Saturday, December 31, 2011

End of the Year List: Two for the Price of One

Best Books of 2011, Bonus 2010

As the end of the year draws closer and closer (when did that happen?), everyone starts making lists of the best songs, movies, and moments of the year. I’ve decided to contribute with my personal list of the best books of 2011. These aren’t necessarily all books published from 2011 (indeed, many are not), but books that I read or re-read in 2011. And, because I wanted to do something similar in 2010 and didn’t get to in a timely fashion as is typical of me, you my fair reader will also get that list as well.

Because my reading tastes are greatly varied, these lists include short story collections, graphic novels, and plays, to name a few. Besides being broken down into the years when I read them, the lists are sub-categorized as children’s, young adult, and adult reading (although there may be some cross-over between groups). Rather than try to rank these books in any fashion, they are listed alphabetically. I’ve also provided links to my reviews of all these books, in case you are interested in finding out more about any of them. Without any further ado, here are my personal favorite reads over the past two years.


Children’s books

All the Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel** by Dan Yaccarino

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Pop-Up Book) by Roald Dahl

Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! by Mo Willems

Fancy Nancy and the Late, Late, LATE Night by Jane O’Connor

Fancy Nancy and the Sensational Babysitter by Jane O’Connor

Green Start: Little Helpers** by Ikids

If America Were a Village** by David J. Smith

If the World Were a Village** by David J. Smith

If You Give a Moose a Muffin by Laura Numeroff

Just Being Audrey** by Margaret Cardillo

Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes

Pierre & Sophia** (2) by Mary Shaw

The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog! by Mo Willems

The Sandwich Swap by Queen Rania al Abdullah

The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf

This Child, Every Child** by David J. Smith

The Teen Who Invented Television** by Edwin Brit Wyckoff

Welcome to Samantha’s World, 1904** by Catherine Gourley

Young adult books

Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London** by Andrea Warren

Our Eleanor: A Scrapbook Look at Eleanor Roosevelt’s Remarkable Life** by Candace Fleming

The Tale of One Bad Rat^ by Bryan Talbot

Adult books

The Adventures of Unemployed Man^ by Erich Origen and Gan Golan

Batwoman: Elegy^ by Greg Rucka

Bossypants** by Tina Fey

A Christmas Carol (2) by Charles Dickens

Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage** by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Bell Jar (2) by Sylvia Plath

Hard Times (2) by Charles Dickens

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Lady Vernon and Her Daughter by Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway

The Last Sherlock Holmes Story by Michael Dibdin

Let’s Take the Long Way Home** by Gail Caldwell

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Machinal (2) by Sophie Treadwell

Mansfield Park (2) by Jane Austen

Passive Aggressive Notes: Painfully Polite and Hilariously Hostile Writings** by Kerry Miller

Persuasion (2) by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice (2) Jane Austen

Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics** by Joe Biden

The Question: Five Books of Blood^ by Greg Rucka

A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Sense and Sensibility (2) by Jane Austen

Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure** edited by Smith Magazine

This Is a Book by Demetri Martin


Children’s books

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

Amelia Bedelia (2) by Peggy Parish

Amelia Bedelia and the Baby (2) by Peggy Parish

The Blacker the Berry by Joyce Carol Thomas

Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan

The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies (2) by Stan & Jan Berenstain

