The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Movie review

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings is a spectacularly realised saga that’s even more impressive for the scale of its ambition: to tell a grand, epic story on film, which it (mostly) does (when it’s not swaddling itself in sentimentality). Remember how compelling The Fellowship of the Ring was the first time? I saw that movie four times in the cinema and countless times after on DVD.

I can’t imagine watching any of The Hobbit films more than once, ever. Not because they’re terrible: The first installment, An Unexpected Journey, is fine, and its sequel, The Desolation of Smaug, is also fine. It’s just that the ambition of these films feels less “let’s tell a story” and more “let’s make a ton of money stretching an uncomplicated story across three unnecessary films”.

If you’re a Middle-earth diehard and/or you don’t care about any of that, great, good for you, you will enjoy this a lot. But a sense of gross cash-grabbing cynicism hangs off Smaug like the creepy giant spiders that have spun their webs across Mirkwood. Sure, yes, Hollywood is a business and every blockbuster is made to make money – but The Hobbit franchise’s naked greed is actually revolting.

Because J.R.R. Tolkein’s Hobbit book is so slight you could literally read the whole thing in the time it takes to watch a single part of its film adaptation, Jackson and co. have made significant additions to its plot. Smaug picks straight up from the first film, in which the 13 dwarves, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Bilbo (Martin Freeman) made barely any progress on their quest to the Lonely Mountain to boot out Smaug the dragon (voiced by Tumblr’s favourite actor Benedict Cumberbatch).

To move things along a bit, the party takes a shortcut through the spider-infested Mirkwood while Gandalf goes off to investigate some spooky Necromancer we’re meant to pretend we don’t know is Sauron. The travellers are rescued then imprisoned by elves, including princely Legolas (Orlando Bloom, who spends most of the film looking fiercely irritated by his contact lenses) and his subject Tauriel* (Evangeline Lilly), a badass he has a crush on.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug(*Tolkein avoided female characters like orcs avoid Sting, but Tauriel is one of the few inventions this bloated film actually needs: She’s its only major female character – in fact she’s the only female character, period, which is not a menstruation pun. Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel, An Unexpected Journey’s only lady, appears only for a moment. Of course Tauriel is manouvered into a love triangle with Legolas and one of the dwarves; this doesn’t bother me because it’s sexist to give the only lady a love story, or whatever, but because it’s yet another unnecessary plot. And as if a warrior elf hottie would fall for some smelly dwarf anyway.)

The travellers escape the elf kingdom by riding in barrels down a river in a great sequence that will probably make a great theme park ride some day, and they befriend a handsome outsider named Bard (Luke Evans), who smuggles them into a village near Smaug’s hideout called Laketown, where they meet a dumbass mayor (Stephen Fry) who cuts some deal with them – I’m fuzzy on the details because I slipped out to visit the men’s room* – and then they trek off to the Lonely Mountain, where the dwarves throw a tantrum and quit the whole journey because they don’t immediately find the doorway in, but luckily/conveniently, Bilbo finds it, and then he’s sent in to burgle the dragon’s lair (which was the whole reason he was dragged along, remember?) and find some important dwarf stone (which is the key to this whole quest, remember?) (actually I didn’t remember anything about that stuff, but luckily there is lots of exposition, so much exposition), and then Bilbo actually meets Smaug when the dragon emerges from under his treasure pile, and then some more stuff happens, and then…

(*One does not simply watch a 17-hour film without taking bathroom breaks, though it says a lot about Smaug‘s plot that you can skip scenes to pee without missing anything important.)

Whew. There is a lot going on in this movie. It leaps from scene to scene, so it’s never boring. It’s just… pointless. What is all this story for? What is it labouring towards? What does it service aside from this bloated franchise? There’s another film to go after this one? Jeez.

