Tag Archives: films

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Every so often, maybe once every couple of years or so, I come across a book so engrossing, so compelling, that it takes on a drug-like quality. Whenever I’m not reading it, I’m wishing I was, and when I am reading it, I never want to stop. If life permitted me, I would have read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken in one, well, unbroken sitting. The most amazing part of this book is that it is nonfiction. As a piece of storytelling and as a piece of history, it is a stunning achievement.

Hillenbrand first established her reputation by writing Seabiscuit, the basis for the film. In Unbroken, she tells the story of Louis Zamperini. In the opening of the book, we learn about Louie as a child– fractious, wild, untamed. It isn’t until he is directed towards athletics– track and field, specifically– that he harnesses that energy into something productive. And productive he is. In a few years he goes from local troublemaker to college star to Olympian in the 1936 Berlin games. At the outset of World War II, he becomes an officer in the Army Air Corps and works as a bombardier. When his plane crashes and he is forced to survive on a life raft with two other men with little chance of rescue, his trials are only beginning.

The book is a testament to the strength of human spirit and the will to survive. There are numerous others around Zamperini who cannot endure the brutal challenges he survives. Some give up, some fall apart, some run away. Yet Hillenbrand is careful to not overly glorify Zamperini. His shortcomings and struggles are also portrayed, and in the end he comes across as simply a man whose desire for life was so intense that nothing could steal that life from him, though his suffering exacts a toll on his spirit.
Hillenbrand’s book is meticulously researched. In the acknowledgements she lists pages of people and databases she mined to get her information. In fact, she held seventy-five interviews with Zamperini alone, until he even joked that she remembered more details of his life than he did. Beyond that, she interviewed family, friends, Army buddies, even Japanese relatives of those he fought against in the Pacific Theater.

Yet part of what makes this book so remarkable is how readable it is. Though there are passages that are saturated in historical facts, but every bit of research is used to give the readers context, so the story matters more. I think this is a shortcoming of many nonfiction books, and what turns some people off to history writing. When the writer becomes so enamored with the details and facts that they insist everything is shoved into the book, the story dries up. But when the history is used to give meaning to the story, the story comes alive.

For instance, in Unbroken, there is a lengthy section about the actions of Japanese officers and their vicious treatment of prisoners of war. At that point in the story, Zamperini was just starting to fly his bombing missions, so the information about POWs might seem out of place. Instead, it builds tension, causing the reader to see just what was at stake if a plane went down and its crew captured. So when– spoiler alert– Zamperini is captured, the reader is already terrified about what was in store for him.

I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough. Rare is the book that is both so rich in history and research– I feel like an expert on the WWII Pacific Theater now– and also so compelling a story that I could swear it was the work of a master novelist. For anyone with an interest in World War II, the psychology of imprisonment and survival, and in taut storytelling, read Unbroken.

And P.S. it has been made into a film directed Angelina Jolie, due out this December. So there’s that to look forward to, as well.

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Gettysburg Revisited

So I was home sick last week (for only the 2nd time in 12 years) and there’s something about staying home sick that makes us revert into little children.  I was pretty sick as a kid, and so in a strange, unwelcome way, this sick day was a chance for me to flashback to my childhood. With many hours to kill and a desire to watch something I didn’t really have to watch, I popped in my DVD of Gettysburg.

Gettysburg has a prominent place in my life. I’ve been watching the film since its release in 1992. Before I was ever able to visit the battlefield, my mother’s cousin, who lives in southern P.A., sent me an envelope full of photos of key places, along with descriptions. Then, in high school, I read The Killer Angels and had my first visit to the battlefield. I then attended Gettysburg College my freshman and sophomore years, and during my spare time I wandered every inch of the National Park, often spending hours of alone time in the eerie, hallowed places. I taught myself to run by the Eternal Peace Light and Reynolds Woods; I huddled in the Pennsylvania Monument during a windstorm to meet my parents when they came to visit; I conducted interviews for an Anthropology 101 experiment with the tourists at the High Water Mark. The battlefield, the stories, the heroes, Gettysburg is in my bones.

I was a little wary of putting the DVD in the player. I haven’t watched the whole film in at least ten years, I suspect. My critical abilities are a lot sharper than they were a decade ago. When we’re children, we accept wholly the things that are important to us. The nuance of more sophisticated criticism (“I enjoyed this actor’s performance, while the other one seems stilted.” “I thought perhaps the musical score was overbearing,” etc) isn’t developed. And I suspect kids are better than adults at repeatedly viewing or reading the things they love. At least, I know I am. When I reread a book or rewatch a film now, it’s a pretty significant event. When I was twelve, watching Gettysburg or The Neverending Story or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade again for the umpteenth time was hardly noteworthy. So I put the DVD in, huddled under my blanket with my tea and my animals, and watched.

The verdict: while my grown up critic saw things that the twelve year old didn’t, I was nevertheless swept up in the epic that captivated me as a young man. Sure, the acting ranges from competent (C. Thomas Howell) to stunning (Stephen Lang, Jeff Daniels, and especially Richard Jordan, in his final performance). And there are Law and Order moments, where characters explain things that they’d never realistically explain to one another. There’s the question of PG violence– the movie was made for TV, and as a result, there is very little blood, masking viewers from the real horrors of war.

But the sweeping depictions of battle and heroism, the moving score, and the attention to minute historical detail made for a powerful viewing experience. And then there are the stories: Chamberlain, the professor colonel who rises to great glory at the Battle of Little Round Top; Robert E. Lee, the infallible general/god whose one moment of overconfidence dooms the Confederate army; Longstreet, the general whose mind is bent towards strategy over heroics, forced to command doomed attacks and take the blame for their failures; Armistead, facing Fate and his best friend on the battlefield; Pickett, young, cocky, eager to fight, and irrevocably scarred by Lee’s misuse of his division. To me, Gettysburg has never been an exercise in dry historical recitation. It isn’t “the turning point of the Civil War,” as every high school textbook will tell you. It is the collision of many men’s fates on a single battlefield.

