The Desolation of Smaug Infuses Life into Overstretched Hobbit Franschise

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
Directed by Peter Jackson
New Line Cinema/MGM, 161 minutes, PG-13 (gratuitous orc eliminations)
* * * *

Peter Jackson partially redeemed himself with the second of his three-part Hobbit adaptations: The Desolation of Smaug. (I say ‘partially’ because I think the franchise is exhausted.) Part I was quite dull–mostly a rehash of the ending of The Return of the King grafted onto the finding of a magic ring, and the gathering of an odd band of 13 dwarves, a wizard, and a hobbit–all intent on recovering a treasure.

The plot of Part II simply picks up where Part I left off. Our band is pursued by orcs and is trying to make its way to the Lonely Mountain to find a symbol known as the Arkenstone, which will jumpstart the rebirth of the dwarf kingdom. If you know anything about Tolkien’s Middle-earth, you know that Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) will encounter “more sinister” forces than orcs, and that every step of the journey of the band’s journey across a lupin-infested river valley, into the Mirkwood Forest, and to the Lonely Mountain will be fraught with peril. And you know that our ring-bearing hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is the key to the entire venture. You also know the film will look gorgeous; some of it is CGI, but often Jackson just pointed his camera at the New Zealand countryside. (The lupin valley is real; I’ve been there!)

Part II is much better, in part because some of the characters that merely populated Part I have started to develop personalities. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) emerges with the proper mix of arrogance and leadership that befits the heir presumptive to the dwarf kingdom. The aged Balin (Ken Scott) has become the collective memory of that kingdom in the time of Thorin’s grandfather, who lost it to the fire-breathing dragon Smaug; and Kili (Aidan Turner) is flirtatious, with an ability to charm one moment and con the next. Kili, in fact, is vaguely elfin, which makes him a perfect foil (and perhaps attraction) for an exciting new character, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a superb huntress and fighter who may or may not be too impulsive for her own wellbeing.

Tolkien purists have bemoaned the creation of Tauriel, who was not in the book. I find it hard to argue for the ‘purity’ of a fantasy that began life as a children’s story, hence I applaud the energy she brings to Part II. Tauriel also points to some problems with the entire decision to make The Hobbit into a trilogy. It was a children’s book after all, and a relatively short one (310 pages). Part I of the film adaptation was 169 minutes long and Part II checks in at 161, which means that Jackson and his screenplay writers must do a lot of padding. They also have to divert our attention from the fact that characters from The Lord of the Rings ‘sequel’ that ended ten years earlier look noticeably older in the prequel, including Gandalf and elves (who are allegedly immortal) such as Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom).

The story is also padded by adding endless action sequences. These are well done but, in all honesty, Jackson has already done just about everything that he could do with Middle-earth battles. He now resorts to sequences best described as a blend of Kung-fu and slapstick movies. You begin to wonder why any prince of evil would resort to an army as inept as orcs and goblins. They have become the equivalent of the red shirts that are the phaser fodder of the Star Trek franchise–in this case sword, arrow, knife, and axe fodder. Two elves seem to be capable of polishing off hundreds of orcs and can show off while doing so.

Still, The Desolation of Smaug works because elves still enchant and the new setting of Lakeland unveils a new world to us. It’s a kleptocracy run by a greedy but goofy Master (Stephen Fry) in which smuggling and other underground enterprises flourish. The set is  fabulous and looks like something Terry Gilliam might have imagined–a kind of a floating late medieval village infused with Dickensian gloom. Our key Lakeland character, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) is tight-lipped and enigmatic, which means we know he’s important, but the part’s so well written that his role isn’t telegraphed. If we’re honest, Part II also works because the monsters remain creepy extensions of our Jungian collective unconscious. The Mirkwood spiders prey upon primal fears of arachnids and Smaug is all the more terrifying because Jackson literally gave him a voice, ominously rendered by Benedict Cumberbatch.

This is a good film if you wish to divert yourself. The final installment comes out at the end of 2014, and not a moment too soon–it’s time to wrap up this franchise. Peter Jackson has done more than anyone could have expected and more than he should have. His six films will become the definitive interpretation of JRR Tolkien, but t’is time to stop before the magic vanishes with the final credits.--Rob Weir


Ocean at the End of the Lane Weaves Magic

The Ocean at the End of The Lane
By Neil Gaiman
HarperCollins 0062255657
* * * *

Few authors mine mythology with the aplomb and imagination of Neil Gaiman. For his latest, Gaiman offers a melange of Norse and Wiccan beliefs. Our narrator is an unnamed 7-year-old boy or, more accurately, his grown persona recalling events of 40 years earlier. When he was a lad in remote Sussex, his parents took in a boarder, a rather crude opal miner who ran over the family kitten while moving in. Needless to say, our protagonist isn’t exactly wracked by grief when he shows up dead in his car just down the lane. He is, however, shaken up until comforted by 11-year-old Lettie Hempstock.

