Category Archives: Interests

General stuff I like. Movies, books, coffee…

What’s Wrong with the Star Wars Prequels?

This was in response to a question by my brother Tim on his Facebook feed. Putting it here because it should be somewhere more permanent than a Facebook comment. Here’s his post:

I don’t get why the Star Wars episodes 1-3 are so frowned upon. I honestly loved them and thought Hayden Christensen did a good job as Anikin. However I totally understand the annoyingness of Jar Jar Binks and a few other cheesy qwerks but in all, I’ve always enjoyed them. I mean I was born just a couple years before The Phantom Menace was released… so I grew up with the originals and the prequel influencing my imagination and it was all fun. But of course nothing beats the originals.

Okay, so here’s the deal, to me. The original Star Wars certainly had its share of bad actors (I’m looking at you, Mark Hamill) and a few groaners of its own. But the story, and the universe, was completely unique, and compelling, and often kept you guessing at what would happen. It might not be the best story ever, but it’s damn good anyway, and when you throw in jaw-droppingly good production values (especially considering when it was made), it puts it well out of orbit. Nothing else could even remotely compare with how great Star Wars was, for _decades_.

And it had mystery, and a space-age version of an age of samurai, and the mystery and power of the force.

As to the prequel trilogy, where to begin? The story, you could pick a random junior higher who could tell a story about as compelling, and with the same competence.

The production? Despite vastly more resources to spend, and decades of progress in technology, most of the special effects are clearly _inferior_ to what was in the original trilogy. If the original trilogy was well past state-of-the art, the prequels were well under the line. Before it came out, I’d _already_ seen much better production than they offered me, and had been seeing it for years. CGI in those years was popular, but still not really ready yet for something like this, and it showed. And there were people doing it better than Lucas did. Maybe not by much, but at any rate, it didn’t have the jaw-dropping factor the earlier stuff did, relative to what else was available at the time. Hell, the original trilogy _still_ looks amazing to me (and would look better still if Lucas hadn’t tried to add all those other effects in after the fact. :-P)

I’ll skip over the acting, and just talk about the characters. NO depth whatsoever, especially for Anakin, who is literally a bag full of teen angst, hormones, and NOTHING else. Well, okay… midichlorians, too. So many situations were so cliche, and EVERYTHING, you just see EVERYTHING coming miles and miles and miles away. Except maybe for his sudden rampaging, against the sand people and those in the Jedi Academy, and the fact that there was no real hesitation in either case… he went from angsty and manipulated to purely and devotedly evil so fast it made my head spin. He never, at any point in the second and third movies, showed even the barest ounce of self control in anything he did, which just makes him one of the douchiest protagonists I’ve ever seen. And completely prevents me from ever feeling any real empathy for him, which is a pretty major flaw in a series that seems to at least be trying to drum that up.

You lose both the samurai feel of the Jedi, and the mystery of the force. It’s just “weird science” now, the super-powered micro-cells in your body exerting their supreme influence over the rest of the universe. Seems decidedly less universal (must not actually bind all things together if it’s only concentrated in those things that contain blood that could have midichlorians), and completely kills the mystery (especially since they don’t explore it any further than that, where you could doubtless find more mystery again). Also, something of a rip-off of both Madeleine L’engle’s “A Wind in the Door” (well, a bit anyway), and (especially) Square’s “Parasite Eve” game, which had already explored the “the separate cell-like organelles known as mitochondria in your body are really super-powered alien creatures whose full potential has yet to be discovered” theme in detail.

Forget Jar-Jar. Sure, he’s annoying, but he’s just a mildly sloppy attempt at slapstick humor. Far more grating to me, was C-3PO, particularly in the far-too-many-close-calls-to-be-credible-OR-funny factory, there and directly after, where he lets loose a string of the WORST puns ever, without even pausing long enough between them to let them breathe.

To be fair, by this point, the original Star Wars is put on too high a pedestal, and probably can’t get a fair treatment or critical eye. It’s far, far less compelling a story when you take away the brilliant production values… but it’d still probably be up there thanks to how much they lucked out with Harrison Ford, and also due to the fact that the characters themselves are written with at least some modicum of depth. The relationships have complexity, especially the love-triangle-light that Han, Luke, and Leia present. And the differences between how they view themselves, the masks they present to the world, and what they really reveal themselves to be, make them far more interesting than any given character in the prequel series, every one of whom is exactly who they appear to be at a glance.

Kids’ Book on Critical Thinking

OMG, this is so awesome! Atheist and skeptic blogger The Barefoot Bum points out a nice list of logical fallacies on No sooner do I visit the page than I see a notice mentioning that this list is actually taken from a book they’ve published, entitled The Fallacy Detective (amazon), which is a textbook on logic for children.

