Thursday, 12 December 2013

A Real Pain In The Neck

Hello,

I'm in fucking agony.

One of the joys of being in your thirties is that the aches and pains that you laugh off when in your teens and early twenties (and therefore indestructible) inevitably snowball into crippling ailments when you're advanced in years.

About 6 months ago I decided to get back into martial arts at the excellent Fighting Fit gym in Central Manchester. The instructors are phenomenal and they really push you hard. Likewise, the lads and ladies that train there are infinitely lovely and accommodating for all the fact that they hit really, REALLY hard.

The snag is that this is the sort of gym where they train hungry young fighters, guys and girls who take this shit seriously and want to compete and as such it's not ideal for ageing thesps dipping their toe in the waters of pugilism. Despite my being older, shorter, fatter and much less fit than most of the guys there I've been attending classes in MMA, no-gi jiu jitsu and boxing and am, as you'd expect, super humanly shit at all three.
If you know me then you know that I was very heavily into karate throughout my teens and I loved, breathed are and slept it and jumped at any chance to show off my high kicking skills to my mates.
Well that was a long time ago and my being out of practice and ancient notwithstanding, it seems karate has taught me nothing but bad habits. More specifically, as sparring is usually non-contact they don't teach you to protect your chin as much as you probably should when someone is trying to hit you.., which brings me to my current rant.

About a month ago I was sparring with a powerfully built Czech called Christian who, while a lovely bloke, isn't shy about letting you know that your defence needs work by sticking a good one on your chin.  So it was that I became the recipient of a right cross that dropped me.

Deservedly so! My bad! Point well made, Christian.

While I expected some stiffness for a while I had not anticipated that Christian's love tap has misaligned my neck to the point where it's biased the way I walk and put a lot of pressure on my right hip and knee which are, resultantly killing me.
Just another glaring reminder of my looming mortality.

Thing is I'm currently on tour in Sheffield and as I start work at 9 most mornings and don't finish till around 9 at night and I only get one day off a week (an actor's life is one of unparalleled glamour), that makes it very difficult to organise the massage/chiropractor that I so desperately need.
This wouldn't be so bad if I were sleeping in my own bed with its sublime pocket spring core and body hugging memory foam top but the tour bed (while comfy and more than adequate for a normal human) doesn't offer the idiosyncratic neck/back support that I need which means I spend the first half hour of every morning unable to move without making horrible crackling noises from parts of my body that have no business making noise of any sort.

Fortunately I'm playing an older gentleman (more on that in a later post) so it actually weirdly helps and the stoop and like I've inherited do a good job of informing my physicality yet I can still (with some discomfort) stand and walk like a normal which is handy for when I have to play the character as a younger man.

So... If when next we meet I'm half a foot shorter and am dragging round a limp appendage that used to be a functioning limb then you know that things haven't improved.


Tuesday, 29 October 2013

A Guide to Casting Directors

So your tenacity and patience have paid off and you're finding yourself in front of a casting director?
Congratulations!  You're probably very excited and not a little nervous.  This could be a defining moment in your acting career.  Will the next hour mark the start of your rise to fame and fortune or will you once again become just another headshot in the 'maybe' pile?

As any acting coach or teacher will tell you, you can never be too prepared and while you might think that your preparation should lie solely with lines, delivery, emotional threads, nuance and all that jazz it's important that you also go in with a good idea of what to expect from your casting director.

Well, fear not because from my scant few months in the industry I have already gleaned enough experience to devise a sketchy profile that suits every single casting director in the entire world without exception with at least 85% accuracy so without further ado, let's begin....

Dan's Guide To Casting Directors


What is a casting director?

A casting director has one job and one job only... to shatter the dreams of emerging and aspiring actors.  If they can do so while wanking on about how many contacts they have in the industry and how many celebrities they've serviced sexually then so much the better.  While they may have little or no interest in you it is for some reason vitally important to them that you take an interest in them.

How to prepare to meet a casting director.

