50/50 Reading Challenge Update: July Movies

July held a bumper crop of watched movies – six total with two films viewed in the theater.  That has got to be a record of some kind for me.  Even though that many movies are great for reaching my goal, properly reviewing each and every one is not a possibility.  Time is a precious commodity in the Whimsey household at this moment.  Instead, I’ll just share the highlights (and lowlights) from each movie and call it a day.  Yes, I’m wimping out.  I know it and I own it.  But, it’s my party and I can be a slacker if I want to.

July Movies

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) – starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Dennis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field.  This movie is superbly cast: Andrew Garfield has Peter Parker’s brave teenage geekiness down pat; Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy is smart and capable; Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt May are perfection.  Appealing characters, an engaging plot, and thrilling action sequences equate a very postitve summer blockbuster experience.  (4/5 stars)

Shelock Holmes: Game of Shadows (2011) – starring Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Rachel McAdams, Jared Harris.  A slightly confusing plot, action galore, and the camaraderie of Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law.  Who could resist?    As usual, humor is sprinkled throughout the fighting, the near-death experiences, and the blowing up of things.  I preferred the first movie because the plot was more intriguing, but Game of Shadows was fine for a two hour diversion spent with family. (3.75/5 star)

Jane Eyre (1943) – starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. I love the story of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and I’ve seen many different versions on film.  When I discovered that Netflix was streaming this version I didn’t hesitate.  I was rather luke warm about the whole thing – not horrible, not wonderful.  The acting style of this time period can sometimes be hard for me to swallow, many pieces of the original storyline are excluded, and neither Orson Wells or Joan Fontaine matched my perception of what Mr. Rochester and Jane looked like.  However, the cinematography was appropriately atmospheric, Adele was adorable, and I enjoyed seeing a young Elizabeth Taylor as Jane’s only friend Helen.  Been there, seen that, moving on.  (3/5 stars)

Brave (2012) – voices of Kelly MacDonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane.  What can I say?   I loved this movie.  Disney and Pixar veered from the standard princess formula and created a mother/daughter tale that honestly brought tears to my eyes.  A happily ever after without a prince? Who woulda thought?  As a mother, Brave was especially poignant for me and I’m so glad I was able to watch it with my teenage daughter.  As expected, the animation is gorgeous. One small caution: there are some pretty intense scenes with a very ominous bear that could be overwhelming for younger kids.  (5/5 stars)

Witness for the Prosecution (1957) – starring Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton. Another Netflix instant watch movie that Mr. Whimsey and I watched very late one night.  Although there is very little action, (most of the movie takes place in a court room), it is a very interesting and suspenseful film with a rollercoaster’s equivalent of twist and turns.  This was the first time I’d ever watched Marlene Dietrich or Tyrone Power and I was duly impressed.  For such a serious movie, humor was sprinkled generously throughout. I enjoyed every moment of this convoluted drama.  (4/5 stars)

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) – starring Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning.  When I told my Dad the kids and I watched Creature from the Black Lagoon, he laughed.  It was the first scary movie he ever watched as a kid.  I thought this was a somewhat fun, campy movie with some actual suspense.  How could swimming in a dark swamp inhabited by a Swamp Creature, not be suspenseful, especially with grim music playing in the background?  My biggest beef – the utter uselessness and helplessness of the female lead.  She just stood there and screamed while the Creature attacked her friend.  Grab a chair, for crying out loud, and break it over the monster’s head already!  I took the opportunity to lecture my daughter on how to not be a helpless female in the face of a monster attack (of any kind).  (2.75/5 stars)

Spider-Man and Brave were  by far my favorites of the month.  I anticipate that I will be doing some repeat viewings of both of those films.  I would also watch Witness for the Prosecution again.  I’m surprised at how much I am enjoying some of the older classic films.  So, at this point I have 30 movies under my belt and only 20 more to go.  That should average out to four movies a month.  This challenge is a marathon, not a sprint, and I’m right on pace to finish by December 31, 2012.  If only there were a gold medal for me at the end.  It’s the only way I’ll ever earn one.

Any classic movie suggestions for me?

50/50 Reading Challenge Update: July Books

By now it must be fairly obvious that I don’t really review the books I read.  Instead, I give an overview of each story and then offer a primarily emotional response to what I’ve read.  July will be no different, and thank goodness for that.  Considering the fact that I read The Name of the Rose and The Picture of Dorian Gray, a highbrow post filled with in-depth intellectual reviews would take me forever to write and be none too exciting to read, either.  And so, once again, I offer complete fluff based on my feelings and filled with very little solid, literary value.  Enjoy!

July Books

The Name of the Rose

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.  I chose this murder mystery involving  monks in a prosperous Italian monastery in the early 1300’s for three reasons.  1) The book is forever popping up on those inadequacy-inducing 100 must-read book lists that I am continually torturing myself with.  2) Because I’d seen the movie several years ago and enjoyed it (although I remembered very little about the actual plot), I thought I’d enjoy reading the book and marking it off the must-read book list.  Looking back, I probably liked the movie simply because Sean Connery was in it.  He clouded my judgement.  3)  I found the book at the library.  A free, must-read book list book?  Irresistible.

This was not an easy book to read.  The narrator is an old monk of the 1300’s who is recalling events that took place when he was a just novice.  He often wanders from the topic at hand or describes, in-depth, related subjects that definitely increased my understanding of the situation but made my eyes glaze over.  A fair amount of text is in Latin, which was appropriate to the setting but frustrating and meaningless to me.  I struggled to want to read this book.

What Mr. Eco did with astounding skill was present complex and interesting characters, a detailed and vivid setting, and an engrossing mystery steeped in the religious history of the Middle Ages.  These were the things that kept me going, even when the other minutiae threatened to snuff out my enthusiasm.  Themes that span the centuries, such as consequences of the pursuit of knowledge, the dangers and politics of organized religion, and theories of deliberate design versus chaos or randomness are expertly woven throughout the story.  While The Name of the Rose is no easy read, it was worth the effort just to experience 14th century monastic life during the Inquisition.  I’m still mulling over some of the more philosophical points of the book.  (4.25/5 stars)

The Serpent's Tale

The Serpent’s Tale by Ariana Franklin.  The Serpent’s Tale is the second book in a series of mysteries occurring during the reign of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.  The female protagonist, who is the equivalent of a modern-day forensic pathologist trained in Salerno, works for the king to solve particularly heinous murders or those that threaten the stability of the crown.  Because I really enjoyed the first book, Mistress in the Art of Death, I snatched up this book as soon as I saw it at the library.  It was exactly what I expected – a fast-paced and interesting mystery that was a pleasure to read.

The plot for this book centers on the murder of King Henry’s mistress.  Blame for the murder is placed squarely at Eleanor’s feet, which threatens war between Henry and Eleanor (they aren’t getting along at this point in history).  Adelia Aguilar is ordered, much to her great frustration (she does not like being at the beck and call of the king), to find the real murderer so that war can be averted and peace can be maintained in England.

This is first and foremost a murder mystery.  I love the medieval setting that offers glimpses into life during that time period.  For someone who enjoys historical fiction, I recognize this book for what it is.  Pure entertainment with an accurate and straight forward portrayal of the culture of the Middle Ages.  The Name of the Rose it is not.  Nor is it trying to be.  Approach it from that perspective and everything will be fine.  It is not necessary to read Mistress in the Art of Death to enjoy The Serpent’s Tale, but I would recommend it.  Mistress in the Art of Death is a better book and the information from it will enhance the reading of A Serpent’s Tale.  (3.75/5)

Rebecca

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.  Rebecca was not at all what I expected.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy reading it.  I just had to make an abrupt mental turn in the middle of the story from ghost story (which for some reason is what I thought I was getting into) to hypertension-inducing suspense.  The narrator is the young second wife of Max de Winter, the much older wealthy owner of Manderly and recent widower.  Although Max’s first wife, Rebecca, drowned at sea eight months earlier, her presence is still felt in every corner of Manderly.  The housekeeper, in particular, seems determined to keep Rebecca’s memory alive and torment the new wife, which causes the narrator, who is never named, to feel like an unwelcome (and often unloved guest) in her own home.  The final third of the book takes a completely unexpected turn when deep, dark secrets are finally revealed.  Let the nail-biting commence as consequences of those secrets play out.

I loved everything about this book – the dark atmosphere, the setting of manor and sea, the characters, the plot – everything, but the narrator.  While I thought she had an incredible imagination, her uncertainty and self-doubt for most of the book annoyed me to no end.  Even though it was absolutely appropriate behavior for a twenty-something girl of no standing who suddenly finds herself married to a wealthy middle-aged man with societal obligations, I still cringed at her behavior much of the time.  That is my only qualm.  Rebecca a fantastic modern gothic read and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  By the way, Rebecca also shows up on lots of must-read book lists.  So, that’s another book I can check off the list.  (4.25/5 stars)

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wild.  In a nutshell, a young and handsome Dorian Gray wishes to remain young and handsome and so desires that a portrait do the aging instead.  The wish is grant and Dorian does indeed maintain his youth.  He spends his life being influenced by the vapid but alluring Lord Henry (perhaps the devil?), pursuing experiences and knowledge, and leaving in his wake a slew of deaths and ruined lives.  As Dorian’s portrait ages, his features are contorted by the sins he has committed. It maddens Dorian to see the wretched portrait, so he keeps it hidden from the world, but he feels compelled to look at it.

I am struggling to decide what I want to say about this book.  Even though I despised most of the main characters, the writing is beautiful and the story is excellent, touching on themes like beauty, genius, pursuing experience and even knowledge without conscience, sin and its consequences, pride, temptation, perspective, selfishness, disregard for others, accountability, homosexuality.  I could go on and on.  There is much to mull over in a relatively short and fast read.  This is the perfect literary classic with exceptional prose, an interesting plot, fascinating characters, and universals themes worth contemplating.  (4/5 stars)

Because The Picture of Dorian Gray also makes a regular appearance on many must-read books lists, that makes three more books I can mark off as read.  If nothing else, it’s been a very successful month for becoming a more well-read individual.  I was really hoping to get more reading in this month.  My choices probably slowed me a bit.  Without making up any lost ground, I’m still four books behind my anticipated pace.  With a few weeks of relative freedom before the fall semester begins and I start teaching again, I’m hoping to get back on track.  I already have two books devoured for August which is very, very good.  Hopefully, the back stretch of summer will be good to me and my reading endeavors.

Any suggestions for good, quick reads?  I just finished Artemis Fowl so you can see I’ll take any suggestions. 🙂

A Free Summer Concert at Long’s Park

Sunday evening, Lovey and I filled a bag with books, peanut M&M’s, and Coca Cola, grabbed our cameras, and tossed two camp chairs in the back of the Pathfinder.  It was a “Girls’ Night Out” because the boys had previous engagements that prohibited them from joining us.  MarchFourth Marching Band from Portland, Oregon was performing at Long’s Park as part of the free summer concert series and we couldn’t wait for the show.

It was a night filled with energetic music heavy on percussion and brass and accompanied by bawdy circus-like entertainment.  From the first moment the drum line began pounding out a staccato rhythm until the last note of the last song was blasted, MarchFourth never stopped playing or moving.  The percussion rhythms made it impossible for us to sit still either, and the brass and woodwinds blew our minds.  For two hours straight, they poured themselves into their performance.  It. Was. Fantastic.  We were all happily exhausted when it was over.

[ Long’s Park amphitheater, Lancaster, PA ]

[ The fact that they never stopped moving made them very difficult to photograph ]

As you can see, it was a very interactive show.  The audience danced.  Performers wandered the crowd.  And for the last song, the entire band left the stage and joined the audience for a final hurrah.  I must say that despite the gnats that kept trying to hide in our noses, it was one heck of a way to spend a perfect summer evening.

If you are curious at all about MarchFourth’s music, take a listen.  While some of the  performers and acts are different now, the music is right on target:

50/50 Reading Challenge Update: June Movies

June was an uninspired and very unproductive month of movie viewing for me.  I only have two movies to offer for review and neither one generates much enthusiasm.  July is already faring much better, but I’ll wait until the end of the month to share my thoughts on those flicks.  For now, I give you the 50/50 Reading Challenge movies for June.

June Movies 

  • John Carter (2012) starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds.  I must have lived most of my life under a rock because I had never heard of John Carter before I saw this movie.  My cluelessness to the storyline definitely impacted my viewing pleasure.  I spent at least the first half of the movie trying to figure out what the heck was going on and almost all the movie trying to care about it.  A synopsis is simply beyond my capability.  I feel bad about this because I’ve wandered into other sci-fi/action/adventure films with little previous knowledge and enjoyed every minute of it (e.g. Star Wars, Avatar, etc).  I can’t really say why this was such a struggle for me.  There was a ton of action – some of it rather violent.  The animation was superb.  There just wasn’t any real spark or passion of any kind for any reason.  That made the movie fall flat for me.  The two good things that came from this experience were: 1) I spent time with Ace and 2) I’ve developed a curiosity to see if the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs which form the basis for this movie offer anything better than the movie itself. (2.75/5 stars)

  • Men In Black III (2012) starring Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Josh Brolin.  The original intention was to see Snow White and the Huntsman.  On a whim, it was decided by the majority of the family (meaning everyone but me) to see the third installment of the MIB series instead.  It was absolutely what I expected it to be – a funny, entertaining movie filled with time travel and numerous disgusting aliens as well as the added benefit of loose ends tied up in a nice bow at the end.  Josh Brolin does a fine job as a young Agent K and there is an interesting little twist at the end that gives this particular storyline an endearing quality that is missing from the other two movies.  It was a fun, solid offering for the Men In Black franchise.  I did enjoy it, but I probably wouldn’t watch it again. (3.75/5 stars)

Yes, June was a pitiful month.  Even so, I’m right on target to complete 50 movies by the end of the year.  Hopefully I can pick up and maintain the pace of four movies a month again.  The boys and I just saw The Amazing Spiderman today which leaves just three movies for the rest of July.  With no vacations, sports, or work responsibilities to get in the way, that should be pretty managable, don’t you think?

50/50 Reading Challenge Update: May Movies

May was busy in a way that made movie watching difficult.  Finding chunks of time for cinematic entertainment amidst the last weeks of college and my subsequent graduation, numerous baseball games, clinical site visits, school concerts, and a camping trip over Memorial Day weekend proved next to impossible.  If a nasty virus hadn’t high-jacked Ace’s body and knocked him flat for about a week and if heavy rain hadn’t sent us home early from the camping expedition, I probably wouldn’t have watched a single movie.  As it turned out, I was able to squeeze in three flicks.  And they were all viewed with at least one of my kiddos – a definite bonus.  Be forewarned, however.  My reviews might be shaded rosier than reality because of the happy environment in which I experienced the films.  (I love being with my kids.)

May Movies

  • The Adventures of Tintin (2011) starring Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig with Steven Spielberg directing.  Watching Tintin began as an act of desperation.  After four days of “house arrest” due a relentless fever and debilitating headache, Ace was on the edge of insanity.  After popping some Tylenol, his headache subsided enough to make screen viewing bearable.  We took a look at the Comcast On Demand offerings and quickly settled on Tintin, even though we knew nothing about it (meaning no pre-determined expectations).  WOW!  Take one brave and resourceful hero, add a clever pup, a hapless sea-captain, and some really evil bad guys.  Mix in a little high seas adventure, a few pirates, three treasure maps and a lost pile of gold and jewels.  Make the action non-stop and wrap it all up in gorgeous CGI animation, and suddenly, a sick day becomes pretty darn interesting.  A very fun movie!  (4/5 stars)

  • We Bought A Zoo (2011) starring Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church.  A day after we viewed Tintin, cabin fever had infected Lovey and me as well as Ace.  We Bought a Zoo was our drug of choice to relieve the boredom.  Supposedly, the movie is based on a true story.  A family with no experience purchases a run-down zoo in need of some tender loving care.  With the help of the zany staff, they get the animal park up and running and in the process grow closer as a family.  There’s nothing earth-shattering here.  It’s a just solid, heart warming tale that satisfied us in our moment of need.  When the movie was finished, we all decided to put a visit to the real zoo (Dartmoor Zoological Park in southwest England) on our bucket lists.  I guess the movie served its real purpose then, didn’t it?  (3.5/5 stars)

  • The Avengers (2012) starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow.  Because severe thunderstorms ruined our Memorial holiday camping trip, we decided to see The Avengers as compensation for missing our ghost tour in Gettysburg.  We went all out, traveling the extra miles to the theater with the comfy, high-backed, partially reclining seats and paying the extra dough to watch the action in 3D.  The Avengers is the epitome of a summer blockbuster – very appealing superegos superheroes struggling to overcomes their significant differences  to conquer a powerful demigod and his legions of repulsive aliens who are trying to destroy earth.  And all is accomplished with a great deal of and understated humor.  I wanted to clap and sheer when the movie was finished.  We’ve seen the individual movies for each Avenger, so it was fun to see them all working together.  Which Avenger do I like the best?  I couldn’t possibly choose.  Captain American is so clean-cut, honorable, and muscular.  Iron Man’s intelligence and orneriness are an irresistible combination.  And Thor?  He’s a god, for crying out loud – and a compassionate, benevolent one at that.  What isn’t to like?  I prefer Bruce Banner when he isn’t green, but as the Hulk he was instrumental in defeating the bad guys.  Nope, I won’t be choosing.  I loved them all.  Bring on another helping.  One serving wasn’t enough. (4.5/5 stars)

I’ve watched 22 movies since the beginning of the year.  That’s not too bad.  I’m only three movies behind where I would have liked to be at the end of May.  What I said about this summer concerning books holds true for movies as well.  I think I’ll have plenty of opportunities to catch up and even get ahead.  Buddy is still pestering about seeing The Hunger Games.  Snow White and the Huntsman is on everyone’s radar (even Hubby’s).  And One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is lying on the desk beside me as I type.  I think summer is going to be a culture consumption bonanza.

Any suggestions?