Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Harry Potter 7.0

I have mixed feelings about the latest Harry Potter movie, which by the way isn’t the last one.  On the one hand, it has strong visuals, a solid script, decent acting on some people’s parts, and nice cinematography at times.  On the other, it’s the slowest of the Potter films, Daniel Radcliffe (Harry) and Emma Watson (Hermione) still haven’t learned how to act, and the film is unfinished.  Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the crew decided for some reason to release the movie in two parts.  They would have the audiences believe that Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows was simply too long a book with too much plot to adapt into a single movie, but this is clearly a falsity.  On top of the obvious reason to separate gullible Potter fans from more of their money, this decision is also a lame excuse to disguise the fact that they’re poor filmmakers and lack the know-how to turn a long book into a single movie.  In the hands of a skilled director, Deathly Hallows could easily have been made into one picture, albeit a long one.  The novel, which is 700 something pages, does not contain too much material to fit in one movie.  You don’t even get any kind of discount for the second part of the movie, which comes out July 2011 and which I like to call Harry Potter 7.65.  Bottom line: Warner Bros. wants audiences to “buy one for two”, and there’s a huge problem with that.

So my greatest complaint about the movie(s) was the decision to split it up and charge extra.  What’s the plot?  After six years attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry Potter still hasn’t died.  Sorry, I should have put a “mild spoiler” warning before writing that sentence. VERY mild spoiler, as the seventh book is clearly titled “Harry Potter” and The Deathly Hallows, and thus implies that somebody or something named Harry Potter exists somewhere within the pages.  In this would-be final installment, The Chosen One is on the run, seeking out and trying to destroy The Horcruxes that hold pieces of You-Know-Who’s soul before confronting The Dark Lord once and for all… I shouldn’t have to summarize if you’ve read the book.  Actually, if you have read the book but are the kind of person who forgets much of its contents weeks after, I suggest reading it again before coughing up your ten bucks to see the movie, because it can be deathly hard to follow at times.

Steven Kloves, who wrote the script, actually does a good job of picking out only the details that help to progress the story, and eliminating any unnecessary side-plots (if such do happen to exist).  The movie follows the book pretty well, except for one very awkward scene which readers will be able to detect in a heartbeat.  For this reason I guess splitting the movie isn’t completely without benefit, as it does allow the crew to dwell longer on particular moments in the story, although I’m still not forgiving them, because the movie ends at about 2 hours and 20 minutes.  They could easily have added another hour and a half to finish the damn thing.  That would mean an almost 4 hour film, but I’d much rather watch a completed product than pay the price of two movies to see just one.  LOTR: Return of the King was more than 3 hours long, and Peter Jackson’s version of King Kong almost was.

There is some really good acting in the movie, particularly from Helena Bonham Carter who plays the stereotypical (or so the movie makes her) witch Bellatrix Lestrange.  It’s a Severus disappointment that Snape, played by the brilliant Alan Rickman, only appears in one scene.  Unfortunately, Emma Watson hasn’t become a much better actor than when she started all those years back, and neither has Daniel Radcliffe.  In fact, possibly to deter viewers from reaching that same true conclusion, the filmmakers have Daniel, um, bare his chest a couple times as a distraction, first when the decoy Harry’s have to change into the real Potter’s clothes (why, might I ask?), and again when Harry decides to take a dip in a forest pond.  You may have an idea how uncomfortable I felt seeing Harry Potter in his boxers.  Rupert Grint is the best of the three as Ron, but he still only amounts to “ok”.

The special effects are good, but it’s a shame that the cinematographer decided to use the infamous “shaky camera” technique so much.  Sometimes this produces a nice level of intensity, as in the scene where (Spoiler alert!) the heroes are attacked by The Dark Lord’s massive snake, Nagini.  Other times it’s just plain annoying, particularly when they’re running from the Death Eaters and we can hardly see the action due to the shaking.

And about that snake scene... parents should know that THIS IS NOT A KID’S MOVIE!  It’s rated PG-13 for a reason.  The MPAA noted “some sequences of intense action violence, frightening images, and brief sensuality”.  That description is just about spot-on.  Having read the book might diminish the intensity for some kids, but the violence, which sometimes results in blood, renders the film inappropriate for most kids under 11.  The “brief sensuality” is for a hallucination the jealous Ron has of Harry and Hermione kissing passionately without any… well, kiddies will probably avert their gazes of their own accord.

To conclude, the movie plays for a little more than 2 hours, but it feels much longer and is definitely the slowest Harry Potter movie.  It doesn’t really offer profound examinations of complex, human characters.  It’s certainly not the best Harry Potter movie yet.  It has good parts, I think, but overall Deathly Hallows is forgettable.  Wait for the dvd(s), or maybe not, if they too come separately.

Grade rating: C+ or 2 stars, although I prefer to judge a movie as a whole instead of a part.

Note that doesn't really fit into the rest of my review anywhere: You might know that this movie was orginially intended to be released in 3D, but time restrictions prevented that from happening.  However, the made-for-3D scenes remain, especially in the beginning of the film.  That part where the snake slithers across the table and opens its jaws... almost funny.  See it in the trailer.

Oh, and one "critic" called it "The cinematic epic that defies convention and defines a generation"... I have no idea what that means.  If the movie defies the convention of a generation, how can it simultaneously define it?

And here’s a bonus evaluation of the trailers I was condemned obliged to watch before the feature itself.

Tron Legacy: Seems to be pretty awful all around, aside from the fact that Jeff Bridges stars.  And it’s in 3D. Just what we need!
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: Looks like Prince Caspian, with a 3D touch.  Skip.
Kung Fu Panda 2: The first film was great and Dreamworks should have stopped there.  The teaser for "Ska2oosh" was unfunny and would have looked awesomely lame in 3D.
The Green Hornet: A “supercar” movie starring Seth Rogen, supposedly an action-comedy… I’m not impressed but whatever…
Red Riding Rood: Basically “Twilight” in a medieval period with a red cape thrown into the mix.  The trailer even tells me, “From the director of Twilight”.  As if that’s anything to brag about.  Red is portrayed by Oscar-notminee Amanda Seyfried, who has stolen the show in such chick flicks cinematic masterpieces as “Dear John” and “Letters to Juliet”.
The Green Lantern: Two movies coming out next year with “Green” in the title!  What are the chances of that?!  This one, which is of course based on the DC comics, actually looks like it could be some fun, at least to me.  And since Ryan Reynolds is now the "Sexiest Man Alive" according to People Magazine, this superhero movie might reel in as many women audiences as men.  Speaking of superhero pictures, the 3rd movie in the (Christopher Nolan) Batman series isn’t going to be in 3D. Hooray!!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Battle of Thermopylae

Still interrupting sci-fi weeks.

Here's a narrative I had to write for this online class.  It's a decent retelling of the famous Battle of Thermopylae.  It's nothing new really, and it would have been much better were I allowed 300 more words (ha ha), but I need to blog.

Thermopylae. Our Xerxes had drawn up his army before the two cliffs and sent a scout to see the developments happening at the enemy camp. The horseman returned and reported that the Greeks and their allies numbered a few thousand, 300 of which were Spartans, and that he witnessed the Lacedemonians combing their hair and acting in ways entirely inappropriate for soldiers about to fight. We had heard of the Spartans’ courage and prowess in battle, and this strange behavior of theirs baffled us. Still, we were pleased to hear about the small number of our foes.

