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2011/12/30

Léon The Professional

By Jav Rivera

Talent comes in all sizes, ages and forms.  Some of the best performances of the 90s came from Luc Besson's film The Professional (aka Léon: The Professional).  Starring Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman and Danny Aiello, the story follows the life of Hitman Léon after saving a young girl.


As a rather unknown actor in America, Jean Reno took on the titular role with an expertise no other actor could.  And like Reno, only Natalie Portman could fill the role of bull-headed Mathilda, Léon's adopted protégée. In her first feature film, Portman started her amazing career with a bang.  And who else but Gary Oldman could rival these two as the frightening Stansfield.

Jean Reno as "Léon"

Gary Oldman as "Stansfield"
Natalie Portman as "Mathilda"

Danny Aiello as "Tony"
Reno and Portman are a perfect match as master and student, father and the daughter, and even lovers divided by time.  The latter was an element the studio was very uncomfortable with - hence the studio version of the film.  Director Besson has explained that there was really no harm in the situation; there was only ever awkward sexual tension and it was always provoked by Mathilda.

He also explains that mentally both were right for each other since Léon's mind had been stunted at an early age.  The director's cut includes scenes with Mathilde becoming more and more aggressive with her protector.  As a film lover, I highly recommend the superior director's cut.  It truly gives a better picture of the two characters and the overall story benefits with the addition of those scenes.  Keep in mind, the scenes were never that risqué to begin with and especially not compared to films today.  Fortunately the scenes, and film in general, were handled by a master craftsman and portrayed by very smart actors.

Jean Reno and Natalie Portman
The film explores the revenge genre with unique characters, expert storytelling, solid performances and incredible action.  Each character is given room for development making each important enough to care, hate, fear and love.


And because of this, it is unlike most action films filled with one dimensional characters.  Here we get round personalities with both good and bad traits.  None are perfect and none are too cool.  In fact, it's the oddity of these characters that help bring charm to even the antagonist.

And anyone who's seen the film should be aware of Gary Oldman's performance.  He takes the simplest task, such as taking pills, and turns it into the strangest thing you've ever seen.

Gary Oldman takes his pills
He also creates one of the most terrifying moments in the film by making it one of the most gentlest.  The fearful mood is set simply by touching Badalucco's character (pictured below) with tender hands and soft whispers, something you just wouldn't expect which makes it that much more eerie.

Oldman and Michael Badalucco as "Mathilda's Father"
The film has aged extremely well over time and remains one of Besson's best work.  The film paved way for odd characters, young performers, and overlooked actors.  And though it spawned hundreds of imitators, there really is only one professional and his name is Léon.


For more information about Léon The Professional, visit the film's IMDb page: www.imdb.com/title/tt0110413

TRIVIA: Mathilda (Natalie Portman) checks herself and Léon into the hotel under the name "MacGuffin". "MacGuffin" is a movie term coined by Alfred Hitchcock for a trivial element in a movie which serves no other purpose than to drive the plot forwards. 

2011/12/25

Scrooge (1970)

By Jav Rivera

Without hesitation, I admit that I do not enjoy most musicals.  In fact, when someone starts to talk about a musical (or worse tries to invite me to one), I roll my eyes and wonder why anyone in their right mind would want to see a musical.  But of course, everyone has their own preferences and I try to respect that.

That said, as much as I would like to say that I don't like any musicals, I cannot deny the fact that Director Ronald Neame's Scrooge is an incredible piece of art.  So much so that for nearly my entire life, I've watched this film every holiday season.  It started when I was very young when they broadcasted it on television and then on DVD when it was finally released in the 90s. Now, I'm happy to say that it's available on Bluray.


The great Albert Finney who has starred in such films as Big Fish, Annie, and Miller's Crossing, stars as the grouchy Ebenezer Scrooge.  At one point or another just about everyone has seen an adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic novella "A Christmas Carol".  Finney leads this version of the tale and absolutely dominates the role.  Transforming from young and old versions of Scrooge, Finney fooled me until I was a young man - I actually thought it was two separate actors.  I feel silly, of course, now that I watch it but it goes to show how well Finney transformed himself from a handsome, young man enamored with a young beautiful woman to an old, money-obsessed miser.

Albert Finney as "Ebenezer Scrooge"
And Finney wasn't alone; his supporting cast amazes even after seeing the film dozens of times.  From  David Collings's portrayal of Bob Cratchit to Kenneth More's Ghost of Christmas Present, the players in this production fill the screen with fear, sorrow and joy.

