Friday, December 2, 2016

Two Movies in Three Scenes

Within the past few weeks, I've gone to see two movies in theaters.

Fantastic Beasts
On Thursday night, Nov. 15, I caught a sneak preview of the new movie from the Harry Potter universe, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Written directly for the screen by J.K. Rowling herself, it exults in the ability to get its whole story out on screen, without having to cut all the connective bits that made an original novel make sense. The critics have already done a great job of pointing out how the film welcomes viewers in with a Pokemon Go!-esque "find the fantastic beasts" storyline, while slowly warming up to a much darker and more dramatic tale about a repressed magic gone septic and how that fits into a dark wizard's agenda.

My only two complaints about the movie were that said dark wizard's final remark is so cryptic (What was that about dying a little?) and that it wasted some attractive characters, such as the newspaper editor (played by Jon Voight) and his younger son (Ronan Raftery), who after a certain point just stand there and visibly react to what's going on in front of them. There must be some important reason for including these characters in the movie; perhaps it will become clear in a sequel, of which (I hear) there will be four.

Three scenes that "make" this movie for me:

1. Newt Scamander (recent Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne) performs a mating dance to coax an erumpent (don't ask) into his suitcase, which is much bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside. Combined with the subsequent madcap chase across part of New York's Central Park, this is comedic genius with a bite of the bizarre. It's also deftly choreographed, exciting, and suspenseful.

2. Ordered to their deaths, Newt and American witch Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston, Sam's daughter) fight their way out of an execution chamber where victims are apparently supposed to be lowered, via levitating chair, into a pool of some kind of annihilating liquid. Sorry, I haven't read the screenplay, so I don't know how to describe this. It's just an incredibly creepy scene.

3. Samantha Morton, playing an anti-magic fanatic, checks out a street urchin for signs of the witch's mark, then pronounces him OK. Her menacing sweetness channeled Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Hacksaw Ridge
I meant to see this on my recent interstate vacation as well, but my plans changed on short notice (again, don't ask). Just saw it tonight. Bawled through a good deal of it. Saw an impressive amount of none-too-subtle Christian symbolism woven into its imagery. Appreciated that it was a powerful war movie about a pacifist who stuck to his convictions in the face of tremendous adversity - ultimately earning the first Congressional Medal of Honor ever awarded to a conscientious objector. It's sickeningly violent but also a moving testimony to the power of conviction and the importance of the freedom to live by it.

Three scenes that "make" this movie for me:

1. Army medic Desmond Doss (played by sometime Spiderman Andrew Garfield, almost the lone American in a mostly Australian cast) sits all alone in carnage-strewn battlefield, after trying but failing to save a buddy's life. In a rare moment of doubt, he desperately asks God, "What do you want from me?" Long pregnant pause. Then a man's voice comes to him out of the falling night: "Medic!"

2. In the opening moments of the movie, a drunk Hugo Weaving (as Doss' father), visiting his World War I buddies' graves to share a drop of whiskey with them, loses control and smashes the bottle against one of the gravestones. Blood drips on the stone. As he wraps up his cut hand, he dryly says, "Well, that's all I have for you today." It's hard not to love practically every scene Weaving is in. While I'm at it, I might as well also mention one in which his character bursts into tears at the dinner table after telling off the first of his two sons who has decided to enlist in World War II. It's not every actor who can turn an abusive drunk into a sympathetic character.

3. The scene in which Doss finally, against his convictions, touches a gun - only to use the rifle as part of an improvised litter to drag a wounded sergeant (Vince Vaughn) to safety. Vaughn's moment of disbelief was matched only by mine, since my research prior to viewing the film told me that, in reality, Doss used the stock of a rifle to bandage his own badly broken arm after being hit by multiple rounds of enemy fire, before dragging himself to safety. And this, in turn, was after he was hit, and while being stretchered out of the combat area, made the stretcher bearers leave him and take a more seriously injured man instead. What I'm saying is, although many people may have a hard time believing Doss' heroism as depicted in this film, it actually undersells it - big-time.

