Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Nitpickery -- The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Hey y'all.  So my grandpa, whom I love, has questionable taste in movies, and also a tendency to force the family to watch them.  That's why I've seen Avatar, Pirates of the Caribbean: Cash-In Sequel # Whatever, and now Desolation of Smaug.  I had no intention of watching any of these movies, but so long as Grandpa doesn't make me watch Twilight, I'll put up with it.  I was mildly curious about this movie anyway.  I asked one of my friends about it, and he immediately stiffened a bit and said he enjoyed it "for what it was."  That's never a good sign.

Oh, and by the way, blu-ray is evil on the eyes.  I thought it was just Avatar the movie, but apparently blu-ray hates my guts and isn't happy unless I have a headache.  Y'know, I'm actually pretty nostalgic for 90s VHS quality visuals.  They just work for my eyes.

Anyway, movie.  Talk.  Dragon.  Stuff.  This'll just be some notes on the movie, as all the movie's flaws center around a handful of conceptual problems.

Might I say how much I'm over the whole "jam all the characters on it" school of poster design?

The Desolation of Smaug (which I will not refer to as the Hobbit from now on), is the latest of PJ's Tolkien fanfictions.  It stretches from when the dwarves were supposed to meet Beorn (a sadly dwindled scene), goes through their imprisonment in the elvish city, and finally reach Lake Town.  From there, they make their way into the Lonely Mountain, where they unintentionally provoke Smaug into attacking Lake Town's citizens.  End movie, see next part.

- So my overall impression of the movie is this: Buh.  It's a confusing mess of action scene after action scene. The film was like an off-brand Oreo cookie: the plot wasn't enough to hold it together and it tasted funny. As with the Star Wars prequels, every was a confusing mess of overwhelming visuals, one after another. Moments of quiet in-between were short, simple, and added little to the overall narrative.  Nothing made any sense.

The sad thing about this is that you can't just call it a Peter Jackson thing.  It's been trending these days that movies are massive special effects with just enough humor to distract the audience from realizing the film has no plot.  Michael Bay, JJ Abrams, and whoever directed the latest Die Hards are all contributors to this trend, with varying levels of monetary success. Though I can't blame just them.  Probably the only people not guilty of this are Pixar and Quentin Tarantino.

But for now, let's antagonize the Jackson.  Peter Jackson has taken what was once a dignified (perhaps too dignified) franchise and made it childish.  It's really strange, as Lord of the Rings as a book series attracts readers who enjoy historical detail and character depth and variety, but the films for Tolkien's work try their hardest to appeal to the most casual of all casual moviegoers: the ones that say "I don't want to think at the movies, I just want to have a good time."  Since this movie didn't make as much as the last, maybe that demographic is tired of it too.
Sorry, Mr. Freeman, you only get to be a glorified extra in this film.

- The primary reason I find it so hard to comment on this movie is that it's so action packed, but none of the action means anything.  There are trippy and vaguely insulting images (Legolas stepping on the heads of dwarves in barrels in the middle of a battle), ridiculous scenes of unnecessary writhing (Smaug), and yet at any point that there should be a moment where the action pauses and we get a chance to actually learn something about these mofos doing all this fighting, they cut forward.  For example, when the dwarves are escape from the elves' home in barrels, they are caught quickly at a barrier.  Instead of having some deeply dramatic, threatening conversation with the elven guard, orcs out of nowhere murder the guards and on goes a very fake looking CGI battle.

The story of the Hobbit, which in the book was quite fun and high adventure until the ending parts, is totally decimated in this film.  Is Beorn the bear-like host that must be convinced to let thirteen dwarves and a hobbit to stay at his house?  No, he's a guy with a bad haircut that loses his mind when he becomes a bear. Is the forest of Mirkwood a dark place with spooky shadow creatures off to the side of the path?  No, it's a tangled web of trees that aren't dark at all and instead have "poisonous air" that causes people to see things. Keep in mind that this is where the elves are supposed to live.  Are the elves well-meaning but suspicious people?  No, they're jerks because jerks, except for Tauriel, the random elven rebel who falls in love with a dwarf for no reason.

Can we in movies agree not to use the whole "rebel who can't obey" stereotype?  I mean sure, if it's a comedy, whatever, but in a serious film people should have actual depth, and having someone disobey orders because the order-giver just so happens to be a jerk (or is a jerk for giving the order) is a really shallow move.  It feels like the movie is doing so just because it "should" do so.  This happens twice, once with Tauriel abandoning the elves to go help Kili the dwarf, and another time when Kili gets sick and complains that he can't go on the quest with Thorin.  Um, buddy, if you're sick, you're a detriment to the team.  And what kind of help are you if you're poisoned from an arrow?  Kili and Fili act as though Thorin is wrong for telling Kili to stay behind, when clearly it's the only practical choice.

