Saturday, June 23, 2012

Movie Review: Brave

Disney / Pixar
Released: June 22, 2012
Rated PG

Merida refuses to be wed off to one of three heirs to Scottish clans, and searches for a way to change her fate.

What I Loved:

The Animation
Pixar had to upgrade their software to handle Merida's hair and the clothing details in the film.  Merida's hair is pretty breathtaking.  I totally wanted to dye my hair red and get a perm. (Wonder if that will become a trend?)  The Scottish landscape, castle, and magical forest were beautiful to behold.  One reviewer claimed Brave's animation "appears neither better nor worse than Madagascar 3 or The Lorax." (link)  I disagree, and with a brother who specializes in 3D animation, I can see the difference in the level of detail, environment texture, use of light and shadows, and overall character design.  Brave is far superior in animation to films like Madagascar 3 or The Lorax and anyone who says otherwise clearly does not have a knowledge of the craft.

The Mother/Daughter Conflict
Merida is at battle with her mother over following traditions, accepting female gender roles, and submitting to an arranged marriage.  I thought this was a very organic conflict for the time period the film was set in, and yet still very poignant for today's girls.  As a female in today's world, I still experience conflict over how a female is expected to act and how to get what I want.  For example, I still feel like being sweet and compliant are traits expected from women, whereas confidence, assertiveness, and intelligence can get you labeled a cold b***h.  One male reviewer cites Brave had a "superficial girl-empowerment theme." (link)  I take offense to that, and calling a movie that empowers women 'superficial' is sexist, especially when this is the first time Pixar has tackled women's issues and what could be a risky move for them in a male-driven movie market.  I admired how Pixar handled the resolution to the conflict.  The mother represented traditional female values whereas Merida represented a more aggressive and assertive modern woman.  In the resolution, in order to break the spell cast on her mother, Merida had to use a blend of traditional and modern.  Merida had to sew a tapestry (domestic and traditional) as well as fight with arrow and sword (aggressive and modern).  I thought Pixar put a lot of thought into the women's issues in the film and it gave the film a depth we haven't seen in princess animated narratives.

The Humor
Our theater was wild with laughter from children to adults, girls to boys.  Parts of the movie were pretty scary and dramatic, so the humor was definitely necessary.  Most of the humor came from Merida's brothers, the scheming and cake-loving triplets.  They were hilarious and adorable in their hijinks and mannerisms.  Another source of comedic relief were Merida's suitors.  I particularly liked one suitor who spoke so incoherently that no one could understand him.  Merida's mother also got several laughs from the audience, though I'll refrain from giving away any plot spoilers.

The Celtic Mythology
The wisps, kilts, clans, bear lore, Scottish accents, tapestries, and other bits of Celtic culture gave this fairy tale a fresh feel.  It is a culture that hasn't been explored in any recent animated feature films and was a welcome addition to the movie.

Word of Caution
The bears were quite scary and probably the reason that this animated feature has a PG rating instead of a G rating.

Overall Opinion
Brave was another outstanding movie from Pixar that I will be purchasing to go alongside my copies of Finding Nemo, Toy Story, and Wall-E.  Merida's journey of discovery is magical, exciting, funny, and heart-warming.  I highly recommend this movie to people of all ages, but especially mothers and daughters who will be touched by the story's conflict.

Friday, June 22, 2012

First Tutorial Critique

Today was our first critique in my tutorial class.  It was unusual because we read our work aloud and then critiqued it immediately after.  Because this is the first week of class, we didn't have adequate time to critique work outside of class in just one day.  This is the only time we'll be doing read aloud critiques, which is good!  I wasn't a fan.  It felt rushed and I didn't always have a copy of the story in front of me to follow along (and I'm very much someone who needs to follow along).  And it was hard to jot down notes and listen at the same time.

The project I've decided to work on for my Advanced Tutorial is an idea that came to me last summer and I just started working on this past winter.  It is very new, very rough, and today was the first time I shared it with the world.

What I'm willing to share online in terms of concept is I'm doing a steampunk twist of a piece of classic literature.  It will involve a strong heroine, clockwork creatures, ghosts, romance, and an evil lady who's part of a secret society.

Critique Feedback

I got comments on good pacing which I consider my strength.  But I was nervous because the beginning of this particular project was backstory, and I was worried about the backstory being not engaging.  But my class LOVED the way I did the backstory!  Yay!