I'm not a Seventh Day Adventist, as Doss was. Nor is Mel Gibson, who directed this movie. I don't hold Doss' conviction about touching deadly weapons - a conviction that, according to the movie, turns out to be based more on incidents in Doss' boyhood than on the letter of SDA doctrine. But I am pretty impressed to see a movie mounted on this scale, depicting a Christian man who never compromises the tenets of his faith in spite of every shade of opposition ranging from reason to an imminent threat of prison, and depicting him as a hero who brings hope, courage, humility, and awe to the men around him. Sam Worthington asking Andrew Garfield for forgiveness may strike some as a bit too strong. But there is something admirable even about men who have the bigness to repent when they are proven wrong. And there is something utterly, movingly satisfying about this movie, all the way to the pre-credits footage depicting the aftermath of the dramatized events.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard

Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard
by Jonathan Auxier
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this companion book to Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, the greatest thief in the world returns with one hand (the other having been replaced by a sword), two eyes (albeit covered by a blindfold, to keep his senses sharp), and his faithful cat/horse/human friend Sir Tode. Peter offers protection to a girl who doesn't think she needs it, as she is about to be swept up in an adventure that will determine the fate of her entire world.

Sophie Quire is a talented bookmender and the daughter of a bookseller in the hinterlands city of Bustleburgh, where a grand inquisitor named Prigg is waging war against "nonsense" - magical creatures and artifacts, and especially stories. As Pyre Day approaches, when all the city's storybooks are due to be burned, Sophie comes in possession of a marvelous book that comes to life to answer any question beginning with "Who." The Book of Who is part of a quartet of books, called the Four Questions, that had something to do with the death of her mother when Sophie was a tiny child. As the last Storyguard, it is up to Sophie to reunite the four books before Prigg puts an end to all the magic in her world - which, according to Peter's friend Professor Cake, would spell the end.

But while the girl and her (at first) unwelcome guardians search for the books of What, Where, and When, others are on the scent after them: a brutish mercenary named Torvald Knucklemeat; an unnaturally well-preserved woman named Madame Eldritch, who deals in drugs, poisons, and other oddities; a tuberous man called Taro, grown from a mandrake root; a silver tigress who has sworn to murder the Storyguard who betrayed her mistress; and various other strange and often menacing characters.

Sophie's quest comes to a climax as full of danger, death, and large-scale property damage as anything in young adult literature. The bowstring of suspense is stretched to an unbelievable degree of tension. And the charms of the characters, often endearingly humorous even amid very serious events, makes one care about what will happen. In particular, the clash between the juvenile cuteness of, say, the chivalrous but silly Sir Tode, and the maturity of the material surrounding them (like a description of a towerful of wild beasts "eating and defecating wherever they pleased"), raises up feelings of protectiveness toward the hero characters. And the solution to their problems is elusive; it comes any way but easily, and demands that they grow as characters.

Canadian-American author Auxier is also the author of the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award-nominated The Night Gardener and of The Burning Tide, one of the books in the "Spirit Animals: Fall of the Beasts" series.

A Grimm Warning

A Grimm Warning
by Chris Colfer
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this third installment in the "Land of Stories" series (after The Wishing Spell and The Enchantress Returns), twins Alex and Conner are separated by a barrier that should be sealed forever - the portal between this world and the Land of Stories which their grandma, the Fairy Godmother, sealed between them at the end of their previous adventure. But now there's a chance that barrier may come open again; and although the twins miss each other a lot, that's not good news. As Alex comes into her full power as the Fairy Godmother's heir and experiences her first stirrings of romantic love, Conner and his sixth-grade crush Bree run away from a class trip to Europe in a race to find out whether a warning, hidden in a never-before-read Grimm fairy tale unearthed after 200 years in a time capsule, means grave danger is imminent for the fairy-tale world.

You see, thanks to some quick thinking by Mother Goose, an army of thousands is caught in the middle of a portal to the Land of Stories, thinking they're going to conquer it in the name of Napoleon Bonaparte. What Mother Goose didn't count on, 200 years ago, was that the twins' grandma would begin to die - or, in fairy terms, return to magic - right at the expiration date of the Grand Armee's interdimensional exile. With her dies the magic that keeps the portal closed. And once the French soldiers arrive, they immediately threaten all the kingdoms of the fairy-tale world, including the fairies themselves. Worse yet, they have allied themselves with the most villainous villains in the land, including a certain masked man who claims to wield a weapon guaranteeing the fall of the Happily Ever After Assembly.

Back together again, Conner and Alex must dare much, including trying to make alliances with creatures who have never been friends of the fairies before. Among them are elves whose awesome tree kingdom is seen all to briefly, and the "troblin" queen Trollbella, who tends to carry on one-sided love affairs (hint: she still calls Conner her "Butterboy"). The tale builds up to a climax that threatens to tear the Land of Stories apart.

