Don't ask me what my favorite film is. It's like asking a parent which child is the favorite.
Welcome to my film blog. I strive for a synthesis of good/bad and theoretical criticism.
Welcome to my film blog. I strive for a synthesis of good/bad and theoretical criticism.
Monday, December 30, 2013
A Review of American Hustle
By Daniel Carstens
December 29, 2013
In an early scene of the latest uninspired David O. Russell film, American Hustle, Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams), their relationship blossoming, visit Irving's dry cleaning business. In one particular shot, the characters express their attraction in the midst of a revolving clothing rack. The rack perpetually spins, never ceasing. Likewise, throughout the film, Russell's camera is almost constantly in motion. Whether a pan, tracking shot, or hand-held, rarely does the camera simply sit on a tripod. These camera movements usually exist only for the sake of movement and add nothing to the film aesthetically. They usually differ from shot to shot, clashing with each other and creating a jittery, visually-disjointed mess.
The same can essentially be said for the entire film. It's a shame, because the source material, the FBI's Abscam operation, begs to be made into a great film. Truth is stranger than fiction, in this instance. American Hustle attempts to make us laugh, attempts to be dramatic, and attempts to pose a moral dilemma. It fails on all accounts. The moral dilemma is perhaps most interesting. All characters in the film are despicable, except for Louis C.K.'s FBI character, who is constantly undermined and ignored. The moral dilemma centers around Camden, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). He is crooked, but only to provide jobs and boost the local economy. The film attempts to make the audience sympathize with Polito (and with Irving when he helps Polito), thus creating a moral dilemma by causing the audience to sympathize with a crooked politician, but this is weak, like all of the film's ambitions.
Like 2012's Silver Linings Playbook, Russell uses his actors to mask the deficiencies of his film. Silver Linings featured neurotic performances by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence that were, more than anything, attention-grabbing enough to shield the audience's eyes from the major flaws. Russell threw in Robert DeNiro, just for good measure.
In American Hustle, Cooper and Lawrence return to save Russell. Cooper and Lawrence feature similarly neurotic performances that, while not necessarily outstanding, again build a facade for the banality of the film. Just as the characters con mobsters, congressmen, and each other in the film, Russell cons the audience into believing they are watching great cinema. Richard Dyer writes that stars are like the air that we breathe, that we construct our own identities and perceptions of social reality from stars' on-screen persona and personal lives. Russell carefully chose four stars whose persona differ and encompass nearly the full spectrum of personalities to ensure everyone can breathe the air of his film. Bale is a modern John Wayne (albeit a better actor), a portrait of masculinity, while Cooper is more of a James Dean. The confident, sexy Adams is reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe, while frenzied Lawrence brings to mind a screwball comedy actress. All four stars are, of course, immensely popular at the moment. Russell threw in Robert DeNiro, just for good measure.
Dyer writes, "Stars are made for profit." It seems obvious, but stars are not only used for their acting skills. Russell's roles are not tailor-made for any of these actors. Many other actors could have played the roles with equal result, but Russell chose stars massively popular in the mainstream: Bale (Batman), Cooper (The Hangover), Adams (Man of Steel), and Lawrence (Hunger Games). Stars not only draw people to the theater, but cause audiences to believe that films are good simply because of the stars acting in them. Such is the case in American Hustle. It is the only explanation for the popularity and critical acclaim of the film.
Russell's actors save him, and Russell returns the favor by positioning them for Oscar nominations, using all the modern formulas for grabbing acting awards. Our first look at Bale is a closeup of his bulging belly, showcasing the weight he gained for the role (weight helped him win his Oscar in The Fighter, another Russell film). Adams takes her clothes off (a la Natalie Portman & Kate Winslett). Cooper and Lawrence's characters both exhibit mental instability (Lawrence, last year, directed by Russell). All are virtual locks for nominations, and it would be a shock if at least one did not walk on stage to heap praise and thanks upon David O.
Near the end of American Hustle, Irving returns to his dry cleaning business to retrieve a gun. In one shot, he finds himself again in the midst of the revolving clothing rack. It still spins quickly and constantly. The rack remains unchanged from the previous two hours. The same can be said for the audience, though they have been conned into believing otherwise.
