Friday, July 19, 2013

International Friday: Gareth Evan's Merantau

It's all about the martial arts!

I don't really like violent movies, but as a lover/aspiring writer of the middle grade/YA genre, I thought I would check this movie out. I don't remember exactly how it came to my attention, but this movie seemed to check off all the boxes on my list at the time I decided to watch it: Young people? Check. Coming of age story? Check. International? (It's a film set in Indonesia directed by a Welshman). Check.

The movie starts off showing us Yuda, the main butt-kicker in his hometown in Western Sumatra. The grass is green, the tomatoes are red, and everything, even Yuda, appears golden (cinematographer's choice?) In other words, Yuda's hometown is the best place in the world. The scenes with his mom and brother emphasize this. Yuda has a good life--good family, idyllic surroundings. And to top it all off, he is really good at silat a kind of Indonesian martial arts. There's a great sequence with Yuda practicing in the fields, with dramatic music and the mountains in the background which makes me want to take out some curved blades and do some silat like Yuda!

Alas, Yuda's lovely existence on the farm comes to an end, as he embarks on his merantau, a coming-of-age tradition in the Mingkabau culture where the young boy leaves the community and comes back a man. His mother tells him he doesn't have to go, but Yuda wants to make a difference in the world. He sets off for the seedy capital of Jakarta to make his mark. His life is changed when he rescues a girl named Astri and her little brother from being beaten up by Astri's boss. From that moment on, all hell breaks loose.

I didn't exactly dislike the movie, as much as it just wasn't what I was expecting. I like that the movie highlights silat, which is a lesser-known martial art. The choreographers did an amazing job with the fight scenes, fight scenes on par with any great martial arts movie. The cinematography and musical score were mind-blowing. But (surprise, surprise) the story was a little thin on the characterization, and for a two hour movie, that's just sad. I wanted to know more about Yuda. I wanted to know who he was before, and how being in Jakarta changed him. Without this part, there's really no coming-of-age, because coming-of-age means becoming mature. Yuda stayed dignified and bad-ass the entire time. He was a static character, and because of that, not very interesting. This movie is also very bloody. I have a low tolerance for gore, so I didn't like it as much as others might.

If you are looking for a good coming-of-age story set in Indonesia, or other parts of Asia, skip this movie. If you are looking for some high-action, martial arts goodness with a ton of blood and very disturbing villains, this is the movie for you. Please don't watch it with your kids.

For more information about Merantau, head to the Merantau IMDb page.

Photo Credits

The picture of Merantau was taken from here.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Throwback Thursday: X-Men: The Animated Series Episodes One and Two

Before Hugh Jackman was Wolverine, there was X-Men: The Animated Series!!! I remember watching this as a kid and thinking it was the most amazing show ever, and 20 years later I still feel the same way. Here's why X-Men: The Animated Series (still) rocks the house:

1.) The ladies kick butt.

Oh my Jeebus. Within the first five minutes of episode one, Storm and Rogue are fighting a robot the size of a building while saving Jubilee's life. No Prince Charming needed here, the ladies have it covered. Throughout the two episodes (and the series), the women continue kicking major bootay. In the first two episodes, although teenaged Jubilee is still getting used to her powers, she uses them whenever necessary. The ladies of the X-Men (X-women?) do not take things lying down! And, they are gosh-darned pretty to boot! Extra bonus: in the X-Men universe, a woman is president!

2.) A diverse cast.

Only Marvel could put together a group of folks from all over the world and still somehow make the X-Men story feel natural and believeable. There's wealthy Charles Xavier, eternal drifter from everywhere-and-nowhere Wolverine, the fairly vanilla Cyclops, the African Queen Storm, the Southern Belle Rogue, Gambit the Cajun, intellectual-turned-blue-monster Beast, and Chinese-American foster child Jubilee. Despite their different backgrounds, the characters feel authentic, not forced or "written in" for diversity's sake.

3.) The action!

I don't normally like watching violent television shows, but I get excited when the X-Men beat up the bad guys!!!! You're going down, gigantic, evil robot!

4.) The smart, fast-paced writing.

