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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013): Written by Terence Winter, director by Marin Scorsese.  Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, and Matthew McConaughey.  Running Time: 179 minutes.  Based on The Wolf of Wall Street, by Jordan Belfourt.

Rating: 4/4



If there was one thing that pleasantly surprised me about The Wolf of Wall Street, it was how cleverly subtle and subversive it is.  Yes, I am still referring to the movie that includes, among other things, midgets being hurled at dart boards, a gay orgy, several straight orgies, a woman being punched in the stomach, and Leonardo DiCaprio having a lit candle stuck up his butt.  No, I have not lost my marbles (yet).  When you dig down beneath the leery, drug-and-prostitute-filled skin of this film you'll quickly find a wealth of unspoken commentary and reflection on our male-dominated culture of corporate aggression, the emptiness of American dreams focused solely on getting "more," and, most importantly, on how (and why) so many of us just don't care enough to want to genuinely change a system designed to repeatedly create people like Jordan Belfourt.

Belfort, as the beginning of movie informs us, started out as a not-so-depraved (but still determinedly greedy) underling on Wall Street shortly before the Black Monday crash of 1987.  While the crash does cause him to lose his job at one of the big-time firms, he's there just long enough for Matthew McConaughey to instill in him the basic principles of being an effective stock broker; regular alcohol intake, frequent service by prostitutes, and most importantly, lots and lots of crack, to keep one "sharp between the ears."

With these Holy Commandments inscribed in this mind, Belfort decides to remake himself and build his way back up by using his white-collar selling skills to sell so-called "penny stocks," cheap stocks for mostly doomed companies that only those with absolutely no financial understanding whatsoever could ever be convinced to buy.  He recruits his own team of amateur salesmen, people he can remake in his image, starting with Donnie, played with gusto by Jonah Hill, a man who becomes even more brutally depraved than Belfort (if that's even possible).  Before long, their lives are one long stream of financial crimes, fancy clothes and cars, prostitutes, drugs, more prostitutes, and more drugs, continuing almost unbroken throughout the entire film, until a determined FBI agent nabs Belfort and most of his original team, bringing both them and the company as a whole crashing to the ground.

I suppose saying that constitutes a spoiler of sorts, but in this case, I think it's justified, because a) even though Belfort's story is a more obscure piece of economic history, it's part of public record, and b) the movie really isn't about the story or plot any more than it's about the clothes Hill and DiCaprio wear.  This is a film built solely around recreating for the uninitiated the worldview of the addict, and getting its viewers into a mindset where extensive property damage, staggering levels of drugs and sex, unending domestic abuse, callous disregard for average folks, and needlessly-complicated money laundering schemes are commonplace, almost daily occurrences.  And it succeeds, to a painfully dizzying degree.

The running time and the film's appropriately obsessive determination to make us feel every high, every crash, and every successful rip-off of some poor working-class schlub makes for a grueling and exhausting experience- by the end, I felt as thoroughly worn out as DiCaprio looks- but it works to a remarkably successful degree.  It's almost as if Scorsese took a second look at his last work about a former criminal neither repentant nor ashamed of his actions (Goodfellas) and thought, "You know, I think I can do one better on that."  Part of this is due its filming and editing style, as fascinatingly cluttered and hectic as the loud, physically exuberant rapid-fire environment of a broker office.  Or as Belfort refers to it during the opening, "the sound of money."

For all his immense and deservedly legendary talents (all of which are on full display from start to finish), Scorsese can only get half credit here, as his energy is matched beat for beat by one of the year's stand-out lead performances and ensemble cast.  DiCaprio has rarely been better in his career, and if he were in a less-crowded Best Actor category, this is the role that would finally win him his Oscar gold.  And I think it's also safe to say that we can put to bed any lingering doubts that Jonah Hill's nomination for Moneyball a few years back was a fluke.  Individually, each are fascinatingly disgusting parodies of many of humanity's worst traits.  Together, they are a veritable whirlwind of insane destruction, leaving very little unbroken in their wake.

