Sunday, December 30, 2007

Ticket Happy and Reeking of Popcorn

The end of the year means list time, so here are my favorite movies I saw in theaters in 2007.

3:10 to Yuma: Bravo to the return of the Western, especially starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe. The enigmatic mutual friendship formed between bad guy and good guy was fascinating, and the scenes of southwestern mountains dusted with snow were breathtaking on the big screen.

Juno: We just saw this one last night, and it's even better than the trailers and reviews suggest. All the actors are perfectly cast, and I'm a sucker for a smart young outcast like Ellen Page who uses sarcasm to hide her vulnerabilities. It's a movie about mostly-decent people maturing and making the best out of bad circumstances; the endings, while not necessarily expected, are believable and heart-warming.

The Bourne Ultimatum: I love this series, so I looked forward to the release of the third movie all summer and was not disappointed (excepting the absence of Franka Potente).

Ratatouille: Just as Cars was made for Nascar rednecks and The Incredibles for comic book nerds, Ratatouille is the Pixar movie for foodies, and that means me. But similar to all the Pixar films, any audience member will appreciate that it's sweet, funny, and a feast for the eyes.

Hot Fuzz: This is certainly the hardest we laughed in the theater all year. Whereas I liked the concept of Shawn of the Dead, I am a much bigger fan of this Simon Pegg/Edgar Wright follow-up tribute to stupid action flicks. My favorite part by far is Pegg's police training montage, a headache-inducing, side-splitting succession of split-second shots.

The Valet: Although certainly not the best film we saw all year, this one was a darn enjoyable farce from the French director of The Dinner Game. Gad Elmaleh is especially likable and goofy-looking as the titular valet pretending to date a supermodel.

Lars and the Real Girl: Along with Ellen Page in Juno and Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, and Ben Foster in 3:10 to Yuma, Ryan Gosling gives the best performance I've seen this year as Lars. This movie shows a family, church, and community wrapping its arms around a hurting individual, and it allows you to leave the theater believing people are pretty great after all.

Enchanted: I'm just adding this in because Amy Adams is so good I could barely stand it. She plays what could have been an annoying role with irresistible energy and refreshing innocence. She nearly stole the show in Junebug, but she completely carries Enchanted.

Favorite Netflix rentals of 2007: American Splendor, Big Love, 30 Rock, The Lives of Others, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Junebug, Donnie Darko: Director's Cut, The Departed.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Three Bewitching Tales

Over the last few weeks, I've enjoyed three great books (all British, of course), ideal for winter/Christmas. Here's a brief summary of each.

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield: I've wanted to read this ever since it came out but library copies were always checked out. At last I gleefully found a used paperback in a secondhand store down a little alley in Portsmouth. Whereas Setterfield's words are not especially artful, she tells a killer tale. This deliciously gothic yarn is strongly reminiscent of Wurthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Rebecca. The protagonist is hired to write a secretive author's memoirs, which feature a ghostly English manor house, family scandals, murder, mystery, and most importantly...twins.

Carbonel, The King of Cats, by Barbara Sleigh: This is the first of two books Chris gave me which are from the same collection as Box of Delights. In Carbonel, young Rosemary befriends a cat, with whom she can talk as long as she's holding a magic broom. Rosemary and her friend John endeavor to break the spell enchanting Carbonel. It's a charming story with an especially amusing chapter spiriting antique china out of a museum and into a public tearoom. Like Box of Delights, it's best moments feature clever children left to their own devices.

Uncle, by J.P. Martin: Also from the New York Review Children's Collection, Uncle is a hilarious, quirky tale of a millionaire elephant, his diverse followers, and his scruffy, malicious neighbors. Each chapter, although part of the story as a whole, is well-contained and the ideal length for a bedtime story. Of the long list of characters, my favorites are The Muncle (The Old Monkey's uncle who is obsessed with shoes), The Maestro (who often goes into a passion and throws himself out windows), The Little Lion (who, when feeling contrary, makes himself heavy and thereby impossible to move), and Noddy Ninety (an old man, mad about cricket, who dresses up as a schoolboy and sneaks into school to cause trouble).

The prime result of reading Uncle is one's excursion into the mind and personality of the author, J.P. Martin, a rambunctious Yorkshire minister who made up these stories for his children. I actually read the introduction (written by Martin's grandson) about the author's life twice because I found him so delightful. As the icing on the cake, the book is packed with illustrations by Quentin Blake (who illustrated Roald Dahl's similarly peculiar and hilarious children's stories).

Monday, December 10, 2007

Ring, blessed Bells, for Christmas Morn, Joy in Full Measure, Hope new-born

I have found the perfect book for Christmas.

A few weeks ago when Ickie and I were downtown for the annual Christmas tree lighting, Ickie discovered The Box of Delights by John Masefield in Longfellow Books. His eye was drawn to it immediately because of the beautiful red cloth binding and cover art, courtesy of The New York Review Children's Collection. When he flipped it over to read the summary, two quotes made up his mind that it must be purchased.

"Christmas ought to be brought up to date, it ought to have gangsters, and aeroplanes and a lot of automatic pistols." (This quote is from Maria Jones, a hilarious spunky friend of the protagonist.)

"It is...a unique work and will often be re-read.... The beauties, all the 'delights' that keep on emerging from the box--are so exquisite, and quite unlike anything I have seen elsewhere." --C.S. Lewis

That second quote pretty much sums up my review. Delights has all the best bits of E. Nesbit and The Narnia Chronicles. In fact, it's easy to see that Delights was a major influence in Lewis's more-famous series. It's an ideal read for Advent, with Kay, the protagonist, at home on holiday with his friends, all happily free of adult supervision. Amid cozy meals, snow games, and holiday parties, Kay meets enigmatic characters and uses the magical Box of Delights to fight against a malevolent magician and his gang who have abducted the cathedral staff in an attempt to prevent the midnight mass.

Masefield's story is viewed through the willing eyes of a child: everything is magical and dreamlike. There are wolf men and Roman soldiers, talking mice and wood spirits, bloodthirsty pirates and fanciful contraptions. The final joyful chapter when Christmas day dawns brought me to tears.

Ickie read this out loud to me over the last few weeks as we sat by the tree, and it's a tradition I plan to continue. I can imagine how much I would have enjoyed this as a child.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Generous Story for Children

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart is simply that: a sweet story that focuses on the special abilities of children. Four unlikely orphans pass a series of unusual tests and find themselves a part of kooky Mr. Benedict's secret society. Their mission is to save the world from a dreaded brainwashing scheme by the wicked Mr. Curtain. The children must infiltrate Mr. Curtain's sinister island Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened.

The story is basically juxtaposing two mindsets about children: that they are intelligent, noble, and able versus that they are weak-minded infidels. Each child has special abilities: Reynie is a natural leader and clever problem solver, Sticky has a mind chock full of information (including a knowledge of countless languages), Kate is the resourceful acrobat and tool expert, and Constance is willful and stubborn. Contrary Constance is by far my favorite; she has a nearly absolute disrespect for authority that made me laugh out loud multiple times.

The plot is fast-paced, the language is straightforward yet not insulting to children, and the lessons are admirable for any young reader. The author notes that he built the story around an idea he came up with for a chess riddle, which appeals to me even if I was unable to solve the riddle myself (no surprise there). Each chapter opens with a charming juvenile drawing, and the cover art showing all the children around Mr. Benedict's ramshackle house is especially engaging. The book is a great choice for children, preteens, and adults.

Monday, December 3, 2007