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

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: ****

Documentary Movie Review: Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) #atozchallenge

Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies.  This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!

Documentaries starting with the letter Documentaries starting with the letter L that I have previously reviewed include: 

Title: Los Angeles Plays Itself
Release Date:  August 1, 2004
Director: Thom Andersen
Production Company: Thom Andersen Productions

Director Thom Andersen’s film-length essay (narrated by Encke King) uses clips from Hollywood movies to discuss the myth and reality of the city of Los Angeles.  As a native Angelino, the Los Angeles depicted in the movies bears little resemblance to the actual city.  Granted, Los Angeles is used in movies largely because of its convenient location to the film studios, and just as often can be used to play other cities, real and fictional.  But there are also attempts by filmmakers to make Los Angeles into a character without really capturing Los Angeles as a city.

Anderson also focuses on issues such as modern architecture, transportation, and how Hollywood accidentally captured long-since-demolished landmarks.  Andersen can get awfully grumpy, especially went ranting about his dislike for the abbreviation “L.A.” but the movie remains compelling despite this (or maybe because of it).  By my count, I’ve only watched 26 of the over 200 movie excerpted in Los Angeles Plays Itself, although a lot of them are really bad movies.  I’m pleased that he considers The Exiles among the most authentic Los Angeles movies since it is one of my favorites of the movies featured.  I’m also pleased that this was released before Crash, because I’m sure Anderson would hate that movie as much as I do.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Exiles (1961)

Title: The Exiles
Release Date: July 13, 1961
Director: Kent Mackenzie
Production Company: Contemporary Films

In the early 1960s, when Native people were still routinely the villains of Hollywood Westerns, this independent film captured a day in the life of young adult Native Americans who have left their reservations for life in Los Angeles.  The movie was filmed on location in the Bunker Hill district of the city before shiny office tours replaced derelict Victorian houses, although there are some elements still recognizable today such as the Angels Flight incline railway and the Grand Central Market.

The film is kind of a hangout movie with no real plot.  The documentary-style movie follows several Native people as they socialize, drink, and finish the evening with a drum circle on top of a hill overlooking the city. In short, it’s pretty much how any group of 20-somethings might spend a  Friday night, with elements of Native tradition setting it apart from other forms of contemporary youth culture. It really feels like a remarkable document of a time and place and an honest movie at a time when Hollywood specialized in artifice.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Boogie Nights (1997)

Title: Boogie Nights
Release Date: October 10, 1997
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Production Company: Lawrence Gordon Productions | Ghoulardi Film Company

Set over the years 1977-1984 in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Boogie Nights is the story of Eddie (Mark Wahlberg), a busboy at a nightclub recruited by the idealistic adult films director, Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), to be an actor in his X-rated movies.  Taking the stage name Dirk Diggler, he rises to a superstar level within the porn industry.  This movie has the familiar feel to of a typical show business story of a meteoric rise to fame followed by a descent into drug abuse and violence.  And it is all those things, but it also is disarmingly sweet.

Dirk forms a found family with Jack and fellow actors Maggie (Julianne Moore), Rollergirl (Heather Graham), and Reed (John C. Reilly).  I suspect the adult entertainment industry, like the movie industry in general, is ripe for abuse and exploitation, but I suspect that it is also plausible for a group of outsiders to come together as a community in a place where they feel like themselves as depicted in this movie.

What makes this movie great is that each of these characters is shown in their full humanity.  It helps that this movie features some amazingly talented actors.  Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, and Philip Seymour Hoffman all appear in smaller parts that are nonetheless fully-realized characters.  And yes, I do see the irony of great acting being the biggest strength in a movie about pornographic films.

