Quote of the Moment

Maybe you’re just imagining that you have a good imagination.
- from ConceptArt.Org forums

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Tarnished Silver Screen

The other day, I finally got my tail in gear and saw the fifth Harry Potter movie. I've heard less than enthusiastic reports about it - a co-worker actually branded it "bad" - but I figured that I was enough of a lemming to see it on the big screen, even after I'd had my doubts about the franchise after the butchered fourth movie. The effects, if nothing else, ought to be worth the matinee price, I figured. I mean, heck, these people brought us Buckbeak and the (inexplicably wyvernized) Hungarian Horntail, right? How bad could it be?

The answer: fairly bad. Even my sister, who hasn't read the books, could see the hatchet-marks mauling the storyline as the story lurched along. On top of it, and this may be a result of us seeing it after so much wear and tear, about half of the dialog was muddled to the point of incomprehensibility. Having read the final book, I have serious doubts about whether they can pull the franchise out of the fire sufficiently to do it any remote sense of justice; many of the plots and subplots that ultimately played into the last book's finest moments were either rewritten or completely absent. Some of the FX were up to par, but others felt rough. There were parts I liked, oddly enough the ones that put me in mind of Star Wars; the Big Battle at the end between Voldy and Dumbledore reminded me of the battle between Yoda and Palpatine, two undeniably powerful beings duking it out with undeniable power. (Actually, Harry could've saved himself a lot of grief in this movie if he'd ever sat down and watched Luke's adventures. I mean, haring off after a vision of friends in danger just screams "Plot To Capture Hero," you twerp! I didn't think it so much in the books, but the way it played on the big screen had me biting my tongue.) But on the whole I walked out disappointed. I've only actually seen two other movies that I walked out on feeling distinctly disappointed and regretful of my time wasted, that I recall. The first was Flirting With Disaster, a Ben Stiller "comedy" in which only the last 15 minutes elicited anything resembling a chuckle from me. The second was Shadow Of The Vampire, wherein we learned an important lesson: when the audience of the previous showing walks out of the theater in dead, morose silence, get your money back ASAP. (I also remember deeply regretting buying tickets for Scary Movie.) For the most part, I'm pretty easy to amuse. Or maybe I'm just overpicky in what I watch and thus risk disappointment less.

What has me rambling about movies right now, you may ask? A couple other blogs have posted "favorite film" threads, so I got to reminiscing about my own experiences with movies. While hard-pressed to actually name a favorite, for the sake of writing practice and filling space I thought I'd take a swing at it. So much depends on category and mood, though... hmm... Maybe I can do this by category.

Most Outstanding Overall Theatrical Experience: The Lord of the Rings trilogy, hands down. (The DVD extended editions are included here, too.) Peter Jackson did justice to a story that's dangedably hard to do justice to, and without boring me to tears (as, I'll admit, some passages of Tolkien's books came close to doing.) Beautiful FX, costuming, creature design, casting, and soundtrack to boot. (Runner-up: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Not a huge fan of Christian fantasy, especially Message-laden fantasy, but the overall ambience was essentially a LotR-worthy treatment of Narnia, without actually trying to be LotR, with spot-on casting and FX to boot. I'm morbidly curious to see how the makers will pull off the last book - wherein the dark-skinned desert-dwelling Arab stand-ins are revealed to actually have been worshipping an evil god all along, while the white Christianesque Narnians were proven Righteous - without being slaughtered, but overall I look forward to how they handle the rest of the series.)

Movie I Most Wished I'd Seen On The Big Screen But Didn't: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. The preview had me clawing my eyes out at the oversaturated, slightly out-of-focus FX work, but it must've been a trick of the lens, because the DVD was crisp and smooth and absolutely mesmerising.

Best Pick-Me-Up Movie: The Sound of Music. I should find this the dippiest thing in the world, but, dang it, it's beautifully filmed and catchy! (Runners-Up: The Emperor's New Groove and Hoodwinked!, both of which have a wild, zany energy to them that can't fail to have one grinning inside of ten minutes.)

Most Overlooked Film Due To Lousy Advertising: Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. This live-action adaptation, starring Jason Scott Lee as the boy raised by animals in the Indian jungle, was a well thought-out and intriguing action movie, which took certain liberties but was thorougly enjoyable. All the ads, however, linked it to the dreadfully one-dimensional Disney "classic" animated version. (Runner-Up: Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. All the ads I ever saw of it featured a kid with his mouth full relating pointless parts of the movie, as kids are wont to do. Every girl, young or old, who ever had a horse collection should've been glued to the theater seats... as should every boy who liked horses, too, but didn't have the guts to collect them.) (Also-Ran - Lace Placid. This was billed as a horror film, and reviewed by and large as though it were supposed to be a horror film, but was actually a straight-faced parody that's kinda funny.)

