Words from A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens)

I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” -Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)

I recently read A Christmas Carol for the first time.  I have seen multiple adaptations of the story over the years, and I would bet that most people know Scrooge’s tale from memory.  Nevertheless, it was interesting to go back to the original book for the language and to try to view it with new eyes.  After all, Charles Dickens could never have imagined the impact his story would have.

The quote above, said by Ebeneezer Scrooge’s nephew early in the book, is a positive, insightful perspective on Christmas.  Despite the cold and darkness of December, there’s a feeling at this time of year that people can be more friendly and accepting of others.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

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Short Story: “Invention.”

One of the great ironies in writing and other forms of expression is that the person creating often works in a room alone, yet their work is meant to explore an idea about the world beyond those walls.  Click below to read the first short story I have posted on the site, “Invention,” in which the detachment between an artist and his subject is the main concern:

“Invention”

Afterwards, please share your thoughts in the comments below.  What do you think of the short story?  Have any of you creative types experienced this disconnect?  Have you read books where an author’s writing doesn’t seem natural or realistic?

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer

The Land of Stories: The Wishing SpellAlex sat up and looked around her room and finally found what was making the noise.  It was coming from inside The Land of Stories on her nightstand and, to her amazement, the pages were unmistakably glowing.” (The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell, 61)

Many classic fairy tales end with the characters living “happily ever after,” but what does that really mean?  Does each character never have a single worry ever again?  In this week’s book review, I look at The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer, a fantasy novel that explores what really happens to classic characters beyond the pages of their own tales, and shows that some stories never truly end.

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell is about a pair of twins: Alex, an over-achieving yet friendless bookworm, and her brother Conner, a student who is often in trouble for his laziness.  The book begins with the children and their family still trying to put their life together after a recent death, but the children find new hope on their twelfth birthday.  Their grandmother gives Alex and Conner a book called The Land of Stories, a collection of classic fairy tales that acts as a portal into a realm where the tales actually happened.  The twins are quickly whisked away into the new world, but soon discover that returning home is far more difficult.

The Land of Stories is the debut novel by Chris Colfer, who is more widely known as an actor rather than an author.  He currently portrays Kurt Hummel on the television series Glee, but he has recently used that success as a springboard for other creative pursuits, such as writing.  Aside from The Land of Stories, Colfer has also been working on films and television shows of his own.  Actors who branch out into other art forms are often met with skepticism and that’s understandable (Colfer would have had a harder time having this book published if he were not already a celebrity).

However, for the most part, Chris Colfer shows promise as a writer in The Land of Stories.  He adds humour throughout the book and, other than a few examples, his jokes are pretty effective.  His writing style is simple and unremarkable, but it works, because the story is allowed to happen without distractions from poetic language or unnecessarily long descriptions.  Colfer’s book does have some mistakes, though.  Some sentences or paragraphs in The Land of Stories have the same word repeated too much.  While fantasy authors have used repetition in order to make a story whimsical, Colfer does not appear to be doing it on purpose.  Likewise, he has a habit of building sentences with the structure “something happened as something else happened.”  This might have been the fault of the editor, but the repeated use of “as” in this way can be distracting, especially in one instance where he used two sentences in a row with the same structure.  Of course, these are minor complaints when considering the entire book, which is otherwise entertaining and well-written.  For a first novel, The Land of Stories is better than average and shows potential for Colfer as a writer.

The Land of Stories might not appear original or unique at first glance.   The idea of expanding classic fairy tales has been very popular in recent years, from films such as Red Riding Hood and Mirror Mirror to the television series Once Upon a Time.  Despite its resemblance to these other works, The Land of Stories is successful due to Chris Colfer’s strength in weaving the story and developing the characters.  On their journey, the twins come across a variety of classic characters, with Cinderella, Snow White, and Jack (the one who climbed the beanstalk) as some examples.  Each of these characters has grown and matured since their original stories, which makes them more complex.  I have never been a huge fan of the Goldilocks story, but I really like the direction Colfer uses for her in this book.  All of these characters live in the same land, so each character has a history with another, and it’s interesting to see how these relationships play out in the second half of The Land of Stories, when many of the characters come into conflict with each other.  Chris Colfer also should be praised for the character development he gives to certain villains, making them more sympathetic than they are in their original stories.

