Archive for February, 2011

The Review: The Battle for Terra

February 25, 2011

Well, I was with two sick boys last week and were quickly sifting through our collection of DVDs and Blu-rays.  So we cranked up the ole’ Netflix instant streaming on our Blu-ray player and as we waded through episodes of Dora the Explorer and the Fairly Oddparents, we stumbled across a title that I had actually mentioned back when I reviewed Avatar—The Battle for Terra.  I had seen previews for it, and had read the basic plot synopsis to see the similarities between it and James Cameron’s blockbuster, but had never actually sat down and watched the film.  Given its similarities to Avatar, Gus was interested enough to give it a try, and Gunnar was game, too, so a couple of clicks later we were on our way.

I went into this film with quite low expectations as the preview made it look like a poorly animated take on a much-used theme, but, like Despicable Me, I was pleasantly surprised.  While this is in no way a perfect film, and misses out on a key opportunity to really engage a young audience and make the character motivations more interesting (I’ll get to that in a bit), from a pure story standpoint, this film is in every way superior to Cameron’s blue crew.

Much better villain than Quartich--maybe it's the little hat

Again, it all starts with the villain, unlike Avatar’s vague reference to the desire for this “Unobtanium” mineral, the motivation in this story is clear.  Humanity is on the line, as the remnants from Earth are in search for a new home after war tears our solar system apart.  When a new planet is found, but would need to be terraformed and its native inhabitants wiped-out to permit human colonization, it sets up a complex and dramatic tension between those who believe they must act swiftly for the preservation of humanity, and those who believe that they must not repeat the sins of their past.  This gives our resident warmonger, in this case General Hemmer, a far more compelling and complex motivation than Avatar’s Colonel Quartich.

On the flip side, I think Terra does a great job setting up the situation by giving you a pre-human look at the indigenous life there.  Our heroine is Mala, a girl who is something of a scientific genius.  Her creations and interests are running against a theocratic orthodoxy that believes peace only comes from nature, and bans any innovation past what they currently have.  This is already SO much more three-dimensional than the perfect blue folk that Cameron created, as it sets up a tension independent of the humans, and gives Mala strong rationale for embracing and wanting to learn from the humans when they arrive.

When the humans do arrive, they do so in attack fighters, taking kidnapping scores of the indigenous, including Mala’s father, for what we find out is “study.”  It sets up a great scene when many of them offer themselves up to the humans as “gods” showing blind faith.  Mala was the only one to have an early look at the newcomers, as she defied the technology ban and builds a telescope.  But we quickly find out that the elders who have banned technology already know that these are no gods, and they are under attack.

Mala, Jim, and of course, the obligatory cute robot

Mala and her airship are attacked by one of the warships, and she takes advantage of her “home turf” and forces the fighter to crash.  The pilot is quickly running out of air, and his trusty robot companion appeals to Mala for help.  Together they construct an oxygen tent for the pilot, a Lieutenant Jim Stanton, and save him from asphyxiation.

Mala and Jim then go on a pretty typical path from enemy-to-friend, as Mala’s want to find her father is consistent with Stanton’s want to fix his ship and go back to “The Ark” as they call the mothership.  Mala’s relationship is discovered, and she is hunted by the elders for her assistance.

No need to go through the whole thing here, but during Mala and Jim’s escape back to The Ark, we get another layer of complexity Avatar lacks.  They find out that the elders have been hiding the fact that the native Terrans did have advanced technology, but that technology was used in an almost genocidal war of their own.  Those who survived decided that scientific advancement was too dangerous, and therefore it should be hidden and banned.

To make a long story short, Jim and Mala get back to the Ark to find out that the democratic council ruling the ship had been ousted by General Hemmer, who had become inpatient because the ship was falling apart and humanity was about to become extinct.  He paints it, and with some justification, as an “us or them” scenario, immediately making the natives into the enemy.  Jim, who was originally the good soldier, slowly but surely sees what Hemmer is doing and doubts this course of action.

Terraformer goes boom, as does Jim

It all culminates in a big battle (which, unlike the animation for the Terrans, is actually visually well done) where Hemmer sends the terraformer down to turn Terra’s atmosphere into oxygen and suffocate the native populace.  The Terrans have a stash of advanced fighters from the old days that they use to try and stop them.  Bang, boom, and it looks like the humans will win until Jim finally decides to take a side—he sacrifices himself and destroys the terraformer.

