Archive for the ‘Children's Entertainment’ Category

Wonder Woman vs. The Filter Bubble

December 26, 2016

Actors Gadot and Carter pose for photos during an event to name Wonder Woman UN Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls at the United Nations Headquarters in the Manhattan borough of New York,

Much to my boys’ consternation at times, I’m an “NPR in the car” parent.  If we’re going somewhere they need to get pumped-up for, say to a sporting event or a workout, I’ll let them pop it on music, but mostly they’re regaled to the lilting tones of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

On Sunday mornings, we toggle between acoustic sunrise (kids in a bad mood so I know they’ll complain) and the TED Radio Hour (got enough sleep and not thinking about Monday just yet).  Last week, TED won out, and I got a chance to listen to a great story on a 2011 talk by Upworthy co-founder Eli Pariser.

His was a sobering talk about the advent of “Filter Bubbles,” our new algorithmic masters.  The talk is less than nine minutes and very much worth your time.  In short, he decried how the most ubiquitous ways we get our information, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Flipboard, are all “personalizing” what you see based on clickthroughs and user information.  This used to be only for ads, which I personally never saw as an issue, but now it filters everything from search results to friends’ posts.  The result is that the online “world” for us becomes a proverbial bedtime story; gently rocking us to sleep with warm, comforting words.  I believe that makes us as a people more self-righteous and thinner-skinned whatever your political slant.

Our outgoing President would seem to agree.  Again owing to my NPR-nerd side, Obama spoke in a fascinating, wide-ranging interview with Steve Inskeep, he had this to say about the advice he’s given to his daughters about political dialogue:

“… my advice to progressives like myself, and this is advice I give my own daughters who are about to head off to college, is don’t go around just looking for insults. You’re tough. If somebody says something you don’t agree with, just engage them on their ideas. But you don’t have to feel that somehow because you’re a black woman that you’re being assaulted. But speak up for yourself, and if you hear somebody saying something that’s insulting, feel free to say to that guy, “You know what? You’re rude” or “you’re ignorant” and take them on.

But the thing that I want to emphasize here though is, the irony in this debate is often-times you’ll hear somebody like a Rush Limbaugh, or other conservative commentators, or you know, radio shock jocks, or some conservative politicians, who are very quick to jump on any evidence of progressives being “politically correct,” but who are constantly aggrieved and hypersensitive about the things they care about, and are continually feeding this sense of victimization, and that they are being subject to reverse discrimination.”

I think Obama’s point is a valid one.  There’s a delicate, yet vital line between disagreement and insult, and I think we have, collectively, strayed too far as a society toward conflating the two.  But what I would add to the President’s insight on this is that while we shouldn’t be looking for insults, we should be actively looking for disagreement.  Testing (and sometimes disproving) our assumptions helps us to be better people, parents, and for me, a better coach.

So, to give myself a little pat-on-the-back, one thing I’ve been doing for a while to get out of my filter bubble is that I’ve chosen “Conservative News” as one of my interest areas on Flipboard.  I noticed over time that because I was choosing to read more progressive than conservative stories, the Flipboard algorithm was bubbling away and that the conservative stories in my main feed were dwindling down to nothing.

So rather than go to the main feed, I always spend at least a few minutes going directly to the conservative news section.  Now, I’ll fully admit, most of what I see I have a hard time getting past the headlines on.  Here are a couple of examples of stories I really had to force myself through:

  • Islamist Terrorists Continually Slaughter Christians’: Trump Says What Obama Refused to Say: The whole “Call it Islamic Terror” thing has been a terrible dog whistle, and this article has nothing new to say on the matter. There a reason why ISIS is delighted Trump won the election, as they yearn to be taken as the No. 1 threat to Western civilization.  So good on ya for playing right into that propaganda.
  • Freakout on the Left: I can’t even begin to tell you how much I detest the deflection on the fact that Russia actively hacked into our election process. This kind of editorial backslapping is so filled with misstatements I can’t even begin to go through them all.  The larger point I feel being missed by most isn’t the fact that Russia hacked for Trump, but that it hacked at all, and succeeded.  That’s not just a past threat, but a pernicious future one that is tremendously worrisome.  Articles like this make it that much more difficult to find common ground on what should be universally accepted: it is not good to have foreign powers use covert means to destabilize our democratic process.

But while the lake runs deep with articles like these that make my blood boil, there are ones that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen that stretch the gray matter a bit more.

An article from The College Fix (“Original.  Student Reported.  Your Daily Dose of “Right Minded” News and Commentary from Across the Nation”) posted a challenging article on a black teaching in Milwaukee who was suspended from his job for giving his 7th Grade students a persuasive writing assignment to defend the KKK.

The article is, to my mind, fairly written—not overly defending the teacher or the parents.  The suspension came down over the fact that 7th Grade was too young to ask students to put themselves in the shoes of a hate group, but coming off reading To Kill a Mockingbird, the notion of seeing the perceptions of even the worst of people seems to me a challenging and appropriate assignment.

As a teacher, I could easily see myself making that choice, as arguing for the worst of people is often the best way to understand and ultimately undermine their arguments.  Perhaps 13 is too young and perhaps the assignment could have been couched better, but I find it hard to think that a teacher trying to create a challenging and thought-provoking assignment should be suspended.  There’s that line between disagreement and insult that Obama was talking about.

As I continued to wade through, I ran across an article that was a nerd’s must-click.  This one from The Blaze, best known as Glenn Beck’s online home, emblazoned, “Israeli actress playing Wonder Woman responds to UN giving her character the boot as ambassador.”  The flap, for those who aren’t aware, is that Wonder Woman was given a ceremonial ambassador for women’s rights with both the original TV Wonder Woman Linda Carter and current inhabitor of the character Gal Gadot celebrating the long history of the character championing women’s rights.

The Star-Spangled spandex and the animated version’s impossible body-type inspired a petition to remove the Themysciran princess from the UN-appointed roll.  Gadot, who has embraced the chance to play Wonder Woman as the roll of a lifetime, was less-than-impressed by the rationale behind the protest.  From the article:

“There are so many horrible things that are going on in the world, and this is what you’re protesting, seriously?  When people argue that Wonder Woman should ‘cover up,’ I don’t quite get it. They say, ‘If she’s smart and strong, she can’t also be sexy.’ That’s not fair. Why can’t she be all of the above?”

I had to say I was behind the sentiment of the article, but I do take issue with the article’s subtext.  Note in the headline the choice to say “Israeli” first.  The notion of “cultural imperialism” that some of those protesting WW’s inclusion has absolutely nothing to do with Israel.  Indeed her citizenship is entirely irrelevant to this particular story the way it is written.

Until…

At the very end of the article, as an aside, there’s this tucked away:

Gadot has come under attack in the past from social justice warriors for her background as an Israeli national, an Israeli Defense Force veteran, and a denouncer of Hamas.

Look how the article bookends anti-Israeli innuendo into a story that has absolutely nothing to do with the story.  To me, this is perhaps the worst traditional journalistic practice—the “wink-and-nudge” editorializing within a solid piece of reporting.  To me, it undermines an excellent, thought-provoking point about the need to look past labels (or the spandex) and see the value underneath.  Indeed, I dare any one of the protesters to sit down and watch the wonderful Independent Lens documentary Wonder Women! and not see the immense and complex contribution to the world that this character has to this very day.

So while I was disappointed by the way The Blaze decided to cover the story, there was still room there for agreement.  Indeed, the best defense for Wonder Woman came just days later from Eli Pariser’s Upworthy (wonderfully written—well worth the read).  And when the two ends meet, to me that can be the place to burst the bubble and start a real, productive conversation instead of a label-throwing fight that simply puts us once again in our ideological corners.

