Archive for July, 2012

Is This Knight Simply Too Dark?

July 30, 2012

I’ve been waiting a while to write anything about The Dark Knight Rises and the tragedy in Colorado, simply because I wasn’t sure if I had anything productive to add to the conversation despite this being in my topical wheelhouse.  Indeed, this great piece from The Onion really encapsulated my intense frustration at the fact that the hyper-political histrionics around the sacrosanct status of the great and glorious gun in our society makes it impossible to have a civil conversation about it.

Those darned scientists trying to infringe on my freedom!

I guess all I have to say to the conversation around guns in light of what happened is around the ridiculous “slippery slope” argument.  Decrying sensible measures to make guns in our society safer (mandatory safety locks, tracking bulk ammo sales, assault weapons ban, barring straw purchases) as a back door effort to “take my guns away” is akin to saying that mandatory seat belts and air bags is obviously a path toward the government trying to ban the automobile.  The vast majority of we who do not like guns get the fact that many good, upstanding Americans do like them, and consider them an asset.  I strongly disagree, but respect the fact that I am in the minority in this country.  So can we just get past the “cold, dead hand” crap and have an honest conversation about how we can just make these things safer? I really wish we could.

Now let me pivot and leap into the cultural abyss here, as of all the pieces I’ve read on all this, Peggy Noonan’s piece in the Wall Street Journal is to me the most provocative.  In it, she makes an interesting case for Hollywood’s cultural demise putting Batman front-and-center:

Did “The Dark Knight Rises” cause the Aurora shootings? No, of course not. One movie doesn’t have that kind of power, and we don’t even know if the shooter had seen it. But a million violent movies have the cumulative power to desensitize and destabilize, to make things worse, and that’s what we’ve been seeing the past quarter century or so, the million movies. Each ups the ante in terms of carnage. Remember Jack Nicholson’s Joker, from 1989? He was a garish, comic figure and he made people laugh. He was a little like Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook in the old TV version of “Peter Pan.” You knew he wasn’t “real.” He was meant to amuse.

Compare that with Heath Ledger’s Joker in 2008’s “The Dark Night.” That Joker was pure evil, howling and demonic, frightening to see and hear. If you know what darkness is, you couldn’t watch that Joker and not be afraid. He looked like the man who opens the door when you get off the elevator to enter Hell; he looked like the guy holding the red velvet rope. That character was so dark, and so powerful, he destabilized the gifted actor who played him. Ledger died of a drug overdose six months before the movie opened.

Hard to argue with Noonan’s description

Okay, so let’s dismiss the irrelevant and unsupported claim about TDK’s Joker being part of Heath Ledger’s demise.  Noonan makes a great relation on the two iterations of Batman’s most iconic enemy.  For while I recently allowed Gus to watch Batman Begins, as desperate as he is to see the sequel, I said that he’d need to be at least 13 before I even considered letting him watch the Bat battle the Clown Prince of Crime.  Indeed, while I believe TDK is a fantastic movie, it is so incredibly dark that I still believe it merited an R-rating.  I would personally rather my son see a movie like Jaws at his age, as what makes something adult is not just about the body count or the blood.  To me, more importantly, it is about the underlying psychology of where that blood fits in.

My plan is actually to allow Gus to see Dark Knight Rises in a year or two and skip over the second film.  Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is really two stories with a middle chapter which doesn’t have all that much to do with the book-ends.  The villains’ intent, motivation, and execution in films 1 and 3 are intertwined, and while the scenery is more realistic and intense than you see in most Super Hero films, both are still very big and broad action films at their center.  Destroy Gotham.  Big, strong villain in a rather goofy mask doing dastardly things.  Hero comes in to save millions.  Been there, done that.  Frankly, I thought Noonan’s reaction to TDKR is more a hangover from film 2, which is, indeed, a different animal.

Ledger’s Joker is to the Super Hero genre what Jigsaw is to Horror.  As the Saw films started a trend in horror toward the “torture porn” films from the more over-the-top slashers like the Jason Voorhees’ and Freddy Krueger’s I grew up with.  It turned the violence from silly to celebratory; from an cathartic romp with the Id into a vivid guidebook down the inky pit of our own souls.  To me, Saw and its copy-cats crossed a very real line.

Nolan did the same thing with his Joker—making The Dark Knight more of a noir, psychological thriller like Se7en than it was like Batman Begins.  It was a fascinating premise and really the Joker at his most frightening, pulled from comic classics like the Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke.  How do you handle a villain who’s only motivation is, as Alfred says “to watch the world burn”?  It was a brilliant and terrible walk down a morally ambiguous path.  And, as Noonan points out, the more realistic flavor of the madness could feed the motivation to those souls where the darkness is already seeping in.

