Thursday, December 27, 2012

Movie Review: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" Part 1 and four reasons you may not care for it

And so the obsession begins again. You can also read my reviews of "Lord of the Rings" 1, 2, and 3.
You will consume the bulk of my thoughts and actions for the next three years.
 If you're hoping to go into theaters this winter and see "The Hobbit: A Thrilling Prequel to the Lord of the Rings," congratulations, I think you'll thoroughly enjoy about half of this movie. If you're hoping for "The Hobbit: An Adaptation of the Beloved Children's Story," you'll thoroughly enjoy the other half of this movie. The problem with "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is that it can't commit to being one or the other, and the result is complete tonal whiplash between whimsy and aggressive grandeur.

But let's back up for a moment and talk about the eighties.

My main cinematic influences growing up were Disney, of course, and Jim Henson. Like many children, I watched a lot of Sesame Street, a lot of the Muppet Show and Muppet movies, "Star Wars," and the full battery of live-action fantasy movies with Henson's puppet creations, the most memorable in my mind being "Labyrinth." When you thought of live-action fantasy, you thought first and foremost of Jim Henson's beautiful and whimsically grotesque creations.
And David Bowie's magnificent package.
Fantasy didn't get much better than Jim Henson. That was the problem. I love Jim Henson as much as the next red-blooded American, but he was limited by budget and technology to movies and creations that looked fake. I'm not saying they didn't look good; he certainly knew how to make a fully-realized fantasy world and inhabit it with interesting-looking creatures. And the low-budget-ness art production of "Labyrinth" and "Dark Crystal" is part of their charm. Yes, the rocks are all clearly made of foam and the backgrounds are all matte paintings, but you can say the same of the original "Star Trek" and "Doctor Who" television series. Realism is completely beside the point of these creative properties. They're supposed to take place outside of the real world. It's okay for them to look fake, even aggressively artificial, because it fits thematically with stories set in the realm of pure imagination.
Imagine my slave laborers want to toil in my factory.
Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy changed all of that. He created the first live-action fantasy film that strove for verisimilitude (and he succeeded because he was given the time and resources to turn the nation of New Zealand into his own personal sound stage). The face of live-action fantasy when from this--

to this:

Not to be hyperbolic, but in terms of the evolution of film, LOTR was basically the moment when we started making tools and fire instead of just squatting in a dark cave cramming moss and raw lizard tails down our gullets.

So it's going to sound a little weird when I say that "The Hobbit" needed less Peter Jackson and more Jim Henson; it needed to be closer to "Labyrinth" than LOTR.

I can remember the exact moment when I had this thought. It was in the scene when the dwarves are captured and brought before the Goblin King in Goblintown. The King makes his "I got you!" speech and has his little minion take a letter, and then the minion goes zooming away down a zip-line in his little cage to deliver the letter. Right then I thought, "Jim Henson lives!" The design of the minion, the way he moved, and the whole concept of that pipsqueak goblin secretary zipping around Goblintown in his cage delivering the words of the Goblin King was straight out of Jim Henson Studios.

It was perfect. Perfect for an adaptation of "The Hobbit." Perfect for a live-action fantasy movie aimed at children. Perfect for the whimsical world of Tolkien's beloved children's novel. This was "The Hobbit" movie I wanted to see.

And there wasn't enough of that overall. There wasn't enough whimsy or charm. There was too much war, too much gravitas, too much--well, I felt like the old Reese's peanut butter commercials: "You got Lord of the Rings in my Hobbit!"

I'm not saying that I disliked the movie. As the BF said after our first viewing, "It wasn't a bad movie. It wasn't even a mediocre movie." It was a good movie (as you can tell by my use of the the phrase "first viewing"). It just wasn't a great movie, because it couldn't decide what kind of movie it wanted to be, or what demographic it wanted to appeal to the most.

