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Archive for the ‘Mandy’s Picks’ Category

my dinner withMy introduction to the film My Dinner with André came from a rather unlikely source – a Mad magazine parody called My Dinner with André the Giant. In the years since its release, My Dinner with André  has inspired numerous tributes and parodies, including a Far Side comic and an episode of the the first season of Frasier called “My Coffee with Niles.” My Dinner with André  is a unique film that I revisit every few years; usually when I’m looking for something insightful, but primarily because the extended conversation at the heart of the film is quite entertaining.

The film stars actor/playwright Wallace Shawn and director/actor André Gregory playing fictionalized versions of themselves. The movie opens with Shawn preparing to meet Gregory at an expensive New York City restaurant. Gregory was an early supporter of Shawn’s work; however, the one-time colleagues have not spoken to each other for years. Shawn is filled with trepidation at the prospect of meeting with Gregory. Over the years, he heard that Gregory had left his successful career as a director and traveled the world in search of spiritual enlightenment. Shawn’s concern is heightened when he hears that a mutual friend ran into Gregory in an obscure part of town, sobbing because he had just seen Ingmar Bergman’s film Autumn Sonata and was moved when Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) says, “I could always live in my art, but never in my life.”

Despite his concerns, Shawn agrees to have dinner with Gregory, and duration of the film consists of their wide-ranging and deeply philosophical conversation. Gregory begins by describing his artistic and spiritual pursuits after leaving the theatre. He goes to Poland to work with his friend, director Jerzy Grotowski; he travels to Findhorn in Scotland and the Sahara; and finally he stays at photographer Richard Avedon’s estate in Montauk, where he participates in a rebirth ritual in which he’s nearly buried alive.

Shawn is fascinated by Gregory’s stories, but he wonders if such pursuits are practical, especially if you have a wife and family as Gregory does. During the second part of the film, Shawn playfully challenges Gregory’s philosophical outlook and in the process begins to his see the world around him in a new light.

My Dinner with André  is an eloquent and understated film that can be enjoyed on a number of levels. Gregory is an engaging raconteur whose stories are intriguing and often quite amusing. His interaction with Shawn is so relaxed and natural that you feel like you’re eavesdropping on a conversation between two friends who haven’t seen each other in a long time. Director Louis Malle keeps the film moving at a brisk, efficient pace. The restaurant is elegant, but the décor doesn’t overshadow the actors. Interestingly, although the film is set in New York City, the restaurant scenes were actually filmed at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond.

Check the WRL catalog for My Dinner with André

Check the WRL catalog for season one of Frasier

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gone girlIn many of director David Fincher’s films, there’s an aura of unease; the sense that what you’re seeing onscreen can’t be trusted and the real story is far more sinister than you’ve been led to believe. In The Game (1997), an investment banker is led down a nightmarish rabbit hole after signing up for a virtual reality game. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), based on Stieg Larsson’s novel, a disgraced journalist uncovers dark family secrets while investigating a mysterious disappearance. A similar sense of unease hangs over his latest film Gone Girl, a dark and haunting adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s equally dark and haunting bestselling novel.

Andrew has already reviewed Flynn’s book, so I will keep the plot description to a minimum. The film opens with Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) heading to work at the bar he runs with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon). It’s Nick and his wife Amy’s (Rosamund Pike) fifth anniversary, but he’s not exactly celebrating. Once successful journalists in New York, Nick and Amy lost their jobs and moved to his hometown in Missouri to help take care of his mother, who was diagnosed with cancer. The move was difficult on a marriage that seemed, to outward appearances, perfect in every way.

Shortly after opening the bar, Nick gets a call from one of his neighbors, concerned that there may have been a disturbance at Nick’s house. Nick arrives home to find the cat outside and Amy missing. Worried, Nick calls the police, who discover ominous signs of a struggle. The subsequent investigation into Amy’s disappearance yields clues that the Dunne marriage had its secrets.

