Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Zombie Review: Dead Guy Spy

Dead Guy Spy by David Lubar

See the review of My Rotten Life, the first book in this series, here.

ZPAA rating

8 years old and up

Gore level

2 out of 10--There's hardly any gore in this one: one exploding animal (organic); many exploding animals (mechanical); one massive puking/gas scene that sends characters screaming and/or passing out.

Other offensive content

Bad attitudes among the school children; climbing an electrified fence (which isn't fatal if you're already dead, though it is kinda unpleasant).

How much zombie mythology/content

After his bath in Hurt-Be-Gone formula that renders him insensitive to pain, stress, or any other feelings, Nathan seems to have achieved an equilibrium in his zombie state, though his bones are becoming more brittle. No mindless shambling horror here.

How much fun

This series of junior fiction books is shaping up to be quite the fun read. The story is entertaining. The characters are likable. The situations are interesting and well thought out.

Synopsis & Review

SPOILER IF YOU HAVEN'T READ THE FIRST BOOK: Our hero Nathan Abercrombie is now set in his path of zombiehood. The hoped for cure had to be given up to save his friend Abigail.

Nathan's come to embrace being a zombie and even begins to plan what he will do with his new found power. Like the child Cole in The Sixth Sense, he plans to use his special powers to help others. At first, Nathan plans to be a superhero but doesn't know how to pull it off. Then he notices that he is being followed by some suspicious looking bushes with human feet. Mechanical animals are also keeping an eye on him. Someone is stalking him in the on-line game he's been playing in his sleepless wee hours of the night.

He's finally approached by an agent of BUM (the Bureau of Useful Misadventures, whose acronym is certainly the butt of many jokes) with a deal: they will help him stay in one piece if he'll help them with some spy work. Being a spy is almost like being a superhero, isn't it? It turns out to be a lot more ambiguous. Is BUM working for or against the government? Are they really helping people or hurting them? Can his friends Abigail and Mookie help him figure out what to do?

This book is an enjoyable read. The school scenes are funny and Nathan's home life is developed more. It's nice to see a dad who isn't an idiot or comic relief, but really concerned about and involved in his son's life, even if he doesn't know about his son's special abilities. The only detractor is that the story takes a while to get to the BUM recruitment. I particularly enjoyed the debate over whether it's okay to be a spy and is this organization really one of the "good guys"?

The book includes a chapter from the next book and a reader's guide with study questions and activities.

Sample Text

We were less than half a block away when the thing inside the car exploded, blowing the doors off the car. A moment later, the car exploded, too. But I'd saved us. I couldn't help imagining the applause of a crowd of spectators. I could almost hear their conversations.
    Who is that amazing zombie hero?
    So dead, and yet so brave.
    I want to be like him when I die.

    "What next?" Mookie asked as we jogged away. "Helicopters? Flying saucers? Guys with jet packs?"
    "I wish I knew."
    Mookie looked back over his shoulder. "I never thought hanging out with a dead guy could get you killed."  (pages 39-40)

Jacob Cracks the Cell Phone Code

Granny got a new cell phone just prior to her latest visit. Jacob has been working on figuring out cell phone technology and was helping her out as can be seen in the following photo montage:

Jacob and Lucy race to unlock the secrets of cell phones

Jacob gets to Eureka first!

Jacob shares his knowledge with others

Not only was Granny visiting, but Auntie Rosemary stopped by with her dogs:

Jacob attempts to use The Force to lift the dog

Lucy goes in to pet the pet

Saturday, November 27, 2010

New Grimm's Fairy Tales at Forgotten Classics

I've recorded another tale for the Forgotten Classics podcast. Check it out here. I'm becoming a regular feature on the show, so look forward to future fairy tales, folk lore and myths. Enjoy!

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Walking Dead Episodes 2-4

So I've fallen way behind and finally had a chance to catch up on the current AMC series The Walking Dead which I am watching through Amazon Unbox Video, since we don't have cable here. After staying very close to the plot of the graphic novels, the TV show has changed things quite a bit, adding new characters (who I assumed would be red shirts but are still around) and new situations for Rick and the other survivors.

I suppose purists would complain about changing the story line. In my opinion, it's okay to change how the story goes if the story telling is true to the central ideas, themes and tone of the original. Consider some examples: The first two Harry Potter films hewed as closely as possible to the books, resulting in a kind of "paint by numbers" film that's more or less unsatisfactory to film critics and film lovers. A film tells a story differently than a book. Later Potter films do a better job of being films when they less slavishly adhere to the book.

