Tuesday, December 28, 2010

2010 Movie Releases (In Review)

I was thinking about all the movies I've seen in the theater this year, and it actually surprised me how many there were. I thought (as I always seem to) that it would only be a few, but there turned out to be 9! Here they are, in the order that I saw them:

The Runaways - rock biopic about the all-girl teenage rock band that launched Joan Jett's career (starring Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning)

Splice - sci-fi story about a genetic experiment to create a new form of life gone [expectedly] wrong (starring Adrien Brody)

Predators - long-awaited continuation of the Predator story; a group of trained killers wake up on a foreign planet to find themselves the prey in an alien hunt (starring Adrien Brody, Topher Grace, among others)

Inception - epic action thriller depicting the use of a new technology that allows a person to infiltrate another's dreams (starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, among others)

The Last Exorcism - found-footage film about an exorcist's documentary to uncover the hoax of exorcism, but his last job gives him more than he bargained for (starring Patrick Fabian)

Machete - grindhouse-style exploitation film about a Mexican ex-fed's violent revenge against the politics of injustice (starring Danny Trejo, Jessica Alba, among others)

Paranormal Activity 2 - found-footage film about a family haunted by a demon; sequel to last year's Paranormal Activity (starring real victims! Haha, no, just kidding)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 - first half of the final installment in the Harry Potter series; Harry and friends are on the run in search of the key to defeating the Dark Lord Voldemort (starring Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe)

Black Swan - psychological thriller about a ballerina driven to madness in an attempt to perfect her performance (starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis)

I regret not going to see Let Me In in theaters. I'll have to watch it sometime. It's a vampire flick starring Chloe Moretz, and is a remake of a Swedish film (called Let The Right One In, based on a book) which I have seen. And speaking of Chloe Moretz, she also starred in Kick-Ass, which I did see, but not in the theater; that was a fun movie, I probably should have seen it in theaters too. And I missed After Dark's Horrorfest in 2010, on account of it not showing in my town this year (bummer), but I got the box set for Christmas and I'll be sitting down to watch all those films shortly (read my reviews here).

There were, as usual, a number of films that came out in 2010 that looked interesting, but I didn't get around to seeing. I'll probably sit down and watch them sometime. Among those are Alice in Wonderland, Devil, Frozen, Case 39, I Spit On Your Grave (I loved the original), Catfish, Burlesque, 127 Hours (frankly I'm a little bit scared to see this one), and possibly others that I don't recall. As for next year, Red Riding Hood looks rather intriguing.

Here's to another year of great movies!

Black Swan (2010)

Natalie Portman stars in Black Swan as a ballerina losing her grip on reality, while pushing herself towards a flawless performance as both white and black swan in a production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. In the ballet, a princess is transformed into a white swan, and only love can make her human again, but when the black swan swoops in and seduces the prince, the white swan accepts her failure and ends her own life. The story parallels Nina (Portman)'s struggle to perfect her performance in the days leading up to the ballet's opening. She is the perfect white swan - beautiful, graceful, innocent, with masterful technique - but nailing the performance of the black swan requires her to lose control of herself, to loosen up and act more on instinct. These qualities are embodied in Nina's friend/rival Lily (Mila Kunis), who opens the door to Nina's transformation into the black swan.

This movie is beautiful, and haunting. The production is epic, and really manages to capture the atmosphere of a theater show. My primary complaint would be the claustrophobic (and unfortunately very shaky) camera work. You could argue that it contributes to the unstable mood of the piece, but I would have felt better with a steadier cam and larger perspective. I really appreciated the erotic element of the story: the seduction of Nina by her teacher ("your homework tonight: go home and touch yourself"), as well as the sexual tension between her and Lily. I don't usually get "excited" in the theater, but it was really hot when Lily went down on Nina. There was nothing explicit (not even nudity), but the suggestion was strong.

This is a really good movie, and I'm glad it's receiving a lot of praise. Yet, I feel like I don't like it as much as I should, seeing as it's a combination of two things I love - the pretty world of ballet, and the dark realm of horror. But while I love the juxtaposition of pretty and scary, here it seems that rather than place them side by side, the prettiness is tainted at every corner by the horror. I like the pretty facade of ballet - the graceful dancing that is presented on stage - but behind the curtains is a dark world of injuries, wounded emotions, and intense pressure to perform.

Another thought I have is that the ballerinas are all too old. I know that not all ballerinas are 14 years old, and this isn't a flaw in the narrative - the fear of being past one's prime seems to be a central theme - but rather just a reason for my reduced enjoyment. There is some age discrepancy that complicates the characterization of the star Nina. Her overbearing mother treats her like she's twelve, and she acts all sweet and innocent (at first), that it feels like she doesn't belong in the body of a 28 year old (I'm really not sure what age the character is supposed to be). But then later, she goes drinking and drugging and sexing, and all those things that are expected of a person her age. If she were cast younger, then the black swan's behavior would be that much more inappropriate - but, I think that would make the horror that much darker; the contrast that much richer. Rather than rooting for the white swan to break out of her mold, which she needs to do anyway, you'd be more afraid for her, descending into the dark world of the black swan.

But on the other hand, as it stands, I can relate to her more, as a person who desperately needs to grow up already, and learn to let go, to realize her true potential. But the way things turn out for her is exactly the reason I'm so scared to relinquish control. Perhaps I could be great, but at what cost?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Carnosaur, by Harry Adam Knight

Sex, violence, and dinosaurs. That's what Carnosaur boasts. Comparisons to Jurassic Park are surprisingly apt (Carnosaur came first), but where JP offers adventure, Carnosaur emphasizes the horror behind the premise of dinosaurs being reintroduced into a modern ecosystem. And where Jurassic Park takes place on a remote tropical island, Carnosaur occurs in the middle of civilization. And where Dr. Hammond is basically a decent guy who took some alarming risks, Lord Penward is an antisocial megalomaniac who would prefer to see the human race wiped out and replaced by the obviously evolutionarily superior dinosaurs, genetically returned from extinction.

The story was adapted into a movie, also like Jurassic Park (in the same year, apparently), although the movie version veers somewhat away from the original novel. But I always liked Carnosaur the film as the gritty horror version of Jurassic Park. Harry Adam Knight (a pseudonym, I believe) may not be on a level with Michael Crichton as a fiction writer, but Carnosaur is a really fun story to read. And the premise is hard not to like. You'll probably enjoy it for many of the same reasons Jurassic Park was so much fun, but in addition to the dinos, be warned that there is quite a bit of sex and violence. Which only makes it more exciting, if you ask me.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

Looking for some horror for the holidays? You can't go wrong with Silent Night, Deadly Night! Slashers are a dime a dozen, but just because the format has been overdone, that doesn't mean there aren't good titles to look out for. And this one honestly impressed me, being both intelligent (within the bounds of slasherdom) and entertaining.

This movie takes as its central theme the thought that we all too quickly brush aside - that Santa Claus is a really creepy guy. After all, he goes around sneaking into people's homes, watching children sleep. We tend to focus on the good side - that he rewards good kids with presents on Christmas. But there is a dark side there, too - the side that punishes those who have been naughty.

"I don't bring toys to naughty children. I punish them. Severely."

