Brand New at the Library!

Friday, November 25, 2016

Finding Colin Firth

Finding Colin Firth by Mia March
Reviewed by Gerti

I had never heard of author Mia March before picking up this book, "Finding Colin Firth", for the title.  But her raison d'etre becomes clear when you see that her previous work was called "The Meryl Streep Movie Club."  This is an author who wisely or wickedly want to get published, and to do that, she links her story to an actor with a legion of fans in order to get that fan base to purchase the book.

Why do you think she doesn't really love Colin Firth, you might ask?  The evidence is there in one of the early chapters, as one of the primary characters, Veronica Russo, quotes Colin Firth as peaking love words, as Fitzwilliam Darcy, to Elizabeth Bennet in "Pride and Prejudice."  The problem is, these works are not spoken in the film adaptation of the book starring Colin Firth.  Rather, they are spoken by Matthew MacFayden in a more recent version of Pride and Prejudice, and only a true Firth nerd would know that.  I knew that.  So on page 23, author March had already lost all credibility with me.  I was so mad, I couldn't read "Finding Colin Firth" again for weeks.

Finally, I forced myself to pick it up again and finish it.  So about the story and characters, yes, it is a pleasant read because of the charming tale of Veronica Russo, her magical pies, and her long-lost daughter, Bea.  Bea Crane is in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, trying to track down her birth mother and learn her story.  Firths is in Maine filming a movie.  Other characters in the book, including writer Gemma Hendricks, are introduced to the glory of Firth by watching all his movies (and there are a lot of them!) which I suspect is what this author did when her editor (or agent) suggested she write a book with Firth's name in the title.

But in the plot, Gemma is writing a story about a home of unwed mother in town, and both Veronica and Bea are connected to that place, since Veronica gave birth to Bea in the parking lot 22 years before.  There are other characters--Bea has a pseudo-romance with a charming producer from the film crew, and tutors another crew member's sister on "To Kill a Mockingbird" (of course, since this author seems determined to make her fortune on iconic things).  Veronica teaches a pie-making class in town and there is a love interest/conflict for her there, too; one of her students is a high school friend of the guy who got her pregnant in the first place, and then denied the baby.

The narration shifts from one of the 3 main female characters to the other (sometimes irritating), as they deal with issues surrounding pregnancy, having kids, and mother/daughter relationships.  But the male characters are like whipped cream on pies; the women decide whether they want them in their lives or not.  I would have enjoyed this book more if I felt the author wasn't just using Colin Firth and my love for him (and Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice") in order to sell books.  march's ignorance about him made me angry and sad, and tainted the book for me, even though her writing is clever and honest.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The wonderful, horrible life of Leni Riefenstahl

2-disc documentary review of: The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl directed by Roy MillerReviewed by Gerti

I can't help but compare famed German film maker, Leni Riefenstahl with the protagonist of the recent movie, "Woman in Gold."  Both are strong women, both had to live through WWII and changes their respective countries went through as a result of the war, including the political and social upheaval that came about before and after it.  However, Maria Altmann in WIG was Jewish, so her story included emigrating to the US.  In contrast, Leni Riefenstahl was an actress and director who knew German leader Adolf Hitler, and as such, her life's work is surrounded by criticism and controversy.

While writer/director Roy Muller calls this a documentary, it is not an impartial one, showing a real agenda on his part.  It doesn't deal at all with LR's childhood or early days in Berlin, beginning only when she was an actress starring in mountain climbing movies for her mentor and lover, director Arnold Fanck.   It doesn't even discuss her nude work in other movies, as Muller seems determined to get to her film for the 1934 Nazi party congress as quickly as possible.  As a result, most of the 3 hours is spent discussing LR's work on "Triumph of the Will" and "Olympia", a look at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Her cinematic innovations are amazing, and both of those black and white movies look modern and dynamic today, although shot eight decades ago.  Riefenstahl puts cameras in places (like up flagpoles) no one had ever thought of before, and used moving camera work with an amazing number of angles, totally changing the way sports were filmed.  Of course, the move she made about the Nazi congress in Nuremberg looks stirring and monumental as well, hence the critiques that continue to dog her reputation, even after her death.  I've recently watched both movies, and I believe her when she says that even when TOTW was finally edited, the clearest message she heard was one of renewal and peace.  It's not naive on her part, for Hitler speaks often of peace, and only in hindsight are his intentions for seizing control of the German nation clear.

