Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Review: "The Hobbit - The Desolation of Smaug"

JACKSON, Peter (Dir.), “The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug” New Line Cinema/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Wingnut Films, 2013.

By way of kicking off this review, I’m going to repeat a point I made last year: there’s a pronunciation guide that accompanies Tolkien’s epic saga and it tells any reader who cares to wander into the Appendices, how to say those funny Elvish, Dwarven, whatever, words. You might choose to look it up yourself – given that Peter Jackson et.al. obviously chose not to – or you might opt to experience the polyglot miscellany of the movie’s dialogue on its own merit. For the present exercise, I will write all of the names that I have to discuss phonetically, and let you, the reader, gauge how far off the mark the script, direction and dialogue coaching is, in these movies.

First off, this series has a distinct odour to it. You know the reek that contaminates those Disney film sequels that show up a couple of years after the original animated treat hits the cinemas? “Aladdin’s Winter Holiday Adventure”; “Mulan II: Mulan versus the Golden Horde”; “The Little Mermaid: Ariel and Ursula’s Tap Dance Face-Off”: they look like the real deal but there’s something off about them. Perhaps some of the original voice talent couldn’t return for the sequel; maybe it’s because one of Disney’s second-string animation studios has pushed it through to deadline. “The Hobbit”? Like that.

It’s not just the patchy dialogue that adds to this either. There are little giveaways all through the piece. In the compositing, eyelines are often shaky: in Laketown when Bard and T-Horin (see what I did there?) square off, neither of them seems to be actually staring the other in the eye; and the scenes in BEE-orn’s house were a jumble of big and little objects and creatures that didn’t seem to fit any perspective at all. It seems that the visual trickery crew at Weta Workshop have become somewhat lackadaisical in their approach and have taken a ‘she’ll be right’ view of these matters.

The make-up is a little iffy too. I’ve never liked the ‘hobbit-feet’ thing, but throughout “Lord Of The Rings”, we only have to endure them a handful (heh) of times in close-up. With the dwarves, the actors are forcing their skills through drenching layers of latex and fake hair to begin with; but was there really any point in forcing them to wear prosthetic hands as well? There’s a bit where T-Horin is scrabbling at the secret door, looking for the keyhole, and his bulky plastic hands are 1) lumpen and awkward, and 2) obviously made of rubber; at another point, Lego-lass and Tauriel (I’ll get to this name in a minute) are making dialogue and you can clearly see the loose edge of her rubber ear as she turns her head for a second. These are things that absolutely would not have happened in the “LOTR”.

Plot and pacing suffer from this ‘she’ll be right’ attitude too. There’s a case for foreshadowing in these works: the journey to the Lonely Mountain and the encounter with SmOWg is a prelude to Froh-doh’s holiday at Mount Doom. This is a classic literary motif which hearkens back to the Bible. In “The Hobbit”, much of the plot is simply filler material designed to throw impact onto events in the later “LOTR” films, which would be fine if the “The Hobbit” was made before those three movies. In the first “Hobbit” we got the three trolls, Gandalf’s moth trick and the Eagle Boys Pizza Delivery Service; the second “Hobbit” layers it on again: here’s rain-drenched Bree, complete with Peter Jackson stumbling through the night, violently decapitating carrots; here’s the Prancing Pony with menace lurking in the shadows; there’s a fight with a giant spider; here we are encountering feisty elves in an extravagant forest; here’s one of our diminutive heroes struck down by a morg-ool-weapon and healed by a she-elf with a bunch of King’s Foil; here’s the corrupt city ruler misled by the weaselly advisor. See? It’s easy: this stuff writes itself.

(What’s the opposite of foreshadowing I wonder? Anticlimax? Tedium?)

