Sunday, May 27, 2007

Movie Review: Monster House

Monster House was released last year and is now available on DVD and on pay-per-view. The story is pretty simple: in the town of Mayville a young boy named DJ lives across the street from an old, decrepit house occupied by Mr. Nebbercracker. DJ spends his day gazing through a telescope in his bedroom, cataloging the odd things that happen.

DJ's best friend is Chowder who brings over his new basketball which ends up on Nebbercracker's lawn. When DJ tries to retrieve it, Nebbercracker collapses. The boys call an ambulance and DJ is convinced that he killed Nebbercracker.

DJ's mom and dad are going away for the weekend, leaving DJ to the tender mercies of the babysitter, Zee. A young girl, Jenny, is canvassing the neighborhood selling candy. When she approaches Nebbercracker's house, the house attacks her. DJ and Chowder rescue her.

Ever practical, Jenny persuades the boys to contact the police. The police are grown-ups and don't believe them. Until, of course, they are eaten by The House. The kids are left on their own to solve the mystery.

The kids decide to enter the house to discover its mystery. What happens next are the nightmares and haunted houses fantasies of every kid. The answer was different and the ending upbeat.

The computer generated animation is good, although it doesn't work as well for real people as it does for cartoon characters and toys. The voices match the characters quite well--and it's a fun challenge to figure out who voiced whom.

Monster House is rated PG and does have some very scary images. It would be a great Hallowe'en movie for a party, especially for those 'tweens who think they are "too old" to go trick-or-treating.

On the March Hare scale: 4 out of 5 Golden Tickets. Not as good as The Incredibles, but close.

Movie Review: Pirates of the Carribbean: At World's End

There will be no spoilers in this review of Pirates of the Caribbean 3: The End of the World. There will be warnings and some advice.

If you didn’t enjoy Pirates I or Pirates 2, you definitely will not enjoy Pirates 3. These stories take place in an alternate universe that only superficially bears any resemblance to our own. Most of the characters speak some form of English, but it is only a form and there are no subtitles or rewind feature to make them completely intelligible. However, if you can enter into the spirit of this movie, then you’re in for a rollicking good time.

Two pieces of advice…

1.) The movie is three hours long, but the action is frenetic. Do not drink a jumbo soda during the previews. You will regret it. There is no pause button.

2.) Stay through the bitter end of the credits. Do not think about your ready-to-burst bladder because you didn’t listen to my advice about the soda. Read the names of all those little people who worked hard to make the summer blockbuster you just saw and who have mothers and fathers who are very, very proud of them. Read all the thank yous. Check your voice mails if you have to. Just stay through the credits.

The movie begins on a dark and somber note and for that scene alone earns it’s PG-13 rating. The fun begins a bit later and not all at once.

If, like Sis#2, you thought Johnny Depp was the only reason to watch 21 Jump Street as a kid, you will not be disappointed.

There are more twists and turns in this movie than there are dark alleys in Tortugas.

The Special Effects are spectacular, but the director remembers the story is about the characters and that’s what he concentrates on. (Frankly, this is what I think George Lucas forgot when he filmed the latest Star Wars trilogy.)

Surrender yourself to the charms of Capt. Jack Sparrow, Elizabeth Swann, Will Turner, and Captain Barossa. Don’t abandon hope, quite, but do abandon rational thought for the next three hours. We cheered, we laughed, we actually applauded. And I’m ready to do it again!

On the March Hare scale: 5 out of 5 Golden Tickets

Movie Review: Spiderman 3

It isn’t good when Hubs and I come out of the movie theater talking about what went wrong with the movie we’ve just seen.

Spiderman is not my favorite comic book superhero. But I really enjoyed the Spiderman movies. Tobey Maguire became one of my favorite actors. And I enjoyed Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson and James Franco as Harry Osborn. After Spiderman 2, I was really looking forward to seeing Spiderman 3. How would the characters change and grow? Would Mary Jane find success on Broadway? Would she be able to share Peter with New York City? How would Peter juggle his job as Spiderman, pay the rent, and attend classes?

