Song of the Day – When I Was Your Man

First, let me clarify one thing: I am not a Bruno Mars fan. I don’t dislike him, but I’m not interested by his musical style enough to give his discography a thorough listen. Still, this particular song immediately grabbed my attention the first time I heard it on the radio. Why, you ask? Because it’s so antithetical to almost everything else that filters across FM into our cars or headphones. In a soundscape thoroughly dominated by loud, hard, and fast synth and driven by casual and superficial sensuality, this song  stands out because it is simple, quiet and heartfelt. This song is about a man’s love that remains true even after he realized that he has lost its fulfilling half.

Not that all conventional pop music is bad (because it’s not), but there’s just something vastly refreshing about a simple song about a simple love that doesn’t lead to spiteful jealousy even when it ends up being unrequited. It’s a sad song, but its a song that tells the story of a character who is truly sympathetic. So while I probably won’t end up rabidly chewing through Mars’ music from now on, I get the feeling that this particular song will stay on my playlists for a while.

And all Bruno Mars needed for this was a piano and a voice.

Bruno Mars – When I Was Your Man

The Hobbit

“There and back again: a hobbit’s tale by Bilbo Baggins.” My only question is, why do we have to come back again?

If you click over to and locate The Hobbit, you will find that only 65% of reviewers gave it a “fresh” (positive) rating. To the 35% I have only one word: SHAME!

This only slightly above-average cumulative rating shocked me both before and after I had seen the movie, especially since the (apparently more artistically knowledgeable) audience gave it a much more accurate 81% approval rating.

Ok, there are a few caveats and introductory statements to get out of the way here.

1. I am a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, having seen each installment at least half a dozen times.

2. I have read The Lord of the Rings books about two and a half times.

3. I have read The Silmarillion 1.5 times.

4. I have read The Children of Hurin.

5. And yes, I have read the hobbit (three times, in case you were wondering).

So in conclusion (beyond establishing that I occasionally have difficulty finishing long, meaty books), yes – I do have a fairly large amount of pro-anything-Tolkien, pro-Peter-Jackson bias. And no – I’m not the biggest Tolkien fanatic of all time. Not even close. I haven’t soaked in all the materials and resources regarding Tolkien’s timeless world, nor am I one of the (truly admirable) people who read lotr once a year. But I truly believe that nearly all the objections to The Hobbit can be erased by understanding the nature of Tolkien’s writings, the world of Ea (in which Middle Earth is contained), and the intriguing direction that Jackson looks to be taking this trilogy.

So let’s list the objections one at a time…

1. The framerate is distracting:

If you are a casual moviegoer and your movie experience was ruined by the 48fps, then I really do feel for you. If you’re a critic, making an unholy amount of money to rip perfectly acceptable movies to shreds and then elevate overly artsy ones and their creators to sainthood, please save the wear and tear on your keyboard. Your words are published on famous, reputable websites like rotten tomatoes so that you can review the movie, not the framerate you chose to watch it in. I don’t care if the screening showed it in black and white – please: just review the movie itself.

2. Deus Ex:

—WARNING— I make it a point to avoid spoilers in my reviews, but it is impossible to discuss this one without discussing plot elements. So if you still haven’t seen The Hobbit and don’t want to have any hints, you may want to skip to the next point.

People have complained that many of the important conflicts in The Hobbit were resolved by deus ex machina moments, some even going so far as to criticize Tolkien of a weak plot. The most prominent example of this type of conflict resolution is near the end where the company is rescued by giant eagles. Seem deus ex? Yes. Is it really? No. First, fans of the lotr trilogy will have recognized the moth that Gandalf saw while perched in the tree. In the lotr trilogy (when can we start calling it “The Original Trilogy”?), this was always a precursor to the eagles coming to Gandalf’s aid, as they did twice.

“Wait!” you seem to be saying, “the same cheap rescue THREE TIMES?!” But here is where knowledge of Tolkien lore explains the problem away. Ea is ruled (albeit fairly indirectly) by 14 angelic beings called the Valar. The chief of these beings, Manwe, was the lord of air and sky and was served by giant eagles. Why would he or his servants take notice of the company? Because Gandalf, and all the wizards, are Maiar, lesser angelic beings than the Valar, but powerful and important nonetheless.

3. The Hobbit novel is too short to provide enough plot for the trilogy

This objection has been raised by critics, friends and even family members. What these people fail to realize, however, is that The Hobbit is actually a far meatier book plotwise than any of the three lotr books. There are few long, drawn out travel sequences, and those that do pop up from time to time are spiced up by a sense of building tension. There is nothing like the chase of “the three hunters” from the Two Towers (blessedly summarized in a few minutes of movie time).

