The Desolation of Smaug – Thoughts


Well, they’ve done it again. Those nerds at Weta Digital have conjured another fully-formed digital character that is expressive, fascinating, and generally quite evil.

Smaug, the stupendous.

After Gollum, Caesar, and all of those blue cat aliens, what else could they do to set the bar higher?

Get Benedict Cumberbatch to voice the character. That’s what.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug weirdly fractures its storyline and takes a great deal of focus away from the personal development of Bilbo, instead choosing to iris out for a much larger-scale view of the events which are so nicely encapsulated in the slender tome that makes up the printed, book-form story this film is based upon.

And yet it all works. There is a great deal more world-revealing going on in this film, and some of it even feels rushed. Gandalf virtually splinters off into his own, distinct storyline for the majority of the picture (which created something of an existential issue for Ian McKellan while shooting scenes for this particular installment.)

There are exotic locales and fantastic beasts of all kinds, and plenty of action. I found myself dreaming up a ridiculous sequence involving the dwarves’ Barrel-Rapids Escape® (future name of a ride at the inevitable Middle Earth World Theme Park) right on the cusp of when said sequence actually unfolded in the film. And my, what a cartoonish and incredible sequence it is. Full of Legolas and arrows and orcs and glory.

There are some vague, political themes floated at Laketown (pun intended) and Bard the Bowman is merely known as Bard the Barge-man. Stephen Fry does a delightful turn as the ignominious Master of Laketown, and Stephen Colbert plays one of his lackeys. Ryan Gage does his best to skirt the Wormtongue comparisons by pushing his character, Alfrid, into Gilliam territory.

Everything culminates in a ruined-Erebor action sequence that is really strange, but definitely awesome. And seeing this film in 3D is a must. The action is dizzying. And there’s Benedict Cumberbatch. His voice also utters the Black Speech of Mordor as the shapeless Necromancer.

No Gollum in this one. Kind of a bummer. Gotta love Smaug, though.

The Wind Rises

The Wind RisesI had the good fortune to attend a screening of Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, Kaze tachinu (The Wind Rises) during it’s 7-day run at the Landmark in Los Angeles, CA. The film will see a “wide” release in the USA in February 2014, but for a week in November, it played in NY/LA to qualify it for the awards season.

Young Jiro

I love this film.

Entertainment, on the whole, is fascinating to me. As a society, we are surrounded by countless outlets that peddle to our desire to be entertained. We have ever-increasing avenues for instant gratification, and many of the most excessive and high-profile films to come out of our own entertainment industry reflect the kind of ADHD our society exhibits en masse through the never-ending multitude of “social media” platforms.

Be it monsters or aliens, mythical beasts or demigods, there is nothing much out of the reach of Hollywood’s talented phalanx of visual effects artists. The capacity to enchant and dazzle has been outsourced to high-performance computer arrays designed to render photorealistic effects to satisfy every outlandish flight of the imagination imaginable.

But here, in The Wind Rises, is something that portrays- often to aching levels of detail, the herculean effort poured into it at every moment. It is a hand-drawn, animated film produced in Japan by the venerable Studio Ghibli, and directed by the legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki.

Caproni and Jiro

Reviewing any film is, ultimately, an exercise in aesthetics. In the case of The Wind Rises, there is plenty to see and experience, and I had the distinct impression that what I saw on the screen was as pure of a distillation of Miyazaki’s imagination as has ever been committed to the form. I have been a fan for many years, and I have seen, with one exception, every feature-length animated feature the man has directed.

AmericanIn Japan, the film has apparently been a political lightning rod. I do not know to what extent you could characterize the story of the film as containing egregious, political grandstanding. If there is an agenda, it is conveyed in the most understated, laconic, and utterly assured way. Perhaps that is a hallmark of Miyazaki’s work: quiet conviction. There never seems to be much precipice-hanging uncertainty inherent to his work. If anything, the most stressful situations a character may be placed into seem a direct reflection of their own uncertainties about themselves, and they always rise to the challenge, often with a notable lack of poise. And they don’t always succeed.

Prior to viewing The Wind Rises, my favorite Miyazaki film had been Porco Rosso. Now, I am not so sure. There is a dark whimsy at work in this film. In the face of a catastrophic (as we know now,  in retrospect) conflict, the young airplane designer Jiro Horikoshi forges ahead with his dream of designing beautiful aircraft. The journey is fraught with perils that come in the form of outdated technologies (or lack thereof, as expressed by the Japanese defense contractor Mitsubishi utilizing oxen to haul airplane prototypes to the airstrip, which is paved with mowed grass.) Other obstacles include the dismal failure of crashed prototypes, and Jiro’s visit to Germany, which produces a feeling of awe and admiration, quickly tempered by the condescending attitude of his Third Reich hosts.

Painter GirlThere is a delicate, slow-buring love story that emerges midway through the film. This, perhaps, is the greatest fiction conjured in a story that has a great deal of historical context at its disposal. But it is a beautiful fiction, and executed with a mastery that cements this film as Miyazaki’s most emotionally stirring. I mean- dang.

The Wind Rises. We must live. – the title of the film is derived from a poem by the late French poet Paul Valéry. It’s meaning is both enigmatic and ominous. In a way, perhaps the nature of our modern world is to increasingly reduce the components of life down to modular commodities – healthcare, transportation, clothing, food, water.

There is a devastating earthquake early in the film. Every groan of the earth is represented though sound effects produced by human voices. Every airplane engine sputters to life and hums into the atmosphere with sounds that have been produced by human vocal chords. The bedraggled Japanese form forlorn lines marching for the hills, away from the fire and desolation. There is a shrine where many take refuge. The earth moans again and the shrine begins to crumble.

