John Carter (2012)

John Carter (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: John Carter, the 2012 sci-fi/action blockbuster based on the first book of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ seminal series of adventures about a former Civil War soldier who is mysteriously transported to Mars (known as “Barsoom” by its inhabitants), where he becomes a hero in the planet’s struggle against domination by an immortal race of super-beings. A lavish production from Disney Studios, it marks the first “live action” feature to be helmed by Andrew Stanton, the acclaimed director responsible for Pixar’s Finding Nemo and WALL-E, although the extensive use of CG technology blurs that definition somewhat; the studio’s certainty that the project was a sure-fire hit is evidenced by the fact that they spent a whopping $250 million dollars to make it. Unfortunately, with such a price tag, the film was required to gross near-record sums in order to simply break even; thanks to a lukewarm critical response and even less enthusiastic audience reception, it instead became one of the most notorious box office flops of all time, leading to recriminations and resignations within the studio and a massive financial loss on the quarterly report. It’s a shame, really, that the movie has now become known as a notorious bomb- an assessment that is not entirely accurate, for overseas returns were substantially better than in the U.S., and home video release ensures that, in the long term at least, it will ultimately recoup its losses and turn a decent profit- because John Carter is not at all a bad film, for what it is, and will likely prove, in time, to gain an appreciative following.

Adapted by Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon from Burroughs’ novel, A Princess of Mars, John Carter concerns a struggle for power between two Martian city-states- Helium, a peace-loving capitol of science, art, and learning, and Zodanga, the “walking city,” a warlike and totalitarian kingdom bent on absolute rule of the planet. The battle has raged for generations, but now, with the aid of a powerful new weapon that has been bestowed upon their leader, the ruthless Seb Than, by a mysterious alien race, the tide is turning in favor of the Zodangans. Meanwhile, on the planet Earth (where it is the late 19th Century), a former Confederate officer named John Carter searches for his fortune in the frontier of the American West; while fleeing an Apache war party, he inadvertently discovers a legendary cave of gold, in which mysterious carvings and glyphs seem to come from an ancient and forgotten civilization- and where an altercation with a mysterious robed figure results in Carter’s sudden and seemingly inexplicable transport to a vast, unfamiliar plain located (as he will later discover) on Mars. After adjusting to the effects of the differing gravity- which, due to his Earth-born bone density, gives him superhuman strength and the ability to leap hundreds of yards in single bound- he soon finds himself captured by a tribe of four-armed, green-skinned humanoids, called Tharks, led by a chieftain named Tars Tarkas. This is only the beginning of his adventure, however, as his fate brings him into the heart of the conflict over the destiny of the Red Planet, in which he must help the Princess of Helium to discover the source of Seb Than’s mysterious new power before she is forced to marry the Zodangan warlord and doom her people to eternal domination.

There’s not much point in offering a more detailed synopsis of John Carter’s convoluted plot than the one above; like the novel from which it is derived, it is a piece of melodramatic pulp fiction in which the story is merely an excuse for the action, romance and imaginative fantasy that keeps an audience coming back for more. Burroughs’ novel was originally published in serialized form of course, in All-Story magazine, beginning in 1912. It was by no means the first episodic science fiction story, but the way it combined elements of other popular genres- sword-and-sorcery adventure, westerns, romance- was a unique and ultimately influential feature that makes A Princess of Mars the direct forerunner of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Star Trek, and Star Wars, to name only an obvious few. This particular sub-genre, known as “planetary romance,” has proven more enduringly successful than science fiction proper (in its strictest sense, that is), and continues to inventively manifest itself through, among other things, the vast wealth of comic book literature (and its related media) that has developed into an increasingly massive force in the entertainment industry. In other words, for anyone out there who is a fan of The Avengers, it all started here. With this in mind, it is only fitting that the saga of Burroughs’ planet-hopping hero should be given, at long last, the kind of lavish, top-shelf Hollywood treatment that has been afforded to so many of its offspring, and though many critics complained of the film’s sprawling, sometimes incoherent storyline and questioned its emphasis on action and spectacle over character and logic, these things are in fact part of the essence of this particular style of fiction; Burroughs was out to thrill his readers with imaginative and impossible scenes of otherworldly escapism, not to stimulate their higher cognitive functions. More accurately, perhaps, he was out to make money by doing it, and the fact that he succeeded- to the point of building an empire that pre-dated Walt Disney, Gene Roddenberry, or George Lucas by decades- is a fact made clear simply by looking up the origin history of Tarzana, California.

The world of a hundred years ago, however, was obviously a different one than we live in today; decades of technological advances- including probes and landing craft on Mars that have yet to discover the existence of mobile cities or multi-limbed green giants- have made us much less naive about the notion of interplanetary adventure, at least this close to home. Part of the commercial failure of John Carter must be ascribed to this; the premise of Burroughs’ story, though always far-fetched, of course, seems particularly dated in the 21st Century, with its swashbuckling warriors and princesses in distress evoking memories of our own antiquated fictional heritage rather than visions of otherworldly experience. Though such elements are present in more contemporary sagas like Star Wars, they are easier to swallow by virtue of a distance in time and place- not to mention a heightened sense of metaphor- which is carefully established from the outset. Not so with John Carter, which takes place in a recognizable part of our own history and asks us to believe in a conceit that feels old-fashioned and far too familiar to be taken seriously.

However, its familiarity is not due to its being derivative or formulaic, in the usual sense; rather, it results from the fact that a century of imitators has made Burroughs’ original seem old hat. Even those who have never read (or even heard of) A Princess of Mars and its sequels will know exactly what to expect in the story of John Carter, because they’ve seen it all before; and though the reason is that this, in fact, is the original blueprint for all those space-adventure-clichés, it makes little practical difference for those who are looking for something new and exciting to occupy two hours’ worth of their attention. This is, in essence, little removed from the cheesy space-opera serials of the ’30s, except by the feature-length format and the gargantuan budget which allows for breathtakingly realistic special effects instead of miniature spacecraft on wires; it is pure escapist nonsense, boy’s adventure at its most rambunctious, designed to stir excitement and elicit fantasies- and, hopefully, to sell the next installment. Except, thanks to the perceived failure of the undertaking, there is not likely to be a next installment.

