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Archive for July 2007

As if it Matters how a Man Falls Down – Thoughts on “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”

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(Ed note: if you’re looking for the “As if it matters” quote, see here.)

As Harry Potter comes of age at 17, the magical protection under which he has lived at the oppressive Dursley household since arriving on their doorstep at the age of one threatens to lift.  Therefore, the Order of the Phoenix attempts to remove Harry to a safe location.  Just as they lift off, a throng of angry Death Eaters circle above, ready to pounce.  Thus begins the tumultuous final volume in the epic of The Boy Who Lived.

The conclusion of the Half-Blood Prince left Harry with the quest to seek and eliminate the remaining portions of Voldemort’s soul—those last anchors that keep the Dark Lord tethered to life.  Of the six believed created, we know two have been destroyed.   Therefore, Harry sets out to vanquish his foe forever, culminating in a final battle that threatens to leave Harry’s world in ruin.

As J.K. Rowling has touched upon various themes throughout the fifteen years she has spent writing about Harry, death and immortality, sacrifice and love have become the touchstones of his journey.  In this volume, the theme brings the narrative to its final act, resulting in a full, complete, and satisfying saga, even if we are left with some minor plot threads hanging, noticeable to only to those most ardent and committed readers.

Her narrative, while brilliant in concept, still falters somewhat in the quality of her prose.  The read suffers from an excess of adverbs, and the frequent use of an out of place colon.  But this is Jo Rowling.  She can misplace an umlaut for all I care.  The beauty of this novel lies in its content, and here at the end, her characters, always delightfully rounded, face life and death with surprising results.

The subject of how we face death has weaved its way into creative works since Eden.  One of my favorite examples (supposedly) comes from a scene in The Lion in Winter in which two men face execution.  One says to the other, “You fool!  As if it matters how a man falls down.”  To which his companion replies: “When the fall’s all that’s left, it matters a great deal.”

Watching a person (or persons) battle against the insurmountable remains one of the more stirring facets of great storytelling.  The charge of the Rorhirrim in The Return of the King, for instance, would never have read as dynamic if Théoden and his men were not outnumbered thirty-to-one, knowingly marching straight into death.

In his trials, Harry has learned how to fall well.  While many heroes prefer to battle by skill and wit, his courage and strength grow from his love for his friends, and his willingness to lay down his life for them.  Some of the greatest moments in this story come not in when characters meet their ends, but in how.

As Rowling writes it, Harry possesses power the Dark Lord knows not.  Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends, said Jesus Christ.  Rowling even found a way to insert more of His words into her story, as well as St. Paul’s.  (If you don’t already know, read the epitaphs on the grave stones at Godric’s Hollow)  John Granger posits that Rowling’s tales of the boy wizard resonates so well with so many because it evokes the Great Story.  Rowling used to skirt around questions about her faith, telling those who asked to let her finish the story, that we’d have our answer then.  As you turn the final page, the message rings loud and clear.  I don’t want to spoil it for you, because Jo was right.  If you knew just what she believed, you really could guess the ending.

The narrow and caustic perspective of those in the church intent on branding this series as a tool for Wiccan practice and recruitment have missed an extraordinary opportunity to share in the joys of epic storytelling; have missed the chance to share the Great Story with young readers.  The story of a heavenly creature that sought power over all, and the One who took the curse of death in our place, so that we might not have to endure it ourselves.

Written by taj

July 31, 2007 at 10:26 am

Smash Cut – The Simpsons Movie

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I was eight when The Simpsons first appeared on Fox.  My mother would not let me watch it, but that didn’t stop me from sneaking a viewing here and there.  (Hi, Mom)  As I got older I started appreciating the humor—a more satire laden comedy than anything meant to undermine parents—and when word of the movie came out, a friend of mine asked me if I’d go with him to an opening night showing.  Of course, I said yes. 

This movie is as irreverent as any thoughtful parent might fear.  It’s PG-13 for a reason, you know, but that did not stop a gaggle of parents I saw from dragging their nine-year-olds into the theater. 

