Tag: "review"

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Podcast Review: Astronomy Cast

Astronomy Cast is one of the most informative and entertaining science podcasts that I have found to date. The chemistry between the hosts would be enough to make me keep listening, even if the subject matter wasn’t fascinating. Astronomy Cast episodes are short and focused, usually on a single aspect of the larger universe in which we live.

The hosts of Astronomy Cast are Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor of Physics at the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today. Dr. Gay is the kind of scientist that somehow never makes it into the movies. Her sense of humor and her joyful enthusiasm for science make her an easy person to listen to and to learn from. She picks brilliantly gonzo phrases to describe her topics, and she never hesitates to let the audience know where the gaps in current scientific theory lie.

Astronomy Cast’s motto is “Not only what we know, but how we know what we know.” They don’t just recite facts. That would be boring. Instead, Fraser Cain acts as the audience’s stand-in, asking questions and trying to understand the concepts that Dr. Gay describes. He insists that Dr. Gay justify the opinions of modern astronomy. Often they will work through a topic, like black holes, from the first mathematical thought experiment right up to the most recent physical evidence of black holes eating stars. Astronomy Cast highlights the most important aspect of science: That it is a process, and one that inherently self-correcting.

The library of old Astronomy Cast episodes is huge. A new listener could spend days listening to old episodes in order, or pick which episodes to listen to based on subject matter. The Astronomy Cast website is set up to aid the listener in doing just that, with the episodes classified into groups like “Amateur astronomy,” “Planetary science,” and “Space flight.” The episodes themselves are short, usually no more than a half an hour, and are well-paced and edited so as to make it seem that the hosts have stayed on topic the whole time.

As a non-scientist and a science fiction writer, I have found Astronomy Cast to be an inspiration. Dr. Pamela Gay and Fraser Cain have a great time recording the episodes, and it’s easy to be sucked into their enthusiasm. They aren’t afraid to explore the furthest implications of the theories they describe — one of Mr. Cain’s favorite phrases is “but what if?” They make me want to spin science concepts into stories, and they explain the science well enough that I feel confident when I’m staring at a cursor on a blank screen.

I highly recommend Astronomy Cast to anyone who wants to learn about astronomy, or anyone who just wants to listen to two unapologetic geeks talk about the science they love. The content is, I believe, appropriate for both children and adults. Their website is www.astronomycast.com, or look them up on iTunes.

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Music and Magic: The Harry Potter Soundtrack Retrospective — Part 1 of 10: Introduction

This is the first article in a ten-part retrospective of the Harry Potter soundtracks.

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With the release of Harry Potter 7.2: Potter Harder or whatever they’re calling it, we’ve reached the end of the saga of the Boy Who Lived. The internet is home to hundreds of reviews — from the fangirl SQUEE to the more reasoned likes of Roger Ebert — and, while I certainly feel satisfied after seeing the film, I don’t think you really need my review to help you decide whether to see it or not.

But a couple of weeks ago, I was watching a special about creating the world of Harry Potter, one that focused on music and sound effects. It reminded me that, for completeness’s sake, I needed to purchase the 7.2 soundtrack.

So I did, and I listened to it, and I liked it.

Music is an integral part of a film, and something I’ve been specifically listening out for ever since my dad took me to see Star Trek V. I was waiting in line, straining my ears, trying to hear the ending credits music, because I was that interested in what it was going to sound like. And, for what is universally considered the low point of the Star Trek film franchise, Jerry Goldsmith’s score was pretty great — so good, in fact, that he reused some of its cues in Star Trek: Insurrection (also a movie that was panned a fair bit, coincidentally).

When you have a movie franchise as huge as Harry Potter — and, believe me, the producers knew they had a gold mine on their hands, both creatively and monetarily — you have to have the best of everything. From Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, and Alan Rickman as the professors at Hogwarts to directors like Chris Columbus and Alfonso Cuaron, Warner Brothers seemed to spare no expense to bring the magical world of Harry Potter to life.

The filmed version certainly made a convert out of me — I’d resisted reading the books, but one Thursday night my then-girlfriend and I decided “hey, let’s go see this Harry Potter thing everyone says is so good” and that, as they say, was that. I’m sure that story is repeated among many thousands of people; I can’t be the only one.

And one major part of the film was the music, composed by John Williams. The iconic composer, who’d previously scored Star Wars and Superman — walk up to anyone on the street and I guarantee they can hum the music from at least one of those — helped bring the film to life by defining the musical cue that, for all intents and purposes, is Harry Potter’s theme song.

