Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Reel To Reel: Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows

Now the real mystery begins.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Victorian-flavored martial arts violence, gunplay and bawdiness

I will admit to you quite sheepishly that I've only read a couple of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories: "The Three Garridebs" and "The Red-Headed League." So I am relying on my Royal Father's considerable Holmes knowledge base when I tell you the sequel to the 2009 hit mashes up three Holmes stories, including one that Doyle hoped would be his last.

It also gets back to basics. Gone from this edition are the steampunk influences that made the first film trendy but abnormal. However, director Guy Ritchie doesn't mess with a winning formula. It still holds on to the characterization of Holmes as a skilled fighter and while adding his (Downey) greatest arch-nemesis, the sinister Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), a criminal genius who really is a genius.

As the picture opens, France and Germany are at each other's throats in the late 1800's, and the rest of Europe could be pulled in if Moriarty's fiendish plot plays out. Holmes is the thorn in his side, but simply killing him is too easy... or too tough depending on your perspective. The two meet in a pre-game parlay like the commanders of two colonial armies taking the battlefield. "Do you want to play this game?" Moriarty asks of Holmes. Of course he does, especially after finding what the doctor did to his love interest.

The entire film is a gigantic, violent game of chess with moves and counter-moves, each man trying to outsmart the other. Caught in the middle is Holmes' beleaguered best friend Dr. Watson (Law), who's just gotten married but has to put his honeymoon on hold to follow Holmes on a case that has ended up endangering both their lives. Naturally, the climatic scene throws in an actual game of chess.

A Game Of Shadows forces you to pay attention to all the details, because all those details are going to come back in the next scene, or some scene down the reel. Nothing gets by Holmes, who admits to us, "I see everything," while confiding it is both curse and blessing.

I have to admit I was drawn in by the lush costuming of this picture, which will draw an easy Oscar nomination. And naturally, I'm a sucker for a handsomely costumed ball scene, which this picture delivers right down to the servants in the breeches. Even if the film isn't exactly true to Doyle's dialogue and storylines of the Victorian era, it certainly delivers the style.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Reel To Reel: Hugo

Time for some movie magic.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission in 3D
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jude Law
Rated: PG (but could pass for a G)
Red Flags: Some very mild references to marital infidelity

Why on earth would the man who directed Taxi Driver, GoodFellas, Casino, Gangs Of New York, and Mean Streets want to take on an imaginative 3D family film? Because, silly, Martin Scorsese is one of the greats. And great directors know great movies. This one is a homage to another great: Georges Méliès, a magician who saw film as a new medium for illusion and created the industry that powers so many of today's movies -- special effects.

To summarize the film's plot would rob you of its storybook qualities. Indeed, the entire film has a lovingly storybook vision, as it follows the young boy Hugo (Asa Butterfield) through the inner workings of a train station in 1931 Paris as he keeps the various clocks wound and oiled while dodging the Station Inspector (Cohen). I can tell you that Hugo is hoping to complete a job his father started, and in doing so, he will have a brush with the aforementioned magician. Joining him in his adventure is Georges' goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), who can't understand why she's not allowed to see movies.

The 3D effects are like seasoning on a fine meal. Steam from the railway station leaks onto the screen and bathes you in Hugo's world. The film is in absolute adoration for post-WWI France and the French people, and Scorsese goes to great lengths to make sure you enjoy every bite. Butterfield turns in a solid performance as Hugo, but what struck me the most was his piercing eyes, which are enhanced by the 3D effect. Cohen's comic station inspector has nuance and wit. He should be playing Inspector Clouseau, not Steve Martin if somebody decides to remake another Pink Panther movie. And what can I say about Ben Kingsley, except that I'm glad he's still making movies.

See Hugo in a theater, while you still can. Its magic will loose potency when it comes to Blu-Ray, even if you have a gigantic 3D capable big screen. Some movies are meant to be movies, and Méliès might very well agree.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Reel To Reel: Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Impossible mission? Not in the movies, no.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Tom Cruise, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Action violence, some mild sexuality and mild language

The fourth installment of the Mission Impossible film series may be the best so far. It's still over the top, but it's executed in a way that doesn't feel over the top. Along the way it finds a sense of dark humor, an okay-are-we-really-going-to-have-to-do-this vibe.

Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is back and still taking more bodily punishment than Wile E. Coyote on a bad day. His support team of the beauty, Jane (Patton) and the brains, Benji (Pegg), are with him busting him out of a Russian Gulag and then infiltrating the Kremlin to recover stolen nuclear secrets -- all in less than 24 hours. Now complain to me once more about all the Christmas shopping you have left to do.

The Impossible Missions Force doesn't always get away clean. This time, they end up fingered for a terrorist bombing at the Kremlin, but it's actually the work of a nuclear madman named Cobalt, who wants to detonate a nuke as part of a scheme to build some sort of new world order. After the Kremlin incident, the President disavows the IMF, which is just a diplomatic way of saying, "You're on your own, kids, until this stuff blows over."

Really, though, like Ethan and company need official permission to do anything. In fact, they pick up Brandt (Renner), a government analyst who fights pretty darn well for a desk jockey. With his skills, Jane's deadly charm and Benji's computer hacking skills, you've got just enough team to save the world.

Ethan still does most of the grunt work, including climbing up the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world's tallest building. If CGI is used in this scene, it's the best digital compositing I've ever seen -- or it's real. If that isn't enough, he also has to outmaneuvering an automated parking garage in India and run down a baddie in a familiar-looking sand storm. I kept waiting for the audience to yell out, "Haboob!"

Ghost Protocol is a summer blockbuster on winter vacation. It doesn't expect us to suspend a lot of disbelief, leading to many moments when you think, "Wow, this is really dangerous." Simon Pegg's character is nice touch to the film, adding some needed lighter moments. I heard one young lady telling her friends on the way out of the auditorium, "This is the best of the four." I think she's right.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Francis At 40 -- You've Come A Long Way, Baby!

Lessons, ponderings and observations from the first four decades:

Experience doesn't necessarily equal wisdom. I'm still learning on the job.

Substitutions come with pitfalls. Don't try using dishwashing liquid when you run out of Cascade.

When you move up in your job, or in life, everything should move up. I passed on job offers from Wichita, Lexington and Ft. Meyers because they couldn't cut it.

Some people would rather live in their own world than face the truth -- too many examples to list.

I have to accept the limitations of my body. It took only one Scottish dance to trash my arm, and Ukrainian folk dancers can do things that would break my neck.

GOD answers prayers in ways people don't expect. And often that answer is "no."

Contentment prevents many problems.

I can wear a tricorn hat in my full Revolutionary War uniform and people will still call me a pirate.

I can serve GOD by serving others.

Passion is wonderful, as long as you're passionate about the right things. I still can't believe the fanaticism surrounding my appearance on The Price Is Right.

Shoveling snow like you're fighting a war is a sure way to end up in the Emergency Room.

I don't need to drink alcohol. I don't want to drink alcohol. GOD did not create me as a drinking person.

If peanut oil comes from peanuts, and olive oil comes from olives, I hate to think about where baby oil comes from.

I can only remember 20 percent of what I learned in college. Glad I had a scholarship.

If I had my current interest in history back when I was 16, I would have gone to the prom dressed in a 1740's coat, powdered wig, white stockings and knee breeches. I kid you not. What would they do -- throw me out for being too elegant?

GOD gives us a compass, not a road map. All of us are free to follow our joys as long as we trust HIS guidance.

If I'm not supposed to eat the paste in Kindergarten, why did they make it so tasty?

If I can walk, I can dance.

Show me an old Radio Shack TRS-80 system, and I'll show you one slobbering nerd.

The evil genius who can manipulate the world's testosterone will be the one to rule them all.

A dog knows more than I would like to admit.

First you find your MASTER. Then you find your mission. Then you find your mate.

Across the infinite universe, much more is unknown than known, more undiscovered than visioned... but when the aliens invade this planet, they'll eat the fat ones first.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Reel To Reel: The Muppets

It's time to raise the curtain... again.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission for Muppet fans
Starring: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper plus oodles of cameos
Rated: PG (but really should be a G)
Red Flags: Two very mild adult jokes, one of which is referenced below

I don't think Muppet founder Jim Henson would've gone for Fozzie Bear showing off, to put it kindly, flatulent shoes. But he would have loved the rest of this heartfelt reunion and tribute film to his puppet empire starring Jason Segel, who co-wrote it for Muppet fans everywhere. It is a family film, not so much for the kids, but for the adults who invited the fuzzy-foamy characters to come into their living rooms on "The Muppet Show" every week and who begged to go see their first three movies.

Segal is Gary, a Muppet fan with a brother named Walter, who's an even bigger fan. Walter is also a Muppet himself, a fact conveniently overlooked until the proper plot point is achieved. I could make an interesting argument here that Walter is actually Gary's outward projection of his inner child, but family movies are not supposed to be that deep. Gary's in love with Mary (Adams), a school teacher who is still waiting for Gary to pop the question -- if Guy Smiley or Prince Charming doesn't come along and pop it first. All of them live in Smalltown, an idyllic community which should come with a disclaimer below the welcome sign: "Residents are prone to outbursts of song and dance."

