Review–“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” (Fan Review)

Warning:  Complete spoilers follow.

This is the second in a two-part series reviewing the recently released The Hobbit:  The Desolation of Smaug. It is written from a fan’s perspective (of both the original work by Tolkien as well as Jackson’s cinematic adaptations). 

Having been a fan of Tolkien for over half of my life, and a fan of Jackson’s adaptations of that work for over a decade, I was, understandably, quite excited to be going into The Desolation of Smaug.  Unlike many, I was also pleased with An Unexpected Journey and, having seen the follow-up, I am even more pleased with Desolation.  Here are the reasons why (as well as some reflections on the changes Jackson makes).

SMAUG:  His name is right in the title, and deservedly so.  Deliciously and sinuously portrayed by British great Benedict Cumberbatch, this is the dragon that we have all been waiting to see, and fans of Tolkien should not be disappointed.  This is the cunning, cruel, yet fascinatingly charismatic drake that we have been waiting for these many years, and he well lives up to the many appellations that Bilbo (perhaps facetiously) bestows on him during their famous battle of wits in the halls of Erebor.  Nor is Smaug a slouch in the action department, for he shows, frequently, that he has the brawn to back up the brains.  Sure, some of the action between him and the Dwarves may be a little overdone, but if you’re going to invest a ton of time and money into making a CGI dragon, you have to give him something to do.  And let’s face it, the scene where he shakes off the molten gold like so many droplets of water and takes to the air to rain down fire and death on Laketown, is going to go down as one of the most visually stunning moments in cinematic adaptations of Tolkien.

Likewise, the duel between Gandalf and the Necromancer is both terrifying and visually electrifying.  If anything justified the price of a 3-D IMAX ticket, this was definitely it.  While some have complained that Gandalf’s use of force violates his mandate from the Valar not to use force to combat Sauron, I prefer to think of his use not as an attempt to overcome Sauron, but to force him to reveal himself for who he truly is.  Gandalf goes into Dol Guldur fully knowing that he is entering a trap, but his whole point is to force the Necromancer’s hand, so that he can in turn convince the White Council (particularly the recalcitrant Saurman) to finally make a move against him.  The only way to do so is to make sure that he feels threatened enough to reveal himself in all of his dark and terrible might, as well as to unleash the legions that he has summoned to his cause (although it is never explicitly stated in either of Tolkien’s original works that Sauron in his guise as the Necromancer was responsible for the Orcs moving against the Dwarves, it is suggested several times that most of the evil in Middle-earth is either explicitly or implicitly linked to Sauron’s desires and/or influence.  I therefore see no problem with Jackson making this more explicit for the film’s purposes).

I also really appreciated the new shadings of character that we see given to the Elves, particularly the trio of Thranduil, Tauriel, and Legolas.  To me, Thranduil is exactly as Tolkien portrayed him:  gifted with a measure of the wisdom of the High Elves, but still not as great nor as far-seeing as most of his brethren.  Thus his obvious desire for a share of the treasure of Erebor (which is reflected in the novel, as well), and his (very Elvisih) desire to protect his homeland, even if it means sacrificing the rest of the outside world to its fate.  For his part, Legolas already shows signs of the independent spirit that will lead him to be more farsighted and altruistic than his father.  And finally, and I know I may not be in the majority on this one, but I found Tauriel to be very captivating.  She does not quite have the ethereal quality of Arwen (and why would she?)  What she lacks in wisdom, however, she makes up for in her fiery spirit and her desire to reach out to the outside world.  I’m very interested to see what directions her character takes in the final film.

All in all, I think this film is a stirring second chapter, and it points out why a trilogy was, in fact, needed to provide a certain contingent of Tolkien fans with a fully-fleshed-out vision of Tolkien’s narrative.  It is also worth noting that, while some of the events depicted in the films take place (sometimes hundreds) of years before the actual story of The Hobbit, it makes sense filmically to have them take place now.  Thus, we see the corruption of Mirkwood taking place during the timespan of An Unexpected Journey and Gandalf’s discovery of the Necromancer’s true identity in Desolation in the filmic present because otherwise we would either not get to see them or they would have to be told in extensive flashbacks.  The latter worked in Fellowship because it was fairly brief and because it served as background, while in this new trilogy it is one of the fully-explored narrative arcs.  Since I have always wanted to see the White Council and its actions against the Necromancer depicted in an adaptation of The Hobbit, I am quite elated to see them so powerfully brought to visual life.