As I said before, however, John Carter is not a bad movie; though it suffers somewhat from the need to pack too much story into a commercially viable running time, thereby eliminating the opportunity for anything more than perfunctory character development, and lacks the kind of mythological scope that gives such emotional resonance to the Star Wars films, it is nevertheless an obvious labor of love. Corny as it is, it has an infectiously earnest sensibility that makes it hard to dislike- at least, for those approaching it with reasonable expectations. It strikes well the difficult balance in tone that keeps it from becoming too campy- like the painful 1980 adaptation of Flash Gordon, with which it shares numerous parallels- without taking itself too seriously. That’s the key to enjoying John Carter; remembering that it was never intended to be the kind of “important” sci-fi epic that has now become the standard of the genre, with serious undertones of sociopolitical allegory or philosophical subtext, allows us to simply surrender to its lightweight melodrama without faulting it for not being something it was never intended to be. This is not brainy, Asimovian science fiction designed to stimulate the intellect, but pure, testosterone-driven wish-fulfillment at its most adolescent.

Indeed, there is a lot to enjoy in this unapologetically overblown spectacle, once you accept it as it is. Burroughs’ Martian civilization is given the kind of intricately detailed, fully realized treatment that only big studio money can buy. The cities, with their spacious, retro-futuristic architecture, full of bridges and balustrades, palatial throne rooms, and majestic plazas, are executed with imaginative grandeur; the various alien technology, from great, bird-like airships to pseudo-scientifically-powered cosmic map rooms, as well as all the creatures- besides the Tarks, there are giant fanged apes, massive dinosaurian beasts that serve as mounts, and an oddly lovable amphibian-esque dog that becomes Carter’s loyal pet and protector- are brought to life by state-of-the art screen wizardry in a slick style that combines the iconic illustrative work of artists like Frank Frazetta with a modern-flavored Steampunk sensibility, resulting in a visual design that reimagines the classic Victorian milieu of the original with a firmly contemporary twist. These elements are imposed upon location settings in Utah- where, in fact, the author created his saga over a century ago- which are used to great effect in creating the arid, desolate Martian landscape, with its harsh deserts and monumental geography, making for an utterly convincing otherworldly environment. Of course, it’s no surprise that the film would be visually stunning, given the monumental budget and the participation of Disney’s all-star design and technical staff; as always with such effects-heavy blockbusters, the real test of quality lies in the less showy creative aspects of direction, writing, and acting.

As for the first of these, Andrew Stanton is a proven master of visual storytelling, and he uses his skills here to forge a clear path through the oft-confusing details of the plot, setting up early the crucial points and maintaining a strong through-line as he takes us through the meandering, episodic developments that make up the narrative. He keeps the pace quick with rapid edits and a roving camera, and composes his shots succinctly to convey a maximum of information without lengthy exposition. This is particularly helpful in keeping the audience on track, given the multiple storylines in play here- which brings us to the second foundational element of the film, its screenplay. It has already been mentioned that the novel’s sprawling narrative has been compressed too tightly into the relatively short running time of John Carter; the story might have been better served by being split over two movies, as has become the trend, for better or worse, with other big fantasy epics in recent years. Given the probable demise of this would-be franchise, it’s fortunate that Stanton and his co-writers did not choose that path, but if any one thing could have made John Carter a more satisfying film, it would have been the chance to invest more time in getting to know its characters. Pulpy as the material may be, a more in-depth exploration of the people that inhabit it- both human and non-human- might have gone a long way towards winning the emotional involvement of the audience in its action. Instead, we are presented with short, lightning-quick character sketches that give us the pertinent information about what makes each one tick, and then we’re off and running, knowing everything we need to know about them in order to understand their place- and easily predict their actions- in the story, long before it reaches its climax. As a result, the entire saga often feels as if it were a mere pageant, populated by one-dimensional ciphers who are mainly present to model the costumes and lend scale to the sets; since the story’s heart necessarily lies in its human element, such streamlined writing places a substantial burden on the director and cast to fill in the blanks and provide a greater depth of characterization than is apparent in the dialogue. Stanton, whose previous directorial outings have featured casts of animated characters (each of which are brought to life not only by actors, but a whole team of artists skilled in adding layers of nuance to every movement and expression), may have been at a loss here; his ensemble of performers seem to have been left to their own devices in filling out the inner lives of their roles.

Which leads us to that third crucial pillar of good filmmaking, the acting. The cast of John Carter is, if nothing else, a marvelous-looking bunch; Taylor Kitsch, in the title role, spends most of the film without his shirt, displaying the kind of chiseled body that was presumably much rarer in the 19th Century than it is today- after all, this was a time before the advent of personal trainers and nutritional supplements. Likewise, his co-star, the beautiful Lynn Collins, is costumed in a manner which strategically showcases her considerable physical assets, and most of the other human cast is similarly dressed- or rather, undressed- throughout. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; sex appeal is a big part of what makes these kinds of epic adventures so exciting to their target audience- the young teenager in all of us. In order to elevate these larger-than-life characters above the level of mere pin-ups, however, there must be something under the pretty exterior that will keep us interested, and though both the film’s stars make a noticeable and admirable effort, neither manages to give us much beyond the immediate requirements of any given moment. Their performances are all surface, convincing but never compelling, and though they carry themselves suitably enough for the stature of their roles, there is a decidedly contemporary flavor to their personae; they seem more like a pair of fitness models at a photo shoot than a hardened soldier and an enlightened princess. In the supporting roles, James Purefoy shows some charisma and character as a loyal second-tier hero and would-be sidekick to Carter, but his role is far too brief for him to make more than a fleeting impression; the gifted Ciarán Hinds, as the Princess’ father, is utterly wasted, as is Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston as a cavalry officer who inadvertently becomes Carter’s companion for the discovery of the cave in which his destiny lies; and the film’s primary villains, Mark Strong and Dominic West, are saddled with two of the least interesting characters in the film- the former disaffected and aloof, the latter merely a mindless brute- and are therefore unable to make either into the kind of formidable antagonist needed in such a swashbuckling tale as this. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most engaging and memorable performances come from the actors lending their voices and movements (through motion capture technology) to the principal Thark characters (Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, and Thomas Hayden Church), who provide us with a hero, heroine, and villain, respectively, that we can truly care about. This may be because of the higher caliber of their acting (Dafoe, as Tars Tarkas, reportedly accepted the role because he relished the challenge of giving a performance dressed in pajamas while walking on stilts, and, arguably the film’s most prestigious star, he brings no dishonor to his reputation here), but it is surely not just coincidence that these roles are essentially animated characters- the kind with which director Stanton is clearly more within his comfort zone.