Xerxes waited five days before beginning the attack. We expected the battle to be over in an instant, however we were violently driven back by the Spartans whom we outnumbered by a million. It didn’t seem possible that they could suppress the Persian army so well in its huge numbers. We learned that the narrow passage completely prohibited us from exploiting our larger forces, and we were limited to having only a handful of men fight at once. When we grew tired, Xerxes sent in the Immortals to cut down the Spartans, but the elite soldiers did not live up to their name. They too were pushed back by the Spartans, and many received fatal wounds. That day Persian blood flooded the ground, and we learned that although human beings are plentiful, men are few.

The Persian army fared little better the next day, until Ephialtes came to us. A Greek familiar with the surrounding land, in exchange for bribes he informed Xerxes about another way across Thermopylae, over one the mountains. He was a traitor, but served the Persians well. A portion of us took the mountain path he spoke of, and the Phocian defenders stationed there dispersed. We descended the mountain and came up behind the Greeks, much diminished now that many of them had fled back to their homes. But the Spartans and their king, Leonidas, still remained. We didn’t know what kept them behind to fight a lost battle. Was it honor, their law? When we fell on the enemy, they died nobly fighting to the last, and even took some of us down with them.

The Persians won the Battle of Thermopylae, but we lost thousands more soldiers than our enemy Hellas. In that battle, my pride was humbled and I understood the meaning of a true warrior.

Friday, October 29, 2010

"The toy story that needed to be told"

Interrupting sci-fi week (s)

I saw Toy Story 3 on the airplane yesterday, and I'm not going to wait to review it, lest I forget it.  This review won't go on nearly as long as it could, and thus I'm calling it a mini-review.

All the characters from the first two movies return for the second G-rated sequel, with a few exceptions.  The once little boy Andy who used to love playing with Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Bullseye and the rest of his adorable toys is now seventeen and heading for college (heaven knows why).  He has to figure out what to do with the toys, whether to sell them on eBay, throw them away, take them with him, or donate them to a daycare center.  After a mistake on his mom's part, the toys head off to daycare, where they meet Lotso the purple dinosaur hugging bear.  If you've looked at the latest Lego catalogs or talked to a friend who saw this movie, you probably know that Lotso is one bad toy, a tyrant who uses Big Baby and Ken, the male barbie doll who likes clothes, to effectively run the whole Sunnyside daycare building.

The animation in the movie is pretty gorgeous.  It's nowhere near as stunning as Kung Fu Panda, Surf's Up, or even How to Train Your Dragon, but the colors are fun and vibrant, and all the toys are brought to life with nice attention to detail by Pixar's animation team.  But be warned: if this movie is still playing near you at a discount theater or someplace, do NOT pay 4 extra dollars to see it in 3D.  Not only are the colors significantly dimmed by those heavy, obnoxious glasses, but there are absolutely no scenes in it that would benefit from the third dimension.  I only saw it in standard 2D, but not once in the movie did I see a sequence that appeared to be made for 3D.  TS3, like every other animated kiddie flick since Coraline, was only given a last minute 3D "upgrade" to snatch a few more dollars from gullible parents whose little kids have bought into the whole 3D craze.

I thought Toy Story 3 was an OK movie, especially for a sequel, and especially from a company which had previously produced such garbage as Wall-e and Ratatouille.  But it's definitely been overhyped.  I wouldn't be surprised if Disney paid the numerous critics to produce such reviews as: (copying and pasting from wikipedia)  "This film—this whole three-part, 15-year epic—about the adventures of a bunch of silly plastic junk turns out also to be a long, melancholy meditation on loss, impermanence and that noble, stubborn, foolish thing called love." (A.O. Scott, New York Times) , "the best movie trilogy of all time" (Mark Kermode of the BBC), "Compared with the riches of all kinds in recent Pixar masterworks such as Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up, Toy Story 3 looks and plays like an exceptionally slick and confident product, as opposed to a magical blend of commerce and popular art." (Michael Phillips), and "Dazzling, scary and sentimental, Toy Story 3 is a dark and emotional conclusion to the film series that made Pixar famous." (Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel).  Toy Story is not an epic in any world.  It's not a long, melancholy meditation on loss and love.  That description more suits a movie like Up, which is truly a masterpiece (although Wall-e was a Terrible, Preachy, Absolutely Awful "green" picture).  Toy Story is not the best movie trilogy of all time (Star Wars anybody?  LOTR?  Bourne?).  It was not scary or very dark, and despite an emotional ending which is a bit of a tear-jerker, it's mostly devoid of any particular message except "Don't leave your owner behind", which is vague and makes hardly any sense.  I have to quote my dad, who said, "I don't understand why it was 'the story that needed to be told'."  Admittedly, he didn't really watch the movie, and neither did my mom, who saw about the first and last ten minutes and slept the rest of the way through, which just serves to show that the movie is not as fun for adults as it is for kids, despite what the masses may tell you.

So Toy Story 3 is fun for kids, and has good themes of duty and loyalty, but it's not nearly as deep and meaningful as most of the critics have made it out to be.  Sorry for calling this a mini-review.

Grade: C+

Speaking of 3D, I saw Avatar: Special Edition in 3D not too long ago.  The 3D was very cool and there were definitely some parts where things really leapt out at you, but I actually prefer to see the magical world of Pandora in 2D because those darn glasses dim the vibrant colors far too much.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Sci-fi week – Oedipus: The Author's Cut

When movies are released on video, sometimes the DVD contains an unrated "director's cut" which features the director's original vision of the film and includes several deleted scenes.  Well, this my "author's cut" of Oedipus.  This is how I originally envisoned the tragedy of Oedipus, and more or less how I would have wrote it if I wasn't working with a 1250 limit in mind.  The cynical will point out that I lengthened it considerably to get more dough from the magazine editors when it is published.  But anyway, this version gives extra insight into the backgrounds of the major characters, and, while it's longer than the original, I think it's a better story with deeper characters and stronger themes.  The screen adaptation of Oedipus will be even deeper, and with 2 hours or more to tell a story, it will be much more complete.

by The Author
(whose real name will be revealed when the movie comes out)

The city of New York was an industrial giant of a metropolis, with skyscrapers that stretched all the way into the clouds, dazzling light fixtures, and enormous factories. This capital of a fallen America used to inspire greatest awe -- now it was an apocalyptic terror that induced only fear in the eye of the beholder. Thick fog had descended widely upon the city, cloaking the skyscrapers and streets in irrepressible gloom. In New York, the sky used to be like a clear sheet of glass, through which one could look into space and see all the glory of its stars and planets and galaxies. And then the sky turned grey, and none of these things could be seen. Lights had begun to turn on and off at unpredictable intervals, giving the streets an eerie tone. New York had begun to fall into ruin.

This is the only way that the computer had ever seen New York. At the same time he had woken a month ago, the fog had come, along with the grey skies, and the other diseases of the city.

Right now, the computer stood alone inside a court building. It was no surprise that when people began to file into the courthouse, the computer drew many apprehensive eyes. The humans had their own robotic assistants at home, but none of them measured up to the stature of him. He was a hulking piece of machinery, built somewhat in the shape of a very tall man. But his arms were massive, and the large square monitor that functioned as his head grew right off of his body with no neck.

