Saturday, December 29, 2012

Nassty Hobbitsezzzzzzzzzzz

About halfway through yet another interminable fight scene, I knew that my prevailing thought about The Hobbit was going to be: "Oh God, make it stop." Alas, there was to be no divine intervention and I would have to wait through the whole thing. I'm seriously questioning whether I'm willing to sit through two more over the next couple years.

A suitable instrument for slow torture? Oh, yes...
When the project was first announced under the command of Guillermo del Toro, it was going to be one film. I think the idea was that del Toro would give his dark fantasy spin to what was originally intended to be a children's tale. Anyone who's seen Pan's Labyrinth would understand that such an approach is right up his proverbial demonic alley. Creative conflicts ensued and del Toro left the film. Peter Jackson, slated to be the producer, picked up the reins with his usual team of wife and friend (Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, respectively) and decided to make two films out of it. I understand the desire to do so, as The Hobbit is the foundation from which The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion (and mountains of backstory) would spring. There are brief mentions of things, like the Necromancer, in the book that wouldn't be appropriate to drop into a film, but could easily be expanded into their own segments. Hell, I wanted to see the White Council challenging the Necromancer. Why not? It sounds cool. We all know what it leads into in the later books. But I guess I still envisioned the Hobbit being a two-hour movie and then perhaps the Necromancer material being its own thing, because the book is only about 200 pages. There's not enough there to make an epic. And, of course, once some studio executive who'd never read it heard about all the footage that was shot and left in the editing room, I'm sure he immediately thought: "It'll be a SECOND trilogy just like the FIRST one!"

You guys don't look like you're enjoying the genius of this idea.
Except... well, it's not. The Hobbit was a fairy tale. Lord of the Rings was a genuinely epic story about cultural change and Christian mythology. I could sit through a trilogy of three-hour (or even four-hour) films drawn from the latter. The former is a single three-hour movie, at most. Stretching it in this fashion makes it tedious and that's exactly what this first offering was. Most of the scenes lost my interest after about a minute and they all lasted ten. I don't think Jackson realizes that while he's been off working on other projects, we've all been watching his extensive CGI and liberal use of circling helicopter shots over and over on TBS. We've been there and have the really expensive T-shirts to show for it. But The Hobbit is just more of the same; more and more and more of the same. Ian McKellen, reappearing as the constant Gandalf, actually had a little unintentional insight on the whole project early in the film when he mentions Radagast the Brown for the first time. He tells the group that the Istari are actually five wizards, including the two blue ones whose names he can't recall. He can't remember them because Tolkien didn't name them until his son collected his notes for Unfinished Tales and Jackson probably didn't want to bother explaining even more. But he really did name them in this film because I know their names: Exposition and Padding. They were the stars of the show.

First lesson of fiction writing: Avoid expository dialogue. Show your story. Don't have your characters tell it. But the meeting of the White Council in Rivendell was exactly that and this is the material that was added to the story. The four of them stand around for over five minutes of screen time, arguing over whether an evil knife means anything and giving everyone insight into how the Necromancer is really the Enemy (but maybe not really.) This scene goes nowhere and contributes nothing. It's precisely the kind of scene you'd put in if you were spoon-feeding your story to your audience because you don't know how to make it a story, rather than a Wikipedia article. People stood around and talked in Lincoln, but they were talking about big ideas that propelled the film. This was tedium disguised as backstory.

My sword actually glows blue from angst.
What makes it even worse is that the action scenes were no better. A chase through a cavern where people are falling? Sure. Moria. Been there. Running through the woods or over hills being chased by warg riders? Yep. The added scene in Two Towers. Seen it. Jackson was essentially ripping himself off for two-and-a-half hours. You could even recognize some of the same locations in New Zealand. And the action scenes not only wouldn't stop, but he had to add the extra moments of melodrama to make them even more grueling. Did we really need to see Thorin stalk off the burning tree in full righteous outrage to confront his "nemesis" that he'd met all of one time before? In the book, Azog was a detail, a snippet of Thorin's story that established him as a warrior who'd experienced some profound personal trauma (snd just as important to the story of Dain of the Iron Hills.) In the film, Azog is a cheap recurring villain with a motivation as thin as "See familiar dwarf. Kill."