Lessons on logic and critical thinking aimed at educating children is exactly what I’ve been wanting to find for use with my own kids, for a while now. I didn’t actually have much hope of finding such a thing, so was planning on drumming up some lessons of my own (like I’d find time for that). This looks like just the sort of thing that I need.

The book uses straightforward explanations and comic strips (including Dilbert and Peanuts) to illustrate various logical fallacies in common use, and follows up with exercises in which the child must decide whether statements are fallacious, and if so, which fallacies are being used. Judging from the sample chapter, the book’s text is also set attractively, using Adobe’s Caslon Pro font, and using software that knows how to make good use of fonts (using appropriate “fi” ligatures and the like, so the hook of the f isn’t mashed together with the dot of the i). It’s not an example of great typography (for instance, paragraph indentation following a block quote or other figure isn’t really desirable), but at least it’s not a glaring example of bad typography, as the vast majority of modern printed books tend to be.

Of course, some concerns are raised by the fact that the book’s page explicitly states, We wrote this book to meet the needs of Christian parents who want a do-able text for introducing logic and critical thinking to their children. Especially considering that one of my primary motivations for wanting to teach critical thinking to my children is to avoid the various fallacies and pseudo-logic that tend to be used in defense of Evangelical Christian faith. According to one of the reviews on Amazon, the book does apparently put a fairly Christ-oriented spin on things, saying such things as, Logic is the science of thinking the way God thinks – the way Jesus taught us to think. Another review states, This book is loaded with Christian overtones, Bible verses, and other religious dogma. This being the basic foundation upon which the book is built, I suppose it’s also likely that it will misapply a few examples to support the authors’ preexisting biases.

Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and anyway the fact that we expose our children to such video material as Superbook, The Flying House, Veggie Tales and even Davey and Golliath proves that we don’t exactly go out of our way to prevent exposing our kids to religious dogma. And, while it presents something of a nuisance for me to have to possibly go in and “adjust” the way some of the material is presented, yet at the same time I welcome a book on spotting logical fallacies that’s aimed at the Christian homeschool community, a thing that is clearly in dire need, especially in the realms of Scientific Creationism and various Christian-culture political propoganda, such as is used to dismiss global warming concerns (seen “Jesus Camp”?).

Provided the core material itself is basically accurate and informative—and I see little reason to believe that it isn’t—it should be perfect for adapting for our own needs. Even if it turns out to be of little use, I’m dying of curiosity to see what’s in it, so either way, I’m running to drop it into my Amazon cart, for my next batch of purchases.

The Golden Compass… The Movie

Saw the movie with my daughter, Joy. She loved it, which is great for her. I positively hated it. As much as I found the book to be fairly blah, the movie is positively wretched. A cast loaded with stars could not even begin to save this nightmarishly ill-done movie. The film was quite grainy in parts, and felt like a jarringly disjunct collection of scenes—there was no flow to it at all. The acting was terrible, and since I have a lot of respect for some of the actors within it, I can only assume the directing (as well as the script) are to blame. This conclusion is all the easier to arrive at, as they both originate from the same person (Chris Weitz). I have not seen his other movies (which include American Pie), and after seeing this one, I doubt I’ll be rushing to do so anytime very soon.

There were several parts that were rather poorly explained; at one important part, where the girl Lyra and her daemon (a physical manifestation of her soul) were to be severed, so little information was given as to what was going on, that I doubt I’d have even known what was taking place, if I hadn’t already read the book.

I was also disappointed to find that the few characters in the book that had some small portion of depth to them, were made entirely one-dimensional in this movie. Probably the particulars of this depth would have been difficult to make work for the film, but at any rate it removed much of what small charm the book had. For instance, in the book, an attempt is made to poison Lyra’s “uncle”, Lord Asriel, by the schoolmaster of the scholarly university where Lyra has been raised, and who is something of a father-like figure to Lyra, which causes her some conflicting feelings about him. Later, a hint of the weighty decisions that would conspire to influence him to do such a thing is revealed, and indeed he is somewhat vindicated in the end for having made the attempt. However, in the movie, the schoolmaster is an entirely benevolent character, who righteously refuses to stoop to any such treachery, and so the attempt is made instead by a high-ranking official of the Magisterium (the “church-like” religious order, whose malevolence and self-servingly intolerant views and behaviors are the reason why the trilogy has garnered so much negative publicity from certain religious groups).

I had read that the film’s producers had decided to tone down any anti-religious establishment sentiments from the book, caving in to pressure from religious groups. However, I was surprised to find that, rather than this being the case, if anything it was more direct in its opposition to the story’s “church” than the book ever was (see above, for example). Perhaps they actually increased the “antagonism” against religious views in response to the disproportionate outcry against it.

