Tag Archives: Stephen Fry

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

movies-the-hobbit-desolation-of-smaug-posterI’ll go see Martin Freeman in just about any movie he cares to make, so, dutifully, I’ve gone to see the second Hobbit movie in the theater.  Before you complain that this is not a British movie…I disagree.  Tolkien was British, and (besides Martin) there are a plethora of Brit actors in the cast–Ian McKellen, ex-Doctor Sylvester McCoy, Orlando Bloom, Richard Armitage, Stephen Fry (!), and Benedict Cumberbatch (as the eponymous dragon, Smaug).

I was disappointed with the first Hobbit movie last year. Part of this was due to the high frame rate technology they used to make the film.  It was difficult to watch and made some actions seem slow and others preternaturally fast.  I don’t think they used the same technology on this film, because I didn’t notice anything strange about watching it.  I ended up enjoying it, partially because my expectations were a bit lower this time around.

I still dislike that it is spread across 3 movies.  I know there are a lot of extra storylines from the Appendices and maybe the Silmarillion that have been added to flesh out the story, but I think it was better without the extra stuff.  But it’s been so long since I read the book, that I can’t be certain what was in it anymore.  I don’t think Legolas made an appearance in the book, but he is certainly in the movie.  The elves of Mirkwood imprison the dwarves along their journey to the Lonely Mountain.  We see their great forest home with a truly impressive and ridiculous throne, upon which sits their king, Thranduil.  And honey, you should see him in a (ludicrous) crown:

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I must confess that in looking for that picture, I’ve stumbled across some pretty horrifying Thranduil erotic fanart.  Pass me the eye bleach when you get a chance…

We also meet Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly (Lost), a character completely made up by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, showing that he’s gone (literally) off-book.

220px-EvangelineLillyAsTaurielLook, we all know that Tolkien didn’t include many female characters in his stories. Hardly surprising, when you consider how much of his writing was based on his experiences in World War I. I’m glad to have a badass lady in the mix, but I am not a fan of Evangeline Lilly.  I haven’t been since Lost.  So I didn’t feel much attraction to her character, though her skill (with bow and with medicine) did come in handy. On an unrelated note, is it just me, or did they dress her like Robin Hood?

The story of the second movie weaves and wavers through time a bit.  We see Thorin Oakenshield when he first meets Gandalf and we see that this entire quest happened at Gandalf’s urging. In the present, the company of dwarves (plus 1 wizard and 1 hobbit) is running from a band of Orcs, and also from a wolf (actually a skin-changer named Beorn). Shortly after, Gandalf goes off toward Dol Guldur, to investigate reports of a dark power there.  (Spoilers: It’s Sauron.  It’s always Sauron.) Bilbo and the dwarves head through the Mirkwood forest toward the Lonely Mountain.

We see Bilbo use the ring to protect himself, use the ring to save his friends (from giant spiders, imprisonment, etc.), but we also see him kill to keep the ring in his possession.  He kills some sort of underground giant arachnid thing, so it’s not exactly the same as if he killed Gandalf or something.  On the other hand, it’s perfectly clear that he is killing for the ring, to keep it.  IF it weren’t clear, they make it even more clear when (picking up the ring again) Bilbo looks at the dead spider, points at the ring, and says ‘MINE’. It’s a wonder the guy could hold onto it for another 60 years without being a total monster.

After the spiders, they’re imprisoned by the elves.  They escape in empty wine barrels, and what follows is a slightly ludicrous, slapstick action sequence as they whitewater raft barrel down the river away from Mirkwood. Kili (aka the cute one) is hit with a poison arrow, thus making me very upset.  They happen upon a bargeman, Bard, who agrees to take them (secretly) into Laketown, the nearest town to the Lonely Mountain.  During this time, Gandalf gets himself captured by Sauron and his forces, so he’s of no use whatsoever.  He’s always getting himself captured at pivotal moments.  And if he ever claims he’ll meet you at this place or that place, he never shows up.  Properly unreliable.

In addition to a Peter Jackson cameo (still eating a carrot in Bree, even 60 years before the Fellowship?) and a Stephen Colbert cameo, we see Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown, doing his best impression of many a corrupt 17th century English monarch.  We have to endure a decent amount of foreshadowing about how it was Bard’s ancestor who failed to kill Smaug during the first attack. We get it, he (like Aragorn), will prove he is better than his ancestor.  There’s also some foreshadowing about Thorin–the Arkenstone corrupted his grandfather the king; will it corrupt him too, etc., etc.  It’s a little heavy-handed, to be honest. Not so much foreshadowing as fore-neon-signing.

Finally, it’s just down to Bilbo in the Lonely Mountain, searching the halls of Erebor for the fabled Arkenstone. He awakens Smaug (of course he does) and all hell breaks loose.

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We get a bit of the dwarves pulling together to help Bilbo, but they cannot defeat Smaug.  We all know why (because of the foreshadowing!).  Smaug, very aggravated, heads off for Lake Town to kill everyone.

