Friday, December 31, 2010

My Top Ten Geek Moments of 2010

So it's that time of year where we look back and also look forward to the future. Instead of boring you with personal details, let's look at some of the geeky things I indulged in this year.

10. Star Trek The Original Series
I'm now 2/3 of the way through the original series. I'm enjoying the cast of characters immensely, even if some of the episodes just don't hold up. I'm learning that there are about two really bad episodes for every one really fantastic one. It's sort of amazing the series lasted as long as it did. The feature films are also about 50/50 in terms of quality, but the thing about this series is that when it's good it's really really good.

9. Castle of Cagliostro Dub
After years and years of searching, I was finally able to get my hands on a copy of the original Streamline dub on this movie. I did a comparison of the two dubs and found that they weren't as different as I was expecting them to be. It's still great to be able to hear the original movie I fell so deeply in love with all over again. This was also one of the more "professional" things I did for the site, taking the time to watch both in a row and compare them in what I hope is an informative and interesting fashion.

8. Big Bang Theory
After listening to Wil Wheaton talk about his appearances on the show, I decided to check out this series. The first season was completely hysterical, and so far seasons 2 and 3 are also great. My lack of cable service means I haven't seen season 4 yet. I have some occasional issues with the series and how it caters to stereotypes, but the actors and jokes usually make up for it, particularly Jim Parsons/Sheldon. I think the one joke that irked me the most is when Sheldon and Leonard couldn't answer any of the Trivial Pursuit questions Penny asked them. While geeks don't spend much time perusing gossip magazines, they definitely know their popular culture. Had she asked them sports questions, it might have made more sense.

7. Sherlock Holmes
I was actually a little nervous about this movie before I saw it. We're all so used to that older version of Sherlock Holmes that this looked like it was just another attempt to remake an old hero into something "cool." But in the same way that he managed to make us care about as boring a character as Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. brought a sexiness to Sherlock Holmes where we had never seen it before. I got the blu-ray of this for Christmas and I really need to sit down and watch it again.

6. Alice in Wonderland
People seem so divided on this movie - either you loved it or you hated it. Some seemed to not realize it was a sequel, and others seem to think the story was lacking. I loved it for what it was: a look into a fantastical world and the story of a young girl finding who she truly is.

5. Batman & Robin: Batman Reborn
Grant Morrison successfully made me want to read comics again. I try to keep up with whatever is going on with both Batman and the X-men, even though I hadn't read a comic from either one in years. A lot of what happens in the X-men storylines these days sounds like bad fan fiction to me, but the moment I heard my beloved Dick Grayson was assuming the mantle of the bat, I knew I had to read this. And it was amazing. I really need to pick up that second trade, now that's it's out.

4. Battlestar Galactica (Season 1, Season 2, Season 3, Season 4)
Oh, Battlestar. I'm so very glad I watched this after it was all over and didn't have to wait ages to find out what happened. I don't know if I could have done it. I wasn't crazy about some of the choices they made, but overall it was a fantastic series and I'm glad I gave it a chance.

3. Getting into horror (First post, Werewolves, Hannibal Lector, Hatchet/Gore, the start of my Dracula marathon)
Speaking of giving things a chance, I opened myself up to horror movies and discovered that I wasn't so much of a fraidy cat as I used to be. I'm having as much fun devouring the old classics as I am the more recent slasher films. The older movies appeal more to the side of me that has always loved fantasy. The slasher films are a new experience, one where more often then not you are actually rooting for the villain rather than the heroes. I suppose it allows us to indulge in our dark sides in a more healthy fashion. I'm looking forward to watching more next year.

2. Scott Pilgrim vs the World (movie, books)
I fell in love with this movie hard, and thoroughly enjoyed the books too. It hits right in that perfect spot of nostalgia and fun, and has lots of layers to it. The soundtrack is also fantastic.

1. Bill & Ted Marathon
I don't mean to toot my own horn, but this is one of the geekiest things I've ever done, and I'm really proud of it. I was proud enough to try to follow it up with my Dracula series, and I've already started work on another one. Bill and Ted were a huge part of my youth growing up, and the movies are just so much fun. I really loved getting the chance to check out and hopefully introduce others to some of the lesser known parts of this series. The comic book series is something I especially love, and I'm really happy that it seems to be the post that gets me the most Google hits these days. It makes me think there are others out there who are just as interested in it. Rest assured that if they do end up making the third film, or even a remake (UGH) I will add them to the marathon.

I did a lot of experimenting with the blog this year, and I think in some ways I'm still trying to find my exact niche. I hope you are enjoying reading it, regardless.

It looks like in 2011 I will be attending at least one real convention, quite possibly two. I'm not entirely enthusiastic about any of the movies coming out. In terms of superheroes both Marvel and DC seem to be covering characters I'm not particularly crazy about. X-men: First Class will be out in June, but after the lukewarm Wolverine movie, I just can't get excited about that right now. Of course there is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 which should be well done. Am I forgetting anything?

Tell me what made you geek out this year and what you're most looking forward to next year!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Back before the Harry Potter series was finished, in the long gap I spent between Order of the Phoenix and Half Blood Prince, I had deemed Chamber of Secrets to be one of my least favorite of the series. On this re-read I did my best to keep an open mind.

While it's not going to move anywhere near my favorites, it was a bit more enjoyable. The problem is this book is a set up for lots of things coming in the series, themes and facts which do not show up again for a very long time. But for the moment, let's focus on how it works standing all by itself. The story sort of winds along and takes a long time to get going. Since everything has to happen over the course of a school year for Harry, the events get sort of drawn out and we end up with a couple diversions. As such an already short book actually feels like it could be a bit shorter if it wasn't forced to cover a certain time period.

Once again the mystery element is well executed, with us being led in other directions while the real answer is also being slyly hinted at in front of us. The problem is that there's really no way you would have possibly guessed the real answer ahead of time, because it requires additional knowledge of things in the wizard world that we have not yet been exposed to. One of the things I love about reading Sherlock Holmes stories is how you can usually figure it all out before Watson does, and you get an ultra sense of satisfaction as Holmes explains and proves you right. There's absolutely no chance of that happening here.

Spoilers for this book begin here.

