April 23, 2010


   I think there are a lot of things in the popular culture that say that time spent with you family is wasted time. There is fighting and old scars. There are any number of things that they infer that time spent with family is. The one thing that seems overlooked is that it is usually very refreshing as well.
   As I write this I am on an airplane flying home from Iowa where the wife and I just spent a wonderful weekend with my sister. Before I left Orange County my coworkers asked me why I was going to Iowa. Every time I told them, “My sister lives there.” It is as if there is some kind of expectation that when someone takes vacation from work that it should be to go somewhere to party. The follow up question is always, “Other than your sister, what's in Iowa?”
   Contrast has been on my mind a lot over the last few months. This trip has definitely been one of contrast. We left from Los Angeles International Airport. The security was impersonal and in a hurry to get everyone through the security. There are something like 9 terminals at LAX. The drive to the airport was nothing but city.
   Landing at Des Moines International Airport was quite different as you can imagine. There is only basically one terminal/building. There was one other plane on the ground when we landed. The drive from the airport was wide open country in comparison. We could see the tall buildings of downtown Des Moines in the distance but the freeway we rode along had no city or buildings nearby. We saw a deer standing by the side of the road within a few miles of the airport. Security at the airport was also very simple and friendly.
   My sister lives in a small town about 40 minutes North of Des Moines. Small by my reckoning at least. They have a couple of grocery stores and a couple of other things that makes them reasonably large. I live in Anaheim, California. Orange County is like one large city with no clear demarcations for when one city ends and another begins, a fact that is further confused by the odd shapes of cities like Anaheim.
   I suppose the message is clear enough. We live in two wildly different places. I know that most of the people I associate with would not think of Iowa when they think of great destinations to spend that precious time away from the office.
   But we didn't go there to sight-see. We went because of family.
   Growing up in Northern California I had some really close friends. Perhaps my closest friend was my sister. She is a few years older than I am and was a bit more sociable than I ever was. When I became a teenager I didn't have too many friends yet. But because my sister and I had many years to build a close relationship I never had far to go to find something to do. My sister always took me along with her friends to movies and parties until I had a few close friends of my own after a couple of years. My friends easily became her friends as well.
   When you have a relationship like that it can be kind of hard to live so far apart. Over the last 10 years we have only been able to see each other once every year or so. In that time she has had basically 4 kids grow up and it has always been hard to not be a part of their lives except upon occasion.
   Now I have as many issues with members of my family as any stereotype. My sister and I have had enough fights over the years for me to lose count. But when it comes down to it we are family. When it comes time to have fun and leave the every day behind I can't think of a better place in the world to go. Las Vegas just can't compete no matter how many lights and shows they put up. Nothing can quite put that smile on your face like little Annika. I can laugh harder watching Animaniacs with the kids than any comedian can produce from my belly.
   I think it's very clear how Iowa has exactly the right things to make it the perfect vacation spot.

