Monday, January 28, 2013

200 Years of a Universal Truth

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

This is one of the most famous opening lines of any book in the English language. In a single sentence, Jane Austen set up everything that would follow in her now-famous classic, Pride and Prejudice. P&P is one of the most beloved books of all time. Its enduring popularity (along with all things Austen) continues to grow in a way that I'm sure the author could never have imagined.

Jane Austen published six novels, but none as well known as Pride and Prejudice. The characters of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, and their love story, continue to endure.

Why does it endure? Pride and Prejudice is my favorite novel, so for me it's more than just the love story between the two main characters. It's also the subtle commentary on the social mores of Jane Austen's day. Austen had a keen eye for irony and had the ability to showcase all of the different personalties that made up her world. I think that we all recognize people that we know in her characters. Times and customs may change, but we still all know someone like Mr. Darcy, who thinks he is far superior than most of the people around him. And there are still women (and men) who are outrageous flirts like Lydia Bennet. We may not have to worry about whether someone would ever want to marry us because of our social standing, like the Bennet sisters do -- but we all look for someone to share our lives with, just like they did.

Pride and Prejudice was the second of Austen's six published novels. And while everything she has ever written has been read and scrutinized many times, the problem for most fans is that she only wrote these six novels and a few unfinished stories. With the immense popularity of the BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice in 1995, the world's obsession for more exploded. Sequels, spin-offs, modern updates, and even a graphic novel have been published in the last 18 years. There is even a book with Mr. Darcy as a vampire!

To honor the 200th anniversary (January 28, 1813) of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, here are a few of the sequels and spin-offs of Pride and Prejudice (and even some books regarding our ever-lasting love for Jane). But only a few. Any more than that would require you to spend more time reading about them than actually reading them!

[For any Janeites out there who are interested, the Jane Austen Society of North America, Pittsburgh Region, will be having its 2013 Jane Austen Festival on March 15 and 16. For more information, check out the group's website.]

-- Pride and Prejudice (Graphic Novel) by Nancy Butler
This is one of my favorite versions of the novel. It's so much fun! It tells the story very accurately and the illustrations are beautiful.

-- Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith
Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters as zombie hunters? In this adaptation, they are. There is still the love story of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, but with zombies attacking the countryside, we see a whole different side of the famous novel.

-- Mr. Darcy's Daughters by Elizabeth Aston
In this sequel, we meet the five daughters of Elizabeth and Darcy. It has been twenty years since their wedding. The Darcy sisters have much in common with the Bennet sisters, with their widely different personalties. Appearances are also made by several loved (and not-so-loved) P&P characters.

-- Pride and Prescience by Carrie Bebris
Here we have Elizabeth and Darcy, newly married, acting as a crime-solving duo. Not long after Caroline Bingley has married a rich American, strange things begin happening. Since these odd occurrences involve the Bingleys, the Darcys step in to figure out what is going on. The first in a series of mysteries.

-- Darcy's Story by Janet Aylmer
Pride and Prejudice is told primarily from Elizabeth's point of view. The only time we, as readers, get to know what Darcy is thinking is when he writes a letter to Elizabeth to explain his relationship with Mr. Wickham (among other issues). In this novel, we get the whole story from Darcy's perspective.

-- Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor by Stephanie Barron
The first in a delightful mystery series where we see the Jane Austen many of us believe she was -- smart, observant, and resourceful. The stories are supposed to be long-lost diaries of Jane herself. In each one, we find Jane involved in helping a friend or family member, proving their innocence in some crime. We even get a chance to see Jane have a little bit of romance with a mysterious Lord!

-- Jane Bites Back by Michael Thomas Ford
In this series, Jane Austen is now a vampire and has been for 200 years! She is now living in upstate New York and owns a book store. The last novel she wrote before becoming a vampire has been rejected 116 times by publishers, while her books and all of the sequels and spin-offs fly off the shelves of her store. Although she has kept a low profile all these years, she is suddenly thrust into the spotlight, and a mysterious person from her past has come to complicate her life.

-- Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman
Harman examines the many ways that the popularity of Jane Austen has grown all over the world, and why we are still so fascinated by Austen's books and her life.

-- All Roads Lead to Austen: A Year Long Journey with Jane by Amy Elizabeth Smith
Does everyone love Jane Austen? Even in countries where the culture is very different from that of Regency (or even modern) England? Smith decides to find out when she takes a year to read Austen's novels, in Spanish, with book-loving friends throughout several Latin American countries.

-- A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and The Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz
For a nice change, we have a look at Jane Austen from a male perspective. Deresiewicz discusses how each of Austen's six novels influenced his life and helped him become the man he is today.

Happy Reading!

-- Post by Tracy

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Staff Recommendation #10: "Mad Mouse" by Chris Grabenstein.

Mad Mouse: A John Ceepak Mystery by Chris Grabenstein

Staff Review by Ms. B

I am not a winter person. I don't actually hate it -- I do like snow, and I admit it is easier to bundle up against the cold than find refuge from the heat. (Besides, it would be hard for me to hate the season that has Christmas.)

What I do hate, however, are short days and long nights, overcast skies for weeks on end, and the kind of biting cold that makes going outside somewhat inadvisable (if not outright craziness). With bitter temperatures behind us -- and an upcoming winter storm lying ahead -- it seems like an opportune time to find a good book to curl up with on the sofa, preferably near a roaring fire and with a cup of tea or cocoa close at hand.

Which brings me to Mad Mouse. If you could use a book to provide you with a mental vacation from the perils of winter, try this quirky, funny, character-rich read -- which just so happens to take place during summertime at the beach.

Mad Mouse is the second book in Chris Grabenstein's John Ceepak mystery series. I picked it up on a whim, without having read the first book in the series, and was pleased to find that the author does a great job of making it easy for a new reader to jump in. The book is set in the fictional tourist-trap beach town of Sea Haven, New Jersey -- where the townspeople are gearing up for their annual Labor Day cookout (sounds lovely right about now, doesn't it?).

The book stars a Holmes-and-Watson-esque duo in its two main characters, Danny Boyle and John Ceepak. Danny is the Watson-like "Everyman," a twentysomething native of Sea Haven. He was something of a beach bum until this very summer, when his part-time job as a "summer cop" pairs him up with one John Ceepak. Ceepak is a full-time officer who used to be in the army (he's a former MP), and he still lives his life by a soldier's code of honor. 

Ceepak is also the "Sherlock Holmes" of the story -- the guy who catches the little details that everybody else misses. That said, when it came to personality, Ceepak reminded me more of Constable Benton Fraser (from the television series Due South). Ceepak's unfailing discipline and staunch personality are a good match to Danny's more Jimmy Buffett sensibilities, although neither of the two characters are two-dimensional caricatures: Ceepak's got a sense of humor, and Danny takes his job quite seriously and definitely buckles down to get things done.

The book opens with Danny and his old high school buddies gathering for a beach-side celebration, only to be attacked by an onslaught of paintballs from an unseen assailant. What seemed like a stupid, but ultimately harmless, prank is eventually revealed to have more sinister intentions -- and with Danny and his friends as the targets. I always enjoy my mysteries best when personal stakes are involved, and, in this case, it did a great job at adding an extra dimension of tension and drama to the story. The plot zig-zagged and folded back on itself, and when the bad guy was finally revealed, I didn't see it coming -- which is always a bonus.

Good plot, engaging writing, lovable and relatable characters. I will definitely be reading the rest of this series. Give it a try -- and enjoy a fun mystery that supplies thoughts of sunshine, summertime, and the beach!

The John Ceepak series:

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Sound of Movies

Whenever people ask me what sort of music I listen to, I never know how to answer. Because after Bon Jovi and the Monkees, the answer to my favorite type of music is: film scores.

