Monday, June 30, 2014

the quest for chi

This is actually a sign for one of the areas at Legoland, where we were just about a week ago, but it also seems to sum up my journey these days.

Legoland June 2014

Friday, June 27, 2014

favorite song friday: wiggle

Jason Derulo (with the help of Snoop Dog) has come out with another bad little boy song, "Wiggle," just when it seemed that his "Talk Dirty to Me" was as naughty (and rude, especially in the rap) as he and mainstream radio could get.

But as naughty-aspiring as "Wiggle" might be, I just can't help smiling and even laughing while I listen to it. There is something pretty darn silly about the whole thing. The video for the song seems to understand that — melting big booty sculpture aside.

Derulo and pals wiggle poolside

Although I know it is certainly not the artists' intention, I can't wait for the Kids Bop version, which is sure to become a standard in toddler preschool recess times. Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle ...

Thursday, June 26, 2014

throwback thursday: jersey shore vacations

I grew up at the Jersey Shore, so every childhood summer was usually spent there, with family and friends coming to visit us. Later years in NY and DC had me a bit land-locked, so I was happy to be able to drive to Jersey for the occasional vacation. I have taken the kid a few times over the past few years, but last year was the one she really remembered, and now she wants us to start our own tradition. So in honor of my booking an August vacation at the Shore, here are some pics from past beachy times.

Mom at the beach
I wouldn't even be here if it wasn't for mom (left) and her girlfriends thinking that the Shore was a great  place for a summer vacation from the city

Elizabeth at the pool at the Avon Inn
Hanging out poolside at the Avon Inn, where my grandmother always stayed when she would visit us

Pastel by Mary Elizabeth Winship Periale
One of my mom's effortless pastels, of me trying to fly a kite on the boardwalk

The kid checking out a jetty

Jenkinson's pavilion, Point Pleasant
Having fun on the rides at Jenkinson's pavilion

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

mother of dragons

How to Train Your Dragon, based on the series of books by Cressida Cowell, was a fun, quirky little entry in the glut of animated films that has come down the pike since Toy Story. Dragon has flown (ha) slightly under the radar compared to the enormous success of other animated films, but it has quietly, successfully, and adorably forged its own franchise, which shows no sign of stopping. Between film releases, DreamWorks Animation has sandwiched an entertaining animated television series, DreamWorks Dragons, and a few special shorts as well. The second feature length movie, How to Train Your Dragon 2, the second in a planned trilogy, was released recently, and it was just as much fun as the first, and even more visually stunning than expected.

This sequence was reminiscent of My Neighbor Totoro and other gorgeous Japanese animation, which is high praise indeed

Dragon has done a good job of sketching the Viking world of Berk, a place where Vikings, dragons, and some unfortunate sheep try to coexist. The animators actually base their stunning backgrounds on real Norwegian locations, including Oslo, Bergen, and Svalbard. In the first film, young Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), the son of Berk's Viking chieftain Stoick (Gerard Butler), met a Night Fury dragon that he named Toothless, and proceeded to not only train the dragon, but his fellow Vikings — that humans and dragons could not only live peacefully together, but become friends. In the second film Hiccup has grown, along with his friends and Toothless. Life in Berk is pretty idyllic (except for the local sheep who have to take part as targets in human/dragon sporting events (note: no animated sheep were harmed in the course of the movie, just man-handled and annoyed). But there is trouble on the horizon, with a gang of dragon hunters led by Eret (Kit Harington), who have to answer to a villainous boss named Drago (Djimon Hounsou). While Hiccup and Toothless are trying to evade the hunters they run across a pro-dragon vigilante, who also happens to be Hiccup's long-lost mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) — no spoiler, as her identity is revealed in all the ads and trailers.

Hiccup and Toothless are as cute together as ever

The plot is your standard good guys vs. bad guys, but there are some surprisingly sweet and sad emotional moments in the midst of all the dragon adventure. But the real prize is the stunning animation — of the rugged yet beautiful landscape of Berk, and especially, some of the "new" dragons. Hiccup has grown, and is even sporting a little stubble. He also gets just a little canoodling time with his fellow dragon trainer and friend-turned-girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) before the story gets going. The voice cast is good, and features many well-known actors, like Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, and Craig Ferguson, but they tend to disappear nicely into their roles, rather than create star turns.

I have to admit that I was a little confused by Hiccup's mother's reasons for staying away from her Viking family and instead opting to live in the world of dragons. But her hideout sure is pretty to look at, and her backstory didn't seem to bother my 10 year-old daughter, who loved the film. It will be interesting to note if that changes once we check out the movie when it comes to dvd and aren't distracted by the soaring large-scale dragons and movie theater 3D.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

i love the birdcage

Cinema Sentries had another fun feature posing this question:

What are your favorite movies based on plays? My choice was The Birdcage.

