Monday, December 04, 2006

The Season of Greed Continues...

I love just about everything about the holiday season EXCEPT the daily avalanche of catalogs that spill out of my mailbox!! Today alone, I got the latest from Norm Thompson, Soft Surroundings, Harry and David, Solutions, Hammacher Schlemmer, Coldwater Creek, Victoria's Secret and Sahalie!

Anyone out there know of an easy way to get your name removed from catalog mailing lists, without having to call each and every merchant up individually??? I welcome any and all suggestions. I am fed up!!!!!

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Let it Snow, Let it Snow - OK, STOP!!!

I normally start putting up my Christmas decorations on Thanksgiving weekend, but this year, I couldn't get in the mood. How can you put up a tree and hang tinsel and play Christmas CDs when it's 65 freakin' degrees and sunny out????? The Xmas boxes came up from the basement storage and mostly sat on the floor unopened throughout the past week - although my boyfriend and I did manage to put up the pre-lighted artificial tree, no decorations were hung till Thursday.

Then, of course, the midwest was paralyzed by a huge, nasty winter storm, and so here I sit on Saturday morning, with approximately 13 inches of snow piled up outside my window. Yep, it's definitely time to finish the Christmas decorating.

I love Christmas music and have an ever-growing collection of Christmas CDs. This year, I've added Bette Midler's "Cool Yule."

I'm a huge fan of the Divine Miss M, and as a lover of '40s and '5os standards , I've spent lots of listening time with her recent collections of Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee classics. "Cool Yule" is the same vein - lovely covers of holiday standards like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "What are You Doing New Year's Eve" and "I've Got my Love to Keep Me Warm." There's also a special Christmas version of "From a Distance'" - not my favorite track on the CD by any means, but it's growing on me. The only real stinker - "Oh Come, Come Emmanuel": Midler turns this spare, melancholy Advent hymn into just another sappy, "Wind Beneath My Wings"-style ballad. A low point - but not the worst Christmas album cut ever. (That honor would belong to Barbra Streisand's whacked-out, everywhere-but-on-the-actual-melody cover of "My Favorite Things" on her first Christmas disc back in the '60s. )

Finally, nothing rings in the holiday for me like a little Christmas baking. In my search for new cookie ideas, I found this great site: There are hundreds of yummy recipes to try - personally, I'm going to bake up a batch of Cranberry Decadence cookies this afternoon (chocolaty cookies full of dried cranberries and white chocolate chips.)

(Midler CD cover photo from

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

In Memoriam: Robert Altman 1925-2006

The window opens. The window shuts. The window opens... again.

I uniwttingly pulled down the shade on Joni's Window about 4 months ago - my life got in the way of my writing. I never intended to shut down my blog, but my life picked up speed, and I found less and less time to sit down and write about it. More on that in a future post.

It took the death of Robert Altman to lure me back into the blogosphere. The announcement of his death today took me completely by surprise. Although he was 81, he still seemed so sharp and robust, his latest film ("A Prairie Home Companion")so delightful and accomplished - that I believed he would live to make movies forever.

This blog originally started out as a series of movie reviews. I've been writing reviews since I was in my early teens - sometimes for my own enjoyment, sometimes for publication. One of the seminal events which shaped my love of films and of writing about them was seeing Altman's masterpiece "Nashville" for the first time.

How to explain the impact this film had on me? I was fifteen and trapped in a tiny Indiana farm town. "Nashville" played for one week in our local movie house.
It took my breath away. It was big and sprawling with a huge ensemble cast and mutliple intertwined story lines. It was funny and sad and filled with trenchant observations on American greed and ambitiion (yes, even at 15, I could pick up on that.) It was technically dazzling (my first experience of Altman's fabled "overlapping dialogue" technique, with up to eight conversations audible simultaneously in some scenes), yet it packed a huge, emotional wallop. It was unlike any movie I had every seen before.

As a teenager, I rarely saw a movie in the theater for a second time. For "Nashville," however, I used my saved allowance to see it no less than three times. I wrote a rapturous review which I submitted to the Scholastic Magazines student writing competition; it won second place in the Arts Reviewing category. I fell in love with a movie,and I subsequently fell in love with act of writing about it.

To this day - 31 years, many viewings, and one 25th anniversay DVD laster - I still treasure many of the characters and scenes:

SueLeen - the starry-eyed waitress played by Gwen Welles, with her hilarious, godawful, just-below-pitch singing voice and her unshakable dreams of stardom

Barbara Jean - the fragile country singer played by Ronee Blakely (where IS Ronee Blakely these days? ) - who can forget her delirious, cuckoo-bird meltdown on the Opryland stage before an audience of booing, confused fans?

That amazing scene where Keith Carradine sings "I'm Easy" - ostensibly to Lily Tomlin, but nearly every other woman in his nightclub audience believes the song is dedicated to her, and Altman makes a neat round of close ups as each of Carradine's recent one-night-stands respectively beams with pride, trembles and blushes with passion, or squirms in painful humiliation. The brilliance of that scene, I believe, got that otherwise insubstantial song its Best Song Oscar.

Over the years, I sought out Altman's movies. My first trip to a movie theatre after arriving at college was to see "Three Women," his strange, arty film in which Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Janice Rule sort of swapped personalities. I treasured "A Wedding" for its big, messy, sprawling story and cast, and its weird, off-kilter, dark moments. Altman's films got smaller and stranger, then bigger and better("The Player," "Gosford Park"). But although I always loved him for his renegade attitude towards Hollywood, I never had another of his movies affect me the way "Nashville" did.

Just one other thing, though - one of Altman's recent films, which I loved, but which isn't mentioned often is "The Company" - a look at young dancers in the Joffrey Ballet. It has one scene that I absolutely love in which Neve Campbell and a male dancer (whose name escapes me) perform an unspeakably beautiful pas de deux to "My Funny Valentine." On an outdoor stage. During the early stages of a horrendous rainstorm. The wind gusts, rain pelts the stage - they dance on, flawlessly and sinuously wrapping themselves around one another, too consumed with the emotion of the dance to stop for the inclement weather. I don't know if that rainstorm was planned, or a happy accident of the shooting schedule - but that scene is gold.

Farewell, Mr. Altman. You will be greatly missed.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Books that made a difference to me, Part 2

Continuing my list of books that mattered to me.....

4. The World According to Garp by John Irving

When I was in college in the late 70s, John Irving was HUGE, and none of his books was more loved than "Garp." His literary star has fallen a long way since then (IMHO, he hasn't written a good book since "The Cider House Rules", but I still love this book, and I still pull it down from the shelf and re-read it periodically. The opening sentence always grabs me - "Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theatre." - and every character is amazing and original. I've flippantly summed up Irving's work as being about "hot sex and freak accidents" - there are plenty of both in "Garp," but there is also evidence of Irving's power as a storyteller. (The movie version is cute enough, but it doesn't hold a candle to the book.)

5. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

As a senior in high school, I was given a list of "100 Books You Should Read Before You Go to College." "Madame Bovary" was on that list, but I didn't manage to read till several years later. I now wish I could regain the hours I spent trying to stay interested in "The Mayor of Casterbridge" or "Moby Dick" to spend them on Flaubert's masterwork. I'm endlessly intrigued by stories of women whose appetites for drama,passion and beauty far exceed what their ordinary lives can provide them. And Emma Bovary - trapped in a marriage to a dull, provincial doctor; spending money and chasing lovers with foolish and reckless abandon - is the prototype of all such doomed seekers. Many 19th century novelists are a tough read for me these days. Even Jane Austen, who I adore, takes powers of concentration that my hopelessly Googled/Tivoed/21st century brain can't always summon. But Flaubert's prose remains sharp,engrossing and modern. (Skip the movie version with Isabelle Huppert - it's even duller than Emma's husband.)

6. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the writer I want to be when I grow up - wickedly funny, painfully honest, smart-assed and heartbreaking all at once. She's about the only Christian writer I know who can write about Jesus without being all prissy, drippy and Sunday-schoolish. But "Bird by Bird" precedes her writing on faith - it is, in fact, a book about how to write. And Lamott doesn't pull any punches about how hard it is to write - at all, let alone to write anything good. Or how pointless it is to focus on getting published at the expense of doing the work well. But when you put her book down, I guarantee you'll be motivated to get to work on your own prose. (I'll bet you think there is no movie version of this one. WRONG! There is a video called "Bird by Bird with Annie." If you're an Anne fan, it's compulsory viewing.)

7. "Saturday" by Ian McEwan

This was a tough call. For the sake of space and brevity, I had decided to limit myself to seven books. And choosing McEwan's latest novel meant I had to forgo some other favorites like "A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler, "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt or "Any Human Heart" by William Boyd.

BUT having said that - I now praise this fine novel by one of my most recently discovered favorite authors. "Saturday" chronicles one day in the life of a London neurosurgeon - a day when the streets are filled with anti-war demonstrations and a day on which his own family members will face a serious threat to their own safety. It's a cliche to say "I couldn't put this book down" - but, really, I couldn't. McEwan evokes a growing sense of unease and foreboding as the story unfolds, while masterfully engaging us in the daily details of affluent Perowne family's lives. I can only hope the movie that is inevitably made from this book will be half as good as its source material.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Books that made a difference to me, Part 1

One of my recurring fantasies is that someday I'll become famous and Oprah will ask me to contribute to her magazine's "Books that Made a Difference to..." column. Since this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, I've decided not to wait for Oprah's invitation, but to go right ahead and share my list (or at least the first part of it, for now):

1. "Harriet the Spy" by Louise Fitzhugh
This was absolutely my favorite book as a child. (If you've seen the dreadful 1997 film version with the badly miscast Rosie O'Donnell, please banish it from your mind immediately. The source material is SOOO much better.) Harriet is an aspiring writer who carries a notebook everywhere to record her observations about friends, family, and the assorted, colorful strangers she scopes out on her after-school "spy route." When her classmates find her notebook - and read her painfully honest assessments of them - Harriet becomes the sixth-grade pariah and the target of a "Spy Catchers" club. In her quest to regain the trust of her friends, she learns a little about life, writing, loyalty and tact (and eats a lot of tomato sandwiches), but the story never devolves into anything preachy or "after school special"-ish. Ms. Fitzhugh is far too canny for that. Even as a adult, I find this book charming and wise, and Harriet remains one of my favorite heroines of fiction.

2. "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" by Betty Smith
I discovered this book in the school library when I was in 8th grade. At the time, I identified strongly with Francie Nolan, a young girl who lives in a Brooklyn slum with a hard-working mother, a loving, alcoholic father and dreams of becoming a writer. (That aspiring writer theme again....) The circumstances of Francie's life were, in fact, pretty different from mine, but something about her writing aspirations and the dynamics of her family situation really reasonated with me. Re-reading this book as an adult was a revelation - there is so much loving detail in Francie's story - she's too beautifully and carefully drawn a character for a 12-year-old reader to fully appreciate. And, unlike "Harriet the Spy," this book was made into a beautiful and heartbreaking film by Elia Kazan in 1945.

3. "Nine Stories" by J. D. Salinger
I was obsessed with J. D. Salinger as a teenager, and still have the four battered, paperbacks that I bought for $1.95 each in the late'70s that comprise his entire ouevre. Their pages are now fragile and brown-edged, betraying a lot of reading and handling. Either "Catcher in the Rye" or "Franny and Zooey" would have been the more obvious choice here, but every third contributor to "Books that made a difference to..." picks one of those. "Nine Stories" fed my fascination with Salinger's oft-recurring characters: the Glass Family - Les, Bessie and their seven offspring,all of whom are precocious and most of whom are far too sensitive for their own good. This is particularly true of the eldest son, Seymour, who commits suicide on his honeymoon in the keenly observed opening story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." (The other stories have equally whimsical titles - "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut," "Just Before the War with the Eskimos" and so on.) I don't read Salinger anymore, but I have lots of intense, happy memories of being curled up with these paperbacks as a teenager and feeling terribly sophisticated and thrilled by lives and viewpoints that were far outside my own experience. (RE: film versions - "Uncle Wiggly" from this book was turned into a mediocre Hollywood tearjerker with Susan Hayward called "My Foolish Heart" - Salinger hated it and vowed never to let another of his works be filmed. This is why we have never had a film version of "Catcher in the Rye." Probably a good thing, too.)

In Part 2 of this blog entry, I shall express my appreciation for Anne Tyler, Alan Bennett, Anne Lamott, and - possibly - others. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Reason for the "Season"

At Christmastime, many Christians are fond of reminding us that "Jesus is the reason for the season."

In the midst of the cookouts, parades and fireworks today, pause for a moment to remember the reason for this "season" (OK, this holiday - although four days of fesitivities might qualify as a 'mini-season'.) Click on the link below to read the magnificient, eloquent document drafted by our founding fathers and remember how this glorious nation came to be. And let's keep the spirit of our founding fathers alive.

Happy Independence Day to all!!!!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A Few Thoughts from Joni's Scrambled Brain

Warning: What you are about to read comes from the brain of a woman who is sleep-deprived and creatively drained, yet has a compulsive need to blog. It may contain misspellings, grammatical errors, run-on sentences or baffling non-sequiturs. It is not likely to have a point -

Five of the last seven nights of my life have included some combination of dinner/drinks/movies with friends old and new, followed by inadequate amounts of sleep.

I have dined at a hip, trendy suburban spot with a drink special called "The Pama-tini." The complete ingredient list for this misguided cocktail escapes me now, but pomegranate liquor was somewhere near the top. I won't pretend I didn't lap it right up (for $8.95, I was DETERMINED to enjoy it), but it was a poor substitute for the mojito I had craved. Mojitos, sadly, were not on the menu. So much for "hip"!

On the bright side, however, I had some amazingly good fish tacos at the Cheesecake Factory, and a dependably delicious Ruben sandwich at my local Irish pub. This ends the restaurant review portion of the post.

I spent a night out at the 2-dollar movie house, watching Antonio Banderas teach ballroom dancing to inner-city high schoolers in "Take the Lead." And I spent two rather sobering hours hearing Al Gore outline the consequences of global warming in "An Inconvenient Truth." I think everyone in American should see the latter film and take it to heart. I have tried to tell people about the movie, but I've found that some of my friends just don't like - and won't listen to - Al Gore. (It always makes me sad when people dump on Al Gore - I don't know why I take it personally, but I do. I never minded when Gore would heave those disgusted sighs and roll his eyes at Bush during the 2000 presidential debates. Frankly, I thought that was an entirely appropriate response.)

All I can say to anyone who thinks this global warming thing is no big deal: See the movie, and then decide. Look at the pictures of glaciers taken 40 years ago next to recent pictures - and witness how dramtically they have receded. Take in the fact that, for the first time in history, polar bears are drowning in the Arctic Ocean because the ice floes they depend on are sometimes 60 miles apart and the bears die trying to swim to them. See the dramatic reduction in the ice mass of Anarctica and Greenland. Get the many other facts that my poor, addled brain is too tired to remember right now. Then decide.

