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Friday, December 13, 2013 02:12 PM
On the Viewer - The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
 by Fëanor

I just saw the second Hobbit movie! I enjoyed it immensely. Gonna drop some spoilers on you below, but come on, the book is pretty old, people.

First of all, Martin Freeman is just fantastic as Bilbo. His performance is funny and subtle and deeply insightful. The Mirkwood sequence, though missing some of the neat details from the book, is still fantastic, with wonderful visualizations of the surreal enchantment on the place. The scene where Bilbo climbs the tree and looks out over the top of the forest was always a memorable one for me in the book, and they handled it well here. And the spiders! So creepy! So cool!

I also really enjoyed all the added scenes with the elves. The movie makes clear that there's a lot of history between the Elven King Thranduil (wonderfully embodied by Lee Pace) and Thorin's people - and lots of history between Thranduil and dragons. There's some fun foreshadowing of Legolas' relationship with Gimli, first in a silly scene between Legolas and Gloin, Gimli's father, but also in the unlikely relationship that springs up between Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Kili (Aidan Turner). Tauriel's character is a wonderful addition to the story, and it's great to see the dwarves fleshed out as individuals. Ken Stott stands out as the wise and sadly knowing Balin, and I like the brotherly bond between Fili (Dean O'Gorman) and Kili.

Thranduil wants to protect his son and his people from danger and disgrace, but his solution to these problems is to simply lock all the doors and let the people outside fend for themselves - and to coldly tell Tauriel to stay away from his boy because she wouldn't be right for him. But Tauriel sees that there's a world outside that has its own beauty and wonder, and that it's in danger. And she draws Legolas out with her to protect it.

The fight that takes place as the dwarves float down the river in their barrels is ridiculously fun, impressive, and exciting, and is definitely the grand centerpiece of the film. Turns out Bombur is a bad-ass! Not to mention Legolas and Tauriel.

Stephen Fry has a fun little part as the scheming, power-hungry, self-important Master of Lake Town, and Luke Evans is great as Bard - a simple man with legendary origins who just wants to protect his people. I thought it was a little silly that they turned what was originally just an arrow that happened to be colored black into a secret dragon-killing harpoon called the "Black Arrow." But whatever, it works.

Gandalf's subplot is very exciting. He and Radagast investigate some old tombs and find them empty. Oh, and the tombs? There are nine of them. Dun dun DUN! Even more amazing, Gandalf walks into Dol Guldur alone and goes head-to-head with Sauron himself. This I had a bit of a problem with, as I feel like Gandalf would have acted differently during Lord of the Rings if he'd found out years before that the Nazgul were abroad, Sauron was rising, and he had actually personally fought Sauron. (I'm pretty sure in the books, Gandalf mentions at one point that he's never personally faced Sauron, but I could be remembering that wrong.) But it was so cool to see I think I'm generally okay with it.

I also really liked the foreshadowing of the terrible effect the ring will have on Bilbo. In one scene, he almost tells Gandalf about it, but then stops himself at the last moment. Then later, in Mirkwood, he viciously beats a monster to death in order to get the ring back, and then freaks out a little about what he's done. Did I mention that Freeman is fantastic?

Oh and hey, there's also a dragon in this movie. He's pretty great. Benedict Cumberbatch does a fine job on the voice. It was nice of Pete Jackson and friends to make the dwarves much braver and more selfless here than they were in the book, and have them actually have a go at fighting the dragon before he takes off to destroy Lake Town.