Minutes passed and the room filled with people, anxiously aware of the computer’s presence. Nonetheless, the computer remained indifferent, as he had no heart or feelings. He was existent only to fulfill the orders of his master.

The doors to the courthouse, which had remained untouched for a while, suddenly opened. All eyes immediately swung away from the computer to see a middle-aged man and an escort of bodyguards walking down the hall. A loud applause rose for the man, and the computer didn’t have to look to know it was the new President of America, Oedipus himself.

The President took his place at the front of the hall. The audience became silent, anticipating the moment their leader would speak. Oedipus began, “I have summoned you here today to address a matter of dire importance. A month ago, your leader Gaius was killed. Shortly after his death, New York was attacked by a plague of sorts, which you’ve all noticed no doubt. You elected me your new president, and I promised to help remove this plague. I will not go back on that promise.”

Once again, there was great applause from the audience. It was apparent how much they looked up to their leader. Oedipus continued, “There is talk in the churches that the plague has a supernatural cause. It is common belief that the plague has been caused by the murder of Gaius, and that only putting his murderer to justice will relieve the plague. Since there is no other definite theory as to the cause of the plague, I have decided to pursue this one. We will find Gaius’ murderer and put him to justice, wherever he hides. Can anyone in this house recount the murder of Gaius?”

One person, by the name of Damon, stood up and began to speak. “I witnessed President Gaius’ death. He was killed in a terrible way. It brings me pain to recount his death for all of us.” He faltered for a moment.

“We all knew of the President’s fascination with technology. He was especially fascinated with the possibilities of computer science. He built a laboratory and filled it with all the most advanced computers offered today and programmed them to do extraordinary things. Unfortunately, his science was what ultimately destroyed him.”

“I remember walking by his home one day. I went around to the corner of the house where his laboratory was. President Gaius had installed windows there so passers-by could look inside and admire all the wonderful things he had invented. I peered into one such window and saw the most peculiar –and frightening –image. The laboratory was in havoc: sparks exploding off surfaces, cords flying and wiggling like monstrous tentacles. I saw the President in the middle of the mayhem, frozen in his place and stunned with confusion. I screamed for him to run, but the noise and commotion amidst him blocked his ears to any other sound. Suddenly he moved all of his own, breaking for the laboratory exit. But a large piece of furniture was thrown against the exit door. The President was trapped.”

“He turned, I think to see what had blocked the door, and his face lit up with terror. Once again, he was frozen to the floor, couldn’t move for fear. He was looking at a hulking robot that had just detached itself from a desk topped in computer gear. It was assembled out of different computer parts and looked like a man, but it was massive. The computer, I shall call it, strode in Gaius’ direction, and with its huge hands grabbed the President by the neck and throttled him violently. I could almost have heard his bones snap. Its brutal work done, the computer flung the limp body aside and ran out of the building.”

Damon, his face pale, looked behind himself. He pointed dramatically at the computer, exclaiming, “And here it is now, the murderer in this very house!” A great stirring swept across the hall. People glowered contemptuously at the computer.

The computer found their behavior ironic. If they sentenced him here and now for murder, they would prove themselves most foolish indeed.

Oedipus shouted for quiet. “What do you mean by this?”

“That computer at the back of the hall killed Gaius! He is the one who committed the murder I have described.”

“Then why should we hesitate? Arrest the computer! Gaius’ killer must be brought to justice!” Oedipus was terribly mistaken, the computer thought. The man thought that he had killed Gaius; no fact could be farther from the truth.

Before anybody could move, somebody stood up in the audience. The computer recognized the man instantly. He was Gaphros, a prophetic eccentric who lived on the streets. The man began to speak. “Oh President, you are so wise to accuse this machine. Of course the computer, which has no brain of its own, committed the crime, even if science itself dictates that a computer requires a greater mind to guide its actions. This is how the term “artificial intelligence” was coined.”

“What are you suggesting?” said Oedipus.

“The computer cannot choose its actions; the human is to do that job by programming. The computer in this instance was only told to murder Gaius by a different being. The world is full of hackers that use technology to overpower and command their computer minions. You yourself are proficient in this skill, aren’t you, Oedipus?”

Oedipus did not deny the last comment. It was common knowledge to everyone that Oedipus was an extraordinarily capable computer hacker. He was famed for his skills in fact. Before he became president, it was Oedipus’ ability with computers that once saved New York.

Weeks before Gaius’ murder, a large Egyptian army had attacked New York in full force. They brought with them a multitude of huge war machines and aggressive robots with only one purpose: to destroy all that was left of America. While America’s military outnumbered the human soldiers of the enemy, New York had no weapons anywhere near mighty enough to stop the advance of the machines. That day, American scientists and engineers had desperately sought for a way to counter the advance of the enemy, but all seemed hopeless for the country.

Oedipus had watched with silent horror and curiosity as the army marched across a field towards New York. Then he had gone to his computer and overriding the cryptic security settings of the enemy, was able to send a signal that incredibly shut down all their machines, which led to a quick and total victory for the Americans.

After the battle, Oedipus had instantly become famous, and his hacking skills were regarded as a blessing, rather than a curse, by all but those were unable to save the city as he had. Oedipus’ heroic actions drew the gratification and love of all the regular New York citizens, but only envy from other scientists and engineers. And envy, the computer reflected, could drive men to do terrible things.

Oedipus ignored Gaphros’ last comment. “Are you saying that the computer is not guilty?”

“Yes, and more! A computer will never be able to make its own decisions. Its human programmer will always be guilty for its actions. I say that you are this computer’s master. At first glance, you all are willing to blame the robot, but not I. Because you brought Gaius’ laboratory to life! You hacked his computer! You commanded it to kill Gaius! You are guilty!”

For a moment, everyone was stunned by this seemingly absurd exclamation. Oedipus spoke slowly with effort to stay calm, “Why do you accuse me of this? I’m the President of America, moreover the savior of this city! Why would I arrange a court meeting to find Gaius’ killer if I already knew it was me? Anyone could have hacked Gaius’ computer, and I least of all would want to do it.”

“Since when have human hands been efficient in carrying out their owner’s wishes? You murdered Gaius whether you willed or not. Don’t prove yourself blind as well as deaf. See how the computer looks at you. Only a servant to his master could show such respect and awe.”

Oedipus flew into a rage and moments later, black garbed guards were dragging the struggling Gaphros out of the building. A weary Oedipus dismissed the court for a break and the computer was left alone to his thoughts. Grim thoughts, for soon Oedipus’ whole life would fall apart. The President would be punished severely for a crime he never knew he had committed. The once “peoples’ favorite” would become an object of loathing. The computer knew his master was about to suffer greatly.

The court presently filed back into the room. Oedipus resumed his position at the front of the hall. He opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted when a messenger from the police entered the hall. The messenger reported that the police had been examining the internet history of one of Gaius’ surviving computers and they found vital information regarding his murder.

Shortly before his laboratory came to life, the former president had been having a violent conversation with another man over the internet. Gaius, posing under a different name, had called the other person a great deal of obscenities and threatened to kill him and his family. The police suspected the President might have been drunk at the time, or was perhaps envious of the other man. Either way, it was only for self-defense that the other man had hacked Gaius’ laboratory and, consciously or not, ordered the computer to attack him.