The Day the Toys Ran Away (2) by Leah Raechel Killeen

Different Like Coco** by Elizabeth Matthews

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems

The Eleventh Hour (2) by Graeme Base

The Feelings Book** by Todd Parr

Ferris Wheel! George Ferris and His Amazing Invention** by Dani Sneed

Here Comes the Garbage Barge! by Jonah Winter

Hillary Rodham Clinton: Dreams Taking Flight** by Kathleen Krull

If You Give a Cat a Cupcake by Laura Numeroff

If You Give a Pig a Pancake by Laura Numeroff

If You Give a Pig a Party by Laura Numeroff

If You Take a Mouse to the Movies by Laura Numeroff

Journey Through Islamic Art (2) by Na’ima Bint Robert

The Lorax (2) by Dr. Seuss

Love, Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur

Maid of the North by Ethel Johnston Phelps

Marie Curie** by Kathleen Krull

A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip Christian Stead

Teach Us Amelia Bedelia (2) by Peggy Parish

Told Tales by Josepha Sherman

The Twelve Dancing Princesses (2) by Ruth Sanderson

The Valentine Kittens (2) by Stephanie St. Pierre

A Woman for President: The Story of Victoria Woodhull** by Kathleen Krull

Yes, Let’s by Galen Goodwin Longstreth

Young adult books

Ash by Malinda Lo

The Boy Who Dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

The Boy Who Invented TV** by Kathleen Krull

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice** by Phillip M. Hoose

Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

Hitler Youth** by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary** by Candace Fleming

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

The Outsiders (2) by S.E. Hinton

The Sledding Hill by Chris Crutcher

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

Adult books

A Collection of Letters by Jane Austen

Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Cake Wrecks** by Jen Yates

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America** by Jon Stewart

Emma (2) by Jane Austen

Half the Sky** by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

In Cold Blood** by Truman Capote

Gothic Classics^ by Tom Pomplun

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

Lady Susan (2) by Jane Austen

Life, the Universe, and Everything by Douglas Adams

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishguiro

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishguiro

The Nose by Nikolai Gogol

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Picasso at the Lapin Agile by Steve Martin

PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives** by Frank Warren

Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian

Stitches**,^ by David Small

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

‘Tis Herself** by Maureen O’Hara

That Yellow Bastard^ by Frank Miller

The Trial (Illustrated Classics)^ by Franz Kafka

Truer Than True Romance: Classic Love Comics Retold^ by Jeanne Martinet

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley

When We Were Orphans (2) by Kazuo Ishguiro

William Kentridge Nose** by William Kentridge

** = nonfiction
(2) = re-read
^ = graphic novel

I hope you might find some books of interest on these lists. Regardless, I wish you a new year full of happy reading!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Princeton: Where London, New Jersey, & Worlds of Play Meet

It’s been a while since my niece and I last visited a museum or other cultural institution, so when I was watching her for the day yesterday, I decided take us down to Princeton for a semi-artistic visit. When we first got there, my niece had just woken up from a nap so I decided that while she was still perking up, it was a good time to check out a couple of exhibits on campus. (Now that she’s older and more mobile – and more vocal – I wasn’t sure if she would be as good as long as she had been when we visited the Zimmerli museum over the summer.)

We headed over to Princeton University’s Firestone Library and took in our first exhibit, “Sin & the City: William Hogarth’s London.” This exhibit contained some 70 engravings from the 18th century British artist William Hogarth, along with a sampling of some contemporaries’ works. Last month, I read Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London and found out about how Hogarth was also a philanthropist who, like Dickens, used his artistic work not only to donate proceeds to the needy but also as an outlet to lambast the poor societal conditions of the time. In particular, the book talked about Hogarth’s famous work Gin Lane and how it depicted the overabundance of alcohol, even when little else was available – including clean drinking water. So walking in to the exhibit and seeing Hogarth’s work in general, and Gin Lane in particular, was certainly fitting to this recent acquisition of knowledge. Likewise, the accompanying literature from the exhibit describes Hogarth as “creat[ing] a new, moralizing role for the artist, forcing viewers not only to look but then to act on what they had seen.” The brief biography on the exhibit’s website also notes, “Hogarth’s work took on a distinctly propagandist tone, directed at the urbanization of London and the city’s problems with crime, prostitution, gambling, and alcoholism. Hogarth strived to create works of great aesthetic beauty but also ones that would help to make London a better city for future generations.” Talk about reinforcing your learning.

I mostly brushed through looking at the prints pretty quickly without reading the majority of the accompanying information, but it appeared that the staff also included a fair amount of explanations with each piece as well as an introduction to Hogarth and 18th century London. Overall, I found this exhibit very interesting and would have spent more time examining the individual works had I been on my own or with an adult companion. The exhibit goes on until the end of January, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in prints, London, history, and/or satirical works. My niece’s reaction to this exhibit was mostly playing with my gloves, watching with interest two women talking to each other about the works, and looking up at the light fixtures. Hey, at least she was happy.

