Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Review: Titanic/Avatar

Joss Whedon may be my favorite Storyteller, but James Cameron is my favorite filmmaker. I've seen two of his films: Titanic and Avatar, and both were breathtakingly beautiful. They may not have had the more original stories, or been the most historically accurate or logically sound films, but you don't realize that when you're watching it. When you're watching one of his movie all you think about is what he wants you to think about, all you see is the beauty of his worlds.

There are two reasons why people don't like, or won't watch, Titanic. The first is content issues. The second is the tragedy aspect. We'll deal with the content first. To begin with, it's not as bad as people think it is. My mom, for example, thought that one of the characters was a prostitute, which is not so. The plot, however, revolves around a drawing, and the drawing is of the main character without any clothes on. The drawing is shown several times, and the scene where it's actually made is part of the climax of the film. But, overall, it's cleaner than Firefly.  One girl I talked to said it's not a film for mixed company, and that about sums it up. When I watched it is was with my younger sister, her best friend, and her best friend's grandmother who's house we were staying at.

Now on the other hand, if you're not someone who doesn't like tragedy, you might be very well advised to stay away from this film. I cried. I cried through the entire second half. The story, in a nutshell, is of a young woman named Rose being pressured into marriage with a controlling man by her overbearing widowed mother. Her mother is concerned only with the money she'll get out of the match, allowing her to maintain her place in society, rather than have to face the prospect of working for a living. Rose is dissatisfied with her pointless life of luxery and despairs to the point of being ready to take her own life. She is saved by a witty, penniless young man named Jack who is going to seek his fortune in America. He saves her twice, but his actions put them both into compromising circumstances.

Rose and Jack continue to see each other. He becomes her only friend, and takes her to the lower decks to parties with other passengers of his class. She finds real companionship among the poor, and a meaning to life that she'd never experienced in her own class. He saves, not just her life, but her soul. He teaches her to live, to love, and to give.

Is it sad? Of course it's sad! It's about the Titanic. Everyone dies in the end, and it's long, drawn out, and horribly tragic. I'm told by people who know such things that it's woefully inaccurate historically, and I'll take their word for it. At the same time, though, it shows the reality of what disaster is like, especially when brought about by pride, and how cruel human nature can be.

I've recently heard Titanic accused of feminism. Try as I might I've been unable to figure out how this can be. Feminism is women's desire to take the place of men in society. Titanic is a romance, with no opportunity for that kind of worldview. Rose chooses to take her life into her own hands rather than continue on the path chosen for her, but that's rebellion, not feminism. Her father is dead, and she is unmarried, so she's not even rebelling against a male authority. Rebellion is not always wrong. Choosing to follow Christ when your family forbids it is rebellion also. One might frown upon her reasons for rebellion, but it's not feminism.

Can we get to the good stuff now? I loved this film. To answer the perennial question: if I could choose one film, only one, to study to become a filmmaker, it would be this one. There isn't a single shot, a single light cue, a single line that wasn't carefully thought out and placed to make an impact on the viewers. The cinematography, the acting, everything blended together beautifully. It was amazing. I have never seen anything like it, before or since. I would recommend this movie, in spite of it's content, to anyone who wants to study film. If you object to nudity keep a remote on hand and skip those scenes. There's only two or three, and the rest is sheer beauty.

I saw Avatar twice in theatres, first in 2D with some siblings and then in 3D with my father. The general consensus is that it's better in 2D. If there was an award for worldbuilding this film would win, hands down, in film and in literature. James Cameron blends alien with the familiar just enough to create something both amazingly different, and beautiful. Sure, the story is basically Disney's Pocohantis, and if there was a sequel in would involve nuking Pandora from orbit, but you don't think of those things until later. You don't care, because the entire reason you watched the film was for the scenery.

A lot of time, when authors take it upon themselves to invent a new landscape, it becomes garishly different. Stray too far from the beaten path and all you have is strange, not beautiful. We, of ourselves, are not capable of creating beauty. We can only embellish beauty that already exits. Reading "Out of the Silent Planet" made me positively dizzy when I tried to picture the bizarre landscapes the Lewis described. Watching Avatar was simply breathtaking. Everything was bigger, and everything was blue. He used bio-luminescence liberally, and colored everything in blue and purple. He drew heavily on colors of the night, and messed with the laws of physics as only a true artist can do.

