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Like many fantasy geeks, I grew up on The Hobbit. I remember a sprawling map of Middle Earth drawn by my father and nights spent listening to tales of Bilbo Baggins before I started reading them for myself. Thus I followed the ups and downs of the making of the film version with keen interest, mourning the loss of del Toro from the director's seat and examining the trailers for signs of the same loving translation that made Lord of the Rings a surprising success. So now that Jackson's first installment of the epic retelling of The Hobbit has hit theatres, how does it stand alongside the original text? And what does all this new technology and added "framerate" really mean for the future of cinema? 

 

Rise of the Guardians is surprisingly one of the most enjoyable movies I've seen this season, with its intricate melding of whimsical and historical design with a futuristic, almost steampunk take on classic childhood figures. But there’s more than meets the eye to this film’s use of every holiday figure from Santa Claus to the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy as fuel for a nostalgic reflection on the importance of childhood and the many influences (particularly at our current moment in time) that cause us to grow up faster than intended.

 

High school reunions make for great fodder for popular culture. But they're quickly becoming irrelevant, and if the digital age has its way, soon references to reunions in movies and books will make about as much sense to the rising generation as references to VHS and mix tapes. Why? Well, consider the satisfying resolutions of the classic high school reunion in popular culture--the perfect retaliation to high school itself. Geeks and outcasts come back successful and attractive. Popular kids come back with stories of divorce and minimum wage jobs. The real world flips all of high school's cliques and accolades on their heads, or at least in Hollywood's versions it does. All of this depends on mystery--the excitement of finding out what happened to a cast of once-familiar characters who've vanished for years and suddenly reappear, transformed. 

 

Disney’s video-game inspired Wreck-it Ralph just arrived in theatres, bringing with it a heavy dose of digital nostalgia and inevitable questions from children about arcades. The reinterpretation of Donkey Kong, Mario, Halo, and other major titles is gorgeous (and surprisingly compelling in 3D.) But in between Sonic sightings and Qbert jokes, there’s also a beautiful rejection of the princess formula that has powered so many Disney franchises and sold so many tulle gowns to the toddler set. Wreck it Ralph is perhaps the most Pixar-like film to come out of the Disney Studios so far, but it manages to sidestep much of the male-centric worldview that characterizes Pixar's productions (with Brave a dubious exception).

While filmmakers have remade several video game franchises as movies, usually to disastrous results (Doom, anyone?), there are fewer movies based on abstracted video game worlds themselves. Some of the best are films like The Last Starfighter, eXistenZ, and even Tron--films that bridge the gap between the world where the physical hardware lives and the world inside gamespace. Wreck-it Ralph is a video game movie of this latter type, although it resembles Toy Story more than any of those predecessors, most of which featured the rise of the geek hero: gamers empowered by their mastery of the medium.

Mostly, those journeys have followed male gamers and characters—unless we count Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider—and brought the baggage of the medium with them. Watching the previews made me deeply concerned that Wreck-it Ralph would follow in that trend, particularly as the inevitable parallels to Nintendo mount up. For all their virtues in story and world-building, Nintendo games tend to have some of the most powerless female characters. Princess Peach, doomed to be continually stranded in another tower, is practically a Disney princess already (complete with gown.)

Wreck-it Ralph follows the Donkey Kong-esque Ralph, a villain tired of endlessly breaking villains and living in the trash of his 30-year-old video game community. He travels out beyond his game and into modern video games through a grand centeral station housed in the arcade's electrical system, offering plenty of opportunities for Disney to showcase the serious evolution of games (and 3D characther modeling) both in content and form. Toy Story imagined the emotional lives of inanimate objects, while Wreck-it Ralph works with characters whose lives are usually scripted--literally, as many of the characters are fundamentally defined by their programming. Wreck-it Ralph cannot stop breaking things any more than his compatriot Fix-it Felix can stop fixing them. 

In his game-hopping quest for meaning or at least a shiny medal, Ralph encounters two women from opposite ends of the video game spectrum. The first is a hyperfeminine supersolider type Calhoun, straight out of Halo or Samus, with a tragic backstory that keeps her removed from emotional connections. The second is a anime girl with candy in her hair and a tendency towards crude humor, Vanellope, who is on her own mission to become a racer in Sugar Rush, a Mario Kart-esque racing game through a virtual Candyland, Thankfully, she's already one to take steps towards her goal, and she's not waiting for someone to sweep her off to a cushier life in the castle.By contrast, the biggest problem with female game characters is as they tend to be NPCs--rather than playable avatars--they're often defined by someone else's desire. Perhaps the best twist on that formula is in indie game Braid, which takes the "princess rescue" platformer to unexpected places. 

