Where have I been?

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that my posts have been less frequent in the past year. In lieu of my usual holiday “snailmail” letter, here’s an update.

Late 2014 turned out to be difficult. Janice and I traveled to Pennsylvania and New York City to visit an ailing uncle of hers and our college friend Steve A.L., respectively. Both of them died, so we drove back down to their funerals.

Mike H., the manager of the Compleat Strategist in Boston, also died, joining Robert A.S. and other role-playing friends whom we lost in the past few years.

After the usual holiday travel to see our families in Upstate New York and Virginia, Janice and I got sick in early January 2015, followed by a very snowy winter in the U.S. Northeast.

Feb15_10
Waltham, Mass., February 2015

I then changed jobs in March 2015 (Janice had changed technical writer positions in September 2014). This has been the main thing keeping me from blogging.

After about six years as an editor managing a TT site about Windows enterprise desktops, I began working at EH/RBR as a writer covering robots. My former colleagues gave me a very nice going-away party, and a few have stayed in touch, joining former co-workers from BNA and IDG/CW.

Robotics has been an interesting beat, as I’ve learned a lot by trying to keep up with the business news around this rapidly developing technology. I’ve also had the good fortune to travel to events in Milan, Italy; San Jose, Calif., and soon, the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

In the coming months, I may also get to travel to Canada, Denmark, and Lithuania for work. While I don’t particularly enjoy spending time in airports or cramped airplane seats, any chance to see the world, meet new people, and eat new food is a good one!

I got to tag along with Janice to Limerick, Ireland, and we really liked exploring the Cliffs of Moher, various castles, and the beautiful countryside. Janice and I have also returned to regular arts fairs such as the Lowell Folk Festival and the Christmas Revels.

In the meantime, Janice and I have kept busy, hosting college pal David I.S. & Sandra K. for last New Year’s and the wedding reception of mutual friends Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H.

We also hosted her family for Easter and her 50th birthday, grad school chum Erik B.L. and his family, and St. Louis-based gamer Byron V.O., who may be visiting again later this month.

In late August, we met my family in Ogunquit, Maine, to celebrate my mother’s 85th birthday, my father’s 80th birthday, and Janice’s and my 20th wedding anniversary. So many milestones!

I also attended genre entertainment conventions including Anime Boston, the Tampa Bay Area Renaissance Festival, the Watch City Steampunk Festival, the Boston Comic Con, and the Rhode Island Comic Con. All of them had the usual cosplayers, fun panels and autograph sessions with celebrities, and tempting artist and vendor booths.

We recently spent Christmas at my brother and his family’s new house in Northern Virginia, and we met some friends in Westchester, N.Y., on the way home. Some of us have started planning reunion gatherings to celebrate the 30 years since we graduated from high school and began college.

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The “Westchester crew,” December 2015

Three nights a week, I’ve continued my role-playing games and historical weapons classes. My D20/FATEVanished Landsfantasy campaign has given way to two adventuring parties using Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition (D&D5e).

Fellow Game Master Jason E.R.’s “Star Wars: Dark Times” scenario (using Savage Worlds) just ended its latest chapter, and we’re about to start Bruce K.’s D&D5e “Kings and Pawns” space opera miniseries. The latest “episodes” of my D20/FATEStar Trek: Restorationgame also went well.

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My latest Star Trek costume, Halloween 2015

Speaking of ongoing series, I’ve been enjoying the latest wave of fantasy, horror, superhero, and science fiction shows on television (more on that to come). I saw fewer movies in theaters in 2015 than in previous years, but I’ve gotten pickier, and time has been limited.

I’ve also been reading several SF magazines and Web sites, assorted pulp comic books, and various novels (mainly with the “Escapists” book club). So much to do, so little time!

I’ll try to post more specific reviews in the coming year, and I wish all of you a healthy, peaceful, and Happy New Year!

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“Star Trek: Restoration” Episode 5 — Gift of the Ferengi

Fellow role-players, here are my notes for our fifth “Star Trek” session, which we played at Drew S.’s place in Needham, Mass., on Monday, 9 March 2015:

“Space, the final frontier. Our starship’s mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

About four decades after the Enterprise E fought the Borg and Remans [Nemesis], among others, the United Federation of Planets (U.F.P.) and other interstellar states are slowly recoveringfrom wars and ecological disasters. A refitted vessel takes a new crew on its first missions of defense, diplomacy, and exploration….