My class said I have memorable lines, vivid descriptions, and a nice blend of drama and humor.  I'm funny?  Didn't think I was that funny, but I'll take it.  And supposedly my main character has a mathematical and scientific view of the world in her voice that is intriguing... I really don't know how I pulled that off, and I hope I can continue that voice through the rest of the novel.

In terms of constructive criticism, there were questions about age progression (I had issues with the age of the main character, so I expected that).  They wanted a scene with the mother.  And they wanted a description of the nursery setting.  All of which I will consider doing so long as it doesn't mess with the pacing too much.  I like my pacing fast.

Next Thursday will be my first 20 page critique and I definitely have some writing to do this weekend... in a mathematical/scientific voice... yipes!  I really hope that comes out naturally because it wasn't a conscious thing.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

First Classes: Tutorial and Dystopian

Advanced Tutorial

This is a small class of six graduate students where the emphasis will be working on individual writing projects and critique.  We will be submitting 10-20 pages per week for critique as well as complete two presentations on aspects of the craft of writing that we are mystified by or struggling with.  I've chosen to do my presentation on point-of-view, specifically choosing third person or first person.

We also had a discussion on the high concept novel.  There were twenty-five principles that we looked at as being part of a high-concept novel.  A few of them are: original and unique concept, appeals to wide audience, a quintessential protagonist, a sweeping landscape, and a life-changing event.  The discussion and twenty-five principles definitely gave me some things to consider when plotting/outlining and some new writing terms to add to my craft vocabulary.

Genre Study: Dystopian and Science Fiction

I was incredibly psyched for this class, and I was not let down at all by the first class.  This class is larger at 12 students, but also has a creative emphasis.  We will be submitting 5-10 pages each week for critique, and the pages should be some form of science fiction.  We will be reading five novels (Across the Universe, Ender's Game, Feed, Adoration of Jenna Fox, Matched) and using one writing handbook (How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card).  We will have discussions about the books and keep a reader response journal that is focused on craft.  Our journals should show that we are reading the novels as a writer and examining how an author was successful or unsuccessful in their novel by looking at aspects of their craft.

For the first class, we defined science fiction as a whole, and then defined many different sub genres of science fiction.  Here are the sub-genres we discussed:

  • Utopian
  • Dystopian
  • Ecotopian
  • Feminist Utopian
  • Hard Science Fiction
  • Soft Science Fiction
  • Cyberpunk
  • Time Travel / Time Slip
  • Steampunk
  • Alternate History
  • Superhuman
  • Military
  • Space Opera
  • Parody / Comedic
We finished class with a writing exercise, where we had to pick one of the sub-genres above that we would never normally touch... the sub-genre we would normally avoid.  We then had to come up with a protagonist, problem, reason for urgency to solve problem, something terrible in protagonist's past, the worst thing that could happen to them, and how they would get themselves out of that lowest moment.  It was actually a fun exercise, that I'd like to repeat.

Two more classes this week, with first critiques!

I have to finish Across the Universe by Beth Revis this weekend because that's the first book up for discussion, so a review of that book should be up on the blog soon!

Monday, June 18, 2012

TV Show to Watch: Legend of Korra

Yesterday, I posted about Brave and how animated feature films need more female characters in leading roles.  Today, I want to highlight a TV Show that is truly extraordinary and exemplifies an equal ratio of male/female characters and also has females starring in strong, leading roles.  So let me tell you why The Legend of Korra is so fantastic:

First off, let me start by saying that I'm not someone who watches a lot of anime or reads a lot of manga.  I have an awareness of it because of my students, but it's a very surface level awareness.  Some things I respect about Japanese animation is how they embrace characters of all ages, explore complex plots, and delve into human emotions.

Legend of Korra is a sequel series to Nickelodeon's American attempt at a cartoon series in the style of Japanese anime.  The first series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, aired from 2005-2008, was a roaring success (9.0 rating on with high praise from both viewers and critics.  I started watching it because of my younger brother, and discovered that it was even more worth watching than Spongebob.  As great as the original animated Avatar series was, I believe Legend of Korra might be better.  Here's why:

The plot is much more complex than your average animated show.  It deals with issues such as prejudice, rebellion, and corruption.  The premise of this series is that there is a revolution in Republic City that targets and threatens a certain population (benders) because the general people (non-benders) have long felt powerless and controlled.  As the plot thickens, we learn new characters who are actually corrupt within the structure of the government and city.  Sometimes I wonder how much of this show is going over the heads of a kid audience.