Firstly it is vitally important to empathise with your casting director.  They have, in the very least a casual disdain for actors despite you being their primary source of income.  It is hugely important that you acknowledge that as an actor you are not only a trifling inconvenience but an infinitely available commodity who contributes less to society than the average crack whore.

First impressions count.

As you take a deep breath and step into your audition space you'll probably be expecting a gruff, no-nonsense twenty year veteran of the entertainment business so try not to be surprised by the self regarding twenty one year old hipster in drainpipes who will inevitably sneer at you as you enter the room.
Be sure to make nice remarks about their trainers as they probably cost more than your car!
Remember, casting directors are incredibly busy people so don't be surprised if they spend half of the casting on their iPhone.  While this would be considered rude in most interview situations remember, you are only an actor and as such not deserving of the social niceties that others take for granted... Oh and whatever sound effects you may hear to the contrary, they are almost certainly not playing Angry Birds.

How should I conduct myself?

At all times you must be as fawningly sycophantic as possible.  Unlike most aerobic organisms casting directors can go months without food or water and are sustained mostly by feeding their pulsating egos.  They may well do some name dropping and it's vital that you respond with exactly the right amount of quiet awe when they tell you about how they once made Martin Kemp a cup of tea.  You could easily be forgiven for thinking that this meeting is about you but just remember... it isn't!  Just smile and try to make a fun game out of counting the C list celebs they 'casually' mention in passing (or even receive texts from).

The reading.

If you're a pert 19 year old blonde then don't worry your pretty little head, you probably won't have to do a reading.  The rest of you shouldn't worry too much about this either as it is by far the least important part of the casting process and the truth is that the casting director has probably made up their mind about you by the time you get to this point anyway.
Try not to be discouraged if they start leafing through other actors' headshots as you're performing, they are extremely busy people and are just doing this to save time so that they can get to Starbucks nice and early to talk loudly about their day to anyone who happens to be in earshot.
And whatever you do, don't try to grab a sneaky peak at the notes they're scribbling as you perform.  This will result in an instant disqualification and besides they're probably just listing apps they might like to purchase.

Be prepared for arbitrary feedback.

You'll probably have gone into the casting with a pretty solid idea of your character and where you want to go with the reading, however due to the repetitive nature of their job, your casting director may become bored and throw a few curve balls at your performance for their own amusement.  Be sure to indulge their every whim with a smile like the pathetic dancing monkey you are!
Some examples you might get include, but are not limited to;

"Could you, like, do it more Welsh?"
"Try it with, like, more teeth?"
"Louder and faster, yeah?"
"Yeah, try it with a bit more emphasis on the and?"
"Could you do that line again but, like, as a squirrel?"
"In between the words 'the' and 'party' could you, like, have a little cry?"
"Do that line again but this time imagine you're fellating a guineapig, yeah?"




So... There you have it!  Bear these simple yet incalculably important guidelines in mind and before you know it you could be sitting behind Ken Barlow in the Rovers nursing a fake pint and a packet of Frazzles!


***DISCLAIMER***

This article is intended as a humorous article for entertainment purposes only and does not accurately reflect the attitudes and behaviour of real life casting directors who are universally lovely, intelligent, hard working people who smell like jasmine and camomile and are kind to animals.  Please don't not cast me in anything on the basis of this article.  You wouldn't shatter my fledgling acting career on the basis of this would you?

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Who's Finest?

You don't need to read more than a paragraph of my Man of Steel review to pick up on the fact that I really, really enjoyed the film. Sure, it has its imperfections and I can understand why people, especially true blue Superman fans took exception to elements of it but I still think that Clark / Kal got a pretty fair treatment in his long awaited return to the big screen and has already eclipsed Chris Nolan's vaunted Batman Begins in its still active theatrical run (and yes, I did adjust for inflation, you despicable pedant).
While the critical response has been mixed and the film didn't make the trillions that Warner Bros were expecting but it was evident pretty early on that the film would merit a sequel.