For a slasher, I was also impressed with the balance between sex/nudity and violence in this one. Sex and nudity are integral parts of the slasher formula, but often the sex is implied and the nudity is brief (while the violence has a tendency to be ultra gruesome - more so nowadays). Here, the sex - while still avoiding being explicit - manages to be erotic, and the nudity is a lot less self-conscious than what I am used to seeing.

"Cindy, if you don't go back to bed, Santa won't come!"
"(He's not the only one...)"

And there is some treatment of the slasher trope often taken for granted - that sex must be punished. Here, that idea is planted within the context of a Catholic orphanage, where the Mother Superior preaches the naughtiness of sex, with an emphasis on the necessity of punishment. In the case of this one boy, it's no surprise at all why sex should become so confused with violence. Really, there are much healthier methods of education about our carnal desires.

I would rate this movie as one of the essential classics of the slasher subgenre. Pair it with the equally good Black Christmas (the original version from 1974) for a holiday-themed double feature that is bound to be great fun.

"Christmas Eve - it's the scariest damn night of the year. You see Santa Claus tonight you better run, boy. You better run for your life!"

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Ballet Shoes (2007)

Ballet Shoes is a sweet little period drama/made-for-tv movie that stars the always lovely Emma Watson in what I believe is her first non-Harry Potter role. Interestingly, another of the characters is played by the actor (Richard Griffiths) who plays Harry's insufferable uncle in the Potter films. He's a considerable bit more tolerable in this role, in which he plays a globe-trotting paleontologist who raises an orphaned girl, and then leaves her with three more orphans to raise while he's away. Of those three girls, Pauline (played by Emma) aspires to be an actress (first in the theater, then in motion pictures), Petrova wants to learn to fly (in airplanes, that is), and little Posy likes to dance.

The three girls pursue their interests, and in their great uncle's absence, they struggle to make ends meet as the money set out for them runs out. They rent rooms in the house, and the girls try their best to get parts in local plays, to earn some dough. It's a pleasantly girly film, between Pauline's stage acting (including dress-up) and Posy's ballet lessons, although Petrova is more of a tomboy, who'd rather be working on cars (gotta have some balance, eh?). Emma looks fantastic, as usual. I love the way she talks with her eyebrows. It's so charming. She has such a wonderfully expressive face. And pretty, too, of course. Posy is also pretty, as a spirited but graceful ballerina. I like how dedicated she is to her goal of becoming a great dancer.

For me, vain as I am, the main draw of the film was the vast array of prettiness on display. Here's a sample of what you can expect:

Monday, December 20, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)

Warning: this review contains SPOILERS from the first part of the seventh Harry Potter movie.

The Deathly Hallows is bleak. But then, the Harry Potter story has just been getting bleaker and bleaker since The Goblet of Fire, when Voldemort was resurrected. I'm very curious to see how it will all end (in other words, I can't wait for Part 2). The one startling difference that makes this installment unique among the entire series is the almost complete absence of Hogwarts (and what we do see of it has changed so very much). Harry and friends spend their time in this one on the run.

And there's some tension between our favorite threesome. Though Harry and Hermione seem to be getting closer than ever (she's so much better off with him...), Ron continues to be stupid. I think part of the reason Hermione is always so mad at him is because she's mad at fate (or the author) for having her fall in love with such a doofus. Ron almost redeemed himself when he showed up and destroyed the Horcrux, but to be fair, you have to measure that one noble deed against all the stupid things he's done over the years. Not a very good balance. I'll tell you, when they started talking about having a wedding, I thought for a moment it was Ron and Hermione they were referring to! Thank god it wasn't. I'm not ready for that yet, though it seems inevitable at this rate.

I really liked the Deathly Hallows story-within-a-story. Great moral tale, and seamlessly woven into the larger plot. A wand to command death, a magical stone to reverse it, and a cloak to evade it. Bonus points for Hermione being the one to narrate that story. =3

As much as Dobby annoys me, he really pulled off a magnificent stunt in this one. He earned himself a noble death. It seems fitting that he should be a sacrificial pawn - when Bellatrix's weapon leapt through the teleportation, I thought someone more substantial might end up dead, so I was relieved when it was just him. Though, saying that, I have to recognize the value of his exploits this time around. I love how he just snaps his fingers to disarm his opponents, like it's nothing at all to him.

At the beginning, when Hermione obliviated her parents, that was a very touching scene. I want so desperately to get to know Hermione, can you imagine knowing her, and then losing all those memories? So sad. But I see that it was necessary. That's just how desperate things have gotten.

The infiltration of the ministry was exciting, although I hated every minute that the beautiful Emma Watson was replaced by some stuffy old businesswoman (on account of the polyjuice potion - funny story, when the potion was first mentioned in Chamber of Secrets, I thought it was called "apologies potion"). No surprise at all that Umbridge of all people would end up wearing the Horcrux around her neck with pride.

Draco was pathetic again in this movie. At the beginning of the series, I saw him as this counterpoint to Harry, likely to become a powerful dark wizard to match Harry. But now Harry's going up against the likes of Voldemort himself, and Draco simply can't compete. He's always been a creep, and I don't forgive him for that, but his heart has been filled with hatred for so long, and it hasn't really gotten him anywhere. As a full Death Eater now, I think it's just more apparent what that has done to his father, turning him into a groveling coward before the might of the dark lord. And Draco's failure at killing Dumbledore - Harry said he wouldn't have done it, that he was lowering his wand when Snape stepped in - I could see him becoming something of a reluctant anti-hero, making some move to help Harry defeat Voldemort, not out of any concern or respect for Harry, but simply distaste for the dark lord's methods, how his regime of fear destroys people rather than fosters their talents. Of course, believing such a thing is possible is giving Draco more credit than he probably deserves. But I think there's potential for a more complex and well-rounded character there.

Emma looked fabulous on the big screen. I'm so glad I got a chance to see her that way. I just can't believe how gorgeous she is. I could stare at her for hours. Actually, that's pretty much what I've been doing all week. It was definitely worth it, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Convenient that there are seven parts to the story, and seven days in a week. This marathon was a lot of fun, and now I desperately await the second part of the final chapter...

Emma Rating: Scandalously Seductive

Addendum: Regarding the "rumored" scene, in which Emma Watson allegedly gets naked - it's hardly even worth mentioning (which is why I left it out of my review), but I might as well tell you my thoughts. I wasn't really expecting much, so I wasn't too disappointed. Hermione has dressed fairly conservatively all throughout the Harry Potter series, so I didn't really expect her to reveal much, even now (being legal and all that). But the thing with her is that she's so unbelievably gorgeous, it doesn't matter that she's completely dressed, she still stuns.

As for the scene itself, it was a magical illusion, so it was all CGed up, and Harry and Hermione hardly even looked like real people. I didn't know the nature of the scene beforehand - I had heard that it was a dream - so I was all prepared to complain about how they played it safe and abandoned a perfect opportunity to give the scene a real (rather than pretended) erotic draw to it (why are we so afraid of doing that?)...but, as it turned out, I don't think the scene was especially intended to be erotic in the first place, so I'm willing to turn a blind eye toward it.

Emma fans will still love this movie, but for the same reasons they've loved the rest of the Harry Potter movies, not for seeing her "naked" (which she's not).

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Warning: this review contains SPOILERS from the sixth Harry Potter movie.