This feeling is most obvious in the climactic, 20-minute scene (spoilers ahead!) depicting Bilbo and the dwarves escaping Smaug’s lair, with the fire-belching dragon chasing furiously after them. They all run around! They all pull ropes! They all ride mine carts! Except it’s not really clear why anyone is doing any of this, because there isn’t any reason for it except to fill screen time.

The story of The Lord of the Rings had purpose. The story of The Hobbit just has… dwarves. So, so many dwarves, whose quest no one cares about and who blur into one and rarely stand out from each other. (“Hey, it’s that red-haired dwarf again. Oh – and another red-haired dwarf next to him? There are two red-haired dwarves in this I guess?”) Despite being the franchise’s title character, Bilbo disappears in among the dwarves and hardly matters for long tracts of the film. Who needs a magic ring to make someone invisible when you can pull of the same trick by burying them in hours and hours of unnecessary storylines?

Previously: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

 

American Hustle: Movie review

American Hustle

Immediately after watching American Hustle, I said to my friend: “Well, that was… fine.” He replied: “It was, and I never want to see it ever again.”

Which pretty much sums it up. (End of review!) American Hustle is not a great movie. It’s not a bad movie. It’s just an unremarkable one.

Sporting a flabby and not-especially-appealing belly (maybe as a symbol for the whole film?) and a combover, Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a 1970s conman who’s clever enough to know his limits. Working alongside his lover Sydney (Amy Adams), who poses as an prime Englishwoman with vague banking connections, he targets small-time victims and reaps modest rewards.

Then they’re busted by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious and arrogant FBI agent who exploits their cunning to go after bigger fish. DiMaso’s first mark is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a New Jersey mayor willing to do some dirty deals if it means he can ultimately do good for his community.

As Polito’s connections to crooked senators and the Mafia become clearer, a manic DiMaso raises the stakes of his operation and entangles Irving and Sydney in both increasingly dangerous hijinks and convoluted love quadrangles.

Tied up in all of this is Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, aka my future best friend and definitely not your future best friend), an unpredictable big-mouth who serves mostly as comic relief.

American HustleThe story isn’t gritty or compelling enough to make it a satisfying, Goodfellas-ish underworld movie. But it isn’t wacky enough to make it a satisfying, Oceans 11-ish heist movie, either.

Hustle isn’t really enough of anything. It’s kind of funny, but not especially funny. Lawrence scores most of the good lines — dubbing her new-fangled microwave a “science oven” — and Louis C.K. is sort of amusing doing his Louis C.K. thing. It’s kind of retro, but not remarkably retro. Cooper has a perm, and Adams and Lawrence wear lots of open-down-to-the-navel ’70s blouses. (More like American Bustle, am I right fellas?) The performances and direction are solid, but nothing about it seems outstandingly strong.

It’s watchable without ever being engaging. This is the kind of film that will probably dominate this year’s awards season by virtue of its pedigree (yep), which we’ll all have forgotten about by this time next year.

 

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: Movie review

The Hunger Games Catching Fire
First things first: Jennifer Lawrence is amazing and brilliant (and my future best friend, so back off everyone please). So of course she is amazing and brilliant reprising her role as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire. Lawrence is so effortlessly charming and charismatic in real life it’s easy to forget she is just as effortlessly charming and charismatic onscreen: Her Katniss is angry and strong but vulnerable, her line readings are surprising, and it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing this character. Catching Fire would not be as good as it is without her.

(Some spoilers lie ahead.)

But! Even putting Lawrence aside, this is a good movie – better than its predecessor. The stakes are higher, the plot is bleaker, and the horror of the world Katniss lives in isn’t just confined to an arena where teenagers murder each other for sport.  Fresh from her victory in the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss is closely watched by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the ruthless leader of the oppressive Capitol. He suspects – rightly – that she’s growing into a symbol of hope for the downtrodden masses out in the districts. Pissed off that Katniss outfoxed him when she tricked her way out of killing Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) in her first games, Snow orders her to act as a tool for his regime.