The aliens win a prize all their own. Most aliens tend to look either like Vulcans or Moties; practically human or totally weird. The Na'vi strike a nice balance. They take some getting used to, but we can recognize them as people, rather than animals, and they have their own kind of beauty and grace. And by the time you walk out of the theatre you've decided you want a tail of your own.

Content issues for this film are pretty simple; none of the natives wear any clothes. Well, for practical purposes. It didn't bother me one iota, because the aliens are eight feet tall, blue, striped like a zebra, and have tails. Other people think differently, however, so there's a very simple test. Look up any picture of Neytiri and see if it's something you're comfortable watching for three hours, because that's what she looks like for the whole thing.

Then there's the religion aspect. At first you're kept guessing whether or not it's going to turn into some weird new age/mother earth time piece, but eventually we find out it's actually a form of Whovian Science. It may sound like a religion, but there's actually an explanation: the entire planet is telepathic! Now that is downright cool. (My favorite Doctor Who/Avatar crossover is A Moment of Peace. Whovians will enjoy it, even if they haven't seen Avatar, just 'cause the idea of a telepathic planet is cool!)


Have I not mentioned music yet? Both films were scored by my favorite film composer; James Horner. The music for Titanic carries the plot perfectly, and the love theme is enough to make most people cry regardless of if they've seen the film or not. The entire score speaks poetry and urgency at intervals, never completely letting you forget that this is a tragedy, never letting you forget that this is a romance.

The score for Avatar is simply amazing, in my uneducated opinion. The rhythms are unique, the tones are unique, and let's not talk about the key changes! One reason I was really excited to see this film was because I knew James Horner was scoring it, but then I kept forgetting to listen to the music. (Which is a good thing in film, since the music should not be obtrusive.) When I did, however, I was not disappointed. Listening to the soundtrack makes you feel like you're flying. The theme is one of my favorite songs by him, ever. It's one of the few songs I can identify that actually uses a parallel major, instead of the relative. To put it simply, it's amazing.

In Conclusion
Put James Horner and James Cameron in the same film and you're sure to have a winner.
James Cameron may not have the most incredible or unique stories, but he's talented enough to make you not care. Imagine if James Cameron made Joss Whedon's films... I have never heard anyone quite give Titanic justice, and Avatar seems like one of those often underrated films. Hopefully this review served to give a more balanced view to two of the most influential films in the modern history of filmmaking. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Review: Tron

 Greetings, Programs.

Let's see, where do I start? Tron... I saw Tron:Legacy for the first time on vacation, actually, at a friend's house. I also saw it for the second and third time. The family I was staying with watched it in groups. The parents one night to approve it, the boy the next afternoon because he thought we wouldn't like it, us girls that evening when we insisted we would, and again the next night because the little boys had to go to bed the previous evening. Told from the start it was boring and pointless I and my friends were, of course, determined that it wasn't.

I didn't fall in love with it, to start. I was intrigued, definitely. It wasn't boring, but it was confusing. I theorized that it was heavily based on the original Tron, and that the filmmakers mistake was that the people who'd seen original Tron had forgotten it, and the people watching Tron: Legacy had never seen the original. Ultimately it was the discussion, the confusion and the warnings of boringness that made me really fascinated.

I came home with this otherwise pointless movie on my list to see again after I saw the original. I hunted down the original, and suddenly was converted. Legacy has little to do with the original Tron, although there is tribute after tribute nestled into the cinematography. Somehow, though, I liked both. Tron is old, the graphics are old, and the plot is a little flat. But I loved it. I loved the characters. I loved how noble the character Tron was, I loved how potentially dangerous theology was easily dispensed with.

