Monday, January 07, 2013

An Unexpected Brain Dump: THE HOBBIT

I've been going to see new release films in the theater a lot, which is unusual for me. Must be the slowly increased overtime coupled with the want to not be at home on the weekends. Without delving into specifics, I'm just going to let my brain unzip and dump out whatever it has to say about a few of them I saw at the end of 2012. I don't do "year end" lists, so a couple rambling cases of thought-diarrhea is as close as we're going to get on the Kentai Blog.

So, where to begin? How about with the one I saw most recently? Because that totally makes sense.

Hell of a lot better than the billboards I see every day.

I'm just gonna come out and say it: THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY actually isn't bad. Don't get me wrong, it's got problems - some bigger than others - and as both a huge fan of Peter Jackson's stylistically indulgent re-wiring of Hollywood in his previous Tolkien Trilogy, and someone to whom this story was read to me when the notion of a "chapter book" still seemed like a daunting threat more than a treat, I might as well go over those flaws now so we can get back to the fun stuff.

Yes, it's bloated and runs (at least) one reel too long, even with the methodical pacing and expanded scope that, by and large, lends it to its almost shockingly massive runtime. Yes, it's really more an adaptation of the Tolkien Appendices, with some pretty dramatic licenses taken on the specifics, particularly making Radagast the Brown and Azog The Defiler major players - the latter of whom is, I shit you not, poised to become "The Last Boss" of the Hobbit Trilogy. It also works in loving cameos from both Hobbiton and The White Council, but considering the former is a cute little sendoff for fans and the latter is going to be used to expand the living shit out of the next two movies, I suppose that's a fair compromise to make in the long run - ah yes, the "expansion". Let's talk about that as a concept for a second: Right from the start when it was announced that Del Toro was going to be adapting this as two films, I was nervous. When it was announced that Jackson was helming three, all I could do was laugh. A book that's literally 1/5th the length of The Lord of the Rings getting the same number of films? Who the fuck thought that was in any way, shape or form a sane idea?

 On paper, yes, it's the worst kind of excess, and the majority of people writing this off as a shallow, desperate cash-in had completely valid arguments before even a frame of the film had been shown to the public. All of that angry, dismissive thought process is forgetting something, though: They're forgetting that Peter Jackson loves Middle Earth, and he'd be the last person on the planet to half-ass a potential ten-plus hours to explore every single nook and cranny of the universe he's spent so much of his lifetime sharing with the world. In short, how much you think this is a shitty cash-grab depends largely on how you see Peter Jackson. I won't say the man isn't above failure - he did, after all, direct The Lovely Bones, a film I've yet to subject myself to for fear of "losing" Jackson's indulgent but otherwise fantastic winning streak of cinematic gold - but I tend to think that "apathy", much less for the things he loves, is simply not within Jackson's vocabulary. I'll be the first to admit that the film is 'big' and 'epic' in a way that Tolkien's children's book never was, or was ever meant to be. Every aspect of the film is designed to be bigger, bolder, and somehow more "final" than Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, but for all the time and money it spends trying to wow us, I'm not convinced that the cynicism leveled toward it is being entirely fair. If the Devil is in the Details, then Peter Jackson must be Beelzebub, tearing Tolkien's complex jumble of notes, journal entries, and rough dates and trying to slowly, carefully re-purpose them into a single cohesive narrative, something the man that wrote these damn books never could!

"Not all those who wander are lost, bitches."
- Dictated. Probably never once uttered.

The Hobbit, at its core, was a simple tale about taking back treasure from a wicked dragon; there's no moral ambiguity, no simmering romances, no big ideas about freedom or sacrifice. There's some trolls, a couple eagles, some goofy songs, barrel riding... and that's really about it. It's a cute story, really, but not one that translates into a 10 hour trilogy.  Jackson has made Tolkien, in the minds of the general public, an epic about Sauron's rise to power, and the Fellowship that cut him back down to size. 15 years ago, when per-production on Jackson's indellible mark towards Hollywood began, he had to trim and streamline and modernize Tolkien's work as carefully and respectfully as he could, just for a chance of getting his vision, his passion, onto the big screen. 15 years later, he's taking this final, unexpected opportunity to film EVERYTHING he's legally allowed to, filling in the gaps of his own films, and trying to close the door on Tolkien cinematic adaptations behind him while he's at it. It's a mad, perhaps even a selfish vision... but one that's made over $800,000,000 in theaters. Clearly the world at large is still willing to take Jackson's idealism with their hearts and their wallets, mad or not.

