The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Review)

This past weekend, I had the most excellent opportunity to see the opening chapter of The Hobbit in 48fps 3D format. The Internet, of course, has been abuzz for the last few weeks in anticipation for this film, debating as much about the new High Frame Rate (HFR) format as the movie itself. I even made a preliminary post about it last week.

If you read my prior post, you’ll know I had some misgivings about the format. Now that I’ve actually seen it in action, I have more to say.

I’ll start out by saying that it does take a little while to adjust to watching a film in 48fps. However, I found that I quickly got used to the format itself, particularly because it makes 3D much, much better. I’m lukewarm on 3D filmmaking in general, mostly because I have to wear the 3D glasses over my own corrective lenses, and I usually wind up with eye strain by the end of a standard-length film. I had no such problem with The Hobbit. The action-smoothing effect of 48fps made the 3D much easier to enjoy. Other folks at the screening also experienced the same improvement, so it seems to not just be me.

There are issues with the look of the film, however, as it relates to either HFR or 3D.

The first issue, which I predicted earlier, is that HFR hides nothing. It’s very easy to tell the difference between CGI and real people. It’s very easy to see the seams in the actors’ makeup. Sometimes, the digital effects look distinctly half-baked. It’s often difficult to get past the fact that much of the film looks like a well-rendered video game and not an immersive cinematic world. This isn’t a problem with HFR itself; it’s a problem with how effects are used in the film. Since The Hobbit is the first grand forray into HFR, I imagine this film will teach effects teams quite a bit about how they need to change in order to use HFR in the future.

The second issue I have is with the lighting. Part of the reason The Hobbit looks like a video game is because it’s lit like one. The lighting is too uniform, too bright, and too candy-colored in the CGI scenes, so a lot of the giant effects set pieces just don’t look real. The cave in the “Riddles in the Dark” sequence is probably the brightest-lit cave I’ve ever seen. It looks like bluish daylight in there. I’m sure the brightness of all of the scenes is to compensate for the normal dimness of 3D, but it causes most of the scenes to have not one whit of atmosphere.

I was able to get past most of my misgivings in these departments by telling my brain early on that I was watching a particularly well-rendered CGI animated film instead of a live action film, so I was mostly able to get past the look of the film and absorb its other qualities.

In a nutshell, outside of the jarring difference of HFR 3D, the film is… okay.

The Hobbit suffers from some major pacing problems. It’s not slow, per se. It’s just rambling and episodic, and it doesn’t quite seem to know where its own climax might be. The inflation of the 300-page book into a grand trilogy is almost undeniably at fault here. Part of the reason the Lord of the Rings trilogy works so well (and particularly its first film) is because the Jackson/Walsh/Boyens writing team made a wise decision to focus tightly upon Frodo. If a scene in the book didn’t have anything to do with Frodo, it was cut. The theatrical cuts of the LotR films are incredibly efficient pieces of storytelling, despite their astounding running length. The Hobbit, on the other hand, is going in the opposite direction. For a movie named The Hobbit, it sure doesn’t seem have a whole lot to do with Bilbo Baggins. The movie tangents all over the place.

The episodic pacing is in part borrowed from the book (which is also episodic), but here it really feels like the walk-FIGHT-walk-FIGHT-walk-LEVELBOSS pacing of a video game (not helping the fact that the film also looks like a video game).

The net effect of all this is that the film ultimately feels like a three-hour boondoggle. Some individual scenes work quite well (most notably, “Riddles in the Dark” and a random bit where the characters run into stone giants), but the film just really rambles about. There are too many characters to really get intrigued about any of them. There are too many tangents to know what the audience is supposed to care about. There isn’t a whole lot of tension to be felt anywhere, except in a few random moments.

Which is too bad, really. If the movie hiding within the HFR 3D shininess and the rambling action pieces were better told, nobody would give a fart about the effects or the HFR. If this were a good movie with some awkward effects, it would be a joy despite its flaws. Instead, this is an okay movie buried under an avalanche of technology.

I do recommend seeing the film. It is quite the spectacle to see on the big screen, and it is entertaining despite its aimlessness.

I’m going to be in the movies!

Nacho Vigalondo, Elijah Wood, and Tim League

Nacho Vigalondo, Elijah Wood, and Tim League at Fantastic Fest 2010. I assure you, the party is always where Nacho is.

It’s true! I am currently slated to be an extra in the new Nacho Vigalondo film, and filming happens TONIGHT! It also sounds like I’ll get to sling my camera around at the shoot, so I’ll be able to document a single night of behind-the-scenes goodness.

I’ll be arriving at the shoot at 9:00 PM CST, and I’m scheduled to be there until 8:00 AM CST. Thus, if you’re a nightowl and want to hear about what happens on a movie shoot, tune in to my Twitter feed. There is normally a lot of waiting around on a movie shoot, so I’ll probably have plenty to say online.

I’ve not heard specifically which film we are shooting tonight, but I presume it is Open Windows. Really, any Nacho Vigalondo movie is a good thing. If you haven’t seen Timecrimes (currently available on Netflix Streaming), you should have a look.

The Hobbit: 48fps or 24fps?

Unless you have been living in a cave, you probably know that Peter Jackson’s new mega-opus The Hobbit hits American screens very soon. You probably already know a couple other things about the project:

  1. This is the first film of a trilogy, which is odd because the original book is only about 300 pages long.
  2. It was filmed in HFR, aka High Frame Rate, which means it runs at 48 frames per second instead of the normal 24.
  3. It was also filmed in 3D.

