Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey / 2012 165 minutes rated PG-13 // By Scott Mendelson: //
I don't know if seeing The Hobbit part 1 of 3 in the much-discussed 48-frames-per-second diminished the viewing experience, but it certainly didn't help. Since it's the way Peter Jackson intended the film to be seen, it very much counts when judging the overall motion picture. It's neither the great savior of cinema that the likes of Peter Jackson or James Cameron would have you believe, but nor is it a bellwether of the 'death of cinema.' It is different, that's for sure. You get an unparalleled clarity of vision and a certain lifelike presentation, akin to looking at a window at 'real life.' The various CGI creatures look arguably more lifelike and the 3D is pretty flawless (although the screen looked even more vibrant when I took off the glasses, making me wish there had been a 48 fps 2D option). But for that clarity you lose a certain cinematic grandeur. Yes, certain introductory scenes look like live theater and yes, there is an inconsistency of speed, as any number of moments will make one wonder if they're watching the film on 1.5x speed on their Playstation 3. Moreover, even the action sequences, a few of which are indeed still impressive, resemble not so much epic struggles but rather watching a staged recreation akin to Civil War reenactors. Especially during battle scenes set in open fields, it feels more like the finale of Role Models than a tent-pole action sequence. Ironically, it's a technology that may actually be better suited to character dramas that big-scale action. Your eyes do indeed adjust to the whole 'speed play' issue pretty quickly, but you never do become 'used' to the effect during the entire 165-minute running time.
This first film, shamefully bloated and lacking in any justification for its padding, plays less like a theatrical cut, or even like an extended edition DVD version, and more like an assembly edit, with everything tossed in and nothing pruned. Yes, I know Jackson is adding additional material from the Appendices and elsewhere, but the end result is a bloated and often quite-dull would-be adventure that has little of the wide-eyed wonder and emotional pull of the original trilogy. The irony is, much of the extra material seems intended to better tie this new trilogy into the prior one. Say what you will about the Star Wars prequels, but they stand on their own. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey uses the prior trilogy and our fond memories of it as an emotional cheat. As someone who found the prior trilogy incredibly moving, the only emotion I felt this time around were the moments where Jackson and composer Howard Shore use the original themes, that music being so powerful that I found myself caring despite myself. Imagine if Star Wars prequels used the 'Force Theme' every time Lucas wanted to get a lump in your throat and you get the general idea.
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By Jenny McCartney// Dir: Peter Jackson. Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Cate Blanchett, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt. // 12A cert, 169 min //
I remember, aged five, being given a copy of The Hobbit. I knew I wasn’t old enough yet to read it myself, so I put it carefully to one side until I was, and when I did, I wasn’t sorry.
It was a perfect combination of cosiness and danger, and there was something neatly rounded about Bilbo Baggins’s circular journey from his comfortable, well-stocked hobbit-hole in Bag End to a world of treacherous, nerve-shredding sorcery, and back again.
Neat, however, is not a word to apply to Peter Jackson’s take on J.R.R. Tolkien’s book, which has now been split up into three sprawling films. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey begins not with the austerely promising words “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”, but with a tangled and grandiose CGI evocation of the fall of the Dwarf kingdom of Erebor. And thence to the musings of an older, nostalgic Bilbo (Ian Holm), in advance of entering the house of young Bilbo (Martin Freeman), where Tolkien himself begins.
Before Bilbo has even put one speculative, hairy foot out of Bag End, then, the cinema audience has already waded thigh-deep through blood, treasure and several intervening decades. Why not let Tolkien’s tale unfurl in its own time?
Jackson’s clock, however, is different and more erratic: although rushing to jump back and forth, it can also move at an achingly slow pace (the initial meeting of the riotous dwarves at Bilbo’s house, artfully arranged by Gandalf [Ian McKellen], seems to last forever).
Jackson has the instinct to rework the beloved Tolkien original until the narrative tapestry bulges and sags in unpredictable places. Where Tolkien kept a cool head as a storyteller, Jackson loses his. I was unconvinced, too, by the decision to shoot the film in 48 frames per second rather than the usual 24, a high-definition trick which evaporates atmosphere and even makes some props look rather fake (the tell-tale crinkle on one dwarf’s bald-wig particularly bothered me).
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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey/ Review / As Bilbo Baggins, Martin Freeman brings an endearing spirit to the first part of Peter Jackson's epic new Tolkien trilogy / Philip French...
In last Sunday's Film of the Week, the protagonist, a Hollywood screenwriter played by Colin Farrell, had a title for his drama, "Seven Psychopaths", but no plot. This week's principal film, The Hobbit, began life in a not dissimilar fashion. Back in the early 1930s, when he was an Oxford don, JRR Tolkien was marking exam papers for the now defunct School Certificate when he came across a blank sheet. For some reason he wrote on it: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." The line isn't exactly "Call me Ishmael" or "Happy families are all alike", but this first line of what was published in 1937 as a children's book began what has proved to be a literary phenomenon, an alternative religion, an endless invitation to exegesis and a major industry that has led to an immensely successful trilogy of books and films about life in Middle-earth. Now the New Zealand screenwriter Peter Jackson, who followed up the Lord of the Rings trilogy with King Kong and The Lovely Bones, has returned to his old hobbits, and in collaboration with Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, has turned the initially modest The Hobbit into a full-scale trilogy of its own.
Given three films, each presumably close to three hours long, Jackson and co have plenty of time on their hands, and 20 minutes of the film has passed before the immortal "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" is spoken. What we get at first is a back story from a posthumously published Tolkien work explaining how a blight fell on the underground city of Erebor when fire-breathing dragons, hungry for gold, attacked it, driving its dwarf inhabitants into exile. This extremely violent event, involving much death and destruction, warns the audience that it's a film for extremely hardy kids. It sets up an invitation to Bilbo Baggins to take part in an adventurous quest proposed by the wizard Gandalf (the splendidly authoritative Ian McKellen). It involves him in joining a party of dwarves as the team's "burglar" on a mission to regain their ancestral lands and wealth from Smaug, the dragon guarding them beneath the Lonely Mountain. A quiet, peace-loving hobbit, Bilbo is happily installed in his cosy subterranean home in the Shires, an idyllic corner of Merrie England inhabited by contented peasants who look like people in the background of paintings by Fragonard or Constable. Bilbo (Ian Holm, reprising his role from The Lord of the Rings) is seemingly writing his memoirs, puffing on his churchwarden pipe and blowing out smoke rings as big as haloes and eating regular meals. As he contemplates the past he's replaced by his equally pacifist younger self, to which part Martin Freeman brings the same decent, commonsensical, very English qualities that informed his excellent Dr Watson on TV.
His first challenge is provided by the bald, bearded, beaky-nosed, unkempt dwarves, six pairs of them with rhyming names and all constantly brawling, eating and singing. They resemble tramps auditioning for the role of Magwitch in a musical of Great Expectations. The 13th dwarf is altogether more serious. He's their leader, the handsome, tragedy-tinged Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). These knockabout scenes go on far too long, but eventually the quest begins and the dwarves, Gandalf and an initially reluctant Bilbo embark on their epic journey to the Lonely Mountain, encountering orcs, trolls, elves and goblins along the way and facing endless perils. There are echoes of the Old and New Testament, of similar journeys from Homer's Odyssey through Morte d'Arthur to Gulliver's Travels, and there are all the essential mythic elements: all-conquering swords, magical rings, mysterious maps, giant eagles and dangerous riddling contests such as the one engaged in by Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis).
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