I continue to enjoy this series by one of the former stars of the TV series "Glee." It's a wholesome, thrilling entertainment that honors the tradition of fairy tales, with the added twist that they are based on true events in an alternate dimension. The dialogue is perky, the characters are well-developed, and the writing bears evidence of an a very intelligent young writer with a rich sense of humor. I particularly enjoyed Conner and Bree's adventure across Europe. The one thing I found disappointing was the way Bree's character seems to be pushed to one side after they land in the Land of Stories; I sensed potential in her, and her relationship with Conner, that went somewhat unfulfilled in the latter part of the book. Nevertheless, the book as a whole takes one on a delightful and well-paced journey; a few bumps in the road, style-wise, may be taken as a sign an ambitious and fearless author is at work. And the ending is a definite hook to draw readers into the remaining books in the series, Beyond the Kingdoms and An Author's Odyssey.

Colfer's other work include several companion books to this series: The Mother Goose Diaries, Queen Red Riding Hood's Guide to Royalty, Trollbella Throws a Party, The Curvy Tree, a picture-book based on a fictitious Grimm fairy tale, and A Treasury of Classic Fairy Tales, in which Colfer retells 35 of his favorite stories. His standalone novels include Struck by Lightning and Stranger Than Fanfiction.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Temperament

Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization
by Stuart Isacoff
Recommended Ages: 15+

The spine of this book has been staring me out of countenance about a decade from the "books about my favorite subject (music) that I've been meaning to read" shelf. The guilt finally became too much for me to bear, so I finally fitted it in between a couple of books borrowed from the public library, which I was going to have to renew anyway. Astoundingly fast, I found myself caught up in the book's compelling historical argument, and in spite of a busy week of long work-days and evening engagements, I knocked it off in about two nights of staying up later than I should have.

The "temperament" of which Stuart Isacoff writes is a system of tuning the strings (or pipes) of a keyboard instrument so that music sounds pleasant and in-tune. If you thought this would be a simple matter of making sure notes a fifth apart are perfectly in tune, rinse and repeat around the whole circle of fifths, you might be a follower of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, whose followers considered the concept of irrational numbers a thought-crime worthy of death. The practical reality, however, is that tuning perfect fifths all the way around the circle results in an out-of-tune octave, and that a tuning system that keeps octaves, fifths, and fourths perfectly in tune excludes music featuring the popular intervals of thirds and sixths.

It would be a much shorter and happier history if it had been ruled by the practical necessity of allowing keyboard players to stay in tune with singers and other instruments without constantly having tuning problems, or by the artistic imperative of composers to explore more complex harmonies and far-flung tonal areas. But for centuries, during the middle ages and straight through the Renaissance, western art music was plagued by conflicts - conflicts between notes that produced "wolf sounds" (ugly intervals), and conflicts between philosophers, scientists, theologians, and music theorists. Some wanted to hold music to sacred ratios that bore witness to divine order in the universe, and that produced perfect consonances, albeit in music of a limited range. Others foresaw that nothing short of equal temperament - with the octave divided into 12 evenly-spaced half-steps, and the small acoustic compromises that entailed - would allow a smooth transition between any two keys, a necessary condition for keyboard instruments to come into their own.

The battle was ideological as well as technological. The mathematics of an equal 12-note tuning were a long time in the finding, not only as a theoretical ratio of powers of the twelfth-root of two, but also as a practical matter of how to produce that tuning on an actual instrument. But as Isacoff shows, the battle was fought on the plane of theory, between intellectual hosts including some of history's greatest minds - many of whom were not known for their ear for music. Sharp words were thrown. Even deadlier weapons, at times, were drawn. Discoveries in other areas were called into evidence, bearing witness to the truth or falsehood of ideas long cherished.

Isacoff relates the battle over temperament to other developments in religion, philosophy, politics, and especially art, drawing a remarkable parallel between the rediscovery of realistic perspective in painting and the slow advance toward equal temperament in music. And while he finally draws an ambiguous conclusion, he makes a pretty convincing case that much of the great art music you and I love could not have been without some approximation of equal temperament.

This review is based on the 2003 revised paperback edition of a book originally published in 2001. Among the changes in the 2003 edition is an added afterword, responding to criticism of the first edition which makes it sound as though the temperament tempest has not yet passed from the teapot. Isacoff is a pianist, composer, lecturer, and writer whose other work includes the 2011 book A Natural History of the Piano.

BBC Radio's Lord of the Rings

During a recent vacation, I beguiled parts of my drive to South Dakota, northern Minnesota, and back to Missouri by listening to the 1981 BBC Radio full-cast dramatization of The Lord of the Rings - the trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien that I have read several times in book form (and reviewed here), and once in a 1979 full-cast recording produced by U.S. National Public Radio (reviewed here), besides viewing not one but two film adaptations. The story needs no more reviewing, but I just wanted to comment on the BBC Radio version a bit, for the record.