Best Sci-Fi Saga: Star Wars, episodes IV-VI (special editions) and III. Yes, I actually liked what Lucas did in the Special Editions of the original trilogy. And I enjoyed Revenge of the Sith. Like it or not, Lucas and his "paint in the corners" style of over-the-top space opera set a standard which hundreds, nay, thousands have tried to reach but none have succeeded.

Best Adaptation of a Lousy Book: Tie: Flight of Dragons and The Iron Giant. FoD was an '80's-era animated movie based on two books: The Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickinson (which I've yet to read), a theoretical look at how a dragonlike creature might possibly exis, and The Dragon and The George, the tale of a man trapped in a dragon's body which gave the movie its character names and it's overall plot guts (in the American version, at least - the original European version was by all accounts a different movie, focusing more on the dragons' lives.) DatG was a dull, boring book with cruddy characters and a lame sequel-setup at the end. The movie, however, is still a nostaligic favorite, and I only wish it would come out on DVD as my VHS copy is dying. (I also want to see the European version, even if it is gorier.) The dragons are also great, and provided the first impetus to my own efforts to draw them.
The Iron Giant, an animated movie completely plowed under at theaters, is a great, nuanced movie about a giant robot who falls to Earth and lands in New England shortly after Sputnik's launch, as paranoia and Cold War mentalities are really heating up. The book it was based on, by Ted Hughes, is so bad that I'd never have seen the movie had I read the story first; thankfully, only the robot and the boy who finds him survived the translation from page to screen.

Favorite Animated Movie: Overall, I'd have to say The Lion King for the balance of great lion animation and excellent soundtrack, but I'm a sucker for animation so many movies vie for the title. I'm also probably alone in the planet in actually liking Brother Bear - it had a good heart in it. I also highly enjoyed Spirited Away, Tarzan, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille. And Shrek 1 & 2.

Funniest Film: Again, this is a toughie, and varies by mood. On the list, however, would have to be: GalaxyQuest (no self-respecting fan can watch this and not laugh themselves into a coma); Clue (the best comic/soundtrack timing of any movie ever); South Park (crude as all get-out, but man, I howled!); Monty Python and the Holy Grail (can't skip the classics...); High Anxiety (Mel Brooks' take on Hitchcock); Murder By Death (hilarious parody of literature's "greatest" detectives solving a murder at an isolated mansion); A Mighty Wind/Best In Show ("mocumentaries" of folk music and dog shows respectively); Batman: The Movie (because the campy '60's series/movie just has too much fun with itself not to laugh along); The Princess Bride (much easier to follow when you read the frellin' book); Spaceship (an obscure and hilarous sci-fi parody that's almost impossible to get hold of now; the alien's song and dance number, featuring the voice of Richard Chamberlain and the lyrics "I Want To Eat Your Face", must be seen to be believed); and others I can't think of or list right now because I have a cat demanding attention. (Almost forgot Airplane, and Airplane II's actually pretty funny.)

Favorite Nostalgia Movie: Labyrinth. It was fun as a kid, and dang it, it's still fun now. I even bought the soundtrack... and not back when I first saw it, just less than a year ago. (Runners-Up: Ladyhawke; Clash of the Titans; Jason and the Argonauts; The Journey of Natty Gann; Journey to the Center of the Earth (the original with Pat Boone, not the cruddy remake); Forbidden Planet (Dad's favorite sci-fi movie, which I've probably seen 20+ times).)

Favorite Nostalgia Movie That Didn't Hold Up: Tie: The Dark Crystal (beautiful visuals and a nice underlying world, but as a kid I didn't realize how dull and obvious the plot was - I hope the in-the-works sequel does better) and The Neverending Story (parts will still make me cry - Artax and the last speech of the lonely Rock-Biter - but overall it lost a lot of its luster as I grew up. And the second movie sucked so bad that I never did, nor do I want to, watch the third.) (Runner-Up: The Aristocats. When I was a young'un, we had "marble movies" at school every so often in the gym, and Disney actually let schools show their movies without throwing an absolute hissyfit. This was how I saw - numerous times - the original Freaky Friday, Condorman, The Boatniks, and The Aristocats - which, being a cat fan and a lover of animation as far back as my feeble memory extends, became my fave of the bunch. Recent animated movies have spoiled me, though, and it just didn't hold up as well when I finally got a chance to see it again on DVD.)

Favorite CGI-Created Creature from the Movies: Tie: Draco the Dragon (from Dragonheart - after him, there's never been an excuse for a two-legged Western dragon aside from sheer laziness) and Buckbeak the Hippogriff (from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.)

Favorite Bad Movie: Planet of the Dinosaurs. Man, I wish MST3K had gotten hold of this one... It has it all: crappy actors, hilariously dumb dialog, the plot that you could almost see making a better movie if it hadn't been so dreadfully botched, and laughable action/FX sequences - though actually, for the time, the dinosaurs themselves aren't that bad... just when they interact with other beings or appear against a background of any kind. It also features the most ineffectual stockade ever constructed in a B-movie.

