Book Review: Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman


Author: Neil Gaiman
Title: Fortunately, the Milk
Narrator: Neil Gaiman
Publication Info: HarperCollins (2013)
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

We listened to this with the kids on a road trip this weekend, once in each direction.  The narrator is a boy whose Dad goes out to buy milk at the corner store and after a long absence returns with an outlandish tale of where he’d been.  His adventures include encounters with aliens in flying saucers, pirates, vampires, colorful ponies, and traveling as a companion to Professor Steg, a very wise stegosaurus. They travel through time, escape an erupting volcano, and never fail to hold on to the milk, all while on board a Floaty-Ball-Person-Carrier (a.k.a. a hot air balloon).  It’s all delightfully silly and a good follow-up to our previous favorite audio book for road trips, Gaiman’s The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, which very likely features the same family.

Rating: ****

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Movie Review: The African Queen (1951)


TitleThe African Queen
Release Date: 1951 December 23
Director: John Huston
Production Company: United Artists
Summary/Review:

Happy Valentines Day! Rewatching this movie made me realize it’s the ultimate Rom-Com in which woman decides that their first date should be to cruise down some rapids and torpedo a boat. Wackiness ensues!  Seriously though, The African Queen was always a favorite when I was young but it’s been decades since I’ve watched it.  The movie loses points for the casually colonialist/racist opening scenes.  But once you have Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart alone on a boat, it’s a treasure.  These two actors seem to so effortlessly become the characters they’re playing.  And the cinematography is spectacular, especially for a color movie filmed on location in 1950.  A deserved classic.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Jumanji


Title: Jumanji
Release Date:December 15, 1995
Director: Joe Johnston
Production Company: Interscope Communications
Summary/Review:

I watched this for the first time with my son although the story felt very familiar due to cultural osmosis.  The basic plot begins in 1969 when a boy named Alan discovers the board game and begins playing with his friend Sarah, ending up sucked into the jungle within the game.  26 years later, the siblings Judy and Peter (Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce) discover the game in Alan’s former house and begin playing, releasing Alan from the jungle.  Alan (Robin Williams) is an adult now with experience in jungle survival but still emotionally a child.

Together they find Sarah (Bonnie Hunt) to finish the game and reverse the damaging effects, releasing on each roll of the dice wild animals, choking vines, an a sadistic Edwardian hunter, Van Pelt (perhaps the most draw-dropping moment of satire is how easily he acquires a semi-automatic weapon at a New Hampshire gun store). A subplot of the film focuses on the police officer Carl (David Alan Grier) who attempts to reign in the chaos engulfing the town while his new police cruiser is gradually demolished by the fauna and flora unleashed by the game.

I feel like the filmmakers could’ve have gone for an enjoyable, over-the-top spectacle, or they could’ve used the game to delve into deeper issues and development of the characters. What they made instead is an uncomfortable hybrid that feels very episodic.  They do focus on Alan’s struggles to connect with his father and Judy and Peter grieving their parents’ death, but those scenes don’t integrate well with the more madcap Jumanji adventure scenes.  I think it’s those problems that have made the movie merely memorable instead of the classic it could’ve been.

Rating: **1/2

 

Book Review: Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones by Brandon Sanderson


Author: Brandon Sanderson
TitleAlcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones
Narrator: Ramon De Ocampo
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2012)
Previously Read by the Same Author: Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians
Summary/Review:

Six years ago I read the first book in the Alcatraz series and really enjoyed it and meant to continue with the series.  Now at last I’ve read the second book in the series and it was worth the wait.  Sanderson’s Alcatraz Smedry is an unreliable narrator who keeps interrupting the story to deliberately make the reader question everything.  It’s gimmicky but in-universe it works since the concept of this world is that evil librarians control reality.  It’s a funny adventure set in the Library of Alexandria, and Sanderson is committed to the idea of the wraith-like curators persistently trying to trick the human visitors into taking a book in exchange for their soul.  It’s a clever and enjoyable read and I should not wait so long to continue the series.

Recommended booksA Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer and Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Blizzard of the Blue Moon by Mary Pope Osbourne


Author: Mary Pope Osbourne
TitleBlizzard of the Blue Moon   
Publication Info: New York : Random House, c2006.
Summary/Review:

This may be my favorite Magic Tree House book yet.  Jack and Annie are sent to Depression-era New York City to find a unicorn (SPOILER: If you didn’t guess, it’s in the Cloisters museum, although there’s a great diversion where Jack & Annie try to go to the Bronx Zoo).  Jack & Annie take a subway and a cab on their quest as they have to fight against a blizzard and a pair of dark wizards en route to their goal.  What’s great about this book is that the fantasy and adventure elements are blended so well with an honest portrayal of the poverty and desperation of the Depression.
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale and. Dean Hale


Author:  Shannon Hale and Dean Hale
Title:  The Princess in Black 
Publication Info:  Somerville, Massachusetts : Candlewick Press, 2014.
Summary/Review:

An entertaining chapter book for young readers in which the seemingly perfect Princess Magnolia leads a double life as the Princess in Black, protecting goats by fighting monsters while trying to avoid being found out by nosy aristocracy.  A lot of good humor and adventure in this book.
Rating: ***

Book Review: When Did You See Her Last? by Lemony Snicket


AuthorLemony Snicket
TitleWhen Did You See Her Last?
Narrator: Liam Aiken
Publication Info: [New York] : Hachette Audio, [2013]
Other Books Read By Same Author:

Summary/Review:

The second installment of All the Wrong Questions picks up in Stain’d-by-the-Sea with Lemony Snicket investigating a missing person’s case, putatively with the help of his chaperon S. Theodora Markson.  It continues to be a whimsical mix of mystery novel and humor.  One thing that stands out is that other than Snicket as narrator, the major characters in this novel are all women, which is a refreshing change.  I’m looking forward to the next installment.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Who Could That Be at This Hour? by Lemony Snicket


AuthorLemony Snicket
TitleWho Could That Be at This Hour?
Narrator:  Liam Aiken
Publication Info: 9781619695375
Other Books Read By Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Daniel Handler under his nom-de-plume Lemony Snicket narrated the trials and travails of the Baudelaire children in a A Series of Unfortunate Events.  In this series, All the Wrong Questions, Lemony Snicket tells “his own” story of how as a teenager he became involved in a secret organization, was assigned to the worst chaperon, and begins his first assignment in the town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea.  The book reads as a pastiche of classic children’s adventures and noir detective stories with memorable characters, a lot of humor, and puzzles to solve.  It’s a good start to the series and I look forward to reading more.
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp


Author: Ben Tripp
TitleThe Accidental Highwayman: Being the Tale of Kit Bristol, His Horse Midnight, A Mysterious Princess, and Sundry Magical Persons Besides
Narrator: Steve West
Publication Info: [New York] :, Macmillan Audio,, 2014
Summary/Review:

Sometimes I think I should keep track of where I learned of a particular book, since I have no idea how this book made it to my reading list.  On the other hand, I liked going into this book with very little knowledge of what it is about as it is full of surprises (although the subtitle is full of hints).  Set in the 18th-century, this novel has the feel of a classic adventure.  Kit Bristol is a circus performer whose indenture is sold to a seemingly dissolute master, who suddenly learns that his master is a notorious highwayman.  Taking his master’s identity, Kit learns that he is entering not just a life a crime but a promise to help the fairy people.  What follows is a magical adventure and chase as Kit Bristol and his fairy companions seek to escape pursuers both human and magical.  It’s a delightful and entertaining diversion.

Recommended booksCompany of Liars by Karen Maitland and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The LEGO Movie


Title: The LEGO Movie
Release Date: 7 February 2014
Director: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Production Co: Warner Bros. Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: Animation | Adventure | Comedy
Rating: ****

You’re reading this correctly.  I’m reviewing a current film that’s in theatrical release right now.  My son and I went to see it yesterday.

The LEGO universe is an Orwellian dystopia, albeit a cheerful one as minifigures go about their days exulting in consumer excess and carefully following written instructions.   Emmett is an ordinary construction man who through a series of misadventures is believed to be the “Special” who will save the world from the evil President Business.  He joins a group of Master Builders – people who can build things using their imagination out of pieces they find around them rather than following the instructions – and heads off on a series of comical adventures.  What The Pirates of Caribbean was able to do for movies based on theme park rides, The Lego Movie does with movies based on toys (of course, it also owes a debt to the Toy Story franchise).  The movie works on several levels: a meta-commentary on LEGO toys and their collectors, a satire of consumer culture, a slapstick comedy, a post-modernist agglomeration of popular culture references, and a family adventure film. It really pieces together a lot of things (see what I did there) to make a movie more complex than it looks on that surface.  Oh and that surface is some really excellent animation of what a world of LEGO bricks would like.

Hollywood probably has boilerplate scripts for the “need to be an individual in a world of conformists” theme as well as the “we can succeed with teamwork” trope, but rarely to you see both of them brought together with nuance.  Another theme of “toys should be played with imaginatively like kids do” rings a bit hollow since LEGO has spent a lot in recent years targeting adult collectors. If I have any other criticisms of this movie is that the relentless pacing of the movie doesn’t ever let it breathe.  The only time it slows down is during the live action segments with The Man Upstairs, and I’ll contradict myself here because that part drags on a bit.  I’ll also sound like a cranky old codger when I say this, but I missed a lot of dialogue because it was drowned out by the music and sound effects.  That being said, these things are not likely to bother most audiences and I think this is an enjoyable film and an instant classic.

