Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Various Formats)

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The HobbitThe Pitch: Middle Earth, Episode 1: The Phantom Appendices.

The Review: Yes, for the second time in blockbuster film history we have the start of a prequel trilogy to an original trilogy, and we all remember how well that turned out. So, given that the plan wasn’t originally to even make this a trilogy, the first expectation going into The Hobbit: An Unexpected First Part Of A Trilogy is that it’s going to be something of an endurance test. It’s a strange state of affairs; the original Lord Of The Rings trilogy is so beloved by many that longer versions of the first three films were welcomed when they arrived on DVD. The first three films had 30, 42 and 50 minutes respectively added in when they hit home formats, but even so the commonest complaint about The Return Of The King is that it was too long, specifically with too many endings. It’s oddly symmetrical, then, that the beginning of this Middle Earth sextet suffers from the opposite problem of too many beginnings.

I count myself as a big fan of the original films, so I share the thrill of many to be back in this world, but it seems that Peter Jackson can’t bear to leave it, so keen is he to spend as much time in it as possible. The structure could be lifted almost directly from Fellowship: we get a scene setting montage, followed by a journey to Hobbiton, where a visit from Gandalf then spurs us into action. Where this whips along in the original, here it takes almost 45 minutes to get going, with an extended framing device bringing back old Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) being fundamentally unnecessary, and setting that tone. When we have another extended edition waiting for us on DVD and Blu-ray, material like this should have been saved, as a lean cut of this film (conceivably still running at around two and a quarter hours) would have brought us back to Middle Earth perfectly and still allowed us to wallow and luxuriate in a cut around an hour longer at home. It wouldn’t be so frustrating – or obvious – if so much hadn’t been added in to get the running time to this length, including further committee meetings at Rivendell with Galadriel and Saruman and an additional revenge subplot featuring Azog The Destroyer which feels like a desperate attempt to add peril to the longer running time. It may also be an attempt to recapture more of the tone of the first three films, as while this is a children’s book most of the additions are of a more serious nature and attempt to add dramatic weight, when actually a little more levity would help to ease the passage of time.

Those even more in love with Middle Earth than me may not find themselves caring too much, for this is very much the Middle Earth we know and love, with familiar areas lovingly recreated and every aspect of the production reeking of the same quality that oozed out of the original trilogy. It’s just a shame that more of the running time isn’t spent on getting to know the new characters rather than lazily revisiting old ones: Ian McKellen has perfected the passive smug look of Gandalf The Grey and gets plenty of chances to roll it out, along with a few other clichés, including an interminable number of shots of characters running over mountains and even shots of characters extending one arm while crying “Noooo!” in slow motion. This does tend to overshadow the fresher elements, and if you can identify more than four, possibly even three, of the dwarves on sight after a single viewing then you’re doing better than I am. Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt and Ken Stott all make a moderate impression on this first outing, and there are a few other well-formed appearances from the likes of Barry Humphries as the CG Goblin King, but the other problem The Hobbit Part 1 suffers from is also its greatest asset.

For anyone that knows anything about the book, they’ll know that Chapter 5 is called Riddles In The Dark, and features the one appearance in this first Middle Earth story of Gollum. The effects work might have moved on in ten years, making Andy Serkis’ performance even more believable and more successfully bringing out the pathetic nature of the character, but it’s Serkis and Martin Freeman’s performances that make this scene such a success, playing out almost unbroken but leaving viewers dreadfully in suspense while waiting for its arrival. Freeman’s performance is one of the things that helps to moderate against that, proving even more successful as a hairy-footed nexus for the plot than Wood’s Frodo did in the original trilogy, a masterclass in emotion and comic timing. Crippling pacing and lack of momentum aside, there’s a lot to like here, and while the stakes aren’t as high yet or the urgency as compelling, those content to have a more gentle wander through Middle Earth should be generally satisfied. Let’s just hope that, as well as a dragon and a Bowman, we get to know a few more dwarves and a hobbit much better in the next instalment.

Why see it at the cinema: I wasn’t originally convinced by the quality of the CGI, but ten minutes of watching The Two Towers on TV when I came home from seeing this a second time quickly convinced me that the work of Weta and their colleagues has advanced significantly in the decade since LOTR. Due to the smaller scale nature of events, the big set piece here isn’t a Helm’s Deep or a Pelennor Fields but two characters in a cave, swapping riddles. That it still has the power to grip to the extent of the big battles is testament to the power of the story telling of both Tolkien and the four scriptwriters who’ve adapted his work, and if you’re any sort of fan of the original trilogy then seeing this in a cinema is a must. Exactly how you see it is more up for debate, however…

Why see it in 3D: Your first debate will be whether or not to see it in 3D. The style of the original, featuring lots of beauty passes of people running over half of New Zealand, lends itself extremely well to the needs of 3D, giving your eyes time to focus and get the perspective. However, where other directors such as James Cameron and Ang Lee have adapted their style to account for this need for longer shots and less frantic editing, Jackson is only partially successful on this front, with goblin fights sometime shot from above in single passes and working well, but conflicts on the move often featuring quick cuts and making the 3D pointless. The style of the films is there, but Jackson needs to give himself over to it even more for the next two films to make them truly need the 3D enhancement.

