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Column Fri Dec 14 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Hyde Park on Hudson, Citadel & Beauty Is Embarrassing

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Some people like returning home, to a place that felt like a safe haven from the dangers of the world around them. For others, home isn't such a great place, and they are not particularly eager to return. For me, stepping back into Middle-Earth with members of the Baggins clan, a greying wizard, some familiar elves, a wiry, fractured creature named Gollum and director Peter Jackson feels like going home. And while there are stretches of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey that feel like, well, they're being stretched, I never was bored or exhausted by the untold number of dwarves, orcs, goblins, trolls or hobbits, because seeing them on the screen again (or for the first time) was somehow comforting, satisfying and tonally familiar. Nothing wrong with any of those feelings while watching a movie.

I'm not here to dwell on frame rates and visual quality. I've seen An Unexpected Journey at both 48 and 24 frames per second, and I'd say they both have their advantages and disadvantages. Since much of the film takes place at night or underground, the 3D is problematic at 24fps; things are simply too dark. The 48fps presentation doesn't have these light issues, but it does result in a bizarre-looking video-esque style that, in these darker moments, looks pretty great. But in scenes set in broad daylight, something ain't right. If you're ultra curious and open minded about high frame rate, seek out a theater screening the film that way. Otherwise, stick with what you know. It's not great, but at least it looks like a movie.

I loved the sidetrips out of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit text that Jackson and his co-writers take us on. And clearly much of what we're shown here is simply prologue to the next two films. An Unexpected Journey falls victim to some of the same issues that The Fellowship of the Ring did — there's a lot of meeting characters, exposition, and setting up of the grand adventure to come. Jackson fills in the exposition with a few fun action sequences, although far too many of them seem to involve Gandalf (Ian McKellen) vanished for a stretch only to save the day at the last minute as his charges get into one bind after another.

Among those traveling to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from the dragon Smaug are 13 dwarves (led by Thorin Oakenshield, played by the noble Richard Armitage, taking over the hunky slot for Viggo Mortensen in The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, playing the younger version of the character Ian Holm played in Rings). Needless to say, keeping 13 dwarves straight in one's head is a challenge, and I'm not convinced that distinguishing them is even something Jackson succeeds at. But enough of them establish individuality that I started to find favorites among the short, hairy creatures. Armitage's Thorin doesn't offer much emotional depth in this chapter, and his knee-jerk reactions to certain threatening events grow tiresome after a while. I'm hoping he becomes a little more subtle later in this journey.

I was especially impressed with Freeman, who found a few wonderful mannerisms originated by Holm to play with, while adding a sense of fear and anxiety about leaving his home in the Shire. I was moved by Bilbo finding his motivation in going on this adventure in the plight of the dwarves, who have lived several decades with no home. Bilbo loves his own home so much that he wants to assist the dwarves in finding their own place of permanence in the Lonely Mountain. And during the course of the film, Bilbo goes from helpless creature to warrior in the making.

And by the time he arrives at his encounter with Gollum, during which he acquires the famed One Ring and enters into a game of riddles in the dark, it's difficult not to be transfixed. The lengthy exchange is the high point of An Unexpected Journey, and it's impossible not to be impressed with Andy Serkis' return to Gollum, who seems more vicious and conniving here. It's the kind of moment that makes you hold your breath and pry your eyes open so you don't blink and miss a word. More than maybe any other part of the film, the riddles exchange feels the most like what I love most about The Lord of the Rings movies.

Probably my second-favorite sequence is the one set at the Elf kingdom of Rivendell. I don't think I'm ruining anything by saying that Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving return, and while they are meant to be revered, they seem a more grounded as characters thanks to a bit of humor and some disdain thrown at them by the dwarves, who have reason to distrust elves.

Less impressive is the villainous presence of the Pale Orc, the mortal enemy of Thorin. I'm not sure why, but they guy just didn't feel menacing to me, despite his ample scarring and crude replacement arm (taking the place of one Thorin hacked off in battle years earlier).

