Movie Review ~ The Shape of Water


The Facts
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Synopsis: In a 1960s research facility, a mute janitor forms a relationship with an aquatic creature.

Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: First impressions are everything and the underwater opening shot of The Shape of Water got in good with me.  Over the credits, director Guillermo del Toro navigates us through hallways submerged in water as if hazily coming out of a dream before revealing that’s exactly what’s happening.  It’s a beautifully artsy way to introduce his adult fairy tale and it sets a tone that’s well-maintained throughout.  This is an artisan that knows his way around strong visuals but sometimes struggles with a narrative to match those impressive sights.  Over-indulging with Pacific Rim but bouncing back nicely with the criminally underrated Crimson Peak, del Toro reaches new heights (or depths?) with The Shape of Water.

Living above a movie theater and working nights as a janitor at a government laboratory in 1960s Baltimore, Elisa (Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine) has been mute since an injury as an infant left her unable to speak.  It’s a quiet life ruled by routine, whether it be her standard breakfast or her “personal” time she makes sure to take every day.  Her job is mundane but she has a friendly co-worker in Zelda (Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station) and Giles, a kindly closeted neighbor to keep her company.

The lives of all three are altered significantly by the arrival of a secret experiment into the research facility.  A living, breathing sea-monster has been captured in South America and has been brought to the test center to be studied, observed, dissected.  Under the watchful eye of the evil Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, Midnight Special) and the scholarly interest of Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, Trumbo), the creature is kept chained in a tank and routinely tortured by his captor.

While cleaning the laboratory one night, Elisa connects with the creature and sees kindness in him where others see fear.  Over the next days they find a common language that leads to deeper understanding and maybe…love.  Set during the height of the Cold War with the threat of Russian spies everywhere, Strickland takes no chances in protecting his find at all costs, so when Elisa hatches an escape plan for the creature and brings Zelda and Giles (Richard Jenkins, White House Down) along as her co-conspirators, they face an obsessive hunter out for blood.

As is typical of a del Toro picture, the period details are precise down to the backsplash tiles in Elisa’s apartment.  An ardent fan of monster movies from Universal Studios, del Toro has intelligently put together this picture as a loving homage to his youth while relaying a very present message of acceptance at the same time.  The script, co-written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs), is filled with main characters that would be considered outsiders, or “other”, yet their position in the plot isn’t there to exploit what makes them different.  There’s even a sweet scene where fantasy and reality collide when Elisa imagines herself in a big budget Hollywood musical, featuring the creature as her dance partner.  It’s these bits of whimsy that parallel nicely with the darker turns the film takes in its final half hour.

Hawkins has next to no dialogue but conveys so much in her expressive face.  It’s difficult stuff to invite an audience so far inward but Hawkins has the goods to captivate us throughout.  While Spencer has played (and will continue to play) this type of whip-smart tough cookie roles before, there’s an added layer of angst in her personal life that ups the ante for her.  Jenkins continues to be a value add to any project he’s involved with, his gay illustrator longs for any kind of connection and his personal and professional rejections are heartbreaking to watch.  If all goes to plan, Stuhlbarg will be in three movies nominated for Best Picture this year (Call Me by Your Name and The Post being the others) and as a man harboring dangerous secrets he’s resplendent as always.  No one plays a nasty villain quite like Michael Shannon and while I’d long for a chance to see him play a Giles-like role someday, he’s a nice nemesis for Hawkins and company.

There’s going to be those that find the romantic relationship that develops between Elisa and the creature (marvelously played by Doug Jones, Hocus Pocus) to be troubling.  On the way out of the screening I heard one audience member remark they weren’t aware the movie was about bestiality and honestly, to reduce the movie to that is missing the mark entirely, especially when you take into account the open-for-further discussion ending.  I found the relationships between all of the characters incredibly moving and authentic, especially the dandy scene with Elisa pleading with Giles to help her save the creature.  If they know what’s happening is wrong and do nothing to help him, what makes them any better that Strickland and others who want to destroy something that is different?  It’s a lesson our country needs to hear right now and del Toro knows it.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Shape of Water

Synopsis: An other-worldly fairy tale, set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1963.

