The Desolation of the Hobbit

Barrels of fun

Peter Jackson is in love with special effects. I know – it shouldn’t come as a surprise to me when we’re talking about the man who started out by doing gory splatter films and decided to spend his newfound director stardom on yet another remake of King Kong. But man, it does get tiresome in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Of course, effects is and must be tremendously important in a film trying to recreate Tolkien’s world. The problem comes from how the spectacle takes centre stage here, actively hurting the experience. The movie shoves tedious chase sequences or battle scenes in your face frequently and repeatedly, scenes so long I have lost interest in what’s going on well before they’ve reached their conclusion. They’re drenched in CGI effects allowing for stunts so unrealistic I quickly lose my suspension of disbelief, and all the tension is lost.

Even if Jackson hadn’t torpedoed himself this way, the stakes are low to non-existent because the premise of these scenes are rarely about anything else except the characters’ physical safety – and I’m pretty sure they’ll be OK. It becomes a roller-coaster ride you watch others experience.

There’s a big difference between the adaptions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Hobbit movies. For Lord of the Rings Jackson had to edit down three extensive novels into three movies. This guided him to choose wisely what to portray in the movies, enforcing rather tight, economical storytelling. With The Hobbit he was allowed to expand a single (rather simple) novel into three long movies. 

The result tells us that the man needs an editor, badly.

Padding the story by borrowing material from the Silmarillion (and, I guess, quite a lot from Jackson himself) fragments it with endless uninteresting subplots that fail to create a cohesive whole, seemingly disconnected from a main premise that in itself doesn’t feel important.

Unlike the Lord of the Rings books, The Hobbit – the novel – simply doesn’t have what it takes to frame the epic saga of good versus evil that Jackson has envisioned for his new trilogy. It’s simply a nice little story, and that’s good and plenty if you make an adaption respecting that. But the films wear the clothes of an epic without ever truly being epic. They’re just long. They don’t seem to know what they want to say, but use a lot of words to say it.

If he would only have allowed it to be Bilbo’s adventure and no more.

Three movies – Tre Filmer

Mats Skärstrand på Tre Filmer

Here’s a great idea for a movie website. Ask interesting, influential, creative or just plain crazy people to write about the three movies that have affected their lives the most. Let each person write with passion, nostalgia, joy or detachment – however they want, in the light and in the mood of their choosing.

Keep publishing text after text, until you’ve composed a library of perspectives on movies you know and love, movies you’ve never heard of but must see, and movies hated by critics and audiences yet adored and treasured by the writer.

What you get is the site Tre Filmer. Yes, it is in Swedish – a wonderful language you must master if you are ever to become anything in life, kiddo – and edited by my fiancée Lena Ostermann.

Monday – mon Dieu!

Monday – my god, it’s Monday again! Where did the weekend go? No point in mourning the passing of days, I guess, so let’s leave what was lost and look to the days that lie ahead.

My average week is not exactly shock full of cultural experiences, but this week will be a bit different from most. 2012’s edition of the Uppsala Short Film Festival started today, and will show great short films in several of the city’s cinemas throughout the week. I intend to see a bunch of them, and the one I look forward to the most is one I have already seen – The Fisherman.

“Following the death of Pake Walker, his son Pat climbs the high hill of Bull Na Mor, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, to honour his father’s memory and to contemplate a life spent at sea.”

It’s impossible to not empathize with Pat, but more than anything I was taken by the short film’s charged atmosphere. It’s a powerful experience. Simply amazing photography – which I very much look forward to seeing on the big screen – in dark blues and greys and silver, coupled with the sounds of the raging sea and an almost hypnotic voice-over by Pat himself as he talks about his life. You are invited to share Pat’s relationship with the raw, intense, yet somehow soothing ocean for 22 minutes.

Lena has been part of the group selecting short films for the festival’s programme, and I’ve happily ignored most of the DVD’s she’s brought home to watch. But after a few frames of The Fisherman I woke up from my iPad induced couch slumber, and sat up. The first thought that crossed my mind as the short ended was “I want to see that again“. On Thursday I will.

