Why I won’t be seeing the movie If I Stay

If I Stay

I want to talk about If I Stay, the young adult book by Gayle Forman. All 231 pages rest on one question: What would you do if you had to choose?

As in, if you found yourself looking down on your comatose body after surviving a terrible car crash that kills your parents and only brother, would you want to stick around for all the ensuing pain or hightail it out of there?

When I saw a commercial for If I Stay (out Aug. 22) and Chloë Grace Moretz’s (one of my favorite young actresses) character got all weepy saying, “He wrote me a song,” my heart didn’t flutter. I thought it looked dumb and badly acted:

Like, this scene looks boring:

But maybe the book is good, I thought. OK. Nope. Not any better.

If I Stay has the potential to be good, but it’s a hugely overrated book. While wandering the hospital all corporeal and watching her loved ones talk to her broken body, the character Mia debates whether she wants to stay (and live without her family) or let herself die. You figure the author isn’t going to write a book where the message is “life isn’t that worth living,” so you know she’ll probably choose to live — but the point is more to explore the decision and all its implications. After all, who really gets to choose? Probably doesn’t happen all that often.

So she does a lot of thinking, mostly about music and her boyfriend. Her parents were rockers in their day, and her boyfriend has his own band that’s gaining popularity, but she plays the cello. Lame — or at least she thinks so. Most of her recollections deal with her doubts, not about whether her boyfriend Adam loves her but why he loves her. She can’t believe someone so cool would care about someone as plain as her. She doesn’t feel like she even belongs in her own family.

Then Adam shows up at the hospital (back to real time now), and she’s a mess. Seeing him makes her want to live, and that complicates her decision to call it quits. Because romance.

If I Stay is a pretty easy read — and it ends so abruptly you’ll be disappointed (I didn’t realize the 100 pages at the end of my version was all authory, previewy stuff). I wanted Forman to dig deeper into the question of why someone would stay (and what it means not to), but she never did. She never ventured beyond the obvious or connected all the stuff Mia thought about — music, love, family belonging, friendship — back to her final decision in a way that felt like it actually meant something.

And what about the movie line where Moretz’s character cries and smiles and says, “He wrote me a song”? Yeah, that never even happens.

So I don’t know about you, but I’m chalking this one up as another overrated YA book and skipping the theaters.

Grade: D

Nightmares in the jungle: a review of Catching Fire

I can only form one clear thought.

This is no place for a girl on fire.

Catching Fire cover smallI’m already well into reading Mockingjay, but I wanted to stop and discuss Catching Fire (spoilers!), the middle novel of The Hunger Games, which came to movie theaters this winter.

I always expect second books in trilogies to be the weakest. In Catching Fire, author Suzanne Collins turns the story in a predictable direction: a budding rebellion against the Capitol. The plot lacks as much substance as the first book, but Collins manages to surprise me by throwing main character Katniss Everdeen back in the Hunger Games with a bunch of old people and young, lethal victors from the past annual “celebrations.”

Katniss will always have a place in the Games now, but I didn’t expect to see her back in costume so soon. It’s a good twist, but not everyone will approve: The Games segment of the book is short and too similar to events we’ve already seen, and the first half to two-thirds are plodding. The romance, fake or otherwise, between Katniss and Peeta — the boy with the bread and her star-crossed “lover” — and Katniss and Gale — her childhood friend and fellow hunter — is more prominent in this novel (that’s good or bad, depending on what you were hoping for) although Collins thankfully grounds it in the grim reality of their situation. In the Games or in District 12, every move Katniss makes still puts her life and the lives of others in jeopardy.

So Catching Fire is lighter on content than the first book. There are some beautiful or dramatic moments involving a wedding gown, Katniss’s lead stylist (Cinna), and her competitors — and supposed allies — in the Games. I found the story absorbing though maybe that was because the romance was so juicy, but I also liked Katniss’s opponents more this time around. They’re a lot more striking: Johanna, who strips and trains naked (the actress for her in the movie, Jena Malone, is perfect); Finnick, charming and arrogant and deadly in the water and on land, who becomes one of my favorite new characters; and the intelligent and weird “Nuts” and “Volts,” to name a few. I also liked all the environmental traps in the arena even if they felt contrived (monkeys, blood rain, etc.), like Collins was just dropping obstacles in there to pad out the Games (not that the wall of fire from book one was ever particularly clever or original). The characters’ interactions are what make the battle royale interesting, not anything the Gamemakers throw at them — although I did think the jungle and clock theme were fun.

