The Tyranny of Cinematic Spectacle (A review of The Hobbit 3)

battle-of-the-five-armies-smaug-dies-and-nothing-else-happensThe Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies was finally released and I can only imagine what that must be like, or has been like, for the easily awestruck 12 year olds out there. My heart is envious of their youth and increased capacity for novelty. Though, I fondly recollect my own relative experience viewing the first Lord of the Rings trilogy in my late teens. I was 16 when the Fellowship of the Ring came out, working my first job at a Sam Goody music store; Northway Mall Anchorage, AK.

It was one of those REAL snowy days, but not blizzardy. The snowfall was slushy and water logged. For whatever reason, these conditions gave the family quest getting to the move on time an air of daring and mystery. Successfully traversing the odd road conditions and suction cup pockets of slush in the parking lots, we were now cozily huddled in a dark theater, ready to witness the beginning of what became the seminal theatrical experience of my generation.

Oddly, despite growing up as somewhat of a budding cinephile, I wasn’t all that aware of Fellowship’s release before hand. It may have been that first job, or school, or girlfriends — I don’t fully recall — but I was mostly ignorant of what lay in store. Fantasy movies hadn’t ever reached for the level of gravitas and dramatic impact which Peter Jackson achieved on a New Line Cinema production gamble. But, I doubt any of this was going through my mind at the time. It was more like, “oh, hmmm, family has tickets for a movie, family is picking me up from work, I’m down for a flick, I hope it’s good.”

The theater lights dropped and those whispers beckoned. Lady Galadriel’s voice permeated the dark space around us with poetic and ethereal presence, and then the strings played the theme of the ring. I was taken from this earthly realm, Middle Earth became reality for those near 3 hours. I hardly knew what this place was, having never read the books. I was perfectly primed for Fellowship to be an otherworldly spectacle having very few preconceptions. Put it this way, if no one had ever played for you Stairway to Heaven, had you barely acknowledged Led Zeppelin’s existence, had you never had to hear it played in a dive bar, and while driving late at night–randomly flipping on the radio–and before having even chosen a station–clear night with a mostly empty road–on a trip that allowed stretches of pensive contemplation, and you heard those first string moments of Stairway, taking that journey as ignorantly as possible; imagine what that might be like.

I would say my Fellowship viewing experience was something akin to that; novelty, majesty, mystery, beauty, tragedy, action, myth-making, world building, sagacious wisdom, philosophical concepts, moral dilemmas, sacrifice, love, friendship, the quest, the loneliness of despair…The Fellowship of the Ring will forever remain one of the greatest movie experiences I ever had and ever will have. They just don’t make them like that anymore…am I right?

Well, more so, my expectations are now primed in too many ways before attending movies as an adult. Too often, bombastic filmmaking is accompanied with worn tropes, a lack of subtlety, and obvious thematics. So, in attending The Battle of the Five Armies, there was no way the Fellowship experience of my youth could be matched. “It’s not you PJ, it’s me,” is what I’d like to say, but I cannot assert that as truth. “Peter Jackson, it’s definitely you that was the problem this time around.” The Hobbit trilogy was too often about Jackson’s need for spectacle, need for epicness, need for hitting us over the head with Middle-Earthisms (a tag I propose to describe the ways in which PJ tries so hard to make this finale feel like LOTR magic that it then loses its natural quality and becomes borderline absurd). The original LOTR trilogy–Fellowship, Towers, and ROTK–never felt absurd (with the exception of Legolas skating down a giant elephant trunk and his delivery of that line, “a diversion”).

The Hobbit films aren’t parody, per se, but they are most certainly pandering. As if Peter Jackson in his years away from the land of Middle Earth got it twisted that these films needed one specific quality, and that this quality is what made the original trilogy the fantastical bliss that it was. But that’s incredibly facile to infer, since so much of what was brilliant about LOTR comes down to nuances in storytelling. Battle of the Five Armies has ne’ery a moment of subtlety, and where the nice touches do exist, they are rare and only remind you of what possibly could have been.

