One Last Time

Happy 2015 everyone. Wow, do we have a lot of films to look forward to in this New Year and can you believe it is almost February? Of course the docket is full of sequels, including the two that are the top of my list of most anticipated movies of 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Yet this post is not about those movies. This post is about the end of an era. The era of Peter Jackson’s foray into Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

lotr animated GIF

Be forewarned, there will be minor spoilers for the Hobbit films (2012-2014) in this post which fall into our spoiler guideline of 5 years past. So consider yourselves…

WARNED!!!

Okay, with that out of the way, we can talk about Jackson’s take on the world of Middle Earth. Having read The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit (which are all available here at the Chesapeake Public Library) when I was in middle school, I personally never thought that they were filmable. While some would certainly disagree with me, I found the old rotoscoped and animated films from 70’s to be terrifying. Sure, they told the story and were a huge inspiration for Peter Jackson, but there really is something about bringing Tolkien to life in a physical realm (more on that later).

So when I heard that New Zealander, Peter Jackson, was slated to helm a live action version of all three Lord of the Rings books, I was super psyched. Jackson, who had directed Dead Alive (1992), which as previously mentioned in the Screen Scene blog from October, is one of my favorite horror/comedy films ever. He also directed The Frighteners (1996) with Michael J. Fox and one of Kate Winslet’s first roles in Heavenly Creatures (1994), which details the real life murder committed by author Anne Perry. Yep, mystery writer Anne Perry ACTUALLY murdered someone in real life! This all led me to believe that Tolkien’s work was in good hands. A director that could not only build dramatic tension and heartfelt emotion, but one that could also create the fantastical realm of Middle Earth was on the case.

Maudit animated GIF

After filming all three Lord of the Rings films as one epic shoot, Fellowship of the Ring was released in December 2001. Here was the real test. Could Middle Earth be believable? Could a Fantasy film bring in a wide audience? The answer to both of those questions was a resounding, YES!

My expectations were blown out of the water. From the opening scenes in the Shire to the epic conclusion two years later with the Academy Award winning Return of the King (the first and only fantasy film to ever win best picture), Middle Earth drew millions of filmgoers into the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. Much of this can be attributed to the commitment of the cast/crew and their Director.

Real sets were used, costumes were made, the New Zealand wilds constituted the locations, prosthetics were applied to actors to create believable creature effects and cutting edge digital effects (CGI) and motion capture were implemented devastatingly well. All of this complimented the story but never veered towards overshadowing it. While some Tolkien purists may have issues with additions or character changes that Jackson made in the LotR trilogy, they were all done in effort to craft the best experience possible.

the lord of the rings animated GIF

Seeing a Lord of the Rings movie became a holiday tradition during those three years of release. I recall being super sick and still going to see the midnight release of The Two Towers at Regal Macarthur. One poor guy was dressed as Gollum, which entailed him only having a small loin cloth in 30 degree weather. Good times. Yet as the Annie Lennox lead Into the West played over the credits, I began looking forward to The Hobbit. As awesome as Lord of the Rings is, I really wanted to see Smaug! The long wait began.

 

Flash forward through ten years of rights disputes, and director changes and we finally have not one, not two but THREE Hobbit films. I can understand the need to split the story into two parts, in fact each of the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings films are superior to the theatrical release, but three parts seemed like overkill (see Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I (2014) and Part II (2015) for reference). Yet I still had faith in Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth.

While I would have been happy with a Guillermo Del Toro helmed Hobbit movie, I was secretly (well not that secretly) happy that he dropped the project and that Jackson would return. Jackson set out to use the latest cutting edge technology in filmmaking, controversial High Frame Rate (HFR) cameras to revisit Hobbiton and journey to the Lonely Mountain. Shooting at double the standard frame rate for feature films (normal films run at 24 frames per second, HFR runs at 48 frames per second), Jackson sought a level of visual clarity that had yet to be achieved. These new films sounded groundbreaking. Instead, they arrived slightly broken.

