The Hobbittt [sic]: a review (spoilers)

I saw The Hobbittt for the sake of completion and am writing up my in the same vein, having done so for installment one and two. As was the case last year, I don’t have time to go back and read the relevant passages in the book, but there was a lot of things I found stupid and problematic without it. The list entries include spoilers, but the concluding paragraph does not.

  1. The trope that “bred for war” became. Tolkien did stuff like this, too, but it seemed that every creature that Jackson trotted out on the side of the bad guys was bred for war and some of those were hilariously ineffective. Like the stupid flying bat things. I was half expecting the dwarves and the elves and everything else to be bred for war, too, because while Tolkien’s world-building does create the other races for purposes other than fighting, Jackson’s doesn’t. Even in the first Hobbit film, the Dwarves are all warriors and little else. Along the same lines, the only sequence in any of Jackson’s films that show the breeding of any of these creatures is in Saruman’s betrayal. The rest is just a hinky catchphrase meant to sound ominous and I am going to start using about the squirrels on campus.
  2. I understand cinematic license and one cannot just let the full stretch of a siege play out because most of the audience would be bored, but even old walls should not fall down when hit once. Or when fallen upon. And walls should probably be taller than the things coming to fight against them. I’ve had this complaint with all of Jackson’s LotR films, but it was particularly significant in the Hobbittt, and rendered some of the subsequent dialogue clumsy and moronic.
  3. Legolas and Dain’s stupid fight scenes. This was a problem since this was most of the film. I’m just going to lay down my cards here: I think many of the fight scenes, from the individual heroic duels to the massive battle episodes, in all of Jackson’s films were just dumb. This film was the worst of the lot. Legolas, who didn’t even need to be in this film, encapsulates this where he leaps and jumps and hangs, all in order to appear impressive and break up the monotony of a large melee. Call me jaded, but this was all flash and no substance.
  4. Tauriel is looking for Kili, but runs into a big orc and is in danger! Kili comes to Tauriel’s rescue! Orc handles Kili! Tauriel comes to Kili’s rescue! Orc takes them both! Legolas comes to their rescue and gets lucky in defeating orc. This was one of the dumber sequences.
  5. I didn’t like the purging of Dol Guldur. This is not so much the few heroes sneaking into the lair of the enemy, which is a very Tolkien episode, even if it largely runs against Jackson’s vision. It was just another episode that added to the clutter. When I heard that this part was going to show up in the films, I had defended it, but I also expected for the cleansing of Dol Guldur to take place on the way home from the mountain, with the White Council appearing as a distinct arc where, maybe, the background for the Lord of the Rings would be explained, instead of Legolas being blandly told to go find Strider, who, in the original chronology, is probably a wee lad. Even in Peter Jackson’s original films, I’m not sure Legolas and Aragorn had met when the council met some sixty or so years later…which makes Legolas hilariously inept?
  6. The Hobbittt was too long and a large amount of this time could be recouped if Jackson had eased back on the overly-long sequences of psychological drama. The review I read on astutely observed that, for the most part, Jackson cast excellent actors and then refused to let them actually act by throwing graphics around them to show trauma.
  7. Jackson also did strange things with the chronology, including having people travel long distances in unconscionably short periods of time. Some camera cuts passed days, some moments and it was uneven as to what was what. I was also amazed that there was as much warning as there was for the Dragon arriving at Laketown.
  8. Which leads to another point. The Dragon attack looked catastrophic and it was shocking how many people survived. Then, every time you turned around there were more people of Dale fighting back against the bad people. This was particularly shocking given that the dwarves and elves appeared to die in droves.
  9. Why save the Dragon’s death for this movie? Yes, it added a bit of a prequel so that it wasn’t just battlebattlebattle, but it also added the sense that The Hobbittt was just a mishmash of things.
  10. There were far too many unfulfilled promises in The Hobbittt. Two, in particular, stood out. First, Bilbo showed the acorn that would become the Party Tree, but it was used to try to humanize Thorin. Even though Bilbo comes home in the film, that tree was, sadly, never planted. Second, much was made out of the Arkenstone and how much Thorin wanted it. In the book, Thorin is buried with the stone on his chest. In the film, his death is a tragedy, but I’m pretty sure that Bard still has it in his pocket even as he chastises other people for seeking wealth.

I’ve recently been thinking about Jackson’s tendency to add female characters to Tolkien’s particularly masculine world. For the most part I have not been a fan since it frequently undercuts the original story-lines that I really like. However, I also like what Saladin Ahmed has done for some of the stories he reads to his children, where he simply makes some of the original characters female. I am a purist in most of these representations, but for a largely sexless world that Tolkien creates, I don’t see why this solution wouldn’t work–for instance, if several of the dwarves were women, or Bard. Or in the original Lord of the Rings, why couldn’t Legolas be female? Or both Legolas and Gimli? Or the wizards? Or Borimir? Or Merry and Pippin? Leave Sam and his relationship with Frodo and the love story between him and Rosie alone, as well as the Farimir/Eowyn and Aragorn/Arwen pairings and the ents, but none of the other genders matter. I will most likely do something similar if I get a chance to read these books to children.

The Wolf of Wall Street, a very late review

So I finally saw Martin Scorsese’s film “The Wolf of Wall Street,” after having heard, both directly, and through the grape-vine a number of critiques. In short, I found myself fascinated by the spectacle and thought Scorsese did a number of interesting things in the filmmaking.

The longer version: Jordan Belfort (Leonardo Dicaprio) is addicted to money, drugs, and sex, roughly in that order. Belfort is a self-made man on Wall Street, who has to start from nothing when the first that hired him goes under in a market crash. Before it did, he learned the lesson that the only thing that matters is how much he earns. So he starts his own business, selling the dream of profit and picking his clients clean. Along the way he had as much sex and did as many drugs as he could. Until it all falls apart.

