Sunday, July 31, 2011

dorothy would be jealous


Who needs ruby slippers?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

pthooeey!!! redux

This is how I felt after a week of noisy renovations at the apartment next door. Hopefully the weekend will be quieter.

Friday, July 29, 2011

my best friend is a vampire ... let me in

In Let Me In, Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a lonely, friendless kid. When he isn't being picked on by bullies at school he is being ignored by his classmates. At home his mother (Cara Buono) pays little attention to him. His parents are divorcing and she is frequently visually out of frame, either praying to a picture of Jesus or passed out from wine on the couch. His absent father is just as disembodied, a guilty but disinterested voice on the telephone. Outside his home in early '80s Los Alamos, New Mexico it is always cold and snowing.

Owen spends a lot of time outdoors at night alone for a 12-year old
Owen may be ignored by most, but he is acutely aware of everyone around him. He spies on his neighbors, peeping at them through a telescope. He dons a mask and playacts in front of his bedroom mirror. He acts out his frustrations on an innocent tree, stabbing it multiple times with a kitchen knife. He is a little serial-killer-in-training, invisible in the world, spending most of his free time sitting outside, in the dark, for hours. He is invisible that is, until he meets his new neighbor, Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), who may be the best trainer for killers ever, as Abby is a vampire.

The movie is beautifully filmed and framed, every shot a framed photo. There are repeating, haunting images — of Abby walking barefoot in the snow, blood on white clothing, Owen and Abby studying themselves in mirrors, communicating with each other using Morse code by tapping out messages through their thin apartment walls.

Owen and Abby communicate through walls, from POURTANT, NOUS NE BOUGEA PAS

The film plays with gender and romanticism. When we first meet Owen he is bored when his English class assignment is to read Romeo and Juliet. Instead he teaches himself Morse code when he should be reading the Shakespeare play. But as he spends more time with Abby, who not only seems to like the play, but is able to quote it in a note to him, his mind and heart is opened. Both Owen and Abby are on the androgynous side. Owen is curious about sex. He watches his neighbors, especially ogling the women. But he is young and skinny and gawky and still a child.

Abby: Owen, do you like me?
Owen: Yeah. A lot.
Abby: Would you still like me ... even if I wasn't a girl?
Owen: What do you mean? I don't know. I guess. Why?
Abby: No reason.
Abby, as a vampire, is genderless. She has a real need for Owen. It is unclear how much of her attraction to him is driven by her need for a new protector/keeper or for genuine affection. Maybe for a vampire it doesn't matter. But they are both children, at least for the present, and can communicate together in ways that the outside world of adults is not privy to. They write each other notes as their relationship grows.
Dear Owen, I am in the bathroom. Please do not come in. Do you want to hang out with me again tonight? I really like you. Love, Abby.
Reflection is not a problem for Abby

The only weak feature was the fast-motion CGI camerawork when Abby would vamp out. It just seemed a bit out of place in this otherwise carefully-filmed movie. I have yet to see the Swedish film, Let the Right One In, on which Let Me In is based, or the novel on which both films are based. But I am curious if they will be as still, as beautifully composed and lit as this one. The music is also wonderful, the soundtrack composed by the great Michael Giacchino (LOST, Up). At the moment I don't have any plans to search them out, as I don't want to break the spell of this disturbing, yet beautiful film.
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Thursday, July 28, 2011

a clash of kings

All my intentions to avoid diving right into George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series went right out the window about a week after I finished the first book, A Game of Thrones. I caught a rebroadcast of the first three episodes of the HBO Game of Thrones series (the new season based on second book, A Clash of Kingsstarts on April 17, 2012) and then saw the paperback of A Clash of Kings at our local non-big-box bookstore and just went for it. Got to support independent bookstores, right? I couldn't help it. I wanted to find out what happened next to Tyrion and Arya and Daenerys and Bran and Jon Snow and those amazing direwolves and ravens. That large pile of to-read books that have been haunting me all summer would just have to wait.

