Movie Review: The Secret of Kells

Title: The Secret of Kells
Release Date:  7 March 2010
Director: Tomm Moore & Nora Twomey
Production Co: Les Armateurs
Country:  France | Belgium | Ireland
Language: English
Genre: Animation / Fantasy / Adventure
Rating: *****

Summary/Review: The illuminated manuscripts of the Irish middle ages come to live in this brilliant animated adventure set in the monastic village of Kells.   The story focuses on a young monk named Brendan who is the nephew of the abbot.  While his uncle is consumed with obsession of constructing a defensive wall to protect the community, Brendan wishes to carry on the sacred tradition of creating lasting illuminated manuscripts.  He is aided in this effort by the arrival Brother Aidan and his cat Pangur Ban.  Aidan takes Brendan under his wing and assigns him his first task to go outside the wall to seek ingredients for ink.  There Brendan meets and befriends the forest spirit Aisling.  There is of course conflict and confrontation with his uncle, but Brendan learns to set out on his own course.

This magical film combines history and myth, art and spirituality with some of the most brilliant animation I’ve seen and a gorgeous soundtrack.  In many ways it is a good film to pair with Princess Mononoke as it shares similar thematic and visual qualities.

Movie Review: Babies

Title: Babies
Release Date: 7 May 2010
Director: Thomas Balmès
Production Co: Canal+
Country:  France
Language: English | Japanese | Mongolian
Genre: Documentary
Rating: ***1/2


It does what it says on the tin, 75 minutes or so of babies from birth through their first birthday without narration and very little context.  And who doesn’t love babies?  Four babies are featured, two from rural communities in Namibia and Mongolia, and two urban infants from Tokyo and San Francisco.  There’s not much structure as it really is footage of babies doing the things babies do.  I really like the scenes like the one of Mari from Japan having a really frustrating time with her toys and kicking the floor in a tantrum.  Of course there is a hidden structure as the filmmakers have selected what scenes to include and arranged them so that they often show contrasts between the modernized and developing parts of the world.  They also often exclude other people – even the parents although you can hear there voices offscreen – and focus on isolated babies in an almost unnatural state.  Animals are popular theme too.  Three of the babies have pet cats in the family, while Ponijao of Namibia lives on a farm and interacts with a lot of domesticated animals.  Overall it’s a very mellow movie and while I kind of feel there should be something more to it, I did appreciate a lot of what it is.

Movie Review: The King’s Speech

Title: The King’s Speech
Release Date: 24 December 2010
Director:  Tom Hooper
Production Co: See Saw Films
Country: United Kingdom
Language: English
Genre: History / Biography
Rating: ***1/2

Summary review: You see correctly, this is a review of a current film now playing in movie theaters.  Susan & I had a date night.  This is a good date night movie.

The King’s Speech tells the story of King George VI who grew up with a stammer and many anxieties.  While still the Duke of York he begins treatment with an Australian actor named Lionel Logue who offers unusual methods in his speech therapy.  The film follows a fairly predictable course as the Duke and the speech therapist slowly grow to be good friends  but great acting on the part of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush carries the film (as well as a droll Helena Bonham Carter as the future Queen Mum).  There’s a lot of great dialogue and funny lines.  Everything leads up to the conclusion of the film where King George VI gives a stirring speech over the radio announcing that Britain is at war with Nazi Germany.  It’s all very touching as Firth makes the speech and people around the world are shown listening and it ends with many plaudits.  On the other hand part of me was thinking “So, the king made a speech, big deal.  There are people dying in Poland!”  All the same it was a good movie.

I found myself wondering what it was like for the young actress to be playing the current Queen Elizabeth II.  I also found the actor who played Winston Churchill, perhaps the most recognizable character in this film, came off rather cartoonish.  Colin Firth did a good job of capturing the constricting feeling of his impediment.  Also he was dashingly handsome.

