Tag: the hobbit

2013: The Best

Courtesy Irrational Games

This is the season for Top 5 or Top 10 lists. Games or films or books or toys – people like to rank what was best for the year, and find out how those ranking stack up against others.

You may have noticed that I’m not really doing that. It’s hard to pick just one thing from among the various pools of entertainment into which I dip, but things I’m still thinking about, and enjoying thinking about, in this late part of the year are definitely worth discussing, if not mentioning. So, without further ado, here are the best entertainment experiences I had in 2013.

Best Video Game – Bioshock Infinite

I want to mention Hearthstone at least in passing. Blizzard’s computerized CCG is an absolute blast and challenge to play, with a surprising amount of depth and bursting with variety. The monetization system makes a great deal of sense, and it’s one I don’t mind at all. However, as much as I enjoy playing it, it wasn’t the best game I’ve played that came out in 2013. That honor goes to Bioshock Infinite.

While the combat isn’t necessarily ground-breaking, which can be a major blow to a first-person shooter, the story and its presentation are what keep this game in my mind long months after its release. The fact that the story is less about gritty, hard-boiled everyman Booker DeWitt and more about Elizabeth and her plight is, to me, a sign that storytelling in games is moving in the right direction. The ‘Burial At Sea’ DLC reinforced this, and with the news that we will, in fact, play as Elizabeth soon, I’m quite curious to see how 2014 treats the franchise.

I played a lot of great games from 2012 this year – Journey, Spec Ops: The Line, The Walking Dead – but among the games that came out in 2013 that I actually played, Bioshock Infinite takes the prize.

Best Board Game – Archipelago

2013 was the year I got back into board gaming in a big way. I started building my own collection, I had design ideas and gave feedback to others, and I continue to espouse that there’s more to board games than staid, stale standbys like Monopoly, Clue, and Risk. I’ve played a lot of games with hidden roles (Avalon, Coup, Battlestar Galactica) and several cooperative games (Pandemic, Elder Sign, Escape: The Curse of the Temple), but one game that’s stood out in my mind since I started this endeavour is Christophe Boelinger’s Archipelago.

The best way I can describe Archipelago is “Settlers of Catan meets Twilight Imperium where everyone sort of works together but not really”. I love its expanding scope and constant need for players to cooperate to keep ahead of a loss, but also allows subtle plays through worker placement mechanics and hidden objectives. Its gameplay is much deeper and less random than Settlers, and it doesn’t take anywhere near as long to play as Twilight Imperium. As much as I adore a deep and rich space opera universe in which I can take an active role and vie with other players for dominance through diplomacy, trade, and treachery as well as straight-up space combat, I also like to play a game that takes less than an entire day. Archipelago hits all of the right notes in just about perfect harmony, and on top of not being able to recommend it highly enough, it’s the best board game I’ve played in 2013.

Best Book – The Fault In Our Stars

Okay, this is where I cheat again. The Fault In Our Stars was published in 2012. And while I’ve read quite a few excellent books – and one particularly shitty one – the one that had the most profound effect on me was John Green’s New York Times bestseller. In world where a lot of people tend to look towards young adult works with skepticism or even open content, here’s an example of dramatic, involving, romantic young adult fiction done absolutely right.

Green paces his story just right, fleshes out realistic and endearing characters, and invokes our sympathy and support without pandering, writing down to his audience, or relying on cheap tricks or narrative slight of hand. It’s a fantastic read and extremely well-written. I feel like I’m going to be repeating my review of the book a great deal, so here’s a link to that. And here’s a link to buy the book on Amazon.

Best Film – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Apparently, 2013 was saving the best for last. None of the films I’ve seen this year were truly awful (again, I avoided certain ones deliberately), there were only a couple of disappointments, a few surprises, but for the most part, I’d say the movies of the year were “good, but not fantastic.” I like that I’m seeing more character-focused storytelling, more investment in world-building, and comic relief that doesn’t feel too forced. However, the experience in cinemas that excited me the most, involved me the most, and blew me away the most was definitely The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

There’s so much I like about this film. Thorin as a noble, dignified dwarf reminds me of why I like them so much in Middle-Earth, in Dragon Age, and even in World of Warcraft. Bilbo Baggins is shown truly coming into his own and still employing his brain and wits as much as his sword. Gandalf and Radagast working together always makes me smile. The world feels expanded and deepend with stops like Beorn’s house and Laketown. And Smaug. Smaug. I really don’t have to say anything else, do I? It’s my movie of the year and I’m really looking forward to seeing it again.