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in HBO's Game of Thrones
A Clash of Kings picks up right where A Game of Thrones left off. Everyone wants to rule in the land of Westeros, home of the Seven Kingdoms. King Joffrey Baratheon currently rules in the capital, King's Landing. Brothers Stannis (aided by a witch, Melisandre) and Renly Baratheon are massing their forces, and Robb Stark has been proclaimed King in the North. Unbeknownst to those four, Balon Greyjoy, who has been joined by his son Theon, is calling himself King of the Iron Islands, and is about to invade the North, and in the East, Daenerys Targaryen wants to sail west, with her Dothraki warriors and three dragons, and reclaim her family's rightful throne.

I don't really want to do a total recap and spoil it for anyone who has yet to read the book, so I'll try to focus on aspects of Martin's storytelling that I like. His characterization is phenomenal, from the large "leading cast" who provide alternate third-person narratives throughout the novel, to the many, many supporting characters, each drawn in exquisite detail, whether they last throughout the story or disappear after just a page or two.

As blood-and-gutsy as it gets at times, I never feel like Martin as an author has a bloodlust. War is hell, and the Seven Kingdoms are involved in a fierce war, with multiple kings vying for control. Violence is realistic and inevitable. Medieval weaponry delivers brutal wounds and deaths, and then when you throw magic into the mix ... Martin does frequently up the ante by having children like Arya, Sansa, and Bran Stark bear witness to some of the most savage behavior that soldiers indulge in — and not just against other soldiers, but civilians, or as they are called in the series, smallfolk.

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark
Sometimes it feels like there are no good guys. We are made to root for the Starks, but depending on whose point of view is telling the story at the time, the colors quickly fade to gray, which makes for very interesting reading. Catelyn Stark is the mother of many beloved and "good" characters — Robb, Arya, Sansa, Bran, Rickon. She frequently gets things the wrong way around, and some of her stupid actions have put her family in danger and contributed, not in a good way, to the wars they are waging. The Lannisters are the resident bad guys in King's Landing and elsewhere, but the dwarf Tyrion Lannister, called insultingly the "Imp," is put in charge of the city (and his nephew, rogue King Joffrey) by his father, pater familias Tywin Lannister, and it is impossible not to cheer his plans and hope that his wits can save him and the city. Theon Greyjoy is a character easy to hate, but he brings to the story a whole new angle, giving readers a glance at the Iron Men and their quest for the throne.

Just when you think that Martin has introduced more than enough people to keep track of, new and wonderful characters like the brother and sister Meera and Jojen Reed from the swamp lands of Greywater Watch appear at Winterfell to help young Bran Stark find his third eye. Martin also fleshes out familiar characters — we get to know better some previously subsidiary people like Osha, Varys, and Shae.

One of the most complicated characters that I can't help but like is the Hound. I wouldn't call him the Severus Snape of this book, but he is definitely not simply a bad guy, either. As the horrible King Joffrey's right hand he can be brutal and frequently evil-acting — but at other times he is wounded and gentle and even protective of someone like Sansa Stark. No matter what harsh words he may use when he is around her, he is most definitely looking out for Sansa's best interests. Arya Stark has an equally dangerous and creepy but also oddly likable champion, Jaqen H'ghar. These are two characters that I hope to see again in the series.

Rory McCann as The Hound
A Clash of Kings is a full-tilt adventure, plunging everyone into deeper danger, without respite. It is also beautifully written. Luckily, the library had my reserve copy of the next book in the series, A Storm of Swords, ready just as I was finishing this one. I have a few things to read first, and then I'll be diving back in. Oh who am I kidding? As dense as Martin's books are, it's impossible to just read one chapter and set it down. Excuse me ...
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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

catching up with ... bottle shock

Watching the delectable Alan Rickman in The Deathly Hallows Part 2 recently reminded me of a little film I caught with him, Bottle Shock, a little "true story" film set in the 1970s, about the wine industry. Rickman plays Steven Spurrier, who is worried about the survival of his wine shop. His American pal and wine lover Maurice (Dennis Farina), one suit louder than another, suggests that he could save his business by traveling to the United States and sponsoring a blind taste test/contest. Spurrier is doubtful, "No offense, but I don't foresee the imminent cultivation of the Chicago vine."

