Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Watch This Movie: The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey

"There and back again." When we were last in Middle Earth, the Eye of the Shadow was destroyed and Sauron's power broken forever. In an epic climax that involved Eagles, Orcs, Trolls, Elves, Humans, Dwarves, Gigantic Elephants, Screeching Dragons, Undead Hordes, Cursed Kings.... Alright, let me start over. When J. R. R. Tolkien closed the book on his massive trilogy, he did so by putting his foot on the neck of the genre of High Fantasy, declared himself lord over its tropes for the rest of eternity, and departed to the Grey Shores of the West. Every movie since then has been playing catch up, not to mention every videogame. Next time you're playing World of Warcraft, just remember that those Orcs you're fighting have their roots in a century old book that has only been outsold by the Bible.
Tolkien Lives!
But we're concerned with the movies here. Well, Peter Jackson is just covering ground written by Tolkien, and when he wrapped up his Lord of the Rings films, rumors immediately began to swirl about doing a Hobbit movie. The films were massively successful, and most agreed that they'd transferred the general spirit of the films. Sure, there were some criticisms. Where's Tom Bombadill? Why so little singing? Why the love story between Steven Tyler's daughter and that guy from G.I. Jane? And why did it all end in a church?
No seriously, Jackson did the best he could with a sprawling epic that established all the tropes of an entire genre, and people wanted to nitpick about why there wasn't enough singing. Well guess what, this time, he leaves in plenty of singing, and now people are saying the movie is too long. Probably why he took the singing out of the Lord of the Rings films in the first place, guys. Just saying. At any rate, there's more of the 'spirit' of the films. Singing, a generally more carefree attitude. It's important to remember the Hobbit was written first and tended to be more of a fairy tale, while the Lord of the Rings was attempting to establish an entire new lore and mythology. The Hobbit comes fast paced, with events and creatures acting in ways that don't entirely align with their darker portrayals in the Lord of the Rings. Trolls come across with humor and joy, as opposed to raging murder machines that they were in the Lord of the Rings. Everything has a lighter touch.
Except this guy. He's still creepy.
Look, let me put your mind at ease. The film is wonderful, and has a faster pace than The Fellowship of the Ring. The first thirty minutes essentially set up the film, and takes place just before the party that starts of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It then jumps back sixty years before to the events of the Hobbit, the meeting of Gandalf and Bilbo, and the events that lead to a confrontation with the Fire Drake, Smaug. Visually, there's tons going on. The cinematography is excellent, as always, and several times my jaw dropped as I saw the vistas and hills that filled Middle Earth.

The Road Goes Ever On.
The music is excellent. Borrowing from the original Lord of the Rings, it also adds several new themes, motifs and one excellent song that defines the quest of the Dwarves to reclaim their homeland, "Misty Mountains" and its variation, "Song of the Lonely Mountain". In the days leading up to the film, and on the day of the movie, I was whistling and singing this song incessantly. Without having even seen the film yet. It will resonate in your heart. It's moving, it expresses their sorrow at the loss of their home, and the hope they have to see it again.
There is joy in this film, but also great sorrow.
 The biggest complaints have to deal with length. Yes, the movie runs almost three hours. Guess what, you're out at the movies to enjoy yourself. So take your time, soak it in. Jackson introduces elements and changes the way certain things play out, integrating elements from the lore of the Silmarillion as well as general Hobbit background stuff that didn't play out in the book itself. For instance, I don't remember Radagast the Brown playing a significant role in the book, but Jackson introduces him into the film. I know the same people who complained that Tom Bombadill was left out of the movie are going to complain about putting in Radagast, but guess what? He compliments the nature of the movie. It's light hearted throughout the first half, and every half hour the stakes are raised higher and higher. The nature of the Dwarves change, Bilbo changes, they meet the challenges, they grow stronger. We see Gandalf as a wise wizard exhibiting much more power than we did in Lord of the Rings, but also confused by the darkness filling his era and navigating the politics of powerful individuals such as Saruman and Galadriel. At one point this movie borders on becoming the Avengers of fantasy, as so many high powered sorcerers, elves and dwarves are collected into one place that you wonder if they couldn't bring down Sauron just by uniting.
Seriously, the world's ending this Friday. Go watch it before it does. You won't regret making this the last movie you ever see.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The War on Christmas is Real

Or at least it was, 350 hundred years ago. In the midst of all the hand wringing that we can expect to occur as Christmas rushes toward us, especially among the Religious Right and their advocates at Fox News, something seems to be going overlooked: Christmas was illegal in the American colonies, at least among the Puritans, generally considered some of the most devout readers of the Bible and stringent followers of its commands. Regardless of what one may think about their attitudes toward life, it cannot be denied that they were deep thinkers. Their printing presses and bookstores were second only to London's, and the highest literacy rate in the world belonged to them. The Bible was required reading seven days a week, in addition to sermons, tracts and moral stories. Yet Christmas was a specific holiday that these religious people banned.

"Your conscience may not let you work on Christmas but my conscience cannot let you play while everybody else is out working."

- Governor William Bradford, Plymouth Colony

A little background is perhaps necessary to understand why Christmas was both socially and legally anathema. Bradford and the Pilgrims were Separatists, members of a religious order that sought to distance themselves from the Church of England and its influences. This had something to do with Catholicism, which was a constant evil in the mind of Englishmen. Catholics owed allegiance to a foreign power, the Pope, and could not be trusted. However, Catholics also used rituals, pomp and processions that some found to be extravagant and in contradiction to the Bible's teachings. These same forms of rituals had followed and tainted the English church. This produced Puritan groups that sought to purify the church of things that were unbiblical, again having to do with the extravagance of ceremonies as well as allegiances to men instead of God. However, some sought to distance themselves from the church entirely.

