Friday, January 16, 2015

REVIEW: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies


I’ve often mentioned at this blog my love for Lord of the Rings (LoTR). While I’m admittedly not nearly as well steeped as Tolkien superfan Stephen Colbert in all things Hobbity, I’ve still got pretty good bonafides. Tolkien’s work hit the mainstream in the U.S. in the 1970s when I was in junior high school, a perfect age to discover the books. One of my prized possessions is a boxed edition of the Hobbit and the trillogy that I received as a Christmas present in the early ‘70s, which I have read in their entirety numerous times. I have an early edition of his “prequel” work, the Silmarillion, and excitedly watched the Rankin-Bass adaptations of the Hobbit (and, later, the Return of the King) when they first aired on TV, as well as Ralph Bakshi’s ill-fated animated film adaptation of the first half of the trilogy when the film debuted in theaters.

So, of course, like all LoTR fans, I was thrilled by Peter Jackson’s epic film adaptation of the trilogy. Co-scripted by Jackson with screenwriting partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, Jackson’s film faithfully interpreted the spirit and poetry of Tolkien’s masterwork. Tolkien was able to create a rich and believable Middle Earth because, as a linguist, he understood that language, culture and history were intertwined—details that Jackson and his design team incorporated into their work to breathe life into the movies.


While I don’t doubt Jackson’s sincerity in tackling the Hobbit, the prequel trilogy nevertheless has felt a bit more calculated and less spontaneous than the original LoTR trilogy. Warner Brothers, understandably, was anxious to continue the franchise and no doubt thrilled by Jackson’s request to turn what is essentially a children’s story of dwarves, magical rings and goblins into a full-fledged Middle Earth epic. Jackson now likely had all the means and resources at his disposal, and more freedom, to do the films as he saw fit.

With that said, I have to admit I was left a bit cold by the first two Hobbit films. While I certainly felt they were well done I felt that Jackson’s desire to surpass the early trilogy with even greater spectacle and special effects turned it more into a roller coaster ride and somewhat overwhelmed the original story and its characters.

With the set up of the first two films now out of the way, the Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies rushes headlong into an extended climax to the story. Unlike the other films dating back to the original LoTR trillogy where Jackson took time to use the opening sequence to ease the audience back into the story, the story picks up at full tilt from where the Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug left off, with the re-awakened dragon, Smaug, on his way to wreak havoc on Laketown. People not familiar with the book may be surprised at how quickly Smaug is dispatched, leading to the real climactic conflict of the Hobbit, as the humans of Laketown and the elves of the Woodland Realm seek redress and recompense from the dwarves who provoked the dragon. Thorin, beginning to show the same obsession for treasure that drove his father and grandfather to madness, refuses to be extorted. Bilbo, while loyal to Thorin, nevertheless tries to broker peace by turning over to Thorin’s besiegers the one item he values over all else: a rare jewel called the Arkenstone, the heart of the dwarven kingdom under the mountain. As Thorin prepares to go to battle, however, all the armies of the free peoples soon find themselves attacked by armies of goblins and orcs, led by Azog the Defiler.

Although the last installment is action-packed, for me, the trilogy ended on a positive, strong note. The time Jackson spent at the beginning of the film (following the Smaug sequence) and in the previous films to develop the characters finally pay off. The resolution to the Tauriel/Kili romance ends on a moving note and the battle scene near the beginning of the film between Galadriel, Elrond, Sauron, and Gandalf against Sauron is a particular treat. Thorin’s final battle with Azog is perhaps a bit too drawn out and represents one of Jackson’s most extensive digressions from the original book, but like the extended closing sequence of the earlier trilogy, Jackson has earned the right to end the series on his own terms.

My only complaint is that I wish the film spent a little time showing the surviving dwarves make peace with the people of Laketown and the elves at the end. Aside from that, the final film was a satisfying end to the sprawling telling of the original Hobbit novel and becomes a fitting “prequel” to the Lord of the Rings trilogy that follows chronologically.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Entertainment Roundup for 2014

As I do every new year, here is my annual list of films, books, TV shows, comics, and other entertainments I took in this past year.