Almost every one of these moments comes via the masterful performance of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. It’s hard for me to say, but even Gandalf became rather gimmicky. There is no moment on par with McKellan’s early master strokes: “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us”, the sublime moment of his arrival at Helms Deep, his consoling Pippen before the battle for Minas Tirath. The best scemne we get Gandalf laboring with his weed pipe, next to Bilbo, after the orc hoard has been dispersed. Thanks, Peter Jackson, for reducing Gandalf’s significance and impact such that a humorous stoner moment feels like his most inspiring.

In other respects–acting, visual effects, awe, and wonder–Five Armies does make out pretty well. Thematically, unlike the other two, Five Armies also gets to the point. Although not much time is spent on it, the essence of why this story is interesting and has moral significance is touched on poignantly, even if, not nearly enough. Friendship transcends our differences and the world we come from. Bravery, love, and sacrifice can inspire great things in people towards acting in the interest of the greater good. Darkness overwhelms, but if compassion and wisdom are fostered, their capacity for changing hearts can be what drives people and cultures down a better historical path.

Though these messages can be pieced apart from Five Armies, it often felt too obvious, sensationalistic, and a cheap facsimile compared to the first trilogy. The Hobbit 1-3 felt like they were very much for the kids. I won’t even hesitate in suggesting that Jackson pulled a George Lucas here; granted these prequels were not so insulting to the intellect. The storybook and staged feel that exists in Five Armies may actually be intentional; something understandable but not necessarily defensible. Middle Earth for me worked much better when it had a sense of being lived rather than feeling like a grand stage for apocalyptic doom.

In certain ways it even cheapens how Fellowship begins. You’d think that Gandalf might be more aware that Middle Earth stood poised on the precipice of destruction, and not just swinging by Bilbo’s for tea and toast. But whatever, that only goes further to serve my ultimate point about Five Armies and the Hobbit flicks; they are incongruous to the craft and care that existed a decade ago.

What works? Thorin’s descent into madness was shown with considerable impact and visual pizzazz. The scene where he gets swallowed by a floor of mirror like gold was particularly effective. What didn’t work? Thorin’s sudden turn to fight with the rest against the Orcs was just another staged moment. I didn’t feel much sense that he and his band could turn the battle nor was I all that sympathetic since his madness was so selfish. I felt like Thorin had just been a deluded jerk. Contrast this with how clearly Theoden was influenced by otherwordly forces in the Two Towers, much more effective. What is the point with Thorin? That he has a dwarven greed at the essence of who he is; that this greed is dangerous and utterly self absorbed? I’m not sure, which is the source of my disappointment because his change back to being heroic wasn’t  earned. I will say, Richard Armitrage and Martin Freeman still play the key moments to perfection with the material that they’re given. Maybe the Five Armies extended addition will flesh out more of that psychological conflict. But as it stands, it’s thin and unconvincing.

What else worked? Legolas! Strangely, it’s as though Orlando Bloom came back primed to demonstrate his veteran status, while taking it up a notch with his dramatic presence. Legolas mostly serves one role: be a badass. Legolas is supposed to be younger in The Hobbit, though he neither looks nor acts younger. So take that for what you will, it’s hardly my biggest grievance.

Five Armies’ major weakness comes from an inability to decide who the main character is, and thus we really don’t have one. By the end, it would seem that Bilbo serves that purpose, after the first 2/3rds toyed with the Bard and Thorin in this role. I was mostly disinterested with the Bard’s leadership arc and the plight of Laketown. The entire Laketown saga came off as PJ’s excuse for extending the run time and justifying a trilogy. Smaug’s assault was visually impressive but lacked dramatic heft since the wind in those sails had long blown over from a years passing since Desolation. So he breathes his fire and dies in completely predictable fashion, tacked on as a limp prologue.

This “tacked on” feel demonstrates a strangeness that’s present in all three films. We jump from set piece to set piece as though Peter Jackson is ticking off boxes on his homage-to-Tolkien checklist. This is all less about a coherent story and more about squeezing out every last drop of spectacle. But he’s still TRYING to make story seem important. The elf/dwarf romance–the names of whom I can’t even conjure–, the Bard’s hero arc, Thorin’s madness, Gandalf’s foray to some uber scary tower, and in this installment the band of dwarven fellows who we’d grown fond of fade into the background completely. It’s like Jackson occasionally thought “oh yeah, characters matter”, but the thought didn’t linger for long before tossing the ball over to WETA for some more visual splendor. I daresay this could qualify as the advent of ‘Middle Earth porn’.

