Thursday, December 29, 2005

More reviews

I saw The 40 Year-Old Virgin DVD recently, so I thought I'd weigh in with a review. In this movie, Andy Stitzer (played by Steve Carrell) leads a dull life. He works behind a desk at a chain electronics store. He lives alone. He plays the tuba, reads comic books, collects action figures, and rides his bike to work. Andy has few friends, and he spends most of his time at home, alone.

One night, some of the guys Andy works with invite him to their poker group. (They are short one person, so they need someone to fill in.) During the evening of card playing, Andy's new friends find out that Andy is a virgin. Of course, everyone at the store immediately knows, and everyone wants to try and hook Andy up with someone to help him to lose his virginity.

But here's the thing that makes the story interesting. Andy doesn't want to have sex with just ANYONE. He turns down the store manager and a tipsy bimbo he picks up at a bar. Andy has his sights set on Trish (played by Catherine Keener), a pretty single mom who sells trinkets on ebay. The story of their romance makes for a funny, warm, and ultimately satisfying ending to Andy's adventure.

First of all, let me say that I am not usually a fan of bawdy comedies. Scatalogical humor usually does nothing for me. However, I thought this was a great movie, largely due to the performance of Steve Carrell and the script. (There were a few bathroom scenes that made me cringe, but I can get over that because the rest of the content is good.) First of all, Carrell's character is actually somewhat believable (exaggerated, perhaps, but believable), and Carrell can actually ACT. I thought he did a good job creating Andy's persona, someone who has resigned himself to the fact that he may never have sex, and who tries to live his life without the kind of intimacy that most of us take for granted. Secondly, Andy's cadre of friends from work all turn in strong performances, and they all have subplots of their own. (David, played by Paul Rudd, is getting over a brief relationship. Jay, played by Romany Malco, cheats on his girlfriend but cowers before her.) What results is an engaging ensemble comedy. Language, nudity, and adult situations are found throughout the film, so it is only recommended for adult audiences.

I've also recently finished reading Blue Like Jazz, a fascinating book by Donald Miller. Miller writes with a refreshing honesty and humility about Christian spirituality. This is not the kind of book I think of when I think of religious writing, but it may just be the most spiritual book I've ever read. Miller writes without filtering his thoughts and feelings through the ideology of the modern Christian church. His main messages seem to be that God wants us to love everyone. And he really means everyone - hippies, drug addicts, homeless people, Democrats, homosexuals. Miller is incredulous that today's church metes out its love to only those that follow its prescribed rules. He says in many passages that he feels the modern church judges people instead of loving them. Miller illustrates this assertion with stories about a motley group of his own friends and acquaintances, including Andrew the Protestor (a human-rights and environmental activist), Tony the Beat Poet, and Pastor Rick.

Miller's second main point is that we as Christians needs to wean ourselves from the intense self-addiction that most of us have experienced for our entire lives. Miller maintains that most people spend the majority of their time looking after themselves - feeding themselves, grooming themselves, working to earn money so they can satisfy their own needs and wants. I think this is one of the most true observations I have ever heard. We ARE addicted to pleasing ourselves. While Miller believes that we should love ourselves, he maintains that it is only when we think outside of ourselves and put the needs of others above ourselves that we are truly experiencing Christ-like love.

What I liked most about this book is that Miller is not self-righteous. He doesn't claim to have all the answers. He seems to believe that we can (and should) all break bread together. He thinks that the most effective witness for Christians is to love everyone, including (and perhaps especially) non-Christians, without trying to "sell" them on the idea of Jesus. I like it that Miller doesn't consider Jesus to be a product that he has to peddle on every street corner. Miller advocates loving people unconditionally as a powerful way to introduce them to Christ - they see Christ in you. I will be checking into Miller more in the coming weeks. He's definitely a Christian voice that I find myself identifying with.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Snowed in

I've been holed up for at least some of this holiday season, catching up on movie-watching and book-reading.

Last week, I got the chance to see Hitch, starring Will Smith, Eva Mendes, Kevin James, and Amber Valetta. In this movie, Alex Hitchens (Smith) serves as a "date doctor" for men looking to impress the women they love. Alex helps men show themselves off to their best advantage during their first three dates. "Hitch," as he is called, believes that the first three dates, and particularly the first kiss, become a yardstick by which women measure where a relationship is going. Hitch primarily tries to help (mostly bumbling) men put their best foot forward with his advice, although his specialty seems to be getting women to notice their admirers for the first time. He even helps shy accountant Albert Brennaman (James) catch the attention of famous actress Allegra Cole (Valetta).

All of Hitch's advice seems to fall flat when he meets Sara Melas (Mendes), a gossip columnist for a local newspaper. After two disastrously bad dates, however, the two seem to have developed a mutual liking for one another. Once Sara begins to suspect Hitch's profession, though, the relationship goes steeply downhill. It will take all of Hitch's charms, as well as a (literal) leap of faith, to find out what love really is all about.

I thought this was a light, fun, predictable movie. All of the characters are likable and entertaining, particularly Kevin James as Albert Brennaman. (James does alot of cute physical comedy, and besides, I just like the guy.) It would be a great date flick, and there are happy endings all around. Not much harsh language, and no sex scenes to speak of. (The movie lives up to its PG13 rating.)

I also FINALLY saw Maria Full of Grace. Wow. While a bit of a downer at times, I found this movie fascinating and, ultimately, hopeful. Maria lives in Columbia, and she works long, humiliating hours at a flower plantation. She chafes under the supervision of her pompous supervisor, but her family needs her checks to pay for necessities such as medicine. After a particularly difficult day, Maria finally quits her job. Her sister (who, incidentally, doesn't even have a job) is thrown into an uproar. Shortly thereafter, Maria meets Franklin, a silver-tongued young man who is involved in the country's illicit drug trade, at a party. Franklin promises Maria big bucks and the chance to travel if she will serve as a drug mule, smuggling cocaine into America. Maria, who has recently discovered that she is pregnant, makes a desperate grab at the opportunity.

This was a very powerful film. Catalina Sandino Moreno, who plays Maria, turns in a truly star performance. Although the situations Maria is faced with are definitely high-stakes, Moreno never overacts or emotes. Maria is a thinker. She considers her decisions; even though most of her options are unpleasant, she weighs them carefully. Moreno portrays this measured quality wonderfully. I highly recommend this film. It's filmed in Spanish, with subtitles, but the performances are so good that you'll hardly notice. No nudity, some language, and very gritty material in some scenes.

Lastly, I just finished reading The Bad Girl's Guide to the Open Road, by Cameron Tuttle. A friend lent me this small, pink book because she thought I might enjoy reading it over the holiday. It's a fun, comedic chick book. The book encourages girls to get out of the ruts in their lives and hit the road. Packing light, eating junk, picking up cute hitchikers, and taking wild friends are must-dos, according to Tuttle. While most of the book's suggestions (such as using marshmallows to plug a muffler hole or jam a parking meter) are totally implausible, they do provide a few laughs. Not on my must-read list, but a nice, quick little book if you need a light pick-me-up.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Girls can be so mean

I finally got around to watching Mean Girls, starring Lindsay Lohan, this weekend. In this movie, unaware Cady (Lohan) who has been home-schooled in Africa, is plunked down in a suburban high school because her parents think she may benefit from "socialization." Cady is quickly adopted by a clique of girls known as The Plastics, some of the most beautiful and popular girls in school. The group's leader, Regina George (Rachel McAdams), is a rich, gorgeous, and vengeful teenager. When Cady expresses interest in hunky Aaron, who happens to be Regina's ex-boyfriend, Regina immediately renews her relationship with him. With the help of some of her other friends, Cady immediately decides to retaliate.

I liked this film for its unflinching look at high school politics and popularity. The girls are obsessed with weight gain, clothing, gossip, and what their peers think of them, which doesn't sound too far off from my own high school experience. Mean Girls also explores the hierarchy of high school, with Regina lording power over her clique, and other students looking up to her because of her beauty, wealth, and position. Primarily, the movie tries to show how cruel girls can be to each other. Cady's mean friends turn out to be her own worst enemies.

Tina Fey of Saturday Night Live fame wrote the screenplay for the movie, based on Rosalind Wiseman's book Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence. She also stars as the school's divorced, overworked math teacher Ms. Norbury. Fellow SNL cast members Amy Poehler (as Regina's youth-obesessed mother) and Tim Meadows (as the school's beleaguered principal) also add spice.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Studio gripe.

Ok, I have a little vent that I have to share with you. I realize that Oscar competition is fierce, and I understand that studios want their Oscar-quality movies fresh in the minds of Academy members when they vote for the annual awards. However, it irritates me to no end that movie studios hold back their best films, their Oscar-worthy work, all year. THEN, during the holiday season, when movie-goers are busy, when they are wrapping gifts and putting up decorations, when they are already overcommitted with parties and social activites, when they are broke from buying presents and hams and garland, when they are exhausted, THEN the studios decide to release their best films, all at once.

Where were these gems back in June, when Herbie: Fully Loaded was being foisted on the movie-going public? Where was Walk the Line or The Chronicles of Narnia the weekend that Beauty Shop opened?

So what happens is, I'm already running all over town preparing for Christmas and attending the various holiday parties being given. I'm tired, I'm counting my pennies, and I have very little free time to speak of. OF COURSE this is when every movie I want to see is released. And then the industry has the GALL to wonder aloud why people don't come to movies anymore. Humph. Well, if they'd plan their schedules more for the public than for Academy voters, they might be getting a bigger market share. There, I said it. It may not be accurate (I'm sure some industry insider could give us several paragraphs on why my above gripe is unfounded.), but that's how I feel.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Up in the air.

I finally got around to seeing The Aviator this week. While I wouldn't call it one of my favorite movies, I did enjoy it. Of course, the stand out of the cast was Leonardo DiCaprio, who did a wonderful job portraying legendary millionaire, filmmaker, and aviator Howard Hughes. The film focuses on Hughes' early life, when he filmed Hell's Angels and The Outlaw. (Thankfully, the film closes before the period of his life in which Hughes became a total recluse, addicted to drugs, wasting away, and suffering from various crippling phobias.) The film also pays some lip service to Hughes' work in the field of aviation, his endless quest for bigger, better planes, and congressional committee hearings that kept Pan Am from being named America's only international air carrier.

