Wednesday, December 31, 2014

On Hobbits

It has been a couple weeks now, and a lot of people have talked about it, and our group has weighed in on it, including our resident Tolkien expert, John Rateliff. But be warned - this has spoilers within, great and small, regarding the conclusion of The Hobbit films from Peter Jackson, The Battle of Five Armies. Some you've seen before, elsewhere, from others, but these thoughts a mine and belong to me. And in general, I liked the film.

There, I think I've gotten past the amount that gets cut and filled for other platforms. Let us get down to business.

1) I think it is pretty clear that Movie 2 (Desolation of Smaug) and Movie 3 (Battle of Five Armies) should be viewed as one film. One 6 hour film, where you get to get to break for lunch in the middle of it. You are dropped into the middle of a film - no background, no flashbacks. Smaug is descending on Lake Town and Gandalf is held prisoner by the Necromancer. Boom. There you are. If this is your first Hobbit movie, you'll be more than a might confused. And that's OK, as long as you know what you're getting into. We don't get an expositional character summarizing the story so far or a narration. I'm good for that.

2) By the same token, you do feel like you've come into the films a couple reels in. The pacing is definitely that of the middle part of the movie, that the characters are established, the basic goals and motivations are laid out, and all that results are pulling off the reveals and resolving matters.

3) And to that end, Smaug dies fifteen minutes in. I did mention spoilers, didn't I? Yeah, it fits with the timeline for the book, but after two movies of how powerful Smaug is, he's not even the big bad for this one. Sort of a Boba Fett ending for him. You never get the feeling he lived up to his potential.

4) And speaking of big bads, who IS the bad guy of this film? The Necromancer, who is chased off about half-way through the film? Or the two orc leaders, Sword-Arm-Orc and Orc-with-Metal-Plate-In-His-Head? The sense of greed that turns Thorin against the others?

5) Taking down my copy of the Hobbit, Movie one was about 100 pages, Movie two was 100 pages, and this movie covers the last 50 pages. Yeah, we're looking at padding.

6) And you can see the padding. There are a lot of repeated sequences (Bard rescues his family, Thorin yells at people trying to help him, Bard gives Alfrid a task, and he immediately shirks it). And the battle sequences of "character-facing-certain-destruction-but-suddenly-someone-you-had-forgotten-about-arrives-to-rescue-them" actually get wearing after a while.

7) Let's be frank - most of the movie is the battle, and staging a single battle is tough - a lot of sides, a lot of protagonists. Let's give points for the attempt. But one of the reasons for the frequent swoops into Thorin's mindset and comic relief, and Bard's family is to make it more than just cgi animation of orcs and elves fighting. But it feels weird to have so much of this happening in the midst of battle.

8) The bulk of the film feels like a game of Warhammer miniatures. Part of that is because of some of the visual source material - in the early seventies, Workshop was selling LotR miniatures, and the tall-helmetted, metal skirted elves were part of the look. So yeah, this is part of the Tolkien property but it feels like Workshop. At least the orcs weren't green, but that may be Warcraft thing these days.

9) Yeah, the whole pacing of the battle does feel weird, but remember that Tolkien passed over much of this by keeping the focus tight on Bilbo (and Bilbo unconscious for part of it). We have the dwarves in the mountain. Then the humans reoccupy Dale Town. Then elves show up, surprising both groups. Then the dwarf army shows up, surprising the elf army. Then the goblins show up from underground, surprising all previous groups, then the Gundabad orcs show up to hammer the exhausted allied armies, but THEN the Eagles show up to handle the orcs.

10) But I will admit it makes me amused to see that Radaghast gets the final "And then a new group comes to rescues the others" sequence. He's like the final closed parenthesis.

11) Did it feel like Dale Town got bigger in its architecture as the movie went on? It was ruins, but it seemed to get taller and more impressive over the course of the attack.

12) I've got a new game, called: "What can Legolas ride?" Can he ride a shield down the stairs? Yes he can. Can he ride a manbat of Gundabad? Yes he can. Can he ride a siege troll? Yes he can. Can he ride a disintegrating tower? Yes. Yes he can. Is there anything this elf cannot ride?

13) Oh, and elves are apparently stronger than stone itself. Tauriel takes a battering but survives. Legolas literally smashes apart the tower in his battle. This may be the original source of the problem between elves and dwarves. The dwarves wanted to use the elves as battering rams.

14) Orcs, on the other hand, are 1 minus 1 HD. Bilbo could take them out with a rock. With. A. Rock. But apparently they level up fast.

