Sat, Nov 23, 2013

: Solo: A Memoir of Hope

Author: Hope Solo (and Ann Killan)

I’m not usually much into biographies, so I was surprised at how much this one captivated me. I read it within a 24-hour period. I couldn’t put it down.

I’m a huge soccer fan and I love Hope Solo, the goalkeeper for the U.S. Women’s National Team. I’ve followed her career but didn’t know much about her past. This book is an incredibly intimate look at her trouble life.

Hope’s always been outspoken and frank, and this book is no different. She unflinchingly talks about her father’s criminal life and bizarre behavior, her dysfunctional family life, her own sometimes inappropriate lifestyle, the 2007 World Cup controversy where she was suddenly benched before the big semi-final with Brazil — a game the USA lost horribly — and where her critical post-match comments ostracized her from her teammates who felt betrayed, as well as the tremendous triumphs of winning Gold medals in the Olympics and World Cup.

The story of Hope’s childhood and family I found very moving. The love-hate relationship she had with her father is heart-breaking. On the one hand, he could be a great dad at times, but other times he betrayed Hope’s mother, was incredibly unreliable, and committed crimes. One of my favorite scenes is a tiny one: Hope writing about how ashamed she was when she saw her father stealing coins from Hope’s friend’s car when given a ride (he was homeless at the time). So sad and tragic.

Yet despite everything, Hope managed to keep her family somewhat together, and she and her father eventually had a good relationship — right before he suddenly died. I’d heard bits and pieces of that story in the media but hadn’t realized what a profound story it was: Hope had sought a relationship with her missing dad her whole life and just as she finally got it and he was getting his own life together, he’s taken away. Worse, that happened just before a major tournament where Hope needed to be focused.

Another part I really liked about this book was learning about all the behind-the-scenes of the women’s soccer team. I had known there was some bad blood, but hadn’t realized just how bad it was (or who was on which side). While Hope clearly presents her own views of the situations, she does so in a way that doesn’t feel phony as though she’s attempting to rewrite history to paint herself in a more favorable light. She seems willing to admit when she’s wrong and when she makes mistakes (goalkeepers have to be good at that) and her perspective feels genuine. That’s impressive.

It was also fun reliving the highs and lows of various tournaments. I had not realized just how badly Hope was injured prior to the 2011 World Cup and the amount of physical therapy and medical treatments she had to undergo just to play.

There are some negative things you learn about her in the book: it’s easy to put our athletes up on a pedestal (especially clean-cut female athletes) and think of them as angels, so it can be troubling having that view shattered. For example, most of the sounds bites we hear are censored (or at least carefully selected), so it can be a shock to see that Hope — and others - use a lot more profanity than is necessary.

Still, that’s a core theme of the book: Hope is basically giving a big middle finger to whoever wants to judge her. While she seems to accept the burden of being an idol, she doesn’t want the pressure of living up to that impossible standard to break or change her.

Ultimately, this is a fantastic book. It’s incredibly well-written and almost disturbingly honest. It’s definitely worth the read if you’re into soccer or the women’s national team. I came away with a much deeper understanding and a deeper appreciation of Solo as an athlete, and as a person.

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Nov 22, 2013

: Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Usually for movies based on books I prefer to read the book first. With the first movie I did that and I was glad I did as the book was far superior. With this movie, I ran out of time to read the book and I decided to do it in the reverse order. That can be dangerous, because first impressions count and if the film changed something I might feel that’s canonical and dislike the book’s version of events.

In the case of Catching Fire, it’s too early to tell if that will be a problem (I still haven’t read the book yet), but I’m hopeful that it won’t be an issue. That’s because I really liked the movie and it felt quite complete to me. I’m sure the book gets into more detail, but the basics that were there in the film felt very good (unlike the first film, where events felt rushed and abbreviated).

This film has some pacing issues — it’s very hard to know the actual timeline of the events. The film begins with our heroes going on a victory tour right after winning the Hunger Games, but suddenly it’s time for the next games — which I thought were held just once a year.