On a lighter note: I would like to close by declaring my undying love for Anthony Bourdain. I've been reading his newest collection "The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps and Bones." Culled from his magazine writing of the last few years, these are Bourdain's highly entertaining takes on celebrity chefs, chain restaurants, fast food, the rigors of travel and shooting his peripatetic show for the TravelChannel. AB is a a bad boy - ribald, profane, and - by his own admission - "testosterone fuelled." He is also self-deprecating, generous, charming, and never, never boring. His TV show - "No Reservations" - is a standing, Monday night date for me.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Reflections on a Week Away

"I wish I could go back to college.
Life was so simple back then."
from "Avenue Q"

Last week, I visited my alma mater - Indiana University - and a more beautiful college campus I will challenge you to find anywhere.

Being June, it was quiet there. Not many students in evidence - although summer school was underway. (You could actually walk through Dunn Meadow with no danger of being hit in the stomach by a low-flying Frisbee. Do not laugh. This happened to me in my undergrad days. It hurt, too.) In fact, I saw as many middle-aged people there as students, apparently attending meetings or conferences.

Some of the middle-aged people I saw there were old, dear friends of mine - fellow IU grads who I had not seen in years. And I can't even put in words how wonderful it was to see them. We took an extensive tour of the campus: popped in at our old dormitory, walked through the School of Journalism and the School of Business, got some Special K Chewies at the Sugar and Spice shop in the Union building (half the size and twice the price of the 1981 versions), bowled a game at the IMU Lanes (site of much shared hilarity during our comic turn as an intramural bowling team senior year), posed for photos with the new statue of Herman B. Wells, and even toured Nick's English Hut (bigger and with more rooms than we remembered - but perhaps we were too inebriated on our trips there to make it all the way to the back!)

I may be romanticizing a bit (time and distance help to soften our bad memories and sharpen our good ones), but I remember being really happy during my college years. (And not just because I had great, crazy friends, although that was an important part of it.) Coming from a little town in the sticks (pop. 2000 - a figure which undoubtedly includes most of the livestock) to a big, liberal university town was, for me, as though the gates of paradise had swung wide open. I was hungry for books, for films, for experiences, for all the culture and education I could get my hands on, and then some.

In fact, here is a story - one which I've never told anyone before - which illustrates how geeky I was in those days. As a high school junior, I sent away to Indiana University for information and received a catalog of courses for the College of Arts and Sciences. I spent hours - nay, days - WEEKS even! - poring over this wondrous work, making little stars beside all the classes I wanted to take: Art Appreciation! European History! Genre Study of Film! English Literature! Political Science! Languages - French, German, Italian! I wanted it all. I wanted at least 5 majors. I could not WAIT to get to college in order to delve into all these fascinating classes and learn all this amazing stuff! College was going to be GREAT!!!!

In the end, I settled for a degree in Journalism with a minor in Business Administration. Challenging, but practical. I didn't quite manage to take all the classes I had starred in the COAS catalog, though I did fit in some interesting electives. I remember quite fondly a class in the History of the Enlightenment which I took during my last semester; I wrote a 25-page term paper on Voltaire's exile in England, and I was in hog heaven. Honestly.

Hey, I told you I was a geek.

Anyway, it's 25 years later, and I've faced the reality of mortgage payments and heating bills and holding down the kind of corporate job I never thought I'd have. Young idealistic dreams drift away just as surely as our waistlines thicken and our breasts sag. Oh sure, I get all fired up occasionally by, say, a History Channel marathon on the Tsars of Russia, a great movie, or a vacation trip to some castle or museum. But the inspiration passes. Sometimes it feels like my major accomplishments in life are the checkmarks I put beside completed tasks on my daily "To do" lists. It's not the catalog of the College of Arts and Sciences, but rather my overstuffed Day Planner that sets the agenda for the rest of my life.

But being back at IU reminded me of my younger self - the one who actually didn't watch much TV, who read voraciously, was anxious to travel and see the world. The girl who saw the life ahead of her as full of endless promise and possibility. I'd love to go back and be a student again, but I'm 46, not 18. I can't chuck it all, move into the dorm, and start over on a new degree.

But who says I can't be a student? If the trip to Bloomington did anything for me, it led me to make a couple of resolutions about my life:

1) I will NOT let so many years go by again without seeing my old friends. Life is too short not to spend time with people you care about, and we had way too much fun not to do this again soon.

2) I can live the rest of my life as if I am a student. This doesn't mean I have to quit my job (though someday, I might), but it does mean I can turn off the TV and spend more time doing the things I used to love to do. I can take more time to savor how truly wonderful films, books, works of art and nature can be. I can be joyful and I can stop setting limits for myself. I can kick myself right out of my middle-aged comfort zone and go look for some fun and adventure.

As if to affirm these resolutions, my pastor preached this Sunday about the ways that we let our lives get small, when we ought to envision lives that are big and full. We shop the same grocery store, drive the same streets, put in the same 30 minutes every day on the same treadmill. What would happen if we got off our treadmill or drove down a new street or shopped a whole different set of stores? Would we meet some new people? Get some new ideas? Getting out of our well-worn ruts, said the pastor, might give us a whole new notion of what it means to be "born again." I've rarely taken a sermon so much to heart as I did that one. It was as if God was saying to me "See, you've finally got the right idea!"

I went back to work today. I can't say that hearing the alarm clock go off at 5:30 this morning was a treat, exactly, but I went to my job with a smile on my face.

Sometimes a vacation - even a little one - really can give you a new lease on life.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

There's Nothing Glummer than a Cold in the Summer!

That's the start of a poem I remember hearing as a kid. I don't know how the rest of it goes, but those opening lines are oh, so true!

It's a Bea-u-tiful day here in the Chicago 'burbs - abundant sun, a slight breeze, temps in the 70s with absolutely no humidity. Outside my window, our annual suburban Art Festival is in full swing with music, food and dozens of artists selling their wares. Lots of happy people are enjoying the sunshine, the band, the hot dogs and the glass-blowing demonstrations.

But I'm inside at the computer - red-nosed and stuffy. A stack of Puffs tissues by my side. Swigging orange juice and hot tea. It's a very sad scene. This kind of misery is better suited to a gray, gloomy afternoon in December - not a sparkling June day straight out of a beer commercial! I'm pretty sure I caught this cold in Vegas. Must have been a nasty virus circulating around the quarter slot machines.

I'm doubly glum because I'm traveling again tomorrow - this time doing a five-day 'reunion tour' of the Hoosier state (that's what I'm calling it anyway). I'll be visiting college friends and friends from my community theatre days in Indianapolis, people I haven't seen in years. I've been looking forward to this for months, and the last thing I want to bring these people is a cold virus. I'll be out of the blogosphere for several days for this trip, but I'm sure I'll have some wonderful postings when I return.

Catch you all later!

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

My Weekend in Vegas

If you're looking for lurid details in this post, move on.

There's nothing to see here.

This is not a tale in which I get hopped up on Apple-tinis and hang upside down from a stripper pole at the Pussycat Dolls Lounge.

Nor I am asked to blow on the dice of a handsome stranger at the craps table, who then goes on to win big and to plant a grateful kiss on my lips and a thousand-dollar chip in my cleavage.

Does stuff like that actually happen in Vegas, anyway?

I go there every year and most of the folks I see wandering around the casinos are average-looking middle Americans in blue jeans and fanny packs, sometimes carrying very long-necked glasses of unspecified fruity, frozen cocktails. Oh, and a few women in bridal gowns on the arms of young men in tuxes occasionally stride through a hotel lobby or sit beside each other at his-and-hers slot machines. But all those "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" shenanigans happen somewhere out of my purview.

