November 28, 2012

What's Your Fantasy: How Game of Thrones Has Made Me Not That Excited For The Hobbit

I'm about a level 5 Tolkien nerd. Let's go over my credentials here for a second.
  • Before I could read myself, my Dad read me The Hobbit and the entire Lord of the Rings (LOTR) series to me before bedtime. This took about a year. We warmed up to this endeavor by reading The Chronicles of Narnia.
  • I saw every LOTR movie in the theater on opening night and loved every single second of them. I even stood in the cold New England rain for The Return Of The King on opening night, totally worth it.
  • I've played The Return of The King for PS2 to completion. Game is totally on point btw.
  • I know what The Simarillion is, but haven't read it.
  • I've dabbled in the special editions (aka the long ass versions) of the movies but have never watched.
  • I can tell you that it was bogus that Tom Bombadil wasn't in the movies.
  • I can tell you it was even more bogus that they didn't include "The Sacking of the Shire" even after they show a glimpse of it in Fellowship.
So yeah, I'm semi-deep into it, not nearly as deep as others, but I like to think I have some nerd/street cred in that area. Yet when I see the trailers, posters, and other relentless press the machine is cooking up for the feature adaptation of "The Hobbit," I'm just not that excited. I mean, I'm still a nerd, I almost exploded in nerd joy at "The Avengers," got way too deep into the semi-bullshit mythology of "Prometheus," and really enjoyed "The Dark Knight Rises." For weeks now I've been trying to figure out what about "The Hobbit" wasn't getting me on the hype train, and then I started seeing billboards around town for something else and it all clicked.

It comes back to HBO's epic fantasy series "Game of Thrones," which if you haven't seen it, is pretty much the iron price / gold standard for fantasy these days. If you've been following along with my recaps of the show, you know I'm a fiend for it, and I'm not alone in my addiction. Pretty much everyone who watches it is positively stark raving madly obsessed with it. And they should be, with its complex web of characters, fantastic production values, racy sex, awesome violence, stacks of political intrigue, and of course healthy doses of fantasy/magic, the show is incredible. 

Which brings me to "The Hobbit," the trailers for it have made the whole thing to look like some type of sleek cartoon, full of zany dwarves and fantastical creatures that don't look that real or dangerous. I don't know if they are just bad special effects, but I get a bizarre Star Wars Episode 1 Phantom Menace vibe from the whole thing. It looks to cartoony and after watching the gritty battles of Thrones with limbs getting hacked off, mud and dirt flying, and just the intensity of the whole thing , "The Hobbit" is looking like it was created on a green screen, kind of a "King Kong" vibe to reference Peter Jackson. 

If you want to get deeper into it, you can point out that "The Return of the King" came out in 2003, in a time where they wasn't any serious fantasy TV shows. Prior to "Thrones" almost all fantasy shows were syndicated programs like "Xena" or "Hercules," which were mediocre at best. The movies was where you went for epic fantasy. However, now, the three new Hobbit films seems like a limited way to tell epic stories, regardless of their lengths. The Game of Thrones series of books will max out at seven, and if you figure that each season will be one book, that's seven seasons of 10 episodes each an hour long. That's about 70 hours of fantasy goodness as opposed to the nine hours of "The Hobbit" (and I'm being generous assuming each movie is 3 hours long!) And when it comes to Fantasy, longer is always better.

Honestly, I hope I'm wrong, I really want to like "The Hobbit," and I'm definitely seeing it opening weekend, but there is no doubt then when I step out of that theater into the cold night air, I may be thinking how awesome it was, but I most certainly in some corner of my mind will be thinking "winter is coming!"

November 25, 2012

Tigers, God, & Faith: My Take On The "Life of Pi" Ending

For some, the ending of the book/film "Life of Pi" can be infuriating. I remember being confused by it when I read the book and also slightly befuddled when I saw the astounding screen adaptation this past weekend. For those of you who need a quick refresher, here is the basic gist of it:

After Pi is safely on the shore, he gives the testimony of his survival to the Japanese company that owned the sunken ship. In the narrative we've heard for most of the book, he's on the boat with Richard Parker the tiger, an orangutan, a zebra, and a hyena. The hyena ends up killing both the orangutan and the zebra, and then Richard Parker kills the hyena, leaving just Pi and the beast on the boat to survive. In the second story, there were no animals, each one is really a person. The hyena is really the crude French cook who kills both the zebra (a kind sailor) and the orangutan (Pi's mother ) and then eventually is killed by the Tiger (Pi). The reader/viewer much like the Japanese fishing company has to decide which one they believe.