If I can quibble with this film, it’s main flaw is that its runtime is too long and might feel less ponderous if given some judicious trimming.  I also felt that the running gag about Eddie/Dirk’s large penis kind of undercut the sympathetic and non-judgmental tone of portraying these outcasts as real people.  Still, I never thought that I would like this movie at all, and I ended up being really impressed.  It’s definitely not the movie I thought it would be and that’s a great thing.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Ruthless People (1986)

Title: Ruthless People
Release Date: June 27, 1986
Director: Jim Abrahams | David Zucker | Jerry Zucker
Production Company: Touchstone Films | Silver Screen Partners II

After becoming known for their spoof comedy movies like Airplane! and Top Secret! and the tv show Police Squad!, the team of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker made a more straightforward black comedy with Ruthless People.  I remember seeing this at the movie theater and then countless times on tv.  But a lot of comedies I loved from the 70s & 80s have aged poorly with cringy jokes based on race, gender, and sexuality that just don’t seem funny .  While Ruthless People is not the laugh riot I recall it being, it does hold up well as a well-crafted and well-acted comedy.

Fashion mogul Sam Stone (Danny DeVito) plans to murder his wife Barbara (Bette Midler), but before he carry out his plot she is abducted.  Her kidnappers are Ken (Judge Reinhold) and Sandy (Helen Slater), a sweet couple who want to hold Barbara for ransom in revenge for Sam stealing Sandy’s fashion designs.  Sam is perfectly happy by the turn of events, deliberately disobeying Ken’s demands in hopes that they will kill Barbara.  Meanwhile, Sam’s mistress Carol (Anita Morris) also attempts to blackmail Sam for Barbara’s murder with the help of her extremely dim boyfriend Earl (Bill Pullman).

I’m impressed by how well all the pieces fit together in this movie and build up to the comic finale.  While the movie has a crude and raunchy edge, it is tender-hearted in it’s center.  After all, the only truly ruthless person is Sam who gets his comeuppance while the other characters find unity and purpose.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Title: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Release Date: June 22, 1988
Director: Robert Zemeckis, Richard Williams (animation director)
Production Company: Touchstone Pictures | Amblin Entertainment | Silver Screen Partners

I was 14 when Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released and greatly anticipated seeing the movie having always loved animation and in the midst of a phase where I was obsessively watching old Warner Bros. shorts.  When I finally did see the movie, I was disappointed.  I found Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) to be annoying, Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) to be overly creepy (especially in his ultimate demise), and everyone using the term “toons” to be overly affected. I feel like the movie was poorly received at the time, but it has been reconsidered as a classic so I had to watch it again.

Revisiting the movie as an adult I find that I have a better frame of reference for the film noir pastiche which is well done.  I also appreciate incorporating the real-life story of powers-that-be wanting to dismantle the Los Angeles streetcar system and build freeways.  The anti-car ethos resonates with me. Bob Hoskins does an excellent job as the gruff straight man portraying detective Eddie Valiant investigating the murder of Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye) and why Roger Rabbit was framed for the killing.

This movie, of course, wows with the technical brilliance of incorporating animated characters into live action with a level of reality never before achieved (and never since as computer animation soon became the dominant form of the art).  There’s a scene where Eddie enters Toon Town for the first time and drives through the psychedelic world of toon’s singing “Smile, Darn Ya, Smile!” that is absolutely brilliant, and that was my favorite part when I was younger. I kind of wish more of the movie was like that, because for all its technical brilliance, I still don’t find Who Framed Roger Rabbit to be funny for the most part.  And for a family film, it also has a lot of elements that are over kids’ heads.

I definitely like this movie a lot more than I did when I was younger.  Roger Rabbit is still annoying and Judge Doom is still creepy, but there’s a lot of style and mood as well as nods to film history that I can appreciate.  I just feel that this movie had the opportunity to be a whole lot more.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Author: Susan Orlean
Title: The Library Book
Narrator: Susan Orlean
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2018)
Susan Orlean’s excellent work of narrative nonfiction focuses on the Los Angeles Central Library, particularly on the April 29, 1986 fire that severely damaged the building. Orlean examines the history and aftermath of the fire and reconstruction through interviews of past and current library employees and an examination of the library’s history to its origins over a century ago. The book also tells the story of Harry Peak, a young aspiring actor and attention seeker who became a leading arson suspect. The cause of the fire remains unsolved to this day.