The computer saw a flash of fear in his master’s eyes. Perhaps he was recollecting that very fight, although at the time he didn’t know with whom he was having it.

The messenger hesitated before finishing, “The name of the hacker was Oedipus. It’s not a common name.”

Oedipus cried out and ran down the hall. The prophesies of Gaphros, which he had so easily dismissed earlier, were true!

The computer watched his master run out of the building into the dark, foreboding streets of New York. No one tried to follow him. Everyone was as surprised as Oedipus was. Some people wept, like the president’s wife Althaea. Others were angry with their leader, shocked that he would do such an evil thing. Oedipus’ younger son, Leon, in particular was saying cruelly degrading things about his father. Still others were too stunned to feel any emotions at all.

Suddenly, the computer felt a strong urge which he couldn’t resist pulling him outside. His master was calling him.

The dark, shadowed streets of New York seemed even more uninviting after one had been in the well lit courthouse for hours. The computer tried to imagine how a human would act if one saw a huge, intimidating robot stalking the cold, dark roadways. Would the man run terrified for his life, or stand rooted to the ground and frozen in fear, like Gaius?

The computer walked down several alleys and passed a factory where engineers were hard at work examining and trying to replicate the Egyptian army’s machines. In the battle weeks ago, the Americans not only won salvation and freedom, but also the chance to study the superior technology of another civilization. The computer eventually found Oedipus sitting up against the wall of an apartment. His head was bent over and covered with his hands. The computer could hear him murmuring to himself, amidst the sound of depleted sobbing.

“I was so confident, not knowing that I was blind the whole time to what I had done. What good are worldly eyes when they can only show a man physical things, distractions from the real truth? And even in that they falter. I can only see this robot by the light its head gives off.” The computer’s black and grey body was like camouflage in the New York cityscape, and only the lights of his eyes on his monitor betrayed his form. “I feel like I could see better without my eyes.” Oedipus looked grimly at the computer.

Moments later, screams of a tortured being rang out in the streets. The computer had once more carried out a terrible command of Oedipus, to put out the man’s own eyes.


Oedipus resigned of his own will. But even though Gaius’ murderer was “brought to justice”, the plague didn’t go away from New York. Indeed, things were only going to become worse from the time Oedipus gave up power. Oedipus’ two sons, Leon and Theon, seized the power of presidency by deceit. Leon heartlessly banished his father from the city. He would not go alone, but the computer would accompany him and be his guide and protector.

As they boarded the shuttle that would fly them out of America, the computer looked back on the city and thought. This ordeal had not only been a tragedy for Oedipus, but for the whole country.

I thank anybody who reads this to the end.  A few updates on the publication process and other things.  Asimov's Science Fiction rejected Oedipus for publication because… well, I don't really know.  So right now, Analog Science Fiction and Fact should be looking over my cover letter.  Also, I've started writing the script for the movie version of Oedipus.  Hopefully I can begin casting in December or so.  I'll put up a list of parts here when that happens.  : )

2014 update: Heh heh.  Never happened.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sci-fi week – The Trekkie Review

The newest Star Trek movie is a load of fun and was clearly meant to be.  Watching the special features, you find that to entertain was the filmmakers' only objective in mind (beside making money, of course).

As the 11th film, Star Trek is actually a prequel to the other movies and the TV series. The story basically highlights the early adventures of Captain Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Bones, Chekhov, Sulu and the rest of the Enterprise crew.  James Tiberius Kirk is in his early 20s when he meets Captain Pike, who encourages him to follow in the footsteps of his father and join Starfleet.  On the planet Vulcan, Spock is discriminated against because he has a human mother.  When his heritage is openly called a weakness, he decides it wouldn't a logical action to support his own species, and instead leaves his planet to join Starfleet.  Fate brings him and Kirk together, and they don't immediately get along.  Kirk and and his new friend, the cynical "Bones" McCoy, ascribe him a nickname, "pointy-eared b___d".  The plot moves quickly, and after five years of training, Kirk and the rest are suddenly called upon to investigate a storm above Vulcan.  The storm is actually associated with a time-travelling Romulan, Nero, who has come from the future through a black hole to take revenge on Spock, whom we learn he wrongly blames for the destruction of his planet, Romulus.  In a way, it's not at all surprising that J.J. Abrams, the creator of the hit TV series Lost, famed for its confusing time-travelling and plot twists, directed the movie.

There are a few problems with the script.  At times, the young members of Starfleet don't seem to act like the characters from the original movies and they end up doing and saying stupid things their older versions would never be responsible for.  One really lame part is when Neytiri - excuse me - Uhura kisses Spock after he's had a fight with Kirk.  In this film, Spock is shown as a logical Vulcan, but he is capable of feeling emotions because of his human mother.  Still, no way, no how would the real Spock ever be found making out with a human, or anyone else for that matter.  I was more comfortable watching Neytiri kiss Jake.  Anyway, the script is flawed, but not necessarily stupid, and the relationships between the characters, although not always resembling those of the original characters, are well developed.

I do believe there were problems in the casting department.  Most of the actors look nothing like the old characters, particularly Chris Pine as Kirk, whoever played Scotty, and Neytiri as you-know-who.  To be fair, Zachary Quinto was wonderfully cast as Spock (and he probably cost a heck of a lot of money too).  John Cho could pass as Sulu.  Karl Urban looks nothing like Deforest Kelley.  Leonard Nimoy is delightful, kind-of reprising his role as Spock Prime, the future Spock involved with Nero.

The special effects are quite phenomenal and if Avatar wasn't released the same year, I bet they would have won a couple awards.  The movie's not hyperviolent either, and other than some scattered bits of language and a few scary scenes, it's mostly family-friendly.  It's a bit of a shame that the film uses a lot of the "shaky-camera technique" which makes it very hard to see the action at pivotal moments.  The classics had it too.  The camera is - I mean - the U.S.S Enterprise is shaking!!!

Overall, the film is very entertaining, and a fine tribute to the classics.  To sum it up in one sentence: Star Trek is visually phenomenal, but it's missing the classic heroes and themes of friendship that the old series had.  Although I'm not by any means dissuading you from seeing it.

Grade: B+

P.S. Not sure how J.J. explains what happened to Vulcan, because the planet is there in Star Trek 3 and ST4.

2012 update: The movie actually makes a considerable effort to be philosophical with Spock's character, designing an overarching theme about logic and how it should be complemented with emotion.  I'm not saying this picture is on the same level as Batman Begins or The Dark Knight in terms of weighty themes, but Star Trek encourages the viewer to think about its characters for several hours after the movie ends.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sci-fi week – Neytiri at the "National Parks"

You probably know from my mom's blog that my family went on a long road trip to Spokane in July.  During the trip we stopped at very many "national parks".  Why do I put those words in quotations?  Because we must have stopped at 10 or more of them along the way.  Remember that line from The Incredibles?  "I will sell my weapons to the world so everyone can be super.  And when everyone's super, no one will be."  I say that when every park can be called a "national park", no park can be.  The word loses its meaning when that happens.  I think that Yosemite and the Grand Canyon are natural phenomenons and rightly deserve to be called national parks.  Zion Canyon, although not as grand as either of these places, could count as a national park in my book.  But so many of the parks we stopped at were so lame in comparison to Yosemite and Grand Canyon, there's no way I'd even remotely consider calling any of them "national parks".  Even Yellowstone is incredibly overrated.  There are a few sights to see, but most of the time you're looking at trees, and hills, and shrubs.  Nothing you can't see on the freeway.

