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Archive for the ‘Fast-paced’ Category

mushAs someone once quipped, “they don’t have issues, they have an entire subscription.” Six dogs of varying breeds make up this sled dog team, and each has their own flavor of neurosis. Dolly is the lead dog, and is consumed with an existential crisis, constantly wondering why she was chosen to lead, and whether or not she has the skills to be successful. Winston is a purebred Samoyed, and bears the heavy burden of his blue blood with mounting desperation as his chances of passing on his valuable genes seem slimmer as each season passes. Buddy, a strong but not particularly bright wheel dog, has been used several times for mating, but this has confused him about his exact relationship with the mother of his pups. Venus, Buddy’s unwilling partner in puppy making, has to fend off his amorous advances and her increasing frustration with her lack of choice in these matters. Guy is determined to take over the lead position from Dolly and is willing to manipulate the other dogs into helping him. And finally there is Fiddler, part philosopher, part devil’s advocate; he seems to be able to figure out everything, except what he actually wants for himself. The owners of this motley crew are a man and a woman who intentionally moved far away from all other people, and are dealing with their enforced solitude with varying levels of success.

The dogs live to run, and it is only in their long stretches of down time that they are forced to turn to social drama as an antidote to boredom. Buddy flirts, Venus rebuffs, Dolly questions, Guy plots, Winston preens, and Fiddler philosophizes. For all the soap opera-like drama as they jockey for their rightful place in the world, either real or perceived, the dogs are relatable and quite often funny. Somewhat gloomier is the relationship between the humans, who each only have one other person they can interact with. For both parallel stories, nerves can only fray so much before something drastic will occur.

The story is an engaging, quick read. Some of the humor is more appropriate for an older crowd, especially Buddy’s repeated attempts to compliment Venus based on her litter-making skills. Recommended for readers of graphic novels and character-driven stories.

Check the WRL catalog for Mush! Sled Dogs with Issues

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unfortunateMeet Barb Colby and Lily Stanton, longtime friends and heroines of Amanda Filipacchi’s sharp and witty fourth novel, The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty. Barb is a costume designer and Lily is an acclaimed pianist. Despite their talents, their lives are defined more by their physical appearance than their accomplishments. In response, Barb and Lily set out to subvert society’s perceptions and expectations of their looks.

Barb Colby is in her late 20s, but she looks like an unattractive 40-year-old with bad teeth and unkempt hair and clothing. Strangers typically regard her with a mix of pity and contempt; however, Barb’s appearance is actually a skillful disguise. In reality, Barb is a stunning beauty, but instead of flaunting her appearance, she hides it because she believes it was responsible for the death of a close friend. Gabriel, a successful chef, killed himself after falling in love with her. In his suicide note he wrote that her beauty had “grown so painful for me to behold.”

Wanting to be loved for who she is and not her beauty, Barb uses her design talents to create a fat suit and a wardrobe of dowdy clothing. Whenever she goes to bars or restaurants with her friends, she makes a point of engaging men in conversation then exposing their shallow views on beauty before removing the costume to reveal her true appearance. Her resolve is tested when she meets a man who may be in love with more than her physical beauty.

Lily Stanton is also in her 20s, but her appearance is very different from Barb’s. Her friend very bluntly describes her as being “extremely ugly—the kind of ugliness that is inoperable.” Lily is deeply in love with a former co-worker named Strad, a fellow musician who’s only interested in dating beautiful women. One afternoon, Strad and Lily attend a recital and he’s so moved by the music he tells her that he could “fall in love with—and marry—any woman who could create music like that.”

Realizing that her talent may be the only way she can attract Strad, Lily resolves to compose music that’s so alluring he has no choice but to fall in love with her. She starts by composing music that will make people desire objects, such as office supplies or books, and soon develops a lucrative career composing music for companies seeking to increase sales through the suggestive power of music. The piece she composes for Strad brings success; however, complications cause her to reconsider her plan.

Barb and Lily are supported in their artistic and personal endeavors by their close friends: Georgia, a successful novelist; Penelope, an aspiring potter who survived a horrific kidnapping; and Jack, a former police officer who rescued Penelope. Collectively, the group is known as the Knights of Creation, and they meet regularly to work on various artistic and literary projects. Gabriel was also a member, and before his suicide he arranged for the group to receive a series of letters. These letters reference Lily’s hopeless crush on Strad and an unsolved murder that was allegedly committed by a member of the group. His final letters warn the group that the killer has planned to murder Strad if Lily doesn’t get over him. The group’s attempt to protect Strad leads to a strange dinner party that serves as his introduction to the Knights of Creation.

Filipacchi’s breezy narrative is pitch perfect and never gets too heavy-handed. Barb and Lily’s attempts to transcend their physical appearances result in provocative and often hilarious situations as they struggle to find love and acceptance for who they are, not how they appear. Several intriguing subplots, including one concerning a missing laptop, help flesh out the secondary characters.

The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty succeeds as both a quirky mystery and a meditation on beauty itself.

Check the WRL catalog for The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty.

 

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runA young woman has 20 minutes to save her boyfriend in Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1998), an exciting German thriller that explores themes of time, fate, and love.

Lola (Franka Potente) receives a call from her boyfriend, Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu). He’s worried and scared. Lola was supposed to help Manni deliver a bag containing 100,000 Deutsche Marks to Ronnie (Heino Ferch), a mobster; however, she failed to meet him, leaving Manni no choice but to take the subway. During the ride, Manni panics when he sees a police officer. He gets off the subway, leaving behind the bag of money. He has 20 minutes to come up with 100,000 Deutsche Marks or else Ronnie will kill him. Lola tells him not to worry; she will meet him and they’ll figure out a way to get the money. Desperate, Manni tells her that he’s prepared to rob a nearby supermarket if Lola doesn’t show up. Lola urges Manni to wait for her, and then she thinks about possible sources of money. After considering several possible options, she decides to ask her father, a bank manager, for the money. With no time to waste, Lola sprints out of her apartment and spends the next 20 minutes running through the city in a frantic attempt to get the money in enough time to save Manni.