15) I know this is a minor point, but where the heck did Thorin and company get the battle rams? I know that's a gnat to strain at when, moments before, the dwarven army, driven to the brink by the orcs, suddenly gets rallied by the appearance of twelve reinforcements. But it was a big question in my office.

16) And the entire Dead-Orc-Beneath-The-Ice sequence? Did it remind anyone else of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction?

17) Tauriel lives through the film, which surprised me at first blush, then made sense. We had Fili and Kili dying from the book, their deaths being a big part of the movie. We needed someone to directly morn them. One of our group mentioned that they could do the "ongoing adventures of Tauriel" as a result, but I think that unlikely.

18) And let me give Jackson points for wrapping things up with one ending. Even with previous movies in the series, I figured it would end two or three times before it did. This one ends when it ends, even if it does have to do a tie-in to the later LOTR. OK, Jackson gets that one.

19) And there was a character named Tosser Grubb in Hobbiton, according to the credits. No relation.

20) And when is all said and done, I think would like more Hobbit in my Hobbit. Bilbo sort of hit his high point in the last film, and is reduced to worrying about Thorin and delivering warnings here. In the book as in the film, he is knocked out a critical moment, so in the novel we don't have to work through all the boring parts of a battle. Of course, we the viewer still get to be a part of the battle in the film.

In the end, I enjoyed it, but it was tied to the fact the I had to rejigger some initial assumptions that were pretty clear at the beginning. This will probably fit better once everything is on DVD or viewable as a single experience, but as a film itself, it was a perfectly fine ending for the series.

More later,

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas ...

... and a happy holiday season from Grubb Street.

More later, I'm busy making the rumaki.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Monstrous Confirmation

I don't mention it enough, but I have been slowly clearing out the Archives in my house. And by Archives I mean the small bedroom on the lowest floor that used to be stuffed with long boxes of comic books and old game product I have accumulated over the years. A lot of this material has shown up on Ebay in the Stannex Mart under the careful curation of Anne Trent, who has served as Ebay mistress for both Stan! and I for several years. And even though this is much too late for Christmas, it might be a place you want to check out with the holiday money once you've decided "and now I'm going to get something for ME."

In any event, Anne has been handling things swimmingly, slowly reducing the boxes of product I have cataloged and passed along to her, and turning the Archive room into a small guest room that only Harry Potter would consider as an upgrade. I will do the occasional signing and personalization, but to be honest, most folks are just looking for old product. And that's cool. But every so often she will get a request that I will have to come in on.

One purchaser, who bought an old copy of the Kara-Tur Monstrous Compendium, wanted to make sure that it was really once mine, and so we decided to make a video certificate of provenance, that yes, this copy of KTMC was once in my possession and is now in someone else's possession.

Of course, I didn't use this particular copy. As an employee of TSR, I received one copy of everything we published each month, in order to have copies available to research. This MC, and a fair chunk of the TSR product in my Archive, were duly taken home, put in a box, moved to Seattle, left in the box until such a time that we decided we really needed the room. And that is the heritage of that particular copy, which is probably still in the shrink wrap.

I say probably because these loose-leaf Monstrous Compendiums were a bit of a wash as a game product, and there are not as many complete ones as you would think. The concept was something that players had asked for repeatedly - a collection of loose-leaf sheets with one monster on each side, which would let the DM pull the monsters he wanted for an particular session without having to haul around several volumes, or tipping the player to what monster manual they were pulled one (Here's an old DM trick - pick up a copy of the original Fiend Folio, leaf through it, then say "You see a skeleton". Freaked out the players every time).

The idea of making a ring-binder Monstrous Compendium was good in theory, but didn't work in practice. Part of it was because in order to have a loose-leaf folder, the MCs would not be the same size as the other books (which made for stocking challenges). AND the fact was that those old notebooks were notorious for the rings not lining up and pinching fingers when it closed. AND the fact that unless you put little gummy reinforcement rings on the pages, they would rip out. AND the fact we put one monster to a page meant that minor monsters either had to have a lot more written about them, or have a lot of white space on the page. AND if you had a Goblin on one side of page, and a Gnome on the other, there was no place to put a Gnoll, which sort of defeated the purpose of alphabetization in the first place. Oh, AND once broken from the shrink wrap, the pages went everywhere, so you ended up losing monsters you had earlier pulled out.

So it was one of the great noble experiments we committed to, and when we reprinted the book (as the Monstrous Manual, part of "Edition 2.5" ), it was a standard hardback. A few years later, a fan hit me up at a convention that we should write up individual monsters, one to a page, so the DMs could alphabetize them. I pointed out that we did exactly that, and it was a bust. His response of "Yeah, but this time you can do it RIGHT!"

