Books in the Park

suggestions from the Barbara S. Ponce Public Library at Pinellas Park

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Library Playlist: The Expanse (2015 – )

expanse-season-oneI adore science fiction television, but lately it doesn’t seem as if it loves me back. Far too much of what’s appearing on TV right now is either dreadfully boring or so cheap and unconvincing that it looks like a craft project rather than a major television series. I get that this stuff is tricky, but aren’t we past the era when set design consisted of papier-mâché and Christmas lights? Yeah, there are a bounty of decent superhero shows right now, but fans of hard sci-fi like myself know that they don’t really count. Mix all that mediocrity with a new Star Trek series whose release date is about as fixed as a mirage and it’s easy to become discouraged. Imagine my surprise then that the SyFy Channel had paused from making Sharknado sequels to give us something pretty good. It’s time to rejoice: The Expanse is the space drama that we’ve been owed for some time now.

It’s two hundred years in the future, and humanity has spread throughout the Solar System. Detective Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane) has taken on the task of locating the now missing Julie Mao (Florence Faivre). Meanwhile, the destruction of the ice hauler Canterbury forces Executive Officer James Holden (Steven Strait) to make decisions that will embroil him and his crew in the midst of a potential interplanetary conflict. Back on Earth, the United Nations executive Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) hopes to stop a war before it begins. Soon, all three will discover that their paths converge upon a massive conspiracy, one that could have dire consequences for humanity.

Like complex political intrigue set against the backdrop of space? The Expanse might just be for you, with beautiful ships, celestial bodies, and space vistas augmenting a clever story of interplanetary intrigue. Still not convinced? How about rousing performances from a talented cast? Thomas Jane is awesome fun to watch as the cocky, hard-luck Miller, and Shohreh Aghdashloo is delightfully cunning as U.N. high official Avasarala. No doubt, The Expanse is a quality series, but it’s also an effort that is long overdue for the SyFy channel. In this golden era of TV, SyFy and its frequently lackluster attempts at dramatic television were always a disappointing oddity. Hopefully, The Expanse is not a fluke and we can expect more like it. Highly Recommended.

Check the PPLC Catalog for The Expanse.

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2016 Year in Review


2016 has been a good year for our blog; hits and comments are up from last year. We hope our spot in cyberspace has helped someone out there find a really good book or movie to enjoy.

Listed here are our favorite books, movies, and music that we enjoyed in 2016. While some of these titles aren’t new this year, it’s never too late for a good recommendation.

First, the 2016 favorites from our patrons. These stats were collected from checkouts countywide.

Most checked out fiction book:
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Most checked out nonfiction book:
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Most checked out DVD:
Downton Abbey Season Six

And now staff shares their favorite books, movies, and music that they loved in 2016.

Book: The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher
Movie: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Music: Blackstar by David Bowie

Book: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Movie: Moana
Music: The Hamilton Mixtape by various artists

Book: Raven: The Untold Story of Rev. Jim Jones and His People by Tim Reiterman
Movie: The Nice Guys
Music: Emotional Mugger by Ty Segall

Book: The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 by Joseph J. Ellis
Movie: Race
Music: “Growing Up” from the album This Unruly Mess I’ve Made by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis

Book: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Movie: Zootopia
Music: “Don’t Wanna Fight” from the album Sound & Color by Alabama Shakes

Book: Forward: A Memoir by Abby Wambach

Book: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Book: Fool by Christopher Moore

Book: Pure by Julianna Baggot

Book: Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

Book: Bindi Babes by Narinder Dham

Looking to read more books in 2017? Joining a reading challenge is a great way to stay motivated and read a wider range of authors and subjects. There are many challenges out there, but this Master List of 2017 Reading Challenges is very comprehensive. Prepare to be literally inspired.

Happy New Year 2017, everyone!

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Independence Day (1996)

independeceWith all my complaining about Hollywood and its seemingly endless stream of mediocre, CGI-driven action flicks, you’d think I’d hate this one. Surely, the guy who posts reviews for aging black and white films from the ’40s could never appreciate the absurd spectacle of something like Independence Day.

Well, you’d be dead wrong.

The world needs silly, witty action spectacles, and therein lies the key difference between something like this and a Taken 3 or Transformers. Crazy action films really benefit from lightheartedness or else they tend to be grim and eyeroll-inducing. The very fate of humanity hangs in the balance in ID4, but the film never feels morose. Instead, there’s plenty of wisecracking, satire, and humorous moments to lighten the mood. Smith, Goldblum, and Quaid can all pull off action sequences with ease, but they’re also talented performers that can sell the more humorous bits of the script. Helping push the action along are the excellent practical effects (explosions!) along with a light touch of CGI. Heck, it even has Brent Spiner playing a slightly deranged scientist. How great is that? Yeah, this one’s kind of jingoistic at times, but it’s too big of a goof to get upset with. Enjoy it this July 4th, preferably with friends.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Independence Day.

