Posts Tagged ‘movies’

Sharing Our Nightmares – A Dad’s Trip Back to Twin Peaks

May 23, 2017

Twin Peaks

As a Dad and avowed pop-culture nerd, one of the great joys in my life is getting to share my geek passions with my boys.  I still remember when my little blondie and his oversized noggin’ toddled into my study while I was riding the exercise bike and watching a VHS copy of Star Wars.  One look at the mean man in the black mask was all it took.

Just a few days ago, that same fella, now six feet tall and his head quite proportionate to his muscular frame, grunted his way to the breakfast table.  It just so happened that Phantom Menace, arguably the second worst in the Saga, happened to be streaming live at the moment.  As he dumped cereal into bowl, I cast the movie onto the big screen.  And, like a spell, the big-headed little boy reemerged.  “Hey, Phantom Menace!” he bellowed, and I spotted a unicorn: the smile of a teen on a weekday morning.

Mornings with my younger son are dominated by our shared passion for that great American sociological experiment: Survivor.  If there’s not a new episode on, we pop on a previous season and guess whether the player with apparent control is building the right “resume” or whether a premature blindside might spell her doom.  He is counting the days until he can send in his own video, proudly proclaiming that his negligible appetite will give him the leg up on the “Alpha Males” who can’t handle the lack of food.

But whether it is a Galaxy Far, Far Away, or a deserted island, or even a world of pure imagination, sharing those moments is like sharing a dream.  It floats happily on top of real life, bonding us together in a heady place of love and joy.

But there is another place.

Someplace dark and unsettling.

In that place—that land of nightmares—the sharing transports a relationship elsewhere.

And, it is happening again.

It is happening, again.

I remember coming home from college in 1990 and my mother in her latest attempt to have me meet a nice Jewish girl got me an invite to a friend’s daughter’s house.  She and a group of friends were obsessed with a brand-new show and were going to watch the premiere episode for the eleventeenth time.

I hardly remember the girl—I’m sure she was very nice and I very much hope she’s led a wonderful and happy life.  But my introduction to Donna, Shelly, Audrey, and a dead girl wrapped in plastic is something I will never forget.

Like so many others of the day, the small-town terror of Twin Peaks held me in its grasp.  And the fact that one of my three touchstone heroes (the other two being James T. Kirk and Willie Wonka—Wilder, not Depp) departed the pop-culture coil having been possessed by the evil he had chased since the pilot burnt a hole in my nerdy soul.

As many of my friends will tell you, the show has held a disturbingly large part of my imagination ever since.  Indeed, my Halloween 1999 costume of a psycho with long, gray hair, a jeans jacket, and white surgical gloves talking about catching folks with my “death bag” sure scared the hell out of the neighborhood trick-or-treaters, even though no one knew who the hell I was.

But I knew.

Before rumors of The Return began to circulate, I sat my bored teen in front of the TV and asked him to give a piece of vintage television a chance.  “This isn’t like The Chocolate War, is it Dad?” he groused, having found what I find to this day to be one of the most underrated teen dramas to be a dreary and dreadful bore.  I assured him it was like nothing he’d ever seen.  He was skeptical, but willing to give an episode a try.

“What the hell was that?”

His words as the (red) curtain closed on the pilot.

“So, did you like it?” I replied, unsure whether the little piece of my soul I shared found a place in his.

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Another?”

“Yes, please.”

And I dove once again over that dark and alluring waterfall into Twin Peaks, this time with my own boy along for the swim.  I listened to his theories.  We compared crushes.  We eye-rolled as Billy Zane tucked his sweater inside his pants and stole Audrey away from Coop.  But mostly, I got to experience the terror, wonder, and ultimate bewilderment as our hero ended his journey—apparently forever—staring at a bloody mirror with the face of evil starting back at him through a fresh set of eyes.

“How’s Annie?”

That line, and many others, have entered into our daily lexicon.  Because as much as the shared dream bonds, the shared nightmare binds.  For that darker place is more primal, more personal; a shared peek under the bed to find that, yes, there be monsters.