Anyway, there's supposed to be a sci-fi element to this post and I'll provide it right now.  During our vacation, I brought with me a tall and fascinating alien life form.  Her skin tone is blue, but at the same time she is surprisingly green.  A big nature person, she was just dying to enter all the middle-of-nowheres national parks so she could describe them to her god when she returns to Pandora.

First stop: Zion Canyon.

Fast forward 2 or 3 fake national parks.  Here's one of the cooler (by no means using the old definition) parts of Yellowstone.  Oh, by the way, she's posing as an archer in this image.  She'd be holding her bow and arrow if she hadn't lost them at a G-rated McDonalds.

Photo credit: Mom (bet you could've figured that out)

Then she was truly astounded by the 4 legged fauna at the National Bison Range.  I tried to explain to her that Earth mammals don't have queues.  If you mess with the bull, you're gonna get the horns!

Finally, we arrived at Grandma and Grandpa's house in Spokane.  Their backyard almost qualifies as a "national park". 

Thursday, August 5, 2010

He's finally here!

The computer finally arrived at my doorstep a few weeks ago.  I built him to find several pros and cons...but mostly cons.  I'll explain in pictures and videos.

 The box (not) upon arrival.

 The back of the box.

Look closer.

Now that's a glitch!

How come I suddenly have two boxes?

Oh.  The custom "box" is just a cover.

So I was a little disappointed with the box.  How about the contents?  The computer is assembled out of 299 Lego elements.  Here's the finished product.

Other than his awkward, inhuman legs (which appear so due to my own poor designing), he looks pretty okay.  He resembles the computer from my imagination.  But to make a feature-length brickfilm (i.e. stop-motion lego movie), heck, even a 10 second brickfilm with this guy, would be a herculean labor.  I wish I could show you why, but I don't have a very good webcam.  Anyway, he's extremely fragile, and the few parts of his body that move without breaking move too much and can't stay still like clay.  In the program I used to make "The computer in CGI", the virtual computer had built in muscles so I could keep his limbs in a certain spot.  Now with the real computer, his arms just fall off when I try to move him.  I could use fishing wire or tons of tape to try to immobilize him for a single frame of film, but it'd still take massive time and effort to animate him in real life.

I still think Oedipus has gigantic potential as a brickfilm and even more as a live-action film (although I have none of the tools or resources to produce such a movie).  But if I want to make it, I'll have to take the computer back to the drawing board, and figure out a way to make him STAND UP!!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. Fox was the second big stop-motion movie of 2009, and while I didn't like it as much as Coraline, it was still really enjoyable.

As the poster says, it's based off a book by Roald Dahl, one of the great children's authors of all time.  I didn't actually love the book when I read it, and if it was going to be adaptated into an exact movie form the film would only be about 30 to 40 minutes long.  But director Wes Anderson, who by the way isn't known for any other movies rated PG or less, manages to create a working, cohesive storyline.

Mr. and Mrs. Fox are in a bit of a financial dilemma.  Struggling to pay the bills and feed his family, Mr. Fox begins to take his possum friend on night raids into the neighboring farmers' estates, bringing back chickens and cider.  Boggis, Bunce, and Bean are fat and short and lean respectively, but, looks aside, they are nonetheless equally mean.  Enraged by Mr. Fox and his infamous burglaries, they come after the animals set on revenge.  They start using a few simple shovels, but when the foxes dig for their lives, they bring in the big guns, forcing the rest of the forest critters to dig too...

Other main characters in the story include Mr. Fox's son, Ash, who considers himself a great athlete and is jealous of his cousin, Kristofferson, who does pretty much everything better than him.  In Ash's eyes, Kristofferson is the misfit or country boy, and Ash hates him for drawing all his dad's praise and attention and for somehow getting all the girls.  Kristofferson doesn't understand his cousin's wrath towards him.  Eventually they minimize their differences and learn to respect each other.  A classic relationship, but the characters are written very cleverly.

The voice acting is top notch.  George Clooney plays a "fantastic" Mr. Fox, and the rest of the cast do just as good a job with their characters.  Admittedly, other lesser-known actors probably could have played the animated characters just as well as this film's superstars, but then the producers couldn't stamp George CLOONEY or Meryl STREEP all over the poster, not to mention the TV commercials and books (now a major motion picture starring __)

The actors were given a lot with which to work.  The script is very clever.  Kids will laugh at the antics and mischief of Mr. Fox, and many of the jokes will crack up adults.  A good family movie should appeal to kids and adults.  Unlike Toy Story, Wall-e, or 80% of 2009's animated films, Fantastic Mr. Fox seems to appeal more to adults and older children, but can still be enjoyed by some kiddies.

The stop-motion animation is fine, but not the film's strong point.  Don't get me wrong.  Stop-motion is without a doubt my favorite form of animation, but I think Coraline's animation was much more magical than Fox's.  It's interesting that this film uses hardly any special effects.  Water splashes and streams seem to be made out of a sort of clay.  Fire effects look like orange and yellow cardboard pieces.  The dust trails the animals make when they run look like cotton balls... it adds a very simple, but distinctive art flavor to the film.  The movie's score is one of its strongest points, with tunes ranging from cheery during the night raids on the farmer's properties to eerie amidst the sewers beneath the farms.

So it's definitely not a big-screen movie, and anybody who paid to see it there honestly burned 10 bucks.    But for $15 or so you can watch this little gem over and over again on dvd.  In my opinion, it's the 3rd best animated film of 2009 behind Coraline and Up.

Grade: A-

Other quickie notes: I saw Monsters vs. Aliens not too long ago.  I'm not even going to italicize it.  It told about 2 more funny jokes than the trailer did.  i.e., it told about 2 funny jokes.
I also saw G-Force.  The trailer was funny because it was stupid.  The movie itself was not funny, and stupid.
I saw the trailer for HP7.  Can't wait!!!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

An experiment in film.

This is a little CGI animation I put together of the computer.  If you don't know what that is yet, you probably haven't been looking at my blog lately.  Enjoy.  And yes, he's waving at you in that last scene.

If you want technical details, I put the movie together in about 2 hours and spent another trying to save it in a format that didn't take up too much disk space.  I used 15 fps in the fastest scenes, and 10 in all the other places.  I took the pictures in Lego Digital Designer, and put the movie together in iMovie (a program I don't recommend for presence of better tools, like MonkeyJam and Corel VideoStudio).

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Alice In Wonderland

Lately, I saw the umpteenth movie version of Alice in Wonderland.  Which also happens to be the umpteenth movie on which Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have collaborated.  Which also happens to be the umpteenth movie in which Johnny Depp plays the crazy, eccentric, and "mad" character.

Tim Burton's Alice loosely based off Lewis Carroll's novel shows us a grown-up Alice who has somehow forgotten her first incredible trip to Wonderland.  Played by People Magazine covergirl (kidding) Mia Wasikowska, Alice is at her wedding when she runs after the White Rabbit and stumbles down the rabbit hole.  Enter slightly goofy 3D images that look just plain awkward when you're watching the 2D version of the film.  At the bottom of the hole, she does a bit of growing and shrinking before she can open the door into Wonderland.  There she meets Tweedledee and Tweedledum before being chased by the Red Queen's minions and the Knave of hearts.  The Red Queen wants to cut off Alice's head because she is prophesied to slay the Jabberwock, a favorite pet of the Queen's.  Any of this sound familiar from the novel?  Or even its sequel, Through the Looking Glass?  Tim Burton basically takes Carroll's poem Jabberwocky, and makes a story about it, casting Alice as the hero.

