Friday, December 31, 2010

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Coming Up...A Look Back (Thursday Journal #1 of 3)

2010 has been a full and interesting year, both on the world stage, and personally.

I hope all of you enjoy a better year in 2011.  I hope things improve....the economy....our politics... movies.... 

Over the weekend I'll take another view of the films I have seen in 2010.  My moviegoing has been less frequent, so I can't honestly offer a 10-Best List.  But I will tell you what I liked a lot, what left me cold, and whether I have had second thoughts about any films after writing my initial reviews.

I am excited to take you back to some highlights in my year: selling a condo in this dreary housing market, moving to the land of "Glee" and "The Blues Brothers", entering an NPR writing contest (and held to 600 words---YIKES!), unforgettable shelter anecdotes, the mind-expanding trips to San Francisco, and a "meme" I was invited to contribute one sentence to (by the way, whatever happened to that? Never did get the completed "story!)

It's a good time of year to re-consider more creative pursuits, and what to expect next year: writing; travel; news that I have followed with interest; whether we will finally welcome a new dog into our lives; if we will somehow manage to make our first trip to Europe together (and really test my Italian-language skills); and whether we will suffer an imminent and difficult loss of any of our loved ones, or if they will continue to hang tough....

It will be fun to see if Broadway will finally present "Spiderman" without further injury and loss of revenue....If 3D movies will improve, or if the trend has run its (and WHEN) the US military will incorporate openly gay personnel into the ranks....if WikiLeaks will uncover additional scandals, about political figures or the financial industry (and if people will pay attention)....if the Academy will unfriend "The Social Network" and make a royal decision...and what that circus known as Congress will accomplish, as the 2012 Presidential campaigns heat up...

So, stay tuned....and enjoy the following two pieces: Joni Mitchell at the gym, and the survival of marriage. (Yes, I am all over the board today.)

Joni Mitchell in the Locker Room--Thursday Journal #2

At the Wellness Center, where Mark and I work out, the overhead speakers play mostly '70's rock.  It's fun to listen to, and pretty non-threatening, somthing familiar to concentrate on while we're pushing to maintain our physiques.  (!)

Most of the time this music exists barely noticed.  It plays in the locker rooms too, which provides a good background for "macho" banter between guys of all ages as they're changing, drying and getting caught up with each other.

Yesterday my ears perked up like a dog's, when I heard the opening guitar and sweet notes of  Joni Mitchell's "Help Me". 

(Play the song here..

This was one of Joni's biggest hits, and remains a popular classic.

What amazed me is how quiet, almost reflective, the room got.  The voice, and jazzy melody, seemed to lift everyone and compel them to good-natured musing.  You could almost see the calm settle on everyone...and someone over the wall of lockers started to whistle along.

Next year I'll look to Joni Mitchell's songbook for material for this journal, and write about what the songs, and Joni's presence in my creative life, have meant to me.

Marriage Will Survive--Thursday Journal #3

A ruling is expected soon in the appeal of Judge Vaughn's finding that Proposition 8 (a law banning same-sex marriage) is unconstitutional.  The hearing began on December 6 before a three-member panel from the Ninth District Court of Appeals.

On that date, a group of interfaith leaders from Catholic, evangelical, Orthodox Jewish, Mormon, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostal and Sikh communities, as well as new conservative Lutheran and Anglican denominations, signed "The Protection of Marriage: A Shared Commitment." 

'Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, the new president of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference, said the "broad consensus reflected in this letter -- across religious divides -- is clear: The law of marriage is not about imposing the religion of anyone, but about protecting the common good of everyone." '
(BeliefNet, December 6)

I've struggled to understand the argument that same-sex marriage will destroy the institution of marriage. An opinion often cited is that only male-female marriage will ensure the survival of civilization, and that children are better off in a home with a male father and female mother.

And yet, from my limited and non-married perspective, marriage (and procreation) survived decades of divorce, spousal abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, out-of-wedlock births, single parenting, unwed couples living together (and raising children), child abuse by heterosexual parents, and child abuse from members of the clergy who perform marriage ceremonies....

I would lend more credence to leaders, religious or political, who collectively produce a letter condemning some of the more heinous threats to marriage, like abuse, or neglect of any kind.  Conferring marriage rights to loving, responsible couples who happen to be of the same gender rather affirms the institution, and elevates instead of destroys society. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Vick Got A Second Chance...Many of His Dogs Did Not

For Dog Lovers...I appreciate your remarks on this, a story which has me saddened and angered and confused...

The spotlight is once again on Michael Vick, who said in a recent interview that prison made him a better man, and that owning a dog will assist him in his rehabilitation (CBS News, December 15).

Even President Obama has walked into Vick's  spotlight, claiming that Vick is receiving the second chance he deserves.  While Obama condemns the animal abuse that led to Vick's imprisonment just three years ago, he stated that he does think "that individuals who have paid for their crimes should have an opportunity to contribute to society again."  (CBS News, December 27).

