Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (and a brief mention of The Guilt Trip)

                    A Not-So-Unexpected Cacophony of CGI 
                … And There’s More to Come
      
                                                 Review by Ken Burke

Peter Jackson's back in Middle Earth with Bilbo Baggin's original adventure and more attacks on the heroes than you can count ... but at least we get Gollum again.


Yes, years—no decades—ago, I read The Hobbit; yes, I can hardly remember anything that specific from it (Did I read it again along with my 3 times through The Lord of the Rings trilogy while I was in graduate school in the 1970s?  Who knows?  Maybe so.); yes, I’m not about to try to read it again before either seeing Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey or attempting to write this review; yes, I’ve seen the movie in 3-D (doesn’t seem to have been in Jackson’s experimental version of 48 frames-per-second format instead of the usual 24fps version playing in 90% of U.S. theatres [and seemingly worldwide, as I’ve read that only about 1,000 global options are in the 48fps version—thus explaining why that format wasn’t available in beautiful downtown Hayward, CA—all roughly dozen blocks of it that generically resemble what’s referred to as “downtown” in larger locations]) so I’ve experienced about all it has to offer for most of us on the planet.  Now, with my initial interrogation for the Hobbitphiles among you out of the way, what’s my reaction and why?  Reaction:  Marvelous special effects but very long trek just to get to the other side of the Misty Mountains.  Why:  The original book of The Hobbit is roughly the same length as each of the 3 The Lord of the Rings episodes, yet each of those books was made into a separate roughly 3-hr. movie (admittedly, with leaving out a lot of unnecessary details [Gasp!  Did he really say that?]—although some of what was edited out of those originals is available in the considerably longer Extended Edition DVD versions) while this 1 book is being stretched into 3 films on its own!  Call me a heretic if you wish (believe me, I’ve heard a lot worse, dating back to at least those grad school days, probably earlier), but despite the marvelous New Zealand landscapes, the additional geographic and fantasy-creature CGI, and the great fun of seeing Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Saruman (Christopher Lee), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Gollum (Andy Serkis, also CGI-enhanced) again, this just feels overblown, as if every damn page in the book had to be included (and I’m sure there are some that aren’t, although a lot of others have been recruited from the Rings appendices in order to stretch this thing out further into my Medicare years than I care to spend—just turned 65 a few days ago, so nice to know that every insurance company in the country wants to be my friend to cover that other 20% of my health care).  People (a term a little less generic than “they,” but probably just as meaningless) often complain that movies adapted from novels don’t capture all that they loved in the books; I know I’d have to read The Hobbit again to see if any foot of the forest was missed, but if any cinematic adaption comes close to getting in every last nuance of the printed original (short of the terrible pile of hours of lost footage from Eric von Stroheim’s 1924 masterpiece, Greed), Jackson’s first installment of The Hobbit must take the prize.

(Sorry about this big gap at the start of the next paragraph, but sometimes Google BlogSpot likes to contribute its own layout decisions no matter what I prefer; collaboration seems to be the price of publication in this instance.  Oh well, read on please.)





 For those among you who are Middle Earth connoisseurs, you won’t need any background information on locations along the journey, names of all 13 of the dwarves, or anything else that sounds like Greek (or Elven or Orkish) to ordinary mortals, but those of us who can’t tell an Orc from a Goblin (And there’s good reason for that, because the master himself, J.R.R. Tolkien, called the same race of ghastly beings “Goblins” in his book of The Hobbit but changed to “Orcs” in The Lord of the Rings novels; in the current film it’s made more confusing because the grotesque ones who long ago participated in the raid on the dwarves former kingdom under The Lonely Mountain and who now attack Gandalf, Bilbo [Martin Freeman], Thorin Oakenshield [Richard Armitage], and company are called Orcs while the awful creatures who live under The Misty Mountains within the former dwarf halls of the Mines of Moria are referred to as Goblins.  If you want some help straightening this all out, I recommend a side-trip to http://tolkien.cro. net/orcs/goblins.html where some detailed explanations await you.) or who need a constant reference like we had in the books to understand where we are from one day to the next, I recommend the marvelous interactive map and timeline at http://lotrproject.com/timeline/#zoom= 2&lat=-1455&lon=1573.5&layers=B (for that matter, if you just need a plot refresher to help keep all of these characters and happenings clear in your mind, you'll find a nice short summary at http://www.lord-of-the-rings.org/hobbit.html but be aware that this takes you through the whole book so if you don't know yet how this tale will weave itself through two more movies [a good trick, as previously noted, given that the current one has already consumed about half of the original narrative] stop reading that website once you encounter unfamiliar action).  If you need any further sorting out, such as the specific names of all of the dwarves in the photo above (which you can find at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/22/the-hobbit-dwarves-photo-_n_906509.html), then I'll leave it to these various resources because I spent enough time referring to the many maps and appendices when I read and re-read all of these books to not want to revisit that task again (although from what I understand from a distance that's what you still have to do if you're attempting to stay focused on what's happening in the print version of George R.R. Martin's [an appropriate name, given the connection to Tolkien's heritage] Game of Thrones, from his larger A Song of Fire and Ice series, but as with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings I guess it's everyone for themselves if you venture into the HBO version of Thrones without proper literary preparation [although I admit that when encountering Tolkien onscreen over the last decade I had only marginal help in my own foggy memory from what I've read so long ago in what seems like a distant galaxy far away ... oops, sorry, wrong fantasy world]).


