A (Hopefully) Unbiased Review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Now that I have had a few days for my fanboy excitement to subside, I thought I would finally post my review of the latest movie blockbuster, The Hobbit.

Here’s my BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front):

The movie is an enjoyable fantasy adventure epic, complete with trolls, spiders, goblins, orcs, giants, elves, hobbits (halflings), dwarves, wizards and a dragon. Although the film clocks in at 2 hours and 45 minutes, the pacing is appropriate to the material being covered and not a chore to get through. Some of the silliness of the novel remains intact, while darker, more violent action scenes have also been adapted, more closely associating the movie with the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy from a decade ago. Fans of typical action fare, with one battle or chase leading directly into another, are likely to be disappointed by the long opening and the stagnant scenes from Rivendell. Fans of narrative drama that relies on marvelous acting and dialogue within static scenes to move the story along, are equally likely to be disappointed in how the movie progresses when it travels, as the action seems strung together much like a relay race – one action sequence handing off to another. This film tries to straddle the line between the two types of films and, as a result, doesn’t really feel at home in either. However, for those willing to sit back and be entertained by the choices of Director Peter Jackson, trusting that the finished product is greater than the sum of its parts, the film is a fun, entertaining, visual spectacle.

My Grade: 85/100

A Word about the Technology:

While this is primarily a review of the movie, it does seem prudent to at least acknowledge one of the biggest talking points of the movie; it being the first major film to adopt a new, 48 fps frame rate. The 48 fps (or HFR) version of The Hobbit is only available on approximately 450 screens across America. Having seen both the 3D HFR and the more “traditional” 2D 24 fps versions, I would recommend the former to those that have the opportunity to experience it. Combining 48 fps with the current trend of developing films for 3D, The Hobbit is a visual spectacle unlike any other out there. However, it should be noted that 48 fps is merely an enhancement to the experience, and not something necessary to enjoy the movie.

For those still undecided about which format to choose, here are a few points to consider, as, it seems that even seasoned film critics that get paid big money by major outlets seem to be a bit confused on the subject.

What HFR is not:

  • HFR is not a means by which the brightness in scenes is increased to combat the dulling that occurs when a film is shot in 3D. Brightness is entirely a matter of lighting and post-production doctoring
  • HFR is not a higher definition picture. The resolution of the images remains unchanged regardless of what speed the movie is shot or viewed at.
  • HFR does not “speed up” the images on the screen.

What HFR is:

  • HFR means less eye-strain when viewing 3D images. By providing more frames per second, the depth, motion, and transitions are handled more by the picture and less by the eye, this means that there is far less demand on the eye to compensate when viewing 3D pictures on a 2D screen.
  • HFR does mean that the eye sees more images per second for any image on screen. In static, slow-moving scenes, this is not terribly important. Where the difference becomes readily apparent, is in action sequences or in any scene where the camera is panning across a stationary object. In the day of high resolution, it is counterintuitive to then blur the fine details by filming at lower speeds. By filming in HFR, Jackson preserves the details in presentation every time an object or the camera moves. This means that, among other things, fight scenes are now crisp and clear, instead of blurred motion in between static shots of combatants. This also means that the numerous shots of the breathtaking scenery that make up New Zealand remain crisp and clear as the camera pans across long stretches of rolling hills.

A Note about the “So-called Soap Opera Effect”

48 fps HFR has come under fire for giving The Hobbit a soap opera feel. No longer does the movie “feel” like a movie, but it looks cheap and plastic. I can say that the first part is accurate, but that the second part is not being entirely fair. The movie does not look like a 24 fps film. There’s a very good reason for that. It was neither shot at 24 fps, nor was it shot on film. It was shot digitally at 48 fps. The combination of 48 fps, digital capture, and high resolution creates a hyper-real image. Motion blur associated with watching a movie on film is nearly eliminated. Even static shots are crisper and clearer. The softening that comes from 24 fps does not exist. This means that everything stands out more, including the fact that the movie is shot on a set and is not part of real life. Lighting, costume, and set designers in conjunction with post-production editing, are largely responsible for the final image.

