The Magic Tree House Series by Mary Pope Osborne

Reviewed by Little Miss Critic (Age 7)

What are the books about? It is about a brother and sister (Jack and Annie) that found a tree house and they figured it out that it was magic and they wanted to know who owned the tree house.

How is tree house magic? They can go back in time or forward in time by pointing at a picture in book in the tree house.
What do you think about the series? It is great.
Why? Because lots of parents, kids, teachers and librarians like it.
What do you like about it? The places where they go. I get to learn a lot about that place.
What do you not like? Nothing because everything is great.
Would you recommend it? Yes because of the adventures they have.

How to Train Your Dragon

Reviewed by Little Man Critic (Age 4)

What is the movie about? I don’t know. they just fly, the dragons.

What did you think about it? it was good
Why? Because there was 3-d glasses, big, big glasses
What did you like? I liked the glasses and we ate skittles at there.
What did you not like? The screen, the TV, the screen was a computer.
Why didn’t you like that? Because it was boring
Would you recommend it? Yeah because it was so nice.

How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

Reviewed by Little Miss Critic (Age 7)

What is the movie about? Vikings. and this one little viking wanted to capture a nightfury.
What is a night fury? A dragon that is black. It goes into the sky and you couldn’t see it and the dragons attacked when it was night.
What did you think about the movie? It was good because I liked the dragons
What did you like? Dragons because the dragons looked real, not really real, but cartoony.
What did you not like? The fighting, the killing the dragons. Because I don’t like killing.
Would you recommend it? Maybe because the killing was bad.
What did you think of movie being in 3-D? It was cool. It looked like viking ships were coming right at you when you would see the part with the viking ships.

No Impact Man

Before I start this review, I feel the need to explain my background when it comes to the topic of environmentalism. You see it is not my fault I’m screwed up. I am a child of the consumer culture of the 1980s. I have been brainwashed by branding, I know all the jingles, I like the packaging, and advertisers seem to have implanted a chip in my head that makes me want more, and more, and then throw it away in the landfill, and then get more. But then I headed into the 90s, and the message shifted on me to let’s start saving the planet, the charge lead mostly from the likes of Captain Planet and the Planeteers.

As an aside, I remember as a kid being cognizant of the threat of acid rain because it seemed to be big in the news, so when it would rain at recess, my friends and I would run and hide under the play structures, and then run out into the rain suffering horrible, acid-burning deaths. You have to make environmental problems fun. You know, make lemonade, right?

So anyway, now I know that Styrofoam is bad, I know I should cut up plastic pop holders because animals get caught in them, and I know the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle. And has that changed my consumer lifestyle? No. I know that my lust for things is killing the planet, and I do feel really guilty about it.  But apparently not guilty enough to stop or do anything drastic about it.  It is just so embedded into my programming that I don’t know how to stop it. I want to try. Show me how to make a difference besides the little I am doing through recycling some stuff, composting some stuff, and turning off lights.

thought Al Gore could help me with his An Inconvenient Truth. He sold me on the fact that the planet is in trouble.  I believe global warming exists and think we need to fight it, mostly because I don’t like hot weather.  I’m a mild climate kinda guy, sorry.  Anyway, I thought he’d give us answers on what we could do to save the planet, but the movie came up short. I’m sure that really wasn’t the intent of the film, so I am interested when I hear of other films that might answer that question.

No Impact Man (2009) is a documentary which follows Coln Beavan, a man writing a book with a similar title, just a little bit longer, No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process. In sum, Mr. Beavan decides that the premise of his above referenced book will be that he and his family (a wife and young daughter) will try to live their lives in New York City for a year without having an impact on the environment. Ah, perhaps this film with have the answers I seek.  He sets certain rules: buy local food, don’t buy new stuff, ride bikes, no elevators, reduce trash, compost, no toilet paper, no electricity, etc., which he phases in throughout the course of the year. So your telling me it is not truly a year with no impact? Already I feel betrayed.

Ultimately, to me the very premise of the experiment is flawed. Just through the simple act of breathing, or eating or pooping, a human has an impact on the environment. There is no way for the subject of the experiment to have zero impact unless he ceases to exist. Maybe it wouldn’t have bugged me so much if he called it “Low Impact Man,” but I assume that doesn’t sell books, does it?

And at the very least, if he was really trying to see if he could make zero impact, he should have gone out to the wilderness, abandoning his city digs which by their very existence have a huge impact on the environment. Instead he stays in the city, becoming a mooch, living symbiotically off of those around him, a parasite. At one point, his wife is forced to “borrow” ice from a neighbor in order to keep their food cold since “No Impact Man” insisted on giving up the refrigerator. He begins to work in a community garden that is already set up, and starts to talk about how easy gardening is, and the guy who runs the garden is like, “Ya it is easy. Because I already did all the F-ing work.”

