“The Battle of the Five Armies” Plus Martin Freeman as THE Hobbit

Azog the Defiler!

“Let’s take this once more from the top! Real actors to the south, CG replicants to the north, and…ACTION! STAB STAB STABBY-STAB STAB!”

The end of the beginning is here! The epilogue of the prologue has arrived! The grand finale that goes in the middle of the story, even though it was hardly there originally, is finally out! And now it’s time for Part 3 of 6: the Final Chapter!

In An Unexpected Journey we watched a disgruntled Tim from The Office saunter through dangerous territories and endure slovenly dwarven hijinks. In The Desolation of Smaug we watched a resourceful Dr. John Watson brave wild carnival rides and face the growly wrath of a super-sized, serpentine Sherlock Holmes. And now, in The Battle of the Five Armies, director Peter Jackson takes us on one last guided tour of Middle-Earth filled with racial politics, emotional turmoil, treasure addiction, star-crossed lovers, all-out war, Revenge of the Sith continuity knot-tying, video game magic, the world’s funniest riding animals, and a few special appearances by frazzled hitchhiker Arthur Dent. Closure is truly ours for the taking.

Continue reading

2013 Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts: a Brief Rundown

Martin Freeman, The Voorman Problem

Martin Freeman as a different sort of doctor in “The Voorman Problem”.

Each year since 2009 my wife and I have made a day-long date of visiting Keystone Art Cinema, the only dedicated art-film theater in Indianapolis, to view the big-screen release of the Academy Award nominees for Best Live-Action Short Film and Best Animated Short Film. Results vary each time and aren’t always for all audiences, but we appreciate this opportunity to sample such works and see what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences deemed worthy of celebrating, whether we agree with their collective opinions or not.

Presented below are my thoughts on this year’s five Live-Action Short Film nominees. Shorts International, which masterminds these theatrical releases, strongly discourages the nominated filmmakers from posting their works online for free, but it’s my understanding they’re available on iTunes, Amazon, and/or Video On Demand. If you live in a large city where they’re playing in theaters, this year you’re treated to bookend interviews with various Oscar-nominated creators extolling the virtues of short-form over longform, with pro advice from the likes of Matthew Modine, writer/director/actor Shawn Christensen (the 2013 winner for “Curfew”), and 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen.

Enjoy where possible!

And the nominees are…

“The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug” as an Afternoon of Binge-Watching

Bilbo Baggins, Martin Freeman, The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug

Bilbo struggles with temptation. So. Many. CUPS.

Two advance caveats:

1. It’s been years since I read The Hobbit. I remember most of it, but to me it’s not a sacred idol to be treated as holy writ every time it’s adapted into another medium. My impressions of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey were previously documented to this effect.

2. Some of the following will assume you’re familiar with the book and/or already saw The Desolation of Smaug for yourself. As a latecomer to the party once again, I doubt I’ll be treading unfamiliar ground for too many readers.

That being said: I may be one of the few viewers who found The Desolation of Smaug a more satisfying experience than its predecessor, burdened as that one was with cumbersome exposition and morose musical numbers. Faced with a 161-minute running time, I entered the theater this time with despondent expectations, but realized partway through that the movements are so neatly segmented, it was like binge-viewing a TV miniseries at home. Granted, Desolation was the equivalent of a series’ middle and therefore guaranteed to disappoint no matter how it ended, but taken as Disc 2 of 3, its 3½ episodes zoomed along nicely and moved the story forward with only minimal irrelevant detours.

Onward toward Erebor, then…

“The World’s End”: Midlife Crisis Begets Drinking Quest Begets Apocalypse

The World's End, movie

Under normal circumstances, a film like The World’s End would be miles outside my bailiwick. It’s been years since I could stomach flocks about man-children stalled in permanent adolescence (e.g., half the comedies starring SNL vets). I’m not interested in celebrations of the magical bonding power of alcohol (e.g., half the comedies released in the last five years). I’ve seen maybe one R-rated comedy in the last five years (Tropic Thunder had its good parts). Combine the three elements and I would anticipate the kind of mess least likely to earn a dime of my own money. Only on the strength of the talented names of Simon Pegg and director/co-writer Edgar Wright did I temporarily waive my reservations and see if the minds behind Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz came within a stone’s throw of the same achievement levels in wit and ingenuity.

Continue reading

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”: Thoughts on Old Friends, Orc Stats, and End Credits

The Hobbit: An Unexpected JourneyOf all the movies I wanted to see most in theaters this year, none required as long a wait as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey did. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I had to sit quietly and wait until its third whole weekend of American release before all schedules properly aligned. Those of you who wait to catch movies on DVD or via basic-cable hatchet job may roll your eyes at my impatience if you must, but I like keeping current on my movies, especially those that have been pinned on my mental calendar for months.

