Book Review: Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki


Author: Ryka Aoki
Title: Light From Uncommon Stars
Narrator: Cindy Kay
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2021
Summary/Review:

Shizuka Satomi is a world-renown violin instructor who has made a deal with a demon to trade the souls of 7 violin prodigies for success.  She has one more soul to collect and has returned home to Southern California to find a likely candidate.

Lan Tran is a starship captain who has escaped a galactic war with her family, and now operate a doughnut shop as their cover.

Katrina Nguyen is a teenage transgender girl who has run away to Los Angeles from her abusive family and supports herself making YouTube videos.  She also plays the violin.

Somehow not only are all these characters in the same novel, but their interactions create a heartfelt human story that transcends genres. Shizuka and Lan meet, share their strange histories, and strike up a romance. And of course, Shizuka takes on Katrina as her student, and yet treats her with such tenderness that it’s hard to believe she plans to sell Katrina’s soul to the Devil.

And that only scratches the surface of the brilliant, warm, funny, and creative novel!

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Midsummer Recent Movie Festival: The House (2022)


Welcome to my first Midsummer Recent Movie Festival!  For the past couple of years I’ve reviewed a bunch of recent movies on New Year’s Day.  But why wait when there are new movies to review now! My only qualifications for the Midsummer Recent Movie Festival are 1) a US release date January 1, 2022 or later, 2) a Letterboxd average rating of 3.5 or higher, and 3) available to me at no extra cost on my streaming platforms.

TitleThe House
Release Date: January 14, 2022
Directors:

I – And heard within, a lie is spun: Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels
II – Then lost is truth that can’t be won: Niki Lindroth von Bahr
III – Listen again and seek the sun: Paloma Baeza

Production Company: Nexus Studios | Netflix Animation
Summary/Review:

The House is an anthology film with three stories all set in a mysterious large house.  It is animated in stop-motion animation with characters made of fabric not unlike the style of The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

In the first segment, a poor family in rural England are allowed to move into the newly-built house but the mad architect continues to have the house built around them turning it into the maze.  9-year-old Mabel (Mia Goth) investigates what’s going on with the baby Isobel while her parents seem oblivious to the strange things happening.  This segment has the strongest elements of horror of the three.

In the second segment, an anthropomorphic rat contractor (Jarvis Cocker, of the band Pulp) is rehabbing the house and hosting a reception to entice potential buyers.  He has to deal with an infestation of beetles and then a strange couple at the viewing essentially move in without actually buying the house.  Despite the very creepy bugs, this segment is also the most comical.

In the final segment, the house survives in a world where everything around it has been submerged by a catastrophic flood. Rosa (Susan Wokoma), an anthropomorphic cat, is attempting to renovate the house while renting out the rooms.  She has only two tenants, Jen (Helena Bonham Carter) and Elias (Will Sharpe), neither of whom pay rent in cash. Things come to a head as the flood waters rise.  Despite the apocalyptic setting, this segment feels hopeful.

The animation in this film is beautifully done with great voice acting and music as well.  The combination of surrealism, fantasy, horror, and humor works well.  I think each segment is better than the previous, but maybe it’s just because I like cats.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Field of Dreams (1989)


Title: Field of Dreams
Release Date: May 5, 1989
Director: Phil Alden Robinson
Production Company: Gordon Company
Summary/Review:

One of my favorite authors when I was a teenager was W.P. Kinsella. I was excited when I learned that his novel Shoeless Joe was getting adapted into a movie.  But when I finally saw the movie, I was disappointed.  There were a lot of changes from the book to movie, and on screen the story just seemed to ooze with cheesiness.  Over the years, Field of Dreams has become regarded as a classic baseball movie to the extent that Major League Baseball has started hosting an annual regular season baseball game in an Iowa corn field. I figured Father’s Day was a good opportunity to revisit Field of Dreams and watch it with my kids for the first time.

The basic story is that aging hippie and baseball fan Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) having married Iowa native Annie (Amy Madigan), has acquired a farm that they live on with their young daughter Karin (Gaby Hoffmann). Hearing voices in the corn field, Ray comes to a realization that he must build a baseball field on his farm. As a result, the deceased but not ghostly former baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) appears, and is soon followed by other former baseball stars.  Other messages prompt Ray to go to Boston to take the reclusive counterculture author Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) to a Red Sox game, and then to a small town in Minnesota to find “Moonlight” Graham (Burt Lancaster), a baseball player who played only one half-inning in the 1920s.  As all this happens, the Kinsella’s farm is failing and faces foreclosure at the hands of Annie’s brother Mark (Timothy Busfield).