Saturday, December 28, 2013
A Review of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
By Daniel Carstens
December 26, 2013
Take the leap.
In an early scene of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Walter (Ben Stiller), on a New York City railway platform, has a phone conversation about how he has done nothing exciting in his life. He then, mid-conversation, imagines himself leaping off the platform into a window. He warns everyone inside and rescues a three-legged dog, just before the building explodes. Though this is one of Walter's "zoned-out" fantasies, it is the message of the film at its most simplistic. Take the leap.
Mitty is a middle-aged man who has worked at Life magazine for a decade and a half. He lacks the courage to express his attraction to his coworker, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), and he lacks the ambition to move beyond his position working in a basement with photographic negatives. When the magazine is purchased by another media conglomerate who decides to move Life to an online-only format, Mitty's job is to prepare the final cover photo by famed photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn). The photograph is lost, and Mitty decides to take the leap and track down O'Connell in Greenland.
Part of the beauty of Walter Mitty is its rich subtext. There is so much to discuss about a relatively simple plot. Clearly, the film is largely about the death of old media. Magazines in printed form are increasingly rare, and rarely do subscribers actually read all of the content. The internet provides us information for free, and the ever-quickening pace of living allows little time for sitting down with a magazine. The film does not lament print media, however. It presents the change as an inevitable and understandable casualty of the digital age. Mitty's new boss is a jerk, but because of the way he treats people, not for shutting down the magazine. Mitty admits this himself.
Walter Mitty's treatment of the death of film is different than that of the magazine. Sean O'Connell is "old school," shooting on film in an age where everyone uses digital technology for still photography. Life may be going digital, but O'Connell, the best photographer in existence, continues to use film. This is more than a nostalgic clinging to the past, it is a declaration of superiority. Though advances in digital technology have now complicated the visual superiority argument, there are still clear advantages to film. The expense of film and the extra time necessary to change a roll and process requires the photographer to be conscious of every single shot, so that none are wasted. Not surprisingly, Walter Mitty was shot on film, in a time where "films" are increasingly shot digitally. This affirms Mitty's declaration of superiority of film.
The highlight, indeed joy, of Walter Mitty is director Stiller and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh's treatment of the film as a series of photographs. Stiller is conscious of every single shot, and none are wasted. Walter Mitty is a beautiful film, and there are many breathtaking shots, both of pristine natural landscapes and chaotic urban displays. His treatment of New York is unique from that of most contemporary films. Absent are the obligatory Manhattan skyline helicopter shots and landmarks. Instead, we view an old piano shop, a rundown apartment building, and only medium shots of the skyscraper that houses Life. Stiller gives the gargantuan city of 8 million people a small-town feel. This is a complete reversal of the usual portrayal of New York. Normally, one must leave the confines of the small town for New York, the land of opportunity. In Walter Mitty, it is New York that is confining.
Walter Mitty's credit sequence features Mitty walking through the city. Each shot features distinct straight horizontal and vertical lines. This sequence brings to mind the credit sequence in Hitchcock's North By Northwest (1959), which features the distinct lines of a skyscraper, but filmed at an angle so the lines point diagonally. In North By Northwest, the diagonal lines symbolized that something was not quite right. In Walter Mitty, the horizontal and vertical lines show the perpendicularity of Mitty's life. He has a steady job and a balanced checkbook. Everything is right, in a sense. But life is not meant to be a straight line, and Mitty is unsatisfied. He takes the leap and ventures to Greenland (and then Iceland), where the lines disappear, replaced by gorgeous, curvaceous landscapes. Mountains and volcanoes replace the skyscrapers, and, unlike the skyscrapers, we see them in their entirety in wide shots of natural beauty. Mitty experiences pure delight while skateboarding down an Icelandic road filled with hairpin turns, far away from the straight roads of New York. Mitty took the leap (literally; he leaps into a hovering helicopter and leaps out into frigid waters). He can now return to New York and no longer be confined by the straight lines.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is also autobiographical of Ben Stiller. His career was like Mitty's life: straight, but unexciting. Stiller has never been taken seriously as an actor, limited to mediocre comedies and, recently, the family-oriented Night at the Museum series. His previous directorial effort, Tropic Thunder, was ambitious, but too farcical to garner serious attention as a legitimate director. Stiller took the leap, directed The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and proved not only his legitimacy as a director, but his magnificent vision as a photographer.
