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“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” review: Back to Middle-earth at 48 frames per second

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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Let’s face it: after “The Godfather: Part II” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” the list of successful prequel movies is pretty short.

Still, it’s no surprise to see “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” arriving in theaters this weekend, offering up the first installment of a new, big-budget trilogy that will serve as a prequel to Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” films. Jackson’s first series of movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal fantasy novel has grossed almost $3 billion worldwide, so it was a bit of a no-brainer to give the same treatment to the story that started it all, The Hobbit.

Originally published back in 1937, The Hobbit chronicles the adventure of Bilbo Baggins, a diminutive “hobbit” caught up in a quest to kill a monstrous dragon that has laid claim to the ancestral home of a group of dwarves. Bilbo and the dwarves are accompanied by a mysterious wizard, Gandalf, who serves as guide, guardian, and ambassador at different points. Over the course of their journey, the group encounters all manner of enemies and allies, including giant spiders, vicious goblins, and noble eagles – as well as the dragon, Smaug – and Bilbo is forced to reconcile the appeal of an adventurer’s lifestyle with his love for a quiet home and a warm hearth.

By and large, the movie stays true to this theme, too – though it occasionally veers off to expand on threads in Tolkien’s story with new twists in characters’ relationships, a few new characters, and some brief narrative side-trips.

It’s worth noting early on that Tolkien penned The Hobbit as a children’s story – a fact that’s often forgotten due to the darker, more intense tone of both The Lord of the Rings novel and Jackson’s big-screen adaptations. “The Hobbit” filmmaker clearly hasn’t forgotten that fact, though, as it’s clear from the start that “An Unexpected Journey” skews considerably younger than the previous trilogy.

Where “The Lord of the Rings” films were frighteningly earnest with life-and-death stakes for both the characters and the world they inhabit, “The Hobbit” feels more like a grand, occasionally slapstick adventure with a group of bumbling fools trying to pass themselves off as warriors. With “An Unexpected Journey,” Jackson is clearly aiming for a lighter, more humorous tone, and Bilbo’s adventure comes across as more of a lighthearted romp than the deadly serious narrative of Frodo’s journey in “The Lord of the Rings.” While this is also right in line with the tone of The Hobbit as it was written, it’s the sort of difference that could confuse casual audiences expecting an extension of “The Lord of the Rings” and could frustrate fans whose recollection of the original story has been influenced by the modern adaptations.

On the visual side, Jackson’s decision to film “An Unexpected Journey” at 48 frames-per-second instead of the standard 24 in order to improve 3-D visuals has been loudly criticized by purists, but the change isn’t even close to the apocalyptic, career-ending, movie-ruining gaffe that early buzz indicated. While it takes a few minutes to adjust to the extra level of sharpness in the lush visuals of the film’s opening sequence (a sequence probably intended to distract you from that acclimation period), much of the film benefits from the high-def upgrade, which makes everything pop just a little bit more.

Still, that extra “pop” does cause a bit of a distraction during certain sequences – specifically, in scenes that take a bird’s-eye view of the group running through detail-heavy, CG set pieces. Much like the scene in “The Fellowship of the Ring” when Frodo and his companions are pursued through the Mines of Moria by a horde of goblins, Bilbo and the dwarves find themselves sprinting through similar environments on several occasions during “The Hobbit,” but the sequences have a noticeably different feel this time around with the hyper-detailed blend of 48fps filming and 3-D presentation. At times, the scenes feel a bit like the cinematic sequences from high-end video games, which often lose a sense of perspective by making every detail in the shot – no matter how far away – crystal clear. The end result is the occasional scene that doesn’t feel entirely real, but isn’t quite digital, either.

Overall, there seems to be a much heavier reliance on CG visuals in “The Hobbit” than in the “The Lord of the Rings” movies, with many of the film’s villains relying heavily on digital and motion-capture effects instead of on-screen actors in prosthetics and makeup. It’s an unfortunate decision, as the practical effects used in “The Lord of the Rings” provided an extra level of realism in those films that would’ve been even more valuable in the ultra-crisp, 48fps environment of the “Hobbit.”

Despite the reliance on digital effects for so many of the creatures of “The Hobbit,” the actors who do get time in front of the camera provide fantastic performances on par with “The Lord of the Rings” cast. Reprising his role as Gandalf, Ian McKellen proves yet again why he is the definitive version of the character, and Martin Freeman successfully captures all of the timidness of Bilbo Baggins with the necessary hint of the inner strength the adventure brings out in him. Outside of Richard Armitage’s noble and grim-faced Thorin Oakenshield, few of the dwarves receive much solo time in the spotlight (which stays right in line with the novel), though Aidan Turner makes the best of his opportunities as the young dwarf Kili.