Does The Desolation of Smaug make some substantial changes to the source text?  Absolutely.  But the bare bones of the original story are still there and, for the most part, the changes make logical narrative sense.  Does it replay some of the same scenes and emotions from The Lord of the Rings?  Again, the answer is yes.  But we would do well to remember that Tolkien himself did something similar, except in a reverse order.  One need look only at the basic narrative structure of the two novels to see their similarities.  Besides which, the controversy-laden relationship between Tauriel and Kili, while seemingly very similar to that of Aragon and Arwen will, it can be hoped, not end in the same way.  Indeed, Kili’s imminent death in There and Back Again will, as a result of his romance, be at the level of tragedy and pathos that we saw in The Lord of the Rings.  At least, that’s my prediction.  We’ll have to wait until next December to see if I’m right.

That’s all for now.  I’m sure I’ll have more reflections on the film as I see it several more times (which we all know is inevitable).

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Review–“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

Warning:  Spoilers follow.

Note:  I am preparing two reviews, one for casual fans of the films, and the other for Tolkien fans.  This is the general review.  The Tolkien fan review will be forthcoming.

Well, I was one of those fortunate enough to see The Hobbit:  The Desolation of Smaug on opening night (in 3-D IMAX, no less), and I was, quite simply, blown away.  This film is miles beyond the first (which I liked by the way), and serves as both a fitting adaptation of Tolkien’s work and a thrilling lead-up into what promises to be an earth-shattering finale.

If the first film felt like a bit of a slog for some, they will find their fears addressed in this film and, hopefully, put to rest.  Once Desolation has hold of you, it does not let go until the very last moment.  There were even several moments where I as a viewer felt we could have lingered a little longer, to give us a sense of depth to those particular moments that seemed to cry out for it.  And I am not just referring to the numerous fight scenes–although those are well worth the viewing experience and the extra price for the 3-D ticket–but also to the politics and the scheming that go on behind the scenes.

Indeed, is precisely these politics and schemes that give us a sense of the “so what” that the film did not quite accomplish as well as it might have.  With Gandalf’s discovery of the true might of the Necromancer, as well as Smaug’s taunting of Bilbo with a threatened darkness that will cover the land, we at last get a feeling that the stakes with the Dwarves overthrowing Smaug are greater than just the recovery of some treasure.  With Desolation, we finally get a sense of the great currents that constantly move just under the surface of the novel.  We now have the knowledge that Sauron is moving and, while he may not yet have the full strength to cover all of the land with his Shadow, the film suggests that he is going to try to make a good start of it with the Dwarves.  This is not yet the full-fledged Sauron of The Lord of the Rings, but he is still a power to be dealt with, and the titanic showdown between him and the White Council will certainly be one of the high points of the final film in the trilogy.

Of course, one of the greatest highlights of this film stems from the stellar performances offered up by its enormously talented cast.  Ian McKellen continues to shine as Gandalf (will anyone ever be able to do that role again?  Probably not).  Newcomer Lee Pace–who had a brief cameo in the flashback that opened the last film–is simply delightful as the cunning yet surprisingly noble-seeming Thranduil, Evangeline Lilly is fiery and feisty as soon-to-be-fan-favourite Tauriel, Richard Armitage continues to grab the right mix of asshole and hero and, last but not least, Martin Freeman, though often shuffled to the side, continues to be the best Bilbo you could ever ask for.  If nothing else saved this film, the acting alone would be able to pull it off.  He brings the perfect blend of humility and humour to this role and is perhaps the best conveyor of the unique amalgam of properties that make hobbits in general such compelling literary figures (although he might be tied with Ian Holm for this particular honour).

When it comes to characters, however, one creature in this film threatens to drown everything in his shadow.  Yes, that is the dragon Smaug.  Jackson and his team, along with the enormously talented Benedict Cumberbatch, have managed to bring to stunning and immortal life one of the greatest and most compelling of all literary dragons.  Cumberbatch manages to capture all of the elements of Smaug that make him such a riveting character:  unabashed arrogance, a deep-running cruelty, and a serpentine cleverness that makes him more dangerous than any foe the Company has yet faced.  When we see him fly off toward Laketown at the end of the film, and hear Bilbo’s breathless, “What have we done?”  we in the audience can’t help but shiver with anticipation for the fiery ruin that the vengeful beast will rain down upon the unsuspecting villagers.