Severus Snape is the Half-Blood Prince. Not that I know what significance that has, other than him being the owner of the book of potions with all the notes in it. It's funny, all the way back in The Philosopher's Stone, when it turned out that Snape wasn't the bad guy, I didn't want to believe it. Now, I don't want to believe that he is the bad guy. Maybe it's true that Dumbledore can make mistakes, but the question remains: how did Snape convince Dumbledore that he was trustworthy? It's a humongous mistake to make. And though Snape is mean, and I described him in The Philosopher's Stone as having perfect "bad guy" mannerisms, I almost like him now. He's not evil enough, not angry enough, to truly be a bad guy. He's too cool, and collected. I want to believe that Snape's killing of Dumbledore was expected - and planned - by the both of them. That Snape still has some trick up his sleeve to use against the Dark Lord, and that if Dumbledore really is dead, then it was a necessary sacrifice that they had agreed upon...

The romance in this movie annoyed the hell out of me. Largely because much of it was Ron being an asshole and making Hermione cry. She deserves so much better than Ron, but it really seems like the story is gearing up for them to be together. I don't think I'll ever accept it. I think another part of my annoyance is that it all seems too fast. And I'm not sure if that's because I'm watching these movies so quickly one after the other, or because the movies themselves are condensing the events from the books (or both) - but it seems like these characters are jumping so quickly from one love interest to the next. Not that I have any problem with sampling the wares before you buy, but it just seems like there isn't enough time to enjoy the romance before it's on to the next one.

I remember Ginny having a crush on Harry back in the Chamber of Secrets, and I thought it was cute then. But Harry didn't seem interested and later he started going after the Asian chick. That was going well, and then it seemed to end so abruptly. (I know, she "ratted out" Dumbledore's Army, but it's only because they used the truth serum on her...is there no room for forgiveness?). And anyway, I thought Neville and Ginny were really cute together, and there was no mention at all of how they split up. But damn, the thing that annoys me the most is that Hermione is wasting tears on a real jerkwad like Ron. Maybe she wouldn't want to be treated like a goddess (though I would gladly do it), but at the very least, if I was in Ron's position, I'd know how to make Hermione feel loved and appreciated.

Gotta admit, I was thrown off a bit about those teleportation pods. I thought Draco was preparing them as a failsafe, so that he could escape when the Death Eaters showed up to torture him for failing his mission. But then at the last moment I realized he was using them as a door to let the Death Eaters in to Hogwarts. The whole scene with Dumbledore and Harry going after the Horcrux was very exciting. Especially the climax with Dumbledore's impressive fire magic. Really cool. Or hot. A lot of dread in this movie, even without Voldemort showing up. And also because I was anticipating Gandal--er, Dumbledore's fate - unfortunately, that was one spoiler that really couldn't have been avoided. But it went down so much calmer than I imagined it would.

If I have one thing to say to Harry for the last installment of the series, it's this: you can forget Ron if you want, he's pretty useless anyway, but you damn well better have Hermione by your side at all times, because she's a powerful witch, and very intelligent to boot. You need her help, so stop trying to do everything alone. That's one of the things I liked most about The Prisoner of Azkaban - Hermione, for once, had a really proactive role throughout the climax of the episode. She's great for support, but I want to see her in action some more.

Emma Rating: Gorgeous & Glamorous

Friday, December 17, 2010

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Warning: this review contains SPOILERS from the fifth Harry Potter movie.

The Order of the Phoenix is kind of a dark movie. But very good. The way the ministry steps in and transforms Hogwarts into a totalitarian school system, with standardized tests, conformity, and loads of rules, sucking out all the life and happiness of the students - I'm convinced it was all part of Voldemort's plan, although the idea of politics creating all this evil independently isn't much brighter a scenario.

I hate the Umbridge woman with a passion. She's my least favorite Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher yet. When she eventually confesses in the woods how much she hates children, that's rather revealing. Who ever decided that the best people to teach children are the ones who hate them? Discipline has its place, but there must be respect, and understanding, and above all, concern for the child's wellbeing, as a person, and not a pawn to be molded into a vulnerable and suggestible agent of the state. Anyway, I would be more inclined to call a 15-year-old a young adult than a child.

"It's sort of exciting, isn't it - breaking the rules?" - Hermione Granger

Dumbledore's Army turned out to be rather different than I thought, just from hearing the phrase in the past. Not much of an army, but damned if it wasn't exciting. It's funny, the thought of Harry Potter being the perfect Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher had crossed my mind, and I thought maybe that's what he'd end up being after all of this is over. But it almost sort of happened a lot sooner than that. When I realized Harry was the one they had selected as the teacher, I was really excited. And he really was the perfect choice.

"Working hard is important, but there's something that matters even more - believing in yourself. Think of it this way. Every great wizard in history has started out as nothing more than what we are now - students. If they can do it, why not us?" - Harry Potter

I'm impressed with how Neville is really coming into his own. But this movie introduced a new character that really caught my interest. "Loony" Luna Lovegood, the white rabbit, was enchanting, with her long white locks and mysterious air. I wouldn't mind having her on one arm, and Hermione on the other. The Room of Requirement was great - appropriately, just what they needed. Even when the mistletoe appeared above Harry and his love interest. Hermione is such a good sport, but I can't stand not knowing what her feelings are. If she has any.

"I'm sure Harry's kissing was more than satisfactory!" - Hermione

The battle towards the end was rather exciting. Multiple wizards fighting simultaneously, spells flying across the room. And then there was the face-off between Voldemort and Dumbledore. I loved when Voldemort sent the shards of glass toward Dumbledore and Harry, and Dumbledore used a shield that ground the glass into sand. Excellent counter move. For a moment when Voldemort seemingly possessed Harry, I was afraid he was going to take control and attack Dumbledore, but luckily Harry pulled through (my perspective is probably biased, but I'm pretty sure it was seeing Hermione's face that brought Harry back to his senses).

"We've all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That's who we really are." - Sirius Black

I was convinced by Harry's declaration, that the power he had that Voldemort lacked was love (and friendship). And I'm so glad Harry finally agreed to work together with his friends and stop trying to spare them and go it alone. But there is a frightening consequence to that decision, and that's that Voldemort will almost certainly strike out against Harry's advantage, by attacking his friends and loved ones. Very scary, indeed. But they can't just run away from it, they have to stick together and fight it out. Indeed, the prophecy has revealed what is coming - a final duel between Harry and Voldemort, and only one can survive. For now it's just a matter of getting there, and finding the power and confidence to win.

"You're a fool, Harry Potter. And you will lose...everything." - Voldemort

Emma Rating: Delightfully Delectable

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Warning: this review contains SPOILERS from the fourth Harry Potter movie.

The Goblet of Fire was a very exciting movie. Probably the best yet. Tournaments are always a load of fun, and I just love stories where the bad guy wins. More importantly, this is just the turn of events I was waiting for. Voldemort revived, and ready to wreak havoc. Who knows what's going to happen next! Whatever it is, it's going to be serious.

"Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right, and what is easy."

So by now it's obvious that the instating of a new Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher every year is a recurring theme. Every one of them has either been useless, or an actual follower of Voldemort. Professor Lupin is the exception, but even he wasn't in control of his dark side. I can't help thinking that this is some kind of statement about the futility of trying to fight against the dark side. You're left thinking that there is no effective defense against the dark arts!

