Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug the Incompetent

I like most of what Director Peter Jackson has done with the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) series, and part 1 of The Hobbit is entertaining. But part 2, The Desolation of Smaug (DOS) has so many special effects that it becomes cartoon-like in parts. When action laced with special effects is piled too high the "willing suspension of disbelief" cracks and crumbles. This is a real problem with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Peter Jackson really, really wants another LOTR epic. So, he forces Tolkien's The Hobbit into the LOTR mold. Yes, there are aspects of the story that fit with LOTR, but The Hobbit is not merely the prelude to LOTR. Tolkien's The Hobbit is an adventure story with fun as well as exciting and scary moments. The point of the story is getting to the Lonely Mountain, getting rid of Smaug and getting back the treasure and dwarf kingdom Smaug has stolen.

Tolkien's drawing of the dwarves' escape in barrels with Bilbo atop
Problem 1. Special Effects Overkill
At times it felt like one was watching a Bugs Bunny/Yosemite Sam cartoon. When Legolas (imported into DOS along with the barrel escape fight) moves down a raging river by jumping from one open dwarf barrel to another and shoots orcs with one foot on the head of one dwarf in a barrel and the other foot on the head of a dwarf in another barrel, it looks like Bugs Bunny anti-gravity moves. I started to laugh (but held it in so as not to spoil things for others in the theater).

Then there's the extended battle against Smaug at the end of the movie. I also had to quell laughter then--especially with the old box swiftly going down to the box rapidly coming back up switcheroo so Smaug misses on his fire breathing attacks. Smaug has so many misses he seems more like Yosemite Sam than a fearsome dragon. Nothing works for Smaug the Incompetent.

The ten dwarves use a gazillion different attack methods against Smaug one after another in the final minutes of the film. Though on the run for their lives, the dwarves manage to figure out counter attack after counter attack by using different aspects of the old mining machinery. The seemingly unending proliferation of special effect action yanked me completely out of the story. The only thing missing from traditional cartoon fights was to hit the dragon with a frying pan, have his head morph into the frying pan shape, and then have him shake it out to its normal shape. The prolonged special effects were a yawn--neither frightening nor adventurous.

Problem 2. Smaug the Slow and Stupid.
DOS's Smaug is pretty feeble. He can be stymied by ten dwarves and a hobbit. So, he gives up on killing them, all visible and basically in front of him for a good stretch of time, and goes to attack Lake-town. How lame is that?

This is the same Smaug who 1) destroyed a strong, thriving dwarf empire, 2) destroyed the rich, prosperous town of Dale, and 3) has held the Lonely Mountain and its treasure for two centuries. But, DOS's Smaug can't lay a finger on any of the eleven in the basically weaponless quest party.

Tolkien portrays Smaug as extremely dangerous, and more than a match for all fourteen of the quest party who hide themselves in the mountain and, except for Bilbo with his ring on, never dare to directly confront Smaug, let alone attack him.* Only fleeing into the mountain itself and shutting their escape door saves them from his fierce beating and fiery breath.

Problem 3. Tossing Light, Fun Elements.
To force DOS into the epic mold, Peter Jackson removes almost all the fun elements from Tolkien's wonderful story. There is no taunting of the spiders in this movie. Gone is the clever introduction by Gandalf of the thirteen dwarf house guests to the not so social Beorn. DOS includes only a very shortened version of the long, witty conversation between Bilbo and Smaug. These episodes in the book lighten the story and bring fun into it.

There isn't much merriment in DOS. There's a hint of charm in the back and forth between Tauriel and Kili at the beginning of their DOS-invented romance. The romance does not improve Tolkien's story, but it does improve Jackson's movie. There needs to be something light in DOS.

Problem 4. Portraying Use of the Ring.
DOS also has problems with filming Bilbo with his ring on. To show Bilbo with the ring on Jackson uses a semi-monochrome Bilbo in an out-of-focus bubble. That doesn't work well with extended shots, so most of Bilbo's conversation with Smaug is done with Bilbo sans ring.  (Tolkien's Bilbo always has his ring on when talking to Smaug because the dragon is deadly dangerous.) In DOS Smaug can easily kill the visible Bilbo, but doesn't.