And the announcement was made last week at San Diego Comic Con... But not the announcement that most were expecting.

Fans went bananas when it was intimated that in the Man of Steel sequel Superman would face off against against a newly minted Dark Knight as this (hurried looking) logo was revealed;


Very shortly after friends and family sent me numerous texts and tweets dutifully asking whether or not I had wet myself yet.

Well... Here's the thing.

It here are very, very few bigger Batman fans than I.  I would also argue that there are very few bigger Superman fans. In theory the prospect of my two favourite superheroes sharing the screen for the first time ever should have me dancing perpetually with glee.

Note I say should.

But there is was so much about this announcement that just didn't sit right with me.

My fears were confounded when the news broke that the film would most likely be called Batman vs Superman.

This irked me on several levels.  Firstly as a Superman fan it irks me that the Man of Steel is being hijacked by another character (even if it is one I love very much). Not only that, he doesn't even get top billing.  
There was so much I was looking forward to in a MoS sequel, so many characters, relationships and plot points that I wanted to see developed further. It seems unlikely that the film will find time to do this now that it has to set up a brand new Bruce Wayne / Batman because remember kiddies this will definitively not be the Christian Bale Batman whom we grew accustomed to in the Dark Knight trilogy, which exists in its own pocket universe.

Secondly, it smacks of cynicism. Man of Steel didn't meet the studio's frankly unrealistic expectations and resultantly they felt the need to smack the bat-logo onto the sequel to get bat bums in seats.

Thirdly I loved Tim Burton's Batman films, even the Joel Schumacher films had their moments, the Dark Knight trilogy was utterly marvellous, if a little lacking in whimsy for my tastes.
I'm looking forward enormously to seeing what another creative team would do with the character.
But on his own terms, in his own film, not elbowing his way into Metropolis.

There's a reason people flocked to see The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble if you're British for some reason). It's because they got the audience to build up a relationship with the individual characters in their own solo films. Warner Bros are clearly trying to emulate Marvel's success while completely missing the point of what that success was attributable to.

It also really didn't help that it's been reported that Zach Snyder has been consulting with Frank Miller who has revealed himself in recent years to be at worst a right wing loony and at best a bit of a cunt.

I'll do my best to remain optimistic but again I say that I'd love to see the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight on the screen together. But at the right time, for the right reasons.

And this...  This just doesn't feel right.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Film Review: The World's End

Success can be a rod for your back.  Imagine making an affectionate genre tribute with some old mates that not only becomes a cult hit, but snowballs into an iconic moment in British cinema.
In 2004 the creative trio of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost did exactly that with the rom-zom-com Sean of the Dead and in doing so created a yardstick by which all their future creative endeavours will be measured.
Their 2007 follow up Hot Fuzz was largely enjoyed but seemed less critically lauded for no reason other than not conforming to audience expectations established by Sean of the Dead.  Skewering the action genre in the same way that 'Sean' lampooned horror Hot Fuzz remains a massively enjoyable affair that actually improves with repeat viewings.
I'd have been happy enough with this Wright/Pegg/Frost diptych, nonetheless for years rumours abound of a potential sequel to these two blood and ice cream steeped cinematic duo. 

Then, for a long time, nothing happened.

This year, seemingly out of nowhere the trinity of Wright, Pegg and Frost returned with a stellar cast and a promised human interest story with a sci fi twist.

Pegg's lead character Gary King is a very different protagonist to the hapless Sean or the painfully straight laced Nicholas Angel and it occurred to me that Pegg gets far fewer accolades for his acting talent than he deserves.  A funnyman he may be but Pegg is first and foremost an actor, and a consummate one at that, crafting a wide range of discrete, engaging and worthy characters.  In King Pegg gets the opportunity to play a character who manages to walk the line between loveable and loathesome.  A former Sisters of Mercy loving, trenchcoat sporting teen heart throb, mans man and serial pisshead, King lives perpetually in the glory days of his teen years, even as he knocks on the door of the big 4-0.  Of course his contemporaries and former drinking buddies have all gone off and grown up as is the wont of late thirtysomethings.
In a last ditch attempt to reconnect with his golden years, dragging his reluctant old crew along with him, King attempts to conquer the pub crawl from days of yore that defeated them as younger men.

