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!