Casting The Runes

I’m sitting in a library … Which feels appropriate, because I want to write my first review in some considerable time … And it involves libraries.
M. R. James’ story Casting the Runes is about the power of the written word and about the mortal dangers of writing a scathing review.  Well, it’s a shockingly poor piece of work, Monty; you should be ashamed of yourself!
(Waits for disaster to descend)
Nothing in the trees?  Nothing coming?  Phew.
Just joshing.
Actually, Casting The Runes is one of the key texts of English horror fiction, featuring the malicious occultist, Karswell who, despite being almost entirely absent from the narrative, strikes me as one of the most malignant antagonists in horror literature.  I have just this evening seen a magnificent theatrical rendering of Casting The Runes, which is why I have felt moved (after all this time) to put finger to keyboard (and take my life, therefore, in my hands) by reviewing it.

The story is simple: An ‘alchemist’ called Karswell desires to be taken seriously.  To that end, he has written an academic paper, ‘The Truth of Alchemy’, which has been roundly rejected on the grounds that it is ‘nonsense’.  The person who made this judgement is one Edward Dunning and he, to his cost, will learn that Karswell is a vengeful man.  The story follows Dunning as he becomes gradually aware of then eventually mortally afeared of Karswell.

Imagine the repercussions of telling Hannibal Lecter you didn’t like his foie gras and you get the idea.

He learns that Karswell has cursed him, by passing him a slip of paper with a spell written on it.  His only way to save his own life is to conspire to get Karswell to take it back, but he isn’t going to do that willingly.

Now, if this sounds at all familiar, that may well be because you are thinking of the film Night of the Demon (1957), known by some (wrongly) as Curse of the Demon, which is a movie adaptation of the story. 

I first saw that film as part of one of those long-gone and much-lamented BBC2 late-night double-bills.  It was screened as such in 1980 and, even at the cynical bewhiskered age of 14, I found its opening scene to be every bit as attention grabbing as that of Jaws (1975) …

So, what does this have to do with libraries?  Well, in the original story and in the film version and, indeed, in the theatrical rendering I saw this evening, the curse is passed over to Dunning in a library. 

All three versions are very different in feel and approach, but all three are equally involving.  James’ original has his trademark mannered and loquacious style, as befitting an antiquarian.  The film has that polite, faintly embarrassed air that all British genre films of the period carry, but still makes the most of its American (and therefore exotic) lead, and manages to be pacy and chilling.  As hokey as that demon may look to 21st century eyes, the way it is lit and shot means it remains disturbing, especially because of the remarkable insectoid sound effect they use to accompany it. I can think of nothing to match in in British 50s cinema.  No, not even Quatermass.

So, why am I mentioning all this?  Well, I’m glad you asked.

I’m attending a conference on ‘Weird Fiction’ at Loughborough University and the first day culminated in a performance by the theatrical company Boxtale Soup.  I’ve never seen them before, never even heard of them but, based on what I witnessed tonight; I can’t wait for my next chance to do so.

Their version of Casting the Runes is very simply staged.  There are just the two of them, arriving on stage with suitcases which contain their costumes and are consequently employed as pretty much everything they’ll need.  These, I imagine, are the boxes containing the tales.

The mise en scene is deceptively simple, the set and props are made from cardboard, in shades of grey and brown.  The costumes are black and white, with highlights of newsprint and the odd splash of crimson.  One could even say slash of crimson.

Noel Byrne as Dunning and Antonia Christophers as ... everyone else. (photo © Boxtalesoup)
Noel Byrne plays Dunning with an easy confident air that slowly erodes as he realises the seriousness of the trap in which he is caught.  Antonia Christophers plays everyone else, swapping convincingly from character to character with a simple change of a skirt or a scarf, accompanied by a different accent and a different demeanour.  I won’t tell you how they depict the devilish Karswell, because that delight is especially effective if seen unspoiled.

It's important that Byrne stay in character because, as the focus of unseen malevolent forces, it helps the drama for us to experience his slowly fermenting fear with him.  The performances are naturalistic, even intimate (especially if seen in a small performance space) from the moment the actors take the stage and patiently put on their costumes.  I particularly like the way Byrne assumes the mantle of Dunning by pulling his tie taught with a resigned sigh.  I feel like that when I put a tie on. 

However, the tie in question, being decorated with text, is a fine thing.  I’d wear that tie.  They should sell them as merchandise!

So cocky is Dunning, in a delightfully meta-textual moment, he debunks his own tormentor to his students, exposing some of the stage-craft they have themselves used.  He dismisses the use of fishing wire and magnets to create so-called ‘magical’ effects, and then the production makes careful and clever use of these tricks to create its own effects.   But this show isn’t about the effects, it’s about the people.

He's guarding that tie with his life! (photo © Boxtalesoup)
The scene transitions are achieved through musical segues played and sung by the two performers (which typically evoke The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a text about breaking a curse, referenced in the original story) while Christophers makes quick and simple costume changes and Byrne moves the suitcases around to form the next setting.  All very simple and effective.

Because the actors never leave the stage, and even make eye contact with the audience from time to time, I found myself becoming more and more emotionally involved with them.  Empathy and identification are key tools in creating horror and this works especially well when you feel a connection with the actors as well as the characters.

There is a palpable and building tension here, which is made all the more pleasantly surprising given the relatively short running time of the play (just under an hour) and the lack of theatrical artifice.

I was put in mind of Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories, which I saw last year.  That had all the heft of a full West End production, involving lighting and sound effects, moving sets and a sizeable cast (not to mention the involvement of Derren Brown’s creative collaborator) to produce an undeniably creepy and clever show.  But at £50 a seat – it bloody well better be effective!

This production, with the barest of sets and the simplest of effects, is every bit as dread-full (in a good way!)  This demonstrates a great understanding not only of the source material but also of the stagecraft needed to bring it to life in a very different medium.

The attention to detail in the production is magnificent, from the confident script they wrote themselves, to the folky music they composed (with possibly a deliberate nod to The Wicker Man), to the cunningly-constructed hand-built props and, of course, to the subtle and careful performances.