I’m not sure what the directors of the film, Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein, intended on conveying with this movie.  On one hand, the movie felt like a long trailer for Mr. Beavan’s book. But on the other hand, the movie shows Mr. Beavan with flaws which I appropriated seeing. He was shown as selfish for putting his family through this experiment with very little input from them. He requires that they be open and on board with the sacrifice, yet he could still use electricity when he was blogging. And they also showed scenes where, even though his wife wanted another child, he wasn’t open to the sacrifice that came such a change in lifestyle.

We do not get the sense of what impact the experiment had on the family other than a general grumpiness at giving up caffeine or air conditioning. And it is the little things that are left out that make you wonder, like did they give up hot showers, or to really have no impact on a water supply, forgo showers all together.  We don’t get the reaction shots of what people thought about their clothes since the clothes were washed in the bathtub, or how they smelled since I assume they gave up toiletries and toilet paper.

Furthermore, the film does not answer what impact his sacrifices made on saving the environment.  How much did he save the earth by not using electricity? How much was saved by eating locally?  We don’t know because the film just assumes the impact is apparent.

The premise played out no better than an extreme publicity stunt, à la David Blaine. This was highlighted by  Mr. Beavan’s several appearances on morning talk shows like Good Morning America, which last time I checked used electricity to broadcast. So how is that having no impact?

And we have seen these stunts before, with the guy who eats only McDonalds for a month, or the guy who tries to live the rules of Bible literally for a year. And to show us what? Fast food is bad for you? No kidding. To show you that taking the Bible literally is hard and sometimes outdated? You don’t say. To show us giving up electricity and toilet paper is hard? Wow!

My biggest concern with these experiments is that it reinforces the myth that liberals are out of touch with the rest of society.  It is all well and good that these guys can take a year out of their lives to make so many sacrifices all in the name of making a point, or saving others or saving the planet. But there are a lot people who would love to option of buying local, but can only afford to buy off the dollar menu. They give up on electricity but not by choice.

So was it just a ploy to sell a book that will, by the way, have an impact on the environment since I assume it is printed on paper? Maybe, but I think Mr. Beavan’s heart was also in the right place, and perhaps the book does a better job of giving us answers and explaining things. Ultimately, I appreciate that Mr. Beavan is trying to highlight something that I agree is a concern.  I’m glad that he is tackling this issue rather than trying to prove global warming doesn’t exist, or making “Huge Impact Man.” So taken in that light, the movie sparks discussion and controversy (as evidenced by a quick google search of the movie title), which is a big plus in my book, and therefore it gets a 3 out 5 from Mister Critic.

The Lovely Bones

Is there ever “the right moment” to watch a really depressing movie? Lately I am finding it increasingly difficult to work up the motivation to watch certain films. When I’m in a good mood, the last thing I want is some movie bringing me down, and when I’m in the dumps, it is not a wise idea to be exploring dark places. Good luck finding any middle ground.  And thanks to Netflix, my procrastination goes unabated because I receive movies with no due date to work against. So there sat The Lovely Bones, taunting me for the past few weeks.
The movie The Lovely Bones (2009) is based on a novel by Alice Sebold, published in 2002.  It is the story of a young girl, Susie Salmon, age 14, who is murdered and watches from the afterlife as her family copes with the loss. See what I’m saying about depressing?
Now before you yell at me about spoiling the movie plot by revealing that she was murdered, that tidbit is revealed early in both the book and the movie.  In fact, it is in the first line of the book, which is one of the aspects that I really liked about the novel. The author took a risk by subverting the conventional suspense behind whether a main character is going to die and cut straight to the aftermath of such a tragedy, focusing instead on the impact of the main character’s death on the other characters. I thought that focus really worked in the novel. Not so much in the movie, though.

I am usually interested in how a novel I have experienced will be interpreted on the big screen, and that was especially the case when I heard that Peter Jackson was directing this film. Mr. Jackson has experience in faithfully adapting novels as evidenced by The Lord of Ring Trilogy, a work of art, in my humble opinion.  And he recently directed a remake of King Kong, which got the job done, but was not as impressive to me as the Rings.

On the positive side of things, I could tell that Jackson really loved the novel, The Lovely Bones, and stayed true to the general feel of the book. He did a great job capturing the time period, the early 1970s, with the clothes, hair, and technology, and as my wife pointed out, at times the film had that look that color photos had from that era. I thought he created some interesting visuals with his interpretations of things like Susie’s afterlife, although at times it felt like he was trying a little too hard to be artsy or quirky. It felt like we were treading upon familiar ground, similar to What Dreams my Come, and this detracted from what should have been a character driven movie.