I am a huge fan of Katherine Hepburn, and Cate Blanchette, while she certainly doesn't look the part, did seem to capture her personality and way of speaking. The relationship between Hughes and Hepburn was a central one in the film, and Blanchette and DiCaprio played it with warmth and tenderness. For their performances alone, this film is worth watching.

Overall, I think this is a period piece, and Scorcese and his team did a deft job of capturing the period with costumes, sets, props, and styling. Though a pretty long movie, fun casting surprises (Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow, Jude Law as Errol Flynn, and Alec Baldwin as Juan Tripp, Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner) keep it interesting.

Also, I finally finished reading The Sun Also Rises this week. It's written in the usual, stripped-down style of Hemingway, and it tells the story of several dissolute expatriate friends making their way around Europe. The narrator, Jake Barnes, is a war veteran with a unique injury that has rendered him impotent. The woman he loves, a beautiful noblewoman named Brett Ashley, craves a physical love that he can't provide, throwing them both into the agony of wanting what they can't have. The two leg it around Paris and Spain with an odd collection of friends, which includes a rather annoying Jewish writer and Ashley's drunk, broke fiancee.

I didn't actually like this book, but I kept reading it because I wanted to finish it. All of the characters seem to be alcoholics, and they seem to lead lives bankrupt of any real meaning. I didn't really like any of the characters, and I kept wondering why Ashley and Barnes didn't get together. (I mean, he's impotent, but surely they could physically satisfy each other in some way. It seems rather foolish to throw away what could be true love just because the physical aspect takes some work.)

Although I realize that this is considered a classic, I finished it feeling largely unsatisfied. (Which, perhaps, was the point.) Although the book isn't particularly long, it takes a while to read it. The plot doesn't move quickly. Anyway, I've read it now, but I don't think I'll read any more Hemingway for a while.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Two's Company

I watched In Good Company, starring Topher Grace and Dennis Quaid, last week. Wow.

In this film, Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid), a happily married man with two daughters, is demoted from his job as a magazine ad sales director when his publication is purchased by a larger company. Serving as his new boss is Carter Duryea (Topher Grace), an upstart 26 year-old with little practical experience in ad sales. Making matters more complicated, Foreman's daughter, Alex (Scarlett Johansson) wants to transfer to NYU (a much more expensive school than SUNY, where she was previously taking classes), and he's just found out that he has another child on the way. Duryea's own life is no less complicated. His wife has just left him, and he knows that he's not quite qualified for his new job. When Careter meets Alex, he almost immediately falls for her, and the two must keep the relationship secret from her father. What results is a wrenchingly true portrait of human relationships.

What can I say about Dennis Quaid? First of all, he still looks great. And throughout his career, the guy has kept working. He turns in a great performance in this movie. His character deals with alot of difficult situations, and Quaid allows the viewer to see how Foreman struggles with many of his decisions. But Foreman always acts with the kind of touching, good-guy grace that endears you to him. I thought that overall, this was Quaid's film. He really shines in it, displaying all of the acting chops he's gained in a long career of experience. Topher Grace is wonderful as well as the smooth-talking, ambitious Carter Duryea, who suffers from loneliness and an aimlessness that he can't, at first, comprehend. Scarlett Johansson, as Alex, also offers a subtle performance. Some of her work near the end of the film is really exceptional.

This is not necessarily an uplifting movie. The characters are, by turns, depressed, hopeless, scared, annoyed. But life is messy. And this movie portrays real life, with all of its uncomfortable realities. While the film does not end on a depressing note, all of the character's struggles are not wrapped up in a neat little bow. Some ambiguity is evident in the ending.

This would be a good film for teens, as there is no nudity and little language. There are also no graphic love scenes.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Harry Potter: Wizards in Puberty

I went to see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire this weekend. What a great flick! True to predictions (and its PG13 rating), this is a darker film than the earlier Potter pics. (Any Potter fan knows that in books four, five, and six, more central characters start biting the dust, and the Potter story begins to deal with some weightier situations.) In addition, there is a little bit of profanity in the movie, mostly spouting from the mouth of Ron, Harry's somewhat sullen friend.

The film begins with Harry, Ron, and Hermione starting their fourth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The students are 14 now, only three years away from the "adult" wizarding age of 17. Mad Eye Moody (played by Brendan Gleeson) is tapped by headmaster Dumbledore as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. (This position has rotated regularly among a variety of characters since the books/movies began. Apparently, Hogwarts just can't find a good dark arts teacher!) As the film opens, we are informed that Hogwarts has been chosen to host the Tri-Wizard Tournament, a battle for glory among representatives from the three schools of wizarding. Each school may select one representative for the tournament, and the competition is widely recognized as a dangerous endeavor for the students chosen. Althoug he is technically too young to compete, Harry is chosen as one of the student representatives, and adventure ensues.

Emma Watson is developing into a fine young actress. Her portrayal of Hermione Granger, a bookish young girl on the cusp of womanhood, was very well done. She also did a good job playing the ambiguity of her relationships with both of the central male characters. I look forward to seeing what she will do after the Potter series is over.

But the real star of the picture is the magic. Needless to say, the effects in this movie are amazing. Dragons, pegasus, odd little mermaids, various magical happenings - all are achieved with startling realism on screen. I continue to be impressed by the effects "wizards" that work on the Potter pictures. They are the real magicians of this series, bringing all sorts of wondrous creatures to life.

I thought the movie ran a tad long. Much was made of the ball that goes along with the Tri-Wizard Tournament, some of which I might have edited out, had it been my decision. However, I thought the film was very good overall, and I highly recommend it.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Perfect cranberry sauce

Usually, my husband has about the same response to everything I cook. "That was good, honey." But he says this regardless of whether I heat up instant mashed potatoes or serve bananas foster flambe at tableside. So my ears pricked up when he asked me to make this cranberry-apple relish again this year for Thanksgiving. He even reminded me that I forgot to make it last year, so you know he's been paying attention! The recipe is from the Cooking Light 2002 Annual Recipes Cookbook. The book contains an entire year's worth of Cooking Light recipes, and it can be purchased online at Amazon.com.

Here's the recipe. It's almost as easy as opening a can of the jellied cranberry sauce!

1 1/2 c. chopped peeled Granny Smith apple
1 c. packed brown sugar
1/2 c. white grape juice
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 (12-ounce) package fresh cranberries

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until thick (about 15 minutes), stirring occasionally. Cool completely. Yield: 16 servings (serving size: 3 tablespoons)

** I've found that if I make this a few days ahead of time, it only gets better as it sits. Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Reads and eats

Well, I've been watching quite a few movies lately, so I thought I'd weigh in on some of them. First, I saw Vanity Fair, starring Reese Witherspoon, and I must say that I'm not sure quite what to think. I've unfortunately never read Thackeray's novel, so I can't critique the film based on its veracity to the book, but some aspects of the movie were jarringly out of place for me. There's a scene in which several British women perform in a little entertainment for an honored guest. There were legs, ankles, and bare flesh everywhere! In my understanding of the time period, this was strictly taboo. I'm not sure if this episode was described in the book, but it seems highly unlikely to me. I enjoyed the Indian influence in the movie, as it imparted a sense of exoticism and wonder that cold, gray England often seems to lack. Performances were all right, but something about it all just felt flat to me. There were several scenes where Witherspoon's character sings that seemed to stretch on far too long. (I don't say this to malign Witherspoon's singing voice. I just wasn't sure what such long musical scenes were supposed to be contributing to the film.) In conclusion, I found this film a rather mixed bag in regards to entertainment value.

I also watched Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, starring Renee Zellweger. Another hit and miss endeavor. First of all, I couldn't understand why Jones was whining about boyfriend Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) never fighting for her, considering he beat Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant) to a pulp for her in the LAST movie. Secondly, some quite preposterous plot turns (Being thrown in a Thai prison? That's a bit much for even my flexible suspension of disbelief.) made the whole movie pretty hard to swallow. The movie was okay, and I don't expect that another film following the escapades of Jones will be worth watching unless the formula is changed enough to allow for some relief.

Lastly, I watched The Door in the Floor. Having read John Irving's A Widow for One Year, upon which the film is based, I feel qualified to comment. The Door in the Floor wisely makes use of only the best and most interesting narrative in the novel, which is the introductory story. (The novel continues to follow the characters as they age, showing the impact of the early narrative as it reverberates through their lives.) Kim Basinger was probably the perfect actress to cast in this film as Marion, a wife destroyed by the grief of losing her two sons. Jeff Bridges is also wonderfully unsettling (and annoying) as Ted, Marion's philandering husband. Eddie (played by Jon Foster), who bears a striking resemblance to one of the dead boys, is hired as Ted's driver for the summer (Ted, an alocoholic, has lost his license.), and he almost immediately develops a strong attraction to Marion. The two begin an affair, and the resulting fall-out ends the marriage of Marion and Ted. I liked this movie. Although it is not a hopeful or pleasant film, it is worth watching for Basinger's nuanced portrayal of a childless mother and Bridges' (often unsympathetic) character work.

Lastly, I had to share information about some delicious products from Williams-Sonoma. I don't usually make the significant trek to get to the only Williams-Sonoma in my area, but I had to pop in for a visit after tasting some delicious treats at a friend's house last week. They have a fabulous pecan pumpkin butter ($9.00) for the holidays. The appetizer they recommend for its use: 1 package of cream cheese, cut in half lengthwise and placed on a dish, topped with a spreading of the pumpkin butter. This mixture is them topped with chopped green onions, crumbled bacon, and chopped toasted pecans. They suggest serving it with wheat thins or other crackers. HEAVENLY. Not only that, they have a yummy pomegranate margarita mix ($14.00) that is divine, and its cranberry color looks so festive in a glass! Both of these items are on my holiday menu for next weekend, and you can find them at the Williams-Sonoma web site, which I've linked to above. Happy eating!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The world of thought

I just read an interesting new book that I thought I'd share.

