Monday, December 31, 2007

Best films seen 2007

Top films seen either in theaters or on new DVD releases this past year:

  1. Charlie Wilson's War
  2. Paprika
  3. Equinox Flower
  4. Sweeney Todd
  5. Waitress
  6. The Taste of Tea
  7. Apocalypto
  8. Black Book
  9. The Lives of Others
  10. Blood Diamond
  11. Letters from Iwo Jima
  12. Babel
  13. Volver
  14. Pan's Labyrinth
  15. Children of Men

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Taste of Tea

This film may be easier to experience than describe. Beautiful, cosmic, and goofy, this Japanese family comedy is overlong at 143 minutes, but never fails to entertain. Writer-director Katsuhiro Ishii's 2004 feature won several awards and was featured at Cannes.

The episodic story features overlapping vignettes following the lives of six members of the Haruno family in their strange world. The daughter is plagued by a giant-size version of herself, and the lovesick teenage boy has trains coming out of his head. Mom is trying to restart her career in anime, hypnotherapist Dad practices on his family, and the sound mixer uncle is drifting, unable to resolve emotional issues. Grandpa is just strange, listening to tuning forks, striking poses for Mom and hiding in his room.

Then there are lots of quirkier minor characters, including cosplayers, yakuza, a horndog manga artist aspiring-musician brother-in-law, and a free-spirited dancer. There are lots of little throwaway scenes, both charming and hysterically funny, and nature panoramas beautifully photographed. Legendary anime director Hideaki Anno has a cameo as -- an anime director.

This is reminiscent of an Ozu film as a quiet family story, with not much action but just the progress of life. While the gentle humor sometimes recalls Ozu, there are outrageous gags as well, a lot of surrealism and general strangeness, adding up to lots of fun!

Here's the music video that brother-in-law made with Grandpa:

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Golden Compass

The headline in tonight's paper reads "Atheistic Agenda?" I hope this sensationalized criticism sells lots of tickets. Then Hollywood will make the sequels and we'll find out about that atheism thing, since the theological problems in the novels are much more convoluted as Pullman's original trilogy progresses.

But you sure can't tell it from this film.

I enjoyed the movie, for lots of reasons. The production design is very good, ditto the special effects. The performers are well-cast and the performances uniformly good. The young lead, Dakota Blue Richards, can speak volumes with her eyes, and Sam Elliott was born to play Lee Scoresby.

The movie gets a couple of down-checks for over-simplification, particularly moral over-simplification, and an all-too-abrupt ending. But this is a largely satisfying fantasy. It's unclear how much the over-simplification and skating over plot points weakens the film. It bothered me, but I've read the book. People new to the story seem likely to find it more confusing.

Does this film assail religion? Not particularly. This is a fantasy after all, and patently not set in our world. It attacks authoritarianism, and indicates that there's a struggle to preserve free will. Anyone who feels threatened by that might wish to avoid the film.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Genre bending: Avalon High by Meg Cabot

The heroine of Avalon High has it tough. Transplanted into a new life and school when her parents take a sabbatical, she is forced to spend days floating in her pool, be a track star and hang out with the most popular kids.

Ok, maybe she doesn't have it so tough, but she still has a lot of problems, which are slowly revealed in this entertaining novel. Actually, it doesn't take a whole lot of figuring out, though Meg Cabot wisely saves a twist or two for the end of the book.

OK, I like young adult novels as a class, but it is seldom that I find myself reading a girls romance story. Fortunately I was reassured by my favorite YA librarian: "It's okay, Dad, it's pretty geeky."

And geeky it is, as Cabot nicely fuses the classic YA problem novel, romance and fantasy, and manages to turn the blend into a page turner rather than a hodge-podge Cabot show a nice sense of pacing and the book is quick and fun.. Hey, I'm a sucker for Arthurian fiction, and rather fond of the Tennyson poem "The Lady of Shalott" that Cabot uses for chapter epigraphs.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Classic quickies: The Seven Samurai

This is my favorite film, but I'm not very successful in persuading people to watch it. Maybe the idea of spending over three hours reading subtitles for what sounds like a martial arts film is daunting. I'll admit the first time or two I watched it, I was not all that impressed. But it's really important to watch the full-length version, not one of the shorter cuts extant. The film is full of richly developed characters and little vignettes that make it rich.

Although it seems like a war story, and its definitely a men's movie, Akira Kurosawa's theme is social change and progress. There is humor and pathos in plenty for the patient viewer. The two stars, Takeshi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune absolutely light up the screen among many fine supporting performances. Shimura's strength and confidence nicely plays off Mifune's over-the-top scenery chewing, even as the director plays off the tropes of John Ford westerns against those of historic Japanese samurai stories.

Classic quickies: The Wrong Man

Forget for a minutes that this could be the title of about half of Hitchcock's movies. For a fifty year old film, The Wrong Man (1957) still packs a lot of power and resonance. The performances are nearly flawless: Henry Fonda wonderfully understated as a musician wrongly accused of being a robber, and Vera Miles compelling as the wife driven to madness by stress.