Dynamic duo Armand (Robin Williams) and Albert (Nathan Lane)

1996's The Birdcage, directed by Mike Nichols and written by Elaine May ... starts off fast and funny and never really stops. All of the acting is fabulous (how could it not be?), and much is made of the amusing fact that both sets of parents, although very different in many ways, object to the match — because they think the kids are too young to get hitched. Nathan Lane is amazing as the paranoid, emotional diva Albert, and he is matched quip for quip by an unusually restrained, but also very funny Robin Williams. The two are perfectly matched, as they battle and dance around each other.

Albert: "Whatever I am, he made me! I was adorable once, young and full of hope. And now look at me! I'm this short, fat, insecure, middle-aged thing!" 
Armand: "I made you short?"


You can read the rest of my post and others' picks here.

What would be your favorite film to stage adaptations?

Monday, June 23, 2014

legoland fun

The kid and I checked out Legoland on a little mini-vacation this past weekend. It was a lot of fun, for both of us. We didn't do the water park, or one of the rides in the regular park that warned that we wouldn't get wet, we'd get soaked, but did pretty much everything else. We are in the middle of Florida's rainy season, so I came armed with umbrella, just in case, but last weekend ended up being sunny and hot — REALLY hot. Thankfully, the park has a lot of trees and places to catch some shade or duck into for some A/C. of course, those respites of cool also offer opportunities for purchase ...

Legoland June 2014
A super kid with some super heroes

Legoland June 2014
A Lego Movie poster made of Legos
Legoland June 2014
The kid took me for a boat ride
One of the Lego Chima characters posed for a picture (don't ask me which one or what Chima means)
Legoland June 2014
My DC friends would love the miniature city and Smithsonian Castle

Friday, June 20, 2014

favorite song friday: love runs out

OneRepublic's new song, "Love Runs Out" has a driving beat that just won't quit. I love it. The video is pretty cool, too, with state-of the-'80s special effects. Fun fun fun.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

throwback thursday: telling, drawing, stories

My last year of art school at Parsons was a confusing time. My teachers wanted a cohesive painting portfolio (my major) while I wanted to do a lot of different things — film, graphics, photography. I did make work in my studio, and got through the year, but I also did my own thing, my own work, lived another sort of art life, at home. I wasn't able to merge the two bodies of work at the time.

I did a series of drawings based on a screenplay that I wrote. I will really have to dig it out and revisit it someday soon. But in the meantime, I recently found a few of the drawings from the series. They are done in charcoal and gouache, with prestype.



Wednesday, June 18, 2014

cutie on the beach


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

game of thrones: a very special father's day episode

spoilers ...

Game of Thrones wrapped up its fourth season in Sunday with one of its most slam-bang episodes of any season, "The Children." Showrunners D. B. Weiss and David Benioff upped the ante this season, ensuring audience thrills and surprise whether one has read George R.R. Martin's books or not.

Things picked up right where last week's "The Watchers on the Wall" ended — with Jon Snow (Kit Harington) heading, unarmed, beyond The Wall, into the Wildling's camp, in search of their leader, Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds). The tension was ramped up — would Jon make it out of the camp alive — And never quite let up throughout the rest of the episode, even when the action shifted to King's Landing; to the Riverlands; to way, way beyond the Wall with Bran & Co.; to Meereen and Daenerys and her dragons; and back to King's Landing again, where viewers who have fretted and wondered at the fate of the incarcerated Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) all season got their answer — and then some.

"Hodor! Hodor! Hodor!" (Hodor fights off some undead wights)

I held off reading Martin's latest entry in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Dance with Dragons, until recently. I'm about halfway through the novel, and was surprised to see a scene that I had read that very afternoon depicted in the finale — Bran, Hodor, and Jojen and Meera Reed finally finding the three-eyed crow who had been speaking to Bran in his dreams since the first season. Things went a little different on screen than in the book — their guide, Coldhands, was missing, and Jojen didn't quite make it all the way to the weirwood tree, but their attack by the wights (zombies) was beautifully shot, and reminded all of us still reeling from battles like Oberyn Martell's two episodes earlier that there is way more in heaven and Earth in Westeros than battling for the Iron Throne.

Another epic scene that didn't occur in the books but was perfectly placed in the series was a face-off between Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and The Hound (Rory McCann). There have been two road trips this season, Brienne with her clumsy squire Podrick, and Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and The Hound, both headed for the Eyrie, although for very different reasons. Brienne believes it her sacred quest to honor the dead Catelyn Stark by finding her daughters, Sansa and Arya, if they are still alive. The Hound, for his part, knows how valuable Arya is, and hopes for a big ransom for her safe return to her family.

