Archive for The Hobbit

Quartermain and the Pit

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 11, 2017 by dcairns

Maybe the 1937 KING SOLOMON’S MINES is the best?

I do have a story from the 1950 version, though, courtesy of my late friend and spy in the pages of film history, Lawrie Knight. He reports that one morning, Stewart Granger was nowhere to be found on the African location. He had heard lions roaring in the night, from his tent, and jumped on the first flight back to Merrie and Lion-Free England. That is all.

The ’37 one is in part a vehicle for Paul Robeson, which means its inherent colonial racism gets softened somewhat. Also, it has more singing than any other version — no bad thing. It’s also, just as significantly, a vehicle for Roland Young, whose comedy mutterings deflate a lot of the would-be grandeur and again soften any hint of white supremacy. You just can’t make a case for that kind of beastliness if one of your prime exhibits of pallid masculinity is the daffy, tight-lipped Young.

   

The charm offensive is enhanced by the director’s lovely wife Anna Lee, doing what she fondly imagines is an Irish accent, and then there’s John Loder who’s inoffensive here, acting as a kind of foam wadding between the more charismatic players, and then there’s Cedric Hardwicke as Allan Quartermain, a surprising choice when you compare him to Granger or Richard Chamberlain or even Sean Connery, but quite an effective one — he has more authority than all of them, and manages to ACT the necessary ruggedness. You believe he could be a great white hunter, or possibly a gray-white hunter.

It’s interesting that director Robert Stevenson, at the far end of his long career, would wind up tackling similar boy’s-own nonsense in Disney’s ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD. And there’s a trick to this one — the impressive African locales were all shot with stand-ins by co-director Geoffrey Barkas, with the expensive cast nowhere to be seen. The only bush they went near was Shepherd’s Bush. The footage is nimbly cut together with Stevenson’s English material (studio and exterior, usually low-angles to conceal the lack of dark continent vistas) and the illusion is almost perfect — the fact that you CAN see through it just provides an amusing tickle of subconscious entertainment running parallel to the plot and character business.

The later Disney film is similarly discombobulated, but much worse, for there the two kinds of footage try to join hands through the medium of rear-screen photography, so we have poor Donald Sinden jogging on the spot in front of process shots of Norwegian lava. (I can’t recall for sure, not having seen this film since I was ten, but I strongly suspect the lava was of the miniature variety, too.)

We saw the movie on Talking Pictures TV and were glad of it. Regrettably, great fuzzy blobs of genital fogging descended upon it, despite the lack of genitals involved. Their targets were the bazooms of the native girls, proudly displayed during ritual dances or just standing around, “to swell a scene” as T.S. Eliot would put it. Gone are the days, it seems, when the National Geographic double standard held illimitable dominion over all — native girls in their native attire on their native land were deemed not obscene, by the BBFC it seems as well as by estimable ethnographic magazines consumed avidly in private by schoolboys.

Transplant those same girls to UK or US soil, and you’d have pornography. It struck me that in the original TV roots, there was nudity on the slave ship crossing the Atlantic, a rarity for TV but one considered justified by drama and historical and ethnographic concerns and political seriousness. But the breasts stopped at Plymouth Rock, or wherever it is slave ships dock. The abducted women were now Americans, and could not therefore be seen topless.

(Is it coincidence that the first female nude in mainstream American cinema is African-American, in Sidney Lumet’s THE PAWNBROKER? Was there a mental connection to National Geographic that made Thelma Oliver’s dusky chest easier to swallow? Of course the extreme seriousness of the film’s theme must have helped too, as the nudity of Oliver connects directly via the main character’s mental association to his memories of the Holocaust. Very un-sexy tragedies seem to be key to be overcoming prudish censorship.)

Things mumbled by Roland Young in KING SOLOMON’S MINES ~

“No reason for being insanitary, even in Africa.”

“Mn, ah, mm, steady, mm, naaah…”

“My only toothbrush is in that wagon.”

“And what’s left of my trousers.”

“Mnyep.”

“Owh. Owwwhh.”

“Mnm.”

“I suppose we’re going to have melons today? Don’t the birds in this country ever lay eggs?”

“Seem to be a lot of people about, for an uninhabited country.”

“So unlike the home life of our dear queen.”

“Funny to think it’s Derby Day back home.”

Of a hundred-year-old witch doctor: “Would you say that she was… well-preserved?

Also: “Reminds me of my poor old Aunt Hannah… she came to no good.”

“It is too bad that just when we get to a fortune in diamonds, the mountain should decide to sit down on it.”

Also, on espying vultures circling, Young asks of Robeson, “What are those birds?”

“Aasvogel.”

“Must be, to live in a place like this.”

Considerable wits were involved in the screenplay — Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett, and humorist Roland Pertwee.

