Monday, October 31, 2011

happy halloween!

I don't consider myself much of a sculptor, and certainly not too great a carver of pumpkins, but I have to say I do like how our bedazzled vampire kitty pumpkin head turned out.



Happy Halloween!
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Sunday, October 30, 2011

a spooky night

Our local rec center has an annual Halloween party. There's lots of games, cotton candy and cookies and popcorn, and even a spooky house. We had a lot of fun. With all the rain we've been having lately, it's been iffy whether we'll be able to trick or treat in the neighborhood on Monday. We have a few apartments in the building that are expecting us and the kid will have a Halloween party at school, so our candy bases should be more than covered. Happy Halloween!

Cute kitty

Creepy bat outside the spooky house

The kid has a good arm, aaarrrggghhh

Saturday, October 29, 2011

more marvelous murder and mayhem in midsomer

Article first published as DVD Review: Midsomer Murders - Barnaby's Top Ten on Blogcritics.

John Nettles, who has starred as DCI Tom Barnaby in the British mystery series Midsomer Murders since 1997 has chosen his 10 favorite episodes in this 10-DVD set, Midsomer Murders - Barnaby's Top Ten. Set in fictional Midsomer County, a collection of quaint and scenic rural villages with an unusually high body count, the shows are all presented in widescreen format, with subtitles and scene selection.

Nettles, who plays Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, recently left the show (and was replaced by Neil Dudgeon, cast as Barnaby's cousin John). On each disc he appears in a brief introduction, telling why he thinks each episode is special. Viewers unfamiliar with a particular plot line might want to watch Nettles's introduction after viewing the episode, however, as he sometimes gives away some plot points.

Some great actors turn up in supporting roles — Honor Blackman, Celia Imrie, Emily Mortimer, and Phyllis Logan are just some of the notable guest stars. Daniel Casey as Detective Sergeant Troy, Jane Wymark as Barnaby's wife Joyce, and Laura Howard as his daughter Cully round out the regular cast.

The collection begins with the very first Midsomer Murders episode, "The Killings at Badger's Drift," which is based on the novel by Caroline Graham. When schoolteacher Emily Simpson is found dead, a rare orchid may be a clue to her murder. As DS Troy (Daniel Casey) observes, "This must be the first police search organized for a flower." Barnaby soon discovers that the first death proves to be only the tip of the iceberg, as the bodies start to pile up around them. Suspects include an extremely creepy young undertaker, who is too close for comfort with his even creepier busybody mom, and a brash young painter. Emily Mortimer and Jonathan Firth also appear.

In "Blue Herrings," Barnaby can't get a break — he has taken time off to do some home improvement when a series of mysterious occurrences, including a death, start occurring at Lawnside nursing home, where his Aunt Alice (Phyllis Calvert) happens to be staying. Aunt Alice is suspicious, and enlists Barnaby's help to get to the truth.

Two children help Barnaby unravel the mysterious death of depressed local farmer's wife Susan Bartlett in "A Worm in the Bud." Barnaby and Troy must sort out if her death was a suicide or murder, and if there is any connection to a local Midsomer Worthy housing development project. Wendy Craig also stars.

The murder of the local postman leads Barnaby through a trail of multiple adulteries among the villagers of Goodman's Land in "Dark Autumn." Celia Imrie and Alan Howard guest star as a husband and wife with an interesting relationship.

In "Dead Man's Eleven," Joyce is looking to move from Causton to one of the villages, possibly Fletcher's Cross, although Barnaby is hesitant to become a resident of one of Midsomer's murderous little villages, "Every time I go into any Midsomer village, it's always the same thing — blackmail, sexual deviancy, suicide, and murder." He is soon proved right, when a game of cricket leads to another local killing. Imelda Staunton guest stars as a resident who wants Barnaby to buy her house.

Joyce is appearing in a small part in the local theater's production of Amadeus in "Death of a Hollow Man." Barnaby hoped to only be in the audience on opening night, but finds himself backstage in the middle of another murder investigation when the lead actor (Nicholas Le Prevost) is killed onstage.

