Thursday, January 16, 2014

REVIEWS: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Anyone who knows me well is aware that I’ve been a Lord of the Rings (LoTR) fan since the 1970s when I first discovered the series while in junior high school. I still periodically read the Hobbit and the full trilogy every few years. So, as one can imagine, Peter Jackson’s film LoTR adaptations have been a dream come true.

I’ve never been a purist, so I understand the need for a work to change if it is going to be translated to another medium like film. Nevertheless, LoTR is an adaptation as faithful as one could expect to the spirit and themes of author J.R.R. Tolkien’s work.

While some raised eyebrows at Jackson’s decision to turn the Hobbit — which was written as a children’s book with a much different tone than LoTR—into another trilogy franchise, I’ve noted that Jackson was only able to do this because he had done LoTR first, which already established the tone and environment for Middle Earth in people’s minds; more importantly, by making this prequel after LoTR, Jackson was able to include events and scenes that, while not included in the original Hobbit novel, are nevertheless part of canon, as told in Tolkien’s LoTR appendices and his “bible” of Middle Earth, the Silmarillion. Had Jackson filmed the Hobbit first, these scenes would have made little sense, but having already filmed LoTR, he could now include in the Hobbit other parts of the history that served to enrich the later trilogy.

Of all Jackson’s films based on Tolkien’s work, this latest installment, the Hobbit: The Desolation of Smog, represents the most significant departure from the source material. Already well known is the addition of Tauriel, a warrior she-elf, but of particular surprise to me was the extended role of elf prince Legolas, a popular character in LoTR played by Orlando Bloom. Legolas does not appear in the Hobbit novel, but in the LoTR books, Tolkien explicitly identifies him as the son of the elf king Thranduil, who plays an important role in the story. So what I thought was perhaps only a cameo is actually a pretty full role, in which Legolas seems more active and engaged in brutal fighting than in the earlier trilogy.

Other scenes represent a major departure from the book, partly rooted in Jackson’s desire to create emotional resonance or a great action set piece for audiences. In Tolkien’s original novel, for instance, the characters of the Master and the Bard, both normal humans in Lake Town, are barely fleshed out and primarily plot devices. Here, Jackson has expanded their roles significantly. In a nice touch to humanize the story, Jackson also creates an emotional (romantic?) connection between Tauriel and one of the band of dwarves, Kili, echoing to some degree the great friendship that Legolas would later have with Gimli in LoTR. The barrel-ride escape from the book is turned from what is a somewhat humorous jaunt in the book into a major action/fight sequence in the film. Bilbo and the dwarves’ confrontation with Smaug is also significantly different than in the book; and, of course, the parallel story involving Gandalf and the Necromancer, which is probably mentioned in passing in only a few lines in the Hobbit (though told more fully elsewhere) fleshes out and foreshadows what will come in LoTR. On the flip side, as long as the movie is, I was surprised at how quickly it moved through the Beorn man-bear and Mirkwood Forest sequences—in fact, the Mirkwood Forest feels like it takes up a lot more space in the book. But, of course, Jackson is in a rush to get to the meat of the story, involving Smaug the dragon.

For the original LoTR trilogy, I’ve much preferred the extended editions over the theatrical release. I have to admit, however, that the theatrical versions of the Hobbit already feel like an extended version; by the end of the film, I felt fairly fatigued by all the action. It could have been my mood, but whereas the LoTR film trilogy was the adaptation of a lengthy, complex work, the Hobbit is the adaptation of a single, medium length novel with a very simple storyline. And, unlike the complex trilogy, which offered natural places for each film to break, this installment simply stops, with Smaug the dragon awakened and on his way to exact his revenge on Lake Town: To be continued….

Being familiar with the story, I look forward to seeing how Jackson wraps up this second trilogy this December.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Entertainment Roundup for 2013

ABOVE: The Google Chromecast
As I do each year, I start this year's blog with a rundown of the films, books, TV, comics, and other entertainments I took in this past year. While I try to keep a complete list, I suspect there are still a few items that get by, particularly among the comics and television.

Continuing a trend that accelerated this past year, most of the books and comics I read in 2013 were digital (via my Kindle Fire HD) and many films were watched through streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. So while the medium of storytelling hasn't changed much—whether it's film, television, books, or comics—what has changed significantly is the way such content is delivered. Netflix original content like Arrested Development and Orange is the New Black may not be series "television" in the traditional sense, since they are delivered through an online streaming service and often presented all at once in acknowledgment of the increased users who engage in "binge watching." In the same way, the Kindle re-kindled my interest in comics, particularly in titles like All New X-Men, Nick Fury Max: My War Gone By maxi-series, and Hawkeye. My recent acquisition of streaming-ready devices like the Google Chromecast and a DirecTV system and BluRay player with wifi connectivity reinforces the way entertainment is consumed. Like many people, I've even seriously considered cutting the umbilical to DirecTV/cable given the amount of content available online or on cheaper pay systems like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, but ultimately decided to hold the line on this since others in my household—particularly my children—still watch series television on their tween channels.