He does follow his friend's advice and travels to California's Napa Valley, where he meets Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), owner of Chateau Montelena. Barrett has no interest in the gimmicky contest, the "Judgment of Paris" - Paris wines vs. CA wines, in 1976. But Barrett's son Bo (Chris Pine, in a very unfortunate and distracting wig) is eager to take part in the contest, as hopeful that it will help save the family winery as Spurrier is that it will save his shop. But Barrett is very difficult to convince:
Jim Barrett: Why don't I like you?
Steven Spurrier: Because you think I'm an arsehole. And I'm not, really. I'm just British and, well ... you're not.
Adding to all of the local color is Gustavo, (Freddy Rodriguez) a worker at Barrett's vineyard and son of a Mexican field hand, who is also trying to perfect his own wine and a girl named Sam (Rachael Taylor), who, in a perfect '70s movie fashion, likes both young guys, Gustavo and Bo, and doesn't see why she should have to choose between them. She also get sto play a sexy female empowerment twist on Claudette Colbert's famous hitchhiking technique from It Happened One Night.

Alan Rickman, Rachael Taylor and Chris Pine
There is quite an amusing scene where Bo and Spurrier ask passengers at the airport to help them carry bottles of wine aboard the flight to the competition in Paris. Apparently only one bottle per customer was permitted on flights at the time, and they need to transport at least a case of wine to the "Judgment of Paris." Luckily, their fellow passengers are only to happy to help, but wonder who he is exactly, "Your last name Gallo?"

The film also imparts some lessons about wine and oxidation (who knew white wine could temporarily turn brown?) Even my parents 1970s unsuccessful attempts with the home wine-making kits never revealed this. Of course all they were able to produce was some vintage vinegar. Pullman is great in the scene when he realizes he is still a vintner and should never have thought about going back to the cubicle world.

With so many wines at our disposal these days it's easy to forget how once French wines ruled the world, and people's eyes were opened in (bottle) shock as they realized, "We have shattered the myth of french wine ... we'll be drinking wine from South America, Australia ... this is just the beginning." Rickman and Co. are quite enjoyable and it will be impossible not to want to break open a bottle of Napa Chardonnay while watching Bottle Shock, which was part of the 2008 Sundance film festival. Cheers!
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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

owen wilson movie night

My 7-year old daughter suggested the other day that we should have an "Owen Wilson Movie Night." Yes, kids do pick up their parents' likes and prejudices, in case you were wondering. I have no problem with her idea, although I suspect that we would have different selections at the top of our lists.

Wilson is always Wilson in whatever he appears in, much like Bogie was Bogie. But the comparisons end there. What is nice about Wilson is his niceness. Onscreen he is the most easygoing of actors, whether in the lead part or one of many in a large ensemble. He may always be himself, but he can appear in a wide variety of movie genres, from kid's movie to thriller to tearjerker family flick to arthouse. I can't think of a movie I've seen him in where his appearance hasn't made me smile, whether I ended up liking the movie or not.

With Sara Foster in The Big Bounce
But a calm exterior may mask inner turmoil. Wilson is very convincing as a blocked writer in his most recent hit, Midnight in Paris. Wilson is a writer in real life as well as an actor. He co-wrote The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Rushmore (1998), and both the Bottle Rocket feature (1996) and short (1994).

Like her mom, my daughter has sophisticated tastes — she went with me to see Midnight in Paris, and although a lot of the art, literary, and Woody Allen's Ugly American in-jokes went over her head, she still loved it, as she could connect to Wilson's character and his problems getting along with his not-so-nice girlfriend. Wilson managed to stay his easygoing, appealing self, not completely surrendering to Allen-clone neurotic behavior as has befallen so many other actors who have starred in the Woodman's movies.

