Monthly Archives: March 2013

Book Review: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I’ve been kind of in the mood to read classics lately, so I decided to review “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll for this here blog. I’ve never read it before. Yes, can you believe it? A westerner who hasn’t read “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” I didn’t know what to expect, really. A friend of mine told me once that the Alice in Wonderland series was very dark, but I didn’t get that at all from reading this book. He must have been smoking something, or I totally missed some grand sinister undercurrent.

 

Anyway, the book tells the story of young Alice who, while sitting outside with her sister, falls asleep and has a dream. I guess that’s a spoiler. The whole thing is a dream. I never knew that growing up (of course, I’d never read it). Every retelling I’ve seen on TV or in the theatre never gave me the impression with certainty that it was only a dream. I was always under the impression that Alice traveled to some strange new mystical world where magical things were commonplace. I guess not. She just nodded off in her sister’s lap.

 

Anyway, as an adult it was fairly easy to figure out that it was a dream. Lewis Carroll gave plenty of clues. There was a kind of discombobulated nature to the flow of the plot. Alice would be in one spot doing one thing, then things would kind of change in a vague surreal way so that she was now involved with something else: First she’s crying; then she’s swimming in a pool of her own tears with a mouse who showed up out of nowhere. There really isn’t a cohesive plot structure; it’s just a series of unrelated events with fantastical characters—talking animals, sentient playing cards, etc… The highlights were a game of croquet using animals for both mallets and balls, and a trial regarding stolen tarts. The Queen of Hearts, although she quite often yelled to have someone’s head chopped off, was far less sinister than I expected. Then, Alice woke up, and it was over.

 

Strengths … well, it gets a few points for being unusual. But that’s what you get for writing about a dream. It did capture the surreal nature of dreams fairly well. Well enough that I figured out it was only a dream. Weaknesses … well, since it’s only a dream, I really didn’t get too invested in the story. I found it kind of dull. Alice’s thoughts were interesting and did seem child-like, so that’s another testament to the author’s skill. The events in the story and the story itself were child-safe—not dark at all from what I could tell.

 

Anyway, I’ll give it three and a half out of five stars.

This review originally appeared on Goodreads on 2/17/13.

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Movie Review: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is Hollywood’s latest magician movie. It’s been a while since we were wowed by “The Prestige” and “The Illusionist,” so apparently director Jay Roach wanted to get a new take on magicians. Unlike the aforementioned 2006 films, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is intended as a comedy. To that end, it has billed both Steve Carell and Jim Carrey, two of the bigger names in comedy. It also stars Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, and Alan Arkin.

 

The central character in the story is Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) one-half of a famous duo of stage magicians in Las Vegas. His partner is Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). Together they make one of the biggest acts in Vegas. At least, in the beginning. But then, sales start to decline. An up and coming unorthodox magician by the name of Steve Grey (Jim Carrey) a.k.a. “The Brain Rapist” is threatening to capsize their operation. They have to come up with a new act, and fast. But their first idea is a disaster. So much so, they wind up dissolving their partnership. From there, the story follows Burt Wonderstone and his decline into desperation, the subsequent reshaping of his character, and his eventual reunion with Anton Marvelton leading to their collaboration on the greatest trick in magical history. There is also a love-interest angle in the story, a young assistant illusionist named Jane (Olivia Wilde), but I won’t delve into that here as it follows pretty much the standard patterns.

 

Strengths: the movie successfully showed the evolution of Burt Wonderstone’s character from self-centered, egotistical, schmuck to a reasonably decent human being who even wins the girl in the end. It was also good for a few laughs. Jim Carrey had some classic moments, particularly at the end. Weaknesses: well, although the movie was billed as a comedy and it had access to the talents of both Carrey and Carell, it wasn’t quite as funny as I hoped it would be. Like I said, there were a few moments, but not enough, in my opinion. Also, Burt Wonderstone started off as such a jerk, I didn’t think he deserved to win the girl (not that he had any competitors) in the movie. It was just silly Hollywood being stupid following the standard: boy meets girl, boy is jerk, girl is repulsed, boy reforms, and girl falls in love. Whatever.

 

Although the movie was decent, there were no great moments. Nothing that had me laughing to tears. Overall, I’ll give it three and a half out of five stars.

