• Late to the Movies: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
I don’t want to spill a lot of words on this one since it’s already been talked to death (and subsequently half forgotten). I eyed this movie warily before it came out as it got passed from Guilermo Del Toro back to Peter Jackson and then expanded from one to two to three movies for reasons that didn’t seem to make a lot of sense, at least from a creative standpoint. My wariness grew as I heard reports of the 48 FPS projection and its disturbing, more-vivid-than-life-itself qualities and intensified when the less-than-stellar reviews started appearing. Nonetheless, it’s not like I wasn’t going to see it. I love Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Worst-case scenario, this would just feel like a bloated postscript with some memorable moments.
It’s good to prepare worst-case scenarios, isn’t it? Leaving aside the 48 FPS issue for the moment, it’s a slog to get to the memorable sequences. Watching it, I was reminded of how deftly Jackson and his collaborators adapted the massive Rings trilogy into three films. It took some effort to streamline all that narrative into feature-length films (longs ones, sure) while still finding room for the characters to come alive and the space for all those action sequences. The Hobbit has trouble pulling off the same trick in reverse. I knew I was in trouble when Bilbo breathlessly laid out the back story for what felt like 30 minutes and then the subtitle, An Unexpected Journey, flashed on the screen. There’s good stuff between the bloat, though. Martin Freeman’s a lot of fun as Bilbo, Ian McKellen has some fine moments, and the confrontation with Gollum is a real highlight. There’s a lot of imagination in the production design, too. (I was particularly fond of the Storm Giants, but could have done without the scrotum-necked Goblin King.)
As for the 48 FPS projection, I can’t say I wasn’t warned and I didn’t expect to like it. But my attitude was to treat it like an aesthetic choice. Jackson wanted the moive to have that look so I should give it a chance. We live in changing times. I love film as much as the next person but I’ve seen some directors find the aesthetic advantages in digital. (Che was a real turning point for me in appreciating what someone who knows how to play to the strengths of new technology can do.) And I can kind of see why he would want The Hobbit to have that look. In the effects sequences, where real actors fight CGI beasties, both realities live side-by-side seamlessly. As proof that, yes, Jackson’s effects studio knows what it’s doing, it’s extremely impressive.
On the other hand, it’s that sort of vividness is all wrong for a movie like The Hobbit, at least to my eyes. Why give a fantasy film the hard digital sheen of news footage? There’s a scene in the goblin cave when Gandalf scares off the bad guys with a flash of light and it took me a moment to figure out what the flash of light reminded me of. Then it hit me: It looked like a stage effect, as if someone were shining a spotlight at the audience. Carrying that thought a little further, The Hobbit looked like a really elaborate version of a filmed opera much of the time, a sort of Live From The Met with orcs instead of arias. I felt less transported to another world than dropped in the middle of its elaborate sets. Is that where we’re heading, toward movies that aspire to be more like a windows than a canvases? I hope not. I’m glad I had a look at what 48 FPS looks like, but I left The Hobbit hoping never to see it again.
Also, some of those dwarves looked way too tall.

    Late to the Movies: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

    I don’t want to spill a lot of words on this one since it’s already been talked to death (and subsequently half forgotten). I eyed this movie warily before it came out as it got passed from Guilermo Del Toro back to Peter Jackson and then expanded from one to two to three movies for reasons that didn’t seem to make a lot of sense, at least from a creative standpoint. My wariness grew as I heard reports of the 48 FPS projection and its disturbing, more-vivid-than-life-itself qualities and intensified when the less-than-stellar reviews started appearing. Nonetheless, it’s not like I wasn’t going to see it. I love Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Worst-case scenario, this would just feel like a bloated postscript with some memorable moments.

    It’s good to prepare worst-case scenarios, isn’t it? Leaving aside the 48 FPS issue for the moment, it’s a slog to get to the memorable sequences. Watching it, I was reminded of how deftly Jackson and his collaborators adapted the massive Rings trilogy into three films. It took some effort to streamline all that narrative into feature-length films (longs ones, sure) while still finding room for the characters to come alive and the space for all those action sequences. The Hobbit has trouble pulling off the same trick in reverse. I knew I was in trouble when Bilbo breathlessly laid out the back story for what felt like 30 minutes and then the subtitle, An Unexpected Journey, flashed on the screen. There’s good stuff between the bloat, though. Martin Freeman’s a lot of fun as Bilbo, Ian McKellen has some fine moments, and the confrontation with Gollum is a real highlight. There’s a lot of imagination in the production design, too. (I was particularly fond of the Storm Giants, but could have done without the scrotum-necked Goblin King.)

