Movie Reviews: The Hobbit & On the Road


THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Warner Bros, Rated PG-13

2  1/2 stars


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There’s a huge battle in progress on movie screens lately. That is, the one behind the scenes and flowing from the abundant imaginative realms of Middle-Earth, among others. But let’s just say that it might have more to do with John Henry than J.R.R. Tolkien.

Futuristic gadget  junkies rule in extravaganzas like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, guided by contemporary chroniclers of make-believe antiquity like Peter Jackson, and obsessions with the technology rather than the tales they’re telling. So that audiences are increasingly prompted to consume big budget movies, as less about what they’re hearing than the spectacle they’re seeing.

Which would seem to give strange new meaning to the notion of ‘for your eyes only’ in a film like The Hobbit. Putting everything else of a perceptual nature on hold for the duration of the nearly three hours running time. And while sizing up The Hobbit’s unexpected journey as a diverted audience itinerary, rather than what lies in wait for the massive multitude of characters.

The sensory overkill of viewer motion sickness related to that newfangled applied fast forward 3D aside, The Hobbit display of an all dressed up in mystifying visuals but with essentially nowhere to go, does seem to send this Middle-Earth prequel in opposite directions of lavish sets layering thin storytelling. Which may have more to do with Jackson stretching and diluting the original 1937 volume into no less than two, and now reportedly three screen adaptations . With the remaining two scheduled to hit theaters in 2013 and 2014.

Playing out six decades before the events of Lord of The Rings, this epic follow the younger hobbit  Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he is recruited by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) to embark on a military mission to defeat the dragon Smaug who has expropriated the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor. There are also thirteen rowdy dwarfs on hand to serve as a legion of foot soldiers raising miniature mayhem.

Along the way to the yonder wastelands of the Lonely Mountain, a detour lands Bilbo face to face with the formidable creature Gollum (Andy Serkis) in the goblin tunnels. An encounter that will be transformative for Bilbo in unimaginable ways, and involving self-discovery and one prophetic, mythic ring. While occasionally livening up everything in between, are recycled LOTR faces from the past, including  Elrond (Hugo Weaving) Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and the wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee). Whew.

The Hobbit is at once an overcrowded playing field with countless thinly developed characters competing for attention, and a fantasy laden road trip never quite picking up sufficient speed to keep pace with its manic flourishes of fantasy. Tending to leave the impression of a lavish production more focused on amazement than enrichment as the ultimate movie experience.

 

ON THE ROAD

IFC Films, Rated R

1  1/2 stars

A very different kind of road movie marked by its unadorned indie roots as opposed to razzle dazzle Hollywood treks out there like The Hobbit, On The Road does share one similarity. Namely that filmmakers just don’t get it, that a journey up on the screen should aim for depth as well as the breadth of miles covered. And the characters involved as a lot more than just additional scenery.

Adapted from Jack Kerouac’s classic novel of mid-twentieth century Beat Generation social despair, alienation and  escape from the misery of oppressive conformity defining that era through nomadic flight, On The Road skimps in rehashing the thinly disguised rebel literary figures. Along with self-destructive when not stoned out of their minds fellow travelers who peopled that writer’s world.

Central to the story is the beat bromance of Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), a stand-in for the brash ex-con Neal Cassady, and Sal Paradise as the attributed alias of Kerouac himself. And in a period preceding seemingly by centuries but actually just down another road from the women’s movement, females here are shamelessly treated with no more regard than consumed and discarded beer bottles, by men who in contrast nursed and elevated their own perceived social repression to the level of heroic martyrdom. And no, like everything else in this hyper-reverential movie chronicling decadence as supremely visionary, irony that begs to be articulated is not an option.

Included among those incidental babes inhabiting the margins of this essentially all guy movie,  is Kristen Stewart as Dean’s jailbait teen girlfriend Marylou, on hand to satisfy the sexual appetites of whomever may come along. Then there is Dean’s repeatedly disposable gloomy spouse, played by Kirsten Dunst, as the almost but not quite voice of conscience in this giddily sordid tale, burdened as she is with the assigned role of resident nag. A regressive position she oddly shares with another current screen spouse shrew mated with a male icon, Sally Field’s Mary Todd in  Steven Spielberg’s obsessively glorified Lincoln.

Helmed by Brazilian director Walter Salles (Motorcyle Diaries), On The Road is unfortunately marked by an alienation twice removed. First by the characters who wander in an emotionally distant fog through a perplexing American landscape. Then the filmmaker, whose voyage into palpably unfamiliar cultural territory compounds a sense of much that is lost in translation. And coming off as a story unfolding through the disoriented eyes of a sightseeing tourist instead.

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