But when it comes down to it, An Unexpected Journey comes down to the touching relationship between Bilbo and Gandalf, who takes on the role of mentor both in battle and in philosophical approach to looking at the many wonderful and dangerous corners of Middle-Earth. Gandalf gives Bilbo the sword known as Sting, but then makes it clear that its as important to know when not to use it as it is to master the art of combat.

We get a taste of things to dark things to come, including the battle with Smaug, a Necromancer who is about to bring dark times the the land, giant spiders that are seen briefly, and that Pale Orc is still living at the end of this movie. I love that An Unexpected Journey begins with a prologue that takes place right before the beginning of Fellowship, just as Holm's Bilbo is beginning to write down his adventures with the dwarves. The connective tissue is strong between Jackson's two trilogies, and I suspect the connections will get stronger as he gets deeper into this story. Jackson's mission with this film is to get things rolling and not necessarily to plunge us neck deep in epic battles, and I'm willing to be patient as long as things pick up in the next two films. The great tribute you can pay to any director is to be excited to see what they do next. It helps that we know what Jackson's doing next, and I'm especially excited to continue the adventure with him and this remarkable (and expanding cast).

Hyde Park on Hudson

The greatest flaw in this pre-World War II tale of the first meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt (played with a twisted glee by Bill Murray) and the recently crowned King of England (Samuel West, playing the same stuttering royal that Colin Firth playing in The King's Speech) is that it treats what was a historically important meeting like it was a weekend camping trip. And maybe that's how FDR saw it, but because that's how it's played, we never get a true sense of just how significant a moment this June 1939 overnight visit truly was.

It also doesn't help that the filmmakers of Hyde Park on Hudson seem more concerned with Roosevelt's romantic involvement with his bookish neighbor Daisy (Laura Linney). I'm a fan of director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Persuasion), but this braiding of world politics and the president's intimate moments doesn't quite come together convincingly, which is not to say the film doesn't have its amusing moments.

The meeting between FDR and the king was essentially pulled together so that England could gather certain assurances that the United States would assist if Hitler's Germany made a serious play to crush the Brits. But motives at the time were curious and strange. Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Williams) seems more interested in subjecting the royals to a serious of embarrassing events that expose just how snooty they are in the company of common folk. But the president seems more interested in finding common ground, in particular with the king, a man who doesn't believe he should even be in his position.

Man of the exchanges in the film occur in private as the king and queen try to figure out exactly what kind of man FDR is, while Roosevelt is searching for the humanity in his guests. Meanwhile, Daisy is trying to figure out the complexities of her relationship with the president, which seems limited to pleasant conversations and hand jobs in the woods (not necessarily in that order). Despite Daisy having this front row view of the massively important events going on before her, she tends to focus more on how much attention the president is or isn't paying her, and it gets tiresome fast. I truly wasn't interested in watching how this naïve woman put her personal feelings before the fate of the free world, and by the end of Hyde Park on Hudson, I was sick of her.

The saving grace of this movie, not surprisingly, is Murray, who not only does a pretty solid FDR impersonation but also provides a layered performance that details how much Roosevelt was unlike any other leader, while also being a flawed man with desires that his wife simply was never going to fill (the references to Eleanor's special lady friends are far from subtle). That doesn't excuse his treatment of Daisy (turns out she's not the only one with whom the president takes rides in the woods). Hyde Park doesn't try hard enough to be truly probing into what made Roosevelt tick, but thanks to engaging work by Murray, we get a surface-level FDR that is at least fun to spend time with. The film is a nearer miss than many might have you believe, but it's a miss nevertheless. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Citadel

In many ways, the Irish psychological thriller Citadel looks at the world in a polar opposite way than the recent Attack the Block did. Rather than humanize the young men who sometimes commit crimes in housing projects, Citadel presents us with the horror-movie pretext that these teenagers are actual misshapen, hooded monsters out to stab us with needles and snatch our babies. And you know what? The movie does a hell of a job making us paranoid just like the lead character of Tommy (Aneurin Barnard), whose wife is murdered in their hallway by these creatures, leaving Tommy to raise and protect their infant daughter. The problem is, as a result of the attack, Tommy becomes agoraphobic and is paralyzed every time he tries to leave his apartment.