Release Date:  December 8, 2017

Thoughts: This just shows you how much I’ve been paying attention.  I mean, I had no idea that The Shape of Water was even a thing much less that Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim) was behind the whole affair.  That being said, now that I’m aware of it I’m looking forward to it.  As usual, del Toro’s stories feel like dark fairy tales that push back at pre-conceived notions of darkness and light.  So as fans of the auteur we know it will be different and we know it will look great…but will audiences take a chance on a hard-to-pin-down flick like this?  I know I will, but del Toro’s track record has been spotty with attracting a crowd…which is too bad because he’s one of the very best filmmakers working today.  Starring Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station), Michael Shannon (Midnight Special), and Michael Stuhlbarg (Doctor Strange), The Shape of Water surfaces just in time for the holidays.

The Silver Bullet ~ Crimson Peak

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Synopsis: In the aftermath of a family tragedy, an aspiring author is torn between love for her childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider. Trying to escape the ghosts of her past, she is swept away to a house that breathes, bleeds…and remembers.

Release Date: October 16, 2015

Thoughts: There are very few directors out there that I can say I have trust in and Guillermo del Toro is right at the top of the list.  Sure, his last effort was Pacific Rim a bomb-tastic and bombastic spectacle of effects and overly dramatic performances…but it still possessed a style all its own.  Our first, um, peek at del Toro’s gothic horror film Crimson Peak gave me the kind of warm feeling in my belly usually reserved for holiday festivities and anytime I catch Grease 2 on television.  Modern audiences aren’t exactly clamoring for a Victorian set haunted house flick but they could be in for the fright of their lives if the finished product lives up to this impressive teaser.  Featuring hot commodities like Jessica Chastain (A Most Violent Year), Tom Hiddleston (Thor), and Mia Wasikowska (Stoker) my interest is most definitely piqued.

Movie Review ~ The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Bilbo and Company are forced to engage in a war against an array of combatants and keep the terrifying Smaug from acquiring a kingdom of treasure and obliterating all of Middle-earth.

Stars: Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Martin Freeman,Stephen Fry, Jed Brophy, Christopher Lee, Orlando Bloom,Billy Connolly, James Nesbitt, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Ken Stott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Graham McTavish, Lee Pace,Luke Evans, Evangeline Lilly, Richard Armitage, John Bell,Adam Brown, John Callen, Ryan Gage, Mark Hadlow, Peter Hambleton, Stephen Hunter, William Kircher, Sylvester McCoy, Dean O’Gorman, Mikael Persbrandt, Aidan Turner, Manu Bennett, Lawrence Makoare

Director: Peter Jackson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 144 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  So here it is…the final chapter of Peter Jackson’s return to Middle-earth and the end of his second trilogy featuring all sorts of hobbits, dwarves, elves, wizards, dragons, rings, etc.  Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is arguably an example of the truly best storytelling on film since the medium began and it helped that the movies comprising that original trilogy were based on three individual books.  With The Hobbit films, it’s been clear that Jackson struggled with the limitations of working with just one J.R.R. Tolkien book as the subject for three rather lengthy films.

Originally intended as a two-part series, somewhere along the line the concept of another trilogy was just too appealing and Jackson went back and shot more footage to fill out the narrative, drawing on the Appendices from Tolkien and creating an entirely new character in the form of a female woodland elf (Evangeline Lilly) that forms a connection with a dwarf.

I (along with many others) wasn’t quite enamored with 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey finding it too ponderous and uneventful even with its impressive technical merits. A year later, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug suffered from another workmanlike introduction before hitting paydirt in its final hour when the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, Star Trek: Into Darkness) made his appearance.  Ending with a great cliffhanger, I think many fans were equal parts excited to see the finale in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies and relieved that this troubled chapter was closing.