I feel like Noonan is overplaying her hand a bit, as the incidents like those in Colorado are sporadic and, frankly, pale in comparison with gun deaths by suicide, drug-related homicides, or accidental shootings as we consider which cultural issues are of priority to tackle even within the sub-category of gun violence.  And within the Super Hero genre, for every Joker, we have a Red Skull, Loki, and Lex Luthor that are played purely for the same kind of campy, diabolical fun as Ming the Merciless was generations ago.

But I do think it merits consideration for Hollywood and the MPAA, not to mention the video game industry, to put a new prism on evaluating the content not just for the events as they transpire on the screen, but the context.  Because just because the blood doesn’t splatter, that doesn’t automatically make the violence “harmless.”  For films, games, and TV shows–especially the Super Hero (and Super Villain) genre—really do have the power to tap into the American psyche, for good or for ill, like no other.

And, I think I’ve read somewhere, that with great power comes great responsibility.

Finding the Game Within the Game

July 25, 2012

The waitress groaned when I ordered an egg white omelet for lunch–love it!

Well, I’m just back from scenic Blackwood, New Jersey, where Gus and his travel team, the Arlington Thunder, had their last “sleep away” tournament.  Highly recommend the Meadows Diner if you’re in the Southern New Jersey area, by the way.

It, like most of our tournaments, was pretty tough on players, parents, and coaches, where I serve as an assistant this time ’round.  As you might remember, Gus didn’t make the “A” travel squad, but he quickly and happily joined the B-team.  A great number of kids wanted to play, and they ended up splitting things up into two teams, which, while it was great to allow more kids the opportunity to play, did dilute the talent pool—and at tournaments against B-teams that would be able to play with our A-team, this has presented us with a number of mercy-rule games, including three in this last tournament.

The “A” is for Arlington–really!

The first game of this tournament was particularly hard, as the “home team” was an excellent squad that play together year-round.  Indeed, we can often tell by the pro-quality button-down, stitched logo uniforms and personally monogrammed, team-logo embossed baseball bags that, our boys with their gray t-shirts with the Pie-Tanza sponsor logo on the back accompanied by Braves hats might be a little outmatched.  What do they say about clothes making the man?

In the three and a half innings we played before the merciful end, our fellas didn’t manage to hit one ball out of the infield, and we were singularly unprepared for the laser show the opposition put on.  Gus pitched an inning and desperately tried to hold his composure even after our guys mishandled three makeable plays in succession.  I was proud that he kept fighting both his emotions and those big, bad, Blackwood boys, even though he eventually was overwhelmed by both.

After the game, Coach Werfel gathered the guys and did his best to pep them up, but to little avail.  The fun of playing was gone, as you can spin the “joy in playing” speech in only so many different ways.  When you don’t feel like you’re even competing, it’s hard to find the joy in that.

As the coach was getting his lineup together for our second game, he asked me to help the boys work on laying off high pitches by throwing some BP with whiffle balls.  I headed over to the practice field with my bucket and a trail of moping Tweens dragging their bats behind them like a hunting party of sullen Cro-Magnons.

Highly recommended for your kids if you’re in Northern VA

I had fifteen minutes to figure out how to get these guys to find the fun again.  I then remembered what the good folks over at the Virginia Baseball Club, a great group that both my boys have been playing with on the off-season pretty much since they could walk, always did in practice—make each drill into a game.

“Okay, boys, time for a tournament!” I yelled as the last of them crossed onto the dirt threshold.  “Everyone bunts two and hits five.  Bunts and ground balls are worth a point, line drives five points, and you get 20 points if you are able to get a ball into the outfield.  And, for those in the field, five points to any ball you catch in the fly!”  Slightly intrigued, they picked up a step and lined up for me to call out the batting order.  “Oh, and one other thing.  Minus five points for every high pitch you swing at—whether you hit it or not!  Player with the most points gets a treat the snack bar from coach.”  The collective “OUCH!” followed by “OH!” from the team let me know that they were, indeed, at attention.

And so we began our competition, and slowly but surely the silt of the drubbing gave way to the thrill of a new game.  The boys charged so hard after bunts that one pitch hit a fielder in the back (I had to push them a bit further back after that one).  Guys were scrumming for every pop fly, and talking about where they should play based on a batter’s last swing.  Hitters were groaning every time I took away points, and clenching their fist on every line drive.  They were running, tumbling, laughing—they were playing in the truest sense of the word.

When Coach Werfel called the Thunder to get ready for Game 2, the guys that didn’t get a hit complained that they didn’t get a chance.  “We’ll finish up our game tomorrow, not to worry,” I said.  But that’s when it dawned on me, our game didn’t need to end at all.