Sophie's World, a New York Times Bestseller written by a high-school philosophy teacher, is basically a quick survey of philosophy couched within a narrative. Young Sophie Amundsen is on the cusp of her fifteenth birthday when she discovers a strange letter in her mailbox. The letter asks "Who are you? Where does the world come from?" So begins Sophie's adventure in a philosophical correspondence course. She receives her lessons via mail at first, as her teacher wishes to keep his identity a secret. Soon, though, Sophie and her professor, Alberto Knox, are meeting in cafes, churches, and other places around town to discuss philosophy. The result is a fairly engaging treatment of what could easily be very difficult and dry material.

I thought this was a good book for what it was. In other words, Gaarder was successful in his use of the narrative to introduce and cover some rather weighty topics. (I did find the novel a bit dry in places, particularly when Knox is racing through the Middle Ages at breakneck speed.) As the book is basically a philosphy survey, Gaarder doesn't get too involved in the specifics of every theory; however, Sophie's "teacher" does try to provide a "big picture" view of the history of philosophic thought.

What intrigued me most about the book was that I hadn't pondered many of the questions in it since my college philosophy courses. I can't remember when the last time was that I wondered where the world came from, or that I thought about whether man has any eternal bits about him, rather than just a temporal form. As Sophie discovers, it is so easy for people to get caught up in day-to-day life. We rarely ask ourselves some of the biggest questions of human existence because we are worried about what we are making for dinner on any given night. That's the primary reason that I recommend this book. So few of us really sit down and think about what our purpose is, and what the world is all about. This book will have you asking yourself those questions again, and it's very refreshing to do so.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Murrow signs on in Jackson

Tinseltown Theatre in Pearl will be showing Good Night and Good Luck, the new George Clooney film that details Edward Murrow's coverage of the McCarthy hearings, through next Thursday, November 17th. The movie, shot in black and white, also stars Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Daniels, David Strathairn, and Patricia Clarkson. Show times through this weekend are 1:10 p.m., 4 p.m., 7 p.m., and 9:45 p.m.

I'm thrilled about going to see it, particularly because it appears to examine how television media, then in its infancy, began to shape public debate and opinion. It also seems to explore the media's role in the personal freedoms and civic responsibility of Americans. You can learn more about the movie at its official site.

Anyway, for more information, or to ask about show times for next week, call Tinseltown at 601-936-5856. See you at the theatre!

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Molasses Cookies. You'll thank me later.

Ok, I usually don't post recipes (although I do alot of cooking), but this one is a must-share. This recipe appeared in the October 2005 issue of Cooking Light, a magazine that I absolutely love. These cookies are delicious, easy to make, and they make me think of fall! This recipe is going to become an autmn tradition at my house.

Molasses Cookies
1 c. packed brown sugar
1/2 c. vegetable shortening
1/2 c. molasses
1 large egg
2 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 c. water
1/4 c. granulated sugar
Cooking spray

Combine brown sugar and shortening in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until light and fluffy. Add molasses and egg; beat well. Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour and next 5 ingredients (through salt), stirring with a whisk. Add flour mixture to sugar mixture; beat at low speed just until blended. Cover and freeze 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Place water in a small bowl; place granulated sugar in another small bowl. Lightly coat hands with cooking spray. Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Dip one side of each ball in water; dip wet side in sugar. Place balls, sugar side up, on baking sheets coated with cooking spray. Bake at 375 degrees for 8 minutes. Remove from pans; cool on wire racks. Yield: 4 dozen.

*** Okay, notes from me: I halved the recipe, and it turned out fine. Also, I did not freeze the cookie dough for an hour. I only freezed mine for about 30 minutes. I also noticed that I did not need to dip the dough in water, as the moisture in the dough was more than enough to coat one side with sugar. Lastly, my cookies did not take 8 minutes to bake. They were ready in 6 minutes or so.

I loved these! And, at only 66 calories per cookie, I can have 2 or 3 without feeling guilty.

Flying men (and boys)

I watched two great movies this week: Finding Neverland and Batman Begins.

Finding Neverland is a beautiful family film about playwright James Barrie (played by Johnny Depp). Barrie, who has unfortunately just weathered the commercial failure of his latest play, happens upon a fatherless family in the park. Sylvia Llewelyn Davies' husband has passed away, and she has been left to care for four very rambunctious boys: Peter, Jack, George, and Michael. Barrie falls in love with the young boys, and to an extent with their mother, because he discovers they stoke his own child-like imagination. Together, Barrie and the boys are pirates, cowboys, circus performers, and more. Inspired by the little family, and particularly by Peter Davies (played with aching accuracy by Freddie Highmore), Barrie pens the stage play Peter Pan, which is a resounding commerical and critical success for him.

This movie is a beautiful story about imagination, renewal, and growing up. Young Peter is scarred by the death of his father, and he observes his mother's illness with growing trepidation. He is an old soul in a young body, which seems to be why Barrie names his own primary character after him. Barrie hopes that Peter can feel young again, can rediscover the carefree life of childhood. Of course, there are complications. Barrie's wife, Mary (played by Radha Mitchell), doesn't appreciate all of the time he spends with the Davies family, nor of the affection he feels for Sylvia. As well, Sylvia's mother disapproves of Barrie's presence in her daughter's life. However, our protagonist overcomes both obstacles, and the resulting story is both hopeful and triumphant.

The performances in the film were particularly good. Depp is subtle and endearing as Barrie, playing a character much more true-to-life than his turns as fantastical Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka, and Edward Scissorhands. Winslet is also excellent. Some of the scenes in which she revealed and dealt with Sylvia's illness were wonderful little gems in the film. She makes Sylvia such a likable character that it is difficult not to root for her whole-heartedly. Also, Freddie Highmore was astonishing as young Peter. I loved him in the scenes at the premiere of the play. Overall, his scenes with Depp were all quite good.

Batman Begins was also a treat; I really wish I had seen it in the theatre, on the big screen! To be honest, I was a little wary upon hearing that ANOTHER Batman movie was going to be made, but this film does the legend justice. The film starts rather haltingly, with the viewer seeing images of a young Bruce Wayne trapped in a cave, terrified of the bats that live there, juxtaposed with images of an older Wayne (played by Christian Bale) in a foreign prison. Viewers then witness more scenes from Wayne's childhood, interspersed with his odd (and slightly insane) journey to martial arts mastery. However, once Wayne leaves the "League of Shadows" (corny, but that's the name), the story begins to pick up. Fortified by his newly-minted combat skills, he returns to Gotham, where he vows to clean up the city's crime problem.

Of course, adventure ensues! Viewers are treated to "the making of Batman," including the wit and heart of such characters as devoted butler Alfred Pennyworth (played perfectly by Michael Cain) and cunning scientist Lucius Fox (played by Morgan Freeman). I cannot say enough about the impact of both Cain and Freeman on this film. They both offer an experience and a mastery of their craft that is a pleasure to watch. Cain gives the film some of its most emotional moments, but he is never too maudlin or sentimental. Freeman, though not the father figure that Cain is, is a cunning friend to the young billionaire, and he provides lots of chuckles and smiles by the virtue of his excellent line delivery and facial expressions. I thoroughly enjoyed both of their performances. (Gary Oldman, as Lt. Gordon, isn't shabby, either. He makes a great cop and a great "good guy.") Bale was good in the film, but it is difficult for me to see him as an actor, cloaked as he is in the whole Batman mystique. (So much of it is the cape and the ears, right?) Katie Holmes played Wayne's childhood friend Rachel Dawes, now a young lawyer with Gotham's D.A. office. Though her role wasn't large, I thought she turned in a solid performance.

This was a fun action film, and I didn't think it was too violent for young families. However, if you are planning on buying the DVD in order to get extras such as deleted scenes, interviews with the actors or technicians, or other goodies, think twice!! Our DVD contained nothing except the movie and its trailer. We found this VERY DISAPPOINTING. Shame on you, Warner!!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Death and Deception in the Windy City

I went to see the W. Kessler Ltd. production of Chicago at Thalia Mara Hall last night, and I had a BLAST! The cast is dynamite for this show, with some cast members coming direct from Broadway. Michelle Dejean was wonderful as the incorrigible Roxie Hart; she played all of her scenes for everything they were worth. She also had a fabulous singing voice, and her moves weren't too bad, either. I LOVED her in "Roxie," "We Both Reached for the Gun," and "Nowadays." Brenda Braxton was also very convincing as Velma Kelly; she shined particularly bright in "Cell Block Tango," "I Can't Do It Alone," and "Class."

Carol Woods was very entertaining as Matron "Mama" Morton. She had such great stage presence. Even though she didn't do much dancing, she projected great energy and had total command of the audience during "When You're Good to Mama" and "Class." You gotta love a good Mama.

Tom Wopat played Billy Flynn, and I was surprised to hear that he has a beautiful singing voice. I also thought he did an admirable job in his scenes with the other actors. His delivery was very polished. (Except for one scene, the courtroom scene. He got a little tickled on stage, and the whole audience cracked up for a minute. It was a great moment.) I was hoping that Billy Flynn would do a little more dancing (who would object to seeing Tom Wopat shaking his tail feathers?), but, alas, that was not to be.

I thought it was a very strong production, especially considering that these poor professionals are touring, which takes alot of energy out of the performers and technicians. Bravo!

The next Kessler show at Thalia Mara Hall will be Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! on Nov. 29 and 30.

Recent Reads

While I was on vacation, I bought P.S. I Love You, by Cecelia Ahern, to read on the plane and in hotel rooms. It fit the bill perfectly. Holly, the primary character in the book, is a young widow who has lost her husband, Gerry, far too soon to a terrible disease. Gerry, who knew that he was going to die, prepared a series of letters for Holly, with explicit instructions for her to follow each month for the entire first year after his death. Gerry has Holly sing at a karoke bar, get a new job, and holiday in Spain with her girlfriends. Each step brings Holly a little more back into her normal life, and by the end of the book, she's begun to deal with the loss of her husband. What's great about this book is that the story moves quickly along, with Holly's friends providing some hilarious comic relief. I remember several lines that made me laugh out loud. (After a night of drinking, Holly phones one of her married friends. Her friend replies, "My name is Sharon, I think . . . The man beside me in bed seems to think I know him." Holly can hear Sharon's husband guffawing in the background.) This is not deep reading, and you won't be scratching your head or re-reading passages trying to tease out the author's meaning. But sometimes, that's exactly the kind of book I want. (Particularly when I'm lazing on the beach or languidly reading over afternoon coffee.) The book reads quickly, and I enjoyed every page.