I think one of the flaws is the way it's suggested that Hagrid was the one unleashing the monster. While on one hand plausible thanks to his love of large creatures, the fact is Hagrid is simply too kindhearted for such a thing. And would anyone really be OK with letting someone they believed kill a girl stay on the grounds? Honestly, re-reading it this time, I felt like she was also trying to make us think it might be Percy, and given the set up (ignoring what I knew as the truth) that actually seemed more plausible than Ginny or Hagrid with the clues that were being provided. While everything does wrap up into a nice neat package at the end, this certainly isn't her strongest work.

We get to meet four new characters of varying importance - Arthur Weasley, Lucius Malfoy, Dobby, and Moaning Myrtle. Arthur is immensely lovable, as pretty much every Weasley who isn't named Percy is. Lucius is one of those characters who you love to hate, and explains so much about who Draco is as a person. Moaning Myrtle is actually much more enjoyable in the movies than in the books. Shirley Henderson brings an extra amount of cheekiness to the role.

On my first reading, I found Dobby to be incredibly annoying. His actions simply don't make much sense. Why does he think Harry specifically is in danger? Sure, his mother was a muggle, but there's so many other students to worry about too. I also don't really see the logic in making someone's life miserable as an excuse to save their life. I suppose it's all supposed to seem cute and endearing, but I just don't care for him. Perhaps if they had made his design a little cuter in the movies, they might have been able to sway me.

On top of all this, I can't help but feel that both Harry and Dumbledore behave quite foolishly. Dumbledore knew that Voldemort was behind the original opening of the chamber, knew Tom Riddle was Voldemort, but he doesn't seem to share this fact with anyone. Harry had the opportunity to tell Dumbledore everything he knew, and he chickens out instead. After what happened at the end of Sorcerer's Stone, Harry should be able to trust Dumbledore at this point and not be afraid of him.

In terms of the movie adaptation, once again we have a fairly straight forward one. Things are once again compressed for time, and Nearly Headless Nick's death day party is dropped all together. The scene really doesn't have much to do with anything, and I can understand from a budget stand point why they would want to cut it too. They also stretch out and change some of the more action oriented scenes, which makes for better movie making. The voyage in the flying car is a bit more perilous and exciting, and Harry is left poisoned by the basilisk for a little bit longer, until after Riddle has already been defeated in order to increase the tension. They also switched the basilisk following his smell to listening for him, which allows for a good tense moment where Harry has to throw the rock and distract him.

While Daniel Radcliffe shows a natural talent for acting, I felt Emma Watson and Rupert Grint were somehow weaker in this one than they were in Sorcerer's Stone. Their lines seem more wooden, and Rupert Grint's facial expressions are over the top. Kenneth Branagh brings Lockhart's narcissism to life brilliantly. Jason Isaacs is absolutely fantastic as Lucius Malfoy. He seems almost like a snake turned into a man, he's so slimy. Yet also a bit sexy. I swear the casting directors were Slytherin fans, or maybe there was just some decision somewhere down the line that (ignoring Crabbe and Goyle) any male member of Slytherin must also be handsome.

One detail I noticed on this viewing is that Tom's memory is actually tinted slightly green, perhaps to give us a hint of his true intentions.

Once again the movie feels a bit long, though the CGI and special effects are greatly improved. The mandrakes look good though their screams put both my cats in a panic. I fell in love with the Cornish pixies the very first time I saw the film. I want one! I'll keep it in its cage, I promise. The basilisk and Dobby are both realistic enough looking that you believe Harry is actually interacting with both of them. I'm fairly certain that Fawkes was normally a puppet rather than CGI, which is probably why I loved him so much. While he's not what I think of when I imagine a phoenix, he's still a very beautiful bird.

The worst of the movie is the ending. As if the movie hadn't run on long enough already, we have to endure a very long scene for Hagrid's return, which turns into a big mushy love fest as the whole school claps for him. I like Hagrid, I just didn't need all of that.

Now on to spoilers for the rest of the series!

Like I said, it seems like a lot of this book is set up. We meet Dobby so we can learn about house elves, hinting at Hermione's forming of SPEW later on. We learn about polyjuice potion so that when Barty Crouch will pretend to be Mad-eye later, we'll understand how. And what we really don't know and what's absolutely most important, is that the diary is actually a horcrux and so is Harry. Dumbledore tells Harry that Voldemort put a piece of himself within Harry, even though he didn't mean to. At the time we think, ok, he knows how to speak parseltongue and he's probably a little better at spell casting now because of it. I think Rowling was counting on us to forget this, and I think really most of us had. I like this because it proves that she was fully aware of exactly where the overarching story of this series was going from this early on. The detriment is that this one seems a bit disjointed from all the other books until it's explained in book 6.

Also: "Dobby, do me a favor and never try to save my life again." Dobby's not a very good listener, is he?

Next up is Prisoner of Azkaban!! Can you tell it's one of my favorites? I'm really looking forward to reading and watching it again.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Toy Story 1-3

For whatever reason I never got around to seeing Toy Story 3 in the theaters. After watching it at home by myself on Christmas, this is probably a very good thing. I had so many emotional responses while watching this movie it was kind of ridiculous. Did you realize that the original Toy Story was released in 1995? It doesn't seem like it was that long ago. We've been knowing these characters for 15 years now. As such, I guess I shouldn't be so surprised that I was so attached to them and so worried about their fates. As someone who holds on passionately to my childhood, and has collected action figures since 1991, I have an extra special investment in these movies.

With the first movie, there was this great theme of old vs. new. I was Team Woody all the way. I think it was a brilliant bit of casting to get Tom Hanks and Tim Allen to play the roles of the main characters. Hanks represents 1980s comedy to me in a lot of ways, since I grew up repeatedly watching films like Splash and Big, as well as Bosom Buddies reruns. Tim Allen was one of the major comedy stars of the 1990s, thanks to Home Improvement and various films. While I wasn't particularly against Tim Allen, I was mostly against Buzz Lightyear. The "I'm Mrs. Nesbitt!" scene is incredibly hilarious, don't get me wrong. What I didn't understand was that this guy was basically a complete idiot for most of the film, but kids seemed to love him best and there were Buzz Lightyear toys and merchandise everywhere and no where near as much Woody stuff. I guess the movie was right.. cowboys just aren't as cool as astronauts anymore. I've never been a big fan of westerns myself, but Woody was just so cute, charismatic, and witty that I just loved him. Of course the point of the movie is that you don't have to replace the old when you get the new, and love and appreciate both equally. It just seemed like as far as Disney's marketing was concerned, that sentiment had been completely overridden.