I really liked Alastor Moody. It's too bad he turned out to be an impostor. He's a real no-nonsense kind of guy. I guess he's sort of the "criminal profiler" of the wizarding world. He was such a help to Harry, it's a shame it was all done for a most nefarious purpose. And it looks like the Peter Pettigrew character (a.k.a. Wormtong--er, Wormtail) turned out to be a lot more dangerous than I gave him credit for. (Incidentally, I thought he looked so bad in Prisoner of Azkaban because he'd spent 12 years as a rat, but I guess he's just really ugly).

So it turns out that Snape used to be a "Death Eater". Yet this is all in the past, and Dumbledore trusts him fully. But didn't somebody else say, "once a Death Eater, always a Death Eater"? I'm really curious about Snape's story, and what happened in his past, and why he's trustworthy now if he used to be a follower of Lord Voldemort.

"Hermione, you're a girl..."

It's kind of too bad that Ron spent most of the movie either envious of Harry or jealous about Hermione. It's clear there's some romantic tension between Ron and Hermione. My reaction is complicated, because if Ron likes Hermione, I can sympathize, but she deserves no less a partner than Harry Potter himself. But Harry doesn't seem to have any romantic feelings for Hermione, although they are very good friends. And if Ron likes Hermione, I'm in no position to judge him for being afraid to admit it, but the least he could do is treat her a little nicer. I know, boys are supposed to tease the girls they like, but the least he could do is write to her over the summer!

"Is that...Hermione Granger? With Victor Krum?"
"No. Absolutely not."

I felt kind of odd about Hermione hooking up with Viktor Krum. Granted, Krum has the celebrity status Hermione deserves to be associated with, but I just can't see him being her type. He's so...brutish. Neville and Ginny were really cute together, though - I bet they had a good time.

I wonder about the scene at the end of the ball when Hermione proclaims that Ron ruined everything. I wonder if she meant that he ruined her night with Krum, or that he ruined the dance by not having the guts to ask her before Krum did. Because I wonder what Hermione's feelings for Ron are. It's kind of funny, in Chamber of Secrets, after Hermione comes back from being petrified, she hugs Harry, but then awkwardly shakes Ron's hand. Then in Prisoner of Azkaban, she gets scared and jumps right onto Ron without thinking...

"I'm not an owl!"

But in this movie when she was scared for Harry and went to speak with him in the tent just before the dragon contest - when she jumped on Harry, my heart just melted. She's so adorable. You'd think I'd be crazy over her dressing up for the ball ("well-mannered frivolity", ha!), but the truth is, Emma is just so naturally beautiful, that it's like painting a diamond. The diamond is already beautiful to begin with, you don't need to dress it up. That's for the rocks. The diamond shines on its own. But still, it was a very pretty dress that she wore.

Emma Rating: Breathtakingly Beautiful

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Warning: this review contains SPOILERS from the third Harry Potter movie.

The Prisoner of Azkaban has a decidedly different feel to it than the previous two movies in the series. I figure that has a lot to do with the new director, and the shuffling of scenery at Hogwarts. I'll admit, the atmospheric environment of the shooting location is beautiful, and adds a whole new character to Hogwarts.

I suppose this movie is fairly popular, because nine times out of ten I've seen a Harry Potter movie playing on television, it's been this one. It is both a less childish movie, and one with a more nuanced, self-contained plot. Despite having seen some scenes from it out of context, that really didn't spoil the movie for me because the plot is rather intricate - friends who are enemies becoming friends that transform into enemies... It's all a bit confusing. (Seeing the "confrontation" scene in the Shrieking Shack for at least the third time - this time in context - only slightly helped me to understand just exactly what was going on and who was on whose side). And the time travel further complicates things, though it is a brilliant device. Everyone loves a good time traveling plot. And each time Hermione materialized in class out of thin air, that was so cute. She's amazing.

"You really are the brightest witch of your age."

The characters, now third-years, are visibly maturing. Emma looks a lot different in this movie compared to the previous two, and I suspect it's a combination of her growth (the little girl is now an adolescent), and the fact that the characters spend a lot of time in civilian clothes, rather than their school uniforms. But, Emma looks fantastic. Even bruised and cut up, and covered in dirt, her natural beauty shines through it all. Plus, that pink hoodie is cute.

"Oh yeah, I've been beaten loads of times."

I was so happy that Harry finally up and left his Muggle relatives. They are such insufferable idiots. Really, the worst kind of people. Although, his running away from home reinforces the fact that our little wizards are growing up and coming into their own. Harry is gaining confidence in his powers, and learning about his parents. Hermione's intelligence and diligent studying is really bearing fruit. And Ron, well, Ron is kind of becoming less funny and more annoying.

I have to mention how cool that map of mischief is. Oh, the trouble I could get up to with that and a cloak of invisibility...

It's interesting that this is the first story where Voldemort doesn't show up in some form. The super evil escaped convict turns out to be a good guy. The bad guys are a werewolf who is only a threat when transformed, and actually a good guy in human form, and a shapeshifting creep who hardly poses much of a threat beyond being a shameless betrayer. And the creepiest monsters in the movie were the Dementors (wannabe Ringwraiths), who are supposed to be serving the good side. (Oh, and there's the Executioner, who looked really badass). So I guess there's less of a clear "good and evil" thing going on, and the focus is on the characters' choices and their performance, proving their skills.

I feel like Dumbledore so frequently gets into positions where he has to condone a wrongdoing - like the execution of the hippogriff - because his hands are tied by politics, and he's unable to prove what he knows is right in his heart. I can't imagine how he puts up with it. But he's got to consider himself really lucky that he has such talented students like Harry and friends that are noble and talented, and so easily willing to break the rules.

I wonder where the series is headed, because I keep expecting some heavy developments that carry beyond each story's self-contained plot. Like in the last movie when Hagrid was sent to Azkaban, I thought that might be the setup for the next story, "The Prisoner of Azkaban", except Hagrid was released by the end of the movie, and PoA went in a different direction, rather than detailing some kind of harrowing rescue attempt. Maybe I'm expecting too much, but I guess I'll soon find out. At any rate, Emma's presence is enough to keep me engrossed. Although I wish there was more demonstration of her character and personality outside of directly plot-related activities. I know, it's a theatrical movie, not a reality show, but I just really want badly to be friends with Hermione. I want to hang out with her. She's such a cool person.

Emma Rating: Simply Stunning

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Warning: this review contains SPOILERS from the second Harry Potter movie.

I feel like Chamber of Secrets raised the stakes a bit, what with Hagrid being sent off to Azkaban (which I presume is some kind of serious prison), and Dumbledore being pressured into resigning - even though things worked out perfectly in the end. And compared to The Philosopher's Stone, this movie was more tense, the mystery a bit deeper (it had me guessing for a long time). And darker, too - which can be attributed to the snakes and spiders motif.

Speaking of which, this movie had two really creepy monsters that I really liked. The first is the giant spider ("wait till you see the big one!"), Aragog. This is going to sound crazy, but I think this scene was actually creepier than the Shelob scene from The Return of the King movie. I think a lot of that comes from the multitude of spiders (of various sizes) in that scene. One humongous fantasy spider isn't entirely believable, but throw in a veritable army of them, in a dark forest, after showing what appear to be real spiders (at real size) elsewhere in the movie (and just prior to this scene), and you've got me squirming. I admire Harry's courage, but I think my reaction would have been closer to Ron's in this particular scene.