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The Mark of Zorro (1940)

zorroMention the word ‘remake’ in the context of modern Hollywood and you’re likely to find yourself on the blunt end of an opinion – or three. It’s not surprising; over the last several years theaters have been inundated with a variety of controversial and sometimes disappointing remakes. Films like Robocop, Point Break, and Godzilla have pushed the remake trend to the extreme and upset many moviegoers along the way with their questionable quality. Things weren’t always like this. Don’t get me wrong, the motion picture industry has a long history of remakes, but maybe the practice wasn’t as cynical and focused on the bottom line. One great example from the golden age of Hollywood? The riveting 1940 remake of The Mark of Zorro starring Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, and Basil Rathbone.

Dashing aristocrat Don Diego Vega (Power) returns from Spain to his native California only to discover that his father, previously the magistrate of Los Angeles, has been replaced by the villainous Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg) and his Captain of the Guard, Esteban Pasquale (Rathbone). To his friends and family, the junior Vega comes off as foppish and uncaring, more interested in the latest Spanish fashions than the suffering of the poor. In reality, Vega has been striking back against the corrupt Quintero by donning a black mask and taking up the sword, becoming the mysterious figure Zorro. The well-being of the peoples of California hang in the balance while Zorro strikes fear into the hearts of their oppressors.

With its rousing swordplay, quick wit, and perfect enunciation, this is classic Hollywood in fine form. Tyrone Power as Zorro cuts a dashing figure, and although he cannot deliver snappy comebacks quite like an Errol Flynn, his talented swordplay more than makes up for it. In fact, Basil Rathbone, who was himself a talented fencer, even stated that “Tyrone Power could fence Errol Flynn into a cocked hat!” The film makes the most of these fine actors by utilizing the talents of Hollywood fencing master Fred Cavens who specialized in staging more realistic fights that eschewed the stylized leaping and furniture-hopping seen previously. The choice works, and every fight feels genuinely dangerous in a way few swordfights from this period do.  Linda Darnell is a perfectly fine heroine, but the actress who really steals the show is Gale Sondergaard playing the sly, conniving Inez Quintero. Her scheming is delightful to watch and makes for some great moments when paired with Power.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Mark of Zorro.

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Collateral (2004)

collateralWhen enjoying a film, there really is something to be said for eye-candy. And by that I’m not referring to budget-busting CGI or legions of glistening models that have decided to take a second career in acting. Certainly, Hollywood has no shortage of these sorts of productions, usually PG-13 creations intended as a cynical business proposal first and artistic endeavor second. Instead, I’m referring to the older and far more fundamental art of cinematography. It’s easy to forget the craft in a new age of dazzling visual effects, but films still ultimately result from a combination of performance and camera. Movies are photographic art, and without a capable cinematographer or director of photography to guide that second half of the film equation, no amount of visual effects can make a movie beautiful. However, the 2004 movie Collateral directed by Michael Mann respects this photographic tradition in beautiful fashion.

Cabbie and aspiring businessman Max (Jamie Foxx) begins yet another nightly grind operating his taxi on the neon streets of Los Angeles. After years of toil in an attempt to begin his own limo service, Max seems no closer to living out his dream but holds his head up high regardless. While doing his rounds, Max picks up the snappily dressed Vincent (Tom Cruise) who convinces him to rent out his cab for the entire night. Unusual as his requests to be ferried about are, Max seems willing to accommodate Vincent until he stumbles upon his violent handiwork. Now a hostage of this increasingly dangerous passenger, Max must work quickly to save himself and those he holds dear.

Collateral isn’t just an excellent film, it’s also a love letter to Los Angeles. I’ve seen no other movie that paints such a glorious picture of this city with its shots of shimmering nightlife, playful shadows, and neon reflections. Really, the city has so much personality it might as well be another character. With its sweeping shots filmed almost entirely in the dead of night, this is a project that would’ve been difficult to film correctly even for experienced cinematographers, but the cinematic expertise of Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron comes through in every shot. Despite dealing with some weird aging makeup and plot scenarios that make us wonder just how competent Vincent really is, Cruise nails his action sequences perfectly and emanates menace effectively. Jamie Foxx is just great as Max, likeable, vulnerable, and filled with determination all at the same time. His dramatic scenes struggling with Vincent’s callous nature all crackle with intensity.

Looking for powerful drama and stylish action in one film? Take a look at Collateral, I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Collateral.

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The Blair Witch Project (1999)

the blair witch projectBeth’s Review: This is a very well-known movie, frequently referenced and parodied since 1999, but I personally think this film was worth the hype.