It was four years later when we got a sequel, and in my opinion it ranks right up there with the original. I loved the point of the movie, that toys are meant to be played with, not kept in boxes and sold to the highest bidder. I may be a collector, but very few of my figures are still in their original packaging. I don't look at them as far as what they are worth - I choose them because they are models of characters I love. One day, I'm going to make a kid very happy.. whether that child is my own, or perhaps a niece or nephew I'm not sure, but the point is I'm going to gift them all to someone who I know will appreciate them - not sell them or destroy them. The other great thing about this movie is Jessie. I love her enthusiasm and the fact that she's such a rough and tumble action girl. The song, "When She Loved Me" makes me cry almost every time I hear it. It makes me want to run to the closet and pull out my special, well-worn teddy bear and tell him I still love him.

That's one thing at the heart of these movies that I think is what makes them so appealing. Is there anyone out there who didn't think their toys came alive when they weren't looking? A lot of my toys in my youth were arranged on shelves around my very small room. My Little Ponies sat on a shelf near my light switch. In the dim of the night, I thought I could see their mouths moving. The sad part is that I was convinced they were talking bad about me. I guess in my mind those ponies were ultra-catty. I did not have any such suspicions about my other toys, but I was convinced that all the stuffed animals were moving when I wasn't looking. I remember even trying to sort of fake them out by playing peekaboo, and that the reason I never caught them was because they were simply too good. If there's any real loss of innocence we experience, it's in when we have to accept the fact that this kind of magic just isn't real. Fortunately, the Toy Story films let us live it again, at least for little while.

Having now seen Toy Story 3, I'm impressed that the team managed to make an entire trilogy without any glaring weak points. Of course they got to take their time with this one, and obviously an additional film would not have been made if they didn't have a good idea. The fun aspect of waiting 11 years to make this one was that the actor who played Andy was still age appropriate for the role. The film once again brings back the theme of "toys are meant to be played with," this time asking it not in a collector's mindset, but whether it's better to hold on to them for future generations, donate them, or maybe just throw them away.

As I mentioned, I was extremely invested in what was going to happen to these characters. I was on the edge of my seat for a large portion of the film. I'd compare it to how I felt when I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it was that tense for me. They seem to be put in almost constant peril for awhile there. I had managed to avoid all spoilers before going into it, and I'm glad I did, because I really had no idea just what was going to happen to them. That's the hint that says if you haven't seen the movie yet, you might want to stop reading now so I don't spoil you.

I was so upset to hear that Bo was gone. It's logical that a kid wouldn't keep such a baby oriented toy forever, but still sad for Woody. My first real shout at the TV occurred when Woody was put in the college box and Buzz relegated to the bag with the others. It may have been a victory cheer of words that I should not repeat in polite company. I quickly switched to feeling horrible for Jessie, who was once again having to lose her playmate. I was glad they acknowledged that - I can't stand sequels that don't remember the things that happened before. Watching them all be treated so horribly by those pre-K kids was horrifying, though nothing could prepare me for the eventual scene at the dump. While part of me was thinking "surely they're not going to end it like this!" I also couldn't think of a way for them to get out of it and was really worried that was in fact going to be the end. Yeah, I probably should have seen the claw coming a mile away, but what can I say, I was in the moment.

As far as the ending goes, I had mixed feelings. Bonnie was an adorable character and she'll certainly make a great playmate for the gang. I do believe that toys are meant to be appreciated for what they are.. but as someone who does collect, I do sometimes take these messages a little personally. In the 40 Year Old Virgin, it is basically suggested that Steve Carell's character has to sell his action figures to move on with his life and no longer be a virgin. In Ghost World, Steve Buscemi's character reacts negatively to being complimented on his collection, saying he just obsessively collects things because he can't deal with the real world and the people in it. In an episode of Big Bang Theory, Leonard tried to sell his entire action figure collection in order to prove to Penny that he was a grown up. So now, Andy must also give his toys away, including Woody, in order to grow up and move on with his life, and doggone it, NO HE DOESN'T.

I have a boyfriend. I have friends. I have a successful job and a home. I have close contact with my family. And yes, I obsessively collect things. I have comics, I have figures, I have a wall's worth of dvds and games. I have posters of bands and characters that I love. I have a vast amount of toys from my youth, and I mourn some that I have lost. All those people I mentioned? I frequently discuss these things that I obsess about with them. We share in the love for these things together. I am so sick of popular culture telling me I am missing out on something because of the things that I care about. Yes, in some ways, I am a huge kid, but I fail to see where that kind of enthusiasm for things, that sense of adventure about the small stuff is a bad thing.

It's possible I'm taking it far too personally. They may simply have wanted all the toys to have a happy ending, and splitting Woody from the rest of the group would not have given them that. I guess in my mind the perfect ending would have been if when Andy had seen all the toys magically returned to him, he would have suddenly realized how much he loved them all and taken them all to college. There they would be displayed proudly on a shelf, where he could tell his friends about how awesome they were. While he was gone, the gang would all still get to hang out and be friends, and one day, they would go to Andy's kids. But hey, it's a story. So I'll just pretend that eventually this is exactly what Bonnie will do, and we'll all live happily ever after.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Garfield and Claymation Christmas

As a child, one of the best things about holidays beyond getting the free stuff was watching the various cartoon specials that would air in the weeks before the holiday arrived. Easter, Halloween, maybe Thanksgiving, and definitely Christmas. There are so many Christmas specials that there's usually at least one TV channel that airs them night after night in December these days. We all know the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, with its commentary against commercialism and C.B.'s poor little tree. We've all memorized How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Your age determines just how many of the Rankin/Bass specials you're familiar with, but Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is definitely the most well known and popular of the lot. I love all of those and could probably recite them to you I'm so familiar with them. But I also have strong memories of another series of specials that seem to have fallen by the wayside, and honestly I don't understand why. I'm talking about the Garfield holiday specials.

