On Film: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (spoiler free)

Hobbit1The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
2012 – New Zealand
Peter Jackson, director

Seeing as I just posted my thoughts on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and seeing as I had finally gotten around to rereading it based upon part 1 of the film adaptation opening yesterday, I thought it would be fitting to share some of my thoughts about the film itself. Or at least part one: what no one’s saying in the critique of director Peter Jackson’s and the studio’s decision to divvy the movie up into three parts is that the worst part is not the length; the worst is that the fans must wait until the summer of 2014 to see the whole thing!

That said, I will admit that I was a little leery going into this movie based upon that three-movie decision: I could see two films (after all, Tolkien’s descriptions of the battle scenes audiences seem to love are a little, shall we say, scant), but three seemed a bit overkill. Then the early reviews started to come in, calling it lengthy, bloated, boring. Well. One of three things must have happened: 1) the critics and I saw different films or 2) the critics could only imagine the decision for three films based upon dollar signs and so had already decided the movie must be bloated or 3) those of us who have read and love the book have an inbuilt appreciation for every single part of the book and so cannot find the bloat in including it all. This isn’t too say there weren’t a couple scenes I wouldn’t have cut or shortened (I thought the prologue was trying just a little too hard to make the connection to the The Fellowship of the Ring adaptation, and I think that a later part of the storyline involving back-story could have been condensed), but nothing that would have substantially shortened the length of the film. Leaving the theater, I couldn’t believe myself, but I thought that three parts made sense! And I certainly didn’t find it long or boring.

One of the challenges with book-to-movie adaptations is what to change, what to leave the same, what to leave out. Usually, someone is left unhappy: the fans are upset at a change or differing interpretation, or the professional critics think the film was too faithful to the source material, to its detriment. I can only speak as one fan, but I liked many of the changes. (My brother wasn’t happy with a change to one back-story, although he acknowledged that he could see the filmmakers’ reasoning for doing so. I couldn’t remember this particular back-story, which came from the appendices to The Lord of the Rings rather than from The Hobbit, so it didn’t bother me.) In my post on the book, I alluded to the fact that it was reading The Silmarillion that really gave me the appreciation for the reasons for the troubled relations between the dwarves and the elves—here, rather than relying on the audience to know this background, Jackson made sure to provide an explanation. (This, incidentally, could have been a bit of the film that some critics are calling “filler,” but I think the payoff is going to be in the second and third parts, where we will really see the importance of this knowledge.) Also, there was one part of the book that always felt a bit deus ex machina-ish to me, and here it was oh-so-slightly altered so as to avoid this. I really liked that change, small as it was.

There has been much discussion of the 48 fps vs. 24 fps, and as it happened I saw The Hobbit at the faster frame rate (in 3D). I’m…on the fence. The picture was beautifully clear, but at the same time it sometimes seemed distracting. It was almost as if there was a sharper contrast than ever between foreground and background, which I suppose is the hyper-reality some are talking about. But while at times this took me out of simply enjoying the movie, at other times it faded away, and so part of me wonders if the issue is some sort of combination of even the film makers getting used to adjusting lighting+3D+frame rate all to fit together. Or maybe Peter Jackson is right, it’s just something the audience needs to get used to. Given my experience with The Two Towers, which I had to watch twice before I liked it (I haven’t the faintest clue why I thought it was a good idea to pay to see a movie twice I didn’t like the first time—but it remains the only film I’ve seen twice in theaters), I think if I went to see The Hobbit at the higher frame rate a second time I might not even notice.

Martin Freeman is perfect as Bilbo. Of course, I knew he would be when I was rereading the book. I’ve seen Freeman in several films/TV series and I could picture him perfectly as Bilbo as I was rereading. The dwarves tend to blend together (not helped by the fact that my mental pronunciation of their names is different than the film’s), although Balin is just as I imagined. Many of the non-dwarvish characters were in the Lord of the Rings films also, so, interpretation as expected, but one made an appearance I hadn’t been expecting, even if hindsight tells me I should have. I unexpectedly liked the goblin king. Sure he’s a baddie. Go figure. But I think that relates to the slightly different tone between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. As a children’s book, The Hobbit is lighter than the later novel, which delves into darker territory—evil is more evil, danger is more real. The film chooses to straddle this divide, providing what I felt was the right balance in connecting to the tone and character of The Lord of the Rings films while still infusing a certain lightheartedness into the story.

Visually, the artists’ imagination yet again exceeds mine. The prologue scenes…wow. When I think back to Tolkien’s words, the artists’ interpretations make sense, but I’m afraid my little brain doesn’t picture such grandeur as I read. Or it didn’t… For that matter, I’m really happy the film-makers included two of Tolkien’s poems as songs, as my little brain could only ever hear them as sing-songy—which is fine for a children’s book, I suppose, but knowing the darker world that The Hobbit fits into (from the other books), I like to hear versions of the poems that sound like they actually could be sung by real, adult dwarves, and not nursery-tale buffoons. (OK, yes, saying “real dwarves” might place me on the edge of sanity. But they’re real, I tell ya! 😉 ) I also appreciated the way the music itself tied the new trilogy with the old, incorporating themes from The Lord of the Rings even while adding new motifs for The Hobbit. Listening to the opening strains over the film-studio logos, I was right back to ten years ago, watching the first trilogy in the theaters.

