There's no question that director Peter Jackson can craft an epic vision. His "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is a singular achievement driven by his skill at bringing to life, with meticulous detail, J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, a world of fantasy, beauty and terror that only existed on the page and in the imagination of the ardent fans of the novel. I have yet to hear or read any criticism of Jackson's version of the place, and it's hard to imagine any one rendering it as beautifully as he did. If any group of films deserve to be converted to the IMAX format, it's those three.
Jackson's visual interpretation of this fantasy world is the strongest aspect in the prequel to the "Rings" saga, his adaptation of Tolkien's "The Hobbit." This film is as immersive an experience as one is likely to have in a movie theater. Jackson's images are dense with detail, and having been shot in digital 3-D, they're delineated in a way that's remarkable to behold. The depth of field that results is filled with yawning chasms, cities that fill huge caverns in the earth and vast plains stretching to the horizon far in the distance. The 3-D process isn't used here as an afterthought but rather as a necessary tool employed to do Tolkien's vision justice. Without question, the film is a sight to behold.
As far as the story at the center of this technical wizardry is concerned, well, it's something of a long slog. While Tolkien's "Rings" trilogy logically necessitated that a film be made for each novel, elongating the single volume "Hobbit" to three films is a testament to Jackson's obsessive approach to the material, yet it results in serious pacing problems from the beginning.
The story gets off to a rather slow start, though Tolkien aficionados will revel in Jackson's approach as every key character gets a notable entrance, and the crew assembled — 13 dwarves, a wizard and a hobbit — seem in no hurry to set off on their epic quest. The wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has requested that these tiny titans meet at the dwelling of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a hobbit who is content to sit at home and read.
Unfortunately, his reading list is set to grow as he reluctantly agrees to go along with this band, being told that because of his stealth, he'll be needed to steal a valuable piece of property. Where they're headed is the kingdom of Erebor, a massive city built into and underneath a mountain. Formerly the home of all dwarves, it has been taken over by the dragon Smaug, who guards the city's massive cache of gold. However, omens have been discovered that portend a time when the city will be liberated, so the group, led by the dwarf prince, Lord Thorin (Richard Armitage), set out to do just that.
The story soon falls into a pattern that ultimately undercuts any sense of suspense. Our heroes are chased and attacked by a malevolent band, usually orcs or goblins, they find themselves facing certain death, a last-minute reprieve occurs and they stumble upon a new mystical city or locale. This is repeated ad nauseam, and while Jackson will be applauded by the Tolkien faithful for not leaving out a single detail, in the end it makes for a plodding adventure.
Still, there are highlights. Smaug's initial attack, as well as his last appearance, is memorable, and a battle with the orcs that finds our heroes literally up a tree is a keeper, but the highlight is Bilbo's encounter with Gollum (Andy Serkis), a creature whose mind has been bent and soul eaten away by a magical ring, which has fatal side effects, in his possession. Their duel of riddles for ownership of the ring is a showstopper as Jackson steadily builds the tension while Freeman conveys Bilbo's palpable fear. The motion-capture effects used to bring Gollum to life have greatly improved since the last "Ring" film, and every agonized expression and movement is rendered in a way to create this creepy, yet sympathetic creature.
"The Hobbit's" alternate title is "There and Back Again," and by the end of this first segment, we're not even "there" yet. This may thrill fans of these tales, and surely their mania for the novel will be stoked by Jackson's loving care in bringing them to life with such detail.
As for the rest of us, if this first segment is any indication, the next two chapters in the story promise to be a slow, slow trek through a gorgeous land that we ultimately may be eager to escape from.
'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'
3 stars out of 4
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Hugo Weaving, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis, Lee Pace and Ken Stott.
Directed by Peter Jackson; produced by Carolynne Cunningham, Fran Walsh, Zane Weiner and Jackson; screenplay by Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro, Jackson and Walsh, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien.
A Warner Brothers release. 170 minutes. Rated PG-13 (pervasive action violence). At the AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.
Also new in theaters
"Hitchcock" too schizophrenic for its own good. (2 stars out of 4)
Much like the bathroom at the Bates Motel where Marion Crane met her untimely death, Sacha Gervasi's "Hitchcock" is a bit of a mess. Attempting to tell the behind-the-scenes story about the making of one of the most notorious films of all time while psychoanalyzing its director may be an intriguing story on paper.
Not so in practice. The script by John McLaughlin ends up being as schizophrenic as Norman Bates, as neither the plot line focusing on the machinations that went into the making of "Psycho," nor that concerning Hitchcock's private trials is fully developed. The result is a movie composed of two halves that don't meet in the middle but rather fracture one another, resulting in a disappointing viewing experience.
The film opens at the premiere of one of Hitchcock's masterpieces, "North by Northwest." Despite the success of this film, the director (Anthony Hopkins) is filled with doubts as trade papers are beginning to tout the success of younger more relevant filmmakers. Out to play against expectations and prove that he still has a trick or two up his sleeve, he sets out to uncover a story that will put him back on top. He finds it in Robert Bloch's novel "Psycho," a highly fictionalized account of a series of murders committed by Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein. Grisly and considered distasteful, the film must be financed by Hitchcock on his own when Paramount Pictures refuses to do so, and while Hitchock's loving wife Alma (Helen Mirren) supports him, she, too, has her doubts as to how acceptable this story will be to the viewing public.
Based very loosely on the book "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho" by Stephen Rebello, a work I cannot recommend highly enough if you want to get the straight dope on this seminal horror film, McLaughlin's screenplay uses far too much conjecture as to what Hitchcock was feeling and thinking during the making of the film and then clutters matters even more by focusing on Alma and her relationship with screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). Hitchcock is seen speaking to Gein (Michael Wincott) in his mind when he's wrestling with his doubts or unfulfilled desires where pursuing his leading ladies are concerned. He's also shown in the act of voyeurism just as Bates does in "Psycho" as Gervasi wants us to believe that Norman was Hitchcock's surrogate through which he acted out his repressed violent desires. These moments come off as cheap and half-realized and only serve as a distraction from what should be the focus of the film.
As a result, not nearly enough time is spent examining the trials and tribulations Hitchcock went through to complete "Psycho." Though his bouts with Hollywood censors are seen here twice, they don't begin to scratch the surface as far as the true titanic battles he had to endure with them. Other tidbits, such as how he determined the sound effect for how a blade sounds when it enters flesh, how he cut costs by using the crew from his television show and the process he went through in determining what should be used for blood on screen are all ignored. Most egregious is the fact that the making of the famous shower scene, perhaps the most analyzed 45 seconds of film in the history of cinema, is completely ignored and is instead used as an opportunity for Hitchcock to go into another of his self-analytical trances.
The end result is a movie that fails to meet expectations on every front. A failure as a historical account and an embarrassment as a character study, Gervasi's production plays like a student project that might have been judged "intriguing" in film school, but is hardly the work of even a competent director, let alone the master of suspense, whose life provides the fodder for this misguided exercise.
A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow him on Twitter at @CKoplinski. He also can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.