I have some other minor problems to mention.  In certain early scenes of The Land of Stories, a character will explain how certain modern versions of the fairy tales remove the darker nature of the stories.  When a character does this, he or she will say something along the lines of “actually, in the original version…”  While I’m sure there was a first version of each tale at one point, most of these stories have had so many different variations over the years and, from what I understand, none of the stories have a specific version that can be identified as “the original version” with any certainty.  I’m not sure whether that kind of error would bother everyone, but I did find it a little annoying, especially because the character usually acted like a know-it-all when his or her information was actually wrong.  One other problem was that many of the plot twists in The Land of Stories were easily predictable, but this is a bit more forgivable because the book is mainly written for children, who might not guess the twists before they happen.  The novel also has many other entertaining aspects that make it worth reading, so it does not lean too heavily upon the surprises to encourage the reader to continue.

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell is a fantasy book worth reading.  Even if you’re an adult, the story is sure to keep your attention if you like fantasy or fairy tales.  I wasn’t a fan of every fairy tale included, but the way Chris Colfer develops the characters made me appreciate the stories more.  However, the story and style of the book are simple because children are the intended audience, so if you’re looking for more complex or adult storytelling, this novel might not be the right fit for you.  Some problems aside, The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer is an entertaining and accessible book, which I give a 4 out of 5.

The Cabin in the Woods

"You think you know the story."

“You think you know the story.”

Searching for a weekend retreat, five young men and women travel to an old cabin, far from the reaches of civilization.  Little do they know that a mysterious force is at work in the house, ready to threaten their lives.  Does that sound very familiar?  Just wait.  At the same time, two men who seem to have knowledge of the cabin arrive at a strange facility an unknown distance away.  Who are these men?  What is their job?  These questions and more are answered in the film The Cabin in the Woods.

The best advice I can give for people who want to watch The Cabin in the Woods is to know as little as possible before you see it, so I’m trying to avoid spoilers in this review.  I can say that, while the original premise of the film intentionally uses a cliche where the main characters are isolated from the outside world, the movie quickly moves beyond the concept and into richer territory.  The size of the story keeps growing until it has a scope far larger than any other horror film I’ve seen.  Although I did want to watch the movie again immediately after finishing it the first time, I do think a big part of the initial experience is the excitement of discovering the truth behind the cabin and that can be ruined if you know too much about the story before seeing the film.

The Cabin in the Woods was directed by Drew Goddard, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Joss Whedon.  If you’ve read my review of the Avengers you know how much I love the works of Joss Whedon.  He knows how to tell a story like few other writers do, adding wit and humour to his shows and films without diffusing the weight and power of his dramatic moments.  Whedon’s talent is clearly at work in Cabin, but one cannot disregard the talent of Goddard as well.  Goddard not only worked on Whedon’s television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, but also some great episodes for two of my other favourite shows, Alias and Lost.  With these two fantastic filmmakers collaborating on The Cabin in the Woods, it’s no wonder that the film turned out so good.

"Let's get this party started."

“Let’s get this party started.”

Whedon and Goddard designed The Cabin in the Woods to work both as a standard horror movie and as a satire of the genre, which was a challenge to accomplish, but they succeeded.  Some viewers of horror films are quickly exasperated by the illogical decisions made by the characters or the story elements that are overused within the genre.  Cabin finds humour in these tropes and offers explanations within the story.  If you’ve ever been frustrated by the weak storytelling of horror movies, you can find comfort in the film’s take on the genre.  On the other hand, if you simply enjoy horror movies as they are, The Cabin in the Woods is entertaining in this regard as well.

Of course, the fact that The Cabin in the Woods can act as a regular horror film does come with its own set of problems.  The film is tame compared to other recent horror movies, such as the Saw or Hostel films, but it does have enough violence and gore to turn away certain squeamish viewers.  In addition, some of the characters who act out the cliches of the genre are by necessity not developed as well as others.  The best and most complex characters of the film turn out to be the ones who satirize the horror genre the most: Fran Kranz, who also appeared in Whedon’s show Dollhouse and his upcoming film version of Much Ado About Nothing, plays a stoner named Marty who regularly points out the absurdity of the situation at the same time he tries to survive it; Kristen Connolly plays Dana, a girl who transcends her stereotypical role in the horror film; Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under) and Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) appear as the mysterious men who control the fate of the young people in the cabin, bringing a dark humour to the film while referencing certain horror tropes.