I should be head-first in a book right now, preparing for some more weirdness tomorrow, but I’m not, I’m sitting in this library casting my own runes, because I feel that these performers deserve my response.

This is a clever, cunning, elegantly simple production that doesn’t let the stagecraft get between the audience and the drama.  Sitting in the front row, I felt exposed; in harm’s way.  What more can one ask of a horror story?

Boxtale Soup’s website is here.
They are a charity and deserving of your time ad consideration.  And I want to buy one of those ties, guys!

Everything you could ever want to know about the Loughborough Uni Weekend of Weird (which I will henceforth refer to as "WoW", by the way) is available here.

If you want to know more about Night of the Demon (and if you think you don’t, you’re wrong) then may I point you in the direction of the book Beating The Devil by the film industry’s second favourite Yorkshireman*: Tony Earnshaw.  Learn more about it and him here.
If you'd like to know more about the original story, you can do so at the click of a mouse.  There are various audio-book versions of the story available but this is, I feel, a particularly good one.  We'll forgive Mr. French for being an American whilst reading something quintessentially English, since he has such and excellent voice.

And now, a bit of fun.  If that phrase from the film ‘It’s in the trees, it’s coming’ rings a bell … Here’s why.

*Sean Bean, alright? I’m sorry, but them’s the rules.  Hey look – Sean Bean made it to the end of something … Namely, this blog.
Has it really been almost four years?

Lying here, gathering dust ... Ignored ... Disregarded ... Unloved ...

And yet, I just plug it in, flick the switch and ...


Part One of Two:

Lord of the Rings is my favourite film (cos I think of it as one loooooong film) of the past 30 years.  That, then, is the definition of a hard act to follow. 

With that in mind, I’ve watched the development of The Hobbit over the years with a mix of hope and trepidation.  I was distraught when Jackson said (effectively) that he couldn’t face making another.  Then I was mollified when Del Toro took over because, I thought, he’d keep it dark and extraordinary.  When he got tired of the delays and left I was genuinely concerned … Then, when Jackson said he would do it after all, I celebrated.  

But the delays continued … Studio and rights issues, union and political problems … A threat to shoot somewhere other than New Zealand (which we all now know is Middle Earth).  It looked like the film was cursed.  To be fair, all of this is not that unusual in large-scale movie making but, in this case, it all happened very publicly.

Thankfully, it was all well worth the wait.

"You feel there's something calling you ... You're wanting to return ... To where the misty mountains rise and friendly fires burn ..."
For me, watching The Hobbit is like returning home after a long time away … It feels comfortably familiar, yet things have changed noticeably.  I’ve seen it twice now, once in proper 2D and once in 3D gimmick-o-scope.  You probably already know my thoughts on 3D so I won’t revisit them but, suffice it to say, the only reason I inflicted 3D on myself was to see the 48 frames per second presentation.  This had been so controversial, I just had to make my own mind up and, given the controversy, this might be my last chance as there may never be another widely distributed film in so-called HFR (higher frame rate).

The 48 frames do make a significant difference to the viewing experience – akin to that of stepping-up from DVD to Blu-Ray – and it can be distracting, so I’m glad I watched the film in traditional 2D first, simply so I could concentrate on the story, the acting and the overall feel.

“I’m not the same Hobbit I once was” opines Ian Holm as old Bilbo, looking at a drawing of Martin Freeman as young Bilbo.  This starts things off with a nice nod and a wink to the audience.  It does cross my mind that I do hope we won’t get a belated ‘Special Edition’ of Fellowship, with the flashback of Ian Holm's Bilbo finding the ring replaced with Freeman's re-staging of the same scene.  I’m confident we won’t though because Jackson, after all, isn’t George Lucas.

"No wait, here it is in the small print: ' ... Reserves the right to suddenly turn two films into three without warning.'  Seems fairly watertight, chaps.  No series three of Sherlock just yet, then ..."
As he did with the opening moments of Fellowship of the Ring, Jackson gives us a flashback to a moment of historical significance which lays the foundations of the current dilemma.  In LOTR it was the defeat of Sauron and the failure to destroy The One Ring, here it is the loss of the city of Erebor to the marauding Fire Drake, Smaug.

Because Jackson is a tease, he gives us the Dragon’s spectacular attack and capturing of the city, without letting us get a good look at it, there’s a taloned foot here, the tip of a spiky tail there, the shape of a wing and, eventually, a close-up of an eyeball.  But the big reveal will, of course, be saved for a dramatically expedient moment in the next film.

He pulls the same trick, just as effectively, when Radogast’s tree-house is being besieged by giant spiders.  We see legs and shadows and a genuinely chilling shot of the furry-elbowed arachnids stalking away through the woodland foliage.  The full horror of them will be revealed next time.  Not sure how he’ll top Shelob from Return of the King, but we shall see.

Of course, the presence of these spiders, along with Radogast’s dire warnings about ‘The Necromancer’, are ingredients we should recognise … They are dramatic fore-shadowings … The seeds from which grow the dangers of LOTR.  When Gandalf’s wizard superior, Saruman, appears he is already equivocating over the danger posed by Mordor and we all know where that will lead in just sixty short (by Middle Earth standards) years.

Getting back to the loss of Erebor, it explains why, in Lord of the Rings, Gimli distrusts Legolas because Thranduil, the Elf King (and, not incidentally, Legolas’ father), refuses to get involved in the fight between Dwarf and Dragon and thusly earns the eternal enmity of the Dwarven folk.

And so the framing device ends with old Bilbo sitting quietly, on the eve of the party that launches The Lord of the Rings, reminiscing and blowing a smoke-ring which, as this films sub-title ‘An Unexpected Journey’ appears, is a reminder of another ring still, at that point, very much on Bilbo’s mind.

"To think I should have lived to be good morninged by Belladonna Took's son, as if I was selling buttons at the door!"
And so we are introduced to young Bilbo, sitting on the same bench sixty years earlier, smoking the same pipe weed, played now by Martin Freeman who immediately proffers his trademark perplexed look as his view of The Shire is blocked by a rather shambolic grey wizard.  Gandalf is exactly as I remember him from the Bag End scenes in LOTR which, in itself, is an impressive achievement given the twelve years that have passed since those scenes were filmed and these.

