A return to Middle Earth: Jackson’s back in action for The Hobbit

by Mark Burger

Hitchcock: Anthony Hopkins goes “Psycho” as the Master of Suspense

It’s been almost 10 years since filmmaker Peter Jackson capped his Lord of the Rings trilogy with The Return of the King (which reaped 11 Oscars), but he’s right back in his Middle Earth element with The Hobbit , the first in a new trilogy based on JRR Tolkien’s classic fantasy.

Subtitled An Unexpected Journey and reuniting much of the Lord of the Rings creative team (including cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, composer Howard Shore and screenwriters Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens), The Hobbit is exhilarating and, at nearly three hours long, sometimes exhausting entertainment. It’s never dull, but it’s plenty full. If aficionados of the earlier films wanted more of the same, that’s precisely what they get.

Jackson’s affinity for the Tolkien universe is unmistakable and palpable, and although Guillermo del Toro was originally slated to direct — retaining both a screenwriting and a consulting credit — Jackson opted to take the reins himself, even after lengthy and protracted lawsuits with New Line Cinema over Lord of the Rings royalties.

Martin Freeman occupies the title role here, that of Bilbo Baggins, a bumbling hobbit who is as unlikely a hero as Middle Earth has ever seen. It takes some doing, but he is persuaded by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, very comfortably reprising his role) to join a band of heroic elves on a perilous, arduous journey to restore a long-ruined kingdom. There are orcs and trolls to be vanquished, as well as briefly-glimpsed (that’s enough) giant spiders. Don’t be surprised to see these — and other fantastical creatures — reappearing in the future installments. Middle Earth is nothing if not a melting pot of various species of varying sizes, shapes and temperaments, and Jackson is a master of bringing them all to vivid life.

He and his fellow screenwriters occasionally revise Tolkien’s original text, but given their previous experience it’s certainly a revision informed by affection and study. “Good stories deserve embellishment,” Gandalf tells Bilbo, perhaps a reflection of Jackson’s own (and much-deserved) proprietary attitude.

Not surprisingly, the visual effects are impressive and constant, yet they don’t dwarf (no pun intended) the characters who exist in this gargantuan landscape. Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Barry Humphries (“Dame Edna Everidge” himself!) and one-time “Dr. Who” Sylvester McCoy are among the heroes, villains and wizards who pass through the proceedings.

Fans of the earlier films will enjoy seeing such familiar folk, albeit briefly, as Ian Holm (as the aged Bilbo), Andy Serkis (again stealing scenes galore as the ghoulish Gollum), Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood and the indomitable Christopher Lee. It’s not unlike being reunited with old friends, and even in small roles they’re a welcome addition to the grandeur that infuses the entire project as a whole.

Speculation, history and admiration are at the heart of Hitchcock , an affectionate and entertaining valentine to Alfred Hitchcock, laced with psychological undercurrents and sprinkled with black humor… not unlike the movies of the master it portrays, in point of fact.

Having scored great success with North by Northwest in 1959, the veteran filmmaker (played with fruity gusto by Anthony Hopkins) is looking for his follow-up film. Even with his pick of projects, he seeks what he terms “a nice, clean, nasty piece of work.”

Then he finds it: Psycho. As much as Hitchcock details the filmmaker’s efforts to get the movie made — battling studio skepticism, censorship worries and the rigors of physical production — the film attempts to explore the relationship between Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). Given Hitchcock’s admitted eccentricities and ongoing tendency to favor cool, young blondes in his movies (and, perhaps, his fantasies), theirs was a complicated union, a clashing and meshing of two strong personalities that lasted more than 50 years.

It’s great fun to watch these thespian titans parry and quarrel with one another, as they convey the complexities (merely hinted at here) and emotional ties (effectively rendered here) that bound Alfred and Alma Hitchcock in real life. At this stage in their respective careers, Hopkins and Mirren can do no wrong — and they certainly do right by the historical figures they portray in Hitchcock.

The star-studded supporting cast is equally enjoyable. Not only do Scarlett Johansson (as Janet Leigh), James D’Arcy (as Anthony Perkins) and particularly Jessica Biel (as Vera Miles) play their real-life characters with humor and texture, but they also remarkably resemble them, both in look and gesture. Toni Collette (as Hitchcock’s faithful secretary Peggy Robertson) hasn’t much to do, but it’s nice having her around in any case. Likewise Michael Stuhlbarg (as super-agent Lew Wasserman), Danny Huston, Kurtwood Smith, Richard Portnow, Ralph Macchio, Kai Lennox and Michael Wincott, who plays Ed Gein, the real-life serial killer who was Psycho author Robert Bloch’s inspiration for creating Norman Bates.

It is this film’s conjecture that Hitchcock imagined Gein to be something of his personal spiritual guide through the production of Psycho. Whether it’s true or not, it doesn’t really matter; it only enhances the amusing and expansive in-joke attitude of Hitchcock as a whole. Hitchcock’s films (even the lesser ones) always tended to be fun, and so too is Hitchcock.

There’s even a happy ending. After all, and after all these years, who among us doesn’t know Psycho?

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