The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

A more accurate title for this novel might be: The Adventures of the Strangely Wise and Poetical Free Spirit Huckleberry Finn, and the Hapless Runaway Slave Jim, Interrupted by the Heartless Cloudcuckoolander Tom Sawyer.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was required reading in my 10th-grade English class. I didn’t like it. Years later, now that I’ve re-read it, I still don’t like it, but I have more insight into what makes it a good book as well as what annoys me about it.

See below for the strengths of the book and what annoyed me about it, a plot summary (with SPOILERS), and what stood out as well as when and why I read it.

Continue reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The cover of Ready Player One says “Enchanting. WILLY WONKA meets THE MATRIX.” —USA Today. I thought it was more like Second Life meets Speed Racer meets Surrogates.

OASIS, the book’s highly advanced and therefore seemingly magical virtual world, in some ways resembles Second Life, an online platform where user avatars can interact with one another in a variety of digital settings for business, education, entertainment, or personal reasons. In both cases, the world is fake but the social and economic relationships inside it are very real.

The book embodies modern liberal values such as the superiority of science over superstition, the urgency of the need for alternative energy sources, the right to online anonymity, the idea that information (and thus education) wants to be free, the equality of all races, genders, and sexual orientations, the importance of inner beauty, the protection of basic human rights, and, of course, the inherent evil of money-grubbing mega-corporations run by villains who, like Speed Racer‘s E.P. Arnold Royalton, will not hesitate to take with deadly force whatever their obscene piles of cash can’t buy.

To the extent that the book has a message, it’s that of the mediocre 2009 Bruce Willis movie Surrogates: the real world should be more important to humans than any substitute. However, the whole of Ready Player One seems to argue the exact opposite: “The digital world is really cool, guys! We can use it to live in our own retro-futuristic fantasy worlds, like, forever!” The moral of the story thus seems not just tacked on but insincere.

What, then, is the point? The novel is an unsubtle homage to the pop culture of several decades set in a technologically superior “dystopia”, though anything with so much baked-in wish-fulfillment can’t possibly be properly dystopian, if you ask me.

But hey. At least there’s a Firefly reference in there.

See below for more thoughts on the novel as well as a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ant-man and the Wasp (2018)

Steve Krug, author of Don’t Make Me Think, says the functions of a good website are neither explained nor self-explanatory, they are self-evident.

In Ant-man and the Wasp, the sequences filled with exposition are excruciating because in them, the fake science is explained.

I felt a bit better when the fake science was lampshaded: “Do you guys just put ‘quantum’ in front of everything?” (My thought exactly!)

I felt even better during the action sequences, when the effects of the fake science were delightfully self-evident.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/ant-man-and-the-wasp/id1400637562

See below for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Ant-man and the Wasp (2018)

Ant-man (2015)

Watching Ant-man was fun, but it would probably have been more fun in a theater where there would have been lots of people there to laugh at the absurdities scattered throughout.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/ant-man/id1012788984

See below for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Ant-man (2015)

Avengers 3: Infinity War (2018)

I’m thinking I should go see more movies during the opening week or weekend because when I watched Infinity War, I enjoyed people’s reactions to the movie as much as I enjoyed the movie itself. People gasped and laughed and went “WHHHHOOOAAA” in large numbers. One girl in the audience actually screamed when one of the characters got stabbed. At one point I heard the audience collectively go “SHHH***TTT”.

I’m reminded a bit of the time I went to see a WWF match: the audience was really into it, for some of the same reasons: people like to see a champion fight an enemy, and they love it when the champion delivers a particularly cool attack. I was also reminded of what it was like seeing the first Harry Potter movie in a really big, really full theater when it first came out: people loved the characters and felt invested in their world, and couldn’t wait for the chance to enter that world with them. Marvel has built a visually and, yes, emotionally rich alternate reality.

Before I saw the movie, I heard that this Marvel movie was “different”. I assumed that maybe meant it had an even bigger cast of characters than before, or that it was better than Age of Ultron, which people thought was kind of lame. That wasn’t what they meant. They were talking obliquely about the ending, which I will not talk about until you scroll down quite a bit further.