    As for the 48 FPS projection, I can’t say I wasn’t warned and I didn’t expect to like it. But my attitude was to treat it like an aesthetic choice. Jackson wanted the moive to have that look so I should give it a chance. We live in changing times. I love film as much as the next person but I’ve seen some directors find the aesthetic advantages in digital. (Che was a real turning point for me in appreciating what someone who knows how to play to the strengths of new technology can do.) And I can kind of see why he would want The Hobbit to have that look. In the effects sequences, where real actors fight CGI beasties, both realities live side-by-side seamlessly. As proof that, yes, Jackson’s effects studio knows what it’s doing, it’s extremely impressive.

    On the other hand, it’s that sort of vividness is all wrong for a movie like The Hobbit, at least to my eyes. Why give a fantasy film the hard digital sheen of news footage? There’s a scene in the goblin cave when Gandalf scares off the bad guys with a flash of light and it took me a moment to figure out what the flash of light reminded me of. Then it hit me: It looked like a stage effect, as if someone were shining a spotlight at the audience. Carrying that thought a little further, The Hobbit looked like a really elaborate version of a filmed opera much of the time, a sort of Live From The Met with orcs instead of arias. I felt less transported to another world than dropped in the middle of its elaborate sets. Is that where we’re heading, toward movies that aspire to be more like a windows than a canvases? I hope not. I’m glad I had a look at what 48 FPS looks like, but I left The Hobbit hoping never to see it again.

    Also, some of those dwarves looked way too tall.

    Jan
    31
    2013
  • Late To The Movies: Les Miserables (2012)
I can’t really say I enjoyed Les Miserables, the big-screen adaptation of the beloved Victor Hugo-inspired 1980s musical, but I liked it in the moments when the material found a way to sneak around the film itself. I went into it a bit wary, and probably a bit prejudiced thanks to the Twitter chatter about Tom Hooper’s direction, but I left feeling that, if anything, the sniping had been understated. The opening 10 minutes of this movie feel like the work of someone with little command of shot composition and even less of a sense of editing. The sets look spectacular but Hooper seems determined to shoot the movie as an homage to a filmed stage production, cutting from here to there for no particular reason and pacing behind Hugh Jackman as he ponders his fate at a monastery like an overzealous dad with an iPhone. In its worst moments, it feels like a film shot on sets years in the making over the course of a long, rushed weekend.
The film calms down a bit from there and the musical itself, when allowed breathing room, has some tremendously moving moments. Here at least, they’re weighted toward the first act of the film and mostly tied to Anne Hathaway’s character who—spoiler?—isn’t around the entire film. The back half’s a slog of badly staged action, lesser songs, and thinner characters. I’d never seen the musical in any form and while some of the songs will stick with me, I suspect my most lasting memories of the film will be my annoyance at the way it was filmed: all those unmotivated, Adam West-era Batman-style dutch tilts and shots of actors positioned on one side of the screen and singing out into a frame that’s 2/3 negative space, connecting with nothing, the viewer least of all.

    Late To The Movies: Les Miserables (2012)

    I can’t really say I enjoyed Les Miserables, the big-screen adaptation of the beloved Victor Hugo-inspired 1980s musical, but I liked it in the moments when the material found a way to sneak around the film itself. I went into it a bit wary, and probably a bit prejudiced thanks to the Twitter chatter about Tom Hooper’s direction, but I left feeling that, if anything, the sniping had been understated. The opening 10 minutes of this movie feel like the work of someone with little command of shot composition and even less of a sense of editing. The sets look spectacular but Hooper seems determined to shoot the movie as an homage to a filmed stage production, cutting from here to there for no particular reason and pacing behind Hugh Jackman as he ponders his fate at a monastery like an overzealous dad with an iPhone. In its worst moments, it feels like a film shot on sets years in the making over the course of a long, rushed weekend.

    The film calms down a bit from there and the musical itself, when allowed breathing room, has some tremendously moving moments. Here at least, they’re weighted toward the first act of the film and mostly tied to Anne Hathaway’s character who—spoiler?—isn’t around the entire film. The back half’s a slog of badly staged action, lesser songs, and thinner characters. I’d never seen the musical in any form and while some of the songs will stick with me, I suspect my most lasting memories of the film will be my annoyance at the way it was filmed: all those unmotivated, Adam West-era Batman-style dutch tilts and shots of actors positioned on one side of the screen and singing out into a frame that’s 2/3 negative space, connecting with nothing, the viewer least of all.