The second disc is made up of Riefenstahl's time after WWII, and includes her fascination with African culture and undersea photography.  It seems a waste of time to me to dwell on these at length, as she didn't make movies out of either topic, despite shooting endless reels of film.  It is only her movies that are most worthy of discussion.  For those who haven't seen TOTW or Olympia, the scenes Muller chose to share here are representative of Riefenstahl's artistic prowess.  But most revealing are the many hours of interviews, as it shows LR to be a feisty subject and eternal filmmaker, even when in front of the lens.  She directs Muller regarding how she should be framed for shots, with the mountains in the background, etc.  This is a reasonable overview of a great, but controversial artist.  Contains enough nudity, though, to make it inappropriate for younger viewers.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The wall

Movie review, The Wall by Julian Poelsler
Reviewed by Gerti

When you think of "The Wall," most likely you think of the album and movie by the British rock band, Pink Floyd.  That's probably why so few people, myself included, have heard of this brilliant post-apocalyptic film of the same name, main in 2013 by Austrian director, Julian Poesler.  It is based on a book by Marlen Haushofer, and stars the unknown-to-me actress Martina Gedeck, who is onscreen almost the whole time.

It tells the story of a woman, played by Gedeck, who accompanies an elderly couple to their hunting cabin in the upper Austrian alps.  The pair decide upon arriving to walk down to the nearest village, but when they fail to arrive that evening, their companion simply thinks they were too tired to return by foot the same day.  By the next morning, however, she fears the worst for them, and rushed down the path they took that afternoon to try and find them, in case one has suffered a heart attack or some other injury.  She takes with her the couple's dog, Lynx, who the day before had curiously refused to accompany them.

What she finds is that an invisible wall, clear as a window, cuts her off from the rest of humanity.  She feels along its length like a mime, and eventually tries driving the couple's Mercedes into it.  The car crashes; the wall is that strong.  She spends much of the early film trying to test its limits in size and strength, seeing if she can go down the other side of the mountain to get past it, but she cannot.  She and Lynx are trapped, but trapped in such a paradise, that it seems as though loneliness is her only enemy.

Over time, she and Lynx meet a pregnant cow, who has a calf and keep them supplied with milk.  Their party of survivors grows larger when a stray cat turns up in a terrible rainstorm.  That cat also has a kitten, but things turn out badly for both young animals.  As the months and years go by, you see the woman's life through her diary written on the reverse sides of calendars she finds at the cabin.  She narrates her story for the viewer, an impressive one of hope and despair, fear, and ultimately survival.

The story and the movie are uniquely Austrian.  Breathtaking Alpine scenes are shown to the most beautiful violin music, in contrast to the harsh, insipid rock 'n'roll the older couple played on their way to the cabin.  The woman has deep and poignant thought about the meaning of life, the relationship of man to nature, and her relationship to her animal companions.  In this apocalypse, she learns to plant and harvest food, caring for her small group and interacting with the other animals of the forest.  She regards herself as a "one off", sole survivor in a world without other humans, until one day something terrible happens.  

The movie is a love letter to the Alps, and a deep conversation about what it means to be human, for good or evil.  It is haunting and spectacular all at once.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Roseland Poster

Movie Review: Roseland a film by James Ivory

Reviewed by Gerti

This Merchant/Ivory production from 1977 is a bit of an anomaly. It has nothing to do with India, and nothing to do with England! Helena Bonham Carter is not even in it! That’s what “Roseland” is not. But what it is, is a lovely series of three vignettes about the ladies who frequent a New York dance hall by that romantic name. Like the name, the place is old-fashioned, almost a locale stuck in time.

The first vignette “The Waltz” is about May, an older lady who is a remarkable dancer, and very well looking for her age. But partners soon tire of her because every word out of her mouth is about her late husband Ed, and what a fabulous person he was. She is at first upset when the vulgar Stan wants to partner her in a waltz, until she sees a remarkable thing as they whisk past a mirror. Reflected there is an image of her husband and herself as young people, dancing. But this vision only appears when she dances past the mirror with Stan. Of course, her overwhelming love for her dead spouse forces her to seek Stan out, until finally she realizes the nature of the apparition. Her dead husband is telling her he’s picked out the man who will make her happy in the present, and that is Stan.