Here are some worthy films to add to any Owen Wilson movie marathon. The kid would love to see:
As Coach Skip in Fantastic Mr. Fox
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) - His voice work as the Coach is unmistakable and this is just a charming, quirky little movie. 
The kid would definitely pick a Night At the Museum double-header to top her movie marathon, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009) and Night at the Museum (2006) - Both movies are silly, but also fun, and my daughter loves him as the miniature cowboy Jedediah ("No problemo, Gigantor.")
As Jedediah in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
My top picks include:
The Big Bounce (2004) - Most people have probably not even heard of this movie, based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, but I love it. Wilson plays a small-time con artist in Hawaii who gets pulled into a scheme and gets in way over his head. Soon Morgan Freeman, Gary Sinise, Sara Foster and just about everyone he meets is out to get him. "Have a little faith in people. Not God, cause he's just an imaginary friend for grown ups." 
Zoolander (2001) - This is on the kid's list too, but that's my fault. I love Hansel. "I wasn't like every other kid, you know, who dreams about being an astronaut, I was always more interested in what bark was made out of on a tree. Richard Gere's a real hero of mine. Sting. Sting would be another person who's a hero. The music he's created over the years, I don't really listen to it, but the fact that he's making it, I respect that. I care desperately about what I do. Do I know what product I'm selling? No. Do I know what I'm doing today? No. But I'm here, and I'm gonna give it my best shot." 
As Hansel in Zoolander
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) - Somewhat incomprehensible at times, but in a good way. "You don't know me, you don't want to know me... I'm just a character in your stupid film." 
Wedding Crashers (2005) - It's lewd, crude, and pretty damn funny. 
Bottle Rocket (1996) - The first time I saw Wilson, and still a good movie. "How does an asshole like Bob get such a great kitchen?"
If none of those titles are available on-demand or Netflix, you could still try:
The Darjeeling Limited (2007) - Another interesting teaming with Wes Anderson. 
Starsky & Hutch (2004) - Dumb fun, but you have to love Stiller for being true to his friends. 
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) - Not as good as it should be, but definitely worth a look.
Movies that he (almost) saves — I don't necessarily recommend these, but if you always wanted to check out one of these at least be assured that Wilson will brighten up an otherwise dud of a movie:
How Do You Know (2010) - He is the only likable character in this James Brooks mess of a romantic comedy. 
Marley & Me (2008) - Just awful, if you aren't prepared for the tearjerker ending. Wilson almost makes you believe he wants to be married to Jennifer Aniston, but he is very convincing about loving Marley the dog. 
With cute costar in Marley & Me 
Cars (2006) - I know it's a huge hit with a huge hit sequel. Maybe it's a little boy thing, but neither of us like this movie. It's OK, but the kid didn't even put it on her list. Wilson does a god job voicing it , as does Paul Newman and Bonnie Hunt. 
Meet the Parents (2000) - A really dumb movie, but Wilson, as always, provides a welcome cameo as Stiller's bride-to-be's former boyfriend. But you can't get me to watch Meet the Fockers or Little Fockers, Wilson or no Wilson.
So what are you waiting for? The Owen Wilson-athon begins now!
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Monday, July 25, 2011

hooray for the red, white, and blue

Captain America: The First Avenger is an old-fashioned film, calling to mind less super-hero movies, although it is clearly part of the Avengers production line, than some WW2 propaganda movies from the 1940s that starred Dana Andrews or Robert Walker. What is different about Captain America is that even at a time when the U.S. is engaged in wars across the globe, it really isn't a propaganda film, or even purely patriotic. It is too much of a pastiche, too self-aware for any of that. That is not to say that it isn't entertaining. It is. If it calls to mind a more modern film, it would be Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, which treated its comic hero with both affection and fun. Captain America has tons of action, with lots of bodies flying, although, mercifully, little gore. No matter how many bad guys or good guys bite the dust, it never loses its sense of humor. Like a Saturday morning cartoon, it was fine for kids to see along with their parents (and grandparents).

Chris Evans as Captain America
There were quite a few old-timers in the audience at the Saturday matinee that we caught — people from my mom's generation, who, like her, were probably fans of the original comic (which debuted in December of 1940), and for whom the WW2 plot would have deeper meaning. I'm not sure what they thought about Hugo Weaving's villain, Red Skull, who gave the offscreen Hitler a run for his money. Weaving was so bad he was beyond a Nazi, Hollywood's favorite villain for decades.

