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Pixar is an amazing company.

Thirteen releases and thirteen critically-acclaimed box office hits.

As Scott Myers says on his excellent Get Into The Story blog, let that sink in for a moment.

Thirteen releases and thirteen hits. Wow. This is the holy grail of Hollywood and no other studio has ever come close.

Now fast forward back to reality. Some say Pixar dropped the ball with Cars 2. Personally, I enjoyed the movie but it’s true that the story and character motivations were a little off.

To explain about Cars 2, if you’ve seen both movies you’ll note some striking differences. The first movie is all about Lightning McQueen learning to be humble. Everything about the first Cars movie supports this concept and it’s done well. The second movie is a sequel to the first but only sort of. The beloved tow truck Mater is the star of Cars 2. Maybe that’s why it feels “off” but I see it as a story issue because Mater doesn’t significantly change over the course of the film. Change isn’t a requirement for a good story, and Mater does come to accept his silliness and how others see him, but he doesn’t really change. The Mater at the end is the same as at the beginning. In contrast, Lightning McQueen does change. He goes from not wanting Mater around to accepting his friendship whenever and wherever. For Lightning, it’s a story about acceptance and friendship. If the character with the most to learn is supposed to be the protagonist then Lightning should be the protagonist just like in the first movie – but Mater is the star of Cars 2. It’s a strange story structure that seems to have subverted the traditional Pixar emotional story for a James Bond-style plot however entertaining that might be.

Brave Logo

So how does Brave compare? My thoughts:

  1. Brave shouldn’t have been titled ‘Brave’. The story really has nothing to do with bravery. Merida is a fiercely independent teenage girl whose actions can be described as defiant, at times assertive or arrogant, but never brave. She does accept responsibility for her actions and asks for forgiveness by the end of the movie which requires courage but it’s a stretch to call that bravery. Maybe the title was a marketing decision. I think “Strive” would have fit the movie better because Merida is constantly striving for something.
  2. The ubiquitous bow and arrow have little to do with the story. They are plot devices. Merida does get into trouble for winning an archery tournament a la Robin Hood style near the beginning. And Merida’s mother does throw Merida’s bow into the fire which triggers Merida to run away, but that is using it as a story talisman. Her excellent bow skills don’t help Merida in her first battle with the bear Mor’du. They are useful for catching fish for her mother’s breakfast but the pair could have foraged for berries just as well. Bottom line, they don’t help her win the final battle in any way and are therefore meaningless to the overall story (unlike another popular female protagonist).
  3. We don’t know who to root for. Merida only half changes as does her mother. Merida accepts responsibility for causing her mother to transform, but never apologizes for her earlier insubordination. Merida’s mother retreats from maintaining the status quo with regards to Merida’s betrothal but never actually apologizes for controlling her daughter’s life. In the end they both come to understand one another by a kind of role reversal but is having two characters only half change satisfying? Perhaps we are supposed to be happy that they ‘met in the middle’.
  4. Brave is two halves of a movie. One builds forward from the beginning while the other reaches back from the end and neither quite fits with the other. The forward-building concepts include destiny, the imagery of the bow and arrow, the title, and the intent to change fate. The back-reaching parts are the stone circle, the concept of falling rocks, the bear Mor’du, and accepting the status quo. Both sets of concepts are fascinating in their own right but neither set is fully developed. What could this movie have been with just the starting concepts? A truly brave Merida using her archery skills to defeat a villainous enemy released in a pandora’s box-style story would have been epic. And this is what sold the movie. However, the back-reaching concepts do not an epic story build.
  5. There should have been five clans. The story would have been much more satisfying if the four current clans were descended from four surviving princes of the ancient kingdom. There could have been five brothers with the eldest becoming Mor’du. The remaining four brothers could have imprisoned him somehow and then become the current clans. Such a simple story fix would have raised the emotional stakes overall and energized the existing connections between Merida and Mor’du. It would also have avoided the need for Merida’s convoluted explanation to the clan leaders while her mother was sneaking back into the tapestry room. The chessboard scene would have had to go but the use of falling chess pieces seemed out-of-character for the always proper queen to me anyway.
  6. The ending doesn’t fit. Yes, Merida and her mother make up. Yes, Merida solves the riddle and fixes the mess she made. But no, it doesn’t fit. The back-reaching story parts seem lifted from another movie, Disney’s Brother Bear. However, Brother Bear didn’t claim to be an epic story about bravery whereas Brave does. Brother Bear is about a human who gets transformed into a bear to teach him that actions have consequences, how nature works, and to not act in anger. It is a surprisingly well done emotional journey through the northern wilderness and should have received more attention, critical acclaim, and box office success than it did. Brave doesn’t start out like Brother Bear yet it has a similar emotional ending and these two halves don’t fit.
  7. The ending isn’t satisfying. Pixar is known for making movies with great endings. Great endings resolve the external, relational, and internal stakes of the story simultaneously. However, Merida doesn’t defeat Mor’du. Her mother does. So, again, whose story is it? And what about Merida’s archery skills? Does Merida show bravery in the stone circle during the final battle? At least she makes up with her mother afterwards and accepts her role in causing the disaster but this ending is not great. Enough said.

