Saturday, December 29, 2012

Over the Misty Mountains and beyond the barricade

In which our Diva has recently spent a number of highly satisfying hours in the dark

'Tis the season for actually getting out to the cinema more often than usual, and with two highly-anticipated adaptations of things near and dear to my heart for many years, this year has been no exception.

First up was The Hobbit, which I'm not too proud to admit I've seen three times. Two of those were in the much-discussed HFR (high frame rate) format, which, while I see where those who dislike it are coming from, I'm going to have to declare myself in favor of. (Though it's interesting that it's the frame rate that's getting all the attention, when I think a lot of the look also comes from the RED-EPIC camera's extremely high resolution.) It took a little getting used to -- as I've been explaining it, my brain spent a good chunk of the prologue switching between interpreting what I was seeing as "video" or "right in front of me" before cementing a new perceptual category -- but by the time Bilbo was unexpectedly accumulating Dwarves in his dining room, I didn't find it obtrusive at all.

Much has been made of it as a vehicle for showing the sweeping vistas of New-Zealand-as-Middle-earth, but I was equally struck by how much it allows the audience to see the finest nuances of an actor's performance. And there are plenty of those to be seen in The Hobbit, from the entire ensemble. The fun part about seeing it more than once was being able to watch all the character stuff going on in the background, and there's plenty to see. Thorin looking out for his nephews, and his nephews (particularly Kili) looking to him for cues on how to behave and whether they're impressing him. Balin keeping a weather eye on his long-grown-up protege. All sorts of other things that make the huge troop of characters distinctive and memorable.

Speaking of capturing performances, of course, Andy Serkis' time covered in little dots was tremendously well spent as always. Without detracting from the tremendous technical and, yes, artistic skill of the team who put Gollum's image on the screen, it's been great over the past several years to see that people understand that their work isn't replacing the actor -- as some doomsayers were predicting for a while there -- but providing a new way to change his appearance, as the artistry of costume designers and makeup artists has done for centuries before them. The technical advances made since the Lord of the Rings trilogy a decade ago have been entirely in the service of all the more faithfully showing us his work, with greater capacity to capture nuances of expression like the movement of tiny muscles around his eyes. Anyone who tries to tell you what he does -- and what we see -- isn't acting? Has no idea what they're talking about.

And yeah, New Zealand is pretty too, and the production design is as gorgeous as ever. Impressive production values don't make a movie good, but they also don't prevent it from having heart, and there's plenty here. The seven-year-old kid who loved the book, and who went on to plunge into the rest when her reading level would allow it, has grown up very happy with what this team has created on screen.

If the adventures of the Company of Thorin had me grinning at the screen for the better part of (three times) three hours, I was just as happy to spend a similar stretch of time mostly crying my eyes out. Though, after some 25 years of familiarity with Les Miserables, I really should have known better than to go with only two measly kleenex in my purse! I ended up clutching a useless sodden ball by the time the barricade was going up. Oops.

A good chunk of that is down to Anne Hathaway's absolutely heartrending Fantine, though again, I was happy with all the performances. I have a quibble here and there with voices, despite having accepted years ago that movie-musical singing is different from musical theatre singing in much the way movie acting is different from theatre acting. And, in much the same way, it's evolving to keep pace with technical developments and audience tastes. But all the characters were right there, newly vivid in many ways as they were illuminated by the perspective of film and the tweaks to the text. Closeups and angles provide opportunties for minor characters -- notably little Eponine and several of the students -- to shine in non-verbal moments that might go unnoticed on stage.

I could go on and on, but the bottom line is, it's amazing, they did an amazing job. Not that there was anything wrong with my faith in the future of the movie musical, but I still feel really really good about it now.

I know these are both HUGE movies that don't need any help from me. But sometimes the blockbusters really do have the heart and the art. And this is my blog, and it's the holidays, and I felt like gushing about movies that make me happy.

I hope you're finding things this holiday season that make you happy too.


Amy R. said...

I haven't seen a movie on the big screen since The Avengers in the summer -- time and cost and all -- but I'm planning to go see Les Miserables on Monday. I'm glad to have your endorsement; loving the novel (in translation, natch) and the musical since high school, I couldn't help worrying about how this iteration would serve the story.

And then I'm finding a discount theater! :-) I don't mind seeing Skyfall and Lincoln and The Hobbit a little later than everyone else. These days, I bet that second-run viewing isn't even scratched and pitted :-) as in my college days, being all digital.

Unknown said...

Discount cinemas are wonderful things! Hopefully I'll make it to Lincoln at our second-run place. Skyfall will probably wait for video. And yes, no longer having damaged prints by the time they get there is wonderful!

One thing I forgot to mention is how impressed I am with the results of the risk they took to record all the singing on set. As much as it must have been a near-nightmare for cast and crew alike, it makes it all so much more visceral.