“The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug” – longer, dwarfier, uncut

So, a year after our collective bottoms were numbed and spirits were dimmed by the first instalment of Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy, does this second of three visits back to Middle Earth cleave any closer to the glories of the “Lord of the Rings” series?

TL:DR version? It does, but not without the continuing suspicion that the length of these cinematic adaptations makes them better suited to home viewing and comfy couches than the unforgiving confines of your local movieplex.

When we last saw Bilbo and his compatriots, their journey to the former Dwarven stronghold of Erebor had been rudely interrupted by the unwanted attentions of Orcs led by Azog the Defiler, a big chap with a grudge against Dwarven prince in exile Thorin Oakenshield.

This time around, our heroes journey through the chattering, skittering unseen horrors of Mirkwood forest, meet up with some old enemies and Bilbo finally gets his burglar on when he visits Erebor’s current incumbent, the ancient and crafty dragon Smaug.

I’m happy to say that the pacing and eventful nature of this film greatly improves on the langour of “An Unexpected Journey”: there’s a stand-out action sequence which builds on the wine barrel escape from Tolkien’s novel, replete with Elven intervention which reminds you that Jackson can create cinematic action to rival the best and that he’s not afraid to reconfigure the novel’s events.

And by ‘reconfigure’, I mean to say that Jackson merrily interjects events and characters in order to make the tale fit into the film saga he’s spent a major part of his film career creating on screen.  Purists will quail, as well they might, but I suspect it’s fair to say that audiences eager to revisit this fantasy realm will be happy that a combination of nerdy enthusiasm for the source material and money grubbing corporate suits have met in the middle to realise this new trilogy.

Be warned that this second film ends on the mother of all cliff-hangers – suffice is to say that you may find yourself darkening your multiplex’s doors next Christmas season if you’ve been unimpressed by Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy to date, if only to see how things ultimately resolve themselves…

 

Enter Admiral Thrawn?

Thrawn
Thrawn – a kinder, more reasonable Imperial despot…

Fans of the extended “Star Wars” universe will get the titular reference, but for the uninitiated Grand Admiral Thrawn is a pivotal bad guy in Timothy Zahn’s follow-up trilogy of “Star Wars” novels which follow on from the climax of “Return of the Jedi”.

Thrawn is a popular villain in the great canon of despicable galactic ne’er-do-wells – Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader, Jabba The Hutt – as in Zahn’s novels he manages to embody the all-conquering, militaristic might of the Empire whilst being drawn in shades of moralistic grey quite at odds with much of the established “Wars” canon.

Rather than immediately smote a lower-ranking officer for suggesting that his strategies are at odds with the overwhelming evidence of reality in front of them, Thrawn’s the kind of guy who knows when to pack up the fleet and head for hyperspace and save the fight for another day.

Hmm...villainous?
Hmm…villainous?

All of which preamble obscures the main, non-news of the last twenty-four hours – Benedict Cumberbatch is the latest name linked to J.J. Abrams and Disney’s 2015-bound “Star Wars – Episode Seven”.

Yep, a chip off the old Skywalker block alright...
Yep, a chip off the old Skywalker block alright…

It’s hardly surprising, really – if you throw a dart at a casting director’s wish list, the British actor’s name is probably near the top, near Tom Hiddleston’s – and this rumour seems to have as much basis in fact as last week’s feverish speculation over Rachel Hurd-Wood and Alex Pettyfer auditioning for the apparently pivotal roles of Skywalker offspring.

Until Abrams and Disney let some, you know, actual information loose and tell us something, any actor with a half-competent agent is probably angling to get their client linked to a role in what should be the all-conquering movie franchise for the next decade (the potential for lucrative spin-off movies, merchandise and theme-park tie-ins must have Disney’s board thinking that the $4 Billion cost of buying Lucasfilm is but so much chump change…).

I’d actually like to see Cumberbatch play a more heroic role, if only to offset the expectations of villainy which come with his being cast in a Hollywood movie.  The old ‘Posh Brit Actor = Dastardly Evil’ equation is getting rather wearing, wouldn’t you say?

Whilst a well-drawn villain is often more attractive to actors than the prospect of playing a Peter Perfect white hat with no moral grey areas to draw upon, I’d like to see Michael Arndt and the “Star Wars” writing team draw from the expanded universe and let these new “Star Wars” heroes and villains embody different shades of the character spectrum.

A geek can dream, I guess…

 

Here be “Dragons”?

This ain't no game.  Apparently...
This ain’t no game. Apparently…

Fantasy as a film genre is notoriously difficult to get right.

For each Tolkien project which Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens have lovingly brought to the screen, there are a veritable Dwarven hall full of movies which didn’t quite connect – I’m thinking here, particularly, of films like “Eragon” which seemed hamstrung by film executives less concerned with sympathetically adopting their source material and more keen to quickly get to screen in a rush to grab some of that post-“Rings” buzz and a slice of the financial rewards.

One such film where any cinematic potential was resolutely squandered by its adaptation was New Line’s 2000 “Dungeons & Dragons” movie, whose campy take on the beloved role-playing game killed stone dead any chance for that series to grow into a global multiplex bestriding colossus.  Direct to video sequels followed but didn’t bother any but the hardcore, with low production values not exactly filling the screen with spectacle and wonder.

 

If you need stuff done, get a dwarf to do it...
If you need it done, send a dwarf…

 

Cue an improbable saviour for the realm of Izmir in the form of Warner Brothers,  who have rushed into the breech, rolled for initiative and announced that they’ve picked up the rights to make a new “Dungeons & Dragons” movie.

