Sunday, December 30, 2012

Yes, I Cried My Eyes Out -- Here, You Can Have My Man Card

Reel To Reel: Les Misérables

Going Rate: Worth full price admission... and then some
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Emotional and graphic depiction of poverty and prostitution, Ye olde musket violence, a few curse words

I remember somebody criticizing the Broadway production of Les Misérables for "making the poor look cute." Maybe this film version is what he had in mind: a gritty yet soaring, emotionally draining contemporary opera set in 19th-century France that reaches deep into the soul and does not let go. Bring Kleenex -- a lot of it.

Director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) turns the wildly successful stage production into a musical drama, where dialogue is sung in the manner it would be spoken. Eschewing the traditional movie-musical convention of recording the songs in a studio and lip-synching them in front of the camera, Hooper's cast sings in real time. This technique required each cast member to listen to a piano played off-camera through a hidden earpiece to keep them in key. However, instead of looking at a conductor to guide their pace, the actors set their own time, and the orchestra recorded the backing instrumentation later, matching the actors' rhythms. The product is highly passionate and yet nuanced as the actors are required to act as they sing and play to the camera instead of the back of the house.

You already know Victor Hugo's story: paroled prisoner Jean Valjean (Jackman) is transformed by a priest's act of mercy, driven to break parole and inspired to become a new person. He reinvents himself as a successful businessman and agrees to care for the daughter of Fantine (Hathaway), one of his factory workers forced into a life of prostitution after losing her job. The daughter, Cosette (Seyfried), lives as a neglected errand girl to a corrupt innkeeper (Cohen) and his wife, who provide the musical's sparse lighter moments. Getting the girl away from her deplorable life at the inn is easy compared to getting away from policeman Javert (Crowe) who is engaged in a duel of wills with his former prisoner. The story takes us through a doomed uprising among Paris' poor in which Valjean and Cosette will come to terms with life, love and purpose.

Another benefit of watching the cast sing in real time is that you know their voices are their own, eschewing another Hollywood musical tradition of replacing some singing voices. I saw this film with my Queen Mother and Royal Father, and we all kept a scorecard. Hathaway's Fantine stands out, notably her heartbreaking version of "I Dreamed A Dream." Seyfried also turns in a powerful performance. Crowe's singing works, but he seems a little flatter than the rest -- or maybe that's by design. The big surprise is Jackman's Valjean: he definitely can sing his way through a demanding role. I kept saying to myself, "This is Wolverine?"

Hooper moves the story along at lightning speed. Some songs have been shortened considerably or reworked. One new number appears, written by the show's original composers. I don't think you will have any problem with the changes, and if you do, the stage production is still out there. Making a movie musical is not as simple as filming a theatrical performance, although Hooper conceivably could've gone that route and people would've understood. This version pushes realism while preserving the power and spirituality of a work that has been astounding audiences for more than 25 years.

It is not hard to understand why this story speaks to so many of us. It deals with redemption, love and loss. In Jean Valjean's journey, we remember our GOD is a GOD of second, third, and fourth chances. We remember how GOD uses imperfect people to do HIS work in this world. We remember the servants we are called to be, giving of ourselves and forgiving as GOD forgives us. How can GOD love us so much when we continue to show such lack of love to others? Why does HE trust us with HIS creation when we abuse the gifts we are given?

For the benefit of your fellow moviegoers, please refrain from singing at the end. But don't refrain from the tears. GOD gave them to you for a reason, including films like this.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What A Long Strange Trip This Is Going To Be

Reel To Reel: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Going Rate: Worth full price admission for LOTR fans, matinee for everybody else
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis
Rated: PG-13 (but could pass for a straight PG)
Red Flags: Some scenes of intense fantasy battle violence, some of it gross, but nothing off the charts

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is epic fiction filmed epicly. At times, the prequel to the Lord Of The Rings saga plods, but it doesn't want to leave anything out. Peter Jackson is back at the helm as director, and he's found a way to split one book into three films. This first one clocks in at nearly three hours. I will confess I've never read The Hobbit, but at this pace, Jackson is not just filming every page; he's filming the margins.

Many of you reading this already know the plot: hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) is recruited to join the wizard Gandalf (McKellen), warrior Thorin (Armitage) and a band of dwarves to reclaim the kingdom of Erebor from a gold-hungry dragon that's seized upon the royal stockpile and run everyone out. Bilbo is living a middle-class life in the Shire: roomy hole in the ground with a nice library and lace handkerchiefs. After a wild party and a bit of self-reflection, Baggins decides it's time for an adventure with a group that could use someone small in stature to be their "burglar."

The film plays like a gigantic game of Dungeons and Dragons, full of episodes and battles and atmosphere to convince us the quest is no walk in the woods. We meet all sorts of monsters, creatures and characters, some of whom we know will be important later on, like the goblin Gollum (Serkis -- say it with me: "Dee Pwechiousss!"). The rest we might not have to remember, because they're not going to be around after this gargantuan first act.

I saw The Hobbit in much-debated high-frame-rate 3D, double the speed of standard motion pictures. Home theater geeks sometimes complain about the "soap-opera effect" caused by advanced-technology TV's that add in extra frames to smooth out motion but make Pirates Of The Caribbean look like an episode of The Young And The Restless. I found 48fps avoided that live-video look while still providing amazing clarity of J.R.R. Tolkien's universe perfected by Jackson and his digital wizards. They show much more wizardry than Gandalf, who uses his powers sparingly either because he prefers it that way or because he needs remedial education from Hogwarts -- or because we need to stretch the conflicts over three pictures.

Don't misunderstand: I liked the first Hobbit film. But you need to know it's not for the casual movie fan who may get sucked into it because of the hype. This is a film made for fanboys, and with millions of them around the world, Jackson has to deliver.

Friday, December 14, 2012

So What Did I Learn In The Past Year?

That's the question on my mind as I celebrate 41 years of growth. Here are the answers:

  • Don't get hung up in situations where you think you should be patching things up among other people because you think that's what GOD wants you to do. Move on with your life and let GOD work on it.
  • It's sad to see so many people look at high unemployment, low wages and crummy jobs and think to themselves, "Well, this is the new normal."  It's only normal if you allow it to be normal.  Otherwise, you need to make sure you're standing up for something better.
  • It doesn't matter who you voted for in the last election; Washington's biggest problem is egos.
  • You can never have enough kilts.
  • Those Coleman gas lamps are hot on top!
  • Marriage is still not in my future.
  • I don't know what's more annoying: candidate campaign robo-calls or debt collectors calling me looking for somebody else.
  • Thrift stores are my new favorites.  I used to think I was robbing from the poor by shopping at these places, but that's just not true.  You're finding a new home for goods people don't want anymore and cutting down on waste.  My favorite patriot, Ben Franklin, believed in frugality.  Why not me?  Why not all of us?

Saturday, December 1, 2012

It's On Like Donkey Kong

Reel To Reel: Wreck-It Ralph

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Video game violence (but nothing worse than what your kids are already playing) and mild potty-mouth jokes

Wreck-It Ralph is a loving tribute to classic video games, the kind I grew up with in the 1980's. Twice a year, Mom and Dad would take my brother and I and our friends to Showbiz Pizza Place for our birthdays, and we would feed the arcade machines as many quarters as my folks could afford. That was when coin-op gaming only cost a quarter, and the animated violence maxed out at Mario getting hit in the head with a barrel.

The movie's title character (Reilly) is the star villain of a video game modeled after Donkey Kong. Miffed that somebody moved his stump for an apartment building, he proceeds to wreck the place on every quarter. Players control the hero, Fix-It Felix Jr. (McBrayer) who climbs the floors and undoes the damage. Felix gets a medal at the end of each level while Ralph gets tossed to the ground by the grateful tenants and exiled to a nearby dump.

This has been going on for years and years, and the Fix-It Felix Jr. game is still taking quarters at the neighborhood arcade even as other games come and go. Such staying power would inspire pride in a lot of people, but not Ralph. The act's getting stale, and we see it in the beautifully executed opening minutes of the movie as he shares with a 12-step group for anonymous video game villains. Such a gathering happens in the style of Night At The Museum; when the arcade closes, the video game characters are free to leave their consoles and travel along the electrical wires to other games. They mingle inside a surge protector dubbed Game Central Station, a place where you'll see Sonic the Hedgehog reminding the characters that they can't regenerate if they die outside their game and Q*Bert begging for handouts after his machine was unplugged.

When the other characters of Ralph's game celebrate an anniversary without him, he understandably feels undervalued. Felix wouldn't have anything to fix in a game devoid of his presence. Ralph vows to win a medal, but knowing he can't do it in his game, he learns he can earn one down the wires in Hero's Mission, a first-person shooter commanded by Sergeant Calhoun (Lynch). Ralph sneaks in and grabs his medal, but his brief moment of triumph goes haywire when he accidentally launches himself and one of the game's virus-like baddies into a girly-girl racing game called Sugar Rush.

Inside a world that morphs Candy Land with Mario Kart, he meets aspiring Vanellope von Schweetz (Silverman). She sees Ralph's medal as her ticket out of a hopeless, glitchy life in a domain ruled by King Candy (Tudyk, with a voice that reminded me of the forgotten jack-in-the-box from "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer"). Meanwhile, Ralph's game is going haywire, and the entire arcade could go with it if Felix and Calhoun don't stop the creature that's multiplying under the streets of sweets.