One of the most powerful and compelling scenes, and indeed one that made the entire film worth it, was the titanic battle between Gandalf and the Necromancer.  In this scene, we get all of the things that make Jackson such an eminently suitable person to bring this story to the big screen.  We get to see Gandalf’s courage and willingness to go into the very heart of the darkness in his never-ending quest to aid Middle-earth, while also seeing the true extent of the evil against which he is matched.  Here, more than perhaps anywhere else so far in these films, we get a glimpse of not only how powerful a being Gandalf is beneath all of the grey robes, but also how great is the evil against which he has been matched.  Along with Bilbo, the Gandalf of this film shows us just how hard it is to be a hero, to face almost certain destruction and yet do so anyway, with the knowledge that one’s actions may be for the betterment of countless others.  Once again, Gandalf manages to steal our hearts (and this is in no small part due to the magnetism of McKellen).

There are so many more things I could praise in this film, but I hope that this review gives a sense of just how impressed I was, not just as a fan of Tolkien and of Jackson’s vision, but also of film in general.  While this film never reaches quite the heights of operatic grandeur of its predecessor, it still manages to capture the breadth and scope of the vision that Tolkien offered to his readers, while also offering an action adventure story as good as or better than anything else currently on offer.  There is a depth and power here that will leave viewers beginning for the concluding entry in this stupendous trilogy.

Review–“Frozen”: A Slightly Feminist Fairy Tale

This evening i had the distinct pleasure of screening Disney’s latest animated feature Frozen, and I can sum it up this way:  Disney has got its groove back.  And this time it has a feminist twist.

When young princess Elsa inadvertently injures her sister Anna with her magical, winter-conjuring abilities, her parents lock her away in the hopes that she will be able to eventually control her powers.  After their untimely deaths, however, she ultimately ascends the throne.  Upon hearing that her sister Anna has become betrothed to the seemingly beneficent Prince Hans, she flies into a fury, inadvertently casts a spell of eternal winter on her homeland, and flees to the mountains in a panic, where she erects her own icy palace.  Anna, determined to save her sister, goes in search of her and, in the process, meets the ice-seller Kristoff.  After being again inadvertently wounded by her sister’s power, Anna begins to die, her only salvation an act of true love.  In a twist, however, it turns out that her lover Hans turns out to be villainous and conniving, determined to kill both her and her sister and take the throne.  When she intercedes to save her sister, she turns to ice.  However, he act of true love restores her to life.  Elsa gains control over her powers, Kristoff and Anna embrace, and they all live happily ever after.

Simply put, the film is an amazing and dazzling affair on every level, from the stunning visuals to the knock-out musical performances, especially those performed by the showtune-belting queen Idina Menzel.  What’s more, the story is tight and focused; the narrative never feels as if it is lagging.  Throw in some well-developed characters and a sinister spin on the traditional Disney prince figure, and you have got the makings of  a Disney film that might become the classic of its generation of animated feature films.

What is most pleasing about this film, however, is the ways in which it plays with the classic Disney formula.  For one thing, the seemingly dashing Prince Hans turns out to be as cruel and ruthless a villain as we could hope for, taking his place in a long and distinguished line of Disney villains.  The fact that his beautiful appearance hides an inner rottenness is a cunning play on the ways in which Disney has in the past depicted its royal men and as such is a welcome change.

What really stands out, however, is the emphasis the film places on the strong affective bonds between the sisters.  Thus, although the overplayed marriage plot does exist in the couple of Kristoff and Anna, it is the bond between the sisters that takes emotional center stage.  And, in a surprise to cap all surprises, it is actually Anna‘s act of self-sacrifice, which the film actually terms an act of true love, that saves both herself and her sister, restoring the land to summer and to eternal joy.  Even to this cranky feminist, this particular ending provides a much-needed gynocentric gloss to the traditional Disney formula.  At last, Disney acknowledges that it is the bonds that exist between women that sometimes have the greatest affective and experiential value in women’s lives, not just their bonds with their heterosexual male lovers.  Indeed, the film ends, not with the embrace of the man and the woman, but instead with the two sisters ice-skating in one another’s arms.

For their parts, the two lead female characters also exhibit a remarkable strength that we have grown used to seeing in various recent Disney properties, from Rapunzel in Tangled to the various heroines of the ABC series Once Upon a Time.  As much as the film is about their emotional attachments to each other, it is also about learning to find their inner strength as individuals and learning to love themselves for what they are, even if that is not always the easiest thing to do.

Of course, the supporting players deserve mention, for they help to round out the story.  Jonathan Groff does an excellent job capturing the affable and eminently likable Kristoff, and Josh Gad’s turn as Olaf the snowman–which had the potential to be the film’s fatal weakness–actually ended up being tremendously endearing and actually funny.  And finally, the reindeer Sven was a welcome addition to the magnificent pantheon of Disney animal sidekicks.

