Friday, January 31, 2014

favorite song friday: pharrell and his giant hat

The Grammys may have been last Sunday, but the only thing people are still talking about is not the music, but Pharrell Williams and his giant hat. Pharrell has wisely decided that he and his hat should not just become a one-time internet meme, and has been spotted around town with his designer chapeau.

Besides having an interest in headwear, Pharrell had a pretty big year musically in 2013, appearing on two of its biggest hit songs, Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" and Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines." His song "Happy," which appeared in the film Despicable Me 2, has also been nominated for an Academy Award.

Pharrell and Daft Punk at the Grammys

The hat he wore to the Grammys was designed by Vivienne Westwood (from her early '80s Buffalo Gals era), but checking out the video to "Happy" proves that Pharrell loves hats and wears them well. He also makes great songs and this is one that I could definitely put on an infinite loop. It just makes me happy. And good luck at the Oscars, Pharrell.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

agatha christie: the queen of crime collection

"... All three films in Agatha Christie's The Queen of Crime Collection are of high quality in costume, setting (London and Wales), and set design. The acting, of course, is topnotch across the board. Christie was fond of madcap amateur sleuths who have names like Bundle and friends called Badger and Pongo, and these films capture that period of British upper class bonhomie — with just an appropriate dash of brutal crime to keep the locals entertained. And these films should keep Christie and British mystery fans entertained, too."

Cheryl Campbell as Bundle and Christopher Scoular as Bill in The Seven Dials Mystery

You can read the entire review here on the film/review website Cinema Sentries.


We recently checked out our local science museum and aquarium — great sea creatures and great fun.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

quiet mind: a beginner's guide to meditation

I have been working so hard on getting my bodily health in shape that I may have overlooked my mental and emotional health, too. Everything is connected, and pretty much everyone I talk to has suggested meditation for a way to relieve stress and improve my outlook on life. But where does a neophyte start? I found this book at the library, Quiet Mind: A Beginner's Guide to Meditation, which was compiled and edited by Susan Piver. It includes seven different meditation exercises, explained and introduced by seven different Buddhist practitioners. There is also a CD included, with the same teachers helping guide one through each meditation technique.

After reading and listening to and trying each method I think this book was a great introduction to starting one's own meditation practice. You can try each method and see what works best for you before trying to delve more deeply in a practice or attend a meditation center for some more personalized training.

The different techniques included are:

Shamatha, "the practice of tranquillity," presented by Sakyong Mipham. A meditation that focuses on the breath.

Vipassana, "the practice of clear seeing," presented by Larry Rosenberg. Similar to Shamatha, but more attuned to the environment one is in while meditating.

Zazen, "the practice of freedom," presented by Edward Espe Brown. His technique helps people in "shifting from performance to presence."

Metta, "the practice of 'lovingkindness,'" presented by Sharon Salzberg. Salzberg guides you through her "lovingkindness" mantra, which is said repeated for yourself, someone who inspires you, a friend, a neutral person (like the barista at Starbucks, e.g.), a difficult person, and ultimately all beings on the planet, acknowledging that we are all one:

May you be free from danger
May you be happy
May you be healthy
May you live with ease

Tonglen, "the practice of transformation," presented by Judith Lief. The Tibetan word tonglen means "sending and taking" — send out what you want, bring in what you don't want. The breathing technique reverses the usual method. One is supposed to get away from the habit of putting yourself first by breathing in what you reject and out what you desire.

Healing Meditation, "the practice of healing the body and mind through meditation," presented by Tulku Thondup.

Opening and Closing Yoga Poses, "the link between yoga and meditation," presented by Richard Faulds.

Although different approaches the seven techniques all have in common:

Finding a comfortable sitting position
Focusing on the breath
Not trying to control breathing
If thoughts come into the mmd, don't feel discouraged, just acknowledge them and let them go and return to the breath

One doesn't have to be a Buddhist to practice any of these methods. Not all of them will appeal to you — try and see which might be the best fit. I found the first, most basic, Shamatha, to be a great way to start my own practice and routine. I also found Tulku Thondup's Healing Meditation on the CD to resonate the most with me. The yoga poses and relaxation are also great, although I find that more something I'd like to work into my daily exercise routine rather than use as a mode of meditation. If trying to quiet your mind is something that interests you, Quiet Mind: A Beginner's Guide to Meditation would be a great place to start.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


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the moaning of life

British television personality Karl Pilkington is back with a new travel/adventure series, The Moaning of Life. Karl, who has just turned 40, has decided that he needs to investigate the true meaning of life as he enters middle age, or as he refers to it, "We've had the Iron Age, the Stone Age — this the pissing-about age." Karl recently explored the subject of "Marriage" in the series, which airs on Science Channel on Saturdays at 10 p.m. Now a seasoned world traveler, thanks to his previous series An Idiot Abroad, Karl traveled to India to learn about arranged marriages, and to the U.S., to Los Angeles and Las Vegas, to try out a scientific way to meet some one at a pheromone party, as well as witness some unusual weddings in Las Vegas.

Karl meets the parents

In India, after consulting with a marriage broker, Karl selected and then met a young lady and potential bride whose parents quizzed him, asking him a series of practical, yet, in Karl's view, intrusive questions. After an hour and a half of meeting the girl and her family wedding plans were even discussed (unbeknownst to Karl's longtime girlfriend of 20 years). Karl also learned that the other side of the arranged wedding/interview is the marriage detective, who he joined one afternoon on the trail, investigating if what was said by a potential groom to his potential mate and her family meeting was true.

The series, which began airing in the U.K. last October, has a total of five episodes. Besides "Marriage," Karl looks into "Happiness" in Mexico and Los Angeles; "Kids" in Japan, Bali, and Indonesia; "Vocation and Money" in Japan, South Africa and Los Angeles; and "Death" in Ghana, Taiwan, the Philippines, and finally, back home in England.

Karl is as entertaining in his observances as ever, but not quite as reluctant to sample local cultures as he appeared to be in An Idiot Abroad (and its two spin-offs, The Bucket List and An Idiot Abroad: The Short Way Round) — probably because this time out he is choosing these adventures, as opposed to what comedians and show producers Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant decided they should subject him to, constantly jerking him out of his tiny comfort zone. But that doesn't mean that Karl has lost his critical abilities, as the show is full of his funny and exasperated observances and creative expressions of disbelief.

The Moaning of Life - "Marriage" Clip from ScienceChannelPR on Vimeo.

