Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Book Review: A Handful of Dust

Title: A Handful of Dust
Author: Evelyn Waugh
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: *****
Official Rating: N/A
Age Group: 16+

Welcome to English high society during the 1930s. John Beaver is a "professional luncheon-goer" (back of the book)--a lazy man with no job and friends who only call when their dates stand them up at the very last minute. When Beaver meets Brenda Last, things change dramatically. Brenda has been married to Tony for seven years and the two have an incredibly annoying son named John Andrew. But Brenda is bored, and Beaver is her way out.
Of course, everything falls apart.

Word of Warning:
This is a story of adultery--amid a world filled with it. We see very little, though Brenda does ask what Beaver's sex life is like, but it stops there. It's implied that things happen, but never shown.
The characters have no moral standards at all and live very empty lives. They are petty, negative, and self-centered. They are everything that happens when one encounters Christianity--and turns it down.
There is a death of a young character but even that is quick. Tony catches a terrible fever and is delirious (in one of the most skillfully written delirium scenes of all time). Native Americans are portrayed in a negative light, but digging deep and looking closely, we see that the Englishmen are portrayed in the same way.
Tony and Jock get drunk. Characters party, spend money, and for the most part don't work.
In order to get a divorce, Tony must get "evidence" that he has been unfaithful. This consists of taking a woman (and her daughter) to the seaside and then having breakfast in bed with her.

Word on the Author:
Waugh is a master at the art of writing fiction. He is a Catholic convert and in his writings we see just how despicable a world is without Christianity. We also see a very realistic portrayal of a society Waugh himself belonged to for some time.
He has been referred to as the second greatest author at satire. This means to enjoy the book, one has to pay attention just a tad more than usual. It's well worth it.

My Thoughts:
I loved this book very much. It's full of laughs, utterly horrible things, and a complete lack of morals (but in a negative light). The narration and the dialogue are near-perfection and the whole thing is just so wonderful words fail every time. Granted, the topic is for an older audience, but adultery is, for the most part, just that: a topic. We know that somewhere in the background things are happening, but we see no more than a kiss. Impressively handled.
I assure you I will be reading this over many times, and also reading more Waugh.
A bright light amid all the lack of morals is Tony Last. He is loyal and tries so hard to fix matters when he finally realizes they have gotten out of order. Unfortunately, it's simply too late. But we love him for trying.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Movie Review: Zoom: Academy for Superheroes

Title: Zoom: Academy for Superheroes
Author: N/A
Genre: Adventure, Science Fiction
My Rating: **
Official Rating: PG
Age Group: 10+

Summary: Zoom's, er, Jack's team went over the edge years ago. Bad things happened and only Jack survived--but he lost his powers. He blames it all on the Gamma 13 dosage his team was given. No, not the loss of the powers, just the implosion of his team.
So when Jack is recruited some thirty years later to train new superheroes, he's not as thrilled as we might expect. In fact, he's downright disinterested (and not the virtuous kind). He doesn't try. He's got his own problems to deal with.
Then, slowly, the kids get under his skin. Slowly, they become more than a team. They become a family.
The big question remains: will they be ready in time to face the major threat they've been training for? Or will they too suffer from a massive dose of Gamma 13?

Word of Warning:
Where to start? There are a lot of problems, but all rather small, all things considered.
  • Jack is constantly flirting with Ms. Holloway, who is oblivious for a while (no, she's not ignoring him, she's just that oblivious).
  • Jack makes a comment like, "Gee, for a guy who's straight, you sure are dramatic." Pretty much the only remark in that area.
  • Summer remarks that Dylan is hitting on her and suggests he stop. He shakes his head, smiles, and says "I can't do that."
  •  When Dylan is testing out his mental abilities, he sees Summer in her room dancing and she doesn't know he's watching. Or maybe she does...it's hard to tell.
  • Summer and Dylan kiss. It's not necessarily brief (the scene closes, then opens again later, but it's presumed that it was paused, not continuing) but not deep or passionate either.
  • The kids constantly disobey and for the most part do not get into trouble.
  • Cindy is a little girl who has super strength and throws giant things when she doesn't get her way. Needless to say, people are happy to do what she wants.
  • Jack is focused on his own life problems and almost completely neglects the kids for much of the movie.
  • The kids have a serious disrespect problem when it comes to the adults at headquarters. To their credit, most of the adults are jerks, but that doesn't give the kids an excuse to be disrespectful.
  • Dylan says "That's hot" when Summer lifts a guy into the air using her mind. He's referring to Summer's power, but it's a bad choice of words no matter what he means.
  • The general is harsh and self-centered. He doesn't seem to change much, if at all.
  • Jack breaks rules constantly, and his actions are nearly glorified because the rules broken are often on behalf of the kids.
  • We know very little of the kids' parents (who are almost completely nonexistent) but do get the hint that at least a few of the kids were abandoned by them.
My Thoughts:
Honestly, the reason I gave this movie two stars instead of one is because of the family concept. No, they're not just a team, they really do form a family. Summer looks after Cindy, Dylan takes Tucker aside more than once to talk to him. The four protect each other and look out for each other. Ms. Holloway is motherly but a little quirky (in a nice way) and Jack, while being far from a good father, does attempt to take on the role. He ends up more like that fun uncle who never got married and drives the parents insane. You know the type: the one the kids love.
The problem with this whole family idea is that close to the time that they really get big into using the "family" word, Dylan and Summer start to get a lot closer. In some scenes, right after we see a shared glance between them, we get the family thing. Awkward to fall in love with a girl who happens to be part of your makeshift family, no?
Overall, it wasn't a bad film. The reason I rated it 10+ was because while the problems are minor, they're probably not the influence many people want for younger kids. The problems may be small, but they are numerous.
This almost feels like Sky High, but closer to the "failure" end of the spectrum.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Author Alcove: Ally Carter

Ally Carter is one of the few authors I read who is still alive, and one of the few teen fiction authors I read willingly. Compared to some of the more questionable children's books I've seen, many of her works could actually sit among children's fiction and not teen fiction.

Carter is amazing. She is inventive, convincing, and has a fun style. At times her style feels a bit detached, and as a reader who loves to see extensive character development, occasionally I was  disappointed. However, in her most recent additions to both her series(es?) she has proved that she can pull in some major character development and actually make the reader see and feel the pain.

In her Gallagher Girls series, she gives us a very interesting portrait of a private school which trains girls to be spies. The picture she describes sounds so realistic it's hard not to believe it. In her Heist Society series, she takes the opposite approach: that of professional thieves. They too are so convincing that sometimes I wonder if it's real or not.

Why, then, are her writings considered teen fiction? Generally this is because of some awkward scenes that show up now and then. Take the scene when character Z (a boy) sneaks into character C's bedroom in the middle of the night (C is a girl). The intent is innocent. He simply needs to warn her about something and had no way of contacting her. Still, the scene is set up so that it's extremely awkward. I do have to credit Carter with this much: the scenes which do put her writings in teen fiction are, for the most part, simply awkward and are clearly so, going no farther than awkwardness.