Everything we’ve come to expect from The Simpsons makes its way onto the film.  The movie is quick to criticize anything, even the audience.  Yes, there is a certain level of fanaticism involved in paying eight bucks to sit and watch something at the theater that I would ordinarily be able to watch at home for free.  If that makes me a sucker, then a sucker I shall be.

If you take this kind of thing too seriously, it would be easy to walk out of the film feeling like someone just spent an hour insulting your mother.  The government is portrayed as evil and inept; religion is still the bane of Homer Simpson’s existence.  In the midst of crisis, he frantically flips through the pages of scripture declaring, “This book doesn’t have any answers!” 

This would no doubt strike a nerve with any Christian in the audience if Homer was portrayed as the hero.  Homer, however, displays anything but heroics.  The one counterpoint, of course, is Ned Flanders, the okely-dokely, humbly religious next door neighbor.  And although believers might see Flanders as a prime example of over-simplistic Christianity, a closer look at the character reveals two important details: Flanders is always Homer’s foil, and he always wins.  The film continues this paradigm.  Even when opportunities for scorn and self-righteousness present itself, Flanders never folds; his steady faith and character consistently move him to do the right thing. 

Homer is, in every measure, the anti-father, and the hyper-dysfunctions of his family serve to highlight our own.  That’s why I laugh, at least.  I can understand the concerns parents have about this kind of comedy, and if so many parents weren’t taking their children to see this kind of movie, I might be more willing to jump off that cliff.  As it is, I am more content to just sit back and enjoy it. 

Written by taj

July 30, 2007 at 12:04 pm

Moxy Thricken

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In the lane after dark
You can make a merry spark
When you take your lover’s hand and kiss her cheek

But beware you are not stricken
By the beast called Moxy Thricken
For he’ll steal your charm and cause your breath to reek.  

Written by taj

July 30, 2007 at 9:27 am

Posted in Poems

Express yourself, little man

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My wife and I spent some time at a place in town that sells teacher supplies this morning.  Among some of the more varied items she picked up was a little rubber hand with a pointing finger attached to the end of a stick.  I told her I thought it looked like something you use to pick a person’s nose.  You know, like those things you buy at the dollar store that are supposed to scratch your back. 

Anyway, as we wandered the aisles, our little man became fussy.  He was previously fed and changed, and likely just wanted to be held.  And that’s OK.  I took him and walked him around the store as he squalled, and drew lots of polite little smiles from the other women in the store. 

If you want a sure way to strip yourself of your insecurities, walk around a crowded store with a crying baby over your shoulder.  It forces you to confront all kinds of internal self-talk—what are these people thinking?—and the like.  Pretty soon, you just stop caring.  This is my baby and he’s having a fit.  He needs to let the world know how he feels.  He will find more constructive ways of expressing himself when he gets older, but for now, this is all he knows.  Get over it. 

It’s tremendously freeing. 

We’re at my wife’s classroom, getting it ready for the coming school year just four weeks away.  Little man is letting me know he is tired of lying on the blanket and would like someone to come and pick him up.  If I find out what that little finger pointer actually is, I’ll let you know.  For now, I am content to believe it is something teachers use to poke little second graders in the nose when they misbehave.

Written by taj

July 30, 2007 at 7:50 am

Posted in Baby News

Looks like you’re going to get more than you bargained for…

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Okay.  I know I’ve ragged on this movie, at least once on the blog, and many times elsewhere. 

But, man, after reading this…I am starting to have hope.  Not a lot, mind you.  But some.  Because Spielberg, Lucas, et al have finally done something right with Indiana Jones.  They have brought back his first, and best, damn partner…

Marion Ravenwood.  (I still say Karen Allen would have made a better Lois Lane)

Read more here. 

