Sunday, December 30, 2007

Motivational Speaker Comes Back To Jefferson For A Second Go Around

Growing up is tough. Whether it be on the rough side of town in Los Angeles or even the humble suburbs of Jefferson, the years between childhood and adulthood are some of the most trenchant and trying times for teenagers, no matter what area they happen to grow up in.

And that’s why motivational speaker extraordinaire, Keith Hawkins, who’s been traveling to schools across the county for the past 15 years now, has been called in to work his magic at Jefferson High School and Middle School on the 14th and 15th respectively.

“When we get somebody like Keith to come to our school, I know the PTA is doing their job,” says Michelle Cannorozzi, Vice President of Programs for the High School Parent, Teachers, and Student Association, and Program Liaison for the Middle School.

“We really wanted to get more character based [activities] for leading your own life,” says Cannorozzi.

And Mr. Hawkins will be doing just that with his Stepping Up To The Challenge presentation, which he’ll be presenting to the kids when he swings by this year.

“The title might sound the same, but the content is different,” says Mr. Hawkins.

He says the title might sound the same because this actually isn’t his first time talking at the high school and middle school. Five years ago, he actually came by before, teaching the students about how to stay motivated and afloat of the problems that may be plaguing their lives.

“[It’s all about] the challenges they face in regards to education,” Keith says.

And Keith is definitely the right person to do it since he knows all about what it takes to exercise one’s demons.

Growing up on the harsher side of LA in a single parent environment, Keith was a leader even back when he was a child. Unfortunately, it was for the opposite side of society.

It actually wasn’t until he met a motivational speaker of his own named, Phil Boyte, that Keith decided to change his ways and get on track with where he wanted to go with his life.

And fifteen years later, he’s definitely moved on. Having spoken from everywhere to Newark to Columbine after the school shootings, Keith, who originally worked with the motivational group Learning for Living with his mentor before he moved on, has since gone on to become one of the leading speakers to the youth of America.

“I interacted with [the kids of Columbine] as if it were any other school,” says Keith on the experience of handling a tragedy. “While others were treating it as this huge thing, I went there and treated them like regular students.”

And in that way, Keith helped to make them feel normal again and not like the nation’s pariahs, which is always the case when put in the spotlight on a national scale.

“[I want to] get rid of doubt in their lives, and how they deal with fear,” says Keith, with fear being an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real (Keith likes to use acronyms a lot).

The speech on doubts and fears will especially press on an aspect at Jefferson’s school as one of the students last year actually committed suicide.

“There was a death of a student [last] year,” says Cannorozzi, “and Keith asks, ‘Do you want me to touch on it? Do you want me to leave it alone?’”

Keith will of course touch on it and other aspects of the teenagers’ and parents’ existence when he comes by and speaks on the 14th and 15th, (a parent session will also be held at night on the 14th at the high school). That is his job after all—the job of a motivational leader.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

National Treasure: 2-Disc Set Review

When the Nic Cage vehicle, National Treasure came out in 2004, nobody expected it to be the massive, worldwide hit that it was ($347.5 million dollars sure is a lot of money). Sure, it was a big and flashy Bruckheimer blockbuster, but this was PG, stuffed with history, and didn’t have a single pirate in it (Unless you count the skeletal pirates on the doomed ship, the Charlotte). But with a quest so heavily laden with conspiracy theories at the roaring time of the Da Vinci Code, how could we have possibly thought otherwise? It also helps that National Treasure never misses a beat and delivers in every single way imaginable.

The Movie: Four and a half stars

In the Nic Cage canon, National Treasure is certainly not his best film (leave that to Adaptation). That said, it may just be his most fun, as few movies have truly utilized the Nic Cage as goofy everyman/bona fide action hero as well as National Treasure has.

Playing as the aptly named Benjamin Franklin Gates, Nic’s treasure hunting tale begins with a story about how Gates’ great, great, great grandfather was told a secret by a moribund Charles Caroll, who was the last living signer of the Declaration of Independence. What he was told was about how a clandestine fortune still lies hidden, and that the current secret “lies with Charlotte.” Cryptic words if there ever were any.