To answer this blog post’s first question; the weekend was sacrificed to the game Dishonored, which I finished yesterday. I have plenty to say about the game, and plan to do so in several blog posts, but for now I’ll just say “play it, dammit“. If you at all care about gaming, you need to play Dishonored.

On another note, I need to buy and play Xcom. Obviously.

The stuff you missed

It happens all the time. Something new and cool is released, but you have no idea. Or you simply ignore the whooshing sound it makes as it passes by just slightly outside your area of interest. By definition it’s impossible to know how many cool things you miss out on, but for me there’s probably a great deal.

And sometimes that’s just great, because you can find or rediscover it on a rainy weekend day and realize that it’s pretty damn good. Having lost that new-car smell, any exaggerated expectations have left your body like that tiresome cold you no longer remember.

Last weekend was a weekend like that, rediscovering both a game and a movie. I bought Stacking from Double Fine (oh, and don’t forget to donate to their Kickstarter page), and my girlfriend brought the movie Lars and the Real Girl. Strangely enough they share a theme I didn’t realize until just now as I write this post. They’re both about dolls.

I’m a handful of hours into Stacking, and it’s been a nice experience so far. The art direction is full of charm and is perfectly married to the gameplay. It’s a puzzle game, where each puzzle is solved by the unique abilities of the matryoshka dolls you control. Yes, you play as traditional Russian wooden dolls, and just like a real matryoshka you can stack the smaller dolls in the bigger ones. You often walk around with 5-6 dolls, each encapsulated by the next.

The challenge is finding what doll can solve the problem at hand, and occasionally it requires you to be the right size. Sometimes you must be tiny, controlling only the original little doll on his quest to save his family, and sometimes you need to be huge, pushing around someone enormous like the female opera singer. And yes, the fat lady sings, and when she does her high pitched voice shatters all nearby glass. The different abilities of the dolls (and each only has one) are not always there for gameplay purposes. Quite often they’re just funny, quirky or part of revealing the doll’s character.

The biggest criticism I can give Stacking is that the presentation of the puzzles quickly becomes formulaic. The game would have gained a lot from greater variation in how the player progresses between areas and challenges.

Next to my desk I have a Star Wars matryoshka doll, bought in Moscow during my time at Funcom. Funcom’s geek culture had a certain love for stuff like that.

Lars and the Real Girl was a movie I had barely heard the name of. I had fairly low expectations as we hit play, but I was pleasantly surprised as a sweet drama unfolded. Despite a bizarre premise it never felt forced. Lars, a lonely man with a social phobia so intense he doesn’t function around women, completely loses the plot and gets a Real Doll as his girlfriend. His issues run so deep that he manages to convince himself it’s a real woman, and builds his life around their relationship. Solid writing and good acting (Ryan Gosling as Lars) makes it believable.

Lars deep commitment and very real love to the doll suggests that perhaps love is not something that happens between two people – perhaps love is always one-way streets that sometimes happen to lead to the same place. Maybe we’re just projecting love unto others, hoping that they will project back in return. Maybe every man is an island, but an island with a lighthouse. I’m sure that’s not the message the director intended, but it’s not an idea I find distressing despite its bleakness.

Oh well. Not bad for a dull weekend.

Why I love the troll

Last weekend I posted the following on Facebook:

“Tonights “Troll i Eske”: Drive. Masterful direction, great photography, subtle acting and gripping story. All resulting in a very suspenseful and emotionally powerful movie. Go see it!”

Oh yeah, it was a good movie alright. If you don’t feel inclined to take my word for it, know that Roger Ebert liked it too. But hang on. “Troll i eske”? Well, it’s Norwegian for Troll in a box. OK. But who is the troll, and why is she hiding in a box?

Troll i eske is simply the greatest thing cinema in Oslo has to offer, and if you happen to live there, have any interest in movies at all but have never met the troll – know that you are missing out!

