Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Next week: There's Super Sunday, Super Tuesday, Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday

Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday will be so boring, by comparison...

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A dog story

My doorbell rang a few nights ago at 11:30. It was a neighbor, from a few streets over. She saw that my living room light was still on. She asked if I had a German Shepherd or knew of someone nearby who has one, because there was one huddled under a parked car at the end of the street. I didn't, but I wanted to help. It was very cold out (around 12 degrees and falling).

My neighbors DeJean, Michael, Joan and I all tried to get the dog to come to one of us. We wanted to take him into one of our warm houses for the night. But he wouldn't come to any of us. And his bark had a distinct "come no further" sound to it. At one point we used dog biscuits as bait to get him to follow us. It worked to only a certain distance; he would always return to the area of the parked car.

So we brought him blankets, food and water for the night.

The next morning, he was still there. He was cuddled up on the blankets. The water in his bowl was frozen solid.

He seemed happy to see us, but continued to keep his distance. Finally, though, DeJean & I coaxed him into the back seat of her car using dog treats. That's where he is in the accompanying photo, finally warm and presumably content -- during the 10-minute drive to the animal shelter, we think he actually fell asleep!

The person at the shelter was a lot braver handling him than we were, and it turns out the dog is a softie! He was just scared. We think he may have been dumped in our neighborhood, probably right where the parked car was, wanting to stay near the parked car so that when his family would return for him, he'd be there for him.

DeJean & I have put "Found German Shepherd" posters around the neighborhood, just in case he is someone's dog who got out and got lost.

But we're not expecting to hear from anyone missing him...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

About the photo of Hillary and me...

Several folks have asked who took the photo of Hillary and me from the Clinton rally of last Saturday evening. Hillary had an assistant/aide who was at her side as she worked through the large crowd after her speech. Many of us had our arms extended requesting a photo; I was lucky enough that my camera was one of those that the assistant/aide selected. (I am also so glad that the photo came out as well as it did! It's not like I could have asked for a do-over!)

Monday, January 21, 2008

Conflict and human drama in "Vertical Hour"

My freelance review:
Conflict is a central theme of The Vertical Hour, an intelligent, intriguing drama now playing at the Studio Theatre at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

The play, written in 2006 by British political playwright David Hare, focuses on Nadia, a former war correspondent and now a professor of International Relations at Yale. She knows exactly what her stance is on the war in Iraq and the United States' role in world affairs. She has seen action firsthand on the battlefields of Sarajevo and Baghdad, she has advised Bush on foreign affairs, and yet she is ever-so-nervous as she accompanies her boyfriend Philip to Wales to meet his opinionated and lethally charming father, Oliver.

The theme of conflict plays out in numerous ways. There's political discord between Nadia and Oliver, who vehemently opposes the war in Iraq. There's deep-rooted father-son dissension between Oliver and Philip. And there are varying degrees of personal unrest among all three of the main characters, especially as Oliver slowly and seductively reveals his secret past to Nadia.

Director Jim O'Connor delivers an intimate and engaging production -- exactly what is needed for a show like this. Courtesy of scenic and costume designer Marie Anne Chiment, lighting designer Mark Wilson and stage manager Champe Leary, the ambience is warm and inviting, much like one might imagine at a Welsh country home. And in the Rep's creative Studio Theatre, the creative integration of the stage and the seats brings the audience right into the story. At times the actors were no more than 2-3 feet away from me!

With such an intimate, well-written and well-staged production, a lot hangs on the caliber of the acting. And I'm pleased to report that the acting is superb. Kudos to Gloria Biegler as Nadia, Anderson Matthews as Oliver and Jeremiah Wiggins as Philip.

The Vertical Hour is a thought-provoking examination of personal and political conflict. It plays through Feb. 3 at the Studio Theatre at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in Webster Groves.

Clinton rally

Here are several of my photos from the Clinton campaign rally Saturday night at McCluer North High School, including one photo of the presidential candidate with me! I was very lucky to get that one taken. More photos here.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

My top 10 films of 2007

#1 - Into the Wild. As writer/director, Sean Penn has created a masterpiece that 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. The beautifully-filmed 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, as do outstanding supporting performances from Vince Vaughn, William Hurt, Catherine Keener and Hal Holbrook, among others. The soundtrack, by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, is haunting.

#2 - The Namesake. An engrossing, character-focused human drama that tells the story of a just-married Indian couple who, in 1977, say goodbye to their family and friends and move to New York City. Soon, the couple starts a family and moves to the suburbs, and the story leaps ahead and focuses on their first-born (played by Kal Penn) and his struggles and conflict balancing his family's Indian traditions amongst his desires to be a "typical American" teenager and young man.  The Namesake offers intriguing insights into Indian culture and customs. This is an epic but intimate film.

#3 - Atonement. A successful adaptation of Ian McEwan's highly-regarded 2001 novel. Powerfully told, Atonement is a classic love story between characters expertly played by Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. The story begins on a hot summer day in 1935 at a British family's country estate. Jealousy, misperceptions and ultimately a false accusation keep the young couple apart until they are reunited five years later during the thick of the Second World War. The film contains brilliant, unique editing and spectacular cinematography, especially during the war scenes. The rich, creatively-told story builds on itself and is quite satisfying.