Although Johnny Depp's name is on the cover of the dvd box, he doesn't actually steal the show.  He plays his part very well, but I think the less-famous Helena Bonham Carter does an even better job of portraying her character as the Red Queen.  My parents think she will be nominated for an Oscar next year.  I wish I could say she will be, but the chances of that happening are next to none.  How deep was the Red Queen's character in this movie?  Did the actress really have to work hard exploring the Queen's emotions to understand her completely?  No.  The Red Queen, at least in this movie, is not a very complex or challenging character, especially when 33% of her lines is "Off with their heads!!!"  Embodying the Red Queen is not as great an achievement as, say, becoming Julia Child.  Or the Emperor...

Visually, the movie is fascinating.  The CG scenery is very pretty, and the many creatures range from cute to weird to intimidating.  My dad said it was more visually detailed than Avatar.  On that debate, we are living on different planets.  Alice is wonderful in detail, but it can't compare to the 12, count 'em, 12 years of drawing, building, filming, developing and animating the amazing world of Pandora.

Overall, Alice makes a very nice 99 cent Dish pay-per-view experience.  It's a fun family adventure full of adventure and fun for the whole family.

Grade: B

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Eight reasons why not to read Herodotus' Histories or Plutarch's Lives.

1. The length.  Why read 40,000 words about a dead guy who did nothing to influence our country's government or culture?  How about 700,000 something words describing the Persian War and the events that led up to it?

2. The amount of detail.  Herodotus, do your readers really want to know about every single pit stop the Persians made on their trek to Greece?  Do you really need to lay out the every position of the forces of each army and describe to us the tactical advantage of each position?  Plutarch, do you really have to tell us every single detail about Cimon's (who?) education, childhood, goverment...

3. These books are BORING.  And they don't try to hide it.  Who enjoys reading about a primitive civilization that bickers constantly about a field or spot of land (Herodotus makes sure his readers know exactly which land they're fighting over every single time).

4. Lack of life lessons (my CW poetry teacher would be awed by my awesome alliteration).  About every 55,000 words in the Histories, there is a good one-liner or thought-provoking moment.  55,0000 words is more than half my book.

5. Presence of better resources.  There are hundreds of history books out there that will take the 700,000 words in the Histories and condense it into a nice, 10,000 word summary.  And still gives you all the good one-liners.

6. You can just watch the movie, which gives all the graphic representation and powerful dialogue which the book DOESN'T.  300 is rated R for "rescue" to Great Books students slugging through Herodotus.

7. It's summer.

8. The new Twilight movie is out, and judging by the commercials, the special effects and sound mixing are dazzling.

July 2 update: 9.  Herodotus and Plutarch were pagan writers but never in the Histories or Lives did I really see them describe their religion and why they follow it.  There was  a brief moment when Herodotus tried to describe the origin of the Greek gods (he said they were based off the Egyptian deities...weirdo), but never do they pay much regard to matters of philosophy or religion.  The Histories and Lives are solely about the history of two civilizations and their people of influence (Greece&Rome in Lives, Greece&Persia in Histories).  Very few times do either classical writers endeavour to provide commentary on their subjects.  They just "lay out the facts".  I would rather read a thought-provoking book on philosophy or religion than try to fill my head with knowledge of all the squabbles and wars a long extinct civilization had.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Oedipus update

I have a couple new developments to report about Oedipus.

Firstly, the 1st LDD rough draft of the computer is complete.  Here are pics of him in action.

Practicing his Iron Man/kung-fu/whatever you want to call it.

Hand details.  His thumb is on the bottom.  He doesn't have a wrist.  Notice the gun built into his hand (flashlight if you want to think of something more G-rated).
Leg details.  Part of his "organs" are exposed.  His foot can move separately from the rest of the leg.

Remember in the story how the computer was constructed out of various different computer parts?  Some details of how that description plays into the Lego version of the computer.
That black box in the middle of his forearm is a computer.
In his armpit he has that microchip/panel thingie that you can find whenever you open most computers.  Although it doesn't look like one, that slope on his arm is a speaker.
His head, of course, is an oversized monitor.
Minifig to the computer size comparison.  This is a rather unfortunate flaw in my model of the computer. See, in the story, the computer was about 2.5 to 3x the height of a man.  Here he's taller than 4 of them...

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Fahrenheit 451

The temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns...

Recently, I got to Fahrenheit 451, a classic of American literature if ever there was one.  In Ray Bradbury's futuristic tale, firemen have the job of starting fires, although in multiple ways Fahrenheit 451 is no longer so futuristic.  Sure we aren't burning books yet, but how many of us are reading them?  Would the majority of America's population rather read a good novel or watch an innocent program on their big-screen TV?

In F. 451, books are illegal and "firemen" are tasked with the job of burning them and the houses which contain them (above a member of the RDA corporation takes a torch to Fahrenheit 451 in the beautiful rocky Pandora mountains.  Yahoo, Whoopeee!!).  The goverment's idea is that books make people think about weighty topics, and weighty topics make people argue.  When people argue, they become unhappy.  How do you get rid of this unhappiness?  Burn the books.  Social equality is also important.  "You always dread the unfamiliar," says Beatty, a fireman.  "Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally 'bright', did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him.  And wasn't it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours?  Of course it was.  We must all be alike.  Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal.  Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against... White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Burn it.  Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs?  The cigarette people are weeping?  Burn the book.  Serenity, Montag.  Peace, Montag.  Take your fight outside.  Better yet, into the incinerator."

Guy Montag, another fireman and the central character of the book, is taught by Beatty that books are pointless and an evil obstacle to all men's goal of happiness.  Guy has never questioned the system of the firemen until he meets a young woman, who talks about old times when firemen supposedly put out fires instead of starting them.  Then, one night, Guy finds himself stealing a book from a house.  He attempts to read it with his wife, who represents the modern day, clueless, media-obsessed twit.  Ray Bradbury does a fantastic job of making the reader detest the wife and her friends just as much as Guy does.

The book is a treasure chest of quotes, figurative speech (which I found a little distracting at times), and themes to ponder.  Some of my favorite quotes:

"It was pretty silly, quoting poetry around free and easy like that...Give a man a few lines of verse and he thinks he's the Lord of all creation.  You think you can walk on water with your books."

"He stepped into the bedroom and fired twice and the twin beds went up in a great simmering whisper, with more heat and passion and light than he would have supposed them to contain.  He burnt the bedroom walls and the cosmetics chest because he wanted to change everything, the chairs, the tables, and in the dining room the silverware and plastic dishes, everything that showed that he had lived here in this empty house with a strange woman who would forget him tomorrow, who had gone and quite forgotten him already, listening to her Seashell Radio pour in on her and in on her as she rode across town, alone."

"Peace, Montag.  Give the people contests they can win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year.  Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of 'facts' they feel stuffed, but absolutely 'brilliant' with information.  Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving.  And they'll be happy, because facts of that sort don't change.  Don't give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with.  That way lies melancholy..."