And of course there's Sir Alec Guinness' delightful portrayal of Jacob Marley's Ghost.  He's clearly having fun with such a frightful character.  Anyone who's seen the film remembers the comical yet terrifying manner in which Mr. Guinness floats around the room.  Sadly, he's mostly remembered as his Obi-Wan Kenobi character in the original Star Wars trilogy. But take a look at the body of his work (www.imdb.com/name/nm0000027) and you'll be amazed by all of his accomplishments including his role as George Smiley in the mini series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (the film that sees Gary Oldman as Smiley in the 2011 remake: www.imdb.com/title/tt1340800).

Sir Alec Guinness as "Jacob Marley's Ghost"
Besides the astounding acting, Scrooge is in fact a musical and I couldn't skip over the fact that the compositions in this film are just as joyous and heartbreaking as the performances.  Leslie Bricusse (along with Ian Fraser and Herbert W. Spencer) is the genius behind the Oscar-nominated music.  He also takes on screenwriting duties.  Nominated for "Best Original Song" and "Best Score", Bricusse weaves between elation and gloom.  Comparing "I Like Life" a blissful version of its counterpart "I Hate People", shows off the composer's use of light and dark themes.  "You...You," sung by Finney, is full of heartache and regret and again shows how sadness can also be interpreted into love.  Bricusse also ventures into extreme darkness with the song "Thank You Very Much", the film's most famous tune.  It's a seemingly happy tune but in the context of the film, the song is more than a bit macabre.


Scrooge was also nominated for "Best Art Direction" and "Costume Design".  The film is full of both warmth and bitter coldness, from Scrooge's dreary black surroundings and outfits to the Ghost of Christmas Present's vibrant colors.  But no scene showcases the costumes better than during the musical performance with Laurence Naismith as the cheery Mr. Fezziwig.

Laurence Naismith as "Mr. Fezziwig" 
Fezziwig's scene is also a great example of the Bricusse's music with the song "December the Twenty-Fifth".  It's both catchy and fun which help compliment Scrooge's feeling of remorse.  It's also a turning point for the character, which is fitting as it's a "birth" of a new life to be.


As a person who shudders at the thought of watching a musical, Scrooge is the exception.  For those of you who stay clear of musicals, you have hope.  And for those of you who already enjoy them, then prepare yourself for the best holiday treat of the year.  It's a classic tale told in a very classic manner.


For more information about Scrooge, visit the official IMDb page: www.imdb.com/title/tt0066344

TRIVIA: Alec Guinness' big musical number was cut from the film, although the lead-in remains intact. It was called "Make the Most of This Life."

2011/12/18

Mindy Smith: A Voice I Could Marry

By Jav Rivera

I could list a hundred voices that just completely soothe and move me, including Karen Peris (of The Innocence Mission), Norah Jones, and Joni Mitchell.  It's hard to stop listing the names, but if I had to choose one voice that I could marry (if it were actually possible to marry someone's voice), it would be that of Mindy Smith.

Mindy Smith
I encountered my first Mindy Smith tune from a compilation album; the song was "Out Loud".  I was taken back by the extraordinary voice flowing from my speakers.  Her voice was gentle yet powerful, calming yet heartbreaking.  It brought thoughts of some of my favorite singers including the magical Allison Krauss but yet had a style all her own.  There was something in her voice that I couldn't quite pinpoint, that is, until I bought the album.


"Out Loud" leads her second album "Long Island Shores", a collection of complicated-themed tunes.  The sound runs on the verge of country but closer to folk rock.  You certainly couldn't categorize it as country-pop.  And it was after hearing the entire album that I realized what was so unique about the singer/songwriter: she was sincere.  The songs come from dark places and brought into the light with the maturity of a seasoned artist.

The album is solid from beginning to end.  To list my favorite tracks is to basically list the entire album.  To be fair to you the reader, however, I will mention my top 5 tracks from this album: "Edge of Love," "I'm Not The Only One Asking," "Out Of Control," "Tennessee" and "Little Devil".

Album cover for "Long Island Shores" released in 2006
iTunes Link
It was several weeks before I could listen to other music.  And because I came to know this artist a bit late, I had the luck of finding more of her music immediately by purchasing her first album, "One Moment More".  Her debut, though more folk/country orientated, had a clean, modern sound.  And to my amazement, her voice was just as developed as it was in her follow up.  Most debut albums from young artists are typically more raw than what I heard from Smith.  In fact, it sounded more like an album in the middle of someone's career.

It was little surprise to discover that her cover of the song "Jolene" featured the "Queen of Country Music" Dolly Parton. The collaboration was born when Smith was asked to contribute to Parton's tribute album "Just Because I'm a Woman". Smith was hired to record backing vocals for Parton's classic "Jolene". Parton retaliated graciously by adding backing vocals to a different mix of the song with Smith on lead vocals; this version is found on "One Moment More".

It may have been Smith's first album but it's clear by the expertise of the songwriting and the strength of her voice that she was born to make music, something Parton no doubt witnessed first hand.