There is no doubt this is initially a frustrating ending, I mean, it undermines most of the narrative! But stick with me with here, I think I have a reasonably good take on what it all means!

It all comes down to Richard Parker and whether you believe in God or not. 

If you don't believe in God (nothing wrong with that) than the rugged non-animal version of the story is for you. This is a tale of the gritty, can-do human spirit, which has the power to vanquish any foe, and conquer any task. This is the highly individualistic way to look at the narrative. No one is going to help us. Not our parents, not strangers, not the world, not even God (if he was real). The only person you can rely on is yourself. And if you believe in yourself and your will to survive, you have a tiger within you who can help you overcome any obstacle.

Throughout the story Richard Parker plays many parts for Pi, all of them related to how different religions view God. 

Islam believes that God is all powerful and unknowable. This is similar to the violent power of the Tiger but also how ultimately after all the duo goes through, Richard Parker leaves him on the beach. They have may coexisted with each other, but Pi never really knew or understood him.

Christianity believes in a loving God who was made real and walked the earth to help us. This is similar to Richard Parker because as the story progresses the two begin to share a real bond and Pi leans on him to survive both physically and emotionally. Sometimes he may be a harsh first testament type of God, but ultimately the connection between the two is one of love. This is evident is the heartbreaking scene where Pi consoles the dying Richard Parker.

Hinduism believes in multiple Gods, and that true knowledge of God is when a person gives them-self completely to the Universe. Pi through Richard Parker and his ordeal on the boat, ultimately learns to give himself to Vishnu, the God mentioned in the film as the entire Universe. Think about the scene where Pi is on the raft screaming that gives himself to God as evidence of this. Richard Parker also represents the many different evil and kind Gods found in Hinduism.

Finally, I want to touch on one last thing, which is how Richard Parker seemingly abandons Pi on the beach, just walking off into the jungle without looking back at him. The point of this is the same for the all the religions in the book and also faith in general: God is there for you, even if you can't see him/her/it. Richard Parker doesn't abandon Pi, he gets rescued after all. He just walked off into the jungle, maybe to go help someone else who needs him. If you believe that Richard Parker was Pi himself, then Richard Parker never looking back signifies that Pi's individualistic self is leaving him because he's not needed. He will resurface again, when the time comes.

Either way, both stories are pretty inspiring and the beauty of the book/film is that both of them work for different people. If you're a rugged individualist atheist, the film can be seen as a powerful testament to the human spirit. If you're a spiritual person, the film is jam packed for you with a bounty of belief systems of and spiritual knowledge. I'm sure I have missed some things here so if you have a theory, please leave it in the comments.

Faith & Tigers: Life of Pi Astounds

A teenager and a dangerous tiger are trapped on a lifeboat. That simple premise for Yann Martel's "Life of Pi" was enough to pull me into the novel when I first read it upon publication in 2001. I can recall that some of the novel's themes of religion, spirituality, hope, the nature of truth, and man's relationship with nature were totally lost on me when I read it. Nevertheless, like classic survival stories like "Robinson Crusoe," "Castaway," or even"Lost" I found the tale to be gripping and highly memorable. So like many of my favorite books, I tracked it's journey to the screen with a fierce diligence. And boy, since 10 years have past since I first read it, it certainly took a long time to get to the screen.

Like most best-selling books turned films, many exciting directors were linked to the project. M. Night Shyamalan (when he was at the top of his game) was connected to it at one point and so was Alfonso Cuaron.  Whimsical French director Jean Pierre Jeunet was linked to it as well. So in 2009, when Ang Lee was announced as the director, I was skeptical that it would actually get going. And since the story doesn't really require any movie-stars, the production was mostly silent. When the first image of the film was released last year, I was shocked that it had actually made it to the screen. With every new image, trailer, and article, I found it harder to believe that one of the novels that I had loved growing up was finally hitting the screen after all these years. When I finally found myself seated in the theater with my 3D glasses on I was fully on board the TPG hype train and the it was jam packed with 10 years of anticipation.

