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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Movie Review: THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY - 9.5 Stars!!

We've waited a LONG time for this movie to come out, the first of three from Peter Jackson and company. The wait was worth it. Remember when all of this was just a pipe dream and the legal issues between New Line Cinema and Peter Jackson seemed insurmountable. Then I received those emails from my source within Jackson's camp that hinted at a silver lining. Of course I immediately passed them on to you: That the hobbit was going to go ahead; Peter Jackson will direct; it will be three movies not two or one; and they will be shot in native 3D. Sure there were distractions along the way but the end result was exactly what my source had told us from day one: We'll be getting what we've always dreamed of.

And now that day has come. I must admit when I first saw the HFR opening scenes I do not know exactly what to expect. To the untrained eye which most of us has, the characters seem to speed up and slow down and even simple camera panning had issues with uneven, at times jerking motion. It sounds worse than it is. I will be the first to say I was nervous. In all the reviews that I had read prior to seeing the movie there was no indication that you would get used to what you're watching on the screen. But I am here to reassure you today that you will indeed get used to what's on the screen and moreover you will be engulfed in such a realistic journey that it may bring tears to your eyes. You WILL get used to the HFR experience, some faster than others. I have yet to see HFR a second time but when I do I will let you know if my eyes get used to the experience faster the second time.

Once my eyes adjusted after perhaps 10 min. of watching the movie I was only reminded of the HFR experience a handful at times afterwards mainly during periods of the movie that were slower so I had time to think for myself. But oh the times when I forgot about the HFR and just was completely immersed in flying over the group of dwarves, Gandalf and Bilbo as they travel towards the lonely Mountain. I'm not ashamed to say I had tears in my eyes at that moment. We are witnessing the dawn of a new generation of cinematic experience in HFR. When I spoke with James Cameron at Cinemacon and what he showed us his HFR 3D testing, I was floored - and that was with simple slow-motion clips from a closed set. Peter Jackson has given us a full cinematic experience of one of the most beloved classic stories ever told and combining that with 3-D and HFR was pure genius.

Where shall I begin? Good question. I think I have to start with the tip of the hat to Peter Jackson and the sheer will and determination of the man to get this production underway from the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in his way is nothing short of amazing. New Zealand could not ask for a better ambassador to represent them on the world stage. His vision, his loyalty to Tolkien, his creativity along with Fran and Phillipa and not to forget Guillermo del Toro, and his bottomless pit of energy that Jackson can draw upon must be pointed out in any review of the hobbit.

Who would've thought that this small island nation could not only compete with the likes of Hollywood but surpass them. I don't believe there's anything untouchable for Jackson and his team. What a remarkable statement. Watching THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY and seeing the maturation of Jackson's directing style meshed with the new technologies that his team are introducing was mesmerizing. The sweeping camera motions over the heads of the dwarves in the Goblin King's cavern immediately brought to mind to me motion capture at its best. I lost some of the suspension of disbelief at that moment because I knew how Jackson was shooting it and I was analyzing it, but to the average theater goer that won't be an issue at all. Their jaws will just be open and tiny bit; eyes wide open.

So let's dissect the movie with my 'infamous' Star Analysis method. First let's talk about the story – obviously Jackson and his team adapted the story from Tolkien's THE HOBBIT and in order to make three movies about the tale may be stretching it a bit. Clearly he had more resources than just the story though - I'm sure the appendices will come into play, especially in the third movie. But I appreciated all the time spent in showing the audience what a comfortable life Bilbo has prior to Gandalf and the dwarves showing up at his door. It can't be overstated that Bilbo's life was turned completely upside down. And then there's the matter of introducing all these short characters and that the new generation of moviegoers may have never seen THE LORD OF THE RINGS, so their introduction to Gandalf and Bilbo must consider that. Not to mention the shire and the whole of Middle-earth. So with these issues in consideration I think Jackson and his team did a remarkable job with the adaptation thus far of the hobbit. I gave the story a 92% leaving plenty of room for improvement but reflecting upon the challenges that must've gone into AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY. I love that Bilbo made a very uncomfortable decision to join the dwarves of course, and he really doesn't know what he's getting himself into. But I think coming in contact with the ring emboldened him whether he wanted it to or not. Remember from THE LORD OF THE RINGS how the ring affected Bilbo in the end; it wasn't pretty.

I thought the acting and character development held up very well despite the restrictions of all the prosthetics that had to be in place due to the high frame rate production. I thought the various personalities of the characters had ample opportunity to shine especially Thorin Oakenshield. and what can you say about Ian McKellen? I feel every time we see him on the big screen is a gift to the culture of mankind – he is that good.