It’s interesting to know that John Carter probably holds the record for the longest development period in cinema history. It was 1931 when Bob Clampett- later to become known for his genius work with Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes series- approached Edgar Rice Burroughs to purchase the rights to A Princess of Mars and the rest of the Barsoom novels; he planned to make an animated adaptation, knowing that a live action version would be impossible at the time, and he did manage to produce several reels of test footage before the studio (MGM) pulled the plug with fears that stories of an Earthman’s exploits on Mars would be too ridiculous for most American audiences. There were later efforts to produce a screen version throughout the next 80 years, but various creative conflicts and financial concerns sank the project, each time. Finally, when Disney considered the title (for the second time, having intended to produce it in the 1980s as a vehicle for Tom Cruise), Stanton- a fan of the books since childhood- fought hard to get it approved, with himself as the creative force behind it. Based on his previous track record, Disney okayed it- a decision they likely came to regret. By all reports, Stanton’s inexperience with live action production proved an obstacle which may have inflated the film’s already-massive budget, and his rejection of studio ideas about marketing and publicity might very well have been the deciding factor in making John Carter one of the biggest flops in Disney’s long history. There is a theory- which I more or less agree with- that the most significant reason for the movie’s failure was the decision to change the title (already altered from the book’s original name) from John Carter of Mars to John Carter. Stanton said he preferred this because the movie was an “origin story” that told how the character became John Carter of Mars, and studio executives reportedly changed it due to a study which showed that films with the word “Mars” had all suffered some degree of financial failure- including their own Mars Needs Moms. Whatever the reason, and whoever was responsible, it was ultimately this change, coupled with the vague and unexciting marketing campaign that accompanied the movie’s first release, that sealed the doom of Stanton’s lifelong dream project; though earlier generations may have needed no reminders about who John Carter was, in today’s market, where many have never even heard of his creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, let along the hero himself, it was vital to give audiences more of a clue about what the film was about. Without such a clue, they stayed home and saved their money for the then-upcoming release of The Avengers.

It’s unfortunate that in writing about John Carter, I have to focus so much attention on its supposed financial failure (again, it was not really a flop, just not the mega-hit the studio had hoped for), but sadly, it is a significant part of the public’s perception about the movie, and it must be addressed; as years go by, its box-office receipts will become less and less important to commentators, and perhaps it can be discussed on the basis of quality alone. I hope so. Despite my quibbles about the script and the acting, I enjoyed John Carter, rather more than I had expected. Indeed, I tried very hard not to like it; but by about the halfway point I gave in to its goofy, old-fashioned charms, and by the end I was- dare I say it- glad the movie had been made. It deserved to be made. After a hundred years in which filmmakers have “pillaged” Burroughs’ stories for their own derivative efforts (the reason cited by director Robert Zemeckis when he turned down this project, specifically in reference to George Lucas and Star Wars), it’s fitting that the granddaddy of all those swashbuckling outer space fantasies should at last get the Hollywood treatment that has long avoided it. Fanatical followers of the novels (and they still are legion, even a hundred years later) may wish it had done better justice to the original, and many other audiences may wish it had made more of an effort to contemporize or sophisticate the material, but there are many, too, who will enjoy it just the way it is. Indeed, there are many who already have enjoyed it, myself included, and the seemingly passionate dislike the movie has generated from some (and some who have not even seen it, I might add) makes me once again question the value of judging a piece of art on the basis of personal expectation rather than on its actual merits; if we are too busy complaining about a movie’s not being what we want it to be, how can we enjoy it for what it actually is? Of course, there is also an unavoidable debate about the wisdom of spending enough to feed a small country for a decade on an inflated piece of escapist fluff like this one, but that is a question of ethical economics better left for discussion in another forum; in the long run, the fact that John Carter of Barsoom is at last represented in cinematic form, whether or not he is all he could have been, is a good thing, and though I have yet to discover if the movie proves more rewarding on multiple viewings (which I suspect it will), I am certainly looking forward to doing so.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0401729/?licb=0.42602754768506235

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter Jackson’s long-anticipated return to the works of celebrated fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien, whose three-part saga, The Lord of the Rings, provided the basis for the director’s phenomenally successful and critically-acclaimed trilogy of the same name.  Adapted- and expanded- from Tolkien’s earlier novel, The Hobbit, it constitutes the first part of a second trilogy which serves as a sort of prequel to The Lord of the Rings, telling of the young Bilbo Baggins’ adventures when he joins the quest of a band of Dwarves to reclaim their homeland from an ancient dragon who has taken it as his own- an expedition which sets into motion several events that will have great consequence in the later story.  Sure to be a major success on the basis of fan interest alone, it has met so far with somewhat mixed response- mostly due to Jackson’s decision to supplement the relatively short novel with additional material that connects it to the later events portrayed in The Lord of the Rings– and facilitates the splitting of its narrative into three separate films.  Reaction has also been divided about his choice to shoot the film at 48 frames per second (twice as fast as the standard rate), resulting in an ultra-high resolution image which gives his movie an almost hyper-real look, particularly when coupled with the 3D and IMAX formats in which it has been widely released.  Nevertheless, the majority of critics and audiences have been enthusiastic in their welcome for this adaptation of the much-beloved tale, and it undoubtedly marks the beginning of another triumphant achievement for Jackson and his creative collaborators.