As the troupe journey from one amusingly named pub to the other, quaffing pints of the amber nectar as they go, we get to see some flashes of the friendship that the group once shared as well as a lot of the jarring differences that drove them apart.  It's also a nice touch that the character filled pubs they remember from their youth have all been converted into homogenous Wetherspoons style family friendly affairs.

However, after a very strange toilet encounter (clearly referencing a particular episode of the sublime sitcom Spaced) the group quickly find out that something is awry in the little Hertfordshire town and an extra terrestrial intelligence clearly has plans for its inhabitants.

The World's End is something of a curiosity in that its biggest strength is also its biggest weakness.  Sorry to roll out the example of the film's big brother but the beauty of Sean of the Dead is that the zombies were used to facilitate beautiful moments of interaction between the characters be they comedic, romantic or sentimental in nature.
The science fiction influenced antagonists of TWE disrupt the interactions between the characters rather than enhancing it, and that results in something of a problem.

When the film's Asminovian antagonists emerge the film makes a massive tonal shift that, while not necessarily jarring is a less than welcome departure from the character moments I'd previously been enjoying.  It's a bit like visiting old friends then finding out that two of them have to dash off early to catch a train.

Nonetheless TWE is a worthy entry into the 'cornetto trilogy' featuring the witty dialogue, sentimental character moments and genre homages that one would expect from a film with this pedigree, as well as a soundtrack that should evoke find memories from anyone who grew up in the early 90s.

It may not be able to escape from its predecessor's groaning, emaciated shadow but The World's End is a witty, charming and very enjoyable film that I imagine will improve with subsequent viewings.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Film Review : Man of Steel



While my all time favourite comic book hero Batman has enjoyed some cultural legitimacy in the past ten years, largely thanks to Christopher Nolan, for far too long my close second favourite, Superman has been perceived as the embarrassing Dad of the comic book world.  His clean cut aesthetic, his unwavering moral fortitude, the bright red underpants on the outside of his tights, all of these things have rendered the character anachronistic in the eyes of the general populace and even a great many members of the geek community.
Throughout the 90s and 00s, a number of attempts were made in print and on film to "make Superman cool", be it Smallville's 'no tights-no flights' policy or Tim Burton's attempt to dress Kal El in a black rubber suit with an S logo that forms detachable daggers.
I remember rolling my eyes at these developments, all the while hoping that some day a film maker would realise that the goal of a new Superman film should not be to make Superman cool, but to make the audience believe that Superman was always cool in the first place.
Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (2006) had its heart in the right place but its nostalgic reverence for the cinematic world created by Richard Donner in 1978 served only to highlight Superman's anachronism in the eyes of popular culture.
As the development of Man of Steel gathered momentum, director Zack Snyder has been very vocal in offering us, the audience a new Superman for our times without compromising the nature of the character which has remained virtually unchanged since his inception in 1938.

And I'm delighted to say, that's exactly what we got.

To paraphrase another hugely successful superhero film, Man of Steel is the film Superman deserves AND the one he needs right now. 
 
Superhero origin stories are always problematic, especially when you're telling an origin story as familiar as that of the last son of Krypton.  We've seen baby Kal El rocketed to Earth in print and on screen numerous times over the past twenty years and it takes something pretty extraordinary to make the familiar sacrifice of Jor El and Lara seem fresh and compelling.

Imagine my delight, then when the opening moments of Man of Steel showed me a Krypton that was not only visually sumptuous but felt real and substantial and a place I was reluctant to leave when the narrative took it away from me.  Richard Donner's 1978 film had an ethereal Krypton in which the architecture and technology were composed of crystals and thereby transcended any era's notion of high tech and making those scenes truly timeless.  Snyder and production designer Alex McDowell's Krypton has an equally timeless look that evokes ancient Greece and Rome combined with an almost biomechanic technology reminiscent of H.R Gieger's designs for Alien.  A Krypton that feels lived in, ancient and indeed in decay.