The viewer is grabbed by the treatment of suspects before the Miranda decision's obvious impact on criminal investigations. Does this have modern echoes under the USA PATRIOT act? In any event, Hitchcock tells a true story, using fictionalized narrative in an almost documentary way. The result is offbeat, but worthwhile viewing.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Library science fiction

Gotta watch for this one. It's from Production I.G., where they know how to make intelligent science fiction -- hope it makes it across the ocean to us...thanks to Steven Cohen at Library Stuff :

from Anime News Network

Japanese publishing group MediaWorks officially announced that Hiro Arikawa's popular novel Toshokan Sensō (Library War) will become a TV anime series. ...

Taking place in the year 2019, Library War focuses on the battles fought by "Library Armies" to preserve the freedom of having libraries when a new law threatens to clamp down on freedom of expression.

It takes place in a fictional Japan, where a "Media Improvement Law" is being enforced. The Media Improvement Committee's Special Improvement Organization tries to expunge any bad books, while the library's Book Defense Force tries to fight them to protect the books under the Library Freedom Law. Broadcast will begin April 2008 on Fuji TV's late night anime block.
This sounds like my everyday job!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Next, please

  • Mystery
  • Fantasy & science fiction
  • Humor
  • Literary allusions
Roll 'em all into a smooth ball, and what you have are Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next stories (and the spin-off Nursery Crime series). The stories are set in an alternate world where England is still fighting in the Crimea in 1985 and was occupied by Germany in WW II, time travel is not unknown, and where people have genetically engineered dodo birds as pets.

Thursday begins her career in The Eyre Affair, fighting a nefarious villain who kidnaps Jane Eyre right out of her book, forcing an abrupt ending in every existing copy. In order to set things aright, Thursday has to enter the novel and get personally involved with the plot and characters. This device proves so successful that in subsequent books she moves into the fictional world full-time, as an agent of JurisFiction, the policing agency of the fictional world. As a trainee in fiction, she is apprenticed to Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. Havisham proves not only feisty, but pursues a longstanding rivalry with the Red Queen and is addicted to high speed motorcars and wont to getting into races with Mr. Toad.

You get the idea: books within books, etc. As the Fforde Ffan Club FfAQ says "there are a lot of jokes that play upon jokes that have played upon puns that travel from book to book". Suffice it to say that there is one laugh-aloud moment after another. The books are well-suited to anyone who enjoys mystery, SF and humor based on literature. Indeed, there are so many literary allusions, one never knows how much one is missing! You don't have to have read Jane Eyre, etc. to enjoy these books, but it helps.

These stories make you want to read others to find out what you're missing. Librarians, among others, should love these! Does anyone have a copy of Shadow the Sheepdog?

As of this writing, the novels involved are:

Thursday Next
Nursery Crime

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Beowulf: Stardust goes viking with Pulp Fiction

Hwæt. We Gardena in gear-dagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
As students have had to learn for centuries, these are the opening lines of the poem Beowulf, practically an English national epic as one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon poems, written over 1,200 years ago. The recent best-selling poetic translation by Seamus Heaney notwithstanding, as an undergrad years ago I found the poem difficult and dull. Yet the story is undeniably memorable. Not only is it the first significant piece of English literature, but a tale for the ages, enduring because of its inherent power and images.

Also powerful and memorable is the new film version by Robert Zemeckis. In recreating the old story in a movie that works Zemeckis has beautifully fused two creative elements: motion capture animation bringing the fantastic to life, and an edgy script from Neil Gaiman (Stardust) and Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction).

The motion capture goes the next step beyond that used by Zemeckis in his 2004 Polar Express or Peter Jackson in 2001's Lord of the Rings. While characters clearly appear animated, individual actors are recognizable and facial expressions are captured with subtlety. The animation feels less intrusive than Polar Express and allows for both strong performances and smoothly integrated special effects. All the lead actors turn in creditable work: Anthony Perkins and John Malkovich are expansive as leaders of the Spear Danes, Robin Wright Penn is nicely understated as the Queen and Ray Winstone's Beowulf is appropriately withdrawn as the heroic braggart with secret shame. Grendel and the dragon are suitably monstrous studies in SFX and Angelina Jolie is memorably animated.

It is in the character of Jolie as Grendel's mother that the script has its genius. By changing the nature of the mother and the encounter between her and Beowulf, Gaiman and Avary manage to tie together the disparate plot elements and story conflicts, making the whole story more cohesive than the original as well as more cinematic. If their Beowulf is less than a heroic caricature, he is a more human character -- and his story the more riveting.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Black Book / Zwartboek

My expectations about this movie went up and down. When I first saw a trailer in the theater, it looked intriguing. Then when I saw it in Netflix and put the DVD in my queue, I was reminded that it was a Paul Verhoeven film and my expectations dropped -- a lot. I've seen a few Verhoeven films: liked a few a bit and disliked more. But even the ones I liked, I liked more than I respected. Movies like Basic Instinct, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are strictly guilty pleasure films. Robocop was pretty bad, I've never been able to bring myself to watch Showgirls, and Hollow Man was solid crud. Maybe his Dutch movies are better than what he's done in Hollywood.

So I lowered my hopes -- and was pleasantly surprised. This is the most respectable Verhoeven I've seen, even if not totally respectable. But it's an exciting and action-packed World War II story about Jewish refugees and the Dutch underground. Even with a bit of sexual pandering, a couple of cop-out stereotypes and a whole string of unlikely plot coincidences that would strain credulity if we had time to stop and think, the movie keeps drawing the viewer in. Well researched sets & costumes combined with excellent cinematography believably recreate occupied Holland.

