The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Review

the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey rating 6.5/10

Directed by Peter Jackson. Starring Martin FreemanIan McKellenRichard ArmitageKen StottGraham McTavish.

It’s been a long time coming. Eagerly awaited by the fans… First officially announced…  Then put on hold…  Then the director Del Toro had to leave… and finally Jackson came to the rescue. And now, clocking at 169 minutes, it’s finally here… and deserves a review that’s at least as long as the film itself… So, let’s try to start from the beginning.

THE 48 FPS STUFF

It’s almost impossible to review The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey without mentioning that little famous (or infamous, depending on how you stand on this) technical issue everybody in Hollywood and in the industry has been talking about: the 48 frames-per-second look. For those who have been living in a cave for the last couple of years, let me quickly explain to you what I am talking about. Peter Jackson has filmed this new trilogy (yes, it is now a trilogy… but more about that later) with special 48 frames-per-second (fps) cameras, instead of the usual common 24fps. The result, once the film gets projected at 48fps speed, is a more detailed, sharper and crisper image with a much higher definition on movement that you’ve ever seen before: a more “immersive experience” (in Jacks0n’s own words) and also a much brighter picture  (Usually light loss in 3D movies can be as high as 30%). Obviously most people will see this film projected with standard 24fps machines , so what I am about to say, will probably make very little sense, but since this is heralded as not just the way the director intended it, but also as the future of cinema, I feel it’s worth taking a moment to tell you my gut reactions to it.

48fpsYes, of course, the image definition is impeccable, the light loss is almost unnoticeable and the 3D effect itself is very very very good (one ‘very’ for each ‘D’, though I have to say I still think the 3D in Avatar was better… or maybe just because it was the first), but aside from all that, I couldn’t get out of me a weird feeling of TV movie: it almost looked like high-def video, and not film. Ironically, the higher definition somehow made it look cheaper (which obviously it wasn’t!): for a start it enhanced every single make-up imperfection on the actors and made some of the sets even look a bit fake (especially the ones in Hobbiton). I also noticed a certain discrepancy between the way the actors appeared on screen (i.e. incredibly realistic, vivid and sharp) and the CGI-enhanced sets extensions in the background (which still had a slightly filmic look): the most obvious examples were those scenes Rivendell, where the waterfalls and the city in the background had a slightly opaque look, while the characters and the various real elements around the screen were crisps as if they’d just been filmed with your latest camcorder. There were some other scenes involving giant wolves running about and a dwarf on a sling which looked very strange too (In fact those were the only special effects I had problems with, in among otherwise perfect CGI): I’m sure you’ll agree when you see it too.

And finally, this new 48fps technology, seems to have given the director the chance to move his camera more than it is really needed: just because you can (with 48fps you don’t get as much motion blur as you would on normal 24fps), doesn’t mean that you have to: the result was overblown camera swoops, tilts and pans galore and an overall slightly unrestrained camerawork which sometimes felt rather random, showy and a bit out of place.

Having spoken to some other friends afterwards, I am very aware that a lot of people quite liked this new look, but on me it had the opposite effect as the one intended and instead of making the experience more immersive, it constantly pulled me out.

There you go, I’ve said it. Now that this is out of the way, let’s talk about the film itself.

A BAD START

One thing is certain, hard-core fans of the previous LOTR trilogy will probably love this chapter too. It was clearly made for them, and since there are a lot of those fans around the globe, I can safely bet this film will make millions of gazillions of dollars, but I get the feeling that it might not be such an Oscar favourite as the previous trilogy was.

Peter Jackson is undeniably a talented man, but we must be honest with ourselves, though he’s certainly one of the most revered and successful film-makers in Hollywood today, I’m not sure even his hard-core fans will be able to deny that when it comes to be harsh on his own material, or getting to the point of a scene and cutting things down, he is definitely not one of the best. He would be the first one to admit it. We all remember the multiple endings of “The Return of the King“, or the long hour-plus before we actually even heard about the fact that there was a giant gorilla in a movie entitled King Kong…  and don’t get me started on the Lovely Bones, possibly the most misjudged film of 2009…  As far as The Hobbit part 1 is concerned, well, I can safely report that that same trend continues here: this time in the form of multiple beginnings!!

In fact the first hour of the film has so many false starts, back stories, flashback, and introductions, that at some point I actually started to wonder whether  that “unexpected” thing  from the title was going to be the fact that the joueny might never actually happen!!