So why the naysaying and criticism? Well, Return of the King won the Oscar, that might be one reason. We’ve had it proven that high fantasy can work as both spectacle and dramatic brilliance. As a cinephile and a fantasy nerd, it would have been pleasing to see these heights reached for again. Alas, the LOTR films are probably just one of a kind. If you’re looking for high art in fantasy anymore, it’s going to be on HBO’s Game of Thrones, and that’s about it. Fantasy as film, in all honesty, may not exist to be taken with complete seriousness. Let it be known that The Hobbit in its own right is still an immersive and awesome theatrical experience, taking digital and technical mastery to a whole new level.

But here’s the rub with for me. I won’t watch the first two again for probably 5 years, if ever. Five Armies I might revisit when released in extended form, and for the fact that it felt more quintessential to what I expect from Middle Earth excursions. Yet, I won’t be revisiting it as any sort of study in dramatic craft or for getting creative inspiration. When it comes to movies and art, I want to know and witness genius. I want to ask myself what the creative intent was and consider whether it’s worthwhile or profound. And with The Hobbit 1-3, the genius just isn’t there.

The bare bones assessment: Five Armies should be seen in High-Frame Rate, on a large screen, while witnessed, beheld, and experienced in the way that one might experience skydiving. “WOOOOOOOO, exhilaration, but am I coming away a better human being or a more inspired artist?” I guess that’s for each viewer to decide individually. For me, the answer to that question is ‘no’. Nevertheless, I have zero regrets seeing the movie at least once in its full theatrical glory.

PEACE

Is Nolan Who We Think He Is? (A VO Review of Interstellar and its director)

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Spoilers are VERY minor with story elements and devices only hinted at.

Often after seeing a major release from the likes of Christopher Nolan, my first inclination is to defend the work. Without question, when it comes to Nolan, my critical sense is in what I would term ‘High Art’ mode. His films have their various flaws and his technique is at times clunky, but I have my theories for why this is the case and why these are insufficient for disputing his greatness as a director. Chris Nolan, often with his brother Jonathan Nolan in the writer’s seat, makes ambitious and praiseworthy overtures towards bridging the gap between mainstream, big budget fodder and a more sophisticated artistic vision. Naturally, this brings out the trolls, contrarians, and the hyper-critical.

Soon after The Dark Knight was exalted by critics and audiences alike, there were detractors who felt a special need to temper the conversation with a “hey now, folks, hold your horses.” Some did it tastefully and brought appropriate realism to the consensus of what Nolan’s work means in the public conscience and consciousness. Others were in full on take-Nolan down-a-notch mode, and invariably their go-to zinger went something like, “Nolan is no Kubrick”; delivered as though they’d been personally insulted. It’s easy enough to respond to such contempt by saying, “well no shit.” Neither are The Black Keys any sort of Led Zeppelin, but they are still pretty damn great. It seemed to be a commonplace demonstration of intellectual grandstanding following Inception for someone to write or tweet “Inception wasn’t THAT mind blowing, I understood the WHOLE thing” or “the reason your mind was blown was because of the Earth sized plot holes you didn’t catch onto, so you FELT like it was deep and epic! But if you were smart enough, you’d know better.”

So before delving into my own critical breakdown of Interstellar, I’d like to address the issue of minds being blown and glaring logic loopholes. Firstly, spotting plot holes doesn’t always entail that you were the smarter viewer. On repeat viewing of Nolan’s films, which are often packed like puzzles, it becomes clear that he and his brother are very particular and most questions are answerable or purposefully left ambiguous. I will admit that his pacing and degree of explanation is sporadically suspect; an issue of editing and cutting down to digestible size I imagine. But simply because I’m unsure exactly what transpired in a scene, or because I didn’t gather why so and so did such and such in scene ‘A’ or ‘B’, doesn’t give me free rein to accuse a director or writer of laziness or speak of those who enjoyed viewing it scornfully.

