Movie Review: The Hobbit

Happy (almost) New Year everyone! Here's hoping that you all have a safe and wonderful transition to 2013. In the spirit of new beginnings, I wanted to close out 2012 with the first of a couple new series/features that will be introduced over the course of next year. One of the more persistent lines of questioning I've gotten concerning the blog is:

You review books and games, so why don't you review movies?

The answer to that used to be that I didn't actually watch all that many movies while they were in cinematic release and thus couldn't draft up a review in a manner timely enough wherein you guys would find it useful. However, a shifting in the tectonics that comprise that beautiful thing known as Free Time has made this no longer the case. As such, there shall be movie reviews!

Granted, even after that little explanation this review is not terribly prompt in terms of the number of days that have elapsed since initial release but A) there are quite a few readers based outside the US for whom the movie has not yet reached theatres and B) the movie, as part of a trilogy, has long-term implications.

Few follow-up films (be they prequels, sequels, reboots, or spin-offs) have garnered such widespread and ardent anticipation as The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey and it's not exactly a matter of reassembling the Triforce to see why. It's unfortunately not often that a beloved property (nerdy or muggle) is translated so epically and beautifully to a new medium to the point where said new medium arguably enhances the enjoyment of the original property. Even less common is the premise of having a follow-up to said transition that features all of the cast, crew, and minions of the screen that made the original so brilliant. Despite all this, the puff of disappointment that was collectively exhaled after opening weekend in the States was palpable to nearly every corner of Geekdom. Why? Is the Hobbit really such a letdown?

The answer doesn't fall nicely into binary responses since the real qualms that we nerds tend to have aren't with the film itself, but the expectations that we hold/held it to. If the Hobbit existed in a vacuum or was the first release in a series of six movies we'd likely be a great deal more upbeat about it. Part of our collective meh stems from what I'd like to term "Pixar Syndrome": the apparent mediocrity of a film/TV series wherein said lacklustarity stems largely from comparisons to an established precedent of excellence. Example: earlier this year we heard that 'Brave would have been a great movie from any studio other than Pixar." It's part of human nature to make these extensions and comparisons, but that doesn't excuse us from recognizing this phenomenon when it occurs. 

Is the Hobbit good? Yes. Is it as good as the components of the Lord of the Rings trilogy? No. (I've heard cases for it being superior to Return of the King, but that claim falls into the 'maybe' category). Most importantly, is it a worthy addition to the Tolkien cinematic universe? In my opinion, yes.  

The Hobbit does a number of things right, namely makes obvious efforts to treat the source material with all due respect and brings to life aspects of the tale with such vibrancy that you'd have to be soulless in order to not be moved (if you don't believe me, go listen to the cast's rendition of "Misty Mountains Cold"). The acting is superb across the board; no small feat for a rather extensive cast. We're giddily reunited with many favorite characters from the earlier trilogy and are introduced to many of their forebears. The landscapes, costumes and beasties are all lush, lavish, and sweepingly epic. Actually, it's this last bit that points us to one of the film's faults.

We all know that Peter Jackson is not one for making succinct, understated films and the Lord of the Rings trilogy benefited from that penchant in a huge way. The problem in extending this grandiosity to something like the Hobbit is that it feels out of place. Why? That's a simple matter of the source material. Lord of the Rings needed a titanic scale because they were tome-like books in both girth and scope, whereas the Hobbit is a comparatively brief 322 pages designed for a much younger audience. The movie can't seem to reconcile Mr. Jackson's stylistic ambitions with the fact that the source material is a children's story (yes, you probably can read further ahead in the actual narrative than the movie covers during the latter's run time). Not only do we see this in the movie's length, but also in the scenes/characters/plot threads that did not appear in the source material. While many of these succeed in helping tie this new trilogy to its predecessor, fans of the book may feel that these additions are somewhat disingenuous. The character of Azog the Defiler, prosthetic-wearing orc chieftain, is a prime example of this. Azog merits a single sentence in the novel, but is sculpted into a prominent plot-driving device in the film. Other very obvious "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" moments meant alternately as fan service and ploys to engage those new to the property underscore the strange tension between the source and the new rendition. It may be Tolkien's brainchild, but Peter Jackson makes it clear that these are his movies and they will tell the story that he wishes to tell. If you haven't read the book or even if you haven't done so in recent memory, this may be less jarring. It's not that any of the above quibbles spoil the movie, it's just that it's very clear that they're not at all necessary. The narrative could probably have been encapsulated by two movies rather than three and the storytelling aspect may have been improved. If you weren't a fan of either the book or the earlier three movies, then the Hobbit will be something of a test of endurance. 

