Archive for the ‘Gen. Pop-Culture’ Category

Golem: The Hero Project

March 6, 2013

You know what they say about real estate: location, location, location.

Last year's fun, tucked away in a nice quiet corner.

Last year’s fun, tucked away in a nice quiet corner.

I guess I should have been excited about being given one of the prime spots at my little guy’s elementary school’s Multicultural Night.  We were right at the top of the stairs, impossible to miss—Israel front-and-center.  After brushing away the urge to suddenly discover my Slovenian heritage, I began setup for my second year representing the Jewish State.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I absolutely love the fact that the biggest school event of the year is one that celebrates the diverse cultural backgrounds of the school students, parents, and teachers.  The kids are given passports, and run around the school to different tables representing different countries.  When they have stopped in and participated in whatever that country has to offer, they get the requisite stamp on their passport.

I think the twist would have given me away

I think the twist might have given me away

It’s just that I was absolutely exhausted by the worry and work of tending to my big guy’s concussion recovery (he’s doing much better now, by the way).  Just putting things together and manning the table was somewhat daunting at the moment.  Now add to that a location that guaranteed the deluge of smart, inquisitive, and energetic K-5 kids and I was hitting myself for not bringing along that bottle of Plymouth to go along with the Play-Doh.

I remember being really spent after my maiden voyage at the Israel table.  Last year’s theme was holidays, and, as you might remember, we took advantage of the proximity to Purim to do Haman Hangman and teach kids about the “Hebrew Halloween.”  Trying to manage that again, but this time at the center of the storm, was positively daunting.

Great moment, but not much competition for Hansel and Gretel

This year, the theme was folklore and fairytales.  This is something that gave me and the other Israel table parents some consternation.  Israel itself is a young country, so the amount of folklore developed since 1948 is fairly small.  One could point to the bible itself as Israeli folklore (and, some might argue, fairytales), but that seemed out-of-sync with the vibe of what they were looking for.

Finally, we decided that there was such a rich folklore tradition within the Jewish diaspora experience that it was just too good to pass up.  It also gave the opportunity to teach kids about the concept of a people without a nation.  And, as a nerd, there was really only one story choice:

Golem.

For those unfamiliar with the story, here’s my excerpt from the activity sheet I put together.

Fantastic book to introduce kids to Golem. Click on pic to find out more.

Fantastic book to introduce kids to Golem. Click on pic to find out more.

Legend has it that in 16th-century Prague, Czechoslovakia, the Israelites were being threatened because a lie was spread that Jews were kidnapping Christian children. As a mob gathered to attack the Jews, the head Rabbi of Prague turned to a passage in the Torah that referred to an “unformed substance” or Golem (GOH-ləm).  Through a mastery of Jewish mysticism, the Rabbi formed a mound of clay into a large human-like shape.  Finally he inserted a parchment with the most sacred Jewish prayer, the Shema, and the Golem came to life.

Unharmed by human weapons, and growing larger and more powerful by drawing strength from the earth itself, Golem was a determined protector of the Children of Israel.  But Golem became so powerful that even the Jews themselves started to become fearful.  Eventually, the Rabbi would use his powers to return Golem to the earth, even though he came to treasure his life as much as any human being did.

Golem SwampThingCan you see why a geeky guy like me loves this story so much?  It’s essentially Frankenstein meets Superman.  Indeed, Golem has been featured in comic books from Swamp Thing to The Hulk, and in pop-culture hotspots from The Simpsons to the Pulitzer Prize-winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Resistance was futile.

Given Golem was formed from a mound of clay, it leant to a great activity for the kids—Build Your Own Golem.  Armed with a rainbow of Play-Doh tubs and paper plates, the kids molded their own heroes and brought them to me for me to mark with their name and their Golem’s name in Hebrew (or the best approximation my 6th grade Hebrew School training could approximate).  As the first little girl brought me her fire-breathing butterfly, I found that I needed to kneel down to more comfortably write on her plate.  I did not get up again for two-and-a-half hours.

Location, location, location.

knee_padsAnd while my hamstrings are still recovering some two weeks later, I have to say I am so very glad I didn’t let my fatigue (and self-pity) get in the way.  I wish we had been a little less crazed, as we weren’t actually able to do the photos and videos of the kids as I had hoped.  But both their creations and their answers to my questions were absolutely fascinating.

As you might expect, there were plenty of the “boys will be boys” crowd that just wanted to talk about the cool ways that their Golem could destroy things.  When I noted the fact that those powers could be used just as easily for evil as for good, most responded, “Well they just use it to kill the bad guys!”  When I challenged them to think about one way they could use their power to do something other than to destroy, I got a lot of quizzical looks and “Can you just give me my stamp now, please?” But I also got a lot of good thinking.  Lightning bolts that could light lightbulbs and controlled storms that could spin wind turbines, to name a couple.

And then there were the “outside the box” notions of heroism.  A winged Pegasus that spread friendship with a flap.  A tree of life that provided food for the hungry.  My favorite was a little girl with a pretty pink Golem.  When I asked what powers her hero had, she shrugged her shoulders shyly.  Her Dad wrapped his muscular arm around her shoulders and urged her to answer.  “Is your Daddy your hero?” I asked.  She grinned and nodded her head, looking up at him for approval.  “And what makes him your hero?” I continued.  She pondered for a moment, and squeaked, “He loves me.”  This time, it was my turn to grin.  “Love, my grandmother always said, is the greatest power of them all.”  We named her Golem Ahav—love in Hebrew.

folding chairWhether you go with Golem or just a “build your own Super Hero” project, I cannot recommend this activity enough.  I would have loved to have done this in a classroom environment where the kids get to build, discuss, and share their designs, and more importantly, their thoughts on heroism with each other.

Just make sure you’ve got a chair.

Read It Then See It: Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness #2

March 1, 2013

Well, Gus is having his first day back in school (crossed-fingers).  So of course, I spend my first hours alone doing what?  Reading a comic book, of course!  Oh, and for continuity, here is my review on the first issue of this series.

Star-Trek_Countdown-to-Darkness_2The (Comic) Book
Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness #2.  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 added a year on here as there is a particular scene where (SPOILER) one of the Phadians are pretty savagely beheaded (END SPOILER).  Frankly, I didn’t feel that particular image was needed to make the point, but it’s there and so it may not be appropriate for younger children.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  Far more interesting and tight storytelling than the first issue.  Good action, but far more importantly, a very interesting dilemma put to Captain Kirk.

Book Availability
Once again, I downloaded this from iTunes for $3.99.  Again no sign of the comics at my local bookstores, though I’d guess the compilation will be there once it comes out.  BUT, I did note that once the NEXT issue of the comic comes out, the price of the previous issue DROPS to $1.99.  So if you’re willing to wait a bit, you’ll get yourself a bargain (relatively speaking).  Issue 3 is supposed to come out on March 13.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers—more than minor if you haven’t read issue #1)
And so we pick up with Kirk and Spock surrounded by light blue Phadians (I’m assuming that’s what they’d be called, as they’re actually not aliens.  In this case, the humans are the aliens) and a former Captain of a starship Enterprise, Robert April.

Kirk seems skeptical, but probably because the aliens aren't green, scantily clad women.

Kirk seems skeptical, but probably because the aliens aren’t green, scantily clad women.

We find out that some two decades ago, April, in command of the previous Enterprise, discovered that the blue Phadians were being exterminated by an aggressive subsect of their kind called the Shadows.  It was a classic and brutal case of genocide.  April decided that, in this case, he could not let the Prime Directive stand in the way of saving an entire race.  So he “went native” and his First Officer and friend covered his tracks.

Before Kirk and Spock can get back to their shuttle and crew, the Shadows attack and drive them and April deep into the catacombs where the last of the blue Phadians reside.  It seems that once April introduced advanced technology to this war, someone else jumped in quickly to assist the Shadows.  Their forces were now poised for a final offensive to complete the genocide that they started.

As April, Kirk, and Spock debate the morality of the Prime Directive, one of them slip off, and head, fully armed, toward the Shadow army.  Who it is, however, might come as a bit of a surprise.

Quickie Review (same spoiler level as above)
I liked the first one just fine, but I felt at 22 pages it was a bit thin.  It’s funny, because even though this one is also 22 pages, it felt like SO much more.