The pacing gives things away too. The despair of the dwarves at the secret door – having missed the last light of Durin’s Day – flicks on and off again like someone’s working a switch. It’s as if the scriptwriters looked over their day’s effort and said ‘we need a bit of teary-eyed, dramatic dialogue here’ and just patched it in. These moments in “LOTR” are never contrived and are genuinely moving; here, they come off half-cocked. I suspect it’s Jackson’s inflexible notion that ‘dwarves’ equal ‘funny’, so he refuses to give them any gravitas whatsoever. For him it’s a cast made up of Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, Gummo, Larry, Curley, Moe, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields: you don’t waste the love scenes or the stirring monologues on these guys. Although when these types of scenes do fall into their laps, there’s a feeling that it’s only being grudgingly offered. The fact that they’re all dressed like extras from a live-action Asterix movie doesn’t help either (for Christ’s sake, why can’t they just yank that stupid axe-head out of BIFF-er’s head?!)

(Seriously: have they actually read The Hobbit? T-Horin Oakenshield is at least the equal in majesty of THAY-oden; GLOH-in is supposed to be a wise elder, not a cunning street pedlar (despite their cover story of travelling merchants, which is supposed to be a ruse that everyone they meet sees straight through). Bomb-Ber is supposed to be the spiritual core of the group, not a spinning-barrel-of-destruction, target for cheap fat jokes. In the book, these guys drip majesty; you can smell the lineage and heroism coming off them; in the movie, it’s all nyuck, nyuck, nyuck! Whoops! [Fart!])

The opening scene is a pacing issue too; or a case where the editor dropped the ball, however you want to read it. It’s a flashback to Bree, a year before the meeting at Bilbo’s house, wherein Gandalf meets T-Horin at the sign of the Prancing Pony. There’s menace in the shadows, a cameo by Jackson, some off-kilter eyelines (foreshadowing as hard as we can here!): Gandalf says ‘dude, I’ve been telling you for ages to shoo that dragon out of your Scrooge McDuck money bin. Why don’t you man up and get it done?’ To which Master Oakenshield says, ‘alright’. Then we cut to Bilbo in close up with the words “Twelve Months Later” across the bottom of the screen in some bog-standard, non-Middle-Earth-y font that just screams ‘we couldn’t be bothered’. What is this scene doing? What purpose does it serve? Not much to my mind, except that it begins the erosion of Gandalf’s trustworthiness:

One thing we learn from this movie is that Gandalf is not great at commitment: ‘Dudes’, he says, ‘I’m comin’ with you guys to the ‘Mountain, dudes!’; then it’s, ‘Crazy elf forest ahead, dudes! But I just remembered I’ve got this really important - thing - I have to go get done, but you’ll be cool, right? I’ll see you later on at the Overlook, fo’shizzle!’. And then he pulls a no-show. Sure it’s because he ditched Radagast (and who wouldn’t ditch the bunny-rider with bird-shit in his hair – not cool dude) and went mano a mano with the Witch King, but it’s just impolite to make a date and not show up. Where are your birdy friends now, G-man? Tardiness in wizards was almost excusable in “LOTR”; “The Hobbit” demonstrates that it’s a chronic fault.

And yes, I know it happens in the book, but there, it’s handled differently. The way Jackson et.al. work it, it’s highlighted, made more obvious; it comes off as a character flaw, not a mysterious sub-text as Tolkien wanted it.

The connective tissue between all this re-working of the “LOTR” material (aka., ‘foreshadowing’) is more of the goofy, fighting free-for-all that dominated the first film (and which demonstrates the fact that Jackson hasn’t quite gotten over his brush with “Tintin”). This time we get the Elvish version, as well as all the gravity-defying Dwarven high-jinks, with Lego-lass along for the ride. Orlando Bloom’s stony-faced portrayal of wood-elf virtuosity makes all his character’s flash moves seem a bit ho-hum, like it’s just another day at the office (and maybe it is); he also seems much chunkier than the “LOTR” Lego-lass too, which was a little distracting. In fact, the guy who plays Bard in the film, looks more like Lego-lass than Lego-lass does. Weird.

The fighting brings up another point: Jackson wanted this movie to be seen in 3-D with a high frame-rate. This was obviously his vision for the film. If you don’t go to see this flick in a cinema that offers these options, you will be Punished. Big time. In two dimensions, things flash across the screen too fast to recognise, and things roar out of the background too fast to follow. You don’t see half of the dwarven pratfalls (thank God!) and you miss all the Elven slick moves. So if you do go and see it in ‘normal mode’, use the fight scenes to kick back, maybe visit the loo, ruffle your popcorn a bit and await the next piece of ‘foreshadowing’.