Four main examples of where this movie went wrong, and let's put a big damn SPOILER alert at this point for both the movie and the books:

1) Radagast the Brown. Why? Just why? Ten years ago I read LOTR and thanked all the stars in heaven that Jackson didn't feel the need to immortalize Tom Bombadil on screen, but apparently he was just saving that nonsensical embarrassment of a character for "The Hobbit." The only people who would find Radagast the Brown funny or compelling, with the fidgeting and the capering and huge streak of bird shit down his face, are five-year-olds. And you can't take a five-year-old to see this movie! Right after Radagast saves his little hedgehog friend and dashes off on his bunny-sled, he's almost stabbed by a ghostly wraith and gets chased out of an evil fortress by an unholy abomination from the deepest pits of hell. You need to be at least ten, or a very brave eight, to see this movie without screaming and crying and demanding to leave the theater. And yet the rest of us have to suffer through several agonizing minutes with Radagast the Teletubby that don't even advance the main plot.

2) Speaking of things that don't advance the plot, why that long, boring scene of the wizards and elves sitting around a table talking to each other? Saruman, Gandalf, Elrond and Galadrial all gather in Rivendell to discuss the bad shit going down these days. This is the clearest thematic and story tie-in to LOTR, because of course they're really talking about the rise of Sauron, which is kind of a big deal in the other movies. But it's an awful scene. It's boring, grinds the story to a screeching halt, commits the fatal sin of telling rather than showing, and again, I can't imagine who it's supposed to appeal to.

If you read the books, you don't need to be told that the Necromancer is the first sign of the second rise of Sauron. If you only watched the LOTR movies and didn't read the books, you'd at least recognize that the evil ghost in the  big scary castle is one of the Ringwraiths that were heavily featured in all three LOTR movies. Gee, could there be a connection there? And if you didn't read the books and didn't watch any of the previous movies, then all this means nothing to you and will just leave you wondering why you're wasting your time with these tall magical people talking gravely at each other, when you paid good money to watch thirteen short hairy people and one short fussy person go on an adventure.

3) The subplot with the Pale Orc seeking revenge against Thorin made me roll my eyes so much they nearly fell out of my skull. The BF railed hard against this character. "So now we have to sit through this stupid son-must-avenge-the-father revenge story? It cheapens the whole movie! It wasn't in the book and anyway it's been done! It's been done to death, and it's not what "The Hobbit" is about! Why?"

The weird thing is, I can see the reasoning behind the character of the Pale Orc and his blood-feud with Thorin. It's meant to make Thorin more like Aragorn in LOTR (they even look alike, what a coincidence), to give him nobility and a higher purpose in this story than just reclaiming gold and treasure from Smaug the Dragon. It's also meant to spice up the story by giving Jackson an excuse to show some of the Dwarf and Goblin Wars in flashback, which, I admit, looked pretty cool on screen but don't otherwise figure into the main story at all.

But even though the Pale Orc subplot was much more interesting and advanced the story more than the two previous examples on this list, it's actually the one I hated the most. Thorin isn't Aragorn. He isn't the dark, brooding hero reluctantly stepping forth from his self-imposed exile to accept his great destiny. Thorin in the book is pompous, long-winded, a little arrogant, and a little too eager to call himself King and lay claim to greatness he doesn't necessarily achieve. He's not exactly a hero in the traditional sense, but he thinks he is, and that's what makes him compelling.

The problem from a movie-making perspective is that all of Thorin's best character development comes at the end of the book, when the dwarves have recovered the treasure and Thorin sits in his grandfather's seat as King Under the Mountain. And if you're a movie director making "The Hobbit" into a trilogy, you can't wait until the second half of the last movie to explore what Thorin Oakenshield is really about. Which brings us to...

