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Archive for the ‘Mandy’s Picks’ Category

certifiedA chance encounter between a British writer and a French antiques dealer leads to an exploration of authenticity in both art and relationships in Iranian director and screenwriter Abbas Kiarostami’s marvelous 2010 film Certified Copy.

James Miller (William Shimell) is a British author who is visiting Tuscany as part of a promotional tour for his latest book, Certified Copy. In his book, Miller argues that, in art, reproductions are just as valid as the original work because it “leads us to the original and in this way certifies its value.” He believes this approach could lead to an understanding of life as well as art.

Shortly after the lecture begins, an antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) arrives accompanied by her teenage son. Her son is restless and keeps distracting her until she finally decides to leave, but not before giving her number and address to Miller’s translator. Although the dealer disagrees with many of the points Miller makes in his book, she is eager to meet him and has purchased several copies of the book for him to sign.

The next day, Miller visits the dealer at her shop and they spend the afternoon driving through the countryside, visiting museums and debating the importance of authenticity in art. At a local café, Miller steps out to take a call, and the café’s owner mistakes Miller for the dealer’s husband. The dealer doesn’t correct the owner, and tells her that they’ve been married for 15 years. When Miller returns to the café, the dealer tells him the café owner thinks they’re married and at this point the nature of their conversation shifts. Miller and the dealer begin to relate to each other as if they have truly been married for 15 years: they discuss her son as if he is their son, and they begin to share memories and grievances. He even begins conversing with her in French instead of English. The reality of their relationship gradually becomes ambiguous, and the viewer is left to wonder if they really are a couple or simply two people copying the behavior of a long-married couple.

Certified Copy reminded me of director Richard Linklater’s series of films featuring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. In Linklater’s films as well as Certified Copy, you’re following the development of a relationship, and all of the action and dialogue serves to move the relationship forward. Unlike the relationship between Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Delpy) in the Linklater films, I wasn’t sure if I was seeing an authentic relationship unfold or one that was a reproduction of a 15-year marriage, but the ambiguity was quite effective in that it mirrors the philosophy of life and art Miller discusses in his lecture. Juliette Binoche’s character is also somewhat ambiguous; although her profession is discussed at length, her character’s name is never mentioned.

The film is beautifully acted. Shimell is a British opera singer in his first film role and he’s a terrific foil for Binoche, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the 1996 film The English Patient. They’re together in nearly every scene, and their chemistry makes the relationship between their characters engaging and convincing.

Playful and thoughtful, Certified Copy is a clever mediation on the nature of art and relationships. The film is in English, French, and Italian with English subtitles.

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salingerToday’s review is from Mandy.

Author Joanna Rakoff recounts the year she spent working as the assistant to J.D. Salinger’s literary agent in her new memoir, My Salinger Year.

Rakoff’s memoir opens in late 1995, when she decides that she’d rather write her own poetry and not “analyze other people’s poetry.” After making that fateful decision, she leaves her college boyfriend and drops out of her graduate program in London, England, and returns to New York, where she moves in with an aspiring writer named Don. A chance encounter with a friend of a friend at a Christmas party leads to a referral to a local placement agency. Rakoff visits the agency and soon lands an entry-level job as the assistant to a well-established and well-respected literary agent.

She is unfamiliar with the Agency, as she refers to it throughout the book, but she’s quickly enchanted by the peculiar and archaic office atmosphere. At a time when computers, email, and the World Wide Web were becoming ubiquitous, the Agency still relied on Selectric typewriters and Dictaphones, and kept submission records on pink index cards. Rakoff’s early assignments are unremarkable, consisting mainly of transcribing her boss’s letters to clients and publishers. Then comes the day when her boss tells her, “We need to talk about Jerry.” Jerry is a special client who fiercely guards his privacy. Joanna’s boss warns her that she will receive calls from students and reporters or producers trying to speak to Jerry or secure the film rights to his work. Joanna is admonished that no matter how persuasive the caller is, she must never give out Jerry’s address or phone number. At first, Joanna thinks that “Jerry” is the comedian Jerry Seinfeld, but on her way out of her boss’s office she spots a bookshelf containing The Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, and Nine Stories and realizes that her boss represents the reclusive author J.D. Salinger.

Although Joanna was familiar with Salinger’s work, she had never actually read any of his books. Over the course of her year at the Agency, she not only falls in love with Salinger’s work, she also becomes fascinated by the letters Salinger receives from fans around the world, including a teenage boy from Winston-Salem, N.C., whose letters mimic the narrative voice of Holden Caulfield; a World War II veteran from Nebraska; and a girl whose teacher tells her she’ll raise her failing grade if she writes to J.D. Salinger and receives a response from him.

In addition to handling Salinger’s correspondence, and the occasional phone call from Salinger to her boss, Joanna also becomes involved in a curious chapter of Salinger’s publishing history. In 1996, much to the surprise of his agent, Salinger agreed to let Roger Lathbury, a professor and owner of a small publishing house called Orchises Press, publish his short story Hapworth 16, 1924 as a stand-alone book. Salinger developed an instant rapport with Lathbury, and publication of Hapworth was scheduled for January 1997; however, the deal fell apart as quickly as it came together.

