Sunday, May 16, 2010

Blurbs – May 2010 – Gathering Blue, Off The Road, Clockwork.

Blurbs is a short column on all the new little things I have read, watched or thought about that I feel do not warrant an entire standalone post. Today we have three books.

Gathering Blue – Lois Lowry6a00cdf7eaee19094f0109815e25a1000d-500pi

Gathering Blue is a companion novel to The Giver (required reading as far as I am concerned). It tells a different story in a different place. The world of Gathering Blue is dissimilar to that of The Giver. It is a crude dystopia, whereas The Giver is an advanced one.

Posey Sessions has recently ribbed me about not reading stories with female protagonists. As I thought about it, I was not able to refute her. . . much. So I picked up Gathering Blue with an “I’ll show her” mindset. I was determined to slog through this femme fest of a book and hold it up in triumph, trumpeting “I told you so.” What happened next surprised me, and I think her as well.

I LOVED Gathering Blue. The story hooked me from the opening page and never let up. The setting was spectacular, I hated the grimy little village, it was disturbing and scary. Lowry writes of a tensioned filled backwoods nook, where archaic rules are used like weapons in a dog eat dog struggle for survival. Kira, a flawed girl who should have been killed, is left to carve out a life after the death of her mother. I was turned off initially when the story becomes too good to be true. But things in Kira’s life are not what they seem. Lowry masterfully unfolds the truth behind the village and its guardians, until in the final moment the readers uneasy feeling explodes into terror; and all the hope held for Kira and her place in this world turns into revulsion.

I also loved the character of Matt. For him this damned world is a playground that he exploits. Matt is the dystopian Tom Sawyer. I am excited to begin Messenger, in which Matty is the main character.

Off The Road – Nina Bawden

n25072Off the Road was my first audio book in about 2 years, I decided to take audio books on my Ipod to be entertained while camping. Off the Road turned into my workout “music.” While walking each day I turned on to the story of little Tom as he follows Gandhi, his grandfather ,off the road into an entirely different society.

First off I enjoyed Off the Road. It was a fun read with some flaws. The characters are well written and interesting. I found myself wrapped up in their lives and their world. Gandhi was the perfect vehicle to drive the story. His appeal, and Tom’s love and concern for him are universal. I often thought of the affection I have for my own Grandfather, and how in Tom’s shoes I would have made the same choices, and felt the same emotions.

The flaws lie in the world Bawden has created. I do not like an author to hold the readers hand and point out everything to them along the way, so much of reading is imagination. But, there is a point where a book can be too ambiguous or nuanced. Off the Road was that for me. There was a lot of depth in the story, and at times it was very poignant, the problem was in the thread, so much was left to the reader to formulate on their own. A task that I feel may be difficult for a young reader. Also, the story does not move very much. There are moments of enlightenment for young Tom, and some of them are powerful. But the narrative is lacking, and when the conflict arises it feels almost too little too late, or like it is lifted from another story altogether.

Another major disappointment in the story, for me, was the lack of danger. The three main “bad guys” in the story are like toothless lions. The dropouts are mostly comic relief, they steal a little food and not much else, and even when they get scary for a moment, Bawden actually introduces us to them, and they are more mischievous than scary. The Rangers are soft hearted protectors of a peaceful society, who never really threaten Tom. And the Inside is the least of worries. It felt to me like the inside was a comfortable world that one got to experience for a while, and the outside was a sort of retirement village. The threat vanished in the end for good.

I enjoyed following the enlightenment of a selfish little boy, but I felt like the ties between his experiences on the outside and his eventual epiphanies were too nuanced to be very effective. For all of its weak points Off the Road was a nostalgic look at the love of a boy for his grandfather. That was the story within the story that I very much enjoyed.

Clockwork – Philip Pullman

51M0SCR70ALClockwork was a dark and dreary children's tale. It surprised me, having never been exposed to Pullman before (yeah I am the last person in the world who has not read His Dark Materials) how dismal and bleak the story really was. Reading it as an adult I was a bit shocked that this passed for children’s fare. The two stories in the book wove together in a seamless fashion. And The tale of the little Prince was magnificently creepy. Clockwork was an intricate story with the feel of a campfire tale.

It was a quick, light read, that felt like something a lot more substantial. But, I could not help feeling that it was something I had read before; a variation on a familiar theme. Pullman did it better, and perhaps he did it for the sake of a young audience, but it felt like it tread familiar “scary story” territory.

I picked up the book again and read it to my six year old niece. She sat attentive to the tale, but often stopped me to ask “when will it get scary?” Perhaps this speaks to the desensitizing of our children, or perhaps six years old is too young to grasp the full darkness and evil of moving corpses, murderous statues, and human experimentation.