Last week his hopes for gold were dashed when the pair was informed that Arya's Aunt Lysa was dead. When Brienne (in some beautiful acting from Gwendoline Christie) realized that she had run across Arya, her quest quickly turned into a rescue attempt (and a kick-ass fight scene) as she tried to get her away from The Hound. This scene was not only beautifully staged, with the rocky cliffs of Iceland as a backdrop, but especially poignant, as both Brienne and the surly Hound have wormed their way into the hearts of both book and television show fans. It was not Brienne's time, but when she looked for Arya post-fight, the bird had flown. No one is going to push around, or lead, the Stark girl. Not anymore. Even more upsetting than watching The Hound lose his fight was watching Arya walk away from him, refusing to ease his passage. "You remember where the heart is?" Valar morghulis.

Two of the best fighters and fan favorites, Brienne and The Hound, head-to-head
Back in King's Landing, Tyrion was expecting his executioner, but surprise — his brother Jaime came to spring him from his cell. He and Varys had teamed up to get everyone's favorite Game of Thrones character out of town, and fast. But wait — instead of going up and out a passage, and to freedom, Tyrion decided to take a detour to his old rooms, now occupied by dear old dad Tywin (Charles Dance). Book readers will know that there was a strong motivation for this visit — Jaime had just revealed that Tyrion's first wife Tysha was not a prostitute at all, and his father only let him believe that to end their marriage in such a way that Tyrion would never go looking for her. The series has given Tyrion enough reasons to hate his father, but to leave out this bombshell drop did take away some pretty important emotional subtext for Tyrion's next move.

He entered his father's bedchamber, expecting to confront the old man, but instead got an eyeful of his ex-lover and honest-to-goodness prostitute Shae, in bed, waiting for Tywin, and calling his name. Tyrion saw red and strangled her in a heartbreaking scene — our hearts breaking along with him and for him. He spied Joffrey's old crossbow on the wall, and headed down the hallway, to the privy, in search of his father. Charles Dance as Tywin has always been magnificent. As always, he looked at his son, disbelieving that he had managed to escape, but maybe also a little impressed. He also was superior as always and dismissive of the potential danger. No one would dare challenge Tywin Lannister, right? Wrong. Plonk. The crossbow fired. Plonk. Twice. Happy Father's Day!

"Say that word again ..."
Varys helped conceal Tyrion in a breathable wooden box and saw him safely loaded onto a ship leaving King's Landing. After a moment's consideration he decided to join him on board. Another variation from the books, but a nice one. Streamlining the massive text and tons of characters can be an improvement sometimes. Also headed out of Westeros was Arya, who used her magic coin and the phrase "Valar Morghulis" [All men must die] to book passage to Braavos and Season Five.

I still have some more of A Dance with Dragons to tide me over until the next season begins. Will I want to rewatch this episode? Most definitely. And probably a few others from this season, like last week's "The Watchers on the Wall," with the Night's Watch and Wildlings episode-long battle at Castle Black. But never "The Mountain and The Viper." Never again. With Martin still writing (supposedly two more books), and Benioff and Weiss privy to at least some of the upcoming plot turns, it looks like Game of Thrones will be able to continue to surprise both fans of the fantasy book series and "The Unsullied" (folks who haven't read the books but just watch the show). Probably the most surprised after seeing "The Children" are all the internet mavens who were convinced they would catch at least a glimpse of Lady Stoneheart as a season finale coda. We'll have to wait until next year, guys ...

Monday, June 16, 2014

the agatha christie hour

Even the most avid Agatha Christie buff may not be aware of the stories featured in this DVD collection, as they don't feature her most famous detectives, Miss Marple or the inimitable Hercule Poirot. But the absence of those two sleuths should not deter one from checking out this great series from 1982 and distributed by Acorn Media, The Agatha Christie Hour: Complete Collection.

Cherie Lunghi and Nicholas Farrell in "The Manhood of Edward Robinson"

Featuring ten almost hour-long episodes on four discs, with a total running time of 517 minutes, there is much to enjoy here. One of Christie's other, lesser-known sleuths, Mr. Parker Pyne (Maurice Denham), is on hand in a few of the episodes, and fans of Poirot will also recognize the character of Miss Lemon, who is employed in a similar capacity, but perhaps with more direct involvement in his cases, by Parker Pyne. Many of the mysteries center on the supernatural and romance, two aspects that played more in the background of many of Christie's famous detective novels, but take center stage here.