Another reason for the soap opera effect is that 48 fps is very, very close to 50 fps. 50 fps is the interlaced frame rate of television outside of North America. Without getting into a great deal of technical jargon that mostly only video engineers care about, the frame rate that a person sees in a television show determined by medium, budget, and geographic location. I may, at some point in the future take the time to explain the differences in frame rates, but that is a separate subject. All that needs to be pointed out here is that 48 fps in The Hobbit while having the hyper-real look sometimes associated with soap operas, manages to retain the hyper-real look even in 3D and during fast-paced action sequences. And it is during those times, when the camera is moving about, that 48 fps makes all the difference. Gone are juddering and shakiness as well.

Having seen The Hobbit in both 3D HFR and “traditional” 24 fps 2D, I can say that any negatives associated with the picture that result from HFR are far outweighed by the positives that also result.

There. That’s all I am going to say about HFR versus traditional. The reality is, the traditional 24 fps viewings were still filmed at 48 fps, they were simply been converted to 24 fps in post-production. So the minuses still exists, while the positives do not.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

The movie itself is highly entertaining. Unlike many fantasy films, no part of The Hobbit seems overly far-fetched (the escape from Goblintown being the possible exception). As a stand-alone film, the pacing does feel a bit off. The introduction is really three introductions. First, the audience is re-introduced to the opening moments of The Fellowship of the Ring. Then, that particular introduction frames the background to the upcoming story, giving a visually stunning explanation of how the dwarves were driven from their home by Smaug. After all of this is addressed, the story then begins. But it begins by introducing the audience to 15 characters; Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, and 13 dwarves. This takes time and, quite frankly, there is no way to rush it. To his credit, Jackson did compress the introduction of the dwarves a bit, but he also relied very heavily on Tolkien’s narrative as provided in the novel to dictate the flow of the scene.

There is considerable griping in regards to a 300 page novel being turned into three 3-hour movies. This is quite disingenuous however. It is true that The Hobbit is only roughly 300 pages. But the movie is not, nor, since Jackson took over, has it ever been solely based on the novel. The movie also includes material from other Tolkien works pertaining to Middle Earth. No one seemed to be complaining when The Hobbit was planned out as two movies clocking in at 5 hours. But, now, with even more material added, there seems to be issue with stretching things to three films at 8.25 hours.

If looked at as a film by itself, the movie has pacing issues. If looked at as the opening of 8+ hours of story-telling, then the pacing of the film seems rather balanced. Personally, I can think of two action sequences (and 10 minutes) that could easily be excised from the film without sacrificing quality. One of the biggest offenders in this matter is when Jackson adapted a mood-setting passage that helped (in the novel) to establish how the world was so different from the Shire.

When he peeped out in the lightning-flashes, he saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game and catching them, and tossing them down into darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang. (The Hobbit, p. 68)

This passage takes all of 20 seconds to read. Yet, on the screen, it plays out into a 5-minute fight among rock giants, complete with Bilbo and the dwarves riding on the legs of them. Visually, it was somewhat fun. But, in fairness, it added nothing to the film other than more CGI special effects.

The cast performances ranged from good, to exceptional. Martin Freeman makes an excellent Bilbo Baggins. Ian McKellen is, as always, a perfect Gandalf, and Andy Serkis is, once again, eerily, creepily perfect as Gollum. Richard Armitage does not disappoint as Thorin Oakenshield. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast does solid work, with Sylvester McCoy turning in a humorous take on the “extra material” character, Radagast the Brown.
The story itself is a very straight-forward adventure quest one. It is adapted from one of the more beloved children’s books of the last century. This leaves little room for the story to stink.