But this objection is completely debunked when you remember first that there is still more than half of the book to go, and that the third movie will apparently be drawing on sources outside of The Hobbit, or at least exploring events that were not covered by The Hobbit. And that leads us to our next objection:

4. What happened to Gandalf?

Gandalf does tend to disappear. Fortunately, Jackson actually explains his absences in far more detail than Tolkien did. In the book, the gray wizard is extremely enigmatic, and disappears from or abruptly leaves the company a full three times (two of which are covered in this movie). In the book, we don’t get to see why. All we get to know is that a wizard “arrives precisely when he means to” and leaves precisely when he needs to. In the movie, we get to peak behind the curtain. We get to see some of his emotions, and we get to see the twisted plottings of the White Council and the reasons behind them that so mysteriously call him away in the book.

Something that Jackson helps us realize is that Gandalf, while interested in the affairs of hobbits and dwarves, is actually one of the most powerful beings in Middle Earth and has a responsibility to the bigger picture. We see that play out in the first Hobbit movie, and we’ll likely see it far more in the two movies to come.

5. The movie is too long/the pace is too slow

I have one question for you. Have you seen the lotr trilogy? Have you ever read Tolkien? The Hobbit runs 169 minutes. Here are the running times for the lotr movies:

The Fellowship of the Ring – 178 minutes (219 minutes in the extended version)

The Two Towers – 179 minutes (223 minutes in the extended version)

The Return of the King – 201 minutes (251 minutes in the extended version)

Just for fun, let’s throw in the last two films of the Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which was almost universally loved by critics and moviegoers alike:

The Dark Knight – 152 minutes

The Dark Knight Rises – 165 minutes

None of these movies scored less than 85% “fresh” from the critics. So length alone clearly isn’t the issue. The issue must be with pacing.  And here, for the first time, I can actually see the detractors’ point. The movie has an unconventional pace. It spends a lot of time setting up the story and introducing the characters before the quest even begins. Some have complained that the Rivendell scene drags on too long as well. I understand these objections, but I fail to see why they would knock the movie out of the “fresh” category.

6. It’s a set up movie

Yes. It is. And no, it’s not as well-made as the lotr trilogy. Few movies are. But rather than take away from my enjoyment of the film, I loved seeing all the hints that Jackson dropped about the direction he is taking the trilogy. I loved the backstory. I loved the imagery. I loved the lore. I loved the languages, from elvish to orcish.

I even loved what Jackson changed. Bilbo wasn’t as funny as he was in the book, but he was more believable. That’s not a knock on Tolkien’s writing, but The Hobbit was an almost fairy-tale story and what was acceptable for the book is not necessarily acceptable for a movie that took itself seriously. I thoroughly enjoyed the introduction of Azog as the primary villain for this film. He wasn’t frightening in the horror movie sense, but he was extremely imposing and even (dare I say it?) epic.

You will notice that all the villains in the movie appear far larger than they did in lotr. This is because almost the entire film is shot from the dwarves’ perspective. So, yeah, not to be insensitive to Bilbo and his mates, but everyone really is massively tall in comparison. This visual element makes all the villains seem that much more impressive.

The Hobbit was also the most visually stunning movie I have ever seen, and I saw it in 2-D standard frame-rate to avoid the much-maligned distractions. You thought Middle Earth was beautiful the first time around? Try it now…. When can I move to New Zealand?

Gollum was amazing as expected. Andy Serkis’ portrayal made the character come alive yet again. Most impressive was his ability to bring out Gollum’s evil and his pitiable sadness to full affect in just a few scenes.

As a final point, I should say that while the Hobbit was not an exact adaptation of the book, it was a faithful one. There are, admittedly, a few pacing issues. But, having read much of Tolkien’s supporting/completing works, I am extremely excited to see where those allegedly irrelevant plot points will lead us.

Rating – 4.5-out-of-5. A few purely set-up scenes that skewed the pacing are the only reason this movie doesn’t have a perfect rating. It was beautiful, exciting, and has left me eagerly anticipating the next installments.

Book Review: The Dragon’s Tooth – N.D. Wilson

N.D. Wilson is my favorite young adult author today. The only reason he hasn’t shown up on this blog before is that I had read each of his fiction books at least once before CCD’s first post. With the recent release of book 2 of his Ashtown Burials series, I felt the irresistible urge to reread the first book. I did, and I’m now halfway through book 2. I figured it would be a good idea to post a review of the first book while I’m working toward finishing the second and getting a review ready for that one.

One of the main reasons I love Wilson’s writing so much is the way he writes his characters. His heroes are unlikely – the sort that “have greatness thrust upon them” – and his supporting cast is colorful, often mysterious, sometimes hilarious, and always interesting. The Dragon’s Tooth is no exception.