Composer Howard Shore also deserves praise for his impressive interpretations of the lyrics that Tolkien scattered throughout The Hobbit – especially his haunting spin on the dwarves’ fireside ode to their long-lost kingdom, “Misty Mountains.” Tolkien was known for peppering both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings with song lyrics and poems, and much like the 1977 animated feature based on The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Journey” doesn’t disappoint in giving audiences the music of Middle-earth.

Despite all of its flaws (and there are quite a few of them), “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” manages to be a very enjoyable film that remains loyal to the tone of the books without becoming a literal, scene-by-scene narrative. There’s no shortage of scenes that feel padded out to span the three-film arc Jackson has planned, but as the big-screen adaptation of a children’s story that had some dark undertones, “An Unexpected Journey” is a success.

The story of The Hobbit has always been its own creature, written for an audience 20 years younger than The Lord of the Rings readers, and envisioned as a far more innocent, playful tale. With this adaptation, Jackson seems keenly aware of the differences between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and instead of trying to make one more like the other, he embraces what makes each story unique. “An Unexpected Journey” may not be the greatest adventure on Middle-earth, but it does make for a great theater experience.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” arrives in theaters Friday, December 14.

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Face Melting Cameos

The 10 Most Metal Pop Culture Cameos

Glenn Danzig drops by Portlandia tonight at 10P on IFC.

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Glenn Danzig rocks harder than granite. In his 60 years, he’s mastered punk with The Misfits, slayed metal with the eponymous Danzig, and generally melted faces with the force of his voice. And thanks to Fred and Carrie, he’s now stopping by tonight’s brand new Portlandia so we can finally get to see what “Evil Elvis” is like when he hits the beach. To celebrate his appearance, we put together our favorite metal moments from pop culture, from the sublime to the absurd.

10. Cannibal Corpse meets Ace Ventura

Back in the ’90s,  Cannibal Corpse was just a small time band from Upstate New York, plying their death metal wares wherever they could find a crowd, when a call from Jim Carry transformed their lives. Turns out the actor was a fan, and wanted them for a cameo in his new movie, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The band had a European tour coming up, and were wary of being made fun of, so they turned it down. Thankfully, the rubber-faced In Living Color vet wouldn’t take no for an answer, proving that you don’t need to have a lot of fans, just the right ones.


9. AC/DC in Private Parts

Howard Stern’s autobiographical film, based on his book of the same name, followed his rise in the world of radio and pop culture. For a man surrounded by naked ladies and adoring fans, it’s hard to track the exact moment he made it. But rocking out with AC/DC in the middle of Central Park, as throngs of fans clamor to get a piece of you, seems like it comes pretty close. You can actually see Stern go from hit host to radio god in this clip, as “You Shook Me All Night Long” blasts in the background.


8. Judas Priest meets The Simpsons

When you want to blast a bunch of peace-loving hippies out on their asses, you’re going to need some death metal. At least, that’s what the folks at The Simpsons thought when they set up this cameo from the metal gods. Unfortunately, thanks to a hearty online backlash, the writers of the classic series were soon informed that Judas Priest, while many things, are not in fact “death metal.” This led to the most Simpson-esque apology ever. Rock on, Bartman. Rock on.


7. Anthrax on Married…With Children

What do you get when Married…with Children spoofs My Dinner With Andre, substituting the erudite playwrights for a band so metal they piss rust? Well, for starters, a lot of headbanging, property destruction and blown eardrums. And much like everything else in life, Al seems to have missed the fun.


6. Motorhead rocks out on The Young Ones

The Young Ones didn’t just premiere on BBC2 in 1982 — it kicked the doors down to a new way of doing comedy. A full-on assault on the staid state of sitcoms, the show brought a punk rock vibe to the tired format, and in the process helped jumpstart a comedy revolution. For instance, where an old sitcom would just cut from one scene to the next, The Young Ones choose to have Lemmy and his crew deliver a raw version of “Ace of Spades.” The general attitude seemed to be, you don’t like this? Well, then F— you!


5. Red and Kitty Meet Kiss on That ’70s Show

Carsey-Werner Productions

Carsey-Werner Productions

Long before they were banished to playing arena football games, Kiss was the hottest ticket in rock. The gang from That ’70s Show got to live out every ’70s teen’s dream when they were set loose backstage at a Kiss concert, taking full advantage of groupies, ganja and hard rock.