There you have it! 2013, all wrapped up. I’m interested to see what the year ahead brings, in many ways. I hope you all have had a safe, warm, and rewarding holiday, and are ready to ring in the new year. I know I am.

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The second part of a three-part story is often the trickiest. It can be hard to work the tale in such a way that it feels like its own complete story, yet works to connect the first part with the last. Even when a work is planned as a trilogy from the outset, the second part can suffer from a bit of ‘middle child syndrome’, and parts of it can feel artificially padded as plot points are set up for the final installment to knock over. J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson managed to avoid this with The Two Towers, which has its own contained story to tell. The question many asked is, can the same be done with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug?

Courtesy New Line Cinema

We pick up directly where An Unexpected Journey left off. Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, and the other dwarves are on the run from orcs. Even as the hunters give chase, they are unwittingly driving the company closer to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, the goal of the company’s quest. While they evade immediate capture, Gandalf must leave to join Radagast the Brown in investigating rumors of a great evil on the rise. Meanwhile, Bilbo and his friends have to navigate the shady paths of Mirkwood, deal with the king of the wood elves, and behold the area around the Lonely Mountain known as ‘the desolation of Smaug’, a land scarred by dragonfire and cowering in the shadow of Erebor.

As much as I thoroughly enjoyed An Unexpected Journey, I am willing to acknowledge that, while it doesn’t rush, its pace can be a touch inconsistent. A good portion of that film, especially the first two acts of it, are occupied primarily with flashbacks and backstory. I realize this is necessary, particularly in the first chapter of a trilogy, but it can make the story move in two directions: forward, then backwards, then forward again. It can be awkward, and I’m glad An Unexpected Journey didn’t feel that way even as it shifts gears. Thankfully, The Desolation of Smaug has only direction: Forward.

Courtesy New Line Cinema

From the opening of the film, with Thorin and company on the run from orcs, until the confrontation with Smaug in Erebor, the story is always heading into its next encounter. The nice thing is that, as much as it’s constantly in motion, it gives more than enough breathing room for its characters. We get more time with characters established in the first film, and new ones are introduced and given their own elbow room. That’s one of the advantages to Jackson incorporating so much from Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion and expanding this relatively simple story into three extra-long films. The world of Middle-Earth, and the beings that populate it, are given ample opportunity to come to vibrant, breathing life.

Even as the world expands and the story moves along, we manage to stay with and care about our core characters, for the most part. With Gandalf leaving the company to investigate Dol Guldur, and Bilbo already having overcome his impulse to just run home and curl up with a good book under about a thousand blankets, we focus more on Thorin Oakenshield. There are moments with other characters, to be certain. Thranduil gets more personality, Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel steals most of the scenes she’s in, and I really liked the character moments we get with Beorn, Bard, and even the Master of Laketown. More dwarven moments are always good, from Bombur doing more than just being the butt of jokes to Kili turning on the charm to Oin’s healing abilities. But really, this is Thorin’s movie, right up until we meet the dragon Smaug. Thorin definitely comes into his own, having kingly moments as well as showing the nuance and questionable decision-making that comes from obsession. All of this might sound like Bilbo is taking a backseat in his own movie, but he has plenty of great moments, and I was reminded more than once that not only is he the uncle of Frodo Baggins, he’s also related to Peregrin Took. I recall grinning at the screen, shanking my head, and saying “That’s a total Pippin moment.”

Courtesy New Line Cinema

I understand that there are quite a few die-hard Tolkien fans who aren’t satisfied with these films. And I can understand why. With its additions, expansions, and digressions, these film adaptations of The Hobbit are deviating from the text far more than Jackson’s work on The Lord of the Rings ever did. From the perspective of fans that have read and digested and lived with The Hobbit for decades, the simplicity and pace and whimsy of this story are being watered down, if not entirely lost. Since so much time is being spent with characters who aren’t the hobbit of the title, the deviations seem even more aberrant, again from their point of view. I can appreciate that perspective, and if that sort of thing is a deal-breaker for you, you’re justified in not seeing it. However, from my point of view, the inclusion of more of Tolkien’s lore and the growth of Middle-Earth around the core of this simple story and these vibrant characters is a good use of the material and leads to a satisfying continuation of a truly epic tale of fantasy. I may be overly optimistic, but I honestly believe this is building to a fully coherent and connected story that begins at Bag End with Bilbo Baggins getting a visit from a wizard, and ends at the Black Gate of Mordor. Or maybe a few scenes and a couple gratuitous fades to black after that.