The list of episodes in the collection includes:

Set 1
Disc 1: "The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife," "In a Glass Darkly," "The Girl in the Train"
Disc 2: "The Fourth Man," "The Case Of The Discontented Soldier"

Set 2
Disc 1: "Magnolia Blossom," "The Mystery of the Blue Jar," "The Red Signal"
Disc 2: "Jane in Search of a Job," "The Manhood Of Edward Robinson"

The picture quality has the look of many television films from that era, a bit on the grainy side, but for the most part is clean and crisp and looks great on a large-scale high-definition television screen, with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The costumes, set design and locations are top-notch. The sound and music are clear, with English subtitles are available. Extras include two text biographies, "Agatha Christie" and "Parker Pyne: Before Poirot."

All of the episodes are entertaining, but there are some definite standouts. Fans of Midsomer Murders will be delighted to see a very young John Nettles in "Fourth Man." Nettles, as Raoul Letardau, enters a train compartment and joins the discussion between three men — a lawyer, and a priest, and a doctor (Michael Gough, Geoffrey Chater, Alan MacNaughton) — and their debate over a young woman's recent suicide. But does the fourth man on the train hold the key to the mystery? in another episode, Christie seems to take a page out of Edgar Allan Poe with "In a Glass Darkly," where a young man's vision of a murder may play out in the future. Christopher Cazenove and Rosalie Crutchley are featured in "The Red Signal," another supernatural mystery that centers around the foretold death of a doctor. Are otherworldly forces at work, or is this just a case of murder for gain?

The author, animated

Viewers will have fun spotting familiar actors in early roles: Rupert Everett "The Manhood of Edward Robinson," Amanda Redman "Jane in Search of a Job," and Ralph Bates "Magnolia Blossom," just to name a few. But perhaps what is most fun about The Agatha Christie Hour (apart from its cute animated opening credits sequence) is seeing another side of Christie. At times, romantic, at times silly, at times mysterious, these stories not only feature England during a bygone era, but Christie, beginning to find her voice and stretch herself as a storyteller.

Originally published on Blogcritics: DVD Review: ‘The Agatha Christie Hour’

Friday, June 13, 2014

favorite song friday: kittens jam (turn down for what)

In case you missed these viral kittens head-bopping to Lil Jon and DJ Snake's hit, "Turn Down for What" ...

The minimalist song is hard to resist, as these miniature felines prove. If you insist on watching the "real" video, ... it's pretty freaky.

Frankly, I prefer the kittens.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

"protective ice"

The kid has inherited my love of Albert Brooks's Mother.

Mrs. henderson and her boy John don't exactly agree on what to put in the cart (or their stomachs)

There is something a little casual and sit-commy about the film, which instead of being a detriment, actually seems to suit it.  I love Albert Brooks and his insistence on wearing his neuroses on his sleeve, and Mother certainly doesn't disappoint. But what I really love about the film is how it both nails what it's like to be befuddled by a parent while still embracing their quirks (and recognizing them as the basis for your own). This is a theme that runs through the film, but is best illustrated in two of its most amusing scenes, all set in his mom's kitchen.

Brooks plays John Henderson, who after his second marriage goes down in flames decides to visit the source of his relationships with women — his mother. Debbie Reynolds is absolutely wonderful as Mrs. Henderson, and I laughed out loud when she pulled a gigantic hunk of cheese out of the freezer to serve her son. What? Your mom doesn't freeze absolutely everything?
John Henderson, "You're running a food museum here."

But the cheese in the freezer is only the beginning, as Mother tells John and the rest of us all about the virtues of "protective ice" on no-name sherbet.

John learns things about his mother and her life that actually surprise him, and he also learns a few things about his momma's boy younger brother, Jeff (a very funny Rob Morrow) along the way.
Mrs. Henderson, "I love you."
John Henderson, "I know you think you do, Mother."

Missing your mom? Or still working on some of your parental issues like John Henderson? Mother is highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

lawrence block's pulp fiction: borderline

Lawrence Block is one of the country's best-known and successful mystery and crime novelists (8 Million Ways to Die, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart). He has created memorable characters like the hard-boiled detective Matthew Scudder and the charming burglar-turned-bookseller (and crime solver) Bernie Rhodenbarr. But many of his most ardent admirers may not know that Block started his writing career in the pulp field, frequently using pseudonyms to churn out stories mixing crime and sex. Hard Case Crime has been reissuing these lost dimestore novels, now under Block's name, and the latest, Borderline, is a doozy. Originally published in 1962 (but according to the book's copyright may have been written as early as 1958) as Border Lust by Don Holliday, Borderline centers around four people who all converge on the U.S./Mexico border, with tragic results.