Once the movie leaves the Shire behind, it quickly abandons the light-hearted feeling associated with the novel. The overall tone of the movie is much darker, and, the developments are somewhat more violent. A humorous encounter with trolls that, in the novel, is non-violent but somewhat scary (will the dwarves be eaten or not) is turned into a fight sequence with the same end-result. The escape from Goblintown is similarly transformed from a flight through passages to escape the goblins into a somewhat epic CGI-filled battle. Ironically, this is also the one time where some of the silliness returns.

I have heard some folks complain about the time spent (especially in Rivendell) explaining various things, like the naming of the blades. While it is true that such scenes could likely be cut, one of the main things to keep in mind is that, a big reason for the Tolkien fandom is that time was taken to include these details. Tolkien’s world is detail rich. Peter Jackson, wisely IMHO, chooses to err on the side of keeping many of the details rather than risk the movie playing out like the Rankin-Bass animation from 1977.

Could Peter Jackson have tightened up the movie some? Sure he could have. But it’s not that long ago where moves were usually 2 hours or just a bit over. As the opening of a three-part epic, the length of the movie is not really an issue.

In the closing moments of the movie, the party looks out across a vast expanse and sees their ultimate destination, the Lonely Mountain. I must say, it does look like it is about two movies away.

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Irreverently Funny? Or Just Irreverent?

Irreverence is not the same as comedy.

I have a follow-up post to my previous entry about Bud Selig, but it’s not quite complete. However, I find myself needing to get something off my chest before I can really focus on other topics, like school, or baseball, or that short story I have started over sixteen times now because I keep distracting myself.

I’m not a very big television guy. I used to be. Growing up I watched plenty of television and then some. Nowadays however, my television watching is fairly moderate. For one thing I am not much of a fan of the current level of writing that permeates modern television. I’m not very big on being treated like I am stupid. I don’t need writers explaining things to me like I am in a class of kindergarteners. Nor do I care for shows where common sense is simply tossed aside in such a reckless manner that those same kindergarteners are scratching their heads. (Yes, I’m looking at you Eric Kripke of Revolution.) However, there are certain actors that I like, so, when they get a show, I generally tune in to watch. One such actor is Tim Allen.

Last year, Tim Allen made his return to prime time television with his new sitcom, Last Man Standing. The show was a somewhat safe twist on the concept he had guided to success with Home Improvement in the mid-90s. In LMS, Allen plays Mike Baxter, a successful, conservative salesman in suburban Colorado. He lives in a nice house with his successful wife and their three daughters, the eldest of which has a young child, Boyd, from a teenage indiscretion. The wife is smart, witty, good-looking, and strong-willed. She is an independent woman. The eldest daughter, despite the complications of being an unwed mother of only 21 years, is level-headed and also pretty intelligent. She works to provide what she can for Boyd and is intent on bettering herself and also not letting her sisters repeat her mistakes. The middle daughter is a Kardashian groupie, complete with the looks to succeed in following the Kardashian success plan. She’s not overly bright, but she’s very adept at the things she sets her mind to, especially anything dealing with social media. The youngest, and most intelligent, daughter is making the transition from junior high to high school. Along with this change comes a transition from being a sports-minded tomboy to being a young, dress-wearing, boy-conscious woman.

The ingredients for the show were carefully cast, and the show saw some moderate success. The show was not the huge hit that Home Improvement had been, but in all fairness, it’s tough to expect any show to reach that level of success. However, this is network television we are talking about. Moderate success instead of overwhelming success kept the network from making any sort of decision on whether or not to renew the show for a second season until very late into the game. With no decision reached, the last five episodes of season one saw LMS limp across the finish line – still successful, but with ratings that had the network demanding a change. This is where things turned for the worse.

The show replaced the oldest daughter with one that looked 10 years older. They aged Boyd from toddler to kindergartener. They brought back Boyd’s father (but not the actor) to become a constant foil to Tim Allen’s character in the mold of Meathead versus Archie Bunker. They made the second daughter so dumb she didn’t realize she was trying to read a book upside down or that batteries were a source of energy. Even the wife is no longer a strong character. To top it all off, ABC moved the show to the farthest reaches of prime-time civilization – Friday evenings. The majority of the changes were made by a new show-runner, with input from Tim Allen, in hopes that the show could become a modern take on All in the Family.