Soon after this, our new cast-members begin to arrive, initially in ones and twos, then in one heaving mass, we meet the thirteen Dwarves of the new fellowship.  I know that having thirteen Dwarves plus one Hobbit and one Wizard was a major headache for Jackson and co. because they simply didn’t know how to present so many new faces in a way that we, the poor beleaguered viewer could remember them all.  Well, frankly, I’ve seen the film twice and I still don’t know all their names nor have a grasp on all their personalities but that’s okay; this is, after all, the first part of the story.  We have many hours to get to know them before we’re done!

A (baker's) dozen Dwarves
The Dwarves are played by a cadre of (predominantly) Celtic thesps, led by Yorkshireman (and therefore, you might say, thinking woman’s Sean Bean) Richard Armitage.  He is Thorin Oakenshield, who was there at the fall of Erebor and, again, at the battle of Moria when it was overwhelmed by the Orcs who still lurk in its stygian depths when Gandalf returns there sixty years later.  Thorin and his kinsman, Balin (played by sagely Ken Stott) are the old guard, this film’s links to their culture’s noble past now fallen on hard times and, as such, they exemplify the dignity and restrained aggression that Aragorn brought to LOTR.

We see Thorin battle the Pale Orc, Azog, who will be our antagoniste du jour.  A feud burns between these two which will fuel the latter scenes of this film and will continue to burn, no doubt, in the next one.  Thorin’s grabbing of an uprooted tree-stump to use it as a shield (and thusly earning his moniker) is one of those mythic moments which makes my skin tingle with its authenticity.  This is exactly the kind of moment one finds in real myths.  We are also told that his father, King Thrain, who had hoarded all the gold in Erebor, had been driven mad by its loss and simply disappeared.  One imagines that he’ll be back subsequently, possibly in the final part of what will now be a three-part treatment of this story.

"Have I ever said: I love that eye-liner on you, it really makes your eyes sparkle?"
This, once again, gives us a thread to connect with LOTR as that story was entirely driven by the failure of kings and other leaders.  From Isildur’s initial failure to destroy the ring, to King Theoden’s torpor, Saruman’s greed and Steward Denethor’s mad jealousy, every leader in Middle Earth failed their people.  This, I feel, was a significant part of Tolkien’s message, reflecting on his own youth as a victim of the political incompetence which resulted in World War One.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was, himself, no stranger to a bowl of Old Toby ...
Part Two of Two:

Tolkien himself, of course, vigorously denied any allegorical content in LOTR, in the Foreword to the revised edition, he states: “As for any inner meaning or 'message', it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical … The crucial chapter, "The Shadow of the Past', is one of the oldest parts of the tale. It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster …”  Well, far be it from me to argue with the great man but the very nature of subtext is such that an author may not be personally aware of it, may not intend it and, certainly, may deny it.  Please note that he does take the trouble to include that all-important ‘in the intention of the author’ clause, so it seems he was conceding that it may be there, but not by his deliberate design.

After all, he was writing during the period when the country was sinking towards, then engaged in, then recovering from the second Great War of the generation.  During this time, from the rarefied halls of academe, he will have seen many of his students drawn to the flag and that surely must have stirred up memories of his own youth when he had fought in the first war.  As he continues in the Foreword: “One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression … to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead”.

In a time of war, he wrote about war … How can his circumstance not have influenced his mood, his creative decision-making and his conclusions?

Any similarities between Tolkien and Gandalf are not in the intention of the film-makers.
But The Hobbit, a children’s fable, is most decidedly not about war, neither in its text nor its subtext.  It is about introducing us to a fabulous world, from the point of view of an innocent, child-like in bearing and experience, but surprisingly bold in demeanour.  Bilbo has only the vaguest notion of the depth of history, politics and the vagaries of civilisation that have formed the world into which he steps.  Are any of us any different when we first venture forth?

And so the merry band set off on their heroes' journey and Jackson gets to unleash the gratuitous use of spectacular New Zealand landscape that gave LOTR such a particular look and, co-incidentally, did wonders for the New Zealand tourist trade.  These new Middle Earth vistas are every bit as beautiful as those with which I am now familiar.  Oh, good!

The world is lighter and more magical than we know it, with no Mordor to darken the horizon.  Radogast The Brown is deeply disturbed by the rot and mould he finds infesting his forest, the vanguard of Sauron’s regime.  The giant spiders he encounters are familiar to us, but completely unprecedented to him: “Where on this good Earth” he asks plaintively “did those foul creatures come from?”

Radogast is only the third wizard we have met (although, to be fair we’re only likely to meet three as Tolkien only invented five and didn’t trouble himself much with the other two ‘Blue’ wizards, the names of whom Gandalf can, pointedly, not remember).  He is played wonderfully by Sylvester McCoy who, essentially, plays himself.  Stuntman, mine-artist and all-round eccentric, McCoy has always been a natural entertainer.  In person he comes across as something of an overly-enthusiastic uncle, delightful for kids, embarrassing for adults and Radogast, with birds in his hair and his mugging, eye-rolling performance, is exactly like that.

The Seventh Doctor thinks being a Wizard is for the birds.  (Sorry).
As we are introduced to him, he is fighting an epic battle to save the life of a hedgehog.  But why not?  Having your protagonist be a member of the physically smallest, least adventurous race on earth clearly shows a willingness to acknowledge the value of every life – however seemingly insignificant.  Whilst Saruman disdains Radogast as a fool, Gandalf is himself not so foolish as to think bearing the demeanour of a fool necessarily makes one such.  As he later confides to Galadriel: “I have found it is the small things … The deeds of everyday folk that keeps evil at bay.” That, right there, is the overarching message of this whole series of films in a sentence.  God – if Middle Earth had any such thing – would be in the details!