The plot itself was very rich, as it really tackled the moral ambiguity that goes along with the Prime Directive.  This issue speaks volumes to current issues, as the technologically sophisticated United States has the ability, as we did in Libya, to play a decisive role in deciding a civil war.  Yet, in cases such a Rwanda in the 1990s, we did nothing and allowed a genocide to happen.  When is it right to interfere in the affairs of other nations?  That, on a planetary scale, is what’s being debated here.

Spock's messed up, but does that mean that the Spock we knew is entirely gone?

Spock’s messed up, but does that mean that the Spock we knew is entirely gone?

A couple more fun things happen here, as we continue to get a different feel for this Spock.  I’m not sure I like it, as the more I see, the more different he becomes from the Spock I grew up with an idolized.  In some ways, it definitely makes for an interesting juxtaposition, but I’m afraid that the scars of Vulcan’s destruction might actually serve to limit the character’s growth as everything seems to revolve around that now.

It was also fun to see Uhura in command of the Enterprise, as this new generation of our intrepid crew break from the shackles of the glass ceilings of the ‘60s.  However, I really did not like the way McCoy was written, as his interaction with Uhura made him seem power-hungry and scheming, which is completely against type.

I also found it unfortunate that the art of the old Enterprise wasn’t more “old school.”  My understanding is that their original idea for opening the movie in 2009 was to have the Enterprise under April’s command, looking just like it did in the original series, come into contact with the Narada.  I think that would have been amazing, and they could have nodded to that here by drawing his Enterprise more like the one from TOS.

That said, there was a nice drawing of an old-school looking tricorder, and both a race and a name from Star Trek of old that was fun to see.  In all, a very strong issue both for the Trek novice and nerds like me.

Overall Read Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
As you might expect, this issue really expands upon the last one.  So what I noted in issue #1 definitely still applies here.  But there is one very large new issue that’s a doozy of a discussion point:

An amazing and haunting book on Rwanda–well worth a read

Genocide: Perhaps one of the most difficult issues for humanity, as we have yet to overcome as a species the drive to exterminate entire peoples simply for what they are.  In this issue of the comic, we have the Shadows painted as nothing but bad guys.  I’ll be curious if they stick there in that “comfortable dilemma” of whether good guys should go in and get the bad guys even if it doesn’t seem to be their business, or whether they’ll open up the Shadows a bit more.  As, of course, the “We were just following orders” is also one of the great debates over what to do in the face of, and the aftermath of, genocide.

As difficult as this issue can be, however, it can also be used as more of a personal allegory to cases of racism, bigotry, and bullying.  Is it always the right thing to do to get yourself involved when you see someone else doing something wrong?  If you see injustice, is it better to involve yourself as an advocate for the one being abused, or an arbiter to help diffuse the situation?  April leaped in as a defender, not doing anything to even try to see if he could change the situation without taking sides.  Was that the right thing for him to do?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But it sure is interesting to talk about.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 5 out of 5 stars.

What to Expect from the Movie

Eh, go play with your Death Star

Oh, go play with your Death Star already

I wish I could say that issue #2 made me feel a little less nervous about what to expect from the movie, but it didn’t.  I think the issue itself is great Trek, but I remember in the Star Trek: Countdown series before the 2009 film, there were wonderful, Trek-like allusions and discussions, but because the film was intended for an audience that had no familiarity with Star Trek, little-to-none of that was included in the picture itself.

I have to say that perhaps a little bit of more worry comes from feeling 2nd best now that JJ Abrams has taken on Star Wars.  It’s not that he’s doing the new movies—that’s fine by me.  It’s that when he agreed to take it on, he said, “I can just say what I want to do: I want to do the fans proud.”  Given his quote while making Trek 2009 was “I’m not making this for the fans,” I still continue to be concerned that while he enjoys the Star Trek characters, he does not seem to really enjoy the core of Roddenberry’s vision.

Yes, yes.  I’ll try to remove the Tauntaun-sized chip from my shoulder before I see the movie in May…

Ain’t that a chair in the head

February 28, 2013

It’s always hard when he cries.  It has been ever since he was a baby.  It’s because of those eyes.  So huge…so blue.  Oceans of glistening sorrow designed to drown a parent’s heart.

But this time was different.  And it was all over one little 6th Grade reading assignment called a “Blog Prompt.”  He was supposed to take any quote he liked from a book he’s been reading and write up a short statement about why he liked it and how it moved the conflict of the story forward.

Thanks for making my son cry, fellas.

Thanks for making my son cry, fellas.

He chose a quote from The Hobbit, with Gandalf giving Bilbo a hard time over a simple “Good Morning.”  It’s a funny scene that is used in the film as well.  He and I briefly discussed how that seemingly small aside speaks to the larger plot and relationship between the two characters.  I didn’t feel I needed to say much, as it was a yawningly easy assignment by his straight-A standards.  So I went upstairs and left him with pencil and paper to take care of business.

When I came back down a half-hour later to get dinner ready, I found an ocean roiling at the table.  He had been able to write down Gandalf’s pithy jibes, but that is where his assignment ended.  “I can’t do it!” he cried out in frustration.  “I try to think about it, but nothing comes out!  It’s all jumbled up in my head.”

He looked defeated.

Exhausted.

Broken.

Yes, broken.  For that’s truly what he was. Two days earlier as he quietly sat and read, a heavy school chair came tumbling down on his head as his buddy behind him lost control trying to take it down from his desk.

Welcome to the world of parenting a child with head trauma.

A hero in life and art

A hero in life and art

As I was collecting the shards of my heart off the floor, my mind turned instantly to, what else, pop-culture.  I remembered an interview with Christopher Reeve and his wife Dana.  After the accident that left Superman a quadriplegic, she soothed his misery by saying, “Yes, your body is broken, but it’s still you.”  His mind was intact, and in his remaining time, he went on to be a forceful advocate for spinal injury research, act and direct in a very interesting version of Rear Window, and even return to the world of Superman by taking on a recurring role in Smallville.

But this bright, funny, introspective kid of mine simply wasn’t him.  Parts of him were there, but both emotionally and intellectually, a significant part of who he is was veiled behind scrambled neurotransmitters and the fog of chemicals that release with the onset of a brain injury.  As the doctor at the SCORE concussion center at Children’s Hospital explained to me, Gus, like other kids with significant concussions, have what amounts to a “software problem.”  It’s not inflammation or a typical bruise.  A concussion is more akin to a computer getting caught in a bad loop, only, as my wife cleverly put it, there is no CTRL-ALT-DEL to reset the system.

Instead, it is the maddening process of waiting, worrying, and, for me, attempting to keep the ghosts of my past at bay.  Until he starts to improve, Gus is really not supposed to do anything to intellectually stressful.  This makes avoiding boredom a real challenge, especially when TV is supposed to be doled out in very limited doses.  So when Gus brought out a deck of cards, I thought that was a great way to pass a little time.

Best...poker...ever.

Best…poker…ever.

He knew Blackjack, but he had never played Poker before and was curious to learn after seeing the crew of the Enterprise-D ante up on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  So I sat there teaching him the rules, and we spilled out popcorn kernels to serve as chips.  The look of delight on his face when he successfully bluffed me for the first time was priceless—mostly because it was an expression that looked like my Gus—a glimpse of what he used to be, and, yes, I know intellectually, what he will be again.

But that intellectual awareness couldn’t stop the memory of the last time I sat at a kitchen table and taught someone Poker.  I was a few years younger than Gus is now as I sat with my Grandpa Nat, who had come to stay with us after suffering a debilitating stroke.  I slowly explained the cards, and we played most hands face-up so I could give him strategy pointers.  He seemed to enjoy it, but all I could think of was that I was teaching this game to the man—the icon—who had taught it to me.

Shut up.

Shut up.

So as my boy slowly and bravely reboots, I have been made painfully aware that in terms of the sheer power of the emotion, concern trumps pride, anger, and, yes, even love.  Or as I think about it, maybe worry is more like a “force multiplier” if you’ll forgive the military terminology; enhancing all of those baseline emotions with an almost uncontrollable ferocity.

And it is why as I take this hopefully short stroll in the shoes of those parents with special needs kids, my already sincere respect turns to wonder and admiration.  Two weeks of this has been positively exhausting.  And while I understand the enormous strength and scar tissue a parent can generate when caring to the needs of a child, the mere concept of having this level of anxiety as a constant partner is close to unfathomable to me at the moment.