But there is one more aspect of story that has bearing on Brave.

  1. The ending is satisfying to women. The ending of Brave is a woman’s ending but I don’t mean that disrespectfully. Most movies are for and by men. Stereotypically, men focus on conflict and competition. By contrast, women are concerned with restoring relationships and cooperation. With that understanding, Brave delivers a very satisfying ending in that Merida’s relationship with her mother is completely restored through their cooperative actions. But it still doesn’t match the more male-focused beginning.

While writing this post I ran across the wikipedia article for Brave which noted that Pixar rewrote their proprietary animation software while making this movie. As a computer professional I know how much time and effort such a major undertaking requires. So maybe this movie is an ironic consequence of Pixar’s corporate strive for excellence. Simply put, Brave might be the learning movie for their new software and that’s not a bad thing. It means Pixar’s future movies should return to – and will likely surpass – the level of excellence we know, expect, and love.

And Pixar’s worst film is usually miles ahead of the vast majority of Hollywood productions.

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Source: Demon: A Memoir by Tosca Lee

I took advantage of a free download of Tosca Lee’s first book, Demon: A Memoir. This is a limited time offer so get the PDF or eBook now.

It’s a great read so far, but the science is a bit off. I subscribe to the integrated approach of the bible with science espoused by Reasons To Believe. And in that mindset I read the following on page 66 of the PDF:

He gestured in the general direction of Cambridge. “But what they fail to realize is that creation defies rationality, mathematics, and reason no matter how you try to quantify it. You might as well try to quantify El himself—something you’ll never find me wasting my time on.”

No.

Creation was not like this because God is not like this. The creation was the most incredible, finely-tuned, organized, and micro-managed event that has ever been. Astronomers have proven this over the past decade through a number of impressive discoveries culminating in a photograph of the background radiation of the universe. This photograph is highly uniform and homogenous which tells astronomers many things about the beginning including the high degree of complexity and organization involved.

In other words, God was intimately involved in the creation of the universe. He setup all the laws of physics that govern the world and the universe He created has stayed true to them from the beginning. Mind, it’s difficult to even talk about these things without using scientific terms. God certainly didn’t call the laws He setup the physical laws. Human scientists gave them that name after their discovery. But I digress. A single blog post is not a place to expound on this. Whole books exist to that end.

Note also that I’m not trying to minimize the emotional component of this creative act. It’s a false choice to think that something must either be felt or planned exclusively. It’s just that God is bigger than that. He’s certainly an artist based of the high level of creativity displayed throughout creation, yet creation follows mathematical principles and conforms to scientific laws at the same time. Certainly, creation was something beyond our comprehension but to say that “creation defies rationality, mathematics, and reason” is to miss out on God’s genius in those areas.

Other than that, I’m enjoying the book.

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The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

The Heath brothers released a book a few years back called MADE to STICK. In it they detail what makes ideas stick dubbed their SUCCESs Model:

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Story

I’ve not read the book or seen either version of the movie, but I have heard of it and am glad Michelle blogged about her experience.