#4 - Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Johnny Depp and director Tim Burton are reunited in what is arguably their most ambitious filmmaking effort, an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's award-winning Broadway musical. This is a bloody film -- and perhaps the most joyously bloody film I'll ever see! The blood and gore are complemented by gothic, twisted humor and characters who break out in song -- some quite beautiful and touching -- throughout the entire film. Depp and Helena Bonham Carter deliver fantastic performances; other stand-outs in the cast include Alan Rickman and Sacha Baron Cohen. Sweeney Todd offers an abundance of both style and substance.

#5 - Knocked Up. A new era in comedy is with us and is in full force! Knocked Up is hilarious, touching and well-made. Writer/director Judd Apatow (whose 2005 film The 40-Year-Old Virgin was good) has finally made a film that's great. Seth Rogan and Grey's Anatomy's Katherine Heigl deliver tender performances as two mismatched people brought together by a one-night stand. There's plenty of goofy, crude humor intermixed in this story, and the overall effect is quite winning. Watch for standout supporting performances by Saturday Night Live's Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader.

#6 - Superbad. Seth Rogan (from Knocked Up) co-writes with Evan Goldberg and the result is an extremely crude comedy that works fantastically. Michael Cera and Jonah Hill deliver strong performances as best friends navigating their last few weeks of high school and their rites of passage. The film is consistently very funny and enjoyably absurd. And it has a sincere heart -- something that most teen comedies don't. Superbad is super good.

#7 - Juno. Wow, 2007 really was a great year for comedies! In the quirky Juno, newcomer Ellen Page offers a sharp, almost-too-witty performance as a suddenly-pregnant 16-year-old. Coming off of 2006's Thank You for Smoking (one of my favorite flicks from 2007), director Jason Reitman balances the film's quirkiness with increasing amounts of warmth and humanity as the movie goes on. Superbad's Michael Cera offers a touching -- and hilarious -- performance as her best friend Paulie Bleeker. Other strong supporting performances come from Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner and The West Wing's Allison Janney.

#8 - King Corn. An entertaining and important documentary about the U.S. agriculture industry, focusing on two friends who move to the nation's heartland to learn where their food comes from. They grow an acre of corn on Iowa soil and then follow their pile of corn into the food system. Along the way, what they find raises troubling questions about what we eat, how we farm and why we are farming the way we are. This well-crafted documentary also addresses the inhumane treatment of animals on factory farms.

#9 - The Kite Runner. Adapted from Khaled Hosseini's 2003 novel of the same name, The Kite Runner spans several decades and focuses on the 1970s pre-Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and the 1990s Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.  Rich in its visuals and panoramic shots, the film offers a touching story of two boys growing up in different social classes, with a focus on friendship, betrayal for the sake of acceptance, and -- two decades later -- redemption.

#10 - Year of the Dog. In this unconventional comedy-drama, Molly Shannon (from Saturday Night Live, 1995-2001) stars as a woman living a simple life with a simple job, a simple house and a simple dog, a beagle named Pencil, who she adores immensely. Her simple life turns upside-down, though, when Pencil dies of a very sudden illness. This unpredictable film is about the woman's life transformation. It offers quirky, offbeat, dry humor along the way. Shannon delivers a surprisingly remarkable dramatic performance. Peter Sarsgaard is a stand-out in a strong supporting cast.

Honorable mentions go to: The Bourne Ultimatum, The Brave One, Charlie Wilson's War, The Lives of Others, Once, No Country for Old Men and The Savages.

There's something in the air

Apple always seems to have something up its sleeves. This Tuesday is expected to be an opportunity for Steve Jobs to reveal something new and exciting. One year ago, it was the announcement of the wildly-successful iPhone and the not-so-wildly-successful Apple TV. What will it be this year?

Banners hanging at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, home of this week's Macworld conference, provide a clue -- of sorts. The banners tease: "2008 - There's something in the air" followed by the Apple logo.

As undoubtedly noticed by my faithful readers, I'm quite a fan of Apple and its products. I follow the Apple sites regularly -- if not daily! My favorite sites are MacDailyNews, MacMinute, RumorWatch, AppleInsider and MacRumors.

Time to make my hunches. In the past, I've been pretty close, pretty far off and somewhere in the middle. Here are my hunches for this Tuesday:
  • 16 GB iPhone (double the memory) added for $499 ($100 more than current 8 GB model, which remains).
  • iPhone software update previewed; available immediately for download.
  • Third-party applications for the iPhone will be available for purchase from the iTunes Store starting in March.
  • High-definition movie and TV show rentals available from the iTunes Store.
  • The Apple TV is replaced with a new device called the AirDisk that can hold and share all your household's media content -- music, photos, downloaded/rented TV shows and movies, podcasts. When transmitted to your TV or computer, that content becomes the "something in the air" that the Macworld banners refer to.  The new device is bigger than the old Apple TV and is expandable.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A winter dusk

Winter Dusk, 1 of 2
Winter Dusk, 2 of 2

I took these photos from my deck last Sunday at dusk. The colors in the sky were just incredible and made me leap outside with my camera!