The list of television shows I watch always tends to be a bit thin since I don't always do a good job of keeping track of what I watch. I follow few shows regularly, partly because many modern television shows require a level of commitment I don't have the time to give. This makes shows with relatively few shows per season—like "Downton Abbey" and "Sherlock" —more appealing to me.

As usual, family and other obligations prevented me from seeing as many films as I did in my youth, but among those I caught, the ones I really enjoyed were Gravity, Grand Budapest Hotel, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Laggies, Begin Again, Belle, Big Hero 6, and The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies. (With the children getting older, at least we've graduated beyond animated fare!) The year in films ended strongly for me since I really enjoyed the latter films, particularly Laggies, Begin Again, and Belle. Films I thought were fine but a bit overrated critically: the Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy.





As to other distractions, I greatly enjoyed Andy Weir's hot novel, the Martian, Robert M. Edsel's Monuments Men, Cary Elwes' As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of Princess Bride, and B.J. Novak's collection of short stories, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories.

And now without any further ado...

Films:

Spy Games (HBO)
Rocketeer - Netflix streaming (1/4/14)
Iron Lady - Neflix (1/11/14)
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - HBO (1/18/14)
Good Ol’ Freda - DVD (1/21/14)
Gravity (1/26/14)
The Campaign - HBO (2/6/14)
This is 40 - HBO (2/6/14)
Mother - Netflix streaming (2/7/14)
To Rome with Love - DVD (2/8/14)
42 - HBO (2/11/14)
Ride with the Devil - HBO (2/14/14)
Admission - HBO (2/16/14)
The Lifeguard - Netflix streaming (2/21/14)
The Lego Movie (3/9/14)
Grand Budapest Hotel (3/29/14)
Muppets Most Wanted (4/2/14)
Captain America: Winter Soldier (4/5/14)
The Emperor - Netflix (6/1/14)
Don Jon - Netflix (6/1/14)
How to Lose Friends and Alienate People - Netflix (6/2/14)
X-Men: First Class - DVR/FX (6/8/14)
Little Big League (6/9/14)
Haunted Mansion (6/20/14)
Guardians of the Galaxy (8/3/14)
Letter to Momo (9/1/14)
The French Minister (9/3/14)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (10/11/2014)
Belle - Amazon Streaming (10/19/14)
Laggies (10/25/14)
Begin Again - Amazon Streaming (10/26/14)
Cuban Fury - Netflix Streaming (11/3/14)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail - DVD (11/8/14)
Big Hero 6 (11/9/14)
Sherlock, Jr. - TCM (11/10/14)
Faded Gigolo - Netflix (11/15/14)
Theory of Everything (11/23/14)
The Duchess - Netflix (11/25/14)
Penguins of Madagascar (11/27/14)
It Happened One Night - TCM (11/28/14)
Il Sorpasso - TCM (11/28/14)
Tootsie (11/29/14)
Horrible Bosses (11/30/14)
A Dangerous Method - Ovation (12/11/14)
Tower Heist (12/20/2014)
The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies (12/21/14)

Theater:

Into the Woods (12/13/14)

Television:

Arrested Development Season 4 - Netflix (1/15/14)
Downton Abbey
Sherlock (2/2/14)
Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond
Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Baseball
Holy Flying Circus

Books:

The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler (1/3/2014)
The Martian by Andy Weir (2/21/2014)
Five Came Back by Mark Harris (3/7/14)
Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel (7/9/2014)
As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of Princess Bride by Cary Elwes (10/24/2014)
One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak


Friday, December 19, 2014

Happy Holidays from WCG Comics


Thanks to everyone for a great 2014 and best wishes for a happy and healthy 2015.

This past year was a banner year for WCG—Rob Hanes Adventures #15 was released and we exhibited once again at the San Diego Comic-Con in July.

In addition, WCG marked its 20th anniversary publishing and, in July, Rob Hanes Adventures debuted at Comixology, marking the series’ debut in digital format. The first two issues are now available there, with more on the way as the entire series becomes available at the site. But not to worry—the print edition will continue as always!

Yes, it’s been a busy year—in fact, we have really big plans for 2015, but we’ll save that news until after the holidays!

Until then, have a happy holiday season and new year!

