Note: This is #43 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.
To Kill a Mockingbird is based directly on Harper Lee's novel of the same name, so if you've read that book (you have, haven't you?) you should know the plot minus a few minor changes. The film centers on Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), a Southern gentleman working as a lawyer during the Great Depression. Atticus holds strongly to his principles of respect, empathy, and justice and in his orbit are his two children, six-year old daughter Scout and ten year old son Jem, as well as a precocious neighbor boy Dill. When Atticus is assigned to defend a Black man accused of raping a White woman, his principles are put on display as he does his best to defend the man, whom he believes to be innocent but whom many in the town want to lynch without a trial.
Reviewing this movie is kind of hard, since I read and loved the book so much. While the movie stays mostly true to the book, there's a whole lot more substance and subtleties to the latter. The movie chooses to focus more on Atticus and the trial, where the book had Scout Finch as the central character, and gave you an idea of what it was like to grow up in that place and in that time and under the care of that man. The book also had the mystery of the Finches' enigmatic neighbor Boo Radley running through it, which plays a relatively small role in the movie.
Still, this was a great film and even a diminished portion of Harper Lee's work is still a filling one. Gregory Peck did a great job as Atticus Finch, and his courtroom scene where he defends Tom Robinson is second only to the one where he has to inform Tom's wife of the ensuing tragedy. It's good stuff, and you should see it. But read the book first.
Man, week 300? I've been doing this for three hundred weeks? Doesn't seem like it. Sorry I don't have anything special planned. I guess I could dig up some sparklers here somewhere...
Actually not a particularly eventful week all told. One cool thing is that Sam has started to sound out words she sees, so I'm pretty sure she'll be reading on her own soon. For some reason she's also started to show a keen interest in volcanoes, though mostly for their immense destructive power. She regularly tests my knowledge of all things volcanic by quizzing me.
"How do scientists study volcanoes without getting killed?" she asked this morning.
"Well," I said, "They study them a lot when they're not erupting. Or they may leave machines behind that record or transmit observations from erupting ones. Or they could study them from far away, like in an airplane."
"What if they were flying in a plane and the volcano erupted and the lava shot up and killed them all!"
"That would be ...tragic."
"Yeah, that would be awesome."
To divert the conversation a bit more from Sam's misunderstanding of the word "tragic" I brought up YouTube and did a search on "volcanos." This brought up many pleasingly amazing videos, which Sam watched with interest. At one point, though, I had to leave the room for a few minutes to attend to Mandy, and when I came back I found that Sam had apparently clicked through to a series of "related videos" to see more at the end of each clip. And just so you know, YouTube somehow thinks the subjects volcanos, swine flu, Perez Hilton, Sailor Moon, and evil chipmunks are related through some mysterious logic. Consider Sam's horizons expanded.
Mandy continues to push the boundaries of our household rules and common sense, as is listed clearly in her current job description. Her latest thing is climbing, so it's not unusual for me to come into a room and find her halfway up to the ceiling thanks to some ramshackle scaffolding consisting of toy boxes, bouncy balls, and wicker. We are working on this. Hopefully we will not need the assistance of gravity to teach any lessons.
Small Gods is, what the 13th Discworld book by Terry Pratchett? Like Pyramids, it's more of a stand alone book, with only few of the characters appearing in subsequent or previous books. It tells the story of Om, a god who decides to manifest himself physically on the Disk and is surprised to find himself trapped in the form of a lowly tortise due to a lack of followers. There are supposedly people who worship him, but everyone is sort of going along with the rote parts of the religion without really believing in it. And also, there's the matter of the high priest Vorbis, who compels them all to continue out of fear more than faith.
The sole exception to all this is a somewhat dim-witted Novice named Brutha, who is apparently the last person who genuinely believes in Om and who thus is the only one who can hear the highly frustrated god-cum-tortise when he shows up at the monestary. Brutha is also gifted with a perfect memory, so when Vorbis enlists his help in a holy war on a neighboring country disguised as diplomacy, Om goes along because he has no other choice and has to fight for his own right to exist as a god.