I actually visited the Los Angeles Central Library on my visit to Southern California in 2007, and I’ve included a couple of photos below.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Album Review: FREE I.H: This Is Not The One You’ve Been Waiting For by Illuminati Hotties

Album: FREE I.H: This Is Not The One You’ve Been Waiting For
Artist: Illuminati Hotties
Release Date: July 17, 2020
Label: Self-released
Favorite Tracks:

  • freequent letdown
  • melatonezone
  • content/bedtime
  • reasons 2 live


Singer/songwriter Sarah Tudzin’s pioneering work in “tenderpunk” takes a turn in this brief (12 songs in 24 minutes) but eclectic collection. This is the band’s sophomore effort after Kiss Yr Frenemies and shows a willingness to experiment.  The album comes in the wake of their record label’s demise explaining why it is self-released and probably why it is so short.  Still, if this is just a place holder until the next “real” album comes out, then we can expect great things.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Chinatown (1974)

Title: Chinatown
Release Date: June 20, 1974
Director: Roman Polanski
Production Company: Penthouse | Long Road Productions | Robert Evans Company

I watched this movie with some reluctance as I find Jack Nicholson overrated in that he always plays some variation of the same wiseass character.  I also think Faye Dunaway is not a good actor at all.  But more seriously, this movie is directed by someone who would go on to be a notorious child rapist.  With those reservations in mind, I gave Chinatown the benefit of the doubt.

Much as The Godfather put a New Hollywood spin on the gangster movie, Chinatown attempts to reinvent the film noir detective story.  Nicholson portrays a Los Angeles private detective, Jake Gittes, in the 1930s who typically investigates infidelity cases.  The case he takes as this movie starts is another cheating husband case but leads into a scandal involving the construction of a new aqueduct and the accumulation of land alongside it that will become more valuable when it can be irrigated.

Gittes investigates Evelyn Cross Mulwray (Dunaway), the spouse of LA’s water department engineer, and her father, Noah Cross (John Huston), who was the former business partner at a private water company. Only a small part of this movie, at the end, takes place in the neighborhood of Chinatown in Los Angeles.  Instead “Chinatown” is used as a metaphor for the unsolvable mess of a situation that Gittes finds himself trying to unravel.  It’s kind of racist since it’s an all-white cast involved in this mess (the treatment of Asian characters in the movie is stereotypical as well).

I guess Chinatown was a pithier title than Los Angeles Water Rights Scandals, but I found myself deeply intrigued in the subterfuge around bringing water to the city in a desert. The movie is based loosely on the historical California water wars, although they took place 1-2 decades before the movie is set.  A nice touch is that frequent motif of water and the sound of water throughout the movie.

Chinatown is a pretty good movie but I wouldn’t rank it among the all-time greats.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Naked Gun (1988)

Title: The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!
Release Date: December 2, 1988
Director: David Zucker
Production Company: Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker

After watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, my son chose to watch this 80s spoof of police dramas next. As the opening credits popped on the screen he said “Wait! What’s O.J. Simpson doing in this?” It struck me that he’s never lived in a world where Simpson was just a popular retired athlete turned actor. I had to wonder if a 12 y.o. would “get” parodies of 80s police shows and current events he has never seen.  He seemed to enjoy the part where Frank Drebin urinates while wearing a live mic, as well as a part I totally forgotten about where Drebin is on a ledge and inadvertently fondles some nude sculptures.

And then, when the movie was approaching it’s final act, he declared that he was bored and turned it off.  I tried to convince him to turn it on again for the baseball scenes to no avail, so I had to watch those on my own.  The sequence of gags about baseball seem to hold up the best, perhaps because baseball is so timeless.  Reggie Jackson, not Simpson, is the real MVP when it comes to retired athletes acting.  I also love a scene where Drebin commandeers a car to chase a villain and it ends up being a student driver.  John Houseman is hilarious as the instructor calmly teaching the student how to conduct a car chase and to flip the bird at sexist truck driver.

I didn’t remember this movie as well as I thought I did.  I think most of the jokes hold up or are stupid enough to at least get a chuckle.  I have to confess that I never realized that the Angels game is filmed at Dodgers Stadium until now which was a result of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker having to agree to the demands of Major League Baseball and the Los Angeles Dodgers not wanting to participate rather than just another gag.

The Naked Gun is no masterpiece, but it still has some good laughs and a startling collection of 1980s actors and cameos. It’s still worth a watch, especially if you like baseball, but maybe not if your 12 years old.

Rating: ***