Secondly, when it comes to Nolan’s work, viewers run a high risk of becoming prisoners of the moment. I know this was true of me when it came to The Dark Knight Rises; which in retrospect I now see as being Nolan’s most flawed effort, paling as compared to TDK. However, when I first saw it I was convinced it was superior; that he’d taken his TDK template to that next epic level. I was a POM to the IMAX experience and the mythic/epic Chris Nolan overtones. TDKR had a certain level of hubris, the auteur attempting to elevate the pulpy comic book action movie to the plain of legendary. To Nolan’s credit, this vision was mostly realized. But, on additional sit downs with TDKR, I started noticing its glaring blemishes. Nolan’s shortcomings became more readily apparent: a telegraphed twist, clunky and disengaging action sequences, Shakespearean and dramatic flare occasionally drifting into silliness, pacing issues, and distracting editing. But let’s remember why the susceptibility for being caught up in Nolan’s magic exists in the first place; he indeed makes magic on the screen and often evokes transcendent and sublime emotionality.

So, I went into Interstellar with my bias detectors as fully in check as I could muster. But I still possessed the sort of giddiness that a youthful me had whilst attending Jurassic Park or Return of the King for the first time. I was stoked. So as I hunkered down for the feature presentation, I was of two minds. Despite Nolan’s flaws, he still creates awe inspiring movies that equate to what I would only describe as ‘spiritual’. With Interstellar, some of his directorial tics show through again, yet, in the IMAX setting is wholly engaging in the ways that Nolan is known for. This is why I go to the theater. These are the kinds of movies I hope for and rarely ever see.

Most movies are just that, movies (crude and entertaining). Christopher Nolan still adheres to this ambition of making FILMS; not simply moving pictures that assist the popcorn going down more smoothly. He often manages to deliver on both fronts. Interstellar, however, might alienate the more casual tenants of weekend features. More than any of his other projects, the Nolan brothers are firmly in the driver’s seat and were given ample amounts of leeway to try the patience of standard movie goers; not only in its mood but with its near 3 hour length. Movie goers that are likely more accustomed to the Marvel comic freneticism, hokey one-liners, and a predictable cadence of rising conflict, climax, and clean resolution. This isn’t a criticism of movie going audiences as much as it is an acknowledgement that a certain style of filmmaking is going extinct, and Nolan refuses to let it die. Of this I am grateful, because that style is a beautiful thing.

From the get go, another brilliant score from Hans Zimmer sets the tone for a journey that is grand in scale. The aesthetic of the film is clean and noticeably free of obvious digital doctoring and clutter. The setup for the premise does require patience, but I didn’t feel any annoyance watching it unfold. A number of plot devices are left unclear, and at times might frustrate. Here, I’d suggest, is a known problem for Nolan in general. In an effort to save some of the big reveals, we are kept in the dark maybe too much. Conversely, he is prone to expositive info dumps that are unusual for wide audience releases. I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks felt that they were sitting through a science lesson that, even though laden with dialogue, left them scratching their head for having not brushed up on their cosmology and astrophysics. I didn’t have a problem here, but I’ve taken an interest in these subjects most of my life . This isn’t a tooting of my horn, I readily admit that Nolan could have done better explaining some stuff.

As Interstellar takes off into space, Nolan’s nods to Kubrick’s 2001 are so obvious that it can hardly be levied as a criticism. He is PURPOSEFULLY paying tribute to particular aesthetic touches from one the greatest sci fi films of all time. He has said himself that “you can’t pretend 2001 doesn’t exist when you’re making Interstellar.” But these are mostly visual and not tonal or thematic similarities. The storytelling and manner of how the plot unfolds is almost entirely unique to Nolan with the exception of what I would term Interstellar’s ‘monolith moment’. Thankfully, Christopher Nolan felt the need to inject humanity into this epic space opera and also grants the audience a sleek resolution, rather than leaving them like a quivering fetus in space contemplating their existential insignificance.

I anticipate that some will say the resolution was predictable, cheesy or too tidy. Without giving it away I can still express understanding of where these criticisms would come from. I had my moments of skepticism and I wasn’t in love with the ‘monolith moment’ myself, but the epilogue of the film largely erased my doubts. I left feeling respectful of how Christopher Nolan chose to solve his little puzzle. He’s one of those artists that seems deliberate and calculated enough that I trust his choices without over thinking whether I completely agree with it. This allowance of artistic latitude when it comes to exacting scrutiny is a conscious choice, and honestly it has made most movies and shows more enjoyable for me. I have spent too many days being prudish and pretentious in pursuit of something searing to say as a demonstration of my intellect. I think it doubtful that anyone else could have managed a better denouement without just leaving the end ambiguous, which is often the typical route taken by art house or more idiosyncratic filmmakers of the Lars Von Trier variety. There is a reason those movies often don’t get wider releases. They might be cool and interesting, but they’re weird, even awkward, and they often conceal their intentions and message to a maddening extent.