“Hedwig’s Theme” contains the eight-note trill, the rising-and-falling violins, the “wizards doing wizard stuff” theme of Diagon Alley, and just about every other element of music found in the first film. Moreover, every composer (albeit reluctantly in one case — I’ll get to that later) has found a way to incorporate “Hedwig’s Theme” into his orchestrations.

While listening to the Deathly Hallows Part 2 soundtrack, I thought that it might be time to take a look back at the adventure of Harry Potter’s cinematic journey by listening to the soundtracks independent of the films. I pitched the idea to Escape Pod’s editors and they agreed, and here we are.

Note that I said “independent of the films”. I’m not going to go back and watch the movies with the soundtracks playing in my ears, or try to modify the audio coming out of my TV so that I only hear the music. Instead, I’m going to listen to the soundtracks and review them as their own elements of the film.

As some have said (I can’t find any quotes with a quick googling, but if you can, feel free to drop one in the comments), music can be its own character in the film. It’s not just atmosphere, not just accents; it’s almost like the chorus in old plays — it can tell you how you should interpret a scene, how it should make you feel (at least, according to the director), and even what the characters are thinking in a way that images alone cannot. So, from the sweeping nature of “Hedwig’s Theme” to Nicholas Hooper’s distinctive-yet-disappointing cues in Order of the Phoenix, from “Harry Potter’s Love” (meeting Cho in the Owlery) to the truly-beautiful music of Hermione obliviating her existence from the minds of her parents, we’re going to take a listen to the music of Harry Potter.

So join Messrs. Williams, Doyle, Hooper, and Desplat — and, of course, yours truly — over the next several days. And if you’d like to pick up the soundtracks, here’s some links:

Let the magic begin.

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Important Note: I am not a musician. Not really. I just appreciate music, and I have a limited understanding of the technique that goes into composing an entire soundtrack. I’m just writing from the point of a fan and average listener. You should expect that I’m going to mess up terminology and maybe occasionally completely miss the point of something one of the composers did. Just remember… not a musician.

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I tried to embed video, but something about the CMS keeps stripping it out. So I just linked to the videos for now. If I manage to figure out the embedding, I’ll come back and fix it.

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Book Review: “Rough Beasts of Empire” by David R. George III

I’m really hoping that the Star Trek Typhon Pact tie-in novels aren’t going to suffer from the odd-numbered curse all the way through, because I don’t think I can handle spending another $8 on book five if it’s going to be as disappointing as Rough Beasts of Empire, the third book in the saga.

I had really hoped Empire would be great. After all, the author, David R. George III, wrote what was to my mind the best installment in the Lost Era, Serpents Among the Ruins (if you like Trek and you haven’t read it, you should rectify that situation immediately). George has also written other very enjoyable books in the Trek universe. But, unfortunately, this Typhon Pact novel just doesn’t cut it.

I’m usually a fan of multiple interlocking stories that come together at the end. I even liked Love Actually, despite the extremely-tangential way some of the storylines touched each other. But compared to Empire, that film’s stories were completely intertwined.

There are four distinct stories in Empire, and the only way to explain them is to keep them separate, like they are in the novel.

The Tzenkethi. As with the other Typhon Pact novels, Empire exists to show us a Star Trek race that we haven’t seen. The Tzenkethi are a merit-driven caste society of beautiful beings with no bones and a very unique approach to the use of floor (and ceiling) space. Their names are so complex that I can’t even remember what the main Tzenkethi character was called. Something with an A at the end. Anyway, this Tzenkethi was sent to be the Typhon Pact’s ambassador to Romulus, although she had a secret mission. Which was addressed so infrequently that I totally forgot about it until the very end.

Vulcan-Romulan Reunification. Spock is still on Romulus, trying to bring both sides together. This was by far the least interesting of all the storylines because, (a), we’ve been dealing with it in novels for far too long and, (b), we know it’s never going to succeed. It’s just an excuse to get a picture of Leonard Nimoy on the cover of the book. In any case, an assassination attempt is made upon Spock, which leads him to approach Praetor Tal’Aura* with a groundbreaking proposal.

The Romulan Senate. The Ortikant family, led by Gell Kamemor**, is heavily involved in the reformation of the Romulan Senate under Tal’Aura.

