A Return to the Orange Road

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“I Want to Return to That Day” may have been the ending to the series, but it was not the final installment in the Kimagure Orange Road story.  Eight years later, a second movie came out, entitled New Kimagure Orange Road – Summer’s Beginning.

The first movie is a masterpiece, so I was hoping the second film, at the very least, wasn’t an embarrassment.  It isn’t.  Much like Before Sunset finds a way to continue Jesse and Celine’s story without ruining the first film, Summer’s Beginning finds a way to continue the Kyosuke-Madoka-Hikaru story in a way that honors their first film.  In fact, what surprised me most is that, great as the series is, the two movies are better, as they peer deeper into the hearts of their protagonists.

The plot of the second film is that a future Kyosuke, shooting photos during the Balkan War, “time slips” at the same moment that his younger self “time slips” when hit by a car.  The younger Kyosuke’s soul wakes up three years later, in the world of the older Kyosuke.  Meanwhile, his 19-year-old body cannot wake until its soul is returned, but that requires finding out where the soul of the 22-year-old Kyosuke is hiding and returning it to its body, for only the older Kyosuke can send the younger Kyosuke back.

While wandering around the city, 19-year-old Kyosuke runs into Hikaru.  Hikaru asks him a question lost in the noise of traffic.  When he incorrectly guesses what the question was and answers accordingly, it leads Hikaru to think things are not going well between Madoka and himself.

Like the first film (not to mention the TV series and OVAs), the music is excellent, despite being composed by Kajiura Yuki this time, as opposed to Sagisu Shirō.  Unlike the first film, we witness the use of Kyosuke’s power (and the appearance of his grandparents, though still no Yuusaku or Kazuya) and the return of some of the humor and light-heartedness from the TV series.  It even includes a character introduced in the two OVA episodes titled “Stage of Love=Heart on Fire!”: former teen idol Hayakawa Mitsuru.

The most welcome development in this film, however, is the return of Hikaru.  Though she still loves Kyosuke, she has learned to accept that he is now Madoka’s boyfriend.  And yes, because of her misunderstanding there is a scene where both of them come dangerously close to ignoring that fact, but it is handled in a way that does credit to Hikaru, and reveals Kyosuke’s true feelings, as well.

There are moments reminiscent of the best moments in the first film.  Madoka playing the piano alone as Kyosuke watches from a tree.  Hikaru and Madoka meeting after a long absence.  Madoka playing the same song after Grandpa and 19-year-old Kyosuke unsuccessfully try to retrieve the older Kyosuke (she tells them the piece is called “Kyosuke Number 1″).  And, perhaps the most poignant moment of all, Kyosuke sleeping with Madoka for the first time.  He’s his usual bumbling self, but then he gives a speech to Madoka that is beautiful — not because it’s a great speech, but because it’s honest in conveying what he feels about her at that moment, and authentic in the way he fumbles for the right words.

And yet, it falls short of the first film in a few ways.  Here, the Power seems to work (or not work) as a deus ex machina for the plot.  In addition, because it’s a gentler film, there’s no amazing Hara Eriko performance (though all the voice actors — who are the same ones who did the voices from the TV series through the OVAs — do great work).  The first film also pays more attention to emotions portrayed through small details, such as Kyosuke removing the wind chime that Hikaru gave him, and feels tighter in its construction.

Still, there’s a lot to admire about this film.  While not the masterpiece that “I Want to Return to That Day” is, Summer’s Beginning is better than it has any right to be.

Note: Since the second movie was released by ADV Films, instead of AnimEigo, you can watch it dubbed or subtitled.  Do not watch the dubbed version.  Just watching a few seconds of it, I noticed two things: the voice-acting isn’t as good, and the translations are different from the original Japanese, while the subtitles are more accurate.

Dame Edna’s Fond Farewell — Thursday, January 15, 7:30 pm, Moore Theatre

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Goodbye, possums!

Due to a friend booking her Hawaiian vacation at the same time as her ticket to see Dame Edna’s Farewell Tour, I got to see the show instead of her.   Held at the Moore Theatre, I sat in a good seat.  A really good seat.  If I were one row closer, I might have caught a gladiolus at the end of the night.

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Taken from my seat

As was this photo.

As was this photo

In order to see my first (and last) Dame Edna show, I had to endure rain, and not the usual drizzly crap that passes as rain in Seattle.  This was umbrella-worthy galoshes-wearing rain.  I almost said, “Screw it,” and stayed home, but I’m glad I didn’t.

The crowd was a mix of old and young, gay and straight, rich and poor, men and women, men dressed as women, and women…actually, they were pretty much dressed as women.  To my right were two men, the one next to me wearing blue eyeliner and a dress.  On my left sat a male couple.  They were dressed as men.

The show ran two hours with an intermission.  It began with a dance number that included Dame Edna and four dancers (Ralph Coppola, Brooke Pascoe, Eve Prideaux, and Armando Yearwood, Jr., who looked like they stepped out of A Chorus Line), followed by an E! True Hollywood Story style exposé on Dame Edna’s life, shown on a screen framed by her trademark glasses.  Then she came out, denouncing it all as lies, before launching into stand-up, in which she picked on members of the audience. For this section of the show, she was joined onstage by a piano and her accompanist, Jonathan Tessero.  Some of the highlights:

  • She looked up at the balcony and made fun of the people sitting there for not having enough money to sit on the main floor.  She also said, “I will glance at you throughout the night, but only in direct proportion to how much you paid.”
  • She made fun of an old man in the audience, calling him “senior.”  She thought better of him, however, when — during the second half of the show — she asked him what his favorite sedative is, and he said, “Scotch.”  “He might have more of his faculties than I thought,” she replied.
  • She picked on four women in the audience, asking what they did for a living and making fun of their clothes.  She mentioned their names throughout the night: Betsy, Jean, Joan, and Kay.  She also made fun of Kay’s husband, Rich.  When she asked what kind of home they had, Kay said, “It’s a Tuscan house.”  “You know they have a lot of those houses in Tuscany,” Dame Edna replied.  The best response, however, was when she asked what color her bedroom was.  “Cream.”  Steering it away from the obvious, Dame Edna said, “So you’re talking about the walls.  The walls are cream.  And the ceiling?  Is the ceiling cream?  And how about the bed?”  “Teal.”  Dame Edna congratulated Kay on her adventurous colors.  “We have other colors, too,” Kay said.  “We have black.”  “And what is black?” Dame Edna asked.  “The chairs.”  “You have chairs in your bedroom?  So you like to have people watch?”

The first half ended with another song and dance routine.

Out in the lobby, you could take pictures with a backdrop featuring Dame Edna, purchase Dame Edna merchandise (which included the glasses, a boa, and an official program), and even buy a drink called a Possum.

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I thought about buying a program, but when I see something for free, I tend to not want to buy anything…which is also true when I see something I’ve paid for.

The second half of the show featured a “spiritual” Dame Edna.  At one point, she told us she had been observing the audience the whole night, reading our karma, and she believed she had found two people who would be a perfect wedding match.  So, up onstage came Wesley and Louise.  Wesley looked to be in his twenties, gay, with partially dyed hair.  Louise was 70+ (maybe 80+), a widower, with white hair.  This was the funniest bit of the night, even though Dame Edna’s attempt to call Wesley’s friend Alicia to tell her the good news ended up reaching her answering machine (and this was after the first attempt, to call his other friend, didn’t connect).

After the throwing of the gladdies, we were shown a montage of clips from Dame Edna’s 60-year career, played once again in the “lens” of her glasses. They included clips with Joan Rivers, Robin Williams, and even Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles.  Then, Barry Humphries came out in a tux, top hat, and cane and addressed the audience as himself.

“When Dame Judi Dench was acting in a play in London,” he said, “someone came to her dressing room and asked her, ‘Don’t you find they cut into your evenings?”

We laughed.

“Thank you for cutting into my evenings, and I hope you can join me for my next farewell tour,” he ended, touching his nail-polished fingers to the brim of his hat.

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Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye -The Farewell Tour ran from Thursday, January 15 through Sunday, January 18 at the Moore Theatre in Seattle.  She picked Seattle as the first city in which to start her American farewell tour — a city she has visited twice before.  I attended the opening night show, which was apparently the same show that Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson went to.

Walking the Orange Road

Madoka, Kyosuke, and Hikaru

Madoka, Kyosuke, and Hikaru

On Wednesday, I finished the classic anime series Kimagure Orange Road.  On Saturday, I watched the first movie (I still have the OVAs and the second movie to watch).  Titled The Kimagure Orange Road Movie: “I Want to Return to That Day,” it serves as a conclusion to the original series.

That series deals with 15-year-old Kasuga Kyosuke (Furuya Tooru) as he tries to decide which junior high school girl he loves more: the perky and fun Hiyama Hikaru (Hara Eriko) or her best friend, the cool and athletic Ayukawa Madoka (Tsuru Hiromi).  He also must contend with Hino Yuusaku (Kikuchi Masami) — Yuusaku was childhood friends with both Hikaru and Madoka, but later developed a crush on Hikaru (they are both a year younger than Madoka, who is the same age as Kyosuke).  In addition, Kyosuke must keep his horny friends Komatsu Seiji (Nanba Keiichi) and Hatta Kazuya (Tatsuta Naoki) from his younger sisters, twins Kurumi (Honda Chieko) and Manami (Tomizawa Michie).  And if that weren’t enough, both he and his sisters are ESPers, which means that they have special powers (called “The Power”) they inherited from their deceased mother.  If they are caught using their powers, they’ll have to leave town.

The series is more light-hearted and humorous than the movie.  The film also omits two major supporting characters: Yuusaku and Kyosuke’s five-year-old cousin Kasuga Kazuya (Sakamoto Chika), who also has “The Power.”  Both the series and the film have excellent soundtracks, while the movie is better animated.

Since “the Power” often leads to comic situations in the TV show, it is not used in the movie.  Instead, the film focuses on the relationship between Kyosuke, Hikaru, and Madoka during Kyosuke and Madoka’s final year in high school.  As they prepare for their college entrance exams, a kiss between Kyosuke and Hikaru forces him to decide which girl he loves more (if you’ve seen the series, his choice won’t come as a surprise).  That choice allows Hara to give one of the greatest of voice-acting performances.  Though Kyosuke breaks up with Hikaru and asks her never to see him again, Hikaru won’t let go so easily.  Hara’s performance covers all the emotions that Hikaru is experiencing, including suppressed ones.  The movie hinges on her performance, and it is stunning.

And sad.  It is sad because the film is about the change that must happen to everyone as they grow up and leave friends and lovers behind.  People rarely stay with their first loves, or even their second ones.  It might be that Kyosuke and Madoka’s relationship doesn’t survive the trials of college, but for it to succeed at all, Kyosuke has to be mean to Hikaru, and Madoka has to cast off her best friend.  Futures are built on the ruins of past relationships, and while some may wait and hope for greenery to sprout through the debris, others know that more fertile ground lies elsewhere, if only we can leave the wreckage behind.

Kimagure Orange Road Movie

The 10 Best New Movies I Saw in 2014

This list includes all the new movies (first run) that I saw in 2014, regardless of their release date (full list here).  As long as they weren’t archival and were watched in a theater, they were eligible for this list.  And yes, this is by no means a representative list of all the great films I saw.  Now let’s get to it!

10. The LEGO Movie (Chris Miller, Phil Lord)

Everything was awesome with this movie that was basically a huge product placement for Legos…and filled with joy from beginning to end.

9. Love is Strange (Ira Sachs)

This story about a gay couple (played by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow) isn’t on this list because of its timely issues (gay marriage, housing crisis), but because the performances of Molina and Lithgow are so wonderful.  The film steps a little wrong with the drawn-out ending, but that’s a small fault for a film that cares so much about its characters.

8. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)

I can’t say this is Anderson’s best film, as I’ve only seen the last three films he’s made, but this is the best of those three, depending not only on Anderson’s evocation of a Europe that vanished between the wars, but on Ralph Fiennes truly decent (and wonderfully acted) M. Gustave, which gives this film its emotional center, and its heart.

7. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)

I enjoyed The Host but felt it lost steam once it crossed its halfway point.  Not so Snowpiercer.  We have a hero who must grow into the role (Chris Evans), a mentor who is not all that he appears to be (William Hurt), and a wonderful performance by Tilda Swinton in a role originally written for a man.  Plus, unlike other movies about rebellion, this one truly contemplates the consequences of “winning,” while giving us characters that have depth.  When some of them die, we truly feel the loss.  Moral ambiguity at its best.

6. Last Days in Vietnam (Rory Kennedy)

The hardest category to choose best films from this year was documentaries.  I easily could have put four on here (Supermensch and Life Itself being the other two).  Maybe I should’ve limited it to one documentary, but Rory Kennedy’s film about the fall of Saigon and the efforts to relocate the Vietnamese who had collaborated with the U.S. to other countries is an incredibly well-made film about an incredible — and little-known — story, particularly to those of us who were born after the war ended.

5. American Hustle (David O. Russell)

Yes, this technically came out in 2013, but I didn’t see it until last year, so I’m putting it on this list.  David O. Russell’s tale of a con-man helping the Feds is too good to leave off, with crises created by Bradley Cooper’s headstrong and possibly inept FBI agent narrowly averted by Christian Bale’s quick-thinking con-man.  Plus, Bale, Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Jennifer Lawrence are exceptional.

4. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)

One could argue that J.K. Simmons’s character in this film is too abusive to his students to have lasted as long as he has at a prestigious music school.  To that I have two words: Bobby Knight.  But it doesn’t really matter: the real story here is two actors pushing each other to their limits: Simmons’s teacher and Miles Teller’s student, who is so driven to be one of the great drummers that he will suffer extreme abuse to get there.  The  climax of the film is a lesson in how editing can create emotional tension.

3. The Case Against 8 (Ben Cotner, Ryan White)

The best documentary of the year deals with the decision to challenge Proposition 8 through the courts.  It results in the unlikeliest of bed-fellows and a reminder of how wonderful human beings can be when they forget to hate each other.

2. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)

Linklater deserves all the accolades he’s been getting for this film, which follows a boy (Ellar Coltrane) through twelve years of his life, by filming the actor who played him (and most of the other actors) over a twelve-year period.  It reminded me of the best parts of my childhood through its patchwork of moments.  This film made me smile.

1. Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)

The best movie of the year is more tightly knit than Boyhood, with layers upon layers of meaning, centering around a priest (Brendan Gleeson) who is faced with death at the hands of a parishioner who was sexually abused by one when younger.  The best handling of faith that I’ve seen onscreen — not as something that solves all our ills, or has all the answers, but as something that can provide comfort in uncertain times.

….And 12 Honorable Mentions, in no particular order: Like Father, Like Son (Kore-eda Hirokazu), Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon (Mike Myers), The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese), Nebraska (Alexander Payne), Life Itself (Steve James), How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois), A Letter to Momo (Okiura Hiroyuki), Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski), Burning Bush (Agnieszka Holland)Lucky Them (Megan Griffiths), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves), The Legend of the Princess Kaguya (Takahata Isao)

An Evening with Cary Elwes–Tuesday, December 16, 2014 at 7 pm

The date in the title will tell you how far behind I am in my blog posts.  Originally, Elwes was supposed to be at Town Hall on Wednesday, December 3rd at 7:30, but the date conflicted with something else, and so my money was refunded, the venue was moved to the UW Bookstore , the date was moved to a Tuesday, the appearance was now free, and it began at 7.  I spent the week buying copies of As You Wish for my brother and sister, and then decided to get one for me, as well.

Learning from the Scalzi signing, I brought my DSLR to take photos this time.  Arriving around 6:30, I found a group of musicians playing songs for the people upstairs, where chairs had been arranged in rows.  Other people stood.  I found a seat near the back.

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Taken from my seat.

The musicians ended on time, but Elwes was not yet in the building (though there was a boy dressed up as the Dread Pirate Roberts).  In the meantime, the organizers held a raffle.  Prizes included an audiobook version of As You Wish (with members of the cast reminiscing about their experiences) and three pairs of tickets to SIFF’s The Princess Bride Quote-Along.  More time passed.  Then, the announcement came that he was in the building.  A short wait later, and the man himself was introduced to the cheering and whooping crowd.

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By that point, the boy dressed up as Roberts was in the front row.  Elwes noticed him, saying, “It’s uncanny.  It’s like looking into a mirror.”  He picked the boy up so that all could see.

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Then, Elwes sat down with Nicole Brodeur, who was the moderator for the evening (and different from the person in charge of the raffle).  He explained that the idea for the book had come out of the 25th anniversary celebration with the cast and crew, but that he couldn’t remember much of what had happened during the film when he agreed to write about it, so he wrote to Norman Lear (one of the executive producers of the film).  The legendary Lear sent Elwes all the production notes, telling him that once he looked at them, he would remember everything.  “And of course he was right, because he’s a genius,” Elwes said.

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Elwes with Brodeur

Brodeur then asked him about the first scene he shot with Andre the Giant (Elwes did impressions of Andre the Giant, William Goldman, and Rob Reiner while telling these stories).  It’s the scene when Westley is given the pill that will revive him from being mostly dead.  Fezzick asks Inigo how long he thinks it’ll take, and then Westley says (and Elwes checked with the audience for accuracy), “I’ll beat you both apart! I’ll take you both together!”  At that point, Fezzick says, “I guess not very long,” except that Andre never got to that line.  Instead, he let out a giant fart.  Or, if you prefer, a fart by a giant.  Elwes looked at the crew, and the first person he saw was the sound guy.  The fart lasted 15 seconds and felt like a mini-earthquake.  When it ended, Reiner asked, “Andre, you okay?”  to which Andre grinned and said, “I am now, boss.”

Another story he told is when they shot the scene with Billy Crystal as Miracle Max.  Reiner told Elwes to hold in his breath because they could see his chest rising and falling on the monitor.  He then went over to Crystal and whispered something in his ear.  Elwes later found out that what he said was, “Go for it.”

“For the next three hours, Billy did what I can only describe as medieval Yiddish humor,” Elwes said.  Reiner was laughing so hard that he was barred from the set, having to direct through a monitor set up in a separate location.  The next to be banished was Elwes.  The close-ups of him in that scene were done elsewhere, while in the long shots, a dummy stood in for him.  “Mandy Patinkin says he only suffered one injury on the set, and that was a bruised rib from trying not to laugh during that scene,” Elwes said, adding that he didn’t know a rib could be bruised.

Others stories from the set included the one about the stuntman who played the ROUS that Westley fights in the Fire Swamp getting arrested the day before they were to finish shooting in that location, Wallace Shawn being convinced by his agent that Danny Devito was the first choice for the role of the Sicilian (“If you’re an agent, NEVER tell your client that someone else was a first-choice.”), and of drinking with Andre after the New York premiere.  In the latter story, Elwes noticed that a guy kept following them from bar-to-bar.  When he pointed the man out to Andre, Andre saw him and laughed.  As it turns out, Andre once fell on a guy after a night of drinking, so the NYPD sent a cop to follow him every time he went out to the bars.

“They said it was for my own safety,” Andre said.

At some point during the evening, Brodeur asked him what his favorite line in the movie is.

“It’s a bit obscure,” he said, “but I’ve always been fond of ‘Anybody want a peanut?'”

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After that, the floor was open to questions from the audience.  The first question came from someone who asked whether Elwes could still do the fencing scene from the movie.  “Of course,” he said, but then said he imagines some people think he fences all the time, which isn’t the case (he said this while pretending to fence while making toast).  He’d have to get into practice again.  Another person asked what it was like kissing Robin Wright.  Since they became very good friends during the film, he said it felt strange, and they often got into fits of giggling during the kissing scenes.

The last question was from little Westley (I think his name was Cody), who asked if that was real fire in the Fire Swamp scene.  So that people could hear better, Elwes picked him up so that he could speak into the microphone.  “Yes it was,” Elwes said, “so do not try this at home.”

There was a short break, then people were lined up (based on what row of seats they sat in) to get their book(s) autographed.  People who tried to cut in line from a row farther back or from standing room were rebuffed by the awesome staff.  A plea was also made after a few signatures that taking photos of Elwes was okay, but “please do not take video.”  I noticed that no one posed for photos with Elwes, which was a smart decision, as it would’ve lengthened the amount of time needed to wait in line.  In fact, this was the quickest line movement I’d ever seen at a signing.  Despite being roughly nine rows back, I waited a half hour or less for him to sign my three copies.  A few people also went around with sticky notes ahead of time to write down to whom the signatures should be addressed.  The sticky notes were then placed on the signing page.

Signing a book a few people in front of me

Signing a book a few people in front of me

Elwes asked everyone’s name as he signed their books and shook their hands.  When I got up there, I planned to tell him, “My brother’s favorite line from the movie is the same as yours.”  Instead, I said something like, “My brother’s favorite line also yours the same.”

“What?”

“My brother’s favorite line from the movie is the same as yours.”

He then asked, “Are all three yours?”

“Yes.  My brother, my sister, and me,” I said, pointing to each book in turn. He nodded and as he finished the last book, said, “There you are,” and slid it to me across the table.

I checked the books before I left.  Between the recipient’s name and Elwes’s signature, he had written, “As you wish!”  Which, of course, was totally conceivable.

Special thanks to Jana Monji for alerting me when Cary Elwes added Seattle to his book tour schedule.  You can read her interview with him about the book on RogerEbert.com.

Wishin’ and Hopin’ (Colin Theys, USA, 2014)

Wishin’ and Hopin’ is the first of Wally Lamb’s books to be turned into a movie.  Done by a local Connecticut company (Synthetic Cinema International of Rocky Hill) and filmed partly at Norwich Free Academy, where Lamb taught for 25 years, it premiered at the Garde Arts Center on November 23.  My dad, who was an extra in the film (and gets ample screen time at the Christmas pageant), got to see the world premiere; I had to settle for its TV premier on Lifetime.

The movie and film focus on Felix Funicello (Wyatt Ralff), distant cousin of Annette Funicello (Krysta Rodriguez), during his fifth grade year at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Parochial School, culminating in the school’s Christmas pageant.  Felix sets the movie in motion by disturbing a bat with a pee-shooter during Sister Dymphna’s (Cheri Oteri’s) class.  The teacher goes crazy and a lay teacher from Quebec replaces her as a permanent sub.  Her name is Madame Frechette (Molly Ringwald).  With a theater background, she is given permission to put on a tableaux vivant for the school’s Christmas pageant.  In the meantime, we witness a confession from Felix to Monsignor Muldoon (Meat Loaf) of French-kissing a poster of Annette, Felix’s disastrous TV appearance on the Ranger Andy show, and the arrival of a new student at the school from Russia.  Classmates of Felix include Marion (Christopher Bogomas), a boy who’s the only black kid at school; Rosalie Twerski (Quinn McColgan), a top-of-the-class goody-two-shoes; Felix’s friend Lonny (Shawn Ervin), who is a few years older than the other boys in his class; and Zhenya Kabakova (Siobhan Cohen, in her feature film debut), the Russian student who becomes Rosalie’s nemesis and competitor for the coveted role of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Because the film was made with the knowledge that it would be shown on Lifetime, the movie is uncut and unedited for television.  It also means that the film does not include the curse words found in the book, nor the use of the world “colored” to denote African-Americans (it takes place in 1964, after all).  From page to screen, however, there is only one major exclusion: in the book, Felix’s mother has a similarly embarrassing episode in a bake-off; in the movie, some of those details are incorporated into the Ranger Andy storyline. On the plus side, the film adds more funny lines. There’s also a scene with a color wheel and a Christmas tree that isn’t in the novella, which neither added nor detracted from the story.

Did I mention that it’s funny?  Much of this has to do with the delivery of the material, especially by the innocent Felix and the feisty Zhenya.  While the big names are the adults (including voice-over narration by Chevy Chase as the adult Felix), the kids are the stars, from Felix and his sisters Frances (Sosie Bacon) and Simone (Camila Banus), to Rosalie, Lonny, and Zhenya.  And, of course, there’s Marion and his famous line, “Wait’ll the NAACP hears about this!”

If there’s a fault with the film, it’s the same fault found in the book: because he skips lightly over the material, Lamb is not adept at hinting at the depth of these characters, and the film cuts scenes that hint at that depth even shorter.  There’s the scene where Felix makes a joke about robbing “from the rich to give to the poor” when he gives Lonny back his whoopie cushion, only to have Lonny get angry and ask him, “What makes you think I’m poor?”  In the film, once Felix clarifies that he meant the teachers are the bad guys and the students are the good guys, Lonny suddenly acts like nothing’s happened; in the book, he says, “Okay, then,” and then asks Felix, “You gonna eat that Almond Joy or can I have it?” (p. 85) which doesn’t seem as abrupt.  The film also shortens the scene between Zhenya and Felix, where Felix asks her several questions, including why she left Russia.  In the movie, only that last question is asked, so we lose the build-up and some details about her family that aren’t revealed until the epilogue.  The scene that works best is when Madame Frechette is pressured by Rosalie’s parents (Ian Lyons and Deborah Puette) and Mother Filomina (Blanche Baker) to cast Rosalie as the Virgin Mary, when she has given it to someone else. Felix, who is serving detention, interrupts them to say what a great teacher Madame Frechette is.  It’s heartwarming, and at least adds a little to Felix’s and Madame Frechette’s character development.

While I don’t think Wishin’ and Hopin’ will become a major holiday classic like A Christmas Story, it is charming and sweet enough to become a minor one.  Unlike other movies that routinely show on Lifetime, you’ll actually want to see this one.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2002, 111 minutes)

I saw Gone Girl last Friday and enjoyed the film up until I realized what horrible people it centered around.  Not flawed human beings, but monsters.  One of the authors I felt like reading afterwards as a corrective was Balzac.  Instead, I saw the charming Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, about two Chinese boys send to the countryside for re-education during the Cultural Revolution.  The novel upon which the film is based is autobiographical, and the writer of the book co-wrote and directed the film.

That is not to say the film understands people as well as Balzac did (for that, see the films of Ozu and Rohmer), but it errs on the side of goodness, and unlike Gone Girl, there is a character arc for the little Chinese seamstress, though it is so subtle that we (and she) do not notice it until it compels her to a decision that gives this film poignancy during its closing minutes.

“I first climbed these steps in 1971.”  So begins Ma’s (Ye Liu) narration, as he and Luo (Kun Chen) are led on a narrow mountain path to a small village in the Phoenix Mountains.  Once there, the boys’ bags are searched by the Head of the Village (Shuangbao Wang), who is illiterate.  When he thumbs through Luo’s cookbook, Luo tells him, “You’re holding it upside-down.”  The cookbook is burned after he has Luo read from it and decides it’s too bourgeois.  “On our mountain, you’ll work hard and you’ll eat cabbage and corn!” he says.  Ma’s violin is spared a similar fate when he plays a Mozart sonata on it.  Luo says it’s called, “Mozart is thinking of Chairman Mao.”

After finding out where the local girls go to wash themselves, the two friends sneak off to watch.  While trying to get a closer look, Luo falls into a ravine.  Ma runs and hides, while the girls look over the edge and make fun of Luo.  Later, an old tailor (Zhijun Cong) and his granddaughter (Xun Zhou) come to visit.  The granddaughter introduces herself as The Little Seamstress.  Luo recognizes her as one of the girls who laughed at him.

She is as simple and ignorant as the rest of the townspeople.  When Ma tells her that there is a real rooster inside Luo’s clock that “sings every morning,” she and the other girls take it apart in an attempt to find it.  While putting it back together, Luo finds out that the Little Seamstress can’t read.  He promises to teach her.

Soon after, a North Korean film plays in town.  The Head of the Village tells Luo and Ma to watch the film, then report back to the village.  The Little Seamstress is captivated by their retelling, as is the town.  Later, she asks if they can tell her other stories.  When they say they only know socialist stories, she tells them that another re-educated youth, Four-Eyes (Hongwei Wang), told her he has forbidden books.  They manage to steal the books from him and hide them in a cave, promising to only take one book out at a time, in case they are caught.

From that point on, the movie is about the Little Seamstress’s re-education, through these books and through her budding romance with Luo and friendship with Ma.  She particularly loves Balzac, and it is Balzac’s influence which leads to her pivotal decision.

Oscar Wilde wrote, “All ideas are dangerous.” Indeed they are, for they make people dissatisfied and wish for better lives.  The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) tried to purge China of ideas, both traditional and Western, that clashed with Mao’s communist ideology, and it says something about the current state of China that Dai Sijie’s book has been translated into 25 languages — but not Chinese.  For ultimately Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is about the power these ideas have.

After reading Ursule Mirouet, Ma says, “I feel the world has changed.  The sky, the stars, the sounds, light, even the smell of pigs, nothing is the same anymore.”

So it becomes for the Little Seamstress.  Through her, so it becomes for Luo and Ma.  And perhaps, after watching this film, so it becomes for you.

Postscript: I saw this film on October 18th, which I later found out is the birthday of lead actress Xun Zhou (she turned 40).  A strange coincidence, if one ignores the fact that the evening of October 18th in Seattle is October 19th in China.

The Scarecrow Cometh

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On Saturday, October 11 at 6 pm, Scarecrow Video closed its doors as a for-profit video store.  While they reopened as a nonprofit on Tuesday, October 14 at 11 am, the official reopening was yesterday: International Independent Video Store Day.  As someone who had supported their Kickstarter campaign, I went to the store, camera in hand, to see what kind of festivities were planned.

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As it turned out, not much (though I did miss the morning and afternoon festivities, and sales were ongoing–including 50% off Criterion titles and all VHS tapes and laserdiscs for 25 cents), but it was nice to see the place so busy.  They did have a bingo game, where one had to find box art that matched one of the descriptions in each of five columns (to spell out “video”).  The prize was any swag on the table, which included books and movies.  After an hour-long search, I finished my card and grabbed the film Detour, having never seen it but having read about it in Ebert’s The Great Movies.  I debated about whether or not to get a Criterion title, but even the cheapest one would cost $15 with the discount, and with the expenses I’ve incurred recently and will incur soon, I felt it best to walk away from that enticing display.  I did, however, grab Howards End — for 25 cents.

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A laserdisc for 25 cents, free swag, and a membership form

The only differences between the for-profit Scarecrow Video and the nonprofit one is that the latter one has memberships (see the form in the photo above) and will be doing fundraisers.  The nonprofit incarnation will also require volunteers.

I’m sorry I didn’t get a photo of the inside of the store, as it is spectacular, but I wasn’t sure that I could get a shot off without a patron walking into the frame and not wanting to be in my photo.  Luckily, the Internet has come to my rescue with this awesome video, just as people came to the rescue of this beloved Seattle store: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VMhEq6kxG4

Scarecrow Video is the largest independent video store in the U.S. and probably the world.  It’s at 5030 Roosevelt Way NE in the U-District, and hopefully will exist as long as movie lovers exist in the world.

Jimi: All Is By My Side (John Ridley, 118 mins, United Kingdom/Ireland 2013)

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(Photo courtesy of SIFF)

Jimi: All Is By My Side tells a fascinating story with interesting people, but somewhere along the way, the makers of this film forgot to add any energy to their finished product.  It begins at the Savoy Theatre, where Hendrix is about to go out and perform, before the film flashes back to a nightclub in New York City, where Linda Keith discovers Hendrix (Andre Benjamin) playing backup guitar.  Amazed with how good he is, she goes backstage and offers him drugs, then tells him that he needs to become noticed.  She brings agents to see Jimi, and even brings him one of Keith Richards’s guitars, but they are turned off by his lack of charisma onstage.  Linda chides him for not owning the stage when he’s out there.

Finally, they get a break when Linda bumps into Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley), the bassist for the Animals who has decided to start producing bands.  Linda informs him that she has an act for him, then tells Jimi to play the blues at his concert, because that’s what Chandler loves.  It works, and Chandler is soon trying to bring Jimi to London.  Unfortunately, Jimi doesn’t have a birth certificate and so can’t get a passport.  Then, he has to break the contracts he signed as a studio player in America before he can play in London.

How these scenes are handled highlights a key problem with the film: a lack of urgency.  Hendrix was one of the most charismatic musicians who ever lived, and yet much of the film is on one low energy level.  The performances, especially by Andre Benjamin as Hendrix and Imogen Poots as Linda Keith, keep the film from lacking interest, but when the film returns to the Savoy and shows Hendrix teaching his bandmates how to play “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” moments before they’re about to take the stage, the excitement caused by the build-up and payoff reminds one of how lacking it has been in this picture.  In fact, most of Hendrix’s concerts in London are disasters, including one in which he spends most of the concert tuning his guitar.

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Imogen Poots as Linda Keith (Photo courtesy of SIFF)

The second issue is the film’s treatment of secondary characters, especially women.  They exist in the picture only as romantic interests for Hendrix.  When Keith finds Hendrix in bed with a woman soon after he arrives in London (Kathy Etchingham, played by Hayley Atwell), she disappears until after he brutally attacks Kathy with a telephone, then breaks up with her.  Kathy disappears when Ida (Ruth Negga), a woman Jimi meets in a bookstore, gets with Jimi.  She, likewise, vanishes once Keith is back in the picture.  Keith is also the only female who appears to have any sort of backstory.  They all have personalities, but the audience knows nothing about them.  We likewise find out only a few things about Jimi, but Benjamin channels his mannerisms and speech patterns so exactly and looks so much like him that I felt I was watching Hendrix in the role, minus the slightly less charismatic way that Benjamin performs as Jimi onstage.  No guitars being lit on fire in this film, and in fact, no music licensed to them from the Hendrix Estate.  When Benjamin sings, though, it sounds so  like Hendrix that I had to read the credits to make sure that Hendrix himself wasn’t the one doing the singing.

The film adopts a faux documentary style, showing two characters talking to each other only to continue the conversation as voiceover as the images skip to a different part of their meeting, one in which they aren’t speaking.  Also, when important people appear in the film, we get a freeze frame and their name next to their photo.  This happens with managers, famous musicians, and Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, who formed the other two-thirds of The Jimi Hendrix Experience.  In addition, the costumes and lens filters used in the film evoke the 60s.

With more energy and care given to its secondary characters, especially its females, this film could have been great.  As it is, it’s decent, but for a more fascinating look at this period in the life of Hendrix and of rock and roll history, see the Hendrix in London Exhibit at the EMP.

Jimi: All Is By My Side was shown as the Opening Night film at the 40th Seattle International Film Festival

Scalzi in Seattle

UW Bookstore

Wednesday, September 3

7 pm

I first heard of John Scalzi when I came across his blog, Whatever.  I don’t remember how I found the blog.  It was either recommended by WordPress or Wil Wheaton.  Scalzi is so prolific that a few months after subscribing to his blog, I opted out of email reminders.  Even one reminder a week would include one or two entries from other blogs I follow, and about ten from him (okay, maybe not that many, but more than five).

Then I visited my brother earlier this year, and he asked me if I wanted a book to read.  It was Scalzi’s The Last Colony, the third book in his Old Man’s War series.  Someone had given the book to my brother after reading it in an airport, which hopefully doesn’t speak to the book’s quality.  Since I recognized the name, I said, “Sure.”

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, when I passed by the University Bookstore, near the University of Washington.  In the window was Scalzi’s name, his latest book, and the date he would be in town.  I made a note of it, confirmed it on the website, confirmed it again the day of the event (in case he became deathly ill and canceled), and then headed down to the bookstore, arriving three minutes before the event was to begin.

Last time I went to an event in the store, it was held on the second floor.  This time, chairs lined the main floor, leading to the staircase, which branched left and right after reaching a small platform.  On this platform stood a podium.

One of the great things about going to an event by oneself is that there’s usually one empty seat in the middle, separating people who’d rather not be rubbing elbows with the person next to them.  Lest you think this is just an expression, I found that empty seat (two, in fact), and found my elbow rubbing against the arm attached to the body sitting to my right.

For far too long that day and the previous one, I had debated which camera to bring: my point-and-shoot, or my DSLR.  One is small and light; one takes awesome photos.  I went with small and light.  Since I got a seat, I could’ve gone with awesome photos and not worried about the added weight.  Instead, the lighting made everything in my photos glow orange.  I guess that’s better than everything being too dark.

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First, this guy came down and spoke into the microphone.  I wish I remembered his name, but it wasn’t John Scalzi, so I forgot it.  Too bad, too, as without him, this event wouldn’t have happened.  He mentioned other events coming up, though he spoke softer after asking if everyone could hear him, so those of us in the back couldn’t.  Next, he introduced Scalzi in the usual “what-can-I-tell-you-that-you-don’t-already-know?” routine — and then told us what we already knew.  Finally, Scalzi came down the left staircase and took the mic for the next hour, minus the minutes his introducer had used.

John Scalzi, famous author

John Scalzi, famous author

Scalzi started by taking a panoramic photo of us.  Then, as he looked around, he saw people he knew before he was famous.  He asked one of them how it felt to see him.  She said, “I think it’s great.”  Like his blog and his books (I take the second part on faith, since I still have to read one), he’s funny and intelligent.  I’ve never heard anyone describe Crime and Punishment as “guilt-guilt-guilt-guilt, then he turns himself in, Siberia.”  This was to point out why the book was so long, which sprung from a discussion concerning his inspiration for writing (his mortgage), which led to Dostoevsky’s inspiration for writing (gambling debts).  He also told us that his new book, Lock In, will debut on the New York Times Hardcover Bestseller List.  He told us not to tell anyone, or tweet or text it, but since IT’S ON HIS BLOG, I’m pretty sure I’m allowed to mention it now.

To give you an idea of where I was sitting and how many people were there

To give you an idea of where I was sitting and how many people were there

He made us promise to buy a book, too, even if it wasn’t his book, to show our appreciation for the bookstore hosting this event.  I did look at his books after the event was over, but I couldn’t decide which one to buy. Two of his books have won Hugos (Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever 1998-2008 and Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas), there’s his new book, and then there are the Old Man’s War books.  I also passed Le Petit Prince in its original language while in the signing line, and a hilarious calendar featuring sloths.  But, back to the event.

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Scalzi first read a long passage of dialog between four people from the fifth book in the Old Man’s War series, The Human Division.  Too many descriptors after the word “said,” and while funny in parts, the dialog was average, at best.  The two other works he read — both humorous pieces and short — were much better.  Scalzi’s way of humorously describing a scene is his strongest asset, and shows off his creativity more than his dialog does.  The first story was about a pig roast; the second, about a lemonade stand.  Both were hilarious.

Scalzi answers questions from the audience

Scalzi listens to a question from the audience

The readings were followed by a twenty-minute Q & A.  The first question was about his writing habits, the second  revealed a spoiler about the new book (but not really, though I’m still not mentioning it, just in case).  He also played a ukulele that someone brought in, even though it wasn’t tuned right.

During his continued discussion of Lock In, he said something that stuck with me.  The paraphrase is from someone else, but it involves writing about another person (i.e. a character who is not you).  Once you realize that you’re going to screw it up, no matter how much research you do, it allows you to listen to criticism of that character without feeling it’s a personal attack.  Rather, it’s to prevent you from making the same mistake in the future.  Or, as Scalzi put it, “I only want to make new mistakes.”  To be given license to be wrong, and knowing that every author is given the same license, is a welcome freedom.

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Scalzi answers a question

After he finished answering questions, people who had bought Locked In received a ticket that allowed them to line up before everyone else.  The rest of us either left, browsed his books, or joined the signing line.  I did all three, but not in that order.  A young man and woman stood behind me in the signing line, despite having purchased a copy of Lock In with the priority ticket sticking out.  After a fifteen-minute discussion, they left, making me the last person in line.

The line went quickly, despite standing behind someone who couldn’t stand still, as if he had to pee.  He also kept making grunting sounds.  I wondered if he had turrets but without the swearing.   As we rounded a corner, a woman asked each person what books they had to sign and if they wanted them personalized.  When she asked the gentleman in front of me if he wanted his book personalized, he said, “What’s that?”

“He can write your name in the book and sign it to you.”

“No, I don’t need that, just the signature.”

She then had to step around him to ask me the same question.  She seemed excited that I had The Last Colony.  Maybe she thought I’d bought it at the store, despite the worn spine and a white spot on the top.

As I reached the part of the line where we could see people getting their books signed, the gentleman in front of me left to put a book away, which he had been reading in line.  I thought maybe he would leave, but he came back.  When I made room for him, he told me he’d rather be last.  That was fine with me, as I wasn’t sure what would happen when he got to Scalzi.  When we reached the final gauntlet, two staff members joined the line behind him, ruining his dream of last-dom.

During the 90 minutes I was in line, I had thought of  all the things I could say to an author whose books I hadn’t read.  Things like, ” I like your blog, but I had to stop reading it because you post too much I’d never get anything done otherwise.”  Or, “You’re the second Hugo award-winning author I’ve met.  The first was Ursula Le Guin.”  Or, “There’s a funny story behind this book.  My brother gave it to me when I stayed at his house, which was given to him by a random guy at the airport.  So you see, no one in my family has purchased any of your books.”  Or I could mention something he said that night, like “That was the most concise summary I’ve ever heard of Crime and Punishment.”

When the moment arrived, I got up there and said, “I really like your blog,” to which Scalzi replied, “Thank you,” to which I responded, “You’re welcome.”  And then the man in charge of taking photos with other people’s cameras took the following photo with mine:

Salvatore and Scalzi

Salvatore and Scalzi: future and present best-selling authors

When I got the book back, I looked inside.  Above his awesome signature were the words “Enjoy this!”  I hope to, Mr. Scalzi.  And if I do, I’ll be sure to buy one of your books.  For once.

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