So Hubs and I were both very disappointed with the new Spiderman 3, but we couldn’t really figure out why until this morning.

“It had no energy,” I said.

“That’s it!” agreed Hubs.

Spiderman 3 suffers enormously in part because I saw it after watching Pirates 3. Where Pirates 3 was barely controlled chaos, Spiderman 3 was monotonous. Everybody cries in this movie, at some point. Mary Jane and Peter need to learn to talk to each other and have to develop a vocabulary to do so—especially since their relationship really involves three “people”: Mary Jane, Peter, and Spiderman. They can’t—and don’t, really—figure it out.

And then there was the whole other photographer plot: Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) is vying for Peter’s job and he’s dating a hot chick who has a part-time job modeling who happens to be Peter’s lab partner and whose dad happens to be the chief of police. She’s also not very bright (although she’s also not totally stupid, thank God). Now, in my University experience, once you get into upper-division science classes, which it certainly looked like Peter’s was, you had to be fairly smart. Or you flunked, simple as that. So what was she doing in Peter’s physics class?

Okay, it’s the little things that get me.

Unlike Pirates, Spiderman is set in a world more closely recognizable as our own. “Magic” is replaced by a form of science just beyond the cutting edge of current research and we suspend our belief just enough to embrace the idea that maybe a radioactive spider could transmit its characteristics to an adolescent male through a bite. But the rest of the Reel Life World is supposed to match pretty closely with Real Life on the other side of the screen.

I had a difficult time entering Reel Life this time. I wanted to cheer for Spiderman and Mary Jane, but I had a difficult time doing so. I wanted to feel Peter Parker’s angst, or Harry’s, but I was almost more embarrassed, rather than sympathetic.

The sad part is that the movie didn’t miss summer blockbuster greatness by much. A tweak here and there would have made this a decent summer movie. But the movie lacks not just energy, but also a sense of fun. The movie feels like it was made from more of a sense of obligation, rather than a sense of story.

I’m kind of glad that Sam Raimi, the director, Tobey Maguire, and Kirsten Dunst have said they are not coming back. Nor should they, unless there is a grand, compelling story.

On the March Hare scale: 2.5 out of 5 Golden Tickets

Friday, May 25, 2007

From Candidate to Confirmandi

Last night, DS#2 and 61 high school teens were confirmed. Bishop Vigneron presided. Father P. warned the candidates that the Bishop was a teacher and so liked to ask questions.

He did.

And DS#1 was sitting in the first row on the center aisle.

DS#1 looked quite handsome in his black suit, white shirt, and red tie. Except he forgot to shave. A relatively minor detail, but somehow very typical of DS#2.

Of course, the Bishop picked him. And proceeded to ask DS#2 a question about CPR, of all things.

DS#2 is working on his Eagle Rank. First Aid is a required Merit Badge. In the Church were several members of his troop as well as several Scouts from other troops. We were all listening. His public speaking experience served him well. While his ears and neck were bright red, he didn't stutter or stumble. He was confused by the promptings offered by his sponsor, my Sis#2, so he wasn't quite as coherent as he could have been. He also took a bit to realize the parallel the Bishop was trying to make about breath being necessary for life and the Holy Spirit. But he finally got it and the homily continued. Not too shabby for someone who had real trouble articulating his thoughts in grammar school!

His teachers were very proud of him and his efforts. As were Hubs and I. And DS#2 bore the teasing well.

The rest of the Mass and the ceremony went smoothly. There was a bit of confusion at the altar during Communion as we weren't quite sure who was going where. A Deacon from another parish was acting as Master of Ceremonies and he did a good job of making sure the altar servers (which included DD#2) were in the right place at the right time with the right items. However, he almost didn't get to receive the Precious Blood and had to tap me on the shoulder before I left the altar for my station.

Afterwards, the YLI hosted a cookies and punch reception in the parish hall.

So DS#2 has a new middle name: Francis, for Francis of Assisi, because he was kind to animals. DS#2 has always had a special affinity for animals and hopes to become a veterinarian. I hope he learns other lessons from Francis as well.