So whatever place in the ideological spectrum you are, go hop out of the slowly warming pot of water that is the filter bubble.  For the more we seek disagreement, the easier it is to find the space for common ground.

Of Tacos and Teamwork

December 15, 2015

Aces Trophy

Perhaps the biggest upset a team that I coached ever pulled was a couple of years back with my 9u Aces.  In the first game of “The Doc” – the season-ending tournament here in Arlington – we were matched up with the rival Arlington Travel Baseball Arsenal.

This was the ATB “Blue” team—meaning their A-squad.  We were the B-team for Arlington Babe Ruth, and after struggling for most of the season, we had bounced back with a couple of big wins and were starting to feel like we could compete.  ATB, however, were feeling like the team to beat.  Indeed, I found out from their coach later that weekend that they had just come off an improbable first-place finish in an elite tournament in Pennsylvania.

And that was when, as that coach then said, we took them to the woodshed.

11-1 mercy rule in 5 innings.

Now, I’d like to think that amazing performance was due to my awesome pre-game visualization exercise.  I had asked my players to close their eyes and picture themselves making a big play, picture another player making a big play, and, yes, holding up a tournament trophy.  I told them it was good to picture it, to dream of it, to believe they could do it.  Then I told them to open their eyes, look across the diamond, and see the first team standing in their way.

Pretty sweet coaching stuff, eh?

But, really, when I look back on it now, I think there was something far more important that inspired us that day.

Tacos.

Yep, those crunchy Mexican sandwiches-in-a-shell.

For as the game began, so, too, did the dance I did with Tyler, one of my favorite – and most maddening – kids.  I had been coaching Ty, alternatively named over time Tippecanoe, Mr. Smooth, and Mr. Dangerous (which has now morphed into “Dangeroo”), since he was in Kindergarten.  His Dad TJ and I have coached together almost as long.

Tyler is both big and young for his age; smart as a whip, funny as hell, but very easily distracted.  Indeed, there was a time when both TJ and I thought that the more stationary nature of baseball was just not a good fit for him and he’d be leaving the game.  But the combination of his big brother’s passion and a summertime viewing of The Sandlot turned him all around.

Mr. Dangerous was certainly all that at the plate for us that season; his oversized, gangly body and less-than-classic swing was a fantastic example that while there are many ways to swing a bat incorrectly, there really is no one-size-fits-all way to do it right, either.  But while Tyler was clearly our best hitter, in the field he was like one of those St. Bernard puppies with a small body and adult-sized paws.  You could tell that there was (and still is) potential there with that big arm, but no position on the field was a good fit for him quite yet.  And while during the season I was committed to giving all players time in the field, come tournament time I clearly noted to players and parents we were going to put our team in the best position for success.

This left Tyler in the middle of the batting order, but mostly on the bench when on defense.  In the past, Tyler on the bench had been something of an issue, as his extroverted, smart, and funny ways would combine with his less-than-fully-mature focus to become a real distraction.  And when he started a full-throated chorus about how much he loved tacos, I was once again ready to pull my old “3 strike” rule from my t-ball bag of tricks, as I wanted to nip this latest diversion in the bud.

But shortly after I stared my first dagger in Ty’s direction and barked, “Focus on the game!” it happened.

Ping

A hit.  A solid single against ATB Blue’s best pitcher.

“Coach!  The Taco song!  It’s good luck!” cried Tyler.  He quickly coaxed a couple of his teammates to start singing it as well.

A walk

“See coach!  It’s working!” he screamed.

I didn’t like it.  But then I remembered one of my oldest rules, one quite hard for a control-freak like myself to accept: let the players find their own fun.

“Okay, let’s hear it, then!” I yelled back.

Tyler was over-the-moon, and the other players quickly gravitated to the ludicrous new team anthem.  The ode to that Tex-Mex wonder belted from the bench until I gave that gentle reminder to the umpire that, yes, we had just taken a 10 run lead.

The B-team and its taco tune had won the day.

To a man, the team credited the Taco Song for our victory in our postgame huddle.  And I agreed, because it turned our dugout from its usual home of schoolroom gossip and anywhere-but-here conversations into the biggest, loudest, weirdest rooting section on the field.

I was recently reminded of this tale because of the Washington Post article on the new NCAA basketball darlings – the Monmouth Hawks.  Here’s a quote from the article:

The Monmouth Bench Mob – the title the four players gave themselves – created more than a dozen intricate, choreographed group celebrations, replete with invisible props and Improv-troupe acting chops. When Monmouth toppled Notre Dame on Thanksgiving night, the result sent a ripple throughout the sport. Videos and Vines of the bench’s hilarious dances in response to three-pointers and dunks burst across the Internet and played on highlight shows. So when the Hawks visit Verizon Center on Tuesday night to face Georgetown, they arrive as a dangerous team that’s already beaten three power conference teams, yet are known primarily for four goofs on the sideline.

The only thing missing from this is the fact that, while there is no doubt that Monmouth has a talented team, much like my Aces, those four goofs and their own version of the Taco Song is also a key not only to their popularity, but their success.  Those four goofs keep the players on the court feeling loose, happy, and energized.  Those four goofs energize their fan base in a way that no fan section, no cheerleader, and no mascot could ever do.  They distract the other team without demoralizing them.  They show that the sum of a team can be more than the composition of their individual parts.  They show that every player on a team has an important role to play.

I am passing this article along to all my kids’ parents and asking them to share it with my players.  Because in our 10u season, my team really lost its inner Taco Song, and I truly believe that while we saw individual growth in a number of players, is why we as a team had trouble competing consistently.

Next season, I am actually going to focus a little less on skills development, and open each practice with a non-baseball team-building exercise.  For while as a coach I have (finally) figured out that I cannot write their Taco Song for them, I can do a better job providing the instruments to help them compose it.  Ultimately it will be up to them to decide the song they want to sing; the team they want to become.

I for one am rooting for enchiladas.  It’s more fun to say.

Coach’s Corner: The Post-Game Chat

October 30, 2013

Grays HuddleIt’s not only players that need to learn from their swings-and-misses, but the coaches, too.  So I wanted to note an experience from this past season that started off pretty poorly, but evolved into something I think really helped reinforce one of the core life-lessons that sports can teach kids: teamwork.

Over seasons past, if there’s one thing I’ve learned is that when the game is over, parents really want to get their kids out of there.  I get it, lots to do—homework, shower, food, bed, other sports, sleepovers, or maybe the parent actually has something she/he would like to do that doesn’t involve their children (gasp!).  My parents have been insanely patient for years as I do my “On The Line!” routine after most games, and I wouldn’t want to press my luck any longer.

So I save our talk about the game we played for the next practice.  After warmups, we all gather, take a baseball knee, and take stock of our previous effort.  I’ve played on teams where this conversation was all one-sided, as the coaches went-on-and-on about either what we did right, or more often, what we did wrong.  Frankly I never felt particularly inspired after those conversations.

So instead, this season, I’ve tried to turn the conversation over more to the players.  And so both for my 9-year-olds and my 12-year-olds, I asked them to each tell me one thing we could improve on, and one thing we did really well.  I thought it was the perfect way to get the kids really thinking about the game, and feel like they are having a conversation, not just being spoken at by grownups.

Well, in both first attempts, these conversations were spectacular failures.  As I went around, players were reluctant to say anything bad at all, and when they said something good, it was something generic like “Uh, I thought we hit pretty well.”  The sound of crickets chirping (which were often audible during the many awkward silences) was probably more inspiring than what was being said.  It also just took WAY too long to get through and the boys were itching to just stop talking and play baseball.