Like those who insisted that last year's Zero Dark Thirty endorsed torture, and that Django Unchained was racist, a fair few have attacked this movie for failing to more overtly and blatantly condemn the crimes of Belfort and his associates.  And, just like last year, my response is if that is what you honestly think after seeing the film, you just didn't look hard enough.  To tie this review back to my "subtlety" comment above, even when the movie's disgust with its subject is largely unspoken, it is still there.  Halfway through the film, Belfort dumps his high school sweetheart for a trophy wife, spending scenes describing his addiction to her body and detailing how his sex-filled bachelor party cost him millions upon millions of dollars, not to mention the fairy-tale wedding they had right afterwards, and once all that fades away, what do we see in the next scene?  The two of them screaming at each other 18 months later, which Belfort says had already become their morning ritual.  All that money, all those drugs, all that sex, and all those material riches, and the only thing it brings him is obscenities, hurled at him by the one person supposed to be closer to him than anyone else in the world.  If that is not enough of a commentary on the sad nature of such a life, then I ask you, what is?  

Furthermore, and herein lies the true twist of brilliance in the film, it points blame in two directions at once; the one at Belfort, for the very real crimes he committed, and the other, at us, the audience.  We are repulsed by Belfort, yes, and we are quick to condemn his drug abuse, or the fact that he hits his wife, but we also can't (or rather, we shouldn't) ignore the fact that we enable him and everyone else like him.  The final shot of the film- the very last thing we see- is not Belfort lying broken in a ditch, or in jail, or weeping in shame.  We see ourselves- another audience, staring at him with rapt attention as he teaches them how to sell.  We created a world where he could exist, where other like him could thrive.  And the scariest thing is when the movie ends, and you realize that between then and now, nothing's changed.

History does not happen in a bubble.  The crash that set up Belfort's path happened in the 80's.  His scheme came to light in the 90's.  And just 15 years or so later, the exact same sort of aggressively greedy characters- people who maybe don't do as many drugs or screw as many prostitutes as the film's Belfort does, but who have the same juvenile, male drive on autopilot- were left free to work their devious magic again, with results even more far-reaching and tragic.  And as of right now, it's only a matter of time before it happens again, because, again like Belfort, those responsible the last time around were never brought to task.  Never made to feel the pain they'd inflicted on so many others.  And it's that brutal reality that Wolf brings home so effectively.  It's three full hours of the male id on overdrive, and it's because of how well it does that, not in spite of it, that The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the best movies of the year.

So take a good look, people.  Set an evening aside in the near future to watch Wolf of Wall Street.  Pay close attention to it.  These are the people we worship as exemplars of working hard to achieve the American dream.  These are the much-lauded "job-creators" we apparently can't live without.  These are the men (emphasis on men) to whom we have granted custody over our financial and economic health.  These are the people our politicians don't dare offend with higher taxes.  Are you pleased with our choice?

-Noah Franc

Friday, January 24, 2014

2013 In Review- Noah's Awards

            It’s that time of year again!  I apologize for the delay in getting this out, but since, as usual, all the “important” films have been dumped into theaters at the exact same time, I am still in the process of playing catch-up.  Meaning that this post will NOT be my Top 10 List- Wolf, Nebraska, and All Is Lost only just came out in Germany, Saving Mr. Banks, American Hustle, and Dallas Buyer’s Club don’t come out until next month, and I’m still scrambling to figure out how I can see Fruitvale Station, Her, and The Wind Rises before the Oscar telecast.   

            As a result, not only will by Top 10 List have to wait a few more weeks, my Oscar picks (and rants- there are going to be a couple rants) will not be finished until February as well, to allow me enough time to see as many of the nominees as possible.  Instead, here are my own personal awards for the year 2013- not so much for whole movies, but rather for certain characters, scenes, and aspects of the films I saw this year that jumped out at me as worth paying extra attention to at the year’s end.  Enjoy!    



Jack Nicholson Award for Creepiest SOB: Michael Maertens as Claude (Finsterworld)

            Finsterworld as a whole was notable for a constant undercurrent of discomfort pervading many of the scenes, which it managed to maintain without ever doing anything explicitly disgusting or graphic.  That is, until we get a glimpse into the private life of Claude, and learn exactly why he loves working at an old folk’s home.  Yikes. 



Award for Worst SNL Impersonation of a US President:  John Cusack as Richard Nixon (The Butler)


           I didn’t particularly like The Butler (although I certainly laud its intentions) and I was very glad when it failed to receive any Oscar nominations.  Part of the reason the movie never really worked for me was because, despite its clear and desperate aspiration to be one of “THE Movies” about Black American History, there were so many bizarre and out-of-left-field casting and direction choices that, by the end, I was barely able to take the whole enterprise seriously. 