Some of what I DID experience in Vegas this weekend:

1) Good and Bad Weather
On Saturday, there were lots of clouds in the sky and LOTS of heavy, gusty wind. Ostensibly, the day's high was 75 degrees, but it felt more like 55! So much for spending the entire day at the pool. We went to Plan B: shopping the Forum Shops at Caesar's. Which was diverting enough, but OH how I wanted the sunshine.
Fortunately, by Sunday the clouds were gone and the sun shone bright. I spent most of the afternoon poolside, sipping a tasty Mojito from Neptune's Bar and reading "Elements of Style" by Wendy Wasserstein.

2) Celine Dion's show at Caesar's
I really wanted to love this show, because Celine Dion is just so darn nice. She's so sweet and genuine and down-to-earth - she's like that nice soccer mom from the carpool, except with a powerhouse pop-belter voice and designer gowns. (And when I allow myself, I can really wallow in the overblown romanticism of her hit songs.)

Unfortunately, her girl-next-door appeal is nearly drowned in an overblown, pretentious spectacle of a show with dancers and Cirque De Soleil acrobats all around her performing strange, embarrassing choreography that has nothing whatsoever to do with her songs.

Take for example, one number in which Celine sits in a comfy chair surrounded by buff, shirtless young men in tight pants who sort of writhe around on the floor while she sings. It's a supremely silly, overwrought moment, and the wonderful thing is - she knows it! A larger-than-life man-eater like Madonna would play this scene straight and serious as if making some powerful statement about female sexuality. But Celine finishes the number and strides tomboyishly to the lip of the stage, making a derisive, sputtering noise as if to say "Boy, that was really silly and embarrassing and way too much work!" And the audience laughs warmly in response, because we know that's how WE would feel if we had to sit in that chair with those boys wiggling around us in faux ecstasy. She's one of us!

The most bizarre moment in the show is when Celine decides to "funk it up," so to speak, ditches the Galliano gown for tuxedo pants and a ponytail, and hip-hops around the stage with a cover of Stevie Wonder's "You Wish." There is something SO wrong about a skinny, white French-Canadian woman singing about "when I was a leetle, nappy-headed boy." But you can't fault her energy and enthusiasm. Celine is there to please.

And even though she's done this show for over 3 years, she still seems genuinely astonished by and grateful for her audience's adulation and wild applause.

3)La Reve at the Wynn
Despite what you may think from the Celine review, I actually LOVE me some Cirque de Soleil. Their shows are the best thing in Vegas. LaReve isn't' technically a Cirque de Soleil show, but it was staged by CdS's former creative director and is indistinguishable from anything that the CdS does. An aquatic show performed in the round, it is very close to the style and spirit of "O," the long-running CdS show at the Bellagio. And ultimately just as mind-blowing.

What I love about CdS is this: as someone who can only express herself artistically through words (and, arguably, her choice of shoes), I'm in awe of people who can create moods and stories and dream landscapes through movement, music, costumes - everything BUT words. And these folks do it brilliantly.

And, finally -
4)You want to know what stays in Vegas?
What stayed in Vegas on Monday - about 3 and half hours longer than it was supposed to - was my plane back to Chicago. The lightning and thunder and hail around O'Hare kept the airlines from sending any planes there till late in the evening. As a result, I stumbled across my threshold around midnight last night, and I'm just about ready to nod off here. So no more Vegas tales tonight.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Farewell, Jack Bristow

On last night's final episode of "Alias," one of my all-time favorite television characters went to be with the angels. But not before ensuring - in his final, glorious, heroic act - that the most evil man on earth would spend eternity buried alive in a cave in Mongolia.

That sentence makes no sense whatsoever if you aren't an "Alias" fan. Otherwise you already know that: 1) Sloane is the most evil man on earth; 2) Sloane finally obtained his long-sought Rambaldi device, and with its power was made immortal; and 3) Jack Bristow blew himself up in the Mongolian cave where the Rambaldi device was found, leaving Sloane half-buried and doomed to live forever under the rubble.

OK, I guess you had to be there.

In four years of watching "Alias" (I missed the first season, but caught it later in reruns), I have never once understood what the hell was going on. I watched Sydney put on miniskirts and wigs and kickbox her way out of the bad guy's clutches again and again. I listened to characters yammer on and on about the mysterious Rambaldi and his prophecies. I puzzled over scenes that took place in Tibetan monasteries for no discernible reason. And I tried in vain to keep up with the evil-genius alliances that cropped up week after week, each with some scary new bomb or bio-weapon and a plan to take over the world. Couldn't make heads or tails out of any of it - not even for a minute. I do know, however, that not one of those evil alliances succeeded in their quest for world domination. Sydney, Vaughn, and the other cute, hot, young things of the CIA kicked the bad guys' butts every time. But those youngsters weren't the reason I was tuning in to "Alias" every week.

My "Alias" addiction was fueled by one man and one man alone: Jack Bristow.

Who is, of course, played by Victor Garber.

I first fell in love with Victor Garber when I was 13, and he was the rainbow-suspendered hippie Jesus of the movie "Godspell." He was all of 23 when he made that film, and he was the most beautiful young man on earth. (I think the picture above confirms this - in spite of the enormous Afro and the faux teardrops painted beneath his eyes.) But the years passed, I stopped obsessively listening to my "Godspell" movie soundtrack album, and I outgrew my puppy lust. Meanwhile, Victor was working mostly on Broadway. By the 90s, he was turning in memorable supporting performances in hit movies like "Sleepless in Seattle," "The First Wives' Club" and "Titanic" and I rediscovered the beautiful boy of my teenage crush, all grown up into a tall, handsome - well, let's just say it - HOT man. But he's never been as sexy as when playing the silver-haired CIA spy daddy/bad ass that is Jack Bristow.

But this isn't just about lust. (It is mostly about lust. But, really, there is more.) Jack Bristow is a fascinating and complex character: a double agent who dishes out torture and orders executions with expressionless sangfroid; a once-loving husband still obsessed with avenging his wife's betrayal and duplicity (she turned out be be a KGB agent); a father fiercely protective of the daughter he tried to discourage from going into his line of work; and, in the final season, a doting grandfather. Jack Bristow is a field day for an actor of Victor's caliber. He shows you every layer and nuance of Jack's inner torment, and yet for all the world remains deadpan, inscrutable, and often downright scary.

I remember one scene from season 2 (the best season of the series IMHO). Irina, in her jail cell, taunts Jack with her recollection of their brief marriage as a trial and a sham. The camera cuts to Victor listening, and on his face, you can see every emotion that the taunt elicits - hurt, betrayal, anger, contempt. The whole history of their relationship plays out on his face in just a few seconds. Moments like that are what kept me coming back to "Alias" week after week.

I just regret that they couldn't fit in one more face-off between Jack and Irina in that last show. It could have been dynamite.

(Photos from

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Working with the Night Ministry

On Friday night, I traveled into Chicago along with a group from my church. We spent a night volunteering with The Night Ministry, a group which - as their web site describes it - "serves homeless and runaway youth, working poor adults, uninsured and underinsured individuals seeking medical assistance, children who are unsupervised and need a place to gather in safety, and others who have "fallen through the cracks" of our social service systems."