Gary, Mary and Walter take a trip to Los Angeles, which includes a stop at the Muppet Studios. When they get there, the place is run down and shuttered. The Muppets themselves don't even work there anymore. Worse, Walter overhears corporate robber baron Tex Richman (Cooper) plotting to raze the studio and drill for oil beneath it unless the Muppets can raise $10 million to buy it back under a clause in their standard "Rich And Famous Contract," one of the film's several enlightened references to the original Muppet Movie.

Walter and his human pals track down Kermit the Frog to warn him and persuade the Muppet gang to do one more gig. In sequences reminiscent of The Blues Brothers, Kermit and company track down the gang who have split up and taken straight jobs, more or less. Fozzie is working a dead-end show at a Reno casino. Animal is in an anger management program (alongside Jack Black, to boot). Gonzo is a plumbing company executive. Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem are playing in the subways. Only Miss Piggy has vaulted upward, to editor of Vogue. We're still not sure if Kermit and Piggy are married, separated or in one of those it's-complicated relationships, but they still have plenty of romantic tension between them as the old gang hastily puts together what could be their last show.

The Muppets overflows with love and respect for Kermit and company's fans. It does not try to upgrade its characters to the CGI age: we continue to see them mostly from the waist up, reminding us that there are still puppeteers below them, operating their hands and mouths and lending the voices. Several of those voices are more than a touch different due to changes in the cast of performers over the years, and sadly, the death of Jim Henson. After Henson's passing, Rowlf the Dog dropped out of sight; Henson provided his voice and part of his hand work. I was glad to see him back in this film, and he's still a whiz on the piano.

Many, many Muppet characters also return, if only for a couple of silent scenes, including Uncle Deadly. To my knowledge, he only appeared in one episode of the TV series, alongside Vincent Price. Speaking of guest star spots, The Muppets honors that tradition faithfully. In addition to Black, the film's cameos include Mickey Rooney, Whoopi Goldberg and... James Carville? Charles Grodin is a notable omission. His appearance was planned but omitted due to either schedule or production issues.

Young children aren't going to have the same admiration for this film as their parents. That's all right. It wasn't made for them. They may still appreciate it though, in all its fun, fuzzy innocence. Please, Disney, do us a favor. Find a way to bring "The Muppet Show" back to television and give us a show we can truly enjoy with the kids.

(The PG rating on this film is overstated. Save for two mildly crude jokes that are pretty tame in the universe of today's films, this film deserves to be a G.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Reel To Reel: J. Edgar

Guns, guts, and Mommy Dearest.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer, Josh Lucas, Judi Dench
Rated: R (but really should be a PG-13)
Red Flags: One short scene of brief strong language, two mild homosexual kisses

J. Edgar Hoover built the Federal Bureau of Investigation into a powerfully innovative crime-fighting agency, one that would do his own personal bidding, and yet this film portrays him as cornered by a long-rumored homosexuality and his relationship with his mother. This irony is the heart of J. Edgar, a Clint Eastwood-directed period piece that's a shoo-in for at least a couple of Oscar nominations.

Make-up should be one of them, as we see alternating images of Leonardo DiCaprio playing Hoover as a young Justice Department agent while the older, grizzled Hoover dictates his glory days for a book. As he did in The Aviator and Shutter Island, DiCaprio handles period roles and historical heavyweights with precision and ease. His Hoover obsesses over radicals and communist threats to America underneath every rock, and he laments that his Justice colleagues don't seem to understand it. He says people forget "the bombs," what we would call terrorist attacks by Bolsheviks in the early 1900's, before the word "terrorist" entered our lexicon. He finds evidence of subversion in the White House and the civil rights movement. One subplot involves Hoover wiretapping the hotel room of Martin Luther King Junior.

Information is Hoover's weapon of choice, as he ruthlessly compiles secret files on opponents and dissidents to gather information for leverage while pushing the FBI to develop groundbreaking techniques in forensic analysis. It is hard to imagine a time when police didn't check for fingerprints, let alone DNA, but it's even harder to imagine how sloppily authorities would treat a crime scene. Hoover uses the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby as his proving grounds, the crime of the century that became the trial of the century, to show how criminals couldn't beat science.

Hoover's personal life is less than triumphant. He hires underqualified agent Clyde Tolson (Hammer), who turns into his chief deputy and lover, a relationship he conducts with strategic secrecy to keep it from ruining him. His secretary Helen Gandy is his right-hand woman, keeping his schedule running and his personal files hidden. And then there's Mother: Annie Hoover (Dench) is not an overbearing figure, but she is the only woman Hoover can relate to. No doubt about it, J. Edgar is a mama's boy.

J. Edgar can drag at points, but overall, Clint Eastwood keeps the story moving while understanding we need additional insight in order to appreciate the complexities and ironies surrounding a man who served six presidents. Dustin Lance Black, who also wrote the biopic Milk, handles Hoover's suspected homosexuality in a discreet manner that one could argue, as former FBI man W. Mark Felt did, that they simply were engaging in brotherly love.

The film does not break new ground as much as it lets us see the world from Hoover's perspective, that of a dedicated public servant who lives and breathes crimefighting and will stop at nothing to keep Americans safe.

Reel To Reel: Tower Heist

When you don't have Ocean's 11, four or five might work.

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck, Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Language (mainly Murphy's dirty mouth), some sexual references

Tower Heist wants to be the Ocean's 11 of the Occupy Wall Street age, seizing upon our low opinions of banks, securities firms, and anybody stinking rich. It's also designed to be a comeback vehicle for Eddie Murphy, who has seen his career circle the drain ever since he taking up family-friendly movies like Haunted Mansion, Daddy Day Care, and space gobbler The Adventures of Pluto Nash. Neither concept works entirely, but director Brett Ratner at least holds the film together.

Josh Kovacs (Stiller) is the manager for one of New York's most upscale condo-plexes, a place where people aren't merely paying for living space but for the luxury of having a staff that knows them, knows their name, knows their birthdays, their quirks, their dirty little secrets and will unflinchingly deliver service with a smile. Kovacs' chief task is catering to the needs of penthouse resident Arthur Shaw (Alda), a Wall Street titan who is suddenly arrested for Bernie Madoff-style securities fraud. In headline-ripping style, Shaw is put under house arrest at the top of the tower, and it just so happens he was managing the pension funds of all the tower's employees.

Seeing that Shaw might beat the rap and not refund a dime to the tower workers, Kovacs devises a scheme to steal back the money by using his concierge smarts to devise a foolproof burglary and getaway plan. He pulls in several employees and a geeky ex-resident (Broderick) for help, but they need a criminal mind. So Kovacs turns to his profane street-crook neighbor Slide (Murphy), who is supposed to school Kovacs' gang in how to rob.

It's nice to see Eddie Murphy go back to his slick fast-talking persona that vaulted him to success on Saturday Night Live and a slew of hit movies including his best, Beverly Hills Cop. The only problem is, Murphy's more dirty than funny. His earlier films were crude, yes, but they didn't stretch him into some gansta-wannabe. Maybe Murphy is making up for all those family films by overdoing it here.

Stiller's performance is more believable, although I still have a hard time buying into his leap from personal assistant to aspiring thief. For that matter, I also have a hard time believing Alda -- one of Hollywood's most likeable actors -- as a heartless moneyed cretin, but doggone it if he doesn't try.

Tower Heist probably should have gone more of the con-job route like The Sting, relying more on the wits and problem-solving skills of its characters rather than trying to pull off the heist of the decade.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Reel To Reel: The Three Musketeers (2011)

All for one... and if they'd only stopped at one.

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Milla Jovovich, Christoph Waltz, Logan Lerman, Matthew MacFadyen, Ray Stevenson, Luke Evans, Mads Mikkelsen
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Ye olde swordplay, mild language

I keep waiting for somebody to come up with an 18th Century version of "steampunk," that Victorian flavor of science fiction. This umpteenth remake of Dumas' classic may be as close as Hollywood comes for awhile, with not one but two flying ships sporting 17th-century automatic weapons. Oh yes, there's swordplay.

Director Paul W.S. Anderson's Musketeers are three of France's finest swashbucklers who I gather would align themselves with the other 99 percent. They're out of work, without direction, broke and drinking liberally. But when they get a mission, they're as dangerous as the IMF. Along comes D'Artagnan (Lerman), a young hotshot with a sword, and before long, they're back in action to save France from the sinister plan of Cardinal Richelieu (Waltz). He's aided by Milady De Winter (Jovovich), a limber double agent whose first name leaves one wondering if a bow is required every time it purses the lips.

