DVD Review: Band of Brothers

At the beginning of the year, some friends and I came up with a novel way to pass the time between when we caught up (because we all live in different parts of Australia) – we’d go out and buy the same TV show on DVD, watch one episode a week and then swap notes about the episode via SMS or phone calls or whatever. There were only three of us, so taking it in turns to pick a show means that we basically get 1-2 picks a year.

The inaugural show picked by the youngest member of our troupe was the famous Band of Brothers, which I’d heard of many, many times but never gotten around to watching, so it was good to have the excuse to watch the whole thing.

If you haven’t ever heard of it, this miniseries was made for the HBO cable channel about 10 years ago, and was the brainchild of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, both of whom wanted the chance to tell another World War II story after the success of Saving Private Ryan.

Based on the book Band of Brothers, by Stephen Ambrose, they found the perfect war tale. The miniseries, over the course of 10 episodes, follows the adventures of Easy Company, a paratrooping company from America. They’re a great group to follow for World War II, because they were in a lot of the major skirmishes of the time. They were parachuted into France on D-Day, then later on found themselves in Holland, Germany and other places.

What makes this different from many other war films is that there are no fictional characters here. Every actor, even in a small role, is playing a real historical character. To further emphasise this, each episode begins with a filmed interview of some of the real members of Easy Company (obviously now quite elderly) describing their recollections of the battle. If you watch the excellent extra features on this disc, you will find that all of the actors were sent on training boot camp where they were required to take on the name of the soldier they were playing. This has clearly carried over into the film, where all the actors take on their roles with great seriousness and professionalism.

In the end, though, this attention to detail is the main drawback. Because nearly all the actors are little-known (and, oddly enough, many of the leads are British performing with American accents), it took me several episodes to really get the hang of who’s who in the company. There’s also not much time given for explaining the various military strategies being used. This is very much a program where the viewer has to “sit forward”, as it were, and pay attention.

However, that won’t be too hard for most people. The production design on this show is phenomenal. This show successfully proved that there’s no reason why TV has to be a poor cousin to cinema. The action is engaging, the special effects, sound design (especially if you can watch this in Dolby Digital 5.1!) and cinematography are all top-notch. (Depending on how much you like hand-held camera and a washed-out green colour. This series has taken its lead from Saving Private Ryan in terms of the look and feel.)

For an insight into what it was like to fight in World War II, this is probably as good as it gets – and makes me very glad that we haven’t had a war on that scale since. Definitely check it out.

4 ½ out of 5.

 

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Opera Review: Das Rheingold

When the Metropolitan Opera (and now other opera companies as well) first started broadcasting their operas in cinemas, the idea that I was most excited about was one day being able to see a complete Ring Cycle broadcast on a cinema screen. The benefit? For about $100, you’d be able to see all four operas compared to the thousands of dollars this would normally cost. And with the release of this Das Rheingold HD broadcast from the Met, that day has arrived.

A quick recap for those of you who are new – Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold) is the first of four operas composed by Richard Wagner that make up Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), which is really the 1800s opera answer to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s huge, it’s epic, it’s long, and crowds go nuts over it. When all four operas are presented in a festival setting where you can watch them in a week, hundreds of Wagner fans – or Wagnerians, to use the proper term – flock from around the world to get the best seats. There is no other opera that has this kind of cult following.

Rheingold is the first of the four operas and is intended by Wagner to be the “prelude evening”, in his words, of the Festival. In other words, folks, of the four Ring operas – this is the short one. And by Wagner standards, it is short – only 2 ½ hours with no interval at all. (The other three are monstrous 5 or 6 hour things, though still well worth watching.) This opera tells the tale of Alberich the dwarf, who steals the Rhinegold from the Rhinemaidens, forges it into a ring of power and sets out to rule the world – until he is foiled by Wotan, king of the gods. OK, there’s a lot more plot than that but it’s so long and convoluted that short version will do – what people really go to the Ring for is not the plot but the spectacular orchestrations and singing.