Lettie is odd and wise beyond her years. She lives with her mother and grandmother on a farm without men and Grandma Hempstock explains there never were any! Moreover, Lettie takes the boy to an ordinary pond and insists it’s an ocean. Thus begins the lad’s association with Lettie, who also seems to know a lot about the terrible nightmares he’s been having; in fact, Lettie suspects something quite sinister is at play. And so will you when you read about an encounter Lettie and the boy have in a field on the edge of the Hempstock property.

Things get even worse for the boy when gray-eyed Ursula Monkton shows up as their new boarder and governess. The boy’s sister is enchanted by Ursula and his father literally seduced, but she gives him the willies and Ursula, in turn, seeks to torment and imprison the boy. Needless to say, she’s not just a Scandinavian housekeeper. Nor is the pond just a pond or the Hempstocks just an unorthodox family. All will culminate in a paranormal struggle. Forty years later, the boy—now a man—returns to the farm to see what became of Lettie. It surprises him to find Grandma Hempstock still alive.

I shall say no more other than your appreciation of the novel will be greatly enhanced if you research the Norse goddess Marōn (also known as Mare or Mara) and neo-pagan views on wormholes. I’d also check out ancient Celtic worship of the Triple Goddess (called Brigit among the Irish, but generally expressed as Maiden, Mother, and Crone). I’ll add parenthetically that not a single review of this book has mentioned the Triple Goddess, an omission I take to mean that a lot of young reviewers have never taken a mythology course!

Gaiman’s storytelling is magical in its own right. In fact, this may be his most coherent novel to date, one marked by clarity of purpose and unity of narrative that’s devoid of past tendencies to takes flights of fancy that were clearer in his mind than on the page. I ripped through The Ocean at the End of the Lane in a single snowy afternoon. Though not troubled, I had very unusual dreams that night!

Rob Weir


Mission to Paris Flunks the Plausibility Test

Mission to Paris (2013)
Alan Furst
Random House 9780812981827
* *

The spy genre and I haven’t been on particularly good terms since a youthful foray into the novels of Ian Fleming. Although they made for good movies and TV, I don’t think much of John le Carré or Len Deighton as writers and, for my money, Tom Clancy was a hack. Glowing reviews of Alan Furst sent me to Mission to Paris, but I’m afraid I fail to see the appeal.

Mission to Paris is set in late 1938, just after the Munich Agreement and roughly 18 months before France fell to the Nazis and Adolf Hitler danced a jig in front of the Eifel Tower. Paris was already awash with German agents that were officially members of the friendship-building Comité France-Allemagne, but were in truth a third column spy ring and hit squad that disposed of troublesome enemies and double agents. For reasons never entirely explained or made plausible, an amiable second-tier Hollywood actor, Fredric Stahl, is dispatched to Paris to make a joint U.S.-French movie. For even less uncertain reasons, the German high command decides that the Austrian-born Stahl would aid their propaganda efforts. Stahl finds the Germans repulsive and just wants to make his movie and go back to Hollywood, but it soon becomes clear that one only refuses at one’s own peril. What ensues is a dangerous game in which the reluctant Stahl finds himself a pawn moved by sanguinary Nazis, German resistance fighters, and an officially neutral American diplomatic corps that unofficially think Stahl would make a good courier.

Really? Stahl is a charming man, but he’s an intellectual lightweight, a social gadfly, and a man who plays dashing figures that are quite unlike his private self. It’s hard to see why anyone would think him useful, but we soon have him on a train to Berlin to hand out awards at a Berlin Nazi propaganda film festival that just happens to coincide with Kristallnacht. Furst’s novel is filled with such unlikely contrivances and several others that border on silliness worthy of a Hollywood caper film. One of these involves a Polish count, Janos Polanyi, and a shoot-out with Nazis that plays like a European version of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. I’m not sure I buy Stahl’s romance with dowdy German émigré Renate Steiner either.

Furst does have a good eye for detail; his descriptions of Europe on the brink of cataclysm are quite chilling. In like fashion, Paris comes off as if its residents are crowded into a tense speakeasy in which everyone lives in the moment knowing that a raid is imminent. Furst’s skill at depicting private turmoil and collective anxiety often evokes comparisons to Graham Greene, but these are–like most reviews of this novel–grandiose and overblown. Furst paints lush backgrounds but populates them with cardboard figures unworthy of inhabiting such spaces. Color me underwhelmed.
Rob Weir