Saturday, March 1, 2014

Gettin' Smauggy With It: The Desolation of Smaug

Orcs gettin’ shot
Drilled by elves right on the spot
Chasin’ dwarves without a thought
You know they’re never gettin’ caught.
Like a Shaq free throw shot
This hobbit flick is all for naught
Cuz the action’s overwrought
And it’s fraught with extra plot.

That’s how I imagine Will Smith might rap-review Peter Jackson’s second film in The Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug, if rapping movie reviews was his thing, which it isn’t, and if he shared my cinematic sensibilities, which he probably doesn’t.

Overwrought. That’s the key word I keep coming back to. I could add a few more: ostentatious, histrionic, superfluous, but I don’t know what those words mean. Here’s one I like:

Splurgy. That’s a good word too. This film has a certain enthusiastic spendthriftiness to it. It’s like the working stiff who wins the office pool, and then rushes home and announces, “Gather up the kids, honey. We’re all going to Golden Corral tonight!”
And possibly a severe bowel obstruction.

I suppose this is the kind of thing that can happen when a director as imaginative and ambitious as Mr. Jackson gets too much of everything he wants. As in:
Too much creative control
Too much perceived demand for more Middle-Earth movies
Too much money gladly handed over, strings detached
Too much film stock, or hard drive capacity, or whatever medium movies are made with these days.

Yet it’s hard to fault Mr. Jackson entirely for cranking out an overwrought, bloated product. After all, could you blame the proverbial kid in the candy store for eating himself into a blimp if he was given the key to the store with the words, “We’ll see you, oh, I don’t know…Tell you what, why don’t you let us know when you’re ready to come out?”

The man’s only human, and self-restraint is not high on most humans’ list of strong points. Self-restraint is one of those things that sounds good in theory, but in practice, well, check back later. The sample size is too small.

So what do I mean by an overwrought film, exactly? Well the proof is in the pudding, and the pudding in The Desolation of Smaug is the action sequences. So let’s taste the pudding, shall we?

The Dwarf/Elf/Orc Barrel-Battle scene

Floating down the river was a lot harder before inner tubes.
On the other hand, you never had to worry about
losing your keg.
The film moves along at a fairly economical clip until Bilbo and the dwarves escape from their elvish prison in Mirkwood by means of hiding in wooden barrels and leisurely floating down the river to safety. I’m sorry, I just described the way Tolkien wrote that part of the story. Mr. Jackson’s take was slightly different. Now I’ll grant you, the first few minutes of the intertwining battle between the orcs, elves and dwarves is fun to watch. But it just goes on and on and on: dwarf stabs orc, orc swings at dwarf and misses, elf shoots orc, orc jumps at elf and misses, elf steps on dwarf, dwarf curses out elf as elf shoots two orcs with one arrow, you get the picture. Mr. Jackson invests a solid five minutes in the cinematic equivalent of button-mashing; and in a film, just as in watching someone else button-mash a video game, five minutes can feel like fifty. It was about this time in the theater that I first started to notice the numbness in my butt-cheeks, which is not a good sign.
I’ve said this before, in fact about the previous Hobbit film, but it is my belief that an action sequence that goes on too long actually drains energy from a movie, instead of adding to it. For an action sequence to be effective, especially an extended one, there has to be some wins and losses mixed in there.Contrast this scene, for instance, with a virtual clinic on well-crafted action sequences: the truck convoy scene toward the end of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.

In this scene, Indy is trying to liberate the ark from the Nazis. You’ll notice that he doesn’t do this by simply dispatching Nazi after Nazi in various intricate and increasingly ghoulish ways until he wins. No, Indy fights his way to the truck, takes it over, then gets shot in the arm, thrown through the windshield and nearly run over. He gets dragged through the dirt and the rocks and dust, only to scratch and claw his way back up, and then he starts all over again. Indy faces setbacks and reversals, testing his character and his wits as he overcomes each obstacle. He’s down almost as often as he’s up, and the audience is never sure which way the fight’s going to go next. That generates excitement, suspense, empathy, a sense of participation, all of which add energy to the film.
Mr. Jackson: "And right about there is where I plan to
abandon my better judgment."
The barrel-battle scene, though, lacks any of this kind of complexity. There is little shifting of fortunes, and, consequently, very little emotional engagement for the audience. It quickly becomes a wearying experience when all you’re doing is watching an ever-growing string of increasingly meaningless visual theatrics. When this tendency becomes a habit, it can project an impression of careless self-indulgence, and self-indulgence in films looks bad, regardless of whether it’s projected at 24 or 48 frames per second.