Now, in his defense, Tim Doyle, the new show-runner, does admit that this show is not as good as All in the Family, but he is still dead-set on hitting what he calls “red meat issues.” He wants to expand the quality of comedy on television to include things that make the audience think instead of simply churning out relationship or parenting stories. I applaud him for wanting to raise general social awareness on hot-topic issues through television, but, as of six episodes into the season, it’s been made fairly clear that, not only is it not working, but the approach is alienating what little audience remains. Yet, Doyle and ABC actually seem surprised.

Really?

Let’s review, a show that started out as sort of a reimaging of a 90s sitcom is changed mid-run to be a modern re-imaging of yet another, completely different show that aired in the late 60s and early 70s. What could possibly go wrong in that scenario? Oh, that’s right – it’s the year 2012.

Even the edgiest network sitcom, pushing the bounds of political correctness to the extreme, will still fall far short of the crass, chauvinistic, racist satire that was All in the Family. The problem is, All in the Family only worked because it was “all-in.” There are people that love All in the Family, and others that hate it. But, regardless of where a person falls in regards to enjoying the show, there is little denying that All in the Family was a cultural icon that redefined network sitcoms forever.

Archie Bunker was hilarious. He was also the sort of character that would have the politically correct pundits calling for modern networks to not only cancel the show, but to issue formal apologies for the offensive nature of the humour. Yet Doyle seems to think that LMS can be a show in the mold of AITF, but simply not go so overboard with the characters. Unfortunately, the humour of AITF does not work at half-speed. Irreverence can be funny, but it must be sincere. I know, that sounds counter-intuitive. But it’s true. Comedies like AITF, or the movies of Mel Brooks worked because they knew exactly what they were doing. They knew they were offensive and brought a comic light to that fact. Comedy was used to increase social awareness of a number of issues while allowing the dominant hegemony to still have something to identify with.

The political correctness police would never allow such irreverence in today’s television. So, in order to appease them, the writers give us a hot-topic issue, or a racist issue and then proceed to make fun of it. But that’s a huge difference from the likes of Mel Brooks and Norman Lear. Those two made the issue part of the actual comedy itself. The issues were the vehicle through which the comedy was delivered. Now, comedy seems to try and heighten awareness by making the issues the focus of the comedy. So instead of the issues being a vehicle for the comedy, the issues become a target for the comedy. This has the effect of coming off as preachy and making the shows uncomfortable to watch for those that might be sensitive to an issue. One approach irreverently embraces a subject and shines a light on how backwards the world can be eliciting laughs and increasing awareness by using the hot topic as a vehicle for the comedy. The other approach is so careful to be sincere that it ends up being both unfunny and irreverent and eventually, driving away the audience.

It’s hard to make a statement is no one is paying attention.

Prejudice, class strife, poverty, political scandals, working poor, racism, sexism, environmental destruction, these are not topics to be made light of. The pain and suffering attached to these sorts of topics is real. Using these topics as a vehicle to express comedy for the purpose of entertainment however, does not make light of the issues. Rather, it raises the awareness of the issues by presenting them in a manner that does not drive the audience away. That is irreverently funny. Making fun of the gay rights movement, or any other hot button issue, on the other hand, is simply irreverent, and has no place in mainstream media.

Upon This Rock of Ages

For my birthday this year, my father sent me and my best friend to see the Broadway production Rock of Ages. I went into the show with an open mind, but only moderate expectations. After all, as much as I love the music of the decade, the concept of a musical built around a smashing together of hits that one would expect to find on an 80’s Rock Gold CD seemed to me to be more than just a little of a stretch. So, it was more than just a pleasant surprise to find out how well the concept worked. In fact, it worked out so well that, although it will by no means go down as a stage classic, Rock of Ages turned out to be one of the four or five most fun and entertaining shows I have ever been to – and I’ve been to more than a few.