I will say a good thing about Tauriel, though.  As much as shoving a female character into this story was unnecessary, and I'm not fond of actress Evangeline Lily, she had one of three moments in the film that I actually liked.  It was when she was talking to Kili when the dwarves were imprisoned, and she was telling him about the festival of stars.  That was nice, and told actual informational detail about elvish culture, unlike everything else in the movie.  Evangeline sounded like a real person delighting in something that was a part of her heritage, and it made the moment believable and cute.  Maybe it was because she wasn't trying too hard, like many of the actors were.

The romance between Tauriel and Kili was stupid, came out of nowhere, and belongs in a Star Wars prequel.  'Nuff said.

Why, Jackson?  Why did you have to feed the creepy pairings people?  *sigh*  By CaptBexx.

- The camera and music tried way too hard to make the audience believe something interesting was happening, but I wasn't feeling it.  Having swooping camera actions when actors are trying to give emotional dialogue can be disruptive, such as when Gandalf was talking to Radagast about the nine riders.  Shouldn't Ian McKellen's acting be more of a focus?  Cameras in film are like narrative in books: they should be as invisible as possible when someone is trying to enjoy a story.  The camera should move in ways that make the audience want to look at objects in your film, not fly around all willy-nilly just to prove that the director can do those shots.  If your audience is thinking about the camera (besides directors and future directors), then you're not doing a good job.

The music was too epic as well.  It didn't really have a lot of personality, and its timing was way off at parts. Do we really need a huge dramatic sweep when Beorn is petting a mouse?  Really?  Given that I'm not the sort of person that normally notices that sort of thing, that's really bad.

- Stupid for stupid's sake is stupid.  This is extremely common, but usually only in movies that don't really care and don't make that much money (see: The Bounty Hunter).  In a grand movie trilogy, we don't need a character that is dumb for no reason.  Specifically, the Master of Lake Town is a stringy-haired dolt with a unibrow crony.  That's not only offensively bad -- Tolkien tends to have characters that could be real people -- but it's just plain not interesting or logical.  For what reason would anybody listen to the Master if he's such a paranoid loser that he has to spy on his citizens and dumps fish if they're unexpected?  In the book, the Master was selfish, but had economic and political knowledge.  He wasn't a cut and dried loser, just incapable of real leadership in crisis times.  And mildly cowardly.

I also didn't like how they ruined Bard.  Bard was an amazing, heroic man, who is now some schmuck that the Master hates for no reason.  Oh, because he's the descendant of a heroic leader.  Huh.  The thing about
Bard in the book was that he represented a normal guy, one that happened to have a more famous ancestor. His past was a simple detail, one that had nothing to do with his ability to lead.  Here he's some emo boy who gets hated on because the movie calls for it.

The backstory for the black arrows is...interesting.  I guess it's too fairy tale for modern movies to have a guy to just have a special arrow, but still, if the black arrows can pierce the dragon's armor, why don't they do so? Why did the guy in the flashback have to aim correctly?  Can't the black arrow just chip Smaug's armor away, no matter where he's hit?  And if you only have one black arrow, why not make more?  It's just so random.

- Prophecy...I don't think Hollywood knows what that word means.  Just to clarify, peeps, prophecy is a message from God.  I think it may also apply to gods, goddesses, and other spiritual entities used in a work, but sometimes that's referred to with different words.  In any case, the key to remember is that prophecies come from the spirit realm.  So unless the Maiar, Valar, Iluvatar, or any other spiritual beings the casual moviegoer doesn't know about have something to say, don't use the word prophecy.

This is something I'd apply to a lot of modern movies, but in this film it's used to talk about the return of dwarves to the Lonely Mountain and their welcome from the Lake Town people.  This "prophecy" says that the dwarves will bring wealth to Lake Town when they return.  Thing is, who wrote said "prophecy"? Where did it come from?  And why would some mofo write a prophecy when only two generations of dwarf had passed?  Sure, dwarves live longer, but does that really warrant a "prophecy"?

The reason why the Lake Town welcome worked in the book was because it wasn't prophecy, it was simply a sort of legend, probably originating in a dwarven vow to get their home back, a la Douglas MacArthur's vow to return to Korea.  Lake Town welcomed the dwarves because they believed the dwarves would bring economic prosperity to the town in their quest for the mountain.  There was nothing mystic about it.