The biggest reason this show is awesome is the characters.  They each have distinct personalities and roles in the story.  The ratio of female and male characters is even, but, oh-my-lordy, the female characters ROCK.  Let me highlight three of them:

First, there's Korra, the lead character.  She's strong, fiesty, and tough.  She doesn't let anyone tell her what to do, which sometimes causes her to make mistakes, but they are mistakes that she deals with herself.  She's the essence of a strong leading lady.
Asami Sato

Then, there's Asami Sato.
She drives fast cars.
And motorcycles.
And wears fashionable leather outfits and takes off her helmet and shakes out her long, luxurious hair.
She can fight/defend herself.
And did I mention she's drop dead gorgeous?
She's fabulous.
Lin Beifong

And finally there's Lin Beifong.
She's the Chief of Police for the entire freaking city.
The Chief of freaking Police.
She can also fly through the air, knock people out, and see through the ground/walls.
She is one tough chick with some serious integrity.

And finally, the animation is GORGEOUS.  Some scenes are actually breathtaking.  This is not the kind of animation you typically see in a TV show.  The quality is so high above everything else you see on TV, that just glancing at it, you should be able to see the difference.  The backgrounds often look like watercolor paintings.  Both city and landscape are beautiful.  Below are a few screenshots:

Oh wait, did I mention the series is steampunk?  Yup.  Airships, goggles, crazy gadgets, the whole deal.  It gives the show this fantastic edge and freshness that is so much fun.

If I did a good job and convinced you that you need to check this show out, some full episodes are currently streaming on for free here.

I think the show would be easier to understand if you have the background from the original series Avatar: The Last Airbender, but if you don't want to track down that series, you can read a summary here to give you a primer before Korra.  Mostly what you need to know is:

  • What is bending?  (Air-bending, water-bending, fire-bending, earth-bending)
  • What is the Avatar?  Why is the Avatar important?
If you can answer those two questions, then you're set to watch Legend of Korra and enjoy!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Why it's Critically Important to See Brave on Opening Weekend

This blog post is my attempt to awaken you to an issue, and to explain why it is so important that you see Brave on its Opening Weekend.

This is an issue that's really important to me, and something I wasn't aware of until I read this post by Shannon Hale.  I highly, highly recommend you read her post.  I kind of wanted to copy and paste the entire thing into my post, but that would be silly... so here's a few of her main points:

  • Hollywood appeals to a male audience (even in animated films) because they assume guys won't see films with female main characters whereas girls will watch anything.
  • If you were to look at the cast of characters of animated movies made in the last 10 years and count the number of male characters versus female characters, the ratio (about 1:10) would be completely imbalanced and unrealistically heavy on male characters.
  • The roles female characters do have in the story reinforce negative stereotypes in society for women: girls aren't leaders, girls aren't important enough to be main characters, girls don't matter to the story, girls aren't interesting, and girls aren't funny.
So here's my plea.  Pixar has made 12 feature films.  This is the first movie Pixar has made with a female main character.  Money sends a message to Hollywood, and Hollywood measures success based on a feature film's opening weekend.

Here's two scenarios:
  1. Brave has a solid opening weekend (because it's Pixar and Pixar has a solid reputation), but Brave does not make as much money as other Pixar movies have made in their opening weekends.  This will send a message to Hollywood that having a female main character hurt sales and was a weakness of the film.  Pixar is then hesitant to make more films with female main characters.
  2. Moms and Dads, girls and guys, show up on opening weekend to see Brave.  Sales are high and equal to those of other Pixar films.  Hollywood sees that the gender of the main character is not a weakness/strength, and Pixar is encouraged to make more movies with strong female characters in lead roles.
This is why it is CRITICALLY important for all of us to support Brave in its opening weekend.  Please, send a message to Hollywood that we like to see girls in movies just as much as we like our boys.

And feel free to do your own post or link to my post to spread the word!  Support Brave this weekend!

