ladyoflorien: what do you see on that far horizon? (Artsy: LOTR - b&w Orlando in NZ)
Gabby ([personal profile] ladyoflorien) wrote2013-01-08 01:53 pm

Movie Review: The Hobbit


I'm warning you at the outset that this will primarily be a review of the new HFR;RPX technology, the actor's performances, and other filmmaking thoughts of this ilk more so than story line or plot, so if you're not in the mood for cinematography babble you might want to mosey on by.

Standard movies are shot at 24fps - or, 24 Frames Per Second (read more about it here). The desired effect of doubling that rate is to get a higher-defined, more "real" movie experience. One of those "you'll be able to feel the sweat dripping off their brow!" marketing schemes. Is it all hot air? No. But it has some undesirable side-effects. Within the first thirty seconds of the film, I was near convinced the reel was broken, and kept waiting for some kind of apology and a fresh start. It quickly became apparent that what I was seeing was intentional.

Everything seemed to be moving doubletime. Do you know that effect you get when you press the fast-forward button just once? Dialog is still easy to make out, so long as you don't mind the chipmunk voices, and all the characters move along at an oftentimes hilarious canter. That was what nearly the entire movie felt like as I watched. It wasn't so bad in slow action scenes, when we were brought the sweep of the landscape or still dialogues. The movie opens with Bilbo writing to Frodo, the beginnings of An Unexpected Journey, and the minute he got up to fetch something it was as if he was speed-walking, Richard Simmons style. In fact, oh god, I am never going to unsee Richard Simmons in Bag End now. I was reminded of the fight scene in Attack of the Clones, when a little CGI Yoda hobbled in, somersaulted around the room like a ping-pong ball, and then picked up his cane and hobbled back out. Thus, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey shall forever be in my memory Yoda Baggins: Faster Than the Eye Can See. Get it? Eh? "Eye"? Eh? Ehhh? Ahem.

The effect was especially bad in fight scenes, when everything appeared to be moving so quickly my eyes couldn't keep up. I went cross-eyed so many times during this movie I've lost count, and had to squeeze my eyes shut and shake my head before I could even attempt focusing again. Which, correct me if I'm wrong, is the exact opposite effect this new technology is supposed to have. Has it "fixed the headache issue" some people have with 3D? I can't see how. I had a headache just from trying to keep up, not even taking into account eye strain. Even watching the characters speak was laborious, as it oftentimes looked like their mouths were moving much faster than their dialog. Every slight movement became a twitch, a tic, like watching birds nervously hop from place to place. Now, I am curious. Since this is supposedly closer to the rate at which the human eye sees, does the effect change from person to person? Perhaps everything seemed too-fast for me, but for another person it would look just right. I'd love to compare experiences, because it practically ruined the movie for me. I couldn't concentrate on what was happening.

The picture was shockingly stark. Several reviews, including the one I linked above, commented on how the new 48fps technology made the output look raw. I wish I'd taken the time to read these before I sprung for my curiosity and saw it in HFR. I spent most of the 2hrs 45mins trying to figure out what the filming and quality reminded me of, and couldn't settle on one thing. Raw? Yes. Someone suggested bad CGI - Yes. Remember those children's cartoons from the late 80s that looked like 3D pop-up books, bland watercolor backdrops to 2D characters? That, too. Or how about those Bible dramas they used to air on PBS/The History Channel? That's what I kept coming back to, again and again. As Bilbo was telling the history of Erebor, every market or village scene reminded me of ancient Egypt, and I expected the people to suddenly turn to drawings in a book at any second as the narrator suddenly pans into view. It was terribly jarring, and if the desired result was a "more real" movie experience, then this was too real, I say.