Wreck-It Ralph is a family movie you're not shy about taking the kids to see. In fact, you secretly want to see it more than the kids. Or you'll just go yourself (like I did). It masterfully blends different games from different eras with plenty of in-jokes for the retro gamer while keeping the children interested. It also keeps its manic sequences -- those compulsory elements of CGI kid-flicks -- restrained and reasonable.

As I mentioned, different games' characters mingle throughout the film, which I'm sure kept Disney's legal department busy all through the development cycle. Retro-gaming has gotten a nice slice of shelf space over the past few years, and Ralph will surely help it. I'd like to see the original Pac-Man and Donkey Kong back in arcades. I can only fathom so many flavors of Mortal Kombat or Doom.

What's more, I find Wreck-It Ralph has more of a heart than previous Disney CGI animation titles, and it's no surprise why: Pixar alum John Lasseter is executive producer, someone who knows how to make these films work on multiple levels with honest emotions and characters we care about.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Reel To Reel: Skyfall

License to kill renewed.

Going Rate: Worth full price
Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Intense action scenes, explosions, mild language, some brief mild sex

The newest James Bond movie isn't so much another sequel as it is a reboot of the world's most famous spy series, but it doesn't become obvious until the film's closing minutes, when we realize what appeared to be a new chapter is actually a revision. In the process, it makes Bond a lot more human. To my relief, 007 also finds his wit again. He also gets the girls, although Daniel Craig's version is noticeably less obsessed with sex.

Skyfall opens with Bond in a monster of an action sequence to recover a stolen hard drive containing the true identities of several undercover agents. He's battling a baddie atop a moving train when M (Dench) orders Bond's fellow agent (Harris) to "take the bloody shot" from a long-range rifle and end it. She misses.

Bond vanishes, wounded but not dead, reminiscent of You Only Live Twice. While he's out boozing and healing and cavorting with the natives of some ocean paradise, MI6 is in upheaval. M is facing early retirement because of the hard drive theft. What's worse, the movie's proverbial Bond villain hacks into the service's computers and engineers a previously unthinkable act of terrorism.

M needs 007, but he's not quite back in the game. His aim is shaky and he's still carrying around shards of shrapnel in his chest from his last day on the job -- not quite the neatly invincible Bond we all know. With help from the colleague who nearly killed him, he tracks down master cyberterrorist Silva (Bardem), a former agent gone rogue with a face that's supposed to remind us of Julian Assange. Silva is no caricature heavy. Within him is a twisted genius that's more Hannibal Lecter than Dr. Evil, although I always wonder who bankrolls these Bond villains, and how they always manage to get so many toys.

About the toys: Q is back, in the form of a mildly annoying nerd (Ben Whishaw), but don't expect any massively innovative new gadgets. As Q points out, they don't make exploding pens. Bond's Aston Martin from Goldfinger also makes a guest appearance.

We also get a deeper glimpse into Bond's past as he returns to his boyhood home, Skyfall. Not surprisingly, it's a moldy, broken-down estate, much like Bond himself at this point, in need of remodeling. Nothing we can't solve with explosives.

I like how Skyfall embraces Bond's legacy while plugging into the world as we know it. Bond doesn't take on Russians or megalomaniac super-criminals anymore, nor should he, and this film makes it clear that those days are over. I also am relieved this film is not trying to remake 007 as a Jason Bourne clone, as was hinted in Casino Royale. (I skipped Quantum Of Solace, and I gather I won't regret it.)

Admittedly, Sean Connery's Bond remains my favorite. But I can learn to like Daniel Craig's version. Really, I can.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Reel To Reel: Argo

The real "Mission: Impossible."

Going Rate: Worth full price
Starring: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Alan Arkin
Rated: R (but really could pass for PG-13)
Red Flags: Protest violence, language

At 8 years old, I was too young to fully understand the magnitude of the 1979-1980 Iran hostage crisis. I don't remember the iconic images of the captured Americans paraded around with blindfolds on. I barely remember my elementary school peers talking about it.

"What if the shah comes back?"

"Oh, they'll kill him if he comes back."

But I do remember the Ayatollah Khomeni. And I remember the yellow ribbons on the trees, on billboards, on windows, everywhere. The hostage crisis doomed President Carter's chances of re-election and gave President Reagan political capital to re-arm America. I have no doubt he would've bombed Iran if the standoff continued into his presidency. Tehran would have looked more like the Willcox Playa.

Nearly lost in the upheaval was a miracle: six American diplomats rescued from Tehran through an ingenious plan that required the cooperation of the CIA, the U.S. State Department, and the Canadian government. Argo is the story of how it came together, and although the movie takes copious dramatic liberties with the story, it plays like a caper film crossed with a spy thriller.

Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA "exfiltration" specialist who is brought in to advise on the increasingly hopeless mission of getting the six escapees from the American Embassy to the airport and out of Iran. They're hiding at the Canadian Ambassador's residence, and the clock is running. The revolutionaries are slowly deducing a few embassy employees are unaccounted for, ones they need for leverage, torture, or whatever.

Mendez is a quiet, analytical spook with a sense of responsibility and connections. The State Department kicks around several implausible cover stories for getting the six out -- like posing them as teachers or agricultural workers -- but he doesn't have any better ideas until he catches Planet Of The Apes on TV. Why not have the six pose as a film crew?

Mendez hooks up with an old Hollywood pal, monster makeup artist John Chambers (Goodman, perfectly cast), who's designed CIA disguises before. But this time, the government needs an entire film. Chambers leads him to director Lester Siegel (Arkin), who declares that even if he's making a fake film, he's gonna make a good one. The team settles on "Argo," a script for a Star Wars fantasy knock-off that has a middle-eastern vibe.

Watching Mendez and company set the film up is nearly as interesting as watching them pull off the ruse. We get a taste of Hollywood-insider dealing and press baiting. We also get to watch Mendez drop a cover on six government employees who have never done intelligence work and see if they can avoid blowing their cover, especially when they go out into a crowded bazaar for a location scout. We don't see a lot of shoot-em-up action. The film is content to work on us psychologically.

Argo, which Affleck also directed, doesn't throw a lot of personal sidebars at us. We know Mendez is living apart from his wife and son, and we learn a little about the six escapees, but nothing more. The film isn't interested in their lives as much as their anxiety over possibly losing them. It's simply too much information in the way of the mission, and the movie smartly avoids it.

As I mentioned, the real story of the so-called "Canadian Caper" is less dramatic than Argo portrays it, according to the Wired magazine article that inspired the script. The real story is of governments and agents making numerous secret moves to pave the way for the escape, which happens a lot easier than it should. The film adds a lot more tension and narrow escapes. But hey, if you're gonna make a movie about faking a movie, might as well go all the way.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Reel To Reel: Trouble With The Curve

"What a drag it is getting old." --The Rolling Stones

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Language, references to sex

I don't buy into conspiracy theories, but part of me believes Clint Eastwood's now-famous empty-chair interview at the Republican National Convention was stealth marketing for this film, which just happens to feature Eastwood as a grumpy old man similar to the gritty old pol we saw on stage. I thought Gran Torino might be his last film in front of the camera. I'm glad it wasn't.

Eastwood plays Gus, a baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves who refuses to believe it's time to retire. His vision is going, and he can barely get around without tripping over something. Those dents on the car are not his fault; the garage shrunk on him. His bosses, including longtime buddy Pete (Goodman), aren't sure he can handle a blockbuster assignment: scouting a high-school slugger in the Carolinas who's supposedly the baseball equivalent of LeBron James. It becomes clear this may be Gus' last assignment.

He's mildly estranged from his daughter Mickey (Adams), a workaholic lawyer aiming to make partnership with a presentation on a big case. Gus' stubbornness maddens her, and she carries a grudge for Dad sending her away after the death of her mother. Still, she can't help but feel a responsibility towards him. Prodded on by Pete (Goodman), Gus' longtime boss and friend, Mickey heads off to join her father on the scouting trip to make sure he comes back alive, at least.

Trouble With The Curve would be fine as a father-daughter baseball movie. But no, we get a tacked-on romantic subplot featuring Johnny (Timberlake), one of Gus' scouting buddies who's got his eye on Mickey. The two bond over baseball stats, which I find a little puzzling given Mickey's frazzled relationship with her father. What do I know: Mickey's talents as a lawyer likely give her the power to process reams of information in ways I haven't considered. Timberlake's character seems to be along for the ride, pushed in Mickey's direction because somebody thought this film needed another plot hook.

Eastwood, on the other hand, has still got it. He's grizzled and a bit slower but still a compelling screen figure. I wanted this film to be about rebuilding a relationship, and baseball lends itself nicely to allegory in so many things. But at the end of the day, it comes down to studio heads knitting their fingers about younger audiences, and a call goes out to Timberlake's people. I really hope this isn't Eastwood's last-last picture on screen. I also hope some suit realizes old guys still rule.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Reel To Reel: Lawless

White lightning and dark dealings.

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain
Rated: R (borderline NC-17)
Red Flags: Intense, graphic bursts of violence, nudity and sensuality and strong language. This film is R for a reason, and it tests the limits of that rating.

In the Great Depression of the 1930's, only one business seems to thrive: bootlegging. And in the mountains of my beloved state of Virginia, moonshiners are cranking out product as fast as they can move it. Lawless focuses on Franklin County, Virginia in 1931, where the 'shine business rules. If you aren't making it, you're buying it, or you know somebody who does.

The Bondurant brothers are the biggest name in the trade, propped up by a legend of near-immortality. They've survived Spanish Flu and whatever else tries to take them out. Forrest (Hardy) runs the business side out of a gas station with a laconic, barely-coherent mumble and brass knuckles when necessary, which is often. Older brother Howard (Clarke) provides more muscle, and kid brother Jack (LaBeouf) is the lookout full of ideas who's begging to get in on more of the action.

