Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Martha: A Short Scary Story

by Nathan Hall

Standard legal stuff: I own all the rights to this piece. All the characters involved are entirely fictional and entirely my own. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, real or fictional, is purely coincidence.

Feel free to read this, or share it with others. Just don’t alter it without my permission or share it without passing on my name as its author.


When I was a child I had an imaginary friend, as I'm sure most children do. She was named Martha; a girl who wore pink dresses and white ribbons and loved Gobstoppers so much that we once fought over her "stealing" the last ones. We did everything together. We played on the tire swing in the back yard. We colored. We had "sleepovers" at my house. We even did my homework as a team.

I remember Martha until about second grade. After that, I must have outgrown her. I made real friends in my classes and had a real social life, real sleepovers. Eventually, I stopped thinking about Martha altogether. I hadn't so much as spoken her name in more than ten years.

Then, helping my mom move boxes down out of the attic, I found a photograph. One of those old Polaroids that you had to shake to develop. Faded, yellowed, curled at the edges, it was half-covered by a box. I recognized myself as a child, in a blue dress with black frills, my hair up in ponytails, tied with those plastic "gator" clips. My bare feet were black, my hands were sticky from candy, and I had a gigantic grin as I waved for the camera.

When I grabbed the photo from under the box where it must have fallen and lifted it high enough to see, I almost dropped it. A chill slashed through the heat of the attic.

Sitting next to me was another girl, in a pink dress with white ribbons. She had a small bag of candies beside her, and she seemed to have been caught popping one into her mouth. I didn't have to look to know they were Gobstoppers.

I held tight to the hand rail as I made my way out of the attic. My mother asked me what was wrong; I handed her the photo. Her face paled.

When I finally cajoled my mom into telling me the truth, I wished I hadn't. Wished I'd never found that photo.

Martha wasn't an imaginary friend--she was a real one. We met in preschool, and were best friends for years. She would spend a good deal of the summer's days at my house.

 And I didn't simply outgrow her.

One fall afternoon, Martha went missing. She never made it home from school, her parents told the police. Somewhere between getting dropped off of the bus and their front door, something had happened to her.

The police searched frantically, but it wasn't until almost two weeks later that they found her body. An autopsy report revealed evidence of both physical and sexual assault. Even more than her death, however, what sent the neighborhood into a panic was that there were signs that abuse had happened over the course of months, even years. Unexplained, healed-over breaks, half-healed bruises in suspicious places, scars from cigarette burns.

It was discovered--corroborated in the weeks to follow by the witness of several of Martha's friends--that her father had been abusive, both to her and to the friends who stayed over. He was sentenced to life in prison, and many were upset that he escaped the death penalty by pleading guilty.

When I asked my mother whether I had stayed over at that house, she refused to answer. But I saw it in her eyes. Of course I had; I was Martha's best friend, and she was mine.

I decided not to look up newspaper articles of the time. To this day, I don't remember a single thing about Martha's parents or her house. All I remember are those summer days playing in the back yard, and the sound of Martha's laughter.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Sequels, Prequels, Reboots, and Tie-Ins: Why Care Should Be Taken

This was just thrown together as inspiration struck, so I apologize if it's not as coherent as some of my other posts.

I watch AMC Movie Talk, a channel on Youtube (find it here: https://www.youtube.com/user/amctheatres). It's a fantastic little show, with the most up-to-date information and some of the most thoughtful opinions on movies and movie news. It's hosted by John Campea, arguably an expert in the field of movie news and reporting.

Often, Campea expresses his personal views on subjects related to fiction (he's certainly not shy), and even when I disagree with him, I can't fault his logic, and I find him entertaining.

However, he recently expressed a viewpoint that inspired me. That is, he says that people shouldn't care if a movie they love is remade, or if there's some sort of tie in. His logic is that the original is not harmed in any way by this new material--you can still go out and buy A New Hope, for instance, even if the prequel trilogy disappointed you. A New Hope was not harmed by the making of the prequel trilogy; other than Lucas's alterations to the material itself, nothing has changed. He's often said as much.

