Friday, December 14, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review in Brief

Here is my bullet-point review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It should be noted that this is after only one viewing, and I’m sure it will take another dozen to fully form my opinions on a lot of it.

The Awesome:

- The Elves. They were absolutely brilliantly done. This movie made them more accessible without detracting from their nobility-- we see them eating, playing music, smiling. I love the other side we get to see of Elrond, and Galadriel was absolutely perfectly portrayed. And the small glimpse we get of Thranduil and the wood elves beautifully conveyed their beautiful-but-perilous nature, as well as giving them a look that is elvish but distinct from Lorien and Rivendell elves.

- Martin Freeman is Bilbo in a way I have very rarely seen on screen. He captured the heart of the character beautifully.

- The rendering of Thorin is fantastic-- they managed to really draw his motivations to the fore, making him a very dynamic and more relatable character.

- The way they drew on Middle Earth history (via the LotR appendices, The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales) is absolutely fantastic. It does slow the movie down a bit at the beginning, but it effectively builds the backdrop. Slowing the movies down into three gave them time to explore more history than the LotR trilogy did, and they do so with tremendous accuracy and respect for detail.

- This movie gives an opportunity to explore Dwarvish culture. The glimpses we get of Erebor and even the interactions between the questing company gives us some fascinating glimpses into the world of dwarves, and they explore while remaining remarkably true to the spirit of Tolkien’s work.

- We get to see Frodo again. It might be slightly gimmicky to provide an interlude that shows Frodo and Bilbo interacting on the morning of the day where their story in Fellowship of the Ring starts, but even if it is a little contrived, I love it so much that I don’t care. Frodo is very much in character as the Hobbit he was before his own quest, which is bittersweet.

- The White Council was portrayed with both class and accuracy. The dynamic between Elrond, Galadriel, Gandalf, and Saruman is really intriguing, and clear without being simplistic even for those with very little knowledge of the characters’ histories. I was intensely grateful that they stayed true to Saruman’s character in particular instead of falling prey to the over-obvious foreshadow option.

- Despite the massive amount of Dwarves in the questing party, they are all kept relatively distinct and given personalities. I love how well they captured Balin in particular.

- The wizards. I like that they included Radagast, and despite the slight oddity of the mushroom references and pipe weed, overall I thought that they provided a valid take on his character. I also love how Gandalf says he “never quite could remember their names” of the blue wizards, who Tolkien also remained oddly silent about-- it was a fun nod to an element of Middle Earth lore.

- Figwit. I really, really appreciate that Jackson and co dropped in a reference that only rabid fans digging through internet forums and chat rooms a decade ago would really pick up on. It was done well, inserting him recast as an actual Rivendell elf mentioned in Fellowship of the Ring without any self-congratulatory references to his past role.

- Almost all of the deviations from Tolkien’s work are very purposeful and justified. I am a big fan of the idea that you have to keep in mind that movies and books are different mediums requiring different methods. I felt that Jackson stayed more true to the spirit of Tolkien’s work here than even in his original trilogy, and even where there are deviations, they (usually) feel in line with the world of Middle Earth and are easily explained by the shift from 80-year-old literature to contemporary film.

- By the end, Bilbo provides a heartfelt quality of trying to do the right thing without seeming oppressively didactic. Rather than inserting elements of a philosophy that was not there, the movie drew themes that were more subtle in the book into the foreground throughout.

The In-between:

- This story is less sophisticated. Which is completely expected and understandable given that the narrative was originally fashioned for children, but it means looking at it through a slightly different lens than the Lord of the Rings movies. It’s less layered and more shiny.

- I have mixed feelings about the use of Orkish, particularly given that Tolkien never developed that language. It feels more or less genuine, but also unnecessary. The Elvish, on the other hand, was beautifully placed and phrased.

- On a similar note, I was intrigued by the re-imagining of the goblins. We see Misty Mountains goblins in the Mines of Moria in Fellowship of the Ring, but the filmmakers opted to completely re-imagine them this time around.

The Less Awesome

- The entire side story regarding Azog the Pale Orc. I understand the need to drive the story by drawing on a more immediate antagonist while Smaug is still far away, but I think it could have been done in a better way-- that entire side plot felt like a contrived story element they plugged in for the sake of injecting urgency and drama. The deviation from Tolkien canon doesn’t bother me as much as the narrative sloppiness. The character is based on information found in the appendices, but turned into a sort of reverse Moby Dick revenge side plot.

- At times the humor was overly cheap for my taste. I recognize that The Hobbit is intended to be more lighthearted, but lighthearted does not necessarily require reduction. I was mildly disappointed in that aspect (examples: Bilbo being used as a troll handkerchief, the entire sequence with the Great Goblin).

- The CGI feels a little rushed in places, which is more disappointing than it otherwise would be given that this movie is from the same creators who had a major role in defining modern special effects to begin with. Some of the perspective work also felt a little bit shoddy-- the overall standards did not seem as high as in the LotR trilogy, despite having more resources and significantly more advanced technology this time around. Again, I probably wouldn't think anything of it were it any movie besides this one.

The moment the credits rolled, I wanted the movie to go back to the beginning so I could watch it all over again. The revisit to Middle Earth was vibrant, well-balanced, and faithful to the original while updating some narrative elements for a new generation of fans. Even at 2 hours and 45 minutes it felt too short, and the movie never lost my focus. I will most certainly be watching it many more times in the months and years to come.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Favorite 10 Albums of 2012

Every year has its soundtrack. These were the albums that contributed to mine this year.

