Monday, April 30, 2012

they don't make 'em like this anymore — poltergeist

Poltergeist is so effective a movie that its easy to forget how damn good it really is. All one has to do is try to think of another recent horror movie that captures a time with such a winning combination of special effects, thrills, real scares, and deep feeling. None come to mind. The movie industry has come far in the past thirty years with CGI and other special effects. But it is undeniable that as polished, accomplished, and shiny as films look today, they have lost a sense of reality, of heart.

1982's Poltergeist opens with a wonderful montage of modern suburban American life — kids hanging out (unsupervised) in their neighborhood, pulling pranks, having fun. Inside the home Star Wars bed sheets and other toys litter a child's room and speak of a comfortable, media-savvy life. The story quickly follows a family of five, the Freelings — Steve (Craig T. Nelson), Diane (JoBeth Williams), teenage Dana (Dominique Dunne), and younger kids Robbie (Oliver Robins), and Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke), who live in a two-story house in the Cuesta Verde development where Steve is the real estate agent — the Freelings were actually the first family to move into the neighborhood.

The youngest child Carol Anne is the first of the family who seems to know that everything is not normal in their house, especially when people start talking to her from the family's television set, "They're here." Things quickly get ghostly, and it is fun for both the audience and the family to see evidence of their unusual visitors. Hip mom Diane is thrilled at first, even devising a game with their unseen guests in the kitchen. But things quickly take a sinister turn, and during a stormy night Robbie is attacked and Carol Anne disappears somewhere inside the house.

At first the ghosts are all fun and games
But the mood quickly changes, complete with a creepy clown doll
Hip mama turns into fierce warrior to protect her family from supernatural forces
Poltergeist is legitimately scary, not just slasher or torture porn like so many recent horror flicks. It actually has a subtext: the rampant overdevelopment of Cuesta Verde, built over a graveyard without moving or honoring any of the dead, has had dire consequences. Suburban progress may try to erase the past, but at what price?

Steve (looking over the site of a new development in Cuesta Verde), "Not much room for a pool, is there?" 
Teague (Steve's boss, played by James Karen), "We own all the land. We have already made arrangements to relocate the cemetery." 

Steve, "You're kidding. Oh, come on. I mean that's sacrilege, isn't it?" 

Teague, "Don't worry about it. After all, it's not ancient tribal burial ground. It's just ... people. Besides, we've done it before."

For years there have been conflicting reports about whether Tobe Hooper actually directed the movie, or Steven Spielberg, who came up with the original story and worked on the screenplay and was one of the producers. Spielberg didn't help matters any by saying:
"Tobe isn't ... a take-charge sort of guy. If a question was asked and an answer wasn't immediately forthcoming, I'd jump in and say what we could do. Tobe would nod agreement, and that become the process of collaboration." — Douglas Brode, The Films of Steven Spielberg. New York: Citadel Press, 2000, p. 102.
The special effects are quite good for the time, not just in execution, but originality. It still strikes the viewer as clever how the "ghostbusters" create a paranormal path through the house to find and rescue Carol Anne. Hooper gets director credit, but Spelberg's influence is apparent throughout the film. Perhaps Hooper's laid-back nature helped minimize Spielberg's usual sense of wonder, which at times can get a little forced or syrupy.

Poltergeist has heart, but it also has menace, a feature lacking in Spielberg films. The only bum note in the film, however is pure Spielberg — the scene in the bathroom with one of the parapsychologists that the Freelings call in to help find their daughter, where hands pull his face apart in front of the bathroom mirror. Like the melting Nazi from 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark, a scene just put in to show off and gross out the audience. According to imdb, the hands used in the shot were actually Speilberg's, too.

Poltergeist has all the elements of a classic horror film. An innocent but spooky little girl, clever dialogue, a creepy clown, a highly original character, Tangina the ghostbuster, played by Zelda Rubinstein. But what really makes Poltergeist special and eminently re-watchable are the characters. JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson are wonderful and sexy as the parents. Their love for each other and their children is so strong you believe they could go to hell and back to get their kid. Rumors of a remake have been circulating for a few years. There is actually a page for the remake on imdb, which makes it seem more real. If this does eventually happen, it is highly unlikely that it will be anywhere near as good as the wonderful original. The last scene, when dad Steve pushes a television set out of their motel room is brilliant, and needs no updating. Poltergeist is definitely a classic, and I think, Spelberg's best film.