Monday, January 07, 2008

"The Savages" depicts a little slice of life

My freelance review:
Real life, without glamour, plays out in The Savages, a new film starring Academy Award nominee Laura Linney and Academy Award winner Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Linney and Hoffman are middle-aged, bickering siblings brought together when their estranged, elderly father exhibits advanced dementia and can no longer care for himself. Linney's character, a struggling writer in New York City, relocates to Buffalo, where Hoffman's character teaches college. They relocate their father to there from across the country.

The story delves into the sibling's somewhat empty lives and their attempts to care for a man they barely know. The film doesn't take any cheap shots. Director and screenwriter Tamara Jenkins keeps the tone and focus of the film consistent. Linney and Hoffman deliver strong performances and stay true to their characters throughout.

This film depicts a little slice-of-life. It's not overly-dramatic. It offers little bits of humor here and there. It doesn't pretend to say what life is all about or anything like that.

Like real life, it just is what it is.

I highly recommend The Savages.

"Bucket List" is very funny and sincere

My freelance review:
The new Rob Reiner film, The Bucket List, offers a lot of laughter (mostly courtesy of Jack Nicholson) and touching human drama. The film opens Friday; this is an early review.

Nicholson plays the typical Nicholson character, an over-the-top, over-confident, sarcastic soul. This time he's an extravagant corporate billionaire, always more focused on making money than his deeper needs. Suddenly diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and as the owner of a chain of hospitals known for "two patients to every room," he finds himself sharing a hospital room with a down-to-earth fellow incurable cancer patient, played by Morgan Freeman.

The chemistry between these two Academy Award-winning actors is substantial. As the story plays out, Freeman's character has a list of things he wants to do before he dies (his "list" of things to do before he kicks the "bucket") and Nicholson's character has the dough -- and before long the desire -- to finance the travels.

What basically follows is a male-bonding, buddy road movie, complete with plenty of laughs and inspirational moments.

It's challenging in films like The Bucket List to keep the overall tone sincere and believable, given characters as extreme as Nicholson's and a storyline that is a bit far-fetched. Fortunately, though, this film keeps it head above water and swims beautifully. Kudos to writer Justin Zackham for keeping the characters well-rounded and for not dismissing some of the supporting characters, such as Freeman's character's wife, who stands by as her dying husband leaves her and her children to travel with a stranger. Played by Beverly Todd, she brings a nice touch to the film.

One other nice touch is the beautiful original song, Say, by John Mayer.

Director Reiner delivers a really good film here. The Bucket List should be a big (and well-deserved!) crowd pleaser.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

"Tuesdays with Morrie" shines at the Rep

My freelance review:
There is so much to enjoy and appreciate in Tuesdays with Morrie, the latest production at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Based on Mitch Albom's 1997 best-selling autobiographical novel and adapted for the stage by Albom and playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, Tuesdays with Morrie is a two-actor production that offers a powerful, deeply emotional, funny and insightful story about life, death and the nature of love.

Morrie is a retired and terminally-ill college professor whose profound philosophical perspectives on life earn him notoriety on ABC's Nightline. Shortly after that happens, Mitch, one of Morrie's former students and now a successful sports reporter, visits him for the first time in 16 years, despite having promised Morrie to stay in touch after graduation.

Morrie is the type of thinker who says, "As far as men go, it is not what they are that interests me, but what they can become." He asks Mitch, "Are you being as human as you can?" This question haunts Mitch. And he returns for more conversations with Morrie on subsequent Tuesdays.

There is human drama -- including plenty of laughs -- in this production. Before our eyes, Morrie's health declines and both Morrie and Mitch become more-aware of life and living. And the bond between the two men grows to the point where the inevitable, bittersweet ending to the story plays out with great emotion.

Director Mark Cuddy pulls off a spectacular win here. Cuddy and his artistic staff leverage the intimate Rep stage and use almost no sets -- just those objects that are essential to achieve greater drama and interest from the story. One of the very few objects on stage is a large Japanese maple tree that sits outside Morrie's window. Through lighting, the tree changes color as summer transitions into fall and Morrie's health takes its final declines. Particular kudos to scenic designer Vicki Smith and lighting designer Don Darnutzer.

The performances in this production are outstanding and about as good as acting gets. As Morrie is Rep-veteran Bernie Passeltiner (who was a member of the original company of The Rep from 1966-69); as Mitch is Remi Sandri.

The Rep's production of Tuesdays with Morrie is 85 minutes long and has no intermission. The length of the production is perfect.

Tuesdays with Morrie plays through Jan. 27 at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in Webster Groves.

Saturday, January 05, 2008


Blue skies

This is a photo of the skyline at Lindbergh Blvd. and Highway 40 taken around noon today. For some reason my iPhone camera significantly darkened the colors -- especially the light blue, overcast sky. But I found the rather strange outcome to be quite pleasing.