While Vick is prohibited from owning a dog until 2012, his desire to bring a dog into his home once again (for his kids, he claims), so soon after the horrific treatment of the dogs at his Bad Newz Kennels, is causing outrage on both sides of the argument.

While one may confer benevolent blessings on Vick's turnaround (and his return to public life and its attendant millions of dollars), I still cannot forget that there are innocent dogs who did not get a second chance.

I'm afraid I am having a problem showing complete forgiveness.  Maybe I have a psychic connection to dogs in pain.

A man convicted of child abuse ought to have trouble adopting another child, especially if the injuries suffered by the children he abused were as heartbreaking as those suffered by Vick's dogs.  For Vick to publicly claim that he loves these animals makes me feel helpless and angry.

At the Buddy Foundation, we conduct a complete screening of any prospective owner who wants to adopt a dog.  We make sure the new household is a safe and welcoming environment, with plenty of space, and enough resources to guarantee the dog's care; we ask that other pets are brought in to "meet" the prospective adoptee, to make sure that other animals in the home will get along with the new pet.  If, incredibly, the shelter discovers a history of previous animal abuse by the new owner, the adoption would be halted.

If Michael Vick thinks he is ready to bring a new dog into his home, he should prove his mettle by volunteering (unpaid) at a dog shelter for a year. 

He needs to spend time with desperate, lonely dogs; endure the barking and whining; clean the excrement; break up fights that can occur naturally between confused dogs; maybe even get bitten by a frightened dog....without striking back, showing complete forgiveness for the animal that injured him. 

He needs to walk dozens of dogs in pouring rain and bone-crunching cold.  He needs to sacrifice a few nights with his family, or even a banquet or two, to feed animals, or wash blankets, or give medications to reluctant dogs, or comfort a barely conscious animal who has just been spayed or neutered. 

He needs to do all of this and then publicly talk about it, to tell the world how passionate he is for this kind of duty. 

He needs to cry for a dog that is beyond help...and do it in the spotlight of his own making.

Maybe then I could begin to forgive him.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Long Live This "King"

I have rarely been as prepared to love a movie like I was ready to love "The King's Speech."  And I have rarely been so worried that my expectations would be dashed.  I am happy to say that in every department, this is an outstanding film that met and exceeded my expectations, one that provides fine acting, superb writing and emotional satisfaction, one that deserves to be seen, one that will mellow with age and will be worthy of repeat visits.

Initially I was intrigued by the cast--Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham-Carter--all of whom have appeared in movies that have become personal favorites, and whose work has brought me much pleasure: "Apartment Zero", "A Room With A View", "Howard's End", "Shine", "A Single Man".  I took notice when I heard about the film's early triumphs at festivals like Toronto and Aspen. 

Soon I learned that the film was based on historical fact, and told a story I was ashamedly unaware of: the personal account of England's King George VI, reluctantly thrust into the throne after his brother's abdication, father of the future Queen Elizabeth, and his terror of public speaking because of a heavy stammer.  A well-known Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue entered the King's life at the urgent request of George's wife, the Queen Mother.  A therapeutic relationship helped to repair a broken monarchy, and a lifelong friendship developed between the two men, King and Commoner.

The story about the development of the screenplay by veteran writer David Seidler was a terrific and heart-tugging story in itself.  Seidler overcame his own speech problems, inspired in part by hearing radio speeches by the King in war-torn Britain before moving to America. The script shows a deep understanding of the fear and frustration this deficiency produces, and demonstrates a great love of these characters. 

The dialog here is appropriately expository but also filled with humor, rage, and touching affirmations of love and friendship. What at first appear merely as sessions in speech therapy are soon given urgency and suspense, as world events and reactions to them are about to be shaped by this world leader's words.

In light of American leaders and their public speaking skills, this movie takes on an even greater significance, cleverly hidden but unavoidable nonetheless.  How wonderful it is for a film to champion the importance of words and their delivery, and how encouraging to know that it is possible for anyone to excel and succeed by improving one's ability to speak well.

The film version of "The King's Speech" is like a slice of the epic and lovely biographical book of the same name by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi.  The film telescopes incidents for dramatic effect, preferring to focus on the developing relationship between Logue and the King, the story of the abdication, and the incidents leading up to England entering WWII.  This focus allows the film a number of moving and riveting exchanges between Firth and Rush.

Viewers may also be surprised at how lively and funny these dialogues are, especially viewers who are accustomed to the reverent tone of many British costume dramas.

Tom Hooper's direction brings us close to the characters, and effectively paces the story so that the chain of events is natural and easily understood. It is a prime example of classic filmmaking using modern vernacular, especially the slightly distorting lenses to accentuate the king's stage fright, and a lithe and mobile camera to keep us in the action and avoid the usual stately static. 

Hooper and Seidler build to the final speech of the film in which George calls his country to arms.  This is a terrific scene, cut and photographed to a wonderful orchestral score, so that Rush's Logue is like an intimate and amusing conductor, guiding the ever-confident King through a small symphony of words and images.

Helena Bonham-Carter has matured into a performer of such ease, such beauty and grace, that her portrayal of the Queen Mother connects to the viewer like an old friend, warm and supportive. The role is limited in the script but she does so much with her eyes, her voice, or a determined movement of her head.  She is, as always, a welcome and compelling screen presence.