Despite that misplaced allusion to George Lucas’s Star Wars franchise (which, ironically, might take place in an ancient time [even though it is often mistakenly lumped in with futuristic outer-space stories such as Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek tales] not that distant chronologically from the events of Middle Earth [supposedly about 6,000 years before our time and set on our planet, seemingly before some final shifts of oceans and mountains and the disappearance of all humanoids but the races of Men from our world), other critics of this current Hobbit movie have already made the comparison to Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace (Lucas, 1999) in terms of the new trilogy not living up to its predecessor regarding character development and narrative impact.  I’m not fully of that negative mind about The Hobbit (but then again, I didn’t find the first 3 chronological episodes of Star Wars to be as ghastly as some [another ambiguously useless collective noun if you want real context] found them to be and I think their quality and intensity improves in each one up through the progression into the final corruption of Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith [Lucas, 2005]), but as stated above, I do think The Hobbit feels unnecessarily extended (case in point, the dwarves’ dinner with Bilbo, with all of its food and acrobatic antics, which may come straight from the novel [I told you I wasn’t going to look it up again] but feels more like a scene with those other dwarves and Snow White from the Disney fantasy universe [just wait, soon they’ll buy up the remains of MGM and own all of Tolkien as well as Pixar and Marvel—Mickey’s learned a lot from Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone’s 1987 Wall Street) over the years]).  Throughout this rendition of The Hobbit you get the simultaneous sense of complete context when a book is rendered virtually page-by-page in the cinematic adaptation along with the sinking reality that if this is what it takes to fully capture what previously existed in the symbolic experience of words translated to images in the reader’s mind then every adapted movie would need to be about 9 hrs. long (as the short-lived original version of Greed was purported to be) and would forever doom theatre audiences to adaptions existing only for the young of age and strong of butt while the rest of us just have to hope that original scripts could continue to justify themselves in a more standard 2-hour format—at least we can take heart that many, such as the fabulous Chinatown (written by Robert Towne, directed by Roman Polanski in 1974, when it lost for Oscar’s Best Picture against the magnificent adaptation of Mario Puzo’s Mafia saga, transformed by him and Francis Ford Coppola into The Godfather: Part II [which, fittingly for this conversation, won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar (Chinatown was awarded Best Original Screenplay), along with its other little golden men for Best Picture, Director, and Supporting Actor (Robert De Niro), among others]), have been able to do this successfully even if many other original movie scripts have not.