“You know what, guys?” I barked, getting everyone’s attention.  “This tournament is not over!  It continues right into this next game.  I’ll be awarding points for hustle, making the right throws, and hard hit balls.  And I’ll still be giving you the ‘minus five’ for swinging at high pitches.  So go win some innings and earn some points!”

Still felt a little like this at times

Now, I can’t tell you that we went out and won that game—indeed Lady Mercy came out and whisked us away again.  But I can tell you that the boys did a whole lot better laying off high pitches, and when they made a good play, came in and immediately asked “How many points was that?”  Discussion on the bench now included comparison of points earned, and how many they thought they needed to secure the lead.  It wasn’t a cure-all, but by creating a game within the game, we were able to create a prism for playing that was independent of the scoreboard, allowing competition we could control when it otherwise would not have existed.

Gus’s friend Harry beat him by one point at the end of our little tournament, and ordered up a bag of Swedish Fish as trophy.  As the other guys looked lustfully at that prized possession, I assured them that as long as I was one of their coaches, the games (and games within games) would never end.

How the Tooth Fairy Saved Santa, and Just Maybe the World

July 18, 2012

I made mention of this personal story in my review of Nicholas St. North, but I felt it was worth a full telling.  Hope you enjoy…

“Oh, that’s so gross,” my wife Kirsten said as Gus rooted around in his mouth.  We had been through this before, but, for the first time, Big G had taken it upon himself to tear a loose tooth out.  With one final, gurgling twist, his hand came free and brought with it the bloody treasure.  He, of course, promptly shoved it right in his mother’s face, eliciting  the satisfying reaction of disgust so prized by boys (of any age).

Can’t wait to see what William Joyce has up his sleeve for the Tooth Fairy (coming out in October)

I handed Gus a napkin to start the clotting process along, and clapped him on the back.  I realized at that moment that we were out napkins to hold the tooth in.  “Hold on, sport, I’ll grab a tissue you can save it for the tooth fairy,” I said, dashing into the nearby bathroom.  No luck, not even any TP to use instead.  I immediately sped upstairs to grab one.

When I came back down, Gus was gone, but my wife was sitting there sporting a bemused grin, the tooth resting in her open hand.  “He’s outed the Tooth Fairy,” she said before I could even query about the expression.

This was no small thing for us, as Gus is a boy that has always preferred to live in Willy Wonka’s world of pure imagination.  A good Jewish boy, he was at the forefront of the great 5th Grade debate in school as to the existence of Santa Claus—arguing in the affirmative.  In 4th grade, he did ask Kirsten, our resident gentile, whether Santa is real or make-believe.  Showing her lawyerly prowess even in the realm of parenting, she simply replied, “Gus, Santa is magic.”  For a boy that swings his long sword fighting the forces of Mordor as easily as he swings a baseball bat, he needed no more convincing than that.

The fact that Gus has held onto Santa for so long has caused me some consternation.  Certainly not from a religious point of view.  I’m a pretty secular Jew, though very proud of my heritage and tradition.  Indeed, Kirsten and I agreed the children would be brought up as Jews well before marriage was a certainty.  I did, however, understand that Christmas was an important holiday for her side of the family.  We explained to our boys that they were very lucky in the fact that their Mor-Mor had personal contact with Santa, and so they’d be able to score presents even though they were Jewish.  I’ve been baking (and partially eating) cookies, writing notes, and mixing oatmeal with sprinkles for reindeer food over the past decade to help perpetuate this fantasy.

But as he fought his friends with such ferocious certainty (“How do you know that Santa didn’t just ask your parents to help out?!?”), I was both confused and concerned.  When the inevitable truth comes out, will he be devastated?  Is perpetuating Santa’s myth, especially once we get to double-digits, just lying to our children?  Where do we draw the line between magic and reality?

As I looked at that tooth, I realized that the magic was over.  Indeed, as Kirsten recounted the story of the Tooth Fairy’s demise, science clearly won the day.  Some months back, Gus had found a tooth in Kirsten’s desk drawer.  He suspected it might be his, but wanted to test his hypothesis.  So he put it under his pillow because, of course, any self-respecting Tooth Fairy would know when there’s a tooth under a pillow.  When the tooth remained, it was curtains for the fairy.

With the withering insights of scientific investigation having so easily conquered the Tooth Fairy, Santa and the innocent pleasure of childish things obviously stood no chance.  And, indeed, I mourned the passing of this age where science and fantasy walked side-by-side in a world where innocent wonder prevailed.

Then, something interesting happened.

The time had come to say goodnight, and Gus lumbered over to get the usual battery of questions about his oral hygiene routine.  When flossing was assured, we started off to bed.  He then turned to Kir and I, paused, and said with a grin, “When I wake up, will there be money under my pillow?”  Kir and I laughed.  “Buddy, I’ll just give you the money, how about that?” my wife said.

