Friday, 28 December 2012

FILM REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey



I LOVED The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I've seen it twice already, and am verging on a third. While my review may turn into a staunch defence of the tiresome criticisms levelled at the film (it’s too long, 48 FPS makes it look like television, why are they making a tiny book into 3 films again?) and I am a self confessed softie for anything Tolkien, here is my main plea for watching this film: ENJOY IT. As with any film that’s been pickled in its own hype for nearly two years it’s going to be pulled apart by fans and non fans alike, and that’s where the problem lies. Just go in and take it for what it is, is my advice: while it may be long, Peter Jackson’s first instalment is far from boring.

We start, as all reviews, with a hobbit hole. An Unexpected Journey not only introduces us to the new characters in Tolkein’s adventurous romp - baby brother to the more epically serious Lord of the Rings - and the first six chapters of the book, but Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and at one time and still credited Guillermo del Toro, have taken great care to pay heed to that great trilogy of films. They remember that we are in Middle Earth, and there are events in The Hobbit – some brought to life by Tolkien, others hidden in subtext and footnotes – which will impact significantly on things that have not yet come to pass. As well as the key moment when Bilbo meets Gollum and finds the Ring for the first time, a Ring which will later be placed into the hands of his young nephew Frodo, there is also the Necromancer – a foreshadow of a re-emerging Sauron. Jackson and co are tasked not only with telling us a brand new story, but weaving that story into the bigger frame and the wider world and juggling the heavy and prophetic themes with lighter, fun moments with uncouth dwarves and culinary trolls. Pure lovers of The Hobbit are going to feel frustrated, for this has bigger ambitions than even Tolkien had at the time of writing the tale, which was just a bedtime story for his children.

Home loving, stuck in a comforting rut Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is plucked from his lull of second breakfasts and pipes by Gandalf (Ian McKellen) who chooses him as the final member of a party of dwarves to join them on an adventure. The Dwarves, scattered for some 60 years after their home at Erebor, a mountainous city of gold, was devastated by Smaug the dragon have formed a group of 13 to reclaim what once was theirs. Led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), whose grandfather was king under the mountain at the time of Smaug’s attack, the dwarves are thirsty for revenge, but need the help of Gandalf’s wizardry and a ‘burglar’ – that is where Bilbo comes in – to be able to locate the secret entrance into the mountain unnoticed and then destroy the fire-breathing unwelcome guest. To those who say nothing happens in the first part of The Hobbit... well, they must have then completely failed to notice the pack of orcs hunting the group, the greedy trolls spitting them over a fire, the Necromancer’s power spreading through the lands around them, a massive fight between the stone giants, the entire goblin city and the slaying of the goblin king, Bilbo finding a magic and powerful Ring in the mountain caves, Thorin nearly being killed by his nemesis the Pale Orc, and the group being rescued from a burning, falling tree on the edge of a cliff by a herd of badass eagles.

From the moment the opening titles came up, I felt a strange combination of a surge of energy and a warm comforting glow engulf me. I knew I was in safe hands, but I was also beyond excited at what I was about to see. The way I see it, the people who have complained about the film being too long are impatient, and already annoyed at having to devote three whole hours to being in the cinema. If you’re a film lover you should be delighted by that prospect and it should only truly irritate if the film is completely insufferable (in which case, leave). An Unexpected Journey is at worst a little draggy in places, where Jackson’s love of a scene has won over his critical eye (lose the Frodo bits, where he confusingly looks 10 years older anyway and his conversation with older Bilbo (Ian Holm) reeks of a clumsy hindsight), but not once is it dull or meandering. We need time with these characters – there are 13 of them! - and Jackson clearly loves the underlying work and you have to enjoy it with him. Why go in being cynical? I would rather sit back, relax and allow myself to be immersed for three hours than for the filmmakers to feel rushed with their work. This film is all about living in that moment and soaking up every last pixel on the screen – if you’re not in it for the adventure then stay home and smoke your pipe.