And that’s where I found the movie to be lacking. I wanted more depth to the discussion of the impact of Susie’s death on the family.  The title comes from Susie observing how her family and friends grew after she died, and seeing how the connections they made were “the lovely bones that had grown around [her] absence . . .”  A similar statement is made in the movie, but it does not hold as much weight in the film because the director provides very little evidence of said growing or changing or connections.  Instead the movie seemed to want to play more with the suspense behind how the death happened, or whether the murderer would be caught, turning it into more of a crime thriller.

Perhaps one reason I felt this lacking, was due it part to Mark Wahlberg’s portrayal of the father. For whatever reason, Jackson chose to essentially cut out a huge part of the mother role which completely wasted casting the talented Rachel Weisz.  Susan Sarandon, as the grandmother, was also wasted as comic relief rather than channeling her dramatic talent. So that left Wahlberg to carry the water in order to show the impact on the family, and he spilled most of the water.

First, Marky Mark was an odd casting choice. He just did not read as the father type in this movie. He seemed more like the big brother, or worse yet, the creepy uncle. Maybe it was the 70’s hair, or the fact that I will never disassociate him from Dirk Diggler of Boogie Nights.  Also, thanks to Saturday Night Live, my wife could not stop saying, “Say hello to your mother for me,” whenever Wahlburg spoke.

Now I give the guy a B- for effort, he tried to emote the desperation of trying to find his daughter, or the pain associated with the loss, but this movie needed more from him to make that character work. He did good job with anger, that is his “go-to” emotion, however in one scene, where he was looking at his reflection in a window, he just looked constipated.

Overall, the lack of depth in a majority of the characters left me detached from this movie for the most part, which is the polar opposite of how I felt reading the book. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood, or maybe reading the book spoiled it for me. Don’t get me wrong, the very thought of losing my daughter in such a manner tears me apart, but other than the scenes described below, the movie allowed me separate myself emotionally, which caused me to lose interest.  And perhaps that’s just my problem because every time I looked over at my wife she was sobbing through the entire movie.

What really saves this movie for me is the performance by Stanley Tucci as George Harvey, the child predator.  He does a fantastic job portraying this monster, right down to the odd speech patterns and creepy mannerisms.  Excellent work and a very well deserved nomination for Best Supporting Actor. There are several scenes with Mr. Tucci that will haunt me forever, and will teach any child not to trust strangers. Those were the times that I was hit very hard, right in the gut, emotionally by this movie, and I found most of his scenes very difficult to watch, even though I knew how they would end. Ultimately, it is because of Mr. Tucci’s performance that I would recommend this movie as a good rental.

Right after the movie ended, my wife and I ran to check on the kids to make sure they were safe, which is what any self-respecting, really depressing movie should make you do. When it is all said and done, you should appreciate your life and the ones you love, and in that respect The Lovely Bones did what it needed to do. But if you are looking for more, stick to the book.

Civilization IV

“Revolutionaries wait
For my head on a silver plate
Just a puppet on a lonely string
Oh, who would ever want to be king?”
-Viva La Vida, Coldplay

To answer your question, Mr. Coldplay, I would want to be king.
And now you too can be king of your very own civilization thanks to the makers of Civilization IV. This video game allows players to pick a famous world leader, ranging from Julius Caesar to Catherine the Great to FDR, and lead your chosen people from a roving band of natives to a great and powerful nation.  You choose the technologies to focus on developing or the trade agreements you want to make.  And because there are multiple ways to win the game, you can choose whether you will be a peaceful, culturally rich society, or a technologically advanced nerd-land winning the space race, or, my preference, a war-mongering dictatorship bent on world domination.

You start off with simple advancements like the wheel, and move towards developing even better modes of transportation, like tanks, ships, and even airplanes. That is, if you can get that far without nuking everyone once you develop your stockpile. Make sure you have built up enough of an army to protect your young cities, and order workers to build improvements around each city, like roads and mines, and within each city, like a granary or an aqueduct, or even better, a world wonder likeStonehenge.  But watch out, you must make sure you people are happy or they could revolt. They will not be able to obtain your head on a platter, but they can defect to the opposing nearby countries.  So make sure you work on increase your cultural influence on the world by creating great works of art or music, and then your boundaries will expand. And you can even send in spies to other countries to gather information or sabotage their developments.

