The Hobbit Review: Standard Format

I went to see The Hobbit in standard format today and as I hoped, the movie is ten times better than the high-frame rate version. Most of the issues I had with the film on my initial viewing didn’t really turn out to be as significant as I thought, mainly because I could maintain my suspension of disbelief and stay in the movie instead of constantly being thrown out of it by scenes that just did not look right. It turns out the movie is really quite good. The pacing isn’t as bad as I thought and the “darker” elements that I thought Jackson was forcing into the story flowed naturally and didn’t detract from the film much at all. I laughed, I cheered, and I became emotionally invested in the story and characters instead of feeling an odd detachment from everything. The epic scenes actually feel epic in the standard format, instead of coming-off like a video game cutscene or worse, an SNL parody.
After seeing the standard version of the film I can see where the High Frame Rate has its advantages. It’s really good at eliminating motion blur during action scenes, plus the CGI looks far better than in a standard frame rate; however, this type of fidelity comes at the expense of live actors on a brightly-lit set. The hyper-realistic look has its place, but not in a live-action movie. If what I’m looking at appears to be a TV show filmed on video or even a live play, I’m expecting other cues that just aren’t there and I’m unable to maintain my suspension of disbelief. If I’m watching a play, I can hear the actors walking across the stage and listen to their voices echo in the theater. I can smell the sets and enjoy a direct connection to the play itself, but the atmosphere of a movie theater is so completely different that watching something with the fidelity of a play yet none of the other sensory cues just feels wrong. Even if I’m not consciously aware of it, my brain is.
I can see the format benefitting an intimate character drama, but until the lighting issues are fixed I’m dubious even that wouldn’t cross into Uncanny Valley territory; however, all animated movies should now be shown at the higher frame rate because I’m certain they would look amazing.
I am glad I gave the High Frame Rate version a chance, because at least I now know that much like 3D, I’m not missing out on anything.