Another example is the film version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which took many liberties with the plot, introducing new characters and story lines. That didn't bother me so much, especially since the story changed from the original radio play to the books. What did bother me was the overall inability to hit the themes and tone of the previous stories. The clever and wacky tone is occasionally found in the film, for example in the opening musical number by the dolphins who are about to leave the earth. But the sharpness of Douglas Adams' wit is more absent than present, leaving the Hitchhiker's fan unsatisfied.

A third example is Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Quite a bit of reorganizing, adding and cutting were required to make the book into a good movie experience. Occasionally the movies misstep here and there, but most are understandable (dwarfs are for comic relief; Aragorn "dying and coming back to life" in The Two Towers). The tone and themes of the novel are well translated into the films without turning the films into an extended "book on film." Hopefully The Hobbit will fare as well.

So how does The Walking Dead series shape up? The tone is exactly like the books--the viewer definitely feels the oppression of living in a zombie apocalypse and how the biggest problem is the normal people turning on each other. It's nice to have a different story line, especially for a horror story. The scares are fresh because you don't anticipate them. New and different issues of how to treat others comes up. In a moment of panic, Rick and a group of scavengers handcuff a man to the roof of a building and later are forced to flee before freeing him. How will they handle leaving him there? Of course they go back but what happens is unexpected because the story is in "new" territory. So I would say this story has been well adapted and is engrossing.

I'm enjoying the show, except that the gore level is very high. Moving from black and white comics to full color live action makes the gore, at least to me, much harder to watch. I know I said in my last review that the kills looked a little too CGI but they are already getting better at that. Also, the zombies eating innards in broad daylight isn't fun to watch since those scenes look pretty realistic. Definitely not for kids or the faint of heart. Only two more episodes to go for this season. I will definitely watch the rest and let you know what I think.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Children Are Leveling Up!

Our little zombie overlords are showing some improvements lately.

Lucy has done two things. First, she has starting eating food on her own, including using utensils and her own fingers. She'll take a scoop of yogurt and more often than not get all of it in her mouth. She really loves rice.
Okay, so maybe everything doesn't make it inside her mouth.

Lucy's second improvement is in language and recognition. Last Sunday my sister Regina was visiting. When Lucy first saw her, she gave a big smile and said, "Gina!" which was exciting for everyone. She has even reliably repeated "Mommy" which is exciting for Mommy. Her vocabulary grows daily.

Jacob has advanced in his athletic abilities. It used to be that he'd need help climbing on playgrounds and some obstacles were not even considered. Lately he has taken to climbing all sorts of bendy ladders, chain ladders, rock walls and other assorted challenges. Here's one of the local spots where he is climbing more and more:
He hasn't tried the rock climbing on the right because it is no longer there!

Another breakthrough for Jacob was at the church playground. Usually, if other kids are around he isn't interested in playing on the equipment (this applies at Chick-fil-A too). But last Sunday after 9:30 Mass he joined in with at least a dozen other little Catholics. It made me happy.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Quick Movie Review: White Zombie

With these zombie feet, he shambled into history!
White Zombie (1932) directed by Victor Halperin.

This movie is the first of all feature length zombie movies. The story is about a couple who are in Haiti and want to get married. They go to the estate of a recent friend to tie the knot, but he wants to have the bride for his own. Enter Bela Lugosi as the local voodoo master who helps the friend "kill" the bride and have her come back as a zombie slave for the friend. The distraught husband goes on a bender, then to visit her grave, only to find out she's gone. With help from a local expert he tries to find his bride and get her back.

The movie has a lot of things going for it. Bela Lugosi is great as a creepy and beguiling voodoo master. The mood and style is very Gothic and unnerving, though this is often undercut but the performances of the other actors who are nowhere near as good as Lugosi. I especially enjoyed the intercutting between shots that suggested character separated in space were influencing each other. Also the story was told through a lot of action and visuals rather than characters explaining everything to each other, which is a big plus in my book.

The zombies are voodoo zombies, basically people who are not quite dead but are made into mindless slaves through voodoo magic or medicine. They are put to work mostly for manual labor and to scare the pants off people, which the zombies do effectively. They look pale and vacant but aren't gory.

The plot was pretty melodramatic but didn't bother me too much. The ending was a little clunky, especially the tagged on joke at the end. It felt like the end of an episode of Scooby Doo, Where Are You!, which isn't what you want for a horror film.