Pretty sure Peter Jackson invents new colors for this movie

However, one of the biggest criticisms orbiting the Hobbit, that it was shot in "double time", or twice the frames per second rate of that of all other movies (48 fps vs. 24fps), was almost a non-factor. We viewed the movie in Imax 3D in order to partake of the entire intended experience. Normally I positively loathe 3D but, in this case, it was very much worthwhile. The technical features did enhance the experience (specifically the meal consumed by the dwarves after they arrive at Bag End and an extended raucous chase scene) and you'll likely adjust to the high frame rate fairly quickly. The elevated definition lends a sort of otherworldliness to the movie, which, in turn, assists in drawing you into this fantastical universe. 

In summary, it's a worthwhile venture to go and see the movie if you're a fan of the genre or the series, just try to adjust your expectations a bit before heading out to the cinema.

Overall Grade: B+

Bonus: the extended trailer for next spring's Star Trek: Into Darkness was astoundingly good and worth the price of admission for this alone. I'm not a Trekkie by any means and I can't wait to see this. 
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NomNoms!: Papple Pie and Happy Holidays

I am free readers! Ok, not entirely free from the yolk of graduate school, but more liberated than I've been since…maybe halfway through sophomore year of undergrad. Woot! The thesis has been turned in, allowing me the luxury of an actual holiday break from assignments (not break from work, but I'll take the free time whenever I can get it). My intent is to turn this newfound time into more posts for you guys! Bonus: the world didn't end!

We've bandied the notion of apparent time-travel about several times during the course of the year, but this phenomenon tends to be more widely felt during the holiday season. It seems like the weeks have a proclivity to slip away between bouts of decorating, wrapping, baking, and holiday get-togethers. Suddenly the month of December is drawing to a close and you may find yourself at a loss as to how to fulfill last-minute gifting/baking/hosting obligations. And, quite frankly, after the events of this past week, we could all probably benefit from taking a moment and appreciating the opportunities available to us.

If you're in need of inspiration to festoon the foot of your Wookie Life Day tree, check out our 'Geeky Shoppin' board over on Pinterest. The board features a plethora of ready-made goodies from Think Geek and other purveyors of nerdy goods as well as several handmade items from online markets like Etsy and Shanalogic. (and the Steam Winter Sale is on!) Also, if circumstances or personal choice are causing you to eschew the shopping rituals that lay so heavily on this season, check out some of our other boards for crafty tutorials that'll allow you to express holiday cheer with a creation of your own design.
Threatening your Wookie Life Day since a long, long time ago...
For those of you out there seeking to make more of a gastronomic impression on your friends and family, you can click over to the 'Feed the Nerds' board for recipes and idea on how to turn all sorts of dishes into geeky, edible tributes. Or you could attempt to make pie-licious goodness listed below.

About a year ago, a friend requested that I make 'papple' pie for an upcoming holiday shindig. Though this was, in all likelihood, a slip of the finger rather than an attempt by Siri to invent a new species of edible flora, I was determined to make 'papple' happen. The following is the end result of my kitchen hybriding efforts. Depending on the types of fruit used, the pie can offer a lovely array of holiday hues in addition to imbuing your kitchen with rich and homey scents. It's super easy, highly flavorful, and a fun twist on more traditional pastries.

Difficulty: Easy/Noob
Availability of Ingredients: Common
Gadgetry: Optional
Feeds: 4-8 nerds
Time Till Noms: About 30 minutes of preparation, then an additional 30-40 minutes of baking

Required Equipment: A cutting board, a sharp knife, a large bowl, a pie plate, a rolling pin, a zester or cheese grater, a large spoon or salad tongs, a fork
Optional Equipment: An apple slicer, a citrus juicer

2 or 3 medium-to-large apples
2 or 3 medium-to-large pears
The juice and zest of 1/2 of a medium-sized lemon
1/2 cup of granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1/4 teaspoon of ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon of ground ginger
Dough sufficient to fill at least an 8 inch [20.32cm] pie plate twice (2 scrolls of pre-made pie dough will work perfectly)

*Pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees* [204 degrees Celsius]

Step 1: Slice the apples and pears in half, then remove the cores and seeds.

Wait, aren't apple seeds poisonous? Should I do anything special with them?

While they do contain trace amounts of cyanide, the quantity is such that it wouldn't have much of an impact on you, even if you accidentally chopped or chewed a few seeds. So long as you're not chomping down on handfuls of seeds you should be fine.

Step 2: Divide the apples and pears into thin slices or small [1 inch/2.5cm] pieces. There's no discernable correlation between enhanced flavor and fruit shape, so the geometry of your filling is entirely up to you. Toss the chopped fruit into a bowl, then zest (remove the very top layer of the lemon peel with a zester or cheese grater) half a lemon over the fruit. Once you've removed the majority of the rind, squeeze the juice from the half lemon into the bowl, then toss the fruit to ensure even distribution of zest and juice.

