The Austere Academy

After viewing the first season of A Series of Unfortunate Events, I couldn’t wait to see this new batch of episodes. The show has continued to improve upon the books with the help of Lemony Snicket himself, Daniel Handler. The first book of season 2, The Austere Academy, contains the most improvements of any of the books so far.

When I first read book 5 of the series, I found it a bit dull. While there are some subtle hints of changes coming, the story largely repeats the same devices from the previous four books, and on top of that, the Baudelaires have landed in their drabbest environment yet, a graveyard of a school with a focus on death. The only ray of light comes from the Baudelaires meeting the two remaining Quagmire triplets, but everything else they endure becomes part of the school’s monotonous routine. Part of the problem with reading this one comes from the device of using ridiculous routines to squeeze the energy from the orphans in hopes to cause them to fail out of the school in order for Count Olaf to become their guardian, but as Mr. Poe points out in the show, the whole endeavor is flawed.

As the first episodes of season 2begin, the first colorful improvement taps her way onto the screen. Carmelita Spats is just a black-and-white bully in the book, but in the show, she’s a terrifyingly cute girl with a pink dress and vibrant curls. She still gets the chants going in the lunch room and hurls the nonsensical “cake sniffers” insult at the orphans, but she’s become so much more. She’s the school cheerleader with the support of its tyrannical vice principal and later Count Olaf. While these things are all part of the book, they’re amped up along with everything else for the show. Carmelita’s crazy wide-eyed smiled alone is enough to make you uneasy, but she’s only one bright ingredient.

The best and brightest addition to the series is the librarian, Olivia Caliban, played by Sara Rue. In the book, the school’s library remains in the background for the Quagmire triplets to visit during some research, which they still do, but in the show, the library becomes a ray of light on a dim campus. Vice Principal Nero only allows the library to remain open for ten minutes a day, but even with such limited means, Olivia does everything she can to help the Baudelaires. Her presence is very similar to Justice Strauss in book 1, but instead of a motherly figure, Olivia is more like a cool aunt. She’s smart, sexy, and fun, and she doesn’t take any nonsense from Vice Principal Nero or Carmelita Spats. She’s one of the few characters who questions the system she finds herself in. That’s probably why she gets wrapped up in the secret organization fighting against Count Olaf, and I was very happy to see that her role continues in the episodes for book 6.

The spies have infiltrated the school lunchroom in an effort to get the book The Incomplete History of Secret Organizations into the hands of the Baudelaires, and once Count Olaf shows up, there’s even a rescue mission to save one of their operatives led by Lemony Snicket’s own brother Jacques Snicket, who’s played by Nathan Fillion. Their back and forth with Count Olaf’s team offers the series a much larger world than the paltry existence of the orphans that we get in the book, and it makes us question the narrator even more than we might in the book. Lemony definitely knows much more than he lets on. He mentions something about involvement with Count Olaf in the book and stops himself, but it is a very brief moment and not quite related to the current story.

And when Count Olaf does manage to weasel his way into Prufrock Preparatory, it takes him and his goons some effort. In the book, he just appears as he normally does, in a ridiculous costume some time after the children have noticed some mysterious figures lurking in the background in poor disguises that somehow work. He still replaces the gym teacher, but you get to see him put his dastardly plan into action. And when he does show up, he’s hilarious. He’s wearing a turban with fancy athletic shoes (high-top Adidas with wings no less), but he uses a thick Southern accent for some reason. In the book, I just assumed he went for some vague Middle Eastern impression, but the absurd combination of redneck swami pushes his antics to another level. And he’s definitely having to try a lot harder as these episodes roll on and more people become aware of his plans. You see him squirm quite a bit in this one, especially when the Baudelaires push Nero’s Olaf-detecting-computer right up to his face. He seems more human, even if he isn’t a very pleasant one.