So, I was both a bit excited, and also a bit nervous when I saw previews for a movie version of the production, somehow starring Tom Cruise as a rock-god complete with a women’s Christian values group that had no part in the stage production. However, given how pleasantly surprised I was by the stage production, I figured I should really consider giving the movie a try.

Unfortunately, the movie only marginally resembled the rather spectacular stage production.  That isn’t to say that the film version was not entertaining, it was. But it left something to be desired, primarily the raw edginess of the stage show. The film was rated R, so there was really no reason to change things up so much, making the film a sugar-coated version of the rock musical that, quite frankly, exuded sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. The story for the stage production was certainly not its selling point, so it was rather disappointing that the movie’s story, with all the various changes, was, if possible, even weaker.

But, despite all that, I think that perhaps the biggest drawback to the film can be summed up in one hyphenated word: auto-tune. This movie is a rock musical. One would think that the very first prerequisite for casting would be to have the voice to carry the part. Alas, a mere two minutes into the movie, artificial voice manipulation is already apparent. I find it hard to believe that with the number of people flocking to Hollywood to become stars (one of the main themes of the film actually) that the casting directors couldn’t find a young, sexy couple with the ability to belt out rock ballads without excessive use of post-production tune-up.

Now, before this post gets mistaken as a poor review of the film, or my criticisms are taken to mean that I disliked the film, let me be clear. Despite not living up to its inspiration, the film is fun and entertaining. The casting of Alec Baldwin as Denis Dupree and Mary J. Blige as Justice was absolutely inspired. Where the casting department missed with casting the romantic leads, they scored doubly by casting those two. And, for any of you ladies out there that are actually reading this blog, if you have not seen this movie, Tom Cruise alone is worth the price of a rental from Red Box. Just do yourself a favour, if you have a significant other, don’t hold it against them if they don’t measure up to Mr. Cruise. It’s quite possible he has not looked this good in 30 years. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that every other scene becomes an excuse for him to strip down and show off his svelte, muscled body while belting out iconic rock.

Despite the fact that the film was entertaining, it still fell short of living up to the musical. Now, come Christmas Day, we get a film adaptation of Les Miserables. Whereas Rock of Ages might have been able to get by with altering the story and relying on technology to clean up the vocals, I certainly hope that the producers don’t try anything similar with Les Miserables.

When Fairy Tales Go Wrong

It was bound to happen eventually. I was hoping that I was wrong when I called it about nine months ago, but, unfortunately, I was not. The guilty pleasure that was the surprise treat of television in 2011, Once Upon a Time, has fallen victim to its own success and the past successes of the people running the show. Now, that’s not to say that I have given up on the show, far from it actually. But what started out as a beautifully simple premise has now become so convoluted that it takes multiple viewings and teams of people picking apart and analyzing every muscle twitch of every character, every street sign, and every bird flying by in the background to keep up with what’s happening.

For those that are actually unfamiliar with the show, let me give a quick primer. OUAT is based (originally) on children’s fairy tales as reality. The versions of the fairy tales were the Disney versions (which makes sense as ABC is a Disney entity and the Disney versions, good or bad, are easily the most well-known). The premise is that the Evil Queen from Snow White obtains and unleashes a terrible curse upon all of Fairy Tale Land, depriving all the characters of the happily ever afters, and banishing them to real-world Maine. But wait! The intrepid adventurers of FTL, knowing the curse is coming, prepare for her and send the baby child of Snow and Prince Charming through a portal before the curse hits. That child grows up to become Emma Swan, a jaded orphan with a penchant for sniffing out the truth and finding things (mainly people) in this, the real world. In addition to being an orphan, she too has given up a child. So needless to say, she was a bit surprised when a 10-year-old boy named Henry shows up on her doorstep claiming to be her son. He drags her off to Storybrooke, home of the people cursed in FTL. In this town, the Mayor is a woman named Regina – and she has all the power. She also just so happens to be the Evil Queen, and, unlike everyone else in town, she remembers the time before Storybrooke. Oh, she also happens to be Henry’s adopted mother. You see, Henry has figured out Regina is the Evil Queen from fairy tales and he wants/expects Emma to break the curse. From there each episode plays out in a somewhat formulaic manner. Emma is presented with someone in need of help. The episode then splits between the current story of Emma helping and that person’s FTL story. As each episode is added to the chain, more and more background is provided until, as we reach the end, we have a full picture and Emma finally realizes that, yes, the fairy tales were indeed real and yes, she is to be the saviour.

