Sunday, December 30, 2012

Dolphin Tale (2011)


*** Warning! This review contains spoilers. ***

A good movie for kids. Even Isabelle - who has seen very few movies because she is easily scared or emotionally upset by scenes that are in any way unpleasant - watched the whole movie and enjoyed it.

I liked the messages that the movie conveyed. A boy who struggled in school found joy in learning when he found a subject about which he was enthusiastic. The same boy saw a problem and found a solution - even though implementing that solution required going out on a limb and committing a lot more than he ever imagined. A young man who was dealt a major blow in the prime of his life learns - with some help from the boy - to overcome personal, physical, and emotional challenges. You get the idea that you should push yourself to do more than you think you can, and every person can make a real impact if they are willing to take action.

I thought for sure that the single mom and the single dad would get together, but the movie skipped that Hollywood twist.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (#1) (2012)


So, as we know, The Hobbit, the book, is a prequel to the LOTR series, and it is shorter, simpler, and more approachable than any of the individual books in the trilogy. I have to admit, then, that before seeing the movie, I wasn't entirely sure that dividing the film version into three parts was a good idea.

But, come on! What did I have to be skeptical about?! This is Peter Jackson, who gave us the amazing LOTR trilogy on the big screen! (I have just now realized that I never rated those movies, but of course, they all would get 5 stars!)

I was practically giddy just watching the movie, it was such a great adventure! My only complaint now, about there being three parts, is that I have to wait to see the sequel!

I haven't recently read the book, so of course a re-reading is in order, but my impression is that the movie follows the book pretty closely - lots of the scenes were familiar.

One thing that surprised me is that there was no effort at all to individually introduce all the dwarves - Thorin and Balin had more prominent roles, and Kili and Fili stood out as well, but all the rest just blended together. Afterwards, I realized that I didn't even know which dwarf was Gloin, which would have been fun to know just because he is, of course, Gimli's father.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Ramona and Beezus (2010)


Isabelle was the one who actually gave this movie the 3 1/2 star rating, and when I asked her why it wasn't so great, she said, "The beginning wasn't very interesting." I agree! It started out kind of slow, and we had no problem pausing it in the middle to eat dinner. Returning to the movie after dinner, it gradually got better so that by the end, I was really enjoying it.

Even though the Ramona Quimby books span ages four through ten for Ramona, Ramona is nine years old in this movie. Still, the movie manages to include plenty of Ramona's misadventures from the entire series, and they are all tied together really well.

As you'd expect, there was plenty from the books that was omitted. I didn't mind Daisy being left out, but I did miss Yard Ape.

Actually, any disappointment I may have felt about omissions was probably made up for by the clever additions. In the books, Beezus, as Aunt Bea's namesake, seemed to have more of a connection with Aunt Bea. In the movie, Ramona also had a connection because they were both younger sisters. I liked that Beezus and Henry Huggins were into each other in high school. (Henry gradually just faded away in the books.) Uncle Hobart was more likable in the movie, and he and Aunt Bea's relationship was more fleshed out, though his profession wasn't exactly clear in the movie. Mr. Quimby was well portrayed, and I like the way his job situation was resolved in the movie.

In the movie, a bigger deal was made about the Quimby family having to move so that Mr. Quimby can accept a job farther away. In the book, it was just a possibility, but in the movie, the house was actually put up for sale. Isabelle said her favorite part of the movie was that the Quimbys got to stay in their home.

Ramona's World (Ramona Quimby #8) by Beverly Cleary


Even though I was so sad to say goodbye to Ramona, I was pleased that the series ended on a high note.

This book returns to the familiar format of the earlier books in the series. It focuses on Ramona, her growing-up experiences, and how she deals with them. In Ramona's World, Ramona makes a new best friend, her friendship with Yard Ape continues to develop, and she and Susan even come to a bit of an understanding. She is more mature and responsible, though she still manages to inadvertently get herself into trouble.

I like that this book also puts a spotlight on Beezus's growing-up experiences. It's her first year in high school, and she is worried about her complexion, she makes new friends, gets her ears pierced, and goes to her first boy-girl party.

