It may be playing in cinemas but I’m not entirely convinced that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey — and, by extension, the forthcoming Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again — is actually cinema. At least not cinema the way that this particular old geezer remembers it. First, let us put aside the technological innovation for a few paragraphs and focus on the story. These films have been been created to deliver an experience to existing fans of the Lord of the Rings films and is arguably even more tailored to their needs than, say, the Twilight franchise is to their fans. It certainly makes as few concessions to the neutral.
Fans from Bratislava to Beirut want to spend as much time as possible in Middle Earth and writer-director Peter Jackson delivers — to the extent that several familiar characters make inelegant cameo appearances and the audience gets to spend considerable time acclimatising. It really doesn’t matter that I think the whole thing faffs around for far too long and already feels hyper-extended. Criticising The Hobbit for length is falling in to the trap of reviewing the film you wish you were watching instead of the one in front of you.
From the first bars of John Williams’ famous fanfare, played on a 1000 kazoos, you know The Clone Wars is going to be a cheap and cheerful, Saturday morning cartoon level, rip-off of the Star Wars universe and so it proves. Without participation of any of the original stars (except for game old Chris Lee as Dooku) and George Lucas’ involvement limited to insisting that one character has the voice of Truman Capote, a minor episode gets spun out well beyond it’s ability to engage and entertain but it is quite amusing to be reminded that all the clones look like Tem Morrison. The tone is basically “All Jar-Jar, all the time” but even your average eight year old might wonder why it has to be so repetitive.
While it shouldn’t be any great surprise to be intellectually insulted by The Clone Wars, I was amazed to actually be personally insulted by the creators of comic-book action flick Wanted, during the summing-up voice-over at the end. Gentlemen, I am far from pathetic and the opposite of ordinary and if your idea of a valid personal philosophy is to murder strangers because a magic loom told you to, then I’m pretty happy here on my side of that fence. Director Timur Bekmambetov proved with Night Watch and Day Watch that he has a thrilling personal style but not much in the way of storytelling ability which he confirms with his first Hollywood studio production. Mr Tumnus, James McAvoy, plays nerdy accounts clerk Wesley who finds out he is the son and heir of the world’s best assassin. Aided by Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman he learns to shoot round corners and discover an objectivist sense of purpose that puts his own personal freedom and destiny above the lives of (for example) hundreds of innocent people on a train. Vile.
Harry Houdini was one of the 20th century’s legendary entertainers and in Death Defying ActsGuy Pearce renders him completely without charisma which is a remarkable achievement. The first great sceptic, Houdini offers $10,000 to anyone who can tell him his beloved mother’s final words. Stage mind-reader Catherine Zeta Jones sees a way out of poverty but finds herself falling in love instead. The lack of electricity (real or imagined) between the two leads hampers things somewhat but the camera loves Saoirse Ronan (Atonement and the forthcoming Lovely Bones) so it isn’t a complete waste of time.
While China is front and centre of world attention at the moment, the arrival in cinemas of Yung Chang’s excellent documentary Up the Yangtze couldn’t be better timed. Taking us on a luxury cruise up a Yangtze river being slowly transformed by the epic (Mao-inspired) Three Gorges Dam project, the film manages to get more of China into it’s cleverly layered 90 minutes than seems possible. Teenage Yu dreams of going to University and becoming an engineer but her parents are illiterate and dirt poor and have missed out on the compensation that would move them from their shack beside the river. So, against her will, she is sent to work on the cruise ship where she is given the English name Candy and instructed in the ways of modern domestic service. Meanwhile, her parents struggle to find a new place to live and the river inexorably rises.
When discussing global warming and carbon emissions, we are often told that China opens a new coal powered power station every week which is evidently a bad thing. But, ironically, when they build a renewable hydro-electric scheme the West gets pretty snooty about that too. The pressures on China from all directions are keenly felt in this film, which will tell you more about that part of the world than three weeks of Olympic Games.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 20 August, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: Star Wars: The Clone Wars was viewed at one of those excruciating radio station previews on Wednesday, 13 August (Readings). Wanted and Death Defying Acts were at Empire public screenings and Up the Yangtze was a preview screener DVD. I wish I had seen it at the Festival, though. I’m sure it would have looked very fine at the Embassy.