I can write an entire post about the work done here by Colin Firth. Those who have never seen him before may be convinced that the actor actually stammers: the hesitations, tightened neck muscles, constrictions of the throat, and frustrated outbursts seem natural, and Firth is sensitive enough not to fall into caricature   Layered among Firth's technical skill is his achievement of a satisfying emotional arc; Firth makes us understand the royal protocol and his increasing willingness to break down his defenses and share the childhood trauma that contributed to difficulty speaking.  Firth is simply wonderful here.  I hope he enjoys the inevitable accolades and attention he so easily deserves.

Let's not forget Geoffrey Rush. His interpretation of Logue may be broader than is evident from the biography, but the fearlessness of his delivery convinces us that he can handle a reluctant King.  Rush is a consummate performer who understands this character completely, and pulls out all the stops to bring us an unforgettably brusque and hilarious portrayal.  Rush supplies much of Seidler's humor, and is unexpectedly noble and heartbreaking as the film draws to a triumphant close. 

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~
Ah, awards... "The King's Speech"  is a worthy contender...  And I hope the awards recognition brings more people to the theater.  I loved this film, in a much different way than "Black Swan" and "The Kids Are All Right".  Please, can the Academy wrangle a 3-way tie for Best Picture?  If not, I would cheer if "The King's Speech" was singled out...

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Reflections on the Holiday Weekend...Movies, Dogs, and Snow



In our home, films are among our favorite gifts to exchange.  Are you surprised?  To our DVD collection we have added a couple of bona fide classics, as well as some newer titles destined to become the classics of the future.  I smile when I look at the list, because it is so indicative of our tastes and personality...they also provide a nice, personal look back at our year:

"The Kids are All Right"--one of our top favorites this summer
"8 1/2"--will make a great double feature with:
"Nine"--a film I defend like a daughter, slightly flawed and beautiful
"Michael Clayton"--A good story..and Tilda Swinton (so hot in "I Am Love")
"The Apartment" -- Better every time... I will write about this one soon
"The Sound of Music"-- like a favorite easy chair from childhood....
"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Fun and games with George and Martha in a drama whose impact has not lessened in 44 years.

We also took a chance on a recent HBO film I had not heard about: "A Dog Year", based on New York Times writer Jon Katz' memoir about an abused and rambunctious Border Collie he saved, took in and trained.  In the process, he brings order to his life and personal relationships. Jeff Bridges plays Katz, and apparently earned an Emmy nomination last year.  A sweet little film that appeals to me in a personal way.

The next four weeks will find me in various locations caring for dogs I know and love well.  Early followers of this blog will certainly remember Shayna, a smart and affectionate Border Collie....and also the two dogs owned by the president of our college.... It's a long time to be away from home, but the dogs need company, and we will make it work all around....

Except for the noise, the time I spent pushing a snow blower in the last few days provided some quiet time for reflection, and strenuous, exhilarating exercise too.  Chicago got a large snowfall, but it was light and easy to remove.  The powder-blue-and-pink sky at sunrise gave way to a deep blue with brilliant white clouds and golden sun.  If not for the chill, and the cold white powder, it looked like a summer morning.  Mark and I greeted the day with shovels and machine, and managed to clear three driveways...before the plows came by and cleared the streets.  I don't really like snow at all, to be honest.  But today, it was actually beautiful.

I let my voluminous reading schedule lapse in 2010.  What with the condo sale, the move, the activities at the College, lots of writing, Italian studies, and a little travel, I set aside my books and let my mind re-charge.  2011 will see a return to regular reading, and more book reviews, in addition to the film writing I love so much.  First up: the two books that won the American Book Awards this year: "Lord of Misrule" (fiction) and "Just Kids" (non-fiction)

We saw "The King's Speech" today.... My review is coming up.  Mini-Review: Brilliantly performed, well-written, emotionally satisfying... Yes, by all means, Go!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Animals

It is comforting to think of the presence of animals in the story of the Nativity.  Accounts of the Christmas story vary widely; there were few eyewitnesses to the event, and the story has been enhanced over the centuries.  Some historians believe that the image of the creche, surrounded by animals, was created by Francis of Assisi as a theological metaphor. NPR recently visited a traditional Christmas pageant in Texas, and looked at the accuracy and conflicting biblical records of the Nativity, and questioned the modern depiction of the event using animals. (All Things Considered, December 23, 2010)

Whether you accept the Nativity story on faith, or relegate it to the pages of myth, the actual or symbolic presence of sheep, oxen, donkeys, camels, and other creatures, is an image of quietude and peace, as they gather, still and silent, around the crib of a baby that symbolizes a new beginning of hope.

Our holiday tree is once again filled with figurines of dogs, birds, rabbits, and many other creatures. Animals are child-like in their unassuming innocence, their instincts, and their often trusting dependence on us to care for them and fulfill their needs.