There were three Garfield holiday specials in total, made for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The good news is that you can still get them by purchasing Garfield's Holiday Celebrations, but I really think it's a shame that they don't show these on TV anymore. The Halloween and Christmas ones in particular are excellent, and it seems to me like Garfield is still a viable character. He's still in the papers, isn't he? They made movies about him just this past decade. Ok, they weren't very good, admittedly. But if they can air a Shrek Christmas special, it seems to me like Garfield is still worthy too.

I watched the Garfield Halloween special this year in time with the season, and I can tell you without a doubt that it still holds up. It's a perfect balance between spooky and funny and has some fun songs besides. The Thanksgiving special on the other hand, much like the Peanuts version, is forgotten for a reason. It's more about Jon and his attempts to woo Garfield's vet. You would think they would have saved that for Valentine's Day. So I decided to sit down and watch the Christmas special again and see if the reality matched my memory.

At a half hour long, it really keeps things moving. We get an opening of Garfield dreaming of getting every present he ever wished for, but then he wakes up and they're off to the farm to go see Jon's family. There's a cute song where Jon talks about the joys of Christmas and Garfield counteracts it with all the negatives. The absolute best part of the special is Jon's grandmother. She's a sassy lady who shares most of Garfield's philosophies and the two of them bond immediately. There's a lot of cute jokes mixed in with the sentimentality of the special. I really love the way that Jon and his brother Doc Boy act like small children all over again, forcing their dad to read them a story and waiting anxiously to open their presents on Christmas morning. There's a cute side story as Odie secretly builds a present for Garfield. The main story is mostly about Grandma and how much she misses Grandpa. Garfield stumbles upon some old love letters Grandpa sent her when they were dating and gives them to Grandma as a present. It's sappy, but there's enough humor mixed in so as it's not sugary sweet.

In writing this I realized there's another special I used to watch that even I had nearly forgotten: Will Vinton's Claymation Christmas. Perhaps the most obvious reason that this is no longer shown is because its most well known section features the California Raisins, but that doesn't mean this isn't quality entertainment. It's a collection of Christmas carols put to various claymation sequences.

The special is hosted by two dinosaurs, one a straight man and the other an idiot. They provide the comic relief in between the carols. The stop motion animation is still high quality and great to watch even after all these years. I really enjoy the Carol of the Bells. There's something about watching those bells smack themselves on the head that makes me giggle. The absolute best is the Joy to the World sequence, which uses a 2D surface rather than 3D figures. It has the look of an animated watercolor painting, and its just gorgeous. While most kids these days won't have a clue just who the California Raisins are, their Motown rendition of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer is still pretty good. Unless kids are too "cool" to appreciate Motown these days. While I understand why someone wouldn't want to shell out the money for the DVD of this, you should be able to find it on Youtube.

What's your favorite Christmas/holiday special?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Idol Chatter

Sometimes I don't know whether something is appropriate for this blog, mostly whether it's "geeky" enough. But at times like that I probably need to remember that this is my blog and I can write whatever I like. At least I'm fairly certain there aren't blog content police that are going to come and take me away if my posts don't fill some magically assigned criteria.

I have a personal philosophy that may sound a bit pessimistic, but it works well. This philosophy is "Everyone will let you down eventually." Think about nearly every friendship you've ever lost, every relationship that has ended, really any time someone has hurt you. Chances are, it's because you thought the other person was going to do, say, or react a certain way, and they didn't. It's also possible that suddenly the other person got really mad at you and you didn't understand why, and chances are it was because you did something contrary to THEIR expectations. So when I expect someone to let me down, what results is that when that disconnect between what I expect of them and what really occurs happens, I am now less likely to write that person out of my life forever. "Oh," I think, "I thought our friendship was on this level, but in reality, it's a little lower. That's fine, carry on then." This level of expectation can also apply to our idols and fandoms. When a celebrity you admire lets you down, this is probably a really good thing. We tend to put these people on far higher pedestals than they should be on.

Since I had foolishly walked away from comics for the sake of my high school boyfriend, my main obsession in high school was music. Not playing music, but listening to it. This happens to nearly all of us, of course. Our emotions are running high thanks to the overproduction of hormones, and most music deals with overly emotional issues, so suddenly that singer who seems to be transcribing our thoughts into words for us becomes really, really important. We draw lines in the sand based on the type of music we listen to. For my experience, the people who liked metal were called freaks and the ones who liked popular music (rap was grouped into this at the time) were called preppies. When my friend Melanie died in a car accident, someone at my mostly preppy high school was actually known for saying "Oh well, one less freak in the world!" In my junior year religion class, a group of preppy girls chose for their group topic to prove how movies like Pulp Fiction and The Crow, and music like Slayer and Nine Inch Nails were evil and made you a horrible person. They had to show examples, and the girl who played the music clips was all apologetic "I don't want you guys to think I'm a big freak or something, I got this stuff from my brother." She then went on to explain that the hard to hear lyrics of the song "The Downward Spiral" were "He put the gun to his head, bang, so much blood for such a little boy..."

Of course, at that point I was listening to so much NIN that I knew she wasn't playing the album version of the song, but the remix on Further Down the Spiral. I NEVER spoke in class, yet I blurted out, shaking with anger, "It's HOLE, not BOY. It's about suicide, not killing little children!!" Of course my point that if you're going to bash something you should at least get your facts straight was completely lost on those morons, and I'm sure if they hadn't already labeled me as "one of those weirdos" that event certainly solidified it. I had one other friend in the class who chimed in and tried to help but it was pointless to even try, really. Funny how they didn't pick any gangster rap for their examples, either.

Beyond NIN, my main love was Tool. I discovered them at 17 and was fascinated by them. I found the music far more intricate and complex than any I had heard before, but more than anything else, Maynard James Keenan's voice blew me away. I even remember which song did it first: H. It's a very soft and delicate song that builds to something powerful, and the emotion in his voice struck me, even if I didn't really know what he was singing about at first. From there I went deeper and deeper.. buying all their albums available up to that point, looking at the lyrics online, reading the brilliant FAQ on that touched on the meaning of most of their songs. I was a full blown card carrying member of the cult of Tool. That's actually pretty literal, as somewhere in my house I still have the card that shows I'm a part of Tool Army, their fan club. I loved them so much that in college, I used to try as hard as possible to get other people into them, and I'd get really hurt when people told me they hated them.