I lost most interest in the book a little bit after Beatty, to me the most interesting character in the book and in a lot of literature, exited (did anybody draw Satan/Bible as Beatty/books connections?), but the novel is very worth a read to fans of sci-fi or dystopian literature.  4.51 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Computer – LDD rough draft

Remember that story Oedipus I made such a big deal about?  Do you remember the Frankenstein monster cop-out character in it called "the computer"?  Well, now the computer is being recreated in real life, not by Oedipus, the fictional man behind its invention, but by that person who created both Oedipus and the computer.  Me.  And it's being built in Lego.  That's right.  I've been using a wonderful little program made by Lego to construct the computer with virtual bricks on, well, my computer.  "Lego Digital Designer"is completely free, so if you love building your own custom Lego models I highly recommend downloading it here.

Unfortunately, your not-so-virtual custom Lego models are not-so-free if you wish to order them and build them in real life.  In fact, custom models built in Lego Digital Designer cost about 2.5x as much as regular Lego models, which presents quite a problem if I want to order the computer and build him in real life (I do).  I'm almost finished with the 1st rough draft of the computer (as you can see, he's still missing hands), and the price Lego's asking from me is just about $60.  6000 divided by 250 pieces is 24 cents per piece says my calculator...

Here are some pics of the computer taken in LDD.

Monday, June 14, 2010

My favorite books

A notice: This list is seriously outdated as of 2013 and may or may not be refreshed at some future point.

My top 10 (in no particular order after the Bible)
The Bible
The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins (especially Mockingjay)
Harry Potter and the ___ by J.K. Rowling (especially The Deathly Hallows)
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
LOTR by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Three Theban Plays by Sophocles (Especially Oedipus Rex)
Coraline by Neil Gaiman (Also a good movie)
Holes by Louis Sachar (The movie, scripted by the author himself, is even better than the book!)
The Giver by Lois Lowry

* The Three Theban Plays by Sophocles - Sophocles is the Shakespeare of ancient Greece.  The characters of his plays are full of sarcasm and wit.  It's no wonder Oedipus Rex inspired me to write the sci-fi drama Oedipus.
* The Odyssey of Homer
* The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
* The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis- "Readable" Christian literature.  Written in a curious format.
(In order of favoritism) Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night's Dream by Shakespeare


* The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
* Coraline by Neil Gaiman
* The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster- In the same weird, playfully illogical genre of Alice in Wonderland, this is actually better than Lewis Carroll's classic.
* The Ranger's Apprentice series by John Flanagan (particularly the 1st five books)- The Rangers are like the Batmen of medieval times.  Strong, stealthy, agile, intelligent.  15 year old orphan Will wishes to be a warrior like his father, but he's too small for the job.  Instead, he's taken in as an apprentice to the gloomy Ranger Halt.  Halt trains Will all the arts of the Rangers: archery, stealth, horseriding.  I particularly like the way that the author develops the characters in the story.  Books 1 and 2 were definitely the best, book 3 was just depressing, book 4 was an utterly pointless action novel (but enjoyable if you're into medieval fantasy warfare), book 5 was good, and book 6 was just okay.  I stopped reading after book 6 because I got the impression that this series, unlike Harry Potter or LOTR, was never going to end.  Will is always going to have another adventure, another bad guy to fight...
* Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit
* The Prydain Chronicles
 * Animal Farm by George Orwell


* The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins- Won't be everbody's cup of tea.  Every year, 12 districts of Panem, a country built over the ruins of America, are forced to send into an arena 2 teenagers each who will fight for fame, fortune, but mostly for the entertainment of the the capitol of Panem (think of Theseus and the Minotaur, or the Romans' cruel exploitation of Christians and slaves in the Coliseum).  There can only be one victor/survivor, and the gladiators must use every bit of their resourcefulness, courage, and strength to become that person.  In the year of the 74th Hunger Games, a 16 year old girl Katniss Everdeen from district 12 substitutes herself for her younger sister when she is chosen as a tribute.  The violence in the arena is brutal, much of the action is nightmarishly realistic, and there's some mild romancey stuff here and there.  Definitely expect a PG-13 rating when the movie comes out.  So I don't recommend the book for young readers, although 12+ year olds shouldn't have a problem with it.  The most distinguishing thing about the series is probably the strong themes of heroism and selflessness that the author creates.  When the characters are supposed to be admirable, they come across as heroes to the readers.  The 2nd book in the trilogy, Catching Fire, is even better than the 1st.  The 3rd and final installment, Mockingjay, has a far different tone than the others and is much more philosophical.  Obviously it's my favorite, but all the books are good.
* Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card- This is a brilliant story about child geniuses who are forced to go through military training in space because humanity needs to find the next Mazer Rackham, a man who in his youth saved Earth from an alien conquest by "The Buggers".  A very thought-provoking book.  Begs the reader to think about serious questions like "should we use the abilities of individual humans to help humanity as a whole, or are the lives of the individuals more important than the masses'?".  Or "should we make war against a civilization with which we cannot communicate".
* 1984 by George Orwell
* Jurassic Park, Sphere, and State of Fear by Michael Crichton

* None.  I don't think I've even read a true romance book, unless you count the 2nd and 3rd Eragon books (which by the way are not on my favorites list). : /

* Holes by Louis Sachar- One of the greatest kid books ever written, and, as I said earlier, the movie is one of the very few which has matched or surpassed its source novel.
* Schooled by Gordon Korman

* The Halo Enyclopedia (reviewed here)
* The Book Thief (also reviewed here)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Book Thief

Although I only listed one book title in the name of this post, I will actually be giving two book reviews (Nice gift to my readers after being gone so long.  BTW, studying Plato has probably been the 4th worst experience of my whole, entire life.)  One for those people who visit my blog, and one for those people who visit my mom's blog.  And as the ratio of my mom's blog's visitors to my blog's visitors is about 100:1, it seems fitting I shoud spend a lot more time writing a review for her visitors than mine.  Accordingly, I'll try to hurry through the first of the two reviews.  If you're a die-hard-great-books-geek/weirdo/Socrates lover, you should definitely skip down until you see a photo of the Book Thief cover.

The Halo Encyclopedia (Stupid, I know. I made a link as if ANY of you would actually want to buy it) is based off the bestselling FPS video games series by Microsoft and Bungie.  The Halo series is one of the greatest video game series ever, along with the Mario series, WoW, Myst, and a couple others.  The Halo encyclopedia is a big guide to a stunning universe, full of intersting stories, background, concept art, and colorful illustrations from Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, Halo 3, Halo Wars, and Halo 3: ODST.

(For all upcoming images, I really wish I had my mom's skill with collages)


This guide is mostly complete and satisfying in details, but failed to give much insight into Halo 3: ODST.  In fact, the lack of info surrouding this game in the series makes the reader wonder whether they the writers purposefully gave such little attention to ODST to encourage the reader to burn fifty bucks and get the game.

Other than that folly, the book is very satisfying. The story of the games might initally seem complicated and hard to understand, but after a look through the Halo encylopedia, the story makes much more sense. The book is illustrated with a mix of concept art, drawings, and screenshots. All images are very colorful and vibrant. For $20 or less, it serves as a very nice companion to the game series.

Now a more serious review.