Even though this is a difficult time for many, if not most people, if we can re-think of this increasingly commercialized and cynical holiday season as a time to focus on the care of the innocent creatures around us, then the season once more provides warmth and meaning. 

As bad as the world often is, as long as I have people to love and who accept what I can give, who affirm me and keep me from feeling alone, and as long as there are animals in the world, it is a world I still want to be a part of.  The Nativity scene, complete with its animals, reminds me of that.  That is my quiet, personal celebration of the season. That is my wish for my friends. That would be my gift if I could give it.

Good Christmas to you all.

"Black Swan", The Movie Review

“Black Swan” is a feast for movie lovers; it’s original, audacious and beautiful. It is a film of opposites: light and dark, black and white, beauty and horror, innocence and passion. It is a dance film, a sinister psychological drama, and a look at the sacrifices an artist makes to create art. Above all, it is a glimpse of the world from the point of view of an intriguing young woman whose boundaries between fantasy and reality have disappeared.

Director Darren Aronofsky’s oft-told showbiz tale of an aspiring dancer, her controlling mother, a talented rival, and a seductive director, is filled with such brilliant imagery and movement, such mystery and range of meaning, that it is difficult to know how to approach it for a re-view. Days after seeing it I am still haunted by moments as vivid and difficult to describe as a fleeting nightmare in which the dreamer awakens terrified yet deeply sad.

There is something of the excitement and intrigue around this movie that film audiences must have experienced in 1971 when “A Clockwork Orange” was released. That film provided an electric counterpoint of searing images and beautiful music, which Aranofsky accomplishes here as well. Aranofsky’s preoccupation with the grotesqueness of the human body also calls to mind the films and early paintings of David Lynch.  I marveled at the film's detailed look at how far an artist will punish herself to attain perfection. This may be the most fascinating look at artistic creation and genius since "Amadeus".

On one level, “Black Swan” recreates the ballet “Swan Lake” in contemporary terms. Early in the film the Director, Tomas (Vincent Cassel) effectively describes for his company (and us) the tragedy of the innocent White Swan whose lover is seduced by the evil Black Swan.

The story pits Nina (Natalie Portman) against her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) and a new member and rival (Mila Kunis) for the attentions of the demanding Tomas, who selects Nina for the dual role in his modernist version of the ballet. He likes her perfection and innocence as the White Swan, but requires her to go deep into her darker self, to literally "touch herself" in order to lose her perfection and become the great seductress the part requires. He wants her to let go.  And she does.

Thus begins Nina's descent into madness.  Portman's portrayal is all about her face and body...I don't remember her character in terms of dialog.  The camera holds her closely for most of the picture, and her beauty and ability to suggest subtle changes, from distress to arousal, compel us to watch her.

Natalie Portman is such an effective screen performer because she is not showy. She was so powerful in "Closer" because she was understated in a role that called for scenery-chewing.  She has a vulnerable side that I loved in "New York I Love You".  Here, one wonders at first why she doesn't manage to convey the sheer love of dancing that would make her character endure the physical and mental torture of such hard work.  But by the end it's clear that Portman knew exactly what she was doing, with Aronofsky's help.

And on yet another level, one may see Nina, her sexually charged rival Lily (Kunis), and her mother, as archetypes in a more interesting scheme. To see "Black Swan" this way helps a viewer accept the more horrific elements.  Something else is being driven at here... One feels it subliminally. 

It makes sense that we can't readily explain: the constant mirrored reflections, the startling breakage of her limbs, the terrifying changes to the texture of her skin, the bleeding, the portraits coming to malevolent life. We also feel her exhilaration during the dance sequences, (thanks to exquisite photography and editing) as the camera glides around her, and sweeps us vicariously around the stage. We seem to understand all of this, because many of us would lose ourselves, if we could, to make an ultimate artistic statement.

Some of these elements have an unusual beauty, as when Nina, dancing her triumphant finale as the Black Swan, slowly becomes covered in black plumage as she spins.  There is also some shocking violence, which would not be out of place in a modern-day horror film. But this cannot be called a thriller in the conventional sense.  The dualities, the opposites, the seamless blend of backstage drama, sexual danger, and intimate psychodrama, point to another level that I argue is the deeper meaning the film seeks to create.

That is, that "Black Swan" is ultimately an expressionist statement about the trauma of growing up, that true artistry is possible only after one completes the physical and mental torments of reaching adulthood; once reached, one can never regain innocence.  This is not a new idea, but it artistically refashions this idea in a wholly new way. The film uses its images to suggest, in an extreme way, the adolescent excitement and terror of physical change, of sexual initiation, of imperfection, of losing control.  It also suggests the panic of artistic failure, and of the need to achieve success at all costs.

By the final segment, as Nina's ultimate sacrifice is made, as her mother in the audience bids a silent tearful goodbye, as the blood suggests the attainment of womanhood, and as the indescribable beauty of Tscaikovsky's music swells to the fade-to-white, I was in tears.

After a few minutes, I realized that it was the child in Nina, lost forever, that I mourned.  My reaction to "Black Swan" was the culmination of a slowly building realization of Nina's fate, which paid off in a powerful final image and line of dialog. 

