It has been now almost 50 years since Star Trek first premiered on NBC TV in September of 1966. See my history of Star Trek here. After several television series and movies we are now treated to the 13th feature film Star Trek Beyond. While this is not the best of the three movies in the recent reboot since 2009, it has several improvements over the previous two that recommend it.
It starts with a blue dot moving through space — that turns out to be a lens flare. This is a J.J. Abram‘ signature, though in this film he was Producer. It was Directed by Justin Lin of Fast & Furious fame. Beyond’s cinematographer Stephen F. Windon worked with Lin on three of the Fast and Furious movies. After a brief action scene, the camera lovingly pans across the USS Enterprise in space dock. We’ve seen this before, almost interminably long in the original Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but it signals that this is going to be a good time.
The story was co-written by Simon Pegg (Scotty). For the most part the plot was linear and straight forward, though there was an unmistakable Kobiashi Maru feel to it. At times the plot contained overly complex solution scenarios arrived at within movements — can you say miracle worker — but he gave himself lots of funny lines that he dished out quickly with an extra dollop of thick Scottish accent. There were other scenes that involved curiously quick collaborative problem solving as if everyone was singing from the same song sheet.
While Zackary Quinto is the most physically similar to his corresponding actor in the in the original crew I have not felt that he has recreated the role in an authentic way. It doesn’t help that his wig bangs are inconsistent, his sideburns are too short, his eyebrows too flat and his ears too laid back. And that he lifts the wrong eyebrow, his left, or presents the Vulcan salute with his left hand (demonstrated in picture at right). Where Leonard Nimoy as Spock was erudite and non-insultingly condescending, Quinto as Spock has seemed haughty and annoyed. But for the first time in the reboot series in this movie, I felt he was engaging with the other characters in an organic way. In scenes with Dr. McCoy there is real chemistry going on, and even some long missed humor.
There is a curious reveal about the character Sulu which is incongruously art-imitates-life. Neither John Cho who plays the character nor George Takei who originated the role agree with it. I’ll let you make your own decision.
Some of the action and chase scenes within the ship were confusing and difficult to follow. That may have been because these were three dimensional whereas Fast & Furious chase scenes are on a two dimensional plane. Or maybe it was the 3D IMAX screening which can be over powering at times.
There is a touching homage to Leonard Nimoy, or Spock Prime from the previous two films who died in February of 2015. The movie was dedicated to Anton Yelchin who played Chekov and died months before the film was released.
There is a passing though meaningful reference to the original crew. This is the first time in the reboot that we’ve seen an effective triangular relationship between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy (the latter of which steals every scene he’s in). This was one of the most successful elements of the original Star Trek, and one of the things that differentiated it from the popular Star Wars series which leveraged different kinds of relationships. In this movie a plot device separates the bridge crew who pair off in various adventures. For the first time, you feel like it’s a family, not just the Kirk-Spock-McCoy show.
A new female character Jaylah (can you say Jenifer Lawrence) is introduced with lots of action. She is fierce and courageous and has tactical and martial arts skills. She also carries a staff. Can you say Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens?
We see some really cool new warp factor effects. Though the years we’ve seen many different ones, this looks the most “warpish.”
There are lots of toys and remarkable CGI at the Starbase Yorktown, a Christmas tree ornament of a space station. It’s like the Soarin’ ride at Disneyland where you fly over and through interesting scenery. Later in the movie, you get to see Kirk on a motorcycle again.
At times the visuals can overpower the character development. Nevertheless the fight scenes used space and camera shots in innovative ways. If you compare this movie to Star Trek: First Contact, one of the Next Generation films, you see a world of difference in the fight direction. The earlier movie was directed by Jonathan Frakes, Commander Riker in the show. Even though it was the most financially successful worldwide for the initial 10 movies (with the highest Rotten Tomato score), the fight scenes were crude and unimaginative by comparison to the latest film.
The enemy ships were a swarm, something not typically seen in sci-fi films. Quite compelling.
Credits at the end were as frenetic as the action scenes, bouncing between planets and space objects.
This just in: the fourth movie in the reboot has gotten a green light. While the stars originally committed to 3 movies, renegotiations will return some if not all of them for another film. Stay tuned to see Captain Kirk’s father George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) again. One hopes for something more next time.
You’ll like it if: you enjoy things that go boom and lots of chase/fight scenes with cool technology and fast camera cuts.
You won’t like it if: you appreciate Star Trek’s original intellectual stimulation, classic sci-fi themes and meaningful stories.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood Trek junkie
Peter Jackson’s second helping — The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug — written and directed by Peter Jackson with flavoring from J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novel is more confident than the first helping of An Unexpected Journey. It is the #1 movie of the opening weekend, scoring 74% at RottenTomatoes.com compared to 65% for the previous serving.
This second film might be considered marginally better than the first as the introductory exposition is out of the way and we can jump right into the mindless senseless violence. But we don’t, we start at Bree and the Prancing Pony Inn and Peter Jackson’s cameo eating a carrot. Here we learn of Gandalf’s original meeting with Thorin Oakenshield and the motivation for Galdalf’s involvement in the quest to the Lonely Mountain. Then the second episode of this why-again-is-this-a-trilogy of a short novel begins with a head shot of Bilbo Baggins who we don’t hear much from for most of the rest of the movie. It’s not as if there isn’t enough time, the movie weighs in at 161 minutes.
Some people might consider it a fatal flaw that a movie titled The Hobbit would not feature the hobbit in a major role, instead it spends more time on Thorin, Legolas (what?) and Tauriel (who?). I would be one of those people. Indeed, the newly introduced character Bard of the Lake seems to get more airtime than Bilbo.
Q: Was Legolas in the book?
The fact that Legolas does not appear in the novel of The Hobbit, nor is he mentioned suggests that his appearance here is a Lord of the Rings tie-in (ka-ching). Admittedly he is the son of Thranduil, Kind of the Woodland Elves, but he played no role in the novel. In the movie, he looks heavier and older than he does in the chronologically later LOTR movies. Indeed, Orlando Bloom the actor is two years older than Lee Pace, who plays his father Thranduil, and he looks it. Here Legolas does little more than play a commando, and his action scenes feature the same kind of skateboard action we saw in LOTR, and then some. In the river barrel riding scenes, he hops around like a Donkey Kong game. I wasn’t sure if this was the clever escape from the Kingdom of the Woodelves, or a ride at Disneyworld.
Q: Was Tauriel in the book?
Philippa Boyens, one of the screenwriters explains that the character of Tauriel is an original creation written for the film: “She’s our redhead. We created her for that reason. To bring that energy into the film, that feminine energy. We believe it’s completely within the spirit of Tolkien.”
There is an Elvish word that describes this kind of explanation: guano.
Nevertheless, Evangeline Lilly, known for her role in the TV show Lost, began her career at the Ford modeling agency and she’s pleasing to the eye. Tauriel joining Legolas as partner-in-arms was more photogenic than Legolas and Gimli. Her performance is charismatic and compelling. The love triangle between her, Legolas and the dwarf Kili is amusing, if inauthentic to the novel. I’m rooting for the dwarf.
Evangeline Lilly says of her role
“She’s a Sylvan [woodland or Green] Elf, which means she’s of a much lower order than the elves we all became acquainted with in The Lord of the Rings. She doesn’t hold the same kind of status that Arwen or Galadriel or Elrond or Legolas do — she’s much more lowly. She sort of goes against the social order of the elves a little bit.”
She’s right about that: Arwen and her grandmother Galdriel are Noldor (Deep) Elves, and Legolas was a Sindar (Grey) Elf. Elrond was more lofty still, called half-elven; he is of the lineage of the three great elven houses — Noldor, Vanyar, and Sindar — but also of the line of Men (Edain) and of the line of the semi-angelic Maia, like Gandalf. Tauriel is a Sylvan or Green Elf which, as Beorn said, are “less wise” elves.
If the previous movie was irritating, this one was annoying. While the pacing was better, it was even less faithful to Tolkien’s source material. Purists will be displeased by this tendency especially the focus on incessant battles, some quite gruesome — four beheadings, count ’em four. Action figure heroines do not play a major role in Tolkien’s books, with the possible exception of Eowin, and I suspect he is spinning in the grave at increased RPMs. It is this divergence from the genius of Tolkien’s writing that blemishes these Hobbit movies. Tolkien was one of the greatest authors of the 20th century (with 150 million copies sold, perhaps the greatest author) and is better at putting together a story and the sub-creation of a legendarium than Jackson. When Jackson creates out of whole cloth in substitution of Tolkien’s story, he goes astray.
However, I suspect general audiences will find this installment more entertaining for several reasons, not the least of which was that the disappointment in the first Hobbit movie lowered expectations. This film was certainly more fun.
A few nice touches for the Tolkien nerds: when Gandalf enters Dol Goldur, the abode of the Necromancer — whose identity we don’t yet know only that he’s a dark sorcerer — we hear the intonation of the poem of the One Ring in the Black Speech of the orcs.
Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum ishi krimpatul.