4. Ronnie James Dio in Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny (NSFW, people!)

What does a young boy do when he was born to rock, and the world won’t let him? What tight compadre does he pray to for guidance and some sweet licks? If you’re a young Jables, half of “the world’s most awesome band,” you bow your head to Ronnie James Dio, aka the guy who freaking taught the world how to do the “Metal Horns.” Never before has a rock god been so literal than in this clip that turns it up to eleven.


3. Ozzy Osbourne in Trick or Treat

It’s hard to tell if Ozzy was trying his hardest here, or just didn’t give a flying f–k. What is clear is that, either way, it doesn’t really matter. Ozzy’s approach to acting seems to lean more heavily on Jack Daniels than sense memory, and yet seeing the slurry English rocker play a sex-obsessed televangelist is so ridiculous, he gets a free pass. Taking part in the cult horror Trick or Treat, Ozzy proves that he makes things better just by showing up. Because that’s exactly what he did here. Showed up. And it rocks.


2. Glenn Danzig on Portlandia

Danzig seems to be coming out of a self imposed exile these days. He just signed with a record company, and his appearance on Portlandia is reminding everyone how kick ass he truly is. Who else but “The Other Man in Black” could help Portland’s resident goths figure out what to wear to the beach? Carrie Brownstein called Danzig “amazing,” and he called Fred “a genius,” so this was a rare love fest for the progenitor of horror punk.


1. Alice Cooper in Wayne’s World

It’s surprising, sure, but for a scene that contains no music whatsoever, it’s probably the most famous metal moment in the history of film. When Alice Cooper informed Wayne and Garth that Milwaukee is actually pronounced “Milly-way-kay” back in 1992, he created one of the most famous scenes in comedy history. What’s more metal than that? Much like Wayne and Garth, we truly are not worthy.

“The Hobbit” clip shows the dwarves singing “Misty Mountains”

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One of the scenes in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” that fans are most looking forward to getting to watch is the one where the dwarves sing. Well, now you don’t need to wait two more days to see it in theaters, because Warner Bros. has released a clip showing Bilbo Baggins’ dwarf allies singing “Misty Mountains” already.

It’s the same scene that is teased in the film’s trailer, but this clip gives a better sense of how director Peter Jackson shot his movie than that did. From his sweeping tracking shots to his close ups of the dwarves, it’s clear that Jackson has lovingly shot his follow-up to his award-winning “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

It’s exciting that so much of the dwarf culture has made its way into this film, and somehow we doubt that this “Misty Mountains” scene is the only time we’ll witness the dwarves sing. With two more movies to go in “The Hobbit” trilogy, Jackson has got plenty of time to jam pack as much of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythology into the movie as he can.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” tells the first part of Bilbo Baggins’ epic adventure from Hobbiton to the Lonely Mountain. Along the way, he’ll befriend dwarves, face off against goblins, meet a dragon and discover the One Ring that will change his life forever.

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is due in theaters on December 13, 2013, while “The Hobbit: There and Back Again” comes out July 18, 2014.

Are you looking forward to seeing the dwarves sing? Tell us in the comments section below or on Facebook and Twitter.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” TV spot: A game of riddles with Gollum

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Nothing will tie “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” in to Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy as much as the scene where Bilbo Baggins first meets Gollum. It was a scene that was featured in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” and it’s a scene that will be pivotal in the upcoming film as well.

That fateful meeting is the focus of a new TV spot for the upcoming film, which shows Bilbo and Gollum playing their game of riddles. Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved series know how that story ends, but it will likely be a tense scene to watch regardless. After all, we know that Gollum doesn’t easily say goodbye to his “precious.”

Still, there is plenty in this movie that fans haven’t seen before. Jackson expanded on the story of “The Hobbit” by using some of the material contained in the Appendices at the end of “The Return of the King” novel, so “The Hobbit” films will tell the story of Gandalf the Grey and the White Council as much as it does the story of Bilbo. Color us curious about this new project and how it brings the various pieces of the Middle-Earth together in a new trilogy.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” tells the first part of Bilbo Baggins’ epic adventure from Hobbiton to the Lonely Mountain. Along the way, he’ll befriend dwarves, face off against goblins, meet a dragon and discover the One Ring that will change his life forever.

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is due in theaters on December 13, 2013, while “The Hobbit: There and Back Again” comes out July 18, 2014.

What are you most looking forward to seeing in “The Hobbit” trilogy? Tell us in the comments section below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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