New in Theaters: ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’

Finally, the Lonely Mountain

Finally, the Lonely Mountain

For anybody who had just about given up on Peter Jackson’s ever-longer-seeming series of J.R.R. Tolkien films, there comes the improbably named The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Who knows how next year’s final installment will come off, but the second Hobbit film mostly chucks aside everything that was wrong with An Unexpected Journey and relocates the joy of storytelling. Plus: Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug.

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens everywhere this Friday. My full review is at Film Journal International:

The elements click smartly together in The Desolation of Smaug like they haven’t since The Fellowship of the Ring. This is partly due to Jackson having better material to work with. With its characters fresh out of the Misty Mountains, the film hurls them from one danger to the next. In short order they’ve been taken in by a shape-shifting man-bear friend of Gandalf’s, sent into the inky-black vastness of the perfectly named Mirkwood, fought off giant hissing spiders, and imprisoned in the Escher-like underground palace of the wood-elf king Thranduil (Lee Pace). Looming in the distance is the treasure-filled Lonely Mountain, with its dragon guardian Smaug, and the unspoken worry that this tiny band of homeless dwarves and their unlikely burglar Bilbo (Martin Freeman) will be utterly outmatched once they arrive…

Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) aims at Legolas' heart

Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) aims at Legolas’ heart

Here’s the trailer:

Writers’ Corner: Worst Opening Ever

darkstormy1Is it possible that to learn how to write something grand you should also practice penning something so abominably wretched it should never see the light of day? Probably not, the art of writing probably comes down to something as dreary as trying every single day to hone your craft to a sharp, chisel-like point.

So, if you were going to attempt to write horrendous prose, there’s really no other reason to do it except for a giggle. Because, after all, as  more than one person has noted, somebody already wrote 50 Shades of Grey. So anything you do will be at best, second-worst writing ever.

Herewith one of the many preternaturally horrible opening lines culled from submissions to the Bulwer-Lytton Prize:

When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday, his children packed his bags and drove him to Golden Pastures retirement complex just off Interstate 95.

Also:

It was such a beautiful night; the bright moonlight illuminated the sky, the thick clouds floated leisurely by just above the silhouette of tall, majestic trees, and I was viewing it all from the front row seat of the bullet hole in my car trunk.

And, a personal favorite:

The professor looked down at his new young lover, who rested fitfully, lashed as she was with duct tape to the side of his stolen hovercraft, her head lolling gently in the breeze, and as they soared over the buildings of downtown St. Paul to his secret lair he mused that she was much like a sweet ripe juicy peach, except for her not being a fuzzy three-inch sphere produced by a tree with pink blossoms and that she had internal organs and could talk.

 

Now on Sale: ‘Eyes Wide Open 2012′

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It’s only about a week to go before the Oscar Awards broadcast. In and of themselves, they don’t matter, even for serious movie fans. Not a bit. Given the wild richness that can be found in just one year’s worth of American studio and indie (for whatever that distinction is still worth making), identifying one particular film or performer as the “best” is an exercise in futility.

Eyes Wide Open-coverSo why do we care? If nothing else, the Oscars (like the Golden Globes) serve as an excuse to look over a year’s worth of cinema and determine what was most noteworthy about it. Or, more commonly, to argue about what those out-of-touch types in the Academy foolishly considered the best.

To help continue that argument, we offer for your consideration: Eyes Wide Open 2012: The Year’s 25 Greatest Movies (and 5 Worst). It’s a compilation of some 100-odd pages’ worth of material that I wrote over the past year (as well as some new pieces written for this book) about the films of 2012—the good, the bad, the preposterous, and the utterly forgettable.

In addition to the best and worst lists (The Hobbit made one list, and Cloud Atlas made the other; try guessing which), there’s also some essays, DVD reviews, and even some awards lists of my own (because, why should the Oscars have all the fun?). It covers everything from the strange genius of the late Tony Scott to the yawn-inducing mediocrity of The Avengers and the stark political attack contained in Brad Pitt’s Killing Them Softly.

You can get the ebook here and here; there’s also a print-on-demand paperback here.

If this works out, it might become an annual thing. Let me know what you think.

Reader’s Corner: Tolkien Family Correspondence

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In late 1944, J. R. R. Tolkien’s son Christopher–who would later prove so industrious in the keeping-up of his father’s legacy—was away from home, serving with the Royal Air Force in South Africa. J. R. R. had published The Hobbit seven years earlier, and was still in the process of writing his Lord of the Rings trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring wouldn’t appear in print until 1954). J. R. R. would post draft pages to Christopher as he wrote.

