Monday, September 28, 2015

LINKS: "Not KPRadio" Podcast and Stasis is FREE ON KINDLE!

For once, Monday is a good day.

That's right - because two great things are happening at once: Daniel Thompson has released a podcast featuring yours truly, and of course, STASIS is currently FREE ON KINDLE!

Feast your eyes, folks, on this screenshot:

Isn't it beautiful?  Here's where you can get some of the goodness.

First, check out our thirty minutes of awesomeness by clicking on this link to Soundcloud: "The Pixar Method, Braintrusts, and I'M FIRED?! with Jake Buller"

Next, check out the Amazon page for STASIS to download a free copy.  This free promotion starts today and goes through the end of September, this Wednesday.  Got it?  Good.  Click HERE to head over to Amazon!

If you've already listened to the podcast or read my anthology, there is more you can do to help!  Both the podcast and my book have places where you can review them.  If you have a bit of time, help a brothah out and write a quick review!

Thanks, guys - and ENJOY!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Stasis is going to be FREE ON KINDLE - plus, a radio interview!

Hey there, ladies and gentlemen!  It's always wonderful to read a blog post with the word "free" in the title - and aye, you read it correctly.  STASIS - my collection of Will Vullerman stories - is going to be FREE ON KINDLE starting on Monday!

It's part of a promotion I'm doing for a radio show.  I've posted about this show previously, if you recall, in reviewing the first episode.  And the rumors are true - I'm being hosted on Daniel Thompson's lovely podcast (which I wholeheartedly recommend, by the way) and we're going to be talking about Pixar and the beauty of simple stories.

It's going to be a fantastic show.  I'm in my element, and Daniel is a great host, so it's going to be both entertaining and - I hope - informative for you as a writer.

I'll post a link to the episode AND to the Amazon page of Stasis tomorrow - so check back then!  I can't wait.

Monday, August 17, 2015

"The Ultimate Canadian Love Story" and the new voices in writing advice (literally)

If you think YOU have a good high concept, you should see the one about moose that are slowly evolving into Canadians. (Meese?  Mooses?)

Yes, this is actually a legit thing, although it depends on how you define legit.  Kingdom Pen Radio is about to debut with a bang - several bangs, actually.  Radio host Daniel Thompson - a.k.a. Leinad O'Neil - in conjunction with Kingdom Pen has started a podcast series hitting a wide range of writing-related topics.

And, apparently, a lot of other random things.

Here's my informal review of the show's first episode:

The thirty-minute debut is packed full, with admirable studio quality considering that it is a startup podcast series. To approach it from an entirely technical perspective, the editing was excellent; the background music occasionally hindered rather than enhanced the dialogue, but it was a minor point.

The show's style was characteristic Daniel; confusing and hilarious at the same time, it wandered but also hit a few points.  The debut feature was one of the Writers Who Don't Do Anything, a Canadian chap by the name of Ezra Wilkinson.  While this was a basic, tone-setting episode - there isn't much advisory substance to it - it did hit some fundamentals about writing and had at least one serious moment, as well as a very interesting discussion about the Hunger Games.

Where it really shone was in being absolutely ridiculous.  I won't spoil the beats, but the show entertained like a drunk Scottish brawler in a poetry contest.  There were a few moments of golden creative comedy - the evolution of "Canadia" being one of them - and those pretty much carried the whole episode.

This isn't a podcast to stop your life for.  But if you have a few spare moments and have a tolerable resistance to radioactive weirdness, this is absolutely worth checking out.

Oh, and did I mention that these episodes often feature free stuff?

Yeah, that's right.  Free stuff.

There's a lot of craziness ahead, including podcasts with actual authors, such as Kerry Nietz and Bill Myers.  Yes, you read that correctly.

And there is a rumor that I might be a guest on one of these podcasts.  I can neither confirm nor deny. I can also neither confirm nor deny that it may feature some free stuff.

Here's what I can confirm: this podcast series is going to be a lot of fun.  Click HERE to check out the home page of Kingdom Pen Radio!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Bite-Size Reviews: Ant-Man, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and More

It's summer, which means that all of the big-budget flicks are dropping at once.