So, here’s my stab at applying the SUCCESs model to why this book is a bestseller. I think a good bit of the hype has to do with just the name of the book: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

The title itself is Simple – we know what it’s about. (Or we think we do. The comments above reveal that at least in the first book the namesake Girl isn’t much involved.)

It’s Unexpected. Boys get flashy, dangerous tattoos. A girl with one? That’s very unexpected.

It’s Concrete. The words and definite and clearly evoke a mental image. Girl, Tattoo, Dragon.

The “Credible” concept is hard to apply to fiction. It overlaps with “Concrete” in my understanding. It’s the vivid details (the mental image evoked by the words) and surely the cover art adds to this. (I wonder if this has hurt electronic sales since there is no cover art…hmm… This is an interesting way to objectively verify the theory though I can’t imagine the effect would be great…)

Emotional. Think about it. A girl. With a tattoo. Of a dragon. Doesn’t that evoke something more than just an unexpected image? Dragon and Tattoo are emotively packed words. They scream their connotations: bad girl, rough life, eastern influence, mystery… It doesn’t get much more emotional in only six words.

Lastly, and most importantly, story. There is technically no story in the six words of the title. They are a phrase and no more. However, being that this is a book title there is the *promise* of a story.

Thus people buy. And they recommend it to their friends before actually reading said book or watching said movie. Because the *title* is sticky.

Perhaps we could all learn a lot from Stieg Larsson and the Heath brothers about properly formulating a title. It may be more important than even the 25-word summary.

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Source: 11 WRITERS LATER: How 20th Exec Alex Young Lost Control Of ‘The A-Team’ by Nikki Finke.

Wow. Just read it. And if you’re a writer, weep.

Here’s the money quote (which is not from this article but quoted in it):

Beginning with the sound era, studios and films producers have longed for a way to eliminate the screenwriter from the filmmaking process. By and large, writers are prickly personalities who absorb too much time, demand too much credit and need to be kept clear of the set, where they might interfere with the director, who is, after all, the real auteur of the film. With The A-Team, a Fox film derived from a 1980s TV series, this dream now is a reality. The film seems nearly writer-free. Absolutely no time gets wasted on story, character development or logic.

Ouch.

Learn and above all remember the lesson of Pixar.

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Disclaimer: I haven’t yet read the book! I debated reading it before I saw the movie but ultimately saw the movie first. I did however read up on Percy and his friends on Wikipedia prior to viewing.

In retrospect, some will probably call this movie review too harsh – even scathing – but there are some serious problems with this movie. Here’s your sound byte:

I rate it a D- so keep the tweens at home. The next Harry Potter this ain’t.

In a post called Defining Good Writing, children’s book editor Cheryl Klein identifies 5 qualities to judge good writing. I have modified these qualities for reviewing this movie. My scoring scale comes from the standard 7-point scale commonly used at many schools. An A+ is a perfect 100 while a D- is a lowly, barely passing 70.

Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!!

Where to begin?

So many things came to my mind when digesting this movie that it’s hard to know what to talk about first. So, I thought I’d mention what I liked about the movie:

  • Pierce Brosnan is in it! 😀
  • The acting isn’t at all bad though Percy’s ADHD could use a little toning down at times. Uma Thurman as Medusa is especially good.
  • Rick Riordan, the creator of the series, has followed the more-or-less standard movie plot pattern so there are no truly gargantuan problems – glaring, yes, but not gargantuan.
  • Alexandra Daddario as Annabeth and her feisty relationship with Percy are both quite satisfying – even bringing smiles to my face.
  • The special effects are all at least good and some are great. The Hydra battle is awesome!
  • It’s very satisfying watching Percy use his new-found water powers.
  • It;s great seeing the greek myths we all studied in school come alive in a modern setting.

So, what didn’t I like about this movie?

Unfortunately, the answer is just about everything else. This is a teen flick: it portrays teenagers, teen relationships, teen idiosyncrasies, and teen clichés. In short, teens will identify with and love it, but probably only they will love it. Every important moment and every decision that the main characters make comes either from or out of a purely juvenile perspective. Teens will flock to this movie but I predict it will not have long-term staying power. This film is not destined to become a classic. In general, the plot is weak and the characters are flat.