Which in English is:
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
As the best dragon you’ve seen and heard since Sean Connery’s Draco in DragonHeart, Benedict Cumbertatch‘s voice as Smaug is both beautifully sonorous and malevolent at the same time. We love him as Sherlock; we fear him as Khan in Star Trek. The electronic enhancements to his voice were distracting and while it was imposing and intimidating, I felt that Jackson missed the nuance of a venal, sly Smaug toying with his prey as a cat would with a mouse. The physicality and sinuousness of the firedrake was incredible, with a narrow face, pointed feline-reptilian ears and a lean body. I was disappointed that they went for “iron armor” for the dragon, rather than the book’s original jeweled armor.
Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown was a delight, vain glorious and petty. I’m looking forward to seeing him in the last installment.
Strains of music: occasionally when Thorin appears we here strains of the soulful music from the first movie “Far under the misty mountains cold” and when Tauriel talks about the starlight of the Eldar, you hear strains of the beautiful Academy Award winning song by Annie Lennox “Farthest Shore” from the end of Return of the King. But that song was about the sea, not starlight. And all elves are intoxicated by the sound of the sea.
The Not So Good:
Learning that there is a Black Speech contract out on Thorin’s head was ridiculous. While in the book you don’t have endless skirmishes with orcs after the warg scene at the end of the previous film, the goblins are still (unsuccessfully) hunting the company of the dwarves — but for a different motivation: they killed the Great Goblin in the Misty Mountains. As I recounted in my review of the previous movie, the entire subplot of the chase by the orcs is an invention of Jackson’s, and not in the book. Hence the subplot of Gandalf going alone to Dol Guldur to battle is an erroneous and unnecessary distraction to the film, though it looked good. But Jackson likes to have competing subplots as he moves toward his climax. This one just doesn’t work.
The unnecessarily abrupt cliff hanger ending left the audience in the theater audibly exclaiming “What?” This keeps the movie from being a standalone story. Even the first film had a climactic, if artificial, climax. This left filmgoers unsatisfied, even after a rousing, though overlong action scene with the dragon. Even the penultimate film in Jackson’s LOTR series The Two Towers had a more satisfying ending.
The end title song by Ed Sheeran seems out of place, as does most of the music in the movie. Rather than enhancing the film organically it comes up like an ill wind.
You’ll like it if: non-stop action is your vision of Middle-earth, you require a certain quota of slain albino orcs to make your movie experience complete.
You won’t like it if: faithfulness to Tolkien’s original story is important to you, you expect to see the visual grandeur in the original novel’s description.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood culturevulture
[No plot spoilers]
I’ll start with the bottom line: I loved it. If possible it’s better, if not as inventive as the previous movie in the reboot released in May 2009 and reviewed by me here. I’d call it the most enjoyable movie so far this year, though I may be biased as I’ve been watching Star Trek since the summer previews in 1966 and I’ve seen this movie twice in the opening weekend.
It was delicious, like a fine steak dinner — juicy, tasty, enough to sink your teeth into — with lots of extra trimmings. It starts on the run and has non-stop action that builds to several crescendos. This is more action-packed than any of the previous 11 Star Trek movies, and had a feel like the first Iron Man movie (not the current one) or the third act of Marvel’s The Avengers movie. It’s a roller coaster ride beyond any Indiana Jones movie. In an IMAX 3D environment, it can be a bit overwhelming. But there are a few jaw-dropping show stoppers.
As in the previous film, J.J. Abrams indulged his predilection for:
- Crews dropping from above by ropes
- Bodies flying through space
- Gun fights with percussive phasers
- Starships moving up through fluids and clouds
- Men in spacesuits shooting from ships
- Women in underwear
- Men leaping from great heights
- Lots of lens flare
There were lots of touch points to previous sci-fi:
- Two references to a famous science fiction writer
- The movie RoboCop
- Oblique reference to the original Tron (in the closing credits)
- Lots of in-jokes and references to previous Star Trek episodes and movies in its almost 47 year history that I’ve written about here.
Recognizing that the rebooted series represents an independent and parallel timeline, it is still satisfying to seen the similarities to the original, and indeed greater fidelity to it as the actors became more comfortable in their second outing.
- Scotty (Simon Pegg) sounds more like the original, James Doohan this time. If you watch carefully, you can see Doohan’s son Christopher as a transporter technician, as we was in the previous film.
- Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is more three dimensional though she lacks the maturity that Nichelle Nichols brought to the role. But she gets a much larger role than just “opening hailing frequencies.”
- Spock (Zachary Quinto) embodies the character better this time, showing a greater sense of humor, though he still cannot pull off obscure condescendingly sarcastic insults without sounding whinny. Leonard Nimoy always did it better.
- Kirk (Christ Pine) stands on his own. He plays the role without imitating William Shatner and it works. He often carries it based on charisma and bravado.
- Checkov (Anton Yelchin) is even more confident than before and given more responsibility.
- Sulu (John Cho) gets a chance to be inscrutable with his greater responsibility.
- McCoy (Karl Urban) is even more grumpy — “I’m a doctor, not a torpedo technician” — and yet even funnier. He’s the jewel of the cast creating a touch point to the Old Guard of Star Trek characters unlike any other.
- Pike (Bruce Greenwood) is even more father-like in his mentoring of Kirk.
- John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) as the adversary he has a voice that is both mellifluous and malevolent. Deep, resonant and foreign — his voice is both seductive and threatening. We love him in the television show Sherlock and he gets to be logical. Ironically, in the movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Spock states that Sherlock Holmes is one of his ancestors.
- Wicked cool new D4 class Klingon battleships.
- We finally get to see Jefferies Tubes on the Enterprise, like the original show.
- New warp signatures when the USS Enterprise jumps to faster than light speed.
- London: The current tallest building on the horizon is St. Paul’s but it’s featured as tiny compared to other buildings that look like the Gherkin on steroids.
- San Francisco: We see Starfleet Academy, HQ and more, with the Golden Gate bridge prominently featured, cable cars, along with the dwarfed Trans Am building — the tallest building in the 21st century — as well as the Ferry Building.
- Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories: the Laser Bay at the National Ignition Facility that has a system of 192 laser beams was used for parts of the interior of the USS Enterprise. In the original Tron movie, the hero Flynn was sent to “the grid” with the Nova-Shiva laser at LLNL.
You’ll like it if: you enjoy action, science fiction or Star Trek.
You won’t like it if: you don’t like space, aliens from other planets, or lens flare.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood culture vulture
Even if I had been told The Hobbit was the worst movie ever made, I still would have gone to see it. It wasn’t. But even after seeing it twice my feelings remain mixed. In talking to friends who have been to it, reactions to the movie seem to fall into two camps: some felt it moved along briskly and engagingly, while others felt it was slow, bloated, and clumsy. My observation:
You’ll like it if: you enjoyed the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movies, you want to return to Middle-earth, you like action movies, you’re keen on regularly scheduled battle scenes, you don’t care so much about fidelity to the original books by J.R.R. Tolkien.
You won’t like it if: you’re a big fan of Tolkien’s original books and expect a certain level of faithfulness to his story, you think that he had a better idea about the backstory and the character motivations, you don’t care for gratuitous battle scenes, you can’t stay out too late.
While I enjoyed Peter Jackson‘s previous LOTR movies, I fall into the later camp. Indeed, my view of this movie is strikingly different than my review of Jackson’s first movie of his LOTR Trilogy, written several years ago here. Why? I was annoyed by how much it diverged from Tolkien’s legendarium. To begin with, I believe Tolkien was one of the greatest authors of the 20th century (with 150 million copies sold, perhaps the greatest) and he is my favorite author. I’ve been reading his books since 1968 and have read them all several times. While I never joined the Society for Creative Anachronism, I did pen Pedo Mellon a Minno in Elvish script on my college dorm room door. The Hobbit movie was visually stunning, occasionally awe inspiring, and optically breathtaking. Nevertheless, it fell far below my expectations and hopes. It felt like the prequels to the Star Wars trilogy, somehow coming off its rails of the original Episodes. Ultimately, I feel this this movie is not true to Tolkien’s genius.
Back in 1939 there was great anticipation about whether another popular book could be successfully translated to a good movie. Gone With the Wind was a Pulitzer Prize winning block buster book. Fans waited eagerly for the debut of the film, wondering if it would be faithful to the book. When its premier proved it to be so, the New York Times reported “a handsome, scrupulous and unstinting version of the 1,037-page novel, matching it almost scene for scene with a literalness that not even Shakespeare or Dickens were accorded in Hollywood.” The film went on to become the most profitable film of all time in the US and UK. Alas, The Hobbit movie will not be able to make the same claim.
As of this writing, The Hobbit is the most profitable movie in America, but critical and user reviews have been less than stellar, and significantly below the original LOTR movies which all scored better than 90% on Rotten Tomatoes:
- 65% at RottenTomatoes.com compared to 92% for the latest 007 film Skyfall
- 58/100 at Metacritic.com
- 8.4/10 at IMBD.com
Why Three Movies?
When Peter Jackson took the reins of The Hobbit we were told it would be two movies. As we’d seen that with single novels like Harry Potter’s Deathly Hallows and Twilight’s Breaking Dawn we’d gotten used to it. But when he revealed that he was going to make three movies my friends asked me:
“Why three? The book is a fifth the length of LOTR.”