However, moving to the Heist Society books, things get a little more awkward than girl and boy characters running into each other in strange places. I take that back. That's pretty much the nature of the awkwardness in Heist Society as well, only these go a little further. Take the boy in his pajamas with no shirt on, or the awkward kiss that is thought about just a little too much, or the time when two characters end up spending an entire day in a closet while they are undercover. Did I mention that they were dating, are now going through a rough time, but both want to make up?

Aside from the awkwardness, we do have to take into account that the Heist Society characters are portrayed as the good guys even though they are only glorified thieves who have a tendency to come off as being "good" since they have decided to only steal from those who do not own what they have.
As for Gallagher Girls, we can't forget that these girls are trained as spies and agents. They also come into contact with a very dangerous group of people called the Circle of Seven and a school of boys who are trained to be assassins (luckily the one who does stick around is trying desperately to escape his past).

Let's put it this way: I hand the Gallagher Girls books to my sister of 13 without questioning it. She knows what's wrong in them and the wrong is never far enough that I'm worried. And while I'm willing to recommend Heist Society books to my friends, and my sister in the future, I have not yet handed them over to her.

Overall, Carter writes some relatively clean teen fiction. The worlds she draws up are impressive and totally believable. The adventures are fun and often have a light carefree feel about them, but she also knows how to write something a little deeper and more sensitive.
She's a fun read, and I eagerly await the next instalments to both her book series(es?).

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Movie Review: Emma

Title: Emma
Author: Miramax (staring Gwyneth Paltrow)
Genre: Romance
My Rating: ****
Official Rating: PG
Age Group: 12+
Enter the world of high English society, when there was little to do and the trivial matters thus became exceedingly interesting. Parties are, it seems, everything. Then add a cast of characters. Emma, a girl who likes to make couples, Mr. Knightly, her friend since childhood, and a woman whose birth is unknown and has fallen into Emma's hands. Emma decides Ms. Smith needs a husband, and Emma is going to find her one. But along the way, various other couples are made that Emma did not plan for. As Emma's plans fall down on her head, she stumbles about blindly wondering where to turn.

Word of Warning
The characters are concerned with everything trivial.
Emma constantly gets involved in others' affairs and tries to manipulate things. She insults one woman (but is very sorry and tries to make amends) and is very opinionated about other people. Still, she is aware she has this fault and tries hard to stop it. She does make progress, but I believe this will be her struggle for life.
People are looked down upon because of their place in society.
One man leads Emma to believe he loves her in order to cover up his engagement to another woman.
Emma and some of the other ladies were dresses with low necklines.
There are four kisses, but they are chaste and don't even take place until the end of the movie.

My Thoughts
This is one of those movies that leaves you laughing, cringing, and then, at the end, sighing and staring at the screen because you simply can't think of anything better to do. It's stunning. The dress, the countryside, and the buildings are beautiful. The acting is wonderfully done and we do feel drawn into this society where people clearly have little to do and are seeking entertainment, but never in immoral ways.
For much of the movie I disliked the character of Emma. But, as it progressed, I was impressed to see her struggling to mend her ways. Honestly, the only character who kept me watching until she did so was Mr. Knightly, a true gentleman. And, of course, all the comic relief characters.
It's a charming movie, very different from the usual ones I watch. There's no drama, no excitement, no high speed anything, and happily nothing scandalous. It's just a very good rendition of the reality in which characters of this society lived.
Wonderfully portrayed.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Book Review: The Dragon of Trelian

Title: The Dragon of Trelian (First book in a series)
Author: Michelle Knudsen
Genre: Fantasy
My Rating: *****
Official Rating: Not Applicable
Age Group: 14+

Summary -
A good way to start any story is to have the main character almost fall out a window because he is startled by a precocious and not-very-sensitive princess named Meg who sneaks up behind him and, without any warning, starts speaking.
Calen's first impressions of Meg aren't exactly the greatest, but her overall friendliness definitely makes up for any of her shortcomings. As a friendless and bored Apprentice Mage, Calen is willing to befriend practically anyone at this point, even if "anyone" includes a Third Royal Daughter who has a secret mind-link to a dragon named Jakl.
As the kingdom prepares for a royal wedding which will potentially end a century-old conflict with a neighboring kingdom, Calen and Meg explore Meg's link to her dragon, and Meg falls in love with a handsome Royal Attendant named Wilem. Unbeknownst to Calen and Meg, however, is the fact that Wilem and his mother, Sen Eva, plan to kill the royal bride on her wedding night in revenge for a murder supposedly committed by Meg's father and mother.
Also unbeknownst to them is the fact that Sen Eva is an extremely powerful, extremely dangerous unmarked Mage (which is illegal. But that's beside the point.)
Unfortunately, Sen Eva and Wilem's plan doesn't remain unbeknownst to the two friends for long. That's the problem with accidently overhearing extremely sensitive information while hiding behind a curtain. And then getting discovered by the sensitive-information-givers, who happen to have almost unlimited magical power at their disposal.
Calen and Meg have to race against time to stop the murderers (they also have to get back to the castle because they somehow ended up in the middle of nowhere... it's a long story). Can they get back in time? How will they convince everyone that Sen Eva is evil?

 The Good -
Unlike most fantasy princesses, Meg has a very good relationship with everyone in her family. For the most part, she respects the authority of her parents, and she fosters friendships with all her sisters. She is willing to sacrifice anything for their well-being, including her own safety.
Meg's friendship with Calen is also unusual for a fantasy story; at this point in the series, they are not romantically involved, and while romance is certainly possible between them in future books, there is not even a hint of romantic interest on either part at this time. Instead, a deep and lasting friendship grows between them. They both sacrifice for the good of the other, and this particularly shows in Calen, who does many little things for Meg to show his great regard for her.
Everyone (every "good guy", at least) is very courageous. Guardsmen protecting the royal family face grave injury and even death to perform their duties. Meg and Calen face the powerful Sen Eva multiple times in order to save Meg's family. Calen braves his fear of heights so that Meg can complete her mission. Meg allows Calen to experiment with potentially dangerous magic on her because there is no other options.
The Magistratum, a group of Mages who control the rest of the Mages and make sure that they don't do anything harmful, represent order and the good use of magic. It is obvious in the contrast between Sen Eva (who does not follow the Magistratum) and the Mages ruled by the Magistratum that some sort of law must be put in place to govern the use of such powerful forces.
Sen Eva's search for "revenge" is actually a search for self-redemption (I won't say any more because I don't want to ruin the story). However, she searches for that self-redemption in the wrong way. While her bad actions nullify any good that might come from her search, it still does not erase the fact that she wants to fix her past actions.
Wilem eventually finds out that his mother has been using him as a pawn to fulfill her purpose. Though he was about to kill the royal family, he immediately refuses to act and is willing to die rather than to do what his mother asks him to do.
Meg, who has every right to be angry at Wilem (he played her romantically as well as plotted to kill her family. More on that later.), is given complete control of his fate. She is angry enough to literally kill him, but she does not take revenge as she wants to and decides to temper justice with mercy.