These were the Separatists, who were so committed to purifying their own communities that they departed a relatively intolerant English religious landscape for the Dutch Republic, a region generally renowned for its high level of tolerance for religious individualism. However, even here, some were unsatisfied and fearful of the taint of polluted religions. So, the Pilgrims became Separatists from the Separatists. They departed to New England and settled around Plymouth Bay. This group was later followed by the Puritan immigration. The two were linked in many ways by theological perceptions and fears of a tainted church, though the Puritans made explicit their hope to purify the church in England by becoming a shining light in their New World, a "City on a Hill".

However, part of that purity meant adherence to the Bible in ways foreign to modern believers, and the abolishment of practices associated with indulgence. Christmas is nowhere to be found in the Bible as a holiday to be celebrated, and so it had no Scriptural foundation. It was also rooted in paganism and non Christian faiths, something that apparently Christians were far more aware of centuries ago than they are now. The Church of England would celebrate the Feast of the Nativity, which the Puritans identified as a form of idolatry and a connection to the Catholic Church with extravagance and non Biblical practices.
Technically speaking, the Bible only sanctioned the Sabbath as a holy day and day of rest. So, from a theological ground, it had no basis. Culturally though, the Puritans found many reasons to object to it. First, it was an amalgamation of Christian beliefs with Roman holidays and practices that were non Christian. Perhaps their largest protest against it, though, was the fact that Christmas had become a day of such indulgence and foolish behavior that it was not worth celebrating. Behaviors such as those demonstrated on Black Friday, or those seen by mass consumerism and drunk driving that leads to death, would have all been justifications for the Puritans to ban it as a holiday.

Banned it was, actually. Legally it was banned in Massachusetts and Connecticut for a stretch of time, which coincided with a banning of holy days in England. However, once holy days were restored in England and Puritans were forced to legally allow them, they still shunned its practice. It was practically uncelebrated in New England for at least a century as governors and preachers rejected it and no formal motions were practiced to gather people for its recognition.

The trait most highly prized among Puritans was a strong work ethic, and so on Christmas Day they worked. The first Christmas in America was spent erecting buildings. William Bradford excused those who said they objected to working on the day, but when he found them playing sports and games later on, he had all their possessions confiscated and ordered any celebration they might have confined to their homes. This was the beginning of a long period in which Christmas was never recognized.

So to the Fox News pundits bemoaning the war on Christmas and traditional religious values, maybe there should be a moment of recognition that Christmas was never an inherent religious value prized by some of the most well read and work driven Christians in American history. They recognized it was neither a Christian holiday, and that it could actually spawn indulgent behaviors that were offensive to the community. Maybe Bill O'Reilly can take a moment to recognize that events like Black Friday were exactly why Puritans feared holy days becoming secular excuses for indulgence, and that they knew Christmas was never a Christian day sanctioned Biblically. It was a secular holiday.

So seriously Fox News, lighten up. Nobody's losing Christmas. It wasn't celebrated in the first place and didn't really get going as a holiday until the middle of the 1800s. Christians knew Jesus wasn't born in December, that it was a Roman festival inherently, and that there was nothing specifically spiritual about it except the facade erected over it by the church. So maybe we should all just let each other celebrate whatever we want, however we want, whenever we want, without getting into a bind that the government and media is trying to make Christmas a non Christian holiday. It never was.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Why PBS Is Important has an article detailing heartwarming events that would, hopefully, make people less cynical. If you've never visited Cracked, it's a most definitely, Not Safe For Work website that deals in comedy lists. Lists of the most haunted places in the world, the most bizarre deaths, the creepiest video games, the craziest stunts, etc. It's usually good for a laugh, but Cracked posted this list of heartwarming moments that included Mister Fred Rogers' testimony before the U.S. Senate on why he thought PBS programming was important and should be funded.

Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, a man born into a world just realizing the potential of the television and what it was capable of. What's interesting about him is how much promise it had as a tool, and yet how much potential for evil it could also engender. Now, I'm nobody to demonize anyone else for what they watch, nor would I ever try. I think the television on in the background of my apartment just got done airing a scene of intergang warfare from a crazy Japanese anime in which demon Yakuza battle against undead mob enforcers.

But if I do know one thing, it's that, sometimes, it's important to stop and reflect. You don't always need to be overwhelmed and, as Mister Rogers puts it, "bombarded" by sound and noise in order to be entertained. In the video, Rogers says that the drama of two men working through their emotions is much more important, relevant and dramatic than the drama of guns being fired. For young children growing up, this is an important point. And you know what? It's probably important for all of us to remember, from time to time.

We don't have to agree on every point of each others' morals and spiritual beliefs, but I think everyone can agree that telling kids it's okay to be angry, it's okay to be upset, but you can find healthy ways of expressing that anger, is a lesson that needs to be reinforced. Mr. Rogers was an important light and, in my opinion, equally as important to PBS identity as anything we ever saw on Sesame Street. As Big Bird became a meme during the presidential election, a source of comedy as we mocked Mitt Romney's desire to cancel PBS' funding to pocket the government equivalent of pocket change, some might have missed a genuine point. There is television out there that should be divorced of advertisements and heavy promotions. There are genuine lessons to be learned, heartfelt ones about dealing with brothers and sisters and being okay with going to the doctor, that should not be entangled with companies trying to make a buck. It's funny because, though we often tackled the topic of big companies and their influence in American media, Mister Rogers doesn't shy away from crediting the Sears Roebuck company with helping fund his program.