Album cover for "One Moment More" released in 2004
iTunes Link
In 2007, Smith released one of the best holiday albums I've ever heard, equal to Chris Isaak's holiday album, "Christmas" (iTunes Link).  Smith's album "My Holiday" is mixed with traditional and mostly original songs.  The songs are universal for holiday music but is surprisingly enjoyable for anytime of the year.  In fact, I find myself listening to this album year round.

Though Smith's covers are lovely and unique, her original songs (some co-written with Chely Wright and Thad Cockrell) are the true treasures of the album.  "Santa Will Find You,""Come Around," "I Know The Reason," "It Really Is (A Wonderful Life)" and "Follow The Shepherd Home" are classic Mindy Smith and bring a breath of fresh air to a genre that can sometimes feel stale with boring covers.

Album cover for "My Holiday" released in 2007
2009 saw Mindy Smith adding a bit more rock to her album "Stupid Love".  The first two tracks ("What Went Wrong" and "Highs and Lows") help the album start off with a more upbeat feel, differentiating from her previous more calmer albums.


"Highs and Lows"

But the album also contains slower tunes such as "If I Didn't Know Any Better" and "Telescope" a duet with famous country artist Vince Gill.  The other duet, this time with Daniel Tashian, "True Love Of Mine" is a tune so lovely it almost hurts.


But for the most part, the album is more upbeat and pop-oriented than her previous.  Despite the pop element, Smith stays close to her folk and country sound, successfully keeping the album in safe territory. It's hard to imagine a songwriter like this ever falling into pop hell.  It may keep her from gaining more attention than she deserves but with an Americana Music Association award (for Best New/Emerging Artist of the Year - 2004), working with legendary artists, and gaining critical success, what else could she ask for?

Album cover for "Stupid Love" released in 2009
Four albums into her career, she's quickly proved that music can take elements from folk, country, rock and even alternative and make it into something anyone can appreciate.  With a strong head on her shoulders, talented songwriting skills and a voice worthy of marriage, Mindy Smith is definitely one to watch.  


For more information on Mindy Smith, visit her official site: www.MindySmithMusic.com

TRIVIA: For her 2012 self-titled album, Mindy Smith choose to release it independently through her newly created record label (Giant Leap Records).

2011/12/11

Tracks

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

As a writer, I have a fascination with the near magical ability to shift and shape words into pieces of art. I marvel at other writers who seem to do this effortlessly, as if they were simply born with an inherent ability to charm words into gorgeous imagery and strong storylines on the page. I've found that author Louise Erdrich falls into this category, using beautifully descriptive language in all of her work: “We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall…and then a wind from the east, bringing exile in a storm of government papers…”


Thus begins the novel Tracks, set in North Dakota beginning in 1912. The story spans a decade, following the intertwining lives of Native American people clinging to their tribal land. A member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe herself, Erdrich often focuses on some aspects of Native American experience and tradition in her books. Tracks delves into both headlong, treading the line between modernism and “the old ways“. Two main characters, Nanapush and Pauline, narrate this novel, in turn telling the story of another vital character, Fleur Pillager. Nanapush saved a teenage Fleur from dying as “consumption” (tuberculosis) swept through the tribe, essentially taking on the role of a father to her after she recovered from illness. Nanapush’s narrations are told in a matter of fact way that I really enjoyed, with dashes of mischievousness and humor thrown in. Though he never says it outright, the tone of Nanapush’s narrative is “It may be right, or it may be wrong, but I’m just telling you the way I remember it”. Pauline, on the other hand, is an unreliable storyteller from the start, whose narration gets shakier as the novel goes on. In fact, Nanapush tells the reader that there’s a question amongst the people whether Pauline is “afflicted, touched in the mind.” With that revelation, readers can take her account of what happened with a grain of salt, and at first, her telling of the story doesn’t seem that far-fetched or out of the ordinary. It’s later, as the reader gets deeper into the book and Pauline gets deeper into instability, that we fully see what Nanapush alluded to.

This whirling together of myth, legend and reality is one of the things that made Tracks so engrossing for me. The concept that someone has the ability to leave their human form behind in the woods at night and roam as something different, leaving behind prints with claw marks, is no more unusual a thought than how to prepare for an upcoming winter. The dynamics between the characters, especially Fleur as she ages and Nanapush, acting as a father figure, are compelling too. All through the book, we're left to wonder about Fleur; there's an air of mystery and bewilderment about her, but her story is always told by others.  We get hints about her thoughts and feelings, but are left to draw our own conclusions; not even the person who probably knows her best (Nanapush) can be certain what she'll do. There’s one especially powerful scene towards the end of the novel where government officials come to the land. In a rare but tense moment of actually understanding Fleur's thinking and actions, Nanapush realizes that she's taken resistance to a level that even he didn‘t anticipate.