But unfortunately, I don't have a big budget, which means I've only seen one live-action movie in theaters since arriving back in the States.  I have, however, explored more stories than those that can be found in the movie theater.

Before I go on, let's start with the first of the lineup:


Four and a half stars.

One sentence: In an origin story reminiscent of Marvel's Phase One, Ant-Man embraces the superhero tropes - but plays on them too, creating a very fun and surprisingly good blockbuster.

Yes, Ant-Man is something of a standard comic book movie.  It's about a man searching within himself to become a superhero, it deals with his daughter as his motivation, and the world is in danger (again.)

But where Ant-Man really shines is in twisting these tropes, even if just slightly.  Much of the movie works as a satire on the superhero genre.  Paul Rudd wreaks havoc as the Ant-Man, only to have the camera pull out and show us just how small-scale the conflict is, to great comedic effect. (Speaking of comedy, this is possibly the funniest movie Marvel has made.  The humor is amazing.)  Paul Rudd himself plays a quirkier, more down-to-earth superhero who has no delusions of grandeur.  His wants are remarkably simple.

And simple is a good way to describe this movie.  It is not complex, it is not bright and flashy.  It approaches the subject with simplicity and more than a little wit, creating a movie that is not exactly amazing, but ends up being a whole lot of fun.


Four stars.

One sentence: Though the animation style is jarring at first, it proves suitable for a movie that, though plagued with inconsistent narrative, also feels alive with Celtic magic.

The Secret of Kells is an utterly unique animated movie, made with a particular style of 2D animation that I've never seen before.  Indeed, the style was at first a drawback, and one of the reasons I had never watched it before. 

Thea actual story drew from Irish legends and a bit of history to create their world, making it rich and full of magic.  The bright parts were full of wonder; the darkness, legitimately scary.  It is one of those stories that tells more with the eyes than it does the ears; the dialogue does not carry the movie, but instead the art and the soundtrack bear it onward. This became something of a problem; the narrative is inconsistent and lacks a clear focus and clear story beats, which makes it drag in places.  

Even so, the imagination present in the film was enthralling, and in several places it was made manifest most by the absolutely stunning - and even haunting - soundtrack.  In the end, for all its flaws, it left me with a feeling that I had just watched something really and truly beautiful.


Five stars.

(The following review is my initial reaction to this show.  I intend to write a much longer post later on.)

One sentence: Avatar: The Last Airbender succeeds in telling a story that feels timeless and ancient, a marriage of Eastern mythology to Western storytelling—and does so in three flawlessly constructed seasons that build up to a truly epic finale.

Reading that sentence might give you the wrong impression, however.  It is well and truly intense.  And it is chock full of emotion and great storytelling.

But it is also light.  It is, in fact, a TV show "for kids," in the most Pixarian sense of the phrase.  It is hilarious, at times flippant, and sometimes has little hints of the melodrama of Disney Channel.

That is, however, part of the genius of this TV show: an easily accessible and humorous animation that is not only clever and inventive, but meaningful and subtle.  It draws from Eastern mythology, among other sources, to maintain a timelessness, but also transcends it to become something that is not Eastern, but not Western either.  And perhaps the greatest achievement of this show is in its restraint: the scope is large, but not too large to lose sight of the main plot.

From the very first episode, the very last episode is in mind.  It does not meander, in the strictest sense of the word; even where it wanders, it often involves elements of the story that will come up later.  It is one story made up of over sixty individual episodes, an achievement I have not seen topped anywhere.  And that makes it something truly special.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Review: Inside Out (2015)

Inside Out 

Inside Out follows the struggles of a little girl named Riley and the voices inside her head: Anger, Disgust, Fear, Sadness, and Joy. 

Rating: five stars.

In a nutshell: Inside Out is perhaps the most adult of all of Pixar's family movies, tackling hard questions about moving on and growing up; yet it emerges with a theme that is both true and startlingly resonant, making it one of the most relevant and emotionally touching movies Pixar has ever made.  