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Sunday, April 29, 2012

flip 'er

My little gymnast:

Saturday, April 28, 2012

breakfast with a pelican

Friday, April 27, 2012

break-up songs are hard to do

My inner feminist says I shouldn't criticize Katy Perry's latest single Part of Me, but it is such a blatant, sophmoric stab at her recently minted ex-husband Russell Brand that it just comes off not as a paegn to female empowerment, but a whiny high school girl trashing her boyfriend on Facebook. The pounding disco beat and dopey lyrics don't help. Is Part of Me supposed to be an anthem?

Throw your sticks and stones
Throw your bombs and blows
But you're not gonna break my soul

And she (and co-songwriter Bonnie Mckee) can't even resist a reference and plug of her earlier hit, Firework.

Now look at me I'm sparkling
A firework, a dancing flame
You won't never put me out again
I'm glowing oh whoa

You go, girl — far away, please.

Breaking up is hard to do. Been there. I don't doubt that Katy is going through some tough times. as, probably, is Russell. Good luck to both of the injured parties. But I also can't help feeling that the pop star's post-break-up ditty is nowhere near as catchy or fun as any of Brand's alter-ego Aldous Snow's "singles," like Bangers, Beans and Mash or Furry Walls.

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Thursday, April 26, 2012

name dropper

In Frank Langella's new book, Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them, the stage and screen actor does just that. The actor, who is perhaps best known for his sexy version of Count Dracula in Dracula and his recent turn as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon (he won a Tony for the play and was nominated for an Oscar for the film) has not only had a varied career, but spent it with some interesting and unexpected people.

Dropped Names has its share of bitchy moments — Langella doesn't like everyone he writes about (cough, cough, Lee Strasberg), but it's not a mean book. Because the majority of the subjects have passed on, it feels more like a series of tributes. As Langella is concentrating on his impressions of other people, it isn't strictly biography, either. Facts about his life and career as an actor can be pieced together from the disparate stories, but the book is (mostly) free of ego, which is remarkable for an actor's memoir.

In the role that made him a star, Dracula
Each chapter is in the order of the actor or entertainment figure's passing, so the chapters jump about a bit in chronology. This adds to the feeling of just sitting around with Langella and listening to him drop names, one story leading to another. It makes for an entertaining read, and as the author suggests in his preface, the reader could hop around the book, from subject to subject. There is a kaleidoscope effect at times, as certain profiles overlap, as if Langella, by focusing on a different person at the same event, is telling the same story from a slightly different perspective.

The gossip and anecdotes flow freely. The chapters that prove the most interesting are usually about people Langella knew well, such as his close friend Raul Julia. He includes a touching tribute to a fellow actor who started as a man-crush and then turned into a deep, loving friendship, "In this era when young male stars seem a sexless set of store-bought muscles set below interchangeable screw-top heads with faces of epic blandness — sheep trying to look like bulls — Raul defined real masculinity."

His chapter on Julia crosses over with ones on Jill Clayburgh and George C. Scott. The three actors were appearing in a play together in 1984, Noel Coward's Design for Living, directed by Scott. In quite a few instances Langella proves himself to be on the touchy side, as friendships flounder, "For a year or more afterward Jill and I stayed in contact ... But an incident so small and petty; a series of unreturned phone calls not worth the ink to explain, caused us to drift apart. I will forever regret the loss of those irretrievable years." We have all had similar experiences. You don't need to be a temperamental actor to throw a hissy fit that you regret later.

Al Hirschfeld's illustration of Jill Clayburgh, Raul Julia, and Langella in Design for Living
Sometimes he just hints at an actor's identity, as he does in a passage with George C. Scott, who shares his disdain for The Method. "I had worked recently with one star who was on the rise. A street-smart wise guy and Actors Studio devotee. I mentioned his name. 'An asshole,' said George, 'a talentless fucking asshole. The guy wouldn't know syntax if it came up and bit him. You need brains to be an actor.'" Most likely the actor, who the reader can have fun trying to guess his identity, is still alive, and Langella doesn't want to drop his particular name just yet.