Isabelle may not be old enough to really understand some of the Beezus stuff, but I think she can relate to Ramona's struggle with spelling - that is, having to put up with something she has to do, but doesn't like. (In Isabelle's case, that would be Chinese school homework.)

I even picked up a little parenting tip! When Ramona faces a situation in which she turns to her mother for help, Mrs. Quimby says to Ramona, "Cope". I like that! Instead of getting into a wordy reminder to "find a solution" and "work it out yourself" - just one word is needed.

Finally, I like that Ramona's attitude towards Roberta is more complicated now than it was when she was first born. At first, Ramona was all happy and welcoming, but just like in real life, the reality of having a new family member quickly sinks in. Ramona doesn't get so far as to resent Roberta, but she is no longer always thrilled to have the baby around, and it's clear that she understands that she has to share her mother even more now, and she especially values any time she gets to spend with her mother.

As for Isabelle, what she liked most about this book is that Ramona and Yard Ape become friends. I like that, too!

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Polar Express (2004)


Sebastien's Pre-K class had a "Polar Express Party", where they planned to wear pajamas, eat popcorn and pizza, and watch The Polar Express. Unfortunately, it was planned on a Wednesday, not a day Sebastien usually goes to school. He actually didn't mind at all, and we just decided to have our own "Polar Express Party" at home instead, on the same day.

At first I was afraid that Isabelle would be upset about missing out, but as it turned out, she said she didn't want to watch the movie anyway. She's seen it already, at the "Polar Express Party" when she was in Pre-K, and she didn't like it!

Now that I've seen the movie myself, I can totally see why Isabelle doesn't like it. In the book, the boy is sure that Santa exists, despite the fact that he has friends who tell him otherwise. In the movie, the boy doubts Santa's existence and is on the verge of not believing. Clearly, it is not a movie for very young children - by showing this movie to a child who believes in Santa, you are essentially introducing doubt! This movie is really for older children who are already doubting, or who have outgrown Santa but wouldn't mind a bit of childhood nostalgia.

The movie is furthermore geared towards older kids because it really is filled with one scary / anxiety-filled scene after another. First a little boy almost misses the train - Oh, no!!! Then the main character boy almost loses another girl's ticket - Aaahhhh!!! Before you know it, the boy is walking on top of the speeding train in the freezing cold in the middle of the night all alone, where he encounters some kind of ghost hobo who vanishes into thin air?!? Then there's the roller coaster ride from the front of the train, the train trying to outrun the breaking ice, and the creepy marionette in the train car for recycled toys. It is nothing like the train ride in the book, which was an altogether pleasant ride of Christmas carols and tasty snacks. Even the moment when the boy first sees Santa Claus - or rather, can't see him (because of the crowds) or hear the sleigh bells - is more of an anxious moment than a joyous moment.

Sure, the movie ends exactly as it does in the book, but the whole ride really wasn't worth it. Too bad. Just stick with the book.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Three Musketeers (1973)


I really wanted to like this movie, but it was so campy and dated that I found myself multi-tasking, and then forgetting to actually watch the movie.

To its credit, the movie did have good sets and good costumes, and it included unexpected details from the book - like d'Artagnan's mother's healing ointment, the Cardinal's guards paying the townspeople to cheer for the Cardinal, and the Duke of Buckingham's shrine to Anne of Austria.

But then, other important details from the book were inexplicably changed, seemingly for no reason. d'Artagnan did not lose his letter of introduction when he first encountered Rochefort, and d'Artagnan did not save Constance when she was first kidnapped by the Cardinal's guards - she got away merely by being clumsy! Obviously, Constance was made into a klutz for comic purposes, but why cut out a good swashbuckling scene? Frequently, opportunities to showcase swashbuckling were enhanced by bringing in the three musketeers to aid d'Artagnan, though they were not all four so frequently brought together in the book. At one point, it's made clear that d'Artagnan is illiterate - What!? Why!? Weird.

Overall, the movie was just too corny, and the actors never drew me in. I wanted so much to like it, I even tried to watch the sequel, The Four Musketeers, which presumably finishes the story from where the first movie left off. It's not often that I just give up on a movie and turn it off, but I really just found myself not enjoying the movie at all. Now I can't even give the sequel a rating because I didn't even finish watching it!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Ramona Forever (Ramona Quimby #7) by Beverly Cleary


*** Warning: This review contains spoilers! ***

Isabelle wanted to give this book 4 stars, and I actually wanted to give it 3, so I'm compromising with 3 1/2.

Thinking back about this book, I'm a little sad that Ramona is growing up. In the first few books of the series, I really felt immersed in Ramona's world, like Beverly Cleary was opening my eyes to a child's perspective. In this book, Ramona is in 3rd grade, and she basically now understands the world around her, and she fits in. Maybe there's a sense of bittersweetness; it's nice that Ramona grows up and is not so troublesome anymore, but she's growing up! It's just too fast. I miss the little girl! And she's just a fictional character. Isabelle - my little girl! - is really growing up fast! *sniff*

Anyway, anyway. So now that Ramona is growing up, the book is no longer really focused on her and her perspective. It's more like a book about the whole Quimby family. ("That's okay!" Isabelle says.) It's nice to see what happens to the characters - like wanting to follow the story arc of a TV series. And this book - this episode - is kind of like the one in which the series jumps the shark. There's a new baby, a wedding, a character moves away, and a pet dies.

Isabelle, for her part, likes the book because Ramona gets a little sister. I asked her what exactly about Ramona getting a little sister did she like, and she said, "Because I want one." Ha. Too bad, she got stuck with a little brother.

Well, there is one last book to read, and we'll see how that one goes. I'm actually already sad at the anticipation of having to say goodbye to Ramona Quimby, so I'm afraid I may have some high hopes for the final book in the series...

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Twenty Years After (The d'Artagnan Romances #2) by Alexandre Dumas


*** Warning: This review contains spoilers! ***

Before reading this book, if you had asked me whether or not I enjoy reading historical fiction, I would have quickly answered, "No." In my opinion, most prominent historical figures actually led interesting lives, so why bother making stuff up about them? I was once turned off by a historical fiction book about John F. Kennedy - it just seemed a bit ridiculous. Here's a man whose place in American history is larger than life, and dozens of biographies have been written about various aspects of his personal and political life - why make up a story when there are fascinating true stories to be told?

It wasn't until I started reading Twenty Years After that I had a sudden epiphany: the "d'Artagnan Romances" are all historical fiction! While reading The Three Musketeers, of course I knew that the King of France, Anne of Austria, and Richelieu were real people, and along the way I found out that d'Artagnan himself was an actual person, too! But I didn't put the "historical fiction" label on the series until I started reading Twenty Years After and found myself Googling "Mazarin" and "Frondist". I gradually realized that the reason I so much enjoy Alexandre Dumas's historical fiction, while shunning other historical fiction I have encountered in the past, is because - perhaps to the chagrin of my high school world history teacher - I literally had absolutely zero knowledge of the English and French historical figures in his books. I might as well have been reading about fictional characters. For a while, when the four friends were perpetually on the verge of saving England's King Charles I, I was in such suspense! Not having any clue about the life and death of King Charles I, I really didn't know - would they save him or not?! Haha. (The same thing happened to me in reading The Three Musketeers. For the well-educated student of history, wondering whether or not John Felton would succeed in assassinating the Duke of Buckingham is perhaps like wondering whether or not Lee Harvey Oswald would succeed in assassinating John F. Kennedy.) On the other hand, I am so well acquainted - simply by being an American - with John F. Kennedy's life story that I just couldn't take the jump to fictionalizing him.

Anyway, the actual historical context of this book was even more confusing than it was in The Three Musketeers. So you had Mazarinists and Frondists, but then what of the many dukes and princes!? I couldn't really figure out or keep track of who was on which side, or whether or not that information was really important to the story anyway. All I knew is that the four friends found themselves in opposing political parties, and that really bummed me out.

It really was kind of sad to see middle-aged versions of the musketeers, though I guess d'Artagnan was the only one who I really sort of pitied. Athos was in a good place, and even if Aramis was perpetually conflicted about whether he was truly an abbe or a musketeer, at least he managed to keep himself involved. Porthos, of course, wished for a barony, but since Mousqueton was so happy with their life, I found Porthos's wistfulness more comical than anything else. (Indeed, Porthos was frequently much more the comic relief in this book than in the previous one.) d'Artagnan, though, was still, after twenty years, only a lieutenant! Dumas poignantly described him in this way: "So long as he was surrounded by his friends he retained his youth and the poetry of his character... Athos imparted to him his greatness of soul, Porthos his enthusiasm, Aramis his elegance. Had D'Artagnan continued his intimacy with these three men he would have become a superior character." Alas, they had separated.

It was satisfying to see that the original three musketeers still had their original lackeys in their service. Planchet alone had gone his own way, and he had his own part to play in this story. Happily, he still had a special place in his heart for d'Artagnan.

Like The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After wasn't really a funny book overall, but it had moments of comical genius. Honestly, I laughed out loud when d'Artagnan spoke of the biscuits as "veritable sponges", and I even related the excerpt to Ken!

In so many ways, Twenty Years After was a great continuation of The Three Musketeers. There's plenty of swashbuckling and action, and such honor! Such nobility! Even more than before, we see examples of d'Artagnan's cleverness.

Sadly, in the end, we see the four friends part once again. I can't pick up the next volume in the series fast enough.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Three Musketeers (1948)


*** Warning: This review constains spoilers! ***

I love this movie!

Great costumes, great casting - it's a beauty to watch. Especially the swashbuckling! Even the scenes of galloping horses were exciting. I also saw, for the first time, a beautiful young Angela Lansbury. Really, just an all-around very entertaining movie!

This screen adaptation is, for the most part, delightfully true to the book. Buttercup, the Count de Warde, and Kitty are included, and we see that all four lackeys exist, though Planchet is the only one with a major role, and Grimaud is the only other one mentioned by name.

My prudish sensibilities actually appreciated some of the efforts to "purify" the story. Madame Bonacieux in the book is Mademoiselle Bonacieux in the movie, and she is d'Artagnan's landlord's niece rather than his wife. Instead of talking about "rich mistresses", the movie has "rich widows".

As the story progresses, it gradually starts to deviate from the book, mostly to simplify and condense the story. It is, after all, only a 2 hour movie. There is no siege of La Rochelle, and Lord de Winter and John Felton are omitted. In a nice twist, Constance is sent by the Queen to the Duke of Buckingham in England for her safety (rather than to a French convent), and she ends up being Milady's jailer. There is no "Hollywood ending" for Constance or Milady - there the movie is completely faithful to the book.

I liked this movie so much that I watched it again the very next day, and enjoyed just as much the second time!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (Ramona Quimby #6) by Beverly Cleary


In this book, Ramona is in third grade, and she starts to mature. There's a boy in her class who could have become a bully to her, but with the right attitude and some clever thinking, she managed to turn the relationship into one of respectful teasing. She doesn't cause as much trouble in this book, which on the one hand makes for less interesting reading, but on the other hand makes me feel (as a parent!) hopeful that the difficult behavior I see in Isabelle really might just be, at least in part, a function of her age. :P

While Ramona had had misunderstandings with her teachers before, this time, it becomes personal, and for the first time, Ramona struggles with the idea that some people - even grown-ups - actually might not like her.

As usual, Beverly Cleary effectively gets inside Ramona's head, and you get a good sense of what really matters in the world of a third grader.

As for Isabelle, she says she liked the part when Ramona made a cat mask for her oral book report. In the books, Ramona is very creative and artistic, and when she gets assigned an oral book report, she comes up with a really clever way of doing it. She throws herself into her project and is proud of her work. Even if Isabelle only remembered this part of the book because of the silliness factor, it's nice that it also had a have-fun-with-your-work-and-be-proud-of-what-you-can-do component.