Immortality

Another post on vampires? Actually, today, I’m taking a little detour. I’m not going to write about vampires so much as one of the defining characteristics of them: immortality. A vampire, whether it is Dracula, Lestat, or Lucian val Drasmyr, is generally considered immortal provided he or she is not slain by some pesky human or the victim of some other fatal twist of fate. With that in mind, I want to examine immortality. Why is it so appealing? Or, better yet, is it really appealing?

 

Clearly, at some visceral level, immortality is appealing. That’s usually one of the temptations to become a vampire (“Become as I. Strong. Immortal …). Writer’s wouldn’t use immortality as bait for us poor mortal humans unless some part of us pined to last forever. I think this is largely a result of the natural fear of death. Even if you are religious and believe in an afterlife with sunshine and flower-filled fields of leisure, you certainly don’t know it will be as you think. No one does. And because of that, there is always a threat of total annihilation as one contemplates one’s future death. The fix for such is, of course, to not die. And obtaining immortality somehow—be it through a vampire’s bite, or what-have-you—is a way to avoid death. Immortality, then, is a balm for the human condition. We fear death. We seek to avoid it. And so we set up elaborate fancies in which we imagine we will never die.

 

But is immortality all it’s cracked up to be? First, what are the positives? For me, I like to learn. I could learn advanced physics, and math, and a bundle of other disciplines that have always intrigued me. Curious about the nature of Infinity? You’ll have ample time to read up on the subject. Quantum Mechanics? All in due time. Intellectually, it would be great for the first few centuries or so. Then, I suspect, boredom would sink in. How much can you learn, how much can you know, before it all just devolves into meaningless drivel? I’m forty years old and some days I’m already tired of life; I can’t imagine what it would be like when I’m 4000. Yikes!

 

Worse, still, is the question of company. Would being the only immortal on the planet be worth it? If all the people you knew and cared about died, would it be worth it? I’d say no. That would be depressing in the extreme. Talk about loneliness. Soon you would become an introvert simply for your sanity: it would be too painful to befriend somebody, just to watch them die a few years down the road.

 

Finally, the last negative of immortality concerns the afterlife. If there really is one, and it really is quite nice, then becoming immortal would deny you such an experience. And that would hardly be good.

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Yep, I did it; I took the plunge. My dark fantasy novel, Drasmyr, is now available as a hardcover book on Lulu.com for $24.99. It makes a great gift for yourself or others, particularly for those who want a physical copy of what previously was only available as an ebook. Get your copy today!

Movie Review: Jack the Giant Slayer

One of the more recent cinematic forays into the fantasy realm is “Jack the Giant Slayer.” It is, basically, Jack and the Beanstalk adapted to the big screen. There aren’t any really big names in the cast … the only one I really recognized was Ewan McGregor who plays Elmont, the captain of the King’s Guard. The lead role (Jack) is played by Nicholas Hoult.

 

The backdrop of the story is an ancient war between giants and man. Many years ago, in a foolish attempt to reach God, a group of monks enchanted some regular beans to build a bridge to heaven. They were partially successful, building a bridge via beanstalk to the cloudy realms where the giants dwelled. The giants, however, were hardly benevolent; they descended upon the human world bringing death and destruction until a magical crown allowed the great King Erik to banish them back to their lofty dwellings.

 

Fast forward, many years later. Jack is a poor farm boy who, through happenstance, comes into possession of the magical beans. He doesn’t believe in their power—at least not fully—although he is familiar with the legend of Erik and the giants. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to him, one of the beans falls beneath the floorboards of his house. Meanwhile, Princess Isabelle, upset with her father for forcing her to marry, takes to the countryside and comes upon Jack in his home. It begins to rain. This is not their first meeting—Jack actually stood up for her in a typical gallant-hero-rescues-damsel type of situation. They talk, share a moment, and then, the water from the rain reaches the bean causing it to grow. The end result is that the whole house, with the princess inside, is whisked away up into the clouds, and although Jack tries to save her, he fails and winds up on the ground.

 

The king discovers Jack lying unconscious on the ground and a rescue party for the princess is formed. They ascend the beanstalk into the heights. That’s the genesis of the plot; I’ll leave the rest for the reader to discover when they watch the movie.

 

Strengths: well, I always like a good fantasy, even if it is a well-used yarn like Jack and the Beanstalk. This was an adequate movie; I mean, it wasn’t fantastic by any stretch of the imagination, but that may be because I was familiar with the Jack and the Beanstalk myth going in (as many people are). Still, it was a decent story. I wouldn’t recommend it for the too too young, because the giants are kind of grim and scary looking and there are several deaths, although they are not very graphic. Parents will have to make that determination on their own. Its weaknesses: well, I can’t think of anything specific that really leaps out. Overall, I found the movie entertaining, but lacking some indefinable something that held the movie back. However, that lack, I’m sure, would only be recognized by an adult. Kids would probably eat this up.

