Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library

Ex-libris-dvd“Frederick Wiseman’s film, Ex Libris – The New York Public Library, goes behind the scenes of one of the greatest knowledge institutions in the world and reveals it as a place of welcome, cultural exchange and learning. With 92 branches throughout Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, the library is a resource for all the inhabitants of this multifaceted and cosmopolitan city, and beyond. The New York Public Library exemplifies the deeply rooted American belief in the individual’s right to know and be informed. It is one of the most democratic institutions in America – everyone is welcome. The Library strives to inspire learning, advance knowledge and strengthen communities.”

Earlier this week I stumble upon this enormous documentary on PBS. If you are into books and libraries, you’ll just love this movie that gives us an extensive tour of the New York Library and demonstrates how dedicated and welcoming the staff of its 92 branches are, what are the challenges they face in order to keep up with the demands and needs of their patrons, and particularly how important libraries can be to foster the diffusion of culture & knowledge as well as artistic creativity. It’s certainly one of the best examples of what an ideal library should be (as I recently discussed).

It is amazing how our local libraries look insignificant and puny in comparison of the behemoth collection and the huge diversity of services offered by the New York Public Library… With 53 millions documents, it is the second largest public library in the U.S. (third largest in the world after the British Library and the Library of Congress). Surprisingly, despite its name, it is a private, non-profit library, but it’s using public/private partnership (and funding) to work in collaboration with local governments (city, state, federal) in providing a large array of services… It is quite interesting (and serendipitous) that, with our imminent provincial elections, a librarian and teacher at the U de M Library Science School has been very recently questioning the commitment of the government in regards of libraries. Will the government create a strategic plan for the development of libraries (like the PLA recently did) ? It is direly needed at a time when the usefulness of libraries (and even our society’s fundamental concepts of knowledge and truth) are being challenged  (NYT, The Guardian) !

Of course, for such an enormous documentary, the reception has been rather mixed (with a critical response at 97%, but with only a 61% audience score, on Rotten Tomatoes) with reviews going from bad (Globe & Mail), to good (Variety) to excellent (The Guardian).

For me it was very interesting to watch and compare (seeing the similarities and differences) our library work here, in relatively small municipal library branches, to what’s done in NYC. However, even with the mastery of legendary documentarist Frederick Wiseman, I do think that 3h17 is really too long for any documentary to keep the attention of the viewers (at least in one sitting)! Many sequences are unnecessarily long. Also someone can get easily annoyed by Wiseman’s “no-comment” documentary style where he just show the scene as it happens without much editing or information (like not telling us who is talking!). In the end, despite those faults, this documentary is definitely worth watching for anyone (with spare time) who’s interested in the realm of books and libraries.

Ex Libris – The New York Public Library : USA, 2017, 197 mins; Dir./Ed./Sound/Prod.: Frederick Wiseman; Phot.: John Davey; Exec. Prod.: Karen Konicek; Cast: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Elvis Costello, Richard Dawkins and the very dedicated staff of all NYL branches. The DVD will be available soon from the producing company, PBS or Amazon (UK / FR). It can also be streamed online (legally?)… stars-3-0

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Ready Player One

ReadyPlayerOneIn a dystopian future (Is it? It realistically could be just our future or it could be a “trumpian” future), the reality is too tough to take and people are looking to forget their troubles. What was originally created as a virtual reality game become the perfect source of escapism for the people. In virtual reality they can be whoever or whatever they want! It is based on the novel by Ernest Cline. 

This is a typical fantasy story where the hero (with a group of companions) must find an artifact to save the world from an evil overlord (or a nefarious corporation plotting to control the world). The only difference is that, this time, the artifact is a legendary Easter Egg in a virtual reality video game. It is also a quest to find the heir to the Halliday’s fortune and ownership of the entire virtual world, known as OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation). The movie improves on the book by providing a great visual: the part inside the virtual reality (60% of the movie) was created with motion capture CGI. It is certainly not very original, but it’s brilliantly written and well orchestrated.