Well, It's a Life

(Here’s another thing I found from around 10 years ago. It’s a little long in the tooth and fairly obvious, but here it is.)
Child labor and abuse. Shattered dreams and an evil Republican cripple. Frustration, poverty, and an idiot uncle. A wife who wasn’t your first choice and a family you never really wanted. Drunk driving, bar fights, malfeasance, and suicide.
Not exactly the stuff family holiday classics are made of, yet all this is in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Life is often derided as a hokey and syrupy bit of Americana, yet compared to today’s movies, it’s surprisingly dark and realistic. Turn on any popular TV show or attend a commercially successful movie and you’ll find the same dominant theme: Achieve your dreams. You’ll be sorry if you don’t. That’s because the message of modern American society is that to be happy, you must do everything you can to achieve your dreams or you’ll end up a bitter, frustrated person full of regret. It’s a Wonderful Life flies in the face of that philosophy and presents a man who doesn’t get a single thing he wanted out of life, yet winds up the richest man in town.
We first see George as a youngster saving his kid brother from certain drowning and later as an older boy working for Mr. Gower in a drug store. In both instances, he’s saving the lives of others in spite of peril to himself. He braves freezing water to save his brother, loses hearing in one ear, and gets slapped upside the head by Mr. Gower when he refuses to deliver poison to a sick boy. Unlike the heroes of today who spring into action without a second thought, George always hesitates just before making a decision–an important distinction. He chooses to do what he does, and those choices involve helping others, even at his own expense. As a child, his decisions result in mere physical pain, but as an adult they will bring about terrible mental anguish.
In the same sequence involving the Gower Affair, George is introduced to his future opponent and thematic opposite, Mr. Potter. He’s the man who has everything and if given a choice, will choose what’s best for him over the welfare of others. What’s more, he’s rich! He’s the embodiment of today’s message, yet instead of being a happy, fulfilled man, he’s a lonely, bitter old miser with no friends.
When we next see George, he’s come of age and ready to see the world. George is shopping for a suitcase and goes on about how he wants a big steamer trunk that he can slap labels on for all the places he’s going to visit. The shopkeeper pulls out a large, empty suitcase for George to inspect and it turns out it’s from old Ear-Slapper himself, Mr. Gower.
These scenes are very busy, full of movement and energy. They convey the feelings of expectation and excitement that come with escaping the familiar and doing new things. In the dinner scene at home, someone’s always moving in and out of frame instead of the traditional portrait of a family eating a quiet meal together. The school dance scene follows, continuing the frenetic imagery of the drug store and family dinner scenes. George gets friendly with town hottie Violet, but a friend who wants George to give his kid sister Mary some company quickly pulls him away. Once again, George hesitates before finally deciding to do his friend a favor. After a brief introduction, he and Mary start doing the Charleston and take a dip in the pool thanks to the insidious shenanigans of Alfalfa.
The energy of the previous scenes dies down for purposes of exposition as George and Mary take their stroll past an old, broken-down house. Mary’s obviously taken with George and she reveals her dream of living in that house and raising a family, but George is too wrapped up in his own excitement at leaving town to notice. The scene shows George at his zenith, culminating in his boast to Mary of roping the moon and bringing it down to her. Little does George know that it is he who will be soon roped and brought back down to earth in just a few minutes, as he’s informed that his father has just had a heart attack.
Mr. Potter shows his nasty mug again, and he’s still the same greedy old SOB he always was. His selfish words irritate George to the point that even though he plans on leaving Bedford Falls for good within the next hour, he still makes an impassioned speech for saving the Building & Loan. It’s not that he really cares for the institution, but that he really hates Potter and recognizes that if Potter can get rid of the Building & Loan, he’ll own the whole damn town and they’ll all be the worse for it. His rant finished, George makes tracks for the railroad station only to be stopped by one of the board members who says that the Building & Loan will remain, but only if George stays on as Executive Secretary.
Capra is perfect in this moment. He lets the scene hang on George’s face as the realization sinks in. All the frenetic energy of the earlier scenes suddenly stops and the effect is devastating. George hangs his head slightly and makes the decision to stay in town. George offers himself some hope as he figures he’ll be able to leave once his younger brother gets back from college. He won’t be able to go to Europe, but at least he’ll get out of town eventually.
A few years go by, and once again, the energy of the train station scene corresponds with George’s expectations of getting out of town, since his brother’s coming home from college. Once his brother gets off that train, George is free to go to college and get on with his life. Harry gets off the train and George is happy. Harry’s unexpected wife gets off the train and George is happy. Harry’s wife tells George about the job her father’s offered Harry, and George is not so happy. Upon hearing the news, the scene comes to a dead stop as the camera pushes-in on George yet again. We can see the wheels start turning in George’s mind as he starts wrestling with the dilemma of fulfilling his own dreams against letting his brother have a good life of his own. That same evening, his mom pushes Mary on him, since she seems to know before George that he’s not going anywhere. She points him towards Mary’s house, but George goes the other way.
After briefly chatting-up the town bicycle, Violet, George eventually winds up at Mary’s house. He’s obviously irritated throughout the whole scene, since he knows that by settling down with Mary his dream will be completely and utterly dead. He makes a few empty protests before finally giving-in and accepting Mary. Game Over. Turn in your steamer trunk for a briefcase.
The rest of the film reinforces the notion of George being denied what he wants for the sake of helping someone else. His honeymoon is ruined by a bank scare that costs him his entire savings. He’s constantly going at it with Potter to keep the Building & Loan in operation and he’s helping the community to get better housing than what Potter offers, at the expense of a good house for himself and his family.
The film eventually reaches its crisis point when George’s idiot uncle loses $8,000 dollars and the Bank Examiner shows up (it appears that financial institutions were regulated in the past and financial officers could face some form of criminal punishment). Potter swears out a warrant for George’s arrest and Bailey realizes his number’s up. He barks at his family and heads out to the bar to get drunk.
This is where Capra’s decision to have George make his choices instead of being a mere victim of circumstance pays off. If George had been carried along by the whims of fate instead of being a willing participant in his life, the film wouldn’t work. George knows that his decisions have brought him to this point and he hates himself for it. He considers himself a failure because of those choices he’s made. All of his frustration at being denied what he wanted again and again finally boils to the surface when he considers jumping off the bridge and ending it all.
But it’s Clarence the Bumbling Angel who jumps in the water first, and George momentarily forgets his own problems to jump in and save the guy. Saved from the icy river, Clarence and George sit down for a heart to heart and George lets off the flippant remark about wishing he’d never been born.
What Clarence shows George is that had he not made all those “wrong” decisions, the entire town would have been worse off for it. Sure, he may have not been able to leave Bedford Falls and see the world, but at the same time he enriched the lives of everyone else, including his own, though he was too blinded by his own self-pity to see it. And that’s what makes this film superior to the “feel good” movies of today. People are encouraged to damn the world in pursuit of their dreams, lest they be unfulfilled and unsuccessful. But what of the rest of the world? In It’s a Wonderful Life, we’re shown the guy who supposedly has everything. Mr. Potter’s rich, he owns half the damn town, and he can get anything he wants. He’s also a bitter old man with no friends or family of his own. If Potter hadn’t existed, the world would have taken bare notice and would be no worse for having not known him, because he was only concerned about himself and the accumulation of material wealth.
The world was obviously worse off for not having George Bailey around, and though he never pursued his dreams, he did choose to help those around him. By elevating the lot of his fellow man, he made his world a better place. He may not have had the best house or a fancy car, and his kids may not have had the best clothes, but he had a family and friends who loved him. Harry’s not kidding when he calls his brother “the richest man in town,” because in every way that matters, he is.