The majority of Maynard's lyrics, particularly beginning with Tool's Aenima and also continuing into his work in A Perfect Circle, are all about personal growth and change. For whatever reason, I've found that I learn these sort of lessons better when the advice is put to music, as compared to just a person actually telling me what I should do. As such, Maynard helped me a lot, and in some ways saved my life. Since college was the absolute most turbulent time for me, it makes sense just how personally I used to take the whole thing.

Then 2004 came along. I'm pretty sure Tool Army already existed by that point, and I had been shocked and appalled when Maynard put up a drawing that was little more than a doodle and they put prints of it up for sale for over $100. And people bought it! But the worst came through A Perfect Circle, who were going strong at that point while Tool was on hiatus. I have a strict no discussion of politics policy, so I'm trying my best to not offend anyone here, but we all know how explosive that election was. Suddenly, this man who had been a part of a band who had always stressed "think for yourself" was putting out a remix album that was basically one giant sign of "If you vote for Bush you're serving the devil." I'm not saying they didn't have a right to express their own opinions.. everyone does. It was the constant barrage of emails "promoting the album" I was receiving at the time that kept telling me who I was supposed to vote for that infuriated me. After seeing how many people jumped at the chance to pay large amounts of money for a frickin' doodle, I didn't have any doubt in my mind that they were also going to do as he wished in the voting booth too.

But that wasn't his greatest sin. I expect liberal bias from musicians, along with other celebrities and most of the internet. My main problem was with one of the songs on that remix album, eMotive. Specifically, a cover of the John Lennon song, "Imagine." See, while music was my main obsession in high school, it was not the first time I had fallen in love with music. In 1994 The Beatles Anthology had aired on television, and that cool band my dad had played the records of when I was young became my main obsession. I scoured the library for every book I could find, bought magazines featuring them, got the CDs of their albums; anything and everything I could to learn more about them. I had taped the special off the TV, but I always looked lustfully at the large box set they sold in stores that was told to feature even more footage than was aired. It was too expensive for my budget back then.

Pre-Anthology I had had a bit of a thing for Paul, but post, I was all about John. So very, very much in love with him. His goofy smile, his sharp wit, his passionate vocals and honest lyrics. My love for him was near unconditional and though he wasn't perfect, he had always been so honest about the mistakes he had made, it was easy to forgive. Had I been alive Dec 8, 1980, I would have been devastated. "Imagine" is considered by most to be John's crowning achievement, his message of peace and hope for the world.

I first heard APC's cover of the song thanks to one of those many emails they were sending me on a regular basis. They were urging everyone to watch the video, as it contained footage of the Iraq war that supposedly was not being shown on news stations. I honestly don't remember anything about what was in the video, because I was too busy being horrified by what I heard. Minor chords played on a droning guitar, Maynard singing in his best sad voice, turning this message of peace and love and hope into a funeral dirge. It was horrifying, it was disgusting, it was the exact opposite of everything that John had meant the song to be.

And so, the mighty had fallen. Maynard was no longer this paragon for me to admire and look up to.. he was just another human being that happened to have a nice voice and occasionally wrote some nice lyrics. I didn't stop liking Tool. I loved Lateralus when it came out and at least two of the songs on that album were even more helpful to me personally than some of the others in the past. But this strong burning desire to make everyone else love Tool was suddenly gone from me. So I was able to look at other fans and become ever the more horrified. I have a live recording from one of their shows.. before the song starts, you can hear this girl shout out "You're a god!" and I almost always yell back at her "No, he's not!" unless I have the chance to fast forward through it.

Last week, I watched Blood into Wine. It's a documentary both about the Arizona wine industry and about Maynard himself. If you're like me and know next to nothing about wine, wine making in AZ is a fairly new endeavor, and those involved are not particularly well respected yet in the wine industry as a whole. So the doc is sort of a combination of how these guys are trying to earn respect, and also how everyone knows Maynard as a musician, so are they going to take this whole thing seriously? I personally found most of the wine stuff to be fairly boring. I also think it's disgusting that wine tasters spit the wine back out into the glass. It was seriously starting to make my stomach turn after awhile.

Maynard is a pretty private person in general, so if you're expecting something really in depth here, you're not going to get it. But he does make a few statements throughout that I found interesting, particularly related to making art and how one's art should grow and change along with them. I was also very touched when he talked about his mother and the wine he created as a tribute to her. If you've ever listened to 10,000 Days, then you have an idea of just what he thought of his mother. She spent a good portion of her life completely paralyzed on the right side of her body and yet still had a lot of faith and courage.

It's not a straight documentary as there are interspersed in the film clips from this supposed cable access type show of these two guys generally interviewing and making fun of him for choosing to make wine. It's obviously fake and not a real show. It's a bit over the top at times but I have to admit that the extremely dry humor of it made me laugh. Maynard was a comedian before he was a musician, and he's had some experience with acting as well, so this goes over fairly well. There's also a strange part where the two directors start talking to Maynard about the possibility of turning the doc into a reality series, and they lie to him and tell him the camera is off when it really isn't, as if they're trying to be sneaky and gauge his reaction. He tells them he's not interested.. and then turns to face the camera directly and talks to it while he walks away from them. I didn't really see the point of blurring the line in such a way.

The absolute worst part is in two scenes where they talk to fans who are waiting in line to purchase the wine and get it signed by Maynard and the poor other guy who helps him that no one actually cares about. These people made me sick. First off, the ones that they talked to, you could tell that there was very little chance that any of them actually drank wine normally.. they were only there for the chance to meet him. A couple proudly proclaimed that they had named their kid after him. I don't remember all the things that were said but it was generally a lot more proclamations of godhood and how he's the best thing ever and they were all dying to meet him. It scares me that I was ever even remotely associated with these people. The fact of the matter is, it proves that half the point of the documentary is moot - people don't have to take him seriously as a winemaker, because there are idiots like this who will buy anything he sells them no matter what. He knows this and takes advantage of it frequently.