Rakoff’s narrative deftly balances descriptions of the Agency and the publishing world of the late ‘90s with her own experiences as a young adult adjusting to life after college and her first real job. Her longtime friends are getting married and moving out of the city; she’s dealing with the fallout of leaving a secure relationship for one that’s a bit more tumultuous; and she’s also learning about the limits of an entry-level salary once you factor in student loan repayment and credit card bills.

Fast-paced and often poignant, My Salinger Year is an engaging look at first jobs, the publishing industry, and the powerful lure of literature.

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berberianA mild-mannered sound engineer’s latest project blurs the line between fantasy and reality in Berberian Sound Studio, writer/director Peter Strickland’s homage to ‘70s Italian horror films.

Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a sound engineer who specializes in nature films, travels to Italy to work on the sound editing for what he thinks is a film about horses. He’s right about the horses, but it’s not a nature film.  Upon viewing the opening credits, he discovers that he’s actually been commissioned to work on a film called The Equestrian Vortex, a lurid horror film about witchcraft and murder at an all-girls riding academy.  To make matters worse, he barely speaks Italian, the cast hates the film, and the director, Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) won’t even acknowledge that he’s even making a horror film, insisting instead “It’s not a ‘horror’ film.  It’s a Santini film.”

Homesick, but unable to get his travel expenses reimbursed so he can return home, Gilderoy stays in Italy to work on the film.  As the sound editing progresses, he not only becomes more entrenched in the tense and often claustrophobic atmosphere of the studio, to the point of speaking Italian fluently, but he is unable to separate his life from his art.

Berberian Sound Studio is an inventive homage to the Italian giallo films of the 1970s.  Giallo is a genre of horror that typically, but not always, combines elements found in mysteries and police procedurals with common horror tropes.  Giallo films are also distinguished by their distinctive production design and sound, and a hypnotic, but incredibly creepy, score.  Notable Giallo directors include Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci.  Viewers who are unfamiliar with the genre will find additional background and context if they watch the special features included on the Berberian Sound Studio DVD.

Berberian Sound Studio is all about sound, and Peter Strickland keeps the focus on sound by not showing any scenes from The Equestrian Vortex aside from the opening credits.  The viewer experiences The Equestrian Vortex as Gilderoy does, through dialogue, music, sound effects, and, of course, lots of screaming.  Berberian Sound Studio is a meta horror film without many of the elements commonly found in horror films.  Through the use of sound, Strickland manages to create moments of real tension without relying on violence to generate scares.  Strickland also succeeds in crafting an impressive tribute to the art of foley, the creation of background sounds using common objects.

In addition to the use of sound, I really enjoyed the acting, particularly Toby Jones’ performance.  At the beginning of the film, Gilderoy is meek and polite, in sharp contrast to the brash rudeness of Santini and his producer Francesco Coraggio (Cosimo Fusco).  As work on The Equestrian Vortex progresses, Gilderoy’s personality begins to subtly change to match his surroundings, much to his chagrin.  Toby Jones gives a fine performance that works well with the tone of the film.

At the beginning of Berberian Sound Studio, Gilderoy is told, “A brave new world of sound awaits you.”  Strickland’s film is a clever and absorbing look at how this “brave new world” of sound is created and how it changes Gilderoy’s life.

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painSylvia Plath’s summer internship as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine is explored in William and Mary graduate Elizabeth Winder’s insightful debut Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953.

In the spring of 1953, Plath, then a 20-year-old junior at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, is one of twenty young women selected by the editors of Mademoiselle magazine for an internship as a guest editor of the magazine’s yearly college issue.  She travels to New York in late May and spends the month of June in the city: living at the Barbizon Hotel; spending long days working at the magazine; and enjoying evenings filled with parties, ballets, and dates.

Within two months of her return to Massachusetts, Plath suffers a mental breakdown that leads to her first suicide attempt.  Years later, these experiences form the basis for her only novel, The Bell Jar, published shortly before her suicide in 1963.

Instead of recounting the grim details of Plath’s breakdown, Winder focuses on Plath’s interests and cultural influences in an “attempt to undo the cliché of Plath as the demon-plagued artist.”  Winder succeeds in reaching her ambitious goal.

Divided into eight sections filled with short, fast paced chapters, the book’s structure gives the reader the experience of an exciting, yet ephemeral, summer adventure.  The whirlwind of activity is anchored by candid interviews with several of Plath’s fellow guest editors.  These interviews are insightful and serve as a response to Plath’s depiction of her summer in New York in The Bell Jar.  The interviews, particularly the recollections of Carol LeVarn, provide some of the book’s most poignant and thought-provoking moments.

Winder balances the serious tone of the interviews with lively descriptions of Plath’s love of literature, fashion, and the popular culture of the early 1950s.  The text is enhanced by the inclusion of photographs, vintage advertisements, and fashion illustrations, including photos from the college issue.  Frequent sidebars include extended interviews, biographical sketches of people Plath met in New York, and quotes from her journals.  These sidebars add context to Plath’s experiences without breaking the momentum of Winder’s narrative.

Engaging and well-researched, Pain, Parties, Work will appeal to readers who are interested in Sylvia Plath’s life and work.  Elizabeth Winder is scheduled to present a program on Plath with Catherine Bowman at William and Mary on Thursday, March 20.

Check the WRL catalog for Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953

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sweetA Cambridge graduate gets in over her head when she’s recruited by MI5 in Ian McEwan’s witty and metafictional tale of love and espionage in ‘70s Britain, Sweet Tooth.