Dropped Names can be best enjoyed if you have a love and knowledge of Old Hollywood and a passing knowledge of New York theater. Langella is as much of a fan of actors as his audience, which makes him especially endearing. He can be bitchy, too — frustrated with their egos, alcoholism, and tantrums. His glimpses into behind-the-scenes film and the theater convey how especially hard Hollywood can be on an older actor or actress:
Miss [Ida] Lupino's need was of no matter to our director and his producers. When I asked him why they had let her go, he said: "Oh she's brilliant, but we just don't have time for her." 
It is generally true in my profession that a faulty camera or an incorrect prop will often be given more attention and time than a worthy actor in need. And also true that idiot actors who come on the set stoned or drunk with petty or moronic demands are far more indulged than ones who calmly ask intelligent questions. Management likes to feel superior to actors and Miss Lupino's searching mind was clearly intimidating to them.
He also gives a knowing peek into Hollywood filmmaking at its most excessive:
Cutthroat Island … remains, in my film experience, the single most egregious example of excess I have ever witnessed in the movie world. Writers being paid $100,000 a week to punch up horrible dialogue with inane jokes, private cooks serving gourmet food to the Harlins under a cozy tent while hundreds of extras being paid less than minimum-wage stood in the freezing rain for hours ...
As Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon
And that was just for starters. Langella is most amusing about his own perceived failures. About a film called The Wrath of God, which co-starred film legends Robert Mitchum and Rita Hayworth, he says, "The worst is my performance, terrible dialogue, and a horse who hated me." He did enjoy the deadpan cool and wit of Robert Mitchum, "Get out your pencil, Frank, and take this down. Herewith a list of the ten dullest actors in Hollywood. They are: Gregory Peck." I have to say I agree with Mitch 100% on that one. Langella also managed a brief liaison with Hayworth, who was in the early stages of Alzheimers, although he didn't know it at the time.

Movie buffs will be interested to hear about his close encounters with Elizabeth Taylor, Laurence Olivier, Tony Curtis, etc. Some of his interactions are not much more than fan encounters, which is refreshing. What may be surprising to some is how he came in close proximity to Jackie O and her friends, the wealthy high society family the Mellons, through a youthful theater apprenticeship and friendship with Bunny Mellon's daughter Liza. This opened up an entire lifestyle, and even a brief relationship with the former First Lady.

Langella is not afraid to name names — as long as the subject is deceased. But after reading Dropped Names it's impossible not to wonder how many more stories he could tell, if he included people who are still living.
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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

50 first dates

I recently saw for the first time the movie 50 First Dates with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore. Sandler may be the recipient of the most Razzies ever bestowed upon a performer, but over the past few years I have had to admit that I can't help liking him and his movies. Did I say that out loud?

In 50 First Dates Henry (Sandler) lives the Life of Riley in Hawaii. A marine-life vet, his main hobby is to date and leave a series of women that he meets on the island. But his womanizing ways soon become a thing of the past after he meets Lucy (Barrymore) one morning at a local café. They have instant chemistry and plan to meet the next day, but when Henry shows up Lucy doesn't remember meeting him. Lucy's friends at the café fill him in — A year earlier Lucy was involved in a car accident that has affected her memory. She has an odd form of amnesia in which she forgets everything that has happened in a 24-hour period.

Learning that she was in an accident and her loss of memory each morning was too painful to experience (and re-experience), so her father Marlin (Blake Clark) and brother Doug (Sean Astin) re-enact the activities of that day, which also happened to be her father's birthday, every day, in an effort to protect her.

Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler meet cute
Rob Schneider and Sandler meet not so cute
Sandler's usual silliness is in full evidence, mainly in the characters of Doug, an aspiring bodybuilder who lisps as a result of steroid abuse, and Rob Schnieder as Ula, Henry's goofy assistant. But 50 First Dates also has a serious side. Lucy's problem does not have an easy sitcom-pat solution. Henry truly loves her, and believes that it would be better for her and her family if they didn't keep lying to her. He must come up with some creative ways to help her remember him and what happened to her. Visuals come in handy, as Lucy paints and draws and Henry helps her create a notebook and makes videotapes to help tell (and re-tell) their story.

Having a mother with dementia probably caused me to have a deeper reading of 50 First Dates. Henry and Lucy get a fresh start each day, but Henry must be the custodian of their past. It also made me realize that even if many things are forgotten, there is still a lot to be enjoyed in the moment. 50 First Dates may not be a typical romantic comedy, but it is certainly an entertaining one, and full of feeling.
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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

the saturday big tent wedding party

Article first published as Book Review: The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party by Alexander McCall Smith on Blogcritics.

