Review – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Review – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Please note: on first viewing I saw the film in a Digital IMAX 3D print in the lower frame rate of 24fps (trust me, it matters.)

2012, 169 mins, 12A, Dir. Peter Jackson, starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage and Ken Stott

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Like a lot of people, I hungrily anticipated Peter Jackson’s film version of The Hobbit from the start, right through from its director confusion to its casting decisions to the announcement that the whole thing would be split into two… no, three films! I managed to read the book, which was even more imaginative, colourful and witty than I could have imagined (roll on The Lord of the Rings). A lot was building on this film, and I am more than satisfied to say that, even in the wake of some negative critical response, it delivers – perhaps not in the neatest way, but it doesn’t disappoint.

An Unexpected Journey is the first of a trilogy that follows the exploits of Bilbo Baggins, a quiet and conservative Hobbit who would much rather be at home consuming tea and scones than going on an adventure with the wizard Gandalf and thirteen unpredictable dwarves. As it turns out, however, that is exactly what happens, and Bilbo finds himself up against Goblins, Orcs, trolls and a thin, intimidating creature by the name of Gollum. At least, that’s what happens in this film; there’s still a plethora of strangely shaped monsters and enemies to come, including the formidable and cunning dragon Smaug. We begin, much like The Fellowship of the Ring, with a lengthy prologue that explains the current situation of Middle-Earth with some truly fiery special effects; then we’re transported to an aged Bilbo whiling away his time in The Shire; he decides to record what has happened in his life for the sake of his son Frodo, and this is where our journey begins.

The decision to expand into three films was controversial at first; while the Lord of the Rings trilogy came from source material that was much broader and certainly not lacking in detail, The Hobbit is a relatively short children’s novel that arguably contains only enough set-pieces for one (or certainly two) films. What Peter Jackson has decided to do is incorporate other elements from Middle-Earth, from The Lord of the Rings and J.R.R. Tolkien’s lengthy appendices at the end of Return of the King. The effect isn’t overwhelmingly positive. In fact, in certain parts of the narrative we certainly feel distanced from the main character and his story as Jackson scrambles to put in references to Tolkien’s world and characters; one scene of dialogue in Rivendell simply goes on for far too long. How you respond to that could very well depend on how much you’ve been looking forward to the film; certain critics have dealt with this inconsistency very harshly. But I think that there is more than enough in An Unexpected Journey that outweighs the problems with the plot.

Firstly, the casting. Martin Freeman is simply a joy to watch as Bilbo, fussing around hilariously when the dwarves first arrive in his home and later making for a truly believable hero. We have Peter Jackson to thank for waiting long enough for Freeman to become available for the film – indeed, it seems little likely that anyone else could fill his role so effectively. Though Ian McKellen’s role as Gandalf is less demanding and perhaps less interesting here, he is still a delight to watch. The dwarves also fare very well. The director arguably misses a trick by not introducing them all individually, something that certainly could have been achieved in place of another longer, pondering scene of which there are a few; it is a shame that the tiny quirks, like the random axe buried in Bifur’s head, are not dwelled on particularly. Oh well. The major dwarves are characterised reasonably well and there is more opportunity to do so in the future installments.

Bilbo with Bifur, Dwalin, Bofur and Oin (OK, I suppose the axe is sort-of noticeable…)

I also loved its humour. An Unexpected Journey has darker elements but it doesn’t ultimately disguise the fact that it is based on a children’s book, and there is plenty of physical comedy involving the dwarves, much of it revolving around the fattest of them, Bombur. The design of the characters also lends to this lighter mentality – the dwarves all have rather incredible moustaches and beards, the trolls retain their slightly cockney accents, and the Great Goblin has a chin that extends to his stomach and happens to be played by Barry Humphries (the Goblin, not the chin). How brilliant is that?

It also happens to be absolutely stunning in terms of its visuals. As if we would expect anything else from Peter Jackson – the worlds he creates (with Tolkien influence, of course) are astonishing to behold. Rivendell, once again, is beautiful to look at, while the escape scene in the Goblin Kingdom is so perfectly orchestrated it left me literally salivating for more. Who could forget, however, a quieter but pretty integral part involving riddles duelled in a dark cave? Gollum is once again vividly realised by Andy Serkis and his scene with Bilbo is arguably the greatest in the film, as it is in the book. While what’s onscreen is ravishing, how the film is presented is a different matter. I cannot comment on the impact of the new frame rate of 48fps because I simply didn’t see it in that format. I will say that I was very annoyed by the 3D in my showing, especially in IMAX; light from the screen caused very distracting reflections on my oversized glasses – for very little visible 3D effect, it was frustrating. If you’re going to see this film (and I heartily advise you should), see it in 2D to get the most out of it.