By far, the best scene in the film is one of the two best scenes in the book: the riddle contest.
You were saying the director took too much time?
Andy Serkis once again does an excellent job of making the repellent and pathetic Gollum a highly entertaining character that the audience laughs with as much as they laugh at. I wrote the title of this review in that fashion because I almost fell asleep during the troll encounter, but I was wide awake and perfectly enchanted during the riddle scene, even though I know the riddles and the result by heart. This scene demonstrated that, once again, CGI doesn't have to be explosions. Even though Serkis' character is mostly generated, it was the dynamic between him and Martin Freeman that makes that scene come alive. Acting and dialogue makes a film work? Who'd'a thunk it? At the very least, I noticed that Serkis got a promotion for his efforts, as he appeared in the credits as the second unit director. And one has to at least credit Jackson for inserting the Wilhelm scream into the escape from the goblin kingdom. Freeman's Bilbo was solid for Freeman. He's an excellent actor and I love his Watson in the Sherlock TV series. But it wasn't solid for the Bilbo Baggins from the book, who is at least mildly neurotic and still quite frantic even at the end of the story during the Battle of Five Armies. Freeman just isn't a frantic person. He's too level-headed for that. So, while he makes a good lead and performs well, he's not what the story really calls for.

Perhaps the most telling moment of my experience was walking out of the film with the collection of 20-somethings around me. These are people who literally grew up with Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies so, in many ways, this is kind of their Star Wars prequels moment... with exactly the same result. They were as dismayed as I was because Jackson essentially abandoned his profound sense of story in the first trilogy for cheap melodrama and lots of explosions and blurred action in the second. This is why directors generally need to avoid material that they've mined before.

I was interested to see the film both because I love the books, I loved Jackson's LotR movies, and I honestly wanted to see the impact of the high frame rate on the audience. I didn't see the 3D version because I detest it as a marketing tool that does nothing but make people pay more for the same film and that's the version cited in the Gizmodo article as the source of the problem (and confirmed by more than one friend.) I can't say that I saw any real difference in visual quality and I certainly didn't dislike the film because my visual receptors were overloaded. I disliked it because it was bloody awful. If you want to experience the Hobbit, read the book again. You'll probably finish it before you could make it through the film (and you'll probably stay awake.)

Monday, December 24, 2012

Principled corruption

It's becoming customary for me to spend what most regard as Christmas Eve at the movies. With no family about and all friends engaged with families of their own, I tend to drift toward the nearest Oscar contender in hopes of finding something worthwhile. Lincoln is worthwhile, but has a couple flaws that prevent me from naming it the blockbuster, extrapalooza Picture of the Year that so many are ready to christen it (My vote still rests with Argo.)

First, the undeniable: Tony Kushner's screenplay and almost all of the performances are brilliant, led (properly) by Daniel Day-Lewis as Abe himself and Sally Field as his beleaguered wife, Mary. Kushner, known far more for his plays than the two or three screenplays he's written, delivered a very play-like script. Most of the "action" is a few people in a room talking to each other. I have no objection whatsoever to films like this. I loved Asimov's books, which are mostly two people in a room discussing weighty matters and this film works in the same way that other films developed from plays (A Few Good Men, Malcolm X, Glengarry Glen Ross) tend to work. The interplay of the dialogue is sufficient action to keep the audience interested. A special emphasis here is placed on the fact that Lincoln loved to indulge in storytelling, often flavored by his supposedly bawdy sense of humor. Consequently, we are treated to repeated moments of Lincoln holding his colleagues captive to some rhetorical flourish that is relevant to the moment.

