Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The King at Halloween

Courtesy of my 7-year-old nephew Willie, who made a terrific Elvis!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"Into the Wild" takes you away

My freelance review:
The new film Into the Wild continues to be on my mind, almost ten days after seeing it.

As writer/director, Sean Penn has created a masterpiece. Adapted from Jon Krakauer's best-seller, Into the Wild tells the story of Christopher McCandless (played by the little-known but very talented Emile Hirsch), an upper-middle-class young man, just graduated from college, who rebelliously opts to donate his savings to charity, leave society and journey to the Alaskan wilderness to become one with nature.

And what a journey McCandless has! South Dakota, Arizona, Alaska, Mexico, California... the authentic and scenic locations come to vivid life thanks to cinematographer Eric Gautier, who produces some of the most beautifully captured pictures I have ever seen.

The story bounces around chronologically to great effect, providing balance to the generally-episodic nature of McCandless' trek. The stories and characters that unfold throughout the episodes add a lot of depth to the film. Through flashbacks and narration by McCandless' younger sister, we observe the dysfunctional relationship between McCandless and his parents, played by Marcia Gay Harden and the always-terrific William Hurt. It's interesting, in contrast, observing McCandless with the sweet, caring hippee woman (played by the endearing Catherine Keener) who provides a type of maternal relationship to him, and then later in the film with an Army retiree (tenderly played by Hal Holbrook) serving as his surrogate father.

And it's in such relationships that we see the ever-so-philosophical McCandless coming to life. At one point in his travels, he develops a buddy relationship with a farmer played by Vince Vaughn (demonstrating a considerably wider acting range than his typical film roles allow). McCandless also bonds with a talented young woman (played by Kristen Stewart) living in a California desert RV camp that attracts non-conformists and vagabonds. He takes to making music with her; a touching, soothing moment in the film has the two of them singing to the desert commune the John Prine song "Angel in Montgomery."

Also contributing to the overall mood of the film is the powerful soundtrack by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. His songs are haunting and fit the movie perfectly.

There's great appeal to watching this film. Beyond the acting, the cinematography, the editing, the music, the mood -- all of which are great -- there's something more. Perhaps deep down, at some point or another, each of us has had a desire or an impulse to run away, perhaps to leave civilization, to push our lives in another direction. Few of us, for various reasons, ever do. Witnessing the story of someone who has made this happen, I found an utter fascination to observe and to study -- and, for a few hours, to allow myself to be taken away.

I don't expect to find a better, more engaging film this year than Into the Wild.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

"The Clean House" shines

My freelance review:
The Rep doesn't get much better than this!

The Clean House, the first show of the season for the St. Louis Repertory Theatre's Studio Theatre series, is a shining gem of a production. The play delivers plenty of laughs, drama, romance and poignant human emotion.

The setting is modern-era Connecticut and the home of two busy, high-powered physicians, Lane and Charles, and their zany, young Brazilian housekeeper Matilde, a woman with a problem -- she hates to clean!

Matilde, played by Roni Geva in a rich performance that couldn't be any better, prefers trying to dream up the funniest joke in the world! Her parents, she confides, were the two funniest people in Brazil, and when they died it was left to her to be the funniest.

Enter Lane's sister Virginia who loves to clean and, in a secret deal with Matilde, arranges to take care of the cleaning behind Lane's back -- an arrangement that is just too perfect to last.

This play is chock full of laughs as the story plays out, and the laughs only get stronger in the second act when Charles brings home a patient, the free-spirited Ana (played with gusto and charm by June Gable) -- much to the dismay of his wife.

The other cast members are first-rate, too. This includes Andrea Cirie and Carol Schultz as sisters Lane and Virginia and John Rensenhouse as Charles.

The Clean House is playright Sarah Ruhl's sixth play. It won the 2004 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, awarded annually to the best English-language play written by a woman, and was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Director Susan Gregg, the Rep's Associate Artistic Director, delivers a great production of The Clean House. It's fairly obvious that Gregg and her cast and crew had a lot of fun putting the show together.