Jackson is pretty faithful to the original book. The chronology is similar and a lot of the scenes play out as I imagined them (although my mother did complain that the scene with the trolls wasn’t long enough). The songs sung by the dwarves early on in the book are not forgotten, and the director even uses Tolkien’s brief reference to rock giants as a basis for an entire set-piece that may be unnecessary but sure is fun to watch. But it’s also similar in spirit, as I’ve discussed above. The Lord of the Rings is much darker and more adult and complex, like its source material; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey may have less to justify its length (and follow-ups), but it’s hard not to like. Aided by some terrific performances and visuals, Peter Jackson’s return to Middle-Earth is nothing more and nothing less than a triumph, and I cannot wait to see what comes next.

8/10

The gaping beauty of Rivendell as portrayed by Peter Jackson.
The gaping beauty of Rivendell as portrayed by Peter Jackson.

(On a side note, it was enthralling to see the return of the fanbase-Christened Figwit (as portrayed by Bret McKenzie for three seconds in The Fellowship of the Ring) in the new film; read about him here. You won’t regret it, honestly.)

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Review – The Dark Knight Rises

Review – The Dark Knight Rises

2012, 164 mins, 12A, Dir. Christopher Nolan, starring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Gary Oldman

The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was one of the director’s finest achievements, a seminal film of technical brilliance and, as the Joker would see to it, terrifying villainy. With that milestone to surpass, with Joss Whedon’s The Avengers taking $1.4 billion at the worldwide box office, and with critics doubting the audibility of the main villain after seeing the first few minutes of footage, The Dark Knight Rises faced a number of obstacles. But Christopher Nolan is not to be distrusted. In fact, he has made a film that not only puts doubters to shame, but acts as a perfect end to what has already been a supremely exciting series.

We open eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, where the ‘Batman’ has been disgraced and his alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, lives alone, limping around his mansion with nothing to do. Thanks to the Dent Act following the death of Gotham’s former DA, the city is seemingly at peace, although Commissioner Jim Gordon cannot shake off his past. However, there is an entirely new force which threatens Gotham in ways no-one could have anticipated, as the unbelievably strong Bane arrives to wreak havoc. And if that wasn’t enough, Wayne becomes embroiled with a mysterious woman named Selina Kyle who has a lot of things hiding up her leathery sleeve…

Plot twists are a-plenty, and there are a larger number of characters than ever that contribute to the flow of the narrative, but everything is controlled and each of the actors is allowed to shine. Anne Hathaway gives us one of the best performances in the film as Selina Kyle. Although the Nolan trilogy of Batman movies is more grounded in reality (the term ‘Catwoman’ is never mentioned in the script, and the costume is less fantastical than in Tim Burton’s imagining) the sly, rebellious attitude is still there, and Hathaway pulls it off with ease. At the Wayne Mansion in one of the early scenes in the movie, the sudden change from shy, innocent maid to sexy, artful jewel thief is made with one word and a slick change in facial expression. She also drives a Batpod really well.

Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises

The role of Bane is comfortably filled out by British actor Tom Hardy, and you do gain a sense of the physicality of the character – every knuckle-pounding punch that he plants on Batman is really felt by the audience. He brings something new to the caped crusader, both a physical and a mental threat, and is a truly formidable villain. Christian Bale, meanwhile, turns up the ante as the main character. In the epic finale, when he sports the Bat-shaped cowl, Batman’s passion for driving out crime and delivering Gotham from evil is more effervescent than ever.

The supporting cast is, as always, phenomenal, although the notch has been turned up considerably. Michael Caine gives his most heart-wrenching performance of the series, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a delight as John Blake – or is it… no, never mind. One of the most memorable performances is one of the shortest, as a character from a previous film (who I refuse to mention) shows up as a judge, sentencing Gotham’s rich and famous as Bane restores ‘power to the people’.