The movie does not disappoint. I found it to be a rousing adventure story with a strong spiritual element . Beyond the narrative though, this is an incredibly breathtaking film. How ironic that last week I was praising the visuals in "Skyfall" and then this visual firecracker of a film comes right in and keeps the party going. Everything from the incredible computer generated tiger, the massive mountains of water rolling in the ocean, and the trippy underwater/intergalactic scenes are jaw-dropping. Real talk, in 3-D they're positively mind blowing. It doesn't matter if it's a massive storm tearing apart a ship, the migrations of thousands of meerkats, or just the tiger leaping out at the audience,  this is visual storytelling at its finest. Sure, they are flashy, but they only aid in the telling the story, with only one speaking character for a majority of the film, the visuals are almost a second character, capable of really making the audience feel.

But ultimately, a film needs more than trippy vishuals maynnne, it needs a strong story, and the narrative here is still resonant and effective. Using a simple framing device of having a present day Pi narrate it to a young author, we get some great scenes of his early childhood and experimentation with love, family, nature, and most of all religion. The film, like the book makes a point to show how our characters uses aspects of Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism to inform his believes, which are important because they are repeatedly tested. Once our hero's boat crashes and he is stranded with the tiger, who goes by the name Richard Parker, the scenes of them learning to survive with one another are extremely rewarding. One would think that surviving on a lifeboat with a tiger would be impossible to film, but Lee and his team get it done with brilliant flying colors.

This film is an incredible treat for the eyes, heart, and soul and I highly highly recommend it. Don't wait for it on the small screen as the big screen 3D is the way to see it. It will make you believe in the power of the human spirit, the importance of faith, and in some ways, just how rewarding a trip to the movie theater can be.

November 20, 2012

The New Normal: How Skyfall Uses The Past To Re-Invent The Franchise

I saw the new James Bond flick "Skyfall" about a week ago and I'm still basking in how awesome it was. Longtime readers will know that I have been hyping up the flick for over a year, with most of my attention on the babes that they were were supposed to be cast. Of course, while I was wrong about who ended up being the bombshells, I was correct to have extreme confidence in the flick. For me, it was one of the most exciting movies of the year and easily the best big budget practical action film I've seen in 2012. Yet beyond the film's epic action spectacle, visual nirvana, and amazing villain, I was most thrilled to see the franchise finally come into it's own for the 21st century.

Way back in 2006, I reviewed "Casino Royale" for the Syracuse University paper.  I announced that the film was a successful re-invention of the character, yet lamented that Bond had become almost all ass-kicking and had lost most of his suave spy swagger. Yet the Bond of that film was the one that was needed for the times. Facing down spy challengers like Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer, Bond had no choice but to evolve as a character. From Bourne he gained a brutal fighting style that saw him smashing through walls and free running through construction sites like some British Olympian. From Bauer, he gained the concept of heroism through sacrifice. In the 21st century, you can't be a true servant of your country if you don't lose the ones that matter to you.  Both of these thematic imprints were all over the dismal "Quantum of Solace." From a filmmaking style, the action took the trademark "Bourne" shaky cam and used to it hide everything cool about James Bond action - epic stunts, exotic locations, and nice gadgets/cars/guns. The story involved Bond hunting down his true love's killers and getting mixed up in some water/oil politics was bogus. In the two years since "Casino Royale," Bond had once again become outdated. Things can change quickly for spies.

In the new film, one of the wisest decisions director Sam Mendes makes is to abandon any connection to the previous two. Gone is the broken-hearted loner of the past films who is plagued with a quest for revenge. The Bond is "Skyfall" is confident, deadly, and an effective team player. This last detail is important as the new film introduces us to many characters who will be with 007 moving forward for some time. These include classic characters such as "Q," re-imagined here as a hacker genius, and Moneypenny, who gets a nice little 21st politics gender update. Re-introducing these characters is just one of many ways the franchise draws on its past to define it's future. 