Finally, there’s Vice Principal Nero, who comes across in quite the same way he does in the book, minus the pigtails, but Roger Bart plays him brilliantly. He’s creepy, egomaniacal, and he somehow makes the most annoying aspect of his character from the book into a funny characteristic, maybe because it’s played down. Nero’s habit of belittling the children by imitating them in a high-pitch voice went on a bit too long in the book, but onscreen, it’s just pathetic. That’s one word that definitely encapsulates Nero: pathetic. Just look at his bow strings! But with that goofy smile, you kind of love him and feel sorry for him at the same time, even though he’s a horrible person and you might like to break that violin over his head.

The culmination of all those characters first happens at the school’s pep rally, where we see the mascot of the school, which doesn’t exist in the book. With such a focus on death, and the motto Memento Mori (Remember You Will Die), there could be nothing more fitting than a dead skeletal horse. It comes onto the stage to the chant led by Carmelita, “Who can’t be beat? A dead horse,” and the men inside are promptly kicked over by the red-haired little imp right before Count Olaf bursts onto the stage.

The plans Olaf carries out are very much the same, and the children suffer the same indignities as they do in the book while they try to formulate their own plan, but the repetitive elements have been minimized for the show to make room for the added brightness. Anyone who hasn’t read the books can very much enjoy the show, and if you’re still interested in reading it, book 5 is still pretty good. But the two-part episode is like a black-and-white photo that’s had some colors added for maximum effect. Its gloom has been stylized so that the camp and horror come at you all at once, like a smile from Carmelita.

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Ready Player One

From the first pages of Ready Player One, when James Halliday’s will is explained, it’s pretty clear that the entire book is a digital treatment of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, only the candy is videogames and eighties pop-culture nostalgia. When I saw one of the final trailers for the Ready Player One movie and heard a cover of “Pure Imagination” playing, I wondered just how much the movie was going to delve into the Roald Dahl theme. Like the book, the connections to Willy Wonka in the movie Ready Player One are there, but they aren’t pronounced. Like Charlie, Wade finds himself among rich snobs that think they can buy their way through the challenges, only these snobs have guns and bombs and are incorporated into a monopoly, and the stakes are much higher. Whoever wins gains control of the entire internet, which makes a chocolate factory, no matter how fantastical, look like a waxy little Milk Dud by comparison.

Overall, the movie is enjoyable and hits many of the same notes from the book, but there were some things that didn’t quite translate as well. With all of the pop culture references, I knew many of the adaptations would rely purely on licensing. There are plenty of them throughout, enough to do some searching with the screen paused, but I was a little surprised to see how much Back to the Future dominated Wade’s arsenal. He’s driving the DeLorean as he does in the book, but he also picks up the Zemeckis Cube, and the film is even scored by Alan Silvestri, who composed the music for the BTTF trilogy. You’ll hear plenty of familiar melodies and sound effects throughout Ready Player One. While it’s exciting to see the iconic car in action, it wasn’t necessary to have it in such a central role (evidenced by the movie poster). The car probably served as the main inspiration for the biggest disappointment of the film adaptation: the first challenge.

In the book, Wade discovers the key on his virtual high school’s planet in a dungeon pulled straight from one of Halliday’s favorite Dungeons and Dragons modules. In the movie, players mindlessly race in their favorite vehicle through a gauntlet of destruction that culminates with King Kong. Not only is there no personal connection to Halliday, but it’s hard to believe that so many gamers would keep doing the same stupid death race for five years without trying anything different, especially when you lose everything you’ve earned when your character dies. When Wade finally earns the key, it’s fairly anticlimactic, and on top of that, there is no videogame challenge to face as there is in the book. The movie manages to do some necessary character work between Wade and Artemis, but the first challenge provides much more eye candy than substance.

Some of the improvements made by the movie include more interaction among the characters earlier on, but this makes it difficult to show just how isolated everyone is in the story. The crowds of people strapped into virtual reality gear look funny when it should be alarming. But I’m glad Wade doesn’t do everything on his own as he does in the book. The movie would have been fully animated up to the final fifteen minutes if they’d stuck to the plot in the book. Wades friends offer more dimension to the world even if it isn’t quite as dark an atmosphere as the book provides. Even the main bad guy from IOI gets a new person to act with, a secretive gamer voiced by T. J. Miller, who gives a hilarious performance, but it’s odd that he’s the only one without a real-world part.