From left to right: Tron, Ram, and Kevin Flynn
Tron: Legacy did not deserve it's name. Tron isn't even in it. Well, he is but... [spoilers.] I've heard it said that it should have been called Flynn's Legacy, but the how would we have connected it to the original, eh? Anyway, titles aside, Legacy is of interest as a film student, if nothing else. It's as much on the cutting edge of what's possible in film as its predecessor was in its day. The cinematography is startling, as it centers heavily around light. Everything seems made of light and glass, and is blue or orange on black. While this is very unique, it personally gets tiring on your eyes after two hours. A lot of people probably will find Legacy boring. It has a lot of rather long lightcycle chases, and it successfully put my dad to sleep. But the real reason this is one of my favorite movies is the music.

When my friends younger brothers were watching it the next night I originally started out in the kitchen playing go fish. We could just make out some of the sounds from the movie through the wall and on occasion I would life my head and listen thinking "That's really cool music." It's more than cool music, it's brilliant music. It's become one of my favorite soundtracks. You can read more about the music in a review by Aubrey Hansen.

In summary, my favorite character is Tron which makes me very excited for Tron: Uprising next summer.  I think that both movies have equal merits and were brilliantly done. They may not have the most original plot on the block, but they've certainly got a unique premise. And just to prove how much I loved them I made this nice mashup with my favorite (and only) computer game, Myst.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sanctity of Life

As ya'll know, I'm a bit obsessed with Doctor Who. It's influenced me heavily, both as a person and as a writer.

First, let me take a moment to do something very brave, and explain that I am very, very much a pacifist.  I cannot justify any war, any where, or for any cause to myself. I don't usually talk about it; it's my own conviction. So it was unusual for me to start a thread on the subject on my favorite fantasy writing forum.

The Doctor  is not exactly free from innocent blood. He's responsible for the deaths of millions. He kills when he has to. He's committed genocide multiple times. Almost every episode deals with death is some form. And that is exactly what makes the show so powerful; because he grieves over every single life. Bad guy, good guy, friend or enemy, it doesn't matter. Whether it's thousands who perish as a result of him saving the world, or just a single being he grieves over it. He may not see much, but it never goes unnoticed or unmentioned. Everything comes at a price, and the makers of DW make that price abundantly clear to us.

One night Netflix vanished on me, so I settled down to watch another show you've heard me mention, Stargate. I realized my worldview had changed. Whenever they save the world, there's a price. Shoot and run, leaving a trail of dead enemy soldiers behind you. It never occurred to me to question that before; it's not a deep philosophical show about death. But how many books have you read and how many movies have you watched where random people randomly die for random reasons and no one mentions it again?

No one cares. Even when there are regrets, it tends to be an offhand "For what it's worth, I'm sorry I had to kill him." No one grieves. Not even in real life.

Every day across the sea people die. American troops, yes. Innocents caught in the crossfire. The enemy. We pray for our troops, but is that all you can do? What happened to the sanctity of human life? That any option is better then mass slaughter? Every single human life is sacred. Everyone, guilty or not guilty, saved or unsaved, is a miracle. Every death is a tragedy so great it should never be forgotten.

Starting the thread on this subject led to a three page discussion with views from all over the spectrum, and the end result was a five part series I wrote for the Holy Worlds Blog on the subject of the Sanctity of Human Life. I addressed every topic I'd ever pondered about from torture to suicide and back again. I want my own readers to be able to read these as well, so here are the links to the original articles for your browsing pleasure.

Part One: Torture
Part Two: Suicide
Part Three: Sacrifice
Part Four: Killing
Part Five: Conclusion

Review: Firefly/Serenity

(This post is dedicated to Luke Alistar, who figured I'd be a fan once I watched 'Serenity' and figured correctly.)

What did I love about Serenity? Everything. The music, the cinematography, the characters, the plot, the jokes, the tragedy... it is a masterpiece of film, and proof of how amazing good science fiction can be. But let's start at the beginning, shall we?

I've heard a lot about the film Serenity, but every time I sat down to watch it I rediscovered that it was the sequel to a TV series called Firefly. Of course, I'd seen and loved Doctor Horrible, and this was by the same director, but I really didn't have time for an entire show, and I really didn't want to see the movie out of context. One day, however, I decided that Firefly was only one season, I should be able to get through it eventually, and I really wanted to see this movie everyone had been talking about.