Not only is the Krypton of this film visually engaging but it is populated by fascinating characters that are far more realised than in previous incarnations.  Russell Crowe's Jor El is not only his planet's greatest scientist but an undeniable badass, who shows no qualms about taking arms and placing his life on the line for the greater good when foiling the attempted insurrection of his former friend and ally General Zod.
Crowe evokes the majesty of Marlon Brando's turn as the same character without being nearly so aloof and presents us with a character for whom goodness and heroism are clearly genetic traits to be passed onto his son.  Unlike previous cinematic incarnations, this is a Jor El who has no qualms about rolling up his sleeves and picking up a blaster, nor is he even (as we see in a pulse pounding early sequence) above a bit of bare fisted pugilism in defence of what he perceives as the greater good.

At ideological loggerheads with Jor El is General Zod played by the one and only Michael Shannon.  Those of you familiar with Shannon's work will no doubt have high expectations of this celebrated character actor's first turn as a comic book villain.  Those people will not be disappointed as they witness the manic intensity we saw flashes of in films like Revolutionary Road tempered with a skewed but ultimately understandable sense of morality and duty. 

Jor El's wife Lara Lor Van has been historically short changed on film with the exception of Superman II which saw Susannah York's Lara educating Reeve's Superman on the nature of love (much of the dialogue was shot with Marlon Brando but they refused to pay his exorbitant fees for a second outing, and much of this footage was re-instated for the Richard Donner Cut of Superman II).  Unfortunately the character doesn't fare much better here, although the strikingly beautiful Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer does an admirable job of portraying a mother faced with the impossible task of surrendering her newborn child to the void of space to ensure his survival.  This might be a good time to mention Hans Zimmer's wonderfully stirring musical score which really comes into its own in the Krypton scenes.  While less lyrical than John Williams' iconic Superman theme Zimmer's soaring strings and strong percussions embody the character and world of Superman beautifully.  I strongly advise you to go straight to iTunes and download it, it really is a wonderful score.

Deviating from previous incarnations the film takes us from the departure of baby Kal El in a rocket ship bound for Earth to the present day exploits of an itinerant Clark Kent while drip feeding us flashbacks of the character's formative experiences in childhood and youth that shape his personality as he learns to adjust to his superhuman abilities.  As seen in Mark Waid's wonderful book Superman: Birthright the film presents Clark Kent as a drifter, travelling from place to place working odd jobs and helping people wherever he can until circumstances force him to use his powers, at which point he moves on before anyone can ask too many difficult questions.  The film does a great job of selling the loneliness of Clark's nomadic existence and the yearning for a purpose that seems just out of reach.

At this point I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the superb performances from the supporting cast in the Smallville flashback sequences.  First of all, Cooper Timberline and Dylan Sprayberry who play the 9 and 13 year old Clark Kent respectively do an uncommonly good job of portraying the confusion and insecurity but also the inherent goodness of the young Clark and both enjoy a wonderful on screen chemistry with Dianne Lane and Kevin Costner in the roles of Martha and Jonathan Kent.  Lane and Costner imbue their roles with pathos and angst as well as wit and charm and embody the idealised mid western family without a hint of cliché or self-consciousness and my only regret is that the pair don't spend more time on screen together.  But this is, after all a Superman origin film, so let us return to the thrust of the narrative;