The pacing and original takes on the various stories were spot-on for the most part in season one. With the show turning out to be a big hit, I feared that the writers and executives were going to find ways to artificially draw out many of the aspects and just keep the story perpetually developing, but not really going anywhere. The story was almost perfectly designed to fit inside of 22 episodes, and you know what? The writers stuck to that. The only thing that kept the first season from being perfect was that the show was coming back for a second season and so, it needed to end on a bit of a cliffhanger. But the writers even respected the audience and did an admirable job with the final episode of the season. If the show had not been picked up for a second season, only a few minor alterations to the season finale would have been necessary in order to bring the entire series to a satisfying conclusion.

Then we come to season two. Now, what started out as a beautifully simple concept has to be resuscitated. A new ultimate goal needs to be created, and, for the most part, the story no longer could support the villains the way it did in season one because of how season one played out. Now, not only do we have FTL and a new version of Storybrooke, but we also have FTL 2.0, the post apocalypse/curse FTL. We also have 2 new villains (though one was at least introduced as a character in season one), and two new heroes. We have the original crew being split up across alternate realities, seeking ways to reunite with each other and to right various wrongs. Previous villains, including Rumplestiltskin (played deliciously by Robert Carlyle) still exist and continue to do their own scheming as well

The show is brought to us by the minds behind another ABC hit show, Lost. That has, unfortunately, turned out to be both a blessing and a curse for the show. These are gifted, talented writers, capable of weaving wonderful tales using many threads. But they are also capable of having so much fun weaving complex plots within plots that the story loses its way. Two things really stood out about the first season of OUAT. First, the concept was simple without being dumbed down. The story was fully fleshed out and the world building was rich and exciting. The second thing that really made season one stand out was part of that world building and fleshing out of the story. It was the characters. Each week the audience learned more about each character and was given a chance to become invested in various characters and actually develop reasons to root for or against various outcomes. The first season was almost entirely about character.

The second season has moved away from that focus. Sure, we still learn about characters, but they are no longer the true focus. The backstory, plotting, and scheming is now the focus of the show. The story is no longer simple. Now, missing an episode can be a dangerous thing if a viewer wants to have any clue as to what is going on later. What’s more is, we have four more characters now added to an already large ensemble cast. Unfortunately, already a quarter of the way into the season, we are given essentially zero reason to care about any of these characters. Our two new heroines, have been so inconsequential as to make one wonder why they are even there, they have provided nothing to the story that could not have been achieved through some ingenuity on the part of the writers. But instead of exercising that ingenuity, we are given window dressing that pretty much just hangs out in the background doing nothing of substance. Even the character’s stories seem to lack any of the thoughtfulness applied to the various fairy tale characters in the first season. On one hand, we have Mulan, who apparently was never a Chinese warrior “princess’, but instead a warrior from some remote, unexplained, never given much thought part of FTL. She’s apparently an awesome fighter, but we know little else despite the fact that she travels constantly with our heroine Snow White. Then there is Princess Aurora. But this is not the Sleeping Beauty of the fairy tales. No, that Sleeping Beauty has already been discussed as having defeated Maleficent. This is (apparently) her daughter, who, for some reason that the writers have chosen to not bother going into begins the season under the same curse, under the same circumstances, as her mother.