I feel bad for Peter Jackson and this movie project. His previous tellings of LOTR and The Hobbit, part 1 had some flaws but were never boring or cartoonish. The Desolation of Smaug, however, cannot overcome its cartoon-like torrent of special effect fighting and consequent dumbing down of opponents like Smaug. Unfortunately, The Desolation of Smaug goes on my do-not-see-again list.
*From The Hobbit, "Inside Information", p. 231:
"The dragon came. They had barely time to fly back to the tunnel, pulling and dragging in their bundles, when Smaug came hurtling from the North, licking the mountain-sides with flame, beating his great wings with a noise like a roaring wind. His hot breath shrivelled the grass before the door, and drove in through the crack they had left and scorched them as they lay hid. Flickering fires leaped up and black rock-shadows danced. Then darkness fell as he passed again. The ponies screamed with terror, burst their ropes and galloped wildly off. The dragon swooped and turned to pursue them, and was gone.

"'That'll be the end of our poor beasts!' said Thorin. 'Nothing can escape Smaug once he sees it. Here we are and here we shall have to stay, unless any one fancies tramping the long open miles back to the river with Smaug on the watch!'"

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas! A Cappella: It Came upon the Midnight Clear

Merry Christmas! It Came Upon the Midnight Clear from a local high school a cappella choir celebrating the birth of the Lord Jesus.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Will President Obama Have to Pay the Tobacco Surcharge on His Health Insurance Premium?

President Obama signed up for Obamacare today.

One key question is whether he still uses tobacco and will have to pay a substantial premium surcharge of up to 50%. Byron York:
Critical that Obama really has quit smoking. If not, insurer 'can charge a tobacco surcharge of up to 50% of your total premium…'
The President said in September that he quit cigarettes six years ago. But, as of four years ago he said he still had occasional failures.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Sound of Music Live! vs. Sound of Music Movie

My last post comparing the 2013 stage version (Live!) with the 1965 movie version was based more on performance differences than script content.

I want to add a bit more on the storyline. The movie makes a number of subtle changes and a few clear plot changes in the stage script.

1. The Baroness. In the movie she is a self-centered conniver and somewhat mean-spirited. She plans to get rid of the children by sending them to boarding school as soon as possible after she and the Captain are married. She also confronts Maria with Maria's love for the Captain and the Captain's love for Maria in order to push Maria into emotional crisis which causes Maria to leave.

In Live! Elsa does neither of the above. She is much more personally appealing. The sort of person the Captain might really be interested in. The break up between Elsa and the Captain comes because Elsa values self-interest and compromise even with the Nazis. The Captain despises the Nazis and will not compromise with them. They both realize this difference is a marriage deal breaker.

2. Rolfe. In the movie Rolfe betrays the family to his Nazi superiors when they are hiding in the abbey. Just before the Captain and Maria's return from their honeymoon he shows himself much more interested in serving with the Nazis than seeing Liesl privately. How that change occurred from the young man who is deeply in love and sings "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" is never explained.

In Live! Rolfe starts to betray the family in the abbey, but when he sees Liesl, he can't go through with it. This is much more in line with the character of a young man in love who is torn between young love and the lure of serving with the Nazis.

3. Maria. At the end of the movie Maria is basically a follower. She has almost no initiative. The Captain makes all the important decisions including the need for the family to flee and that the children can make it over the mountain. She does plead with Herr Zeller that the night air is not good for the children's voices and helps the children keep calm and quiet, but that's about it.

In Live! the Captain also comes to the fore, but Maria has some important input. First, she interposes with the Nazi delegation to suggest that the Captain cannot go immediately to accept his commission with the Nazis because he needs to sing with the family at the festival. Further, when the Captain is unsure about whether the children can make it over the mountain, Maria encourages him that they can make it. The Live! Maria shows some of her leadership skills and strong character in the last part of the play even though the Captain dominates in action and decision making.

4. The Mother Abbess. Not much difference here, but because Maria and the Mother Abbess sing "My Favorite Things" as a duet, Live! gives the bit of information that the Mother Abbess was also raised on the mountain and shows a more complex person who has a fun side along with her seriousness and spiritual devotion.

Most of the changes that the movie made from the play script were for the worse in terms of character development and plot line.

In general terms, the movie is superior on showing more development of the children's character (their playing with the Baroness after Maria has left and visit to the abbey to try to see Maria) and more development in the romance between the Captain and Maria when he declares his love to her. It also has the gorgeous Austrian scenery. And, of course, it has the great Julie Andrews.

