Friday, December 29, 2006

Happy Feet

I took my four-year-old and six-year-old to see this at the theater. They liked it, but they pretty much like everything they get to see. I thought it was okay. Funny sometimes, and it had some pretty impressive animated scenes of the Antarctic landscape. It's fun to hear the singing voices of actors I only know from regular movies: Hugh Jackman, Brittany Murphy, Nicole Kidman, and Robin Williams.

Flight of the Phoenix (2004)

This is an entertaining but unremarkable remake of a 1965 film with Jimmy Stewart. I haven't actually seen the original, but I've heard that it's really great. This one has a few great songs in it, like "I've Been Everywhere" performed by Johnny Cash and "Angel" by Massive Attack, and you get to hear the songs in their entirety, which I appreciate. I thought the movie was fun. We'll have to see the original sometime.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Pursuit of Happyness

While this is ultimately inspiring, it's pretty painful to watch, because it's really about Chris Gardner's struggle, not about his triumph. It made me feel like I don't work nearly hard enough for what I have. Which is certainly true, but I try not to dwell on it. Except that I try to be grateful.

Some of the amazing scenes in the film--like when Chris has to spend the night in jail for parking tickets and shows up at his interview for an internship at Dean Witter wearing the painting clothes he had on when he was arrested--aren't even as amazing as what happened to the real Chris Gardner. He was arrested for parking tickets and spent 10 days in jail, came home to find girlfriend, son and all of his clothes gone, and had to show up at his interview in the same clothes he'd been wearing when he got arrested. He told the truth and got the job.

In every article I read about the real Chris Gardner, there was the same basic information, but the details and stories differed. I think that's because he's one of those driven, intelligent, amazing people who create their own lives and end up with lots of stories to tell. All of the articles are worth reading:

The movie is well-done, not sappy or overly emotional. Will Smith leaves his ego behind and does a great job as Gardner, and his son, Jaden, is great as Gardner's son, too. It's definitely worth seeing. Might also be worth reading his autobiography, on which the movie is based, also called The Pursuit of Happyness.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Schwa Was Here by Neal Shusterman

I read this book because of the title. It's young adult fiction, and Jon brought it home from the library (because of the title). "Schwa" is such a cool word, don't you think? It's that little upside-down e in phonetics, a sound that is barely there, like the "i" in pencil, or the "o" in convince. Just a little sound that gets you from one consonant to the next in an unstressed syllable.

So I thought I'd better read something that uses that word in the title. While some of the book was clever, and it was mildly interesting to read, it was just okay. I should explain that I was reading it with our almost-11-year-old in mind, wondering if it would be appropriate for him. (He reads a ton, and I don't try to read everything he reads, but occasionally I'll read something before he does, to approve it or not.) My conclusion is that it's not appropriate--there's a lot of talk about these 14-year-old characters dating each other. That just freaks me out too much (and it would probably freak out my son, too, thank goodness). Seems like 14 is way too young to date, but then I remember how boy crazy I was (even when I was much younger than 14), and then I just don't want to think about it anymore. Not when it has to do with my kids, who are still little. Aren't they?

Anyway, I wanted a more clear-cut moral to this story. Instead, the main character doesn't treat his friends all that well, sort of realizes his mistakes but doesn't do much about it, and then is absurdly rewarded at the end. Not bad, but not thought-provoking or great, either.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Eastward to Tartary by Robert D. Kaplan

A few years ago I read The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War by Robert D. Kaplan. I had never heard of him and it just looked interesting (and was a free library discard, so how could I resist?). It was interesting, and presented me with an unconventional approach to the world. It reminded me of what little I'd read of Niccolò Machiavelli (which wasn't a lot): a pragmatic, not idealistic, view of politics and world events.

Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus has a similar underlying view of the world, but is a solid travelogue focused on the author's travels through Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan. Most of those places he'd visited before at least once, so he was partly comparing his experiences in those places during the 1970s or '80s to the late 1990s, close to 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The writing is lucid and does a good job of evoking the places he's visiting. Kaplan also ties in historical events, discussions he had with scholars, old friends, people he meets, etc., and some tentative prognostication for the future. He also notes where his previous expectations were off base.