Captain Sisko. I firmly believe that this is the story George wanted to tell when he started writing this book. It is the most interesting, the most nuanced, and the most compelling. In the beginning, we see Sisko commanding the starship New York during the Borg war in Star Trek: Destiny. This actually happens before the first two Typhon Pact novels, which confused me at first, but I got over it. Anyway, after the battle, Sisko goes home to Kasidy and his family, but remembers that the Prophets told him he would only know sadness if he made a life for himself on Bajor. So he makes the questionable decision to leave Bajor and return to Starfleet. He is assigned a starship on patrol along the Romulan border, where he becomes Emo Sisko.

There’s also several minor sub-plots, including the return of a somewhat-overused-as-a-plot-device character, the summit between Empress Donatra and Praetor Tal’Aura, the observations of Senator Durjik, and an out-of-nowhere flashback to Sisko’s experiences during the last Tzenkethi conflict which completely pulled me out of the story.

The plots above only barely touch, and I don’t feel as though they were adequately tied together (especially Sisko’s, which only very slightly interacted with any of the others). I really feel this is two books — Sisko’s story, and the Romulan story. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really get into the Romulan story because it was too boring, and I couldn’t really get into the Sisko story because I can’t believe that Sisko would walk away from his family just because the Prophets told him to. I can think of at least three better ways to get Sisko into the story, and I’m probably not the only Trek fan who read “reunification” and thought “oy vey, enough already.”

I realize I’ve been pretty negative overall, but mostly what I’m negative about is the plot and the story. George’s writing is still top-notch, even when he’s dumping scads of exposition, and as with the other Typhon Pact novels there are plenty of hooks into other Star Trek shows and books that fans will remember and recognize. I just don’t think this book was interlaced enough with its A and B plots to really interest me; therefore, I’ll have to recommend that you give this one a pass and just read the spoilers online.

* You may remember her from Star Trek: Nemesis as the Romulan woman who left the Senate chamber just before everyone turned into stones and crumbled to dust.

* See Serpents Among the Ruins, where she was the chief Romulan negotiator on the Treaty of Algeron, best known for preventing the Federation from developing or using cloaking devices.

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Film Review: “Tangled”

For as long as my daughter has been alive, I’ve pledged not to be one of those parents — you know, the ones who bring kids to inappropriate films*, or bring kids with inappropriate behavior to films.

Well, we managed for four years. But when my daughter’s best friend’s mom suggested we all get together and see “Tangled”, I couldn’t very well say no. And off we went.

“Tangled” is your standard modern-day-Disney riff on the old “Rapunzel” story. In this version, however, Rapunzel’s parents are the king and queen, and they didn’t need an enchantress to help conceive her. Instead, the enchantress has been hiding a magical flower which bestows eternal youth and health. But when the queen falls ill late in her pregnancy, her soldiers find the flower and she drinks a potion made of it. Her illness is cured, and when Rapunzel is born, the baby’s magical hair can cure anyone who knows the secret song. At first the enchantress just wants to steal a lock of Rapunzel’s hair, but when she finds out it only works if the magic is freely given, she steals the baby.

Fast-forward 18 or so years, to Rapunzel’s 18th birthday. She’s been locked in a tower all this time, thinking the enchantress (Mother Gothel) is her real mother. But the tower isn’t a terrible place; other than no human contact with anyone other than Mother Gothel, Rapunzel is free to read, dance, paint, sing, cook, play music, or do anything else that suits her. However, for her birthday all she wants is to see the floating lights — a huge flock of floating lanterns released on the birthday of the lost princess. Mother Gothel says no, and Rapunzel resigns herself to her fate.

And then Flynn Rider, a thief, shows up. He, along with some henchmen, stole the lost princess’s crown, but when the palace guards get too close, he escapes and stumbles upon the tower. Rapunzel promptly hits him with a cast-iron frying pan, makes a deal with him — “you guide me to see the lights, and I’ll give you back your satchel, which you seem so very intent on retrieving” — and off they go on a madcap adventure full of singing, amusing animals, derring-do, and, because it’s Disney, love between the rascally-yet-kindhearted male character and the naive-yet-courageous princess just on the cusp of legal adulthood.