Precious Ramotswe is back, in the new paperback edition in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by author Alexander McCall Smith, The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party.

Mma Ramotswe has a new and difficult client who she must try to help, but the real focus of the book, as with others in the series, is the gentle reminder to enjoy the beauty in life; and that many of life's problems, big and small, can eventually be solved with a little gentle tact and caring.

A nervous and not very likable farmer, Mr. Botsalo Moeti, has come to The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency for help in determining just who is behind some attacks on his cattle. As Mma Ramotswe tries to sort out the problem, and just how much she owes a client who may, in his own way, be in the wrong, there are also other complications closer to home.

She has been very much missing her beloved little white van and is unnerved by its possible, ghostly, reappearance.

One of the apprentices at Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's garage, Charlie, also has a very big (and very little) problem that involves his imprudent girlfriend Prudence.

Plans for the wedding of assistant detective Mma Makutsi and her fiance Phuti Radiphuti are in full swing, but Mma Makutsi has some doubts that Phuti is taking care of his side of the planning. She is also having a difficult "conversation" with brand new pair of beautiful white wedding shoes. An added distraction — her ultimate nemesis and former classmate from the Botswana Secretarial College, Violet Sephotho, is running for a seat in Botswana's parliament, a fact that appalls Mma Makutsi.

The only disappointment in this entry to the series might be that Mma Ramotswe's and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's two adopted children, Motholeli and Puso, are so relegated to the background of the story that they have almost completely disappeared. It would be nice if Mr. McCall Smith would follow up on his earlier hints that the wheelchair-bound Motholeli, who showed an interest and talent for mechanics, might want to join her father at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, and take on a more prominent role.

Mma Ramotswe uses her charm and smarts to resolve most of the novel's issues in her usual gentle and pleasant way, but The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party also has some undercurrents of unrest. As much as Botswana is praised as a wonderful place that still honors the "old values," there are glimpses into the difficult life that people outside of a city like Gaborone face, with the characters of a mother and child who live on a farm and are in thrall to the new owner. McCall Smith wants to look at the bright side of life in most of his writing, but he also wants to remind his readers that there is still much poverty and suffering in Africa.

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series continues to delight, and Precious Ramotswe and all of her friends and extended family are still people we want to spend some time with, attending The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, under the broad blue skies of Botswana, sipping red bush tea.
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Monday, April 23, 2012

"be kind to one another"

Ellen has become one of the shows that we watch on a regular basis. I usually DVR it and we catch it later, as we're not usually home when it airs — plus I really hate to watch commercials if I don't have to. I have always liked Ellen DeGeneres and her laid-back, goofy style of comedy.  I liked (most of) her goofy misfire romantic comedy, Mr. Wrong (it's hard not to like a psychotic Bill Pullman). I regularly watched her sitcom Ellen, which co-starred Joely Fisher, Arye Gross, David Anthony Higgins, Clea Lewis, and Jeremy Piven. When Ellen came out I remember how big of a deal it was in the media, but I don't remember being surprised. Her sitcom struggled a bit after that. Sometimes her character's sexuality seemed a little forced into the plotlines of the show. But the characters and Ellen were still funny, and I was sad when it went off the air. I vaguely remember her dating Anne Heche, but I'm much clearer about Steve Martin's reference to their relationship in Bowfinger (supposedly Heche dumped Martin for Ellen).

I have really come to love Ellen through her talk show. It's not just that she has on guests that I want to see — Brad Pitt, Lenny Kravitz, Cee Lo Green, Colin Farrell, Idina Menzel, Squeeze, etc. It's Ellen herself. She's still goofy, the queen of the rambling digression, and still very funny. But what she also is, is kind. Multiple times a week Ellen will feature a school, or a family, or a person in need and then do something to help them. She is fortunate that she has some great sponsor tie-ins and the bankroll to actually help. But Ellen also inspires her viewers to do what they can — random acts of kindness — to each other, and to animals.