For me, what makes the movie interesting is that it’s a treasure trove of popular culture references (mostly related to movies and video games) from the 80s (including a few anime like Akira, Dragon Ball, Godzilla, or Gundam !) that plays on the nostalgia of a long gone era. In that aspect, it can particularly appeal to two different audiences: those who grew up in that era (the Millenials or Generation Y) or those who grew up hearing stories from their parents and have a glorified impression of the era (the Generation Z or iGen, Centennials). It is so rich in references that you could see the movie a dozen time and still discover new ones! 

The movie was well received (with a Rotten Tomatoes critical score of 72% and a slightly better audience score of 78%) and did well at the box office (bringing back in revenue three time its budget of $175 millions). Unfortunately, even if it’s directed by Spielberg, it has the usual flaws of most teenage action movies: it offers an heroic but superficial story (and characters) where the exploding action (full of car races, fights and magic!), a shared cultural trivia, visual overload and an expedited storyline replace the depth and richness that usually make truly excellent movies. However, it remains a great and funny movie that celebrate geek culture. It is entertainment at its best. I enjoyed it immensely and, if you are in the right demographic, you will certainly too. stars-3-5

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Winchester

Winchester-DvdI am not a big fan of horror movies but I like Helen Mirren. So I watched the movie with the expectation that I would not like it. It is not a bad movie after all. Not a great movie, but a good entertainment nonetheless. 

The heiress (Helen Mirren) of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co is cursed and haunted by the spirits of all the people killed with a Winchester rifle. To appease their spirits and help them moving on she built for each of them a replica of the room where they were killed so her mansion is in constant construction, resulting in a huge building that doesn’t make much sense. The board of the company think she’s crazy and hires a doctor (Jason Clarke) to evaluate her mental state. He was himself widowed and almost killed in an incident involving a Winchester rifle and became addicted to laudanum as a result. Of course, the moment of his arrival at the mansion coincide with the appearance of an evil and vengeful spirit seeking pay back on the Winchester family! Will the rational mind of the doctor let himself be convinced and help fight against the murderous supernatural forces at play? Or is it all the result of the convergence of natural events and the power of suggestion of their own minds?  

It is quite an interesting take on the legend of the Winchester mansion and of Sarah Winchester. I also like the way they used other events of the era to add to the story, so it is really based on “real” events. After all, the mansion is well known for being the most haunted building in America. The storytelling is good and managed to follow the Todorov definition of the fantastic genre (if the characters seem to believe in the supernatural aspects, at least the viewers are well aware of the possible rational explanations for them). The acting is respectable, and the visuals are good considering that this is a very low budget production (shot in Australia for $3.5 million). So it is nothing to get excited about (besides the cheap scary tactics), but it is still worth watching. Although the reception was not very good (the critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes was 14%, with an audience score of 35%) the movie still managed to make over ten times its production cost at the box office! stars-3-0

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

GuernseyLiteraryAndPotatoPeelPieSocietyNot long after the end of WW2, Juliet (Lily James) receives a letter from a pig farmer in Guernsey (who’s a member of a local literary club) asking her for the address a good bookstore in London. He got her address from inside a used book she sold before the war and which somehow had made its way to this island near the coast of France. She send him one book for free at the condition that he answers three questions to explain the name of their literary club and the circumstances of its creation. The tale of their ordeal under German occupation intrigues her, therefore, being a writer herself, she invites herself for a reading at their club to make some research in preparation for a newspaper article she was asked to write. Upon arrival she notices that the founder of the club, Elisabeth (Jessica Brown Findlay), is mysteriously absent and the club members seem very secretive about her circumstances. She starts asking questions around and her enquiry will unravel a painful past and make her fall in love with the island. It’s interesting how books can touch people and change their lives forever!

