The Hobbit

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Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies because you helped bring them about? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You’re a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I’m very fond of you, but you’re only quite a little fellow in a wide world, after all.


Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins in Bag Bend, Hobbiton, The Shire, in the 1977 movie The Hobbit.

I never watched this as a kid. Had I seen this I would have had to contend with my nostalgia. Instead, what I am dealing with is having listened to the audiobook recently. I probably noticed every bit the 77 minute animated movie skipped or changed. I love the book, so any changes needed to come from a logical place for me to forgive, or appreciate them. Whether you like the Peter Jackson Hobbits or not, they certainly had far more time dedicated to…well, everything and everyone.

The change that bothered me the most—even more than the exclusion of Beorn—was the body count Gandalf reports to Bilbo after the Battle of the Five Armies. Instead of three sad, dead dwarves, we have seven. The group was called the company of Thorin and his quest lead him to become King under the mountain, so his death, right upon reaching his apex, seems tragic. Kili and Fili are the two youngest dwarves, so their deaths show how war and death can take people too soon. More than doubling that body count, off-screen, lessens the impact of those deaths.

Still, Rankin and Bass deserve credit for this first adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Certainly fan art existed, but they really had the duty and privilege of taking the first crack at all these races. Bilbo looks great. And unlike a dwarf, or elf, or goblin, a hobbit is unique to Middle Earth and thus had no mold. Certain establishing shots made it feel like a camera was capturing the action, instead of just seeing drawn recap. Bilbo’s story is a good one, so even a hurried, fluffier version is enjoyable. Gollum’s menace and how distracted Bilbo would have been by Gollum was captured wonderfully. Also, this had talking birds, which I am glad they kept in. Lastly, they show living things dying, which has an important message for children, and created tension in the story.

The Magnificent Seven

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You bet your horse against my Irish whiskey.

I liked this one better. Chalk it up to modern sensibilities and more recognizable stars, but 2016’s Magnificent Seven was better than 1960’s Magnificent Seven. The key to this non-blasphemous statement is that this movie was clearly not as good as Seven Samurai. Of course, saying that, is like saying that Danny Elfman is no Tchaikovsky.

I actually remember very little from 1960’s Magnificent Seven and that is a damning statement. One line I have heard Denzel Washington make is that people would ask him which member of the seven he was, and he would say, “The Black one.” The joke being, of course, there was no Black member of that Magnificent Seven. The diversity of characters was one aspect that 2016 improved on 1960. Other improvements included: charm, humor, action, and commentary on the predatory nature of capitalism.


Peter Sarsgaard as Mr. Bogue, in The Magnificent Seven © 2016 MGM.

Now, there was certainly room for improvement in this film. For instance, Garry Marshall would have found the villain a bit over the top.1 His move was shooting people for no reason. I mean, there was a reason, that reason was to hammer home the point that he was evil and that you the viewer should want him dead. The movie needs you to really, really, really want him dead for it to work. Screenwriters Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolato included lines about the fake Pinkertons being cowards only good at shooting strikers in the back. Because if you do not strenuously want Bartholomew Bogue—Peter Sarsgaard, The Dying Gaul—dead, then you might stop and think about the 200 men who must die in order for him to die too. From a utilitarian standpoint, 200 vs 7, the greater loss would be the 200, not the 7. And these 7 anti-heroes would die to save 200 people. In this case, they happen to have to kill 200 people to save the good people of Rose Creek from being run out of town by the robber baron Bogue. Thus we have the classic western trio—immortalized by the first western2 director to master the art of remaking a Kurosawa masterpiece with A Fistful of Dollars née Yojimbo—namely: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

But what to do with the Ugly? Eli Wallach’s Tuco was more of a villain than an anti-hero in that classic, whereas these uglies have a range. Before I get to them, though, in Seven Samurai the seven were ronin—masterless samurai—whose place in feudal Japanese society was complicated. For class purposes, Ronin were too high up for peasant jobs, but by definition had no samurai retainer (employer). This left them trained to abide by a code that their circumstances could not afford. Thus their misdeeds provided for a greater ethical fall than a low class bandit could have. Chisholm—Washington—worked as a freelance marshal/bounty hunter. He was a ronin. As for the rest of the six…

Faraday, Cullen, and Chisholm (Pratt, Bennett, and Washington) in The Magnificent Seven.