April 16, 2010

Dragon vs the Avatar

   About a year ago I wrote about my favorite movie of the year so far. That movie was I Love You Man and it ended up being my favorite movie of the entire year. I think I will be so bold to say that this year I will say that How to Train Your Dragon is probably going to take the same place for this year for me. I will go ahead and set the time frame back even to Avatar and Sherlock Holmes that were technically last year.
   Avatar was a really good show. I have to openly admit that it was and is a really great movie. It is to me kind of like the iPhone. That is to say that it is a very good product but it really missed the mark in so many ways.
   I saw both Dragon and Avatar in 3D. I have been avoiding any 3D movies for quite some time because I mostly think the whole idea is silly. I think Orson Scott Card put it best on his own blog as to why 3D is just not necessary. However, I felt that since Avatar was allegedly filmed with 3D in mind from the outset I thought I would give it a try. I mean from what I've heard James Cameron actually invented a new camera just to film this movie.
   In the end I was kind of surprised at how good looking the 3D was. The truth is that the movie was really beautiful. But the 3D was actually more distracting than it was helpful to the movie for me at least. I found there were a lot of times where I wanted to look at something other than the main actors face but because the focus removed all the other objects behind him I was not allowed to. This was mostly done towards the beginning of the film. The second half seemed to be less focused on the fact that they were showing you a 3D film and so they started to let you look at what you wanted to. That's really the fun of seeing a show in 3D, looking around at things. By the end I had a lot of eye strain and a slight headache starting. Nothing too bad but noticeable enough for a couple ibuprofen.
   The first thought I had after stepping out of Avatar was simply, I would like to see that again on a regular screen. I have yet to see it a second time. It's okay you and your friends have probably seen it a few extra times for me. If you have not seen it my recommendation is that you try to see a Blu-Ray copy. The imagery is worth the extra resolution you get from Blu-Ray over DVD. However, if you are waiting to see that soon to come 3D version then I say don't bother. There is nothing added to it in that format.
   I thought that Avatar was as good as the new 3D could do. I was surprised at how wrong I was once I saw Dragon. In the first 5 minutes I was shocked at just how good 3D could be. I heard in an advertisement that Dragon's action scenes rivaled Avatar in 3D. I think the truth is that the whoever wrote that sound bite was trying to not offend the millions (thousands?) of Avatar fans. Dragon does better 3D in every scene than Avatar does in its best scenes.
   Now let me move past the 3D. One other way that Dragon bests Avatar is in, well, everything except scenery.
   The story of Dragon is, while predictable, original. It is a rather cute story about a viking teen who is roped into dragon school where he is to learn about surviving the ceaseless attacks of the dragon hoards. I'll leave it at that because you no doubt can figure much of the rest of the story out beyond that from the advertisements. I'll just say that while the story is kind of predictable it is very entertaining. It will appeal to adults and the kids will be watching the DVD endlessly.
   In comparison Avatar's story is more or less a rip of a short story called Call Me Joe. I read this story in college in my science fiction class. It is more or less almost exactly the story of Avatar. The six legged animal idea I believe was probably extrapolated from the avatars in Call Me Joe. On film two legged humanoids tend to have more appeal and help audiences connect better. Don't get me wrong, I think the story is pretty cool. When I saw the first ad for Avatar I was excited someone decided to make a movie from Call Me Joe. It is a really good science fiction story and James Cameron did a really great job bringing it to the main stream. But in the end it is not an original story.
   One more area I would like to compare is animation. I would just like to say that Dragon is at least on par with Avatar in the department of animation as well. Though in some sense I realize it is like comparing apples to oranges. Avatar is designed for realism and Dragon is an animated family movie. I think in 2 areas we can make some simple comparisons. First, the creatures and second, the textures.
   The creatures of Avatar are typically 6 legged animals. There are also the pterodactyl like flying creatures. Dragon has only dragons. The 6 legged creatures were perhaps to me the most difficult thing to buy into. The problem I have with them is a little silly perhaps but it is just that there is no reason for those animals to have 6 legs. The extra set of legs would not assist with their ability to survive. This is the very reason scientists believe that most of the six legged creatures on Earth are lower life forms. The believe that higher life forms use 2 or more common 4 legs because it is a more efficient configuration. The extra limbs need calories to exist but do not add a significant advantage to hunting or foraging. It's a small gripe but there you have it. I think they animated too many legs on the creatures.
   In Dragon the creatures are as beautiful as any in Avatar. My argument is that the way they moved both on the ground and in the air seemed to be more natural to my eyes.
   Though all the creatures in both shows are faked up for our entertainment I found that at the end of Dragon I couldn't help but really wish I had my own dragon. I didn't think much about riding any of the creatures from Avatar. Perhaps it is because in Avatar only a select few could ride the animals which created an elite that I was in no way a part of and which even in my imagination I didn't ever really think about becoming an alien. But I always want to be a viking!
   Finally textures. I think the textures of Avatar were as real as anything fake could probably be. Dragon matched this in every way possible for a cartoon. I think the main dragon's skin was probably the thing that impressed me most. I still think about it from time to time. It looked like something that you would want to touch. It was beautiful.
   Now, what makes me think How to Train Your Dragon is going to be my favorite movie of the year? None of the things I have said. Because more or less all I've done so far is to tell you why I think it is better than Avatar. Let me set that aside now.
   Dragon is a very fun movie. It has everything from humor to friendship (which were two of my favorite things about I Love You Man). There is action and adventure and a sense of wonder from early on.  I even enjoyed how they described all of the dragon types early on. It was reminiscent of Zombieland and the rules of survival (double tap). It set the stage quickly and at the same time helps the audience become familiar with the main character very quickly.
   All in all I would just like to say that if you plan on seeing a movie any time soon I recommend How to Train Your Dragon. In 3D it was easy on the eyes. It has all the qualities of a good time for the whole family, something that last year's pick didn't have.