Like with a lot of the other Discworld books, there's some great social satire going on here. The obvious targtets are organized religion and zealots, but Pratchett also enjoys poking fun at the philosophers who serve as a stand in for secular science and who aren't much better than the institutionalized religion they oppose. It's basically more of Pratchett taking modern themes to their extreme and using his fantastical setting to present them in an absurd light. Any attempt, for example, to tell this kind of story using the context of Christianity and Christ's coming back as a bleating lamb instead of a tortise would have been seen as sensational and not nearly as widely applicable to other religions or institutions. Pratchett manages to make it both funny and thoughtful without that.
Note: This is #42 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.
Well. That was also epic. Actually, for film with such a large feel and a 227 minute running time, Lawrence of Arabia is fairly easy to summarize. It follows the life of British Army officer T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) as he rides back and forth over the deserts of Arabia during the early parts of World War I. Lawrence, initially seen as a bumbler and an overeducated fancy pants, is tapped to make an expedition to meet with some local Arabian tribal leaders and convince them to aid Britain in its fight against the Turks. Lawrence does so and as a result undergoes a transformation as a person --for good in some ways and for ill in others. That's pretty much the story.
There's a lot more to appreciate in the details, of course, but while Lawrence of Arabia does tell an interesting personal story about its title character (based on a real person, even), what I kept really appreciating about the film was how it was made. It feels huge, mostly because its makers seemed to go out of their way to get wide, sprawling shots that showed characters set against the forces of nature --particularly deserts. There's one scene where after making a near-suicidal trek across a desert with a band of Arabians Lawrence turns back just miles from water to retrieve a fallen comrade. His servant waits for him, and it's amazing to see a film maker have the guts to pace the scene so that we are staring at a huge, bleak sandscape for minutes on end, seeing Lawrence's returning figure grow from a barely visible speck to a full man (well, two men and a camel). This is the kind of pacing that permeates the whole movie, making growth not just a figurative payoff, but a literal and visual one. I don't think you'd see kind of thing in today's mainstream movies.
It should also be mentioned that Peter O'Toole did a pretty darn good job as Lawrence. He doesn't play the character as a straight-up, larger than life hero, nor does he play him as just a simple man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Instead, the performance balances on the small space in between those two positions, with Lawrence as competent and smart (particularly in how he understands the levers necessary to move the Arab people into action), but also awash in events that are larger than him. Even by the end of the movie, I wasn't ever really sure I had a bead on his character; some things about him were still private and unknown, no matter what we had seen.
So, good movie if you've got about 4 hours to devote to it. Bring something cool to drink.
Mandy has gone through a couple of big milestones in the last few weeks. She's 100% out of diapers (woo! it's like getting a pay raise!) AND we've moved her to the big girl bed. And by "moved her to the big girl bed" I mean "took the gate off her crib and put it in the basement." She did really well, and we've only been woken once by a muffled "thump!" followed by cried of "I fell out of the bed!"
It didn't take any time at all, though, for Mandy to realize that with the crib gate gone, she could simply swing her legs out and exit the bed any time she wished. It took her another couple of nights after this to realize that if she avoided us, she stay up to prowl the house longer. You can guess where this led. One night when Geralyn was out with some friends I had put Mandy down and retired to the basement to watch TV. When Ger came home late that night she found Mandy asleep in her little pink arm chair after trying to waiting up for mommy to come home. Sweet, right? The next night I got wise and came upstairs to investigate strange sounds, only to find Mandy sitting at the kitchen table with a cookie in one hand and a soggy clump of orange snack crackers in the other. She looked up at me in surprise, paused for a second to think, then said through a mouth full of Cheese-its, "I just wanted a hug from you, daddy." We even have a little latch high up on the pantry door, but she had pulled a chair over and ascended to the necessary heights to unhinge it and procure her snack. Are two year olds supposed to do this kind of thing?
