The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I decided to catch The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (hereafter referred to as An Unexpected Journey) on New Year’s Eve, because it sure as hell beats going to the City to watch a waste of a few million dollars in a pathetic attempt to wow with fireworks. I saw it in HFR, and kind of unfortunately in 3D as well, as it turns out the only way to watch the film in HFR was to watch it in 3D. I think I will take a sentence or two to talk about things that were floating around in my head with regards to 3D movies and why I feel they don’t really work in terms of immersion as much as 2D.

Now, I have read The Hobbit, unlike the 6 (yes, 6) LOTR books. Due to this, I went into An Unexpected Journey with a bit of concern about how enjoyable I would find the movie. It is a rule of thumb that if I experience the original media of anything first, I will generally dislike adaptations. I kind of found An Unexpected Journey disappointing for reasons other than having read it before, as there was a fair bit of additional information dumped into the movie from supplementary material.

The film itself was tonally inconsistent, most likely a consequence of drawing from multiple sources in order to stretch this venture into a trilogy. The parts lifted directly from The Hobbit were the ones I enjoyed the most. They felt like something out of a bedtime story, which is how I felt reading the book. At other times, the film is trying for a grander, more serious tone that the material does not warrant at all. It felt like a scared animal puffing itself up to appear bigger and more imposing than it really is.

Needless to say, there were pacing issues. We leave certain characters to focus on others, in much the same way the book did, but with additional information on screen taken from supplementary material. Certain scenes felt they went on too long, while others seemed a little glossed over. I am not sure whether removing some of the supplementary scenes would have helped with the pacing, though it felt like there was simultaneously too much going on and that there was too thin of a narrative to warrant the run time.

Performances were pretty good around the board, though there were too many characters to keep track of and too little time spent developing them for audiences to really connect with many of them. In fact, you don’t really get introduced to all of them by name in the first act, like you did in the novel, making things a little more complicated. Credit where it’s due, each Dwarf has a distinct look about him and the movie has amazing production design. For such a simple and thin narrative, the film offers more variety in terms of locals than Fellowship did.

Then there were the digital performances, and they were pretty spectacular. CG creations have much more detail in them and as such are able to emote to a much more convincing degree, especially Gollum (already a high water mark in cinematic digital performances in the LOTR films).

Truth be told, I went to see An Unexpected Journey for the HFR experience, and not because it was An Unexpected Journey. In the end, HFR is an interesting experience that is not without its own set of problems. Firstly, everything is super clear due to the increased Frame Rate. It really is quite amazing, though it does feel at times like you are watching a really well lit and highly budgeted TV show from time to time. The increased detail is not without its problems either. Prosthetics used in makeup do not stand up well with the increased clarity. Changes in skin tone from the actor’s real face to his prosthetic nose, or forehead can get a little distracting from time to time, reminding you that you are only watching a movie. Additionally, certain actions felt like they were being sped up. It felt unnatural and once again removed from the immersion that the movie needed. Finally, some CG elements did not feel as well integrated into the live action footage at the higher frame rate. An early Warg chase appeared as stunning nature photography with CG Wargs superimposed without much care. I hope things like this can be rectified in the future.

Now those sentences regarding 3D. Well, I noticed a couple of things with 3D. It gives you a sense of depth that 2D films do not, however, it dictated which “level” of the image you are focusing on. To illustrate, Say there is the background, the midground which contains the actor you need to focus on, and the foreground that has incidental scenery in it. The shot will be composed and focused such that in a 2D film, your focus is on the actor, the foreground elements will be out of focus and the background will be out of focus. In a 3D film, much the same happens, however the foreground elements are much “closer” to you and remain out of focus, and I generally find I want to be able to bring those into focus to find out what they are, even if just for a second. The inability to do so, while being “tricked” into thinking I should be able to because the shot appears 3D kind of removes me from the movie.

Additionally, 3D kind of made green screened establishing shots look more shallow than they should have if what was shown on the green screen were actually there with the rest of the world. To explain, it feels kind of weird to have the actors walk to the edge of a cliff, see that they have some depth to them, along with the surrounding environment, but the city they are looking down upon looks kind of flat.

Kind of makes you feel like, oh these are people standing on a set looking at something that was added in later. Once again, this lowers immersion in the film world.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the 3D and HFR went together from time to time. At times, particularly in the darker scenes, it felt like you were watching actors on a stage, rather than a movie. The technology is interesting and I would like to see it, and other film making technologies (particularly makeup) improve with time.