            This was nowhere more frustrating than with the utterly inexplicable casting decisions for the half-dozen US Presidents on display.  Granted, when you squint your eyes and tilt your head sideways, Robin Williams and Alan Rickman do passingly resemble Eisenhower and Reagan, but John Cusack?  Not only does he bear as little physical resemblance to Nixon as I do to Taft, he makes absolutely zero effort to even talk or act like him.  Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he was half-drunk during the filming- he certainly sounded like it.  In fact, that’s the best way I can sum up his performance- it’s like Lee Daniels got him drunk, showed him the Nixon scenes from Watchmen, and then let him loose on the set.  Great for a laugh, if the movie were a comedy, but for something trying so hard to be meaningful?  Bad call. 


Award for Best SNL Impersonation of a US President:  Jamie Foxx as President Obama, more or less (White House Down)

            Yes, I know, technically Jamie Foxx is playing a different black, Ivy League, progressively liberal President with larger-than-life aspirations to create a more peaceful world order and opposed, to an almost maniacal degree, by conservative and reactionary (and white) forces within and without the government, but then again, this is Roland Emmerich we’re talking about.  He’s fooling no one.  Foxx is President Obama, and he is forced to wield a bazooka to ward off assassination efforts by racist, white conspiracy theorists.  And it is awesome. 


Cloud Atlas Award for Most Under-appreciated Gem: Much Ado About Nothing

            Sadly, I’m not surprised in the least that this Tiffany diamond of a flick got zero attention from the awards committees this year.  Whedon put virtually no effort into a marketing campaign, it was given a brief, limited release months before the “serious” season, and the film itself was meant only as a fun side project for him to have a break from Avengers post-production.  Which is a real, real shame, because it’s one of the best movies of the year, one of the best film adaptations of Shakespeare in years, and when my list comes out in a few weeks, it will be in my Top 5.      


Doubles Award for Best Female Co-Leads: Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur (Beyond The Hills) AND Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux (Blue Is The Warmest Color)

            It’s interesting to note that this year featured not one, but two foreign-language films about young women struggling to deal with the fallout of a previously romantic relationship gone south.  I greatly enjoyed both of these movies, both use a very minimalist style, and both are carried solely on the performances of the two leads.  A few decades down the line, I hope they will be remembered as the early salvos of a new wave of increasingly diverse and complex relationships in film. 


Iago Award for Most Cold-Blooded of Villains: Maribel Verdu as Encarna (Blancanieves)


           This wasn’t a particularly brilliant year for villains.  There were exceptions- Fassbender’s Epps in 12 Years A Slave and Cumberbatch’s Smaug were welcome screen presences- but the queen of evil in 2013 was undoubtedly Verdu’s Encarna in this black-and-white, silent, Spanish version of Sleeping Beauty.  Endlessly devious and wretched in her attempts to separate a father and his daughter, her crowning moment is a scene revolving around a bowl of chicken soup that practically froze my entire nervous system in horror.  Nope, not saying how.  Go see it, it’s an amazing movie that everyone should see anyway. 


Sequels Award for Most Improvement Within A Franchise: Catching Fire

            You might recall that The Hunger Games was my least-favorite film from last year, and it’s hard to find a better example of picking a franchise up off its feet than a film that leaps from “decent yet incompetently made” to “pretty damn good” in a matter of minutes.  Far better acting (see, Jennifer Lawrence, there's the talent David Russell's trying to hide!), but even more important, the movie has a much stronger sense of place.  The world feels way bigger and more real than it did last time around.  I’m still not in love with the series, but at least I’m solidly on board for the last two movies


Princess Peach Award for Most Abused Female Character: Pepper Pots (Ironman 3)

            Pepper Pots is Lava Woman.  She is indestructible, she can burn anything to nothing, and we must also assume she can now breathe fire.  Stop making her a DID (aka damsel in distress).  Stop punting her to the side so Robert can mug the camera some more.  Make her an Avenger.  She’s the only decent female character in the franchise.  Sorry Scarlett, but punching the dude from The Hurt Locker doesn’t mean you’ve now had a character arc. Seriously, I expect fire-breathing in Age of Ultron.  I have spoken.  


Luigi Award for Most Ignored Side Character: War Machine/Iron Patriot (Ironman 3)

            And speaking of DIDs, PLEASE stop making the franchise’s only black character not played by Mace Windu into one as well.  War Machine’s treatment in Ironman 3 was even more dismissive than that given to Pepper, and far more blatant.  Give him something to do next time.  Or, I dunno, maybe MAKE HIM AN AVENGER. 