Was Captain America patriotic? There was a lot of red white and blue, and his star spangled shield got quite the workout, but I didn't feel "Go U.S.A.!" as I left the theater. The movie is as much a star-crossed, unrequited love story as it is an action flick, and as far as those go, it is better than most. It was interesting that in the middle of the film, after 90-pound weakling Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) was turned into Captain America, he was then also immediately processed as a celebrity and sent out on the road to sell war bonds. An illustration of the power of propaganda, but not itself functioning as propaganda.

Evans, with Hayley Atwell
Probably for many that currently have a loved one serving in the military, viewing the film would have felt more patriotic. But Captain America works more as a depiction of patriotism and the power of propaganda. The hero's overwhelming desire to serve his country, the good old U.S.A., even when he is considered physically unfit to do so — would his yearning to enlist be understood by many kids in the audience? There are still plenty of brave young men and women who join the military every day, to join a current conflict, or as a career move. But the country, the world, is so different today than it was in WW2.

We are a global society now. How can we completely understand the fierce pride of country that Americans felt before and after Pearl Harbor? My father was in WW2 — he signed up at 17 and joined the Coast Guard — so I have a sense of how people might have felt, but I grew up in the post-Viet Nam era, with hovering shadows of the Cold War. While I was in college my brother was in the Navy, stationed off the cost of Beirut for over a year, unable to leave the ship he was on, but most of my classmates, not to mention the rest of the country, were pretty unaware of what he was involved in. With so much information, so many conflicts, now at our internet fingertips, it's no wonder that most people choose to flip the channel to something else, tune in to the shows featuring fighting housewives rather than try to understand global conflicts. Will Captain America bring back a nostalgia for America? A "U.S.A. is #1" feeling? I'm not so sure. It was able to bump Harry Potter from the top of the box office, at least for this weekend.

Evans, pre Captain America
The movie features some pretty nifty CGI, with the buff Evans looking convincingly slight in his earlier scenes and Weaving looking extremely creepy as the villainous Red Skull. But most impressive are the human actors. Evans has a nice rapport with British officer and love interest Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Tommy Lee Jones seems to have found his mojo and turns in a great, crusty performance as Captain America's commanding officer Colonel Phillips. Dominic Cooper has fun as Iron Man's daddy, Howard Stark. Stanley Tucci is as great as ever as Dr. Abraham Erskine, a German emigre scientist who helps create Captain America — or is it invent steroids? There are a nice assortment of sidekicks, although we never really get to catch the characters' individual names, including Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, and Kenneth Choi, who become Captain America's elite attack force.

Whether recruiting offices see a surge or not over the next few weeks, the movie is definitely worth seeing. I had minimal interest in the upcoming Avengers film, Joss Whedon regardless, but after Captain America and the non-Asgard scenes of Thor, I am actually looking forward to it. Go, Captain America.
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Sunday, July 24, 2011


Much is being made of yesterday's announcement of Amy Winehouse being found dead from a drug overdose — that she has now joined the "27 club," which includes such music immortals as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain.

Amy was undeniably talented, and it is always a shame when someone so young, with possibly so much promise, has died. I was too young to mourn Joplin, Hendrix or Morrison — they became rock legends when I was just a child. Kurt Cobain's death hit home hard for me. I was a big fan of Nirvana and just a few years old than Kurt. I remember being on vacation in 1994 in the south of France, a trip that was a mad adventure that I had planned and saved for for quite some time, and the first news I heard from home was about a recent rehab stint of Kurt's. I may have even bought a silly postcard with his face on it — he was fine, and as popular as ever, on the postcard stalls in Nice. So it was a huge shock to hear a few months later that he had died an apparent suicide.

Conspiracy theories aside, maybe that is why Kurt's death still twinges me more than Winehouse's does. His witty and gritty songwriting had always made him my personal selection to follow in the footsteps of John Lennon. To suffer so that you would leave a child behind ... And I'm older now. He died, unbelievably, 17 years ago.

I have great sympathy for the family and friends and fans that Winehouse has left behind, as I do for poor Amy herself. I bought and liked Back to Black. But she has undeniably been on her own personal path of destruction for so long, it is hard to feel too surprised at her death. I wish, as I do for all of these artists, that their lives had taken a different turn. Who knows what they would have become if they had survived. Some may have still become legends. But our society looks away while such folks are destroying themselves or being destroyed and then enshrines them when they are gone. Strange ...