When he first opened his Puscifer site, he used to sell used targets from the gun range. I'm not even sure he signed them. But he actually admitted that each time they sold out, he would raise the price on them. And people kept buying them. They're not there anymore, so I guess he eventually either had a crisis of conscience or maybe it finally got too expensive for people to stop. If he was giving the money to charity, he never actually said so. He's also got this "velvet slipper club" where people can drink his wine and be in the same room as him at special events. What boggles my mind is why these people even want to. I used to have a transcript of this online chat he did with fans once, and he spent pretty much the whole time mocking them. It's hilarious to read from the outside, but personally I have no interest in meeting a guy who's most likely going to be rude to me in some manner. I'll just enjoy his music from afar, thanks.

I think that whole experience really cured me of being obsessed with celebrities as a whole. The list of celebrities I'd like to meet is actually very small. All of them are people who seem really down to earth by nature and seem to have enough in common with me that if we were stuck in an elevator together, we'd have something to chat about. I always figure most celebrities get their asses kissed on a regular basis so meeting someone just to tell them how awesome you think they are is pretty pointless. I don't know what I'm going to end up doing at Nola Comic Con this year, since it seems like such a huge part of these cons is meeting celebrities. I'm always scared to meet anyone for the first time, be they celebrity, like when I took my picture with Penn Jillette after a Penn & Teller show, or just average every day friends of friends that I'm being introduced to. I suppose the nice thing to be said about the celebrity encounter is that it's over quicker.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Before I begin on my review of this first part of the series, I want to talk a little bit about the series as a whole and why I find it appealing. I was attracted to the stories originally because of the fantasy elements.. basically everything but the people in pointy hats waving wands appealed to me. In Sorcerer's Stone by itself, we get to see trolls, unicorns, dragons, ghosts, goblins, and centaurs beyond the magic users. While some of them don't always make the most sense based on established mythology(goblins are clever? that's a new one) I think J.K. Rowling takes those creatures and weaves them into the story very well. Her characters are also extremely vivid and strong individuals. None of them feel like carbon copies of the other - a certain set of twins excluded of course. You will love some characters and hate others depending on your own similarities and tastes. Beyond that, she's a master at setting up mysteries, both in each single book and over the length of the series as a whole. It's always important to me that stories with mystery or twists hold up on repeated readings/viewings, and you have to poke pretty hard to find them here. If you've been writing off this series for whatever reason (like, say, you used to work in a bookstore and had to work the day one of the books came out) and any of those elements appeal to you, I'd really recommend giving it another try.

Beyond a few minor changes, the book and film of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone are nearly identical. It's a fairly short book and a fairly long movie, which equates to them being able to fit in nearly all the major points in the film adaptation. There are a few changes, but I'll get to them later. This story is nearly all introduction - here's this boy named Harry Potter, here's why he's special, here's the wizarding world he's now a part of, this is what going to wizard's school is like. It's all framed by this object the Sorcerer's Stone, and how Dumbledore, head professor at the school, is trying to prevent it from being stolen and used by the wrong person. This stone is actually the philosopher's stone a legendary alchemical object that has been used by various forms of fiction for a while now. Here, it grants unlimited wealth and eternal life.

This large amount of exposition is really normal for a book, so it doesn't feel the least bit strained and as this is a young adult novel, it's a very easy read. The only chapter I have a hard time with is the Quidditch chapter, because I simply don't care about any sport, imaginary or real. Everything else is told in an imaginative enough fashion to keep you entertained. The movie by comparison can seem to drag a bit. I think a child would be more easily caught up in it as seeing all these things come to life would capture their imagination, but it's possible an adult may start thinking "get on with it!" Of course if you're an adult who enjoys faithful adaptations, you probably won't mind it as much. I also realized while watching the movie again that at the time this movie was made, extra long movies were a bit of a trend. Sitting down to watch a two and a half hour movie (or sometimes even three hours) was pretty normal at that point. Yes folks, 2001 is now far enough in the past that we can recognize it as a past era and not now. It also means that if you sit down to watch this now for the first time, you're going to realize that the CGI is really awful.

When I first got into this series I was reading a forum discussion that I thought was safe, but ended up spoiling a major plot point for one of the books I hadn't gotten to yet. Given the many details and how attached you can get to these characters, I'm going to give a spoiler warning as early as possible, even for as simple a book as this one, to not ruin it for anybody. So, from here on there are spoilers.

A large portion of the changes from the book to screen are simply related to time constraints. A lot of the moments with the Dursleys get cut or smooshed together, but for the most part it works. They kept in Aunt Petunia's speech about Harry's parents, which is just so vile and cruel that I always want to strangle her when I hear it. The Dursleys take over the role of the wicked stepmother from fairy tales, but when set in modern times as this story is, they come off particularly horrifying.

Draco's role is shrunk down a bit, but Tom Felton really manages to embody the nasty little slimeball that Draco is that you still hate him appropriately. Looking back on the series as a whole, I was surprised to see Draco attempt to extend a hand of friendship to Harry. Of course even Voldemort attempts to recruit Harry, so I guess no one was assuming that he was going to end up on the side of the righteous just yet.

The changes result in Hermione becoming even more of a know it all than she already was. I remember when I first started this series, I really didn't like her. I think this was intentional, but I've also heard that Rowling considers herself to be most like Hermione, so it's an interesting choice to make your self insert so annoying from the beginning. Also, since they throw out the potions room at the end, I think her figuring out who Flamel is on her own works out ok. The only part I don't really get is Hermione showing Harry and Ron the trophy. I understand why they did it to move things along, I just can't see Hermione's studies going so far as to memorize every single trophy in the trophy room.

Speaking of their search for Flamel, the wizarding world's complete ignorance of technology is kind of ridiculous to me. They've been recruiting from the muggle world for long enough that there's no reason to not adapt and learn their technology. Most libraries had computer databases by 1997.

The change that really drove me nuts was the Devil's Snare trap. They had already shown Hermione doing her fire spell, so she could easily do it again, they could keep the same rhyme from the book and not have to completely make up a new spell. The leaving out of the potions challenge is also problematic. Hagrid tells the kids that Snape was helping to protect the stone, yet none of those traps/puzzles are particularly characteristic of something Snape would do.

Snape in general is a bit of a divided issue for me. In the books, Snape is a viciously cruel character. He repeatedly shocks you with his biased, unprofessional ways in which he attempts to make Harry's life miserable. He's still a jerk in the movies, but he's also Alan Rickman. With that hair, he's like an older Trent Reznor if he had kept his hair long, not lost his neck, and had an even sexier voice. I think he almost can't help but be at least a little charming, and in my opinion, the Snape of the books is anything but.