The second exhibit, also at the Firestone Library, was “George Segal: Sculptor as Photographer.” Best known as a sculptor, this small exhibit featured some of his lesser known works of photography, as is all implied by the exhibit’s title. The subjects of these works, at least those on display here, were often family members or friends as well as local scenery (such as the boardwalk at Asbury Park or the Keansburg amusement park). While seeing the nearby locales as they looked in the not-so-long-ago past was interesting and I’ve always loved the picture of Segal and his friend Donald Lokuta photographing each other (scroll down to the second picture), I was not overly thrilled by this exhibit. Segal’s sculpture works are far more interesting and compelling to me, most especially the ones I’ve been able to view up close both at the Zimmerli museum and at Grounds for Sculpture. I would not have recommended making the trip for this exhibit alone, although that point is now moot as the exhibit closed today. My niece’s reaction to this exhibit was … playing with my gloves. So this one was not a real winner all around.

We then moved on the lovely Cotsen Children’s Library located within the Firestone Library. Here my niece got to explore and play in the Bookscape gallery, which is a delightful space for kids to read, hang out, and use their imaginations. We both liked the tree house with its upper and lower nooks for reading and looking out on the world. Later in the day, we also visited the vast public library of Princeton, which has an entire floor just for children. The countless books and toys as well as the kid-sized furniture and giant fish tank with steps leading up to it make this a great place for young children to just hang out for a long time while they read, play, and make friends – indeed, my nephew and I have also spent a good chunk of the day here before. All in all we had a good day with some slightly out-of-the-ordinary things for the both of us.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Cult Classic: Better Off Dead

When his girlfriend of six months unexpectedly breaks up with him, Lane Meyers (John Cusack) is ready to throw in the towel. And while Lane’s oblivious parents and quirky little brother don’t notice that his suicide attempts, even trying to off himself doesn’t go Lane’s way. This dark comedy is able to make depression and the overall doldrums that is known as high school seem like hilarity at every turn. 

After once again making a “I want my two dollars” reference that went over my intended audience’s head, I was feeling nostalgic for Better Off Dead, which is in my opinion, pretty much the only good 80s movie out there. Unlike teen romance movies from the 1980s such as Sixteen Candles, Pretty In Pink, or The Breakfast Club, Better Off Dead is hasn’t made quite the name for itself in Hollywood history but it does seem to have a bit of a cult status. Those of us who like it, really like it. And hence we make references like “I want my two dollars” all the time. Or, we randomly say things like, “Gee, I’m real sorry your mom blew up, Ricky.” Or we just reminiscence about dancing hamburgers with glee. (And unlike those other movies, it has a certain je ne sais quoi that makes it a great movie – I think it’s the dark comedy and the surrealism combined that really seal the deal.)
At any rate, all this nostalgia made me think it was time to pull out Better Off Dead and give it a re-viewing in a decade other than the 80s. Some movies that I loved growing up really turned out to be a bust when I re-watched them as an adult. (I’m looking at you, Dirty Dancing.) But Better Off Dead was just as funny – if not funnier because I probably understood more of the jokes now – to re-watch. Next time you’re really blue, dig out Better Off Dead and you’ll find yourself laughing right away!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Walking in a Winter Wonderland at Winterthur

For the second year in the row, we decided to have a holiday-related family outing. Last year, we went to Radio City for the Christmas Spectacular and then wandered over to Rockfeller Center to check out the decorations. This year, we decided to go south instead and visited Winterthur near Wilmington, Delaware. Winterthur is a DuPont family estate, which was donated by the family to become a museum some time in the 1950s, in part for H.F. DuPont to share his collection of American decorative arts with the world outside of his family and friends. The property also boasts extensive (and I mean extensive) grounds with wilderness and gardens for visitors to explore.