For instance, he can't believe the Indian wedding he has been invited to observe and attend has a guest list of five thousand. "There's five thousand people. How many people do they know?" As always his mind races towards the most practical of matters, "... How many toilets? Two." He's a little more open to the pheromone party in Los Angeles, where guests sniff baggies of attendees' tee shirts to select the perfect person, but thinks his nose may have "too high standards" compared to the rest of him.

Karl Pilkington definitely seems more at ease without Gervais and Merchant hovering over his shoulder, but The Moaning of Life is no less funny than his previous efforts. He may believe that a job in television is ultimately "the most unworthy job," but hopefully that won't stop him from continuing to produce such entertaining and funny documents of his travels in future.

Originally published on Blogcritics: TV Review: ‘The Moaning of Life – Marriage’

barbara stanwyck: steel true 1907-1940

Victoria Wilson's new biography, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 is impressive, if just for its length and heft. It is just the first half of a two-part exhaustive look into the life and career of one of Hollywood's most enduring, yet shyest stars. Stanwyck, born Ruby Stevens, started life in Brooklyn as a quasi-orphan. Her mother died when she was quite young and her father disappeared soon after, leaving young Ruby and her brother Byron to be raised by friends and family. Her three older sisters tried to help with the two younger children, but had families and struggles of their own, and Ruby and Byron were frequently separated. Her older sister Mildred was in show business, a chorus girl in traveling shows, and as soon as Ruby could, she joined her sister on the road, and eventually, after watching and learning, tried to pursue similar opportunities for herself.

Ruby Stevens, c. 1927
She became a chorus girl and landed a spot, in 1922 and '23, as a dancer for the Ziegfeld Follies. In 1926 she was given the opportunity to step out of the line and play the part of a chorus girl in a play on Broadway called The Noose. During the run of the highly successful play it was suggested that she change her name, and Barbara Stanwyck was born. Two years later saw Stanwyck on the way to Hollywood with her new husband Frank Fay. He was the toast of Vaudeville and Broadway and was, like many stage performers of the time, being wooed to star on the silver screen. But Fay and movies didn't quite mesh.

Wilson mentions the rumor that their relationship might have been the basis for the film A Star is Born, but just as quickly dismisses the possibility and offers other examples. According to Wilson, Stanwyck was unhappy staying at home and playing at being a housewife, something a woman with her vagabond existence had no talent for. Fay asked his connections at the studio to put her in a picture as a favor — it was soon discovered that she was the real deal, and Fay was not, at least as far as Hollywood was concerned. As Stanwyck's star began to rise, Fay's began to decline, not helped at all by his alcoholism. Stanwyck never forgot how he helped start her career and was grateful. She also loved him, but stayed with him far too long.

Wilson, who is also an editor at Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, goes on far too long about the marriage, and how frustrated Stanwyck must have been on a day-to-day basis. Editor, edit thyself? This book may win awards for tenacity and veracity, perhaps, but not really readability. There is altogether too much repetition throughout the lengthy tome. How many times can Wilson mention that Stanwyck was private, shunned parties and such? Or that Fay was a drunk? The book is meticulously researched and detailed, but it is also sooooo loongA Life of Barbara Stanwyck is only the first in a planned two-volume set. Would the star really want such a detailed accounting of her life and work? After being reminded by the author for the umpteenth time how much the private Stanwyck shunned the limelight, the reader is forced to focus on how intrusive the subject of this biography might find this voluminous undertaking.

On the plus side, Wilson gives as detailed a description of Stanwyck's films as she does the times they were made - notable news events like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the Depression — highlighting how insular Hollywood was, with it's inflated salaries, from the real struggles going on in the country. The author works hard to bring 1920s New York stage and 1930s Hollywood to life, and much is fascinating. But she is sometimes so wedded to her "just the facts, ma'am" approach that when she finally does have a chance to reveal some folks from Stanwyck's early days - who became who in Hollywood - it falls flat. Friends like roommate Violet Mary Klotz who became actress Mae Clarke (The girl who had Jimmy Cagney infamously shove half a grapefruit in her kisser) and her acquaintance the wild Bille Cassin, later Lucille LeSeur, later her very good friend ... Joan Crawford — names any classic movie buff would know, so why be coy about revealing them? There is a distinct lack of foreshadowing throughout, which would have made this so-serious book a lot more fun.

Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Capra

For fans of Hollywood gossip, there is some, interspersed with all of the descriptive text. Director Frank Capra had a crush in her. Stanwyck had a botched abortion as a teenager that left her infertile. Fay may have hit her and had mental problems. But for the most part, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck is a collection of facts, dates, and research. The author gives blow-by-blow descriptions of each movie plot, but with no interpretation or review of Stanwyck in the role. She does, however cite other current reviews of the time, but no modern look at the films. The quality of the photos in the book were disappointing too — for such a mammoth undertaking couldn't higher quality movie stills be found?

Conflicting or contrasting facts or quotes are included, too. Wilson spends the first half of the book emphasizing how much Stanwyck hated Hollywood and parties,

"I wouldn't wear an ermine coat to a Hollywood opening if I was offered the coat and $1000 bonus. All of the ermine coats the furriers had in stock were rented to movie people for the opening of Grand Hotel. Imagine putting on a show like that just to let people think you're more prosperous than you are. Not for me."

But once Fay is finally out of her life, her feelings about such things change. She little by little begins to venture out, with the help of her friend and agent Zeppo Marx and his wife. Once she left Fay she suddenly became more social, going to parties and nightclubs — even wearing (gasp) ermine. There are more than a few such contradictory passages in the book. Of course Stanwyck could have changed her mind, but after 500 pages of stating (over and over) how she hated to socialize, dress up, etc., why present the opposite so matter-of-factly? The author leaves the reader to come up with the real answer — that Fay — who was tyrannical and abusive, kept Stanwyck close to home. He didn't like to socialize and certainly didn't want her to. This could have been a portrait of a woman who was strong in many ways, in her career and elsewhere, but was also in an oppressive, abusive relationship.

Readers (those with stamina) have to slog through Stanwyck's unhappy relationship with Fay for more than half the book until we and the star finally get a glimpse of the handsome Robert Taylor.

Stanwyck and Taylor
Is it worth the wait? It is certainly interesting that (understandably marriage-shy) Stanwyck and Taylor were pressured by Hollywood's skewed morals squad to make their long-term romance official, as they did with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard and other unmarried celebrity couples. But most readers may be bleary-eyed before they get to this part of the over-1000 page book. It takes until page 610 to really read about one of the few of Stanwyck's early film efforts that even the most dedicated film fan may have seen, Stella Dallas (1937).