Scorsese’s film is told from a tight first person angle, with Belfort’s voice telling the audience the story and narrating over what amounts to debauched b-roll of sex and drugs between the episodes. The visuals accompanying the narration are very much his version of the events, with the morals, heroes, and pleasures filtered through what he recalls being true. To him, this was perfect and entirely natural. And he is unapologetic. This allows Scorsese the license to make a debauched, sexy, and utterly grotesque visual orgy. What’s more, he let the actors go completely overboard in some of the vignettes that encapsulate the obscenity of the lifestyle. The story that Belfort spins and Dicaprio sells is about how making money provides a better life for you and yours and has no awareness of the lives ruined on the other end of the phone line.

This is where Scorsese’s filmmaking comes in. He keeps the narration very tightly and almost exclusively focused on Belfort and films the story that is being sold. But then, in brief clips, he pulls back and gives some indication that this rosy, utterly and openly debauched spectacle is probably not what actually took place. The result is an intro lesson in unreliable narration.

I think that the lack of overt apology or legitimate comeuppance bothered some people. Too, people complained about the length because so much of the film amounted to over-the-top “filler.” However, the spectacle is the point and I question how much more Scorsese could undercut the narrative without needing to dramatically overhaul the visual spectacle he constructed.

What is making me happy: my dissertation

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

The thing that is making me happy as the semester draws to a close is the same thing that is stressing me out, namely that my first serious dive into Greek epigraphy (inscriptions) has me more optimistic about the relevance of my dissertation than I have been in a few months. I still loved my topic, but I was in despair about how new some of my conclusions were going to be. The inscriptions I’ve been working on the last few weeks have given me more and more valuable things to say, even as it has taught me that I am going to need to rewrite one of the chapters from the ground up because the chronology I followed is probably invalid. In the grand scheme of things this development is a good thing because it makes for a fresher and better dissertation, but, in the short term, I have to rewrite a draft of that chapter by the end of January so that there aren’t glaring inconsistencies in what I submit for a dissertation fellowship–on top of my schedule of producing new material.

I have some more specific thoughts on this development, some for the dissertation, some about the process, and some about how much ancient history frequently requires as much explanation about how we know what we know as what we know. And I will probably write about this in the near future, but, in the meantime, I have a chapter due on Monday. I also intend to do some sort of 2014/15 retrospective/preview, update my top novels list, possibly a semester recap, and a few other assorted things I want to write about (posted here for my own benefit as much as anything).

Since what I model this post on requires the recommendation of something, but what is making me happy isn’t readily available for consumption for at least a year or two yet and won’t be in book form for some years after that, if ever, I will point out a few quick things.

  1. I’m not usually one to obsess over particular records, let alone stay up to date on the world of music. However, this week my work soundtrack has been a mix of Great Big Sea, Gin Blossoms, Ha Ha Tonka, and Johnny Clegg and Savuka. In particular, I’ve been enjoying taking much deeper dives into Deluxe, Live, or other lesser known material of groups I like than I previously had, and getting to hear their sound in somewhat different ways.
  2. Netflix recently added more of the 30 for 30 documentaries and I’m currently enjoying the currently-topical Brothers in Exile film about Orlando and Livan Hernandez’ defection from Cuba in the 1990s.
  3. It is snowing. I love snow. If it is available in your area, go cross-country skiing or put on snowshoes, wander into the woods, and let your mind wander. I hope to be able to indulge in this soon.

November 2014 Reading Recap

I am in disbelief that December is upon us. For a variety of reasons, some of which aren’t even related to my dissertation, life has gotten v. hectic, but here’s a quick rundown of my November reading.

Bridge on the Drina – Ivo Andric

Andric’s masterpiece (one of the trilogy for which he won the Nobel Prize) is a story about the onrush of modernity in a small Balkan town. The town is rural, the inhabitants in the the various hamlets vaguely aware of the goings on in the world at large–particularly when the time comes to pay dues to the Ottomans. Then a Vizier orders the construction of the eponymous bridge. The town grew up around the bridge, expanding with time and subjected to the pressures modernity up to the first World War, including rebellion, occupation, war, railroads, and nationalism. The one constant is the bridge.

The book is of the high-literary variety and drags at times, but also has a penchant for evocative imagery, including a gruesomely graphic description of a man who gets impaled on a spike and suffers for a long time. I came away with an active interest in something like this not happening to me–as opposed than the standard disinterest in painful punishment.

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

A hero’s journey story that caused my brother to express disbelief when I told him I hadn’t already read it. Santiago is a young Andalusian shepherd who is encouraged to follow his dreams and go to the Pyramids in Egypt in order to unlock his Personal Legend. Along the way he meets obstacles, some of which are pleasant, that threaten his journey. He stays on course and writes his own legend. The story is simplistic in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t invalidate the points made. I liked but didn’t love the book, but could see including it in a list of books read to fairly young children, ones who should be reminded that there is a time to wander and that personal legends are there to be written, chased, and that a decent portion of luck is about putting oneself out there. Then again, we can all use that reminder sometimes.

The Lives of Tao – Wesley Chu

Reviewed here, The Lives of Tao is a fun book about an unlikely hero who gets inhabited by a millenia-old alien named Tao who once helped make Genghis Khan into a world-conqueror. Ultimately, it is an alt-history action-adventure, martial arts story. Admittedly, I am a sucker for stories about the hero’s journey and while there were certain elements of the story that I found youthful and might have found problematic in other books, I had enough fun reading The Lives of Tao that that sensation overrode any problems I had. It was my favorite read for the month.

Noted above, my life is crazy right now and I haven’t started a new book yet, but I’ve been carrying around Kingsley Amis’ The Alteration, so that will probably be the next one I read.