That's nothing new, we're all aware that funding comes in from multiple places. However, we also give credit where credit is due. Shows like Mr. Rogers Neighborhood deserve to be aired, because they go against the mold and actually try to enforce real, useable lessons. Rather than trite platitudes forced into the storyline of some Saturday cartoon, Mr. Rogers' message was the core of the show around which everything else was molded. And really, how often can you say that 6 minutes of a soft spoken man made you cry? Because I can almost guarantee that's what Mr. Rogers' testimony will do to you.

Don't believe me? Just listen to the transformation of the senator grilling Mr. Rogers in the video, who opens up with snark and by the end of the hearing is finding it hard just to talk. That's the sort of effect a genuine message can have on the human heart, and that is why PBS is important.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Eternal Virtues

John Parkson drove the tip of his boot into the wooden floor beneath him, amusing himself as he watched the rotting wood dissolve into a fine dust that coated his foot. A heavy scent of mildew and an overwhelming humidity were the daily troubles of his job as a boatman on the riverways of Virginia, a thankless task that paid just enough to get him by. Still, he didn't do the job so much for the money as much as for the freedom. His daily journeys, back and forth along varying trading and travel posts, allowed him the chance to see the world in a way few of his fellow former colonials could. He considered himself a learned man, in a way that the educated of the world might not expect. After all, the traveling he did gave him a chance to run into all sorts of people. He might have been born into the backwoods of the state, but his traveling exposed him to all sorts of philosophy and propaganda. Every day he heard the rhetoric that echoed of the Revolution, about how all men were created equal and each man had a chance for success in this new country of theirs. Still, all that took on a different perspective the day he began to work with Elwood Hargrove, a black boatman employed by his owner to work the riverways and earn some extra income for their plantation.


He hadn't heard the quote, but Juan Martinez knew, vaguely, what had been said. It had been parroted on a few news channels over the past few weeks, and the gist of it was that one of the Republican candidates had suggested building an electric fence along the border with Mexico.  Juan didn't consider himself very political, and the truth was that he supported a restriction on immigration. His own family had come from Mexico two generations before, but they'd always been in support of legal immigration. They somewhat resented the waves of illegal immigrants that came to the United States and avoided the same tasks their grandmother, matriarch of the family, had endured to gain citizenship. All the same, life was sacred, and you didn't joke about killing immigrants. He wondered if these politicians knew just how harsh life was for illegals trying to cross over, about the rape women endured and the men who got killed moving across the border. Life wasn't easy if you were coming over illegally, and joking about their deaths was silly, given the reality of how harsh their lives were.

His family had always voted Republican but, given the candidates that he was faced with, Juan was increasingly finding it difficult to support anybody on the conservative side. Every time he heard Mexicans talked about like animals, like they were dogs that needed to be trained properly, he was disgusted. It just wasn't right that his people were treated so badly.


Joseph Martin sighed, listening to the comments coming over the television. There had been a debate the other night, and the Republicans had been talking about welfare and Medicare. Martin had an invested interest in the discussion. He was the son of a contractor and had gone into the same work himself, spending most of his life working on houses, working on floors and walls. It wasn't easy work, but it was what he loved, what his father had shown him to do. There were downsides to the work, though.

First of all, never in his life had Martin had adequate healthcare. He'd spent a lifetime avoiding going to the doctor, waiting out pains he'd feel in his back or arms, buying whatever generic medicine he could afford whenever he'd gotten sick. He'd spent even less time at the dentist than he had at the doctor over his thirty years, and while he'd gotten along well enough, he'd always worried what would happen if something catastrophic happened to him or his family. He and his wife had just had a child, and every day he prayed the baby would be healthy and happy. Church members contributed to taking care of it when he and his wife worked the same days, she at her job waiting tables at a local diner, while he tiled or did roofwork.

The biggest problem, though, was that the housing market had gone into collapse, and had only slowly been recovering. Every time he heard these candidates talking about makers versus takers, he couldn't help but think, <em>I am a maker.</em> He was, he helped make houses. Somehow, though, he didn't think that the Republicans were thinking about him when they got into these sorts of debates.


Jackie McMahon shook her head as she listened to the podcast airing over computer's speakers, sitting in her office on the top floor of a corporate tower where her office was located. She'd spent an entire morning dealing with her hair, which had always been too thick and unruly for its own good and required a combination of chemical agents to straighten, a process she'd never been happy with but had been forced to acknowledge as necessary. Her mother had always been an advocate for letting her hair grow out naturally, but Jackie preferred a straight, sleek look as opposed to the thick bush of hair it could become if she let it come out the way nature intended.

It was a difference of generations. Her mother had been an activist in the 70s, at the same time an advocate for Black Pride as well as feminism. Jackie wasn't nearly as extreme but like most African Americans, she shuddered when she heard the way black Americans were discussed. It didn't take much searching on twitter to see references to Obama as the "N" word, and one time, during a trip to a small town in Texas to visit her grandmother, she'd overheard a few men at the local gas station refer to him as a monkey.

She wondered if they knew she could have probably bought that gas station outright. She'd spent a lot of time building the capital and finances to strike out on her own as a financial manager, and from her Dallas office she dealt with influential clientele that brought her significant economic gains. In theory, she might have made the perfect Republican, someone with income about 250,000 who would probably like to avoid being taxed. Still, every time she heard her people referred to as lazy, or takers, or animals, she shuddered. Just as importantly, she remembered what it was to struggle. Yeah, race was an issue, but there were a lot of people out there struggling. They didn't just have black skin. They were Asian, hispanic, white, and every other sort of ethnicity under the sun. Nobody had an exclusive claim to poverty.


