Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Once Again Into the Smaug

Dragon meets hobbit (Martin Freeman) in Desolation of Smaug.

«« The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro , based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. Directed by Peter Jackson. At area theaters.         
According to the chronicles of Middle Earth, Bilbo Baggins' journey to Mt. Erebor takes place 3,063 years after the Fall of the kingdom of Númenor and 1,340 years after the foundation of the Shire. These are eternities of time. Yet they feel like nothing compared to having to sit through Peter Jackson's interminable trilogy of spectacles based on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.
          The problems with opus #2, The Desolation of Smaug, are pretty much the same I described for #1 (An Unexpected Journey, 2012, see review here). This is essentially a heist story—a caper wherein a band of semi-silly dwarves and their hairy-footed companion attempt to steal a precious jewel from Smaug, an avaricious dragon. Far from the sprawling, Manichean struggle of Lord of the Rings, events of The Hobbit were never meant to have cosmic stakes. But instead of giving the story its own tone and look, Jackson adopts the same portentous approach to he took for his Rings movies. He's like a chef who serves the appetizer after the main dish, and finding you liked the pasta sauce on the entrée, ladles it on your salad too.
          And then he repeats the mistake, in triplicate.
          The new trilogy at least benefits from another decade of development in CGI. The set-piece for this episode, the encounter with the eponymous dragon, is splendidly realized, with the giant sauropod appearing from beneath what looks like a landfill of treasure. The beast is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems as ubiquitous as Sauron these days but characterizes him with all the silky menace envisioned by Tolkien.
          Strangely, the figure of Bilbo (Martin Freeman) seems lost here, as if Jackson, in 161 minutes of running time, couldn't find time for him. No surprise, considering that Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro are busy rationalizing the return of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), one of the most popular characters in the Rings movies. What Bloom (or his distaff sidekick Evangeline Lilly) are doing here is a mystery, given that they are neither in the book nor anything but peripheral to the script. It's a mystery, unless mowing down legions of hapless, disposable orcs is reason enough. (Wanna bet we'll see Viggo Mortensen in the next episode?)
          Jackson also invests much time in the shoe-horning material presaging the return of the bad guy, Sauron, from those other movies you saw already. It shouldn't be a spoiler by now to reveal that Sauron will be defeated. So what's the point of breaking the momentum from Bilbo's quest—which (for all we know) still hangs in the balance—in favor of a battle for which we already know the outcome?
          The answer, of course, is that the question is irrelevant. The Hobbit is less a story now than the latest productions of a media franchise that exists for no other sake than to keep going. Indeed, it's a franchise in the same sense as Harry Potter or The Olive Garden—an experience that fulfills certain expectations regardless of whether they are "good" or "bad". Let the critics carp, say the fans—we're off for the Middle Earth equivalent of unlimited bread sticks.         
@ 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Flyover Redemption

Forte and Dern are cold in Nebraska.

««« Nebraska.  Written by Bob Nelson. Directed by Alexander Payne. At selected theaters.      
Sixteen years ago the Coen Brothers made Fargo, an off-beat, serio-comic thriller set in you-know-where, North Dakota. Though Hollywood elites loved it, awarding it Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actress, it drew criticism for how it portrayed the good folks of the upper Midwest. Namely, it made them into cartoony, hapless rubes. Settling in to Alexander Payne's Nebraska, I got the feeling I was in for something similar—that is, for Fargo-style regional caricature, albeit without the Coen's wit.
          The script by newcomer Bob Nelson concerns Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an ornery, tactiturn 70 year-old who believes he's come into a million dollars when a sham magazine sweepstakes offer comes in the mail. No longer permitted to drive, he sets off on foot from his home in Billings to collect his "fortune" in Lincoln, Nebraska. He's rescued from the side of the interstate by his youngest son, David (Will Forte). After Woody's third or fourth escape attempt, the latter decides to drive him there, figuring at least he can spend some quality alone time with his dad.
          David gets more than he bargained for when they stop in Woody's old home town. The story of his imminent fortune gets around quickly, making Woody a local hero among his distant family and childhood buddies. Things go sour when the inevitable demands for payback on old "loans" start coming, and David, like many adult children, learns how broad an undiscovered country his parent's life is to him.
          Payne, by using the title Nebraska, is promising to deliver something folksy, gritty, unvarnished—in other words, the cinematic equivalent of Bruce Springsteen's sound in the classic album of the same name. Phedon Papamichael's sparse black and white cinematography befits those expectations. Yet (and notwithstanding Payne's own Midwestern roots) there's a whiff of bicoastal condescension in how the film presents people and places hollowed out by economic irrelevance. The old folks here behave exactly as every urban hipster expects on a visit with his flyover grandparents—conversations conducted in monosyllables, the idiot cousins left behind (Tim Discoll and Devin Ratray), the old men dozing in front of football games as Grandma bastes the turkey in the kitchen. Were Nebraska presented with the smells appropriate to its story, we would get the odors of moth-balls and soiled Depends. If people really lived in a state of such hopelessness, walking seven hundred miles to get a million bucks doesn't sound so crazy after all.
          But then something surprising happens. First, June Squibb turns in a feisty, appealing performance as Woody's long-suffering spouse. Second, and more profoundly, Payne slowly erects a touching father-son story on Will Forte's boyish ingenuousness. While Woody is a constant disappointment, Forte portrays David's need to build a relationship with him with such sweet subtlety that he redeems the whole film, clichés and all. Forte's performance is all the more impressive that he was a SNL cast member for ten years, but Payne never lets him be funny.
          Bruce Dern's acerbic, unsentimental performance is getting the lion's share of praise for this film, but don't be fooled. It comes off as under-realized because it is a character actor's performance in a lead role. So how exactly is Woody, a coarse, cynical man who seems to value nothing but booze, supposed to be fooled by a obviously bogus sweepstakes offer? Word is that Bryan Cranston was up for the role of Woody, but Payne chose Dern instead. He's fine, but it's frightening to think how good Nebraska could have been with a truly commanding actor like Cranston in the lead.
          Even on its own, quieter terms, this film is not as successful as Payne's Sideways, which was more touching and, incidentally, hilarious. But it does fashion something true out of what seems like unpromising material. For those willing to risk dozing off in their armchairs, Nebraska ends up a fine place to go.
@ 2013 Nicholas Nicastro