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ELEVATORLouis Malle’s 1958 crime thriller Elevator to the Gallows opens with a deceptively ordinary telephone conversation.

Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) and Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) appear to be a pair of lovers innocently planning a passionate rendezvous. Their ardor is palpable and their sentiments are almost poetic. “I won’t leave you, Julien,” Florence tells him, her eyes brimming with tears. “Without your voice, I’d be lost in a sea of silence,” Julien replies. Then the conversation takes an ominous turn. They make plans to meet later that evening at a café once Julien removes the one obstacle standing in the way of their happiness—Florence’s husband and Julien’s boss, Simon Carala (Jean Wall), a wealthy arms dealer.

Julien carries out his plan with calm and calculating efficiency. A former Foreign Legion parachutist, he uses his military training to secretly enter Simon’s office. The men have a brief confrontation before Julien shoots Simon, staging the scene to look like a suicide. Julien slips out of the building the same way he entered and conceals the evidence before getting in his car. As he prepares to leave the office, he glances up and discovers he’s left behind a critical piece of evidence. Julien races back into the building to retrieve the incriminating item; however, as he’s riding up in the elevator, a maintenance worker turns the power off, trapping him between floors. Shortly after Julien goes back to the office, his car is spotted by a young couple, Louis (Georges Poujouly) and Véronique (Yori Bertin). Louis has a criminal record, but that doesn’t deter him from stealing Julien’s car, taking Véronique along for the ride. Later that evening, the couple drives past the café where Florence and Julien planned to meet. Florence sees the car speed past the café and believes that Julien has run off with another woman. While Julien struggles to find a way out of the elevator, a despondent Florence wanders the streets of Paris looking for him. Meanwhile, Louis and Véronique continue their crime spree in Julien’s car. They know Julien and his background, and in addition to stealing his car, they check into a hotel under the name Mr. and Mrs. Julien Tavernier. This scheme sets in motion a series of events that could separate Florence and Julien forever.

Elevator to the Gallows is a well-constructed thriller that moves at a brisk and tense pace. Instead of relying on surprise plot twists to generate suspense, Malle effectively uses the consequences of the characters’ actions to heighten the tension. It is also a rather stylish and atmospheric film. Henri Decaë’s glorious black and white cinematography and Miles Davis’s distinctive and moody score bathe the action in an air of melancholy.

The mood of the film is also reflected in the performances. As the desperate Florence, Jeanne Moreau brings a heartbreaking vulnerability that’s echoed by Maurice Ronet as Julien, her equally besotted lover. Although their phone conversation sets the murder plot in motion, Moreau and Ronet do not share any scenes together; however, they are convincing as a couple willing to do whatever it takes to be together.

A classic example of French New Wave Cinema, Elevator to the Gallows is one of Louis Malle’s best films.

Elevator to the Gallows is in French with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for Elevator to the Gallows.

postinoApril is National Poetry Month, and today’s review centers on a film that celebrates the beauty of poetry—Il Postino: The Postman, a whimsical tale of the friendship between a postman and a famous poet.

Based on Antonio Skármeta’s novel Ardiente Paciencia, the film is set in the early ‘50s in a remote Italian village. Lifelong resident Mario Ruoppolo (Massimo Troisi) lives with his father, a fisherman. One of the few literate people in the community, Mario’s a simple man whose knowledge of life outside the village comes from newsreels at the cinema and the occasional postcard from relatives in America.

Life passes uneventfully in the village until the day Mario sees a newsreel announcing the arrival of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret). Neruda has been exiled from his native country for political reasons and he plans to stay in the village until he can safely return to Chile. Mario’s unfamiliar with Neruda’s poetry, but he’s impressed by his celebrity status, especially his adoring female fans.

Neruda’s arrival provides Mario with an unexpected job opportunity. The local postmaster needs a temporary postman to deliver mail to Neruda. Eager to learn how he can impress women, Mario accepts the job and begins an awkward, but persistent, campaign to become friends with Neruda. Charmed by Mario’s earnest attempts to understand poetic conventions, Neruda becomes a friend and mentor to the shy postman. When Mario falls in love with Beatrice Russo (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), the niece of the village’s café owner, he uses Neruda’s advice—and his poetry—to win her heart.

Il Postino is a charming film that gently and eloquently explores the transformative power of friendship and poetry. Mario has a great enthusiasm for life, but a limited frame of reference until he meets Neruda. He’s eager to understand Neruda’s work and his discussions with the poet introduce him to new ways of expressing his thoughts and feelings. As his friendship with Neruda blossoms, he demonstrates a newfound level of confidence in the way he speaks and carries himself. It’s a subtle change beautifully captured by Massimo Troisi’s elegant and understated performance. Philippe Noiret is delightful as Neruda, and under Michael Radford’s deft direction the friendship between Mario and Neruda never feels forced or gimmicky. Neruda’s poetry is an integral part of the plot, and the poems used in the film are a perfect fit for the central themes and storyline.