Elwood Hargrove chuckled slightly, looking out over the river that wound its way past their trade station. From here they unloaded the ferries and moved the goods into town, where merchants would sell it off for profit. "It's one of my favorite things about this job," he explained to John Parkson, his hands tucking into his pockets. "You see, plantation work is hard, but I'd work it just as hard as any other man. Except, my soul likes to fly. It's like a bird, you know? I can't live without the feeling of being on the go."

John Parkson smiled, looking over at the young negro, a man no older than himself. "Funny you say that. I'm the same way, actually. I've never felt it was a good thing for a man to be tied down too much."

"I hear that. You know, it's like I've always said. My body might be a slave to somebody else, but there's nobody that can make a slave of my mind. Getting up and down these rivers, I see and hear so many things that other people could never imagine. Everyone talks about the Revolution well, I get to read it. I get to listen to it. You know we had some Frenchmen here at the post not too long ago, you remember them?"

"Yeah, I do actually. Funny accents, I was a little surprised they even spoke English."

"Oh, French people speak it. Important for making money, same as English people have to learn French. You know Thomas Jefferson, he loved spending time in France."

"I heard about that. I hear he spends a lot of time over there."

"Yeah, French have the same ideas about freedom that America does. At least it sounds that way. Those Frenchmen, they were asking how I could live in a country that claims all men are born equal, and yet be a slave. I didn't really have much of an answer for that."

John sighed, eyes floating downriver to the horizon. "Nobody's equal, much as we'd like to talk about it. You know, you might be a slave, but I figure we probably take home about the same amount of money. You might have to give your money to your master, but I've got to give mine to the taxman."

Elwood smiled. "That's a damn shame. We really are equal, just not in the way you might hope for."


When Juan Martinez went to the booth to vote, he had a decision to make. Vote the way his family had always voted, or vote Democrat. It did really bother him to no end that Mexicans were disparaged relentlessly in the Republican debates, but in the end, as he stood there, another factor came into play. His hand slid into his pocket, fingers wrapping around a few loose coins there. Juan considered himself a decent man. A mid level human resources manager at a telephone company, he thoroughly enjoyed the work he did. He never thought he'd be rich, but he'd always imagined that, as a part of the middle class, he'd be able to provide adequately for his family. He dreamed of sending any future child he might have onto a good college, and give them the opportunities he'd never had. Maybe the fourth generation of Martinez kids would be the ones that struck gold for the family.

College was getting expensive though, and he kept hearing Mitt Romney's voice in his head, when he'd told one girl that the best solution to keeping college costs down was to shop around. Another time, he'd suggested borrowing money from parents in order to start up a business. Martinez laughed, a quiet laugh to respect the voters in the booths next to him, but a laugh nonetheless. He'd never be able to loan tens of thousands of dollars to any child he might have, and all colleges were getting increasingly expensive these days. Even community colleges were raising rates, so he wasn't sure what good shopping around would do. He didn't want his children going into heavy debt just to get an education.

So, as he looked at the ballot in front of him, he did something his parents probably never would have imagined doing themselves. He punched Democrat. He stepped out into the cool air, eyes flickering out to the mountains that hovered around Denver. He certainly had no regrets about his decision.


Joseph Martin stood in line at the local polling station, shocked by the huge turnout. He'd arrived at ten that morning because, quite frankly, he'd been unable to find work that week. So here he was, in line, waiting to vote. As he thought on all the problems his family was facing, he just couldn't imagine voting Republican. Obamacare promised a chance to get some decent healthcare. Republicans had been talking about repealing and replacing, but they'd never given any details about what they'd replace the program with. Mitt Romney had said that the United States gave adequate medical care because you could use an emergency room. Martin wasn't sure he understood what poor medical coverage that made, or how that caused medical costs to skyrocket.

At least Obamacare expanded the coverage and allowed for exchanges where he could, hopefully, find something to help his family. As medical care currently existed, he had no chance to afford a medical plan. So, eyes locked on the doors that were still at least an hour away, he tucked himself into his jacket, lowering the 76ers cap he had lower onto his head and sealing his hands into his pockets. He wasn't voting for a handout, here. He was voting for some help for his family.


Jackie McMahon decided to watch election night at an office party she had sponsored. Her boyfriend, a young Asian tailor who made a living fashioning shirts and suits, was scheduled to arrive soon. She was hoping sooner than later. As she watched the election results at about nine that night, it was already looking bad for Romney. Yeah, he was ahead in the electoral votes in a few states, but non of the predictive polling looked like he was going to grab many of the swing states.

She'd voted early. She could afford to, given her status and position. It was unfortunate that the Republicans had gone to such length to try and restrict early voting. You know who that affected most? The poor, students, minorities. At one point or another, her mother had been all of those. Jackie hadn't had it as bad, but she'd still know poverty. Her college education, something her mother had saved and struggled to buy for her, had been the key to Jackie's success. If she decided to have children, they wouldn't have to worry about going to a good school. Still, she couldn't in good conscience vote for people that had made voting a struggle. Her own family came from a background of people that had fought for the right to vote, and to find equality. Jackie wanted to pass that along.


As John Parkson and Elwood Hargrove sat on the pier, watching the sun drop in the distance, they silently acknowledged they'd be doing no business that day. The boats had been slow in coming, so soon, they'd be retiring to the beds they kept in the trading station.