In "The Electric Vendetta," bodies keep turning up in local crop circles - all naked, with burned hands, strange wounds on their backs and horrified expressions. Have UFOs really come to Midsomer? A local author (Kenneth Colley) of the book, "Close Encounters of the Midsomer Kind" certainly wants Barnaby and anyone else who will listen think so. He asks the inspector, "How are you going to arrest an extraterrestrial?" One of the best episodes of the series.

Barnaby tries to take a day off from murder by attending the annual St. Malley's Day foot race at Devington School. But as a boy runs back from the woods, the crowd at first cheers wildly and then sees that he is bleeding and watches him collapse in "Murder on St. Malley's Day." On further investigation, Barnaby discovers that some of the old traditions of Devington School are positively deadly.

In "A Talent for Life," Honor Blackman plays Isobel — a woman who enjoys life and driving her Jaguar as fast as possible. When she is found beaten to death in the woods, Barnaby must determine if her death had anything to do with her run-ins with members of a local fishing club, or possibly a recent influx of cash from an investment.

When a body of a young woman is found strangled in nearby Ravens Wood in Midsomer Worthy, its similarity to a string of murders a few years back lead Barnaby and Troy to think that they may have a serial strangler on their hands in "Strangler's Wood." Phyllis Logan plays Kate Merrill, a wife who immediately suspects her husband (Nicholas Ferrell) — the two obviously share a secret. Trudie Styler guest stars as Kate's friend Liz.

The theme music of Midsomer Murders is as delightfully eerie as ever. Nettles has a great rapport with his fellow actors, who all help to bring Midsomer and its surrounding villages to life. For such a deadly place, there is something soothing and enjoyable about watching the bodies pile up on Midsomer Murders. Nettles, as Barnaby, is quiet but determined. Although sometimes quite cynical, he remains a positive presence, which also adds to the pleasant viewing experience.

Each episode runs about 90 minutes, so Barnaby's Top Ten really gives the viewer an opportunity to drop in on Midsomer whenever they want, for some beautiful scenery, some great acting, and many, many, murders.

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Friday, October 28, 2011

the three musketeers, redux, redux, redux ...

Every generation seems to have its own version of the timeless tale, first published, in serial form, in 1844 by Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers. I have a copy of the book in my to-read pile, but have yet to sample the original source. But after seeing so many film depictions I feel as if I know its characters and plots by heart:
D'Artagnan, son of a musketeer, leaves home for Paris, to join the King's royal guards, the Musketeers of the Guard. There he meets Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, and learns their unforgettable motto, "all for one, one for all." He also meets the beautiful Constance, who enlists their help to thwart a plot by the evil cardinal Richelieu and treacherous Milady to create a scandal involving the Queen and a fabulous diamond necklace.
There have been movies made about the Musketeers since 1909. The most popular have been:

The Three Musketeers (1948) - Gene Kelly clearly had fun doing the amazingly choreographed duel scenes. It also starred Van Heflin as Athos, Gig Young as Porthos, Lana Turner as Milady, Vincent Price as Richelieu, and June Allyson as Constance.

Richard Lester, famous for the Beatles' Help! and A Hard Day's Night, directed the story stretched over two movies: The Three Musketeers (1973), and The Four Musketeers (1974). It starred Michael York as d'Artagnan, Faye Dunaway as Milady, Oliver Reed as Athos, Frank Finlay as Porthos, Richard Chamberlain as Aramis, Raquel Welch as Constance, Christopher Lee as the Count De Rochefort, and Charlton Heston as Cardinal Richelieu.

The Three Musketeers (1993 film) - The brat pack version starred Chris O'Donnell as d'Artagnan, Kiefer Sutherland as Athos, Oliver Platt as Porthos, Charlie Sheen as Aramis, Rebecca De Mornay as Milady and Tim Curry as Richelieu.