Of the few things I liked about the first “Hobbit”, the second film starts to erode them also. The orcs were very cool, despite being on ‘bad-ass overdrive’ in comparison to the good guys; now they’re being ramped up even more. The second-in-command orc (“Bolg”) seems to have metal plates inserted into his body between his ribs: I’m no doctor, but that kind of affectation screams ‘tetanus’, and ‘septicaemia’, to me. Rather than increase the opposition’s offensiveness (in all senses) between instalments, they should have just built them to a certain level and left it at that. If World War Two had been a fashion show, the Nazis would have won hands down; in this story, the orcs are definitely ahead on points, but they’re starting to push it just a little (spiked collars are so last week).

What else? Did you know that ‘Tauriel’ is a cabbalistic angel of the Zodiac? I applaud the inclusion of another female character in the cast and the way that they accomplish this is a great way to facilitate things. But there are those pesky Appendices in Tolkien’s books (not to mention university-accredited academics who can speak the Elven tongue fluently) who might have provided a name more in keeping with Tolkien’s vision. Seriously, in this day and age, did they think nobody would notice? I’m not sure about the romantic sub-plot they’re developing with her and Kee-lee (seriously, I’m seeing the dwarf/elf equivalent of ligers in their future) and the healing scene had most of the audience at the session I was in, tittering inappropriately; but I’m happy to wait and watch (despite knowing what’s coming!).

Last year, I said that “An Unexpected Journey” seemed like a bunch of reiteration that was intended to set up the pay-off to come; after “The Desolation of SmOWg”, I feel as though I’ve just watched a low-budget, Readers’ Digest re-telling of “The Lord of the Rings” (now with MORE dwarven humour! Nyuck, nyuck!). Possibly, my experience would have been better if I’d shelled out the big end of fifty bucks to see it in Hyper-Dimensional, Smell-O-Ramic, Sensurround-O-Vision™, but I suspect not.

If you go down to the woods today, you’ll find it’s same-old, same-old in Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth.

Two tentacled horrors.

PS: Don’t go see this film if you’re a Tolkien tragic, or a “LOTR” fan desperate for a fix (you know who you are): go and see it for Martin Freeman, who is fantastic. (Go, Watson!)

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Review: Culbard's "The Shadow Out of Time"

LOVECRAFT, H.P., & I.N.J. CULBARD, “The Shadow Out Of Time”, SelfMadeHero, London, 2013.
Octavo-sized duodecimo; perfect-bound in gatefold illustrated wrappers; unpaginated (120pp.), with many illustrations. Very good.

I came across this quite by accident in the local new book store in Leura. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular – just checking the new releases so that I could seem to talk intelligently with the customers in the shop where I work – but once I spotted it I knew that it would be coming home with me.

Essentially, this is a graphic novelisation of Lovecraft’s novella, stretching from dream-haunted Arkham to the land Down Under. The comics format is especially good for telling such tales of the weird and fantastic, because – fundamentally – it is not limited by annoying factors such as a budget. The recently-aborted attempt by Guillermo del Toro to film “At The Mountains Of Madness” demonstrates exactly why filmic interpretations are so often destined to fail, either never leaving the drawing board, or dying due to woeful execution. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve said often enough in the past that sometimes economic constraints serve to create ingenious work-arounds, as in the case of the HPLHS’s “Call of Cthulhu”; but the graphic novel approach shifts the whole exercise onto a different playing field, unlimited by such restrictions.

The really BIG Lovecraft works – “Mountains”, “Shadow over Innsmouth” “Haunter of the Dark” – require a Peter Jackson-like approach to film: there’re so many essential notes that have to be struck, before even thinking about adding anything extra, that your resources are used up right from the start. Smaller works such as “Cool Air”, “From Beyond”, even “Whisperer”, require fewer fundamental elements, most of which are available to hand, that there is scope to polish and embellish around the edges of what are – in essence – simple tales. (For my money, as a fan of del Toro’s “Cronos”, I think he’d do a wonderful job of “Cool Air”.)

