Tuesday, November 4, 2014

THOUGHTS - The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Extended Edition)

Warning: I WILL be discussing spoilers.

This time a year ago, I sat down and watched the first third of The Hobbit's film adaptation, An Unexpected Journey, in its extended form. On the whole I enjoyed it, whilst thinking it should have been done a little differently. A month and a bit later, I was sat in the cinema waiting for the first showing of part two, The Desolation of Smaug, to begin. Three hours later I walked out thinking it was an excellent film. Today I watched the Extended Edition of the second part, a day after its release in the UK, and I have to confess my feelings have changed.

And not for the better.

Before I start to air my issues, I would like to state first and foremost that I think doing The Hobbit as a trilogy with stronger ties to The Lord of the Rings is an excellent idea, and one I wholly support. A number of the changes also work well, such as the creation of Tauriel, even if it has upset some purists. I'm not a purist, and if there's one positive here that I will wax lyrical about, it's Tauriel.

My issues with The Desolation of Smaug (DoS from here) are a mix of what's given to us in the Extended Edition and noticing core flaws within the original film. A lot of the scenes that were added tend towards the pointless, if not the outright ridiculous, and I suspect they're partially to play for the sudden jump towards a 15 rating (from a 12 in its theatrical cut), making this the most adult of the films by its classification - the lowest being The Fellowship of the Ring at a PG. This is strange because there's nothing particularly objectionable bar some addition of strong language, the violence is exactly the same. 

DoS does continue with the faults of the first part in that it has some exaggerated design within a sober world. The look of the Dwarves becomes less noticeable as the film goes on - though I still maintain that the designs are pretty terrible - but the looks of characters such as  The Master of Laketown and Alfrid (The Master's lackey) all stand out as being overly exaggerated. They would look fine if this was an animated film or a comedy, but to see such incongruous designs against relatively sensible ones makes them stand out all the more. I'd even argue that The Master of Laketown, the interior of his house and Alfrid all look as if they'd been cut out of an abandoned comedy show or film and spliced into The Hobbit - they stand out THAT much. The tone with these characters also doesn't fit in, if anything it's even less bearable than The Goblin King's Disney Villain song from the first film.

No, really. This is what The Master of Laketown and Alfrid look like.
The CGI also falls flat, with some of the scenes obviously being rendered with 3D in mind, leaving a couple of brief sections as either disorienting or a knock on the fourth wall. For all of WETA's expertise and brilliance, all too many of the CGI scenes look absolutely dreadful. One that sticks in my mind is of Legolas racing out of Laketown on his horse, and I thought it looked good... for a video game. Indeed, it had the same quality to me as the CGI one would find in a video game (and perhaps then, of the last generation) and looked just as natural. We're also treated to Bombur as a rolling ball of doom, and it speaks for a love of ignoring physics and mass (Bombur is basically a walking violation throughout the film, including a scene at the start when he runs) that runs through the film, culminating in the mind-bogglingly bad forge sequence - where the laws of pretty much everything are ignored, including the random generation of literal tons of molten gold to fill the make-shift pool that covers Smaug.

The tricks that don't necessarily (or exclusively) rely on CGI can also be bad. We all remember the scene in Helm's Deep where Legolas slides down the stairs on a shield. It looked pretty good, albeit implausible, right? Well, this time he does it with a goblin (it's CGI) and it's terrible. Sliding does occur in other places too, with a number of scenes involving characters sliding down slopes on flat feet - Gandalf does it once or twice, Bilbo does too - and it's as if they have a tiny bag of tricks that they have to reuse. Even many of the action sequences that blend CGI and live action look extremely unnatural with an almost jarring effect. Whilst less pronounced than it was on a 4k screen at the cinema, the first-person camera during the barrel escape sequence is still of lower quality than the other footage and it comes across as a little pixellated, though I suspect many won't notice.

