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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 14, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 50
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Not so unexpected
Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy begins its Middle Earth journey

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
Opens December 14


The sense of déjà vu hovering over director and co-screenwriter Peter Jackson's return to J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth is undeniable. After the weight, majesty, and power of his massive and highly successful take on the author's The Lord of the Rings trilogy a decade ago, the events talked about in his opening salvo at tackling prequel The Hobbit can't help but feel trite and unimportant. The fate of the world isn't at stake this time around - the lives of men, dwarves, elves and, of course, hobbits, aren't exactly in the balance as pint-sized Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) heads out his door, leaving the Shire for his initial adventure.

At the same time, this film, saddled with the subtitle An Unexpected Journey and the first of a new trilogy, is hardly a waste of time. Jackson knows this world and its people with robust and energetic intimacy, and as familiar as much of this tale can feel the director is hardly spinning his wheels. His passion is evident in every frame and every shot, and one can tell instantly he and his creative team have thought through every second of the story attempting to achieve a level of exactitude that's undeniable.

But to what end? Tolkien's original tale was purposefully thin, the author crafting something more akin to a children's tale with The Hobbit than he was anything else. The story didn't require a lot of heavy lifting and, in most editions (sans the appendices) ran just over 300 or so pages, hardly the stuff that would fuel a trio of three-hour, $200-million-plus Hollywood epics. There is filler here and at times it can feel like Jackson is taking forever to get to the heart of the matter, and as handsome and well-acted as this production is, there's no denying that this first act of the adventure is much too long.

THE RING SAGA BEGINS For those who don't already know, the story revolves around Bilbo being convinced by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) to join a group of 13 dwarves, led by the haunted yet commanding Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and embark on a quest to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the group's home from the dragon Smaug. Why he has been given this task he is not sure, and for that matter neither is the wizard who has given it to him. The relatively young Hobbit (he's a spritely 51) manages to learn much about himself as well as the nature of the larger world as he and the group face down all manner of unspeakable and dangerous calamities.

The connection to The Lord of the Rings is obvious, of course, as it is here that Bilbo will come by the One Ring, the devilish device that will signal the return of an ancient evil and send his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) out on his own adventure 60 years later. But Jackson, trying to give An Unexpected Journey additional weight, makes sure to hint at the coming calamitous turn of events at every opportunity, playing up the fact that Thorin and his group have inadvertently started something with their journey that will bring all of Middle Earth into a fight for its very survival not too far in the future.

Some of this is nice - a scene in Rivendell between Gandalf, Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving), the Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Saruman the White (Christopher Lee) achieves an ethereal elegance I found enchanting. Other times, though, these sequences, most notably ones involving another wizard - the unhinged and mentally unbalanced Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) - are so heavy-handed and over-the-top they drove me nuts, and while some of what he talks about is important (at least as far as the next film is concerned) there's no denying his presence is borderline superfluous.

Granted, the one exceedingly important and emotionally chilling connection between the two Middle Earth stories is handled with the precision, care, and majesty required, the initial meeting between Bilbo and the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis) as startlingly effective as anything I could have imagined. The two, engaged in a battle of riddles, go back and forth and round and round, each trying to mentally outdo the other and take charge of a situation neither knows the full consequences of. It is a thrilling sequence, beautifully acted by both Freeman and Serkis and marvelously staged by Jackson, the heart of the story laid bare and our hero's transformation from timid, unsure wanderer to confident, larger-than-life adventurer honest and pure.

But did I need to see a thunderstorm-filled battle between the mystical Rock Giants as Thorin and his band attempted to make his way across the mountains? Were so many scenes of chitchat between talkative goblins, trolls, and orcs even slightly necessary? Was the addition of Azog (Manu Bennett), a brutish, one-armed orc villain with an obsession for Thorin's head on a pike, one that helped propel the story on in any discernible way? Not really, and as nice as many of these scenes are on their own, inside the movie itself they feel self-indulgent, slowing the proceedings down more than they do anything else. Quite simply, I couldn't help but feel that by the time the end came we should have been farther along this journey than we were, and the thought that there were still six hours of motion picture to go wasn't exactly comforting.

HFR + 3D = HEADACHE There is an additional facet to all of this I have not yet mentioned, and it's one that has little to do with the storytelling yet is important all the same. I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in Jackson's preferred template, High Frame Rate (HFR) 3D, in which the image is shown at 48 frames per second (fps) instead of the usual 24 fps, and I cannot help but say that visually this was as jarring and uncomfortable an experience as any I've had in a movie theater.

It goes without saying that clarity is increased many times over, while the fluidity of the 3D is oftentimes extraordinary. On top of that, in close-up the digital effects have never looked so tactile, all of the sequences with Gollum so startlingly realistic one could be forgiven if they thought the character was on the set the day of shooting (not Serkis, mind you, but the actual character) and not created later on a computer screen. There is mind-blowing detail to be found in HFR 3D, of that I cannot deny.

At the same time, there is a downside to this clarity that came close to driving me right round the proverbial bend. The fakery of it all, the digitally crafted majesty of so much of the Middle Earth world, all of it has never been so clearly visible. The lines between the practical and the digital are crystal-clear: many of the scenes of Thorin and the dwarves running through caverns escaping from orcs look more like herky-jerky cut-scenes from some high-profile video game than they do anything else. It's distracting and distancing, taking me out of the movie far more often than it immersed me in it, and as such my reservations regarding HFR 3D are considerable, to say the least.

Not that most people will be seeing the film this way - only a handful of theaters across the country are capable of showing it in that format. But as this was the way Jackson intended The Hobbit to be seen and the way the studio chose to have the press preview it, I would be remiss if I didn't talk about it, and personally I'm incredibly curious to discover how audiences who do choose to see it in this format respond to the director's technological experiment.

As for the movie itself, part of me feels like I'm being too harsh in regard to some of this opening chapter's shortcomings. This return trip to Middle Earth is not without its merits, Freeman in particular making for a rousing everyman sort of hero I couldn't help but want to cheer. While the magic isn't as pure and as strong as it was for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it's hardly waning. An Unexpected Journey is overall an enjoyable experience and I for one am still interested to see what Jackson has in store for us next.


Melodramatic Any Day Now sings a stirring song
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

ANY DAY NOW
Opens December 14


Rudy (Alan Cumming) is a flamboyant drag queen living in Los Angeles. His boyfriend, closeted city district attorney Paul (Garret Dillahunt), is a reserved and mannered man, finding himself being slowly and assuredly drawn out of his shell by his more outspoken lover. The pair have made an undeniable connection, their bond bordering on unbreakable, and even though the world at large cannot know of their relationship, both men are virtually certain they are going to spend the rest of their lives finding comfort in one another's arms.

Enter Marco (Isaac Leyva), a 14-year-old boy suffering from Down syndrome, neglected and abused by his drug-addled mother. After she is arrested, Rudy decides to take the teenager in, showing him the type of care and attention he's never known before. While Paul is at first apprehensive about this addition to their lives, soon he, too, comes to adore and dote on Marco, the duo giving the youngster the one thing he's never had the good fortune to know until now - a family.

RELEVANT TO TODAY
Set in the 1970s, Any Day Now is a sturdy, decidedly topical melodrama of family and companionship that while following a rather traditional narrative manages to subtly and convincingly speak volumes. The courtroom dynamics of the piece - Rudy and Paul find themselves fighting for their right to care for Marco after their relationship is publicly exposed - are strikingly immediate, and while times have certainly changed the policies, concepts, ideas, and laws being examined are still hot-button issues in the here-and-now.

All of this can get a little heavy-handed at times, that goes without saying. Loosely (very, very loosely) based on a true story, George Arthur Bloom and director Travis Fine's (The Space Between) script does have a definite agenda and doesn't mind getting right in the viewer's face a time or two in order to pursue it. There is a moderate air of schmaltz wafting over all of this, the unabashedly overly emotional climax intent on drawing out tears and turning people's minds to its ideas no matter what.

But as a big a problem as this may seem on the surface, in reality most of the issues I have with the film don't matter much. Fine goes out of his way to make his characters, including the steely-eyed judge (Frances Fisher) overseeing their case, as three-dimensional as possible, showcasing the many shades of grey hiding inside this superficially black-and-white issue. By and large his direction is subtle, more often than not keeping the musical cues to a minimum and allowing the characters and their dialogue to eloquently speak for themselves.

CUMMING A STANDOUT
More importantly, he's found in Cumming the perfect actor to inhabit his central character. Rudy could easily have been nothing more than a stereotypical '70s caricature of a Gay man - a prancing, mincing annoyance that would be insufferable if it weren't so insulting. But that never happens, Cumming finding all of the man's intricacies and complications, presenting them in a way that feels devastatingly authentic. It's a triumphant performance, easily one of the actor's absolute best, and by all rights should be in the conversation as one of 2012's finest. He travels complex and multifaceted roads lesser actors would have stumbled trying to traverse, and by the time the spotlight fades off of him the only thing I wanted was for Cumming to climb right back into it.

The rest of the cast is good as well - Dillahunt, Leyva, and an intriguingly cast, somewhat against type, Gregg Henry in particular. As for the film itself, the road it travels isn't going to come as a surprise to many people, and by the time it ends it's safe to say copious tissues will be required to wipe away the onslaught of tears. The movie doesn't tell a new story, and it wears its opinions on its sleeve, but that doesn't make it any less emotionally effective. Director Fine does a glorious job bringing this story to life, and as melodramas go Any Day Now sings a song of commitment and family well worth singing along with.


Easygoing Hyde Park doesn't live up to its potential
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

HYDE PARK ON HUDSON
Now showing


I'm not entirely sure of what to make of Hyde Park on Hudson. Ostensibly it is the story of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's (Bill Murray) June 1939 meeting with Britain's King George VI (Samuel West) and his wife, Queen Elizabeth I (Olivia Colman). On the surface, it wants to get inside these events and show how the cagey Roosevelt was able to 'humanize' these monarchs for the American people - allowing him to pursue his policies of aid and support for the British even though many in the U.S. wanted nothing to do with another European war.

This story is seen through the eyes of his neighbor and fifth cousin, Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney). She comes into Roosevelt's world through his mother, Sara (Elizabeth Wilson), and quickly becomes a friend and confidant he can escape with, into a realm away from world events and political upheavals. Their affair was quiet yet intimate, personal yet clandestine, the reserved Suckley documenting a great deal of it diaries discovered hidden in her house shortly after her death.

On the surface this sounds like the makings of a rich, highly involving drama, filled with informal and comic undertones and giving new light to historical events. Problem is, screenwriter and playwright Richard Nelson and director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Morning Glory) never find a focus to this story, never get inside the heads of the characters in a way that feels authentic. Instead, the movie treads a hazy middle ground, uncertain in its footing yet still well enough acted and composed that sitting through it is hardly a chore.

ROYAL COUPLE A HIGH POINT
What's weird, and maybe it is the undeniable connection between this story and the one told in the Academy Award-winning The King's Speech, is that the scenes between the King and Queen of England speaking honestly with one another come off the best. Their relationship feels lived-in and true, as does their uncertainty as to what the goals of this visit are and what the intentions of their host might be. Their joys become our own, their insecurities have weight, and even though they are not the focal point of the film, they make the most indelible imprint and were the characters I found myself still thinking about afterward.

But the relationship between Daisy and the president, the one that is supposed to be the focus of this saga? That never comes across as fully or as well-developed as it should be. Like Daisy, this story seems to sit in the corner the majority of the time, a wallflower given insight into a garden it can never hope to take root in. As a result, when issues arise and complications are encountered they don't have any resonance, making our storyteller's decisions feel meager and unimportant as far as the grander scale of historical events are concerned.

F.D.R. TOO OFTEN M.I.A.
Murray, playing well against type and portraying a character seemingly well outside his comfort zone, proves once again just how underrated an actor he is, his take on Roosevelt an oftentimes inspired one. But for long stretches he drops out of the picture entirely, becoming something of a frustrating afterthought just when he should be front and center. Scenes between him and West are strong, hinting at the complexities of the tightrope both men were walking but doing so with a jovial simplicity that speaks volumes. At the same time there is no connection between him and Linney, no sense of the friendly and cathartic intimacy that supposedly existed, making the fracturing and ultimate healing of their relationship hard to care about, let alone believe.

Still, there are some great moments, such as the depiction of the fabled 'hot dog' picnic where King George begins to win over the American populace by downing, of all things, a gigantic mustard-covered frankfurter. There's a great bit of back-and-forth dialogue between the King and Queen over War of 1812 pictorials depicting British sailors as monkeys, while a front-seat conversation between Daisy and Roosevelt's longtime executive secretary, Missy (Elizabeth Marvel), hints at the emotional complexities the film desperately wants to cover but sadly never does.

I get in some ways what Michell and Nelson are going for. They wanted to paint a relaxed, easygoing picture of these events that combines the personal with the political, the domestic with the epic, the public with the private. But if the core relationship between Roosevelt and Daisy doesn't come to life, then nothing else matters nearly as much as it should have, dragging down the proceedings in a way that is maddeningly benign. There is a mediocre banality to Hyde Park on Hudson that's sadly disappointing, and for a story with so much inherent potential the fact it doesn't come close to achieving it is a failure I can't help but lament.




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Not so unexpected
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Melodramatic Any Day Now sings a stirring song
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Easygoing Hyde Park doesn't live up to its potential
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