We brought a load of sandwiches, chips, fruit, cookies, and bottled water with us - as well as several bags of new white socks. Along with members of the Night Ministry staff, we lined up along the curb near a busy Chicago intersection, and passed these out to people in need, many of whom were already assembled and awaiting us when we arrived. (This was a regularly scheduled event called "Beat the Heat"- ironic in this case, since it was a very cool May night. It takes place every Friday at the same time and same intersection.)

This was not a grim or depressing experience in any way. There was a boombox playing, and many people - from among those we served and our group alike - were dancing. People ate and talked and hung out - most of them knew each other. And many members of our group who had volunteered before knew people who had come to be served.

I'm going to be honest here. This was my second time volunteering with the Night Ministry and I'll definitely do it again. But before my first time, I was a little nervous about what I'd encounter. I had as many fears and trepidations about homeless people as any other privileged suburbanite. When I lived in Indianapolis, there was one homeless man we all referred to as the Quarter Man. He roamed the downtown streets, day in and day out, always in the same dark green polyester leisure suit, always smelling bad. Most days, he'd politely approach you and ask for a quarter - if you didn't give it to him, he'd just go on his way. But some days, you'd see him storming the sidewalks, ranting to someone only he could he see, raging and screaming obscenities. Although he never approached anyone when in this state- too lost in his own rage and despair to register the horror of those passing by him - he was truly terrifying. My co-workers and I talked about the Quarter Man - pitied him, wondered a little about him, occasionally made a crass joke about him. But mostly we distanced ourself from the Quarter Man. His plight could never be our plight. It was unthinkable to us that we could ever end up like him.

I'm sure Chicago has homeless people who are a lot like the Quarter Man- in fact, I've seen a few of them in the Loop over the years. But the thing that struck me most about the people I have served with the Night Ministry is that they are largely indistinguishable from the other people hurrying along the city sidewalks - those heading to jobs and homes and family, rather than to a handout of food and water and a (very possibly futile) search for a warm place to spend the night. They are very much like you and me. I am a fiercely independent person myself - reluctant to ask for help or admit my need. Seeing these people line up for sandwiches, and load bags with extra food to make it through the weekend, humbled me beyond words.

It easy to pretend that the Quarter Man is not me and could never be me. But what about those adorable teenage girls in the too-big fleece hoodies? Or the man to whom I served lemonade - the articulate, well-read man who graduated from the same university that I did? It's a lot harder to separate myself from them. We're all part of the same family, really. And if we are following Jesus, then it's our job to take care of our human family, while realizing that we, too, may be the one in need of help next time. And there should be no loss of dignity in needing or asking for help.

It was cold Friday night, and I was tired. But I was lucky. When the night was over and the sandwiches and socks had all been passed out, I got to ride back to the suburbs in a heated car. I got to go home - my own home -and put on my warm, fuzzy socks, crawl under a warm afghan, eat leftover spaghetti and watch a late movie on my 27-inch TV.

But I don't know where those men and women and young people I met ended up on Friday night. I don't know how or if they kept warm. Because I learned these startling statistics during my volunteer orientation:
1. The average age of a homeless person in Chicago? Nine years old.
2. The number of homeless people in Chicago? 15,000.
3. The number of beds available in shelters for Chicago's homeless youth? There is an unconfirmed maximum of 100 beds available nightly - the cofirmable number is 40. (The Night Ministry provides 16 of these.)

With such a staggering number of people in need, it is futile for a group like the Night Ministry to try to find everyone a bed. But what they can - and do - provide is a place to come for food, fellowship and medical care. And I'm very honored to have been part of their services for a couple of nights.

To find out more about Night Ministry, check out their website:

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Where in the World Has Joni Been?

As the devotees of this blog (tiny handful that they are) are aware, Joni's Window has been effectively closed for some time now.

Well, it's spring now - actually, it's almost summer - and Joni is throwing the window open again!

When last I blogged, I was spending inordinate amounts of time in my recliner, eating bad carbs and watching endless reruns of "The Sopranos."

I am happy to report that in the intervening months - as winter waned and the days grew longer and marginally sunnier - I got a bit of a life. I got busy, got out of my recliner, cut out the bad carbs (and have lost 20 pounds since February 1 - thank you South Beach Diet!), and started watching "The Sopranos" one week at a time like everyone else.

Over the winter and spring, I led an Artist's Way group at my church. For those not familiar, the Artist's Way is a 12-week program designed by Julia Cameron, described by the author as a "spiritual path for creative recovery." In other words, it's a way by which those of us who always wanted to write (or always wanted to paint, or to act, or to sing or what have you) can get back in touch with those creative desires and find a way to live them out. There are readings and exercises each week designed to get you in touch with your "artist child." (OK, stop sniggering. It may sound a little airy-fairy, but if you put aside your cynicism, it can be very enlightening, even consoling.) The two big assignments each week are Morning Pages and an Artist's Date. To do morning pages, you get up early every morning and before you do ANYTHING else, you fill 3 pages in a notebook with whatever comes into your head. There are no rules, no right or wrong - just keep putting words down. Because I am NOT a morning person (with a capital NOT), many of my morning pages begin by noting how wonderful it is to sleep and how wonderful it would be to get MORE sleep and how awful alarm clocks are and how wonderful coffee is. I have covered those topics extensively in my Morning Pages notebook.
Including myself, there were 10 people in our group - and they were all highly inspirational to me. We shared a lot of our hopes, dreams and fears - and quite a few good laughs - over the course of our 12 weeks together. I am looking forward to leading another group in the fall. I hope to touch on some of our Artist's Way experiences in upcoming posts.

About Julia Cameron: If you've never heard of her (many people haven't), she's a writer, songwriter, filmmaker, teacher and a sort of spiritual guru to creative types everywhere. Her book "The Artist's Way" has been in print since 1992, and has spawned bazillions of groups and classes all over the world. (Catty biographical note: She was also Martin Scorcese's first wife, who he dumped for Liza Minelli while he was making "New York, New York" in 1976. Interestingly enough, the final credits of "New York, New York," include a big "Special Thanks to Julia Cameron." We can only wonder what prompted this gratitude. Perhaps she was an exceptionally gracious dumpee?)I still have the original 1992 edition of the book - in which she sports a bad, frizzy 80s perm in her author photo. The other people in my group had the 10th anniversary edition of the book on which the author photo resembles a Glamour Shot, with Ms. Cameron airbrushed and glamorously coiffed. Quite a contrast.

But, anyway - back to MY life!

I've done a lot of other things over the past few months - visited friends in the Dallas suburbs(and miraculously managed to keep my views on George W to myself while visiting. As my friend said "Please don't say anything about the president. This is Bush country, and everyone has a gun.") Sang in my church's Good Friday concert of Faure's Requiem (difficult, somewhat avant garde music. If you put a gun to my head right now and said "Hum a few measures of "Agnus Dei" from Faure's Requiem or I'll shoot!" I'd have to tell you to pull the trigger. I've completely forgotten every single note in the piece. And it's not like I didn't spend a lot of time practicing it. Go figure.) Good Friday was a preternaturally summery day, and our non-air-conditioned sanctuary was a steambath that night, even with all the doors open. In my long-sleeved blouse and black winter slacks, I nearly keeled over a couple of times.