In full:

I had unrealistically high expectations for this movie.  Besides my unwavering faith in Pixar, Inside Out was the brainchild of my favorite director, Pete Docter, who was also the director of Monsters, Inc. and Up.  And when the reviews came out, critic after critic praised it as being inventive and clever and emotional.  

So when opening weekend came, I came expecting a tear-jerker and a well-crafted story.  I got exactly what I expected, but not the way I expected it.

Inside Out was both bigger and smaller than what I had envisioned.  The scope of the world inside Riley's head was stunning, both visually and conceptually.  The characters literally glowed.  Yet through the whole film, it never lost its smaller focus: on Riley's internal struggle, and how that played out in her head.

Part of what made Inside Out so complex is that it really had two main characters that were the same main character: Riley and Riley's Joy.  And as Joy gets lost and has to find her way back to "Head"quarters, real-world Riley begins to lose herself as well.

It works so well because it can be seen on multiple levels. On a purely superficial level, it's a standard "I'm lost and I have to make my way back home but learn something along the way" type story.  It's simple, it's colorful, and it has enough jokes along the way to keep people entertained.  (Side note: Inside Out is one of Pixar's funniest movies, especially for older people.  There are so many clever jokes.)

But there are several deeper levels below that; it's a story of how you lose your Joy, what Sadness really means, and what happens when you begin to lose yourself and the core of what makes you who you are.  It is almost endlessly complex in that way, because the movie is filled with unobtrusive revelations, ready to be seen the moment you look for them.

In many ways, it is also not a typical Pixar film.  Although they have never shied away from darker story-lines, Inside Out is perhaps their darkest movie.  The "real world" is painted in monotone shades, and Riley deals with moving away from her only home, losing her friends, and other things.  That only serves to make the ending brighter and more resonant, however, creating something that is both bittersweet and beautiful.

That is not to say that it is without flaw.  Because of the vastness of Docter's vision of the mind, I expected to see more of it, but I didn't.  Much of the middle felt a little rushed, like it was missing just one story beat, one small breather, five minutes of footage to even out the racing plot.

But even this turned into a strength: the last third of Inside Out felt more like a thriller than an animated movie, not because it was full of action, but because I became so invested in the characters that I had to see what happened next.  The emotional suspense drew me along tightly; if Inside Out had been a book, I would have been blazing through the pages.

Then it came to the end, and all of the frenzied emotional tension screeched to a halt in the face of one defining moment, the very core of the story.  What I found there made Inside Out the first movie to make me cry.

And in order to discuss this properly, I'm going to use spoilers.  Go further at your own expense; I'll mark below when the spoilers end.


At the climax of the movie, Joy realizes that Sadness is a necessary part of Riley, that Riley can't be happy all of the time.  As a result of Riley's move to San Francisco, she began to lose who she was.  Each "island" of her personality fell apart with Anger and Fear and Disgust at the helm, until she became numb to her emotional destruction.  She became in danger of not being able to feel at all.

Only when Sadness became a necessary part of her was she able to feel again.  When she was able to look back on her joyful memories with both sadness and joy, she began to heal.

And this climaxed when she came back to her parents after nearly running away, and she began to cry.  She couldn't be joyful all of the time.  And it hurt so much for her to be away from the place she called home.

But that moment of sadness also became a moment of joy, because her family rallied around her.  It becomes one of the longest frames of the film: the three of them kneeling on the kitchen floor, hugging one another.  A new core memory was made at that moment, and we are not told what it is or what it is made of; it simply shines both yellow and blue - Joy and Sadness - and we instinctively understand.  Life is not compartmentalized.  Sometimes to have Joy, you must have Sadness. Sometimes they are mixed.

And as a missionary kid - as someone who has recently moved from their home in Africa - I felt this keenly.  I felt that my sorrow was okay, necessary, and healing.  Sometimes sadness comes before joy.

And that was the one thing that made me cry.  Because I miss joy.  I miss home.  To feel that way is necessary, and bittersweet, and beautiful.


