Saturday, November 30, 2013

The War of Art

You read it right. I just finished a book called The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield. It's still about war, just a much different kind, the kind we all face day to day though we might not even know it. Pressfield calls the force we are battling moment to moment Resistance, and Resistance challenges every person who's ever felt a higher calling or desired to be better (Section 12). Writers call it writer's block, but it's not something unique to writers. Resistance hits when the path toward bettering ourselves in any manner requires just a little bit of work. No one is exempt, but not everyone knows about this war, and if you don't even know you're fighting, how can you win? This book seeks to show us what we are up against, giving us a detailed yet succinct picture of what Resistance is.

I saw myself a lot in this book. I'm a writer, so I could identify with the examples from Pressfield's life. But the book isn't targeted to writers, and my Taekwondo instructor thought it worthwhile enough for his students to give us a little incentive to read it. Mostly, I just recognized how Resistance has often beat me down, and I understand now what I've been up against.

There are so many pithy nuggets to glean from this book. I bought the e-book and wish I hadn't because it's a book to underline and dog-ear. I ended up writing out thoughts on post-it notes. Here are a few quotes:

From Section 18: "Rule of Thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul's evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it."

From Section 20: "The battle must be fought anew every day."

From Section 24: "Resistance is most powerful at the finish line."

The biggest thing I came away with from this book is that the only way to beat Resistance is to jump right into the work. Resistance will always be there every day. We will fight the war all our lives, battle by battle. Some days, we might not do so well, but every day is new. Every day is another chance to win. All we have to do is sit down and work, Pressfield says. That's the hardest part. By doing that, we've already beat much of Resistance.

Resistance takes many forms, and it helps to be aware of them. It can come from our friends, who feel guilty about their lack of success in comparison to ours and who try to make it seem like we aren't doing the right thing. Resistance can be food. It can be our culture: Facebook, Twitter, anything on the Internet, movies, games, books. Resistance can take the form of a very good excuse, too: I'm sick, I'm too busy, my family needs me. Whatever stops us from the work is Resistance.

Pressfield gives some great tips for beating Resistance. My favorite is the simplest and foremost one: just work. You can't rely on other people to help. The best way a friend can help another beat Resistance is to be an example, not coddle him, give him advice, or help him brainstorm. Though those seem like very good excuses to not do our own work (I'm helping someone!), ultimately, we are only wasting time on both sides. Neither one of us is working.

I found it a little humorous that Pressfield says writer's workshops are colleges of Resistance. The best example I've seen in my personal life of someone who can beat Resistance is my husband. He hates writer's workshops and would much rather just put in his time and write those requisite million words of junk in the hopes of finally producing something worth reading.

As a martial artist, I appreciated Pressfield's point that we have to fight through the pain. He says, athletes can't give up when they get hurt, and he's right. If that was the case, the Taekwondo school I attend would be empty. I wouldn't be there either. There's going to be pain. Let yourself know that, and be prepared to keep going. In some cases, the only way to healing is through the pain.

Pressfield also says, let fear guide you. If you are afraid of moving forward, you are probably on the right track.

Finally, I liked Pressfield's idea that we need to become professionals in our higher callings. Professionals don't need fame and reward. They just do the work. I thought it was interesting that Pressfield advises separating yourself from the work by making it more of a job, something you show up to at a certain time every day, something you get paid for, and something you move on from when you are done. The common belief among young fiction writers is that they have to make it big to be anything. Everyone dreams of having the next bestseller. Pressfield cautions, don't wait for success, and don't invest yourself too much in one project or you will paralyze yourself with the fear of failure. He says, loving your work too much makes you choke. It makes sense.