The Hobbit, published over a decade earlier than The Lord of the Rings, was written by Tolkien as a stand-alone book, though its narrative was part of the much longer and intricately detailed story of Middle-earth that he had been developing since his youth.  The book was a success- so much so that it achieved classic status, eventually allowing Tolkien to publish the iconic trilogy of novels which turned him- and the mythical world he created, along with its inhabitants- into a cultural icon.  In an appendix at the end of The Lord of the Rings, the author provides a detailed timeline of the entire history of Middle-earth, with particular emphasis on the events leading up to the War of the Rings, which is specifically chronicled within the trilogy.  The beginnings of this great conflict coincide with the timeline of The Hobbit, through which Tolkien provided glimpses of his larger saga within the peripheral details of the central plot.  An Unexpected Journey, as mentioned, incorporates this material into its adaptation of The Hobbit proper, placing the story into the larger context of the complete epic tale.  The film begins in precisely the same time and place as the previous trilogy, at the home of Bilbo Baggins, an aged hobbit (or “halfling”) who has begun to write the history of his personal adventures, many years before, in the far-flung corners of Middle-earth.  We are transported back, as he remembers his youth, to a day 60 years prior, when Gandalf, a wandering wizard once acquainted with his family, arrives at his door to invite him on an adventure.  Bilbo, accustomed (as most of his people are) to the predictable comfort and security of his home in the Shire, declines; Gandalf, however, is not dissuaded so easily, and later that night the young hobbit is surprised to be playing host to a company of Dwarves who arrive unexpectedly, claiming to have been summoned to his home- by the wizard, who explains that he has offered Bilbo’s services as a “burglar” to assist the Dwarves in a quest to regain their ancient home under the distant Lonely Mountain, where a powerful dragon named Smaug, many years before, laid waste to their kingdom, Erebor, and claimed their vast wealth as his own private treasure trove.  Bilbo, horrified, again declines to join the expedition, protesting that he not only has no experience as a burglar but that he would, in fact, be useless on any such quest- an assessment with which the Dwarves are inclined to agree, particularly their leader, Thorin Oakenshield, heir to the throne of the kingdom under the mountain and a proven and powerful warrior.  Nevertheless, the shrewd wizard eventually persuades Bilbo, who has long suppressed a childhood yearning for adventure, to accept the job, and the hobbit joins his new comrades as they begin their long journey.  As they make their way, they encounter obstacles and enemies the likes of which the fledgling adventurer has never seen, including hungry trolls, greedy goblins, and bloodthirsty orcs- foul, mutated creatures who seem bent on pursuing them, and whose ferocious chieftain seeks a personal vendetta against Thorin.  Meanwhile, it becomes apparent that Gandalf has a larger agenda as he accompanies the fellowship; in his secret role as one of the White Council, an alliance of wizards and elves that serve as protectors of Middle-earth, he has begun to sense the growing influence of a dark and ancient presence returning to the land- a fear which he shares with his fellow guardians when the company arrives for a brief respite at the Elven capitol of Rivendell.  However, the answers he seeks remain yet hidden in the shadows, and the fate of the Dwarvish quest demands his more immediate attention.  Eventually, the band’s travels bring them within sight of their destination- but not before Bilbo manages his first successful “burglary” by stealing away the most “precious” possession of a treacherous subterranean creature named Gollum, beginning a greater adventure that will eventually decide the fate of Middle-earth itself.

The Hobbit, as written by Tolkien, was aimed at younger readers; though not exactly a children’s book, it is considerably lighter in tone than the epic trilogy which followed, with a less austere literary style and a higher level of whimsy to soften the heaviness of the story’s darker elements.  Even so, the heart of its story lies in the fabric of this remarkable writer’s meticulously plotted history of Middle-earth, a complex and lifelong undertaking inspired by his desire to create a definitively English mythology and informed by his passion for philology.  This imaginary chronicle, produced over the course of decades, provided a depth of background for his writings that lends an unprecedented level of authenticity to the fantasy world in which they are set, complete with vivid geographical detail, cultural and linguistic traditions for all of the various races which populate it, and a fully developed cosmology.  This fullness is one of the qualities which helped to make both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings into cultural phenomena, and legions of fans have hungrily devoured every scrap of the copious background material from which it arises, through its later publication in books like The Silmarillion, by Tolkien himself, and the collected volumes of history assembled by his son.  It is with these kinds of fans in mind that Peter Jackson- along with his partner, Fran Walsh, and their longtime collaborator, Philippa Boyens- decided to expand the narrative of The Hobbit with the inclusion of story elements that provide background and foundation for the later events depicted in The Lord of the Rings.  Operating from the conceit that Bilbo’s adventures, as related in the novel itself, are only a part of the whole story, the screenplay, by the three aforementioned collaborators (along with Guillermo del Toro, who was originally slated to direct), weaves the story of the Dwarves’ quest into the larger story arc that links The Hobbit to its more ambitious successor; the introduction of the great ring of power, pilfered by Bilbo in the subterranean lair of the pathetic Gollum (the only episode in the novel that bears significant continuity into the later books), is here seen within the context of other circumstances revealed by Tolkien only in his extraneous writings.  Thus, An Unexpected Journey is not simply an adaptation of The Hobbit, but an ambitious effort to create a more complete vision of Tolkien’s mythic realm, fleshing out the depiction of “behind the scenes” activity- such as the meeting of the White Council and the discoveries of Radagast the Brown- in order to tell more of the complete saga as the author composed it in his own imagination.