Before seeing this last film I did something I didn’t do last year, I spent a day with my favorite Lord of the Rings fan and watched the first two Hobbit films in their extended versions back to back.  I suddenly found the narrative less onerous and appreciated the way that Jackson let the story unfold as brave hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, The World’s End) traversed across the countryside with a group of dwarves toward the Lonely Mountain searching for a stone that would restore a kingdom to its rightful owners.

Unlike the original Lord of the Rings films, these three Hobbit entries are essentially one long (looooooong) movie and should be seen together.  Now, I’m sure your rump just let out a little squeal of disagreement but I know I enjoyed The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies as much as I did because I had seen its two predecessors shortly before.  Now, Jackson’s stretching of the material wasn’t quite so objectionable and began to make a lot of sense.

That’s not to say The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies doesn’t fall into the same traps that befell the earlier entries.  There’s still a questionable amount of scenes that go on longer than they should; Jackson backs off on his gained momentum when he should be blazing forward.  The battle sequences occupy the majority of this chapter and at times it can be an overwhelming experience, but on the other hand they’re staged with the kind of epic grandeur that recalls old Hollywood epics featuring casts of thousands.

The digital rendering of an endless supply of hideous evils are a sight to behold and the technicians involved should not only pick out their attire for the Oscar ceremony now, they should ready their acceptance speeches.  It’s the highest level of proficiency I’ve seen out of Jackson’s effects house and the results are excellent.

As for the flesh and blood actors, all deliver solid performances that tie in nicely to the events that follow in the Lord of the Rings series.  Though there are a few references to future characters that seem overly shoehorned in, I gotta say that I appreciated how well Jackson and co. make sure that all the ends are connected before the credits roll.

Along with Freeman’s jittery Bilbo (I’ve decided he’s the Hugh Grant of hobbits) there’s Ian McKellen’s (X-Men: Days of Future Past) wise wizard Gandalf, Richard Armitage’s (Into the Storm) haunted dwarf who would be king, and the luminous Cate Blanchett’s (Blue Jasmine) as Galadriel who winds up with one of the film’s most thrilling moments that’s nearly worth the price of admission in and of itself.

One couldn’t be blamed if the feeling to move right into a Lord of the Rings marathon is present as this film reaches its conclusion.  Jackson has seen to it that the transition between his two trilogies is fluid and while he won’t win an Oscar for his efforts this time around, he deserves another round of applause for the world he brought to life in six films.  A high-water achievement as a filmmaker…even if The Hobbit films still can’t hold a candle to the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Book of Life

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Synopsis: Manolo, a young man who is torn between fulfilling the expectations of his family and following his heart, embarks on an adventure that spans three fantastical worlds where he must face his greatest fears.

Release Date: October 17, 2014

Thoughts: While watching the dazzling trailer for October’s The Book of Life, my first thought was more of a concern: that my eyes were going to pop out of my head from the array of colors and textures blazing by at a rapid pace. Producer Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim) is known for his attention to detail in thoughtful stories with underlying themes that reveal themselves slowly so I’m quite interested to see what new ground The Book of Life will break. While I’m not as averse to 3D as some of my contemporaries, I think it has proved to be best used in the type of rich animation The Book of Life employs. With the voices of Zoe Saldana (Guardians of the Galaxy), Channing Tatum (22 Jump Street), Ice Cube (Ride Along), and Diego Luna (Elysium) the film reminds me of The Nightmare Before Christmas, ParaNorman, and Coraline.

Movie Review ~ Drew: The Man Behind the Poster

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A documentary on legendary movie-poster artist Drew Struzan.