This of course sends us to present day, where we find out that Charlotte was not in fact a person, but rather, a sunken vessel. And on this vessel, Gates and his genius partner, Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) are searching for clues while his financier friend, Ian Howe (Sean Bean), is silently scheming on how to steal said clues. And it’s here, within the first few minutes of the movie that the little over two hour film really begins to pick up steam, as Ian Howe betrays the two of then and steals the treasure Gates’ has just uncovered—A pipe etched with a riddle on it. The wily Howe then leaves them for dead in a tundra explosion, providing the first real cliffhanger of many in this intelligently wrought action comedy.

Our heroes of course make it out alive in pure Bruckheimer fashion, and go on a quest that takes them from stealing the Declaration of Independence, to locating Ben Franklin’s special specs at Independence Hall, and even to Trinity Church in New York, where the treasure truly lies.

As great as Nic Cage is as an actor though, the film probably wouldn’t have been as good as it was if it weren’t for the outstanding costars. Besides the witty banter he has with Riley Poole and his love interest, Diane Kruger (Abigail Chase), the hammy as always, Jon Voight, who plays Nic Cage’s father, Patrick Henry Gates, is the real spotlight stealer in the film. And that’s because unlike the younger Gates’ who fully believes in the conspiracy, Gates Sr. is a skeptical, old coot who can’t imagine that there could possibly be hidden messages scrawled on the back of the Declaration of Independence. That is, of course, until he sees it for himself and winds up getting swept up into the whole mess also, which changes this film from being a standard treasure hunting flick, to a rollicking chase movie. Jon Voight just so happens to have the perfect role of looking bemused in the midst of chaos that you actually believe he can act again, which is no small feat.

It should be noted, though, that if anyone drags this film down, it’s the overly sapient, cool as a cucumber, Harvey Keitel, who plays the FBI Special Agent Peter Sadusky. His steely gaze and slow, husky voice seem to suck out all the life blood from every scene he appears in. Good thing these scenes are few and far between and that Nic Cage ramps up the energy every time he’s back on screen.

The Disc: Four Stars

To add to the whole mystery and glamour of treasure hunting is an excellent documentary on the first disc about real live treasure hunters and the techniques they use the preserve priceless artifacts. It goes to show that most of the stuff in the movie is purely bunk (as if you didn’t already know) as things just don’t happen that quickly in treasure hunting. Some of these people have been searching for close to a decade for certain treasures before they actually ever found them.

Also included on the first disk are deleted scenes, an alternate ending, and an animatic clip of the opening sequence, all featured with optional commentary. The real scene stealer though is the “Riley’s Decode This!” feature, which gives you a history lesson on various hidden cyphers, such as Hieroglyphics and Morse Code, while at the same time, providing a game for you and secret clues that open up even more features when you start piecing everything together.

That said, it’s a real shame that the second disc in this 2-Disc Collector’s Edition, which is no doubt being released since the sequel, Book of Secrets is just around the corner, is not as detailed as the richly prepared first disk. Featured in disc 2 are a few more deleted scenes, none of them really that important (One featuring an even longer sequence of the dull Keitel), which is also with optional audio commentary. Also on the disc is an informative lecture on Ciphers, a history lesson on the various locations of the film, and a sequence talking about how the crew blew up the sunken ship, the Charlotte, to make for a very riveting beginning.

And though it may very well be a special, hidden feature on the first disc, I couldn’t find any sort of full movie commentaries featuring either the director, Jon Turteltaub, or Nic Cage, which would have been interesting to hear how they felt about reacting to the twist and turns of the film.

Even so, you really can’t go wrong when a film like National Treasure is as good as it is. The big question though is, is it worth buying all over again if you already have the original 1-disc set? Personally, I say no, as the original commentaries and alternate ending have already been heard and seen before. But if you want a little more history mixed in with your treasure hunting, you can’t go wrong with this special disc set.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Wii Review: Super Mario Galaxy

While you’ve probably already read a baker’s dozen of reviews for the pleasant plumber’s escapades in outer space, this one’s different. Why? Well, unlike pretty much everybody else on the planet, I actually liked Super Mario Sunshine quite a bit and don’t just jump from Mario 64 to Mario Galaxy in comparisons like everybody else. In my mind, every game has progressed to reach this very moment to craft not only the best game the Wii has ever been graced with (Sorry, Twilight Princess fans, but this one has you beat), but also the best game in the Mario series ever. Super Mario World be damned!