It is an interesting point, I think, that McKellen and McCoy have worked together on stage as, respectively, Lear and Fool.  Their relationship is well established and deep and that comes across immediately here.  Finally, before Radogast disappears completely from the film (hopefully to return in the next one) he breaks out his quite wonderful sleigh, pulled by his team of Rhosgobel Rabbits.  Now that beats shanks’ pony as a way to traverse Middle Earth!

Bilbo is soon advised by Gandalf that true courage “ … is not about knowing when to take a life but when to spare one” which is, of course, why he spares Gollum.  Of course, one could argue that Frodo and, indeed, Gollum himself, might be better off with him put out of his misery … but he isn’t genuinely dangerous and I seriously doubt that Frodo and Sam would make it to Mordor without him.  So leaving him alive is investing in the future of Middle Earth and the ultimate defeat of Sauron by human (or, rather, Hobbitual) decency!  No?  Suit yourself.

I love the decency of the characters as demonstrated in the details:  Thorin waits for all of his men to escape down the chute to Rivendell that Gandalf has discovered, before heading down himself.  He, needless to add, is not a ruler who fails his subjects.  Later, when the dwarves are surrounded by full size horses with weapons-wielding Elves riding them, they form a defensive circle and instinctively pull the helpless Bilbo into the centre of it.  They may be intimidated and hopelessly out-classed, but they don’t let that imperil there instinctive sense of comradeship and decency.  He may only be a ‘Hobbit Burglar’, but he’s one of them and, as such, an equal.

Even Gandalf is not without his human foibles.  As the iridescent Galadriel bids him farewell and disappears … Gandalf is left alone and, just for a moment, distraught … So deeply smitten with her is he.

McKellen gives a very human performance as the ... Well, we don't know what he is but he's not human ... Gandalf, when he meets the film's one and only female performer - Shoe-horned in there simply because ...
Apparently some people have complained about the pace of this film, beginning, as it does, with well over half an hour of characters arriving, eating and doing not much before taking a leisurely stroll to, initially, Rivendell.  But, mayhap, the complainers have forgotten that that is precisely how Fellowship began, with time for the viewer to adjust to this new world and this panoply of bizarre new characters.  It’s possibly also worth mentioning that the film was originally intended to be the first half of the story, and has been re-worked so that it is now just the first third … That must have had some effect on the pacing of the movie.  Must have.  But when the trilogy is complete I am confident that the pace will seem perfectly appropriate.

Getting us to revisit familiar (and welcome) places like Rivendell, to show us fondly remembered characters like Elrond and Galadriel and the less-well-thought-of Saruman, is a short-hand way of helping us to identify with the familiar elements from the films we know, so to help us cope with the elements we don’t.  This isn’t simply an exercise in nostalgia, mind, as Jackson and Co. have achieved something quite different here, not least in the technical innovations of shooting so many special effects in 3D and at 48 frames per second.

Part Three of Two:

Particularly noticeable in these early scenes, but present throughout, is one of the key differences between this film and LOTR … The glow.  Many of the characters’ faces and, sometimes, the environments in which they walk, have a hazy shine about them as though they are glowing with inner magic.  I know that this is a product of post-production digital colour-grading and, initially, I found it quite distracting but then I settled into it because, after all, this film is set in an early, more innocent, less doom-laden world that LOTR.  In that world only The Shire is untouched by Sauron’s blight but, sixty years earlier, the whole world is going about its magical kingdom business, being a place of wonder and fantasy … So why wouldn’t things have an innocent, magical glow?

Hang on, have my eyes gone funny?  It's this bloody eye-liner, isn't it!
Whilst, as you probably know, I can’t see in 3D, I’m told the experience here is a very comfortable one, with none of the eye-strain that some people experience in normal 3D.  Of course, that means nothing to me because I’m just watching a flat film, no-matter how many dimensions they’ve made it in.  I mostly watched this film oblivious to the dimension I was missing – save for the very few cheapo 3D gimmicks they’ve thrown in – such as having Gollum almost walk into the camera to emphasise just how much he hates Bagginses.  Thankfully, these distracting shots are few and far between and the film, by and large, moves the camera and the viewer’s eye around the screen very much as it would were it 2D.

As to the HFR … I could see a difference almost immediately.  In the panning shots over the city of Dale there was no strobing, as there often is with sideways movement.  The image was clear as a bell and camera movement was correspondingly smooth.  The additional detail was genuinely starting.  It is like the screen isn’t there and you’re looking through a hole in the wall to another world.  In the feasting scenes, I genuinely felt like I was sitting amongst the dwarves.  Surely, that’s the effect the film-makers have been striving for since … Forever.

But definition of this incredible height reveals the reality in a way that, maybe, Jackson and Co. had not banked upon.  Some of the sets now look like sets … Particularly Bag End, the pony stockade and Troll camp and a lot of the stone-work looks like the painted plaster it really is.  This same clarity also reveals the limitations in some of the special effects, which betray the reality of an actor standing in-front of a green screen reacting to something that will be added months later.

The approach to Rivendell not only looks like painted styrofoam in HFR but, thanks to some bizarre auditory illusion, it also sounds fake underfoot!
There is a lot of light and a considerable depth of field, meaning that a lot of what you see is in focus.  I suspect this is at the behest of the 3D, as it would be difficult to separate the image into layers and separate them, if they aren’t initially in focus.  This effect takes away from the cinematic feel of the viewing experience and makes the film look more like TV from the 1980s, when the video cameras needed a lot of light and a wide-open aperture to record the image with fidelity.  But, oddly, that effect was okay; it reminded me of fantasy TV shows like Doctor Who and Sapphire and Steel and the BBC’s version of Narnia, shows for which I have considerable affection.  So, in an unexpected way, the nostalgia I felt in revisiting Middle Earth was heightened by a nostalgia I felt for the TV shows of bygone decades.

