Looking back at 2012 and ahead to 2013

I hope that you and your family had a very happy holiday season, and I wish everyone a healthy, peaceful, prosperous, and Happy New Year!

Happy New Year 2013
Happy New Year!

2012 was a difficult year for many people, with a lingering economic recession, armed conflicts abroad, and political polarization and uncertainty in the U.S., as well as devastating weather and mass murders. Janice and I each have an uncle who is very ill, and no fewer than three of our friends in their 40s are fighting cancer. Let us hope that 2013 is better!

My job as an editor at a journalism company near Boston is OK. I’m still splitting my time between managing a Web site and editing technology-related content for custom online publishing. Janice has gotten settled in after Oracle bought her start-up employer last spring.

As you may recall, I got a new Honda Fit hatchback late in 2011, and this past spring, Janice and I moved from Needham, Mass., where we had lived for about eight years, on relatively short notice. We ended up moving to Waltham, Mass., about 15 miles northwest of Boston. It took us a while to find our bearings and get unpacked — our new apartment is a bit smaller — but our commutes are still mercifully short. There are lots of good restaurants in a variety of cuisines nearby.

While Janice and I didn’t get to go on any big trips this past year, we did get down to metropolitan New York for informal reunions of some of my friends from high school and college. It was great to reconnect with former roommate Frank D.!

In August, Janice’s and my families met for the first time since our wedding (back in 1995). We also attended several craft fairs, seasonal festivals, and comic book/genre entertainment conventions.

In addition, we spent a weekend at a nice bed and breakfast in Bennington, Vermont. I hope to catch up with friends in the Washington D.C. area in the coming year. Byron V.O., Ben P.S., and other friends also plan to visit New England.

We spent Thanksgiving with Janice’s family in Upstate New York and Christmas with mine in Virginia. It was nice to see my nieces and nephews, even if the drives were long. Janice plans to visit her extended family down in Pennsylvania in the coming month.

While I’ll no doubt be busy with work and the usual games in the coming weeks, I hope to post roundups of the past year in genre entertainment and things to look forward to. Let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to discuss!

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey review

On Saturday, 15 December 2012, Janice and I met Beruk A., Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H., Ken G., Josh C. & Sara F., and Robin H. at the AMC Loews Boston Common to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. We all enjoyed Peter Jackson’s latest adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy novels.

Boston showing of The Hobbit
The gang for An Unexpected Journey

I’ll try to avoid plot/script “spoilers,” but if you haven’t yet read the original book, do so! An Unexpected Journey follows eponymous Hobbit Bilbo Baggins as he evolves from a retiring country gentleman in the Shire to become an adventurer alongside 12 Dwarves and the wizard Gandalf. On the way to the Lonely Mountain, they encounter warg-riding Goblins, Elves, Trolls, and more, all harkening back to the Norse tales that Tolkien studied and loved.

Director Jackson and company fold in plot threads from the appendices of The Lord of the Ringsexpanding many scenes and characters. Since Jackson filmed more than four hours’ worth of footage for each installment of the previous trilogy, it should come as no surprise that he expanded on The Hobbit. I have fond memories of a marathon screening of the first trilogy’s extended editions in New York City with cast members present, so I am perhaps the target audience.

Dinner for 14
That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates!

The tone of the prequel is close to that of “LotR,” but with a bit more humor, as in the book, and slightly less violence — but maybe still too much for young children. I was pleased to hear much of Tolkien’s language in An Unexpected Journey, including a few songs and poems (some of us still remember the Rankin-Bass animated attempt). As a longtime Tolkien fan, this helped balance out the newer additions to the story.

One of the strongest components of An Unexpected Journey was the cast. It was nice to see familiar faces again, including Ian Holm as the older Bilbo and Elijah Wood as young Frodo in a framing scene. Of course, it’s now difficult to imagine mischievous Gandalf without picturing Ian McKellen, and Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett are back as regal Elves Elrond and Galadriel, respectively.

