A shameless plug

After working with a couple of agents and being told her book was very good, just not marketable (because homosexuality is normalized) my daughter decided to self publish her fantasy novel Godspeaker. So please consider getting your own copy. It’s available for the Kindle ($4.99) or as a paperback ($12.99) from Amazon, but it’s also available on createspace as a paperbound book, also at $12.99. She makes a little more in royalties if you buy it from createspace.

Godspeaker by Tessa Crowley
Godspeaker by Tessa Crowley

If you like my writing, you will like her writing better. Frankly, she’s a better writer than either my wife or I and we both are reasonably talented writers. It’s actually quite humbling for me to realize I helped sire this force of creativity. It’s not for homophobes. If you look at the preview on Amazon, you will find that she dedicated it to my wife and I.

The novel is obviously an enormous investment in time and creativity. It’s been improved in part because two agents have reviewed it and requested changes. It’s also an investment of fortune, as she had a professional cover done and bought an ISBN. It will also be available as an audiobook soon.

Tessa Crowley is obviously not her real name, just her pseudonym. You can follow Tessa on her tumblr or check out her website.

Review: Coraline

There are plenty of 3D movies now in production, and a couple now in theaters including the recently released Monsters vs. Aliens, which has been widely panned as having an empty soul. Do we really need 3D movies? I kept asking myself this question while watching the recently released movie Coraline which my wife and I found in 3D at our local theater. We had to pay $12 for the privilege of watching a matinee of this 3D movie.  For this extra money I sure hoped there was some content in the movie that justified the extra expense of our tickets. In fact even for a movie as entrancing as Coraline, you really do not need the 3D trapping. This movie probably would have been just as good, if not better, without it.

Here’s the problem with 3D movies: they needlessly distract from the content of the movie. Having objects come hurling at toward you from the screen is a one trick pony. It is novel the first half dozen times you encounter it but after that it is like radio static, too many scratches on the film stock or some noisy theatergoers settling down late into seats near you (which happened to us while watching this movie). 3D offers another limitation: by adding another dimension you somehow lose a tiny bit of resolution and for some of us it is just enough to be bothersome. Unless we can become inured to having three dimensions in a film, it adds no value. And if we can get used to it, what is the point in adding it in the first place?

So don’t go see Coraline to see a movie in 3D. Go to see it if you enjoy deftly conceived, directed and produced fantasy films. Although at this late date it is hard to find in the theater, if you enjoy fantasy then Coraline is a must see film. You may have to wait for it to appear in DVD, hope your HDTV will render 3D, and the DVD comes with pairs of 3D glasses.

The reason Coraline works is because it is the brainchild of the noted author of many a fantasy book (and graphic novel) Neil Gaiman. If you had to pick one person on the planet that probably gets how to render modern fantasy, Gaiman would be it. However, Gaiman did not write the screenplay to Coraline, although presumably Gaiman had his unseen hand in its production. Henry Selick directed and wrote the screenplay, based on Gaiman’s book of the same name. Although I have not read Gaiman’s book of the same name, I suspect it is a largely faithful interpretation of the book.

Coraline Jones is a prepubescent girl (this is almost a requirement for a children’s fantasy movie) who moves with her parents into the Pink Palace Apartments in Ashland, Oregon. The Apartments are actually a hundred and fifty year old Victorian house subdivided into residences on the top, bottom and middle floors. At first, the other residents seem largely absent. Also emotionally absent are Coraline’s parents voiced by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman. Their attention seems to be on finishing a catalog which they will present in town, so Coraline is largely left to her own to explore the creepy old house and its surroundings. There does not appear to be much in the way of neighbors, but Coraline does quickly encounter Wybie Lovat, a weird boy about her age who shows her the location of a mysterious well outside the property. Coraline also soon finds an old door inside one of the vacant rooms of the house. Curiosity makes her want to find the key to open it. It covers a brick wall, but at night the brick wall seems to act like a portal into a somewhat parallel life.

Coraline, accompanied by a mysterious black cat, venture through a weird pulsating tunnel reminiscent of the one in that bad 60’s TV show The Time Tunnel and into another version of Coraline’s life. In this life Coraline’s parents welcome and cater to her but they have one ominous difference. They have buttons where they would normally have eyes. And as we soon learn to stay and get the quality of parental attention she craves, Coraline too will have to choose to have her eyes replaced with buttons.