I replied, “Can you say ‘laughing all the way to the bank?’ “
I followed up with “Jackson plans on expanding it with material from the Appendices at the back of The Return of the King. “
All of this I said before seeing the movie. Jackson did use material from the Appendices, but there is canonical material in Tolkien’s later writings — which Jackson does not own rights to — that contradicts some of Jackson’s new original plot line content found in The Hobbit movie. In particular I’m referring to the backstory in The Silmarillion (published in 1978 and which I read the day it was published) and The Unfinished Tales (published in 1980, especially the chapters “The Quest of Erebor” and “The Istari”) which tell us much about the history before The Hobbit and LOTR. Essentially, what we have here is less like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings movies, and more like Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movie. As I’ll discuss later there are several unnecessary major plot lines and sub-plots in the movie with consequent uninspiring motivations that are not to be found in any of Tolkien’s chronicle, and it that way the movie suffers. Some would say that this makes the movie “bloated,” I’d say this is less an extended version of Tolkien’s writings and more a distended version of a movie.
The Tolkien Estate had previously filed a law suit against New Line Cinema, the producers of the LOTR movies, saying that they hadn’t been properly compensated for rights, seeking to block filming The Hobbit. The suit was ultimately settled. Nevertheless, I suspect that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is spinning in his grave, quite displeased with the film. Why? He often refused rights to the making the movie, believing that producers would emphasize the battle scenes rather than the story. To one proposed film adaptation of LOTR he once replied “yet one more scene of screams and rather meaningless slashings.” Jackson has done just what Tolkien feared. In The Two Towers, Jackson expands the battle in a single chapter “Helms Deep” into half the film. A curious anecdote is that Tolkien refused The Beatles rights to making a live-action movie of his books in 1968. John Lennon‘s idea was that he would have played Gollum, Paul would be Frodo, Ringo would be Sam, and George would be Gandalf. And Twiggy would be Galadriel! Stanley Kubrick would have directed. But Tolkien was not interested in having his books used as a marketing device for The Beatles.
The Good: Nice touches
In this film we return to Middle-earth with a more fully realized Hobbiton with emphasis on The Hill and the inside of Bilbo Baggins‘ home at Bag End. The length of this scene has put off some viewers, but I think it’s accurate to the book. This section almost put me off ever finishing Tolkien’s story 45 years ago — but I had already bought all four books, and once I got past Chapter 4 I devoured the rest of the books.
When Bilbo finally gets into his story about 20 minutes into the film he recites “In a whole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” Tolkien originally wrote this onto a blank page while marking a school paper when he was a young professor at Pembroke College, Oxford. This is where it all began and ultimately turned into the book in 1937.
We see an expanded Rivendell: As Elrond says “Welcome to Imladris, the last Homely House west of the Sea.” However, we don’t get get the merriment of Elves singing in the trees or stories told while feasting around the table that we find in the book. Rather we get dwarves stuffing their faces while Elves play flutes and harps. Really?
The interplay between Galadriel and Gandalf was playful, fun, and affectionate. In a few short minutes, we were glad to see Galadriel again. When she asks why the wizard chose Bilbo, Gandalf’s answer is quite affecting and heartwarming: “I found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I’m afraid, and he gives me courage.”
Martin Freeman embodied Bilbo Baggins, stuffy, bright, funny, excitable. You may have first seen him in the British version of The Office but Jackson cast him based on seeing him play Dr. Watson in Sherlock.
The Riddle Game with Gollum retold here was a dramatic turning point, and well done. Andy Serkis is better than ever, conveying pathos and evoking a sense of pity that is palpable. And he served as Second Unit Director on the film.
We hear the names of the wizards. While Gandalf describes the five wizards he knows, he names Saruman the White and Radagast the Brown, but says “I have quite forgotten” the names of the other two. If Jackson had rights to Tolkien’s “The Unfinished Tales,” Gandalf might have said that Alatar and Pallando were the Blue Wizards.
Casting Kudos. There were a number of especially fun casting decisions made, and some familiar faces that we’ve seen elsewhere:
Lee Pace/Thranduil: We’ve seen him recently as Fernando Wood in Lincoln, in Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2, and previously in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.
Barry Humphries/Great Goblin: also known as the character Dame Edna Everage, is the remarkably cultured leader of the goblins.
Bret McKenzie/Lindir: The only Elf of Rivendell we heard speak in the previous movies other than Elrond and Arwen was this Elf. We meet him again when the Company comes to Rivendell. You may know him as half of “Flight of the Conchords.”
Benedict Cumberbatch/Necromancer/Smaug: He’s been in everything from Amazing Grace to War Horse to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy but we love him in the British TV series Sherlock and can’t wait to see him as the bad guy in the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness.
The Bad: Unsuccessful touches
The Hobbit as a book is lighter, sunnier, happier, funnier, and placed in a world more innocent than the LOTR Trilogy of books. To be sure, it is a fairy-story with real evil and fell enemies. However, this movie starts more silly than sunny, and turns dark almost immediately after leaving the Shire. The Elves in The Hobbit book were less solemn and more friendly than the later Trilogy. Though Elrond smiles more here in this movie, and teases Galdalf on his dress, he’s every bit as gloomy.
Interplay between Galadriel and Gandalf: the Elf queen comes off as condescending and over powerful in her offer of help. Admittedly Galadriel is the greatest of the Elves still living in Middle-earth. But Gandalf is an angelic power, practically a demi-god. Sure, she offers Gandalf her assistance, but it is Gandalf who is the most powerful agent in the War of the Rings and out powers Galadriel on every level. But she is taller.
48 Frames Per Second: This technology uses twice as many frames as a traditional movie shows movement much smoother. The 3D action was sharper and worked well in panoramas especially in the movement of sparks and smoke. However, the effect was poor for faces. They came out like “soap operas” being over lit with a video quality like sporting events on widescreen TVs. Rather distracting.
CGI vs. Makeup: many of the goblins/orcs in The Hobbit are realized as CGI on top of live actors. The original LOTR movies used makeup and prosthetics. Here the CGI becomes overwhelming and numbing.
Editing: this film needed at least two more weeks of editing. Instead, the final editing was finished the same week of the premier in New Zealand, and it looked like it — Jackson’s self-indulgent inclusion of special effects and CGI shininess was, as Bilbo said “sort of stretched, like… butter scraped over too much toast.”
The Ugly: Several Sins
[Spoiler alert: In the following I discuss several of the plot lines in the movie plus the ending. And I include more Middle-earth history than you may enjoy. You may jump to my Grade at the bottom.]
This movie should have been a lighter prequel to the LOTR Trilogy movies. Instead, it is another Trilogy that is a sequel to the Jackson’s LOTR movies, with lots of tie-ins to his previous franchise.
Where LOTR is a reverse quest — Frodo is not going to find something but to get rid of the Ring — The Hobbit should have been a true quest, the journey to the Lonely Mountain. Instead, we have again the same story as before: goblins/orcs chasing a fellowship pausing occasionally to have armed battles, led by a noble but but not yet returned king (Aragorn/Thorin.)
As I said before there were many superfluous plot lines that added erroneous backstory and gratuitous motivation unintended by Tolkien.
1) The Prologue
The movie begins — as does The Fellowship of the Ring — with a prologue or a pre-history. In The Hobbit movie, we’re told a convolution of two stories that are to explain the motivations of Thorin Oakenshield and the Dwarves. But they’re both inaccurate. First Bilbo narrates the story of the coming of the dragon Smaug to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain. In Jackson’s rendition it is called “the greatest kingdom in Middle-earth.” Even the the casual reader knows this is untrue, even among the Dwarvish kingdoms. That title would belong to Khazad-dum, the Dwarves’ Mansion, the glorious Halls of Moria.
This first part of the story shows Thorin leading a force to fight by sword against the Dragon. But Tolkien tells us that Thorin was too young to bear a weapon, and that he was outside the Mountain hunting when the Dragon ravaged the insides. Rather his father Thrain and grandfather Thror escaped by “a secret door” out of the Mountain (Appendix A, Durin’s Folk.) Next, there was no encounter following the Fall of Mount Erebor to the Dragon at this time with King Thranduil, father of Legolas and leader of the Woodland Elves of Mirkwood. And he’s riding an Irish Elk? Hello? It is accurate to say, however, that there was animosity between the Elves and Dwarves in general, dating to a dispute over a necklace holding a Silmaril — way back in the pre-history to the First Age of Middle-earth.
The second part of the prologue describes the battle before the eastern doors of Moria, where Thorin’s father Thrain is slain by the orc Azog the Defiler. That much is true, but there is something missing in Jackson’s movie.
2) Hunted by Azog
While it is true that the Dwarves and Bilbo were captured by Trolls, goblins, orcs, spiders, and Wood Elves, they didn’t fight their way out with swords and axes as depicted in each instance as the movie describes — except for some spiders in Mirkwood… and Galdalf and Thorin killed some goblins in Goblin Town under the Misty Mountains. But the Dwarves were not for the most part warriors in battle armor and axes as Jackson depicts them, looking like Klingons. They were merchants, miners, craftsmen, and smiths. And, contrary to Jackson’s depiction, they were never “hunted” by the white, one-armed orc Azog — a major plot line in this movie. According to Appendix B, Azog was killed by Thorin’s cousin Dain Ironfoot at the Battle of Azanulbizar in front of those eastern doors of Moria in the 3rd Age 2799, some 140 years before Bilbo’s adventure begins in 2941.