I also used two great books, Frommer's Arizona 2005 and Insight Guide: Arizona and the Grand Canyon, to plan my trip. You can read my reviews on these books online at Amazon.com.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

I'm a changed woman!

Get off your tukkus right now and call the Millsaps Players. You have to, if you want to see Metamorphoses, which is playing tonight and Sunday; they are having to turn people away at the door because the demand for seats far outstrips the supply. (The show is presented thrust-style, with all the chairs and risers on stage around the set. This naturally limits seating. RESERVE your tickets, because they are in short supply at the door.)

I went to see this production last night, and I am SO glad I did. The script, written by Mary Zimmerman, is based on the ancient myths of Ovid. Directed at Millsaps by Sam Sparks, this show features a large cast of very capable student actors. Water plays a central role in this production, and the scenic construction crew for the show built a shallow pool in the center of the stage. The pool is used in almost every scene.

The cast of 16 did an admirable job portraying all of the characters we know from the ancient myths. Fred Willis, a sophomore who I loved in last season in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, was a standout as Silenus (a follower of Bacchus) and Vertumnus, God of Springtime. (WHY is Fred Willis so good? I'm not quite sure I know. Although I don't know him personally, I think it is because he is a good-natured person in real life, and this translates into his roles on stage. I always find my self laughing WITH him, not laughing AT him. In other words, I always know that Fred himself is in on the joke. He has a remarkable, accessible, approachable quality.)

Alex Bosworth was, as always, wonderful in her role as Myrrha, the daughter of a king cursed by Aprhodite to love her own father. She also displayed some deft movement work as Hunger and as one of Posiedon's aides. If she decides to pursue acting as a career, I think she could go far.

John Forrest Douglas was hilarious as Phaeton, son of Apollo. He played the "spoiled son of a major god" role to the hilt, and his use of sunglasses, sunscreen, and a beach float didn't hurt the humor. He was a hit with the audience. I also noticed David Lind, a freshman from San Antonio, in this production. Lind also cunningly found the humor in his dialogue, and he ended up being one of the most entertaining performers on stage in his turns as Midas' Servant and Philemon. I'm going to keep my eye on him; I think we can expect more great performances from this young actor.

Director Sam Sparks did a brave thing, choosing to direct this show. The script itself has a very presentational style, and it runs the risk of being quite dry. However, through his innovative vision of costume, humor, and lighting (kudos to Brent Lefavor, Lighting Designer, and Kacee Foote Phillips, Costumer) the show remains engaging and interesting throughout. (The story of Psyche and Eros is particularly beautiful. Light and costume make such a moving statement here; It's one of the visual images of the show that I will carry with me.) I continue to be impressed with Sparks' talent.

Ok, and lastly - why this show ranks as a must-see for me: Metamophoses is unlike any show you will see in Jackson's theatre market. Because the Millsaps Players are a college company, whose primary objective is to educate their student actors/technicians and expose them to different types of theatre, they are not at the mercy of ticket sales as much as other companies in the metro area. In other words, the bulk of their funding comes from other sources, so if you don't buy a ticket, they won't go under. What that introduces is a level of risk that other theatres, dependent on ticket sales, rarely achieve in this market. So, go already. It will be something new, fresh, and different, born of young minds and experienced hands. In addition, the production is well done and gorgeous to look at.

Tickets are $10 general admission and $8 for students and seniors. You must RESERVE your tickets. Call 974-1321 to do so, and pray that there are still some left in the show's limited run. Remaining shows are today, October 22, at 7:30 p.m., and tomorrow, October 23, at 2:00 p.m. You can check out the entire season of the Millsaps Players by visiting their web site.

Friday, October 21, 2005

But it's so slimming . . .

I went to see The Woman in Black at New Stage Theatre last night. The show is a spooky ghost story, in honor of the Halloween season, and the script is by Stephen Mallatratt, based on the novel by Susan Hill. Pat Benton directed this show, which was brave. Basically, there is no set, and there are few elaborate costumes (although there was one coat with a little cape at the top - Oh, how I wish I could wear a cape in real life without being branded a drama queen!). The strength of the show rests in the script and the actors.

The standout in the cast was Charles Fraser. Fraser plays Mr. Kipps, a man who has experienced a haunting and wants to tell his story, thereby putting it to rest. Throughout the play, Fraser deftly switches between characters, playing by turns a friendly townsperson, a bartender, a taciturn horseman, and a head solicitor. Some of his vocal and gestural work in these different personalities was quite entertaining to watch. William Hickman plays a professional actor, a man that Kipps hires to help him relate the story to family and friends. In the early scenes Hickman's character comes across as totally full of himself. I liked him better as the show went on, and he began to develop an appreciation for Kipps. Still, some of his most emotional moments on stage did seem a bit strained, particularly a breakdown at a locked door (I couldn't figure out why on earth he wanted to get in there so badly) and a moment when he is overcome by the ghost of the Woman in Black (the technical values are already working overtime in this scene is his favor. Maybe he should have kept his own contribution more minimal in this moment, letting the lights and sound do their job? Not sure on this one how I would have played it.) Emily Wright, who unfortunately has no live lines (no pun intended), plays the ghostly Woman in Black.

This play is a true ghost story, in the tradition of works like Turn of the Screw. Much of the horror in the script is born of the storyteller's own mind, as he is converted from one who staunchly does not believe in ghosts to one who has been too terrified to do anything but believe. I honestly am not a fan of horror flicks and slasher films; I get nightmares and find difficulty wiping the scenes of carnage from my mind. However, this play makes a wonderful alternative. It is not horrifying, but it is spooky and eerie in a non-threatening way. (It fits my Halloween bill perfectly, and it won't keep me up at night!)

The technical values that I noticed most were lighting (designed by Jim Pettis) and sound. (Unfortunately, the technician who managed the sound for this production was not noted in the program. It's a pity, because sound was one of the most important technical aspects of the show.) These two elements create a variety of environments for the characters - a London office, a train, a small-town pub, a creepy old house, and a windswept marsh. Because the set is so minimal, sound and lights do alot of heavy lifting to set the stage, and I thought the technicians in charge of these elements did a great job. Michael Guidry, who I've followed with interest during his education at Millsaps, served as the stage manager. Sam Sparks, another Millsaps alum, is set designer and production manager for this show. (By the by, Sam directed another show, Metamorphoses, which is running this weekend at Millsaps. I am going to try to get by there tonight to see it.)

The show does not run long, and it is definitely worth seeing. I enjoyed it, and I recommend it as a great way to get into the Halloween mood! The Woman in Black will be performed from now until October 30th, and tickets are$22 for adults and $20 for students and seniors. To order tickets, call the box office at 601-948-3531.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Trip report, continued - The Grand Canyon

We arrived at the Grand Canyon through the south entrance in the early afternoon. Before checking into Yavapai Lodge East (which would turn out to be an almost ideal home base for us), we turned onto Desert View Drive. We pulled over at the first lookout point and marveled. Nothing really prepares you for your first look at the Grand Canyon. It is not so much what is there, but what ISN'T there. The canyon is a wonder of negative space.

After we caught our breath, we checked into Yavapai Lodge East. We chose it because it was NOT in Grand Canyon Village (we hate crowds) and because the lodge rooms had recently been remodeled. We weren't disappointed. Our bed was large, our pillows were fluffly, and we had a big-screen television. (The latter was particularly important to my traveling companion.)

That evening, we headed to the Yavapai Observation Point for sunset. We watched the sunset with maybe about five other tourists, so there was plenty of room to spread out and enjoy the evening show in privacy. Although the observation building was closed, great weather and comfortable outdoor benches encouraged a snuggle. We even saw a condor soar overhead. It was truly a picture-perfect moment.

After the sunset, we decided to walk the two miles on the Rim Trail to Grand Canyon Village. As we walked, the sky darkened and the stars came out. (Luckily, we'd remembered to bring our flashlights.) We were about halfway to the village when six ram appeared on the trail ahead of us: one adult male, three adult females, and two younglings! We moved to one side of the trail and pretended to be otherwise occupied. They slowly, hesitantly clopped past us. It was magical!

When we arrived in Grand Canyon Village, we headed to the cocktail lounge at El Tovar. I enjoyed a prickly pear margarita, and we split an appetizer. Feeling totally gratified, we caught the shuttle back to Yavapai and slept like babies.

The following day, I awoke early and took the shuttle to Mojave Point. I proceeded to walk the four miles back to Grand Canyon Village on the Rim Trail. It was an easy but fun hike, and I saw very few other hikers along the trail. (There were lots of people at each of the lookout points, but almost no one in between. I deduced that most tourists took the shuttle to each lookout point, got out to snap pictures, and got right back on the shuttle. Almost no one was actually hiking the Rim Trail.) It was a great hike - not very taxing, lots of great views, and plenty of privacy to commune with nature.

I finished up with an early dinner at the Arizona Room. We didn't have to wait for a table, and service was friendly and fast. I had the fish - YUM! I found that the people-watching from the restaurant's picture windows was almost as entertaining as the view of the canyon!

The following day, we enjoyed an air tour of the canyon. We chose to book a 40-50 minute plane tour with Air Grand Canyon, and I am so glad that we did! When I saw the plane, I had my doubts. It was a seven-seater, and I'd never flown in anything that small before. However, I summoned my courage and boarded. I didn't understand how vast the canyon was until I saw it from above. It is very long, very wide, and it has many smaller canyons on all sides of it. The flight was such an exhilirating experience. I'm so glad that I didn't chicken out!