The Hobbit Review: High Frame Rate

(Warning: Possible, minor spoilers. Nothing earth-shattering, but you’ve been warned.)
The Hobbit is a good movie, but the 48 FPS (High Frame Rate) version just does not work. It was so distracting that I couldn’t really get into the movie. A lot of the time, it looked like we were watching a behind-the-scenes featurette on a DVD or a made-for-TV movie with a large effects budget. There were even a few moments where the movie appeared to be a well-staged play. My son said that it looked like something you’d see at a theme park, where they get some of the actors from the movie to show up in a video for an interactive ride. I found the whole effect distracting to the point that I now have to watch the movie again in a standard frame rate to see how it looks as a film, rather than a TV documentary with legendary creatures.
Frame rate issues aside, the movie itself is very good, but Peter Jackson appears to be exhibiting early signs of Lucasification, as he’s clearly indulging his every whim in this movie (the frame rate issue was the first clue). For those wondering how in the world he can make three very long movies out of a very short children’s book, the answer seems to be: by making every scene several minutes longer than it needs to be. It’s been more than a decade since I last read The Hobbit but it looks to me that Jackson is including every single scene from the book, and quite a few that aren’t, and each is given several minutes worth of footage to boot. It’s almost as if he’s saying, “You little shits want to rake me over the coals about Tom Bombadil? Here’s five minutes of a guy reviving a hedgehog.”
Jackson also appears to be in the same quandary as Tolkien back in the 1950s. After writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien went back to The Hobbit and tried to give it the same feel and tone as the latter books. He got as far as re-writing the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter before abandoning the project. The fundamental stumbling block is that The Hobbit is a children’s tale about a guy taken out of his comfort zone and propelled into an adventure where he encounters strange and funny creatures along the way. The book’s tone isn’t serious and it doesn’t even take itself seriously. It’s a light-hearted, witty, fast-paced story where the only thing at stake is whether his dwarven group will be able to slay the dragon and reclaim their home. You can’t shoehorn-in the Lord of the Rings’ tone without utterly destroying what makes “The Hobbit,” The Hobbit.
Unlike Tolkien, Jackson doesn’t seem to want to recognize The Hobbit for what it is and let it be, as he persists in a vain effort to dovetail it thematically with his version of The Lord of the Rings. That’s really hard to do when you have slapstick trolls, Jabba the Cockney Goblin King, and Radagast the Brown piloting a high-speed sleigh drawn by a dozen jackrabbits. The juxtaposition of the Witch King of Angmar, dread and terrible leader of the Nazgul and recently resurrected by the Necromancer by fel, dark magic to once again cast a shadow over the lands of Middle-Earth, attempting to slay a crazy man with bird shit in his hair, doesn’t really work. You have to choose either to show The Hobbit or a darker movie inspired by The Hobbit; you can’t do both. Factor in the high frame rate, which makes it look almost like a College Humor video parody of the Lord of the Rings, and the entire effort teeters on the brink of ridiculousness.
Still, The Hobbit is a good, fun movie and all of the criticisms I’ve outlined above do not break the film. In fact, I actually enjoyed it. I think that if I saw it again at a normal frame rate, most of the detractions that stood out before would likely disappear into the background. The High Frame Rate really exposes flaws in a movie that would otherwise normally be forgotten or missed. It’s not yet ready for prime time, at least until filmmakers are able to figure out how to cheat and hide certain things like they can with standard movies. When I see it again, I’ll follow-up with a post with some thoughts on how the movie goes without the distraction of the high frame rate (edit: and here it is).