4) This movie is too long for the amount of story it tells. As soon as the credits started to roll after almost three hours of footage, the BF and I both said, "I want to see a theatrical cut of that movie." We wanted "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" with the fat trimmed off, without Radagast, the mini-Council of Elrond, or the Pale Orc, which really belong in the extended edition of this movie, not in the theatrical release (if they even have a place in this movie at all, which I don't think they do). If this is what Jackson created with the extra time and breathing room he has by making "The Hobbit" into three movies, I'm thinking that he should have stuck with his original plan to just make two. Almost everywhere he's added to or deviated from the source material, it was intended to make "The Hobbit" more like "Lord of the Rings" in either story or tone, and those were inevitably the worst parts of the movie.

Because here's the thing: "The Hobbit" can clearly stand on its own as a movie, without allusions to the rise of Sauron or parallels to LOTR characters. The parts of this movie that were done right, that made me smile and made my heart soar, were lifted straight from the pages of the book: the party that Bilbo reluctantly hosts for the rowdy dwarves in his hobbit-hole; the scene with the trolls in the woods; and the whole glorious sequence in Goblintown where the dwarves and Gandalf fight their way out out of the mountain while Bilbo trades riddles with Gollum beside the subterranean lake. Those were all in the book and they all translated perfectly to the screen.

Jackson didn't need the extra stuff, and he should have known better, considering what and who came before him. The elements that make "The Hobbit" a great fantasy story on the big screen are the same elements that Jim Henson & Co. were using in their movies for years, probably because they were influenced by "The Hobbit"! Watch "Labyrinth," "Willow," or "Legend," and you'll see traces of "The Hobbit" everywhere: the reluctant every-man leaving his/her comfort zone, the bumbling but well-meaning sidekicks, the dragons and goblins and trapdoors and slides through caves (lots of cave-slides, it's one of the more random fantasy tropes). That was why I wanted more Jim Henson in Peter Jackson's "Hobbit," because Henson already knew that whimsy and charm and erudite villains were what made Tolkien's book a classic, not monsters holding aloft bloody severed heads or politicians sitting around tables talking about war. That's what LOTR is about, I'll grant that; but that's not "The Hobbit."

I want to stress again that "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is not a bad  movie. It's a good movie, a damn sight better than any other live-action fantasy ever made before LOTR. If LOTR hadn't been made and all we had was "The Hobbit," I'd say it's the best fantasy film ever. I feel the same way about "The Dark Knight Rises," that if it was the only superhero movie to come out after Joel Schumacher's "Batman Forever" it would be the best superhero movie ever. But I wrote such a scathing review of "The Dark Knight Rises" because it followed a couple of truly stellar superhero movies ("The Dark Knight" and "The Avengers") and a decade of not-stellar but still-good superhero movies, starting with "X-Men" in 2000 and "Spider-Man" in 2002.

It's no longer enough for fantasy and superhero movies to be good-enough, they have to be better-than. We've gotten fat and spoiled on the geek offerings of our age, loath to accept whatever scraps are tossed our way now that we've feasted at the table of billion-dollar Oscar-winning blockbusters. I feel a bit bad about tearing this poor movie to shreds because it doesn't meet my completely unrealistic expectations for being the best thing ever. I've seen it twice, after all, and enjoyed myself both times.

So in my next post, I'm going to list the things I liked about "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," because there was a lot to like and I don't want to be the kind of critic who can only criticize.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Appreciating the Season in New York City

I lived in Hawaii for 22 years and never went to Pearl Harbor. I've lived in New York for four and a half years and have never been to the Statue of Liberty.

But on that same note, I went to the volcano in Hawaii more times than I can count, and I've been to see the great big Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center twice, the second time being last night.

It wasn't something I would have done on my own. Like most New Yorkers, I see more of my city when I'm showing it off to out-of-towners. This weekend, my lifelong friend C is visiting from Hawaii, which means it's time for adventuring!

Yesterday was a big day for us. C and I took the bus out to Gowanus to the Brooklyn Craft Fair. The address took us a street that was mixed residential and warehouses. At first we thought our event must be in the abandoned water tower, since it couldn't be in the office supply warehouse, but then C spotted the food trucks selling gourmet Chinese dumplings and we knew we were in the right place.