The Musketeer (2001) - A loose adaptation, with some different character names, starring Justin Chambers as d'Artagnan, Tim Roth as the Man in Black, Stephen Rea as Cardinal Richelieu, Mena Suvari as Francesca, and Catherine Deneuve as the Queen.

And not to forget,

Barbie and the Three Musketeers (2009) - An animated version where Barbie and her friends become the Musketeers - all girls, and all for one.

The Three Musketeers got their most recent reboot this year with Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson) as this generation's d'Artagnan. The film has a steampunk sensibility, and stays close enough plot-wise to the original tale to still be called The Three Musketeers. But it has the most fun when it veers off into fantasy, with a flying machine subplot and Milady (Milla Jovovich) as a super assassin well-versed in Matrix-style kick-butt action and gravity-defying acrobatics.

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (Jovovich's husband and also the director of her Resident Evil action series. It made me think a bit of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, which might have been a far better film if Anderson had directed it.

The Three Musketeers is a fun movie, as effervescent as its action set-pieces. It opens in Venice, with the Musketeers and Milady teaming up to steal Leonardo da Vinci's plans for an airship. The movie never takes itself too seriously, mixing the improbable magnificent men and their flying machines with gorgeous locations (Bavaria) and flawless costumes (Pierre-Yves Gayraud) and jewels. Lerman is beyond callow, and never a true equal to the likes of Matthew Macfadyen as Athos, Ray Stevenson as Porthos, and Luke Evans as Aramis, but that is how it should be.

It was really nice to see Matthew Macfadyen in an action role. He is most familiar in quieter roles, such as Prior Philip in The Pillars of the Earth. Luke Evans was also very appealing. I felt like this was the first time I noticed him, but he has been in a number of big budget projects lately (Clash of the Titans, Robin Hood) with more in the offing (Immortals, The Hobbit).

Christoph Waltz tries to be the main bad guy as Richelieu but he is frankly outmatched by Orlando Bloom, who is preening and menacing and clearly having the time of his life playing the naughty Duke of Buckingham. Jovovich has a great rapport with MacFadyen and also seems very comfortable in her role of superhero bad girl. The movie is set up for an obvious sequel, so depending on box office receipts, we may be seeing this crew again, with probably an even more beefed-up role for Bloom. But they've already done airships, will it be Musketeers in space next time?
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Thursday, October 27, 2011

halloween, old hollywood style

 Carole Lombard

 Charles Chaplin

Ava Gardner
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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

some costume ideas for halloween ...

In case you're still wondering what to wear this year, here are some cool costume ideas ...

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

forgotten hollywood, forgotten history

Article first published as Book Review: Forgotten Hollywood, Forgotten History by Manny Pacheco on Blogcritics.

Forgotten Hollywood, Forgotten History is clearly a labor of love for author Manny Pacheco. He has pulled together historical anecdotes, primarily from American history, with highlights from the careers of his favorite Hollywood character actors. Many of the essays give the reader a feeling similar to sitting around with a group of friends in front of an old black and white movie on television, trading trivia, and comparing little-known actors' roles in favorite films. Such a pastime may display a love of all things Hollywood and make for an enjoyable evening, but it doesn't really add up to a book.

Basil Rathbone with Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Pacheco's central premise, that American history can be viewed through the prism of a few select character actors' film careers, is flawed at best. He suggests that actors like Arthur Kennedy, Walter Brennan, Claude Rains, and others chose their roles to reflect their feelings of patriotism, or add up to an overarching American theme. Anyone with just the slightest knowledge of the Hollywood studio system knows that actors, especially character actors, were assigned roles and had little say in creating an overall "persona." They were typecast in roles that resonated with the public, which is why Walter Brennan was the go-to guy for Westerns and Basil Rathbone played so many villains. The studio's choice, not the actor's.

The author also compares many plots of movies to actual historical events. Even when he does take the time to point out the differences between Hollywood's version and history's, Pacheco can't help but reinforce how much of the history that we know and have been exposed to is through the movies. This is an interesting possibly controversial topic in itself that is never truly addressed in Forgotten Hollywood, Forgotten History. What Pacheco seems most interested in ultimately is trivia, not history.