In the first three minutes of episode one, there's so much going on. First there's Jubilee's foster parents' anxiety over her being a mutant, Jubilee's hurt and sadness over being given up to the Mutant Control Agency, and then, in the third minute, a touch of snark:

Jubilee is playing video games in an effort to forget her sorrow. She inevitably ends up breaking the arcade game with her firecracker power. The owner is upset, naturally. He approaches Jubilee.

Arcade Guy: Do you know how much this thing costs???

Jubilee: (nonchalantly drinking her soda and putting her sunglasses back on) Yeah. A quarter.

And later in the Danger Room, when Wolverine and Gambit are training:

Wolverine: Had enough, Cajun? Just say, "oncle."


I'd forgotten just how much fun cartoons could be. As a mom, I try to pick wholesome cartoons that have a moral. I'm not certain X-Men would be considered wholesome, but there are certainly lessons to be learned from watching X-Men as well. Tolerance, not being greedy, and learning to control your temper are just a few (yeah, I'm looking at you, Wolverine!). But morals aren't the reason I want to watch X-Men. I like watching X-Men because it's just plain FUN!

X-Men: The Animated Series, recommended for ages 9+ for cartoon violence and scary situations. (My rating, not an official one ;-) )

Photo Credits

The photo of the clashing mutants above was taken from here.

Friday, July 12, 2013

International Friday: A Library Without Books

My dream is to make millions of dollars and give a whole bunch of it away. Since I don't have those millions yet, I will gladly promote worthy causes in the meantime. Library for All is a non-profit organization that aims to create a digital library for children in the Third World. E-textbooks and other learning resources will be accessible via an inexpensive tablet, and downloadable through the country's mobile network or internet connection. The content will be relevant to the local community. The first stop is Haiti, and then the world!

To learn more about Library for All, visit their web site. You can also donate to their Kickstarter campaign until July 13th.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Throwback Thursday: Old-School Middle Grade: Peg Kehret's Sisters Long Ago

Welcome to another Throwback Thursday! This week we are going to discuss Peg Kehret's Sisters Long Ago, published in 1992 by Minstrel Books.

On her thirteenth birthday, Willow Paige and her best friend go to the lake. While Willow is swimming, she gets a cramp in her stomach and nearly drowns. In her struggle to get her head above water, Willow has visions of an ancient Egyptian girl name Kalos, whom Willow is convinced is herself in a previous lifetime. Did she really live before, in ancient Egypt? Or was the vision brought on by the stress of almost drowning? Watch Willow's quest for answers unfold against the backdrop of Willow's sister's leukemia, friendship struggles, and catching a suspected dognapper! Whew!

I love this book. Usually middle grade books are about an ordinary kid who goes to another planet/universe/world/dimension and does extraordinary things there. This was probably the first book I read as a child that made me think about extraordinary events happening in the ordinary world. Because of the subject matter, the tone of the book is very reflective; we're inside Willow's head most of the time. But the pace of the story moves rather quickly, so one doesn't get bored. Still, if you or your child likes a lot of action, you won't find a ton of it here, though there are a couple of tense action scenes. (I won't ruin them for you!) Ancient Egypt fans will get a kick out this book as well, as there is a fair amount of history in a book of this length (149 pages).

Recommended for kids ages 10+. No sex, drugs, or violence, but Willow does struggle with questions of Life and Death, so be prepared to chat with your tween afterwards!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Print Media Monday: Kids Still Read Paper Books?

Saw this article floating around in several different versions on the web. Apparently, young people read more printed books than their older counterparts!!! If you haven't read this article yet, click here to read why.

Friday, July 5, 2013

International Friday: Sara Farizan's If You Could Be Mine

I'd been hearing a lot of buzz about Sara Farizan's If You Could Be Mine in the Twitterverse for awhile now. If You Could Be Mine is a YA novel about a seventeen-year-old girl Sahar, and how far she would go for the love of her best friend, Nasrin (also a girl, for those of you not familiar with Persian names) the Islamic Republic of Iran. *Cue dramatic music* And you thought you had problems!

I'll admit I was excited when I read blurbs about the book online, but I was also a little worried. As a person of color living in the United States, I am always conscious of media representations of non-Anglo cultures. Would this book resort to stereotyping? Tokenism? Preachiness about the evils of living in Iran?