Barbara Stanwyck was undeniably a great actress. She made some wonderful movies, although her real Hollywood heyday, and most of her classic  films, the ones for which she is best remembered, will not turn up until the second volume, whenever that one comes out — The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, Christmas in Connecticut, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Sorry, Wrong Number, The File on Thelma Jordon, Clash by Night, Titanic — not to mention her easy transition to television later in her life in The Big Valley and The Thorn Birds. Barbara Stanwyck and her career is certainly worthy of biography. One just wishes that she and her films could have been approached in a more critical and more concise manner.

Originally published on Blogcritics: Book Review: ‘A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True, 1907-1940,’ by Victoria Wilson

Monday, January 27, 2014

mirror, mirror: the avengers

After having streaming television for a few months we are still trying to figure out how some things work. Like for instance, why some programs are available with our Hulu Plus — but only on my computer, not directly streaming to the TV. Luckily, we can do a work-around, by mirroring the laptop screen to the television, so last night I was able to share the British cult classic series The Avengers with the kid. We watched a few episodes, and I think she liked the mixture of science fiction, humor, and action-adventure. She jumped up and did some karate along with Emma Peel during "The Winged Avenger."

Emma and Steed discuss the case at his apartment

When she's not fighting crime, Emma enjoys more artistic pursuits

Although I'm still not sure about the online-only availability, mirroring does open up many more possibilities, as there are old films available on YouTube and other websites (Internet Archive, Open Culture) too ... Cable really does seem so last century lately.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

sometimes cloudy skies are just what's needed

Gorgeous blue skies and mackerel clouds seen while driving ...

Friday, January 24, 2014

favorite song friday: hey mister deejay

Aviicii is a Swedish D.J. who has had a monster global hit with the song "Wake Me Up!" It's interesting that Aviicii (real name Tim Bergling) is getting all of the press, and the distinctive vocals by Aloe Blacc are uncredited.


Aloe Blacc

Although Aviicii put the song together, Blacc had quite a bit of participation too, providing the lyrics:

"When I was with Mike Einziger from Incubus, we came up with the chord progression and the melody for Wake Me Up but no real lyrics. None of us sing and we really needed to get that demo down and the only person I knew that lived in LA was Aloe, so I called him and he was free. Lyrics come really easy to him so he wrote them in a couple of hours and we finished the track." — Aviicii, "Daily Star"

Although I do like Aviicii's version, I really like Blacc's own acoustic, more soulful, take on the song.

I really, really like this song by Blacc, too, "I Need A Dollar"

A good D.J. steers you towards great music, and that's what Aviicii has done with Aloe Blacc.

He's doing it again with his new song, "Hey Brother," again featuring an uncredited singer doing a great vocal, this time Dan Tyminski. If his voice sonds familiar it's because he was one of the vocalists for The Soggy Bottom Boys in the song "Man of Constant Sorrow," from the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Tyminski sings with Alison Krauss and Union Station.

So thanks, Aviicii, for reminding me about how much I like Tyminski's singing, and for steering me to a new favorite, Aloe Blacc.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

the crazy, creepy, entertaining world of sleepy hollow

Tread no further if you fear spoilers ...

Sleepy Hollow quickly became an under-the-radar hit show in its first season. The dynamic duo of Tom Mison as Ichabod Crane and Nicole Beharie as Lt. Abbie Mills teamed up each week to fight the forces of evil which have been gathering around the town of Sleepy Hollow, led by the infamous Headless Horseman, from Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Mison and Beharie have great chemistry, and they have been ably abetted by a strong supporting cast, including Orlando Jones, Katia Winter, John Cho, Lyndie Greenwood, John Noble, and Clancy Brown.

Ichabod and Abbie are a dream team

If you haven't kept up with the show, here's the premise in a nutshell. A resurrected Ichabod Crane finds himself in modern-day Sleepy Hollow. He is inextricably linked to the Headless Horseman, a Hessian soldier, and his adversary when Ichabod was on a secret mission for General George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The Headless Horseman has also risen from the grave and is on the loose in Sleepy Hollow where he soon murders the local sheriff, August Corbin (Clancy Brown). Corbin's partner, Lt. Abbie Mills, narrowly misses being beheaded herself, and throws herself into investigating her mentor's murder. This eventually leads her to Crane. After doubting his veracity and sanity Abbie soon comes to realize that not only is Ichabod in Sleepy Hollow for a reason, but the two of them are intended to team up to stop the Headless Horseman and his quest for destruction.

What is most interesting about Sleepy Hollow is how quickly it has introduced its intricate mythology, which includes witches, demons, a Golem, the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse and even a zombie George Washington — a deeper mythology than the first five or six seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel combined. More crazy things have happened in its first season than the entire runs of most shows, and somehow, strangely, it works. The season finale was a two-parter that lasted two hours: "The Indispensable Man" and "Bad Blood." The finale included the season's craziest episodes yet, and left viewers on the edge of their seats in anticipation of the series' return in the fall.

The prodigal son

Pretty much every character we like was in trouble by the end of "Bad Blood." The big reveal of the night was that Sin Eater Henry Parrish (Noble), who so far in the series has seemed one of the good guys, was not only working against Ichabod and Abbie, but turned out to be their disgruntled son Jeremy and the Second Horseman of the Apocalypse, War. As if that wasn't bad or shocking enough, Jeremy/Henry imprisoned both of his parents — he handed Katrina (Winter) off to the Headless Horseman as some sort of prize, and buried his father Ichabod "alive." Meanwhile Abbie was trapped in Purgatory (trading places with witch Katrina, so that she may better battle evil on the other side, in Sleepy Hollow) with the demon Moloch. and her sister Jenny may or may not have died in a car crash caused by old Headless himself. Abbie's boss, Captain Irving (Jones), to protect his family, confessed to murders he hasn't committed, and was being trundled off to jail.

With all of the supernatural goings-on, Sleepy Hollow isn't exactly jump out of your seat scary, but it always manages to be creepy. Moloch and Purgatory are not places anyone I know would want to visit. John Cho's deceased cop Andy Brooks (and Moloch minion) manages to have ickier and ickier things happen to him every episode. As creepy as it may get, Sleepy Hollow also gets more and more entertaining.

