Tag Archives: russia

Sochi Winter Olympics 2014 Opening Ceremony is Absolutely Enchanting!

Sochi Opening Ceremony 1I finally watched the Opening Ceremony for the 2014 Sochi Olympics and found it absolutely enchanting.  The Russians really stepped up the opening ceremony for the winter games.  I thought that nothing could compare to the Chinese opening ceremony from a few years back and, in some ways, I was right.  However, Sochi was able to create their own unique, memorable experience that was just as mind-blowing and impressive in its own way as the Chinese opening ceremony was.

Sochi Opening Ceremony 2

The music was gorgeous, lush and evocative – it completely swept me away!  The performers were earnest, well-rehearsed and performed very well.  The technology of the stadium was the special piece, however.  I loved the scrolling map on the floor of the stadium when the athletes were entering.  I was enthralled by the three-dimensional scenery with oceans, forests, factories, and more so fantastically portrayed.  The Sochi Olympic Committee really stepped up their game with the Opening Ceremony and it was a sight to see!

Sochi Opening Ceremony 3

I personally found the Sochi portrayal of Russian history from the ancient peoples to the modern-day to be fascinating.  That is not to say that it is accurate, as I am sure there is some artistic license involved and, of course, differences in political opinion.  I appreciated that the Russians were able to incorporate their many fine achievements throughout the performance and storytelling.  In light of our political differences, it is easy to forget that the Russians excel at dance, music, writing and many other artistic pursuits that are celebrated the world over.  The Sochi Opening Ceremony reminded me of all that Russia has offered to us over the last decades and softened the memory of the Cold War a little bit.

Sochi Opening Ceremony 4

I appreciated the brief speeches that the Sochi Olympic President and the IOC president offered.  I particularly appreciated the reminder that the Olympics are about the athletes, not politics or differences between countries.  I hated that NBC started their Opening Ceremony coverage with some lame comment about how, if we lived in a perfect world, we would not have to talk about politics during the Olympic games, but that we don’t live in a perfect world so we do have to talk about it.  Uh, no, we don’t.  Let Putin put on a spectacle and show off his country to the world.  Let the Russians dream of a better future rather than dwell on what they have lost.  Let the Olympics remind us that we are all the same, striving to do our best and fighting to achieve the impossible.  Let us remember that the Olympics were created to let the world forget, for a short time, that there are any differences between us.

APTOPIX Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony

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Transsiberian (2008) Movie Review

Transsiberian (2008)

Movie Review by Debbie Winkler

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Ben Kingsley, Kate Mara, Eduardo Noriega
Director: Brad Anderson
Release Date: 18 January 2008
Language: English
Length: 111 minutes
Movie Rating: R
View Format: Online Streaming
My Rating: image_thumb84_thumb1_thumb


Americans Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) just finished their volunteer work in China and are taking the Transsiberian railroad to Moscow as a kind of mini-vacation before they return home.  They end up sharing a cabin with Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and his girlfriend Abby (Kate Mara).  Experienced travelers, Carlos and Abby stay close by Roy and Jessie, but it doesn’t seem to be for innocent reasons.  Jessie suspects that Carlos is running drugs, but Roy harbors no such suspicions.  Roy and Jessie were hoping to reconnect and invigorate their marriage over the duration of this trip, but Carlos seems to be driving a bigger wedge between them.  Jessie cannot stay away from Carlos’s dark charms and, when Roy is accidentally left behind on a brief train stop, Jessie gives into temptation, which changes her life forever.