The animation and the music were uniformly excellent, though the visual and aural artistry of the song “Let it Go” rendered it a musical piece that cannot help but bring back memories of the glorious days of the Disney Renaissance.  If anything shows that the studio has at last managed to recapture that old magic that made it the premier purveyor of glossy animated entertainment, this is it.  With such glorious colors and the absolute divine voice of Menzel to go with, it’s hard to see how Disney could have gone wrong.  Fortunately for those of us sitting in the audience, they seemed to have hit the musical and artistic nail right on the head.

All in all, this was a truly pleasurable film to watch, and it reinforces my belief that the studio’s storytelling abilities are at their best when they focus on those kinds of stories that brought the studio to prominence in the first place.  Fairy tales have embedded within them some of the most fundamental and engaging narratives that we as a culture find pleasurable.  The real skill, however, is in giving those old stories some sort of a spin that makes them relevant for our contemporary cultural moment.  The fact that Disney has also chosen to spin this tale in such a way that it has even a glimmer of a feminist consciousness is quite promising indeed.  One can only hope that it bodes well for their future feature endeavors, and that we might see more films that focus on the powerful and significant bonds that exist between women, rather than those that simply exist between women and the men they are fated to marry.

Review–“Bonnie and Clyde”

Well, having seen the conclusion of History Channel’s Bonnie and Clyde, I can sum it up this way:  pedestrian, but mostly competent and mildly entertaining.

If that sounds like a not-very-glowing remark, it is, and it is in great part due to the inevitable comparison of this piece of television programming with its cinematic predecessor, which served as one of the inaugural entries in the New Hollywood.  However, even taken on its own terms, the story that History Channel tells with this most famous and glamorous of criminals is, for the most part, entertaining enough (and we’ll just leave aside the question of historical accuracy).

For the most part, the leads manage to do a passable job of conveying some of the youthful spirit and wild energy that made Bonnie and Clyde so charismatic and so unpredictable.  However, we never quite connect to them, in large part because the leads are so average, especially when one considers their predecessors (to be fair, though, who could possibly measure up to the sexual energy conjured up by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty?)  Hirsch is by far the better of the two, while Grainger does a fair job with the script that she’s been handed.

And that, for me, was really the true rub about watching this miniseries.  Throughout, we get the sense that Clyde is the more sensible and level-headed of the two, and that it is Bonnie who goads him on to bigger and grander jobs in an effort to boost her own self-image.  In fact, the ending reinforces this quite strongly, for it is made explicitly clear that Clyde deliberately leads them into the final trap that will end in their death, largely in an attempt to contain Bonnie’s ruthlessness.  In doing so, the series suggests that, while it is Bonnie that is the alleged “brains” behind the outfit, she is also the one that needs the most containment, and it is significant that, at the very end, even her most steadfast supporter, a young man who loves her, contributes to her death.

In doing all of this, the miniseries continues to argue that, while Bonnie is clearly the more driven and ambitious of the two criminals, she is also the one who must bear the burden of their mutual sins.  Thus, while Clyde’s voice continues to guide the narrative (in a rather strange and unsettling posthumous voiceover), Bonnie has no voice of her own.  The series also takes great pains to show us Clyde’s tombstone, while there is no sight of Bonnie’s.  As a result, Clyde emerges from this story as a hero, while Bonnie is just another dangerous woman that leads him astray into the dark world of crime (which, significantly, includes the death of his brother).

Nor is Bonnie the only woman who comes in for a healthy dose of condemnation.  The reporter PJ Lane receives her own fair share of vitriol, for the series, through the voice of Frank Hamer (the Texas ranger who comes out of retirement to hunt them down), makes the point that it is largely due to her glamorization of Bonnie and Clyde that people view them as folk heroes rather than as the murderous criminals they really are.  Again, the suggestion is that women who step outside of the appropriate bounds of feminine behavior must be tamed by a man, or their actions will lead to nothing but death and destruction of innocent people (usually, it should be pointed out, men).

If anything saves the series from absolute mediocrity (though not from its problematic gender politics), it has to be the performances of Holly Hunter and William Hurt, who play Emma Parker (Bonnie’s mother) and Frank Hamer, respectively.  Hunter manages to capture just the right amounts of sadness and devotion to her wayward daughter and, though she does not speak in the second half of this drama, her silent refusal to answer her daughter’s telephone call speaks louder than her words possibly could.  How can one not feel an infinite measure of sadness at the great gulf that no separates mother and daughter?  For his part Hurt, with his usual measure of strangeness and distance, manages to capture some of the restless and enigmatic energy that drove a man like Hamer to so rigorously hunt down Bonnie and Clyde.