3) Morgul blade
Galadriel identifies a Morgul blade at the White Council, taken from Dol Guldur. But this is nowhere found in the book. It appears in The Fellowship of the Ring, which you can bet will be tied in by Jackson later in this trilogy.
4) Radagast the Brown Wizard
In this movie we meet Radagast, one of the five wizards mentioned in Appendix B. Gandalf had told us about meeting up with him in the Council of Elrond chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring and the Fellowship visit his home in Rosgobel on the edge of Mirkwood afterwards — neither of these were in The Fellowship of the Ring movie. But that’s all we’re told about Radagast. None of Radagast’s adventures in the movie are found anywhere in any of Tolkien’s writings. Even Radagast’s bunny mobile, powered by his Rosgobel Rabbits, Jackson has made up out of whole cloth.
It is Galdalf, not Radagast, who discovers that Dol Guldur is ruled by Sauron in 2850. The next year Gandalf urges the White Council to attack Dol Guldur, but is overruled by Saruman, as depicted in the film. But this event occurs some 90 years before the Company of Dwarves and Bilbo visit Rivendell according to Appendix B. It is during the period of the movie, but not while the Company is in Rivendell, that the White Council agrees to attack Dol Guldur. But the Hobbit book makes references to that attack in only 5 sentences, though I am certain Jackson will show a battle of such in the 3rd movie.
5) Animosity of Thorin for Bilbo
While it true that Thorin held Bilbo in low regard at the beginning of the tale, perhaps even contempt, the strength of animosity in the movie portrayed by the dwarf against the hobbit was rather untoward. Admittedly, this was necessary for Jackson to create the crisis and climax to this first movie, otherwise superfluous in the book, where Thorin shows his gratitude to Bilbo. But the Bilbo of The Hobbit book obtains begrudging acceptance and ultimately high esteem from the Dwarves for his cunning, cleverness, and “tricksy-ness” — not by his skill with a sword against orcs and wargs. Preposterous!
Stephen D. Winick in the Huffington Post tries to justify Jackson’s creativity — even by referring to some of Tolkien’s other writings that I’ve mentioned above — but it just doesn’t wash. While he goes to great pains to explain how Tolkien later modified subsequent editions of The Hobbit to better conform to LOTR, he offers speculations — especially about Radagast — that are just that, speculation. As Tolkien would say he “does not seem to have read [the text] with any care.”
So what’s the bottom line, how would I grade this first Hobbit movie?
Will I see the next movie in the Trilogy? Even if I’m told it’s the worst movie ever made.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood culture vulture
Go see this movie.
- If you’ve never seen the the stage play, this is the way to catch a faithful version of it in your local cinema.
- If you’ve already seen the stage play, then you already know. It was more than I expected, and I had high expectations.
This is the moving story of the power of redemption. A century and a half ago, Victor Hugo wrote about how forgiveness turned a convict into a benefactor, how returning good for evil changed anger into love, how trust transformed a man who knew nothing but hate into a brother, how a bishop’s blessing touched a man who was just a number knowing only a life of darkness and shame to escape that world begin another story of a man who had a soul.
This epic story traces the lives of two men: Jean Valjean imprisoned for 19 years for stealing bread for his nephew and Javert, a man born in jail who rose from the gutter to become a lawman who has chased Jean Valjean across the years from prison to Paris. It is a story of biblical themes: the characteristics of law vs. grace, justice vs. mercy. The story culminates at the ill-fated student revolt of the June Rebellion in Paris of 1832 — often mistaken by patrons of the musical as the French Revolution of 1789. Hugo himself experienced the armed student uprising in Paris 40 years before he published his novel in 1862 while he was writing a play in the Tuileries Gardens there. Ironically, 40 years ago I experienced the student riots at Berkeley when I was a student there.
The Book, Play, Movies
- The Novel
Victor Hugo’s novel, 14 years in the writing was published 150 years ago becoming a huge hit in French as well as other languages and was one of the most important books of the 19th century. Published in America in English during the time of the Civil War it was widely read by soldiers and officers. General Robert E. Lee’s troops called themselves “Lee’s Miserables” as a tribute to the book they were reading.
- The Musical
The musical theatre play, based on a French concept album and short running Paris sport arena show, premiered at the Barbican Theatre in London in 1985 and has become a record-breaking worldwide hit <http://www.lesmis.com/us/history/facts-and-figures/>, showing to 60 million attendees, in thousands of performances in 300 cities around the world as the longest running musical of all time. I first saw it 24 years ago in San Francisco. I was not used to operatic productions but had no trouble following the story. I was stunned, however, but the impact it had on me, leaving me in tears. I had to see it again a couple of months later. Same impact. I have seen the musical six times since then in Denver, New York (good), and London (the best). It always leaves me in tears. One time, when I saw it on Broadway in New York, I waited after the show at the stage door to have Jean Valjean sign my program. He signed it “24601” the prison number he played, saying no one could read his signature. Colm Wilkinson who played the original Jean Valjean in London and on Broadway. One of the nice touches in this movie is that he plays the pivotal role of the bishop who says to Jean Valjean that his act of mercy toward the ex-convict “has saved your soul for God.” Wilkinson was also the original Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar and the original Phantom in Phantom of the Opera. He is one of only two actors in this film to have been in a previous production of the musical play.
- The Movies
There have been over a dozen movie and TV versions of the story from the 1934 French version, to the well-known 1935 English version with Fredrick March and Charles Laughton to the well known 1998 version with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush. I have found 1998 movie lacking fidelity to the original book — like the current movie version of The Hobbit, see my review here. None of them quite conveyed the emotional impact or vitality of the musical.
- This Movie
This movie draws the stark distinction between two men: one who receives mercy and is redeemed, another who rejects it and is doomed. For the most part it was successful and for the first time successfully translates the musical theatre production to the screen. It was a long wait and worth it. Tom Hooper, who gave us The King’s Speech and the TV mini-series John Adams delivers again. While it does not work on all levels, it is well worth your time to see it, because it’s that good. Where it misses it is excusable. Why? Gone are the days of the “triple threat” where performers could sing, dance, and act. Nowadays, movies are cast for acting power, not singing power. Consequently, some of the solos by the principle characters in the first act leave a bit to be desired. Nevertheless, they’re satisfying and Hooper’s choice to do live recordings of each take makes it vibrant and immediate, conveying emotional impact if not spot-on musical notes.
The pacing is brisk considering it was a 1,500 page novel, in the original French it was 1,900 pages. It’s more faithful to the novel than the musical play, while maintaining pacing momentum.
Hugh Jackson/Jean ValJean: He has singing experience on Broadway winning a Tony in “The Boy from Oz” and has other leading singing roles in “Carousel” and “Back on Broadway.” Though not outstanding in my estimation as a singer, he brought a new and original interpretation to Jean Valjean, and admittedly had to deal with a diverse range in this production. His performance in the high tenor prayer “Bring Him Home” was impressive.
Russell Crowe/Javert: While he performed in his own bands :30 Odd Foot of Grunts” and “The Ordinary Fear of God” most moviegoers would rather see him with a sword in his hand than a song on his lips. His solos were serviceable but weak. His first, “Stars” before the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris looked sounded like he was phoning it in, his last song, behind Notre Dame on the Pont de l’Archeveche (Archbishop Bridge) was more dramatic. However, I still felt it was a casting coup to select Crowe, he conveyed a menace and threat that was palpable.
Anne Hathaway/Fantine: This actress who I first remember seeing in “The Princess Diaries” was the real surprise. Of the lead characters she had the best voice. Bringing a new interpretation to such a popular song as “I Dreamed a Dream” was difficult, but she pulled it off. Her anger and rage at life’s disappointments made it impossible to look away from the dark and dirty surroundings. The earliest teaser preview of this film featured this song and brought tears to my eyes. It proved to be a showstopper in this movie. At this point the film pivots as Valjean recognizes he must make good on his promise to the bishop to care for Fantine’s daughter Cossette.
For the most part the other characters in the story gave excellent singing performances. Notably:
Samantha Barks/Eponine: She is one of only a handful of singers in this movie who have been in a theatre production of Les Miz. She performed in the 25th Anniversary Concert of this show in London and her singing here is outstanding. In the American musical versions of the play I saw a decade or so ago, the part of Eponine is usually sung by a former “Annie” who sings nasally reminiscent of “Tomorrow”. This is not true of versions I’ve seen in the West End of London where they don’t put on British accents, as American versions do. The British Barks version of “On My Own” was a real crowd pleaser and makes you believe she’s love sick over Marius.
Eddie Redmayne/Marius: Recently seen in the film “My Week with Marilyn” he did a better job than I usually expect in this role. The role of Marius is usually cast with a pretty boy and a pretty voice, but Redmayne could really send it, he’s the best Marius I’ve seen. He did his audition for the film on his iPhone, recording it during a break in a movie he was in. I previously saw him in the London production of “Oliver” (starring Jonathan Pryce as Fagan.) Redmayne starred in “Red” and won an Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The show went on to Broadway where he won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play.