With that titanic whiff, I knew that I needed to adjust my swing.  So at the next practice for my little guys, we all took a knee and I said, “Let’s just talk about the good things.  Everyone tell me what we did well.”  This time, there was more conversation, “I got that great hit!”  “I threw a no-hit inning!”  “I made that out at shortstop!”  Without exception, each and every statement was self-referential.  Certainly not surprising, but it started to lapse into something closer to a competition for who did the most to help the team.  Not where I was looking to go.  So a little more contact this time, but definitely a foul ball.

When the practice for my big fellas came ‘round and we started our talk, I adjusted again.  “I want everyone to tell me one good thing you saw another player do in our last game,” I asked.  At first, I could see the look of shock on their face, as if I had sat them down on a baseball field and asked them a trigonometry question.  The hypnotic song of the cricket was just gaining steam when one of my players peeped:

“Uh, I thought we hit pretty well.”

It looked like Strike Three for CoachN, but right after that, another player noted the really great double that Kevin hit.  Then a comment about a shutout inning for Evan, and another about Ian’s big play at 3rd.  The conversation finally started to flow, and, by the end, we had spent 15 minutes going over just about every big play in the game.  And with each positive comment, you could see not only see the look of satisfaction of the player getting called out, but how good the player that was making the compliment felt about doing it.  Suddenly, everyone wanted to say something nice about another guy, because it made them feel good, too.

I was curious to see whether this would translate to my younger players, and, sure enough, the same thing happened.  And the next week, when they were really in the rhythm of it, you could tell that they prided themselves on being able to remember key plays others made.  So when someone made the more general platitude, “I think we all really played good defense,” it meant so much more given the context of our conversation than it did when it was just “Good Thing/Bad Thing.”

The only other adjustments I’ve made to the post-game chat now is that I call for the “5 Top Things” as sometimes the boys get so into it that it bleeds into our practice time.  I’ve also put my coaches in “Devil’s Advocate” position, as we point out during the cavalcade of positivity some of the things that we can do to get even more awesome than we were the game before.  And, of course, after everyone talks, if a kid who made an play we didn’t talk about is just dying to mention it, well, sometimes you just gotta strut…

In sports, competition is so ingrained that I often think in competitive terms even with team-building efforts.  In our warmups, we split the kids into two groups and have them compete for how many grounders with good throws they can field in a row.  Then there are foul-ball hitting contests (something I’ll talk about in another post) where additional points are awarded to the team who hit the most foul balls with two strikes on them.  But here, in this case, this is a team exercise which is really an “everyone wins” experience where the win comes from making someone else feel good.

As any coach will tell you, it’s worth all those whiffs when you walk into that one good home run.  And this one, to my mind, is a no-doubter.

The (Book) Review: Sidekicked

September 4, 2013

As I bone up on what I hope to be “the competition” – a.k.a. Super Hero novels targeting the tween/young adult demographic – I thought I’d share my impressions of what I’ve read.  I’ve actually been simul-reading several novels, but here are my thoughts on the first one I finished.

Sidekicked-198x300The Book
Sidekicked, by John David Anderson, Walden Pond Press, published June 2013

Genre
“Realistic” Fantasy—Super Hero

Age Appropriate
7 and up.  Think Harry Potter for the Super Hero set.  Funny with mild, cartoonish violence and a focus more on how a real-life middle schooler would deal with the trials and tribulations of being something more (or perhaps less) than normal.  Romance plays its role, but in entirely the innocent sense of the word.  A little sprinkling of crude (though not foul) language and potty humor, but one couldn’t imagine anything else from a red-blooded American 12-year-old boy.  That said book reads a bit younger than the Harry Potter stories, so I am not sure it would have as much appeal to teen readers unless they are specifically Super Hero fans.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  While Anderson strives to capture the sensibilities and voice of a middle schooler, he doesn’t avoid some wonderfully descriptive language and puts together a very solid plot.  In many ways, he brings a sense of realism to the genre, moral conundrums and all, without falling victim to the “Dark Knight Disease” I mentioned in my previous post.

Book Availability
Widely available in hardback (it was just released this summer) and e-book in any number of forms.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
Andrew Bean is an excellent middle school student, but as a Super Hero, he kind of sucks. His alter-ego, The Sensationalist, doesn’t have the incredible strength and speed of his friend Jenna, a.k.a. the Silver Fox, and he can’t turn his body into a lump of impenetrable rock like the new kid in class, who incidentally seems to be making a play for Jenna.

How does a super nerd compete with Super Cedric?

How does a super nerd compete with Super Cedric?

Instead, he’s stuck with the power to feel, see, smell and taste absolutely everything.  So while his fellow sidekicks in training are leaping all over the secret sidekick training center in the basement of their school, he gets to sit at a desk and sniff into test tubes to hone his “skills.”  And did I mention the rock guy with the chiseled abs is making a play for the one girl who actually seems to like him?

And if being the least super Super wasn’t bad enough, Drew managed to get paired with about the worst Hero you could imagine.  The Titan, his personal idol and once the city of Justica’s greatest champion, now had more battles with barstools than bad guys.  But Drew signed off on the sidekick’s code, and was determined to figure out how to prove his worth to worth to the world…and to Jenna. And when the most notorious band of baddies return, the very same gang that sent Titan into his unexplained tailspin, everything Drew thought he knew about his friends, his family, and even about being a hero itself, is called into question.

My Review (minor spoilers)

I’m a sucker for a good sidekick story.  It’s one of the reasons one of my all-time favorite Super Hero incarnations is The Tick.  In all its incarnations, while the big blue idiot may be the title character, the story is really about Arthur, the average guy trying to keep up in a super-powered world.  It’s his story that grounds the ridiculous world of Supers that makes the whole thing work so well. Anderson seems to be of that same school, and comes up with a wonderful way to bring that same sensibility and sense of humor to the middle grade market.

Hard to decide, but I think I loved the live action version most.

Hard to decide, but I think I loved the live action version most.

Drew is our Arthur, seeming the worst of the best; possessed of powers that are seemingly not very super at all.  Indeed, Drew’s abilities provide fertile ground for great description and very funny moments (who knew you could fart in a test tube?). Drew’s story is told first person, and I think Anderson does a very nice job capturing the voice of a brainy, nerdy, extremely self-conscious 12-year-old.  If I were to nit-pick, I think some of the descriptive language he uses feels like it goes beyond his narrator, which I think is the issue from time-to-time in choosing first person with a child’s voice.  That said, it never feels so overboard that I lost the feeling that I was hearing things from Drew himself.

For the first three quarters of the book, I thought Anderson did a brilliant job making all of the “super” problems Drew encountered into essentially the same problems just about any middle school kid has, only pumped up on steroids.  The handsome other boy with an eye on the girl he is into isn’t just handsome, he’s handsome and he can turn himself into living rock.  The feeling of anxiety about keeping secrets from parents, in this case super powers and being a sidekick to the greatest Super Hero in history (or, some semblance of him) is a powerful metaphor for that increased feeling of alienation that so many pre-teens start to feel as they change.  Now throw in the fact that his Super Hero idol is a shell of his former self, and Drew gives readers a surprisingly deep-dive into the way kids begin to emerge from the cocoon of childhood into the oft harsh realities of life.

A similar conundrum to Man of Steel, but far more deftly handled.

A similar conundrum to Man of Steel, but far more deftly handled.

Anderson also does an excellent job playing with some of the core messages behind the Super Hero convention.  What makes a bad guy bad?  What are the ethics of being a hero?  Is “Thou shalt not kill” an essential part of a hero’s code?  How do the non-supers feel in a world filled with “freaks?”  All those are covered in a way that in no way feels preachy, as the middle school prism helps make these questions feel fresh and resonant.

As taken as I was by the setup, I have to say that the finish was not quite what I had hoped for.  It was still good, but it felt fairly conventional.  I felt like I was going from reading something entirely original to a solid copy of many stories I had read before.  The villain’s final reveal didn’t come as much of a surprise to me, but I was okay with that.  The rationale for the villain’s behavior, however, felt a bit staid.  But, as a discussion point, the blurred line between good and evil is an excellent one.  Better yet because it is NOT told in the “shades of gray” way that so many Super Hero stories today are told.  It is a real moral dilemma, not simply another ode to nihilism like we see in so many of today’s Super Hero stories.

In all, Sidekicked is a welcome addition to the genre and antidote to the growingly grim path Super Heroes have been taking.

Overall Read Score: 4 out of 5 stars.

Opportunities for Discussion
I’ve already noted a number of questions that the book takes in my review.  On top of that, Anderson himself has done parents and teachers alike a favor with a nice little discussion guide you can find on his website (.pdf).  As I noted, the book does a nice job of keeping the humor going through the book so that the very interesting and serious points being made about power never feel like an after school special.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Why So Serious, Superman?

August 7, 2013
Speaking of Wonder Woman, I HIGHLY recommend this fascinating documentary on Super Heroes and what they have meant to girls and women through the decades.  Click the pic for the link.

Speaking of Wonder Woman, I HIGHLY recommend this fascinating documentary on Super Heroes and what they have meant to girls and women through the decades. Click the pic for the link.

As some of your know, I’m currently working to get my own take on the Super Hero story, The Adventures of MightyDove, out into the public eye.  Of course over the past decade, the likes of Batman, Iron Man, Captain America, and company (though it still frustrates me that Wonder Woman can’t get off the ground) have hit the big screen running, and have fought their way into the mainstream.  Being a guy who remembers comic conventions being nothing but white boxes in the back room of a cheap hotel, it amazes me to see nerd culture firmly established a primary driver of pop culture.

My big fella, now twelve, has discovered the series Smallville, a show full of intrigue and teen angst wrapped up in a Superman package—perfect for an imaginative pre-teen.  While Smallville became something of a wildly uneven show after about the 3rd season, especially after losing Michael Rosenbaum, who was to my mind still by far the best Lex Luthor ever depicted either animated or live action, it did a nice job jugging the very delicate balancing act needed of the genre.  You don’t go 10 seasons without doing something right…

Show never quite got its full mojo back once Lex left.

Show never quite got its full mojo back once Lex left.

With their “No Flights, No Tights” axiom, they endeavored to seat characters who felt real into the unreal world of Superman.  While sometimes redundant with the “freak of the week,” they always managed to capture the sense of almost comic bewilderment when the wild and wacky happened.  It always gave you that small edge of the tongue-in-cheek that allowed you to feel amused at the situation even as the world—or at least Clark and Lana’s relationship—were put ever in peril.

Yet as much as Gus is currently obsessed with Smallville, he didn’t really love the latest Superman iteration, Man of Steel.  Indeed, he and I both came to a similar conclusion after we took in the movie.  Great effects, thin plot, and absolutely no joy.  We both came out feeling that the failed reboot that was Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (interesting to note that it gets a 75% on Rotten Tomatoes, far higher than the 56% for MoS) was actually more entertaining because, despite its many flaws, it felt more like, well…Superman.

Superman II was hokey, no doubt, but Man of Steel could have used a little more hokey

Superman II was hokey, no doubt, but Man of Steel could have used a little more hokey

Of course, Mr. Hippie Nerd here had a very difficult time with the climax to Man of Steel.  [SPOILERS] Indeed, I was actually a bit heartened to learn that producer and Dark Knight Trilogy director Christopher Nolan actually vehemently disagreed with Zack Snyder’s decision to have Kal-El snap Zod’s neck.  Not only has Superman always been about finding ways not to kill the enemy (see the animated movie Superman vs. The Elite now streaming on Netflix for a great example), but the film actually set up a perfect device (the terraforming of Earth to make it Krypton-like) to defeat Zod without resorting to death.  Snyder seemed to go out of his way to make sure that the man who stands as an example of what humanity should aspire to would be pulled down into the abyss of, “Sometimes you’ve just got to kill the bad guy.” Nolan wasn’t the only one to express dismay over Snyder’s decision.  Grant Morrison, a well-known comic book writer whose titles include the All Star Superman series, had this to say:

“It’s a credible Superman for now. But I’m not sure about the killing thing. I don’t want to sound like some fuddy-duddy Silver Age apologist but I’ve noticed a lot recently of people saying Batman should kill the Joker and, yeah, Superman should kill, he should make the tough moral decisions we all have to make every day. I don’t know about you, but the last moral decision I made didn’t have anything to do with killing people. And I don’t think many of us ever have to make the decision whether or not to kill. In fact, the more you think about it, unless you’re in one of the Armed Forces, killing is illegal and immoral. Why would we want our super­heroes to do that?”

[END SPOILERS] Indeed, this trend to pull Super Heroes down to “our level” is in no way limited to our favorite Kryptonian orphan.  Iron Man 3 took our wise-cracking Tony Stark down a dark hole of addiction and PTSD.  Captain America: The Winter Solider, is already being billed as “darker” – more of a 70’s noir feel.  And even the most comedy-laced mainstream hero there is, Spider-Man, was so angst-ridden, so humor-free in his latest incaration that even star Andrew Garfield admitted that it was a problem with the first film.

Now THIS is a Pixar sequel I want to see

Now THIS is a Pixar sequel I want to see!

Increasingly, the whole genre seems to be suffering from Dark Knight Disease.  Not that the TDK trilogy wasn’t excellent.  It was.  But so was Thor, the Avengers, and Sam Rami’s first two Spider-Man films.  Not to mention The Incredibles and Megamind, both of which were successful even venturing into the realm of pure comedy. And did I mention all those films made a load of green?  So no excuses to be found there for always taking our heroes down the dark path.

My greatest fear of this “hyper-realistic” trend is, by removing the joy from Super Heroes, they are extracting the most essential element of the genre: imagination.  Not that you can’t create a serious yet imaginative Super Hero film.  But for the audience, the genre is removed from that dreamlike, aspirational quality.  Super Heroes may have powers, but they cease to become super.

In the urge to make these heroes more like us, we lose the wonder that makes us want to be better, to be more like them.  And I think that is a genuine loss to our kids, who despite the mainstream audience and grown-ups engaging in cosplay, should still be who we make these stories for.

With the announcement that The Dark Knight Returns author Frank Miller is consulting on the new Batman vs. Superman film, my skepticism deepens that much more.  TDKR was a seminal comic book series, turning Batman into a gothic, noir struggle where each and every hero—even the sainted Superman—had feet of clay.  But it was the opposite of inspirational: a desperate slog through a dystopian future with only the faintest glimmer of hope at the conclusion.

Okay, I don't NEED the Batusi, but...

Okay, I don’t NEED the Batusi, but…

While I don’t need Batman dancing the Batusi to be satisfied, I urge the stewards of Super Heroes to remember that the entire genre is predicated on the fantastic notion of what could be.  That is what sparks the imagination of children of all ages to strive to be more than we are, to want to do something to make the world a better place, just like this amazing Mother told her young son after he discovered that Superman wasn’t real.

So when it comes to saving Super Heroes, I think the best advice is to relax and don’t take it so seriously.   Just imagine all of them in their underwear.  That always seems to do the trick.

The Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

May 17, 2013

Despite some reservations based on the Countdown to Darkness comics, resistance was futile.  My Trek-loving big fella and I lounged at the luxury theater this afternoon, flipped on the 3D glasses, and beheld the new Trek.