The film makes a lot of ballsy choices under Jackson's watch, one of the most interesting being the new, underlying idea that The Lonely Mountain - or more specifically, the halls of Erebor beneath it -  were a great loss to the Dwarves who lived there. Not because of the vast riches Smaug took from them, but also because it left them homeless, nomadic wanderers, the downtrodden and weary hobos of Middle Earth without a land to call their own. It's an interesting, smart take on why the Party of Dwarves would march on a dragon despite being obviously ill-prepared to take him head on; it gives the journey a more thematically satisfying, and if you know how it all goes, tragic direction for it to march toward. Azog the Defiler is, similarly, an element that not only gives Thorin more credibility as a hardened warrior, and thus has earned the respect of his wards as the last king of their people, but it also sets up a nice (if not fully necessary) character arc for Thorin to finish at The War of Five Armies. There's also a lot of little dialog about how Thorin especially sees Bilbo as dead weight on their journey, a coward ready to bolt, and he has to prove himself by the end of the first act as anything but a deserter. None of this is directly in the book, no, but then Bilbo's constant narration isn't in the movie either, so his personal growth has to be measured by external factors. Fair enough, even if it does make Thorin into a bit of a needless hard-ass, to the point where you almost don't blame Bilbo for wanting to ditch them all.

 Well, at least his boots aren't yellow...

It also adds everyone's favorite pastime: RACISM! Specifically it adds a distrust and weariness to Thorin over the elves, who he felt turned their collective backs on his people when Smaug fucked Erabor up real good, leaving his society in shambles and eventually leading them to Khazad Dum where... well, you know. Much has been made of Tolkien's descriptive use of broad-stroke African and Asian features to describe the various "races" of Orcs in the Lord of the Rings, but introducing a level of separation and ignorance between the 'heroic' races is an interesting, human reaction to his frustration that "those people" refused to help "his people" in their time of need. Of course, the elves had every reason not to assault Smaug, and it wasn't because they disliked the dwarves, but it still presents Thorin with an innate moral flaw that makes him more believable, if not actually more likable. This'll have a greater impact later on, but it's nice to see Jackson extrapolating real-world reactions to traumatically fantastic experiences. It's not even a central point to the story; it just is. Thorin's a racist asshole. Love it. Not that I love racism itself, just that I love Jackson acknowledging that any nuanced and fully realized fantasy world can be full of short-sighted and detrimental hatred... you know, just like our own.

The real star of the show - no exceptions - is Andy Serkis proving, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the concept of "filming" an actor's performance is no longer required to be done in the traditional manner. Gollum was an impressive, almost shocking apparition of polished digital workmanship in 2001, but WETA and Serkis have finally bridged that gap, making the "animated" Gollum just as believable a presence as Martin Freeman as Bilbo. The Uncanny Valley is certainly a reality in the human subconscious, but Jackson and his team have furthered the ways around it for the purposes of film more than anyone before them, and for that alone, the three of them deserve unending respect for moviegoers everywhere. The entire "Riddles in the Dark" scene was worth the price alone, leaping off the page in a way that nobody but Jackson could have delivered, and if you don't feel a tinge of both horror and pity for Gollum's horrible existance... you kind of suck. You really do. Yes, the final line in the scene was a bit of a head-scratcher (how did they NOT exploit the split personality angle the full line presents?! ARGH!!), but it's delivered with such astounding conviction and amazing fury that I'm willing to give it a pass.

Poor Serkis will never have the Precious Oscar he do deserves.

That's not to say Freeman, or anyone else in the film, isn't pulling their weight - I have no complaints with his portrayal of Bilbo as a befuddled, frustrated, but ultimately trustworthy and well meaning "burglar". Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshielf has a hell of a lot of brooding presence for a guy named after a chunk of log, while the semi-original villain Azog is brought to life via Manu Bennett, does a lot as the surprise heavy with the script giving him little to do. The dwarves have largely been expanded into something resembling actual characters (rather than just funny names), and Gandalf having a bunch of "Expanded Universe" stuff to do makes his belated return to save everyone's asses, multiple times, feel slightly less deus ex-ish than it did in Tolkien's texts. Ian McKellen and, frankly, everyone returning from the last decade are all in top form, and as absurd as it might sound to cast actors a decade later as their younger selves, I didn't notice anything distracting about the decision.

The less sure to please change is the prominence of Radagast, who's not only so ridiculous he makes the cast of Meet the Feebles look nuanced and subtle, but doesn't do anything that Gandalf couldn't have done (and did, in the fucking books, by the way). Still, if a 'shroomed up hippie on a rabbit powered sleigh sucking poison out of a sick hedgehog - yes, I swear I didn't make any part of that up - is the single worst thing I could complain about... well, actually saying it out loud, it does sound kind of full of bullshit, doesn't it? So yeah, mark me down as someone not wowed by the introduction of a batshit crazy wizard covered in bird poop, even if he is, technically, Tolkien canon. That said, any and all comparisons to Jar-Jar Binks will be met with the back of the hand, so don't even fucking go there. Yes, he's a waste of space in a film with nothing but runtime to spare, but he's never that useless.

A Greeeeeeeeat, Adveeeeeenture, should not soooound like thiiiiiiiiiiiis...
(Oh come on, like you didn't want this in 1978.)