Amanda Seyfried/Cosette: this role is small, serving to show the grown up young woman/love interest of Marius. You’ve seen her in the movie version of “Mamma Mia” where she also sings (see my review here). She can sing, but not strongly. Her performance in Mamma Mia is the weakest of any of the six live performances I’ve seen of the musical. In this movie she’s beautiful and her voice is high and rather thin. But most probably won’t notice, as her duets with Redmayne work.
Aaron Tveit/Enjorlas: with a strong stage background as well as films and television. His delivery of the leading revolutionary in the film was excellent, and he stuck closest to the “canonical” stage version in his delivery. While the big stars tend to speak/sing their songs — which might disappoint some musical theatre fans — Aaron is spot on.
Alistair Brammer/Jean Pouvaire: this is the role of the well-spoken romantic drinking revolutionary who begins the bittersweet song “Drink With Me” and teases Marius that he’s a Don Juan for being in love with Cossette. He performed as well in the 25th Anniversary London cast.
Sacha Baron Cohen/Thenardier: usually known for his over-the-top comedy movies he played a sympathetic inspector in last year’s “Hugo” by Martin Scorcese. He was cast in this film not for his French accent nor singing quality but instead to chew up each scene he was in. He succeeded, but his singing was unremarkable.
Helena Bonham Carter/Madam Thenardier: she burst into our conscience as the beautiful young Lucy Honeychurch in the 1985 Merchant Ivory “A Room With a View” and last year as the Queen mum in “The King’s Speech.” But for the most part she’s been picking deliberately unattractive roles for years, often in her husband Tim Burton’s films. Some include the murderous Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and the evil witch Bellatrix Lestrange in the “Harry Potter” movies. It this movie she plays the repulsive and selfish wife of the “Master of the House,” Madam Thenardier. It’s an unattractive role, to be sure, and her performance meets that need. The songs by the Thenardiers usually bring the house down as vulgar comic pieces. They’re less amusing in this movie version though.
In summary, this is the most satisfying movie I’ve seen this year, and I’ve seen a lot of films. It is also my favorite musical play, and I’ve been to a lot of those too. I’ve waited almost half my lifetime for this movie. Watch for it at the Oscars. Months ago, I was teaching a class when the subject of “redemption” came up. I told them to go see Les Miserables when it came out to really understand the concept. I think it’s the most powerful thing in the world.
You’ll like it if: you appreciate movie musicals, powerful stories, epic novels, and big name stars singing so they can hear it outside.
You won’t like it if: operatic music is not your cup of tea, or the ugly reality of the poor of 19th century Paris is too much to stomach.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood culturevulture
MOVIE REVIEW: HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 2
This weekend’s debut beat all previous records of a 3-day opening with $168.6M, surpassing even that of my previously reviewed Batman: Dark Knight. Even the midnight showing Friday morning picked up almost $44M.
The Harry Potter books are quite popular and I’ve read them all. They fall into a popular genre of British youth literature — involving boarding schools, houses, sports, dining halls, escaping studies — and adds magic to the mix. But it was Ursula K. LeGuin’s 1968 “A Wizard of Earthsea” series that first introduced to America’s youth literature a school for wizards and in some ways did it better. Nevertheless, J.K. Rowlings is a capable writer and occasionally quite moving in her depictions. She won a Hugo award in 2001 for the book “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”. While lacking the literary background and depth of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien — they were Oxford professors of literature after all — her books were satisfying. Rowlings has captured the imagination of a new generation, but a generation that grew up with the World Wide Web.
This last movie culminates a series of movies that started a decade ago and has proven to be the most successful movie series ever, beating franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek, and even a score of James Bond movies.
Here are some of my favorite highlights:
- Two of our heroes finally kiss
- Special effects. I saw it in 3D and it works. It’s not as dramatic as the recent Transformers 3, but it is still good. The opening with the Warner Brothers “WB logo” flying at you now takes on a special meaning. The charms and spells that surround Hogwart’s take on a shimmering deflector shield appearance. The wand battles reused some effects from previous movies, but adds impressive new ones.
- Molly faces down Bellatrix with “bitch.”
- A really cool dragon, that makes you believe in dragons.
- The rail car ride down to the lower vaults of Gringotts is worthy of becoming a ride at Universal Studios.
- Neville Longbottom, often previously derided, gets to shine with a significant role as the new leader of Dumbledore’s Army at Hogwarts.
- Perhaps the most moving part of the movie is the deliciously wicked Professor Severus Snape, who killed Dumbledore in the previous movie, finally reveals his hidden role.
As the summation of the series, this movie pulls the lose ends together, and in that sense is satisfying. The book does it more satisfyingly still, with many more elements answered in a gratifying way. However, of the series, this is not my favorite movie. My favorite remains “The Goblet of Fire” which I reviewed previously.
- You’ll like it if: You fancy fabulous special effects, adventure, action, magic, snogging heroes
- You won’t if: You’re bothered by movies that don’t stick closely to the book, or are easily frightened
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood culturevulture
MOVIE REVIEW: THE KING’S SPEECH
A thing of grace and triumph.
Here is a movie that’s already getting lots of Oscar buzz, and you know why? It deserves it. This is the best movie I’ve seen this year, or in a couple of years. It is not only deeply moving, but also beautiful to behold. From a killer cast to eye-catching cinematography to lush atmospherics, this it the movie that sets the high water mark.
This is not just another “Rocky” movie, rather this is a film where grace overcomes judgment, encouragement overcomes criticism, honesty overcomes fear. And in the end, courage overcomes doubt.
The story is based on 20th century history, though it is perhaps unfamiliar to Americans. Prince Albert, the Duke of York is second in line for the throne of England behind his elder brother Edward. In some ways, like Henry VIII who also was second in line behind his brother, the younger brother distinguishes himself in another area of endeavor. With Henry, he went off to seminary and studied theology. Albert became a naval officer. But a crippling stammer paralyzed Albert (Colin Firth) when he needed to speak in public. A series of doctors unsuccessfully attended him before he met the unconventional therapist, and unsuccessful actor Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). The movie culminates, not surprisingly, in the King’s Speech where the recently crowned Albert, now as King George VI addresses the nation in support of the declaration of war against Nazi Germany.
This is a veritable dream team of British and Down Under actors:
Colin Firth is often cast as an attractive and sophisticated Brit. Many on this side of the Pond met him in the 6-part 1995 BBC miniseries “Pride and Prejudice” where he played Mr. Darcy. Or in the “Bridget Jones” movies where he played a parody of that character. Here he’s cast as a self-doubting royal who does not long for the throne, but finds that the untimely departure of his elder brother forces the crown upon him in the midst of great national crisis.
This performance is one of Firth’s best, following on the heels of last year’s strong performance in “A Single Man,” seems to hint at Oscar gold this year.
Geoffrey Rush is best known recently as the villainous Captain Barbossa in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. He handles comedy as deftly as drama and when he appears on the screen, the magic begins. The way he interacts with the Colin Firth is amazing, and his unexpected familiarity with the Prince evokes such delicious humor, honesty, encouragement and sheer pathos, I would not be surprised if Oscar pixie dust gets sprinkled upon him. A tour de force performance — as the first man who brought the future King confidence, grace, affirmation, and a belief in courage in the midst of a heavy burden — made this film so palpably powerful. Playing the role of a sure-of-himself Australian — Rush actually is Australian — inspired and encouraged “Bertie” in the unfolding drama of his brother’s abdication and his own coronation.
Helena Bonham Carter, as the devoted and compassionate wife and Queen Mother of the current Queen Elizabeth II, shone in a role otherwise too small. She conveyed the look and practicality of the future Queen Mum and added a charm and humor that both brought notice to and excused commoners’ bedazzlement with royalty. The actress first splashed upon the American consciousness was in the Merchant Ivory “A Room With a View” but is most recently know for her role as Bellatrix Lestrange in the “Harry Potter” movies.
Jennifer Ehle plays Myrtle Logue, the wife of Lionel (Geoffrey Rush) who adds some simultaneously hilarious and surprisingly touching moments when she finally meets the King when he’s visiting her house. Most Americans know Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice” where she played opposite Colin Firth. When she meets him here briefly as King it is a curious home coming. I caught her 5 years ago at London’s Old Vic Theatre where she played the lead role of Tracy Lord opposite Kevin Spacey in “The Philadelphia Story” when I got to meet her even more famous mother Rosemary Harris in the audience. It inspired me to begin my blog on theatre/movie/concert reviews, CultureVulture. with my first review of that performance.
Other appearances catch the viewer quite by surprise and delight, for you’ve seen them before:
Derek Jacobi plays the Archbishop Cosmo Lang, who in this film is almost condescendingly articulate. But ironically, the actor first became known to Americans via the British import “I Claudius” where he played a stammering member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty who survived the imperial infighting to become Caesar.
Timothy Spall plays Winston Churchill. Though a small part, he confides his own history of speech difficulties to the King before the final speech. The actor has been in a number of movies, most recently as Wormtail/Peter Petigrew in the “Harry Potter” movies. But he played a major role in another movie by the same director Tom Hooper, “The Damned United.”