Stars: Drew Struzan, George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Michael J. Fox, Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, Steven Spielberg, Sam Witwer

Director: Erik Sharkey

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  You may not know the name Drew Struzan but if you’ve seen a poster for a movie in the last 30+ years you most definitely have seen his work.  In a new documentary (available on Netflix) director Erik Sharkey charts the rise of Struzan through his humble origins as a starving artist (literally) to his early work designing album art for musicians and eventually into his legendary period of churning out some of the most iconic poster images in the history of film.

Along with his contemporaries John Alvin and Richard Amsel, Struzan’s poster designs are world famous for their complexities and innate way of telling you an entire story within one single image.  Unlike the majority of posters today that are Photoshopped to death with poor construction, Struzan’s hand-painted works are sometimes better than the movies they are advertising.  There’s a beauty to these paintings that can’t be mimicked by modern technology which makes the work he does all the more valuable.

Though I don’t usually add extra photos to my reviews, here is a small preview of some of Struzan’s body of work.  Can you name the movies these teaser images come from?

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While the documentary covers all the bases on where Struzan came from and how he came to do what he does so well, the film is painted with broad strokes that manage to be informative while keeping the viewer at arm’s length.  That’s partly, I suppose, because Struzan seems like a straight-forward guy that has had little of your typical Hollywood conflict.  Soft-spoken and humble, aside from a lawsuit involving paintings that were stolen by an associate of his there doesn’t seem to be anyone that has a bad thing to say about him.

What’s more, Struzan comes off as a genuinely nice guy, a family man that chose to stay home in his early days with his wife and young son while his colleagues partied like rock stars with their rock star clients.  Struzan alludes to a painful childhood raised by parents that “didn’t like me” and locked him out of the house when he returned from his first semester away at college.  Not much more is said of this and I’m guessing Starkey didn’t push Struzan on a subject that obviously has some pain attached to it.

With interviews from many of the stars and directors Struzan has provided art for, the documentary is a mostly just a genial piece of pro-Struzan propaganda and I’m totally OK with that.  If it comes off feeling like you’re simply paging through one of Struzan’s impressive coffee table books with voice-over narration from the man himself, it doesn’t matter because it still makes for worthwhile viewing.  A must watch for any true cinephile.

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The Silver Bullet ~ Drew: The Man Behind the Poster

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Synopsis: A documentary on legendary movie-poster artist Drew Struzan.

Release Date:  TBA 2013

Thoughts:  Though you may not be aware of it, you already are familiar with the work of Drew Struzan.  As the artist behind hundreds of now-iconic poster designs from the Indian Jones films to dramatic fair like The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, Struzan has fans all over Hollywood – and with good reason.  There’s a beauty to his detail and care in his design that remains unmatched in our modern era of photoshopped posters of floating heads.  Here’s a guy that made even the most mundane film (coughcoughMastersoftheUniversecoughcough) look like a must-see winner.  This documentary should be fun to catch and if it doesn’t play near you make sure to check out your local library for his oversized coffee table books to get a immersive look at his impressive body of work.

Movie Review ~ Pacific Rim

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As a war between humankind and monstrous sea creatures wages on, a former pilot and a trainee are paired up to drive a seemingly obsolete special weapon in a desperate effort to save the world from the apocalypse.

Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman, Robert Kazinsky, Max Martini, Clifton Collins, Jr., Burn Gorman, Larry Joe Campbell, Brad William Henke, Diego Klattenhoff

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: So here’s a movie that had the potential to be a lot better than what it turned out to be. Director Guillermo del Toro has demonstrated over the course of his career that he’s a filmmaker truly interested in the heartbeat of a film.  Though his works have always been visually arresting and skillfully created (hello Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos, and both Hellboy movies), he’s not afraid to take the time to let the underneath of it all show through.

Pacific Rim gets the trusted del Toro formula half right with some of the most impressively eye-popping visual effects you’re likely to see in theaters now.  Add to that a production design that is realistic but not overly fussy and you have a movie that would be a slam-dunk…if you watched it on mute.  The problem with Pacific Rim is that it has no heart, no brains, and leaves the viewer feeling as hollow as the mighty mechanical titans that are created to fight creatures from the depths of the ocean.

