Author: Terry Pratchett
Title: The Carpet People
Narrator: Stephen Briggs
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group
This book was Terry Pratchett’s first published novel, written when he was 17, and then rewritten in 1992. The people in this story, a tribe called the Munrungs, literally live in a carpet. Their world is a forest of hairs, they mine dropped coins for metal, used matchsticks for wood, and remove varnish from “achairleg.” Their world is threatened by a natural phenomenon called the Fray, which is most like a vacuum cleaner.
After their village is destroyed by the Fray, the Munrungs journey across the carpet under their leader, Glurk. They encounter other peoples including the Mouls, who worship the Fray, and the Wights, who know the future. Together they need to work out a solution for mutual survival. There’s a lot of humor here about monarchy and bureaucracies as well as working in references to ordinary life in our world.
Title: O Brother Where Art Thou?
Release Date: December 22, 2000
Director: Joel Coen
Production Company: Touchstone Pictures | Universal Pictures | StudioCanal | Working Title Films | Blind Bard Pictures
Said to be based on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? has enough character names and plot points with mythological forebears to make you pull your hair trying to figure out the other parallels before you realize the Coen Brothers are pulling your leg. But this movie is deeply invested in the mythology of the South, from the sepia tones to the Spanish moss and the many cultural signifiers. Then there is the soundtrack! O Brother, Where Art Thou? is almost more famous for its music than the movie. It’s no myth that most great American musical styles originated in the South, and this movie is an anthology of some of the best.
George Clooney stars in one of his best roles as the loquacious and Clark Gable-like Ulysses Everett McGill, one of three prisoners who escape from a labor camp. John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson co-star has his companions Pete and Delmar. The film documents their journey home as the fall into an increasingly ridiculous situations including recording a hit folk song as The Soggy Bottom Boys and getting in the middle of a gubernatorial election between two corrupt fat cats. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is not the pure absurdism of The Big Lebowski but it gets pretty close.
The story is told through a white perspective of the South, and most of the Black characters are in the background, but O Brother, Where Art Thou? doesn’t hide the racism and segregation of the South either. Our heroes are remarkably not racist for the 1930s, but they find themselves in the midst of the structural violence of criminal justice typically practiced against Black people. One of the most chilling scenes involve them stumbling upon a Klan rally with choreography that simultaneously echoes Triumph of the Will, The Wizard of Oz, and a Busby Berkley musical. The main Black character in the film is Blues guitarist Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) who plays guitar on all the Soggy Bottom Boys’ songs, perhaps a nod to the African American origins of American popular music.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of my favorite type of movies, one that makes me laugh and makes me think. Part absurdist comedy, part social satire, and part anthology of American folk music, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is worth revisiting.
Title: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Release Date: September 3, 2021
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Shaun (Simu Liu) a Chinese immigrant in San Francisco, working as a valet and spending nights out at karaoke with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina, previously in The Farewell). When they are attacked on a city bus and Shaun shows considerable martial arts skill in their defense, he admits that his real name is Shang-Chi and he comes from a complex family background in China. His father Wenwu (Tony Leung, previously in In the Mood for Love) gained immortality through the use of a magical bracelets called the Ten Rings, and used the power they give to create an international crime syndicate also called the Ten Rings. His mother Ying Li (Fala Chen) was the guardian of a magical village of Ta Lo which is home to many mythical beasts. The murder of Ying Li drove Wenwu back into crime and eventually into the mad belief that Ying Li is being held captive in Ta Lo. In order to stop Wenwu from destroying Ta Lo, Shaun and Katy must first reunited with his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) in Macau.
As far as origin stories goes, this movie does a great job at efficiency with the backstories of Shaun, Xialing, Ying Li, and Wenwu filled in by a short prelude and many flashbacks that fit smoothly in to the flow of the movie. There are a lot of great martial arts sequences, some well-timed humor (mostly from Awkwafina), and some imaginative wonders rooted in Chinese folklore. A number of small parts and cameos of familiar characters include Wong (Benedict Wong) from Doctor Strange and Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) from Iron Man 3, who provides some more humor.
I knew nothing of Shang-Chi going into the movie, but I’ve read that the original Marvel comics used a lot of ethnic stereotypes. The film has people from Asia and of Asian heritage working on both sides of the camera, and does a great job at winding Chinese folklore into a modern superhero action film. I’d say the biggest flaw is that Xialing, who is constantly said to be in Shang-Chi’s shadow in the movie, is ironically given very little character development in the movie. A post-credit scene indicates that Marvel has plans for Xialing in future films, though. Other than that though, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is an excellent Marvel movie with a great cast, story, and effects. It’s also Awkwafina’s second movie of the year featuring dragons after Raya and the Last Dragon, which makes for an interesting footnote.
MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS
Title: The Mummy
Release Date: May 7, 1999
Director: Stephen Sommers
Production Company: Alphaville Films
The Mummy is a lot of things: a remake of a Universal horror classic with 1990s sensibilities, a Raiders of the Lost Ark type of adventure with CGI, and a star vehicle for Brendan Fraser (who doesn’t seem to appear in big movies anymore). It’s kind of trash, but it’s fun trash if your looking for a goofy adventure. Fraser plays adventurer Rick O’Connell who guides librarian Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) and her brother Jonathan (John Hannah) to Hamunaptra, the lost city of the dead for Ancient Egypt. They face rival parties of treasure hunters and awaken the mummy of Imhotep. Chaos ensues until everything is resolved as you might expect. The movie gets extra credit for having Evelyn balancing on a library ladder and drunkenly proclaiming “I am a librarian” which have served well as memes in the library community for so many years.
Title: Jungle Cruise
Release Date: July 30, 2021
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Davis Entertainment | Seven Bucks Productions | Flynn Picture Company
Disney theme parks typically adapt movies into attractions, but sometime it goes in the other direction, successfully with The Pirates of the Caribbean, and not so successfully with The Haunted Mansion. The Jungle Cruise was an opening day attraction at Disneyland in 1955 and actually was inspired by the True-Life Adventure movies, a series of nature documentaries that Walt Disney produced from 1948 to 1960, as well as the non-Disney movie The African Queen. The ride was originally planned to cruise past live animals but when it was realized they would mostly sleep during the day, they created audio-animatronic animals in naturalistic settings. Over time, the Jungle Cruise skippers began incorporating jokes and puns into their educational narration, and then some sillier scenes were added to the ride. All of this history is summed up well in a recent three part series of the Disney History Institute Podcast.
The Jungle Cruise seems almost destined to for film adaptation, the question is whether or not that adaptation was worth it. I’d say yes. Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt, returning to Disney after starring in Mary Poppins Returns) is an adventurous botanist pushing against the chauvinism of the scientific world in 1916 who goes to the Amazon to seek a legendary tree said to be able to heal all illnesses. She hires Frank (Dwayne Johnson, returning to Disney after starring in Moana) a punning trickster of a riverboat skipper to carry her up the Amazon to the tree. Along for the ride is Lily’s stuffy brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall).
The film is carried by Blunt and Johnson who have a great chemistry. The story is designed to undermine gender roles, but doesn’t make the mistake of pushing to far in the reversal. Lily and Frank each have strengths and they each show vulnerabilities. Even MacGregor proves not to be as useless as he initially appears. While Jungle Cruise is undeniably formulaic, there are some twists in the plot that are genuinely unexpecting. And as a delivery system for jokes and action sequences it is effective.
The downside of Jungle Cruise is that it is way too long. The movie may have been pared down if they chose one antagonist to develop instead of two. Instead the crew of La Quila have to contend with the German Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) pursuing them in a submarine as well as the cursed conquistador Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez). For a movie set in Brazil, there is a distinct lack of Brazilians among the many European characters. Indigenous people are still represented stereotypically even if it’s done as part of another gag about reversing expectations.
Jungle Cruise is a summer popcorn flick with some underlying substance, but not too much that it goes beyond just being a fun ride. In that way it is a worthy of the Disney attraction that gave it its name.
Title: The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Release Date: April 23, 2021
Director: Mike Rianda
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Sony Pictures Animation | Lord Miller Productions | One Cool Films
Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) is a misfit kid who finds her passion in filmmaking and is excited to begin attending film school in California. She’s often in conflict with her overprotective father Rick (Danny McBride) who doesn’t understand her artistic and technological interests. In order to promote family bonding, Rick decides to take the whole family – including mother Linda (Maya Rudolph) and dinosaur obsessed little brother Aaron (Mike Rianda) – on a cross-country drive to college. While they’re en route, the Apple/Facebook-style company PAL introduces robot assistants who immediately rebel against humanity. Only the Mitchell’s avoid capture and it’s up to them to fight the robot menace and come together as a family.
Overall, this movie feels very familiar (it’s the same basic plot of Edgar Wright-Simon Pegg-Nick Frost’s Cornetto trilogy) and has a lot of gags similar to other recent animated family adventures. The Mitchells have a funny car and a funny dog. And there’s deadpan dialogue like the PAL tech CEO saying ““It’s almost like stealing people’s data and giving it to a hyper-intelligent AI as part of an unregulated tech monopoly was a bad thing.” Despite the lack of originality the movie is very sweet and has some good, funny bits. The animation is fluid and for added effects, other types of animation are overlaid on the computer animation. Extra points for LGBTQ+ representation in the movie’s protagonist by having Katie be gay without that being a controversy in her family or playing into a romantic storyline. This is a good, fun movie suitable for the whole family.
