Need a little pick-me-up? The 1997 two part miniseries of The Odyssey is the most entertaining thing I’ve seen in ages. It’s now available for streaming on Amazon Prime and on the Roku channel, and everyone I know who loves The Odyssey loves this production.
Don’t get me wrong. Much of the movie, sets, effects, and acting, is hokey to the max. But it’s charmingly, enthusiastically hokey, and every minute of it is made with great love.
Let’s start with the soundtrack. It is incredibly terrible, and some scenes may actually have been recorded inside a tin can. The incidental music is devastatingly synthetic and cheap sounding, like something from a video game. But then many scenes include people playing actual instruments, and are full of real music — tunes and sounds you can respond to as a human, but which also convey a thoroughly other time and place.
The show is full of stuff like this: Big, balls-out, broad strokes and spectacle, peppered with startling touches of authenticity that must have come from a scholar or at least a deeply invested amateur. When Odysseus leaves his men at the door to the underworld, for instance, he mentions “the land of the dead” and they all make a reflexive ritual gesture of some kind that may or may not be ancient, but it sure looks both authentic and heartfelt.
But the real secret of this movie is not that they get everything right. The secret is that they’re enjoying the hell out of it, and that comes through from start to finish. They have an awesome story to tell, and here it is:
Some of the scenes (the show was filmed in Malta, Turkey, England, and the Mediterranean) are clumsy and corny — there’s lots of churning water filmed to look like giant waves when it’s clearly not — but others are inspired. Viewers are very familiar with movies that take a Cecil B. DeMille-style stab at vaguely barbaric grandeur, with everything pillared and gilded and exotically alluring. This movie also doesn’t hold back, and sometimes bites off more than it can chew; but here, the alien distance of ages is made coherent through dozens of details, the sounds, the fabrics, the hairpins, the utensils. The household gods, for instance, somehow look both sacred and naive, and you can see both that the characters are praying to them sincerely, and that they have built them themselves.
The Island of Circe is stunning and otherworldly; but Ithaca itself is the real island of a real person. I almost wept when Odysseus, still in disguise, first tastes the long-remembered cheese of home. You get a real sense of place, with well-beloved specific trees and blades of grass, and you can feel how much it feels like the entire small world to Odysseus and Penelope. Their tree bed is somewhat vague and disappointingly etherial, but the room where the suitor are slaughtered is real as real, part of an actual house.
Poseidon, as a rolling, roaring face in the waves, is hilarious and also hair-raising. In Hades, the special effects are ridiculous and yet terrifying.
Odysseus stalks right through patches of fire which were clearly pasted in afterward, and gazes in horror at eternally tumbling sheets of lava projected on the green screeniest of green screens. And yet . . . it works. It’s scary as shit in there, and you’re holding your breath the whole time as you watch, because of the fumes, and because you don’t want those shades of the hungry dead to get any closer. I wasn’t crazy about Christopher Lee as a crusty, cranky Tiresias, but I was willing to go with it.
Which brings us to another miraculous virtue of this movie. The casting is really weird sometimes. Armand Assante as Odysseus? That is NOT how I have always pictured Odysseus. And yet, three minutes in, I was sold. Man has a presence, and he clearly feels bigger than he actually is. You can see why his crew adores him, and you can see how he kept on pushing, year after year, until he makes it home. When he finally lands in Ithaca draped in a red and gold robe with his hair combed and oiled, he is very convincingly the hero we’re still talking about thousands of years later.
Isabella Rossalini as Athena, with those eyes and that posture and that voice and that skin? Brilliant. Absolutely perfect. Bernadette Peters as Circe? Sure, why not? She gives it her witchy all. Vanessa Williams as Calypso? Sufficiently slinky. The guy who plays Hermes is a gilded weirdo zipping around awkwardly in the air, which seems about right. Greta Scacchi, who I’ve never seen in anything else, is a wonderful Penelope. I’d want to come home to her, too.
Her dialogue isn’t profound (none of the dialogue is), but she does convey a complex emotional life besides what you see, and she is grippingly beautiful and strong, and she looks her age.
I wish they had included the scene where she tests him before she accepts him as her husband. That scene carries a lot of weight to counterbalance all the sex he has with various nymphs. But all the other elements are in place, and the homecoming absolutely hits the mark.
Above all, this production understands the Odyssey not as some kind of effete literary relic but as a really exciting adventure story full of fighting and monsters, with sexy ladies here and there, and a huge, endless love propelling the whole thing. And that is what the Odyssey is. I wouldn’t change a thing.
It being The Odyssey, it’s pretty violent and sexy, so I’d probably show it to kids age 14 at the youngest, depending on the kid. People get graphically ripped to shreds and eaten and stabbed, and there are some very slinky outfits and steamily suggestive scenes. I mean, it is The Odyssey.