I've also been reading a bit, most recently "A Million Little Pieces." Two co-workers recommended it, so I tried to put aside the pre-conceived notions one might have about a work of fiction that has been (unsuccessfully) passed off as a searingly honest memoir.
I'm aware that my bullshit detector was turned up pretty high as a result of the notoriety surrounding this book, but I found it hard to believe that Oprah - or anyone else- thought this story was true, even before its untruth was exposed. You can always tell when James Frey is lying, 'cause that's when his book starts to sound like it was written by an inexperienced high schooler trying to sound tough and wordly - and getting every bit of it wrong. The particularly suspect parts are: 1)The opening scene on the airplane (Has anyone ever really been allowed on a plane when their shirt front is covered with blood, vomit, and snot and they're bleeding from a hole in their cheek?); 2) The "dental surgery sans anesthesia" scene (every pain cliche in the book - phrases like "white hot light" and that kind of crap); and 3)Lilly's rescue from the crackhouse (Detail after lurid, over-the-top detail - by the time he gets to the piles of rat feces in every corner and the cold, viscous slime on the stair railing, he is seriously gilding the lilly.)

Well, anyway - Since I have a life again, I plan to write about it much more frequently. I'm sure that will make the one, maybe two people who read my blog regularly want to jump for joy!!!

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Cold Weather and Not Much Else

After a very springlike January, winter has finally arrived with a vengeance here in the Land of Lincoln. It's been a weekend of frosty sub-zero and just above zero temperatures.

My winter doldrums are raging on as I huddle under my afghan and keep warm by doggedly making it through 4 seasons of "Sopranos" reruns. Well, not doggedly - that implies a sort of drudgery, and I'm having a great time with this series. I'm well into Season 4 now - Paulie Walnuts is out of jail, Adrianna is looking scared as her wedding approaches (since she may still be forced to testify against Christopher, even after they wed), Tony is mourning the suicide death of his former, crazy Mercedes-dealer girlfriend, and Carmela appears to have a crush on Furio. I am way hooked on this show - nearly every day for me ends with an episode of "The Sopranos." I can't say enough good things about the actors - particularly James Gandolfini whose nuanced and throughly inhabited performace as Tony is fresh and amazing week after week. Yes, I know I am shockingly late to the "Sopranos" party - but it is a lot of fun catching up.

Although I have banished bad carbs from my life since I last wrote (I'm now on Week 3 of the South Beach Diet and down almost 10 pounds!), other "winter doldrums" symptoms and behaviors remain intact - most notably a tendency to spend ridiculous amounts of time in the recliner with the TV remote in one hand and a can of Peach Fresca in the other.

Today's TV-watching adventures include "Evita" on HBO (Madonna is singing "You Must Love Me" even as I write this. Although I like her very much in this film, I hate her interpretation of this particular song. I think it is a much better song than her rendition would lead you to believe. She sings it tentatively - almost as if she is afraid of making a mistake- but the song is meant to be a last-ditch cri de couer, and it really needs to be sung by someone who will dive fearlessly into the strong, messy emotions behind its lyrics. It could be heart-stopping in the hands of a singer with stronger acting skills than Mrs. Ritchie's.)

Later tonight, some friends will join me to watch the British Academy Awards on BBC America. These are always a hoot - all the stars with almost none of the glitz. Or, least, just the British version of red-carpet glitz - and Brits really don't do 'glitz' very well, IMHO. Stephen Fry is the host, and he is so intellectual and compulsively multi-syllabic that I don't know what the hell he is talking about most of the time, but I love him anyway. I'll be back tomorrow with part 2 on the British awards - and some of my Oscar picks. I'm sure you'll all be awating this breathlessly.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Long Time, No Post: The January Doldrums

T. S. Eliot once wrote that "April is the cruellest month."

He was SO wrong!!!

April is a fine month. Little green things start sprouting up from the soil and on long-barren tree branches in April. The stores are filled with pastel-colored clothing and Easter candy. If it snows, you know it's the last snow you're going to get for the season, and you can start putting away your big, clumpy boots and polar fleece and stuff the snow shovel in the back of the closet.

No, JANUARY is the cruellest month!! All the pretty Christmas lights get packed away, and everyone goes back to work. The days are gloomy, and the snow (when we get it) is gray, ugly and dirty.

This January, as in all Januaries past, I've fallen into a bit of a post-holiday funk. Nothing serious, mind you, just an unfortunate tendency to spend ridiculous amounts of time sprawled in a recliner - wearing comfy sweatpants, eating bad carbs (Trader Joe's organic chocolate chip cookies are a particular favorite) and catching up on, ummm, quality TV.

Ok, that last part was a bit sarcastic, but, I have in fact been watching some good stuff. For example, I've now become the last person on the planet to get hooked on "The Sopranos." It's been on HBO since, what, 1999? And I just watched it for the first time 9 days ago. But thanks to the miracle of Comcast On Demand and their "Sopranos - Season 1 in 3 Minutes" featurette, I have now made it to the finale of Season 2. Only three more seasons to watch before the final season begins on March 12. And that means I've got to put in some more seriously dedicated viewing time, 'cause the Winter Olympics start on February 10. (I really can't miss my favorite event, the two-man luge.)

I've also been watching the awards shows, and I must say they are DUUUUULLLLLL. Ho hum! No surprises anywhere. And the actresses are all dressed ever so tastefully - and unspectacularly. Only "Desperate Housewife" Marcia Cross stands out every time - flame-haired and colorfully dressed amid a sea of understated white, black and champagne-hued gowns. Her bold orange Golden Globes dress was gorgeous, her plummy lavendar SAG awards dress divine. You go Marcia! Next to Felicity Huffman, you are my favorite Desperate Housewife! (of course, I don't actually watch the show!) What I really crave, though, is one of those legendary fashion mistakes - you know, a real howler like when Bjork wore that stuffed swan to the Oscars a few years ago, or Lara Flynn Boyle showed up on the red carpet in a pink tutu and lace-up ballet slippers. Oh for the days when Cher still showed at these shindigs!

Then there's Isaac Mizrahi - he's on the red carpet, too, but you don't have to watch awards shows to find him. His God-awful talk show is broadcast on the Style Network about 4 times a day - four times too often, if you ask me. Once upon a time - about, oh, five years or so ago - Isaac had a tasteful, tightly formatted, 30-minute show on the Oxygen channel with interesting guests (mostly Broadway actresses) whom he actually allowed to talk about their lives, to finish their sentences, and even to sing sometimes. Then some mastermind at the Style Network decided Isaac should be given a free-wheeling sixty-minutes of air time with an on-set barista to whip up cappucinos while he chatted with celebrities and dispensed fashion tips to the audience.
On paper, that doesn't sound bad. But in reality - 60 minutes of Isaac Mizrahi doing and saying anything that pops into his head is a mind-numbingly exhausting experience. The man literally cannot shut up. He prattles on and on (with a intellectual vacuity that would embarass a fifth-grader), interupting his guests to go off on bizarre tangents of his own choosing. Think I'm being mean? A mere 10 minutes ago, I caught his interview with the feisty Margaret Cho (who I love BTW) about her very political new book "I Choose to Stand and Fight." Ms. Cho attempts to talk about a recent KKK rally in Texas, and Isaac blurts out "Oh my God, that is the first time those letters - KKK - have been used on the Issaac Mizrahi Show! I love that! I'm so excited about that! The Isaac Mizrahi show is talking about the KKK! The Isaac Mizrahi show is dealing with issues!"

This is my "favorite" Isaac Mizrahi moment. A close second - the day he came out barefoot, carrying his shoes and three, equally obnoxious, day-glo colored pairs of socks. He took an audience vote to determine which pair of socks he should wear. (Shouldn't a fashion designer tell US what socks to wear with a beige suit and brown shoes? Just a thought.) Oh, the lime green pair beat out the yellow and orange ones.

Well, kids, the Oscar nominations come out tomorrow. Of which I shall have plenty to say later on. For now, I'm keeping my fingers crossed for lots of nominations for "Capote" and "Crash."