“No!  I want to wake up and find it under my pillow, Mom,” he replied adamantly.

Kirsten shook her head.  “Why would you want that when you can just have the money now?”

“I just do,” he said, pleadingly.

“I don’t get it,” she replied incredulously.

But, just then, I did get it.  Indeed I got a lot of things.  I got that all my stress about Santa was misplaced, because reality can always bend to the interests of the imaginative mind.  When Gus was battling Orcs in his playroom, he knew it wasn’t real, yet he fought with equal fervor.  So just because the Tooth Fairy ceased to be a reality, that in no way made it less important in his mind.  They myth we had created for him was more important that what was real.  It was a tradition—something there was no need to let go of simply because it was a fiction.

Ah, but dear Tevye, sometimes traditions stay the same even when they change.

I found Gus’ perspective revelatory.  In a world where politics and religion wage an interminable battle over what is “truth” and “fact” the answer may well just be “Does that matter?”  Instead, questions like “Does it make you happy?” and “Does it help others?” may well be more important in the long run.  Indeed, both fact and fiction have distinct, yet vital roles to play in answering those questions.  And they can work together side-by-side, and even trade places from time-to-time.

Gus found a five dollar bill under his pillow the next morning.  Usually it’s two bucks a tooth, but the Tooth Fairy thought he deserved a bonus.

An “Honor Code” That Dishonors our Teachers, Parents, and Kids

July 17, 2012

Man, I need some polish

Okay, so I’ve tried pretty hard not to climb on my soap box too much on this blog, but I’ve got to vent. As most of you have figured out by now, I’m pretty progressive on the political spectrum.  But as a student of conflict resolution, I believe that truly listening to different perspectives, and trying not to automatically throw a label on a particular argument is essential to growing and learning as a person.

So when the David Brookses or Charles Krauthammers of the world write a particularly cogent argument, especially on political (for Brooks) or foreign affairs (for Krauthammer) issues where I believe those two gentlemen have some intellectual heft, I may not agree, but I do often respect where they are coming from.

Unfortunately, David Brooks decided to take on an issue he clearly knows little about in his recent New York Times Op/Ed, “Honor Code.”  The issue is a real one—the fact that boys are generally slipping academically as compared to girls.  I wrote a Letter to the Editor which I will post below, but I want to say a few other things about what a disservice Brooks does to such an important subject.

Henry on Ritalin? Oh, how droll, David.

First, Brooks layers on a ridiculous story of what would happen in our society to Shakespeare’s Henry V, essentially saying that our education system is so focused on such horrors as “cooperation” and “studiousness” that the quirky and rambunctious Hal would have ended up a juvenile delinquent because he lacked that “group think” mentality.

Really, David?  Really?  Having gone to a conservative prep school from grades 7-12, I can tell you that nothing is more likely to push a quirky, independent kid to the margins of the system than a more “traditional” education.  Indeed, efforts to move away from the “conformity factory” model has created, at least here in Arlington, a more inclusive environment far more respectful of kids’ differences than I have ever seen.

Brooks does actually go on to make a couple of decent points, noting that boys are statistically falling behind in academics, and so much so at times that Universities are lowering standards to get more boys in schools.  After that, he hits on a vital sociological point about our modern society and how traditional “boy” skills fit in:

Some of the decline in male performance may be genetic. The information age rewards people who mature early, who are verbally and socially sophisticated, who can control their impulses. Girls may, on average, do better at these things. After all, boys are falling behind not just in the U.S., but in all 35 member-nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Indeed, given the fact that the greatest commodity in modern society is the collection, analysis, and use of information, and the fact that CEOs across the world are looking more for those who can work well in group environments, think creatively, and work well within a large, socially-driven environment (think of the current importance of social networking to the modern economy), our post-industrial society does not favor the traditional “male” skills such as physical strength and social assertiveness.

But just as Brooks begins to make some sense, he decides to jump from social science to cultural nonsense:

But the big story here is cultural and moral. If schools want to re-engage Henry, they can’t pretend they can turn him into a reflective Hamlet just by feeding him his meds and hoping he’ll sit quietly at story time. If schools want to educate a fiercely rambunctious girl, they can’t pretend they will successfully tame her by assigning some of those exquisitely sensitive Newbery award-winning novellas. Social engineering is just not that easy.

Schools have to engage people as they are. That requires leaders who insist on more cultural diversity in school: not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honor environmental virtues, but teachers who honor military virtues; not just curriculum that teach how to share, but curriculum that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp.

The big story here is how much damaging, unsupportable garbage Brooks is spewing out in two paragraphs.  His “environmental virtues vs. military virtues?”  Like that’s an “either/or”?  Like kids can’t care about both?  Like the number of JROTC and ROTC programs available across the country that dwarf student chapters of environmental groups?

