Tuesday, December 23, 2014

#OneLastTime

Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies hit movie theaters last Wednesday, December 17th. It is the third and final film of Jackson's second Middle Earth trilogy. I was excited enough to attend a screening the night before the release date and drag my girlfriend (who isn't a Tolkien fan) along while touring Chattanooga. 

It was a truly bittersweet experience. Eleven years ago in 2003, I felt the same sadness when the credits rolled to the Return of the King. I didn't want it to end, but fellow Tolkien fans and I were comforted by the possibility of a Hobbit film. So in the near decade that followed, I frequently checked on the rumors. At times I lost hope: there were breakdowns in negotiation, filming postponed, directors dropping out, among other things. But eventually, things worked out and in the holiday seasons from December 2012 to December 2014, we went to Middle Earth and back again. Would we ever return? 


The latest trilogy failed to garner the same critical response from the LOTR series but remains commercially successful. But, Tolkien purists have gripes:
  1. Too cartoon-ish. This was a common complaint after the first movie: The Unexpected Journey, aimed at Radagast's character and the dwarven dinner scene at Bag End.
  2. Tauriel? Evangeline Lilly's female warrior-elf character was not present in Tolkien's work yet comprised the other half of a weak love story.
  3. Legolas. Orlando Bloom reprises his role from the LOTR trilogy, the deft warrior-elf, deadly with bow. He wasn't mentioned in the Hobbit either. However, Thranduil (his father) was, so it's conceivable that he was present but not mentioned in the book.  
  4. Reliance on CGI - Jackson falls more in love with CGI with every movie.
As an unapologetic fan of Tolkien's works since age 11, I was simply happy to see Middle Earth back in the cinema. In fact, I saw the first movie twice in theaters, despite the cartoon-ish, childish feel, because I expected it: The Hobbit book was far more light-hearted than the fellowship series and was aimed towards a younger audience. The "good" races of Middle Earth didn't face annihilation. But by the second movie, which premiered in December 2013, Middle Earth had completely captured my imagination again.

I was also a fan of the casting: I get to crush on Evangeline Lilly for the first time since Lost wrapped up in 2010, Orlando Bloom for sentimental reasons and the dynamic duo from BBC's Sherlock - Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Peter Jackson had the artistic freedom to include/exclude significant characters from his first series. So the creation of Tauriel and the presence of Legolas were welcome to me - although the Tolkien purists probably hate it. 

So what's next? Is this truly the last time we visit Middle Earth? Under the guidance of Peter Jackson, apparently yes. However, I still cling on to a sliver of hope, much like Frodo did. JRR Tolkien wrote a comprehensive history of Arda - the planet where this adventure takes place. Middle Earth is but a continent. The series of stories are chronicled in the Silmarillion. His son Christopher released some of his unpublished works such as the Children of Hurin and Unfinished Tales: The History of Middle-Earth. Unfortunately, Tolkien's estate retain rights to his posthumous work and Jackson seems fairly uninterested in filming the Silmarillion

As Aragorn said, "there's always hope." And I will cling onto that in the years that follow. You can say they are precious to me. I always get an air of nostalgia everytime I see them on screen. Furthermore, I've played numerous LOTR themed video games because I can't get enough of it. So here's to hoping and I am grateful to Peter Jackson and company for taking me there and back again, one last time.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Living in Knoxville

In early August, I moved from Charlotte, my on-and-off home for the past nine years to Knoxville for graduate school. I love Charlotte and consider it home. However, as friends began to move in 2012, I got the itch to leave because I didn't want to be the last person at the party. So eventually, I was offered an exit ramp vis a vis admission to UT's full-time MBA program. So I quit my job, packed my stuff and moved about 250 miles northwest.

Knoxville skyline from across the Gay St. bridge

I've observed that when people have an affinity for a place but can't elaborate why, they describe it as "charming" - and Knoxville is indeed charming. It lacks Charlotte's glimmering skyline but has features that the Queen City doesn't, which includes:
  • SEC Football -  Yes, Charlotte has hosted the ACC championship game since 2010 and Florida State hasn't lost in years, but it doesn't compare. My alma mater UNC Charlotte didn't even have a squad during my time there and this year alone I saw the Gators, Kentucky and Alabama "roll through" Knoxville. As the home of a traditional SEC power, Knoxville also features the following:
    • Tailgate culture - was awoken on numerous Saturday mornings because tailgaters were setting up.
    • School spirit and community support - I'll be honest, fans in Charlotte are fickle. When the Panthers and Bobcats are in poor form, which is often - opposing fans can take over the stadium. The Vols have been poor for consecutive seasons, yet Knoxville is a sea of orange on game days. Most residents support the Vols and sing Rocky Top even though they probably never attended UT. If I were still an undergrad, I would appreciate this even more.
  • A river runs through it - The Tennessee river is walking distance from downtown and provides a nice waterfront area. I'm unsure of the commercial benefits of the river, but it provides recreational activities. Actually, this is a recurring theme with Tennessee cities. Nashville, Chattanooga and presumably Memphis all have rivers running through downtown. NC's largest cities don't. When it comes to overall outdoor activities, I think Knoxville edges Charlotte. To me, the parks are better connected by greenways and the nature centers are so much closer to downtown.
  • College town - UT's campus is incorporated into downtown Knoxville. In fact, it takes me 10 minutes to walk to my business building and 15 minutes to downtown's market square. I can go without driving for a week. 
  • Downtown Farmer's Market - I'm sure Charlotte has a few of them, but they're not located in a nice central location that promotes surrounding local business even better.
  • The Sunsphere - an odd structure built for the 1982 World's Fair and in my opinion, the most prominent building in Knoxville. Its free to explore during regular hours and apparently has some sort of nightlife lounge atop. 
Clockwise: Riverfront area, Sunsphere, Checkered Neyland vs UF, food truck at Farmer's market

Having said that, I do miss Charlotte. I still have some friends there and I miss our nightlife outings. I miss the way some neighborhoods are being restored, plus the emerging food truck and brewery scenes. Some things can be replaced, others not so much. Here's a list of tangible things Charlotte has but Knoxville doesn't:
  • Dim Sum - at the time of this writing, there were no establishments that offered plate upon plate of my Cantonese favorites
  • Indie music scene - besides "Washed Out" in late August, haven't noticed any indie acts stop in Knoxville. It is likely they stop in either Asheville or Nashville, skipping everything in the middle. During my last year in Charlotte, I must have attended at least 10 shows.
  • BBQ restaurants - NC BBQ > Tennessee BBQ. Visited one of the alleged best joints in town, and walked away a bit disappointed. I feel that Charlotte has at least three restaurants that tops it.
  • Shopping - Charlotte simply offers more in regards to variety and proximity. If traffic is calculated, then it is a one hour trip to Sevierville, the closest outlet shops to Knoxville.
So it looks like I really miss the ethnic food choices in the Queen City. However, Knoxville has pleasantly surprised and I have found legitimate Japanese and Korean establishments. But you need to have dim-sum to be considered a proper "city" in my book.