Firefly was good. Not my personal definition of brilliant, but good. It is unique as far as scifi goes, and has a definite Western flaire to it. It's got a very lovable cast of characters. I was very dubious of it for the reason that the main character, Captain Malcolm Reynolds, is played by Nathan Fillion, who is Doctor Horrible unlovable nemisis Captain Hammer. I thought "Am I going to be able to take this guy seriously, or am I going to think "Captain Hammer" every time I see his face?" It's a testimony to Nathan's acting ability that the two characters have absolutely nothing in common. There is maybe one or two "Hammer" moments in the entire series. They don't even look the same.

When it came down to it, though, I was still only watching Firefly so that I could see Serenity. And as time went on and I got closer to the end I began to be afraid that Serenity would not live up to all I had been promised. I inadvertently encountered spoilers and I was afraid it would be too gory, and not as beautiful as I had hoped. Thankfully, I was wrong.

Serenity was, in a word, beautiful. Definitely on my list of favorite science fictions. Every bit as good as Firefly and, in some cases, better. My one complaint is that the characterization seems to have gotten messed up, but that's because of the time lag between series and film, I suppose. That brings us back to the beginning:

What did I love about Serenity? The cinematography was some of the best I'd ever seen. The settings were incongrous, and really drew your attention to the story. Realism is one of the major selling points for Firefly, and Serenity carried this to it's maximum potential. Planets of peace and harbour were dusty, dirty, and people worked hard. The planet where death waited behind every door was a shiny, ideal science fiction city. The contrast was brilliantly portrayed, both in story and in film.

The story... the story is about the crew of a space ship who make their living on the fringes of the law. The entire system is under the rule of the overbearing Alliance who think they can control people's individual lives. The Alliance is afraid of rebellion, because their rule was won in a war not long past, and there are still those who resent it. The Captain of Serenity, Malcolm Reynolds, is one such who fought against them. And during the course of the movie he becomes ready to fight again.

River Tam
Malcolm's first mate Zoe fought beside him in the war, and she is married to their pilot, the funny and lovable Wash. Their mechanic is named Kaylee, and she can fix anything. A mercenary, Jayne, fights only for personal gain... most of the time. Simon Tam is a young doctor, a surgeon with a brilliant future, who left it all behind him to rescue his sister, River. River is quite possibly my favorite character. Whatever the Alliance did to her it left her strange, unpredictable, and possibly dangerous, not to mention the most wanted fugitives in the inhabited universe.

In short, I loved it. It was violent, yes, but not gratuitously so. And actually, the movie was cleaner than most of the Firefly episodes. It's a brilliant portrayal of realistic futuristic scifi with some of the most incredible characters I've ever seen. We need more films like this. But then, we need more films by Joss Whedon in general. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

What's Your Wordcount?

The most immediately obvious thing about the month of Nanowrimo is that it's a goal. A very rigid, very tight goal. Write. Write every day, and write a certain number of words a day, or else. As a writer I think Nanowrimo should be every day. If we pushed ourselves as hard the rest of the year as we did during November, imagine what could get done. Imagine the discipline and devotion we would learn. Imagine all the procrastination we could accomplish.

At midnight, on November 29, I hit 50,000 words. I woke up November 30th and wrote another 800, neatly finished my short story series. I spent the rest of the day cheering my friends on as they crossed the finish line, sometimes at the very last moment. Watching them write with my goal achieved gave me a curious feeling of detachment. I was suffering from post-Nano disorientation.

Not to worry, a new goal was approaching! Back in October I promised my friends that come December I would begin editing and revising and otherwise making presentable last years Nano: City of Lies. I woke up December 1st and wanted to do anything but. I got a lot done that day. I made paper snowflakes. I wrote people I hadn't talked to in six months. I worked on music related stuff. I chatted. I read. I typed up an old story. I chatted some more. I opened up all my versions of CoL and looked at them without really reading. But my favorite thing that I did all day was count my words.

No, not my Nano words. All my words. Every word I'd ever written. Ever. From boxes and piles in my room and on my desk I drug out all my notebooks. 42 of them, when all was counted. I had blue notebooks, red notebooks, green notebooks, yellow and black notebooks. I had wide ruled and college ruled. I had notebooks with glittery butterflies on them and psychedelic designs. I had hard cover and spiral bound and some with pages falling out from overuse. I drug them all up into the living room and stacked them on my computer chair. And then I counted.