Watching a movie is like falling in love for me. There's a rosy tint to the world, when things don't seem quite so harsh, when reality bends to the dreamer. You expect to see art when you watch the creations of Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone, simply for the choices they made with camera angles and scene setting. The joy of Lord of the Rings for me was in the artfulness of Middle Earth, where every sunrise was used as narration, where the camera panned over sharp, snow-capped peaks and rolling green hills, where the sets were built with such vibrancy in color and love in life that they felt real. I love that rose-tinted hue; that feeling of being somewhere else, even if just caught in a fantasy. This film was completely devoid of that, absolutely stripped down to its barest nuts and bolts. I can count on one hand the number of times I thought, "that's beautifully done," which is unheard of going into a film associated with LotR. The landscapes were dull, the amazing prosthetic work I raved about in the original trilogy was glazed over by an uncertainty if I was seeing the same level of work or simply a whole lot more CGI. It looked less like a WETA product and more like a Pixar product. I expected to be swept away, and instead I was left very much out in the cold, as if I was watching a low-budget home movie. I say this with the full realization that, to some, I may sound like an old relic of some bygone era; like one touting the superiority of the 12-inch record in a world where the MP3 now reins supreme. I have no problems with cinematic technology evolving, or utilizing those technological advancements. There are probably more than a few out there who loved what the 3D HFR churned out (and I will get to some good things about it soon). But, for me, if I wanted reality then I would go for a walk. When I go to a movie, I want to be enthralled. I want that rosy hue. I'm not talking about the dreamy effect given to a soap opera, but the simple, beautiful choices made by a cinematographer, editor, and art director. The collaboration between artists is half the movie experience - sometimes more - for me. Where, for instance, Fellowship of the Ring thrives in my memory in blues and pinks and golds, rich greens and vibrant burgundies, The Hobbit is a muddy brown and a dull straw. A shame. An outright shame.

Okay, so you didn't like the film speed or the film quality, but it can't be all that bad. There has to be something good about it, right? Right. I'm not prepared to pass judgment on 48fps until I see a different genre utilize it; I am prepared to say that I won't drop another $13 (matinee price) for it anytime soon, though.

Some good things about HFR 48fps: The main selling point Peter Jackson emphasized was how things tend to get blurred or fuzzy when filmed in 24fps; a higher film rate means a higher resolution, and thus less fuzzy scenes. This is true, though whether it was a good or bad thing for The Hobbit is something I'm still very undecided on. The depth produced by this new tech particularly struck me while in Rivendell, during the council held between Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman, and Gandalf. You had your players in the foreground, Rivendell's glorious arches in midcenter, and a waterfall in the background, and everything was equally sharp. The 3D, for everything 3D both lacks and brings, was very greatly benefited by the HFR. The picture was remarkably sharp and clear, and the 3D was more believable than anything I've ever seen before. The highest praise I can give it is the depth it brought to the film, for sure. Which isn't saying an awful lot - when I'm focused on the foreground characters, I don't particularly need to see the waterfall in the background, do I? - but I can see how it would really do magic in an animated/CGI film. My eye was constantly drawn places away from the actual action; one might imagine the opposite of everything being out of focus would be everything perfectly in focus, but with this I found it was more of a hyper-aware state of everything to the point of distraction. I couldn't concentrate. My eye didn't know where to go. And while I strongly feel the HFR hurt the prosthetic and prop work done by WETA with the orcs, the wargs, and so on, by making them feel more like half-finished CGI, I have to admit the goblins - Goblin King in particular - were strikingly grotesque. I couldn't stop staring, lip curled, astounded at how believably nasty they were. Which, granted, is far worse than feeling anybody's sweat when you've got some foul chin sack wagging inescapably near your face, but I can't deny it was a boon for the realism of the creature.

Some good things about RPX: This is something you're only going to have to worry about if you have a Regal Cinema in your area. Much like the introduction of 4D in museums, aquariums, and the like, Regal has introduced a new movie-going experience they claim is better than IMAX. What it boils down to is: larger curved screen, better speakers, comfy leather chairs. That's pretty much it. With my eye as distracted as it was during The Hobbit, I can't really comment much on the screen for good or ill. The sound quality, however, was remarkably great. More than once I was prepared to get cross at my neighbors in the theater for being noisy, when I realized it was in fact the surround sound. Everything was crisp, from Thorin's thrumming baritone to the very last chirping cricket, and it actually did what surround sound has been claiming to do for years now: surrounded you. It was wonderfully immersive, though I guess you could argue it was also distracting in that I was constantly looking to my neighbors to try and figure out what that irksome noise was. Still, it gets a good review from me and from my mother, who oftentimes has trouble following dialog. She was able to follow along brilliantly, and I was very happy with the overall result.