 

I’ll give it four stars out of five for a children’s audience (provided they can handle the implied deaths), and probably only three and half out of five for adults.

Movie Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

“Oz the Great and Powerful” is essentially the prequel to “The Wizard of Oz” some, what, seventy? eighty? years after the fact. In no way does it compare to “The Wizard of Oz,” that was a classic movie whose beauty and charm will likely never be recaptured. That said, “Oz the Great and Powerful” had its moments. The lead role of Oscar Diggs (Oz) was played by James Franco. The original wicked witch (of the East–Evanora) was played by Rachel Weisz. Those are the only two actors in the film I really recognized.

 

Oscar Diggs is a small time magician working in a circus in Kansas. One day, due to a dalliance with a certain young woman, he is run out of the circus by the strongman who is intent on busting his skull. Oscar escapes by means of a large hot-air balloon. Unfortunately, just as he makes his getaway, a tornado moves into the area and sucks him and his balloon up and off into the land of Oz. There, he encounters his first witch, Theodora the Good. Theodora believing he is the prophesied wizard destined to rescue the land of Oz from the predations of the wicked witch leads him to the Emerald City where he meets her sister, Evanora who is, unbeknownst to either of them, the aforementioned wicked witch.

 

Oscar, who happens to also go by the name of “Oz,” sets off to destroy the wicked witch, who, he is told, dwells in the dark forest. Once there, he encounters Glinda, who is a good witch, and tells him the truth that Evanora is really the bad witch. They are set upon by the wicked witch’s minions and must flee into a giant mystical bubble that protects them from intruders. There Oz learns he must mount an army to defeat the evil of the realm, but he has as resources only untrained farmers who are not permitted to kill. A difficult task, you say? At first, things seem hopeless. The evil witches have magic and he has none, and an army of basically pacifists. Then, he remembers, he has one tool they do not: science … the hallmark of an Illusionists trade. And so the stage is set for a grand battle of wits.

 

Let’s do weaknesses first: well, the dialogue was somewhat lacking in places. Parts of it seemed overacted or poorly executed. My biggest complaint, however, (spoiler alert) concerns the genesis of the wicked witch of the west. I thought that was a bit too mature of a theme for a children’s movie. Maybe I’m wrong. Basically, Theodora the Good is heartbroken and feels betrayed by Oscar. She turns to her sister, Evanora, to ease her pain, who, of course, gives her a poisoned apple that turns her green and hardens her heart. She started out a sweet, innocent young women, and is then transformed into the wicked witch of the west … I don’t know, maybe I’m over reacting, but that seems to be too … um … just too “mean” for a children’s movie. Going from good to evil. Kind of like Darth Vader. Maybe I’m wrong.

 

Anyway, strengths: the special effects were good. But the best part of the movie (probably because of the special effects) was the showdown between the wizard and the two evil witches. It was great. “I am Oz … the Great and Powerful!”

 

Overall, I’ll give the movie three and a half out of five stars.

Reminder: Drasmyr Available In Print on Lulu.com

Yep, I did it; I took the plunge. My dark fantasy novel, Drasmyr, is now available as a hardcover book on Lulu.com for $24.99. It makes a great gift for yourself or others, particularly for those who want a physical copy of what previously was only available as an ebook. Get your copy today!

Literature: On The Nature Of Writing (Part II)

Last time I wrote, I listed a large number of writing types and a few means of looking at each type. From the large list, I selected the following types: philosophical essays, novels, and short stories (and poems); and I claimed that of the many different ways of looking at a piece of writing, the ones I was interested in included: as a means of self-expression, as a means of communication, and aesthetically. Today, I’m going to combine both thoughts, and evaluate each type of writing in accordance with the ways of looking at it. And maybe add one or two thoughts to top it off.

 

I wrote tons of philosophical essays in college. And I can tell you most emphatically that philosophical writing is all about communication. I guess there is some self-expression involved, and, I suppose, aesthetic writing is always a plus, but the primary duty of the philosopher is to communicate, clearly and cogently, some thought worth telling. That’s why it’s so difficult to read. Seriously. It’s a paradox, but not really. Natural language is so vague, that philosophy involves going through various literary contortions to precisely delineate the exact meaning the writer wants to express and none other. It’s that ‘none other’ bit that is problematic. Oh yes, and there is Logic involved. Lots and lots of logic. Philosophers are basically the inspiration for Star Trek’s Vulcans.