Ah, as I’m writing this, Gus just finished that darned blog prompt on his second try (City of Ember quote this time—he listened to the audiobook).  Small headache afterwards, but no problems and no tears.  So as a return to school is looking more imminent, I guess I have only one other job to do; choose the brand of bubble wrap I will be encasing him in for the rest of his life.  I wonder if they have Nationals’ colors.  He’ll like that, I’m sure.

The Review: Beautiful Creatures

February 27, 2013

Well, I have a bit of a blogging backlog as for the past two weeks we’ve been dealing with the impact of a pretty severe concussion my big boy suffered. Indeed, I was about 20 minutes into the movie as I went to see it on the first day when I got the call from the school that he needed to be picked up.

Well, Gus, still not able to get back to school, went with me this afternoon and we finished what I started. I’ll post more about my poor big fella later, but frankly I’m a bit talked out when it comes to that. So a little escapism first both for you and for me.

You can find my Read It and See It review of the Beautiful Creatures book here.

Beautiful-Creatures-Movie-PosterThe Movie
Beautiful Creatures, Warner Brothers

Based on a Book?
Yes. Beautiful Creatures, by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl. Originally published in 2009. First of four in the Beautiful Creatures series.

Genre
Paranormal Teen Romance

Age Appropriate
11 and up. I said 10 and up for the book, but there’s a little more sexual innuendo and some aggressive necking in this version in what felt like an attempt to be more “Twilight like.” So I’d bump it up a bit.

Good for Grown Ups?
No. Pretty muddled and insipid throughout, this movie seems far more directly geared toward a teen audience without any real attempt to make it into more than that.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
The effects of the movie were, as my son said, “cheesy” so there’s really nothing there to surprise or shock. This is a romance-heavy plot, so you’re just going to bore the living bejesus out of young kids if you take them, so do yourself and them a favor and see what’s streaming on Netflix.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
Much like the book, we start with high school junior Ethan Wate stuck in the small town of Gatlin, South Carolina. His mother recently died and his father has cracked under the strain of the tragedy. Only Amma, the housekeeper who has been like a second mother to him, is keeping things together. But he longs to leave the pain of the past and the small-minded pursuits of Gatlin society behind him.

Mean Girls can be beautiful creatures, too

Mean Girls can be beautiful creatures, too

But when Lena Duchannes comes to school, Ethan’s entire world will be turned upside-down. It starts just by defending her against the taunting of the bigoted “mean girls”, who ostracize her as a devil-worshiper because she is living at the old Ravenwood estate with the town shut-in, Macon. But as they get to know each other more, a bond forms between them, cemented by a curious broach that gives them a vision of two lovers separated by tragedy in the Civil War.

As their friendship turns to romance, Lena opens her secret world to him. She is a Caster, a magical creature from a long line of such, and is fated due to a curse brought on by those lovers to be chosen for a light or dark path on her 16th birthday. As the mysterious world of Casters opens, so too does the dark side of Lena’s family, who see her as a portal to bring their kind out of the shadows and into control of the world. Her fate, and their love, will determine the fate of us all.

My Review
When I had to leave this movie the first time, I told Gus that I felt pretty good about it. I was very pleasantly surprised by Alden Ehrenreich as Ethan. First, I liked the southern drawl he used even though the book clearly said that his mother taught it out of him. It lent some grounding to the setting that was really needed. I found his confused, depressed, and funny attitude to really work in the roll. Further, he seemed to have some real chemistry with his buddy Link, played by Thomas Mann.

Had I never come back, I would have been better off. I assume the pull to be Twilight was just too great, as the humor quickly drains from the story and shifts quickly to teen melodrama. Link and the funny buddy relationship quickly become an unfortunate afterthought. What I assume were budget constraints made the supernatural settings and effects feel entirely unbelievable, and in an attempt to keep focused on the protagonists, the rich world of the book is sliced so much that it becomes entirely unrelatable and uninteresting.

I do hope they restocked the bourbon in my trailer.

I do hope they restocked the bourbon in my trailer.

I felt the good performances also ended with Ehrenreich. Alice Englert does generally fine as Lena, but I couldn’t get over the thought that they were just looking for the new Kristen Stewart. Jeremy Irons felt like he was sleepwalking, complete with an accent that seemed to flitter in and out at any time. Viola Davis also screamed “Show me the check!” Emma Thompson at least looked like she was trying, but her role was so poorly written, especially with the new and asinine plotline of Casters taking over the world (why hadn’t they already?) she ended up feeling more like a caricature in both her rolls.

And what was a fairly thin plot in a very long book is rendered completely incomprehensible here. Both Gus and I looked at each other, and felt the whole thing made no sense. Indeed, it felt like that so much import was put on the scenes with Ethan and Lena fighting for their love, that everything else became unimportant. So what was left was a lot of teenage whining and something about magic people needing to do some magical stuff because, well…it’s magic.

The only plus over the book that this has is that there is a little more sexual substance between Ethan and Lena. That felt needed and realistic given the intensity of their feelings, and the fact they’re horny teenagers. But in the book, physical contact between the two of them actually hurt Ethan, a fantastic little detail about how their love was forbidden. Leaving out some of those easy details robbed this film of any of the creative charm of the book.

In other words…yuck.

Overall Score: 1.5 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
As I noted in my review of the book, it has its moments. But if you look and say “I don’t want to spend the time on a 600 page book, so I’ll just see the movie instead,” don’t waste your time. Either read the book or don’t read the book. But don’t go looking for the book in the movie, because it’s just not there.

Read It Then See It: Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness #1

February 11, 2013

Okay, I know I said I was doing magic next, but I just realized that the comic book series that leads up to the new Star Trek movie just started.  I was very impressed with the Star Trek: Countdown series that predicated the 2009 film, as it really helped to ground this new iteration within Star Trek lore and give the whole plot and villain a little more depth.  So now that we’re firmly planted in this new JJ Abramsverse (at least until he leaves for a galaxy far, far away) I thought it would be interesting to see how they’re teeing up this summer sci-fi tent pole.

star-trek-countdown-to-darkness-1(Comic) Book
Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness #1.  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
8 and up.  While things go boom, even what might be considered scary is bloodless and tame.  It is not a dialogue-heavy comic, but Mr. Spock does like to use those big ole’ science-y words.  If bug-like aliens will freak your little guy or gal out, this may also not be your best bet, though we’re talking more ant-like than giant killer spider, here.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  A light read, but some good warm-up action for the movie and a solid first issue.

Book Availability
I just downloaded it from iBooks for $3.99.  Frankly, it felt a little pricey to me for a 22 page comic book that was a little light on dialogue.  Oh, for the large turning racks of 25 cent comic books at the local drug store of yesteryear…  The physical comic book was not available at my local Barnes and Noble, though I’d guess the full compilation will be available wherever you can get graphic novels when the series is completed.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
Several months after the events of Star Trek (2009), Captain Kirk and the Enterprise have been on numerous missions exploring strange new worlds, but this isn’t your father’s Trek.

Better than the dream where you have to repeat high school geometry, though.

Better than the dream where you have to repeat high school geometry, though.

The trauma of Nero’s genocide on Vulcan haunts Spock, and the brash young Captain Kirk chafes from the solitude and unexpected restraints of command.  Their internal battles seem to have an impact on their relationship, as the strain between Spock’s caution and Kirk’s impulsiveness are clearly evident as they arrive at the planet Phadeus.

Kirk is desperate to “stretch his legs” and take a peek at this pre-industrial civilization, but Spock is absolutely adamant that the Prime Directive—that the Federation make no contact with a civilization until it has achieved faster-than-light space travel—be strictly adhered to.

Just when Kirk is about to defer to Spock, an energy pulse from the planet disrupts the Enterprise’s communications and transporter capabilities.  Kirk notes that the Prime Directive no longer applies, as an energy pulse of that sort could not come from a pre-industrial civilization.  Someone has been tampering on Phadeus.

Kirk, Spock, and Sulu take a shuttlecraft down to the planet, and quickly learn how right Kirk was…the hard way.  And when they discover who has been at work down on the planet, they find it comes in the form of a very familiar face (at least to Star Trek nerds like me).