Ultimately, An Unexpected Journey is an interesting experience if you are looking into High Frame Rate technology, much like Avatar was interesting if you were curious about the brand new 3D cameras used to film it. It is stronger as a curiosity than it does as a film in its own right.

If you haven’t already, read the book. Depending on your reading speed, it will take you less time to get through the book than it will to get through all three movies, and you will likely be left feeling more satisfied, if this film were any indication.

An Unexpected Journey is kind of revealing something about Peter Jackson that I previously did not want to acknowledge. He is not a master of tone. The Lord of the Rings felt more tonally consistent because the source material was richer and more serious. The true horror of the ring and the impending rise of all powerful evil could be played up for all it was worth, hiding some of the shortcomings in actually managing narrative tone.

With An Unexpected Journey, Jackson does not have as rich of a narrative to hide behind and his inability to blend tones together into a consistent whole, or even into one that smoothly transitions from joviality to seriousness to horror is all the more evident.

Jackson is a man who can make fantastical worlds come to life visually, and that is something I truly appreciate about his work, but his handling of narrative and emotional material needs a little work.

If I absolutely have to give An Unexpected Journey a rating out of 10, I’d say 6 out of 10. It has its wonderful moments and the tech is an experience worth experiencing, but as an actual film, it isn’t as strong as it should or could have been.

Fear(s) of the Dark

Fear(s) of the Dark is a French anthology of black and white animated horror short films.

Each of the shorts uses a different art animation style, and if you have seen anything like Halo Legends in the past, you will know what you are in for. Much like other film anthologies, the shorts vary in quality.

The film begins with a traditionally animated short that was reminiscent of the animation style of Fantastic Planet – a fantastic, surreal French Science Fiction animated feature.

After this short (which turns out to be interspersed between the other shorts) is a bizarre sequence akin to watching a Saul Bass styled credits sequence while a neurotic French woman recites all she is, was, and ever will be afraid of in your right ear. I do not know if there was an issue with my audio setup, or if it was intentionally balanced to the right channel, as the other shorts seemed to have no such issue. This short, too, was interspersed and served to act more as an intermission than anything.

A third short was a manga styled ghost story, that had the quality of a campfire story. Not particularly scary, but interesting in its imagery. Of all the animations, it was this one that stuck out, as it was the most washed out looking of the shorts. There were no deep blacks to be found. It’s not necessarily a bad thing as it feels like you’re watching the faded panels of an old manga come to life, but it did feel a little odd compared to the others.

Fourth came a short that had a similar look and style of animation to the first short. It concerned a man recounting a series of events during an early period of his life when an unknown creature was terrorising his town. It was quite well animated and was drenched in melancholy.

The shorts evoked different moods, ranging from melancholy to oppressive to sensual. Disappointingly, for a series of horror shorts, they weren’t particularly scary. The sole exception to this was the fifth and final short (my favourite) that follows an unfortunate man as he stumbles around an unfamiliar home in the dark. It is the closest to being chilling and makes perfect use of a deep inky blackness. In fact, for a majority of its run time, most of the screen is black, and the short uses outlines and quick flashes to suggest the sinister goings on in the house.

As can be expected in a series of shorts by different animators, the quality of sound design also varied. I’d say, once again, the Fifth short comes out on top with an amazingly dynamic soundscape and wonderfully ominous music. At one point the protagonist loses his shoe, and the difference in the sounds of his footsteps is amazingly realised. This level of attention to detail added immensely to the creepiness of the short. Sound is an incredibly important aspect of film, especially of horror films, and this short nailed it.

I’d say Fear(s) is worth watching if you are a fan of animation and would love to see some, at times gorgeous and mesmerising black and white animation. It works as a moody piece of experimental animation, but do not go in expecting any genuine scares. In that regard the anthology falls short.

TPPA and China

So I read an interesting little piece about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) that you can read here.

The article goes into how the TPPA is forcing US corporate interests down the throats of nations in the Pacific, nations with trade interests and relationships with China. To put it simply, countries such as New Zealand and Australia can find themselves between a rock and a hard place, not wanting to upset the US, but also not losing their favour with China, a massive economic power.

I don’t particularly want to get into the politics or implications of TPPA in a serious sense, but in more of a speculative fiction sense. “What is it you are hoping to achieve here?” I hear you ask. Why, go play Black Ops II and then come back! Or don’t, maybe you shouldn’t feed the juggernaut that is Call of Duty any more than it has already been fed.

