January 8th, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Having waited for the crowds to die down, we went to see "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," on December 30th. We enjoyed it, but our pleasure was not unmixed.

"Too many battles" is a criticism I seen elsewhere and we would agree. Jackson and company follow the movie-makers guideline to show, rather than tell, to a fault. The film opens with a lengthy sequence depicting Smaug's destruction of Dale and occupation of Erebor (while coyly only showing us bits of the dragon in the process). It's hard to argue with that as a scene-setter, but we also get a flashback to Thorin's father's failed attempt to take back Moria when he is telling the history of the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain to Bilbo, although fortunately not the whole battle. The Dwarves also fight the Trolls attempting to rescue Bilbo; there is a near-skirmish with warg-riding Orcs on the borders of Rivendell; and we are shown the whole running battle of Gandalf and the Dwarves escaping from the Goblins of the Misty Mountains, which, in the book was only briefly referred to in the past tense, since Bilbo, the viewpoint character, was not a witness to it. I'm also sorry to say that Jackson, et al., have succumbed to the temptation to add shots just for 3-D; the improbably vertiginous depths of the goblin caves and the swinging and collapsing bridges and catwalks are pretty much only there for the visual effects. By the time the movie was over, we had significant "battle fatigue."

There's a LOT that's very good, though. Martin Freeman is splendid as Bilbo: his expressive face and ironic line delivery are excellent for the job. Sir Ian McKellen IS Gandalf, and Richard Armitage as Thorin is good enough, as are the other dwarves.

Some of the additions I did not object to: it was nice to see Galadriel and Saurman again, as they help to foreshadow events of "The Lord of the Rings." After all, Tolkien himself revised portions of "The Hobbit" to reconcile it with the later story. On the other hand, I'm not pleased by the introduction of Azog "the Defiler" (sic), bane of Thrain, and supposedly still around and out to get revenge on Thorin. The evident purpose here is to give Thorin (and hence the party) an ongoing opponent, and, I'm guessing, a probable grudge match at the Battle of Five Armies, but this is hackneyed action-movie plotting and needless. I'm still not sure about Radagast. It's fun to see him, and he's one of the few bits of comic relief in the movie, but I really feel it unlikely that a being of the same origins as Gandalf would ever turn into the fussy and foolish-seeming character we are given. (The unexpected posh accent of the Great Goblin and the rather Monty-Pythonesque manner of his death is one of the other funny bits. When a dwarf says "Well, that could have been worse!"--you just know something worse will be right along.)

The animation of Gollum just gets better every time we see him. By now, we can see muscles move beneath the skin, and his interaction with Bilbo seems natural in every way. The depiction of Gollum's rage and depair at the loss of the Ring is a good as you would get from any live actor, and frankly, better than most. Andy Serkis' voice and actions are perfect.

Scenery, costumes, and equipment are up to past standards (i.e., gorgeous) and expanded views of both Bag End and Rivendell gave us a hard choice as to where we would prefer to live.

There are some quibbles with effects. When the company first encounters the Goblins of the Misty Mountains, we are shown that Thorin's sword, Orcrist, glows as in the book. Later on, when it is unsheathed in the presence of hundreds of goblins, it does not. Probably a decision was made to cut down on the number of "process" shots needed to add the glow, or someone decided it would be too distracting to have it glowing all the time, but the omission is a bit annoying.

Overall--well, I wish I could see the rest of it tomorrow.

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Les Miserables

On January 6th, we went to see the other "big" movie of the season, the film adaptation of the musical "Les Miserables". We enjoyed this very much as well, although, again, our joy was not unmixed.

It was a bold (although, for Hollywood, not unexpected)move to cast "name" performers not known for their singing, in a musical famous for its near-operatic structure and score. Yes,I know that Hugh Jackman won a Tony on Broadway, but having a voice that is basically competent for musical theatre does not necessarily mean you are a wonderful singer. Analysis after the movie caused us to conclude that the main reason that most reviewers tended to find Jackman good in the role of Jean Valjean, while criticizing Russell Crowe as Javert, is that Jackman has an expressive face that allows him to "sell" his songs (particularly with the aid of the close-up), whereas Crowe's beefy visage just looks stolid, even when singing his big final number. Or, as Georgie put it, "Both men can act, and both can sing. Jackman can act and sing at the same time, and Crowe can't." In my opinion, both were adequate singers but neither great. The role of Valjean is near the top of Jackman's range, such that he is near falsetto quite often, which causes him to lack flexibility and intensity, which is a shortcoming particularly in Valjean's signature song, "Bring Him Home" ("Hear my prayer--"). Crowe also has a high voice which doesn't sit well with the part of Javert, usually a baritone, so he also lacks the growling power called for in the role.

The best singing in the movie belongs to the women, with first place going to Anne Hathaway in the role of Fantine. Her "I Dreamed a Dream" is as touching as any I have heard. A close second is "On My Own," Eponine's song of unrequited love, as sung by Samantha Barks (who is actually a veteran of the stage version).

Ensemble where present is very good, and the company appropriately stirring on anthems such as "Red and Black," and "Do You Hear the People Sing?"

Digital sound is obviously an advantage and allowed the immediacy of the actors being recorded on the sets as shot, rather than dubbed later. I predict there will be an Oscar for sound engineering for this accomplishment. Also, the actors that have the ability can use a wider range of dynamics and expression than if they had to fill a 2000-seat auditorium with their voices.

Unfortunately, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are jarringly bizarre as the larcenous Thenarediers, which is more a problem of the production and the direction than the actors (Bonham Carter's actual performance is actually rather understated). They are SO overblown caricatures of untrustworthiness no one in his right mind would have come near them, let alone enter the den of thieves they are calling an inn. The choreography for "Master of the House," which shows them fleecing patrons of everything from eyeglasses to glass eyes, would have had the gendarmerie down on them in seconds. The couple is intended to be the comic relief in the musical, but this version went way over the top.

Production values are very high, and I think Victor Hugo would have approved of the vizualization of Valjean's factory, the harrowing tale of Fantine's desperation and degradation, and the dirty and scrofulous-looking poor. Costumes look well and period-appropriate, and settings were mostly interesting and believable. A notable exception is the opening sequence, which shows Valjean and hundreds of other convicts deployed with hawsers, hand-towing a listing ship into an open drydock. A DRY drydock, which is nevertheless OPEN to the stormy sea! Whomever came up with this concept obviously has no idea how a drydock works. As it was, the scene had me saying "What?". Fortunately the effect soon wore off.

Verdict: well worth seeing for the acting and the spectacle. Then, go find "2010 Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary" on DVD and hear the singing as it should be heard.

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