Will Lola find 100,000 Deutsche Marks and save Manni’s life? Anything can happen in the course of 20 minutes, and Run Lola Run presents three possible outcomes to this scenario. The same basic sequence of events unfolds with each iteration of Lola’s run, but subtle differences and twists of fate alter the resolution to Lola and Manni’s dilemma.

A fast-paced and entertaining exercise in style, Run Lola Run takes a simple and straightforward premise and embellishes it with surreal animation sequences, rapid-fire editing, and a surprisingly tender love story. The movie is only 81 minutes long and Tykwer keeps the story tightly focused; there’s not a wasted scene in the film. Although the scope of the film is limited to Lola’s run, brief interludes between the scenarios establish how deeply Lola and Manni care for each other. In these scenes, they discuss their love and their fears of what might happen should one of them die. As Lola and Manni, Franka Potente and Moritz Bleibtreu bring a wonderful intensity to their roles that makes their characters’ predicament all the more urgent.

Run Lola Run is an energetic thriller and a clever meditation on the vagaries of fate.

Run Lola Run is in German with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for Run Lola Run.

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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.

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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.

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martianIf ever there was a book guaranteed to make you wish you’d paid attention in high school science classes, The Martian is it.

The story’s hero, Mark Watney, must have broken a mirror while walking under a ladder with a black cat on another Friday the 13th. When the story begins, he is stranded on Mars, thought dead by his crew and mission control. A fierce Martian windstorm has forced his exploration team to evacuate the surface, and an accident during the process destroyed the life support telemetry of his suit. Coming to and finding himself alone on the planet and discovering that he has no radio to contact the crew or NASA nearly crushes Mark. But a creative and indomitable spirit keeps him going as he reconfigures the living quarters, begins working out how he’ll survive until the next planned landing – which is 3000 kilometers away and a couple of years off – and looks for ways to communicate with Earth.

Most of the story is told in first person through the logs Watney keeps of his work and experiments in survival. These are not official or officious, but personal, wisecracking, and profane. Sometimes the audience is everyone off the planet Mars and sometimes it seems to be himself as he works out the details of his extraordinary plans. (If the space programs of the world would let their astronauts communicate in a voice like Watney’s, there would probably be more support for interplanetary exploration.)

However, Mark’s efforts to communicate with Earth turn the story’s focus back to our home planet, and to the committed, skillful, and highly individualistic people who will try to rescue Mark. How they deal with the enormous personal and engineering obstacles involved make for as compelling a story as Mark’s survival epic.

In one sense, I suppose the first person to be born or to die in a new place can be called its first citizen. (The terminology of European expansionism in human history aside.) In this case, we are rooting for Mark to not become the first Martian, but in the end of course he does. How he gets to that place is an intensely adventurous and gripping blend of hard science and science fiction. And it forces me to understand that I wouldn’t last ten minutes in Mark’s situation. I’ll take the desert island scenario any day.

Check the WRL catalogue for The Martian

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The 39 StepsThe 39 Steps is an espionage story that has been through several incarnations. It began as a very popular 1915 book by John Buchan, the first of a series of adventures involving Richard Hannay, a resourceful engineer bored with London society, whose life takes a complete turn when someone is murdered in his London flat. Soon he’s on the run, framed for the crime by a mysterious spy organization, and in pursuit of a feisty love interest who’s attracted to him but not buying his wild story.

The novel was immortalized by suspense master Alfred Hitchcock in a 1935 film. This incarnation of The 39 Steps was one of the first films to show some of Hitch’s trademarks, a hyperdramatic style, mistaken identities, mysterious villains, a dapper hero, cross-country chases, long tracking shots, and dashes of quirky humor.

Playwright Patrick Barlow keeps Hitchcock’s plot, but injects it with a love for old-fashioned humor in the style of English music halls and a nostalgia for theater in the days of greasepaint, melodrama, and hokum. The resulting play merrily employs grand old traditions into a show that contemporary audiences will find new and fresh.

Barlow’s adaptation keeps Hannay as the protagonist, but uses just three actors in all of the other parts. One woman plays both the femme fatale and the love interest drawn into Hannay’s mad flight, while two very busy actors play all of the other characters from the film, often changing so quickly that they can’t even leave the stage. The results is a suspenseful thriller made madcap with tongue-in-cheek humor, a screwball romance, references to your favorite Hitchcock films, acrobatic antics, sinister villains, and playful re-imagining of the conventions and language of classic theater.

While I recommend reading Barlow’s play for sheer enjoyment of the language, this story needs to be seen. Barlow employs a minimal set, using just a few moving set pieces, props, light and sound effects, and pantomime to suggest locations ranging from London flats to Scottish country inns, foggy moors to campaign bandstands, even the perilous heights of a towering bridge and a moving train car. The rapid transformations of two actors into a merry-go-round of quirky bystanders, leering villains, and thick-brogued Highlanders has to be seen and heard to be believed.

The Williamsburg Players will bring The 39 Steps to the stage March 12th through 28th in a production directed by the Emmy-winning Abigail Schumann, and featuring local actors David Stallings as Hannay, Annie Lewis as Annabella and Margaret, and Chris Hull and Jordan Wentland as the two chameleon-like “clowns.” If you can’t make that, try searching for The 39 Steps on YouTube to supplement your reading.

Check the WRL catalog for Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of The 39 Steps

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