I spent most of this film, like Jackson’s LOTR before it, my mouth open agog. Some of his creations are just astounding. Erebor for instance, in the beautiful prologue, is a cavern of decadence, hoards of treasure and jewels and ornate and magnificent halls under the mountain. Rivendell the audience is already au fait with, but its shimmering beauty is just heavenly. Even the foreboding promise of Dol Guldur, which we'll see more of in The Desolation of Smaug, made me giddy. But my favourite (and when my mouth nearly dropped open) is the Goblin City. The intricacy of the drawbridges, the passageways, the contraptions and machines, all in this huge open space - just astonishing vision. I wanted to pause the film, walk up to the screen and just spend an hour trying to drink it all in. I loved how the audience's wonder is also matched with Bilbo's, venturing for the first time outside of The Shire. There will be so much more to explore and enjoy on future viewings! And when the dwarves finally manage to turn on their enemy and drive them back whilst trying to escape this labyrinth of levels, it was like watching the finer workings inside a ball bearing clock : the ladders, the bridges, the boulder – everything just flowed with a hypnotic precision, and with such a deft touch as Jackson's it also oozed with humour and entertainment. It was amazing to behold. New Zealand ain't looking too shabby either, in the breathtaking exterior shots over the 'Misty Mountains'.

But this was just the pinnacle in a dazzling array of set pieces. The fat trolls arguing over herbs and spices provided a lighter moment to the spectacle and the stone giants thunder battle had all the markings of Del Toro. They only amount to the briefest of paragraphs in Tolkien's work, but here Jackson and co have managed to make them some of the most memorable scenes. The danger of the climax when the orcs finally catch up with our heroes, and Thorin having to take a stand before the eagles come to rescue made me cry with joy (I was a bit tipsy first time round; second time...well I just cry at everything). The emotional beats the film hits, absent from the book, are hugely effective. We need Thorin to trust and value Bilbo's presence by the end of the film, and we need Bilbo to be fully invested in the adventure too, no matter how much he dreams of home.

But the scene stealer here, no matter how much I loved the eagles, Goblin City with my favourite character the lil Goblin Scribe on his pulley, and eccentric Radagast and Sebastian the hedgehog, is by far Riddles in the Dark. The joy with Martin Freeman in this film is that you don't even need the time to appreciate the casting and believe he is Bilbo Baggins - it's just instantaneous. His fussiness, his warmth and his bravery all merge wonderfully to bring this character to life, and in this scene he excels, taking part in a game of wits with the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis) - to think this was the very first scene they filmed is extraordinary, as we've already had a full two hours with him at this point. Serkis more than matches him here too: the advance in motion capture technology is stunning here, as Gollum's eyes and mouth twitch as he struggles to come up with the answers and is fighting with the surrendering Smeagol ("Shut up! I wasn't talking to you."). And it's here we see an important development with Bilbo: not just keeping the Ring, but his decision not to kill Golum once he has the chance. He remembers Gandalf's words to him in the beginning: "true courage is about not knowing when to take a life, but when to spare one." Plus, any riddles game where an answer is "eggses" earns bonus points with me.

There is so much to giggle at in An Unexpected Journey though - the weightier moments do not overshadow the amount of times it tickles you, from the culture clashing of dwarves and elves ("have they got any chips?"), Bilbo's hot spell over his contract, Saruman's dismissal of Radagast ("it's his obsessive compulsion of mushrooms, they've addled his brain!") to Gandalf's surprisingly coy moment at the White Council with Galadriel - a favourite of mine. Jackson has also managed to keep the importance of songs from the book, so as much as "that's what Bilbo Baggins hates!" can make you laugh, the beautiful rendition of the Misty Mountains ballad can strike a note of real poignancy. I'm still singing it now, and have even been moved to buy the official soundtrack, bewitchingly composed by Howard Shore.

What An Unexpected Journey comes down to is a love of fantasy and adventure, and you're not - apart from the later events of Middle Earth - going to get much better than this. Once it hits its stride I didn't want it to end, I could have sat there for hours. And the tease with Smaug's eye opening in the final shot... get me on a train to December 2013. This will all make sense once we have had The Desolation of Smaug and been There and Back Again: trust me.