Friday, December 27, 2013
A Review of Saving Mr. Banks
By Daniel Carstens
December 24, 2013
Prior to viewing Saving Mr. Banks, I had several preconceptions. As a film about Disney, by Disney, I knew it would be loved by Disneyphiles, and probably not-so-loved by the less romantic who look beyond the magic at the monstrous media conglomerate that Walt Disney's once-modest animation studio has become. I knew it would unabashedly promote the Disney brand. I expected it would glorify Walt Disney, whose morality was more questionable than his public persona reveals (though his racism is debated, he was known to use racial slurs and was interested in hiring Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl). As such an important film for Disney, I also expected a high-quality film. Under no circumstances would Disney allow this film to utilize less than outstanding production values and storytelling. I was correct on most accounts, but the film genuinely surprised me in several aspects.
The film centers not on Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), but on Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson). It is quickly revealed that the only person Travers truly cares for is Poppins. She refuses to hand Disney the rights to her book, despite the unprecedented creative control he has conceded to her. Travers is first portrayed in the film as an unpleasant, almost despicable character. Her condescending treatment of every single person she encounters makes her instantly unlikable, and she is unlikable for refusing to give up her story as much as her unpleasant nature. This precisely fit the mold I expected: Disney just wants to make children happy and fulfill a promise to his daughters, while the snobbish author stands in his way at every opportunity. Travers is portrayed early in the film as both protagonist and villain, her British elitism even a threat to America. Disney is the true hero, the gentle patriarch of America's most beloved institution.
In the first static shot of Travers, she sits in front of a white-curtained window. She is framed in the shot between the literal frames of the window. A few shots later, she is framed again, filmed from outside, gazing out a window at nothing in particular. In her next shot, the camera stands in another room. Travers stands peering out the window, which she is framed within. She is also framed between two identical lamps. In the foreground, the door frame provides a third frame.
This framing employed by director John Lee Hancock is closely reminiscent of the technique famously employed by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. In the famous deep-focus shot early in the 1941 film, child Kane is playing in the snow outside. The camera stands inside, where his parents argue about him. Kane is framed within the window and between his parents, who he has literally come between. Welles frames adult Kane at various times throughout the film as well, within windows or door frames. This symbolizes Kane's isolation and entrapment.
Likewise, in Saving Mr. Banks, Travers is framed to show her own isolation and entrapment. The shot that features three different frames is a powerful image that shows her entrapment is multi-layered. At first, it appears she is trapped simply by her own unpleasant nature and her refusal to compromise. Hancock frames her several other times throughout the first half of the film. Only when she cuddles with a giant stuffed Mickey Mouse, symbolizing her consent to Disney, does the framing, and her entrapment, cease.
Around this point in the film, we realize that Travers is not as much a villain as first perceived. The highlight of the film is its inclusion of flashbacks to Travers' childhood that center around her relationship with her father. Through these flashbacks, we learn her inspiration for Mary Poppins, as well as the source of her cold behavior. Her father's extreme alcoholism dominates Travers' memories of her childhood. As more of her painful childhood is revealed, she transforms from unlikable to sympathetic character.
Her father's alcoholism, the source of her entrapment, is revealed as Travers begins to relent to Disney. She begins to break free of the painful memories only when she allows Disney to produce Mary Poppins. But she is not yet completely free. When she discovers that the penguins will be animated despite her adamant opposition to cartoons, she confronts Disney, hands him the unsigned agreement, and leaves the studio. After this confrontation, she has returned to where she began: on the verge of financial ruin because she will not give in to Disney. Consequently, the framing returns. A car window and a door frame in her home again convey her return to isolation and entrapment.
As she sits at her kitchen table, face to face with the giant stuffed Mickey Mouse and contemplating whether to sign the agreement, a door frame again surrounds Travers. After she signs the agreement, the angle changes. But she has still not yet completely let go. She is later framed by the hotel entrance and the window of her limo, which brings her to the only place where she can truly let go: the premier of the film. Her final framing occurs in the entrance to the Chinese theater, wherein she watches the film. It moves her to tears, and with the new-found satisfaction that Disney has done justice to her characters, she finally completely breaks free of the entrapment caused by her painful childhood memories. The film's underlying message is this: only when one gives in to Disney completely, even emotionally, can one truly be happy.