Other improvements include Halliday’s video diary museum and the whole Shining sequence. Though it didn’t match the challenge from the book, it’s still fun to watch. The challenges themselves aren’t quite as involved, and I could have done without the real-world chase at the end while Wade completed the final videogame.

And the world itself could have been bigger. There’s no reason to end on Planet Doom, where the movie began, when there are supposed to be millions of worlds in the Oasis. It makes the movie version feel just a bit too small.

If you want a taste of the ever-lasting gobstopper that is the Oasis, you’ll only find it in the book.

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A Feast for Crows

feast-for-the-crows-4The fourth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series is aptly titled, given the staggering end of the third book. The entire series is left picking up the pieces, and while this causes the beginning of A Feast for Crows to move somewhat slowly in the beginning, the story reassembles and takes flight in exciting new directions.

This volume spends much of its time in King’s Landing, though we get to dart off to faraway lands with some new characters, along with some old ones going by new names. It was odd to see the Stark girls’ names changed to their aliases in the chapter titles, but that move helped to reinforce their drastic developments in response to the fall of their house. Both of them are far away, Sansa where we left her in the Eyrie and Arya on a new path in Braavos, which I wanted more of and hope to see in the fifth book. It’s nice to see Sam stand a little taller once his seasickness subsides. Brienne, on the other hand, you just feel sorry for as she has one near miss after another on her road to find Sansa, and if you haven’t learned the rewards of honor and duty in these lands yet, you’ll feel the full brunt of it watching her slog west.

After the fight between the Dornish prince and the Mountain at the end of the third book, I was excited to finally see Dorne, and I thought it would play a bigger role since it is the opening setting of the fourth book, but I still don’t have a feel for the place beyond its hot sands and wind. The Ironborn on the other hand we get to know quite well, and I can’t wait to see what they find when they sail east. Before that decision, we witness the choosing of a new leader, and while Victarion seems like the toughest man for the job, and that’s saying something with these drowned men, Balon’s other brother, Euron has his Crow’s Eye unflinchingly set on the driftwood crown.

The book is very heavy on Cersei, who is quite unpleasant and grows even more so as her mistrust and scheming worsens after the death of her father. I don’t really enjoy hating her, especially since Tyrion isn’t around to give her a hard time. Jaime is back home, but his interactions with her grow more strained as she spirals down, and for the most part, a chapter with Jaime is a chapter with Cersei, or at least thoughts about Cersei. The most intriguing aspect of Cersei’s new machinations is her determination to bring an end to little Queen Margery, though we don’t see much of her. I have a feeling this part of the story will seem very familiar once it airs on HBO since the actress playing Margery succumbed to similar plots and accusations of incest while playing Anne Boleyn on The Tudors. That history is likely where Martin is pulling from, which is fine, but I have to wonder what the casting director was thinking.

A Feast for Crows was enjoyable, but it does feel like a bit of a set up for greater things to come. The absence of the missing characters is greatly felt, but for some, like Tyrion, it is nice to wonder what’s become of them for a while. At no point did I feel like I was forcing my way through a holdover, but I am looking forward to the fifth book, which is the other half to this story.

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The Reason I Jump

Reason I JumpI was curious about this book mainly because it was authored by an autistic boy, and I was hoping for some additional insights into the condition from the writings of a young person experiencing it firsthand. While I didn’t learn much that I didn’t already know from my own research and experiences with my son, who is on the autism spectrum, it was nice to read some of the insights offered by Naoki Higashida, particularly those found in the fictional stories offered in the book.

As the editor and translator, David Mitchell, explains in the introduction, the author may not be able to provide hard, fast answers to the questions he’s being asked, but there is value in what he has to say. In each of the short chapters, there is some nugget of wisdom offered in a way that’s outright poetic at times. For example, when Naoki’s explaining why he likes being in the water, he comes to a point where he states very directly, “People with autism have no freedom. The reason is that we are a different kind of human, born with primeval senses. We are outside the normal flow of time, we can’t express ourselves, and our bodies are hurtling us through life.” Though concepts and statements like this might sound bold to some, the nicer thing about the book is that its author keeps returning to a message of love and patience, not just for people with autism, but for everyone.