Top 10 Albums of 2012

1. The Fray: Scars and Stories
Favorite tracks: “Heartbeat,” “Rainy Zurich,” “Be Still”
I’ve liked The Fray’s last two albums, but I feel like this is the album where they truly came into their own. The lyrics are about living life-- when it feels like flying and when it rubs you raw, love and faith and trying to move forward. There is a perfect layer of guitars to counterweight Isaac Slade’s fragile, almost weightless voice. This has had consistent plays throughout the year, but was the soundtrack specifically to my spring.

2. David Crowder*Band: Give Us Rest
Favorite tracks: “O Great God, Give Us Rest,” “Let Me Feel You Shine,” “Sometimes,” “Oh, My God I’m Coming Home”
I’m going to be honest, I was a little biased against this album purely because the mainstream CCM community was excited about it. Fortunately, I gave it a shot anyway. This is an album that largely needs to be taken as a whole-- an experience, a religious mass, a journey. It is reverent and rich and layered, a spectacular end to the career of a band that changed the way the Christian community worships.

3. Thousand Foot Krutch: The End Is Where We Begin
Favorite tracks: “Be Somebody,” “Courtesy Call,” “Fly On the Wall”
This album provides a beautiful blend of TFK’s strong points, from the rapcore that established their career over a decade ago to the symphonic rock sound that buoyed 2009’s Welcome to the Masquerade. Although there are a lot of relatively substance-less rock anthems, they are balanced by themes of change, of identity, of overcoming apathy, even of worship. This is an album that carries a little of the explosive energy of Thousand Foot Krutch’s live show into my headphones.

4. Capital Lights: Rhythm N Moves
Favorite tracks: “Rhythm N’ Moves,” “Caroline,” “Newport”
This is a bit of a departure for this list, but it has been a consistent favorite since its summer release. I was a fan of Capital Lights’ debut, and thus devastated by the disbandment that shortly followed-- and thrilled when they reunited to hit the studio again. This is a rare case of clean dance music that actually provokes some thought while still providing some killer beats. Their tongue-in-cheek writing style and infectious hooks make this album memorable.

5. The Classic Crime: Phoenix
Favorite tracks: “Beautiful Darkside,” “Heaven and Hell,” “Let Me Die,” “What I’d Give Up”
I was a kickstarter backer for this one, and I certainly didn’t regret it. Independence allowed The Classic Crime to fully dig into their rich potential, coloring their tunes with dark-edged lyrics and a punk-influenced rock vibe that feels more mature and dynamic than any of their previous releases.

6. Project 86: Wait for the Siren
Favorite tracks: “Fall, Goliath, Fall,” “Off the Grid,” “Blood Moon”
This is one of the few releases I’ve heard in the past five years that has legitimately heavy guitars-- “skull crushing” might be a more apt descriptor. The instrumentation is strong in more areas than just guitar work though, including pipes and a dulcimer to add a haunting thread to the songs. Project 86 mastermind Andrew Schwab didn’t hold off on the lyrics either, using words to weave an epic with an almost narrative feeling to it. This is one of the very few albums I have ever reviewed that I legitimately could not find flaws with.

7. Anberlin: Vital
Favorite tracks: “Self-Starter,” “Little Tyrants,” “Modern Age,” “God, Drugs & Sex”
I’ve been following Anberlin since their masterpiece Cities, but like many fans, none of their more recent releases had connected to me in anywhere near the same way. Although this isn’t quite Cities-level, it’s the first one that could be compared in the past 6 years. Anberlin brought back the more brooding, hard-edged guitar sound of Never Take Friendship Personal and Cities while blending in the more atmospheric, electronic elements of Dark is the Way, Light is a Place. This is truly a masterpiece, experimental but grounded, poetic but raw.

8. Disciple: O God Save Us All
Favorite tracks: “Once And For All,” “O God Save Us All,” “Draw the Line”
This album was very highly anticipated for me to the point where I was afraid of being let down-- but I wasn’t. This is a beautiful blending of their harder sound and their skill with symphonic ballads, showcasing their skill in diverse formats. The lyrics are the strongest songwriting I’ve heard yet on a Disciple record, bridging themes of the Christian life from beginning to end. The album beautifully captures Disciple’s identity and mission as a band, and achieves some serious rock and roll in the process.

9. Flyleaf: New Horizon
Favorite tracks:  “Fire Fire,” “Bury Your Heart,” “Broken Wings”
The last Flyleaf album really had to grow on me, but this one I liked from the first listen. Beyond being the band’s most musically textured work to date, it is also the most thematically dynamic, exploring both struggle and victory with both urgency and thoughtfulness. Lead vocalist Lacey Sturm’s announcement about stepping down coincided with the record’s release, making it even more meaningful for fans. This is an album that has promise to endure.

10. Paper Route: The Peace of Wild Things
Favorite tracks: “Glass Heart Hymn,” “Letting You Let Go,” “Rabbit Holes”
Although the indie sound of Paper Route’s Absence was enough to earn them an underground following, the most accessible sound of Peace of the Wild Things is launching them into a more visible spotlight. Although this could easily be just another indie-and-electronic influenced alt rock release, Paper Route really poured their hearts into this album-- heartache, spirituality, healing, and despair are all explored with the flashlight provided by the band’s intensely purposeful instrumentation. This album is breathtaking, raw, and worth every single word of critical acclaim.

Runners Up Who Were Also Awesome But Won't Fit On the List:
World We View - Nine Lashes
Lights of Distant Cities - Bebo Norman
Mean What You Say - Sent By Ravens
Beneath the Scars - 12 Stones
Murdered Love - P.O.D.
Resuscitate - Remedy Drive
The Struggle - Tenth Avenue North
Life Will Write the Words - The Rocket Summer
The Midsummer Station - Owl City

(Feel free to comment with your own favorites-- I’m sure I’ve overlooked some with my list, and I’m always up for hearing more good tunes!)