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Book Review: The Bicycle Teacher by Campbell Jeffreys

Continuing to clear the backlog of free Goodreads books I have reviewed (and sticking with last week’s 1980s Berlin theme) here is The Bicycle Teacher by Campbell Jeffreys, available now from Rippple Books (yes, I spelled that correctly).

bike teacher cover

Michael, a disillusioned Australian mechanic, breaks his family’s cycle of poverty by moving to East Germany, where he finds love and the opportunity to move up in the world. But can it last?

This book isn’t for everyone. Michael’s virulent belief that life is better behind the Iron Curtain may alienate die-hard capitalists, but I found it fascinating. Until now, all the books I read about the USSR featured repressed intellectuals wanting to escape to the West. But looking at things through the eyes of an everyman like Michael, it’s easy to see the appeal of community and guaranteed subsistence, even if it means never achieving wealth or greatness.

Jeffreys cunningly constructs a mirror between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in East/West Germany and East/West Perth, and because Michael is trying not to become a bitter, angry drunk like his father, his experience has a universal appeal.

Jeffreys has a gift for description and has obviously done his research into Cold War era Berlin. His matter-of-fact style and attention to detail makes it easy to picture cities, events, and people. One of my favorite descriptions is: “he had a stringy mustache that seemed to start from deep within his nose.” The only time the descriptions get weighed down by metaphor is when Michael gets maudlin, as the book is written diary-style. For the most part the story stays focused on Michael and his personal experiences, though toward the end it did stray a little further into politics than I usually like to go.

I wanted to like Michael, and for the most part I did. He seems like a real person with good qualities (he works hard, helps his neighbors, loves his family) and bad ones (he’s judgmental, a bit homophobic, and extremely thick when it comes to the machinations of his wife’s cousin). However, I didn’t feel like I really connected with him. The bare-bones writing style told rather than showed his emotions, making him seem a bit cold and distant.

I would recommend The Bicycle Teacher to people who normally read travelogues or memoirs and to anyone who’s interested in hearing about the ‘other side’ of the Cold War (ideologically speaking). It’s a strong effort, so I rate it:

category 4

This review brought to you by:

american russian pants

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DVDs for April 8, 2014

smaug

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug

Attention my one friend who likes these movies (hi, John): the longest movie in the world is now available to bore you right in your own home! If you’re the type that likes the extra long, extra boring re-cuts (hello again, John) then you’ll want to wait for the extended edition. This one only has a few featurettes. For those of you who aren’t familiar, this is the second film in a one-book trilogy about a hobbit and some dwarfs who are trying to kick a dragon out of a mountain. There’s a lot of filler. Read my review for more.

Buy The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

grudge match

Grudge Match

Other appropriate titles for this film would be Bum Fights: The Movie and Battle of the 80s Has-Beens: a sort-of Music and Lyrics Spinoff (but not really). It features creaky old Sylvester Stallone and flabby old Robert DeNiro as a pair of aging boxing rivals who agree to make a spectacle of themselves in public for money by fighting a rematch. If you want to see a comedy where 9/10 jokes are in the vein of “I’m too old for this sh**”, this is the movie for you. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother.

Buy Grudge Match on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

marked ones

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

Otherwise known as Paranormal Activity: The Other Side of the Tracks. Whereas the previous films have all featured hauntings among white suburban families, this movie switches things up a little. It’s still found footage and it’s still connected to the overarching story, but it’s about an inner-city Hispanic kid who gets possessed after he sticks his nose in his weird neighbor’s business. It’s rather a lot like all the other possession movies, but if you’re into horror I still think you should see it. There’s a scene where the kid pulls a worm out of his own eyeball.

Buy Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

august osage

August: Osage County

I am not a fan of dysfunctional family dramas, especially not when they’re adapted from plays, because there tends to be too much talking and not enough happening. That’s the kind of movie this is. Here’s the extent of the story: there’s a family crisis, the whole family comes home, they squabble a lot until the movie’s over. There are a lot of famous people in it, but that’s because they like to flex their acting muscles by getting all worked up and yelling at each other, not because the story is good. Critics like it, but normal people… not so much.

Buy August: Osage County on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

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Book Review: Going Over by Beth Kephart

This Random Friday book review is Going Over, a teen historical romance by Beth Kephart. It’s new this month from Chronicle Books. I won a free copy in a Goodreads giveaway.

going over cover
It’s 1983. Wild graffiti artist Ada and cautious astronomer Stefan are dating from opposite sides of the Berlin Wall. Ada wants Stefan to escape from East Berlin. But does he dare?