Quickie Review (minor spoilers)
As I noted, I wouldn’t put this comic in the “Best Value” bin, but it’s a fun little read.  I have not been following the ongoing comic book series created by publisher IDW that has continued the new voyages of the starship Enterprise, but this one does a nice job helping to keep from falling into the “well, they’re together now, so they’re just like they were in the original series.”

The key dynamic that’s different here is Kirk and Spock.  While there is an undercurrent of respect between the two of them, the implicit trust and friendship we are used to with these characters is not there.  Where in TOS, Kirk spent time balancing Spock’s logic and McCoy’s humanity, here Kirk seems more comfortable making decisions based on his own instinct and Spock is attempting to reel him in.

When old school Kirk broke the Prime Directive, he did it with style.

When old school Kirk broke the Prime Directive, he did it with style.

The other fun part of this issue is its focus on the Prime Directive.  This is a Star Trek cornerstone: Thou Shalt Not Muck With Developing Civilizations.  This is territory that has been very well covered in pretty much every iteration of Trek, but not so much with the prism of a post-9/11 society.  A core question raised here is how much in the wake of the Trek equivalent of 9/11—the Narada attack on the Federation—has the Federation itself changed.  Are the ideals of a society that has conquered its own biases, that seeks out new civilizations peacefully and in a spirit of cooperation, still what rule the day?  Or have the scars from Nero changed this Federation into something different—something darker.  The appearance of an old character at the very end of the issue—one with a personal connection to the Enterprise—begs this very question.

But, while I understand this is a comic book, and only the first of the four issue set, I felt like it was fairly thin.  I would have enjoyed seeing more of the dynamic between Kirk and Spock work its way out, or perhaps some dialogue between some of the secondary characters giving insight into how the ship is running in this new reality.  Given we have so many assumptions coming in based on the crew we knew from the 1960s, I felt that I wanted another 4-5 pages of “catch-up” to feel comfortable when they jump into the meat of the story.

The artwork was solid, though at times I found the characters alternatively looking very much like their live-action counterparts in one panel then virtually nothing like them in the next.

Overall Read Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
Some nerdy and actually not-so-nerdy opportunities crop up in this issue.  Let me turn to my strength and go nerd first.

The Prime Directive: In the 1960s, The Prime Directive was an analogy to colonization or developed nations muscling developing countries into their particular political/economic/development track.  It was a great Cold War device to use to discuss perceptions of power relationships and what “civilized” society would do.  In the age of global terrorism and uneven, but nearly ubiquitous technological dissemination, the Prime Directive may mean something very different now.  Is the Prime Directive a vestige of a time when developed nations felt “paternal” to less developed ones?  And when those lesser developed nations can become a harbor for those that would mean to do us harm, should it still apply?

Losing a planet sucks, but losing a friend...

Losing a planet sucks, but losing a friend…

The Power of Personal Tragedy: Spock’s ongoing difficulty in handling what happened in the first Star Trek film hits front-and-center here.  And while, yes, the destruction of his planet that was most obviously traumatic, it was his failure to save his mother that he simply can’t seem to get over.  Why in a world that has so much loss does some get raised over others?  The immensity of the tragedy in Syria puts what happened in Newtown to shame, yet America seems changed forever by that tragedy and is seemingly unfazed by the civil war in that far-off nation.  What kind of tragedy overwhelms us in grief?  What kind motivates us to action?  What makes us push the tragedy away from us?  What does that say about us as individuals?  As humans?

Overall Family Discussion Score: 4 out of 5 stars.

What to Expect from the Movie
Star Trek Into Darkness Poster 2Well, golly, I’m just not sure.  I must admit that I’m a little more concerned about this one than I was the last.  Both the “Into Darkness” title and the fact that the secret bad guy being played by Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch is reported to be a terrorist is making me feel a bit worried that Abrams is going all Battlestar Galactica with this film.

What made me enjoy the first film so much was that under the big action was a message that felt very Trek to me.  The old Spock’s failure to stop Romulus from being destroyed represented the failure of the 60’s generation to create the better world of Star Trek that Gene Roddenberry envisioned.  But that core of hope, that we can better ourselves and get past our own hate and weakness, the core that is Star Trek, is still very valid.  And so a new generation is handed that sacred trust to attempt to boldly go where no one has gone before.

If they instead make this into more of a straight “Old Star Trek was the 1960s, this is 2013” then we’ll get yet another gritty space drama where the line between good and evil are hopelessly muddled.  While there’s nothing wrong with that kind of complexity, that to me robs Star Trek of what makes it special.  Star Trek, even at its most dark, has been about our never-ending struggle, and ultimate triumph, to be better than we are today.  While from the Borg to the Dominion, different writers have found clever ways to implant doubt and challenge whether a better humanity is truly suited for the stars, the underlying promise of a hopeful future was never in question.  As I watch and hear what they have in store, I worry if that central premise might be lost in the effort to tell a more “contemporary” tale.

I hope I’m wrong, because, frankly, there’s already more than enough darkness to go around these days.

Read It and See It: Ender’s Game

February 8, 2013

As I have intimated in past posts, I’ve never been a huge supernatural fantasy fan.  I like the genre, but the Sci-Fi nerd in me always chafed when somehow magic and science get lumped into one category as if because you dig one, you must naturally love the other.  So I’m always delighted to see when a true science fiction story comes along to meet my RI&SI format.

Enders GameThe Book
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Originally published in 1985 with revisions in 1991.

The Movie
Ender’s Game, Lionsgate. Release Date, November 1, 2013.

Genre
Science Fiction

Age Appropriate
10 and up.  While this book begins with the main character at six-years-old, it is by no mean a story for children.  Indeed, it is very much a story about what happens when children have their childhood taken from them.  While not as brutal, there is a lot of Lord of the Flies in this book. So think about that as you consider whether it’s appropriate for your child.  On the other hand, there are a LOT of themes of feeling alone, bullied, different, and the struggles of a young mind to adapt to a grown-up world that are very prescient for kids.  So by no means is it just a book for grown-ups.  I am encouraging my 11-year-old to read it.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  This is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning book.  Serious nerd cred right there.

Book Availability
I read mine on my iPhone and I know it’s available on Google Books as well.  If you’re picking it up in hard copy, I’d suggest making sure it’s the new 20th anniversary version, as Card’s new introduction has some interesting insights on both his creation and reaction to the book that’s worth reading (though frankly, better read after reading the book).

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
Andrew “Ender” Wiggin isn’t supposed to exist.  On an overcrowded planet where population is strictly controlled, even second children are almost unheard of.  But as the commanders of the International Fleet (IF) search for the genius who can help them save the Earth from an insectoid alien race known pejoratively as “buggers” the Wiggin family are given permission to have a “third.”

Their first child, Peter, was absolutely brilliant, but certifiably sociopathic.  The second, Valentine, was perhaps even smarter, but she was too sensitive in the mind of the IF to be a capable leader.  And so Ender was tracked since his government-sanctioned birth (literally, as they implanted a camera in his neck) with the hopes of his being the right cocktail of the first two.  After beating back a group of bullies in his school, Commander Hyrum Graff decides that, at the ripe old age of six, this child is the one he’s been looking for.  Ender is commanded to leave his family, and the Earth itself, and train to become part of the International Fleet.

Definitely some Starship Troopers vibe going on.

Definitely some Starship Troopers vibe going on.

Once separated from his family, Graff has only one mission: shape this boy into a leader brilliant enough to defeat a bugger onslaught that may well be even worse than what legendary commander Mazer Rackham was barely able to defend against decades ago.  In addition to learning how to deal with the zero gravity battle room like all other students, Ender is forced to face isolation, depravation, and peer menacing all carefully orchestrated against him.  His only escape is into an immersive computer fantasy game, which, of course, is yet another test.

Ender succeeds, but at a tremendous cost to his soul.  And when he is promoted to command school even before his twelfth birthday, the doubts about what he has done begin to overwhelm him.  That is when Mazer Rackham himself comes to begin a new game, one where the stakes may well be more than Ender could ever have imagined.

Quickie Review (minor spoilers)
There is a LOT to chew on in this book, despite its straight-forward narrative style.  At its heart, however, this story is about the benefits and burdens of being gifted.  It is about the curse of high expectations, and the cognitive disconnect that adults have, or will even force themselves to have, between intelligence and emotional maturity.