To place my anticipation in perspective: I was required to read The Hobbit in seventh-grade English class. Our teacher was such a fan, we received extra credit if we completed our assignments in green ink. I also have the Mind’s Eye six-cassette audio adaptation and the Chuck Dixon/David Wenzel graphic-novel adaptation. I read The Fellowship of the Ring for a ninth-grade book report, but didn’t read the other two until after the movie trilogy had commenced twenty-five years later. I abandoned the Return of the King appendices after five pages, and once owned a copy of The Book of Lost Tales, Volume 1 that I don’t recall ever opening.

Regardless, I’ve been pacing back and forth, waiting for the chance to see Martin Freeman win as Bilbo. Freeman met all my expectations with the proper combination of exasperation, humility, whimsy, and plucky determination. For that alone, I received my money’s worth and then some.

Continue reading

Ranking the Six “Sherlock” Episodes While Waiting to Judge “Elementary”

Sherlock, ElementaryMy wife and I were quite pleased to catch up with our peers recently by viewing all six episodes of the BBC’s fascinating Sherlock. Before diving in, I expected I’d at least enjoy some engaging moments from Martin Freeman, one of my favorite components of the original UK version of The Office, among other productions. Once our viewing began, I was struck more deeply by Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as a truly intelligent character with a broken social compass. More succinctly put: he’s smarter than everyone around him and doesn’t care who that bothers. I’ve known more than a few Internet users with that same attitude, many of them mistaken in their position. I can see why the show would attract such a sizable Stateside fan base.

We owe sincere appreciation to the creators — Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss, and some ancient writer named Doyle — for an intricate, adrenalized concoction of tension, intrigue, and emotional gamesmanship. I’d also like to thank the crowds of fans who recommended this to us. At the moment, I would rank the six episodes produced so far as follows, with spoilers ahead.

1. “The Great Game” (s. 1, ep. 3) — A bored Sherlock finds his spirits, and later his blood pressure, raised when a mad bomber taunts him with a series of life-or-death puzzles to solve, with victims as the prizes. Our Hero finally meets an opponent to equal or even rival his talents, and finally demonstrates that he actually has moral boundaries in comparison. Humor succumbs to terror as the challenges proceed relentlessly, concluding with a revelation that had me kicking myself for not guessing it sooner. (Mental note: when reading or watching a work about Holmes, any character named “Jim” needs to be heavily scrutinized. How could I not even have thought about it?)

2. “The Reichenbach Fall” (s. 2, ep. 3) — Moriarty drives Holmes and friends to the brink of insanity with the greatest game of all, one that destroys reputation, relationships, and lives with equal aplomb. The hyperintellectual brinksmanship was truly a wonder to behold. At times it was extraordinarily tough to disbelieve the lies. The main reason it has to settle for runner-up is because the last thirty seconds of the episode were no surprise. I already knew the show would be returning for season three. Granted, I have very little idea how Sherlock actually pulled off this astounding stunt (other than a nascent theory involving Molly), but we know that, somehow, someway, he did pull it off. When I’m supposed to be surprised and I’m not, I deduct points.

3. “A Study in Pink” (s. 1, ep. 1) — Where it all began, laying out the premise, putting all the pieces in starting positions, and setting the bar ridiculously high with an initial, disturbing stumper of a mystery. Tonally distinct, visually inventive, detail-oriented, funny, and enthralling.

4. “A Scandal in Belgravia” (s. 2, ep. 1) — For once, not only does Sherlock have to discern what the clues mean, he has to discern what the clues are. The Woman is such a formidable, superior Catwoman to Sherlock’s momentarily awkward Batman that I was a little disappointed that the solution to the locked MacGuffin phone depended on her being deep-down lovestruck. Otherwise, all performances were in top form, though Irene Adler’s risqué nature pushed the content boundaries a bit more than we’d expected.

5. “The Blind Banker” (s. 1, ep. 2) — Sherlock versus the Asian underworld, with a little help from British subculture and a little interference from Watson’s wish for a personal life. This would’ve been a very good episode of any other TV show, but the impersonal villain and the cutesy dating scenes felt inessential in the context of this series.

