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.