Credit should be given to screenwriters del Toro and Travis Beacham for devising a clever spin on the earth vs aliens formula that has been revisited by pictures big and small for over half a century.  The lengthy prologue of Pacific Rim brings us up to speed on the last decade of war that broke out when a seismic shift in the middle of the ocean unleashed terrifying creatures that go on to wreak havoc around the world.  Huge in size, our modern weapons were no match for their power so the world leaders created jaegers, battle bots that could stand tall enough to look these monsters in the eye and taken them down with a vast array of weaponry.

How these are operated from within by two humans is best explained by the film itself (it’s kinda a bunch of hooey) but soon these jaeger pilots are seen as rock stars until the creatures begin to adapt and render the program nearly obsolete after a tragedy calls into question their effectiveness.  Flashing forward several years, the program is re-started when a substantial threat of major invasion is predicted.

Idea-wise, the film is a winner.  Even writing about it here I had a small rush of excitement because it sounds like there is so much that a talented director like del Toro can do with it.  And del Toro delivers the visuals with awesome results.  The battle sequences (especially when viewed in IMAX 3D) are nearly overwhelming in their scope, size, and bravura.  Even though much of these sequences take place at night and in the rain you’ll be able to follow each powerful battle royale between machine and monster.

Unfortunately, the dialogue that strings these passages together and most of the  plot developments are bargain basement material with little to no surprise about what’s going to happen next.  Even a post credits scene is one you’ll be able to see coming if you are familiar with del Toro and his favorite actor to use (no spoilers here!)

It’s also a shockingly bad film for acting.  Let’s start with the best of the middling performances.  Idris Elba (Prometheus) is a solid actor tasked weak material.  I’m still waiting for Elba to be given the kind of role that will rocket him to the fame that he has the talent for.  As the jaeger program director he has little to do but growl when questioned and deliver a sound byte ready inspirational speech near the end that feels like a revised version of the what Bill Pullman rambled on about in Independence Day.

The rest of the international cast is a hodge podge that run the gamut from bland to sour.  You simply couldn’t ask for a more vanilla leading man than Charlie Hunnam, an actor with zero going on behind his eyes.  Paired with Rinko Kikuchi (a far cry from her Oscar nominated turn in Babel) the two are asked to create chemistry that not even the folks at MIT could assist in creating.  Both actors provide some truly embarrassing performances and you have to wonder what on earth del Toro saw in them to cast them as the leads in such an important studio picture.  As arguing scientists, Charlie Day (who comes off like the love child of Bobcat Goldthwait and Rick Moranis) and Burn Gorman seem like they’ve time traveled out of a sci-fi spoof of this film from the future.

Lousy performances aside, this is one film that will be best enjoyed in a theater when you can be totally immersed in the world that del Toro has created.  I can’t say the movie will work as well for home viewing so if you can overlook the disappointingly ordinary execution of a smart set-up and nearly an entire cast of poor performances you should try this one out when it gets to your bargain cinema.

Movie Review ~ Mama

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Annabel and Lucas are faced with the challenge of raising his young nieces that were left alone in the forest for 5 years…. but how alone were they?

Stars: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nellsse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet, Jane Moffat

Director: Andy Muschietti

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  When it comes to horror films, I find that I’m pretty forgiving.  I’ll sidle up to a cheesy direct to video scare flick and happily pass the chainsaw-lovin’ night away just as easily as I’ll plunk down my money for the latest sequel to whatever is the current popular horror trend.  All I ask is that the people behind the scares have their hearts in the right place and can provide a few decent spook-outs along the way. 

With Mama, the latest production from Spanish filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, what we have is a strong creepshow that bursts out of the gate early on and maintains a strong hold over its audience for about 2/3 of its 100 minutes.  It’s the final third that threatens to squander the good will that director Andy Muschietti has built up but thankfully even that doesn’t become a deal breaker.