Particularly troubling is the fact that eleven of thirteen chapters are devoted to white male character actors. Talk about reinforcing the "dead white male" point of view. He covers black male actors in one chapter and highlights three white actresses in another, both near the end of the book, which can't help but appear as an afterthought. To add insult to injury, for such a short book there are an alarming amount of typos and mistakes — such as the film Beau Jeste (correct title Beau Geste) and the "Salem Witch trials of the late 1700s" (they actually occurred in 1692, which is the late 17th century.)

Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Lionel Barrymore in Key Largo (1948)]

The one chapter that worked for me in Forgotten Hollywood, Forgotten History centered on Lionel Barrymore. Here Pacheco actually included more in-depth biographical information about his subject rather than just a laundry list of movies he made with historical themes. A broken hip and severe arthritis eventually confined Barrymore to a wheelchair, but his gradually growing disability didn't hinder his acting career, but rather was successfully incorporated into his many film roles (It's a Wonderful Life, Duel in the Sun, Key Largo.)

This topic, disability in film, was far more interesting than all of the other stringed-together bits and pieces of history that filled this slim volume, and could have been expanded into a book of its own. Mentioned in passing were actors Harold Russell and Marlee Matlln — it would have been nice to read more about them and how their careers had an effect on Hollywood. Maybe Pacheco should have reined in his desire to tell every little story, make every little association that occured to him, and instead focused more deeply on one topic that would hold a reader's interest.
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Monday, October 24, 2011

you've either got or you haven't got style

We watched the movie Robin and the Seven Hoods last night and it was, as always, a lot of fun. What really struck me as I watched Frankie, Dino, and Der Bingle was the absolute joy and ease they had in performing, which was translated directly to the audience. It's impossible to watch them do this number and not smile.

I don't think that their style should or could really be copied (no matter how many try), or that it would even sound right in today's world as anything contemporary. But it seems that so many entertainers today are so labored, so overdone. So many cheerleader-style synchronized dancing and microphone headsets. It's all such a production. There's lots of pyrotechnics, but little joy.

I really enjoy Lady Gaga, but was exhausted after watching her recent special on HBO with all of the elaborate stage sets and back-up dancers. I realize that's what a concert is these days, but the most powerful moments of the program were the a capella version Gaga and her company did of "Born This Way" over the closing credits. She has been doing some more soulful renditions of her songs lately, without all of the sturm und drang, so she must realize too, that sometimes simple and easy is best.

And if any of today's performers would like to see how a relaxed performance can yield high results, all they have to do us take a look at these three guys:

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

trick or treating ...

There's a lot of excitement in our house about the upcoming trick-or-treating. I found some photos of vintage costumes, homemade of course, in the family vaults ...

My brother made a great scarecrow ...


... and a knight in shining Reynolds wrap.

Knight in shining armor

I was some amalgam of the Statue of Liberty and the state of New Jersey - it made sense to me at the time. But I can't stop staring at the brilliant mummy.

Halloween parade

We're not quite sure who this was, but she made a brilliant Little Red Riding Hood.

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

jump rope / cat toy

Friday, October 21, 2011

top ten books i've read this year so far

I've been spending a lot more time reading this year, for a variety of reasons. Our local library is fantastic, and it's impossible to walk out without something. I signed up for the Cannonball Read III, a great cause where folks can read a full (52) or half (26) cannonball - basically a book a week in a year (I signed up for a full one, I've read and reviewed 45 books so far).

I've also taken my reviewing up a notch and now receive new releases that strike my fancy directly from publishers, which I review here or for other websites (Blogcritics, BlogHer). Through all these new connections and fellow Cannonballer recommendations I have been exposed to a lot of great books. This list reflects the ten best books I've read so far this year. They aren't all new releases — some have been around for ages — but they're all great books that I heartily recommend, if you're looking for some reading material.