Let us just say that the game pushes, quite heavily, US interests in the framing of a second cold war, one between the US and China. The impetus behind this cold war is Rare Earth minerals, which China seems to have a monopoly on and are used in electronics.

So what?

Well, the article above mentions the possibility of TPPA and US Corporate interests fuelling a cold war between the US and China with Pacific nations used as a proxy battleground, with the two superpowers posturing for economic superiority.

I just found it quite amusing that it basically provided the plot of a new Modern Military Shooter.

Though it is a bit worrying that such issues could exist, that countries could be torn between their allegiances to other nations because they do not have the power to resist larger powers. Being an Australian citizen, I am also a little worried about what TPPA could mean for me as an individual. I will, of course, need to do some reading about this, and hopefully find some accurate information to avoid another ACTA furor (even though once clarified ACTA was still a horrible thing). I doubt I’d be able to wrap my head around all of it though, and we have another dragon to slay in the form of the ITU.

Once again, the governments of the world aim to govern the internet in an opaque fashion without public consultation. At least, I believe this time it is not motivated by corporate interests? It’s still a worrying thought though. Here is a video.

NDIS: What the doctor ordered?

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) seems to be a step in the right direction for Australians with a disability. It aims to provide flexible, person-centered support to allow those with disabilities to lead normal lives, so what could possibly be wrong with this? You can start reading about the misgivings some in the community have with NDIS here.

So the NDIS aims to introduce a quasi-market model to disability service provision. This aims to turn people living with disabilities into empowered consumers. Empowered is a wonderful word, isn’t it?

There’s a troubling implication in all of this that many seem to have missed. It seems like the NDIS is putting the onus on the individual with disability to source their treatment or service and get it approved from a marketplace, and no clarification has been provided in certain key areas.

We live in a country where Public Hospitals are a thing. One does not need to go from hospital to hospital shopping for the best deal for them, nor does one have to consider whether they should employ a doctor directly. Here too, there has been no clarity provided. What exactly does employ directly mean?

Here’s an abstract from a study that brings into question the efficacy of a quasi-market model of service provision:

A qualitative study involving semi-structured interviews with 31 people with disabilities and 32 carers in the state of Queensland, Australia, found that their experience of supportive service delivery had not improved despite reforms of the service delivery system driven by a version of the quasi-market model. Instead of delivering increased consumer choice and improved efficiency in service delivery, service users experienced inadequate service supply, service cutbacks, and an increased emphasis on cost subsidisation and assessment processes. Additionally, few consumers felt that individualised funding arrangements had personally delivered the benefits which the quasi-market model and associated policy paradigm had indicated that they should receive. For many consumers, the notion of consumer ‘choice’ around service provision was fictitious and they felt that any efficiency gains were at the agency level, largely at the consumers’ cost. It is concluded that there appears to be no particular benefit to service users of quasi-market reforms, particularly in policy contexts where service delivery systems are historically under-funded.

The Opposition were absent from last week’s introduction of the draft NDIS legislation. This does not speak well of their concern for the disabled population of Australia.

The NDIS could be a step forward for equitable treatment of people with disability in Australia, however at the moment it seems murky and designed by individuals that do not understand what social and structural barriers are faced by individuals with disabilities. Even the quasi-market system, one that hides behind the banner of being flexible and person-centred, does not seem to consider the difficulties faced by those with intelectual disabilities, acquired brain injury, or their carers.

The cynic in me could see the push for the NDIS as the machinations of a government trying desperately to gain approval from an increasingly disenfranchised public.

Queensland was quite opposed to running NDIS trials, continuously calling foul and claiming to be broke. It could not afford to support disabled Queenslanders, what with the giant deficit left by the previous government, the devastating flooding, and the fact their financials put them close to being “the Spain of Australian States”. So then…

Whatever the merits of the current round of public service cuts, no-one can seriously argue that Queensland can’t afford a trial of the NDIS. As former Democrats senator Andrew Bartlett pointed out last week, the state is spending $80 million on the racing industry, including funding for a new greyhound racing track.

You can see how the remaining claims stack up and read the rest of the article here.

I believe strongly in disability support, and reform that will make life more liveable for those with disability is good in my books. I’ve spent two years working in the capacity of a Disability Employment Consultant, I have trained in Psychology and believe strongly in promoting ability rather than disability. I hope the NDIS will be what this country needs. However, I would be remis to say that the lack of clarity in the current draft and the seemingly indifferent attitudes of Australian politicians towards the plight of the people they represent hasn’t been cause for concern.

Have a bit more to chew on over here.