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Review – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

15 Dec

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

(Full disclosure: I did not see An Unexpected Journey at 48fps. A movie ticket is a vote, and I refuse to vote for this process.)

Say this for Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit: it makes no attempt to tonally match the earlier, darker Lord of the Rings series. After all, stakes don’t get much higher than the possible end of the known world – lighter quests deserve lighter treatment. J. R. R. Tolkien understood this; it’s why Lord of the Rings reads like mythology while The Hobbit reads like a children’s story. Likewise, An Unexpected Journey possesses a lightheartedness the other films don’t. Dwarves laugh and sing, trolls argue in comedic fashion, two characters try to outsmart each other with riddles, etc.

The problems with An Unexpected Journey, then, mostly stem from what just about everybody predicted they would: its length. There is simply not enough material in Tolkien’s 270-page novel, a simple story about well-to-do homebody Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) accompanying thirteen dwarves on a quest to reclaim their home and gold from a dragon named Smaug, to justify three three-hour films. Jackson tries to pad out the story whenever he gets the chance, sometimes expanding on events only hinted at in the book (a certain evil force looms threateningly in the south), sometimes adding entirely new characters and subplots (a grudge between lead dwarf Richard Armitage and an orc leader), and other times finding various excuses to include characters from Lord of the Rings (a frame story including Elijah Wood and Ian Holm). Unfortunately, this stretching of the plot often makes the film feel unfocused and minor, more like a television miniseries than a big-budget movie.

Perhaps most problematic is the introduction of wizard Radagast, a minor character in Tolkien’s universe who should probably remain that way. Essentially the Jar Jar Binks of An Unexpected Journey, he has a bird’s nest under his hat, poop running down the side of his face, and a sled drawn by rabbits. Even taking into account the more bouyant tone, any scene featuring Radagast feels cartoonish and out of place. Another misstep is an odd Council of Elrond-esque scene in Rivendell consisting entirely of characters from Lord of the Rings. It gives the audience no new information and amounts to little more than winking references to the earlier films.

In spite of its myriad flaws, An Unexpected Journey also has much to recommend it. Middle-Earth looks as inviting as ever, Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen give excellent performances, and Andy Serkis’ reappearance as Gollum sets the stage for the film’s best and most entertaining sequence. Indeed, these elements work so well that it’s difficult not to be somewhat disappointed with the muddled end result. Here’s my idea: when the time comes in two years for the DVD boxset, Jackson should make a new cut – not adding new footage as he did for Lord for the Rings, but removing any and all of the excess from The Hobbit. I am convinced that a great adventure movie lies somewhere amid all the fluff.

Grade: B

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Review: Titus Andronicus – Local Business

23 Oct

In 2010, Titus Andronicus released The Monitor, the year’s most entertaining album and an instant indie classic. A sort-of concept album likening life in New Jersey to the American Civil War (or something), it infused a punk ethos with bagpipes, fiddles, and even a horn section while frontman Patrick Stickles spat out lyrics as bleak as they were funny. Following up such an album would not be an enviable task, but Titus Andronicus seems game enough, and here we are only two years later with Local Business.

The band wisely makes no attempt to recreate the once-in-a-lifetime magic of The Monitor, instead mostly dialing back their sound to the rock-and-roll essentials of guitar, bass, and drums (with the ocassional splash of piano). For the most part, the re-tooled sound suits them: the songs seem a little tighter, the guitars a little crunchier, and Stickles’ voice a little less like Conor Oberst’s.

Local Business opens with a trio of songs almost worth the price of admission alone–“Ecce Homo,” “Still Life with Hot Deuce and Silver Platter,” and “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape with the Flood of Detritus” are as exhilarating and anthemic as anything the band has done. In typical Titus Andronicus fashion, these songs eschew verses and choruses in favor of moving beathlessly from hook to hook. Not even tempo changes are jarring; the progressions always seem natural and seamless. Even better, Stickles is in as fine form lyrically as ever, infusing the same nihilistic worldview with the same healthy dose of humor. Lyrics juxtaposing the absurd with the sacred abound (“It’s such a weird world / it feels real wrong smiling”), reinforcing the band’s anything-goes aesthetic at nearly every turn.

From here on out, however, the album becomes hit-or-miss, sometimes renewing the promise of those early tracks (“In a Big City”) and sometimes seeming downright inessential. Perhaps the worst offender is “(I Am the) Electric Man,” written after Stickles accidentally electrocuted himself, which may elicit a stray chuckle but would make a whole lot more sense as a B-side. Album closer “Tried to Quit Smoking” is particularly disappointing; like its Monitor counterpart “The Battle of Hampton Roads,” it is the longest track on the album, but unlike “Hampton,” it never does anything interesting enough to justify its near-ten-minute length.

As previous Titus Andronicus albums have been top-to-bottom excellent, Local Business’ inconsistency ultimately damages it. Although there is plenty here to recommend it to fans of the band, its lack of focus makes it seem like more of a minor effort, and newcomers would probably have better luck starting with The Monitor or The Airing of Grievances.

Grade: B