Fans of British genre television and movies should recognize many of the actors, at least by name. Martin Freeman is ever the befuddled Englishman, whether it’s in The Office, Shaun of the Dead, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Sherlockand now as young Bilbo in The Hobbit. But as Gandalf notes, he’s more clever, hardy, and ethical than meets the eye.

Martin Freeman as young Bilbo Baggins
Bilbo Baggins, the bravest little Hobbit of them all

Even with a three-hour runtime, we get to know only a few of the Dwarves in The Hobbit, but Robin Hood‘s Richard Armitage stands out as honorable Thorin Oakenshield, and Being Human‘s hunky Aidan Turner as young Dwarf Kili might be a rival for the affections of fans of Orlando Bloom’s Legolas. Jekyll‘s James Nesbitt has some sympathetic moments as Bofur, and Ken Stott is sagacious as older Dwarf Balin.

Dozen Dwarves
Far over the Misty Mountains cold….

Doctor Who‘s Sylvester McCoy is the twitter-pated (literally) wizard Radagast the Brown. Those playing the villains are just as experienced. Andy Serkis, now also second-unit director for The Hobbit, is a delight as the nasty Gollum. Comedian Barry Humphries, best known as Dame Edna, is unrecognizable as the Great Goblin, while Spartacus‘ Manu Bennet is fearsome as Orc leader Azog.

It was also nice to see familiar Middle Earth locations, such as Bilbo’s comfy estate of Bag End in Hobbiton and Elrond’s Last Homely House in Rivendell. Jackson also shows us Dwarf cities in their full glory and violent decline, a Goblin town beneath the Misty Mountains, and the depths of Mirkwood. All of the architecture, costumes, and props are again excellent.

Many critics have taken issue with the movie’s length and editing, and I agree that they could have been tighter. Still, trimming a few sequences of Bilbo and company hiking or computer-enhanced battle scenes wouldn’t make An Unexpected Journey much shorter, and I’m glad that so many character moments and scenes from the book made it into the film. The flow of the story from scene to scene could have been smoother — reminding me of both tabletop and computer role-playing games — and I hope it will improve in later chapters of this new trilogy.

Unlike practical visual effects and makeup, the storm giants and the aforementioned Azog and Goblin king do look computer-generated, unlike the expressive but still realistic Gollum or Trolls. I think that comparisons to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, even if they’re accurate, reflect “nerd rage” more than a fair critique. I didn’t see the movie in 3-D, IMAX, or high frame rate formats, so I’ll leave that to other reviewers to describe. Howard Shore’s latest soundtrack was also good, and it alluded to the soaring themes of Lord of the Rings.

Overall, I’d give The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which is rated PG-13 for violence, an 8 out of 10, four out of five stars, or a B+/A-. For me, that’s about on par with The Two Towers, if not as satisfying as The Fellowship of the Ring or Return of the King. Compared with most other fantasy films, I’d still recommend the The Hobbit and remind moviegoers that it has been a generation since we’ve had so many to choose from.

Most of the trailers we saw before The Hobbit were for science fiction flicks rather than fantasies. Both Tom Cruise’s Oblivion and Will Smith’s After Earth post-apocalyptic visions had cool hardware but seemingly predictable plots. Romantic zombie comedy (when did you think you’d see those together?) Warm Bodies looked mildly amusing.

I’m most looking forward to kaiju vs. giant robots in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim and to Star Trek: Into Darkness, even if I have reservations about how the latter again relies on a villain-driven story involving mass destruction and threats to the starship Enterprise. Man of Steel looked rather dark for a Superman film. Still, genre film fans have a lot to look forward to in 2013!

After the movie, we went to the Rock Bottom Brewery for a late lunch. On Sunday, Janice and I attended “A Celtic Christmas Sojourn” at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston. I hope that all your holidays are happy!