The other creepy monster is the end-boss, the Basilisk. He was really cool. Rather than just being a cheesy CG giant snake, he actually managed to be intimidating! Those sharp teeth, and that mean looking face. That confrontation was pretty exciting.

Jumping back, I just have to say, Dobby is insanely obnoxious. I don't care if his intentions are noble; he's a menace. And I can't forgive him for keeping Harry's friends' letters from him. I was romanced by the class at Hogwarts in the first movie, to the point of wishing I could be a student there myself. So when Dobby got in the way of Harry's friendships (what I wouldn't give for the opportunity to be friends with Hermione!), as well as his returning to Hogwarts, I perceived that as a direct threat. Anyway, Harry can handle himself against those who would plot against him - that much is clear.

It was also slightly melancholic to see our protagonists return to the school as second-years. I was really captured by the novelty of the school being this new and exciting environment in the previous movie. Now that they're settling in, welcoming a new batch of first-years (Ginny Weasley is cute, but she doesn't have the charisma that Emma Watson brings to the role of Hermione - which is just as well), the wonder is slowly wearing off. I guess I'm just afraid of them growing towards the point where I am inevitably going to have to leave them (two and a half hours to a year is too fast a rate to experience life).

I can't figure out whether this movie didn't have enough of a focus on Hermione, or if it's just that my addiction to Emma Watson is causing me to have unrealistic expectations. The latter is highly possible. My heart broke when she turned up petrified, though. I didn't like that they effectively took her out of action before the final confrontation, even if I was pleased at how that confrontation turned out.

I loved that the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets was hidden in the girls' bathroom. That's definitely where I'd hide a Chamber of Secrets. It's the one place in the whole school you're not allowed to go, even more so than the forbidden corridor with the giant three-headed dog. I think it's telling that you always have stories told from the perspective of the male characters. Like, Harry goes back to bed and sometimes you follow him to his bedroom, but when Hermione goes to bed, she leaves Harry and Ron and you don't get to see her until the next morning - the camera stays with the boys. Gotta preserve that feminine mystique (and women wonder why men don't understand them...). For once, I want a story that follows the girl into her own personal chamber of secrets...

Emma Rating: Incredibly Cute

"It is not our abilities that show what we truly are - it is our choices."
- Dumbledore

Monday, December 13, 2010

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

My expectations bore out during my first foray into the Harry Potter universe. The first film is a bit kidsy, the fx kinda cheesy, but I could tell there was a good fantasy story underneath it all, which I was able to enjoy. Of course, it helps that I was engrossed in Emma Watson's performance as the smart and sassy Hermione Granger.

Particularly compared to a fantasy story like The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter lacks the grit and realism that I enjoy in a good story (yes, even a fantasy story). Although I suspect that may change as the series progresses, and the characters grow. As such, The Philosopher's Stone is a good introduction to the magical world of Harry Potter. The main trio of protagonists are still quite young, so it makes sense that the trouble they'd get into is on a relatively small scale (even if there are serious implications), allowing for time to concentrate on introducing the audience - simultaneously with the characters, who are themselves first-years - to the Hogwarts school.

The magic feels a bit empty. I want to know how it works. I know, I know, it's magic. But magic is so much more fun when it has a logical mechanism behind it. Still, some of it is pretty cool. I like the idea of carrying a magic wand that can cast neat spells, and the invisibility cloak was awesome. I want one. The mirror device was interesting too. I wonder what I would see. I have a pretty good idea. Yeah, I could totally get lost in a dream. It's happened to me before, even without a magic mirror. I like that they recognize how dangerous such a device can be.

Some other aspects of the movie kind of left me scratching my head, like why they would trust so many secrets to a person who so easily (and frequently) lets them slip out in casual conversation, or why the gamekeeper would be in such close company with the head wizard of the academy in the first place. But he was still a likable character. None of these problems got in the way of my enjoyment of the film. In fact, I'd watch it again right away (if I didn't have five more to watch in the next few days), but mostly just to see Emma's performance again. ;-)

Emma Rating: Absolutely Adorable

Spoiler talk: I have to admit, I fell for the trap of thinking Snape was the baddy. He's just so stereotypically bad, mannerisms and everything. I mean he even has a snakey name! But I guess that just goes to show. Like how everyone thought Jimmy Page had an alliance with the devil just because he was obsessed with Aleister Crowley and the occult (and played rock music and all that). I should feel guilty, but I still don't think Snape is entirely innocent.

Emma Fever

As everybody knows, Emma Watson is the pretty young actress who stars in the Harry Potter films. I've known it, and I've had nothing to do with Harry Potter (haven't seen the films, haven't read the books).

I never had any hatred for Harry Potter, I merely avoided it because I have a tendency to avoid things that are popular (I'm not a scenester or a fad kid). That, and compared to the other popular fantasy story which I really like, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter seemed kind of kidsy. But, from the very beginning, I knew that someday, Emma Watson would be my excuse to watch those films.

Well, she came to me last night in a dream (no kidding), and now I'm rather smitten with her. So I think the time has come. I am right now seriously considering marathoning the six Harry Potter movies that have heretofore been released. Hopefully before the [first part of the] seventh slips out of theaters. Stay tuned.

The Philosopher's Stone
The Chamber of Secrets
The Prisoner of Azkaban
The Goblet of Fire
The Order of the Phoenix
The Half-Blood Prince
The Deathly Hallows (Part 1)
The Deathly Hallows (Part 2)

Bonus: Ballet Shoes

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Walking Dead: Episode 6 (TS-19)

Spoiler Warning! This post contains spoilers for episode 6 of The Walking Dead.

Episode Synopsis: The group finds shelter in the CDC, and celebrates a rare moment of relief. But the CDC boasts only one survivor, few answers, and even less hope. Tension erupts anew when it becomes clear that they won't be sticking around for long.

Discussion: Please welcome my friend Scott, who is joining me for a discussion of the episode.

Q: What were some of the highlights of the episode, in your opinion?

zharth: The whole CDC plot didn't turn out the way I imagined it might, but I liked the way it did turn out. I'm sad to see Dr. Jenner go so quickly, but the "decontamination" of the facility was terribly exciting, and a great device to use as a season finale. Emotions ran high, and I was torn between accepting the easy fate for the group, yet wanting them to fight on, even against impossible odds. When that grenade came out of the bag, I cheered. I knew it would have some important use the moment Rick picked it up episodes ago. Talk about fate. Or good luck.

It was also interesting to see the digital data for TS-19, and how the zombie transformation occurs, from a clinical perspective. I wished there were more answers, but I knew there wouldn't be.

Also, it was really touching when Dale stayed behind with Andrea, ultimately convincing her to escape. I could tell all through the episode that she was ready to quit, so it didn't surprise me at all when she stayed behind. But I really didn't want Dale to die. I know it's a cliche for the older character, but he seems the wisest of the group, and I really want him to stick around. I'm glad that his bond with Andrea was enough to keep them both alive. I just hope something doesn't happen to Andrea in the future causing Dale to lose it. On the other hand, this is a horror show, so that would make for some good programming, as morbid as that is...

Scott: A huge thing for me was finally seeing what happened with Shane and Rick in the hospital, and why Shane said Rick was dead. It's hard to blame Shane in that situation; he was trying to save Rick, after all.