Serena Frome (“rhymes with plume”), the daughter of an Anglican bishop, lives a quiet, sheltered life with her parents and sister in England.  Beautiful and clever with a talent for math, her parents, particularly her mother, insist that she study the subject at Cambridge.  Serena’s passion, however, is reading, and if left to her own devices she would have happily pursued an English degree at a small local college.  Her undergraduate studies at Cambridge are a disappointment; although she excelled in math as a schoolgirl, she struggles with her math tutorials.  Despite her lackluster academic performance, Serena continues to read voraciously, eventually writing a book column for a classmate’s literary magazine.  She also develops a relationship with a history student named Jeremy Mott.

Serena’s introduction to the world of espionage begins with a chance meeting with Jeremy’s history tutor, Tony Canning.  Captivated by her beauty and idealism, Canning begins an affair with Serena while grooming her as a possible MI5 recruit.  Their brief affair in the summer of 1972 includes intense tutorials on British politics and history, stoking the political fervor Serena discovered as a student at Cambridge.  The affair ends abruptly, but not before she lands an interview with MI5.

Although she starts her MI5 career performing low-level clerical duties, she soon receives an assignment that draws on her love of reading.  Seeking to influence the cultural conversation, MI5 is funding writers whose politics are consistent with those of the government through an operation with the code name of “Sweet Tooth.”  Serena’s mission is to recruit a promising writer and academic named Tom Haley.  His stories, surreal with a subtly political bent, enchant Serena, and she soon finds herself falling in love with Haley.  Their romance coincides with Haley’s first major literary triumph, but his nomination for a major award threatens to unravel MI5’s carefully crafted scheme.

The opening paragraph of Sweet Tooth not only reveals the outcome of Serena’s brief tenure in MI5, but it also lays the groundwork for McEwan’s audacious metafictional trick.  It’s a risky gambit; why bother reading the rest of the book if you already know how the story will end before you finish the first page?  I thought it worked because it ultimately ties in with Serena’s love of stories and literature.

Some of my favorite moments in Sweet Tooth involve Tom Haley’s stories, particularly the novel he completes after he meets Serena.  These stories within a story help develop Haley’s character and the relationship he has with Serena.  The intriguing cast of supporting characters include Shirley Shilling, Serena’s friend and co-worker at MI5; her colleague Max Greatorex; and Tony Canning.

Wryly entertaining, Sweet Tooth deftly mixes espionage, love, and literature.

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cinder 2Marissa Meyer reinvents the story of Cinderella as dystopian science fiction in Cinder, the first novel in her series The Lunar Chronicles.

Cinder is a teenage mechanic living and working in New Beijing.  An orphan, she lives with her legal guardian, Adri, and Adri’s daughters, Pearl and Peony.  She doesn’t remember anything about her past or the operation that turned her into a cyborg. Every day, Cinder works in the local market fixing androids and other electronic devices with her trusted android Iko by her side, returning at night to a difficult home life with Adri and Pearl.  Her lone ally in the house is the sweet and gentle Peony.  One day, the handsome Prince Kai comes to Cinder’s booth asking if she can fix an android he calls Nainsi.  An immediate attraction develops between Cinder and Prince Kai, but Cinder refuses to acknowledge her feelings because she’s afraid the prince will reject her once he finds out she’s a cyborg.

Prince Kai is also struggling with a few problems of his own.  His father, the Emperor Rikan, has been stricken with a seemingly incurable plague called letumosis, also referred to as the Blue Fever.  If Rikan dies, Prince Kai will become the Emperor and even more attractive to the Lunar Queen Levana. Before he fell ill, Emperor Rikan and Queen Levana had been negotiating an alliance.  The prince, however, is suspicious of the motives of the queen, a crafty and vain woman who was implicated in the deaths of her sister, Queen Channary, and her niece, Princess Selene, the rightful heir to the queen’s throne.  Prince Kai believes Princess Selene may actually be alive, and he’s desperately searching for any information to confirm his suspicions.

When Emperor Rikan dies of letumosis, Queen Levana travels to New Beijing to discuss the alliance with Prince Kai. Levana’s idea of an alliance includes marriage to Prince Kai, and she uses the threat of war to secure an engagement. Meanwhile, Cinder discovers information that could be useful to Prince Kai while working on Nainsi.  Will Cinder reach Prince Kai before the coronation ball, where he will announce his engagement to Queen Levana?

Cinder is an inventive twist on the classic tale of Cinderella with great characters and fast-paced action. Cinder is an appealing heroine who uses her intelligence and creativity to solve problems.  Prince Kai is a noble hero who tries to stay one step ahead of Queen Levana’s schemes.  The attraction between Cinder and Prince Kai is obvious from their initial meeting, but I liked how Meyer kept the subplot fresh by adding a few unpredictable complications.  Queen Levana is an intriguing villain who uses the power of illusion to manipulate people.  The science fiction elements of the story work really well with the allusions to the fairy tale Cinderella, especially the way Meyer handles Cinder’s preparations for the pivotal coronation ball.  Cinder is full of more characters and storylines than I could comfortably fit into the synopsis, but Meyer adeptly uses these elements to establish the basis for the next book in the series.

The Lunar Chronicles continue with Scarlet and Cress.

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returnedA fifteen-year-old girl named Camille (Yara Pilartz) is on school trip.  As the bus reaches a sharp curve in the road, it suddenly careens down a steep embankment, killing all aboard the bus.

