Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Case for Bag End 1

It was quite a treat seeing the first Hobbit film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, with its rapid frame technology and 3D whiz bangery, at the Embassy cinema, because, of course, the Embassy is the best place to see any spectacular movie, the place being packed out adding to the atmosphere rather than detracting from it.

At any rate, happy in my non-platinum seat, I settled in to watch the nigh on three hour long film.  I was a little nervous from the outset, loving as I do the Lord of the Rings trilogy and a bit uncertain how a much smaller book would be stretched out to fill three movies of about the same duration.

The answer to that was that things would take their time.  The film starts off with a long, slow nod to the Lord of the Rings, with welcome cameos by Ian Holm and Elijah Wood reprising their roles, before shifting to the time of the Hobbit, and opening the current tale.

Again, the opening takes a while, with light comedy and an appalling “dishes” scene (I am not sure if it was the CGI being bad, the picture being too good, or me being too cynical, but I really thought it was terribly done) as the Hobbit (Martin Freeman) meets up with the dwarven companions with whom he undertakes his unexpected adventure.  It’s a big group, with characterisation reduced to very straightforward stereotypes (the fat one, the stupid one, the hero, the good looking one, the young one etc; none of them terribly engaging), but I was surprised how little I felt Bilbo Baggins’ character was also explored.  Perhaps I was just spoiled by the awesome characterisations in The Lord of the Rings

But once the troupe leave the Hobbit hole and start exploring the world, things pick up – mainly in the action stakes.  Orcs, Trolls, Barry Humphries, and more encounters with characters from the Lord of the Rings (Bret McKenzie gets to speak as not-Figwit; Hugo Weaving is all frowny face as the condescending Elrond; Cate Blanchett is as eerily luminous as ever as Galadriel; and it was wonderful to see Christopher Lee being all respectable in a “not that evil yet” kind of way as Saruman the White).

Of course, the person everyone wants to see is Gollum, and when he and his precious show up, I could feel the whole audience smile and enjoy Andy Serkis’ performance.  As well as being beautifully rendered digitally, Serkis manages to add a depth and character that none of the live performances are able, or perhaps encouraged, to do.  It’s a shame really, as while the turn is scene stealingly awesome, it really highlights the dullness of the other characters. 

The special effects are as incredible as one expects from WETA, though some of the scenes themselves tend to drag a little.  The video game arcade race through the halls of the goblin kingdom are great in a platform game, but a little dull when you are not actually directing the action with the help of your joystick.  Likewise, the battle of the mountain giants is visually impressive, but the involvement of the troupe seems a little silly and probably the whole scene could have been excised without too much trouble. 

However, the only character that really outstays its welcome is the Albino Orc (or should it be White Orc?) who is determined to kill our heroes, asking everyone to save the leaders for himself, but then deciding at the last minute that someone else should strike the final blow.  Fuelled by a rage that has obviously stood the test of time, he and his minions show up to be threatening every so often (though they never really achieve anything), which is probably faithful to the book, but not exactly menacing nor all that interesting.

I did wonder about younger Bilbo’s eyes though, as Freeman seemed to have brown eyes whilst the older him had blue – I was not sure if this was a One Ring effect or what, but I noted early on how big and blue Frodo’s eyes are, and that older Bilbo had the same eyes, and Gollums eyes are scarily blue, and then younger Bilbo… ah.

Anyway, the most important question is: was the film entertaining?  And unreservedly, I have to say yes.  It was not always fast paced, and the main company really relies on Gandalf to provide a character of real interest, but its all wonderfully put together and, with the 3D high frame rate technology, it looks spectacular, if occasionally a little fake.

Verdict: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey returns to Middle Earth and serves up another dose of awesome fun.  While it might not live up to the fantasticness of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it will be interesting to see how the material is stretched to cover three films, I will definitely be joining the journey myself.  10.5 members out of a party of 14.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Case for a Quantum of Sky

It had to be better than the last one.

And Skyfall proved to be a whole heap better than Quantum of Solace, though it still was not quite as excellent as Daniel Craig’s first outing as James Bond in Casino Royale.

Watching a James Bond movie at the Embassy just feels so right somehow.  The large theatre with the ornate decorations and plush seats (platinum, definitely; normal, still pretty awesome) is designed to make watching a movie an event, and a James Bond movie always fits that bill.  Loud, with big explosions and action set pieces and (since the 1990s) a pretty nondescript theme song, Skyfall ticks all the right boxes, with director Sam Mendes playing it large with nods to Bond films past and (quasi-chronologically speaking) future.

Of course, the film hinges on some big performances, and Daniel Craig has reclaims his mantle as the “dark, troubled” Bond for the 21st Century (whereas Timothy Dalton was the darkish, dangerous bond of the 80s).  Craig’s Bond seems in an almost permanent state of irritation, and considering his muscular, battered condition, he definitely does not appear a man that you would want to annoy.

Unless you are Javier Bardem of course, who once again manages to make a fairly bad haircut a sign of incredible menace.  His Mr Silver is this movie’s arch villain, a man bent on revenge, and bent in several other ways as well.  He has a grand, mysterious plan, one that I will not reveal here, but which requires an incredible (and I mean that in the “suspension of disbelief” as well as the “impressive” sense of the term) forethought and clairvoyance to achieve.  Quite why this computer wizard who can hack into the MI6 computers on a whim would need to steal a laptop’s hard drive to gain MI6 secrets (why was the computer in Turkey again?) is never fully explained, but then there are a lot of things that crop up that the audience is expected to accept as part of the normal Bondish fantasy.

At any rate, much like his villain turn in No Country For Old Men, Bardem steals the show as soon as he arrives on set.  Bond may brood, but Bardem is bonkers and it’s a credit to Craig that he manages to keep his character visible with Mr Silver stealing all the spotlight.  Even the great Judi Dench, returning as stern headmistress M, has a hard time keeping centre stage.

It was about the time Silver slipped back into obscurity that my enjoyment of the film began to wane.  It’s not to say that it is bad, not at all; but the pace just seems to slow somewhat, the bangs and explosions seeming to lack a little bit of thrill.  But bangs and explosions there are, and who can complain about that in a Bond film?

There is also a sense that Craig will not play Bond much longer.  As fit and intense as he seems, there film hints that he is getting a bit "past" it.  He will no doubt be back for the next Bond, but how long will it be until we see a new one?  But, more interestingly, how will the next Bond "reinvigorate" the franchise?

Verdict:  Skyfall is everything you would expect in a Bond film, including its length (at about 2.5 hours).  Big explosions, girls, bad one liners, more explosions - and this one has Javier Bardem upping the awesome evilness factor.  Not the best, but definitely a goodie.  7 martinis out of 10.