Speaking of that, the genius of Skyfall is how effectively the past of the franchise is used to shape it's new direction. The villain, Silva, creepily played by Javier Bardem has many traits of the villains of the yonder-year. With the ability to hack governments and cause chaos he's a international-threat, just done up hacker style. He even has his own secret Island base where he interrogates Bond in one of the films most memorable scenes. The film uses these familiar tropes as the building blocks to give us something new in the villain, a deeply personal motivation. Gone are the days of dastardly plans for world takeovers, no, this villain just wants to kill your employer, which in the case of James Bond, who we learn is an orphan, is equal to killing his family. It's a more personal motivation for the villain which makes the stakes even higher. I'm not gonna get into the vague gender politics of the gay elements of Silva, and while they lead to a great scene, they don't really contribute to the plot. I find it weird to say that Silva is more evil/more creepy cause he vaguely threatens him sexually.

As the film progresses, we continue to get familiar Bond essentials to bring us back into the fold and make us forget the previous films. Here's an updated version of the PPK handgun. Oh look at that, there is a pit filled with dangerous creatures that Bond must avoid. There's the Martini, prepared without the tagline,  but present nonetheless.  Here comes the Aston Martin, weapons intact. All of these are welcome additions and but the real star of the show here is cinematographer Roger Deakins and Mendes direction. This is easily the best looking Bond film ever made, and it ranks up there as one of the best looking movies ever made. Every shot is beautifully constructed with a tremendous visual palette. The editing is smooth and fluid and knows how to show off the action well. But if you didn't hear me before, visually this film is knockout, in fact I hope it wins the Oscar.

Ultimately the film is a rousing spectacle of entertainment that is just very well made. The franchise successfully stops trying to emulate the other spies of the era, and sticks to it's roots, but isn't afraid to grow new branches. The babes are stunning, the action is kick-ass, and Daniel Craig has never been better. Longtime readers will you know your boy TPG puts the theatrical experience above anything else and with the mind-blowing visuals and bombast sound, "Skyfall" is a perfect example of just how fun going to the movies can be.

*Best all around action film of the year is still "The Raid."

November 13, 2012

India The Dreamland: Thoughts on Gregory David Roberts Novel: Shantaram

It's rare that so many different people from a variety of facets of your life all recommend the same book. Granted, talking about books outside of book club (Hollywood Book Club represent) is not common, but when car-pool buddies, co-workers, hippie meditating dudes who work at spiritual bookstores, random travelers in Costa Rica, and even trusted friends all recommend a book you gotta pay attention. If you couldn't guess by the title/picture to the left, that book was Gregory David Roberts 936 page epic Indian tale; Shantaram, which after a two year odyssey of false starts, throw-aways, and diversions I have just finished.

Simply put, the novel is sprawling epic that while highly memorable but also plagued with contradictions. Roberts as a writer is adept a writing an engaging story with memorable characters, but his style, full of observations about every situation grows irritating over time. I know that sounds kind of confusing, but just take a look at the first line of the whole book.

It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.
Phrases like this are the backbone of the book. There is a philosophical musing combined with some "thug life" observation. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. The novel's protagonist, Lin, the Roberts substitute will stab some gangsters and then say some nonsense like "The knife is just God's way of a reminding us that we're all made from the same material." All these observations also fit into the general theme of everyone in the story casually being awesomely stoned all the time. Maybe that's how they did it in India in the 80s or maybe Roberts knows his audience and he is giving them what they want, I suspect it's a combination of both.

But actually that's pretty much my only gripe with this story. It's much more violent and exciting than I thought it would be. Don't let the gold-tinged cover fool you, this is an epic crime novel more than anything else. The characters from the all powerful mafia boss Khan to the lowliest slum dwellers all seem to pop off the page and the novel makes Bombay sound so damn exciting, I really wanna go there.

So am I recommending it? Yes, I am, it's not as mind-blowingly awesome as the hype but it's still exciting, just be ready to tackle all 936 pages. If that page count is intimidating to you, I recommend the equally mystical Rule of the Bone: Novel, a (Google Affiliate Ad). But if you're up to get transported to  Bombay and all the grime, love, and excitement, yar, I'd grab a copy of it today.