Louise Erdrich
In interviews, Erdrich has said that her family was full of storytellers, and she credits this with giving her some of the writing ability that she has today.  It's not hard to see how hearing those threads of stories, spun out one after another, could help shape her talent for putting her own down on the page.  Erdrich is a prolific writer too, claiming not to succumb to writers' block.  Though I can't say the same for myself, I believe her, having over a dozen novels to her name, in addition to children's literature, poetry and volumes of non-fiction. 
 
The appeal of Erdrich's work may be that "stories pulled straight from life" quality that it has.  Like reality, they have moments of ugliness, despair, and human shortcomings. Yet equally, they contain moments of beauty, joy, and hope.  I see bits and pieces of myself in her characters each time I read one of her books, and that's a true testament to good writing.  That as cleverly crafted or beautiful as the writing is, the shared experience of human emotion and everyday life shines through, and draws readers in, again and again.  

Broadside; College of St. Benedict/St. John's University

2011/11/27

The Amateurs

By Jav Rivera

When a film gets it right, it doesn’t matter what subject it focuses on.  The Amateurs, a film about a small town trying to make a porno film, is a perfect example. Writer/Director Michael Traeger’s feature debut has a lot of heart, a lot of comedy and a lot of great performances. 


The strongest aspect of the film is the ensemble cast, and more so because the cast is made up of several actors who are rarely given the amount of screen time their talents deserve. William Fichtner is especially superb as Otis, a custodian with no immediate goals to better his career.  It’s Otis who seems to have more insight on women than anyone else on the filmmaking crew and whose inherit intuition helps keep the production moving forward. 
L-R: Patrick Fugit, William Fichtner, Jeff Bridges, and Tim Blake Nelson
And it’s each character’s reason for wanting to make the porno that produces most of the film's charm.  Jeff Bridges’s character, Andy, wants to prove to his son (and himself) that he can have a successful career.  Barney (Tim Blake Nelson) has a lack of worth until this project comes alone. Some Idiot ( Joe Pantoliano) wants to put the skills he's learned from various night school courses to use.  Young filmmaker Emmett (a grown up Patrick Fugit of Almost Famous fame) uses his camera skills as a means to prove his worth within the small community.  And of course there’s Ted Danson’s closet character, Moose, who uses the porno to overcompensate for his homosexuality.

L-R: Ted Danson (Moose), William Fichtner (Otis), Jeff Bridges (Andy), Tim Blake Nelson (Barney), Joe Pantoliano (Some Idiot), Patrick Fugit (Emmett) 
None of the characters are stereotypical, which help make an unrealistic premise believable.  Danson is especially sensitive to the generalization of a closet homosexual by making Moose sympathetic and real.  The love among the film’s cast shines vividly onscreen through the closeness of their characters.  It may be a small town trying to make a porno flick but it’s also a group of people extremely tolerant of each other’s quirks.  It quite simply makes you want to live in a place with that much love and support.

The Amateurs Trailer

Jeff Bridges leads a group of “know them by face” character actors who all finally get their due credit.  There are several laugh out loud moments, but it’s the love between characters that really makes this film work.

For more information about The Amateurs, visit their official IMDb page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0405163/

TRIVIA:  The film was originally called The Moguls and was released under that title in the United Kingdom.

Starman

by Tony Ramos

Even though it takes place in a science fiction universe, if you're looking for a great romance story mixed in with a little adventure, humor, and drama, I suggest the film Starman. Starman, I feel, is one of the best love stories ever put on film. However, because it does take place in a science fiction world, perhaps many "romance" film lovers may have missed it. It's directed by John Carpenter, a director best known for Halloween and other chiller/thriller types of films. Trust me, however; Carpenter makes Starman work as a romantic movie.



Apart from having a very capable director, this film also has other positive factors working for it. First of all, the script is well developed and will have you laughing, tearing up, and sometimes cheering throughout. Starman also has a soundtrack that is well paced and jumps in and out at the most perfect moments. The soundtrack is never overbearing nor distracting. Instead, it only helps a moment in the movie or a conversation be more touching or tender. Its soundtrack will stay with you even after the film is over. Of course the most important and positive factor working for this film, apart from its director, is its actors. Its two main leads, Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen, have to carry the film, and they are both outstanding.

Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) and Starman (Jeff Bridges)
The film begins with an off screen announcement of the launch of the space probe Voyager 2. We follow the probe into space, which carries a golden record (phonographic disk) containing music, images, and natural sounds of the planet Earth. This record also contains spoken greetings in fifty-five languages and is intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, or future humans, to discover some day. In the film, the probe is intercepted by aliens who then send out a spaceship to Earth to investigate. Upon entering the Earth's atmosphere, the spaceship is quickly shot down by U.S. armed forces and crash lands in Chequamegon Bay, Wisconsin, near a grieving widow, Jenny Hayden's (Karen Allen) home. The crashed alien makes his way, or you could say, floats, his way to Jenny's home. While she sleeps, he clones himself into a version of Jenny's recently deceased husband from a strand of his hair she keeps in a photo album.

