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Friday, January 22, 2016

In Memoriam: Alan Rickman and Glenn Frey

Written by Jon Williams

The year 2016 has kicked off on a melancholy note for the entertainment industry, particularly over the past couple of weeks. On the heels of David Bowie’s passing last week came the news about actor Alan Rickman. Then, earlier this week, we lost Eagles guitarist Glenn Frey. Both of these men were giants in their particular fields, and will be sorely missed.

Alan Rickman gained his acting stature relatively late in life. He was primarily a stage actor with just a few small TV parts to his name when he landed the role of Hans Gruber in the action movie staple Die Hard. Released in 1988, Rickman was 42 when it came out, and he received acclaim for his portrayal, becoming known as one of the best “bad guys” of all time. With his deep voice and theatrical manner, he became known for playing villainous (or quasi-villainous), authoritarian characters, such as the Sheriff of Nottingham in 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Professor Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series, and Judge Turpin in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd.

However, these were by no means the only types of roles he played. He could do comedic roles, such as in Galaxy Quest, and as the voice of Marvin the Paranoid Android in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He was also quite adept in more complex, emotional roles, such as heart surgeon Alfred Blalock in Something the Lord Made, and as part of a dynamite ensemble cast in the much-loved Love Actually.

Glenn Frey, on the other hand, began tasting success at a fairly early age. He was just 19 when he backed up Bob Seger on the single “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man.” Not long after, he was hired for Linda Ronstadt’s backing band, along with a drummer from Texas named Don Henley. In 1971, Henley and Frey (along with Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner) formed the Eagles; their debut album, recorded and released in 1972, included the hit “Take It Easy,” which Frey wrote with Jackson Browne. They would record and release (with some lineup changes) six albums in the 1970s before their breakup in 1980 (their volatility can be seen in the documentary History of the Eagles). Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 would be the top-selling album of the 20th century in the United States.

After the Eagles, Frey would put together a solid solo catalog in the ‘80s, helped along by soundtrack contributions. The songs “The Heat Is On” and “You Belong to the City” (compiled on his Solo Collection) appeared in Beverly Hills Cop and Miami Vice, respectively. Then, in 1994, the Eagles got back together for an MTV special, which resulted in the mostly live Hell Freezes Over album and tour. In 2007, they released the two-disc album Long Road Out of Eden, which would be their last. Frey’s last solo album, After Hours, was released in 2012, was a collection of covers.

Both of these men had outstanding careers, each worthy of greater exploration on their own; we just had the great misfortune to lose both of them within days of each other. For more, SmartBrowse their names on our website, and share their wonderful movies and music with your patrons for years to come.

Friday, January 15, 2016

In Memoriam: David Bowie

Written by Jon Williams

Waking up on Monday morning, the first thing I saw was news of David Bowie’s passing. It was a rather unpleasant way to start the week, to say the least. It would have been shocking enough by itself, but coming as it did on the heels of what seemed like such a jubilant Friday for the superstar—a new album release on his 69th birthday—made it particularly surreal.

That shock was felt throughout the entertainment industry, upon which Bowie had made an indelible mark over the course of his decades-long career. Born David Jones, he showed an early interest and aptitude for music, he formed his first band at fifteen. He took his stage name in 1967 to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of the Monkees, and would then release his eponymous debut album later that year.

That album made few waves, but Bowie would make his big break two years later in 1969 when the single “Space Oddity” made its way onto the charts. The album on which it appeared was originally titled David Bowie, just like his debut, but was eventually renamed after the single. He capitalized on that success by following up with the albums The Man Who Sold the World in 1970 and Hunky Dory in 1971. However, the legend of David Bowie really began in 1972, with the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Introducing his theatrical persona, the album features such classic hits as “Starman” and “Suffragette City,” as well as “Ziggy Stardust.” Bowie himself described his next album, Aladdin Sane, as “Ziggy goes to America.”

From there, Bowie would perform one of his musical reinventions, partially in an effort to distance himself from the Ziggy Stardust persona. This began with his 1974 album Diamond Dogs and continued through Young Americans (1975), which featured a contribution from John Lennon on “Fame.” Then, in 1976, a new persona, that of the Thin White Duke, emerged from Station to Station (related to the character he played in the movie The Man Who Fell to Earth (currently unavailable on video), the character also inspired, much later, a fun Bowie origin story, “The Return of the Thin White Duke,” from Neil Gaiman). He then finished off the decade with a three-album cycle: Low, Heroes, and Lodger.