It didn't matter in a literal sense what was real and what was fantasy.  All of the elements worked to produce a savage and breathtaking, tragic coming-of-age story, and like all great coming-of-age stories, there is a cathartic release.

Kunis is surprisingly good in a small but potent role, keeping us guessing if she is really good-hearted, or if she is in fact evil...or, maybe even, Portman's own fantasy alter-ego.  A middle sequence in a nightclub is some of the most exciting filmmaking on movie screens right now, and Kunis' presence maintained considerable heat, as it does in the (understandably) much-discussed love scene with Portman.  Hershey is convincing as the infantilizing mother, furnishing her daughter's room in pink and stuffed animals, desperately maintaining the fortress of her daughter's chastity. Cassel is brilliant, I think . At no point did I ever not believe him as Tomas. And Winona Ryder accounts for much of the film's high drama as the spurned and injured former star.

A viewer may feel in a  fevered state throughout "Black Swan"; some may reject its spiraling fantasy, others will be bored or shocked.  It's a difficult film to recommend outright.  I loved it selfishly, like I wanted it to belong only to me, and would not share it with anyone.

On the other hand, I hope you do take a chance.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

COMING SOON: Swan Lake as Psychodrama

My next post will be a review of the powerful new movie "Black Swan".  It is an intense and mysterious story of a young ballet dancer's triumphs and downfalls in her pursuit of artistic perfection.  I have never seen a film both so gorgeous and so macabre, that manages to walk that tightrope without falling into the ridiculous; nor have I ever responded so emotionally to something so essentially horrific.   Part of the fascination has been to understand why I was so moved.  I hope it will have been worth the wait!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Book Review: “The King’s Speech” by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi

As the new film “The King’s Speech” is released to great acclaim and Award recognition, there is a renewed interest in the story of King George VI of England and his friend and speech therapist, Lionel Logue.

Now, Sterling Publishing has released a new book of the same title, written by Logue’s grandson Mark Logue with Peter Conradi, a wonderfully detailed and marvelous human chronicle.  It's worth a look, both as a tie-in to the film which inspired it, and on its own as an exciting read.

“The King’s Speech” interweaves two stories: King George’s sudden ascent to the throne after the abdication of his brother, and his terror of public speaking due to a lifelong stammer; and a full account the life of Lionel Logue, the prominent Australian elocutionist, who helped wounded and traumatized soldiers regain their ability to speak.

The authors expand the story beyond the WWII years to include a full account of Lionel’s life and travels, the King’s troubled upbringing and ascension to the throne, the influence of their families and friends, and the eventual meeting and working relationship between King and Counselor.

The book is a labor of love by Logue, who was inspired to write it after the filming was completed, and after he discovered his deceased grandfather’s files full of letters, diaries, newspaper clippings, and photographs. Even the book’s larger-than-life subtitle (How One Man Saved the British Monarchy) tells us that Logue’s account will be an admiring, un-critical one. It is as much a tribute as a biography.

Far from being stodgy and dry, it is filled with surprising and often amusing insights into important figures, and is set against glorious locations during the most significant events of the Twentieth Century. Especially fun are early passages describing Logue’s and his wife Myrtle’s travels to America, how they enjoyed Chicago,  loved the drug stores, cafes and automobiles there, but were unimpressed with the bad manners of the local women.

(Being a native of the “Second” city, I was even more amused at the accounts of New York as “a city of atrocities and lawlessness.”)

Logue and Conradi do an admirable job of going through a mountain of material to write a clear, well-paced, and often suspenseful account. The book begins on the day of George’s coronation.  It then flashes back to the beginnings of each of these men’s lives, proceeding chronologically through World War II and the famous Speech, and on to their final days. 

While the firsthand materials dictate the amount of depth possible, and while there are few attempts to speculate or analyze, the writers stay true to their intention to illustrate how history was moved through the better efforts of human nature.

“The King’s Speech” makes a solid case for the importance of good speaking and clear thinking, and made me excited about the possibilities of examining and improving my own elocution. Snippets of Logue’s diaries proved inspiring:

“There is a mistaken idea that ‘hustle’ implies achievement, whereas it really means a wrong use of energy and is an enemy of beauty…The English voice is one of the finest in the world but its effect is often spoiled by wrong production.”

The book itself suggests that the arts of persuasive speaking, letter-writing, and the keeping of detailed diaries, may be fading, but need not be forgotten; and that they may even have their place in modern discourse, and as a legacy for historians.

For me, what makes this almost-forgotten, historical human-interest story still relevant today is the depiction of the positive effects of true friendship on any two lives, regardless of their stations in life, disabilities, or advantages:

“The King took two steps to the table, and Logue squeezed his arm for luck. The gesture spoke volumes about the closeness of the two men’s relationship; no one was meant to touch a king unbidden in that way. … There was nothing for Logue to do but just stand and listen, marveling at the King’s voice. When he had spoken his last words…the two men continued to look at each other in silence--‘the King and the commoner and my heart is too full to speak’. The King patted him on the hand."