This is how it works. Every now and then there is a Troll i eske-showing at Cinemateket. You don’t know which film they’ll show, what genre it belongs to, or where it comes from. All you know is that it’ll be a high quality movie that hasn’t premiered yet. You buy the ticket, and until the moment the projector starts, the troll is still hiding in her box.  And I love it.

So what’s so bloody great about it?

The excitement

Going to a cinema is still something special, no matter how expensive your equipment is back home. It’s different from lying down in your sofa, popping in a dvd and fast forwarding through the trailers. It’s a bit like going to a show or a play. You are part of an audience, all waiting to experience something larger than life. And when you don’t know what you are about to experience – only that it’s going to be great – then the ritual gets exciting.

The organizers at Cinemateket have yet to disappoint in their selection, so at this point I simply trust that Troll in eske is a guarantee for a quality movie.

The unexpected

My last few visits have given me a relationship drama, a silly comedy and a dramatic thriller.

Two of those I wouldn’t have gone to see at the cinema if it had not been for Troll i eske, and it’s quite likely I would never have gotten to see them at all. There are genres that normally don’t do a very good job at attracting my attention, which is too bad because there are of course many excellent films to be found in most genres.

Thanks to the troll, I get to see great movies that I otherwise would have missed.

The snobbery

You get to tell people that you have already seen that hot new movie, even before it has had its premiere. You’re so great you get to see movies well before mere mortals get the chance. You are first with the latest and greatest in the world of cinema.

The purity

Take the movie Drive as an example. Whatever you do, don’t head over to Youtube to watch the trailer. It gives away far too many key scenes, plot points and spoils much of the character progression.

Before the movie began, having just sat down in the comfy seats at Cinemateket, I had no idea the movie even existed. I am completly convinced that I had a much richer movie experience not knowing all I would have known about characters and events had I seen the trailer.

Not knowing what movie you will see means you probably haven’t checked it out online beforehand. Going to see a movie that haven’t had its premiere yet hopefully means you haven’t been bombarded with trailers. It all helps in having a pure, untainted cinema experience.

The respect

People who talk. People who text. People who chew their candy and sip their drinks far too loudly. People who get up and stand in the way of the screen like lemmings as soon as the credits start rolling.

The Troll i eske audience is not completely void of these people, but there are far fewer of them than in the average multiplex crowd. A common quality of Cinemateket-goers is that they respect the cinema as an institution. Ultimately, that results in a more pleasent movie experience.

Got your attention? Here’s the link to Cinemateket. Become a member (cheaper tickets), have fun and give my regards to the troll. I look forward to meeting her again!

Beautiful from a distance: Melancholia

If you have ever wondered how it feels to be clinically depressed, ever thought about what’s wrong with all those broken people, you should see Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. As the world goes under, you too will feel relieved that the pain ends.

Perhaps it doesn’t sound like it, but that’s a positive review of the movie. Von Trier has managed to explore that seemingly neverending state of deep melancholy to such depths that the movie takes you there. It’s up to you if you’ve got the stomach to join him for the journey. If you do, it’s a beautiful and fascinating one.

And no, that the movie ends with the destruction of our planet is not a spoiler – it’s the premise. It’s established already in the first beautiful minutes of the movie, making sure that you know that this is not a thriller, there’s nothing to save the leading characters in the third act, there’s absolutely no hope. It’s not about anything like that. It’s about Melancholia. And it’s about melancholia.

Melancholia is a giant planet heading towards earth, threatening to collide with it and completely annihilate all life. And, in all its beauty and terror, it’s a metaphor for depression.

The first part of the movie deals with Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a young woman falling into depression. She’s getting married, but she’s not really there. She goes through the motions, because she knows they’re expected from her. She knows how a human is supposed to act and how a human is supposed to feel in a situation like a wedding. Joyful. Energetic. Giving. Recieving. But she feels none of it, and the necessity of the charade only pulls her closer to the abyss.