Milkshake Award for Best Two Minutes of Acting: Tom Hanks (for the last few scenes of Captain Phillips


           I’m not as high on this one as a lot of other critics are, but it is a genuinely great movie, and what really seals the deal are the film’s last few, ridiculously intense scenes showing the climax of the hostage crisis.  Tom Hanks’ performance was not my favorite of the year (that honor goes to Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis), and he’s not the two-hour tour-de-force that Chiwetel Eijifor is in 12 Years A Slave, but his scenes before and after the pirates are killed and when he’s being examined on the Navy ship afterwards were my favorite single-scene acting moments of the year.  He already has two Oscars, so his lack of presence on the Oscar nominees list isn’t as bad a snub as Isaac’s, but it is a gaping hole nonetheless. 


Snorlax Award for Most Boring Snoozefest of a Film: The Hunt

             Currently, this is the “worst” movie of 2013 I’ve seen, although I have not yet seen American Hustle, which I am actively dreading.  Not that it’s bad- I still don’t think it is- I just thought it failed utterly in attempting to turn it’s very real and potent subject matter into anything of substantial interest.  I really hope the Foreign Language Oscar goes to something else. 


Shyamalan Award for Worst Plot Twist: Khan’s Jesus Blood (Star Trek: Into Darkness)

            I ranted about this to great length in my review of this movie, and I won’t bother repeating myself here.  It was stupid when the movie first came out, and it’s stupid now.  I no longer have high hopes for either the next Star Trek movie or the new Star Wars franchise.  In fact, I’m very, very worried.  Please, Mr. Abrams- put the twin holy grails of sci-fi on the ground, back away slowly, and no one else needs to get hurt.  
  

Broadbelt Award for Best Musical Number: “Let It Go” (Frozen) AND “The Death of Queen Jane” (Inside Llewyn Davis)

            These songs couldn’t be more different from each other in terms of sound, tone, and genre, and the same can be said of their respective movies as well.  Despite that, I’ve tied them for this award because they both serve essentially the same function- each is a major watershed moment for a specific main character and a significant turning point for the film as a whole, and they each fulfill this purpose brilliantly.  “Let It Go” is Elsa’s breaking out moment, her rejection of the confines of her childhood, a first tentative effort to fully assert not just her independence, but her very identity.  “Queen Jane” is, for Llewyn, his one real shot at breaking out of the seemingly endless cycle of failure he’s trapped in.  Making the scene even more emotionally charged is that he fully realizes this, and pours everything he has into the piece, only to be met by the simplest and most brutal of judgments- “I don’t see a lot of money in this.”  Two wonderful scenes, two wonderful movies. 


Avengers Award for Best Action Beats: Pacific Rim

            Screw the Academy for nominating Lone Ranger over this.  Who would have thought?  Wonderfully creative designs, made by someone with a genuine, honest-to-God tripod and a solid understanding of how to properly frame and shoot an action scene really are an excellent combination.  Some still say this just more dumb action.  I couldn't agree more.  It is simple, yes, but it's also genuine, and it's fun.  


Mel Brooks Award for Best Laugh-Out-Loud Comedy: Key of Life


           This movie was my ray of light during the doldrums of the summer blockbuster season- at least I’d seen one truly great movie already (actually, I’d seen three), one that I knew would be on my Top 10 list.  Full credit to the equally excellent World's End, but Key of Life had me laughing longer and harder than any other movie I saw this year.  


            And lastly, the 4-Star Club; the films I saw this year that, in my book, are 4/4 star movies. 

-Much Ado About Nothing
-Blancanieves
-Her

            I hope you enjoyed reading this list, because I very much enjoyed writing it.  My Top 10 and Oscar ballots will be out next month, along with any reviews I manage to write in between cramming for March 2nd.  So, until next time! 

-Noah Franc



Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013): Written by Steve Conrad, directed by Ben Stiller.  Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Sean Penn, and Patton Oswalt.  Running Time: 114 minutes.  Based on the short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” by James Thurber. 

Rating: 3/4 Stars


            I’m rather surprised by the extent to which my thoughts on Walter Mitty echo those on Epic, another film featuring stunningly beautiful visuals somewhat undercut by a plot burdened by an excess of cliché and formula.  It has so many elements that could add up to not just a good movie, but a truly great one, if only it had been tweaked in the right places.  As it is, what we’ve been given, in a rare serious effort by Ben Stiller, is a genuinely well-made and fun film, one that I absolutely enjoyed and heartily recommend, but which is also brought low by enough problems that I can’t pretend to be surprised at its lackluster Rotten Tomatoes rating.  