I mainly enjoyed the closer view of some places that I haven't been, some of the people, and how countries and peoples relate to each other through similarities and differences in government, religion, wars, natural resources, and culture in general. His discussion of Armenia and the 1915 genocide by the Turks was insightful; he does a good job of showing how it differed from the Jewish holocaust, though at the core all the ethnic purges aren't too dissimilar.

Kaplan has written many other books, and I'm not sure I'm in a huge hurry to read them all, but I really liked this and am interested in his other travelogue books.

Links:

Scoop (2006)

This Woody Allen movie is pretty good--funny and entertaining. Woody Allen is annoying, of course, but that's his comedic method. Parts of the movie were even funnier this morning, as Jon and I talked about it. Scarlett Johansson's character was different for her, a young and enthusiastic journalism student who's trying to break away from the dental hygenist profession her family expects of her. And I like Hugh Jackman better all the time.

Monday, December 18, 2006

No Surrender by Hiroo Onoda

I just read this autobiography of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese soldier sent to the Philippines in 1944, and ranking officer in a group of soldiers who didn't believe the war really ended in 1945. He didn't surrender till 1974. The Wikipedia article about him gives a nice summary of his story. I heard about him a few years ago, on Slashdot, I think, but never followed up on it till now. I finally read his book, and it is simply amazing.

It's a fairly quick read, but very engaging, and he gives enough background and explains what they were thinking, so it starts to make sense that they thought the war had not ended. He doesn't ignore the many bad parts about his time on the island, but there's not much self-pity either. He and his fellow soldiers thought they were fighting in a very long-running war, with guerrilla tactics, and evidence to the contrary was thought to be an elaborate enemy trick.

His experience raises some good questions about how you can find the truth behind the information you receive, especially when you consider that superior officers could be captured and forced to give bad orders, or passwords can be intercepted by the enemy.

There were other famous Japanese holdouts after the end of World War II, but Hiroo Onoda seems to have become and stayed a real war hero in Japan, more than any of the others. I was surprised to learn that two more "lost" Japanese soldiers surfaced this year, in Russia and the Ukraine.

Anyway, very interesting how life turns out for some people, and amazing what they make of strange and tough circumstances.

The Love Letter (1999)

I guess there are multiple films with this title. This one stars Kate Capshaw, with Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Selleck, Blythe Danner, and others. The music was good--fun, romantic Italian-style stuff with accordions and violins. I am under the impression that it was nice to look at, but I was wrapping presents while I watched, so missed a fair amount. It was okay--not spectacular, but not as mediocre as some.

I found another movie of the same name that stars Campbell Scott. It's a Hallmark Hall of Fame film, which makes me dubious, but Jon and I might have to see it. Campbell Scott was the main character in The Spanish Prisoner, which is one of the best movies ever. Not that Campbell Scott necessarily had much to do with that, but it's fun to see him in other things every now and then.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Rosenstrasse (2003)

This movie is in German with English subtitles. Both Jon and I speak German (or at least I did at one time), and as we started watching, Jon said, all exasperated, "Can't we turn off the subtitles?" I didn't want to, because my German's not what it used to be, and even back then, my vocabulary wasn't very good. Jon's German has always been excellent, though, and I didn't want to be a wimp, so we turned them off. I'm a little proud of myself that I understood most of the movie. In fact, after getting into the German groove, most of it was pretty easy to follow. From now on, I'll be more brave about watching German stuff without subtitles.

Okay. Sorry about that aside. Rosenstrasse is a street in Berlin where, in 1943, thousands of German women held a spontaneous and peaceful protest. For a week, these women gathered outside the building where their Jewish husbands were being held by the Nazis. Apparently, the German officials who had rounded up these men were trying to make it look like they were just going to labor camps, not to the concentration camps where the rest of the Jews went. According to the wikipedia article, it was the only public protest in Germany during the Third Reich, and it worked. Almost all of the men were released. I guess the Nazis weren't quite evil enough to shoot down their own German women.