Honestly, having not read the book yet makes me wonder if the book Percy is younger and the powers that be chose an older teen for the movie role… Yup, Wikipedia confirms that Percy as written is supposed to be 12. Logan Lerman, the actor who portrays Percy in the movie, just turned 18 in January.

My Review

1. Good prose (N/A)

This quality can’t be evaluated for a movie and I haven’t yet read the novel. So, I’m ignoring this quality.

Nonetheless, why was this called The Lightning Thief? Percy’s main quest is getting his mother out of the underworld. He more or less ignores the lightning thief aspect altogether. So why not call this book Highway to Hell or Journey to the Underworld or Saving Percy’s Mom even Demigod’s Dilemma? Those might not have the same ring but they more accurately describe the contents. But I digress…

Timing, pacing, and flow are all good though the beginning does seem a but rushed.

2. Character richness (C-, 77)

Grover, the token african-american character, is the comedy relief – nothing more. And he’s certainly not a very good protector. One would think that if Percy’s life were in real danger, then an appropriately bad-ass person would be protecting him. Ron Weasly in the Harry Potter series easily has more depth. Ron is an expert on all things in the wizarding world plus he’s loyal as Harry’s best friend. Percy’s best friend apparently has no specialty beyond his dance moves and his loyalty ends any time a pretty face comes near. And why didn’t his dancing cause panic in the casino? I mean he is supposed to keep those haunches under wraps in front of the normals, right?

Mom is a stock character. Honestly, she’s either ironing, driving, dead, or stuck behind an invisible barrier for the entire story.

And now we come to Percy. Percy is portrayed as a typical teen with all the worst rebellious tendencies. Percy does show some virtues but they’re only skin deep. He’s more-often a great role-model of how ‘not’ to behave.

  • He prefers his iPod to listening to his teachers. (Though there’s no love lost with his substitute English teacher.)
  • He attempts to stand up for his mother to his step-father in the apartment (good), but then backs down like a coward to the man’s face (bad). And as soon as his back is turned, Percy opens his mouth for one last jab, the sore loser (worse).
  • Percy ignores the advice about wearing a helmet in his first battle and subsequently is wounded in the face.
  • He ignores Chiron’s advice about waiting and training and decides he’s smarter going it alone.
  • Yet, he pays close attention to Luke’s explanation about the underworld and follows his advice. This is even more distressing once you realize Luke is the thief who stole Zeus’ lightning bolt and thus his ‘help’ is bad. Isn’t this like most real-world teens would do? Go to the friend first who is the same age as you and will give the same, tired, bad advice as compared to someone older and probably wiser?

In short Percy is portrayed as hot-headed with lots of vices but few virtues. He’s shallow. This is both why teens will love it and why everyone else won’t.  Nonetheless, Percy is truly an interesting character. I mean he has water powers! He’s also very courageous so you never know quite what he’ll do next. He doesn’t appear to change much over the course of the movie though.

3. Plot construction (D-, 70)

Lots of issues here but I have only one large complaint: Why was the lotus-eaters’ pearl the last one acquired? Challenges must go from easiest to hardest or they will feel off and the movie does feel off at this point. Arguably, the casino is the easiest of the three and thus should have been first with the hydra as the hardest coming last. I realize this causes a geographic problem for the trio, but surely that could have been solved another way. The casino really should have been first.

Question #1: Why did the gods automatically blame Percy for the theft of the lightning? What made them target him of all the demigods? And why did Zeus simply believe he was telling the truth about Luke at the end of the movie? Percy had no proof yet Zeus asked for none either. Zeus is not omniscient or he would have known who stole his lightning in the first place, yet he blindly trusts Percy to tell the truth?! You cannot have it both ways! Zeus comes off as a cardboard character with absolutely no credibility as a god. And how was losing his lightning going to cause a squabble among the gods anyway? What is the reason? Presumably the theft of the lightning is the catalyst but for what exactly? I guess you could say I’m full of questions about this and yet this is the major driving force of the story.