Brooks should watch this brilliant movie to get a taste of the impact that the group think of “traditional education” has on boys.

And this false choice between collaboration and competition?  Absolute rubbish from everything I have seen in my kids’ schools, where, amazingly, both are intertwined.  Classes compete to raise money for good causes.  Kids compete for academic awards, and their individual achievements like the number of books they have read on their own (and, yes, they get to choose the books) go toward class achievements like getting a pizza party.  Field Day still has teams, winners, and losers.  But the fact that collaboration and competition can exist in the same plane, and that teachers are, more than ever, seeking to recognize both as skills rather than in the “good ole’ days” where bullying was just “boys being boys” and Social Darwinism was the order of the day is simply more of that liberal group think mentality to Brooks.

I’ll stop there and just post my LTE to finish my point (don’t think it’ll get printed as I broke the 150 word limit, oh well).  I just find it incredibly frustrating to see such an important issue which has real ramifications, real complexities, and real solutions turned into a glib and intellectually bankrupt piece such as this one.  End rant.

To the Editor:

David Brooks would have done real service in raising key issues with boys in our schools (Honor Code, July 6), but instead he turned it into a thinly veiled attack on what he obviously perceives as our soft, liberal education system.  As someone who struggled through a conservative prep school, I can tell you that there is no more repressive system to late bloomers with individual quirks than schools that embrace a “boot camp” mentality.

Indeed, it is the more “crunchy” schools that are providing better outlets for kids of all types to really thrive.  For example, H.B. Woodlawn here in Arlington, Virginia is one of the top public schools in the country, helping kids achieve by giving them the freedom to develop their own curriculum and embrace individual responsibility over their education—quite the opposite of the “group think” mentality Brooks derides.

If Brooks really wants to be part of the solution to the “boy problem” I would suggest he put down his pen, pick up a glove, and go coach a little league baseball team.  As I have learned from my dozen seasons behind the bench, our American game is uniquely suited to help show that teamwork and individual achievement, competition and collaboration, learning the rules and when to think outside-the-box are all skills that, when learned together can help kids from the meek to the wild channel their particular energies productively.  Indeed, many successful schools and teachers around the country are transitioning to more of a coaching method to help teach the same skill set in the classroom.

Hope to see you on the field soon, Coach Brooks.

Backyard Birthdays for Tweens, Episode III: Imagine if you will…

July 12, 2012

One of the great challenges for me as the kids grow older is how to get them involved in a fiction now that suspension of disbelief is no longer axiomatic.  My effort, I think partly successful last year, was to make the party more realistic by having the story line based on things the kids knew, and having them as themselves as characters.

Not likely to be seen in a theater near you, but a great party favor!

But while this year’s Lord of the Rings(ish) party still kept the kids as themselves, the swords and sorcery were hardly realistic.  Foam swords, a moon bounce, and a giant Halloween spider on top of a shed don’t exactly scream “You’re battling for the survival of our planet!”  So how do you get them to cut the snark and really immerse themselves in the story?

Ah, that was it…the story.  We were going to tell a story together, like sitting down and reading a great book, only instead we would be acting it out.  And in order to set the scene, what I needed to do was not to find a way around their reality, or to cleverly insert their reality into the story.  Instead, it was to simply ask them to tuck that in a corner for the next few hours and join me in a different place.

And so after each partygoer picked out their weapon of choice and took a few minutes “training” by bouncing around the castle and competing to make the loudest slapping sound on the others with their styrofoam swords, I gathered them together in shade of our tree and began our story with these magic words:

Imagine if you will…

And I retold the story put on the invitation.  Of a world not so unlike our own, but where our warming planet had unleashed an ancient and evil magic upon us.  Of an Evil Eye of Blood and its dark forces that had brushed aside the modern weaponry, laid waste to our way of life, and had even brought all adults under its power.  My boyish heart and the powers of Gustav the Gray, child wizard, had kept me so far from falling under the Eye’s spell, and I had found in the historic archives the only possible weapon that we could use to stop the world from falling under the Eye’s nefarious gaze.

And then I asked them to join me inside.  There were some giggles and slapping of swords, but most were quiet, curious as to what I had in mind.  “Are we going to watch Lord of the Rings now?” one asked as I warmed up the DVR.  “Ooh, Mad Men, I want to watch that!” said John as I scrolled through the offerings.  Then I had arrived at my destination—Game of Thrones.

Are you a moron?  Letting 11-year-olds watch Game of Thrones?

