The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Movie review

The Hobbit Martin Freeman

I like how so many reviews of The Hobbit include a synopsis of The Hobbit – like, der, it’s about a hobbit. And as if is there is anyone who doesn’t know already it’s about a stumpy fellow named Bilbo Baggins who goes on a quest blah blah magic ring yada yada dwarves and elves flim flam dragon.

The true reason it’s unnecessary to summarise the plot of this film is: there isn’t one. Sure, there’s lots of events. Lots of action. Lots of exposition. But no plot. This stems from splitting up J.R.R. Tolkein‘s slender children’s book in three greedy Hollywood-machine money-over-art films, which means a straightforward storyline about going there and back again doesn’t even get there.

Despite this you will go see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, because you liked The Lord of the Rings. And you will think The Hobbit is… fine. It’s not like this is some impossible-to-endure colossal failure of cinema that will skim off the top of your soul and feed it to wargs or direwolves or whatever. There is plenty of stuff to like. Martin Freeman is charming as Bilbo. I could watch Ian McKellen act out scenes from Gandalf Sits Quietly For Three Hours Without Speaking Or Moving (spoiler alert: this is the plot of the third instalment). Cate Blanchett, why are you so beautiful. The dwarves are well cast – some of them are even nice to look at. (Attractive dwarves! Can you imagine!)

It’s just that The Hobbit is as cynically padded as you think it’s going to be. This is evident from the very first scenes, where Ian Holm reprises his role as Old Bilbo to explain to us that he’s writing down his adventure for his nephew Frodo, and then Frodo actually wanders onscreen all like “Whatcha doin’ there, Uncle Bilbo? It’s me, Elijah Wood, from those LOTR movies! Here I am for a bit!”, and then Bilbo explains that he’s writing down his adventure for Frodo to Frodo, and then they talk about Bilbo’s upcoming 111th birthday party (HEY THAT’S FROM FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING GET IT), and Old Bilbo fusses around some more why is any of this stuff in the movie can the unexpected journey please begin.

The entire movie is like this. (The dwarf musical numbers you might have read about in other reviews aren’t as mortifyingly long as I was dreading, but there are two of them, both within about the first 45 minutes, so.) Like remember, back when Peter Jackson and co. weren’t just pumping out movies just to make money, how they wisely cut that awful Tom Bombadil shit out of FOTR? The Hobbit is like they kept that shit in – then shovelled in some more. Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Galadriel (Blanchett) pop up in Unexpected Journey because, hey, why not? (I get why they added Galadriel, actually. Without her the film would be 100 percent sausage-fest.) Some wizard chum of Gandalf’s called Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) zooms around on his bad-CGI sled pulled by bad-CGI rabbits to warn everyone about Sauron’s comeback. I half-expected Aragorn to saunter onscreen and make some “Darth Vader built C3PO”-type meta-reference – everything else is crammed in there.

All this bloat really steals away any urgency from the story. The dwarves want to reclaim their home mountain cave from some dragon who’s taken it over*, but so what? In two-and-a-half hours they hardly get anywhere on completing their quest. I can’t imagine taking a kid to see this, unless kids’ attention spans are suddenly magically enormously long.

(*Remember how the dwarves were the least glamorous characters in the first LOTR trilogy? Like everyone wanted to be Legolas and no one wanted to be Gimli? Well, The Hobbit is focused almost entirely on Gimlis – 13 of them, few of whom I felt I got much of a sense of – so if you don’t like dwarves, it’s T.S. for you.)

Serious question: I’m pretty sure I’ve heard Jackson say he’s doing an extended DVD cut of this movie. How. This is already an extended cut. Watching an extended-extended cut honestly sounds like a tedious chore – I’d rather they release a contracted DVD cut with all the filler chopped out (it would run for five minutes). I have no idea how he’s going to spin two more movies out of what little plot remains, even with all the Middle-earth backstory tacked on, but I have a feeling it’s going to feel “thin. Sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

The Hobbit poster

In addition to splitting The Hobbit up into three movies, Jackson filmed it at 48-frames-per-second. As far as I know it’s the first feature that’s been filmed this way. Boy I hope it doesn’t catch on. The very best you can say about the effect of the increased frame rate is that you get used to it, eventually. At first it’s super jarring – because it just doesn’t look like a film. It looks like a video game cutscene, or a cheaply done reenactment from a dodgy pay TV crime doco, or a showroom-floor television with those dreadful motion enhancement settings jacked up to max.

Probably future generations of cinemagoers will look back and laugh at how us primitive 2012 audiences recoiled from The Hobbit‘s boosted frame rate, like we look back and laugh at those bozos who leapt out of the way of projections of trains rushing right at them. Well: cram it, future generations. 24fps looks better. 24fps looks like a movie. 48fps looks… plastic and artificial. The computer effects look like computer effects. The stunning New Zealand landscapes* look like IMAX tourism commercials, and not in a good way. The actors clash with the beautifully painted vistas behind them. You should actually go see The Hobbit at 48fps, just to witness its effect yourself.

(*Hilarious joke: How can you tell The Hobbit is filmed in New Zealand? Because New Zealand will tell you. Again and again.)

