Of Hippos and Meerkats: Neill Blomkamp’s ELYSIUM

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Let’s face it: Neill Blomkamp is a man of great expectations. The young filmmaker was plucked out of obscurity by Peter Jackson in the wake of several impressive commercials and short films, and ever since then, he’s been on the radar of seemingly every big-budget, genre franchise in Hollywood. After his attempt at a live-action HALO feature fell through (in spite of Jackson’s collaborative efforts), he went on to direct the celebrated DISTRICT 9, a movie which landed him Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations at the Academy Awards. He has since gone on to turn down offers to helm the latest instalments of both the STAR TREK and STAR WARS universes. Not too shabby for a kid from Johannesburg.

So, when it became clear that Blomkamp was far more interested in telling his own stories than in playing in somebody else’s sandbox, expectations mounted again. Here was another fresh face for the genre community, one determined to tell original stories. It’s a sad fact that this has become a rare treat these days, but it’s the harsh truth of the current Hollywood climate: big-budget, genre pics don’t often get made anymore if they’re not based on existing properties.

Enter ELYSIUM, Blomkamp’s long-awaited, sophomore follow-up to DISTRICT 9. Less allegorical than the content would have you believe, ELYSIUM drops us into the year 2154, where Earth has become a diseased, polluted and wildly overpopulated wasteland. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to take a look at this desolated landscape and see a kernel of truth at its core – population trends for our planet have become increasingly prevalent in contemporary fiction (notably, not just in science-fiction), and we’re reaching a boiling-over point. What happens when we’ve used up all our resources on our own planet, and yet have done little in the way of extraterrestrial colonization?

The answer Blomkamp arrives at is a simple, elegant and perfectly logical one: our class divides would effectively segregate the population even further, necessitating an entirely new habitat for the upper-class – one which does not associate itself with the desolation it has the means to ignore. And so we present the Have-Nots, left alone on Earth to their poverty, famine and general slum-based existence, and the Haves, wallowing in idyllic splendour, up in the titular space station orbiting Earth. The wealthy seem to spend their time doing one of two things: dressing up in pretty clothes in order to entertain guests, or dressing up in skimpy clothes to catch a few poolside rays.

It’s not the most original premise, but it is one that is fundamentally sound and is a relative hotbed for social commentary – something which Blomkamp proved himself adept at with the Apartheid-laced segregation of his debut. It’s the kind of concept that would find itself fitting comfortably alongside latter-year versions of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, THE OUTER LIMITS or even from the original run of STAR TREK.

Wisely, however, Blomkamp doesn’t seem overly concerned with banging the social reform drum too loudly. Sure, the film has its share of left-wing (maybe even socialist) interpretations, but they seem less an intended message than a natural product of the narrative. In a story with a class system divided so deliberately, having the lower-class rise up against their oppressors isn’t the equivalent of having a political agenda; it’s simply the only logical place the story can go, because history has proven to us time and time again that this is the only possible outcome of segregated classes. Blomkamp uses this premise as a jumping-off point to tell his story, but doesn’t linger too long on any one “message”. After all, our hero isn’t a revolutionary leader or a great resistance fighter – he’s just a selfish, troubled man who uses whichever side of the political landscape that will offer him the momentary advantage.

And that’s where ELYSIUM succeeds. It would have been much too easy for Blomkamp to set up Max (Matt Damon) as a political idealist. And if he had, then any and all criticisms about agendas might have been valid. But he doesn’t paint him as an idealist. He paints him as a normal, humble man; one who has felt and lost love and has made more than his fair share of mistakes in his past, but is ultimately a good person. He’s selfish, and he worries about his own needs, but he has a good heart, and he plays the cards he’s dealt. Max is not a hero. But he is our only protagonist, and a fairly realistic one at that. It’s not difficult to imagine that, given the circumstances under which he finds himself, we might also do the things which Max resorts to in order to just live his life – a life which is fundamentally unfair and troubled by injustices. His navigation of the political landscape is completely dependent on what he needs for himself and the people that he cares about, and nothing more. As those needs change and shift over the course of the film, his allegiances change and shift as well.

But truth be told, ELYSIUM’s major strengths do not lie in its story. Though it is perfectly functional, its characters arcs and motivations clear and distinct, it is not exactly the most compelling or unique narrative. It’s fairly easy to know where the story is going early on in the film. Luckily, that slight predictability is not enough to keep you from enjoying how the film unfolds, and that’s largely due to a few stellar factors that allow the film to retain its originality and creativity.

The first is Sharlto Copley. ELYSIUM’s cast is (mostly) made up of good performances which help ground the occasional silliness: Damon does a great job, William Fichtner (John Carlyle) is terrific (as always) but tragically underused and Wagner Moura (Spider) has a blast with his eccentric arms-dealer / political leader. The rest of the cast is fine – with the notable exception of Jodie Foster, whose performance is a unique and powerful misfire – but Copley comes out on top with his deliciously hammy Kruger character.

ELYSIUM has its share of over-the-top sensibilities, and Blomkamp knows it. When it comes to depicting the upper-class characters, the actors all share a very particular diction pattern – one which is nearly melodic in its overly-deliberateness. It’s almost as if Blomkamp ordered his upper-class-level actors to take the snottiest, most blatantly-defined diction and assume that would be how these rich folk of the 22nd century would speak. It works for some characters (like Fichtner, who manages to make it sound almost robotic, something which lends itself perfectly to his bureaucratic character), but not for others (like Foster, where it can at times be painful to watch). It’s an interesting choice, and it shows that Blomkamp is willing to let his actors have a little fun with their roles.

But nowhere is this more obvious than with Copley’s Kruger, the renegade operative living down on Earth. He’s absurd, he’s ridiculous, and he’s wonderfully entertaining to watch. It’s a pleasant surprise to see Copley – who played the clean-cut Wikus in DISTRICT 9 – let loose in a role like this, where rape, murder and a hilariously mysterious cloak I can only assume he found in a dumpster are all part of the job description. His delivery is perfectly absurd, and he seems to relish every word. And does a rogue sleeper agent who has been biologically enhanced with technology really need to carry a sword? Of course not, but it’s all part of the fun.