Ellen is also open about being vegan. A recent guest on her show was the President of the Humane Society of the United States, Wayne Pacelle, who was not just there to hawk his new book, The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them, but to talk about the conditions that chickens in chicken farms are subjected to. It was a straightforward and emotional segment, and I'm sure a lot of people watching started to question where they purchase their groceries, if they never had previously. I doubt I could ever become a vegan, or even fully vegetarian. My Italian girl background is too attracted to the occasional salami, and I love to eat chicken salad and fried chicken from time to time. But I sure as heck could stand to be more aware of where any chicken I purchase comes from.

Her honesty about being gay and her marriage is another thing that I love her for. So many celebrities are guarded or phony when they talk about their lives. It's understandable, but still seems kind of ridiculous, considering they have placed themselves in a public forum to talk about themselves. Ellen's honesty is not just refreshing, it's who she is. She talks about how she is a homebody, her life with Portia de Rossi, her love of animals. When she talks about herself it never seems forced, or even intrusive. Apart from their net worth and celebrity, their marriage seems rather typical. What better example of marriage equality does anyone need?

Ellen loves to dance on her show — here she grooves with First Lady Michelle Obama
When Ellen helps a family build their first home, or a school buy computers, or visits Brad Pitt in New Orleans to show the audience what building projects he has been up to lately, she inspires. She also reminds us that we don't have to only participate in one-time big disaster-relief telethons. We can do a little bit every day to make our lives and the lives of others better. My daughter calls her Ellen Generous. I agree.

Ellen has become a major force, through her show, her website, her merchandise, her sponsors, her easy, breezy Cover Girl-ness. Much like Oprah, I suppose, but there is something gentler about Ellen that I like more. It's a testament to her likability that after recently becoming a spokesperson for J C Penney, a company that to many may seemed a bit dated, she not only helped revitalize its image, but she and JC Penney soon took a stand against bigotry. A group calling itself One Million Moms protested Ellen being a representative of the company and threatened a boycott — and then almost as quickly backed down when there was a huge outcry. That is how to deal with bullies.

But mostly I like Ellen's parting words at the end of each show, "Be kind to one another." It's a wonderful sentiment, and hopefully the many people watching will try to do just that.
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Sunday, April 22, 2012

happy earth day

We don't have a yard to plant in, but we do have a patio, and plenty of plants. We actually harvested a few tomatoes for dinner tonight. Happy Earth day!


Saturday, April 21, 2012

r.i.p. jonathan frid

Like many, I used to rush home from school to see Dark Shadows. It was my mom's favorite show. She had a huge crush on the vampire Jonathan Collins, played by Jonathan Frid. I didn't quite get that — too young, I guess. But I did find him fascinating — and frightening. I really liked the pretty witch, Angelique, too. Barnabas Collins, as opposed to more recent, sparkly versions, was a scary vampire, and I loved scary movies.

It's sadly ironic that Frid has passed away before Tim Burton's and Johnny Depp's adaptation of Dark Shadows hits the theaters next month. Frid actually makes a cameo appearance in the film. Although the new film seems to be taking a much more comedic approach than the original series (probably a good thing, as Burton is better at comedy than tragedy), Depp has come by his love of Barnabas honestly. He was also a childhood fan.

A classically trained actor, Canadian-born Frid brought a sense of gravitas to Dark Shadows. Although he had a long career in the theater both before and after his time on the gothic soap opera, he will forever be associated with Barnabas Collins. R.I.P. Jonathan, you will be missed.
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Friday, April 20, 2012

rockin' to the oldies

I used to work at a design firm/service bureau where the radio provided background noise all day. After a while the radio soundtrack doesn't just become he day's soundtrack, it begins to infiltrate your consciousness. As people would walk through the central work area they might start humming whatever tune was currently playing. They couldn't help it.

Soon different factions formed, one that wanted pop hits, one rock, one hip hop, and of course, the fabulous hits of yesteryear. I soon became known as "the person most likely to turn off the oldies station." In fact I actually won a little "statuette" at a company party to commemorate the fact. Yet here I am, in the car, listening to The Four Seasons.

Vintage Advertisement 1940s Car Stereo
Vintage Advertisement 1940s Car Stereo, from Christian Montone, Flickr

Living in southern Florida, there are a ton of radio stations that play some mix of older tunes, as there are a lot of older folks who want to hear the music of their youth. There's the real oldies — '50s and '60s hits, stations that feature a "mix of yesterday and today," and even one that plays tunes from my misspent youth every weekend — "totally '80s."