Much of what happens in Lake-town is invented for the film, and most of that is purely extraneous, starting with the pack of orcs who come riding into Lakewood unnoticed and unresisted, and who proceed to ransack the town in their search for Bilbo. Call me a purist, but I found the concept of orcs traipsing through Lake-town like it was their own version of Club Med another example of action for action’s sake. Beyond portraying the residents as criminally incompetent defenders of their town (lookouts, anyone?), its only purpose seemed to be to juice up the action-to-running time ratio. Usually, that’s the kind of thing a studio makes a director do, in a desperate effort to prop up a film that it feels has bogged down, but here we can safely assume Mr. Jackson is calling the shots all the way.

Oh, and by the way Mr. Jackson, we’re not buying the whole elf/dwarf love thing between Tauriel and Fili (or Kili, I can’t remember). In the history of the earth, and that includes all earths: upper, middle and lower; beginning, middle and end, this one truth holds eternal. Mountains may rise and fall, seas may form and dry up again, dinosaurs and dodo birds may come and go, but short guys never, ever, ever get the tall girl. Even fantasies have their limits. And oh, in case you’re wondering, I’m a guy, and I’m five-four. So yeah, I know what I’m talking about on this one.

His Smauggyness

So far, so good...
This one hurts the most. Especially because Mr. Jackson does such a fine job of introducing us to the dragon, Smaug. The interaction between Bilbo and the dragon sparkles, literally as well as figuratively, as they spar verbally on a cascading mountain of gold. Smaug comes across as sly, powerful, and exceptionally intelligent, just as we expect him to be. And then, out of nowhere, the scene degenerates into Smaug chasing the dwarves around the cavernous old hall like they’re so many Shreks. It practically devolves into a digital age version of a Keystone Cops routine, except that with every passing moment, it gets less and less funny. Look, these dwarves have already proven themselves to be less than adept at avoiding capture, and yet Smaug can’t manage to corner even one of them? Even a lowly orc managed to stab one during the dwarf/elf/orc barrel-battle scene.

The pity of it is, the dragon’s mindless pursuit of the dwarves undermines the very cerebral image Mr. Jackson had just painstakingly created. Instead of coming across as a lethally wicked and clever opponent, by the end it’s hard to see Smaug as much more than a spoiled, arrogant blow-hard, pardon the pun. The whole sequence goes on far too long, and nothing of significance gets accomplished, unless you consider seeing Smaug coated with a layer of liquid gold a la Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger something of significance. Apparently, skin suffocation isn’t an issue for dragons. Who knew?

Why can't I look at this picture without seeing Austin Powers?
I feel like we need to hold an intervention for Mr. Jackson. I’m willing to preside, if you can somehow get him to my house. I’d say: “Peter, please, listen. Action scenes aren’t meant to last forever. No matter how much you love them and want them to, Peter, they just aren’t. They’re like leftovers, or old shoes, or dogs. You have to let them go before they start to stink to high heaven; although if it’s a dog, at least it’s a forgivable offense. Please, Peter, think about that, preferably before you sign any papers for a 12-movie version of The Silmarillion.”

It’s enough to make you wonder exactly how in the wide wide world of sports the LOTR trilogy ever managed to avoid the same stink of excess. Part of it obviously is that when he made the first trilogy, he wasn’t Peter Jackson yet. By that I mean he wasn’t yet the crown prince and U.N.-sanctioned potentate over all things Middle-Earth. He hadn’t taken over the sandbox, and relegated everyone else to standing around and watching him play. He had fellow producers to placate and a studio to please, and no legions of adoring fans. And no blank checks. But I think the real key is that Mr. Jackson was constrained by the necessity of keeping The Lord of the Rings to a trilogy-length series. He was forced to take a great literary work, its three volumes already full to bursting with more material than he could ever hope of using, and compress, compress, compress until it fit into the rigid framework of exactly three feature films. There was simply no room left over for Jackson’s rococo action instincts to manifest themselves, and the movies, deprived of his natural tendency to try and out-Hobbit The Hobbit, turned out brilliantly as a result.

I ran across an interesting story about Robert DeNiro just the other day. With respect to directing he said, "I don't know if I will ever do another movie. If I did five in my life, I would be happy. I might not do three... It's a lot of work... very tough, especially if you care about doing it... It's always about money, about budget. You always have to be fighting them (studio bosses) every second."

Now, now, Mr. DeNiro, let’s not be too rash about this. After all, without that detestable studio intervention, your film A Bronx Tale might have turned into a trilogy of three-hour movies called A Primarily Bronx Tale, Along With A Whole Bunch of Crap About The Other Four Buroughs.

You know, on second thought, I get the feeling you don’t have the same self-restraint issues.

Hey, how much do you like hobbits, Mr. DeNiro?

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