The second factor is Blomkamp’s impeccable – at times arresting – visual style. Though there are plenty of gorgeous images in this film, it’s the inventiveness of the imagery that really transcends. Several of the shots in the final action sequence are almost Edgar Wright or Zack Snyder-esque, with speed ramps and dolly shots blurring the line between reality and CGI. In another sequence, Blomkamp somehow manages to reproduce the snorri-cam shot from a distance as he follows Damon’s character into battle. Seeing a Blomkamp film means seeing things that you probably wouldn’t get in a normal blockbuster, and that will always be refreshing, no matter the film.

Lastly, there is the world-building. One of the most important weapons in any genre filmmaker’s arsenal is his or her ability to color each world they create with new and exciting ideas, creations and situations. Blomkamp is no different. His knack for imaginative ideas is on full display here; the film sometimes feels like it is absolutely bursting at the seams with imagination. Sure, the robotic police officers are not exactly breaking new ground, but the scene between Damon and his fast food restaurant mascot-inspired parole officer is priceless. From the vast amount of individually-unique weaponry (specifically the guns, which Blomkamp seems to have a real affinity for) to the various pieces of tech (like floating, holographic screens which appear out of thin air to update citizens with necessary information), Blomkamp and his team never spend too much time explaining or pointing out any of the world’s idiosyncrasies. And the mark of a fully-realized world is when there’s so many things to see, most of them need to be glanced over as givens, rather than objects of curiosity.

ELYSIUM is a quality entry in this year’s crop of blockbusters, and a welcome return by Neill Blomkamp. It may not reach the levels of DISTRICT 9 – which, admittedly, set an unrealistically high bar – but it’s a competently-made, original sci-fi film, and that’s definitely something to be encouraged by people who have grown weary of seeing more remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels and spin-offs than they could shake a stick at.

7.5/10

d.a. garabedian

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Micro-Review: Lake Bell’s IN A WORLD…

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Lake Bell is one of those character actresses who has been popping up in small roles for the better part of the last decade. Occasionally you’d catch her as one of the protagonist’s friends, or a recurring role on a television series; sometimes she’d even appear as one of the leading ladies (like SURFACE, NBC’s science-fiction series from the mid-2000s, or Rob Corddry’s demented CHILDRENS HOSPITAL). But with IN A WORLD…, Bell finally gets a chance to steal the show out from everybody else – largely because of the fact that she wrote and directed the feature herself.

IN A WORLD… has a delightful premise: Bell, the daughter of the world’s (second) most famous voice-over narrator, finds herself as the first major female voice to become a part of the industry. It’s the kind of story that’s catered perfectly to film-lovers, which explains why it went over so well when it premiered at Sundance earlier this year. It pushes all of the right buttons: cheesy movie trailers with big, melodramatic voice-overs, larger-than-life characters who live the Hollywood lifestyle (even if they’re technically out on the fringes of The Biz) and a handful of delightfully tongue-in-cheek A-list cameos. But the film also has the added bonus of tackling the story from a purely feminine point-of-view, and that is where Bell truly manages to elevate the material – almost certainly subconsciously.

Where the film shines isn’t in its jokes-per-page, nor in its realistic character arcs (though those are absolutely worth noting, because they’re both excellent). What’s most refreshing about IN A WORLD… is Bell’s voice – both literally and figuratively. It’s appropriate that a film which hinges so directly on a story about the distinction between the male and female voice should find its leading lady’s voice as its most powerful tool. From Bell’s personal brand of situational comedy to her naturalistic character dynamics, she has managed to instil this film with a very particular, feminine voice – one which is neither overly direct nor consciously stifled.

The truth is, this is a woman telling a story in her own voice, from her own perspective, and it feels both natural and refreshing. Whether it’s the simple but realistic dynamic between Bell’s Carol and her sister, Dani (played by Michaela Watkins), or the way male characters seem presented through the for-some-reason-rarely-seen “female gaze”, IN A WORLD… feels different – it feels true, and honest, and uncensored. Bell doesn’t settle for a generic voice which would make her indistinguishable from any other director, male or female; she embraces her own voice, one which just so happens to be female. It’s not ham-fisted, or overly cynical, or even particularly showy. It just is. And though many people would argue that gender politics shouldn’t come into the discussion, I personally think it’s worth both pointing out and celebrating.

It’s also important to note that Bell herself tackles the subject herself in the final act of the film, where her own views on this subject become clear. Handouts and political manipulation are not the same as true, personal success. It’s not enough to praise this film for being a female voice – it has to be worthy of praise in and of itself, no matter where it comes from. A voice is a voice, regardless of gender; its perceived quality should not be influenced by such things. Either it’s good, or it isn’t.

Luckily for IN A WORLD…, it is. The cast is absolutely perfect, from Demetri Martin’s bumbling Louis to Alexandra Holden’s good-natured but abrasive Jamie. Bell populates the film with a who’s-who of memorable character actors, including Nick Offerman (who’s been blowing up the last few years, thanks to PARKS AND REC), Rob Corddry (naturally), Fred Melamed (who steals every scene in which he appears) and more. Even the smallest roles get their chance to work a few jokes in.

The movie is funny, the pace is light and the story packs a surprisingly emotional punch. You could do far worse at the movies this summer.

8/10

d.a. garabedian

Give Them a Reason to Stay: Justin Lin’s FAST & FURIOUS 6

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Review originally posted at Movie Knight, here.

It’s hard to stay objective or be overly critical about certain kinds of films. Some movies are so flat out uninterested in being traditionally (and often times claustrophobically) “good” that they somehow transcend the usual evaluative criteria and become something more.