Really the only thing about the movie that I found disappointing was the sequence with Beorn. One of my favorite bits of the book is the way Gandalf kind of tricks Beorn into taking them all in. He and Bilbo show up first, and Beorn is cranky about it, but is okay with taking in a couple of people. Then Gandalf starts telling him all about their adventure, and as he does, more and more dwarves keep showing up in ones and twos, interrupting the story. Beorn puts up with it because he wants to hear the rest of the story, and by the time they've all got there, he feels like he has to take them in. It's a clever, funny scene and it's completely missing from the movie. There's also a lot of mystery around Beorn in the book and it's only very slowly that Bilbo works out that he's a skinchanger. In the movie, Gandalf blurts it out as soon as they meet him. And then before you know it, Beorn's gone. It seems like they could have spent a bit more time on recreating this scene as it was in the book, and less time adding in a bunch of crazy running around in Erebor that they made up out of whole cloth.

But I'm just being a cranky old Tolkien fan. Overall, I really enjoyed the movie, and I'm looking forward to the last one. It should be a doozie!
Tagged (?): Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not), The Hobbit (Not), Tolkien (Not)
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Wednesday, July 10, 2013 02:03 PM
Book Report - The Fall of Arthur
 by Fëanor

It's a new release from J.R.R. Tolkien! Yep, Christopher managed to scrape together enough text from his father's copious notes to make another book. This time it is a poem, written in contemporary English, but using Old English-style alliterative verse (the format of the original Beowulf), telling the tragic tale of King Arthur's defeat and death. I've been excited to read this ever since I first heard about it. Tolkien on Arthur?!? OMG!

Here's the thing: the book is 240 pages long, but about 200 pages of that are introduction and end notes from Christopher explaining the form of the poem, how it took shape, and where it sits in the context of his father's other work and in the context of other Arthurian texts. And the 40 pages of poem that are here are just the start of what was clearly meant to be a much longer work. I don't know what I was expecting - obviously if Tolkien had finished it completely it would have been published well before now - but I still found this a bit disappointing.

The fact that what we have of the poem is lovely and powerful almost makes it worse. It's really a shame he never got around to finishing this. I enjoy the alliterative verse form quite a bit, and Tolkien is an expert at it. The story is a familiar one, but Tolkien has an interesting take on it. In his hands, Arthur's world feels like one on the edge of a precipice - a dark, stormy place about to be swept aside in a rising tide of chaos and destruction. His characters stalk through the gloom, brooding and raging ineffectually. Although his Middle Earth works do have a bit of romance, they are entirely devoid of lust, so it's interesting to see a bit of that here, in the form of Mordred's desire for Guinevere.

Speaking of Guinevere, Tolkien's characterization of her is particularly unflattering. She's always the reason, in every telling of this story, for the rift between Arthur and Lancelot that ends up destroying everything, but most writers see her as ultimately blameless - a star-crossed lover and a lady from beginning to end - and give her a saintly, penitent end. Not Tolkien. He makes her selfish, grasping, and unfeeling. It seems like an unnecessarily harsh treatment of the character.

Fans of Tolkien's Middle Earth works will see a few interesting connections here, which Christopher helps highlight. Mirkwood makes a brief appearance in the text, although here the word seems to be used more as a kenning to describe a random dark forest, and not as the name of the specific wood that Bilbo Baggins once worked his way through. Tolkien's plan for the end of the story has a more direct connection: he meant to send Lancelot out in a boat to seek the injured (possibly dead?) Arthur where he lay in Avalon, and parallel this journey with that of Eärendil the mariner, when he went to Tol Eressëa seeking the help of the Valar.

This note from Christopher, as well as another that reveals his father had planned to write a time travel novel that tied in with his Middle Earth work (!), is interesting, as are some of the passages about alliterative verse and Arthurian scholarship. But as fans of Tolkien already know, Christopher's style is dense, dry, academic, and painfully precise, and it can make some of the appendices a bit of a slog. Particularly hard to get through are the parts where he's trying to describe the various different versions of the text he found in his father's notes and how they differ from each other. Trying to follow his A's and B's and LT's is like trying to put together a piece of IKEA furniture.