There are only a couple of new scenes in the Extended Edition, the majority of the extensions adding dialogue or plotlines, such as Gandalf finding Thorin's father in Dol Guldur, and many of these come across as clumsy (including the bizarre use of a Wilhelm Scream for the death of Thorin's father) or pointless. Very little is added that makes an impact on the story itself, instead revealing things we generally already knew. One new scene - technically an extension - is absolutely obscene, though. The Master of Laketown is interrupted by Alfrid shouting "Bollocks!", and then presenting a plate of cooked testicles to him. We are then treated to The Master eating these testicles in a disgusting fashion (I suspect this is why the film got bumped up to a 15) as they discuss how they can stop Bard through corrupt lawmaking.

This is pretty much how I felt by the end.
In truth, I don't think there's a single reason to go for the Extended Edition over the standard, at least for this film. You spare yourself almost half an hour of pointless and/or terrible scenes, many of which should have stayed cut simply because they're beyond poor. I still think The Desolation of Smaug in its theatrical form is a better film than An Unexpected Journey, but upon rewatching I noticed more flaws than I wish I had, and it's made me think less of it than I had done previously. I'm still looking forward to the final part, The Battle of the Five Armies, next month, but not as much as I thought I would.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Thoughts: A follow up on my 'Invisible' piece.

It's been just over six months since I made my publishing d├ębut with my essay in Jim C. Hines' Invisible, in which I wrote about my perception of a lack of transgender representation in fiction. At the time I was excited to be published, in a way to be almost validated, but as time marches on I've barely even thought about it – heck, I suddenly remembered in the shower that I was published. Looking back, it's almost with a sense of regret, and no pride whatsoever, that I view my piece.

Whilst I am legally an adult (I'm in my mid-20s) and more than capable of making my own decisions, I can't help but feel that on some level my piece was a mistake. I haven't heard any feedback about it directly, nor has Jim alerted me to any, so I assume that it went down okay (if people read it), which is both good and perhaps not so good.

The core of the issue is, for me, responsibility. Whilst I spoke for myself and myself alone, to the reader I may have been representing the transgender community, and that's a responsibility I cannot shoulder. Whilst I have known for coming on a decade that I am not a male-identified person, my lack of progress in that area and my reluctance to come out and a dozen other factors put me in a place where I am continually unsure of my own identity and feelings, my own lack of internal 'correctness' giving me a perpetual case of self-doubt. It's fun. But I don't have the experience of living as an out or transitioning transgender person, I don't have the bit of paper that says everyone who calls me by male names is wrong. All I have is an inner turmoil.

I do believe I made valid points at the time, and ones that are still valid today. I believe transgender representation is something we certainly need to work at in all forms of media, and whilst I'm especially grateful to authors and figures such as Mark Charan Newton for creating a transgender icon of mine (Lan in his The Book of Transformations), Alison Croggon for discussing with me how transgender issues could be dealt with in her world of Pellinor, Cheryl Morgan for her years of guidance and support, and a dozen other creators for either including transgender characters or talking about those issues with me, I feel like I have an erratum to release.

I don't speak for the transgender community, and in hindsight I feel I should not have participated. I don't think it's out of fear of causing damage or saying something wrong, but simply because I put myself in a position I'm no longer comfortable with and I assumed a responsibility I don't feel is or ever has been mine to take. It is one thing for me to talk about how these issues seem to me via Twitter, Tumblr or my blog, but it is another to publish under what is technically a pseudonym and to possibly be considered a spokesperson for other transgender-identified people. I won't withdraw my piece from any possible revisions, but I will be much less hasty to sign up to projects in the future.

The plus side of this, however, is that I have not profited at all from this – as I stated when the collection released, I forfeited the payment and any royalties so that all the money goes to the chosen charity.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Harry Potter Reading Challenge #7 - The Deathly Hallows

And here we are, on Harry Potter and the Oh Thank The Gods This Is Over. Rowling has been content in the past to literally magic things into the book, but The Deathly Hallows takes the absolute biscuit. It rivals The Order of the Phoenix for the title of Worst Harry Potter Novel... Yet it's not that clear cut. But as always - Spoilers, sweetie.

Our best friend angst makes a stunning return. Harry is angsty because Dumbledore had the sheer lack of manners to die and not tell Harry every single minute detail he has ever known,
Ron is angsty because Harry is angsty and because his family is under attack, and Hermione is angsty because Ron is angsty. Oh and they find an amulet that gives +10 to angst... so they decide to take turns wearing it. Jeez. The plot is absolutely dreadful, too, and the pacing is beyond dull. A lot of the book is set in a variety of wooded locations in which Harry, Hermione and sometimes Ron have a sit around, fight and then move to another location.