Guy Pearce as King Edward, known to Americans in the film “L.A. Confidential” and recently in “The Hurt Locker,” previously streaked across the screen in the time-bending film “Memento.” Here he plays the role of an attractive, well loved, yet ultimately selfish royal who would abdicate for the love of a twice-divorced American commoner.
Michael Gambon lends gravitas and intimidation as the father and older King George V. He seems to be in all the popular British period pieces, but you know him best as Professor Dumbledore in the “Harry Potter” movies (do we see a trend here?)
Anthony Andrews plays Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in an all too short appearance, but was introduced to Americans in the role of upper crust Sebastian in the 1981 mini-series “Brideshead Revisited.”
And Clare Bloom plays Queen Mary, mother of Albert in a bright but brief appearance. A star of stage and screen since the late ’40s, she burst onto the American screen in the 1952 Charlie Chaplin film “Limelight.” Almost as well known in the US as in England, I first saw her opposite her then husband Rod Steiger in the 1969 science fiction film “The Illustrated Man” based on the Ray Bradbury story. She too was in “Brideshead Revisited.”
The cinematography was stunning, and without the use of obvious special effects. The camera angles, the framing of the characters, the use of fish-eye lenses to convey a sense of overwhelming pressure — all these contributed to the luxurious feel, the fit-and-finish of the film.
The lush soundtrack was by Alexandre Desplat who recently did the music for the latest “Harry Potter” film as well as “The Social Network.” He also did the score to the 2006 film “The Queen” about Elizabeth the daughter of King George VI. “The King’s Speech’s score featured extensive piano solos, and music by Beethoven, Brahms, and Mozart. It too has Oscar pixie dust on it. It was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London. The most remarkable part of the score was during the climactic King’s Speech itself, with the awesome and powerful Symphony No. 7: Second Movement by Beethoven. You may remember the brooding theme in “Zardoz.” Here it begins slowly, as does the King’s Speech and builds with urgency and confidence. I’ve not been moved by movie music as powerfully since “Chariots of Fire.” Nor has any movie since been so inspiring by the triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds through the grace of a friend who expresses such faith.
A thing of grace and triumph.
You’ll like it if: you’re an Anglophile, dig period costume pieces, are fascinated by British Royalty, appreciate darn good acting.
You won’t like it if: you don’t care for swear words (part of the speech therapy) that earned this an R rating, prefer action over words, or if you’re still holding a grudge against the English since the Revolutionary War.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood culturevulture
CONCERT REVIEW: JAMES TAYLOR AND CAROLE KING TROUBADOUR REUNION IN DENVER
Peanut Butter and Chocolate…
Two great tastes in music came together for the Troubadour Reunion tour, celebrating the 40th anniversary of their first time performing together at The Troubadour Club in Los Angeles originally in 1970. The reunion concert was held at the Troubadour itself in November of 2007. A CD/DVD album was produced from this event, that contains a subset of the tour play list. The reunion tour was announced in November of 2009 and began the following March in Australia. Over 50 international dates were scheduled and the tour ends next week in Anaheim. USA TODAY considers it one of the top 5 concerts of this summer. It’s the top selling ticket event in history, beating the Super Bowl, in terms of secondary ticket sales. I’ve been going to James Taylor concerts for over 30 years. I’ve seen three concerts so far this year, this was the best. Wednesday night it came to Denver’s Pepsi Center.
I got my tickets three seconds after they went on pre-sale and got seats in the second row off the floor, about 75 feet from the stage. This tour is a bit unique, trying to pattern the stage in an intimate setting, in the round in the center of the auditorium. As the stage rotated, I had great seats at least half the time, and there was a wide-screen TV on the back side of the stage. But we were so close that the view was better than what appeared on the circle of Jumbotron displays above the stage. Surrounding the stage were VIP stage seats with tables and chairs which funded the favorite charities of Taylor and King.
As the band took to the stage and with a guitar lead in, photos from their youth appeared on the Jumbotron monitors, James Taylor and Carole King entered to a standing ovation and no other introduction as JT dressed in a suit played:
- Something In The Way She Moves
If this title sounds familiar, it is because it subsequently provided the introductory line in George Harrison’s “Something.” JT had originally wanted to title this song “I Feel Fine” after the lyric in his song “quite a long long time and I feel fine,” but the Beatles had already taken that title.
As JT sang this song in Denver, Carole King added great harmonies.
They switched as Carole King started up:
- So Far Away
It was rendered very simply, with just bass accompaniment.
The the rest of the backup joined, and JT introduced the band:
Hello Denver thanks for coming out, it wouldn’t be the same without you. We go through the motions but it’s not the same. We’ve got with us the original band from 1970-something…
Leland Sklar on Bass. He appeared out of the woods, don’t offer him food or have direct eye contact with him…
Russ Kunkel on Drums. He can hit things and make music. What he did on “Fire and Rain” with brushes in studio…
Danny Kortchmar on Electric Guitar. I’ve known him since he was knee high to turnip green, introduced me to Carole, and was in the band Flying Machine with me.
We’re going to do now one of Danny’s songs:
- Machine Gun Kelley
JT then continued:
Back last November when we were putting this tour together we tried to figure out the original set from 1903 (sic)
We played everything we had and this was probably in it…
- Carolina In My Mind
This was one of his earliest hits and it appeared on his debut eponymous album in 1968 which he recorded for Apple Records, the record label of The Beatles. He had written it in London as he was homesick. The lyric “holy host of others standing around me” is a reference to The Beatles who were recording The White Album at the same time and studio, and accompaniment by Paul McCartney and George Harrison on the track.
This is one of his most affecting and heart-tugging songs, and has become the unofficial song of both the State and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When I saw him perform this song at Red Rocks accompanied by visuals, I wanted to go to Carolina in my mind.
As JT performed this Wednesday night, he had great backing singers, who after they finished this song all left the stage, all but one.
Carole King starts up, with Kate Markowitz doing backing vocals on
- Way over Yonder
Carole’s voice is right on, for this modern spiritual. Originally this song was on her Tapestry album, released in 1971 and was #1 on the charts for 15 consecutive weeks. The album has sold over 25 million copies worldwide, winning 4 Grammy Awards. James Taylor had encouraged Carole to sing her own songs. For Tapestry, She holds the record for the longest time for an album by a female to remain on the charts and the longest time for an album by a female to hold the #1 position.
Carole then introduced keyboardist Robbie Kondor, as she took up her guitar for…
- Smack Water Jack
JT took up the lead with
- Walking on County Road
As is his habit in live concerts, he goes funk and Carole brought the crowd to their feet to clap. “You can feel it” hands go up.
Carole then continued with
I co-wrote this with Ms. Toni Stern
- Sweet Seasons
JT picked it up with one of my favorites, a later hit that really moves:
Carole told us:
I’ve been a fan of James Taylor since I met him in 1970. I wrote this following song by myself that sounded like one he was writing. Listen to them both, it’s spooky
- Sing a Song of Long Ago
that began with “Whispering wind.”
James then sang a hauntingly similar
- Long Ago (And Far Away)
with lyrics of “long ago sailing ships and Sunday afternoons”
JT then told us:
The next two are hymns for agnostics, spiritual, yet non-assigned. They help you get up and put one foot in front of the other.
- Get Up Every Morning
Carole left the keyboard to join the choir of three backing singers for the second hymn:
- Shower the People
When it went into acapela mode, it was like a revival, the crowd clapped, but when
Arnold McCuller— who has been with JT for 30 years — then went gospel, the crowd came unglued. After the standing ovation, JT said:
That was good… too good.
Andrea Zonn was introduced on violin and then Carole took the microphone to sing
- Natural Woman
At least half the audience sang along as she riffed with the lead guitarist. She brought down the house and then continued
Were going to take a 15 min break. Well be back and hope you will too.
During the interval the Jumbotrons showed “Intermission” reels from the Drive-in movies of the 60’s, including the famous dancing hot dog from the movie Grease.
The band and the leads returned from the break. JT was in his usual relaxed jeans, short sleeves, and now a riding cap. He did a long musical intro to
Another song about North Carolina, redolent with smells and memories so thick you have to brush them away like flies.
This song was accompanied with both fiddle and accordion. This was nostalgia on steroids.
As JT and Carol got side by side, he said
A number of songs Carole’s written, I’ve covered. And many of the songs I’ve sung, it turns out that Carole wrote them. Here’s one originally recorded by The Everly Brothers. I recorded with Art Garfunkel. And it turns out Carole wrote it.
- I’ll Do My Crying In The Rain
Such beautiful harmonies between the two of them.
We started putting this tour together back in November. First set list was 6 hrs long (the crowd cheers approval and encouragement.) It had to be shortened, and it was an emotionally wrenching experience removing song. Taking them out was like dropping your kids off at camp.
As people shout out requests, JT continued
This was requested by Denver.
And it was. He did a web poll on his website before the concert came to Denver
Green fields and rolling hills…
- Been to Canaan
JT told us
Gonna do a cowboy lullaby. When I wrote this I’d been abroad for a year. That never sounds right. I’d been traveling overseaw.