For three months of the year, the estate also features a Yuletide at Winterthur tour. I was pleasantly surprised by the length and breadth of the tour and by how much the Christmas theme was incorporated throughout. The tour covered numerous rooms in the huge 175-room mansion, each decorated for Christmas based on different time periods. The tour guide provided lots of details about different traditions of decorating and gift giving over the years. For instance, a very early Christmas day featured a small tabletop tree that used cookies as ornaments, which the children were then allowed to immediately eat. A much later Christmas day included gifts after lunch, and these gifts were wrapped in the newly discovered colored cellophane. There were also displays of children's toys and games over the years, in addition to the usual displays of furniture, paintings, hand-painted wallpaper, etc. This tour was also pleasantly surprising in holding the attention of young children as they could find Christmas trees and gifts in nearly every room.

Speaking of appealing to young children, we had also spent some time on the grounds having fun at the Enchanted Woods, although mostly it was a bit too cold to spend much time outdoors. (Foiled again, as the last time I was at Winterthur, it was a warm summer day but it down-poured when we hoped to go out and explore the grounds.) Indoors, we all (and I really do mean all, adults included) had a blast in the Touch-It Room, where kids of all ages can learn about life in the past through imaginative play including dress-up clothes, pretend food, replica old-fashioned toys (like tops, cup and ball, Jacob's ladder), and various scenario areas.

Other current exhibits at the museum include "With Cunning Needle: Four Centuries of Embroidery,"which was interesting but small, and "Paint, Pattern & People: Furniture of Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1725-1850," which was more extensive but not quite as interesting. We also brushed briefly through some of the permanent collections of porcelains, furniture, and etc., which I had seen on a previous visit. We also noticed that there was an "orientation video" describing a brief history of the estates, so we stopped and watched that.

On this second visit, I once again found this place delightful and informative, and I'm hoping to one day make it out there on a pleasant spring day to see all the flowers in bloom and actually get to take a walk through the grounds.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Movies for the Armchair Adventurer

After a friend and I had a themed movie night a while back, we decide it would be good to try another themed movie weekend. This time my friend thought up the theme of movies based on comic books/graphic novels. Once again, we had a long list of possibilities and only made it through a handful of these. Below is the list as well as descriptions/thoughts on the ones we did watch, which are indicated with an asterisk.

(Note: this is by no means an inclusive list of all the movies made based on comic books, just some of the ones we were more interested in seeing.)

Batman (1989)
Batman Begins
Batman Returns
Captain America: The First Avenger
Dick Tracy
The Dark Knight
The Incredibles*
Iron Man 1 & 2
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World*
Sin City*
The Spirit
Superman Returns
Tales of the Black Freighter
Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles
V for Vendetta
X-Men: First Class*

^Okay, you got me, these two aren’t actually based on comic books, but they are action/adventure/sci-fi/practically superheroes so I felt I could add them to the list. Plus they helped to make up for the dearth of female leads in many of the other movies.


Basic plot: When assassins come after retired CIA agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), he’s determined to figure out why he’s suddenly on someone’s hit list. He culls resources from some fellow retiree spies (played by Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren) to get to the bottom of this mystery. Along for the ride is Frank’s brand-new love interest, Sarah (Mary Louise Parker), who has no idea what she’s gotten herself into by befriending the lonely Moses.

Think of just about any Bruce Willis action flick you’ve ever seen and you’ve got down about half the make-up of RED (which incidentally stands for “retired and extremely dangerous”). Bruce Willis is the biggest baddest guy in town with unlimited supplies of ammo, who always manages to stay pretty much unscathed despite an hour and half worth of brutal encounters versus sundry assailants. Fortunately, the other half of the make-up of RED is comic one-liners and scenarios, most often at the hands of Helen Mirren and Mary Louise Parker. They definitely made the movie sparkle, in my opinion. John Malkovich’s paranoid character with his conspiracy theories was also fairly amusing at times. Overall, this is an entertaining escapist film, but don’t expect much more from it than that.

X-Men: First Class

Basic plot: Newly minted professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is sought out by the CIA for his knowledge of genetic mutations and begins using his ability to read minds to become a recruiter of other mutants, including his “sister” Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Erik Lehnsherr, later known as Magneto (Michael Fassbender). The CIA needs this class of mutants to help defeat the nefarious Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and his gang of mutants before they cause World War III.