A young man named Simon (Pierre Perrier) dies on the eve of his wedding to Adèle (Clotilde Hesme).  He had just found out that she was pregnant with their first child.

Years later, Camille and Simon, along with several other people who died years before, suddenly and inexplicably return to their homes and families in a remote mountain town in the first season of the beautifully eerie French series, The Returned.

The first episodes focus on the characters of Camille and Simon, who are unaware they are dead, as they return to their homes.  Both soon discover that everything has changed.  In the years since their deaths, Camille’s parents Claire (Anne Consigny) and Jérôme (Frédéric Pierrot) have separated, and her twin sister Léna (Jenna Thiam) is now an adult.  Adèle has moved on as well.  She is now engaged to a Gendarmerie captain named Thomas (Samir Guesmi), who is helping her raise Simon’s daughter Chloé (Brune Martin).

For Claire, still struggling to come to terms with Camille’s death, the return of her daughter is a miracle; one she hopes will bring her fractured family back together.  Jérôme and Léna are a bit more skeptical, but accept Camille’s return for Claire’s sake.  Adèle’s feelings about Simon’s return are more complex.  Like Claire, Adèle still grieves the loss of Simon, but she has found love and security with Thomas.  Adèle is soon faced with a choice that will have an effect on the life she has built with Thomas and Chloé.

While Camille and Simon attempt to reintegrate with their families, several other mysteries unfold.  A waitress is attacked in a tunnel and left for dead.  Her attack bears all the hallmarks of a serial killer who terrorized the town years ago.  A respected teacher burns down his house then jumps to his death from the local dam.  A nurse whose brutal attack seven years ago was linked to the serial killer, is followed home by an enigmatic boy whom she decides to call Victor.  Then there is the matter of the dam. Water levels in the reservoir unexpectedly drop, wreaking havoc on the town’s water supply.  Are these seemingly random events linked to Camille and Simon’s return?

Over the course of eight episodes, the first season of The Returned weaves together several seemingly disparate storylines into a compelling and creepy mystery.  I think the key to the show’s success is the setting.  On the surface, the town looks quiet and peaceful with its pristine mountains and tranquil lakes; however, the only access to the rest of civilization is a road that goes over the dam.  If the residents can’t cross the dam, then they are unable to leave the town.  The town’s isolation enhances the tension as the mystery deepens.

The Returned is an adaptation of a 2004 French film called They Came Back.  Although both share the same basic premise of the dead returning to their families, the film is a drama with supernatural elements while the series is a supernatural mystery.  Fans of The Returned should check out They Came Back if they haven’t already seen the film, but they should not expect the film to have the same characters and storyline.  Both are in French with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for The Returned

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Orphan BlackA young grifter unwittingly stumbles upon a dangerous conspiracy in the first season of BBC America’s edgy and mind-bending sci-fi series Orphan Black.

Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) is trying to escape an abusive boyfriend and a criminal past. Following a train ride home, she finds herself alone on the platform with a distraught woman who sets her purse down before taking off a pair of stylish high heels. The woman turns and stares at Sarah, who is struck by the uncanny resemblance between her and the stranger. The woman then walks off the edge of the platform and into the path of an oncoming train. In the aftermath of the stranger’s suicide, Sarah makes a split-second decision that puts her in the center of a mystery. With emergency personnel focused on the stranger, Sarah sees an opportunity for a quick score, and she walks away with the woman’s purse. Sarah learns her doppelgänger’s name is Elizabeth (Beth) Childs. Beth shares an expensive house with her boyfriend. She also has a large sum of money in the bank. Sarah decides to use her resemblance to Beth to her advantage and assume Beth’s identity. Once she has emptied Beth’s bank account, she’ll use the money to start a new life with her daughter, Kira, and foster brother, Felix.

Sarah believes she will be able to pull off the scam and quietly slip out of town; however, Beth’s life is far more complicated than she originally thought. First, there are calls from a man named Art and texts from an unknown number. There is also the matter of a safety deposit box containing copies of the birth certificates and photographs of other women who bear a striking resemblance to both Sarah and Beth. As additional secrets from Beth’s life surface, Sarah learns that the women—Beth, Alison Hendrix, Cosima Niehaus, and Katja Obinger (also Tatiana Maslany)—are all clones and she is a clone as well. This discovery is the gateway to a mystery involving a scientific movement called Neolution, led by the charismatic Dr. Aldous Leekie. Will the women unlock the secret of their connection to this group before they become the next victims of a killer who’s on a mission to eliminate the clones?

Orphan Black is a thoughtful and complex show that deftly balances questions of personal freedom and what it means to be an individual with a delightful streak of dark humor. The acting is first-rate. Tatiana Maslany succeeds at giving each clone her own distinct personality and unique set of characteristics. My favorite clone is Alison Hendrix, a conservative wife and mother whose sense of self is completely upended by the discovery she is a clone. The fine supporting cast includes Kevin Hanchard as Beth’s partner Detective Art Bell; Maria Doyle Kennedy as Sarah’s foster mother Mrs. S; Dylan Bruce as Beth’s boyfriend Paul Dierden; and Jordan Gavaris as Sarah’s foster brother Felix Dawkins. In a clever bit of casting, Dr. Aldous Leekie is played by Matt Frewer, who became famous in the mid-‘80s playing a character named Max Headroom.