Katniss, furious but terrified of what Snow will do to her loved ones if she acts out, obeys. But that hope she offers is too potent for even her to call back, so Snow invents a way to get rid of her: He’ll serve up her and her fellow victors to compete in the 75th Hunger Games, a “Quarter Quell” that promises to be even more cruel and brutal than usual.

The resulting spectacle gets a lot of things right. The games don’t even kick off until well into the film – after we’re on board with what a desperate and horrible Katniss situation has been thrown into. When they begin, the action is brisk and thrilling and dangerous. Deadly fog! Deadly monkeys! Deadly lightning!

The Hunger Games Catching Fire

But Catching Fire inherits a lot of problems from both its cinema predecessor and the book it’s based on. Like the first Hunger Games movie, the violence is blunted and brushed aside – characters are gruesomely dispatched without much of an impact – and Liam Hemsworth, as the third point of Katniss’s love triangle, is still given barely anything to do. (I think he’s unfairly criticised for his wooden presence in the Hunger Games movies, when it’d be a struggle for any actor to make much out of such a brief, nothing-y character.)

And, like the book, the film’s ending is something of a letdown. The big twist feels unearned, the plot machinations muddled and never properly explained*, and the climactic cliffhanger – which in the book at least had a bit of heft – is pretty limp, especially coming so soon after the spectacular, fiery destruction of the Games’ tropical arena.

(*I still have no idea exactly what Beetee, played by Jeffrey Wright, was planning to do with that loop of wire.)

The Hunger Games Catching Fire poster

But everything that comes before it is so well executed (no pun intended, I swear). Lawrence deserves kudos for elevating the film well above its script, but she’s helped out on the heavy lifting by returning supporting cast members Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci. (Banks’s Capitol publicist Effie Trinkett has a lot going on behind her veneer of make-up, while Tucci deserves a specially created Oscar for Best Performance as a Campy Beady-Eyed TV Host.)

Of the new cast, Sam Claflin is a much better choice than I thought he’d be to play Games victor Finnick Odair – his smug, elfin face suits that character perfectly. (On the downside he is only shirtless in one scene. One! For only like 15 seconds! What even is the point!) And Jenna Malone is a standout as Johanna Mason, who’s unafraid to declare how pissed off she is that she’s been called back for another Games.

It’s possible Catching Fire will be the last good Hunger Games movie: The third instalment, Mockingjay, is by far (by far) the weakest of the books, and it’s impossible to say yet whether needlessly splitting it into two films will make it even worse. But, it’s possible the movies will iron out the book’s kinks into a clearer (and even grimmer) story than the novel. If they can pull that off, it’s really going to be something to see.

 

Advent and Anarchy, James Treadwell: Book review

Advent, James TreadwellIf old magics returned to the world, civilisation would collapse. That’s the premise of James Treadwell’s Advent trilogy, a bleak and gripping take on what happens after a centuries-old mage is resurrected in a remote part of Cornwall.

(No wonder the witches and wizards in Harry Potter worked so hard to keep magic secret from us Muggles.)

Troubled teenager Gavin has been haunted since childhood by a spectre he calls “Miss Grey”, who no one else can see. He’s one of the few people who can perceive the remnant shreds of magic left in the world – so of course everyone believes he’s crazy. At the start of Advent, the first book in the series, his parents finally tire of his antics and ship him off to stay with his eccentric aunt at Pendurra, a crumbling Cornish mansion.

Gavin arrives at his new home just as things start to go south. His aunt, Gwen, has disappeared. Hellish beasts stalk the estate. A dark plot is unfolding. Treadwell’s story is slow and dense, but he builds the tension and dread into a spectacular climax as magic is unleashed back into this corner of England.