What I didn’t expect from this book was short fiction, and it offered a nice break to the more formulaic Q&A style writing that makes up the majority of the pages. The longer story towards the end titled “I’m Right Here” is particularly telling of the author’s struggles with the effects of autism. The story follows a ghostly boy who can’t seem to get the attention of anyone around him or even track how he’s arrived at various locations away from his family. The outcome is somewhat predictable, but the telling of it is done very well, and the sense of pacing is right on.

There are also several illustrations throughout the book that are nice to look at, mostly patterned images based on shapes from nature, like the butterflies and flower petals layered on the book’s cover. They are not done by the author, but I do think they add something to the book. And that seems to be the goal overall, to provide a nice framework for what the author has to say about a very difficult topic.

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The Great Gatsby in 3D

GatsbyBaz Luhrman’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is the only 3D movie that I’ve seen recently that’s worth wearing the glasses for. Many people I talked to wondered why a story focused on self-centered characters spiraling toward the frayed ends of the American dream needed to be in 3D in the first place. But if you’re going to make a movie about excess, why the hell not? And it works. As soon as the gritty black-and-white title sequence ended, and the golden gatework stretched into the blackness, my slight sense of vertigo told me that someone had actually made good use of the medium.

There are many long shots with almost cartoonish layers that provide the same sensation I had with the red viewmaster that I played with as a child. Animated movies work best for 3D, and Gatsby is no exception. But you almost don’t notice since the sets, costumes, and editing are so stylized. In fact, some of the smoother shots are those that are far away. The camera zooms over the bay toward the green light, over the immense grounds of the estates, and over the ash heaps the cars race through to get to New York. This provides a much better feel for the immense world these tiny people are lording over in their various reckless ways.

The pace set in this adaptation does a much better job at capturing the anxiety of the book than the older movie starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. That version does a great job with the emptiness presented in the novel, but it’s too slow and calm. Luhrman’s quick cuts accompanied by a jittery dialogue capture the feeling described so well by Nick Carraway at that first party in New York when he meets Tom’s mistress, Myrtle: “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

Some aspects of the movie do an even better job than the book at showing the world Fitzgerald created, particular the racing cars and the large divide between Long Island and New York with the piles of ash in between looking somewhat like Mordor from Lord of the Rings, only with a pair of glasses on a billboard instead of a fiery eye. This racing around that the characters engage in gives a much better sense that something terrible is going to happen, especially with the near misses on all of the trips prior to the tragic accident at the end that unravels the world Gatsby and the others have created for themselves.

I did not like the cliched treatment of the narrator writing this story for a psychiatrist. When the list of Nick’s ailments were ticked off, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. He wasn’t left a broken man in the book, and you get the sense from the very first line that he has a healthier grasp on reality than any of the people that he meets in this period of his life: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you fell like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.'” Immediately, we have the impression that the narrator is a mindful person who’s careful with what he says and does. And we see this played out in the story; or at least, that’s how he presents himself. But instead, we see Toby McGuire’s character of Nick progress through a number of sessions as he comes to grips with the events of that tragic summer.

I just don’t think that a veteran of World War I who has successfully reintegrated into society is going to become completely debilitated by the tragic consequences of some foolish rich people. What’s sadder for him is watching these characters destroy themselves in the attempt to recapture something that was lost years ago. He argues with Gatsby that you can’t repeat the past, and he ends his story with a restatement of that idea and an observation of how it led to Gatsby’s doom. His position hasn’t changed at all from the time he lived through the events to the telling of it, which is much too stable for someone who might be broken up enough to visit a psychiatrist in those days. It seems that Nick’s telling of this story is much more of a cautionary tale than an exploration of his tortured psyche. I can almost imagine him telling this to someone who might remind him of Gatsby’s idealism and where it leads. Or maybe it’s a friend who’s dating a girl as potentially harmful as his cousin Daisy was.

Still, the movie works and does a much better job at getting the feel of the book right, which is generally what you hope for with any adaptation. And if 3D movies don’t give you a headache, this one is definitely worth the extra price of admission.

 

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