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Saturday, July 23, 2011



Friday, July 22, 2011

catching up with ... how do you know

This should have been a good movie, but it's not. It's not bad because the main actors — Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd —lack appeal. They are all fine. The script has some funny moments and even Jack Nicholson is giving it his all. Witherspoon plays a character that is trying to sort out her life, professional and private. For a female character to do that in a movie, and to actually be the focus of the movie, is a rare and good thing. So what exactly is wrong with How Do You Know?

It starts with an original premise — Witherspoon's character is a female jock (softball) who has just been cut from her team and is having a lot of trouble trying to figure out not only what to do next, but who exactly she is. Unfortunately, the film soon introduces the love triangle, and her character seems to completely forget her dilemma. Even though I just watched the movie, I have no idea what her character's name was, or any of the characters. That's not good.

There is a completely uninteresting, unbelievable, and almost unintelligible subplot involving Rudd and his dad, played by Nicholson, involving corporate scandal. Maybe Brooks just wanted to include his old buddy Nicholson in the film? How Do You Know at least is less crass than As Good As it Gets, another James L. Brooks film that starred Nicholson (which I really couldn't stand.)

The either/or proposition that Witherspoon faces is beyond predictable. Before the movie starts we know that Paul Rudd is going to be the one she ends up with. Rudd, who is one of the most charming actors out there, in this movie plays a total shlump. He's a nice guy, but not a nice guy a girl would want to spend too much time with. He is so cringeworthy so much of the time that it is highly unlikely that he and Witherspoon would end up together. I was actually hoping against hope that she would walk off into the sunset by herself, and start dealing with that question of what she was going to do with the rest pf her life post-softball career, which would be far more realistic than ending up with Rudd. I feel like a traitor to my Rudd crush writing this, but he was just icky. Maybe Brooks caved from the original ending, because that's how Rudd played his character throughout the movie.

Owen Wilson, who may have been playing far from the "perfect" guy (as if there is such a guy or girl), was his usual charming self, with a good dose of me-centric professional athlete thrown in. He was perfect in the role. Maybe he wasn't someone Witherspoon would decide to be with forever, but the guy deserved points for trying. Neither Rudd nor the script ever really gave a great reason why she shouldn't at least attempt to give her relationship with Wilson a chance.

The best scene in the movie was when Rudd asked Witherspoon, who he has a crush on but really hardly knows, to tag along with him and visit a female friend who has just given birth. Talk about being clueless about boundaries. But the script says she should go with him, so she does. They witness an exhibition of "true love" in his friend's hospital room and an extreme example of Rudd's character's usual cluelessness (which is actually the movie's funniest moment). Rudd then thinks he's finally broken through, gotten Witherspoon where he wants her, and she, as usual, just doesn't think of him that way at all. It's a real, human moment. But the movie then falls back into cliché rom-com territory and forces the two of them together anyway.

Either Owen Wilson's or Reese Witherspoon's characters got a raw deal, because their dialogue together was far more fun and full of potential than anything she shared with Rudd:
Witherspoon: What am I doing? I caught myself. Don't judge anybody else until you check yourself out, that way you are lucky if it's your fault because then you can correct the situation. I'm nervous over something that is going on with me, and I ended up with an attractive guy who you would have to be an idiot to mistake for anything more than just a fun friendship, and... and, yes amazing sex, and then I give that guy a hard time for just being who he is. Totally my fault, I'm sorry. Please forgive me.
Wilson: Are you apologizing? 
Witherspoon: Yeah. 
Wilson: If you are really apologizing, you may be my dream girl. I heard those footsteps and I'm like, right, somebody nuts is coming back to be more nuts, and now an apology. You might be my dream girl.
As far as I can tell, by movie's end, Witherspoon still doesn't know.
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Thursday, July 21, 2011

george gently

Article first published as DVD Review: George Gently, Series 3 on Blogcritics.