That evening, I left the movie theater silently.  I laid on my uncle's couch that night, staring at the ceiling, processing what I had just seen.  It stuck with me, sneaking into my thoughts when I wasn't expecting it, like all good stories do.

The truth does that to you.  And I think that is what Inside Out does best: it tells the truth, simply and beautifully.  It doesn't downplay sadness, but it also doesn't downplay joy.

I had minor quibbles with the movie; I had several things that didn't quite satisfy me.  In the face of the titanic heart of the story, however, it all melts away.

All of my critiques will down to long-term memory, to languish there and fade.  But the great core memory of Inside Out is what sticks with me: that beautiful, bittersweet frame at the end, the picture that sums up the whole thing.

And it made me cry.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Bite-Sized Reviews: Cinderella, Interstellar, and More

International flights are lovely places to catch up with recent movie releases, and I found myself watching a few thought-provoking flicks while traveling back to the States this weekend.

Since I don't have the time (or motivation) to write long reviews, I'm going to give a few paragraphs per movie to detail my bite-sized opinions on some recent blockbusters.  Check it out:


Four stars.

One sentence: Ambitious, ambiguous, and messy—it is thought-provoking but the structure is all over the place, and the themes leave some to be desired.

Christopher Nolan is perhaps one of the most ambitious and thought-provoking filmmakers alive, and Interstellar proves to be worthy of his imagination.  But the structure of Interstellar was sorely lacking, having little pacing consistency (jumping from slow-mo to stress-mode in moments) and leaving large portions of interesting footage that was not necessary footage, dragging the movie on...and on...and on.

For all that, it still managed to be a thrill ride, part Inception and part Apollo 13. It accomplished something that few movies do: it gave me genuine doubt that the story would resolve in a satisfying manner, and whether the characters would make it out alive.  And the alien planet scenes were pure and haunting imagination.

I won't spoil the ending for you, but the movie wrapped up making me feel vaguely dissatisfied.  The last thirty minutes of the film stretched my belief rather than my mind, and regardless of whether the physics work out or not, it felt too convenient.  Nolan's themes, too, felt like too many questions with too few answers—and the answers that could be found felt shallow.

Interstellar, however, is ultimately thought-provoking and even haunting.  Regardless of its flaws, it is still a "deep movie," and that makes it worth the ride—and worth a watch.


Four stars.

One sentence: Cinderella is a fairy-tale in the best, most magical sense of the word—something heavy-laden in earnest wonder, even if it stumbles once or twice along the way.

I did not expect to like Cinderella.  I had heard both good things and (relatively) bad things about it, so I went in with an open mind.

And yes, it suffered from a few Disney moments.  The dialogue was occasionally stiff and overwrought (which is more a symptom of the storytelling style than anything,) several places were dry with princess movie cliches, and occasionally it stayed true to the original to the detriment of the script.

But in the context of the story, all that was fairly minor in the face of the movie's one great strength: earnest storytelling.  Lily James plays the titular character with quiet determination and real, honest kindness.  The movie is really earnest and tries to find real beauty without being cliche or cynical.  In a word, it was wholesome.

And wholesomeness is what makes it really good.  The lavish staging and costumes make it visually stunning—the acting is all great, with Cate Blanchett especially standing out by being so spectacularly sinister.  The tweaks to the original story (which I won't spoil) made it much, much stronger.  And the theme—have courage, be kind—is both simple and effective.  The movie does not wring it out or tack it on; it is simply an integral part of the movie, as it should be, with a few startling moments of surprising eloquence.

Yes, Disney princess movies might not be your cup of tea.  But you may find yourself surprised at how good Cinderella actually is.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Three stars.

One sentence: Miles better than The Desolation of Smaug and nearly comparable to An Unexpected Journey, I just hold one thing against it: it cannot hold a candle to the original book or to the trilogy that follows it.

Let's be honest, here.  After the train wreck that was The Desolation of Smaug, I was expecting Battle to be another installment of CGI: The Movie.  So when I finally watched it, I was pleasantly surprised.  The pacing was smooth, and instead of trying to make another Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson opted to film a halfway decent story.  Many of the battle scenes were too long, but the urgency behind them was more like Jackson's Lord of the Rings style, moving the plot along rather than stagnating it.