Rise of the Guardians review

On Sunday, 2 December 2012, Janice and I met role-players Josh C. & Sara F. at the Showcase Cinemas in Woburn, Mass., for Rise of the Guardians. We enjoyed the holiday-themed animated fantasy movie.

Wallpaper for computer-animated fantasy movie
Seasonal superhero team

Rise of the Guardians follows Jack Frost, a boy who is granted supernatural abilities and meets other seasonal icons, including a sword-wielding Santa Claus, the cute Tooth Fairy, a mute but expressive Sandman, and an inexplicably Australian Easter Bunny.

These seasonal superheroes find themselves fighting the Boogeyman and his nightmares to defend the hopes and dreams of children everywhere. Sure, we’ve seen all of the elements before, but how they’re represented and mixed is a feast for the eyes. In terms of computer animation, I’d put Rise of the Guardians very close to Disney/Pixar’s Brave (its rival for awards), as well as to the How to Train Your Dragon franchise.

The voice casting is pretty good, with Star Trek‘s Chris Pine as Jack Frost, The Shadow‘s Alec Baldwin as Santa, Isla Fisher as the lead Tooth Fairy, X-Men‘s Hugh Jackman as the Easter Bunny, and Jude Law as Pitch Black, the Boogeyman.

Rise of the Guardians is based on a series of children’s books that William Joyce wrote for his late daughter. Guillermo del Toro was one of the producers, and the movie does have some of his love of the fantastical.

Dreamworks’ decidedly non-denominational film appropriates Christian and pagan iconography, most of which will go over the heads of most viewers. It reminded me of L. Frank Baum’s Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, which was one of the more eccentric adaptations done by Rankin-Bass.

While it’s no Lincoln, I’d give Rise of the Guardians, which is rated PG for some violence, about a B+, three out of five stars, or a 7.5 out of 10. Of the previews we saw, Jack the Giant Slayer looks like what I’d call a classic fantasy gamer flick. Josh, Sara, Janice, and I later enjoyed lunch at The Restaurant in Woburn, Mass. Next up: The Hobbit [Part 1 of 3]: An Unexpected Journey!

 

Favorite artists — Rockwell and Ross

On the way home from Thanksgiving, Janice and I stopped at the Norman Rockwell Museum in western Massachusetts. We’re both fans of Americana, so it was fitting to see Rockwell’s paintings around that holiday.

While classified as more of an illustrator than a fine artist, Rockwell showed an idealized version of the U.S. in the early 20th century that was nonetheless influenced by the old masters. He also celebrated the common man and woman, small-town life, and the idealism of presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

Comparison of painters Rockwell and Ross
Truth, justice, and the American way

I was also pleased to catch an exhibit about Alex Ross, one of my favorite comic book artists. Ross’ superheroes are more Reubenesque than Rockwell’s figures, but he also shows a timeless version of ourselves as we wish we could be.

Ross has combined his childhood love of Challenge of the Superfriends, an awareness of classical mythology, and an intimate look at Marvel and DC icons to help renew the medium’s optimism. His paintings also demonstrate that four-color, spandex-clad people can look impressive rather than just silly.

Like Rockwell, Ross uses models for photographic reference rather than painting directly from life or imagination. Both painters have been criticized for the practice, but I think their finished works show that imagination, accuracy, and expressiveness are all parts of their artistic process.

On a related note, here are the comics titles I’m currently reading monthly:

DC:

  • Batfamily: Batgirl, Batwoman, Birds of Prey (to loan to David I.S.)
  • DC Nation (for nephews), Green Arrow/Arrow (to loan), Green Lantern: the Animated Series (for nephews), Justice League, Wonder Woman, Young Justice (for nephews)

Marvel: Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (for nephews), Captain America, Oz (Shanower/Young; trades only)

Other publishers:

  • Fantasy: Avatar: the Last Airbender/Legend of Korra, Conan the Barbarian/Queen Sonja/Red Sonja (to loan), Dresden Files, Pathfinder
  • Space opera (to loan): Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, Star Trek: the Next Generation, Star Wars: Agent of the Empire, Clone Wars (for nephews), new classic ongoing, Warlord of Mars/Deja Thoris (to loan)
  • Pulp: Rocketeer Adventures, Shadow: Year One/Masks, Sherlock Holmes (assorted titles), Steampunk/Gearhearts/Steamcraft, Steed & Mrs. Peel, Warehouse 13, Zorro Rides Again
  • Trade paperback collections only: Age of Bronze, Astro City (to loan), Indiana Jones Adventures, Liberty Meadows (to loan), Mouse Guard (for niece), Muppets, Peanuts, Powers (to loan), Star Wars Adventures (for nephews)

Skyfall review — Bond is back!

I hope that those of you in the U.S. had a happy Thanksgiving. I visited my in-laws in Upstate New York, where I fought a bad cold, ate too much good food, and watched my nephews play lots of video games.

Taking a step back, on Tuesday, 20 November 2012, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for dinner at Erewan of Siam on Waltham’s Moody Street. We then joined Beruk A. at the Embassy Cinema for Skyfall, the latest James Bond film. We all liked the British superspy’s latest adventures.

The latest James Bond flick
James Bond has returned

After a four-year wait, the movie launches right into action, with 007 pursuing a stolen hard drive in Istanbul. Bond fights an enemy agent atop a train and is shot, then Adele’s retro theme song plays amid the usual psychedelic images of gambling, guns, and dames. Skyfall reintroduces some of the franchise’s gadgetry and humor, paying tribute to its 50 years of cloak-and-dagger fantasies.

Blond and beefy Daniel Craig is still believable as the resilient man with a license to kill. Even if he wasn’t my first choice to inherit the role, in Skyfall, Craig properly shows the physical and emotional toll of being Ian Fleming’s master assassin (it’s hard to believe that he’s my age).

In Skyfall, Craig carefully balances the grit of Sean Connery and Timothy Dalton with the slickness of Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan, coming close to George Lazenby’s short-lived portrayal. Craig is still closer to Connery, but given current moviegoer sensibilities, that’s for the best.

Director Sam Mendes adds a good amount of character development while including exotic locales, one fight in silhouette and another with menacing komodo dragons, and even a glimpse of Bond’s ancestral home in Scotland, the titular Skyfall. (I find it interesting that, like Sherlock Holmes, another quintessentially English hero, Bond is actually part French.)

Skyfall‘s cast is a mix of old and new, young and old. Among the relative newcomers is Ben Whishaw as the new “Q” or quartermaster, now an impudent hacker. Naomie Harris is the winsome agent Eve, and Berenice Marlohe and Tonia Sotiropoulou are Bond’s stunning lovers.

By contrast, Craig gets seasoned support from Judi Dench as his boss “M,” Ralph Fiennes as ambitious bureaucrat Gareth Mallory, and Albert Finney as Skyfall groundskeeper Kincade. Javier Bardem, no stranger to weird haircuts and homicidal characters, chews the scenery gleefully as villain Silva. As with the best bad guys, Silva’s motivations are a dark mirror of Bond’s own.

I’m a longtime Bond fan, so I won’t give away any “spoilers.” Of the recent run, I’d put Skyfall slightly above Quantum of Solace, if a bit below 2006’s Casino Royale, which tautly and successfully rebooted the series in the post-Austin Powers and Jason Bourne era.

Overall, I’d give Skyfall, which is rated PG-13 for violence and sensuality, a B+, three to four out of five stars, or an 8 out of 10. I’d definitely recommend it to fans of James Bond and action movies.

Of the trailers we saw, I’m most interested in Quentin Tarantino’s over-the-top western Django, Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln, and of course, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit [Part 1 of 3]: An Unexpected Journey. I also plan to screen some remastered Season 2 episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation and the unconventional Rise of the Guardians soon.