While the 1980s were less prolific for Bowie, he once again proved himself capable of changing up his style. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) in 1980 built upon the sound of his late ‘70s albums, but the two that followed—Let’s Dance and Tonight (currently unavailable on CD)—were more in line with ‘80s dance/pop (with Bowie’s unique personality mixed in, of course) and served him well in the MTV-dominated music world of the time. It was around this time that I experienced my first real encounter with Bowie, starring as Jareth the Goblin King in the 1986 fantasy movie Labyrinth. A year later, he returned to a more straight-ahead rock sound with Never Let Me Down (currently unavailable on CD).

From there, Bowie attempted to form a band with which to share the spotlight, with only limited success. It was, therefore, a six-year gap before his next solo album, Black Tie White Noise (currently unavailable on CD). He would release seven albums in a ten-year period, culminating with Reality in 2003, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. After 2003, however, health problems forced Bowie to slow down, and there were no new solo albums for ten years, leading to speculation that he had retired. However, he returned with a vengeance in 2013 with The Next Day, which garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Album. Then, just last week came Blackstar, an immediately acclaimed album that Bowie planned as a parting gift to his fans.

While David Bowie’s death has sent ripples of sadness throughout the music world and beyond, there is no doubt that he leaves behind an incredible legacy and catalog. This post sums up his musical career, but cannot begin to describe the lasting impact created by his songs, style, and personality. For more on his life and work, check out the biography Bowie by Wendy Leigh, and SmartBrowse his name on our website for the rest of his discography, his movies, concert films, and more; patrons can also find a wide selection of his music on hoopla.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

New Music Fridays – Starting in July!

Written by Jon Williams

For years, Monday was the standard day of the week for music album releases in North America. Because so much commerce is shut down on Sundays, however, many outlets received their shipments too late to offer new albums at the start of business on Monday. That’s why, in 1989, the music industry agreed to move their release day to Tuesday, which it has been ever since.

That has not been the case around the world, though, as various countries have their own release schedules that haven’t always coincided with those in North America. The U.K., for instance, held onto Monday for their releases, while Germany and Australia saw new music come out on Friday. This non-uniformity caused angst for fans (who were upset when listeners in other countries got new tunes before they did) and the industry (with piracy concerns) alike.

That angst is about to go by the wayside. The music industry and music retailers have agreed to a new release day that will be the same around the globe. Beginning on July 10, new music everywhere will drop as 12:01 a.m. local time on Friday. Fans all around the world will be able to get the music they crave at approximately the same time as everyone else.

For libraries, the only difference is that new albums can be made available to your patrons on Fridays instead of Tuesdays. The last Tuesday release date for new music will be June 30. The following week , there will be no music releases on Tuesday (July 7). The releases will instead be on Friday (July 10), which will then be the standard.

If you have any questions about New Music Fridays and what they mean for your library, please contact our Customer Service department at 1.866.698.2231 or You can also click here for a printable flyer to let your patrons know about the change.

Friday, April 24, 2015

2015 Quite a Year for Movie Anniversaries

Written by Jon Williams

This year is shaping up to be a pretty big one for movies. Movies like Insurgent, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Furious 7 have already brought tons of people to the box office, and others like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Spectre, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (to name just a very few) are still on the horizon. But that’s looking ahead. Looking back, 2015 also sees a number of classic films celebrating significant landmark anniversaries.

Going back to 1940, a handful of notable films are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year. One is The Grapes of Wrath, an adaptation of the classic John Steinbeck novel of the same name, starring Henry Ford and John Carradine. That was also a great year for Disney, which released the animated staples Fantasia and Pinocchio. Unfortunately, both of those titles are in Disney’s vault at the moment, so if you already have copies of them on your shelves, consider yourself lucky.

Moving forward to 1965, some great and notable films are marking 50 years. Doctor Zhivago is an all-time great film, a romance with the backdrop of World War I and the Russian Revolution. For a Few Dollars More (released in 1965 in Italy, but not until 1967 in North America) is one of the Sergio Leone westerns that helped launch the career of Clint Eastwood, a career that’s still going strong all these years later. Thunderball (currently unavailable, although the novel by Ian Fleming is) was one of the first James Bond films to feature the organization SPECTRE as the enemy; fitting, as that’s the title of the Bond film releasing later this year. Finally, there’s The Sound of Music, one of the quintessential movie musicals of all time, which was recently released in a 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray that includes a ton of bonus material in addition to the film.