    Dec
    31
    2012

  • The 10 Best Films of 2012: An Incomplete But Annotated List

    In my experience, no best-of list is ever done. No matter how diligent one is in trying to watch everything of note throughout the year, the end of the year is always a crush, always an exercise, to borrow a term from Dan Kois, in triage. There’s simply no way to see everything, particularly if you have other professional responsibilities, as I did in 2012 and in the 15 years prior. Since turning in my top 10 list to The A.V. Club, the Chicago Film Critics Association, and the polls for Village Voice and Indiewire (think I missed the deadline on the last one) I’ve already seen one film—Only The Young—that might have made my list and spent a lot of time thinking about another—Not Fade Away—that might easily creep on the list if I were to revise it in a year or so. Then there are all those movies that Scott Tobias insisted I watch, like Miss Bala and Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, that I never quite got around to seeing—but which I’ll spend some time with next week in advance of another project in which I’m involved that I’ll be talking about soon. Oh, and I wasn’t in town for the preview screening of Django Unchained, which I’m finally seeing tomorrow. Tarantino’s a favorite. This list didn’t even give him a chance. If nothing else, it’s incomplete because of that, in addition to all the other reasons. Nonetheless, here’s a list.

    ——

    10. Holy Motors

    I’ve tried to explain the concept movie to others and it’s like trying to describe a particularly vivid dream that blurs at the edges. Then again, that’s more or less what it feels like watching Leos Carax’s comeback feature, which doubles as a grand statement on the power of movies and illusion, a collection of ideas that are brilliant on their own but pick up cumulative power as they’re gathered together here.

    9. The Loneliest Planet

    Nothing and everything happens in Julia Lotkev’s long trek through the Caucasus Mountains, wherein one moment upends the relationship of a young couple. The scenery is breathtaking, the moment in question shocking and troublingly plausible, and the film’s deliberate pace allows gives both the room they need.

    8. Beasts Of The Southern Wild

    I don’t think there were two more divisive films this year than Zero Dark Thirty and this tour through the far ends of the Louisiana bayou sometime after civilization has begun to collapse. Both worked for me, this one thanks to director Benh Zeitlin’s eye for offhand beauty and the performances of first-time actors Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis.

    7. The Deep Blue Sea

    Squint and it actually is a remake of the Renny Harlin shark movie—it’s desire that emerges seemingly out of nowhere to devour the unsuspecting victims.

    6. The Kid With A Bike

    Shocker: The Dardennes deliver a moving drama about moral choices and their consequences. Is it just that we’ve started to take them for granted that this didn’t show up on more lists?

    5. Amour

    Michael Haneke’s depiction of age ravaging an elderly couple is as unblinking and true of any of his films, even though it deals with a more everyday sort of devastation. (Or at least those I’ve seen: I’m not a timid viewer, but—true confession—I’ve bailed on Funny Games twice after 15 minutes.) That there’s no irony to makes it all the more powerful.

    4. Wuthering Heights

    Never mind Anna Karenina: The real breakthrough in offering a fresh take on familiar literary material this year came from Andrea Arnold, who dug into the Yorkshire soil for a raw take on Emily Bronte’s novel. Her vision perfectly captures the book’s oppressive romantic gloom and accentuates some of its key scenes by casting two black actors as Heathcliff (one as a child and the other as an adult).

    3. The Master

    Sure, it was inspired by Scientology, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s remarkable film is also the bigger story of a generation confronted with new freedom, deep doubt, and the maw of unknowing in the wake of World War II.

    2. Moonrise Kingdom

    It was a good year for Andersons. Wes Anderson’s melancholy picture book sensibility found a beautiful outlet in this coming-of-age story, in which children and grown-ups alike struggle with disappointment and receive just enough hope to make the struggle seem worthwhile.

    1. Zero Dark Thirty

    When the smoke clears on this one, it will be recognized not just as a stunning procedural about the hunt of Osama Bin Laden but as a psychic snapshot of a decade spent in the moral wilderness. Yes, the torture is there, and yes, the characters operate as if it’s necessary to do their jobs. (Whether it is useful or necessary remains an open question, at least in the version of the film I saw.) Would it be honest to depict the process any other way? Would it make us so uncomfortable if we didn’t feel some collective guilt for wondering if maybe, in the thick of those dark years, it was necessary? What’s also been lost in the discussion: The rest of the film, which is stunning, tense, upsetting and, in the end, offers no real sense of relief, only the possibility that the cycle will repeat itself.

    Need to see again: Lincoln

    I liked it and wrote as much. But this is one of those reviews I filed thinking I might have missed something and the reaction of others tells me it’s definitely time for a second look. (It’s the converse of last year when I begged everyone to give War Horse another look.)

    Also:

    Flight, Argo, Declaration Of War, Bernie, and Oslo, August 31st. And more, no doubt, when I revisit this even a week from now.

    Dec
    27
    2012

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Untitled Keith Phipps Project

Stumble past the record store, end up at the movies

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