            Like the earlier 1947 film, Mitty is a very, very loose adaptation of the original 1939 James Thurber short story.  Walter is a middle-aged, middle-class schlub, grinding away in the negatives department of Life magazine, when he and his co-workers are informed by Adam Scott’s Evil Corporate Facial Hair that the next print edition will be the last, meaning that a great many of their jobs are now at risk, especially Walter’s, whose expertise in film photography is obviously about to become redundant.  As a last hurrah, the intrepid photographer Steve O’Connell, played with impossible awesomeness by Sean Penn, sends what he considers to be one of his greatest photos ever for the final cover, along with a personal gift to Walter as a thank-you for working with his photos for so many years.  Unfortunately, said print seems to have been cut from the roll and is nowhere to be found, eventually leading Walter to embark on a journey across three continents in search of it, learning a number of valuable Life lessons along the way (hehehe). 

            The central conceit of Walter’s character, in both the story and film adaptations, is his tendency to escape from his mundane, everyman existence by drifting off into assorted flights of fancy.  In Ben Stiller’s version, these fantasies range from brief snatches of conversation he imagines having to full-blown fist fights with Adam Scott.  They’re played up more for comedy than anything else, which is one stark difference the movie has with the original story, where they were intended primarily as pessimistic reflections on the tendency of most people to fall back into escapism when confronted with uncomfortable realities.  Here, they’re treated as an almost adorable side-effect of a genuinely nice, intelligent guy too shy to work up the courage to ask out his office crush, Cheryl, played by Kristen Wiig. 

            It’s an intriguing effort by Ben Stiller, an indie-esque love/adventure comedy with the carefully-planned cinematography and effects budget of a summer blockbuster, an unexpected combination coming from the man who brought us Tropic Thunder and Zoolander, and one that I think works a lot more than most film critics have given it credit for.  I compared its visual flare to Epic for a reason- along with that, Gravity, Frozen and To The Wonder, Mitty is easily one of the most gorgeous films I’ve seen this year, with more than a few shot sequences that absolutely took my breath away.  The motto of Life magazine, extolling the virtues of living as much as possible, is brought into the scenery in some very clever ways, and is never treated with sarcasm or irony.  If nothing else, the film feels like it’s coming from a place of real honesty, and while that does result in the story trending hard towards schmulz territory in the third act, I never really minded, because it didn’t feel like the movie was doing so just to pander to me as a viewer.  If more rom-coms tried half as hard as Mitty does, I’d have far more patience for them. 

            It is true that the movie’s determinedly upbeat tone and somewhat cornbally ending are a decisive break with the more melancholic intentions of the Thurber parable, but while that does make Mitty a less-than-faithful adaptation, it doesn’t automatically make it a bad movie.  What DOES make it a lesser film is its incredibly forced use of product placement.  EHarmony plays a massive role in the story itself (Patton Oswalt, while providing a great turn as a nearly-unseen telephone operator and Mitty’s lone confidant, can’t help but remind the audience of just how AWESOME the site’s algorithms are), and Papa John’s, McDonald’s, Facebook, Cinnabon, Chase, FedEx, and KFC are all either referenced or given glaring cameos.  There’s also a terribly-placed and unnecessary Benjamin Button reference that nearly breaks one of the film’s better scenes, but it’s quickly dismissed once it’s over.  It could be that guaranteeing extended product placement was the only way the movie could finally be lifted off the launch pad- the movie had been discussed, planned, and casted several times for over 20 years before Stiller was brought in to star and direct- but given the lofty ambitions of the rest of the film and its wide visual scope, the moments that focus in on well-known labels or dialogue scraps that quote commercial mottos are often big distractions, and will probably ruin the effect of the film for a great many viewers. 

            There are story issues as well- the plot device of the missing photo is depressingly easy to figure out, especially given the movie’s otherwise determined efforts to portray Mitty as a reasonably smart guy.  Walter is also ostensibly supposed to be a normal person, a stand-in for most of its audience, but his rapid ascension into a grizzly adventurer by the end would seem to contradict this.  I think the distance this creates between the main character and the audience is, however, alleviated somewhat by Stiller’s own nicely underplayed performance.  It’s easily the best performance of his I can remember seeing, at least since Night At The Museum.  The story’s uncertainty about how to handle him notwithstanding, Stiller brings in more than enough of the quiet humility so essential to making the character work.  In fact, nearly all of the performances and relationships in the film are kept out of the kind of overly melodramatic territory you might expect from Stiller.  Walter has several very moving scenes with his family, Sean, Cheryl, and even his colleague from the negatives storehouse. 