Legitimate question, but I had carefully vetted the penultimate episode of the season, the big attack on King’s Landing to find an acceptable scene, one where Tyrion Lannister (amazingly played by Peter Dinklage) sets the enemy fleet ablaze spectacularly using an alchemal substance known as Wildfire.  This fictional fire is actually based on a cool historical substance known as Greek Fire, used by the Byzantine Empire in actual ancient warfare.  The scene itself, spectacularly rendered as a single ship filled with the green, glowing substance envelops dozens of ships in a massive emerald blaze had the kids absolutely riveted.

If you don’t have the budget, steal special effects from others

“Wildfire,” I said.  “This lost substance of the ancient pyromancers, is our only hope.  And we think we have traced the location of the sorcerer known as the Spider Mage back to this location—the Shed of Spiders.”

I point outside and suddenly the oversized Halloween spider sitting atop our shed took on new meaning.  They gathered round as I keyed the lock.  I threw the door open and…AAAAAAH!  (actually more like “oh…eeek…”) a skeleton ghost covered in spiders blocked their way.  When I entered first, I screamed in agony and, when I turned around, I had morphed into the golem-like form of the Spider Mage (courtesy of a recycled Voldemort mask).

A few brain teasers before the bedlam

Yes, the sorcerer gargled, he did indeed have the magical weapons they sought, but he was a “tricksy” wizard and would only give his wares to clever children.  And so he riddled them with brain teasers like:

It cannot be seen, cannot be felt,
Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt.
It lies behind stars and under hills,
Even the deepest holes it fills.
It comes first and follows after,
Ends life, kills laughter.
Answer: Dark

I am used to bat with, yet I never get a hit.
I am near a ball, yet it is never thrown. (this one really stumped them)
Answer: Eyelashes

The builder doesn’t need me,
the buyer doesn’t use me,
the user doesn’t want me.
Answer: Coffin

If you’re buying by the gallon, you KNOW you’ve got a party!

Once solved, they were given access to a treasure trove of magical items.  Hundreds of balloons filled with blue, green, and red wildfire (my thanks to Crayola and their washable paints).  A bowl filled with the venomous blood of the giant spider Shelob, poison which would burn through steel, but, ironically, could be wielded with foam.  A bowl filled with magical tar missiles that stayed cool (and chocolaty!) until thrown at the enemy, its contents bursting forth with pudding-fueled destruction.  And the magical Blade of the Knights of Aragorn, longer and stronger and capable of allowing knights to increase the range of their attack.

Yet, even with their new weapons, how could this small band have any chance against the Eye of Blood’s massive Army of Darkness?  By appealing to his one weakness—his arrogance.  If they could entice the Eye to play on their terms, they might stand a chance.  And their terms would be to play the battle out as a giant game of Castle Panic (which just so happens to be a cooperative game.  Can’t take the Conflict Partnership out of the Dad!).

And so, with the Castle Moon bounce bracketed by Blue, Green, and Red sectors just like the Castle Panic Game board, the young wizards, and warriors paired up, divided into “good” and “evil” teams, and practiced the game in preparation for the grand battle with evil.  After several rounds by the rules, we took a “melee break” and the kids just bloodied up their swords, used the remaining “practice wildfire” and went at it.

“Hey, that was a pretty fun party!” Rowan said to me when we went inside to reconstitute their strength with the ancient recipe of rounded flatbread topped with the sauce of tomatoes and shredded cow’s cheese.  “I’m glad you are enjoying it,” I replied as I escaped upstairs.

Highly recommended for witches and wizards 21 and older

As the young partygoers completed their meals and sped back to the castle for more quality bouncing time, I gathered the forces of evil clandestinely in the front of the house.  Powered by (or at least inhibitions lowered by) my Witches’ Brew, the adult Army of Darkness made their way to the battlefront as their heretofore sagely adult guide had been turned into the blood-soaked, 3rd eye-adorned vessel of the Evil Eye itself.

As I barked my evil taunts, I saw the looks that I had so hoped to see.  Wide-eyed, smiling and gasping as they saw their parents, coaches, and teachers aligned against them.

But if anyone was whining for me to stop blabbing and get to the action, it was the grown ups.  And the carping didn’t stop when we lined up and began to play, Castle Panic-style.  “When do we  get to attack?” Mary groaned, her finger itching atop a can of silly string.  “I still don’t get the rules!” J.P. groused as he twirled his saber.

I realized then that adults really do make the worst children.  While the kids patiently played, my blood thirsty army couldn’t wait.  So, I simply passed out the weapons, sprayed all swords with blood, and bowed to anarchy.