Gone Girl is a twisty and lurid tale that transfers well to film thanks to Flynn’s keen screenplay, a stellar cast, and Fincher’s savvy direction. Flynn preserves the structure of her novel, and the story is told from Nick and Amy’s points of view. The well-edited sequences are aided by great visual cues, like Amy using different colors of ink in her diary to reflect changes in the marriage.

The casting is spot-on. Ben Affleck delivers one of his best performances as a man whose attempts to be seen as the good guy often fall short of expectations. Rosamund Pike brings a cool detachment to Amy that serves her character well. The outstanding supporting performances include Tyler Perry as defense attorney Tanner Bolt, and Missi Pyle as Ellen Abbott, the outspoken host of a television crime show.

Fincher’s direction ties everything together. Gone Girl is long, but the pacing is never sluggish. He starts with the central mystery and uses flashbacks and shifts in perspective to provide the background and context. Music also plays an important role in setting the mood of Gone Girl. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is effectively chilling and helps build tension throughout the film.

Taut and well-paced, Gone Girl is the perfect match of director, actors, and source material.

Check the WRL catalog for Gone Girl

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big little liesEvery year, parents of students at suburban Australia’s Pirriwee Public School look forward to Trivia Night. The combination costume party and trivia competition is a major fundraiser and the highlight of the school’s active social scene. The competition’s theme pays homage to Elvis Presley and Audrey Hepburn; however, Trivia Night will be anything but routine this year. A late caterer, unusually potent cocktails, a rain storm, and simmering tensions among parents result in a riot and an accidental death that might really be a murder. What events could plunge an ordinary parents’ night into chaos? Liane Moriarty explores this question in her latest novel, Big Little Lies.

Everything begins rather innocently when Madeline Martha Mackenzie meets Jane Chapman, a young single mother and newcomer to Pirriwee. Both women have children starting kindergarten: Madeline’s daughter Chloe and Jane’s son Ziggy. They spend the afternoon together, and Madeline introduces Jane to Tom, the proprietor of a café called Blue Blues, and Celeste White, mother of twin sons named Max and Josh. The women bond over coffee then spend the morning at their children’s kindergarten orientation.

At first, the orientation is routine; the parents socialize while the children meet their teachers and classmates. Towards the end of the orientation, an event occurs that divides the parents and teachers, and puts Ziggy and Jane in the middle of a controversy. Amabella, the daughter of a wealthy and powerful woman named Renata Klein, accuses Ziggy of bullying her during the orientation. Ziggy denies Amabella’s accusation, and Jane and her new friends believe him, although Renata and her supporters start a petition to get Ziggy suspended from the school.

Although Jane supports her son, a secret about his father causes her to question what she knows about her son and the incident. She is not the only one with an emotionally fraught personal life.

Madeline enjoys a comfortable life with her second husband, Ed; their children, Chloe and Fred; and her teenage daughter, Abigail. However, her former husband, Nathan, has moved to Pirriwee with his new wife, Bonnie, and their daughter, Skye, who is in the same class as Chloe. Not only does Madeline have to face Nathan and his new family at school functions, but Abigail has formed a close bond with Bonnie that threatens Abigail’s relationship with Madeline.

To the casual observer, Celeste’s life with her husband, Perry, and the twins is perfect in every way; however, a dark truth lies at the heart of this seemingly charmed family.

As the school year goes on, Madeline, Jane, and Celeste balance their complicated family lives with school projects, gossip, and rivalries. The parents of Pirriwee Public School are taking sides and forming alliances, setting the stage for a fundraiser that ends in disaster.

Big Little Lies starts out as a light and frothy read about mothers navigating the tricky social dynamics at their children’s school, but it turns into a provocative exploration of the effects of bullying and domestic violence. Moriarty makes it known early in the novel that a death will occur at Trivia Night, and the clues she plants along the way heighten the effect of the events at the fundraiser.

The story primarily centers on Jane, Madeline, and Celeste and their families; however, an entertaining – but frequently unreliable – Greek chorus of fellow parents and investigators provide additional depth and context to the story.