You may also notice some pictures of the kids playing in the leaves. These are real leaves, imported at great personal expense from my front yard. The funniest thing was actually afterwards when Sam put one of those tall paper lawn bags over her head and started running into things while shouting "I'm a ghost! I'm a blind ghost!" Alas, I didn't have my camera handy. Sam continues to like going to kindergarten, and apparently she's got a few areas that she's excelling in. The other day we got a message from the school informing us that Sam had displayed high level understanding of a story, including its message, themes, and morals. This was pretty cool, because I'm pretty sure the only phone calls my parents got from my schools were the ones saying that they had just beaten me with a plastic paddle for not doing my math homework. True story!
This biographical graphic novel by artist/writer Art Speigelman is essentially a story about the Jewish Holocaust, but with the curious twist that Speigelman draws all the characters as different kinds of animals according (loosely) to their race. Jews are mice, Germans are cats, Poles are pigs, and Americans for some reason are dogs. So right off the bat (so to speak; there are no bats in the story) the book kind of captures your attention, even if the author never really goes far with the idea as a literary device.
Instead, the value of the book is with the story, which flips between modern day scenes where Speigelman visits his elderly father Vladek in order to interview him about the Holocaust, and flashbacks showing what Vladek describes. Almost as much time in the latter is given to describe the buildup of the travesties so that we get to see the gradual decline of Vladek's wealthy Polish Jewish family and its ensnarement in the Nazi machine.
Interestingly, I actually got more enjoyment out of the parts of the book showing the interactions between modern Vladek and his aspiring biographer of a son, which included lots of little dramas, challenges, and caricatures. It was neat to see how the elderly Vladek honestly wasn't that likable a fellow --he's miserly, manipulative, controlling, and unfair to his son-- and how that contrasted with the heroic, loyal, loving, and resourceful Vladek from the flashback scenes. The interesting (some might say "artistic") thing is that even though these discrepancies exist, you can still see how it's the same character and how the hardships of the earlier times acted to define the man we see in his elder years, both for good and bad. Art Speigelman himself also makes for an interesting character study, as he's not without his own issues.
About the only major complaint I have about the book is that the way Speigelman draws the characters doesn't allow him to do much to differentiate between them much. There were many scenes where I lost track of who was who because the panels just showed a bunch of identical looking animals. But otherwise the book's stark black and white art style works given the bleak subject matter.
Sometimes it's hard to recommend a Holocaust book --it's not the most cheerful of subjects and yet has been extensively covered in other works. But Maus works pretty well for how it blends modern and past characters as well as its inclusion of a wider time frame. Check it out.
Note: This is #41 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.
A while back I decided to better myself by not using epithets like "super gay" to describe things. I mention this only because it makes describing my first impression of West Side Story kind of difficult.
This is a movie that starts with New York City tough guys snapping their fingers jauntily and trying to dance in an intimidating fashion. DANCE in an INTIMIDATING FASHION. Things culminate into a major dance fight between the two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks --the latter of which are a gang of recently immigrated Puerto Ricans. I know it's a musical, but the whole effect is so risible that I just about busted a gut. Just watch the trailer below.
From there, the movie dances and sings its way to a retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story, complete with the balcony scene and the tragic ending. I had a few issues with the story, such as the drastic way that the two leads, Tony and Maria (Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood) fall head over heels in love. But okay, again this is a musical based on a stage play --Romeo and Juliet, even-- and I can grudgingly accept some shortcuts where character development is replaced by a song and soft lighting. And the songs by and large are pretty good. As has been the case with other musicals I've watched as part of this project, I found myself recognizing many of them even if I didn't know they originated with this movie.
But another complaint I have is with the slingshotting tone of the film. There's the whole dance fighting thing I mentioned before, plus there are light-hearted "Officer Krupke" songs that contrast pretty starkly with more somber themes such as race relations, bigotry, and disillusionment with the American dream. And then there's the whole murder thing and an attempted rape thrown in for good measure. It's like we're watching Archie and Jughead prance around one minute, then seeing them hurling racial slurs and trying to stab each other the next.
Again I guess they're being true to Shakespeare by throwing in some comedy with the tragedy, but it was still hard for me to get a bead on the movie. West Side Story is okay, but there have been movies where I liked the dancing better (Swing Time) and ones where I liked the songs better (Singin' in the Rain).