What I’ve come to appreciate about del Toro’s productions (The Orphanage, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) is a commanding sense of atmosphere that trumps trivial plot developments.  Even more than that, Spanish horror films in general seem less interested in producing franchise funding killers than it does about providing its audience a entertaining and chilling ride (see Julia’s Eyes, Tesis, The Uninvited Guest).   

The brother and sister team of Andy and Barbara Muschietti first came to the attention of del Toro when their short film of Mama was released in 2008.  Less than three minutes long, the short managed to elicit a more solid scare than countless Hollywood films.  Check it out here to see what I mean.  The concept intrigued del Toro enough to come on board as producer of a feature length version…and this 2013 film is the result.

Even with a relatively small budget, the film looks incredible with fine attention to detail and strong cinematography by Antonio Riestra.  There’s a tendency for these kinds of horror films to use dark corners as easy scares but there seems to be a pointed effort to avoid such trappings.  On several occasions you think a character is going to venture into a spot we know they shouldn’t…only to be the wiser person like we hope they would be.   

Muschietti expands on his short film with engaging characters and strong performances from a game cast.  Even though I knew the lead was played by Chastain (who scored a nice coup recently by having Mama open at #1 at the box office followed by her Oscar nominated work in Zero Dark Thirty taking the #2 spot) the actress is virtually unrecognizable with her famous flame locks tucked under a black mop of a haircut.  The actress also physically transforms herself into something quite different than we’ve seen her do before.  She’s an intelligent heroine for most of the film and believably freaked out when scary things start to occur when the nieces of her boyfriend (Coster-Waldau from Game of Thrones and Headhunters) turn up after living in the woods for five years. 

The girls are played remarkably by two young actresses that get pushed to the brink both physically and emotionally.  I sometimes bristle at child actors who wear their craft on their sleeve but both Charpentier and Nellsse are chameleons…huge assets to the success of the film.  Supporting players Kash and Moffat are slight oddities but there’s something sorta old school about the way they sink their teeth into their roles.

When the scares begin (and they begin early) they are achieved via fairly simple methods that don’t always come with the aid of a large music jolt or random cat thrown into frame.  What the Muschietti’s instead create are terrors springing from things slightly off screen or that come into focus at the right moment.  More than a few times the camera lingers just long enough on a slow burn scare to send a chill down your spine.

The problem with the film is that the more that the secret behind the ghostly apparition Mama is uncovered, the less involving the film becomes.  I say involving because it’s not for lack of interest that the final twenty minutes sputters…it’s just that the filmmakers seemingly reached their max of creativity and settle for standard conventions to get the characters where they need to be for an admittedly unconventional (but welcome) ending. 

Those final twenty minutes should not deter you from visiting Mama in the theater, though.  It’s a handsomely made, well assembled horror that isn’t dumbed down for maximum consumption by the masses.  With a boatload of spine-tingles to be had it’s a strong scare fest that just misses the mark by a few feet.

Movie Review ~ The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A curious Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, journeys to the Lonely Mountain with a vigorous group of Dwarves to reclaim a treasure stolen from them by the dragon Smaug

Stars: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Evangeline Lilly, Andy Serkis

Director: Peter Jackson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 169 minutes

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Several months ago, I posted the teaser poster for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and said “I’m not ready to admit how much I’m looking forward to this.”  As a huge fan of the original trilogy of The Lord of the Rings I, like many, have been counting down the days, hours, minutes to the release of this first entry in another trilogy of films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  It had been years since I read the book so I picked it up again in the last few weeks to reorient myself with Tolkien’s world and the various characters that he introduced us to.   As I read, I couldn’t help but notice how light the book was, how episodic it felt, and how sparse it seemed.  How would they make three whole movies out of this?

