Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) (2D)

December 17, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The Lord of the Rings is the holy grail of epic fantasy, both in print and on the big screen. When I heard Peter Jackson (originally Guillermo del Toro) was bringing us The Hobbit as a prequel, I was naturally excited. I grew less excited when I heard it was being made into two films, and even less excited again when I heard it was being stretched into a trilogy.

With the exception of greed, the decision didn’t make much sense. The Hobbit is a tiny book compared to any one of the three volumes of Rings, and yet they were going to make three movies out of it? Despite assurances that they were going to expand Middle Earth and add in a bunch of details from Tolkien’s other writings and appendices and so forth, it didn’t strike me as a recipe for success.

As it turned out, the first film of the new trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey justified both my excitement and my scepticism. On the one hand, the film did bring back some of the best memories from Rings and reminded me why it will likely never be topped as the best fantasy franchise of all time. On the other, at a whopping 2 hours and 49 minutes, it was unnecessarily bloated, occasionally tedious and sometimes, dare I saw, even boring.

Jackson replacing del Toro meant that we were likely to get a continuation of the Middle Earth established in Rings as opposed to a fresh interpretation of Tolkien’s universe. This was the correct assumption, as An Unexpected Journey looked and felt exactly like the world we were still immersed in when Return of the King departed our cinema screens nearly a decade ago.

For those unfamiliar with the story, The Hobbit centers around a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman — the old one was played by Ian Holm in Rings, who also has a cameo to kick things off here), who travels with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and 13 dwarves (led by Thorin Oakenshield — Richard Armitage) to recapture a treasure-filled dwarf kingdom guarded by the dragon Smaug. It happens years before Frodo’s adventures and first introduces us to the powerful ring that would become the centerpiece of the books.

Apart from a whole host of familiar faces (I won’t spoil who they all are for those who like surprises), An Unexpected Journey is full of nostalgia. You can tell Jackson is trying very hard to recapture the magic of Rings, and as a result there’s also a strong sense of deja vu. Everything from the sets to the costumes to the plot progression feels eerily similar (if you want an explanation with minor spoilers see below after the rating).

But The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings and it shouldn’t have tried to be. For starters, the difference in length means An Unexpected Journey should never have been 2 hours and 49 minutes, which might have been perfect for fanboys who spray their shorts over the extended DVD cuts but not for casual fans and regular audiences.

In fact, the whole film felt like an extended DVD cut. I think the running time would have been OK if there were only two films rather than three, but there’s no reason why An Unexpected Journey had to be nearly three hours long, especially not when it traverses so little of a story that takes up only 275 pages in a paperback.

The result is a really long and uneventful introduction and significant chunks where uninteresting conversation dominates the action. It’s not that the first couple of hours of An Unexpected Journey is bad — it’s just not that good when compared to the high standards set by Rings.

That said, the final hour of the movie is brilliant and as exciting as the Mines of Moria from Fellowship of the Ring, the battle of Helm’s Deep from The Two Towers and the siege at Minas Tirith from The Return of the King. I don’t want to reveal too much except to say I wished the rest of the movie was just like it.

Martin Freeman, whom Jackson said was the only choice all along, is pretty good as the young Bilbo, while Ian McKellen doesn’t miss a step as a slightly younger and seemingly less mature Gandalf. Richard Armitage is solid as dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield, but he’s no Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, though to be fair no one could have been that freaking awesome. The rest of the dwarves are generally quite forgettable, and I still haven’t figured out why only two or three of them look fairly normal while the rest are plastered with prosthesis and look like absolute freaks.

The special effects are of course seamless, though without having seen the original trilogy again I don’t think they are too different to the effects from 10 years ago. A change this time is the decision to create all the orcs and goblins using CGI as opposed to real actors with makeup, but they are all done so well that the difference is negligible.

I was one of those people that made a conscious choice to watch the film in 2D and at 24 frames per second, as opposed to the 3D at 48 frames per second that was on offer. I’m well and truly over 3D now, and I was not curious about 48 frames at all after hearing all the negative comments, from the nausea to how everything look too fast and real and how the props looked fake because of it. Besides, if you really want The Hobbit to be a continuation of The Lord of the Rings wouldn’t you want to experience it the same way?

On the whole, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a mixed bag. It contains flashes of brilliance and a final hour that rivals the best of The Lord of the Rings, but at the same time there’s also too much unnecessary fluff at the beginning to prevent it from ultimately living up to the hype. As the first entry to a new trilogy, however, I think it holds promise and should hopefully open the door to two sensational sequels.

3.75 stars out of 5

(Minor spoilers) PS: The Hobbit follows the trajectory of The Fellowship of the Ring very closely. It starts off in the Shire as a gentle but reluctant hobbit is dragged onto an adventure after a visit from Gandalf. He is pursued by dangerous enemies throughout his journey, runs into trolls and goes through an underground mine before finishing up in the woods with an epic battle. It’s exactly the same!