Although the Bondurants pay off the local sheriff's deputies, they can't stop corrupt Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Pearce), who wants a cut for the Franklin County D.A. Rakes comes all the way from Chicago, and the obvious question is why a Virginia lawman would need to look that far, given the ruthlessness we see among Virginia's moonshining mountain men. Then we see our answer: it's impossible to find sharp-dressed, sadistic thugs in Virginia to do your bidding with hankerchiefs and white gloves. Fellow critic Roger Ebert describes Rakes as "foppish," a form of that word usually reserved for garishly-dressed 18th Century men, and I can't describe him any better than that.

Rakes doesn't seem to understand he's messing with the wrong people. Bullying the brothers just makes them tougher. Forrest survives a throat-slashing at the gas station's restaurant when two men harass Maggie (Chastain), a dancer from Chicago who's now working as a waitress after wanting to get away from big-city life.

Jack, frustrated with Forrest's lack of business development, takes a big risk and sets up a deal with gangsters to bring in more money. Combined with his ideas to improve the operation, the brothers haul in piles of cash. Jack seems to have most of it, and he spends it on fast cars and fancy clothes, looking like some misplaced mobster. He hopes he can woo the heart of Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), an Amish girl -- although the film never uses the word "Amish" -- under the tight leash of her father. The film gives us a rare look inside an Amish church service, and an even rarer look at what happens when a drunk man, Jack, stumbles into one.

The sacrilege is the tamest of the film's squirmy moments. You'll have to endure bloody fisticuffs, slashing, mutilations, hints of rape and gunfights peppered with salty language along with shock nudity. I won't blame you if you walk out. Really.

Lawless is dark, brutal and profane because of its source material. The film is based on the novel The Wettest County In The World by Matt Bondurant, who based it upon the moonshiner operations of his grandfather and great uncles in Virginia. Even though he's had his own experience with 'shine, he still ran into trouble obtaining the facts to bolster his fiction. Decades after prohibition, people are still reluctant to talk about the business. That has me wondering: is moonshining really just about illegal liquor, or as this movie suggests, all the corruption surrounding it?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Highlands In The Desert

The dance was intended to be informal and casual. Shorts were welcome. So were kilts. We couldn't help but make it something more. Once again, We Make History.

I've been a Stewart and a Cameron, but tonight, I'm a Campbell. My kilt announces it in deep hues of green, half-covered by my long linen 1740's weskit, also properly green. I finish it off with a Jacobite shirt, kilt hose and blue bonnet – with the white cockade, of course. If anybody asks what a Campbell is doing wearing a Jacobite bonnet, I can always say I'm a turncoat. If anybody asks why the kilt falls below my knees, I can say I'm honouring THE LORD with my modesty.

I miss Flagstaff this time of year. The green of the late summer and the cool among the pines leaves me wistful. The clans come together outside the great hall in celebration, everyone in tartans and gowns, smiles wide among faces. But now they're dressed up as if we were in the Highlands once again, in their gowns and kilts and bonnets as they enter the small Tucson ballroom.

“Does this go over the left or right shoulder?” a lady asks me as she ponders how to proper tartan sash over an 1800's hoopskirt.

“Any way you choose, my lady,” I respond. “But I usually wear it over the left shoulder.”

Clan Tucson is back. They are unmistakable in their brown and black tartans, honouring their desert heritage.

“We sewed this last night,” one member tells me, showing off his new, properly-pleated desert kilt. I hear several sewing machine needles snapped in the process, but the fruits of the labour are well tailored.

Our dance master, spirited yet casual, calls us to form sets and we are soon are bowing and curtsying to each other without any casual thoughts. We shall be sticking to the spirited reels this evening, accompanied by a virtual orchestra. It seems at least 30 or 40 people are here, and nearly every one is cavorting in merriment.

“In English dance, we glide,” a dancing master once told me, “but in Scottish we fly.” Indeed, many of the young lads and lasses are flying as they chasse and whirl around. Some – like your humble servant – prefer joyous yet elegant affectations, raising our hands and heads high as we turn. Somebody might well accuse us of being English spies.

Such flying requires refueling. The lads and lasses pause between dances to refresh themselves with cookies, tea, and copious cold water before it's time for a mid-diversion diversion. Dance 'em, Danno. In a growing tradition, we transition from the Highlands to Hawaii in a surf-rock version of the famous We Make History Pineapple Dance, with a medley featuring the theme from Hawaii Five-O.

You pass a pineapple to one person besides you, and then chasse off with the other. The rules are simple, but the variations are unlimited. Several people toss to others in line and charge in threes. Some people scamper away. Some lads dare to pass over the lasses and chasse off with each other. (That might be a cause for a duel, but that is another treatise.) But in the end, the person with the pineapple when the music stops wins the fruit of victory and likely a few juice concoctions down the line.

During a waltz, a highland lass generously shows your humble servant a box step. My feet have a hard time learning new things.

“You're doing it!” she cries, even though they still want to two-step at times, still clung to their Texas ways.

Later, she finds me again, hoping I wasn't embarrassed by the dancing lesson.

“No, not at all,” I tell her. It took a long time for me to learn a Scottish skip-change step, I explain, as I take up true Scottish Country Dancing. I show her, skipping on my right and left feet around the hall. She follows my lead.

“There's also a strathspey,” I explain, “which is a slowed-down skip-change with a hop.” I demonstrate: left step, close, left step, hop and swing the right through. Right step, close, right step, close, right step, swing the left through with a hop. My Scottish dancing masters would give me grief because my feet aren't pointing in a “T.” At times, I dance like the only boy in the ballet class. Not my dear lass, who follows after me.

A lad observes at us and wishes to learn it. I seize upon an idea.

“Take hands, and we'll do it together,” I say. The three of us improvise a sort of strathspey minuet across the room, Scottish meeting English... or French.

As the evening progresses, it's obvious. This is the Highland Ball we love, just a little smaller and sandier. That doesn't change our hearts' desires. Why be casual when we can kilt up and celebrate? Not that we disparage anybody who doesn't, but the freedom to be fancy is there for those who want.

Rife with afterglow, we descend upon a pizza parlour up the street late on the Friday evening. Humongous slices of Italian pie satisfy our cravings. With the establishment nearly to ourselves, we zestily dance in the aisles to the rhythms of the disco age. Clan Tucson dances the Breakdown... and then the Can-Can.

We are family, of good times, staying alive to the night fever because we should be dancing, yeah...

And you should be dancing, too. Check out We Make History for more about their Casual Dance Series -- and many other good historical offerings!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Reel To Reel: 2016 Obama's America

Fahrenheit 2012?

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Dinesh D'Souza
Rated: PG (but could pass for G)
Red Flags: Nothing beyond what you see on TV news, so the PG rating is a mystery

I don't have an equal-time policy for movie reviews. Still, since I reviewed Fahrenheit 911 in 2004, I figured I at least owed it to myself to take on an election-year documentary with a conservative perspective.

First, let me put some transparency on the table. I consider myself an independent, mainly because I dislike both the Republican and Democratic parties. To be sure, I'm not a fan of political parties in general. As I have said before, George Washington didn't like them, didn't think they were good for America. We should've listened to him. If you had to peg me politically, I would call myself a moderate, nearly dead center, but leaning conservative. That's where puts me.

Despite the title, most of conservative writer Dinesh D'Souza's doc devotes itself to an examination of President Obama's beliefs and what formed them. Less than 10 percent of the film is devoted to predictions. D'Souza narrates the movie not as a raving partisan or GOP mouthpiece but as somebody who wants to understand how Barack Obama thinks. His thesis: Obama's ideology comes from his dislike of colonialism, having grown up in Kenya, which threw off British rule, and Hawaii, where some still resent annexation by the United States.

D'Souza journeys -- literally -- through Obama's upbringing and family, traveling around the world to talk to people who knew him, even borrowing the president's own voice from the audiobook version of Dreams From My Father. It's methodical and heartfelt as D'Souza explores the foundations of the president's leanings. D'Souza doesn't stage Michael Moore-style joke sequences. If anything, the doc plays like a political travelogue, where you're walking with D'Souza as he pursues his gnawing curiosities as a conservative intellectual.

Smartly, it doesn't bite on hot-button issues we've heard too much about. The picture quietly dismisses questions about Obama's birth country. It mentions mentors Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright, but comes at them from a different perspective. And D'Souza steers clear of divisive ideological foghorns, choosing to interview comparatively quiet conservative intellectuals.

Making a movie like this is challenging from a illustrative perspective. When not taking us to lands far and away, one can only license or borrow so much news footage, show so many shots of Washington, and splice in so many soundbites. D'Souza and co-director John Sullivan make the interesting choice to stage or re-create a few visuals. That's not something we're allowed to do in the news business, but it's not off-limits in documentaries, and the way it's done is mostly tame.

2016 may change a few minds at the ballot box. It may also change a few minds about conservatives in general. As I write this, the picture is doing much better than expected at the box office for a documentary, especially one with no star power behind it. Perhaps it's because it doesn't preach or pound the table. Given the waves of negative ads we're seeing in this presidential campaign, that's refreshing for a lot of people.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Reel To Reel: The Bourne Legacy

Somebody get this man a compounding pharmacy!

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Stacy Keach
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Action violence, language

Universal Pictures thinks there's enough in the tank for a fourth Bourne picture, with or without Matt Damon. It's certainly doable, given the infrastructure created by Robert Ludlum's books. But a Bourne movie without Bourne like a James Bond film without James Bond, or George Lazemby as 007, and we saw how that turned out.