I spent a good amount of time during my read-through thinking about Peeta and Gale and whom, if either, Katniss is better off with. I don’t think it’s fair that she should be forced into a romance when marriage and kids and love are the last things on her mind. But for her, these relationships are still happening — unwillingly and as much out of necessity as natural desire. Her survival in the Games depends on how well she and Peeta can put on a “show” for the audience, but they’re also thrust together privately through their mutual situation. They comfort each other when they’re tormented by nightmares; their trust in each other is strong because of the Games — and that bond, formed through the preservation of their own mortality, is much more intense than that between her and Gale. Those two only tasted a small measure of danger in the woods outside District 12. Their reading of each other’s body language is much more intimate as hunters, and perhaps their world view is more similar, but Katniss never expressed a love for Gale whereas with Peeta, she feels gratitude and admiration — for the eloquence of his words, for his optimism. For saving her life time and again. For understanding what it’s like to survive the Games because he was there with her.

I don’t know how the trilogy will end, but I’m hoping Katniss gets to be with Peeta. What started as distrust and confusion and a sickly sweet performance has morphed into genuine affection, friendship, and more. They sleep soundly next to one another. She notices his hands as they work on a painting or drawing, like a lover would. And that’s all because of the nightmare they went through in their first Hunger Games. Sometimes, life is funny that way.

Grade: B

Reading the game: who else loves Mortal Kombat?

People seemed to respond well to my previous article about the selection of Uncharted books and comics available, so I thought I’d do the same with another video game I reviewed recently, Mortal Kombat Komplete Edition. Since the early nineties, Mortal Kombat has developed a negative reputation for its violence and gore, and … let’s just say the Komplete Edition, which packs in the DLC from last year’s Mortal Kombat 9 for the same retail price, doesn’t help matters—especially not with its up-close and gruesome X-ray moves, which show back-breaking and skull-slamming from the inside out.

I like fighting games (Guilty Gear in particular), but I never really got into Mortal Kombat. I rented Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe from Midway Games and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment (WBIE) back in 2008 because of my interest in comic books, but that wasn’t exactly the best representation of Mortal Kombat, and it didn’t make me a fan of the series to say the least. On the other hand, the new Mortal Kombat is arguably the best representation one could hope for, so I’ve seen both the ugly and beautiful sides of the game.

Anyway, since I was reviewing the game for a website, I had to do a lot of playing when MK isn’t normally my game of choice. Because the game’s story retells the events of the first three games, Mortal Kombat is a perfect introduction to the series. And it helps that the game is just GOOD.

Now on to some reading! I dug up these books for all the MK fans out there.

Mortal Kombat by Jeff Rovin
Publisher: Berkley
Paperback: 293 pages
Publication Date: June 1, 1995

This one’s an oldie and definitely out of print, but it shouldn’t be difficult to track down online. Considering the live-action movie came out in 1995, this is no doubt closely tied with the New Lines film. Rovin himself was an assistant editor at DC Comics in the ’70s. One of his other novels, Tom Clancy’s Op-Center: War of Eagles, became a New York Times bestseller.

Mortal Kombat: A Novel by Martin Delrio
Publisher: Tor Books
Paperback: 216 pages
Publication Date: August 15, 1995

Delrio’s book was a direct novelization of the movie. Apparently “Martin Delrio” is a pseudonym for not one, but two people: James D. MacDonald and his wife, Debra Doyle. The adaptation contains images from the movie. MacDonald assumed many different names and wrote the Circle of Magic (not to be confused with the books by Tamora Pierce) and Mageworld series.

Mortal Kombat: Annihilation by Jerome Preisler
Publisher: Tor Books
Paperback: 184 pages
Publication Date: November 1997

Preisler’s book served as a novelization of the second Mortal Kombat film, which released in 1997 along with the book. The author has written CSI and Tom Clancy books, most notably.

Also, somebody was crazy enough to put some of these books online, so you can read those for free. Amazingly, the author of the webpage provides different formats for each book, including .MOBI files and PDF.

Mortal Kombat: The Movie: Behind the Scenes by Michael Goldman and Richard Aaron
Publisher: Prima Lifestyles
Paperback: 96 pages
Publication Date: August 16, 1995

This companion to the original film might actually be worth a look for nostalgia’s sake. The book documents the special effects, plot, and cast of the movie along with 100 stills. Richard Aaron handled photography for Mortal Kombat and other media productions, and Michael R. Goldman worked as a feature editor and staff writer for Daily Variety at the time and contributed to several science fiction publications.

Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming by Yasmin B. Kafai, et al.
Publisher: The MIT Press
Paperback: 400 pages
Publication Date: February 25, 2011

You can tell by the title that this is a collection of essays, written by a number of contributors, so Mortal Kombat is only one topic of discussion—and unfortunately, I’m not sure how much of that discourse it represents. I’m getting the sense that the book is more about the medium’s response to women, in games and out of them, and less about Mortal Kombat itself, an implication that’s already been made based on the key word “beyond” in the title. So I can’t say that this is the perfect read for MK fans, but I thought it was interesting nonetheless and wanted to throw it out there. After all, Mortal Kombat has a lot of scantily clad women. I’m not even sure how some of their outfits stay on. Especially Mileena’s …

What Mortal Kombat books do you recommend?