Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What Dreams May Come

To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there's the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil...

Vincent Ward has worked incredible magic in creating the film adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel of the same title. This was one of those films that left me awestruck and speechless. Robin Williams' performance was flawless in this film filled with a dreamlike, romantic atmosphere.

What Dreams May Come tells the story of Chris, a man who has died and reached Heaven but decides to descend into Hell to retrieve his wife who, so deep in despair of Chris' death, committed suicide. The film reflects the Greek images of Hades and Dante's own vivid interpretations of the depths of Hell. The imagery is unquestionably the most striking aspect of this film, but it is not the only wonderful aspect. The romantic, poetic personality of Robin Williams shines in this film. His character is full of hope, life, strength, and love. This personality within the colorfully painted world of Heaven is a truly magical combination that emerges from the screen to fill the soul and mind of the viewer. This is a film that will make you feel. It is a film that will make you think.

Though the general tone of the film deviates from that of the book and contains an ending different from Matheson's original novel, the depth and emotion is, I'm sure, the same. The film raises questions about the nature of Heaven and Hell, the nature of our existence after death, our ability to communicate or present ourselves to those still living, and the possibility of reincarnation. I would argue that it is impossible to watch this film without asking such questions, no matter how lost you find yourself in the breathtakingly brilliant settings. And, despite the complex questions this film might raise, it still manages to remain simple. Ward dives right to the heart of such questions, presenting a possible answer with vivid imagery and a beautiful script. The character of Cuba Gooding Jr. serves as the source of knowledge, answering the questions Chris asks and guiding him along his journey.

In short, this film is one of self-discovery. Even after death, we can still learn who we truly are. We can be only what our souls truly are. The baggage of this world is meaningless in Heaven, as was brilliantly demonstrated by the scene where those sent to Hell are trudging along with their packs and bundles. The beautiful emotional and color contrasts between Heaven and Hell are poignant and Dante-esque. In a few words, this film is inspiring, evocative, and philosophical --but it deserves much more than a few, inadequately descriptive words because beneath the fairly simple plot their rests a much deeper storyline that all too closely reflects our own lives.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Hunger Games Trilogy

Here's some advice. Stay alive.

Before I read these books, I had heard various opinions ranging from they're absolutely fantastic to they're not worth your time. But I was intrigued. The storyline sounded compelling and, from the summaries I had read, it seemed to me that Suzanne Collins had things to say. And she did. The books did not disappoint, not by any means.

The trilogy starts off with incredible momentum that Collins is able to maintain throughout the trilogy. I haven't flown through a set of books since Harry Potter. And here I come to a reason why many are of the opinion that these books aren't worth your time. As the last set of Harry Potter movies have recently been released, the last book long since read and re-read, people have been looking for that next big read. One should not necessarily expect The Hunger Games to be that big read. Yes, they are great books, provocative, enchanting in their own way, and captivating. But, in no way can they live up to Rowling's great work, and they should not be expected too. Rather, this trilogy needs to be taken for what it is--it's own work of brilliance, talented writing, and mesmerizing characters.

Entwined in the thrilling plot about the annual Hunger Games and the nation's districts' fight for survival is a strong political message--or perhaps warning would be a better word here. Katniss and our other protagonists live in a greatly dystopian future that, in some ways, feels like a gentle mix of 1984 and A Brave New World. I say gentle mix because the future Collins created is truly a time of its own, but reflects similar fears written by Orwell and Huxley. It is this aspect of the books that I find most provocative and valuable. These undercurrents of dystopia pervade our own minds as constant concerns. We worry about the direction in which society, diplomacy, and politics are headed. We worry about our future, and Collins has created a future that we most certainly do not want to find ourselves in some 100 years down the road.

It is against this dystopia that Collins' fierce heroine Katniss Everdeen battles. Having written the trilogy in first person--quite masterfully, I might add--Collins immerses the reader into the mind of Katniss. We care for the other characters as she cares for them, hate as she hates, dreams as she dreams. It is in this way that Collins nurtures our own connection to the many characters that make an appearance through the novel. They all become very real and manage to evoke a wonderful mix of emotions from us as readers. However, I do feel as though Collins failed in one respect--I closed the third book feeling as though I didn't know Katniss as well as I should have. Collins did not seem to provide her with the same emotional and character development that she provided for some of the other characters. Maybe this is me expecting more from a book written in first person. Or maybe we can't know more about Katniss than Collins provides. For, what person truly knows themselves? And, if one does not know oneself, how can one act independently?