Step 3: Sprinkle the sugar, salt, and spices over the fruit, then toss the contents of the bowl again to coat the apples and pears with the dry ingredients. Set the bowl aside.

Step 4: Take 1 scroll of dough (or half your ball of dough if using homemade), and roll it out until it's about 1/8th of an inch [0.32 cm] thick. Lay the dough in your pie plate, then gently make a series of pricks in the dough with a fork (just enough to make an impression, but not enough to poke all the way through the dough). We do this to ensure that the pie dough doesn't accidentally start to rise during the baking process, which would displace the filling. It's not a common occurrence with pre-made dough, but an easy enough remedy that it's sensible to get into the habit of doing.

Behold! The Tower of Papple!
Step 5: Transfer the filling into the pie plate, distributing the fruit as evenly as possible in the dish. Roll out the remainder of your dough to the same thickness as the first 'round' and lay it atop the filling. Pinch the edges of the two layers of dough together, working around the circumference of the pie plate. When the top and bottom layers of dough are conjoined, punch a small ventilation hole in the center of the top.

Step 6: Place the pie in the oven for 20 minutes. After this time has elapsed, check to see if the top of the pie has browned. A finished pie will have a golden brown top and potentially some bubbling fruit juices along the sides of the plate. If the pie has not browned in 20 minutes, continue baking in intervals of 5 minutes until the top reaches the desired color. Remove from the oven once this hue has been attained and allow the pie to cool for at least 30 minutes before serving. Woot! You have 'papple' pie!


Does it matter what variety of apple/pear I use? You didn't list any species in the ingredients list.

Most types of apples/pears you'd find in a standard grocery store will work just fine. Many stores now include brief descriptions of the best uses for each variety of fruit, which can be helpful. I typically use Granny Smith/Empire apples and Anjou pears, but that's largely just a matter of personal preference. I've used Pink Lady, MacIntosh, Macoun, Fuji, Cortland, and Bourbon apples as well as Bartlett and Fuji pears on various occasions and all serve equally well. Mixing different species can often result in awesome flavors, so I highly recommend experimenting!

Can I add other fruit to the pie?

Definitely! Berries, particularly blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries, are an easy little flavor-add. Just toss a handful in with your other fruit and stir. Peaches are another solid option. If you can find pitted pomegranate seeds (or are patient enough to pit them yourself), then those can be another potential +1. I'm personally a fan of tossing a few handfuls of cranberries into a food processor and adding those to the pie, as they add a bit of tartness and a lot of color.

I don't own a pie plate. What can I use instead?

Any heatproof cooking container at least 8 inches [20.32cm] across will suffice. Pyrex baking dishes, the ones you'd usually use to bake brownies, work well in a pinch. Corningware dishes will also get the job done. Potential bonus: pie in fun shapes!
The most recent rendition was this square papple pie

This is a perfect recipe to experiment with or even just get into baking if you're a newcomer to the world of pastry. As always, feel free to send in your pictures or blurbs about your baking experience via the links in the Follow the Nerds page above.

Wishing all you guys a safe and wonderful holiday season!
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Book Review: The Twelve

Hey there readers. With the approach of the holiday season (though some retailers would have us believe it actually arrived months ago), we may find ourselves starting to gear up for long hours spent either waiting for or being in transit. This, coupled with the modicum of newfound freedom I have whilst waiting for my advisor to complete another round of thesis edits, was the fodder for this week's post. Oh reading for pleasure, how I've missed you. 

This limited window in which non-assigned reading can be consumed was almost immediately filled with a book that I'd been eagerly anticipating for more than 2 years (which, of course, is a drop in the bucket of waiting for the next book in the a Song of Ice and Fire series). I say 'almost' because the very first thing to grace my free hours was The Hobbit, which was due for a re-read before its upcoming cinematic debut. It just so happens that said text is also a great post-apocalyptic tale for those of you out there like Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, "anticipating" that whole doom of humanity thing that's supposed to go down in about a week.

The focal book is The Twelve by Justin Cronin, the second volume in his epic trilogy, The Passage.

Wait, the middle book of a trilogy? Can I feasibly tackle The Twelve without reading its predecessor first?

Could you? Yes, definitely. Do I recommend it? Eh, not so much. With a gulf of years between installments, Cronin takes pains to recap the events that took place in the first book (which shares a title with the trilogy itself) in order to get both previous readers and newcomers to the series up to speed. While you can mentally back your way into the various characters and occurrences that took place in The Passage, doing so will involve some careful reading that may detract from your overall experience with The Twelve. Also, partaking in the first book will prepare you for the unorthodox devices that Cronin continues to use in the second (more on this in a minute though).