Unlike Smaug, Battle had an emotional core and a theme: Thorin's internal struggle between his honor and his greed.  But that sword cuts both ways: The Hobbit was no longer about the hobbit.  If there was any main character in Battle, it was Thorin.  Bilbo, still being well-played by the excellent Martin Freeman, would disappear for whole scenes before popping up later on.

But ultimately, as "pretty okay" as Battle was, it makes me ashamed to think that Peter Jackson compromised the emotional and storytelling achievement found in Lord of the Rings.  There is just no comparison.  And in the end, The Battle of Five Armies became just another big-budget action flick: not bad, but not nearly as good as it should have been.


What about you?  What did you think of these movies?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

How a Blog Grows Up: Part I

Many seasons ago, when Christian speculative fiction was just beginning to gain traction and the young acolytes of Bryan Davis, Donita K. Paul, and Wayne Thomas Batson were many, a teenager started a blog.

Over the course of the next five years, he alternated between gushing about his favorite books and lecturing importantly on how writing works. (It is questionable how much he actually knew about the writing process, but it's all about how confidently you speak!) Slowly, the blog evolved. The old, narrow, yellow blog was replaced by a wider white one, with a yellowed book in the background. The number of readers grew (inexplicably,) and gradually the teenager's obsessive love of comments declined.

As the years went by, his subject of his blog wandered in a generally content universe of almost anything having to do with writing. And as the teenager began to grow up, moving to West Africa, the number of posts waned; but some people still (inexplicably) found it entertaining and continued to read. His posts grew longer, more thoughtful; the book reviews were almost books in themselves.

And now, here we are. The teenager is an old teenager. The blog is now mostly white, with an old header and funny sidebars. If you sniff really carefully, you can detect a lingering fear that it might be three months till the next post. 

There is also a breeze in the air, because it is the beginning of the end. Or the end of the beginning. The time grows near when Teenage Writer must grow up.

But it's a good thing, I promise. It's less of a death as it is a new life. Like I said in my last post, the name and place is going to change, but the essence will remain. With that, I'm going to write a few posts detailing how I plan on changing things up. It's not 100% clear yet (and it may take some wandering to get definite ideas for everything) but I hope that these posts will make it clearer.

This first post has to do with something that has, from the beginning, been an essential part of Teenage Writer: reviews. I've always liked analyzing things. (My personality type is INTP, if you want to know; the detached analyst.) So reviews always came easily to me—short reviews, not so much.

And as I've grown older, I've discovered a new taste for stories of all mediums. Film criticism is something I've been picking up over time, and studying the box office has become a hugely enjoyable hobby. (Let's not even get into animation. I could write for hours.)  So with that in mind, here is what I'm thinking about how my reviews will change.

1. I'll include multiple mediums—primarily movies, books, and TV shows.

Good stories can come from anywhere, to paraphrase a certain Pixar movie. I used to digest stories almost entirely through reading, but I've discovered a lot of incredible stories (and storytellers) in the last two or three years, mostly through watching movies and TV shows. Old and new.

So whenever I discover a story I really like (or dislike,) I'll do my best to write a relevant review, so I can share it with you guys. Good stories deserve to be talked about—and it's always best to warn people about the bad ones.

2. I'm converting to a five-star system.

I dearly love my old, clunky, decimal-ridden ten-point system. But using five stars is simpler and more universal. So at the beginning of each review, I'll give a rating based on the five-star system. (And I'm only going down to .5 when it comes to decimals, I promise.)

3. Thumbnail reactions. 

Also at the beginning of each review, I'll summarize it in a brief paragraph. It'll make it easier for people to tell whether or not they will want to read the whole review. It's also really fun to come up with clever thumbnails. Just sayin'.