FAST & FURIOUS 6 is not one of those transcendental films. Unlike its predecessor – which reached that rare, awesome place where things get so goofy and dumb that things magically transform into sheer joy – the sixth entry in this unstoppable, car-racing-gone-heist-film franchise feels lifeless, soulless and bereft of all the fun that it had accumulated over the last few years.

Here, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew are dragged once more back into the game by the eternally-sweaty Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). Hobbs suggests the possibility of complete exoneration if our dream-team can help him take down the best racing squad / criminal organization since, well, our dream team. There’s only one catch: it turns out that Toretto’s old flame, Leddy (Michelle Rodriguez), is not quite as dead as they’d once supposed – and she’s playing for the other side.

Director-and-writer combo Justin Lin & Chris Morgan return for one more go around the track (my only car pun – I promise), now in their third straight collaboration on the franchise, and the fourth entry for Lin. By this point, they seem to have nailed the formula down to a science, and it certainly shows – everything about this film feels like a repeat of what has come before, a grab bag of early-day street races and latter-day heists. Toretto is still waxing philosophically about the importance of family. Characters are still hopping into cars for a friendly race down the street for no real reason other than audience nostalgia. And Johnson still constantly looks like he just came out of the pool.

At this point, it’s worth noting that for many people, all of those things are exactly what they want out of this franchise. The trouble is, watching Johnson fly through the air and punch somebody in the face is much less entertaining the seventeenth time you’ve seen it happen. It’s worth a chuckle, sure, but it won’t have you cheering and roaring with laughter the way it did in the last film. This film is all punchline and no setup, because the filmmakers know that they already have a built-in audience – one who, they seem to think, responds more to the big explosion than the ticking bomb.

Still, the movie isn’t a complete train-wreck, by any means. It’s just also not particularly entertaining or enjoyable either. And that’s a big problem, considering how much good will was built up with the refreshing, over-the-top pleasure that was FAST FIVE. Whereas that film had a firm self-awareness and breakneck pacing, SIX meanders along, inserting unrelated or unremarkable set pieces and plot points just for the sake of dragging up old characters, situations and plot threads – most of which are seemingly tossed in without any real effort or thought. You could feel how much fun Lin and Morgan had on FIVE – it was the cinematic equivalent of a filmmaking team throwing their hands in the air, punching it up to 11 and just having fun with the material. “Fun” is the key word there; if the duo were having fun with this installment, it doesn’t show. It should come as no surprise that Lin has finally left the franchise, and one can’t help but wonder whether he grew bored of it halfway through making this movie.

It’s clear from the get-go, however, that Lin and Morgan had only one item on the agenda for FURIOUS 6go bigger. Much bigger. And though the film takes its sweet time getting to those big, adrenaline-infused set pieces in the final act, it certainly pays off that ambition. After all, the final action sequence here is probably the biggest, loudest and most elaborate of the entire franchise. It’s an absurd but totally effective half-hour of fun, and maybe the only point in the run-time where Lin pushes himself as an action director – which, in turn, makes it feel like the only point where he’s having any fun with these characters anymore.

FAST FIVE worked because it was big, dumb fun. FURIOUS 6 fails because it goes too far with that philosophy: it’s much bigger and much dumber, and that actually takes almost all of the fun out of watching it. And once the franchise had abandoned any semblance of reality (something I’m sure many critics and fans will actually celebrate and embrace), it lost its ability to excite. When characters are actively and frequently leaping 50 feet or more without a scratch – from one car to another, no less – things stop being impressive and start getting dull. Previous installments pushed that boundary to its limits, and this one finally breaks it.

With all of that said, I’m sure fans will get a kick out it. There’s plenty of plot points which will get longtime fans excited – both in the moment and for future entries. And though the first two acts aren’t particularly exhilarating, it all ends with an entertaining bang. Sure, the dialogue is horrendous and the script is an all-out mess, but nobody goes to see these movies for the writing. They go for the fast cars, beautiful women and lots of fun. It may be lacking a bit in that last department, but it’s got just enough gas in the tank (last one, for real this time) to please fans.

6/10

d.a. garabedian

Respect the Chair: J.J. Abrams’ STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS

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Review originally posted at Movie Knight, here.

Throughout J.J. Abrams’ latest foray into the world of science-fiction, a couple of phrases and ideas get repeated a noticeable number of times. Both of these remarks refer to the level of responsibility inherent to being the captain of a ship. They also happen to be at fundamental odds with our protagonist’s natural instincts.

Above all, respect the Captain’s Chair. But more importantly:

The choices you are making, if wrong, will get every single living person that you care about killed.

When we last left off with Abrams’ newly-rebooted take on the STAR TREK franchise, he had assembled himself a ragtag group of absurdly capable and entertaining explorers: Sulu (John Cho), the pilot and swashbuckler-extraordinaire, Chekov (Anton Yelchin), the accented navigator, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), the talented linguist, Bones (Karl Urban), the nervous doctor, Spock (Zachary Quinto), the logical but emotionally crippled half-human and, last-but-not-least, James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine), the overly-eager and arrogant captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

In a move born less out of reluctant necessity than seized through self-aggrandizing delusions of destiny, Kirk assembles his crew and saves the day, proving himself worthy all in one swift stroke. But a single victory does not make a man a leader, nor does a declaration of greatness necessarily make one great.

And so, Abrams has returned to the franchise he reinvigorated with STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, a bigger, bolder and ballsier crash-course in blockbuster filmmaking.

Picking up around a year after the first film, Abrams (along with screenwriters Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci) immediately thrusts us back into the waiting arms of the newly formulated super-team, already mid-mission. But when things go increasingly awry, Kirk is forced to improvise, violating the Prime Directive in the process – a rule under which no civilized species can intrude on the development of a less civilized, alien one.

It’s not the first rule we’ve seen the over-zealous captain break – and it certainly won’t be the last – but it’s an important reminder of Kirk’s true nature: that he thinks of himself as outside of and above the rules. Even when acting selflessly, he still believes his natural instincts and moral obligations take precedence over his other responsibilities. It’s a trait which his mentor, Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), believes he needs to have rubbed out of him. His lack of humility is not just a danger to himself and to his crew; it’s a sign that Kirk has no respect for the demands and responsibilities of a position he has barely earned. He’s not ready.