He’d been recording in England, and was driving down to North Carolina as he describes his brother And his wife having a kid while he was away.
In a moment of relaxed judgment they named him after me. It’s a cowboy lullaby that might have been sung by Roy Rogers or Gene Autry. Lights out in the bunk house. Go to sleep ya little buckaroo.
- Sweet Baby James
This is my favorite song by JT, telling of the past with the cowboys, the present of a drive from Western Massachusetts, and the visionary picture of the highway, the sea and the sky. Textures and colors of deep green and blues. When Carole added the harmonies, it pulled at my heart. When JT performed this song a few years ago at Coors Amphitheater, he mentioned that the grandmother of Sweet Baby James was in the audience. Could this have in fact been both the grandmother of his nephew as well as his own mother Gertrude Taylor?
Next came a very slow entrance to a song that is not on the Troubadour Reunion album, but welcomed famously
For this performance the wailing sax was replaced by the electric guitar. Though it was good, the saxophonist was missed. Even Lisa Simpson would have done.
Carole continued by telling us
Back in 1960 I was a struggling song writer. I had a hit with (the girls group) The Shirelles. It was recorded 10 years later with James Taylor.
- Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow
When JT sang his long, low, soulful harmony, it was heart melting, bringing applause. They hugged after the song and the room came to their feet.
- Your Smiling Face
This was a huge crowd pleaser by JT.
- Too Late Baby
Carole did some nice instrumental jamming in the middle that brought a well deserved ovation.
- Fire and Rain
This introspective ballad once hit #3 on the charts. A mournful song about depression, his time in mental institutions and a friend’s suicide tells about the crash of his early band The Flying Machine. This hit song for JT had Russ Kunkel doing his innovative brushes on drum. He took a bow to another standing ovation.
Carole then continued with
- I Feel the Earth Move
Most of the ladies came to their feet, as the Jumbotron showed videos of ladies in old dancing movies. This too got an ovation.
JT took up a running gag he used throughout the concert as he showed obvious gratitude for Carole King when he introduced the next song with
And then she wrote…
- You’ve Got a Friend
JT often explains in his own concerts that it was her great generosity to let him release this song she wrote before she herself did on her own Tapestry album. Both won Grammy Awards in 1971 for the song.
On the first chorus, she sang harmony. On the second verse she led and JT did harmony.
For the last verse, Carole sang
Here we are in Denver
For a night to remember
We’re so glad we came
Hope you feel the same
There was of course a standing ovation as they left the stage.
Not unexpectedly, there was an encore. JT introduced it with
And then she wrote…
- Up On The Roof
As he often does in his own concerts, when he sings “Up on my roof” he begins to hop onstage.
But Carole’s style is different, almost in a minor key. They switch between arrangements.
And the stars at night put on a show for free
As the Jumbotron shows a star field. But JT resumes his style with
I keep on telling you that right smack dab in the middle of my town
I’ve found a paradise that’s just about trouble proof
I laughed out loud it was so good! This song was worth the ticket price alone. I remember when JT did this on the Sesame Street TV show. This song Carole originally wrote in 1962 for The Drifters. Catch the line
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
- How Sweet It Is
The hits just kept on coming. Carole shared
In case you haven’t noticed we’re really, really, really glad to be here. It’s like a magic carpet ride through Denver.
Lest the audience think this was the end, They each raised a single finger suggesting just one more.
They closed with this lullaby, as Carole sang the most wonderful harmonies. Though once harmonized by his first wife Carly Simon, Carole King was every bit as good, looking into his eyes with admiration and respect and at the end laid her head on his shoulder.
- You Can Close Your Eyes
These two iconic singer-songwriters, whose powers remain undiminished by the years, each has been strumming our heartstrings for decades.
Thank you Denver.
They closed with a kiss and embrace.
It is rare to see performers with such sincere affection for each other who seemed to enjoy being with me as much as I enjoyed being with them.
Peanut Butter and Chocolate…
Carole King’s piano added depth to James Taylor’s vocals, and his guitar contributed percussive accents to her lyrics. His trademark plucking style, rhythmic strumming and fretboard hammering have inspired so many budding guitarists. Her deep lyrics and his soaring vocals. You’ve heard it said that the movie is not as good as the book? The Troubadour Reunion Tour album was not as good as the concert. Many artists of this age just can’t do it any more. These two can, with a polished and delicious concert.
How Sweet It Is.
UPDATE: YouTube has an interview of James Taylor and Carole King from Denver here.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood culturevulture
MOVIE REVIEW: AVATAR
I’ve seen some interviews with movie producers recently, mostly Pixar, saying that all the key producers are moving to 3D. I’ve taken these words with a pillar of salt, as just new ways to capture the eyeballs of price-sensitive consumers who are nervous about spending $10 a head to attend the cinema, when they could stay at home and watch a movie rental on TV… one that is getting larger, HD, and Blu-ray.
That is until this movie. I can’t imagine what it would be like without 3D. I watched it in “Real D 3D” and I have just one word for it:
It is like full immersion in a high-quality, beautifully rendered, high-definition video game. I’m not really a computer game player, my tastes lean more toward the Wii, but this might make a convert of me: there’s one for the iPhone. Indeed, Avatar has been called “the iPhone of movies.” The movie James Cameron has been working 15 years on, since Titanic, waiting for the appropriate technology to become available is now here.
There is a flying scene with dragon-like creatures in the second act that had my jaw dropped for a full five minutes.
But other than feeling like you’re inside a video game, a feeling I distinctly felt when watching the flying car sequences in Star Wars II, there was something else going on here. The line between live action and animation was seamless. The use new digital “stereoscopic” 3-D technology that adds depth significantly enhanced the experience. Rather than things protruding out of the screen over the audience, as we’ve seen in other 3D movies, this was a difference sense altogether.
Here are some of my first impressions…
James Horner did the music for this movie. He’s one of my favorite movie music composers, first popping up on my sensors back in 1982 for Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. It was powerful and effective, if unmemorable.
- Art Direction:
There were several unmistakable resemblances to the art work of Roger Dean, well known for his ’70s and ’80s album covers for such musicians as Yes (floating islands), Uriah Heap, and Asia. From colorful dragons to flying elephants, to curving stone landscape to statuesque trees the likeness was striking. Curiously, there is no credit given to Roger Dean.
- Joel Moore:
This actor plays the role of Norm Spellman, our hero’s human buddy and scientist. He also has a recurring role as Dr. Colin Fisher on the TV series Bones. In a recent episode, his buddies at the Institute sneak out early with him to catch a premier showing of the new movie Avatar.
- Zoe Saldana:
You loved her as Lt. Uhura in the new Star Trek movie. She’s a very capable female lead in this blockbuster as Neytiri, the chief’s daughter, and was both fierce and appealing as a lithe heroine. I expect to see her in many more movies.
- Sigorney Weaver:
The only actor in this movie with name-brand appeal, she reminds the viewer of Ripley from the Alien movies, and even talks about lemurs. Is this a sly reference to her role as Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mists? Weaver plays the adult supervision role of Dr. Grace Augustine.
- Setting the bar:
This movie raises the bar to a new level in technical accomplishment. Like 2001: a space odyssey in the ’60s, Star Wars in the ’70s, Terminator 2 in the ’90s (a Cameron movie) and Lord of the Rings in the ’00s, this movie defines the new standard. Avatar enjoys the technical expertise of the two leading special effects houses: Weta Digital, who gave us Lord of the Rings, and to help finish the film ILM, Industrial Light and Magic. Douglas Trumbull and his assistant John Dykstra did 2001, Dykstra went on to lead ILM and do Star Wars. In Avatar, ILM came in to do visual effects on the film’s aircraft, specifically its helicopters and the large-scale shuttle. They also worked on the film’s final battle scene, with scenes of all the vehicles taking off, as well as cockpit interior shots. Indeed, the heads-up displays, and the wrap around monitors in the command center turned up the geek lust factor higher than a new 27″ iMac.
Throughout the movie, you get a feeling you’ve seen parts of this movie before. From the opening scene aboard a system sojourning ship like 2001‘s Discovery, to the first scenes of the dog soldiers that is reminiscent of the troops in Aliens (also by Cameron), to the enduring sense that this is Last of the Mohicans or Dances With Wolves in space. Our hero Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington from Terminator Salvation and in this movie his Australian accent only slips in when he gets excited) in this movie even has a native rival, a kind of “Wind In His Hair” character who is a great warrior. There is the same sense of the soldier who goes native to protect the innocent and wronged indigenous Native American Indians.
Where the movie failed was in the story. It could have taken the idea of:
A stranger from the skies comes down to become on of us and lays down his life to save us.
It would have even worked well as a theme with the Christmas-time release. Instead, it used a retread of a heavily used and as equally heavy-handed story of:
A neopagan Earth goddess (OK, Pandora goddess) who is the mother deity at the center of the world.
You’ve seen it before, in Disney’s historically inaccurate Pocahontas, even down to involving a giant tree. The villains were two dimensional (a real problem in a 3D movie), stereotypical, and superficial. It reminded you of the corporate slime ball Carter Burke played by Paul Reiser in Aliens (another Cameron movie). Clocking in at almost 3 hours (163 minutes), and $300M — what was what was spent on all three of the Lord of the Rings movies — this movie was written, directed, and produced by James Cameron. I’m impressed by his directing and producing, but don’t feel he was up to the task of the depth and breadth of writing. Indeed, Cameron is no J.R.R. Tolkien.