Pressfield separates The War of Art into three "Books," where he defines Resistance, tells you how to fight it, and finally speaks about inspiration. Book 3 is where he gets kind of messy and discredits himself a bit. It kind of makes me sad. The guy obviously has talent and genius and offers some valuable insight into pursuing our higher callings, and then he goes and attributes it all to weird, half-true theories about divine inspiration. He believes in a god of sorts (though nothing like Christianity's) and in angels and the Muse, explaining how Zeus had nine daughters called the Muses. And I just find it hard to take him seriously when he's attributing genius to mythology. He correctly assumes there has to be something divine at work inspiring us, and he allows room for each of us to call that divine inspiration what we want. But earlier in the book he tries to discredit fundamentalism, which I'm sure Christianity falls under, and he says fundamentalists only look backward to a purer world, when in fact Christians are the most forward-looking people on the planet, looking toward a purer future! He comes across as not knowing what he's talking about when he spouts religious theories.

Some of his science is a little iffy, too. He believes organization is built into nature when in reality, the very laws of nature are that anything we don't put work into gradually de-evolves into a state of disorder (the law of entropy). He says this organization points to the existence of something otherworldly and divine. And I say, yes, yes, it does. There is a God, and if there's order in the world, it's because of him, but not a hocus-pocus, whatever-I-imagine-and-want-him-to-be deity.

Aside from nearly all of Book 3 (though there are still truths mixed into the mess), I agree with Pressfield's ideas on Resistance, and I think this book is a great motivator for anyone who knows they are not living at their full potential. This book will open your eyes to what can make that possible.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Monsters University on DVD

Though I liked Monsters, Inc. when it came out (hard to believe it's been 12 years!), I was not in a hurry to see Monsters University. Maybe it's because the movie is a sequel (technically prequel), and in the animation business, sequels are usually made for the kiddies, unfortunately translating into cheaper rehashes of the same old thing, when what worked the first time was its very newness.

I'm happy to report that Monsters University is its own thing, and it's not old at all. For starters, it's a prequel rather than a sequel, so there's no baggage or fallout from the first movie to deal with. Anything can happen in a prequel. You don't even need the same characters, and we get to see a lot of fun, new characters (in addition to one or two old ones with minor roles that nod cleverly to the movie we are already familiar with).

As for the story itself, is it just a ho-hum copy? Mike and Sully are still Mike and Sully, though younger, more flawed version of themselves...but oh yeah, they aren't friends. The rest of the plot is fabulous monster world stuff, but different than we've seen before. Different and similar, because the setting is a university, and while that may be different for us to view in Mike and Sully's world, it feels just like what most of us are familiar with from our world.

And where Monsters, Inc. surprised us with a different look at the world behind our closet doors, Monsters University digs deeper to surprise us with what it means to go through life the untraditional way. I don't want to spoil it for you, so I won't give details. But the end went in a direction that was pleasantly different than what I was expecting.

There is one disclaimer I have about both Monsters movies. Though rated G, they aren't necessarily for young kids, who are so impressionable and who happen to be just like the real kids in the stories: afraid of the monsters under their beds. I don't let my toddler and preschooler see them yet, and I'll probably wait at least another couple of years. Aside from that, I think these movies are great for select children and adults alike: silly and fun enough for the kids, thematically mature enough for the adults.

So, is Monsters University a good sequel/prequel worthy of our time and love like its counterpart? With some of the best of what made Monsters, Inc. unique and also a few significant changes, I would venture to say yes. It's another worthy Pixar film with Pixar's signature stamp of beautiful animation and unique storytelling. Put it on your shelf.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in Theaters Now

Though I've been excited to see Catching Fire, I find myself, surprisingly, with little to say after having watched it. I feel like I need to watch it again to fully absorb it. I really enjoyed it, but another pass or two might help me to fully appreciate it.

In some ways, this sequel didn't grip me the way the first movie did. Nothing has really changed; just the newness has worn off. But I don't think it is inferior to the first movie. I thought this new director would change the feel of the movie, but he manages to capture the weight of the first movie while also adding his own flair nearly seamlessly.

As for keeping close to the book, I don't remember well enough. I read it years ago and purposefully did not read it again so that I wouldn't compare too closely. But now that I have seen the movie, I can say this: it felt right, and it just made me want to read the book again, which I will now allow myself to do. If a movie adaptation can be entertaining and make you want to read the book again, I'd say it's done its job.