But what about the content? This year seemed to be a particularly strong year for movies and other entertainments. One of my favorite films was Populaire, which I saw on Netflix. Other highlights included Frances Ha, Man of Steel, the Lone Ranger, Thor: The Dark World, Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and Saving Mr. Banks. Two animated films, Dispicable Me 2 and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, surprisingly, were on my list of disappointments.

A discovery this past year was IFC's "The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret," which I caught on Netlix. Speaking of Netflix, though I still have to finish them, their original series, Orange is the New Black and the new season of Arrested Development, have been as good as anything you'll find on TV and the way they are presented on Netflix certainly has redefined what "series television" is all about and how it is delivered.

Anyway, without any further ado....


Nowhere Boy - DVD (1/12/13)
Argo (1/19/13)
Iron Sky (1/28/13)
Remains of the Day - DVD (1/29/13)
Shanghai Calling (2/16/13)
Alfie (2/15/13)
Guys and Dolls (2/26/13)
The Third Man (2/27/13)
Little Voice - Netflix (2/27/13)
Blow Dry - Netflix (2/28/13)
Carnal Knowledge (2/28/13)
The Front (3/10/13)
Kramer vs. Kramer (3/16/13)
Atlantis: The Lost Empire - Netflix (3/25/13)
Atlantis: Return of Milo - Netflix (3/26/13)
Treasure Planet - Netflix (3/28/13)
Oz: The Great and Powerful 3D (4/1/13)
A Good Old Fashioned Orgy (4/2/13)
Titan A.E. (4/3/13)
Independents ??
The Imposters (4/6/13)
Death at a Funeral (4/24/13)
The Day I Saw Your Heart - Netflix (French) (5/11/13)
Classic Albums: Meat Loaf: Bat Out of Hell - Neflix (5/11/13)
This is 40 - Amazon (5/11/13)
Price Check - Netflix (5/13/13)
Star Trek: Into Darkness (5/18/13)
Extract - Netflix (5/24/13)
Les Miserables - Amazon (5/26/13)
Homecoming - TCM (5/26/13)
Frances Ha (5/27/13)
The Dish and the Spoon - Netflix 5/20/13)
Absolute Beginners - TCM (6/1/13)
Hitchcock - Amazon (6/2/13)
Girl Model - Netflix streaming (6/4/13)
Damsels in Distress - DVD (6/7/13)
Dead Again - Netflix streaming (6/8/13)
Epic (6/9/13)
Friends with Kids - Netflix streaming (6/12/13)
Man of Steel (6/16/13)
Monster U. (6/30/13)
Dispicable Me 2 (7/3/13)
Man of Steel (7/5/13)
Star Trek II: Wrath of Kahn - Netflix streaming (7/14/13)
Turbo (7/23/13)
The To Do List (7/27/13)
Dive Bomber - TCM (8/9/13)
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (10/12/13)
Behind the Candelabra (HBO - 11/28/13)
Thor: The Dark World (11/29/13)
Frozen (12/8/13)Lovelace (Netflix - 12/9/13)
Populaire (Netflix - 12/11/13)
Lone Ranger (Amazon On Demand - 12/21/13)
Saving Mr. Banks (12/21/13)
Great Gatsby (DirecTV On Demand - 12/28/13)



The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret - Netflix streaming (1/4/13)
Downton Abbey/Season 3 (PBS - 1/13)
Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee by Jerry Seinfeld
Curb Your Enthusiasm - Season 8 (DVD - 12/7/13)
Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
Arrested Development, Season 8 (Netflix)


Ragtime (3/16/13)
Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure (7/7/13)
It’s a Wonderful Life (11/19/13)


How I Slept My Way to the Middle by Kevin Pollack (1/10/13)
Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings (2/25/13)
The Complete Making of Indiana Jones
Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel: Murder, Money, and an Epic Power Struggle in China by Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang (8/1/13)

Museum Exhibitions:

Kubrick Exhibition (LACMA) - (1/6/13)
Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archeology - Science Discovery Center (4/14/13)

Comics/Graphic Novels:

Amazing Spider-Man #700 (1/3/13)
All-New X-Men
Dominic Fortune (5/2013)
Nick Fury Max: My War Gone By
The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story by Vivek J. Tiwart and art by Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker (12/30/13)

ABOVE: Cover art to the Fifth Beatle