 

Disney movies have about as good a track record as video games themselves when it comes to empowered female characters: the Disney princesses are generally the stars of their stories, but historically haven't been the best at rescuing themselves. That tide is turning thanks to films like Tangled and Wreck-it Ralph. If you make it out to see Wreck-it Ralph, there's lots to respect in the rendering of these many game worlds--and in Vanellope's fairly progressive story arc. (Not to mention the stunning and technically innovative short film before the credits.) Given the often painful expressions of gender politics surrounding gaming culture, this is hopefully a sign that the next generation of gaming will have more female characters motivated by their own quests rather than waiting as rewards for others.

And if it isn't a beacon for the industry, well, at least it's another step forward for Disney, and a nice film counterpart to the playfulness and gaming popping up throughout their parks.

If you've been following the fallout from SOPA and PIPA, the latest move from America's favorite supervillains the Motion Picture Association and Recording Industry Association of America will be no surprise. A proposal for ISPs to implement further copyright violation "mitigation measures" opens the door to fines, reduced Internet speeds, and even revocation of access. These measures supposedly target file sharing networks and torrenting, but could potentially expand to threaten consumers and creators of transformative works or limit access and sharing of materials of all kinds. And as several ISPs involved are major cable providers, users stuck in areas dominated by those ISPs would have no good alternative. Sound like a dystopian horror story? It already is--Cory Doctorow's latest, Pirate Cinema, a call to action for us millenials and the rising generation of iPad toting media (re)mixers.

J.K. Rowling's first novel for adults is already attracting plenty of criticism and skepticism: and let's face it, at this point she can do anything she wants. She doesn't need this book to sell. If you've read the reviews of J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy on Amazon alone, you know already that it hasn't been well received. Like the most ardent of Harry Potter fans, I pre-ordered the book long before reviews were even an issue. And while I approached it with some trepidation, I was surprised by how firmly grounded in reality this work is. That is perhaps everyone's biggest objection: there's nothing escapist about J.K. Rowling's unforgiving depiction of small-town politics, pettiness, drama and abuse. J.K. Rowling has perhaps unwittingly reminded us what made Hogwart so appealing: it offered a magic place removed from all these things. Take away the magic, and all that is left is the harshness of reality.

Robot & Frank may not have made it to a widespread release, but it is perhaps the ultimate buddy comedy of the future. The premise -- a senior citizen and his robotic companion restart the man's former career as a cat burglar -- would be unremarkable perhaps without the robot. The movie even uses the real robot ASIMO as the foundation for Frank's robotic ally. With so little left to science fiction, and artificial intelligence and robotics extending every day, the movie's world may be just around the corner. And our own "real" robotic companions are on their way, including the newly relaunched Furby.

Everyone noticed last week when Obama popped in to do an "Ask Me Anything" on Reddit, presumably baring his soul--typos and all--to users across the Internet. While the stunt crashed the forum, and showed Obama's savvy as well as his willingness to play along with "pics or it didn't happen" requests, it ultimately didn't grant us much more access to Obama's thoughts than any other press interview with carefully chosen questions and mostly canned responses. This type of questioning to public figures may be nothing new--but it is an interesting case for the politics of online speech, which elsewhere in pop culture right now has been a subject for dystopian play.

Once upon a time, I was a pretty epic Magic: The Gathering geek. I was the only girl at Wizards of the Coast's GameCamp back when Hasbro didn't own them and Richard Garfield made personal appearances to talk to middle schoolers and sign cards. GameCamp was so short-lived (and so long ago!) that there's almost no history of it on the 'net. It truly represented an era: fanatical play in-person, obsession with the novelty of the BattleTech pods downstairs in the Game Center that offered the best VR us campers had ever seen, guest speakers and a big center right in the heart of Seattle. Technology has leapt forward incomprehensibly fast since then, but Magic the Gathering has stayed popular--and now, with the iPad version of Duels of the Planeswalkers, I've even started playing again. Looking at Magic: The Gathering then and now, in both digital and physical arenas, reminds me both why I stopped playing and why I almost wish I hadn't.

Voldemort by Nick Webb, FlickrYou might have seen a number of Harry Potter anniversaries celebrated around Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook lately: J.K. Rowling's birthday. The anniversary of the last midnight book release, when many of us joined with hordes of fans to stand in the local Borders (remember them?) for hours on end, then went home to stay up all night reading and even rereading before anyone could spoil the finale. Now, years later, the Harry Potter homage in the Olypics opening ceremony has placed the series alongside children's literature icons from Peter Pan to Mary Poppins...but will the Harry Potter fandom endure as the books ages and perhaps even takes a slow procession towards the "classics" section of the bookstore? If fandom is spurred by collective passion and a shared desire to explore a universe, will the virtual halls of Hogwarts empty?