Les Blank, innovative documentary filmmaker, has died

Les Blank, whose much-praised documentaries covered topics as disparate as garlic, the blues, and shoe diets, has died.

Born in Florida in 1935, his first documentaries focused on musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Lightnin' Hopkins. Then he broadened his subjects to include food, women with gapped teeth, and the German director, Werner Herzog.

In the 1980s, Blank came to The University of Michigan for a showing of his sweetly weird Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers. To the delight (and digestive torture) of his audience, Blank had arranged to have garlic roasting in the back of the theater. Currently, this iconic Les Blank film is unavailable in DVD format, which is a shame. In 2004, the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the United States’ National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Another famous Blank documentary made in 1980 is Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, a 20-minute film of the famed director fulfilling a bet he lost to eat his footwear. Herzog wagered that director Errol Morris would never make a film. Morris collected on the bet with the release of his first documentary, The Gates of Heaven,1978, about a California pet cemetery. This odd meal can be seen in the DVD, Burden of Dreams, 1982, Blank's examination of Herzog's challenges in filming his award winning Fitzcarraldo, 1982.

Blank, who had been diagnosed with cancer less than a year ago, was 77.

A Love Story: Monica & David

The documentary Monica & David is a love story in the traditional sense; two people meet, fall in love, get married and settle in for a life together. However, it is also a story about the love of mother and child, for without their strong mothers this love story would not have been written. What makes this story so unique is that Monica and David both have Downs syndrome. They were both raised by single moms who work diligently to provide them the tools and training to become happy and fulfilled adults. They are both examples of how strong family support can make all the difference in the lives of people with special needs.
This documentary takes place in the course of a year, beginning a few days before the happy couple exchange their wedding vows, and ending at their one year anniversary. The love and devotion these two share with each other is unmistakable and emanates from the screen. One of my favorite lines in the documentary is spoken by Monica a few days before the wedding when she says, “It’s all about him, and all about me. This is my life, to be with my husband forever”. And in the end the viewer is left feeling that indeed they will make it together as a couple, with the help of their devoted family. There are some sad moments in the film. One of the most heartbreaking moments is when Monica admits she would like to have children with David. Monica's mother expresses her concerns and tells the audience that she doesn't think it would be possible for the couple to care for a child of their own. However, the sadness is out shined by the love and hope that comes across in this film.
This exploration of the marriage of this young couple with Downs syndrome, and the family who strives to support their needs won many awards including Best Documentary in the Tribeca Film Festival. It is a wonderful window into the lives of families with special needs children and is suitable for family viewing.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

If you haven't seen My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic yet, stop everything you're doing and put a request on The Friendship Express or Princess Twilight Sparkle now!

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is an animated TV series developed by Lauren Faust and based on the long-running Hasbro My Little Pony toy franchise. But don't let its overtly commercial roots fool you - MLP:FiM is a whip smart show for both kids and adults, hilarious and heartwarming at the same time, with an excellent sense of comedic timing and a commendable moral compass. Bright, engaging visuals and upbeat musical sidebars will have you hooked on this charming show in no time.

The Friendship Express is a collection of five non-contiguous episodes from season 1 and 2 of the show, while Princess Twilight Sparkle is a collection of five non-contiguous episodes from seasons 2 and 3. Episodes of the show air at 10:30 AM EST on The Hub, and Netflix currently streams seasons 1-3.

New TV shows on DVD @ AADL

The library is always acquiring additional TV shows, be they hot and new, or oldies but goodies. Here are some new DVDs on their way to AADL:

The Love Boat, Season 1: Volume 1 & Volume 2
See you on the Pacific Princess, where romance blossoms on the way to tropical and exotic ports of call with Captain Stubing, Doc, Gopher, and Isaac the bartender. (The show ran from 1977-1986.)

The Patty Duke Show, Seasons 1 & 2
They laugh alike, they walk alike, sometimes they even talk alike, what a crazy pair! Cousins Patty and Cathy are identical in appearance but not in personality, and they find themselves in wacky situations. (The show ran from1963-1966.)

