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Some would say I am obsessed with all things J.R.R. Tolkien. He and Peter Jackson were the reason I camped overnight outside Hall H during Comic-Con this year. Or take my business card; everyone at Digitaria has to choose a favorite quote, and mine is “A single dream is more powerful than 1,000 realities,” from Middle-Earth’s man himself.
So now, at last, we have The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which blends Tolkien’s legendary tale with Jackson’s imaginatively expansive storylines. This combination reintroduces key characters from the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, and enables Jackson to extend this barely 300 page novel into yet another trilogy. Using the team that created solid gold in LOTR -- co-writers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, with the addition of Guillermo del Toro, who was originally supposed to direct the film/trilogy -- The Hobbit gives Middle Earth a technological makeover that hits the audience at 48 frames per second, twice the speed and visual clarity of any mainstream film to date.
So let’s hit the technology questions first. Jackson’s choice to film The Hobbit in 48fps has received both praise and outrage, and the speed of the scenes is the first thing you notice during this crystal-clear picture. Seeing this movie in 3D (with themed Hobbit 3D glasses!) at 48fps makes the average 24fps method look like slow motion. It took me a good portion of the movie to get used to the speed...Bilbo Baggins feather quill moves oddly fast, hobbits become furiously quick creatures, but it keeps the movie rolling. As the film opens with the riches of the dwarf kingdom and the introduction of the destructive fiery hellish beast, better known as the dragon Smaug, I wished that the film slowed down so I could take in all the visual details that Jackson incorporated. It all feels like it’s happening too fast.
So I found the 48fps a mixed blessing. But regardless of the frames per second, the characters are the best part of The Hobbit. Martin Freeman (from BBC’s Sherlock, where he’s the modern Dr. Watson), as the legendary Bilbo Baggins, does a winsome job as the average hobbit who transforms into a brave hero (and comedic “burglar”) in the adventure. Richard Armitage takes on the role of Dwarf Lord Thorin Oakenshield, the oddly handsome dwarf who leads Bilbo and the hodgepodge pack of twelve dwarves on a quest to reclaim their kingdom and riches that were plundered by Smaug. Gandalf the Gray, played one again by the legendary Sir Ian McKellan, has always been my favorite character and is the film’s cornerstone. Other characters, like Cate Blanchett’s ethereal Galadriel and Hugo Weaving’s Lord Elrond help weave LOTR storylines into The Hobbit.
The first half of the film is slow. You feel the weight of a movie studio wanting three box office blockbusters instead of settling for two. But it’s not boring, exactly; the visuals are too good, and there are a lot of subplots to track and some welcome comic relief. But once the story gets rolling, the second half of the film packs a troll sized punch. After re-reading The Hobbit in anticipation, it was interesting how Jackson interpreted Tolkien’s characters and storylines. Jackson had dwarves singing songs (yes!) to the beat that I envisioned Tolkien writing them, and throughout the film characters recited iconic lines from the book. Tolkien’s giant eagles were stunning at 48fps in 3D and the elven sanctuary of Rivendell was even more beautiful than in LOTR, stealing your breath away while offering reassuring comfort reminiscent of the trilogy past. Not all the visuals work, either; while Orcs again reek of evil and death, the wolves they ride look fake and offputting.
The best part of the movie is the pivotal scene in the goblin caves when Bilbo finds the tragic monster Gollum and the “precious” ring that ultimately becomes the driving plot point of LOTR. Gollum looks phenomenal in 3D, and Jackson fully realizes this classic Tolkien scene, from the paddling of a rickety boat to Gollum’s large paranoid eyes and the riddles he asks. It’s masterful, suspenseful, funny, creepy.
Though it has almost twelve years since The Fellowship of the Ring first rang the Middle Earth blockbuster bell, the LOTR movie trilogy still resonates deeply with many fans (like me!), and it’s hard to live up to that level of greatness, particularly with source material that isn’t nearly so ambitious or multi-faceted. Thus, while The Hobbit delivers a solid story, convincing performances and amazing special effects, it is impossible to liken it to the greatness of the three LOTR films. Bluntly, it can’t compare. But this is still a beautiful, exciting mainstream film that not incidentally paves the way for a generation of movies that will look more like reality than anything moviegoers have ever experienced. (***) -- Brittany Raine
As an English girl recently moved to the United States, I was intrigued by Hyde Park on Hudson, so I jumped at the chance to review this biopic about four-term president Franklin D. Roosevelt. Centred around the timely visit of King George VI and his wife, the late Queen Mother, Hyde Park on Hudson had all the history of The King’s Speech, but as seen from an American perspective and served over cocktails and hotdogs instead of tea and crumpets.
The film reignited my interest in political history through its depiction of The Great Depression, the tensions of the onset of World War II and the craziness of life when you’re a world leader. It’s a circus in FDR’s household, lead by a stronghold of women, as his wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams), mother Sara (Elizabeth Wilson), and secretary Missy (Elizabeth Marvel) all contribute to ensure the King and Queen of England's first visit to United States is memorable -- hilariously, it turns out.
While the Royal weekend drew me into the film, it is actually told through the eyes of Margaret Stuckley (Laura Linney), revealing the secret affair between the president and this distant cousin -- better known as Daisy. Of all the women in FDR’s entourage, we learn that Daisy had the closest relationship to him, helping FDR escape from his exceptionally public life. Bill Murray, an actor I adore from my childhood, wonderfully plays the president’s role by capturing the charm and uniqueness of Roosevelt’s character without turning him into a caricature. The light and sparkling portrayal of both great leaders, showing them as real people with all of their vices, is both enthralling and entertaining.
The period detail, convincing performances, historical backstory and beautiful scenery captured by skilled cinematography touched my imagination and made me want to snuggle into a window seat with a good history book. Directed by Roger Mitchell (Notting Hill) with subtle understatement, Hyde Park on Hudson is surprisingly funny and human, and though it does have a couple plot twists, everything remains simple and believable. For anyone who loved The King’s Speech or is addicted to Downton Abbey, this film is a must-see. (***1/2) -- Rachel Gigli