Jenny is awakened and manages to see Starman's (Jeff Bridges) transformation into an exact replica of her late husband. After her initial shock, Starman is able to communicate to her that he needs to get to Arizona within three days to rendezvous with a rescue ship or he will die. Mostly out of fear, Jenny is at first reluctant to help Starman and tries to escape from him several times. As their journey continues and they are pursued by the U.S. Military, she finally realizes he means her no harm and simply needs her help to return home.

Jenny (Allen) and Starman (Bridges)
What I loved most about this film, and what makes it funny and touching, is the dynamic teacher/student relationship the two main characters have. Even though Starman comes from an alien race that is much farther advanced than humans are, he's essentially a little boy learning and questioning everything. Jenny, of course, becomes Starman's principle teacher but also learns from him. When Starman constantly asks Jenny to "define" certain words or human actions, Jenny must come up with the best way to answer him. In doing this, Starman unknowingly forces Jenny to re-examine herself and what those words or actions really mean. There is a scene, for example, in which Starman is about to eat food for the first time. When he goes to eat his Dutch apple pie dessert first, she tries to correct him telling him that one does not eat that first, but last. When he questions why, she is dumbfounded and doesn't really have an answer. In a more touching moment a little later in the same scene, Starman asks Jenny to "define love". She hesitates for a moment, before giving him her touching definition of love, as she no doubt is remembering her late husband when she speaks. He is a willing student and she a willing teacher, thus creating a relationship that can only grow in love and admiration.

Jenny (Allen) and Starman (Bridges)
Jeff Bridges was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Actor category for his portrayal of Starman, and it was well deserved. He plays the character like a curious, innocent child, eyes always wandering about, his walk like a newly born horse or deer getting around on shaky legs in its first few days of life. Starman's attempts to mimic facial expressions and later hand gestures will give the audience some funny moments. Yet despite Starman being a fish out of water character, he is very intelligent, and when he focuses on Jenny to make a point, you can see this intelligence because of Bridges' incredible acting.

Meanwhile, Karen Allen also shows extraordinary range and acting ability. Jenny Hayden is a character that has essentially lost everything to live for after her husband passed. She is a sad, lonely woman who, by meeting and interacting with Starman, learns how to let go of her husband, accepting that he will never come back. Since this is a very heavy character with a deep hurt, the actress playing Jenny Hayden needed to portray a character with a lot of pain while not becoming a character that an audience might come to see as tiring, thus losing all sympathy for her. Allen does her job well, and anyone who has seen her as the spunky, full of energy Marion Ravenwood in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark, will be able to see the great range she possesses when comparing both of these roles. She also should have been nominated for an Oscar, I feel, for her portrayal of Jenny Hayden.

George Fox (Richard Jaeckel) and Mark Shermin (Charles Martin Smith)
The cast also showcases actors Richard Jaeckel and Charles Martin Smith. Jaeckel plays George Fox, an NSA chief who leads the military forces looking for Starman and sees the visiting alien as a threat. Smith portrays Mark Shermin, a more understanding scientist who works for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and does not wish Starman, whom he views as an invited guest, any harm.


As I stated above, this film is a romantic story. It is a story that demonstrates how teaching and learning, giving and receiving, no matter where you come from or you are, could eventually lead to love. The character Jenny Hayden learns how to cope with her depression and loneliness, while Starman gets to better examine, up close and personal, what makes human beings special despite their weaknesses. More importantly, the character Jenny Hayden learns to love again, while Starman discovers how it feels to be human and how humans love.

For more information visit there IMBD page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088172/


2011/11/20

Capturing Beauty: The Photography of Joe Barr

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

Like so many things in nature, I’ve often just given flowers a passing glance, enjoying their beauty but not stopping long enough to look more closely. Photographer Joe Barr is the antithesis, capturing the intricacy of flowers and other plants with an exquisite eye for detail.

Joe Barr
Raised in a small town in Ohio, Barr first became interested in photography around age twelve, when his family moved into a home with a small darkroom down in the basement. Though he says that he “discovered a new world of wonder” through this new hobby, it stayed just that--a hobby. As an adult, Barr went on to earn an engineering degree from a Big Ten university, working for an international corporation after graduation. Not finding this work terribly challenging, he delved into sales and marketing, a field that Barr says gave him an “opportunity to meet and learn from a world of bright and interesting people.” When health issues led to retirement on disability, Barr returned to his childhood enjoyment of being behind the lens of a camera. “My coordination is mildly impaired. In my case, it presents mainly in my speech and walk. The effects are controllable to a degree. They become most obvious when my concentration and energy level waver. My speech becomes notably thicker, and Ginger would no longer mistake me for Fred”, Barr quips. But, “the lack of an occupation has allowed me to reinvigorate an old, old hobby. A recent first step into the world of digital photography with its inherent rapid feedback has helped me sharpen some rusty skills.”