A lot of the story's success depends on strong performances by the leads. Carice Van Houten is consistently riveting as the Jewish singer living through terrible trials and forced by circumstances to aid the Nazis. She essentially carries the film and won awards for her portrayal. In another strong performance, German actor Sebastian Koch -- who also starred in the Oscar-winning Lives of Others -- portrays a somewhat sympathetic Nazi officer.

The seriousness of the subject, high production values, the suspenseful and fast-moving narrative, and the strong humane characterizations make this movie worth watching.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

I expect that librarians should be recommending books and that doctors should be keeping us well, but it doesn't always happen just that way. After I told my doctor about a recent trip to Transylvania, he said "wait a minute, I've got a book for you to read." And ducking into his office he returned to the exam room with Kostova's The Historian. He had just finished it and told me to keep it as long as I needed to (and it's a long book).

This wasn't the first time somebody had recommended the book, but this one felt like fate. Who am I to go against my doctor's recommendation? I didn't know that much about the book beyond the blurb, but I soon realized it was a vampire story -- a Dracula story, to be precise -- with a lot of history thrown in. By the time I got to the undead librarians, I was hooked.

This is a good book, and a lot of its charm comes from its settings. Much of it takes place in libraries, but the locaitons vary tremendously, from the U.S. to Britain to Western Europe to Eastern Europe and Turkey. The combination of travelogue and history woven into a suspenseful vampire story makes a fascinating read. Though one chapter reads like an extended history lecture, interest in the narrative rarely flags. Flashbacks within flashbacks can occasionally be a bit confusing in remembering who the point-of-view narrator is, but confusion is rare and the device adds a lot of interest and variety. I talked up the book around the house and it became one of the rare titles that Marsha & I both read and enjoyed.

I read much of this in print, but also listened to a lot of the unabridged recorded version on my iPod. The recording alternates between two readers, who change with female and male narration in the text. Both readers do an outstanding job with a large number of characters and accents appropriate to many nationalities.

Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys historical ficiton, horror, speculative fiction, travel stories or undead librarians!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

This is a magical book. As magical as stories, as picture books, as silent films -- because it's all of them at once and a terrific read to boot.

Brian Selznick has written a story accessible to older children but able to grab adults. The story unfolds both in words and pictures, and Selznick's genius is that the pictures are not normal illustrations, but long sequences of double page spreads that immerse the reader into a virtual silent film. As the story goes on, the technique grows increasingly natural and fitting.

The novel tells of young Hugo Cabret, secretly living in the Paris train station in the 1920s and eking out a living by petty theft. Hugo's life seems a tragedy, but is filled with small mysteries, as are the lives of the people he encounters.

Anyone who enjoys a good story and picks up this book will likely be hooked in a few minutes. It's a quick read, both moving and entertaining, and would be a good piece of historical fiction for reluctant readers.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Best Old Movies for Families

I stumbled across this film guide from Boston Globe critic Ty Burr while browsing at the library. I'm glad I found it: it's a worthwhile read for film buffs as well as parents. Subtitled A Guide to Watching Together, and using anecdotes from the author's experiences with his children, the book provides an accessible and useful guide to parents who want to spend quality time with their kids and introduce them to good movies.

In the introduction Burr relates how his daughter wanted, and got, a Katherine Hepburn party for her ninth birthday, complete with a screening of Bringing Up Baby. He goes on to list starter films for various ages. Additional chapters explore various film genres. An appendix lists films recommended for various ages.

The emphasis is not on protecting your kids from movies that don't have family values, but exploring good films with your family. Entertainingly written, with something for every movie buff, this is highly recommended.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Anime worth watching: Black Lagoon

Let's start by saying that Black Lagoon is not worth watching for people offended by ultraviolence in pop culture: if Sin City & Kill Bill aren't your cup of tea, avoid Black Lagoon.

For those who enjoy such films, this anime is "Hallelujah, amen, peanut butter."

Nicely designed and cleanly drawn with lovely seascapes and tropical colors, this story of modern pirates in the South China Sea combines fast action with a riveting soundtrack in a manner unlike anything since Cowboy Bebop. Indeed this wouldn't be far afield from Quentin Tarantino's Bebop.

The story begins with a simple Japanese salaryman transporting data. He winds up in the company of a disreputable crew of mercenaries aboard a WW II PT boat. Included are the commander Vietnam vet Dutch -- who not coincidentally resonates of Jet Black, weapons specialist hot babe Remy -- full of issues and attitude, and mechanic/computer tech Benny. Naturally it's not long before the erstwhile salaryman, now dubbed Rock, graduates from cargo to hostage to crew member.

All of this flows along as a fairly well-produced, if violent, action-adventure until the fourth episode, when the modern-day narrative becomes interspersed with an extended flashback showing the final voyage of a Nazi submarine. The added complexity and the doomed sub crew add an unexpected poignancy that kicks Black Lagoon to another level. Combined with hints of a slowly evolving back story, there's plenty of reason to look forward to future disks in the series.

This is definitely for mature audiences, however, due to extensive violence and profanity.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Music and Lyrics

This Hugh Grant / Drew Barrymore romantic comedy vehicle is as irresistible as a pop song with a great hook. The opening credits are a 1980s music video for an apparently younger Hugh Grant's career with a Brit pop band. Flash forward to the present time, when Hugh is subsisting on oldies gigs at theme parks and hopes to land a TV spot on "Battle of the 80s Has-Beens."