BBC Radio's production features Ian Holm, who played hobbit Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's film trilogy of The Lord of the Rings, as Frodo Baggins. The character actor who played Bilbo in the BBC version was John Le Mesurier, whose voice sounded remarkably like the one Holm gave Bilbo in the films. My local public library furnished me with the "U.K. version," with Gerard Murphy as the narrator. Also in the cast was Bill Nighy, who played Rufus Scrimgeour in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I, in a spot-on performance as Sam Gamgee. A beautiful musical score was provided by film and opera composer Stephen Oliver, the late uncle of comedian John Oliver, and an entire disk of the set I borrowed was devoted to his music.

Of course, it was a condensed version of the trilogy, with many details left out and some of them changed to fit the format. But of all the adaptations I have seen and heard (after Tolkien's original), I strongly feel this was by far the best. It kept the most beautiful lines of dialogue and passages of description; it conveyed the dramatic power of the whole book; it included favorite things that no other adaptation has ever bothered with, such as the Houses of Healing scenes, and the palantir factor in Denethor's motives. It was definitely better, by a long road, than the NPR version, which (unlike this one) preserved the Tom Bombadil passage, but did so badly. And it devotes more time than any of the other versions to the part of the story that happens after Frodo and his companions return to the Shire.

In spite of cheesy sound effects and battle scenes that didn't quite gel, I recommend the BBC Radio version of LOTR before all other adaptations - including, I'm sorry to say, Peter Jackson's film trilogy. It's surprising at times to hear certain words put back into the mouths that originally spoke them, according to Tolkien's canonical text - like Glorfindel the elf, whose part was usurped by Arwen in Jackson's recension of The Fellowship of the Ring, and Treebeard the ent, who actually said the words Jackson has Galadriel say in the opening narration of the trilogy. The fact that the story allows you to forget who Arwen is until she shows up to wed Aragorn is another typical Tolkien touch, for better or worse. It delivers the delicious "Voice of Saruman" scene that was the reason Christopher Lee agreed to be in the films, though it ended up being deleted from the script.

The BBC Radio dramatization, produced and co-directed by Jane Morgan, structures the break between The Two Towers and The Return of the King so that Sam's realization that Frodo is still alive comes closer to being, as it should be, the cliff-hanger ending of the middle volume. And it features Peter Woodthorpe as Gollum, recreating his role from the 1978 animated movie by Ralph Bakshi, which is one of the few but significant counts on which Bakshi's film adaptation was better than Jackson's. Woodthorpe's Gollum is feral, crafty, and psychologically tormented all at the same time, to a degree that leaves Andy Serkis' latter-day portrayal far behind. The Bakshi and BBC Radio versions also share the casting of Michael Graham Cox as Boromir.

Though the actors are not the same, I appreciate both the Bakshi and BBC Radio versions' casting of Aragorn (because he sounded more mature, and could be more credibly described as one who "looks foul but feels fair" than the altogether beautiful Viggo Mortensen in Jackson's trilogy). I might also note that somehow or other, Michael Hordern's voice portrayal of Gandalf for BBC Radio could almost be dubbed over Ian McKellen's latter-day film portrayal without many people noticing. I thought Bernard Mayes was OK in the role in the NPR version, though his Tom Bombadil stank to high heaven (I might add, James Arrington was awful as Frodo in that version, which really killed it for me).

So, once again, BBC set the bar considerably higher than NPR's roughly contemporary radio play. As a complete adaptation of the trilogy, it achieves what Bakshi's blend of live action and animation could not (in case you missed it, Bakshi's film ends at the climax of the Battle for Helm's Deep in a cliff-hanger that was never followed up by the expected conclusion); and its cheap sound effects are easier for a present-day audience to forgive than Bakshi's primitive visual effects. As for Jackson's film trilogy, I maintain this audiobook version compares favorably, on the simple grounds that it does less violence to the source material, and is less patronizing to the audience. And finally, dammit, it had Ian Holm as Frodo. Born too soon to play him in Jackson's film, though not too late to channel Le Mesurier's portrayal of Bilbo (and though it might be argued Elijah Wood was born too late), Holm would have been perfect for the part in any format - as he proved in this production.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Armada

Armada
by Ernest Cline
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the follow-up to his debut novel Ready Player One, video-game maven and 1980s pop-culture fanatic Ernest Cline delivers a story that fulfills the deepest, darkest wish of every kid who ever made it onto the "Top Scores" screen of an alien-invader-blasting arcade game. It also fulfills the deepest, darkest wish of Zach Lightman, a high school senior from the Portland suburb of Beaverton, Oregon, whose father died at age 19 in an explosion at the local wastewater treatment plant. Among the relics he inherited from the father he never knew are an obsession with movies, books, and games about space invaders, and a secretly embarrassing journal of conspiracy theories suggesting all these films and games are part of a top-secret plan to prepare the world for real close encounters of the nerd kind.