Quirrell, as a character, is a little too much the stereotypical villain, and I'll admit that making the wimpiest character actually be the guilty one is slightly expected. However, I think it's executed extremely well, with plenty of red herrings leading you toward Snape and yet just enough clues to prove that it was Quirrell all along.

Since this is my first time going through the whole series again all the way through, I spent a lot of time looking for early clues and any possible inconsistencies this early on.

Set up for future books:
1. I was surprised to see that Sirius, Aunt Marge, and Bathelda Bagshot are all mentioned here. I suppose it's possible she didn't know exactly how she was going to use them in future books, but it's pretty neat if she did know.
2. Hagrid tells Harry he's not allowed to cast spells, meaning she definitely knew how she was going to include him in Chamber of Secrets.

Possible inconsistencies:
1. The only one I could find was the mention that Harry's parents were once head boy and head girl. I can believe this with his mother, but since we find out later how much of a rebellious youth his dad was (and in one case, incredibly cruel) I find it hard to believe he got to be head boy any more than Fred or George would have ever been picked for such an honor.

Characters introduced in this book that I love:
1. Fred and George - As comic relief, I suppose it's natural to love them, but I really really do and even this early on they're given their time to shine. About the only complaint I could have about them is that there really is no way to tell them apart (barring the mean mean things she does to them in Deathly Hallows anyway.)

2. Neville - Is there any character who tugs at your heart strings as strongly as Neville? He starts out so timid and shy here and you can't help but be so proud of him when he gets to be partly responsible for helping win the house cup. Of all the characters I think he's definitely one of the ones who grows and matures the most, and I've definitely been cheering for him from the very first moment.

Chamber of Secrets currently ranks pretty low for me in the series. I'm looking forward to seeing if the revisit will change my mind.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

My journey into role playing...

Last night I got to play D&D for the first time. It's something I've been wanting to do for a long time.. I'd say since high school at least. My brother used to play with one of his friends back in elementary school.. he would go over to his friend's house for a sleepover, and the friend's dad would DM for them. He came home talking about how much fun he had, but I think at the time we were still young enough that I wasn't going to ask to join, because I was too cool to ask to go play with my little brother. I'll also admit that at that point and time I was probably still wanting to be a princess a little more than an elven ranger. My high school boyfriend was really the one who exposed me to the fantasy genre as a whole. Believe it or not, I had never watched Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal until the 90s. The main thing though, was the Drizzt Do'Urden series of novels. He gave me Homeland to read, and I was hooked. The drow world with its evil matriarchal society was just fascinating, and Zaknafein and Drizzt were such compelling characters that I was hooked. I was so inspired I wrote my first short story that I actually finished, set in the Forgotten Realms universe, about a half elf ranger. For something written by a 16 yr old who was writing Mary Sue fan fiction without even knowing what that meant, I think it's actually pretty good. I based a lot of the characters off my friends and I think I did a great job of bringing them to life. Thinking about it now makes me want to clean it up a bit and release it. I was always fascinated about the idea of playing the game, but never had the opportunity.

When I was in high school, Vampire: The Masquerade was the popular thing. That's a live action role playing game, for those not in the know. I went so far as to create a character, and the plan was that I was going to be the minion of one of my more experienced friends until I got the hang of it, but for whatever reason I never actually got to play. The whole thing seemed a bit intimidating to me at the time, mostly because I was still in that phase where I could talk to people on the computer for hours but have trouble saying more than a few words in person. So I got my RPG fix through video and computer games.. I played MajorMUD as a thief and then a ranger, and I spent my solo time playing PC games like Baldur's Gate and console versions like the Final Fantasy series. I avoided games like Everquest and World of Warcraft because I knew how addicted I had gotten to MajorMUD and didn't want to fall into the same trap. Besides, a large part of the fun of playing MM was talking to your friends while scripting, and I didn't know anyone who played either of those games. Scripting, by the way, is where you would run a sort of computer program that would do level grinding for you. It was the MajorMUD version of putting a pair of pliers on your SNES controller at the Lete river in Final Fantasy VI. Yes, I totally just explained an obscure gaming technique with another obscure gaming technique. Give yourself a pat on the back if you are familiar with either and you win a no prize if you already knew about both.

From college on I always seemed to run into people who used to play D&D, but didn't anymore. They would tell stories of the awesome times they had playing, but no one wanted to DM. The idea of being a DM always seemed cool to me, but without knowing anything about how to play, also impossible. Fast forward a bit to this year, when I start hearing about 4.0. A lot of old school players were complaining about the new rules and how they were too simplified, but Wil Wheaton was also talking about how it reminded him of the old days and how it was a great way to introduce his sons and other new players. Of course, this was exactly the kind of thing to make me really interested. So last month I went ahead and ordered a red box. It contains a sort of choose your own adventure story that helps you to build a character and run through a fairly simple encounter. I built a rogue and I died. Oops. That's actually ok though, because the story is built that some altruistic person comes along and rescues you and puts you safely back in an inn all rested up.. so that you can go find other adventurers and band together to get revenge. Based on what I know now, I'm not sure I actually played that first encounter correctly.. the problem with playing solo is that there's no one around to tell you when you're doing it wrong. I also noticed that I was really tempted to cheat that way... I'm the type of person that cheats when I play solitaire because I figure there's no harm done. So I was really tempted to just say "screw what the dice says, I totally killed that goblin." Obviously the fact that I died means I didn't cheat completely.. but I think if I had been more honest with myself I would have died sooner.