Of course, it goes without saying the Jackson and his co-writers are themselves the kind of fans at which they have aimed their own movie; it’s clear from the outset that An Unexpected Journey is as much a labor of love as The Lord of the Rings, and even more of a dream project in the sense that the creators have the opportunity for bringing to light many of the things that have, until now, remained tantalizingly hidden between the lines.   The inclusion of these “extra” scenes, of course, begs the question of how faithful Jackson et al‘s vision can be to Tolkien’s intent when the author himself chose not to include them in the book.  The answer is, I think, very faithful indeed.  An Unexpected Journey contains very little that doesn’t come directly from Tolkien, except for the kind of embellishment of detail that is necessary when realizing a written work into cinematic form; the author wrote descriptions of all the so-called “extra” scenes, and though they were omitted from The Hobbit because they were irrelevant to the book’s self-contained purpose, they were nevertheless part of his complete vision.  Jackson and crew have given us a chance to see that vision come to life, and they have done it with relish.

There is actually very little I can say about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, at least in terms of standard critical commentary.  There are those who have a passion for this kind of fantasy adventure story, and there are others who have an equally passionate dislike.  No argument is likely to persuade one side or the other to change their view, and those two camps are going to either love this movie, or hate it, regardless of what anyone says; but for those many viewers in between, some guidance may be offered.  Casual fans of Tolkien’s books, who may not be well-versed in the surrounding lore, may find themselves confused by the inclusion of characters and concerns from the later trilogy, and might also feel that these elements muddle the focus of the main narrative, which centers wholly on Bilbo and his transformation from humble homebody to seasoned adventurer.  Likewise, those who have only come to the world of Middle-earth through exposure to Jackson’s earlier films might find themselves feeling a sense of all-too-familiarity over things we’ve seen before, or may not get the point of spending time on a plot line for which we have already seen the eventual outcome; this, of course, is always the pitfall of  “prequels,” and it is one which many viewers might feel is particularly needless here, when the source material does not itself contain these elements.  It is important to remember, however, that An Unexpected Journey is the first installment of a trilogy, and much of its content is meant as a set-up to the events which are to follow; though one may quibble about the necessity for padding out an already rich and complex storyline, or question the motivation for turning a single novel (which is, incidentally, shorter in itself than any of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings) into multiple sure-fire hit movies, Jackson’s vision is an ambitious one.  He is bent on building as complete an embodiment of Tolkien’s mythos as possible, one which draws not only on the content of the novels as published but on the supplementary material with which the author infused them.  To put it another way, he is thinking “outside the box” in order to capture the total experience of the author’s epic saga in a cinematic form that both elaborates on its details and remains true in spirit to his ultimate intent and purpose.  As with any artistic translation of a pre-existing work- particularly when the original artist is no longer around to consult- there is a necessity for personal interpretation; but Jackson and his team, who are die-hard fans of the first degree, are certainly as qualified to interpret with as much validity as anyone, and with their proven mastery of the kind of breathtaking visual storytelling required, they are obviously more than up to the task.

The level of perfection and coherence to which Jackson aspires is evidenced by the painstaking efforts he has made to connect his new trilogy to the previous one with as much unity as possible.  Settings which are shared by both are duplicated in detail, and returning characters are portrayed by the same actors (with the semi-exception of Bilbo, whose younger incarnation is now represented by Martin Freeman- though original actor Ian Holm reprises his appearance as the older version of the title character).  In addition, the visual style of the original film series is maintained through the richly detailed design work, inspired by the decades of illustrative art connected to Tolkien’s books- in particular those of Alan Lee and John Howe, who served as visual consultants on this film (and its future follow-ups) as they did on the original Jackson trilogy; needless to say, the high-tech magic used to bring life to the various denizens of Middle-earth and their exploits is once again a marvel of imagination merged with state-of-the-art wizardry, and the creation of props, costumes and make-up which convincingly capture the cultural character of the land and its population is once again executed with astute perfectionism.  An Unexpected Journey is cut so distinctly from the same cloth as its spectacular predecessors that it is clear the filmmaker intends, when all is said and done, for this new trilogy to be seamlessly bound to The Lord of the Rings as a single, unified whole.

Further enhancing this continuity is the welcome return of Howard Shore’s magisterial musical scoring, an indispensable element of The Lord of the Rings, which manages the remarkable feat of incorporating here the themes and motifs created for the previous trilogy while weaving them into the new material composed specifically for The Hobbit.  It’s the same technique which gave each of the three original films their own distinctive sound yet tied them all together, as well as adding a valuable aural component to the storytelling, and once again it serves its purpose well; the soundtrack has that rare quality of seeming instantly familiar, like music you have somehow known all your life without ever having heard it before, much in the same way that the story feels like an ancient memory of some long-forgotten dream.  Tolkien’s books touch the realm of archetypes, and, like Jackson, Shore has the skill to enhance this deep unconscious connection in a powerful and irresistible way.

In the same vein are the performances; though this kind of acting is rarely acknowledged when awards are handed out every year, the ability to convey humanity and make emotional connection while playing in a necessarily heightened style is a delicate gift, and Jackson has once more populated his epic with performers who are up to the job.  Returnees Ian McKellen (whose magnificent Gandalf has been one of the highlights of the series from the beginning, and is a particular delight this time around), Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and the venerable Christopher Lee (whose personal expertise on the Tolkien canon has been of vital importance to Jackson’s project offscreen, as well)- as well as the aforementioned Holm and Elijah Wood (in a brief cameo)- are all seasoned purveyors of this craft, by now, and have become the quintessential embodiment of their characters; it is a pleasure to see them, however brief their involvement.  The new cast members, however, are every bit their equal in terms of capturing the necessary flavor; Jackson’s month-long pre-filming regime of combat and horseback training, designed with the dual purpose of establishing a tight-knit camaraderie among the players, no doubt contributed to the chemistry that is evident onscreen, and his ensemble provides a superbly symbiotic assortment of performances which are each destined to become as iconic as those from The Lord of the Rings.  Of particular note are Richard Armitage- whose brooding intensity gives Thorin Oakenshield a powerful charisma which complements his role as the destined ruler of the Dwarves- and Sylvester McCoy- whose memorable turn fleshes out Radagast the Brown, a peripheral character that has always been a subject of fan curiosity through importance of his role in the saga and the brief-but-vivid descriptions he received in Tolkien’s work.  Mention must be made as well of Andy Serkis, whose mesmerizing performance as Gollum- achieved through motion capture technology but executed live on set with his co-stars and derived entirely from his real expressions and physicality- was one of the most acclaimed elements of The Lord of the Rings and comes close to stealing the entire movie in his single scene here.  Finally, Martin Freeman is the perfect Bilbo Baggins; down-to-earth, likable, comical, and yet endowed with a great and generous spirit that shines through from early on, it is no wonder that he was Jackson’s first and only real choice for the role- the production schedule was completely rearranged to fit the actor’s availability- and his understated, everyman charm (rightly, since it’s Bilbo’s story) provides the heart and soul to the film.