The movie still oozes cheese.  There are changes from the book (including removing two significant characters) that effectively change the story.  There’s also a move away from the book’s magical realism to more of a Reagan-era nostalgia for baseball as something emblematic of America.  My wife noted that James Earl Jones’ famous speech about baseball has elements that feel eerily close to MAGA ideology.  While baseball is upheld as being something that was from a time when America was “good,” all of the former ballplayers who emerge from the corn come from a time when baseball was segregated.  That being said there’s a scene in the movie I’d totally forgotten where Annie takes on a group of conservatives who are trying ban books at the public schools which felt unfortunately relevant to our times.  Even then though, the feel of the movie is still steeped in a toothless nostalgia, this time for for 1960s.

With all that being said, the biggest change from the book to the movie is also the best, and I think improves upon the book.  In Shoeless Joe, Ray takes the real life author J.D. Salinger to Fenway Park.  The filmmakers knew that they couldn’t depict the notoriously reclusive Salinger on screen and instead created the fictional 60s icon Terrence Mann, who is more than just a substitute for Salinger but a character with a well-developed history of his own.  It’s surprising that in 1989, Hollywood cast a Black actor in the role originally written as white character, doubly so since in 2022 there are people who still lose their minds when a Black actor is cast as a character originally written as white.  Jones is great for the part and his performance brings a lot of energy and authority to the movie right at a time when it needs a jolt.

I probably sound like I’m hating on the movie, it is a thoroughly enjoyable movie, but I’m just a harsh judge since I love the book so much.  It is a bit slow-going, but then again so is baseball.  I love baseball, and I’m not immune to the magic of ballplayers emerging from a corn field or an impassioned speech about baseball’s role as America’s pastime.  For all it’s flaws, Field of Dreams is one of the best baseball movies ever made.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Library of the Unwritten by A. J. Hackwith


Author: A. J. Hackwith
Title: The Library of the Unwritten
Narrator: Lisa Flanagan
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2019
Summary/Review:

I typically don’t include an official publisher’s description in my book reviews, but I can’t find the words to sum up this book any better:

Sounds quirky, doesn’t it? The premise also feels like a crossover of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series with Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens.  But the similarities are superficial.  This is a creative and beautifully strange book.  And while the characters are mostly demons, angels, muses, fictional beings and, well, the dead, it is also a very human story.

I’ve learned that this is the first book in a series, and while I won’t be rushing out to read the next book, I will definitely read it at some point.
Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)


Title: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Release Date: 25 June 2010
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Production Company: Kick the Machine

Summary/Review:

This surreal and slow moving film from Thailand focuses on Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), a gentle farmer who is dying of a failing kidney, and feels he’s getting karma for having killed communists when he was in the army.  He’s cared for by his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), his nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), and a medical assistant Jaai (Samud Kugasang).

One night while they are dining they are visited by the ghost of Boonmee’s wide Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong), who died over a decade earlier.  Then they’re joined by Boonmee’s son Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong) who has been missing for years and turned into a anthropomorhic creature covered in fur with glowing eyes called a Monkey Ghost.  Then things get weird.

The story of Boonmee’s final days and funeral is intercut with visions of Boonmee’s past lives.  One of them involves an assignation between a princess (Wallapa Mongkolprasert) and a catfish.  Different parts of the movie are produced in different film styles although a general slowness and long periods without dialogue are common throughout.  Honestly, this movie is hard to summarize because it is more about a mood and a reflection on death, reincarnation, and memory.  You have to see it to believe it.

(By the way, this trailer makes it looks like a horror film, and while maybe some aspects are a bit eerie and unsettling, I don’t think it is scary at all).

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Spirited Away (2001)


Title: Spirited Away
Release Date: 20 July 2001
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Production Company: Studio Ghibli
Summary/Review:

10-year-old Chihiro Ogino (Rumi Hiiragi) is traveling with her parents to a new home (not unlike My Neighbor Totoro) when they get lost on road through the forest that leads to a mysterious tunnel.  They find that the  tunnel leads to a mysterious village with restaurant stands and a bathhouse which Chihiro’s father surmises is an abandoned theme park.  Eating the food, Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs and Chihiro finds it impossible to escape.

Chihiro finds she has to request a job from Yubaba (Mari Natsuki), the witch who runs the bathhouse in order to have any hope of rescuing her parents.  She finds help from a mysterious boy, Haku (Miyu Irino), who may have nefarious purposes, as well as the boiler maintenance man Kamaji (Bunta Sugawara)  and a fellow worker, Lin (Yoomi Tamai).  Chihiro’s ensuing adventures are absolutely bonkers in the best possible way, some of the most imaginative fantasy sequences ever set on film.  It’s also refreshing that Chihiro resolves her predicaments not with violence or magic, but with compassion.

There are some parts of this movie that are a bit, well, gross and sometimes it guess a bit intense.  So be warned if you’re squeamish or watching with young children.  But overall this is a magnificent, fantastical film that I think just about anyone should enjoy.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Song of the Sea


Title: Song of the Sea
Release Date: 10 December 2014
Director:  Tomm Moore
Production Company: Cartoon Saloon | Melusine Productions | Big Farm | Super Productions | Noerlum Studios
Summary/Review:

This movie has been on my list since I loved the other productions from Cartoon Saloon, The Secret of Kells and Wolfwalkers. Song of the Sea is a worthy member of this trilogy.  Like the other films, Song of the Sea is built on Irish folklore, incorporating traditional art styles into the animation.  In this case, the story deals with the legend of the selkie, magical beings who can transform from human to seal.