You’ll like it if: you enjoy sci-fi/fantasy, action or battle films, romance and special effects to knock your eyes out.
You won’t like it if: you don’t care for violence, overt in-your-face “green” messaging, anti-war rhetoric and neopagan overtones.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood culturevulture
MOVIE REVIEW: STAR TREK
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her ongoing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life-forms and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before.
If you’ve already read my History of Star Trek article, this is the future of the franchise, by returning to its past.
Let me get to the bottom line first: this is the best Star Trek movie ever. Indeed, it’s the best movie I’ve seen this year. Why?
This is the movie I’ve been waiting for 40 years, the first original episode of Star Trek: The Original Series since the show went off the air in 1969. As I mentioned in my earlier article, usually even-numbered movies are better than odd-numbered ones: but not with this eleventh movie — unless you want to call it what it really is, Star Trek 0.
Without giving away any plot details, this movie has action, drama, romance, humor, adventure, fisticuffs, and terrific space battles. $30 million were spent on special effects alone, of course by Industrial Light and Magic. The movie starts with a bang, with a truly emotional event, and keeps up the excitement right up to the end. The writing is both smart and lovingly detailed at times, and there are genuinely touching scenes of realization and revelation. And the ending, well, it brought a tear to my eye.
Yes, this is the prequel, as it were, of the original show — how the original crew met up at Starfleet Academy. This is essentially an origins story. It is also a reboot of the franchise, in the same way as Batman and James Bond have gotten a fresh start, decades after the original movie series began. But this movie is accessible to non-fans as well.
Many Trekkies, Trekkers and Trek junkies may bemoan the fact that this movie does not stick strictly to “Star Trek canon” — for example, this Spock raises his left eyebrow, not the canonical right one — but there is a reasonable explanation given for this. You’ll just have to go see the movie to find out.
Director J.J. Abrams had a difficult task of appealing to the long time fans, while attracting a new younger audience. He walked this tightrope well, mixing loving respect for the original while adding fresh and fun improvisations on the iconic characters for a post-modern age. Nostalgia and newness.
The music of Alexander Courage is peppered throughout the movie. He did the original score of the TV show and I had the privilege of seeing him in the Bay Area at a space music concert. The familiar 4-note introduction appears four times and makes chills run up one’s spine. But that’s not all, even the familiar bridge sounds are there for the old fans to relish.
Pay attention to catch a couple of prominent product placements in the movie.
Among many tributes paid to the original series — even a “red shirt” if you know what I mean — there were also lots of inside jokes and references made to other movie lines and famous TV sayings. Also, we see the use of Vasquez Rocks near Los Angeles. It was used as a popular exterior in several of the original TV show, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Voyager, Enterprise, and the movie Star Trek IV. It was featured in this film for the planet Vulcan. It’s been a filming location in many other TV shows like Bonanza, F-Troop, Have Gun Will Travel, The Big Valley, Maverick, Gunsmoke, Kung Fu, and The Wild, Wild, West.
Chris Pine, who you’ve seen in Smokin’ Aces and the delightful Bottle Shock plays James T. Kirk, cocky, brash, arrogant, confident, even fool hardy, but usually right in his hunches. He gives a remarkable performance, having some critics saying “a star is born.” He does make it happen and is believable in the role. Like me, and George Takei (the original Sulu), and John Cho (the new Sulu), Pine went to school at the University of California, Berkeley — where we were all bitten by the acting bug.
Zachary Quinto, best known as the villain Syler in the popular TV series Heroes plays the part of the human-Vulcan Spock. His resemblance to the young Leonard Nimoy is uncanny. Quinto is a half-breed himself, half-Italian, half-Irish. And like Leonard Nimoy, his father used to cut hair. Having the opportunity to meet with and work with Leonard Nimoy, who approved his casting, he learned his mannerisms, like holding his hands behind his back, his erect and still posture, and his measured and stoic composure. Of all the cast, he most resembles the original character in appearance and carriage.
The New Zealand actor Karl Urban puts on a bit of a southern gentleman accent, like the original “just a country doctor” role DeForest Kelley did. I heard De Kelley at a Star Trek convention once challenge the audience with “You all think you know Star Trek so well, give me the name of any episode and I’ll quote a line from it.” As people shouted out episode names, he confidently replied, “He’s dead, Jim.” Urban gets to play this role with humor, something we don’t usually see from the man of action who played Eomer in The Lord of the Rings trilogy or Vaako in Chronicles of Riddick. While Urban does not quote that line in this movie, he does quote another of his iconic lines. And here, you learn (one possible) origin of the name “Bones.”
Simon Pegg, the irrepressible English actor plays engineering genius Montgomery Scott. He effected a Glasgow accent for the role, believing that Scotty was originally from Linlithgow — a short train ride from Edinburgh — and the old castle there is the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots. This is curious, as we all know from the episode “Wolf in the Fold” that Scotty was “an old Aberdeen pub crawler.” In any event, since Pegg is an English actor — unlike the original James Doohan who is Canadian (and admitted to me that he loves to do accents) — at least he’s closer geographically. You’ve seen Pegg before in Shaun of the Dead, and many other movies he’s produced, directed, and starred in. He brings his unique sense of humor to the role, and what he says about the Enterprise’s nacelles, well, you just have to see it.
Anton Yelchin who plays Pavel Andreievich Checkov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, though he’s since lived in the United States since the year he was born. He brings remarkable energy an enthusiasm to the role. As the 17-year old Ensign, he lays on the Russian accent a bit thicker than Walter Koenig did in ST:TOS. Several years ago I had the opportunity to meet the actor Walter Koenig and in the course of conversation asked him how he developed his Russian accent.
“I have a good ear for accents.”
When I looked at him quizzically, he added.
“Both of my parents are Russian.”
The new USS Enterprise is a thing of beauty to behold. It looks like the BMW engineering team got a hold of the original and “pimped the ride.” While not straying as far as the redesign in the first movie Star Trek: The Motion Picture this retains most of the original elements with a slightly more curved engineering section and more elegant warp nacelles. The use of weapon systems, including photon torpedoes and phasers is more developed in this design, as are greater uses of blue over the original red, but it works for me. I saw the original 11-foot filming model back in the mid-’70s before it was put on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum. Even before it was restored, it was a stunning piece of engineering.
The bridge looks like a white iPhone: shiny, new, clean, and not black. Rather than the old TV-sized monitors, we’ve got widescreen. Rather than the gooseneck lights on the helm and navigation consoles, we’ve got swing arm extensions. But, what’s with all the lens flare on the bridge?
The transporter room looks very much like the original show, with a two-person console and a display on the wall. And next to “Scotty” appears Christopher Doohan, the son of the original Engineer Scott, as an extra, as he had on Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Bruce Greenwood assumes the role of Captain Christopher Pike created in the very first pilot “The Cage” — rejected originally by NBC — filmed in 1965. He handles the role with maturity and grace.
Eric Bana plays a very different Romulan, unlike any we’ve seen before, an Aussie Captain Nero with an American accent and poor hygiene habits. It is ironic that he received an acting award for his lead in the 2007 Australian movie Romulus, My Father. You’ve seen him before in Munich, Troy, Black Hawk Down and the earlier version of Hulk.
John Cho had a unique challenge as he reprises the role created by George Takei, who is still an active actor, appearing in the recent TV series Heroes. In the same way Sulu fenced in the original episode “The Naked Time” so here John Cho fences — but with a samurai sword rather than the original foil. In the same way that the Chinese-American actor Garrett Wang plays the Korean Harry Kim, here Korean-American actor John Cho plays the Japanese Lt. Sulu. You’ve seen Cho before in the Harold and Kumar movies.
Zoe Saldana plays the role of the lovely Uhura, whose name means “Freedom” in Swahili. Given a larger role in this movie than in previous Star Trek movies, there is a bit of irony here. In the movie “The Terminal” she plays a Trekkie. But you’ve also seen her as Anamaria in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”
Ben Cross, who played the character Harold Abrams in the 5-Academy Award winning movie “Chariots of Fire” appears here as Spock’s father Sarek of Vulcan. He’s excellent in the role, and gets a chance to deliver amazing lines, some unexpected.
Winona Ryder is Amanda Grayson, the human Earthling mother of Spock, and wife of Sarek of Vulcan. Ironically, her name means “worthy of being loved.”
Jennifer Morrison, from the TV show “House” has a brief role as James Kirk’s mother, and explains (another possible) reason for Kirk’s middle name.
Grade: A. Swing, hit, a home run.
You’ll like it if: action, humor, vitality and space are your final frontier
You won’t like it if: you’ve been on another planet for the last 40 years.
Trivia Question: There is one performer who has been in the original show, ST: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Enterprise, the animated series, and many of the movies — including this film as well. And is in this film’s dedication at the end. Who is it?
Yes, this is a deeply gratifying movie. I’ve already got tickets to see it again tomorrow!
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood Trek junkie