The books aren't in any order of preference, just the order I read and reviewed them. Here are some excerpts from my reviews, to give you an idea:

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman - A truly beautiful book, for kids and adults.
The other touching aspect of the novel are all of the dead characters. How many of us have lost someone, and wished or wondered if there was some sort of existence, similar to their living one, that might continue? Bod gets to know people from many different eras in his town's history. He gets a built-in history lesson as well as the reassurance that death is not final. He learns not to fear death or endings.
Neil Gaiman

Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell - I finally succumbed to reading this, and am so very glad I did.
[Scarlett] is caught between what her mother taught her, which point-for-point is to be subservient to men but rule the roost—just never let the man know. In essence, as Rhett referes to her, a lovely little hypocrite. But Scarlett's true nature is to be the absolute opposite of everything her mother taught her. Scarlett owns and manages property (Tara, Frank Kennedy's store, and the saw mill). Scarlett drinks secretly, sometimes to the point of getting drunk. Scarlett is always outspoken, and she is never kind, gracious or forgiving. But she is in no way masculine or trying to take on the role of a man in Southern society. Her simple, direct mind just sees that she is as smart as any man, so why shouldn't she do as she pleases? She certainly never intends to wait patiently for anyone else to do it for her. She is a pragmatic feminist, but she would be horrified if that fact was pointed out to her (if she could even understand it), as she holds on to her persistent self-delusion that she is still a Southern belle, modeling herself after her mother.
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel - This is an amazing book, beautifully written. Mantel makes history come alive, and not just the Tudor story we have all heard before, but the man behind the throne. She makes Thomas Cromwell as compelling, if not more so, than his boss, Henry VIII.
How a blacksmith's son could travel the world, learn law, multiple languages and manage to carve out for himself a dynasty back in England is made utterly believable. But Cromwell remains a puzzle to those who surround him. "A man's power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires." Mantel brings history to life with her Cromwell, a modern man, forward-thinking and always on the alert for advancement. Anne Boleyn could never have become queen and Henry would never have become the head of the Church of England if not for Cromwell.
Patti Smith and Robert Mappelthorpe

Just Kids, by Patti Smith - Patti Smith, no surprise, has a wonderful way with words. She also takes a pretty unflinching look at her life with and without Mappelthorpe and brings a certain time in New York to vivid life.
The Chelsea Hotel was their Montmartre, their source and hotbed of creativity. For every young artist, young person, there is a time and place that is almost sacred. It’s where and when they found their true peers, had their first deep personal and artistic experiences, were independent. For Patti it was the Chelsea Hotel. While she lived there with Robert she met her idols (Janis Joplin, William S. Burroughs), contemporaries (Sam Shepherd, Todd Rundgren) and really felt a part of something. She watched from afar so many of her idols die—Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison. No matter how many deaths of young artists send her in a tailspin and reminded her of her hero Rimbaud, she and Robert never considered it could happen to one of them.
Galore, by Michael Crummey - This is the first book I reviewed from an outside source, a publisher, that just knocked my socks off. It's crazy, compelling and impossible to put down, about a part of the world I knew little about, but now am dying to visit.
Michael Crummey’s Galore is a magical roundelay of stories and characters, historical and fantastical. It opens with a mysterious man found in the belly of a whale, and goes full-speed from there, sketching the harsh life to be had from trying to make a living from the sea. Life and death viscerally cycles round and round, with echoes biblical and poetic through the rest of the book. The novel is set in a wild, cold Newfoundland, where it never seems to be summer, the temperature always cold and wet, with snow on the ground, a fireplace burning, ice on the water nearby.
Russell Brand