Star Trek Into Darkness poster 4The Movie
Star Trek Into Darkness, Paramount

Based on a  Book?
Nope.

Genre
Science Fiction

Age Appropriate
Eight years old and up.  While Iron Man 3 (sorry, haven’t had time to write it up) is also PG-13, I wouldn’t take my young guy to see that one.  I would this.  I would say the violence is actually more Star Wars-like than the 2009 Trek, with only one real scene worthy of note (see spoilers below).

Good for Grown Ups?
Yes.  Grab the popcorn.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
When Benedict Cumberbatch’s bad guy gets to the bridge of the other ship, he pulls the old squeeze the skull ‘till it cracks trick on one of the crew.  The crack is offscreen, but it might be considered too intense for younger viewers.  The Enterprise gets pummeled and, just like in the first, we see people sucked into space.  Screams, but bloodless and not all that traumatic in the greater scheme of things (unless you’re that crewman, of course).

Quickie Plot Synopsis (Light Spoilers)
On a survey mission of a primitive planet, Kirk and Spock both knowingly break the Prime Directive to save an indigenous people—and Spock himself—from a planet killing volcano.  They are greeted back at Starfleet with scorn.  Kirk is demoted, Spock is transferred, and team Enterprise seem destined to be broken apart.

Behold JesuSpock!

Behold JesuSpock!

But a mysterious figure engineers series of terrorist events, starting in London and then tearing at the heart of Starfleet Command itself that leaves no choice but to put Kirk back in command as they hunt down the mysterious John Harrison.

The manhunt takes them to Qo’noS (Pronounced “Kronos”), the Klingon homeworld, where Harrison inexplicably and single-handedly saves the landing party from attack, and then surrenders himself.  We find out that Harrison is not his real name, and that he may well not end up being the true, or at least only, villain in this affair.  Indeed, the greatest threat may lie within…

My Review (Heavier Spoilers, but I’ll let you know when)
I’ve been pretty clear I had reservations about this movie, but I felt I went into it at the end pretty open.  I saw the high fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, saw a number of good reviews, and remembered that a lot of people really missed the “Star Trek” within the 2009 film.  JJ and company gave me a good ride a few years back.  I was ready to strap in again.

There were a number of things to like about this film.  Most notably and centrally, this was a story about the coming together of Kirk and Spock.  As a Trek Nerd, I was disappointed that McCoy was once again relegated to a supporting role as they have obviously decided that it is Kirk and Spock that is most important.  Zachary Quinto does a wonderful job as Spock, and while Pine’s Kirk is very different from Shatner’s, I found myself not minding the change.

It was going to be hard to top the Narada, and they didn't

It was going to be hard to top the Narada, and they didn’t

That’s big and carries this film.  But, frankly, most of the rest of this movie doesn’t work very well.  In 2009, JJ and company had the challenge of trying to reboot Trek while staying true to Trek cannon.  I think that actually challenged them to write a cohesive story that, while not perfect (uh, the 2nd lightning storm in space never should have happened) did have a resonant and understandable beginning, middle, and end.  The whiz-bang special effects seemed to be in service of the story.

On the other hand, this film absolutely felt like the plot was servicing the action.  Motivations were glossed over to hurry to the next fight.  The intrigue felt rushed because they wanted to make sure things were moving along.  And other than Kirk and Spock with a bit of a mix of Uhura, the interrelations among the characters, both friends and enemies, felt cold.  The jokes of this film felt like a thin retread of what they did in the first.

The plot itself also lacked punch, and was a huge mistake.  Last time ‘round, we had a massive, nasty looking ship from the future tearing through entire fleets, planets, and almost destroying Earth itself.  From the bad guy’s ship to the aims of the bad guys, everything here felt smaller. Indeed, it really worked against itself because having bigger effects for a smaller story really took away from making their larger scale more impressive.

[HERE COME THE SPOILERS] But, if I’m to say where this movie truly went wrong, it was in trying to borrow from the best of all the original films, Wrath of Khan.  As most of you might know by now, John Harrison is actually Khan, and the eventual showdown between Khan’s ship and the Enterprise forces Kirk to sacrifice himself in almost the exact way Spock does in Trek II (don’t worry, they bring him back, completing the parallel).

Sorry Bennie, no dice.

Sorry Bennie, no dice.

Well, if you’re going to decide to tell in some ways a parallel tale to the best of all the Trek movies, you damned well better deliver.  And in this, Into Darkness failed on pretty much all counts.  I will grant you that Benedict Cumberbatch is a superior overall actor to Ricardo Montalbán, but give me the latter’s Khan any day.  Indeed, given this is supposed to be one-in-the-same, I had a very hard time buying that even with the changes to the timeline, this could be the same person.  And Montalbán’s delicious, charismatic evil was incredibly engaging, while this Khan was nothing but a distant, calculating killing machine.  You never really felt his motivation or his pain.  He was cool, but left me cold.  To me, it was an absolute waste of a brilliant actor.  It would have been much smarter had his character been someone else, as there really wasn’t a need for the Khan connection.  As with everything else in this plot, it felt as forced as the 2009 felt organic.

The Trek II connection also brought out the gaping holes in Into Darkness’ story.  While Wrath of Khan beautifully integrated the Genesis device, a moral challenge of galactic consequences into a more simple story of revenge, all of the “Trekisms” of this film feel tacked on.  Just because you have a terrorist attack, for example, that doesn’t really make it a commentary on terrorism unless you make it connect to something resonant in our lives.  Into Darkness really doesn’t even really try to do that.  Instead it gives you a few throw-away lines and a convoluted connection to attacking the Klingons that seems utterly divorced from modern events.  At the end of the day, this is Wrath of Khan with a lobotomy. [END SPOILERS]

There’s enough to like here to be worth the Trek, but there could have been so much more.  I’m delighted this film will be successful, and even more so because JJ is headed over to Star Wars.  For they now have Trek set up to boldly go where this film should have gone in the first place.

Overall Score: A soft 3 out of 5 stars

The Giving Field

May 15, 2013

As I stood out over my lunch hour looking at that cone-shaped stretch of muck, I might have just as well been looking in the mirror.

I wondered until that moment why when so many other coaches and parents cursed and/or ran from the thankless, back-rending effort of tending to a baseball field—especially when the county in its infinite wisdom has used red Georgia clay as the base on so many of our diamonds—I have leaped at the opportunity.  Indeed, I’ve dirtied the back of my formerly pristine Highlander Hybrid with such an assortment of gardening equipment that when I open the back, it puffs forth a cloud of dust Pig Pen would be proud of.

Now I understand.  It’s because the field and I are the same.

First off, we’re both introverts.  Now, when I say introvert, I know that brings immediately to mind the sullen stranger hiding at the corner at the party, wallowing in the misery of being in such proximity to actual socializing.  Introverts close the door and bury their heads in books or video games, preferring those worlds to the painful reality of human interaction.  Introverts don’t do this:

Thanks to TJ Arrowsmith

Thanks to TJ Arrowsmith

But of course they do.  For introversion or extroversion is not about what you do.  It’s about how you feel when you’re doing it.  An extrovert has a natural affinity for being around others.  Indeed, they derive energy from social interaction and seek it out.  I see it at my local school every day, watching as parents easily interact with others and seek out conversations; lingering around well after the kiddies have gotten their high-fives or hugs and scurry off to class.

We introverts can have that same conversation, the same smiles, and derive the same enjoyment out of social interactions.  The difference is that for us, it’s work.  Not “bad work” mind you, but work nonetheless.  It doesn’t come naturally for us, and therefore it drains our batteries rather than restoring them.  Being social is putting on the tux, while solitude is a sweatshirt and well-worn pair of jeans.