As I noted, the prose is written functionally, which Card says was intentional as he wanted this to be a book that wasn’t artistic or impenetrable, but a morality play that children can also access.  In that, he doesn’t present as gripping or fantastic a story of the formation of brilliance as a somewhat similar tale, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.  For while both the stories heavily involve the relationship between a child and a fantasy computer game for learning and development, Stephenson’s plot is far more delicately pieced together, while Card is pretty much using a sledgehammer to make his points.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially for a YA book, but I can understand why it might frustrate older readers.

Without doubt, Ender’s experiences in battle school are the highlight of the book.  Card sets things up well so you pull for the kid from very early in the story, and slyly allows you to condone the violence he does, only to make both you and Ender reconsider that position.  I also very much liked the very vague understanding of “the buggers” that everyone had.  The fact that no one really knew what they were really like, even after two wars, so they were preparing to fight an enemy they really didn’t understand, was an outstanding and thought-provoking concept.

The sections where Card decides to take a break from Ender and focus on his siblings back on Earth felt odd and unnecessary to me.  I understand that they are supposed to be deeper explorations into the minds of brilliant children, but I didn’t see a lot of additional insight or, alternatively, a solid device to drive the plot forward.  Indeed I found myself very much desiring to return to Ender during those chapters.

And when we do return, and Ender goes to command school, the book returns to its strength, and reveals its most major and interesting point about the morality of war.  Questions about whether preemptive war is right, whether genocide is ever justified, and what it truly takes to lead are all explored in a very engaging and challenging way.

Don't do it, Steven!  Just fade to back!

Don’t do it, Steven! Just fade to back!

My only major issue with this book, actually, is with what I call the “Spielberg Effect.”  For from AI to Schindler’s List to Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg just can’t seem to help but tack on an ending to make sure that you absolutely knew what the point of the movie was, leaving the viewer no room to be a participant in his creation.  This is actually something that I’ve thought about a lot as I’ve written my own book; trying to ensure the dénouement doesn’t strangle the reader’s own interpretation of what transpired.

I feel that, most unfortunately, Card does exactly that.  He decides that we absolutely MUST know the true feelings and emotions behind the buggers and give Ender some emotional closure.  If that had been the central point of the book, that would have been fine.  But it was not, and by forcing each loose end into a square knot, Card took away a number of the lingering questions and doubts about what Ender had done that turned it from a thoughtful morality play into something that felt more sadly apologist.  This really squelched my ability to intellectually interact with the story; something, ironically, the author stresses he wants from the reader at the end of his new introduction.

So in all, a worthwhile read, though the ending almost made me revisit that conclusion.

Overall Read Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
As I’ve already noted, this book is filled-to-the-gills with interesting discussion opportunities for parents and kids.  Here’s a smattering of ones that I’ve come up with, but I’m sure you’ll come up with more:

The Curse of the Special Child:  Once a child has been designated as gifted, are there responsibilities that come along with that?  What is the balance between maximizing a child’s gift and ensuring that child has the right to a childhood?  How can and should adults push children to ensure that their talents come to the fore?

The Needs of the Many…  Ender is forced into his situation because of the perceived imminent threat of another bugger invasion (which is not exactly what it seems).  At what point are we allowed to use or endanger others, especially innocents, when a “greater good” is on the line.  This is a debate we are certainly having right now as regards issues such as drone strikes that have civilian casualties.

And do the Ends Justify the Means?  This particular question is asked in two different ways in the book.  The first is in the use of Ender—to do whatever it takes to form him into the kind of leader humanity needs at its darkest hour.  But then, the question is raised as to whether this is truly humanity’s darkest hour, which lends real complexity to the story, and the potential discussion.  It provides geopolitical, parenting, and playground jungle possibilities for talking about whether fighting to prevent a fight is ever justified.

Can't go wrong with a Horta!

Can’t go wrong with a Horta!

Ender Hears a Horta: There is very much an underlying theme here about assuming an adversary is an enemy.  It is very similar to one of my all-time favorite episodes of Star Trek, Devil in the Dark.  While in many ways I actually feel like this part of the plot actually took away from the quality of the overall book, it is very present and well worth discussing.

Is Humanity a Weakness? As Ender is “toughened up” his trainers chip away at his aversion and guilt toward violence.  Is building this kind of thick skin something that everyone should do?  What secondary ramifications of building up scar tissue toward the inhumanity of violence? What can that do to your perception of such positive human traits as love and compassion?

Violence in Video Games: This is the low-hanging fruit of the book, but is an interesting discussion to have with kids, especially if they dig Call of Duty or some of the other hyper-violent games.  Should video games be used to acculturate kids to adult realities?  Does it desensitize?  How can video games be used to help or to hurt kids?

Overall Family Discussion Score: 5 out of 5 stars

What to Expect from the Movie

Looks like they're aging up Ender to get one actor into the whole role.

Looks like they’re aging up Ender to get one actor into the whole role.

My understanding is that Card has been heavily involved with the film project, including writing the screenplay.  Star Trek (2009) scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are producing, and Rendition and X Men Origins: Wolverine director Gavin Hood is at the helm.

The book in many was feels made for the screen, as it’s “kid against the world for the fate of civilization” is simple enough to be translated without many tough editing choices to the screen, I’d think.  And with Harrison Ford and Ben Kinglsey in the two adult male lead roles, one can see that there is some Hollywood gravitas behind the project.

I have to say, however, that the studio synopsis doesn’t make me overly excited:

In the near future, a hostile alien race (called the Formics) have attacked Earth. If not for the legendary heroics of International Fleet Commander Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), all would have been lost. In preparation for the next attack, the highly esteemed Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and the International Military are training only the best young children to find the future Mazer. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a shy but strategically brilliant boy, is pulled out of his school to join the elite.

Arriving at Battle School, Ender quickly and easily masters increasingly difficult war games, distinguishing himself and winning respect amongst his peers. Ender is soon ordained by Graff as the military’s next great hope, resulting in his promotion to Command School. Once there, he’s trained by Mazer Rackham himself to lead his fellow soldiers into an epic battle that will determine the future of Earth and save the human race.

The description makes it feel more like “Young Starship Troopers” rather than “Searching for Bobby Fisher…in Space” which is the spirit of the book at its best (though I admit, Lionsgate marketing probably doesn’t see the latter as particularly effective).  I’d guess given Card’s involvement, however, is that the underlying themes will remain intact.  Of course, I would love to see them fiddle with the ending, but Card’s involvement would likely mitigate against that as much as it would to help save what made the book effective.

Next in this series: Back to the “Spook”-y magic stuff.

Read It and See It: Beautiful Creatures

February 4, 2013

Alright, less guns!  More books!  So a quick break from my ramblings on gun control.  The movie is coming out Valentine’s Day, so you better get cracking!

Note: You can now find my review of the Beautiful Creatures movie here.

Beautiful Creatures Book CoverThe Book
Beautiful Creatures, by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl. Originally published in 2009.  First of four in the Beautiful Creatures series.

The Movie
Beautiful Creatures, Warner Brothers. Release Date, February 14

Genre
Paranormal Teen Romance (yes, there is such a genre)

Age Appropriate
10 and up.  While this book is definitely geared to the high school set, there really isn’t much in this book that wouldn’t be appropriate for the middle school set.  While there is a bit more sexual allusion (the heroine’s cousin is quite the siren—literally), it’s quite tame and, frankly, I was surprised about how little there was considering this is the story about a 15-year-old boy and his first true girlfriend.  The violence is also far tamer than say, The Hunger Games series, with the most vivid depictment being a Civil War flashback.  I would say a thoroughly PG affair.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Did you like Twilight?  I didn’t read Twilight, but if you did and liked it, I would guess you’d like this.

Book Availability
Available in pretty much every electronic medium imaginable as well as paperback.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
Ethan Wate is a teenager stuck in the small town of Gatlin, South Carolina.  His mother recently died and his father has cracked under the strain of the tragedy.  Only Amma, the housekeeper who has been like a second mother to him, is keeping things together.  But he longs to leave the pain of the past and the small-minded pursuits of Gatlin society behind him.

Great idea for a haunted house, or haunted society.

Great idea for a haunted house, or haunted society.

But when Lena Duchannes comes to school, Ethan’s entire world will be turned upside-down.  It starts just by defending her against the taunting of the school bullies, who ostracize her because she is living at the old Ravenwood estate with the town shut-in, Macon.  But as they get to know each other more, they find out that they are connected in ways Ethan could not have imagined, even being able to hear each other’s thoughts.