Of course, it is not a perfect movie as you find, for example, many stereotypical characters (like the self-centred and possessive American, the nationalist mean informer, the nosy and religious lodger, etc.). However, it remains a very beautiful movie, that offers a well-written and touching story about the hardship of war — a time when friendship and compassionate sentiments can be quite dangerous! It’s based on the novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Interestingly, since nowadays Guernsey is too touristy, the movie was shot in North Devon with a cast in good part made of actors from Downton Abbey (Lily James, Jessica Brown Findlay, Matthew Goode, Penelope Wilton)! It is also noteworthy that the movie is distributed by Netflix as one of its original films (that’s where I watched it). All in all, it’s quite entertaining (critical response of 81% on Rotten Tomatoes) and an excellent movie experience. stars-4-0

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Isle of dogs

IsleOfDogs-covIn a timeless and fictitious Japan, the dictator of Megasaki — a cat lover — has banned all dogs to Trash Island. A twelve-year-old boy will sneak out on the island looking for his dog and unwithingly start a revolution. The stop-motion animation is amazing and quite stunning. The story is clever and cute — but, frankly, I’m a cat lover myself. The movie was well received (with a critic rating of 89% on Rotten Tomatoes) — although there was some harsh critics claiming it was succumbing to “the trope of the white savior” as the white foreign-student is organizing the revolt (but lets not forget that the REAL hero is the young boy!) and that it was a prime “example of racial stereotyping and cultural appropriation” ! On this I totally agree: it was a great hommage to the popularity of Japanese culture in the West (anime & manga, Kurosawa’s movies, etc.) and it’s an outrage that they didn’t select real dogs to play the parts! All in all, it’s beautifully entertaining, a great animation that I fuzzily recommend to everyone (although I am quite sure my cats will not like it). stars-3-5

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The Mummy

L9677659I found this action movie rather average and, if they wanted to do horror, well, I wasn’t scared. It is well paced and the acting is good (although Tom Cruise is getting a little old for this, his two female co-stars, Annabelle Wallis & Sofia Boutella, are great), but the story is rather predictable — however, mixing Jekyll & Hyde (Russell Crowe) with it was a surprise! I also like the “Egyptian” designs (the flashbacks, the look of Princess Ahmanet, the tomb & sarcophagus — a little reminiscent of Giger style). It’s interesting that, just in case the movie would be successful enough, they’ve put an open ending to allow for a sequel. I hope not. This reboot of The Mummy franchise offered a nice mindless entertainment but, alas, nothing more (Rotten Tomatoes concurs with a critical rating of 15% !). What’s scary is that The Mummy is supposed to be the first movie in the reboot of Universal’s Dark Universe (Jekyll & Hyde [with Russell Crowe — now the cross-over with The Mummy makes sense!], Frankenstein [with Javier Bardem], Dracula, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Phantom of the Opera, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Invisible Man [with Johnny Depp], etc.). The next movie in line should be Bride of Frankenstein [dir. Bill Condon, with possibly Angelina Jolie or Gal Gadot in titular role] first announced for Valentine’s Day 2019 but its release has now been delayed!  stars-2-5

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In this corner of the world

InThisCornerOfTheWorld-covAnother great animation—this time by a less known director (at least in this corner of the world, but Sunao Katabuchi has also directed the TV series Black Lagoon and the movies Princess Arete and Mai Mai Miracle). This is a very traditional Japanese animation which is not drawn in the cute style we usually associate with anime. It is soft, pastel-like, yet a little sketchy. It is also realistic in its concept but yet cute in its own way. However, despite a good dose of humour (through the awkwardness of the main character and how she sees the world through her drawings), the story is quite serious as it chronicles the life and hardships of a young bride in the pre-war and, later, the WW2-era Japanese countryside in Kure. Despite the cartoony style, it is very precise in the description of the everyday life, the clothings, the food rationing, and the military details (warships, bombings, etc.). It is really touching, beautiful, educational and entertaining (although it is a bit long at 129 mins). Like Grave of the Fireflies describes the life after the firebombing of Tokyo, this movie is painting a detailed portrait of the life of ordinary Japanese citizens in the Hiroshima area before the A-bomb and a little after. It is a must-see movie that has been nominated for and received several awards both in Japan and abroad. stars-3-5

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