            For all of the moments brought low by corporate shout-outs and a few questionable writing decisions, there are too many scenes the movie gets right for me to dismiss it the way so many other critics have; my favorite sequences include the film’s music-less opening, a fantasy of Cheryl singing “Ground Control to Major Tom” to inspire him to jump into a helicopter, his bike-and-skateboard expedition to an exploding Icelandic volcano, and an extended sequence of him being guided through the mountains by Sherpas, to name just a few. 

            It’s not hard to understand why so many critics have dismissed this work, especially since it had the bad luck to be in theaters in the same month as Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle, Frozen, and other Oscar contenders, but at the same time, I think way too many people are overlooking this one.  Yes, there is a lot of formula and ham in it, and while it gets some good laughs, there are plenty of jokes that don’t work as well (like the kind of awful Button one).  Sometimes it bumbles, and occasionally it falls on its face, but on the occasions when everything in it clicks, it brushes so very close to genuine greatness.  For me, that makes The Secret Life of Walter Mitty more than worth watching. 


-Noah Franc  

Thursday, January 9, 2014

In Defense Of The Hobbit Movies



**Note: if you want no inkling of what will happen in the third movie and have not read the book, just to be safe, go no farther.  Unless, y’know, you don’t care.  In which case, carry on**

            If you’ve been following this blog since last December (of 2012), you are probably aware that I really, really liked both the first and second Hobbit movies.  I ended up seeing the first one four times in theaters (tied with The Dark Knight for my own personal record), and last week I saw Desolation Of Smaug for the second time as well.  I also rewatched the first again after my girlfriend got me the DVD for Christmas, and yeah, for me, it held up just fine.  I think both movies are very good (but not great) and very fun adventures, each with a few scenes of genuine excellence that really make me feel like I’m seeing the world of Tolkein come to life.   

            And apparently, I seem to be increasingly alone among my circle of friends who thinks that. 

            Alright, that’s not entirely true, I am not wholly alone in my opinion.  Both films have a plus 60% percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with a great many critics actually lauding the second one as even better than the first.  However, amongst my own circle of acquaintances, I’ve noted a range of opinions on the movies as divided as any I’ve ever encountered concerning a movie.  Some hated the first one and loved the second one, and some in reverse.  Some strongly dislike both, and feel that Jackson’s efforts to make the series a trilogy betray the original intent of the author by stretching 300 pages into 500+ minutes of movie.  One writer directly labeled the movie’s fight scenes as a "violent betrayal" of the anti-war message that pervades both The Hobbit and LOTR

            Let me first say that, for the most part, yes, I completely get where most of these criticisms are coming from.  Both Hobbit movies are far more noticeably flawed than LOTR was, even in its silliest moments.  And, as I’ve said twice now in my reviews, the films undercut themselves even more by drawing too much of the focus away from Bilbo (although a bit of that, which I’ll get to shortly, is perfectly justified).  However, I also think that a lot of said critiques overlook the series’ stronger points, along with a number of changes made to the source material that, honestly, I would have made myself had I been helming this project.   

            First off, let’s look at one of the most common complaints I’ve heard, which usually goes along the lines of, “You can’t make 300 pages of a children’s story into 500 minutes of movie!  You just can’t!”  Excuse my beginner’s-level French, but why the hell not?  There is no solid and accurate standard you can apply to find out the “right” translation of pages in a book to minutes in a film, because in both cases, the length doesn’t matter.  It’s the content and quality that does. 

            Obviously, there are instances where this argument does hold more water.  I’d be scratching my head as much as anyone if, for example, Jackson followed up the last Hobbit installment with plans to launch a new trilogy based on The Little Prince.  In regards to this particular franchise, I’m less-inclined to give ground to claims of the movies being over-long.  This is not to say that the Hobbit movies aren’t unnecessarily padded in spots, because they are; both could easily be 30-40 minutes shorter, and there was no reason to hold off on Smaug’s attack on Laketown. 