"Never thought I'd be sharing room with a white man, to be honest," Elwood said, hands crossed in front of him. "Of course, that's natural, considering where I come from."

"Guess it's the same for me. I didn't ever think about it, but I can't say it bothers me, to be honest. We're both in the same boat." He chuckled, reflecting on the pun. "Yeah, you and me Elwood, we've both got some of the same problems. Can't say I envy what you go through though."

"Hey you know, it is what it is. I've got it better than some, and some have got it better than others. You might have it better than me, but we're both struggling just to make ends meet. Seems like we're both equal in that regard."

"Yeah you know, they might say all men are created equal, but you have to find where you're equal. You have to work for someone else. I don't, but if I don't, I'm not going to survive long. Not sure how much of a choice that is."

Elwood sighed, leaning back, hands resting on the rough surface of the dock. He looked far into the distance, onto the dimming skies. "Not sure what this country's going to look like in a hundred years. Even if all the races were equal, people still wouldn't be. It's a class thing, not a race thing. Men talk a good game about how we're all equal, but there's always going to be one group of them that wants to rule over the other, doesn't matter if it's a slave or a worker. So people like you and me, we've got to stick together."

John Parkson shook his head, clambering up onto his feet. "It's getting late. I know you have to be as hungry as I am, unless you've been sneaking food while I haven't been looking."

Elwood turned slightly, looking up at his friend. "If you're offering to make a meal, I think I'll accept."

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Watch This Movie: Wreck-It Ralph

Rating: WATCH IT!

Do you remember watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Maybe, maybe not, depending on how old you are, or whether or not your parents' crippling nostalgia forced you to endure an era of cartoons you were never born into. Either way, one of the most amazing elements of that movie was seeing characters like Bugs Bunny and Micky Mouse sharing screen time with one another. You have to understand, this was like seeing Cain and Abel buddying it up at the bar after Cain had just tried to murder him. You know what, at one point in the movie, Donald Duck and Daffy Duck actually do try to murder each other, in what can only be described as the worst incident of Dueling Pianos to have ever gone awry. What I'm trying to say is, these guys were never supposed to share screen time, yet here they were. Wreck-It Ralph does the same thing for video game characters, and it can get hilarious.

An AA meeting for Bad Guys.
You see, Ralph is a bad guy from a game named Fix-It Felix. The problem is, after 30 years of being the bad guy, he's tired of Felix getting all the glory while he gets left out. He doesn't even want to be the good guy. As he says to a Bad Guy support group, he'd probably be okay with being the bad guy if, after the arcade closed, people at least treated him nicely. Unfortunately, Ralph's got hands the size of Don King's hair and feet so big that a dance with him would end in tragic horror. So, even when he's just trying to be nice, he does occasionally end up breaking a few things. Or a few rooms.

Yet a heart of cold still beats in that freakishly large chest.

Turns out that heroes win medals, and bad guys don't, so if he can get his hands on a medal, maybe he'll be accepted by those around him. So he sets off in search of one. This search will take him out of his game world and into at least two others. He'll also cross through a sort of hub world where game characters jump games all the time in order to visit one another. The problem is, if you die outside your game, you die for good, so there's a real risk to the journey. But Ralph is determined, and along the way he meets two other video game heroes that become allies of sorts for him.

A greater case of schizophrenia has never been witnessed.
Let's get something straight: Jane Lynch has some of the best one liners I've heard since Arnold decided to retire from his Terminator gig. Playing a tough as nuts military commander named Tamora Calhoun in a first person game called Hero's Duty, she plays host for Ralph's first foray into the gaming world. On the other hand, you've got Sarah Silverman playing the sometimes-too-adorable Vanellope Von Schweetz, a racing character from a Mario Kart styled game named Sugar Rush. Maybe Vanellope was supposed to be the light hearted entertainment, but Tamora steals every scene she's in. Every. Damn. One. She's a gun at the local bully yard when everyone else is trying to give noogies. She actually does have her own sentimental story going on with Fix-It Felix, who goes after Ralph, but the heart of the story is Ralph's relationship with Vanellope.
One that occasionally strays into the touchy ground of pedophilia.
I wasn't sure if the character of Vanellope was supposed to be a little girl, or just somewhat like that since her program is supposed to be so adorable, but I think half of my inability to see her as having adult features stems from the fact that she's so obviously played by Sarah Silverman. The truth is, though, that the relationship is sweet, and the two do learn from each other over the course of the movie. Don't get me wrong, the movie falters the most in her game world, which comes off too adorable and cuddly for its own good.
Seriously, how long could you tolerate this level of cute?
Still, it may be the movie's weakest game world, but it's also the place where the bulk of the plot and relationships unfold. Once you get past that cutesy exterior, the heart of the story really comes through. The characters are genuine even while being parodies of existing game tropes, and there's an interesting twist toward the end that adds just the right amount of tension to the movie. I should add that the soundtrack is pretty good, too. Composed by Henry Jackman, it slides between traditional orchestra, sometimes accompanied with synthesizers, to full on 1980s video game sounding music. It's done really well, and there's some touching music to accompany what's unfolding on screen. I guarantee you, if you grew up in the 80s, you'll hear a few compositions that stir up that old feeling of hearing synthesizers on a movie.
Jane Lynch had better demand her own franchise after this.
Go see this! It's a great movie. It's great for kids, and adults will still have a good time, especially as you pick out the different game characters floating around. It's got just the right mix of comedy with a touching story, and the last scene, oh gods. I think I shed a tear there at the end.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Sticking a Fist into Conservative Politics

While every Democrat and progressive in the country has at least some reason to be happy today, it's important that we don't forget there's a lot of work to be done over the next four years. Dancing on the grave of the devil just makes you forget he's in the heart of every man, so let's see what challenges we still face and that will arise as we move toward 2016.