And that’s just where the field and I were, enjoying the mutual aloneness where we spend most of our time, but at the same time preparing ourselves for when the time comes for our children to come again and play.  All we want is to provide for them; to bring them unbridled joy in a couch of safety for a couple of hours.  Then, off they’ll go happily slurping their juice boxes.  And we’re a little more worn for the experience, but satisfied, too, because we know we were a part of bringing that delight despite the muddy footprints and aching muscles stamped upon us.

We need each other, and so I drag my oversized rake through its clotted soil, hunting for drier patches in which to fill holes and even out areas around the bases and plate made more worn by the nature of the game.  Each deeply imbedded footstep I erase feels like a bad hop avoided, like another chance for a child to play.  And when an hour-and-a-half later I look back upon the field, sweatshirt soaked and jeans caked with a plaster of orange earth, I felt as renewed as my partner looked.  Indeed, it felt almost empathic, as if I had taken its bumps and bruises into my aching, middle-aged bones to serve a greater good.

How many workouts can boast that kind of psychic benefit?  Eat your heart out, Tony Horton.

After I had taped-up a few signs around begging, “PLEASE do stay off the dirt infield and allow it to dry for games tonight,” the field and I parted ways as I went home to work, parent, cook, and get then get ready for the game.  I returned with both boys in tow.  As they munched on soy “chick’n” strips and then began to warm up in the outfield, I took out my field drag (yes, I’ve got one of those, too) and began to smooth out the surface.

And it was perfect.  Just soft enough not to be dusty, but it had dried enough to mask my footsteps as I towed my device around the field.  As I began my second pass, I quickly checked my watch to see if I was going to have enough time to really get my geek on.  In the trunk I had a bag of chalk, my cheap but functional liner, and my own clever creation, two planks of 1 ½ x 3 foot pieces of Styrofoam I sawed out from a larger piece left in our shed by the handyman, “because who knows when you might need it?”  Light, mobile, and when you put them together, it makes half the size of an official batter’s box.

And there was a sound of thunder.

Drop.  Drop.  Drop.

Drizzle.

Rain.

Pour.

Teem.

In ten short minutes, my field was a lake.  Streams of water rand through it, crying those saddest of words:

No Game Today.

As the sun flickered forth, I looked out at my partner in exasperation, and began to thumb an email to the team telling them not to bother coming out.  But at my feet was the heavy black bucket where I kept my field measuring equipment, including a long length of heavy string.

And the field spoke to me, saying, “There’s more to a tree than just its leaves.”  I looked and saw that the outfield was wet, but not a swamp.  Instead of the “forget it” email, I instead said, “No game, but we’ll be out here for a bit if you’d like to come down.”

I grabbed that string and made a semicircular “fence” in the outfield.  Then I grabbed my plastic plate and bucket of whiffle balls and spent the next hour playing Home Run Derby with 10 eager boys.  We made the rules on the fly, the kids shagged the balls, argued about the foul line, and swung for the fences.  We high-fived, slurped juice boxes, and the kids stole my hat and made me chase them.  A sip of lemonade out of some very wet lemons.

As the rest of the gang had cleared out I began to walk over to clean things up.  I was struck that from my angle, the string had made the field smile. We had, together and alone, brought another kernel of joy to our little corner of the world.

And we were happy.

The Review: 42

April 30, 2013

As I noted in my last post about Jason Collins, now is a particularly prescient moment to see this film with your kids.  I’ll get to that more in a bit, but let’s talk about the movie itself.

42 Movie PosterThe Movie
42, Warner Brothers

Based on a Book?
No. Though there are numerous books at all reading levels about Jackie Robinson. I’ll get to that below.

Genre
Historical drama

Age Appropriate
9 and up.  While I think this movie might be a little slow for younger kids, the key thing you’d need to decide is whether extremely racist language is appropriate for your child.  I think the power and shock value of hearing how easily racist language and mentalities dripped from Americans in the late 1940s is of tremendous educational value, but you might differ on that.

Good for Grown Ups?
Yes, yes, yes.  This film has a very “old-timey” feel to it that anyone who has watched a vintage movie might enjoy, even though sometimes is plays a little cheesy.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
Well, the “N-word” is dropped numerous times in this film.  Particularly in the scene when Jackie’s Dodgers play the Phillies under uber-racist skipper Ben Chapman, he is forced to endure a profanity and vulgarity-laced screed replete with sexual innuendo that earns this film its PG-13 rating.  Prepping your younger kids for that scene can help make it a learning experience.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey has decided the time has come for the color barrier of America’s pastime to be broken.  We follow the process of his choice– USC graduate and army veteran Jackie Robinson–breaking through this great wall, starting as a minor leaguer in Montreal through is first season in Brooklyn.

My Review
I saw this movie with my 11-year-old and his buddy, both avid baseball fans.  And as a teaching tool about civil rights, prejudice, and the bravery of the path of nonviolence, it is hard to imagine a better film for that audience.

Even through the cheese, enough moments like this to give history nerds the chills

Even through the cheese, enough moments like this to give history nerds the chills

I have to say going in I was a little worried about the choice of newcomer Chadwick Boseman, as from the previews I had not seen the cerebral, almost nerdy Jackie Robinson that I had seen in old films, including The Jackie Robinson Story where Jackie plays himself (it used to be streaming on Netflix, but is no longer…interesting).  Instead, it looked like they had turned him instead into a contemporized and stereotypical “angry black man.”  I have to say that was one concern that was alleviated by a solid scripting of the character and a convincing performance by Boseman.

"You throw me the idol, I throw you the Geretol!"

“You throw me the idol, I throw you the Geretol!”

I was also delighted to see Harrison Ford actually act in a film for the first time in at least a decade, rather than just say lines and collect a check.  While his performance was slightly schmaltzy, again for a younger crowd it worked very well.  Of course, the kids were in complete disbelief that, “That was Indiana Jones!”

Actually, schmaltzy is a great word for this entire movie.  From the score to the script, the film felt not sappy, but larded through a lens of baseball mythology.  From the little boy putting his ear to the track carrying Jackie’s train to the big leagues screaming, “I can HEAR it!” to the slow-motion trot around the bases to the shouts of trumpets and angels, the film itself sometimes felt like a glorified movie-of-the-week. But that glorification actually made it work, mostly because this really is American myth.

This story is so seminal that it can stand up to being put on a pedestal and not crash under its own weight.  I actually compare this to John Goodman’s The Babe which in many ways had a similar feel, but despite the realistic depictions of ballparks and Goodman being one of my very favorite actors, it just felt like an over-the-top beatification of the Babe.  But here, perhaps because this was such a huge issue, one that transcended baseball, it works.

Didn't realize I had been to this Ebbets field, as Engel Staidum was used as a stand-in.  Click on the pic for a great post by Garrett on the Road on the full filming history.

Didn’t realize I had been to this Ebbets field, as Engel Staidum was used as a stand-in. Click on the pic for a great post by Garrett on the Road on the full filming history.

And speaking of realistic depictions of the ballparks—wow.  My parents practically lived at Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds growing up.  Of course, I’ve seen the parks on film.  But the painstaking CGI recreations of these parks, for the first time, made me feel like I could actually go and visit those long gone baseball cathedrals.  I found the CGI of the ball’s flight when pitched or hit a little distracting and unrealistic sometimes, but that’s a small nerdy quibble for getting closer than I ever thought I could get to experiencing those fields of dreams.  If that’s something of interest to you, I highly recommend you going to see this in the theater.  It will lose some of its grandeur even on your big screen TV at home.

Now THAT'S a slow-motion home run trot!

Now THAT’S a slow-motion home run trot!