One change from the first movie to the second that I thought was well-done, and perhaps even an improvement from the first, was the layout and action in the arena. Granted, the second movie had more to work with from the book. The 75th Hunger Games are special and meant to be extra "exciting." Catching Fire captures this change with a more fascinating, tighter arena and heart-pounding suspense. Although I loved the first movie, the arena itself didn't seem all that high-tech and other-worldly. It didn't matter so much because the focus was on the characters and their fight to the death. (SPOILER alert) In Catching Fire, the dynamics between the characters are much different than in The Hunger Games, less cutthroat, so you almost need that special arena to heighten the stakes.

Another change I heard about was that Peeta was going to be a little tougher in the movie than in the book. I thought that was kind of a cheap Hollywood thing to do, but somehow the movie actually keeps his character intact. Having not read the book recently, the change was not blatant to me. Peeta is still soft and caring and protective in his own way--everything that makes him who he is. If he's now also a little more handy with a small weapon and a little more sure of himself, I don't think that takes away from his significance.

One thing I do love about the movie, as I did in the first, is its characters, all played with so much feeling. I can't list them because then I'd have to list all of them. No one really felt off to me. And the way those characters interact...well, that's really the author's doing, but the movie captures it poignantly.

Catching Fire is rated PG-13 for, obviously, violence, disturbing themes, and some language, apparently. I think the language is probably a low concern next to the violence. A boy, probably ten years old, was sitting behind me in the theater, telling his mother he was going to "literally die" as he waited for the movie to start. Ironic...but more importantly, he was only ten. This is a mature book and movie series, whose popularity, unfortunately, has probably created something of a culture the author was actually speaking against. Readers and viewers don't always use their best judgment and sometimes seem to mindlessly absorb whatever they see. My blog is a teeny tiny revolution against that. (And I bet you thought I had nothing in common with Katniss.) I do believe there is value in such books and movies, even as entertainment, but they should be approached thoughtfully and with a concern for discerning right from wrong, something that does not come as easily to those younger viewers. (Cue stepping off soapbox.)

I would like to see this movie again. I would like to own it. I am very pleased with how this series has been adapted to the screen, and I'm curious as to whether or not they will be able to keep it up with the controversial last book.

Four stars.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


Although I will try to avoid major SPOILERS, for those of you interested in reading Veronica Roth's Divergent series, you'll probably want to stop reading this review.

I was really impressed by Veronica Roth's story when I began this series with Divergent, reviewed here. Now that I have read Allegiant, the conclusion to the trilogy, I have mixed feelings. Divergent has not lost its luster. And there were aspects of this final novel that still impressed me. I'll get to those in a minute. But overall, Allegiant just wasn't as easy to read for various reasons. There's not as much movement and danger as in the first two books. There's a lot of sitting around thinking. The book is also narrated differently, by two main characters rather than just Tris. And the biggest cause of my mixed feelings is the end. It's so daring (like the Dauntless!) and something that's just not done (or rarely) in young adult fiction, but I'm not sure whether or not it actually works.

Allegiant has a lot to wrap up. I won't go into the details of the first two novels. You can link to my review of those above. Let's just say that in this novel, the world gets bigger. It's no longer just a place that was once called Chicago. The characters are thrust into that bigger world, so the effects of that are part of the story. But they are not completely cut off from the world they left behind, quite the opposite actually.

Identity is a big thing in this book. The factions have been terminated, but when you are raised to think along very narrow lines, that's not something you can simply shed. Tris and Tobias narrate and offer insight into this whole process of change as they come up against new injustices and have to decide whether or not to bring the revolution they began on the inside to the outside.