The Supreme Court
Ah yes, that non-partisan bastion of justice that gave an election away to Bush, told us corporations were people and actually argued Fox talking points such as comparing health care to broccoli. The election of Obama means a chance to push the court further to the left and, while I appreciate and am convicted that a conservative presence needs to be on the court, the Roberts court has generally  acted in a way that that could only in the mind of Grover Norquist could be deemed fair and balanced. When you have Supreme Court justices such as Alito dining with individuals who will soon be presenting cases to the court, all pretensions of equality are tossed out the door. It's time for more progressive flavor, as even Nate Silver has ranked this as the most conservative court since the 1930s. And let's not forget just how exact Silver was on election night.

The 2014 Elections
The tide on the 2012 election showed a general regret for the bad drinks that were served by the Tea Party and a shift to the left. Beyond just electing Obama, American population pushed the numbers of progressives in both the House and Senate. While the House still falls underneath the dark power of the League of Shadows, otherwise known as Republicans, Democrats get another chance to put a Kimura lock on Congress if they can continue momentum for the next two years. Hint to Democrats: Don't be pansies leading up to 2014. Go big, get your message out. There's a reason 2010 was such a tsunami of backlash.

Fiscal Deficit
I'm not convinced our economy is as bad as some Republicans would like the world to believe. Everyone knows less debt is good, but foreign countries are still buying our dollars for a reason. Still, we've got to address the gaping maw of insolvency, but note to Republicans: We're not getting rid of Social Security and health services. Which means we've got to find another way out. Get rid of parts of government that are redundant if you want. Hey though, big secret? The United States military outspends the next nine or ten military investors. We don't need to be sinking money into floating fortresses that sit about for 'security' purposes, or trillion dollar military equipment that so outclasses our opponents its silly, when current models still do the same damn thing. Let's make smart, honest decisions about where to focus our military power, and reinvest that money into America. Also? Everyone making a million dollars or more needs to be paying higher taxes. Note to Republicans, the 1950s and 1960s of prosperity you loved so much? Yeah, there was a top tax rate then of 91%. Just sayin'.

Postal Service
Hey, simple answer, don't make them have a retirement plan that extends so far in advance that it makes the current system insolvent. No other company, ever, has done that.

Can we get real Republicans? The New York Post  is still saying the Hurricane Sandy's link to environmental change is pseudoscience. Bloody hell, somebody on Red State said that environmental science was the same as phrenology. <em>Phrenology.</em> For those of you born, I don't know, anytime in the past century, you shouldn't be expected to know this, but phrenology linked personality traits to the shape of your damned skull. I mean, Republicans are basically saying environmental science is the study of the fickle whims of Odin and Zeus, engaged in a bit-too-friendly game of grab ass. Hey, guess what guys, we now have computers and can actually track changes like rising sea levels and temperature change. Other than that, why you guys hating on Zeus, yo?

AGAINST EVERYONE! Come on Republicans, can you seriously be arguing that women can't get equitable health care services, immigrants should be expected to be electrocuted, minority voting precincts should have far more difficult times voting, or that gays shouldn't be allowed to have equivalent benefits for marriage? I mean seriously, the majority of this stuff doesn't effect you, and maybe more minorities would vote for you if you weren't making them feel like the red headed step child at a Black Irish wake. Note to everyone: I love redheads. But seriously, Democrats need to keep making inroads with these groups and fighting for their rights. If they do, the continuing trend of minorities and women voting Democrat will only increase going into 2014 and 2016, giving the party more leverage and punching power.

I supported the auto bailouts and bank bailouts. Yeah, yeah, hate me if you want, but I didn't think letting companies go bankrupt was going to help the economy, a lesson I think we all should have learned from, oh I don't know, the Great Depression. Remember those things called Hoovervilles? They weren't just collective figments of a population gone drunk on moonshine, dancing the jimmy leg with pink elephants. But neither did I support massive bank corruption, criminal retaking of houses based on bad loans the banks themselves extended, huge golden parachutes to CEO's who make massive layoffs and engage in bad business practices, or a Wall Street that would go without punishment for bad behavior. Let's make sure we tighten our regulation screws and make sure we don't have repeats of these fiascos. Guess what big banking America, you got a loan from the American public. Now we have to demand they work for us, by our rules.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Power of Your Vote, The Power of Your Voice, The Power of Your Action

You would rather have a Lexus or justice
A dream or some substance
A Beamer, a necklace or freedom

- Hip Hop, Dead Prez

What values are we fighting for in this presidential election? Who are we voting for, and why? What motivates us to vote the way we do? The reasons are as numerous as the sands on the sore, and how a person is driven to act is as fickle as the wind. When cast a vote, however, one cannot afford to be fickle. Voting is force. It is violence unleashed, power wielded. It can mean the difference between justice and injustice, between prosperity for some over others. Since no human society can exist with perfect equality, the grand experiment begun by our Founding Fathers has been a production constantly in the remaking. From a community of white male farmers who held the franchise, to a community of male and female voters and a community of ethnicities of all manner of diverse backgrounds with the capability of voting, America has never been the perfect dream only imperfectly grasped at by the founders of our country.