It’s an interesting twist on the standard “you’ve earned your stripes, now prove you can handle them” storyline which so many action heroes are faced with in their sophomore efforts. Kirk doesn’t fail because he broke the rules and risked the lives of his crew – he fails because he broke the rules while trying to save them from a mess he put them in in the first place. His respect and love for his crew is readily apparent, but it always comes second to his own arrogant ambitions. This isn’t a film about learning to love your family. This is a film about learning to be worthy of your family – especially when you’re the one seated in the chair at the head of the table.

All of this discussion naturally brings us to Benedict Cumberbatch’s villainous John Harrison. The less said about this character, the better, and I have no intention of spoiling him for you after all this time spent keeping him under wraps. He is, however, an infinitely more interesting character than Eric Bana’s Nero, and reflects the themes of the film well.

Harrison is one of those villains who mirror the hero in all of the right ways. He too is a captain, and he too would do anything for his family. His anti-authoritative (borderline terrorist-esque) tactics are aggressive and amoral, but his philosophies – and sometimes even his goals – line up pretty notably with Kirk’s. His plan seems to be fueled by passion rather than anything more insidious. He is a conflicted, relatable, ruthless monster, and his (reasonably) nuanced character makes him easy to root for and easy to misread – by both the audience and the other characters. The twisted and unexpected path down which his character travels is constantly surprising and a little bit incredible; if he wasn’t such an enigmatic force, it might seem contrived, but instead it feels honest and compelling.

And that may as well be true of the entire film, as it were. Lindelof, Kurtzman and Orci have cooked up a fairly detailed, politically-charged backdrop for INTO DARKNESS. That kind of storytelling requires a lot of turns and surprises, and some of it will certainly play better with some than for others. The final hour or so is a nonstop barrage of turns, reversals, shifted alliances, militaristic strategy and uncovered truths. It might seem easy to get lost in all of the shuffling around at breakneck speeds, but Abrams nails these plot developments like they’re going out of style.

Because what’s truly impressive about INTO DARKNESS (much like STAR TREK before it) is how unbelievably effortless the entire affair feels. It takes a rare sort of filmmaker to grind such a massive project down to something so polished, it literally shines (yes – there’s more lens flare to look forward to). There are cracks in the surface here which weren’t as readily apparent in the previous installment – wasn’t Kirk’s punishment in the opening of the film washed away a little too quickly? – but it’d take a heart of stone to let them diminish your enjoyment of the sheer wonder on display here.

But lest you believe that Abrams runs this franchise like nothing more than a well-oiled but soulless machine, you can rest assured that the same levels of heart and humor which were so prominent in the first film are on full display here. It’s as consistently funny throughout as the first film (maybe even more so), all while simultaneously embracing darker, edgier and more ambitious goals. The tone never needs to shift, as the film combines both the light and dark in perfect balance. This machine’s soul is fully intact.

And that’s great news, because the men who drew this blueprint are a marvel of the technological revolution. INTO DARKNESS is as tightly structured and as breathlessly paced as the first film in just about every way. As it moves from spectacular set-piece to spectacular set-piece, it’s hard not to be impressed by how the film never relents and yet also never becomes tiresome. It’s a true testament to everybody involved that this ship just keeps blasting through space without a single hiccup.

With that being said, the film is not perfect. Its first hour, exhilarating as it is, lacks the punch that the first film delivered so powerfully throughout.  In STAR TREK, you never felt as if you could see the machinery working behind the scenes; here, however, setup feels a bit like setup, rather than plot. It’s not a serious knock against the film, and it’s not dreadfully problematic, but it’s noteworthy. And after the jaw-dropping final act, the whole thing wraps up with a bit of a dull whimper after a bang: the ending is very abrupt, and could have probably used a little breathing room.

All those nitpicks aside, however, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is another home run for Abrams and his Bad Robot team. Giacchino’s score is wonderfully bombastic as always, though maybe not as unexpectedly great as the first film. The cast all do a terrific job, as well; the main characters are forced to dig a little deeper into their characters, especially towards the end of the film. And the special effects are, as always, top-notch.

Summer blockbusters which operate on this level are a rare treat. Hopefully, once Abrams is done making a little film called STAR WARS: EPISODE VII, he comes back and finishes this trilogy off right. The franchise deserves its latest captain back in the chair, where he belongs.

8/10

d.a. garabedian

Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold: Peter Jackson’s THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Sometime in the years following the first World War – while in the midst of grading an assortment of student papers – J.R.R. Tolkien had something akin to a flash of inspiration. Grabbing a piece of blank paper, the author jotted down a single sentence:

“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”

Not knowing himself what a hobbit was, Tolkien went about trying to figure out just what this creature might be. And 75 years later, the word has essentially cemented its way into the vocabulary of the Western world.

This is in no small part thanks to the efforts of one Peter Jackson, whose LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy turned out to be a corner-piece of turn-of-the-century filmmaking. Making nearly $3 billion at the box office and taking home 17 Academy Awards between them, Jackson’s take on Tolkien’s “unfilmable” story wormed its way into households across the world. The effects and legacy of this series cannot be measured or properly quantified; needless to say, Jackson upended the way we look at blockbuster films. For years following their release, audiences were treated (often begrudgingly so) to wave after wave of entries in the fantasy genre as studios tried desperately to capitalize on the phenomenon. Ten years on, the Hollywood system is still feeling the effects of Jackson’s juggernaut series.

These effects do not merely exist on a superficial level, either. James Cameron has on more than one occasion cited Andy Serkis’ performance-capture work as the villainous Gollum as the motivation he needed to finally make AVATAR a reality, thus making the effect a legitimate tool in Hollywood’s arsenal. Jackson and his team’s creation of the MASSIVE program (a computer-animation and artificial intelligence software package used to to generate realistic crowd effects) has been used in everything from 300 to HAPPY FEET to BLADES OF GLORY. And to say that the films popularized the idea of “extended home editions” might be a bit of an understatement. These films changed cinema in a tangible way.