I am all over the place with this post. This post started out with a simple idea and was railroaded into getting far more complex than it needed to be. I guess that should, in some ways, be a warning how easily that can happen. Once Upon a Time was once beautifully simple. Now, it gets more and more convoluted with each passing episode, providing very little hope that the story can ever again become fully contained. I know there are plenty of people out there that appreciate a complex story, filled with all sorts of puzzles to figure out. However, OUAT started off as a show that entire families could sit and enjoy. Sure, there were some dark elements, but, for the most part, they were deftly handled in a fairy tale manner. The show started out being equally approachable by both the eight-to-ten-year-old group and the coveted 28-40 demographic. The new, wide-open and now-complex story and the substantial increase in situational darkness has made the show a much harder sell for young audiences. I appreciate a gritty story as much as the next person. I just wonder how many shows really exist that have the potential to remain fun for the whole family. OUAT could have continued in that vein. Adult audiences really wouldn’t have minded.

This post has rambled on enough. I should probably bring it to an end before I spin off on some other tangentially related rant.

What Has Happened to Television?

I did something today that I rarely ever do these days. Today, I actually sat in front of the television and wondered if there was anything on. Now, don’t get me wrong, I watch television – just not much of it. In fact, despite having a DVR, I only watch a small handful of shows with any regularity. Though the number fluctuates from time-to-time as shows come and go, I generally have anywhere from 2-6 shows I watch, depending on what part of the broadcast season it is. With one of my shows ending this season, that number will likely be going down as I haven’t seen anything likely to replace it.

 So there I was, parked in front of my television when I realized that, despite not having watched much of anything at all since Thanksgiving, there was nothing in my DVR to watch. Nor was there really anything on live at the time that seemed interesting that I didn’t already own – and could therefore watch commercial free if I wanted.  Now, I realize that it is the holiday season. But I certainly can’t remember the last time that there was such a dearth of new episodic programming for such an extended period. I mean, come on now, growing up there were always Halloween, Thanksgiving, and sometimes even Christmas episodes of the shows I watched. They were sort of an annual event. They were episodes that had their own unique flavor, and didn’t pay any heed to the normal conventions of the show. So, now curious, I began looking up when shows would be returning to television and found that almost across the board it was now a normal occurrence for shows to take 6-9 weeks off for holiday hiatus. Sure, over the years shows have taken time off around the holidays. But two whole months? Really? That’s just plain nuts. No wonder viewership for shows is down. No wonder why we have all turned to watching things on the DVR, even if only offset by a few hours. With such long breaks between new episodes, it’s incredibly difficult to remain vested in stories and character development.

 The problem is that shows have gone to 22 episode seasons. It used to be that shows would run 26-30 episodes per season. One could watch a full slate of new episodes, then watch the season repeat once before I wrapped up the off season with the cliffhanger just in time for the new season to start again. There were fall sweeps and there were May sweeps. But shows could find their way into both periods without taking significant time off. Now, in order to bolster ratings numbers shows are placing large gaps in their programming so that 22 episodes can still take 30 weeks. This is just silly. And actually, as a casual viewer, I find it downright annoying. If shows want to continue being only 22 episodes per season, that’s fine. Pick a season, fall or May and run through it – with minimum interruption. Or here’s a novel idea; return to the days of running longer seasons. I’d be willing to bet that a well-written show with fewer interruptions and no longer than 2 weeks worth of hiatus would probably rate better than some of the shows do now that take so much time off that viewers simply forget to care.

 That got me to thinking about the serial story I am embarking on. Write one part per week without interruptions (hopefully). Is it really so hard for writers to write longer seasons now? I have to imagine that the extra cast and crew cost of additional episodes would be offset by the additional advertising that could be sold to plug into the new episodes. And a show running 4-8 episodes longer would have periods of low competition to really reap the benefit of a lack of competition for advertising dollars.