            However, having reread the book twice now since the first movie came out, to be quite honest guys, no, I do not think you could make a good, faithful adaptation of The Hobbit with a single, 2.5 hour movie- there are just too many plot elements and world details that would have to be set up in some way to make sure the movie makes even one iota of sense to people who didn't read the book.  Don’t believe me?  Well, let’s list the plot elements that are most essential to telling the story and establishing characters that Jackson has taken from the book so far- the party at Bag End, the encounter with the trolls (it’s Bilbo’s first taste of life in the wilder parts- plus it’s just plain funny), translating the runes at Rivendell, being captured by goblins and saved by Gandalf, Bilbo getting lost and finding the Ring (and Gollum), being cornered outside the mountain by wolves and saved by eagles, meeting Beorn and informing him of their quest, getting lost and twice-captured in Murkwood, escaping via the barrels and thus encountering the people of Laketown (all of which are more moments for Bilbo to shine as the story’s hero), becoming familiar with the people of Lake-Town, setting off to the mountain, finding the door, sending Bilbo down to meet Smaug, and pissing him off enough that he sails out to seek revenge on the humans. 

            That’s not even everything in the book- those are the most essential plot elements Jackson stuffed into the first two movies alone.  When you throw in all the stuff that comes later in the book, I’m convinced that any truly faithful adaptation would need at LEAST two movies of about 2.5 hours apiece, and given that Jackson is making a thus-far interesting effort to include materials from the Appendices, I honestly have no problem with this book also being made into a trilogy.  So, in short, I get some complaints with the time, but for the most part, I never care about length unless the film is REEEEAAAAALLY dragging its feet, which these movies definitely don’t do.  At least, not too much. 

            Now, for specifics, here’s a few other aspects of the film that I really, really like, things that more than up for their flaws (in my book).   

First, and most importantly, Martin Freeman is perfect as Bilbo

            This is the hinge upon which this entire series turns.  Yes, fellow purists, I did notice that he’s noticeably younger than Ian Holm in Fellowship, and yes, that is a not-insignificant break with the books, where it’s clearly established that he doesn’t visibly age in the 60 years between each story.  Quite frankly, I don’t care, because Martin Freeman captures the essence of this character just as well as Sean Astin nailed it as Sam.  His scenes, be they straight from the book or improvised, are easily the best of both movies.  He stammers, he feels overwhelmed, he gets frightened, but he also brings across Bilbo’s cleverness, courage, and ultimately big heart that give The Hobbit its much-needed emotional center.    

In the book, the dwarves are royal douchebags

            The first time I reread The Hobbit this past year, the first time since Middle School I’d picked it up, I was legitimately shocked at how, well, douchy the dwarves are to Bilbo.  I don’t mean that they’re hapless- that’s part of the joke in the book, although the movie does alter than as well- I mean that they go out of their way, at every turn, to blame each and every misfortune that occurs on the hobbit, and they all then proceed to sit on their hands until Bilbo, grumbling with exasperation, comes up with a solution.  I’m fine with that in the book, since the focus is nearly entirely on Bilbo anyway, but in a movie, I’d much rather have 12 goofy dwarf sidekicks (and Thorin) that I actually have SOME feelings of affection for.  Thorin is properly dignified as a dwarf king, Balin and Bofur get some nice moments with Bilbo, and while the others are varying shades of goofy and hapless like in the book, at least they aren’t perpetual whiners.  Imagine spending a trilogy of movies listening to THAT. 

            While we’re on the topic of dwarves…..

If you think the dwarves have little to no distinct characteristics in the movies, they have even less in the book

            No, the movies haven’t given us 12 distinct and memorable characters, but at least we can pick out Balin, Bofur, Dwalin, Bombur, Fili, and Kili from the crowd.  In the book, Thorin is the ONLY one of the dwarves with any identifiable characteristics, not to mention his own plot arc.  Bombur is the fat one.  Kili and Fili are “the young ones.”  And that’s all Tolkein gives us.  Nothing else is offered to help us form 12 different images in our heads.  Give Jackson credit for not only making the dwarves funny and likable, but also managing to make at least half of them memorable to some degree. 

Jackson takes the time to show us Bard and The Master and set up their conflict BEFORE Smaug burns Laketown to a crisp

            Yes, The Master and Bard are indeed in the book, but The Master gets the briefest of introductions when the party first arrives, and Bard is practically an after-thought, only mentioned AFTER Smaug starts burning everything.  And it’s not until even later that we are told about their personal political conflict, when the people suddenly proclaim that they want Bard as King, and Tolkein says, in a very simplified nutshell, “Oh yeah, and the guy who killed Smaug just happens to be from an old line of kings, also The Master’s a greedy porkface.  Hijinks will ensue!” 