The South African locations and Alfred Junge sets are augmented by nifty model shots — this scene looks very LORD OF THE RINGS, and minutes later we will realise that Tolkein’s Mount Doom has a lot in common with Rider Haggard’s subterranean realm, at least as visualised here — a secret tunnel opens out onto an underground lake of lava, complete with your basic Dramatic Overhanging Precipice. Throw in an ancient treasure and The Hobbit is prefigured also… This movie came out the same year as Tolkein’s first book, so it’s unlikely to have been a direct influence, but if young John Ronald Reuel had decided to celebrate publication by taking his best girl on a hot date to see the latest Cedric Hardwicke flick, he would certainly have looked upon these scenes and said, “This is just the sort of shit I like!”

 

Advertisements

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.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

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.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

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.

Straight to Hell

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2008 by dcairns

A few spoilers ahead.

Guillermo del Toro with cast. I like Abe Sapiens’ posture here.

Fiona’s a massive Guillermo del Toro fan, and I generally like him. Our favourite is THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE.

So it was with some excitement we sloped off to a preview screening of HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY, but with disappointment we sloped out afterwards. The excellent reviews seemed as if they were written under the spell of PAN’S LABYRINTH, which got the raves that DEVIL’S BACKBONE deserved.

While HELLBOY suffers from too little variety on the monster front, but is somewhat redeemed by a genuinely sweet love story (a complete departure from Mike Mignola’s endearingly simplistic comic book) and some imaginative visuals, the sequel has more monsters than you can shake a Fist of Doom at, but the emotional side is distinctly lacking, while the plot is pretty thin too. It reminds me more than anything of Clive Barker’s NIGHTBREED, a film so packed with monsters as to boggle the mind. Beautiful monsters. But the moviemakers don’t have the slightest idea what to DO with them all.

It all leads me to consider the difficulty of the action movie. The supposed formula of delivering some kind of action every ten minutes (does anybody really do this? I think maybe they do, although the action needn’t be a huge set-piece) creates particular problems for this kind of cinema, since rarely does the action progress the plot or develop the characters, so that the film takes twice as long to tell what’s probably a simple enough story. BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT may be complicated as these things go, but it could probably accomplish its narrative goals in 90 minutes if it didn’t have to keep suspending the plot for another spot of rubber-clad judo.

Extreme examples: Anthony Waller’s AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS, which kind of sank his briefly-promising career, features an extended escape sequence with a chase, a  fight, and a recapture, resulting in the character back where they started, absolutely no further forward in the story; Peter Jackson’s KING KONG, in which the character who can’t shoot a gun can suddenly shoot brilliantly, the goddamn screenwriter is a vine-swinging super-Tarzan and the chubby film director can outrun a raptor.

It’s perfectly possible to use an action sequence to move the plot forward, by having the characters progress towards a goal. And it’s not only possible but NOT HARD to have them stay in character while they do it. One positive thing about HELLBOY is how good Ron Perlman is at doing superhuman stuff in a human way (but the catchphrase “Oh crap,” needs to be retired).

An action movie can obey the rules of basic narrative and still not be particularly good, but it certainly helps if attention is paid to human nature and storytelling and those things. The only alternative would be a kind of playfulness, as attempted in the CHARLIE’S ANGELS films, which are actually kind of radical in the way they ignore all but the most basic story concerns and try to get by on variety: colour, sexiness, jokes and music. But that is hard, almost impossible to sustain over feature length, and even if you manage to pass the time there’s a danger that the audience won’t feel it’s really experienced anything.

HELLBOY II’s weakest scenario may be the fight with the elemental, a giant Miyazaki-like abstract tree spirit, conjured by bad guy Luke Goss (!) for no real reason, and killed by Hellboy without affecting the outcome of anything else. The sole purpose of this expensive set-piece seems to be to show the public turning on Hellboy, an X-Men / Spiderman trope that was, incredibly, handled better in both those series.

There’s also a lot of slightly crude “humour”, much of which is jarring and unfunny. Throwing in “schwanstucker” references after the story’s quasi-tragic denouement just seems crass. New guy Johann Krauss has an interesting look (del Toro’s sketches have been transformed into great costumes by Sammy Sheldon) and a cool backstory (not given in the film), but basically becomes the pretext for a bunch of lame German jokes.

Probably the most foolish decision was to announce a major character’s pregnancy and then do nothing with it. Watching Hellboy deal with the prospect of fatherhood is all very well, but can’t compare to the fun we could have seeing the actuality of Red as a proud pop. Del Toro is obviously saving this up for the putative threequel, which seems a parsimonious approach to this paying customer. If you’ve got a better story to tell, TELL IT.

It doesn’t help that the direction seems lacklustre. Wipes are usually a sign of a film in trouble — here they’re a development of that cutting pattern deployed in PAN’S LABYRINTH, where the camera passes behind something dark and emerges in a new scene, but the device has been amped up to the level of nervous tic. Del Toro does it so often I started to expect a slick digital transition whenever anybody walked past the lens.

Being overpraised for weak work can be as damaging to a filmmaker as being slated for good work. My best hope for del Toro is that he abandon series-based films (his next project, THE HOBBIT, fills me with foreboding) and settle down to tell some complete stories again.