I'm not talking about the soundtracks from musicals (though, admittedly, I'm a big fan of musicals, too). I'm also not talking about the kinds of albums that include a collection of pop songs that were featured in a film. I'm talking about the score of the movie itself: the background music that plays during the film. Such music -- which is largely instrumental -- probably makes up 50-60% of my CD collection (not to mention taking up the same amount of space on my iPod).

I think there's probably a few reasons why I'm such a fan of motion picture scores, as opposed to other type of music, but I think the biggest reason is this: I'm drawn to music that tells a story. A movie's score is an essential part of the viewing experience -- after the actors and the director, I think a film's composer probably has the biggest impact on the finished products. A movie's music can set the scene, highlight characterization, change a scene's mood, and invoke real emotion in the audience. And the best composers, I think, produce scores that strike the same emotional chords not just when you're watching the movie, but when you're listening to the music on its own.

If you've never listened to a movie score before, give it a try!  Here are a few of my favorite composers to get you started:

-- Danny Elfman

He's probably best known as director Tim Burton's go-to composer. But musician Danny Elfman crops up as the mind behind the music for a surprising number of well-known (and non-Burton) projects, including Good Will Hunting, Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, Men in Black -- and the theme song for the TV show The Simpsons

Of course, Elfman's best-known work is his numerous collaborations with director Burton. To date, nearly all of Burton's films feature Elfman's music, including Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, and -- my favorite -- the songs and score for the animated musical The Nightmare Before Christmas (for which Elfman also sang many of the songs). Elfman's punchy, catchy, slightly-offbeat melodies are perfect for Burton's weird and wild filmmaking, and it's hard to imagine Burton's movies without Elfman's music behind them.

Born in Texas in 1953, Elfman spent much of his childhood in L.A. but eventually moved to France, where he became a member of a theater group. He next spent some time in Africa, but came down with malaria and had to return to the states. At which point his brother, who had just completed a film called The Forbidden Zone, asked Danny to create the soundtrack. He put together a group of musicians for the job, and after the project was over, the group remained together as the band Oingo Boingo. One of the band's biggest fans was a young Tim Burton -- the rest is history.

Listen to a clip of Elfman singing from The Nightmare Before Christmas

-- Jerry Goldsmith

Any Trekkie is rather honor-bound to be a Jerry Goldsmith fan. Goldsmith scored the music for five of the Star Trek movies -- including the original, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. (The new theme Goldsmith came up with for The Motion Picture was so well-loved by show-creator Gene Roddenberry that it would be reused as the series theme song for Star Trek: The Next Generation.)

To me, many of Goldsmith's scores have a sweeping, epic, almost operatic quality (which makes him quite a fitting choice for a Star Trek composer!). One of my personal favorites is his score for First Knight, the 1995 movie starring Sean Connery as King Arthur. The film had its flaws, but the soundtrack was not one of them: it's rich and fresh-sounding themes make the music of "Camelot" come alive.

Jerry Goldsmith was born in Los Angles, California, in 1929. He first started his career as a clerk at CBS, but quickly moved on to work as a composer, first for radio, than television shows, then TV films and mini-series. His first film score came in 1957, for Black Patch -- and he went on to score over 180 films.

In addition to his work for Star Trek, he was influential in other areas of sci-fi as well, scoring such films as Planet of the Apes, Alien, and the Twilight Zone movie. But his work went well beyond the arena of sci-fi, and the films he scored included Patton, Chinatown, Under Fire, Total Recall, Medicine Man, Basic Instinct, Mulan, and The Omen -- the latter of which earned him an Academy Award. He passed away in 2004, at the age of 75.

Listen to the theme song from Star Trek: The Next Generation

-- Hans Zimmer

I wonder, sometimes, if Zimmer would still be my all-time favorite score composer if he hadn't happened to score several of my favorite films. Zimmer is behind the music for the Pirates of the Caribbean, Dark Knight, and Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films -- the three movie franchises I happen to love best.