The X-Men franchise (both the books and movies) are interesting to me, but I’m not hardcore about them. I’ve read a couple of books here and there, and I’ve partially seen some of the prior movies, but I’m certainly no expert on the X-Men universe. There were probably tons of inside references that went over my head in watching this movie. But, I found enjoyable all the same. X-Men: First Class, while having an adventure of its own, is basically an origins movie about how these characters came to be who they are.

Most interesting to me in that respect was the back story for Magneto, who we see first as a child and then later as a comrade of Professor X although the two will later become enemies as anyone with some knowledge of the X-Men universe knows. Michael Fassbender, who is increasingly becoming an actor on my radar for his impressive talent, does an excellent job bringing this character to life. James McAvoy as Professor X is also top-notch, as I was predicting based on his past performances. Everyone else involved in the production play their roles well, but these two particularly stand out above the rest.

I’m always pleased by the X-Men franchise’s themes of evolution and what it means to be human, and this movie was no exception. There was one montage section on the mutants’ training where I didn’t like how the director chose to do sliding boxes of quickly changing scenes, but otherwise this movie was well done all around.

The Incredibles

Basic plot: After some unfortunate events, superheroes are banned from their vigilante work and must make their secret identities their only identities. Some have a harder time than others accepting this, including Mr. Incredible who toils away at an insurance firm while he, his wife, and their three children do their best to hide their secret powers from the world. So when an opportunity arises for Mr. Incredible to use his powers in a clandestine operation, he is more than happy to agree. Little does he know he’s just played himself into an old enemy’s hands and it will take all his powers – and all of his family’s super powers – to survive this latest adventure.

Because it was so late in the evening by the time we started this one, we both ended up falling asleep fairly early on. But I’ve seen this movie numerous times before, and I love it. It has the charm of other Disney-Pixar movies like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc., combining adventure, touching moments, kids’ humor, and the occasional adult audience-intended joke. In fact, this is probably one of my favorite Disney-Pixar movies, making it among the cream of the crop. (For the record, it ties with Monsters, Inc., another movie that I just love beyond words.) There are so many wonderful scenes like Helen’s visit to costume designer Edna Mode, when the Incredible family teams up for the first time on the island, or how Jack Jack’s powers become apparent. I could go on, but it’s better if you just watch the movie yourself. :)

And, yes, I realize this one isn't really based on a comic book either, but the superhero theme clearly fits and the movie ended up spawning a comic book series later, so that's good enough for me!


Basic plot: In the wilderness of Finland, former CIA asset Erik Heller (Eric Bana) strictly trains his daughter Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) to become an assassin bent on destroying Heller’s former handler Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett). When the time comes for this mission, however, things don’t go quite as planned and Hanna is left crossing countries on her own in an attempt to stay one step ahead of those trying to kill her.

This movie features three excellent actors who all brought their A game to the production. It’s a visually appealing movie, with some very interesting camera work as well as some beautiful scenic places as part of the setting. There are parts when the movie seems a bit slow for an action movie, but when the action does come it is hardcore, including thumping music (provided by The Chemical Brothers) and some funky lighting. (For the latter, you might just have to see it to know what I mean.) While it’s an overall dark movie, there’s some funny moments when Hanna goes out into the world for the first time and is baffled by things like electricity. This is further compounded when she spends some time with a vacationing family, who has some quirks of their own. (The delightful Olivia Williams plays the mother with some unique ideas.)

Beyond its action aspects, the movie also has some science fiction elements. These introduce deeper questions to be explored, although the movie does not do much to tackle this exploration itself. I also enjoyed the visual symbolism (even if it was a bit heavy-handed), such as the prominent ads for glasses and graffiti about CCTV at a time when Erik is being watched and closed in on, Marissa coming out of the big bad wolf’s mouth at the Grimm’s fairy tales amusement park, etc. Without going into any spoilers, I wasn’t thrilled with the very end of the movie, but overall I thought this was a well-done film.