Fast-paced and well-plotted, Orphan Black quickly builds momentum and maintains it throughout the season. Now is a good time to catch up with the show—or discover it—before the second season starts in April.

Check the WRL catalog for Orphan Black.

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x_filesIt may be difficult to believe, but September 10 marked 20 years since the television premiere of The X-Files. For nine seasons, FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) traveled the country investigating cases involving UFOs, the paranormal, and government conspiracies.

Over the course of the series’ run, audiences were introduced to a memorable supporting cast of characters including Mulder and Scully’s supervisor, Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), and the main villain, the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis). Although agents John Doggett (Robert Patrick) and Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish) were added in the final seasons of the show, The X-Files never strayed too far from the central pairing of Mulder, a firm believer in the unknown and supernatural, and Scully, a rational skeptic.

Instead of reviewing the series as a whole, I thought I’d try a different approach and celebrate the 20th anniversary of The X-Files by reviewing my favorite episode: Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space.’

Originally broadcast during the third season, this episode revolves around author Jose Chung (played to eccentric perfection by Charles Nelson Reilly) who is writing a book about a case investigated by Mulder and Scully involving the possible abduction by aliens of a teenage couple out on a first date. As part of his research, Chung sets out to interview: Mulder and Scully; the couple, Harold and Chrissy; and several local witnesses to the abduction and its aftermath. Mulder is reluctant to participate, but Chung is able to interview Scully, the couple, and the witnesses. Each interviewee gives Chung an entirely different and contradictory account of what happened that night. With each account, the events of that fateful evening become more and more outlandish, culminating in the filming of a video purportedly showing an alien autopsy. A baffled Chung ultimately concludes that, “Truth is as subjective as reality. That will help explain why when people talk about their ‘UFO experiences,’ they always start off with ‘Well, now, I know how crazy this is going to sound… but…’ ”

This episode can best be described as a clever homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon mixed with a hilarious satire of the 1995 alien autopsy video hoax. Unlike most episodes of The X-Files, the tone is definitely more tongue-in-cheek, but the humor serves to underscore Chung’s growing sense of bewilderment as the stories become increasingly unbelievable. By the end of the episode, like Jose Chung, I wasn’t quite sure what really happened that night, but I enjoyed seeing the different accounts of the incident unfold.

Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’ is a well-acted episode with a strong narrative structure and great, quotable dialogue. It is a highlight of the third season and worth revisiting by fans looking to commemorate the anniversary of the show.

Fans may also want to check out the two X-Files movies: The X-Files: Fight the Future and The X-Files: I Want to Believe.

Check the WRL catalog for first season of The X-Files TV series.

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nightfilm Night Film is a complex and engrossing mystery that’s perfect for crisp fall evenings.

Fictional Academy Award-winning director Stanislas Cordova’s oeuvre consists of 15 films released from 1964 to 1996.  As controversial as he is revered, his last five films were released independently and are collectively known as the “black tapes.”  His fans, known as Cordovites, regularly stage secret showings of these films called red-band screenings. Enigmatic and reclusive, Cordova hasn’t been seen in public or granted an interview in years, but stories about Cordova’s family and lifestyle at his private estate, “The Peak,” are the stuff of urban legend.  Stanislas Cordova is also the elusive focus of journalist Scott McGrath’s personal journey into the heart of darkness in Marisha Pessl’s second novel, Night Film.

 Night Film opens with the apparent suicide of Cordova’s beautiful and talented 24-year-old daughter, Ashley.  Her death piques the curiosity of Scott McGrath, an investigative journalist whose remarks about Cordova on a national television program resulted in a libel suit.  Despite paying a substantial settlement to Cordova, McGrath still believes he is a dangerous man and he starts an investigation into Ashley’s suicide, intent on proving Cordova was somehow responsible for what happened to his daughter.

Joining McGrath in his quest are two strangers who have a connection to Ashley: Nora Halliday, a coat check girl who encountered Ashley shortly before her death, and Hopper Cole, who met Ashley when they were teenagers.  As McGrath, Cole, and Halliday trace Ashley’s movements in her final weeks and unpack the mysterious nature of Cordova and his films, they learn the unsettling truth about a genius filmmaker and his family.

 As a movie fan, I was interested in reading Night Film because the book’s plot and the character of Stanislas Cordova sounded intriguing.  Pessl did not disappoint.  Her characterization of Cordova and the descriptions of his films are so vibrant and detailed that I finished the book regretting that Cordova’s films do not exist in real life.

I’ll admit I had a rather mixed reaction to Night Film’s protagonist, Scott McGrath.  On the surface the character seems awfully similar to Mikael Blomkvist from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (both are divorced investigative journalists whose reputations are tarnished by high-profile libel suits).  Scott’s investigation is compelling and the friendships he forms with Hopper and Nora are sincere and poignant.  Ashley Cordova may be dead at the beginning of the book, but Pessl does a nice job bringing the character to life, so to speak, through newspaper and magazine articles, interviews with film actors and acquaintances, and, especially, through her relationship with Hopper.

 Another effective aspect of Night Film is Pessl’s use of multimedia elements. These elements are extensive and include copies of internet slideshows, news articles, and web pages from the Blackboards, a secret web site dedicated to all things Cordova. The narrative is fast-paced and engaging, but these multimedia elements truly immersed me in Cordova’s life and work.  This experience doesn’t end once the last page is turned.  There’s even a free app for smartphones called the Night Film Decoder that readers can use to scan select pages of the book and access videos, audio clips, and slideshow presentations. The additional content is a lot of fun and complements Pessl’s vision of Cordova, his family, and his films.