Written by taj

July 26, 2007 at 10:28 pm

Posted in Movies

Smash Cut – Harry Potter and the Order of Reader’s Digest…er, the Phoenix

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I am little behind the curve, but c’est la vie.  Watching this movie felt like watching the book in fast forward with every single subplot removed.  What is left, therefore, is a hodgepodge of a movie that disobeys one of the rules of a sequel that, when ignored, often spells peril.  Sequels ought not to be dependent on their predecessor(s). 

Granted, this little principle is difficult to maintain, especially when you’re trying to adapt book five of seven.  In this case, an 870 page book five, whittled down to about 138 minutes. 

Let’s take those numbers into account for just a moment.  My one-volume copy of The Lord of the Rings runs 1,008 pages, and that doesn’t include the appendices (if it did, we’re talking, 1,112).  The extended editions of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of the trilogy clocks in at just a hair under 11 hours.  Do the math, and we’re looking at roughly 92 pages squeezed into every hour of film.  That is a monstrous challenge in adaptation, but Jackson makes it work, and he has three Oscars to show for it.  Now, run the same math on Order of the Phoenix—that’s 387 pages, give or take, for every hour.  That’s not just begging for trouble, that’s inviting trouble in for tea and biscuits.

The previous four films, while there is plenty over which to quibble, at least catch the broad strokes of their literary counterparts.  This film is a fuzzy snap shot.  It nails, perhaps two things—Harry’s anger and internal rage, and the villainous Professor Umbridge.  Everything else is, as Janet Batchler put it, a mere trailer for what is the epic scope of the Order of the Phoenix

While I am pleased to know that the three leads have signed contracts ensuring their presence in the final two films, I am beginning to wonder if the degradation of quality everyone expected much earlier has finally eaten its way into the franchise.  Let’s face the simple economics of the matter: a 138 minute movie can play in a theater many more times than a film running for, say, 200 minutes (The Return of the King, theatrical release), and can therefore expect a greater box office return.  But stop a moment and consider this—The Return of the King won 11 Oscars, and is currently the ninth highest grossing film of all time.   

You do the math. 

Written by taj

July 26, 2007 at 10:00 pm

Finished

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I actually finished reading around noon on Tuesday.  I have been thinking, and thinking hard, trying to write down my thoughts, and I am just not there yet.  There’s just so much. 

But I will say this: The book is excellent, a fitting and satisfying close to the epic. 

Will try and post something more soon.  The wheels have been turning like mad these last couple days…

Written by taj

July 26, 2007 at 8:05 pm

Posted in Harry Potter

Awaiting the Saturday Delivery of Deathly Hallows

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6:00  – There is a way in which we might at look at this so that I might not appear so much like an idiot, and as soon as some one sees it, please let me know.

The truth is, I was duped.  For when I stepped out and checked the mailbox, there sat in the hollow a white, cardboard laden package.  The book had arrived by none other than those couriers whose rounds will not be impeded by rain, nor sleet, nor rumor of a UPS delivery.  No, UPS had not delivered the book.  The USPS had. 

So I have my book, I have read the first chapter, and I leave now to go and read more.  Before I do, let me just say that…you know, there really is no way to salvage my dignity at this moment.  See you on the other side…

***

5:45, still nothing.  The laundry is folded and put away, another is currently making its way through the spin cycle.  The door bell rang just a moment ago.  And with a heart full of anticipation I opened the door and saw…something that was definitely not UPS. 

Five eleven-year-old girls stood on my porch.  They were doing a little scavenger hunt and they read me a list of the things they still needed to find.  Luckily, I was able to procure for them one item—a blue hair tie.  They also needed red string.  I offered them a red pipe cleaner, but they passed. 

They went away smiling.  Me?  I’m still here, blogging about nonsense when I could be reading…

***

Well, it’s 4:30.  UPS has still not arrived.  The dishes are currently in the washer’s first rinse cycle, and I am folding laundry.  Just to brag on myself a moment: I can fold a fitted sheet.  