We spent a little time shopping at Hopi House, exploring Kolb's Studio and Lookout Studio, and seeing what there was to see in Grand Canyon Village (mostly other tourists). On our way out of the canyon, we decided to take Desert View Drive, which was a wonderful idea. We got new views of the canyon, and we were also able to check out Desert View Watchtower, which was a fun stop for us.

On the way back to Phoenix, we stopped at the Wuptaki National Monument, a Pueblo-style Indian ruin. This was a fabulous stop. You can get up-close and personal with an ancient Indian dwelling. Features include ball courts and a natural blowhole. (Cool air shoots directly out of the ground, with a good bit of force!) There is even one room in the pueblo that you can enter. We really enjoyed this stop.

We stayed our final night in Phoenix at the Fiesta Inn Resort, which had great room service prices! After paying our sizable car rental bill (taxes on rental cars in Arizona, particularly those rented at the airport, are mind-boggling), we flew out the next day! What a great trip!

Trip report, continued - Sedona

After Phoenix, we headed up to Sedona. We decided to take scenic route 89A, which has been voted by Arizonans to be one of the most beautiful drives in the state. We made a beeline from Phoenix to Prescott, where we stopped for lunch and ambled in the idyllic town square. From there, we headed to Sedona.

YIKES. While route 89A is certainly scenic, it can be a bit harrowing for a Mississippi boy and girl who are used to driving on nice, flat, straight roads. The route basically takes drivers up and down mountains, with sharp curves, no notice of oncoming traffic, and precious little between the wheels of the car and a sheer drop-off into a depp, deep abyss!! We kept seeing signs that said things like "Watch for Rocks." We had plenty of time to enjoy the scenery, as we drove about 20 miles per hour while fervently muttering Hail Marys. (Needless to say, we stopped at EVERY scenic lookout point. We needed every chance to calm our nerves!) I could not BELIEVE it when we drove through Jerome. Who would build their house perched on a cliff like that?! I do not know how those brave souls manage to sleep at night!

Anyway, we finally made it to Sedona (sigh.), where we checked into Los Abrigados Resort and Spa. This was a wonderful resort, and it is very conveniently located for exploring uptown Sedona. One of the first things I did the next day was hike around Bell Rock. I woke very early in the morning for the hike, and I chose to hike on a week day. As a result, I encountered almost no one on the trail. It felt as though I had the trail all to myself, and I got to watch the sun rise in the sky and light up the red rocks with fiery color. I saw some wildlife on the trail, too. It was a wonderful experience.

I spent some of the day exploring Tlaquepaque, a fascinating open-air shopping center that is directly adjacent to Los Abrigados Resort and Spa. The entire complex is built in an old Spanish style, with stucco arches, beautiful fountains, lots of Mexican tile work, statuary, and well-kept landscaping. There is even a chapel in the shopping center. They have some wonderful shops there. Some shops sell only beads and shells, some only sell music boxes. Many art galleries are located here.

Later that evening, we chose to have dinner at El Portal, an exclusive inn that hosts public dinners on the weekends. The pre-fixed menu was as follows: a creamy pureed vegetable soup, with delicious and beautiful garnishes; a delicious field greens salad with candied pecans, sliced pears, and balsamic vinaigrette; a mango and prickly pear sorbet to cleanse the palate; a rich, fruited duck breast with a wine sauce, mixed vegetables, and wild rice studded with nuts and other little surprises. I washed this all down with a delicious local red wine. Truly one of the great meals of my life.

The next day, we started out with a Pink Jeep Tour - the Broken Arrow Tour. What a thrilling experience! We enjoyed every minute of it. A tour like this gets you up close and personal with the red rocks without the hike. And some of the crazy parts of the road are really fun to ride on! (Especially when someone else is doing the driving!) We loved this tour.

Afterwards, we had fabulous massages at the Los Abrigados Spa. My massage therapist, Jigger, was fantastic. I would return to her for another massage in a heartbeat.

Before leaving Sedona, we stopped at the Chapel of the Holy Cross, an understated chapel that fits in seamlessly with the red rocks surrounding it. There are wonderful views from the chapel, and the actual sanctuary had a simple, peaceful quality that was very engaging. It was a lovely visit, even if the gift shop was a tourist trap.

On our way out of Sedona, we drove through Oak Creek Canyon, which is a beautiful drive. We also stopped at Garland's Indian Jewelry, a shop which had some absolutely beautiful items, very tastefully displayed. My only complaint is that no prices were visible. I generally feel much more comfortable shopping when I know the prices of the items I am inspecting. Otherwise, how am I to know what I can afford and what I can't afford? I found this to be true in many of the shops in Scottsdale as well. Annoying.

And from Sedona - on to the Grand Canyon!

I have returned.

I thought I'd start with a trip report. I'll break it into sections, starting with Phoenix!

What a glorious vacation! We flew into Phoenix on Saturday, and we stayed at the Legacy Golf Resort. It was a fabulous home base for us during our time in Phoenix. (The room had the usual king bed and bath with a sitting room, but we also had a kitchenette with a two-burner stove, a mini-fridge, a microwave, a coffeemaker, a toaster, even and washer and dryer. AND we had a balcony that overlooked the golf course. Beautiful view!) Our first stop? The Fry Bread House, which Frommer's says makes the best Indian taco in the state of Arizona. It was delicious - a fresh, warm, slightly crispy piece of flat fried bread wrapped around beans, lettuce, tomato and cheese. YUM.

On Saturday night, we checked out the Desert Botanical Gardens. What a great place! The plants in Sun Valley are mostly cacti and succulents, with a few feathery trees and bushes. It's so different from what we have in Mississippi. Some of the cacti were in really weird shapes, and some of their forms were twisted and gnarled. We stayed as the sun went down, and we got to see the garden lighting come on, which accentuated the creepy shapes of some of the plants.

We had Mexican food that night at Frank and Lupe's in the Scottsdale area. It was delicious AND cheap! The food there tasted so fresh - lots of fresh tomato, cilantro, lime. (Most of the Mexican food in Mississippi tastes like it comes out of a can.) We loved this place.

The next day, we started out by having brunch at Top of the Rock. It was such a memorable experience! First of all, the views from the restaurant are amazing. Second, they have live music. Third, the food is fabulous. They have everything you can imagine on the buffet, and it's all you can eat! Tons of lunch items, breakfast items, and freshly made omelettes, waffles, and crepes. Plus, they keep the champagne flowing. Although this was a splurge for us, it was definitely worth it.

After brunch, we went to the Heard Museum. They had some of the most beautiful Native American art - handmade pots, clothing, baskets, and kachina dolls. They also had some gorgeous jewelry and hand-carved furniture on display. I especially enjoyed the shaded courtyard, which was punctuated by statuary and two water features. We learned a ton about the Indian cultures that are present in Arizona, and I really feel that going to the Heard Museum early during our vacation enhanced our entire trip to Arizona.

Also in Phoenix, I went for a hike at South Mountain Park. From up in the mountains, you get great views of the city. There are some pretty easy hikes you can take, as well, so there's something for everyone in the park. My hike was a guided one offered by the Legacy Golf Resort, but I would have felt perfectly comfortable hiking alone. Trails are clearly marked, so just bring water, wear a hat, and apply suncreen.

We also found time to shop at Kierland Commons in Scottsdale, and I thought it was a very well-planned retail development. While we were there, we had lunch at the Zinc Bistro. It reminded me so much of Paris, with its name spelled out in tile out front, the long zinc bar, the sidewalk tables and chairs, and the richly decorated interior. I had the mussels and fries, and they served them with a dense, chewy peasant bread to soak up all the delicious sauce. Almost too good to eat! Almost . . . :-)

Afterwards, we headed out to Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright's former home and architecture school, for a tour. We really enjoyed the tour; the house is quite remarkable. (A quick caveat - the tour we went on was fairly long, about 1.5 hours, and HOT. Bring water and wear suncreen.) It was so interesting to me to learn more about Wright and his philosophies on architecture. I even got to play Wright's old piano. (The instrument is, unfortunately, in very poor condition now. The tour guide spoke at length about how much Wright loved to play; seeing his piano in that condition probably would have broken his heart.) I found the gift shop at Taliesin West to be particularly good. I highly recommend stopping by and picking something up; they have items to suit almost every budget.

We shopped in Old Town Scottsdale to finish off our stay in Phoenix. They have lots of interesting little shops where you can buy Southwestern memorabilia, and there are also quite a few art galleries there. We had a little bite to eat at the Sugar Bowl, a charming little ice cream parlor decorated in pink and white stripes. The Sugar Bowl has apparently been written up several times in the old Family Circle cartoons. (The children of the family were always begging to go there!) The food was delicious and the price was right. (My only gripe - the women's restroom is in serious need of renovation. Yuck.)

Well, that was the first few days of our trip. Whew!

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Murder and the desert

My article on The Center Players' production of Rehearsal for Murder was published in the Jackson Free Press this week. It looks to be a fun little show. I read the script, and I couldn't predict who the murderer was. You can read the article here.

Too bad I'll miss the show, because I'LL BE GOING TO ARIZONA!!! WOO-HOO! I fly out on Saturday morning, and I am so excited! I booked a ride over the Grand Canyon in a bi-plane this morning. It's a little risky, I know, but I can't resist sailing over one of the natural wonders of the world. I also made an appointment for a massage in Sedona. Mmmmmmmmm. I have such a good feeling about this trip! I promise a full report on my return!

Monday, September 26, 2005

Have you heard . . . ?

Well, there were rumors circulating around town last week, but now it's official. Malcolm White is the new Executive Director of the Mississippi Arts Commission. I hope this doesn't mean that Hal and Mal's will close . . . ? (I love their red beans and rice AND their blue plate lunches.) Or that the St. Paddy's Day Parade will peter out . . . ? (The Sweet Potato Queens looked so great last year!)

I guess what I'm saying is, the Executive Director of the Mississippi Arts Commission is a full-time job, and I'm already depending on Mal for food and entertainment. Here's hoping that Mal can keep all of the balls in the air!! Don't let me down, dude!