So it came as little surprise to anybody when Jackson declared that, should an adaptation of Tolkien’s precursor to the legendary RINGS series by made, he doubted that he would be up to the task of competing with himself – at least, as a director.

But the road to this point in Jackson’s decision was far from a simple one. In reality, the story actually dates back several decades, to a time when Professor Tolkien sold the rights to his works out of desperation. The results of these transactions left the rights to “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” at United Artists, a studio which would eventually be acquired by MGM. And through a long series of legal disputes and production history, Peter Jackson and his team had come out of THE LORD OF THE RINGS with a significant question: was making THE HOBBIT even possible anymore?

On the road to adapt “Rings” for the big-screen, Jackson and co. had originally set their sights on the smaller, more manageable precursor, and had found that the rights issues were simply too thorny to be waded through: with the production rights in the hands of producer Saul Zaentz and the distribution rights still sitting over at United Artists, it seemed an economically questionable issue to involve a third party in the proceedings. And so, as history has shown us, audiences received the professor’s trilogy instead.

So when Jackson asked the question of whether a return to Middle-earth would be possible after the smash success of his trilogy, the same legal issues that had arisen a decade prior began to sprout up again, and it began to look like the film was a pipe dream. And if that were not enough, RINGS producers New Line Cinema soon found themselves being sued by both Jackson and Zaentz, citing a failure to accurately honor contractual agreements. The result of the lawsuit caused the studio to declare that they would never again work with Jackson, and to even go so far as to threaten production of THE HOBBIT without him.

By this point, people were already started to insist that the production was cursed. And to be fair, it sort of looked as if they might be right: after the lawsuits, New Line Cinema nearly went bankrupt and was folded back into Warner Bros. as a subsidiary (placing the production rights at Warner Bros., in direct contrast to the distribution rights, which remained at MGM), followed by a legitimate bankruptcy by MGM (the effects of which are finally being ironed out this year, with the release of RED DAWN, CABIN IN THE WOODS, SKYFALL and THE HOBBIT, all of which were sucked into MGM’s economic crisis at varied stages of their productions).

None of which stopped Peter Jackson. The director, who has notoriously steered clear of Hollywood as much as possible, had already sunk tens of millions of his own dollars into the pre-production of THE HOBBIT, acting as producer. Without a greenlight from the economically floundering studios, Jackson continued pushing forward with the project, funding it himself in the face of almost certain disaster. With rights expiring and the rivaling studios using the project as a leveraging chip to avoid bankruptcy, Jackson never relented.

During this period, Guillermo del Toro was brought on as director. Jackson had, up until this point, remained adamant that he would not compete with his own trilogy, and that a fresh vision was required in order to make this film a success. Though the decision was faced with some level of controversy amongst the fanbase, many deemed it to be the right way to go. But after a year spent working without a greenlight (as MGM’s fiscal status was still being settled), del Toro left the project, declaring that he simply could not spend any more time on a film that might never be made. In stepped Jackson to fill the void, and the fanbase rejoiced.

Which brings us, at long last, to THE HOBBIT films.

Yes: films. There will be three HOBBIT films, serving as a precursive trilogy to THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Though originally intended to be a pair, Jackson made the  unprecedented move of shifting gears mid-production and retinkering the films into a trilogy. How this gamble will pay off is yet to be seen, but it’s an interesting decision that requires an entire conversation and article unto itself. Was it done purely for money? (Absolutely not, and anybody who says so completely misunderstands the context of the material, the filmmaker and the history of the franchise – though, it would also be naive to claim that money isn’t one of the factors.) What ramifications does it have for the serialization of cinema? Do we need to rethink our judgments about how cinema operates on a basic level, insofar as judging arcs and self-contained stories as something inherent to a single film, rather than a series of films?

The answer to the last question is, I think, yes. The serialization of cinema is something that has been much talked about in the last few years, starting primarily with the decision to split the final HARRY POTTER film into two pieces. And though that move seemed originally to be made entirely from a financial perspective, it resulted in a fascinating conversation about cinema’s relationship to television, and the convergence of the two as storytelling mediums. While many denounced HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART I as a waste of time where nothing seemed to happen, some saw it as something else: the penultimate episode of a series, where considerable time is taken for character dynamics and motivations to be laid bare before the final confrontation. This serialization of cinematic storytelling is something that exists for the fans, and this cannot be stressed enough – it is an entirely new approach to filmmaking, where out-of-context perspectives are understandably baffled by their atypical existence. The old rules (some say the only rules) do not apply to these films, and to try and fit them into that seemingly century-old mold seems like a fool’s errand. This isn’t to say that creating this new kind of film precludes the piece from proper criticism – merely that we may have to adjust our perspectives in order to appreciate what the piece is, rather than denounce it for what it isn’t.

And Peter Jackson seems to agree. For THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY isn’t just the first chapter in a new trilogy, and it isn’t just the next chapter in the discussion of serialized cinema; it’s a new chapter for cinema, period. There’s a reason that this review (/essay/article) started with a brief look at the historical context of this trilogy: with THE HOBBIT, Jackson has – even more so than he attempted to do with his previous Middle-earth trilogy – attempted to change cinema in a tangible way.

I took it upon myself to see this film four times before writing my review, and each time I experienced it in a different format. The fact that this exists as an option is worth discussing as well, but will likely have to be saved for a later point in time. With each subsequent viewing, I experienced something slightly (sometimes massively) different, and I’d like to take some time at this point to discuss the tech before I discuss the film, because they are wildly different topics and should be treated as such. These four formats were: High Frame Rate (HFR) 3D, 2D Standard Frame Rate (SFR), HFR 3D Atmos and IMAX 3D SFR.

Firstly, the HFR 3D – the format in which Jackson intended you to see this film. Again, some context is necessary for those who do not know.