Now THAT’S a workout

Unfortunately, when it comes to pictures, all I have is this one great after-shot of Coach Craig, as our staff photographer bowed out soon as the pudding began to fly.  But, let me tell you, the Id had its day to play as both children and their child-like parents unleashed mayhem on each other like nobody’s business.  The wildfire went in about 3 minutes, but luckily there was plenty of blood to go ‘round.  Mentos were added to Sprite to create torrential ice storms, and poor Ms. Waterbury, who had the triple threat of being Mother, Wife of Coach, and Teacher to most of these kids won both the good sport award, and “Most Likely to be Mistaken as Carrie.”

All resources spent, the combatants panted as the Evil Eye and Gus the Gray squared off for one final contest.  And with one final nerf sword slap, the prosthetic was loosed from my forehead, and the spell was broken.  Earth was saved, cake was eaten, and the vanquished drowned their sorrows.

And I got a great reminder that whether it be teacher, coach, parent, or party planner, sometimes the best thing about rules is understanding when to throw them away.

The Review: Brave

July 8, 2012

Double-dip movies for me and little G as we craned our neck from the second row on a 105 degree day here in Arlington to watch Pixar’s latest.

The Movie
Brave, Disney/Pixar


Age Appropriate
5 and Up.  The big, bad bear is a little frightening, but this film is very tame.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Pretty much. I’ll get to this more, but given we grown-ups have seen much of what Brave is all about before, I found it a bit harder to get through.  Pixar’s trademark lovely animation, and a few good laughs make it a worthwhile view overall, though.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
Very little needed here, but I’ll mention two.  In the beginning, the king, queen, and princess are attacked by the big, bad, bear.  Young children may be a little frightened by that.  When Princess Merida and her bewitched mother find an ancient castle, the big, bad bear shows up again in a way that again might be a little scary.  Otherwise this is a very, very tame movie.  There is one scene where the Scotsmen are forced to lose their kilts to get back in the castle, and you get a look at a bunch of animated Scottish tushies.  If you find that inappropriate, so be it.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (light spoilers ahead)
Once Upon a Time, a fiercely independent Scottish lass, chafing at her mother’s insistence that she be the perfect princess, decides to interrupt the competition between clans for the right to her hand in marriage.  Her efforts frustrated, she enlists a witch to help change her fate, but the effect of the spell on her mother has unexpected impacts that leave her relationship with her mother, and the kingdom itself, in jeopardy.

Can she mend the bond that pride has torn in time to repair what she has broken?

My Review
It was just about this time last year that Pixar’s unbroken streak of great movies came to an end (at least in my mind) with the regrettable Cars 2.  The amazing crew at Pixar up until then had an unbelievable run of matching eye-popping animation with novel, nuanced, and rich tales that took us to strange and imaginative new worlds with characters you truly rooted for.

Always had a bit of a thing for redheads, I must admit

I was extremely anxious for Brave, as I loved the fact that a Pixar movie was finally featuring a female lead.  What rich and wonderful world would they take me to?  How would they play on typical conventions, like using Super Heros to speak to the importance of family in The Incredibles or robots and rats to speak to the value of humanity in Wall-E and Ratatouille?

Well, in short, they didn’t.

Instead what they gave us was a thin, somewhat amusing, but ultimately derivative tale of teenage rebellion, mistakes, and ultimate redemption.  This more modern, feminist take on a fairy tale would ring as original if we hadn’t seen it before from Mulan to more contemporary takes on the Cinderella tale like Drew Barrymore’s Ever After.

Now THAT’S a gag!

There is nothing wrong with this movie.  The voices are all well done, most notably Billy Connolly’s over-the-top King Fergus.  And the aforementioned big, bad bear is stunningly rendered to make the action sequences in the film (which are notably few) sparkle.  But, frankly, the most memorable Pixar moment actually comes in the previews, as a hilarious bit where Sulley uses Mike as a disco ball in the upcoming prequel Monsters University.

Perhaps because I have neither been a mother nor a daughter, I freely admit that I may missing some of the value in this film, as it is primarily about that fundamental relationship.  Even still, I did not feel I was watching anything new here.  It was a simple story with the entirely expected cast of fairytale characters topped with a predictable fairytale ending.  Easy to watch, even easier to forget.  Not the swing-and-miss of Cars 2, but more of a ground ball single rather than the solid hits that I used to expect from Pixar.

Used to expect, Pixar.  Consider that a warning.

Overall Score: 3 out of 5 stars

The Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

July 6, 2012

Friday without summer camp = movie time!  So the G-men and I ambled off to see this new iteration of my all-time favorite Super Hero.

The Movie
The Amazing Spider-Man, Columbia Pictures

Science Fiction (uh, radioactive spider, anyone?)