Carrying this line of thought a bit further (be patient, please; I’ll get back to The Hobbit in a few minutes, at least as calculated by Jupiter time, as Jackson seems to have done with his structuring of this movie), I’d venture to say that more originals flop than do the adaptations (although you’d think I’d be able to prove it by referring to the current All-Time Domestic [U.S. and Canada] Top 20 Box Office leaders where the top 2 are originals—James Cameron’s Avatar [2009] and Titanic [1997] but only 5 others are—The Phantom Menace, the original Star Wars (Lucas, 1977), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial [Steven Spielberg, 1982] and 2 of the Pixars, Toy Story 3 [Lee Unkrich, 2010] and Finding Nemo [Andrew Stanton, Unkrich, 2003] while the others are all adaptations of some kind, but given that most of those “adaptations” such as Marvel’s the Avengers [Joss Whedon], The Dark Knight [Christopher Nolan, 2008], Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest [Gore Verbinski, 2006], etc. are only loosely adapted from the basic concept of their originals they aren’t really the same type of actual adaptions that you’d find with The Lion King [Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff, 1994]—from Shakespeare’s Hamlet [seriously, although without the mother-son Oedipal aspects and the suicide of the Ophelia character]—and The Hunger Games [Gary Ross]—giving us a lot more semi-original winners here than strict terminology would imply; you can see more details for yourself at http://www.boxofficemojo.com/alltime/domestic.htm if you like), so we’d better keep hoping that adaptations continue in our lives but that they mainly find ways of compressing their material, as most do, rather than stringing it out across 2 or more movies from a single book, as Jackson and his studio executives have decided to do with The Hobbit(Further irony: it’s reported that Jackson originally proposed to do the entire The Lord of the Rings trilogy as two 3-hr. movies, assuming that he’d not get the funding to go further with it, but it was the studio suits who convinced him to make all 3 so as to better preserve the integrity of the original material; for this LOTR prequel, all involved seem seduced by the recent Harry Potter and Twilight strategies of milking the finales for all they’re worth, despite earlier books in their series functioning just fine with fans and bean-counters alike when turned into just 1 stand-alone movie apiece.  I guess it’s not just Mickey Mouse who’s been taking “Greed is good!” lessons from Gordon Gekko.)

So, now that I’ve bashed The Hobbit so much, why, you ask, do I give it a healthy 3 ½ stars (remember, that for me 5 is Godfather country so that even my best of last year, Melancholia [Lars von Trier], got just 4 stars and my best so far this year—haven’t seen Les Misérables [Tom Hooper] or Zero Dark Thirty [Kathryn Bigelow] yet—The Master [Paul Thomas Anderson; also voted best of 2012 by the San Francisco Film Critics Circle (more details at http://www.eastbayexpress.com/CultureSpyBlog/archives/2012/12/17/san-francisco-film-critics-circle-announces-its-movie-awards-for-2012)] got only 4 ½ stars, the only such rating I’ve yet given) and say that it transcends the flak it’s gotten from most critics?  (Rotten Tomatoes average: 65, Metacritic 58, Movie Review Intelligence 63; so my virtual 70 of 100 is better than them all.)  Mainly, I commend it for being a fabulous visual experience (at least in 24fps 3-D; I can’t speak for the 48fps or 2-D versions) with some breathtaking Misty Mountains vistas (if a lot of that is actual New Zealand I’ve just got to visit there someday), a lot of very credible renditions of variety among the various Orc and Troll monsters—especially given how many variations of Orcs—excuse me, Goblins—had to be created for the Mines of Moria segment, the ethereally beautiful Elven dwelling of Rivendell (shown in the photo to your left, above the one of Gollum, with Bilbo similarly enthralled), and the adrenalin rush that comes from the non-stop action (even if the constant battles may be too much for some viewers—such as my “Can’t we all just get along?” wife, Nina) as the troupe sets out on the long road to The Lonely Mountain in Erebor where Smaug the dragon (an impressive sight in his own right, seen only fleetingly here but obviously to be much more front and center in the upcoming episodes) keeps watch over the dwarves’ stolen gold.  And, of course, the most tasty morsel of all is the relatively brief encounter in this narrative between Bilbo and Gollum, in which the all-important “precious” ring changes hands, setting us up for the much longer story to come 60 years later after Bilbo is safely back in his Hobbit-hole in The Shire (now you can’t call that a spoiler if you know anything at all about LOTR, so don’t give me any grief).  Possibly the best little thing about this whole film is Gandalf’s comment that what keeps evil in check are the small deeds of everyday hope and love, rather than the grand battles that these stories focus on, implying that we’re all heroes at heart (if our hearts are pure enough), not just the warriors—including Bilbo who turns from his sedentary life to take up arms against the Orcs when Thorin is threatened—whose deeds live on in legend while our daily acts are rarely recorded in anyone’s annals, whether in ancient Middle Earth or in our time (except in obituaries).