The saddened Mala, who knows that humanity is now doomed, is comforted by the elders, who tell her that “there are always options” and we close with a city-sized version of the oxygen tent encapsulating a human settlement on Terra.

In all, I think it was a tense, well-voiced, passably-animated tale that told a far more intriguing story than Avatar ever did, and I wish Cameron would have ripped-this off fully as I would love to see this story done with a zillion-dollar budget and live action.  It does a nice job speaking to the use of violence, the perception of the “enemy” in a way that uses violence but does not glamorize it.

That said, Terra is a far from perfect movie.  Indeed, the film feels like it doesn’t know if it wants to be a film for adults or for kids.  It adds complexities like Mala’s love of science and the ban on technology, but then pretty much drops that whole conflict half-way through the movie.  The Elders go from reactionaries to wise heroes, and that makes them bland and preachy by the end.  More than that, the movie first raises a central question about whether science and technology are something that helps civilization, or imperils it.  That’s a great question, especially approaches from the eye of a scientifically-curious heroine.  By essentially dropping that whole part of the story, it not only made the story far more two-dimensional, but made the very thing that made our heroine special into something non-essential for the plot.

Save the sky-whales--one the places Terra got a bit preachy

A few small fixes could have really punched this movie up.  When Mala rescues Jim, it’s the robot that shows her how to make the oxygen tent—the same technology that ends up being the savior of humanity.  But what if instead it was the young scientific genius Mala who had come up with that?  What if it was she and Jim who wanted to bring this solution to the humans, but Hemmer decided all was better than some?  What if the Elders refused to listen to Mala because of their pathological fear of science?  Mala then becomes the true heroine of the story as she and Jim are beset from both sides.  And a message that science neither good nor evil, but it is in the way that we use it would have been a fantastic message that is entirely lost here despite the great setup.

So, in all, I do recommend this film.  There is more than a little violence, and a particularly tough scene where Mala’s father sacrifices himself that may not be suitable for the under-8 set (again, an example of this movie not knowing what it really wanted to be).  But, if for nothing else than seeing what Avatar could have been with a little more thought, this film is worth the 90-minute ride.

Non-Violence – The Arab World Lights the Way

February 11, 2011

Any blog that espouses a non-violent message would be remiss in not reacting in amazement and joy at what has been happening in North Africa and the Middle East region over the past several months.  First, the people of Tunisia took to the streets and force out their long-time autocratic regime.


Now, I am watching and listening to President Obama speaking on the announcement that three decades of dictatorial rule in Egypt is now done.  This “diaper revolution” as the youth of a nation took their country into their hands, chanting “We are peaceful!” over and over again, brought potentially an entirely new world order to a region where so many have said that government can only be secured by the barrel of a gun.

It is truly incredible to see what has happened, and, much like the experience we had in watching the Berlin Wall fall, it is with hopeful but anxious expectations that we await to see what is next.  The anxiety is even more pronounced in this case as when it comes to freedom, we have not exactly been on the right side of history here.

This is because, as we know from personal experience, democracy is a messy business.  Relationships must be built slowly with institutions—indeed, with entire nations, in order to endure the ebbs and flows of domestic political change.  In Iran, we decided that the one full-fledged democracy in the Middle East was just too dangerous to trust, and it was we, the United States, who brought the Shah to power, and we and the Iranian people have been living with the unfortunate results for some time.

Peace without freedom oft visits war upon its children

It was President Clinton and Prime Minister Rabin, architects of the Oslo peace accords, that decided that “democracy could wait” and that it would be easier to simply deal with Arafat as one Palestinian strongman than have to wade through the dangers of a free society.  Again, the price we have all paid can be readily seen.

We democracies must now face a future where the democracies of Tunisia, Egypt, and hopefully many others may not look at us as “the good guys” the way many of the emerging Eastern European countries did after the Cold War.  But if we help where we can, and, as importantly, stay out of the way where we must, perhaps this new generation of citizens in the Middle East can show what the ageing realpolitik statesmen simply refuse to believe—that freedom and messy democracy is truly a path toward a brighter future.  For hope is a far more powerful tool to give our children than “damage control.”