In the first film, a lot had to be done to establish the setting; here we know the main characters and the back story and can just right down to business. I suppose someone who hasn’t seen the first film will be puzzled — there’s not much of explanation of what previously happened (though the reminders are sufficient for those who saw it) — but I doubt too many will be seeing this that haven’t seen the first film.

The acting, sets, and drama in this one is excellent. My favorite way is how the author is pacing the plot and making it extremely believable: we know Catniss is a hero for a revolution, but she can’t just jump there overnight. In the first book it’s just about her survival. In this one she learns that others are in the fight as well. I assume that in the final book we’ll actually have war, with her being a leader. That’s exactly right. We’re seeing Catniss grow up and that’s awesome. (The Harry Potter books also do that very well.)

I really liked this film. It’s much better than the first one, it part because it has a simpler mission, but it’s also a more powerful emotional story. Here we see more of what life is like in this terrible regime, and the emotional stories of the victims aren’t rushed through like in the first film. It’s possible I’ll revise my opinion a little after I read the novel, but seeing the film without reading the book I’m surprised at how much I liked it. It’s also motivating me to read the book, which I shall do soon.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Nov 19, 2013

: Ender’s Game

What a beautiful novel.

It’s been a long time since I read it and I loved it even more this time around. It’s a novel that speaks to me as though it was written specifically to me. It’s a bit scary in that sense. I feel like I understand the character of Ender better than a brother — better than myself.

I was a lot like Ender as a kid. Older than my years, understanding things adults didn’t know I did, and that knowledge complicating my relationships with others and alienating me from my peers. Like Ender, I didn’t really fit in with anyone.

Of course, that’s only a fraction of what the novel is about. It’s also about war and xenocide, the nature of humanity, fate, religion, and much, much more. What I love is that despite such complex topics at its core, the novel approaches them via a simple story (in terms of plot). Ender’s just a little boy, bred to be a strategic genius, with the humble mission of saving all of humanity.

It’s brilliant. If he was an adult, our perspective of everything he does would be completely different, but since he’s so young, we’re forced to ask ourselves a million questions about his motivations — and ours. Is he evil? Is he innocent? Are his actions justified or is there blood on his hands?

Let’s cut to the chase: the book’s a must-read. Not just for those into science fiction, but everyone. If you’re a human being, you need to read the book. It’s that simple. It will change you, make you realize what being human means, and the world will be a better place with you in it after that.

(And if you’re not a human, then you still need to read it to help you understand us.)

Topic: [/book]


Sun, Nov 17, 2013

: The Call

I liked the premise of this movie — a teenage girl is abducted and calls 911 from the trunk of a moving car and the operator has to try and locate her so she can be rescued — but I wasn’t sure where it was going.

Sure enough, the first half of the movie, the part about the girl in the trunk, is really excellent. It’s dramatic, different, and interesting. After that, however, it descends into a typical crazy serial killer film, and it gets really absurd when the 911 operator actually goes detective and sets off on her own to search for clues. That second half doesn’t ruin the film, but it does weaken it, and the ending is a bit strange and left a weird taste in my mouth.

Still, overall I liked the movie. It moves at a fast pace and has some good performances and scenes. It’s unfortunately not as great as it could be, mostly because the end becomes stereotypical and predictable, but it’s still better than most films of this type. A good cast, decent direction, and some cool scenes make this recommended.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Nov 16, 2013

: Tomorrow, When the War Began

This is a fascinating little Australian film along the lines of Red Dawn. Some teens are out camping in the wilderness and when they return home, they discover that an invasion has taken place. All their homes are empty, their families either killed or taken to a prison camp inside the town. The teens finally take action to repel the invaders, and fight back even though it might mean their lives.

What I liked about this is the pacing: the teens don’t even start fighting back until past the halfway point in the film. The fighting’s realistic, too, unlike similar movies where untrained kids are somehow able to beat adult commandos with real weapons. This feels far more realistic and therefore scary and thought-provoking.

I also liked that the main character is a girl; that brings a different feel to the experience.