While I enjoyed the characters and was intrigued by the changes they were going through, this book is not particularly fast-paced. What I do like about it is that this slower pace offers the chance to really delve into some moral questions. Roth is a Christian (or, at the least, a believer in God), and though her books wouldn't be labeled as "Christian," I think her worldview really shows if you care to look. One of the big moral questions of the book is, are genetically deficient humans inferior to those with perfect genes? It's certainly not the first time such a question has been asked, but Roth puts a new spin on it. And she doesn't tackle fixing the problem with the usual simplistic, one-can-be-sacrificed-for-the-many, nihilistic, existential answers. She has characters who have those viewpoints, but she also offers something different, something more complex, maybe not as easy but better.

I was especially impressed by Roth's portrayal of broken relationships and the realistic repercussions of them. She offers a mature way of dealing with such brokenness. Both Tris and Tobias have a lot to forgive and a lot to be forgiven for. They aren't perfect heroes, and they have to live with the consequences of their choices, some of those consequences being more real than we readers might like. And in Tris and Tobias' relationship with each other, a romance that has seen the harsh light of reality, we get more of the author's perspective on what real love is and what a mature approach to love is. You don't see that often in young adult literature. Sure, there are the physical moments and romantic parts teen readers supposedly crave, but Tris and Tobias have whole conversations that are about more than their relationship and about more than their immediate trials. They think. It's refreshing.

It's clear the author wanted to present a thoughtful, meaningful story as much as she wanted an entertaining one. I appreciate that, so I wish I could give the book a higher star rating. But a few things hold me back. For one, sometimes I had a hard time remembering who was narrating. At times, Tris and Tobias sound a lot alike. Their characters and the way they deal with things are not alike, but their inner thoughts sometimes tend to be. Context did not always help me distinguish between them, and a couple times, I would think I was reading one's thoughts when it turned out to be the other's. Then, there was one morality question the author left kind of vague that I wish she hadn't. At no point does she say that Tris and Tobias have sex, and she often makes a point of saying they don't. But there is one time when she leaves it vague, seemingly leaving it to the readers to interpret what happened according to their preferences. I'm not sure of the author's beliefs on this point, but of course, I wish she had leaned toward complete abstinence, the reasons for which I have named in other blogs and won't go into detail about here. Much of the morality addressed in this book is actually quite complicated, and Roth deals with it well, but in this simpler thing, I was disappointed.

The last unfortunate thing about this book is the ending impression. I won't spoil it by concretely revealing what happens, but as I mentioned above, it's an unusual ending for young adult fiction and I'm not sure it works. Many dystopian novels end a bit sadly, if they are being honest to how life really works (or how a dystopian world would actually work). The Hunger Games series is one example of this. But the Divergent series ends on a different kind of sad note than we are used to. For the book, it works well enough and makes sense. The author does handle it in a careful manner. But it wasn't what I wanted and hoped for. It didn't satisfy me on the level I'm at when I read a book, that escapist level that honestly doesn't want the book to end just like the real world does.

Though I'm impressed by Veronica Roth's insight and depth, Allegiant just didn't resonate with me as much as her first book did. I can give it only three stars. But if you want to get in on the action, that first story is well worth it and is in process of becoming a movie, which I am very excited to see.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Thor: The Dark World in Theaters Now

I got to see Thor: The Dark World last night on its release date. (Or should I say, the 8:00 pm showing which used to be the midnight showing the night before its release date? Hey, I'm not complaining about the time; I just think it's funny.)

My husband and I like to joke about the fact that we would never have guessed Thor to be interesting fodder for the movies. I mean, come on, he's a god with a sledgehammer. (And I'm aware that all the fans out there are saying, "Yeah, he's a god with a sledgehammer!") Well, I stand corrected. I loved the first Thor, and this second is an excellent follow-up, especially with the help of the tie-in movie The Avengers. Really, Dark World is our third time getting to watch these characters on the screen, and I'd be happy with more.

So, what is it about this world and these characters that brings us all back again and again? Is it the tightly written script (A lot happens in just under 2 hours!), the exquisite look of Asgard (with more detail even than the last movie), the high stakes (All the realms, including Earth, are in peril!), the unequal romance of a god to a mere mortal, the humor and quick wit of some of the dialog, the superb acting, or the mixed motivations of a villain we begrudgingly root for? All of these things impact us, I'm sure, but right now, I think the biggest factor is the last.