Title: Tokyo Godfathers
Release Date: November 8, 2003
Director: Satoshi Kon
Production Company: Madhouse
It’s Christmas in Tokyo and the snow is falling. A trio of homeless people find an abandoned baby in the trash and their attempts to care for her lead them into a fantastical adventure. Each segment of the movie leads to a spectacular coincidence, which is usually an annoying element in filmmaking to me, but in this movie it works because of the time put into developing the characters. The leader of the trio is Gin (Tooru Emori), an aging alcoholic who left his wife and daughter decades earlier because he had run up too many debts. Hana (Yoshiaki Umegami) is the heart of the trio, a transgender woman who sees the baby as a miracle and names her Kiyoko. The youngest member is Miyuki (Aya Okamoto) a teenager who ran away from her controlling father.
The movie is very sweet with the three homeless people and the baby making a pseudo-family in a story that reflects the Christian story of the first Christmas. Subtly and effectively the movie deals with themes of poverty and inequality, crime, and mental illness. It also has great humor and scenes of adventure.
Title: The Brothers Bloom
Release Date: May 15, 2009
Director: Rian Johnson
I wasn’t aware of the work of Rian Johnson before I saw The Last Jedi (which I will always love despite the concerted effort of whiny manbabies try to discredit it) and Knives Out. I was eager to see Johnson’s earlier work and The Brothers Bloom is his second feature film as director. Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody play the titular brothers Stephen and Bloom whose childhood in foster homes leads them to a life as conmen.
While Stephen has always enjoyed writing the elaborate stories behind their complex con jobs, Adrien has regretted not being able to form real relationships. Stephen plays one last con with the mark being Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz), a quirky heiress who lives alone in a New Jersey mansion. The brothers and their silent partner Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi, she literally doesn’t talk, that’s the joke) carry out a multinational plot and soon it becomes hard for even Bloom to realize what is real and what is part of the con.
I thought that the movie would end up having Penelope playing a con on the brothers Bloom, or perhaps that Stephen was using the con to set up Bloom with Penelope romantically. Neither of these twists happen although Bloom and Penelope become a couple anyway. For some reason I can’t understand the movie appears to be set in the present day but the brothers wear 1930s style clothing and travel on a transatlantic steamship. The whole feel of the movie is kind of a cross of Wes Anderson’s precious style with early New Hollywood films of the late 60s/early 70s. There are some good moments but overall the movie doesn’t really grab me. I would of liked it better if Penelope and Bang Bang went off on their own adventure and left the boy drama behind.
Here is part two of my miniseries of Space Exploration Movies of the 2010s!
Release Date: November 5, 2014
Director: Christopher Nolan
Production Company: Paramount Pictures | Warner Bros. Pictures
Legendary Pictures | Syncopy | Lynda Obst Productions
In the near future, the Earth has reached a crisis point and after a population crash, the surviving humans focus on raising food while facing blight and Dust Bowl-like conditions. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA pilot forced into farming who raises his children to be intellectually curious about science, especially his daughter Murph (played as a child by Mackenzie Foy). Cooper and Murph discover a secret NASA base and Professor John Brand (Michael Caine) recruits Cooper to pilot a space mission along with his daughter Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway).
Their goal is to explore a wormhole that sentient beings have opened near Saturn that may lead to habitable planets that humanity could escape to. Because of relativity, Cooper and the crew of the Endurance, which includes a couple of weird looking robots named TARS and CASE (operated by Bill Irwin, of Mr. Noodle fame), age at a slower rate that the people on Earth. So while Cooper and Dr. Brand are making contact with previous explorers who identified promising planets, an adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) works on a gravity propulsion system that would allow a mass exodus of humanity.
This movie feels a lot like science fiction films of the 1970s and 80s than the flashy sci-fi movies of the 2010s. It’s also reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey because it tells a story mostly within the parameters of hard science, although like 2001, the denouement is fantastical. McConaughey delivers all of his dialogue in a gravely near-whisper, which gets grating at times, but it’s a different role for him than say Dazed and Confused or How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Interstellar felt overlong as a movie, although I could see it being fleshed out into a successful limited TV series. Overall, Interstellar is an interesting, thought-provoking, and entertaining film of adventure and human drama.
Author: Rick Riordan
Title: The Last Olympian: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 5
Publication Info: New York : Disney/Hyperion Books, 2011.
Previously Read by the Same Author: The Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters, The Titan’s Curse, The Battle of the Labyrinth
The final book of the series leads to the culminating battle to save Olympus from the Titans in the streets of Manhattan. The book builds well to get to that point with a natural ebb and flow in the narrative between fightin’ and more contemplative stuff. Themes that have been building across all five books play out hre and Percy, Thalia, Grover, Annabeth, Tyson, Clarisse, and Nico all show great character development. I particularly like how Percy plays his reward from the gods.