Around the time that sound was invented for film (almost a century ago), the film community was forced to make a decision. Since audio tracks were included alongside the film reel, studios/filmmakers/theater owners/etc. had to decide on a universal speed to project their films at, as to ensure that audio would not sound sped up or slowed down to the audience. As film stock was, at the time, very expensive to produce and develop, it was decided that they would use the lowest speed possible, as to minimize the consumption of film stock. Thus, it was determined that 24 frames per second (fps) would be the universal speed at which film was shot and projected – it was slow enough as to not cost too much money, and fast enough that it created the illusion of constant movement.

Now, 100-some years later, we are still filming and projecting our films at that speed, regardless of the fact that most movies are shot and projected digitally – a format where the question of film stock cost is no longer a relevant one. Even as we attempt to move cinema forward into the third-dimension, we are still, for some reason, shackled to this projection speed, even though digital projectors the world over are all capable of being upgraded to utilize higher speeds – speeds which would remove motion blur and create a generally more realistic picture.

This, anyway, is the argument: why should we remain attached to the way films are “supposed” to look when that decision was made out of complete necessity almost 100 years ago? Why not try and push cinema forward into newer, more realistic places, especially when technology is fully capable of it? Say, twice the speed – 48fps, which THE HOBBIT was shot at?

The answer is not clear. There has been significant (often conflicting) debate in all academic circles already about the notion of HFR, most of which seems to coincide with the “legitimization” of 3D. Does creating a format that differs so wildly from “conventional” cinema somehow affect the way we perceive it? Yes and no, it seems. Much like in the first forays into contemporary 3D, HFR can, at times, affect the way one perceives the film, but only in certain cases. For some it may not be an issue at all, while for others it can be disastrous.

The effect is, needless to say, jarring. For avid cinemagoers who are used to films looking a certain way, it can be downright shocking. The 48fps (combined with the shot-in-3D images) is brutally, uncompromisingly real – sometimes to the point that it all looks just a bit fake. The best description I’ve come up with is that it appears as if one is watching a staged play; like the back of the theater has been punched out, and beyond it a large-scale play is taking place, where actors in noticeably-dressed costumes are acting out scenes before your very eyes. It can be distracting at times, and it can be wonderfully awe-inspiring at other times – it all depends on the person, and the scene. Perhaps a film that depends on the combination of CGI and live-action to the extent that this one does may not have been the best guinea pig for the format, but we are stuck with what we have, and the effect is generally mixed.

It is worth noting that the HFR makes 3D a much more digestible and pleasurable experience, as the elimination of blur and strobing that are inherent to SFR have been removed. This makes the 3D picture much easier on the eyes, and everything looks much more real and vivid.

I will say, however, that I did enjoy the format significantly more on a second viewing, and I highly recommend trying it out – though, perhaps, only on a second viewing. I look forward to the evolution and progression of the format, in ways I didn’t look forward to the evolution of 3D.

The 3D in SFR, it is worth noting, is quite gorgeous, and I found that IMAX 3D was the format I most preferred out of all of my viewings. The picture quality was crisp and stunning (unlike at other screenings, where it was quite noticeable that the projector was not quite calibrated correctly), and, barring PROMETHEUS, you are unlikely to see a more accomplished use of the third dimension at the cinema this year. Jackson uses the format with subtlety, and one gets the definite impression that he altered absolutely nothing about his directorial style in order to accommodate the new format.

Lastly (as the 2D version will be the one that I am properly reviewing) there is the inclusion of Dolby Laboratories latest audio format, Atmos. This new system is unlike anything you have experienced in a cinema before, and when it is placed alongside the 3D HFR, it becomes a rare and unique presentation that you will not be able to get elsewhere.

The format, which uses around 120 speakers around the room, basically creates the illusion of a three-dimensional soundscape. As the entire ceiling is lined with speakers, filmmakers are able to carefully pinpoint very specific places around the room from which sounds come from. For instance, in scenes where characters were singing and tossing objects around the room, one gets the impression that the voices are coming from all around them. When an arrow shoots towards you in 3D, the sound follows it right past your head. It is the pinnacle of audio immersiveness, and I’m excited to see what filmmakers do with it as the format evolves.

But outside of all of those (many, many, many) technological advancements and format options, there’s still a movie at the core of this discussion. Because, although it is easy to allow the trimmings to affect your perspective of the film, there are still some very basic categorical elements that exist entirely independently of them, and to judge those in tandem with the film itself would be a disservice.

This film is not THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Although it follows a similar trajectory to THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, it is a decidedly different kind of film, and that is partially due to the last-minute decision to divide the film (for a single film it almost certainly is) into three parts, rather than two. Much in the same way that FELLOWSHIP takes a substantial amount of time getting off the ground in its first half, AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY revels in its beginnings, and that’s not a bad thing (though many will perceive it as such). This is, after all, the first three-or-so hours of a full, seven or eight-hour epic.

It is immediately apparent that Jackson has gone for a different tone with this new trilogy, though it does begin to skew back towards the one we know and love from the originals in the latter half. This, again, is almost certainly a result of moving the ending of this film into the beginning of the next, as the plot developments which follow the ones depicted here are somewhat darker and more in line with the earlier films.

That being said, the bulk of the discussion next will be about the film’s tone, as it is the most crucial and wildly overlooked / misunderstood element of AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY. Though fans and non-fans alike are quick to mention that the decidedly lighter and sillier tone of the film is appropriate given the source material, there is a crucial contextual argument that seems to be missed in all of the debates: the existence of the revised novel. For this, a bit more history is necessary.

Tolkien’s novel, “The Hobbit” was written in 1937. It was successful enough that it warranted a sequel – one which would, after 17 years, become “The Lord of the Rings”. In between those two publications, it became clear to Tolkien that the tone and general style of his first novel was out of sorts with his newer, more mature and sophisticated one. He then went back and rewrote the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter, giving it a darker and edgier tone and rewriting the character of Gollum and his relationship to The Ring to fit more in line with what would come in the sequel.