Much to Ms. Farizan's credit, the answer to those questions is a resounding no. While some of the foods, culture, and words might be unfamiliar to some American readers, somehow, by using Sahar's voice to tell the story, it makes the story feel more immediate. It makes me feel like it is happening to a close friend, and not a random girl in a country I know nothing about.

I only read the first five chapters from the digital preview on Amazon, but I can't wait to see what happens next. The official release for the book is August 20, 2013. Pre-order it from your favorite bookseller today!

Check out morethanjustmagic's interview with Sara Farizan here.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Throwback Thursday: Dazed and Confused?

Happy Fourth of July, everyone! For today's post I'll be taking on an American classic, Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused.

When an acquaintance of mine suggested I watch this movie, it turns out I was one of two people on Earth who had never seen the movie before, so I didn't know what to expect. Though it's often touted as "a stoner movie" or a "coming of age movie", I was surprised that Dazed and Confused was more nuanced and complex than it makes itself appear to be, which I suppose is part of its beauty. So rather than try to disentangle my entangled feelings for it, I will list what I liked and didn't like, and then you, fair reader, can decide if it's something you would let your teenagers watch.

What I Liked

There are characters who question things.

The main character, Randall "Pink" Floyd, refuses to sign a contract for his football team saying he will abstain from drugs and alcohol. When one of his teammates asks him why he won't just sign the paper, he replies, "Why are we playing football?" There were a couple of scenes where Pink's coach was giving Pink a lecture about making something of his life and to stop hanging out with losers. While it was clear Pink wanted his life to be of his own making, he wasn't sure that the regimented world of football was the desirable alternative to hanging out with his pothead friends. Another character, Mike, played by the irrepresible Adam Goldberg constantly rails against the system throughout the movie. In the beginning, he questions the need for freshman hazing at the school, something which all the other characters in the movie have accepted as normal.

The characters and situations are complex.

Pink is one of my favorite characters. While he is made out to be the all-around good guy, he is constantly drunk or stoned throughout the movie, which quite frankly, made me feel sorry for him. In another scene, when the seniors are engaged in a car chase with a bunch of freshman so they could beat them with wooden paddles they made themselves, I couldn't help but be troubled. There was something disturbing about watching the boys, but especially the black character yipping for joy in the pick-up truck waiting to beat on his prey. This reminded me of other scenes from other movies, where white men in pick-up trucks chased black men, ready to lynch them. Whether this was Director Richard Linklater's intention, I'm not sure, but that's what came to mind. Even though this movie is set in 1970s Texas in a high school, it still brought up interesting and troubling questions of power--who's got it and why--without coming off as too preachy.

The rules are, there are no rules.

I didn't grow up in the 70s, but there's something about this movie that evokes the nostalgia in me for more carefree times. I, too, have memories of riding around in a car with my friends aimlessly on a summer night (sans alcohol--my parents would have killed me!!!!) As a mother now, I see how restrictive our environment has become, sometimes for the good, and sometimes for the bad. Kids nowadays have very regimented schedules and lots of academic work. It makes me wonder if my daughter will have the chance to be aimless and free for a while (sans the illegal substances, of course.)

The fashion!

Who doesn't love some good-old retro fashion! The polyester in this movie was to die for!

What I Didn't Like

Most of the kids in this movie were drunk and stoned most of the time.

I read some reviews of this movie, where people have said, "Duh! The name of this movie is Dazed and Confused. What did you expect?" While it's true, I wasn't expecting a deep, philosophical movie, watching people (especially kids) drunk and stoned for most of the movie made me depressed.

Overall, I am surprised at how much I liked this movie. Despite the "stoner movie" facade, the film does ask some intriguing questions about why we do the things we do in our lives, who has the power, and why do we give it to them? If I had a teenager in my life, I would definitely let him/her watch it, but not without a long chat afterwards.

Special thanks to Mr. Reyes for bringing this film to my attention.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Print Media Monday: Gay Characters in Middle Grade Fiction

Vikki Vansickle wrote this wonderful post on her blog a couple of weeks back about the scarcity of gay characters in middle grade fiction. It's too late to wait for YA to introduce this topic, she argues, and I wholeheartedly agree. She includes a list of middle grade books with gay characters, for those who are interested in exploring more. You can read the post here.

Pride Month is over, but let's keep the love and support in our hearts all year long!

Photo Credits

The lovely photo of the rainbow flag was taken from this site. Thanks!