This is a reasonably scary children’s story and probably inappropriate for children under age ten. For children above that age, and us adults who are still children at heart, Coraline is an enchanting and often feels hypnotizing. Like with most Neil Gaiman stories, there is a lot of intrigue and subterfuge lurking below the surface of this story, as well as plenty of strange characters. The characters include Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, two aging spinsters in the downstairs apartment who performed burlesque in their heydays, and Mister Bobinsky, a former Russian gymnast who at the start of the movie we glimpse balancing himself on the house’s weathervane. The film is tightly focused on Coraline and only on one occasion goes outside the dark, surreal and often threatening world of the Pink Palace Apartments.

The only possible advantage to having this movie in 3D is rather than make it feel more real, it may help exacerbate its surreal feeling and thus may help provide a sort of hypnotic state which makes the movie so engrossing. I suspect it would be equally engrossing without it. This is a fantasy film obviously a cut above what you usually find and which tills some new ground in the fantasy film business.

3.3 on my 4 point scale.

Review: The Golden Compass

Betting that our love for science fiction and fantasy movies is not yet satiated, Hollywood has been digging deeper into its pockets to purchase related film rights. Gone are movies on the A list like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the Harry Potter series. While fans of The Golden Compass and the two other books that make up the His Dark Materials trilogy written by Philip Pullman would probably protest that these books should be on the A list too, clearly they are not, as evidenced by their weaker book sales.

Nonetheless, these books have a substantial following, particularly among thoughtful adolescents. Perhaps in part because reaching this target market is crucial to Hollywood’s balance sheets, New Line Cinema took on controversy by sponsoring the production of the first book in the series, The Golden Compass. Making this movie is somewhat risky because its author is an atheist and freethinker. His unorthodox ideas are unlikely to play well in Peoria. Such adult content might be appropriate if the target audience were not impressionable adolescents. Consequently, to market the movie it became important to tone down this aspect of the book so it would give Christians minimal offense.

I have not read the book so I only know through press reports that the movie was toned down for mass consumption. I have heard that Pullman’s atheism leeches more distinctly into the later books. In the movie of The Golden Compass, this tension is framed more as one between a perceived benevolent world government called The Magisterium (which apparently is actually a church in the book) and various resistant but persecuted groups consisting of clans, gyptians, witches and armored polar bears.

Any scholar of Roman Catholicism though will not be fooled. In Latin, magisterium refers the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Consequently, I am left to infer that Pullman was alluding to the Roman Catholic Church as it might be in the 21st century had the Protestant Reformation never occurred. In The Golden Compass, the Magisterium seems rather benign and secular but its goal is to remove all doubt and thus keep its leaders in control of the world. Where is this world? Why it is right here, sort of. It is our world in an alternate universe where things have played out a bit differently. In this reality, many people have pets that talk and who, in fact, are living embodiments of conjoined spirits. They are way cooler than Harry Potter’s pet owl Hedwig.

Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is a spunky girl who has the unfortunate predisposition to orient by her own internal compass. She lives under custodial care at Oxford University, one of the few places on this alternate Earth where some measure of freethinking is still permitted. Not all is well with the children of this world. The rebellious kind mysteriously disappear, taken by Gobblers, who send them to what appears to be a benign reeducation camp above the Arctic Circle. Like in the movie Logan’s Run, once you reach a certain level of enlightenment you are never seen again. In fact, you are murdered by the state.

Also above the Arctic Circle is a mysterious entity called dust, which, it is rumored, provides a portal into other alternate universes. The existence of dust is a closely guarded secret about which Lyra happens to learn. Lyra also inherits a mysterious one of its kind golden compass, which has the unusual property of letting her discern the truth. It is not a good thing to learn about dust because the Gobblers are likely to come after you. One does not expect a Gobbler to appear in the shapely form of Nichole Kidman, who plays Marisa Colter, a member of the Magisterium who comes to visit Oxford. There she quickly takes Lyra under her wing and promises to show her the mysterious Arctic. Thus begins Lyra’s perilous adventure. Fortunately for freethinkers everywhere, Lyra is a unusually spunky and perceptive girl who also has unknown friends who help set her free from Miss Colter’s clutches. With their help, Lyra embarks on her quest to rescue children taken by the Gobblers from their desolate Arctic prison. She will need considerable help for this uphill task, including an armored bear named Iorek voiced by Sir Ian McKellan.