When a hapless plant attendant enters his life to over-water his houseplants, he does not suspect a pending songwriting partnership nor romance. Though the movie is almost completely predictable, it is also completely likable. Grant & Barrymore are both earnest and funny and they make these characters not only likeable, but believable, there's a cast of colorful supporting types and the music is consistently entertaining.

Recommended for all but the cynically discriminating.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Small world: Babel and Blood Diamond

Two of the best films I've seen in the past month each deal with international themes, each in its own way. Blood Diamond is a fictionalized story of historical events in Sierra Leone, where the diamond trade contributed to the furtherance of a bloody and brutal civil war. Babel, which got short shrift at the academy awards, is a confluence of three international stories of culture clash and miscommunication. Both can be difficult to watch, but are finally rewarding.

Of the two, Blood Diamond has the stronger narrative, with a simpler plot and a compelling story of three characters seeking -- respectively -- family, wealth and justice. Their quest is set against the background of the bloody and tragic civil war involving drugged child soldiers, amputations, death squads, and fights to acquire and market diamonds for personal gain or to finance more conflict. Performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou are strong and affecting, obviously deserving of the Oscars they received, while Jennifer Connelly adds a solid supporting performance.

Babel is much more of a multi-layered film with three stories overlapping. In the three stories, an American tourist in Morocco is shot by two shepherd boys goofing around with a rifle, while in the second tale a deaf Japanese teenager copes with life crises and coming of age and in the third story a Mexican nanny takes two American children in her charge to a wedding in Mexico. To say things do not go well in any of these stories is a big understatement -- you can almost physically squirm under the sense of impending doom. Culture clashes and language differences create enough misunderstandings that things keep moving from bad to worse, but you still keep hoping.

If the characters questing in Blood Diamond and the lost souls of Babel ever realize their hopes or find something beyond what they hoped for, are questions that can carry viewers through these sometimes bleak, but well-made films with compelling stories. Both films share insights into the connections among seemingly disparate and distant cultures aroudn the world.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Literary Curiosa & fun

Literary Curiosa is a librarian's "Blog for discussion of bizarre books." Since librarians get a surfeit of bestsellers and ordinary books, we get happy every time we find a strange, interesting, unique book like Wisconsin Death Trip or An Exaltation of Larks.

The new Literary Curiosa blog is a fun place to explore and discuss interesting titles. It puts me in mind of another literary pursuit: first lines of novels. A great place to explore this is the American Book Review's list of 100 best first lines.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Solty Rei - disappointing anime

The first disc of Solty Rei starts with a lot of promise, but alas, seems to collapse into cliches. It's a science fictional premise: in an unknown city, on an unknown world at an unknown time, there has been a natural disaster of epic proportions, causing many deaths and many more people to become lost. Many of the survivors receive mechanical enhancements or "resembles." Into the life of hard-bitten and embittered Roy, there literally falls a girl, saving his life and incurring a debt of gratitude. But she's not just a girls, she's all resemble, even her brain. there's nothing human about her, except that she's gosh darn cute and annoyingly needy.

Solty Rei has lots of pros and cons. On the plus side: there are six episodes on the disc -- good value. The animation and art are well done; it's from the Gonzo studio, after all. The character designs are nice, and the overall color tone of the town reminds you of an Edward Hopper painting: a sort of warm tone that makes you think of late afternoons or yellow streetlights, a lonely feeling and a softness to the textures. This contrasts nicely with the grittiness of the story. The initial characters seem intriguing.

But things bog down. The characters seem more stereotypical the longer you watch. There's lots of mild fan service: frequent shots of the female rear clad in skin-tight clothes. You know you weren't just imagining this when they get to a swimsuit episode on the first disk -- pretty early in the series to resort to the distractions of pure cheesecake. There are not many recurring male characters, but lots of attractive women, teenage girls and female android types. You get the picture -- fine if it floats your boat, but if you're looking for intelligent, original storytelling and well-developed characters, you may be disappointed.

Maybe it gets more serious later. But its nice-looking, lightweight and fun. Just not all that good.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

This is simply the best graphic novel I've read in along time. Gene Luen Yang weaves three tales in a character study that illuminates Chinese tradition, racial stereotypes and problems of Asian-Americans in our melting pot society.

The three stories tell about a young boy who moves to a new school where he's subjected to prejudicial bullying, the mythical Monkey King -- a major figure in the Chinese story "Journey to the West", and a teenager embarrassed by visits from his totally stereotypical cousin. By the time I was halfway through, I knew I liked Gene Yang's writing and drawing -- a lot. Not only did the stories grab me and pull me in, not only did he create believable three-dimensional characters, but he gave one of the best and most accessible retellings of the story of the Monkey King that I'd ever encountered. It wasn't until I started writing this review that I found Yang's tribute to the artistry and influence of Osamu Tezuka. Interestingly, for his day job, he teaches computer science in a Catholic school. This guy's a real talent; I'm going to look into getting his other works for our library collection.

American Born Chinese won the 2007 Michael Printz Award for a book that "exemplifies literary excellence in young adult literature." Highly recommended.

