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.
I watched Petulia again today in advance of talking about it for a podcast on Monday. It’s one of my favorite films, as anyone who’s ever been to my place knows since a giant poster of it hangs in my hallway. I don’t think I’d ever noticed how gorgeous this shot is, with a melancholy Julie Christie leaning on a sousaphone as George C. Scott looks on, all the “kook,” to use the film’s preferred term, drained out of her demeanor. To get the full effect, you have to see the scene, which begins with Christie appearing only as a reflection in the horn’s bell as Scott walks up toward the front of the frame, and into focus, before the camera pans over for the composition seen above. It’s just a moment out of time beneath a gloomy San Francisco sky. Somewhere nearby the promise of the Summer Of Love is unfolding, but these two will only get to look on from a distance.
Vintage trailer: New Year’s Evil (1981) [Warning: Fairly graphic by trailer standards]
This is from the crop of holiday-themed slasher films that appeared in the wake of Halloween and included everything from My Bloody Valentine to Mother’s Day (but not, sadly, Thanksgiving). I honestly can’t remember if I’ve seen it or not and from the looks of the trailer I don’t think I missed much if I did skip it. But I was thinking of this movie today for obvious reasons and because it reminded me of a time in my childhood when I became fixated on lurid newspaper ads for horror films. I was compelled to look at them and contemplate the terrifying images they promised but at the same time scared witless at the thought of actually watching one. I had a friend named Patrick at the time who helped feed my curiosity by telling me all about them having, he said, snuck into virtually any title I threw his way. It turns out he was lying, but he also had an extremely vivid imagination for a second grader. Of New Year’s Evil, I distinctly remember him recounting a plot involving a New Year’s party interrupted by vicious, tiny, furry creatures that devoured the partygoers’ feet. It was a complete fabrication, but all these years later I still kind of want to see that movie.