Wagnerians especially get excited when it’s a new production, which was the case with this Rheingold, being directed by the legendary theatre craftsman, Robert Lepage. The set – dubbed “the machine”, as we learned in the half hour or so of documentary material that screened before the opera started, consists of a number of long planks, that can move in all sorts of ways and have all manner of lights and images projected on them. This was especially striking in the opening. The planks were lying flat, lit only by a pale blue light, but as the overture – a spectacular piece of music starting with one low note – started to move and pulse like the Rhine river, so too did the planks rise up and down. And from what I saw in the documentary, they were run by a whole bunch of backstage guys turning cranks like galley slaves back in the Roman era, so I hope someone bought them all a beer afterwards.

But set design alone does not make a successful opera. To get a truly perfect Rheingold, you want a combination of spectacular sets, good acting and great singers. We got about two out of three. For the most part, the singing was pretty good, with standouts being Eric Owens as Alberich the dwarf, Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Richard Croft as Loge, the fire god. (Though for some reason, poor old Croft got booed when he came out on stage at the end – I’m thinking it was because he was the only character in the opera that tried throwing a bit of acting in there …)

I don’t know if Owens was cast for this reason, but it was an interesting touch making Alberich African-American – it immediately set him apart from the other characters and made you realise how badly treated he was by the Rhinemaidens – which sets him on his path of forsaking love and chasing power. His voice also was perfect – ringing out with a beautifully malevolent sound in all his scenes.

The main let-down with all of this was the acting. No one is expecting Oscar-worthy performances, but there’s an awful lot of “stand-and-sing” with the odd cheesy gesture thrown in. This made it especially difficult to sit through the second scene of the opera, which is mainly a lot of exposition and characters arguing with one another. On top of that, it’s clear that a lot of the stunts and wire-work – as characters move up and down the machine planks – are being done by extras, reinforcing that we can’t expect much more than singing from this particular cast.

But still, the last ten minutes of Das Rheingold are all but indestructible, as the gods summon up a storm, create a rainbow bridge and march triumphantly into Valhalla, with the Rhinemaidens singing plaintively below, begging for the return of their gold. It’s in this section, that Lepage’s sets, the orchestra under the baton of James Levine and the great voices all come together in an ending which is truly as spectacular as Wagner’s music. In this day and age of Ring productions, where directors hijack the story to make political points or insert ugly imagery, to see a beautiful production like this one is a great thing.

4 out of 5.

Review: Kids Flag Page

I don’t often get asked to review something, so I was very excited when Family Matters – an American organisation that promotes the works of Dr Tim Kimmel, author of Grace Based Parenting and other books – asked me to review one of their new products: the Kids Flag Page.

Quite simply, the Kids Flag Page is for parents who have woken up one day and discovered that their kids are not robots. Do you know what I mean? If you’ve had kids, you’ll know that for about the first year or so of their life, it’s not too hard to work out what they want. They’re either hungry, they need their nappy (diaper for the Northern Hemisphere folks) changed or they want a cuddle.

Now fast-forward a couple of years and you’re having a massive fight with your 3-year-old over whether you put her pajamas on first or whether you brush her teeth first. You can’t see that it makes a difference. Your toddler is on the floor in tears. What have you done wrong?

Even assuming that you work out what’s going on with that child, then things get more complicated if you have other children. All of a sudden, all the tricks that worked for #1 don’t work for #2 and who the heck knows what’s up with #3?

Into the midst of all this chaos steps the Kids Flag Page. With the cute subtitle – The Operating Manual That SHOULD Have Come Wtih Each Of Your Kids … But Didn’t – this kit brings parents a step closer to understanding what’s ticking away in their child’s minds.

The concept is fairly simple – this kit is designed to tell you your child’s Country. Not their country of birth, but rather their personality type country. Are they from Control Country, Fun Country, Perfect Country or Peace Country? These correspond more or less to the commonly known personality types from many other books: Choleric, Sanguine, Melancholy, Phlegmatic. However, I don’t know about you – but I find Control, Fun, Perfect and Peace a lot easier to remember.

The kit contains a game board and 36 motivation cards. The idea is that you sit down with your child and go through all 36 motivations, which are in the form of little statements like: “I Make People Laugh: It’s easy for you to make people laugh and everything is funny.” Or “I’m One Of A Kind: You love being different. You’re glad you’re not like anyone else.” With your child’s help, you sort the cards into three piles: Always Like Me, Sometimes Like Me, Never Like Me. Then, from there, they take the first two of those piles and work out what is their favourite motivation, and their next five favourites.

