Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Various Mutterings

Tom Hanks is just an amazing guy. Castaway is a brilliant piece of shipwreck fiction, and much of this distinction arises from Hank's brilliant depiction of a FedEx executive who has been stranded for close to five years on an unhabitated island in the middle of (the proverbial) nowhere.

Just an example of how brilliant this film was. Hanks is stranded alone. Yet in the course of his singular existence he paints a face out of his own blood on a Wilson volleyball (one of the various packages fortitiously surviving the plane crash with him). This volleyball, aptly (and somewhat predictably) named Wilson, becomes the second most powerful character in the entire movie, based entirely on Hank's interaction with it and cunningly-crafted direction.

A volleyball! No dialogue, no actor's wages, no paparazzi smearing gigs. No credit.

When [spoiler] Wilson is lost at sea on the inevitable return trip, the sheer sense of tragedy is almost overwhelming, not only to Hank's character, but to the viewer himself.[/spoiler]

Words fail me. Go watch it yourself.


Jackson might have made his magnum opus (opi?), but it seems he hasn't lost his touch, from what I can tell from the rave reviews on King Kong. Not as good ("of course", the reviewers say) as LOTR, but excellent nonetheless. Some even go so far as to declare it better than the original, which is unheard of, at least until now.


Anyway, on Jackson's magnum opus. Based on my loose quantitative analysis of the hype and reviews that have graced this triumph of cinematic achievement, I declare the movies overrated. Not by much, but overrated nonetheless.

My chief gripes are in the area of plot contrivances. Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens have sought to add their own minor alterations to Tolkien's epic. Bad move. Most of them are ill-judged and unbelievable. Not to mention kitschy.

[Rant mode begins here.]

1. Ents. Come on. Ents are the oldest "natural" race in Middle Earth. And yet you can tell me that Treebeard can be bamboozled by a simple and unbelievable rationalization of a half-grown hobbit barely a thousandth of his age, that the Ents are foolish enough to think that Saruman's machinations will not affect them if they stay put and hide, that they are complacent and inattentive enough not to notice the mass deforestation taking place right in their territory by Saruman's minions, and that this travesty could possibly be enough for the Ents to change their glacial minds and attack Saruman.

Ents are wise. That's how Tolkien depicted them. To twist this wisdom, to turn it into a sort of half-baked horticultural senility, is completely implausible. Why they had to change the plot is beyond my comprehension.

"Well, I think this proves that trees can become senile."
- Peregrin

2. Theoden. Whatever happened to that kindly, understanding man who treated Merry with respect and concern, who listened to counsel and followed the wise course of action. Instead we get the alcoholic reformer who treats everyone with barely concealed arrogance and suspicion and disregards Gandalf's admonitions. Who commits his forces only with reluctance. All contact with Merry is removed from the film. The one released in cinemas, in any case.

Theoden is not like that. His character in the book was believable enough. Intercharacter tension can arise from elsewhere. Theoden is a foil for Denethor. They represent the contrast between the two great kingdoms of Men. Now the erstwhile Titanic captain gets to snub his nose at Aragorn and teach lessons to mules. Bah.

"I think I look better in leather myself."
- Theoden

3. Faramir. This makes me cringe. Another potential foil cast into the ravenous flames. Faramir doesn't warrant two ounces of rancid fat now that his character has been completely "revolutionized". The noble and valiant captain of Gondor is now inept at strategy (galloping in a line towards a sea of archers?) and cannot conquer his innate greed. Faramir is another foil, this time for his brother. Well, until the scriptwriters got it into their heads to "give some depth to this character who can oh so magically shrug off the corrupting effects of the ring."

Wham. Faramir becomes as bad as his brother. Another character lost.

"It was the hair. I know it was the hair."
-Faramir, inconsolable

4. The Frodo-Sam schism (Gollum's work, it is, precious!). What gives? Can the sacred friendship really be so strong? Oh, no, it's not nearly realistic enough for Hollywood, is it? Let's get the villian to mouth off a few incriminating lines to seemingly separate them...forever! (And then reunite them, of course. Those fans will never stand for that.)

Hmm. What ever should we do to pull this off? Let's spin some yarn about Samwise stealing some lambas bread! As if he hasn't starved for his master so faithfully over the past few months, carried all their things for him and saved him from a Nazgul! Wait. We'll have to change that too!

"Yeah, he used to stick the finger up at me all the time. Until
Gollum chewed it off. Now he has to use the other one."
-Samwise Gamgee

[Rant mode ends.]

Doubtless LOTR is still a great trilogy. It's strengths outweigh its weaknesses by far. If only they'd not gotten it into their minds to spice things up a bit. Kind of like emptying the entire box of cheese into a plate of spaghetti. And adding anchovies afterwards. I'd take the spaghetti myself. With one or two of the anchovies afterward. No, that was not allegorical. Yes, that was a homage to the man himself.


I have been rereading Wheel of Time. Doubtless many condemn it as too slow for their tastes but I like Jordan's universe. I think reading is more of an exposure to viewpoints than mere entertainment. And that's why books with messages tend to be better received that books written for the sole purpose of beachside entertainment.

I think Dan Brown's work is brainy enough. I see some labeling them otherwise. In my opinion that's a patently unfair slur based entirely on his controversial book topics. His writing style is not simplistic, its accessible. He is an Exeter grad and an academic himself. His assertions are not the point here; all are welcome to debate about whether those assertions are valid or not. But as to the quality of his books, there can be no doubt that he writes good ones.

Dan Brown is not, as popularly believed, anti-religion. He is Christian enough. You might call him the modern day equivalent of a Gnostic, or an Arianist, because he does hold several radical ideas about the Christian creed. But aren't all denominations like that, all divided on minor issues of semantics and interpretation? What does it matter? I don't believe any of his books would undermine faith in any way. If his dissenters read carefully into his work they'll see that all "anti-Christian" opinions are solely the opinions of characters, and not of the author himself. And as to the question of Christ's marriage to Mary Magdalene, while he has asserted his belief in that, I don't think it makes him any less a Christian.

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