Enjoying this film requires the kind of suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoy a weekend at the Renaissance Festival, otherwise you'll be left puzzling over the following things:
  • Why is nobody bringing a pistol to a gigantic swordfight in the middle of the picture when we just saw one used a few scenes ago?
  • How can Milady [bowing] De Winter run in that heavy late-Renaissance gown?
  • Where on Earth are the French and English getting the helium for those flying airships? It has to be helium, because you won't see any Hindenburg disasters in this movie. Oh the humanity...
  • How do they steer those things so well without constantly reconfiguring the sails?
  • Why do all these Frenchmen speak with English accents? And why do the Musketeers sound the least French of anybody?
  • Did the French really give out citations for horse droppings?
The Three Musketeers keeps getting remade because people keep seeing it. Or Hollywood invariably thinks it does, notwithstanding its lousy box office take and Jovovich's complaint that the studio is failing to market it. The ending scene all but begs for a sequel. No doubt it will get made.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Reel To Reel: The Ides Of March

True primary colors.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti
Rated: R
Red Flags: Strong language, one sex scene

The Ides Of March is a 100-minute game of political chicken or no-limit Washington hold-em centered around a presidential candidate who talks a great game of integrity while his staffers realize there are only two requirements for political office: knowing how to win and knowing how to add. Playing dirty is not frowned upon but expected.

Stephen Myers (Gosling) is a smart young press secretary for Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney, who also directs) who plays the system like Tiger Woods at the top of his game. He has a reporter in his pocket, great strategies for his boss and all the right things to say. But he needs 200 delegates to seal the Democratic nomination, something which will require the endorsement of Ohio's governor, and as you might expect, that endorsement won't come out of mere good will. That job falls to Morris' campaign manager Paul Zara (Hoffman), the prototypical chain-smoking political sage who you know belongs in some backroom somewhere making deals.

Myers thinks he's hot stuff, but not any hotter than he can handle until he secretly meets with Tom Duffy (Giamatti), campaign manager for the governor's opponent. Duffy indicates Morris' lead in the polls is soft and tips him off to the strategy that threatens to disintegrate that lead. However, Myers is also getting person with a campaign intern (Evan Rachel Wood). After the sex scandals of Bill Clinton and John Edwards, you would think Democratic campaign workers would know better. However, it's not Myers' fling that's the big problem, nor is it his fraternizing with the enemy. It's something much bigger, yet all too familiar.

The film's title draws from the famous warning to Julius Caesar in Shakespeare's iconic play of politics, power, and people with knives waiting to stab somebody in the back. Likewise, Ides' tension comes from characters who are armed with damaging information like hand grenades on their belts, and we're constantly watching to see who lobs the next bomb and who gets hurt while Gov. Morris models himself into the perfect candidate, and Clooney sounds absolutely presidential in those compulsory-element speech-making scenes. I'm wondering what's going to take this guy down. However, when I read Julius Caesar in high school, I considered it to be Brutus' tragedy, the story of noble motivations gone wrong. Et tu, Stephen? Yet all of this psycho-political brinksmanship takes place out of the public eye, even outside the 24-hour cable news cycle.

I saw this movie with my Royal Father and Queen Mother, who had a beef with a critical plot twist. She felt it more appropriate of a 1970's tensioner like Absence Of Malice. Your Majesty, I respectfully disagree. Part of the nature of a suspense film is that its characters aren't completely on the level, even if we think we know what they should do. If I had any problem with this film, it was that it ended abruptly as it was just beginning to take off. Maybe that's because I was so drawn into its moves and counter-moves that I wanted to see Election Night and not just the primary.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Deal Me In!

Four years ago, I appeared on "The Price Is Right." Now I take on "Let's Make A Deal." And this time, I got the eligibility questions out of the way up front, so game-show fanboys, you don't get to hate on me this time.

5:30am – Wake up. Get into my Royal Stewart kilt. Chug some hot cocoa and hit the road. The show time on my ticket says 11:30am, but I don't know how early I need to be at the studio to make it into the taping. Nothing on the Internet gives any clues. I figure 3 to 4 hours in advance will be fine, if the lines are anything like “The Price Is Right.” But this is a less-popular show.

6:30am – On the road, I hit the first of several traffic congestion spots on “the ten.” All through Los Angeles, cars are backing up in certain spots with no discernible explanation. Maybe too many people are trying to merge into traffic, slowing everyone down, but I don't see that happening.

7:15am – It amazes me how Angelinos put up with this every single day, sitting in cars crawling around at a snails' pace, wasting at least an hour, more likely two, out of their workdays on a backed-up stretch of concrete. You would think a massive effort would go into telecommuting and shorter work weeks, but people aren't clamoring for that. I figure if we took only 20 percent of the cars off the road through alternative work schedules, you'd see a vast improvement.

8:00am – I've gone from the 10 to the 101, also known as the “Hollywood Freeway.” But through downtown, it's more like the Hollywood Parking Lot.

8:15am – I'm in the area of Sunset Boulevard and Van Ness. My destination is the Sunset Bronson Studios, also home to KTLA-TV. But first, I have to find a place to park. I am advised I can't park in the studio lot, so I have to find someplace on the street, someplace legal, someplace safe. I loop around a few blocks, hitting the brakes once to avoid hitting a teenager who walked out in front of me in the middle of a left turn. I find a place on the street near the studio's main guard shack. I park and walk up to it, in the full regalia.

“I have tickets to 'Let's Make A Deal,'” I say to a glass box full of security agents, some overweight.

“Go down and make a left,” one guard says. “The check-in is in front of the tower.”

I walk down that way, a lone Scotsman in the morning, and look for the check-in point. But underneath the iconic mock KTLA tower is nothing but a brick wall and a gate. I can see a trailer marked “Let's Make A Deal” through the bars. But nobody's there to check me in.

There is, however, one lady sitting on a bus bench.

“Are you here for 'Let's Make A Deal?'” she asks.


“So am I! I'm the first one here!”

Angel, as she's called, has gotten here bright and early. She's a designer working out in Marina Del Rey, but she's also selling real estate – and she'd like to win some cash to help get her fashionable side going. She's wearing a costume of her own design: satin tinged with black, adorned with a giant butterfly on the front. It's classier than most of the costumes I see on the show.

9:00am – Others start arriving, some in costume, some unadorned. One lady is carrying around an M&M display box as part of her candy costume, and she's getting an offer of duct tape to hold it onto her.

Angel and I sit on the bench and watch buses roll by us with the people inside giving us a slightly puzzled stare, unaware of why were here. Hollywood power players cruise past in their luxury cars, phones pressed to ears. A man rolls up in a battered car and takes a cell-phone picture of the Scotsman and the Butterfly lady he just saw out his side window.

“I knew that was going to happen,” I say.

9:30am – The sun is reminding me that this is going to be an unusually hot day for October in Los Angeles. It should be 20 degrees cooler than it is, and I'm wearing three layers of clothing. But I'm willing to wait.

10am – One of the contestant coordinators comes out and starts passing paperwork down the lines. I know the drill. Read the rules, fill out the forms. This is where I have to make my full disclosure. Unlike last time, the rules are clear and on paper in front of me.

“I have an eligibility problem,” I tell one of the guys in the blue “Let's Make A Deal” polo shirts. “I work in the newsroom of a CBS affiliate. I don't have anything to do with the show, but I work for an affiliate.”

“I'll check,” he says. Maybe there's a chance. He ducks back behind inside the gate and returns a minute later.

“Sorry,” he says. “You're not eligible. But you're more than welcome to be in the audience.”

That's all I needed to hear. Just get my kilt and I on television.

10:15am – The contestant drill is a bit more comfortable than the “Price Is Right” routine. After passing through a metal detector – in which I have to take off all my clan badges and pins from my tartan sash – the staff leads us to a pair of trailers. In one, we turn in our paperwork and get two pictures taken: one for records purposes, and another for a souvenir. Stand in front of a green wall, look excited, and the photo wizards will superimpose you over a still picture of the LMAD set.

It's a costly memento: $20 for each print. But nobody has a choice, since cell phones and cameras aren't allowed inside the studio.

A small costume shop is located inside the first trailer for those who came unadorned. If it seems like the same outfits keep reappearing on the show, it's no coincidence. The shop rents simple outfits for about $10 to $20.

10:30am – We're led to the second trailer, where our contestant producers brief us on what makes good television. First, excitement is crucial. Second, any prize is a good prize, even if you don't want it or you already have one: “Take another!”

“A couple of weeks ago we had a lady on who got a $500 gift card to Bloomingdale's,” the producer tells us. “And she says, 'I don't like to shop!'”

“Did you rip that card out of her hand?” somebody asks.

“No, but I wanted to.”

Then the interviewing begins. It's just like “Price,” as the producer goes in groups of about 15 people down the line.

Angel, on my left, is prepared. I've coached her on what producers are looking for in a contestant on the bench outside. She is full of enthusiasm: “I wanna win some Mon-EY!” She does well.

Then the producer comes to me. “Christopher.”

I bow.