You don't have to be a fan of the films to appreciate his music, however. Nowhere is this more evident than in At World's End, the third film in the Pirates series. While many fans had a strong dislike of the movie (though I wasn't one of them!), the score was almost universally praised for its emotion, scope, and sweeping themes. Time after time, Zimmer creates scores that are as vast and varied as the movies he writes them for. Best of all, his music is catchy -- filled with thematic melodies that will stick with you long after the credits have finished rolling.

Zimmer was born in 1957 in Frankfurt, Germany. By age three, he had begun playing the piano; at six, he'd decided to become a composer. He moved to England in 1971, and started his music career writing commercial jingles. His first score was for the 1982 film Moonlighting, and his works include the music for Rain ManThelma and Louise, A League of Their Own, The Preacher's Wife, Gladiator, Pearl Harbor, Mission: Impossible 2, Hannibal, The Da Vinci Code, and countless others.

Listen to a clip from the score for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

-- John Williams

Star Wars. Richard Donner's Superman. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Indiana Jones. Jaws. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Jurassic Park. Harry Potter. It's easier to name the iconic musical themes that Williams hasn't written than to remember all the ones he has.

John Williams is responsible for creating most of the best-known, and most-loved, movie themes of the last thirty-odd years. The majestic looming of Darth Vader's Empire "march," the heroic fanfare of Superman's theme, the ominous two notes of the approaching shark in Jaws or the sweet five-note greeting of Close Encounters -- they're probably familiar to you even if you've never seen the film in question. His themes pop with mood and character, creating atmospheres of emotion unparalleled in film scoring.

Born in 1932, Williams is a New York City native. He worked as a jazz pianist in night clubs and Hollywood film studios, before he was contracted in the late 1950s by Revue Studios to write themes for television. His first film score was for the 1959 picture Daddy-O. Since then, he's written the scores for over a hundred movies, and has won Oscars, Grammys, Emmys, and Golden Globes.

Listen to a clip of the Star Wars theme

-- Post by Ms. B

Thursday, January 17, 2013

In Celebration of First Ladies

As long as the United States has had Presidents, we have had First Ladies. Some First Ladies have been very popular, and some have been despised. Some were very outspoken in their support of their husbands' policies and decisions, and others never made any public appearances. Some have been long remembered, while others are hardly thought of at all. But throughout our almost 237 year history, there have been some interesting stories about our First Ladies.

In honor of our current First Lady, Michelle Obama, who is celebrating a birthday January 17th, here are some interesting facts and stories about a few of our past First Ladies.

-- Abigail Smith Adams

While Martha Washington was our first First Lady, Abigail Adams was our first First Lady to reside in the White House. Unfortunately (or possibly fortunately), Abigail and John Adams only lived there for the last three months of his only term as President. But they had spent so much time apart before, during and after the nation's struggle for independence, that John wanted her to be with him in the White House. 

It really wasn't that livable when they moved in, and the house was in the middle of nowhere. Washington D.C. was still just a swampy, miserable piece of land in 1801. But the ever-resourceful Abigail made the best of the circumstances. She is famously known for having hung the laundry to dry in the East Room. 

-- Rachel Robards Jackson

Rachel Jackson never lived to be the First Lady, although her husband, Andrew Jackson, had already been elected when she died. Rachel and Andrew had married in 1791, but two years later, they found out that their marriage was invalid. 

When Rachel had been just 17 years old, she'd married Lewis Robards, who turned out to be a violently jealous man. She left him after six years of marriage, believing that her husband was going to divorce her. However, Robards never followed through on the divorce, and ended up suing on the grounds of adultery. The Jacksons were devastated by this news. By 1794, the divorce was granted, and Rachel and Andrew quietly married again. 

Still, the rumors and gossip continued, regarding adultery and bigamy. The Jacksons were happily married for many more years, but the gossip followed them all the way to the Presidency. But just months before Andrew was due to be sworn in, Rachel passed away. Her niece, Emily, took on the official duties of a First Lady for her uncle.