The animation in “Tangled” definitely lives up to the Disney name — the lighting, color, art, and movement are gorgeously-done. However, I was less than impressed with some of the voice synching — there were areas I definitely noted that didn’t look quite right. The music was also very good, for what it was — audio wallpaper, except for the singing parts — but it isn’t a soundtrack I want to buy instantly (compared to, let’s say, “Stardust”, where I actually paused the DVD to go on iTunes and buy the soundtrack right away). The songs didn’t blow me away either, except for the first two numbers — Rapunzel’s song about her day, and Mother Gothel’s “Mother Knows Best”. I feel kind of bad saying that because I’m actually related to the lyricist (he’s my cousin) and if you don’t go see the movie or buy the soundtrack that probably has some impact on how much he gets paid, but I’m not going to lie to you. The duet between Rapunzel and Flynn wasn’t all that inspired, and the song about the henchmen and their dreams wasn’t all that different from any other song like it in any other princess-centered animated film. Fortunately, there aren’t that many songs in the film.

The cast for the film was rather small — in fact, the king and queen don’t have any lines at all. Mandy Moore plays Rapunzel, and she’s quite good. Zachary Levi (Chuck from “Chuck”) is Flynn, and you can just hear him playing half the lines as Charles Carmichael***. Donna Murphy (Picard’s love interest in “Star Trek: Insurrection”) is Mother Gothel, and she’s clearly having a good time doing the role. Ron Perlman, Jeffrey Tambor, and Brad Garrett also appear. The best acting, however, comes from the obligatory Disney animal characters. First is Pascal, Rapunzel’s pet chameleon, who conveys a wide range of emotion with only his eyes and tail, and gets to stick his tongue into… well, you’ll just have to see it. And second is Maximus, the horse of the captain of the guard. He really steals the show. “Played” as more of a large dog than a horse, he has some of the best moments in the film. I mean, it is a Disney film; one thing they know how to do is animal characters. His duel with Flynn is one of the most hilarious things I’ve seen this year.

One thing I do want to talk about before I close is death. This film contains three direct references to death — two characters actually die, and you also see a hangman’s noose as one character is led off to be executed. I saw this film with a four-and-a-half-year-old and a three-year-and-eleven-month-old. The latter child I think handled it better because she’s seen a lot of Disney films, but my daughter hasn’t really been exposed to death beyond the passing of one of our cats a year or so ago. It was hard to explain to her what the hangman’s noose was and why the character was so afraid to see it, and it was even harder to make sure she understood why the other two characters died. One of their deaths was the classic Disney “cursed by their own hubris”, but the other was… well, I’m not going to mince words: someone got stabbed. The film is rated PG for “brief mild violence”, so I guess someone being stabbed to death qualifies as mild these days, but I really didn’t expect it. My daughter wasn’t traumatized or anything, and the story does have a happy ending (it is a Disney animated film), but it’s something to think about if you’re bringing a young child.

Also, make sure your child understands the concept of being kidnapped as a baby and raised by an evil enchantress who only seems like a nice person, or else you’ll be answering questions throughout the entire film. As I said before, Mother Gothel isn’t really evil… at least, not until Rapunzel defies her and leaves the tower.

And finally, not that it really matters, but there’s a huge plot hole in the film: what exactly is Mother Gothel doing with her eternal youth and good health? Just… living forever? Seems kind of silly to me. What’s the point of having those things if you don’t use them? It’s never addressed, and as an adult, it bothers me. Kids won’t mind, though.

Overall I enjoyed the film, although I’m kind of miffed that I paid $26.50 for it (two adults at $9.50 and one child at $7.50). I give it 2.5 stars if you’re an adult, and 3.5 if you’re a kid — this is the kind of stuff kids love these days, apparently, and I can’t imagine any kids going and not enjoying themselves. Still, it’s PG for a reason, so make sure your child understands the Disney interpretations of kidnapping and death before plunking them down. It’s 100 minutes long, too, which makes me happy — I hate paying theaters for anything under 90.

* When I saw 28 Days Later, there was a woman there with a child who couldn’t have been more than six. And as you know if you’ve seen it, the film is full of violent images and, in the very first scene, Cillian Murphy’s penis**.

** I really hope that phrase doesn’t screw up Escape Pod’s Google ranking.

*** Does he still do that character? I haven’t watched Chuck since the end of Season 2.

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Film Review: “Ponyo”

About a year ago, I started hearing buzz about a Japanese animated film called Ponyo. I knew it was directed by Hayao Miyazaki, known in the U.S. for, among other things, “Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind”, “My Neighbor Totoro”, “Spirited Away”, and “Princess Mononoke”. My first exposure to Miyazaki was with “Mononoke”, and while I enjoyed the animation and the story, the ending threw me a bit. Then, later, when I saw “Spirited Away”, I felt the same — mostly starting when the main character took the train away from where she was working.