The Bad -

- Mild
  1. The violence in this book usually happens in the background, though there are plenty of perilous situations.
  2. Though they mutually agree to allow it, Meg and Calen both put the other into varying amounts of danger.
  3. Meg and Calen show disrespect to their elders and often disobey them. They do not get into any trouble for doing so (usually).
  4. At one point, Sen Eva asks, "What harm in a lie?" While Sen Eva's lies eventually destroy her, Meg and Calen's lies only receive a passing mention at most, and rarely have any real consequences. They also keep grave secrets from those in authority.
  5. Calen and Meg's relationship often seems more sibling-ish than not. They are often sarcastic to each other, and they call each other "stupid" and "idiotic" every once in a while. This is always meant as teasing.
  6. The religion of this fantasy world seems to be dualistic: there is a lady of light and a lord of darkness. The religion is not delved into, though mentions of praying to a particular deity are made. Also, the characters say "gods" in moments of excitement.
- Serious
  1. There are some serious issues with the magic in this book. I particularly found an extended description of a "divination" using something akin to tarot cards very disturbing. Sen Eva is trying to raise her son from the dead. Meg has a link with her dragon which seems more like a soul-sharing than anything. Characters are able to share each other's power. Magic is portrayed as a tool which can be used for good or for evil. While this specific explanation may not be dangerous in a fantasy world, in the real world it is a very concerning subject. However, aside from the tarot card incident, the magic should not present any extreme problems for most mature teenagers.
  2. Meg has extended fantasies of getting revenge on Wilem and Sen Eva. At one point, she finds herself with the opportunity to kill Wilem; her connection with her dragon actually seems to push her toward this action, and it is only after a very long struggle with herself that she resists.
  3. Wilem uses Meg's romantic interest in him to get information from her. We see Meg progress into her infatuation with him, and then think of kissing him. They do eventually kiss.
  4. We later see Wilem flirting openly with a kitchen maid, and Meg wonders whether or not Wilem ended up in her room.
  5. A very awkward conversation ensues between Meg and Wilem about wedding nights. Nothing is clarified, so younger readers would probably not catch it. However, older readers will find it very apparent.
My Opinion -
It is very rare that I find a well-written, interesting, relatively clean fantasy novel, and The Dragon of Trelian is probably one of the best I've read. It was not a humorous book, and was actually quite serious, which is surprising because a lot of books with similar subject matter end up being more comical than anything. Yet, though it was serious, Trelian was not a sad or depressing story. In fact, I found it rather inspiring. Meg and Calen's friendship is one of the most beautiful I have seen in recent fiction, and it was not ruined by any premature, infatuated romance. The other relationships in the story were very realistic, and the plot was absolutely brilliant. Sure, the story definitely had its issues; the dumb sexual comments in the "wedding night" scene were completely unnecessary, and the magic posed a problem (at least, it did for me, but I often get hung up on fantasy magic). But in spite of these downfalls, I can honestly say that I really liked this book, I would definitely recommend it, and I will either a) buy myself a copy or b) borrow it so often from the library that it might as well be mine.


Just to warn anyone who decides to pick up this book: This book is the first in a series that only has two books so far, and the second book ends on an absolutely horrible, and I repeat, HORRIBLE cliff hanger. So be prepared to be angry at everyone and everything for at least a week if you decide to get sucked in.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

2 Days Left

Dear Blog Readers,
Please take a moment and vote on the poll which is at the top of the right sidebar. It would only take a moment, and would greatly help us know what our readers are looking for.
Please note that the poll ends in two days.
Thank you and may God bless you.
~ Maria Gianna

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Movie Review: Balto

Title: Balto
Author: Disney
Genre: Historical Fiction
My Rating: ***
Official Rating: G
Age Group: 6+

Balto is half wolf and half dog. This doesn't go over well with the dogs of the small town he lives near, nor does it go over well with the humans. So he lives on the outskirts of town with a talking goose and two rather dense baby polar bears who don't know how to swim, all the while entertaining romantic feelings for a pure-bred husky named Jenna. Balto's life is simple, he's rather reckless, and pretty much nothing ever happens to him. But Balto admires the sled dogs. He wants to be one.
When an especially harsh winter arrives, the children fall seriously ill, and the doctor runs out of medicine, well, something has to be done. A select team of sled dogs will be sent out to a neighboring town to get medicine for the dying children. Balto joins the races to determine the dog team, and wins, but is turned away because of his wolf-blood.
The team sets out, and Balto is left to watch Jenna suffer as her girl gets sicker and sicker.
Things don't go as planned, and Balto ends up having to play the hero. Out in the wilderness all alone, only his wolfish blood can save him.
Will he accept this?

Word of Warning
Steel is a nasty dog who is full of himself and will lie to get whatever he wants. The other sled dogs admire him but eventually he does get justice--which is exactly what he doesn't want. He's selfish, determined to play the hero, cruel, seems to go crazy, and tries to kill Balto.
Dogs fight, but though teeth sink into other dogs (and bears), no blood is drawn. A few dogs fall off cliffs, but all make it. Balto almost drowns. A bear tries to kill various members of Balto's company.
A strange wolf who may or may not be a spirit (but hey, it does leave paw prints) appears when all seems lost.
Children get sick and though we're never told they are going to die, we see a sobering scene of a man building little coffins and standing them up next to a regularly sized one.

My Thoughts
This is your typical Disney-animal-hero movie. We have an outcast who falls in love with the only in-group member who is open-minded. We have the toady, the animal that might have a mental disorder, a wise guardian-like companion who is ultimately undermined by his charge's instincts, and a few other characters thrown in.
As I was watching it, I wondered, does Disney have a set plot for all animal stories that they just change the names for? I mean, sure, the plot is a little different, but surely they have a set of characters who undergo very slight changes depending upon the movie.

Aside from that, however, I found this to be a relatively good movie. Personally, I am not a big fan of animated animal movies. Don't get me wrong, I love animals and actually plan to go to vet school in the future. But there's something about animals having a romance (which is technically impossible) and just talking in general that doesn't sit well with me. I love animals in movies and books and include many very strong animal characters in my own writings, but the portrayal of animals as though they are equal to humans just gives me the jitters.

Still, even though this movie was predictable, I found myself waiting on the edge of my seat in the dramatic moments, just waiting to see what would happen. But then I'd laugh at myself and report exactly what would happen. I was right, but somehow that didn't take away from the excitement. I was quite impressed by this.