The strength in “sorry”

February 11, 2011

This is actually a post that I drafted a couple of weeks ago on my lunch hour at work, and I forgot to post it when I got home.  Still think it’s worth thinking about, and I have a follow-up from a story in Today’s Washington Post to go along with it, so here goes…

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Taking a quick departure from the social studies slant as an article in the Washington Post has me thinking about this.  I believe Gandhi’s philosophy on this 100%.  I think it takes a very strong person to forgive—truly forgive others after they have wronged you.  It is far easier to let that offense fester, as it allows you to feel self-justified and superior to someone else.  As my dear-and-wise Aunt Libby would say, those feelings are not good ones, but they are places where we as humans feel “comfortable.”
I will be returning to that subject, as I think pop-culture does a lousy job of making forgiveness into anything but perceived weakness.  But I’d like to talk a little more about the other side of this coin—asking for forgiveness.  In many ways, that is a harder thing to do.  Often we would rather explain when we have offended someone, or done something wrong.  And one of the central tenets of conflict resolution, at least as I’ve learned it, is understanding the perceptions of others, which in essence is getting that explanation that can put something in context.
But an “explanation” will often be nothing more than a mask for a refusal to admit wrongdoing.  I noted in my post about the now-departed Washington Wizards Gilbert Arenas that his explanation for bringing guns into the locker room showed his lack of true remorse and understanding.  This gave Wizards fans and the people of the National Capital area very little room to consider forgiveness.

Rep. King--Gandhi he's not

This brings me to a “two wrongs don’t make a right” article I just read in the Washington Post.  It begins, as it should, with what certainly appears to be the McCarthy-esque witch-hunt that Congressman Peter King of Long Island, new Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, is unleashing on Muslim-Americans in this country.  His crusade to root out radical Islam certainly looks to trample on the rights of law-abiding citizens who are already facing more discrimination than any ethnic group in America today.
What stuck me is that King used to be one of the few Republicans who was a real champion of the Muslim-American community, and was given an award by Long Island Muslim leaders for his role championing American intervention on behalf of Kosovo during the Clinton administration.  His flip from friend to foe seems entirely predicated on the events of 9/11, when he lost personal friends to that attack.  It seems that two of the local Muslim leaders after the attack made some rather questionable statements. 
Ghazi Khankan, the local mosque’s interfaith director at the time, asked “Who really benefits from such a horrible tragedy that is blamed on Muslims and Arabs? Definitely Muslims and Arabs do not benefit. It must be the enemy of Muslims and Arabs. An independent investigation must take place.”
Safdar Chadda, a dentist from Pakistan who was then co-president of the mosque, speculated that “the Israeli government would benefit from this tragedy by now branding Palestinians as terrorists and crushing them by force.”
King took that personally, it would seem, saying “At this key moment for our country, the worst attack on us in history, these people who I thought were my friends were talking about Zionists and conspiracies,” he said. “They were trying to look the other way while friends of mine were being murdered.”
My perception is that King has turned that bitterness into a personal vendetta that will be taken out on an entire community.  In that he shows weakness, not strength.  But I believe Khankan is not blameless here.  In the article, he attempts to show his side of the story.  He winces in pain at the mention of the event.  He notes that he was reacting to the mislabeling of the Oklahoma City bombing on Islamic extremesits.  The article notes that he and his colleagues came out to condemn Bin-Laden.  He just wants a chance to sit down and talk to “Pete” about the whole thing.
But, he does not say he’s sorry for what he said.
I am a progressive Jew, and I do believe Israel has a right to exist, so I’ll just get that personal bias out of the way.  But one of the things I have seen on both (and let me repeat, BOTH) sides of the Arab-Israeli debate over the years is a refusal to apologize and to step back and take a look at yourself—another key step for effective conflict resolution.  Often, a half-apology like “just let me explain” is worse than if you said nothing at all, and it is simply a poor substitute for “Those statements were bigoted and wrong and I’m profoundly sorry.”
I remember a similar experience when I was working at Peace Action.  A good friend of mine that I worked with had the last name of Lynch.  We had multiple nicknames for each other, and one of mine that came out was “Mob.”  An African co-worker called me out at a staff retreat for using that term and said it made her feel uncomfortable.  My instinctive reaction was to defend myself, noting that it was Jews as well, not just African Americans who had been lynched in the dark years of American history.  But I realized by the end that what I said was indeed offensive to her, and, you know, what, I said I was sorry.  I didn’t predicate it—I just said I was wrong.  And you know what?  My co-worker forgave me, and we continued to have a very good relationship for my entire time working there.
Sometimes, we say things out of ignorance, spitefulness, bigotry, fear, or rage that do not subscribe to our higher angels.  We must as a society have the strength to forgive, but I think that it is even more important that if our Id gets the best of us, we need to summon up the courage to ask forgiveness.  As an apology can open the door to explanation, where an explanation can close the door to discourse.  You tell me which one is stronger?