It is of course, once again, a beginning that wants to please everyone: the fans from the book and the ones from the previous trilogy alike (there is no other explanation to a very slow and quite indulgent preamble featuring Eliaja Wood and Ian Holm  reprising their roles from the previous series: I had an hard-core fan sitting in front of me commenting how he loved the fact that Frodo was there… Enough said. It will make the whole saga feel very uniform, but in this film it just had no place!!). Sadly the slow start (and by start I mean at least the first third of the Hobbit pt.1 prevents it from being completely successful.. But there are other faults aside from pace.

THE-HOBBIT-DWARVESIt’s in that first hour that we’re also introduced to Richard Armitage‘s Thorin, King of the Dwarves, in a scene that aside from giving a back story to the character, fails to give us anything interesting about this character and ultimately to make us care about him. As the film goes on, Thorin continues to be a two-dimentional and rather predictable character. And it’s a shame because Thorin should really be one of the main focus of the film.

It’s obvious that the casting of Armitage is trying to replicate the success of the casting of Vigo Mortensen, but sadly the admittedly un-carismatic dwarf make-up (hiding any good feature that Armitage might have) and the fact that Thorin as a character seems to have pretty much the same expression throughout the whole film (or at least that’s how it’s coming through), prevent us from truly engaging with him… Hopefully he’ll be more developed in the sequels, but so far he certainly seems to lack that aura of gravitas, mystery and charisma that Vigo Mortensen‘s Aragorn used to have. Not sure whether to blame, the actor, the character, the director or the original story itself… or maybe even all of them.

But Armitage is only one of 13 dwarves in the film: in fact the Hobbit Pt.1 spends a considerable amount of time in one of the weakest scenes of the film, introducing us to all of them. This was a completely out-of-place sequence that seemed to belong to a different  film or series all together:  one for very young children! It was some sort of bad comedic/slapstick sequence, which was so long and unfunny that actually left most of my audience silent throughout. To add to the confusion was the fact that between the heavy make-up, identical costumes and lack of any interesting characterisation, most of the dwarves look like each other and it was pretty hard to tell most of them apart even by the end of the film.

Martin Freeman was to me the only saving grace of the first third. I must confess that I would probably watch Freeman reading a phone directory anyway, but in the Hobbit Part 1, he was certainly the most approachable and sympathetic character of them all, bringing tenderness, irony, bemusement and something to actually grab our attention, because for all the spectacle and CG-wizzardry at display here, there is an ice-cold detachment that permeates most of the characters. It’s as if all of a sudden JAckson was only interested in showing off his techniques and stopped caring about his characters a little bit.

Incindentally, talking about FX, even the now famous “shrinking people” special effects we’ve become so used to from the earlier series, don’t seem to have the same bite in this film, as Gandalf for example seems to grow or shrink from scene to scene according to (In some sequences Bilbo reaches Gandalf’s shoulder,  in others, he can just about reach his belly button). And let’s not even mention the fact that every time they use a stunt-giant double it shows from miles away (ops.. I have now mentioned it!).

THINGS FINALLY GET GOING:

As you’re reading this, you might be wondering why on earth did I give it a 7/10 rating if all I’ve been doing so far was slashing the film to pieces?!

Well, let’s just say that once the so-called unexpected journey finally starts and gets passed Rivendell (where another incredibly dull talky, indulgent sequence takes place; a sequence which seems to be there just to please those LOTR fans, once again, and create a link with the previous series), the film finally gets into the right gear, the action begins and the spectacle really takes over!

The first sign of things improving comes in the form of Mountain Trolls and a splendidly choreographed fight sequence, rendered so vividly by the CG animation that it’s hard to fault. Andy Serkis makes his appearance too (other than the fact that he is the second unit director on the film) as Gollum. gollumNow finally the film seemed to get a slightly darker tone, leaving behind the memory of the frankly quite idiotic and childish first sequences with the dwarves singing and getting drunk around a table. It’s interesting to notice this was also the moment that caused the first most spontaneous laugh from the audience, as if everybody felt it was OK to finally relax and enjoy the film because things were moving to the right direction.

From there onwards the film is essentially one incredible set-piece after another, all of which of truly amazing standards. It’s not just the seamless special effects, or the immersive 3D, but the actual design and choreography of them and of course the relentless and yet clear pace to which they’ve all been edited together. A living proof that action scenes don’t need to be chaotic and unnecessarily shaky to work. The sequences up in the mountain with massive giants fighting each others makes the everything we’ve seen in any of those dreadful Transformers movies look tiny and puerile (well… actually pretty much anything makes those films puerile). And of course that chase at the end, which despite an over-swoopy camera work, is one of the most accomplished work of action featuring hundreds of CG characters ever portrayed  on screen. I guess the 48fps tool here really pays off!