Most of the reviews have included lines like ‘better than the first’ or ‘not as bad as the first’.  I agree, it was better than the first one. Partially because there are no ludicrous choreographed dance numbers that make you feel as if you’re in a kid’s movie.  But I still think it’s too long, and there’s something missing with almost all of the characters.  Even though it’s too long, we don’t seem to get to know anyone or to feel empathy for them.  Bilbo is charming and comic, but there’s something about the way they’ve edited the story, or maybe the way Martin acts, that lacks any seriousness.  Very very different from Ian Holm in the same role. Part of the problem is that the Lord of the Rings films were so good. They struck all the right notes, bouncing effortlessly from gross comedy (usually involving orcs, or Merry & Pip) to the love lives of immortal elves, and included believable moments with humanized characters.  That just seems to be lacking here.  The dwarves are too comedic, the elves too aloof.  Gandalf has spent more time off on his own than with the dwarves, so that it’s no wonder they don’t care to wait for him to finish their quest.  I did enjoy this movie more than the first, but I also spent more time (especially in hindsight) wishing it was as good as the LotR trilogy.  And that makes me sad.

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Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

I finally got to see the latest of the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies, and to rewatch the first one.  Warning, past here, there be spoilers.

I remember when the first movie came out, I really enjoyed it.  I thought it was a really fun movie and loved RDJ, as always.  But…now that I’ve seen Sherlock, it is hard to think of these movies in the way I once did.  It is difficult to compare them.  The BBC version is modern, taking place in 21st century London.  But in many ways, it is far more true to the ideas and the characters of the original stories than any other adaptation I can think of.

My problems with the RDJ movies mostly come up when I compare them to the BBC series or to the original stories. Starting with RDJ as Sherlock Holmes.  There are some parts that work–the boredom, the erratic behavior, the somewhat co-dependent relationship with Watson.  But much of what they do in the movies does not work. For one thing, RDJ seems to be mostly playing himself. Or he’s playing Tony Stark, who I imagine to be just like him.  Arrogant, strutting, egotistical and self-aware simultaneously.  In many ways, a petulant child. In the BBC series, on the other hand, Benedict Cumberbatch (and the writers, obviously) portray him more as someone who lacks empathy, a ‘high-functioning sociopath’ with no time for details (or people) who detract from his desire to occupy his mind with a mystery.

Another problem I have is that there is very little of the actual deductive skills on display in these films.  In the first, the most obvious example is when Holmes meets Watson’s fiance. In the second, his meeting of Madam Simza (played by the kick-ass Noomi Rapace) is the best example of his deductive skills.

In the BBC series, we see multiple examples in every episode of these deductive skills, displayed both through dialogue and through text on the screen to indicate what, exactly, Holmes can see when he looks at people. The closest to this that we get in the RDJ movies is the prescience he has about physical combat.  They spend time in every fight scene (and there are multiple per movie) to display Holmes’ ability to know what will happen before his opponent moves. This is the most powerful of his abilities in the movies.  And even when he is fighting Moriarty, the big climax between two brilliant men, their incredible powers of deduction lead them to…be able to anticipate the fighting skills of the other.

And what of the enemies, the arch-nemeses of Moriarty and Holmes?  I do like Jared Harris as Moriarty, perhaps because he was such a good baddy on Fringe.
But the movie barely features him, and his grand evil plan is…to acquire guns, money, and power. To make war in order to sell the implements of war? How common. Boring.  I didn’t feel any of the tension that came with the Moriarty and Holmes of the BBC series.  Those two seemed evenly matched.

So in comparison to the BBC series, obviously I find the RDJ movies severely and incredibly lacking.  But…on the other hand, if I do not compare them, then I can tolerate the movies much better.  If I do not think of these movies as in any way affiliated with the Doyle stories or the Holmes characters, then they are quite good.

I like the cinematography and the amazing job they did recreating 19th century London for the exteriors.  RDJ is entertaining to watch, even as he is being goofy and ridiculous.  Jude Law is awesome as Watson, and I even like him with a mustache. (A side note that I prefer the vulnerability of Martin Freeman as Watson, but I digress). And the sequel even had Stephen Fry as Mycroft!  He was nothing like I would expect Mycroft to be, and he was shockingly nude for much of the time, but I love Stephen Fry no matter what he does. These are great comedy/action films, and that is high praise from someone who normally doesn’t like any action films and not a lot of comedies ever. If you’re in the mood for a little mindless fun, they’re perfect.  My only problem is that Sherlock Holmes is the last person who should ever be associated with mindless fun.

The DVD Shelves: Gosford Park

This is hardly a new movie, in fact it’s over 10 years old, but I had never seen it and it stars just about everyone in the British film industry.  It got 7 Academy Award nominations, so that put it at the top of my Netflix queue. And, as I seem to be making my way through the entire Julian Fellowes oeuvre, this was next on the list.