For some reason I thought “Infinity War” referred to the galactic scope of a war, or maybe to a war that gets stuck in some kind of time loop as in Doctor Strange. Nope. The war is named after the stones that the bad guy, Thanos, is looking for. When the movie begins, Thanos has one of the infinity stones already, the power stone (purple). He has attached it to a golden gauntlet on his left fist, which would look ridiculous if he weren’t an immense and very ruthless villain.

Thanos is looking for the remaining five stones. He is missing the space stone (blue), the reality stone (red), the soul stone (orange), the time stone (green), and the mind stone (yellow). If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve seen these stones in other Marvel movies. For the sake of the universe, we hope they stay hidden.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/avengers-infinity-war/id1370224078

See below for a summary with SPOILERS. I’ve done a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, but the sequence may be a bit weird. The movie cut back and forth between the different sets of characters more than my summary does, so things are a little out of order.
Continue reading Avengers 3: Infinity War (2018)

Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018)

The things people are saying about this sequel sound like the kinds of things they could safely say without ever bothering to watch the movie: it’s just a loud, boring mess because it doesn’t have the benefit of Guillermo del Toro’s creativity like the first one, which wasn’t even all that popular. Fine. Even the kindest reviews say the sequel is only an echo of the 2013 original.

What I think is NOT fair to say (and a review at Roger Ebert agrees with me) is that Uprising is as bad as Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. I only watched the first one. That, now that was loud and boring. And crass! I am not a Transformers fan, but I am still mad at Michael Bay for somehow being able to mess up a movie about sentient cars, because that is such a cool concept. (I’ll stick with Herbie, thanks.)

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/pacific-rim-uprising/id1358451634

See below for a shorter-than-usual plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018)

He Named Me Malala (2015)

He Named Me Malala is the emotional story of how one Pakistani girl embarked on a mission to insist on education for girls. Politics is a minefield I try to stay away from, but literacy is a cause that appeals to me if ever there was one.

A strong theme in the film (indeed, in the title!) is Malala’s relationship with her father. There will always be people who say that by giving his daughter the name “Malala” and involving her in his intellectual life, Malala’s father created the champion who is now beloved by the international media…. and that he is also, thus, responsible for making her the victim of a shot to the head by a Taliban gunman. Malala refuses to blame her father, describe herself as a special victim of the Taliban, or even admit to any personal feelings of anger or suffering related to the shooting. Moreover, she states clearly that whatever she has done has been her own choice. Of course we are nevertheless free to imagine her anger and suffering, and to reflect on the many reasons any of us follow the paths we do: nature, nurture, chance, and choice all have roles to play.

The film runs the gamut of emotions: we feel shock, anger, sadness, and awe, but interviews with Malala’s brothers provide comic relief, and some of the things Malala says about herself are pretty funny, too. The segments that present Malala’s “normal” family and student life remind us that she is not just a survivor, a heroine, and a champion of the oppressed: she’s a human girl, in some ways no different from you and me, yet she has accomplished more than most of us would ever dare attempt, and perhaps for good reason: most of us have a stronger sense of self-preservation, and most of us have not been shot in the head.

Though it seems to try to transcend politics, the film can’t entirely avoid being political. One of its messages is that the Taliban’s teachings are not Islam; it is a perversion of Islam, a radical, poisonous ideology subscribed to by power-hungry extremists. The film does not document their crimes in detail; unlike the shorter 2009 NYT documentary, it is not graphically violent and its tone is generally hopeful; the bad guys are not its focus. Malala’s father says it wasn’t a person who shot her; it was an ideology. Who pulled the trigger doesn’t matter.

This film included beautiful animated segments and features the voices of Malala and her father, who speak in admirable English that has some charming idiosyncrasies.