With a large cast of characters and a nuanced narrative, Big Little Lies is a fast-paced novel that’s a quirky mix of Desperate Housewives and David Lynch’s seminal show Twin Peaks.

Check the WRL catalog for Big Little Lies

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strange libraryA young boy finds himself trapped in a bizarre library with a sheep man and a mysterious girl in Haruki Murakami’s illustrated short novel, The Strange Library.

His journey begins with a trip to his local library to return two books: How to Build a Submarine and Memoirs of a Shepherd. He tells the librarian that he’s also looking for some books, and she directs him to Room 107, located in the library’s basement. When he reaches Room 107, he encounters a cantankerous old man sitting behind a desk. He impulsively tells the older man that he’s looking for books on tax collection in the Ottoman Empire, and he’s presented with three books: The Ottoman Tax System, The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector, and Tax Revolts and their Suppression in the Ottoman-Turkish Empire.

The boy plans to check out the books and leave the library as quickly as possible; however, he’s told that the books can only be read in the library.  He’s travels down another corridor, where he meets a man wearing what appears to be sheepskin. The sheep man takes the boy to the Reading Room and the boy gets another surprise: the Reading Room is a jail cell. The old man locks him in the cell and tells him that he must spend the next month memorizing the content of the books. At the end of the month, the man will question him about the books. If the man decides that the boy has mastered the content, he will set him free.

Later that evening, the boy receives another mysterious visitor: a mute girl who brings him a gourmet dinner. Communicating through hand gestures, the girl tells him that her vocal chords were destroyed. After she leaves, he finishes the dinner and starts reading The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector.

The Strange Library has many elements familiar to readers of Murakami’s work: quirky characters, surreal settings, and sense of melancholy or impending loss. Murakami’s characters in this novel are nameless except for the ones mentioned in The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector. This approach is very effective; the boy is an ordinary boy whose seemingly routine trip to the local city library takes an unusual and ominous turn.

The lavish color illustrations highlight the surreal nature of the narrative, and the repetitive images, including birds, eyes, and insects, reinforce the unusual nature of the boy’s journey and the people he encounters along the way.

Haunting and poignant, The Strange Library is a quick read compared to many of Murakami’s works, but the engaging prose and fantastic illustrations may inspire readers to make return trips to Room 107.

Check the WRL catalog for The Strange Library

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wonder womanShe’s one of the most memorable and enduring superheroes: an Amazon from Paradise Island sent to America to promote liberty and freedom while fighting suffering and injustice. She’s Wonder Woman (aka Diana Prince) and since her debut in 1941, her adventures have been chronicled in comic books, a daily newspaper strip, and a popular television series starring Lynda Carter. Wonder Woman’s adventures may be legendary, but the story behind her development is as incredible as any superhero story.

Wonder Woman was created by a man named William Moulton Marston, a polymath, psychologist, and huckster heavily influenced by suffragists and early feminists. The story of William Marston and Wonder Woman is a fascinating tale involving feminism, psychology, the advent of comic book superheroes, unconventional relationships, and family secrets. Historian Jill Lepore explores the complicated life of William Marston and the development of Wonder Woman in her entertaining and provocative new book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

Lepore’s narrative is divided into four main sections: Veritas, which recounts the early lives and education of Marston and his childhood sweetheart (and later wife), Sadie Elizabeth Holloway; Family Circle, an exploration of Marston’s family life, including his polyamorous relationships with Holloway and a former student named Olive Byrne; Paradise Island, an examination of the development and success of Wonder Woman; and Great Hera! I’m Back, a discussion of Wonder Woman’s influence and legacy. This structure allows Lepore to unpack the nuances of Marston’s life, work, and relationships and how they relate to Wonder Woman in an engaging and accessible manner.

William Moulton Marston was born in 1893 in Massachusetts. He attended Harvard University, where he became interested in the movement for women’s suffrage. He was particularly fascinated by the British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst who, in 1911, was scheduled to speak at Harvard, but was later barred from speaking on campus.