If you are looking for a gift for a reader of history, a student of human nature, or a lover of movies, “The King’s Speech” is an excellent choice.

Here’s a look at Mark Logue, and some actual footage of people and events told in the book:

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Love, and Life, To A Wayward Coyote

Stories about the goodness of people who save helpless animals in trouble allow me to preserve a positive, sane outlook.  Here's a nice story from close to home. 

A coyote was spotted drifting on an ice floe in the middle of Lake Michigan on Friday.  A Fire Department helicopter, on routine rounds, discovered the cold and frightened animal, and summoned a fire boat.  Two crew members kept trying to reach for the coyote to pull her aboard, but the ice patch, by then not much bigger than she was, kept floating away out of reach.

Finally the boat got close enough for Animal Care and Control worker Miguel Hernandez to snare the animal and bring her aboard the boat, and then to Belmont Harbor on their way to Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.

The coyote was named "Holly" in commemoration of the season.  She is receiving treatment for frostbitten paws, but otherwise is doing well.

DADT Repeal Clears Senate...A Guarded Celebration

Last week, the Senate killed a vote to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. 

But today, after clearing some procedural hurdles, the Senate finally voted to repeal that 1993 law which allows gay military personnel to serve as long as they hide their sexuality, but allows the military to discharge openly gay servicepeople.

The vote is an historic one, and President Obama will sign the legislation into law.

After listening to years of debate and philosophical discussion, after fighting for repeal, and after the disbelief with which we watched the political wrangling on this issue,why didn't the news of the repeal feel more like a victory?

I AM happy that this step was taken.  And yet, I don't find myself engaged in unbridled celebration. Not yet.

Because after today's bit of political theater, (the results of which were delivered on Saturday when most people are not paying much attention to the news), Don't Ask Don't Tell is STILL enforceable.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, in a statement, that he'll "approach this process deliberately, (making changes) only after careful consultation with the military service chiefs and our combatant commanders...
Gates warned that court challenges to "don't ask, don't tell" could force an abrupt repeal of the policy, rather than the process in the legislation that would allow the military to manage the change on a longer timetable.
(From CNN Politics Wire Staff)

So the repeal wouldn’t take effect immediately. Obama, Gates, and Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, would have to certify to Congress that they have reviewed the Pentagon report on the impacts of repeal, that the Defense Department is prepared to implement repeal and that doing so would not harm military readiness, troop morale, and recruiting and retention.
 The policy would be repealed 60 days after the president submits the document.

Before that document is submitted, the timetable for the certification process has "yet to be determined".

"It is therefore important that our men and women in uniform understand that while today's historic vote means that this policy will change, the implementation and certification process will take an additional period of time,” Gates said in a statement. “In the meantime, the current law and policy will remain in effect...."

And so, we have yet another "certification" process of undetermined length.  What is unclear to me is what could happen if Congress decides not to accept the review presented by Obama, Gates and Mullen; or if  the Defense Department somehow determines that there are sticking points in its implementation of repeal. 

In the meantime, military personnel can still be discharged for coming out of the closet. 

But suppose a U.S. District Court Judge, like Virginia Phillips back in October, issues another injunction that the law is STILL unconstitutional?  Will the Obama administration once again be obliged to defend the law until the certification and implementation are in place, plus 60 days? 

I would love to see a judge take up this legal issue...

In the end, there is hope that the last bastion of institutionalized homophobia will divest itself of its irrational prejudice and continue to function better than ever. When I allowed myself to fantasize about this day, I thought it would be a seismic reaction, with ticker tape parades, world news bulletins, and immediate repeal.

Let's hope that cynicism has not prevailed.  Let's hope that the repeal of this bill is a sincere movement toward real change, and not simply a desperate effort to score political points before the advent of a new conservative Congress.  Let's hope that a new congress will not find a legal or procedural way to undo this work.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Blake Edwards: A Hollywood Party, and A Nameless Cat

Blake Edwards, a reliable director of comedies and romantic dramas in the 1960's and '70's, died today.  Although I never considered Edwards a first-tier filmmaker, nonetheless he directed two films that I consider all-time favorites, guilty pleasures that have made me happy over the years.

While he may be best-known as the creator of the "Pink Panther" series with Peter Sellers, I believe another collaboration between them was even better.  1968's "The Party" is hopelessly dated, and politically incorrect in the extreme,  yet I may never have laughed harder at a movie.

Sellers plays Mr. Bakshi, a hapless movie extra from India, who innocently destroys a set for a film about Gunga Din.  Polite to a fault and trying his utmost to fit in, he is inadvertently invited to a Hollywood bash, where he bumbles and makes a shambles of everything he touches.  This movie does anything for a laugh, and mostly succeeds.  There's the pomposity of the Hollywood elite brought low by Bakshi's clumsiness; there's an unruly Cornish hen, a starlet's tiara and a loose wig; a drunken waiter; a plumbing mishap; a peeing fountain; a baby elephant with psychedelic paint; and a love song from Caludine Longet.  For starters.