Question #2: Why doesn’t the movie explain things more? Fury, Satyr, Minotaur? One must be a fan of greek mythology to understand all the references without some help. More and better explanations would have helped.

Question #3: Why did the teens drag the unconscious security guards in the Tennessee Parthenon off to the side of the room? Why couldn’t the teens just leave them where they lay? They get up to form the Hydra later but couldn’t they have met in the middle instead of walking out as a group?

Big Spoiler: Talk about your freebies! Percy got the entire quest handed to him by Luke. He did nothing but pay Luke a visit. This seems unreasonable and should have been written better.

4. Thematic depth (F, 40)

Thematic depth. What’s that? Only the father-son relationship between Percy and Poseidon strikes me as even approaching a theme or take-away moral. And it’s portrayed very weakly at best. Perhaps this will develop more in later movies.

This movie pulls out every trick in the dirty teen’s playbook to make it attractive to the chosen age group: young adult males. For example, Percy’s sidekick seems focused more on getting to know the ladies than actually protecting him. The worst example is the not-so-subtle sexual tension with Persephone, wife of Hades. I mean, she’s a married woman! (No comment on her unhappy marriage.) What a terrible message of sex without commitment or consequences this sends. It’s true that Grover is the comedy relief, but there are other forms of comedy that could have been used. And why is sex in a teen movie always treated as comedic in the first place? The fun aspect shouldn’t be overplayed. Sex is a serious business in real life with serious consequences that should not be ignored.

5. Emotion (B-, 85)

This is an adventure flick so there’s plenty of excitement but that’s about all. There are moments where other emotions can come out but the film does not appropriately capitalize on them.

  • Percy meeting his father for the first time,
  • Percy meeting Annabeth,
  • Mom’s capture by the minotaur,
  • Percy escaping hades with his mom,
  • etc.

All were essentially wasted opportunities to explore emotion in depth.

The Bottom Line

An average of the scores yields 68 which is technically an F. I am actually being a little forgiving by assigning the movie a D- (70), but I stand by that decision. Weak characters, a hokey plot, and a terrible message killed what could have been the next Harry Potter. Parents should definitely keep their tweens at home from the theater. My advice is to wait and watch this as a movie rental if you really must see it. Maybe the next one will have a better message.

I trust the book will be better once I find time to read it.

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Source: Thoughts on Marketing « A Christian Worldview of Fiction.

But here are a few things I’ve come to believe about reviews:

  1. They don’t have to trash books, even the ones that are less than great or maybe even terrible. Writing, after all, isn’t easy, and the author of the book should be respected for his efforts.
  2. Reviews should be honest. A reviewer who always says the current work he’s discussing is the best thing since C. S. Lewis, simply loses credibility.
  3. Most books have strengths and weaknesses. In mentioning both, reviewers actually gain credibility. Plus, many readers will decide that the things that bothered the reviewer aren’t significant enough to dissuade them from buying the book.
  4. Reviews should not serve in place of discernment. Again, in discussing the strengths and weaknesses of a work, the reviewer is actually putting the ball back in the hands of the reader, forcing him make his own decision.
  5. Recommendations can be tailored. Because I as a reviewer may not like a book, does that mean no one else will, or should? Absolutely not. However, if I make judgments as to who I think might like the book and to what extent they may like it, my recommendation can then guide others to consider whether or not they are part of that audience.

Some good points to keep in mind when writing and reading reviews.

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Eats, Shoots & Leaves (CD) by Lynne Truss

Eats, Shoots & Leaves (CD) by Lynne Truss

(OK, this is not a review of a book, but there are book versions of this CD!)

What a great idea: teach punctuation with humor. Genius! Although non-British audiences might have some trouble understanding some of the terms (periods are referred to as points, for example), Eats, Shoots & Leaves (CD) by Lynne Truss is the most concise and pleasurable way of learning the basic rules of punctuation that I know. It won’t replace a good grammar book, but if you already know the basics (and if you don’t you shouldn’t be writing) it will help you with common problem areas. This should be used in English and writing classes.

Recommended if you need instruction in the use of less common punctuation in English.

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