As their friendship turns to romance, Lena opens her secret world to him.  She is a Caster, a magical creature from a long line of such, and is here to fulfill her destiny to be chosen for a light or dark path on her 16th birthday.  Due to a curse brought on during the civil war, one where a love affair between Lena’s and Ethan’s ancestors sealed the Duchannes family’s fate, Lena will have no choice as to her destiny.  And if she goes dark, she will lose everything about her that Ethan has come to love.

The couple search desperately for a way to solve the issue, and tunnel deep into the hidden magical world veiled behind the veneer of Gatlin’s faded southern gentility.  Ethan discovers why his parents, most particularly his brilliant mother, never chose to leave this seemingly small and backward town.  But with time running out, another thought to be dead mother returns with a devil’s bargain for Lena—a way to be with Ethan forever, something that seemed impossible, in exchange for the lives of everyone else she loves.

Quickie Review
Okay, I’ll admit right up front that teen paranormal romance isn’t my cup of tea.  I didn’t read Twilight so I don’t really have a modern base for comparison here.  But I have to say what I had a hard time with in this book was my suspension of disbelief.

Perhaps the main reason I had an issue with the story was its choice of first person, and the fact that Ethan was telling the story (though it does transfer to Lena for a small section).  I myself was a former somewhat nerdy teen in a southern city, who was good at sports, never really fit in, and longed to escape.  So I felt I had good standing to connect with this character.  But, to me, this simply isn’t how a 15-year-old boy thinks.  It felt very idealized—frankly the way a 15-year-old girl might want a 15-yearl-old boy to think.  Maybe that’s the point of paranormal teen romance, but it left me a little cold.  Especially because of the sex, or lack thereof.

I know, I know, it’s a teen romance novel, and the girls don’t want to read about horny boys.  But if you’re writing a romance book in the voice of a red-blooded American adolescent male, it’s patently ridiculous if it’s not there at all.  Ethan and Lena end up in a torrid romance that includes the “L-word” and, even during all the scenes where they are making out, Ethan doesn’t mention sex once?  I was a nice guy teenager desperately looking for a Lena Duchannes, and I’ll tell you that if this happened to me, while I might never have acted ungentlemanly, it certainly would have been on my mind.  A lot.  A whole lot.  I think having that struggle on top of everything else would have made Ethan feel much more human, and the story feel more real and less Harlequin given this story is in his voice.

No wands this time, but similar magical destiny

No wands this time, but similar magical destiny

The magical world itself was pretty interesting. Very Harry Potter, with the things-that-go-bump-in-the night being real, but slightly different than we assumed, from witches (Casters) to vampires (Incubi).  The presence of voodoo and the role of some mortals as impartial guides through this realm was well thought out.  The big issue I have with both this and other hidden magical world books like this is that I really didn’t get any explanation as to why the magical world, one which is clearly much, much stronger than the human world and feels infinitely superior to it, chooses to hide itself rather than rule.  I felt the same way about the Potterverse.  I’m willing to be convinced, but when you just ignore that 800 lb. gorilla, it makes it much harder for me to suspend my disbelief.

This book also took itself VERY seriously, and I totally understand that.  It’s supposed to be a teen drama.  But they had Ethan’s best friend Link ideally situated for that very needed relief role, but I don’t think Garcia and Stohl really showed a deft comic touch.  Something needed to take a little starch out of the proceedings, and nothing really ever did.  The closest was probably the sexy siren and dark caster Ridley, Lena’s cousin.  Her character was probably the most enjoyable of the lot as because of her selfishness, impish attitude, and anger, she felt the most real.

The story’s big reveal at the end felt a little forced to me, but not unacceptably so.  And the small town southern life felt a little thick, but again not horribly so (though the idea of using live ammunition at a Civil War reenactment seemed a very odd contrivance).

So while I know that I am not the target audience for this story, I can’t help but think about The Hunger Games ability to pull me into its world despite the fact that I’m not a teen.  So while this book may be the rage with its demographic, I have to say there was little here to make that similar leap.

Overall Read Score: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
This is a story all about not fitting in and finding the power within yourself to stand up to bullies that berate you for being different or adults that think that they know what’s better for you.  It’s a pretty classic tale of adolescent rebellion that turns pages, but, unless I’m missing something, doesn’t have a whole lot else to say and really wasn’t trying to.

Lots of stars and bars in this one.

Lots of stars and bars in this one.

That said, the rural southern background, while pretty stereotypical, could certainly be used as a leaping off point to talk about the prejudices that still exist in our society, and how some of them are deeply rooted in our past.  The social bullying of Ethan and Lena is a universal story and could be a portal to discussion of whether there are things happening like that at your child’s school (though with significantly less magic, I’d guess).

So while I don’t think this book in itself raised any really interesting questions, there’s enough here in what is supposed to be a fun page-turner to perhaps engage in some serious discussion about the trials and tribulations of growing up.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 2 out of 5 stars.

BeautifulCreaturesMoviePoster1What to Expect from the Movie
Well, Warner Brothers certainly seems to think they have a winner on their hands given the heavy-weight actors they have supporting the teen-age leads.  Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, and Viola Davis will all play pivotal roles in the film and hopefully give what felt like somewhat two-dimensional characters on the page some new life.

I also think the script could help the movie out, perhaps just taking a little bit of the stuffing out of the story.  I understand this is supposed to be a drama, but I think a more humorous Link, for example, might help the film stay a bit more grounded than the book.  With my wife out of town for Valentine’s Day, I’m going to give her the most sincere demonstration of my love that I can think of, as I’ll go see the movie without her.

Next in this series: The games children play to save humanity.

The Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

January 9, 2013

Finally, a chance to give my feedback on Peter Jackson’s efforts to turn one little book into three big movies.  I saw this at a theater in 3D but on the standard 24 frames per second format.  So I cannot speak to how the ultra-clear 48fps looked.  You can check out the book review in my Read It Then See It post.

Hobbit PosterThe Movie
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Warner Brothers, New Line.

Based on a  Book?
Yes: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, by JRR Tolkien, originally published in 1937

Genre
Children’s Fantasy

Age Appropriate
Eight years old and up.  While the book is appropriate for younger children, I felt the film mirrored the tone and violence of Jackson’s LOTR films.  I personally would not have been comfortable taking my child to see it until I felt he was ready for at least The Two Towers, which was for me this past year, when he turned eight.  My sister took her son, who is six, and they both loved it and had no issues.

Good for Grown Ups?
Yes.  While I’ll get to what I see as flaws in this film later, this is really designed for a more mature audience despite coming from a children’s book.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
I often feel that it is the specter that is more frightening than the monster.  In that way, perhaps the most frightening scene in the film is when Gandalf tells the story of another wizard only mentioned in the book, Radagast the Brown.  While in his home attempting to revive an injured animal, he comes under attack from unknown creatures scuttling around the outside.  As it turns out, these are giant spiders we will see in future installments, but Radagast is able to send them away with only their hind quarters being seen as they retreat.  So especially for any of you who have read the book but don’t know it’s coming in the movie, this may be a good time to let your child know that not only will the wizard prevail, but you don’t even really see the spiders (at least not yet).  Also, Azog the one-armed Orc warlord is a pretty freaky and frightening piece of CGI.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
We begin with the fall of the great dwarf city of Erebor by the dastardly Dragon Smaug, and the rise of its heir, Thorin Oakenshield.  With the assistance of wizard Gandalf the Grey, here begins a quest to retake what has become the Lonely Mountain.  Much to the surprise and skepticism of dwarf, elf, and wizard alike, Gandalf has chosen a little hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, to serve as the party’s thief. At Gandalf’s urging, Bilbo reluctantly leaves the comfort of Bag End to join the dwarves on this adventure.

Magneto and Dr. Who together in a Hobbit movie?  Nerdgasm!

Magneto and Dr. Who together in a Hobbit movie? Nerdgasm!