"Get me outta here! (again)"

Has evil won in Sleepy Hollow? It seems so, at least for now. Ichabod may love his witchy wife Katrina, but he and Abbie are the real team that matters. The fact that Jeremy/Henry has separated our two leads is not good, and must be one of the first things rectified in the second season — once Ichabod manages to get himself unburied — again. I can't wait to see how he and Abbie get out of this latest dilemma. Unfortunately, I have quite a while before I find out what happens next.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

guy pearce is jack irish

Guy Pearce (Memento, L.A. Confidential) plays a down and out private investigator in Acorn Media's Blu-ray release, Jack Irish, Series 1. The Blu-ray/DVD combo set includes two feature-length movies, adapted from the crime novels by Australian Peter Temple.

Linda (Marta Dusseldorp) and Jack (Guy Pearce)
The first film, "Bad Debts," starts off happily enough, with successful Melbourne criminal defense lawyer Jack Irish enjoying the morning with his beautiful wife. Devotees of the hard-boiled detective genre will suss out immediately that life for Jack will quickly be turned upside down. His wife Isabel (Emma Booth) is murdered and Jack falls into a black hole, eventually making ends meet by becoming a part-time detective and debt collector. One of his former clients calls him for help and Jack avoids his voicemails — but he can't avoid his past anymore when the man turns up dead. He pulls himself together enough to investigate his death and maybe rejoin the world, at least a little. he is able to accomplish the latter with the help of reporter Linda Hillier (Marta Dusseldorp), who soon becomes his love interest — at least for a while.

In "Black Tide," the second episode, we find Jack once again down in the dumps, as Linda has left Melbourne (and Jack) for a brighter future in Sydney. An old friend of his family, Des Connors (Ron Jacobson), asks for his help in locating his son Gary (Nicholas Coghlan) who's gone missing — with all of his dad's money. As Jack searches for the man he talks with his wife, and the girlfriend of an elusive blogger, Lyall, (Diana Glenn, who soon tries to get Jack to take up the slack left by her missing boyfriend), and a variety of seedy characters who may or may not be able to lead him to the truth.

When the going gets tough, Jack and his friends Harry (Roy Billing) and Cam (Aaron Pedersen) head for the track
The two movies in Series 1 were directed by Jeffrey Walker and originally broadcast in Australia in 2012. The Blu-ray has an aspect ratio of 1.77:1, in widescreen format, and a total running time of 202 minutes. There is a bonus behind-the-scenes feature included on both the Blu-ray and the DVD. The sound is crisp and clear (DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0), with English subtitles available. The moody title song, "Red Right Hand," is performed by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.

The mood of Jack Irish is dark, and viewers should be aware that both films contain strong language, violence, graphic images, nudity, and sexual situations. But that shouldn't deter anyone from these entertaining and absorbing dramas. Pearce is brooding, intelligent, and sexy as Jack Irish. As much as the viewer can empathize with his personal losses, it is clear that Jack works best on the dark side of town. A third Jack Irish film, "Dead Point," has been completed, and plans are in the works for two more films, which is good news indeed.

Originally published on Blogcritics: Blu-ray Review: ‘Jack Irish, Series 1′

the mentalist: the complete fifth season

The Mentalist is one of those shows that has been on for so many years that some may take it for granted. But the series, which debuted in 2008, like its star, Simon Baker, has many charms. The recent DVD release of the fifth season, The Mentalist: The Complete Fifth Season, chronicles lead character Patrick Jane's continuing search for the serial killer Red John, who ten years ago murdered his family.

Patrick Jane (Baker) was raised in carnivals and trained as a psychic medium. He appeared on television boasting that his psychic abilities helped the police profile Red John, who, insulted by the perceived taunting, retaliated by killing Jane's wife and young daughter. Since that tragedy, Jane has worked as a consultant, using his "psychic" skills to assist the Sacramento-based California Bureau of Investigation (CBI), as they track criminals, Red John copycat murderers, and hopefully, the elusive Red John himself. Jane debunks just about every other psychic that he meets, but he is an excellent reader of human emotions and whatever secrets people he meets may be hiding. He is so skillful that he appears at times to be reading people's minds, but Jane would be the first to exclaim, "There's no such thing as psychics."

L-R: Robin Tunney, Owain Yeoman, Simon Baker, Amanda Righetti, and Tim Kang

As the fifth season opens, Jane and his team are trying to use Red John's accomplice Lorelei Martins (Emmanuelle Chriqui) to help track the killer. As fascinating as the continuing hunt for Red John may be, the real strengths of The Mentalist are in the witty repartee of Jane with his colleagues:

Special Agent Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney) — Jane's boss, and also the closest thing he has to a friend. Lisbon has a tough-as-nails exterior, but she cares about Jane and her team. She and Jane frequently spar verbally, (sometimes constantly) but each knows they have the other's back.

Special Agent Kimball Cho (Tim Kang) — Cho is always on the lookout for the "trick" behind Jane's interrogation techniques, and his dry sense of humor is a nice counterpoint to Jane's perpetual desire for one-upmanship.

Special Agent Wayne Rigsby (Owain Yeoman) — Best buddy to Cho and in an on-agin, off-again relationship with fellow agent Grace Van Pelt, Rigsby is frequently put in the position of being Jane's "muscle."

Special Agent Grace Van Pelt (Amanda Righetti) — Van Pelt actually has a deep belief in the spiritual, and even is open to the supernatural. She frequently challenges Jane when he tries to scoff at events or occurrences that are not easily or immediately explainable.

The five disc set has an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and a running time of approximately 946 minutes. The sound is Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles available in Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese, Thai, French, and in English for the hearing impaired.

The Mentalist: The Complete Fifth Season comes with a fold-out booklet which includes a brief synopsis of each episode and cast photos. Special features include "The Artistry of Action: From Script to Screen," a behind-the-scenes featurette with show creators Bruno Heller and Chris Long; and "Arresting Excitement: Keeping It Real with the CBI," a short feature on police training for the actors, featuring Tim Kang and Owain Yeoman.

Keeping up with the tradition of the rest of the series, each of the fifth season's 22 episodes reflect Jane's continuing obsession with Red John by including the word "red" or a red object in each title:

"The Crimson Ticket"
"Devil's Cherry"
"Not One Red Cent"
"Blood Feud"
"Red Dawn"
"Cherry Picked"
"If It Bleeds, It Leads"
"Red Sails in the Sunset"
"Black Cherry"
"Panama Red"
"Days of Wine and Roses"
"Little Red Corvette"
"The Red Barn"
"Red in Tooth and Claw"
"Red Lacquer Nail Polish"
"There Will Be Blood"
"Red, White and Blue"
"Behind the Red Curtain"
"Red Letter Day"
"Red Velvet Cupcakes"
"Red and Itchy"
"Red John's Rules"

As season five concludes, Jane may not have completely zeroed in on his prey, but he has certainly narrowed down his list of possible suspects, including some of the series' most well-known guest stars, like Malcolm McDowell. Recurring characters are also on his list - including law enforcement officials in the FBI (Drew Powell), Homeland Security (Kevin Corrigan), or local police (Xander Berkeley). Season Six of The Mentalist is currently airing, with Jane finally getting his man, but no spoilers as to Red John's identity here.