There’s so much to praise about the acting, but my goodness you could never forget the visuals. The Dark Knight Rises is a sheer spectacle from beginning to end. Whether you see it in IMAX or not, no-one can deny the jaw-dropping nature of the opening plane stunt (which was performed for real, over Inverness), or of the many other action sequences in the film. Nolan pulls out all his impressive stops and in terms of scale this is certainly the largest Batman film, with nearly an hour of the film shot using IMAX cameras (and a bladder-threatening running time of nearly 3 hours). Mercifully resisting shooting in 3D, the director shows his love for the audience, and with his tendency for using practical effects whenever possible over CGI (as well as shooting and editing on film strips, a fact proudly proclaimed in the end credits) he further reveals his tendency for traditional-style filmmaking and heart-stopping theatricality.

Batman faces a moment of panic as the cops close in.

However, we musn’t just thank Nolan for the experience that it is. Hans Zimmer’s score adds to the atmosphere immeasurably, with every pulse-pounding beat making you tremble in your seat. The sound design guys show the true ferocity of Bane’s punches, and mix the film so that in the final hour you have no time to relax as Batman makes his return.

There is so much to pack in to The Dark Knight Rises that at times it can seem a little chaotic. But ultimately the story holds strong, constantly alternating to another round of surprises, and serving well each of the characters. In fact, the running time of the film is never hard-pressing – the time seems to fly by, in fact. It is so impeccably paced and well-edited. But the ending could be the best part of the film. Everyone knew that Nolan is a master of film endings, as we witnessed from the ambiguity of Inception‘s spinning top, but he ends his trilogy here in truly spectacular fashion. We are treated to a series of alternating images that lead us into beguilement and expectation. When the end credits roll, applause is absolutely mandatory, as the jaws of the audience simultaneously drop once more.

The Dark Knight set the standard impossibly high with a first-rate villain and the kind of action never glimpsed before in a superhero film, and despite the many things that make this film great, it just isn’t quite as good as its predecessor. But does it need to be? Chris Nolan has provided more-than-satisfying closure for a monumental series of films, an alarming and exciting tour-de-force of premium intensity that really lives up to the hype surrounding it – in fact, I think it’s probably the best film of the year. I am certainly going to miss the Nolan Batmans, the expectation that surrounded them upon release, the gasps of awe at the incredible action sequences. And I know that I am not the only one. 

9/10

The Dark Knight Rises Footage

It was with immensely high expectations that I entered the BFI IMAX this evening to watch six minutes of footage from The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s epic conclusion to his 3-part Batman series. Although I wasn’t certain that Nolan could really top The Dark Knight, what I did know was that in the course of his career the London-born director has arguably made not one bad film. That’s right, from the independent Following to the most recent of his dizzying offerings, Inception, Nolan has always maintained a love for his craft and a particular aptitude for great storytelling. I loved The Dark Knight and I loved watching it in IMAX. Yet these high hopes contrasted heavily with a niggling sense of doubt that I had stored deep inside my frenetic brain. I had read a number of articles about the prologue of the upcoming film itself and the main topic of conversation was not the director’s spectacular helicopter shots or IMAX cameras. It was all to do with the voice of the main villain in The Dark Knight Rises, Bane.

Bane was on the way to his orthodontist appointment.

After premiering in America before it came over to British shores, the prologue of the film left a burdening question in the mind of critics and audiences alike – what on earth is Bane saying? His dialogue almost in its entirety consisting of mumbling and unintelligible noises. The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin stated:

Throughout the sequence, Bane makes clear the details of his nefarious plot – or, rather, he would have done if he didn’t sound like he was chewing on a pair of socks at the same time. Amid all the spluttering, I just about caught that it involves a “Dr Pawel” and something to do with blood.

Elsewhere, The Guardian’s Ben Child compared it with Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, where allegedly “[in US cinemas it] was screened with subtitles because the locals could not make head nor tale of it. Nolan might have to consider employing the same method whenever Bane says something in The Dark Knight Rises, because it’s the only way we’re going to be able to understand what he’s on about.

In response to the question of whether Bane would be understood in the theatrical cut of The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan replied: “Probably not. He has the mask on, the apparatus, and he has the accent.” Despite the critical backlash, I think Nolan knows what he’s doing. It’s unlikely that he would get something seriously wrong while in control of the film and will definitely have taken this into account. The gap I must fill in for all those who are worried about Bane and his voice is that the whole scene takes place on a plane. No wonder he’s difficult to understand – you’ve got the noises of the engine and the wind flying past: add that to the muffling of his mask and it’s pretty much explained. Thankfully, the whole film isn’t Flightplan or Red Eye so Bane should hopefully be a little more understandable in later parts of the movie. I personally thought that they did the suction noises and voice distortion of Bane very well – I just think he needs much more exposure perhaps in a trailer or something like that.