“Mortal fear is as crucial a thing to our lives as love. It cuts to the core of our being and shows us what we are.”

-          Stanislas Cordova (Rolling Stone, December 1977)

Check the WRL catalog for Night Film

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BBCClosing this week’s reviews is a musical selection written by Mandy.

In her review of the Civil Wars’ CD Barton Hollow, Charlotte discussed her susceptibility to earworms—“those catchy snatches of melody that get stuck in your head for hours on end, sometimes for days.” Last fall, I encountered an earworm in the song Lights Out, Words Gone,” the second single off of A Different Kind of Fix, the third album from British quartet Bombay Bicycle Club. I stumbled upon the song while driving home from work one night and instantly loved it, but, much to my chagrin, the announcer never gave the name of the song or the artist. This song, with its lovely, haunting intro and gently brooding lyrics, was stuck in my head for weeks until I was able to identify the group and check out the album.

Since the release of their debut album in 2009, Bombay Bicycle Club have received numerous accolades in England, including Best New Band at the 2010 New Musical Express Awards, and their second album Flaws was nominated for the Ivor Novello Award for Best Album. In addition, the group performed during the 2012 Olympics closing ceremony concert in Hyde Park.

I discovered Bombay Bicycle Club through “Lights Out, Words Gone,” and was happy to find that the rest of A Different Kind of Fix lived up to the promise of that single. It’s a tightly-focused collection of guitar-driven rock that’s quite catchy and very accessible. Along with “Lights Out, Words Gone,” standout tracks include “Your Eyes,” “Bad Timing,” and the irresistibly jaunty “Shuffle.”

Fans of alternative rock groups such as Phoenix and Two Door Cinema Club who are looking for something new might want to check out Bombay Bicycle Club’s A Different Kind of Fix.

Check the WRL catalog for A Different Kind of Fix

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Before he won the Academy Award for directing Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and became the artistic director for the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games, Danny Boyle distinguished himself in the mid-‘90s as a director of edgy, highly stylized films, including A Life Less Ordinary (1997), Trainspotting (1996), and Shallow Grave (1994), his feature film directing debut.

Set in Edinburgh, Scotland, the plot of Shallow Grave centers around three cynical and self-absorbed friends who share a spacious and well-appointed flat: David (Christopher Eccleston), an accountant; Juliet (Kerry Fox), a doctor; and Alex (Ewan McGregor), a tabloid journalist. They’re in need of a new roommate, and the film opens with a series of disastrous interviews in which prospective roommates are cruelly appraised, then rejected. Finally, Juliet personally interviews one intriguing candidate, a mysterious man named Hugo (Keith Allen) who says he’s returning to the city to write a novel. Juliet and Hugo make a connection, and she convinces David and Alex to take Hugo on as a roommate. The arrangement seems ideal until the morning after Hugo moves in. After he fails to join them for breakfast, the concerned roommates go to his room and discover him dead on his bed. Searching for answers, Alex discovers a suitcase full of money under the bed. Juliet wants to report Hugo’s death to the police, but Alex objects, arguing that if they call the police they’ll have to report the money as well. He proposes hiding the body and keeping the money. I do not want to give away too many details in this review (although readers of this blog can connect the dots based on the title and my brief summary); however, I do not think it is revealing too much to say that a seemingly foolproof plan becomes complicated when fractures in the friendship, not to mention Hugo’s past, begin to catch up with the roommates.

Shallow Grave is not a traditional murder mystery. The suspense is not focused on ‘whodunit’; instead, the suspense is generated from the ways in which the roommates, especially David, internalize their actions and the cumulative effect these actions have on the friendship. A subplot involving Hugo’s associates is not quite as well-developed, but it does help to tie events together at the end.

I first saw Shallow Grave back in 1996, and I think the film has held up surprisingly well. Ewan McGregor brings a lot of charisma to the role of Alex and arguably has the film’s most memorable lines, but Shallow Grave’s real chills come from Christopher Eccleston’s carefully crafted performance as the seemingly milquetoast, but ultimately unstable David. At 93 minutes, Shallow Grave is taut and fast-paced, and it is a good showcase for the talents of director Danny Boyle who, in the 18 years since the film’s release, has produced a diverse and impressive body of work.

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Today’s post is written by Mandy from Circulation Services.

Recently, I’ve been feeling rather nostalgic for music from the ‘90s, no doubt influenced by the number of ‘90s-era singers and bands who are either reuniting or releasing new material.  Earlier this year, The Cranberries released Roses, their first album in 11 years, and this month Garbage will release Not Your Kind of People.  Luscious Jackson reunited last year, and Fiona Apple will release a new album next month.  Come to think of it, No Doubt is scheduled to release an album this year, too.  For my contribution to BFGB this week, I thought it was only fitting to write about a lesser-known band from the ‘90s, The Sundays, and their 1990 debut Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.

From 1990 to 1997, the English band The Sundays released three albums to modest success in the United States and abroad.  The band is often associated with a style of music known as shoegazing, and their sound carries many of the hallmarks of the style: layered vocals against a backdrop of guitars.  The term “shoegazing” comes from the performance style of many of the acts associated with the style; during live performances, the musicians would stand still as if they were looking at their shoes.  Other notable shoegazing bands include Lush and Ride.