Faraday, Cullen, and Chisholm (Pratt, Bennett, and Washington) in The Magnificent Seven.

Josh Faraday—Chris Pratt, Guardians of the Galaxy—was a gambler who does card tricks and shoots extremely well. His character was truly Western, as a non-consumptive Doc Holliday—Val Kilmer—from Tombstone. He does kill people, but has a sense of decency and only does it to save himself or others.

Goodnight Robicheaux–Ethan Hawke, Before/During/After Sunrise/Sunset—was a former Confederate sniper with the affectation of a gentleman. This makes him similar to the Lee Van Cleef, the Bad, although it was in For a Few Dollars More where Van Cleef played Col. Mortimer, whose trail of bounty hunter vengeance ties in closely to Chisholm’s story.

Billy Rocks—Byun-Hun Lee, The Good, the Bad, and the Weird—was Goodnight’s best friend. He is, as the actor’s name would suggest, Korean. They became friends when Goodnight came to claim Billy Rocks as a bounty but found Billy kicking-ass in a bar and just up and retired from bounty hunting. Billy was the knife expert. He makes money by showing that he can shoot quicker than people in non-lethal duels, unless the opponent wants a fatal rematch. So he is more Good than the Bad he played in The Good, the Bad, and the Weird.

Vasquez–Manuel Garcia-Rulfo–was the Mexican in the group. This was tactfully handled when Faraday sees him and says something like, “Oh good, a Mexican. Now we’re set.” The one surprise about his character was that he got the drop on Chisholm and Emma Cullen. As Chisholm was treated as the best of the best, this made for quite an introduction.

Jack Horne—Vincent D’Onofrio, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”—was wonderfully nigh unintelligible as a former Native American hunter who lives in a cabin by himself. He has a hatchet and a giant rifle. He quotes the Bible and seems to address Jesus quite frequently. For a man who has killed so many, he seems like a gentle soul.

Red Harvest–Martin Sensmeier–played Charles Bronson’s role as the Comanche warrior. He primarily used a longbow. While waiting in line a man commented that this was part of the modern attempt to diversify the film. Strong disagree! This was a nod to the leader of the seven samurai, played by Takashi Shimura, who—as seen below—wielded a longbow. The presentation of Red Harvest probably would have seemed very progressive in 1960.


Kambei (Shimura) and Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) in Seven Samurai.

Bonus Magnificence: Emma Cullen—Haley Bennett—there came a time when it looked like she would need to step up and take the role of number seven. Generally she acquitted herself quite well, which was nice. She did have one classically infuriating scene where she becomes a damsel in need of rescue. It set up an appropriate showdown, but still the cost of showing her as cowering and incompetent was a steep one. Hey, I said the movie was better, not perfect.

So, they, plus some explosions and gunshots, comprised what made this movie a lot of fun. Without exception the main actors were excellent. For this style of movie the acting that Antoine Fuqua got out of them was very impressive. I cared about what would happen to the characters, even though I knew that their quest was a tragic one. Had Bogue not been so overtly evil, and presented as such, there would have been more suspense about whether or not he would wind up dead in the end. No spoiler alert needed, because if you think evil will triumph over good in such a classic Hollywood western, then nothing could really spoil a movie like this for you.

1 This is funny on two levels. Firstly, he directed painfully broad romantic comedies, with one dimensional characters. Secondly, he was a fine actor whose best work came as the overly angry boss, like in A League of Their Own and “Murphy Brown”. 

2 This works on two levels as well, because Sergio Leone was Western in the sense that Italians are part of Western culture, and western by virtue of his most famous films being western by genre. 

