Archive for Martin Freeman

Even Dwarves Startled Smaug

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , on January 14, 2014 by dcairns


So, we saw this really unusual episode of Sherlock. The great detective wasn’t in Baker Street this time, he was in a cave, and Dr Watson was, like, really small and had a sword. Here I shall try to explain myself, lest I be suspected of madness or indulgence in symbolism. I was at the Vue multiplex and saw THE HOBBIT part 2, THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, in Higher Frame Rate 3D.

The Higher Frame Rate, or HRT for short, didn’t bother me so much this time. I think it was used more skillfully, and nothing looked speeded-up anymore, which leads me to suspect stuff really WAS speeded-up last time. Or maybe it’s the fact that after watching the first film, and then seeing another film at a friend’s house with the smooth-vision set on his TV, I’m getting used to the look. You can get used to anything, I suppose, even having a hook for a hand that’s made from a crowbar stuck right up your arm and sticking out your elbow, although if you want to get used to that it probably helps to be called “the Defiler.”

(Melancholy to see that HRT, despite being showcased by a hugely successful franchise, appears to be dying: only one screen of the dozen or so showing HOB2 in Edinburgh offers the HRT option. And yes, I do know that HRT isn’t the acronym for Higher Frame Rate, but it’s more poetic that way.)

Of course the film suffers from middle-film syndrome (no real beginning or ending) and galloping elephantiasis, but Fiona is a dedicated cumberbitch so we had to go so she could see Benedict Cumberbatch play a cumbersome bandersnatch. And, having gone, I enjoyed the following —

The guy who plays the bear, Mikael Persbrandt. For every dozen actors who thud about with their olde worlde exposition, each film in this series has introduced somebody who really excels at cod-medieval thick-ear. The Ians, Holm and McKellen, and Sean Bean and Viggo Mortensen and Bernard Hill. And, perhaps oddly, Sylvester McCoy. The guy who plays the bear is gently electrifying, although the makeup department have done their best to make him hard to look at, like a grotesque in a Farrelly Brothers film.

The spiders. Creepy without being as repulsive as the pit-things in Jackson’s KONG. There’s a lovely trick whereby Tolkein’s “talking animals” malarkey, an awkward jolt of tonal difference between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, is explained by Bilbo’s wearing of the ring, which always seemed to put the wearer into a kind of ghost dimension. Later, this is used to introduce the fact that Smaug the dragon is also pretty chatty.


The barrel chase — really ridiculous action excess. I seemed to be the only one laughing hysterically at it, but I still insist it’s very funny.

The guy who plays Bard seems like a credible person, which is hard to do in this environment.

The trippy stuff in Mirkwood. Bilbo looks down at his feet as he walks forward — and they seem to move backwards. He looks behind himself — and sees himself. I would have welcomed more of this genuinely imaginative stuff (goblins and ogres are not particularly imaginative).

The effects of the ring on Bilbo: as it takes possession of his soul, Martin Freeman is forced into radical schtick reduction. Jackson has a tendency to encourage self-caricature in his actors, but the schtick-lessening is helping reintroduce behaviour.

The dragon. There are two really great dragons, and both belong to Disney. One is Maleficent (SLEEPING BEAUTY), the other is Vermithrax Pejorative (DRAGONSLAYER). Smaug is basically the latter, with the voice of Briarpatch Cucumberdick Cunnibutch Bumbleduck Bendydick Cummerbund Bundydutch Campervan Bunnyduct Catcherbump.


Outside Mirkwood, mind you, is the worst scene of the film. Looking one way, we have a normal NZ location, a big field basically, filmed on a dull, overcast day, with a lot of actors in fancy dress looking like some kind of role-playing society. Looking the other way, we have a highly designed fantasy forest, a triumph of faux-Disney production design. The axis of shooting causes these two environments to stay completely separate, so that cutting between them becomes an exercise in stretching Kuleshov’s principles to breaking point.

Short People

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2012 by dcairns

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

“Shit just got unreal” was my Facebook comment on THE HOBBIT Part The First, which is perhaps a little unfair. The merits and demerits of the movie, the franchise, Peter Jackson the filmmaker and the faster frame rate and the RED camera all deserve a slightly more nuanced discussion than those four words.

I liked it better than Fiona! In some ways it has the same flaws as the LORD OF THE RINGS films before it, only amplified. And the 3D and 48 fps may be problematic in the same way that the digital effects in the STAR WARS prequels were problematic — they make the film seem less of a piece with its predecessors. But THE HOBBIT isn’t as bad as THE PHANTOM MENACE, let’s get that straight…

(Maybe Jackson should have shot at 24 and projected at 48, thereby making the film half as long?)