The Mentalist's strongest suit is its characters, and how cleverly Jane & Co. solve cases along the way to their finding Red John. Baker and Tunney have a truly great rapport, and although there is from time to time a spark between them, The Mentalist has wisely avoided the Moonlighting route and kept them as friends and colleagues. The show has left the difficulties of inter-office romance to Agents Rigsby and Van Pelt. Whether one has been a fan from the beginning, or just catching up now with The Mentalist, Simon Baker and his colleagues will charm and entertain viewers.

Originally published on Blogcritics: DVD Review: ‘The Mentalist – The Complete Fifth Season’

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

downton (yawn) abbey — is the love affair over?

I wasn't one of the fans who was infuriated by the death of Matthew Crawley at the end of last season. Was it a surprise? Yes. An unpleasant one? Undoubtedly. But Downton Abbey has always been, first and foremost, a soap opera, and soap operas are known to pull such punches with their devoted audience. The actor Dan Stevens wanted to move on, and who can blame him? His character didn't really have anywhere that interesting to go, and maybe he wanted out of a show with such an obsessive fan base.

Downton Abbey survived without Matthew, and the fourth season is now in full swing, but ... is it any fun anymore? Maybe it's the fact that another Brit series, Sherlock, has also returned (and with just one episode aired, it's a hoot, off to a great start), but I find myself not all that enthused with what's happening at Downton. So much of the same old, same old is going on. Under Butler Thomas (Rob James-Collier) is scheming something. In the kitchen Daisy is still hopelessly pining after Alfred.

Lord Gillingham makes a bid for Lady Mary (and call me suspicious, but maybe Downton?)

Elzabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville as Lord and Lady Grantham are grossly underused. Maggie Smith as Dowager Violet is just trotted on for a quick quip and then trotted off again. And the Bateses are being out through the wringer once again, this time with poor Anna being raped by an the visiting Lord Gillingham’s (Tom Cullen) evil valet, Mr. Green. Not only do we have to watch a beloved character be used and abused, but then she is forced to act stupidly, by keeping it from her husband, and pushing him away. It will probably all be resolved by the end of the season, but I'm not sure whether I want to stick around for it and have to watch them suffer in the interim.

As for new developments, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is having a flirtation with her married suitor, Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards), which is destined to become an affair, and knowing Edith, lead to heartbreak. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) did have one terrific line about her sister, whose frequent trips to London were befuddling her father.

“Edith is about as mysterious as a bucket. She wants to see Michael Gregson.”

Young cousin Rose (Lily James) is a singularly annoying and uninteresting character, and a deliberate ploy by the producers to inject some youth and scandal into the proceedings  she is set up to fall for Jack Ross (Gary Carr), an African American jazz musician. Just wait for Grannie Violet to be the least scandalized. And Lady Mary — seemingly the focus of this year's season, is wading out of her grief, but already the show and her family is trying to set her up with a bunch of suitors. By the third (U.S. aired, 4th in the U.K.) episode she was already receiving a proposal from Lord Gillingham, so soon after being widowed that it seemed not just unseemly, but downright unbelievable.

Phyllis Logan as Mrs. Hughes — always a delight — but don't cross her!

There was one bright note. Mrs. Hughes squashed a plot by maid Edna who was trying to trap Branson (Allen Leech) in a false pregnancy. Not only is Phyllis Logan awesome as Mrs. Hughes, but she helped kill another stupid plot line that could have dragged on and dragged down the season. Downton Abbey airs right before Sherlock, so for at least a few more weeks I will be watching. But I can't say that at the moment, it is with any enthusiasm.

Monday, January 20, 2014

he's back .... sherlock, season three

Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) may call himself a sociopath, but last night's episode of Sherlock, "The Empty Hearse," pretty much disproved that hypothesis. As the detective returned to London, and in some ways, the land of the living, after an absence of two years spent putting an end to arch-criminal Moriarty's (Andrew Scott) global crime network, he discovered exactly how connected to the world, and to certain people living in it, that he really is. One of the most amusing scenes in the episode featured some fraternal bickering between Sherlock and his "smarter brother" Mycroft (Mark Gatiss, who is also the creator and co-writer of the show, with Dr. Who's Stephen Moffatt), where it became abundantly clear that between the two of them, Sherlock is comparatively downright social. Mycroft expressed disdain, possibly even disgust, that his younger brother deigns to have friends. He could hardly bring himself to utter the "f" word.

Sibling rivalry, from Rebloggy

As Sherlock returned to 221B Baker Street and renewed contact with his friends and associates — Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves), Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs), Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) —they were all delighted to see him — all except his closest friend, John Watson (Martin Freeman). After some retributional scuffling and head-butting from Watson a bewildered Sherlock began to understand just how much his friend had missed him. The ice sculpture began to thaw. He graciously accepted Watson's new fiancée Mary (Amanda Abbington), and the pair lost no time teaming up to rescue a kidnapped Watson from an as-yet undisclosed new enemy.

There are only three episodes in this new series of Sherlock, so fans must savor them. "The Empty Hearse" seemed designed for multiple viewings, with its alternate depictions of how Sherlock survived the fall off the high rise at the end of the second season and its nod to an obsessed fan base that thrives on the internet. The series has always had humor, but this season started off with some laugh-out-loud moments — Sherlock's use of disguise to reintroduce himself to Watson, and a super-hero-like imagining of how he survived the fall, to name a few.

Is that a deerstalker on your head, or are we just happy to see you?

In the hiatus between the last series and this one Benedict Cumberbatch, much like his alter ego Sherlock, has been quite busy, with multiple movie roles (Star Trek Into Darkness, The Hobbit, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, War Horse, 12 Years a Slave), as well as acquiring a dedicated fan base that have dubbed themselves Cumberbitches. He has requested they refer to themselves instead as Cumberbabes, to no avail. Cumberbatch has always been an excellent Sherlock, but he really owned the part in this episode. Both actor and character seemed glad, even giddy, to be back, and the camera loved him for it — showering him with tons of close-ups and clever dialogue. Sherlock is back, the eponymous detective and his faithful sidekick Watson once again a team, and woe to any villain who stands in their way. I can't help wondering if the mysterious Big Bad might end up being Mycroft, the only other character who seemed less than thrilled at Sherlock's return.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

she's expanding her horizons ...