Hawaii Five-O, Seasons 1 & 2
Book ‘em, Danno! Follow Detective Steve McGarrett, Danno, and the rest of the Five-O squad. McGarrett heads an elite state police unit investigating organized crime, murder, assassination attempts, foreign agents, and felonies of every type. (The show ran from 1968-1980.)

The Killing, Season 1
Following a shocking murder, the lives of the police, suspects and victim's family are intricately woven together in this spellbinding series. Fans of Twin Peaks or The X-Files might dig it. It’s an American drama based on a Danish TV show. (Season 3 is in production now.)

Roger Ebert, beloved Chicago movie critic, has died

Just one day after announcing he was taking a 'leave of presence' from his 46-year gig as movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and his 31-year career on TV reviewing films, Roger Ebert lost his long public battle with salivary and thyroid cancer.

His announcement yesterday said he would just review the movies HE wanted to see and leave the rest of the reviews to his trusted colleagues at the paper. When he lost part of his jaw and thus his ability to eat or speak, he used his good humor and courage to write about his experience fighting, and often triumphing, against, his devastating illness.

Ebert's long career resulted in a 1975 Pulitzer Prize, the first movie critic to receive this honor. The Webby Awards named him their 2010 Person of the Year. And Hollywood, which lived and died by Ebert's laser-beam ethical demand for excellence in all things film, honored him with his own Walk of Fame star in 2005.

Ebert's career took off in a new direction when he and Chicago Tribune movie critic, Gene Siskel, took their 'point/counterpoint' routine to television in 1975. Originally titled Coming Soon to a Theater Near You, PBS picked it up and renamed it Sneak Previews three years later. There were two more name-changes: In 1981, it morphed into At the Movies. Five years later, accompanied by their signature 'thumbs up, thumbs down' rating system, it settled on Siskel & Ebert & the Movies.

Sadly, Siskel died in 1999. He had had brain surgery for brain cancer but it was complications from another surgery that ended his life.

Despite his long fight with illness, Ebert wrote almost seventeen books on movies, the internet, his life (Life Itself: A Memoir, 2011), and yes, even a cookbook for rice cookers (The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker, 2010).

Ebert, who was 70, died today in Chicago.

Irish character actor, Milo O'Shea, has died

Milo O'Shea, an Irish character actor known for his bushy eyebrows and lovely brogue, has died.

Best known in this country for his roles in the campy science fiction film, Barbarella (1968), starring Jane Fonda and the 1982 courtroom thriller, The Verdict, starring Paul Newman, he also enjoyed considerable success in TV. His large body of work included appearances in The Golden Girl, Cheers, Frasier, and in the fifth season of The West Wing, as Chief Justice Roy Ashland.

He also did some stage work, notably performing in Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys.

Mr. O'Shea, who was 86, died yesterday in Manhattan.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, award-winning screenwriter and novelist, has died

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Oscar-winning screenwriter and much-honored novelist, died today in Manhattan.

Ms. Jhabvala was born in Germany to Jewish parents who fled to England in 1939. In 1951, Ms. Jhabvala married an Indian architect. They lived in New Delhi for a quarter of century, an experience which informed much of her examination of the privileged lifestyle of the British upperclass in India.

In the early 1960s, she was discovered by filmdom's producer/director power team, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. They had read her 1963 novel, Householder (on order) and asked her to write the screenplay for the film (on order) by the same name which was released later that year.

Thus began a long successful partnership. The Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala 22-film collaboration resulted in two Oscars for Ms. Jhabvala -- A Room with a View (1986) and Howards End (1993).

Ms. Jhabvala was also feted with many literary awards, as well. In 1975, she won the then-called Booker McConnell Prize for Fiction (now known as the Man Booker Prize) for Heat and Dust. In 1984, she was tapped for one of the much-coveted MacArthur Foundation fellowships.

Ms. Jhabvala's last novel, My Nine Lives was published in 2004. Her final book, a collection of short stories, A Lovesong for India came out two years ago. Her very last piece of published writing appeared in the March 25, 2013 edition of The New Yorker. It is a short story called The Judge's Will.