Sin City

Basic plot: Based on some of the Frank Miller’s comics of the same name, this movie contains three distinct plots dealing with the criminal underbelly of Basin City. The first follows the story from The Hard Goodbye where former criminal Marv (Mickey Rourke) loses it after his one-night stand lover Goldie (Jaime King) is murdered while lying next to him and he goes on a spree to find her killer. Meanwhile, with The Big Fat Kill as a basis, Dwight (Clive Owen) and the prostitutes of Old Town have to fend off corrupt cops and the mob from trying to take over. Based on That Yellow Bastard, the final story revolves around honest cop Hartigan (Bruce Willis) and his attempts to keep safe young Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) from the Roark family and their twisted pastimes. (Inexplicably, this last storyline is broken up so that it bookends the movie while the other two are played out one after the other.)

When this movie first came out (which was long before I read the books), I was interested in seeing it based on the cinematography and its stellar cast. For the former, the movie retains some of its comic book feel and is filmed in black and white with spot coloring of red and yellow. For the latter, not only does it include the people listed above but also Brittany Murphy, Alexis Bledel, Rosario Dawson, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Clarke Duncan, Josh Hartnett, Elijah Wood, and even a guest appearance from Frank Miller himself.

However, one of the reasons I did not watch this movie when it first came out was that I thought it would be far too violent for me. Having read all the books later, I was even more wary of the potential blood bath, but reading the series also made me more interested to see the movie. Alas, I was right that the movie was pretty much a non-stop violence fest (albeit, the same could be said for the other movies in this post, but this one really upped the ante for gore), although I must say it did not deviate from the books in this respect. However, the black and white filming helped make the violence somewhat more palatable by being able to portray pools of blood in white rather than red – a little trick that helps the mind deal with it better. Still, seeing someone’s hand blown off or head severed is a bit much no matter how you put it, and I think it’s worse in movie form than in stylized illustrations.

Likewise, the movie did not deviate from the books when it came to portraying all the women of Sin City as scantily clad (read barely clothed) or nude, no matter how ridiculous it was for them to be so in the given situation. Again, this is somehow more acceptable in a graphic novel than when dealing with actual breathing, moving people.

To sum up as best as I can, this movie is a truthful adaptation of three books in the Sin City series, a unique work of cinematography, a bloody gory mess, and an interesting puzzle as to how so many big Hollywood names could flock to a fairly shallow movie (the promise of working with Quentin Tarantino?). There’s two more Sin City movies planned based on other books in the series, but I’m not so sure I would check them out…

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Basic plot: After meeting Ramona, the girl of his dreams, Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) learns that not only must he try to woo Ramona but he also has to fight – and defeat – her seven evil exes.

After watching a couple of heavy movies there in a row, we decided to lighten things up a little with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. In this fantastical story, imagery is based not only on comic books but also video games. Similar to Sin City, this makes for a unique cinematographic effect. The movie is very funny, although it also gets more than a little absurd at times.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Creating a Fashion Icon: Coco Before Chanel

I only recently heard about the 2009 film Coco Before Chanel and decided to check it out, not least of all because it stars Amelie’s Audrey Tatou. This biopic of the famous fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel looks at her early life, as perhaps implied by the title. It focuses mainly on the years in which she is the mistress first of Etienne Balsan and later Arthur “Boy” Capel, brushing over her childhood years in an orphanage and dedicating only a montage to the many, many years of her successful career. If there was one thing I did not like very much about the movie, it was that we saw so little of her actual success. However, as I already mentioned, the title of the movie should provide a clue that the movie is more about her life before coming a household name.

Due to the movie’s focus on Chanel’s years as a “kept woman,” another downside was the men’s treatment of Coco, particularly in a cringe-worthy scene in which Capel asks and receives permission to “borrow” Chanel from Balsan for a couple of days. There’s probably an element of truth-telling at work here (particularly keeping in mind the time period), but it doesn’t stop the feminist ire that boils up in me at the treatment of women as property – or worse than property, as most people aren’t willing to lend out their homes for a weekend with no questions asked. Still, throughout all this, we see Chanel becoming the person she will be. She chafes at having to ride sidesaddle, refuses to wear a corset at the sacrifice of comfort, and mocks the elaborate ornamentation on the pretentious women she sees around her.