I think this book really highlights the flaws with the cast. They consistently fail to prepare for the unexpected yet are faced with it almost every step, they haven't got a bloody clue what they're doing, they manage to pull of extremely remarkable feats because This Is Their Book So Neener Neener Neener, they're still stupid enough to walk into traps, they're ridiculously careless and... well, I guess it's just a great big case of Daenerys Syndrome. They're too stupid to live (yes, even Hermione). One moment that stood out was Hermione created some flowers to put on the grave of Harry's parents... whilst they were trying to avoid being tracked or traced by Death Eaters. I wonder if there was a more obvious thing they could have done to show they were in this particular place?

The problematic comments about women continue to happen through to the near-end of the book, too. There was another comment about mothers which seemed really out of place, with relation to Dumbledore's hushed-up sister. And Harry takes a turn for the worse - he actually 'stalks' Ginny Weasley via the Marauder's Map, and at one point actually watches the map as she's in the dormitory and it's really kinda creepy. I was also extremely surprised to see Mrs. Weasley call Bellatrix a "bitch", as it marks the strongest use of language in the books (bar Ron's "effing"), one of the few gendered insults and is printed entirely in capitals. It must also be said that at times that the writing slips. In about a page-length of text a doe patronus is described twice as having a "beautiful head", for example, and the way some characters talk or repeat information just gets tiresome.

However, something happens about 150-200 pages from the end. The book suddenly remembers that it's meant to be good, and what follows is Rowling suddenly hitting her prime. Aside from pages of Voldemort and Harry exchanging really bad battle taunts, the final chapters are an exhilarating and compelling string of events that glue you to the pages. You race towards the end, and it's fairly satisfying, albeit brief. Yet I can't really say much beyond that, because there's not much to say except the end is pretty good.

I'm not going to pretend that I think the last quarter of this book makes up for over 1000 pages of problematic, dull, angst-ridden, repetitive and cyclic dribble over the last three books. I don't think Rowling ever really worked on the flaws over the course of the book, and problematic ideas or themes continue - I especially think the way she handled her female characters was consistently poor - instead the books got so padded out with time-wasting that it's hard to decide whether their strongest parts are actually strong or whether they seem so in contrast. The Deathly Hallows does bring some interesting depth to the world of Harry Potter, but much of it seems paper-thin upon even brief inspection.

I won't end this like the other challenge posts, instead I'll end on a wider note.

This reading challenge has been interesting, to say the least. It's easy to see why Harry Potter took the world by storm when it first came out, and how it managed to do so for many years after. The first four books are not free of issue, but are on the whole some excellent reads that grab hold of you. The last three stumble and fall more often than they succeed, and though they bring good things to the table, they never really justify their presence, nor the pages upon pages of angst-ridden, meandering nonsense. Maybe the last three are better on re-reads, but I found them disappointing.

Will I read these books again? Maybe, but I may forget about the last three...

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Harry Potter Reading Challenge #6 - The Half-Blood Prince

I've had a little bit of a break from Harry Potter, as reading five of the novels (and watching the corresponding films) can be quite exhaustive, especially the angst-laden The Order of the Phoenix. The sixth book is noticeably more cheerful in terms of Harry's outlook, but that vibe of angst doesn't go away. As always, spoilers ahead.

Before I start - Romance alert! Eugh. Yeah, The Half-Blood Prince does have a series of subplots revolving around the romantic interests of some of the characters, and Rowling's sometimes problematic treatment of her female characters rears its head again. Ginny is bouncing between boyfriends, Ron is trying to be protective of her whilst dealing with girls he's interested in (and they begin to get interested in him), Hermione is trying to wrestle with her feelings for Ron, Harry suddenly begins to be interested in Ginny (it could have been a clever reversal of Ginny crushing on Harry, but Rowling goes almost Freudian with it) whilst struggling to deal with Cho's rejection of him, Bill Weasley is engaged to Fleur (from The Goblet of Fire, her 'Allo 'Allo French accent still present), Fleur's presence turns Hermione, Mrs Weasley and Ginny into extremely catty people, etc., etc., etc. It's a big mess, and the way it's handled doesn't help. Many of the girls come off as jealous and spiteful, whereas the boys have more interest than they can seemingly deal with. It feels like just another way in which Rowling puts down her female characters - if they can't have physical flaws then they must act in flawed ways that relate to their sex or gender. Would Luna or Hermione have their behaviour put under so much scrutiny within the books if they were male? These problems are further compounded by the suddenness of the changes - I felt as if Rowling had realised she had just two books left of Harry's tale (as this is the penultimate entry) and that certain content had to be put in.