Cyrus and Antigone Smith are essentially orphans. Their father is dead, mysteriously drowned in the sea off the cliffs of their old California home, and their mother has been in a coma since she dove into the ocean after him. They live in the rundown Archer Motel with their stressed older brother Dan, eating too many waffles and struggling to adjust to life without sea breezes, sunny afternoons without the Midwest humidity, and, mostly, their parents.

But everything changes with the arrival of one Billy “Bones” Skelton.

After a reasonably quiet first 50 pages in which the Smith family and their seemingly crazy guest are introduced, the book explodes into action. After Billy Bones gives Cyrus a strange keychain, on which resides a mysterious black shard, the hotel is assaulted by even more mysterious figures. The Smiths find themselves on the run, eventually seeking the protection of an ancient society of explorers: The Order of Brendan.

I absolutely refuse to reveal more of the story than that (I hate giving spoilers almost as much as I hate reading them), but believe me – it is very good.

Stylistically, this is my kind of book. Wilson’s writing is at once down-to-earth and poetic, authentic and fantastical, humorous and deadly serious. He’s not afraid to break some of the usual writing conventions (you will find plenty of fragments being promoted to sentences), but he does it not out of a misplaced desire to be hipster or indie, but to maintain the impression that the story is being told by the characters and not by some omniscient voice in the sky.

The characters themselves are consistently believable. The relationship between Cyrus and his sister Antigone is excellent throughout the book – full of teasing sibling-to-sibling banter, but never sinking into the slimepit of childish “I hate you!” moments. In keeping with a standard theme of youth literature, many of the central characters in the book are young, but Wilson does not dumb them down. They have real emotions, but they are mature enough to face them even if they are not always strong enough to overcome them. The Smiths also don’t become superheroes once they discover their connection with the Order of Brendan. They face even harder challenges than those around them, and the only reason they have a chance to succeed is their ability to work together and push through their obstacles.

The Dragon’s Tooth never feels like a rip-off. The Order itself may at first strike fans of Harry Potter or Percy Jackson as familiar, but that sensation quickly fades away. Yes there are similarities, but the O of B is firmly planted in the real world, with real, non-magical people as members.

The only problem, is that the real world may be a little more complex than the Smiths imagined. Magic is not prevalent in The Dragon’s Tooth in the same way it is in other young adult fiction novels, but supernatural power is clearly involved in the story and especially with the villains. Several characters in the story are “transmortals” – humans who have, through one means or another, become incapable of dying… except at the touch of the dragon’s tooth.

Many of the undying (and some past members of the Order) are familiar to students of history and literature. While these connections are not always important to the story, it adds a touch of novelty and interest to the story.

The villain, as in all good stories, is frightening, inhuman, and yet he is more complex than simple black and white. Dr. Phoenix is a mortal – pale, tall, and thin – but one who has twisted both himself and others in terrible ways. He was chased from the Order of Brendan for performing experiments on its members. He views himself as the savior of mankind – a man who is capable of raising humanity above its low state. In reality, his attempts at playing God have done great harm to those around him. His goal? – The dragon’s tooth.

Overall impressions – 5/5

Wilson is a master. His writing is engaging enough to keep the reader interested even without the crutch of action and suspense, and his story is more than enthralling enough to keep you up late at night chewing through his words. The Dragon’s Tooth is an excellent introduction to this series, and book 2 has more than lived up to its standards so far. The series retains elements of classic stories, but has an undeniably fresh taste to it as well. The story is intelligent, fast-paced, and rich in the kind of lore that I can’t resist. It is suitable for most young readers, but is written more than well enough to give just as much entertainment to adults.

If you haven’t yet read The Dragon’s Tooth, I highly recommend it.

I’d Rather Be NaNoWriMoing

This post is going to be short. I have already written well over 3,500 words today between a 2 and a third page paper for school and a massive chunk on my work-in-progress novel. Still, I felt this was a perfect time to give a massive shout-out to anyone who has actually finished NaNoWriMo.

For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. It is that month of pure torturous bliss during which thousands of excited writers pledge to type 1667 words a day in order to complete a 50,000 word novel by the end of that month (November, in case you were wondering). I’m a little bit of a cheater in that I’m actually working on an already half-finished novel, but I’m planning on fulfilling the daily wordcount requirement…. I hope you hardcore nano-ers will forgive me.

But anyway, I say planning because it is very hard work. Its one thing to type up a few paragraphs for an essay. It’s another matter entirely to get almost two thousand words of half-decent fiction down every day for more than four weeks straight. It takes willpower. The kind I’m not sure I have… especially with Thanksgiving turkeys calling my name in a few weeks…

Ah well, I guess there’s finally a benefit to waiting until Christmas to get Halo 4.

At this point, I want to extend that shoutout to anyone who’s seriously attempted to ride this literary bull. I’m going to go do my best to grab it by the horns. So far, 2 days down, 28 more to go…. Looks like its going to be a fun November.