Theater experience aside, how was The Hobbit? It was good. (She says, as a chorus of angry nerds shout, What?! That's it??) To be fair, the film had two particularly big strikes against it before it had a chance to even find its footing. The first being the ridiculously detailed theater experience I just wrote about, and the fact that the 48fps made it practically impossible to pay attention to what was happening. The second being that I haven't read The Hobbit in ages, and, point of fact, never particularly liked the book to begin with. More shock from the crowd as they blink, stunned, at my username and my claims of being a huge LotR fan, and yet not like the Hobbit, what how who--? While, yes, I've read LotR over twenty times, starting from when I was seven years old and continuing almost annually ever since, I hated The Hobbit the first time I read it. I found it juvenile, and not to the same high standards of the other books as I was, and remain, a huge history nerd. Tolkien's detail, poetry (both literal and in his mastery of prose), languages, maps, family trees, timelines, etc. excited me, and I wanted more of that stunning detail. The Hobbit bored me, and also had more f&#%ing spiders and honestly screw that I can't deal with that s@*$ just no. Ugh, Mirkwood. Anyway - it took years of gawping (and saying stupid things) before I realized most people preferred The Hobbit for exactly the same reasons. To each his or her own! I certainly don't mind. But, I can't really comment on how the book translated to the screen in this case, because it's been many years since I last read it. It was my nephew's bedtime story at 4, and he's almost 19 now, so definitely more than a decade.

In any case, I remember enough to know that nothing seemed particularly out of place or changed from the book - the addition of the Pale Orc as a necessary antagonist for a nearly three-hour film notwithstanding. I purposely have not re-read The Hobbit because reading the book before seeing the movie is almost always folly, and I wanted to give the movie as many chances as possible to wow me. I think I will read the book now that I've seen it, however, if for no other reason than so I will know when to cover my eyes when we get to The Desolation of Smaug because seriously what the F*&% with the spiders, man. Even when the 48fps threw me in the first few seconds of the film, once I realized it wasn't getting better I was determined to get used to it and not let it ruin the whole movie experience for me. I - wasn't wholly successful. It was immensely distracting. But I did give the movie my best shot, and despite my many disappointments I think it was a decent film. In the same vein that The Hobbit was more of a children's book than Lord of the Rings, so too this felt like more of a children's film. Does anyone remember the PBS show Cover to Cover, with John Robbins? As a chapter from a children's book was read, he would draw scenes from the book (hold the press, guys, look what I found). That's all I could think of during the whole opening sequence of The Hobbit. I imagine dozens of tiny faces enthralled by Bilbo's narration. On me, it fell flat. It felt trite. It lacked the grandness of Galadriel's summary at the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring, and most of the film followed that same vein, all the way to the very last scene, which ends with Smaug opening his great golden-red eye. Which was an awful closing scene, if you were banking on any level of seriousness, but if your goal was to entertain then it was entertaining enough. Again, I imagine little round-faced kids squealing in equal parts terror and delight. My mother immediately shouted, "Is that the end?!" Now, this isn't to say there's anything wrong with children's media. Most who know me know I have a weakness for YA literature, and a collection of Disney films. So it's not a defamatory remark at all, it's just a statement that it felt more like a kid's film to me. Which, in its way, is appropriate given the original media.

I mentioned this earlier in my review of the HFR, but it did not have the same sweeping beauty of LotR. However, I'm not sure how much of that is the fault of the film, of Peter Jackson, or of the 3D HFR. I would love to see this film again in 2D, as a great part of myself feels cheated out of a much better movie experience from all the other reviews I've seen. I can't but wonder if it's just a better film in 2D, or if I'd be left equally as flat. So again, I can't really comment on the movie here either, other than to say the version I saw was very stark, very drab, and lacking in the beauty of the original trilogy. There were moments in Rivendell where I thought it was filmed quite lovely, and the battle between the rock giants (lolwat) was fantastic, but overall it was lacking the splendor I was expecting. It didn't provide the same "Oh my god that is New Zealand THAT IS A PLACE THAT EXISTS IN REALITY" awe as the original trilogy. And I'm sad about that. I think it was a good film, I think the acting was sublime (thoughts there to follow), and I think the props and sets were still lovely, if not quite as breathtaking as I remember them being ten years ago, and I think the script was decent. I just wasn't swept away, and that's all it came down to. I like the movie a lot. I didn't love it.

Now, if you want to ask me about the characters, I have nothing but praises to sing. Everything was very well acted, and I was immensely pleased that this time Peter Jackson dispensed with the ridiculous breathlessness of the elves (I swear to god, the doublespeed might have improved Legolas' dialog, that way I wouldn't have had to wait a half hour for him to exhale such gems as "They're taking the Hobbits to Isengard!" and "A diversion!" Yes, thank you, Captain Obvious). Three actors in particular really brought this film home for me.

