Saturday, December 29, 2012

Page to Screen: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

This is what we have been waiting for!  Ever since it was announced that a prequel was being made for the hugely popular Lord of the Rings series, fans have been speculating and eagerly anticipating its arrival.  There were a lot of ups and downs that caused production to drag on and on, but Tolkein's original masterpiece has finally come to life.

 I love the original Lord of the Rings movies and was very excited for this film.  I saw it in IMAX 3D, but not in the new 48 FPS so my review won't comment on that aspect of it.  Here are some of my thoughts:

-Though this is a prequel to the original films, there is a sense of nostalgia and "coming home".  We are back in Middle Earth and simply seeing the Shire and Rivendell again will warm the hearts of any fan.  Peter Jackson did a great job of keeping the scenery and feeling of each place consistent with the previous films.

-It was also nice to see how they were able to tie this story into what was to come later in LOTR.  You don't have to have seen the original films in order to enjoy this one, but it is fun to make those connections.  Scenes like when Bilbo finds the ring, when Saruman appears in council, or when Sauron (called the Necromancer here) enters the story all bring chills to those who know the roles they will play later.

-We see the return of many beloved characters in this film and the actors who play them do an excellent job.  Andy Serkis is especially brilliant in his reprisal of Gollum.  Equally brilliant is Martin Freeman as Bilbo.  When I first heard that he had been cast as Bilbo, I knew that he would do an excellent job and I was right.  Best known in America for his roles in Love Actually and the immensely popular Sherlock series, Freeman brings a sense of compassion, bravery, and comedic timing to the character and you can't help but root for him every step of the way.  His scenes with Gollum are AMAZING and easily the best part of the movie.

-The biggest problem I had with this film is that it seemed to be too much.  Compared to LOTR, The Hobbit is a pretty basic story with none of the epic tones found in the longer work.  Yet Peter Jackson seems determined to bring the same epicness to this film as the others and it just doesn't quite work here.  There is no real foundation for a story that large in scope and the weaknesses show.  The Pale Orc backstory was pretty unnecessary, I thought, and simply slowed the pace of the film.

-Though Richard Armitage certainly gives a regal air to Dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield, overall the Dwarf band is pretty weak as a group.  Unlike the Fellowship of the Ring, we don't feel that we really know each individual member by the end of the film.  There just isn't enough time spent developing the individual characters to make you care about each one.

If you loved the LOTR films, then this is a must watch no matter what anyone says.  If have never seen the originals, or if you did not care for them, this may or may not be the best choice for you.  It isn't a perfect film, but it was still wonderful to be back in Middle Earth and I am optimistic about where things will go in film number 2.  The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug will be released December 13, 2013.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

-from A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

Wishing you and yours a safe and joyous holiday season.  Merry Christmas!


Sunday, December 23, 2012

Page to Screen: Anna Karenina 2012

Director Joe Wright is no stranger to bringing literature to the silver screen, having directed the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and the 2007 adaptation of Atonement.  Now, he brings us a brand new adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's classic tale of passion, betrayal, and true love.  The film stars Keira Knightley as Anna, Jude Law as Karenin, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky, Domhnall Gleeson as Levin, and Matthew Macfadyen as Oblonsky.

I left the theater unsure as to how I really felt about the movie.  I liked some aspects while I found others to be somewhat odd.  Here are some of my overall thoughts from the film:

-When I first heard that Keira Knightley was going to be playing Anna, I felt that to be a case of miscasting.  After finishing the film, I still felt that to be a case of miscasting.  While she certainly wasn't horrible, she just didn't play the character as that sensuous, voluptuous, almost larger than life woman that I pictured while reading the book.  I guess she just left me a little cold.  On a side note, it was pretty great to see Lizzy and Darcy together again on screen.

-I felt that most of the other actors hit the mark (or close to it).  Jude Law was stellar as Karenin, a man who has subverted his passions to his role in Russian society.  Taylor-Johnson is adequate as Vronsky, though perhaps a little on the sulky side at times.  MacFadyen brings comic relief to his role as Oblonsky, and Gleeson pours forth the earthy heart and soul of Levin.

-Wright chose to film most of the movie inside an old Russian theater, the point of which is to show that society in Moscow is all theatrics, putting on the face that is necessary, while life in the country (shot in the exterior) is real.  It is a bold move, but one that does not always work.  In the opening scene we move through time at almost breakneck pace, sets whirling and changing constantly as characters are introduced.  It is all pretty dizzying and not easy to keep with if you don't already know who everyone is.  Also, there is no consistency as some Moscow scenes are not set theatrically.  Some of the scenes that did benefit from the stage setting were the ball where Vronsky and Anna dance together and the horse race scene, the tension of both gaining from the closed in surroundings.