The one thing that's missing from the book? Tolkien's songs. The Fucking Songs are missing, despite half the movie being made up of scraps and fan fiction (minus the expected slash boning). Look, I'm not one to judge the gayity and overt insanity of filling a 9 hour journey with shitty traveling music, but it's just... weird, isn't it? I'd complain that the Great Goblin didn't explicitly lose his head, either, but the impression I get is that Jackson filmed it, and shortly thereafter the MPAA decided one major decapitation was plenty for a PG-13 film. Maybe on the extended Blu-ray - and yes, that's already confirmed to be happening. I like this film quite a bit, but you know what it doesn't need? Another half hour of bullshit, like Gandalf setting off fireworks and the dwarves being loud and disgusting and generally making the elves react the way that high society reacts to Rodney Dangerfield. Clearly Jackson knew that some of this had to hit the cutting room floor, but when you re-write the very DNA of your chosen medium, you tend to get carte blanche to do whatever the hell you want when you go back into it, regardless of how much your movie could use just a little trimming. (Again, see George Lucas for how terrible that can go.)

Even holding aside his early splat-stick masterworks, Peter Jackson was a goddamn pioneer in bringing nerd culture to the masses in the one vehicle they'd happily consume it - lavish, stand alone theatrical films - and in doing so he expanded and perhaps even corrupted the landscape of franchise films around him, making them bigger, more complex, and more in tune with whatever the creators original work had been. This change has finally come full circle, with Jackson expanding all of that sort of material he had to skip last time into an epic unto itself, ridiculously - but perhaps not unfairly - expanding just a bit over 300 pages of narrative into a multi-faceted trilogy. Yes, it's over the top. But you know what? That first film was a lot of fun, too. Do you remember that? When you just watch a bunch of silly men with bitchin' beards fighting against a horde of goblins for ten minutes because that's fucking awesome? Based on the middling reviews by critics, no, they don't recognize tits sized fun when they see it. Fuck 'em. If they hadn't had The Phantom Menace to cock-slap them violently back to the reality of what a BAD geek movie looks like, I'm sure Fellowship of the Ring wouldn't have been as warmly received as it was either. Damn good quality never looks better when it's sat next to horrific failure.

Please put on your 3D Monacles... NOW.

As for the 48fps... cripes, what is there to say, really? It's new tech that works most of the time, but fast pans are a quick and unpleasant reminder that something's "off". Once you get over the initial acid flashback weirdness that, yes, does look uncomfortably like footage that's been sped up in-camera but then doesn't drop frames. Much like the difference between film playing on a 30fps monitor versus video actually shot at 60Hz, the difference is jarring and ugly at just a little unnerving at first, but once your brain adjusts to it, that whole "HFR48" technology just looks a little smoother than typical 24fps. But it's not "sharper", and every time you try to describe the effect and use the 's' word, your penis shrinks just a little. The film was edited on a 2K DI, same as pretty much any major Hollywood blockbuster, but the film appears clearer because there's less motion blur - not better resolution. It'd be like getting a warmer piece of food and commenting that it's "saltier". You're being an idiot. Stop being an idiot, please.

Video games are used as a pretty common comparison, but I refute that based on the fact that a great many games still run at 30fps, including Dark Souls, which is currently sodomizing anything resembling free time into a miserable, bloody heap of lost limbs and broken thumbsticks. My gut reaction here is that 48fps looks great when the camera isn't mounted to a helicoptor or swinging from one side of a chasm to the other; DP's will have to get used to this new format to make the most of it, the same way they had to for 3D to work properly. And yes, I still think 3D is a waste of time and effort, but I'll give Jackson his due and note that this could be the best looking film I've ever watched through a pair of tinted goggles, using it to stage different elements of set design in a way that - at least to me - seems natural and not especially reliant on gimmicks. Moments of arrows or fireballs being shot directly into your eyeballs are kept to a bare minimum, and if you're going to go out of your way to pull this crap, that's about all I ask.

But, yeah... It's no Fellowship of the Ring. Nor was it ever going to be - or should it even have been, really. The scope, tone, and goals of the source materials were so drastically different that even with Jackson drumming up the drama and epicality[TM] from a short children's book to an older, smarter demographic... there just isn't enough there to ever eclipse Lord of the Rings. No matter how hard he tries or how cool it might have been. This isn't the tale of a nation uniting to overthrow evil itself with the very fate of the world in the balance, it's a bunch of goofballs trying to ransack a dragon's hidey hole and then get back home for supper. Approach it for what it is, rather than its bigger brother, and I think it's a perfectly serviceable experience, full of impressive visuals and as much fun as it deserves to dole out. It's all a little goofy, sure, but anyone complaining about that in a movie about bare-foot midgets stabbing goblins really needs to chill the fuck out for a couple hours.

In short, it's a lot of fun groundwork. Recommended, if your love of casual whimsy and tolerance for bladder destroying epics haven't both been quashed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Allow me to put on my pedant's hat (and affix it at a precisely jaunty angle with the aid of an inclinometer) and point out that going from 24fps to 48fps IS an increase in resolution: temporal resolution.