Why see it in HFR: Unless you’ve been living in a hobbit hole for the last couple of years, you’ll be aware that The Hobbit trilogy has been filmed at a higher frame rate. While varying frame rates aren’t uncommon on TV, it’s pretty certain that every film you see in a cinema will be shot and exhibited at 24 frames per second. The Hobbit doubles this to 48 (still a shade short of what our eyes effectively work at, which is about 55), and the two main arguments for doing this are for additional clarity of the image and to reduce the eye strain that 3D provides.

In absolute terms, HFR is a success on both counts: the image is sharper, with everything from the pores on Martin Freeman’s face to the wisps of hair on Gollum’s head leaping out of the screen and the CGI feeling more in keeping with the live action, and the 3D image seeming to leap off the screen even more, suffering less from motion blur. In relative terms, it’s pretty much a failure: this is a fantasy film, and making it look more real unwittingly has to make you work harder to wilfully suspend your disbelief, and since Jackson hasn’t yet nailed the editing and shot composition for 3D, making it less blurry feels like a cheat to avoid moderating his techniques for the format, and consequently doesn’t work.

Factor into that the fact that HFR doesn’t do anything to address either of the other main complaints about 3D itself (and when taken together, Life Of Pi did address them, only last week): it doesn’t in any way address the loss of light, so many sequences in caves are still frustratingly dark, and it doesn’t actually add to the storytelling in any noticeable way. While I would probably watch The Hobbit Part 2 in HFR if I was seeing 3D, nothing at the moment has convinced me that it’s a better experience than 2D. These things need time to bed in, but if someone doesn’t use this tool effective and quickly, it might just turn out to be an expensive gimmick.

Why see it in IMAX: This one’s a little easier: if you like seeing big images, then IMAX does the job, and the 70mm print I saw this on at the BFI IMAX in London really brought out the detail in some of the grander scenes such as the Rivendell stop-off. It’s immersive, but as it’s not been filmed on IMAX cameras, not essential.

The Score: 7/10

Review: Jackass 3D

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The Pitch: Johnny Knoxville takes one step closer to not needing that old age make up…

The Review: If the thought that it’s more than ten years since Johnny Knoxville and his pals burst onto our screens, then have a thought for them. Could they have really imagined that after all this time, they’d still be attempting to find cruel and unusual ways to tease, torment and torture each other? There has, of course, been a long break since the last instalment, even if you include the deleted scenes which escaped onto DVD under the pretence of being a separate movie, so it is it really worth the wait? For that matter, is it really worth the trouble?

The excuse for this dip into the well of human depravity, of course, is the opportunity to affix a D to the 3 of the title. Always looking to do things properly where it counts, they’ve got some proper 3D kit, then set about finding ways to use it. This isn’t to say that every stunt requires the use of 3D; indeed, more of them than not would be absolutely fine in 2D, but there are undoubtedly some memorable moments. What actually works better here is the other new innovation, the high speed camera used to capture the moments of heavily inflicted pain; watching the moment of impact in crystal clear slow motion adds to the feeling of awe and sense of fascination as you watch the slow-motion convulsions, and also to the empathy you’ll feel for each one on the receiving end.

Of course, Jackass has never been about purely sadistic pleasures; the intent is to make us laugh, and a lot of that is dependent on the camaraderie and interplay between the various Jackasses. Most make a return, only Raab Himself and Brandon DiCamillo not present from the core cast and the rest might look a little more creased, but are still willing to give their all in both the physical and the just plain daft. Knoxville might be the figurehead, but the most telling contribution is that of Steve-O, who has discovered sobriety since the last movie and enters into most of the stunts with a new found sense of self-awareness, giving him much more of the expression of a rabbit in the headlights, about two seconds before it’s about to connect with bumper.

It’s not all about the physical, of course, and Jackass is as smart as ever in the execution of some of its high concepts, such as a bar fight played out by Wee-Man and a few of his friends. April and Phil, Bam’s put upon parents, get put upon again although it’s sometimes more of their own choosing now, and stalwarts of the series from Spike Jonze to Rip Taylor all pop up in their well-worn roles. So to answer those earlier questions, it was worth the wait; absence has made the heart grow fonder and the technical innovations add an element of freshness to the familiar. As to whether it’s worth the trouble, that’s one you can only answer if you’ve seen and enjoyed Jackass before; it’s always gelled in a way that its contemporaries have struggled to do, and it remains consistently funny throughout. If Jackass is your (sick) bag, then there’s little this year that will make you laugh as hard or as long.

Why see it at the cinema: For anyone even slightly inhibited, the company of others should allow you to truly enter into the spirit. (And by that, I don’t mean you should urinate on the row in front. Just to be clear.)