Saturday, 1 December 2012

FILM REVIEW: The Master


The Master may not be the best film of the year - at least in my opinion - but it's got to be the most heavily digested. Even now, I'm still coming up with new thoughts, new angles on Paul Thomas Anderson's latest which is both an exploration of a soldier's post traumatic stress disorder and the foundations of Scientology. PTA has been especially reluctant to dwell on the latter observation, but screening one of the very first cuts of the film to Tom Cruise wasn't without reason. It's themes and character which drive The Master and gave myself and the audience a lot to think about on the walk home, but it's a neglect for a strong narrative which meant I struggled to tolerate it.

The aftermath of World War II leaves naval officer Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) at a loss with his life. Dependent on alcohol, aggressive and sexually aberrant he literally flees from one job to the next as a photographer in a luxury department store, to a cabbage picker on a farm. One night, escaping from the farm after his toxic cocktail mix kills a fellow worker, he jumps on a boat and conceals himself below deck. He is found the next morning and brought to the ship's captain, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who takes a shine to Freddie and his powerful homemade tipples, and invites him to stay with them - them being his family, including pregnant wife Peggy (Amy Adams), and his 'followers'. Freddie discovers Dodd is known as The Master, and is teacher and leader of a new movement called The Cause which focuses on spiritual enlightenment and the idea that all humans are immortal. The two strike up an impassioned friendship - Dodd finds a muse in Freddie and inspiration to write his second book, a complicated soul who he is both infuriated and fascinated by. For Freddie he has found someone who likes him and enjoys his company, and for that he develops a fierce loyalty to Dodd, angrily snapping out at those who question or defame him. Dodd tries to treat Freddie using methods of The Cause known as processing, but he is unable to curb his rages and the fellow members, and Peggy, begin to grow nervous of him and beg Dodd to cast him out. But despite Dodd's troubles with the authorities and naysayers and Freddie's unpredictability, each time they are forced apart they find a way to be drawn back to one another again.

At 144 minutes The Master beguiles and entrances, not least with its hypnotic score from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood (who also did We Need To Talk About Kevin and PTA's last film, There Will Be Blood), which was one of my favourite things to take away from the film. The hollow and melodic xylophone is like someone running their fingers up your spine - it's perfect. And because of the random nature, almost episodic rhythm PTA chooses to use, 144 minutes is actually the perfect length, as just as you start to grasp for attention the film ends. It's gorgeous to look at too, with sun bleached tones to the frames PTA uses for his shots - I particularly loved the scene where Dodd is arrested at a house call, and the camera is tilting upwards to look at him stood on the patio, with his friends and family surrounding him. He is an unconventional perfectionist, and that's what makes his films so visually appetising (see There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights).

Here is where I struggled. Freddie is an unknown, a character impossible to pin down, yet he is our protagonist. Phoenix's performance is not just in the contours and flexes of his face but in his whole body - it's a very physical performance, playing Freddie slightly hunched over, dragging his feet, arms bent into his back. But Freddie has no arc. He is at the end how we find him at the beginning - listless, angry, sexually obsessed, alone. He has met this man, Dodd, and had, by all accounts and by what we have seen, a life changing experience knowing him and being part of this cult-like following. But by the end, what impact has this had on him? In contrast, the antagonist figure Lancaster Dodd, is as complex as Freddie but has an intelligence that elevates him, and Hoffman's performance is so astounding in its extremes of violent outburst to quiet reflection that it is Dodd, for me, who compels the most. When he meets Freddie he is struggling with his second book, but soon after their first meeting he is up for hours writing, much to the amusement of his wife Peggy. And when the two argue or Freddie repels The Cause, it's always Dodd who brings him back - that is, until the second book has been published. After this there is a significant shift in his tolerance of Freddie's erratic behaviour, culminating in him giving Freddie an ultimatum to stay forever or leave and he will never speak to him again. Freddie leaves, and at the end of the film we are left with their friendship truly broken. It seems obvious that Dodd was using Freddie to further his own reputation and stature as The Master, seemingly lost for words for his next portfolio until Freddie somehow finds them for him, even though it directly contradicts his teachings in his first book. One of his followers (played by Laura Dern) picks up on this with him and he just dismisses her, leaving her full blown devotion to him riddled in doubt and his actions perfectly echoing his sceptical son's words to Freddie earlier in the film, "he's making all this up as he goes along... you don't see that?" But yet there is something untamable in Freddie that Dodd cannot shake, and even at the protests of his wife who cannot abide him, he will not let him go.