Green Tambourine

(I recently found this amongst a few files I recovered from an old hard drive. It was published in August of 2003 on my old website. I’ve edited it for spelling, accuracy, and clarity)
I’ve listened to Green Tambourine at least a few hundred times, if not more, and I don’t know why I love this song so much. Maybe it’s the sitar riff at the beginning of the song. Everything is second-rate in this song, from the simple three chords to the lame tambourine itself, but I’m compelled to listen to it. It resides in every playlist of mine and when I hear it on the radio, I’m unable to change the station. I’m trapped by its kooky power.
The song itself doesn’t make any sense. Look at the first couple of lines:
Drop your silver in my tambourine
help a poor man build a pretty dream
give me pennies, I’ll take anything

There’s nothing obviously amiss here. This damn dirty hippie is poor and looking to make some dough to fuel his reefer madness. Most people use a guitar case or a cup to collect loose pocket change and crumpled dollar bills, but this guy’s so poor he can’t afford such luxuries. All he has is his little tambourine. I feel sorry for Mr. Tambourine Man, who is most likely the subject of The Byrds’ song of the same name, but more on that later. I want you to look at the very next line in the song:
Now listen as I play my Green Tambourine
I know I’m a little soft in the head, but how the hell can you play the tambourine? It’s got money in it. If you start banging on that thing, all those hard-earned pennies are going to fly out all over the place. You can bet your unwashed ass that all of your pretty dreams will disappear as street urchins battle each other for the scattered copper loot. I’m starting to feel not-so-sorry for Mr. Tambourine Man, who’s evidently thrown away thousands for want of a fully functional short term memory. But perhaps that’s his plan.
Maybe, just maybe, Tambourine Man serves as a central collection point for tourists’ money, which he then distributes to his unfortunate neighbors in the most equitable manner possible: by randomly scattering it about as he plays the tambourine. Could that be his pretty dream, to bring money and happiness to orphans and winos who otherwise would go hungry because they lack the talent with which to earn money? Is Tambourine Man the result of a complex evolutionary process that has produced a mutant hobo with a talent that confers a natural advantage over others of his kind? If so, Tambourine Man’s charitable efforts toward his unfortunate kinsmen are worthy of praise and respect.
But this brings up another question: Who the hell wants to listen to someone play a friggin’ tambourine, much less pay for the privilege? The lyrics contain a valuable clue:
Watch the jingle-jangle start to shine
reflections of the music that is mine
When you toss a coin, you’ll hear it sing
Now listen as I play my Green Tambourine

This is no ordinary tambourine. A standard tambourine is just a simple wooden hoop with some irritating cymbals and a drumhead. A normal person’s response to this instrumental kluge is to either get out of earshot in the quickest manner possible, or beat the tambourine player for assaulting the tympanic membranes of the citizenry.
So how is it that Tambourine Man escapes certain death when he heads out to the street corner to play? The answer is obvious. He plays a magic tambourine, as evidenced by its conspicuous green color. As he beats upon its surface, the jingle-jangling of the mini-cymbals mesmerizes the audience into a stupor and opens them up to the hypnotic suggestion of the music that is his. The audience, in thrall of the tambourine, is compelled to throw money into the tambourine once the song is complete. As a reward, the tambourine itself “sings” to them. What devilish tune this hellspawn instrument whispers in their ears is unknown as the lyrics are unclear on this point. But it can be inferred that the tambourine’s song prevents them from questioning the insane act of giving someone money for playing the infernal instrument.
The tambourine’s magical properties help to answer another puzzle of the song’s lyrics:
Drop a dime before I walk away
Any song you want I’ll gladly play
Money feeds my music machine