Two children, 10-year-old Ben (David Rawle) and 6-year-old Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell) grow up on a remote island off present-day Ireland where their father Conor (Brendan Gleeson) is the lighthouse keeper.  Their mother Bronagh (Lisa Hannigan) disappeared at the time of Saoirse’s birth, and the family grieve her absence.  On Halloween, Saoirse follows fairy lights to the sea and is revealed as a selkie.  Unfortunately,  her Granny (Fionnula Flanagan) finds her on the shore and convinces Conor that the children need to move with her to the city.

Ben and Saoirse thus must make a journey across Ireland to return to their island home and save the Faeries. Along the way they meet Faeries who live in a roundabout, a holy well that is home to The Great Seanachaí (Jon Kenny), and the giant Mac Lir (Gleeson).  Their main antagonist is Macha (Flanagan), the Owl Witch, who traps the emotions of Faeries in jars and turns them into stone (Is there nothing more Irish than literally bottling up emotions?).

It’s a beautiful movie with a touching and inspiring story.  And Saoirse is the cutest thing ever.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Dreams (1990)


Title: Dreams
Release Date: May 11, 1990
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Production Company: Akira Kurosawa USA
Summary/Review:

I saw Dreams at an arthouse theatre around 1991, and even though I never revisited the movie until now, it has always stuck with me.  This was the first Akira Kurosawa film I’d ever seen, although I didn’t know who Kurosawa was at the time.  The movie features eight vignettes based on actual recurring dreams that Kurosawa had.  As a result they can be quite perplexing although maintaining a dream logic.

Some of the dreams are quite horrific although others are more uplifting.  They all share a theme of the necessity for humans to live in balance in nature and the hubris of when they fail to do so.  The stories are also informed by Japanese folklore and history.  The movie can be slow moving at times, but it is largely a visual spectacle with some impressive music and dance set pieces.  Akira Terao appears in several segments as the dreamer.  American directors George Lucas and Steven Spielberg supported Kurosawa in bringing this film to fruition, and Martin Scorsese appears as Vincent van Gogh (who speaks English with a New York accent) in one of my favorite segments when the dreamer finds himself in Van Gogh’s art works.

This movie is considered a lesser work of Kurosawa’s but I have to admit that I really like it and include it among my all time favorite movies.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: My Neighbor Totoro


Title: My Neighbor Totoro
Release Date: April 16, 1988
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Production Company: Studio Ghibli
Summary/Review:

This absolutely delightful animated fantasy film tells the story of two girls, 10-year-old Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka) and 4-year-old Mei (Chika Sakamoto), who move to an old house in the country.  Their father (Shigesato Itoi) takes them there to be closer to the hospital where their mother ( Sumi Shimamoto).  With childlike innocence and curiosity, the sisters befriend the forest spirits, including the fluffy giant Totoro (Hitoshi Takagi) with whom they share many adventures.  On a deeper level this story shows how children can use their imagination to deal with the stress and uncertainty of their lives.

This movie just oozes childhood for me and reminds me of exploring the woods around my house as a kid.  I sometimes came upon mysterious and wonderful things which probably could be explained by science, but maybe they were magical.  I also daydream of a public transit system provided by catbus!  It’s been a long time since I’ve watched a movie as joyfully wholesome as this one and it has quickly become one of my all-time favorites.

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2021

Other Books Read By The Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Lesser Evil completes the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy of books that deal with our favorite Chiss military tactician’s early career. Thrawn must defend the Chiss Ascendency from dangerous outside threats as well as civil war breaking out among the ruling families. Jixtus, an agent of a mysterious people called the Grysk Hegemony, was behind the attacks on the Chiss described in the earlier books, but now is ready to face Thrawn in battle.  Thrawn must ally with an alien race and work against his own military, political, and family leaders to find a way to defend the Ascendancy against the more powerful Grysky warships.

The great thing about Zahn’s books is that they long ago stopped being about just Thrawn.  There are a rich collection of characters her including Thrawn’s mentor General Ar’alani, ship captain Samakro (who Marc Thompson voices to sound like Jack Nicholson), the young “sky-walker” or ship’s navigator Che’ri and her caregiver Thalias (both of whom have Force sensitivity which is key to the plot), an alien navigator-for-hire named Qilori (drink everytime that Qilore’s winglets twitch!), and in flashbacks, Thrawn’s friend Thrass who has the political acumen that Thrawn lacks.  I confess that I lose track of the many characters and plots, but nevertheless I do find it incredibly engaging to read.  And the book ends perfectly setting up the events at the beginning of Thrawn.

Rating: ****