Friday, March 2, 2007

The Departed

Glad as I was to see Martin Scorcese win his long-overdue academy award, I wish he had received it for a more enjoyable film than The Departed. I would have been happier to see him win for Gangs of New York, The Aviator, or Raging Bull, to name a few. I was frankly disappointed to see this win for best picture.

While undoubtedly well-written with taut suspense, finely acted by a wonderful ensemble cast, and masterfully directed, The Departed just leaves a bad taste.

Part of this is surely intentional, given the subject and the overall treatment. This is not intended to be an uplifting or happy film. But some choices left me wondering. Did the screenwriter not know many adjectives other than f---ing? Why was the supposedly strong, admirable and intelligent female psychologist -- the only notable female character in the film -- so unmotivatedly foolish in romantic choices? A good movie, but it could have been better.

DK Eyewitness Companions: Film by Ronald Bergan

As a film fan and a reference librarian, I've always been sad that the wonderful Oxford Companion to Film was never updated. The 2006 DK Eyewitness Companions series book Film by Ronald Bergan, corrects that deficit to a large extent. As reference books go, it's a browser's delight -- though far from comprehensive. As browsing film books go, it's a great reference tool.

The 500 plus pages are divided into color-coded sections, with a tab index isdie the front cover. There's also a detailed table of contents and index. Sections include:

  • The Story of Cinema (history)
  • How Movies are Made (from pre-production through promotion & distribution)
  • Genres (with recommended film titles)
  • World Cinema (with recommended film titles)
  • A-Z of Directors (with recommended film titles)
  • Top 100 Movies
  • Reference (lists of awards, polls, box office, plus glossary & index)
As is typical with Dorling Kindersley, the illustrationns are a high point, and well-suited to a book about a visual medium. Numerous sidebars (also indexed), cover subjects such as prominent actors, studios, and other noteworthy items. If all of these were in a single alphabetical sequence and the lists of people and films were greatly expanded, the information content would be comparable to the old Oxford Companion. As it is, the breadth impresses more than the depth. But it's a fun book and would be good in the home of any movie buff and in the circulating collection of most libraries.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Nodame Cantabile by Tomoko Ninomiya

Nodame Cantabile gets points for being different, at least for North American readers. In Japan, we hear, they have manga for almost every kind of interest. But it seems pretty unusual to run across a romantic comedy set among students at a university devoted to classical music. Even more surprising, the plotlines often seem to have more to do with the music and performance than with romance.

Noda Megumi, or Nodame, is also an atypical heroine: she frequently behaves annoyingly, has poor personal hygiene, lacks most social graces, and has unrealistic expectations of herself and others. However, this makes her a marvelous foil for the other main protaganist, the talented, arrogant and phobic Shinichi, whom Nodame loves unrequitedly. The eight volumes published thus far explore their relationship, their friends, their progress in school and their music.

It's fun and lightweight reading, but wiht a quality that makes it easy to understand why it has become wildly popular in Japan. There is a live action TV series based on the manga, and many recordings of musical selections taken from or inspired by the books.

Because the books do deal somewhat with adult relationships, our library put them in adult ficiton rather than the YA graphic novel collection. Recommended!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima

My father-in-law was a Navy corpsman in the Battle of Iwo Jima. Because of that experience and others during his time in the Pacific in WW II, for the rest of his life he never had a good thing to say about anything Japanese. His friend and school classmate Jack Bradley was also a corpsman on Iwo, but Jack was the one who got tapped to help some marines famously raise the flag on Mt. Suribachi. It was Jack's son Jim who wrote Flags of Our Fathers, the basis for Clint Eastwood's first Iwo Jima film.

In a move that must have taken vision, courage and chutzpah, Eastwood turned right around and made a second film about the battle, telling the story from the Japanese side. It's a difficult film to watch, but a brilliant one. Eastwood got a Japanese screenwriter to turn out a superb script, and shot the film in Japanese. Such a move has the potential to confuse and/or anger the movie audiences of both nations. Who does this guy think he is?

The answer is that Eastwood is a human storyteller. The arc of his story here is not geopolitical, not strategic, and at last not even military, but personal. More than 90% of the Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima died, as they knew they would, and this is their story. Strong directing, writing, and ensemble acting (with standouts Ken Watanabe & Shido Nakamura) move the story forward and help the American viewer humanize those who have often been demonized.

This is not an easy movie to watch, with realistic battle scenes and the sad foreknowledge that most of the characters will die. Eastwood does not shrink from often brutal Japanese militarism, but the militarism of a society, at that point in history, does not define nor limit the character of every individual. Maybe Eastwood reflects some zeitgeist as the U.S. is now mired in an increasingly popular war. Maybe you have to remember that your enemies are human and find them in the mirror.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Strangers in Paradise: Adieu, Katchoo

I just finished reading issue #87 of Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise, which will end this May, in just three more (or Moore) issues. Dang, it was good -- I hate to see this story end, but the fact that it's ending shows its strength, and the stregnth of author-driven independent comics.

The series has grown and evolved over it's run, and the characters have grown as Terry Moore's writing gained depth. Sometimes maddeningly complex and elusive, and impossible to classify, SiP is ultimately a human drama. The story of tragic, angry Katchoo (Katina Choovanski, pictured above left in an image beloved of librarians) and sad, funny Francine, as their relationship weaves in and out of other lives is a fine read. I really knew this comic was unique when my local comic shop proprietor told me that a prominent minister and the library director (yrs truly) were the only two people in town reading this title regularly. But patience is rewarded for the reader and the collected volumes make the complex story easier to follow than the monthly issues.

