Wednesday, July 11, 2007

World's End, Flyboys, Out of Africa and Húrin

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
What a mess. I had really hoped that this film would make up for the disappointing offering that was Dead Man’s Chest. No such luck. The first movie in this series was so entertaining. What happened to Jack Sparrow’s clever antics, and the clear cut adventurous storyline that made it so appealing? Instead of a laugh-filled rollicking adventure, World’s End tries to wrap together a laundry list of mostly uninteresting plot lines while delivering a mixture of violence, jokes, and violent jokes that was nigh unto nauseating at times.

Where Black Pearl offered ample servings of Captain Jack’s humorous undertakings, this film attempts to bribe its audience into laughing by offering a delusional Sparrow trapped in his own version of Hell, trying to sail a ship manned by dozens of versions of himself through a desert wasteland. The film dragged on, trying to outdo it’s predecessors with supposedly epic battle scenes and one fall-flat joke after another. And just when I thought the series had reached new lows and couldn’t get any lamer, someone decided to insert the wedding-scene-to-end-all-wedding-scenes. C’mon—a bride and groom killing people with swords while they’re getting married? I’m sure whoever did it thought they were being real clever putting that in there. But it wasn’t clever. It was dumb. And I was insulted to think that someone thought it would make me laugh, or get excited, or whatever it was they thought I would do.

Finding out how the Pirates story ends is the only reason that I can offer for seeing this movie to anyone who might still be deliberating the issue. So it goes without saying that if you’re not a Pirates fan to begin with then there’s really no reason at all to watch this film. If you’re looking for good entertainment, watch something else, like Flyboys.

This movie got a lot of bad reviews. “Cliché war film”, they said. “Uninteresting characters”, they said. “Predictable and shallow”, they said. I found it to be none of these. I haven’t watched that many war movies, so maybe I’m not qualified to say whether or not it’s cliché as a war film. And of course the characters weren’t examined in depth. When you’re trying to tell the stories of why 6 different men decided to go to war, and what happens to each of them as the war changes them, you don’t get to fully develop any of them. But that’s not a bad thing. I’ll take an underdeveloped cast of main characters in a compelling story that makes sense any day over fish-people slicing and dicing pirates in a disorganized excuse for a plot.

The film succeeds because it gives a broad view of what was going on in the aerial theatre of the war before the US decided to join. And it does it in an entertaining way. It offers the audience interesting characters and gives us reasons to care about them. No, the characters are not deep and complex, but that didn’t make me not care when they died in combat or when they were successful. In fact, the bits and pieces of their stories that the film does offer are still quite fascinating, and they form an interesting mosaic as they bump against one another during the progression of this film.

Bottom line—I enjoyed this film. It was entertaining, and it gave me an appreciation for an part of history that I new very little about before. (Yes, I did my homework and the film is, for the most part, historically accurate.)

Out of Africa
My wife brought home a couple of movies Friday night. One of them was Out of Africa. “It’s famous” she said, in a sort of half-apologetic way, as if that were a good enough reason to watch it. The title sparked some vague and distant idea in my brain that maybe I had heard of it before, but I wasn’t sure. Whenever she brings home a movie that I probably wouldn’t have picked out myself, had I been the one at the movie store, I feel some sense of duty to put on a front of moderate disinterest, at least initially. This was one of those times. But the front doesn’t usually last long, and more often than not I end up watching the films.

When this one was over, my general impression was that it could be used as an excellent primer on how to ruin your life by way of promiscuity. Meryl Streep plays the antagonist- a Danish woman at the turn of the 20th century whose life plan was to marry the wealthy Dane she had been sleeping with and let him support her for the rest of her life. Her plan falls apart when her lover tells her that he refuses to marry a woman who everyone knows isn’t a virgin. Her humiliation forces her to decide that she needs to leave the country. So she convinces her lover’s brother, who has money and land in Africa, to marry her and let her run a farm on his land. He concedes out of… friendship? …pity? ...lust? …a sense of honor? I wasn’t exactly sure. Ultimately, the marriage fails (big surprise), and in the meantime Streep’s character begins an affair with a lone-wolf type safari-hunter/naturalist played by good old Robert Redford. Streep’s husband feels guilty for having given her syphilis, so when they divorce he lets her keep the farm. (Nice of him since part of it was paid for with her money, I think.)