Age Appropriate
I let my 7-year-old see it and while there were a couple of scenes that I might have liked to see first (which I will note below in my spoiler section), in all I didn’t feel like a bad Dad having taken him to it.  So I’ll say 7 and Up.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  Not very thoughtful, but a good overall ride that was well-acted by mostly the entire cast.  Solid piece of chewing gum.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
It mostly comes down to two deaths of two major father figures: Uncle Ben and Captain Stacy.  The Uncle Ben death is pretty classic for the Spider-Man lore and is sad and contains a fair amount of blood.  Stacy gets it from The Lizard with impaling claw action near the end of the film.  It is quick, but surprisingly graphic given the overall bloodless nature of the film.  Some kids may be taken aback when both Connors, and subsequently come police officers get Lizard-ified.  When the Lizard starts to break open the gas canisters, that’s a good time to have the little ones close their eyes. Finally, there is one “jump” scene right after the Lizardification where Gwen is hiding from the Lizard, and he rips the door open and she screams.  Short, and nothing bad happens, but could give little ones a start.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (light spoilers ahead)
Brooding teen genius Peter Parker, being raised by his aunt and uncle after his parents mysteriously die in a plane crash, attempts to run the gauntlet of bullies and hormones of his New York high school.  After finding out that his crush, gorgeous genius Gwen Stacy heads up an internship program run by an old colleague of his father’s, Peter stumbles into a science experiment with spiders, and, chomp, here comes a Spider-Man!

That colleague, Dr. Curt Connors, with some help from Peter, is able to successfully create a cross-species gene therapy, but when Connors tests it on himself, something goes horribly wrong.  This leads to Spidey, Gwen, and her father Captain Stacy working together, sometimes reluctantly, to rescue the Big Apple from an insane Connors’ plan to mutate the entire human race.

Are your Spider-Senses tingling at the prospect?

My Review
As a life-long fan of the Web-Head, I tend to go into Spider-Man with some very specific expectations.  In this new incarnate, some were met, but many were not.

Take a look, over-head!

The good of this move starts with the visual.  Even since Sam Rami’s relatively recent Spider-Man 3, special effects have come a long way.  Can he swing from a web?  You bet your keester!  The sense of barely controlled mayhem from the speed and torque of swinging from skyscrapers was caught here like never before.  And Spider-Man’s speed and agility, not to mention the Lizard’s raw power, were captured brilliantly.  I saw the film in 2D as neither I nor the boys really find 3D particularly engaging, but even without the added layer of depth, it was an impressive spectacle.

The real people were actually quite good, too.  No one gave a head-scratching performance, and the chemistry between Andrew Garfield’s Parker and Emma Stone’s Stacy felt natural and all the right kinds of awkward and overly dramatic for a teen romance.  Rhys Ifans did a very competent job as the heavy both in voice when reptilian and as the angst-ridden Dr. Connors.  No complaints here.

The plot was simple, but moved along well, not adding anything particularly offensive to Spider-Man purists and paying short homage to pieces of Spider-Man lore (wrestling, photography) that they decided not to travel down.  Many of the pieces of the plot (genetic manipulation, self-testing of serum with resulting strength and insanity) felt derivative of Rami’s Spider-Man, but not so much so to feel like a rip off.  No real surprises on either the good or the bad.

No, thanks.

Where The Amazing Spider-Man and Spider-Man really parted ways was with tone.  Garfield’s Parker is very mod.  The brooding outsider—the Twilightification of Spider-Man, if you will.  Indeed, the whole tone of the film took on that brooding, angst-y feel to it.  Indeed, the scenes where Spider-Man even attempts some trademark witty banter really feel out of place.  Instead, the scene where Parker gives his mask to a boy to wear to give him courage while he saves him from a burning car felt far more point-on for this iteration.

And, to be honest, I really didn’t like that.

There was simply no release valve for the melodrama in this movie.  No goofy goober science nerd Peter Parker.  No hilarious wrestling barker.  No sardonic bosses making Peter’s life a living hell.  All the things that really ground the Spider-Man character and help him feel like the quintessential everyman put in impossible circumstances really feels missing from this movie.  In short, it really seems to be missing the fun.  To use an Avengers reference—it really needed more shawarma.

Both Gus and I felt we’d rather go back and see what Tobey McGuire’s Parker is up to rather than following where Garfield will take us next, though Gunnar felt that this one was a flat-footed tie with the earlier take.

Really, please, for the love of Pete, no.

Now that they’ve announced that this new version will be a trilogy, I’m hoping that Amazing Spider-Man 2 might take itself a little less seriously and bring the soul that Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Sam Rami gave to this timeless character rather than shoving the artifice of the sullen, brooding teens down our throats like we’re fed in the modern teen hand-wringer like The Hunger Games.  Because if we end up with Team Gwen vs. Team Mary Jane, I’ll be squarely on Team Please for the Love of God Stop, You’re Destroying My Favorite Super Hero.

Overall Score: 3 out of 5 stars