The (Semi) Apology: Wii Party

February 11, 2011

Well, when I’m wrong, I’m wrong.  For those who read my Wii Party review, you may not have run out to get it because of my harangue on the fact that the team-building mini-games did not have a larger “frame” game to make kids interested in playing them, while the “vs.” games had four different frames to keep it interesting.

Miis about to take a dip...of shame

Well, I was under the mistaken impression that the “Balance Boat” game was simply another team mini-game, but I was wrong.  This is a pretty clever frame setup that does exactly what “Board Game Island” “Globe Trot” and the other competitive games do—give the mini-games a raison d’etre. 

The context is pretty simple, you have a boat with three levels of masts, and in each round, you and a partner each get a Mii to place on the different levels, attempting to keep the boat from tipping over.  The “power-with” mini games start each round, and success determines whether you get Miis of the same size (if you win) which are easier to balance, or two different-sized Miis that can make the balance act a little more tricky.

The mini games are much like the competitive ones, ranging from very simple (trying to flick the remote up in sync to complete lay-ups without the basketballs hitting each other) to maddeningly difficult (chasing down a very quick mouse through a maze trying to secure a key to freedom).  Like with the “Zombie Tag” in the competitive games, there is a fun pseudo-spooky game that tops my list where you walk through a haunted house, using flashlights to stop not-too-scary ghosts from getting you.

cooperative maze games like this are heavily featured in the "power-with" edition

The relative difficulty of the balancing game increases each time you are successful and get 20 Miis on the boat without it tipping over (so 10 rounds of mini games).  It took me four times playing alone with the Wii as a partner to get through the basic level.  Interestingly enough, my Wii Party-obsessed boys have resisted playing this one with me, but I’ll let you know what the kids think when they finally do.

So apologies to Team Wii for missing out on this game, which is a pretty solid piece of team-oriented game play work.  Now, I do say “semi” to my apology because, first, there’s only one frame game for the power-with play, and there is no option to have one team of two play another, which seems like it would have been very easy to do, and would allow groups of more than two to play it.  Pretty huge missed opportunity right there to get more lasting value out of the team play options.

Aside from that, though, I have to bump up my recommendation for Wii Party far more highly.  A very inventive and well-thought-out game with, as I’ve found out, real opportunities for engaging, cooperative play.  Well done, Nintendo.

“That was hard, Dad!”

February 6, 2011

If you build it, they will play...

So I’ve been meaning to get back to this, and given I still need to process all the great information I got from the head of the Social Studies department for Arlington County before I write about it, this is a good opportunity to relay a really fun activity that, without too much effort, creates a great team-building exercise for your kids—and you don’t even need to leave the house.

That’s because the house is the exercise.  The idea for this came from, to be honest, a lack of ideas as we closed out winter break last year.  We had bowled, Wiied, footballed, and board-gamed ourselves out.  And I was too lazy to get off my duff and brave the crowds on the frozen Capitol Mall to go museum-hopping.  So I got up and started looking around the house hoping that inspiration would hit me before the boys decided go to their default activity—making piñatas out of each other.

As I looked around the house, an idea hit me, why not make the house into a giant puzzle?  Nooks and crannies, clues hiding in plain sight, and tasks they have to accomplish together in order to advance.  Suddenly, the mundane becomes exciting in The Great Nathanson Scavenger Hunt!

Modern technology gave me an additional advantage, as I handed the boys over our digital camera (which also shoots video) and told them they needed to take a picture of whatever they thought the answer was, or if it was an activity, take a video of it.

Glad I kept these out of G&G's reach

My bored boys were skeptical when I first gave them the sheet of clues.  And I fully admit that I reached into my lineage for the tool I needed to get them started—Jewish guilt.  “Do you know how long I worked on this, and you won’t even give it a try?”  The shoulders shrugged, and two hands tepidly grasped the paper and camera.