What makes this game such a magical adventure, from its slightly slow start to its ultra awesome conclusion (I still haven’t gotten to the Luigi game yet), is how Nintendo managed to flip, both literally and figuratively, Mario from his side scrolling days of yore to now. Sure, Mario 64 did that just fine, but beneath the veneer of totally 3-D gaming done right, it still felt like a game that could have been done in 2-D if Master Miyamoto had decided to put it in that format. Not so with Mario Galaxy, a game that utilizes the nunchuku and Wii-mote so well, that I’ve finally become a true believer.

What Galaxy does with the physics and gravity of the minor planets and the overall scope of the larger ones is simply astounding. This is the overall leap from 3-D (Running completely around some planets—King Kai style—without falling off), that Mario 64 really wanted to be, and what Mario Sunshine came very close to nailing.

You start the game off learning that every 100 years or so, stars fall from the sky with the energy to power the entire universe. These stars can be harvested and yada, yada, yada, honestly, you won’t really care about the story (Even when Bowser comes into the picture with a flying airship), and will instead want to skip right to the gameplay, where you end up on a strange planet having to run and catch bunny rabbits, Mario 64 style. This is more a tutorial to teach you that, yes, you can run almost anywhere you want at certain times without the impending fear of falling off into the quasars, as some planets just work that way. It’ll take you about four minutes to get the hang of.

But that’s not saying that you can’t fall to your doom, though. On some of the larger planets, there are black holes directed right in the middle of them that if you fall off, you’ll get sucked off the terrain right to your death. If you think about it, it’s the equivalent of missing a jump in any of the Mario games—it means game over for you, bub.

And that’s why I said that every game in the Mario series has led up to this moment as just about every title has some sort of spark in its creative crevices located in this game. You have the down to Earth style of the first title, with its, get from A to Z momentum in Galaxy. You have aspects of going down into tunnels and coming out in brand new worlds similar to Mario Bros. 2. You have the sprawling, world map like qualities as found in Super Mario World. You even have the gimmicky Yoshi as seen in Mario Sunshine in Galaxy (One of my favorite special stars was called something along the lines of, “Random Appearance By Yoshi,” which is just about how I felt in Sunshine, too). But the game that Galaxy apes the most, and veterans of the series will probably appreciate, is Super Mario Bros. 3, inarguably the crowd favorite when it comes to longstanding fans of the series. From its airship battles, costume changes, and overall sprawl of secrets and missions, some could argue that Galaxy is basically the spiritual successor to Mario 3, with no level emphasizing that more than the very early Bee Galaxy. It’s here that Mario dons his funny bee suit and has the ability to fly for a limited amount of time to reach certain objects in the level.

At one point, you even have to fly and crawl on the queen bee to pluck off little individual star pieces that are making her itchy. Immediately, memories of swimming underwater with the frog suit in Mario 3 jumped to my mind for some reason. And it’s not because the two are really similar in their objectives or anything like that, but more because that sense of wonderment and discovery, that sense that I’m having the time of my life with a plumber, overwhelmed me all over again and reminded me of just why I fell in love with video games in the first place. If anything, if you’ve become a gaming atheist and have lost all faith in the medium, play Mario Galaxy to revive that interest once again. Seriously, I had given up on Nintendo forever until I played this game. Now, all I want to do is play the Wii some more.

Another great thing is the boss battles, which I looked forward to rather than wished to avoid. Unlike in past Mario games, the boss battles in this one are abundant, and each one asks you to try something totally different to thwart your baddie. Honestly, by the time I had gotten to Bowser for the first time, I was already so pleased with the boss battles that they could have already stopped throwing them at me and I would have been perfectly happy. Similar to God of War 2—another great game that I totally urge you to play—the boss battles really emphasize the strength and abilities of the lead character as a great game should.

Never have I felt more in tune with Mario than when I faced off against the bosses in this game, and I’ve been playing with Mario since the days he was simply called Jumpman. I’d be lying if I said this game didn’t have its faults (Some of the galaxies are lackluster. I’m looking at you Ghost Galaxy), but there’s so much good going for the game, that you’d have to look far and wide to find another game of this caliber. And I mean Super Mario Sunshine far. As I said before, I actually liked that game. If you even remotely liked Sunshine, then you’ll absolutely love this one. Bar none, Mario Galaxy is the game of the year. It might even be the game of the decade.