Mushi-shi (2005)

mu2TV Series - Ginko is a mushi-shi, a scholar of those invisible, mysterious creatures called mushi which sometimes, through no fault of their own, cause serious problems for the humans and animals with which they interact. Each episode of the show follows Ginko’s attempts to resolve a particular situation caused by mushi, from the family who cannot leave a bamboo forest no matter how hard they try to the boy whose drawings come to life but only if he draws with his left hand. Because Ginko himself attracts mushi, he can’t stay in one place for too long, so he wanders from one place to another, helping others with their problems while he attempts to understand the creatures that cause so much trouble.

Mushi-shi is a faithful adaptation of the manga series by Yuki Urushibara, originally published in Japan from 1999-2008. It’s absolutely beautiful, with gorgeous animation reminiscent of both Studio Ghibli films and the watercolor paintings used for the book covers. The stories are similarly haunting, emotional pieces very like ghost stories in most cases. Since there’s no overarching plot, they’re great to watch one at a time and savor.

In Search of Mozart (2006)

mozartMovie – This is the definitive documentary about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the prolific and influential composer of the Classical era.  Mozart lived from 1756 to 1791, and during those short 35 years, he composed over 600 works, many acknowledged as pinnacles of symphonic, concertante, chamber, operatic, and choral music. He was born in Salzburg, Austria, and by age five showed prodigious musical ability and could play piano and violin and compose. Without resorting to docu-drama, In Search of Mozart traces the composer’s life through his music and extensive correspondence. Over 80 musical excerpts are featured in chronological order, fitting his life around the music. It dispels the common myths about his genius, health, relationships, death and character, quite unlike the glossy lies disseminated by the movie Amadeus. For example, Mozart did not die a pauper. The documentary weaves musical performances with authoritative interviews with musicians, historians, and world-famous scholars. After Mozart moved to Vienna, he established himself as the finest keyboard player in that city, but also composed his most famous and beloved operas:  The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute. He lived at the center of the Viennese musical world and had many friends. He enjoyed billiards, dancing and pets; he kept a canary, a starling, a dog and a horse for recreational riding. In Search of Mozart is a remarkable achievement, original, accurate, endearing and wonderfully entertaining.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Princess MMovie – This animated feature film was the highest-grossing Japanese film of its time. The director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), sometimes described as the Japanese Walt Disney, is a pioneer of anime. In this epic adventure set in pre-industrial Japan a young prince incurs a life-threatening curse and sets off to find a cure. He becomes a central figure in a war between man and nature when a mining clan battles a variety of forest gods led by Princess Mononoke, a young woman raised by wolves. This film portrays mythology and surreal characters that are uniquely Japanese.

The viewer definitely picks up on the anxiety of the Japanese about the diminishing of their natural environment.  Although there is beautifully painted animation, it also contains some violence and it is not a story for young children. I appreciate that the characters and the social issues addressed in the film are complex and thoughtfully presented. A budding romance develops between the Prince and Princess Mononoke, but they often place duty above their personal relationship. This English version of the film was adapted by Neil Gaiman (Stardust, The Ocean at the End of the Lane)  and it is voiced by actors that include Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton, and Jada Pinkett Smith.

Listen Up: the Lives of Quincy Jones (2008)

listenMovieListen Up is the documentary that provides an intimate look at the life of multifaceted music icon Quincy Jones, who shaped four generations of American sound. In an unusual, kaleidoscopic way, this movie takes you on a journey from Quincy’s early life of poverty on Chicago’s south side, to his move to an all-white environment in Seattle, and his life on-the-road as a trumpeter with Lionel Hampton. It follows him as he leads his own big band, and moves into production, arranging and film composing. Filmmaker Ellen Wiesbrod gets very close to Quincy, capturing many moods and remembrances. There are many comments from the great stars that he worked with, i.e. Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Oprah Winfrey, Dizzy Gillespie, Steven Spielberg, Miles Davis, and many others including Jones’  family. Listen Up is a fascinating summation of his career in jazz, pop, R&B, hip-hop and other styles, and his film composing (In the Heat of the Night, Roots, In Cold Blood, The Color Purple and many more). He was the 1st black to write movie scores and the 1st black VP of A&R for a major record label. He produced Off the Wall and Thriller, the two albums that launched Michael Jackson into the pop stratosphere, and was the musical mastermind behind We Are the World. Only Sir Georg Solti has more Grammy Awards than Quincy Jones, who has 27. Listen Up is like a fine jazz number, layered and intricate with rhythm, flow and nuance.

Keeping Mum (2005)

keeping_mum_xlgMovie-Keeping Mum is a dark English comedy that’s sly humor tickles me every time. With a cast like Rowan Atkinson, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Patrick Swazye you kind of know things will go awry in a most amusing way. Keeping Mum takes place in a sleepy hamlet where Rowan Atkinson plays a hard-working and completely oblivious Vicar. More attuned with his flock vs. his family he is clueless that his daughter is sleeping around with everyone, his wife has been thinking lewd thoughts about her golf instructor and his son has been bullied at school. In comes Maggie Smith, the anti-Mary Poppins. Hilarity ensues as this group comes together as a family.

This is an R-rated movie with nudity and adult topics. For fans of Kinky Boots, Hysteria, Saving Grace, and The Full Monty.