Il Postino was the final film of Massimo Troisi, who also co-wrote the screenplay. A case of rheumatic fever as a child left him with a serious heart condition and he needed a heart transplant. He postponed the surgery so he could finish the film. In June 1994, he died of a heart attack hours after completing the project. He received posthumous Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay; the film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director and Luis Bacalov won for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score.

The film received a new round of publicity several years ago when opera composer and librettist Daniel Catán developed an operatic version. The opera, featuring tenor Plácido Domingo as Pablo Neruda, opened in 2010 to positive reviews.

Il Postino: The Postman is in Italian with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for Il Postino: The Postman

WRL has several collections of Neruda’s poetry, including The Poetry of Pablo Neruda

Christmas at Downton Abbey

Christmas at Downton AbbeyAt Williamsburg Regional Library we face a problem common to many public libraries; seasonal items are, well, seasonal. The hold lists for the most popular Christmas DVDs, CDs and books gather steam in late November and peak just before Christmas, so many people find they are finally getting their Christmas items in January or later. For me this was a happy circumstance. Christmas is over, but our wintry weather isn’t, so I have been enjoying Downton Abbey’s magnificent music CD well into March.

This two-disc set has almost fifty tracks performed by a variety of artists, including famous singers like Kiri Te Kanawa and the Choir of the Kings College Cambridge. They showcase a variety styles but there are no rock versions; all the music is traditional. With my astounding musical knowledge I would describe them as “tinkly.” The tracks range from single voices (O Holy Night) to joyful and uplifting choir numbers (Joy to the World, The Lord is Come) to somber organ music (God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen) to instrumental (Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy).

Even if you don’t have a voice like Kiri Te Kanawa (I’m guilty!) these are wonderful songs for singing along. Some beloved Christmas carols have been sung for hundreds of years and are the Christmas songs of millions of childhoods.  I may not be able to hold a tune but I know all the words to Good King Wenceslas, and I feel better for belting them out on my commute. I have to admit that I have gotten some funny looks at traffic lights but I know confining my sing-alongs to my car is better for everyone’s health and safety. I suspect if I sang along at work I might find myself out the window despite (or because of) any winter storm warnings

I recommend this CD for all year long (coming from the southern hemisphere, I’ve always been a bit seasonally confused when it comes to Christmas). You don’t have to be a Downton Abbey fan to need and enjoy comforting, inspiring music that will get you out there exercising your lungs!

Check the WRL catalog for Christmas at Downton Abbey.

Animal ArchitectureFrom its arresting cover to its fantastic photographs to its quirky animal facts, Animal Architecture is a winner for art lovers, photographers, and nature lovers.

The term “architecture” usually means buildings. In this book the term can mean structures made of materials from outside of an animal’s body, such as a bird’s nest or beaver dam. It can also mean structures made with materials from animal’s bodies such as webs, or even ones that stay on their bodies such as shells.

Some of the featured animals are very small, such as the caddis fly, but the sparkling photographs with black backgrounds show every hair-like appendage on the tiny creature’s body and every minute piece of wood, stone, leaf, shell or straw in the amazing cases that they build to protect their soft bodies. The photograph with the largest scale goes to another of the smallest animals. The compass termite in northern Australia builds 3 meter (10 feet) high mounds and the aerial photographs taken at dawn and dusk show a flat semiarid field with long shadows highlighting hundreds of aerie gravestones. On any scale, we are not the only creatures who can mold our environment. The changes can be destructive for the host like the galleries of the bark beetle larvae or cause great changes to the entire local environment like beaver dams, termite mounds, or coral reefs.

The photographer, Ingo Arndt, has won numerous awards and been published by National Geographic and it’s easy to see why. These photographs are immediately arresting but also bear long study to examine the intricacies of the galleries of the bark beetle larvae, the bower bird’s opus, or the staggering variety of corals. The text by Jurgen Tautz takes up less space but it provides clear and digestable chunks of information about these spectacular architects.

Try Animal Architecture if you like the spectacular nature photography of The Oldest Living Things in the World, by Rachel Sussman, The Songs of Insects, by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger or Sea, by Mark Laita. Or if you are interested in the substances that these creatures use try Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World, by Mark Miodownik.

Check the WRL catalog for Animal Architecture.

Justinians FleaFive centuries after the birth of Christ the ancient Mediterranean world was booming; architecture, literature, trade, and philosophy, were experiencing great leaps in development. In Constantinople, Justinian was trying to hold together the Roman Empire despite inroads from barbarians from all directions. By all accounts he was an able (if at times brutal) leader, but he was unable to fight the first pandemic of Bubonic plague. From 541-542 it is estimated to have killed 25 million people, depopulating cities and perhaps leading to the shape of the modern world from the European nation states to the rise of Islam.