And now, by some Lynchian twist, the ending that has haunted me for a generation’s time has a new beginning.  And this journey with my son has a whole new feeling.  For our first trip to Twin Peaks was very much one of Father and Son.  I had the knowledge, and lived the new vicariously through my boy’s indoctrination.  But now, as an older Giant and older Cooper began this new chapter, we were on a level playing field.  The “Oh, F—k” that launched from his lips so many times with another twist of the proverbial (and occasionally literal) knife are now leaping from me as everything old becomes new.

And so as a parent—and a nerd—it is my nightmares that are truly a dream come true.

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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 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: 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.

Of Boy Scouts and Superman

March 18, 2013
The wife?  Gorgeous.  The rest?  Meh.

The wife? Gorgeous. The rest? Meh.

I hate nature.

Not that I want to destroy it or anything; I spent the better part of two decades as a lobbyist and organizer trying to save it.  But in terms of enjoying it, let me just say this.  You see a picturesque ocean, I see an endless stretch of something that I can neither stand on nor breathe in.  Hell, I can’t even drink the stuff.  I’m still not sure what’s so beautiful about that.  With our annual trip to the Keys coming up soon, trust me, I’m going for the pie.

I was noting this particular out of my myriad peculiarities this past Friday, which happed to be “Scout Day” at our synagogue.  A number of boys, girls, men, and women including several of Gus’s classmates got up on the bimah and spoke of the connection between scouting and Judaism, most notably the emphasis on doing good deeds (mitzvot).

Whenever I see those Boy Scout uniforms, they burn like a scarlet letter on my parenting soul.

Ahoy!  I be Homerrrr!

Ahoy! I be Homerrrr!

You see, my big boy has in the past expressed some interest in joining the Boy Scouts.  And it probably would have been good for him, too, given my wife is not a huge fan of “roughing it” and my idea of communing with the land is a lovely stretch of well-manicured savannah abruptly enclosed by a semicircular fence bracketed by two garish yellow foul poles.  The pangs of guilt in not adequately preparing him to survive the zombie apocalypse are amplified by the social deprivation he’s expressed at not being part.  It’s the classic “all the cool kids are doing it” argument he expressed to me once again as we drove home.

But even with the young men proudly speaking of all the mitzvot they have done as Boy Scouts, perhaps in honor of the upcoming Passover holiday, this Pharaoh’s heart hardened and once again said, “No, no, no.  To Boy Scouts you cannot go.”

And take that cursed walking stick with you, camper!

And take that cursed walking stick with you, camper!

Indeed, I saw more than a certain sad irony in a mention of Scouting Day at a synagogue.  Jews have historically been a people on the outside looking in.  On Passover, we are instructed to remember our time as slaves thousands of years ago as if it were happening to us right now.  “For you were slaves in the land of Egypt.”  We are commanded not to ignore injustice both by deity and by tradition—something I find bonds me to Judaism despite my rather militant agnosticism (I don’t know, and neither do you).

But, of course, as we sat there hearing these young men speaking of the environmental and social ethics of Scouting, we heard nothing of the great white elephant—the national BSA’s continued singling out and exclusion of any gay or lesbian children or parents from being a part of the organization.  I understand why this was excluded from the program—I’m not quite that obtuse.  There was no reason to cast a pall on these kids who got so much out of this experience with this inconvenient truth.  But I don’t think I’m the only one in the sanctuary who could feel it ghosting the proceedings.

I tend to prefer the "warts and all" philosophy

I tend to prefer the “warts and all” philosophy, however

What surprised me a bit as Gus and I discussed this issue once again was the discovery that when he talked with his friends who were in the Boy Scouts, each and every one of them vehemently denied that the BSA had this policy.  Now, I don’t think that their parents have been lying to them.  Indeed, I just had a discussion with a couple of our good friends who have their son in the Boy Scouts.  When they decided to do it, the issue of the national policy was absolutely part of their discussion.  But knowing that in this liberal haven of Arlington that the issue would have little-to-no impact on their particular troop made them feel the on-the-ground positives outweighed the rhetorical negatives.