This book is right up my alley (YA, Cold War, etc.) but we got off to a rocky start. At first Ada seemed selfish to me. She threatens to break up with Stefan unless he risks his life trying to escape. As I learned more of Ada’s secrets, I understood why she needed him with her. She’s strong, but even the strongest person can only handle so much alone.

At sixteen, Ada is already working in a daycare to help her damaged mother and grandmother eke out an existence in a squatter’s village. She’s also trying to protect a little Turkish boy and his abused mother. Ada deals with her feelings by spraypainting them onto the Berlin Wall. Her pictures sound so evocative that I wish I could see them. I also wish the book was a little less cagey. Unpleasant events are never explicitly stated – just hinted at. I’ll always wonder if things were really as bad as I thought.

Ada has plenty to do right from the get-go, but Stefan’s story gets off to a slow start. He spends the first half of the book waffling over whether to try and cross the wall. He’s caught between memories of his visits with Ada and his grandfather’s ill-fated escape attempt. However, once he reveals his desire to pursue a career not open to him in the East and starts gearing up to implement his crazy escape plan (which is based on a true story), he becomes a lot more interesting.

While I enjoyed the plot and characters, I wasn’t keen on the writing style. Ada and Stefan’s stories are told from two of my least favourite perspectives: first person present (I do this, I do that) and second person present (you do this, you do that). First person present is popular in YA because it helps create immediacy, but second person present is unusual and irritating. The author also makes some strange grammatical choices. I assume they’re meant be poetic, but I just found them difficult to swallow.

The author obviously did a lot of research into Berlin, the Cold War, the problems faced by Turkish immigrants, and graffiti. However, I don’t think Going Over is a good introduction to any of these topics. Description and explanation are sparse. This isn’t the first book I’ve read about Cold War Berlin, and even I didn’t understand what was happening at times. To avoid confusion, I suggest reading a few Wikipedia articles before picking up this book.

A good effort, but it didn’t blow me away. I rate it:
category 3

This review brought to you by:
east german graffiti

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DVDs for April 1, 2014

47 ronin

47 Ronin

Based on a true story (sort of), 47 Ronin features a group of samurai who attack a rival faction to get revenge for the death of their master. The difference between this movie and the other 47 million films about Japanese martial arts is that this one is American, stars Keanu Reeves, and is mostly a vehicle for CGI. Paradoxically, this Japanese story will best be enjoyed by people who are not fans of Japanese cinema because it seems so inferior by comparison. However, if you just want to watch some hackey slashy and cool special effects, you might actually enjoy it.

Buy 47 Ronin on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

anchorman 2

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Will Ferrell’s iconic newsman and his entourage emerge from the 1970s and attempt to join the 80s by taking over a 24 hour news channel. Like Anchorman, you’ll either love this movie or hate it. Unfortunately the litmus tests seems to be attempting to watch one of the films. Haters (like me) rarely make it to the end. Some clues that you might not like this movie include: disliking other Will Ferrell movies, being offended by sexist/racist/anythingist jokes, and squirming with agony when characters embarrass themselves. Watch at your own risk.

Buy Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

pirate fairy

The Pirate Fairy

In this straight-to-DVD movie, Disney makes yet another feeble attempt to bring its Princess properties into the 21st century… by slapping a 19th century bar wench outfit on a fairy and setting her up as a misunderstood Tinkerbell villain. She apparently stole some pixie dust and Tinkerbell’s crew has to rescue it whilst attempting to sort out their switched-around powers. It’s a Tinkerbell movie so a lot of little girls will like it, but it mostly leaves me wondering who switched Disney’s brains around with bags of rocks.

Buy The Pirate Fairy on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

knights of badassdom

Knights of Badassdom

Knights of Badassdom is a goofy horror comedy about a group of scewups who accidentally summon a succubus while at a live action roleplaying convention (sort of like a pretend medieval camping trip/battle re-enactment). It’s better than Your Highness, mostly because it stars Peter Dinklage and Ryan Kwanten instead of Danny McBride, but it’s still pretty dumb. You might like it if you’re a fan of that Supernatural episode where Sam and Dean infiltrate a LARP convention as part of a case.