My New Toy

Once in awhile, Hubs will comment about the small size of the diamond in my engagement ring. It was the largest one he could afford and the setting enhances it, but it's still small--especially when compared with the rings my sisters and sisters-in-law have.

I don't care. I like my engagement/wedding ring set. It suits me just fine. And, as I remind him, I'd rather spend the money on a new computer or a trip to Disneyland.

Which brings us to Mother's Day. My PDA, an 8 MB Handspring Visor, is slowly dying. I've had it for nearly 10 years now and there's a lot of synchronization that has happened between my PDA and my computer. Unfortunately, the cradle is acting up and it takes me longer to futz with the cradle and get it working as the actual synchronization takes. My gift was supposed to be a new PDA.

DS#1 is as much of a technogeek as I am, only with less restraint about spending money. (No surprise--it's not his money he's spending!)

"What do you think of a tablet PC?" he asked.

"They're pretty cool," I answered. Most are about the size of spiral notebook, slightly thicker and heavier. Smaller than a laptop, they aren't quite as powerful. But they have a keyboard and WiFi and run Windows applications. Plus they have a "Journal" feature: using a special pen, you can hand write notes or comments and even doodle. The file is stored on the hard drive and can be shared either as a web page or a .tiff. You can use this feature with typed documents as well, so you can see comments or diagrams on a Word document, for example.

Being a child of the Internet Age, DS#1 went on-line and found a refurbished tablet for an affordable price. It's my Valentine's Day/Anniversary/Mother's Day/Birthday/Christmas present. It's a Motion Computing M1400 Tablet PC. The keyboard is on the inside of the cover--it's really small, so I'm doing a lot of backspacing! If I want to use the Tablet without the Keyboard, the cover snaps on the back, so I don't have to worry about losing it. The battery is supposed to last about three hours, but I haven't tested that yet. I've been busy installing programs and upgrading the security.

Meanwhile, DS#1 fixed the wireless network at home. I am now writing this while sitting on the couch in the family room. DS#1 "road" tested it and got signal all the way to the end of the block. In order to add the Tablet to our home network, it needed a name. She is "Athena," after the Goddess of Wisdom. I thought about naming her after one of the Muses, but their names are more difficult to spell.

What this does mean? Well, my excuse for not writing--one of them, anyway--was that I couldn't get to a computer. Well, now I really do have my own. And I can take it with me. So I should be writing more. And I won't be under pressure to finish up so the kids can do "homework." Another advantage--Athena is not powerful enough to run the programs DS#1 needs for his college courses (he uses CAD a lot), so he won't be "borrowing" it anytime soon!

Although Athena does have some cool games already installed. DD#2 has already discovered them!

Monday, May 21, 2007

The End of Confirmation Class; the Beginning of...?

This Thursday, DS#2 and about 64 other young men and women are completing their Rites of Initiation by being confirmed. They have learned about the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. They have discussed how the Spirit enters their lives. They have walked through the Rite with their sponsors and they have received clear instruction on Appropriate Attire.

This particular Confirmation has turned into a family affair. Sis#2 is DS#2's sponsor. I'm one of the sponsors for a young girl whose brothers are in our Boy Scout troop. DD#2 is an altar server. I'm an Eucharistic Minister (although it depends how many priests and deacons show up with the Bishop).

And the Bishop is coming himself, rather than delegating this task to a priest in the diocese.

One of the things Father P. stressed to the class is that Confirmation is not an ending--it's a beginning. Their attendance at Mass is still required. Their help in the different ministries of the parish is still needed. They still need to study and learn about their faith.

Unfortunately, the Catholic Church does not do well with older teens and young adults. Many drop away. Some find their way back, often when they have children of their own (and a little child shall lead them...). Some search their entire lives and never quite realize what it is they are missing.

Please pray for these candidates, their sponsors, their families. And for those who have been confirmed but have lost their way. The Gifts of the Spirit are many, but sometimes difficult to recognize.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Book Review: Peter and the Starcatchers

This book, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, was inspired by Paige Pearson who asked her father one night exactly how a flying boy met a certain pirate.