Click here to view holiday greetings from years past...

Sunday, November 16, 2014

REVIEWS: iPhone 6

Around the time I began thinking about upgrading my mobile phone, reports emerged that Apple would be announcing and then releasing the iPhone 6. I decided the release of the new device presented the perfect opportunity to upgrade from my iPhone 4s.

When the phone was released, I bided my time until I truly felt in the mood to upgrade. In the meantime, I checked it out a few times at local stores—my first reaction was, “Boy, that’s big!” — and I was just referring to the smaller iPhone 6.

At the end of October, I finally decided I was ready, only to discover the phone was sold out and on back order at most places. My local AT&T store—which is my carrier—said that they could put me on a waiting list. They couldn’t give me a delivery date, but said customers usually received them in 2-3 weeks. Meanwhile, I went straight to the source at apple.com. The site had them on back order too, though they had “real time” updates that allowed you to check immediate availability by stores in your local area. Only one Apple boutique that was local to me (I had four within reasonable driving distance) was listed as having them in stock—but when I called to confirm, they said they were out.

That evening, I decide to just go to my AT&T store and get on the waiting list. As we sat down to start the process, the AT&T representative told me that a friend of his told him earlier that day the store was available at the Apple Store in Century City and suggested that I go ahead and call so that I could get the phone immediately! He even pulled up the number for me.

Unfortunately, when I called the Century City store, they informed me that they had sold out—but their records noted that it was available at stores at the Grove (an open air upscale mall near Farmer’s Market) and Santa Monica. Since I live just a quick freeway ride of about 4 miles from Santa Monica, I drove there, arriving about 40 minutes before closing, only to be told they were no longer selling the phones for the day (I presume because of the time it takes to register and activate the phone). But the sales person advised me to go online that night, reserve the phone for pickup, and return the next day for it. Which I did. Which is how I got my phone.

Just as exciting, a few days later, I transferred my old iPhone 4s to my wife’s Net10 pay-as-you-go account under their “bring your own phone program.” Since it was no longer on contract, all I needed to do was purchase a compatible Net10 SIM card at a local Best Buy (they’re also available online from Net10) and activate the phone with Net10, porting over my wife’s number from her old Net10 Nokia phone. With Net10, the plan is more than half of what my plan was with AT&T with the same level of phone, text and data (unlimited calls and text, 500 MB of data) –– $35 per month.

REVIEW: When people ask me how I like the new iPhone, I simply reply, “It works exactly like my old phone.” Yes, of course, it has upgraded features (particularly the camera I hear) and the main reason I went with the 6 (as opposed to the 5) was to have the ability to use Apple Pay if the feature gains critical mass. But since I use it exactly as I did my last phone, it isn’t much of a new “toy” with “new” features to explore. Aside from making and taking calls, texting, my main use of the phone is to surf the web; use the maps function for travel and GPS; social media; picture taking; and banking. (I also use it to store all my passwords via SplashID.) Just like my old iPhone. I do like the extra real estate of the screen, which has given me a bit more breathing space for organizing my apps on different screens.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Twenty Years (and more!) of Rob Hanes Adventures

Classic High Adventure Lives on in the Modern Age in the Long-Running Indy Series


Be sure to click here or the read more button at the bottom of this link to expand and read the full post.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of my globetrotting action-adventure series as a full-size indy comic-book series under my WCG Comics imprint.

For those needing a primer to the series, Rob Hanes Adventures features the globetrotting exploits of the newest agent at Justice International, a worldwide private investigation, espionage and security firm. This simple premise has given me the freedom to put the character in a wide variety of settings, taking him to one international hotspot to another, and just as importantly, tell stories that have varied widely in genre and tone, ranging from straight adventure and espionage to light comedy. Along the way, there even has been a sports issue and a romance story!

I’ve made no secret of my inspiration for the series: the great syndicated newspaper adventure comic strips that had their heyday from the 1930s through the ‘50s, like Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, Noel SicklesScorchy Smith, Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy and, later, Buz Sawyer. Other major influences include Will Eisner’s Spirit and the work of Alex Toth, another standard-bearer of the classic adventure strips epitomized by Caniff, Sickles and Crane.