Thomas Jefferson, for as much as we trumpet him, did not free his slaves at death. Washington, long the bastion of Federalist power and greater central government, did. Why? What influenced their choices, and did one man have any more inherent worth than the other? No. Instead, they were both imperfect individuals making imperfect choices in difficult times. There is no difference from the precipice at which they stood to the one we stand now, as every choice we make will influence four years and, eventually, generations of people to come after us.

That is the power of the vote. The power of the vote empowered individuals like Andrew Jackson who discarded treaties with Native Americans and began outright conflict in the attempt to take land. The power of the vote also secured men like Roosevelt who initiated programs that would benefit the least of our society, the impoverished and starving that just years earlier had languished beneath the presidency of Herbert Hoover, who shifted the burden of care to private institutions woefully under-equipped to deal with the struggles of the Great Depression. 

But force wielded is not limited to the vote, and it's important to remember that. The great upheavals that tore at the fabric of American society in the early 20th century were actions of individuals in response to the inaction of those in power. While men such as Eisenhower and Kennedy were placed into power by the vote, and had sympathies for the African Americans that struggled under racist policies in the south, it took the unceasing shouts of the people to force action. It took brave individuals entering schools while being taunted by classmates, and college students willing to be beaten for riding buses in support of racial equality. It took protests and unending voices, media coverage and endless group action to alert the United States government that an eternal war in Vietnam was wrong. In one defining moment of the classic American show, The Wonder Years, a discussion occurs between war protestor Louis and Kevin's dad that echoes the reality of what people were facing:

Louis: Don't accept all this death and then justify it. It is wrong! Your friends should be alive...they should be enjoying dinner, and arguing with their kids, just like you are.
Jack:What do you know about it? Who the hell are you to say that?!
Louis: [pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket] You see this, man? This is my draft notice. In two weeks, I can go to jail, I can go to Canada or, I can go get shot, full of holes, like your friend Brian Cooper. You keep thinking the way you do, Mr. Arnold, and these two [points to Kevin and Wayne] will be next. And I just hope that's what they want.

What is the legacy of the vote then, and what is the legacy of social action? It was neither one or the other, but the two working in tandem, that created change. It was violence, force and power, exerted because no institution changes peaceably. It is always the use of force that mandates change, even if that force is not that of the rifle or the shotgun. Though the statement has become cliché, the phrase "The pen is mightier than the sword" still resonates precisely because the power of an idea belong to no individual and persists long after we depart this world. The idea of freedom and equality so imperfectly beheld by those that created our country has been hammered upon and worked at by generations of individuals to continue after. So now, at this election, we stand at a crossroad. This crossroad, however, is not unique. It will not, singularly, define the future of America. However, it is one crossroad of many that we must cross. The stakes are always high because change always requires time, effort, and memory; Memory of where we came from, what we've become, and a vision of what we want to be.

The freedom to vote, now being denied to some by those who so tenaciously grasp at power, is one of our greatest weapons. That is a fact being realized in communities who were long marginalized, and who continue to face marginalization via billboards that try to warn them away from voting and rhetoric that demeans their ethnicity. The freedom to choose how to run one's family, once the exclusive domain of white males, has now become a field in women have input. Yet the ability to choose whether one is ready to be a parent or not is slowly being taken away by a government that demands young girls to have babies that they cannot properly raise, and yet refuses to provide the funds necessary to support, educate and equip those children for anything else than menial jobs. The freedom to choose who one can love without facing stigma or discrimination is one we are still in the process of warring for. And of course, the freedom to believe what one wants to believe. Whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, or any number of other faiths or non faiths in this world, what one decides to believe should not be a point on which politicians can find traction through the basis of discrimination. What one believes should not be reduced to a talking point by which to strike fear.
So where will we be in another hundred years? Much rests on this election, but only because much rests on every election and every action in between. Progress is not made in a moment, but in a lifetime. Racial equality, sexual equality, religious equality, love equality, have all been works in progress from the moment the words "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men were created equal" were put to the parchment that formed the nation's Declaration of Independence.

When you think about the actions you take, about the vote you wield and the movements you support, it's as important to think about others, including those to come afterward, as it is to think about yourself. What world would we choose for those to come after? Is it a world of greater discrimination, of religious homogeneity and intolerance, of racial intolerance and hateful rhetoric? Is it a world where, based on what one chooses to be or believe, they are disparaged in the media, disdained by politicians and insulted by religious leaders who actually betray that they are simply as political as the secular leaders they claim to be distinct from?
Every individual has power, and that power is magnified when many come together. Like a thousand gusts of wind forming a tornado, or a thousand drops of rain forming a storm, unified power of individuals becomes group force that is unstoppable. That is the beautiful violence of action wielded, the violence that creates peace because it raises no guns but raises a voice.

Go Vote. Happy Election Day, 2012.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Watch This Movie: Cloud Atlas

Rating: WATCH IT!