Fantasy works as a genre when it’s done properly – i.e., not making the project on the cheap and using the limitless potential of contemporary tools in alliance with a great film-maker’s vision.  There’s a sign that this message might be getting through to Hollywood, what with Duncan Jones beavering away on the long-gestating “World of Warcraft” film, for example.  Heck, we might even get a decent Markus Heitz “Dwarves” movie if this trend continues…

There’s no reason that this can’t be a huge, ongoing series of adventures for Warner in much the same way as Disney now have the likes of Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm projects to draw from.

As an utter nerd who is currently listening to Blind-fracking-Guardian as I write this post, this is the best news that I’ve heard all day…

Power Metal Artwork of the Day – Blind Guardian

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And to finish out the week, an arguable classic slice of European Power Metal – with sleeve art almost precision designed to irk the irksome, traumatise tiresome hipsters and cause kvlt elitists to kvetch.

Germany’s Blind Guardian are perhaps best described as occupying a space somewhere between Iron Maiden, Helloween and – I guess – Dream Theater.  We’re talking songs directly inspired by double-bass drums played at a hundred miles an hour, proggy time signatures and lyrics directly referencing fantasy literature, as amply demonstrated by an album which many fans would claim as their favourite – the J.R.R. Tolkien/”Silmarillion“-inspired Nightfall in Middle-Earth.

To the artwork – it’s a painting of Luthien dancing in front of Morgoth, painted by Andreas Marshall.  I confess to having something a blind spot for Tolkien’s novels, something which I propose to address in the near future via the medium of a series on the blog – is it ambitious to read “The Hobbit” and the whole “Lord of the Rings” cycle before part one of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” opens at the end of the year?  I like to think not, but I’m ever one for taking on challenges which ask more than I can reasonably cope with.  It’s an epic fantasy thing, people – realise…

What the cover doesn’t capture is just how delightfully cheesy the spoken word portions of the album are – for viewers used to the earnest storytelling of the Jackson cinematic trilogy, this album’s (let’s be honest) amateur dramatic performance of the Tolkien material is a splendid thing.

 And it’s a killer record – if you like your heavy metal to be bold, powerful, driving and unabashedly unfashionable, Blind Guardian do this kind of stuff better than anybody else.  If your new D&D campaign needs a stirring musical accompaniment to really get those 20-sided die flying, you need this record on your iPod/stereo pronto…

Cultural Endeavours for May 4th 2012

It’s a long holiday weekend in the UK and that can mean only one thing – it’s time to avoid DIY and that kind of soul-sucking stuff  and leap wildly into the ready, saucy arms of music, books and films.

“The Dwarves” by Markus Heitz – no, that’s not my purse in the top right of the picture.

First up, Markus Heitz’s epic fantasy novel “The Dwarves”, which vaulted to the top of my reading list when I read that he was collaborating with Blind Guardian on the story for their next album.  As I’m currently devouring Blind Guardian’s back catalogue at a rate of knots, this novel seemed like a no-brainer for me.  736 pages of adventure for foundling Dwarf Tungdil, whose solitary status in the land of men is challenged when he’s tasked to venture into a wider world and meet his own kind for the first time, finding himself thrust into dangers and a threat to his race quite unlike anything he’s ever known.

In short?  European high fantasy – I’m all over it.

On a entirely related tip, cast your peepers over this duopoly of bad assery:

Blind GuardianImaginations from the Other Side
Blind Guardian – “Somewhere Far Beyond

And, yes, you do score a multitude of Special Internet Points if you resisted the urge to look at either of the Blind Guardian CD cover artworks and yell Tolkien at the top of your voice.  Kudos to you!

The albums date from – consults Wikipedia discography – 1992 (“Somewhere Far Beyond”) and 1995 (Imaginations From The Other Side) and pre-date what is many fans favourite BG release, 1998’s concept-themed breakthrough album, Nightfall in Middle-Earth.  Knock yourself out – yell “Tolkien” all you like when it comes to that record…

So, that’s my weekend – I may try to sneak in a viewing of “Night Watch”, too, as I’ve been reading the books – and I hope that yours is equally pleasant, be it spent with your family, friends or some combination thereof.  Just remember – keep it geeky, peeps…

 

“A Game of Thrones” – Metallic K.O.

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Over at A Metal State of Mind, atleastimhousebroken, sterling writer, metalhead and fan of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice & Fire” series has penned a series of posts matching characters from the epic fantasy saga to apropos metal songs (Sansa Stark?Nightwish!).

I confess that it’s testing my geek resolve – this bank holiday weekend in the UK might be the one in which I take my first steps into Westeros…

So many books/tv series – so little time…

A century of positivity

For my hundredth post it seems appropriate to reflect on finding the positive things in life, even when, like me, you’re a glass-half-full sort of person.

To whit – screenwriter Sean Hood, via Nikki Finke’s Deadline, manages to find something good in the mostly bad news surrounding last week’s not wholly successful opening bow for Marcus Nispel’s reboot of “Conan the Barbarian”. Not wholly successful? This blog made more money last Saturday. Yikes…

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPQ99y8KaTU]

Hood’s take on this – essentially, you do good work, some of it might get used, and by Friday night you know whether it was worth blindly working like a Trojan for two to three years – is book-ended by a great anecdote concerning his musician father which induced an actual sense of good cheer in me after reading it.

You never know when your hard work will pay off, so it’s probably a good idea to not let the annoyances of life define your attitude and worldview – good things can happen, despite a nay-saying vocal minority who would have you believe that everything sucks.

Hark at me, Mr Positivity!

I write like…

Ever the one to glom onto free post-assisting content from around the internets, I’m happy to inform you that my writing style is apparently like…

I write like
Cory Doctorow

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Which is sweet, as I’m something of a Doctorow fan. Nowhere near as good, obviously, but it’s an odd and welcome affirmation.