Why see it in 3D?: Where else can you expect to see a giant pink dildo being fired out of a cannon straight at your face? IN 3D?

The Score: 9/10

Escape From George Lucas

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I have you now! Mwahahahaha.

If you’re reading this, then help. For the love of God, send help. There’s this man, his name is George, and he’s got me locked away and he’s making unreasonable demands, like some sort of over-excited uncle. I don’t know what to do, there seems to be no way out, and now he’s got me in his hypnotic gaze I don’t know if I’ll ever escape. He’s torturing me, and he seems to think the Geneva convention is some kind of folk band. His evil knows no limits, and I don’t know how much longer I can last.

It’s all right for all of you. Free to wander about the lush green pastures of the world, without a care, able to watch original films and not subjected to the endless torture of the same old films, over and over again. I used to love Star Wars and Indiana Jones; I bought the videos, I bought them again, I bought the DVDs, I watched them over and over, perfect slices of entertainment, which I thought I could never tire of.

But now Uncle George (as he’s making me call him) has me imprisoned; he said he’s never going to let me out, but worse than that he’s converting my beloved entertainments into, whisper it softly, 3D. He intends to keep me here, locked up, and to show me one a year until my eyeballs start to bleed from the sheer horror of it all.

Jar Jar, in glorious 2D. Oh, how I envy you.

But you, dear reader, you are not subject to my plight. You have free will, you can avoid these travesties, these butcherings of my childhood and pillagings of my fantasies. You don’t have to witness these 3D atrocities, you can avoid them, you are masters of your own destiny. No one will compel you to watch them if you don’t want to. You are the lucky ones.

Sorry, what’s that Uncle George? No, I’m not talking to anyone. No, you can wear the Jabba the Hutt costume tonight, as long as you don’t show me any more 3D footage… (Send help. Please. Before he comes for you too.)

Review: Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D

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The Pitch: It’s Not A Wonderful Afterlife. (Just setting my stall out early.)

The Review: It’s one of the most commonly held theories in movies that you can’t make good cinematic adaptations of computer games. Don’t believe me? Then look at this list. Not one live action movie based on a computer game has a Rotten Tomatoes score of over 40%, and the box office for that list is also generally pretty poor. But surely any movie based on a computer game that’s managed to get to its third sequel, and has done big box office business quickly enough to ensure that the fourth sequel is already on its way, must be doing something right? Right?

If it is, then it’s gone over my head. There’s an obvious appeal from Resident Evil: the series of computer games – zombies and other mutated creatures, and you get to dispatch them in various satisfying ways. The games themselves have always succeeded in creating atmosphere, but there’s precious little of that on offer here. An opening sequence wraps up the cliffhanger from the previous entry, doing so with precious little in the way of wit, imagination or style. It does then kickstart the real plot, prompting Milla Jovovich to have to act briefly in a confession to camera sequence that manages to be both tedious (it’s very short but doesn’t feel it) and unbelievable.

Ah yes, Milla Jovovich. Just because you’re married to the director, love, does it really mean you have to keep doing these? You’ve got a movie coming out with Edward Norton and Robert De Niro soon! Jovovich continues to fill the function of acting as your avatar in the movie world but adds very little else in the way of proceedings to anything. Those missing Ali Larter or Wentworth Miller from their cancelled TV series might think they’ll get a fix here, but other than the fact they’re actually playing characters from the computer games (unlike most of the others here), they’re not adding much either.

Paul WS Anderson is content to reference other action movies without ever coming up with anything especially original. Shots are poorly framed and have no weight in the action sequences, characters are picked off in uninteresting and undramatic ways (at least throw in a bit of gore if people we don’t care about because of your poor plot and character exposition are dying?), and for a movie that should be full of zombies, this goes to great lengths to keep them fenced off and leave you purely in the company of the other insipid excuses for characters, which is completely inexcusable. The games themselves are renowned for their puzzles – the only puzzle here is why you’d want to watch it in the first place? *

Why see it at the cinema: If you’re a fan of the series, then seek help you’ll be going anyway. If you’re not, then you won’t be going anyway – hopefully. Frankly, if you’ve read this, if you haven’t been to one of these before and are still tempted, then I’d be checking that pulse – the zombies might have gotten you already.

Why see it in 3D: Nominally, because this is filmed with the same 3D camera set-up used for Avatar, so the 3D isn’t applied in post-production. The effect they have achieved is not only that the 3D looks dark, but in some places it actually appears the movie is in black and white. Still, things will occasionally be thrown in your virtual face, if you like that sort of thing.

The Score: 2/10

* You may indeed be wondering why I watched it in the first place? Foolishly, I had eight hours while my wife was out on a volunteer assignment and I could fit in three movies, Cyrus and ‘Tamara Drewe’ being the first two, and this then being the only realistic possibility for a third. On reflection, sitting in the car for two hours staring at a hedge may have been preferable. Hey, it’s not the worst movie I’ve seen this year, just the second worst. Thanks, Catherine Zeta Jones.