-Those who have read the novel will note that this is a pretty bare bones adaptation story wise.  Tolstoy's commentary on Russian life and spirituality are nowhere to be found.  And while there is plenty of time to flesh out characters in a 900 page novel, that is not true of a 90 minute film.  Having said that, I didn't find it to be that bad, and people new to the film will be able to follow along pretty easily once they sort out who all of these characters are.

-The story does not shy away from some of the moral questions the book asks.  In our world, we assume that the love we feel in the moment is the love that is right.  The film shows that sometimes, what we want is not what is right and that there are consequences to the choices we make.  

-Lovers of British TV will see lots of familiar faces popping up here and there like Olivia Williams, Ruth Wilson, and Michelle Dockery.  I went to see it with a friend and we were constantly whispering "Oh look!  It's so and so from such and such!"

-The costumes and set pieces were GORGEOUS!!  They seemed to create the illusion of a 19th century child's playroom full of rich colors, well dressed dolls, and extravagantly detailed pop-up books.  There was definitely an artistic eye applied to this film.

I do recommend seeing this film if you haven't already.  While it is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, there are aspects that are worth taking in.  It is a visually bold film and will probably leave traces of itself in the films that come after it.  Have you seen the film?  If so, tell us what you thought of it. 


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Murder Must Advertise

“You’ll soon find that the biggest obstacle to good advertising is the client.”

Along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers is considered to be one of the best crime writers of the 1930s.  Her Lord Peter Wimsey novels remain very popular and Murder Must Advertise is considered one of the best.  Though written in a much different time, the world of advertising is so exactly described that it seems as if not much has changed at all.

The Plot:

When Victor Dean fell down the iron staircase at Pym's Publicity, Ltd. everyone assumed that it was a tragic accident.  But when Mr. Pym finds a half-written letter by Dean, he begins to suspect that a scandal might be brewing in the office.  He hires Lord Peter Wimsey (who is a detective for fun) to come in and discover what the nature of this scandal might be.

Posing as a new hire named Death Bredon, Wimsey begins to integrate himself into the office staff at Pym's and he soon begins to discover that not only was Dean murdered, but that he had also stumbled upon a crime ring bigger than anyone could have imagined.  Now, Wimsey must get to the bottom of the things before he himself becomes the target.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

Though this is a murder mystery and involves drug smuggling rings, the overall tone is actually very light and fun.  I found myself enjoying it quite a bit, not just for the plot, but also for the fun characters and atmosphere.

In this case, nobody is more fun than Lord Peter Wimsey himself.  Though very smart and terribly witty, there is also a kind of bumbling charm about him.  Sayers herself described him as a mix of Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster, which I find to be an apt description.  All in all, he is the very essence of a British gentleman detective.  He is stylish (well dressed and drives a great car), brilliant (invents a hugely successful advertising campaign), and athletic (turns three cartwheels down the hall at the age of 40)By the end of the story I found myself beginning to fall a bit head over heels for the chap.

The office setting also provides plenty of humor.  Anyone who has worked in an office will find connection with some or all of the goings-on at Pym's.  The politics, the gossip, the office presents, the office parties, the groveling to the client...all of it is very well represented.  Sayers worked in an ad agency for a time and brought all of her experience to this story.  You'll find yourself laughing at the different ads that everyone comes up with, some of which accidentally have hilarious double meanings.  I also found the use of the ads as communications for the drug gang to be very clever.

Having said all of this, it is not necessarily a story that everyone will love.  It is a slow paced story that is somewhat dated and very British.  Some of the slang and references can be hard to follow if you did not live in 1930s Britain.  Unlike other mystery novels, there is no real sense of urgency as we are just as likely to spend a chapter on an ad campaign as on digging up clues.  And there is an entire chapter devoted to a cricket game which I just could not wrap my poor American mind around.

Though slow at times, I still found this novel to be lots of fun and I do plan on adding a bit more Wimsey to my diet.  This is a must read for anyone who likes good old British mysteries...and those who like chapters on cricket.

The Plot:

The BBC did an adaptation of this story in 1973 and it is a good one.  It stars Ian Carmichael as Wimsey and he does a fantastic job, though he does not play up the athletic side as much.  The plot is streamlined without losing anything important, and it is a great option for those who might not want to tackle the book.  Just a great example of traditional British television.        