The movie is well realized and reasonably engaging. Its computer-generated imagery is so seamless it is now impossible to distinguish between animated polar bears and the real thing. There is none of the jerkiness in Iorek that we saw in Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies. One of the prime criteria for directing movies these days must be the ability to meld live action and CGI. Director Chris Weitz manages to pull it off very well.

Is the movie satisfying? While satisfaction is likely in the eye of the beholder, those who have read the book (such as my wife and daughter) will likely rank the movie as more satisfying than those like me coming at the movie cold. While generally well acted and directed this was one movie that could have been twenty minutes longer than its running length. I needed a bit more time to time to feel vested in this alternate universe. Instead, we quickly move from plot point to plot point with no chance to catch our breaths. At times, the director seems overly anxious to show us the next coolly rendered bit of CGI. Instead, with so much eye candy and plot it becomes hard to absorb both at the same time.

The film is preachy in a secular sort of way. By the end of the movie, it is abundantly clear that this movie is really about authority vs. the right of unfettered thought and that authority is really bad and freethinking is really good. Lyra may be a spunky young girl but she has a missionary zeal to spread the gospel of freethinking. Sensing that there are other parallel universes out there ruled by other evil Magisteriums, she makes it her crusade to use dust to liberate human thought across the universe. Well, it’s nice to set big goals. If this movie is financially successful enough, we will find out in the next two movies whether she succeeds.

If your are simply wondering whether the movie is worth your time and money the answer is probably yes, unless you are one of these types so wrapped up in your own faith that any allusion to free thought is offensive. It is a well-done movie, but unless the follow on movies are much better, you will not be elevating it to the same level as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I rate The Golden Compass 3.1 on my 4.0 scale.

Review: Stardust

What movie would you get if you combined the best of The Princess Bride, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Village? Most likely, it would be something like Stardust, now playing in your local theater.

The result is definitely odd but also engaging and a lot of fun. You get the bold, personable and handsome adventurer out on a fantastic quest to win the heart of his true love. You get regular doses of humor, including a cross-dressing pirate captain. You get considerable action and adventure, and, naturally, an assortment of bad guys and evil ladies out to foil true love’s quest.

This curious combination of elements results in a well-done and very entertaining movie. Judging from my wife and daughter’s reactions, women will probably be enchanted by it. If you are a middle-aged man like me, you will have a fun time but probably will not feel quite as enthusiastic about the movie. However, you will not feel like your money was wasted. Stardust is fine summer entertainment.

The movie is set, at least initially, in the village of Wall, which is somewhere in England in the early 19th century. It is surrounded by (you guessed it) a wall. The wall has but a single breach, guarded night and day to prevent anyone from crossing it. As in the movie The Village, something lurks in the woods behind the wall, but no one in the village knows what until, invariably, a young man decides to find out. One thing is for sure: the place he ends up in is not in England. There he manages to fall in love and conceive a child, which is delivered to the wall nine months later. The boy, Tristan (Charlie Cox) is raised by his father until he too becomes a young man. One night while courting a woman he is madly in love with, a shooting star crashes into the earth far outside the wall. Tristan promises the woman he is wooing that he will retrieve the shooting star for her. If he can do this within one week, she has agreed to marry him.

The fallen star turns out to be a lovely, if somewhat acerbic woman named Yvain (Claire Danes). Using a special candle Tristan is able to instantly cross over the wall into the crater where the star landed. There he finds the somewhat dazed Yvain, looking impossibly skinny, cute, blonde and (since she is a star) radiant. There is no love at first site here though. Tristan has to bring her back to Wall and Yvain is not cooperative.