We're introduced to a character as "a tall black boy" (reminiscent of the "tall black girl" description from the fifth book), and this stands out as it's one of the few - if not only - times a character's race is implied via a description. Other characters of a racial minority generally have names that work as racial identifiers (e.g. Cho Chang and the Patil sisters). Towards the end of the book I found another jarring gender-based comment (I am ignoring the idea of Crabbe and Goyle using the Polyjuice potions to turn themselves into girls as disguises for a dozen reasons), this time from Professor Slughorn. When faced with the idea of closing Hogwarts, it's implied that keeping the school open is the right choice but closing it is the wrong one, so when Slughorn backs the idea of closing it's implied he is in the wrong to do so. He asks the other professors if mothers will allow their children back after all that's happened. Not parents, but mothers. I find this comment particularly odd because of the number of characters who have lost their mothers in the series - Harry, Luna, Neville (in a way), etc. - or those who look negatively at theirs or who don't know them (Hagrid, the discussions about Tom Riddle's past, etc.), so for mothers to be singled out is not a positive thing, not least because it implies that mothers are over-protective.

At one point Rowling actually calls out herself on reusing a plot point - Harry has a used textbook that contains improved potions recipes as well as hand-crafted spells, and he blindly forges ahead and uses them. This is picked up by Ginny not long after this discovery and she chastises Harry for using it, but after some light testing from Hermione, the book is deemed safe. As might be predictable, the book gives Harry the tools that get him in trouble later on. Other prominent plot points in the book are often moving down predictable paths, but thankfully there are moments where unexpected and interesting things happen. Except that one about the book very near the end. Oh dear. Talk about hamfisted.

Well, what's good? I'll just put that in the summary. Seriously.

Summary: You know, I'm hard pressed to pick out any one thing I like about this book. Ginny and Luna, two of my favourite characters, aren't really shown as anything except accessories, though they have their moments. I think that actually typifies this book - the memorable good moments are exactly that. Moments. They're one-liners or they're small details, or they're the way Rowling moves from one moment to the next. It feels like things are building up, but less like a skyscraper and more like a Jenga tower. There's holes in the plot, there's leaps of logic, there's a dozen things you can pull out, analyse and find poor. And yet Rowling's greatest strength is in making you overlook (but she can't make you forget) when this happens. I devoured these 600-odd pages in a couple of days and I am left wanting to see how this ends.

I suspect it has something to do with nargles...

Favourite Moment: Harry and Ron's one-liners to Snape during various Defence Against the Dark Arts classes.

Least Favourite Moment: Harry getting a bit angsty and shouty again.

Improvements From Earlier Book(s): It's not The Order of the Phoenix.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Summer Games Done Quick - Starts Soon!

On Sunday 22nd June, the bi-annual 'Games Done Quick' happens again with Summer Games Done Quick, a weeklong streamed event hosted by Speed Demos Archive, with near-constant video game speedruns, and all donations going to charity (Doctors Without Borders).

If you don't know what the event entails, I'll try to explain. Speedrunning is trying to get through a game as quickly as possible, typically exploiting broken or overlooked issues and bugs to manipulate the game to progress much faster than normal. This includes skipping optional sections, skilled shortcuts, pixel-perfect controlling and so forth. There are different categories for speedruns which define what must be done in order for the run to be successful – an example would be an All Bosses category which means all of the bosses must be defeated otherwise it is an unsuccessful run (even if the game is finished). On top of these runs, there are races where two or more runners compete to beat the game first. With most runs, the runner is accompanied by friends and other runners who will help explain to the viewer and audience what's going on, why and how certain things work, as well as providing moral support. The runs usually take between 30mins and 1hr30mins, but a few take minutes and others a few hours depending on the way the game works or how much research has been done on it. There's even the chance a run might be the new world record!