... to gluten free brownies, and yes, they taste as delicious as they look.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

tiny dessert chef

The kid has been making us dessert for the past few nights. Looking forward to whatever she dishes up tonight!

Friday, January 17, 2014

favorite song friday: rihanna duets

Rihanna joins Shakira on her new song, which was released this week, "Can't Remember To Forget You." It's got an '80s vibe and is fun and catchy.
"I go back again
Fall off the train
Land in his bed
Repeat yesterday’s mistakes
What I'm trying to say is not to forget
You see only the good, selective memory"
Rihanna and Shakira

Collaboration between artists is the name of the game in pop music these days, and no one seems to benefit more from joining forces with another artist than pop siren Rihanna. She has melded especially well with Eminem, on their number one hit "Monster," and an earlier collaboration, "Love the Way You Lie."
"It's so insane cause when it's going good, it's going great
I'm Superman with the wind at his back, she's Lois Lane
But when it's bad it's awful, I feel so ashamed I snapped
Who's that dude?
'I don't even know his name.'
I laid hands on her, I'll never stoop so low again
I guess I don't know my own strength" 
"Just gonna stand there and watch me burn
But that's alright because I like the way it hurts
Just gonna stand there and hear me cry
But that's alright because I love the way you lie
I love the way you lie
I love the way you lie"
Eminem and Rihanna

The song originally came out in 2010, but it's as compelling and disturbing and great sounding as ever. These two artists' styles really mesh well together.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

the tucci cookbook

I heard that the actor Stanley Tucci had written a cookbook — not a surprise from the star and moving force behind the cinematic delightful ode to Italian food, Big Night. But until I picked up The Tucci Cookbook I had no idea how deeply his love of food and cooking went. Readers of this cookbook will be happy to find included his step-by-step directions for the movie's signature dish, timpano, and its many variations.

This is not just a book of recipes, but a collection of stories, as Tucci records variations on dishes from both sides of his family, dishes he has learned from professionals (most notably chef and co-author Gianni Scappin, who is the executive chef at Castellano in New York), and basic Italian recipes he has perfected on his own. The book is beautifully designed and illustrated, with photos that are apt to make one's mouth water. To be perfectly honest, however, there are many dishes that tend to be either fried or deep-fried, or center around starches, that in my new way of eating I am not likely to try. But there are still enough to tempt me:

Eggplant antipasto (his take on the classic Sicilian dish caponata), p. 10

Vegetable tart, p. 17 and Stuffed Pizza, p. 104 - which both sound a bit like my family's special dish, sfincioni

Basic Vinaigrette, p.48 and Sherry Shallot Vinaigrette, p. 49

Chicken Soup with Tiny Chicken Meatballs, p. 52 and Grace's Chicken Soup with Mozzerella, p. 64

Walnut Bread, p. 91 - I haven't done a lot of baking, but this bread makes me want to try

Rice with Sage, p. 192

Ponticello's Orange Cookies, p. 328

Tucci is a respected actor who has had success on stage, television (Murder One, ER), and screen (The Devil Wears Prada, Julie & Julia, Easy A, Burlesque, Muppets Most Wanted). The busy actor seems to be in every movie these days, from his Academy award-nominated role in The Lovely Bones, to his colorful character in The Hunger Games films.

It is clear after reading The Tucci Cookbook that Tucci is not only comfortable in the kitchen, but spends most of his free time there, preparing food for himself and his family. Whether one is up to a multi-staged and prepped dish like timpano, or just looking for a nice twist on a pasta or other favorite Italian dish, the basic lesson one can learn from Tucci and his friends and family is that good food, prepared with fresh ingredients and love is the way to go. Bravo.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

last love

In Last Love Michael Caine plays American Matthew Morgan, a recently widowed man trying to find some meaning in his life. The retired college professor and his wife Joan (Jane Alexander) live in Paris. As the film opens, Matthew is bereft when Joan dies after a long illness. He is only going through the motions of his daily life, for three years, until he has a chance meeting one day on a bus with Pauline Laubie (Clémence Poésy, Fleur Delacour in the Harry Potter films). Pauline is also a teacher — a dance teacher. She encourages Matthew to come and try her class, and he does one day, with a friend, Colette (Anne Alvaro), and attempts the cha-cha.

He is strongly drawn to Pauline and keeps going back to her class. Joan still appears to him at times, when he feels lonely and has the need to talk to her. It is a running joke that Matthew doesn't speak French, and only moved to France to please Joan, but for the first time in his life he tries to speak a little, with Pauline. Spending time with Pauline is helping Matthew to unthaw a little, but that becomes almost too painful for him to bear and he "self-medicates" himself into the hospital. As Matthew and Pauline try to understand what sort of relationship they are forming, Matthew's grown children, Miles and Karen (Justin Kirk and Gillian Anderson), with whom he's never been close, show up to complicate matters even further, "Joan wanted kids, and I just wanted her."

Joan and Matthew in the park (Jane Alexander and Michael Caine)
Another lunch in the park, with Matthew and Pauline (Clémence Poésy)
Miles (Justin Kirk) and Karen (Gillian Anderson) in Paris to see their dad, reluctantly
The Blu-ray of Last Love is in English, but some dialogue is in French, with subtitles. The film has a running time of 115 minutes. The aspect ratio is 1.85:1, widescreen format, and it looks great on a large-scale high-definition television screen. The colors are sharp and details, like texture, pop in scenes featuring Paris and the gorgeous French countryside, as well as in the beautifully-lit interiors of Matthew and Pauline's apartments and the places they visit. The sound (DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1), including dialogue and musical score, is crisp and clear. Extras on the disc include deleted scenes and outtakes. The film (also known as Mr. Morgan's Last Love) is not rated, but the story, although sad, is appropriate for any age. Kids would likely find it too slow and talky. There are two film previews for R-rated films included on the Blu-ray disc, and one of them is definitely not appropriate for younger viewers.

Director Sandra Nettelbeck (Mostly Martha) based Last Love on Francoise Dorner's novel La Douceur Assassine. She wrote the screenplay with Caine in mind, "I wrote the second script entirely for him. ... I couldn’t stop seeing him in my mind when I was writing ... He read it and said yes right away ... He understood what it was about and why I wanted him to do it.”