Before seeing this movie, my entire knowledge of Chanel’s life was based on a slim picture book for children. Like with any biopic, it’s unclear how much is 100 percent true and how much is poetic license. For instance, some quick web searches tell me that Chanel had two brothers and two sisters, rather than only the one sister who is featured in the film (who, by the way, is named Adrienne – which was not the name of either of Chanel’s actual sisters). Interestingly, the movie created as many questions as it answered about Coco, including the origin of her unique nickname. In part, we are left puzzled by what’s actual true because Coco is constantly changing the story she tells – which is apparently something the real-life Chanel was known to do.

The movie also portrays Coco as witty and sarcastic, again characteristics of the actual woman. This captivating side of Coco is portrayed by the winsome Audrey Tatou who is always a delightful actor to see at work, and she even looks a bit like Chanel as an added bonus. (Tatou is also currently a spokesperson for Chanel perfumes.) All of the other players do fine jobs in their roles as well.

In addition, Coco Before Chanel is a movie well-aware of the visual aspect of the medium and contains many stunning shots. Cinematically speaking, there is never a dull moment, whether we are looking at a lush French chateau and estate, the simple and perpetual beauty of the sea, or the finery of fashion models descending a staircase. Overall, I’m not sure I would call Coco Before Chanel a “must-see” movie, but it certainly has its charms.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Meta-Movie: My Week with Marilyn

Anyone who’s basically ever lived anywhere but under a rock knows of the iconic actress Marilyn Monroe. But few ever got to see the real deal. My Week with Marilyn is a new film based on the diaries of Colin Clark, who was a 23-year-old newbie to the British film system when Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier starred in The Prince and the Showgirl, a musical that is hardly the most memorable thing that either starred in during their respective fruitful careers. As the third assistant director, Clark was, in his own words, basically the film’s gopher. In this position, however, he finds favor and intimacy with the film’s American star. 

The movie actually covers more than one week, instead focusing on the whole period of the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl. Still, it’s a limited palette, but I’m glad that movie tackled only this time frame and didn’t try to do a broad sweeping portrait of Monroe’s entire life or career. My Week with Marilyn is based on true events (at least according to Clark’s writing), although as with any movie that purports this, I wonder just how accurate this is. (For a stellar example of how loose “based on true events” can be, check out the real story behind Saving Private Ryan some time.) For instance, I’m not 100 percent sure that I think the portrayal of Marilyn Monroe is spot-on. Williams no doubt has down the ditzy character that Marilyn played in many of her films but having her be all ‘Gee, I don’t know what he’s talking about?’ in a childish voice when not acting doesn’t seem to ring true. Luckily that side of Marilyn isn’t always the one on view throughout the movie. 

However, all in an all, I was thrilled with Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe, even though I was somewhat unsure about this going in. I was wary in part from not having seen Williams in enough prior films to be sure of her abilities and in part from having seen other movies based on Monroe’s life where the actresses did not look, sound, and/or act right – or even anywhere near right. Williams, on the other hand, was transformed to really look and sound like Marilyn, so much so that you could almost be fooled at times into thinking here was the real Marilyn Monroe before you. Also like Monroe, Williams lights up the screen when she’s on it and you want to look at nothing her radiance. (It’s a very different feel than her sort of ‘plain Jane’ role in The Baxter, the only other movie I’ve seen her in.)

Williams is surrounded by a cast full of a lot of Hollywood big hitters including Kenneth Branagh, Emma Watson, Julia Ormond, Dominic Cooper, and Dame Judi Dench. Excepting Kenneth Branagh who was also astoundingly good as Sir Laurence Olivier, all the other actors did fine, although not particularly noteworthy, jobs with their roles. 

Overall, My Week with Marilyn is entertaining and does not disappointing, but beyond Ms. Williams’s transformation, I wasn’t blown away. I would by no means steer anyone away from watching it, but having seen it once now, I’m good for the long haul.

As an aside, one of the previews at the theater today was for The Artist, which looks amazing and actually has the feel of an old-timey movie when so many others fall short in the respect (I’m looking at you The Aviator, for starters). It’s apparently actually a silent film, which I think is an awesome move. I will definitely be watching this one at some future point.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Airing Out Family Secrets: Nathan's Secret Girlfriend

It’s been a year since Nathan’s last been to his family home in Colorado, and this Christmas Eve he decides it’s time to finally bring his girlfriend to meet his family. But the family isn’t ready for Nathan’s choice, especially as his father and sisters are still reeling from the loss of his mother the year before. 