There are so many wonders on display in An Unexpected Journey, and to list them all would be pointless; far better to let you discover them for yourself.  On that subject, the issue of presentation becomes an important factor.  Jackson’s audacious decision to shoot his film in the double-rate format of 48 fps. has generated much debate- and quite a few complaints from viewers who find the resulting depth and clarity to be disorienting and distracting- particularly when combined with the seemingly obligatory 3D and IMAX formats, as well as a tendency to make the various and extensive special effects trickery appear, well, obviously fake.  In answer to this, I can only say it’s entirely a matter of personal taste; I myself have seen the film twice now, once in the full-blown mega-tech format and once in the plain old 2D standard version.  I was mesmerized both times, and I had no complaints- though I will say that my second viewing, free from the “ooh-aah” factor which accompanied my first time through, allowed me to focus more attention on the content of the story itself without the bedazzlement of total sensory experience.  The content is, of course, what ultimately matters more than the gimmickry of its presentation, and it must be noted that eventually, when the film is viewed as it will later be, without the trappings of big screen showmanship on millions of smaller home screens around the world, it will be that content upon which viewers will base their judgment of the film.  In the meantime, those with a low threshold for technical bells and whistles might do well to skip the deluxe experience and visit your humble neighborhood theater; the tickets will be cheaper, and you will be able to focus on the essence of the film without the distraction of feeling more completely immersed in an imaginary world than you want to be.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is, ultimately, a film for fans.  That doesn’t make for a limited appeal, in this case; Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was one of the most popular and acclaimed film franchises of all time, and the devotion that it engenders in its fans rivals that of such other cultural phenomena as Star Wars and Harry Potter.  There will be many, of course, who will adopt a dilettante attitude towards the new trilogy, perhaps for no other reason than to separate themselves from the crowd, just as there have been critics who seemingly were poised and ready to attack the film before it was even released.  There are probably audiences who will feel that this new film is really just “more of the same,” and admittedly there are a few elements that seem like repetition of things we’ve already seen- though of course these moments are faithful to the source material, and to change or excise them would be untrue to Tolkien’s story.  No doubt the majority of fans, however, will be thrilled at the chance to return to Jackson’s rendition of Middle-earth, and will eagerly anticipate the remaining entries over the course of the next two years.  I must, in the interest of full disclosure, admit than I am definitely in this last category; it would be hard for me to have found fault with An Unexpected Journey, short of a total botch job by its director, which was never very likely- though not it’s certainly not unheard of for a trusted filmmaker to drop the ball when remounting a beloved franchise (dare I mention George Lucas’ The Phantom Menace?).  The truth is that expectation has so much to do with the enjoyment of a cinematic experience that it is sometimes impossible to have an objective reaction, particularly with a highly anticipated film such as this one.  To be sure, what it delivers might not match the expectations of many- but in reading some of the harsher reviews that have so far been published of An Unexpected Journey, I find it hard to believe they are talking about the same film I saw.  Perhaps it comes down to the “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately?” attitude that seems to pervade popular culture today, which results in a loss of interest for that which was once popular and a snarky skepticism about any attempt to revive a former glory.  Whatever the reason, there are many who would disparage Jackson for returning to familiar territory instead of taking a new direction; but exciting filmmaking does not always have to break new ground, nor does the desire to revisit a successful formula indicate a lack of creativity.  It is obvious that this New Zealander considers the definitive transfer of Tolkien’s work to the screen to be his life’s work, at least for now, and I, for one, couldn’t be more delighted.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0903624/

 

Excalibur (1981)

Today’s cinema adventure: Excalibur, John Boorman’s 1981 filmic retelling of the mythic life of King Arthur, rendered against a lush backdrop of Irish locations and featuring a host of future stars before they became familiar faces.  It was a moderate hit at the box office, despite the mixed reviews of critics who praised its visual style but expressed bewilderment over its handling of the Arthurian legends; subsequent reviewers have gained an appreciation for its unique style, however, and not only has it grown in popularity among fans of the fantasy genre (over which it has exerted considerable influence), it is considered by many literary scholars and mythological experts to be the most faithful and definitive screen representation of its subject to date.

Boorman had wanted to make an Arthurian film since before his success with the thriller Deliverance in 1972, albeit focusing more specifically on Arthur’s mentor, Merlin; he presented his ideas to United Artists, who instead offered him the job of making a film version of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings.  Agreeing to the challenge, he collaborated with Rospo Pallenberg on a screenplay for a three-hour adaptation of the classic, as well as creating extensive preliminary designs for the film.  The studio, however, passed on it, having decided the project was too costly. Boorman attempted to sell other studios on the film, but to no avail; however, he was able to secure sufficient interest from backers to revive his Merlin idea. With Pallenberg as co-writer once more, he fashioned the screenplay for Excalibur, and eventually incorporated many of the design concepts from the aborted Rings project to bring his Arthurian vision to life.  Drawing mostly from Thomas Malory’s epic 16th-Century romance, Le Morte d’Arthur, with some elements added from other early versions of the tale- as well as a few original twists of their own- their script is a stripped-down narrative of the archaic British legend, focusing on the key themes of its mythology- the transition from the brutality of the Dark Ages to a more enlightened time of justice and chivalry, the passing of old pagan beliefs with the rise of the Christian faith, the connection between the well-being of the land and its king, and the legend’s parallels with the Christ story.