The script was absolutely lacking in imagination. Most of it flowed from the book… exactly, except that the better parts were removed. One spot which I loved in the book, but was disappointed to find in place and untouched in the movie, was the fight between two anthropomorphic bears. It was a scene which involved a bit of deception on the part of the hero, Iorek, who pretended that his arm was injured so that he could use it in a surprise attack, finishing his enemy, Ragnar, with a strong blow that knocks his lower jaw clean off, to dribble blood from the neck as he dies in agony. The deception is made all the more impactful by the reader’s knowledge that, under normal circumstances, a bear can never be deceived, and so the fact that Ragnar could have fallen prey to it was proof of his demented reason. The fact that the “injured” arm, isn’t really, is completely lost in the movie, and one gets the impression that he simply “managed” to strike a savage blow with an actually severely-injured arm; and since both the deception and its underlying revelation are completely lost, it should have been removed entirely.

As for the jarringly grisly sight of Ragnar sans lower jaw… it was an inappropriately violent one. Shocking, not so much owing to its own violence, as to the fact that there was no other violence in the movie that came even remotely near it. Such a jarring contrast shouldn’t “just appear”, to no purpose other than to follow what was in the book; it should be used to some effect. The only possible resulting effect of this scene would be parents wondering why this image has now been unsanctimoniously slapped into the minds of its younger, more impressionable viewers.

The conclusion? As much as the world might really be able to use a new tale to capture the imagination of young ones, filled not with veiled religious allegories, but with notions intended to promote freethought and question religious ideology, Pullman is certainly no C S Lewis, and the world will, in my opinion, need to continue to wait for such an arrival. And thank God he’s not (hee hee), as a more laudable literary basis for this supremely unremarkable movie could only have made it the more tragic.

Ironically, rather than make good on the “clear threat” to religion and godliness that churches across America seem to believe it poses, this movie is unlikely to do much other than to strengthen the faith of their parishoners, by fulfilling their prayers that God would keep people out of the theaters, and allow the movie to suffer an abysmally disappointing economic defeat.

The Golden Compass

So, I read The Golden Compass last week. I would invite any Christians who have been convinced by current propoganda that it is designed to convince everyone of the truths of atheistic thought, to do the same. It’s simply not there.

I can’t comment on the rest of the series—indeed, I’m told that God dies in the second book, or something, so perhaps the series, as a whole, promotes anti-religious thought. However, there was very, very little—if any—in the actual book, The Golden Compass.

To be honest, I wasn’t particularly impressed by the book, though I suspect it probably makes a good movie (plan to take the kids to see it soon). I do kind of want to see what happens next, though, so I’ll probably read the rest of the series anyway. I suspect that it may improve as it goes along. It’s not on a literary par with C.S. Lewis, though, that’s for sure.

The whole current fuss in the Christian community over this book is just ridiculous. It’s Harry Potter all over again, only with even less basis. Heh, I remember one anti-Potter site I was directed to a couple years ago decrying Potter’s flagrant rebellion against his guardian Aunt and Uncle. Yeah… sneaking out to get some food while you’ve been punished with a week locked in your room without food, and crying foul when your guardians heap absurd insults to your parents… I’m pretty sure those are justified, to any sane human being.

There were two things that drew me to the Potter series… the second was that, once I checked it out, it was damn good writing. The degree to which the abusiveness of his Aunt and Uncle were exaggerated to the point of hilarity, reminded me a good deal of Roald Dahl, particularly James and the Giant Peach. And, there was a lot in them for adults to enjoy, as well as for older children. AFAICT, Pullman has nothing on Rowling, at least when it comes to writing kids’ books.

But the first thing that drew me to it, of course, was all the mindless hype surrounding it in the Christian (my) community. While I was a Christian, I certainly was capable of thinking for myself, and had definitely learned to spot mindless hyperbole by that point, so I was curious as to whether there was any basis for the accusations. There was little, of course: the only thing that could really be said against it was that, of course, it featured sorcery. If you’re going to cry foul for that, though, you’d better through out your Narnia as well, as it featured sorcery plentifully—in fact, one sorceror was a friend of Aslan’s, so what do you do with that?

Did you know?

Albus Dumbledore is a homosexual. Guess that pretty much nails the coffin shut as far as fundamentalist Christians are concerned… Plus, all the many people who apparently can’t distinguish between homosexuality and pedophilia are going to raise all sorts of questions about what Dumbledore’s real interests in Harry Potter might have been.

Note that this information isn’t revealed in the Harry Potter books themselves, though it sheds a new light on some information in the final book. It’s simply one of those factoids that the author kept tucked away in her brain, and used to keep her world consistent. The article notes that when she found a reference in one of the movie scripts to a past, female love interest of Dumbledore’s, she sent a note to the director to set things straight.

All You Need Is Hate

Lyrics to All You Need Is Hate, by The Delgados (on their album, Hate). I love this song!