Caine and Poésy are very nice together, and the beautiful-looking film is full of emotional nuance. Viewers may at first dislike Matthew's son Miles, but he has a complicated relationship with his father and at least wants to try to understand him — while his sister Karen seems to have come to Paris, not to see her father in the hospital, but to go shopping. Last Love is about love, family, life, death, and grief. It's even got a bit of a twist. It's understated, but it's a nice showcase of 80 year-old acting veteran Michael Caine at the top of his game.

Originally published on Blogcritics: Blu-ray Review: ‘Last Love’

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

woody and mia and the murky morality of art vs. life

Sunday's Golden Globes tribute to Woody Allen opened up, once again, a firestorm of criticism. Not of Woody the artist, the filmmaker, but Woody the man. The guy who had a relationship with his longtime girlfriend's adopted daughter. It's still a messy, unpleasant situation for a lot of people. Is it possible to look at Woody's films and career without always dredging up the Mia/Woody/Soon Yi debacle?

If it's possible to step away for a moment from the stone-throwing, and debating whether he was a perv or not (Rowan and Mia and Dylan say absolutely "Yes," a New York court judged "No" at the time), another difficult question kept coming to my mind. What is my responsibility, as a viewer, in a case like this? Do I need to keep an artists's morality in mind as I consider their work?

Woody and Mia and the kids

I guess I used to think the answer to that question was emphatically "Yes." I lived in New York in 1992 when the scandal was at its peak, and I have to admit that I steered clear of Woody's films for quite a while afterward. But looking at his catalog, the films that he worked on and released in subsequent years after the scandal were far from his best (Mighty Aphrodite, Bullets Over Broadway, Manhattan Murder Mystery). I eventually started checking out his films again, first, tentatively, on cable, and then later, in the theater. Most of these didn't leave much of an impact. There were a few exceptions — Deconstructing Harry, Everyone Says I Love You, and the brilliant Match Point, which Woody set in London. Did he have to leave the U.S., like another scorned Hollywood director, Roman Polanski, to get his artistic groove back?

When I look at a Picasso painting or watch City Lights do I try to gauge their creator's morality against my own? Picasso was far from a feminist's dream, and Charlie Chaplin was well-known for his predilection for (very) young ladies. Should I care or even consider what the artist was up to in his off time, or just concentrate on the work? After due consideration, I tend to lean more towards the latter. That doesn't mean that I excuse or endorse bad or illegal behavior.

Woody and Mia had an unconventional relationship, maintaining separate houses and (sort of) raising her kids together. It's really no one's business except theirs what went on between them during their relationship. It is entirely Mia's business to protect her family both then and now from someone she deems a negative influence, even a predator. But does that mean that Hollywood should never honor his work? I don't think so. I have no problem with Ronan Farrow tweeting his disapproval, as well as Mia tweeting that it was time to turn the channel. They feel strongly, personally, about the man. As in the case of Roman Polanski, I think the wronged party should have their say and the rest of us take a step back. But if you, as a member of the audience, loathe the man, then simply turn the channel.

Diane Keaton accepts the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award for Woody Allen

Possibly what set people off the most was not that Woody was being given an award, but Diane Keaton's loopy acceptance speech on his behalf. Woody has always shunned such gatherings and accolades. A public display of the accolade (the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award) was probably his worst nightmare. He was never going to show up. But to have Keaton up on stage free styling on his great love of women and women's roles — probably not the best idea. Folks who were maybe just a tad uncomfortable with the tribute were more than likely completely turned off by the end, especially when she started singing a Girl Scout song.

I tend to have a less black and white view of the world, the older I get. Would I let Woody babysit my daughter? Hell no. Did I find the Woody/Soon Yi romance creepy and beyond inappropriate? Most definitely. But if he puts out a movie that sounds interesting to me, will I go see it? Yes, I probably will. Woody Allen has made some great movies over the years. Everyone loves his "funny," early films, but my favorites are the ones he made in the '80s. Yes, the ones with Mia. Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors. I love films by Polanski, too. The Ghost Writer, Frantic, Rosemary's Baby. And I'll let Samantha Geimer decide whether Polanski has paid adequately for his crime. I still like songs by Michael Jackson. "Black Or White," "Man in the Mirror," "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," "Off The Wall." Life has so many grey areas, but does art?

Monday, January 13, 2014

evening stroll

Last night the kid and the dog and I took a stroll on the beach just as the sun was fading and the moon was appearing. It's amazing how calming the ocean can be. We need to do this more often.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

avocado shake

Sunday is always a great day to order in food (i.e., not cook) from our favorite Asian restaurant. Today the kid convinced me to try one of their shakes — an avocado shake. She didn't exactly have to squeeze my arm. It was yummy. she got the strawberry, but tried mine, which she accurately described — it's good, but it tastes like avocado.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

the kid has an eye

Some recent photos the kid took with my iPhone from around our building and back yard.

Friday, January 10, 2014

favorite song friday: team

Just when her top ten hit "Royals" has reached the over-saturation point, Lorde has released a new single, "Team," which is just as good, maybe even better, and reminded us why we liked the New Zealand teenager so much in the first place.

The kid's not just a one-hit wonder.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

happy (belated) birthday nicolas cage

Nicolas Cage just turned the big 5-0 the other day. What I like most about Cage is that his movies can be found on some of the best and worst movies of all time lists. Cage is an actor, and actors need to act. While some might say he doesn't always make the best choices, he is far from the only great actor who consistently turns up in crummy films (cough, Denzel, cough). He was undeniably great in Leaving Las Vegas, but it's not one of his flicks that I want to see multiple times. Here are ten, actually, eleven, of my favorite of his good (and bad) films.

The Croods (2013) Cage actually made me care about his caveman dad Grug in a movie that in every other way was pretty typical.

Nicolas Cage tries to connect the dots in Knowing
With Jessica Biel in Next
Looking for artifacts with Helen Mirren in National Treasure: Book of Secrets

Knowing (2009) This was a surprisingly engaging science fiction flick, with Cage trying to race against the end of the world to save his son.

Next (2007) I don't even remember what Cage and Jessica Biel were running away from or why Julianne Moore was giving them such a hard time, but I really enjoyed watching the two leads together - they should be teamed up more often.

National Treasure (2004) The National Treasure movies (a third one may be in the works) are completely goofy, fractured history action adventure films and I get a big kick out of them. So there.

Adaptation. (2002) Cage plays twins Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman in this wacky adaptation of Susan Orleans book The Orchid Thief. Cage is amazing and he is joined by Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Tilda Swinton. I've got to see this one again, soon.