Transsiberian is a taut, atmospheric thriller.  One aspect of the storyline seemed pretty obvious so I was waiting for the penny to drop on that one, but other Roy and Jessieplotlines came out of nowhere and smacked me in the face.  The movie begins with a couple that is clearly struggling in their marriage.  Woody Harrelson plays Roy, a sunshiny optimist who never even suspects the bad in other people, let alone believe it.  A typical American, he is big and loud and obvious while traveling, but he makes friends easily and everyone seems to like him.  Woody Harrelson was a delight to watch in this role as an over-grown boy who recommends that you keep your eye on the doughnut and not the hole while indulging his inner geek with all kinds of fun train facts.  Roy appears to be completely unaware of all of the undercurrents between Jessie and Carlos and I was really worried about him!  Emily Mortimer was the central focus of the movie as Jessie.  She is married to Roy, who seems Carlos and Abbyher polar opposite in every way.  Jessie has struggled to fight off her addictions and to change her life, but now she feels like she is stuck in boredom.  Emily Mortimer plays Jessie as an intriguing mix of world-weary élan and naivety.   She is clearly unhappy and ripe for the picking, which draws the sharks closer to her character and sets all of the grief in motion.  When the exotic Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) starts flirting with her, I knew it was only a matter of time before Jessie succumbed to temptation.  Eduardo Noriega plays his role with a hint of danger and a vein of unpredictability.  He was a wild card and I never knew quite what was going to happen.  Oh, I knew that he would find a way to get Jessie to smuggle drugs for him, but I had no idea how bad things would turn out for Jessie and Roy!

The best part about this movie is the surprising story.  I knew that someone was Roy and Jessie Flee for Their Livesmurdered and that drugs were involved, but I was completely wrong in guessing who killed whom, as well as when and why.  I felt an almost claustrophobic sense of anticipation while I was waiting to find out who was going to turn out to be the killer.  The couples are on a small, enclosed space on the train and have little privacy.  In addition, no one else on the train seems to speak English aside from these four, which keeps them further isolated.  You also feel a great deal of vulnerability as the Russian police are portrayed in a very negative light.  So where do you go for help?  Who do you trust to share an incredible story with Ben Kingsley as Russian Policemanand hope that they believe you are innocent?  Roy puts his trust in Grinko, a Russian detective portrayed by Ben Kingsley.  I thought it was a good move, I mean, come on, its Ben Kingsley, how could you not trust him?  But the good moves turn out to be bad and the bad moves turn out to be good.  I was practically breathless with anticipation as I waited for the movie to come to its close and then was still a little surprised.  There is a lot of trust involved in traveling in foreign countries and I never felt more of a foreigner than I did while watching Roy and Jessie trying to escape the train that had become a type of prison to them.

Russia is shown to possess a kind of spare, stark beauty.  It is wintertime and Siberia is bitterly cold.  I completely understand why Communist Russia used to Cold Wintertimeuse this section of Russia as a prison as it was difficult to survive.  Buildings and people are worn down and just accept life at face value.  There is no hope or happiness that is found without a touch of alcohol to raise it.  Beautiful monuments of the past are at the mercy of the elements and are in crumbling ruins.  Brad Anderson really captured this transitional country that is still trying to find its footing after the collapse of Communism.  Jessie’s camera highlights bits and pieces of the Russian culture that are still alive, but the monochromatic vistas definitely wear on you after a time, just like they did on the travelers.  The music enhances and supports the movie brilliantly.  It is subtle, but very well done.

If you are looking for a movie that will surprise and horrify you, Transsiberian is a good choice.  It is an independent film so they have no agenda in what they are presenting and this movie will definitely keep you guessing!  Every time Roy Shocking Ending!and Jessie’s troubles appear to be over, there is something far worse on the horizon waiting for them.  The movie is a bit depressing and has a sense of heaviness or doom about it that stays with you for a time after you watch it, which is probably why most viewers give this movie a lower rating.  This movie is one of those films that is really well crafted – it has a strong storyline, good acting and a great mystery going for it – but it has some quality about it that makes this a one-time viewing for me.  While I can appreciate the quality of this movie, I found it disturbing in such a way that I will probably not be watching it again anytime soon!