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In this letter sent three days after Christmas, J. R. R. talks about his new chapters:

I am glad the third lot of Ring arrived to date, and that you like it—although it seems to have added to yr. homesickness. It just shows the difference between life and literature: for anyone who found himself actually on the stairs of Kirith Ungol would wish to exchange it for almost any other place in the world, save Mordor itself. But if lit. teaches us anything at all, it is this: that we have in us an eternal element, free from care and fear, which can survey the things that in ‘life’ we call evil with serenity (that is not without appreciating their quality, but without any disturbance of our spiritual equilibrium)… I am afraid the next two chapters won’t come for some time (about middle of Jan) which is a pity, as not only are they (I think) v. moving and exciting, but Sam has some interesting comments on the rel. of stories and actual ‘adventures’. But I count it a triumph that these two chapters, which I did not think as good as the rest of Book IV, could distract you from the noise of the Air Crew Room!….

More of the letter can be found at the American Reader‘s “This Day in Letters” feature.

New in Theaters: ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’

TheHobbit-posterJust in time for holiday gathering bickering over what movies to see, the first installment of the new Hobbit film trilogy opened everywhere late at night on Thursday, so strap on your Gandalf beard:

For Peter Jackson’s take on The Hobbit, his freedom to sprawl the narrative over three films also gives him the freedom to indulge in the same tricks and tics that gummed up the works so direly in Return of the King. Meaning: a whole server farm’s worth of animated orcs to keep goosing the action along whenever it threatens to flag, and a script too often shorn of the source material grandeur or playfulness. The unfortunate thing is that Tolkien’s book didn’t need any goosing along. He knocked out that brisk, rollicking read as a bedtime tale to read to his children; only later did it become the genesis of his entire Middle-earth mythos…

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is playing everywhere right now in a multitude of formats. It’s advisable to skip theaters showing it at the 48 fps (frames per second) speed, as it makes too much of the action look sped-up and cartoonish.

My full review is at Short Ends & Leader.

You can see the trailer here:

 

Department of Lexicography: Tolkien Edition

tolkien1Several years before hobbits were a gleam in J. R. R. Tolkien’s eye, he was deeply involved in another massive literary undertaking: The Oxford English Dictionary. Tolkien worked on the OED staff from 1919 to 1920, concentrating primarily on words in the “W” section. (The image of the tweedy young scholar beavering away at his obscure assignments at the dawn of the Jazz Age calls to mind an Oxbridge version of Ball of Fire; only sans Barbara Stanwyck.)

According to Peter Gilliver of the OED, Tolkien was put on to certain words — like walnutwalrus, and wampum — particularly because of their difficult etymologies:

Other words, such as waistcoatwake (noun), wan, and want, posed rather different challenges. Teasing out fine distinctions of meaning is a key part of a lexicographer’s job, as is the selection of words to convey precisely the connotations, as well as the simple meaning, of a word: Tolkien evidently took great pains over both. He relished the task of distinguishing the different garments denoted at different times by waistcoat (as he later grew to relish the garment itself) … His biggest challenge, however, must surely have been want, one of the commonest of all verbs, which eventually required nearly thirty separately defined senses and subsenses.

tolkien2Many years later, an editor at the OED who had been a student of Tolkien’s wrote asking for his opinion on the definition of a new word gaining popularity: hobbit. Tolkien happily obliged. Mithril and orc are now also ensconced in the dictionary as well.

Coming Attractions: A Third ‘Hobbit’ Film?

Deadline reported yesterday that Peter Jackson is considering making The Hobbit into a trilogy. Jackson is considering taking the Appendices that were published at the back of The Return of the King (which he calls essentially notes for a planned rewrite of The Hobbit which would have incorporated a lot of material that Tolkien came up when writing his later trilogy) and using that as a basis for the third film.

For Lord of the Rings film junkies, this might be good news; more the better. And the studio would certainly be delighted. For those of us who are fans of the mythos as a whole and didn’t necessarily think that Return of the King was enriched by its fourth ending, it could be a potential sign of trouble: empowered auteur on the loose! Jackson’s artistry as a whole has been terrific, but it does begin to wear on one after a while in a way that Tolkien’s dense style never quite does. The films are never quite able to hit those light, cheery notes as well as the books can, focusing over-much on the battles and melodrama.

Maybe instead of a third Hobbit film, they should be talking about doing something with The Silmarillion? Yes, it’s more mythology than fiction, but plenty of story to go around. And let’s be honest, it would be incredible to see what Jackson could come with for the sacking of Gondolin and the tragedy of Beren and Luthien.