The film chronicles the Arthurian tale from before its hero’s birth, depicting the rise and fall of his father, Uther, who, with the help of the mysterious necromancer, Merlin, unites the divided land and becomes its king, only to be defeated and overthrown as a result of his selfishness and lust; the sword of power, Excalibur, is driven into a stone, able to be removed only by his rightful successor, and Merlin spirits away his only child to be humbly and anonymously raised in secret.  When the boy grows to maturity, his destiny unfolds; he draws the sword from the stone, becoming the unlikely king, and is tutored in the ways of rulership by Merlin, who has reappeared to continue his shepherding of mankind into a more enlightened future.  In time, Arthur re-unites and brings peace to the land, establishing justice and a code of chivalry, and creating a fellowship of champions to represent these ideals- the Knights of the Round Table; along the way he wins the love of Guenevere, who becomes his queen, and Lancelot, who becomes his best friend and greatest knight- but therein lies the seed of doom for the utopia he has built, for their eventual betrayal of their king will tear the land apart, leaving it vulnerable to the dark ambitions of the sorceress Morgana, Arthur’s jealous half-sister.  The saga ultimately leads to the redemption of Arthur’s dream, through the quest for the Holy Grail, and his final battle with the forces of his bastard son, Mordred, and reaches its bittersweet conclusion with the heroic king’s final mystic voyage to the Isle of Avalon, where he will wait until the world is ready once more to welcome his vision of peace.

This epic tale has found expression in countless works of fiction throughout the centuries, but a comparatively small number of films have dealt with it, and even fewer have attempted to tackle the story in its entirety.  It’s easy to understand why: though it is full of possibilities for adventure, romance, and drama, it is highly esoteric at its core, rich with symbolic content that makes a literal screen depiction somewhat problematic.  To be sure, there are many possible approaches to the material which can bypass these elements; but when stripped of deeper meaning, the stories seem, well, pretty cheesy.  Boorman, however, takes the opposite approach with Excalibur– far from downplaying or obscuring the archetypal connections of the myth, he places his focus squarely on them.  The pageant of the story’s familiar events moves by quickly, depicted with indelible imagery and loaded with the kind of clanging medieval action that we expect from such a movie, but infused throughout with a deliberate awareness of its thematic essence; each episode plays like a ritual, enacted for the purpose of illuminating the spiritual and psychological experience it represents.  The “Dark Ages” in which the story takes place are clearly not based in a factual period, but are rather a manifestation of the collective unconscious, a dream-world in which the artistic imagination is unfettered by concerns of historical accuracy or temporal logic.  Boorman’s vision incorporates both the realistic and the fantastical, blending authenticity of detail with wild stylization in his depiction of costumes and armor, weaponry and technology, architecture, and even geography.  All these factors are represented by a mix of designs that spans some 500-odd years of period style, a deliberately anachronistic conceit intended to remind us that we are witness to an idealize fantasy and not a recreation of a specific era.  He further elaborates this meta-reality by enhancing it with his trademark emphasis on the primal power of nature, as well as with an extensive use of back-lighting and reflected colors to evoke a surreal, other-worldly aura; and as he moves the narrative towards its climax, he progressively blurs the line between reality and dreams, so that by the end, the two have become one and the same.

Although Boorman’s film is designed to elucidate the inner mechanics of its source material, his intention is not to provide an academic experience; his purpose goes far beyond a desire to illustrate the coded significance of a classic myth for an audience already familiar with its meaning.  Instead, Excalibur is an attempt to translate this antiquated story for modern consumption, to stimulate a kind of communion in which contemporary viewers can share the revelations within and experience them as relevant to their own lives.  To this end, the director uses all his cinematic skills to convey the universally understandable human element of the tale even as he unmasks the hidden principles underpinning it; he removes all but the most important episodes of the epic saga, distilling it into a document of the emotional arc experienced by the characters as they progress through its momentous events.  Consequently, the film creates a delicate balance between its larger-than-life atmosphere and the intimacy with which its key figures are portrayed.  It’s a disconcerting effect, to be sure- Arthur and his comrades converse in an odd combination of lofty speech and familiar banality, seeming at once to be both elevated and de-mystified versions of the archetypes they personify, and the visual interpretation of the tale evokes both the romanticized pageantry of an illuminated manuscript and the garish gore of a Hammer horror movie.  Doubtless this odd approach, which makes for a film that seems reverent and iconoclastic at the same time, accounts for the initial confusion of critics who saw Boorman’s film as a stylistic mess; but on a visceral level, it works exactly as the director intended, allowing audiences to access the story on both a metaphoric and a personal level.  In some ways, Boorman’s film is reminiscent of the work of Kurosawa and other masters of the Japanese cinema, presenting his epic of a mythic realm with a stunning visual approach that captures both the timelessness of its powerful symbolism and the immediacy of its underlying human story with equal power. For some, it may be disconcerting to see this legendary tale- perhaps the most seminal story in modern western culture- being presented in the milieu of a Samurai film, and the jarring contrasts inherent in the movie’s dual purpose may strike certain viewers as vaguely ridiculous, as if there had been a sudden invasion by members of the Monty Python troupe; but for those who can get themselves in tune with Boorman’s somewhat unorthodox vibe here, his vision yields remarkable riches.