Of course, all is not exactly as we (who have not read the book) expect.  The hint’s in the film’s sub-title, after all.  The scene where two Stone Giants clash (essentially two mountains throwing smaller mountains at each-other) seems just a scene too far – betraying the child-like ambitions of the source novel rather than the rational maturity of its sequel.  Never-the-less, Jackson and Co. strive to make this complete fantasy as credible as possible, lighting it in (probably more than fifty) shades of grey and creating real suspense.  What could have been ridiculously over-the-top is possibly the most spectacular sequence in a thoroughly spectacular film.  It’s a moment of pure Harryhausen and I mean that as the highest compliment!

Other subtle differences are to be found in The Orcs, they are stranger than their ancestors will be sixty years hence, they do not speak English and they are almost all CGI creations now rather than the more obviously humanoid mime-artists in suits.  This is testament to how far CGI animation has come in the ten years since our last visit.  Then, Gollum was a remarkable achievement whose only real antecedent was the risible Jar-Jar Binks.  Now, he is just one of a multitude of completely convincing animated characters, each with their own personality.  Thanks in no small part to the pioneering work done for LOTR by Andy Serkis (who, of course, returns as Gollum for a cameo, then spent the rest of the shoot behind the camera, directing the second-unit action scenes) motion capture (or 'performance capture' as they prefer to describe it these days) has now become the way to create believable performances and breathe life into the wildest of CGI creations.

Click to enlarge and take in the incredible detail of this entirely CGI image.  "More real than real" would seem to be Weta's motto.
Given how used we have become to life-like animations, I was pretty concerned that Gollum would have to be pretty special to impress now, yet they couldn’t really change anything because that would be to betray my memories of him from LOTR.  I needn’t have feared … Serkis’ performance is masterful, a complex mix of pathos and humour and bestial rage, while the computers have whipped-up an extraordinary visual creation entirely suited to this sharper, clearer, brighter world, yet still unambiguously the same tortured soul we know so well!

Serkis shows the duality of the character, he bickers with himself and changes mood in mid-sentence.  He is by turns vulnerable and dangerous, loathsome and laughable and, ultimately, sympathetically sad.  Given his bi-polar nature that is perfectly proper but it’s an extraordinary feat for them to have given so much personality to a cloud of pixels.

Both the Troll and Goblin sequences rely heavily on the perf-cap technology.  They also are great examples of Jackson's habit of keeping people busy during his notoriously long and complicated shoots.

The Trolls are played by William Kircher, Peter Hambleton and Mark Hadlow who are, out of those fetching skin-tight costumes, also the Dwarves Bifur, Gloin and Dori respectively.
He also offered a laurel-branch to Australia by employing Dame Edna herself - Barry Humphries - as the voice and face of the Goblin King.

Even the loathsome Les Patterson couldn't have played this without make-up.
This sequence – largely played out in long shot as the gang fight their way through the tide or Orcs (or are they ‘Goblins’ … They don’t seem entirely sure) – stays just the right side of the Super Mario platform-game effect that the similar scenes in the Mines of Moria had last time … again because of the huge improvement I computer processing power and the sophistication of the software.  I confess, even as someone who is rarely impressed by sheer scale in a move, I thought these scenes were extraordinary in HFR.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen imagery so clear, so immersive.  Well presented, a 48 fps image genuinely is the theatrical equivalent to the step-up from DVD to Blu-Ray. 

The ridiculous fall down the crevasse, surfing the bridge as it breaks apart, a sequence even more preposterous than the hanging dinosaur fight in King Kong, even less feasible than the rocking-stone-archway in LOTR … Somehow seems completely convincing in HFR.  Indeed, the scenes immediately afterwards, on the hillside, when the CGI avatars are replaced by human actors once more, actually feel like something of a letdown after the razor-sharp hyper-real clarity of the Goblin Chase.

It’s fair to say that Gandalf has a habit of saving the day at the last minute.  He conveniently turns up at the Cave Troll camp just in time to stop them spit-roasting Bilbo and the boys, then arrives once again in the veritable nick, to save them all from the hoards of the Goblin King.  I hope they don’t keep playing this card, because it has already become predictable and will soon make the transition to corny.

Thorin butches up for his showdown with Azog ... Little does he know who'll save the day.
When Azog and Thorin make eye contact we’re into a world of slo-mo as they face off.  I’m a sucker for melodramatic slo-mo, me.  This battle, in the burning woods, is just as dramatic as Sean Bean’s face off against the Uruk-Hai at the same point in Fellowship.  Any other film series and I’d be criticising it for following its own template too closely, but I can’t do it here … By this point I couldn’t see anything but good.

The last Hobbit standing.  Howard Shore’s epic choral work.  The Giant Eagles.  Yes, yes and yes.  I even accepted that Gandalf saved the day again.  That’s why he’s there, after all!

Some might protest:  Why don’t the Eagles take the Dwarves all the way to that mountain, instead of dropping them on the randomly-chosen peak of another.  Well, where would be the fun in that?

When two hours and forty minutes suddenly came unexpectedly to an end, I was distraught … I didn’t want the journey to end.  I can’t wait for it to resume.

I confess that I still don’t know the names of all the dwarves off by heart, but it’s (relatively) early days yet.
And, to help you along, we have this helpful family portrait:

Don't strain your eyes - Click to enlarge ...
Sure, I have some concerns about the decision (apparently taken as late as last Easter, when a year of principal photography was all-but over) to expand the films from two to three.  As I've mentioned, I haven't read the book, but I understand the concerns of those who have, regarding him having enough material with which to fill three films.  But there is also a library of books published by Tolkien's son, filling-out the entire history of Middle Earth.  There is no shortage of stories to tell, absolutely no lack of material from which to cut the movie's cloth.  I understand that the cast are re-assembling for three more months of shooting.  They may refer to them as 're-shoots', but three months ... That's longer than most movies take to make.

My only real concern is over the pacing of the narrative.  A two-part structure is very different from a three-part one.  The so-called 'three-act structure' is the backbone of all Hollywood movies.  It has a tripod structure which is quite strong and well-balanced.  To be honest, I am more comfortable with this structure than with the two-parter, however, it does mean some elements that we were told to expect are now not going to be on our screens until next December.  Have a look at the banner below.  Click it to enlarge and take a gander at the last three panels ... All of which are scenes which were intended to be in An Unexpected Journey but are now, unexpectedly, not.