As a whole, a great movie, but probably not worth watching again.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Movie Review: The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Title: The Sorcerer's Apprentice
Author: Disney
Genre: Fantasy, Sci-Fi
My Rating: *
Official Rating: PG
Age Group: 16+

Summary -
Long ago, in the time of King Arthur, the great sorcerer Merlin defeated the evil Morgan Le Fay and trapped her in a doll. The act killed him, and with his dying breath he commanded his three apprentices to find the Prime Merlinean who would ultimately defeat Morgana.
Fast-forward about 1300 years... Balthazar Blake, the only faithful apprentice, is still searching for the Prime Merlinean in New York City. He finally discovers him in the form of a very nerdy, very wimpy boy: Dave. And Dave adamantly refuses to get mixed up in the magic war raging around him. That is, until Balthazar practically kidnaps him.

The Good -
Dave eventually overcomes his own self-consciousness and becomes brave enough to fight the evil that has been unleashed on the world.

The Bad -
There was a bit of minor swearing, including one softly-muttered b***h.
Dave falls in love with a girl that he knew in grade-school. While the romance is usually sweet, at the end they kiss very passionately. He suggests that they run away to Paris (with no mention of marriage).
There is some violence, but it is usually confined to sorcerer's duels.
The main problem with the movie is the magic that runs helter-skelter throughout the whole thing. In a movie about sorcerer's, it's pretty inevitable that there will be magic, but this magic was not fairy-tale magic. It was full-blown Satanic babble. Balthazar does explain that sorcerer's have the capacity to manipulate matter because they are able to use 100% of their brain power instead of just 10% like normal humans. This concept, however, gets buried beneath the obviously occult symbolism that pervades the movie. We see pentagrams, pictures of a magician tattooed with other evil symbols, a picture of him being worshipped by a woman, and his house is full of other evil things. Merlin states at the beginning that they are mere servants of a greater power. Morgana chants in Latin (although I wasn't able to translate the whole thing, it was basically Morgana calling the spirits of the dead to rise) and we see long-dead sorcerer's begin to come back to life. Several character's become possessed by Morgana's soul.

My Opinion -
My review is extremely incomplete mainly because I didn't want to have to go back and rewatch the movie in order to catalogue everything that was wrong with it. My "bad" list could go on for pages if I did.
I really don't recommend this movie for any age group. Besides the obvious evil of the Satanic magic gunk, the story-line and the characters were just blah. It was not a good movie. I'm sure there was something redemptive about it somewhere, but I just couldn't see it.
I'm sorry if this review is more subjective than it should be, but I have big issues with magic unless it's the fairy-tale kind, so I tend to be biased. If you watched this movie and liked it, I give you full permission to rant at me in the comment box.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Book Review: Perceval: The Story of the Grail

Title: Perceval: The Story of the Grail
Author: Chrentien de Troyes
Translator: Burton Raffel
Genre: Epic Poetry, French
My Rating: *****
Official Rating: N/A
Age Group: 6+ (though not all would appreciate it, as it is poetry)

Open the book and enter a strongly Catholic culture.
From the age when the French were enchanted by King Arthur (an English king, interestingly enough), comes this beautiful epic by the poet de Troyes. It is the first appearance of King Arthur and his knights in literature, focusing mainly on the adventures of Perceval and Sir Gawain. These two men struggle to live by the knightly code, encountering all sorts of adventures. The book is one long poem, has a short and cheerful style, and is not broken up by chapters. The only thing which breaks it up is the separate little adventures. There is fighting, ladies to be saved, conversion, revenge, swords and lances, and much more.
Unfortunately the author died before he could finish the work. Like, mid-sentence. It's amusing when you hear about it, but when you're reading and you get to that point it's very frustrating. Three days later it's amusing again. Don't say I didn't warn you :)

Word of Warning
What do we expect out of a culture of warriors? Note that these warriors are nothing like those of the pagan world, such as those in Homer's epics (Achilleus, Hektor, Odysseus, etc). These are Christian warriors. Sure, they fight, but they only do so when necessary (Sir Gawain is an excellent example of this). For the most part, battles are one-on-one and glossed over very quickly. Sometimes we are where a wound is, or that a man is dying, but this is nothing like Homer's epics.
Also, Dear Son (yes, that's a name) takes his mother's advice in the wrong way and the result is a rather awkward scene with a girl. The two are in a tent, he leans over her and kisses her many times, she is angry and resists. The whole thing has a feeling of horror and is also comical at the same time.
Ladies and knights refer to each other as lovers (when such is the case) but we only here the reference and never know anything beyond it.
Perceval sleeps next to a girl, holding her in his arms, but we are aware that nothing else happened. Though there is some room for doubt on the reader's part, one simply needs to take into consideration de Troyes' story of Lancelot and the descriptions there to know that really the only thing that happened is what was described. I myself have not read Lancelot: the Knight of the Cart but my professor has and told me this.
Overall this is a very clean book and most (if not all) references to sexual or violent topics are fleeting, the sexual ones even being easy to miss completely.

My Thoughts
Having gotten over my frustration with the end of this story, I can say I rather enjoyed it. Perhaps part of this is because it followed a detailed reading of The Odyssey (don't get me wrong. I like Homer a lot, but I can only take so much of him at one time) and the verse here was much lighter. The culture shown in Perceval is a great balance. We have Christian knights striving for the good, bad knights who are all clearly bad and not striving for the good, and fighting. Yes, fighting. What's better than a story of a knight fighting for a maiden who requested his help?
Perhaps my favorite part about the story is that it shows not all fighting is bad. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying fighting is good, but in certain circumstances it is necessary. Here, in Perceval, we see a nice balance of fighting and negotiating, and a strong understanding of when to fight and when not to.
It was also just a really fun read, full of laugh-out-loud moments, and exciting. Who doesn't love reading about King Arthur and his knights?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Poll on Reviews

Hello dear readers,
On the right sidebar there is a poll. My hope is that many of you will vote on it and then we (the authors) will know what type of reviews you want to see more of. While I can't promise anything, I do hope to post more reviews of the winning category.
*EDITED TO ADD* The "other" category is defined by you. Some people have suggested TV shows and video games. If you do vote other, please leave a comment on this (or any) post saying what you mean by "other."
Thank you!
~ Maria Gianna

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Album Review: Culture of Life

Hi all!
I'm going to do something a little different. Instead of a book or movie (like usual), I'm going to review an album of music. Brace yourselves :)

Title: Culture of Life
Author: Danielle Rose
Genre: Christian
My Rating: *****
Age Group: various
Official Rating: N/A

My Summary:

I'm going to do this by song because it seems like the most efficient way to review an entire album.
(Note: I apologize for the length this method caused, but because of the content of the album and how it is distributed, I thought it would be the best way to review this particular work.)