Of course, there must be evil people out to thwart Tristan, but they are there to amuse. Only young children will be frightened. Peter O’Toole gives a fine cameo performance as the old, evil king of Stormhold. On his deathbed, he gleefully sets his many sons on a ruthless fight to succeed him. Not too far away in an evil castle, live three very aged witches. They need a newly fallen star to regain their youth and magical powers. There is not much left of their last star. Naturally, because it is particularly gross, they must cut Yvain’s heart out. Michele Pfieffer plays Lamia, one of the evil witches. She is tasked to find and kill Yvain and return with her heart. Also on a similar evil quest is Septimus (Mark Strong), the son of the evil King whom, through fratricide, wins the right to be the next King. Unfortunately, to actually be crowned king, he must bring back the star’s heart too.

Director Matthew Vaughn does an admirable job of directing this movie. Without exception, his cast does a fine job of rendering this elaborate fairy tale. You will probably feel quite swept away by this lovingly rendered comedic fantasy. To me the only serious incongruity was the cross-dressing Captain Shakespeare, played by Robert De Niro. De Niro certainly enjoyed his atypical part. However, a cross dressing captain in a movie that is essentially a lightly comedic fairy tale of true love struck me as pushing the movie a bit out of kilter. Judging from my wife and daughter though, Captain Shakespeare was the highlight of the movie. If the weirdness of De Niro in drag does not throw the movie a bit off for you then you will find the movie wholly charming and delightful. I do not think I will spoil the plot by telling you that true love will be found and won.

I think it would be an impossible movie to loathe, and probably impossible not to enjoy. Buy yourself an extra large popcorn because the movie overall is a delightful treat for the acerbic child in all of us.

3.2 on my 4.0 scale.

Review: Pan’s Labyrinth

It is 1940 1944 and Spain is emerging from a civil war. The remaining insurgents have fled into the hills and are growing increasingly desperate. From his garrison in the woods, Captain Vidal has the mission to hunt down and kill these rebels lest Spain slip back into civil war.

Into this mixture come his new wife Carmen, and her daughter Ofelia. Carmen is in the last stages of a pregnancy. Ofelia, a ten-year-old girl, is swept up in an imaginary world of fairies. From the introduction to the movie Pan’s Labyrinth, we infer that Ofelia is actually a fairy princess who elected to move into the human world as a child. Apparently, she forgot her connection to this world, but she is unquestionably obsessed with fairy stories.

Ofelia will need her fairy stories to comfort her because they arrive at a remote garrison deep in the mountains run by Captain Vidal, and it is a cold and brutal place. It becomes clear very quickly that Vidal is a heartless and sadistic man, who will not hesitate to kill with impunity. Rarely has there been a villain on the screen more worthy of the title. He commands the garrison not from respect, but from fear.

This would seem an odd environment for Ofelia to encounter a fairy, yet she does. The fairy leads her into a labyrinth near the garrison, where she meets a faun. He informs her that she is a fairy princess. However, if she is to be reunited with her fairy kingdom she must pass certain tests. While a brutal war wages around her, Ofelia explores this magical world.

The fairy tale undertone though is actually a something of a subplot to the violent skirmishes between people that are waged in the real world. Ofelia’s real world is violent and confusing. Her stepfather the captain is obsessive and inordinately cruel. He has no problem using torture to achieve his aims, or even to kill the innocent. Unfortunately, in this R rated movie this is depicted unflinchingly. This makes it one fairy story for adults only. In fact, the violence is so graphic and on so intimate a level that I found it hard to endure. I watched many portions of this movie by squinting; I simply did not want to see such violence in all its gory detail.

The fantasy portions of the film however delight and enchant sufficiently to please even the most snobbish fantasy fan. They are in a word: flawless. The acting throughout this Spanish made movie (you will have to endure English subtitles) is first class throughout. You will cheer as if you are watching the end of a Billy Jack movie when the intensely evil Captain Vidal finally meets his maker. In addition, you will be warmed over by the message of the story, and the nearly flawless way the story is directed.

However, it is not a movie for the squeamish like me. Had I had an inkling that it would be as violent as it was, I would have stayed away, despite its fine production values and first class ensemble. If you can stomach the violence in the movie, you will find that the movie is worth whatever price the box office requests.

