Monday, December 31, 2012

Goodbye, 2012

I intended to have a long and reflective post about the outgoing calendar year, but I'm out of time. Best wishes for a happy and safe new year, and may its possibilities be realized.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Warning: there be spoilers below...

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an ambitious and inventive interpretation of the story and characters that J. R. R. Tolkien first imagined almost 80 years ago, and one that mines the depths of Tolkien's broader opus about Middle Earth. Fans and critics have given it mixed reviews (and some have absolutely despised it), but for my part, I enjoyed this film quite a lot. There is plenty to criticize, to be sure, but there's also a lot to be excited about.

First, the great experiment: the much-discussed digital filming and projection at 48 fps. Unless you are very curious about this technology, my advice is to skip it. There are segments of the film that are beautiful - absolutely stunning, in fact. But overall, I am forced to agree with those who have said it is distracting. Having heard some criticism of the format, I expected the film's appearance to have a harsh sense of immediacy - similar to watching a live sporting event or catching a daytime soap opera. Even still, I wanted to see the show as its creators intended, and I resolved to try and put aside my expectations. I optimistically speculated that the experience might be like seeing The Wizard of Oz in 1938 (color!), or seeing Planet Earth in 2006 (HD! 1080p!). But for all my hopes, I was still surprised by how unnaturally vivid, video-like, and even cheap-looking the picture appeared, especially during certain moments. It simply did not work. Back to the drawing board, gents!

Finally, a footnote about this technology: I basically ended up seeing The Hobbit for free, as there were problems bringing up the 48 fps projection system, and it had to be rebooted twice. The theater handed out passes for our trouble. So it seems that this technology is not ready for widespread use in more ways than one.

A few other comments about the effects. Gollum of the LotR Trilogy was a singular achievement in visual effects in cinema. To date, no one else had come close to creating a digital character in a live-action film quite like him. The Hobbit's Gollum surpasses that achievement: the character is truly a marriage of an actor's performance and digital artistry. It will be interesting to see how long it will take for another director, actor, and/or effects production company to match this level of work - after all, it's been almost ten years since the last films. Apart from Gollum, however, I was kind of disappointed that PJ and company chose to make Azog and the other orcs and goblins into CG characters, rather than using actors in prosthetics. Azog was a good villain, but making him into a CG character rendered him less menacing than Lurtz, the orc captain of FotR. Even within Jackson's own films, Gollum remains a singular creation.

On to greater matters. The film tells a classic tale of a fish out of water - a quiet, proper, and unlikely person who embarks on a grand adventure. Not content to tell the story as it was originally written, the film adds and expands upon the material that Tolkien wrote later which linked it to the much larger story of Middle Earth, the Dwarves, and the Rings of Power. But it retains the essence of its central figure: Bilbo is a wonderful character, and after a somewhat shaky start, the movie does him great justice. The film takes pains to develop a more believable relationship between him and the dwarves than the original novel. I especially liked the portrayal of Thorin and Bilbo's relationship. Developing their friendship earlier and more deeply will supply a lot more dramatic weight later in the story as the plot unfolds.

I also loved the film's portrayal of Thorin's company - as a reader of the novel, I always wondered why the dwarves seemed so hapless, and why they weren't a stronger, more formidable group of warriors. I thought that treating the company as an exiled, struggling collection of wandering tradesmen trying to survive shored up a part of the story that was a little thin. Thorin's love of and pride in his followers stem not from their prowess in battle, but in their loyalty and perseverance. This makes Thorin's acceptance of Bilbo at the film's conclusion all the more believable: Bilbo is not a great warrior and he admits that he isn't even a burglar, but he demonstrates his commitment to seeing the quest through, and Thorin fully embraces him for it.

One of the best scenes in the film is also the best scene in the book: the game of riddles with Gollum. Here, Jackson stays close to the source material to great effect. Gollum is the menacing, comical, and tragic figure at the center of the story of the Ring of Power's destruction, and Jackson and Andy Serkis have brought that character to life.

The most consistent criticism I have read in other reviews is that the pacing of this film is off. I don't entirely disagree, but I see the problem differently: for all the complaints that the movie is too long and/or that it should not have been expanded into three (or even two) films, I actually felt that An Unexpected Journey seemed a little too rushed at times. The film begins exactly where Fellowship of the Ring began: in anticipation of the long expected birthday party. I understand the desire to link the films together, but this framing story of Bilbo and Frodo was unnecessary, and in any case far too long. It could have been accomplished by voice-over narration in under a minute. We've seen the long-anticipated party - let's get to the unexpected party!

Another issue with the pacing is the length of the elaborate set-pieces. If the extended action sequences in Return of the King were too long for you, unfortunately, you'll get little relief from An Unexpected Journey. Jackson has an overweening love for clever chases on flimsy bridges. All of the action is quite thrilling and spectacularly realized, but it leaves little time for lingering on a landscape or fleshing out the company with quiet character vignettes. The film needed more still shots and less noise. But here I am simply repeating my criticisms of Return of the King. One might say that this new movie showcases all of Jackson's well-known strengths and weaknesses.

All in all, though, this film has a tremendous charm of its own, and I'm pleased to say that it even retains a wonderful sense of whimsy that is so present in the original story. I recommend it heartily, and I am looking forward to the rest of the series.

And by the way, I thought the Arkenstone was glorious.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Don't Wanna Be Like That

Last night while folding laundry, I caught the better part of a new evening game show called Take It All. In the first rounds, contestants compete for unusual and increasingly expensive prizes by guessing their value, and at the end of each round, the contestant in possession of the least valuable prize is eliminated. I have to admit, I was drawn in by the sometimes bizarre prizes and their surprising values.

In the final round, when there are only two contestants left, the game is changed: the last two players must negotiate a deal in order to actually win the prizes. The game is decided by a secret ballot - if both vote to "take mine," they each go home with the prizes they accumulated throughout the game. If one contestant votes "take it all," that person takes both players' prizes, and the loser leaves with nothing. The catch is that if both contestants choose "take it all," then neither of them wins anything.

So basically, the object of the game is to convince, cajole, coerce, trick, and/or manipulate the other person into selecting "take mine." It is deceit and avarice for the purpose of entertainment. I was sick to my stomach after watching it.

Take me away.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Self Governance

I came across a quote a couple months back - I don't even remember exactly where anymore - that, in light of the election results, the hand-wringing afterward, and now the talks over the so-called "fiscal cliff," continues to be relevant:
"...the fact will remain that the GOP is both an asylum run by its inmates and a den of authoritarian and/or totalizing religious figures who reject the central premise of democracy:  that society self governs through iterative decisions, and not from some set of revealed rules or via some charismatic Dear Leader."
Emphasis mine. The idea that there are no set principles in a democracy that can guide every policy decision is tough for a person of any political persuasion to swallow sometimes - I know that, especially in my youth, I reflexively thought that adhering to an ideology was the only way to solve political problems. It seems so naive now - unscientific, unproductive, impractical, undemocratic.

If the idea of democracy is that a group of people is capable of confronting and solving the problems it faces, in order to be successful, the group must be flexible, open to compromise, and most importantly willing to learn and accept new information. And yet the current GOP seems more intractable, more brazen, more backward-looking, and more beholden to Mammon than ever before.