What drags this technique down is, unfortunately, Spielberg's direction. Since most of his notable recent films are powerful historical pieces, he tends to let the aforementioned weighty philosophical moments take center stage to the detriment of all else. The pace of his direction becomes bogged down as he attempts to constantly engage the audience in yet five more minutes of gravitas. Instead of the flow of his earlier, more dynamic efforts, we instead feel like we're hopping from one wet stone to the next, landing with surety every time in order to maintain our balance, but becoming exhausted as we get across the river. Indeed, after about the third or fourth time, Lincoln's storytelling moments became akin to homilies (or "pieties", as they were derided in the film) or teaching moments for a small child, as in the picture above. Lincoln's intelligence, talent with a pen, and oratory skill are well known to any student of history. It does not detract from his figure that these moments begin to feel like a second-grade classroom. The history is replete with evidence that he did, often, have moral lessons to impart to those around him. But it's easy to feel browbeaten as an audience member if you feel like you're repeatedly being lectured.

As you might expect, what saves these moments and continually energizes the film is DDL's performance. He is his usual magnetic self and you miss his presence in front of the camera every moment in which he's not there and he deserves every accolade he's getting for this role, which is probably the best he's ever done. The perfect counterpoint to the air of serenity and wisdom that Day-Lewis brings is the shrill and self-centered Mary Todd Lincoln of Field. You never get a truer sense of the stress and tribulation that Lincoln suffered than when he has to answer to his wife about any number of issues, from family to politics.

Other performances are almost as well done, although I wish that more could have been gotten from the redoubtable David Straithairn as Seward. James Spader was almost completely unrecognizable as the bumbling political operative, W. N. Bilbo (and how timely is it that another film is released in the same time frame wherein a major character is attached to the name "Bilbo"?), as was Jared Harris (Lane!) as U. S. Grant. I've seen a comment or two that suggests that having "name" actors in historical pieces tends to break the suspension of disbelief, since it's difficult to detach the actors from whom they are in order to believe that they happen to be Thaddeus Stevens. However, Tommy Lee Jones did such an excellent job portraying the latter that I had little trouble getting past that point. Again, the play-like script likely contributed, in that it was evident from the beginning that these were all people playing roles that fit them rather well, rather than attempting to convince us that they're anything but who they are. "Life's a walking shadow" and all that.

Of course, there are other little details that stick out to the historian in me. It's laughable to think of the president being interrupted to settle a toll booth dispute in some lonely corner of Mississippi, but that did, in fact, happen. As late as the early 20th century, you could stroll up to Teddy Roosevelt's White House and knock on the door and expect to be invited in to chat with the president. In contrast, the supposedly powerful scene of Robert Lincoln witnessing the discarding of limbs struck me as a little ham-handed (ow...) in that the limbs being tossed into the pit were largely whole. During 19th-century warfare, they tended to amputate when something had been shredded and/or crushed, so that scene probably should have been a lot messier than it was. Not that it stopped Spielberg from trying to club us over the head with the idea that it was a "bad moment", of course. Also, the overarching sappiness of Lincoln departing for the playhouse and all those watching him go reacting with such emotion as if they knew what was to take place that night was about as Hollywood as you can get and was one of the moments I really frowned at. It would have been enough to watch Lincoln's hunched shoulders and stovepipe hat descend the steps without also having his butler tear up as he walked out.

And, likewise, it's not possible to escape the relevance of the film to today's political situation, wherein one side is so devoted to an ideological stance (then, racism; now, stupidity) that defies reason and ethics that cooperation of any sort is seemingly not possible. I found Jones' moment as Stevens having to essentially renounce his purist approach on the floor of the House the most poignant of the film. I've been there. I've had to essentially skirt the reaches of my own views in order to make sure that something of a greater good moved forward. I detested it, but I did it. That's how you play the game sometimes. If other people had done the same, I might still be in politics. But I'll get back to that some other time.