Author Lawrence Block


Borderline and its accompanying short stories are a time capsule of what publisher's thought would excite the American male in the late '50s, early '60s. The girls are all very busty and aiming to please, and the men are hardly PC in their behavior. It must have been quite risqué at the time to include gay characters, both male and female. Pornography is so readily available these days that it is hard to imagine the role books like Borderline played in many lives, brown paper wrapping and all. But it does show what a training ground pulp fiction played for such a good and prolific writer as Lawrence Block.

You can read my complete review on Cinema Sentries

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

nirvana's hall of fame

I caught part of the latest Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony on HBO recently and was really moved by the Nirvana performances. I loved how the band brought up some rocking' ladies on stage to play some of their songs with them. First up was Joan Jett, for "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

L-R: Kim Gordon, Joan Jett, St. Vincent, Lorde

The awkward reconciliation between Courtney Love and the band and Kurt's fancily on stage was weirdly touching, too, but it was the music that really brought up all the emotions.

Also performing with the band were Kim Gordon on "Aneurysm," St. Vincent on "Lithium," and Lorde for "All Apologies."

Kim Gordon on stage with Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselić

My favorite rendition of a classic Nirvana song was by St. Vincent, who not only captured a bit of Kurt, but brought her own flavor to the song. Plus, her dress and hair were to die for.

These great performances not only brought back all the sad feelings at losing a talent like Kurt Cobain too soon, but made me realize how much I loved the band's music, and what it meant and still means to me. Still a punk in my heart, it seems.

Monday, June 09, 2014

grab a cup of tea, sit back, relax, and watch hetty wainthropp investigate

Patricia Routledge may be best known to American viewers for the ultimate social climber and all-around annoying neighbor, Hyacinth Bucket (that's pronounced "Bouquet") in the long-running (1990-95) British television comedy Keeping Up Appearances. But Routledge also created another memorable television character, Hetty Wainthropp, a housewife turned private detective, who solves crimes both big and small in northern England. The series used to air on PBS Mystery!, but now fans of the actress and the show can enjoy the entire series, in Acorn Media's release, Hetty Wainthropp Investigates: The Complete Collection.

Hetty,  Geoffrey, and Robert contemplate a local crime

The DVD collection includes all 27 episodes of the cozy mystery series. Viewers are introduced to Hetty and her husband Robert (Derek Benfield), a retired couple who seem at a bit of a loss on how to spend their golden years. In the first episode, "The Bearded Lady," Hetty takes a job at the post office, but soon finds herself on the trail of a mystery. Along the way she meets young Geoffrey (Dominic Monaghan), who proves helpful and teams up with Hetty to solve the case.

The series follows Hetty's at-first tentative attempts to investigate, and how Geoffrey becomes more and more a part of her and Robert's lives. We watch Geoffrey grow up and fall in love with auto mechanic Janet (Suzanne Maddock), all while getting stronger and more confident and more adept at becoming a first-class sleuth. Robert is at first skeptical of his wife's new passion, but soon becomes an essential part of the team, holding down the fort at home while Hetty and Geoffrey pursue different clues and avenues of investigation. Even the local constabulary develops a grudging admiration of Hetty.

Hetty is a no-nonsense sort of woman. She and Robert are struggling financially, to get by on his small pension, and she makes no bones about the fact that her detecting not only feeds her soul but puts food on the table. Life in their part of England is far from fancy, and their domestic struggles still resonate. Although Hetty always solves the crime at hand, she is also very often quite sympathetic to the criminal - not all of the culprits will see jail time in her world. Her strong sense of what is right and wrong always prevails, however, as she is quick to remind Geoffrey and the audience. There may be as many crimes in Hetty's small villages as there are in Midsomer Murders or Jessica Fletcher's Cabot Cove, but they are rarely bloody or brutal. Just people trying to get by or get away with something, and Hetty and Co. there to set things right.

The collection includes 12 discs from each of the four series, for a total running time of a whopping 22 1/2 hours. The image quality is good, but a bit grainy, like similar films from the time. Extras include production notes, photo galleries, and an interview with Patricia Routledge.