Speaking of grandeur, I think what was missing for me in this film was a lack of grandeur, actually.  We skipped from one seminal moment to another, and I almost felt like I was watching a historical highlight reel rather than a cohesive story.  In order to be a great film, I felt like the story needed a little more connective tissue.  One of the great baseball films of all time that has a similar mythological feel, The Natural, is replete with small moments, from talking about how good the food is at a restaurant to batting practice conversation.  It brought a personal feel to a grand film that I really didn’t find much in 42.  Even the personal moments were vital, as if every second of the man’s life was filled with huge importance.  That separation from a regular Joe like me was missing, and, I think, kept 42 from truly competing with movies like The Natural, Field of Dreams (my favorite movie of all time), Eight Men Out, and Bull Durham and even Major League (just the first one) as iconic baseball films.

That said, it does more than enough to be both entertaining and thought-provoking.  Having Gus quote me Branch Rickey’s line “I’m looking for a man with the guts not to fight back!” made it worth the price of admission right there.

Overall Score: 4 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
I will once again recommend that, whether before or after you see 42, you and your kids read the excellent piece Jason Collins wrote in Sports Illustrated as he joins Robinson as a civil rights pioneer through sports.  For more on Jackie Robinson for kids, I’m a big fan of the “Who Was?” series and there is a very good one on Jackie Robinson that we own.  And, to continue the story, one of the all-time classic baseball books Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer is recommended for absolutely anyone.

But, however, you do it, please bring Jackie Robinson into your children’s life.  I truly believe his story is a gateway to a cornucopia of fantastic life lessons.

The baseball is just a fringe benefit.

Read It Then See It: Toothiana: Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies

April 23, 2013

Now that the Rise of the Guardians movie is out on DVD, I thought it well past time to post my review of the third in the Guardians of Childhood series.  Here are my reviews of the first two books, Nicholas St. North and E. Aster Bunnymund, and my review of the Rise of the Guardians film.

ToothianaThe Book
Toothiana: Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies, by William Joyce.  Published in 2012 by Atheneum Books

The Movie
Rise of the Guardians, DreamWorks Animation.  Now available on DVD.

Genre
Fantasy/Fairytale

Age Appropriate
6 and up.  You’ll note that I’m bumping this up a year from the first two.  While you could probably still get away with it at 5, the third installment takes on a bit of a darker tone.  Not in a Harry Potter way, but in introducing more tragic elements that, while brilliant, are a bit more troubling than the first two.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Oh my, YES. 

Book Availability
I have the hard copy, but this is now available on iTunes for $10.00.  I downloaded the sample and have to say that in this case, the wonderful illustrations lose a little something off the page.  There is something very classic and tactile about Joyce’s illustrations.  The book feels like some old treasure recently unearthed.  I’d go for the hard copy myself, though maybe I’m just showing my age.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
The evil Pitch’s defeat at the Earth’s Core has led the Guardians and the people of Santoff Clausen something close to a new Golden Age.  But while the children are free to plunge into the depths of their collective imagination, and the Guardians Nicholas St. North, E. Aster Bunnymund, and Ombric the wise deepen their friendships and skills, our heroine Katherine feels uneasy.  Caught between the world of children and her very adult responsibilities as a Guardian, she cannot shake the feeling that while Pitch may not be seen, he is not gone forever.  Indeed, her dark dreams seem somehow to confirm it.

Joyce captures Katherine's emotions so wonderfully that each drawing is worth well over a thousand words.

Joyce captures Katherine’s emotions so wonderfully that each drawing is worth well over a thousand words.

And in the world of dreams, one woman reigns supreme.  Toothiana, Queen of the Tooth Fairies, born of the joy of love and the tragedy of loss, raised by fairies to save the memories and joys of childhood stored in the teeth of children.  And when Katherine loses her very last baby tooth, Toothiana comes to collect this great prize.  But she is not the only one hoping to collect the tooth, or Katherine herself.

Flying monkeys!  Flying elephants!  The return of Pitch!  Yet, amidst all the action comes a connection that Katherine cannot deny—a seeming bond between her and the villain she fears the most.  And that bond may take more than just her life, but her very soul.

Quickie Review (minor spoilers)
I tried to keep my summary to a mere tease, because you really NEED to read this book.  It is, without hyperbole, the Empire Strikes Back of this series.

Katherine’s more somber tone, one of a girl becoming a woman under the most unusual and difficult of circumstances, is absolutely brilliant.  Joyce mixes the confusion of youth with Katherine’s inherently good soul in a way that does have some similarities to Luke Skywalker’s coming of age (but with far less whining).  Her friend Night Light’s confusion and ultimate dismay over her transformation, and her dreams mimics how friends often feel when they see their friends change as adolescence sets in.

The touch of sadness in Toothiana gives her and the other characters a textured, real feel in a way not present in the film.

The touch of sadness in Toothiana gives her and the other characters a textured, real feel in a way not present in the film.

Toothiana herself was a real revelation.  Her tragic backstory was simply mythic, bringing in a more Oriental tone hitherto not seen in this series.  I also loved the notion, different than the film, that the tooth fairy armies are all actually her.  I don’t want to give away any more than that.

Also, a new force from our imagination emerges as a more neutral arbiter on affairs.  I won’t say who it is as the reveal I thought was brilliant.  What is so fabulous about this ethereal character is that it forces the Guardians to admit their own shortcomings—embracing the want to destroy the enemy over saving the good.  Only Katherine, even after everything, refuses to give in to hate.  But her refusal may well be her downfall.

Other than the fact that I feel like Nicholas St. North was being pushed more to the background here, which I didn’t love, there is simply nothing I can find in this book that isn’t absolutely remarkable, including one heck of a cliffhanger at the end.  It is a rich and very complex tale that brings an added depth to this storyline that, frankly I didn’t expect.  The fact that Joyce can continue to surprise is a testament to the depth of his imagination and talent.

Overall Read Score: 5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
Joyce’s tale opens up a plethora of conversations to have with your children.  Here are a few I thought of, but this series is so thick with ideas you’ll need to brush them away from your face.

The Loneliness of Tweendom:  Katherine has entered that most difficult of phases of development, as she begins to say goodbye to childish things.  Her membership as a Guardian brings this plight into sharp focus, and it is a wonderful way to introduce this feeling of not fitting in, and the difficulty that can come with feeling “special” in circumstances that, while here have their root in age, can evolve into any number of directions.

The Road to Hell… Good intentions—that’s what the Guardians are filled with.  Defending the innocent.  Fighting evil.  But, in a very interesting reversal of the Batman Begins mantra, “It’s now who I am inside, it’s what I do that defines me,” this book really challenges not just actions, but the feelings that motivate the actions.  What an amazing gateway to discuss the importance of feelings and the paths that feeling “justified” can take us.

Much like Darth Vader, Pitch's evil look makes a great "Book/Cover" discussion.

Much like Darth Vader, Pitch’s evil look makes a great “Book/Cover” discussion.

The Bad Guy, Reconsidered:  The first two books begin to set up Pitch as a tragic character, but this one brings this plotline to a new level, connecting him and Katherine in a very interesting way.  So what at first is a very stark line between the light and dark becomes more blurred, but not in a “no one is really good or evil” kind of way.  Instead, Joyce is speaking more to the paths in both intention and action that lead us down the road to good and evil.  This is a wonderful way to bring in a reconsideration of the nature and how we should treat the person we consider “The Bad Guy.”  Katherine’s actions contrast with the rest of the Guardians very starkly, setting up a heck of a cliffhanger and a heck of a discussion.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 5 out of 5 stars.

Looking forward to meeting the "real" Jack Frost soon.

Looking forward to meeting the “real” Jack Frost soon.