That seems quite reasonable to me.  And I’m sure that the fact that Gus’s friends have no idea about the BSA’s anti-LGBT policy is not a concerted effort on their parents part.  They joined the Scouts at a very early age, when this issue would have frankly been too complex to explain to them.  Given in a liberal place like Arlington this issue just simply isn’t an issue for their troops, it’s simply never come up.  And because in so many other ways the Boy Scouts is about respecting and helping others, it just seems antithetical to any child participating that it would also have such an exclusionary and discriminatory policy.

Can't hate this guy

Can’t hate this guy

As I continue to mull this decision, I always remind myself that my own moral compass is certainly far from true north.  For instance, I always loved the (should be in the) Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza, and even though I was taken aback when he called Rush Limbaugh “American Royalty” back in 2005, I decided that I would divorce the catcher from the man, and continue to be a fan of the player.  Why shouldn’t that same principle apply to the Boy Scouts?

It is actually a somewhat similar issue happening right now in the nerd world that gave me a bit more clarity. As you might remember, I rather enjoyed Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, which will be coming out as a motion picture in November.  Indeed, I was quite intrigued to hear that DC comics is giving him his own Superman series to play with.  But then, I was hit with the news that Card is anti-gay marriage and has made some statements over the years that could be considered quite homophobic.  Here’s a very thorough article from Hollywood.com that traces the saga, and the publicity problem that both DC and Summit Entertainment have on their hands.

May be the closest I come to seeing the movie, unfortunately

May be the closest I come to seeing the movie, unfortunately

I’m far more iffy now as to whether I’m going to complete my Read It Then See It on Ender’s Game, as not only does Card personally believe in something I find terribly discriminatory, not only does he belong to what I believe to be a discriminatory organization (the National Organization for Marriage), but he is a member of their board of directors.  He is therefore actively using his celebrity to empower an organization that’s entire purpose—unlike the Boy Scouts—is to discriminate against the LGBT community.

There seems to be a difference in my mind between personal differences and institutionalized discrimination.  And while BSA is a private institution, it is still an institution.  So this is why I will still put Piazza’s #31 on my back, but Card’s Superman comics will remain on the shelves and I will continue to deprive my children of the unquestionable benefits of the Boy Scouts on this principle.

I admit fully that the line from disagreement over objectionable personal belief to institutionalized discrimination can sometimes be a murky one.  But it is that institutionalization of bias that, as a former slave in the land of Egypt, I simply cannot abide.

ew.

So this is the slightly wavering, yet deeply-etched line that I draw in the sand, and what I am committed to teaching my children.  If the BSA lifts its policy (something that doesn’t seem likely in the near future), however, I would be happy to allow my sons to take part.  Heck, I’ll even go on a camping trip with them.

Just don’t expect me to like it.

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.

The Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

August 7, 2012

A weekend trip to West Virginia and the splendor of Coal Country Mini Golf kept us from seeing this opening weekend, but the G-men and I checked out the third installment of the DoWK film series yesterday.  You can check out my take on the two books this film was based on, The Last Straw and Dog Days, in my Read It Then See It post here.

The Movie
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, Fox.

The Book(s)
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, by Jeff Kinney.  Originally published in 2009.

Genre
(Very) Juvenile Fiction

Age Appropriate
6 and up, but with one very important spoiler that will save your younger child a potential scream and cry.  See my Spoilers for Younger Kids section below.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  Don’t expect Shakespeare, but some very solid physical comedy with an increased focus on Greg’s Dad, played by most excellent comedic actor Steve Zahn, makes this a perfectly fun ride for we who are growing out rather than up.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
Everything in this movie is just fine for all ages.  A little rude language and a scene of the Heffley family’s new dog staring at Greg while he’s sitting on the can is about a close as it comes…save one scene.  When Greg and the gang are on a camping trip, the hilariously strange Fregley decides to tell a scary story about the “Muddy Hand.”  Totally classic, but I didn’t realize until half way in that my little guy had never heard a ghost story before.  And when the inevitable hand came out of the tent (ended up being one of the grown ups just exiting the tent), Gunnar jumped in his seat, screamed in a tone of abject terror I had never heard before, and went fetal.