"Little Flower"
Style: gentle, almost like a lullaby
The Story: Rose addresses a popular lie in our world today: overpopulation. She compares children to roses in God's garden, saying one can never have too many. She also brings to attention that God is the one who creates us, and children, and that He has promised to take care of us and does so. God loves all, misses nothing, and provides (through us) for His children.
Ages: all

"Just One Life"
Style: slow, careful, sorrowful but also hopeful
The Story: A young woman is pregnant and the father doesn't want the child, dropping her and the unborn baby off outside a clinic and saying it'll be over soon. He says that it's the best thing for her and that she doesn't need any more problems, implying that the child is merely a problem and nothing more. While the word "abortion" is not actually mentioned, it's not easy to miss what is happening for those who  are aware of such things. We don't know the baby's fate. The focus switches to a sobbing man on a bridge who is wondering if anyone will care if he lives or dies.
Then we get another reflection. Just one life saved us. Just one "yes" to that life brought Jesus into the world. Every life is precious.
Ages: 10+

"You Matter"
Style: upbeat, joyful, praising.
The Story: Each of us is precious. No one like you has ever been in the world and no one will follow you. Your soul has life for all eternity and you have valuable because you are an image of God that the world hasn't encountered yet. You are necessary in this world and are irreplaceable.
Ages: all

"Waiting For You"
Style: gentle and lullaby-like, peacefully praising and trusting
The Story: God has a plan and the singer is looking forward to meeting her future spouse. She is determined to be chaste and wait patiently but hopefully and with longing. She refers to lying on her bed waiting, thinking about her future spouse whom God is preparing just for her. She speaks of her body as a gift wrapped beneath a tree (the cross) and only her future spouse will unwrap this gift after laying down his life, on their wedding night, with God. She adds that only her future spouse will "touch what's inside", as God gives her heart to this spouse "as is right". We rarely hear this in our culture, but Rose is wise to add that her heart has already been claimed by God, and does her spouse love her "enough to take second place"? After all, only God can "fulfill [her] deepest desire".
Ages: 10+ (it's easy to miss the meaning behind what the gift is, what is meant by it being unwrapped, the rest)

"Make Love With God"
Style: joyful, gently dancing, praising, free, deep chords mixed with carefree dancing ones
The Story: A married couple welcomes God into their love. We hear that "Pressed up against your skin, this is where life begins". The young woman surrenders everything including her fertility. Then we get the beautiful refrain: "Let's make love, let's make life. Let's make love with God." We are informed that the two are free but open to conception and "embrac[ing] responsibility". We get the line "And when we know it's best to wait, then we'll chose to abstain" because "we have learned how our bodies are made." Underlying is a trust in God's plan and a welcoming of children whenever God gives them. We learn that the two will create a new life, with God.
Ages: 16+ (this is by far the most explicit song in the album)

"A Mother's Communion"
Style: a prayer of surrender, joy, thanksgiving, and trust in God
The Story: A mother is with child, apparently unexpectedly, but it is viewed as an "invitation." She is afraid but willing and trusting in God who gave her the child. She knows the baby is alive even though she cannot see it and it is a true human being, complete with body and soul. Unworthy, the mother nevertheless surrenders her body for her child. She shelters the child inside her, gives the babe her blood, her "breast is bread" and "milk is wine" for the child to live by. She plays the chalice for her child, a living tabernacle.
It is reflected that the mother lays down her life for the child, and there is no greater love than that. Suffering will follow, but it will not be regretted. God gave her the child and though the mother feels unworthy, she knows she can be healed by Him.
Just as we hear at Mass, "This is My Body" and it has been given up for us, so too does for this mother: "This is my body, given up for you", Rose sings.
Ages: all (unless the reference the breast being bread and milk being wine makes some people squirm, which is completely understandable)

"Joseph's Prayer of Adoption"
Style: almost oriental in sound, a story being told
The Story: This is the story of St. Joseph, the stepfather of Jesus, but also of all adoptive fathers. A child is invited to sit with his father where he is told that his life started "within your mother's womb, another father gave the seed". Still, the babe needed a father, and God chose one. The father welcomes the opportunity to "take this child as your own...give this child a home. All the love that he deserves, I want him to receive. To know the father's love in this family." The father puts aside his work to spend time with his child. He intends to teach the child prayer and to serve his family. He holds the child as the "greatest gift I've received" and wants to share the love he has received with his child. We are reminded that God also adopted us, not leaving us behind, and sheltering all with love undeserved but given nonetheless.
Ages: all

"Can You Hear Me?"
Style: mournful, wailing, desperate, guilty and sorrowful, haunting, comes to a more peaceful end but we are still a bit haunted
The Story: A mother is mourning the loss of her unborn child. She says "my heart is like an empty sea" and "my womb is like an open grave". She is weeping without ceasing for her lost child. She cries out desperately, not knowing where to go with her pain but needing to escape it. The child responds from heaven where it dances with the angels. The child responds with "Momma can you hear me now?", adding "Momma do not be afraid" because she has loved the mother always and always will and that she is safe with God. God catches the tears of the mother. The child then cries out as well, joining the mother in the weeping, but the mother's cries overwhelm the verse and consume it, giving even the strongest listener shivers and tears. The mother then requests that Mary call her child by name, care for the child, and hold both of them (mother and child) close in her arms. It ends with a haunting, "Rest in peace" and quiet sobbing in the background.
Ages: 8+ (it really is quite haunting and a real tear-jerker)

"Psalm 51"
Style: a bit forceful and desperate, almost scratchy and a bit wild
The Story: This is psalm 51, David mourning the wrong he did to Bathsheba, to himself, and to God. We don't get David's story, but this is his psalm after he commits adultery with Bathsheba. The singer wants God to cleanse her of her sins, which she is well aware of and regretting, seeking forgiveness. She wants God to "create in me a clear heart" and not to "take...thy Holy Spirit from me." The short story is this: seeking forgiveness for past sins. There is nothing the be worried about concerning the lyrics.
Ages: all

"Glorious Wounds"
Style: gently rejoicing, steady beat, joyful
The Story: A reflection on the wounds of Christ, which remain even after He conquered death. They are a sign of His triumph. There are hints of St. Thomas (the one who doubted). There is mention of Jesus being pierced and scars and His sacrifice allowing us to live. The whole piece is a praise of Christ's wounds, His triumph, all in relation to His love for us. It is then suggested that we too can triumph and be proud of wounds we receive, "the greater the sin, the greater the light", "His mercy will shine."
Ages: all

"Not A Burden"
Style: very steady beat, something one could tap a foot to quite easily
The Story: The refrain says it all: "You are not a burden, you're a blessing to love." Life is seen as a gift and worth sacrificing for. Then comes the offer, almost a request, to wash one's feet and "serve your deepest needs." "Love is strong when I am weak." And it is beautiful to be open to receiving life.
Ages: all