What to Expect from the Movie
Well, you can read my review of the film here.  I found it disappointing, and it seems I’m not the only one as it seems the flop cost a lot of DreamWorks employees their jobs.  Of course, I liked John Carter, and that was even more of a flop, so box office isn’t always the best barometer of quality.

That said, most of my friends whose kids enjoyed the movie said that they had seen that first, then immediately jumped into the books.  Now that the DVD is out, that might be another solid pathway to getting your kids interested in reading this modern day classic.  But do note that, with the 3rd book, there seems now to be a more definite rift between what is in the books and what the movie was all about.  Especially because we’re going to get a look at Joyce’s version of Jack Frost in the next one.  I for one can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Read It Then See It: Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness #3-4

April 12, 2013

So, here’s my take on the conclusion of the lead-up series to the summer blockbuster.  Here are my reviews of the first and second issues.

Star Trek Into Darkness 4The (Comic) Book
Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness #3-4.  Story by Roberto Orci and Mike Johnson, art by David Messina

The Movie
Star Trek: Into Darkness, Paramount. Release Date, May 17, 2013.

Genre
Science Fiction

Age Appropriate
9 and up.  I’ll keep it here because of the first two, but the final two issues are actually far more violence-free than the first two and would probably be okay for even younger kids, more in the 8 and up range.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Not for anyone, actually.  I guess I’m giving away my review a bit, but from plot to artwork, I found these final two issues a waste of time and money.  Actually, more than that, but I’ll get to that below.

Book Availability
I downloaded these from iTunes for $3.99 each.  But if you really want to read them, the whole compilation is now available for $3.99.  That’s far more reasonable for this product.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (spoilers, but no spoilers regarding the film)
We pick up issue 3 with Sulu and his doomed colleague in the red shirt held hostage in the camp of the Shadows.  Sulu, always with the penchant for having a blade, pulls a hidden knife out of his shoe and unties them, just as Spock is running headlong to their rescue.

The Bajoran nose ridges on Mudd were admittedly a nice little Trek nerd touch

The Bajoran nose ridges on Mudd were admittedly a nice little Trek nerd touch

Meanwhile, Kirk and April continue their debate over whether the Prime Directive should be broken to save the Phadians, and what to do about Spock going all renegade.  Uhura comes down with a woman named Mudd (seems the daughter of TOS’s Harry Mudd) who is running guns for April.  Together, they all fly the shuttlecraft at the Shadows and manage to save all the humanoids and take them back to the Enterprise.

Back aboard the ship, April reveals that he knows it was the Klingons who are arming the Shadows, using them as a proxy rather than conquering the planet and draining the empire’s resources.  Kirk and Spock have it out regarding Spock’s near suicidal tendencies to rush into dangerous situations these days with a disregard for chain of command.  Spock says he’s sorry.

But while Kirk and Spock are having their moment, April and Mudd are hatching their scheme.  It seems that April’s Enterprise had a hidden program that only he could activate to keep all command and control under his authorization.  And somehow that program made it aboard this Enterprise.  He clears the bridge and locks out all other commands.  The Enterprise is his to do what he will, including starting a war with the Klingons.

In issue 4 we begin on the Klingon homeworld.  April is bargaining with them to turn over the Enterprise in return for being made governor of Phadeus under Klingon control.  He sees this as the only way to save his people from the shadows.

Kirk and Spock attempt unsuccessfully to get back to the bridge through the ducts, but just as a Klingon ship shows up to take April up on his offer, Scotty does the ole’ CTRL-ALT-DEL on the warp core and reboots everything.  Spock and Kirk break into the bridge and stun Mudd and April, and high-tail it out of there, leaving the Klingons in control of Phadeus.

Kirk expresses frustration with the Prime Directive and sympathy for Aprils ends, if not his means.  He then has a testy conversation with Admiral Pike about wanting to get to the bottom of why that computer program was still on the Enterprise.  Pike tells him that it’s for Starfleet Intelligence to work out, and he’s got to remember who his real enemies are.  Just at that moment, in London, a man named John Harrison is granted access to the Starfleet Data Archive.

To be continued May 17…

Quickie Review (more minor spoilers)
After being SO impressed with the second issue, I cannot tell you how much in pained me to read the sloppy, incomprehensible drivel that the final two issues brought forth.  Unlike Star Trek: Countdown, the preview series to the 2009 movie, where I felt excited and enriched, at the end of this series I felt like I had just been ripped off. Spock’s very interesting motivation for violating Kirk’s wishes and running off at the Shadows was whitewashed into a very thin “I have to save people” rather than have him being a more forceful advocate against genocide.  His logic seems not only confused, but almost entirely absent.

Kirk and Spock’s relationship is tense and uninteresting, hardy seeming to have grown at all since the events of the first film.  The method for April to take control of the Enterprise is ridiculous, as is the use of their being absolutely no discernible chain of command on the Enterprise to offer comic relief. McCoy’s small role painted him some kind of power-thirsty goofball that also seemed entirely out of character.  Only Uhura and Scotty’s roles seemed on point here.

If they were going to rip off TOS, they could at least have given us some classic Mugato action.

If they were going to rip off TOS, they could at least have given us some classic Mugato action.

The plot itself devolved into a poor man’s version of the TOS episode A Private Little War, where Kirk is forced to match technologies with what the Klingons are offering to create a stalemate on a contested planet.  It was far more expertly put together than this was, as April’s offer to turn the Enterprise over to the Klingons—the very people who armed the Shadows—seemed so far afield that it made a very interesting premise laughable.  Given his disgust over what had happened, and his control of a Starship that could have obliterated the Shadows from orbit, this concept was asinine beyond words.

And the end, essentially ceding the genocide and the planet to the Klingons to avoid a wider war was just the kind of “morally neutral” concepts that I was most afraid of.  Star Trek is about finding that right path, about finding solutions to problems.  The crews were not always successful, but their heart was in the right place.  This book was all about the “there is no right” and the infinite shades of gray in the spectrum of wrong.  If well told, stories like that can be interesting.  But it isn’t Star Trek, even if you call the pirate Mudd and the Klingon Kor.  This was both poorly told, and not Star Trek.

I hope the one in the movie looks better, that's for sure.

I hope the one in the movie looks better, that’s for sure.

On top of the poor plot and writing, I was similarly unimpressed with the artwork in these two issues. It almost felt like they were in a hurry to get these done and so the overall quality of everything slipped.  Gus and I joked that in one scene, Kirk looks like a six-year-old throwing a temper tantrum.  And the look of the new Klingon cruiser, looks like something Gunnar might have made out of a loose set of Legos.

Overall Read Score: 0.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
“Wow, how bad was that?”

Overall Family Discussion Score: 0 out of 5 stars.

What to Expect from the Movie

Great, Star Trek is borrowing from thoughtful classics like GI Joe: Retaliation now

Great, Star Trek is borrowing from thoughtful classics like GI Joe: Retaliation now

I wish I could slingshot myself around the sun and go back in time to keep myself from pushing “buy” on my iPad.  Because I am now more convinced than ever that if this teases the tone of the upcoming film, my Star Trek is dead.  In its place is nothing but the familiar uniforms and names to cover a story that will unravel what Gene Roddenberry set to create half-a-century ago.  The vision of a better earth, a better us will be nothing more than a platform for telling a shoot-‘em-up thriller resplendent with moral relativism.

I am now genuinely worried that Star Trek: Into Darkness will be boldly going nowhere.  Instead of being a beacon we need of a brighter future and using the challenges and complexities of dealing with strange new worlds as allegory for our own struggles, it will instead smash that beacon and pull us down into the blackness of the human soul, telling us that no matter how advanced our technology gets, deep down we’re the same old flawed and bloodthirsty humans that we always were.

I’m not sure if that’s a trek worth taking.