4. Comparisons and pundit chat. 

I like being a pundit; it's entertaining. So where possible, I want to compare books and movies and shows to other stories of the same type—and analyze where the genres and industries are going. (In some cases, I want to write pundit posts without any review at all. I have one such post coming up soon that I think you'll really enjoy.)

Specifically, with movies, I'll probably talk box office—that eerie realm where $30 million dollars in three days makes a movie a certified flop. (See: Tomorrowland.)

To be completely honest with you, it's not because I think you'll care about how many millions of dollars a movie is going to make. It's because it's super fun to write about, yo.

So those are some of the ways my reviews will change. As for what I'll be reviewing, well, I have several books up my sleeve. And because I am so flipping excited for Pete Docter's Inside Out, Pixar's June release, I'll probably write a review shortly after it comes out. I plan on seeing it opening weekend.

(In case you wanted to know, it currently has 19 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and they're all glowing. It sits at a rapturous 100%—it's too early to tell if it'll stay there, but the last Pixar movie to hit 100% was Toy Story 2. Gah!)

Till next time!


Friday, May 15, 2015

Writing, College, Change, and Selling My Soul to the Devil

(I'll explain that title, I promise.)

I've been silent on this blog for several months now, and I feel that I owe you a bit of an explanation: I'm soaking up my last few weeks in West Africa.

Yes, you did read that correctly—the four awful letters of "last."  Come June, I'll be leaving Liberia and venturing out on my own into the great uncivilized wilderness of America's higher education system.  The college in question is Abilene Christian University, a school in Abilene Texas.  While I'm not fond of Texas, it's a wonderful college.

What does this mean for my writing and my blog, you ask?  (Okay, maybe you're not asking that.  But I'm going to tell you anyway.)

Regardless of what happens, I'm going to keep writing.  The going has been slow, admittedly; my current project has been languishing at nine thousand words since last November, and the outline is hardly faring better.

However, I have big hopes for what I can accomplish this summer and this fall.

My fantasy epic, A Swiftly Moving River, is still tugging on my heart.  A third draft is in order, as soon as I can get to it.  It's one of the most important stories I've ever written, and I'm determined to beat it into shape.

My current writing project is something I'm really excited about.  Chromeheads, a science fantasy time travel murder mystery, recently won Second Place at Kingdom Pen's "Begin Your Novel" contest.  I've got something really, really cool on my hands, and I can't wait to dive into it in earnest.  (The last time I worked on it was a ten thousand word vomit during the last week of NaNoWriMo.)  Plus, I have motivation: I need to have it at least partially done for this year's OYAN Summer Workshop.

And finally, I have a memoir I wrote last November.  I honestly don't know what to do with it.  It's forty thousand messy words, an outpouring of my heart, an examination of how Liberia's Ebola outbreak affected me, as a missionary kid.  It's bittersweet and raw.  It desperately needs a revision.  But after that?  I have no idea.

Moving on from writing—I'm also hoping to get things done with this blog.  It's in need of some upkeep; I used to average several posts a week, and now, I'm lucky if I write one post a month.

Some of it is uncertainty on where to take this blog.  Back when I was young and—let's face it—a bit of a know-it-all, I wrote authoritatively about writing, giving tips, tricks, and tools of the trade.  But the older I get, the less I feel like I really know about writing.  How authoritatively can I write, when I'm struggling to patch holes in my novel that should have been fixed two years ago?

I'm a better writer than I was two years ago, but I'm a humbler teacher.  I know that I know less than I thought I knew, if that makes sense.

The core of what I want to do is the same: to have this blog be a place where we can come learn together through the bumps I've found on my own writing path.  And, of course, so I can chat with you guys about my writing projects, and your own.

But I think that's going to take some change.  I'm not going to be a "Teenage Writer" much longer. And, while I want to keep the informal feel of this blog, I also want to smooth over the rougher edges that come with being an amateur blogger.

So my idea is to begin to set up a new site, with an actual domain.  I'm not sure when this will happen, honestly, but it's buried somewhere on my to-do list.  I'll keep you posted; this blog won't just disappear!  And I'll try to keep it updated in the meantime.