I find myself flipping back and forth between contemporary and the mix of '70s, '80s, and '90s music most of the time. I still tend to avoid any station that would play "Leader of the Pack" and its ilk. But it is nice to hear my mom, who has dementia, humming along to something, recognizing some of her old favorites, like the Bee Gees, the Eagles, and the Steve Miller Band. It's also funny to hear my daughter singing along to Pat Benatar and Journey as well as Ceel Lo from the back seat. She may be the only 8 year-old around who loves Justin Bieber and K. C. And the Sunshine Band. Music helps time become more fluid.
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Thursday, April 19, 2012


Squeeze performed their classic hit, "Tempted" on Ellen on Wednesday. Talk about a piece of (my) history. I saw this band so many times when I was an art student in New York. At the Nassau Coliseum with R.E.M. and The English Beat as their opening acts (I actually missed R.E. M. because the line for the bathroom was so long). At The Ritz multiple times. I always loved Glenn Tilbrook's gorgeous tenor voice and writing partner's Chris Difford's wacky sense of style — at one show he wore a custom made suit made with a bright blue fabric that was covered with gigantic red roses.

They may be a little older and grayer (and who isn't), but it was great to see and hear them again. They're still Cool for Cats.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

overheard at the playground

"Let's play Hide and Seek. Count to 29!"


"If my brother lived to be one hundred and ninety nine he'd be dead right now."


"I have a dog that lives with my grandmother, but I don't live with my grandmother. And she bites."


I'm assuming (hoping) that the kid was talking about the dog, not his grandma ...

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

the door in the wall

My eight year-old loves libraries, which thrills me to no end. Not only are her reading choices getting more adventurous as she reads more and more, but while she is picking out books I also peruse titles and pick out something to read to her — or to myself, that I may have missed. As I was checking out the Newbery section a title caught my eye, a book that was set in the Middle Ages, during the bubonic plague. Sounds more like my kind of book than a kid's book, so I had to check it out. The Door in the Wall is a lovely little book by Marguerite de Angeli about a young boy named Robin set in England during the Middle Ages. The story takes place during the reign of Edward the III (1327-77), but that is as specific time-wise as de Angeli gets.

The protagonist, young Robin, is a bit of a brat at the beginning of the story, but if you consider his circumstances. At the age of ten he is deemed old enough to not be a child anymore. His parents arrange to ship him off to a friend's, Sir Peter de Lindsay's castle to begin his training as a knight. His father has been away for quite some time, fighting with the King against the Scots. His mother has gone to become a lady-in-waiting to the Queen, leaving Robin with their servants until someone comes to take him to his new home, while the plague is raging through London. But soon after his mother leaves, Robin contracts a serious illness that leaves him lame. Little by little he is left alone, as his servants either get the plague, or abandon him and London to escape it. His last remaining servant, Dame Ellen, is also struck down with the plague. Luckily for Robin, Brother Luke at the neighboring monastery, St. Mark's, finds out about Ellen and comes to check on the boy and take him in.

This is pretty heavy stuff for a book aimed at 3rd grade and up. It may move a little slowly at first for today's kids, who have been raised on sparkly vampires and Spongebob. It's a bit like the classic The Secret Garden in terms of pacing. The action takes place in the 1300s, an era that may seem too far away to be interesting, but The Door in the Wall struck a chord. As I was reading I couldn't help but think a bit of Bran from Game of Thrones, and some other current pop culture references, especially Artie and Quinn's current storyline on Glee. It was nice to read an older novel (the book was published in 1949 and won the 1950 Newbery medal) and see such a positive story centered around a disabled character.

How many 10 year olds would cope as well as Robin with suddenly not being able to walk, or run, or play— or being told by their parents that their childhood was essentially over and that they were being shipped off to live in a stranger's house? Robin may not immediately know what Brother Luke means when he tells him, "Thou hast only to follow the wall far enough and there will be a door in it," but he soon comes to understand.

The Door in the Wall's metaphor's may be a little predictable, but it is far from an easy or predictable read. Robin and his two closest friends, Brother Luke and the minstrel John-go-in-the-Wynd, are forced to deal with many difficult issues: the plague, illness, dangerous travel, a castle siege. De Angeli does a nice job of depicting the daily life of the 14th century, and of the part of England Robin travels through,
"'The weather was neither rainy nor fair, neither hot nor cold, but somewhere in between, as English weather is like to be,' said the friar." 