Movie Review: The Adventures of Tintin (2011) (2D)

November 21, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

I’m not ordinarily a big fan of animated films and I know almost next to nothing about the adventures of the titular character or the original comics on which they were based (apart from a short visit to the Tintin Museum/Shop in Brussels) — which is why it surprises me to declare that The Adventures of Tintin is one of the most exciting and enjoyable movies I’ve seen this year.

Facts about the film I probably should have been aware of before the opening credits:

  • directed by Steven Spielberg;
  • produced by Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg;
  • uses performance capture technology (made famous by The Lord of the Rings, King Kong and Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and features the performance capture king, Andy Serkis; and
  • an all-star cast including Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) as the protagonist Tintin, Serkis as the hilarious Captain Haddock, Daniel Craig as the sinister Sakharine, and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (the duo from Shawn of the DeadPaul) as Thomson and Thompson, the bumbling detectives.

This film, hopefully the first of a trilogy, is based on three of the original comic books, and tells the story of how young journalist (and essentially detective) Tintin and his beloved dog Snowy become embroiled in a wild adventure involving model ships, secret riddles, pirates and sunken treasures.

Thanks to Spielberg’s masterful storytelling and the amazing visual effects (made possible by the performance capture technology), The Adventures of Tintin is an engrossing, clever, humorous, exciting and wonderfully spectacular animated film.  It is no coincidence that the film reminded me a lot of Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies (especially the superior earlier ones), where the sense of adventure was genuine, fresh and thrilling.  It is the type of film both children and adults can enjoy.

The look of the film is fantastic — everything but the human characters look real, and my guess is that they held back a little so that the human characters can closer resemble their comic counterparts and avoid looking ‘spooky’ (like say Polar Express or Beowulf).  The combination of performance capture and ultra-realistic, high quality animation is spot on — it is impossible to imagine a traditionally animated film (or even a purely computer animated one) or a live action version of Tintin having the same atmosphere or effect.  It looks real but not too real, allowing the film to utilise techniques and storytelling methods that work well in animated films but not live action ones.

The performances were fantastic.  Rather than just providing voices, the subtleties of the actors’ body movements and expressions were also encapsulated in the characters they portrayed.  It made a difference.  Serkis’s Captain Haddock in particular was a standout, even if he might have come across as excessive at times.  Daniel Craig was practically unrecognisable, and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s unmatched chemistry brought a certain harmony to Thomson and Thompson.

Although the 107-minute running time might have been 10-15 minutes over the ideal length of such a film, on the whole I was immensely impressed with The Adventures of Tintin.  This is coming from someone who had never read a Tintin comic book and previously had no interest in ever reading one.  Now I can’t wait for them to make the sequel, which will allegedly by directed by Peter Jackson (as soon as he is done with The Hobbit).

I don’t know if the film did justice to the original character or the comic books.  But to me it doesn’t matter.  A good film is a good film, and The Adventures of Tintin is just that.

4.5 out of 5 stars!

PS: I am continuing my stance of ‘no 3D’.  I don’t think 3D would have necessarily ruined this film, but I don’t think it would have helped.  2D was perfectly fine, and it was good enough for me.

Del Toro quits ‘The Hobbit’; now what?

May 31, 2010 in Entertainment, Fantasy

Guillermo del Toro, man at the helm of films such as Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, The Devil’s Backbone and Blade II, has quit as director of The Hobbit, the planned two-part prequel to The Lord of the Rings.

Whilst calling it “the hardest decision” of his life, Del Toro simply couldn’t take the extended and continued delays in filming any longer as it impacted on his other commitments.  The Hobbit was supposed to be a 3 year commitment but it’s now looking like it will be 6 years or more.  Most of the delays stem from the financial struggles of studio MGM, which is co-distributing the film with New Line.

I was initially disappointed when I heard that Peter Jackson was not going to be directing The Hobbit films.  He had done such a fantastic job on LOTR that we all expected him to return to continue the legacy.  However, when I found out that Del Toro was taking over, it made me even more excited.  Del Toro’s incredible vision and creepy style has impressed me more than any other director in recent memory, and I thought his presence would shift the franchise in a fresh and exciting direction and turn Middle-Earth into an even stranger and unsettling place.

But with Del Toro gone, now what?  Is The Hobbit destined to suck, or will it simply never be made at all?

Jackson has reiterated that he will not be directing the films, even though he will continue to work on the script and try and facilitate a smooth transition to a new director.

I just don’t know who they can get with such short notice and the films being such a major commitment.  I’m sure plenty of lesser known and less capable directors will be lining up to prove their mettle, but if they pick someone bland and unoriginal who isn’t going to do the films justice, it will just be a complete waste of everybody’s time.  LOTR has built up such an incredible level of expectation that The Hobbit simply can’t be anything but amazing.

Movie Review: The Lovely Bones (2009)

December 28, 2009 in Movie Reviews, Uncategorized

When I first heard The Lovely Bones (directed by Peter Jackson and based on the best-selling novel by Alice Sebold) was being made into a movie, I had some reservations.  Sure, the story was amazing, but adapting it to the big screen was going to have its fair share of challenges.   Those who have read the book will know what I mean.