Now, I know (and you probably know) that there’s more to this Hobbit than just what happens in the novel.  A troupe of screenwriters (including director Jackson and would-be director Guillermo del Toro) went back to Tolkien’s appendices, notes, and maybe laundry lists to stretch the shortest of his Middle Earth novels into three films.  With The Lord of the Rings, this method would have made sense…but with this first part of The Hobbit it pulls a bit too tightly and instead of the truly satisfying experience the original trilogy was we have a fairly decent but by no means exceptional fantasy adventure.

Being totally objective and taking my love of the novels/films out of it, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the movie is only really good for the final 1/3 and even then you may be so exhausted from the dizzying visuals and lengthy slow sections that it may be too little too late.  I’m a fairly forgiving audience member with films that start off slowly and end with a bang and this almost makes its case with a rousing finale…but in the days following my screening of the film I can’t get over a tad bit of melancholy that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey wasn’t the experience I wanted.

Maybe the problems really started with the arduous journey the movie had in getting to the big screen.  Behind the scenes squabbling by its parent studios kept director Guillermo del Toro out of the director seat (don’t cry for him, Bilbo Baggins, he has Pacific Rim coming out next year and it looks like a doozy!) and as years stretched between the last Lord of the Rings film (which won Best Picture and Best Director for Jackson) it seemed like all hope was lost.  Originally not interested in directing, Jackson finally came onboard and the rest was history…well all except for the fact that what was originally conceived as a two-part adventure was hurriedly split into three.  I still have big problems with this decision because based on this first part, there’s not enough meat to go around the feast.

Ok, ok…it’s not a bad film…let’s be clear.  It’s possible, though, that expectations were so high that anything even remotely wrong with the film would be put under an intense magnification making it seem like it was a much bigger deal than it really is.  So the film takes a while to get going, pondering around in the shire of Bilbo Baggins as he is swept into an adventure involving wizards, dwarves, elves, goblins, and one dragon quite protective of his own turf…what of it?  Every story needs a good introduction, right?  Well…kinda.  The opening of the film winds up feeling like the Extended Edition which will inevitably follow when it’s released for home viewing. 

Though the first part of the film taking place in Bilbo’s shire is capped off nicely with an all hands on deck story-song that Jackson films impeccably, it’s largely uninteresting because nothing much is happening.  It’s only when Bilbo (Freeman) hits the road with Gandalf (McKellan…beyond reproach) that the film gets moving too and despite a few creaky bits along the way the film gets better with each new digital creature acting on a virtual landscape of Jackson’s creation.

Let’s talk about the much hyped new filming technique that Jackson has employed here.  In addition to being released in 3D, audiences have the choice to see the film in HFR (High Frame Ratio).  In an attempt to reduce blur and flickering in a film, Jackson has piloted an industry first of shooting the film at 48 frames per second instead of the usual 24.  What this creates is a quite lifelike display of action…almost uncomfortably so.  The fourth wall is seemingly broken and I’d liken it to a state of the art HD television.  Some of this works and some of this doesn’t…any scene taking place in the daylight looks almost too realistic while sequences at night seem to capture the technique the best.   HFR provides some astonishing clarity but when it’s coupled with heavy digital effects and 3D, I found myself having to close my eyes so I didn’t get dizzy.  That’s never happened to me with any film until know so it has to be the overall impact of the HFR that caused it.  As with any progression of filmmaking, HFR is going to take some time to get used to.  It’s hard to describe it if you haven’t seen it – but it’s up to you if you want to shell out the extra money for it (I saw the film in the evening, in a VIP section at the Icon, and in HFR3D and paid $19).

In all honestly, I think I need to see the film again to really make up my mind how I feel about it.  This review represents my initial reaction to the film and HFR and perhaps over time I’ll change my opinion when I can compare it to the films that are coming in the next two years (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is due one year from now and The Hobbit: There and Back Again follows in summer 2014).  I only hope that in the time he has until the next film is released Jackson listens to the feedback on the pace and edits the next entries accordingly.