Top Row: 2006-2007; Second Row: 2008; Third Row: 2009; Fourth Row: 2010-2011
I counted words per line, and line per page, and page per notebook. I stacked them according to the page ruling, and whether or not they had more single sided or double sided pages. I wrote out some complicated equations that looked like this: 140x200x14. Then I got out a calculator and started adding up numbers.

They say that you have to write a million words before you're truly a master of your craft. On multiple occasions I've tried to count up my words, but I always tried to count my novels which are in multiple parts of multiple drafts in multiple folders in multiple location. I always ended up bored, distracted, and out of time. Writing fifty thousand words by hand and having to count them without the aid of an electronic word processor taught me an easier way. I have always written by hand, except for my previous two Nanos, which were easy to add up to a single hundred thousand. I dragged out my notebooks and I counted.

I have, since 2006, written 900,000 words.

Anticlimactic, I know. You wanted to hear me say I'd reached 100,000,000. But who's nitpicking here? That's a lot of words! And it means I'm very close to that mythical million. But most of all, I got to spend about an hour counting them and taking pictures, which means I didn't have to go back to my revision project right away. Procrastination always wins, right?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Pixar vs. Dreamworks

Cars 2 has been met with an interesting reaction from my peers. Many of them were disappointed in it, claiming it didn’t live up to Pixar’s standard of quality. Some even said it “felt like a Dreamworks film.” For Pixar geeks, that’s just about the worst insult you can give.

- Aubrey Hansen
Aubrey Hansen (check out her blog!) is a dear friend of mine, who's been slowly educating me in the world of animated film. Aubrey is a great lover of good stories, beautiful animation, and wholesome morals. I blame Aubrey for the fact that I've been getting Disney Princess films out of the library to watch. But that's another rant for later...

I have been superhero movie hunting as a result of writing superheroes for Nano. I knew there were two animated superhero movies, and I couldn't keep them straight, and neither was ever at the library when I checked: Megamind, and The Incredibles. It wasn't until after I watched Megamind that I realized it was the Dreamworks film, and Incredibles was Pixar. For a few moments I was horrified. What had I done, falling in love with a Dreamworks film?

See, I am not an animation geek. I am not a Pixar geek. The number of animated films on my favorites list is one: The Swan Princess. I like Gulliver's Travels too, but it doesn't really qualify for favorites. Suddenly the number of animated films I loved had doubled. I watched Megamind five times in the week before it had to go back to the library. I eventually got Incredibles too, but after watching all the Behind the Scenes videos I discovered the actual movie was too damaged to play. It was weeks before I had another chance to watch it.

So the final assessment?

The Incredibles

Absolutely brilliant premise. I love seeing Superheroes trying to cope in an every day world. It was very cute, especially having child Superheroes. I bet my siblings would love it. But, it simply cannot compare with


"Incredibly handsome criminal genius, and master of all villainy!"

"Are people born wicked? Or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?"

Megamind is Classic Doctor Who (specifically the Doctor/Master relationship) meets Doctor Horrible (without the tragic aspect). It is brilliantly funny, and a bit sad in places too. Unlike Doctor Horrible, Megamind's enmity with Metroman is their version of a friendship, and he gets a happy ending. But it's the only other movie that has ever made me laugh and cry simultaneously. Who would have thought that an alien with a giant blue head could be so... cute?

A lot of people get confused by Megamind. They're not sure what the message of the story is, or whether Megamind really reformed. The "message" is one of my all time favorites in stories and can be summed up neatly:

"It's never too late to do the right thing."

That's the beautiful thing about Megamind, as a character. He tries so hard in the beginning to do the right thing, and learned from negative feedback it wasn't possible for him to ever be popular that way. The second half of the movie teaches him that's not true. It's never too late to do the right thing, and even villains can be sorry and become heroes.

"Did you want to hear me say it? I'll say it. I am sorry."

This review is a bit lopsided, notice? What can I say? I may not be a Pixar geek or an animation lover, I can't discuss the finer points of filmmaking or give a realistic analysis of Dreamworks, but I am absolutely a die-hard fan of Megamind.