Marston studied Philosophy and Psychology and was especially interested in determining whether or not deception could be detected by measuring systolic blood pressure. His research was instrumental in the development of early lie detector tests, and Marston testified as an expert witness in lie detection in several court cases.

After graduating from Harvard, Marston married Sadie Holloway, a Mount Holyoke graduate, and the couple stayed in Massachusetts to attend law school. They also pursued advanced degrees in Psychology.

While Holloway found work in New York as managing editor of Child Study: A Journal of Parent Education, Marston pursued a career in academia at Tufts University. At Tufts, he met Olive Byrne, niece of ardent feminist and birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. Byrne became Marston’s research assistant and eventually moved in with Marston and Holloway.

Marston, Holloway and Byrne formed an unconventional family unit. Marston had a son and daughter with Holloway and two sons with Byrne, but they kept the true nature of Marston’s relationship with Byrne a closely guarded secret from everyone, including their sons. Byrne invented a husband named William K. Richard who died after a long illness, and wrote feature articles for Family Circle magazine using the name “Olive Richard.” In these articles, she discussed pressing issues of the day with prominent psychologist William Marston.

Over the years, Marston’s academic career fizzled, but he never stopped trying to promote his expertise in psychology and lie detection. He offered his services in the case of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the man convicted of the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s son; he also appeared in an advertisement for Gillette razor blades. His efforts met with limited success until he was hired by Maxwell Charles “Charlie” Gaines, the publisher of Superman, to work as a consulting psychologist. At the time, critics were concerned about the level of violence in comic books, and Marston had a solution: create a female superhero that possessed “all the strength of Superman plus the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” Gaines was intrigued and Wonder Woman made her debut in the fall of 1941.

For several years, Wonder Woman was a major, if occasionally controversial, success. Working with artist Henry George Peter, a fellow supporter of women’s suffrage, Marston brought his vision of Wonder Woman as a “Progressive Era feminist” to comic books and a short-lived daily comic strip. She was not without her critics, who expressed concern about her costume and the pervasive use of chains and other forms of bondage. In response, Marston told his publisher that the motivation behind the imagery was to draw the “distinction between in the minds of children and adults between love bonds and the male bonds of cruelty and destruction.”

Despite the controversy, Marston’s vision remained largely intact until his death in 1947. Wonder Woman’s adventures continued, but subsequent writers and artists produced iterations of Wonder Woman that barely resembled the concept Marston had in mind when he originally created her.

Lepore’s background on Marston, Holloway, and Byrne is lengthy, but it effectively provides the social and cultural context for the development of Wonder Woman. She covers a lot of ground in these chapters and her lively writing style keeps the narrative moving at a brisk and enjoyable pace. The chapters on Wonder Woman and her legacy are similarly well-researched and include footnotes, a comics index, and extensive illustrations showing the evolution of Wonder Woman over the years.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a satisfying look at the making of a superhero, and the social and political changes that shaped her development.

Check the WRL catalog for The Secret History of Wonder Woman

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diabolique2My final film review this week is Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, the French horror classic that influenced Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is the headmaster of a run-down boarding school for boys. He’s a mean-spirited and petty man whose cruelty extends to his long-suffering wife, Christina (Véra Clouzot), and his mistress, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), both teachers at the school.

After Michel beats her the night before a school break, Nicole decides to take action. She enlists Christina’s help in a plan to drug then murder Michel. Although she is initially reluctant, Christina agrees to help Nicole. The two women leave the school and travel to Nicole’s apartment, where Nicole laces a bottle of wine with a powerful sedative. Christina then calls Michel and tells him she is making plans for a divorce. Enraged, Michel goes to Nicole’s apartment to confront his wife. During the course of the argument, he drinks some of the wine and passes out. With Christina’s help, Nicole drowns Michel in the bathtub. The two women take Michel’s body back to the school and dump it in the swimming pool. When his body rises to the surface, it will appear that his death was an accidental drowning.