Human psychology is a weird thing. Under strange and sometimes contrived circumstances it can lead us to do bizarre things like paying $50 for a $20 bill or lose all our fortunes on an obviously lost cause. It can also cause us to take our children out in the freezing rain to Silver Dollar City and demand that BY GOD they’re going to RIDE THE LADY BUG RIDE and they’re going to LOVE IT and they’re going to STOP THEIR COMPLAINING.
But jesting aside, we actually had an overdue and very enjoyable family vacation this last week. We packed up the kids, the car, and Geralyn’s dad then headed to Branson, Missouri. If you’ve never been to Branson, imagine the trademark Las Vegas glitz, but stripped of its sinful indulgences and infused with equal parts wholesome family values and washed up country music stars. We rented a condo for a few days and hit the strip, and the girls LOVED it despite the aforementioned day or two of cold and wet weather.
Among the highlights was Silver Dollar City, where you can stand around watching a one-armed old man blowing glass and whittling a rocking chair –at the same time. There were also rides, which were much more enjoyable on our second, rain free day.
Later that same night we also went to go see a stage show about Noah’s Ark, which was at the grandly named “Sights and Sound Theater” which seems a lot less grandly named once you realize that people have been doing “sights and sound theater” for a few thousand years now. Both Sam and Mandy were entranced by the production, though, and really liked it. Sam in particular has become obsessed with drawing arks, and I’m afraid to serve her any mashed potatoes lest she decide to make an impromptu sculpture.
We also rode in an amphibious vehicle that had seen service in World War II, and let me tell you that when the driver of a vehicle that is currently rolling on solid ground guns it and heads straight for a body of water, your brain kind of freaks out. Once out on the lake, though, the guide invited us all up to drive the car/boat for a bit. Sam had to be coaxed into doing it, but Mandy readily jumped into the driver’s seat and started giggling and yanking on the wheel like she was trying to do donuts.
So, it was a great time and I’m really glad I had the chance to enjoy it.
Spider: The Mystery of Bryce Manor was really my introduction to an iPod Touch game that had substantial production values and a price tag where the decimal point was somewhere besides the far left. It's fantastic, really.
The concept can be summed up as "You play a spider and you climb around an old manor spinning webs and catching bugs." Sounds simple --and it is-- but the appeal of the game is twofold. First, the controls feel really great and to me play to the iPhone's strengths in a magnificent way. Just hold down on the screen and the spider will crawl towards your finger. If you want him to jump, just swipe your finger across the screen. Want to spin a web? Tap on Mr. Spider to make him pinch out a bit of silk, then jump. He'll leap across the screen, leaving a line of silk behind him that sticks to whatever surface he lands upon. Repeat to make a simple geometric shape and you've got a web that you can crawl around on and use to capture bugs. As you progress through the game these critters get more cagey and luring them into your web or otherwise capturing them gets trickier, but you have to catch a minimum number of bugs before moving on to the next room in the manor.
The second thing I really liked about Spider is the overall presentation. The backgrounds of Bryce Manor have a very hand painted look about them, almost like watercolors or ink wash. It's nice to look at and very well done. The Spider's movements and bug animations also look great despite their simplicity. Perhaps most interestingly, while the game is presented mostly with a spider's sensibilities (i.e., everything is big and the backgrounds are slightly out of focus with a narrow depth of field), the attentive human player will begin to notice details present in each level that suggest a story about the family who used to live in this run down mansion and what their fates were. It's not essential to find all the secret areas and piece together the clues, but it's a cool, low key narrative that's a nice added bonus.
So, great game and perfect for the iPhone/iPod Touch.
The full title of this book is The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science and in it author Norman Doidage examines the concept of "brain plasticity." Essentially this has to do with the ability of the human brain (and the mouse brain and the chimp brain, for that matter) to change in response to trauma, disease, or some graduate student with a bone saw and a fist full of electrodes.