I don't think there is any doubt that Freddie fails to buy into the beliefs or is committed to The Cause, and for him his attraction to Dodd is for a friend, a companion, even a brother, a lover. It's about Dodd as an individual, and if he has to play along with the processing and the increasingly confounding tests then he will do it. PTA lingers on these moments which provide some of the best film making and performances of the year. Freddie's initial processing scene on the boat, where Dodd fires probing psychological questions at him and inviting Freddie to answer without blinking, is a mastery of drama. And later, Freddie's back and forth touching of the window and the wall as a technique to break his association patterns is as provocative viewing as you will see from anything all year. I just wish these exercises had amounted to something. They're fascinating to watch, and a great plot device for moulding and exploring a character, but what does it actually add to the narrative? The story is so thin on the ground that it's hard for the film to satisfyingly gel.

The biggest bone of contention is the last thirty minutes of the film, and I think this is a great way of testing your favour for the film. After leaving The Cause once again, Freddie is in a cinema alone watching a kid's film when an usher comes over with a telephone saying he has a call. Freddie picks up the receiver and Dodd is on the other line, telling him to come to England to see him, that he has something very important to tell him, that he has finally remembered where he remembers him from. In their very first meeting, and reiterated throughout their friendship, Dodd has always professed to knowing Freddie from somewhere, but never quite remembering where - "where do I know you from?" So Freddie answers his call again and travels to England where The Cause have set up a new residence. But Dodd and Peggy are cold, and unfriendly, and don't seem to have been expecting him, and Dodd and Freddie have their last meeting together where Dodd delivers and Freddie passes on his ultimatum to stay. Many have since interpreted the scene in the cinema to have been a dream, not least in its implausibility, but in Dodd's sudden change of tone when Freddie arrives in the flesh. But I just cannot buy this. How would Freddie know to go to England? How could he have dreamt that? I wish there had been a scene to show how he could have unconsciously stored that information in his brain (such as reading it in a newspaper, or a radio in the background), but it makes no sense - it makes more sense for Dodd to have known he was in that cinema at that exact moment and to call him. Plus, Freddie is not a dreamer - it's not in his personality, he is too straightforward, to carnal, almost. He doesn't long for Dodd the way Dodd longs for Freddie.

My inability to find a deeper connection and meaning to the film is what left me somewhat cold after it ended, and it failed to win me over enough to see it as anything other than an intriguing and interesting take on the characters and themes offered to me. They're not likable nor admirable, and it's a film that travels without going anywhere. When it tries to engage, the stuff with Freddie's childhood sweetheart for example, it feels flat and detached from the feel of the rest of the film. These people are animals, a notion PTA goes over and over again in Freddie's actions and Dodd's reactions to them. Story doesn't seem to be able to co-exist in this film with such dominant and domineering characters. A note also to say how excellent (if slightly miscast in terms of age) Amy Adams is as Peggy Dodd - revelatory towards the end when you realise she is more committed to The Cause than her own husband is, and it makes you wonder if she was like that when he met her or has he concurrently created this person?

This is definitely a film for lovers of cinema as an art, and for fans of Paul Thomas Anderson, and you'll take out of it what you give to it. As with all art, I appreciate it more than I get it, and for me The Master offers up a really interesting question on our enjoyment of films and judgement of them: what's better, an emotional or an intelligent response? And for me, solely the latter reaction is not enough.