The latter part of the movie sees the focus shift more unto the events surrounding the approaching planet. Here the exploration of melancholy shifts into one of metaphors, and this allows us to watch other characters deal with Melancholia the planet. Depending on who they were before, and how they viewed themselves, they react in ways that differ greatly from Justine’s. It’s not necessarily the “strongest” that manages to cope with it the best. When the strong has lost their strength, they have nothing.

At first some characters believe it will merely pass us by at a safe distance, and studies it as a wondrous thing. As it slowly moves above the horizon, it’s revealed to be a majestic sight shining a cool, serene light on our world. But they will all soon learn that Melancholia is beautiful from a distance, but earth shattering up close.

It’s a film full of metaphors, but it’s not a puzzle to be solved. One should not view it from an analytical point of view, but rather an intuitive one. It is to be seen not with your head but with your gut. The movie embodies depression, from the descent into it in the first act, to the deepest chasms of despair in the second and finally to the ascent in the third.

One can wonder what the point is with a movie like this, beyond pure cinematic pleasure. I think the answer is that there’s quite a bit to learn and understand from it, as a window into Lars von Trier’s and many others’ own experiences with depression.

Of course, depression lies to you. It paints everything monochrome, making it almost impossible to see anything but the grimy dark. Well, maybe happiness lies to you as well, despite feeling so good. Illusions of the benignity of the malignant are dangerous. Then perhaps the wisest path is the middle one. Truth without disruption. Peace without excess. Stillness.

Pacing in overdrive

Good pacing is important in movies.

An obvious statement, I know. A sentiment most cinema-lovers would agree with, no doubt. But is it still true to the general movie audience? Because I’m wondering if directors still use pacing as a tool to the extent that they once did.

A few days ago I saw “The American” at the cinema. Yet another great movie by Focus Features. The picture was well shot, directed and acted (George Clooney doing a good job as usual). The storytelling was subtle, the kind of narration where much is told through a simple glance or the length of a shot, rather than by a bombardment of music or obvious dialog. The pacing was deliberate, because the atmosphere and story required it.

It was simply a well-made thriller.

Afterwards, checking out reviews through Metacritic, I was surprised by its reception. A lot of critics didn’t like it. It hardly had a plot, some felt. The main character’s feelings or motivations weren’t communicated, according to others. Most thought it was way too slow.

This brings me back to thoughts I had a few weeks ago when I finally saw Polanski’s The Ghost Writer. Unlike pretty much all other recent thrillers, it was filled with the sharp tension of old Hollywood, reminding me of Hitchcock’s best work. It accomplished this by allowing the well-crafted storytelling to take its time, slowly building up tension scene by scene, shot by shot. The end result was one of the most thrilling thrillers I’ve seen in years.

The American was even slower. And apparently it was too slow for the critics. Yet I never felt bored or frustrated by it. It was properly paced for the feelings it attempted to evoke.

But looking at most other contemporary thrillers, I think I know where the critics are coming from. They’re simply no longer used to anything but movies rushing to the end like it was a 100 meter sprint. Movies that don’t have the confidence to use scenes for building tension, with plot points telegraphed in the most obvious of ways. Modern thrillers have the pacing of action flicks, with the gas left in full throttle. Obviously they don’t work well as thrillers, but the audience is so used to quick pacing and snappy editing that anything else leaves them feeling bored and confused.

It is pacing in overdrive, and I wish this trend would end. It has gutted a genre, and I want it back.

Mad as a hatter

It is almost a decade ago now. The anorexic, pierced Cheshire cat greeted me with his crooked smile, and I was instantly hooked. American McGee’s twisted and dark (but still humorous and wondrous) vision of Alice in Wonderland spoke to me like few other games had done. It wasn’t the admittedly bland gameplay that appealed to me, but the experience of exploring its grim and magical environments.

It felt as if game director American McGee stepped unto the territory of movie director Tim Burton, borrowing some of his visual language and his habit of creating dark and sinister fairytales. When I heard that Burton was directing a new Alice in Wonderland feature, it felt like a natural step for both Burton and Alice. Lewis Carrol’s old tale had already proven to provide a perfect setting for all things Burtonesque.

