Thursday, January 03, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I feel like the internet has already written libraries worth of reviews and commentary about this movie before I even got a chance to see it. So I'm not entirely sure what I can add that hasn't been said.

First though, I should point out that I have not actually read The Hobbit and so this review is from the perspective of someone who has read none of the books, but did greatly enjoy the Lord of the Rings films. I'm not unfamiliar with Tolkien's world, the assistant manager at the bookstore where I worked when Fellowship came out was the "read every book every year" type. I would ask him questions about Middle-Earth and he would tell me all about it.

But I discovered that I had a lot more fun hearing Kyle tell me about the world than I did actually reading the books.

Also, I have a rule that is opposite most people: if I haven't read the book when they announce a film version I want to see, then I won't read it until after I've seen the movie. I've found that for me at least, it helps me to distinguish the two as different art forms and go into the movie with a more open mind. I almost always pick up the book afterwards if the movie is good or the storyline is interesting, but I wait so that I can judge the movie in it's own merits.

Which is why even though I've been told that The Hobbit is a more fun read than The Lord of the Rings, I haven't picked it up yet because I knew they'd get around to making a movie. Apparently this was the right choice, because a lot of people seem pretty upset about changes that were made. I can't analyze that, so this is how I felt going into this almost completely fresh:

Wow, that movie was beautiful and really, really long.

There's just nothing else you can come out of it thinking, really. Every frame is absolutely stunning (except perhaps a few of the effects that were somehow not as well made/rendered as the previous films). The acting is top notch, from every single actor. They are giving it their all, and that is a great achievement for them and for Peter Jackson as a director.

The set design is fabulous, the cinematography is gorgeous. There is a lot to like, and I did in fact like the movie. I did like it, this is not me saying I hated it.

But this is me saying that the script needed another draft and the editing was not particularly great. I'd be intrigued to see if fans are going to make an edit after it comes out on DVD, because I think if you gave me a couple days I could probably chop 30-45 minutes out of the movie without changing the story. The only thing that would change would be the pace, and with it the tone. If scenes didn't drag, then you'd feel more tense and anxious about the events. And if the movie didn't have twelve endings, maybe you'd feel worried for our heroes when they're cornered in the climax, rather than thinking "AGAIN? ALREADY?"

I get that it's an adventure story, but how poorly thought out was this quest that they're in mortal danger just trying to walk through a field? Sure, the world is dangerous. But there's not a pause anywhere in between the long and drawn out battles and danger. When you maintain a level of tension too long, it has the opposite effect of what you want, you get used to it and you get bored. Add on the fact that it felt like many of the shots were direct references to the earlier films, and you don't have as much excitement as you could.

I don't want this movie to be Lord of the Rings in tone or in story. But I do want it to be like those films in the fundamental ways that made them great. I wanted it to give us characters first, and action next. I wanted more interpersonal relationships. I mean come on, we all know Fili and Kili could have been more great than they were, the seeds were there, there just wasn't enough follow through.

I'm hoping that since the post-production hasn't been finished on the second two films that Jackson goes back to the cutting room and starts snipping. It wasn't even about scenes that were unneeded (though there were some of those) it was about how every scene went on a little too long. They just need to trim some heads and tails, and it would be so much better.

Like I said, I liked the movie, I'll be seeing the next two in theaters for sure. I just like my films a bit shorter.

TV Review: Hot Set on Syfy

I was ridiculously excited when Syfy started advertising Hot Set, their companion show for Face Off. Everything about it seemed like it was going to be fantastic, and the fact that it seemed similar to Face Off only added to the excitement.

Hot Set is a competition series focused on another movie behind-the-scenes craft that is often overlooked, set design. I'm already a sucker for reality shows that focus on a talent or a trade, and I love anything that is behind-the-scenes of filmmaking. Set designers are one of the heroes of modern filmmaking, and when you have good set design and art direction, everything else becomes so much more believable. When I was part of a group making a web series, the producer and director said that they were worried about our set design because that is one of the main ways to tell a student or amateur. production apart from a professional one.

I suppose it's probably inevitable that Hot Set didn't live up to my expectations. It wasn't that it wasn't a good show, it was. It was far better than most of what is on tv these days. But it just didn't pop the way that shows like Top Chef or Face Off do. And part of the reason for that was the format - instead of having a large group of contestants that get whittled down as the weeks go by, each which was a new pair of competitors. We didn't even begin to get to know anybody that was on the show and so we only had the most superficial of reasons to prefer one over the other. We need characters and people that we're invested in, even in a competition show, unless it's something where we can play along like Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune.

The "twists" for each show were also a little lackluster, and were revealed to the audience by the episode titles and previews so I'm really not sure why they bothered to keep it from the contestants for five minutes. Why not just give them all the information at once rather than have the fake dramatic reveal?

And I kind of hate to bring it up, but the host wasn't as engaging or interesting as most shows of this type. Project Runway All Stars has had two seasons of lackluster hosting to prove that Heidi Klum is part of what makes Project Runway work. Top Chef didn't really take off until they found Padma. While China Chow was sometimes hit or miss on Work of Art, she at least seemed to be enjoying herself. The host of Hot Set doesn't really seem to be getting comfortable in front of the camera, and doesn't seem to enjoy his job. McKenzie Westmore isn't always perfect either, but she always seems at ease and at least ready for the challenge of hosting Face Off, the live finale of season three aside (that was just kind of painful all around, I really hope they don't do it again).

Overall, I hope that Syfy brings back Hot Set for another season, because anything that celebrates the artisans that make movies is worthwhile. But I hope they consider a few format changes. At the end of the day, I'd almost rather see a documentary program about set designers on their regular jobs than see them thrown into competition, because then I could get to know them a little better and see what they're actually made of in different situations. It's a problem that I don't know how to fix, but I hope somebody is working on it so that we get an awesome season two.