We contain the breath of life – a mysterious wind echoes from the depths of our souls. We must live as long as that wind rises.

2012 ~ The Year in Film

Admittedly, I didn’t see a great many “films” theatrically in 2012. I spent a decent portion of 2011 ingesting a glut of films for free at a theater that still used the actual medium of film, but in 2012, I daresay I saw perhaps only one legitimate “film.”

The Master
Enigmatic. Surreal. Mesmerizing. Discomforting.

That film, was The Master. By no means an endearing experience, it is nonetheless an unshakeable one. This film springs from a dusty, high, forgotten shelf of cinema  where a few peers may reside. Perhaps Aguirre: The Wrath of God? Perhaps The Thin Red Line? I don’t know what else to compare it to.  It’s just… extant. Great performances all around, but the connection between the film’s titular character and Scientology-founder L. Ron Hubbard is tenuous and oblique. P.T. Anderson seems to have something to say about the apparent futility of soul-searching in a world replete with charlatans who employ technology as a means of enlightenment, but I’ll be darned if I know what it is.

Balin & Dwalin
Dwarf Lords from Under the Mountain

Now I am brought to my top 10 list of movies from 2012. The #1 spot is taken by The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, unsurprisingly. I have been a Tolkien fan since my youth, and originally read The Hobbit from an illustrated version that my mother bought for my cousin. Gollum’s cave is etched deeply into my remembered childhood imagination. Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth is at once triumphant, cataclysmic, and like the arrival of a dear, old friend on your doorstep.

Jack Black’s greatest role.

My second favorite film came as something of a surprise. I had known of Richard Linklater’s new(er) film, Bernie, for a while. Strictly speaking, the film was completed back in 2011, but it didn’t see the light of day as far as a distributor until 2012. Why on earth it took me so long to finally watch it, I cannot say. I do know I will NOT miss out on Linklater’s next project, a third entry in the Before Sunrise series, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. I digress. Jack Black does something amazing, here. He inhabits the entire length, breadth, and width of his idiosyncratic, real-life character’s personality traits and proclivities, delivering a performance that is so bizarre and true, it could not have ever been invented. Read that last sentence aloud, without taking any breaths. Sorry about that.

And the list goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began.

  1. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
  2. Bernie
  3. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
  4. Moonrise Kingdom
  5. Kari-gurashi no Arietti (The Secret World of Arrietty)
  6. Looper
  7. The Avengers
  8. Les Misérables
  9. The Master
  10. The Dark Knight Rises

Here is a list of ALL 2012 releases which I have seen, specifically. An all-time low: total number equaling 18. I aim to do a little better in 2013.

  • Brave – theatrical
  • Les Misérables – theatrical
  • The Master – theatrical (film!)
  • Kari-gurashi no Arietti (The Secret World of Arrietty) – theatrical
  • The Avengers – theatrical
  • The Dark Knight Rises – theatrical
  • The Hunger Games – theatrical
  • Skyfall – theatrical
  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – theatrical
  • Prometheus – theatrical
  • John Carter – theatrical
  • Looper – theatrical
  • Chronicle – theatrical
  • Moonrise Kingdom – RedBox
  • Bernie – Netflix
  • Jiro Dreams of Sushi – Netflix
  • Take This Waltz – On-demand
  • The Innkeepers – DVD

Thoughts on The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises is a more fitting and visceral third act than any other superhero series hitherto created. I believe it will be successful and popular, though I also believe it will be open to rather broad interpretations by the audience.

I did not prepare for this viewing by re-watching the first two films. In point of fact, several years have elapsed since I last viewed Christopher Nolan’s second entry in his Batman saga, The Dark Knight. I watched it in true 15/70 IMAX in the theater on Navy Pier, Chicago, a place which was also one of the picture’s physical filming locations. The experience was one of titanic, mesmerizing awe. The Dark Knight Rises meets and/or exceeds this level of stunning grandeur in multiple ways.

Batman Begins was all about exploring the conditions and choices that lead Bruce Wayne to consider becoming the Batman. One of the core themes of the film is overcoming intense fear. “And why do we fall, Bruce?” is the memorable line delivered by Linus Roache, the actor who played Bruce’s father, Thomas Wayne, “So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

The Dark Knight was about ratcheting up the tension by confronting Batman with a chaotic force of evil, personified in Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker, a villain so incomprehensible, even his own ‘explanations’ for his existence are laced with obvious falsehoods. Batman does battle with purposeful, wicked villains, and then he must deflect, and somehow diffuse, the chaos The Joker induces as well. By the end of The Dark Knight, Batman himself has become even more vilified by the city he is trying to protect, and suffers profound personal loss.

I’m not a huge Batman buff, meaning I haven’t obsessively read all of the comics, watched the television programs, and I didn’t grow up with the absurd, live action cartoons that Tim Burton directed, nor the two follow-up duds that killed the character’s Hollywood potential for a spell. Therefore, I cannot attest to the purity of these films’ vision concerning the translation of essential threads from the massive corpus of Batman stories that exist. What I can say is that Christopher Nolan has crafted a nuanced, layered, and thoroughly complete arc for Batman’s character in these three films. I find this to be a terrific achievement, and one that is likely more important and more astounding than many people presently realize (and it sure seems like a lot of people are in Nolan’s corner).

The completion of this trilogy is satisfying, contains tremendous action sequences, and exudes a richness in layers of subtext to be discovered and debated. And that is all I will say on the film.