I agree with that statement in a literal sense, but I have to argue differently, in effect.

I believe that substandard product (or one that strays dramatically from the vision of the original) DOES in fact harm the original. No, the physical copy of the original is not harmed in any way--I can still go watch Raimi's Spider-Man 2, and enjoy it, even if 3 was an abomination in my opinion. However, whenever I watch the Raimi Spider-Man movies, a part of me now thinks of emo-Parker, the rushed character arc of Harry, and the pathetic Eddie Brock/Venom. Every time I watch A New Hope, a part of me wonders if Jar Jar is still alive somewhere. What is the life expectancy of a Gungan, anyway?

So, although I can still watch my favorite works, my enjoyment of them is diminished. The experience has been forever altered.

The same is true of other forms of fiction. I can never read The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan again without, every time Mat reads or writes, thinking about the moment in a later book in which he writes as though he is illiterate. Was brain damage involved in the change? I can never read the Riftwar Saga by Raymond E. Feist without thinking of how certain characters meet their end in pathetic, embarrassing ways. No matter how clever, resourceful, or powerful a character is or becomes, I remember them drawing their last breaths in helplessness and fear.

I wouldn't consider either of the previous two works I mention BAD, but even so, later work forever altered my perception of the original. Even should certain events be "undone" later by a retcon (as is often done in Sci-Fi and Fantasy), it's impossible not to think of them.

Why did I write this post? For two reasons.

One was simply to express my opinion. That's what blogs are for, after all, right?

But the other reason was to plead to writers of fiction: Put care into any secondary work that touches on the first. Put some thought into how this might change readers' enjoyment of the original. If you feel the need to expand on some aspect, and feel it could tell a good story, then by all means, feel free. I'm not saying that you have no right to the characters or the story. Please, just consider the consequences of what you're doing.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Ah, Illness. Where Would I Be Without You?

Did anyone else know that pain from a bad gallbladder can be up there with a kidney stone? I didn't, but it sure let me know! I had emergency surgery to have my gallbladder removed on Saturday. 

It's why I haven't posted anything over the last few days. It's also why I might not post all that much for the next week or two. 

I hope it won't be long before I return, but falling ill also made me fall behind on college work to a terrifying degree. I'll mostly be offline for the next week, to keep distractions to a minimum. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Giver Review

The Giver is one of my all-time favorite books. It introduced me into dystopian fiction, into Science Fiction, into minimalist prose. It introduced me into complex morality and the question of whether the ends justify the means. I walked into the movie carrying those preconceptions (and others) with me.

I'll start by saying that the movie is much better than the trailers make it out to be. Yes, it draws some details in execution from the modern dystopian YA movies that have sprung up in the last few years--I'll get to a few of those soon--but it also makes an honest effort to retain the voice and the message of the book. It stumbles, but it never falls on its face. So if the trailers have made you CERTAIN that the movie will be a total waste of time, then they fooled you as much as they did me.

To tell the truth, I was lukewarm about even seeing this movie. Considering how beloved the book is to me, and how little I liked from what I saw in the trailer, I mostly came along for this because I knew we were watching Guardians of the Galaxy right afterward (I have a review of Guardians already posted).

The best thing I can say about The Giver is that it has heart. the people involved in this movie cared about it. Jeff Bridges manages to fit into the role of The Giver better than I expected him to, which is not to say that I expected anything less than his usual excellence in the performance, which he delivers. Meryl Streep is much less of a bland antagonist than she's at first presented; while understated, she is still a character with depth and passion--her character succeeds in a way that, say, Kate Winslet's character in Divergent fails. The three playing the leading teens in the story, Brenton Thwaites, Odeya Rush, and Cameron Monaghan, are all adequate at the very least.* Brenton gives a particularly strong performance in the lead. The supporting cast works as well, to a greater or lesser extent. Even the worst performance isn't bad enough to distract. 

The music is good, the drama is believable, the action is passable. The sets vary from forgettable to ASTOUNDING.

Actually, maybe the best thing I can say about it is: PART OF IT IS IN BLACK-AND-WHITE!!!!!

Ok, there's the good stuff. Here's the bad, and the "Huh?"