"Blue Iris"
© Copyright Joe Barr
Seeing Barr’s striking work firsthand, one might describe it as anything but “rusty”. Now living in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Barr does photograph other subjects besides flora. He has a section on his website entitled “Faces”, with candid shots of people he knows and runs in to around town, and also photographs landscapes and other images as he runs across them. For me though, it‘s his flower photographs that I’m captivated by the most. They offer a birds’ eye (or perhaps bees’ eye) view that we’d normally not be privy to. Maybe it’s Barr’s engineering background showing through, but the graceful curves of leaves or petals, the diminutive architecture of stems and filaments--each one is immortalized beautifully and clearly on film.

"Veteran's Poppy"
© Copyright Joe Barr
Barr also writes, and has furthered his visual study of flowers by partnering with a fellow writer, Suzanne Simonovich. Born and raised in Chicago but now a longtime Kenosha resident too, Simonovich is “The Voice of the Flowers” on Barr’s site, adding poetic captions to the photos that Barr posts. Describing her process, she says, “I look at the flower carefully, sensitive to the texture, color and light that is each flower; I close my eyes, at times I whisper a prayer, and then amazing things happen. Words become more than a phrase or a sentence; they are the actual message portrayed, as each flower takes on their own personality.”

Suzanne Simonovich
Barr has won numerous awards for his work in art shows, and it is displayed in galleries throughout Wisconsin. He sells prints, as well as several series of notecards featuring his photographs.

"Kenosha"
© Copyright Joe Barr
“I can’t paint. I can’t sculpt. I sure can’t sing, and I am retired from dancing. I am unable to create beauty, but from time to time I am able to capture some of the beauty around us. I think it satisfies some frustrated creative instinct. I enjoy the process”, says Barr. Luckily, for those of us who experience Barr’s photography, we get to enjoy the process too, through the viewpoint of his lens. To see more of his work and to read Simonovich’s imaginative captions, visit http://joebarrphotographer.com/.

2011/11/12

They Call Me Baba Booey

by Jav Rivera

I learned several years ago that I mostly prefer reading biographies.  I love literature in general but nothing interests me more than someone's story and it hit me the other day why: I love learning people's reasons for making the choices in their lives.  It's intriguing to learn people's passions and what leads them to do certain things at certain times.  And it's also interesting to learn what they think of their previous decisions and whether or not they would do it again if they knew then what they know now.  Often is the case that they wouldn't have it any other way because it's what made them who they are today.

A recurring theme for me is that life is learning from the art of mistakes.  And be it good or bad, all the mistakes in one's life is what makes them real.  I suppose reading biographies reminds me that even successful celebrities make as many mistakes.  And it teaches us that it's okay to follow our dreams even if we fumble along the way.

Gary Dell'Abate, better known to the public as Baba Booey, has been producing for Howard Stern's radio show for nearly 30 years.  The experiences he shares in his book entitled, "They Call Me Baba Booey," are great examples of someone following their dream and falling down more times than anyone would like to admit.  But it's more than an underdog story, it's also about a family man who's traumatic childhood helped create a man with strength, character, sensitivity, and most importantly a sense of humor.


Gary's biography/memoir is quite simply a story of a boy trying to work in broadcast radio and all the challenges he faced.  He doesn't hold back on the many embarrassing moments in his life.  Be it throwing a terrible first pitch at a Mets game or being constantly teased on the radio by Stern and company, it's almost too uncomfortable.  But it truly makes you wonder how you would have reacted if you were in his shoes.  And because of that, Gary succeeds by inspiring you to look at your own challenges and determine which battles are worth fighting and which should simply be shrugged off.

Among so many other situations, Gary jokingly tells us about his mustache phase which made him look very similar to John Oats from 1980s duo Hall & Oats.  And instead of succumbing to the teasing, he laughed it off and moved on, an attitude that would so often help propel him to bigger and better opportunities.

Daryl Hall and Gary
And in the grand scheme of things, it was such a tiny bump in the road.  The book tells us of his mother's bipolar-like behavior, his brother's homosexuality and eventual death from AIDS and his father's struggle during his unemployment.

We also learn of his compulsive-like behavior that has seemed to help him more often than inhibit.  After a brief interview for a position as a traffic assistant early on in his career, Gary quickly and systematically learned the main roads and highways of New Jersey just to win over a traffic reporter.  A trait that no doubt came from his father's integrity and determination.