Sure, there are aspects of this huge enterprise that seem suspiciously familiar, such as the chaotic action as our heroes race to escape the Goblins in the Mines of Moria (reminded me of similar action scenes in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom [Spielberg, 1984]), Gandalf showing up just in time to save our adventurous band from being the Trolls’ dinner (just as Han Solo returns at the right moment to protect Luke Skywalker from being shot from behind by Darth Vader at the end of Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope), the concept that the seemingly small and weak can overcome the unfair odds of fighting against powerful hoards (Luke’s steadfast refusal to kill his father and the Ewoks’ contribution to triumph over the Empire in Star Wars: Episode VI—Return of the Jedi [Richard Marquand, 1983]), the similarity between Gandalf and the great wizard Dumbledore of the Harry Potter stories, etc., but this isn’t Tolkien’s nor Jackson’s fault that such aspects of The Hobbit are familiar to us from these earlier movies because the book that helped inspire these other action-adventure tropes has been in print since 1937 (just as Andrew Stanton’s John Carter was hampered earlier this year by the familiar sense of the same kind of “borrowings,” even though the elements of this narrative have been around since Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel, A Princess of Mars, was published in 1917—review in this blog of the film at the March 17, 2012 posting).  The biggest problem Jackson has here, as did Lucas with his Star Wars movies, is the more compelling storytelling and memorable characters (Come on, be honest, except for Thorin can any of you really tell me who even half of those dwarves were by name, face, and personality without referring back to the guide I gave you above?) are in the trilogy already established in our minds and our culture, making this new addition to the Hobbit lore a bit hard to fully appreciate because it comes as a prequel to what we know will ultimately be a more important story (returning the dwarves to their rightful kingdom is admirable but saving all of Middle Earth from the wrath of Sauron is infinitely more important, just like watching the tragedy of Anakin turn into Vader is heartbreaking but it pales in comparison to Luke’s ultimate triumph over the evil that threatens to enslave the galaxy).  Still, even given all of these limitations, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is quite a pleasing assault on the senses (unless you’re like Nina and can only tolerate so much bloodshed, even at the PG-13 level) and for many of us a necessary step toward the likely even more spectacular parts of this trilogy still to come, so if you want to spend your holidays watching monsters on the rampage you’ll surely take this journey yourself.

Another unexpected journey that I’ll briefly mention is Anne Fletcher’s The Guilt Trip in which over-protected son, Andy (Seth Rogen), invites his helicopter Mom, Joyce (Barbra Streisand), to accompany him on an 8-day road trip in which he hopes to find corporate buyers for his safely-organic, effective-but-dull cleaning product and to reunite long-widowed Mom with her first love, who seemingly now lives in San Francisco.  I accept no blame for Spoiler spoilage regarding The Hobbit, given how much this story has already been engrained into our culture, but you might as well know now that I’m going to spoil this one for you, either because it may be too sentimental for your tastes if you’re tricked by the trailers and think it’s just a barrage of Jewish-mother shtick jokes (so you won't waste your cash [You should spend it on your mother ... or would it kill you to call her once in awhile?  Hey, just because they don't do shtick doesn't mean I can't.] if you don’t want an ultimately touching mother-son connection story, which is what it actually is) or because you’d appreciate knowing the real intentions of this cross-country travelogue and might need to know what it’s really about so that you can decide to go see it for yourself. (By the way, about the Jewish mother thing: the family name is Brewster and except for the physical appearance of the actors there’s no claim to Jewishness for either of them—although I suppose that Brewster could have been just the name of the deceased husband so that there’s no need to convince yourself that this latest incarnation of Fanny Brice/Yentl is somehow just a WASPy New Yorker transplanted to New Jersey—but maybe if you believed that Seinfeld’s George Costanza had Italian rather than Jewish parents [even Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David admit that this isn’t very plausible but they liked the unreality of it] then you can probably buy into this attempt on Fletcher’s part to not just play into supposed ethnic stereotypes.)