“Are you from Scotland?”

“No, but my ancestors are.”

“Why do you not want to be considered as a contestant?”

He says that because the contestant number card I'm wearing below my nametag has a giant X through it.

“I would like to be eligible,” I explain. “But they tell me I can't be. But I can do a Highland Fling, though!”

11:00am – The staff leads out out to sit on a long bench outside the studio, just like “Price.” We're advised of the location of the restrooms and the snack bar, which should be opening up any minute now. I make a run for the Necessary.

11:30am – I grab some water and chips for Angel and a hot dog for myself. It's getting hotter. “I'm wearing three layers of clothing,” I explain to people, typical for the 18th Century, but not the most comfortable for 21st Century Los Angeles.

11:45am – The wait continues. I'm hoping it won't be much longer, since all the coordination work is done. The time on my ticket said 11:30. I'm thinking that wasn't an actual taping time, but a deadline time to make it into the taping. I could've come two hours later and still made it on.

Noon – Another line of contestants is parked across the narrow walkway from us. People are forming yet another line to use the restrooms. It's hot and getting hotter. But everybody's still in good spirits, eager to win money or a car or some appliances. Angel is still pumped up. I'm conserving my energy.

“You took off your hat!” she observes.

I had to. It was trapping heat.

12:30pm – A lady next to me wonders what I do for a living, and I tell her I produce television newscasts. Before long, the conversation turns to how I got into the business, how I do what I do, and how I survive it.

“First, be willing to work in a small market,” I say, taking on the slight air of an old journalism professor. “When you move up, you're going to savor those times when you were working in Lincoln, Nebraska. Second, learn to do as many things as you can, so you can have a skill set. Be versatile. Third, find a life outside the business, whether it's church, preferably, or something else. Get away from the newsroom and get a fresh perspective on life.”

Angel, who has slipped off to get into an air-conditioned trailer for a few moments, returns during the tail end of my lecture, which is leaving people either spellbound or bored. I can't tell which.

“What are you telling them?” she kids.

“How to make it in the news business.”

1pm – We're still waiting. It's still hot. I'm still wearing three layers of clothing, and even in the shade, with all of us sitting shoulder to shoulder, it's hard to stay enthusiastic. I don't know why it takes so long to get everything prepped. I'm hoping we're just a few minutes away from the studio.

“We'll be going into the studio in about 20 to 25 minutes,” a production assistant says.

I guess not.

A clipboard is circulating among us, asking us to put down our names and email addresses for future taping information. “Write quickly!” Angel announces. “The faster we get it signed, the faster we go in!”

1:30pm – Finally, we're inside Studio 1 on the Sunset Bronson lot. As always, the set looks smaller in real life than it does on TV. There's seating for about 200 people, all in costume. We won't need any paid seat fillers this day. LED lights are everywhere, along with Vari-Lites, scoops and spots overhead. Five studio cameras stand in front of the three curtains in front of us: two jib cameras and three traditional pedestal mounts. All of them are HD capable, I think, but LMAD is one of the few shows not recorded in HD.

Retro-rock warm-up music is pumping into the studio, staring with The Cars' “Just What I Needed.” And people are dancing. I'm still getting back in the spirit of things, sitting quietly and taking in the workings of a network TV production: our contestant producers are on the stage with their clipboards and pencils, making their final list of potential players. I spot a seating diagram in one of their hands, something presumably to help host Wayne Brady find those who make the cut.

1:45pm – Announcer Jonathan Magnum comes out and welcomes everybody, reiterating some of what we've heard before the contestant interviews about how to look great on TV. He introduces Cat, the show's new DJ and keyboardist, who is revving up the dance music to get everybody moving. It's a nice throwback to LMAD's early days, when Ivan Ditmars led a live band on the show.

2:00pm – Showtime at last! The crowd goes crazy for Wayne Brady, who begins the show right in the middle of the audience. He picks a couple – the man dressed as Popeye – to play the first game, “Panic Button.” They have a console with six buttons, and three open curtains with prizes in front of them. Three buttons do nothing, but three others close one of the curtains and forfeit the prize behind it. The task is to press three buttons and hope to close as few curtains as possible. The first press closes nothing. The second closes the curtain on a living-room set. But the third does nothing, leaving them with a hot tub and a motor scooter worth $10,000 total.

Wayne shows them two more buttons: one will open that closed curtain. The other will close the other two curtains. After some debate, with the lady making the decisions, they decide to take what they have and quit. It turns out the button they would've picked would've opened the closed curtains.

2:10pm – More music pumps in as the PA's get the stage ready for the next contestants and adjust some prizes behind the curtains. The commercial break takes a lot longer in the studio than it does on TV, so Cat's music keeps everybody enthused.

The next game involves three players, three envelopes, and three deals, all tradable for a curtain or a box. We see our first “Zonk” of the show, a trip to the nation's largest termite mound. According to the official rules, Zonks – the show's worthless prices – generally mean some small monetary compensation for the contestant who ends up getting them, although this isn't readily disclosed to the audience. But Wayne makes an exception for a Navy sailor who chooses a curtain and ends up with one.

“You chose to serve your country,” he says. “That's the best choice. I'm gonna give you $300.”

2:30pm – Two ladies are playing an elimination game to see who will end up with a car. Six boxes are in front of them, but only one of them has the word “Car” inside. They take turns choosing, turning down offers of money to stop. One of the ladies is somebody who has been sitting next to us all afternoon in line. Angel and I shout out numbers, but in the end, nobody ends up with the wheels.

2:30pm – “Want some candy?” Jonathan throws out Tootsie Roll pops and Tootsie Rolls as Cat spins some more music during a commercial break.

2:45pm – It's Wayne's Beauty Salon, a skit where the host and sidekick Jonathan get to dress up in fake wigs while offering a deal to a lady... who ends up getting zonked.

3:30pm – Jonathan holds a dance contest. As much as I want to do a Highland Fling, I don't get picked. Instead, three others make it, and they can dance – well.

3:45pm – Time for the Big Deal, and we're back to Popeye and his lady. Wayne asks them if they want to go for it.

“Is there a zonk?” Popeye asks.

Ugggh. Ugggh. Ugggh. If this guy actually watched the show – which Wayne points out – he'd know there's no zonks in the Big Deal, although it's possible to trade down. After hemming and hawing, this befuddled couple decides to go for it. They end up trading away the $10,000 in prizes they won for Door #3, which nets them something about $2,000 less. It's not quite a Zonk, but not the most satisfying conclusion.

3:55pm – Some audience members win money in the quickie deals if they have a make-up kit on them. One woman, unfortunately, does not. Wayne doesn't mind: “She doesn't need make up!” he announces and awards her a quick $100.

4:05pm – The PA's invite people to stay around for the second taping, but I have to hit the road. I don't want to be driving in Hollywood after dark, and I have a dinner engagement with my Dad. I came with nothing, I left with a picture, and I enjoyed the experience. Not a bad deal.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

GOD Created Jobs

Steve Jobs was a Buddhist, not a Christan, but GOD made him. GOD uses people even if they don't know HE'S using them, and HE'LL use non-believers, too. HE used a lady of the night to help Joshua fight the Battle of Jerico (Joshua 2), so why not Steve Jobs to help us deal with technology?

In a commencement speech in 2005, Jobs reflected on mortality in a very secular, technological manner:
"No one wants to die, even people who want to go to Heaven don't want to die to get there, and yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It's life's change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you. But someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it's quite true. Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."
To him, it's like a continuous computer upgrade cycle, one where everyone is going to be obsolete like the old Apple II's he co-created, replaced by something new. Jobs doesn't tells us the new will be better; it will just be new.

So he tells us to be ourselves and listen to ourselves, to that "inner voice, heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become." I gather he wasn't thinking of the HOLY SPIRIT, but that's what he's getting at. GOD equips each of us with a purpose and compass. But so much depends on us listening to HIM and using HIS compass, rather than letting the rest of the world kick us around.

The "dogma" that Jobs talks about can come from the world, especially politics. It can also come from churches. Dogma isn't harmful by definition, but it becomes that way when we start believing it without understanding why we believe it, or become enslaved to it so that we're unwilling to ditch what's not working.

We have two major political parties that are enslaved to dogma right now. We also have, unfortunately, a number of churches that are doing the same thing by treating man-made extensions to GOD'S WORD as gospel. The Bible warns us several times not to do this:

Deuteronomy 4:2 (NIV) -- "Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your GOD that I give you."

Proverbs 30:5-6 (NIV) -- "Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar."

And my favorite, 2 Timothy 2:15 (NIV) -- "Do your best to present yourself to GOD as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth."

But people still add to GOD'S WORD. Maybe it's because they want to be set themselves above other Christians. Maybe it's because they don't think they're Christian enough. Maybe they have a hard time believing in GOD'S grace, and they're trying to earn their way into Heaven, aided and abetted by some denominations' belief systems. The truth is, nobody's good enough. We still need JESUS.