Player Characters for Gene D.’s ” Star Trek: Restoration” space opera scenario, using D20 Prime Directive, FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures, Bulldogs, and Mindjammer 2e, plus house rulesObsidian Portal, Skype, and the Rolz.org online dice roller, as of spring 2015:

  • “Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Kyerak” [Bruce K.]-male half-Vulcan with a temper, in the U.S.S. Rotha ’s command division
  • Chief Ravi Chandler” [Brian W.]-male Altairian human, non-commissioned officer and transporter expert assigned to aid Lt. Kyerak’s mission
  • “Froot” [Rich C.G.]-male Ferengi (short, large-eared extraterrestrial) merchant and negotiator, DaiMon and owner of the trade vessel Love’s Latinum Lost
  • “Kimbal Tegan” [Beruk A.]-male Trill (long-lived symbiont), operations specialist aboard the Love’s Latinum Lost
  • “Tau” [Drew S.]-male Ferengi, medic aboard the Love’s Latinum Lost

Absent:

  • “Lt. Jarric Jameson” [Dexter V.H.]-male genetically modified human colonist (former Maquis) communications and wilderness survival expert
  • “Lt. Orzzek Kalifa” [Byron V.O.]-male Andorian (blue-skinned humanoid with white hair and antennae), assertive science officer
  • “Lt. Mari Killu” [Sara F.]-female Caitian (felinoid) security/tactical officer
  • “Lt. Boran’ Gorir” [Josh C.]-male Jem’Hadar (Dominion soldier), aggressive envoy/engineer

Previously, in “Star Trek: Restoration,” the U.S.S. Rotha uncovered an Undine infiltrator during a diplomatic mission and faced off against Romulan and Klingon ships in the Neutral Zone. Some junior officers then accepted a covert mission to investigate offworld interference in a former member of the United Federation of Planets.

“Stardate 95248.047 (15 April 2418):” At Alpha Tauri III in the Aldebaran system, the away team joined Ferengi traders and defeated a Romulan spy in the science station of Nar Instel. The crew also found a rogue Federation scientist in the militaristic state of Irdrant.

A landing party beams down to the sprawling agricultural community of Folkhar. Most of the Starfleet lieutenants stay behind in orbit on the Love’s Latinum Lost to watch prisoners Dr. Sarlic Pramantha and Illiana Drah’el.

Tau offers Ravi a tip, but the human transporter chief declines the Ferengi medic’s gold-pressed latinum. DaiMon Froot leads the way into a dusty town, while Kimbal covertly scans for anomalous subspace transmissions. Lt. Kyerak notices that most of the inhabitants are human.

A blue-skinned Andorian rancher riding a horse draws the newcomers’ attention. Lissan th’Zerath isn’t interested in Kyerak, Froot, or Tau’s overtures, but she directs them to a general store.

Populous Folkhar has regressed technologically even more than other Aldebaranian nations, with draft animals, labor-intensive farming, and relatively few power tools. The explorers walk by a wainwright’s shop, where a Klingon and his son warily watch them while repairing carts.

The "Ancient West"
Frontier town

The infiltrators follow Lissan’s directions to Tellarite Bol Kerv Shaloo. Froot happily negotiates with the porcine provisioner, who collects items from the colony’s past as an interstellar crossroads. The Ferengi captain trades an inoperative comm badge for a Klingon sash, which he adds to his crown and fancy cane.

Kimbal and Tau conceal tricorders as they look for transmissions that would violate Starfleet’s noninterference Prime Directive. Shaloo mentions that he recently traded fine tools to the Klingons, even though they don’t need them.

Back at the wainwright, Tau learns that young Kolad is eager to please customers and his father, Kurgh, son of Kulam. Kyerak and Kimball talk to the gruff widower, who years to be in contact with other Klingons.

Their conversation is cut short when Froot pulls a Tribble from under his robes, getting the outlanders thrown out. The group then walks to the mayor’s office. Maria Conchitez says that her people are tired of fighting with Irdrant and seems disgusted when Froot drops some jewelry with circuitry.