There are a lot of interwoven themes present in this film—ideas related to the unfortunate lot of the natives who get pushed off their land by invading European colonists, strong-willed women trying to make a place for themselves in the world—you know, noble stuff like that. And they might have actually seemed noble and worth making the movie for if it weren’t for the fact that film tries to make its audience admire and respect a character who is at best tragic and pitiable. Like I said, all the difficulties and suffering that this woman encounters in her life would have been avoided if she and her lovers would have chosen faithful marriage over extramarital sex. So was there anything at all redeeming about this movie? Well, it did have some great cinematography. From what I’ve seen in movies and on TV, Africa has a lot of natural beauty, and this film did a great job of making me appreciate that a little more. The acting was good. (Though I’ve since learned Redford didn’t bother learning an accent, as did Meryl Streep, even though the real-life person on whom Redford’s character was based was British. I guess someone thought it would be cooler for him to be an American.) Or at least the acting would have qualified as good if it hadn’t been for the annoying fact that much of the dialogue was incomprehensible. Let’s see…. uhm… I can’t really think of anything else to praise about this film. Basically, I don’t recommend it.

The Children of Húrin
The Sunday Times of London had this to say about The Children of Húrin:

“Although JRR Tolkien aficionados will be thrilled, others will find The Children of Húrin barely readable."

I don’t consider myself a Tolkien aficionado. I mean, aren’t those the guys that go to those conventions dressed up like elves and rangers and wizards? I’ve read The Hobbit twice and the Lord of the Rings once—I enjoyed them both immensely. I tried reading The Silmarillion, but, like others, I was put off by the epic/mythic style of storytelling and couldn’t get through the first story. But The Children of Húrin doesn’t read like The Silmarillion.

The narrative often lacks the depth of detail you might expect from Tolkien, which is ironic, given the epic scope of this story. Or maybe not—maybe it’s entirely appropriate for this kind of tale. It doesn’t matter. If you’ve ever fallen in love with Middle-earth and have longed to return to it by way of a fresh new story, but couldn’t will yourself through The Silmarillion or The Book of Unfinished Tales, or any of that other posthumous stuff then this book is for you. The narrative is complete enough to be satisfying. The characters and places are intriguing—the story takes place in parts of Middle-earth that were long since immersed by the time Bilbo Baggins ever met his first dwarf, so to you and me these places are new and fresh while still bearing all the satisfying familiarity of Middle-earth. (I understand that this story was published, in shorter form, as part of the Silmarillion, so perhaps it won’t be as fresh to those who have already read that book.)

This story has all the requisite elements that made me fall in love with Middle-earth the first time around—elves and dwarves, orcs, dragons and balrogs, epic battles, heroic deeds preformed with legendary weapons, and of course that great European-folklore fantasy feel that Tolkien perfected.

But it’s definitely not a good-triumphs-over-all kind of story the way The Lord of the Rings is. Nor is it a happy there-and-back again adventure like The Hobbit. It has the feel of a Greek tragedy. (Oedipus Rex comes specifically to mind, but I let you find out why.) The main character finds little, if any, happiness in his life. Indeed, he spends the better part of his life either in exile, or running away from imagined enemies, supposing himself to be a fugitive. Most of his attempts at doing good or bringing about justice ultimately cause grief and anguish for himself and those around him. Often he is able to thwart his enemies and do harm to those who would do the same to him. But the successes he is able to accomplish are continually contrasted with the negative side effects that his actions create.

The story doesn’t have a happy ending. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. Quite the opposite in fact. The return to Middle-earth that this book offers is worth the read alone. But a story, even a fantasy, doesn’t have to have a happy ending to be a great story. I certainly wouldn’t recommend this as an introduction to Tolkien’s work. But, if you’re a fan of Middle-earth you should definitely read this.