This movie contains several scenes of violence.  Characters are tortured, killed, shot, bludgeoned, terrified and injured.  Dead bodies and blood are shown.  Drug smuggling is a major plot in the movie and tis brings in corrupt cops and drug enforcers who keep track of the smugglers and their money.  There are scenes of drinking, smoking, and strong language.  There are some scenes of sensuality and sexuality, though nothing explicit is shown.  The nude full male rear is shown in a shower scene.  Police brutality is shown while they beat up a suspect.  Recommended for ages 18 and up.

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Shadow and Bone (Grisha Trilogy #1) by Leigh Bardugo Book Review

Shadow and Bone

Book Review by Debbie Winkler

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Series: Grisha Trilogy #1
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company (July 2012)
ISBN: 9780805094596
Page Count: 358 pages
Format: hardcover

Target Age Group: teens
My Rating:image_thumb84_thumb1



Orphaned at a young age in the Border Wars, Alina Starkov clings to her best friend, Mal, whom she grew up with.  Now they are both in the Second Army – Alina as a mapmaker and Mal as a tracker.  Alina is resigned to her life until a terrifying attack triggers an unknown power.  Swept off to the capital of Ravka by the Darkling himself, Alina soon finds herself training as one of the elite Grisha.  Alina is the hope of her country and everyone believes that she can remove the darkness of the Unsea, but Alina doesn’t have that confidence herself – especially when she cannot control her newly discovered powers!


When I read the synopsis of Shadow and Bone, the book didn’t strike me as anything unusual or special so it was a surprise to find myself immersed in a Map of Ravkacompletely new and unique fantasy world.  Most of the action takes place in the country of Ravka, which reminded me of Russia.  Fjerda, which reminded me of Scandinavia, lies to the north where the fair-haired, magic-hating people live.  Shu Han, which reminded me of Asia, lies to the south where a warrior-like people sell those with magic powers into slavery.  Ravka is the only Russian Towerscountry that welcomes those with special abilities and they call them Grisha.  The Grisha are the only defense that Ravka has against their technologically superior neighbors.  But years ago, one of the Grisha accidentally created the Unsea, a swath of darkness that cut a path through the middle of Ravka and cut off the capital from the coast.  The Unsea is filled with flying monsters with razor-sharp teeth and it is difficult to survive a crossing.  None of the Grisha are able to remove the dark stain on Ravka, but Alina’s unique abilities might be able to banish the darkness.

The Grisha are separated by power and ability.  The Darkling wears black, is the most powerful of the Grisha and the only one of his kind.  He is second-in-command to the King himself and runs the First Army.  Handsome and Ravka Triptychcharming, all women hope to catch his eye.  The Darkling’s powers are unique.  He can cast darkness over anything, split objects in half with the power of his mind, and amplify the powers of any other Grisha.  The Etherealki wear robes of blue and the color of the embroidery denotes their powers: pale blue for Tidemakers (water), red for Inferni (fire), and silver for Squallers (wind).  The Corporalki wear robes of red and they are Healers and Heartrenders (mages who can kill with a thought).  The Fabrikators wear robes of purple and can create amazing items such as bullet-proof fabric and unstoppable blades.  Then there are those Grisha who are unique and don’t really fall into any of these categories.  Alina is unique.  She is a Sun Summoner and can pull the light of the sun to cast over any location.  Genya, a servant at the palace, can change a person’s appearance with a touch.  All of the Grisha labor to protect Ravka from its enemies, but the palace and court itself are perilous.  There is a strict hierarchy amongst the Grisha and Alina has just jumped to the top of the heap.