The newly released DVD, George Gently, Series 3, consists of two movies originally aired in 2010 as part of BBC1's Inspector George Gently series. Featuring Martin Shaw as Gently and Lee Ingleby as his sidekick Sgt. John Bacchus, the series is set in Northumberland in the 1960s.

Far from swinging London, the episodes feature a very different England than most American audiences are used to seeing. Not only is the rolling landscape and industrial background a novelty, but the social tensions of the old guard versus the new ideas of freedom in the '60s are front and center.

Viewers will also enjoy Gently and Bacchus's investigation and interrogation techniques. Apparently in the '60s white gloves were never donned before examining evidence, cigarettes were smoked at every opportunity, even over a corpse while it was being scrutinized, and a detective sergeant's left hook to the gut was an effective and approved method to use in the witness interrogation room.

I haven't seen the previous episodes in the series, or read the Inspector Gently novels by Alan Hunter (he wrote 45) on which they are based, but after watching these two movies I'd like to, as Gently and Bacchus's relationship is quite interesting. They are colleagues at times, at other times combatants, and even sometimes become mentor and student.

The Series 3 DVD comes with two discs, each containing a full-length episode. The running time of both discs is 176 minutes and viewers can opt for subtitles or scene selection as extra features. The first disk's episode, set in 1966, "Gently Evil," is a heartbreaking story of a young woman with a shady past whose death may be connected to a series of child disappearances. The guest stars are all excellent, and include Melanie Pullen Clark as Bacchus's estranged wife, Neve McIntosh as a conflicted female lawyer, and Natalie Garner, as the victim's daughter, who may know more about the case than at first suspected.

The second disk, "Peace and Love," find Gently and Bacchus caught up in peace protests at Durham University when one of the professors (Emun Elliot) has been murdered. As students at the university keeps talking to Bacchus about free love, the local homosexual community must remain in the shadows to avoid persecution and prosecution. Gently must decide whether the murder is political or personal, as evidence of improper relations with students and blackmail comes to light. Featured guest stars include Warren Clarke, James Atherton, and Sarah Lancashire.

George Gently is completely original, but fans of Robbie Coltrane's Cracker mystery series will also like the tone of the show, as the personal and psychological aspects of the crimes and its investigators are as important as the solutions. Martin Shaw is a wonderful actor to watch and Lee Ingleby ranges from comic relief to a '60s Malcolm MacDowell-ish menace. He fits well into his hipper, modder suits, although he seems to have trouble being in his own skin. Simon Hubbard provides a benign presence as the put-upon (by Bacchus) PC Taylor who is Gently's major factotum and front desk guard at the police station.

After just two feature-length episodes I'm already hooked. Happily it appears that not only are there past episodes to check out, but there is the promise of more episodes in the future as well. Looking forward to further investigations with Inspector Gently.
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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

summer movie catch-up — water for elephants

I saw Water for Elephants weeks ago and just haven't gotten round to writing about it yet, although I did enjoy watching it in a theater. Watching Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon on a Graham Norton Show rerun recently reminded me how nicely done the movie actually was.

Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon had a nice chemistry. This is actually the best I have ever seen Witherspoon look in a movie. She was perfectly at home in the period costumes and make-up and was extremely comfortable and believable with the animals.

Pattinson seemed perfectly cast as leading man Jacob Jankowski. I haven't seen in him in much else besides the Twilight movies on cable, which don't seem to require acting, just brooding, so it was a pleasant surprise to find him actually able to be convincing as young medical student in the '30s who who has to drop out of college after his parents die and there is no money to continue his education. He ends up working as a vet for the Benzini Brothers Circus, which is run by the violent August (Christoph Waltz). Jacob becomes close to August's wife Marlena, who is the circus's star performer. Romance and drama ensue.

The plot is old-fashioned and melodramatic, but that actually was a plus. It was a period piece, telling a story. It may be a small slice of life, but it was entertaining. The bad guy (Waltz) was so bad I was waiting for him to grow a mustache so he could twirl it. I'm not sure what the wonderful James Frain was doing in such a small role as an elephant trainer, but it was fun to see him. There was also a nice cameo by veteran actor Hal Holbrook.