The first LOTR films worked so magnificently because it’s so easy to get lost in them and forget you’re watching a movie. The Hobbit never stops reminding you it’s a movie, that it’s padded and bloated and strange-looking, that its Middle-earth is built with green screens and computers. It’s not the epic disaster some critics are making it out to be. There are some good, solid, enjoyable scenes – especially Bilbo’s confrontation with Andy Serkis‘s Gollum (which, of course, goes on twice as long as it needs to). But there’s just not a lot of magic here.


The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling: Book review

The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling, coverIt’s been said before, but it’s worth saying again to play it safe: The Casual Vacancy is not a book for children. Do not gift this book to a young Harry Potter fan. Not even a charmingly precocious seems-wise-beyond-her-years one. There’s a C-bomb about five pages in. When J.K. Rowling said she intended to write a book for adults, she was not messing around.

Rowling also intended to write a book that isn’t fantasy, and Vacancy‘s story is as muggle as they come: a council election. The residents of Pagford, a stock-standard quaint English town, must elect a new member to their parish council when Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly. Barry had been an advocate for a nearby council estate called The Fields – “council estate” being the polite name for “drug-addled rathole” – and his successor will determine the estate’s future.

The good guys and the bad guys are easy to identify, but they’re not heroes and villains. They’re marked not by their virtues or their flaws but I guess by their regard for humanity: for all their failings, the good guys understand that other people are all people, that everyone has an internal voice and hopes and roots; the bad guys don’t look beyond shallow stereotypes, beyond throwing people in or out of particular cliques, beyond their own problems.

Not everyone rates her prose, but Rowling is brilliant at creating these full, organic worlds. It’s an underrated talent of hers – it’s why the worlds created by her Potter imitators often feel so hollow – and her imagination extends not just to these huge wild ideas but to the small little ones too. The world Rowling crafts in Vacancy is a real one, brimming with detail and too-familiar human pettiness.

It’s also an unexpectedly bleak world. If Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows tricked you into thinking that Rowling can’t resist a sappy ending, think again. It becomes clear pretty early on in Vacancy that not everything will be resolved with a nice bow – it’s just not that kind of book – but it’s a shock how brutal (and, to be honest, melodramatic) the final chapters are. Rowling, though a clear advocate for social equality and fairness, is ultimately a realistic, or a cynic: the cruel, hard-hearted currents of human nature are too powerful to be dammed. Society’s worst problems can’t be fixed. It fits that Barry Fairbrother, maybe the only effortlessly moral and good man in Pagford, dies in the first couple of pages. It’s not Voldemort-style evil that’s undoing the world. It’s just indifference to other people.


Book review: Moon Over Soho, Ben Aaronovitch

Moon Over SohoBest thing about reading the second instalment in a series: the origin-story stuff in part one is over and done. Not that origin stories aren’t a fun time, but there’s a formula to setting up characters and plots and tone, and once a series is freed from that formula it can start to shine.

Moon Over Soho, the follow-up to Rivers of London, offers a pretty good indicator that Ben Aaronovitch’s wizard-police-in-London series – I think we’re calling it the Peter Grant series? Which isn’t that catchy  – is starting to shine.

So the story picks up pretty much where Rivers left off: budding policeman/wizard Peter Grant has closed his first supernatural case, and continues his magical education under the tutelage of his Stephen Fry-ish inspector, Nightgale.

Working out of the Folly, the nickname for the posh old building that is the headquarters of London’s magical police, the twosome discover a new mystery: the city’s jazz musicians are dying, the life force sucked right out of them, sparking theories there’s a “jazz vampire” afoot. It’s all as messy and ridiculous and fun as it sounds.

That sense of fun is down to Peter, who’s a fresh, likeable hero: Aaronovitch has created a leading man who doesn’t take his unlikely adventures too seriously, is streetsmart but not wisecracky, capable without being annoyingly perfect, and who actually gets to have some actual sex this time around. (Seriously, this series is ripe for a magicked-up, oversexed True Blood-ish television adaptation. Get on with that, British TV bosses!)

The history of London is woven into the plot of Moon Over Soho more smoothly than in Rivers of London, as Peter dashes around the city meeting new characters, reacquainting himself with old ones, probing the tragic history of English wizardry, and stumbling on to the fringes of a cabal of evil wizards. It’s this kind of world-building that leaves me double-keen to see what magic Aaronovitch will work in the forthcoming third instalment, London Under Ground.


Book reviews: What I read on my international vacation

So I haven’t updated my blog in like forever, but, I have a pretty good excuse: I’ve been off travelling around the States, the UK and Europe (mostly Europe) since December. (The trip was awesome, by the way. LONDON I MISS YOU.) It turns out one can get a lot of reading done when one is travelling, so here it is.

(Incidentally, I didn’t lug all these books around with me; I read them on my iPhone using Stanza, which is a brilliant app. And, since I get asked this a lot, reading on the iPhone screen is generally fine – as long as you spend a bit of time working out your preferred font face, size and spacing before you commence the actual reading.) …