(sigh)  

This is worse than watching paint dry.  I know—it is likely for some people to think, from a certain point of view, that I am only torturing myself with this lame little exercise.  And I am okay with that.  Not that doing this affords me any special merit; it just gives me SOMETHING TO DO!  Other than chores.  The completion of which I am sure makes my wife very happy.  It’s just that I could be reading now. 
 

***

It is about 3:30 here in the mountain time zone.  Amazon.com told me they would (try to) deliver Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to my door on this very day.  And it has not arrived. 

I have had my doubts about this since the beginning, wondering if this really was the more practical decision in regards to purchasing the book.  I’ve been to two retailers today, both of whom had it on sale and on display, and were in no danger of selling out.  I could be reading the book right now.  Instead, I am here, washing dishes and waiting for UPS. 

So, I have decided that I will keep a log on this here blog, if for no other reason than I am a geek, and that I can. 

Written by taj

July 21, 2007 at 3:32 pm

From Thought to Story

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My wife and I have spent the last few days at her classroom.  She works and I work, and I like to have some noise in the background, so I spent some time watching, among other things, Pearl Harbor. I had forgotten just how thoroughly patriotic the movie is.  There’s a particular line I enjoy: “Victory belongs to those who believe in it the most, and believe in it the longest.”  It got me thinking…

The film intercuts old newsreels within the film in order to portray the greater, global conflict of World War II.  Old newsreels fascinate me.  I enjoyed studying WW II in high school because my teachers would show us some of those old newsreels, most of which spotlighted the efforts along the home front to support the war effort, and I’ve seen others that spotlighted the efforts “over there.”  In those years of the war, Hollywood put out movie upon movie exemplifying their heroism.  Sure, they might not be the best examples of quality cinema, but they helped maintain morale.  We knew then how quickly we could lose the freedom of this great country should we wind up on the losing end of the war.  

Naturally, I started thinking about how the War on Terror never receives that kind of coverage.  At least not on the evening news.  Most news reports simply recount the recent deaths, and touch on the argumentative nonsense coming out of Washington.  Hollywood has not produced a single film in the last five years portraying the sacrifices of our service men and women in their efforts to defend the victims of this conflict.  The narrowness of thought this suggests of the creative and influential minds in the news and entertainment industries really started eating away at me.  I thought back to that morning of 9/11, and a story began to germinate…a kind of parable, maybe…one that would take me back to the schoolyard of my youth…to the tyranny of those we call bullies…the teachers’ noble efforts to protect their students…their painful inability to do so…

I remember movies like The Principle, Lean on Me, or even more recently, Freedom Writers.  Stories where teachers overcome immense obstacles to help their students learn and love each other.  I find them inspiring and frustratingly utopian at the same time.  Most teachers are not as brave as those portrayed in these films.  Most have no idea of the violence that happens right under their noses.  They are constrained by a flawed paradigm of moral relativism.  Victims of abuse are told simply to tell a teacher, and thereby incur a greater wrath from their tormentors at a later time.  When a victim does fight back, they face the same consequences as their foe.  In their self-defense, they are punished. 

From Pearl Harbor…to the War on Terror…to the school yard.  I will let you draw the parallels for yourself. 

I am at once energized and terrified.  Energized that I have a new story to write; terrified that it will end up lingering on my hard drive, the tattered beginnings of an unarticulated dream.  I have three stories on my hard drive that are, more or less, complete.  They tell a story from beginning to end, they just need to be looked over, edited, tuned, maybe even rewritten (again), and they could be ready for a publisher. 

Every morning, I endure a voice on the inside that lectures me on the imperative need to finish these stories.  If I keep this up, eventually, I will have accumulated a stack of mere words that will have served no greater purpose than to fulfill my own ego.  Because no one else will have read them.  And I will only have myself to blame. 

Written by taj

July 20, 2007 at 10:54 pm

Smash Cut – Transformers

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Any movie based on something that was, in its inception, a toy marketed to kids, faces a real challenge regarding its audience.  Transformers suffers under this kind of inherent confusion and tries hard to scratch the itch of those original fans who are all 20 and 30 years old, and the new fans, generally made up of—for the sake of this post, at least—11-year-olds. 