Gettysburg is by no means worthless dreck; I’m certain other boys my age gorged themselves on far trashier fare as kids. But the film isn’t without flaws. Who cares, though? My realization after watching: when rewatching or rereading the stories that formed us in youth, criticism is meaningless. That film formed some of my fundamental ideas of heroism and warfare and kindled my fascination with the Civil War. And no amount of critical analysis can take that away.

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An Unexpected Blog Post

My first blog post here was back in August, about the announcement that The Hobbit was being made into not two, but three films.
Well, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has now been out for nearly a month. Most of us who have hoped to see it have seen it. What did we see?
Ian McKellan is Gandalf again, and his portrayal of Gandalf is a touch lighter, more playful than in the first films. The two principal character newcomers—Martin Freeman as Bilbo and Richard Armitage as Thorin, are both very believable. Armitage’s proud portrayal of Thorin was compelling, as well. Thorin is proud and prickly, but sympathetic, and Armitage evokes all those feelings. When I heard Freeman would be Bilbo, my first thought was “My God, he already LOOKS like a hobbit. Just give him prosthetic feet and a wool coat and I’ll believe it!” And sure enough–.
The scene stealer (as usual) was Andy Serkis. His Gollum performance is right on par with what he did before, perhaps even better. The Smeagol/Gollum split is distinct, both facially and vocally, and he uses it to great comic/horrific effect. Though Gollum isn’t on screen long in the film, his presence dominates my memory of the film.
All the other goodies are abundant, as well. Lush New Zealand landscapes, sweeping musical score (including some refreshing updates on old themes) from Howard Shore, and seamless visual effects. There’s so much to love about the film.
So…much…
And that’s also the chief complaint against the film, that there’s just so much. The Hobbit, the novel, is a story for children, told in 300 pages with a single narrative. It’s an epic, but a small, focused one. The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, is a three-volume, multiple narrative, sprawling epic across Middle Earth. Sure, it took Peter Jackson three films to tell the story, but it took Tolkien three books to tell it, as well. The Hobbit should be small; The Lord of the Rings should be big.
But this film feels as big as the LotR films, or at least it’s stretching on its tippy-toes to be so. And here is where the film feels tedious. There are scenes when old characters are introduced that interrupt the narrative flow, such as an unnecessary stop in Rivendell to see Elrond and Galadriel and bicker with Saruman. There are scenes where new characters are introduced (Radagast the Brown) who only seem to bog the story down with additional back story and information, and distract from the quest.
“But wait!” you protest. “Be patient! Jackson is surely setting up developments for the next two films!”
I agree! But there’s just…so…much.
I don’t blame Jackson entirely, though. He’s kind of been pushed into this. The first three films set the bar very high for Quality (which he could have matched with The Hobbit) and for Size (which he couldn’t). If he’d made a single-film version of The Hobbit, even it were great, people would leave feeling unsatisfied. So his choices were to leave the audience feeling hungry or leave them feeling overstuffed.
No, I don’t fault Jackson for cramming The Hobbit with unnecessary stuff. My only objection to his direction was his tendency to blur the line between the heroic and the ridiculous. In the heroic mode, seemingly average, normal individuals take on tasks bigger than themselves and rise to the challenge. Bilbo represents this. However, there are moments in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when I found myself doubting the plausibility of the characters’ actions. This was most pointed in the Goblin caves. The dwarves, who had been set up as a group of ragtag refugees, definitely NOT warriors, slay dozens upon dozens of useless goblins. Sometimes, to make things efficient, they simply take ladders and other parts of their environment to sweep the foes into the pit. I’m not looking for Black Hawk Down here, but battle scenes should leave me pumped up and breathless, not scoffing.
That said, go see it. You probably have already. Just be sure to stock up on popcorn and patience before you go in.

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The Ho33it?

Hello World!

Without any ado, this is my new blog about anything fantasy related. Myth, Fantasy and sci-fi classic texts, book reviews, movie reviews, gaming, various conjurations of the mind, literary stuff, and some writing-related matters– blogging can be a journey that takes you there and back again…

So while the news is fresh (ish), let’s talk about Peter Jackson’s pair of upcoming Hobbit films Hobbit trilogy.

http://scifimafia.com/2012/07/confirmed-the-hobbit-will-be-a-trilogy/

Despite the fact that The Hobbit is less than 1/4 the size (by page count) of the Lord of the Rings (300 to 1300), it will receive the same number of films (3). So where does the material come from? According to Jackson:

We recognized that the richness of the story of The Hobbit, as well as some of the related material in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, gave rise to a simple question: do we tell more of the tale? And the answer from our perspective as filmmakers and fans was an unreserved ‘yes.’

As a LoTR fan, I simply love the idea of more, more, more! But as a fan of things being done artfully and gracefully, I can’t help but wonder if Jackson is going to lose all but the most devoted fans by stretching this story beyond its natural size.

Now, as someone who seeks to make a living off my creative endeavors, I certainly understand the impulse. The three LoTR films made piles of money, and the Hobbit ones should be no different. And I bear no malice against those who make piles of money creating something meaningful, beautiful, and entertaining (yes, I placed a lot of conditions on that). But is this a story that *needs* to be told? I’ve always felt that in the greatest stories, there’s an urgency that if the story isn’t told, and told properly, the storyteller would simply explode, or else wither up and die.

Any thoughts? Does more Hobbit make you merrier? Or is PJ going to milk the franchise into embarrassment?

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