From here, parents can quickly work out a numerical score which will tell them what Country their child belongs to and their Adopted Country (which is their next most dominant personality). You can then put stickers on a “flag page” for your child, so they can see exactly which country they belong to.

There’s a 100+ page book by Tim Kimmel that comes with this, which then breaks your child’s personality down into further detail and explain more about the motivations. It also offers illuminating information on what kind of child you get when you combine two Countries (because most children will be a hybrid of their home country and their adopted country).

Most importantly, Tim provides an introduction to his concept of “grace based parenting”, which he has laid out in other books. This is so you’ll not only know what type of child you have – but also a strategy for parenting that child. I actually found this explanation of GBP to be one of the clearest he has given. While  the practicalities of it all aren’t gone into in great depth – the kit points you in the direction of Kimmel’s other books for this – the concept comes across pretty clearly: grace based parenting is a fine balance between being flexible and being firm. A parent who never budges on anything will squash their child, especially given the concept that’s now been explained that every child has a unique personality. However, a parent who is permissive and gives in on everything, will create a child with no boundaries who doesn’t know how to function properly.

So with that in mind, the book that accompanies the kit aims to explain what things to be flexible on with each personality and what boundaries need to be carefully maintained to stop the excesses of that personality type going overboard.

On the whole, I think the Kids Flag Page is a great idea. Because it’s in the form of a game that you play with your child (rather than a book that you read about your child, it shows your child that you are actively interested in understanding and appreciating them. (A great thing for any child.)  The only catch with this is that the kit is designed for children age 6 and up. If you’ve got children under the age of 6 (and my oldest daughter, who we made a flag page for, is only 4), you can still create a flag page for them, but it’s not really something you can do with them.

But each kit comes with enough stickers and flag pages to make three flags, so you can easily make one now by doing your best guess on the motivation cards, and then try it again in a few years when your child is old enough to work through the cards by themselves. I’m certainly looking forward to trying it with my daughter in a couple of years’ time.

One other benefit of this kit is that the book comes with study questions, so if a bunch of parents wanted to buy a kit each, they could meet and discuss their children over the course of a few weeks, which would be a helpful thing.

My only quibble with the kit, which is an issue I took with Kimmel’s book Grace Based Parenting is that I feel the book is a bit light-on in constructing a Biblical defense of its parenting style. I have nothing against Kimmel’s concept of grace based parenting – it’s very similar to the way we parent our children, and I’m really happy with the type of kids they are becoming. But I often find that the books which are promoting a more heavy-handed, “It’s my way or the highway” type parenting, often do so with Scripture prooftexts on every paragraph. By comparison, some of the ideas in this kit sound like they were borrowed from a mixture of popular self-help books.

But this is a minor detail, and will only really cause upset to those people who like to see a large quantity of Bible references throughout their Christian books before they’ll take the advice seriously. For anyone else – especially parents who want to have a close connection with and understanding of their children in their formative years – I recommend giving it a go.

Another drawback, which I just discovered, is that I don’t think this kit is available in Australia yet. I had a check around the web and it seems to be only available in America and Canada. If you visit the Family Matters website, you can order it in one of those countries, but they don’t seem yet to ship to Australia. However, if enough of you ask your local Christian bookstore, I’m sure some will arrive soon.

UPDATE: Family Matters has informed me that they will be able to post to Australia. In their words:

Just a note about the product’s availability for Australia, if the Aussies go to the website and place an order, we will be able to ship it to them.  Our software will not properly calculate the shipping, so they will simply leave their information and we will contact them via email to coordinate shipping, but we are definitely willing and able to send resources Down Under!  In reality, Australians may pay a similar rate to ship products as Canada because tariffs and taxes are so cumbersome for Canadians.

FREE GIVEAWAY! In the meantime, Family Matters have very kindly offered to give away a complimentary kit to someone on my blog. So if you’d be interested in receiving a Kids Flag Page, leave a comment below, and I’ll get my four-year-old to draw a name out of a hat on Sunday 13 October.

For more information about the Kids Flag Page and to see a video where Tim Kimmel explains how the product works, click here.