I read on Ed Stezer's blog that Jobs was baptized as a Christian, and he later converted to Buddhism. Steve Jobs would've made a better Christian than a Buddhist. We don't know if Steve Jobs came back to GOD in his final hours, but I wonder if he ever thought about who was really guiding him. It wasn't Buddha.

Friday, September 23, 2011

No, You Won't Be Needing The Insecticide

A favourite of many English dancers who love Pride And Prejudice is this dance from the ball scene with Mr. Darcy: Mr. Beveridge's Maggot. It's a little too advanced for newcomers, which is why you won't see it at the Pride And Prejudice Ball, but it's beautiful to watch.

By the way, the term "maggot" refers to an idea, not a gross worm. Long long ago, people thought creativity came from creatures in the brain, and not just figments of our imagination.

HUZZAH to the lad in the kilt!

A variation of this dance was also popular during the Colonial period...

...as well as the Renaissance:

And here's a slightly slower version:

Finally, your humble servant gives it a try. I'm the lad in the blue outfit, dancing at the Jane Austen Evening last January in Pasadena:

Dance On!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Miss Austen Would Love It

Every year in Bath, England, a recreation of a Regency-era ball takes place, in full period costume and merriment. Of course, you don't have to go all the way to England -- just come to the Pride And Prejudice Ball this Saturday!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Your Mother Should Know (If She Lived During The Regency)

"Let's all get up and dance to a song
That was a hit before your mother was born."

--The Beatles

As I pointed out earlier, many dances popular in the Regency era go back at least 100 years earlier, although I've seen one dancing expert argue to the contrary. Why would people want to groove to their grandmother's tunes? Isn't that like doing the twist at the disco? Well, even disco came back. Why not old English Dances?

So let's set the WABAC machine for the 1600's and watch the Newcastle Country Dancers perform their namesake dance: "Newcastle."

Now, here's how it would have looked like during Jane Austen's time:

By the way, the Newcastle dancers also perform a lively version of "Argeers."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

You Can't Dance If Your Nose Is Up In The Air

I offer you another Regency-era dance in celebration and anticipation of the Pride And Prejudice Ball. This one is called "The Physical Snob." I have no idea how it got that name, but what makes it interesting is all the weaving the dancers do amongst themselves:

Monday, September 19, 2011

But It's Almost Fall!

My Most Honourable Dancing Friends, never mind what the calendar says. It's almost time for the Pride & Prejudice Ball, which means your humble servant shall be offering a week-long sample of period dances for your diversion and enjoyment.

Here's a dance from the Leicestershire Victorian Dancers' Regency ball, "Upon A Summer's Day," which happens to feature some fine period military attire:

You might be surprised to know many Regency dances were also popular during the Renaissance. Here's the same dance performed a little earlier in time:

Set, turn single, and join us again tomorrow...

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Reel To Reel: The Debt

Payback is a... well, you know what.

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson
Rated: R
Red Flags: Bloody violence, sexual situations, a throwaway sex scene in a newspaper office

The Debt is an espionage-action film that drags more than thrills and nearly forgets its marquee star. It spends too much time leading up to something we likely will figure out before the end of the first two reels and wastes too much time waddling around details of a mission that's either marginally successful or stuck in neutral.

Mirren plays Rachel Singer, a retired Israeli Mossad agent who has been glorified with her two colleagues for capturing and killing a Nazi war criminal working as a doctor in 1960's East Berlin. That has been the official line for three decades, and it's also the one coming out in a book written by her daughter. We know right away that's not really the truth, but it takes about an hour or so for our suspicious to be confirmed. The film flashes back to Singer's younger self as a rookie agent teamed up with Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) in a ratty apartment. They practice their martial arts training and occasionally some piano, eating rotten food while awaiting orders from Tel Aviv.

The agents get the green light, capture the notorious Dr. Vogel (Jesper Christensen), and pack him up for shipment back to Israel only to see the plan go sideways. They are left with a cantankerous old Nazi in their apartment and no way to get rid of him, except by killing him. However, killing is off the table because the idea of Israeli justice for Nazis is to make them stand trial, not hunt them down and exterminate them as Hitler's gang did to six million Jews.

Moral dilemmas really mess up good covert work, and the film has no problem demonstrating this as it transitions from action thriller to psychological thriller. But this is where the film drags. This is where I wanted to get to Helen Mirren's wrinkled, scarred self and see how the woman who played Queen Elizabeth II a few years ago cleans things up. She does, sort of, in a way that's more exploitative and shocking than satisfying. I heard one woman say on her way out of the theater, "Just another carefree romp on a Saturday afternoon." Of course she was exaggerating, but not by much.

The Debt is a remake of a 1997 Israeli film which I have not seen, so I can't tell you whether Hollywood jiggered with the pieces. I can tell you it would have benefited from some more cuts here and there, and not to Helen Mirren's face.

Monday, August 29, 2011

And Now, The Next Windstorm...

Coming home from work this evening, I heard Jeffrey Kuhner of The Washington Times -- filling in for Michael Savage -- rip into "the media" for its Hurricane Irene coverage, griping about how it turned out to be tropical storm instead of a hurricane. And it gets better: he then accuses "the media" of overhyping the storm to "prop up" President Obama. Somehow, I knew the president was going to get blamed here.

And, no surprise, Rush Limbaugh gets his word in, calling it a "national embarrassment:"
It was a rainstorm and there was a lot of flooding and there were deaths associated with it, but the hype, folks, I'll tell you what this was. It was a lesson, if you pay any attention to this, the hype, the desire for chaos, I mean literally, the media desire for chaos was a great learning tool, this was a great illustration of how all of the rest of the media in news, in sports, has templates and narratives and exaggerates beyond reality, creating fear so as to create interest.
And yes, you guessed it, he finds a way to chide the president:
The media, the government are out there peddling fear when facts and calm would make for much better investments and would result in much more credibility for these people reporting this stuff. I'm gonna tell you something, Hurricane Obama -- whatever Irene's gonna cost us, it pales in comparison to the hurricane of the Obama administration.
As Nikki Finke would say, "Oh barf."

Elected officials, emergency workers and evacuees will tell you the same thing when a hurricane is barreling down on their communities. You hope and pray for the best, but you prepare for the worst. As I write this, cities in Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Jersey are all dealing with massive flooding. More than 30 people have lost their lives, and that number could go higher. Imagine the death toll had the media listened to talk radio and told us to shrug off the storm.

Meteorology is not an exact science, even though our forecasting and computer models are better than they were three decades ago. The people at the National Hurricane Center freely admit this. That's why the "forecast cone," as it's called, stretches for hundreds of miles on either side of a hurricane's predicted path. All weekend long, the NHC repeatedly warned us not to take this storm lightly. A Category 1 Hurricane and a strong tropical storm aren't that much different, and they're both destructive. Let us also remember these kinds of systems rarely hit so far north. A lot of folks aren't used to preparing for them. They need to know what's coming.

People also confuse the concept of "Continuing Coverage" with hype. Media outlets provide this kind of coverage on major events simply because a large number of people want to know just what in tarnation is going on now, not at the top and bottom of the hour. If your network doesn't provide it, somebody else will, or viewers will go to the Internet and get it there. Even in national emergencies, news is still competitive.

Consider this: Would you rather be in a relief shelter or a pine box? Would you rather be griping about your loused-up weekend at the beach or swept away by the tide? In life-or-death situations, I would rather be over-warned than under-prepared. I would be grateful that my house was still standing than shocked because nobody told me it could be blown away.

Talk radio show hosts never miss a chance to blame the media for everything they can because that is what brings in the ears and the ad dollars. Far be it from them to ever be thankful that the storm wasn't as bad as feared... or thank GOD that it wasn't. Irene weakening from a major hurricane to a tropical storm before it hit New York City isn't the fault of forecasters or media or hype. I prefer to see it as proof that GOD answers prayers and is watching over us in the middle of a spiritual battle. My words to the media haters out there ironically echo the words of Darth Vader: "I find your lack of faith disturbing."

How about this: let's just give all the talk show hosts and partisan gawkers their own conservative weather channel. They can gab for hours about how the media and the NHC is getting it wrong and how every major tropical system is overhyped by "the media" and the forecasters -- who all believe in bogus global climate change anyway -- and how we shouldn't change our plans or evacuate because it's just gonna be a really long rainstorm.

And oh yeah, it's all President Obama's fault.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Snapshots From The Highlands

Featuring the photos of Mr. M. Cynecki

And now, some photographic memories from this year's Highland Ball, presented as always by We Make History. I've written so many words on so many balls that I think I'll just let the pictures do most of the talking.

Madame Noire with her Highland bodyguard... and dancing partner.

A duel? No, just two gentlemen united in the Cause.

Escorting Madame in the Grand Promenade. We could march all the way to London, even if the Bonnie Prince couldn't.

This is what it looks like when I approach a lass and ask for a dance.

The start of the jigging contest, or in my case, the Highland Fling contest. We started in a circle...