As the saying goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean someone isn't out to get you, and sure enough, this pack of animal-like teens relentlessly terrorize Tommy and his baby. I was especially impressed with first-time writer-director Ciarán Foy's ability to ramp up the terror (real and imagined), turning an ordinary trip outside of Tommy's apartment into a full-blown waking nightmare. Eventually Tommy teams up with a priest who loves to curse and seems to understand exactly what the nature and motives of these creatures are. After Tommy's baby is taken, the pair gather their weapons and willpower to storm a seemingly abandoned project building (known as the Citadel) to rescue her.

Director Foy does a tremendous job getting deep inside Tommy's fear-riddled head, and the entire experience watching Citadel has me on edge pretty much non-stop. I hope Foy continues to explore the deeper recesses of fear-based entertainment, because the guy clearly has a knack for it. He manages to tell his tale with seeming like he's picking on project kids. These monsters are clearly not meant to be a metaphor for poor people. I think instead, they are playing off the fears that some people have of kids from the projects by impersonating them. However you interpret Citadel, this is one creepy ride and an original vision from a new filmmaker. The film opens today at Facets Multimedia.

Beauty Is Embarrassing

Regardless of the medium or format he uses, eclectic pop artist Wayne White's main objective is to make fine art both fun and funny, whether he's designing puppets or directing music videos/commercials or painting one of his signature landscapes with giant letters weaving through the work, saying the most outrageous things imaginable, often involving curse words. And with that in mind documentary filmmaker Neil Berkeley also makes his film about White's life and career as entertaining as the man himself.

Beauty Is Embarrassing delves into White's inspiration, going back to childhood. He realizes in the course of looking at photos of his family's living room (which his mom decorated with bizarre figurines and other elements) that he lifted many design ideas for his work on "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" from her. White also built and voiced a few of the puppets on "Playhouse," including Dirty Dog, Randy and one of the flowers. I was particularly shocked that he did so much of the hands-on creations in music videos for Peter Gabriel's "Big Time," Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight Tonight," and The Offspring's "She's Got Issues" animated clip. But working as hard as he did in the early years of his marriage and becoming a father took its toll on his mental stability. And while the details are left vague, it's clear that a type of breakdown occurred.

With both of his parents still alive, we get some great stories about him growing up and discovering his artistic roots in Tennessee, his early years in New York City, and his eventual move to California when "Playhouse" moved its production to Los Angeles. The wealth of behind-the-scenes footage from that production is worth the price of admission. That footage and much else gets pretty crude and rude, but it always remains in the name of keeping things humorous and letting off steam with vulgarity.

Terrific interviews with friends and comrades like Paul Ruebens, Matt Groening and Todd Oldham, as well as his wife and children, give us what feels like a fairly complete portrait of this demented force in the art world, who also happens to play the banjo and can dance a jig wearing a giant LBJ mask like nobody's business. Above all else, Beauty Is Embarrassing is funny, moving and fascinating, and it adds a dimension to the ever-changing definitions of art and entertainment, with an understanding that the two do not have to be mutually exclusive.

The film is screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, Dec. 14 at 6pm; Saturday, Dec. 15 at 5:15pm; Monday, Dec. 17 at 6:15pm; Tuesday, Dec. 18 at 8:15pm; and Thursday, Dec. 20 at 8:15pm. After the Friday screening, the film's subject, Wayne White, will do an audience Q&A via Skype in a discussion moderated by yours truly.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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