A Trip to the Moon

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A Trip to the Moon, otherwise known as “Le voyage dans la lune”, was at one point in time the most famous movie in the world.1 It has a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, but does not crack IMDb’s Top 250. I now have a perfect example for the utility and flaws of the tomatometer. Still, if you divorce this movie from its historical context it is only okay. The version I watched (on Netflix) was in color and had a soundtrack from Air.2 At first I found it blasphemous to have a color version, but apparently the director himself, the great Georges Méliès, colored it himself. While I was familiar with his name, his historical significance was so great that the movie Hugo deals with his rise, fall, and his lasting impact on others.

I highly recommend reading the review down in footnote 2 and then watching the

1 I do not know what supplanted it. Birth of a Nation? Nosferatu? Battleship Potemkin? The Jazz Singer? Even with The Wizard of Oz, there might have been moments when Gone with the Wind was more famous than it.
2 I learned this from an excellent review by Meghan O’Keefe. Most of the tidbits I offer are ones I gleaned from her article.

30 for 30: This Magic Moment

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With the first pick, of the 1993 NBA Draft, the Orlando Magic select Chris Webber.

Do you like 30 for 30s about basketball teams? Well this one certainly is made for you. It looks like Shaquille O’Neal watched some and wanted one to stoke his ego and let him feel less guilty about leaving the Orlando Magic for the L.A. Lakers. There is nothing wrong with this film except that it is formulaic to the point of being worth watching only for the vintage game footage. Highlight was remembering about Little Penny, the small puppet voiced by Chris Rock to sell Reeboks.

2016 Fall TV Preview: Monday

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As a public service I am going to provide this preview of the upcoming slate of mostly terrible upcoming tv shows. May it help you avoid watching some bad tv.

Man With a Plan (CBS) — Fans of Matt LeBlanc might be excited to see him returning to the live studio audience with multiple cameras format that “Friends” had. I see these as signs of doom. Comedy has evolved over the past 20 years, as it always does. Nostalgia works better when you do not go back. Not that I blame LeBlanc for taking a well-paying job.
Verdict: I will not give this show a chance, and neither will America. It goes a full year, because LeBlanc’s name has value to it.

Kevin Can Wait (CBS) — Kevin James is back on TV playing public fictional Kevin James again. I mean, if it works for Tim Allen, why not?
Verdict: Because it will be terribly unfunny. Canned laughter will float this by and it sticks around for at least two years.

Lucifer (Fox) — This is apparently not a new show. That is quite a sweet spot to be successful enough to get renewed, but not successful enough for me to remember hearing of you.
Verdict: No clue. Why ruin the surprise after so long?

Timeless (NBC) — [Overheard at NBC] Okay, so “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is pretty successful. And Peggy Carter was moderately successful, but did not get enough viewers. Hmm. Maybe the problem was just having a darling, badass female main character? Let’s give her a rakish white guy and a less cool than you would expect black guy. But what to have them do? Eh, “Quantum Leap” was on for years, let’s do that again.
Verdict: This show looks very expensive, so it will need real high ratings to be financially viable. NBC does not get really high ratings. One season only.

Mary + Jane (MTV) — *Tries to remember the last time MTV had a good show* … ahh! Jackass!
Verdict: Awful. But MTV airs stuff for years, so expect 3 seasons.


Conviction (ABC) — Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter) plays a former-president’s daughter, well, I mean, the president is a former president, she is still his daughter… In any event, this has a very cheesy premise—she is blackmailed into joining a special government legal unit. But it has promise. Wrongful convictions might be a hot news topic now, but they are genuinely an important issue in our country. Plus, Atwell is a wonderful actress.
Verdict: This sounds promising and has a cheesy hook, so I say it lasts for years and years. Just kidding, Atwell is not a big enough star for this to work, canceled by February. But I can hope!


The Beauty of Film: Liza the Fox-Fairy

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Liza the Fox-Fairy (2015) — Péter Szatmári (cinematographer) & Károly Ujj Mészáros (director).