I'm sure I'm overlooking a lot, but that's all I can come up with for now, and it's a work night so I can't fret overlong about it just now.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Confessions of a Book-Buying Library Page

Today, I did something evil and, some would argue, entirely unnecessary. I paid good hard-earned money for three books. Why is this evil and arguably unnecessary? It's evil because, by all rights, with nothing but a three-day-a-week job at my age I shouldn't be blowing money on anything but food, gas, and the cats. It's arguably unnecessary because I earned the money to pay for those books by working for the local library system. Two, if not all three, of these books are readily available through the library. I know because I've handled them myself at work. And yet, there I was, standing at line in Barnes & Noble with my books in one hand, my B&N Membership 10%-discount card in the other hand, and the coupon I received via e-mail for an extra 15% off one item in the other other hand. (Okay, okay - I had the coupon in the same hand that I had the books in, and I didn't actually take the card out until I reached the counter. Happy, you anatomy nitpickers?)

About a month ago, I was even worse. In one day, between two bookstores, I blew over 70 bucks on books. Okay, so one of them wasn't for me, and in my defense I hadn't been book-buying for some time so I went a bit wild, but still... 70 bucks. And neither bookstore was a Barnes & Noble, so I had no discount card or coupon to blame it on. All of that money came from the coffers of the library, and most of the books purchased (if not all of them) are in storage or circulation as I type.

It's not that I don't have books here to read. At last count, I had... hmm... at a low estimate, 15 books on topics from human anatomy to fantasy eagerly awaiting their turn in my ink stained hands. They're piled on shelves. They're stuffed in boxes. They're stacked on tables. And not a single, solitary one has come from the library. In fact, since the day I hired on, I haven't pulled a single, solitary item to be checked out yet. We can, of course. If there's no hold slip on it, and if the Great Machine hasn't scanned it into its massive memory works, we're allowed to pull most anything to check out. And it's not a poorly-stocked library system, by any means. We're second in the nation for circulation, after all. Nor is it a matter of lack of access. That money could still be in my bank account, and I could still be reading plenty of great, great stories. For some reason, though, when I get to work, and those books are going through my hands, so many books my hands are almost black by break time, I'm not thinking of potential reading material.

I think it may be that I've trained myself not to read in public. I'll read magazines, maybe, or newspaper articles, or in an emergency a road sign or two. But experience has taught me that reading - real reading, the kind where you lose yourself among the words and soar freely through a story - and company do not mix. I get nastily single-minded about reading. The disconnect from reality that others may achieve through alcohol or drugs is what I get from a good story. Try to engage me in conversation while I'm holding a book, and you're liable to get your head torn off. I don't take crash-landings back in my miserable little reality kindly. I see other people at work pausing to read cover blurbs and even a few pages in books, and I wonder how it would go over if I tried to do that... then I have a mental image of me verbally decapitating a co-worker or a boss, and I remember how terribly discouraging and frustrating job hunting is, and I put my mental nose back to the grindstone and start slinging books again. Every so often I've picked out a title and author that sounds intriguing, but always, instead of taking the book itself home, I hit Amazon or B&N.Com for book reviews and maybe a used copy.

There's also a corner of my mind that rebels at being held to another's timetable. I don't want to be forced into a story, nor do I want to be forced into finishing it by a given date. Sure, when I get going I can polish off a novel in a day or a weekend, but speed isn't always the point of reading. Sometimes I'm just not in a mood to rush a book, and sometimes a book's just not want I want to read at the time. Some of the books in my backlog have been gathering dust for a few years, and then someday something clicks in my mind and it finally gets a chance to tell me its story.

Terrible as it seems, one of the chief excuses I have for not taking advantage of library material is my reading backlog. When it drops below double digits, I tell myself, I'll grab a book or DVD off the line. I even vaguely form mental lists of what I'll look for first. Then I go out and buy a few more books, knowing full well it could be weeks or months or maybe a year before I actually read them.

I know it's illogical. I know I ought to be stashing away all this book money for better uses - dental check-ups, eye exams, car repairs, investments, rebuilding my Life Or Death Fund. Yet even though I work for a library, even though I've had more free reading material go through my hands in the past eight or so months than I could possibly count, there's just something about walking out of a bookstore with a bag full of stories that still gets my heart racing. And sad as it is, I know I'll be right back at Barnes & Noble in barely a week's time. The fourth book in Naomi Novik's Temeraire series is due out then - two days after my coupon would've expired - and while I'm sure, the day after, I'll be slinging a box or two full of brand-new library copies of it onto the belt at work, I still can't wait to walk out of the store with my own copy... and, most likely, a few other books for company.