By the time the elephant arrives and guests are plunging into a moat filled with suds, the film has lost all control.  But there is much giddy fun here, and Sellers plays the bug-eyed ethnic as gently and respectfully as possible... In fact, the laughs come from his understated demeanor and authentic double-takes.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *    

Edwards' filmmaking style was brightly lit, and unobtrusive.  There was a devil-may-care lightness of touch that suffused even more serious work like "The Days of Wine and Roses" and "Charade".  Edwards' career began as a writer in radio days, with Orson Welles and   "War of the Worlds".  He tried his hand at acting before settling behind the camera.  Along with Sellers he created the iconic Inspector Clousseau. Directing his second wife, Julie Andrews, he experimented outside of his comfort zone, in more adult fare like "10" and "S.O.B.", the latter as a way to explode Andrews' wholesome screen persona for good.  With  1983's "Victor Victoria",  Edwards' talents came together to create one of the best original musical films since the '60's, and revived Andrews' career as a musical screen legend.

Much of Edwards' success was due to his long partnership with musician Henry Mancini, who created memorable scores including the "Pink Panther" theme, the original songs for "Victor Victoria", and the music for "Charade" and "Days of Wine and Roses."

And then there was "Breakfast at Tiffany's" in 1961, and what has become my favorite movie song of all time, "Moon River."

Audrey Hepburn's unforgettable characterization of Holly Golightly is the stuff of cultural history, whose image even today graces calendars and fashion artifacts.  It's all a part of why I love the movies. 

Marred only by  Mickey Rooney's broad and embarrassing interpretation of the Asian landlord Mr. Yunioshi, "Tiffany's" is a casually playful, breezy, and carelessly funny romance.  Hepburn's slow metamorphosis from self-styled comic sophisticate to frightened innocent lends the film a dramatic gravity that pays off in the final moments of suspense and tenderness.

Nothing is more romantic, (or tear-inducing, to me) than the image of Hepburn in the rain, with George Peppard, calling out for her helpless, nameless cat, two drifters trying to make it in the world, looking for the rainbow's end; and their final embrace, with Cat wet but safe between them, and the chorus bringing the song home.  This was a career high point for all involved, and especially for Blake Edwards.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Pets in Winter--A Wednesday Journal

When I was out shoveling the driveway in the bitter cold wind last Sunday, I heard the frantic barking of a dog outside.

I was shivering inside my layers of t-shirts, sweater and down coat, my fingers sore and growing numb in spite of my warm gloves. So I could not imagine that this animal was any more comfortable, and any less in danger, than I was, even with a coat of fur.

Luckily, it was only Benjy, the playful beagle who lives behind us, completely forgetting the weather hazards in his pursuit of a squirrel in a nearby tree. His owner was himself shivering in an attempt to lure the crazy little guy back into the house with a treat.  Benjy finally opted for the sure thing, and went indoors.

Our companion dogs, and cats, are best kept indoors during the winter, except for potty breaks, and brief exercise for the heartier breeds.  Even with fur, animals can still be in danger of frostbite and hypothermia if kept outdoors too long in bitter cold.

If you have a dog, keep watch for shivering, whimpering, and the lifting of the paws.  Those are indications that your friend is dangerously cold.  If your dog has short fur, a dog coat is a good idea.  I prefer those that completely cover the belly and close with a Velcro strip across the back.

After walking a dog, check the paws for bits of ice and salt.  Some dogs have deep pads, so you have to swipe deeply inside to clear them.  Use a clean towel to gently dry your dog's coat and paws.

Cats who wander on their own may find the engine blocks of parked cars to be warm shelters against the bitter cold.  If you park outdoors, give your horn a tap, to clear out any critters who might be hiding there, before starting the car.

Dogs may shed less in the winter but still need regular brushing to prevent matting.  Bathing can be less frequent; cats of course, mostly bathe themselves.

You might still need to take your dog for regular walks, and ice is as much a hazard for animals as for humans.  Dogs can lose their grip on ice and fall, causing injuries that may not be readily visible.  If your dog will allow boots on his paws, that is a good solution. Better yet, avoid icy patches.  Always leash your animals; dogs chasing after squirrels, rabbits and other critters may run into a slippery street, where cars have less ability to stop quickly.

This is all common sense, all just a friendly reminder from me and my incorrigible and lovable Buddies.... And from one that lives now only in our hearts.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Movie Musings--Tuesday Journal in Short Takes

Golden Globe Nominations:

While some in the blogosphere have already written off "The King's Speech", it leads the way in Golden Globe Nominations with 7.  Critical darling "The Social Network" and cult favorite "Inception" also made the Best Dramatic Picture cut along with the intrigung "The Black Swan" and the Rocky-like "The Fighter". 

I have seen two of the five, and oddly they have been two of my least well-liked movies this year. The good showing for "Speech", Tom Hooper's period drama, helps make up for its exclusion from the AFI (American Film Institute) Top 10 list (apparently, it's too British). 

For best Picture, Comedy/Musical,  "The Kids Are All Right" is in the running, in an uneven category that places it against Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland", the comic book "Red", Cher's camp comeback "Burlesque", and Johnny Depp (again) in "The Tourist" (really?  a comedy??). 