The Door in the Wall may be a children's book, but she doesn't shy away from using some words that may require looking up: pease porridge, flambeaux, bannock. A glossary would have been useful. An added bonus are the beautiful illustrations by de Angeli, in color and black and white, that are found throughout the story.

It was interesting reading how Robin and everyone he encountered dealt with his illness/infirmity. The virus or illness that causes Robin to lose the use of his legs is never named, but it sounds a lot like polio. Robin, of course, hopes to recover use of his legs, and quickly. Brother Luke never shoots that idea down, but keeps introducing Robin to other goals he can achieve in the present. He helps him build his upper body strength by encouraging him to swim daily, as well as taking part in other activities that engage both his mind and body — woodcarving, archery, and learning to read and write.

Robin is never made to feel that his physical handicap is a burden or couldn't be dealt with. He was able to travel, swim, and eventually becomes strong enough to both carve and use his own crutches. By the time that he has to accept that he may probably not recover the use of his legs he has already found so many ways to be useful and independent that it no longer seems as great a concern for him — his major worry is how his parents might react to the change in him since they had last seen each other. But readers can be assured that Robin's story ends happily. The Door in the Wall is a nice trip into the past, as well as a look at how even the most daunting obstacles can be overcome if you are able to look at things from another angle, use a different approach.
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Monday, April 16, 2012

cary grant: a life in pictures

Article first published as Book Review: Cary Grant: A Life in Pictures. Edited by Yann-Brice Dherbier on Blogcritics.

Cary Grant: A Life in Pictures, edited by Yann-Brice Dherbier, is a mostly enjoyable coffee-table book collection of images of the iconic Hollywood leading man.
"The critics," says Grant, have often accused me of playing myself on screen. But that is much more difficult than they think."

Using an assortment of black and white and color candid and publicity shots of the star, as well as some movie posters and film stills, fans of Grant will wish the volume was even more jam-packed with photos — and more substantive information about the actor.

The book includes a filmography, listing the more than 70 films in Grant's long and illustrious career, as well as a short chronology of his life. The photo credits show that the source of the majority of images included in Cary Grant: A Life in Pictures are from Getty Images, Magnum Photos, the Library of Congress, and other archives.

The book has a nice, bold graphic look to it, with photos interspersed with quotes from people who worked with Grant, like directors Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, but most sections feature well-known quotes from the star, including,
"I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until I finally became that person or he became me."
The opening essay by editor Yann-Brice Dherbier gives a brief outline of Grant's life, career, and marriages, and his transformation from Archibald Leach into superstar Cary Grant. Film buffs may be put off however, by a text which is unfortunately riddled with typos, and even includes a few mistakes, such as a misidentified woman in a photo caption.

Cary Grant: A Life in Pictures is not intended for anyone who wants an in-depth look into the star's life, or a critical analysis of his films, but rather a pleasant pictorial reminder of the man's style and elegance.
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Sunday, April 15, 2012

ready for the zombie apocalypse

I was cleaning out and sorting the kitchen cupboards today and realized that if and when the zombie apocalypse happens, we're more than prepared. I guess we'll be having soup and tuna fish and jello pudding and ... BBBRRRAAAIIINNNSSS!

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

somebody that i used to know

I can't get enough of this song of the moment, "Somebody That I Used To Know," by Gotye, featuring


 It has a real '80s vibe, a lot like the music I was drawn to back in my salad days — early Police, the English Beat, the Specials — and members of those groups in later incarnations: General Public and Fun Boy Three.

But mostly it's just a great song, a cry in the wilderness, like most of the best rock music. The video has a do-it-yourself '80s feeling too. It's clever and artistic and emotional.

Maybe music is swinging back to a little starker, cleaner approach. Less synchronized cheerleader dance routines and more singer-songwriter stuff. Or maybe it's just a kick-ass song. Regardless, I really like it, and have it looping on the iPod.
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Friday, April 13, 2012

hello it's me

I had the oldies/contemporary radio station on in the car — it's the one most tolerable to three generations — and Todd Rundgren 's old chestnut, Hello it's Me began to play. It's so interesting how certain songs have instant, strong associations. It made me immediately think of, and miss, my cousin Ann who died just about two years ago. How times flies ...