Alina was a great little character.  She is spunky, plain and stubborn.  Alina has been in love with Mal ever since she was a little girl, but Mal grew from a chubby little boy into a handsome young man.  All of the beautiful girls seem to flock Alinaaround Mal and Alina just can’t compare.  Not willing to risk their friendship, Alina doesn’t dare tell Mal how she really feels.  Before Alina’s powers are discovered, she feels them growing further apart.  Now that they are physically separated, Alina tries to cling to Mal, but he doesn’t even answer her letters.  Through a relentless mix of physical and Grisha training, Alina struggles to navigate court life after a lifetime of living in poverty.  The Darkling seems to be paying particular attention to Alina and it was only natural that she would begin to fall in love with him (I certainly did!).  I usually don’t enjoy love triangles, but this one sucked me in.  Alina has some difficult decisions to make and some The Darklingreally unexpected life changes she has to survive to choose between her two men.  On the one hand, you have the Darkling.  Handsome, powerful, and interested, the Darkling is close at hand and Alina is deeply flattered to have attracted his attention.  On the other hand, you have Mal.  Handsome and familiar, Alina has loved Mal for as long as she can remember, but she hasn’t heard a word from him since the Grisha took her away for training.  I couldn’t decide between the two of them at first, but, once I understood a bit more about Alina and her powers, it became very clear who Alina’s heart truly belonged to.

Shadow and Bone is a classic fantasy book and there was nothing particularly unique about the characters in the book, but the setting was fabulous!  I loved Mythical White Stagthe whole idea of the Grisha and the different types of powers.  The training for the Grisha takes place in a Little Palace right next to the Grand Palace of the King, who was just like the Tsars of Russia.  The palace is gilded, bejeweled and absolutely dazzling while the populace struggles to find enough food to eat.  The Court itself is cutthroat and every move Alina makes has repercussions.  Friends, clothing, the food that she eats, every choice changes Alina’s life in subtle ways.  I absolutely loved reading about this world and cannot wait to learn more about Ravka!


This book contains several scenes of death.  Characters are cut in half, killed with a thought, slashed with knives and swords, shot with guns, and eaten by monsters.  There are scenes of fighting and physical training.  Characters take part in communal bathing and other activities where they are nude in large groups.  There are a couple of scenes of kissing and heavy petting.  There is quite a bit of violence and some swearing in a language that seems Russian, but isn’t.  Recommended for ages 13 and up.

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A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) Movie Review

A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

Movie Review by Debbie Winkler

Series: Die Hard #5
Starring: Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch, Yuliya Snigir, Radivoje Bukvic
Director: John Moore
Release Date: 14 February 2013
Language: English
Length: 97 minutes
Movie Rating: R
View Format: Movie Theatre
My Rating: image_thumb84_thumb1_thumb


When John McClane (Bruce Willis) hears that his son, Jack (Jai Courtney) is in prison in Moscow, Russia, he hurries overseas to try to help out, only to unwittingly foil a CIA plan to rescue scientist Yuri Kamarov (Sebastian Koch) that was three years in the making.  Now it is up to John and Jack to obtain the top-secret file that Yuri hid years ago that will expose the current secretary of defense’s (Radivoje Bukvic) Chernobyl crimes.


It appears that most of the feedback on the fifth movie in the Die Hard franchise is negative.  I was a bit surprised as I enjoyed the film and have recommended it Bruce Willisto several friends.  I watch a lot of action movies and, after a while, the action all blurs together.  It is the really good and really bad characters that stand out in my mind and the character of John McClane, as played by Bruce Willis is one of my hands-down favorites.  Bruce Willis’s acting takes any movie in the Die Hard series to a higher rating, in my opinion, than most action movies out there.  That said, the plot was a bit convoluted and seemed unnecessarily complicated with double and triple crosses, but forget about it being completely implausible and just enjoy the ride.