The shrugs and sighs pretty quickly turned into jumps and screams once they got going.  While it didn’t hurt to offer a trip to their fave pizza place as reward for completion (I’m all for goal-oriented play), I think that the search itself provided a bunch of fun.  Here are a few of the sample questions:

1. Gang Green Red Zone (A: Gunnar has a Jets football field carpet—they needed a picture of the 20 yard line)

2. Obamii (A: we have made a Mii on the Wii of Barack Obama)

3. Hole in One (A: lots of options, they decided for videoing themselves playing Carnival Mini Golf on Wii)

4. Pop-Up Rancor (A: we have a Star Wars pop-up book, so they needed a pic of the Rancor Monster from Return of the Jedi)

A little blurry, but the answer for the clue "Behind the bag!" Sorry Sox fans.

For my first effort, I came up with 40 clues/questions.  After 4 hours, they had gotten through a little over half that and were exhausted (yes, they got the pizza anyway).  I asked them how they liked it, and my little one said “it was hard.”  Normally, my little guy is a path of least resistance kind of guy, so I was a little worried that this was just too tough to be fun.  My big fella quickly added, “but it was fun” which was great to hear.  What really sold me on it was that Gunnar then added “yeah, really fun.”

When New Year’s Eve rolled around, it was time to put the concept to the test once again.  We had some friends over, some of whom brought their kids.  And so I came up with 25 clues, and refined the game as such:

The Rules:
• You  must take a photo or a video of the object or action described below
• If the clue is marked (A), it is for all to guess and decide
• If the clue is marked (G), it is for guests only.  Gus and Gunnar may only give one hint each to the guests, and it must be approved by the Hunt Master before being told to the guests.
• To get any hints, you have 10 uses of Google, Two Hunt Master Clues, and you may ask each adult at the party for help once.  If an adult helps you without your asking—it STILL counts as their turn (so tell your parents to clam it)
• You cannot simply write down the answer and take a picture of it.
• There may be more than one way to answer some of these clues.  You may ask the Hunt Master if you are on the right track 10 times.  He will answer just “yes” or “no” without any other clues.
• If needed, you may get an adult to take a picture, but only if needed.
• If you can get all 25 before midnight, you will win a special prize.

Our friend Ken, the answer to "Barbie's Boyfriend Live!"

The clues ranged from relatively easy ones like  “Rushmore Racers” (picture of all the Racing Presidents stuffed mascots we have from Nationals Park), to real toughies like “The Troi of Glebe Elementary” (the guidance counselor for Glebe was one of our guests.  Counselor Troi of Star Trek the Next Generation?  Get it?  Yes, I’m a nerd—a big one).  Of course, I threw in a final clue of “A Frumping Line, One at a Time (no mouth sounds)” which they recorded as a whoopee cushion serenade—it wouldn’t be an activity for boys without some kind of fart joke.

As we adults imbibed, played our own board game (Wise and Otherwise—a great game that my pal Thom and his wife Karin introduced us to a while back), the boys were completely ensconced in this game from 7-11:30.  They thought they had it made, but when we downloaded all the pics and videos, they missed some, and the screaming and yelling reached a fever pitch as they raced against the clock to finish by midnight.  At 11:52, victory was had for everyone involved.

Count to 20, then find the man behind the maze--they didn't have much of a problem

When I asked them what they thought, you know what one of our young guests said?  “That was hard.”  I did this one more time for Gus and Gunnar’s cousins’ trip into town, including the first girl to experience it.  You know what she said when they finished?  Yep, “That was hard.”  But, in each case, I think it was because they were actually pleasantly surprised that they were challenged, and that one little girl who was deflated by the thought of having to be on the same team with her “icky brother” was suddenly high-fiving said brother by the end.  So while I have mostly heard the word “hard” out of kids as a complaint, in this case it was a compliment.  That’s kind of cool in itself.

I have to say the in-house scavenger hunt is something I wouldn’t want to use all the time—it would definitely run risks of wearing out its welcome.  But the options for putting it together are virtually limitless, and the reward is both creating a “power-with” oriented activity, and one that allows you and, in some cases, your guests to do grown-up things while boys (and girls) will be boys (and girls).