The second vignette stars famed actor Christopher Walken as a slick male dancer at the Roseland Ballroom named Russel who has sold his soul, if not his body, to a wealthy older woman named Pauline. The segment captures the events between Pauline’s two birthdays. At the first, she has introduced a recently-divorced friend named Marilyn to the dance hall. Russel takes an instant shine to the younger woman, their romance watched carefully by his dance teacher, Cleo. Although Pauline seems oblivious to developments between Russel and her friend, the couple finally decide to live together on the sly, with Marilyn paying for Russel’s dance lessons so he can become a star. Of course, when Pauline gives Russel an expensive gold watch after he takes care of her during a short illness, her money trumps any love he may feel for the now crushed Marilyn. “The Hustle” is more like a mini-film called “Dancehall Gigolo.”

The final vignette, and the most heart-breaking one for me is called “The Peabody”, which despite years of watching Dancing with the Stars I’d never known was a dance move. In it, Rosa, a woman from Vienna, sets out to win the dance competition with her frequent partner Arthur. He is a terrible dancer, and Rosa looks terrible, with garish, poorly applied makeup. But Arthur loves her for her spirit, as when they’re not dancing, she tells him all her dreams of singing opera, even though she’s a cook who sings covers of throaty Marlene Dietrich songs. Arthur proposes, but Rosa is too much of a fool to accept him, and admits she’s never even been to his home. When his health suffers, she complains about having to visit him at the hospital to the ladies room attendant. In the final scene, the thrilling young MC asks her to dance the Peabody, and like so many others who’ve danced it, she falls into a death swoon. It’s a very sentimental end to this Ruth Prawer Jhabvala screenplay. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Me before you : a novel

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Reviewed by Gerti

I wanted to see the movie when it came to theatres, but didn’t get the chance. So what’s left to do but read the book? So that’s why I picked up Jojo Moyes novel “Me Before You”, and I can tell you, that I haven’t cried so much since I read “The Fault in Our Stars.” The book’s protagonist is Louisa Clark, an odd British girl living an ordinary life until she loses her job at her little town’s café. She tries unemployment, but all their jobs are pretty unpalatable, like working at a chicken processing plant. So she interviews for a job as a caregiver to a quadriplegic, never thinking she’ll get it. But she does.

She’s hired by Will Traynor’s mom, but it is with Will that she will spend many hours. Tentatively at first, they begin a relationship that will end in love, but not in marriage. Will was a very successful businessman before a tragic accident while hailing a cab left him wheelchair bound. He used to be tremendously active, like sky-diving and mountain-climbing active, and resents Louisa for being able to do those things, but living her life in a small way – by sitting in front of the TV eating chips during her hours off. He wants her to live larger and experience more, but her life isn’t that sad. She has a long-time boyfriend who she’d marry eventually, but working for Will allows her to see that chaps even more selfish than is Will.

Will’s mother hired her to keep Will from killing himself, because although he can watch movies and write and search the internet with special attachments to his wheelchair, that’s not the life he wants to lead. It’s not enough for him. Even Louisa’s love is not enough. And that’s where the heartbreak comes in. Everyone wants Will to live and be satisfied with his lot, but he refuses. As a result, the book brings up a lot of big questions – what makes a worthwhile life? Is it the same for everyone? Louisa visits quadriplegic blogs and learns what activities might keep Will engaged and alive, trying to get him to change his mind about dying during the 6 months in which they are together. And the reader hopes fervently it will all be enough… but Will still decides to kill himself.

Deep issues, surrounded with controversy and human pathos. That’s the essense of Moyes seemingly light-hearted story. Will devastates his parents and his girlfriend by his choice, and I hate him a little for making it, but I have strong feelings about suicide. And while I can understand his choice, it ultimately seems the wrong one. I was much more sympathetic when the heroine in “Still Alice” heroine decided she would rather die than lose her mental faculties. But Will’s mind is still sharp. It’s his heart and humanity that are broken.

This novel is well written, and I love the character of Louisa. Her eccentricities and her relationship to her family seem blissfully normal. Memorable scenes include Will’s trip to the racetrack on a rainy day, and his ex-fiance’s wedding to his former best friend, where the pair “dance” in his wheelchair. Moyes has written a humane, thought-provoking book, even if I don’t buy her conclusion.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Storm front

Storm Front by John Sandford

Reviewed by Gerti

I usually don’t read books about ancient treasures or the political implications of found relics. That’s why I avoid writers like Clive Cussler and Dan Brown. But John Sandford snuck one in on me, using protagonist Virgil Flowers as the lure. And I’m glad I did read it, even if I enjoyed the characters more than the plot.

Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent Virgil Flowers is called on to help retrieve a relic stolen from Israel. It’s an ancient stele uncovered during an archaeological dig involving some professors and enthusiasts from America, including Dr. Elijah Jones, professor emeritus from Gustavus Adolphus College in Mankato. Realizing its immense value, Jones uses stealth to bring it back to the US, hoping to sell it and pay for his Alzheimers-afflicted wife’s long-term nursing care. Jones has terminal cancer, so he doesn’t really care what happens to him, but he needs the millions of dollars the object would bring. But Jones is closely followed by bad guys and girls from various international organizations, because the object shows that King Solomon, mentioned in the Bible, was a myth, and the stories about him were really referring to a Pharoah named Siamun (a real historical person).

Virgil travels around with a woman named Yael Aronov, supposed to be from the Israel Antiquities Authority, who ends up being Mossad. When the real investigator (of the same name) arrives from Tel Aviv, Flowers’ realizes he’s been had, and how important and complicated the case really is if these groups who want the stone could delay her flight for days. There are other guys with guns, generally bumblers played for comic relief, and a few “Indiana Jones” wannabes who are looking to find this artifact so they can keep their lucrative TV shows. But the most interesting thing going on in this novel has to do with Virgil Flowers himself, and a local lady con-artist named Ma Nobles. She is a big-busted beauty with a bevy of sons by different fathers (hence the nickname), and Flowers started the book trying to find out where she was aging local lumber to sell it to East Coast snobs at a huge profit.

Instead, the pair begin working together, and against each other, each with their own motivation. Nobles knew Jones as a child, when he was a big, burly preacher who helped her family out of poverty. Flowers’ father was also a local pastor, and that gives Flowers an edge on information about the Holy Land, but he wants to catch Jones and get the stele back to Israel before anyone gets killed, including Jones’ daughter Ellen. I hate the plot, but I love the characters, and Sandford always injects enough humor to keep everything interesting. I would recommend the book, even if you don’t like ancient mysteries, because it’s as exciting as riding a dune buggy over ancient sands, modern fun on ancient ground. Another Sandford winner.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Mad River

Mad River by John Sandford

Reviewed by Gerti 

My John Sandford obsession has been going on for a few weeks now, and his “Mad River” is the first of his novels that has sounded a sour note for me. It’s the story of 3 teens, dysfunctional as all get out, who begin a crime spree ala Charlie Starkweather because they are just flat broke. The girl, Becky Welsh, knows a local Shinder girl who married well and wore diamonds to a recent party in the town, which Becky helped cater. Becky wants those stones. Her boyfriend, the impotent (or possibly gay?) Jimmy Sharp, was born mean, and he figures out a way to get those diamonds, and make some extra cash on the side by committing a murder for hire. The pairs’ ride-along buddy is named Tom McCall, who at first seems the best natured of the trio, but then turns into a cop-shooting rapist. These 3 inspire a manhunt the likes of which Minnesota has never seen.

Enter Virgil Flowers. While I love this crime-solving character in other Sandford novels I’ve read, he seems a little flat in this book. At one point, he gets the snot kicked out of him by two thugs and ends up with a concussion, but he almost seems to be handicapped from the start! Lucas Davenport, his boss and the subject of several other Sandford novels, also makes a short appearance here in this book, but he also seems toned down. It’s almost as though Sandford is tired of writing cute paragraphs to decribe his two most famous protagonists for those who haven’t read the series before, and so there is very little background information given on the pair. Which is a shame, because in previous books, it has been the details Sandford uses to describe these clever employees of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension that have really made his novels sing!

I’m also missing Johnson Johnson, Flowers crazy fishing buddy who always livens up the storyline with his lunacy. Instead, here we have a tight-knit Catholic family of doctors (yawn) and a former high school girlfriend with whom Virgil finally scores. Just like the book itself, the investigation into the spree killers seems to stall. This is the first Flowers novel in which Virgil does not get his man. Several convictions fall through, that of 2 of the kids, and of the local good-old-boy sheriff who ordered their car fired on in ambush style while they were giving themselves up. As a result of that event, Virgil never does get enough evidence against the man who ordered the hit on his ex-wife, so the book, while providing closure in the end, doesn’t provide much satisfaction. It’s like Virgil’s high school relationship with Sally Long – all talk and not enough action. Sandford has written far better books than this one, and fans should seek them out. The journey on this “Mad River” leaves me high and dry.