Sylvester McCoy. I think the true star of An Unexpected Journey was Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown. Does that surprise you? Well, it surprised me. Granted, yes, there is the added delight of seeing The Doctor play a wizard, and my general affection for the actor, but his portrayal of Radagast hit the nail so squarely on its head that I was absolutely transfixed every moment he was on screen. He couldn't help but steal the scene from anyone he shared the screen with, which is a big deal when you consider how often that was Sir Ian McKellen. He was perfectly quirky, queer, eccentric, and wonderfully amusing. I'd say I wish there had been more scenes with him in them, but he perfectly served his purpose as it was, and anything more would have unbalanced the plot. By far, he was my favorite performance, and an absolute joy to watch. I'd be glad to spend the money if he had been the only worthwhile thing in the film. Happily, he was not.

Richard Armitage. Everyone is singing the praises of Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, and have been long before the movie was even released to the general public. So I can't say anything that hasn't already been said. The fact is, he did a marvelous job in the role. He so fully fills a leading role that it makes you wonder why people haven't been clamoring for him long before this. I always loved him as Guy of Gisborne in BBC's Robin Hood, in all his anachronistic, emotastic glory, but this puts him on a completely different level. He was everything I wanted Thorin to be, and as I told a friend the other night, he can just talk to me forever in that sumptuous, honey-thick baritone forever, and I'll be happy. He has real movie star presence, and a quality rarely found in his generation of actors. Everything just worked for me, even if I never ever imagined a dwarf could be so dreamy.

Martin Freeman: Say what you will about Jackson's choice to cast Freeman as a young Bilbo Baggins, and if you're like most, you will. But, despite all criticism, I thought Freeman did a marvelous job as Bilbo. He wasn't the revelation McCoy was, neither was he the movie star Armitage was, but I don't think any actor on this project worked harder or put as much into their character as Freeman so obviously did. Every subtlety, every tic, every minute detail laid before him by Ian Holm was perfectly cataloged and repeated to the fraction of a detail. The way he rocked on his feet, clasped his hands, stuttered, hemmed, hawed, rushed, hopped to, fretted, pondered, smoked, picked and pointed was so perfectly in sync with Holm that it was one of the first things I noticed. I completely bought him as Bilbo. I even completely bought him as a young movie-verse Bilbo. I have always been a fan of Freeman, long before his Sherlock years, but this film has really shown me the level of thought he puts into his work. That it's every bit just that: work. His livelihood. And he didn't mess about, not for an instant. He was positively delightful, for both the serious and the lighthearted, and I can't wait to see what he does in the next two films.

The rest of the performances were equally wonderful, though I have mild complaints that the company of dwarves didn't get much opportunity to shine as individuals. They filled the necessary cinematic roles - you had the comic relief twins, the heavy one, the old one, the one in charge of exposition, and the rest just float somewhere in the background. I expected a little more from the film. But, for what they were, they were delightful, and there will be two more movies that will hopefully flesh them out more. The return performances from Ian Holm and Elijah Wood were thrilling to see, as was Christopher Lee. Obviously, there is nothing negative to ever say about Ian McKellen, who is in my estimation one of our last great Shakespearean actors. He can do no wrong. Hugo Weaving was as spectacularly eyebrow-y as always, and it was exciting to see him in a more active role. I'm so pleased they made Cate Blanchett look as beautiful as she and Galadriel are meant to be (honestly, I don't know how Peter Jackson managed to make her look homely in LotR, but it was startling), and just such a marvelously strong character for how brief her appearance was. Lee Pace as Thranduil was a shock, but a good one, and Cumberbatch doubling as the Necromancer another pleasant surprise. All in all, I'm really pleased with the casting, the dialog, and the acting. There were a few flat moments, but on whole it was just fantastic.

I'm still not particularly pleased with the studio making this into three films, but there's certainly enough material for another two without going wildly off the reservation, and as Jackson has previously demonstrated his wild passion for drawn out and overblown battle scenes, I imagine a good chunk of time will be devoted to that when There and Back Again rolls around. If the next two are on level with this one, then it will be a very decent franchise, and one I won't mind owning or recommending.

I can't really give the film a star rating, as I feel so much of my experience was influenced by the 3D HFR;RPX. It's too hard to disambiguate the two. I will say, however, that I'm eagerly looking forward to seeing it on DVD, and at the very least it's a solid 3 1/2 out of 5 stars.

In the grand scheme of things Jackson/Tolkien related, I would say, in order from favorite to least favorite, it falls thusly: 1) The Two Towers; 2) Fellowship of the Ring; 3) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey; 4) Return of the King.

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