Buy Knights of Badassdom on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

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Trailer Reviews for March 28, 2014

NOAH



Literal bible interpretations are not my cup of tea, for the same reason dumb action movies are not my cup of tea. They put something that’s obviously impossible up on screen for dramatic effect and I have an aneurism. Jazzing it up with famous actors and special effects isn’t going to suck me in. Especially not for this movie. I almost had an aneurism just watching the trailer. All the animals in the world will not fit on a boat. Especially not the boat Russel Crowe and his family just built. And while we’re on the subject of boats, that is not a boat. That is a box. It’s too long and it’s not even sealed up. It would crack in half and sink faster than the Titanic. You can say magic helped them all you want, but if they’re floating on magic, why do they even need a boat? I’m really glad I haven’t seen Muppets Most Wanted yet. Otherwise I might have had to go to this.

BAD WORDS



Hmm. I’d see this before I saw Noah (I’d probably watch a Transformers movie before I saw Noah) but I don’t think I’d like it very much. Though I think the concept of an adult technically allowed to compete in a spelling bee because he never passed 8th Grade could be funny, the tone here is too mean and angry to be funny. It would have to be sillier and more heartwarming before I’d go for it.

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DVDs for March 25, 2014

Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street

This movie, which could also be called Douchebags Spend Your Retirement Savings is the latest in a long line of Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio teamups. It tells the true story of a Wall Street stockbroker named Jordan Belfort, who made a buttload of sketchy money and was subsequently tackled by the FBI’s white collar crime division. If you have a heart condition and a burning hatred of fatcat fraudsters, watching this movie will probably kill you.

Buy The Wolf of Wall Street on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

delivery man

Delivery Man

This movie is an Englishization of a Quebec movie called Starbuck. Vince Vaughn plays a screwup who discovers that his sperm bank donations have resulted in the birth of over 500 kids, all of whom want to meet their ‘dad.’ He’s not sure he wants to meet them, so he insinuates himself into their lives without telling them who he is. I’ve never found Vince Vaughn characters as ‘lovable’ as advertised, but you should see this movie just to watch Chris Pratt keep a straight face while being slapped by a toddler.

Buy Delivery Man on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

walking with dinos

Walking with Dinosaurs

This movie was mostly a 3D vehicle made to bring in kids who wanted to see CGI dinosaurs roaming around. While a lot of work was put into the effects, almost none was put into the story. A kid on an archeology trip gets a lecture that turns into a movie about a clumsy little dinosaur whose dinosaur tribe is migrating through a valley full of predators. Bad dialogue, thin plot, and heavy handed lecturing make this a big flop for all but the littlest and least discerning children. Just put on The Land Before Time instead.

Buy Walking with Dinosaurs on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

scooby wrestling

Scooby Doo! Wrestlemania Mystery

Otherwise known as the movie that ruins Scooby Doo. He and the gang travel to a Wrestlemania event (blergh) which is threatened by a ghost bear thing (what??) so the Scooby gang has to solve the mystery before the event can continue. And a bunch of “wrestlers” (sarcastic air quotes) have cartoon cameos. As you can probably guess, I hated big fake wrestling even as a kid (when they were still insisting it was real) but if you or your kids are fans you might like this movie better.

Buy Scooby Doo Wrestlemania Mystery on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

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DVDs for March 18, 2014

frozen

Frozen

Frozen is the big-deal cartoon cartoon of the year (it just won an Oscar) but to me, this confused story about a princess trying to get another princess to unfreeze their land is just Disney’s first, fumbling attempt to bring their damsel-in-distress musical model into the 21st Century. The reindeer is cute and the twists on convention are amusing but the songs all sound the same and the plot meanders all over the place. Check out my full review for more.

Buy Frozen on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

saving mr banks

Saving Mr. Banks

If you’ve ever wanted to see a Disney movie about how they get the rights to make movies, this is for you. It follows the (sort of) true story of author Pamela Travers and her twenty year fight with Walt Disney over the rights to her book Mary Poppins. Travers is portrayed as unpleasant and Disney as a giant man-child and their battle is less interesting than the flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in Australia. It’s not strictly true to life but it does make a compelling movie. Read my review for more.

Buy Saving Mr. Banks on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

american hustle

American Hustle

This movie won a bunch of Golden Globes but no Oscars (as is usually the way with Golden Globes and Oscars) and is almost as popular as David O. Russell’s last movie, Silver Linings Playlist. It didn’t appeal to me, but if you like crime dramas where everyone’s in over their head and nobody’s quite sure who’s going to be conned by who when, then you might. It follows a pair of con artists (Christian Bale, Amy Adams) and an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) who worm their way into mafia circles in New Jersey.