In short, Lincoln is an excellent film and well worth seeing. But I don't think it's the best film of the year because the brilliant script and powerful performances were held back by the mediocre direction. Of course, it could be that I'm simply not sucked in by the Aesop's Fables approach to conveying ideas or too much the political cynic to believe that anyone within pissing distance of Capitol Hill ever has anyone's best interests in mind other than their own.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Almost like it was

Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous is one of my favorite films. It's not a cinematic classic or something that will be remarked upon by critics or even fans a couple decades from now. It's clearly Crowe's best film (I saw his most recent, We Bought a Zoo, recently; it's preternaturally awful) and had great performances by Kate Hudson and Billy Crudup to propel it, along with the always-reliable Frances McDormand and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was a great script because it was something that really happened to Crowe and you can see it in how natural most of the characters seem.

But I think the reasons it really appeals to me are two-fold. First, it's about music and the kind of devotion and enchantment that music can create, both among its creators and its fans. To quote Crudup: "My last words were [and mine may be]: I dig music." Jeebus, I listen to game soundtracks because of the twinges my soul gets from a nice violin piece. It's that bad.

But, secondly, it's about a bunch of creative people enjoying that process together, no matter where it took them. The comic studio was like that in many ways. We weren't reaching the big time. We never made any money. But it was never a bad time and I was committed to making it become... something. What, I'm never quite sure, but I was committed. That should be a startling shock to any of you that know me.

I met Jeff Donaldson in 1991 at the Chicago Comicon. I had already lined up my friends, Will Kliber and Wendy Law, in my quest to become a successful comic writer; nominally for DC or Marvel because they were, as they are now, the biggest kids on the block. I was shopping stuff around to other places/players (Dark Horse, Comico, Majestic) but hadn't gotten a bite and Image had just emerged on the scene. The comic world was just beginning to boom past its geeky, shadowy existence and there were a dozen hundred startups of all kinds at the big shows, where Dave Sim was lord of the small press manor. I vividly remember some kids drawing stick figures in a quartered letter-size piece of paper and selling them for $1.50 each. Hey, if Matt Feazell could do it with Cynicalman, why the hell not? The irony is thick and tendentious...

Jeff and Dave Witt and a couple other artists were making a scene in the small press area of the 1991 show and Will had met them on Saturday while I was still trying to make inroads with the bigger houses (this is where I first met up with an editor at Majestic who was more interested in sleeping with me than publishing my stuff; inroads being what they is, I kept in touch with her, show after show, for the next couple years until Majestic collapsed and died with the rest of the industry.) Will steered me over to them on Sunday and we talked about producing some stuff on an actual deadline for their studio, Fifth Panel Comics. As usual, Jeff was in no way serious about that deadline. I was deadly serious and hounded Will about the details of a 12-page neo-Gothic horror story involving a character called The Gargoyle (stunningly innovative) over the next few weeks. The kernel of that character came from a House of Mystery reprint I read in the late 70s (I forget nothing) and I had grand plans to turn it into something which it never became, while I continued to schlep even grander plans to outfits bigger than 5th Panel.

But those Grandiose Adventures never got sold and Jeff and I talked almost every day and it wasn't long before Fifth Panel started to become the focus of my comic world. This world, at least, since there are infinites, as you and I well know. However, everyone at 5PC was doing their own world and, since I was still very sold on the idea of the group thing that Almost Famous so vividly represents, I suggested making a group world that everyone else could pitch their own thing into and we could all reach that pinnacular moment that we all wanted to reach, separately AND together, and oh my wouldn't it just be so fine...

Jeff smiled and said: "Sure."

Interpreting his casual enthusiasm as a deadline of the most extreme sincerity (in this, I am Patrick Fugit), I sat down a couple days later and spewed out a couple dozen pages of outline with several dozen characters, a few hundred stories, and a few thousand possible storylines dangling off of it in an afternoon. My girlfriend came over at one point to see me, at which time I rather brusquely informed her that "I'm working." My shirtless, unshowered, fairly diffidently-gazed self probably indicated that, but I had to be sure. I couldn't be disturbed. Actually, it really wasn't that difficult or intense. I just had to be sure that she was aware that the creative process was in motion. It felt like the right thing to do at the time. Very Hunter Thompson.

