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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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eagleReaders’ Digest Condensed Books takes it on the chin from many quarters – dumbed down books stripped down for readers who place more value on popular titles than quality reads. Looking back at them now, it seems that Readers’ Digest was the only transition from kids’ books to “adult” literature I had access to. My brother and sisters and I would check the mail every day, and when that box turned up it was Katy, bar the door. And while we were waiting there was always the shelf full of previous collections we could grab. Now, most of the books weren’t memorable, but others set me on the path of my pleasure reading, and where’s the harm in that?

Once an Eagle was a transition from my childish understanding of war to a more sober take on its dark and dirty side. The story of one man’s Army career from private in the futile search for Pancho Villa to retired general seeing the early signs of the coming war in Vietnam, it is also the story of the American military through the 20th century.

Sam Damon grows up in a small Midwestern town, hearing tales of glorious and deadly battles from veterans of the Civil War and the Philippine American War. He joins as a private soldier at a time when the Army was considered a refuge for drunks, brutes, and incompetents, but those men become the cadre around which newly-minted civilian soldiers became an Army in 1917. Damon is a powerful leader, inspiring loyalty and pulling reluctant men into his fearless wake. He frightens them, though – in battle he is savage and coldly brilliant, with the mythical luck of the born warrior. His successes earns him medals and brevet promotion, but his first loyalty is with his men. He also comes up against Courtney Massengale, a bloodless, politically-connected West Pointer who sees war as a series of staff exercises, and whose time-in-grade will keep him a half-step ahead of Sam throughout their parallel careers.

After 1918, Sam and his new family begin the grinding tour of moving from one camp to another to study his craft. With the world determinedly turning its back on the horror of the recent war, the Army once again becomes a backwater. But such backwaters creates a sense of community and continuity in their denizens, forming deep friendships and uneasy truces between enemies. It isn’t just the men, either – their wives are their allies, spies, and bulwarks against the maneuvering that might destroy a man’s career. There are also the common soldiers, rootless, bored, underpaid, and kept in line by relentless, sometimes cruel discipline.

Then war comes again, and the officers who have languished in rank are suddenly given armies to train and command. Damon’s war is in the Pacific, where repeated amphibious assaults give way to jungle fighting against an enemy that does not surrender.  As an infantry commander on the beach, Damon has to rely on a Navy with its own agenda, a fledgling Army Air Corps, and a superior officer – Massengale – who still doesn’t see the blood and death his orders cause. Damon must call on his innate skills as a warrior, as a leader, and as a commander who must place professional duty above personal sacrifice. In the wake of the war, with no political patronage, those qualities get him put on the shelf. Until he’s needed to investigate a local brushfire war threatening American interests.

Myrer’s control over both his characters and their situations makes it easy to keep up with, even care about, the myriad of people who must populate a book about armies and war. Even after so long, I’m pretty sure I could even tell you what characters appear in what parts of the story and what their relationship to Damon is. Myrer’s descriptions of battle are detailed and horrible enough to strip the shine off the techo-thrillers and are reminders that war is, after all, friend only to the undertaker. I’m pretty sure Sam Damon would agree with Edwin Starr.

Revisiting the book as an adult, I made an interesting discovery about the condensation process Readers’ Digest used on this particular story. A significant section that has Damon travelling to China to observe the Communist guerrilla war against the Japanese. A heroic Chinese commander teaches him about both ideology and tactics, striking a sympathetic chord in both character and reader. That section was completely missing from the digested version, possibly because, up until recently, Reader’s Digest was a leading anti-Communist voice in American society. On the other hand, that same conservative approach took a lot of sex out of other books they condensed, which probably made it more palatable for the parents of pre-teens and adolescents like me and my siblings. Middlebrow? Maybe. But re-reading The Outsiders and Go Ask Alice wouldn’t have led me to travel through the lives and stories of so many different people and kept me reading until it became an indispensable part of my life.

Check the WRL catalog for Once an Eagle

Sam Elliott also starred as Sam Damon in an NBC miniseries that follows the novel pretty closely.

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Grumpy CatFor the few people who haven’t yet heard of Grumpy Cat, let me enlighten you. Grumpy Cat, whose real name is Tardar Sauce, is a small cat of indeterminate breed who became an internet sensation in 2012 because of her particular puss. The kitty’s mouth turns down, her eyes are large and the markings on her fur make her appear to be perpetually frowning. Not scary frowning, mind you, but endearingly funny frowning. From this facial peculiarity, the Grumpy Cat was born and launched a thousand memes, two books and a holiday movie.