No matter. It turns out the super-secret assassin operation known as Treadstone has churned out several dark operatives, including Aaron Cross (Renner). When we meet him, he's in survival training and on some sort of meds -- this combination of green and blue pills he calls "chems," which do something to enhance his skills. We're never sure what. He's no Jason Bourne, but he's getting there. What he does to a wolf will remind you of what it's like to give a dog heartworm medication.

Halfway around the world, the spook bosses are nervous and cloistered in dimly-lit rooms because they're losing institutional control. People on the outside are talking -- and they can read it in their wiretaps -- about Bourne and Treadstone and all these things that probably aren't legal, much less Constitutional. They decide to shut things down, which in super-spook parlance means killing a lot of people, including Cross.

Out in the snowy abyss, Cross is running low on pills-- excuse me, chems. It turns out they come from this government pharmacological enterprise where one scientist doesn't know what the other is doing. Every so often, Dr. Marta Shearing (Weisz) draws blood work on spooks, presumably to examine the effects of said chems. She's unaware of how deep she's in the swamp until an outburst of violence at the lab ultimately leads Cross her way. His bosses are running him down, and he's still looking for pills.

All through the film, we see ghosts of Bourne. He's mentioned here, he's there, they're talking about him on MSNBC. It's almost as if the film wished it had Matt Damon again.

The Bourne Legacy left me scratching my head at how a group of intelligence chiefs could have so much information and yet be so clueless. I kept wondering when somebody in the room full of monitors, computers and phones would speak up and say, "Hey, shouldn't we maybe just lay off this guy for awhile and catch him off guard?" But movie spooks don't think that way. Neither do action movies.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Reel To Reel: The Dark Knight Rises

If this is the 99 percent, I'd rather be in the minority.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Matthew Modine
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Action violence

I wonder what would happen if the French Revolution broke out in 2012 New York City, perhaps if Occupy Wall Street acquired some super-criminal who trapped the cops and built a nuke and threw everybody in Manhattan making above five figures into the street. I think it would look at lot like The Dark Knight Rises, the satisfying end to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. If not for the opening-night massacre in Colorado, we'd be talking about how this film is anti-Occupy and right-wing friendly. That's even despite the best efforts of a certain radio talk show host to draw a connection between the arch-villain and one of Mitt Romney's old jobs, somehow inferring the left will use it to their advantage. Enough, already.

Batman is in bat-retirement as the threequel opens, blamed for the death of beloved DA Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne (Bale) is living more like Howard Hughes. He's secluded in his stately manor outside Gotham, which still looks a lot like Chicago. Dent's legacy is anti-racketeering laws which have cleaned up the city and left the police, I presume, with little more to do than chase the routine thugs, murderers and thieves. They don't need a superhero anymore, especially not "The Batman."

However, nobody's been checking the sewers, where a criminal mastermind named Bane (Hardy) is building an army out of various low-paid cretins, who may or may not be construction workers. Bane is what you get when you cross Darth Vader with Hannibal Lecter: a highly-educated, highly-sophisticated maniac with a voice that should be advertising Bose speaker systems. He's got a scientist in his pocket and a plan to use Gotham as a lab for a class war that really is a war. He's also got a girl: Selina (Hathaway), aka Catwoman, who's making a living robbing the rich like Wayne and forgiving herself under the guise, "A girl's gotta eat."

Wayne catches Selina stealing his mother's necklace, but he sees it's a ruse for something much bigger. So does Commissioner Gordon, hospitalized by an injury in the line of duty, who's carrying the weight of the truth about what happened between Batman and Dent but afraid to tell because bigger things are at stake. He knows he needs Batman, but can Gotham's Finest handle the truth? As Wayne mulls whether to put the dark suit back on, he's prodded this way and that by his two stalwarts: genius inventor Lucius Fox (Freeman) and faithful servant Alfred (Caine, in an emotional performance). We also see a prototypical Good Cop, Foley (Modine), someone who isn't afraid of a guy in a bat-suit.

It turns out Batman and Bane are cut from the same cloth as superheroes go. What's fascinating is that they lack any super-powers. Bane needs a mask to breathe. Wayne can barely stand without a cane. Much of the movie involves his physical rehabilitation after Bane leaves him to suffer in a middle eastern prison.

And oh man, what toys they have. The Bat-cycle returns along with an aerial assault vehicle that makes Blue Thunder look like Those Daring Young Men In Their Flying Machines. Bane's got a fusion nuclear device and a whole lot of explosives which allow him to blow up the stock market, put Gotham under siege during a football game, and unleash his version of the 99 percent to wreak havoc upon the upper class. Who needs a guillotine when you can force those unrepentant filthy rich to go walk across thin ice and watch them fall in? They've probably heard that old Mel Brooks joke, "Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die!"

Most of the action in The Dark Knight Rises is cerebral, playing upon nuances and hints to let our brains fill in details while the film charges ahead. But director Christopher Nolan goes all-in for the finish, building mass heroism on top of nightmarish terrorism. My takeaway from this film, however, is a warning about populist movements and class struggles, and how they can be used by corrupt forces looking to amass power. I don't think Occupy Wall Street would line up behind Bane, but sometimes, I'm not so sure.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Reel To Reel: The Amazing Spider Man

Caught in a web of growing up.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Action violence

Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. He wasn't talking about Hollywood reboots, but I figured it odd when Columbia Pictures opted to restart the Spider-Man franchise when plans for Spider-Man 4 fell through. Only this time, instead of a straight comic-book actioner, we get a superhero coming-of-age film that seems to borrow from the Twilight and Harry Potter flicks.

The new Spider-Man is rebellious and conflicted, but it's also focused. It reworks or abandons key parts of the story we already know. Peter Parker/Spidey (Garfield) still takes pictures, but he's not gigging for the "Daily Bugle." Mary Jane is out of the picture, replaced with Gwen Stacy (Stone). The Green Goblin has been rejiggered into another green baddie. Fortunately, it leaves one ingredient alone: Parker's status as a nerd shutterbug who can't get a girl.

We get to see more of what happened before Parker became the webbed one. The film starts with a desperate hand-off of the young boy to his Aunt May (Field) and Uncle Ben (Sheen). Fast forward to Parker's teenage years, where he's bullied for standing up to the school bully Flash (Chris Zylka) and mentored by his uncle. The opening 15 minutes reminded me a lot of the original Superman, when a teenage Clark Kent was struggling with an identity crisis and a family he didn't really know.

Parker learns his father was involved in some kind of cross-species genetic testing, which prods him to sneak into Dad's old laboratory. It's located inside Oscorp, a multinational behemoth that makes, well, a lot of stuff and has a really cool building to show for it in Manhattan. While poking around inside Oscorp, Parker gets a little too close to some genetically-diddled spiders, and you probably know the rest.

We see several great sequences of Parker learning to cope with his Spidey superpowers, although he is not pushed towards the red spandex look we're familiar with until his beloved Uncle Ben falls victim to a punk armed robber. At the same time, he's trying to help finish the work his father began, befriending Dad's old lab partner, Dr. Curt Connors (Ifans), who is about to embark on a disastrous experiment. And yes, he's going after Gwen in an awkward way.

If Tobey Maguire was a vulnerable, innocent Peter Parker, Garfield is more James Dean than Peter Parker. At times, The Amazing Spider-Man seems like it belongs on the CW's primetime schedule than on the big screen. It's heavy on teen love, angst and romance, so much so that it rushes other plot points, notably Parker's life-changing encounter with the spider. A final showdown contains a plot device that looks like it got there because the writers -- including Spider-Man veteran Alvin Sargent and Harry Potter scribe Steve Kloves -- couldn't think up anything better.

When Warner Bros. rebooted the Batman series, it took on new maturity and depth. The new Spider-Man doesn't rise to that level, but it's at least willing to try to evolve beyond a run-of-the-mill comic-book movie.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Reel To Reel: Brave

A brave heart demands freedom!

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Voices of Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Kevin McKidd, Robbie Coltrane
Rated: PG (too intense for the wee ones)
Red Flags: A few brief bare unkilted bums, some scary scenes

Some full disclosure: I love wearing kilts. I love Scottish culture, primarily the dancing. So now you know that I am going into Brave with warm predispositions. But lose the plaids and the Highland airs, and Brave is fairy tale mashed up with a teen angst flick. It works because it's colorful and heartfelt, not because it breaks any new ground. Some people demand Pixar be smarter than competing CGI animation studios; I'm not one of them.

Princess Merida (Macdonald) would rather be a tomboy in flaming red locks than a heir to the throne. While her mother Queen Elinor (Thompson) hectors and natters her on how a proper princess should behave, she longs to dart out into the glens and bullseye targets with her bow and arrow. Her father Fergus (Connolly) is an oaf who rests on the laurels of his showdown with the bear that took part of his leg. Even though he gave Merida her first bow, he's not much of a presence in her life. Her three kid brothers are too busy stealing desserts.

Queen Elinor is micromanaging her daughter's betrothal, as is tradition, to the first-born from one of three bickering clans, led by Lord MacGuffin (McKidd), Lord Dingwall (Coltrane), and Lord Macintosh (Ferguson). I'll wager you that last clan was named in honor of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who bought Pixar from founder George Lucas and receives a dedication at the end. None of the three suitors is particularly dashing, but you know kids these days.

Merida, realizing she is also first-born of her clan, decides to upend everything by becoming one of the competitors in an archery competition for her hand. She's a great shot but a lousy diplomat. Queen Mum is incensed, and Merida wants to just get away from it all. Escaping into the woods once more, she comes across a witch (Walters) who offers her a spell to change Mum's disposition, but it comes with a huge side effect.