Justinian’s Flea tells this story with sections ranging from the biology of rats, and their passengers of fleas and Yersinia pestis (the bacterium that causes Bubonic plague), to the political intrigues of Justinian’s Court. The author has brought together disparate disciplines and facts including climate estimates from tree rings, the technological advances of ancient warfare, grave sites, and notarized wills. The book is fleshed out with wrenching quotes from contemporary accounts such as the prolific Procopius who said “there was a pestilence by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated.”

Justinian’s Flea is a weighty but readable tome and since I don’t usually read nonfiction history, I learned an enormous amount.  I lean towards science nonfiction and this book is a great companion for other books about the role of diseases in human history such as The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, Rabid: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy,  Plague: A Very Short Introduction by  Paul Slack or The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

For fiction readers, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks, which is set in the time of the Black Death (Bubonic Plague 600 years later), includes harrowing descriptions of the disease and the effects on people even if they survived. For those interested in visuals you could also try the History Channel DVD The Dark Ages.

Check the WRL catalog for Justinian’s Flea.

Avatar: The Last Airbender

AvatarTheLastAirbenderI know that having children is a life-enriching experience but I didn’t expect my almost-grown children to get me hooked on an initially unappealing children’s T.V. show; Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender. At first the cartoons and martial arts action seemed cheesy, but the show delivers a compelling story filled with friendship, family (good and bad), coming of age, and sympathetic but realistically flawed characters.

The story is set in a fascinating universe where certain people have an innate ability to move and control physical matter, called bending. All benders can move only one element: either earth, water, air or fire. All, that is, except the Avatar who can bend all four, and this power is meant to be used to keep balance and harmony in the world. The Avatar disappeared over one hundred years ago which allowed the Fire Nation to wage a war to take over the world. In the first episode our heroes Katara and Sokka discover that the Avatar, Aang, has been frozen in an iceberg for a hundred years as a twelve-year-old boy. The three of them set off on journeys and adventures all around the world, gathering friends and enemies, such as plump, kindly General Iroh who dispenses sage advice and cups of tea, or short, blind Toph who seems helpless, but is much tougher than everyone else. The situation often looks dire, but as Katara says in the opening sequence, “I believe Aang can save the world.”

The well-developed universe includes real martial art systems as the basis for each type of bending and buildings, costumes and cultures based on real ancient Asian cultures (although sometimes mixed). But the best invention may be the chimeric animals! Aang has a huge, furry, guinea-pig-shaped Flying Bison named Appa that you can’t possibly see without wanting one.

There are many spin-off works such as the sequel The Legend of Korra  which expands on the story of the Avatar. It occurs seventy years later than Avatar: The Last Airbender and features that show’s character’s children and grandchildren. They live in Republic City which bears an uncanny resemblance to 1920s New York City.  There are also graphic novels some of which are drawn by the same artists and include original stories that are not in the original show like Avatar the Last Airbender: The Promise.

Like Doctor Who or Spirited Away this is great for the whole family to watch together. The stories are simple enough (and active enough) to appeal to the youngest set while the geopolitical wrangling and character development is enough to keep adults coming back for more.

Check the WRL catalog for Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Link to the Past CoverIt can be fun working right next to Colonial Williamsburg, the world’s largest living history museum; not only do we get to see Thomas Jefferson wandering along the street texting, but we also get to walk past old-fashioned zigzag, split rail fences and see fields of farm animals in the middle of the city.

Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future: Colonial Williamsburg’s Animals is a great way to learn about these animals. It includes sections on cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, pigeons, fish, horses and pets, with simple, clear descriptions of animal management and use, in both colonial times and the present day. It points out that in colonial times animals shared people’s daily lives in a way that they don’t often do today. Of course the colonists used the meat, milk, eggs, and wool from their animals but there were also surprising uses such as including animal hair in plaster for house building, which Colonial Williamsburg brickmakers still do, as they always strive for authenticity.

Modern farm animals have been bred for specific traits over the last several hundred years so to be authentic, Colonial Williamsburg has researched, bought and raised rare breeds such as the Leicester Longwool Sheep. Their research includes works written by the colonialists so Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future has several quotes from George Washington about how he managed his animals.

The text explains and complements the pictures, but like the other books about Colonial Williamsburg Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future is an enjoyable and worthwhile book just for the photos. Every page includes wonderful photographs of the interpreters in costumes performing their farming tasks by hand, as well as photographs of the animals as they go about their lives.

This book is great to read with other Colonial Williamsburg titles: Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene, or The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook, by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. It also includes the history of chickens which you can learn about in greater depth from Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization, by Andrew Lawler.

Check the WRL catalog for Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future.

Baa-bara
Baa-bara who came to meet children at Williamsburg Regional Library’s “Sheepish Storytime” on February 21.

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