-- Frances Folsom Cleveland

In 1886, President Grover Cleveland became the first, and only, president to marry while in the White House. His bride was twenty-one-year-old Frances Folsom. She was 23 years his junior, but by all accounts, they seemed to have a happy and loving marriage. "Frank," as the President called her, was the daughter of Cleveland's former law partner. When Frances was 11, her father died, and Cleveland was the administrator of Folsom's estate. 

Some members of the press were so fascinated by Cleveland and Frances's marriage that they followed the couple on their honeymoon, which was unheard of at the time. The press continued to follow Mrs. Cleveland on trips to New York City and other places. But this did not seem to bother Frances. She was an excellent hostess and was very popular with the nation. By the time she died in 1947, she was still considered a role model for First Ladies.

-- Edith Bolling Wilson

Edith Bolling became the second Mrs. Woodrow Wilson in December 1915. The first, Ellen Louise Axson, died a mere 16 months before, after a nearly 30 year marriage. Edith was a childless widow who met Wilson through his cousin. They seemed to have hit it off right away. Within two months, he had proposed and she accepted. During his second term, she became Wilson's most trusted confidante and traveled with him everywhere. 

After World War I, when Wilson was trying to gain support for the League of Nations, he fell ill. He had suffered a stroke, but few people knew that. Edith kept her husband shielded from the public and took on the responsibility of what Wilson should know about. Many felt that she had taken on the duties of the President and was actually making decisions in her husband's name. She denied this, saying that the doctors encouraged her to shelter Wilson and felt that resignation would hurt him more. It seems that she was just trying to protect her husband while he was ill.

-- Elizabeth "Betty" Bloomer Ford

Betty Ford was the first of her kind in the White House. She was open and upfront about her opinions on a variety of topics, including on her own health. The Fords entered the White House unlike any other Presidential couple. Gerald Ford had been appointed Vice President in 1973, to replace Spiro Agnew, who resigned under a scandal. Less than a year later, Ford became President after Richard Nixon resigned, due to the scandal surrounding Watergate. 

Gerald Ford had been in politics, and in Washington, since 1948, serving as a Congressman from Michigan. Betty spent many days on her own raising their four children. During this time, she developed an alcohol and drug addition that continued through her time at the White House. She would kick the habit and would go on to establish The Betty Ford Center for drug and alcohol abuse. 

One of the things she will most be remembered for was her candor during her fight with breast cancer. Not long after the Fords moved into the White House, she found a lump. It turned out to be malignant and she had a mastectomy. She was very open about her ordeal, which inspired many women to have breast exams. 

-- Post by Tracy

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Dragons Are Singing Tonight

This Wednesday (January 16) is Appreciate a Dragon Day. One of the odder holidays, perhaps -- but one I whole-heartedly approve of, given my affection for dragons.

For being a mythical creature, dragons have quite the geological range. Virtually every culture has a variation of the dragon legend in their mythology. Western tradition tends to tells stories of fire-breathing, maiden-eating monsters that must be conquered and slain, while Eastern mythology generally views dragons as benevolent beasts who are symbols of good fortune.

The stories themselves may differ wildly, but dragons themselves are present in stories and legends everywhere. Historians have guessed that discovering fossilized remains of dinosaur bones may have led to early cultures devising myths about dragons. Nowadays, we know dragons to be imaginary -- but that's done little to relax their hold on our collective imagination.

I've been a fan of dragons since middle school, when movies like Dragonheart and books like Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles captivated me with their weird, wild, wonderful dragon characters. 

Here's five of the most memorable:

-- Smaug

Legends of dragons have been around for centuries. But for fans of modern high fantasy, Smaug might be considered the "original" dragon. Appearing in J.R.R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit, Smaug fits in with many of the dragons of Western mythology: a cruel, greedy, evil beast, who spends his days lying atop his hoard of treasure in the cave inside the Lonely Mountain. The treasure, incidentally, was stolen by Smaug, having originally belonged to the dwarven residents of Lonely Mountain. Smaug chased the dwarves out of their home and has lived in the Mountain (with its treasure) ever since -- at least until a group of dwarves decide to reclaim their homeland, with the help of the hapless Bilbo Baggins.