The Blair Witch Project also is of local interest to us, because one of the directors, Dan Myrick, is from Sarasota.

If you don’t already know the story, three film students, Josh, Mike, and team leader, Heather, set out to Burkittsville, Maryland, in order to shoot a documentary about the Blair Witch, a local legend which haunts the forests. Predictably, the trio get lost, tensions rise, and an unseen presence stalks them from the shadows.

The Blair Witch Project is by no means frightening, rather it is anxiety inducing. Throughout the movie the characters are arguing, screaming, and jostling the camera. All of which contribute to the general feeling of uneasiness, especially if, like me, you are tormented by strife. What I found most interesting about this film, however, is the treatment of our hero, Heather.

She is the director of the film, giving orders, and fearlessly leading Josh and Mike on their ghost hunt. Granted, throughout the course of the film, Heather is punished for her great confidence, but it occurs in a way that is not obviously gendered. By the end of the film, the boys on her team are more desperate and hysterical than she is, and she is portrayed with minimal sexualization (quite a feat for the horror genre).

It has been said the film reflects the male director’s fears of a woman in authority, an incredibly valid criticism. However, upon my viewing, I was able to see Heather as a tragic hero, who earns this viewer’s empathy by making a relatable human error, and suffering undue consequences for it. I would say The Blair Witch Project is definitely an interesting film, and could even be classified as “Accidentally Feminist”.

Andrew’s Review: With filmmaking, less is often more. Hollywood blockbusters that brim with huge budgets and glitzy production assets often lose sight of what is arguably the most important element of a movie, storytelling. An obvious example might be the Hays code films of the 30s and later which labored under onerous technical and narrative restrictions. The films of this era found clever and compelling ways to tell stories that hadn’t been tried before, creating exciting forms of film art. Simply put, it is often the more uncomplicated films which we find the most engaging, and that is certainly true of found-footage masterpiece The Blair Witch Project.

Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard are all student filmmakers embarking on a cinematic expedition to the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland. Heather, arguably the most ambitious of the trio, hopes to produce a documentary that will unravel the local mystery of the Blair Witch. It doesn’t take long for confidence and bravado to dissipate as the party becomes hopelessly lost. With the days passing by and the sinister forces of the Black Hills seemingly closing in, the final video record of their trip serves as a witness to terror.

The Blair Witch Project makes liberal use of found-footage, a technique in which a fictional film is presented as recovered footage of an actual event. Although earlier films had explored found-footage style filmmaking, Blair Witch is arguably the first to bring it to the attention of mainstream audiences. Shot with a purposely rough, unfinished appearance, the movie purports to be the recovered footage of four real students discovered a year after their tragic disappearance. Bereft of the budget and schlocky gimmicks typical of more mainstream horror offerings, this exercise in frugality shines. Its very strength lies in its bargain basement visuals, lending an air of authenticity that eludes more heavily produced titles. This is a film that lets the audience ruminate on what lies in the darkness, and that can be far more terrifying than any Hollywood monster. (As a sidenote, it should be mentioned that a reboot was released in 2016, but in the opinion of this reviewer, it should probably be avoided.)

Looking for a horror movie that can elicit actual dread? Look no further.

Check the PPLC Catalog for The Blair Witch Project.

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Easy Rider (1969)

81isguE0P0L._SL1500_Free-spirited motorcycle riders Wyatt and Billy (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) have just completed the drug deal of a lifetime and set out on a journey across the country to reach New Orleans. Along the way, the pair encounter hippie communes, small-town bigots, and one particular ACLU lawyer by the name of George Hanson (Jack Nicholson). What starts as a road trip to find freedom in the promised land of liberty eventually turns into a drug addled race just to survive.

Easy Rider is the film that taught Hollywood studios to love the low-budget counterculture flick. What started out as a way for Peter Fonda to fulfill his contractual obligation to provide one last schlocky, biker-exploitation film for the B-film studio AIP, ended up as a piece of cinema that combined big Hollywood resources with the French New Wave influences of an emerging generation of young, auteur filmmakers. Fonda and Hopper convincingly play their roles as they carve their way across beautiful American vistas to the pounding rhythms of period icons like Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds, and Steppenwolf. If that was all Easy Rider had to offer, it would still be worthwhile, but the performances and themes are similarly captivating. Especially excellent is Jack Nicholson as American everyman George Hanson. Nicholson’s energy is infectious and his musings on the nature of freedom flesh out the themes of the film from an intriguing perspective. As Billy and Wyatt continue their difficult journey, a blueprint of the freedom promised by the hippy generation emerges, and it’s ultimate failure seems despairingly visible. A definite recommendation.

Rated R.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Easy Rider.