I'm a fan of modern-day comics too, but for some reason, those classic strips really captured my imagination when I first discovered them in the 1970s in books about comics history. I loved the black and white art and how the stories dove-tailed with real-world events—such as revolutions in South America and World War II—which gave the stories an immediacy I found compelling.

However, Rob Hanes Adventures has never traded on nostalgia. I’ve tried to develop a style of my own while staying true to the genre and creating a fun, forward-looking strip that reflects modern-day sensibilities, intrigue and political realities.

The War Comics Group

Of course, there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to the long-winding history of the series and the character.1994 is the year that WCG Comics officially became a small business and solicited its first title, Adventure Strip Digest starring Rob Hanes in the direct-sales market. In actuality, however, the roots of the character and WCG Comics go back to the 1970s and the early days of the small press of comics fandom.

Monday, September 29, 2014

REVIEW: My Favorite Martian

Note: Minor spoilers in the review below.

Based on a review in Entertainment Weekly, I picked up Andy Weir’s The Martian on my Kindle. With so much modern-day science fiction dominated by a dystopic view of the world, it’s easy to forget that the genre has also at times advanced a positive and benevolent view of science, technology and the future.

The Martian falls in this latter camp. Weir’s book tells the story of an American astronaut named Mark Watney who becomes stranded on Mars after his fellow crew members strand him there after he is thought to have been killed during a dust storm that forced them to evacuate. When NASA discovers Watney is still alive (one of many delightfully clever sequences in the book), they commit to rescuing him. Because of the distance of the planet from earth, the book largely follows Watney’s efforts to survive the several years it will take for the rescue mission to arrive, interspersed with scenes on earth as NASA mounts the operation (sometimes involving the contributions of other nations), as a whole world watches.

Before the book was picked up by a publisher and became a success, Weir’s book had been rejected by every publishing house he brought it to. I can only guess that it was because author Weir spends a lot of time explaining the science and getting it right. (Indeed, the book was partly rooted in the author’s interest as a NASA geek to understand how such a long distance space mission would be mounted and how astronauts would sustain themselves on the planet after landing.) Regardless, Weir (through the lead character’s first person narrative voice) keeps the science accessible, reflecting a modern-day geeky DIY sensibility. The science and workarounds are clever but always based on real science.

Above all, the book is suffused by the lead character’s sunny, positive, can-do outlook – as the book mentions, astronauts chosen for a long-term mission to Mars would likely need to go through a rigorous personality screening process to ensure they could withstand the rigors and emotional demands of such a trip. (I remember the film the Right Stuff portrayed a similar screening process that the Apollo astronauts had to undergo.) As the books shows, Watney was not only the best person for the job, but the best person qualified to become stranded.

Note: Director Ridley Scott is reportedly set to direct the film adaptation of the novel, with Matt Damon cast as the lead.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Comic Book Store Guy


I posted a version of this at Facebook, but wanted to post this tribute here for posterity as well.

Thanks to longtime buddy and award-winning audiobook narrator extraordinaire Scott Brick (whose photos grace this post), I learned that my local comic-book shop, Comics Ink, in Culver City, California, was closing next week, prompting me to stop by and offer my own thanks and congratulations on the owner's retirement...

I've been going to Comics Ink (in its various iterations) since the mid '80s (or so). In those early years, on most Saturdays or Sundays, it was the last leg of the day for my buddies and me (which included Scott and several others college friends), when we met for baseball in the morning at a park in West L.A. or Santa Monica, which was followed by a relaxing late breakfast or lunch at the same diner where we were usually served by the same waitress (who's still there by the way), ending with a visit to Comics Ink to get our weekly fix. That ritual changed then eventually ended with the advent of marriages, children, and the realities of adulthood, but Comics Ink remained our source for comics and, yes, a touchstone to our younger days.

In any case, I was glad to know Comics Ink's owner is retiring on his own terms and comfortably. I'm not sure everyone in his line of business can say that, but this and the fact that he's remained in business through the endless cycle of boom and busts of the comics industry says much about the man and his business sense!

Thanks, Steve, and to the Comics Ink staff for their great work over the years!

Scott Brick (second from left) with Comics Ink's owner (second from right) and his staff.