And then there’s 1990, which was a banner year for great movies. Just look at this list of films released that year, which turn 25 in 2015: The Hunt for Red October. Total Recall (the Schwarzenegger original, of course). Pretty Woman. Ghost. Goodfellas. Home Alone (currently unavailable). Dances with Wolves. Misery. Edward Scissorhands (currently unavailable). Is that a great list of movies or what?

So those are the big landmark anniversaries—25, 50, and 75 years—for 2015. Anything in particular catch your eye, or did we miss anything? And don’t forget, there are plenty of great films celebrating other, not quite as grand anniversaries, such as Rebel Without a Cause (60 years), Jaws (40 years), and Back to the Future (30 years). You can find these great films are more on our website.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Going to the Dogs

Written by Jon Williams

If you’re anything like me, you’re a sucker for a good dog story. Actually, if you’re even more like me, you tend to avoid a lot of dog stories, because you tend to get a little too emotionally invested in them. What can I say? Some of my best friends have been dogs. Fortunately for storytellers and moviemakers everywhere, though, it seems that most people are not like me in that regard, as stories about dogs always turn out to be quite popular.

One such upcoming release is sure to be a hit with young library patrons. Mogie: The Heart of the House begins with a litter of puppies that are all designated to be trained for a variety of jobs—all of them, that is, except for Mogie, who is too high-spirited for any of these roles. However, Mogie eventually finds his place keeping kids company at the Ronald McDonald House in Houston, Texas. This is a touching true story, and you can read a bit more about Mogie here.

One of the most popular recent dog stories, of course, and another true story, is Marley and Me. John Grogan’s memoir of “the world’s worst dog” captured hearts and leapt onto the bestseller lists. It spawned a movie adaptation starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston. And that movie then inspired a prequel of its own, which features a talking Marley going on adventures as a puppy with his human pal. Bodi. And for those who like dog memoirs, another one that has gotten plenty of attention is A Big Little Life from bestselling author Dean Koontz, who shares the life of his golden retriever Trixie. Koontz’s affection for dogs is well known, as he has presented heroic canine characters into many of his most popular novels, including Watchers and Fear Nothing.

One dog story I found particularly compelling was David Wroblewski’s novel The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. I was hardly alone in that, as it was a selection of Oprah’s Book Club, and Oprah, along with Tom Hanks, is said to be working toward bringing it to the big screen. The story is a modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with Edgar’s three dogs playing a pivotal role. Fantastic in its own right, it also made me aware of the story of Hachiko, the dog who accompanied his owner to the train station each day, and continued to make the pilgrimage even after the owner’s death. That tale was made into a movie, Hachi, starring Richard Gere and Joan Allen, and it was also featured in Martha Sherrill’s Dog Man, a book about Morie Sawataishi, who saved the Akita breed from extinction.

The list of dog “tails” is nearly endless. In addition to the above, there are classics like Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, and Sounder, as well as more contemporary comedies and family films such as Turner and Hooch, Because of Winn-Dixie, Hotel for Dogs, and the Air Bud movies. Then there are all the animated films—101 Dalmatians, The Fox and the Hound, All Dogs Go to Heaven, Balto—not to mention TV cartoon dogs like Snoopy and Scooby-Doo. Oh, and we can’t forget about Cujo, the one dog that’s the complete antithesis of all these warm and fuzzy pets, companions, friends, and heroes.

Clearly, there is plenty of interest in stories about man’s best friend. What are some of your favourites? Tell us about them in the comments section below.

Friday, March 20, 2015

WWII Still Fascinates

Written by Jon Williams

Although it ended nearly seventy years ago, World War II remains a major factor in the events of today, and stories surrounding the worldwide conflict continue to connect with audiences, whether they are grounded in truth or fiction. One of the most incredible true stories to come out of the war is that of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic distance runner for the United States who then joined the Army Air Corps in 1941. When his plane went down in the ocean during a 1943 rescue mission, his tale of survival would become one for the ages. That story is told by Laura Hillenbrand in the bestselling book Unbroken, which was then made into a movie directed by Angelina Jolie. And the rest of Zamperini’s life makes for a pretty good story in its own right, available in Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In by Zamperini and David Rensin.

Another tale of World War II is getting quite a bit of attention right now, this one on the fictional side. Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See came out on May 6 of last year and has been on the New York Times best sellers list nearly ever since, topping it several times and sitting even now at #2. A beautiful story of a young blind French girl and a German army radio expert, whose disparate paths somehow converge in the war’s closing days, it’s easy to understand how it has become and remained so popular.