As the Starfleet personnel and their Ferengi companions leave Conchitez, Ravi notices a man hanging around her office. Darius Littlefeather says little and returns to his farm. The away team heads to the ranch of Lissan th’Zerath, whom Froot found to be suspicious.

The Andorian catches the interlopers snooping around her barn, and Froot knocks her out and ties her up. Tau makes sure that Lissan is OK, but Ravi and Trill Kimbal find no subspace radio. The party rushes back into town.

They run into Littlefeather, whom Kyerak puts to sleep after conducting a mind meld to see if the mayor is responsible for the unauthorized radio. The half-Vulcan learns that Darius is in love with Maria, but little else.

Froot wants to return to Bol Kerv Shaloo’s shop, but the others determine that the Klingons are their most likely suspects. Kimball and Tau corner Kolad, while Kyerak and Ravi question tense Kurgh.

The lonely mechanic eventually admits that he has cobbled together a subspace transmitter. The Starfleet officers are relieved when Kurgh says that he hasn’t heard back from the Klingon Empire, but he adds that he has received a mysterious response, which Kimbal records.

Kimbal and Ravi tell Kurgh that his radio could draw attention from Irdrant. He shuts it down, and they take key components. Kyerak and Froot talk with Mayor Conchitez, who asks them to help open trade between Folkhar and Irdrant.

Froot notes that they are wanted by the authorities in industrial Irdrant. Kyerak later contacts Huang Peipei, director of the Nar Instel science station, to mediate and help reunite the colonists of Alpha Tauri III.

The team beams back up to the Love’s Latinum Lost and makes a rendezvous with the U.S.S. Rotha at Deep Space K-7. Lt. Kyerak reports to Capt. Andelina Nobatu, who is pleased that his team was able to defeat Tal Shi’ar agent Stuvek, arrest Dr. Pramantha, and convince Kurgh to cease subspace transmissions with limited bloodshed or violation of the Prime Directive.

Ambassador-class refit
Refitted starship

Loyal Kyerak tries to defend Cmdr. Nasami Wahid’s harsh orders to “eliminate” any offworld interference, but Capt. Nobatu reprimands her Trill first officer. Froot is skeptical that Starfleet can live up to its lofty ideals and recommends covertly reaching out to its former colonists in the Aldebaran system.

Chief Chandler requests reassignment from away missions because he doesn’t like having primitive slugthrowers drawn on him. Kimbal supervises the remaining refits to the Ferengi vessel promised for its assistance.

Tau says farewell to the Federation citizens as they return to their ship, but Capt. Nobatu invites the Love’s Latinum Lost to come along into deep space as the Rotha explores the source of the unidentified signals detected by Kurgh….

I hope that everyone enjoyed the conclusion of this story arc! Remember that your characters have attained Level 4, and we can upload them to Obsidian Portal.

In the meantime, I look forward to our next sessions for Dexter’s D&D5e “Land of Lost Souls,” Jason’s “Channel 37,” and my “Vanished Lands!” Remember to check the Google and Yahoo message boards for our discussions of upcoming games. Live long and prosper….

“Star Trek: Restoration” Episode 4 — Tracking transmissions

Fellow role-players, here are my notes for our fourth “Star Trek” session, which we played at Brian W.’s home in Newton, Mass., on Monday, 23 February 2015:

“Space, the final frontier. Our starship’s mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Almost four decades after the Enterprise-E fought the Borg and Remans [Nemesis], among others, the United Federation of Planets (U.F.P.) and other interstellar states are slowly recovering from wars and ecological disasters. A refitted vessel takes a new crew on its first missions of defense, diplomacy, and exploration….

Player Characters for Gene D.’s ” Star Trek: Restoration” space opera scenario, using D20 Prime Directive, FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures, Bulldogs, and Mindjammer 2e, plus house rulesObsidian Portal, Skype, and the Rolz.org online dice roller, as of spring 2015:

  • “Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Kyerak” [Bruce K.]-male half-Vulcan with a temper, in the U.S.S. Rotha ’s command division
  • Chief Ravi Chandler” [Brian W.]-male Altairian human, non-commissioned officer and transporter expert assigned to aid Lt. Kyerak’s mission
  • “Froot” [Rich C.G.]-male Ferengi (short, large-eared extraterrestrial) merchant and negotiator, DaiMon and owner of the trade vessel Love’s Latinum Lost
  • “Kimbal Tegan” [Beruk A.]-male Trill (long-lived symbiont), operations specialist aboard the Love’s Latinum Lost