The episodes are:

Series 1/Discs 1-3: "The Bearded Lady," "Eye Witness," "Fingers," "Widdershins," "A High Profile," "Safe as Houses"

Series 2/Discs 1-3: "Poison Pen," "Lost Chords," "Runaways," "The Astral Plane," "A Rose by Any Other Name," "Woman of the Year"

Series 3/Discs 1-3: "All Stitched Up," "Daughter of the Regiment," "Serving the Community," "Fisticuffs," "Childsplay," "Pursuit by Proxy," "A Minor Operation," "Helping Hansi," "How Time Flies"

Series 4/Discs 1-3: "Something to Treasure," "Family Values," "Digging for Dirt," "Mind over Muscle," "Blood Relations," "For Love nor Money"

Hetty and Geoffrey (and even on occasion, Robert, sometimes dress up or disguise themselves while on a case, but for the most part they use common sense to solve their crimes. The series is unusual, in its mix of old and young working together, and the northern England setting gives a nice touch of local flavor to all of the episodes. In fact many of the episodes center around a young or old victim or criminal, so that Hetty and Geoffrey can combine their own styles and patterns of deduction. One can marathon Hetty Wainthropp Investigates, or sit back from time to time with a nice cup of tea and relax and watch her right a few wrongs.

Originally published on Blogcritics: DVD Review: ‘Hetty Wainthropp Investigates – The Complete Collection’

Friday, June 06, 2014

favorite song friday: shakira's "empire"

Shakira's new song "Empire" is a mish-mash — part ballad, part rock anthem, part I don't know what. And I love every moment of it. It's crazy and impossible not to crank up and try to yodel along to.

Who doesn't love a gal in a flaming wedding dress?

"Like the empires of the world unite
We are alive
And the stars make love to the universe
You're my wildfire every single night
We are alive
And the stars make love to the universe
And you touch me
And I'm like and I'm like and I'm like ..."

One of Shakira's best features has always been that she seems like she is having just the greatest time ever, and she wants to share that with listeners. And who doesn't want to shake it like a rock star from time to time? Rock on, Shakira.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

katharine hepburn: the making of the african queen

In the extremely engaging The Making of the African Queen: Or How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind actress Katharine Hepburn recounts her adventures in Africa while making the film classic The African Queen. She set off with director John Huston and Humphrey Bogart and his wife Lauren Bacall in 1951 for what she still calls (more than thirty years after the fact) the adventure of her life.

The intrepid Hepburn, always the iconoclast, stylish as always

Hepburn is endlessly self-deprecating, the first person to admit her quirks and foibles, but she also makes it quite clear that she is also persnickety, demanding, and at times, a real pain to deal with. She is, as Spencer Tracy called her, "A rare bird," and more than a bit old-fashioned about her creature comforts and her focus (even as a 40-something woman at the time) on her Father with a capital "F." She asks him for a letter of credit for her big African trip (didn't the successful actress have her own money?) and is very particular about selecting the perfect gift for him — a hand-carved to order ebony cane.
“Heaven to be the first one up and to eat breakfast all alone.”
She knows what she wants and thinks ahead — carrying her own furniture and other accoutrements. She decides to go off on her own to explore the flora and fauna, refusing to help Lauren Bacall arrange their meals (or take the traditional woman's role?) Hepburn was a vanguard for the time with her style and predilection for menswear, but it really paid off in the jungle, protecting her from bugs and being less binding and layered than women's clothing. Where she ran into trouble was with her holier-than-thou urologist's daughter's insistence on drinking lots of water. She ended up getting sick as a dog. Bogie and Huston stuck to whisky and never got sick.

Reading between the lines, she most definitely seems to have had a crush on Huston. She complains about him constantly, but her brief description of her life with Spencer Tracy suggests that she was used to, and attracted to, difficult men. Although she is against the hunting and killing of animals she is beyond thrilled to join Huston on one of his hunting forays into the jungle. Bogie had no interest. She praises Bogie's bravery and professionalism, but it is clear that he was too no-nonsense, direct, and practical for her to fall for him. But she and Bogie did form a lifelong friendship after making the picture. She briefly describes visiting him frequently with Spencer Tracy when he was dying of esophageal cancer.
“To put it simply: There was no bunk about Bogie. He was a man.”
Bogart and Bacall, having breakfast in their cabin

Some of her statements about blacks and whites are far from poetically correct. But Hepburn is a reflection of the times, and frankly, her class. It is clear from how she approaches the trip and life in general that she comes forms privileged background and was used to having servants and helpers.

Quibbles aside, hers is a fascinating account — it's amazing the film ever got made, with the difficult physical conditions and Huston taking off to shoot elephants whenever he got the chance. Huston's laissez-faire attitude on set and his ability to come up with a classic film makes me want to read White Hunter, Black Heart and his autobiography, An Open Book, next.

Hepburn, Bacall, and Bogart relaxing between takes
The Making of The African Queen is chock-full of behind-the-scenes photos, too. But it is Hepburn's unique voice and perspective that shine through. What an odd assortment of individuals. What a strange experience. And what a great film that came out of it all.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

goodnight, sweet prince oberyn

Spoilers, natch.