Book Review: The Archaeology of Home by Katharine Greider

Author: Katharine Greider
Title: The archaeology of home : an epic set on a thousand square feet of the Lower East Side
Publication Info: New York : PublicAffairs, c2011.
ISBN: 9781586487126
Summary/Review: With much anticipation, I received this book as an advanced reading copy through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.  Greider and her family lived on two floors of a refurbished tenement house on East 7th Street in Manhattan until a home inspector discovered that the building was unstable and on the verge of collapse.  She researched the house’s history to deal with contractors and lawyers and from that grew this fascinating microhistory.  Starting with pre-colonial native tribes through Dutch and English settlement, the construction of the tenement in 1845 and all it’s residents through the troubled era of the 70’s & 80’s, Greider details the lives and times of the people who have lived on this spot and their neighbors.  It’s a detailed look at the use of one plot of land that touches on history, archaeology, ethnography and sociology.  Amidst the history is Greider’s own story of renovation, lawsuits, and displacement which I did not like so much, in fact it uncomfortably reminded me of Under the Tuscan Sun (one of my least favorite books).  This should be a book that I love in that it covers many things I’m obsessed with – history, New York, immigration, social life, urbanism – but alas I just like this book.  I had to put this book down several times while reading it because I just couldn’t get into it Greider’s writing style.  Nevertheless I salute her brilliant premise and extensive research in creating this book.

Favorite Passages:

“The typical Manhattan abode simply lacks the square footage necessary to organize interior space according to expectations.  What you get instead is a commingling of functions that are normally segregated and an intimacy some find inappropriate or uncomfortable.  Children share a bedroom, or even sleep in their parent’s room.  Often there’s only one bathroom.  In a few of the oldest tenements, the bathtub is still in the kitchen.  People often eat in their living rooms.  Entertaining in these circumstances is almost unavoidably casual.  If a couple who lives in a tiny walk-up invite you to dinner, you will witness the ferocious labor required to prepare a hot meal in a galley kitchen, to drag out a folding table while kicking toys out of the way, and then to tidy up the blitzkrieg that results.  It is all very unlovely and close; acquire the taste and nothing could be nicer.” – p. 80

Recommended books: New York Calling by Marshall Berman and Brian Berger and Five Points by Tyler Anbinder.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Title: The Shadow of the Wind
Publication Info: Penguin Highbridge (Aud) (2005)
ISBN:  9780786558186
Summary/Review: This is an epic, sprawling book set in Barcelona after the Spanish Civil War, under the fearful reign of Franco.  A boy named Daniel is taken by his father to a mysterious bookshop called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and selects one volume which he is sworn to protect.  Daniel falls in love with the book and wishes to learn more about its author Julián Carax of whom little is known.  Worse, a sinister person is finding and burning all of Carax’s books.  From this comes something of a thriller and a mystery as well as a paean to books and reading which tells the parallel stories of Daniel and Carax and the evil forces they have to contend.  The book has its failings in that the dialogue (or at least the translation) is full of cliches and it goes on longer than it need be, but overall I enjoyed it.  It’s a nice tribute to books and authors and the joy of reading.  I’m provisionally making this my Around the World For a Good Book selection for Catalonia, mainly because I like to read my AWFGB books in print, but I think it is a good choice otherwise.

Recommended books: The Little Book by Selden Edwards
Rating: ***1/2

Soccer Spectating Report 1-14 February 2011

A slow two weeks.  I got sick and I’ve been busy, but regardless I don’t think anyone would ever accuse me of being a die-hard anything.

Arsenal 2:1 Everton (2 Feb 2011)

I came home early from work due to a snow storm, turned on this match and saw Everton up by 1 goal in the 60th minute.  My first thought was “Woah, Everton’s got a lead on Arsenal.”  My next thought was “How are they going to blow it?”  I guess I’m becoming cynical, but soon enough Andrey Arshavin equalized.  Not content with just another draw,  Everton allowed another goal just a few minutes later off the head of Laurent Koscielny.  Neither goal was particularly great, but apparently the Everton goal shouldn’t have counted at all.  Alas.