Absent:

  • “Lt. Jarric Jameson” [Dexter V.H.]-male genetically modified human colonist (former Maquis) communications and wilderness survival expert
  • “Lt. Orzzek Kalifa” [Byron V.O.]-male Andorian (blue-skinned humanoid with white hair and antennae), assertive science officer
  • “Lt. Mari Killu” [Sara F.]-female Caitian (felinoid) security/tactical officer
  • “Lt. Boran’ Gorir” [Josh C.]-male Jem’Hadar (Dominion soldier), aggressive envoy/engineer
  • “Tau” [Drew S.]-male Ferengi, medic aboard the Love’s Latinum Lost

Previously, in “Star Trek: Restoration,” the U.S.S. Rotha uncovered an Undine infiltrator during a diplomatic mission and faced off against Romulan and Klingon ships in the Neutral Zone. Some junior officers then accepted a covert mission to investigate offworld interference in a former member of the United Federation of Planets.

“Stardate 95248.042 (11 April 2418):” At Alpha Tauri III in the Aldebaran system, the away team visited the science station of Nar Instel under the pretense of being Ferengi traders. It found a Romulan spy who planned to train unwitting students in the ruthless methods and beliefs of the Tal Shiar.

The explorers still have to find the remaining two sources of subspace transmissions in the former U.F.P. colony, which has regressed to a pre-warp level of technology. They had tracked the signals to the industrial city of Irdrant and the agricultural community of Folkhar.

Lt. Kyerak decides that the landing party should visit Irdrant next. Chief Ravi Chandler notes that his upbringing in the militaristic Altair system should be helpful in dealing with this nation-state of Aldebaran.

DaiMon Froot notes that the team will have to teleport from theLove’s Latinum Lost because defense forces would spot a landing starship. Kimbal Tegan scans the city and narrows the transmission site to a single neighborhood.

Industrial colony
Irdrant

Kyerak wants to negotiate with local authorities to find whoever is sending the subspace signals in violation of Starfleet’s non-interference Prime Directive, as he did in Nar Instel. Froot argues in favor of backup false identities as police officers.

Ravi changes out of his uniform, and Kimbal tunes into local radio stations. The other crew members from the U.S.S. Rotha stay with the Love’s Latinum Lost as the foursome beams down to an alley on the surface.

Vulcan Kyerak and human Ravi head toward “Nel’s Diner,” while Ferengi Froot and Trill Kimbal walk around the block and spot a military security post before entering the eatery.

Kyerak observes that most of the diner’s patrons are human, except for Illiana Drah’el, a Cardassian administrative assistant. Muscular Ravi impresses Bajoran waitress Kala Voshen and other women.

Froot watches as a well-dressed human executive arrives from the radio station across the street. Both Illiana and Kala defer to Sarlic Pramantha. Ravi listens to Sarlic confidently predict Irdrant’s inevitable victory over Folkhar.

Entrepreneur Froot offers some jewelry to Illiana, who asks for a gold and platinum earring. Half-human Kyerak doesn’t trust the Cardassian either, and he and wary Kimbal pose as potential advertisers to Pramantha, who agrees to meet the next day.

The four offworlders get rooms at the Sentinel Hotel. Kimbal examines local radio waves and finds that Irdrant’s armed forces are secretly sending messages encoded within commercial and propaganda broadcasts.

Kyerak uses a tricorder to search for Cardassian signals but finds that the subspace emissions match U.F.P. frequencies instead. Froot gives Ravi an item that Illiana touched, but her DNA isn’t in Starfleet’s records.

Froot beams up to the Love’s Latinum Lost to replicate the jewelry that the secretary requested and to plant a bug in it. Ravi confirms that the subspace transmitter must be hidden in Irdrant Tower, the same skyscraper that hosts the radio station.

Kyerak visits a library to research recent history and people who might be offworlders interfering with the former colony. Kimbal and Froot are skeptical that the Starfleet personnel will be able to uphold the Prime Directive between their mission and native Aldebaranian politics.

The next morning, the team visits Nel’s Diner for breakfast. Froot gives Illiana the earring she requested. Kyerak pretends to be clumsy and bumps into the secretary to briefly scan her telepathically.