I enjoyed some of the action and settings, and the HFR probably allowed me to follow the fights and chase more readily than I could otherwise — Jackson tended to film too close in LORD OF THE RINGS, making close-up skirmishes dissolve into blurry chaos. Either because he’s improved or the technology has helped solve the issue, that didn’t happen here. I didn’t enjoy the performances as much. LOTR uses “epic acting,” big, bombastic, cod-Shakespearean and borderline campy, but much of it was done with skill and a kind of good taste. Here, I felt the usually reliable Ian McKellen was huffing and chuntering to himself too much, and he didn’t seem to have any other characters to talk to. Among the dwarves, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt and Aidan Turner managed to get some human interaction going with Martin Freeman’s Bilbo (some reality but too much schtick), the rest were basically flatulent garden gnomes. Richard Armitage doesn’t manage to make anything convincing or interesting out of Thorin Oakenshield’s bluster and grouch.


I’m told that McKellen had to act his scene at the dinner table with a bunch of paper cut-out heads on sticks, with light bulbs that flashed on to signal when each character was speaking so he could look in the right direction. I would, on the whole, far rather see that version of the scene. Those character designs are not very appealing! Why does only one dwarf bear any resemblance to John Rhys-Davies in LOTR, who had a very detailed and specific and non-Disney look? Why does one dwarf have a bald head with what looks like a bar code on it? One looks like a waxwork of Finlay Currie, one Sean Penn, and several of them have shoelaces for hair. Not a good look.

But the reason I went, and was excited to go, was the 48 frames thing. I’d heard so much about how horrible it was, I couldn’t wait. I couldn’t picture a big expensive epic that moved like a cheap TV show, and I was fascinated to see what that would be like — it was sure to be interesting! I got a lot of intellectual pleasure trying to describe that awful Zemeckis mo-cap BEOWULF, so I just couldn’t wait.

It was indeed a very interesting thing to see. It may have had invisible benefits to action and movement which we’d only be aware of if comparing directly with a 24fps version, but it did some spectacular uglifying. Some people have compared it to cheap soap operas, to demo reels, but what I was reminded of was a making-of documentary. There you see the actors, fully costumed and made up, on set, delivering dialogue — and it’s not the same as the movie, because it’s filmed with the wrong camera, and you don’t feel part of the action the way you do in a film, you feel like an observer on the set. It’s very REAL, for sure, because the sense of cinema is stripped away, but this exposes every bit of artifice in the design and presentation and performance. Even Howard Shore’s music seemed weirdly wrong, as if it was being piped into the hobbit hole.

This applied mainly to the Bag End scene and other conversations. The only acting scene that really worked was the “Riddles in the Dark” confrontation with Gollum, which was great and I think one would have to be pretty curmudgeonly or else just averse to any kind of halfling-based performance piece to dislike. Oh, and Sylvester McCoy was good when he was on his own, acting with CGI hedgehogs.

The long shots looked mostly OK, I thought, and still scenes were fine. The action had a verité feel that made me think something like CLOVERFIELD might be good at 48fps. I wondered if the dragon attack would gain any of the feeling of real disaster footage, like 9:11 or the tsunami, but the swooping filming style didn’t allow for that. There was a very weird clash of feelings when Jackson intercut the big subterranean goblin chase with Bilbo’s one-one-one struggles with Gollum — Gollum’s last sequence had a particularly televisual quality, like a 70s Outside Broadcast Unit section from Dr Who — those plastic-looking caves. And then Gollum would crawl into shot and there’d be the thrill of the impossible — a modern CGI character who couldn’t be played by a man in a suit and who looks very convincing, appearing in the background of a fake cave that looks like part of actuality footage shot forty years ago with a tube camera. Not an effect that I think was intentional, or desirable, except that it was so damned odd it gave me a lot of pleasure.


What I’m saying is that although I did get somewhat used to the process over the nearly three hour running time, I was still blown out of the movie by it repeatedly, right up until the end. If the movie had seemed like a masterpiece, that would have been hugely frustrating, but as it was only a middling Middle Earth epic, I was actually entertained by my own on-again-off-again disengagement. I mildly enjoyed the big fight at the end, but not as much as I enjoyed the High Weirdness of megabudget + cheapness. I was a bit frustrated by the lack of wagon wheels, though: apparently at a higher frame rate they not longer seem to turn backwards, as they do at 24fps. Jackson cruelly robbed me of the chance to finally see correct spin.

Remembering the troubles people had with early sound and widescreen, we shouldn’t be too hard on any problems Jackson’s encountering — maybe our eyes will simply retrain our brains and the associations with crappy video will fall away and the merits of the new technology will become obvious. But for now, I say enjoy the weirdness — you won’t have had an experience like this before.