Far scarier than the Joel Schumacher version...

That’s been the main source of topic for a number of bloggers and that has been mine. But let’s get down to the prologue itself. It’s exceedingly well-shot with IMAX cameras that capture the action spectacularly (and NOT IN 3D!!!) as Bane performs an ambitious and quite incredible plane stunt that will have audiences everywhere gasping in their seats. It would be terrible to spoil exactly what happens, but if you don’t get out much or don’t have many friends you could always click on this link: http://www.metro.co.uk/film/884867-the-dark-knight-rises-prologue-bane-dominates-but-you-cant-hear-him.

Security was predictably tight and I was unable to take a picture of the hundreds of fans who had turned up for the special screening but I can say that I was thoroughly impressed with what I saw and eagerly anticipate the release of the film in the summer of 2012. Nolan has the potential to outdo himself; whether next year’s much-anticipated finale will top The Dark Knight is something that will have to wait; a painful and long few months, but we must be patient. Bane still has to be sorted out! But thank you anyway, Mr. Nolan, for whetting our appetites with this quite brilliant scene.

Jurassic Park re-release – 2011

The first time I watched Steven Spielberg’s 1993 classic Jurassic Park must have been on a VHS cassette when I was a small child. I was captivated by its stunning visual effects and instantly elected the Tyrannosaurus Rex as my favourite dinosaur in the film. Consequently, it’s rather easy to imagine my frenzied delight when I heard that (coinciding with the blu-ray release) Jurassic Park would be re-released in cinemas across the UK.

The classic poster for 1993’s Jurassic Park

This was not just an opportunity. This was an unmissable necessity, an undoubted must to see this film on the big screen in all its glory. Why is that, you ask? Well, there are several reasons of which I shall mention only a few:

1. John William’s majestic score in surround sound, enveloping you in your cinema seat.

2. The Tyrannosaurus Rex. Not only does its roar scream at you in its ultimate loudness, but on the big screen it looms over you in its proper height (well, it did at the cinema I went to).

3. In 1993 it became the highest-grossing Spielberg-directed film of all time (excluding inflation) and made more money than any other in that year.

4. It’s a landmark in the use of computer-generated imagery. The film still looks brilliant after eighteen years and stands as a better piece of storytelling than Avatar.

5. Samuel L. Jackson is so damn cool as the Head Technician of Jurassic Park that even in a minor role he needs a whole screen to stomach his awesomeness.

So I ventured down on the afternoon of Saturday the 24th September to the BFI IMAX where I watched the film for the first time in a number of years. It was astonishing. I had forgotten how undeniably impressive the computer-generated T-Rex was (as reflected humorously in the mirror of the jeep in which Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum and Bob Peck make their escape) as well as the savagely intelligent velociraptors. The first dinosaur attack around the T-Rex paddock still kept me on the edge of my seat (it’s one of my favourite scenes) and I was able for once to notice a lot more subtleties as well as grasp more of the plot  – don’t you always find that happens with films from your childhood?

Wayne Knight, an incredibly underrated actor, brought a necessary wave of human antagonism beyond the various escaped dinosaurs as Dennis Nedry, the vile and greedy technician who you can somehow feel sympathy for. Richard Attenborough, in his first acting role for fifteen years, is very convincing as the kindly scientist who only too late understands the reality of his elaborate theme park. He exists as a sharp deviation from the character written in the Michael Crichton novel, who is described as “arrogant, deceptive, disrespectful and rude”. It’s particularly emotional in the film when we see Hammond sitting on his own in the restaurant, slowly eating spoonfuls of ice cream to which he has “spared no expense”, gradually coming to realisation of what he has done with his Jurassic Park.

The film just works so well and is so incredibly entertaining that it’s vastly difficult not to ramble on about it. The CGI and animatronic dinosaurs co-ordinated by Stan Winston are an incredible sight to behold and the characters truly have depth. Yes, it has its flaws, many of them technical (where does that steep drop in the T-Rex paddock come from?) but it’s a supreme slice of Spielbergian entertainment that was perhaps the defining piece of effects cinema of the early 1990s.

I stayed until the end credits with my friends after jokingly hearing a member of the audience shouting “Let’s wait for the dino outtakes!” All in all, it was an experience to remember: a rediscovery of one of my favourite childhood films in a high definition print on the biggest screen in England. Maybe I’ll end up seeing it again, just perhaps not at the BFI IMAX. £11.50 is a hell of a lot of money for a cinema ticket.

£11.50??