...and then broke free.

I have to have stamina to survive, even though my spirit is limitless.

Oh how I flung. But the prize belonged to the lasses this night...

...in a showdown between neighboring clans.

Careful with those high kicks, most honourable lass! I speak from experience.

For more recollections of the evening, see the official Highland Ball page.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Fling It!

I can't finish this weeklong Highland Ball tribute without paying homage to that most famous of Scottish dances, the Highland Fling.

Here is the traditional caper from the Dunedin Dancers:

Now, a modern interpretation from some creative Lasses who mashed it up with Queen and Survivor:

And here's some children trying it:

That's probably the closest to my version of the fling, which I shall attempt once more -- and preferably more than once -- tomorrow night!

Dance On, Lads and and Lasses!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Those Eastern Scots Are An Especially Happy Lot, Aye?

Somewhere in Eastern Europe, here you see some Scots and not-so-Scots enjoying one of my favourite Scottish dances, the "Gay Gordons."

Here's another version of it from a wedding:

Some of you know it better as the "Carolina Twirl" after it got to the states and got changed a bit:

Naturally, I'm hoping to dance this at the Highland Ball.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

It's All Fun And Games Until Somebody Steps On The Sword

As I continue our dance countdown to the Highland Ball, the legend of the Sword Dance is that you can show off as much as you want, but if you step on the sword, you will die on the battlefield.

This young Highlander has no problem with facing death:

That's hard enough when you're doing it solo, but imagine having dancing with three other brave Scots, like the Gordon Highlanders in this clip from the movie Waterloo:

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Dancing In The Streets

The Highland Ball is one of my favourite balls, not just because of the colourful kilts, but also because we dance it in a beautiful ballroom on the Northern Arizona University campus.

But you don't always need a ballroom, or even lights, as this group demonstrates.

According to the YouTube description:
Aurora Scottish Dance and Music hold an impromptu late night ceilidh on the main road through the village of Imbsheim in the Alsace region of France after the formal part of the International Folk Dance Festival had finished on 24th August 2011. In addition to audience and performers from the festival, the Mayor of Imbsheim also joined in with the dancing.

Monday, August 15, 2011

You Don't Need To Light Anything

The Fourth of July is so last month, but the Scots have a dance for it: the Firecracker Reel.

I'm not sure how it got that name, and Google doesn't provide any answers. Maybe you can?

In the meantime, enjoy it from Plateau Scottish Dancers:

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Chase That Goose

Dearest Dancing Friends, can it be true? The Highland Ball is nearly here! And as is tradition, your humble dancing servant is devoting a week to Scottish capering.

First up, a lively dance from the Dunedin Dancers of Edinburgh (which is pronounced "Ed-in-burro," not "Ed-in-burg," like the city in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas). While I'm used to chasing squirrels in my dancing days, these folks are on a "Wild Goose Chase."

Next, the "Diamond Jublilee:"

And finally, a popular one, the "Reel of the 51st:"

You have to love that great circle at the end -- keeping in time on a slipping step is not easy. Been there. Danced that.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Reel To Reel: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes

Monkey see, monkey do.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Andy Serkis (motion-capture), James Franco, John Lithgow
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Intense action sequences, mild profanity

No apes were harmed in the making of this picture. In fact, no apes were used in the making of this picture, which alone makes Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes a landmark achievement. You will hear this film compared to Avatar, and that is not a stretch. Motion-capture CGI is now at the level where human actors can be seamlessly replaced by monkeys in an ironic form of reverse evolution theory.

But actors still gotta act, and that's where Rise rises. Its primate stars are nuanced, sympathetic characters, not one-dimensional dirty apes, and nowhere is that more clear than in the performance of Andy Sirkis as Ceasar, a chimp saved from death who grows into the leader of a revolution. As Gollum in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, he's already familiar with seeing other faces pasted over his own, but it's still his expressions and characterization that comes through.

Ceasar is the house pet and test subject of scientist Will Rodman (Franco), who's working on a cure for Alzheimer's Disease. Rodman has developed a virus that not only halts the illness but also regenerates brain tissue. His research nearly collapses when a test chimp gets out of control, but Rodman is relentless because he has another objective: saving the life of his Alzheimer's-afflicted father (Lithgow).

Rodman watches Cesar develop into super-chimp, smart and getting smarter, and it encourages him to try the experimental drug on his father. Dad comes out of his disease like he's awakened from a nightmare, and Ceasar happily swings through the trees. All would be well if it weren't for nature taking its course and both the chimp and the treatment getting out of hand.

Rise is unmistakeably a parable about tampering with the workings of the brain, but its real target is our heart as we watch Ceasar struggle with his feelings. Is he a pet or a really hairy person? Is he a normal chimp or something else? Ceasar can communicate with signs, but it's his eyes that do most of the talking. If Andy Serkis doesn't get some kind of award nomination for his mastery of expressions, I'll be tempted to beat my chest like King Kong. Oh yes, there's a gorilla in this picture, along with a circus orangutan, and Cesar talks to the latter like Tarzan when it's subtitled for us. I wonder if the filmmakers intended that allusion or if it's just a nifty coincidence.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes deserves a sequel not just because it's a good picture. It's a good picture that actually left me wanting more, instead of being just another shallow summer blockbuster. Right now this film is exceeding expectations at the cash register, and that's always a promising sign, not that Hollywood needs one to sequelize anything.

Hearts Of Heroes

My only desire for the evening was that I might honor a lady with a dance, but GOD had other plans.

“Every time I come here I'm wearing a tricorn,” I tell my other Sons of the American Revolution compatriots as we approached the entrance to the Desert Diamond Casino. I was referring to previous judging stints on Lucky Break, an anachronistic and offbeat but appreciated touch.

Tonight nobody will question of our Continental Army uniforms as we gather for the annual Purple Heart Ball. Our usual color-guard duties are assigned to a military unit, but our hosts want us to add historic color to the event. General George Washington, after all, created the honor.

The event sold out well in advance, so I know we'll have a great turnout. A military band plays smooth jazz to a front room filling up with people mingling and seeking the bar. The commander in charge summons us over for a run-through of what we're supposed to do during the presentation of the colors.

Every event is unique in its layout and staging. We have no one set way to carry in the flags and post them, so the standard for the standards morphs to the needs of the occasion. When we carry no flags at all, the process takes on a new wrinkle. This evening's plan calls for us to march in after the flags for the various armed forces and post ourselves on either side of the stage. Three of us will stand on one side of the stage without guns. Another compatriot and your humble servant will stand on the other side, with guns, ready to salute with our arms – a “present arms” – at the proper time when the color guard marches in with the national and state flags. The National Anthem will follow, then an invocation, and then we march out in reverse of the way we entered the room.

“Salute with your flat hands?” a compatriot asks.


The palm is facing outward, European style, instead of perpendicular to the forehead. That is certain.

The rest of plan is clouded in uncertainty as I hear it, especially in the din of the music. I'd like to walk through it at least once to visualize where I should stand, where I should look, what I should do. At least a hundred pairs of eyes are going to be on us, and I have only one shot at it. The real Continental Soldier would know what to do. My re-enacted persona can only get as close as possible and try not to blow it.

Another detail has yet to be determined: do we take our tricorns off during the Invocation?

“They're leaving their hats on,” someone says, referring to the color guard.

“Then we leave them on.”

I'm not comfortable with it. I put GOD first, and that means uncovering during prayer in respect. If some people uncover and others don't, it's not a uniform standard, and any ceremonial maneuver requires uniformity. I think of everybody else who will be uncovering, though, and that should include us. We need a definite answer, and our fearless leader sets out to get one.

For now, we'll go on with the other part of our mission: greeting the guests and interacting with them, the Purple Heart honorees. They flow in wearing suits or dress uniforms, or suits with their VFW-style hats. I spot a Marine decorated with three rows of medals. Sailors in pressed whites help escort a few old soldiers to their tables. Ladies in their cocktail dresses amass and chatter. I offer more than a few courtly bows to them as they pass by, and my compatriots soon imitate the gesture.

“They always like it, even if you don't do it exactly right,” one fellow Continental notes.

Cell-phone cameras emerge from purses and shoot off photos of us standing at attention with our muskets shouldered next to admiring guests, images soon to work their way onto Facebook. I spot a lady in a ball gown tantalizingly close to an 18th Century polonaise, and for three seconds I am back in 1776.

I approach a couple admiring the silent auction table. “Good evening, Good Sir!” I greet with a slight British accent. I bow to his wife. “Good evening, My Lady! So glad to see you here tonight.”

“I love your uniform!” the wife returns.

“You are well-dressed yourselves,” I return.

“Are you here to protect us?”

“Against a few redcoats or rogue Hessians.”

“Hello, Christopher,” sounds a voice behind me.

I turn to see Mike, Coach Mike, one of the guys I sit across from every Friday morning at Prayer Breakfast. He's wearing a Purple Heart ribbon. Neither of us knew the other would be here.