The two books, Grumpy Cat: A Grumpy Book and The Grumpy Guide to Life, are novelty tomes that feature pictures and commentary by the grouchy grimalkin. The comments are all amusingly sour observations such as:

Next time you’re feeling pretty good about how things are going in your life, remember that the dinosaurs were probably feeling that way, too, before that meteor fell.

And:

Don’t Forget: Every silver lining is part of a larger, darker cloud.

Of more interest are the plentiful photographs of the telegenic tabby, with my particular favorite being “The Frown File,” featuring several classic crabby snapshots with advice that “If you master each of the following looks, you can effectively ruin anyone’s day.” Indeed, a laudable goal to aspire to.

In the Lifetime TV movie, Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever, we get to see the frowning feline in action as the disgruntled denizen of a mall pet shop. Grumpy spouts a non-stop stream of snappy snark as she begrudgingly helps a lonely teenager foil a robbery and rescue a kidnapped dog. This self-mocking film will never win an Oscar, but it is good cheesy fun and something the whole family can watch. Hey, Lifetime, how about a follow-up film, maybe, Grumpy Cat vs. The Turkey: A Tale of Thanksgiving Grousing, or Heartburn: A Grumpy Cat Valentine’s Day, or The Case of The Sourpuss: a Grumpy Cat Mystery.

The library’s entire Grumpy Cat oeuvre is recommended for people of all ages who have a sense of humor and low expectations.

Check the WRL catalog for Grumpy Cat: A Grumpy Book.

Check the WRL catalog for The Grumpy Guide to Life

Check the WRL catalog for Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever

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AsUWishFor many people it is inconceivable to not feel a true love for the giant movie The Princess Bride. This memoir, authored by the Man in Black himself (a.k.a. Westley, the Dread Pirate Roberts, and Cary Elwes), is a tribute to the people who took William Goldman’s The Princess Bride from page to screen. If ever you told someone to “have fun storming the castle,” introduced yourself as Inigo Montoya, or whispered “as you wish,” this book is for you.

While Elwes takes center stage through the telling of how they made The Princess Bride, he dedicates much of the book to heaping laudatory remarks on those with whom he worked. Again and again, Elwes writes about how wonderful it was to make the movie with these people. Robin Wright was perfect in every way. Mandy Patinkin brought a competitive spirit that made everything better. Billy Crystal and Carol Kane, only on set for three days, were extraordinary. André the Giant (and this has been corroborated by many others) was the sweetest, kindest, gentlest giant who ever walked this Earth. Elwes unleashes unreserved praise and adulation for director Rob Reiner.

Among the entertaining features of As You Wish are the commentary boxes. Throughout the pages are brief observations from Elwes’s colleagues relating to whatever topic is being written about at that point. The reader gets to hear from Wright, Reiner, Patinkin, Shawn, Guest, Crystal, and others about their experiences on set. For anyone who has enjoyed one of the greatest on-screen fencing scenes ever filmed, Elwes dedicates a whole chapter to how he and Patinkin trained for it. Elwes wants the reader to understand that the beauty of the movie is largely a result of the beauty of those who made it (although he also is quick to state that the book and screenplay are brilliant).

For anyone not familiar with The Princess Bride, “as you wish” is synonymous with “I love you.” Given how Cary Elwes waxes poetic about the delightful experiences of making the movie, the phrase is apropos. He loved everything about The Princess Bride except the food and the weather. After reading As You Wish I felt a strong urge to re-watch the movie. If that is the case for you, be sure to check it out from the library.

Check the WRL catalog for As You Wish

Check the WRL catalog for the movie, The Princess Bride

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MegaDisasters

If an asteroid hit the earth it would be bad news for all of us; that much is obvious. But what exactly would happen? Mega Disasters features ten episodes describing unimaginable catastrophes such as an F5 tornado hitting Chicago, a major eruption of Mt. Rainier onto Seattle or a huge earthquake hitting Los Angeles. It uses evidence from past cataclysms and tells the story with real disaster film footage. Expect lots of experts predicting doom and tons of (slightly cheesy) computer graphics.

Sometimes I feel like being completely awed by nature. This week I have talked about some of the smallest things (Molecules), some of the Oldest Living Things, and some of the cutest birds (Penguins and Chickens). But sometimes to fully appreciate these lovely things I have to imagine the most catastrophic. Many of this week’s science books are much more useful and appealing because they are visual. To get the full effect of a volcanic eruption (and not actually stand on an active geologic zone and risk pyroclastic flows and lava), I don’t think you can beat sound and action. Boom! Crash! Sizzle! Whoosh! Grab your popcorn, it’s time for a disaster movie!