Excalibur’s visual realization of the Arthurian world is, of course, the film’s most universally acclaimed feature. Boorman has drawn inspiration from the classic chivalric paintings of the Romantic era, as well as from his obvious passion for technical accuracy in his depiction of medieval warfare; the result is another level of contrast which infuses his movie with both ethereal beauty and barbaric cruelty. The striking and imaginative costumes merge prehistoric, pagan, courtly and even space-age styles for a highly distinctive and fantastical look, while the settings are a splendid mix of the highly theatrical and the naturalistic. Much of the film was shot on location at various real-life castles and ruins, and for the interior scenes, elaborate soundstage sets were built, using highly theatrical designs, as well as mirrors and matte paintings to create an even more expansive feel. The extensive forest scenery, most of which was located within a mile of Boorman’s home in Ireland, is all genuine; lush and verdant, it has a preternatural beauty that goes a long way towards making “the Land” into a viable character in the film. Extensive rain during production helped keep the locations vibrant, and the natural magic of the setting was enhanced by being back-lit with green to bring even more color into the scene. As captured by the Oscar-nominated cinematography by Alex Thompson, the entire package is a breathtakingly gorgeous feast for the eyes, full of unforgettable imagery.

As for Boorman’s cast, it was comprised by mostly unknown or little known actors- at least, they were at the time. Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne, and Ciarán Hinds all made early appearances is supporting roles, and each of them stands out in their few minutes (or less) onscreen.  The beautiful Cherie Lunghi brings a disarming contemporary charm to Guenevere, making this complex feminine icon into a believable, understandable human being- no small feat, considering the multitude of differing feminine attributes she must represent in the story.  Nicholas Clay is stiff but sincere (and supremely handsome) as Lancelot, embodying the character’s soon-to-be-tarnished moral purity and suitably conveying the strength- if not the depth- of his passion for both his lover and his friend.  In the crucial role of Arthur is Nigel Terry, whose most prominent big screen performance prior to this was as one of the scheming princes of The Lion in Winter over a decade before; he has an Everyman simplicity that makes him an ideal stand-in for this common man’s king, bringing candor and humility to the role while also rising to the task of conveying the hero’s substantial nobility and determination, and though at times his delivery borders on being a bit awkward, the honesty of his performance shines through his expressive eyes throughout, accomplishing one of the film’s primary purposes by making this towering mythological figure touchingly and accessibly human.

The center ring in Excalibur, however, is occupied by two electrifying performers who, although they technically play supporting roles, are definitely the star attraction.  Helen Mirren, already a renowned stage actress, with a few notable roles onscreen, was nevertheless mostly unknown to film audiences in 1981; but as Morgana- the duplicitous sorceress who engages in a duel of wits and a battle of wills with the powerful Merlin as she plots to usurp her half-brother’s kingdom through witchcraft, incest, and deceit- she took a major step forward in becoming a recognizable force to be reckoned with.  She gives a deliciously theatrical performance, brimming with raw sexuality, barely concealed contempt, and an almost child-like transparency, and if at times she seems over-the-top, she is positively subtle in comparison to her co-star.  That position is occupied by Nicol Williamson, at the time the film’s biggest star, with whom Mirren exhibits a palpable antipathy; the pair had developed a strained relationship while starring together in a stage production of Macbeth and were not on speaking terms, but each accepted their roles without knowing the other had been cast- and the resultant fireworks give their screen time together an intensity that would be impossible to fake.  As electric as they are together, though, it’s still Williamson’s show.  As Merlin, he is magnificently outrageous; sporting a chrome skull-cap that makes him look as much like Ming the Merciless as the archetypal wizard he portrays, he chews the scenery with gusto, careening madly between blatant comedy and deadly serious intensity, declaiming his dialogue with a clipped, eccentric panache that helps to burn his numerous memorable lines instantaneously into the brain.  Off-kilter and alien, he seems like the product of another reality- which of course, he is- but underneath his potentially off-putting manic demeanor he is so endearing, so compassionate, so loving, that we cannot help but like him.  Somehow, he makes Merlin the most human character in the film; and though Boorman’s original plan to center his Arthurian epic on this mystical personage evolved into a more all-encompassing view of the tale, Williamson makes certain that he is still the most distinctive and memorable figure onscreen.

There are so many things I could go on about in this discussion of Excalibur: the battle choreography, the willingness to explore such esoterica as the concept of the Holy Grail, the brilliant and stirring use of classical music by Wagner and Orff alongside the original score of Trevor Jones.  Ultimately though, these things are best discovered through a viewing of this odd and underappreciated classic, not by reading about them here.  It’s probably clear by now that Excalibur is one of my personal favorites; this admission, however, should not stand as a disclaimer against my personal bias, but rather as a testimony to the greatness of the film.  Quibbling about stylistic issues is perfectly understandable, but in the long run, if you take Excalibur on its own terms, you cannot help but find that it is moving, exciting, funny, sad, and spectacular, and that not only does it stick in your brain for a long time afterwards, it holds up well and reveals new surprises on repeated viewings. That’s a pretty powerful recommendation in itself, but if you need more incentive, consider this: the story of Arthur and his knights is one of the most important influences there is on our culture.  Many of the underlying tenets of our modern world view are derived from it, the kind of concepts we take so completely for granted that we don’t even think about questioning their validity or where they came from; yet a majority of contemporary people have merely a passing knowledge of this landmark tale, derived from such popular culture manifestations as Disney’s The Sword in the Stone or the musical Camelot, which may have certain charms in their own right but do little towards encapsulating the majestic scope of their original source.  John Boorman has given us a worthy rendition of the story here, preserving the integrity of its core significance while setting it in a form which allows it to live for an audience of today.  at could be wrong with taking a glimpse at this shared cultural dream of our past, perhaps to gain a little understanding of where we have come from, and why we have made the journey?  After all, a myth is like a road map, allowing us enrich our lives today with the knowledge gained by those who came before us.  It can only be beneficial to revisit Arthur and his once-and-future kingdom of Camelot, especially in a form as vital and exhilarating as this film; there are lessons worth remembering here, and in the words of the king’s wise and trusted teacher, “it is the doom of men that they forget.”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082348/