A juggernaut in Middle-earth

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”, announces the poster. Unexpected? By whom? Among the great certainties of earthly existence, death and taxes were long ago overtaken by the ineluctable box office march and stamina of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien film saga. Halt its progress? Curtail its hobbit-forming momentum? You could as easily flag down a juggernaut with a paper hankie.

Professor Tolkien’s slim preludial volume to The Lord of the Rings now stands release-ready as an equal-length trilogy of movies slated (unless critically or blogospherically slated) to march on into earths and elvedoms infinite. Don’t expect me to cast the first slate. The Hobbit may be long and certifiably whimsical. But it is dashingly spectacular and, in its headlong, obsessive-compulsive way – you have to like looking at folkloric weirdos in beards, hats and bulbous noses – a sort of masterwork.

Don’t be deterred by the slow start or already controversial fast-frame screen process. (Yes, it looks televisual till you adapt to its grain-free, scrim-free immediacy: a loss in distancing veneer that is a gain in “you are there”.) Somewhere in the Shire, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) leaps from the flashbacking imagination of his older self (Ian Holm) to begin a trek through Middle Earth with an army of Dwarves wanting to reclaim a dragon-seized kingdom. Played by Freeman with a lightness of comic touch for which Jackson’s sometimes unwieldy franchise should weep with gratitude, this Bilbo makes a good contrasty double act with Ian McKellen’s Gandalf. Supposedly younger, the latter is as plummy and quavering as ever. Clearly youth cannot stale nor flashbacks wither that pop-eyed, purse-mouthed yet vocally empurpled, theatrical tremolo.

For a while little happens except walkies and fighties. The landscapes are lovely; the music soars; the dialogue is built around exclamatory one-worders cuing the next battle. “Orcs!” “Elves!” “Trolls!” An all-star interlude in Rivendell, with Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee and Hugo Weaving, threatens to freeze the movie into a permanent pre-Raphaelite stasis. Then comes the first true pièce de résistance and all resistance ends.

Gollum and Bilbo meet in a cave and for half an hour the riddling cut-and-thrust of their dialogue is scintillating. Voiced and motion-capture-performed again by Andy Serkis, this film’s Gollum is better even than in TLOTR. His eyes are huge and spooky pools; his naked body scrambles arachno-humanly; his husking, wheedling baby talk (“precious”, “hobbitses”) is at times scary, at others funny.

The film rolls away like departing thunder with another massed battle, the best. The final sequence is an inspired little montage, with a Wagnerian flick in its scaly tail, setting up Hobbit 2. I can’t wait. And I’m the one who didn’t even want to go into Hobbit 1.

Wonderful are the reality/representation symmetries of cinemagoing. During performances of Chasing Ice, a debut documentary by Jeff Orlowski, I envision film-goers with ice lollies melting into their laps ogling continents with icecaps melting into a lapping ocean. Global warming now visits all parts of Theatre Earth, not least the northern tundras filmed with an Abstract Expressionist’s feral lyricism by Orlowski, as he moves in the wake of crusading photographer-climatologist James Balog. The ice-forms moulded by nature, both moving and still, come in every shape and every hue – blue, white, turquoise, aquamarine – as they perform their cyclical passions of decay and renewal.

Cyclical? Well, they used to be. Now they might be terminal. In one eye-boggling moment, which happened as the crew passed by, an entire vast ice shelf parts company from a frozen promontory, cracking off slowly, balletically, then turning over in the water like a whale. Balog’s “Extreme Ice Survey” – a plan to plant time-lapse cameras across large stretches of the western sub-Arctic – is, like the film, a project of heroic, Herzogian endeavour. Mad, you might say. But probably not as mad as what the rest of us are doing about climate change: namely almost nothing.

Code Name: Geronimo
presses the “Go” button on film versions of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Coming soon: Kathryn Hurt Locker Bigelow’s rendering. This glorified TV docu-thriller – cheap, headlong, one-pace – is a star-free stir fry of the main events. From the plot cooked up in CIA HQ, Virginia, to the bubbling dish of slaughter served in Abbottabad, the film like the operation is efficient, well-co-ordinated, dead-eyed. Stars would have made it more emotionally engaging. And narrative variety and rubato, instead of “wham, bang, thank you, Uncle Sam,” is surely what we’ll get from Bigelow. Then again, Bigelow may be pushed to equal this film’s gritty immediacy: there are gains as well as losses in cheapness.

The two-year-old murder thriller Love Crime (Crime d’Amour) is the week’s second dummy run for an up-budget Hollywoodisation. Brian De Palma’s forthcoming Passion re-enacts, with more style if little more consequence, the daffy ingenuities of Alain Corneau’s plot, in which business boss Kristin Scott Thomas (doing French) is schemed against by assistant Ludivine Sagnier. All About Eve gone Gallic? Pretty much; though as in last week’s Tu seras mon fils and last century’s Tous les matins du monde (1992), Corneau’s best film, it is really all about Yves: cinematographer Yves Angelo, who can take manky or modest scripts and make them look million-dollar.

Even Angelo couldn’t have saved Smashed. When they pondered their title, it must have been a tough choice for writer-director James Ponsoldt and co-writer Susan Burke (basing the script on her own experiences as a former alcoholic) between Smashed and Days of Whine and Neuroses. Wheedling and hectoring by turn, ham-dram to the hilt, full of small ideas and Big Acting, the film trails talentlessly in the wake of Days of Wine and Roses. Blake Edwards’s 1962 movie made sense and drama out of a drink-sodden relationship. Smashed makes sound and fury and all that those usually signify.

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