Anarchy, James TreadwellInstalment two, Anarchy, begins several months after the events of Advent, as the reawakened magic starts to take hold of a world that can’t yet understand what the hell is happening. This book is even slower and denser than its predecessor – and weaker. Much of the story revolves around new characters – including Goose, a Canadian mountie, and Gavin’s mother, who desperately tries to reunite with her son as magic rips Britain apart – whose connection to Advent emerges at an often frustrating pace. Anarchy eventually ties most of its threads together, but the ending is so obscurely written that it isn’t entirely clear or satisfying.

That said: When Anarchy achieves full momentum, it’s unnerving and unpredictable. Treadwell’s series makes a convincing argument that society – its laws and its systems – only works because everyone believes it works. When that faith is knocked away, the whole illusion falls apart. If fantasy does ever become reality, we’re all screwed.

 

Penises are weird

No one you see naked in a public change room is ever anyone you’d want to see naked. The other day at the gym there this naked guy striding around the change room with this real sense of urgency. “I must get to the sink naked! I must get to my locker naked! I must make everyone see how naked I am!” There is literally nothing you can do in a gym change room that is more important than putting on underwear. I see a lot of peen in the gym locker room. This is not a good thing. My mutant power is walking in there just in time so see some old guy’s weird junk. Penises are weird looking, right? Like if penises had never existed, and some guy invented penises, everyone would be like: “What is that thing? What are those ugly bits dangling under it? Why the hell is it doing that? … Yucky.” I think it’s funny when gays go on about how weird vaginas are. Sure, vaginas are weird. But… have you guys seen a penis? Jeez. I guess no one looks at a dick objectively because any time you’re looking at a dick you’re steamy and aroused and you don’t notice it looks like some skinned deformed rodent lizard. The human sex drive literally evolved to make us forget how hideous all our genitals are.

 

The worst part about being single

… is that no one believes you when you tell them you are fine not being in a relationship. Because everyone wants to be in a relationship, right? “What’s your situation right now?” a friend asked me the other day. I said I’m not seeing anyone, and I’m not that interested in finding someone to see. I feel like the reaction I got was: “Oh, suuuuure… ya desperate loser. Go die alone.” I mean, I’m not anti-relationship or anything. Relationships have their benefits. One recent Friday night I was on the couch with only a glass of wine for company, watching a kids’ movie from the ’80s about a sexy cartoon unicorn. Keep in mind I am a 30-year-old, financially independent man who lives alone. And it occurred to me that having another adult around might make sexy unicorn times slightly less pathetic. Very slightly.  But even though I’m single, I do have romance in my life. I don’t mean to brag but on my way home from work the other evening, I was coming out of Kings Cross station when I made eye contact with a homeless woman crouched in the curb. As our gazes met, she started sobbing. It’s the little things that count.

 

The Long Earth and The Long War, Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter: Book review

The Long Earth, Terry Pratchett and Stephen BaxterOne day, humanity makes a stunning discovery: There are parallel universes neighbouring ours, stacked next to each other, stretching out to infinity, each one holding an Earth that is more or less identical to ours. Humans can step out of this world and into the next almost at will. Overnight, society is transformed by this new “Long Earth”.

The Long Earth and its sequel The Long War are structured entirely on that premise – and what a premise it is. It’s simple, with the kind of deceptive simplicity that cracks your skull open and makes your imagination blaze. Authors Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s imaginations are incandescent: Both books in this series are bursting with digressions and musings and speculation about the big and small effects that the Long Earth would have on humanity.

The premise is so huge, so ambitious, that it’s almost a struggle to build anything as closed as a plot around it. Long Earth is structured around Joshua Valiente, a natural “stepper” – unlike almost every other person, he doesn’t need a special device to hop from one Earth to the next – who has explored more of the Long Earth than most. He’s recruited on an expedition to explore the vast extent of the Long Earth by an eccentric supercomputer known as Lobsang, and the pair turns up some of the Long Earth’s mysteries as they traverse it in an airship*.

(*Remember the golden rule: Pretty much anything with airships in it is, by default, cool.)