"Way different from the koa wood stuff you see in Hawaii," she remarked as we browsed booths of hand-printed stationary, knit caps with ear flaps that looked like big headphones, silk-screen t-shirts, and watch gear jewelry. We each both a small gift for someone in our family and then had fancy cocktails with gin and vodka, very tasty.

After that, we left Brooklyn on the subway and met up with the BF in Chelsea, where he gave us a walking tour of the neighborhood that included the Hotel Chelsea and London Terrace. I'd told C earlier in the day, "He's going to tell you about windows," and sure enough, the BF had a lot to say about the evolution of windows in those historic buildings.

I finally made it to the High Line Park that day, after nearly two years of promising myself I would go to the park on the old elevated railway. It's clearly changing that neighborhood quite a bit, and not just because everyone whose apartment windows face the park now have thousands of strangers looking into their living spaces. We saw a lot of construction, and it remains to be seen how it will change the still-industrial feel of the buildings between the High Line and the Hudson River.

Since we were in Chelsea, we decided to have an abridged tour of the art gallery scene. We only visited three, but I feel we got a pretty good cross-section of what's going on in the art world right now. The first gallery was full of pieces made with leather instead of canvas, mixing Japanese Buddhist and Catholic imagery. The colors were rich, the leatherwork was amazing, and I would have liked to take home one of the artist's works.

I can't say the same for the work we saw in the second gallery, which was weird and disturbing. It looked like huge photographs of extremely realistic plastic molds of people's faces and bodies that the artist had smashed. We all had the same reaction: "Where are that woman's nipples?!" We didn't even go inside; seeing it from the street was enough.

The third and final gallery was part of a printmaking school, so it was an interesting mix of student pieces that varied in quality and subject matter. I fell in love with a set of six prints that were just black trees on a white background. But the trees were the tiny little ones the city plants on sidewalks and holds up with wires and stakes, so that one day they'll be great big trees that give shade and fall down on cars during hurricanes. There was something so hopeful about those tiny trees. I identified with them. I am those trees.

Plus the elevator up to the gallery was an old hand-operated one with the folding cage door, and I always like those.

But wait--there's more! C wanted to see the big tree at Rockefeller Center, so we jammed ourselves into a crowded F train and entered the even more crowded Midtown tourist crowd. If the BF hadn't been there to show us the shortcut through 30 Rock, we wouldn't have made it. I almost abandoned our mission twice before he led us through the lobby and out the revolving doors to the foot of the tree itself. It was magnificent.

And then we fled back to Brooklyn, where the buildings are lower and the crowds are thinner. C and I have been on trips to Europe together, and we both agreed that none of those capitals, not even London or Rome, feel as big and busy as New York City does. It was quite the day, and I'm glad we did it. Even when you live in one of the most exciting cities in the world, you tend to get into a little rut going between your sleeping place and your working place, day after day after day. Sometimes it takes a set of fresh eyes to get you out and about, and appreciate the splendor right outside your doorstep.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Working Late

There's a new moon tonight, so it's very dark over Brooklyn. A couple of weeks ago when I was coming home from the radio show, there was a laser sculpture over the city, a prism of colored beams in honor of the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

There's no laser sculpture for me to see from my building tonight. There is the Chrysler Building, though, with its yellow scallops of light at it's peak. It was designed by one of my company's graduates, so it always gratifies me to see it in the New York skyline. There's also the Empire State Building, green tonight with some red trim on the spire, for Christmas. Tonight is the fifth night of Chanukah; I feel like ESB should be blue and white for that, but so it goes.

Speaking of spires, I also see the unfinished 1 World Tower, which replaces the destroyed World Trade Center. The Freedom Tower, as it's sometimes called, is already the tallest building in the city, unfinished though it may be. It's covered in twinkle-lights right now, bare construction bulbs strapped to the exposed beams that make it unique in New York's nightscape. And speaking of spires, the Freedom Tower got one of its own recently. The added height will make it the tallest building in the Western hemisphere. Here it goes, on its way up for installation.
And in the student housing across the courtyard from my desk on the 6th floor, I see two girls decorating a Christmas tree that must take up the entire floor space. Well, there's less than a week left in the semester, so why not?