I watched the film on Netflix instant queue and the quality was pretty low. The print had a decent transfer but the sound was really bad. I had the volume almost doubled and still had a hard time hearing the dialogue. Maybe getting a disc is a better way to go.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Learning to be an Evil Inventor I

Jacob took his first step yesterday towards being an inventor. The tools of the trade are important to learn. We began with a screwdriver.

Money isn't the root of all evil, but it can cause problems
Lucy shoved a bunch of big plastic coins from her piggy bank into a toy piano. This rendered the piano unusable. I was going to fix it during nap time but Jacob seemed interested in helping me so I promised him that I'd wait until he woke up and we'd do it together. While he was sleeping I got our screwdriver out and left it with the piano.

Jacob woke up, had his snack and we set to work. First I showed him all the screws underneath the piano. The job would be tricky since both flat head and phillips head screws were used. Luckily, our screwdriver has multiple heads so I could easily switch them out. First we worked on the phillips head screws. Jacob and I carefully turned the driver in the proper direction (I told him about "righty tighty, lefty loosy" but we haven't taught him left and right yet) and out came the screw. His excitement at using the screwdriver was palpable. Jacob put the screw on the table in a safe spot. After taking out the other two phillips head screws, we switched to the flat heads and got them out quickly.

We pried open the piano. I took out one coin and Jacob the other. He was very excited. I told him we'd have to put it back together. After snapping the bottom of the piano back on, I had him test the playability of the piano before we put the screws back in. It worked fine; he sang Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Then he gave me one of the flat head screws and we turned it in the other direction. Soon we were done with all the screws. Piano fixed.

Jacob was very proud of himself and I was proud too. Working together was great. I hope we have lots more projects in the future.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Quick Review: The Walking Dead Episode 1

I finally got to see the first episode of The Walking Dead TV show. I was supposed to go to a bar in Annapolis to see the premiere episode on Halloween night but an eye injury prevent me from attending. Since we don't have cable and Hulu isn't hosting the episodes, I've plunked down some money at Amazon (where I had a video-on-demand gift certificate) to get the whole season. The first season is only six episodes long. Tonight they are airing episode three, so I definitely need to do some catching up. Anyway, enough excuses, onto a quick review.

Having read the first trade paperback (reviewed here), I was already familiar the story. For those of you who don't know, police officer Rick Grimes wakes up from a coma to find the dead have returned to life and are ravaging his small Georgia home town. But it's not just his home, the zombie plague is apparently everywhere. He finds this out from a father and son who take him in and fill him in on what is going on. Believing his wife and son to be in Atlanta, he heads out in search of them.

The TV show is fairly consistent with the comic so far. Some minor changes are made for dramatic effect. The storytelling is still deadly earnest and grim to the core. Director and writer Frank Darabont (who also directed The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and The Mist) does a great job bringing the comic to life (pun intended) and telling the story in an exciting, tense way. The actors are all good, though Andrew Lincoln as Rick carries the show for the first episode. You do get to meet his wife and some other survivors for a few scenes, but so far it's mostly Rick going to Atlanta. I am looking forward to future episodes if they are all this good.

The gore is pretty bad as you would expect from the source material. The zombies are horrible-looking for the most part. Some seem like they are more recently turned and not decayed with organs hanging out. One striking thing is when zombies are shot with guns. The effects definitely look like CGI, but that may be a good thing. If they were too realistic, it would be unbelievably grim to watch. The show is rated TV-14 and I definitely would not recommend it for younger viewers.

Later on I may provide a review or feedback about watching through Amazon's video on demand player once I've had more experience with it. Here's what the player looks like in case you can't wait:

click on the image to see it larger

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Kinect Kraziness

My birthday was in the very near past and one of the presents I received was Kinect for Xbox 360. For those of you who don't know, it is a peripheral for the Xbox console. What does it add? A very sophisticated camera set-up with a microphone so you can control the Xbox by either hand motions like Tom Cruise in Minority Report or by voice commands like Jeffery Goldblum in The Fly (at least until his voice becomes unrecognizable to the computer).

You can use more than just your hands to play on the Xbox. The in-package game, Kinect Adventures, lets you use your arms, legs, head and just about anything else to have your avatar run, jump, duck and otherwise have a fun time. An unexpectedly entertaining feature is the occasional photo it takes as you play. You can see the photos on the console and upload to the Kinect web site for two weeks. From the web site you can download it and post it to a blog, like so:

A game so great, it made me levitate!
The other cool thing about the Kinect is playability. A lot of people are intimidated by console game controllers, which have an awful lot of buttons and two sticks. With only a camera, even my three year old can play along, with a little help from Mommy:

Kinect Adventures actually has no dancing, alas!
Jacob was surprisingly adept at the car racing game called Kinect Joy Ride. We raced side by side and he nearly tied me the first time. Even Lucy wanted to try it out:
Suddenly, our living room got wider!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Is Jacob Really an Evil Genius?