Live! has the stunning photography of high-definition video even though it is trained on stage sets rather than real Austrian natural beauty. And, of course, it has the up and coming Carrie Underwood.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Sound of Music Live!: A Hit!

Last updated 12/19/13.

A hit--at least for me.

For one thing this is the first time I've ever gotten to see a professional performance of "No Way to Stop It" which is one of my favorite Broadway songs both because it has such a great backwards message and is so singable. Before this I could only imagine what was going on when Theodore Bikel, Karl Kasznar and Marion Marlowe were singing it on my Broadway cast album from the late '50s/early '60s.

(with Stephen Moyer in this song is Laura Benanti and Christian Borle)

After watching The Sound of Music Live! from about the halfway point on television this last weekend, and all through today via the NBC online link, the whole cast is growing on me.

Audra McDonald blew me away in "Climb Every Mountain". I actually applauded after her performance. But, at first I thought Carrie Underwood and Stephen Moyer were slightly wooden. Now I am coming to appreciate their performances. [Update: Indeed, Underwood's tinge of seriousness or reticence in the beginning dovetails perfectly with Maria's transformation to a serious, quick thinking diplomat at the end of the story when she deflects the Nazi demand that the Captain immediately report for duty and supports and encourages the Captain that they can make it over the mountains with the children. Underwood's slight wooden seriousness lays the groundwork for the improbably demur, quiet, thoughtful Maria at the end of the movie.

Underwood's Maria is less joyful and exuberant than Julie Andrews' Maria and has a streak of seriousness that is clear from the beginning. Since Maria is both joyfully spirited and thoughtfully serious, the different blend the two actresses give is intriguing. I had never really thought about the improbability of Maria's transformation in The Sound of Music before comparing Andrews' performance to Underwood's.

Oh, and as for singing quality: that Underwood goes toe-to-toe with McDonald in the "My Favorite Things" duet and comes out nicely shows that her first-rate singing talent transfers to Broadway seamlessly.]

It's super hard to compete against Julie Andrews. She was a one-off great. But, if you take another great, Ethel Merman, she wasn't terrific at acting, but could belt out a song like no one else. It was magical to hear her sing. Who cared about her acting?

Underwood and Moyer are pleasing enough in both acting and singing. Maybe in the ballpark with Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel. I only saw Martin as Peter Pan on television, and she was good, but not one-off great. Underwood and Moyer are also in the ballpark with Christopher Plummer (especially given that Plummer was dubbed because his voice* wasn't up to Julie Andrews' quality).

It's hard (and maybe not fair) to compare a movie or even a Broadway stage play with a one time live performance. No retakes** as in the movies and no performance after performance to hone one's character and presentation as in a Broadway play.

I give this not only a one time viewing thumbs up, but I think I'll buy the dvd and watch it at least another few times--though probably not as much as I've watched Julie Andrews' Sound of Music. [Update: Then again, the stunning visual quality of high-definition, makes Live! so much easier on the eyes even though the video is of sets rather than real mountains, fountains and houses as in the movie.  I already like watching the singing episodes better.]

Thanks to Carrie Underwood, Stephen Moyer and the rest of the cast for making a fun, uplifting performance that has some serious subject undertones and giving us the pleasure of Rodgers and Hammerstein again.
*An audio tape of Plummer singing Eidelweiss was dubbed on to the movie scene in this version. So, you can hear how his actual singing voice would have sounded in the movie.

**Maybe this is reflected in versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. In terms of Cinderella performances, Julie Andrews' one time live performance did not seem to me quite as good as Lesley Ann Warren's movie version. In terms of singing, Warren's "My Own Little Corner" seems the more haunting and textured of the two.

UPDATE: I couldn't resist another song:

Monday, December 16, 2013

6 Heroes Who Died October 18 to December 11, 2013

October 18 - Sgt. Lyle D. Turnbull, 31, of Norfolk, Va., died in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, from a medical emergency. The cause of his death is under investigation.

October 20 - Lance Cpl. Christopher O. Grant, 20, of Richwood, La., died while conducting combat operations in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

November 3 - Sgt. 1st Class Forrest W. Robertson, 35, of Westmoreland, Kan., died in Pul-E-Alam, Afghanistan, of wounds sustained when enemy forces attacked his unit with small arms fire.