The Clean House plays through Nov. 11 at the Emerson Studio Theatre at the St. Louis Repertory Theatre in Webster Groves.

"Reservation Road" is slow, flawed

My freelance review:
Author John Burnham Schwartz's critically-acclaimed novel Reservation Road has arrived on the big screen, with some big talent both in front and behind the camera. Unfortunately, there are some major flaws with the outcome.

The film Reservation Road focuses on two fathers and their families. One is college professor Ethan Learner (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a family man with a wife (played by Jennifer Connelly) and a young son and daughter. The other is law associate Dwight Arno (played by Mark Ruffalo), a divorced man with partial custody of his young son.

Just a few minutes into the film, an accidental tragedy occurs at a roadside gas station late in the evening as Ethan's 10-year-old son is struck and instantly killed by Dwight's car. Although aware of what happened, a panicked Dwight speeds away, seeing a shellshocked Ethan holding his dead son through his rear-view mirror.

A police investigation follows, and the story alternates back and forth between the two fathers and how they deal with the tragedy.

And this is where the first major flaw of the film comes into play: The flaw of way too much coincidence.

Although the two fathers don't know each other, the flaw of way too much coincidence allows their paths to suddenly cross in more ways than one. I've not read the novel, but I've heard that writer/director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) took some dramatic license here.

Another problem with the film is its very slow pace. While the novel was acclaimed for jumping back and forth gracefully among the two fathers and the dead boy's mother, the film doesn't quite succeed in the same way. There isn't that much story coming across.

Both Phoenix and Ruffalo turn in good performances, but Connelly is surprisingly weak as the boy's mother, delivering some of her lines with a degree of awkwardness.

Reservation Road is the kind of film to rent and play in the background while you paint or put a puzzle together. It's not the kind of film that deserves your full attention, unless you are bored and don't have much else to do.

Friday, October 26, 2007


At the Apple Store buying Leopard, the new version of Mac OS X. The store is jam-packed. I am one of the first 500 people to wait in line for the 6:00 PM bewitching hour when the software went on sale -- so I got a free OS X Leopard t-shirt! Okay, I am a geek!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Elvis is in the building

My sister sent me this cell phone picture of my 7-year-old nephew Willie in his halloween costume: Elvis!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The dating game exposed

My freelance review:
Looking for an intimate theatre experience? Look no further than Bad Dates, now playing as part of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' Off-Ramp series.

Bad Dates is a one-actor show, with that actor playing just one character on just one set -- but when you walk out of the show, you'll feel a sense of having seen a show rich in characters and situations.

And you'll also feel good for having laughed -- a lot.

Annie Fitzpatrick delivers an outstanding performance as Haley Walker -- a 40-something single mom, newly-successful restaurateur and designer-shoe addict. As the story begins, Walker is frantically trying to find the right outfit for her first date in a long time. As she redresses herself multiple times, she explains to the audience her background and what she is up to.

That date -- the first of several -- doesn't go very well. But it's a hoot hearing the details!

Haley's conversation with the audience is interrupted only a few times -- phone calls, speaking to her off-stage teenaged daughter, or when leaving for a date. Otherwise, the focus is Haley's conversation with the audience. As with life, the conversation can be light-hearted, serious or some combination of both. Playwright Theresa Rebeck has crafted a rich, human story.

Which brings me back to Fitzpatrick. She demonstrates incredible range as an actor. At numerous points throughout the show, I was struck by her performance and how sincere your character's emotions seemed. For example, when Haley breaks down after having her heart broken, I was tempted to run on-stage to be with her!

The production plays out very well on its small stage. Haley's New York City apartment (by scenic designer Narelle Sissons) is inviting.

Director Michael Evan Haney, who directed the thrilling Witness for the Prosecution from two seasons ago and the touching The Heidi Chronicles from last season, scores another win.