And after watching it on Christmas Day, I must say I was right in some respects.  There are parts of The Lovely Bones that are genuinely beautiful and heartbreaking, full of pain and yearning from a life tragically unfulfilled.  Those are the same elements that made the novel such a magnificent success.  However, the more troublesome aspects of the adaptation, while probably handled as well as they could have been, just didn’t quite work.

Without giving too much of the plot away, The Lovely Bones is what is best described as a drama fantasy set in the 1970s about a teenage girl and her family, and how each of them deal with unexpected death and loss. There’s a lot more to the story than just that, but as usual, it’s best to go in knowing as little as possible.

The dramatic aspects of the film were done well.  Jackson manages to capture that gut-wrenching ‘what might have been’ sensation of regret and melancholy at all the right moments, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to describe the film as a tear jerker.  I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the emotional impact lives up to the book, but with the medium and time constraints, it came fairly close.

The suspenseful aspects of the film, on the other hand, were simply outstanding.   There were probably only a handful of such scenes, but Peter Jackson applied his magic touch to them and it kept me on the edge of my seat every time.  It made me wish there were more of them.

Of course, much of the credit has to go to the cast.  Saoirse Ronan (Atonement), who plays Susie Salmon, delivers an excellent performance beyond her years.   She has a touch of class that is rarely seen in young actors these days.  In a few years she will be a big star.  Rachel Weisz and Mark Wahlberg play her parents, and are both good, but not exceptional.  Apparently, the film was initially set to go with Ryan Gosling in Wahlberg’s role, but he looked ‘too young’ to pull it off, even with a full beard.  While that may be right, I got the feeling that Wahlberg may have been too young as well, especially with that floppy 70s haircut.

The standout though, has to be Stanley Tucci’s Mr Harvey.  Tucci has been nominated for a Golden Globe for this performance (and I predict an Oscar nomination as well).  Every time he’s on screen he unsettles you and makes you feel uncomfortable.   I don’t know if he is more deserving than Christoph Waltz from Inglourious Basterds, but Tucci is right up there after delivering one of the creepiest performances I’ve seen in a long time.

So that’s what’s good about The Lovely Bones.  As I mentioned earlier, the film is a drama fantasy, and it’s because there are a substantial number of ‘fantasy’ scenes, filled with expensive special effects and an abundance of pretty imagery.  These sequences take up a large part of the second half of the film, and that’s when my interest in the film really waned.

Those sequences were an integral part of the novel, so I wouldn’t have expected Jackson to cut them out completely, but there was too much of it for my liking.   They were too long, too weird, and dare I say even somewhat silly.   It just didn’t match the rest of the film as well as I would have liked.   I don’t know if anyone else could have done a better job with it, but the bottom line is that those sequences, for the most part, didn’t work.  If Jackson could have limited such scenes to an absolute minimum and ramped up the suspenseful and dramatic scenes, The Lovely Bones may have been a classic.

So overall, The Lovely Bones is a very solid, albeit uneven film.  There are moments that can get to you on an emotional level, but it’s unfortunate that the lengthy fantasy sequences dragged it down.  A minor disappointment as I had been looking forward to it and expected it to be better than it actually was.

3.5 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: District 9 (2009)

August 20, 2009 in Movie Reviews

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District 9 is a film that I really liked but wish I liked more.

Produced by Peter Jackson and directed by Neill Blomkamp (previously best known for his 3D animations), the film has an original and fascinating premise with a political message – aliens stranded in Johannesburg, South Africa and segregated by an apartheid government into the titular District 9 (a reference to the infamous South African ‘whites only’ District Six of 1966).

However, the film was not as political as I expected – while it may have started off that way, before long it morphed into your more typical action sci-fi film, complete with an impossible mission, robots and alien blasters.

Stylistically, the movie was also somewhat uneven.  It commenced with a documentary-infused style which utilises a mixture of news footage, interviews and a ‘live’, nausea-inducing hand-held cam (which made my wife ill).  It was fresh but after half-an hour of it I was beginning to get sick of it (both mentally and physically).  But as the film started to become more personal and action-oriented (and for where news cameras would not have been available), it started to return to more traditional film-making and story-telling techniques.  Strangely, it was at this point that I began to really enjoy the movie.  Perhaps it was because characters finally started emerging and plot started moving.  Regardless, it was fun.

Speaking of characters, the human actors are largely unknowns (to me anyway), and they put in credible performances.  The lead actor, Sharlto Copley who plays Wikus van de Merwe, really annoyed me at the beginning but he grows on you as the film progresses.

Needless to say, the special effects were seamless.  So was the make-up.  I especially liked the alien design, a far cry from your slim, grey-skinned extra-terrestrial with the big black eyes.  They were funny (and provided much comic relief) but human enough for audiences to relate when required.

So overall, an unusual, solid film – one that I’m likely to remember a few years from now.  There were some glaring plot holes and inconsistencies, but District 9 is impressive enough in most other areas for me to recommend it.

3.5 stars out of 5!

 
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