I find it hard to rate this film. While its violence so disturbed me, I still found it had so much merit. At least if you read my review you will be able to weigh for yourself whether its disturbing violence merits the otherwise fine acting, directing and special effects that made this film so memorable.

Review: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

With The Lord of the Rings movies now only available on DVD, fantasy enthusiasts were obviously wondering what next famous fantasy series would be coming to the screen. I was not surprised then to see the first (published) book of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe appear in movie theaters just in time for the holidays. It is a natural choice, not just because both books are convincing fantasy worlds, but also because C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were good friends. (Tolkien was the author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.) Lewis and Tolkien met regularly and critiqued each other’s works. In addition, both were enamored with mythology.

As with The Lord of the Rings movies, fans of the Narnia books will feel some trepidation. Will their beloved Narnia be successfully rendered on film? Lord of the Rings fans got lucky. While a few purists were upset with Peter Jackson’s interpretation, most fans widely embraced The Lord of the Rings movies.

I cannot say whether this first Narnia movie was faithful to the book, since I never read it. As a teenager, my wife was an enthusiastic fan and read the books repeatedly. From her perspective, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a virtually perfect cinematic representation of the book. She left the theater absolutely gushing over the movie. Consequently, if you also were a devoted reader of the book, you probably will be satisfied too. Do not read further. Go see it!

The movie starts out well. It begins in the London Blitz during World War II. It convincingly captures the horror of that time. We watch the four Pevensie children (Lucy, Edmund, Peter and Susan) leave their distraught mother for the safety of a country estate owned by an odd professor. Peter, the oldest and barely into adolescence, has the unwelcome duty of being head of the family. Little is seen of the eccentric professor. However, the youngest of the family, Lucy, soon discovers the magic wardrobe in an unused room in the professor’s estate. As you probably know, it mysteriously transports her to this other world called Narnia, which is stuck in what seems to be an eternal winter. She makes friends with Mr. Tumnus, a friendly creature that appears to be half-human and half goat. Of course, he is but one of many magical creatures they will meet. Lucy returns to the wardrobe. Gradually the other children discover she is not making up Narnia. Eventually they all are in Narnia together.

Narnia is ruled by the wicked White Witch, who is convincingly played by Tilda Swinton. She aims to keep its creatures oppressed and Narnia in perpetual winter. One of the boys, Edmund, falls under her icy charm. Meanwhile there are rumors that the White Witch’s enemy, a lion called Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) is returning to Narnia. He of course wants Narnia to be free of the White Witch’s influence. If he succeeds, winter will recede, the creatures will be free and Narnia will bloom again.

As with The Lord of the Rings movies, it becomes another good vs. evil story. The good news is that the movie is very well done. The four children are quite convincing. Narnia is believable. There is no off note among the entire cast. In addition, the special effects blend in seamlessly with the live action. One has to scratch pretty deeply to find some things about which to complain.

Nonetheless, I found some things that made it less than perfect for me. While C.S. Lewis was a devout Christian, the parallel between Aslan and Jesus was pretty hard to miss and for me gave the film a condescending tone. The White Witch plays the role of Satan. Aslan is rendered digitally and is amazingly lifelike. I must confess though that I was far more enamored with the White Witch than with Aslan. She may be something of an ice queen, but she got my temperature rising.

You will not be surprised then to find out that Jesus’s death and resurrection have a parallel reality in Narnia. Just as Jesus goes to a sacrificial death for a greater cause, so the Lion allows himself to be sacrificed. (His death is graphically depicted. Parents beware. It is more of a PG-13 movie than a PG movie.) Even the book of Revelations is modeled, with the movie ending in a culminating battle between good and evil. You will not have to guess too hard to figure out which side is going to win.

Naturally, the arrival of the humans was foretold, and the prophecy was that the eldest would be a future King of Narnia, after he proved himself in battle. Here is another instance where the otherwise excellently rendered world of Narnia fell apart for me. Am I supposed to believe that everyone in Narnia is going to let Peter, barely an adolescent and who probably never even led a Cub Scout pack, lead them into an ultimate stakes battle against the White Witch and her vastly superior forces? Okay, sure. Why not? This is after all a fantasy. However, it did not work for me. His character did not seem to have sufficiently matured to take on such responsibilities.