The donations all go to charity, but some runs have incentive levels - these can be anything from something the runner will wear whilst playing, the file name of the game, the character used, a post-run showing of specific glitches (this also happens if the run comes in well-under target) or targets within the game. Funny things can also happen during the runs if big donations are met, so it's always worth keeping an ear or an eye out for those. The schedule is here, and it auto-adjusts to your time-zone so you can plan which - if any - you're going to watch. If you miss any, they'll end up on the Speed Demos Archive YouTube channel (and usually those of the runners themselves).

This isn't just about gaming. It's about a community coming together to raise money for charity – in fact, to date, the combined total from the events run by Speed Demos Archive is over $2m USD (half of that total was the most recent event, Awesome Games Done Quick 2014), so this isn't something small.

For more information, check out:
The Wiki page of Speed Demos Archive which explains speedrunning a little better than I did, and has information on past events.

The Speed Demos Archive website, with an extensive FAQ on their standards, methods and what speedrunning is.

The Games Done Quick site itself, which has a few details on the event itself as well as the event schedule.

Finally, I've added a video showing a short speedrun which should hopefully give an example of what the event will be like.

Monday, June 16, 2014

My Noble Sacrifice - A Star Wars Prequel Trilogy Re-Watch

The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy - even hint at its existence and a chunk of geekdom hisses like an insulted snake, baring its fangs as it readies itself to strike with years of anger, frustration and disappointment. It's no secret that the prequel trilogy is one of the most hated products of the Star Wars universe - if not 'geek' culture as a whole - and even today it still generates quite a strong negative reaction. I was about nine when The Phantom Menace arrived and at the time I really liked it, but I never had the same interest in the second and third films (in fact, I never saw the third film until around 2011/2012), so my own perspective on them has been a little different.

It does go without saying that the prequel films aren't as good as they should have been. We could be here all day listing the trilogy's flaws, but generally speaking these criticisms are valid and do point to issues that are still prevalent within Star Wars today – for example, my issues with the costuming of a lot of the female characters as well as the near-complete lack of LGBT+ characters in the official (and official non-canon) works. But I will say this much for the prequels. They have brought Star Wars to new audiences, they have captured the imaginations of millions of people, and we have had some good come out of them - an example being the extremely successful and popular Star Wars: The Clone Wars cartoon series, as well as arguably allowing the future fun of the quirky LEGO Star Wars mini-movies. They also keep us talking about franchises we consider important and show fans that their beloved properties aren't above criticism, but also could be argued to show production companies that bad products will often keep their negative reputations into the future.

I don't know what I will achieve by rewatching the films, but I hope that with a similar technique to my as-yet unfinished Harry Potter reading challenge I will find some merit in the prequels – moments to enjoy and to cherish – but also give my own take on why certain scenes or ideas are problematic. And yes, I will have a ~lot~ of fun with the much-loved and much-respected romantic scenes in Episode II.
Or just maybe I want to see two of my favourite bounty hunters again – Zam Wesell and Aurra Sing. Oh, girls, don't ever fail me with your awesomeness.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A New SF Signal 'Mind Meld' & More!

[I'm a little behind on posting this - Sorry Rob!] I was asked to participate in another of SF Signal's regular Mind Melds, this time by my ex-reviewing colleague Rob Bedford (of Rob's Blog o' Stuff, SF Signal, SFFWorld and more), and it was on the topic of how long you generally own books before reading them as well as what's the longest a book has sat unread. If you want to read my contribution - along with that of other fans and reviewers such as another ex-colleague, Mark Yon (also of SFFWorld) - then please head over to SF Signal and get reading!

I'm also hoping to spend tonight tweaking my blog a little. There'll be no major changes, but over the next couple of weeks I'm hoping to get a few posts done as well as a potential 'viewing' challenge. If anyone pays attention to my Twitter feed they may well have a good idea of just what I have in mind.