The film emphasizes the relationships between the teenage characters more than the plot; unfortunately, the characters aren’t all that interesting, so the film drags at times and meanders at others. (There isn’t much action until the final third, so this is definitely not an action movie or even a war movie. There’s a lot more of people running and hiding and talking about what should be done than shooting. I actually think that’s a good thing.)

But it’s still an interesting film and I liked it overall. The cast is remarkable, the visuals and direction are excellent, and the ending is definitely non-Hollywood. It’s worth seeing if the subject matter interests you.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Nov 12, 2013

: Ender’s Game

I wanted to wait to see this until I’d finished re-reading the book, but didn’t quite make it. As usual, the book is definitely different — and better — but the movie is good. If you haven’t read the book, you’ll probably think the movie’s excellent.

If you aren’t familiar with the story, it’s brilliantly simple: it’s set in the future about 100 years after mankind was devastated by an alien invasion and we only just survived. Since then, earth has been preparing for a return of the invaders, seeking a new brilliant battle commander who would be capable of defeating the aliens once and for all. Ender is a little boy genius who’s shipped off to military school to play wargames and learn strategy while high-minded adults basically manipulate everything around him to toughen him and turn his brilliance into a ruthless military leader. It’s an amazing story of psychology.

Some of that ends up in the film, but sadly not all. The acting is decent, though not as dramatic as it should be, and the visuals and special effects are excellent. The ending is particularly moving and makes the whole movie.

But frustrating for those who love the novel, the film essentially misses out on two of biggest features of the book. Both of these are puzzling omissions.

The first is that the book really gets inside Ender’s head: we see what he sees and feel what he feels. That’s completely gone in the movie and is a horrible miss. Ender isn’t the same character; we don’t really know or understand him. He’s not really drawn any more deeply than any other character, and the rest are just sketches. Ender’s the most fascinating thing about the book: a character of contradictions and confusion, a boy pretending to be a man, a boy asked to make adult decisions, a ruthless killer who doesn’t want to hurt anyone. We lose all that in the film, reducing Ender to a mere child prodigy.

The second thing is a change that I can understand why Hollywood did it, but I disagree vehemently with the decision. If I’d been involved, I wouldn’t have made the movie with this change since it is such a fundamental part of the story. In the novel, Ender is just six years old at the beginning. That’s a huge detail. Not only does it make all of his accomplishments and genius all the more impressive, but it makes the dangerous things he’s encouraged to do more dangerous. It’s one thing seeing a petite teen beating a bully to a pulp, but it’s quite another seeing a six-year-old do it.

Sadly, Hollywood chose to use the same actor as Ender for the entire movie, meaning that we almost completely lose out on the shock of his youth. This also has a side effect of compressing the timeframe of the entire story: instead of it taking place over half a decade of training, everything seems to happen within a few months. This is a small detail, but it has ramifications throughout and it diminishes one of the novel’s most powerful aspects. Seeing six-year-old Ender utterly humiliate 12-year-olds in simulated battle is just amazing, and it helps explain his isolation and loneliness. We don’t get that at all in the film.

There are other flaws in the film, but they are more scene-specific. Some are understandable — combining multiple characters into a single one in order to save time — but others are strange. For instance, while the bullying character of Bonzo looks great and fits the role perfectly, he’s a full head shorter than Ender, which is just absurd. Sure, the lead actor is slight of build, but when he’s looking down at a sneering Bonzo it feels like their roles are reversed and Ender’s the bully.

Another scene that annoyed me is the first fight scene. The way it’s done in the film is so rushed we never get any sense that Ender was actually threatened, we never feel Ender’s pain at having to hurt someone else just to protect himself, and we totally miss out on the ruthlessness and devastation he causes when he finally defends himself. It’s a baffling scene that I bet most people would barely understand (and if they did understand, they’d probably have gotten the point of it wrong since it was so mismanaged).

Yet somehow despite all these flaws, the film is still fairly decent. It’s different from the novel, but hints at the basic story’s greatness. The ending is powerful and moving, asking a lot of profound questions about the nature of war, and that helps make up for a lot of the shallowness of the earlier parts of film. Overall it’s definitely worth seeing, though I’d recommend that everyone read the novel, which is a classic and must-read.

Topic: [/movie]