My Booky Wook, by Russell Brand - Brand is funny and witty from the get-go in this extremely honest book. I truly can't wait for his next one. Check out his blog, too. The man can write.
“What I’ve learnt — to my cost — on several occasions in my life, is that people will put up with all manner of bad behaviour so long as you’re giving them what they want. They’ll laugh and get into it and enjoy the anecdotes and the craziness and the mayhem as long as you’re going your job well, but the minute you’re not, you’re fucked. They’ll wipe their hands of you without a second glance.” 
Ain’t that the truth. Brand is funny, bratty, got a way with words, and always seems honest. A very entertaining read.
Life, by Keith Richards - Keith Richards is knowledgeable about the blues, guitar and rock music and has some really great stories, all no surprise. He is also extremely articulate and a man who has seemingly forgotten nothing, no matter what his illicit substance intake. I actually want to "read" this again, but this time the audio version, narrated by Johnny Depp and Richards.
Jagger is mostly in the background throughout the 547 page book, until the penultimate chapter, which begins, “It was the beginning of the ’80s when Mick started to become unbearable.” The rest of the book is occasionally peppered with his irritation with his “best mate,” … Do you know Mick Jagger? …Yeah, which one? He’s a nice bunch of guys.” At times their rivalry got downright juvenile, but then, they were boys together. Richards can’t resist a jibe about a retaliatory fling he had with Jagger’s long-time girlfriend Marianne Faithfull, “While you were doing that, I was knocking Marianne, man. While you’re missing it, I’m kissing it.” Funny for a 60-something year-old man to still feel hurt and pissed enough about Jagger sleeping with his “old lady” Pallenberg in 1968. Tell us how you really feel, Keef.
Keith Richards

A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin - After seeing HBO's Game of Thrones I had to check out the books and was quickly hooked. Martin is a wonderful writer and his characters and the intrigue of Westeros are positively addictive.
Martin creates a world, with a complicated history. The geography of Westeros is extremely well depicted. As much as there are the inevitable comparisons to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of the sore points for me while reading those books was that for all of Tolkien’s endless descriptive prose about the places the Fellowship was walking through, I never felt the reality of the geography. I never “saw” it. Martin’s Westeros not only feels like a real country, but from Martin’s descriptions of terrain, from The Wall to Winterfell to King’s Landing to the Eyrie to Vas Dothraek, I had a real feel of the land. The mysterious creatures that live in these places seemed real as well.
A Storm of Swords, by George R. R. Martin - This is the third book in the series, and also my favorite. It moves so quickly and so unrelentingly that some of the plot developments will literally take your breath away.
A Storm of Swords is the third book, and as brilliant as the first two were, this one is even better. Martin manages to foreshadow without being obvious, so even if you guess an upcoming plot twist correctly, you don’t feel superior or bored, but just caught up in the overwhelming inevitability of how his characters’ lives and fates are intertwined. Throughout the book Martin has readers on their toes. Not knowing what is coming on the next page, he is daring you to turn it, even if you are afraid that a favorite character might do something stupid or die. But the story and the compelling characters are irresistible, even when you know that in Westeros and in Martin’s books no one is safe.
On Writing, by Stephen King - I haven't read a lot of Stephen King, but what I have read, I've really liked. This book was so written so clearly and concisely that I have literally thought about about some of the things he has said time and time again while writing my own stuff. He effortlessly mixes autobiographical and elements of style. A real pleasure to read, although being Stephen King, he can't help but throw in a scary twist at the end, as he relates in detail when he was seriously injured by being hit by a car in 1999.
As he outlines what he thinks all writers should do — devote hours every day to their craft (his daily quota is 2000 words, but that might be difficult for those of us with day jobs), read, read, and read some more (he doesn’t watch much television and reads a lot), and not worry too much about the critics: 
“I spent a good many years since — too many, I think – being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.”
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Thursday, October 20, 2011

getting ready for halloween

Having a child is a good excuse to indulge a bit more in Halloween decorating. of course these skeleton string lights would have caught my eye anyway ...


They have a few nice details


We also have a somewhat friendly witch on the back door


But my favorite are the LED skeletons, whose lights change, from blue to red to purple to green

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

i'm perfecting my nose twitch

It has been raining for days, and although the weatherman says that it should all blow over by tomorrow, I am willing to use any means necessary to see the sun shine again.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

the woman in black

Article first published as Book Review: The Woman in Black by Susan Hill on Blogcritics.

