Friday, December 14, 2012


It's a big movie weekend:

When I heard that Peter Jackson’s movie version of The Hobbit was to be another trilogy, I must admit that my heart sank. A trilogy was understandable in the case of Jackson’s massive adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings because the novels were, well, you know, a trilogy.

But The Hobbit—the only book of Tolkien’s I‘ve ever read—was a one-off, a stand-alone work, self-contained, expansive but not overflowing. The tale’s subtitle is There and Back Again, but Jackson’s first third, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, doesn’t even quite get us there, let alone back again.

The thought of this deferred gratification made me a little grumpy, but having seen the film, my reaction is—what the heck, why not? If Jackson wants to give The Hobbit this crazy, geeky, hyper-detailed treatment, and has both the imaginative and technical resources to offer one lushly splendid sequence after another, then sure, I’ll go along for the ride. Sword-and-sorcery isn’t a genre I have a particular fondness for, but Tolkien was a terrific storyteller, and Jackson is at least as good in his art, so this first Hobbit movie leaves you feeling in good hands, even if it’s not your usual cup of tea.

First published in 1937, and often classed as a children’s book, The Hobbit is the story of Bilbo Baggins, a member of the titular race of short, burrow-dwelling folk of a mythic fairy-tale past. Hobbits have big, hairy, usually bare feet and are characteristically comfort-loving, unadventurous sorts, but Bilbo gets pressed into service by his friend Gandalf, a human wizard, to go on a quest with a band of warrior dwarves to recover a treasure lost generations earlier to a dragon, Smaug. The unassuming Bilbo’s role in this band is as its “burglar,” and though he has no experience at larceny, he discovers a talent for it, and for other daring skills.

The episodic adventures involve encounters and/or battles with elves, trolls, orcs (goblins, that is), giant wolves, giant eagles, sled rabbits and other fanciful beings. Bilbo, charmingly played by Martin Freeman (and, in the frame story, by Ian Holm as an older hobbit), engages in a dual of wits with the lost, corrupted cave-dweller Gollum. Here as in the earlier films, Gollum is played, behind the CGI, by Andy Serkis, and again he’s the most compelling character: chilling yet deeply pitiable, and strangely likable.

So I found the movie highly entertaining, and if you’re a Tolkien freak you probably will even more so, though of course if you’re a Tolkien freak my recommendation is unlikely to mean much to you either way. But there was something about this movie I found distracting, even though I realize that it’s likely a generational and Pavlovian response.

The screening I saw was in 48-fps 3D, a high-frame-rate format which gives the images undeniable clarity and focus. But it also gives them, for me, the over-lit look of old-school broadcast video footage—much of the time, despite the beauty of the compositions and the kinetic smoothness of the action, it was hard for me to shake the sense that I was watching an unusually well-made episode of Masterpiece Theatre from the ‘70s. Or an episode of the Tom Baker vintage of Dr. Who. Or of Days of Our Lives.

I recognize that this probably has to do with my own childhood TV-watching associations, and that it’s unlikely to bother younger viewers. But if you grew up watching TV in the ‘70s, this Hobbit may bring you perplexing flashbacks of All in the Family, Sanford and Son and Barney Miller.

As the title suggests, Roger Michell’s period piece Hyde Park on Hudson is a British film set in the U.S. It is, in part, the story of a poor relation: Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (Laura Linney), and her longtime relationship with her (suitably distant) cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray).

Daisy is rather mysteriously invited to keep the President company, they hit it off, and before long she’s become his mistress. She loves the role, even when the presence of Eleanor (Olivia Williams) and other more veteran women in his life leaves her standing around like a teenage girl with a crush. Linney seems too mature for her part, though she isn’t, and this eventually becomes an effective source of pathos.

The other side of the movie focuses on a 1939 visit to Roosevelt’s home in rural New York by George VI of Britain (Samuel West) and his wife (Olivia Colman)—the first-ever visit to the U.S. by British monarchs—in hopes of securing American help against the Nazis. As in The King’s Speech, George is presented as a nervous, stammering young guy, irritable at being in over his head but otherwise not a bad sort. It’s an odd episode—the implication that, four decades into the 20th Century, it still took a summit between their inbred bluebloods and our inbred bluebloods to decide the fate of the world would be comic if it weren’t infuriating.

These two plot strands never quite seem to connect in any meaningful way, and on the whole Hyde Park on Hudson is sort of slow and dawdling. It isn’t a particularly good picture, but it has many good individual scenes, and the cast is great—especially Murray, who disappears into the inscrutable FDR.

It wasn’t until after the movie was over that I thought about it—that was Carl from Caddyshack, and Winger from Stripes, yet it never occurred to me to giggle at him playing an iconic historical figure. He’s long since made the transition from comedy persona to full-service character actor. Cinderella boy, outta nowhere.

Valley moviegoers who can only get to one movie this weekend, however, should consider Arnon Goldfinger’s The Flat, presented by Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival at 2 p.m. Sunday at FilmBar. It’s a personal documentary with a quiet punch—a gradually rising tide of conflicted emotion.

It begins with Goldfinger and his family clearing out his grandmother’s Tel Aviv apartment after her death, at 98. Her books and tchochkes show that she remained culturally German, but this didn’t prepare Goldfinger for the revelation that his Zionist grandparents traveled to Palestine in the ‘30s…in the company of a Nazi and his wife.

Not just any Nazi, either, but Baron Leopold von Mildenstein, a writer for the ferociously anti-semitic Der Angriff, and later a bigwig with the SS. At the time Von Mildenstein was advocating the idea that German Jews could, as Mitt Romney might put it, “self-deport” to Palestine.

Goldfinger is startled to learn that Von Mildenstein and his father, both educated, sophisticated men, became friends on this trip, as did their wives. He’s flabbergasted when he later learns that after the war, they renewed the friendship. Before long he finds himself interviewing—almost interrogating—Von Mildenstein’s pleasant, warmhearted and utterly in-denial daughter, and his own almost more evasive mother.

The more he probes the mystery, the more baffled he becomes, and the more unsettling and ambiguous The Flat becomes. What keeps it from being depressing is the vividness of its portraits, including that of Goldfinger himself, reluctantly opening old wounds, but showing up for interviews with a nice bouquet. He’s like an apologetic Max Ophuls.

RIP to sitar master Ravi Shankar, passed on 91.

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