tosses them away.

Sigh…

Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, CHILDREN OF MEN, these films have amazing potential endings that are set up to leave the audience with questions, to allow them to be active participants, to give them something of value to take with them after the film has ended, to create a lasting and provocative experience. But Cuarón, time and again, dangles these potentially great cinematic moments in front of us, only to snatch them away and give in to what seems to be a fear-based response (Spoiler Alert: Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN: she acted this way cause she knew she was dying of cancer. CHILDREN OF MEN: Yes, there is a ship after all).

GRAVITY reeks of fear to me. (More Spoilers) When Sandra Bullock’s character, Ryan Stone, gives her final speech — that over-written, over-produced Hollywood moment when films feel the need to have their heroes spell out everything in verbal terms — Cuarón STILL manages to create a moment that, if he’d allowed himself, would have left the audience with something to genuinely chew on. After proclaiming to the universe (with a seriously bombastic score to back her) that there are only two ways this can go: either Stone will find herself at home tonight with one hell of a story to tell, OR she’ll burn up in the atmosphere and that, either way, it’s gonna be one hell of a ride… Cuarón had an amazing opportunity to leave us, the audience, out in space as Ryan Stone quickly descended toward Earth in a fiery ball. Does she make it? What do you think? It seems pointless and dissatisfying to me to have Stone pose the question only to have it answered 30 seconds later! Had Cuarón taken the opportunity he himself set up, he would have created an experience that actually had something of value to offer us; he would have allowed us to be introspective, to do exactly what a film like this — a film about human beings moving through the vastness and cold of space with their home far below, so close and yet so out of reach — should do: make us think, make us feel, make us ask questions of ourselves, of our experiences as human beings living on a planet out in the middle of… what, exactly? Instead, Cuarón takes us back to Earth, he doesn’t leave us in space, he doesn’t leave us with one single, solitary question, he asks NOTHING of us as an audience and brings the roller-coaster safely back to Earth so that we can all step off and go back to our lives unscathed, unchanged. Sure, we get to watch Stone crawl out of the primordial goo, like ancient ancestors before her, to a world that has lost its connection to satellite technology, but this is a tepid replacement for the gift that almost was.

Wimp.

For me, the entire film feels like a lesson in not taking risks. The 3D experience is so convincing, so effective, that one gets the sense that the George Clooney character, Matt Kowalski , is there, not so much to keep Sandra Bullock from panicking, but to keep the audience from panicking. Nothing fazes him. He’s fun and happy, listens to cowboy music and is always debonair and charming. He’ll take care of us, ease us through this harrowing cinematic 3D experience. Thank god Cuarón finally takes Kowalski away. Of course, he goes — not just willingly — but cracking jokes, listening to music and admiring the view. Why, this isn’t so scary or existentially frightening after all… But wait… Cuarón suddenly brings Kowalski back again in what is one of the most obvious and unnecessary bits of writing I’ve witnessed in ages. I was so happy to have gotten rid of this character who stood between me and an actual experience, an actual emotion. Alas… From this point forward, the story descends with frightening rapidity into predictable, overwrought simplicity. Unimaginative writing slides headlong into pablum and not even the amazing 3D can hide the vacuity that is the story and characters of GRAVITY.

GRAVITY: 2D vs 3D

L.A. Film Critics Reveal Appalling Vapidity. Again.


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This is truly appalling. It seems each and every year, film critics lose all perspective on films and filmmaking. If anyone out there believes GRAVITY to be a well-written film that reveals anything beyond the most one-dimensional and least introspective narrative created for the sole purpose of offering an audience what is essentially an overlong roller-coaster ride, then you’ve probably spent far too much time watching bad film after bad film for something like GRAVITY to even be considered for an award outside of special effects.

And maybe that’s exactly what’s happened. Critics have to see SO many films — most of them not particularly daring or good — that when they sit down to watch something that even moderately engages them, they jump out of their seat with unabashed excitement and toss awards at it. And maybe the same is true for the average audience member who doesn’t even know films made outside of the Hollywood system exist.

But that excuse doesn’t keep these annual abominations from being any less embarrassing. Anyone who has followed my posts for any length of time knows that I get my knickers all in a knot come this time of year since it is as traditional as Thanksgiving and Christmas that awards and accolades be given to at least one film that simply has little-to-nothing of value to offer. At least by my personal standards. Which I realize are not necessarily anyone else’s standards. But I’m exhausted standing by and watching daring, introspective and genuinely creative films take a backseat to movies that barely scratch the surface of the human experience, no less minimize it to a series of predictable plot points and sanitized stereotypes.

GRAVITY, while quite possibly being a great thrill ride (I, to be honest, got bored after a time), offers nothing else to a movie-goer who desires an experience that extends beyond the closing credits. Now don’t misunderstand, I definitely believe there is value in escapist cinema. Not every film need challenge us to the very core of our beings… But when we award a film Best Picture Of The Year, what exactly are we saying? Are we honoring the craft of filmmaking, of storytelling, of cinema? Or are we just saying, “Yeah, that was fun.”? Because GRAVITY’s technical achievements hide an overwhelming lack of story or character. One friend wittily commented that he recommended taking Dramamine before seeing GRAVITY just for the dialogue alone! So clearly I’m not the first or only person to point out the wretchedness of this film’s script. And yet the Los Angeles Film Critics Association bestow their highest honor on this poorly written thrill ride and effects extravaganza.

And speaking of effects, I still think the effects in Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY capture a sense of outer (and inner) space more poignantly and effectively than GRAVITY managed with all its 21st century technology. There is not a single image or sequence in Cuarón’s vision and choice of compositions that hold so much as an ounce of the insight and (yes, I’m gonna say it) gravity that a single frame of Kubrick’s opus did. And that film was made 45 years ago! Yes, I know, I’ve been told we’re not supposed to compare a fun film like GRAVITY to a masterpiece like 2001, but then I must return to my original inquiry and ask what, then, are we celebrating here exactly? George Clooney playing a dashing rogue in space? I often enjoy Clooney as an actor. He’s charming and likable and smart. But in GRAVITY, he is a constant reminder that we are nowhere near outer space; we have our feet firmly grounded in a soundstage with a PR machine inches away and at the ready. There’s not a single moment when the actor, director or writers allowed this character to be even subtly human. They all seem to be far more interested in his star-power and charm than they are in the situation this character finds himself in.

Now I could go on and on about why I believe GRAVITY is a poor film whose effects and 3D experience loosely veil its vast emptiness, but the film itself doesn’t actually deserve any more time than I’ve already given it. But it’s critics and audiences who have allowed themselves to believe they are getting something rich, something wonderful, that I take vehement issue with.

Sadly, film critics these days (of the “professional” variety) are largely made up of folks from other areas of a newspaper or magazine that have been moved over to the Film Section and found themselves suddenly being asked to present themselves as film critics. There are so few out there writing who have any real knowledge of cinema or the language and history of film. They are often no more than a collection of people who maybe like movies, but they are NOT in a position to be intelligently critical of film. And in pretending to be, they diminish the artform itself by publicly celebrating its most mediocre entries en masse. And that, to put it in the simplest terms possible, makes me sad.

After writing this post, I went back to the theaters to see GRAVITY in 3D as I had only seen it in 2D at the time of this writing. If you would like to read my thoughts comparing the two experiences of the film, please go here: GRAVITY: 2D vs 3D

L.A. Film Critics Reveal Appalling Vapidity. Again.