Peter and the Starcatchers, is, if you will, a prequel to the more famous J.M. Barrie story, Peter and Wendy. It begins on a ship, the Never Land, taking five orphan boys from England to the land of Rundoon, where they will serve the king. Peter is their undisputed leader. Also onboard is Molly Aster, who has amazing green eyes, and captures Peter's attention. And possibly his heart, although both of them, being preteens, don't quite know what to do with their attraction. Molly is traveling with her governess to Rundoon where her father, who is on the Wasp, a faster ship, is an emissary from the Queen of England. On board is a trunk, old and beaten up, that seems to make people very happy and, quite literally, light on their feet when they touch it.

The captain of the Never Land is a buffoon. The First Mate, Slank, is the one who truly runs the ship. And he runs a tight one.

Lurking about is the Black Stache, a fearsome pirate and scourge of the seas. He knows about the trunk filled with treasure that Molly's father is taking to the King of Rundoon. Stache attacks the Wasp and finds the chest empty. He commandeers the Wasp, renames it the Jolly Roger, and sets off after the Never Land, which has the trunk with the treasure.

Meanwhile, Peter has caught Molly talking with dolphins. She reveals the secret of her identity and what the treasure truly is. (Her last name is a very clever hint.)

Before he can catch them, a storm comes up and both the Jolly Roger and the Never Land find themselves on an island. The natives don't particularly like the English, and with good reason. Their solution--to feed the children to "Mr. Grin," an enormous crocodile.

The trunk washes up on shore and causes some very odd changes in the local fish population.

Will Peter and the Boys escape the jaws of Mr. Grin? Will Molly save the treasure and reunite with her father? And who the heck is Tinkerbell?

The answers are in the story. And, except for some minor quibbles about changes in details and names, this is a very satisfactory explanation of it all. Most of the chapters are short enough to read to an older child at bedtime (very few pictures and those in black-and-white, so I wouldn't recommend it for toddlers). The reading level is probably around Fourth Grade or so, especially those who are familiar with the story of Peter Pan and (thank you Disney) pirates.

Peter Pan has been one of my favorite tales since I was little, so I really enjoyed this book Mr. Barry & Mr. Pearson did an excellent job with this "prequel."

On the March Hare scale: 4 out 5 Golden Bookmarks, with the caveat that this is, after all, a book for children.

On the Good News Front...

DS#2 passed the California High School Exit Exam on his first try! I wasn't worried about him passing the math portion. I was worried about him passing the English part, specifically, the essay. Writing and spelling are not his strong suites.

And, as it turned out, his low scores were in writing strategies and he got a 2.5 out of 4 on his essay. But his reading comprehension is quite high, which is what carried him over the threshold.

The Exit Exam is, of course, being challenged in the Courts as being "unfair." Kids who have managed to attend school for four years and pass their classes (with a "D" being considered "passing") should get a diploma. Never mind if they can't read or write. Never mind that the standards for the Exit Exam are Middle School level math and 10th Grade English (since the students take the exam in 10th Grade, the English level might be even lower). And that they have five chances to pass. And they only have to retake the sections they don't pass the first time.

A high school diploma should mean something. Something more than just showing up for class for four years!

Monday, May 07, 2007

When the Author is a Child

"Hey, Mom, I need $10," began DS#2.

"Why?" was my reflexive response.

"Myfriendatschool has published a book and I want to buy a copy," he answered.

A notable comment in two ways: DS#2 is not much of reader and, so, not inclined to buy books and he's only a sophomore in high school. Someone he know actually had a book published? I was impressed.

I gave him the money, he read the book.

"How was it?" I asked.

"Okay. It ended a little quick," he replied.

"I'd like to read it."

He gave me the book and I read it over the course of a couple of days. We discussed it in the mornings as I drove him to school.

"What do you think?" he asked.