Yeah, thanks, there. And yes, and that copy of the KTMC?  Yeah, that's mine. Anne recorded a small video last night.

More later,

Update One: Here's the file I recorded. I mention the young man's name it in, but I don't mention it here in text so it doesn't show up on search engines. Yes, if you want a signature or similar video, we're cool with it.

Update Two: While talking about all the challenges of the original Monstrous Compendiums, John Rateliff reminded me that he and I, along with David Wise and a couple other folks, sat down and decided what creatures from the already-published MCs were going into that MC. I had quite forgotten.

Update Three: Yes, I've shaved off the beard. It was for a 1920's party where I trimmed the mustache back to look like William Powell, but ended up looking more like Mr. Mooney. I'll probably grow it back.

Update Four: Oh, yeah, I still have about 90 longboxes of unbagged, unsorted comics in the basement dating back to the 70s. Still trying to get rid of them.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Play: The Center Cannot Hold

The Great Society by Robert Schenkkan, Directed by Bill Rauch, through 4 January, 2015, Seattle Rep.

When last we looked in on LBJ, he had won re-election, transforming himself from an accidental president to a man with a mandate for change. This is what happened next and how it all went to hell.

We are back, but with a difference. The men in charge of their own destiny are suddenly being driven by undesired circumstances. LBJ (Jack Willis, again throwing off good-old-boy homilies with hard-nosed arm-twisting) wants to push his Great Society, while news from Viet Nam keeps interrupting his narrative. Martin Luther King (channeled by Kenajuan Bentley), his racial counterpoint, loses control of the Movement to more radical elements. Meanwhile, RFK (Danforth Comins) hangs out like a shark at the corner drug store, waiting to make his move, and while George Wallace becomes less relevant, Dick Nixon returns from the political dead, looking for weakness (both played only slightly more unctuously than in life by Jonathan Haugen).

And in the first act, you get LBJ and MLK at their best. LBJ out-maneuvers both Wallace and the AMA, while MLK walks the perilous line in Selma between dealing with his own supporters and wresting potential concessions from the White House. But as the play progresses, things get worse. For MLK, he loses the thread when he leaves his southern powerbase, first in LA during the Watts riots and then in Chicago in a power play with Hizzoner, Richard M. Daley. For LBJ, the was is a canker at the heart of his administration, where making the least-bad decision only ups the stakes and turns allies against him. The two men, potential allies, come apart as King speaks out against Viet Nam and LBJ feels betrayal from all sides.

The stage, like the country, comes apart. The rising benches of the stage, populated by the other actors when not part of the performance, is shattered in jagged, smoking rubblet littered with protest signs. As LBJ gives approval to Hoover for illegal surveillance of the antiwar movement, tape recorders sprout. The later hallmarks of the Nixon administration are all in place by the end of the play - the repression, the internal spying, the out of control war. All it needed was Nixon to step into the role, riding a tide of rebellion against Johnson's attempt to transform the country to something better. The stage that Nixon takes command of is trashed, and the final image is of the new president, flashing victory signs as LBJ moves into retirement.

This is a history, one of many centered on the era. And by >a< history, I mean that there is only so much that can be placed in a single play, even one of three hours. Wallace vanishes from the play's narrative as Haugen transforms into Nixon, his spiritual successor, but Wallace did not go gently into that good night, but rather taking five states of the Deep South on his own in the '68 election, and splitting the Democratic party for Nixon's "southern strategy".Further, both MLK and RFK make their exits with their last words, in flashback. After going into great detail about the '64 campaign in All the Way, the '68 campaign fizzles out as a major contention point as soon as LBJ hands it over to an overmatched Humphrey.

And by the same token, to glibly quote  Twain, history doesn't repeat, but it sure does rhyme, and we can see echoes of Selma in Ferguson, of Viet Nam in Iraq, and in budgetary maneuvering to defund the president's leadership in the War on Poverty and the ACA. The path of progress is never clear nor unchallenged, and only with the longest of views does it seem inevitable.

The play itself is a tragedy, of a man who gets everything he wants and discovers that it is not enough to effect the change he wants. It is tough going in places, particularly where the ugly face of racism shows in Alabama, California, and Illinois. It is easier to take if you understand the first chapter, and the Rep is running both plays, sometimes on the same say, so you can "Broadway" you experience by doing All The Way in the afternoon, and The Great Society in the evening. And it is recommended - these a risking plays in the modern theatrical world - large casts, long running times, big issues. But they are both worth seeing.

More later,

Wednesday, December 03, 2014