One of the early examples in the book deals with a woman who suffered damage to the part of her brain that deals with balance, leaving her with the sensation of perpetual free fall any time she rose to anything above a completely horizontal position. But by controlling a machine with a sensor attached to her tongue of all things, she was able to remap her brain so that a different part took over the balancing gig and she could once again stand up and walk a straight line.
Like other good science writings, The Brain that Changes Itself is filled with personal stories like this one, and they cover some pretty varied ground. One part of the book deals with blind people who learn to "see" by having a computer translate images into physical pressure on different parts of their otherwise vestigial eyeballs. Another looks at what effect (besides the obvious one) hard core pornography has on the brain. Yet really graphic and cringe-inducing section deals with sado masochism and its origins in the dark side of neuroplasticity. And my favorite section dealt with a group chimps, some scientists that were deliberately causing them brain damage, the birth of PETA, and the protracted destruction of a gifted neuroscientist's career. It's all pretty compelling and really, really interesting since it's tied directly into lessons on how the brain works.
My only complaint about the book is that Doidage goes off in some pretty weird directions, such as his condemnation of porn --not that I disagree with the condemnation, it's just that his arguments come from a pretty odd direction. And about three quarters of the way through he switches gears a bit into a staunch defendant of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis in general. This wouldn't be so bad (it's still educational), except that the case study he employs in this section laughably ticks off every item on the list of psychoanalysis cliches --emotionally distant man whom the psychoanalyst asks to "tell me about your mother" and who uncovers buried memories until he's curled up in the fetal position on the couch and bawling like a child. It was just a wee bit over the top.
Still, those parts aside I liked this book. It's brain science made fun and interesting.
Note: This is #40in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.
Man, watching Ben-Hur and Spartacus in rapid succession is kind of grueling. The two movies require 410 minutes between them to see, and they both deal with ancient Rome and some beefy, lantern-jawed dude who escapes slavery. In the case of Spartacus, the eponymous dude in question is played by Charlton Heston and the story is good enough and compelling enough to keep my attention.
The film opens with Spartacus, a slave in the Roman empire, condemned to die for being too unruly and rebellious. He's "rescued" by another slaver who decides to train him to fight as a gladiator, but Spartacus eventually grimaces his way out of his chains and sparks a slave rebellion that sweeps through Italy towards the southern coast where the slaves hope to purchase passage to freedom.
Like Ben-Hur, this movie feels really epic even though the events only span a few years and focus on a few locations. Heston chews his fair share of scenery, but he certainly does emote "definat slave who won't be pushed around" pretty well. And like with that other movie the designers of the sets and costumes did a fantastic job, as I really got a strong sense of place and time from this movie. And for anyone that just wants to be entertained, there's some great action scenes and adventure elements to the movie as well. Anyone who isn't interested in seeing Spartacus being trained as a gladiator and fighting for his life for the entertainment of pompous Roman nobles just probably doesn't want to be entertained.
So, again Spartacus is really long and not to be entered into if you're not ready for it (it's got an intermission, for crying out loud), but I found it to be one of the most entertaining movies I've come across on this experiment.
When I recently decided to change jobs I thought it would be nice to take a couple of weeks off to be unemployed and have a "staycation" where I sit around the house eating cheese puffs and watching television. I ran out of cheese puffs after the first day, though, and daytime TV is simply terrible so I ended up spending a lot of time with my kids instead.
At first the girls were repeatedly confused about my persisting presence at home, though they did saying "Have a nice day at work!" despite the fact that I was lounging around in a tee shirt and pajama pants at 10:00 in the morning. Perhaps they were trying to drop me some hints. Regardless, we eventually went out and did stuff, like going for a nature walk. I had picked out what I had taken for a hiking trail that I used to drive past every day on my way to work. It looked all nature-like and had always wondered where it went, so I thought it would be something fun to do instead of just depositing the girls in yet another a park playground. So we set off down the trail, which went around exactly one bend before cleverly terminating in yet another park playground.