When Shane thought Rick was dead, I sort of understood why, since he tried to check Rick's heartbeat and apparently couldn't find one. At the same time, though, it felt like he thought Rick was still alive since he barricaded the door against the zombies. Maybe that was just him not wanting Rick's body to be desecrated, though -- it's hard to tell, especially judging from Shane's behavior in the present. A part of me wants to believe that deep down, he really is a good guy... but I end up second-guessing him because the show seems to be about showing how flawed humans react under pressure.

It certainly didn't help that he tried to rape Lori.

When Rick gets into bed with Lori, he says "We don't have to be afraid anymore." It's a terribly tragic line...

As a side note, I wondered if Rick's repeated question about "28 minutes" was a tribute to 28 Days Later.

zharth: Heh, I didn't even catch that. Thanks for bringing up that flashback scene, I almost forgot about it. I agree, it seems like Shane wants to be this sympathetic character, but it's really hard to sympathize with him on account of the impulsive actions he keeps engaging in. I mean, you can only give a person the benefit of the doubt so many times, and if he keeps stepping out of line, then no matter how sincere he is about wanting to be a good person, if he proves himself unable to control his actions, you've got to do something about that.

Granted, he was (as well as most of the rest of them) shit-faced drunk at the time he tried to assault Lori. Normally, I wouldn't consider that a valid excuse (he's responsible for getting himself into that drunken state), but because of the trauma they've all been through, I understand their wanting to totally let loose and relax for like the first time ever, having made it to a safe place with food and drink and beds and warm showers and all. So I almost still want to forgive him, but you just know it's only going to get worse...

Q: Is a quick, painless death better than the uncertainty of survival and the gruesome inevitability that awaits among the zombies? Would you have stayed in the building and died, or ran out in search of hope?

zharth: Another tough question. Compared to death by zombie, the death that the CDC offered did seem much easier and more humane. However, the difference is hope. The CDC represented certain death. With the zombies, there is an uncertainty about your fate. There may be a 99% chance that you end up like all the rest, but there's that 1% of not knowing. So it becomes a gamble. An easy, certain death; or the slightest chance of hope with the risk of prolonged suffering?

I have to admit, I'd be really really tempted to avoid the suffering. But I think ultimately I would choose hope. I'm just too optimistic when it really comes down to it. But that probably depends on what my experience out among the zombies had been like before I got to the CDC. If I was like Rick, relatively fresh, reunited with my family who is still alive, I'd be more inclined to seek out hope. In a different case, however, if I had just lost my sister, like Andrea did, or I had seen too much suffering by then and too little hope, I might choose to end the fight.

Scott: I would have liked to pick something in the middle; stay in the building and wait until a good time to run out "in search of hope." As long as you're living and trying, there's still something left.

In their case, though, with the countdown, that obviously wasn't an option. It would definitely be tempting, especially since Jenner said "no pain," but I would still want to move on. Maybe try to find a way to get to France and see what happened there.

Other climates may be interesting, too -- perhaps there are places where the zombies or the infection couldn't survive.

Q: Do you think Dr. Jenner was fully committed to his death? Or was there some doubt in his mind, despite what he preached to the group?

zharth: I was disappointed to find out in this episode that the doc was resigned to total failure. After having come so far, and worked for so long - even without any answers - I thought he would have the kind of determination to keep going indefinitely. Yet he was already "checked out" by the time the group arrived at the CDC. Now I see why he wasn't so eager to open the doors for them. His survival was only a promise to his wife, who sacrificed her life for their research.

Yet, I felt there might have been a sliver of hope there, hidden underneath all the despair. When Rick started talking about hope, and getting outside, Dr. Jenner was convinced it wasn't possible, but I feel like he wanted to be able to believe. I'm probably just projecting my own wishful feelings onto him, but when he saw on the monitor that the rest of the group had gotten out, I felt like maybe he changed his mind. Yet it was clear at that point that there was not enough time for him to follow through on that. How depressing would that be? Realizing at the very last moment, once it's already too late, that you didn't want to die after all...

Scott: I feel like he was committed to his death; perhaps so committed that a part of him refused to believe that Rick's group was really real. I think that if he had been interested, he would have been more interested in his new guests and learning about the world, exploring the possibilities opened by having a larger group. Instead, he didn't eat with them and he lied about the self-destruct sequence and then wandered away. That doesn't indicate any kind of investment in life to me.

Even worse, if he hadn't been committed to his death, I think he would have interpreted his promise to his wife differently; he would have kept on living past the facility to try to do what he could. Having a doctor would have been a great help to the group.

zharth: Good points. Also, there was that time that someone (I don't remember who) said to just look in his eyes - there's no hope there. I probably was just reading my own desires into him.

Q: What do you think Dr. Jenner whispered to Rick just before the group escaped?

Scott: I feel like it had to be some kind of breadcrumb; a secret facility, or a weapons dump, or anything. Some kind of refuge shelter that they can raid for supplies, some kind of small hope for the future that he didn't have the courage to try to find for himself.

zharth: I feel like this is cheating, though I didn't do it intentionally, but I overheard someone else speculating about this, and their idea is really convincing. The doc could have told Rick that Lori is pregnant. What else would he have to say to Rick that he would want to keep private? And he did take blood tests of the entire group, so presumably that's something he could know. And, narratively speaking, it would make for a great plot point to exacerbate the growing discord between Rick and Shane and the whole messy love triangle.

Scott: That's a very interesting idea and it appeals to me for the same reason. On the other hand, Rick is the de facto leader of the group now; perhaps Jenner was whispering to him in his leader capacity rather than as a husband. That was my first thought when I saw him grab Rick for the whisper scene.

Story-wise, it seems to make sense, too -- I feel like there needs to be something to propel the group in the next season. There has to be some kind of hope, or some kind of goal.

Q: Do you think there's hope out there? Can the group, or humanity in general, somehow, someday, beat the zombie apocalypse, or is it all over for us?

Scott: I definitely do. I think it's a zero-tolerance environment when it comes to mistakes, but I definitely think it's possible to make a refuge, to start small, then expand it bit by bit, and fortify it, and create a sanctuary where it's possible to live safely.

Like I mentioned before, I think that other climates may hold hope in terms of stemming the wave of zombies or the infection vector.

zharth: I have to maintain hope. As bleak as it looks, the zombies can't win every fight. There's got to be somebody, somewhere, who's figured out a way to survive confidently. There have to be places where the zombies are sparser, maybe even places the zombies can't go. Places where it's also possible to sustain life. If the group keeps searching, they have to find something. The CDC wasn't it, but that doesn't mean nothing is. Of course they could very well die before they ever find it, but I think there's hope out there, somewhere. Not much of it, but enough.

Q: What did you think about Jenner's revelation that zombies do not have any thoughts or memories, that they're just shells driven by instinct?

Scott: I was a bit annoyed. One of the interesting things about zombies as a threat is that they look like humans -- they look like people you knew. You have to contend with not knowing whether those people -- your friends and loved ones -- are still alive in there somewhere, if there's any hope of bringing them back from the brink.

What Jenner did completely destroyed that.

zharth: I guess it was kind of a relief, because I had been thinking of the zombies basically as such, so I would feel guilty to learn that they were more human than I was giving them credit for. Maybe this means Rick won't have to be so courteous towards them. Still, I think it's humane to respect the memory of the living, so I wouldn't condone the kind of overkill that occurred at camp that one time.