That’s the basic plot of Nathan’s Secret Girlfriend: A Christmas Play, a play by Brendon Votipka currently running at Mason Gross. Unlike when I saw Machinal at the same theater, I went into this performance blind, knowing nothing about it beyond the tiny blurb provided on the flyer I received in the mail about the upcoming season. That being said, I don’t want to spoil anyone else’s delight by revealing too many details, so I’ll just give a few impressions below.

One of my first thoughts on arriving at the theater was enjoying that Christmas music was playing even before the show started, priming the audience for what was to come. I also delighted in examining the stage set before me and appreciating the detail-oriented person(s) who took this job seriously.

When the play started, it was clear very early on that the four actors on the stage were all excellent at their craft. The bizarre storyline was ultimately touching, cueing viewers in to the strengths (as well as issues) of family togetherness. There’s also deeper themes addressed, such as the value of human relationships (that cannot be reproduced via technology), fitting into societal norms, the illusion of achieving perfection, and coping with loneliness. All this is mixed in with a fair dose of dark comedy, so that I was not the only one laughing out loud at parts. 

Nathan’s Secret Girlfriend: A Christmas Play will run for another week, so get in now for your dose of holiday drama and comedy! (And there’s a more than good chance your family’s holiday gatherings will seem tame in comparison…)

Happening Now: Fluxus

A few months ago I read that a new exhibit would be opening at the fabulous Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers. So my friend Deb and I planned to go there today and check it out. (We also took in the ongoing Venetian Masters exhibit while visiting the museum.)

With the 50th anniversary of the movement at hand, Zimmerli’s new exhibit is about Fluxus. (Side note: Since learning about the Fluxus exhibit at Zimmerli, I’ve also been seeing updates about Fluxus materials on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Apparently, several area museums are celebrating 50 years of Fluxus.) My first reaction when entering the new exhibit space was a striking feeling of Fluxus being similar to Marcel Duchamp’s readymades in particular and Dadaism in general. I suppose I’m not entirely off the mark with this feeling of déjà-vu as the exhibit (both some of the works and the accompanying notes) made reference to Duchamp as somewhat inspirational. But to begin at the beginning (to paraphrase David Copperfield), I should start with a brief explanation of Fluxus and the exhibit.

According to Zimmerli’s literature, Fluxus is a movement that “focuses on the unpredictable, ordinary, and ephemeral moments of everyday life. It is difficult to define as an art movement, and is best described as a spirit, a philosophy of life, or a laboratory of ideas. Fluxus includes poetry, music, film, performance, printed matter, found objects, humor, wordplay, and unexpected juxtapositions.” Indeed, the exhibit included all manner of works, such as inventive board games (including an invitation to play chess with vegetables), paraphernalia from a Fluxus sporting event (team skis, stilts for soccer playing, art history textbook hammer throwing, and elevated shoes for sprints), photographic evidence of a Fluxus concert (in which a symphony was created based on the pattern of bullet holes left on orchestral paper after being brought to the local police driving range), and a spectacular silhouette made out of a collage of Hershey wrappers cut in different ways to create words (i.e., HERS, HEY, etc.).

As you can probably tell from this brief cataloging of works, this is not your ordinary art exhibit. The items on display are fascinating and oftentimes humorous (something missing in most art exhibits). They do beg to be interacted with, especially the games. “Happenings” have a large role in the movement, as can be evidenced by the mention above of concerts and sporting events, again making this an art movement designed for interaction and participation by many. This kind of performance art is very interesting to me. (I’m still impressed and intrigued by MoMA’s The Artist is Present piece I saw a couple of years ago.)

When the Fluxus movement began in the late 1950s, its epicenter was Rutgers University, with a handful of art and art history faculty members leading the way. With such a history, it is a fitting tribute for the movement to be highlighted in this new exhibit on the Rutgers-New Brunswick campus.