While there, though, the girls did make some new friends with some kids whose moms had brought them. I guess this is a common activity at 1:00 in the afternoon on a weekday. I was chatting with these moms when I overheard Sam informing one of the other kids that "My dad brought me. He's unemployed." This earned me some sympathetic looks from the two moms, one of which commented that "Well, at least you're getting to spend time with your kids." Indeed.
Later in the week we all went ot a pumpkin patch, in which pumpkins played a surprisingly minor role. Mostly it was yet another playground, though this one at least had a corn stalk maze. Next week is something special and fun, though.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac is often cites as one of the best English language novels ever, but my experience with it suggests that to get that level of appreciation out of it you really need to have lived through the beatnick era to which it's supposed to be a touchstone. I found it horribly grueling.
The book ostensibly tells the story of insouciant traveller Sal Paradise (essentially a stand-in for Kerouac), who criss-crosses North America in the late 1940s. Along the way he meets and travels with a lot of different characters, most notably the hyperactive and womanizing Dean Moriarty. Sal and his companions are just half a step up from being vagabonds as they rely on a combination of cars, hitchiking, odd jobs, and panhandling to make their way west from New York. Zany things happen and it's all very slice of life for a very unorthodox life.
The novel is largely plotless, and I guess it's best appreciated as a series of interconnected vignettes about American life during the period. We get to see a lot of different people of the type that at the time of publication probably weren't discussed much in American literature or culture at large. It's all very flavorful and in a way reminded me of Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat --just a bunch of guys who loaf around, drink, and convince themselves that loafing and drinking are the most noble of pursuits.
This is fine and all, but it just didn't work for me. Ironically I grew restless and bored with all the shenanigans and all the traveling around and the endless parade of characters that don't seem to matter at all in any kind of narrative or personal sense. It's colorful, but sprawling and formless. I guess that's largely the point of the book, but that doesn't mean that I'm going to love it.
The case (har har) of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is an interesting one. It's the first entry in what has become a long running series for the Nintendo DS (though the original game was actually on the Game Boy Advance in Japan) and even created a couple of spin offs. Calling it a "game" doesn't quite describe it fully; I'd probably go with something closer to "interactive fiction" because anything where 98% of the gameplay is tapping anywhere on the screen to progress endless dialog boxes doesn't seem like a game to me.
The gist is that you play as fresh faced attorney Phoenix Wright who inherits a struggling law firm and an overly enthusiastic assistant. Phoenix tries to make due sticking up for (presumably) innocent defendants in murder cases. Each chapter in the game involves a court case and alternates between two modes of play: investigations and courtroom testimony. In the investigation bits you move around to different locations and research your case by hunting around the screen for the "hot" pixels and tapping on them to bring up sub menus with labels like "Talk" or "Examine" or "Present." Phoenix and his plucky assistant Maya can converse with other wonky characters and present to them items and data in your inventory. In the courtroom investigation bits, you have to listen to (well, read) witnesses' testimonies and then cross examine them by either presenting evidence or choosing from different dialog options to reveal inconsistencies in their stories that will eventually prove the innocence of your client.
As a game, I think Phoenix Wright fails pretty miserably. There's WAY too much mindless tapping and pixel hunting, and the single solution nature to all of the puzzles limits the fun factor pretty much. What's even more annoying are the times when you KNOW you see an inconsistency or want to investigate a certain fact, but the game's rigid structure prevents you from doing it until you can find the right branch on the dialog tree. Alternatively, I was occasionally baffled by stuff I personally hadn't pieced together, but the game's script called for Phoenix to suddenly and miraculously comprehend. On top of it all, moving between locations in the investigation phases is stupid clumsy and painfully slow. I should just be able to bring up a city map and go directly to wherever I want, but the game insisted on making me do yet more repetitive tapping and loading.
That all said, though, I have to admit that when taken more as a piece of interactive fiction, Phoenix Wright does a lot better thanks to its own weird brand of charm. It's definitely got a strong Japanese flavor to it, what with all the overly cute characters, weird puns, and emotional slingshotting that takes place on the witness stand, but it really worked for me. It's endearing. I just wish I could watch someone play it rather than have to play it.