Monday, 17 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

With the prequel to the Lord of the Rings being a leaner tome it would be reasonable to expect the story to be told in one sitting but Director Peter Jackson makes it large as he delivers the first of a new trilogy which weighs in at 2:49! It may therefore be reasonable to think that the film must drag - but I was pleasantly surprised that it didn't. One or two scenes were perhaps a little long - particularly some of the chases - and twenty or thirty more Orcs were butchered than really needed to be to get the point across, but overall it was a well paced film with a steady unfolding of the plot.

The acting is excellent. Martin Freeman plays the title role and Ian McKellen returns as the grey wizard Gandalf. The Dwarves provide a range of celtic and English accents with James Nesbitt appearing to play himself! Ian Holm reprises the role of an older Bilbo Baggins and Elijah Wood makes a brief appearance. Hugo Weaving is back at his Elven best only to be eclipsed by the transcendent beauty of Cate Blanchett as Lady Galadriel. Andy Sirkis is back for another dose of Gollum who is even slimier whilst at the same time being intriguingly repulsive. Christopher Lee is as menacing as ever as Sauron who is clearly beginning to 'turn' and is linked with the Necromancer played by Benedict Cumberbatch. As you can see it is indeed a star-studded cast who deliver a strong ensemble piece.

The plot is straightforward. The Dwarves wish to reclaim their homeland Erebor from the fearsome dragon Smaug but they need the help of a number of people along the way. So 12 dwarves, a wizard and a Hobbit set out on an adventure to face Wargs, Goblins, Giant Spiders, Shapeshifters, Sorcerers  and Orcs as a growing malevolence begins to exert its influence on Middle Earth.

The New Zealand landscape both adds to and is enhanced by the CGI effects. Most of the time the effects are 'invisible' but every now and again a body movement or rendition of a facial expression lets slip the fact that manipulation is at play and it's not just simple make up the actors are wearing. This is inevitable when the boundaries of what is possible are being pushed further than they would normally wish to go. It doesn't detract from the overall experience.

As with The Lord of the Rings, this story is redolent with themes of comradeship, courage, morality, greed, violence, vengeance and love. You know that good will prevail - but at what cost? What obstacles will the travellers have to overcome? One of the things I really like about Tolkien's style of writing is how he uses ordinary things and people in extra-ordinary ways to bring about 'miraculous' escapes from seemingly impossible situations.

I'm looking forward to the second instalment and would encourage you to go and see this. It carries a 12A certificate in the UK and many of the battle scenes are quite gruesome and the violence gratuitous. I was surprised to see some fairly young children with their parents watching this. Perhaps I'm simply getting soft in my old age and it's standard fayre in the video games youngsters are playing these days. I'm going to give this 8.5/10.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Road

If all was stripped away what would be important to you? What legacy would you want to pass on to your children? What would drive you? This is a very literal road movie set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic future. Where this film differs from the plethora of similar films is that no reference is ever made to the apocalypse itself - we simply journey with 'the man' and 'the boy' as they journey southwards to the coast across the USA.

This film poses the archetypal existential question - why are we here? When the hierarchy of Maslow's Triangle is stripped away and every day is a fight for basic survival what values would drive you? How would you cope? Would you want to? What would the vision of paradise that drives your hope be like in your mind?

In flash-back we see the boy being born into a post-apocalyptic world. Shortly afterwards his mother simply walks out, unable to cope. She isn't seen again - the man and the boy simply have each other and very little else.

There are groups of marauding bandits seeking to capture people and engage in cannibalism. There are other people who fear contact with anyone lest they end up being eaten. The dialogue between the boy and his father centres a lot on values, morals and what keeps them going. The father sums up the drive to keep going as 'carrying the fire within'. This is never expanded upon and the viewer is invited to make his/her own interpretation.

For me the main thrust of the story is about the moral values by which the characters in the film live. The boy is born into and grows up in a world that is lacking any kind of organised society. All he has to go on are his instincts, his father's advice and other peoples' behaviour to guide him. The father is more sceptical about others' motives and the son is more open, more generous and more willing to help other people than his father. How did he develop his moral framework? Civilisation has broken down - what does civility look like when that happens?

The way this film is set and shot is magnificent. It is lit with extremely low contrast and a muted palette that really helps to deliver the dystopian vibe. Large parts of the landscape are scorched, the skies are thundery a lot of the time and earthquakes strike without warning. Food is in very short supply and the only mode of transport is by foot. Everything reinforces the feel of hopelessness that pervades the film.

The film is not easy viewing and any good news you find is only hinted at in what lies beyond in the story at the end of the film. I like it that the film leaves lots unresolved. There is no narrative arc - more a linear narrative. We join the story after the beginning and it clearly continues once the film ends. If you want a gritty film with great acting and Direction and don't always need a happy ending a la Disney, then this could be for you. I'll give it 7.5/10.