The Long War, Terry Pratchett and Stephen BaxterIn Long War, which picks up several years after Long Earth, the weakness in the story become even clearer. The characters are mostly a benign lot (if you’ve read a lot of Pratchett’s stuff many of them will feel familiar to you) and none of their individual stories are especially interesting or surprising. Various threads follow the tensions between humans and other intelligent species residing in the Long Earth, a Chinese expedition into far-flung worlds, and Lobsang’s continued meddling. But there’s never a sense that everything won’t work out OK, and eventually, everything does.

But it’s testament to the strength of that remarkable central idea that the series is never boring. Pratchett and Baxter wander off on side quests exploring the social and economic effects of infinite Earths, which are often so intriguing it’s sometimes it’s disappointing to be gently steered back to the main plot.

 

Summerland, Michael Chabon: Book review

SummerlandIt’s been a while since I read anything by Michael Chabon, so I’d almost forgot Michael Chabon is stupendous. And Summerland has been perched unread on my bookshelf literally for years and I never picked it up till now, because I am merely stupid. How good is this book? It’s so good it actually convinced me to care about baseball. Baseball!

Summerland centres on 11-year-old Ethan Feld, the worst kid in his Little League team. He lives on Clam Island, off Washington, with his dad, an aviation engineer who’s designing a consumer airship. (Sidenote: Basically anything with airships in it is at least a bit awesome, just by default, and the rule holds true for this book.) Ethan’s baseball games are played on a part of the island where it literally never rains in summer – nicknamed “Summerland”.

The reason Summerland is so eternally sunny is because it’s (more or less) the gateway to a fantasyland also known as Summerland, one of the four worlds that comprise the universe – there’s Summerland, a corresponding winter world, our humdrum reality, and a sealed-off fourth world that’s something like heaven. Ethan learns this when he’s called upon to save the worlds, and the cosmic Tree that binds them, from Coyote – basically every trickster god rolled up into one. Accompanied by his baseball teammates, (the awesome) Jennifer T. Rideout and (the odd) Thor Wignutt, Ethan starts out on a trek across Summerland to halt Coyote’s scheme, encountering fairies, sasquatches, giants and were-animals, and playing a ton of baseball. Fantasy creatures are really into baseball. Apparently.

I say “more or less” up there because Chabon’s mythology here is messy and sprawling and hard to follow – I never quite got a grasp on how his four fantasy worlds tie into each other, exactly. But even when his ideas are muddled, his sentences are clear and crisp and his metaphors are frequently delightful. (Though even the best turns of phrase in Summerland can’t rival his all-time best simile: In The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, he writes of rough voices that sound like “onions rolling in a bucket,” which oooooh tingles.) Maybe that’s why the film John Carter, which Chabon penned, was such a flop – because imagination works works best on the page, when it’s moulded by his superb words. Take away the words and you’re just left with muddle.

Summerland is such a through-and-through American book it makes me want to use the word “quintessential” to describe it. Its Americana is boiled up with slices of “traditional” folklore into some strange, complicated, charming stew that’s ostensibly a young adult or even a children’s novel. But I’m curious to know what a kid of Ethan’s age would make of this book. I looked forward to reading it every time I pulled it out of my bag and cracked it open.

 

 

Prime ministers’ pets

While fawning over new photos of Sunny Obama yesterday, I wondered: Which animals are the Australian equivalents (and how come they’re not more famous)? So.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott (oh writing that phrase is a blast, lemme tell you) has a dog. Tony Abbott’s dog is called Maisie. Maisie is a “cream spoodle”, which sounds like a super-inappropriate breed of dog for someone who almost became a Catholic priest to own.

Here is Maisie obediently campaigning for her master (just like all the other females in his family, right guys!) before the election:

And here is an actually-pretty-good photo of the Abbott family (I say “actually pretty good” because Tony is… doing that face. You know. That face.):

Tony Abbott's dog Maisie

Maisie takes over the title of first dog from Kevin Rudd’s golden retriever Abby:

Kevin Rudd's dog Abby

Kevin’s wife Therese Rein once claimed Abby has psychic powers, which is probably why Kevin didn’t seem particularly surprised he lost the election to Tony Abbott.