Of course, there are any number of World War II stories for your interested patrons. On the literary side, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my own favourites, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk. These epic novels detail the lives of U.S. Navy Captain Victor Henry and his family as they are swept up in the events leading up to and carrying through the war. Books like Elie Wiesel’s Night and Anne Frank – The Diary of a Young Girl detail the true-life horrors of the Holocaust, while the classic novel and Catch-22 injects an element of black humour into the dire situations facing those fighting the war on a day-to-day basis. There are even young adult books that address the war, like The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and Number the Stars, the Newbery Medal-winning novel from Lois Lowry.

For those who prefer movies to books, there are plenty of options as well. The aforementioned Winds of War and War and Remembrance were each made into miniseries starring Robert Mitchum as Captain Henry, and show the full scope of the war, including both the Atlantic and Pacific theatres as well as the Holocaust. Schindler’s List, detailing Oskar Schindler’s covert efforts to save lives during the Holocaust, is considered one of the best films of all time, while similarly acclaimed films like Saving Private Ryan and HBO’s Band of Brothers depict on-the-ground combat, as does the recently released Fury, starring Brad Pitt. To see how the war affected daily life at home, you can’t go wrong with The War, from documentarian Ken Burns.

And this is just scratching the surface of all the books and movies out there on the subject of World War II. What are some of your favourites, or what’s popular with patrons at your library? Tell us in the comments section below.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Small-Screen Superheroes

Written by Jon Williams

These days, when you think of superhero-based entertainment, what comes to mind first is likely the big-budget blockbuster like The Dark Knight or Guardians of the Galaxy. While those movies garner a lot of attention—and for good reason!—there’s plenty to be excited about for fans looking for more regular installments in their favourite stories. There’s a long and stories tradition of superhero shows on TV, and that trend shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.

I mentioned The Dark Knight because, of course, Batman is one of the most popular superheroes. Making his DC Comics debut in 1939, the Caped Crusader finally came to television in 1966. Adam West and Burt Ward played Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder, and the series also included iconic turns from Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero, and Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt as frequent adversaries. The lighthearted tone of that series differed greatly from the darker, grittier portrayals seen in the Michael Keaton and Christian Bale movies, as well as from the Gotham TV series currently airing on Fox.

Making his debut just before Batman, Superman has been a sometime ally and sometime adversary to his DC Comics counterpart, such as in the upcoming movie Batman v Superman. A cultural icon, the Man of Steel has been through many television iterations, beginning in 1952 with Adventures of Superman, which featured George Reeves donning the cape. In 1988, The Adventures of Superboy followed Clark Kent and his alter ego in his youth, while in 1993, Lois & Clark dealt with Superman’s adventures as well has his relationship with Lois Lane (actress Teri Hatcher’s big break). Following on the heels of that show’s popularity, Smallville, in some ways similar to Superboy, explores Clark Kent’s origins and younger days.

It’s worth nothing that yet another DC Comics character, Wonder Woman, also had a series from 1975-1979 featuring the Amazon warrior princess. There have been considerably fewer series featuring characters from Marvel Comics, at least until Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hit the airwaves in 2013. A notable example, though, is The Incredible Hulk, which ran from 1978 to 1982 and starred Bill Bixby as scientist Bruce Banner and Lou Ferrigno as the green behemoth he changes into during moments of intense anger. A TV movie continuation, The Incredible Hulk Returns, was originally intended as a setup for a series featuring Thor, another Marvel superhero, but that never panned out.

DC and Marvel have been the source for so much superhero lore in pop culture, but there are a number of other tales as well. One of my favourite shows as a kid was The Greatest American Hero (currently unavailable), about a hapless everyman who comes to possess a suit that bestows a number of powers—but, unfortunately, he loses the instructions and has to figure it out as he goes along. It also featured one of the all-time great TV theme songs, “Believe It or Not” by Joey Scarbury. A similar premise underlies the more recent series Heroes, in which seemingly ordinary people discover their own superpowers. The show concluded in 2010, but a 13-episode follow-up is scheduled to air this fall on NBC.

For those who love their superheroes, there are obviously plenty of options to choose from, and more on the way. In addition to current shows like Arrow and The Flash, there are any number of shows coming soon, such as Powers, a superhero detective drama starring Sharlto Copley and Eddie Izzard, and Constantine, a series featuring the DC Comics character played on the big screen by Keanu Reeves. In addition, there will be a number of further additions to the Marvel universe, like Daredevil and AKA Jessica Jones, both of which will be offered by Netflix. So which of these older shows do you love, and which of the new ones are you looking forward to?