We have ten kids, ages eighteen to almost two. We buy . . . . a lot . . . .of gifts. Here’s a list of fifty that our kids tried and liked this past year. They’re mostly under $50, and are in order from cheapest to most expensive, so it’s a little book-heavy in the beginning.
I’d also like to apologize for the graphic.
Most of these items are from Amazon. I’m an Amazon Affiliate, and all of the Amazon links in this post have my code embedded, so I earn a small percentage of the sale price, which is how we buy more presents for ten kids next year, and on and on it goes.
“I’m meeting you halfway, you stupid hippies!” Possibly specific to the needs of my family. For the right person, it could be the best $4 you ever spent. When people ask how my kids deal with being one of the few Catholics in a giant public school, this sums it up pretty well.
This book came highly recommended by trusted friends for kids grade four and up, and it lived up to the hype. Original, exciting, and the author actually wrote it with care and wit, rather than just assembling a plot with the right keywords. Kids and I both enjoyed it. It’s part one of a series of four.
Another book my friends have been lauding forever. My first-grader just adores this series, which has ten books total. I admit I haven’t read it yet, but my daughter doesn’t put up with a lot of nonsense, so I respect her opinion.
This is the one of two items on this list that I haven’t actually bought yet, but it’s on my list — in this case, on my wish list. If someone gets it for me, I plan to grow ivy in it. Ivy will grow easily in water. I need green in the house to tide me over until spring!
This was a gift for the six-year-old, but everyone loves it, from the baby on up. Those orderly little drops, marching up and down the steps, hurrying or strolling, as you choose. Endlessly fascinating, miraculously never mixing. (There are any number of liquid motion toys to choose from. Great for babies, older kids who need calming down, or adults who need calming down. I once spotted a few of these toys in the waiting room at the washing machine repair shop, and I’ll be darned if I didn’t mind waiting.)
Matthew Alderman’s new offerings this year. Alderman’s style is so fresh and inviting, reminiscent of Trina Schart Hyman, who drew heavily on heraldry and illuminated manuscripts, nodded at the pre-raphaelites, and then opened the window to let some air in. Great stuff. Kids (and others) soak in knowledge as they color.
Corrie got this last Christmas, when she was teething hard, so it became known as the Corrie-o. The little ridges are perfect for sore gums. It’s bigger than a real Oreo, so not a choking hazard. Super cute, still a favorite after a year of gnawing.
How I adore this movie. It shows, without comment, everyday scenes from the lives of four babies, from just before they’re born until they’re learning how to stand. The families live in San Francisco, Tokyo, the Mongolian steppe, and Namibia, and their lives vary widely, but some things are always the same. Sweetness and a little melancholy, but mostly sweetness. I always feel restored after watching this short, gentle, agenda-free movie, and the kids love it.
Ben Hatke’s first installment in a new graphic novel series. It’s a reimagining of Jack and the Beanstalk, and it’s wonderful. You care about the main character right away; Hatke is generous with understated details that tell you what you need to know about the world they live in; and I have no idea what is going to happen next. Some serious themes — serious money troubles, danger, a younger sister who is autistic, and a difficult friendship — but suitable for kids age 7 and up, if they’re not highly sensitive.
We loved The Pirates! Band of Misfits movie so much (made by the same folks who make the excellent Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep), and recently discovered that it was based on a series of books that are even odder and nuttier than the movie. These books do include some bawdy jokes and some violent details, but I feel that the most inapwo-pwo stuff goes over the little kids’ heads, and it’s just edgy enough to give the older kids a little thrill, without crossing any lines.
My fashion-minded ten-year old would wear this every day if we let her (which we do). Pair it with the TARDIS hat (which she does) and and maybe the TARDIS dress, and you have a themed ensemble. The scarf is a stretchy rayon, machine washable.
This toy distracts the baby from your actual smartphone for maybe ten minutes. Worth every second. I like B. Toys because they make sounds, but they are intentionally soft; and they have an off switch. This one has held up well, and doesn’t gobble batteries too badly. Also records your voice, so the older kids are always pranking each other.
The large wooden balls are linked with elastic, so you can wear it like a bracelet, or you can roll and twist them to make all kinds of lovely clusters of color. Each ball is painted a slightly different shade, it’s pleasantly heavy, and it makes a soft clacking sound. Fine, I bought it for myself, and sometimes I let the baby play with it. We’ve had good luck with this brand, Manhattan Toy.
Whenever my kids put Calico Critters on the list, I grumble and complain about how stupid and pointless and expensive they are; and then I start shopping, and then I go, “AWWWWWWW.” They really are adorable. These are very small toys, so not great for kids who lose stuff; but they are sturdy and sweet, and come in dozens of different species. We also have the pool and sandbox set.