The lieutenant learns that she plans to dismantle the jewelry for parts, presumably for the subspace transmitter. Kala avoids the Cardassian, even as the Bajoran waitress tries to flirt with Ravi.

The four explorers leave their weapons and ultra-tech tools at their hotel rooms before going to Irdrant Tower. They are patted down by strict Betazed officer Sgt. Anker Theophilus before taking an elevator to the radio station.

Illiana gives the visitors a brief tour, and Ravi sees no sign of the secret transmitter. Kimbal and Froot make a sponsorship pitch to Pramantha, who seems receptive. He invites them to dinner to close the deal. On the way out of the office, Kyerak asks Illiana to join them.

Pramantha sends a car to pick up the party. Kimbal finds that cabbie Maurice Thibaud is happy to share his opinions on numerous topics. He says that Sarlic is connected to many powerful people in Irdrant.

Lt. Kyerak, Mr. Chandler, Capt. Froot, and Mr. Tegan meet Mr. Pramantha and Ms. Drah’el at an old-fashioned steakhouse. Sarlic introduces them to Maj. Juanita Madeira, a human officer who is curious about the supposed investors.

Froot engages the major in conversation, while Kimbal finds that Illiana is fiercely loyal to Pramantha. Ravi notices that the wait staff is hovering suspiciously around their table, and Kyerak realizes that the Irdrantians mean to capture or kill them.

The impetuous Vulcan draws his phaser and stuns Pramanatha. Kimbal tries to warn Maj. Madeira, who admits that she gave the order for security forces to move in. Froot stealthily grabs Illiana’s purse to prevent her from finding the advanced bug in her jewelry.

Strong Ravi flips over a heavy table as the waiters open fire with slug throwers. Kyerak stuns Illiana, and Kimbal grabs unconscious Sarlic. The Trill tries to explain to Maj. Madeira that the radio executive is the threat to Irdrant, not him.

Froot scrambles over to Kimbal. As more troops arrive, Ravi initiates an emergency beam out to the Love’s Latinum Lost. Sarlic and Illiana are put in separate cabins as a makeshift brig, and Ravi takes blood samples.

When the prisoners come to, Lt. Kyerak and DaiMon Froot lead the interrogation. Kimbal moves the ship to a higher orbit to avoid detection by Irdrant, and Ravi and Tau find that Sarlic has antibodies consistent with interstellar travel.

Illiana says that Sarlic “is a great man who will lead Irdrant to dominance” of Alpha Tauri III. The media manipulator admits that he was a Federation sociologist assigned to covertly observe the colonists.

Sarlic also confesses that he was helping the military and sending out subspace signals in the hope of finding like-minded people willing to break the Prime Directive. He claims to be unaware of the Romulan spy in Nar Instel.

Froot is sympathetic to the need to reclaim systems before the Klingons, Romulans, or Cardassians, who are also recovering from disasters, can do so. Kyerak is unmoved and intends to turn over the rogue scientist to Starfleet Command.

Kimbal and Ravi beam down to Sarlic’s office to destroy histransmitter and any trace of advanced technology. They manage to avoid local security forces, and Kyerak begins planning to visit Folkhar, the origin point of the third and final set of subspace signals. To be continued….

This episode is dedicated to the memory of Leonard Nimoy, the actor best known for playing Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek TV series and movies. He lived long and prospered, and he will be missed.

I look forward to continuing our adventures, but in the meantime, we have Dexter’s D&D5e “Land of Lost Souls,” Jason E.R.’s FAEChannel 37,” and my own “Vanished Lands” campaigns to play!

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies review

I’ve fallen behind in blogging again because of travel over the past month, the holidays, and being ill. Fortunately, I have no shortage of topics to write about!

Last week, David I.S. & Sandra K. drove from Rochester, N.Y., to visit Janice and me in Waltham, Mass. Dave was the very first friend I made at college, and our New Year’s celebrations have become something of a tradition.

On Tuesday, 30 December 2014, Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. and Thomas’ brother Tony joined us for a potluck dinner and fun conversation. On New Year’s Eve, we took it easy because Dave & Sandra were suffering from bad colds (that Janice and I later caught).

