Archive for February, 2013

In the otherwise forgettable Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Captain Jack Sparrow looks upon the corpse of the Kraken.  Barbossa tells him, sympathetically, “The world used to be a bigger place.”  Jack responds, “World’s still the same.  There’s just less in it.”  In Hellboy II, the film’s most poignant moment comes when Hellboy is forced to kill the last elemental, knowing that doing so will take just a little bit more magic out of the world.

One of the problems with our modern world is that there’s not much magic or mystery left in it.  Saw a ghost in your bedroom at night? Sleep paralysis.  Mermaids? Mistaken or scurvy-addled glimpses of manatees.  UFO’s? The classic weather balloon.  Skepticism is healthy and good, but when there’s a logical explanation for dang near everything, it can get downright boring.  (This, of course, is said from a fantasist’s perspective.  Science is all the time coming up with good stuff. I’m especially fond of astronomical discoveries, but maybe that’s just because I always thought it would be pretty cool to be the Silver Surfer.)

The Memory Palace is a podcast I just started listening to (props to Boing Boing’s Mark Frauenfelder for recommending it here), and it constantly evokes a past world that was interesting precisely because so little was known.  As host Nate DiMeo often says, there was a time not so long ago when people were lucky if they left their town or went over the hill, never mind traveling to Paris or Cairo.  So World’s Fairs and theme parks would construct whole recreations of far-away cities and towns.  People traveled from hundreds of miles away to ride the first Ferris Wheel.

It was also a time when charlatans and dreamers roamed the land, often crossing paths — and you can imagine how that usually turned out.  A newspaper could run wild, completely made-up articles about a race of beavermen living on the moon.  Snake oil salesmen could sell tonics made of pretty much anything that didn’t explode when it was mixed together.  A simple prank by two little girls could lead to international paranormal fame.

It’s a wonderful podcast, full of wonder and beauty.  DiMeo’s writing and delivery are top-notch, and I’d go so far as to say it can get downright magical.  I had to listen to his episode on the Dreamland amusement park, which burned down in 1911, twice.  It’s just that good, putting you right  in the middle of attractions like Venetian canals, newborn infants in incubators, and a nightly six-story building fire that Dreamland employees pretending to be firefighters and inhabitants would recreate.

So if our world’s truly contains less than it once did, at least Nate DiMeo is guiding us through the rooms of his Memory Palace, doing his part to remind us of what we’ve lost.


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I finally got around to seeing The Hobbit.  Not in 3D Hobbitscope or whatever the fancy-schmancy option is, but in two dimensions, which is historically about all you need to tell what’s going on in a film.

If I’m not already on record with my love for The Hobbit and for Tolkien’s Middle Earth, I will be many times in the future. I can remember picking up a yellowed paperback copy of The Hobbit, the old one with Tolkien’s watercolor illustration for a cover, at a yard sale when I was about ten or twelve or so.  I’d always been a voracious reader. I’d check out six or seven books at a time from the library. I’d tear through comic books like there wasn’t even a plot to slow me down (and to be fair, these were ’70s-era DC comics, so that’s not far off).

The Hobbit, though. Man, that was something different.  I’d never read fantasy before, and to be initiated with a fantasy world so fully realized and rich … well, it’s safe to say I was hooked. From there, I made my way through a lot of inferior fantasy trilogies, some of them direct rip-offs of Tolkien. That love for the genre remained, though.

I was also pleased with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.  I was ecstatic to see a Middle Earth that looked so much like I had imagined it. I can see the argument that the films were a little too much in the action/adventure vein, but really, have you seen those battles?  Have you read those battles in the original Tolkien?  If anything, Jackson might have been a little too tentative in spots.

The new film adaptation of The Hobbit, though?  It’s pretty much there but maybe not all the way back again.  Martin Freeman is excellent as Bilbo Baggins.  Sir Ian McKellan slips right back into the character of Gandalf like it’s an old robe, and I even like the portrayal of the dwarves (I was initially afraid that most of them would be used as shortcuts to comic relief instead of filled out as characters, which did happen a little). The Shire and those Hobbit holes yet again make me want to smuggle the family to New Zealand and start digging into a hillside.

So what’s my beef?  Well, I thought the film felt a little flat.  Not for lack of material.  Most of my doubts about the extra material were soothed once I could see that parts of the book, like the scene with the trolls, and new material, like the subplot about the Necromancer, were being used to show the creeping evil that presaged Sauron’s re-emergence.