Taking it for what it was Clockwork was infinitely readable, and a great way to pass a spare hour. My only complaints were the rehashed feeling of the tale (“Im a real boy!”) and a weak connection between previous statements and the final payoff.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Riding the Wave

Let it be known that I have the most amazing girl in the world. A girl who has taken the time to get to know me and what I like, so when she gives me a book to read, I rarely think twice. As I sauntered off for a month in California to unwind from stressful semester at school, I was carrying a backpack filled with books from her private collection. The first I decided to read was The Wave a novel by Todd Strasser, it is a novelization of a short film, which in turn is based on a real life classroom experiment.

dgfhgfhThe concept of The Wave piqued my interest because I am a university student completing a double major in both History and Political Science. The topic of my recently completed thesis for my history degree focused on the political climate in Germany that led to the rise of the Nazi Party and the establishment of the Third Reich. I will not say The Wave offers an entirely comprehensive look at the phenomenon of group identity, or that it even comes close to explaining what would make a person support, actively or passively, the atrocities of the Nazi Party. What it does do, however, is help its target audience of young readers to understand the allure of group identity, the inescapable power of the collective, and the dangers associated with groupthink.

The Wave was effective in the novel for many similar reasons that the Nazis were effective in Germany in the late 1920s and early 30s. High school is made up of vulnerable, impressionable children, fragmented into many cliques, constantly searching for a place to belong and an identity. Weimar Germany was also hopelessly fragmented, political divisions took the place of cliques, the Jocks, the Nazis, the Nerds, The Communists, The rich kids, the bourgeoisie, the poor kids, the proletariat. These comparisons are not really accurate, but instead are made to illustrate a point. Each group has its own goals, and was willing to sacrifice much to attain them. Even those with the power to stop the Wave, or the Nazis, namely Mr. Ross the Teacher, or President Hindenburg of Germany turned a blind eye in order to create order and unity, something both desired in their own territory.

As a student who focused on European history and international politics, primarily the period from the outbreak of WWI through the establishment of the UN after WWII, the social, economic and political factors are studied in depth. The human factor is usually noticeably absent. A history course on the development of the Nazi party even glossed over the thought process of the people who brought the Nazis to power, as did The Wave. For a novel that attempts to explain the reasoning at the heart of Nazi power, it fails in the same way most academic courses do. Ambiguity is paramount in The Wave, often students say they feel “good” or feel “something” or some kind of “power” in the Wave, but no real explanations are made for the draw of the collective, nor for the rejection of it by the individual, some feel right in it, some feel wrong. Maybe the novel and history classes fall short for the same reason: There is no answer. Only theories exist, but no single theory can encompass the actions of a hundred, let alone a million individuals. It can only be said that each person finds their own reason to be part of the wave, or to fight against it.

The Wave succeeds in showing the reader that, despite popular thinking, what happened in Germany from 1933 to 1945 could definitely happen again. It also shows some signposts that we must watch for on the road to a tyranny of the masses. But, it cannot give any insight into the thought process of every person who chooses to subjugate their will to that of the group, because each person follows their own reason, each is willing to abandon something different in hopes of gaining something better. The Wave was an excellent read as a way to fill out a part of my education that may have been lacking, but it offers no real answers, only warnings.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Dr. Parnassus, or What Could Have Been.


This will be a short rant to vent my frustration with what could have been a great film, and was instead mediocre and disappointing. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus had everything going for it. A unique and twisted story, an AMAZING cast, beautiful visuals, a director who always makes me smile, oh and an AMAZING cast. How then did the film fall so flat?

The major problem I had with the film was pacing. The first part of the film takes a long time in setting up, the viewer is kept guessing at why we really should care about the characters, and if it even matters what they are doing. The story picks up once we are introduced to Heath Ledger’s character, but shortly after its slows down again leading into a long drawn out middle section, followed by an abrupt ending that feels disconnected from the rest of the film. To say any more would almost guarantee spoilers. The story meanders, doling out information sporadically, but never in a timely manner, back story is revealed too soon before, or too far after it is relevant, and sometimes its not revealed at all.

The film, however, was not all bad. Some of it was actually quite enjoyable. Let me first address the elephant in the room, Heath Ledger. Ledger died while making this film, and it was originally thought the project might be scrapped altogether. Instead director John Cleese found an inventive way to continue the story without him. While I believe we all would have loved more Heath Ledger, the addition of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell in his place was acceptable, if a bit forced. Each actor spends time playing Ledger’s character when he enters the imaginarium, a change that was foreshadowed once, confusingly, very early in the film. I would have preferred a single actor to take on the role of Tony as he traipsed through the imaginarium. Changing faces each time ruined some of the continuity of the story, and having Tony be surprised by the change every time was a bit corny. That being said, Heath Ledger was a powerhouse in his last performance, he shows us again in the Imaginarium why he will definitely be missed.