Stuff I Liked: There’s a lot here for Tolkien nerds. The scene with Beorn is fantastically done. I’m glad they expanded on more of the dwarves. The execution of Bilbo in the forest of Mirkwood was very cool, from climbing the tree to the signs of his growing connection to the One Ring.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Some of the digressions may not have been entirely necessary. A couple of the scenes’ CGI could have been sharpened up a bit – maybe they’d look better in 3D or 48 FPS?
Stuff I Loved: Thorin really seizes hold of both his destiny and our imaginations. Bard is a colorful character that makes decisions that always feel consistent from his perspective. There’s more wizardly daring-do, the fight along the river was a treat, and Martin Freeman continues to demonstrate what an inspired choice he was for Bilbo Baggins.
Stuff I REALLY Loved: Smaug.

Bottom Line: In the end, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug feels a lot more like the continuation of the overall narrative of The Hobbit rather than trying to stand entirely on its own. However, with its pace and new elements and complications, it feels a lot less like padded filler and more like a broadening and deepening of the world Bilbo is exploring. Absolutely die-hard long-standing fans of Tolkien may be turned off by its additions and digressions. However, it continues to demonstrates Peter Jackson’s directorial skill, the cast is in great form, the action’s never dull, and it delivers perhaps the best dragon on screen to date. For my money, it’s definitely worth seeing, and perhaps more than once.

The Execution of Smaug

Courtesy New Line Cinema

Previously I have discussed villainy in terms of how we relate to and perceive various villains. I’ve praised villains who achieve their aims through intelligence, charm, and guile. These traits tend to appear in villains who are not necessarily a physical match for their heroic counterparts, doing their dirty work through henchmen or other means. Usually, a villain who is smart, playful, and erudite is not an overwhelming physical presence that inspires awe without necessarily having to say a word.

Usually, that villain is not a dragon.

I’ll go into detail about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug tomorrow, but after a few days of reflection on the film, I’ve come to the conclusion that, whatever else might be said about it, they pretty much nailed the ideal portrayal of the ancient magical beast. As impressive as the effects are that brought him to titanic, fire-breathing life, I’m more over the moon regarding the way in which his personality, perspective, and above all, his flaws have been transcribed from page to screen.

One of the first impressions we get is that Smaug likes to play with his food. Or at least, his curiosity overwhelms your typical violent response to intrusion. He is so massive and deadly, and Bilbo so small and insignificant (relatively speaking), that he could easily devour or eviscerate the hobbit at any time. However, he engages the thief in conversation. He learns more about this tiny burglar, and we in turn learn more about him. This is not anything like Bilbo and Gollum swapping riddles. There, we had a sense that the two of them were counterparts, diametrically opposed but somewhat equal. Here, the dread is palpable and ever-present, even as Smaug speaks in almost dulcet tones.

Being a creature that can fly, Smaug sees other beings as beneath him. He is so well-armed for devastation, and so capable of escape and endurance, that he really has no real sense of fear. He speaks and moves boldly. His speed belies his size and makes him all the more intimidating. All of this is conveyed through excellent effects in the film, matching well with our imaginations regarding how dragons should behave. The highlight of Jackson & Weta’s execution of Smaug, however, has got to be his flaws.

With that perspective comes a haughtiness, an arrogance, that blinds Smaug to the threats ‘lesser beings’ could present. From the dwarves of Erebor to the people of Laketown, he never once considers that his centuries-long life could be in danger. Most of all, Smaug is greedy. All of his treasure is HIS treasure, and he won’t part with a single coin of it. Dragons tend to have an instinctual draw towards shiny piles of treasure, which is somewhat odd for creatures of intelligence and articulation, but it’s worth considering that human beings can have similar instincts towards things of little consequence to overall life that still brings them joy, like football paraphernalia or Magic cards or cats.

What other dragons in literature would you like to see executed the way we have seen Smaug?

Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, is a far more filmable piece of work than his larger work, The Lord of the Rings. It has a more simple narrative, its plot is contained to one volume, and its themes remain focused on the character of Bilbo Baggins and how he deals with his adventures. Yet, according to interviews and as evidenced in works such as the Unfinished Tales and the Silmarillion, Tolkien knew there was more going on than a hobbit coming out of his hole, and the intent was to embellish this work. Director Peter Jackson has taken it upon himself to do just that, adapting the story into three films, the first of which is sub-titled An Unexpected Journey.

Courtesy New Line Cinema

Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit. He is concerned with remaining a respected member of his community and not inviting any sort of trouble to his doorstep. Unfortunately for him, the wizard Gandalf has the exact opposite in mind. Thirteen dwarves show up at Bilbo’s house, and while they are certainly capable of troublemaking, they’re also personable and companionable. The leader of the company, Thorin Oakenshield, is a dwarf prince bent on reclaiming his homeland from the evil dragon Smaug, and to do that he needs the help of someone who can sneak into the dragon’s lair undetected. Gandalf has chosen Bilbo for this task, in spite of Thorin’s reservations and Bilbo’s own reluctance. The hobbit does come around to the idea of at least leaving his home – and a good thing too, otherwise we’d have no story.

The term ‘reluctant hero’ has never been more apt than in describing Bilbo Baggins. Neither a great warrior nor unflinchingly brave, there’s something very charming and telling about the hobbit in a very fashionable jacket and waistcoat following the heavily armed and armored company of dwarves. And when trouble does find Bilbo, he does not immediately seek a violent solution for the problem at hand; more often than not, it’s his wits and fast talking that saves him. It means a lot, in this day and age, to see a protagonist who does what he can to get himself out of trouble without violence.

Courtesy New Line Cinema
Does the contract also protect the dwarves from liability related to addiction to magic rings?

This isn’t to say that The Hobbit is devoid of action. In fact, many of the scenes from the book have been embellished with Jackson’s trademark adeptness with epic action set pieces. We even get flashbacks to epic battles of the past. The tale tends to feel even more fantastical than The Lord of the Rings, focused as we are on non-human races and characters. And while accusations have been leveled at the film calling it too long or too padded, the moments of expanded lore and the occasional cameo are actually welcome moments to catch one’s breath between all of the fighting and survival. In spite of the film’s length, it’s paced quite reasonably and does not overstay its welcome.

Martin Freeman absolutely nails the affect of a fussy, emotionally exasperated hobbit far out of his depth. Richard Armitage brings a sort of haunted nobility to Thorin Oakenshield, who is clearly cut from a different cloth than most of the other dwarves. Boisterous and personable as they are, it can be difficult to keep track of all of them. Sir Ian McKellan makes a welcome return as Gandalf the Grey, and I was very pleased with the expanded role given to Radagast the Brown, played by Sylvester McCoy. And rather than being part of a monolithic evil as they were in Lord of the Rings, the foes faced by the company vary wildly from three culinary connoisseur trolls to an orc with a grudge against Thorin. All of this makes for great storytelling and a fine film just in time for the holiday season.

Courtesy New Line Cinema
“You did remember the Old Toby, didn’t you, Bilbo? We can’d do this without the proper pipeweed.”

Stuff I Liked: The White Council. The antics of the dwarves. The pacing of the story and the ways in which it kept moving without feeling rushed. The detail given to each of the dwarves even if they were hard to keep track of. The new look of the wargs.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: After two and a half hours, the 3D glasses really started to hurt.
Stuff I Loved: Dwarven song. The connection between Gandalf and Galadriel. Radagast the Brown. Bilbo’s affectations and tics. The perfect ominous atmosphere of Bilbo encountering Gollum in his cave. Just about everything related to Erebor. The scene with the trolls. The way Bilbo faces his problems – he’s usually pretty scared, but he steps up anyway, and that’s what makes him heroic.

Bottom Line: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey not only works excellently as a tale in and of itself, but bodes quite well for the next two films to come. It is a welcome return to Middle-Earth, with the same high quality in performances and production as Jackson’s previous fantasy trilogy. It is clearly a labor of love for everyone involved, and you can lay any suspicion of it being a blatant cash-grab to rest. It is definitely worth your time to go and see.

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