This is what I mean when I talk about graphic novels, because this is truly a long, complex engaging novel. Now if I can just get the catalogers to stop putting this stuff in nonfiction :-)

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Actually, this film is rated NC-17. And how it got that rating is part of the story it tells.

A pointed documentary which attacks the MPAA, Jack Valenti and the entire ratings system, TFINYR makes interesting and compelling viewing for film fans.

This film is not for the squeamish or easily offended. It contains explicit images and language, including some deliberately offensive images. Some of it is disgusting in slightly hilarious fashion and the movie alternates righteous indignation with a zany tongue-in-cheek tone to remain entertaining.

This film is not objective, but creates an effective expose and attack on the United States ratings system as a form of censorship, particularly favoring big studios and discriminating against independent film-makers.

Definitely worth viewing and worth consideration for library collections -- where it may incite controversy.

Lasseter on animation and Miyazaki

John Lasseter, who heads Pixar Studios and directed Cars and Toy Story, recently did an interview on radio station KGO in Northern California. Following is a transcript of a portion (Marci is the host):

John: Japanese animation has been around for a long time. Japan is a huge producer of animation, one of the biggest in the world. But it doesn't get out of Japan very often. I got turned on to the work of one particular director, Hayao Miyazaki. He is amazing. His films have tremendously influenced me. As I've journeyed over there, I have gotten to meet him and to know him and become good friends. Disney got into an agreement to distribute his films in this country. I got to see his film "Spirited Away" right when it was finished and I was blown away by his movie. When I came back to the US, I went to Disney and said “We have got to release this movie in the United States. This is fantastic.” So I was the Executive Producer on the English language version of that movie. Everyone should go out and try to find all of Hayao Miyazaki's films. "My Neighbor Totoro", fantastic. "Kiki's Delivery Service." The most recent one was "Howl's Moving Castle", which was fantastic and "Spirited Away", which won an Academy award for best-animated feature film. These films are such an inspiration to me as an animated artist and they're fantastic. And if you ever get to Tokyo, they have a little museum, the Ghibli Museum, which is the best animation museum in the world.

Marci: And it's quite a contrast from CGI, the kind of computer-generated animation that you do at Pixar. It looks to me, and I'm no animation expert, but it looks to me like those are hand-painted.

John: Yes, they are. Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki, they still use hand drawn character animation. Even though I work in computer animation, it's really broken my heart to see a lot of studios in this country turn away from hand drawn animation. Because it's not about the technology, it’s not about the medium. It's about what you do with it. It's about the stories and the characters. I always show Miyazaki films and say, "Tell me that hand drawn animation is dead when you see Spirited Away or Howl's Moving Castle."

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen

Fifty years after his first book of poetry was published, and more than twenty years since his Book of Mercy, Leonard Cohen is back with a new collection of poems.

Reflecting Cohen's years at a Buddhist monastery on Mount Baldy, California, as well as his travels since rejoining the world, the book is heavily illustrated with his drawings. He offers muted reflections on life, aging, Buddhism and his complex relationships with women.

Some of these poems found their way as songs into the album he co-wrote with Anjani, Blue Alert.

Thoughtful, sad, lovely, and recommended

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Michael Smith takes you there

It's been a long time since an album grabbed me the way this one does. It took me a listen to get used to the bigger pop/rock band sound -- a different sound -- or different set of sounds -- for Michael Smith. But then I found that as soon as it ended, I was starting it again.

I wish more people were familiar with this music, but outside the midwest folk scene, he doesn't seem well known; maybe that's what you get for living in Chicago. His biggest hit is arguably "The Dutchman", recorded by Steve Goodman, Liam Clancy and many others. But his songs range from poignant to hysterically funny. His latest work was a stage production of "The Snow Queen."

There (2002) may be his best album. From the pulsing Egyptian opener "Alexandria", to the more familiar title song "There", "Kill the Buddha" and all the others, the album is listenable, enjoyable and surprising, but always rewarding. Michael Smith has always seemed like a songwriter's songwriter. His lyrics may be comparable to Randy Newman or Bob Dylan. I think he's the Cole Porter of folk but with more heart, he astonishes with insights and images. And despite the heavier instrumentation, his beautiful guitar work comes through.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Lucky Jack Goes to Pern

OK, if Annne McCaffrey and Patrick O'Brian had a child, her name would be Naomi Novik and she'd have written His Majesty's Dragon, Throne of Jade and Black Powder War. In the alternative history subgenre of SF, Novik sets her stories in a world where dragons are real, domesticated and, at least in western Europe, bred for war.

Napoleonic war sea stories, so familiar to readers of Patrick O'Brian and C. S. Forester, take on a vivid new dimension in Novik's world. In the first book, a British naval captain accidentally impresses a young dragon, and the plot is off to the races. Although these dragons lack the psychic abilities of McCaffrey's, and are not all fire-breathers, they are highly intelligent and of varied capacities. They bond with their riders in a way not readily understood by those live outside the rather closed society of dragonriders (who live in coverts, not weyrs). This creates innumerable social tensions, particularly for a naval officer who loses all his prospects and has his life turned upside down by his new charge, the delightfully-characterized Temeraire.