I was quite excited this morning when my three year old son told me he was going to get some daytime clothes out of his drawers. Usually I have to go pick some pants and a shirt for him and wrestle him into a nice outfit. Today he chose two items for himself. They kinda matched but didn't really go together. He brought me a pair of pants and a pair of shorts. I took the shorts back to his room and found a shirt. At least he's making some progress!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Till Death Do You Part?

I ran across this video and had to pass it along because, hey, it's Bruce Campbell at a zombie-con.

Zombie wedding vows seem backwards to us since you don't become a zombie till after you have kids. On the other hand, the video is called The Evil Dead Wedding Renewal Ceremony, so renewing your vows after zombification is okay with us. All my wife and I need to do is invent a time travel device so we can go back to this event. That'll be tough with our lack of brains. I'm sure the kids will help out.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Review of My Rotten Life

My Rotten Life (Nathan Abercrombie, Accidental Zombie) by David Lubar

"My best friend and I used to have contests where we'd try to gross each other out. We don't bother with that anymore. I can win every time, even when I'm not trying." Nathan Abercrombie, back cover.

ZPAA rating

8 years old and up.

Gore level

2 out of 10--The boy loses a finger but finds it again, reattaches it, and is able to move it when detached; one big barfing scene; passing gas more than once.

Other offensive content

Bullying; belittling; tricks for not eating food; lies between friends.

How much zombie mythology/content

Nathan is a chemically-induced zombie who slowly turns while still alive and he's conscious of the transformation. He quickly discovers that he doesn't need to eat food and that he can lose body parts without even noticing. He can't experience pain but is fully in control of his body, even when a part isn't attached to him.

How much fun

The book is an enjoyable read. Nathan has a comic relief sidekick who has a lot of fifth-grade one liners that may make you smile or may make you groan. I did a bit of both. Also, there are a bunch of in-jokes for horror/suspense fans.

Synopsis & Review

Nathan Abercrombie is a fifth grader who belongs to a special clique: the second besters. See, it's cool to be a jock or a brain at school (at the top of the social pyramid) or the fattest, skinniest, oddest (at the bottom of the social pyramid). What if you don't excel in desirable or undesirable qualities? Then nobody knows who you are.

Which doesn't mean you still can't be crushed by the cruelty of fifth grade life. Nathan has what he thinks is his worst day ever when Shawna, the girl he's had a crush on since third grade, rubs his nose in the fact that he isn't invited to her Halloween party. If that wasn't enough, he then gets picked last at gym class. To heap on the humiliation, he then plays someone else's portable game, Zombie Invasion, and loses immediately resulting in howling laughter from his classmate. After this triple crown of thorns, could things possibly get worse?

Cue the quiet yet nerdy classmate Abigail who might have a solution for his problem. She and her uncle have been working on a secret formula called Hurt-Be-Gone that will (as you might imagine) take the pain away. The problem is, in true horror fashion, he gets a massive overdose that starts slowly turning him into a zombie. Will being a zombie hurt or help Nathan's social standing in school? Will they be able to get the ingredients for a cure before he becomes a complete zombie?

The story plays out in interesting and creative ways. Plot twists are sometimes unsurprising but other times are unexpected. Plenty of in-jokes are found in the book, e.g. the local community college is called Romero Community College, after George A. Romero, director of the classic Night of the Living Dead and many other zombie movies. The book is an enjoyable, quick read with sympathetic and imperfect characters that make the reader want to come back for more. To that end, the first chapter of the second book is included. I just got the second book from the library and can't wait to start.

Also a study guide is included at the end for further thought and discussion about the book.

Sample Text

Narrator Nathan and his pal Mookie escape an aquarium and discuss the future (page 90):

"Thanks," I said when he joined us. "You really saved me. I owe you one."
"Just keep that in mind when you become mindless and get an urge to eat brains."
"I'm not going to eat brains!" I shouted.
"I've got two kidneys," Mookie said. "I guess you could have one of those. But not my liver. I'm pretty sure I only have one. You probably wouldn't want it, anyhow. I'll bet even zombies don't eat liver."