Finally, a little bit of round-up.  I may be offering editing and critiquing services in the near future, so keep your eyes peeled.  I'll post as soon as I know for sure.  In the meantime, I've added a poll on the sidebar about it—would you take advantage of such services if I offered them at a reasonable price?  (And it's totally okay if you say no.  Writing is hardly lucrative work, and most of us are dead broke.)

One last thing.  I'm probably going to put up one or two discreet advertisements.  I apologize for selling my soul to the devil.

Till next time, guys.  I'd love to hear your thoughts on these changes; leave a comment or shoot me an email.  Adieu!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

An Update on Life, and Being Back in Liberia

Hey, all!  My blog has been rather silent lately, but I return to bring you news

I've recently started chronicling my experiences being back in Liberia (we arrived back on the 20th of this month).  The trick is that it better fit my other, more nonfiction-focused blog, Reflecting the Mirror.

So I'll just dangle that morsel over your head—if you're interested, click on the link below.  It's going to be a series of posts, so if you want to stay updated, feel free to follow the blog!

Life at the Front, Part I

Don't worry, I'll be back soon—partly to fill you in on what's been going on, and partly to give some information on my current project.

See you then!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Buller Scholarship Video


I return to this blog once again on the eve of a great battle.  By that, I mean internet advertising.  Pretty exciting, huh?

Okay, not really.  But this is an extremely good cause.  Some time ago, my lovely and talented sister made a video for a full-tuition scholarship at Abilene Christian University.  It's about some of her experiences and service from our time in Liberia.  (Naturally, it's kind of a big deal, since college is ridiculously expensive.)

Last week, we learned that she made it to the finalists - the top ten videos!  (I knew she would.  And that she would probably win.)  However, she does need some help to get further in the contest.

In order to advance, she needs to get oodles of votes on her video.  While I don't think that's the best way to choose the "best video" - I mean, obviously hers is it - it IS very crucial.  This only goes on till tomorrow night.

With that in mind, I humbly and fervently ask you if you would take a few moments to vote for her video.  (And if you try to pass it over...well, just think what YOU would do if you had thousands of dollars in scholarships on the line! Hmm?)

So here's what you do.  Three things count as votes: voting for the video on the ACU site, liking it on YouTube, and resharing it - WITH the YouTube reshare button.

Here's the link. Her video is the one on the top right - "Alexandria Buller".  Also, enjoy just how amazing the video is and take some time to watch it.  Pretty awesome, huh?

Sorry for the spam, but it's not really spam.  You can just take this as a long and passionate [free verse] poem in honor of my talented sister.

Thanks, guys!  Till next time.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Why "How To Train Your Dragon 2" Beats "The LEGO Movie"

Yesterday, How To Train Your Dragon 2 won Best Animated Feature at the Golden Globes.  Which is a pretty big deal, considering that it's a sequel (the only sequel to win Best Animated Feature was the stupendous Toy Story 3), and that DreamWorks Animation has never won a Golden Globe before. Hardly had the award been given when a number of people began complaining that The LEGO Movie should have won.

And y'know, people will complain.  It happens every day.  But this time, the complaints have teeth; judging from the hype around the Oscar nominations alone, The LEGO Movie was a clear favorite.  It had an innovative animation style, a surprising originality, more laughs-per-minute than any other animated movie in recent history, and an ending that actually made you think, rocketing a really good Warner Bros. cartoon into the realm where the really good stories live.

But despite everything going for The LEGO Movie, I agree 100% with giving the Golden Globe to Dragon 2, and I'm cheering it on to scoop Best Animated Feature at the Oscars.  Why?  Well, if you guessed that I'm about to tell you, you're right.  Let me lay it out for you.

1. How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a sequel that didn't flop.

That in itself is an achievement.  So many movies go on to make sequels that are second-rate - while animated sequels seem more likely to do well than their live-action counterparts, DreamWorks' recent disaster with Penguins of Madagascar comes to mind.  How To Train Your Dragon 2, in contrast, demonstrated even more emotional depth than the original, scoring very well in the storytelling department. The only other animated films to accomplish this, in my opinion, were the Toy Story sequels.