The film fulfilled all of my preconceptions. Saving Mr. Banks is exceptional. There is no denying the quality from an entertainment standpoint. As expected, Saving Mr. Banks is essentially a barefaced endorsement of the Disney culture that pervades every aspect of hundreds of millions of lives across the world. Walt Disney is largely glorified. However, the clever use of framing to portray Travers' feelings of entrapment and the interspersing of flashbacks to gradually sympathize the audience with her added a complexity to the film that was unexpected. The film's underlying message, however, evidences that Saving Mr. Banks is just another cog in the Disney propaganda machine.
Tuesday, December 24, 2013
A Review of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
By Daniel Carstens
December 23, 2013
There is a pivotal scene in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues where newscaster Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) is desperate to win the sweeps week ratings battle. Against all likelihood, his revolutionary 24-hour news network, GNN, has risen to the top of the ratings. GNN's rival network’s news is anchored by Burgundy's ex-wife, played by Christina Applegate. She has landed an interview with Yasser Arafat, and Burgundy and GNN nearly accept the impossibility of winning sweeps week against such a monumental interview. Suddenly, a car chase appears on a local feed, and Burgundy is struck by inspiration. He calls for the chase to be broadcast, while he provides dim-witted commentary. GNN has now completed its journey from sensationalist news network to outright ratings harlot.
This scene had me, self-professed cable news hater, smiling and chuckling at the commentary on those networks which I loathe. At that moment, when I finally began to enjoy the film, I was instructed on why this scene was funny. Voice-over explained that car chases were once not a part of news broadcasts. To the slightly educated audience member, even those with O.J.'s white Bronco as a childhood memory (or even younger movie-goers) this is obvious from watching the scene. The voice-over is unnecessary and insulting. Writer/director Adam McCay assumes the audience's ignorance, and kills all hope of the scene as legitimate media commentary.
This infantile treatment of the audience occurs at numerous points throughout the film. In another near-attempt at media commentary, Burgundy and crew are planning to run a story about parts that fall out of airplanes mid-air. The CEO of GNN, who happens to own this particular airline, catches wind of the story and kills it. "We call this 'synergy,'" he instructs us. The word is thrown around another couple times by different characters, just in case we didn't catch what McCay was feebly attempting to comment upon.
In an early scene, Burgundy attends a memorial service for Brick (Steve Carell), his former weatherman who has been missing and presumed dead. Brick appears and begins to lament at his death. Carell provides genuinely humorous outbursts to the worn-out Tom Sawyer bit, but these outbursts are rudely interrupted by Burgundy and his crew notifying Brick that he is not dead, repeatedly. McCay treats the audience as too ignorant to understand the humor on their own, and he does it multiple times throughout the film.
There are a handful of moments where Anchorman 2 is reminiscent of the ultimate media commentary film, Network. In the 1976 film, UBS news ratings jump after Howard Beale’s “bullshit” rant, and Faye Dunaway tells her boss that Beale is speaking what every American feels, and they should keep Beale on the air because it will draw massive ratings. In one momentous scene of Anchorman 2, Burgundy, struck by genius, decides to stop reporting the news and tell America what they want to hear. In Network, Faye Dunaway proceeds with a brilliant monologue that is simultaneously humorous and intelligent. In Anchorman, the broadcast is followed by a joke about domestic abuse.
Though Anchorman 2 poses as a commentary on cable news networks, the film is really self-reflexive, a commentary on itself. News networks are in a powerful position, one that could be used to ensure viewers are knowledgeable of important current events worldwide, keep watch on politicians and corporations, and promote media literacy. Instead, they ignore globally consequential events in favor of scandals, promote synergistic interests, act as pawns of politicians, and thrive on media illiteracy.