What do we feel as a result of having watched this little drama?  Or, more precisely how are we supposed to feel?  In some ways, the death scene stands out as being not that remarkable at all.  At this point, due to Clyde’s voiceover and the indictment of Hamer, we have come to see their deaths as not only inevitable but necessary.  Their world has closed in about them, their glamour (this is made especially clear as they sit and watch newsreels at a movie theater, in which it is revealed that the public has fallen out of love with them) has vanished into thin air, and their love for one another is almost strained to the breaking point.  Their deaths are thus hardly tragic–at least, not in the way of the film version–but instead their (especially Bonnie’s) just desserts.

All in all, this is a competent representation of two of the 20th Century’s most charismatic and eye-capturing crime duos.  It remains highly doubtful, however, that it will ever be able to measure up to the high level of artistry of its predecessor on the big screen.  Considering the very problematic way in which it positions its female characters, I can’t help but think this might not be such a bad thing.

“Dracula” Review–“Of Monsters and Men”

Once again, this week’s episode of NBC’s Dracula indicates that the series’ writers have finally found their stride, as the many different plot threads have finally begun to converge in something verging on legibility.  In tonight’s episode, Lucy finally confesses her feelings for Mina, Dracula almost manages to survive in the sun, Jonathan faces off against Lord Davenport, and Mina discovers some unsettling truths about her mentor Dr. Van Helsing.

For starters, I have to announce myself somewhat pleasantly surprised by the sensitivity with which the series dealt with Lucy’s feelings for her friend Mina.  While one may doubt the sincerity of Lady Jayne’s claim that she too has had affairs with multiple women–a comment she makes after having invited Lucy to tea–there is no doubt of the depth of emotion that Lucy feels for Mina.  The scene in which she confesses her love to her friend, and Mina’s subsequent horrified rejection, is more emotionally genuine and heartbreaking than anything we have yet seen in the series.  However, it does make one wonder whether Lucy’s spurned jealousy will manifest itself in some more dangerous form, especially as there is every indication that Mina may soon transfer her attentions to Dracula.

Speaking of Lady Jayne, she continues to delight as someone whose motives remain curiously opaque.  The series suggests that she may be genuinely in love with the dashing and dangerous Grayson/Dracula, but she also has an edge to her made all the more obvious by her manipulation of Lucy into confessing her feelings for Mina.  Does she hope that by doing so she will be able to disrupt the obvious attraction between Mina and Grayson?  If so, that doesn’t appear to be happening, as Mina is nothing short of horrified and terribly disturbed by Mina’s confession.  But who knows?  Perhaps her feelings for her friend are indeed more than merely platonic.  And what of Lady Jayne’s feelings for Grayson?  Is she really in love with him, or is she merely in lust?  The series seems to love playing with and constantly deferring our expectations, which it will probably continue to do right up until the end.

The real showpiece of tonight’s episode, however, was Dracula’s continuing quest to walk in the sunlight.  No matter how many times he fails, he continues to hope that Van Helsing will be able to allow him to gain that which relies tantalizingly out of reach.  After a very viscerally disturbing scene in which he is punctured by needles in an attempt to provide enough pressure to circulate the sun-proof serum throughout his system–one of the moments in which the series comes closest to the disturbing visuals of the horror genre–he attends a noonday meeting of his business.  Although at first the serum protects him from the destruction of the sun, it’s not long before we see the signs of strain.  It would also appear that, despite all of his efforts, members of the Order are not convinced that he is not a vampire.  Witness, for example, Davenport’s attempts to delay his departure.  Needless to say, Dracula suffers more than a little disfigurement, but it’s nothing that a little blood drinking can’t solve.

As always, both Van Helsing and Davenport continue to hold up their own own miniature plot lines fairly well, with van Helsing nearly murdering Mina after she discovers his experiments (though he relents upon discovering that mother’s death has left her with a desire to cure death), and Davenport being as subtly and venomously villainous as always.  Davenport, though not the big bad of this series, nevertheless holds his own as he continues to pursue any means necessary to bring about the end of Grayson.  Though he will probably also meet his end at the hands of everyone’s favorite vampire, it will be a shame to see him go.

All in all, tonight’s episode was a tightly-woven foray into the worlds of politics and science. It managed to deftly balance these two elements with the interpersonal drama that remains its strongest storytelling attribute.  If every subsequent episode could be as smoothly integrated as this one–and if it had been so from the beginning–the series might be more successful than it currently is.  However, there is hope that with this improved storytelling, the series might get a little more breathing-room to explore the full complexity of its universe.