November 13 - Staff Sgt. Richard L. Vazquez, 28, of Seguin, Texas, died in Kandahar, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when his unit was attacked with an improvised explosive device while on dismounted patrol in Panjwai, Afghanistan. 

November 17 - Staff Sgt. Alex A. Viola, 29, of Keller, Texas, died in Kandahar, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when his unit was attacked with an improvised explosive device while on dismounted patrol.

December 11 - Lance Cpl. Matthew R. Rodriguez, 19, of Fairhaven, Mass., died while conducting combat operations in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

As of mid-December, 2013, 2,293 members of the U.S. military have died since the start of the Afghanistan War on October 7, 2001. More than 70% of these deaths have happened during the Obama administration.

NY Liberals Astonished that Obamacare Targets Them

Because of Obamacare's individual mandate, many New York professionals are discovering that elections have consequences.  They will no longer be able to get special group rates. They will have to buy as individuals and "accept higher deductible and co-pay costs or inferior coverage."
Many in New York’s professional and cultural elite have long supported President Obama’s health care plan. But now, to their surprise, thousands of writers, opera singers, music teachers, photographers, doctors, lawyers and others are learning that their health insurance plans are being canceled and they may have to pay more to get comparable coverage, if they can find it.

They are part of an unusual, informal health insurance system that has developed in New York, in which independent practitioners were able to get lower insurance rates through group plans, typically set up by their professional associations or chambers of commerce. That allowed them to avoid the sky-high rates in New York’s individual insurance market, historically among the most expensive in the country.

But under the Affordable Care Act, they will be treated as individuals, responsible for their own insurance policies. For many of them, that is likely to mean they will no longer have access to a wide network of doctors and a range of plans tailored to their needs. And many of them are finding that if they want to keep their premiums from rising, they will have to accept higher deductible and co-pay costs or inferior coverage.
[emphasis added]
Further, plans that meet the standards of Obamacare are being canceled to prevent them from "[s]iphoning" people from the new health exchanges and driving those rates up. In other words, though previous plans paid for by these New Yorkers meet and exceed Obamacare standards, New York state forced cancellation of the plans so that policy buyers would be forced to underwrite health exchange insurance rates in paying higher rates and having higher deductibles and receiving poorer coverage.
But while those policies, by and large, had been canceled because they did not meet the law’s requirements for minimum coverage, many of the New York policies being canceled meet and often exceed the standards, brokers say. The rationale for disqualifying those policies, said Larry Levitt, a health policy expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation, was to prevent associations from selling insurance to healthy members who are needed to keep the new health exchanges financially viable.

Siphoning those people, Mr. Levitt said, would leave the pool of health exchange customers “smaller and disproportionately sicker,” and would drive up rates.
[emphasis added]
The sad thing is that it's not just New York's professional and cultural elite who will have to pay higher prices for worse health coverage. Most of the country will. Obamacare is built on jacking up health care insurance rates on the 80%+ who have health insurance in order to cover the 30 million previously uninsured who will receive healthcare at subsidized rates or for free.

H/T Rush Limbaugh

Friday, December 13, 2013

Palin Weighs In On Budget Bill And Republican Lies

Representative Paul Ryan's budget bill "raises taxes and increases spending". Sarah Palin:
No one can argue with the fact that Paul Ryan’s compromise budget bill raises taxes and increases spending. Show me one Republican who got elected on that platform. Spare America the Orwellian word games. If the government is taking money out of your pocket to fund its growing Big Brother operations, it’s a tax. Whether money is taken from you via your phone bill, your airline ticket, or your income, it’s a tax. If politicians can’t be honest about this, it’s time to go home.
. . .
The Political Establishment will no doubt tell us that a budget battle will distract us from the fight against Obamacare. But that excuse is just the latest variation in the Establishment’s old canard that they’re keeping their powder dry for the next big battle which never seems to materialize because they’re always too busy waving the white flag and following the path of least resistance until election day.
Really, how different is it to lie about keeping your healthcare plan or lie about decreasing spending and not raising taxes? Or how about "if you like your military retirement plan you can keep it".

Rep. Ryan is a big disappointment. How lame is the following?
In a last-ditch effort to gather support for the measure as debate came to a close, Ryan declared, “I was part of the last presidential election. We tried defeating this president. I wish we would have.