 

At the other extreme, I think, is poetry. That seems to be largely a work of self-expression, greatly concerned with aesthetics almost above all else. It does communicate thoughts, but it is as much emotional thinking as it is analytical. It is something that you either ‘get it’ as it comes across, or you are hopelessly lost. But, like I said, my experience in poetry is limited, so I could be totally wrong.

 

Novels and short stories, though, are kind of a hybrid. They involve both self-expression and communication. Pretty language has a place, dressing the work up as an art form, but it is useless if it does not communicate some thought relatively clearly. Like poetry, the thought need not be purely rational (unlike philosophy—irrational philosophy is like a computer spewing out illegitimate code); it can be emotional, or humorous, or what-have-you. But it must be communicated clearly enough that the average reader will get the point without too much difficulty.

 

Regardless of which type of writing engaged in, many of the best examples involve some kind of social commentary, be it a critique of the current political structures or what-have-you. But that isn’t an absolute necessity. I enjoy stories that are just stories all the time.

 

I do have one final thought concerning the distinction between philosophy and literature (in whatever form). Literature consists largely of opinion (admittedly opinion that is defended or critiqued to varying levels and degrees, but it is, all the same, just opinion). Philosophy is concerned with knowledge. Which is one of the reasons it makes virtually no progress. I took four years of philosophy, and what do I know with absolute 100% certainty beyond a shadow of a doubt? Not much: I know I am not omniscient. That’s one thing. And I know 2+2=4. It’s a small kernel of truth, but it is truth nonetheless.

 

Take that Mr. Relativist! (Yes, I have this horrible fixation on murdering the hideous relativistic beast that is slowly eating our society alive!)

 

Bwu-ha ha ha!

Literature: On The Nature Of Writing (Part I)

Perhaps, this was covered in English 101. If so, I missed the class. I thought I’d take a few minutes (or paragraphs, as the case may be) to ruminate about the various types of writing and the reasons for writing. Both for your edification and my own.

Off the top of my head, I count seven different types of writing: literary essays, philosophical essays, scientific papers, novels, short stories, poems, and other non-fiction. I think that covers the whole gamut (And to think that going into this, I was expecting to get away with just listing three—Wow! How my thoughts run away with me!). For the purposes of this discussion, we will ignore literary essays, scientific papers, and other non-fiction. I’ve helped write and publish only one scientific paper, and I don’t think I’ve ever written a literary essay (unless you count my blog—hey, that’s probably a whole new subsection … so there are eight different types of writing, maybe). My experience in poetry is equally limited; it usually only comes to the fore in the context of my other writing. The battle-hardened warrior must solve an ancient riddle to win the prize, and, of course, the riddle is in the form of a poem. Still, I will have a couple thoughts I want to share regarding poetry. I am more experienced in writing philosophical essays, novels, and short stories: I took four of years of philosophy in college, and I have learned the literary ropes, mostly on my own (a few classes here and there, but not many).

 

Anyway, with respect to these types of writing, I have a couple thoughts. First, there seems to be three ways of looking at any kind of writing. First, one can look at it as a means of self-expression. This is a completely solitary activity. The ultimate goal of the writing need not concern another human being in any way. Such a work can be seen strictly as a piece of art; and what it means is often subject to interpretation. Another way of looking at writing is as a means of communication. The primary purpose here is not as a work made strictly for one’s own enjoyment, but rather, to make a connection with someone else; to bridge that gap between two people and share a thought. Finally, one can look at writing aesthetically, but at this point, I think I’m getting a little out of my depth. Most people claim this last facet is all subjective anyway, except maybe a few philosophers who may not be convinced. I know I can recognize bad writing in a universal sense, and I think most people agree Shakespeare had a way with words. But clearly, it is not cut and dry like a math equation.

 

Perhaps there is a technical name for these three aspects of writing—self-expression, communication, and aesthetics—but regardless I believe they provide a critical lens through which any writing can be examined, at least, superficially.

 

Anyway, I’ve reached my self-imposed word limit for the day; next time, I will examine each type of writing (novels, short stories, poetry, and philosophical essays) through each of these lenses. We’ll see which belongs associated most appropriately with which.