The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Review

Not much happens in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, not that anyone would notice. Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and company head toward the Lonely Mountain, hitting every tourist trap along the way, from giant spiders to distracting elves, stuffing the simple story with elaborate set pieces and action scenes. If The Lord of the Rings was a five-course meal filled with character, ambition, and design, this Hobbit sequel is nothing more than empty calories.

Unlike The Two Towers or The Empire Strikes Back, Smaug does nothing to raise the stakes of the first film. Its script doesn’t test character, and instead Bilbo and the dwarves flow down river from one impressive escape to another, without anything to challenge what they’ve learned. Director Peter Jackson assumes by reuniting with composer Howard Shore or perpetual deus-ex machina Gandalf (Ian McKellan), he’ll find the right rhythm, but the notes sound flat. There’s no Jedi training for Bilbo or Battle of Helm’s Deep for Thorin (Richard Armitage), just sound and fury signifying nothing.

Smaug has its merits, though, as the director’s technical wizardry hides the script’s diversions well. When we finally meet the dragon Smaug (the baritone Benedict Cumberbatch, Jackson swings his camera around the his lair in a frenzy as Bilbo hides, editing their battle of wits like an action sequence and making it appear more exciting than it is. These two-and-a-half hours fly by; however, while the return to Middle Earth is entertaining, Jackson gives us no reason to go back again. 

Broadcast News Review

Writer/director James L. Brooks doesn’t follow the rules of journalism in his classic Broadcast News but he does get to the heart of the story. Set in the late–80s, a decade or so before the 24-hour news cycle took over television, the film follows three Washington broadcasters trying to do their jobs while keeping their personal lives off of primetime. While Brooks has always wrangled a fantastic cast, his recent outings (Spanglish and How Do You Know) forget what makes his 1987 work so perfect: empathy. The director and his exceptional performers make sure we know how everyone feels and why they feel it.

Jane (Holly Hunter) is the network’s best producer. Along with Aaron (Albert Brooks), her top field anchor, she delivers hard-hitting stories that rely on realism, not humanity. Enter Tom (William Hurt), a local sportscaster who’s been called up to the big leagues thanks to his good looks, natural charisma, and a little salesmanship. Tom produces human interest stories and allows his emotions to become part of the report, squeezing Aaron out of the job and Jane out of her emotional shell. Now engaged in a professional and personal love triangle, Jane becomes the deciding factor of what matters more: talent or charm.  

The screenplay gets its heavy-lifting done early and defines everyone’s strengths and weaknesses in a prologue. We first meet Tom as boy, who in a page of dialog lays out his characters problems: he’s attractive but dumb. Cut. Brooks jumps to 15-year-old Aaron’s resentful high school valedictorian speech—and subsequent beating for it—and outlines the boy’s problem: he’s too smart for his own good. Next. We see Jane at age 10, obsessively doing her homework and, when her father asks her to slow down, defending her sanity. Like a proper journalist, Brooks edits the sequence hard to tell the audience what they need to know.

Hunter gives a standout performance as Jane, who’s like His Girl Friday’s Hildy Johnson on the verge of a nervous breakdown, torn between the man she admires and the man she’s attracted to. William Hurt has the thankless task of being the good-looking guy that everyone seems to despise, yet is somehow likable. Hurt sells Tom’s insecurities (“I’m no good at what I’m being a success at”) with self awareness, so we can understand why Jane loves him and learn to love him ourselves. Likewise, Albert Brooks becomes the talented, and hilarious, underdog who has the goods without the appeal. His cynicism is a turn off, but Albert Brooks, still riding high off films like Real Life and Modern Romance, is too funny to hate.

It’s all about clarity. Because Brooks clearly defines his characters, he can take them in whatever direction he wants, like intercutting the romance of Tom and Jane’s first kiss with slapstick comedy of Aaron’s sweaty first broadcast. A wonderfully written and acted comedy, matched by Brooks’ in-the-pocket direction, Broadcast News is as close to perfect as modern filmmaking gets.  

TV show endings and why people always hate them

True Detective‘s finale pretty much left the world cold. All the pre-planning and theories and meanings and subtext were rolled up into an extended chase through a labyrinth of twigs and bodies and some mumbled dialog about lightness and darkness. The world shrugs, but wasn’t this always what the show was about?

Told from three timelines and multiple perspectives, True Detective had always been about closure. After all, those who don’t learn from their past are doomed to repeat it, because time is a flat circle. Structurally, the show was always about detectives looking into the past to shine a light on the future. New detectives interrogate older ones to solve a case, so past trauma seeps into the present. 

Trauma defines Rust and Marty’s character. Rust’s arc was based around past trauma. Rust in 1995 tried to overcome the loss of his daughter by obsessively taking down a killer who preyed on children. After the killer was supposedly caught, he fell off the map and his life lost meaning. His obsession, however, never faltered. Marty’s traumas happens in ’95, so he relives them in 2012 in his interviews. His past trauma continues to alter his character. Marty continues to change his personality to win back that which he lost. Past trauma alters their character. 

These are two greatly flawed character that need catharsis in order to create a full arc. They need to be healed, so when they finally take out The Yellow King, it’s no surprise that Rust and Marty find the solace he had been looking for. Symbolically, the Yellow King is their trauma, and by getting their man, they are able to strike a balance between outright objectors of society and regain their humanity. The whole show was pushing towards that ending. There was no way a character as nihilistic as Rust was going to have a story arc where he didn’t grow a little, especially when your  pessimistic atheist sleeps under a crucifix. Rust Cohle was a lot of things, but more than anything else, he was very confused. 