On New Year’s Day, Janice, Dave, and I went to the AMC Burlington Cinema 10 for a 3-D matinee of The Hobbit [Part 3 of 3]: The Battle of the Five Armies. We mostly enjoyed the finale of Peter Jackson’s adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal fantasy novels.

Battle of the Five Armies
Parties to the battle

Plot

As with the previous installments, An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug, it’s assumed that viewers are at least passingly familiar with Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Jackson’s films for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In addition, the audience should have seen the first two Hobbit movies (even more than read the relatively brief children’s book) before watching Battle of the Five Armies.

The story draws from Scandinavian and Germanic mythology, fairy tales, and the extensive world-building and linguistics research of Prof. Tolkien. The Battle of the Five Armies sticks with the major threads from the book. (Note that some of the enclosed links lead to “spoilers.”)

The Wizard Gandalf has sent Hobbit Bilbo Baggins across the dangerous wilderness with a band of 13 Dwarves to help them reclaim their treasure and lost homeland from the fierce dragon Smaug. On the way to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, they encountered vile Goblins, haughty Elves, various monsters, and the scruffy humans of Lake Town.

Once Smaug is awakened from his slumber by Bilbo and company, the angry dragon incinerates Lake Town. Only the human Bard the Bowman is brave enough to face down the huge beast, even as Orcs and Elves rouse troops to wrest control of its hoard at Erebor.

Here are the five armies of the title battle, in order of appearance on the scene:

  • DwarvesThorin Oakenshield‘s band of former exiles (and Bilbo), plus eventual reinforcements from his kinsman Dain Ironfoot
  • Men — refugees from Lake Town and the lost city of Dale, led by Bard
  • Silvan Elves — from Mirkwood, led by King Thranduil and including his son Legolas and scout Tauriel (a character created for the movies)
  • Goblins/Orcs and Wargs (giant wolf-like steeds) — from Gundabad, plus Trolls/Giants and unnatural bats
  • Great Eagles — plus the shapeshifter Beorn (and Wizard Radagast the Brown, present only in the movie)

Meanwhile, to the south of Mirkwood in the ruined fortress of Dol Goldur, the White Council finds the Necromancer, who is revealed to be the evil Sauron. Gandalf, Elven nobles Elrond and Galadriel, and the Wizard Saruman the White fight the incorporeal Sauron and his nine Nazgul, the spirits of corrupted human kings.

Can Bilbo find a way to keep Thorin’s lust for treasure from getting their company killed? Can Gandalf and the White Council defeat Sauron? Can Dwarves, humans, and Elves put aside their differences long enough to deal with the Orc hordes, and what casualties will result from the battle? If you’ve read the book or noticed any of the foreshadowing in the previous Hobbit movies, you’ll know.

Cast

There are no major additions in this movie, but there were a few good moments for Sherlock‘s Martin Freeman as good-hearted burglar Bilbo, Robin Hood‘s Richard Armitage as proud Thorin, and Pushing Daisies‘ Lee Pace as isolationist Thranduil. As before, Bilbo’s scenes are closest to those in the book, and I even began to feel sympathy for elk-riding Thranduil.

I would have liked Thorin’s “gold sickness” be more of an opportunity for the other Dwarves to react than an explicit echo of Smaug’s words. With three long movies’ worth of screen time, there should have been more character development for all 13 Dwarves.

While I approve the addition of Lost‘s Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel in a male-heavy cast, I would have preferred less of a forced love triangle with her, Orlando Bloom’s ageless Legolas, and Being Human‘s Aidan Turner’s young Dwarf Fili.

I understand that the slapstick scenes with Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown and Ryan Gage as his slimy assistant Alfrid were meant to contrast with the virtue and courage of Luke Evans’ Bard, but they were a bit too broad for my taste. Of course, they wouldn’t be out of place during most fantasy tabletop games.

Spartacus and Arrow‘s Manu Bennett (whom I’ve met) and John Tui remained menacing as Orc chieftains Azog and Bolg — mostly through motion capture, I assume. Busy Benedict Cumberbatch had less voice time as the Necromancer and Smaug this time around.

It was nice to again see Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Christopher Lee as Sauruman, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, and Hugo Weaving as Elrond. The narrative framing device bringing back Ian Holm as old Bilbo was an even better tie-in to Fellowship of the Ring.