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Match Point? No Point!

I just got home from seeing Woody Allen's new film "Match Point" - it was the biggest disappointment yet in a generally disappointing film season.

This film has been praised to the skies by people more important than me. I'll be damned if I can understand why.

For the record, I am a HUGE, old-school Woody fan. My heart beats wildly for films like "Bananas," "Sleeper," "Annie Hall," "Love and Death," "Manhattan," "Hannah and Her Sisters," and "Crimes and Misdemeanors." I can even find some guilty pleasures in his more pretentious offerings like "Interiors" and "Shadows and Fog." I was as thrilled as anyone to hear that "Match Point" was a career resurrection for the man who hasn't made a good movie in something like 15 years.

Instead I found myself infuriated, so much so that I had to sit down as soon as I got home (even though it's late and I'll be nodding off in the choir loft at church tomorrow morning) and list my greivances against "Match Point".

1) The Jonathon Rhys-Meyers character is Irish - and the contrast between him and the upper-class English family into which he insinuates himself is the pivotal point of the film. So why doesn't he speak with an Irish accent - or any kind of accent that would distinguish him from the upper-crust Hewett family? As it is, Rhys-Meyers and the Hewett's Rupert-Everett-lookalike son sound like they went to the same public school.

2) Admittedly, everything I know about the British Class System, I learned from PBS, BBC America, movies and novels. So I'm no expert. But I find it highly implausible that the upper crust Hewetts would allow a young man of Rhys-Meyers humble origins to become such an integral part of the family so easily - bestowing him with a cushy job in the family firm and allowing him to marry their darling daugther just because he's polite and shares their love of opera. Isn't it more likely that they'd invite him to dinner or a party and treat him as an amusing addition, kept at arm's length in a sort of friendly/sort of condescending way? Wouldn't it make more sense that he'd strive - but constantly fail - to be totally accepted by them - that he'd always be on the outside looking in? His effortless ascent into the upper classes here is pretty hard to swallow.

3) Woody's worst stock charcter is back - the unstable, unfocused, deeply neurotic young woman presented as Irresistable Sex Goddess. This time it's Scarlett Johanssen as the aspiring actress with perilously low self-esteem and a drinking problem, a sexy, pouty mouth and an enticing way with a come-on line. What does Allen see in these women? What is so attractive about a girl who can't get through the day without a drink or a night without a Seconal, and lives in a narcisstic haze of her own self-created problems? And don't confuse these characters with Annie Hall. Annie may have done her share of dithering and lah-de-dahing, but she ultimately has a good heart and good sense and you know she'll always land on her feet. By contrast, Johanssen's character and all her predecessors, are perpetually about two steps away from rehab or a suicide attempt. Allen's been fetishisizing women like this for a long time - at least since "Stardust Memories" -- and frankly, it's a little sick.

4) Woody still doesn't know how contemporary young adults talk or what matters to them. Some of Allen's worst recent films ("Anything Else" springs right to mind) present 20-somethings who are apparently unaware of the existence of email or cell phones and who rave about Cole Porter and Billie Holliday (and buy their music on VINYL for heaven's sake - in 2003!!!). The Hewett offspring and Rhys-Meyers are just British versions of the same anachronistic characters (thought at least they have cell phones). I half expected one of them to come bounding in, asking "Tennis, anyone?"

5) There's a conversation among the four young leads early in the film about faith and luck, and the roles they play in how our lives turn out. Emily Mortimer's character says "I don't believe in luck, I believe in hard work." Now, when someone makes a comment like that, you'd rightfully expect it to be a key to their character - you'd expect to see Mortimer elsewhere in the film working hard and dilligently at something, you'd expect her to be focused and energetic. Either that, or you'd expect some pointed, ironic scenes demonstrating why the charcter wouldn't know hard work if it punched her in the face. But you get neither here. Mortimer is just sort of gangly and sweetly compliant, without much personality or focus of her own. One wonders why Rhys-Meyers pursues her at all. Unlike, say, the Elizabeth Taylor character in "A Place in the Sun," Mortimer is not beautiful or desirable. She is way too available for trysts on Rhys-Meyers' shabby sofabed, and not in a rich-girl-goes-slumming fashion, but in an almost emotionally needy way. (Both Mortimer and her brother seem to have been raised in some sort of upper class hothouse without many friends outside the family - only late in the film do we get some fleeting appearances from their purported chums.) She does, in spoiled-rich-daughter fashion, pester Daddy to find Rhys-Meyers a job in the family firm, although she can't put together an intelligent sentence about what that firm is or what an actual job there would entail. Which brings me to point 6:

6) Rhys-Meyers is a tennis pro at the start of the film. It is highly unlikely that anyone who runs a global financial firm (as Papa Hewett does) would offer him a job just because he was a bright lad who worked his way up from nothing. Cause see, he worked himself up BY PLAYING TENNIS not handling corporate mergers. The fact that Allen doesn't get this - that he actually has Rhys-Meyers making "an impressive contribution" from his first week on the job - is such lazy writing and such an insult to people who actaully DO work in finance - that I don't even know how to finish this sentence!!

Monday, January 09, 2006

Silly Fun in Venice

A friend treated me to a matinee of "Casanova" this weekend as a birthday gift - it was a gift much appreciated.

I wanted to see it primarily because it was shot in Venice - a city which has haunted and enchanted me ever since I spent a single day there in February 2000. I recall arriving just across the bay from Venice at about 9:30 that morning (after a 4-hour bus trip from Innsbruck), when the fabled city was completely enveloped in fog. As we approached Venice by boat, the magnificient 14th century buildings of the city emerged from that fog, one by one. It was magical entry into a magical city, the dreamlike force of which I can't even begin to describe. (And to complete the experience, upon our evening departure, the fog rolled in again and obscured those same buildings, one at a time, as we sailed back across the bay to our waiting bus.) In between, we took a gondola ride, ate pasta, drank wine, wandered the narrow streets, and gaped at a city that seemed so exotic and, yet at the same time, so familiar.

What makes Venice feel familiar is that you've seen it so many movies (among them Summertime," "Room with a View" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley"). When you stand in the Piazza San Marco or cross the Bridge of Sighs or ride in a gondola, you you can't help but have a moment of deja vu. Now you can add "Casanova" to the list of movies you must see before visiting Venice - it is a big, opulent valentine to the beauties of the city.

I'ts also one of the happiest and silliest romantic comedies of the year. I wouldn't put it on my top ten list, but I enjoyed myself and had a few chuckles. For me, Heath Ledger is not the Yummiest Young Actor on the screen(I save that honor for Orlando Bloom!), but he is sufficiently charming in the title role. Just sufficiently, though. Sienna Miller as the fiesty feminist with whom he falls in love is pretty, but lacks the challenging spark her character should rightly possess.

No, it's the supporting cast that provides the delight in this film: Jeremy Irons is the deliciously evil Grand Inquisitor who gets to spout all the best lines in his best, plummy, upper-class British accent (my favorite is his response to an assistant who observes that the purported Casanova seems confused: "Fornication on a massive scale leads to confusion!") Oliver Platt, with a daft working class accent and some obvious body padding, is a hoot as Miller's intended fiance, a pork fat mogul nicknamed "Il Lardo." And I was especially happy to see British actor Tim McInnerny - who, in my humble opinion, rarely gets the good roles that he deserves- as the Doge, Casanova's protector. (McInnerny played Hugh Grant's best friend in "Notting Hill" and Cruella DeVille's manservant in the live action "101 Dalmations" and its sequel.)