This would be about the time to shut those little ones’ eyes.

He recovered quickly and showed no ill effects after the movie, but I would HIGHLY recommend either covering your younger kids’ eyes for this scene or spoiling it for them (“Watch, a hand is going to come out of the tent, but it’s only one of the grown ups.  Silly, huh?”) rather than give your child a trial by fire (literally) as I did.  If I can save one nightmare, then I feel like I’ve done my job…

Quickie Plot Synopsis (light spoilers ahead)
Rising 8th grader Gregg Heffley’s idea of a great summer includes two things, playing video games and getting a chance to hang out with the girl of his dreams, Holly Hills—preferably at the same time.  But when Holly misses out on giving him the last two digits of her phone number, Gregg embarks on a wild ride from taking him from hairy backs at the public pool to terror on the country club tennis court in an effort to win Holly over.

Patti’s scenes are getting smaller but are always memorable

At the same time, Gregg is running into more and more of a problem with his Dad, whose efforts to get him out of the house causes him consternation until Gregg lies about getting a summer job at the country club.  When Gregg is caught in the lie, he learns an important lesson in the difference between having people angry with you and disappointed in you.  A trip to the woods, defending his father’s honor against the block bully, and one spectacularly horrific concert by his brother’s band Loaded Diaper, and Gregg ends up with even more than he could have ever expected for his summer break.

My Review
I have to say I continue to be impressed with the creative team, especially director David Bowers and screenwriter Maya Forbes, for taking what I believe is the incredibly thin and somewhat mean-spirited material in Jeff Kinney’s books and turning it into fun, family fare with some heart, all while not abandoning many of the slapstick gags that make the books so popular.

Much of what I enjoy about the book is what is NOT there.  Gone are the scenes of Gregg really abusing Rowley’s friendship, from the “time machine” to their attempt to do a lawn service together.  These were the kind of antics that Gregg did in the first film, and while in the book he just continues on the same path, in the movies Gregg is actually growing and changing.  Even though his continues to make (hilarious) mistakes, the movie Gregg is, at his heart, a good kid.

SO much more sense than the book

Also gone was Gregg’s mysterious choice to essentially drop Holly Hills in favor of attempting to woo his big sister, Heather.  Instead, the film wisely continues to grow the Gregg/Holly relationship, and includes Heather as a super-spoiled teenage antagonist.  The puppy-love relationship for Heather is instead put on Rodrick (who Gregg actually helps get an opportunity to “land” Heather—another example of Gregg growing in the movie in a way entirely absent from the books), which makes far more sense.

While it was a bit harder to see Zachary Gordon as a wimpy kid given he’s grown about a foot since the last film, and has a lanky but muscular young swimmer’s build, he managed to win me over as a goofy kid just not comfortable in his own rapidly growing body.  The tennis scene, where Rowley and Gregg get clobbered by Holly and Gregg’s continued physical nemesis Patti has a lot of laugh-out-loud moments and is good example of the broad, physical comedy that actually plays well in this film throughout.

Zahn and Gordon really play well of each other in this one.

The best choice in this movie, however, was to heavily play up something that was more of a side story in the books, and that’s the relationship between Gregg and his Dad Frank.  Partly, playing this up gave the movie more of a soul, as it became a morality play about responsibility, deception, consequences, and redemption.  But, really, it was a great choice because it allowed more screen time for Steve Zahn, who plays Frank.  I think Zahn is an undervalued commodity in Hollywood, as his physical acting, from body use to facial expressions, is one of the best in modern comedy.  The “dinner scene” where the dog gets hold of the family roast, is hilarious only because of how Zahn and Gordon play it.  Zahn’s performance, to me, makes this movie even more than the sum of its parts, and the best yet in the series.

Overall Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
See the movie.  Skip the book.  If for some reason the movie inspires a desire to read the series, do check out my Read It Then See It post as I think I’ve come up with some ideas about how to make a very thin book into something you can actually have a good talk about with your kids.

Oh, and one other plus for the movie is that it has a great trailer to The Hobbit in front of it.  That happens to be next up for the Read It Then See It series, so stay tuned for that one coming soon.