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic opens with “Skin & Bones,” a nice introduction to guitarist David Gavurin’s low key style and Harriet Wheeler’s lovely, almost fragile-sounding, vocals.  The next two songs are only singles released from the album, “Here’s Where the Story Ends” and “Can’t Be Sure.”  In “Here’s Where the Story Ends,” Harriet Wheeler looks back on a failed relationship, and sings:

 “It’s that little souvenir of a terrible year

which makes my eyes feel sore,

Oh I never should have said the books that you read

were all I loved you for.”

The remaining tracks continue on in the same stylistic vein, particularly my two favorite songs, “You’re Not the Only One I Know” and “Joy.”  At 10 songs and 40 minutes, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic is light and airy and perfect for spring.  The Sundays quietly faded from public view following the release of their 1997 album “Static & Silence” (which, incidentally, was their highest charting U.S. release), but fans of early ’90s alternative music might enjoy The Sundays, especially their debut.

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Mandy of Circulation Services provides today’s review.

I enjoy the work of children’s book author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, particularly his 1984 book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.  This is not your average children’s picture book; instead, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is a series of 14 exquisitely detailed, black and white illustrations, each accompanied by an enigmatic title and caption. Alternately whimsical and haunting, the illustrations in this book inspired me (and countless other readers) to invent stories to explain what was going on in the pictures.  Recently, I had the opportunity to revisit a cherished part of my childhood by reading The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, an illustrated short story collection in which 14 authors, including Stephen King and his wife Tabitha King, Sherman Alexie, Lois Lowry, Gregory Maguire, and Cory Doctorow, have contributed stories inspired by the illustrations in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

All of the stories are original to the collection with the exception of Stephen King’s “The House on Maple Street,” which originally appeared in his 1993 book Nightmares & Dreamscapes.  The stories themselves are not linked by any recurring characters or situations, so readers shouldn’t feel that the stories need to be read in any specific order.  Like Van Allsburg’s illustrations, each story has its own unique tone and style; some are dark, like Jules Feiffer’s “Uninvited Guests,” while others, such as Louis Sachar’s “Captain Tory,” are sweet and poignant.

One of my favorite stories in the collection was M.T. Anderson’s “Just Desert,” the tale of a boy named Alex who, on the eve of his 10th birthday, discovers that nothing in his world is as it appears. I felt the authors did a fine job of capturing the surreal atmosphere found in Van Allsburg’s illustrations.  Lemony Snicket’s introduction is also a real hoot.  Readers who are unfamiliar with The Mysteries of Harris Burdick will find Van Allsburg’s introduction to the 1984 book as well as the illustrations and captions in this collection.

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick is a good, quick read that should appeal to young adult (and, for that matter, adult) readers who grew up intrigued by The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

Check the WRL catalog for The Chronicles of Harris Burdick

Check the WRL catalog for The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

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Mandy Malone from Circulation Services provides this review:

The year is 1982. The members of the British heavy metal band Spinal Tap–Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls–have reunited and recorded a comeback album titled ‘Smell the Glove’. Marty DiBergi, a television commercial director and longtime Spinal Tap fan, is on hand to film the events surrounding the album’s release and accompanying tour for the documentary, or ‘rockumentary’ as DiBergi calls it, This is Spinal Tap.

At this point in my review, I should issue a message of caution: music fans who have never heard of Spinal Tap shouldn’t rush out and scour the WRL catalog for the album. It doesn’t exist. Originally released in 1984, This is Spinal Tap is in reality a brilliant and hilarious parody of the heavy metal genre starring Christopher Guest as Nigel Tufnel, Michael McKean as David St. Hubbins and Harry Shearer as Derek Smalls. Marty DiBergi is played by Rob Reiner, who also directed the film.

In true documentary style, DiBergi follows Spinal Tap from England to America as he offers a no-holds-barred look at the history of the band and their promotional work for the new album. In candid interviews, the band members discuss Tufnel and St. Hubbins’ childhood friendship, early incarnations of the band called the Originals and the Thamesmen, and the untimely deaths of all their drummers. Along the way, Spinal Tap’s comeback is met with several potential setbacks: their record company hates the album’s cover art; at one venue, the band members get lost backstage; and a Stonehenge-themed performance goes awry when the key prop fails to measure up to expectations. Throughout the film, the band’s indefatigable optimism remains intact, even when it looks like the comeback is in danger of falling apart.

This is Spinal Tap does a great job of spoofing the pretensions and excesses of the heavy metal genre without being mean-spirited. Much of the credit for this goes to the stars of the film. They are also responsible for developing the concept of the film and writing the screenplay, and I think they created a group of memorable, well-developed characters. The members of Spinal Tap are so likable and sincere, if a little misguided at times, that you can’t help but root for them to succeed in their quixotic quest to reclaim their former glory.

In the years since the release of This is Spinal Tap, Christopher Guest has gone on to write and direct several other successful documentary-style parodies including Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind.

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 Jef Costello (Alain Delon), an observant, somewhat taciturn, man, conducts his business with cool, brisk efficiency. His mission is clearly defined, all contingencies are considered, and nothing is left to chance. As a contract killer, this method of working is central to his success—and his survival. However, as Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 masterpiece Le Samouraï reveals, a meticulously crafted plan doesn’t always prevent unexpected complications.