Rumblings of a seismic anomaly in Antarctica draw Clark to his first encounter with investigative reporter Lois Lane at which point I feel the need to go into gushing praise mode.  
This is the best on screen Lois Lane we've ever had.
Amy Adams is one of the finest actresses working in Hollywood today and the fan community breathed a sigh of relief the day she was cast knowing that the most iconic woman in comics (who doesn't own a gold tiara and breastplate) was in good hands.  I never quite bought Margot Kidder's Lois (seriously, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist who can't spell massacre?!?) and Kate Bosworth's Lois was just a terrible parent!  Ms Adams takes a refreshingly earnest approach to the role and imbues the character with all the strength, determination, wit, intelligence, resourcefulness, charm and compassion that she deserves. 
She and Cavill share a wonderful chemistry on screen and their coy flirtation is perfectly pitched.
 There is, thankfully, no gut-wrenching "can you read my mind?" monologue nor does the uber professional Lois metamorphose into a fourteen year old girl when she sees Superman in the suit.  For want of a more artful phrase, they get it just right.  Yes, the relationship deviates in some pretty dramatic ways from how we've seen it previously in print and on screen but to my mind the film is better for it.

In the interests of avoiding spoilers I shan't give away what Clark finds in the Antarctic but those of you who have seen the trailer will be able to guess.  Suffice to say it's not long at this point until we get our first glimpse of Clark in 'the suit'.  The costume, arguably the most iconic in pop culture, is another thing that the film manages to make refreshingly different, yet also reassuringly familiar.  Eschewing spandex for mail the suit looks both alien and majestic, especially when hanging from Cavill's impressive action figure torso.
That breathtaking moment from the trailer where Clark takes flight for the first time?  Wait 'till you see it on the big screen.

Of course, no sooner has Clark found his purpose and reconnected with his Kryptonian roots when the world is suddenly threatened by the presence of an armada of battleships from outer space led by none other than General Zod.  Turns out the general isn't at all happy about being sent to the phantom zone (presented here as a deep, dark region of space where criminals are sent to be kept out of trouble and be cognitively reprogrammed, not a spinning plate of glass) for treason and has searched the galaxy for the last Kryptonian.
Zod delivers a simple ultimatum and one that you've already heard if you caught this viral video;



Deliver Kal El to his custody or Earth will suffer the consequences.

Needless to say this sets the stage for a typically bombastic superhero smackdown that makes the battle of New York in The Avengers look like a playground scuffle.  Those who lambasted Superman Returns for its lack of action will be reassured that Clark gets to 'do a lot of cool shit' in the suit but this leads me to my biggest criticism of the film.
 With the arrival of General Zod the pace of the film, which was already pretty brisk, kicks into overdrive and subtleties of character and relationships are all but lost in the noise of big explosions and CGI superbeings pummelling each other.  Relentless is a word I've heard used often in describing the film's pace and I'd be inclined to agree as at numerous points throughout the film I felt that I needed a respite from the action in order to anchor myself in the characters and their worlds before bringing on the next round of super fisticuffs.  Speaking of CGI, I recognise that in this day and age it would be impossible to showcase Superman's powers without it and for the most part WETA digital do an exemplary job with the visual effects but at numerous points in the film I was acutely aware that I was watching a CGI Superman smack around a CGI Zod which robbed the film's climactic duel of much of the impact that it should have had.

That is my biggest gripe with the film and in the grand scheme of things it's a pretty small gripe.

A great many have taken exception to the film's climax which I shan't spoil here for those of you yet to see the film but for part while I can understand the criticisms (especially from ardent Superman fans) I also see the narrative logic behind it and will be interested to see how it plays out in the inevitable sequel.

As we draw to a close I have to conclude that I loved, absolutely loved Man of Steel and for all my love of the production design, the story and the hard work of the supporting cast a great deal of my love of the film rests on one pair of extraordinarily broad shoulders.  For much of what makes Man of Steel work is attributable to its leading man.
I had seen nothing of Henry Cavill's work when his casting was announced but a quick Google image search had me thinking 'Well, he certainly looks the part'.  Seeing him in interviews his man-crush inducing blue eyes and granite jaw were supplemented by an earnest charm and private schoolboy gallantry.  When I saw the film I knew for sure what I had always suspected. 
Henry Cavill is perfect as Superman.
As much as I loved Brandon Routh, and I did, I felt that the script and direction of Superman Returns never allowed him to make the part his own as much as he probably wanted to, evoking so much of the late great Christopher Reeve, how could that not be stifling for an actor?
Cavill brings the boyscout humility that is intrinsic to the character of Superman with the rugged masculinity that has been missing from previous incarnations. 