That evening, I drove up to Jeff's place in White Lake and dropped the outline in front of him. He nodded, sagely (we were still kind of feeling each other out in our respective roles), and started reading. A couple pages in, he picked up the phone and called one of the studio's artists:

"Hey, you should get down here and read this cool outline that Marc wrote up for a shared world."

A couple more pages. Another call.

"Hey, you should really come over here and read this awesome outline that Marc put together."

A few more pages. Another call.

"Dude, get down here and check out this amazing stuff that Marc put together."

From that point on, Jeff and I were on the same page(s). Our lives weren't very similar. He had a career at Chrysler and was starting a family. I had a series of bullshit jobs and hung out with other political miscreants, theorizing about the revolution. But we shared a passion and conveyed it to a gaggle of artists and other comic-types who then joined us for our various road trips to locales around the Midwest and East coast. The small press scene was booming as the comic industry was booming on the fuel of speculation and we were going to ride this wave as long as we could. One day, Jeff would retire from Chrysler and become the full-time publisher, but a long time before that, I'd be writing my stuff and editing the rest of the studio's output to genuine comics glory.

At the time, we were assembling our books by hand, a group of us stalking around a table in Jeff's attic ("the studio"), drinking and swaying to Beck's Soul Suckin' Jerk, as we grabbed pages, folded, and stapled. There was no better way to spend an evening.

Our road trips were almost always excursions preceded by frenzied activity to pack all of our latest material and Jeff's latest updates to the booth into a minivan that he'd borrowed off the Chrysler lot (the really cool moments were when he borrowed a Viper to come down to Ann Arbor so we could talk studio work and then try to take it airborne on Michigan Avenue.) When we hit the shows, the object was to be as loud and obnoxious as possible to separate ourselves from the other two dozen small studios packed into the darkest and/or remotest corner of the major convention space or to be the one studio that stood out at the inexpertly-arranged small press shows. We were always the music source for our corner of the convention hall: RATM in the morning, James Brown in the afternoon, Mozart as the show came to a close. Beer and bad food and 10 people crammed into a hotel double. I loved every second of it.

Every day was a new idea. Every idea was something that someone guaranteed that they would complete. Every guarantee was a limitless promise, even if most of the ideas didn't have limitless promise or anything close to it. We were all in it together and it meant something to all of us. It was our thing and it was about the work (music), man!

Of course, I can only be so cynical and dismissive here because I would gladly turn the clock back 20 years and submerge myself in all of that again. That's why the film appeals to me so much, because I see our time in the expressions of those characters. We loved what we were doing as a supposedly upstart producer, but we yearned to be something bigger, even if we knew that being bigger would take us away from the absolute circus that we all loved and were thoroughly enjoying (and perpetuating.) It was at that time that being creative meant something. It surely didn't mean money, but that didn't matter. It surely didn't mean success, personally or otherwise. It occasionally meant sex, but Jeff was already married, so there were limits (Jeff's wife, Trish, whom I love to death, always kind of endured the studio, rather than engaged in it.) And there was a little fame. A very little. A lifetime of reading comics and a relative mastery of the English language led to me becoming a capable editor (yet one more skill that doesn't help me to land a decent job...) and I have a deep appreciation for and a decent assessment of good art, even if I don't express it that often.

Mostly it was about being with a group of like-minded people who would respond to one person's creative expression not with confusion or disdain, but with honest enthusiasm. We were fans, like Fugit's and Hudson's characters, who had a deeper appreciation for what was being shown to them than most (neither was "on drugs!" to make it a good time, as it were.) And, more than that, we were also the creators. I miss a lot of things about the studio: the people (I've only been able to keep in touch with Jeff and Dave, and then only sparingly), the road trips, the feeling of success when a project made it to print. But most of all I miss the ability to toss out an idea and have people immediately bounce one or two back. I miss bringing up a story idea and having people immediately become enthusiastic, rather than confused or hesitant. I miss walking into a space with Jeff and being able to feel like I was part of something, as I am part of so very little now.

I watch that film and I see us, even if on a much smaller scale. I'd give a lot to do that again.