Brave is that kind of movie that mothers and young daughters will want to watch together. Most families don't do arranged marriages anymore, but you can substitute any number of issues that drive a wedge between mother and child: driving, dating, make-up, clothes, boyfriends, money. Then there's that familiar refrain: "Mom, you never listen to me!" I'm sure a few families will find some uncomfortable moments watching art imitate family life, but as I have seen with Fireproof and Courageous, a great movie will spur us to examine our lives outside the theater.

Another advisory for parents: the PG rating is no joke. Pixar pushes some lines with animated brief bare bottoms, but it also contains some scary scenes involving bears which are definitely not for young children. The maturity level of your kids will vary, so I am not going to give a guideline age.

Pixar overhauled its animation system for Brave, and you see it in the beauty of the Scottish Highlands. It is lovingly faithful to its Celtic roots, including many jigs and reels in the soundtrack. I am hoping Brave reignites interest in all things Scottish just as Braveheart did many years ago. All right, I'll admit it: anything that gets more men wearing kilts can't be all bad.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Reel To Reel: Prometheus

In space, nobody can hear you say, "Don't go there!"

Going Rate: Worth matinee price admission in 3D
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Logan Marshall-Green
Rated: R
Red Flags: Gross aliens, gross alien violence, mild language

Prometheus is a prequel to Alien, the 1979 sci-fi classic that effectively blended horror and science fiction. But as my Queen Mother points out, knowing it's a prequel dilutes its effectiveness. Indeed, Prometheus feels like an Alien remake at times. Both films even come from the same director, Ridley Scott. So why see this movie? It's nice to see the same director remixing his own material.

The film follows a team of explorers led by Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace) and Peter Weyland (Pearce) on a journey to a distant planet to find a lifeform supposedly connected to early civilizations on Earth. There goes that theory of evolution. They wake up from a long hibernation and get down to the grunt work of exploring a desolate rock with an unbreathable atmosphere. Their commanders, more or less, are starchy corporate liason Meredith (Theron) and a souless android David (Fassbender). The Royal Father noted David reminded him of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I kept expecting David to unplug somebody's sleep chamber.

Now on a wasteland of a planet, you can expect whatever these explorers find to be up to no good. This alien race has somehow created its own sustainable atmosphere, but it has run into something that has also killed it off. None of this seems to matter much to Shaw, who's consumed with answering that basic question: "Where did we come from?" She wears a cross around her next, so I gather she knows part of the answer. But she wants to know more.

The team she leads runs into trouble as they walk deeper into an underground shaft. The alien race they find has left them warnings and clues, but are they hostile or friendly? I dunno, what do you think?

Prometheus wants to be broader than just another sci-fi action horror film where aliens eat people. Yes, they do that here. I can also tell you we see an alien come out from somebody's stomach, but at least the way it's handled here is a bit more creative. The film makes a stab at questions of faith and creation, but it doesn't spend much time on them. It also doesn't spend much time on charazterization, either, beyond Shaw, Weyland, and their two supervisors. We know Shaw's faith and tenatiousness drive her forward. Still, when ghouly aliens are killing your crew off, shouldn't your overriding desire be getting the heck off the planet?

The movie is scary and gross in the places I expected it to be, although I still had a few seat-jumping moments. "Definitely not for children," as my Queen Mother observed. It works well in 3D, with copious holographic computer display images. It would work even better if the film seemed fresher, but stale it's not.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Reel To Reel: For Greater Glory

Praise the LORD and pass the ammo.

Going Rate: Worth matinee price.
Starring: Andy Garcia, Eva Longoria, Peter O'Toole
Rated: R
Red Flags: Intense war violence, including multiple hangings and atrocities against children

I wonder what a director like Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez would have done with this story of Mexico's Cristero War, an uprising against institutionalized Catholic persecution that claimed more than 90,000 lives and led to a wave of immigration into the U.S. back when nobody was talking about border fences. The conflict has the elements of a neo-Spaghetti Western: bloody violence and ambiguous morality. This production, which was largely funded by the Knights of Columbus, is more of a tribute film to the Cristeros which pulls emotional strings without giving us enough emotional base.

The movie picks up the story in 1926, when Mexican president and atheist Plutarco Elías Calles (Rubén Blades) institutes several laws to curb the Catholic Church's power. The "Calles Laws," as they're called, forbid priests from wearing religious garments in public, expel foreign clergy, and close Catholic schools. We get no background on why Mexico is taking this drastic step. We're barely told of the anti-Church sentiment stemming from the 1910 Mexican Revolution. The film omits a critical point for understanding it: Church-backed counterrevolutionary Victoriano Huerta overthrew and executed President Francisco Madero after the revolution. As I have told people in my re-enacting pursuits, history is complicated.

While we're trying to figure out why Mexico's government is acting like a secular Taliban, it starts laying emotional pipe. We meet José (Mauricio Kuri), a rascally boy pushed into serving Father Christopher (O'Toole) after playing a practical joke on him. The lovable old padre thinks Joselito will make a good altar boy, if the Federales don't shut his church down and kill him first -- which they do. Non-violent resistance against the Calles Laws fails, and another revolution erupts as Catholics are drawn to war in the face of seeing clergy and parishioners harassed and killed.

Shift to Enrique Gorostieta (Garcia), a secular retired general now running a soap factory. The Cristero forces need his expertise for organization and tactics. Going back to war -- especially for the Catholic cause -- doesn't particularly interest him, but a good paycheck helps. The new jefe insists on fighting with honor. Try selling that one to bands of guerrilla banditos who don't need no stinkin' badges.

The film nearly forgets about José until it needs more dramatic pull. He runs off to join the rebels and ends up under the general's wing. This is when the film starts finding some velocity. Gorostieta gets a few victories and wins respect from a reluctant bandito leader. And somehow, he starts drawing closer to GOD. Behind the scenes, U.S.-Mexican relations get a discussion over breakfast and adult beverages as American ambassador Dwight Morrow (Bruce Greenwood) is more interested in protecting U.S. oil interests than ending a conflict he's clueless about.

For Greater Glory's problem is that it displays too many tendencies of a propaganda film: distilling the conflict down into a straight morality play. The film does devote one brief scene to a Cristero atrocity of burning innocent civilians on a train, but it also leaves out the assassination of Mexican President-elect Álvaro Obregón by a Catholic radical, who was set to become President Calles successor.

The film works when it sticks to the innocence of José and the religious epiphany of Gorostieta. It really works when its characters try to understand where GOD is in any of this. My favorite sequence shows a rebel leader -- who is also a priest -- explaining to the general why bad things happen to good people. Hollywood doesn't do well in explaining that. But this film wasn't made in Hollywood; hecho en Mexico.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Reel To Reel: Men In Black 3

Still hunting the original illegal aliens.

Going Rate: Worth matinee price.
Starring: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Jemaine Clement, Emma Thompson
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Creepy alien violence, mild language, one gross make-out scene

Men In Black debuted in 1997, made a forgettable sequel in 2002, and now comes back with another go in 2012. Columbia Pictures and Amblin Entertainment (Steven Spielberg is executive producer) still see life in a stale franchise. Perhaps it's time to throw the reins to a new generation of space cops.

MIB3 does that, sorta, by prequeling while sequeling. Agents K (Jones) and J (Smith) are still chasing extraterrestrial baddies and erasing memories, but now J is having to do that in two different centuries. It turns out an alien super criminal, Boris "The Animal" (Clement), has just busted out of the supermax lockup on the moon. You could call him the original Spider-Man because he releases these insect-like creatures from the palm of his hand. I'd tell you more if it didn't make me nauseous.

Boris wants to kill K, who not only locked him up but also shot off one of his arms. Worse, Boris wants to do it retroactively -- time-traveling back to 1969, when they first tangled, but offing K before the agent can cuff him. The killer finds a way to do it, and suddenly J finds his partner is reduced to a memorial bust. Worse, the "ArcNet," an Earth-protecting shield, is gone. That was also K's idea.

So now J must get back to 1960's, save his partner, and save Earth from invasion. Remember that the next time you complain about your job. After going way back, he runs into a younger version of his partner, played perfectly by Josh Brolin. I wondered whether CGI, makeup effects, or dubbing enhanced Brolin's younger K. Nope, it's just good old-fashioned casting and performance. He mimics Jones to the letter.

I like how MIB3 moves along before it has a chance to get boring, although Smith's character wore me a bit thin at times. The film also throws another genuinely interesting creature at us, Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), the lone survivor of an alien race who can see multiple future events at the same time. I'm not sure if he's somebody you'd want with you at the Vegas sports books.

MIB3 is better than it could've been, but it still seems dated, like a classic rock group getting back together for a reunion gig. I hear production on Ghostbusters 3 is moving forward with or without Bill Murray. If can be interesting as the Men In Black, it may have a chance.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Official Patriot

At left, Chapter President James Williamson pins the SAR rosette on your humble servant under the admiration of SAR officer Al Niemeyer.

HUZZAH!  Two years with the Sons of The American Revolution as a prospective member, participating with the color guard, and I'm finally in after getting my act together on the research part.  It took at least two false starts.  I thought I would be able to do it on my own, but I found it's handy to have an experienced genealogist who knows what to do, where to get the documents, how to get the documents, and how to lay everything out so that the application gets through.