Don’t get me wrong, I really liked each of the three Hobbit films, but I would also be lying to myself and you if I said they were on the same level as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The reason for this is not because the book was split into three films, in fact The Battle of Five Armies should have been longer to add in more finality. The reason is not due to the characters and storylines created to appeal to wider audiences (I am talking about you Tauriel). I actually think much of this works for what it is. Nor was the reason due to the concept that HFR technology was a bit jarring to moviegoers, who had become accustomed to seeing film in 24 frames per second. Everyone still had the choice to see the movies at theaters that were playing them in that standard rate. No, the reason is that Middle Earth had been created in a computer more often this time around.

movie animated GIF

Here is where we return to the classic debate of practical effects versus computer effects. One simply has to look at many of the sets (the Goblin Tunnels), the locations (Mirkwood Forest) and the creature effects (the Orcs, Wargs and Trolls) to see that CGI is rarely as believable as practical effects. The dwarves in The Hobbit look good because they are actual actors wearing fake noses and beards. The dwarf, Dain (Billy Connolly) in The Battle of the Five Armies looks fake because he is not an actor in makeup, rather a CGI creation. Not every computer effect can look as good as Gollum or Smaug (which are breathtaking).

smaug animated GIF

As a viewer, we are often looking (both consciously and subconsciously) to have our belief suspended. When we see practical effects, unless they are terrible, we buy into them being real. When we see CGI, unless it is amazing, we know it is not real. Viewer buy in is lost. This is the reason I am so excited for The Force Awakens; JJ Abrams is relying on practical effects over digital effects. Of course CGI has its place, but over reliance on it can be damning.

Again I want to convey that I did really like all three of The Hobbit films, in fact I loved them. My only wish was for more practical effects and an added focus on the personality of the 12 dwarves. In my mind Thorin (Richard Armitage) and Bilbo (Martin Freeman) rival many of the great performances in the LotR trilogy. Plus, the riddles in the dark portion of An Unexpected Journey and Bilbo’s encounter with Smaug, in The Desolation of Smaug are standout sequences. Both contain a great deal of computer effects.

All of this bring us to the end. I am thankful to have been able to travel to Middle Earth one last time with Peter Jackson and crew. From The Fellowship of the Ring to The Battle of the Five Armies, we have an epic telling of one of the most important works of Fantasy literature ever written. Are they perfect? No, but they are better than I ever thought they could be. So with that being said I leave you with this video.

Enjoy Leonard Nimoy and his delightful ode to Bilbo Baggins. He really is the bravest little Hobbit of them all.

Through the Woods: A Horror Graphic Novel

 

This was by far my most favorite horror graphic novel to date. Emily Carroll’s folk tales and illustrations weave a thread of anxiety and unease as you turn the pages. Some stories are definitely more frightening than others, particularly “The Nesting Place” which I made the mistake of reading just before bed. A few images could be labeled as downright grotesque, but are tame in comparison to most horror-related graphic novels. The coloring is utterly beautiful and each page is stylized to unite each story within an overall aesthetic. If you’re looking for fairy-tales gone very, very wrong you won’t be disappointed with this quick read.

Grab a copy here!

 

Origami Yoda says, “Fold, you must!”

 

If you are a Star Wars fan and have read (or know about) the Tom Angleberger series, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, keep reading….

After our Tween program, “Get on the Bus With Emperor Pickletine,” we challenged our visitors to fold 1,000 paper Yodas. We already have over 300 “emergency 5-fold Yodas” made but still need more! So stop by, grab some instructions and recycled paper and fold five times. Up your game by adding your favorite “Yoda-ism” to his robe!

Finally, don’t forget – May the Fourth Be With You! We will celebrate National Star Wars Day at the Central Library on May 4th with a combined Teen/Tween costume contest, Star Wars themed snacks, Star Wars Trivia and a viewing of a Star Wars movie.

Hampton Roads: Some Winter Birding Hotspots

 

I’m not a big Facebook user and I visit it very irregularly. I did, however, join a FB group recently called the Hampton Roads Wildlife Enthusiasts (HRWE). Bird and nature lovers in this group, experienced and inexperienced alike, post their photos of wildlife they have seen in the Tidewater area and share information about when and where they saw it. I thought I knew most of the “good” places to go birdwatching in Hampton Roads, but this group has taught me about some places I had never heard about, and my recent birding has been all the richer for it.