“Elections have consequences. [T]o really do what we want, we’re going to have to win elections.”
Rep. Ryan doesn't think winning the House has consequences or his own election as U.S. Representative has consequences. Apparently only winning the White House has consequences.  But, even had he and Mitt Romney won the White House, the Democrats would still have controlled the Senate and could have blocked any budget deal. Seems like for Ryan elections have good consequences for Republicans only if they control both houses of Congress and the Presidency. What kind of leadership is that?

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Obamacare Creates Tax/Penalty Dangers for Poverty Stricken

Last week commenter 1pdxchris asked the Oregonian's Brent Hunsberger what would happen if a person under guessed their next year's income in getting Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) subsidies. Hunsberger published his answer today. You'll have to pay back any credits you didn't deserve.
"We're really nervous for people," said Rob Justus, executive director at CASH Oregon, which provides free tax-preparation help for low-income Oregonians. "They could, more out of a desperate sort of guess, really screw themselves over. We're really fearful, especially with a lot of the folks we're working with who are in poverty."

Why the concern? Cover Oregon's mailing will provide your estimated Advanced Premium Tax Credit (APTC). For most taxpayers, it'll be based on the household income reported on your 2012 tax return, said Leslie Smith, Cover Oregon's online trainer.

But if the estimate you provided on your Cover Oregon application for your 2014 income is 10 percent higher or lower than your actual 2012 income, the exchange will rely on your 2014 estimate to calculate your credit, Smith said. The exchange will ask you to submit documentation within 90 days supporting your 2014 estimate, she said.
No word on if there will be penalties to pay for the taxes you owed not being paid on time. However, the helpful advice to avoid bad financial news is either to take no subsidy or less subsidy than you think you deserve. In other words, you would be wise to act as if ACA/Obamacare subsidies had never been passed.
How do you protect yourself? If your income fluctuates a lot from year to year – as it might for Realtors or other self-employed individuals – you can hold off on receiving the credits until you file your 2014 return. That's rough, though, if you don't have enough monthly cash flow to cover the full insurance premium.

You can also apply only a portion of your credit against your premium.
A further suggestion is that the poor get a tax preparer to help--if one can be found.
Still unclear? Who can help you decide how to apply the credit? That's a bit tougher. Insurance agents aren't licensed to give tax advice.
. . .
Many tax advisers aren't up to speed on the act yet. If they are, and they bill by the hour, they don't want to charge individuals who largely can't afford to pay for the advice.

"Many preparers don't want to be involved in that because you have to bill out a lot of time for people who can't afford it," Baldwin[*] said. "Next year when you have to reconcile it, it's even more work. It's not going to be very pleasant."
How about charitable help? Problems there too. "CASH Oregon, which provides free assistance at 130 sites statewide, won't be up and running until January." Further, as quoted above, the CASH Oregon director is "fearful" of effects on the poor of claiming ACA/Obamacare subsidies.

And though H&R Block has a website to help estimate tax credits, it has information on less than half the plans available. Hunsberger found that instead of giving a choice of 80 plans from 10 providers that Cover Oregon gives, H&R Block gave a choice of only 33 plans from 2 providers--a 60% reduction in choice.

So, ACA/Obamacare is not only forcing people to buy medical coverage with bells and whistles they don't want, but making tax filing time so complex that even the poorest among us will need professional tax help to avoid "really screw[ing] themselves over" in receiving health care subsidies.
*From Hunsberger's article:
"I was astonished at what level of work they're going to expect people to do," said David Baldwin, an accountant and member of the American Institute of CPA's tax resource panel committee. "It's going to be hard to implement for someone who can't afford to pay someone to do their own taxes."

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Subsidies and Penalties for Obamacare only to Apply in States with State Run Exchanges?

From Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt in the Wall Street Journal:
While the president's health law is vast and extraordinarily complex, it is in one respect very simple. Subsidies are only to be made available, and tax penalties for not signing up for health insurance are only to be assessed, in states that create their own health-care exchange. The IRS, however, is attempting to enforce tax penalties in all states—including Oklahoma and the majority of the other states that have declined to create their own exchanges. Citizens and businesses in these states must use the federal exchange instead.

The distinction is critical, because under the terms of the law it is the availability of government insurance-premium subsidies that triggers the penalties against businesses if they fail to provide their employees with health insurance that the administration deems acceptable.
H/T Byron York

Update: Here's the Cato Institute's take on the issue.

H/T WSJ commenter Teresa Rich