Most folks are probably familiar with Rundgren's music through the perennial favorite, Bang on the Drum. When he came to Wolf Trap with his Beatles Sgt. Pepper spectacular in 2008, I knew I wanted to see it, and I wanted to see it with Ann. It was a really nice summer evening. We sat on lawn chairs and ate ice cream and listened to Todd and his assorted guests — Denny Laine, Christopher Cross, Bo Bice and Lou Gramm — sing every song from the Beatles' trippiest album. My daughter ran around and Ann ran after her. She must have been feeling well at the time, as we were all pretty active and silly. Just a few years later her ovarian cancer would make a very unwelcome reappearance.

Ann is still in my life, in pictures and memories like this. We had so many really good times together. We had time together. My daughter, whom she adored, will frequently see something, like jewelry or sculpture in the shape of fruit or vegetables and turn to me and say, "Ann would like that." And then, "I really miss Ann."

Me too, kid.
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Thursday, April 12, 2012

dressing marilyn

Article first published as Book Review: Dressing Marilyn: How a Hollywood Icon Was Styled by William Travilla Andrew Hansford with Karen Homer on Blogcritics.

Dressing Marilyn: How a Hollywood Icon Was Styled by William Travilla, by Andrew Hansford with Karen Homer, starts off with a great concept — the long-term collaboration between Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe and her most trusted costumer, William Travilla, who was known merely as Travilla during his design career.

The book includes many images of Travilla's original sketches for some of Marilyn's most famous costumes — the white pleated dress she wore while standing over a subway grate in The Seven Year Itch, the pink confection she wore during the production number "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and many more. As many close-ups as there are of Marilyn's dresses, the 192-page book leaves one wishing for more.

Author Andrew Hansford befriended Travilla's business partner Bill Sarris, and now manages Travilla's design archive. Travilla died in 1990 after a long career in Hollywood that started in the early 1940s. Hansford also organized a 2008 exhibition featuring Travilla's fabulous costumes and designs. His goal to make Travilla and his talent more widely known is an admirable one. But Hansford is not a writer. His over-long introduction takes the focus off Travilla and even Marilyn, for no apparent reason other than to share his personal fascination of traveling to Hollywood. Not helping matters are a few errors in the text and multiple typos, which seem to become more frequent as the book goes on.

Instead of a section by and about Hansford, why not include a longer, more in-depth essay on Travilla, possibly written by someone who worked with him in film or on television? Beyond the films he made with Marilyn, Travilla had a quite successful career on network television, creating costumes for The Thorn Birds, Dallas, Knots Landing, and many more. He won an Oscar in 1949 for the costumes he created for the film Adventures of Don Juan, starring Errol Flynn. There is a nice anecdote about Flynn included in the book, but sadly no images of any of the costumes, even from film stills.

Probably the most surprising missed opportunity in Dressing Marilyn is the complete absence of any biographical information about the star. Certainly there have been tons of books that have covered the actress and her movies, but it is still silly to assume that readers already know the facts of her life and career. There is a lengthy filmography included at the back of Dressing Marilyn for Travilla, but nothing for Marilyn herself, who is certainly helping sell many copies of this book.

Dressing Marilyn does include some interesting insight into how intricately constructed some of her costumes were. Travilla truly built a framework beneath the deceptively simple dresses to highlight the actress and her shape. A dress like the famous pleated gold sheath that has become one of the most iconic images of the star had interior wires structured to mold to her body, and was made from a fabric that can not be replicated today. Marilyn had a great grasp on how to promote herself, and counted on Travilla to create form-fitting dresses and gowns that would show her off to her best advantage, both on-screen and off. He even created a version in white of the pink gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for her own personal collection.

It will be interesting to see how Dressing Marilyn compares to the upcoming book, Marilyn in Fashion: The Enduring Influence of Marilyn Monroe, by Hollywood biographer Christopher Nickens and Marilyn memorabilia collector George Zeno, and how much they focus on Travilla. Travilla was undoubtedly an extremely talented designer, and Hansford should be congratulated for trying to bring his talent to the fore. One wishes that he had just enlisted the help of a more experienced biographer or historian and taken the time to interview others who could have shed more insight on this interesting and fruitful collaboration.
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