A Good Day to Die Hard begins with a killer car chase.  Jack and Yuri are being chased by a bunch of bad guys in some kind of tank-like vehicle that seems virtually indestructible.  John is chasing the bad guys in various vehicles and Welcome to Russia, Dadthese three cars are wreaking havoc on Moscow traffic!  Cars are crushed, driven over, pushed off of overpasses, spun out, crunched in between good and bad guys, knocked about as the vehicles go barreling down narrow streets and there is a lot of damage!  The movie ends with in the truly creepy setting of Chernobyl.  The city is still standing just as it was when 50,000 people were evacuated overnight.  Papers, personal effects Good Day to Die Hard Chernobyland other items are left on desks waiting for workers to return.  There are plenty of hiding places, as well as the threat of radiation to prickle the skin on the back of your neck as you wait to see how John and Jack will take down the bad guys and save the world.  There are some other cool sequences, but I felt that the Moscow location was a bit underutilized and would have liked to see some more iconic locations or get a better feel for the Russian setting.  Luckily, the beginning and end of the movie were strong and left me feeling that the movie was stronger than it really is.

Bruce Willis dominates the movie. The little quirk to his mouth when he is amused and his dead-pan delivery of funny lines in the midst of serious situations make the John McClane character something special.  This movie is better than most of the action movies out there because of the humor.  You feel guilty for laughing in the middle of some pretty intense fight sequences, but you Elevator Sequencejust can’t help it – they are too funny!  Bruce Willis’s character, John McClane, makes constant reference to being on vacation and not understanding anything that is said to him.  There are lots of little funny sequences if you are on the lookout for them.  It starts off with John accidentally asking for a bag of hair on his way to the courthouse as he tries to use his “Idiot’s Travel Guide.”  It peaks in the middle when John McClane (Bruce Willis), his son, Jack (Jai Courtney) and the scientist, Yuri (Sebastian Koch) are riding in an elevator with “The Girl from Ipanema” muzak playing on their way up.  Most of the gags are not really verbal, but quiet moments that will give you a chance to giggle and lighten up on the intense fighting sequences that are happening all of the time.  For me, these moments are what set the Die Hard franchise apart from the other action movies out there.  They don’t appear to take themselves too seriously so I can just relax and enjoy myself as I wait to see how Bruce Willis is going to save the day – again.

I thought the acting was solid, though some of the bad guys were a bit too over-Father and Sonthe-top.  Jai Courtney held his own with Bruce Willis and I felt that these two had good synergy together.  If they are planning on a hand off on the franchise, they could do worse.  John McClane’s daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), is featured at the beginning and end of the movie in the USA so I am not sure if they are trying to set up both son and daughter taking over for their father or what.  That would be a refreshing change and quite a bit of fun, actually.  Here’s hoping that we will see all three McClanes in the next movie!

If you are looking to be hypercritical of this movie, there is a lot to criticize.  There are the usual impossible-to-escape-that-many-bullets-moments, some Bruce Willis Shootingbadly done CGI and a lot of location jumping with little to link it.  McClane’s character seems a bit like a fish-out-of-water in Russia and I was not quite sure why they took him out of the USA (other than the chance to say “Yippee-ki-yay Mother Russia!”), but I was okay with it.  Also, I had no idea that McClane had a son at all, but then, we just recently learned that he had a daughter in movie #4 (Live Free or Die Hard) so there you go. Coincidences and luck play a large part in this movie, but none of this bothered me at all.  I was not in the movies to see something realistic, I was there to be entertained!  And I was.


This movie contains violence and death.  Characters are killed in many ways, but mostly shot with guns.  There is a lot of blood and dead bodies.  Explosions, helicopter blades and knives are also used to kill people.  The bad guys use the “f” word a lot and there is some other strong language.  Recommended for ages 18 and up.

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The Black Circle by Patrick Carman (The 39 Clues #5) Book Review

The Black Circle

Book Review by Debbie Winkler

The Black CircleSeries: The 39 Clues Series Book 5
Author: Patrick Carman
Publisher: Scholastic Press (August 2009)
ISBN: 0545060451, EAN: 9780545060455
Page Count: 168 pages
Format: Hardcover + 6 game cards (for online game or collecting)

Target Age Group: 9 – 12
My Rating: 4/5 stars a must read for those who want to find out more about Amy & Dan’s past!