Your humble servant's patriot ancestor is Robert Foresman, Sr., who fought in the Pennsylvania Militia during the Revolutionary War, traced back through my father's bloodline.  I am also trying to "prove out" another patriot in the family, this one a member of the Continental Army.  Research has also found a redcoat who surrendered to General Washington at Yorktown... but, psst, we don't discuss him a lot.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Reel To Reel: The Avengers

The gang's all here!

Going Rate: Worth full price admission.
Starring:Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Comic book action violence, mild language

I'll let you in on a little secret: Iron Man steals The Avengers. With that in mind, this all-star comic-book superhero movie is a highly enjoyable ride that takes itself only moderately seriously, and most of that is due to Iron Man (Downey), whose motor-mouth wisecracks put a reality check on an over-the-top fantasy.

A superhero film filled with superheroes requires the evilest threat a screenwriter can think up. This time, it's the Tesseract, a self-generating energy source so powerful it can punch a hole into the universe and bring forth a whole host of ugly superbaddies. Only in movies does such technology always suck from the bottom of the barrel. What if it brought in a race twenty times smarter than us? Would we resist sharing our turf with a superior intellect or defend our dumbness to the death? I dunno.

This energy source, held by a super-dark security group called S.H.I.E.L.D., brings out Loki, a sinister authoritarian bad guy with a scepter that flips people's allegiances. Imagine what it would do to Rush Limbaugh. Loki inverts a scientist and ace archer Hawkeye (Renner) and takes off with the Tesseract. Not good.

S.H.I.E.L.D.'s topper, Nick Fury (Jackson), realizes this problem will require him to do more than stand around and be cool with one eye, so he starts putting together a team: Captain America as Steve Rogers (Evans), Natasha Romanoff as Black Widow (Johansson), Thor as his Shakespearean hammer-throwing self (Hemsworth), Hulk hiding inside Bruce Banner (Ruffalo), and the aforementioned Iron Man doing business as Tony Stark. Put this many egos in a room, and you're bound to have trouble, especially if you get Dr. Banner angry -- something he doesn't want to do anymore, thus leaving doubts about his viability as a team player. Captain is the born leader, even if he's a little too flashy-looking. Widow really doesn't have any superpowers beyond bringing a lot of creative hurt to people. We're really not sure whose side Thor is on, given Loki is a relative. And Stark? Let's just get this done and go eat Chinese.

The film delivers everything expected of a summer blockbuster in its genre: lots of CGI, lots of explosions, lots of impossible stunts. What saves it from being a forgettable thrill-ride is Joss Whedon's touch. He made the film for fanboys without making it a fanboy movie, avoiding the mistake that doomed Watchmen. Seeing Captain America and Thor is not a prerequisite. Prepare to be more than a bit surprised. And stay through the end of the credits. I didn't, but a friend tells me it's worth it.

Monday, April 9, 2012

An Open Letter To George Zimmerman

Mr. Zimmerman, I have only one thing to tell you.

You're guilty. Start making peace with that.

It doesn't matter whether you're charged or not, or whether you'll be convicted or acquitted. People have already made up their minds. You can't appeal that sentence.

I want you to get familiar with another person: Casey Anthony. You two need to start comparing notes, because you'll have to rely on each other's advice if the justice system eventually decides in your favor.

But like I said, that doesn't matter. You have no way to win. If the special prosecutor declines to press charges, people grumble about you beating the rap in the white man's justice system. If you go on trial and a jury acquits you, it's still beating the rap. If the facts show you gunned Treyvon Martin down in prejudicial cold blood, if a jury convicts you and sends you away, then that's that. You did it. Go away.

Or is it, really? The stench of a tainted verdict is still out there because people will gather the jurors had their personal nightmares of Sanford, Florida morphing into post-Rodney-King Los Angeles. With so many people calling for you to be locked up, can anybody seriously believe they're willing to accept a verdict of "Not Guilty?"

Here's the irony of all this: the hue and cry for your arrest is done in the name of justice. But the justice system only works to the degree with which we believe in it. The outcomes which don't match our personal beliefs -- regardless of what the facts tell us -- reinforce our notions that the system is broken. Protesters say prejudice led to the shooting that started all of this. Now prejudice is going to envelop the rest of it.

It's so inconvenient for us, this justice system that is supposed to keep our society somewhat civilized. It's too slow, too laborious, too detail-oriented, and dadgumit, doesn't make the right decisions all the time. Conviction by assumption is much easier, much more streamlined. No, I'm not going to blame the media. That's a cop-out. Despite what some people tell you, reporters don't tell us how to think. We make that choice. Show me where the First Amendment deprived us of free will.

You've already had your trial. You've already been convicted. Personally, I don't know whether you're guilty or innocent. I haven't even gotten to the likely possibility of a wrongful death lawsuit. I can't do anything for you now but tell you to pray and pray for you myself. GOD promises HE will deliver justice in the end. For now, you're stuck with the rest of us.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Reel To Reel: The Hunger Games

An appetite for blood.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission for deep thinkers and fans of the book
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Graphic violence involving teenagers

A co-worker describes The Hunger Games as "Survivor to the death." Actually, this first in what will likely be a series of movie adaptations from the Suzanne Collins trilogy plays more like a hybrid of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Survivor, 1984 and The Truman Show.

It also reminds me of a conversation I had with a young lady at work who was fixated on an episode of The Bachelor. A spurned suitor wept in the back of a limousine for all of televisionland to see. While she and other ladies grinned and gawked, I felt repulsed.

"How can you watch this show?" I asked. "You wouldn't want to be on that show, would you?"

"No," the lady co-worker replied with an oh-come-on air.

"You wouldn't want any of your friends to be on that show, would you?"


Still, they watch. We watch. So the setting of The Hunger Games does not require much personal suspension of disbelief. It's a nation whose 12 "districts" each give up two of their young for a yearly televised fight to the death.

The land of Panem is North America in a post-war morass. We aren't told in the film what started this war, what it was about, or who we should've been rooting for, leaving us to conclude it was won by a technologically-savvy faction who have really crummy taste in make-up and fashion. This ruling class chirpily anticipates each year's fight to the finish -- "Happy Hunger Games!" -- with twisted totalitarian logic. What once started as penance has become for them a unifying tradition, something to bring the nation together as a common people. Yeah, I think Hitler's final solution was supposed to do that, too.

As you might expect, the inhabitants of the Capitol don't have to give up their young, but you can see the dread on the faces as teenage boys and girls are summoned for a lottery -- called "the Reaping" -- in the industrial area of District 12 to determine which boy and girl will be drafted as gladiators-- er, "tributes." I get the feeling they're too weary to rebel any more at this game forced upon them.

Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) bravely volunteers to take the place of her drafted kid sister. But pity Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson). He's a baker, not a fighter, and no warrior types will step up. I can hear Meryl Streep in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate: "Where are all the men anymore?"

The two are whisked off to The Capitol for a bit of training and a bit of mentoring from a soused former champ, Haymitch Abernathy (Harrelson). Largely, it's all showbiz. The competitors go through a parade and celebrity interviews like they're competing for Miss America. The citizens of the Capitol watch it all and place bets like it's March Madness. The other districts of Panem can just watch and hope their sons or their daughters make it out as the last one standing. Maybe they pray. I don't know. GOD is not a part of this land. Judges 17:6 comes to mind: "In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes."

The games take place in a giant forest battle dome where every action is televised live, and every element -- including the weather, sunlight, and the presence of wild animals -- is manipulated by a team who points, click and drag on holographic workstations like they're building the next version of "Age of Empires." Katniss becomes an early favorite in the competition largely because of her thinly-veiled moxy. She's not good at building alliances, but she can shoot a deadly arrow or two. Peeta is the opposite, more friend than fighter. Going into the death match, they have a storyline: the public sees them as "star-crossed lovers." That wasn't Kat's idea, but it makes it easier to get "sponsors," people behind the scenes who pay to send medicine and aid to the competitors. They soon find out that winning will take each other, whether they're lovers, friends, or neither.

Having not read the source material, I can't tell you whether The Hunger Games stays true to its novelization, although having the author as one of the screenwriters is a huge sign. I will tell you it stays true to a nightmare we have about our governments: that they will eventually grow to enslave and hate us, setting apart a privileged class who enjoy the liberty and prosperity we once enjoyed. That's not supposed to happen in America, is it? You're going to hear a lot of people trying to convince you otherwise as the election season revs up. And separating truth from fiction and heartfelt concerns from a sheer lust for power is no game.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Earl In Williamsburg

Sir Christopher, Earl Of Suffolk, attends the George Washington Ball in Williamsburg, as presented by the Williamsburg Heritage Dancers. What follows are his recollections.


A fancy 18th Century Ball in a historic setting requires no less than my finest attire: my gold 1750's regalia, manifested in gold brocaded breeches, a gold weskit, and a gold skirted jacket, adorned with a red baldric and a lace jabot. For eye candy, I'm adding an emerald brooch. And of course, I have to wear my gold-trimmed tricorn, the one inspired by Lord Cornwallis' topper in The Patriot. Not only does the outfit befit mannered English royalty, the skirted coat make me appear fashionably portly.

Underneath, I've added a few hidden touches. I'm wearing a new ruffled shirt with ruffled cuffs I saw this morning at a store in Willamsburg. I am also wearing two layers of white stockings, necessary because the new white stockings I have just purchased are a little sheener than I desire. I want my calves to be snow white when I bow to the ladies of Williamsburg, not white tinged with pink.