The Cabin in the Woods is an well-designed and entertaining film that revives a stale premise.  The movie satisfies with a variety of humourous and surprising moments, but there is a deeper meaning to all of it.  The movie leaves you asking many questions:  What is the nature of humanity?  Why do we watch horror films?  Is it evil to find entertainment in the deaths of characters?  These philosophical questions combined with such an entertaining story make The Cabin in the Woods one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen and one of the best movies of 2012.  I give the film a 5 out of 5.  Watch the trailer for the film below:

Midnight in Paris

Perhaps one of the most embarrassing confessions I can make as a person who enjoys film is that up until recently, I had never seen a film directed by Woody Allen.  This is an especially heinous crime because I have spent most of my life as a neurotic, socially awkward male with glasses – a description that should make me the perfect audience for his brand of comedy.  Yet, for whatever reason, I somehow avoided his films.  That all changed a couple nights ago, when I watched Midnight in Paris.  It’s one of his more recent movies and thus not considered a classic (yet), but I heard good things about it so I thought it would be a decent place to start.

For those of you who haven’t seen Midnight in Paris, the main character is Gil, a screenwriter who visits Paris with his fiancee in order to finish his first novel.  When exploring the town late one night, he discovers a way of traveling through time, back to Paris in the 1920s, where he meets his literary and artistic idols.

My favourite part of Midnight in Paris was the film’s portrayal of several classic authors, the most notable being F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.  Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda are just as I always imagined them:  intoxicated, extravagant, and completely in love.  It’s fitting that we first see them at a party, considering lavish parties are a main setting in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  Hemingway, on the other hand, is sitting alone when he first appears, acting macho and rambling on about how writing should be “honest.”  Seeing Hemingway in Paris, I was reminded of his novel The Sun Also Rises and I felt like the film was trying to explain where that book originated.  At times, I thought Hemingway was more of a caricature of how people perceive him, but I never knew the man and it was enjoyable regardless.

I did have some small problems with the famous authors in the movie, however.  First, Hemingway praises Fitzgerald’s writing in the film.  The two of them were friends in real life and I’m sure he had moments where he liked Fitzgerald’s work, but he was also very critical of it.  Because Hemingway preferred prose that resembled the basic style of journalism, he found Fitzgerald’s writing in The Great Gatsby far too poetic.  My only other problem with the authors was that T.S. Eliot was barely featured. He had one off-screen appearance, but nothing beyond that.  Maybe Woody Allen didn’t think he would be as amusing as the other writers, but I’m a fan of Eliot’s poetry, so I would have liked to see more of him.  Despite my complaints, I enjoyed the attempt to show these famous personalities in Midnight in Paris.  Needless to say, my literature courses definitely paid off when viewing the movie.

A main concern of Midnight in Paris is the idea of “The Golden Age.”  Everyone has a time in the past that they feel nostalgic about, even if they weren’t even born at the time.  Of course, that time is 1920s Paris for Gil, but other characters have similar times they miss.  The Golden Age is simply an illusion, though.  Gil might believe the 1920s were a perfect time to live, but he eventually discovers that the era has its own share of problems.  Gertrude Stein, who is played in the film by Kathy Bates, has a famous quote where she calls Hemingway’s generation a “lost generation” because they were damaged by World War I.  Doesn’t sound quite as perfect as Gil originally believed, does it?

I can’t compare Midnight in Paris with other films by Woody Allen, because this is the first I’ve seen, but I thought it was well-made.  Allen highlights the beauty of Paris throughout the movie, but one of the more interesting choices was right at the beginning; before he even shows a single character, he introduces Paris with a montage of different locations within the city, while Sidney Bechet’s “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere” plays in the background.  Similarly, there is a long tracking shot early in the film where four characters are walking and having a discussion, while the Palace of Versailles comes into view behind them.  It’s a great scene among many, and shows how much Allen likes the city of Paris.

Woody Allen’s writing in Midnight In Paris is also great.  It’s not as laugh-out-loud funny as other comedies, but I did enjoy his humour and he’s a very clever writer.  I will say, though, that I thought he could have done a better job of building towards a climax.  I don’t expect a predictable romantic comedy, where everything is neatly concluded and Gil lives happily ever after with the perfect woman, but I did think there should be some moment where everything comes together in an interesting way.  It seemed like Midnight in Paris just ended.  I enjoyed the movie anyway, because the journey was interesting enough, but I thought the story could have been structured better.

Overall, I would give Midnight in Paris a 4 out of 5.  The film had some problems that didn’t make it work as well as it could have, but seeing authors I’ve read in a movie like this elevated the entertainment value for me.  The movie did make me want to see more of Woody Allen’s work, but I think next time I will choose one of his older, classic films.

See the trailer for Midnight in Paris below: