Sunday, December 27, 2015

The play's the thing

The fifth book in Gary Corby's hilarious ancient Athenian mystery series focused on that still-resonant cultural development, the Greek play. Previous books in the series focused on the (original) Olympics and the Battle of Marathon, and the future of democracy itself is always at stake if our hero detective Nico and his partner-in-crime/wife Diotima don't solve mysterious murders. This latest installment was another captivating caper -- this time involving the feast of Dionysus, the hierarchy of ancient Hellenic actors, and a good old wine-vs-beer subplot. Corby delivered yet another funny and insightful tale, with plenty of tongue-in-cheek jokes for a modern audience. I'll have to wait another year or so for the next book in this excellent series, though.

Over Thanksgiving, Mi Hermana and I went to see the final installment of the   Hunger Games film franchise.  It was largely faithful to the books, and like its three predecessors was a visual feast -- from the stunning architecture of the Capitol to the massive action sequences.  One thing that wasn't made especially clear in the movie, though, was the reason for Katniss' eventual rejection of Gale and subsequent acceptance of Peeta. Both Mi Hermana y La Otra Hermana were confused about how it played out in the movie, and neither had read the book. In the book it's much clearer that the love triangle represents war vs. peace; maybe that didn't come across on screen for the uninitiated.
But speaking of the initiated... La Madre drags family to see Pacific Northwest Ballet's The Nutcracker every few years. She mainly does it when family friends or boyfriends are in town. I've never particularly enjoyed the production or the story or the dancing (I've gotten bored every year), but I do love the music.

This year, I honestly loved the entire production. I'm not sure what exactly changed for me -- the CGI introduction, the costumes, the set, old age, the fact that I could pre-order wine for intermission... But whatever it was, I've only ever seen the PNB's Stowell and Sendak version. Their switch to the George Balanchine choreography this year made me actually love this ballet. Little details in the dances and set were hilarious, touching, beautiful. And I was never bored.  So kudos to PNB for trying something different and for finally getting me to appreciate my mother's holiday tradition!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Shaken, not stirred

60s-inspired spies are back! At least, for me. On the big screen.

I never watched the old classic series, but the remake of The Man from U.N.C.L.E  was good, cheesy fun.  Cold War spy thriller + Henry Cavill = reason I went to see the movie with no idea what it entailed. But the plot was outlined for us 21st-century newbies: an American and a Russian spy have to join forces to stop a nefarious secret organization bent on controlling the world. It's cute and HILARIOUS and chock full of great action scenes. Surprisingly, I wasn't drooling over Henry as much as I expected to be; the frenemy interactions between him and Armie Hammer were what stole the show. I will watch it again and again when it's released for streaming, and I really hope there's a sequel.

While I'm on the spy theme...

Daniel Craig is definitely my favorite James Bond; he brings a grittiness and brutal realism to the violent world of espionage. Some earlier Bonds were utterly ridiculous, little more than laughable fops. But I like how Craig's 007 continually makes us second-guess why Bond is so popular, 50+ years later and with all its sexist, colonial baggage.

Plus, his cars just get better every movie.

 is now my favorite Bond movie. I wasn't the biggest fan of Skyfall (too much focus on Bond returning to his childhood roots, plus they offed Judy Dench). But SPECTRE was great.  It questions what makes a good spy tick, the relevance of field agents, and the limits of technology and privacy.  SPOILER ALERT:  You know when Andrew Scott, who plays Moriarty in Sherlock, appears onscreen, there's no way he's a good guy; he's just too good at the evil supervillain thing. Likewise with Christoph Waltz. But SPECTRE had its share of belief-suspending action and momentary honest introspection. It didn't go overboard with the love interests (which I always hate in Bond movies); and though it drew on Bond's personal past, unlike Skyfall it didn't seem like a Freudian-riddled therapy session.

Hooray for the return of uncomplicated spy films!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Whatever the cost may be

Connie Willis' books were what made me start to like and appreciate science fiction.

Blackout and its sequel All Clear are two of her time-travel stories I hadn't previously had a chance to read. History students in the late 21st century go back to various points during World War II: the evacuation of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the London Blitz, and V-E Day. They each get trapped in the times they are only supposed to observe. Every failed attempt to return to the 21st century forces them to keep participating in the civil defense of Britain, possibly altering the future: crossing the Channel to rescue soldiers, sleeping in Tube shelters, driving ambulances, protecting St. Paul's.

The books were captivating, can't-put-down-even-at-4am reads, and a poignant testament to the legendary indomitable British spirit during the Blitz.