But then I heard people saying that the first 20 minutes or so of “Ponyo” made no sense, and were just beautifully-drawn sea scenes. So I mentally shelved it and figured I’d come back to it at some point.

Enter Netflix, which I just subscribed to. Netflix, which had “Ponyo” in HD.

Well, one Saturday night, my daughter wanted to watch a movie, so I suggested “Ponyo” — it was age-appropriate, and contained nothing more objectionable than occasional scary images (according to what I read before showing it to her). We had dinner, settled in, and began to watch.

She was hooked. Completely captivated. And so was I.

“Ponyo” is a riff on the classic “Little Mermaid” tale of the fish who wants to be human. However, in this story, the fish who wants to be human is the half-human-half-fish daughter of a human sorcerer and the goddess of mercy. While exploring the sea near a Japanese harbor town, she is caught up in a net that is dredging the sea bottom, cleaning up trash, and eventually washes up in the shallows near the home of five-year-old Sosuke. Sosuke saves her from the glass bottle that’s got her trapped, and there he names her Ponyo (her given name is Brunhilde). Later, Sosuke takes Ponyo to his school, shows her to his friends and the old women next door (his school is beside a Senior Center, where his mother works), and eventually loses her to the sea when her father uses magic to retrieve her.

And then it gets weird. Because, you see, Ponyo has fallen in love with Sosuke and will do anything to be with him, including defying her father, stealing his magic elixirs, and transforming into a human girl. In doing so, she creates a massive storm which nearly washes Sosuke’s mother’s car off the road and ends up submerging the entire town in what is some of the coolest artwork I’ve seen in anime lately.

Because “Ponyo” is directed at children, you know the ending will be happy. But there’s plenty of adventure to be had, lots of humor — once Ponyo gets to Sosuke’s house, there’s several moments my daughter and I both LOL’d at — and and ending that, while somewhat neatly-wrapped-up (what about all those flooded houses and shops?), is still satisfying.

The artwork in “Ponyo” is beautiful, as befits a Miyazaki film, and you really feel like you’re in that harbor town with Sosuke. The mother, Lisa, is somewhat cliched (think Misato Katsuragi at her most stressed-out), but she’s a good character nonetheless. The seniors with whom she works provide plenty of comic relief, as does some of what Ponyo’s father gets up to. And then, when the town is submerged, the adventure Sosuke and Ponyo go on is quite a cool sequence.

Because the film was made by a Japanese studio and written by a Japanese writer, there are some things the characters do that don’t track. It’s hard to explain to my four-year-old why Sosuke’s mother is leaving him alone for the night — from what I know of Japanese culture, kids are a bit more self-sufficient than American kids of the same age, but still, Sosuke is only five — and the food they eat is very different from what she has in the morning. I mean, I’ve never given my daughter a ham sandwich for breakfast*. She also didn’t understand the supermarket, and I don’t think she comprehended that the reason none of the letters looked familiar was because it was another language. But these are small things.

The voice acting was probably the weakest part of the film, at least for me. Tina Fey didn’t do a very good job as Lisa, and the girl who played Ponyo (the youngest Cyrus sister) had a very annoying voice. Of course, that was part of her character, but still… annoying. The youngest Jonas brother played Sosuke, and he was all right. Liam Neeson played Ponyo’s father, and while he sounded mostly like a put-upon Irish father, that really wasn’t right for the role — despite the character’s appearance. The best voice acting by far was done by the women who played the ladies at the senior center — Betty White and Lily Tomlin.

If you’re a Miyazaki completist, or you want to see a really beautifully-drawn film, I’d say you should watch “Ponyo”. Your younger kids will like it, and older ones will sit through it without too much difficulty. At least, the first time. I liked it for the artwork, and for its humor. But overall, I don’t think it was as strong as some of Miyazaki’s other films, despite the strength of Sosuke’s character and the way he sees the world he lives in. In some ways the hyperactivity of Ponyo’s character and viewpoint actually detract from the story as a whole, and it’s at its best when Sosuke is the center of attention. Still, I’d say it deserves most of the praise it’s received, despite my problems with it.

If you’re a kid, it probably gets four stars (out of four). My daughter certainly considers it her new favorite, and loves to sing the theme song. But for adult audiences, I’d consider it a three-star film.

* Actually, we keep kosher, so she’ll never have one anyway, but it’s the principle of the thing.