Last friday was the Norwegian premiere of the movie. A mediocre trailer had dampened my expectations, but I left the cinema disappointed nonetheless. While it had rich environments and fun character designs, it lacked the sense of wonder that is so integral to the story. It carried the elements of psychadelic surrealism that Wonderland is famous for, but they felt bland, uninteresting and ultimately generic. I longed for the darkness that Burton’s brush normally is drenched with.

Generic is a keyword for this movie. The characters were almost all unengaging, with the expection of The Mad Hatter. Johnny Depp’s characterization and the character’s backstory made the Hatter interesting and entertaining, in stark contrast to the weak portrayal of Alice. Yet, the biggest problem with the movie is the story. Tim Burton has said that he was unable to connect emotionally with the original story. His unfortunate solution was to paste a generic fantasy tale about good versus evil, a magical sword and a youngling embracing her destiny of becoming a brave warrior. Clichés piled on top of each other. Clichés that have no place in the Underworld.

When we in the third act see Alice clad in armor fighting a dragon, it is quite clear how deep Burton’s disconnect with the original story was. He must never have truly understood what made it special, or the potential of its surrealism. I could go on to discuss how if a director doesn’t know how to approach a source material then he better refrain from adapting it – but I think I will let the Cheshire cat speak in my place:


One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. “Which road do I take?” she asked. “Where do you want to go?” was his response. “I don’t know,” Alice answered. “Then,” said the cat, “it doesn’t matter.”

“Chris, what is it?”

How things start and end is very important. Movies, books, games, plays. Relationships. Lives. The start establishes how you feel during the experience, and the end decides how you remember it, like a filter.

window

The start of Solaris (Steven Soderbergh) is my favorite among movie beginnings. After the 20th Century Fox fanfare and a studio logo, there is no fancy intro, no mood establishing music, no clever montage. Only the sound of a gentle rain. A window fades in; the target of the rain drops. There is not much color. The depth of focus is very narrow, leaving no details visible but the rain on the glass surface. What goes on outside or inside the window is hidden.

chris

The second shot is a man sitting down. The apartment is low on details and colors. The sound of rain continues with the same intensity, as the man stares at the floor. The expression on the man’s face is as if he has carried a sadness for such a long time that the sadness has become an ever-present part of him. A woman’s voice is heard. “Chris, what is it?”

bed

A third shot show him from behind, sitting on a bed, revealing that there is no woman in the room. The words of the woman continues. “I love you so much.”

fourth

The fourth shot. We now recognize that his sitting perfectly still, still looking down. His hands are clinched. The bed is untidy, and he hasn’t dressed yet. “Don’t you love me anymore?”.

The low key beginning, the rain against the window and the washed out colors are all metaphors for his emotional state. This state is also more directly communicated through his body language, facial expression, lack of movement, inability to get out of bed and the woman’s words.

These 4 simple shots tell us so much with so little. In 30 seconds the director has established the mood, some of the main character’s personality and some of his story. Within half a minute of the movie, I’m right there with him. It is done in such an effective, economical and unsentimental way. Brilliant.

Max Payne opens on friday

Max Payne

So Max Payne opens on cinemas on friday in Norway, and I bought a ticket (of course). I live a couple of hundred meters away from the largest THX cinema in the world, and it’ll be the perfect place to see it.

I’ve never ever before been looking forward to a movie based on a game license, but this time around I cant wait to see it. Let’s just hope it’s good, and doesn’t stray too far away from the games. The trailer suggests that they did find the right atmosphere, but also that they might have included a story element that doesn’t belong (the valkyries).

In the games Valkyrie was a drug, but in the trailer they are mythological creatures, which has worried fans. I still think – and hope – that it just portrays what’s going on in Max’s head, a symbol of the effects of the drug or something similar.

Yes, I do realize I sound like a fanboy.