The box office shows the same result.  Even despite the slightly disappointing domestic run (it got $177 million, $40 million less than the first movie), it ended up making up for it by totaling over $618 million worldwide.  (The first movie ended just below $500 million.)

2. How To Train Your Dragon 2's masterful animation.

Obviously, the animation was excellent; but there were several technological innovations introduced in animating How To Train Your Dragon 2 that hadn't been seen before, such as "scalable multi-core processing" that lets animators see their work in real time, and new programs that allowed DreamWorks to animate with more subtlety and detail.

Does it beat out The LEGO Movie's imitation stop-motion and stunning work with rendering realistic LEGOs?  Not really.  But Dragon 2 is not without its own innovations.

3.  How To Train Your Dragon 2 has incredible storytelling.

This is by far the main thrust of my argument, so let me unpack it a little bit more.

The emotional story of Dragon 2 comes in two main segments, which cross over one another often throughout the movie: first, Hiccup growing older and maturing, and second, Valka, and all the emotions she brings out in both her son and her husband.

Both resonate immensely.  Hiccup's struggle to cope with the expectations of his father - even if they're more reasonable than in the first movie - and his journey of maturity are things that reach out especially to the young adult audiences.  And the tremendous emotional turmoil that comes about when Hiccup - and Stoick - discover that Valka is alive is the high point of the whole story.

For me, it comes down to two back-to-back scenes in the middle of the movie.  First is when Stoick sees Valka for the first time.  He advances, and she begins to back up, her voice growing more and more pitched as she struggles to defend herself, while he never says a word.

And finally, he says, "You're just as beautiful as the day I lost you." It's unexpected, it's poignant, and those ten words express more character development than is contained in the whole of Penguins of Madagascar.  It shows how Stoick has changed, as his relationship with his son has changed.  The original Stoick would have argued back - but the new Stoick simply murmurs a single, beautiful sentence.

This leads into the second song of the movie (the first being Jonsi's "Where No One Goes"): "For the Dancing and the Dreaming".  It's about them falling in love again - and that whole emotional journey is summed up in a single song.  Watch the characters as they move through the scene - how their expressions change, how their singing changes.  Stoick sings strongly, tapers off, and Valka hesitantly begins singing along.  And Hiccup's eyes shine as he sees who they are, stripped of the emotional baggage.  It's subtle, moving, and the song itself is beautiful.

In my opinion, those two scenes are some of the most emotionally mature and powerful scenes in recent animation, easily rivaling Pixar in depth.  Shoot, they're better than most of the live action movies that come out nowadays, regardless of genre.

I could go on.  Hiccup and Astrid's first scene is wonderful, and I could rave about the incredible and heartbreaking twists that occur closer to the end of the second act.  (For instance, the tune of "For the Dancing and the Dreaming" is played throughout the "Stoick's Ship" scene - it kills me every time I listen to it.  Gah.)  But I think you get the picture.

Granted, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is not without flaws.  It suffers from several issues in the last third, and a painful voice-over at the end that sounds like it should be in the TV show, not the movie.  Still, I don't think it comes close to eclipsing the fantastic storytelling of the rest of the film.

The LEGO Movie has its own depth and character development.  There are several scenes that develop Emmet and Wyldstyle in ways not often seen in animation, and the closing scenes are pure storytelling brilliance, bringing everything to an emotional head and a satisfying resolution.  But as good as it was, it was not nearly as mature or emotional as How To Train Your Dragon 2.

I'd gladly welcome more movies like either one of these two.  Both are excellent, and both deserve recognition.  But in my honest opinion, all of the innovative animation and deep endings in the world can't touch the storytelling depth of How To Train Your Dragon 2.

(Post Scriptum: this post is a deviation from what I normally write on here, but I hope you'll still find it relevant.  Being an animated movie critic is something of a hobby of mine, so when the opportunity came to articulate my opinions on a recent animation event, I couldn't resist.

Let me know what you think; if you find posts such as this interesting, I could definitely write them more often!)