Gary with his parents Sal and Ellen
The book is laid out with a broken timeline.  One chapter focuses on his childhood and the following chapter jumps several decades to tell the story of his early career in radio.  It's an effective way to format a book with parallel themes: a challenging family life vs. a challenging career path.  And by doing so, it explains very subtly how he was able to overcome specific obstacles in his career because of what he had to deal with at home.

The paperback edition includes a bonus chapter entitled "Baba Booey's Afghanistan Journal" which brings a bit more insight to his children.  The chapter also helps reiterate the fact that Gary is someone who truly appreciates the benefits of his career and chooses to give back.

From his mother's bipolarity to his inexperience in professional radio, Gary pushed himself to learn what he had to learn to achieve any goal.  He took punches from the world and just kept going, without the need to fight back.  As he humbly explains it, he wouldn't have been able to achieve anything if it wasn't for the challenges he faced.  He wouldn't be Baba Booey, a man of strength, character, sensitivity, and most importantly, a man with a sense of humor.

For more information visit Gary Dell'Abate's official site: www.bababooey.com

TRIVIA: The name "Baba Booey" came from an argument with Howard Stern over the cartoon character name "Baba Looie", a donkey in a sombrero from the "Quick Draw McGraw" cartoon. Gary insisted that the correct name was Booey not Looie, and so, the joke (and nickname) began.

2011/11/06

Intermission

by Tony Ramos

You wouldn't think that a film full of characters that are depressed, angry, frustrated, and lonely could ever be funny. Yet, Intermission, a film directed by John Crowley, manages to be just that. Even though the film is classified as a Comedy/Crime/Drama, I feel this dark comedy will have you laughing more than anything else. Whether it's because of the funny situations the characters find themselves in or the way the actors deliver their lines, Intermission is one of the funniest films I've watched.


The film takes place in a suburb of Dublin, Ireland, where it was filmed on location. It uses an ensemble Irish cast, although American audiences will surely recognize actors Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy. Like most ensemble featured films, Intermission has various story lines and runs the danger of an audience becoming confused with what's going on. With this film, however, that never happens because the story lines are clearly written. More importantly, the characters in this film are well developed and performed, thus allowing the audience to follow along easily.

John (Cillian Murphy) and Deirdre (Kelly Macdonald)
In the film, John (Cillian Murphy), a frustrated supermarket worker, has come to realize he's made a mistake in telling his girlfriend they needed a break (intermission) from their relationship. When he finds out that his ex is now seeing an older "baldy" fellow, he decides that he'll win her back one way or another. Meanwhile, John's faithful friend and co-worker, Oscar (David Wilmot), struggles to find his own personal happiness. The scenes with these two friends chatting about love or sex during work or at a bar are some of the most humorous but realistic. In one particular scene, Oscar makes a confession that only a true friend like John would understand or might even want to hear.

While these two fellows go looking for love or are learning to cope without it, we follow the story of John's ex-girlfriend, Deirdre (Kelly Macdonald) and her new "married" boyfriend, Sam (Michael McElhatton). Meanwhile, Sally (Shirley Henderson), Dierdre's younger sister, mourns her scorned past as she proudly wears a "Ronnie" (moustache) as a badge of shame. Henderson's performance as Sally is one of my favorites, although I'm sure it was a rather tricky one to pull off. She plays the character with obvious anger and hidden depression, yet she remains likable throughout, and that's a credit to her skills and charm as an actress.

Jerry Lynch (Colm Meany)
In other storylines, we meet a tough as nails cop, Jerry Lynch (Colm Meaney), whose only wish seems to be that someone recognize how important and good he is at his job. He ends up pairing up with filmmaker Ben Campion (Thomas O'Suilleabhain) who's tired of getting unfulfilling assignments and would rather film a darker film about Dublin's streets. Of course there is also Mick (Brian F. O'Byrne), a frustrated soul whose job as a bus driver seems to be his constant headache, while Lehiff (Colin Farrell) is a small time thief looking for a bigger score, all the while trying to evade Jerry.

Lehiff (Colin Farrell)
With this film, the director seems to have used a lot of hand held camera and really gets into the faces of his actors with plenty of close ups in various scenes. It works well, I feel, because it gives the audience a feeling of eavesdropping on conversations. Of course what I enjoyed the most about this film, and what I feel is its greatest strength, are the performances the actors give. A good example would be a scene where Sally meets her sister's new boyfriend, which quickly goes from friendly chatter to a nasty, uncomfortable interrogation. The looks on their faces and the way they speak to each other is a joy to watch. These guys can really act and neither of them mail it in nor ham it up. They simply act and feel natural.


The climax of the film nicely brings all the storylines together to a satisfying end. Intermission isn't a fast paced film, although the beginning of the film might have you believe otherwise. It takes its time, yet it's still enjoyable and never slow. It is full of many comical characters, funny facial expressions, and a heist that you just know will not end up well.