I like that as the game advances, more resources are discovered and the balance of power can flip at any time.  One country that was powerful in the beginning may not have access to oil or uranium, and thus will need to make some sort of alliance with a weaker country that has that resource, or better yet, just wipe them off the map.  But this factor makes for some interesting twists in a game.

Another cool aspect of this game is that you can be the first to discover a certain religion, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, etc., and then spread that religion to nearby cities with “missionaries in a foreign field.”  But watch out because some nations may not like your religion and begin a holy war with you to convert your heathen ways.

My favorite part of this game, aside from the kick-butt song at the start of the game,Baba Yetu, is that you can play against multiple live players rather than just the computer, making every game unpredictable.  So far I have only had the chance to play against my wife, which usually results in one of us quitting just as our rear end is about to be handed to us.  And we don’t get to play as often as we would like.

So I dream of the day where I can play a large, intense game with a number of friends gathered together, each hunched over their respective computer, engaged in a full scale world war. Alliances are broken, remade, then broken again, trade embargos are threatened, rivals are erased from history in only a few turns, elephants are killed, tears shed, and only one is voted the leader of the United Nations to win the game. And that one will be me.

Well, all that’s when I rule the world.

The Xbox 360

This post is less of a review and more of a shout out to the best Brother-in-law ever. Thanks to his hooking a “brotha” (in-law) up with the Xbox 360 gaming system, my family has entered into the world of “next gen” gaming, and I am loving it. I have only had a combined total of 15 minutes of game time, but what I have seen so far, I love. The feature I am most excited about is being able to watch movies from Netflix through with Xbox. It has a wireless internet connection and communicates with my Netflix account to deliver instant movies right to my TV.  How cool is that?

Well, thank you again, bro, for thinking of my family and I hope to have some video game reviews coming soon. Of course, that may require some assistance from game testers in my area. Where, oh where, will I ever find a bunch of guys who like to play video games?

The Twilight Saga: New Moon

I am not excited about starting a blog with the review of this movie, but I guess the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.  Even if that one step is into a big pile of dog poo.

Now I was not a big fan of this series the first time around.  And now that it is a saga, I don’t think my opinion has changed.  I have not read the books, so maybe they are better.  But I am not happy with the changes made with the rules regarding vampire, and now werewolf, folklore.  Sunlight does not make vampires sparkle…it makes them die. They are creatures of the night.   I’m sorry, those are the rules.  If you don’t like it, don’t write about vampires.  Create some other sparkle monster.  And really the heart of the issue is that I am all for changing rules as long as you don’t make them lame.

Mad Men Seasons 1-3

It is the show that makes you wonder what your grandparents really were doing during the good old days.

Mad Men follows the lives of several individuals working on Madison Avenue (hence the title Mad Men) in New York City at the advertising agency Sterling Cooper starting with season one in the mid-1950 to season 3 ending around the mid-1960s.

I started watching Mad Men on DVD soon after having watched Revolutionary Road, a movie about a similar time period focusing on the lives of a suburban couple in the 1950s. I did not like Revolutionary Road (maybe to be discussed in a different review), so I was concerned Mad Men would end up a cheap knock off in comparison.  I was very happy that I was wrong.

My favorite thing about this show is seeing the inner workings of an advertising agency. You watch as the accounts men scramble to secure a company’s business, taking them out to two-three-four martini lunches, or illicit after hours activities. Once the client is on board, it is up to creative to pitch the great ideas. I love to see what the boss will say about a certain idea, and trying to figure out what would be the best campaign.  The beset answer the main character gives as to why a certain ad works is: “Because men want her and women want to be her.” That slogan works for everything…except for STD public service announcements.

Having watched the show on DVD in three hour blocks, I cannot really say that any one episode stood out to me.  Instead, I take the show as a whole and the thing I like best is its characters. There is the young woman trying to make it in a man’s world.  There is the closeted gay man trying to hide his true self from the prejudiced workplace. The entire cast is filled with superb actors, and although there is no character free from blemish, I dare you not to root for at least one person in this show.

Most fascinating to me is the main character Don Draper, the confident ad man with a secret background.  At times, he is so suave, all knowing and untouchable, and yet at other times so human and hurt. He is a character that gets a chance to remake himself from a poor farm boy into a rich family man and yet he is still unsatisfied for reasons he will never comprehend.  Draper embodies an archetype of the modern American man, one I have actually witnessed in real life, striving to pull himself up by his bootstraps, searching for success and no matter what has been achieved, he cannot be happy.  Or is he just a selfish prick that likes to hurt people?  Watch the show and decide for yourself.  And even though you may not agree with his choices or like his behavior, on some level isn’t it true? Women want him and men want to be him.

Mad Men will return for its fourth season on AMC on July 25