Kevin also had a cat named Jasper. Below is a video of Jasper drinking tea, because of course Kevin Rudd put a cat video on YouTube.

In addition to starring in several Crikey comics, Jasper and Abby appeared together in a picture book (?) co-written by Kevin Rudd and actor Rhys Muldoon (??), about a “kerfuffle” at the Lodge on Australia Day (???):

Jasper + Abby

Abby looks kind of weirdly frowny on this cover.

Sadly, Jasper died of kidney failure in October 2012. But as far as I can tell Abby is still alive.

Julia Gillard also has a dog (and let me tell you, I was frightened of Googling “Julia Gillard dog”). Her dog is named Reuben, and he’s a cavoodle:

I think Julia Gillard wins the prize for Most Adorable Australian Prime Minister’s Pet of All Time, and since I don’t have the energy to research any further back right now I’m going to award it to her. Nice work, Reuben.

 

Divergent, Veronica Roth: Book review

Divergent, Veronica RothAfter she turns 16, Tris Prior undergoes the same rite of passage as every teenager in post-apocalyptic Chicago. Her futuristic society is split into five factions: Abnegation, for those who value selflessness above all other things; Dauntless, for fearlessness; Erudite, knowledge; Candor, honesty; and Amity, love. She must take a test that determines which faction she’ll be in the rest of her life.

But Tris’s test result doesn’t tell her she belongs in Abnegation, which she was born into, or in Dauntless, which she secretly longs to join. Instead, she shows equal aptitude for Abnegation, Dauntless and Erudity – which makes her (dun dun dun) divergent. Tris is warned that the authorities hate the divergent and told to keep her test result a secret from everyone. And then she goes against her family’s wishes and joins the Dauntless faction.

After leaving her loved ones behind, Tris is pushed through rigorous and brutal Dauntless training. She starts to fall for her suitably aloof and brooding instructor Four (yes, like the number). And she gradually stumbles into a plot to overthrow society that she will inevitably become a central part of because she’s divergent.

So what, you might be asking, is so special about being divergent? If the factions are artificially created and you can essentially choose whichever one you want to be a part of, what does it even mean to be divergent? Why are the divergent (spoiler alert) immune to the mind-control serums that can turn everyone else into zombies? Well, those are good questions. But author Veronica Roth’s mythology is so complicated and muddled that the answers are never clear – the divergent are special because… they just are. The factions are a neat idea, but attempting to really understand Roth’s world is like trying to pick up a whole puddle with your fingers.

(I’m sure Roth, if given the chance, could give long, detailed and probably pretty interesting solutions to the plot holes Divergent raises. And there’s two books after this one in the series, so maybe there’s more answers there. But as it stands, this book, read as a standalone, makes no sense to me at a fundamental level.)

I got interested in Divergent the book because of this trailer:

I like Shailene Woodley! I love Kate Winslet! The guy who played Pamuk in Downton Abbey is crazy handsome! From the look of it, the screenwriter has done some hard work clarifying the story. Hopefully in the film adaptation there’ll be a more solid build-up to Winslet’s character, Erudite leader Jeanine, declaring war on the other factions; on the page Jeanine is a flat, pretty boring villain.

Those faults aside, Divergent isn’t too bad, I guess (you may quote that strong endorsement on future editions of the book, publishers). Tris is an appealing protagonist, even though she does a bit too much of that YA heroine thing where she moans about how ugly and useless she is while being pursued by half the male characters and outdoing her peers at every challenge. And the plot is engaging and unexpected – I was especially surprised by how violent the final chapters are. But none of it is enough to convince me to read the second instalment Insurgent and the soon-to-be-released Allegiant. I’ll just skim through the Wikipedia plot summaries instead.