Although the plan is seemingly foolproof, Christina becomes concerned the following day when Michel’s body does not surface. When the women finally have the pool drained, they make a shocking discovery: Michel’s corpse is not in the pool. Christina launches a search for her husband, following up on stories of unidentified bodies and hiring Alfred Fichet (Charles Vanel), a retired detective. At the same time, bizarre clues and sightings of the deceased Michel test Christina’s fragile health and her alliance with Nicole.

Les Diaboliques is a cunning thriller that relies on surprise twists and unusual clues to generate suspense. The pacing is particularly effective; Clouzot gradually builds the tension as Christina comes to realize she’s not sure if her husband is dead or alive. The acting is first-rate. Véra Clouzot and Simone Signoret give strong, nuanced performances. I also enjoyed Charles Vanel’s supporting performance as Fichet. On the surface, Fichet appears to be a good-natured, if occasionally bumbling, detective; however, he has a sharp mind and keen insight that helps further the investigation.

Equal parts murder mystery and ghost story, Les Diaboliques should appeal to fans of classic horror films and detective stories.

Les Diaboliques is in French with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for Les Diaboliques

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frightA horror film fan believes his new neighbor is a vampire in Fright Night, director Tom Holland’s entertaining homage to vampire films.

Life is relatively uneventful for high school student Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale). When he’s not spending time with his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse), or best friend “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), he’s watching horror films. He’s particularly enamored of a late night horror film series called Fright Night, hosted by Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), a one-time star of Hammer-style vampire films.

Charley’s routine life is interrupted when the Victorian mansion next door is purchased by a man named Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon). Although Charley’s mother insists Jerry bought the mansion because he restores houses for a living, odd incidents around the house convince Charley that Jerry may be a vampire. One night, Charley sees Jerry and his housemate Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark) carrying what looks like a coffin into the basement. A few nights later, a young woman who visited Jerry’s house turns up dead. Charley starts watching the house through his bedroom window and soon gets the proof he needs when he sees Jerry biting a woman’s neck.

Convinced he needs to do something to stop Jerry, Charley first turns to his local police department. Billy offers plausible explanations for everything Charley saw and the officer ultimately dismisses Charley’s story, believing he has an overactive imagination. Amy and Ed are skeptical of Charley’s story as well, and in desperation he turns to the one person he thinks will believe him: Peter Vincent. This turns into yet another dead end as Peter informs him that Fright Night is being cancelled because, “The kids today don’t have the patience for vampires. They want to see some mad slasher running around and chopping off heads.” Thinking Charley is an obsessed fan, Peter speeds away from the station.

Concerned that Charley’s belief that Jerry is a vampire is affecting his mental state, Amy and Ed contact Peter and offer to pay him if he will demonstrate to Charley that Jerry is not a vampire. Peter agrees, and a meeting is arranged with Jerry. The meeting is intended to be a harmless way of putting Charley’s mind at ease; however, the lives of Charley, Ed, Amy and Peter are put in grave danger when Peter accidently discovers that Jerry really is a vampire.

What I enjoy most about Fright Night is the way Holland (who also wrote the screenplay) deftly mixes humor with horror. The scenes from Peter Vincent’s show, particularly the clips from Vincent’s films – complete with Roddy McDowall in a bad wig – gently parody the Gothic vampire films popular in the ’60s and ’70s. Not surprisingly, the Peter Vincent character has some of the best lines in the film and McDowall gives a wonderfully droll performance. The rest of the cast deliver solid performances, particularly Chris Sarandon as the charming and seductive Jerry Dandridge. The elaborate visual effects are effective and creepy, but don’t overwhelm the story.

A remake was released in 2011, with Colin Farrell playing the role of Jerry Dandridge and David Tennant (the Tenth Doctor in Doctor Who) as Peter Vincent, a Las Vegas magician and vampire expert. I recommend the original film, but fans of Colin Farrell and David Tennant might enjoy the remake.

Check the WRL catalog for Fright Night (1985) and the 2011 version

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