Disappointing in many ways, The Fall of Arthur is still a fascinating work and worth a look for die-hard fans of Tolkien or Arthur.
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not), Tolkien (Not)
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Wednesday, December 26, 2012 09:07 PM
(Last updated on Friday, January 4, 2013 10:35 AM)
LEGO Lord of the Rings (Wii)
 by Fëanor

I got a video game for Christmas! And poppy and I played it for a while today! Crazy!

The LEGO video games are all pretty similar, but all pretty solid fun. You play through a series of story-based action/platforming levels collecting stuff. There are fun cut scenes in between with a silly sense of humor. You unlock new playable characters and new abilities as you go. This means you can go back and replay earlier levels to collect even more stuff, and replaying those levels is actually rewarding and fun because now there are new things to do and new sections to explore. If all you want to do is beat the game, by which I mean, complete every level and see the end of the story, you can do that pretty quickly. It's collecting 100% of the stuff that's the real challenging part.

Some things I really hate in a video game: if it is punishingly difficult; if it makes you redo long portions again and again until you get them exactly right; if it makes you play for a very long time before you can safely save and quit (I don't have a lot of time here, people!). The LEGO games do not have any of these problems. Not only do they auto-save often, they also give you the option to manually save pretty much whenever you want. Also, although you can be "killed" in the game, there are no consequences to dying beyond losing a handful of the studs that are the "money" in the game; you immediately respawn and keep going right where you left off.

This particular game has all the advantages of your standard LEGO game, with the added advantage that it's set in Middle-Earth! It starts with you playing as Elendil, Isildur, and Elrond fighting Sauron himself!! That's how it opens! Of course, it quickly jumps thousands of years forward in time and acquaints you with Sam and Frodo. I was a little disappointed that you don't get to explore Bag End (UPDATE: we've discovered since that later on in the game you do get to go back and explore Bag End, although only a limited portion of it), but you do get to wander around a surprisingly expansive Hobbiton, and then down the road to Bree, and out into the Wild. When you pick up the rest of the Fellowship at Rivendell is when things get really fun. Legolas, Gandalf, Gimli, and Aragorn are all bad-asses (especially Legolas; bow and arrow! Jumping and swinging and climbing!), but even the hobbits have all been given useful and unique abilities so you often find yourself jumping between many different characters to get through a particular puzzle or sequence. Something they've added for this game that I haven't seen in the previous LEGO games I've played is that each character actually has an inventory and can carry multiple objects at one time. The way it works is a bit awkward (every time you pick something up you have to immediately indicate which spot in your inventory you want it to sit in; why not just have it automatically go to the first empty spot?), but still, inventory!

One of my favorite things so far: not only can you pick up Gimli and carry him around, you can also throw him at things! And not only can you do this, you actually have to, and often! It is pretty hilarious. Oh, and also? I got to rocket down a pit in Moria, jump on the back of a Balrog, and hack at him with Glamdring until he was dead. That was awesome.

UPDATE 1: Now that we've played a bit more, I can reveal that the Balrog was not dead yet! They split the Balrog fight into two sections, and the second part is pretty great, too. Also, you eventually get to play as Ents, which is fantastic. Once you're that big, you don't even have to fight the Orcs anymore; they're just little scurrying things that you sometimes step on.

UPDATE 2: We've now gotten to the end of the story in the game, but haven't even collected half the things yet. Last night we built something called the Disco Phial. You owe it to yourself to seek out this item and equip it. Then sit back and witness the hilarious awesomeness.

Of course, the game has its problems. For one, it's a bit buggy. Even in the few hours of play we put in, twice we ended up stuck in a dead-end where the game would not let us continue because the thing we needed to do to move forward had become impossible. (In the first case, a rock we had to push over to move on got stuck and would not go any further; in the second case, the creature outside the gates of Moria became invulnerable.) We had to quit out and go back in to get things going again. Luckily, like I said, it lets you save often, so we didn't have to repeat too much, but still. Also, although the game is often good at giving you onscreen tips and hints so you can figure out what to do next, sometimes the path forward is highly counter-intuitive and frustratingly difficult to discover. (Fighting the troll in Moria was particularly annoying.) Finally, the way the game splits the screen so each player can see their own surroundings is sometimes either confusing or simply doesn't work at all; for example, while we were fighting that troll in Moria, I sometimes couldn't see myself at all.