The plot - which I'm too lazy to detail here - struck me as a bit goofy, kind of like in that Charlie Sheen version of "The Three Musketeers" a few years back, where the characters had a tendency to toss out lines that no one alive in the film's actual time period would ever have uttered. While there were no obvious anachronisms in "Casanova," I couldn't shake the feeling that the whole thing had been 'dumbed down' to appeal to audiences full of Heath Ledger fans and Sienna Miller wannabes, youngsters more accustomed to witty repartee at the level of "American Pie" and "Wedding Crashers."

But, oh, that gorgeous Venice scenery! I had to gush about it several times to my friend - "It really looks just like that!" To which he finally and sensibly replied - "Probably because it was photographed there."

Saturday, January 07, 2006

"The Producers" and the 2005 Holiday Movie Season

The holiday season is a merry time of tinsel and twinkle lights, rum-laced eggnog, sugar cookies and Santa. Festive - one might even say, jolly.

Except, of course, in movie theaters, where Serious, Ponderous films of near-epic length fill the screens and vie for Oscar consideration. Normally, I look forward to this season with wild anticipation. I’ve never been a fan of special effects-laden summer blockbusters, preferring to get my cinematic thrills from stately adaptations of serious novels, three-hour historical dramas, big-budget biographies and lots of major emoting from sure-to-be-nominated stars.

But the 2005 holiday film slate seems overloaded with very loooong, very serious films, to the point where even a trifle like “Fun with Dick and Jane” was a welcome distraction.

Take “Syriana” (nicknamed “Snore-iana” by one of my moviegoing companions.) I’m sure this was a blistering, brilliant indictment of governmental and corporate corruption - and I could say so for sure if only I had been able to follow any of the three or four parallel, mostly incoherent plotlines within. “Syriana” is more convoluted than a whole season of “Alias.” Here is a neat summary for you, so that you can save yourself 2.5 hours and 9.5 bucks: Oil companies and neoconservatives are bad. (At least that’s what I THINK the point was. By the time the Bad Torturer Guy started pulling out George Clooney’s fingernails, I lost all track of what was going on, and hid my face under my coat.)

Much better was “Munich” a fine, well acted and directed film which I admired very much. It’s very bleak and tense and raises a lot of issues about the nature of terrorism that it doesn’t neatly resolve. I applaud Steven Spielberg for making it, and it hope it wins a lot of awards. But there is no way in hell I could sit through those 2 hours and 45 minutes again.

And I didn’t even see “Brokeback Mountain” (which friends tell me is slow and ponderous), or “Memoirs of a Geisha” (which the same friends tell me is beautiful and slow and ponderous.) Or “King Kong” - 3 and half hours of ape histrionics is a little more than I can handle just now.

Sometimes a gal just needs to see a big, colorful, flawed-but-fun musical extravaganza like …

Now, “The Producers” has received a sound drubbing from nearly every critic in the country - and the theatre buffs on “All That Chat” (the message board where I frequently lurk) have just about ripped it to shreds. And many of their points are valid. It IS stagey and doesn’t reimagine the stage play in any fresh or exciting way for film. Director Susan Stroman is no Bob Fosse or Rob Marshall -she’s more like Morton DaCosta. DaCosta directed both the stage and film version of “The Music Man.” Now the film version of “The Music Man” hardly represents great filmmaking. But it’s a lot of fun because the show itself is so much fun. Same standard applies to the film version of “The Producers.” I’m crazy about the stage production, which I’ve seen twice (although never with the original leads.) So, I mostly enjoyed the film - in fact, I’ve seen it twice already, and I might just squeeze in a third viewing before it leaves the theatres.

I was excited to finally see Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the roles they originated on Broadway, although I ultimately came away a little disappointed with the results.

Lane was delightful. He is the master of the comically arched eyebrow, the double-take, and brilliantly timed, smart-ass retort, yet he never abandons the emotional truth of the characters he plays. He was a joy to watch, and I didn’t once think about Zero Mostel while I watched him sing, dance and twinkle his way through the role of Max Bialystock. Matthew Broderick, on the other hand, made me miss Gene Wilder. Wilder’s wild-eyed hysteria in the original film seemed natural and organic to him - it never felt false or ‘put on’ just for the sake of being wacky. Broderick, by contrast, ‘puts on’ over-the-top facial contortions and shrill wheezing and whining like they were parts of an ill-fitting costume. It's often painful to watch. He occasionally reminded me of Pee Wee Herman at his most annoying. I liked Broderick better on the second viewing, but only marginally so.

Lane and Broderick reportedly had legendary chemistry together when they played these roles on stage. In the film, that chemistry is most apparent in their (unexpectedly touching) courtroom duet, “Till Him.”

As for the supporting cast - let’s get the bad news out of the way first. Uma Thurman is a train wreck. Ulla should be a busty, blonde Amazon who belts like Ethel Merman and dances like Cyd Charise. Thurman has the requisite platinum locks and skyscraper gams, but her odd, droopy face and flat chest don’t quite add up to ‘bombshell’. And she sings and dances like a woman on the lower rungs of the community theater ladder. When she belts, she goes flat. When she executes a spectacular dance move - well, she doesn’t - a dance double is obviously edited in. And her ‘Sveedish’ accent comes and goes without warning.

As for Will Ferrell - let me just say this - he must have the hardest-working agent in show business. If you had to guess ten years ago who would be the most successful of SNL’s alumni, would you honestly have picked Will Ferrell? He’s a decent sketch comic and provides some fun in movies like “Old School” and “Wedding Crashers.” But, please, why does everyone (even Woody Allen for God’s sake!) want to work with this guy? In “The Producers” he’s not BAD exactly - he’s entirely serviceable, in fact, - but he sorely lacks the show-stopping nuttiness that Kenneth Mars brought to the original film. Will Ferrell’s performance mostly made me feel bad for Brad Oscar, Broadway’s original Franz Liebkind. I saw Oscar play Bialystock on stage, and he was superb(enough so to give Lane a run for his money), so I can only imagine how great he must have been as Liebkind. How sad that in the film he is reduced to a walk-on part as a cab driver.

Happily, Gary Beach and Roger Bart repeat their Broadway roles as Roger DeBris, the flaming director, and his “common law assistant,” Karmen Ghia. Both are so far over-the-top and beyond political correctness as to be absolutely, riotously hilarious. Whenever they were onscreen, I was deliriously happy. I got to see Beach do this role on Broadway, and it is one of my favorite theatergoing memories. I’m going to buy the DVD of the film just to be able to see his hysterical performance again and again (and Lane’s).

I love the songs in “The Producers” - every one of them. I’ve had the Broadway cast recording on CD for 4 years, and I still love to play it and sing along. (In fact, it’s in my car CD player right now.) You’d never confuse a Mel Brooks song with one of Stephen Sondheim’s, but his music and lyrics for “The Producers” are a happy blend of his trademark, ebullient vulgarity with sweetly old-fashioned melodies. I was disappointed to see the very funny “King of Broadway” number cut from the film, and also by the cuts in “Springtime for Hitler” (including the elimination of a whole section with one of my favorite lyrics - “The Fuhrer is causing a Furor!”).

Other bits I loved: the “I Wanna Be a Producer” number with Jon Lovitz’ fun cameo and some of Broderick’s best scenes in the film, the sparkly, NYC-circa-1959 sets, the all-too-brief appearance of Andrea Martin in the chorus of Little Old Ladies (I wish she had more scenes) and Lane’s big, brilliant, 11 o’clock number, “Betrayed.”

I’ll take “The Producers” over the Big Important Serious Films of December - any day!