"Sharing Calvary"
Style: slow, the beginning feels a bit Celtic, majestic
The Story: This is Jesus's song. He has suffered for us and questions, "what will you do" with your life? The thief then speaks up, crying out that he has been abandoned by God. But the other thief offers all he has: his suffering. Jesus assures the thief that he will join Him in paradise.
Ages: all

"The Saint That Is Just Me"
Style: reflective, gentle, slow, longing
The Story: The singer wants to be like all the saints who have gone before us. She names a few well known saints, reflecting on their lives, wishing she could be like them, and even reflecting on her struggles to do so. But then she recalls that Jesus "didn't die so I could be somebody else." Jesus died so she "could be the saint that is just me."
Ages: all

Style: deep chords, slow
The Story: She "couldn't see the future yet" but Jesus knows and is the author of life, every moment past/present/future is written. The singer's story has been written out "from my conception." Someone is groaning in labor pains, a passing reference joined with Jesus's death and being reborn. Part of the Our Father is sung. She reflects that one can only take love when one dies, that which is given and that which is received, and she prays for God's help at the hour of her death. "Death is only the beginning of a life that will never end."
Ages: all

"I Love Lifeland"
Style: cheerful, fast, upbeat
The Story: Everyone is to take a trip to "I Love Lifeland." It's advised to think of joyful things and make the world smile. Live joyfully because there is every reason to do so (many of which are named off).

Note on the author: Danielle Rose is a Catholic singer whose music is beautiful. She has gone on mission trips, considered the consecrated life, and is now out in the world evangelizing through music riddled with scriptural references.

My Thoughts:
Danielle Rose does a wonderful job at capturing the culture of death--and the Catholic view of how the world should be. Her music is refreshing and hopeful even when she is reflecting on the horrors in our culture today. She also portrays a beautiful image of marriage, its sacredness, and God's part in it. Marriage is, after all, a union of man, woman, and God. Life is precious and a gift that should never be turned down.
Mixed with a beautiful voice and artistic music, a message we need so badly to hear is brought to us. Surrounded by the culture of death, it is easy to become numb to the world even if one would never stoop to the low that the world has. But lukewarmness is the devil's strongest weapon.
Danielle Rose fights the battle bravely, picking us back up and catching us up in the beauty of God's creation.
As St. Augustine of Hippo said, all of creation is good. Rose removes the veil our culture has blinded us with to show us the truth in Augustine's words. Yes, all of creation is good. In fact, it's beautiful.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Movie Review: The Shaggy Dog (1959)

Title: The Shaggy Dog (1959)
Author: Disney
Genre: Family, Fantasy
My Rating: **
Age Group: 6+
Official Rating: Not Rated (it's 1959) Note: I would rate it at G or even E (everyone)

My Summary:
Mr. Daniels is a former post office worker and has a thing against dogs. Unfortunately, his youngest son wants a dog very badly. So when the older son turns into a dog as a result of a Latin spell he finds on an old ring, the youngest son is thrilled but knows the father must never find out or his brother will be kicked out of the house.
Strangely, Wilby (the older son) is turned into the new neighbor's dog. This isn't really a bad thing, as the new neighbor is rich and has a beautiful daughter about Wilby's age and the dog actually belongs to her. It works out beautifully for Wilby, who is referred to as a "good boy" and can't seem to get a date, unlike his "friend" Buzz, who can't seem to stop getting into romantic dilemmas. But when Wilby overhears a secret conversation about the missile plant, he knows something must be done.
Who takes the word of a dog? Certainly not the police. Can Wilby and his younger brother Moochie (who is thrilled to have a dog for a brother) stop the crime before it's too late?

Word of Warning:
Overall this was a rather innocent movie and my entire family (kids' ages 18-1) watched it. Still, I will mention the negative elements.

  •  Wilby and Moochie set off a rocket in their basement, and it blows a hole in the roof of the house.
  • Wilby turns out to be a shape-shifter, able to be a dog or a human (though not at will). It's the result of a spell and has something to do with dark magic used in the middle ages. There is a brief discussion on this between a professor at a museum and Wilby.
  • Buzz is smooth with the girls, but not honest, and ends up with two dates for a dance but manages to make sure neither one knows until the very end (and the discovery is an accident). He does, however, get what's coming to him, and by the end of the movie neither girl will speak to him. All the scenes with Buzz and the girls are innocent and, compared to modern movies, the problem is almost nonexistent. It's nicely refreshing to see.
  • Buzz is also slick with his friends, borrowing money from Wilby and refusing to return it.
  • Mr. Daniels shoots at at least one dog (who happens to be Wilby).
  • As a dog, Wilby attacks more than one person, growling and tackling the "victim". Still, only one complains of being bitten, and his companion scoffs at this, saying he doesn't see anything (neither do we).
  • A car is stolen (by Wilby the dog) and a car chase follows.
  • Moochie, in an attempt to save Wilby the dog, tells the police he doesn't know what his father is talking about even after being the one to bring up the entire story in the first place.
  • Mr. Daniels, after being betrayed by Moochie, undergoing interrogation, and an appointment with a psychiatrist, angrily tells his son not to talk to him.
  • A hand gun is pulled on Wilby and he is tied up and locked in a room while the criminals escape.
My Thoughts:
While the list of warnings seems long, it was actually a very innocent movie and one has little to worry about when pulling this out for a family movie night.
The reason the movie didn't get three stars is because the ending left me feeling very dissatisfied. Sure, all the problems are worked out, but not in a satisfying way and it leaves the viewer feeling a little disappointed. Still, there were plenty of moments to laugh during the movie and the plot was pretty well done as well.
I would watch it again willingly and really enjoyed the humor and innocence and drama that were wrapped together very nicely.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Movie Review: Bright Star

Title: Bright Star
Author: BBC
Genre: Romance, Historical
My Rating: **
Age Group: 16+
Official Rating: PG

My Summary:
Fanny Brawne is a sharp-tongued woman of fashion, and despite the frequent and loud criticism of Mr. Brown, she isn't afraid to own it. But when Mr. Keats moves in with Mr. Brown and introduces her to the beauties of poetry, Fanny is taken off guard. She is intrigued by Keats, and by his poetry, which, quite frankly, is beyond her. So she unabashedly asks for poetry lessons, which inevitably lead the two closer together. Their relationship changes drastically, however, when Keats becomes sick.

The Good:
Fanny is self-centered and quick-tempered at the beginning of the movie, and although she doesn't completely reform, her relationship with Keats eventually softens her enough to be somewhat likable.
Keats has an idealistic but absolutely beautiful concept of romantic love. At one point, when Mr. Brown teasingly sent a letter to Fanny (during this period, sending a woman a letter was pretty much asking her to marry you), Keats, who most definitely has feelings for Fanny, emphatically tells him that he has no respect for the sacredness of love. Later on, after Keats and Fanny are engaged, Fanny offers herself to him. Keats looks at her for an instant, then turns away, stating "I have a conscience." His love is completely self-giving.