Still, even with the flaws, the game has overall been fun so far, and I'm looking forward to jumping back into Middle-Earth as soon as we can.
Tagged (?): LEGO (Not), Tolkien (Not), Toys (Not), Video games (Not)
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Sunday, December 23, 2012 05:01 PM
(Last updated on Thursday, January 3, 2013 01:49 PM)
On the Viewer - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
 by Fëanor

If somebody asks me what my favorite book is, after I hem and haw for a while, I usually end up falling back on The Hobbit. I'm pretty sure it's the book that not only started my love of fantasy, but of books in general. "Formative" isn't even a strong enough word. So yeah, I was going to have to see the movies based on it, even though they're being made by Peter Jackson, whose Lord of the Rings films I can hardly bare to watch anymore because of how much they diverge from the source material.

I'm happy to say, although the first of the three (!) Hobbit films does in some places diverge quite a bit from the source material, I still enjoyed it very much, because it mostly remains true to the characters and the spirit of the original, and because it's just a really entertaining movie that brings to vivid life so many classic moments from a truly classic book.

(I should point out here that, depending on what theater you go to, it's possible to see the film in a bewildering array of formats, but this review is of the regular old 2D version. I hope to see it again in 3D HFR soon, at which time I may add some extra notes about that format.)

One of the things Jackson is able to incorporate here that he mostly had to leave out of Lord of the Rings is the singing. Tolkien puts a lot of poems and songs into his work, and some of the songs in The Hobbit are really wonderful. Of course, it's not always easy to just drop a song into an otherwise rather straightforward fantasy adventure film, but Jackson manages to fit them in so that they flow with the rest of the action very well. I was very glad to see "Chip the glasses and crack the plates" make it into the movie; it's one of the funnier songs, and makes for a very entertaining scene. And the scene where the dwarves sing "Over The Misty Mountains Cold" together is one of the most moving and well done in the film; it sent shivers down my spine. Even the Great Goblin gets to sing a song!

If you ever wondered what Gandalf was up to all those times he ran off in the book, wonder no more! Jackson has filled in all the blanks, using references in the text itself and the end notes of Lord of the Rings as his guide. Also, although the book features only the one wizard, Jackson manages to fit in references to all five of the Istari that Tolkien mentioned in his various novels and notes (even turning the fact that Tolkien never got around to naming the blue wizards into a clever in-joke), and give screen-time to three of them. Yes, not only do Gandalf the Gray and Saruman the White appear, Radagast the Brown gets his own lengthy subplot, involving a sick hedgehog, giant spiders, a rabbit-pulled sled, and the mysterious Necromancer, whose true identity Tolkien fans know well. Radagast (played by Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy, no less) is an odd duck. Tolkien doesn't say all that much about him in the books, except that he's a great lover of animals, so Jackson has a lot of room to invent, and invent he does. Giving the guy a bird's nest on his head with bird crap running down the side of his face seemed to be going a bit far to me, but overall Jackson does pretty well with the character. He also puts Radagast at the center of a couple of rather silly drug jokes in the movie, involving pipe weed and mushrooms. (The pipe weed gag is almost unavoidable, but the mushroom one I did not expect.)

As far as the other wizards go, of course, we all know Saruman goes bad eventually, but it seemed a little weird, though also kind of funny, that Gandalf would already be wincing here when he realizes Saruman is in the room with him. I thought at this point they were still buddies?