In the early 1960s – after the smash success of “The Lord of the Rings” – Tolkien decided to go back and rewrite his precursive novel, recreating it in the style and tone of “Rings”. After a few chapters, he abandoned the project, deciding that it simply wasn’t “The Hobbit” that people knew and loved. These manuscripts are widely available, and detail a more sophisticated version of the book that would never see the light of day.

Enter Peter Jackson. When it became clear that Jackson would return for the series, it became obvious that the only way to rationalize his existence as the helmer of this prequel would be to resurrect that version of THE HOBBIT; to make the version that Tolkien intended to but never did, one which made sense as a complete work. Jackson often made mention of these manuscripts and the portions of which were made available in the appendices of “The Lord of the Rings”, and it stood to reason that fans would finally see the 1960 “Hobbit” come to life.

Except that’s not what happened.

Instead, Jackson took a bold risk and decided to balance the two versions of the book, the ’37 and the ’60. The hodgepodge result is what we’ve begun to get a glimpse of in THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, and it’s equal parts baffling, satisfying and mesmerizing. What might have been the film’s downfall (and, to many critics’ eyes, it undoubtedly is), turns out to be its greatest strength: its boldly unconventional, tonal disparity, which counterpoints a silly dinner song with a caravan of dwarves with the dark, brooding song that comes out of Thorin Oakenshield’s (Richard Armitage) eventual presence. All of which comes directly out of Tolkien’s text, mind you – this bizarrely captivating back-and-forth is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the author’s vision; possibly even more so than RINGS was. And so Jackson walks the tightrope, giving us stirring monologues one instant and ridiculously silly (but spiritually appropriate) rabbit sleighs the next moment. It’s an interesting, certainly controversial choice, but Jackson ought to be commended for figuring out how nail the tone somewhere between the two versions.

But that’s far from where Jackson’s controversial decisions end: there is no more polarizing discussion than that of the three-movie debacle. Though the results of which have yet to be made apparent (and will not be until THERE AND BACK AGAIN is released in July of 2014), there does not seem to be an issue as of yet; in a film made up almost entirely of climaxes (as befits the adventurous style of the source material), it isn’t particularly difficult for the films to be retinkered into creating semi-satisfying arcs, as is seen here in the Thorin / Bilbo arc. Though, again, it is worth noting that the serialization of the films makes this point slightly moot. Indeed, there are plot points in this film that have quite obviously had their resolutions shifted into the second film, such as the existence of the spiders. What we get instead, therefore, is the seeding of future plot elements that have little bearing on the present story (much as in television), further solidifying the film’s serialized format.

The greatest question, however, seems to be why there will be three films at all. Why make three films out of a 300-page story? There are many reasons. The first and most obvious is the book’s narrative style and brisk pace, wherein key story beats take place over a single chapter, or sometimes even a few pages. Just as Jackson turned the ten pages of Helm’s Deep into an hour-long battle in THE TWO TOWERS, the events that take place over two or three pages in “The Hobbit” could (and will) fill entire movies. The political ramifications of certain plot points are spelled out and left dangling, as befits a children’s novel, but will create substantial amount of material in their cinematic counterparts. This can be seen even in AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, where the entire last hour of the film takes place over three chapters – only a couple dozen pages. And if you thought that the Goblin’s kingdom and “Riddles in the Dark” sequence was boring, then this franchise is simply not made for you.

There is also the addition of all of the supplemental material that was intended for the revised edition, as mentioned previously. This material could fill a book almost the same length as “The Hobbit”, and fills in gaps in the narrative that were intentionally left as question marks in the novel’s original run. All of this material combined together, means that there is plenty of material for a trilogy. Whether Jackson pulls it off is another question altogether.

But THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is a fine beginning. Opening the film just before the beginning of FELLOWSHIP, audiences are treated to the return of two major characters from the original trilogy: Ian Holm as the older Bilbo Baggins, and Elijah Wood as his nephew Frodo. This sequence, much as was done earlier this season in LIFE OF PI, introduces Bilbo as the unreliable narrator of the story we are about to witness, automatically giving Jackson and co. leeway to play up the “storytelling” aspect and tone of the film, ensuring that any discrepancies between it and the former trilogy are made instantly irrelevant. As Gandalf (played once again by the incomparable Sir Ian McKellen) tells Bilbo later on in the story: “All good stories deserve embellishment”. And embellish they do.

After launching us into the now-trademark opening prologue – wherein an historical event that bears relevance on the current story is depicted in all its glory – JOURNEY soon finds us drawn back 60 years, to where a young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is being recruited for an adventure by Gandalf and thirteen dwarves. Freeman was born to play this role, and his mannerisms are so impeccably nuanced that it’s impossible to imagine Bilbo as anybody else.

But the true triumph of this film is the dwarves. Handling fifteen main characters on screen at once is daunting, to say the least, but Jackson somehows manages to pull it off. Each and every dwarf (Nori, Ori, Dori, Balin, Dwalin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin and Thorin Oakenshield) is unique and memorable, and the mere fact that over half of them significantly transcend the one-dimensional characteristics of the book in the first chapter of this series alone is something worth acknowledging. Though the uninitiated may find themselves floundering amongst the characters, I can’t imagine a finer introduction to the group.

And so the quest begins. Jackson deftly sets up the dwarves journey to reclaim their homeland and defeat the dragon Smaug who stole it from them, and Bilbo unexpectedly finds himself whisked along on an adventure all his own. Though the film falls into the unmistakeable pitfalls of adventure stories of this kind (get into a mess, miraculously make your way out again, repeat) and Jackson tends to go bonkers on the number of action sequences he throws at us, the adventure is fulfilling and never for a second boring. Moments that have become immortalized in the literary world spring beautifully to life in front of our eyes, embellished with just the right degree of whimsy.

For whimsical is probably the best word to described this film. Much as in the original novel (and unlike “Rings”), this is a lighthearted, good-natured but surprising story, and its themes still resonate as powerfully as they did 75 years ago. Bilbo’s quest to not just prove himself (to himself as much as to others) but to understand the importance of saving a friends’ home at the expense of leaving your own is moving and universal.

But the real success is in the development of Thorin, who is played perfectly by Armitage. In a string of flashbacks, we learn of the downfall of his people and his family, and the impossible burden that has fallen on him to protect and provide for his people. Legacy is a brutally important element of THE HOBBIT: Bilbo’s unfortunate withdrawal into his family’s legacy of peace and plenty juxtaposes well against Thorin’s desperate attempts to reclaim his father and grandfather’s. The sequence depicting the struggle between his kin and their enemy, the Orcs, tells the audience all they need to know about this would-be King, in spite of his gruffness. And though in the book Azog (the “Pale Orc”) is killed in the battle and Thorin instead inherits the vengeance of Azog’s son, the bitterness here between the two is enough antagonism that it works equally well.

Of course, in the years since Serkis and Jackson pioneered performance-capture the medium has grown exponentially, and it’s put to great effect here. Both the sequence with the trolls and the legendary “Riddles in the Dark” scene are sights to behold, and Gollum in particular looks better than ever. Serkis does an incredible job of recapturing the character and all of his nuances, even ten years on. The goblins also look surprisingly fantastic, as there was significant doubt over whether the filmmaker should have gone all CGI for them. But they and their entire lair looks amazing, and the nice touch of Barry Humphries as the Great Goblin is a bit of spot-on casting; he nails the tone of the character perfectly, adding just the right amount of Tolkien whimsy to his croaking song and dance.

But the most important character is that of New Zealand, which was nearly abandoned by the studio as a location for economic and legal reasons. Fans the world over can all breathe a sigh of relief, however, as the stunning vistas inherent to the country are on full display, and are unlike anything you’ve ever witnessed before in 3D HFR. The soul of Middle-earth is undoubtedly the countryside of New Zealand, and Jackson and his team somehow manage to find the perfect locations every single time.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is a welcome addition to Jackson’s Middle-earth canon, and though it may not quite reach the heights of his previous offerings, it spells promise for the rest of the trilogy. Its implications for the future of the industry are yet to be seen, but nobody can judge Jackson for trying to push things forward (again), and the discussions about the serialization of the film and the formatting revolution that the series suggests are all topics worth discussing. And though the film has the necessary flaws inherent to adapting the source material, it gives fans everything they wanted – even if it’s not quite in the way that they expected it. Most importantly, it’s a fun time at the movies, and does a wonderful job of revisiting old faces and places.

Plus, it’s just great to have more of these movies, isn’t it?

8.5/10

d.a. garabedian

TIFF 2012 – Micro-Review: Stuart Blumberg’s THANKS FOR SHARING

thanks-for-sharing

Review originally posted at The Arts Scene, here.

Stuart Blumberg’s THANKS FOR SHARING is an exercise in structured, rigid quality. That’s not a bad thing, per se, but it robs the film of striving to be anything better than the admittedly-great movie that it already is. Writer/director Blumberg – best known for his screenplay on the Oscar-nominated THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT – turns in his debut offering as a director here, but never strives to take the film out of safe waters, to its detriment.

But let’s not pull any punches here – this is a very strong film, especially for a first time director. The movie clearly comes from a strong, capable hand: somebody who has a deep understanding of these characters and their motivations. There’s little in the way of experimentation or directorial depth, but that’s to be expected; Blumberg is just finding his voice as the man behind the camera (not just the man behind the page), so it’s completely understandable that the majority of his output on his directorial debut comes largely from the screenplay.

And what a screenplay it is. It doesn’t reach particularly far in any one direction, nor does it try and achieve anything other than it promises, but the screenplay for THANKS FOR SHARING is one of those rare, contemporary offerings which might as well have been designed for teaching students how to construct a film. Everything is wonderfully tight, with absolutely no fat to it whatsoever. Characters’ motivations are clear, concise and compelling, and each scene drives the plot forward in a meaningful and deftly-handled way. There is appropriate seeding of future plot developments sprinkled throughout, so that nothing feels out of place or jarring. These are all marks of a master of the cinematic word, and Blumberg’s precision as a writer more than makes up for any first-time jitters at the idea of using visuals as a language separate from the words.

Along with the script is the truly excellent cast: Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins and Gwyneth Paltrow are all perfect in their roles, and the banter and chemistry between all three is mesmerizing, delicately balancing the line between strong, human drama and comedy. Meanwhile, relative newcomers Josh Gad, Patrick Fugit and, yes, even Pink all do an absolutely stellar job with the material that is given to them – which is, of course, extremely compelling. Ruffalo steals the show out from under all of them though, and his performance as the deeply on-edge, master-of-his-own-domain Adam goes to some fairly dark places which will keep the viewer guessing well into the final act of the film. There’s not a moment wasted between any of these characters, and the dynamics between them is what makes the movie everything that it is; Blumberg may have dreamed up these people, but this is one of those cases where the actors completely take over and occupy them down to the last detail.

Unfortunately, everything else about the film just feels like a lack of ambition. There is something to be said for the eloquently constructed and perfectly structured film, but that can only get you so far. There’s interesting, un-mined material here in the relatively unexplored topic of sexual addiction and the stigmas attached to it, but the film really does the bare minimum in exploring the deep-seeded nature of the disease. And though its exploration of the barriers it can create between the victim and any of his or her intimate relationships is a good start – be they friendly, romantic or familial – it would have been nice if Blumberg had been interested in diving further into the murky depths the disease can take you; as it stands, the film is a lot of talking about horrible things happening, and not a lot of seeing them.

Still, for what Blumberg was trying to accomplish, you’re not likely to get much better than this. THANKS FOR SHARING is an eloquent, deftly constructed film which proves that Blumberg is a force to be reckoned with behind the pen – and now, behind the camera, as well.

8/10

d.a. garabedian