Sunday night's episode of Game of Thrones almost did it. It was the first time ever that I considered, albeit briefly, quitting the show. The brutal Red Wedding didn't affect me that way. Or the shocking exit of Ned Stark. In fact that savage event and first season got me started on reading the books in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. But after viewing "The Mountain and the Viper" I felt brutalized. Even knowing what was coming I wasn't prepared for how far show creators (and writers of the episode) David Benioff and D. B. Weiss were willing to go.

A lot happened in the episode. Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) finally heard of Ser Jorah's (Iain Glen) Season One spying for Varys (thanks to a letter from Tywin) and banished him from her side. Dumb move, Dany. Gilly (Hannah Murray) and her baby narrowly avoided being slaughtered during a Wildling raid with the rest of the inhabitants of Mole's Town, thanks to Ygritte (Rose Leslie). Sansa (Sophie Turner) decided that the devil she knows is better than the alternative, and finally showed not just backbone, but a desire for power. She backed Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) in his assertion that Lysa's trip through the Moon Door was suicide and forged a new, uneasy, and potentially very creepy alliance between them. Arya and The Hound arrived in the Vale, only to hear that Lysa had died. The two sisters so close, yet unlikely to meet.

But there were two sequences that were the dark, black heart of the show. Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon) sent Reek (Alfie Allen) to Moat Cailin to convince his fellow Ironborn to surrender, with promises that they would be spared. Of course as soon as the gates were opened they were all slaughtered and flayed alive — a Bolton favorite form of death. Allen looked as horrified as most audience members must have, in the jump cut from a close-up of a hopeful Ironborn soldier to a horrible close-up of his flayed body. Thanks, Game of Thrones.

Alas poor Oberyn, I knew him well

But that was just for starters. The episode ended in King's Landing, with the bout that everyone was waiting for — The Viper, Prince Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) vs. The Mountain, Ser Gregor Clegane, in a fight to the death to determine the fate of Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage). Game of Thrones has been compensating for the season-long imprisonment of Tyrion by giving his some kick-ass monologues, and "The Mountain and the Viper" delivered, once again. Visited by his older brother Jaime, for what could potentially be the last time, Tyrion found himself reminiscing about their "moron" cousin Orson, who spent all of his waking hours killing beetles. Hundreds, thousands of them. It clearly both fascinated Tyrion and repulsed him. He wanted to know, “Why? Why did he do it? It filled me with dread.”

And speaking of dread ... now to the fight of the century. It was beautifully staged, but the ending ... Knowing as a reader of the books that Oberyn had to die (after poisoning/fatally wounding The Mountain) made watching the duel hard enough. Benioff and Weiss have allowed Pedro Pascal to bring so much to his role this season. The character is far more expanded and interesting than what I remember from the book. I suspect that many viewers like myself were maybe not hoping for a completely different outcome, but at least not a worse death than he had coming to him. But like Ramsay Snow, who isn't just satisfied with killing someone, he must betray them, castrate them, flay them alive, Game of Thrones didn't just stop at having The Montain get a last gasp of energy to kill Oberyn, they had him pulverize him in one of the most disgusting scenes ever on television. And I didn't even watch all of it. I had to turn away — but I heard it, and I still have nightmares of that last long shot of his body on the ground.

I can't really point an accusing finger at author Martin. Yes, he wrote the story and characters, but it is quite different to write about flaying and skull crushing than to insist on showing it, so graphically, on screen. They had to know how much the audience loved Oberyn/Pascal. Yes, he had to die, the story demanded it, but did he have to die so horribly? Are we the beetles, Benioff and Weiss? You just keep crushing and crushing.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

maleficent, angelina, magnificent

I was looking forward to Maleficent, as I know that Angelina shines when she connects with her dark side, and was sure her twist on Disney's best villain would be fun to watch. Not only does Maleficent work as a fun fairy tale for the kids, and an excellent showcase for Jolie's killer cheekbones, but it offers a feminist twist on the tale that fairy tale revisionists will love as well.

Some spoilers ...

Maleficent, in all her winged glory

The story begins with a young faerie Maleficent, who lives in an enchanted forest called The Moors. Life there is a pretty happy one. She soars over a beautiful CGI-landscape and interacts with some cutesy tiny fairies. The only rub is that on the other side of The Moors is a kingdom full of humans led by a king who (for reasons unknown) would like nothing better than to wipe out all faeries and their magic. Everyone keeps to themselves until one day Maleficent meets a young human boy named Stefan, who has sneaked into the land of the faeries and tried to steal a magic stone. Maleficent charms the boy (and some giant tree-like fairies scare him) out of his theft. The two youngsters become friends, and in a montage we see that young love blossoms. But as soon as the audience is treated to its star's appearance Stefan takes off, apparently more enamored of what the human world can offer him than the winged Maleficent.