Amy & Dan Cahill discovered the next ingredient in Egypt, but did not find a clue to lead them to the next location. Instead, they were presented with a mysterious message instructing them to travel to Russia – but only if they want to find out what really happened to their parents. This is the first time that Amy & Dan realize that their parents did not die in a tragic house fire, but were, in fact, murdered. They feel that they have no choice but to fly to Russia, leaving their au pair behind, and using the fake passports and disguises provided by their mysterious ally, NRR. But the truth will not be uncovered by something so simple as one location with a single clue. Instead, they have to travel all over Russia, discovering pieces of the puzzle and they are under a strict time limit. Realizing that Amy & Dan simply cannot travel the length & breadth of the country by themselves to find all of the clues, they recruit the Tomas clan representatives, the Holts.

While it is true that the Holts tried to kill them several times in the past, this time Amy & Dan feel that they have more control over the situation. To put it simply, the Tomas branch has fewer clues than any other Cahill branch and the Holts are desperate to be able to report a success – no matter who they have to work with. If each group covers 3 locations in different Russian cities, they can uncover all of the clues if they hurry. To gather all of the information they need before they confront NRR, the groups must learn more about the Romanov family, the last royal family in Russia and continue to evade the Lucian branch representatives – including their old enemy and former KGB agent Irina Spasky. Among the locations, they must visit the Summer Palace and the fantastic toy room of Alexei; the Blood Church, where the Romanov family was gunned down and it was said that Anastasia miraculously survived; and the Road of Bones, where those who died building the road were used to pave it.

There are many series that you can read out of order or skip books and not miss out on any information. This is not one of them. I strongly encourage you to begin the series at the beginning: #1 is The Maze of Bones, #2 is One False Note, #3 is The Sword Thief and #4 Beyond the Grave. Each author gives a synopsis of previous plot lines that are pertinent to the ongoing story line so you can get the gist of what is happening, but you miss out on a lot of the mystery and more subtle story lines so I don’t recommend it. Also, you will want to purchase the books yourself so that you can play the online games and collect all of the clue cards (which is half the fun!). You can only use the code on the cards once so siblings cannot share, but you can play the games and the missions multiple times online so everyone can get a turn.

In my opinion, this is by far the best book in the series (speaking of books 1 – 6, which is all that is out right now). Full of mystery, magic, and fantastic adventure, I simply could not put this book down until I read it all and found out what happened! Patrick Carman gave wonderful characterization and made me feel for one of the most unlikable villains in the series. I found myself not only liking the villains, but liking Amy & Dan a lot more than in previous books. The action was nonstop and the descriptions and historical data were inserted so seamlessly that they became an integral and vital part of the story. You will learn a lot more about Russia than you think – and you absorb the information without even realizing it! I have not traveled to Russia yet, but this book made me want to go there to see the amazing sites that Amy & Dan got to view. Simply put: Do NOT miss this book in the series! It starts to reveal the past of Amy & Dan, as well as several of the other characters in the books. It also marks the beginning of a successful collaboration between Amy & Dan and the musclebound Holt family. I see this teamwork setting the groundwork for a lot more interaction between the vying groups – especially with the children. There is a lot of foreshadowing in this book so, if you want to know what is going to happen, this book is the one to read to start making educated guesses.

This book is completely appropriate for children as it was written for children. There is a lot of intense action and many of the characters go out of their way to try to purposefully harm or kill the lead characters, but they always manage to escape. It is like an Amazing Race for children, just without the camera crew! This book contains some of the most intense action of all of the series. It deals with murderers, revolutions, assassinations and a lot different ways of dying. There is nothing that is inappropriate for children, but, as this series is so good, I highly recommend that you read this book with your children so that you can discuss whatever they have questions about. The website is also completely safe and you can leave your child happily playing unattended for hours on this carefully monitored site. A great option for both boys & girls who enjoy adventure!

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