Chilly waters

Last week, I went with my 2 1/2-year-old nephew to see Disney on Ice's Finding Nemo. Now, I'm not going to lie to you. When I heard about this show, I was skeptical. Fish on ice sounded more like the makings of a lunch special than an evening of entertainment. On top of that, I'd dressed for an evening out with the girls that night (my babysitting adventure was a tad unexpected), not for a night of stepping between stadium cups of sugary soda and hopping over seats at the coliseum.

But, on Thursday night, I found myself in the long line of cars Nemo-bound. Our seats were actually very good, quite close to the ice. I'd packed a small blanket in case we got cold, but the temperatures in the coliseum were perfectly comfortable. The lights dimmed, the movie soundtrack began playing, and the show was off.

I take back anything bad that I ever said about fish on ice. The costumes were amazing, extremely inventive. With filmy, diaphonous fins that rippled in the wind as the skaters moved. And when they were hit with the black/blue lights, they glowed through the bluish haze. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. When skaters move, they glide, so the fish really did appear to be swimming. No bouncy movements, just smooth, gentle gliding.

I was so impressed with the set pieces. Because the rink is basically a thrust theatre, no large set pieces that might block sight lines can be used. With a few very minimal but very evocative set pieces, the designers of this show created a fish tank, the deep blue sea, a human-sized scuba diver, and more. What creative thinking!

And my nephew was totally enthralled. Did he want to talk? No. Did he want to leave the rink at intermission, even to go to the bathroom? No. He just kept staring out at the rink, waiting for the performers to come back. When I'd lean over to him during the performance to point something out, he didn't even hear me. He was too busy focusing intently on everything that was happening out on the ice.

All in all, it was a wonderful evening. I'm glad I went. Even this old dog can learn a few new tricks now and then!

Friday, September 23, 2005

Out and about

This week, I went to see New Stage's Noises Off with a group of friends. Noises Off is one of my favorite plays of all time, and I saw a smokin' production of it at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival a season or two ago. The plot revolves around a traveling stage production of a (made-up) play called Nothing On. The audience follows the production's performers and director through the final dress rehearsal and two performances on the road.

New Stage assembled a great cast for their production; they hired some very talented performers. Stand-outs included Ray McFarland as Selsdon, Jo Ann Robinson as Dotty, and John Howell as Tim. The set, which contains something like eight doors, was beautifully done. I thought that in Act I, the pace was rather slow. Because the show is a farce, keeping the pace quick can mean the difference between belly laughs and just general smiles from the audience. Also, I thought that "director" Lloyd Dallas wasn't nearly desperate enough in Act I. The act opens in the wee hours of the morning before opening night, and EVERYTHING is going wrong. I just felt that, personally, if I were directing that show, I would have been WAY more anxious. It would have raised the stakes for everyone, I think, in Act I.

Act II, with its "silent" backstage humor, was great. The actors did a wonderful job with the physical comedy of the act, and the audience I attended with was very much on board. The only change I would have made would have been to have mics on the upstage side of the set. (In Act II, the set for the production of Nothing On rotates, and audience members are treated to a peek at what goes on back stage during the production.) Many of the things that are going on backstage naturally affect what's happening on stage, where the performance is going horribly, horribly wrong. The only problem was that the audience couldn't hear what was going on "on stage," and therefore didn't get some of the great jokes that are written into the script.

Act III was fabulous. Great performances, wonderful general hijinks, and all in all, a hilarious act. How fun! Get on over to New Stage for this production! It runs through this weekend (Sept. 25), and tickets are $18 for seniors/students and $22 for general admission. Call 601-948-3531 for tickets.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Southern story

I watched The Ladykillers, co-directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen, this week. I liked it even better than O Brother, Where Art Thou? In the film, the elderly Marva Munson, a church-going widow who donates regularly to Bob Jones University, rents her spare room to the talkative professor Goldwaith Higginson Dorr (played by Tom Hanks). Unbeknownst to Munson, Dorr has ulterior reasons for wanting to take up residence in her home. Her gracious Southern house practically abuts the underground vault of the nearby Bandit Queen Casino. Not only that, Munson's house has a convenient root cellar from which the cunning Dorr plans to tunnel into the vault.

To gain uninterrupted access to the root cellar, Dorr tells the gullible widow that he needs a rehearsal space for his medieval musical group. (Knowing she is a religious woman, Dorr notes that most of his group's works were "commissioned by the Holy See!" What a hoot!) Of course, Dorr's "musicians" are nothing more than conspirators to his plan. What ensues is an engaging criminal caper movie featuring some of the most interesting characters I've seen on the modern screen.

Tough-talking Gawain (Marlon Wayans) works on the casino's janitorial staff; Pancake (J.K. Simmons) is a camera prop-man with explosives expertise; the tight-lipped General (Tzi Ma) is valuable to the team due to his tunneling abilities; and vacuous Lump is the brawn behind the enterprise. Of course, the poetry-reciting Dorr is the mastermind behind the entire plan. While the bumbling team of thieves is successful in stealing the money, their erstwhile landlord caught on to the crime. When Dorr tries to convince her to take a share of the money in return for her silence, she refuses, insisting that the money be returned and the whole gang attend church with her the following Sunday.

After a brief conference, the criminals decide that someone has to kill the old lady.

I thought this was a fabulous film. I wouldn't call it belly-laugh funny, but it will definitely keep you smiling throughout. Hanks is superb as Dorr, playing a character unlike any I've seen him play before. Irma P. Hall, who plays the squeaky-clean Marva Munson, is also a highlight. The ironic ending, and particularly the final destination of the pilfered money, were both clever surprises.

Friday, September 09, 2005

N'awlins on my mind.

I made a donation to the relief effort this week. Christ United Methodist Church in Jackson (on Old Canton Road) is serving as a distribution center for items. They particularly need water, non-perishable foods, and baby items. They weren't accepting any more clothing or toys this week; they said that they had plenty of both for now, and that they needed the space for other essentials. The Jackson coliseum is still housing about 300 evacuees; I was told by a Red Cross employee there that most other evacuees have been moved to churches and other shelters. The coliseum is now serving as a staging ground to ship supplies to the Gulf coast.

I've been thinking about New Orleans this week. I took my little sister down there last Christmas, just for fun. We stayed in a tony room at the Royal Sonesta on Bourbon Street. (You would have never known you were in the middle of the French Quarter. Our room was so quiet at night, save for the drunken revelers stumbling back to the adjoining room.) We also ate a wonderful dinner at Arnaud's; we chose the pre-fixed menu, enjoying shrimp and stuffed mushrooms, crisp salads, sauteed fish, and strawberries Romanoff, all for a bargain price. We went to see the Christmas lights display in the city park, voting for the running dinosaur as our favorite display. (He wasn't very Christmasy, but he sure was cool.) We also visited the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel, which was decorated lavishly for the holiday season with lit trees, fake snow, a life-sized gingerbread house, and Santa's sleigh. We ate oysters at Felix's, strolled Magazine Street, and visited the Cabildo. We even had puffy, sugary beignets at Cafe du Monde. My little sister was only 20 on our last visit, so we couldn't get into alot of the bars in the quarter. I had promised her that we'd go back this year, so she could enjoy some of the live music and taste a few of the city's hallmark liquid concoctions.

When my husband and I visited New Orleans, we usually ended up at the Aquarium of the Americas. We were both fascinated by the place, and we especially loved the plexiglass tunnel that took visitors inside one of the huge tanks there. Although the building itself did not sustain major damage from Hurricane Katrina, I've learned that most of the fish in the aquarium didn't make it. I can't tell you how sad I am about that. I've resolved to make a donation to help the aquarium recover from their losses.

I am probably like many of the other people who loved to visit New Orleans. Once I determined that all of the people I knew in the city were safely evacuated, I began to think things like, "Did at least one of the Madeline's make it? What about HerbSaint? How did the zoo fare?" There are places in New Orleans that I savor each time I visit. They are like old friends to me, and I hope that they survived. Then there are the places that I hadn't been able to visit yet, things I had not yet done. I want to tour the D-Day Museum. As hokey as it sounds, I still want to take one of those guided walks through a New Orleans cemetery. And I want to listen to jazz at Preservation Hall. (The line is always so long when I visit. I've never once gotten in!)

I've heard much talk about rebuilding New Orleans, and the politicos on television have debated whether it's wise to rebuild a city that sits below sea level. I'm aware that most of the "tourist" area of New Orleans sits above sea level, and that residential areas around that are what seem to be sinking further into the Louisiana wetlands with each passing year. Some engineers have even suggested rebuilding residential areas in different areas, where they would be more secure, and establishing an efficient public transportation system to ferry people back and forth each day. Others want to reconstruct the city just as it was, with reinforced levees.

Either way, when New Orleans is open for business again, I will be waiting. I still owe my sister a return trip.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Glued to the tube

I watched two movies this weekend - 13 Going on 30 and The Station Agent.

First, The Station Agent. There's really not much of a plot to this movie. The primary character is Finn, a dwarf who works in a model train store. When the store's owner dies, Finn discovers that the man (quite possibly his only friend) willed him a small train depot. Finn moves to the depot, most likely planning to live the life of a hermit and grieve the death of his friend. Two new friends - the lonely Olivia (struggling with the death of her son and the dissolution of her marriage) and goofy Joe (who runs a hotdog stand near the depot and seems desperate for companionship) - seem to have other plans. It doesn't sound like much to hang a movie on, but I thought this was a great character-driven film. The performances turned in by all of the primary actors - Peter Dinklage as Finn, Patricia Clarkson as Olivia, and Bobby Cannavale as Joe - were exceptional. At first, I had a hard time warming up to Finn. However, the viewer quickly realizes that Finn has developed a tough hide in order to better endure the cruelties of being a dwarf. By the end of the movie, Dinklage allowed the character to soften a bit, and he ended up winning me over. Cannavale had some masterful scenes. He does such a good job of playing the well-meaning but somewhat annoying sidekick that it is difficult not to fall in love with him immediately. Clarkson, who seems at first a ditzy artist, quickly turns such pigeonholing on its ear, displaying remarkable depth when discussing her dead son and her failing marriage.