The group is almost immediately beset by danger, from hungry trolls to vicious goblins.  After being lost in a Goblin’s cavern, Bilbo stumbles on a creature called Gollum, and a simple but attractive gold ring.  He tricks Gollum into helping him escape with the added aid of that magical invisibility ring.  Bilbo uses the ring to great effect, saving Thorin and with Gandalf’s help escaping to within sight of the Lonely Mountain.  But something wicked has just awakened in the mountain, and will be awaiting them with fire and desolation…

My Review
So let me start out by saying that I enjoyed this movie.  The acting was superb and I, for one, really did not find the many additions from the books, from Radagast to the White Council to the significant expansion of the story of the Necromancer, to have taken away from the story.  Indeed the significant expansion of Gandalf’s character from a clearly supporting role in the book to a very central figure throughout was, I believe, an excellent choice.

No one tosses a dwarf!

No one tosses a dwarf!

The issue with this movie for me is that it felt very much a “square peg/round hole” effort.  Jackson is essentially attempting to use The Hobbit as the glue that holds a larger story together that connects this tale directly to his fantastic LOTR films.  In doing so, he replicates the same brooding, serious tone of his other films.  Indeed, An Unexpected Journey in many ways feels even more serious than Fellowship of the Ring, as the frivolity feels more sporadic, less organic and, frankly, more annoying with the band of dwarves than it did with Merry and Pippin as well as Gimley providing some needed relief to the dire circumstances.

Frankly, this story, even with Jackson’s embellishments (which, credit where credit is due, is all derived from source materials) is simply not epic enough, feeling more like a thin version of his epic trilogy.  The Hobbit is a children’s fairy tale, even after Tolkien edited the book after writing the trilogy to make it more consistent.  In Jackson’s desire to make these films feel absolutely contiguous with his first trilogy, I believe he has robbed that sense of mirth and fun and replaced it with a grandiosity that is simply not supported by the plot.

What we end up with is an enjoyable, but very bloated piece of filmmaking.  I also found that, unlike LOTR, the CGI effects became distracting, especially in the goblin cavern where the combat looked like a medieval version of Attack of the Clones.  And there came a point when Gandalf said “RUN!” for the 6th time that I felt like I wasn’t watching a plot develop, but a video game on a loop. I found Fellowship of the Ring the strongest of the three LOTR films, and then while they were still wonderful, each became more flawed as the series progressed.  I’m just hoping I’ll be able to say the reverse of The Hobbit trilogy.

Overall Score: 3 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
All said, I think there is a LOT to be said for seeing this first and then reading the book.  My sister has been doing this with my nephew, and both of them have been having a great time finding the references in the book that Jackson used as cues to expand upon.  Indeed, in the end there may be something to be said for those that are hot Rings nerds to hold off on the book until you’ve seen all the films.

The Review: Rise of the Guardians

November 27, 2012

Hey everyone, sorry it’s been so long since I’ve posted anything.  I’ve been eye-deep working on my book (more on that soon) so blogging had to take a back seat.  But I’m back as the G-men and I took their Savtah and Grandpa to the movies over Thanksgiving weekend as we were very curious to see the film version of our very favorite new book series—The Guardians of Childhood.  Here are my Read It Then See It posts on the first two books, Nicholas St. North and E. Aster Bunnymund.  I am in the middle of reading the third in the series, Toothiana, now and will post about that as soon as I’m done.

The Movie
Rise of the Guardians, Dreamworks Animation

The Book(s)
Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King
E. Aster Bunnymund and the Warrior Eggs at the Earth’s Core
Toothiana, Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies
By William Joyce

Genre
Fantasy

Age Appropriate
The bad guy, Pitch Black, could get a little scary for very young children, but given he’s the Boogeyman, he’s actually pretty tame.  The main character is also resurrected from drowning in a frozen lake, but it is also handled with a very deft touch.  I think this film would work for any child 4 and Up.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Generally.  It’s a fairly simple fairytale, but not too cutesy and insipid.  Solid voice acting and CG animation make this a fine couple of hours for the grown-ups.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
A few things here for those that are a little more sensitive.  When Pitch first begins to do his dastardly deed, he perverts a dream that a little girl is having about a unicorn and turns it into a black, flaming-eyed stallion.  That could be a pretty disturbing image, but you can tell your child that the unicorn will get her revenge in the end.  Also, Pitch manages to overwhelm the kindly and powerful Sandman, and seems to destroy him.  Again, you can assure your child that no one can truly destroy dreams, so no doubt he’ll be back to help save the day.

Evil, but in a very British way

Finally, the aforementioned origin of Jack Frost, near the end of the film when he finally remembers his past shows him saving his little sister and falling through the ice and drowning, only to be brought back as the spirit of the cold by the Moon itself.  It’s pretty mild, but young kids might be a little scared by seeing his human form sinking into the icy water.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (light spoilers ahead)
The fantasies of our youth: Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Sandman have been chosen by the Man on the Moon to serve as the guardians of our dreams, hopes, and imagination all fueled by the power of children’s belief.  Jack Frost, a new spirit on the block, can make mirth and mischief, but, unlike the Guardians, cannot be seen by children, as even the kids consider him just a fantasy.

The Man on the Moon, however, elevates Jack to full Guardian status despite the resistance of the gang, as the notorious Boogeyman, Pitch Black, has arisen again intent on turning all the dreams of children into nightmares, and stamping out all the belief in the world in magic and wonder, replacing it with a faith in the inky fear that he feeds on.

Jack resists being made part of the team, but when he finds out his true purpose with the help of the one boy who resists Pitch’s bid to stamp out joy in the world, he is able to free the Guardians and, in a final battle with the villain’s minions, drive him back into the shadows and free children to dream again.

My Review
It is impossible to fully separate my opinion of this film from that of the books, as this sort of serves as a quasi-sequel though a number of changes were made to the main characters, most notably the Easter Bunny that went from high-browed intellectual to Crocodile Bunn-ee.

Gus’ favorite thing about the movie was that “New Kirk” was in it, as Chris Pine provides the voice of Jack Frost

To me, it’s a bit surprising that William Joyce was so involved in this movie, as it has the feel of someone who had taken some wonderful books but said “it’s too complicated” and mucked with the whole formula in order to dumb it down for a mainstream audience.  I guess they felt they absolutely had to have all the Guardians in the first film, so better to have the origin story of a new character (Jack Frost) than to try and cram in the introductions of everyone else.

Okay, I generally get that, and the film itself is nice enough.  At it’s center, it is about a person finding his purpose in life, and understanding the worth of bringing joy to others.  The general sentiment as brought to the fore by all the Guardians is nice, and each character has an interesting edge (Santa being a sword-wielding Cossack, Bunny being a boomerang-throwing badass, Tooth Fairy’s obsession with nasty bloody teeth, etc.).  The elves play the now all-too-predictable Minion role from Despicable Me.

The voices, most notably Alec Baldwin’s Santa, are all very good, and the animation is first rate.  The story itself is fine, and there are a number of laugh-out-loud lines and pratfalls, but definitely plays second fiddle to the visual spectacle.  At some points, it also felt like the story was struggling to decide if the journey was Jack Frost’s or the human boy who helps him.  But all in all it is light, fairytale fun.

But as an avid reader of the books, especially the absolutely stunning Nicholas St. North, I cannot but decry the missed opportunity here.  People LOVE good origin stories, and in the first book, you have the origin of Santa himself, as well as other beloved favorites from a nightlight to a bookworm to the Man on the Moon.  I cannot for the life of me understand why there was a need to cram every character here into one film when you had THE classic childhood fantasy figure’s origin story that deftly mixed magic and science fiction with something very profound to say about how we see the world.  In the holiday season, I think that would have been just as, if not more successful than what they came up with here, and would have far better set up sequels more easily adapted from the source material.

So, overall, a respectable piece of holiday fluff, but no more than that.

Overall Score: 3 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
My big fella who has been avidly reading the books with me absolutely detested this film.  He was SO shocked and disappointed that they changed the characters, that there was no Katherine, the heroine of the books, and that the real dream-like magic of the stories was replaced with a frenetic action-hero styling.  I have to say I struggled with that myself.

However, this does make me thing that for those who see and enjoy the film, it might actually be a great gateway into the books as prequels.  I would guess that many kids who liked the film will really be captivated by the books and the many unexpected places it goes, and it will help round out the film’s story, rather than it feeling like a pale imitation as it does when you read the books first.

So, indeed, if your kids have not read the books yet, this is one where I highly recommend a See It Then Read It approach.  Same goes for grown-ups, too.

Read It Then See It: The Hobbit

September 21, 2012

Okay, when hit with the preview for the upcoming movie in front of the IMAX of Raiders of the Lost Ark (still the greatest action adventure film of all time, for my money), I will finally bow and write up my long-promised take on the iconic story.