Song(s) of the Day – Keep the Car Running/The Suburbs

So… should I be ashamed that I hadn’t discovered Arcade Fire until now, or thrilled that I finally have? I guess it depends on your perspective, and, at least to a certain extent, on your opinion of indie rock. I say ‘to a certain extent’, because my opinion of indie rock is not really that high. I’ve come across a few songs I like (such as Band of Horses’ The Funeral or Death Cab for Cutie’s I’ll Follow You Into the Dark), but I’ve never found a band that consistently appealed to me… until now. Arcade Fire is an excellent blend of a fuller, more catchy musical style,  beautiful artistry, and thought-provoking lyrics. The band also consistently creates a very unique atmosphere. The stories told by the lyrics are somehow simultaneously vague enough to invite personal interpretation and precise enough to ensure that the artist’s creative meaning is clear. The music projects layers of anxiety and creeping despair that somehow can’t stop a kernel of hope shining through.

So far, I’ve tried to avoid posting more than one song of the day for a single artist. Today, however, I felt that I should post two of my favorite songs from my newest favorite band. Both songs encapsulate why I have come to love the music of Arcade Fire.

The first is Keep the Car Running, from Arcade Fire’s 2007 album Neon Bible: 

Arcade Fire – Keep the Car Running

The other is The Suburbs, from Arcade Fire’s most recent album of the same name:

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

There are times that sports make me scream (replacement refs). There are times that sports make me cry (the White Sox D`:). There are even times when I throw sports to the wayside (assorted business). Far more often, though, are the times when sports make me excitedly yell far louder than the neighbors appreciate. And do you know why? Because sports are the world’s best reality TV.

Whether any other reality TV can actually be seriously considered legitimately for the label “best” is someone else’s problem entirely. All I know is that sports are far crazier than anything Hollywood or its lesser cousins can come up with… and it’s all real. I’m talking 100% all natural, organic, unscripted, ad-lib, with no preservatives added unless you count the replacement refs.

Take for example my favorite team the White Sox (D`:). Any writer submitting a script about this year’s season would be laughed out of California. Coming into the season, we expected nothing. We had aging and cast-off core players, inconsistent pitching, low-powered offense, and a brand new coach. Then the team started winning. Then they held first place for a month and a half. Then all of a sudden, we realized that we had a three game lead with 15 games left. Then kaput. Sox Nation’s hopes were raised only to be dashed to the pavement like a rotten egg dropped from the top of the Sears Tower (D`:). That kind of heartrending melodrama is usually reserved for the very worst of reality TV or ancient Greek plays. It happened.

Example 2-  why don’t we look at the remaining eight teams in the MLB playoffs? The SF Giants aren’t a surprise, nor are the Tigers or Yankees. The Cardinals weren’t considered playoff locks at the beginning of the season by any means, but neither are they a shock. Then you have the Reds, the Nationals, the A’s and… *cough* the Baltimore Orioles. There’s a good 10 teams in the league that are kicking themselves right now, wondering how they aren’t better than these guys (the White Sox, for example D`:). Just last year, these teams were 17, 21.5, 22, and 28 games behind their division leaders respectively.

… So basically we’re seeing four sports underdog movies wrapped into one season here? Yes.

Now look at football. In the NFC North, the Minnesota Vikings are tied for first place at 4-1, while the Green Bay Packers lag behind at 2-3, only 15th in the league in scoring despite their huge collection of offensive weapons. In the NFC West, where the San Francisco 49ers were expected to run away with the division, all four teams are 3-2 or better with a positive point differential and within a game of first place. In the AFC East, the Patriots are in first place. No surprise. What is surprising is that they are only one game ahead of the Jets, Bills and Dolphins and have lost to the Arizona Cardinals.

The NBA may be gone from the casual fan’s mind, but the storylines are still intriguing to me. “Superteams” are forming left and right, the balance of power is shifting constantly, and I do not exaggerate when I say I think we could be heading for the first real golden age of basketball since Jordan rubbed shoulders with Bird, Magic, and Isaiah. Lebron James’ playoff woes are no longer the top story in the NBA, and so basketball is free to focus on more important things – the Lebron/KD rivalry (or is it friendship?), the Lebron/Kobe rivalry, the viability of Heat-style basketball (undersized, hyper-athletic, and top heavy), and the return of Derrick Rose to name only a few. Then, of course, there’s the question of whether these new “superteams” are going to usher in a golden age or kill the league’s popularity in the cities of increasingly irrelevant teams.

So, no, you can’t make this stuff up…. Well, actually I wouldn’t put it past Hollywood, but the results would be laughable. All of sports would be laughable if we didn’t know they were real (100% all natural, organic, unscripted, ad-lib, with no preservatives added unless you count… well, you remember). Fortunately, we do know. Now all we have to do is sit back and, as they say in Moneyball, “just enjoy the show”.