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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? 

Recap: Boardwalk Empire, “The North Star”

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To say that Boardwalk Empire‘s fourth season has been spotty would be an understatement. While the former intrigue and weight of the old show glimmers through every once and a while, season four comes and goes in waves. A thematically rich and engaging episode followed by several disparate scenes lassoed together without any rhyme or reason. “The North Star” is the latter. Following one of this seasons most original and interesting episodes, “The North Star” brings its characters as far from home as possible, anchoring them to plot lines that neither intersect nor advance.  Continue reading

Recap: Eastbound & Down, “Chapter 22”

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Ask any messiah and they’ll tell you, “resurrections are tricky business.” To rise from the ashes like a phoenix, one must first become the phoenix, ready to vanquish their enemies from God’s green earth and take back what is rightfully their’s. But how you justify your return lies in the details. In this case, “Chapter 22” of Eastbound & Down has a lot of ground to cover.

After completing the Kenny Powers saga last year, Jody Hill, Danny McBride, and HBO hope to justify the return of their star pitcher, but where can he go? Apparently, back to suburbia. “Chapter 22” brings Kenny back to “Chapter one,” in the suburbs of Charlotte, NC. There, he reigns king over his castle with a house and family, who think he’s pretty much the best. Domesticated, Kenny rinsed the bleach from his hair, clipped the testicles from his truck, and extinguished the fire in his heart. Kenny Powers might as well still be dead.

In many ways, this seems like the story that always should have followed season two, bringing the story full circle (and, apparently, this was the story McBride and Hill always wanted to tell). Things have come back around for Kenny, and rather than being a disruption in his suburban town, he’s now just a member of it. What a better place for the phoenix to rise?

The show makes perfect use of his surroundings. Kenny’s asides to April, her awards, Ken Marino’s Guy Young, and Kenny’s boss at the car rental depot work perfectly, mostly because McBride feels right at home as Kenny Powers. Him trying to fit in is almost as funny as Powers trying to reign.

Hill’s direction felt a bit off in this episode. HIs camera work was more fluid and faster, as was his use of music, almost bordering on parody. Maybe that was a reflection of Kenny’s supposed transformation, but it just wasn’t working for me.

Like Kenny, Eastbound & Down has a lot to prove this season, and as Kenny started interacting with his old friends and re-kindling that old fire, the episode started to come into its own. Considering most of this episode was setup, there were still plenty of great laughs and little bits about what the season will be about, namely Kenny’s relationship with his son.

Kenny fucking Powers is back and digging his own pool this time. Let’s just hope he can fill it with enough water to float through these next couple episodes.

 

Brilliantly Canceled: The Jeff Dunham Show

ImageOn Brilliantly Canceled, I look at quickly and unceremoniously canceled TV shows. Sometimes it’s a critical look, other times, a historical one, the shows generally have one thing in common: they are terrible.

This week I reviewed The Jeff Dunham Show. Opening to huge ratings and starring one of the most popular comics in the country, the show went into a tailspin in the second episode. Check out why over at Splitsider.

The show premiered to huge numbers with 5.3 million people tuning in to see Peanut’s groundbreaking interview with Brooke Hogan. It was the highest-rated first episode in Comedy Central history. The success, built by a massive marketing campaign, was short lived, however; by week two, all curious and new viewers checked out and ratings dropped 66%.

Critics eviscerated the show. One review, entitled “The Jeff Dunham Show is the Worst Thing in the Whole World,” had nothing but negative things to say about Dunham and his “racist, homophobic, misogynistic, anti-semitic, [and] shithead puppets,” declaring him “THE ABSOLUTE FUCKING WORST DUDE IN THE WORLD.”