waitsI must also take a moment to thank John Cleese, to get down on my knees in praise of a casting choice made in this film. To make burnt offerings in response to my absolute joy at seeing one of my favorite celebrities of all time on the screen, playing a role that is tailor made for him; Tom Waits as the Devil. If you do not know who Tom Waits is, or you do not know why he is so perfect for this film, you must begin your research. This film, stylistically, screamed Tom Waits, it oozed his persona all over the screen. A dark carnival ride at 3am in a bad part of town, not so much fun as slightly terrifying, yet impossible to forget. That is Mr. Waits. His portrayal of scheming old Nick was spot on, a thing of beauty, intense in its seeming ambivalence. This was a Devil you could grow to love, after all he was not such a bad guy. Waits knocked it out of the park, he brought the quirk to the film, in a way that the crazy sets and surreal visuals only hinted at.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus was a visual treat, if you want to settle in for a flight of fancy, this is the movie for you. If you want a final goodbye to Mr. Ledger, or you worship at the altar of Tom Waits (like I do) this is a movie for you. If you like the over the top antics of the Monty Python crew, John Cleese brings a bit of that into the film, and this might be the film for you. If you are looking for a well constructed coherent story, you might want to skip this one.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Offendor, or Who REALLY Kicks-Ass?


Kick-Ass was by far my biggest disappointment at the theater so far in 2010. So when I saw a commercial for a straight to DVD release of what seemed to be a Kick-Ass clone I was a little cynical. It seemed Defendor hoped to capitalize on the hype. The drawing power of Woody Harrelson did little to change my mind, even coming off his intense performance in The Messenger, and a laugh riot role in Zombieland. I was ambivalent at best. until I took a trip to the local video store. Avatar was out, the Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus was out, and I had seen everything else. So I strolled past Defendor, spared a passing glance and moved on, I was only at the Ds, surely something better lay ahead. Turns out, I was wrong, so I walked out of the video place, this gem in my hand, but still slightly disappointed.  But 060909_kickassnot for too long.

First off, I will just say Defendor was not an amazing, blow your mind kind of film.  It was just something better than its competitor.  I will not spend much time lambasting Kick-Ass, instead I will let Poseysessions do that, she is more than capable.

Instead let us talk about Woody Harrelson, the man can carry a movie.  At one point I had considered Woody somewhere along the lines of a Kevin Costner or a Nick Cage, makes plenty of fun movies, but nothing to write home about.  Generic looks, generic acting, minimal talent, and pretty much the same guy in everything he was in.  Not so anymore for defendorthe Woodmeister. He has found a niche into which he fits well, and he is executing.  Zombieland was hilarious, and Harrelson’s comedic timing spot on.  Defendor is a film in that vein.  But chock full of emotion.

Defendor is not a comedy, I repeat, it just isn't a comedy.

To be fair, neither is Kick-Ass.

It is a shame that Kick-Ass was packaged as such, otherwise, going into the theater with different expectations I may have came out with a different point of view.  My only expectation with Defendor was an “everything comes in pairs” scenario.  Deep Impact and Armageddon etc and so on.  Average guy becomes a super hero, action and (hopefully) comedy ensues.

Kick-Ass suffered from another identity crisis, who was it about?  The movie attempted to split its time between two different story lines, which never came together in any acceptable way.  Kick-Ass, you know the kid on the posters, was not the main character, his was not the story I cared about, he was more like a vehicle to introduce us to the story of Hit Girl and Big Daddy.  The meat of the movie was with these 2 characters, a (wanna be) touching father-daughter story played out on a gritty cop gets revenge backdrop.  The supposed main character is nowhere in this better side of the movie.

Defendor on the other hand is driven by the main characters, Harrelson’s portrayal of the  quirky, mentally deficient  Arthur Poppington as he seeks to escape from his bleak real life by becoming a super hero is the center of the film.  Poppington is a likeable loser, Kick-Ass is a pretentious teen.  Poppington has real problems, Kick-Ass wants to get laid.  The love stories in both films highlight where one film went wrong and one right.  Kick-Ass’ superficial “love” drama is a lust based snorefest, it comes and goes as easily as real high school romance, and is just as interesting.  Defendor’s love story is a tale of two broken people in a harsh world,  the affection develops as the Prostitute and the Nutcase come to understand and appreciate each other through their shared tribulations.

In summation, Defendor is a better movie if you are interested in Drama that has a story filled with real emotion. Defendor is a better Comedy if you like to laugh.  Kick-Ass on the other hand is a better Action movie all around, a merit on which it could have succeeded, if it had painted itself as such.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Mind of Mr. X

Welcome and enjoy reading a little bit of anything and everything. Anything thing I think of everything may one day grace these pages.

You have stepped into the Mind of Mr. X.
page image stolen from Aykanozener @ Deviant Art show some love, check it out.