*Sidenote* Japan doesn't have the same gender issues as the US in their animated features.  The ratio is far more balanced and frequently have female lead characters.  I showed the movies Ponyo, Kiki's Delivery, Spirited Away, and The Secret World of Arrietty (which all feature female main characters) to my majority male 11-12 year old students this year, and the kids LOVED them all.  And my heart melted a little when the boys in one class were cheering for Arrietty as she scaled a curtain with hooks and proclaiming how strong and 'epic' she was.  Boys WILL WATCH movies with girl characters.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Book Review: Crossed

by Ally Condie
Genre: Dystopian
Big Themes: Escape, Survival, Freedom, Love, Trust, Poetry

*Second Book in Series--Some Minor 1st Book Spoilers*
Summary: Cassia goes out in search of Ky, who was taken by the Society.  Ky struggles to survive where the Society has placed him.  While Cassia is searching, she learns more about the Rising, the rebel force that opposes the Society.

What I Liked:
Xander: I liked that he pops up throughout the novel, and that Cassia's feelings for him are unresolved.  I still like Xander more than Ky.  Xander is strong, quick-witted, plotting, and supposedly handsome.  I'm hoping there will be much more of him in Reached.

Seeing both Ky and Cassia's POVs: I liked knowing where each of them was and what they were thinking.  It allowed me to better understand Ky, and while I still don't like him as much as Xander, I understand him a little better.

The Blue Tablet Twist: I don't want to ruin this for anyone, but I liked this little development.  I don't know if I like how it was handled with Cassia, but see my dislikes for how all the characters are being sheltered from real threat.

The Canyon Caves: This was an interesting and unique setting.  From the cave paintings, to the hidden tunnels, to the smell of sage, this made the setting memorable.  I do wish the setting had played a more active role in the plot because I think there were more possibilities for how the setting could have presented unique challenges or how the setting could have been used against the Society.

What I Didn't Like:
Lack of Voice: While I liked getting both Ky and Cassia's points-of-view, more than once I found myself getting confused as to who was narrating because their voices were indistinguishable.  I'd have to flip back to the start of chapter to see whose name was there.  Ky and Cassia are such different characters.  They should have different voices.  If the author was going to introduce a new narrator in the second book, then voice is something that should have been considered and addressed.

Lack of Threat/Tension: Characters die in this book.  The threat of the Society is referred to constantly. But do we ever see a character die at the hands of the Society?  No.  Every single death happens "off-screen."  I have a problem with that because it seems to me that the author is sheltering and protecting her characters.  As a writer myself, I understand that your characters are your babies, but they have to experience the world.  Because all the deaths in this book happened off-screen, I never felt like there was a serious threat.  I never felt tension.  Did J.K. Rowling kill Sirius, Dumbledore, Dobby, Snape "off screen"?  No.  The threat of Voldemort was real.  The danger was real.  The characters weren't sheltered.  What the author really needs to do for Reached, is make a list of every terrible thing that could happen to the characters, and then make the characters go through all those terrible things.  It forces the characters to grow and show you what they're made off.  It keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.  It would make Reached an epic final book in this trilogy.  But I have my doubts as to whether that's what will happen...

My Rating: Everyone was telling me that if I didn't liked Matched, then I really wouldn't like Crossed because it wasn't very exciting.  So I went into the book expecting to hate it.  I didn't hate it.  It was kind of just the same as Matched for me.  There were some parts that were interesting.  Some things that weren't executed well.  I'd give it three stars.  I'll probably still read Reached to finish out the trilogy (mostly for Xander).

And I have a theory about Dystopian trilogies...  And why they are tough to pull off as trilogies... And why Dystopias work better as stand alone novels...  But I'll save that for after my Dystopian class this summer.  :)

Monday, June 11, 2012

App I Love: Newsify

If you have an iPhone and you want a way to keep up with your Google Reader on the go, you should check out the Newsify app.  (It's free!)

I downloaded it over the weekend, and I'm in love.  The app syncs with your Google Reader, and you can easily browse through all your subscriptions.  The layout is especially pleasing to the eye; blog posts are set up in squares with their titles, an image, and date posted.  See my screenshot below for a sample view:

I've been searching for a great app to read all my favorite blogs on the go, and this app has definitely done it for me.  The mobile version of Google Reader was not very friendly to the eye, and more challenging to navigate.  Newsify is pretty and easy-to-use.  Commenting on posts is still difficult, but for now I'll read on the go, and comment at my leisure when I get home.