So after that interminable first hour, all of a sudden time really starts flying by and the next 2 hours (or if you want, the next 2/3 of the film) are really worth the whole price of the ticket and they raise the bar to levels which only some of the best sequences of the previous 3 films managed to get to.

In fact the rest of the Hobbit pt.1, beyond that terrible beginning, is just so good and exciting that for me is enough to give it a 6.5/10 and recommend the film to anyone.

Aside from all the visual I guess the score should also get reviewed, especially because, as Peter Jackson likes to do, the music here seems to plasters the entire film and rarely shuts up, so it’s impossible not to notice it.

Composer Howard Shore plays it pretty very safe, by giving us a score which has essentially very little new, but re-hashes bits and pieces from the previous instalments, a little bit like what John Williams did for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull.To be honest with you, I was absolutely fine with that, mainly because I love those first soundtracks so much, but aside from over-playing it really felt a bit lazy in places: here’s the ring, let’s play the ring theme, from the Fellowship of the Ring. Here’s Gollum, let’s play Gollum theme from the two towers! Uh… a gig bird is flying, get the bird cue going! And so on, and so on… The cue from the admittedly quite embarrassing dwarf song is one of the few new ones, which works pretty well, but gets used over and over again as a main theme.

LOOKING FORWARD TO THE NEXT ONE!

… And then something quite extraordinary happened, which when I started I never thought it would be possible… The film ended and left me wanting more!

Yes, the cliffhanger might be a bit cheap, might feel like an end of an episode from any TV series, but hey, it works wonderfully! (A little funny trivia here: Jackson claims that final shot was actually finished just a few days before the actual premiere in New Zealand).

I guess this is really the most unexpected thing about this journey: the film turns from something quite dull, slow, detached, puerile and without a real drive, into an incredible action romp which surpasses any expectation: it’s exciting, it’s fresh, it’s gripping, it’s amazing to look at: a real spectacle!! If only Peter Jackson had been less indulgent and a bit more ruthless with his own material and had really decided to stick with 2 movies instead the promised 3 we are going to get, and left all those long redundant sequences for the extended editions on the DVD (which I would have bought anyway!), this film would have certainly been a lot tighter, more focussed, sharper and less boring: basically a much better film, that would have left another indelible mark in cinema history as another game-changer.

As it is, it’s another chapter in the Tolkien saga which feels perfectly in tune with what we’ve seen before, but it’s just too baggy to surpass the experience of any of the previous instalments.

The Adventures of Tintin – Review

The Adventures of Tintin – the Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

Director: Steven Spielberg. Writers: Steven MoffatEdgar WrightJoe Cornish. Stars: Jamie BellDaniel CraigAndy SerkisNick FrostSimon Pegg 

I should probably tell you straight away that I have been waiting for this film for about 3 decades! Yes I know, quite a bold statement which may give away my age, but it will also tell you about my level of expectations for this film. If then you add the fact that I’ve grown up watching Spielberg movies back in his golden years (obviously the 80s) and that I’ve also been an avid fan of all Tintin comics ever since I was a little boy, you can probably get an idea of the kind of palpitations I had when I sat into the theatre and wore my 3D glasses. Having said all that I will still try to give an unbiased and honest review as much I possibly can, praising the (many) merits of the film but also highlighting some of the faults which in my option prevented Tintin from being the masterpiece I really wanted it to be.

For a start I was very  pleased to see how respectful Spielberg was with the handling of the original material. After all, this is the man who wanted to turn Harry Potter into an American, combining several books into one (A bad, bad, bad idea Steven!). The story of this film actually combines several of the Tintin books: ‘The Crab with the Golden Claws’ (in which Tintin befriends Haddock and saves him from smugglers) and the two-parter ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’ and ‘Red Rackham’s Treasure’ (which is the core of the story about the search for the lost treasure). There are also some very small elements and secondary characters from other stories too, but as far as taking liberties that’s where Spielberg stopped. Everything else is precisely how the Belgian creator, Hergé had imagined it: with that same sense of adventure, mystery, intrigue, action and fun. In other words the same mood and atmosphere that made the comics so successful  (at least in Europe) and incidentally, in a way those same elements that were also at the centre of one of Spielberg’s classic, Raiders of the lost ark.  It’s not surprising that Hergé himself, after seeing that film back in 1981 thought Spielberg was the only person who could ever do Tintin justice.

Spielberg pays homage to Tintin’s creator right from the start, not just in the beautifully design title sequence (reminiscent of the one from Catch Me If You Can), where he show us so many elements from all Tintin stories, not just in the colour palette he chooses for the cinematography of the film or in the way each character’s face looks, but he even goes as far as having Hergé himself appearing as a street artist drawing a portrait of Tintin the way we are used to see him in the comics: pure genius!