It's a telling admission that Cavill's role is listed in the credits as Kal El / Clark Kent.  Indeed, the film is doggedly reluctant to use the term 'Superman' in its dialogue and while this irks me slightly as a fan, I like to think that the film makes Clark earn that name.  Because, much like Batman Begins before it, Man of Steel strips away the trappings that we take for granted with its antagonist and makes us believe in the person behind the gimmick.

Christopher Reeve made the world believe that a man could fly.

Henry Cavill makes us believe in a Man of Steel.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

No Comment(s)

Every now and then my eye wanders over to the traffic counter on Blogger and I realise that people, albeit an extremely limited number of them, actually read this bloody thing.
Anyway when this happens I feel the need to scroll up and down my posts seeking out comments like the attention seeking approval junkie I am.
Imagine, then, my disappointment when I find that the so-called comments are merely crude html pastings left there by anonymous spam robots (now there's an uncomfortable mental image).

Anyway what I'm saying is if you've read this blog and agree with what I say or even vitriolically disagree then please take a moment to write a second or two in response.

You've no idea what an unbelievable difference the gift of words makes!

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Film Review- The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

 
 I have now seen the first instalment of the Hobbit trilogy both in 2D and IMAX 3D, though not in HFR 3D but to be completely frank I didn't enjoy the film enough to watch it a third time in a format I have less than no interest in.

Don't get me wrong, there were a great many things I enjoyed about the film but the use of 3D was emphatically not one of them. 
And that'd not me getting on my anti-3D soapbox (which is so well worn the edges are starting to crack and the Persil label is all but invisible), the IMAX 3D version of the film showed a 10 minute prologue for the new Star Trek film where even I was marginally impressed by the use of 3D.

The 3D in the film was at best pedestrian and at worst distractingly bad.  It doesn't help that the size of the IMAX screen necessitates turning your head every now and then in order to capture everything in the frame.  Unfortunately when wearing 3D glasses the effect only works if you're facing the image straight on.  Turning your head as little as five degrees can turn things that are meant to be whizzing towards your gawping eyes into a blurry and incomprehensible mess.

But I digress...

The Hobbit : An Unexpected Journey (or The Hobbit as I will refer to it hereafter) is a mixed bag but never less than enjoyable.  Peter Jackson has, by virtue of his Lord of the Rings trilogy and his low budget sclhock horror films such as Bad Taste and Braindead, earned himself a pretty massive free pass in my mind and as such any misgivings I have about the film tend to dissipate pretty quickly.

Coming off the back of one of the most acclaimed film trilogies of all time, based upon one of the most successful literary trilogies of all time and having overcome a tortuous gestation of false starts and litigation The Hobbit had some enormous shoes (or prosthetic hairy feet) to fill.
Resultantly it's impossible to distinguish the film itself from its pedigree and give the film an entirely objective review (or Phantom Menace Syndrome).

At its best The Hobbit feels like returning to a much beloved holiday destination.  Everything is more or less the same but slightly different and tinged with the bitter-sweet knowledge that however much fun you have there it will never be as special as it was the first time.

Make no mistake, returning to Middle Earth is a beautiful experience and the film capitalises on the viewer's presumed fond familiarity with the world that Tolkein, Peter Jackson and his army of creative talent have created by beginning the film with Ian Holm and Elijah Wood as monsieurs Bilbo and Frodo Baggins preparing for the party that marks the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring before flashing back to a younger Bilbo.
Much has been made of the films higher frame rate and whether or not it negates the problems inherent in stereoscopy (3D) and whether or not it makes the film more immersive.  Let me tell you, the films immersive qualities can be attributed not to 3D or to 48 frames per second but to the elegant beauty of Howard Shore's musical score upon which I simply can't heap enough praise.
Those few opening notes of woodwind and strings that remind us that we're back in the idyllic realms of the Shire feels like sliding your feet into your favourite pair of slippers.  As a child reading the book I often used to skip over the songs as they took me out of the story.  Shore makes them intrinsic to the telling of the story and the building of the world and its cultures.