McCay is in a powerful position as director of a sequel to a hugely successful film, one that is assured to draw massive audiences. The plot of the film lends itself perfectly for legitimate media and social commentary that could genuinely provoke the audience to be skeptical of cable news networks and question their own media literacy, while simultaneously providing intelligent topical humor (and even a reasonable amount of lowbrow humor). Instead, he uses flimsy commentary as a facade for his own sensationalist tactics, such as Burgundy playing the flute while ice skating, Brick's impulsive outbursts, and the random street battle with numerous celebrity cameos, to extract cheap laughs. The Yasser Arafat interview is Network; intelligent and important. The car chase is Anchorman; mindless and sensational. The car chase wins the ratings battle and replaces the interview. Anchorman 2 has the potential to be an intelligent and humorous commentary on cable news and media, but instead McCay chooses the approach that draws the larger audiences. He tells the people what they want to hear, just like Burgundy.
Anchorman 2 is not only self-reflexive, but a commentary on the film industry as a whole. The unending barrage of comic book movies, Fast and the Furious sequels, and raunchy teen comedies make money with almost no risk, and audiences cheer them like they do Burgundy’s ‘Merica speech. There is little room in today’s Hollywood for a film like Network. Studios choose profit over provocative, and perhaps with good reason. Spike Lee’s 2000 attempt, Bamboozled, was a strange, yet remarkable satire of race in the media. It was also a massive commercial failure. The audience for such intelligent satirical films is dwindling, and will only continue to do so if such films are not made.
Anchorman 2’s use of racial humor is precisely what Spike Lee was satirizing in Bamboozled. A scene in which Burgundy shares a meal with a black family features Burgundy unrestrainedly uttering extremely racist remarks. It’s supposed to be funny, and indeed it drew massive laughs from the mostly-youthful, white audience. To the socially conscious audience member, however, this scene is appalling. These remarks by Burgundy in 1980 are not far exaggerated from statements I have heard in 2013. This scene follows the Family Guy formula: exploit the rampant insensitivity of white, young, adult males with extremely offensive material that is not far exaggerated from their own thoughts and opinions. The minstrel show in Bamboozled should have appalled audiences, but instead the show became massively successful. Likewise, the dinner scene in Anchorman 2 should have appalled the audience, but instead provoked colossal laughter, and was even featured in the trailer.
At times, Anchorman 2 presents itself as a provocative commentary of the television industry, in the spirit of Network. There are numerous moments that flirt with becoming brilliant media satire, but McCay’s infantile treatment of the audience, characters yelling uncontrollably for no reason, racist humor, or a poop joke always reminds us that this is just another lowbrow comedy. As a commentary on the television industry, Network, produced three decades ago, is far more relevant today than Anchorman 2.
A Review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
By Daniel Carstens
December 19, 2013
Peter Jackson's decision to break The Hobbit into three films caused an uproar among fans. Few were convinced that the roughly 300 page book held enough material for three films. The first installment, An Unexpected Journey, confirmed these convictions for most audience members and critics, with its numerous unnecessary action scenes and piled-on infantile humor. The second film, The Desolation of Smaug, contains less of the humor, but the gratuitous action remains. Both films feel thin, and it is clear that three films is too excessive for this relatively simple story.
The decision to make three films, however, did allow Jackson and company freedom to add completely new plot lines to Tolkien's story. The most intriguing addition is Tauriel the elf. Tolkien's Hobbit had no prominent female characters. Middle Earth, reminiscent of Europe in the middle ages, and the 1930's patriarchal world in which Tolkien wrote the book, did not need strong female characters. There are plenty of opportunities for females in The Hobbit. If written today, Smaug, the great and powerful dragon, would be perfectly suited as a woman. Even one or two of the dwarves could be female, with their manly builds and beards, and the story would remain unchanged. However, Tolkien chose to omit females from The Hobbit. However, Lord of the Rings, the massively successful, quasi-sequel trilogy to The Hobbit which Peter Jackson completed a decade ago, has three significant female characters. Each has varying aspirations of power and breaking free of the patriarchy, but each ultimately becomes docile and domesticated.
Galadriel is an elf queen, ruling with her husband. Her beauty is emphasized, especially by Gimli the dwarf, who develops a slight, innocent infatuation with her. Tolkien began to write Lord of the Rings after World War I and the decline of the British empire. The King and Queen gave way to the Prime Minister and Parliament. In Lord of the Rings, Galadriel is this sort of symbolic ruler. Behind the scenes, she influences Frodo, but in the films does little beyond providing supplies and advice for the travelers. She is tied to her kingdom and to her husband. Unsatisfied with her role, she flirts with taking the ring which Frodo has offered, to become more than just a co-ruler of her kingdom, but a mighty queen to rule over all of Middle Earth and break free of her husband's influence. She quickly abandons her Cleopatra-like aspirations and soon leaves Middle Earth entirely, conceding to the patriarchy and all possibility of becoming more than a docile queen.