His feelings about his dad's last notebook begin to change, however, when Zach looks out the window of his math classroom one day and sees an alien spacecraft, straight out of his favorite E.T.-slaying computer game, zoom past. At first, he thinks he must be going insane. It is isn't long, though, before he realizes there have been similar sightings around the world. In one incredible day, Zach learns that much of what he has been told all his life was a lie, and the aliens are real, as is their threat to wipe out the human race. And now, most improbable of all, he is among the very few top-scoring players of the companion games Terra Firma and Armada on whom the hopes of mankind depend.

Both games, made by a company called Chaos Terrain, feature realistic graphics and fighting tactics for an alien-invasion scenario in which both sides of the conflict are fought by remote-controlled, unmanned drones. Terra Firma, as the name suggests, spotlights the ground war between humanoid robots and drones shaped like spiders, centipedes, and insects. Armada focuses on the aerospace war, where pilots control their craft from virtual cockpits inside shielded bunkers deep underground. This allows ace pilots like Zach to take control of fresh drones as their previous mounts are shot out from under them. But when Zach and several of his fellow Top 10 Armada players are assembled on the far side of the moon to face the first wave of a massive, and probably unstoppable, tide of mechanized death, he must come to terms with finding his long-lost father, only to lose him again; falling in love with a girl with whom he may never have a chance to kiss a second time; and, most challenging of all, the realization that he must fight against both sides of the war to ensure the survival of the human race.

This is a thrilling, funny, suspenseful, emotionally satisfying romp through the pop culture of the last generation or two, with plenty of explosions and other surprises to keep it lively. When I checked it out of the library before a long road trip, one of the local librarians saw what I was borrowing and enthused about how much fun she had reading it. It didn't hurt that the audiobook edition was read by Wil Wheaton, of "Shut up, Wesley!" fame. Although the main character's narrating voice often did sound a lot like Star Trek's Wesley Crusher, the big surprise was how many of the other characters had convincingly distinctive voices and accents. It became evident Wheaton has more voice-acting talent than I would have expected. This was the perfect book for him to read, and he was the perfect reader for it.

Cline is also a poet, the screenwriter of the film Fanboys, and the author of a non-fiction book titled The Importance of Being Ernest. If the four-year gap between Ready Player One and this book is anything to go by, we should expect something new from him by about 2019. I wonder, though. Will he really keep us waiting that long?

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette
by Jeanne Birdsall
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this second sequel to the National Book Award-winning tale of four sisters The Penderwicks, second-eldest Penderwick girl Skye uneasily assumes the role of S.A.P. (senior available Penderwick) when their father and new stepmother go to England for a honeymoon and eldest sister Rosalind is invited to the Jersey shore. Meantime, Skye, Jane, Batty, their dog, and their musically gifted friend Jeffrey share a two-week getaway along the coast of Maine, where the responsibility of keeping Batty from drowning or blowing up weighs heavily on Skye, especially after their aunt-chaperone badly sprains her ankle.

During their beach vacation, Jane obsesses over how to inject some romance into her series of novels about a life-saving sleuth. As part of her research, she gives her heart to an outwardly beautiful local boy, who turns out to be not so beautiful on he inside. Meantime Batty befriends the boy's little sister, and Jeffrey strikes up a friendship with the musician in the next bungalow over. But things take a serious turn when Jane observes an unsuspected family resemblance between Jeffrey and their neighbor. Their summer getaway develops into an emotionally wrenching, funny, touching, surprising mess.

Surprises there were, even after I spotted the answers to some riddles way ahead of the Penderwick girls. Their family group is growing up. Their relationship dynamics are changing. And some of them are handling this reality better than others. But it's all part of growing up Penderwick, which has so far never failed to be satisfying and entertaining to behold.

This is the third book in what is now a four-book series. Among the other titles are book 2, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, and book 4, The Penderwicks in Spring. Massachusetts-based author Jeanne Birdsall is also an art photographer and the author of several children's picture books.