**The following review assumes that you have read The Passage. While there are no explicit spoilers, some tidbits may give away certain things if you have not read the first installment of the trilogy.**

The vamps look kinda like these guys (note the lack of sparkles)
Akin to The Passage, a very large portion of The Twelve is spent building background knowledge, the narrative of which is then punctuated by massive, non-sequential leaps in time. Despite this flux, readers will be instantly reminded of the periods which are critical to the story itself. A sizable percentage of the first half is spent in and around year zero (2014), the year in which a secret US military agency accidentally unleashed their manufactured, bat-derived virus onto an unwitting populace. Meant to create a race of super-soldiers, the virus instead creates vampires (not sparkly BS vampires, but creatures that would be more at home in 28 Days Later) and these critters then lay waste to nearly all civilization in North America. This time, we get to see year zero at ground zero, literally the fates of those unfortunate enough to be denizens of the metro-Denver area and, later on, all those who lived west of the Mississippi River.

This, plus some interludes about eighty years AV (After Virus) and a couple snippets of text from an academic conference a millennia later, is all essentially a lengthy introduction for the second half of the book. We get several pieces of the puzzle we were abruptly left with at the end of The Passage, though some are markedly more useful than others. Despite Cronin's attempts to leave a trail of proverbial bread crumbs for readers who may not remember each individual from the preceding volume, it's often difficult to recall just why a particular exchange or series of events is important without first conducting a series of Google searches. A brief, annotated list of pertinent characters would have done wonders to facilitate the transition from book one to book two. Additionally, though the annihilation of a continent is, in itself, exciting, Cronin deliberately tamps down any tension around the initial outbreak and resulting events so he can instead pen a character-centric crescendo. The result is extremely uneven pacing, even when the narrative is not skipping centuries, with an enormous amount of ink being spilt on relatively trivial matters while legitimately important occurrences merit nary a sentence.

It's something of a grind getting through that first half, not going to lie to you guys. Is it worthwhile? Potentially, but if, and only if, you keep in mind that this is the second novel in a trilogy. Intrigue abounds and there's action aplenty, but, as mentioned, few satisfying answers or conclusions. This is to be expected of the bridge volume in a series of three, but something that definitely needs to be taken into account if you decide to tackle The Twelve.

Once we get past the lengthy world building, we're incrementally reunited with the protagonists of The Passage. Five years have passed since the rather sudden ending of the first book and the former Colony members are nigh-unrecognizable. Mashed under the weight their precarious, fragile existence in a world where humans no longer occupy the top tier of the food chain, the intrepid band of ex-Californians has been rent asunder and scattered to the winds. We encounter each character in turn as we learn more about the nature of the vampires (called "virals" and a host of other names in the text) and just how close humanity lies to the edge of oblivion.

The force shunting the human race towards said fate are the vampires that owe their altered physicality directly to the Twelve, the eleven test subjects originally dosed with the manufactured virus and Zero, the sole survivor of the event that allowed the virus to cross over from bats to humans. These 'familiars' tend to lack the mindless rage and hunger that characterize the majority of their hemophilic brethren and, in at least one case, can attract a following of their own. These second-generation vampires fancy themselves the next step in evolution and the book's second act is a thorough layout of the designs they, and their creators, have in mind regarding the domestication of what few humans remain alive.

The book suffers from many of the same shortcomings as its predecessor: the uneven pacing, the frequent overwriting, the deep-seating sense of self-importance, and the use of tired tropes long since rendered inherent to the genre. At times Cronin's use of that last entry border on unintentional comedy, Oh an ideal summer's day spent picnicking with innocent children just outside the walls that guarantee our safety from bloodsucking rage monsters. What could possibly go wrong?   
Cronin makes a clear effort to tighten up his writing in The Twelve. Gone are the pages-long meanderings of internal monologues and, once the action gets going, there is a genuine build to the drama and excitement. All this, unfortunately, tends to be overshadowed by everything in the above paragraph. The characters ring hollow and approach caricature in some instances. Still, the questions that naturally come to mind as one attempts to imagine Cronin's painstakingly crafted universe are strikingly interesting, even when the story itself is not.

Overall Grade: C-

Bottom Line: If you liked the The Passage and could put aside Cronin's authorial flaws then you may enjoy The Twelve. If you're a fan of post-apocalyptic tales, then you may also enjoy this book. If you're neither of those two things then this probably isn't the book for you. Hell, even if you are both those things the book may still come as a disappointment. Ultimately, it's a question of your willingness to go along with Cronin's style or, if you are willing, if actually tackling the nearly 600 pages is at all a worthwhile venture.
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