Actually, that's interesting. I felt like there were no real answers given by Dr. Jenner's research, but I guess there was. Even if it's confirmation of what I suspected, it's still helpful to have scientific proof. I do think the mechanism is interesting, that whatever is the cause (virus, bacteria, act of god, etc.), it awakens the part of the brain that controls motor functions, but not the parts that control thoughts and memories and, basically, what makes a person more than a walking bag of flesh, which is really what the zombies are.

If humans ever do get over this zombie apocalypse, I bet the research into zombism will be immensely helpful for furthering our understanding of how the brain works, and what makes people people, finding the seat of the "soul", neurologically speaking, and so on. I bet that would be endlessly fascinating. Let's just hope they get the chance (although if they do beat the zombies, that'll probably be the end of the series...).

Q: The run to the CDC was depicted as a one-way trip since the cars were running out of gas; knowing that, what do you expect that the second season holds in store for the group?

zharth: Heh, I wonder if the writers knew on the way out that the CDC wouldn't be a long stop. Gas continues to be a problem. I saw an apocalypse scenario show on television where the mock survivors produced fuel from animal fat. I wonder if it would work by condensing incapacitated zombies. If they're close enough to water, you have to consider that you can drift down a river, or even out to sea, without any fuel. But of course, as long as you keep moving, transportation is going to be a problem. Ideally they would find a relatively safe place to stay, which is what I thought the CDC might turn out to be. But they've got to survive long enough to find it.

Scott: I feel like they'll head out of the city as far as they can, since the city is obviously a death trap... and then they'll have to restart, on foot. I'm a bit confused about why they don't just hunker down and start erecting dirt-and-log fortifications, honestly... so I would like to see one of them have that idea and start doing that in the future.

At some point, they'll have to have encounters with other survivors to increase the tension; our group is sane and borderline stable, but what about other groups? Single people? How will they have dealt with the zombies? This is an important theme for the show: people under unbelievable strain.

I'm looking forward to the next season!

zharth: As am I, but I'm sure you'll have me reading the comics before then. :p

Conclusion: Thanks for joining me, Scott! And thank you for joining us in watching season one of The Walking Dead. Only time will tell what the continuation of the series has in store!

The Collector, by John Fowles

The Collector is a fascinating novel that approaches an age-old horror premise with a unique perspective. F. Clegg is a butterfly collector who, by result of a lottery, suddenly finds himself with more money than he knows what to do with. He's been watching this girl named Miranda, an art student, who fascinates him, but he's socially inept, and has little to offer such a smart and sophisticated girl. Little by little, he talks himself - almost inadvertently - into kidnapping Miranda and locking her up in the cellar of his newly bought home. The majority of the novel details the girl's involuntary stay, from both the perspective of the keeper, as well as the collected.

But what makes this story shine is the characterization of Clegg and Miranda - their opposing personalities, and what is revealed by the way that they each handle the ordeal. Clegg is relatively uneducated. He's smart, but not particularly intelligent. His lottery winnings can't disguise his lower class origin; and though he tries hard to be prim and proper, it comes off as being a stale act, a lifeless mask of sophistication. Miranda, on the other hand, is intelligent and wise beyond her years. She comes from a more affluent background, but is conscious not to take that for granted. She is an artist, a creator, with a passion for life and vitality and the experience of living. She is a beautiful trophy to Clegg, but he is a stuffy dimwit by her standards - a collector, one who would snuff the life out of a beautiful specimen for the dull reward of owning it.

Through Miranda's diary we learn much of her humanity, and her education as an artist - mostly through her deep friendship with an older man who taught her how to be principled but honest. How to be real, yet maintain integrity. She struggles with her captivity, and tries in many ways to come to terms with her fate. On the other side of the locked door we have Clegg, who, in lieu of engaging Miranda, can at best watch her, admire her, and inevitably fall prey to her clever insults. Clegg's social repression is so strong that he wouldn't dare dream of assaulting Miranda - he in fact endeavors to make her captivity as comfortable as possible, using his newfound riches to buy her anything she could ask for. Anything, that is, except the one thing she desires most - her freedom.

But the true horror of the story comes from the gradual realization of what the almost-sympathetic Clegg is capable of. That with seemingly pure intentions he can talk himself into doing such horrible things - like the kidnapping of Miranda - and then rationalize them afterwards. At least a sex-crazed lunatic is honest about what he wants, and knows how to get it. Clegg fumbles awkwardly forward with little idea of his ultimate goal, allowing others to suffer in the meanwhile, without any demonstration of an understanding that his prisoner is an independent agent that deserves freedom from enslavement. He thinks that by treating his prisoner well he avoids guilt for any wrongdoing. He doesn't want Miranda as a means to an end - owning her is the end in itself, like the dead butterflies in his collection.

This is a highly intelligent novel with lots to say beyond its narrow premise. It's about culture and society and class and education and art and life, above all. And it's a riveting read. I felt myself not wanting to put it down, eager to read just another day, just another day, to find out what would happen next. I give it my highest recommendation.

Here is a short excerpt from Miranda's diary, just to give you a taste of what you can expect:

"M. It's despair at the lack of...feeling, of love, of reason in the world. It's despair that anyone can even contemplate the idea of dropping a bomb or ordering that it should be dropped. It's despair that so few of us care. It's despair that there's so much brutality and callousness in the world. It's despair that perfectly normal young men can be made vicious and evil because they've won a lot of money. And then do what you've done to me.
C. I thought you'd get on to that.
M. Well, you're part of it. Everything free and decent in life is being locked away in filthy little cellars by beastly people who don't care." [140-141]

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Walking Dead: Episode 5 (Wildfire)

Spoiler Warning! This post contains spoilers for episode 5 of The Walking Dead.

Episode Synopsis: The camp counts their casualties from the previous night's zombie ambush, and discuss what to do next. Rick suggests a visit to the CDC, but what they find there is little hope and a lot of the dead.

Discussion: Please welcome my friend Scott, who is joining me for a discussion of the episode.

Q: What were some of the highlights of the episode, in your opinion?

zharth: Definitely the scene where Andrea pulled a gun on Rick. That totally surprised me, and really scared me. And also the Wildfire project. When they introduced it, it was so much different than what we'd been seeing that I wondered for a second if it was the same show. And then when the group made it to the entrance to the CDC. You could see that night was falling on the city, and the zombies were closing in, and it was getting really tense. You knew the group was going to get inside - they had to - but I still thought it was a tense scene. I can't wait to see the interaction between them and the sole surviving member of the CDC.

Scott: I think the best moment of the episode was when the group found out that Jim had been bitten; I had been waiting for this kind of thing to happen. It's almost inevitable, given a group in a zombie situation, that a friend will get bitten.

One of the reasons I was looking forward to this is because it represents a slippery slope. They've already used violence twice against group members (they didn't like) who seemed to threaten the group, and sort of used violence against someone they did like who seemed like he MIGHT threaten the group, and here, they're presented with a friend who WILL be a threat to the group. How will they handle it? How do they feel about it?

It's a really slippery slope and could lead to a "kill all zombies at all costs" or "protect the group at all costs" mentality, which is where Shane seems to be right now... and he's not exactly a perfect human being at the moment, considering how he seems to be on the verge of giving in to all of his animal urges!