"Well..." I began. Then stopped. According the back cover, the author wrote this story the summer before she started high school. So she was barely 14. But she managed to complete a novel and get it published. Most of the stuff that I wrote at 14 is buried in notebooks or in my high school yearbook. I've managed to learn a lot about life and about writing in the intervening years. But I don't want to be too harsh.

I settled for this: "She could have used an editor."

"How do you know she didn't have one?" he asked.

"Because of her sentence structure. Because she repeated words in the same sentence. Because she used too many adverbs."

"There's spelling errors, too," DS#2 commented.

That surprised me--spelling is not his best subject. So the errors must have been pretty obvious if he caught them.

DD#2 is reading the book now. She knows some of my criticisms, but I wanted her reaction as a 13-y.o. Would she notice the same things I did? Would she realize the adults in the story are mostly absent: either dead or they don't seem to care when the heroine leaves home. (And no adult notices her scars or that she misses a lot of school and calls Family Services.)

I settled for telling DS#2 that the story was good but the grammar was weak. There are three more books planned in the series. I'm interested to see if her writing skills grow with her experience. At the same time I don't want to be too harsh--after all, taking a story from rough draft to publication is a difficult task for most adults!

And, yes, I agreed with DS#2 that the ending is a little abrupt.

Movie Review: The Holiday

Amanda (Cameron Diaz) is an entrepreneur who runs a highly successful business making movie trailers from her luxurious home in Southern California.

She is much less lucky with men. A week before Christmas, she breaks up with her boyfriend.

Iris (Kate Winslet) is a reporter for the Daily Telegraph in London. She is still madly in love with an old boyfriend who just announced his engagement to someone else at the company Christmas party.

And he expects Iris to help edit the book he is writing.

Desperate not to spend the Christmas holidays in a setting that reminds her of her recent romantic failure, Amanda goes online and finds a house-swapping site. She sees a picture of Iris's quaint cottage in Surrey and e-mails her.

The next day, Amanda is jetting to England (first class) while Iris is off to Los Angeles in coach. Amanda finds that English cottages are quaint, small, at the end of unsnowplowed country lanes where taxis won't venture. And they lack central heat.

Iris discovers that she now has a pool and more space than she knows what to do with.

However, each discovers the other shares their taste in music.

Her first night, Amanda hears a knock on the door and discovers Iris's brother, Graham (Jude Law). He is absolutely drunk and wants to spend the night on the couch--which is his standard procedure when his sister is home. Amanda figures that here is the perfect one-night stand, because she decided to return to So Cal in the morning.

However, Graham finds Amanda interesting and she finds Graham intriguing. She changes her mind and stays. Big surprise--if she hadn't, the movie would have been a short.

Iris, meanwhile, has met Miles, a musician who works for Amanda. And she meets Amanda's neighbor, Arthur (Eli Wallach), who was a famous screenwriter during the "Golden Age" of Hollywood. Arthur tells Iris that she should be the leading lady in her own life; instead she is playing "the friend." Arthur then begins to school Iris in the "classics"--movies she absolutely needs to watch. While picking these up in a video store she runs into Miles who then begins to sing the opening theme song of each of these movies. A friendship is born.

Arthur, meanwhile, has received an invitation from the Writers' Guild. They want to honor his work. He is convinced everyone has forgotten him and doesn't want to go. Iris and Miles coerce him into accepting.

Back in England, Amanda discovers Graham isn't quite the carefree, man-about-town she thought he was.

Miles has a girlfriend, an aspiring actress who has a small part in a movie shooting in New Mexico.

So will these people ever figure out who they are supposed to be with? How many people will show up for Arthur's tribute (he's worried there will only be about 11 people there)? Will Iris learn to be a leading lady? Will Amanda learn to cry?

Hey--this is a chick flick! However, it's also a light-hearted romantic comedy with enough energy and goofiness that even Hubs enjoyed it. All the stars are sweet, likeable people. Even those who've "done them wrong" aren't ogres. So grab the popcorn, a blanket, and snuggle up for a pleasant little movie.

On the March Hare scale: 3.5 out 5 Golden Tickets