Last December saw the release of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The first in a trilogy of films, Smaug's presence is suggested but not really shown. Expect that to change in this year's sequel The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which will feature the dragon, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, in all of Smaug's menacing glory.

-- Ramoth

We've talked before about Anne McCaffrey, the sci-fi author whose most famous creation was the Dragonriders of Pern. The series centers on a group of specially-chosen men and women who are telepathically bonded to the dragons they ride, and who are charged with protecting the people of Pern.

The first book in the series, Dragonflight, tells the story of dragonrider Lessa and her golden dragon, Ramoth. Published in the 1960s, the book was groundbreaking on a number of levels -- not the least of which was the portrayal of a strong female character in Lessa. But dragon Ramoth was groundbreaking, too: here was a dragon who was one of the good guys.

-- Falkor

To be fair, he doesn't really look all that much like most people's idea of a dragon. In fact, Falkor the Luckdragon -- from the Neverending Story books and films -- is unusual in a number of ways.

Covered in fur and scales, Falkor is wingless but still capable of flying. He can breathe fire (the flames are blue), but his most magical trait is his boundless good luck. He's there to help story heroes Atreyu and Bastian on their quest to save Fantasia, and his luck never seems to fail them.

-- Temeraire

This "alternate history" series posits a highly unusual "what-if" -- what if there were dragons during the era of the Napoleonic Wars?  

In Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, dragons not only exist, they also comprise the aerial fleets of European and Asian nations. Captain William Laurence of the HMS Reliant finds himself forced into Britain's Aerial Corps alongside his dragon, Temeraire (who he names after a French ship of the same name). Laurence and Temeraire -- the latter of whom turns out to be a highly unusual kind of dragon -- quickly find themselves caught up in the politics and intrigue of their time, making this historical fiction with a highly fantastical twist, indeed. This original series has been on my reading list for years.

-- Secoh

Secoh merits a place on this list simply because he's a favorite of mine. He appears in Gordon R. Dickson's Dragon Knight series, which centers on the adventures of Jim Eckert. Jim is just your average twentieth-century financially-struggling historian -- until he's whisked back in time to medieval days and promptly finds himself surrounded by magicians, sandmirks, talking wolves, and dragons.

One of those dragons is Secoh, a "mere-dragon" who's only half the size of the average dragon. Half-starved and constantly bullied, Secoh is a sniffling, cowardly sort of dragon -- at least until the wise old dragon Smrgol gives him something new to think about:

"Don't give me this nonsense about being only a mere-dragon! Mere's got nothing to do with what kind of dragon you are. You're a DRAGON! Get that straight, once and for all time! And a dragon ACTS like a dragon, or he doesn't act at all!"

That's good advice, I think, for any dragon to follow.

Friday, January 11, 2013


Mr. Arnold

"Traitor!"  It is, perhaps, one of the worst crimes to be branded with. In Dante's epic poem Inferno, the ninth and deepest circle of Hell is reserved for traitors. The term is given to anyone who turns against their friends, their country, or their cause. Throughout history, traitors have been reviled and scorned for their flaws of swinging loyalties and false convictions.

But in fiction, things work a bit differently. There is, after all, nothing like a good fictional traitor. A treacherous character can add conflict, drama, and high stakes to a story in a way few other plot devices can. I happen to love a good fictional betrayal in stories, myself; it makes things so deliciously personal.

So in celebration -- or perhaps condemnation -- of Benedict Arnold's 272nd birthday this Monday, let's take a look at some of the biggest and "best" traitors from the page and screen.

-- Iago

In Shakespeare's Othello, the title character is a general in the Venetian army. While Othello has a perfectly trustworthy officer in the form of his lieutenant, Cassio, Othello makes the terrible mistake of choosing the ensign Iago as his right-hand man.