If this were an actual review I’d likely give this one 3 ½ ratings stars because the interactions between the 2 movie stars feels genuinely like a long-term family relationship, the characters are very relatable for a Hollywood entertainment vehicle (Nina saw countless connections to herself in the character of Joyce—which is a completely good thing, of course!  Wouldn’t everybody want to that cheap and meddling?  Of course they would!), and you get to see some interesting scenery along the way (including an obligatory stop at the Grand Canyon and Joyce conquering a 50 oz. steak at what’s called the Cattleman’s Roundup Steak Ranch in Lubbock, TX—although this is a fictionalized version of the actual Big Texas Steak Ranch in Amarillo, where you have to eat 72 oz. of meat and the side dishes in an hour or pay a hefty price [hot dog chomping champ Joey Chestnut did it in a record 8 min., 52 sec.—a video of this and more essential Big Texan trivia at http://www.bigtexan.com/free72facts.html, just for you, buckaroos).  The Guilt Trip may not be as intimidating as Bilbo’s trip into the more inhospitable parts of Middle Earth, but if you’d prefer a fantasy about a mother and son who ultimately really love each other (even after his attitude toward her finally pushes her to call him a “condescending, self-absorbed little shit”)—OK, such love could be real even if it doesn’t match your own experience—rather than one where monsters lurk around every corner (monsters even scarier than your mother … probably), then The Guilt Trip may be your preferred journey during this holiday season (and if so, you might want to explore more about it, possibly starting with http://www.guilttripmovie.com/), especially compared to the trips we’ll soon be taking to Paris and Pakistan when the final couple of Oscar-contender heavyweights open in a few days.  Pack plenty of clean underwear; we’ll be on the road soon.

If you’d like to have further unexpected adventures with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey here are some suggested links:



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKqPeYbcL2A&playnext=1&list=PL06D56F197834BAD9&feature=results_main (a collection of 7 short video production blogs from Peter Jackson about the shooting of the Hobbit movies)




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6 comments:

  1. Have not seen either yet. Was The Guilt Trip's much anticipated go/no go spoiler "...a fantasy about a mother and son who ultimately really love each other?" Maybe I missed something!

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  2. Hi rj. Good to hear from you as always, but as my mother (who would have played bridge and gossiped with Streisand's character all night) would have said, "Get you mind out of the gutter, young man!" (even if I were 60 when she said it, so age is not the point). If I read you right, you haven't missed anything that would have sent this movie into R territory, although that might make it more appealing for the segment of the population that doesn't have enough filmmakers like Bertolucci ("Luna," 1979) anymore to whet those appetites.

    Anyway, "The Guilt Trip" isn't about THAT kind of guilt, just another chorus of Paul Simon's "Mother and Child" reunion (a variation of which we get in "This is 40," about which I hope to have comments posted before Christmas, now that the world hasn't ended and I have more time to write).

    p.s. (To anyone interested in my notes above about the RSS feed) Still no change in the RSS feed order despite requests to Google and Google dialoguers for help so just keep clicking the link to the actual blog site to see what's new because there's a lot there after "Flight."

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  3. Actually I was thinking of a different kind of spoiler rather than Freud's Oedipus Complex (although Dr Phil being involved in a dramatization might be interesting if Dustin Hoffman unexpectedly showed up).

    Instead I was hoping for either a)An original comedy with twists worthy of the Coen Brothers (true masters) or b)Yentl meets Area 51 (aka Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen in 1984's Starman [which is certainly worth your time if someone has not seen it]).

    P.S. You did notice the aside within an aside? I am taking notes professor. Happy Holidays!

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  4. Hi again. As for your other hopes: (A) Nope, and (B) Nope—although I do agree that "Starman" is well worth anyone’s time (and I salute the aside-within-the-aside; we keep building on this and soon nobody else is going to know what the hell we’re saying about anything).

    I used to use a citation from "Starman" in trying to explain aspects of the convoluted science of semiotics to my students, in terms of how something that’s considered a universally-recognized index sign in a culture, such as red traffic lights for stop and green for go, can turn into more complex, learned symbolic signs, such as how in this movie Karen Allen’s character is trying to get Jeff Bridges’ alien character back to a rendezvous point by a specific time (Now where do they think they got that idea, Mr. Spielberg?) and he wants to help get there by sharing the driving. She says something like, “You don’t know anything about driving on Earth,” to which he replies, “Sure I do, I’ve watched you. Red means stop, green means go, and yellow means go very fast.” (More detailed explanations on semiotics and advertising are available for inquiry at http://www.uvm.edu/%7Etstreete/semiotics_and_ads/index.html if you’d like to really delve into this intriguing study of how we make meaning in our human cultures).

    There are other great aspects of "Starman" as well, so thanks for bringing it up. Happy holidays to you too, rj, and anyone else out there reading the Two Guys (which now seems to be rj more so than Pat, but that’s fine too) rambles. Ken

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  5. Hi city, Thanks for reading. Always glad to have comments on any aspect of what we're doing here. Ken

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