The Princess Anne Athletic Complex off of Dam Neck Road in Virginia Beach has been a real hotspot lately for raptors, and many members of HRWE have been posting photos of hawks, falcons, eagles and harriers in recent weeks. Mary Reid Barrow recently reported in her Virginian Pilot blog that the complex is attracting more raptors than usual because many of the fields there have recently been cut, forcing rodents and other “raptor food” out into the open, making for easy hunting.

I had never been there, but I went last weekend with two birding friends who knew the best places to look for raptors within the large complex. We did not see large numbers of birds, but we all got great photos of the ones we did see because it was such a beautiful day. At the top of this posting is my favorite photo of the day, an American Kestrel. I have never encountered a Kestrel that allowed such a close approach. These little falcons, which are sometimes known colloquially as “Sparrow Hawks,” are notorious for flying away as soon as a birdwatcher (or photographer) looks its way. In all my years of birding, I had never been able to get close enough to take a good photograph of one, so this was a very special experience! Another photo of the same bird is below:

 

At least one pair of Red-tailed Hawks is very active at the complex. It’s almost nest-building time for hawks and other raptors, so most of the birds are already paired up with their mates and are quite active.  Below is a photo of one of the hawks; I wish it was on a nice, natural tree stump instead of a metal pole, but this was its perch of choice, up high where it could scan the fields for a meal.  This bird is obviously a full adult, as it has the vivid brick-red tail for which it is named. Younger birds do not have red tails until they reach maturity.

 

The bird’s mate flew overhead, giving us this view:

 

The other common buteo hawk in our area is the Red-shouldered Hawk, which is smaller than the Red-tailed and has completely different markings. The full adult bird is colorful, sporting a beautiful barred reddish-orange breast and belly. They are more likely to be found in wooded and swampy areas than soaring over large, open fields like Red-taileds. I photographed this one along Seaside Road on the Eastern Shore.

 

Another popular birding spot is right in a Virginia Beach neighborhood along Kings Grant Road. The lakes and ponds there attract good numbers of waterfowl in the winter, including American Wigeons, Hooded Mergansers, Mallards, Northern Shovelers, and Ring-necked Ducks among others. Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Canada Geese, and Cormorants are common. Wood Ducks are frequently seen there too, although I’ve only seen them at a distance so far. Below are a male Ring-necked Duck, a female Hooded Merganser, and a Great Blue Heron that I photographed there last month:

 

 

 

 

I’ve birded a few times at the boat ramp parking area at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center on General Booth Blvd. in Virginia Beach, but I didn’t know the place had a name. Owl Creek, as it is called, is a popular birding spot that offers a few different habitats in a small area; it overlooks Owl Creek, a wide  body of water that hosts nesting Bald Eagles as well as various waterfowl, and piney woods where I’ve seen Bluebirds, Brown Creepers, Woodpeckers, Kinglets and other small songbirds. Occasionally a rarity shows up there, like a Lark Sparrow that was found in October, and White Pelicans that flew over a couple of weeks ago. Below is a Brown Pelican that I photographed there last week (Brown Pelicans are very common there, moreso in the summer), another female Hooded Merganser, and a female Red-breasted Merganser, both wintering ducks here.

 

 

I cannot write a blog about winter birding without mentioning the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel; it is always the first place I think of when I decide to go birding in the winter. Birdwatchers used to be able to bird from all four of the manmade “islands” where the bridges descend into the underwater tunnels, and some of the best birding in the state — even in the country — can be had scoping the waters of the Chesapeake Bay from these islands. Since 9/11, however, the three northernmost islands have been closed to birders, and we can only stop at the south island (where the restaurant is). It does cost $13 one-way to get onto the Bridge-Tunnel, but if you’re a birder it’s well worth the cost. One of my favorite thing to watch there in the winter is Northern Gannets. On some days, you can see hundreds or even thousands of them soaring over the water and plunge-diving into the water bill first for food; on other days, you might see none at all. I’ll finish this blog post with a couple of my favorite Gannet photos, taken in December. Good birding, everyone!