Is the film perfect? Well, no. If it were I wouldn’t have any quibbles. I don’t know that those who disliked The Lord of the Rings films would like this any better, but I don’t feel that it’s any worse, at least as far as enjoyment goes. And sometimes that’s all that matters. (How soon will it be available on DVD, please?)

On Film: Cría cuervos

Cría cuervos
1976 – Spain
Carlos Saura, writer & director

I’m going to be upfront and say that I didn’t enjoy watching Cría cuervos. Note the deliberate choice of verb there—I do not mean to say I think Cría cuervos is a bad film, on the contrary, I think it quite a good one, especially the more I think about it; it is just not a film that I take delight in.

My dissatisfaction in part I think is a measure of Saura’s success: he seeks to represent the tense family dynamics of a trio of sisters—most prominent the rebellious Ana, their aunt, and grandmother, largely confined behind the walls of their home and to strict societal expectations. The movie takes on a claustrophobic feel—everyone is trapped, there is no escape but death. It is bleak. There seems little hope. And so I couldn’t “enjoy” it, at least not in the traditional sense.

I will admit, I have almost no context for this film. I am almost completely unfamiliar with the history of 1970s Spain or with the cinema (European or otherwise) of the era. According to the accompanying DVD essay, Cría cuervos was filmed during the last days of the Franco regime. Did Saura mean for the sisters trapped by loss and rules to represent the Spanish people? Or is this a simple study of the relationships between family members made unhappy by circumstances beyond their control? Just as with literature, I suspect that good film has multiple layers and meaning that can be read depending on the viewer.

I watched Cría cuervos as part of the watchalong for Spanish Language Literature Month, hosted by Stu and Richard. Richard links to other opinions HERE.

On Film: The Artist

The Artist theatrical posterThe Artist
2011 – France
Michel Hazanavicius, director
Jean Dujardin

The Artist seems an appropriate starting point for my Cinematic Treasures project: a film that touches past and present, one that comes from another country while solidly set in Hollywood, a story of both nostalgia and hope for the future.

It’s been quite a few weeks now since I actually saw The Artist. I’d been waiting since January, at least, hoping that it would play at my local independent theater. I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing a black and white mostly silent film in an impersonal cineplex. No, I needed to see it in an old theater, a theater contemporaneous to the setting of the movie, a theater still with its organ, its seats, its decoration all original. The Artist couldn’t possibly be a “true” film of the silent era, its soundtrack must accompany it—I can’t imagine too many theaters are left that could support accompanying musicians. But my theater could if needed, the organ still plays—still played old tunes before this movie, will accompany The General (Buster Keaton, 1926) in an upcoming showing.

The Artist is a throwback to the silent era, black and white, largely “silent” (that is, without spoken word), the story told by expression and intertitles and music. I’ve read that last year was a year that celebrated the movies, with entries such as Hugo and The Artist. I’m guessing—I can’t say for sure as my knowledge of silent film is so limited—but I’m guessing that there are many references, little tips of hat to acknowledge The Artist‘s ancestors. The ratio of the screen (nearly square). The circular fade out. The exaggerated expressions. Even the opening scenes, which I loved—a movie premiere, the audience dressed to the nines, the orchestra playing below—seem to long for days gone by.

I liked The Artist very much. It was charming (that seems to be one of my favorite words this year, doesn’t it?); it was witty. I actually didn’t realize how funny it would be before I saw it. (This, incidentally, is an argument for seeing a movie like The Artist in a theater, or at least with a large group of people: humor in silent films seems to play better when there are many people to laugh with—it only takes one person to get the laughter started.) The story is not unusual: A film star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), at the top of his career meets a fan, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), just starting hers. As her star rises, his falls. And so it goes. Of course, in this film, there is a third star, Jack the dog (Uggie). Whether performing in one of the movies within a movie or as part of the overall story line, he could be counted on to steal the scene.

I don’t know enough about film yet to know if Noticing the Elements (Techniques?) means a good film or a bad film or simply a viewer who is thinking too much rather than just absorbing. Regardless, I noticed some things here. It is well paced, oh so very well paced. Perhaps I am simply too restless, but I can lose focus on a movie easily, especially a silent film, but (other than noting that a nearby audience member was snoring!) I didn’t lose focus here, it didn’t drag. The use of “sound”—music, effects, and (spoiler alert) a teeny bit of talking!—was deliberate, focused. It meant something. I don’t think you can completely understand the movie, if you don’t understand how sound is used in it. (But it is not difficult to understand this.)

Thinking about sound and how it is used here, how it is used in other movies, leads to other thoughts, but they are only half-formed speculations on how we watch movies, how we understand them. Do we, in a sense, “read” silent films?—I don’t mean the intertitles, rather the film itself, the action on screen, the expressions. And for that matter, given the highly visual nature of all film, silent or not, do we also read “talkies?” Film is such a multifaceted medium, that I don’t know if I can actually say that. For instance, even in silent films, the use of sound (by the house orchestra, or the on-DVD soundtrack) can be integral to how we relate to and understand the film, so perhaps saying I “read” a film suggests a visual bias. Or perhaps this leads to the definition of good film vs. bad film, that good film successfully integrates all aspects while bad film doesn’t? I think perhaps these are questions to carry through with me while I investigate films past and present.