On the whole I must say that I wasn’t as bothered as I thought I was going to be by the motion capture animation. In fact you stop worrying about it about 5 minutes into the film. The characters look more cartoony than realistic and that helps getting away with the fact that their eyes (especially Tintin’s) are slightly dead. This is first and foremost still an animated film (I can place a bet right now that it’s going to be nominated at the Oscars next year, and probably it’s going to win one too!). One thing is for sure: it does look magnificent! From the moody dark shadows reminiscent of those film noir from the 40s, to the great vistas straight out of a David Lean classic, the impeccable cinematography (Spielberg is even credited as Lighting Consultant) is not just beautiful but impressive and atmospheric.

Spielberg in his first animated venture (and his first use of 3D too!) looks like a little boy who’s just been told he can do what he wants for his birthday: he appears to be liberated from any restriction he may have had on a normal feature film and seems to have a lot of fun in finding new beautifully inventive ways to transition from one scene to the next  in a way you could only do in animation (or with a lot of very expensive CGI): Spielberg’s camera floats, glides, flies, moves through glass, shoots straight into mirrors and gives us views which would otherwise been virtually impossible and yet, most of the times it’s never showy, it’s never forced or indulgent (in the same way,it wasn’t forced in ET, when the camera never showed us any adult – mom aside – for most the film and yet it didn’t make it annoying… In fact most of the audience didn’t even notice).

It’s like watching a master at work who knows exactly where the camera should be at which time. It all culminated with one of the most impressive and perfectly executed chase sequence ever portrayed on screen. Impressive not just because of its pace and its edge-of-your-seat thrills, but also for its meticulously choreographed  technique: in fact it takes place in just one impossibly-long shot, which adds to the tension and to the sense of fun. If you ever wondered why didn’t they just film the whole thing for real, that sequence alone (which by itself is worth the price of the entire ticket) should serve you as an answer.

I just wished that same tension and fun of that sequence had been present throughout the rest of the film. Don’t get me wrong, this first adventures of Tintin is a roller coaster ride like few others. Essentially it’s one action set piece after another, and yet somehow I felt there was a strange tendency to resolve problems much too quickly. It’s almost as if Spielberg was so preoccupied to get us to the next action sequence that he almost forgot how to makes  like the one we were watching. I give you a few examples:  a chase sequence at the front of the film, ends much too soon before it has time to climax. Later on there’s a scene where Tintin has to steal a key from a bunch of sleeping goons. A lot of time is spent setting up the dangers and then just when the sequence is about to get fun, Tintin gets the key. There’s another scene where Tintin faints close to the propellers of a plane and once again he gets saved much too quickly.

Whatever happened to those classic Spielberg action sequences that were so tense despite being so simple? I’m thinking of Indy trying to get the antidote to the poison he’s just drunk as the little bottle gets kicked around a room full of screaming people in the Temple of Doom, or fight sequence by the plane in Raiders, or even the glass breaking sequence in the otherwise weak Lost World? (In fact they are too many to even mention).

The pace of the film is strange and a bit uneven. It has moments of long exposition (this is a fault that comes with the source material to be completely fair), then lots of little short action scenes (as I said, slightly too short to feel important. I would have rather had fewer set pieces but longer in their execution) and sometimes it’s even anticlimactic (I’m thinking of the last 10 minutes of the film for example). I don’t think it’s necessarily an editing problem. Since this is animation, there isn’t a lot of extra material that can be added to add tension to scene.

I  am probably picking needles because as I said before I love these stories (and the story-teller) way too much.

The comedy aspect of the film is a bit of a hit and miss: the Inspector Thompson and Thomson are obviously aimed at the younger crowd, but they’re also the weakest characters (we had a glimpse of that in the trailer itself, as one of them falls off the stairs: a scene which in the theatre where I was, full of kids, was received with dead silence), on the other hand Captain Haddock is perfect. I don’t know whether it’s the script, or Andy Serkis’s performance or both, but most of the jokes around him seem to work perfectly. Same goes for the little dog Snowy who is in almost every scene of the film, even if just in the background licking a massive bone in the desert. The audience I was with seemed to love him and so did I.

And finally Tintin himself which in this whole 3D world is probably the most two-dimensional character. Aside from the fact that he seems to get a kick out of solving puzzles and getting into adventures, we know very little about him. I’m not really blaming Spielberg for that, this exactly how Tintin was in the comics, but I do wonder if some character development would have been really seen as sacrilegious by the hard-code fans. Certainly not by me.