Anyone else use Newsify?  Or another app for reading blogs?

Friday, June 8, 2012

Start of Summer 2012

Blogging Update:

I'm a teacher (I don't talk about it much on my blog because I do this for fun and try to keep it separate from work), and today marked the last day of school, which means a bunch of wonderful things!
  • I'll have more time to read.
  • I'll have more time to write reviews.
  • I'll have more time for my own writing.
  • And I begin graduate classes (a class in YA Dystopian and a Writing Tutorial)
You'll see me posting with much more frequency, about 5 times a week instead of the pathetic once a week I've been doing lately.  I'm hoping to be a more regular commenter on other blogs as well.

I revamped my blog in January as both a book blog and writing blog, and it's been so fun to see my blog grow and to meet new people.  I still don't have a huge readership, but I contribute it to the fact that I don't post as regularly and do giveaways and memes.

You'll definitely see me posting more regularly over the next few months.  

I won't be promising any giveaways.  I give most of my spare books away to students and already spend a ton of money on my students at school.  So I really have a hard time justifying spending any of my meager teacher's salary on blog giveaways.  And I don't really enter giveaways myself because I'm not blogging to win free stuff.

And we'll see on the memes.  It has to be something that I still think is meaningful and interesting, not just I'm doing this meme so I have something I can post every Tuesday or whatever.  If you have any suggestions of memes that you think are interesting/quirky/cool that I might like, feel free to recommend.

So in summary, you'll be seeing much more of me!  And hopefully I'll see much more of your blogs!  And maybe I'll gain a few more friends and readers in Summer 2012 as I devote more time to blogging, reading, and writing  ^_^

Monday, June 4, 2012

Book Review: Little Brother

Little Brother
by Cory Doctorow
Genre: Dystopian
Big Themes: Terrorism, Cyber Security, Freedom, Privacy, Government, Torture, Friendship, Love
***Grad School Text***

Summary: Marcus is a 17 year-old tech genius who gets caught in the wrong place at the wrong time during a catastrophic terrorist attack on San Francisco.  Because of all the tech gear Marcus carries with him, the Department of Homeland Security suspects he had something to do with the attack.  After days of interrogation and torture, Marcus swears to get revenge on the DHS...

What I Liked:

The book made you think.  I haven't read a book that made me think about big issues like this in awhile.  It made me question what level of surveillance is okay for the government or another institution to do.  It made me want to learn more about cyber security, programming, and cryptography.  It made me wonder what liberties or conveniences I would give up if my safety were threatened.  These are real issues that face us today as the internet is such an integral part of our daily life, but at the same time makes us so vulnerable.  I think this is an important (but fun) book for people to read in today's world.

The Voice: Marcus had a great personality.  I really enjoyed him as a narrator.  He was funny and quirky. He explained complex technology in an easy-going, conversational way, and yet revealed his doubts, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities with total honesty.  I was always on the same page as him in terms of where he was going, what was important, and how he was feeling.  Narration is definitely a strength of the book.

What I Didn't Like: 

Heavy Tech Language Impacted Pacing: The book was a tad heavy on technology and explanations of how the technology works.  Granted the explanations are usually kept under a page and told in Marcus' quirky way.  They held my interest.  But if you know my reading preferences by now, you know I like my books fast paced.  I have little patience for slow plots and heavy description.  So while the descriptions of how different forms of cyber security worked were well-done, I did notice how they affected the pacing.  (I still finished the book in three days, so please don't think it's a slow read.)

Live Action Role Play: This hobby (dressing up in costume and pretending to be vampires or wizards or dudes with swords) popped up a few times in the book.  It's nerdy.  Mainstream readers might be turned off by this activity that is on the fringe of Geek World.  I just took it for what it was.  I would hope most readers would still be open to all the big questions and issues this book brings up and not shy away because of nerdy subplots.

My Rating: Based on the book's description, I wasn't too excited to read it, but I'm really glad I did.  I loved the big ideas this book made me think about and I loved the voice of the narrator.  I'm giving it 4 big stars out of five.

Recommended For Readers 14 and up
Due to sexual content and mature themes

Sidenote: The frequent coffee drinking in the book made me CRAVE COFFEE while I was reading.  And lots of yummy descriptions of food too.  If you like that sort of thing  ^_^