 I guess I must just be getting old. Whether it is the perceived declining quality of writing in movies and television, the declining comparable value of cinema to other forms of entertainment, or the big push to tout the greatness of some mediocre modern literature, I find that more and more these days I find it far easier to find shortcomings than I do to find things to praise. That just seems awfully negative. Maybe I should try doing something about that.

Why Go to the Movies?

I  have, more than once, been accused of being a cinephile. There was a time when I saw nearly every movie released in my area worth seeing (and many not so worth it). Sure, I had more disposable income than I do now, but also, the experience of going to the theatre and watching the film was something unique. Now I look at how much I would need to spend for that same experience and I wonder, often aloud, “Why bother?”

One adult with a Coke will cost me anywhere from $8.50 – 16.50 depending on the time of day, the movie showing, 3d or not, and whether or not I have a frequent visitor refillable soda cup. Now, I am not one that has a problem going to the movies alone, but it is still almost always more enjoyable to go with someone else. So now I’m at $17.00 – 33.00 for one film. Yikes! That’s an awful lot to pay for an experience that isn’t even guaranteed to be soothing and pleasant. There’s always the risk of morons with cell phones, rowdy children, sexually amorous teenagers, projector problems, or the seven foot-tall two foot-wide guy coming in at the end of the previews and sitting down right in front of you. We won’t even get into what happens when one finishes that 32 oz. Coke in the first 25 minutes of a 135 minute film.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is still something to be said for seeing films on super-sized screens with 21 speaker sound systems that can make your teeth rattle in your skull during the action sequences or the THX intro. And it used to be that the only way one could experience a movie the way it was intended to be experienced was to go to the theatre to see it. But that simply isn’t the case anymore.

With the great advances in digital technology, viewers can now watch films in the comfort of their own homes with stunning picture and incredibly rich sound. Now, not everyone has a monster screen and a high-powered sound system. But these days most people are finding themselves with televisions 42 inches or larger in their living rooms. The difference is, in their living rooms they are only 7-15 feet from their televisions. That means they are getting the same viewing experience in terms of how much of their vision is taken up by a picture as they do in a theatre. And in some cases they may be getting even more, especially compared to some of the “small screens” in those multiplexes popping up everywhere. Most households also have at least a passable stereo system. Even many of the simple systems have the ability to pipe through sound from the television or a Blu-ray player. Those wanting a bit more of the “theatre feel” can upgrade to a home theatre-in-a-box (HTIB) for all of $250 – 300.

So, given that many folks have the makings of a serviceable theatre in their homes, and movies can be rented for as little as $1 .00, or purchased for as little as $15.00, the incentive to actually go to the movies seems to sort of pale. For the price of two adults one can actually purchase a Blu-ray copy of a movie and relax on the couch with a Coke (or better yet an adult beverage) and watch with no distractions. And hey, if that Coke makes its way through the system too fast, there’s always a pause button!

About the only reason remaining to go out to the movies is to be part of “the event”. There are still some films filled with pop-culture hype that just demand to be seen in the cineplexes. But those films, at least ones that appeal to market of more than one demographic, are even becoming a rarity. It also seems that these days that a growing percentage of the films released are just plain forgettable.

Blah. Maybe I’m just getting old and crotchety. But when I can order pizza delivery, enjoy a Coke or a beer, and watch a movie in stunning clarity with pretty good sound along with 0-10 of my good friends for under the cost of two adults going to the actual cinema, it just seems like a no-brainer. There are very few movies that just scream out to be seen without the 3-4 month wait for Blu-ray/DVD release. I would rather take the money saved and reinvest it in upgrading the home theatre, or in buying/renting extra films. (Maybe that’s why my brother and I have 2,200 titles in the house.) Or one could go to dinner with their significant other more often too.

Of course, I am still going to go see The Hobbit on opening  night come 14 December 2012.

The Hobbit Trailer