I was curious whether He Named Me Malala, being fact rather than fiction, would have the same structure as other movies I’ve watched and analyzed. Although it had a kind of collage aspect to it, its underlying structure was the same as that of any narrative. I was not surprised. Just because a documentary starts with facts doesn’t mean it’s not also a story. Even if it a story that in real life is far from over, or one that isn’t told in chronological order, every story has to have a recognizable beginning, middle, and end.

I didn’t know much, if anything, about Malala before seeing the film. Now, having seen it, I am at least somewhat curious to read the book I Am Malala, a copy of which, hilariously, Malala signed and inscribed to herself before shelving it alongside others in her bedroom.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/he-named-me-malala/id1037547331

See below for some links to reviews as well as a summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading He Named Me Malala (2015)

Galaxy Quest (1999)

I keep thinking this movie is the one where a robot says “Danger, Will Robinson!” but no, that’s Lost in Space, a movie that came out around the same time and was reportedly terrible, though it was based on a beloved classic television show.

Galaxy Quest is decidedly not terrible. It’s an award-winning sci-fi comedy beloved by sci-fi and comedy fans alike. It’s got big-name actors (Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman), and top-notch special effects (from Industrial Light and Magic and others) that still look good almost twenty years later. And it was the film debut of Justin “I’m a Mac” Long, who subsequently starred in Live Free or Die Hard, Herbie: Fully Loaded, and Accepted.

The premise is that, years after the end of a long-running television show called Galaxy Quest (obviously a parody of Star Trek), the show’s washed up actors (those who played the commander, the attractive woman who talks to the computer, the rubber-headed alien doctor, the young pilot, the tech expert and a one-episode redshirt) are approached at a fan convention by actual aliens who mistakenly believe they are the “never give up, never surrender” heroes they used to portray. Can these human fish out of water pull together to meet this unexpected challenge?

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/galaxy-quest/id286147467

See below for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Galaxy Quest (1999)

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

Years ago (in 2011) I read Larklight by Philip Reeve. I’d opportunistically bought Mothstorm too (but maybe not the second one, Starcross), thinking I would read the whole series. I didn’t. Larklight was as dull as an old cast-iron skillet and despite its thickness not nearly as effective as a weapon.

Months ago a friend described the predator cities series to me, and although it was written by this same Reeve, it sounded interesting. When I heard that Mortal Engines is coming to theaters this year, I was excited that yet another young adult fantasy book has been adapted for film, and, with guarded optimism, I arranged to borrow the series of four books. (Turns out, I jumped the gun… the movie isn’t out until December!)

Hours ago, I finished reading Mortal Engines. Much as not finishing the series feels like quitting, I think reading the other books would be a chore for me, so I’m not going to do it.

Did Mortal Engines win awards? Was it imaginative? Was it thrillingly action-packed? Did the characters make important decisions and change as a result of their experiences? Yes. Did I enjoy it? Not particularly.

I think my issue is one of style. The premise is that centuries from now people live in mobile cities that prey on one another in accordance with “Municipal Darwinism”. That’s an interesting premise, but the writing made the characters seem like cartoony caricatures even when serious stuff was happening. There was a lot of action, not so much reflection. The inventive details seemed like so many cheap fireworks thrown out to dazzle momentarily and then fade into nothing.

See below for more comments about the writing style in addition to a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

Black Panther (2018)

Marvel’s Black Panther embodies American exceptionalism. The theme is that offering foreign aid and sharing knowledge is not only a good idea, but a duty, and one on which a prosperous country’s survival depends.

Wait, you thought it was a superhero movie? Or a movie that celebrates black culture? Or a movie that celebrates women? It’s all those things too!

Moreover, critics are saying it’s a “Shakespearean” drama because of the nuanced characterization of the main villain, who believes so strongly in his mission that you’re half inclined to agree with him.

I’m glad that the unremittingly bleak and gritty Christopher Nolan style of superhero movie is increasingly giving way to humor, even in movies like this one that have serious and important themes.

See Marvel’s Black Panther as soon as possible so that you can join in the discussion of this cultural touchstone. If it’s not in theaters, it’ll be on iTunes.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/black-panther-2018/id1342065788

See below for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Black Panther (2018)