Tom Hiddleston's Loki is the perfect villain. In this movie, his scheming takes second place to a larger threat, but he's still there, lurking magnificently in the shadows. The thing about Loki: you just don't know who the real guy is. He's an illusionist. He's something of a victim, and we feel that, but what he's done with his anger is wrong, hence the title "villain." Does he have room for love in his heart, or are revenge and power all he seeks? He's a charmer, willing to pretend and say whatever you want to hear, but sometimes we hope he means it, even though we know we should know better.

The media loves him. The fans love him. I think I even love him. And I'm not sure I should. He's the bad guy, right? He's done terrible things. A smile here, a good joke there, and a little emotion we viewers can identify with don't change the fact that he's bad. But I think part of the reason I love him is that I am always hoping for character redemption. It's the same reason I love characters like Ben Linus, from TV's Lost, and Regina, from Once Upon a Time. There's more to those characters than just one-dimensional evilness. They are complicated, like us.

Having said all that, I also think there's a danger in that belief. We more easily overlook the truly awful things such characters have done. It's difficult to process a character like Loki morally, and I'm not saying I have the answers. It's just something to consider and something that needed mentioning on this blog.

Of course, there's a lot more to this story than Loki. There are darker villains, and oh, yeah, the heroes are pretty great, too. Thor may be a little too perfect now, unlike in the first movie, but I'm not going to complain about a good hero. In a superhero movie, it's probably best to keep a clear definition of good versus evil, especially when you have bad enough evil characters. There has to be good to balance it out. And morality is plenty murky in our world as it is.

Thor: The Dark World is appropriately rated PG-13 for some dark sci-fi action and violence, but it's nothing you wouldn't expect in a comic book movie. In short, if comic books and superheroes are your thing, this movie has it all and is worth seeing in the theater. Four and a half stars.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Pacific Rim on DVD

When I first heard about a movie called Pacific Rim, I had little interest in seeing it. I wasn't impressed by the Transformers movies (Sorry! I know I have readers who are fans. I'm not trying to be a hater!), and Pacific Rim looked too much like those. But then I started hearing things about it. It was getting good reviews. People I knew liked it. I put it on the back burner to see when it came out on DVD, and now here I am, converted.

If this movie had been just like Transformers and all about the huge fighting machines, I don't think I would have liked it. But it's not about the machines at all. Sure, they are essential to the plot, but they aren't the plot. The story is more about the characters (which I always love), and when characters are at their rope's end with nothing more to lose, that's when you can tap into and draw out the rawest of emotions and reach a level all humanity can identify with, no matter the external differences.

The plot itself...completely far-fetched and ridiculous, but with good characters, I didn't much mind. And okay, I admit, it was a tiny bit cool to see gigantic robots being controlled by two little humans, linked mind to mind and unafraid of the weaponry and alien creatures around them.

There was one nitpicky thing I didn't like about the movie's characters. Two of them (not the brothers at the beginning) looked so much alike that I often had trouble distinguishing between them at first, but it didn't hurt my understanding of the basic premise much.

This movie obviously calls to mind other famous monster movies like Cloverfield and Godzilla, for instance. But though it takes itself seriously enough, I like that it sort of pulls its punches. Normally, I wouldn't say such a thing. But not being a big fan of total annihilation disaster movies, it was refreshing for me to see so many characters survive to the end of the film. There were a few who I was sure were goners but that happily came out alive at the end. Of course, that's not to say everyone survives. The numbers were just higher than I expected. And though the stinger is hardly worth waiting around for (the advantage of DVD is that you don't have to) there's yet another example of a punch pulled.

Altogether, I was impressed and satisfied by this movie from director Guillermo del Toro, with Charlie Hunnam as the lead. It's rated PG-13, mostly for sci-fi action and violence, and just over two hours long without feeling dragged out. Maybe my satisfaction is due to the fact that I wasn't expecting much, and yeah, it's basically just a good popcorn movie. But nothing's wrong with popcorn...or a fun movie to watch as you eat it. Three stars.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Ender's Game in Theaters Now

I read the book Ender's Game in preparation for watching the movie, so with that semi-fresh in my mind (read that review here), these are my thoughts on the screen adaptation.