The neck ruffles in my shirt are tucked into my weskit, away from view. They don't play nicely with my weskit, so I tuck them in and tie on the jabot, attaching it to my baldric with a safety pin to keep it from flying about as I prance the night away. I also pin my baldric to my shoulder with the brooch. This is when the shirt's true value emerges: I accidentally prick my finger and deposit blood spatters on one of my cuffs. Fortunately, the shirt's synthetic weave makes it a snap to remove the offending spots with tap water. My purist friends might frown on anything less than period-correct materials, but I will politely disagree.


I have only a short walk down the halls of my inn to the grand ballroom, so I shan't be needing the carriage. But timing is a question. The announced start time is 7:00, but I am not certain if that's the time of the first dance or the time the reception begins. I split the difference and arrive at 6:30.

Our Colonial dancing hosts are still arranging the entry table and placing the modern-day nametags which we will all use to identify each other. I'm happy not to have to remember names, which I struggle with. Remembering the dances will challenge my memory quite adequately.

The tag reads "Christopher Francis," to my delight. "You fit all 11 letters of my first name on!" I marvel to the hosts.

"We're proud of that," one of them smiles.

As the guests arrive, the color and fancy flourish I am hoping for materializes before me. Ladies are not shy about wearing their wide 18th Century polonaise ball gowns with the farthingdales and corsets. But most of them are skipping the highly-powdered, highly-elevated wigs. Several ladies are fast-forwarding to the late 18th Century, preferring the Regency pillar dress of the Pride & Prejudice era. One lady walks in wearing a hat with a large plume atop her fancy wig. My Lady, how shall she be able to dance in that?

The gentlemen are sporting a few powdered wigs here and there. They run the gamut of the breeches-and-buttons theme: a few townspeople, a few fancy aristocrats, a Continental Navy officer or two. Many are wearing tricorns. And they will keep them on, just like your humble servant as he eagerly awaits the first dance.


The journey to this moment has taken three months of preparation, and many months more of researching and dreaming, along with a electronic correspondence to the hosts...

My Most Honourable Ball Host or Hostess,

Greetings from Tucson!

I am registered for the upcoming George Washington Ball, and I had a couple of curiosities.

First, I notice no mention of a caller. I completely understand this is in the spirit of the time and true to the authenticity of the dance, but I do hope others will be forgiving of my missteps. I have indeed received the instructions, and I plan to attend the "refresher" session on the day of the ball, but many of these dances are new to me.

I have been dancing English Country Dances for about 5 years with a couple of groups here in Arizona, and although I do not consider myself a beginner, I do not consider myself advanced, either. What advice would you give to a newcomer to this ball who will be journeying quite a distance for an immersive Colonial experience? How best can I enjoy the evening without being a burden to more experienced dancers?

I have wanted for some time to dance at a grand Colonial ball, in my finest period attire -- a rare experience indeed, one that is even rarer in Arizona. This is a "bucket list" item for me, and I want to make sure I do things in a manner pleasing to all.

Thank you so much for this opportunity. I pledge I will not be unworthy of it.

Your Humble Servant And Friend In The Dance,
Christopher Francis
Tucson, Arizona

A few days later, I had my reply from Lou, Dancing Master Emeritus, who said he was "delighted" that I would be coming so far. "We pride ourselves at being a very welcoming an accommodating group of dancers," he wrote. He also assured me there would be callers and opportunities to practice the tougher dances.

In closing, he wrote: "In an interesting aside, a dancing master in Colonial Virginia was named Francis Christian, a striking similarity to your name."

Francis Christian. My mouth drops open. The past has caught up again with me once more.


The first dance of the evening is not a grand march, like I am used to, but a minuet, of which I have no practical experience. This is the only dance of the evening we have not rehearsed at a practice session earlier in the day.

"Can I fake one?" I asked one of the instructor/callers.

"You can try, if you know what you're doing."

Which I don't, at least not exactly. The minuet refers to any number of dances, and there is no clue as to which one our hosts intend. But like dancing at a fancy ball, I have also dreamed of dancing a minuet at a fancy ball, and so I intend to do my best.

I bow to a young Regency lady, asking for a dance.

"Do you know the minuet?" she asks. "I don't."

"Well, I don't either," I reply. "But if you follow my lead, we shall both be fine."

Couples are lining up in two columns, facing our trio of musicians: Japanese keyboard, violin and English flute. My dancing partner and I take a position near the rear of a long row. If both of us blow it, it will look fairly inconspicuous.

The secret to my scheme lies in situational awareness. We will need to follow the lead of the couple in front of us, and in front of that couple. Everybody will be doing the same dance the same way. Just what way is about to be revealed.

It starts easily enough, with a courtly bow and a curtsy to the players and to each other. Then the gentleman and lady take hands and begin moving daintily about each other. It's ballet before people knew what ballet was. I'm watching the footwork and the movement of the gentleman in front of me as I try to synchronize my movements. I'm about a second behind as I tread lightly around the lady with a fancy flourish of my hands or my tricorn. It's a beatiful dance, even though I have only a faint idea of what I'm doing.

Five minutes after this charade begins, it is all over with another courtly bow to my partner, who seems pleased and satisfied. The ultimate irony: if she was true to her Regency persona reflected in her dress, she probably wouldn't have danced the minuet in the first place.


The first country dance of the evening is about to begin. Now the real test of my abilities begins. I have rehearsed this dance earlier, but now I will have to do it with little or no help from a caller.

From my experience and travels, a caller is the guiding light in historical English dance. That person is there to help you enjoy the evening by not forcing you to know hundreds of dances, as those Colonial Virginians did. Yet we are not among novices. So the procedure will be this: the caller will briefly walk us through one iteration of the dance, since the steps all repeat in a loop. The music will begin, and the dance will be called during the opening iteration, and then the caller will drop out, leaving us to our own skill... or lack of it. This is where the reassurances of the Dancing Master Emeritus shall be put to the test.

I bow to my new partner and get to it.

If I err, I err slightly. Others are far from flawless. We help each other in the lines, softly prompting each other or pointing where to go. I imagine those Colonial Virginian dancers did the same to guide and correct each other, not in anger but in love.

The first dances fly by, and my apprehensions about the material dissolves. Now I can focus on my other responsibilities... like honouring the ladies.


Many attending have come as couples, but in the courteous tradition of historic dance, the guests are encouraged to dance with as many different partners as possible -- especially the gentlemen.

Some call that a requirement. I call it a blessing. The mathematics of historic dance always seems to favour the honourable; more ladies than gents always attend such functions. In every dance, several ladies end up dancing with each other because there either not enough gentlemen or not enough gentlemen willing to dance.

Not me. I know what to look for. The ladies who are desirous of a dance are nearly always standing on the edge of the floor, looking a bit forlorn or lost, scanning the crowds with their eyes to see if a gent might be walking their way...

"My lady, do you have a partner for this next dance?" I ask in my aristocratic British accent as I bow to a lady, a question I shall repeat as the night progresses. When she says no, true to my suspicions, I add the predicate: "May I have the honour of this dance."

"Honour." Always "honour." Never the vernacular shorthand. Everything is done in honour to the ladies. Every step shows them honour. The mannered Colonial gent shall look his partner in the eye in the spirit of Christian love. When I bow to them, I shall bow low and with great reverence, as if each one of them were The Queen.

"My Lady," I say upon rising. "I thank you for such a wonderful dance. And I thank you for your patience and tolerance of my faults."

I have been told such overly courtly manners are more than what is required. The ladies, however, merely smile and enjoy it, returning the thank-yous with another curtsy and maybe a blush.


One of the many callers of the evening assures us we can master the steps of the last dance before the break for refreshments.

"They look much harder than they actually are," he says after he's walked us through it once.

In his mind, he's right. But for us novices, we need more help with its looping figures which take us inside and outside our little groups of four along the line. At least in my line, several of us are more than a bit confused.

But when the dance begins, his calling dissolves. We are on our own, lost in time and space beyond the first few figures. A few others are getting through, but the dance's rapid pace does not allow them the opportunity to prompt us with a quiet word or gesture.

My partner and I along with the couple next to us do the only thing we can. Stand. Stand and look admirably to each other. Try to keep the dance's progression going as neatly as we can without disrupting the other couples. But like bubbles in a torrid sea, we can't escape our fate as we rise to the top.

Fortunately, our caller has gotten the hint. "All right, let's halt," he says, seeing the need to walk us through it again.

"He needs to call it," I observe to my partner. "Sometimes you just have to call it. This isn't like in Colonial Virginia. We don't do this for a living!"

My partner smiles and curtsies to me again, "Thank you, my kind sir!"

We walk through it again. We amble through it once more as the music resumes. And somehow, we learn it. Our caller is right in the end, but if only the journey was less agonizing.


Circle mixers are my delight, for they allow me to dance with as many ladies as possible -- all in one dance. For the sole one of the night, our leaders choose "Indian Princess," a variant of the dance "Indian Queen," which was originally developed with Pocahontas in mind.

The steps are easy and lively: setting to your partner, passing them by and turning another lady next to you, then returning to your partner, setting to them again, passing them again to the other lady on the other side and turning them. Then you turn your partner a couple of times before progressing three places down to meet a new partner, where everything begins again.

Nobody needs to call this dance, at least not for long. Everyone picks it up right away, in two large circles as we skip around one another and allow our joy to pour out of us.

It is my tradition to raise my free hand whenever I am turning a lady -- an affectation many of my dancing friends at home warmly embrace. Abroad, it is harder to convince others to let their light shine through. It is true for this group... until I spot a gentleman next to me raising his free hand high in exhaultation.

"They're doing it," I laugh to my partner. "They're doing it! HUZZAH!"

I shout more huzzahs when the dance ends over joyous applause.