TV shows have the ability to make bigger arguments for their points than movies. True Detective could dive into the many ways Rust Cohle rejected the whole of society, and audiences began to respect and enjoy his hatred. It was what they connected to for nearly 10 hours. However, the things we like about a character become part of a bigger whole, and might turn into something unexpected. Once writers make good on that argument, many times it alters the character so greatly that audiences reject it. True Detective was always a show about finding a balance, but once that balance was struck, the things people like about the show dissipate. We don’t want to see these character grow or change, because ultimately, it’s the things that we like about them that are changing. 

Serial television has a difficult task when finding the right ending. How can we keep enough of the old character while making room for something new. Most of the time, this results in death, because too quick a change kills the character, but can a character grow and leave in a way that satisfies audiences? 

Rust Cohle, The New Mike Hammer — True Detective Takes on Its Influences

So many words have been spilled about True Detective in the last few months, it’s hard to get one in. Whether you’re taken by the show’s red herrings (or yellow herrings, as it were) or disgusted by the lack of strong female characters, there’s no escaping that something about the show’s dark world view has grabbed people, much like the middling abyss we all desperately stare into awaiting the answers.

One of the things that seems amiss, though, in all the conversation about the show is where it sits in the pantheon of detective fiction. Obviously, for a show called True Detective this would be an obvious place to start. Rarely does the conversation shift over to genre traits or character archetypes. The show’s darkness comes from pushing  the ideas of Raymond Chandler, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mickey Spiliane, and, hell, Dick Wolf and Shane Black onto premium cable. All of detective fiction plays a role in HBO’s hit series, which is part of what makes it so compelling. Continue reading

Review: The Monster (1925)

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The Monster isn’t a film that belongs to its star Lon Cheney in the way  his appearances in The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or London After Midnight do. But while his role in as Dr. Ziska gets pushed into the shadows of this bizarre horror-comedy, Roland West’s film made a distinct mark on cinematic history.

Widely considered to be the first “mad scientist” movie and the first “old dark house” movie, The Monster delivers a bizarre look at the thin line between what makes us laugh and what makes us scream. The deep shadows, horrific make-up, and maze of set pieces clash with the light and dopey characters. West sets up his hero as a man hilariously unfit for the situation he finds himself in, a scenario viewers would find again and again throughout the years since the film.

The plot of The Monster resembles another film released only one year earlier, Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. Aspiring detective Johnny Goodlittle investigates the disappearance of John Bowman. The trail leads him to an abandoned sanitarium, where he meets Dr. Ziska, a former patient who, along with his merry band of freaks, has overrun the asylum.

Roland West splits the difference between comedy and horror by creating some beautifully creepy castle designs and expressionistic lighting and a very weightless plot. Retreading the some of the same ground as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, West’s film relies less heavily on a dream-like expressionsof horror. West’s designs, including the intricate passages, dungeons, and laboratories, are ahead of their time, and would later be appropriated by Vincent Price for his haunted house movies.

His use of camp and horror, however, would be later perfected by Abbott and Costello. By placing an unlikely hero at the center of the film, West parodies his genre at its inception. Goodlittle’s inexperience gifts him an absent mindedness that allows him to solve the case, but not without fumbling his way through the set first. The Monster, for all of its goofiness, might as well have been the world’s first Scooby-Doo episode.

Despite being regulated to the background, Lon Chaney’s Dr. Ziska has a presence that permeates throughout the film. His hand lay firmly in each of the sinister plans for his house guests orders about a some particularly ghoulish minions. Rigo, Caliban, and the unfortunately-named Daffy Dan seep into the background of the scenes, allowing Ziska to lure his guests into his web.

Lon Chaney, however, really doesn’t get the most screen time nor is his character the most interesting. Yet while Johnny Arthur’s Johnny Goodlittle played up the laughs, Chaney’s Ziska really does aim for scares. Less made-up than in his more famous pictures, Chaney’s ability to slap a malevolent smile on his face and stalk his victims never ceases to keep up the creepy side of the film.

The Monster, despite being the birthplace of the old dark house, the mad scientist, and the horror comedy still feels inessential. Neither particularly scary nor funny, the film struggles to balance the two throughout. By the time the film reaches its climax, reality becomes so heightened it seemingly detaches from the horror world entirely. The Monster never  establishes a consistent tone for either, West’s ability to create a frightful tone for the film does win over in a few, select spots.

Peter Lorre: The Aggressive Mimicry of His Defining Roles

Great villains have the ability to attract and destroy. Like predators in the wild, these characters trick their prey  by posing as something familiar, harmless, or friendly. It’s a form of aggressive mimicry. These monsters of reality and fiction hunt without the world knowing it, a quality Peter Lorre brings to his performances, ensnaring the audience with unpredictable characters. The dangerous and unassuming  Lorre made the most bizarre and terrifying characters unbelievably magnetic.

Lorre’s career has been defined by several iconic roles: the first being in Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece, M. And while his face remains confined to the film’s conclusion, his presence in the film is undeniable. Mostly heard offscreen enchanting children with a wholesome whistle, Lorre remains in the shadows for much of the film’s runtime. The once banal act of whistling shifts the atmosphere. The killer approaches and dread takes over.

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Four Ways to Get Boardwalk Empire Back on Track

In lieu of another recap, which I’m already late on, I’ve decided to take a look at  Boardwalk Empire‘s problematic fourth season. Uneven in every sense of the word, the show has overwritten the plot and underwritten the characters. Here’s how the show can get back to doing what it does best: blowing beautiful set pieces up. Continue reading