The Family Man (2000) Nic Cage's version of a holiday/family film, so there's lots of angst and we're not sure exactly how we want things to end up for him in this modern riff on It's A Wonderful Life.

It Could Happen to You (1994) Is that Nicolas Cage playing a henpecked but sweet New York City cop who shares his lottery ticket with waitress Bridget Fonda? And of course they win? And he's married to Rosie Perez? I know it sounds crazy, but it works.

Honeymoon in Vegas (1992) Really silly, and just an excuse for Cage to trade barbs with the similarly uber-intense James Caan, which works for me.

Wild at Heart (1990) - Cage does an Elvis impersonation, inexplicably, throughout the entire film, but it's David Lynch, so inexplicable is de rigeur.

Moonstruck (1987) I love everything about this movie, and Cage's chemistry with Cher is palpable. His trademark two speeds, intense and intenser (via Roger Ebert) is on fine display here.

Raising Arizona (1987) Cage and Holly Hunter are amazing together in the Coen Brothers funny-as-it-ever-was farce.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

a trip to the zoo

The kid had one more day of vacation on Monday and we celebrated putting off school and having to get up early by going to the zoo.

A cute Fennec fox

A cute kid

A tapir takes a swim

Flamingoes, always a personal favorite

She's getting so tall!

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

the secret life of walter mitty

I love Danny Kaye. The Classic Hollywood star was uber-talented — from his patter-singing to his dancing to his comedy. He was even an attractive male lead in many of his films. But I have to admit that his trademark schlemiel characters could wear a bit thin sometimes. His Walter Mitty, for instance, who was a downtrodden dreamer, with a mean mama and even meaner fiancée, was a bit too put-upon at times. His Mitty is entertaining, but sometimes it's hard to believe how through some funny running gags and songs he is able to escape his milquetoast existence and turn his Technicolor dreams (most including the lusciously lovely Virginia Mayo) into reality.

Nice guy Walter (Ben Stiller) is out of step with the new regime
Maybe new girl at work Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) and Walter could connect

The recently released The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is not so much a remake of Kaye's 1947 film as it is an update. Both film's depart from James Thurber's The New Yorker 1939 short story, which depicted the dreamy, married (and henpecked) Mitty. Ben Stiller, who both stars as Mitty and directed the film, gives his version of the character an entirely different spin. He is still a dreamer, but he has a backstory that inspires not ridicule, but empathy. The audience gradually learns that after his father died when he was a teenager, young Walter took on the responsibility of providing for his mom (Shirley MacLaine) and sister (Kathryn Hahn). For many years he has been working in the basement photo archives of Life magazine, helping choose the most adventurous images for its covers, frequently provided by globe-trotting and award-winning photojournalist Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn, in a small, but great role, probably one of the calmest, least tortured, most relatable, characters of his career). Life is being dismantled and turned into an online-only magazine by a cadre of bearded, nasty villains led by Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott). Not only is Walter's job in jeopardy, but that of his colleague Hernando (Adrian Martinez) and the new girl at work, who has become the object of his fantasies, single mom Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig).

With a little encouragement from Cheryl, Walter goes on an adventure to track one of Sean's missing images — and the potential final print cover for Life — and his dream world quickly pales in comparison to his own travels. Tracking Sean takes Walter from Greenland to Iceland to Afghanistan, where he not only witnesses such wonders as an erupting volcano, but has the chance to remember his own youthful wild days and dreams. Walter Mitty even has one musical number, a la Danny Kaye — when Walter imagines Cheryl as a troubadour, spurring him on his travels (with more than a little help from David Bowie and his song "Space Oddity.")

Walter rediscovers some of his forgotten skills in Iceland
Walter finally gets to see his "partner" Sean (Sean Penn) in person
The pace of the movie is sometimes as dreamy as its protagonist. Viewers will be rewarded by little moments, like watching an earnest Walter showing Cheryl's son how to use a skateboard, and not showing off, but exhibiting some pretty expressive skills, while an oblivious Cheryl chats on a phone nearby. Stiller is just as home here in this sometimes quiet, contemplative film as he is in the over-the-top comedies that fans have come to expect from him, like Night at the Museum and those silly Focker movies. There are a few great sequences, dream and otherwise, utilizing CGI, but impressive visual panoramas are a bigger focus than action sequences. Walter Mitty is about middle age, and not forgetting who you are or who you wanted to be. And being able to write some new adventures for yourself in the process. It's a sweet film.

Monday, January 06, 2014

the return of downton

Downton Abbey has become an obsession on both sides of the pond and American fans who have been feeling withdrawal pangs finally relaxed when the fourth season returned last night (in Britain the fourth season aired in September 2013). It's now 1922 and the look of Downton is still sumptuous, but it also seems a little harsher and brighter, as if all the soft focus has gone out of the Crawleys' lives.

They're back ...
Lady Mary and baby George

The first episode begins six months after the tragic death of Matthew. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is in mourning and having trouble connecting with their baby, George. Everyone knows by now that actor Dan Stevens wanted out of his contract and show creator Julian Fellowes scrambled to write the character out in a fitting manner. After the emotional death mid-season of another important character, daughter Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), in childbirth, the show decided that an untimely and unexpected death in a motor accident was the way to go. Only time will tell if both Mary and the viewers will get over Matthew's death and allow her to move on. This season will offer her some competing suitors — friend of the family Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen) and Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden).

But Mary was hardly the only one affected by Matthew's death. His mother (Penelope Wilton) feels as if she is a non-person, as "a mother who has lost their only child isn't anything anymore," until she is reminded that she is a grandmother (and someone who excels at helping those less fortunate than herself). Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), to the alarm of pretty much everyone, thinks that he should manage the substantial finances of his grandchild George. Valet Thomas (Rob James-Collier) is up to his old tricks, the new object of his machinations the new nanny for the children — although he doesn't limit his tricks to just one person.

Soapy plot turns aside (and Downton is notorious for these), it was just great to see some of the familiar faces again. Upstairs: Dowager Countess Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith, amazing as always), her son the Earl of Grantham and his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and their middle daughter "poor Edith" (Laura Carmichael). Downstairs: Butler Carson (Jim Carter), Housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), newlyweds Mr Bates, Lord Grantham's valet (Brendan Coyle) and Lady's Maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt), and Cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), and so many more. Fellowes has guaranteed that there will be no major character deaths.  That is something at least, but there have been rumblings of some big twists coming for beloved characters this season — especially the Bateses. Fellowes does love to take his fans on a period-based roller coaster ride.