            Why do I like Jackson’s version more?  Because it gives us a reason to care about what happens to the town- we’ve now seen bits of the people and the poverty in which they live, and we’ve seen enough to know that Bard is this film’s version of Aragorn and that The Master is basically Grima with extra pillows in his nightie.  Contrary to what you might think, this is of no small importance, because the struggle between Bard and The Master, along with the fate of Laketown, is a huge factor that drives the plot after the dragon dies, not only for Bilbo and the dwarves, but also for the involvement of the elves and the huge battle that ends everything.  ANY decent adaptation would have to spend time on this anyway, so, in my opinion, good on Jackson for getting this part out of the way before all the insanity hits the fan in the next movie. 

The inclusion of Radagast

            I know, I know this one’s controversial, and even I find the bird-poop hair and rabbit sled too much, but honestly, if there was one thing that disappointed me about LOTR the first time I read it, it was how short a stick Radagast gets in the two pages or so that he gets.  I’ve ached for the chance to get more of the other Istari, and while I won’t hold out hope that the blue wizards will appear in the finale (although that would easily be its own special flavor of AWESOME), I’m perfectly happy to see Radagast get a couple of chances to shine in this series.  Hopefully he gets some cool things to do in the last movie. 

            Speaking of wizards….

We are reminded that Saruman wasn’t always an evil tool

            We get absolutely nothing in any of the LOTR movies to indicate that Saruman was anything other than a diabolical mastermind waiting to crack, so even though it didn’t drive the story very much, I liked seeing him and Gandalf get to interact in a normal friendly manner (and they will most likely do so again in the last movie).  It’s a nice reminder that the man did start out as the Middle Earth equivalent of an angel. 

All the stuff with the Necromancer is both relevant to the plot and….well…..cool

            I love the scenes involving the Necromancer.  Yeah, in the book he’s not the direct cause of the goblin armies massing for an assault of the mountain, but his presence is the reason why Gandalf abandons the dwarves seemingly at random several times.  And it IS established in the book that he, Saruman, and the other Istari drove the Necromancer out right before the big battle, so…..yeah, why not throw it in to the movies?  It’s a chance to give non-readers more of Sauron’s history, plus it’s just always cool to see Gandalf do magic stuff.  

The party at Bilbo’s, the encounter with trolls, Bilbo’s game of riddles with Gollum, the spider attack, the barrel-ride, and all of Bilbo’s encounter with Smaug

            These are the parts of the movie that stick closest to the book (barrel-riding aside), in many cases nearly word-for-word, and they all rank among Bilbo’s smartest/funniest/most awesome moments in the overall story, so it’s small wonder that they are also my favorites parts of both movies.  Even the barrel-riding segment, stretched to an absurd extreme with pursuing goblins and elves, is the right kind of exuberant excess; rollicking, try-and-not-laugh-at-this fun.  The motion capture technology used for both Gollum and Smaug is as incredible to see as ever, and Benedict Cumberbatch proved himself to be just as perfect for Smaug as Andy Serkis was for Smeagol.  They are the parts that, for me, best capture the world of Middle Earth, along with the overall tone of the book.  More than anything else, the chance to see these (and a few other) moments brought to life on the big screen are more than enough reason for me to never regret purchasing the tickets to my (thus far) half-dozen showings of these movies. 

            In summation, those are my primary reasons for liking and being very happy with this film series.  Do I get bothered by the other flaws with them?  Of course.  Do I wish that both movies didn’t drag as much towards the end?  Yes I do.  But, in a way, the fact that I enjoy both movies so much, even though their problems are very, very visible, is another testament to the strength, staying power, and imaginative force of the world Tolkein created.  Even when done in a flawed, egotistical, and overly excessive manner, there’s something irresistible about the man’s stories, something that always manages to shine through, no matter how flawed or great the adaptation is.  Hell, I’ve seen a staged KIDS version of The Hobbit (no I am not joking), and even that managed to hold my attention 'til the end.   

            So even though these movies can easily be argued over and debated for hours on end, at least they give something interesting to talk about.  This journey may not be quite as epic as the last one, but I am very, very glad to be a part of it, and I will be a  genuinely sad man indeed when I no longer have any Middle Earth movies to look forward to seeing in theaters. 

-Noah Franc