Click and scroll ... It's the last three panels you should be paying particular attention to ...
Whatever concerns I (or you) may have, I think it is undeniable that Jackson and Co. know their material as well as anyone and they have demonstrated - over four impossible movies - that they can be trusted with this material.

The Hobbit is an extraordinary achievement, an entirely worthy companion to Lord of the Rings as well as an expansion upon and development of its spectacle and creative ambition.

I’ve got two more films owed me and I want to enjoy every frame of them.  And at 48fps that’s a lot of frames!

As he did with King Kong in 2005, Jackson has allowed very detailed 'Production Diaries' to be produced showing the behind-the-scenes efforts that went into making this film.  With Kong they came out weekly, sometimes several a week, and constitute an incredible vision of a big movie being made from the perspective of practically every participant however apparently insignificant their contribution.  Many of these  videos were released on a now hard-to-find DVD, which I encourage you to buy if you can.

If anything, Jackson shared too much about the film before it was released and took away the magic before it had chance to cast its spell on us.  He has been a bit more restrained with The Hobbit, releasing just eight diaries in a little under two years.  They are easy to find on Jackson's blog and on The YouTube and look splendid in high definition (something which was not available for Kong's diaries in 2005, in the early days of YouTube and broadband).  However, someone has gone to the trouble of editing them all together as one long video so, simply for the ease of it ... Let's watch them all in one:


So, having made it through the welcome denial fantasy of Christmas and New Year followed, very promptly, by the bleak depression of the realisation January is back and we have to go through it all again ... I decided to use some of the free time I have, now my paid work has shrunk back to pre-Chrimbo levels, to do a little Cellulording.

Firstly, let us have a little look forward to the upcoming movies of 2013.  I'm not going to get into all that interweb speculation that so many other sites fill your screen with as they stumble over themselves to break the latest piece of unsubstantiated trivia a nano-second before their competitors ... Instead, I'm going to mull over the posters for this year's movies.

Most Hollywood movies tell the same story.  They tend to feature the same few actors and their special effects are done by the same few FX houses.  This gives them a uniformity which makes the accountants who run the Studios feel secure.  This we know.

But the uniformity and lack of imagination has spread throughout the process.  The trailers are all the same now, often using the same pieces of music and cut to the same tempo.  They follow the same narrative arc even if the film they are advertising doesn't (defence offers the now famous case of the woman who sued over the trailer for Drive).  This phenomena has also afflicted the posters.  Thanks to Photoshop, the days of the painted poster are pretty-much gone but then so are the days of the dodgy photo-montage.  The skill Photoshop wrangler can take photos and turn them into hyper-real painterly elements.  There is nothing that can't be put on a poster now, nothing.

That being so, why do they choose to put the same things on them time and time again?  Is it purely to create that sense of familiarity that supposedly draws the unthinking masses into multiplexes?  It's been going on for a long time but, this year, with the swarm of teaser posters for upcoming blockbusters ... It's become patently ridiculous.

What kicked me off was the release of this image:

It's an interesting, bleak post-Apocalyptic kind of image.  The reason it particularly stood out to me is that it hit the internets just a week after the teaser for Star Trek Into Darkness:

You'll immediately see what I saw.  Same composition, same Apocalyptic tone, same palette ... Same pose for the solitary figure, back to us, looking moody.

If this were a coincidence, all well and good ... But it isn't ... It's an attack of the clones ... Another one of next year's tent-pole films is Iron Man 3:

Notice anything?  Blues and greys?  Hero with his back to us ... Yeah?

Now, don't get me wrong, I few graphic designers are really pushing the boundaries of what you can do with a teaser poster cos there's ...

The graphic two-colour version.  There's the full colour variation:

And there's the group shot too ... With added silhouettes:

So, I dunno what you're expecting from any of these films but me, I'm expecting to see the cast walking away.  A lot.

Of course, it's not like it's a new phenomenon.  I mean, last year we had some pioneering work done in promoting the Feminist agenda by the marketeers of:

and ...

as well as ...

... Because all of those figures are female.  I think.  Slightly less oestrogen-soaked we had this:

Which was somewhat inevitable, as this whole cliché began in 2008 with The Dark Knight and this:

And, I suppose all of these posters are a variation on the theme struck by Scrotum of Boris (or Quantum of Solace as everyone except Adam Buxton knows it) ...

Which, of course, owes more than a tip of the hat to The Phantom Menace which famously teased the world ten years before with this:

So, it seems that, as with all bad things, for the paucity of imagination in movie poster design ... We can blame George.


Did I mention I co-wrote a film a few years ago?

I was brought in as a consultant and, essentially, ended-up helping Greg completely re-write it.

It's a little bit lo-res, cos it's taken off my VHS copy (you remember VHS) but feel free to have a watch and let me know what you think. 

Hey, it's only 26 minutes of your life you'll never get back!


First thoughts.  That’s what this piece will be.  Half-formed, poorly-considered thoughts.

Having maintained my usual exhausting self-imposed media blackout on this film … I went to see it today as cold as anyone could.  I haven’t opened a copy of ‘Empire’ in months, have avoided some of my favourite websites and found myself sitting in the cinema with my fingers in my ears going “La-la-la” while the trailer played.  (If you think I’m joking … You don’t know me that well).

So, I’m not intending to spoil the film, but by merely talking about it, I’m going to … So, if you have any ambition to watch this film … Don’t read on.

Give yourself the chance to see the film …

Okay?  So, I’ll assume you have seen it if you’re still here.

So when is a trilogy not really a trilogy?
I was reasonably indifferent to Batman Begins (2005).  I enjoyed it but, y’know, it wasn’t the ‘Batman: Year One’ I’d been hoping for.  And it had Liam Neeson, which, in his post-Phantom Menace, (1999) pre-Taken (2009) ‘wilderness years’ was rarely a great thing.  Then there were the unconvincing sets (The Narrows) and dodgy special effects (all that mono-rail stuff … please).  But it did have the relationship between Wayne and Alfred and Lucius Fox.  It had the development of the armour and the Tumbler.  It had some pretty bloody spectacular location photography (fighting on a frozen lake, etc).  It at least attempted to be a grown-up superhero film.  A first for a DC-owned property, in my humble opinion!