Like Galadriel, Arwen is an elf of royalty. Arwen is the daughter of the lord of another elf kingdom. Unlike Galadriel, Arwen has no aspirations of political grandeur. She is in love with Aragorn, a human and the heir to his kingdom. This is no political betrothal, she is legitimately in love with Aragorn and shows no interest in the political implications that accompany marriage to him. Her father forbids this relationship. He knows that if Arwen binds herself to Aragorn, she will lose her elven immortality. Arwen at first submits to her fathers wishes, nearly leaving Middle Earth with her elven brethren. She then makes her only independent decision of the films, to stay and marry Aragorn, against her father's wishes and against even Aragorn's advice. In the end, of course, her father recants his apprehension of this marriage, and she does marry Aragorn. Only then, for the first time in the films, does she become truly happy, now that she is married. Her domestication brings her true joy.
The other female character in Lord of the Rings is Eowyn. She is a human, niece of the king, and possible heir to the throne after the king's only son dies. Eowyn falls in love with Aragorn. She is heartbroken with the knowledge that Aragorn is betrothed to Arwen, yet clings to the glimmer of hope that Aragorn will love her. When she realizes that this is impossible, she suppresses her feelings of love with a desire to fight in battle. She wishes to defend her people, but soldiering is a man's duty. Her uncle, the king, forbids her to fight. Rebelling against the patriarchy, Eowyn sneaks off to battle. On the battlefield, she is injured, penalized for reaching beyond her role as a woman. In recovery, she falls in love, finding her only possible role in the patriarchy, the arms of a man.
In The Desolation of Smaug, Tauriel differs greatly from the females in Lord of the Rings. Galadriel, Arwen, and Eowyn were characters in the books, and thus Jackson and company were obligated to keep them relatively unchanged. Tauriel was created entirely for the film, and therefore the writers had the flexibility to create a female character who does not conform to the patriarchy of Middle Earth.
Tauriel is beautiful and badass. She is reckless and ruthless. She is as fierce a warrior as any male. She is not of royal blood, and therefore unconcerned with politics and princes. She is a warrior, leader of the elven guard. When her king orders her to stay inside the kingdom, she does not hesitate to ignore him to kill orcs and save the dwarves. She fights the patriarchy.
Tauriel is not uninterested in men, however. Her exchanges with Kili the dwarf are a nod to Gimli and Galadriel, but taken to another level. Kili becomes infatuated with her. Whereas Galadriel merely ignores Gimli, Tauriel actually reciprocates, internally toying with the idea of a relationship with the dwarf. It seems more of a curiosity at first, an act of sexual deviance, an interracial relationship with the enemy of her Aryan people. But when Kili is injured and poisoned, only elf medicine can save him. Tauriel tracks down and kills countless orcs to reach and save Kili. Her curiosity has turned to genuine attraction. The Desolation of Smaug ends here, and only time will tell where this attraction leads in the next film. However, clearly this is not the love story of Arwen or Eowyn. Tauriel does not need love. She seems more attracted to the exotic idea of forbidden love than to Kili himself. Tauriel is unafraid of satisfying her personal desires and rebelling against the patriarchy.
Unlike the docile women of Lord of the Rings who need their men and conform to the patriarchy, Tauriel is a modern, 21st century woman. She pursues her desires and does not need a man to be happy. She is a warrior. She is not Sleeping Beauty or Snow White. She is a woman in the contemporary spirit of Brave and The Hunger Games. With Tauriel, Peter Jackson and company have thrust the modern, powerful woman upon the patriarchy of Middle Earth.
Monday, December 23, 2013
A Review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
By Daniel Carstens
December 19, 2013
I really want to love The Hobbit.