Bad Dates plays through November 4 at the Grandel Theatre (3610 Grandel Square in St. Louis City) as part of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' Off-Ramp series.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Body Worlds exhibit

Saw the Body Worlds exhibit today at the St. Louis Science Center.

On display were a number of "whole body plastinates" -- entire human bodies that have been preserved by replacing bodily fluids and fat with "reactive fluid plastics." Also on display were preserved individual organs and transparent body "slices." Both healthy and unhealthy bodies and organs were displayed.

This experience was quite educational and enlightening. I learned much about the inner workings of the human body -- organs, nervous system, bones/skeleton, muscle, skin and so on. I also speculated on my own body and how I'm treating it.

I highly recommend this exhibit, which runs through March 2 at the St. Louis Science Center. Rent the optional audio guide -- it offers a lot of additional insight that wasn't on the printed displays.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Best dog car ever... as good a dogmobile as could possibly be imagined.
That's what has to say about my new car, a Honda Element. Accordingly, my own dogs have given the new car their official canine seal of approval -- without having even seen it yet! (The car is still being built.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


I've bought a new car! It's a 2008 Honda Element. That's not me in the photo above, which I found on the web and was taken at the Garden of the Gods park in Colorado Springs, but my car is identical (minus the snow).

It's currently being built and I should have it by the end of the month. Can't wait!!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

'Dracula' delivers a good bite

My freelance review:
'Tis the season... to be spooked.

Adapted from Bram Stoker's world-famous vampire novel, Dracula is the current production at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, and it's definitely worth seeing. If this show doesn't get you into the spirit of Halloween, nothing will!

Particular kudos to scenic designer Paul Shortt for absolutely stunning sets. From the giant windows that open to reveal the balcony that Count Dracula leaps from... to the steps leading off to other parts of the mansion... to the transformation of the main set to the dungeon for the third act... definitely an intricate and pleasing set design!

Also contributing to the spooky atmosphere were the lighting (Kirk Bookman, lighting designer) -- was that moon glow real? -- and the eerie music (David B. Smith, composer) that would come from off-stage at just the right points.

And then there's the Count himself, played by Kurt Rhoads. Rhoads delivers a Count Dracula who's exactly as he should be -- both dashing and menacing.

The rest of cast does a good job, too, particularly Larry Bull in a supporting role. He offers a good mixture of suspense and humor in a show that delivers a surprising number of laughs.

There is one intermission between the first act and the combined second and third acts. The second and third acts go by very quickly. The pace of the show could have been improved with some judicious cutting within the first act; some of the dialog gets a bit heavy.

If you're fishing for a good show to see this Halloween season, the Rep's production of Dracula is a good bite.

Dracula plays through Nov. 4 at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in Webster Groves.

'Clayton' plays out slowly and confusingly

My freelance review:
The new film "Michael Clayton" aspires to convey a realistic depiction of its title character, a quick thinking but flawed corporate attorney solidly portrayed by George Clooney.

The main story deals with a three billion dollar class action lawsuit against big tobacco and the breakdown of an attorney (good performance from character actor Tom Wilkinson) who's been dedicating his life toward the case -- on the side of big tobacco. Clooney's character is brought on-board as a "fixer."

I was excited to see this movie and to see how the story would play out. But I was quite disappointed to experience how excruciatingly slowly -- and confusingly -- it would play out.

Ultimately, there just wasn't that much of a plot here. What otherwise could have been background details in the story were played out in the foreground in detail. And some of the background details weren't relevant at all to the main story.

This was quite surprising given writer Tony Gilroy's resume, which includes all three of the "Bourne Identity" films.

Gilroy also directed, with this being his directorial debut. He used a time-shifting technique, presumably to bolster the story and its suspense. This technique is usually effective, but only when the underlying story is rich enough to support it.