Then The Dark Knight (2008) arrived.  It was a phenomenon.  Everything that I felt was wrong about Begins was right about this film.  Everything that I had thought right about Begins was even more right.  Gone were the dodgy sets and effects … This time it was shot on location and the effects were practical … where practical.

You won't hear any mentions of either The Joker or Arkham in this film.  No joke.
My straw-poll survey made The Dark Knight the second favourite film of the decade and it was my second favourite too.  It remains my absolute favourite superhero film … And I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Marvelite.

TDK (as its friends call it) was such a profound leap forward from BB (as, I suspect, no one calls it) it vastly surpassed my expectation.  As such, The Dark Knight Rises was almost bound to be a disappointment … Simply because it couldn’t possibly exceed the now stratospheric expectation.

I knew this going in.

As he did with TDK, he begins by catching us off guard.  Whereas that film’s prologue was a bank heist, this film has a full on Bond-movie pre-title sequence, complete with jaw-dropping aerial stunts.  I don’t suppose Nolan is pitching to direct the next Bond but, if he were, this audition would doubtless secure him the job.

Then we go into a lengthy, but necessary process of catch-up.  It’s been eight years since Bats took the fall for the now-sainted Harvey Dent … Eight years when he has not once donned the cape and cowl.  So far so very ‘The Dark Knight Returns’.

If you felt Bats coming out of retirement rang a few bells ...
If you’ve never read Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s definitive vision of The Batman (the one that effectively made every subsequent story unnecessary) then treat yourself.  The build-up to Bats’ inevitable return is mythical and his arrival is seismic.  Sadly, by comparison, Batman’s return in this film is something of a damp squib.

Anyway, as before, Nolan has lifted elements from a variety of Batman comic-books, 1993's 'Knightfall' by Doug Moench and Jim Aparo, of course, Miller’s 'Dark Knight Returns', touches of Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke's revamped version of Catwoman and, as usual, the atmosphere of the Loeb/Sale stories.  He also refers back, often in cunningly subtle ways, to his own previous films (the burning bat symbol, the frozen river, the circular pit) all of which is mixed together with an awareness of the world-wide audience’s rage at the elite rich having destroyed our economy in the years since the last film came out.

There was clearly no plan at the beginning to make a trilogy – hence the clear visual and tonal difference between the first two films, but, never-the-less, Nolan (and his fellow script-writer, his brother, Jonathan Nolan) have woven enough of the thematic fabric of the first film into this third to create a satisfying conclusion.  Very much in the way the Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995) ties up the threads of Die Hard (1988).

Problems there are, certainly.  Small problems, such as … Why is Wayne limping for the film’s first half hour and where does the limp go?  How come a punch in the back cures a shattered spine?  Who is in charge of The Pit and why is it there?  And Matthew Modine … Ehm … Why?

Then there are larger problems … Such as my failure to connect with Bane.  Maybe it is because muscle is inherently less interesting than cunning.  Where The Joker was an evil genius, expressively performed by Heath Ledger who was inspired by the opportunities the role afforded him … Tom Hardy is literally muzzled as Bane.   

Hardy, no stranger to out-methoding Bale put on two stone of muscle for this.  Bale grew a tache.
His scenes with Batman are perfunctory and largely consist of them whacking each-other in a, frankly, not very cinematic way.  Nolan has never really made a big deal out of the fight scenes with these films.  I’m not complaining, particularly, since fight scenes hardly constitute the intellectual high-point of a movie.  Maybe some of the limitation is brought about by Bale’s insistence on doing most of that sort of stuff himself, maybe some of comes about because the IMAX screen of which Nolan has become fond, doesn’t lend itself to rapid editing and whip-pans.  Whatever the reasons, the fights have never been the point of these films … So, to reduce Batman and Bane’s conflict to a street-brawl seems anti-climactic, as though it is beneath the dignity of both characters.  And there is some dignity to Hardy’s performance of Bane, even if it is stifled by that (never fully explained) mask.  It is also worth mentioning that the slightly fuzzy vocal effect they have put on Hardy's voice makes some of his dialogue difficult to follow.  So, if you have no idea what he's saying, don't worry, you're not alone.

Okay so, unlike, say, Darth Vader, he can at least use his eyes … Which he does, to great effect.  There is some humour here, not least in his Yoda-like dialogue delivery … But times several I found myself wondering if the dialogue was being added afterwards and Hardy was mere miming.  He seemed like the passion and aggression that his physicality demanded was lacking.  Sadly, Hardy is perfectly cast in this role, but is simply not allowed to play to his considerable strengths.  Watch Bronson to see him being uncontrollably physical and truly, disturbingly terrifying.  Here, only in his final scene with Batman does he become a fully rounded character but it is too little too late.

So I was disappointed with Tom Hardy … Not disappointed by him so much as for him.  

Notice how the eyes seem to follow you round the room ...
Maybe if this film hadn’t been shackled to its 12A certificate and, therefore, it’s need to not upset anyone above the age of five, maybe then we could have seen Bane let off the leash.  Maybe characters we are supposed to be invested in could be allowed to die on screen.  Maybe the realistic vision could be permitted some realistic blood-letting.  But none of that is directly Nolan’s fault, that is down to the MPAA and the BBFC who censor the wrong things for the wrong reasons.

But what about the story?  Does it have the multi-layered complexity of TDK?  In spades!  Lesser film-makers would have made massive set-pieces, if not entire movies out of sequences which Nolan references in passing – such as the blowing-up of the bridges, or the trapping of the entire police-force underground.  Indeed, the number of plot-threads is actually too mind-boggling to follow in a single viewing.  This is not helped by the way that the film’s structure seems to fly apart in the third act.  Our hero is lying on his back on the other side of the planet while, in the space of a montage, three months passes and Commissioner Gordon is leading a resistance movement in the unruly streets of chaos-riven Gotham and them … It’s three weeks after that and a few hours till a nuclear bomb is going to turn Manhattan Island (sorry, Gotham Island) into Hiroshima 2.0.