A sad Maleficent doesn't wait for the guy to call, but focuses on leading her fellow faeries against an attack from the King. His army is easily vanquished, and his hatred of the winged faerie only grows — he promises his kingdom to any man who can bring her down. The ambitious Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who has now managed to become a servant in the castle, sets off for the forest, knife in hand. He can't bring himself to kill his old love, but he can drug her and steal her wings. Jolie is heart-rending to watch when she wakes up, wounded, and realizes the extent of her physical violation. But it is clear that the betrayal of her heart is what stings the most.

Diaval and Maleficent

In its only misstep, for the rest of the film Stefan becomes a cardboard villain — all evil, with no shading. But where the story falters with his character, it soars with Maleficent. Fairy tales have always hinted at darker, more universal themes. Sleeping Beauty has been seen as a metaphor for sexual awakening. The creators of Maleficent (including Robert Stromberg, directing his first feature, and screenwriter Linda Woolverton) play with that theme when Aurora (Elle Fanning) reaches a certain age and falls into her eventual, cursed sleep, but they have also chosen to take a far more interesting road with Maleficent. She is neither purely evil nor good, and she changes and grows during the course of the story. After her symbolic rape she seems to have turned her back on men and love, but she takes as a companion (or familiar) a raven that she shape-shifts into a variety of forms — wolf, dragon, but mostly a young and handsome fellow named Diaval (Sam Riley). She curses Stefan's first-born, but she also becomes interested in her. Stefan sends the child away to the woods, ostensibly for her own safety, but it is Maleficent who watches her grow up and protects her, and in the process redefines the concept of fairy godmother.

CGI in many current films just leaves me cold, with the emphasis on breaking buildings and shattered glass, etc. But this story, with its faeries' love of nature uses CGI to not destroy but transform the natural world — Maleficent fights alongside giant boars and creatures made of trees, creates a wall of thorns — which not only suits the story, but makes for a more visually compelling film. But what really makes Maleficent is Jolie. The camera loves her, and she has never looked more beautiful, prosthetic chiseled cheekbones, golden eye contacts, horns and all. She owns the film, and as sweet and engaging as Fanning's Aurora may be, the audience is with Maleficent all the way.

Aurora and Maleficent

While watching Jolie wreak revenge on Stefan by cursing his baby and then growing to love and care for the girl I couldn't help but be reminded of the wonderful revisionist fairy tales by Angela Carter. And to think that such a twist has come from the Disney studio, complete with a humorous twist on Aurora's beloved, Prince Philip. There may be hope for the cult of princess yet, as long as we are willing to keep subverting it.

Monday, June 02, 2014

dan curtis' dracula

Just released on Blu-ray, Dan Curtis' Dracula features Academy Award winner Jack Palance (City Slickers, Shane, Barabbas) in the title role of the Transylvanian count. Produced and directed by Dan Curtis of Dark Shadows fame, the film adds a more romantic spin to Bram Stoker's classic tale, with Dracula obsessed with a beautiful young woman who resembles his long-lost wife. The film was written by science-fiction and horror legend Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, The Box, Trilogy of Terror), who pared down Stoker's epistolary tale to a fast-moving, but still scary 98-minute film.

The always charismatic Palance is impressive as Dracula.  ...

Jack Palance as Count Dracula

Fiona Lewis as Lucy, after she has spent some time with the Count
... Considered one of the scarier versions of the tale, even co-star Nigel Davenport seemed put off by Palance's take on Dracula, "I was pretty frightened of that gentleman, because he was so bloody tall! He was six-foot-four and, as he wanted to look like Dracula, he had three-inch lifts in his shoes, so he was like six-foot-seven ..."

Dan Curtis' Dracula, although adapted from Stoker, made some changes to the origin story that turned up in subsequent vampire films. Dracula's search for his lost love was not only similar to Curtis' anti-hero Barnabas Collins love for Josette from Dark Shadows, but was also echoed in Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula and Gary Oldman's more romantic take on the Count. Coppola's Dracula also followed Curtis' version in taking Stoker's inspiration for the character, historical figure Vlad the Impaler, and making him and Dracula one and the same. With an emphasis on scares, and even (gasp) blood, it's great to re-welcome Dan Curtis' Dracula to the filmed pantheon of the infamous bloodthirsty Count.

You can read my complete review on Cinema Sentries