Books in the Park

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


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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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Sounder (1972)

sounderPromoted as a family movie, Sounder is a masterpiece of such slow-moving complexity that I think it might be difficult for a child to sit through it all. But this is an excellent film nonetheless with a superb cast and talented director. Just be sure to keep some tissues handy because the story packs an emotional punch.

Sounder is based on a book of the same name by William Armstrong.

In rural, Depression-era Louisiana, 12-year-old David Lee (Kevin Hook) is by far the oldest child of his poor sharecropper family. Poor is an understatement; this family is downright destitute, scraping by on a meager diet of biscuits and gravy as the owners of their farm take virtually all of their regular harvests. Every day David and his father (Paul Winfield) take their loyal dog, Sounder, out hunting for anything that will put meat on the table. But, despite Sounder’s skill, they haven’t caught anything in a long time. One morning, however, David and his siblings awaken to the glorious smell of meat frying. David is instinctively wary of the unexpected gift, and his uneasiness grows as his parents dodge his questions. Soon enough, the police show up and arrest David’s father for petty theft.

As David’s mother, Rebecca (Cicely Tyson), struggles with the farm on her own, David is torn between helping his family and getting an education. The film focuses heavily on David’s coming-of-age as the boy encounters oppression and desperately seeks a way to rise above it.

Rated G.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Sounder.


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James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl

james dahlMany children’s books are carefully penned by their authors to educate and inform. These kinds of books have lots of vocabulary words and a strong central message that helps to shape a child’s moral character and mental aptitude as s/he grows into adolescence. James and the Giant Peach is NOT one of those books. It doesn’t have vocabulary words, nor does it really teach anything or have a clear message. But it does one thing incredibly well: it entertains. The pure entertainment value is why James and the Giant Peach is considered a classic of children’s literature, as anyone who has read it with a child, or as a child, can tell you. And, as author Richard McKenna once said: “Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.” James and the Giant Peach fits this bill perfectly.

After his parents are eaten by a rhinoceros that had escaped from the London Zoo, James is sent to live with his two cruel aunts. One day, James meets an old man who gives him a magic potion that promises to bring James happiness. But, in his haste to get home before his aunts get even angrier at him, James trips and spills the potion underneath an old, dried-out peach tree. The next day, one huge peach is growing from the tree’s bare branches. Eventually, James discovers a group of human-sized insects living inside the peach pit. The insects welcome James as the final member of their rag-tag group, and soon they break the peach away from the tree to tumble into the wackiest adventure of all time.

With its outlandish humor and fantastic imagery, both of which are perfectly tailored to a child’s sensibilities, I often suggest James and the Giant Peach to young reluctant readers. The simple, matter-of-fact language is easy to follow and visualize, the plot’s shenanigans is top-notch, and the story always leaves you wondering what’s going to happen next.

Check the PPLC Catalog for James and the Giant Peach.


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A Guinea Pig Pride and Prejudice, by Alex Goodwin and Tess Gammell

guinea pig prideA Guinea Pig Pride & Prejudice has more cuteness than one could possibly bear!

Just when you thought that every single possible variation of the Jane Austen classic had been produced, this retelling involves guinea pigs wearing dapper clothing and tiny hats. The Regency Period is painstakingly brought to life by freelance set designer Tess Gammell and photographer Belmondo. In this short adaptation, Goodwin manages to include all the main points of the timeless tale.

The following book trailer gives you a glimpse into the world they created. I dare you to not smile!

Check the PPLC Catalog for A Guinea Pig Pride and Prejudice.


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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.


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John Henry, by Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney

john henry lesterReacquaint or introduce yourself and family to an age-old African American legend by reading John Henry by Julius Lester.

Julius Lester retells the legend of John Henry, the 19th century superhero-esque man who from infancy “grew until his head and shoulders busted through the roof,” ran faster than any horse and had “the rainbow draped around him like love.”

Lester easily winds the tale of this giant who makes his mark in time by working hard, being cheerful, and exercising super strength. This book will leave you and your family giggling, rooting for Henry, and celebrating with him when he succeeds.

Jerry Pinkney’s enthralling illustrations carry the reader on a fast paced breathtaking ride. From a race with Ferret-Faced Freddy to a dynamite-lit mountain side, the reader is always engaged. Maybe John Henry really did build the Big Bend Tunnel on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. Maybe he didn’t. But you can have fun reading this with friends and family and trying to figure it out.

Check the PPLC Catalog for John Henry.