Ms. Jhabvala, who was85, died of an unspecified pulmonary ailment.

Only 8 months to wait for Wimpy Kid #8!

Eight’s the magic number (as in Magic 8-Balls) as Abrams Books for Young Readers announced the publication of the eighth title in Jeff Kinney’s bestselling Diary of a Wimpy Kid series at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair on Monday. The book will be published by Abrams’s Amulet Books imprint in the U.S. in November, with near-simultaneous publication taking place in seven additional countries: the U.K., Australia, Germany, Greece, Japan, Korea, and Norway.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that Greg Heffley’s stories would be enjoyed by this many kids around the world,” said Kinney in a statement. While the title and exact release date of the new book have yet to be revealed, Abrams did release some teaser art (seen here), which suggests that—as usual—luck may not be on Greg’s side in the new book.

More than 85 million Diary of a Wimpy Kid books are in print in more than 44 territories; the three Wimpy Kid movies, based on the first three books in Kinney’s series, have grossed more than $250 million worldwide.

Yurt Living

It always happens, when life gets hectic and deadlines are knocking on my door I start thinking how wonderful it would be to escape and live in a Yurt somewhere in the the woods.

I became fascinated with yurts after watching the PBS Nature program Wild Horses of Mongolia with Julia Roberts. In this show Julia Roberts lives with a Mongolian family, experiencing life as a nomad while developing a special relationship with her hosts who live amongst wild horses. (One of their main staples is fermented mare’s milk that Julia describes as, “A fizzy warm…yogurt”.) While not a huge Julia fan, I find her to be captivating in this series. She's strikingly beautiful without any make-up or hair dresser to glam her up. Her happiness fills the screen!

A traditional yurt is a circular shelter used by nomads in Central Asia. They have been around for centuries and are designed to be dismantled and the parts carried compactly on camels or yaks and rebuilt on another site. Complete construction takes around 2 hours! Incidentally, the structures shown in this documentary are not yurts proper. Mongolians live in what is known as a Ger. It is a one-room transportable abode that often does not have a bathroom, running water or heat.

However, I’m not interested in nomadic yurt or ger living. I want a relaxing designer-style yurt complete with hardwood floors, running water and top of the line appliances. Yurts have become very popular in the United States as low cost, eco-friendly abodes. This form of micro-architecture has optimized the original yurt concept to create a shelter that is unwavering, easy to install, light-weight and leaves no residual damage to the ground because no permanent foundation is used. That’s the kind of yurt I’m talking about! Throw in a wall of books, Wi-fi connection and a nearby grocery store and I’d be all set!

If you’re ambitious and want to attempt the construction on your own, check out this book Tipis & yurts : authentic designs for circular shelters.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #389

Child of Vengeance *, the debut novel by David Kirk is part military history, part family saga, part action/adventure, based on the real-life exploits of Japan's greatest samurai - the legendary Musashi Miyamoto.

17th-century Japan was a land in turmoil where lords of the great clans schemed against each other, served by samurai bound to them by a rigid code of honor. Abandoned at an early age by his samurai father, young Bennosuke is raised by his uncle Dorinbo, a Shinto monk in their ancestral village. Though urged by Dorinbo to renounce Bushido, the "Way of the Warrior", Bennosuke worships his absent father. When Munisai returns, gravely injured, Bennosuke is forced to confront truths about his family's history and his own place in it, leading eventually onto a path "awash with blood, bravery, and vengeance", and culminating in the epochal Battle of Sekigahara in which Bennosuke will first proclaim his name as Mushashi Miyamoto.

Legendary director Hiroshi Inagaki first captured the saga of Musashi Miyamoto on film in The Samurai Trilogy, adaptations of the novels by Eiji Yoshikawa. Readers might also enjoy samurai character-driven novels, especially the historical mystery series by Laura Joh Rowland which depicts the precarious fortunes of Lord Ichiro Sano.

British David Kirk first became interested in Japan when his father gave him a copy of James Clavell's Shōgun : a novel of Japan. He has written his dissertation on samurai cinema, and now lives and teaches English in Japan.

* = starred review

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