The look of the film was great. Some scenes seem to have been filmed with a vignette filter, adding to the old-timey atmosphere. The costumes and sets were impeccable, the drab browns and Depression-era grays a perfect contrast to the bright colors of the circus. I haven't read the book, and I'm not sure I'm interested enough in circus life to want to, but I enjoyed going back in time for the duration of the film. There are some upsetting scenes of animal cruelty, which might be a turn-off for some. All in all, Water for Elephants is a nice period romance. If you get a chance, give it a look.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

those lips, those eyes ...

Article first published as Book Review: Man Ray | Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism by Phillip Prodger with contributions by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan and Antony Penrose on Blogcritics.

Those lips, those eyes — Lee Miller and Man Ray were artists, lovers, equals ... Man Ray | Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism, by Phillip Prodger with contributions by Lynda Roscoe Harigan and Antony Penrose, is a beautiful coffee table book, created to accompany the current exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, MA through December 4, 2011. But it is also a look into a very interesting, and mostly unknown, artistic collaboration.

Lee Miller was introduced to photography by her father, who frequently would use her as a model. She began getting actual modeling jobs at 19, when Condé Nast, the founder of Vogue, spotted her and jump-started her career. She was a successful model from 1927 to 1929, when she decided to go to Paris and apprentice herself to the famous Surrealist artist Man Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitzky) — even though she had never met him and he didn't take apprentices.

She managed to talk him into becoming his assistant, and soon the young beauty was also his favorite subject and lover. In the catalogue essays by Prodger and Hartigan it becomes clear that Man Ray and Lee Miller had a very complex relationship. The Surrealists believed that people should be free in their love affairs, but it was a very male-centric movement and the "rules" were quite sexist and old-fashioned when it came to women's sexuality. Miller was a modern woman and didn't adhere to their rules of dating. Man Ray would become jealous and possessive of Lee when she had another lover, but she was supposed to be fine with him doing the same.

Not only were Miller and Man Ray evenly matched sexually, but they became frequent artistic collaborators. Miller opened up her own photography studio near to Man Ray's, and even took on some of his overflow clients. They discovered the technique of "solarisation" together.

The book juxtaposes works by Man Ray and Miller to show how closely they worked on similar themes with very different results. Man Ray's photographs of Miller frequently showcase her beauty and sensuality. When Miller photographs herself or another model with the same props she creates a photograph that features a woman's strength or psychological isolation.

Miller left Man Ray in 1932, but he continued to use her image, or parts of her image, in his work for many years. In "L’Heure de l’Observatoire — Les Amoureux (Observatory Time — The Lovers)," 1932-34, a giant pair of Miller's lips hovers over an empty landscape. Man Ray would use her lips as a totem again and again in his work, abstracting them to become two lovers entwined.

In one of his readymade sculptures, "Indestructible Object (or Object to Be Destroyed)," a cut-out of one of Miller's eyes ticks back and forth on a metronome. In a 1932 version of the sculpture, created after Miller had left him, Man Ray included these instructions, "Cut out the eye from a photograph of one who has been loved but is seen no more. Attach the eye to the pendulum of a metronome and regulate the weight to suit the tempo desired. Keep going to the limit of endurance. With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow."

It was definitely a difficult break-up, and Antony Penrose, who was Miller's son with the painter Roland Penrose and who now manages her estate and archives, writes a very personal and moving essay about discovering who his mother really was and the breadth of her talent after her death. But he is as surprised as many must have been that two years after their acrimonious split, Miller and Man Ray were reunited — not as lovers, but as friends, and they remained so for the rest of their lives.

The book also includes portraits of Miller by friends and contemporaries Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar, another tempestuous romantic/artistic couple, as well as Max Ernst, Alexander Calder and Roland Penrose, to name a few.

Man Ray | Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of two extremely talented artists at the peak of their artistic and romantic partnership. Miller had quite an interesting career after she left Paris and Man Ray, including becoming the war correspondent for Vogue. Her wartime assignments included photographing Nazi concentration camps Buchenwald and Dachau — which, understandably, scarred her for life. Hopefully someday soon there will be another exhibit focusing on this aspect of her career. She was much more than a muse to Man Ray and he was much more than a mentor to her. They were artists and equals.
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