Jackson has once again assembled a sterling ensemble cast and there's no denying the simple pleasure of seeing old favourites like Sir Ian McKellen, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett (who appears to actually be ageing backwards) reprise their roles.  Sir Ian in particular is typically delightful to watch and his characteristically affable performance is, in many ways the fabric that holds the film together.
The new additions are pretty much on form though I have my doubts about Martin Freeman as a leading man.  As much as I like Freeman he functions best as a wry observer just on the periphery of the thrust of the narrative.  Just watch an episode or two of Sherlock and you'll see what I mean.  Placed front and centre Freeman's charming schtick of reacting to various events with a bemused expression on his face starts to wither under the lights.
Richard Armitage plays the part of grizzled lead dwarf Thorin Oakenshield with pitch perfect gruff machismo and former Dr Who Sylvester McCoy lends a charming eccentricity to the wizard Radaghast the Brown.
The rest of the dwarves that make up Thorin's company are largely interchangeable, though this is more a criticism of the book than the film.  Nonetheless it's always a pleasure to see Jimmy Nesbitt in anything and his jaded but sincere Boffur is the standout for me in the company of dwarves.

The lack of diversity of character amongst the dwarves isn't the only criticism of the film that is inherent in the novel which brings me to my biggest bugbear which is the decision to convert this short novel into a trilogy of films.  For all Tolkein's world building genius even his staunchest defenders must admit that narrative was not his strongest suit.
Peter Jackson's bemusing decision to stretch one of Tolkein's shortest and narratively tightest works into a trilogy is an understandable one considering the director's love of the source material and his desire to spend a little more time in Middle Earth before leaving it forever (unless, Christ help us, we get the endless and meandering Silmarillion on film).  It is, however, a decision that is to the detrimental to the cinematic experience.  Even though this film is shorter than any of the Lord of the Rings films I found myself checking my watch a few times and getting restless towards the end which is something that I could not say for any of the instalments of Jackson's previous trilogy, even in their extended editions.
Moreover, by the time the film finishes we find ourselves roughly two thirds of the way through the book which begs the question how much material is left from which to mine two more films?

By incorporating events mentioned in the appendices of the 'Rings books The Hobbit incorporates a sub plot involving Radaghast's encounter with the Witch King of Angmar and The Necromancer (a weakened incarnation of Sauron) which in and of itself is fine but seems jarring and arbitrary when inserted into the film.  Outside of establishing a context for why there are a few more baddies abound in Middle Earth than there used to be these scenes stick out like a sore thumb as being entirely unconnected to the main plot.

But by the time Gollum returns to the screen all is forgiven.

Of course, the film was always going to hinge on its depiction of the lovably loathsome loincloth clad waif and Weta digital and the ever marvellous Andy Serkis do not disappoint.  Back in 2002 when Gollum was first revealed he was rightly hailed as a milestone in digital animation that still holds up to this day.  Given a decade of technological innovation the infinitely talented creative team at Weta have managed to capture even greater subtlety and nuance from Serkis' able performance resulting in a Gollum that captures the pathos, comedy and horror of the character that make him such an enduring literary character.

But Gollum isn't the film's only technological achievement.  The dragon Smaug, the film's chief antagonist, is handled perfectly here.  While only present in stolen glimpses here and there Smaug is identified more by the gale caused by his enormous beating wings and the destruction left in his wake.  These subtle teases coupled with the promise of Benedict Cumberbatch's voice have pretty much pre-sold my ticket for The Hobbit : The Desolation of Smaug.

So... It's uneven compared to any of Jackson's previous trips to Middle Earth but when at the top of it's game The Hobbit : An Unexpected Journey's merits vastly outshine its flaws.