I enjoyed the movie, and in writing this, the coming “but” all but screams its implication.  It’s easier to just break this down between what works and what doesn’t.  I had expected this movie to have a more Independence Day feel to it, but that’s my presuppositions working against me.  Everything that doesn’t work only does so on a fundamental level—it distracts from the story at hand. 

So…

What Works:
–THE ROBOTS.  As one of those who grew up with the cartoon, seeing the heroes come together was like slipping into comfortable shoes and enjoying the company of close friends.  Nobility and sacrifice weave throughout each of our heroic Autobots, and Decepticons are delightfully evil.  One of director Michael Bay’s talents is conveying scads of information in short time, and he does so with suitable aplomb with these giant creatures.  One of the characters poses an obvious question—if they are aliens, how can the robots speak English?  Easy.  By surfing the World Wide Web.  The digital rendering of these characters raises the bar for CGI considerably, and helps suspend belief enough to enjoy the chemistry between these old war horses. 

–THE SOLDIERS.  We needed to see more of these guys.  While they do not go a long way toward actual character development, they at least perform their roles with enough energy to buy into their presence.  I would have liked Captain Lennox to have taken on a more central role ala Will Smith in Independence Day.

–THE RUNNING TIME.  Two and a half hours can tell a big story, and when you’re telling a story about fifty-foot robots, it requires enough time to really see what they can do.  While there are places where the movie feels rushed, we have to remember: it’s a Michael Bay movie.  It will feel rushed.  Where Bay takes his time is where his talent behind the camera really shines this time around. 

–SHIA LaBEOUF.  While he’s likely years away from gaining any real caliber as an actor, he can at least deliver lines without sounding like he’s reading from the page.  He can play innocent (Holes), he can play immature-and-I-like-to-think-I’m-hard (I, Robot), and he pulls off insecure and hormonal quite well here. But…

What Doesn’t Work:
— SHIA LaBEOUF.  The underpinning hormonal/emotional conflict that would work if this were an episode of Dawson’s Creek feels out of place here.   His emotional angst over a new car works great as a device to introduce us to the one of the principle robots, and hence, launch us into the story.  The rest of his angst-ridden plodding tries to provide some comic relief, but I couldn’t hear anyone in the theater laughing.  

–THE SOPHOMORIC HUMOR.   What’s funny to an 11-year-old usually isn’t to someone over the age of 20.  So when your genius computer hacker eats a plate full of donuts, gets sick, and then displays his encyclopedic knowledge of Wolverine, I’m sure 11-years-olds laughed themselves silly.  That kind of thing only works with adults if you’re Kevin Smith.  

–THE GIRL.  Her presence does absolutely nothing to forward the plot, and serves as little more than the object of LaBeouf’s affection.  Usually, this kind of role becomes an unattainable goal for our hero, whom he must win by first overcoming his weaknesses, and then by slaying the villain(s).  Instead, what’s-her-name appears won as soon as our hero convinces the authorities to erase her juvenile record.  Which appears out of nowhere.  A full ninety minutes into the film.  Not only did this device fail to create sympathy, but I would not have cared if it had.  

–JOHN TURTURRO.  Turturro’ s a fine actor.  His caricature of the arrogant and self-important side of bureaucracy might have worked if it had not been placed along side what was already over the top.  The CIA director portrayed in Independence Day filled a similar role, and you loved to hate that guy.  By the time Turturro shows up, you just want to hate him. 

The premise of the movie already puts it at a disadvantage, but any alien invasion movie falls into the same category.  And many have succeeded where this movie fails. 

On the points where the film does succeed, it’s a great ride.  Refreshingly, at no point does the film digress into a forced allegory on the Iraq war (War of the Worlds), or recall a scene from The Sound of Music (Attack of the Clones).  I do not get out as much as I would like to see the movies these days, and this one was worth the money spent. 

Written by taj

July 16, 2007 at 9:48 pm