Buy American Hustle on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

mandela

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

This film, which is based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, is a school history style overview of Mandela’s life, starting with his childhood. It chronicles his opposition to South Africa’s racist Apartheid policy, the time he spent in jail, and his decision to pursue a peaceful resolution. It ends with him becoming president. Since this movie is more about ideology and personal struggle than chronicling the violence of the time, it’s not too gritty to show to young people. With a PG-13 rating, it’s appropriate for classes of junior high schoolers and above.

Buy Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

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DVDs for March 11, 2014

book thief

The Book Thief

A lot of people have flipped their lids over this movie and the book it’s based on. It’s a Nazi era story narrated by Death which follows an illiterate girl who steals books and shares them with the Jew her foster parents are hiding in the basement. As a ‘kid in the Nazi era/Holocaust’ movie, it’s decent. I’ve definitely seen better (Life is Beautiful, Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Devil’s Arithmetic, etc.) But as a film adaptation it can’t help but be miles better than the source material, given how sparse and confusing the writing was.

Buy The Book Thief on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

out of the furnace

Out of the Furnace

As I mentioned during my trailer review, Out of the Furnace can best be described as Winter’s Bone starring Christian Bale in the Jennifer Lawrence role. A desperate person (Bale) ventures into rural crime gang territory looking for a missing family member (in this case, a brother). It necessarily takes more of a turn into revenge thriller territory though, because we don’t have the dramatic angle of the searcher being a young dependent about to be turned out on her ear. There’s nothing new or particularly enthralling here.

Buy Out of the Furnace on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

homefront

Homefront

If you’re looking for a crime thriller with more shooting in it, skip Out of the Furnace and rent Homefront. It’s a paint-by-numbers action film starring Jason Statham as a burned out DEA agent who retires to a small town with his daughter to recover from an incident involving a tragic death. But guess what? Drug dealers in this small town want to cause another tragic death (of his daughter this time) over a bullying incident at school (yes really). Commence shotguns, explosions, and hero redemption.

Buy Homefront on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

inside llewyn davis

Inside Llewyn Davis

I like Garrett Hedlund, but if he keeps choosing bit parts in meandering period films about the messed up lifestyles of struggling artists, I’m going to have to jump ship to save my sanity. It’s not that the acting is bad. The movie is full of famous people looking to expand their range as actors. The problem is that they’re playing characters I can’t care about who wander through a story where nothing seems to be connected to anything else. If you like glacier-paced, introspective indie dramas, this will appeal to you. As you can probably tell, it didn’t appeal to me.

Buy Inside Llewyn Davis on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

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Mr. Peabody and Sherman Review

poster from the Dreamworks Pictures film Mr. Peabody and Sherman

No way was I paying $14 to be bored to sleep by Slow Motion Swordfight 2: Now With More Beards and Instagram Filters, so my choice this week was cartoons. I only vaguely remembered Mr. Peabody from when I was little, so I could watch the reboot without all those pesky predetermined notions you usually have with a remake.

A hyperintelligent dog tries to keep his adoptive son out of trouble after he messes up the past trying to impress a girl from school.

My major concern was that I would be annoyed by the inevitable historical and scientific inaccuracies, but the movie is so hilarious that I ended up not caring about any of that. It also has some interesting things to say about adoption if you’re paying attention, so it’s both cute and funny. Take the kids. You’ll both like it.

Read More

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Trailer Reviews for March 7, 2014

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE



I know I have a long history of watching not-otherwise-awesome programs featuring shirtless dudes, but even I have to draw the line somewhere. The first 300 movie bored me so hard I almost fell asleep. I blame it on a combination of irritating filmmaking gimmicks (filters, slow motion) and beards. I never was a fan of beards.

MR. PEABODY AND SHERMAN TRAILER



I only vaguely remember this show growing up, which is good, because I won’t care if they changed a bunch of things for the movie. I like history jokes and the trailer was pretty cute, so I’ll go. I just hope it’s funny enough to mask all the inevitable historical inaccuracies and broken rules of time traveling.

NO CLUE



I hate film noir, but this movie makes fun of it, so that’s a plus. Also, it’s Canadian, features Amy Smart, and looks half decently funny, so that’s enough for me… to check out on DVD… later.

ALAN PARTRIDGE



Apparently this movie is called Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa in regions (Britiain) where they actually know who Alan Partridge is (a BBC radio sketch comedy character). I normally like British comedy and Steve Coogan, but honestly, this trailer isn’t all that funny and it doesn’t give me much of an idea what the movie’s about. I’ll pass.

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