Here is the first facet of the film that I thought truly deserved a near-perfect mark. Suspension of disbelief. The Elf's home Rivendell in particular was breathtaking. Through Jackson's HFR experience and the expertise displayed in the perfect stereoscopic 3-D cinematography with 3ality Technica, we have the opportunity to step through the silver screen and be one step closer to the world of the directors mind. Sure AVATAR was amazing and I'm convinced that AVATAR 2 and 3 with their high frame rate will be remarkable as well, but let's face it this was our first HFR experience and I for one am ecstatic about where we're going. you may have read what some other critics have complained about and I really don't think that they've given the format chance at all. Some of these critics have forgotten how to suspend their disbelief when they are presented with such jaw dropping beauty in a new technology such as HFR. To them I say open your minds and don't poison the thoughts of your readers with an ignorant response.

The directing of Peter Jackson was near perfect and I think Andy Serkis is truly coming into his own as a director and of course he is the single best motion and performance capture artist alive today. I think the single most exciting thing about this category of my review is seeing how Peter Jackson is maturing at the helm. I can just see him playing in this giant sandbox of creativity with these toys of high technology always within reach of him. I can only imagine what experiences he has in store for us down the road with the story. His new use of motion capture and his virtual camera utility added a huge boost to my reception of AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY.

The movie score of Howard Shore was the near perfect complement to the visual treats presented. While at times I thought the music extended a bit too far, I loved the new melodic thrusts for THE HOBBIT. And I thought the audio clues from the Lord of the rings were brought in and is suitable and tasteful manner so that it didn't overly influence the movie. I thought there might be a risk of that in watching some of the trailers and I certainly did not want to see a prequel to the Lord of the rings. I wanted to see and hear the hobbit trilogy. And that folks is what were getting.

Next is the cinematography. Andrew Lesnie has nailed it. First of all I have to say that his marriage of motion and performance capture prowess with his classical use of traditional lensing has produced a timeless piece of work. It's rare that someone can not only use but excel at blending the two into something compelling. All too often either the visual effects or the technical execution of directing photography takes center stage while something else visually suffers. Not so with an unexpected journey – we're not only getting a movie here, were seeing history in the making.

The visual effects of the deus ex machina Great Eagles was one of the highlights of the movie for me. The majesty of these beasts were captured impeccably and my thoughts roamed to what we can expect from Jackson for the presentation of Smaug. I can only imagine how Smaug will soar. You can't help but think it's the Eagles multiplied 100 fold. The goblin King looked amazing as did the trolls. You can watch a featurette of how they created the trolls using motion capture here. The hint of what the necromancer looks like excites me too.

Finally I bring you the perfect stereoscopic 3D experience. Not once did I experience disbelief in the movie based upon the 3-D. The expertise and obviously the 3D rigging equipment from 3ality Technica combined with the Red Epic cameras proved to be a match made in Middle-earth heaven. There does not seem to be anything that we can't do now in 3D. Impressive with me was that there was no fogging on the screen from any source of light. This always bothers me and every time I see it I shudder. Not this time. Again I must bring up the sweeping, outdoor aerial shot over the shoulders of Gandalf, Bilbo and the dwarves as they ran along a craggy hill because the 3D truly brought it home. The HFR sharpened the screen into reality but the 3D pulled us in. I gave the hobbit: an unexpected journey 100% score for their stereoscopic 3D. I expect more of the same for parts two and three.

I thought I would reprint what Steve Schklair of 3ality Technica had to say to me about HFR and it bears serious thought:
"Every change in cinema technology has come with negative comments and naysayers. This includes the advent of color, sound, digital, and 3D. If you remember back to the early days of digital, there was a company selling a process that would artificially insert weave, grain, scratches and dirt into a pristine digital image so that it would have a “film look”. Motion artifacts in 2D are distracting, and in 3D they are especially distracting. Shooting HFR makes for better images and sharper less distracting pictures. Because it does not look like what people are used to, it comes with the same detractors as did color, sound, digital, and 3D. I agree with Peter Jackson in that you have to see an entire movie at 48 and not just a few minutes. When you become immersed in the story, the difference in look will become secondary to the story. Eventually, like all new technologies in our business, it will become the accepted norm. History shows that to always be true."

In closing I have to say I'm disappointed with a number of my peers who call themselves movie critics and supposedly are supposed to represent the good interests of the moviegoing public. The vitriol I have read about THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY has been uncalled for in my opinion. I think the public should be made aware of the fact that their eyes will take some time to adjust to the HFR experience and I suspect everybody will be different in how they do so. I would estimate that most audience members will be fully adjusted to the experience within 5 to 15 minutes. Some will be shorter and longer than that but I suspect most will fall within that window. And I can't emphasize this enough: It is worth the wait. You will be transported. Like never before. And whatever you hear, THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is certainly cinematic - in fact it is the new definition of cinema - everyone else must catch up. It's history in the making. Don't miss out on this once in a lifetime experience. Enjoy!

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is playing now in HFR 3-D, IMAX 3-D, RealD 3-D, and flat. I give the movie 9.5 stars out of 10.

Thanks so much to Empire Theatres for the amazing screening! The HFR experience was remarkable, the projection was bright and the service impeccable as always. I'll be seeing the movie again in IMAX!

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Jim Dorey
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