Splitting the book into three movies, though perhaps a bit excessive, does make it possible for Jackson to include a lot of the really charming details from the book that he might otherwise have had to leave on the cutting room floor. I realized as I was sitting down to watch the film that I was going to be really upset if he didn't include the story of Bilbo's ancestor Bullroarer Took, who thwacked the head off a goblin so hard that it went soaring through the air and down a rabbit hole, thus winning a battle and inventing the game of golf in the same moment. So I was much gratified when Gandalf told that very story early on in the movie.

I also really enjoyed all the references Jackson managed to fit in to the ancient past of Tolkien's world - Angmar and its Witch-King and the hidden city of Gondolin, among other things. I was also really impressed by the visual effects. Even in the short time that's elapsed since the last of the Lord of the Rings films, technology has apparently advanced quite a bit, and the fully computer-generated characters that appear in this movie, like the Great Goblin and Gollum, are just spectacular. Even though Gollum is a warped, twisted, and inhuman creature, his face and body language (to say nothing of his voice) convey a gamut of authentic human emotions with a level of detail and subtlety that is just astounding. Certainly much of the success of the character is due to performer Andy Serkis, but we no doubt also have a bunch of technicians and computer equipment to thank.

Given that the original book was a single story, and had no obvious breakpoints, I was impressed with the way Jackson was able to turn this first film into a whole story in itself, with complete character arcs for Bilbo and Thorin (even if Bilbo changes just a bit too much for my taste). Although not all the dwarves get a lot of screen time, some of them are given a chance to become more deeply realized, individualized characters than they are even in the book. The very end of the film also provides some truly fantastic foreshadowing of what's to come, giving us a quick, terrifying peek at Smaug the Terrible.

(UPDATE: A few things I forgot to mention that are great about the movie - the music, and all the acting, especially Martin Freeman as Bilbo. Freeman didn't seem quite plump enough to me at first, but he's very funny and likable. As for the music, Howard Shore alters and reuses the main themes from his Lord of the Rings soundtracks here to great effect. The music from those movies was one of the greatest things about them so revisiting that sound was a good call.)

Of course, the movie isn't perfect. I would have preferred if the sequence with the trolls had stuck a bit closer to how it happened in the book, although giving Bilbo more of a hand in saving the party does make dramatic sense. And why, after they'd just finished explaining that the swords would glow blue when orcs are near, did they not bother having Orcrist and Glamdring glow blue in the goblin stronghold? I'm hoping that effect gets added for the home video version.

There are also a few added lines of dialog that I feel are a bit lacking in subtlety and could have been cut. But my least favorite change is probably the scene near the end (and this might be a bit of a spoiler, I suppose, so beware) in which Bilbo leaps out in front of an injured Thorin, sword out, to defend him from his enemies, and even wins in a fight with an orc. I see how this makes dramatic sense in the context of the character arc that Jackson has created for Bilbo in the film, but it makes no sense at all in the context of the character of Bilbo as he exists in the book. Even at the very end of the book, during the Battle of the Five Armies, Bilbo never gets into a head-on sword fight with anyone. That's not his way. He's not a fighter. He's the burglar - the quiet, invisible one. It's just not in his nature to go rushing headlong into battle. It's a bit upsetting to see Jackson just completely disregard the essential nature of his main character in this scene. That being said, if I look at the scene separate from the book, and as part of an unrelated movie, the scene actually does work quite well. And overall I feel like Jackson understands the characters well, and has made a fine, entertaining movie about them. Anyway, I'll definitely be back for the sequels.
Tagged (?): Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not), The Hobbit (Not), Tolkien (Not)
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Monday, September 24, 2012 02:19 PM
 by Fëanor

Fëanor pours the entire internet into the Recyclotron, and only the best links come out the other end for you to enjoy.