Palermo 2:1 Juventus (3 Feb 2011)

Palermo got off to a strong start against yet another storied Serie A side scoring two goals within the first 20 minutes.  Juventus controlled a lot of the possession and were able to halve the difference in the 36th minute, but unlike their game versus Inter, Palermo was able to hold on for all three points.

Fulham 1:0 Newcastle (3 Feb 2011)

The two sides struggled in a deadlock at Craven Cottage until finally the home side opened up the score on a lovely shot by Irish international Damien Duff in the 66th minute.  Fulham held off Newcastle for the rest of the match defending a well-earned win.

Sporting Gijón 1:1 Barcelona (12 Feb 2011)

Barcelona’s 16 game win streak in La Liga came to an end after a rather flat performance put them down in the 16th minute.  Sporting held on to the 1-goal lead for a long time hoping to eek out an upset but David Villa equalized for Barça in the 79th minute.

Fulham 0:0 Chelsea (14 Feb 2011)

The second leg of the West London Derby met at Craven Cottage on Valentine’s Day.  Chelsea clearly outplayed their hosts in every measure except the one that counts balls going over the goal line.  This was a very frustrating game especially since Fulham had a golden chance to steal 3 points when David Luiz brought down Clint Dempsey in the box in stoppage time.  Sadly the American hero looked all too human as his penalty kick was blocked by Chelsea keeper Petr Cech.

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Concert Review: Neko Case

Neko Case at Wilbur Theatre, Boston, MA on 3 Febuary 2011

Opening act: Lost in the Trees

I had a rare boy night out last Thursday and took in a performance of one of my favorite vocalists Neko Case famed for her solo career, work with The New Pornographers, and knowledge of NECCO Wafers.  While I’m feeling that I’m getting too old to to go to concerts I was cheered to see an elderly couple standing front and center by the stage as well as many others who looked my age or older.

The opening act was a large group of North Carolina youngsters who had a Decemberist-ic/art school band vibe with a moody Thom Yorke-type on vocals and guitar, a string trio, and a tuba among other instruments.  I was fond of the spunky and befeathered young woman stage left who played numerous instruments including a french horn, a drum, a xylophone, autoharp, and accordion as well as adding ethereal vocals.  Their processing on to the stage with a large dinosaur puppet and streamers added an extra level of pretension that they really didn’t need.  I wanted to like this band – they are talented musicians and put a lot of spirit in their performance – but I just don’t think they’re my thing.

Neko Case took the stage with a kind of just-rolled-out-of bed look and spent much of the show trying to tuck up her long hair.  I wish I had a hair band through on the stage.  She played with a large band of her own although she could have easily stepped out alone and sung a cappella for all I cared.  I’ve noted in an earlier review of the poor quality of the amplification at the Wilbur Theatre and this night it felt like the amplifiers were standing between me and hearing Neko Case’s voice although she was but 20 or so feet away.  Nevertheless, it was an entertaining show featuring many of Case’s best songs and a great rapport with her band and the crowd.

On a previous visit to Boston, Case threatened violence at an audience member who threw a blunt object at the band, but there was no such unpleasantness at this show.   Instead when an audience member shouted “Too much guitar!” (perhaps hoping to hear more of Ms. Case’s voice), Case responded “Don’t let the dudes know that, they won’t want to kiss you.”  Accompanying vocalist Kelly Hogan added both harmonies and witty repartee with some funny stories about performing in a medieval church and imagining the dead buried in the crypt below requesting “more lute!” Another adoring fan proclaimed love for Case and wanted to have her babies.  Neko responded, “If I had a baby, it would come out addicted to meth. And pregnant.”