 For more information visit there IMBD page:  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0332658/

2011/10/31

El Orfanato (The Orphanage)

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless


Heartbreaking, horrifying and masterfully done, The Orphanage is a film that layers beauty with agony. Touching on the seemingly improbable co-existence of evil and love within one person, it also delves headlong into the subject of what these things can compel some people to do.


Spanish actress Belén Rueda shines in her role as Laura, who, along with her husband, Carlos, and their young son, Simón, moves back to the orphanage where she was raised. With a dream of opening the home up to children with special needs, their excitement starts to fade early on. In the tradition of most films set in rambling, spooky-looking old houses, odd things begin to happen. Simón starts to talk about a new friend named Tomás, whom, of course, only he can see. Like a labyrinth where she’s being pulled deeper and deeper at every turn, suspicion that much more than meets the eye is happening deepens with Simón’s revelations about himself, their new home and Tomás. Complicating things even further is a visit from a social worker named Benigna; it becomes apparent that she has ulterior motives for her interest in the house and the family.

It would spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet for me to say much more about the plot, but if you enjoy horror that’s more subtle but still keeps you at the edge of your seat, The Orphanage delivers. Blood and gore is almost non-existent, and the only torture to be found is psychological. What you’re left with is a film that lingers in and manipulates suspense to scare its viewers, and does it well. For parents, this film delves into some of the dark places that we avoid thinking about. As Rueda said in an interview however, even if you don’t have children, the movie still plays upon other basic human fears. Anyone who’s ever heard a strange creak or bump in the night or dismissed away a shadow in their peripheral vision will feel the fight or flight response rising up in them in more than a few instances during the film.

Simón (Roger Príncep)  & Laura (Belén Rueda)
Filmed in Barcelona and Llanes, Spain, it also features Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie Chaplin’s daughter), in one of the creepier scenes in the film, as a psychic named Aurora who tries to help the family. Sound plays an important part, not only in that particular sequence, but throughout the entire movie; pieces will immediately fall into place for you towards the end when you realize that there were auditory clues all along.

Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin)
As is my complaint with many foreign films, if you don’t speak the language fluently, there are some nuances that get lost when subtitles are used. It’s a small price to pay though; The Orphanage uses so many wonderful cinematic devices and evokes so many different emotions that it's sure to stay with you long after the end credits roll.

For more information visit their IMDb page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0464141/

2011/10/23

TrollHunter

By Jav Rivera

It's more rare these days to find a film as unique as André Øvredal's TrollHunter (Norwegian title: Trolljegeren). Set in the mountains of Norway, college students Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), Johanna (Johanna Mørck) and Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen) investigate a series of mysterious bear killings. They soon learn that things are not as they seem and begin to follow mysterious hunter, Hans (Otto Jespersen).


Borrowing elements of documentary-like films such as J.J. Abrams's Cloverfield, director Øvredal combines "lost footage" material with Norwegian folklore. Better yet, Øvredal and contributing writer Håvard S. Johansen create characters with enough dimension for the audience to invest in. It's their performances that really drive the film's conceivability. From the resistant students to Trollhunter Hans's tired demeanor, it's easy to accept the film's premise and enjoy the journey.

L-R: Hans, Johanna and Thomas
Hans helps expose Norway's secret as he reluctantly agrees to allow the students to film him as he takes on the menacing trolls. The students of course think he's mad and set out to disprove his story. As the film progresses not only do we witness Hans's battles but we also learn his distaste for this profession. And like all great hunters, Hans displays a true respect for the creatures and sadness for their removal.

Otto Jespersen as "Hans"
With incredible scenery and powerful sound design, we are brought into Hans's world. The anticipation for each battle is excruciating as we are allowed to feel the presence of a monster just a few feet away. And their mastery of camouflage makes our fear build to the point of edge-of-the-seat terror. And because the camerawork is completely through the point of view of a student you find yourself wanting to help him get a better angle for closer look. I honestly found myself moving my body to look past a tree. There was a moment of embarrassment but it's to the credit of the director that made me, the audience, invest that amount of curiosity.



Thanks to a great director and his amazing cast and crew, TrollHunter transforms fairytales into something very believable. It's amazing it was achieved with the budget of an independent film (roughly $3,000,000). It's truly a testament to Øvredal's use of character as opposed to special effects. It's true that films like this are getting harder to find but they're definitely out there. TrollHunter is currently available on Netflix Streaming; add it to your queue today.

For more information about TrollHunter, visit: www.trollhunterfilm.com


TRIVIA: The film contains several references to old Scandinavian folklore.  The goats on a bridge and a troll under it are a reference to the "Three Billy Goats Gruff".