There is perhaps no bigger disappointment I’ve experienced at the movies this year than the first installment of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I was a big fan of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and welcomed the return to Middle Earth. But something has happened to Jackson’s filmmaking over the past decade that has taken him away from the deeply personal approach to fantasy that made those films so engaging despite their grand scale. That slide began with the enjoyable but overblown King Kong and quickly reached rock bottom with his leaden adaptation of The Lovely Bones.
Now, with The Hobbit, we’ve returned to a familiar place, but Jackson seems to be going through the motions of fantasy epic filmmaking. Yes, many of the effects set pieces are thrilling, the New Zealand-as-Middle Earth vistas inspiring, but the film lacks any emotional center. That center should have resided in the titular character of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), but Jackson’s film practically ignores Bilbo through much of the middle of the film. Both Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the wizard who whisks Bilbo out of his house and onto this adventure, and Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the leader of the company of dwarves seeking to reclaim their home from an evil dragon, seem more like the stars of the film than Bilbo, at least until the end of the picture.
The film is loaded with silly jokes meant to resonate more with modern audiences (including a couple of ham-handed drug jokes), as well as blatant fan-service pandering, as when Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee), both important characters from the previous films, are shoehorned into scenes they don’t belong to just to provide fans with some familiar faces. Additionally, in splitting Tolkien’s single book into three parts, the film plods along far too slowly, providing a clinic in precisely how not to adapt a book to film. The movie contains exactly one scene that gets things right—a game of riddles between Bilbo and the familiar Gollum (Andy Serkis)—which mainly serves to highlight what might have been had the rest of the film managed to be this clever and well constructed.
All that aside, this is the movie event of the season, so assuming you’re going to see it, you’ll be faced with a confusing array of options when choosing a screening. There are 3D, IMAX, and regular versions, but you’ll also see an “HFR” designation on some of the screenings. These are “high frame rate” screenings that take advantage of the fact that Jackson shot the film at a frame rate of 48 frames per second, twice the normal 24 frames per second that has been the cinema standard for more than a century. Jackson believes HFR is the future of cinema, as it provides a smoother, more detailed image. Unfortunately, it also looks thoroughly unnatural, much like an HD television with motion smoothing turned on, with the so-called “soap opera effect,” which in this case takes a movie of grand scale and makes it look like an ’80s British sitcom. The details are actually too sharp, making Middle Earth look less like another world and more like a film set. My recommendation: Stay away from the HFR screenings, and choose one of the other options.
Ken Burns takes a break from his usual multi-part PBS historical documentaries to take on a theatrical feature documentary about much more incendiary subject matter than audiences may be used to from him. Central Park Five looks at the famous 1989 case of five black and Latino teens who were convicted of assaulting and raping a white woman in Central Park, following a media frenzy and a trial in which the teens became symbolic of a city plagued by violence. The only problem? They were innocent, a fact that was proven years later after a confession by a serial rapist and the confirmation of his claims via DNA evidence. Burns co-directs with his daughter Sarah, who wrote a best-selling book on the crimes, and her husband, David McMahon.
The National Gallery begins a brief retrospective on the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini this weekend, in celebration of what would have been his 90th birthday earlier this year. There are just two films in the series; the first selection, this weekend, is Hawks and Sparrows, a 1966 fable about Totò, an expressionless clown from Italian folklore. He and his son, Ninetto, travel the countryside, where they run into a talking crow who tells them a story about two monks (played by Totò and Ninetto in the telling of the story), and then continue on the road, meeting an array of characters before things take a darker turn. The film is not as well known as some of his later titles, but was reportedly Pasolini’s favorite of all his work. This is followed the weekend after Christmas by a screening of an essay film called La Rabbia, which is assembled mostly from newsreel footage, and which was recut to remove Pasolini’s notoriously leftist politics. The cut screening at the gallery for the first time in DC is a reconstruction of the original version based on Pasolini’s notes.
View the trailer. Sunday at 4:30 PM at
the National Gallery. The museum will
also present a lecture by art historian David Gariff on the influence of Italian medival
and Renaissance painting in Pasolini’s work on Saturday at 4 PM. Both programs are
The promise of Bill Murray getting a really meaty lead role as Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave Hyde Park on Hudson a lot of excited pre-release buzz, which unfortunately died out quickly once people started seeing the film. Most critics have complained that despite its randy subject matter (FDR’s affair with his cousin Margaret), the film is a rather bland and soapy comedy of manners that wastes the talents of a formidable group of actors, including Murray, Laura Linney as Margaret, and Olivia Williams as Eleanor Roosevelt. Even with the lackluster response, I still find myself curious to see it, just because Murray tends to help out even the worst films with his magnetic presence.
Denmark’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar is this Nikolaj Arcel historical drama about the court of King Christian VII, an 18th-century monarch remembered for his mental illness and its impact on his governing. The primary characters, though, are the royal doctor, Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) and the Queen (Alicia Vikander), who are conducting an affair in secret and also attempting to influence the ailing king to pass progressive measures. The film follows the interactions between personal and public matters, as Struensee gained in power and influence before scandal took the story for a dangerous turn.
Blu-ray/DVD Pick of the Week: Following
If you already have The Dark Knight Rises wrapped up and ready to gift to the Christopher Nolan fan in your life this holiday season, Criterion has a well-timed release of Nolan’s very first film coming out this week. While Nolan first got noticed with Memento, his first outing was a black-and-white film noir, shot on the cheap on 16-millimeter in London on weekends. The budget was practically nonexistent, the crew all had other full-time jobs, and the film is about as DIY as a feature can be, with Nolan not only writing, directing, and producing it, but also serving as his own cinematographer and earning a co-editing credit as well. Given all that, it’s astounding just how polished the final product seems; it’s a far cry from his later blockbusters, to be sure, but it certainly looks like far more went into it than the $6,000 budget would indicate. Told with a disjointed timeline, the story centers on a writer who follows people around London looking for story ideas, only to become a story himself as he falls into burglary and winds up too deep in bigger crimes he’s not equipped to deal with.
Special Features: Audio commentary by Nolan, a half hour interview with him, an alternate edit of the film that presents its events in chronological order, script-to-screen comparisons, a three-minute film Nolan made while in college, and an essay by critic Scott Foundas.