All in all, this is a great movie about what it is to be someone who both craves isolation and companionship.

13 Going on 30 is a super-sweet Big for girls. After a particularly awful 13th birthday party, Jenna (played by Jennifer Gardner) wishes she could skip her teenage years and go directly to the "thirty, flirty, and thriving" that she reads about in Poise magazine. When Jenna wakes up, she's just that - thirty years old, with a killer apartment in New York and a job as a top editor at Poise. However, the more she discovers who she's become in search of her ideal life, the less she recognizes herself. Jenna looks up an old elementary school friend, Matt (played by Mark Ruffalo), and she realizes that she made some serious mistakes in her life. Naturally, Jenna is given the chance to go back and correct any errors when she's returned to her true age - 13 - and allowed to live the life she was meant to live.

Ok, so the premise of this story is far-fetched. And it's almost saccharine in its sweetness. But between Gardner and Ruffalo, 13 Going on 30 pulls it all off. Gardner, in a true comedic role, shines. Her goofy enthusiasm and wide-eyed innocence are pitch-perfect for this film. Ruffalo's open-hearted devotion to Jenna, as well as his reluctance to break his fiancee's heart, are also well-played. While this was a movie that I wasn't sure I would enjoy, enjoy it I did. It's a great family film. You can check your intellect at the door and just relax into this feel-good movie.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Movies and books.

Well, to pass the time, I've been watching alot of movies and reading alot of books. I just finished watching Before Sunset, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. While I didn't find the movie earth-shattering or anything, I thought Delpy turned in a GREAT performance. She had a veryatural style of delivery in this film. I wonder how much of the dialogue was scripted and how much was ad-libbed . . . ? It was a short movie, which I also thought was a good choice. There's only so much of characters chit chatting while they leg it around Europe that one can take. I liked how the end of the movie was left ambiguous, but not in an annoying way. Any thinking viewer can guess what happens next, but the movie doesn't hit you over the head with it.

I also read Shem Creek, a novel by Dorothea Benton Frank. I thought it was great! In Shem Creek, Linda, a single mother, decides to move her family from New Jersey to South Carolina, where she grew up. She lands a job in a local restaurant, and Frank thrills the reader with descriptions of fluffy biscuits, mouth-watering pound cakes, and seafood in all its glorious paramutations. (I love how Southern novels - and often, plays - seem to incorporate food as such a basic part of their stories. In the South, food is very central to culture. ) As a result of her move, Linda rekindles her relationship with her sister, strengthens her bonds with her daughters, and finds true love. Now, who wouldn't like reading about that? It had a happy ending, which was something I was desperately needing, given all of the grim news coverage these days.

As for my Labor Day plans, they subsist of staying at home and trying not to use any gas. So, I'll be movie-watching and, perhaps, book-reading. Next up - 13 Going on 30 and The LadyKillers.

God bless.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Still here.

We have been so blessed. I now have electricity! We cleaned out the fridge and cleaned up the front yard. Yesterday, I went to the grocery store to re-stock. This is going to sound crazy, but I was really reassured by all of the neat rows of food. It didn't look as though they were running out of anything at Brookshire's. I talked to one of the employees there, and he told me they'd had to throw away two 18-wheelers of spoiled food.

This whole disaster has got me thinking. In America, the upper and middle classes are not acquainted with the idea of shortage. We have taken it for granted that there was always plenty of everything we needed, wanted, as long as we could pay for it. So the idea that a store might be out of, say, eggs or ground beef or bottled water or whatever is totally foreign to us. It makes us extremely uncomfortable. That's where we are with the gas situation right now. We know that supplies are limited. People are panicking, lining up at pumps to top off, etc. It makes us all nervous. And because we are a culture based on the automobile, many of us live a good ways from where we work. Since we want to be able to continue our "normal" lives (and perhaps because we are such a work-obsessed culture), we want to continue to go to work, even though gas is scarce. (Waits in line for gas seem to average around five hours, if you can even find a station that's pumping.) It's just an odd situation, and much of it seems to play into our identity as Americans.

I've made contact with my friends and family from the Coast and New Orleans. Thank God, they are all still alive, though most of them lost everything. Now, they are trying to decide what to do next. My husband's brother-in-law is back on the Coast, trying to begin the clean-up and rebuilding process. Other friends are in Montgomery, Baton Rouge, and other cities, staying with friends and family.

I was reading back on my earlier post about staying on the Coast at the Beau Rivage. It's eerie to me, when I think of the fact that I was just there, and now the area is so changed. I have a guidebook on New Orleans. I took my little sister there last Christmas, and I was thinking we might go again this year. I had highlighted all the restaurants that I wanted to try. I think I''ll keep the book. There's no way of knowing what will happen in this world.

I was also thinking about the reputation of the South in this country. We may be the butt of alot of jokes about stupidity and backwardness, but the aftermath of this hurricane shows the proof of our value to the United States. The whole nation has been thrown into a fuel crisis because the Gulf is a producer of oil for America and New Orleans is a major port city, with pipelines running north. I've read several articles about the price of fresh produce, and how it's about to go up, because Southern farms have been devastated by Hurricane Katrina. I still haven't heard the status of the Stennis Space Center yet. Let's hope it's still there.

Anyway, I guess the long and short of it is, when you're sitting around without power, or if you're stuck at home without gas to go anywhere, you have ample time to ruminate. Please forgive my ramblings.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

What to write . . .

The world has changed since my last post. Hurricane Katrina swept the gulf coast, obliterating Gulfport, Biloxi, and New Orleans, among other cities. The population of Jackson has swelled to accommodate refugees, and lines for gas, ice, and other supplies are springing up all over the metro area.

Many residents in metro Jackson have been without power since Monday, although more and more people I speak with are having their power restored everyday. Some were without water, although that is now improving, too. Phone service is spotty, particularly cellular service.

We lost some shingles from our roof, and we had tons of tree limbs in our yard. We lost power, but we never lost water service. (Thank you, Pearl River Valley Water Supply District.) Tonight, we'll head home, try to cover the roof, and empty out the fridge. I've heard that power has now been restored in my home (We'll find out tonight.), but even if it hasn't been, I'm still one of the lucky ones.

Troy, my husband's brother-in-law, rode out the storm on the coast with his parents, his aunt and uncle, and his brother's extended family. Miraculously, they all survived. Troy's house is even intact. They have been spending the last few days clearing roads in their neighborhood, ripping ruined carpet and furniture out of homes, and trying to stay alive. He drove up to Clinton last night, and we tried to help him stock up on water, ice, food, and gas. He headed back down there this morning. What a nightmare. God bless them and keep them.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

What'd I Say?

I just finished watching Ray, starring Jamie Foxx. The film chronicles the life and career of Ray Charles, the legendary piano player and jazz/blues/country singer. Charles went blind from glaucoma when he was about seven years old, but he overcame that obstacle, as well as many others, to forge a very successful career in show business. The movie tells the story of Charles' triumph over drug addiction as well.

I was dancing around my living room during some of the band scenes! I also especially loved the flashbacks to Charles' childhood, and how all of those scenes seemed to be shot in such bright contrasting colors - the red clay of the earth, the bright green of the grass, the multi-hued bottle trees. It made sense to me that, remembering, Charles would recall the world in such color.

Performances by Foxx, Kerry Washington (Della Charles), and Regina King (Margie Hendrix) were all especially notable. I've seen Regina King in several other films, and I've always thought she was one of the most talented actresses around. She proves it in this film.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

New reviews and other news

I've recently posted new reviews to Amazon.com, including my thoughts on A Map of the World, Gangs of New York, and some other tidbits. You can read them here.

I have heard that Anthony Michael Hall will be a guest on the Bob and Bender Showgram on Y101 this week! Whoopee! You might not think it to look at me, but I am a HUGE Dead Zone fan. I've got that thing set on Tivo's Season Pass so that I never miss an episode! Sometimes, Johnny Smith has a habit of taking himself a little too seriously, but, most of the time, it's just indulgent fun. (I'm also a lover of The 4400. I don't watch too much sci-fi, but when I latch onto something, it's all over.)

I spent a few days down on the Mississippi Gulf Coast this week, and I had the chance to enjoy some new experiences, namely eating at Mary Mahoney's! Oddly enough, I'd never eaten there before. They served me some of the most delicious fried oyesters that I think I've ever had. Now, it's a little spendy, but it's worth every penny. The homemade tartar sauce is divine. When the time comes for dessert, they'll tell you that they are famous for their bread pudding. Pah. While the bread pudding is excellent, the dessert you want is the Mississippi Mud Pie. Service is fabulous, so tip well.

I stayed at the Beau Rivage while in the area, and I cannot say enough about the service at the property. We were waited on hand and foot. I was there for a conference, and the food was consistently sublime. In addition, the surroundings are absolutely beautiful. The only two complaints I have are: 1.) my mattress was as hard as a rock and 2.) they charged guests $15 per day to use the gym. (A gym fee is preposterous. Even low-service hotels often have complimentary gym services. It's becoming, not an amenity, but something that travelers expect. It's like charging guests for pool access. Sniff.) Anyway, other than that, I was a happy camper.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Vacation plans and other terrible ideas

I finalized most of the details for our upcoming trip to Phoenix, Sedona, and the Grand Canyon! Woo-hoo! All of the hotels are booked, the rental car is reserved, and I even booked us a Pink Jeep Tour for Sedona. (Pink Jeep Tours is probably the most prominent tour company in Sedona. I've booked their Broken Arrow Tour, which is supposed to be a best-seller. I'll let you know how it turns out!) I think I'll make a few dinner reservations at swanky restaurants and call it good. (I've had my eye on El Portal in Sedona.)

In Phoenix, we'll stay at the Legacy Golf Resort, which is a full-service resort and golf course right next to South Mountain Park. (I'm hoping to do some early morning hiking in the park.) In Sedona, we'll be staying at Los Abrigados Resort and Spa in a studio suite. This resort is actually fairly centrally located, so I hope it works out as far as atmosphere and cleanliness goes. At the Grand Canyon, we're booked in Yavapai Lodge. It's one of the lodges that is within the park, but not directly on the rim. (We hope to avoid the crowds that way.) Also, the room we booked was recently renovated, so we feel like we'll be getting a great room for the money.