Some of these mega disasters have happened before, such as the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs millions of years ago, or a Yellowstone eruption that buried the entire Midwest in feet of ash, but these happened long before humans or human civilization were around. The effects on us today would be enormous and perhaps not predictable, but in true History Channel style, Mega Disasters tries to predict. It shows the familiar high-rise buildings of Chicago and then shows computer-animated effects of wrenching winds with flying glass and debris. The creators of the series based their predictions on current expertise and up-to-date knowledge. They interviewed many geologists, meteorologists, astronomers and other scientists. Most of the scientists appear to be unflappable people, so when they dryly state things like, “This entire area would be devastated with nothing left alive,” you know it’s time to sit up and take notice.

My favorite episode is Yellowstone Eruption, because I am spellbound by supervolcanoes that could potentially kill most life on earth, as ably described in the teen novel Ashfall by Mike Mullin. Other good book tie-ins include nonfiction on the worldwide effects of a much smaller eruption, like Tambora, by Gillen D’Arcy Wood.

Mega Disasters will also interest viewers who like fictional disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow or 2012. And if you think this is a silly topic and you are ever feeling too complacent, just remember this quote attributed to Will Durant, “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.”

Check the WRL catalog for Mega Disasters.

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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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raise_the_red_lanternZhang Yimou’s masterpiece Raise the Red Lantern opens with a young woman preparing to make a fateful decision. In 1920 China, Songlian (Gong Li), a 19-year-old university student, is forced to abandon her studies after her father’s death left the family destitute. With few options available, Songlian tearfully tells her mother that she’s decided to marry a wealthy man. When her mother advises her that as the wife of a rich man she will be little more than a concubine, Songlian stoically replies, “Let me be a concubine. Isn’t that the fate of a woman?” It’s a powerful scene staged with stunning simplicity; Songlian is shown in close-up addressing her mother, who remains off-camera. At end of her speech, tears slowly roll down her cheeks belying sadness and resignation to her fate.

Songlian becomes the fourth wife (or, as she’s referred to throughout the film, the Fourth Mistress) of Master Chen (Ma Jingwu). He lives on a vast estate with three other Mistresses and a cadre of servants. Each Mistress has her own apartment in the compound; however, like birds in a gilded cage, their life of luxury comes at a steep price: their freedom.

At first, Songlian is treated well by the Mistresses and the servants. The first night in the estate, her apartment is festooned with red lanterns, she receives an elaborate foot massage, and Master Chen comes to visit. She soon learns, however, that this treatment is the exception rather than the rule. On a daily basis, the master decides which Mistress he will spend the night with, and the Mistress he selects will choose the menu for the evening, receive the red lanterns and the foot massage, and garner the most attention and respect from the servants. This ritual has fostered an environment of fierce competition, as the Mistresses vie daily for Master Chen’s affections.

As Songlian adjusts to life as Master Chen’s Fourth Mistress, she gets to know the other women on the estate: Yuru (Jin Shuyuan), the First Mistress and the mother of Chen’s son; Zhuoyan (Cao Cuifen), the Second Mistress, described as having the face of the Buddha but the heart of a scorpion; and Meishan (He Saifei), the Third Mistress, a former opera singer. There is also Yan’er (Kong Lin), a longtime servant who dreams of becoming a Mistress herself.

Songlian is savvy enough to understand the peculiar dynamics of the Chen household and implements a few schemes of her own to curry the Master’s favor. Despite her initial success, she soon finds herself double-crossed by one of the Mistresses. When Songlian eventually discovers that another Mistress is involved in an illicit affair, she unwittingly sets into motion a series of events that threaten the fragile structure of the Chen household.

Raise the Red Lantern is a visually stunning film that uses color and cinematography to great effect. The color red is a central motif that connects the key visuals. The red of the lanterns is reflected in the reds of the cheongsams worn by Songlian and the other mistresses. The impressive architecture of Master Chen’s estate is complemented by Yimou’s use of overhead shots. The setting’s beauty stands in stark contrast to the grim fates that await the mistresses. Gong Li, whose films with Yimou include To Live and Shanghai Triad, delivers one of her finest performances as Songlian.

Raise the Red Lantern was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and, in 2001, Yimou developed a ballet based on the film. In recent years, Yimou has directed a number of popular films, including Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Fans of Yimou’s later films may want to check out Raise the Red Lantern, one of the best films of the 1990s.

Raise the Red Lantern is in Mandarin with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for Raise the Red Lantern

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