Last week my friend Dayna called me and asked if I wanted to play D&D, and I immediately answered yes even though staying up that late during the week means I feel pretty crummy the day afterward. The stars had finally aligned in just the right way that I had the opportunity to play and I wasn't going to miss it. My personal preferences lead me to play rogues and rangers.. I really like the stealth aspect of fighting. The group needed tanks though, so I ended up playing a paladin. I was first going to go with a fighter, but I had to agree that an extra healer in the party could come in handy. The only bad thing about it was that it sort of screwed up my actual role playing ability, and I couldn't find the character. (I feel like Wil Wheaton discussing what he does for acting auditions.) Of course, my nervousness about trying to learn the game and keep up with everyone didn't help that either. The role playing aspect is actually what I wanted to do the most, and I'm disappointed that I wasn't able to really do that appropriately for this game. Of course, after I left, I started to realize that a paladin and a vigilante both have what I like to call "an overdeveloped sense of justice" and if I had just decided to play my character as if she was one of the two main characters in my superhero story, I probably would have been golden. But hey, I may not be as crippling shy as I used to be but I am still an introvert, so it takes me a while to warm up to people and feel comfortable really letting myself go. It looks like we'll be playing more games in the future (though probably not with the same characters) and I'm looking forward to getting to that point where I can really relax and just enjoy the fun completely.

Which isn't to say that I didn't have fun at all last night.. I really did. I got frustrated at a few points.. I'm not scared of math, but it is a lot to learn in terms of knowing what dice to use for what action, what you can do per turn, etc.. I tend to get frustrated when I don't take to things right away (see here if you want to know the psychology behind why) but that's generally when I just have to remind myself to be patient and not give up. I'm sure after a couple more games I'll be more confident. Our DM Bryan, as well as Jak and Kari were all especially good at the role playing aspects of the game so it was really fun to watch them go about it. The few chances I had to do the same were also fun, I just had a hard time deciding who exactly my character was.

The good news is we'll be playing again.. I'm not sure when we'll be starting but it looks like we'll be playing twice a month once we get going, and probably trading up DM duties back and forth (Bryan is just visiting, so he won't be able to take the reins for us). I'm really looking forward to that. I plan to stick with some established stories until I get a good grip on what is expected from these things, and then hopefully start making up my own. The idea of writing a story but also being forced to somewhat improvise on the fly is probably the most appealing aspect of DMing for me.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Scott Pilgrim, the comic book series

Scott Pilgrim vs the World has become my latest favorite movie. Since getting the Blu-ray, I've watched it alone, with the trivia track, and then with the director, screen writer, and comic creator commentary. I've still got the actor commentaries that I plan to go through. On the director/creator track Edgar Wright and Bryan Lee O'Malley discuss differences in the movie versus the books without being too spoilery, and it all left me really wanting to read the books to find out what happened. So I bit the bullet and bought the rest of the volumes.

While the movie relies more heavily on the video game influences, the books are much more heavily manga inspired. First off, they're the approximate size of a manga book. There's even a parody sheet in one of the volumes that tells you how to read the comic "appropriately." (If you've never read manga, Japanese comics start at what we Americans consider the back of the book, and the boxes flow from right to left. It can be quite an adjustment the first time you go to read manga.. and it's even more fun to remind yourself how to read American comics again afterward!) While the character designs are not straight up manga/anime style, there is definitely an obvious, cutesy influence here, with ultra expressive faces and lots of style lines all over the pages to show action. If you've seen the movie you've already seen some of it, as actual artwork from the comic was used to create the animated flashback sequences. The only complaint about the artwork I have is that it can occasionally be difficult to identify some of the characters, particularly when you've got Ramona who loves to change her hairstyle frequently. I think I now understand why a lot of animated TV shows give their characters one set of clothes to wear all the time.

The main difference between the movies and the comics are the two differences you would probably expect: we get more background information, particularly on the supporting cast, and things play out over a longer period of time. If you read my movie review you know I loved the supporting cast more than Scott Pilgrim (and even Ramona), so I was very happy to be able to see a bit more of Knives, Kim, Nat/Envy, and Wallace. Especially Kim. I now love Kim about 50 times more than I already did. There's also at least one character who never appeared in the movie and has a fairly important part to play to the development of Scott and Ramona's relationship. This is also where the long period of time comes in to play. We get a few more twists and turns and their relationship develops and grows in a much more natural way than most fiction allows us to see. It also helps the metaphor of physical fight as way to overcome the past become a bit more clear, as Scott and Ramona talk to each other and their exes in a bit more detail. Ramona also felt much more real here and not quite as distant as she does in the movie.

While there's plenty in these books for all lovers of video games, comics, manga, and music, there were two recurring things that made me feel like the books were made just for me. Scott makes X-men references over and over again. The first time it's explained, when Ramona asks why he's got a patch on his jacket. His answer "Well obviously one of us went to Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, and one of us didn't." I think I literally cheered out loud when I saw that. A couple other times throughout the book, he just starts explaining old X-men storylines to her, and there's no explanation to the audience about what he's talking about... you just have to be a giant X-men geek like me to know it. The other "just for me" reference is all the band related stuff. I'm not in a band but I've been band adjacent for 7 years now, so I know all about what it's like. He especially touched on one thing about small time bands that I've never understood and drives me crazy. Sex Bob-omb stop playing shows and stops practicing. Why? "We're recording." A lot of bands seem to find the act of singing/playing into a microphone so challenging that they must stop all other band related activities when this occurs. It was especially fun in the book when they finally stop recording and they have a whole whopping 17 minutes worth of music to show for it with the added bonus that when they go to play together again they really, really suck.

As you may know, the series wasn't finished when the movie began production. As such the further along the story is, the more they diverge. Bryan Lee O'Malley provided Edgar Wright with lots of notes on where the story was going to go, but they each handle the same material a bit differently. The movie follows the first volume almost exactly, but by the time we get to volume 5, the Katayanagi twins are actually talking and designing robots.. not creating dragons out of sound waves from their keyboard. Both are pretty cool though, so who can complain?

The last volume of the books is largely a tease, constantly flirting with who is Scott going to end up with. The problem with this is that chances are, this bonding he does with each girl is probably going to make you choose which one you want him to be with.. and there's no guarantee it's going to be the one he does end up with. In my case, it wasn't. (Strangely, the movie also has an alternate ending where he ends up with someone else.. and there's a part of me that likes that ending better too.) This didn't make me dislike the ending though as much as it took the wind of out the sails for me. The good thing about this really long wrap up is that we do get to see where just about every character has ended up now, with still a bit of room to grow so you can make up your own "what happens next" if you want to.

I have purposely avoided any major spoilers because I really found these to be an enjoying read. I highly recommend you giving them a shot. If you've read them already, I'd love to know what you think about the differences between the film and books.
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