Muscle Shoals (2013)

muscleMovie – This is the new documentary history of the Muscle Shoals, Alabama recording studios. It is the story of how Rick Hall founded FAME Studios in the unlikely small town of Muscle Shoals, along the Tennessee River, and a group of white farm boys (known
as the “swampers”) became The Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section session musicians. Countless major hit songs and great albums were subsequently recorded in these studios – as amazing as it seems. Many great recording artists are interviewed in the documentary, such as:  Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bono, Alicia Keys, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Gregg Allman, Lynyrd Skynard, Elton John, Boz Scaggs, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and many more. It is the remarkable story of how initial successes in soul and R&B led to the arrival of more mainstream rock and pop performers, and how the Muscle Shoals vibe produced so many great hits. Literally every big name wanted to record in Muscle Shoals, and to “get down and get greasy.” Filmaker Greg Camalier premiered Muscle Shoals at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, and the soundtrack alone will give you goosebumps. I loved this documentary and all the incredible vignettes, such as how Aretha Franklin just blossomed for the first time, when she got into the Muscle Shoals studios.

China’s Great Wall (2006)

chinaMovie – China’s Great Wall is a great documentary using rare aerial shots, and lavish reenactments in high definition.  It reveals the myths, legends and technological marvels behind the massive structure, exploring construction techniques, and its history, featuring interviews with archaeologists, scientists and scholars. In 1907, Aurel Stein a British explorer and adventurer, making his way through the Taklimakan desert discovered the Jade Gate, the westernmost point of a more than 2,000-year-old fortification system. The walls, there are more than one, actually stretch for over 13,000 miles.  They were built to defend the Emperor Wudi of the Han dynasty and his people from the barbarians (Mongolians) living in the steppes to the north (around 130 BC). Other dynasties and other emperors continued work on the Great Wall and branches of it, for thousands of years, using forced labor. The purposes of the Great Wall have included border patrols, imposition of duties on goods transported along the Silk Road, and regulation of trade and immigration. The Wall includes watch towers, troop barracks, garrison stations and signaling capabilities (using smoke or fire).  The main Great Wall stretches from Shanhaiguan in the east to Lop Lake in the West, along an arc that roughly delineates the southern edge of inner Mongolia. Before bricks, the Wall was mainly built from rammed earth, stones and wood. I found this documentary fascinating as well as educational. Of course, some areas of the Wall, near tourist centers, have been preserved and renovated, but in many locations it is in disrepair.

Missing (2012)

missingTV Show – If you like action thrillers packed with spies then you should watch the TV series Missing.  The series follows Rebecca “Becca” Winstone,   a florist, widow, and mother of 18-year-old son, Michael.   Michael has been accepted to a summer architecture program in Rome, Italy and Becca hesitant about letting him go, consents knowing what a wonderful opportunity it is for her son.  Mother and son stay in touch on a regular basis, but when she doesn’t have any communication from him for over a week and is informed by the school that Michael has vacated his dorm room, Becca is alarmed and heads to Rome to find him.  As a mother, she will go to any lengths and will not let anyone or anything stand in her way to find out what has happened to her child and to get him back.  And this may work to her advantage or against her, but we find out that she is a former deadly and relentless CIA agent.  Her husband Paul, also CIA, was killed in a car bombing witnessed by their son.  Becca finds herself in the middle of an international conspiracy involving the CIA and Interpol and doesn’t know who she can trust.  Intense action and drama and beautiful scenery from Italy, Russia, Turkey, Austria, etc. will keep viewers riveted.  Becca is wonderfully portrayed by Ashley Judd, who was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie.  Sadly, there is only one season, since ABC decided to cancel the show.

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women

louisa may alcottMovie – Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women is based on the biography of the same title written by Harriet Reisen. The docudrama gives us an intimate look at the great American author Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888). She was raised by transcendentalist parents and grew up living near many of the well-known intellectuals of the day, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau. The documentary uses dialog taken from diaries and letters, as well as interviews with scholars of American literature. Poverty made it necessary for her to go to work at an early age as a teacher, seamstress, governess, domestic helper, Civil War nurse and writer. It was the tremendous popularity of her most famous work Little Women that lifted the family out of poverty. Alcott became the equivalent of a multimillionaire in her lifetime, based on the astounding sales of her books. Most surprising is that she led, anonymously and under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard, a literary double life, not discovered until the 1940s. As Barnard, Alcott penned some thirty pulp fiction thrillers, with characters running the gamut from murderers and revolutionaries to cross-dressers and opium addicts. The documentary is a remarkably detailed portrait of a strong-minded woman who was far ahead of her time and much more complex than the dainty lady others have presented.

Ernest Hemingway: Rivers to the Sea

ernestMovieErnest Hemingway: Rivers to the Sea is the DVD for American Masters, a PBS documentary about the life of the Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway. The treatment is typical post-Ken Burns music/words over pictures montage. Obviously, you can’t pack Hemingway’s work and adventures or complex personality into 90 minutes, but the narrative does capture most of his life. It uses fragments of his fiction, diaries and letters plus interviews with his friends, relatives and various academics. More than 40 years after his death, Hemingway is one of the most widely read, and widely written about, American authors. In literally throwing himself into a variety of challenging and potentially life-threatening situations, Hemingway swayed public perception of writers from that of presumed privilege to that of bold action. He lived a “big” life but under the macho exterior beat the heart of a sensitive soul. The documentary, in a kind of stream-of-consciousness style, moves through his early life in Oak Park, IL, to his war injury in World War 1 Spain, to Paris in the ‘20s, to his home in Cuba, to his final days living in Ketchum, Idaho. It speaks to the difficult art of writing and the writer’s lonely life, as well as bullfighting, fishing, big-game hunting, gangsters, boxers, soldiers and, of course, his four wives.