This is only the beginning of the story, which very quickly shows itself a page-turner. I've only finished the first book and barely started the second. It's probably not great literature: plot points are often predictable and characterizations are not deep. But it is a great read, especially for anyone who enjoys fantasy and sea stories or Napoleonic period pieces. There's even a little flavor of Jane Austen occasionally. The characters are fun and the story pulls you in. I learned of this series on Ain't-It-Cool-News, when Peter Jackson bought up the film rights. Pretty good endorsement right there -- here's hoping he makes the movie.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Movies: Good SF!

This has been a good winter for quality films, and SF fans can count themselves lucky that two recent releases are among the best films of the year. Neither could be called a fun movie, but intelligent and provocative, they're good for a thoughtful date. Coincidentally, both are from Mexican directors, though one is set in England and the other is a Spanish language film set in Spain.

The first is Children of Men, from director Alfonso Cuaron, whose credits include Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban, Y Tu Mama Tambien and A Little Princess. Obviously the man has range as well as the ability to adapt English novels to the screen. Children is an adaptation from P.D. James, best known for her Dalgleish mystery novels.

But this is social science fiction par excellence, in the best tradition of H.G. Wells. "What if...?" is the premise for this kind of story, and the what if in this case is that people stop having babies. It portrays a world disintegrating in despair after nearly two decades of childlessness. Without hope for the future, what are we? What do children mean to us as individuals, as neighbors, as a society, as people who grub for power and advantage?

The film asks all these and many more, in the compelling story of a writer who has given up, his ex-wife who has taken refuge in revolution, and their quest to help a young woman who is miraculously pregnant. Poignant and breathtaking, though often violent, with terrific performances by a cast including Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and Michael Caine.

The next film is just as good, though painted on a smaller canvas. Following the Spanish Civil War, a brutal fascist capitan leads a detachment of soldiers against loyalist guerillas in the hills. He brings his pregnant wife and step-daughter to join him. The alienated girl, with only a sympathetic maid to count as a friend, finds a labyrinth and is soon immersed in a fantastic world.

This is Pan's Labyrinth from writer-director Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy, Blade II), who shows style, confidence and originality. In the world where the faun dwells below the garden labyrinth and fairies visit her room, the girl Ofelia undertakes the Hero's Quest. She braves difficulties, makes serious mistakes and displays immense courage as her quest becomes more desparate. Simultaneously, the real world situation of the family and the small military outpost grows more desparate, and the capitan grows more brutal. The movie is occasionally unpleasant to the point of horrific, but compelling in the excellence of its execution, bringing myth to life.

Movies: Bad SF!

Lifeforce (1985)

Soul power! Naked vampires! Flaming zombies! Yep, a beautiful naked space vampire wreaks havoc as flaming zombies run amok in London, while the starship sucks up human souls, seemingly for use as fuel.

I don't recall if I noticed a kitchen sink, but there should've been one, as there's everything else in the plot.

Oddly enough, this is less of a muddle than it sounds like, though every bit as over the top. Decent actors like Patrick Stewart and Frank Finlay play supporting roles.

The DVD contains no extras. This is a marginal purchase for libraries -- particularly for extensive nudity that serves no other point but to establish that naked vampires can seem quite appealing -- but diehard B-movie SF fans will be able to sit through it. Would've been perfect for MST3K!

Saturday, January 27, 2007


** spoiler warning **
The nature of this posting contains plot spoilers which may detract from first-time viewers' appreciation of films. Proceed at own risk.

Three recent film which I've enjoyed greatly all add to their appeal by serious ambiguity. They play with or disguise either thematic elements or even the fundamental nature of the story. In one case, a film is revealed about halfway through to actually be a science fiction story, with the revelation taking viewers by surprise. In another case, what appears to be a ghost story is revealed to have logical explanations. In the third case, the film leaves the viewer with lingering doubts about its ambiguities. In all cases, the tension generated by not knowing what is going on, or even what the rules are, adds to the strength of the film.


Of course, the ghost story which is resolved and revealed through logic, is such a staple as to nearly qualify as a sub-genre of detective or suspense movies. But in the case of Volver, the movie is a character-driven family comic drama which strongly suggests itself to the viewer as magic realism. The revelation that there is no ghost comes slowly and gently, with plenty of clues for the viewer, and the entire plot thread is only one of several in Pedro Almodovar's marvelously realized story.

The Prestige

In The Prestige, the revelation goes in the other direction, as strong science fiction elements are introduced mid-film with only the most cryptic foreshadowing. In this case, the science fictional plot device becomes a major lynch-pin of the film's resolution. But it's really just a means of further escalating the tension between two rival magicians that is the axis of the film. Ultimately, the science fictional element provides a fine demonstration of Clarke's Third Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Pan's Labyrinth

The final example is the most problematic: Guillermo Del Toro's fantastic Pan's Labyrinth. It's the most problematic because it's the most ambiguous. Did Ofelia really enter a magical world or was it an illusory retreat? The film argues it both ways, but any film is, of course, an illusory retreat.

Still, the power of the fantasy sequences is compelling, and the question of the "secondary reality" of Ofelia's experiences is ultimately moot at film's end when we emerge from the labyrinth back into the real world, as we believe it to be.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Movies to change the world

Recently, I've watched three films from the library collection which unashamedly advocate for social change on a global scale. Two were documentaries and one an affecting pointed story. One was also a library program and another one was almost a program last year, but we couldn't arrange rights.