“Hello!” I greet, stunned. “I bet you've never seen me like this!”

“I've seen the hat,” he replied.

I quickly run into a few other guys from the Friday morning breakfast club, people I knew but didn't know like this, not in connection to the military – and their wives, whom I bow to.

We still don't know if we're supposed to uncover or not for the Invocation. Another compatriot goes to get an answer from somebody else. Meanwhile, it becomes clear we're not going to get a walk-through. I'm nervous.

“We'll make this work,” I say to the others and to myself.

Minutes before the start of the event, we finally get our answer: yes, we'll uncover.

The first members of the military march in and we follow. A fellow compatriot softly coaches me on how to shoulder the musket for consistency. I follow the others to the center of the room, where we're supposed to split and take the sides of the stage, only I won't know where to split until the others split first, so I must be ready to turn on a dime. Ceremonial marching requires both precision and style. Turning a corner means halting and snapping to a new direction instead of turning while walking. I snap-turn at least three times until I reach the desired position. It looks good. All is well.

The color guard from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base marches in with tight precision.
“Present arms,” my fellow compatriot whispers. I'm glad somebody's calling orders, because nobody else is. I'm trained to take commands, not anticipate or give them.

The National Anthem brings all to their feet and my musket out in front of me, held high and parallel, dividing my face in half.

Another whisper from my compatriot, and he nudges me to the steps of the stage, where we take our positions for the Invocation. There's no set-up before the prayer, so I hastily uncover and give Thanks. The march-out proceeds according to plan, and relief washes over me. It's time to eat.

Our hosts are spreading us out so we can mingle with as many tables as possible. I end up at Table 8, a sparsely-populated location in a corner of the banquet hall. A gentleman and a couple are already there sipping iced tea. I bow and greet and take my place, removing my tricorn as per protocol. Moments later, a group of four sailors joins us. Another sailor at a table next to us sees us, and I displace myself to make room for all of them to sit together.

I find out that sailor is a naturalized American citizen from Panama.

“I studied your history for my tests,” he says in his accented English. “It is very interesting, the battles.”

I wager he knows more military history than I can get my hands around.

“You've probably heard of the Battle of Cowpens,” I say. “It's the one where the militia draws the British in, and the Continentals are over the hill waiting for them. It's in the movie The Patriot.”

He probably knows – he just can't remember it.

On my right side is a woman with a soldier son. She wears a button with his picture, and I know what it could mean.

“Where is he serving?” I ask.

“Afghanistan,” she replies. She tells me his journey from student to combat duty, passing up a baseball scholarship for the sandbox before his death at the hands of a makeshift bomb, or “IED” as they call it officially.

“We were invited here,” she says, telling how she has been trying to honor his memory.

“We honor by doing,” I reassure her.

Salads come and go, followed by the steaks and regulation rubber chicken. It's good for banquet food, but that's not the point. An empty table for sits in the center of the room, in memory of those soldiers still missing. Remember, we're told.
As the feasting winds down, the emcee introduces a 14-minute clip from an upcoming documentary on Purple Heart veterans. The rest will come soon on television somewhere in Arizona. The segment begins with a mine worker who went to war and came home to fight another one for equality. But its second subject stops me cold.

Before me are photos of Coach Mike, as he goes off to Vietnam as a sharpshooter... and then comes home to an ungrateful nation. An interview clip shows him recalling the time, and the pain is all over his face. Either he doesn't need to say any more, or he doesn't want to. Instead, the narration advances to his present life on the basketball court and his feelings about a current generation who have never known the full brunt of war. To his admiration, they are still able to commit to serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, without a draft.

I never knew any of this. All I knew was a man who coached basketball and shared his struggles at the Friday morning breakfast table. I knew he hunted “the bird of peace,” as he joked. I didn't know where that aim came from. He had told me not to be afraid of reporting what really went on in the world as part of my job, as much as it might get under peoples' skins. Now I knew where the attitude came from.

I had just shared with the soldier mom how I never knew that much about Grandfather Francis' role in World War II, how he worked with the team that monitored the Enigma machine, and how much he took to the grave with him. I never really saw him as a serviceman until the day we laid him to rest with a 21-gun salute. Now, here I was learning another soldier's story – only this time, the soldier was still alive, and sitting one table next to me.

Our emcee made more presentations, going through a list of families who had lost a loved one to war. The mother next to me was on that list, receiving a purple heart memento in trible to her fallen son...

...whose first name I heard for the first time...

...and it happened to be Christopher.

Now, everything was clear. GOD wanted me at this banquet and ball, not merely for appearance or to honor others but to see and hear what I heard. GOD had two messages for me this evening. HE wanted me to remember why I put on Revolutionary War outfit, if I ever had any doubt. And HE wanted me to continue doing it. Sometimes GOD warns us, but all the time HE guides us, and if we are willing to see it, HE encourages us.

The big band Memories burst out the Glenn Miller standard “In The Mood,” and the ball portion of the evening commenced. It seemed almost out of place after such an emotionally draining prelude, but our hosts reassured us our fallen soldiers would want it that way.

“We're leaving you without adult supervision,” a fellow compatriot called to me as he left for the evening.

For the next two hours I went in search of a lady who might afford me a dance. I found no unattached fair ones, or anybody with that longing look. But that wasn't the point.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Just A Reminder -- You Voted For These People!

Well, maybe you didn't, and it's likely you're just as disappointed and angry as I am at Congress right now. I am not about to blame you, the voters, for the debt debacle currently occupying this nation, but you get what you vote for.

What you voted for was partisanship, because you voted for people who belong to them. You voted for Democrats, Republicans and Tea Partiers. Sensible people are part of these political organizations, but rational, well-behaved statesmen and women don't hold power anymore. They're fortunate to get elected in the first place.

The priority should be country first, party second. But as I have said before, partisanship has become a false religion, one that covets power above everything and values ideological street cred above what's best for the country. I honestly believe some those creatures in Washington desire some form of a default as a nuclear option, thinking if they play their hand right, their opposition will curl up and die. It doesn't matter if the rest of us go down for the count. That's not leadership, that's arrogance, and all parties do it. Let me repeat that: all parties do it.

So once again, I say we should've listened to George Washington, who said in his farewell address:
"However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion."
What's the solution? Stop voting for anybody who's associated with a political party. Don't vote for Republicans, Democrats, Tea Partiers or Libertarians. Given how that eliminates just about everybody, I would rather write in a non-partisan candidate than vote for any partisan, at least for Congress. I would encourage you to do the same, if you're as fed up as I am. Remember, you're still voting. Do not let anybody tell you that a vote for somebody outside the two-party majority is a wasted vote.

I wish we had some better system to get more independents to run for office. Unfortunately, campaigning costs money, and the parties are tremendous fundraising machines, if nothing else. Arizona's Clean Elections system is no panacea, either, even though the state is registering a growing number of independents. A single open primary would help clean up the mess, but I don't expect it to happen.

You can do something besides vote independently, however. You can pray independently. GOD, thankfully, is not a Republican or a Democrat... or a Tea Party member. GOD is GOD. Pray that our partisans start asking for GOD's wisdom, or using what GOD already gave them (James 1:5). GOD doesn't play politics, and it's about time our politicians took the hint.

Reel To Reel: Cowboys & Aliens

Riders in the sky.

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Western violence, mild profanity, one partially naked lady

Until now, the closest mashup I've seen between the wild west and a wild visitor from outer space was that time the 1st Virginia shot down that flying saucer in Poland Junction. We should've called it Confederates And Aliens. But now the war's over, or is it? An invasion force is taking over the range in this hybrid of Alien, Independence Day, Super 8 and Unforgiven.

Lone wolf Jake Lonergan (Craig) wakes up in the middle of the New Mexico desert with a nasty wound, a mysterious bracelet on his wrist, and no memory of how either got there. He heads for the nearby town of Absolution, a dying gold-rush town run by Colonel Dolarhyde (Ford). The colonel's son is a habitual troublemaker, but he goes too far after an encounter with Lonegran. The son ends up in jail, and eventually Lonergan joins him after we find out he's a fugitive who's been robbing coaches for gold. Just when Colonel Dolarhyde comes to bust his son out of jail, Cowboys And Aliens ceases to be a conventional western. Alien spaceships fly in, blowing things up and lassoing earthlings like in that old video game Defender. Now it's up to Lonegran and Dolarhyde to find out what's happening to the town and to their people.

Craig's Lonergan will no doubt remind a lot of people of Clint Eastwood in one of Sergio Leone's movies -- the mysterious stranger with almost no name, but who can handle a gun like nobody else on the planet. So I guess it's understandable when we see how quickly he learns how to use the bracelet stuck to his wrist. Cowboys And Aliens doesn't waste time meditating on its own surrealism; it deals with trouble in the best way possible for people with saddles and six-guns. We know an armed posse poses little chance against space invaders with blasters, but the characters don't know that. To borrow from another western, they have true grit.