That's what's going on outside the windows tonight. It's quiet here when I'm alone. Except for the damn air vents that make it sound like the building is a 747 about to reach its cruising altitude.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A few regrettable instances

Here are some--I don't want to say "stupid," because I like to think of myself as a rather clever woman--so we'll just say some "regrettable" things I've done lately, in no particular order:

During yoga class, I was so startled that I actually managed to get into a hand stand that I let my arms collapse and crashed back onto the floor head-first

I got a box of mixed nuts at the grocery store and dumped the whole thing out onto the counter trying to find the macadamia nuts promised on the ingredients label. There were no mac nuts.

I lost my menorah. How does one lose a big brass religious candelabra in an apartment that's smaller than your average Starbucks?

There was some dust in the bottom of a coffee mug, so I blew into the mug to clean it out and all the dust blew up into my eyes.

I called Tom Waits' "Rain Dogs" album "Singapore," which is the name of a single song on "Rain Dogs." I thought Iggy Pop and The Ramones were British. I thought David Bowie was American. And I didn't realize that Iggy Pop is gay--or that David Bowie isn't. (This all happened in a single conversation in the radio station. I may not be allowed to go back.)

I lit a cinnamon-scented candle to make my apartment more "Christmasy" and had to open my window in the middle of a rain storm to get the stench out.

I found my menorah. It was on the window sill.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Sick of chocolate now

It didn't take that long. As soon as I walked into the Hershey Lodge in Pennsylvania, into the muggy fog of artificial chocolate scent they pipe into the lobby, chocolate ceased to be a treat to enjoy and more a challenge to endure. I threw away the second half of my check-in Hershey bar, and didn't even partake of the baskets of free fun-size Hershey products the Lodge puts in every conference room. By the end of my business trip, after using the Lodge's soap, shampoo, and lotion, my whole body smelled overwhelmingly of chocolate and I was ready to go home.

Fortunately, my apartment no longer smelled overwhelming of pork sausage, otherwise I might have spontaneously combusted from the hideous combination of fumes as soon as I walked in the door.

Then yesterday, I hosted a party for a bunch of departments at my company and crammed my cakehole so full of cookies and brownies and--well, cake, that I'm pretty sure my sweat would give a butterfly diabetes. (Butterflies like sweat. And poop. Look it up.) We put ice cream in the eggnog, for heavens sake! Do you know how dense eggnog is with ice cream in it?

How dense is it, Big Island Rachel?!

Hey, I've warned you about that sort of behavior. Don't make me get Security.

But to answer your question, the eggnog was dense as reading "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" while watching the second season of "Game of Thrones" at the same time. 

Fun fact: the briefcase I was so excited to use on my business trip? It had been so long since I'd used that thing--

How long was it, Big Island Rachel?!

I'm getting a blunt object. You'd better start running while you still have use of your limbs, because I'm going to do to you what Maui did to the sun.

It had been so long since I used my briefcase that there were resumes inside of it. Don't struggle, you'll just give yourself internal bleeding.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Foolish questions

Last Tuesday at my radio show, I was talking to the monitors L and C, student workers who handle all of the technical aspects of the Rodent Hour, such as "are we broadcasting?" "can you actually hear us?" and "we have a band, make it so everyone can hear them." In other words, they do most of the actual work. I mostly just talk, tweet and blog.

C and I follow each other on Tumblr, so we were chatting about our various social media projects. L asked me, "You have a blog?"

"Many of them," I replied, "for the Rodent Hour and for myself."


I was confused. "Why what?"

"Why do you have a blog? What do you write about?"

C and I looked at each other. Then we looked back at L.

"That's the most foolish question I've ever heard," I said.

And the topic was closed.

I reviewed Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" over at my book blog, by the way.