Graphic novels overcome the need to search for exotic locales, or rare and expensive equipment and set pieces, with the stroke of a pencil. Need huge cyclopean ruins? Done. Want soul-shattering expanses of outer space? Done. It’s that easy.

Of course, like any transliteration from one medium to another, the material has to be massaged to fit the new format. In the present case, most of the descriptive passages of the original text can be done away with – the illustrations step in and fill that objective. What’s left are the pacing and the delineations of character. In the present instance, this is a commanding performance: action and reaction flow seamlessly across the narrative, encapsulating the thoughts and emotions of all the players.

The other chore that the interpreter of such material has to address, is hitting all of the beats. If something is left out, there’s a world of fans out there that will definitely wail and moan about it. Again, the graphic format can subsume a lot of this effort and the author/illustrator on this work has done an excellent job. After these things have been accomplished, all that remains is for the creator to embellish and place emphasis. For the first time here, we start to run into some issues.

In the original story, the narrative moves inevitably to a specific conclusion; that is, the thing that Dr Peaslee finds buried in the sands of Australia’s western deserts. Reading HPL’s tale, it’s easy to see that this event, and what it entails for the protagonist, are his motivations for writing the narrative, indeed for putting pen to paper: this is the gimmick; the trick of the story, if you will. Culbard moves the focus away from this; it still happens – and takes place in the narrative stream where it is supposed to – but its impact is greatly watered down. Perhaps, after such a long period of time since the first publication of the story, Culbard felt that this revelation was too pat for today’s sophisticated reading audience; he’s not the first writer to have altered an original tale for such reasons, as any number of recent adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple stories will demonstrate.

To my mind, this is a weakness. If the story is worth re-telling, then the intentions of the original author should be preserved. Without these, it becomes a different story with different goals. I don’t mind if a later adaptation places emphasis on unexplored themes which are already extant in the material, that’s fine: that’s merely embellishment, not a re-working.

In this case, Culbard places emphasis on the relationship between Peaslee senior and his son Wingate. We see the disintegration of the Peaslee domestic arrangement, and the further family disharmony which forces the younger academic from the home of his mother and her new husband. This certainly does not paint the former Mrs Peaslee in the light of an ideal parent, but it does add a layer of complexity to the narrative which does nothing to detract from it. Unfortunately, this theme of single fathers and their relationships with their offspring becomes the point of the story for Culbard and, sadly, deflects the hammer-blow of HPL’s final, dreadful revelation. The horror lies in what the Great Race is doing; not the incidental damage that they accrue to the families of individual people whose lives they affect. The ramifications of the Yithians’ time-hopping are profound, across the whole of humanity, and shouldn’t be equated with the effects of, say, a fatal car crash on one family unit. It may be that Culbard was reaching for a way to make the cosmic horror more personal and identifiable; if that’s the case, I don’t think it entirely worked.

There are other things which Culbard slips in which are cute and very entertaining. In one scene, the Yithian Peaslee and his guide perform a ‘drive by’ past the snoozing Cthulhu: Peaslee asks why the Great Race didn’t occupy this titanic creature? The guide dismisses the notion by saying sniffily that “it does nothing but sleep”. Other references to Mythos lore pop up here and there – the Mi Go; the Elder Things – and these work well within the context of the story, laying a backdrop, or timeline, of Mythos encroachment upon the Earth.

My final comments are to do with the artwork. For the most part, this is workman-like stuff, adequately fulfilling its purpose. Culbard has obvious fun with various cosmic horrors and manages to break the mould a little in places: his Yithians are entirely unique and add a benign pathos to what are essentially unknowable monsters. I was less interested in his Flying Polyps which seemed a little sketchy and lacking menace. At its best, the art is great at conveying the scope of the environments and the pace of the action; at worst, it can seem somewhat flat.

That being said, the whole project manages to capture the essence and spirit of HPL’s work (despite the tinkering mentioned above): there is serious skill involved in adapting something like this and doing it so seamlessly. Culbard has also penned versions of “The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “At The Mountains Of Madness” (for which he received the British Fantasy Award in 2011); I’d be keen to check out either of these on the strength of this offering.

Three-and-a-half Tentacled Horrors from me.