Interstellar is not for everyone and that doesn’t mean it’s not still great and admirable in most respects of these words. Lovers of the Dark-Knight-Nolan are going to get something worlds apart from those installments. The Inception crowd will have its patience tried as Interstellar is light in the action department. Where it tries to create tension with action, the movie slips considerably. A middle act devolves into an awkward astronaut fight that felt forced while also attempting to overlay poetic flourishes that frankly didn’t work. But this was brief and the film then moved onto its epic finale. This is mostly a character drama set in space that saves the bombast for the key moments. The meanwhile-on-earth plot gets significantly more screen time towards the latter end of the picture, and the editing choices with that were at times clunky, frustrating, and less engaging.

I would suggest this film be witnessed in the full IMAX glory, but I imagine it’s still great in other formats. Chris Nolan is one of the few filmmakers actually choosing to utilize the IMAX cameras during principle photography, so the entire geography of the screen is covered for most of the running time — no doubt looking spectacular. The non-IMAX intercuts are in a narrower aspect ratio, noticeably darker and less vivid; perhaps bothersome to purists or perfectionists. I await the day that the IMAX cameras and film are more affordable and versatile so Nolan can just have the entire experience be properly wide and tall, as the ambitions of his films demand it. But I’m also hearing that the format might altogether be retired, and this could very well be some of the last times we can witness this preferred Nolan medium.

Some will go in expecting life altering and world changing cinematics. Many of these folks will probably prisoner-of-the-moment their way right to that desired conclusion. And more power to them, it’s awesome to feel like your life was altered and your world was shattered and reformed in a 3 hour span. Others will go into it expecting epic action and coolness, and I imagine some of these cravings might be left unsatisfied. There are also those who will attend looking to depreciate Nolan’s stock with a how-dare-anyone-compare-him-to-Stanley chip on their critical shoulder. Admittedly, there are poetic and romantic touches that Nolan paints with that sometimes come across more silly than intriguing; but he hits far more often than he misses. I’m not going to let one badly delivered Matt Damon pontification spoil the experience. And yes, Matt Damon is in this movie…I’m not getting my Matt’s mixed up.

Let haters hate and allow some people to have a fleck of bitter taste ruin an entire heaping pile of delectable, satisfying, intellectual and creative desserts. This is the way of the modern movie goer and hyper-critic: to feel like they are owed what they want or expected. Those who don’t get it will haughtily levy labels like “overrated” and “pop sci-fi” against Insterstellar more as an expression of their dislike for Nolan and people who revere him. There are relevant criticisms of this and his other work; that they are “pop” or “silly” are not some of them. I also anticipate that the media narrative will paint the response as more polarized than it actually is. But there will be yay-sayers and naysayers, as immutable a fact as time itself…wait, is time immutable??…

I for one was satisfied to a large extent. There were a handful of moments that created that undeniable upswell indicating that I was witnessing greatness. I wouldn’t want to belittle that with minor grievances. Christopher Nolan has done for the medium in its early 21sty century form what is otherwise not granted by major studios to most other filmmakers. This sort of freedom and ambition should be applauded, even when it doesn’t match all of our expectations. Otherwise, we’ll be condemned to a smattering of Michael Bayesque CGI orgies, Judd Apatow knockoffs, and overextended franchise money pits; with the occasional bright glimmers like Edge of Tomorrow or the Hungers Game series. Even those often lack the same ‘high art’ aspirations that Nolan and his team clearly hold themselves to. Color me fooled or hoodwinked by the magic, but I see the sophistication present in his craft as being real and achieved, not some hallucinatory mindtrick of cinema. Go forth and enjoy, and do not over think all the over thinking I just did with regards to Christopher Nolan’s Insterstellar. PEACE