6. “The Hounds of Baskerville” (s. 2, ep. 2) — I would still call it good TV to an extent, particularly the scene in which an incensed Sherlock shows off to prove he’s still in control of his faculties, but it was the most predictable episode to date. Once you eliminate any possible supernatural causes on general Holmes-lit principle, the only remaining explanations possible for the demon dog are (1) the vulpine roomie from Being Human is a liar or a madman; (2) genetic tampering; or (3) hallucination. The excessively misty government property narrowed the possibilities for me fairly early into the episode. (If I was meant to think, “Oh, that’s just England for you!” it didn’t work.) The whodunit aspect also tipped its hand too early if you’ve seen too many mystery shows, which have taught us that the guest star who’s dying to be most helpful to Our Hero is almost always the guilty party. Sure enough, my wife and I had him pegged after his “chance” interruption of Watson’s drink-chat with the therapist. Alas, even the smartest kids in class are bound to trip from time to time.

The Internet says that Season 3 isn’t scheduled to begin production till January 2013, which means we have at least a year before my wife and I will be able to watch episodes as they air. Until then…well, we do have an option to keep us occupied. CBS’ new counter-interpretation of the Holmes milieu, Elementary, will premiere this Thursday evening, September 27th. Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu are the prettier, Americanized versions of the detective duo who’ll be plying their trade in New York City and presumably encountering their own special Moriarty in the months ahead, though the early publicity info has a dearth of other Doyle staples such as Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson.

A schedule conflict will prevent me from watching the premiere as it airs, but I’d like to see it for myself at some point — partly because watching new things is a fun source of writing prompts for me, but mostly because I’d like to judge it firsthand rather than dismissing it outright. I’m willing to grant the benefit of the doubt, though I take slight issue with apologists who defend it on the grounds that plenty of actors have performed their own interpretations of Hamlet and other famous characters without being beholden to other versions. Though this is true to an extent, you rarely have two versions of Hamlet being staged in the same city at the same time. Usually a bit more space is left between them so they can stand or fall on their own merits, rather than competing against one another for the same audience. Also, if Elementary turns out to be nothing more than CSI: English Accent, I’m definitely done with it.

Trailer #2 for “The Hobbit” Starring Dr. Watson and Doctor Who

Longtime fans of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy who’ve been watching last December’s two-minute teaser for The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey on an endless loop every day for the past nine months can finally close that browser and tune in for the new, full-length trailer that was released to the Internet on Wednesday. It’s comforting to see our old friends Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, and Andy Serkis all returned and on point, but I’m personally more interested in the new tidbits:

I’m delighted to see Martin Freeman portraying astounded exasperation with his usual finesse. Whether as Tim from The Office, Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or the average-minded John Watson from Sherlock, Freeman specializes in men who can’t believe what he sees in the other men that surround them. To his credit, his Bilbo Baggins (at least in these scant samples) seems to retain at least a smidgen of confidence in stressful situations, a trait that his adopted nephew struggled to inherit in the trilogy.

New to our eyes this time around: Sylvester McCoy, erstwhile Doctor Who, as Radagast the Brown, a wizard colleague of Gandalf and Saruman who was name-checked in passing in J.R.R. Tolkien’s original novel. I remember reading it in seventh-grade English class, where our teacher Mrs. Price gave us extra credit if we completed our Hobbit homework and quizzes in green ink. I don’t recall Radagast’s name at all, but I’ll take everyone else’s word for it. Here his role has been broadened to compensate for his complete deletion from the LOTR trilogy, and set far apart from those other, mainstream sellout wizards by donning the world’s craziest winter hat and possibly threatening to invoke a divination method certain to make the Middle-Earth Humane Society cry.

Also integral to my seventh-grade Hobbit experience: the three trolls! I was hoping one of my favorite scenes from the book would be included in the first movie, instead of being relegated to The Hobbit Part 7 or however long this series ends up.

I’m especially curious to see more of Richard Armitage’s version of dwarf’s dwarf Thorin Oakenshield, the new face of 21st-century dwarfdom — to say nothing of his dozen companions. Compared to these nimble warriors, in hindsight Gimli son of Gloin looks like Volstagg the Voluminous.

You’ll also note the younger, cleaner Gollum who’s a little less sinister in his threats of hobbit cannibalism. Little does Prequel Gollum know he’s sparring with an opponent who’s a little less highstrung and morose than Frodo was. I don’t look forward to the moment when crafty ol’ Bilbo absconds with his Precious and shatters his heart.

In the grand tradition of The Return of the King and its endless parade of endings, Warner Bros.’ official movie site offers a total of five different versions of this trailer that end with different scenes, each one amusing in its own right, four of them at Bilbo’s expense. Laugh while you can, pesky dwarven bullies. Over the next three years, Bilbo will show you all.

%d bloggers like this: