Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Not So Precious

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and his band of fun-size Klingons

««  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. Directed by Peter Jackson. 

When the first installment in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy appeared in 2001, it was just two months since the shock of 9-11. Tolkien’s classic, though set in a Middle Earth of hobbits, elves and orcs, turned out to be perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist—a dark, sprawling epic about decent people preparing for an existential struggle against an utterly alien, implacable enemy. This surprising topicality, and Jackson’s sure control over his massive material, helped make the Rings movies both box office and critical successes. Nobody questioned why he needed three long movies to tell this story, and nobody minded waiting three years for the epic’s conclusion.
            The unexpected thing about Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is that this writer was bored not by the third year, but by the second hour. The main problem, alas, is more-or-less baked into the project: because The Hobbit was written before the Rings, and is set before the momentous events of the trio, Jackson is essentially giving us the appetizer after the meal.
            Indeed, the literary Hobbit is a different sort of work than the others. It’s a light book, almost whimsical in the telling, and it tells a story with stakes that are far, far lower. The story, about a band of merry dwarves who enlist the reluctant hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to steal some treasure from a nasty dragon, clearly called for a different kind of tone. No existential struggle, no ancient evil. When characters are dubbed “Fili” and “Kili”, “Oin” and “Gloin” and “Nori” and “Dori”, we aren’t talking On the Beach, are we?
            Like in the other movies, there’s a lot of wandering over big landscapes here, and a few big action set-pieces that are, alas, never quite as involving. Once again, we break our journey in Lórien, the Elvish empyrean that looks like an all-inclusive five-star resort, and meet the enchanting Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), whom Jackson poses against the sunset like a piece of garden sculpture. There are a few compensations: Freeman is just fine as the modest, level-headed Bilbo, who hungers for an extraordinary life while suspecting he’s too far over (or under) the hill to pull it off. Unlike the eager-beaver Frodo, Bilbo is like a forty-five year-old struggling with the urge to join the Peace Corps. Ian McKellen is back as Gandalf, and is welcome merely for being exactly as he was before. We also get to see what a decade of additional development in motion-capture technology has done to make Gollum (Andy Serkis) an even more remarkable creation.
            But let’s clear away the pipeweed and face facts: in almost three hours, this movie gets through less than half of a book that was already light to begin with. In the annals of movie adaptations, this is unique—a script twice as long as the number of prose pages it adapts. If someone had turned the first half of The Little Prince into a ninety-minute cable TV event, it would not be as overblown a project as The Hobbit.
            For that, we get the set-up for what is essentially a heist story, but no actual heist. Instead, we’re expected to care naturally for a band of dwarves who look a little too much like fun-size Klingons. Add to that a few other dubious creations, such as a jowly Orc king who looks too much like a similar character in The Phantom Menace, and we have to wonder not only if Jackson believes we’re seen any other movies, but whether he’s seen any himself.
            The world feels different since 2001. Sauron is dead—shot in the neck by Seal Team Six. Mordor has a shaky but real democratic regime. There are still wars going on, but not so much fear that our struggle has existential stakes. Tolkien fans are, of course, delighted to see anything set in Middle Earth reach the big screen. The rest of us, however, have moved on, and are ready for a different take on the Tolkien universe. Jackson insists on sticking to the formula of the other movies, shoe-horning material from other Tolkien writings that have little directly to do with the dwarves or their quest. In a sense, Jackson disrespects The Hobbit by making it an excuse for a new series of highly lucrative Ring prequels. It seems it’s not only Smaug the dragon who covets treasure above all else.
            Early in The Hobbit Gandalf tells Bilbo “Every good tale deserves embellishment.” Perhaps—as long as we’re convinced there’s a good tale in the offing. Jackson hasn’t made his case yet.  
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

First Blood

Bordan and friend in Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome

«««  Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome. Created by Michael Taylor & David Eick. Based on the Syfy series Caprica and Battlestar Galactica. Available for streaming at www.machinima.com, and coming in February on Syfy.

After the demise of Caprica in 2010, there were ample grounds to doubt there was any life left in Syfy’s rebooted Battlestar Galactica. The mixed response to the original series’ finale, and the failure of creator Ronald D. Moore’s attempt to reach beyond Galactica’s core fanboy audience with his Caprica prequel, seemed to leave BSG without a plausible future or prehistory. The franchise was, in a word, fracked.
            Turns out series’ co-creator David Eick isn’t done trying. The pilot for the new BSG: Blood and Chrome was released online last month, and is available for steaming on Machinima.com and Youtube. Viewing it on a computer screen, chopped up in ten-minute increments, isn’t the ideal experience, but there are less rewarding ways to spend a couple of hours in front of a computer.
            Blood and Chrome is, to mangle a phrase, a “middle origin story”—an account of the early wartime career of the young man who would grow up to be Commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos). The setting is the thick of the penultimate Cylon War, as human civilization seems destined to be conquered by its silicon-based spawn. The young Adama (Luke Pasqualino) is fresh out of the academy and eager to kill the “toasters”, but his career path takes a detour when he’s not assigned to combat duty at all. Instead, he’s saddled with a cargo run that seems designed to take him as far from the action as possible. On board are his co-pilot “Coker” Fasjovik (Ben Cotton)—a short-timer with an allergy to risks—and a quiet, spooky engineer (Lili Bordán) who is clearly hoarding secrets.
            Obviously, the mission doesn’t stay far from the action for long. And suffice it to say that, as prequels to hit shows go, Blood and Chrome is a credible effort. Where Caprica seemed to actively disdain the action-packed, high-stakes drama of the original show, this one embraces the pressure-cooker intensity that gave BSG its addictive momentum. As for the mystic “prophecy” of the original, the classic rock tunes playing in people’s heads and hand-waving about “god’s will”, some might think B&C better for avoiding all that. It’s just fleeing and fighting here, folks, with just a dash of that third “f—ing” thrown in for variety.
            As several critics have noted, though, this makes for a strange pilot for a projected series. The education of the young, ingenuous Adama in the subtler arts of war is a promising prospect, considering what a master of unconventional strategy he is destined to become. But B&C is tied up almost too neatly for its own good. It’s as if its makers deliberately foreshortened its prospects. And sure enough, though the full pilot will air in glorious HD on the Syfy channel this February, there are currently no plans to make it an ongoing series.
            In the end, B&C can’t avoid the usual prequels’ dilemma: when you give audiences the apocalypse in the original show, there’s not much left for a follow-up except to fill in the blanks. Those blanks are more thrilling here than in the soapish Caprica. But we still know where all this is going. 
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Potemkin Lover

We can't see what Knightley sees in Anna Karenina.

««  Anna Karenina. Written by Tom Stoppard, based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy. Directed by Joe Wright

Criticizing a classic like Tolstoy's Anna Karenina can be tricky, given that those who decide these things have already pronounced its greatness. Everybody is entitled to an opinion, of course, but who is confident enough to say a book like Karenina is overrated without at least some fear of looking like an uncultured boob?
            Let my boobs show, then: reading this book, I was struck by just how little of it concerns Anna Karenina. Instead of focusing on the business at hand, Tolstoy dwells on a multitude of seemingly extraneous characters, only some of whom are interesting. There's too much time spent on agricultural economics and too little on psychology. When I put it down, I couldn't help feeling the old man really needed a good editor. Between this and that other great 19th century novel of romantic illusion and marital infidelity, I have to say I prefer Madame Bovary.
            The good news about Joe Wright's new version is that the limitations of a feature-film screenplay (120 double-spaced script pages vs. 600 densely-worded pages) forced writer Tom Stoppard to focus on Karenina herself. As the doomed affair between Anna Arkadyevna Karenina (Keira Knightley) and the feckless rake Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) takes center stage, Knightley's talent for suffering picturesquely can't be denied. Pretty faces, pretty costumes, the baroque opulence of Imperial Russia in the flush of its terminal rot—how can Wright miss?
            Yet miss he does. The problem starts with the decision to set the action more or less entirely on a theatrical stage, with transitions (admittedly, cleverly) indicated by shifts in camera angle, backdrop, location on the stage or out among the seats. It's the sort of thing we'd expect in an opus by Peter Greenaway or Derek Jarman, this conscious heightening of the artifice, reminding us at every turn that this is just a story, and the figures onstage merely characters. The idea seems apt enough in the abstract—the term "Potemkin village", referring to the political power of illusion, did originate in Russia.
            Problem is, the device isn’t applied just in the abstract. In practice, Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) takes it too far, making the ironic quotes around the "action" still more emphatic by indulging in outright silliness. The bureaucratic offices of Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), for instance, are parodied in a goofy way we'd expect among the Oompa Loompas in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Goofiness and tragedy don't coexist so well: Karenina is, after all, one of the landmarks of realist fiction. Wright ultimately wants it both ways—to engage in Brechtian distancing and to make a traditional weepie out of Anna's plight. He ends up succeeding fully at neither.
            This Karenina might still have worked if we saw the heroine as Tolstoy belatedly came to see her—as misguided but sympathetic soul. The casting of Vronsky makes that impossible. With his butterscotch highlights and moisturized complexion, Taylor-Johnson looks like he belongs in a boy band more than the Czar's cavalry. Anna's decision to throw away marriage and motherhood for Vronsky might convince if we see what she does in him. Looking at Taylor-Johnson, we see only a One Direction music video. Falling so desperately for such a pouffed poodle makes Anna not tragic, but a ninny.
            It's a shame because Knightley—still young at 27—clearly has the chops to carry such hefty roles. She has the lines of a living John Singer Sargent portrait, but also enough fetching idiosyncracies, such as her faintly reptilian grin, to be interesting too. Like an instrument waiting too long to be played by a master, there's a world of potential in her sadly untapped in movies like Karenina, The Duchess, or Atonement. Knightley in a Jane Campion Madame Bovary, anyone?
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro