Monday, December 17, 2012

An Unexpected Journey

I saw the Hobbit in 3D IMAX glory, and HFR to boot. Try saying all that 10x fast. On second thought, don't. Also, not so sure about 3D IMAX HFR in general, but more on that in a minute. There are some spoilers ahead, so if you haven't seen it and don't want to know ANYTHING about it, stop reading here.

First, a general review:
I quite enjoyed it. It did follow the book, for the most part, and where it deviated I wasn't too upset about that. The deviations either gave more backstory (as with the prologue) or set up future films (as with the Radagast detour). I did feel that Jackson was a tad self-indulgent at times; the intro at Bag End with Bilbo and Frodo was too long, and I felt it was pretty much unecessary except as a way for Jackson to sigh and revel in the world he loves so well. His love of Middle Earth is evident everywhere on screen, and though some shots or sequences linger a bit on the long side (did we need to see so much of the dwarves just walking?) I forgave him for this. I wasn't bored, and there was a lot of eye-candy.

I have to say a few words on a few individual performances. Firstly: Martin Freeman is one of my favorite actors, so I am a tad biased, but I thought he brought a wonderful awkward, funny humanity (Hobbinity?) to Bilbo that a film with such scope truly needs. He had impeccable timing too; most of the laughs came from the way he said a line rather than the line itself, and that's a credit to him.
Second: Jesus Christ, Andy Serkis. I am definitely a fan of his; if there were an Andy Serkis Day parade, I would march in it with a huge banner. The ten minutes he spends on screen are packed with so much emotion, nuance, menace, pathos and just sheer awesomeness that I wanted to spend more time with him. The give-and-tale between him and Martin Freeman (shot on Martin's very first week on set!) was really, really interesting to watch. It brought back everything that was terrifying, and sad, about Gollum. And, the evolution of the CGI for Gollum was marked and extraordinary; he looked really amazing in this film, an improvement in expressiveness I didn't know was needed until I saw the results onscreen.
Third: the dwarves, and Richard Armitage (Thorin) in particular. The actors had a really tough job playing parts with few lines, knowing they would be difficult if not impossible to tell apart and would mostly fade together in memory. Though costume and makeup were relied on to distinguish them for the most part, the truly memorable dwarves like Thorin (obviously), Bofur (James Nesbitt), Fili and Kili (Dean O'Gorman and Aidan Turner), and Balin (Ken Stott) were not memorable for their beards. They managed to shine through their costumes.

Now, for what you're really here to hear about: the costumes.

When I first learned that Ngila Dickson was not doing design duties on the Hobbit trilogy, I was a little miffed. Would the design team of Bob Buck and Ann Maskrey be able to take on the complexities of Middle Earth cultures, preserving the look or LOTR while adding something new? Neither designer has many actual design credits: Buck has designed for television, and Maskrey has been largely an assistant and cutter on large films. But, that's not to say they aren't capable; that's where you start, after all, and this is truly a test of mettle for them. Do they succeed?

Well . . .

Yes and no.

The unique problem of having thirteen fucking dwarves to create would give any designer a heart-attack, and to then need to make each one distinctive while working together as a whole is a nightmare. For the most part, I felt they did a wonderful job with the dwarves, especially with Thorin, whose armor and leather greaves were things of beauty, and whose mail was awesome. But, I found the hair and beards a trifle distracting, rather than distinctive. This may have been an issue of seeing it in HFR (more on that later), but at one point I found myself staring at one of the beards, an appliance that sported two braids that turned up like Pippi Longstocking, and I spent several moments trying to spot the wires instead of watching the action. Hats and hair: those were the watchwords for the dwarves, and while this worked for some characters, it detracted from others, looking less like clothing and more like costume. This is a danger in any fantasy film, and one LOTR sidestepped cleanly, but that the Hobbit seems to be stumbling into.

Bilbo's costumes, however, were lovely. Nothing to criticize here. He had the look of a well-to-do Hobbit through and through.

Gandalf was his usual, familiar look, though I was distracted by the slightly different staff this time around; each time it appeared I found myself wondering: could they not find the old prop? Was this a continuity error? Is his staff broken at some point between now and LOTR and I've forgotten? The silver scarf was a little Vegas for me, but it is specifically mentioned in the book. However, I suspect HFR strikes again in terms of how glittery-fake the fabric appeared; in normal rate the fabric probably looked fine.
Radagast's costume was actually delightful. Not much to add here, except: BUNNY SLEIGH! That is all.

The elves were where I really started to have issues with the costuming. Though Elrond first appears in a truly beautiful set of armor (in purple, for whatever reason), the rest of his looks I found bland. It was as though someone who had been used to having all his garments tailor-made suddenly started shopping at Elf-GAP. I really felt the costumer's lack of experience showed here; the purple and rust-colored robes he wears lacked the individual style and details of his garments in LOTR. Where was the embroidery? the recurring figural motifs? At one point another elf appears dressed nearly identical to Elrond in the White Council scene, and I sighed in exasperation.

Oh dear. Then we have Galadriel. I'm not going to deny that she was shot beautifully; the light coming from behind her in the scene with Gandalf is breathtaking. But, her dress? It seemed designed only to trail artfully behind her. The silhouette was lovely, but the devil is in the details, and the details were not impressive. When we are given a closeup, we see not the incredible botanical embroidery and hand-beadwork from Fellowship, but a Vegas-y trail of--is that rhinestones? It was plain and boring and looked amateurish when compared to other things designed for her. The tiny rhinestiones just dripped down in uniform lines, and looked as though they couldn't even be bothered to not make it look like an iron-on transfer. And the hideous grey overdress she wears when we first see her? What? Why? It seems to serve no purpose whatsoever, and disappears a few moments later.

However, with Thranduil they shine. We see him for only a few moments onscreen, but he looks really distinct and impressive, and I'm seriously looking forward to seeing more of him in the next film. Perhaps with the well-known characters the costumers felt intimidated by what had come before and played it too safe, but here was a character that was all their own, and it showed.

A word about seeing the film in IMAX HFR. I'm not certain I would do it again. There were things about it I liked: it was definitely clearer. But, at times it was just too clear. I noticed details I know I wasn't supposed to see, appliances started to look fake, rather than like seamless movie magic, and fabric that would have no doubt seemed fine suddenly looked weird and over-bright (like Gandalf's scarf). I have read some interviews with the art department about what a nightmare it was at times to work in HFR; everything had to be absolutely perfect or it would show, and the colors and tones were all terribly messed up by the 3D cameras. I can't imagine how hard it made their jobs. I'm just not sold on HFR yet.

Overall, I did enjoy the Hobbit and I am looking forward to the next installment. I don't think I'll be dreaming up any reproductions based on the costumes, however. But, Thorin might be showing up in a few naughty dreams for a while (sigh . . .) ;)

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