I'm not going to go into exactly what the story is about. For that, you can read my book review or stumble upon it just about anywhere on the Internet. This will be more of a comparison review of book to movie, with emphasis on the movie.

Overall, I thought the movie stayed very true to the book with the exception that befalls all movie adaptations: that much of the book had to be compressed. Impressively, this movie is very tight and moves the plot and the action right along, clocking in at under two hours. There's no drag. On the other hand, such speed of plot leaves little room to draw out depth of character and emotion, and that's what I found lacking in the first half of this movie. If you don't already know Ender from the books, you cannot possibly grasp what he is going through in the movie. The book takes us deeply into Ender's heart and mind, and it's extremely difficult to translate something so internal into something external and visual.

(Minor SPOILERS follow in this paragraph.) I'm not sure a true translation would have been possible in the first place without making a much longer movie that might have included more of the set-up of Ender's isolation. The movie cuts out the constant set-backs Ender faces in his quest for acceptance, and without those, you don't feel his plight nearly as strongly. The movie tells us he's purposely being isolated, but it skips the parts that show it, narrowly focusing instead on the opposite: how Ender attracts his followers. Without seeing the agony of his losses, we can't fully understand the significance of his victories. In fact, if you only had the movie to go by, you would think that Ender's superior, Colonel Graff, fails in his mission to isolate Ender, but that's not quite the case in the book. So, the first half of the movie, while true to the spirit of the book, lacks some of the soul of the book.

However, the second half picked up some of the lost emotional threads I was looking for and tied them into a fabulous ending, made all the more powerful by what I already knew from the book. This is one case where I am very glad I read the book first, though sometimes I am not so finicky about that. It is possible that I read more emotion into scenes because I knew what the book contained. Even so, Asa Butterfield, except for being taller than I thought he should be (and he's definitely older than the character in the book, but to get an actor with any depth, he'd have to be), is a fantastic Ender, and he plays the emotions beautifully.

(Very minor SPOILERS in this paragraph.) In fact, I was happy with nearly all the characters. Valentine, perhaps, didn't match up with how I envisioned her, especially in the latter half of the book, but she's in the movie so little that it doesn't matter (she and Peter's roles from later in the book were one of the sacrifices made due to time constraints). Harrison Ford as Graff and Viola Davis as Anderson seemed just right. Granted, I wasn't expecting Anderson to be a woman, and Davis brings a more motherly (though still military-tough) approach to the character that I never would have envisioned from the book, but somehow it works. At least, I liked it. The other trainees with Ender don't get a ton of screen time, but we still get to see a few of the book's key moments in which certain ones become something more to Ender. However, there's no time in the movie to deal with the complications those friendships go through in the book.

Just a note about morality since that's one of my big things. I don't have anything really bad to say about the movie, but I do want to give you the basics. It's rated PG-13 for some violence and heavy thematic material. (In short, if your kid's as young as Ender is supposed to be in the story, he's probably too young to watch this!) There's bullying, manipulation, questioning of authority, calculated violence. But the whole story is one big dialog of right and wrong. For that reason, with parental guidance, of course, I think some younger ages (middle school especially) can handle, or even should be allowed to handle, this. There's a lot to talk about.

Finally, I just enjoyed the look of the movie, the tech, the battle room, the aliens. It was all well done, and nothing seemed too amiss when compared to what I had envisioned in the book.

Though the first half of the movie leaned more toward three stars for me, the second half brought it overall to four stars. When the credits finally rolled, I had shed a few tears and just needed time to process the whole thing. There's this beauty to the story that the movie manages to capture a small part of, and it's timeless too. Several decades since the book's first publication haven't lessened its relevance and impact. I'm happy to see this story on the screen, despite being only a very recent fan, but I do highly recommend that you enjoy the book first.