Tagged (?): Art (Not), Avengers (Not), Clothing (Not), Comedy (Not), Dune (Not), Harry Potter (Not), LEGO (Not), Links (Not), Lists (Not), Mario (Not), Mashups (Not), Monsters (Not), Movies (Not), Recyclotron (Not), Shirts (Not), Tolkien (Not), Toys (Not), Video (Not), Video games (Not), Weather (Not), Web comics (Not)
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Friday, June 22, 2012 03:57 PM
 by Fëanor

Fëanor pours the entire internet into the Recyclotron, and only the best links come out the other end for you to enjoy.

Tagged (?): Aliens (Not), Animals (Not), Animated GIFs (Not), Art (Not), Avengers (Not), Business (Not), Cartoons (Not), Comedy (Not), Comic books (Not), Diablo (Not), Diablo 3 (Not), Links (Not), Movies (Not), Muppets (Not), News (Not), Parenthood (Not), Parenting (Not), Recyclotron (Not), Robots (Not), Science (Not), Tolkien (Not), Video (Not), Video games (Not), Web comics (Not)
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Wednesday, May 9, 2012 04:08 PM
 by Fëanor

Fëanor pours the entire internet into the Recyclotron, and only the best links come out the other end for you to enjoy.

Tagged (?): Animated GIFs (Not), Art (Not), Books (Not), Celebrities (Not), Comedy (Not), Craft (Not), Fighting (Not), Homosexuality (Not), Links (Not), Mashups (Not), Movies (Not), Music (Not), News (Not), Obama (Not), Politics (Not), Recyclotron (Not), The Dark Tower (Not), Tolkien (Not), TV (Not), Video (Not), Warren Ellis (Not)
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Wednesday, April 4, 2012 11:05 AM
 by Fëanor

Man, it's been a while, huh? Let's fire up the old Recyclotron again for old time's sake and see what comes out.

Fëanor pours the entire internet into the Recyclotron, and only the best links come out the other end for you to enjoy.

Tagged (?): Animals (Not), Animated GIFs (Not), Art (Not), Books (Not), Celebrities (Not), Comedy (Not), Craft (Not), Game of Thrones (Not), Links (Not), Mashups (Not), Monty Python (Not), Movies (Not), Obama (Not), Photography (Not), Recyclotron (Not), Song of Ice and Fire (Not), Star Trek (Not), Star Wars (Not), Technology (Not), Tolkien (Not), TV (Not), Video games (Not), Web comics (Not), Wonderland (Not)
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Monday, February 27, 2012 10:34 AM
 by Fëanor

Fëanor pours the entire internet into the Recyclotron, and only the best links come out the other end for you to enjoy.

Tagged (?): Animals (Not), Animated GIFs (Not), Art (Not), Celebrities (Not), Comedy (Not), Computers (Not), Craft (Not), Dinosaurs (Not), Food (Not), Links (Not), Mario (Not), Mashups (Not), Movies (Not), Music (Not), Oz (Not), Photography (Not), Products (Not), Recyclotron (Not), Robots (Not), Science (Not), Star Trek (Not), Star Wars (Not), Technology (Not), The Killing (Not), Tolkien (Not), TV (Not), Video (Not), Video games (Not), Zelda (Not)
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Monday, February 13, 2012 11:04 AM
(Last updated on Monday, February 13, 2012 12:19 PM)
 by Fëanor

Fëanor pours the entire internet into the Recyclotron, and only the best links come out the other end for you to enjoy.

Tagged (?): 3D (Not), Animated GIFs (Not), Art (Not), Avengers (Not), Books (Not), Celebrities (Not), Clothing (Not), Comedy (Not), Craft (Not), Harry Potter (Not), History (Not), Holiday (Not), Indiana Jones (Not), LEGO (Not), Links (Not), Mario (Not), Monty Python (Not), Movies (Not), Music (Not), News (Not), Photography (Not), Recyclotron (Not), Tolkien (Not), Toys (Not), Transformers (Not), Vampires (Not), Video (Not), Video games (Not)
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Welcome to the blog of Jim Genzano, writer, web developer, husband, father, and enjoyer of things like the internet, movies, music, games, and books.

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