If there’s one extra piece that doesn’t sit well with me, it’s Azog the Defiler.  As part of the dwarves’ backstory, Azog cuts a terrifying figure: pale and scarred, twice the height of the orcs that he rules, merciless in battle.  Azog has something of a beef against Thorin Oakenshield — some little grudge about Thorin cutting off Azog’s arm in a battle — and he’s hellbent on making Thorin pay.  I’m not sure the film needs this subplot.  Tolkien set up plenty of obstacles for the Company to encounter on the way to Smaug.  To have Azog continually chasing them, only to have the dwarves get away by hook or by crook or by giant eagle?  Well, it kind of makes Azog look like the Coyote to Thorin Oakenshield’s Roadrunner.  I suspect we’ll be stuck with Azog until Thorin takes his head in the Battle of Five Armies, but I can hold out hope that he’ll be dealt with before then.

Do they make an ACME catalog in Orcish?

Do they make an ACME catalog in Orcish?

Maybe another problem with the story, if you’ve read it already, is that there’s no real danger.  As we know the story from the book, the Company doesn’t get whittled down as they trudge their way through orcs, goblins, giant spiders, elves, and men.  So when we see these set pieces where the members of the Company are in peril, there’s no real peril.  And at least this early in the trilogy, there’s not enough characterization for most of the dwarves to make us really care what happens to them anyway.  It’s certainly possible that the filmmakers might decide to throw a curveball and dispatch Fili and Kili in a freak mead-drinking accident, but I think it’s unlikely.

By all rights, every one of the dwarves, and Bilbo along with them, should have died ten times over in the film’s two most ridiculous scenes: the stone giants and the escape from the goblins.  In the film, we have the characters attached to the legs of a stone giant as he rises from the mountainside to do battle with other stone giants.  The dwarves get thrown to and fro, slammed up against mountainsides, and merely suffer the inconvenience of having to brush chips of stone from their shoulders.  The escape from the goblins, for its part, is a silly bit of Rube Goldberg design in which our heroes at one point fall hundreds and hundreds of feet on a section of broken bridge and walk away none the worse for wear.  Words really can’t do justice to this whole scene, which feels like something out of Sonic the Hedgehog, justice, so I shouldn’t even try.  But it does make you wonder if the trilogy will succumb to a syndrome of “Bigger! Louder! More!” out of some misguided notion that it needs to outdo the Lord of the Rings.

It also makes me wonder why similar scenes in the LOTR films were so effective by comparison.  When Frodo and the others are fleeing the Mines of Moria, there’s certainly nothing small or restrained about the way the baddies scrabble on every available surface in their pursuit, and good God, the Balrog is still everything we dreamed it could be.  Even though we knew how those scenes were going to end, we felt tension and darkness.  Maybe this whole difference in tone is a result of the books’ differing tones.  The Hobbit was considered a children’s book, so maybe you can’t really add darkness when it wasn’t there in the first place?  Maybe it was because we were still gobsmacked because we were seeing it all for the first time?  Even those gorgeous New Zealand landscapes seemed like something out of a pastoral fever dream. Now, when we see some of the same gorgeous scenery used for The Hobbit? It’s not as egregious as the SyFy Channel recycling footage from one movie to the next, but it has a touch of “been there, seen folks get chased by Wargs through that.”

Maybe the most disappointing part for me is the movie’s lack of emotional heft.  I’m one of those people who cries at the drop of a hat during a movie, especially if someone is realizing their destiny or dying a heroic death.  You won’t catch me within 100 yards of a public theater showing Amour.  The first ten minutes of Up? I might need a six pack of beer to get through that again.  Boromir’s death? Sob city. Faramir’s anguished, suicidal charge against the orcs? Even that got the tears flowing.  Even the scene where the Riders of Rohan are gathered on the crest of the hills overlooking Gondor, ready to ride down into death’s maw, had me looking for tissues.  But watching The Hobbit? Nothing.  The closest it comes is when dwarves gather around the fire in Bilbo’s home and sing, in voices as deep as the heart of a mountain, about their lost home.  That has the feel of a movie that’s about something.  Maybe Parts II and III will recapture some of that.

Strangely enough, I still have to say I enjoyed The Hobbit.  I know the last 1300 words don’t make it sound that way, but I did.  It was fun, gorgeous to look at, and for an old Hobbit fan like me, it had the feel of going home again.  Unlike some, I didn’t think it overstayed its welcome.  I didn’t tire of it as I was watching it.  At this point, though, the concerns that it raised weigh heavily on my enjoyment of it.  I wonder what it’s like for someone who hasn’t seen the film.  On a recent Writing Excuses podcast, Mary Robinette Kowall, Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells discussed the fact that people who didn’t know the LOTR storyline were totally fooled by Gollum’s redemptive path through the first two films, only to be heartbroken when he betrays Frodo.  Is The Hobbit a better film for those of us who aren’t so emotionally invested in it?

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