Q: Do you think it was irresponsible for Andrea to wait until Amy reawakened as a zombie before "neutralizing" her?

zharth: I think it's obvious that the entire rest of the group thought it was an unnecessary risk, and I also think it's obvious that Andrea's fragile emotional state was creating something of an exceptional situation. I was really shocked when she pulled the gun on Rick. Although Rick, as usual, handled that situation admirably.

I think Andrea just wanted to tell Amy her feelings while she was in a conscious - if not entirely lucid - state, and that's something that I think most of us can sympathize with. We often take our feelings for granted, but then when a loved one dies, we realize that it's too late to say all the things we wanted to say, and we yearn for a second chance. A zombie resurrection is a twisted - but clever - opportunity for that second chance.

Though I still think this was a case of idealistic emotionalism getting in the way of the survivors' safety. Andrea did appear to have the situation completely under control, and it was clear how strongly she felt, so I'm willing to forgive her, but I still don't think it was a good idea. Even coming back as a zombie, it's just not the same person anymore.

Scott: I don't think it was irresponsible, but I don't think it was an especially wise decision, either. But given the situation -- she's lost her only family member at the end of the world -- it's understandable. These aren't the zombies of 28 Days Later, given super-strength and -speed by a viral Rage; they're just shambling hunks of flesh that can win through numbers.

Andrea dealt with it well enough.

Q: Recall that tense moment when Shane had Rick in the sights of his gun out in the woods. Firstly, do you think his motivation there was pure instinct, or was he fully conscious of what he was doing? Either way, do you think he is capable of crossing the line and actually doing something to hurt Rick?

zharth: I'd like to think that he hadn't premeditatedly decided to aim at Rick, and his response when Dale came up on him seems to suggest that he was taken by the moment. Even so, that was a frightening moment. At that point it became startlingly clear to me just how fragile these survivors' lives are. But particularly Rick - seemingly invincible, always knows exactly the right thing to do. The thought that he could be killed by something as simple as a single gunshot. It was an intensely vulnerable moment.

I really hope Shane doesn't do anything to screw Rick over. I understand his feelings of resentment, and like Scott has said, he does seem to be largely motivated by an alpha-male instinct. I don't think he could live with hurting Rick, and I don't think it's something he'd allow himself to do with a cool head - but I fear that one of these times, the moment might take him, and he may end up doing something he'll deeply regret. Only time will tell.

Scott: I don't think it was either; I don't want to say it was instinct, but it was a more primal urge in him. I keep referencing this with respect to Shane, but it feels like Shane is really giving in to his Freudian id more and more as time goes by. He's just got all of this stress piled up on him and then there's someone challenging his alpha-male leadership position in just about every way possible.

The animal-like look in his eyes and the way he was grinning at Dale were very worrying.

Q: Assume that, like Jim, you were certain that you had been infected, and had less than 24 hours before becoming a zombie. Given the opportunity, would you take your own life to spare yourself the agony, or would you want to let the transformation happen, and see what it's like to become a zombie?

zharth: First, I want to say that I was impressed with the calmness of that scene, after Jim had been left alone by the roadside, to rest against a tree, and stare up at the sky. Beautiful. But you could still partake of that scene and then blow your brains out in order to avoid submitting to a zombie afterlife. I wonder what religious people would think about it all, since suicide is supposed to be a sin. Would it be "God's way" to let the transformation happen, "God's will" for you to suffer in the afterlife as the walking dead? A purging process? A punishment for your worldly sins?

Regardless, religious opinions wouldn't affect my decision. I'll admit there's a certain curiosity about what it's like to be a zombie - you only live twice, why not try it? But to be honest, judging solely from what I've seen as an outside observer, it doesn't appear to be a very pleasant existence. And anyway, zombies don't seem to have much cognitive functioning, so it can't be a terribly interesting experience.

Still though, it takes a firm hand to take one's own life, and that's one of those things I never want to be in a position to have to do. Could I go through with it if I thought it was highly preferable to the alternative (living as a dead man)? I don't know. It's the kind of thing I'd rather not think about it. I suppose there is a possibility I could chicken out. It'd be nice to know that I'd be capable during any point of the transformation to change my mind about going through with it, if it gets too painful or whatnot, but I guess that's not a guarantee. Gotta take your chance while you've got it. I'm not good at making quick decisions, though.

Scott: I'd want to die.

Q: Jim seemed to have prophetic visions when he was digging graves before the attack; later, when he was talking to Rick, he was hallucinating again. Do you think that Jim somehow "saw" a future where the group would be fleeing by boat?

Scott: I want to write it all off as a fever dream, due to my skepticism... but when he dug those graves, I was all ready for the show to set him up as a mystical prophet; one of those characters where you didn't know if everything was a coincidence or if they were really seeing the future.

I'm glad that didn't happen, though we'll have to see if any boats come out...

zharth: Tough question. I don't really believe in prophetic visions, so it's easy for me to write them off, but who knows, maybe the world of The Walking Dead is a world where prophecy can be real. He does seem to be the type, and the whole natural death thing has almost a religious quality to it. So it's definitely possible. I guess we'll find out.

It would be interesting. They seem pretty convinced that there's no escaping the zombie apocalypse. But even if it's true that it's a worldwide disaster, I wonder what it's like elsewhere in the world - might there be places safer than others? I think it was Tooth & Nail, another post-apocalyptic story (though not zombie-related), that put forth the proposition that the colder climates were better suited for survival, by avoiding the warmer locales where people instinctively flock to. The harsher the environment, the bigger difference having the intelligence of a lucid human being becomes, when it comes to staying alive. Though, the dead have some advantages of their own. I bet there's not a lot of zombies on the sea; then again, there's not a lot of anything on the sea.

Q: What did you think when the sample was burnt up in the Wildfire protocol? What do you see as being the implications of losing the "freshest" sample?

Scott: When that sample was lost and the researcher was ranting about losing his freshest sample, the first thing I thought is that they're going to have to go back to where they left Jim and kill their zombie friend for a brand-new sample.

That situation presents a number of interesting dilemmas, which this show seems to be doing very well. What if Jim isn't a zombie yet? What if he is? Do they kill him, like some random geek? Do they put him out of his misery respectfully? Will they want to take his sample in hopes of finding a cure?

One thing the people have avoided is really trying to pin down the relationship between humans and zombies. Are they The Enemy and only The Enemy, or are they human beings? There are definitely mixed opinions on that front.

zharth: That was a good scene. I love when he jumped against the door when the sample was being purged. That's when I realized that something really bad had just happened. On the other hand, he said that he hadn't made any progress yet, so I wonder just how important that sample was. Then again, he could have just been on the verge of a discovery - or, considering that the sample was "fresh", had only recently been able to get a hold of one of its kind.

I think it's pretty obvious that some kind of sacrifice is going to have to be made in order for him to get another "fresh" sample. I was thinking, it's too bad they left Jim behind, because he might have been the perfect contender. Someone who's infected, but still has living tissue. Reminds me of Pathologic. It's unfortunate if someone's going to have to make a sacrifice - but you have to weigh one person's life against the possibility of finding some kind of a cure. They could just wait around, though, it seems to only be a matter of time before someone gets infected. Then again, having control over the experiment could drastically reduce the casualties and maximize the effectiveness of the sample. I suspect it's going to be exciting, whatever happens.

Conclusion: Thanks for joining me, Scott! Stay tuned for our discussion of the season finale of The Walking Dead!