The Woman in Black is a good old-fashioned ghost story by Susan Hill, first published in 1983. It's a "vintage" ghost story, written in the period and style of classic ghost stories by Wilkie Collins and M.R. James. This new paperback is a tie-in to the upcoming film adaptation (February 2012) starring Daniel Radcliffe as the protagonist and narrator, Arthur Kipps. The book had been adapted before into a made-for television movie, radio versions, as well as a stage play.

Arthur Kipps is a young solicitor with prospects — a promising career and a young fiancee. His boss, Mr. Bentley, tasks him with representing the firm in the estate of an old woman, Alice Drablow, who lived as a recluse in a remote part of England. Kipps is eager to please his boss and also to see a bit of the world and get away from London. He travels to the small village of Crythin Gifford to attend Mrs Drablow's funeral.

Almost as soon as he begins his journey everyone he encounters clams up the moment he mentions his reasons for visiting their corner of the world. Mrs. Drablow was well-known in the area, but no one wants to speak of her. But Kipps is an unsuspicious sort of fellow, and at 23, naive enough to believe that his own strength and force of will can carry any day.

While at the funeral, which is bereft of mourners, Kipps sees a figure in the rear of the church, a woman "with a pale and wasted face," dressed in black. He is curious who she might be, as no one else in Crythin Gifford wanted to pay their respects, but she disappears before he can speak to her. He needs to focus on his business and prepare for the next day, when he will visit the client's house and start to go through her papers to see what might be of use to his firm.

Mrs. Drablow lived in Eel Marsh House, which is situated far beyond the town. Similar to Normandy's Mont Saint-Michel, the house can only be reached at low tide, by crossing a long causeway. Kipps is taken there by a local in his pony trap, Keckwick, who promises to return for him when the tide recedes. He is later joined by a delightful dog named Spider, who truly proves to be man's best friend.

Eel Marsh House and its creepy, marshy environs are portrayed with great detail and care in The Woman in Black. Hill creates a truly eerie atmosphere — there is a feeling of dread that surrounds Kipps from the very start of the novel. Strange sounds in the house, and a terrifying cry of a child in peril out in the marsh, are just the beginning of unsettling occurrences that Kipps encounters.

It's an absorbing and entertaining read. The only criticism I might have is that The Woman in Black is a straight ghost story. There is nothing wrong in that, but if Kipps's mental state had been in question, along the lines of the governess in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, that would have added another layer of subtlety to the story. But we never for a moment can doubt that what Kipps is dealing with is ghostly in nature.

Kipps and the reader are in for some genuinely scary moments, and like all good ghost stories, The Woman in Black leaves one with a feeling of unease, with questions unanswered. Could some of the happenings been avoided? It will be interesting to see how the film diverges from Hill's story. It's a perfect read for this spooky Halloween season.

Wood engravings by Andy English from Susan Hill's website
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Monday, October 17, 2011

the big year

The big year, if you're a birder, is very big, indeed. Probably most people who went to see The Big Year starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson had no idea that there was such a thing as competitive birding (whatever you do, don't call it bird watching.) They may not have even realized that birds had anything to do with the plot. The advertising promos for the film make it seem as if three friends go on an adventure together — one with a mid-life crisis, one facing retirement, etc., etc. But the movie, which is based on the book The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, by Mark Obmascik, is actually far more interesting than advertised. 

The Big Year takes us behind-the-scenes, in a gentle, humorous way, of just how competitive birding can get, when folks go in search of the prestigious title of most birds seen in a year, "the big year."

Owen Wilson plays Kenny Bostick, the current holder of the title, sighting over 700 birds in the previous year. He is a celebrity in the birding world, obsessed with both seeing the most and the rarest of species, as well as desperate to retain his title, a title which is an honor only. The person who logs the most sightings is proclaimed winner in Birder magazine, but there are no prizes or endorsements. Kind of refreshing.