Part of me thinks it's some way to manipulate people into dismissing the spiritual, but I promised myself I wasn't going to be a conspiracy theorist today, so let's move on.

Meh, all the official pics of Smaug were at bad angles. By Anouchka Wijnings.

- Benedict Cumberbatch is unimpressive.  It's not really his fault, though.  If he were on camera and able to make a physical presence, he might could have taken the really stupid lines he was given and make them seem at least half sensible.  However, he's Smaug the dragon, which means lots of digital workers created a massive beast that moves awkwardly and does stupid things, like being fooled by dwarves who are calling out "Hey, over here!"

- One of the things that ruins Smaug (and the elf-king, and Azog, and Galadriel, and Beorn, and most everyone else) is that they automatically know who Thorin is and why he's going to the Lonely Mountain. Why would they know this?  Has someone been going around telling Thorin's business?  Middle Earth is a Medieval sort of time period, where news doesn't travel nearly as fast as today.  And that's assuming that other dwarves uninvolved in the quest had a clear idea of what Thorin intended. How do we know that Thorin told his family what he was doing?  The elves wouldn't know either way because they're secluded in the forest.  Smaug doesn't know because he's having a jolly time enjoying his gold.  Azog doesn't know because he's supposed to have died long before this movie took place.

- So much padding was added to this movie that it's a wonder PJ found time to add in the things that were from the book.  Every single legitimate thing from the book gets rushed through, twisted into something dumb, or just ignored entirely.  Beorn is on screen for maybe two minutes, Mirkwood forest is not mirky at all, the grand welcome Lake Town gives the dwarves is almost entirely truncated, and the iconic conversation with Smaug was cut short for dwarven antics.  All of it is replaced by unnecessary romance, more fights scenes than I could ever care about, digital nonsense, a random scene where the dwarves steal weapons, Kili being sick, and all kinds of boring stuff.

Padding, padding, padding.

- There was one really good part during the excessive spider fight in Mirkwood (hey wait, why did the "poisonous air" suddenly let up when they guys had to fight?) where Bilbo drops the ring and violently attacks a nearby spider to get it back.  It's a hint of how the ring will affect Bilbo and Frodo in Lord of the Rings. Sure, it's tainted a bit as a moment because Bilbo realizes that the ring is affecting him and setting up weird continuity, but it could have worked.  Though it's really weird to see him feel regret for a spider that very much intended to kill him and his companions.

- I also like the part where Smaug is entranced by the golden statue of a dwarf lord.  Sure, it's entirely implausible that a few dwarves could work decades old machinery and produce that much gold, much less do so without dying horribly, but it was an interesting moment to see Smaug stare at the gold and suddenly find himself swarmed in the molten stuff.

Yet that too is stupid.  Why would they think molten gold could hurt a dragon?  Smaug's own body glowed red with heat when he breathed fire, so obviously the dude can stand the heat.  What makes it even worse is that Smaug, instead of horribly murdering all of the dwarves, assumes they care about Lake Town and flies off to destroy the town.   Yeeaaah.  It's like Peter Jackson had to have his golden statue moment and was willing to sacrifice logic to do it.  The George Lucas syndrome is strong with this one.

From the Bakshi version of LOTR.  I must now see this.

- What's the deal with Gandalf's plotline?  Sure, I know he had to leave the dwarves at Mirkwood, but he doesn't do anything of importance.  In fact, he directly provokes the Necromancer for no real reason and gets himself imprisoned because....I dunno, it's the will of the Force or something.  Ian McKellen does good in this film, but his performance is destroyed by all the irrelevant stuff he does.  Maybe if they actually focused the camera on him instead of the fake CGI surroundings, the audience would actually care.

- Pete Jackson wouldn't know subtlety if you locked him in a room and forced him to watch the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly three times over.  Seriously, this guy doesn't let anything be implied or half explained unless it's an important part of the book, and rushing through those parts doesn't count as implying.

You know how I mentioned the Good, the Bad and the Ugly's first scene with Angel Eyes in a nitpickery? That's the part where Eyes wanders into Steven's house and sits down to eat.  Without one word of dialogue being spoken, the audience learns that Mrs. Stevens knows something bad is going to happen, Stevens is afraid, and Angel Eyes is there to do something unsavory.  And the audience is on the edge of their seat, wondering what will happen next.

Can you imagine Peter Jackson directing a scene like that?

Why you mess up my franchise?
Aw, I still like Peter Jackson he made some really funny comments about horror movies.  And he looks like a hobbit.  Wait....hold on, he looks like someone else...

Oh no.....Peter Jackson is Arcturus Mengsk!  Nooooo!!!!!!

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