Nobelity is a personal reflection by film-maker Turk Pipkin, who interviews nine Nobel Prize laureates about problems affecting our world. While far from objective, as one could probably cherry-pick living Nobel laureates to support a wide variety of views, it is moving and ultimately surprisingly cohesive. Loosely divided into segments entitled: Decision, Challenges, Disparities, Change, Knowledge, Persistence, Peace, Reason, and Love. Each section features an interview with a Nobel laureate, juxtaposed with contextual scenes of areas of the world and montage sequence illustrating issues. The final montage, leading up to the interview with Bishop Tutu, is breathtakingly fast and emotional.

Showing this film would make a great public library program, as it lends itself well to discussion. Unfortunately last year, it was in limited release and the distributors did not really want to see it shown for free in public libraries, but were interested in university venues and non-profit groups that would share admission revenues. Now that the DVD is widely available, public performance rights may be easier to come by.

Girl in the Cafe has a screenplay by Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral). It features the wonderful Bill Nighy playing the sort of uncertain bloke that Curtis has so often created as a Hugh Grant character. Grant is till too young to play this role, as Nighy portrays an aging civil servant who may have just found love but has a part to play at the G8 summit in Reykjavik. The film asks good questions about doing the right thing and being willing to sacrifice for the greater good, as Nighy's personal and professional dilemmas run tangled parallel courses. A terrific, sweet and moving story. Unsurprisingly, an extra on the DVD is the video for ("the campaign to make poverty history") that aired on TV last year.

An Inconvenient Truth is the film we showed at the library last week, and needs little introduction or explanation, since Al Gore's campaign on global warming has been high profile. We had about sixty people attend, and the film was followed by a lively discussion, moderated wonderfully by Joanne Kleussendorf of the Weis Earth Science Museum at University of Wisconsin - Fox.

This is the sort of program I would like to see our library do more often, combining education, community development, library media and a social issue.

Monday, January 8, 2007

DK Eyewitness Travel Guides

I have become a big fan of the DK Eyewitness Travel Guides; Marsha and I have used them for Italy, Greece, Ireland, and Great Britain. They're generally well organized, well-indexed, easy to use, and fun to look at and chockful of information both helpful and interesting. This last factor makes them useful for travel planning, time on the ground at the destination and for reminiscing. They're so good for reminiscing that we bought the Denmark book years after being there.

The only drawbacks are the cost -- you're buying for high quality paper and high quality color photography, the weight, and the fact that they're not available for more countries. After you've been walking for hours, you can feel the weight of heavy books, but I was disappointed that they don't publish one for Romania, where I'm headed in a couple months.

When we were talking yesterday with friends planning an Italian vacation, we recommended the books. Unsurprisingly, they were already familiar with the series and didn't need to borrow our Italy volume, as they're already intending to pick up their own copy.

Padua / Padova

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

You mean I don't know Dick?

One of my dream library programs would be a Philip K. Dick film/book festival. I think we've now reached critical mass of worthwhile Dick films. Were I to plan a Dick film series, I would include:

  • A Scanner Darkly
  • Blade Runner
  • Minority Report
...and if I wanted to get into "guilty pleasure" territory:
  • Total Recall
I'd most likely take a pass on:
  • Paycheck
  • Impostor
And films I haven't seen include:
  • Confessions d'un Barjo
  • Screamers
  • The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick [documentary]
The thing that prompts me is seeing the recent video release of A Scanner Darkly, which was both well done and appropriately disturbing. Director Richard Linklater's approach of rotoscoping live actors and producing a photorealistic animated film is uniquely appropriate to Dick's surrealistic story-telling. Linklater smoothly layers multiple realities, leaving the viewer to question the differences between reality and perception. Characteristic themes of drugs and paranoia get worthwhile and serious treatment from start to finish. A difficult but worthwhile film, and Robert Downey Jr. is a standout in an excellent cast.
There's also the forthcoming major release of Next, based on "The Golden Man" story. Now if somebody would just film The Man in the High Castle, and if I could just figure out how to get enough of a decent audience to a Dick film series at the library...

Monday, January 1, 2007

Tezuka strikes again -- Ode to Kirihito

Just finished reading Ode to Kirihito, the big Osamu Tezuka novel I got for Christmas. At almost 900 pages, its a substantial piece of work and a good read, though not among his best. Though fairly long for a manga, the total reading time was probably only four or five hours.

The story describes the stuggle against a disfiguring disease, complicated by a corrupt medical establishment. The plot is a fairly standard medical potboiler, though a bit on the dark side and with the interesting addition of many explicit Christian elements. One of the characters is a nun struggling with disfigurement and disgrace. There are a couple of disturbing rape scenes and occasional nudity, so the book is not one for kids, though older teens should have no problems handling the subject matter. Beyond that, much of the book reads like an extended episode of Black Jack, Tezuka's medical genius character. As usual in Tezuka, most of the drawing is clear if workmanlike, while landscapes are often lovingly detailed.

While the book is dark in tone and makes good points about the effects of pollution, the indifference of some in the medical community to societal problems, and the dangers of scentists' politics interfering with scientific practice, the overall impression is melodramatic. Still, this is a good addition to any library collection serious about manga or where Tezuka's other serious works have found readers.