The Book Thief is not your average YA Holocaust novel.  In this book, Death is represented as a character narrating the story of Liesel Meminger, an orphan girl with a passion for stealing books.  Death is not the Grim Reaper you would imagine him to be.  In looks, he is like any ordinary man.  Death is sarcastic, solemn, and weary of the job he is eternally to work.

Death's workload remarkably increases when WW2 begins.  He is taking up souls all around the planet.  Death first meets Liesel Meminger on a train headed for Munich.  Liesel was only 9 years old when her brother died on that train.  A brief funeral is held, during which Liesel picks up a small object in the snow.  That object is The Grave Digger's Handbook, and it is the first in Liesel's notorious career as a book thief.  Liesel's mother, who is in trouble with Hitler, gives her daughter over to Hans and Rosa Hubermann, who raise her as their own.  The Hubermanns are not a rich family, and their problems with money escalate when they give a Jew shelter in their home.

If you don't like spoilers, you're going to have some trouble reading this book.  Death, as the narrator, makes frequent use of foreshadowing to tell the fates of the characters.  He mentions three times he saw Liesel.  The first time he saw her was on the train and at her brother's funeral.  The next time he saw her was in a field.  Fittingly, someone else had died, this time an Ally pilot.  The last time Death saw Liesel was in Munich, after the German town was bombed by Allies.  Liesel survived the attack, but all her loved ones were killed.  Once again, there are a lot of spoilers, but Markus Zusak uses foreshadowing so masterfully and effectively that it's hard to be disappointed with it.

Markus Zusak has also proven himself a master of figurative language.  In The Book Thief he uses all varieties of similes and metaphors that expertly convey the image he is trying to give the reader.  In an interview at the back of the book, he said that he liked the idea that every page in a book can have a gem on it.  Methinks The Book Thief has just that.

The author has also done a terrific job of crafting his characters.   The friendship between Liesel and Rudy, the boy with lemon-colored hair infamous for "The Jesse Owens incident", is one of my favorites of all time, next to Frodo and Sam in LOTR.  At the end of the book, you end up loving Liesel's foster parents as much as she does, and you are as much grieved at their deaths as Liesel is.  A departure from the cliched portrayal of the Germans as brutal, ruthless killers, Markus Zusak gives a wonderful example not only of the evil side of human beings but also of the good in The Book Thief.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Happy (belated) Star Wars day!

May the 4th be with you...

A few words about George's Lucas' conquering series.  I am a big Star Wars fan, but what I love even more than the series is the effect that it's had on this galaxy, not so far, far away.  It is without a doubt the most money-making movie series ever (No, not Avatar.  Does Avatar have video games, graphic novels and comic books?  Does Avatar have fan magazines, action figures, and a Lego theme like Star Wars (shown above)?  Does Avatar have toothbrushes, pajamas, underwear, pez candy dispensers, and yogurt boxes?  Does Avatar have collector cards, monopoly board games, and costumes?  How easy would it be to throw an Avatar themed birthday party if your kid wished?) and the most influential (Has Avatar inspired little kids to pick up a random stick and immediately denote it their "lightsaber").  Why is it so successful?  It doesn't need a strong story.  Or good acting.  Or any witty one-liners.  Heck, nowadays it doesn't even need very good special effects to thrive.  I think it's the imagination behind George Lucas' world that makes it so popular.  And its worldy appeal.  Almost anyone can sit down and feel at home in this world of jedi knights, lightsabers, and weird robots that go "bee ba boo".  That is what Star Wars means.

All that nonsense said, it's completely stupid to make a quote "holiday" off of a movie series.  And here's why.

There are a few nice holidays
Like Christmas and Easter, I says.
But Valentines and Earth
Are not very much worth
Celebrating as holidays.

There are many weirdos who spew,
"Star Wars day! May the 4th be with you!"
Then I sigh and I groan,
"Star Wars day, what a clone."
Oh well, May the 4th be with you.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

2 film reviews

I saw two movies recently.  One was a very nice, well done movie.  The other was not as good.  I'll tell you about each of them.

I'd like to thank my wonderful grandmother for spending a small fortune to take me, my mom, and my two brothers to see "How to Train your Dragon" in 3D.  T'was a fun little trip.

If you watch TV or shop at Wal Mart, you've probably heard of "How to Train your Dragon".  It might be Dreamwork's most massively advertised movie ever... Anyway, the basic plot of the movie is that a young Viking, named Hiccup, finds a dragon, whom he names Toothless, and tries to train it to be his pet.  The only problem is that the Vikings have always been at war with the dragons and they only know how to treat them as enemies.  The dragons steal their cattle and burn down their villages.  Why should they treat them as friends?  Hiccup has to train Toothless in secret.  Eventually, thanks to Hiccup, the vikings learn that it's better to be friends with the dragons and that working together is a better solution than fighting.

The movie is based very, very loosely on a book of the same name.  Okay, really the only comparisions you can draw between the movie and the book are the titles and the names of the main characters.  And that it's about vikings and dragons.  In the book, Hiccup's dragon Toothless is a tiny dragon about the size of a large cat.  In the movie, Toothless is a sort of super dragon.  Fast, intimidating, powerful...oh well.  If the dragon of the movie had been a literal Toothless, the whole message of the movie would have been "Believe in yourself.  Little guys can do big things".  Which is a good moral, but it's been used in more than 10 other movies in the past 5 years.

So, fans of the book can't go to the movie an expect a literal adaptation of the novel.  Another difference between the book and the film is that the book was really funny.  The movie is not.  The script sounds like it took about a week to write.  There are about 3 or 4 good jokes in the movie.  But I don't think that it's supposed to be a funny movie, so you can't be let down by there not being any funny bits.

One great thing about How to Train your Dragon is that it is surprisingly very well animated.  The fight scenes with the dragons are very impressive.  Although the different species of dragons are cartoony looking, they are intimidating in action.  And cute when Hiccup is soothing them.

So is it worth paying to see in theatres?  I say wait for the DVD.  Some critics are saying, "The 3D is amazing!!  It's like an "Avatar" for the whole family."  How to Train your Dragon is not like a family-friendly Avatar.  I saw Avatar.  It was a sci-fi masterpiece, more than 12 years in the making.  This little piece of Dreamworks junk probably took 7 or 8 months to piece together.  The animation is very well-done (although definitely not Avatar quality) and the story is fairly decent.  But it's not really a "big screen" movie.  If you want to see it in theatres, I don't think 3D is the best way to go.  It costs more, and this is not a real 3D movie like Avatar.

Grade: B+

2012 update: I'm bumping up my former B to a B+, just because the team at Dreamworks decided to break from tradition and tell an animated story about doing exactly that, breaking from tradition and reanalyzing your worldview.  As far as I know, no animated movie prior to this had a similar message.  In a generation that's populated with silly melodramas about Believing In Yourself, HTTYD is a breath of fresh air.

The next movie was "The Blind Side".

I'm going to be brief with my review of this one, because doubtless you've already heard of it, and you know of all the rave reviews it received and you don't feel like reading another long review that praises it in the same way more or less.

The Blind Side is the true story of Michael Oher, a homeless black teenager who is adopted into the Tuohy family and learns about family, friendship, and football with the assistance of the amiable but firm Leigh Anne Tuohy.  A moving story about a wonderful family, the acting is great (although certainly not Oscar worthy) and the script is well-written.  Very nice, well done movie. (Wow, my mom could have written that review!)

Grade: B