This was how I broke the best
Indifference, overblown with confidence and ignorance
It all made sense
And then I watched them take the test
I believe it’s better to inflict than to attempt relief
You ask me what you need
Hate is all you need

Hate is all around find it in your heart in every waking sound
On your way to school, work or church you’ll find that it’s the only rule
Build a different world, hate will help you find what you’ve been looking for
Hate is everywhere, inside your mother’s heart and you will find it there
You ask me what you need hate is all you need

This was how I won the west
Charity, a joke that friendly cities think that we believe
Or so it seems
We kicked and punched and stabbed to death
And everyone applauded my fine actions I was overcome
You ask me what I’ve seen
Hate is all I’ve seen

Hate is in the air
Come on people feel it like you just don’t care
Everlasting hate feel it in the people where it’s warm and great
Come on hate yourself everyone here does so just enjoy yourself
Hate is everywhere, look inside your heart and you will find it there
You ask me what I mean
Hate is all I mean

For any of you to whom this is not obvious, no, they don’t think you should just hate everybody, and neither do I.

I found this awesome album a year or so ago, when I fell in love with the theme song to an anime series named Gunslinger Girl. The series is okay—I never got around to finishing it (someday, mebbe)—but the theme song, The Light Before We Land (on the same album as All You Need Is Hate) was awesome. Unfortunately, the drums are distorted somewhat, which marrs an otherwise terrific song.

Darwin Awards on DVD

So… it looks like they’re releasing a movie on DVD based on the famed Darwin Awards. Winona Ryder co-stars. Should be interesting…

If you’ve been living in a cave and haven’t heard of the Darwin Awards before, it’s an honor bestowed upon people who have selflessly (if inadvertantly) removed themselves from the human gene pool through acts of sheer stupidity, and are therefore doing the human race a service by presumably decreasing, if ever-so-slightly, the quantity of genes in the pool that result in stupid people. There are a few rules that must be met in order to qualify for a Darwin Award, the most important of which (IMO, at least) are:

  1. The victim/awardee must have displayed an “astounding misapplication of judgment”, and
  2. The victim/awardee must have removed perself from the gene pool; that is, phe must no longer be capable of procreating. The usual way this is accomplished is via the removal of oneself from among the living; however, it is sufficient to have damaged one’s reproductive organs in such a way as to meet this requirement. 🙂

Beauty and the Beast

The family has started watching the late 80s television series, Beauty and the Beast, seasons one and two of which are currently available on DVD, about a female news reporter whose life is saved by a man who is part lion and is part of a small society that lives in secret far below the streets of New York city, and share an empathic bond from that moment forward. Sara and I both loved the series growing up, but then it just sort of quietly disappeared; I don’t know if the series finished up or it was cancelled, but they didn’t play any reruns, and I barely heard a whisper about it until I happened to notice season 2 available at my local Fry’s Electronics store.

While watching the initial credits, I noticed that Vincent (the lion guy), is played by Ron Perlman, whose name rang a familiar bell, so I looked him up in IMDB. Turns out, there’s a reason I recognized that name: he’s been in several movies, some of which you’re sure to have at least heard of. He’s been in Hellboy, Highlander; several notable video games including Fallout, Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, and Forgotton Realms: Icewind Dale. The most striking to me (but one you’re probably not as familiar with), is the french film The City of Lost Children, which is a really well-done, artistic and charming (and surreal and bizarre and disturbing) movie, co-written and co-directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who also brought us Amélie, the delightfully twisted cannibalism-themed Delicatessen, and… Alien Resurrection!

No Earthsea From Ghibli Until 2009?

Japanese poster of “Tales from Earthsea”A year ago I posted that Studio Ghibli was doing another of their legendary animations for 2006, to be based on Ursula K Le Guin’s The Earthsea Cycle series of books. Studio Ghibli is famous for producing very excellent animations, usually under the masterful direction of Hayao Miyazaki, including Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.

Well, here are some updates regarding that. The movie was indeed released in Japan last year, but it was not directed by Hayao Miyazaki, as I had expected; it was actually directed by his eldest son, Goro. I’ll note that it took roughly half the time (8½ months) to complete as Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle did (16-17 months), and this is Goro’s first-ever animation production. Combining these things with the fact that Goro probably (hopefully?) lacks the obsessive personality of his father, I have some small doubts as to whether its quality will hold up to those pieces. Still, his initial artwork was impressive enough to win the approval of the head animators of Evangeleon and the Lupin series, and it’s still been made by the excellent Studio Ghibli animators, so it ought to be better than anything we tend to see produced over here.

More depressingly, though, is that the movie’s FAQ mentions that the US won’t see a release of this movie until at least 2009. Why? Because the SciFi Channel still has the movie rights to the series thanks to their crappy miniseries, which had been a disappointment to Le Guin. So that would make a new reason to hate that miniseries (and I’ve never read the books, so I can only imagine how incensed the fan base must be!).