This idea of autonomous action versus being someones puppet or game piece is another theme that receives monumental attention from Collins. It is also another theme we easily relate to. Within in the system, how do we know we are truly ourselves and not some pawn shaped by society? Granted, Collins takes this question to the very extreme and in our own reality, we have much more control over our own person than Katniss and others have in Collin's dystopian future. Even so, such questions are conveyed vividly, also paralleling themes in the films Being John Malkovich and The Truman Show. Who is the puppet? Who is the puppet master? How much free will and control over our own lives do we really have. How do we know we are not pawns in some great game of chess? Maybe we can't know, but the questions as Collins has infused them in the trilogy are important and poignant.

Finally, I tackle the issue of the ending. Personally, I found it realistic and satisfying. Actually, it was frighteningly realistic. I know many people hate the ending and claim that Collins ended the trilogy in perhaps the worst way possible. To this claim, I say your expectations were far too unrealistic. Despite being set in a fictional future, Collins trilogy rings of truth and reality. The ending needed to be real. It needed to be something we could believe, something we could grasp. Katniss, like other literary heroes (including Harry and Frodo) manages to defeat many seemingly impossible odds, overcomes horrendously tricky situations more than once, and finds herself to possess relatively good fortune. So, despite what might be described as a tidy ending, I argue that it is much more complex than that. Those dissatisfied with the conclusion may have expected something larger, something that raises Katniss above humanity. But that's the beauty of these books--she is just as human as the next person. Despite extraordinary circumstances, she is a perfectly flawed human susceptible to the same struggle and trials that all of us are. Collins provided the perfect ending for this trilogy by infusing it with the sting of reality.

Overall, I really enjoyed the trilogy. It is a quick, compelling, engaging read. Collins thoroughly developed her world and infused intelligent commentary and cautionary warnings into her plot and characters. She wrote fearlessly and boldly to create such a fast-paced and edgy story that truly is impossible to put down.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.

Sometimes you make up your mind about something without knowing why, and your decision persists by the power of inertia. Every year it gets harder to change.

Milan Kundera's effortless literary style leads the read through the novel with a sort of weightless momentum. And yet, there is still the sense that every word, character, and setting is of such importance that you cannot help but weigh it all, thinking heavily upon every aspect of the book. Kundera has masterfully managed to raise his characters into the dimension of reality to such an extent that it is easy to forget that the book is a work of fiction. We are only reminded of this when the author discusses the conception of each character inserts his commentary about each of their lives as though he is not their creator, but a mere observer like his readers.

Kundera touches upon several different streams of philosophical thought, including Nietzsche's idea of eternal return and Descartes' machina animata, and discusses various conceptions of time, comparing the perceptions of human and dog. Indeed, the gender-confused St. Bernard-German Shepherd mix Karenin (named for the husband of Anna Karenina) has her own opinions on time and being.

Set in Prague during the Russian occupation, the novel observes the characters of Tomas, Tereza, Sabina, and Franz wage personal, political, and moral wars. Immediately, the characters are not entirely likable. As the story progresses, however, I found myself looking upon them with some form of sympathy or compassion. Kundera himself professes that his characters cross the lines that he would not dare cross, and so I came to view the characters as some kind of Jungian shadow-self. I viewed them with a mixture of disgust, pity, and awe. I wanted to condemn them and praise them. They stirred within me a type of internal conflict, between the light and dark aspects of my personality. Therein lies the value of this book. It causes one to turn inward, to examine oneself from the inside out and evaluate the mark we make on the world and on others. In doing so, we realize the interconnectedness of every life and the impact such connection can leave.

The theme of life and death pervades the novel, and Kundera examines the lives of his characters in terms of life, death, and the lightness or weight of each. If you strip each character down to their bare soul, if you lift them out of the path of their lives, you realize that the plot is not so important as Kundera's commentary and interspersed philosophical revelations. By focusing on plot, setting, character development, and all those other standard elements of critique, we miss the heart of the novel. It is about life, about questioning one's purpose and manner of living, and about concerning oneself with virtue and vice. We miss the person of Kundera, for he manages to insert himself as a true presence in the novel, refusing to remain a simple observant narrator. As such, we insert ourselves into the novel and into the shadow personalities we fear may manifest in ourselves.

On the whole, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a compelling read that deserves deep reflection. And, all things considered, it makes me concerned for the film adaptation. Even before I had reached the halfway point of the novel, I was questioning how anyone could possibly transform it into a film because such a large portion of the book is observation, reflection, and thought. Certainly Kundera has created dynamic characters and pushes the plot forward with easy momentum. A film, I fear, therefore may fail to grasp the true depths of this novel. But, I do intend on seeing the film and shall postpone judgment until then. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Finding Neverland

When the first baby laughed for the first time, the laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about. And that was the beginning of fairies.

I suppose it's like the ticking crocodile, isn't it? Time is chasing after all of us, isn't that right?