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Freezing Questions About the Movie:

  1. Based on how the team is presented, am I supposed to be rooting for the US? Follow-up, did Disney anticipate that no-one outside of the US would bother watching this homage to the US of A and the 1980 Winter Olympic Games up in Lake Placid?
  2. Should Kurt Russell, and director Gavin O’Connor, deserve credit for making Coach Herb Brooks such a barely mitigated A-hole? This is a serious question. Had they sugar coated his awful personality and archaic dictator coach schtick and schmucky husband/father side then the pill would have gone down smoother, but perhaps been far less historically accurate. My problem is when awful personality gets treated as quirkiness; when archaic dictator coaching gets misrepresented as having a causal relationship with success; when sacrificing your personal life is shown as noble and not harmful to your loved ones.
  3. Were the Bad News Bears not available to play for the US Olympic team? I bet this joke would have killed in 1980.
  4. How large was Boris Mikhailov in real life? When he faces off against Mark Johnson he looks gigantic! The photo below does not do it justice. Answer, 5′ 10″ to Johnson’s 5′ 9″. Johnson actually weighed 1lb more than Mikhailov, so what the hell? If you cannot convince me with montages, speeches, facts and footage that the Captain of the greatest hockey team of all-time is super good without resorting to visual shenanigans, then hang it up. Also, kudos to Eric Peter-Kaiser (Johnson) for looking scrawny and scared, below, since he is actually 6′ 1″. MikhailovJohnson
  5. Why are the actors portraying the hockey players so much more handsome than the actual players were?
  6. This is a Disney movie, right? So where was the quacking? Everyone wanted them to quack, so why didn’t they quack? Put it into a dream sequence, I don’t care. And why not cast Emilio Estevez instead of Kurt Russell? Estevez is a good actor and probably would have saved Disney some money. Or maybe not, since Russell hadn’t acted for two years and his prior movie grossed $10 million worldwide.1
  7. Where were the players for most of the 9 months leading up to the games? I know they started very early, with tryouts in Colorado and then trained in Indiana, but they seem to be playing games and practicing a lot.
  8. Which sport is the most cinematic? And boxing doesn’t count. I have, over the years, provided various definitions for sports and competitions. You can throw darts in a bar. Not a sport. You can have a fist fight in a bar. You cannot play hockey in a bar. By this complicated criterion, boxing is not a sport.
  9. Did I know that this was the highest grossing hockey movie of all-time? If I had to guess 2-5, I would say, Mighty Ducks, D-2: Cruise Control, Slap Shot…and does The Cutting Edge count? I consider that a figure skating movie, not a hockey movie. Apparently the actual order is MiracleThe Tooth FairyMighty Ducks, D-2: Their First Assignment, and The Love Guru. They do count Cutting Edge, it is #7.
  10. How is the final hockey game shot so much better than the entire rest of the film?
  11. How did the film make me start to root for the US? Full disclosure, I had to wait two weeks to watch the last 45 minutes of the movie, so that might play a part in it. And I am watching this during the Rio Olympics. More importantly, though, is that this is the first part of the film that does not feel like a montage.
  12. What do I rate this movie?

*** For having two majors positives: Herb Brooks is portrayed as a human being and how well shot the hockey is, particularly in the semi-final game against the Soviet Union.

1 There is so much gold to be mined from this discovery. Please bear with me. The movie was called Dark Blue. This was directed by Ron Shelton, who also directed Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump, Cobb, Tin Cup, and then killed his career with Hollywood Homicide—a movie I saw in theaters. What, you don’t remember this Harrison Ford/Josh Hartnett classic? One year later and I would have recorded my rating for the movie (according to Netflix I rated it ***). Unfortunately before that bombed he fired off one final nuclear bomb of poop known as the script for Bad Boys II (according to Netflix I rated it *). Had he not destroyed his career he would have directed this movie. I assume. Since he directed mostly sports movies, some of which were good. Back to Dark Blue and Kurt Russell, but first the writers! Dark Blue is adapted from a James Ellroy story, like, the five star classic L.A. Confidential. The adapter is none other than David Ayer! The same David Ayer who wrote/directed Training Day. In that review I addressed *every movie* Ayer did except for one…Dark Blue because I had never heard of it. Ready for biggest nugget? Kurt Russell was nominated for the Best Breakaway Performance in an Unexpected Role in the AARP’s Best Movies for Grownups! He lost to Richard Gere for Chicago. Now we all have learned that AARP issued their own movie awards with hilarious named categories. 

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