I actually resisted buying this kit, because it seemed dumb (ALEX toys are hit or miss) but one kid desired it greatly. It turned out to be quite good. The headbands haven’t broken after a year of use, which is almost a miracle; and she had a surprising amount of fun making different combinations.
My current favorite read-aloud. This book has an unusual focus for a children’s book: a very old couple, so poor they have to share everything, including a chair, a blanket, and the one last potato in the garden — or so they think. A simple and hilarious story of unexplained magic, but so much to unpack about what you really need in life. The illustrations are understated but extraordinary.
My ten-year-old daughter worked to earn her very own ice cream and candy dress, but maybe you’d prefer beetles, constellations, or cute ghosties. More varieties, some of them truly bizarre, than you can shake a stick at. These dresses are on the short side for adults of average height, but work fine for shorter folks. They come with or without sleeves, and are made of a stretchy rayon material.
Oh, I lied, this is another thing I haven’t bought yet, but friends say it’s lovely. I’m a sucker for little worlds under a dome, and I love how this comes with a hanging hook. Friends say it’s brighter than you might expect. We recently redid the little girls’ room with two sets of bunk beds, so we may be investing in individual lighting for individual preferences.These come in three different colors, and you can get either the rabbit thing, or a plump little bird.
By far the nicest instructional ballet video I’ve ever seen. The music is pleasant, there are no bizarre mascots or intrusive animation, the teacher seems to actually like kids, and you will learn some true, basic ballet. We put a broomstick between two chair backs to make the required barre.
The premise is that, when night falls in the village, a werewolf comes out and kills someone; and everyone else has to figure out who the werewolf is and what to do about it. Everyone closes his eyes, and the leader instructs one person at a time to wake up, take a look at the card that reveals his role (werewolf, bodyguard, witch, villager, etc.), and then go back to sleep. There are several rounds of play, in which the players anonymously decide to kill, save, protect, or silence each other.
Quilling is making a comeback! A lovely, old-fashioned craft where you roll up thin strips of paper, loosely or tightly, then pinch them into various shapes. No end of possibilities here. You can make free-standing 3-D ornaments, glue the paper to eggs, make cards, or even jewelry. A very pleasant way to spend time. My nine-year-old needed a little help to get started, but she caught on fast.
With eight daughters, we’ve tried a number of jewelry boxes. A number. This one is by far the sturdiest, but it still looks delicate and dainty. The ballerina still pops up, the music still plays, the hinges still function, and the box is still a box. Pretty, silver-satin quilted design. Plays “Fur Elise.”
Probably the most-used piece of furniture in our entire house. This lived in our living room for at least five months, and saved my sanity while Miss Insano clambered up and threw herself down hundreds and hundreds of times. Folds for storage.
This is the absolute last untested item on this list! We’ve bought many items from The Little Dress-Up Shop, and have always been completely delighted, so I’m confident that this sweet, poofy ballerina skirt with rosebuds will be well-received.
42.Portable Bluetooth speaker, about $37
Exactly what we needed. It works with my kid’s phones, and lets them blast music while slaving away in the dirty dish mines or cleaning up the yard after the last raccoon garbage party. Easy to use, and a good value for the price.
It wouldn’t be Christmas without at least one sword. This one is long, shiny and seriously heavy. Not sharp, but you definitely could kill someone if you tried. Not meant for heavy fighting, but good for stage or costumes or just swaggering around with a big-ass sword.
Greatest inspiration I’ve had all year. We now have two sets (they come rated for different weights), and they are adjustable. First kid went from zero skill to wobbling across the floor in a few minutes, and now she can jump, run backwards, spin, and do all kinds of terrifying stunts. Good exercise, good for improving balance, and great for building confidence. Excelsior!
Yes, this is the second trampoline we’ve bought. We finally destroyed the mat of the first one, and after several unsuccesful attempts to replace it (we kept buying the wrong size, the wrong spring size, etc. etc.) we just threw in the towel and bought a new one, upgrading to fifteen feet. I know all about the horrible stories of mangled faces and splintered tibias, but we are still a trampoline family all the way.
Baby loves it. Kids love playing with the baby on it. It’s instant entertainment at birthday parties, with or without water balloons and a sprinkler or Easter dresses.
Grouchy or sullen teens discover that life is worth living after taking out their troubles on the trampoline. And it’s a perfect spot for stargazing or sunbathing or lying down while the kids run around you, blissfully under the illusion that you are playing with them.
You really need a trampoline. (And if you happen to have a spare trampoline frame, you can wrap some chicken wire around it and make a garden fence, or maybe a chicken coop.)
Okay! That’s it for this year. Happy shopping! Thanks again for using my link when you shop on Amazon.