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Gift of Reading

As the Christmas shopping season begins to wind down, many of us have almost completed our purchasing and the gifts are beginning to stack up under the tree.  But there is still plenty of time to give to those in need, and as all of us know, books make the best presents.  Here are some ways that you can give the gift of reading to those in need this holiday season:

First Book: For 20 years, First Book has been giving books to existing programs that serve low-income families across the US and Canada.  More than 100 million new books have been distributed to children who may have never owned a book in their life.  You can help this organization by donating ($10 buys 4 new books) or volunteering with a local advisory board.  Check out First Book's website for more information. 

Local Toy Drives: When local organizations conduct toy drives (including Toys for Tots or the Salvation Army's Angel Tree) be sure to include a book.  I like to pick books that meant something to me as a child in hopes it will also mean something to them someday.

Give Through the Bookstore: I'm sure that most of us will be going to our local bookstore at least once this holiday season.  Many will have ways that you can help give books to people in your community.  My local store allowed you to purchase children's books which would then be given to children in our local hospital.  If they don't have a way to donate directly through the store, ask if they know of any book related charities in your area.

Donate to Your Local Library: Nobody gives book access to more people than local libraries.  Many libraries accept donations of gently used books that will either be placed on the shelves or used to raise funds through book sales.  Ask your librarian if there any particular books they could use. 

Give Straight to a Family: More than likely you or someone close to you knows of a family in need.  Sometimes the biggest impact is made when we give on a personal level.  You can help build up a local family's personal library and give them the joy of books.

 I know how much books mean to me, and I am so blessed to be able to own quite a few.  It's important for us to remember that not everyone is as lucky, and that we can give them a gift that will last a last forever...the gift of reading.  

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Thin Man

The people who lie the most are nearly always the clumsiest at it, and they're easier to fool with lies than most people, too. You'd think they'd be on the look-out for lies, but they seem to be the very ones that will believe almost anything at all.

When it comes to hard-boiled, no-nonsense detective stories there is perhaps no one who does it quite like Dashiell Hammett.  Drawing on his experience as a Pinkerton operative, Hammett would go on to create such enduring characters like Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon and the Continental Op from Red Harvest and the Dain Curse.  But perhaps his most memorable characters were the husband/wife duo of Nick and Nora Charles found in his final novel, The Thin Man.

The Plot:

 Nick Charles is the son of a Greek immigrant and a former private detective.  After marrying wealthy socialite Nora, he gives up his practice and lives the high life bouncing back in forth between gorgeous hotels and forbidden speakeasies.  In New York, he finds himself unwillingly drawn into a case involving a former acquaintance named Clyde Wynant.  Wynant has disappeared without a trace and there are many reasons that his grotesque family, various policemen, and crooked low-lifes are trying so hard to find him.  Nick and Nora must find a way to see past the lies, the fake motives, and the alcohol to find the truth.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I decided to read this book after seeing the wonderful 1934 film starring William Powell and Myrna Loy and though the tone of the film is somewhat lighter, this was still an interesting read.

The best thing about this story (as in the film) is Nick and Nora themselves.  Their relationship is boozy, irreverent, and witty.  Their sharp repartee is very fun and refreshing.  They seem to embody the spirit of the Roaring 20s itself; flippant, smart, glittering, and alcoholic.  I also love how Nora throws herself into Nick's old world of seedy speakeasies, murderous villains, and dangerous women.  Though she comes from a life of privilege, she is game for anything.  In my mind, it is Nick and Nora who set this story apart from the other gritty detective stories of the time.

This story is more than a mystery as it also becomes a comedy of manners with it's bizarre cast of characters.  Though there is a mystery going on, we don't seem to be as concerned about that as we are the people involved.  Their various motives and idiosyncrasies give the story a somewhat grotesque humor.  Having said that, it isn't as much fun to read a mystery novel that isn't too concerned about the mystery.  While the characters were interesting in their own way, I wouldn't say it is the best mystery I've ever read.

While it has its fun moments and is a good example of the hard-boiled detective novel, this is one of those rare occasions where I would say, "Read it if you have time, but you'll enjoy the movie more".

The Movie:

This story was the beginning of the incredibly popular "Thin Man" series of films starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick & Nora Charles.  Powell and Loy are fantastic together and they take the story to a new level of fun.  What is so nice about this film is that it is one of the early examples of a married couple who are flippant and sexy.  This film was so popular that it spawned 5 sequels (even though Hammett only wrote the one story) and was nominated for Best Picture at the 1934 Academy Awards.  Be sure to watch it.