This movie has a telling problem. That is, rather than SHOWING the audience something, it tends to TELL the audience. They maintain the narration specifically for the purpose of spoon-feeding the viewer information or telling the viewer what to feel. Also, the dialogue has a lot of exposition that could have been delivered more realistically.

The director isn't a great fit. I noticed from the opening scene, which has an intentional "Leave It to Beaver" tone. The direction drew me out of the movie, occasionally. Not...bad, precisely, just odd. Out of curiosity, I looked into the director, and some of his other works. Phillip Noyce has many movies under his belt, including The Bone Collector and A Clear and Present Danger. Notice anything yet? Noyce directs very good thrillers. Of which The Giver isn't one. A talented man given something outside his specialty.

They age the characters by a good six years. Having seen some of the movies that try to get by with terrible child actors (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace), I don't blame them for not wanting to gamble on getting good ones. But it seems as though it sometimes slips the writer's mind that the characters are older, as often their characterization lapses into childishness. And to be honest, having seen some movies elevated by capable child actors (Interview With A Vampire, Harry Potter series), I tend to think that they probably should have remained loyal to the source, rather than following the trend.

Speaking of which, the thing that damaged the movie more than anything else was the insistence to follow YA Dystopia trends in the adaptation. Late teen characters? Check. Overblown romance with lead male and lead female? Action ending? Check. Futuristic tech everywhere? Check.

Some of these are understandable. The romance is only one part of an overall larger part in the story for both Fiona (romantic interest) and Asher (best friend). The movie gives them more time to develop, and more importance in the plot, than the book, which I honestly consider an improvement. And the future technology was unavoidable--though I don't remember the tech level ever being a major focus in the book, the book tended to leave out any extraneous details and let you make them up yourself.

Some are less forgivable. The climax should be a character moment, but they turn it into an action scene that feels not only implausible to the point of absurdity, but unnecessary and BORING. The worst part about this isn't that it rips you out of the movie right when it should be at its most captivating, but that the time spent focusing on unnecessary, tacked-on teen trends, is time that should have been spent on small moments early in the movie that develop setting or character. 

The crime this movie commits is making The Giver feel like a knock-off of the Dystopian YA stories coming out over the last few years, when in reality, The Giver was one of the works helped to found the genre, 20 years ago. 

I want to be clear that I didn't HATE this movie. I didn't even dislike it, really. It is, however, flawed enough to keep me from truly endorsing it. I give it 6.5/10. 

SPOILERS ahead as I discuss in detail certain aspects of the plot. Also, rambling ahead. 

*I originally had Odeya Rush's performance as one of my gripes. I complained that she became MORE wooden after she stopped taking the emotion-suppressant injections--that she was MORE emotionless. But my brother pointed out that it may simply have been her not knowing how to react to everything going on. Jonas had a frame of reference, given by the memories, so that he could react to the events at the end. Fiona has no such help, so she shuts down, overwhelmed by the circumstances. 

The entire climax consists of: "Dead baby.........dead again.........dead......dead." I didn't try to count all of the separate things that would have killed the infant. But suffice it to say that adding an action scene to a baby-carrying scene isn't the greatest idea.

How much would it have cost them to flashback to the Apple?

Why are there so many memories that go back to our history (the last 50 years or so). Are they saying that the end of the world happens in our generation? Before the last people who were in, say, the Vietnam war die? 

I love how blase they are about demonstrating future tech. The only pieces of technology I remember reading about were the injections, and "a jet" that flew overhead into town. Either of which could be twenty or thirty years old. Meanwhile, the movie has Tractor Beams and Holograms?

The Giver and the Chief Elder (Streep) have an argument at the end that's supposed to represent the struggle the viewer should be having. Only problems with that? The arguments aren't presented fairly enough to make this scene resonate. Also, they have the argument in front of all the other elders, with the speaker on to the room where Jonas's dad is about to execute Fiona. At one point, he even looks out to them like, "Are you serious? Take it outside. I'm trying to kill someone here."

I love the scene with the piano. Also, the Giver's house in general (and particularly that view) is just fantastic.