It is here that the song takes a disturbing turn. Not only does Tambourine Man feel confident enough to actually threaten walking away (which would be a welcome action), he’s so sure of the tambourine’s hypnotic power that he can actually convince people that he is capable of playing songs. Now we all know that a tambourine is incapable of playing a song. It cannot reproduce notes. One can only smack it in a sort of rhythm approximating a song’s beat, and even then the reproduction is so vague that you kind of have to take the musician’s word for it. Is that Walk Like an Egyptian or Love in an Elevator? Who knows? The zombified audience is too busy reaching into their pockets to feed his music machine.
It’s the description of the tambourine as a music machine that highlights a potentially disturbing dimension to the song. You can take its meaning at face value: the tambourine has some sort of mechanism facilitating the hypnotic trance, perhaps by broadcasting high-pitched radio waves. The testing and R&D phase of the device must’ve been interesting. Did initial audiences soil themselves or form angry mobs focused on rooting-out Communists from the film industry?
Such idle speculation of a mysterious internal device within the tambourine itself is, of course, ludicrous. This self-described poor man could not afford the components and sophisticated equipment necessary to fashion such a hypnotic device, which leads us to the only conclusion possible: the tambourine is the vessel of a malevolent entity.
This conclusion is terrifying in its implications, for it suggests that Tambourine Man is not, as we guessed, a gifted street bum, but the victim of supernatural forces beyond his understanding and control. Perhaps he raided a gypsy camp and stole the accursed tambourine with the intention of pawning it, but was instead enslaved by its demonic power before he could rid himself of it. Unable to resist the Green Tambourine, the man plays it in public, feeding the demon’s insatiable need for pocket change. Its need for money is likely the result of a cosmic bargain that led to the demon’s imprisonment within the tambourine itself. The spirit must collect within the maw of the instrument a certain amount of money before it can be set free; or worse, exchange places with whatever poor soul happened to take possession of the tambourine.
The Tambourine Man must’ve quickly ascertained the true nature of the instrument and fought to keep the monster locked within its cage by immediately dispersing the money after the collection. One can only imagine the terrible existence of Tambourine Man, locked in a contest of wills with an imp of enormous psychic power. One can also imagine the frustration of the tambourinic djinn, who sees his hour of freedom come tantalizingly close, only to have his hopes scattered along with the money amongst the four winds.
We should therefore not only pity the Tambourine Man, but also take strength from his example, for he demonstrates that even the lowliest of us has the power to stymie the efforts of the Dark Side. If you doubt the djinn’s power, you need look no further than The Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man. The hypnotic power of the demon was so powerful and lasting that a group of musicians felt compelled to craft a song about the Tambourine Man and then perform it for years without question or hesitation. Even though their song was a result of demonic influence, it does allow us to view firsthand the power of the tambourine from the point of view of the audience, in contrast to the Tambourine Man’s own lament and coded warning to stay away at any cost.
Indeed, there may never have been a Mr. Tambourine Man had the Lemon Pipers not released Green Tambourine. The djinn knew that Green Tambourine had the potential to keep him enslaved for eternity, so it was necessary to sing that special “song” for The Byrds to record, bringing people from all over the globe to listen and toss money into the tambourine, thus hastening his liberation.
Did the demon’s efforts pay off? No more mention is made of Tambourine Man after The Lemon Pipers released their record. We can confidently assume that the genie was freed after a particularly large group of Japanese tourists heard the Tambourine Man play and tossed hundreds of thousands of Yen into the tambourine. In what might be the ultimate example of cosmic irony, the supernatural mechanism in place may not have accounted for international exchange rates and so took the monetary value of the Yen at face value and set the genie free for only thirteen dollars and a few cents.
So what became of the Tambourine Man after the malevolent spirit was liberated and founded Microsoft? Hopefully, he was freed of torment as well and completed his task of pawning the now spiritually benign instrument for some much need reefer money. Such a scenario may help us sleep peacefully at night, but the truth may be far more sinister. We must assume that somewhere in this world a possessed Green Tambourine, imbued with the spirit of an angry and tormented soul, quietly awaits its next unsuspecting victim.