The film gets kudos for not falling back on big chase scenes and gun fights and that sort of thing, but perhaps this was just too big of next step forward for writer/director Gilroy. While there were plenty of big guns producing the film (including Clooney, Sydney Pollack -- who also appears in the film, and Steven Soderbergh), perhaps some big guns should have been added to the writing team.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The connection between climate change and peace

Fraternity between nations... the abolition or reduction of standing armies... the holding or promotion of peace congresses.
Inventor Alfred Nobel's will called for whoever shall have done the most or the best work toward each of these three goals to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

For 2007, the Nobel Peace Prize went to the United States' Al Gore and to Switzerland's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) "for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change."

The press release that accompanied this announcement -- way too lengthy for our "just the sound bites, please" news media -- is quite important:
Indications of changes in the earth's future climate must be treated with the utmost seriousness, and with the precautionary principle uppermost in our minds. Extensive climate changes may alter and threaten the living conditions of much of mankind. They may induce large-scale migration and lead to greater competition for the earth's resources. Such changes will place particularly heavy burdens on the world's most vulnerable countries. There may be increased danger of violent conflicts and wars, within and between states.

Through the scientific reports it has issued over the past two decades, the IPCC has created an ever-broader informed consensus about the connection between human activities and global warming. Thousands of scientists and officials from over one hundred countries have collaborated to achieve greater certainty as to the scale of the warming. Whereas in the 1980s global warming seemed to be merely an interesting hypothesis, the 1990s produced firmer evidence in its support. In the last few years, the connections have become even clearer and the consequences still more apparent.

Al Gore has for a long time been one of the world's leading environmentalist politicians. He became aware at an early stage of the climatic challenges the world is facing. His strong commitment, reflected in political activity, lectures, films and books, has strengthened the struggle against climate change. He is probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted.

By awarding the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007 to the IPCC and Al Gore, the Norwegian Nobel Committee is seeking to contribute to a sharper focus on the processes and decisions that appear to be necessary to protect the world's future climate, and thereby to reduce the threat to the security of mankind. Action is necessary now, before climate change moves beyond man's control.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


I've been thinking a lot about the title of Nathan Winograd's book, Redemption.

I had the opportunity to go to Barnes & Noble the other evening and listen to Winograd. While he was there to talk about his book, what he was really talking about was a movement. A movement to save animals from error.

And what's the error being referenced here?

It's the error of our society having failed the animals.

And how has our society failed the animals? Through our animal shelters. The term "shelter" -- as a verb -- means to protect or shield from something harmful. But do our animal shelters do that? Or do they -- for the most part -- trade one form of harm for another?

It's the latter. And the statistics support this argument. Animal shelters kill most of the animals they bring in.

Winograd argues that the word "kill" is the appropriate word here -- not "euthanize." He points to the dictionary: To euthanize is "to kill someone suffering from an incurable and painful disease or in an irreversible coma."

Speaking carefully, then, only 7% of the animals killed by shelters are being euthanized. The other 93% are simply being killed.

You may be wondering why the shelters are being singled out. Isn't there an overpopulation of unwanted animals? Do the shelters have any other choice?

Winograd argues no and yes, respectively.

More specifically, he argues that it is a myth that there is an overpopulation of unwanted animals. Shelters are bought into this myth and are resting on this myth and are failing the animals -- and failing the taxpayers and donors funding this irresponsibility.

Winograd points to a growing number of communities across the country whose actions to change the way their shelter systems operate are producing staggering results. In these communities, greater than 90% of the animals that come into the shelter doors are adopted out. And consistently so, time after time. And, for clarity, these shelters are completely "open admission" -- meaning, they do not limit the number of animals allowed in.

Winograd was asked how the communities successful at doing this got to be successful. He explained that the change came about as the movers and shakers involved with animal welfare and the shelters -- that is, the people who have the power or fund the power -- demonstrated both a passion for saving animals and a desire to run a business successfully.

These leaders also held themselves accountable to the number of animals adopted out.