As the film opens, Jef is in the final stages of preparing for his latest contract killing. The target is a nightclub owner named Martey, and Jef relies on his girlfriend Jane (Nathalie Delon) for his alibi. While Martey’s murder goes according to plan, Jef’s exit is witnessed by several people, including Valerie (Cathy Rosier), the pianist at the club. The local police conduct a sweeping dragnet in their search for Martey’s killer, and Jef is brought in for questioning. He doesn’t remain in police custody for long; the uncertainty of the eyewitnesses coupled with Jef’s seemingly airtight alibi prompt police to release him. However, the police superintendent (François Périer) believes he is a viable suspect and begins extensive surveillance of Jef’s movements. Meanwhile, Jef faces an additional complication when the man who ordered the hit on Martey learns of the investigation and has him followed as well. Then there is the question of Valerie; she had a clear view of Jef, yet she failed to identify him in the police lineup. Could she have a secret agenda?

Le Samouraï is a well-crafted film whose chief strengths are its tone and pacing. It is a somber and contemplative film, and the setting and color palette of the opening sequence establish this tone. At the beginning of the film, Jef, clad in his trademark dark suit, is in his apartment: an austere space with thick grey walls. He is silently watching a lone bird fly around in a similarly spartan cage. The pacing is slow in comparison to today’s films, but I think that heightens the tension as Jef slowly begins to realize he has become like a caged bird. The performances are strong, with Delon’s stylish and coolly calculating Jef Costello meeting his foil in François Périer’s exuberant and obsessive police superintendent. Le Samouraï is in French, but the subtitles are formatted so they are easy to follow.

Since its release in 1967, Le Samouraï has inspired a number of filmmakers, including John Woo and Jim Jarmusch. Fans of Woo and Jarmusch, as well as those who like crime dramas, may want to check out this sleek and stylish classic.

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A few years ago, I saw Japanese director Kon Ichikawa’s 1963 film Revenge of a Kabuki Actor, and really enjoyed it, but I never got around to seeing any of his other films. Recently, however, the library added to its collection his 1983 adaptation of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s novel The Makioka Sisters and I thought it was the perfect opportunity to explore some of Ichikawa’s later work. The film did not disappoint; The Makioka Sisters is a poetic look at four sisters who are on the brink of life-altering changes in a society that is rapidly changing. The film is in Japanese with English subtitles.

Set in Osaka in the late ‘30s, the central characters are the four Makioka sisters, whose family once ran a thriving kimono manufacturing business. Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi) is the oldest and the most concerned with the prestige of the family name, even though the business has been sold; Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma) is even-tempered and takes care of her youngest sisters; Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga) is kind and gentle, but her extreme shyness makes it difficult for her family to find a husband for her; and Taeko (Yuko Kotegawa) is young, rebellious and occasionally resentful of the attention paid to Yukiko and her marital prospects.

The story primarily centers on the attempts made by the eldest sisters to find a suitable husband for Yukiko. Most of the matches are complete disasters, culminating in one awkward meeting where the family’s habit of investigating potential suitors comes back to haunt them in a major way.  Tsuruko in particular is clinging to traditions that have lost their relevance. As a result, during the course of the film the sisters face many conflicts arising from changing societal norms. Most of the conflicts revolve around the character of Taeko, who, at the beginning of the film, hopes to support herself by opening a doll factory, much to the chagrin of her oldest sister. The sisters’ resolutions to these conflicts forms the basis of the film’s poignant denouement.

The Makioka Sisters is beautifully filmed (the scenes involving the opulent kimonos are stunning), and I also really liked how Ichikawa developed the relationships between the sisters and how this sisterly bond helps them adapt to a changing society. This film turned out to be a good starting point to learning more about the work of this highly regarded director.

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The power of music to shape and influence people’s lives is the central theme of the five stories in Nocturnes, the first short story collection from Kazuo Ishiguro, the Booker Prize-winning author of The Remains of the Day.

I enjoy Ishiguro’s work, particularly his 2001 novel When We Were Orphans, and I was interested in seeing how his short stories would compare to his novels. While some stories in the collection are stronger than others, the quality of the writing kept me reading, even when Ishiguro threw in some less than convincing plot twists.

My favorite selection in the collection is “Come Rain or Come Shine,” which tells the story of a man who learns, through a series of increasingly disconcerting events, that his highly refined taste in music is the only quality his two closest friends like about him. In the story, Ray, an English teacher, returns to England to visit Emily and Charlie, a married couple who have known Ray since their days at university. It soon becomes clear that Charlie and Emily are having marital problems, and Ray’s attempts to help his longtime friends reveal some uncomfortable truths about Emily and Charlie’s feelings toward Ray. It’s a testament to Ishiguro’s skill as a writer that the portrait he creates of the central characters is so convincing that upon finishing the story, I felt like I had known them for years.

The one false note (pardon the pun) Ishiguro strikes comes with the story “Nocturne.” This story is a disappointment because he takes an intriguing premise—a talented jazz musician undergoes radical plastic surgery in the hopes that an “improved” appearance will transform his career— and undermines it with an over-the-top climax whose slapstick humor borders on the absurd.

Overall, I enjoyed Nocturnes and would recommend it to readers who enjoy short stories as well as fans of Ishiguro’s novels.

Check the WRL Catalog for Nocturnes

 

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