But, hang on, didn’t The Joker mine the bridges last time?  Well, he said he did … But we didn’t see any blowing up.  Here we do.

Sorry … Did you mention a nuclear bomb?  Yep.   Another touch of the old Bond movie!  Mixed-in (had they but known) with a touch of The Avengers.  That, I confess, was a bit of a stretch.  For a series that had striven to be real, to pitch realistic characters with realistic motivations against each-other in realistic ways … The nuclear stand-off and its resolution was pushing things a bit.

Okay, so I had problems with the film … Problems which may evaporate with a second viewing.  But there were also pleasures.

What's new, pussy-cat?
Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle is a pitch-perfect delight.  She isn’t there as cheese-cake.  I didn’t notice a single lingering shot of her arse in her tight costume.  She doesn’t need Bruce to come along and rescue her … indeed she does the rescuing … And no one, at any point, even contemplates calling her ‘Cat Woman’.  Oh.  Thank.  God.

Joseph Gordon Levitt is spot-on as John Blake a character who takes up the campaigning reigns of a younger Jim Gordon, who is now polluted by the lie he has been telling about Harvey Dent all these years.  Indeed, as the film proceeds, he evolves from being a proto-Gordon, to a proto-Bruce Wayne … And there will be much interweb speculation about where that particular story thread will lead.

Rather like Bale before him ... The uncomfortable teenager has all grown -up and is an action movie star in the making.
Michael Caine succeeds (once again) in bringing a lump to the throat as Wayne’s Better Angel, constantly telling him the unvarnished truth … Even if one or two of his exchanges did echo with the recent memory of Martin Freeman’s astonishing turn as John Watson in the TV version of Sherlock.

I loved the way that this film (inadvertently) turns over the coin to its scarred side and shows us what a big city is really like.  In The Amazing Spider-Man (as well as in Raimi’s more fantastical versions of the story) we got New Yorkers pulling together to protect their own.  But Gotham, as seen by Nolan (and, before him, Frank Miller) is a very different kind of New York.  Here, when the ‘ordinary Gothamites’ are cut loose … They just ransack the place, freeing prisoners, setting up kangaroo courts and hanging ‘the guilty’ from bridges.  This is a city where freedom from the shackles of law-and-order simply means anarchic self-destruction.

I loved the hectic, dizzying pace of the third act, with its echoes of Robocop (1987) and Escape From New York (1981).  I loved the sheer scale of the visuals … From the size of the sets (the huge, Goya-esque court-room … The multi-story sewer … The run-off where the police are trapped … The Pit) as much as the audacious way the locations are shot (as often as not from the air).

Half upside-down insect / half helicopter hybrid ... If I can't have Deckard's Spinner - I want that!
I love The Bat.  I love the fact that they don’t call it a Bat-Wing and I want one!

I love the ambition of taking a superhero movie and making it about class-war, terrorism, social group-dynamics, personal-morality and war!

I love the fact that the last act rambles over five months, has none of the unities script-writers are trained to observe, and yet still hangs together as an energetic and epic story.

I love the fact that the film has about four false endings and I only guessed two of them.

I haven't mentioned The Bat Pod ... But Selina Kyle just looks too cool on it to ignore.
Ultimately, this is not as satisfying an experience as The Dark Knight.  It strives for so much scale the human element gets lost.  It strives for so many narrative threads that the coherence gets lost.  It lacks the charismatic heart The Joker gave to the last film and it lacks his clearly-defined motivation.  We never do really know why Bane is doing what he’s doing.  But it is an experience, a truly epic experience full of ideas … And there are precious few of those in most $250 million movies.

If Nolan has failed it is only partially and it is only because he was too ambitious.  And God bless him for it.  That ambition worked in The Dark Knight and gave us the first IMAX block-buster.  It worked in Inception and gave us the most intelligent block-buster probably ever … And it works here more than it doesn’t.

None of that 3D nonsense for our Christopher.
More than anything else … I love the fact that this is in 2D.  And always will be.

I also love the fact that, in a few days, I will be seeing it again on an IMAX screen!  So I might be back with more …

When you have seen the film you, if you're anything like me, probably like to peek behind the curtain to see how it was done.  Well, rather conveniently, this 13-minute-long making-of has been on-line for a while.  Just the job.
… Meanwhile, as you may know, there has been a typically American tragedy at a midnight screening of this film.  In a town apparently just fifteen miles from Columbine, another psychopath starved of publicity has decided to make himself famous in the wrongest way possible. 

The news media, which is whacking itself dry with excitement over this, is sparing is no lascivious detail of what they are already calling ‘The Batman Killings’.  Indeed, as I type this, they are telling us that the perpetrator was made up to look like The Joker.  This will, inevitably, re-ignite the Media effects Debate that rages on year-after-year and which I will, in all likelihood, be evoking to my Media students at some point in the future.

Over at Zap 2 It, they have noticed that Miller's 'Dark Knight Returns' chillingly dealt with this issue (including the notion of the media's culpability) in its Arnold Crimp tableau:

The message here is that a deranged mind - and let us not forget that no-one chooses to be mentally ill - will take inspiration from any source, will confuse and misinterpret that inspiration and will fit it into a skewed reality.  Wiser voices than mine have noted, many times, that you cannot legislate for the infinite variety of human personality.  But one thing we can do, is not obsess over the details. 

Earlier today, a friend and ex-student reminded me of this … It’s short, it’s pointed and it’s the single most coherent comment I’ve ever heard on this type of atrocity …

For now, if you were intending to go and see The Dark Knight Rises … or any other movie … Go.  Don’t let the weakness of one mad individual, or the cumulative weakness of one mad society, dictate your actions.

If you want to know more about violent crime in American – watch Bowling For Columbine and if you want to understand the irresistible power of the media over our minds … I urge you to look up the name Adam Curtis.