Iago's still upset that Cassio got promoted over him, and quickly plots a way to get Cassio demoted. The plan quickly escalates, however, and Iago ends up destroying more than a few lives -- including his own. 

-- Mordred

Most people know the legend of King Arthur, the leader who set up the utopian kingdom of Camelot. He ruled over Camelot with the help of his Knights of the Round Table (including his right-hand man, Sir Lancelot) -- with his queen, Guinevere, at his side. Unfortunately, Guinevere and Lancelot got along a little too well, and their inadvertent treachery brought about the fall of Camelot and of Arthur himself.

I say "inadvertent," however, because Lancelot and Guinevere certainly never intended to fall in love and bring about the destruction of Arthur's utopian kingdom. In most versions of the legend, the real, intentional blame for that downfall lies instead in the hands of Mordred. Usually portrayed as Arthur's illegitimate son (from before his marriage to Guinevere), it is Mordred who orchestrates the discovery of Lancelot and Guinevere's secret affair -- and who turns the Knights of the Round Table, and the people of Camelot, against the unhappy couple, ushering in a civil war for control of the kingdom. Mordred's aim was always to take over as ruler of Camelot, but Arthur defeats him -- if at a price.

-- Lando Calrissian

The administrator of Cloud City, Lando Calrissian was first introduced in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back as an old friend of Han Solo's. Han and Princess Leia have traveled to the city looking for help from Lando -- only to have it revealed that Darth Vader had reached Cloud City first. Lando (out of desperation, rather than deception) had reluctantly agreed to help Vader lay a trap for the Rebellion duo, and their capture by Vader ultimately leads to Han Solo being so famously frozen in carbonite.

Fortunately, Lando goes on to have a change of heart after Vader goes back on his word about the fate of the prisoners. Lando not only helps to break free the very people he helped imprison; he eventually joins the Rebel Alliance and plays a part in the destruction of the second Death Star. Talk about redeeming yourself!

-- Dennis Nedry

I've been a Jurassic Park fan for twenty years -- ever since it was first released to theaters!  So, as a fan, I can't help but appreciate Dennis Nedry, without whose help the genetically recreated dinosaurs populating a theme park "zoo" would never have escaped. Which, y'know, was a great development for us viewers, as loose dinosaurs + resourceful humans = great popcorn flick.

Of course, for the characters of Jurassic Park themselves, Nedry did few favors. Furious with park owner John Hammond over the myriad responsibilities he faced as the park's primary computer programmer -- and the low pay that went with the job -- Nedry sabotaged the park by shutting down computer systems and electrical fencing. (He also stole some unhatched dino embryos on his way out.) 

However, one can't argue that Nedry didn't pay for his misdeeds: he was eaten by one of the very dinosaurs he'd set free. Let that be a lesson to us all that treacherous behavior rarely pays!

-- Captain Barbossa

If it's possible to have a "favorite" traitor, then Captain Barbossa is mine. Introduced in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film as the villainous pirate captain of the Black Pearl, he eventually is revealed to be more than a pirate: he's also a traitor. Previously the first mate on the Pearl, Barbossa led a mutiny against the ship's then-captain, leaving said captain marooned on a deserted island and taking the ship (and its crew) for his own.

The captain Barbossa betrayed was, of course, Jack Sparrow -- the piratical hero of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Jack swore revenge against his mutinous first mate (and even achieved that revenge for a time). But, as the films went on, the one-time friendship between the two pirates was eventually, if somewhat grudgingly, renewed. They eventually reached a point where the two could work together -- so long as their goals happened to coincide, that is.

-- Severus Snape

He seemed bad from the beginning. This Harry Potter character was a professor at Hogwarts, teaching Potions classes to the young witches and wizards who dared enter his classroom. Cruel, arrogant, and always smirking -- plus a former employee of the Big Bad himself, Voldemort -- Snape seemed destined to prove himself to be a bad apple. (Harry Potter himself suspected Snape of foul play from the beginning.) But it wasn't until the sixth book in the series, when Snape killed a major Good Guy and defected to join Voldemort once more, that Harry's six-year suspicions were proven.