When I first saw the trailer for this movie, the premise looked silly, one of those awful studio ideas that make it onto film because it provides a vehicle for effects. However, Cowboys And Aliens is a well-acted adventure that straddles two genres without parodying either one. I can lay a lot of that at the feet of Ford and Craig, and director John Favreau (Iron Man) deserves some props.

Some people will roll their eyes at this film, thinking aliens have no business in 1870's America simply because science fiction or aliens as we know them hadn't been invented yet. That's two-dimensional thinking in a four-dimensional universe for a movie that's not in three-dimensions.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

It's On!

After a hot, sweaty, opening skirmish, the 2nd Virginia gets an invitation to take the lead role, and this time, your humble servant is along for the fight.

Darkness envelops the camps, pierced by a stray headlight from a vehicle delivering supplies to the moonlit tent cities. Police and security buzz the perimeter of the camp, situating themselves for a long day of crowd control. Not even a stray snore cuts through the soupy morning air.

I enter our camp, jacket in hand. I am the first to arrive. I thought at least a few officers would already be here, even before the morning bugle. A few soldiers sleep in the tents. The rest of us have spent the night at a nearby hotel. Re-enacting lets you pick and choose your level of submersion into the military way of life. A cool bed and a cold shower are well-accepted amenities.

The wake-up trumpet sounds across the camps just minutes after three of our officers arrive. "That's a good bugler," one notes as he sits in the darkness.

"I need to visit the sutlers," I say to them. "I lost my kepi on the way in."

"We found one," another replies. "It was lying in the road." I'm not 100 percent sure it's mine, but it fits.

The others stroll in as morning rises to meet us. It's going to be another tough one: high humidity. High heat. However, there's a 40 percent chance of showers. Ordinarily, this would be something we would root for, but not with the tents. Rain means mold. Mold means hours of scrubbing down stained canvas.

This time, I'm rested and ready. My hydration is at a level that will let me function through the sticky Virginia day. I'm ready to come to Stonewall Jackson's aid.

"Officer in the camp!" a voice calls. All of us stop what we're doing, rise up out of our chairs and snap to a salute to the commander who has just walked inside our perimeter.

He calls over our Colonel for a discussion. The two converse outside our hearing as we go about our morning business, sitting and drinking water and making sure we have our supplies in order for the day's battle. Before long, we learn those battle plans are changing.

Most of the 33rd Virginia is gone this morning, deciding not to battle another day of humidity along with the Federals. What's more, one of their commanders has had a medical emergency. A few remain, but some other battalion has to step into their lead role and absorb the holdouts.

Our Colonel huddles us up for a morning meeting. We are more than happy to fill the spot, but the commander giving us the invitation has a request for us: we need to shed our grey wool shell coats. The 33rd Virginia didn't wear them; we actually need blue shirts on instead. The officer making the request, however, understands we may not have the time or cash to invest a spur-of-the moment wardrobe change. Our white shirts will do nicely.

The lead role in the battle will bring other advantages besides less wool to sweat in: we will get an earlier starting time, meaning we will finish earlier and be able to start packing up sooner. We will have less time standing around waiting to be sent in as reinforcements. We'll fire more shots. Everybody will see more action.

"You're in my company," one of the captains says, noticing my pacing as I itch for battle. "And I'm ordering you to sit down and don't overheat."

I remove my old reliable 1861 Springfield musket from its sack. It has rusted a bit on the outside after the trip from Arizona, but it looks all right. During inspection, though, it fails to cock properly, meaning it's no good for battle. I figure rust may have invaded the lock, meaning the hammer won't hold where it's supposed to. If we had more time, I could take it apart and clean it out with some help from one of several gun experts in the camp. But we have to form up and march out. I swap my Springfield for a loaner Enfield from the regimental armory. I could learn to like this weapon: it's lighter and easier to carry on a long march.

"Yeah," the recruit in the file right of me agrees. "It's that's thinner barrel."

We are among the first Confederates to take the battlefield. No standing around waiting for something to happen.

"Prone!" barks a commander. At least, that's what it sounded like. I have never heard the command before. I don't know if he called "Prone!" or "Prime!" or something else, but it means get down on the ground, out of sight, out of range.

For the next 15 minutes, we lay in the grass, sneaking a glance at the Yankee standards hundreds of yards away, peaking out over the tall grass that is rife with spiders, ticks, grasshoppers and hornets. A monster stinging insect nearly buzzes my face. I'm glad the horses haven't trotted through this area before us.

A lady walks between our laid-out ranks delivering ice to anybody who holds out their kepi. I stretch it back to her, and the cubes she deliver go down my shirt and into my mouth, the rest melting into the cap for a cooldown.

Any moment now, we're going to get the order to advance.

When we do, the next 15 minutes rushes by in a stew of shooting, moving and firing. We gain major ground quickly, taking the Yankee artillery. But then we head towards stalemate, hyphenated by my own frustration as I pinch musket caps to get them to fit on the Enfield's smaller nipple. Across from us stand a persistent line of Federals in red shirts, and they just aren't going down.

It takes twice as long for me to fire, but commanders are prodding us: "Load, boys, load!" My Captain sees me rushing to get loaded and slows me down. "Take your time," he says in a low voice. "Don't rush it." Maybe he sees me turning red again like yesterday. The only thing heating up is the gun barrel. The Springfield disperses heat very well. The Enfield is holding it in.

We push on. We fall back. The ranks grow ragged as we rush to form up.

"Dress this line!" I call, trying to help my brothers in arms keep in line.

"Somebody needs to take a hit!"

Comrades to the right and left of me go down on volleys, and we pull them back up again as we advance, recycling them back into the unit. Nobody wants to lie around and play dead in a battle this large and exciting. Do it right, and the crowds don't even know it. Still, about a dozen mock casualties litter the space between us and them. At least one whips out a pocket camera and covertly squeezes off a few frames around himself. A couple of men in period attire dart between the lines, huddled over small video cameras. Official souvenir DVD's will be out in a few weeks.

Pressing on after shooting off some 30 or so rounds, we drive the Federals back behind the tree line -- and they've left us some booty.

"Plunder that water supply!" our Colonel barks.

Cases of Nestle water bottles sit in the open, waiting to be devoured. We break ranks, grabbing and drinking as much as we can before falling back into line for the next order to advance.

In front of us, the cavalry units are charging and putting on a show, one barely visible to people in the bleachers. A few more lines advance, and then just as suddenly as it began, it's all over.

"That's it, boys, the Yankees are leaving," a commander says.

And so are the crowds. Whether it's the heat, or the mistaken feeling that most of the action has ended, the stands are emptying out quickly. But appreciation is everywhere. Journeying back to camp, and throughout the day, spectators stop us and thank us, asking groups of us to pose for a picture or two.

I am chilled out and walking in the clouds. At last, I got to be a part of the battle, and oh what a battle. We agree universally this was the better battle of the two, whereas yesterday the unit did a lot of standing around and waiting to move in on cue. Nobody cares that this skirmish didn't last as long. Every moment counted.

As soon as most visitors are gone, we start taking the camp apart. The sun emerges from behind the clouds, and we're glad it held off so long. Tents come down and go into the trailer as we sort through all our personal effects. Soldiers trade the wool pants and linen shirts for tees and shorts.

By 4:00, we're loaded up and moving out, exhausted and happy and planning a pizza party back at the hotel with a dip in the pool afterwards. Our Confederate ancestors never had it so good, which is humbling. We brought smiles to a lot of faces today, which is uplifting. We fulfilled our mission, which is inspiring.

"Officer in the camp!"

People jump to attention and salute as one of the lead generals stops by the breakfast area of the hotel, where we're wolfing down Costco's best Italian pies. He smiles and laughs at us in joyous admiration, praising us for stepping up to fill an urgent need.

"I would have liked to visit with you more," he says. "But as they say where I'm from, I was busier than a one-armed pickpocket at a county fair!"

We invite him to stay and break crust, but he and his wife are off to find the best authentic Southern food they can get, collared greens and all. Still, he has to proclaim his love for his Arizona gunslingers, who come so far and do so much.

In war, the history books teach one thing, but the soldiers remember another. It is hardly cinematic or comprehensive. Each battle is personal, focused not on the whole but on the instant. When it's all over, I don't remember the big picture -- the lines on the map with the arrows and circles pointing the direction of the troops and where they marched or retreated. I remember the lone Yankee who charged from the line in desperation to be picked off with one of our shots. I remember that solid walls of Federals in front of me that weren't moving anywhere. Memories of the rote and struggle of firing at will fix in my head. A taste of fear is in there somewhere, fear not of getting killed but of not keeping up, not looking good on the field. It's not nearly comparable to its mortal cousin, but it's still fear.

Unlike my younger compatriots, this news producer's body isn't in the best shape for battle. I gather one could say that about a few old Confederates. But the heart will compensate for many things and drive forward just like the lines pushing those Federals back.