Narrator Brad Harris, played by Jack Black, wants to unseat the champion and win the title — and prove to himself and especially his father (a perfectly cast cranky Brian Dennehy), that he can follow things through, that he isn't a loser. Brad has a full-time job in a nuclear plant and not much money, and must finance his big year by depleting his savings and maxing out both his and his supportive mom's (Dianne Wiest) credit cards.

Steve Martin's Stu Preissler is a wealthy executive. He is trying to retire from the rat race and do something he's always wanted to do, which is to finally take the time to indulge his interest in birds. And to combine that with having his big year.

The three men eventually start crossing paths as they crisscross their way across the country. One of the best aspects of The Big Year is all the beautiful places the birders go to find that elusive snowy white owl, pink footed goose, or red spotted woodpecker. The audience may wonder if we are getting a better sense of their big year than the birders, who are so intent on recording their latest sighting that they may literally be missing the forest for the bird in the trees.

Their quest involves planes, trains, and automobiles as well as any other mode of transportation available to get a sight of a rare bird in transit. They take boat tours, charter planes and helicopters, and bicycle across a remote Aleutian island, all for the love of birds and to increase their count of species. At first we just watch the trio, together or separately, each elbow their way through migration patterns. But after a while it's impossible not to get caught up in the chase and feel rewarded when they (and we) catch a glimpse of an elusive hummingbird, or two bald eagles in mid-flight embrace.

Hotshot Kenny is the "pro" of the group, always with top gear, sporting the most fashionable outfits, frequently in neon colors — a rare bird with striking plumage. Although he is a villain of sorts, using his wit and skill and any devious means necessary to stay one step ahead of all potential challengers, all three characters are really nice guys — just obsessed, to an unusual degree, with birds. Like any true obsessive, they can wax on about their interest, spouting facts and figures, but can never truly tell why they are into their subject. It's mystical to them, a calling.

The three actors play versions of their usual film personas. Black has dialed down his manic energy and plays a sweet, Everyman version of his usual slacker. Martin plays a more sophisticated wild and crazy guy, and Wilson a more competitive version of his wisecracking charmer. The three work well together and against one another. There are also some fun cameos, from Angelica Huston, as a guide who has crossed paths with Kenny before, Tim Blake Nelson as another birder who is a fan of Kenny's  and occasionally teams up with him to spot a rare species, JoBeth Williams as Stu's supportive and loving wife, and Rashida Jones as a fellow birder with a great skill at doing bird calls who Brad finds very appealing. Also visible in smaller parts are Jim Parsons, Joel McHale, Kevin Pollak, Steven Weber, and Corbin Benson.

The only bum note is Rosamund Pike, who seems to be acting in another movie — in the thankless role as Kenny's wife — she wants to start a family and sits on the sidelines at home, pouting at his frequent absences. When we see the crowds of birders at peak sighting locations there are plenty of women in evidence, so the audience need not feel that women are not being represented, or that they are just happy cheerleaders or disgruntled, neglected partners. The Big Year is not just about birders, but about the competitive nature of men, three particular men who each want to be named the best birder, to secure the elusive title of the person who spotted the most species of birds in North America within one calendar year.

Directed by David Frankel (Marley and Me, The Devil Wears Prada, Miami Rhapsody), the film has clever graphics that help the audience keep track of the bird species, the running counts of Kenny, Stu and Brad, and the locations the trio travels to, which gives it at times not exactly a documentary feel, but at least a movie that wants to get most of its facts straight, even if it opens with the humorous disclaimer, "This is a true story, only the facts have been changed."

For all of its protagonists' running around, The Big Year is a relaxed comedy. There are no big yuks. The humor is low-key and aims to point out quirky aspects of the birding community, without ever resorting to ridicule. The film could have easily taken a snide tone and played its subjects for laughs, but it chose the high road. That may disappoint some viewers, who may have been expecting belly laughs, but it makes for a better film. I also couldn't help but notice that The Big Year highlights an activity that requires that people get out in the world, away from their homes, and get involved in nature. With all of the screens that control our lives — the computer, smartphones, and even movie screens — watching Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson run across fields and through forests with notebooks in hand was literally a breath of fresh air.
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