A decade ago I was in the midst of the most monstrous film obsession of my lifetime. For three years or so, Lord of the Rings likely consumed more of my time than anything else. Each film that released in theater, on DVD, and on Extended Edition DVD required me to watch the previous films again. I also watched each DVD with friends several times, and made five trips to the theater each to view the second and third films. I viewed every minute of every special feature on every DVD, including the four different audio commentaries for each three and a half hour-plus Extended Edition of the films. In other words, I was madly in love with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings.
It was easy to fall in love with. The story, a simple classic tale of good versus evil, was given life and depth by Jackson and company. Lord of the Rings had everything an audience could ask for: Love, humor, action, drama; moments of heartwarming and heartbreaking. Jackson's obsessive attention to detail was like no other. Middle Earth was real, almost as if it existed in our own world, perhaps on an island somehow yet undiscovered. This fantasy world was perfect for the post-9/11 American young adult to escape to. The Best Picture win showed that Lord of the Rings was much more than escapist entertainment. The three films were the most important blockbusters, to both myself and American film goers, since the original Star Wars trilogy.
Inevitably, Jackson had to film The Hobbit. The opportunity to revisit the world that consumed Jackson for a decade, as well as the massive payout and the likelihood that someone else would end up making the films brought Jackson back to Middle Earth. As with Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit is divided into three films. I really wanted to love the first installment, An Unexpected Journey, almost desperately. In my heart, I feared that it would not live up to Lord of the Rings and tarnish my view of the films, much like the Star Wars prequels have done. An Unexpected Journey ultimately did disappoint.
The second installment, The Desolation of Smaug, is a stronger film than the first. There are moments where Peter Jackson shines brilliantly. When the group enters the elf forest, dreamy sound, rotating camera, and nauseated characters coalesce to create a hallucinatory scene as memorable as any from Lord of the Rings. Nearly all moments with Smaug the dragon were as harrowing for me as they were for pint-sized Bilbo. These moments transported me back in time, summoning emotions I had not felt watching such escapist fantasy films in a decade since Return of the King.
Despite these brilliant moments, The Desolation of Smaug suffers from much of the same issues as An Unexpected Journey. To quote Bilbo in Fellowship, the films feel thin, like butter scraped over too much bread. Jackson insisted on stretching The Hobbit into three films, to the detriment of pacing and substance. There are action scenes that feel forced, and other scenes that should have been left for the extended cut. There are some provocative additions, particularly Tauriel, a female elf who was fabricated for the film, and her forbidden relationship with Kili the dwarf. Ultimately, however, The Desolation of Smaug disappointed me like An Unexpected Journey, albeit to a lesser extent.
The Hobbit, both An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug, have caused me to study myself as an audience member perhaps even more than Jackson as the filmmaker. Is The Hobbit really below the quality of Lord of the Rings? Or is it my preconceptions, shaped long before viewing the first film? The Hobbit is not Lord of the Rings, therefore is it possible for my mind to view it on the same level? The announcement of The Hobbit as a trilogy immediately raised a red flag in my mind. I was convinced that there was not enough material for three films, even as I tried to remain open-minded. After my third viewing of An Unexpected Journey, I realized that while the film was partly to blame, I was equally responsible. My own notions of what the film should and would be tarnished the film before it even released.
Our preconceptions influence how we respond to a film, whether we want them to or not. When I take a step back, I realize that the first two Hobbit films are not as different from Lord of the Rings as I may feel. But my expectations and preconceptions have made it impossible for The Hobbit to be as enjoyable as Lord of the Rings. On Rotten Tomatoes, 65% of critics gave An Unexpected Journey a “fresh” rating. Meanwhile, 77% of critics gave a fresh rating to Thor. Is Thor really a better film than An Unexpected Journey, or were critics simply pleasantly surprised by Thor and disappointed with The Hobbit because of their similar preconceptions? I would wager that, when asked which film they prefer, these critics would choose The Hobbit over the mindless comic book action fodder that is Thor.
Peter Jackson had an impossible task. Lord of the Rings was that girl I was madly in love with, who was madly in love with me. It was the perfect relationship, but it had to end for whatever reason, perhaps she had a job offer she could not turn down and we were forced to part ways. The Hobbit is the next relationship. The desire is so strong to have that perfect relationship again, but this new person cannot possibly live up to my desires because she is not the same person.
I really like The Hobbit. But, no matter how much I desire, I am incapable of loving it.