No, I have not already seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, though a few critics have already seen the film and their mixed reviews are starting to hit the Internet. I try not to hate upon a film I have not yet seen, and that is not my intent in this post. Instead, I just want to jot down a few thoughts I’ve been mulling over, here on the eve of viewing a shiny new piece of cinema technology.

First of all, I’ve heard people ask what format they should see the film in. I’m a big believer in seeing a film in its original format. If it was filmed in 3D, see it in 3D. If it was filmed in 48fps, see it in 48fps. If it was filmed in IMAX, see it in real IMAX (not in Digital IMAX, mind you). The Hobbit was filmed in 3D at 48fps, so I have every intent of seeing it in that format.

That said, 48fps is a rather jarring leap of technology. If you are a passive filmgoer and you don’t really care about HFR and just want to see dwarfs and wizards and stuff, I hear that the 24fps conversion is pretty good. The conversion adds motion blur between the frames, so it should reduce the judder you normally see in digital-to-film conversions.

Why am I hedging my bets on 48fps? I’m usually all for new technology, and I haven’t even seen HFR in action. What gives? Here are my concerns:

    • By all reports, HFR looks very, very different from what we expect from a film. It seems that many critics are finding this distracting. My guess is that the public will be even less forgiving.
    • Nobody knows how to direct movies in HFR yet. The Hobbit is a great big experiment. Directing a 3D film is different from directing a 2D film; directing a color film is different from directing a black-and-white film; directing a silent film is different from directing a sound film. HFR is no different. It will take time for directors to figure out how to best craft an HFR film so it tells a story without jarring the viewer.
    • HFR hides nothing. Special effects of all kinds — CGI, makeup, matte paintings, whatever — all rely to some degree on sleight-of-hand. Many movies benefit from having a sort of thin veil between the audience and the movie magic, whether it’s the black-and-white cinematography of 1933’s King Kong or the heavy film grain of Minority Report. The Hobbit is being filmed in high-definition 3D digital HFR. That’s like trying to do a magic trick in a hall full of mirrors and video cameras.

In a nutshell, I don’t have anything in particular against HFR, but I suspect that putting HFR and The Hobbit together may be a poor marriage of story and format. A better introduction of HFR probably should have looked like the early introduction of IMAX filmmaking: documentaries tailored to be immersive experiences. Making The Hobbit into a massive trilogy was already a tall order; positioning it as the vanguard of a new cinematic technology may be one burden too many.

It’s doubly worrisome that this choice came out of Peter Jackson and Weta Studios, who in the past have made truly wise decisions in marrying low-tech with high-tech.

I’d love to see HFR work out. I think there is potential in the technology to make truly extraordinary cinematic experiences. I’d also love to see The Hobbit work out. I hope my concerns are for naught, and that I have a truly grand time watching the film.

Cinematic Oddities: Hot Summer (1968)

Some time ago, Bill Stiteler urged me to look up this film on Netflix. The pitch: “It’s like a Frankie and Annette beach party movie, but it was made in East Germany!”

How could I resist?

Bill’s pitch is dead-on, both factually and descriptively. The plot of Hot Summer (aka Heisser Sommer) is as airy as cotton candy, featuring a herd of teen girls (who are probably actually in their late twenties) and a herd of teen boys (who are likewise suspiciously adult) who all go on a beach holiday on the Baltic coast. Fluffy songs and dance numbers ensue!

…as well as a trip to a collective farm!

It’s true. Someone in East Germany decided they wanted all the fun of a beach party movie, except without all those capitalist bits. Living behind the Iron Curtain was a blast for teens, right?

The film is more overtly a battle of the sexes than a piece of Communist propaganda, but there are definitely “how to be a good Communist” lessons sneaking in here and there. Mostly, the film just feels like it has the plot equivalent of a mentally challenged puppy. The weird delight of watching this film with our current historical perspective is seeing the film alternately grasping at Western entertainment values and Communist political values.

I’m not sure I’d call Hot Summer a good film, but it certainly is a unique film. If you’re the sort that enjoys digging into political subtext, this flick is a gold mine. And it’s a musical! Who doesn’t love beach party musical numbers?

“You are NOT going to Godwin the post about the German beach movie! … DAMMIT!”

How We Pissed Off Tim

Last night, PowerPoint Karaoke had a rockin’ show. All four of our performers, borrowed from the ranks of Fearless Comedy and Vilification Tennis, blasted the audience with comedy. At one point, I nearly fell out of my chair laughing, which would have been a problem, as I was onstage running the slides. But lo, it was awesome.

This morning, I discovered that one of our judges, Tim Wick, included our show in his weekly column, “Shit that Pissed Me Off This Week“. That doesn’t exactly sound like a good thing, but here’s what he had to say:

OK, guys, I don’t know how to convince anyone that staying up past their bedtime on a Thursday night to watch this show is so totally worth it.

The structure of this show is such a slam dunk hit, you could put a completely boring person (like Jay Leno) on the stage and they would be funny by accident.

But they don’t get boring people.  They get some of the funniest people in the Twin Cities comedy community.  You know why?

Because doing PowerPoint Karaoke is a complete blast!

And tickets are only $7.00! $5.00 if you have a Fringe button!

If you live in the Twin Cities and you aren’t going to PowerPoint Karaoke, it is because you are dead inside.  I hate to break it to you that way but I don’t believe in sugar-coating things.  Put this show on your bucket list.  And then go watch it so you can cross it off.

Then put “watch PowerPoint Karaoke again” on your bucket list.

So, take it from Tim. Put December 27th on your bucket calendar, because that’s when our next show will be.

Also, if you read my blog, you should totally also be reading Tim’s blog. He posts about a lot of similar stuff, and he’s funnier than I am.