Finally I feel I should say a few words about John Williams score, the first one in years (especially if we dismiss the very forgettable one for the 4th Indiana Jones). There’s a very quirky and weird title music (which never really seem to play out throughout the rest of the film) which is the most un-Wiliamesque theme in a while. It’s certainly not bad, but it feels slightly detached from the rest of the film. The Star Wars title music was never repeated throughout the movies either, and yet it felt part of the score. This title music feels like it belonged to can other film (in fact it felt like a non used cue from “catch me if you can”). It’s hard to review the score, because for most of the film I felt it never really had the time to breathe as much as it should have. The comic cues suffered more than the others (the ones for the Inspectors for example), as they were covered by the dialogue and the rest of the sound effects to the point where I even wondered whether any music was needed at all. In fact on the whole I felt there was way too much music in the film (in fact there was hardly a moment without) and yet it had very little time for the music to shine. Having said that, I was still able to hum some of the Tintin action tunes once leaving the theatre… and that’s always a good sign.

To recap, I think Tintin has definitely legs for a sequel and even more than just one. It is a solid action-packed fun-ride for the whole family which is not as loud, dumb and insulting as some of those Pirates of the Caribbean films were (especially the latest sequels). It’s proper film-making with the heart in the right place.

I’ll be looking forward to the next one, even if I am very aware I have now passed the average age of the target audience…

7.5/10

Check out my other reviews of movies by Spielberg: Raiders of the lost art, ET The Extra-Terrestrial, War Horse

Rise of the Planet of the Apes – Review

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) 

Directed by Rupert Wyatt. With James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow.

After the recent storm of various unimaginative remakes and reboots, watching this re-imagined prequel of the 1968 Planet of the Apes (mercifully the Tim Burton’s Version from 2001 has been quickly dismissed)  was one of the most enjoyable and refreshing experiences of this summer season!

Finally a blockbuster that is not only big and with incredible special effect, but also smart, fun and emotional at the same time.

Yes, of course, if you stop and think about it all for a moment I’m sure you’ll find it all rather predictable. Right from the start it’s very easy to guess where it’s all heading to (well, it is a prequel after all!!!), however part of the fun is to watch the predictability unfolding under your eyes and it’s all done with such conviction and skills that it even makes the implausible story somehow credible (in fact by the end of it, you do actually buy even the most far-fetched twist… which I won’t give away in here).

The film is even slightly reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Birds in portraying what would happen if the “animals” started to rebel to humans and took over the earth, but even though the trailer sells it more as a sort of “Invasion of the Apes” type of film, I should probably point out that is only a very small part of the story (possibly the last 20 or 30 minutes only). In fact however big and spectacular some of the action sequences might be, what makes “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” work so well are actually the smaller moments.

The moral message of the film, questioning genetic engineering and the use of animals for medical tests, is anything but subtle and yet at the same time it is a rather surprising spin to the old “planet-of-the-apes” story and it finally gives us the long overdue explanation for all those things we know will be coming in the future films (or rather earlier films). This is one of the most satisfying “origins story” in any recent film.

At the heart of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (such a long title, let’s just call it ROTPOTA) is Caesar: a motion-captured ape, which is a thing of beauty! It’s hard to tell how much of that is Andy Serkis or the amazingly talented computer animators. Whatever it is, this is one of the most accomplished  CG character since Gollum (yet again, another Serkis’ creation): not just in terms of technical achievement (it’s hard to believe that no men in a suite was ever used for the film) but also in terms of being a characters with real feelings and emotions. It is a fascinating and dazzling hybrid of technology and human performance: a real triumph of visual effects!

There are moments in ROTPOTA which are handled like a “mute film” without any dialogue or even music, relying just on images to tell the story, but even more strikingly relying on the expressions on Caesar’s face to tell us everything we need to know.

With such a top-notch character created by special effects, it’s funny to find that the more two-dimentional characters are actually the real people populating this film. Everybody is very good in it, but they’re all very predictable, even more than the story itself. James Franco is likeable enough, but also rather transparent, not to mention Freida Pinto, who has the impossible task to make something out of the thinnest character.. But hey, who cares: she’s beautiful to look at! Tom Felton poor thing doesn’t seem to be able to shake off his bad “Drako” character: he plays it very well, but he’s really just one-dimensional and he’s just there to serve the script. Who knows, maybe one day he’ll be able to get a different part where he can actually smile as well as being as asshole. John Lithgow proves once again that he’s the type of actor who, with the right script, could win an Oscar… Sadly this isn’t that script. And finally Brian Cox who is completely wasted comes and goes without really leaving any mark.

But all this doesn’t take anything away from an overall cracking action film: if only all blockbusters were like these, our summer at the movies would have been a lot more enjoyable than it actually has.

8/10

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