Moreover, although the movie is quite long for a movie these days (two hours and twenty minutes) it is not long enough to make me fully suspend disbelief. This is because the screenwriter and director had to make some choices and left out some things. Perhaps they left out things like why the good citizens of Narnia would follow Peter into battle. They seem more like compliant sheep. If, like my wife, you have read the books then your mind can fill in the gaps. However, if you have not read the books then these issues loom larger, become distracting and ultimately make the movie a bit less plausible than it could be.

Nonetheless, this is still an excellent fantasy movie in a league that few can touch. My little nits notwithstanding you will likely find it quite well done and engaging too. It is about as good a movie about Narnia as you can possibly expect in two hours and twenty minutes. 3.4 on my 4 point scale.

Review: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

This is not a review for Harry Potter devotees. Of course, I have one of them in my family (my sixteen-year-old daughter), although my wife also marginally qualifies. I have read the first two of the books, but never quite felt the need in my busy life to pick up the subsequent books. Maybe I am too old to get into fantasy marketed primarily toward teens and preteens.

Consequently, I came into the latest movie, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire cold. Therefore, this is a review for those of you who might have some appreciation for the movies and are wondering whether it is worth your time.

I understand the movie is quite faithful to the book, and the material may be my biggest problem. For as Harry Potter fans know, the fourth book continues to take the stories further toward the dark side. Hogwarts, which was fantastic if somewhat cute in the first movie, is now an ominous and scary place. Gracious! If my child had the calling to be a wizard I would send him or her to some school likely to be a whole lot more benign. I certainly would forbid them to participate in events like the Tri-Wizard Tournament. This is a complex and potentially deadly set of games, which happens in this movie to be hosted at Hogwarts. Even gladiator combat seems benign compared to this rough stuff. I cannot imagine why the school’s administrators would encourage students to come out and witness such rough stuff. Of course, Harry, age 14, somehow manages to become a participant in this contest supposedly only for those age 17 or older. This makes complete sense in this fantasy world of course, but throws a discordant note to those of us with children. It deserves its PG-13 rating, although I am sure many parents are taking impressionable children to it anyhow. They should stiffen their resolve and let their children age a bit.

At three hours, the movie is a potential kidney buster. Moreover, it is engaging and well directed. This is the kind of movie that makes you wonder if this world could even be depicted without modern computer-generated imagery. The CGI is in almost every scene. It has become so good that it is becoming almost impossible to distinguish the CGI from much of the live action. While the directing by Mike Newell is nearly as good as Alphonso Cuaron’s direction of the last movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, watching the fourth installment of this series did have me irritated by one big problem.

To be plain: Daniel Radcliffe is not a very good actor. Granted it is tough to find someone who looks like Harry Potter who is also a decent actor. The good news is that Newell does a decent job of getting the most out of Radcliffe during his scenes. The problem is that there is not much native talent for Newell to draw from. While marginally better than Orlando Bloom, one has to wonder if maybe it was time for Radcliffe to drop out of the series. There must be better talent out there than him. Nevertheless, like the Lord of the Rings movies, the ensemble seems to be stuck together for the duration of the series. The problem is that by portraying the key character in such a mediocre fashion, the whole movie and the whole series is brought down a notch. This is a shame. Fortunately the otherwise fine directing and seamless special effects make up for much of Radcliffe’s mediocrity.

At least the movies are improving. The first two, directed by Chris Columbus, were pedestrian efforts. With so much money to spend and a guaranteed audience, the producers can take time to find the excellent talent they need to up the quality level. If only they would change Daniel Radcliffe!

So most likely even if you are a Harry Potter neophyte you will enjoy the movie. You may find yourself lost at times, as I was, by the sometimes-baffling array of characters coming and going. A lot of the fun and humor in the movie is dependent upon having thoroughly read the books. Otherwise, odd scenes like Ladies of Beauxbatons sashaying down the main hall at Hogwarts seem unnecessary. For me it was a solid B+ of a fantasy movie.

3.1 on my 4.0 scale. I enjoyed the last movie a bit more, perhaps because it was shorter and easier to follow.