I had been wanting to see this movie for years. Some how, I always managed to miss seeing it or would instead choose a different movie over this one. In some ways, I am glad I hadn't seen it before now because I think the person I am today is able to appreciate it more than the person I used to be could have.

Despite large historical inaccuracies, this movie captured the wonder, the magic, and the fantasy that is Peter Pan. The film captured me, drew me in, and inspired me. I am whimsical and I am a dreamer by nature, so this movie fed every fiber of my imagination. The adaptations (and deviation from accurate history) served the purpose of providing the inspiration behind the classic story of Peter Pan. The music is beautiful and magical, the acting is wonderful (particularly by Freddie Highmore who plays Peter Llewelyn Davies; Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet deliver superb performances as well), and the sense of wonder and childhood innocence radiates from this film. Though some of the imagination scenes were somewhat cheesy, they were still wonderful and had me smiling and laughing with delight. I actually found myself laughing (and crying) several times throughout this movie.

I would write a longer review, but I honestly cannot put how I feel about into words right now. I think I'm also still too in love with this film to write objectively. But, it is a movie that I will watch again and again and never grow bored with it. It is a film that sparks imagination and emotion and makes us long for those innocent childhood days when our imagination was all we really needed.

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The Perks of Being a Wallflower

"Do you always think this much, Charlie?"
"Is that bad?"
"Not necessarily. It's just that sometimes people use thought to not participate in life."
"Is that bad?"

Stephen Chbosky's book had been on my list for quite some time before I finally picked it up and read it. I had heard about it from several people, but usually only in passing. It wasn’t a book that people held in front of me and said, “Read this now!” I think that’s why it took so long for me to finally read it.

First of all, I can be a bit of a wallflower myself and don’t always participate in life as much as I should. I love watching people, thinking about why they do what they do, wondering what they might be thinking, and trying to figure out their stories. So, in many ways, I was able to relate to Charlie, the quiet, mostly passive, introverted, and book-loving protagonist.

Second of all, this book is witty, clever, funny, happy, sad, and engaging. It is a brilliant, wonderful mix of all sorts of elements that make this book spectacular.

Finally, this book is one I know I will read many more times. I feel that it is one of those books that can be enjoyed and loved more and more with each read. I think there are more layers than can be uncovered with just one reading. And Charlie would agree.

It is interesting that all we know about Charlie is from his perspective. We know about him only what he knows. The book is set up in letter format. But the letters are extremely personal, well written, and extremely interesting. Through them, we see Charlie grow as he experiences his first year of high school, meets people, makes friends, falls in love, and makes mistakes. At the same time, it’s not a typical story of growth because the only growth we see is what Charlie notices about himself. The more he comes to know himself and define himself, the more the reader gets to know Charlie and develops a deeper relationship with him. He’s a 15 year old boy that we can all relate to (even girls) because his experiences are those that resonate with many of us.

The book contains references to and mentions classic books and wonderful music. To me, that just went to show how important books and music are to our lives. They inspire us, influence us, and teach us. They spark emotions and make us think. And, each book Charlie reads is a book that he can take something away from. He learns, not only from the book, but he learns from reading the book. The experience of reading is something important to him. And that’s something that was important in the reading of this book too. It wasn’t just the story that had an impact, but the actual reading of this book. Perks is a book that you find yourself feeling a part of. You aren’t just a spectator—you are Charlie’s friend. You are the one he is writing to.

Each great book should leave you with something. One should close the book, sit back, and continue thinking on that book. That was the experience I had with this book, and it instantly became a favorite (and not just because it’s the most recent on I read). It became a favorite because there is so much to think about, to take away from it. It’s inspirational, but not in an overpowering way. It’s subtle and beautiful and powerful. It can be healing. It makes me want to really live life, enjoy every minute.

Most of all, though, this book makes me want to get in my car, roll the windows down, turn the music up, drive, be one with the night, and just feel infinite.

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When Ideas Strike

I have been toying with the idea of creating a blog for some time now. My initial hesitation was the concern that I would be unable to maintain it properly. Even if that concern is realized, I still feel the desire to create a place where I can post thoughts and ideas, review books and movies, and insert my name into this wide world of internet social networking.

Primarily, this blog will serve as a place where I can provide book and movie reviews, something I have been wanting to do for quite some time. I dabble in writing poetry and may post some of my writing from time to time. This may transform into a place for me to record my adventures in research as I delve into completing my senior thesis in psychology this coming year. But, I do not wish to deviate too far from the main purpose of this blog: a place to review the books I read and the movies I watch. Hopefully, this will spark comments and conversation and perhaps enrich some minds with new ideas.

Currently listening to: "Hazards of Love" - The Decemberists 
Currently reading: The Unbearable Lightness of Being - Milan Kundera