Some stray thoughts:

  • Benny the 80s-something space guy is my favorite because I had that set when I was a kid, right on down to the broken chin strap on the helmet.  I built some cool spaceships for him back in the day
  • Every time I see Will Arnett, I’m convinced someone else is doing his voice.  Now I know that it’s a Batman minifig.
  • Shaquille O’Neill, Anthony Daniels, and Billy Dee Williams could voice their own characters, but Harrison Ford could not?  Mark Hamill basically does voice acting for a living now, so maybe they should have found a place for him instead.
  • I want a bunk couch.
  • I expect “commence micromanagement” to become a catchphrase in offices across the nation.
  • Everything is AWESOME!!!  

Seriously can’t get this out of my head.  For a song so deliberately bad, it’s actually pretty good.

Book Review: Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane by Suzanne Collins


Author: Suzanne Collins
TitleGregor and the Prophecy of Bane
Publication Info: [New York] : Listening Library, 2005.
ISBN: 9780739344842

Previously Read By Same AuthorThe Hunger GamesCatching FireMockingjay, Gregor the Overlander

Summary/Review:

The second volume of The Underland Chronicles continues the delightful adventures and imaginative world-building of it’s predecessor.  Gregor and his sister Boots return unwillingly to the Underland and find themselves drawn into another quest to seek a rat known as the Bane.  [Side note: Being the father of a girl the same age as Boots makes me love her characterization all the more].  The book builds on the Underland with new characters and new locations but at it’s best it develops continuing relationships, especially between Gregor and his bonded bat Aries.  It is also a darker story as Gregor faces a tragic loss and must make a difficult  moral decision that defines his character.  If I have one quibble it is how these stories are guided by prophecies, although there is the counterpoint that the interpretation of these prophecies is often way off base within the story itself.  Another excellent work by Suzanne Collins, go get it now!

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins


Author: Suzanne Collins
TitleGregor the Overlander 
Publication Info: [New York, N.Y.] : Listening Library, 2005.
ISBN: 9780739344859

Previously Read By Same AuthorThe Hunger GamesCatching Fire, Mockingjay

Summary/Review:

I read this book for the first time in 2006 (my original review is on Library Thing) and was impressed by the adventure set in a fantastical world under the Earth.  I learned a few years ago that it was the first book in a series and have been meaning to try to read through them all.  And so I begin with a reread of this terrific story about a boy named Gregor and his toddler sister Boots who fall into the Underland, where lies a mysterious kingdom with humans allied with giant bats and cockroaches at war with giant rats.  Gregor discovers that his long-missing father is held captive by the rats and thus begins a quest to find him.  The story is a delightful mix of action, humor, and introspection.  I included this book in my list of 100 Favorite Books back in 2009 and I believe it still deserves a spot in that list. Suzanne Collins has become famous for The Hunger Games (and their film adaptations), but I think this is her best work.

Recommended booksAlcatraz Versus The Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer and The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm by Nancy Farmer
Rating: *****

Movie Review: Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)


Title: Bedknobs and Broomsticks
Release Date:
1971
Director:
Robert Stevenson
Production Co:
Walt Disney Productions
Country:
United States
Language:
English
Genre:
Adventure | Fantasy | Family | Musicals | Animation
Rating:
   ***1/2

Set in Second World War England, three children have been evacuated to the countryside (oddly to a town overlooking the Channel) to stay with Miss Price (Angela Lansbury), a witch-in-training.  Along the way on their magical adventures they pick up the con-man Professor Browne played by David Tomlinson.   The movie is more of a series of loosely-connected set pieces than a story.  Some of them go on too long, like the dance number on Portobello Road, although it is interesting to see the many faces of the British Commonwealth represented in a cheerful wartime London.  Better are the mixed live action and animation sequences with fish dancing in an undersea ballroom and a raucous soccer game among wild animals.  The conclusion features some whimsical special effects that stand up well after forty years as military uniforms and armor are magically brought to life to defend Britain against a German incursion.  It’s a fun, entertaining bagatelle of a movie. My kids enjoyed it for sure.

 

Movie Review: Princess Mononoke


Title: Princess Mononoke
Release Date: 26 November 1999
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Production Co: DENTSU Music And Entertainment
Country: Japan
Language: Dubbed into English
Genre: Anime / Fantasy / Adventure
Rating: ****

Summary/Review:

I don’t have much experience with anime so this was a wonderful introduction.  Princess Mononoke is a gripping adventure, imaginative fantasy, and a feast for the eyes.  There are many establishing shots that look like fine works of art.  The story is centered around Ashitaka, a prince who slays a fearsome demon that attacks his village but is cursed in the process and thus has to go into exile.  Seeking the source of the demon, Ashitaka finds himself between the spirits and gods of the forest and a town of ironworkers who threaten the forest’s existence.  There’s a clear environmental message here but it’s not too heavy-handed, and I’m impressed that no side is ever seen as good or evil and the viewers sympathies keep shifting as the story goes along.  A quite excellent film all around.