“Our lives are not our own, we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”

Does that look confusing to you? If so, you're thinking like everyone else that watched.
Have you ever watched a movie and, when you're leaving the theater, just said "Damn it!" to yourself? Not because you're disappointed, but because, in the words of Will Ferrell, you're "Mind Bottled", with all your thoughts trapped in your head like a bottle? Welcome to Cloud Atlas, my friend. From start to finish, this film is a quilt patched together from about five different storylines, three different major themes and a dose of confusion so heavy you'll be left wondering if you just attended a Mitt Romney seminar on truth telling.
The credits list alone should tell you what a mind bender this will be.
But seriously, it's easier for me to tear apart a bad film than to think on the merits of a film that aimed ludicrously high and occasionally scraped it, while also dregging through some of the pits of film making. Let's be real clear here, everything you might have heard is true. Hugo Weaving plays a typical bad guy type, in addition to an overweight, overbearing female nurse as well as a demonic leprechaun.
Almost as creepy as Johnny Depp in Willy Wonka. But he has a better hat.
You've also got Tom Hanks talking in an initially almost incomprehensible version of future English as well as a crazy Irish accent, among others. You've got white men playing Koreans, and perhaps more insanely, black men playing Koreans. I'm not saying you can't be black and Korean, but the ethnic jive here is just nuts. That's beside the point, though. My advice? Buy into the universe. Accept those elements are a commentary on reincarnation or reoccurring themes that everyone in life deals with. Because this movie has something to offer.
Jokes aside, there are some touching moments. Literally, this is just before these guys kiss. I kid. Or do I?
First of all, the action, when it happens, is awesome. There aren't a lot of other movies where an action sequence will split between three or four different actions scenes occurring in entirely different realities. Off the top of my head, Inception is one of them. In Cloud Atlas, you have a futuristic laser battle parsing between a stowaway slave avoiding gunshots while a 1970s car chase goes down between elderly runaways steal a car. What the hell?
In fairness, this is one of the most awesome scenes of the film.
The action scenes aren't just good. The story takes place over thousands of years, so you see boats sailing in the colonial Caribbean, mansions in old Europe, Blade Runner style future cities and a post apocalyptic Hawaii, complete with ships that look like they were designed by aliens and satellite communication systems that unfold like Lotus flowers.
You can only wish you lived here.
I have a quote at the top of this review, though, and it sums up the movie beautifully. I found myself quoting it last night, more than 24 hours after I'd left the theater. That's one sign, to me, of a good film. The film tells six separate stories in six separate time periods, but ties them together with the common theme that how we act and what we do can have repercussions on those around us, as well as those who come after this. Interspersed in all of this is the notion of reincarnation, that we live on. That's one reason you have actors taking on multiple roles throughout the film. The truly important notion, though, of how we affect each other and can resonate far beyond our lifetimes, is important. I have caught reviews saying that it's trite, and that it's played out. Well, played out to who? Don't we need reminding that our lives have an impact beyond ourselves? Don't new generations need to be told this? Yeah, there are some artistic choices that will bother people. The reuse of actors, some of the accents. They're unimportant to the main thrust of the film though. There's a story of lovers separated by disease and distance, of lovers separated by culture and circumstance, of people who loved for only a moment before being separated by disaster, of love separated by time and fate, of love separated by warfare, and finally love that brings it all to a satisfying conclusion. It's love and courage, recurring human traits in the face of recurring human evil, an eternal battle that never ends but is constantly waged. Humanity may repeat itself, in many ways and lifetimes, but the things we do can have an impact on those who come after, and affect whether they may triumph or not.
Seriously, go WATCH IT!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Don’t Watch This Movie: Paranormal Activity 4

It’s Halloween. You’re ready to be scared. You grab your girlfriend, go to the movies, and get ready to endure one of the most frightening experiences of your youthful life: Movie ticket prices. Because the gods know you won’t be experiencing any scares during Paranormal Activity 4. Let’s be straight about this from the start, PA4 has about as much originality as the last few SAW films. I mean, there are only so many ways you can beat a horse before its undead corpse rises from the grave in a vengeful fit of retaliation. And bloody hell does this corpse fight back.

Haley Joel Osmond played this shtick out 15 years ago.
For those of you who’ve been paying attention to the lore of the Paranormal Activity series (though let’s be honest, who gives a damn), there’s a coven of witches that endows that go about finding successors and possessing children with spirits. That wasn’t too clear in PA1, it came out a bit more clearly in PA2, and by PA3 we were having full on witch-on-broomstick flights of fancy. We learned the entire family we’d been witnessing was descended from witches who’d chosen the two main sisters of the films, and now that curse has been passed onto the boys.
This guy? Total douchebag.
I don’t want to spoil the film for you if you’re planning to watch it (and why would you when this article is titled DON’T WATCH THIS MOVIE), but some secrets are revealed, and new ones unleashed. Apparently the witches are now part zombie or something, like they thought they needed to merge the series with parts of the Quarantine films, creating some horrific pastiche. It’s like some new meta approach to horror, where the movie itself isn’t scary, but the method of creating it is.

Nobody cares anymore.
Anyway, the best part of the movie is watching the Xbox Kinect they play with, because at that point PS3 fans started booing in a moment of nerd solidarity. Wii users, which we know don’t really exist, were appropriately silent. PA4 does dabble in some interesting elements, such as using the infrared from the Xbox sensor as a way to pick up on ghost movement, but it’s never really enough to scare. There are some tense moments when you’re wondering if someone’s going to get cut by a knife from the sky like God’s holy vengeance, but you never really feel frightened. The moment that made me jump the most was when someone almost got hit by a Prius, and if that’s the only way the movie’s going to scare me I’ll go load up on alcohol and watch World’s Deadliest Police Chases.

She's underage, perverts.
No, for most of the film you’ll be watching asleep in their beds, like a pervert who can justify their bad habit as a form of ‘ghost hunting’. Yeah, nobody wants to know about the spirits you’re seeking, sicko. In fact, the main male figure of the movie comes across like a creepy teen stalker by the way he sees and records every detail of his girlfriends existence due to their cam chats over the computer. So nerds everywhere, rejoice. You too can hope of seeing breasts at some point in your lifetime, as long as you remember to convince her to keep the webcam on so he can hunt ghosts.