The main problem with this movie is Mr. Brown. He's a ladies' man, and although there (thankfully) isn't too much focus on this, there are a few scenes that should be mentioned. Keats' health starts to decline, and Brown tells him to "bed [Fanny]" to cure himself. Keats lets this comment slide. We see Brown flirting openly with a maid, and are later told in a (much too long) scene that the maid is "with child". We see the maid pregnant, and later with a baby, while Brown tags dutifully along. He does not seem particularly ashamed of his actions.
In a comment which Fanny meant as innocent, she asks Keats if he slept in her bed at their summer home. Keats seems taken aback by the comment until Fanny explains what she means.
Keats is actively dying, and Fanny, in utter desperation, tells him that she will give him anything. He refuses the offer.
Fanny and Keats kiss frequently. Most kisses are innocent, though one or two go on much longer than needed.
At one point, they lie down on a bed (fully clothed) and discuss the future.
Fanny wears dresses that reveal cleavage.
When Keats has not responded to one of her letters, Fanny breaks down and demands a knife so she can commit suicide. She tends to have a very emotional relationship with Keats.
Fanny utters one d**n. I believe they might have taken the Lord's name in vain a few times.
When Keats becomes sick, we see a very bloodstained cloth which has come from the sickroom.

My Opinion:
 I had been looking forward to this movie for quite some time, mainly because I am a huge fan of Keats' poetry. Unfortunately, the movie was poorly made: the characters were incredibly uninteresting (except for Keats. And Brown, because he was a grumpy Scot), Fanny was a whiner through most of the movie, and it seemed as though BBC had made the movie for people who already knew everything about Keats (they didn't explain ANY back-story on the characters). Although they did an excellent job with the cinematography, they cut the scenes at all the wrong places so that the whole story seemed choppy.
On the other hand, the romance was absolutely beautiful. Fanny almost ruined it, but the passion and selflessness of Keats made up for everything lacking in her. Plus, the character of Mr. Brown, especially in the beginning, was quite fun to puzzle out. I liked him, despite his quite obvious flaws. Also, they quote Keats extensively, which is awesome.
I did enjoy the movie just because I'm a Keats fangirl, but I don't think anyone else would like it. This was definitely not one of BBC's crowning moments.

P.S. Although my "Bad" list is quite extensive, the movie was actually relatively clean except for the Brown issues, and even those were ignorable for the most part. I recommended this movie for 16+ because I didn't think anyone younger than that would actually enjoy watching it.

Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

Title: The Amazing Spider-Man
Author: Andrew Garfield as Spider-man, Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy
Genre: Science Fiction, Adventure, Drama
My Rating: ****
Age Group: 16+
Official Rating: PG-13

My Summary:
It's simple, really. It comes down to this: what’s in a hero? What does it take to be one? What kind of hero do you want? Do you want a guy like Clark Kent, whose only human traits are love for Louise Lane and a real talent for being clumsy? How about someone like Iron Man, who is sarcastic, pretends to have no weaknesses, and whose power comes from a suit of metal? Or would you like a boy, who can’t seem to decide what he is?
That is the true story of Spiderman. It’s not the plot, it’s not Curt Conners and the giant lizard, it is who Peter Parker actually is. Because, you see, Peter doesn’t know.
Take your typical science geek with posters of Einstein hanging in his room, a brain that churns out scientific equations, and a mouth that shoots of scientific jargon. Mix all that with a senior in high school who isn’t exactly at the top of the totem pole, enjoys photography, and has a crush on another senior (who happens to be cute and a tutor/science nerd).
But don't forget one thing: Parker was left by his parents with his aunt and uncle. His parents died when he was a very little boy.
Peter doesn't know who or what he is and we watch him struggle with that. He seems to waiver on a line between typical uncaring high schooler and kind nephew who really does love his adoptive parents. He has his tender moments and they're heart-wrenchingly sweet. Then he has his high schooler moments where he gets into fights, is late to class, and neglects various duties. Those are also heart wrenching, because as the viewer we see him trying to figure out which way to fall.
The biggest wound Peter has is far deeper than any gouges or bruises he gets during fights with a giant lizard. His wound comes from the lack of a father. He's lost, needing that guidance, and it's not there.
He's on his own, or so he thinks.
Then we have the plot with his dad's old partner in the science business, the little problem of a police chief wanting to capture Spider-Man, and the whole crush-on-Gwen thing.
Yes, Peter has a bit more than he can handle without the guidance that he needs so badly. He watched his uncle die, he's responsible for creating a monster with his scientific "genius", he's dating a girl whose father wants to arrest his other identity, and Dr. Connors wants to create a world where everyone is equal. Oh, and the little ordeal where Peter becomes part spider. Poor guy.
For the viewer, this all adds up for a fantastic movie filled with excitement, a few romantic scenes, lots of epic battles, awesome spider-man moves, and a great finding-self story. Does it get any better?
Mr. Stacy might not realize it, but his first positive words to Peter are just what Peter has needed to hear all his life from a man: “He’s not alone.”
His aunt states, “Peter Parker, if there’s one thing you are, it’s good.” And she’s right. He does have good in him—but he can’t seem to figure out what to do with it. And that's where all his troubles seem to come from.
Is he going to take responsibility?

Word of Warning:
This is a PG-13 movie, and rightly so. Here is a list of the negative elements:

  • Peter is beaten up by fellow high schoolers (kicked, punched, etc), and bloodied by his various fights with the lizard, falling from buildings, and crashing into things. He is also shot in the leg by a policeman.
  • Peter flees the law.
  • Peter starts out on a quest for revenge, desperate to fix something he's sure he's responsible for: Ben's death. At first, he's quick and ruthless. Check the guy's wrist of the tattoo, move on. But then, when he gets the spider suit, he starts to enjoy it, making funny comments and taking his time.
  • Peter accidentally rips a woman's shirt off when he is still getting used to his powers. To his credit, he is horrified and turns away, shielding his eyes and apologizing. That doesn't save the viewers, however, and we see the woman standing there in her bright pink bra.
  • Peter kisses Gwen a bit too passionately the first time(s). In a different scene, she pulls away and protests quietly, he insists and pushes forward. Nothing more than kissing, but he did not respect her refusal.
  • An unknown couple at the high school kiss rather passionately in front of Peter's locker, making it hard for him to open it and get his books.
  • In an attempt to get some privacy, Gwen lies about having cramps and says that she feels emotional and it's very brutal, all to her dad, who backs away and says he doesn't want to know.
  • Peter dates a girl whose father clearly doesn't like him and who wants to arrest Spider-man (Peter's second identity).
  • A man suggests bringing war veterans into a scientific experiment regarding limb regeneration. This idea is shot down by another man, who is horrified at the thought.
  • Cars hang from a bridge and we know at least one is occupied: by a little boy who is terrified. The car starts on fire. (The boy does survive.)
  • Peter replaces an unknown word with "Mother Hubbard", which he spits out angrily and in a moment of frustration, anger, and terror.
  • The word "a**" is used at least once, as are a few other words.
  • There is shooting done by the police.
  • A giant lizard is shot at and appears to be dead but is not.
  • Men turn into lizards.
  • A man seems to be possessed by something evil, which is embodied in a lizard, almost as though a lizard's mind is taking over the man's mind.
  • Animal experimentation (human experimentation is mentioned, but is held off until things are mostly grounded and sure)
  • Uncle Ben is shot and we see blood, which does a scene jump with Peter and remains on his hands.
  • Peter promises to stay away from Gwen in order to protect her--the last thing Mr. Stacy asks of him. But Peter reveals at the end of the movie that the best promises are the ones you can't keep, shooting a look at Gwen.
My Thoughts:
No, this isn't the Spider-Man we saw in the original movie. This is a troubled boy who is trying so hard to grow up but just can't seem to figure out how. He needs his dad. He staggers around, empty, desperate, lost, trying to make sense of everything on his own. He gets so close to the good, but gets knocked away, and even the end of the movie isn't satisfactory. Really? Making a promise you don't intend to keep? Not something that should be done, especially to someone who is dying.
Yet we feel for Peter. How could we not? Even as he rides his skateboard around in the school after being told not to, he stands up for a kid being bullied even though Peter is well aware he hasn't got a chance. His humorous comments to the criminals are enough to make us smile, but we wonder, when did he start enjoying this? At first, we felt like he was blindly searching for a way to deal with Ben's death. But when he starts mocking the criminals he attacks, we know he's gone over the edge.
He's not all bad. I found Garfield's portrayal of a high school guy to be very well done. So well done that it hurt.
But Spider-Man is not fully redeemed by the end of this movie. No, he still has a lot of learning to do. He's no Spider-Man. Even as a senior in high school, because of his inner struggles, he's very much a Spider-Boy.
That's a dangerous thing.

So we come full circle: what’s in a hero? What does it take to be one? What kind of hero do you want?
Do you want a Spider-Boy? Are you willing to let him spend more than one movie turning his life around?
Realistically, it should take him more than that. I think it's reasonable to wait for more development, as he really has started to show some progress by the end of this movie. Personally, I enjoy a story about a hero who finds it hard to be a hero.
Who knows? Maybe by the end of the next movie he'll have moved on from being Spider-Boy to being a real Spider-Man.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Movie Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

Please note that while we try to avoid most of the major spoilers, the nature of our goal here will result in a few spoilers. We choose to warn you instead of let you be surprised, which sometimes requires that we give a few things away. Still, we do our best to avoid any big spoilers and try to leave a trail full of gaps so it is difficult to figure out exactly how things progress. Wouldn't want to spoil all the excitement!
Also, I tend to err on the side of being overly careful in my age recommendations because it's better to be safe than sorry. Which is why I also include the "word of warning" section so you can see the reasons and decide for yourself who it is appropriate for.

Title: Oz: The Great and Powerful
Author: N/A
Genre: Fantasy
My Rating: ***
Age Group: 10+ (for freaky witches and moral weaknesses with the plot)
Official Rating: PG
My Summary:

We start in black and white, as I am told is the tradition, and we are at a carnival. Oz is up to his usual tricks, flattering a girl he doesn't have any lasting intentions for, but runs into trouble, and things get messy. Long story short, a tornado sends him to a very strange land where he meets a  beautiful witch.
Oz has one goal: greatness. He wants to be good, not great, he tells an old love who he apparently really did care for. So when he finds out that everyone believes he is The Wizard (of the prophecy, of course), and a room full of riches and a throne come with being the wizard, well, how is he supposed to turn that down?
Of course, somewhere in there he does end up flirting with both the witch he first met and her sister, causing a bit of a mix up, but does that really matter?
Oz doesn't think so.
But Oz is a coward. He wants to do things the easy way, he wants to escape and become great at the same time. Is that possible? He certainly thinks so.
When his quest to kill the evil witch is turned on its head, he's ready to leave. But someone tells him that while he is not the wizard they were expecting, if he can only get everyone to believe, anything will be possible.
Everything spirals out of control and Oz pulls some old carnival tricks out of his hat, finishing with a bang.

As for his lady love? She tells him that he is good. And that is better than greatness.Word of Warning:
The entire story follows a man who thinks he can bestow affection on women and move on without any ramifications to himself, and apparently to the women either. He wants to be great and rich no matter what it takes. But he staunchly rejects killing anyone and is horrified at the thought.
Still, I was a little worried as I was watching the movie. While all he ever does is kiss a girl and dance with her in the moonlight (in addition to sweet words and such), I found myself squirming a little. The movie was more than half way over and he still hadn't given any indication of changing. I knew he would change (it's a required cliche, no?), but I wasn't sure if he would change as much as he needed to. Rest assured, he did, and I was impressed with the writers for pulling it off so well. He learns that his affections cannot be given in the way he had done before and that they do have consequences--horrible ones that he regrets very deeply.

Then there was the idea that of course he wasn't a wizard with actual power, if everyone would just fall for his tricks and believe he was, things would be just fine. And they are. Which is a problem. The underlying message is that if one lies and everything works out for the greater good, everything is just fine. It has a nice fuzzy feel to it, but really, utilitarianism, anyone?

Other than the problems with the story line, we have a scene where a sister betrays her sister and one of them turns into a nasty green witch because her love for the wizard hurt her so deeply. She is destructive, throws fireballs, and has an evil cackle like any good witch would. China Town (populated by people made of china) is shown destroyed and a china girl is shown with both her legs broken off. Because of her species, the scene is not as disturbing as it could be (she does talk and walk, as do many other curious creatures in this world). Some of the characters take a trip through a graveyard, a trip in a dark forest results in musing about ghosts and the undead (both terms are glossed over and mentioned very briefly), there are winged baboon creatures, and several battle scenes (though no one is shown injured except the China girl mentioned earlier).
The kisses between characters are brief, as far as I can remember, except for *SPOILER!!!* the one at the end, but it is still done in an appropriate manner and when it goes beyond the usual time frame we see only an outline in smoke/on a curtain. Nothing to worry about in this area.

My Comments:
I have not watched the entire first movie with Dorothy in it and have been told that is a crime (I did watch part of it). Still, this is a wonderful explanation for the first movie. Who is the wicked witch, exactly? Why is she so wicked? Who is Oz and how did he get to a land that seems to be named after him? And what's with the whole nobody-sees-the-Oz thing? All (and probably more) are realistically explained and the viewer feels satisfied. Particularly if he/she has seen the first one. For me, a stranger to this whimsical land, I felt this was a wonderful introduction to the Land of Oz.
I was particularly impressed with the conclusion. We are told that being good is better than being great. The only confusion comes in the definition of "great". But overall it was a great, oh, I'm sorry, good finish.