Ok, so I haven't even BEEN on the trip I've already planned, and I've already hatched a terrible, evil idea for what I'd like to do next. Because of my job, I won't be able to vacation again until next fall. That's also around the time that hubby and I think we might want to start our family. Well, wouldn't it be fabulous to do one last, huge, hurrah before I get pregnant and resign myself to the selfless life of motherhood? I haven't made any firm decisions, but this could be big. VERY big. Halfway around the world big. I've been lucky enough to visit most of the places I dreamed about in high school - Paris, London, Ediburgh, Madrid, the Carribbean, Mexico, Hawaii. I even made it back to my father's homeland in Lebanon. I only have one last must-see destination on my list . . .

Next fall would also be just before I turn the big 3-0, so I think that a big adventure would be rather symbolic in other ways. The last jaunt of my twenties. (And perhaps my last jaunt in quite a while. Children have a way of sucking up disposable income.) Anyway, I'll keep you posted.

Not all who wander are lost . . .

The Forgotten is, well, kinda forgettable.

Hubby and I watched The Forgotten, with Julianne Moore, over the weekend. I know that it was poorly received critically, and I have no idea what this film's numbers were at the box office. I really can't honestly reccommend this movie, so I suppose I don't have much new information to report! The movie was good enough, I guess, but the premise was so fantastical that I had a hard time staying engaged. And the ending was even more improbable. I tend to stay with plots that are unbelieveable more in adventure-type stories than in sci-fi plots. (Not sure why; just a quirk, I guess.)

Anyway, despite all of the above, Julianne Moore did her best to turn in a good performance. She dealt with the far-fetched plot as well as any actor could. I will never forget the first time I really noticed that Julianne Moore could act. (And I mean, really act.) I was a theatre student at Millsaps College. We were in a small, blue room (with crummy acoustics) for an acting class one afternoon. The professor rolled out a television on a cart and started playing Vanya on 42nd Street, directed by Louis Malle. The production was adapted by David Mamet (a playwright I LOVE), based on Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. The show was rather improbably cast, but all the performances in it were absolutely enthralling. If you have not seen this treatment of Uncle Vanya, I urge you to rent it, buy it, or do whatever you have to do to see it. Talk about acting. I don't think I really understood what acting was until I saw this. As far as performances go, it was a tour de force. Brooke Smith was heartbreaking, just heartbreaking, as Sonya.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Back to school

I had a meeting over at the Smith Robertson Museum on Wednesday. (The museum is housed in the final site of the first public school built for African-American students in Jackson.) What a treasure! I had been there a few years ago, and I remember noticing that parts of the facility were closed and/or in disrepair. Well, the staff of the museum (and its generous donors) have made a huge renovation possible. The facility is now freshly updated, and practically every room of the building is open to the public.

The museum has wonderful handmade quilts on display, as well as artifacts from the school itself and work by local African-American artists. I noticed some beautiful black and white photographs by Roland Freeman as well as several large, colorful pieces in a light-filled atrium. On the upper floor, artifact displays depict African-American life, including period clothing and furniture. The museum also has a fabulous gift shop featuring African-inspired pieces, including baskets, vases, wall hangings, and more. (Note: prices in the gift shop are extremely reasonable. Please budget for the "must-have" syndrome that will overtake you when you walk into the gift shop.)

The museum, which is owned by the City of Jackson, is open every day of the week. Admission is $4 for adults, with discounts for children and seniors. For additional information, call the museum at 601-960-1457.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Restaurants, and books, and movies! Oh my!

Lots to report this time! I just finished reading The Orchid Thief (at last) by Susan Orlean. Orlean is a journalist, and the novel definitely reads like a journalist wrote it. First of all, there is no real plot line. This is not a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Rather, it reads like a feature story: an in-depth look at Florida and its history, the society of orchid collectors and hunters, and Orlean's own experiences with John Laroche, the orchid thief of the book's title. (The book was actually born out of a story that Orlean wrote for The New Yorker.)

While it can be a bit slow at times, the book offers fascinating insight into several microcosms of Florida. Orlean explores the history of land scheming in the state, the treatment of the Seminole Indians, and the smuggling of plants and animals that occurs in Florida. She also invites the reader to join her in the high-stakes world of orchid collecting, in which one plant might fetch thousands of dollars. Orlean continually refers back to the passion of orchid collectors, characterizing their affinity for the plants as a type of mania. It was interesting to me, though, that Orlean herself experiences a similar mania - that of reporting. About half way through the book, I noticed that Orlean had gone to ALOT of trouble to write The Orchid Thief. She'd moved down to her parents house in Florida. She was driving all over the state of Florida to plant shows, orchid businesses, growers' fairs, etc. She was slogging through the Florida swamp in increasingly hot and buggy weather. She was spending copious amounts of time with John Laroche, a sometimes-irritating personality at best. It was interesting to me that she herself possessed a kind of mania, but that her mania (reporting/her job) is one that's much more acceptable to society. In other words, if you are in love with your job, fine. But if it's flowers you like, well, you're a little off kilter.

Anyway, I really enjoyed it, and I do recommend it. It can be a little slow in places, but it's worth forging ahead.

Next up - I had a fabulous dinner at a new restaurant in Ridgeland called Trio's. It's a great new Mediterranean-inspired place on Old Canton Road. For starters, we had the kaftedes, and they were definitely authentic. (Kafta is gound beef mixed with parsley, onions, and spices; it can be grilled or baked.) The only thing about the kaftedes that I didn't recognize was the sauce (we always served ours plain), but it was delicious. The Greek salad, which comes with most entrees, is wonderful at Trio's. They serve it with olives, feta cheese, and a fabulous house dressing. My entree, the scallops, was wonderful. I had requested it with an herbed beurre blanc sauce, but they forgot to put it on the plate. The scallops were so good on their own, though, that I didn't even remind them about the sauce! I chose potatoes au gratin as my side dish, and I later wished I'd picked something else. For dessert, we chose a very dense, very chocolatey brownie with whipped cream and strawberry sauce. All in all, it was a wonderful meal. The service was also impeccable. I noticed, as well, that the restaurant seems to have an inventive cocktail menu, and the patrons I observed at the bar were definitely enjoying themselves!

Lastly, I saw Mona Lisa Smile over the weekend. For the most part, I thought it was a pretty good movie. There were some things that really bothered me in it, though. For example, Betty (Kirsten Dunst) spends the whole movie hating Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts). Then, all of a sudden, at the end, she decides she absolutely LOVES her. It made no sense. The movie features an impressive cast of young female stars. Gennifer Goodwin as Connie was particularly convincing and lovable. I saw her performance in Win a Date with Tad Hamilton, and I think she's star material. All of the stars look GREAT in this movie; the makeup and hair was beautifully done. Some of the shots of the college campus are also gorgeous as well. This is a fun little chick flick. I don't think it would be on the top of my list, but it's a good movie for a night in with the girls.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

We've seen the enemy

I watched M. Night Shyamalan's The Village over the weekend, and I wasn't going to write about it. But it's haunting me, a little.

Spoiler alert!!
Basically, I decided not to see this movie in the theater because a friend had gone to see it, and had told me that the whole "creatures in the woods" mystique was a hoax. Well, it came on HBO last weekend, and while I was glad that I hadn't seen it in the theater, I liked it so much that I started watching it. And I watched it through to the end. (If I hadn't known about the hoax, I might have been irritated by the ending. But since I DID know, I could watch it without getting too scared, and I could observe the performances very closely.)

Here's the skinny: The movie opens on the village, a rustic, idyllic pastoral community set in what appears to be the past. However, as the movie progresses, we learn that the villagers fear certain creatures (whom they refer to as "those we do not speak of") that lurk in the surrounding Covington Woods. Bryce Dallas Howard (who plays Ivy Elizabeth Walker, a daughter of one of the village elders) turns in a thoughtful performance as a young blind girl who discovers some of the village's secrets. She has a very unstrained delivery that I really like. Some of the lines in the script were a bit clunky, but she really pulled them off, and she did it without alot of the emoting that passes for acting these days. Adrien Brody plays Noah, a mentally challenged man, and he and Ivy have a special relationship. Joaquin Phoenix plays Lucius Hunt, Ivy's love interest. There is a wonderful scene between Lucius and Ivy on Ivy's porch, when the shy and quiet Lucius almost painfully confesses his feelings for Ivy. I thought this scene was wonderfully performed by both Phoenix and Howard.

Anyway, when Lucius and Ivy announce their plans to marry, the jealous Noah stabs Lucius. With this crime, the village begins to unravel. Village elders discuss the infection of the wound that is likely to finish Lucius off, and Ivy requests permission to cross the woods into "the towns," where life-saving medicines can be found. With great trepidation, her father convinces the elders to allow it, and he shows her the secret of the village.

The big secret is : there are no creatures. The creatures are simply village elders dressed up in elaborate costumes to keep people from the village from going into the towns. The villagers are living in modern-day times, and the elders are the architects of the entire community. (Apparently, each of the elders had someone they once loved who was murdered. They met by chance at a grief counseling center and decided to try and create their own utopia.) With this knowledge, Ivy crosses through the woods, gets the medicines, and brings them back to the village. (There are a few more complications, but that's the gist of it.)

What is fascinating to me about all of this is that it supports the premise that human nature cannot be controlled. Even in a strictly contained environment, the passions of man are unpredictable. The movie also made me think of that old adage, "We have seen the enemy, and he is us." The elders think they can separate from society, and therefore avoid senseless acts of crime/murder. But it is Noah, a member of their own society (who is, incidentally, the son of one of the village elders) who ends up committing a violent crime (the whole nature/nurture argument). Taken a step further, even the village elders themselves aren't so innocent, dressing up in Halloween costumes and tromping around, scaring the life out of everybody.

Though totally implausible (and rage-inducing, if you don't know the secret until the end of the movie), I thought the movie did encourage some interesting musings.