Or -- were they?  Snape's full story isn't revealed until the end of the seventh and final book in the series, when we learn that things, as they so often are in Harry Potter, were more complicated than what they first appeared to be. Snape, I suppose, may be definitively branded a traitor ... but you might be surprised to see which side he ultimately betrayed.

-- Saruman

J.R.R. Tolkien's good-wizard-gone-bad may just tie with Mordred as Greatest Fictional Traitor of All Time, even if you're not particularly a fan of the high fantasy epic trilogy Lord of the Rings

It's hard to argue the case. Saruman started off as the chief of the wizards in Middle-earth, but eventually -- corrupted by the One Ring and by the Dark Lord Sauron himself -- betrayed his fellow wizards and his mission. He was instrumental in bringing about the war on Middle-earth, and, if that wasn't enough, would go on to turn against Sauron, too. (Not, mind you, because he was re-aligning himself with the good guys; rather, his plan was to take over from Sauron and rule Middle-earth himself.)

He is eventually overthrown and defeated, but not before proving himself to be on no one's side but his own. Which, much like Mordred, might be the very definition of the ultimate traitor.

(Luckily for us, such characters makes for great storytelling.)

-- Post by Ms. B

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Getting Ready for Sundance!

I am a film person (and a book person and a television person!). Most any type of film will appeal to me if I think it has a good story and interesting characters. But usually I am drawn to the more independent film than the latest blockbuster. Luckily living in the Pittsburgh area there are are some theaters that do show independent films, although it may take a few months to reach us. And if I don't make it to the cinema, I end up watching these films on DVD once they are available at the library.

One of the best showcases of independent films in the United States is the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. This year the festival runs January 17th to 27th. This festival was started back in 1978 as the Utah/United States Film Festival as a way to lure filmmakers to Utah. In 1985 Robert Redford's Sundance Institute took over the festival and has been in charge ever since. Many of the films shown at the festival have gone on to be quite successful.

Here are just a few of the award winning films that have been presented at the Sundance Film Festival:

Blood Simple was the 1985 winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Drama. This the debut film from Joel and Ethan Coen. It tells the story of a rich, but jealous man, who hires a private investigator to kill his cheating wife and her new man. But, when blood is involved, nothing is simple.

The Brothers McMullen, (1995) from director/writer Edward Burns, was the little film that made it big. After their good-for-nothing father dies and their mother leaves to be with the man she really loves, brothers Jack, Barry and Patrick are left with only each other as they struggle with their relationships. Married Jack is tempted to have an affair; Patrick isn't sure his fiancee is 'the one'; and Barry can't deal with the fact that he is actually falling in love. Burns made this for about $25,000 and it went on to gross over $10 million.

American Splendor (2003) is one of my favorite films. Paul Giamatti plays Harvey Pekar, the star of his own comic book series. Pekar's day job was as a file clerk at the Cleveland VA. He was your typical, struggling everyman. He eventually put the drudgeries of everyday life into his series, American Splendor, using different artists (Pekar could not draw). The real Harvey Pekar, and his wife Joyce, also makes appearances as themselves. 

Super Size Me (2004), was a breakthrough hit for director Morgan Spurlock. He spent 30 days eating nothing but McDonald's food and documented the affects on his health in this documentary. This is also an insightful look at the obesity epidemic in the U.S.

Precious (2009), was the inspirational drama that captured everyone's attention. The story of an illiterate, overweight and pregnant teen who is given a second chance at an alternative high school was a break out hit.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), is the little film that is getting big talk this year because of the performance of its young star, Quvenzhan√© Wallis. Wallis plays a young girl who lives in a remote bayou who must find a way to save her family from catastrophe.

Be sure to follow the news to see what the next upcoming, independent films will be coming out of this year's Sundance Film Festival!

-- Post by Tracy