Case and her band played nearly two-dozen songs including at least a four-song encore.  I know that because I ducked out to get my coat near the end of the third encore and heard another song playing as I walked down Kneeland Street and discovered I was passing the stage door.  I stood and listened for a while and then noticed two vans parked right in front of me with Vermont plates.  So I knew where to stand if I wanted to be a groupie, but instead I walked to the T station to go home to bed.

Here is most of the set list as I wrote it down during the show.  I missed a few songs, so if you were there please help me fill in the blanks:

  1. Things That Scare Me
  2. Maybe Sparrow
  3. Fever
  4. People Got a Lot of Nerve
  5. The Pharaohs
  6. Middle Cyclone
  7. Hold On, Hold On
  8. Margaret Vs. Pauline
  9. Prison Girls
  10. I ‘m An Animal
  11. Dirty Knife
  12. I Wish I Was The Moon
  13. Red Tide
  14. Polar Nettles
  15. The Tigers Have Spoken (?)
  16. Don’t Forget Me
  17. That Teenage Feeling
  18. This Tornado Loves You


  1. Vengeance is Sleeping
  2. Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth
  3. John Saw That Number
  4. (don’t know, but it sounded good from the street)

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Movie Review: Stop Making Sense

Title: Stop Making Sense
Release Date: 1984
Director: Jonathan Demme
Production Co: Music Television (MTV)
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: Documentary / Concert
Rating: *****

Review: So it’s shameful to admit, but I’ve never watched this before. Oh, I’ve seen it because it aired constantly on cable television when I was a child so I saw many sections, but never sat down and watched it end to end.  I’m happy to say that it lives up to its reputation as one of the all-time best concert films and the music holds up as well too.  It’s interesting to see Talking Heads so young, so geeky, somewhat awkward yet planning everything out so thoroughly.  I can imagine in 1984 that some glam metal band would be good at making a grand concert spectacle but David Byrne knew what not only how to make a great concert but what would make for a great film as well.  The addition of members of the bands and the stage crew playing a visible role in setting up the stage is inspired.  I also liked the transition of the band to the Tom Tom Club for “Genius of Love.”  This is a great movie.  I should have watched it sooner.

Movie Review: The Land Before Time

Title: The Land Before Time
Release Date: 18 November 1988
Director: Don Bluth
Production Co: Universal Pictures
Country: USA | Ireland
Language: English
Genre: Animation / Family / Adventure
Rating: **1/2

Review: Cute baby dinosaurs trek across a barren wasteland in search of the mythical Great Valley and learn a lot about not being prejudiced and working as a team along the way. I found it uneven over all. The animation is absolutely gorgeous at times and then crappy the next scene (the dinosaurs keep changing size!). Are they going for naturalistic-looking animals or cutesy anthropomorphic dino kids? And the plot is lifted from dozens of family films from Bambi to An American Tail (the latter not-coincidentally director Don Bluth’s previous film). It ended rather abruptly too as if they needed to meet the running time. From what I’ve read online the initial vision was a dialogue-free attempt at creating a naturalistic dinosaur setting that morphed into a family-friendly adventure.  The lack focus shows.

I expect kids aren’t going to really notice the difference but I think this could have been a much better movie with a little effort. My son liked it. The Sharptooth was pretty scary for him and the death of Mother Longneck prompted lots and lots of questions. Well really everything prompted lots of questions. But he wants to watch it again.

PS – Spike, the lazy stegosaurus who eats all the time, totally rules.

Beer Review: Sixpoint Brownstone Brown Ale

Beer: Brownstone Brown Ale
Brewer: Sixpoint Craft Ales
Source: Draft
Rating: ** (6.3 of 10)
Comments:  This beer is dark red, highly carbonated and almost no head (at least as it was poured for me).  It has a grassy aroma and a hoppy, bitter taste with a thin mouthfeel.  Despite the lack of head it left a light lacing behind.  It’s a simple, decent brown ale, not too exciting but drinkable.