I am only planning to sit out two dances this evening. One of them is "Prince William," a dance that threw my friend Madame and I into a near fit of frustration at a Scottish ball in Tucson. It is a beautiful dance, but it is also filled with complicated figures and turns and the dreaded "crossover hey." For a pro it's no sweat. For a novice, it's too much all at once.

But as I am walking away from the floor, a lady turns the tables on me.

"Did you want to dance this one?"

"My Lady, as much as I would like to, I didn't do it very well at the rehearsal this afternoon. But I can do it if you lead me strongly."

She agrees she can, and we line up in a three-couple set. A saving grace of the dance is that if a few dancers mess up, the effects can't ripple through the entire ballroom like in longways dances. We could mess up as much as we wanted in our little group of six and the dance police wouldn't pull us over.

So we start the dance, which should look something like this, as demonstrated by another group:

Now imagine that same dance with one lady pointing at several of us to single when to move and who to turn. She did not have to make an exasperating amount of gestures, to our relief. And eventually, we all learn the dance, including that crossover hey, more or less.

"There's a bulge in it," another lady had explained to me at the earlier rehearsal. And by golly, that cleared things up for your humble servant.


The other dance I intended to sit out, "The Punch Bowl," came with fair warning not to attempt to learn on the floor. So I sit it out -- for real this time, with no lady jumping in to rescue and prompt me at the last moment. That's when I encounter a lady in garb at least one century earlier than most of the room.

"I see you have embraced the Renaissance," I complimented.

"Yes! This is from the De Medici era of Italy," she explained, describing her green dress adorned with hundreds of hand-stitched beads. She talks about her life as a Renaissance re-enactor in Crownsville, Maryland. She had shifted timelines from later eras. But she was still fond of historic dance of the Colonial era, even though she was choosing to sit out the second half of the program. Her body would only allow her so much.

A tinge of sadness flashes through me. I know there might well come a time when my "dancing days are done," as George Washington once lamented as he turned down an invitation to join an assembly late in his life. For the life of me, though, I shall fight that day until I breathe my last. You can bury me on the dance floor.


The second half of the ball flies by as quickly as the first. By 11pm, it is time to call the festivies to a close. After a final French contredanse, our orchestra indulges a common wish for a final waltz with the ladies and gentlemen who came together.

Some may waltz. Others will minuet, and that other would be me, as I saunter amongst the couples, holding my hands gracefully in three-quarter time in a solo, improvised caper, but I don't want it to end like this.

I quickly locate another of those ladies standing on the side of the ballroom floor, scanning the crowds, and ask for a waltz.

So we start to waltz. But I have a last request.

"My lady, I often dance an improvised minuet with my partners back home. If you are willing to learn, I can lead you through it. Would you like to try? It's like a country dance we make up as we go along."

She agrees with a smiling nod, and I begin the number, starting by turning her by right and left hands, and then backing away, coming forward, and then turning single before siding to each other. The secret is in the hand signals. I call the next step just before it's done, and the lady follows my lead. It's not in perfect synchronization, but it looks beautiful as the Earl of Suffolk in his gold attire steps stately around a lady of the Colonies in her green and pink floral dress, rosy cheeks highlighting her smiling face. She is a quick learner.

"Thank you for indulging me," I say after a low and final bow.


All during the evening, a Colonial lad thought he spotted a familiar face. After most of the others had left, we met up as I was talking to another.

"Your face is familiar," he said to me, "But I can't place it."

I looked at his nametag. I instantly recognized it.

"I know you!" I explained. "You were at Manassas! You're the guy who saved me from heat exhaustion!"

Now the light was on. In my change from Civil War to Colonial attire, John couldn't place me. But now he remembers, and he's happy to see me both well and not in need of another ice cube pressed up against a major artery.

I know he loves to dance. John had mentioned an opportunity at Manassas last summer, and I knew I wouldn't be able to take him up on it in the short timeframe I had for the trip. "Oh, just break my heart!" I had said.

But now, here we are, neither expecting the other. History repeats. I indulge him to take a few pictures of your humble servant before the time comes to say good night.


The afterglow is with me through the night and into the morning as I walk in Colonial Williamsburg. The ball is like a dream now, something I cannot believe happened, and yet it did. Wistfulness and sadness tinges within me. At times my life is measured as time between fancy balls.

I don't know if I will ever see most of my new dancing companions ever again. Expense and real life will only allow me so many of these ball adventures.

Yet as I walk down Duke Of Gloucester Street, I spot a group of familiar young ladies, who instantly spot your humble servant. I'm not wearing any historic attire anymore -- just shorts, tennis shoes, and a red jacket... but topped with a tricorn hat.

They greet me again, smiling, their ball gowns exchanged for sweaters and skirts.

I remove my tricorn and bow.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Ladies Shall Enter Through The Private Entrance -- All Gentlemen Shall Wait Outside In Traffic

It's not an adventure to Virginia without some adventure in getting there. The first two legs play out flawlessly. The planes are on time. The crews for the planes are on time. The pilot on the Tucson-to-Chicago leg pushes tin and gets us into Midway 15 minutes ahead of schedule, even as he dodges storm clouds. Even the rental car surprises me: Budget puts me into a Chevy Impala, as opposed to the Toyota Yaris I've gotten in two past ventures, both of which illuminated the "Check Engine" light just as I was returning them.

At 4:20pm EST, I fully expect to be in Williamsburg by 5pm, with perhaps time to change into my period attire for a candlelight concert at the Raleigh Tavern. Then I start up Interstate 64. The warning from the electronic sign minces no words: "I-64 BACKED UP 8 MILES."

In an instant, Norfolk becomes Los Angeles. Cars slow to a crawl. Virginia State Police patrol the diamond lanes, flashing their blue lights and perhaps busting a few motorists who decide to violate the HOV rules or drive on the shoulder.

The radio traffic reporter is incredulous: "There's a mondo backup on the Westbound 64 from about the tunnel on." Already I'm coming in contact with history; it's the first time I can recall a traffic jockey using the word "mondo."

Cars creep forward. 4:30 turns to 5:00 and then 5:30, and I still haven't hit the BB&T. At this rate I'll be lucky to make into Williamsburg by 8pm. By 6:00, I'm finally through the tunnel, out of the backup, without seeing any trace of the traffic anomaly that started the whole thing.

"It's a really bad Friday out there! I-64 still backed up from the tunnel. For some reason it has just never recovered from the earlier situation," the traffic lady updates.

Now I will have to push tin, within reason. I once got a ticket on Highway 93 outside Las Vegas for doing 104 miles per hour after neglecting the speedometer on a lonely stretch of desert highway. Now in Hampton Roads, I don't have an opportunity to repeat the deed as the line of traffic mysteriously slows again, this time outside of Yorktown, and again, for no obvious reason. I can only surmise the combination of rush-hour traffic and Friday getaways is coming together to my disadvantage.

By 6:30, I roll into Williamsburg. After getting thrown off course in my journey towards the historic area, I duck into a garage and beat a charge towards the Raleigh Tavern. Colonial Williamsburg gives off a beautiful tranquility at night. Modern lighting, what little there is, sparsely illuminates the streets. Not only am I seeing the past, I'm seeing reminders of my past visits, the sights and the atmosphere that has me wondering what in tarnation I'm doing in Arizona.

I slip into the Tavern and hope the ticket-taker in period attire will have mercy on a soul who has just traveled 2,000 some miles by plane, 40 more miles per car, and is wearing shorts in March, as per Tucson tradition.

"The ticket office was closed," I explain to him as he shines a non-period LED flashlight on my voucher, which would've been exchanged for a proper admission slip had the proper office been properly open instead of shutting down 15 minutes before closing time.

"Well, I've got a list here," he says, pulling out a piece of paper, scanning it for my name. I'm not on it. But he is kind and hospitable -- as so many people in Virginia are -- and my paperwork proof is enough to gain your humble servant passage.

I soon forget about the Interstate quagmire as candles -- real ones, not electric -- illuminate the small side room. In October 1771, a concert featuring a radical new instrument, the pianoforte (which means "soft-loud" in Italian) took place here. And this is what we are about to see as our players enter the room.

"I must apologize to the ladies," our pianoforte player notes playfully, "for I have offended you in a way you weren't even aware of. We made you enter through the front door, which means you had to pass by the bar. In the 18th Century, you never would have brought a lady around that way. There are two other private entrances here for you."

The trio consists of pianoforte, viola da gamba -- essentially a six-string bass violin that's tuned like a lute -- and a German flute. They are with the "Governor's Musick," one of Colonial Williamsburg's top interpretive groups. So when they begin to play, the clock instantly winds back 200 years with the opening strains of John Ranish's Sonota opus 2, Number 7, Adiago and Allegro. Pieces by Theodore Smith and Francisco Guerini follow. It's like a lullaby in the night, a reminder of what I came here for, what I would love to do if I wasn't so rooted in Arizona.

"We're so spoiled here in the 21st Century," the keyboardist notes midway through the concert. "Music is just a mouse click away." He tells us how his instrument was high tech for its time, primarily because of its touch response -- a lighter keystroke produces a softer sound. The pianoforte was to the harpsicord what Moog or ARP would later be to the piano.

Somehow I'm able to resist the temptation to dance. It's probably becauase I'm not in my breeches and tricorn. But when the trio plays a closing minuet, I can close my eyes and see myself bowing to Madame Noire before I move gracefully around her.

"I had this dream where we were doing this beautiful dance from the Renaissance," she once told me. I know she would love to be by my side right now, soaking up all the Colonial atmosphere.

We'll have that dance, My Lady. Our day will come.