Direction

Because of the focus on the big set-piece battles, the pacing of Battle of the Five Armies seemed a bit smoother than in its predecessors. Smaug’s raid is rather short, and the evacuation of Lake Town and Dale by humans ahead of marauding Orcs is overly similar to Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers.

A combat between Thorin and Azog (rather than Bolg, as in the book) takes place on a frozen waterfall. As much as I liked 2004’s King Arthur and Battle of the Five Armies, I wish filmmakers would stop copying Alexander Nevsky‘s ice battle, which is based on real history.

Like his distinguished peers George Lucas, James Cameron, and Ridley Scott, director Peter Jackson has let technology overwhelm his sense of storytelling in this second trilogy. A good editor should be able to tell even established filmmakers when certain scenes go too long. Just because one can now realize a grand vision, if it doesn’t help the characters, setting, or plot, it doesn’t need to be included.

Perhaps some of the focus will be restored in the inevitable director’s cuts on DVD and Blu-ray. I also wonder how Guillermo del Toro might have handled the same material in less time, without franchise pressure from Warner Bros.

Cinematography

As noted above, the dragon, Orcs, and landscapes were all brought to spectacular life by WETA Studios. I noticed the computer-generated imagery less this time around, and 3-D worked fine for us (we didn’t find an IMAX showtime we liked). I do wonder what Battle of the Five Armies might look like at high frame rate.

Thranduil’s Wood Elves were too much like the shining hosts of the Second Age or the Sindarin of Lothlorien. Legolas’ gratuitous acrobatics, which have become a cliché since the Lord of the Rings movies, reminded me of why some role-players hated the smug, omnipotent Elves of the AD&D2 era.

Also, I would have liked to see more than telekinesis or blasts of wind during the White Council’s battle against Sauron. On the other hand, most magic in Tolkien’s books is more subtle than the pyrotechnics jaded audiences have come to expect.

Once the Goblins and Dwarves met in battle, it was hard to tell them apart, despite their difference in size (and we saw it in 3-D). I would have given each army more different armor or colorful surcoats. The overhead shots still felt too much like a video game.

Soundtrack

The music served the story, but the themes that we noticed most were those that harked back to The Lord of the Rings. The fine art by Alan Lee and John How during the closing credits was well accompanied by “The Last Goodbye,” sung by Billy Boyd (Pippin in the first film trilogy, which takes place after The Hobbit).

Rating

Overall, I’d give The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which is rated PG-13 for violence, a B, 7.5 out of 10, or three and a half out of five stars. Despite some problems, the movie does tie up the prequel trilogy and shows the climactic battle for northern Middle Earth.

That said, I hope that filmmakers leave Tolkien’s work alone for a while before taking a fresh look at The Hobbit or parts of the Silmarillion. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation is the stronger work, and unlikely to be equaled anytime soon.

The previews we saw were decent, but nothing among the sequels and remakes jumped out as a “must-see” flick for 2015. I am curious about spy actioner The Kingsmen and Mad Max: Fury Road, but I expect to see fewer than the 19 movies I saw in theaters this past year:

Back at home, Dave, Sandra, Janice, and I also enjoyed The Edge of Tomorrow, a decent Tom Cruise vehicle that was indeed a mashup of military science fiction Starship Troopers and time-travel Groundhog Day. We also later returned to Burlington for dinner at the busy Border Café, one of our favorite local Tex-Mex eateries.

Janice and I didn’t come down with our colds until after Dave and Sandra left (taking more of my comic book collection with them for storage), but we had a nice time around the holidays. Now, just to shake it while getting back to work!

Interstellar review

On Saturday, 15 November 2014, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for a matinee of Interstellar at the Jordan’s IMAX theater in Framingham, Mass. We liked the relationship-focused highbrow science fiction film.

Plot

Interstellar follows Cooper, an astronaut turned farmer in an unspecified near future in which human spaceflight has faltered because of the urgency of feeding billions amid severe ecological degradation.

Widower Cooper’s son Tom is content to become a farmer, but his restlessness is mirrored in his daughter Murph. Despite being science-minded in an era focused on mere survival, Murph claims that a poltergeist is trying to send her messages.

An errant surveillance drone leads Cooper and his children to a secret NASA base, where his former colleague Prof. Brand and his daughter are working on sending a second wave of explorers through a newly discovered wormhole near Saturn to find inhabitable planets.