I need to catch up on my filmgoing.

Danny Boyle's "127 Hours" may have proved too gruesome for the Hollywood Foreign Press; and I have heard that the Coen's "True Grit" seems to be getting a mixed reception at current screenings.

As I said before, there is an undue emphasis on regarding movies as though they were pieces in an awards chess game.  It's nice when movie fans and casual filmgoers take a chance on a "King's Speech", because of its Awards cachet, and wind up really enjoying it.  And yet, how often do we go to watch "The Black Swan" or "The Tourist" just because we find the subject matter appealing, and because we want an aesthetically pleasing experience, without assessing its compeitive chances?  

I may watch the Ceremonies on January 16 out of a sense of amused curiosity, but I won't get emotionally involved this year.  Or, I may just wait to see the results in the news on January 17th.

*    *    *    *    *   *    *    *

When Awards Mattered:

The first time my parents allowed me to watch The Golden Globes, (which were broadcast on a third-tier network at 10:30pm,) one of the big winners was "Cabaret".

Friends of this blog know my passion for this film.

Tonight, it is being broadcast on Turner Classic Movies!

I watched the first 15 minutes and came away inspired, filled with excitement, dazzled by the visuals and rhythms and color.  It oozes what most of this year's contenders can't even aspire to.....

*    *     *      *      *     *     *     *

Coming Soon:

There's a great new book that I'm currently reading, a biography of Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush in "The King's Speech".  The book of the same title is sort of a tie-in to the movie, but covers a broader period of time, and is a wonderful read.  Look for my review soon!

*   *    *     *      *     *   

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Smash: Windy City Gay Men's Chorus at the Mayne Stage

This is a tribute to a group of talented, high-spirited guys from all over Chicagoland.  The Windy City Gay Men's Chorus (along with the women's chorus Aria) offered a fine holiday program three times this weekend in the a hidden-gem venue in Rogers Park called the Mayne Stage.  I was fortunate to attend both Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. Thanks to Mark and his effort, I got to be a part of it, and received the warmest possible welcome. 

About the performance itself, I must congratulate the brilliant Artistic Director for leading this fun-loving (and often playfully unruly, I assume) group through two sets of complex, unusual, beautiful music and a number of familiar tunes and a couple of comic set-pieces. 

And the chorus members, all of them, pored their voices and bodies into each number. Each one looked handsome in his black tuxedo.  These musical men sang their hearts out for each other as well as for the pleasure of their appreciative audiences.  The camaraderie was evident in the somber sacred choral pieces, in the well-known songs like "Do You Hear What I Hear" and "Grown-Up Christmas List", and especially during the campy interludes, in which they got to let their guard down and have fun.

Let me just say that to mention any one by name would be to exclude someone else.  So, no names... You were all fabulous....and if I didn't get to tell each one individually how much I loved your unique contributions, consider this a private bravo.

As I looked at both groups, men and women, it was intriguing to think that upon that stage were 80 personal stories of pain, self-discovery, and acceptance.  No matter how intense the stories might have been, they all led each one to this moment on this stage, all of their lives bringing them together in this effort.  It was the stuff of a great novel... I think this notion first came to me during the first Russian Orthodox piece, as the voices swelled from the stage to embrace me with warmth and comfort.

Some audience members wept during the traditional Hebrew "Bashana Haba'ah", a story of the circle of life.

Best of all were the cheers, and laughter, during the "Boogie Woogie Hanukkah"; and again in Act Two during the mock NPR broadcast from KWIR in Morality Falls, and the silly, sexy story of the Krampus, Saint Nicholas' evil assistant from hell....

Of course, it wouldn't be a gay chorus without a nod to the opera, even a giddy one, as a jazzy version of "Jingle Bells" gave way to a slow, soprano aria solo of the carol, complete with feather boa.

An encore of "Silent Night" was led by the only woman in the men's chorus, and whose mellow baritone held the crowd.

The show was paced perfectly, as more traditional fare blended easily into novelty numbers, and popular songs followed fascinating international tunes.  The lyrics to some of these world-songs, dense and difficult to memorize, were handled triumphantly through the coordinated effort of the chorus.

Even if I had the heart to do so, I cannot say that I could list any criticisms about the show.  It was emotionally, and aurally, wonderful.

Special good cheer is directed to the sign-language interpreter, whose delicate and expressive fingers were an art form alone, and who used his face and body to slyly interpret the meaning of the songs. And the accompanists, especially on piano, violin, flute and bongo drums, were professional and often amazing. 

The Mayne Stage is a wonderful concept in local urban theater, with a cabaret-style auditorium, great acoustics, and an appropriately sophisticated cafe and staff to run it.  We will be back often.

After the show, Mark and I attended a celebration with the choir members.  We both made lasting friends that evening, among a wonderful community of generous and artistic people, discussing everything from music and singing, to school teaching and cooking, from books and theater, to the nasty weather and travel to balmier climes.  The more energetic continued their singing around a friendly piano.

You can be sure I will be at the next concert in March.