Winograd provided an operational example of the impact. As shelters in the community embrace new programs and services and become more accountable, they take their animals to off-site venues across the city where they compete more effectively with commercial sources of animals from breeders. They are able to offer their spay/neutered animals at a lower cost to prospective owners than what pet stores charge for unaltered animals from breeders. They include lots of coupons for services (such as vet discounts and grooming discounts and maybe even a free latte from the nearby coffee house that supports the overall movement!). The demand for animals from breeders decreases, and eventually -- out of necessity -- the pet stores opt to reach out to the shelters and ask to work with them instead of with the breeders.

Communities who have turned the corner are demonstrating that there is NOT a pet overpopulation problem requiring their animals to be killed.

Winograd calls this movement "No Kill." And he mentioned that the movement is catching on like wildfire.

Perhaps St. Louis should be next, I think.

I need to go read Winograd's book now.

And seek redemption.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

"Adopt a few and kill the rest"

From Nathan Winograd -- graduate of Stanford Law School, former criminal prosecutor and corporate attorney -- who will be speaking this Wednesday evening at 6:30 at the Barnes & Noble at Ladue Rd. and I-170:
This year, roughly five million dogs and cats will be put to death in our nation's animal shelters... The numbers killed are staggering. And for far too long, we have been led to believe that there is no other way...

There is another way.

In the last decade, several progressive communities have put into place a bold series of lifesaving programs and services which have dramatically reduced the death rate in those communities. Their success proves that there is a formula for lifesaving...

But the challenges are great. From entrenched bureaucrats who are content with the status quo, to uncaring shelter directors hostile to calls for reform; from agencies mired in the failed philosophies of the past to those who have internalized a culture of defeatism...

The roadblocks to No Kill are substantial, but not insurmountable.

We have a choice. We can fully, completely and without reservation embrace No Kill as our future. Or we can continue to legitimize the two-prong strategy of failure: adopt a few and kill the rest.
Winograd is currently Director of the national No Kill Advocacy Center. He was director of operations for the San Francisco SPCA and executive director of the Tompkins County SPCA, two of the most successful shelters in the nation. He has recently authored a book, Redemption:
Redemption is the story of animal sheltering in the United States, a movement that was born of compassion and then lost its way. It is the story of the "No Kill" movement, which says we can and must stop the killing. It is about heroes and villains, betrayal and redemption. And it is about a social movement as noble and just as those that have come before. But most of all, it is a story about believing in the community and trusting in the power of compassion.
Winograd's visit to St. Louis this Wednesday evening is part of his "No Kill Community Tour." If you're looking for me this Wednesday at 6:30 PM, I'll be at the Barnes and Noble at Ladue Rd. & I-170 listening to Winograd. Please consider joining me.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Update on Mattie the missing dog

The U City Loop being named one of the 10 Great Streets in America prompts me to post an update on the search for Mattie the dog, who was in a car that was stolen from that area.

Last November, Tom & Alice Matthews were visiting St. Louis from Michigan. They parked their car in the Church's Fried Chicken parking lot at the intersection of Delmar and Skinker, with Mattie inside. After window shopping on the Loop for almost an hour, they discovered their car -- and Mattie -- gone, stolen.

Almost a year later, Mattie is still missing, despite a huge reward. His owners have made multiple trips to St. Louis to follow up on tips and leads. Visit Mattie's web site for information.

Congratulations to the U City Loop

This week, the University City Delmar Loop -- favorite stomping ground of scoodog and owner -- was named one of the 10 Great Streets in America by the American Planning Association:
Places are selected annually and represent the gold standard of communities. The designated neighborhoods and streets are defined by several characteristics, including good design, functionality, sustainability, and community involvement. These Great Places are singled out because they showcase what can be achieved in communities across the country.
Other honored streets include Chicago's Michigan Avenue and Ocean Drive in Miami Beach.

Check out my photo gallery for a couple hundred (and counting!) diverse photos of the Loop.