The Movie
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Jouney, New Line, Release Date December 12. Part 1 of a three film series based on the book and various appendices.

The Book
The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, by JRR Tolkien, originally published in 1937.

Genre
Children’s Fantasy

Age Appropriate
Six and up. Unlike the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit truly is a piece of children’s literature, told very much like a bedtime story.  Some of the language may be complex for younger children, and there are battles a-plenty, but the levity, song, and general general silliness remove any real feeling of danger or dread from the book.

Book Availability
I actually read this book as my own bedtime story, mostly on my iPhone.  I bought the enhanced version for $11.99 which has links to audio files of Tolkien himself singing some of the songs, and alternative photos.  Frankly, I just wanted to read it, so unless you are a huge Rings-o-phile, save the two bucks and get the regular version that’s available for around $10 on both iBooks and Google Books.  Hardcopy available pretty much everywhere.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
Between the Dawn of Faeries and the Dominion of Men lived a group of peaceful, earthy little folk called Hobbits.  But despite their general antipathy toward the complicated and dangerous world of the big folk, a Wizard named Galdalf the Gray chooses a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins to go on the adventure of a lifetime.

Silly Dragon, Rings are for Hobbits!

After reluctantly hosting a band of 13 Dwarves (take that Snow White!), Bilbo discovers that he has been chosen as the “thief” to help them recoup the treasure stolen from head Dwarf Thorin Oakenshield from the dastardly dragon, Smaug.

At Gandalf’s urging, Bilbo reluctantly leaves the comfort of Bag End to join the dwarves on this adventure.  The group is almost immediately beset by danger, from hungry trolls to vicious goblins.  After being lost in a Goblin’s cavern, Bilbo stumbles on a creature called Gollum, and a simple but attractive gold ring.  He tricks Gollum into helping him escape with the added aid of that magical invisibility ring.

Bilbo puts that ring to good use in order to outwit hungry giant spiders, greedy and mistrustful elves, and Smaug himself.  But pride and avarice bring men, elves, and dwarves to the brink of war with one and other.  Only the common enemy of a massive attack from the forces of evil are able to bring them together to defend the treasures of the Lonely Mountain.  Redemption is found, for some, found in death, and Bilbo finds himself back at Bag End, but forever changed by the experience.

Quickie Review
It’s funny, for my own grown-up pleasure I’m currently reading A Dance With Dragons, the latest in the Song of Fire and Ice series (better known as the HBO series Game of Thrones).  You can so easily see Tolkien’s influence on George RR Martin’s writing, everything from the grand descriptions to the breaking out in song.  For when it comes to the fantasy genre, you are hard pressed to find an author who isn’t a Tolkien prodigy in some way, shape or form.

But while Martin’s series is extremely adult, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series is an epic work that is also quite adult, The Hobbit is a bedtime story, and is written in that exact way.  He in his style will set up side plots, but dismiss them as “a story for another day.”  He will come out of the narration and made editorial statements about the characters, and he uses poems and song to add the kind of improvisational levity to the story that you would absolutely expect with milk and cookies.

I will admit that I am not a huge Tolkien fan.  I believe that is because he spends a tremendous amount of time giving me the lore of his huge and imaginative world, but I believe it is at the expense of the story (indeed, I find the same fault with Martin’s work).  This is definitely a personal taste, as I know many fans who absolutely adore the rich and insanely imaginative world Tolkien created with Middle Earth.  But I find if you’re not interested in geeking out on the histories of elves and goblins, many of the details can be ponderous and clash with the child-like narrative.

I also have to say that the 13 Dwarves killed me.  I simply could not keep up with which character was which.  Given their names weren’t Happy, Grumpy, Sleepy, etc., they became mix-and-match to me and made me simply not care about any of them.  I also found his use of song, which is even more pronounced here than in the LOTR books, to be extremely heavy-handed and took away from the drama.

Great rendering by illustrator Alan Lee

The one part I did LOVE was Bilbo’s interaction with Gollum.  Extremely well paced and you really feel the sinister, pained character from beginning to end.  The riddle contest which ends up being Bilbo’s salvation is a lot of fun (some of those riddles actually made their way into Gus’s LOTR party).

So if you’re looking for tightly written and gripping fantasy tale, I don’t think this is it.  But as prologue to an epic adventure, helping to establish the iconic world of Tolkien, I believe this is a book worth reading.  Okay, Tolkien fans, flame away…

Overall Read Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
Doctoral theses have been written on the meaning(s) contained within The Hobbit.  So I’m going to keep it a bit more simple and invite others to add to the conversation.

Everything Changes: At its essence, Bilbo’s story is about a man who fears change learning to embrace it.  Kids have these feelings all the time, mine most recently when going to a new school.  Bilbo’s story can help you to parallel times when your kids faced a new experience.  This can either add empathy for your kids to the story, or by using Bilbo as a guide help them to see change as a positive.

Fun With Riddles: As I mentioned, I think the most cleverly written part of the book is Bilbo’s interaction with Gollum.  If your kids feel the same, what a wonderful way to get them hooked on riddles.  Brain-stretching riddles are excellent cognitive, social, and linguistic development tools.  From problem-solving, to understanding the art of word play, to the development of that all-important funny bone, Gollum will do your kid a big favor if these get her/him jazzed to riddle me this.  Especially if you are reading to your children, you can take the opportunity to stop at the riddle and work with them to figure out the answer to the riddle before you move on with the book.

Greed Ain’t Good: Perhaps this won’t sit well with the Ayn Rand set, but from Trolls to Dwarves to Dragons to, yes, even the sainted elves, Tolkien tells the tales of comeuppance for those who only want more.  What is good in this is that greed is not the exclusive providence of the wicked.  Thorin Oakenshield himself succumbs to it much to his own downfall, and, yes, even the woodland elves’ leader Thranduil was known for his greed.  It’s a good basis for discussion about how avarice can blind you to more important things in your life.

Big Things… One of the most obvious things, yet still perhaps the best lesson of the Hobbit and the whole LOTR saga is that even the smallest of creatures can have a major impact on the world.  Bilbo’s journey goes from him feeling very small and useless to finding the full extent of his courage and usefulness.  This story is a great gateway for discussion on how everyone can have a voice and an impact on the world, and no one should be underestimated or discounted in that regard.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 4 out of 5 stars.

What to Expect from the Movie
Well, you probably know at this point that director Peter Jackson has decided to turn this tale into not one, not two, but three movies.  From the trailers, I think you can see that he is very much attempting to keep with the darker, more adult tone of his LOTR trilogy, though he does say that he has attempted to keep some of the whimsy of this children’s story intact as well.

It seems that the first film, An Unexpected Journey, will be Bilbo’s journey to the Lonely Mountain.  The second, The Desolation of Smaug, will focus on the rise and fall of the dragon, and the third, There and Back Again, will climax in the Battle of the Five Armies.  Seems like a reasonable way to split them up.

I actually preferred the LOTR films to the books, as I felt Jackson kept to the spirit of the books but cut a lot of expositional fat that I did not enjoy in Tolkien’s writing style (though I’m still fuming at the removal of the man and the myth, Tom Bombadil).  It will be interesting to see what happens here, as this trilogy seems to be less The Hobbit and more a piecing together of Tolkien’s appendices with The Hobbit’s story meshed in to try and paint a fuller picture and more direct bridge between these films and LOTR.  In many ways, this will likely get compared to Star Wars with a prequel trilogy.  I’m hopeful that Jackson will succeed where Lucas failed, but he is definitely more out on a limb this time from a storytelling perspective than he was with the Rings trilogy.

After all the back and forth about New Line itself, and potential changes in directors, I’m very glad it ended up being Jackson himself that took this on.  It will be fun to see his whole vision played out on screen.  I think Martin Freeman, who is amazing as Dr. Watson in the new Sherlock! series on BBC was an inspired choice, and, especially with the added layers to the story not seen in the book (most notably, the story of the Necromancer) we should see a lot more of Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the Gray (rather than the more stick-in-the-mud Galdalf the White).  That in itself will be worth the price of admission.

So hit the book, then get that Fandango App warmed up, as I have no doubt this is going to be a great ride, and a lot of fun to compare to the book because there will be a lot of changes.  Happy reading!