This film tells the story of one of those German women. The narrative was a little strange at first--the film opens in present-day New York with a Jewish family, then follows the daughter as she looks into her mother's past--but by the end, the intertwining stories had all become interesting and important. It's a fairly long movie (136 minutes, I think), but Jon thought it could have been longer and developed some of the stories even more.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Metro Girl by Janet Evanovich

Apparently I was in the mood for something that didn't require any thought on my part. Or on the author's part, actually. (That was kind of mean. I'm sure the plot required some fitting together and maybe even a little bit of research. Maybe not, though.) It was a nice rest for my brain, kind of like watching TV. I don't think I'll be reading any more like this, though I like to say "Janet Evanovich."

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

The Break-Up (2006)

I had read several good reviews of The Break-Up, so I was somewhat eager to see it. While it was certainly deeper than most movies about relationships (it really is about a break-up, so I wouldn't call it a romantic comedy), it wasn't deep enough.

Good things: the secondary characters who are supposed to be annoying really are annoying (in particular, Brooke's brother Richard, an a cappella freak, and both of Gary's brothers and his best friend); the main characters, Gary and Brooke (played by Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston), actually learn from their experiences; a few of the characters (well, I can only think of one, actually) seem to know what what makes a good relationship (and that's debatable, come to think of it).

Not so good things: those secondary characters are annoying; we have to witness way too much bickering and fighting between the broken-up couple before any changes occur (and virtually nothing except still shots from their happy time together); while Gary makes big changes, Brooke seems to barely grasp her own faults, though she is the first to try to set things right by acting selflessly instead of selfishly.

The Break-Up really is a different kind of film, though. Better than most. Sometimes Gary and Brooke say so much just by looking at each other. Even though it's hard to forget Aniston as Rachel on Friends, I think she's a good actress.

And I barely recognized Jason Bateman as the couple's friend. He was also annoying, but funny.

Sahara (2005)

As I think I've said before on this blog, I don't really like Matthew McConaughey, so I didn't have high expectations for this movie. I was pleasantly surprised that it was fun to watch. Steve Zahn is usually funny, and the friendship between his character and McConaughey's is believable and amusing. Otherwise, it's a typical action movie. Just how would the captain's chair on a boat effectively shield someone from machine-gun fire?

Penelope Cruz is beautiful and looks like my sister Ally. Just thought I'd mention that.

The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich

I have owned this book for a few years, but it took one of my book clubs to get me to read it. I’m glad I finally did. Erdrich seems to effortlessly evoke a place and the people in it. Also, this is not one of those novels where things happen slowly or not at all. There is always something important happening, but it doesn’t come across as unlikely or contrived. The characters are odd, sometimes even kind of crazy, but they also seem normal, at least enough to be believable. Their eccentricities don’t turn them into caricatures, as in some books or movies with quirky characters.

Some details about World War II were fascinating, though I don’t know how factual they are (and I haven’t been able to verify them easily): as young Nazi POWs are being taken to a POW camp in the U.S., they are eager to witness the great destruction wrought by Nazi troops that they’ve heard so much about. Of course, they see an untouched, fertile and relatively prosperous land. Also, the German POWs are well-treated and well-fed in the U.S. camps. I’m used to reading about German concentration camps, which of course were horrible. I had never given U.S. POW camps any thought; I hope the prisoners were treated as well as was described in this book.

A Good Woman (2004)

I enjoyed this movie, which is based on an Oscar Wilde play called Mrs. Windermere’s Fan. Taken at face value, his works are witty and clever, and they usually have a good moral. But it is a little strange to get morals from Oscar Wilde—I always watch or read a little uneasily, as if it might all be a joke, one at my expense (or at the expense of all people who hold traditional values).

A Good Woman is more serious than The Importance of Being Earnest, but it still has some great quips. Like “I like America. Name me another society that's gone from barbarism to decadence without bothering to create a civilization in between.”

Bridget Jones's Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding

I’ve been stewing over what I’d write about these two books for a while now. While I love them and find them very funny, I wouldn’t recommend them to many people I know. There’s a lot of offensive language in them, and Bridget and her friends are constantly trying to “hook up” with people, to use a euphemism that Oprah has surely exposed to horrified parents.

But like I said, I love them. The diary form provides lots of insight into the swiftly swinging moods of a 30-something single woman. One minute Bridget is happily planning how rapidly her career will improve, the next she’s wallowing in self-pity. While I haven’t been in those particular shoes, the mood swings in general are familiar, as is the astoudning talent for procrastination. Yep, I’m a little bit like her.