The conflict between Jonas and Asher is nice. It shows them going in opposite directions, and Fiona being torn between the two paths. I would have loved another ten minutes to flesh this progression out. 

One of my favorite things about the movie is using color as a characteristic of viewpoint. That is, the movie turns to color VERY gradually, as the injection leaves Jonas's system. It's an indication that cinema is catching on to VIEWPOINT, or the fact that each scene can be from a certain character's perspective, as happens often in novels. However, shouldn't all of the scenes from the Giver's viewpoint technically be in color, then?


Have any thoughts about something I mentioned? Did I miss something you'd like to point out? Feel free to comment!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy Review

Over the long weekend, I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy and The Giver. I'm going to review Guardians first, because one, it's been in theater for almost a month now, and two, my feelings about The Giver are much more complex. 

I loved Guardians more than I thought I would. And I thought I would love it a lot. It's easily one of the best Marvel movies to date, up there with The Avengers and Iron Man, and easily the best movie experience I've had so far this year. (Seeing as I watched this within minutes of The Giver, and considering I had a wisdom tooth to contend with  as I did so, that's saying something.) 

My brother and I have a long-standing habit of going to see the newest comic book movie when it comes out. We've only missed one or two since The Avengers. For months, I've been reminding him about this one, growing progressively more excited as I heard more and more good news (trailers, reviews, etc.). But he was reluctant. In the end, I almost had to find somebody else who wanted to go see it, though he came through at practically the last moment.

Why was he so reluctant? Rocket Raccoon. He didn't think he could take the vulgar little fur ball seriously. Anything that strays too far into Sci-Fi or Fantasy tends to lose him. 

I'd bet there are others of you out there who are the same way. Who haven't gone to see it specifically because of the more "out there" elements. Rocket, Groot, and so on. I'll say the same thing to you that I said to him. 

One, they expect that reaction. They anticipated it. And they account for it by giving you almost half the movie to laugh and get used to the setting and characters, before you really have to care. By the time they need you invested, you are. 

And two, there's a reason that they chose famous movie actors for the all-CG roles of Rocket and Groot. Bradley Cooper's performance as Rocket is as good as any performance by any voice actor I've ever heard. I don't hear the actor at all in the character. And Vin Diesel put more subtle inflections and emotion into three words than anyone ever. I'm willing to bet on that. It helps that Vin provided a good deal of the motion capture for the Ent-like bounty hunter. 

Chris Pratt gives a star-making performance, making Quill imminently likable despite his many, many flaws. Zoe Saldana is wonderful as always, granting a vulnerability to Gamora without ever letting you forget why she's known as "The most dangerous woman in the universe". Bautista disappears into Drax the Destroyer (save for the occasional blink-and-you'll-miss-it nod to his roots in the physicality of his action scenes), and gives a performance that reminds me why I always believed he could make it outside the ring. 

The visuals are fantastic, the humor is hilarious, the action is spellbinding, the drama is believable. The villain (Ronan the Accuser, AKA the kind of villain Thor 2 deserved) is terrifying. Thanos speaks, and is AMAZING. The soundtrack is one of the best in the history of soundtracks; there's a reason it had a stint as the #1 album in the US. 

If I had a single complaint, it would be this: Due to the format of the movie, our heroes do not get quite as much screen-time alone as they could use for character development. There was nothing to be done about that, and nothing to do about it, except maybe split them up for a while in the sequel, forcing them to develop by themselves. This isn't to say they're flat--they all have their own mannerisms, personalities, back stories, and motives, not to mention their own specialties and deficiencies. But I'd love to have more time with them, to know how they are apart.

Final thoughts: I'd give Guardians an easy 9 out of 10. I'll have to watch it again to decide if it 's a 9.5. If you have ten bucks and two hours, go see the movie! At the very least, you'll laugh throughout the entire thing, and you'll learn to love a tree.

My sister-in-law, who also went to see the movie, would probably add (with SPOILERS, because of course she would): 

"Howard the Duck? Really? But dancing Groot makes up for it."

As for The Giver... I'll post that in the next couple of days.