Aware of the relativistic effects of faster-than-light interstellar travel, Cooper gets his father Donald’s blessing and reluctantly leaves with the younger Brand and a small crew to try to save humanity….

Interstellar poster
Christopher Nolan’s latest SF movie

Cast

The cast of Interstellar is uniformly solid, with several actors from past Christopher Nolan productions. Matthew McConaughey is grounded as Cooper, despite the talk of imminent Armageddon, wormholes, and love and gravity transcending the dimension of time.

John Lithgow and Michael Caine are Cooper’s father figures as Donald and Prof. Brand, respectively. Anne Hathaway is emotional but strong as the younger Brand, and Mackenzie Foy plays a young Murph (named after Murphy’s Law — “Whatever can happen, will”).

As more time passes on Earth while the subjective time of the astronauts is shorter, the adult Murph is played by Jessica Chastain, and Casey Affleck is the older Tom. Murph and Tom react in different ways to their father’s absence. Matt Damon plays Dr. Mann, “the best of us” and part of the first wave sent through the wormhole.

Bill Irwin is also noteworthy as the voice of TARS, a former military robot among those retasked with helping the laconic Cooper’s mission. He brings a sense of snarky humor and potential menace to the proceedings, referring directly to HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Direction

Christopher Nolan’s meticulous style is similar to that of 2001‘s Stanley Kubrick or Prometheus‘ Ridley Scott. He’s more comfortable with high-concept speculative fiction in movies such as Inception, Duncan Jones’ Moon, or Rian Johnson’s Looper than with the emotional content of Steven Spielberg’s best.

Viewers waiting for action and suspense have to wait a while before the three-hour-long movie gets to it, and the parallels between Coop and Murph and Prof. Brand and his daughter are pretty obvious. When Donald or Prof. Brand fulminate on the human condition and our need to explore the universe, it’s clear that’s what Nolan thinks.

Still, even if I agree with the sentiment and understand some of the underlying science, I’d rather he spent less time explaining and more time engaging the audience. Overall, Nolan handles his cast and the narrative jumps in time well, but Interstellar feels more technical than passionate, and he’s unlikely to persuade any who might disagree.

Cinematography

Nolan’s true strength is with creating a believable universe. As with last year’s excellent Gravity, space travel is shown to be difficult, dangerous, and ultimately worthwhile. The psychedelic imagery during the wormhole travel is mercifully brief.

The visualization of “Gargantua,” a black hole around which some potential homeworlds orbit, is excellent. Any good science fiction movie should show us something we haven’t seen or maybe even haven’t imagined before. Much of the science is sound, and the distant planets reminded me of some documentaries about hazardous arctic exploration.

Sure, one could quibble with the environmental science, the description of gravitic propulsion, and the late appearance of O’Neill cylinders in the movie, but I was glad to see this movie on an IMAX screen with a full house. As other reviewers have noted, like Big Hero 6, some of the best parts of Interstellar are when it shows people using science to try to solve problems or mysteries.

Soundtrack

As with Inception and many recent action movie trailers, Interstellar had the booming “bwong, bwong” sound to underscore important moments. I could have done without that, but I have to admit that the IMAX theater’s “rumble seats” were nice for the scenes when Cooper and company were flying by the seats of their pants.

There is no music quite as memorable as “Thus Spake Zarathustra” from 2001 or Vangelis’ themes in Blade Runner. As in Gravity, I liked the absence of sound during some of the space scenes.

Rating

I liked Interstellar more than Elysium and about the same as Contact, to refer to two Jodi Foster SF movies. It’s definitely part of a wave of more serious speculative fiction, providing a nice balance to the explosions of Star Trek: Into Darkness or comedy of Space Station 76 while I wait for the next cyclical revival of classic space opera.

I’d give Interstellar, which is rated PG-13 for some violence, a 7.5 to 8 out of 10, three and a half out of five stars, or a B+. I think that some critics were overly harsh, but I’m also more of an SF buff than the general audience.

Speaking of which, I’m still enjoying Jonathan Nolan’s cyber-dystopian Person of Interest on television, and I’m cautiously optimistic about his adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation for HBO. Also, it is with some sadness that I note the passing of Glen Larson, who created the original Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and many of the other genre TV shows I grew up on.