It’s commonly referred to as a mystery-comedy drama.  Whatever that is.  It seems to put its feet into every genre and not become a part of any of them.  I don’t think I knew what to make of it, not having heard much about it before hand.  It starts out like your typical upstairs-downstairs drama, in true Downton Abbey style, with the introduction of about 20 people upstairs and 20 downstairs, and alternates between the two worlds.  And of course it is remnicsent of a typical Agatha Christie work, with the murder mystery element.  But it isn’t quite either of these things.

Whatever can be said about its not being committed to a genre, the cast is spectacular.  Maggie Smith, Clive Owen, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Ryan Phillipe, Kristin Scott Thomas, the list goes on. Gambon (aka Dumbledore 2.0) stars as Sir William McCordle, who is murdered (not once, but twice!) after a dinner party. Stephen Fry also makes an appearance, as a completely idiotic detective.

The most bothersome part of the movie was how confusing it was at the beginning. I could not, for the life of me, keep track of the character’s names, or who was married to whom.  I had to look up the Wiki page to try to keep track of all the marriages, because after initial introductions there was a good hour of gossip back and forth between other characters.

I wanted to like it, and on the surface it has all the elements I like in a movie/story.  British? check.  Historical? check. At least two Harry Potter actors? check!  But for some reason it didn’t particularly resonate with me.  There was too much mystery for me to focus on the class system politics, and too much social commentary to focus on the mystery.  For me, it lacked focus.

That being said, there were a lot of fun/interesting moments, Clive Owen was delightful, and Maggie Smith was spectacular as always.  She was born to play an upper class lady from the first half of the 20th century, yes?

I found it particularly interesting that Stephen Fry’s Inspector Thomson declares (obviously I’m paraphrasing) that they won’t need to question the servants (about who murdered Sir McCordle), only to people who really new him.  This is such a ridiculous notion, given the intimate details that servants were privy to in such a household.  It actually reminded me of a short story called “A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell, where a man is found dead in his bed, and the police investigate while their wives wait downstairs in the kitchen and sitting room.  The men are examining the crime scene, while the women downstairs find all the evidence of the husband’s cruelty and the wife’s probable guilt in the murder.  The men don’t find any evidence where they look, and the women hide what they find.  The point of the story (or one of them) is that men (or those in power) often lack a true understanding of the world because of their elevated place in it, whereas the lower people on the social ladder can see the truth of the world in its entirety.  Similarly in Gosford Park, the servants are able to discern who and why the master of the house was murdered, and similarly the matter is hushed up by them on the basis of his whole-heartedly deserving it.

Surfing the Channels: Stephen Fry in America

This TV documentary recently became available on Netflix Instant, which is awesome because I missed it when it was on BBC America.  Stephen Fry, who has long since owned my heart because of his work on …everything?  To name a few of my favorite of his projects: The British Harry Potter audiobooks, Little Big Planet video games, QI, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Blackadder, and A Bit of Fry and Laurie. Check out his nonsensically large resume, filmography, etc. at his IMDB page and Wiki page. He is absolutely wonderful.

So, here I am, an American, talking about a British show where a British man comes to see and talk about America.  It’s rather hard to get hold of the concept.  Fry manages to see 50 states in a London cab.  Ok, 48 states in a London cab, then Alaska and Hawaii without it.  He has officially seen more states than me.  But, he’s got a few decades on me, so maybe I’ll get there eventually.

It’s interesting to hear an outsider’s opinion of America.  We can learn something about both America and England by hearing the differences he sees between the two.  Fry reckons that we are far less cynical, and much more comfortable engaging in activities that might be seen as ridiculous by the Brits (meditation, pretend spy games, group song and dance). He mostly seems to admire these qualities, but is quite obviously also unable to embrace them himself.  Natural British reserve, I suppose.

I found the series quite interesting, and I even learned a few things I didn’t now.  It’s always good to be able to appreciate as exotic something that seems quite normal and uninteresting to you.  And only foreigners seem brave enough to wander through the deep South without fear.  I know I couldn’t manage a solo road trip through Alabama or Mississippi.  Of course, he wasn’t really solo, as he had a camera crew with him.  But I’ve seen My Cousin Vinny too many times to think a road trip through that bit of the country could ever end well.

Fry seems to find the accents of the south and deep south charming. I read an article once that said Americans find the Welsh and Yorkshire accents of the UK particularly lyrical and charming.  In Britain, though, these accents are considered sort of trashy and/or uneducated. But I imagine that comes from their cultural precedent, where we are ignorant of it.  Just as they are, at least to some degree, ignorant of the cultural associations that we have with Southerners.  It’s interesting to think about that stuff, because it exposes the amount of subtle prejudices we don’t even realize we have.

My only complaint about this documentary is that in his effort to be polite, Fry doesn’t manage to tell a lot of the truth. His only real negative thoughts seem to be about his own reaction to what he encounters.  Editing is used to create a better impression of the people he meets than I think the truth would show.  It just seemed too polite to be genuine.