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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in Gregory G. H. Rihn's LiveJournal:

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    Thursday, July 2nd, 2015
    6:45 pm
    Inside Out
    On Wednesday evening, July 1, we went to our local Marcus Cinema to see the new Pixar/Disney movie, “Inside Out,” which personifies a young girl’s major emotions, chosen as Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust (Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kaling, respectively). The story deals with the emotional upheavals attendant upon the sudden transplantation of a young girl, Riley (Catlin Dias) from Minnesota to San Francisco, and the conflicts in her mind/brain complex that result. The film ends up being a sweet, slightly sad story (though with a happy ending) that has some moments of real tension.

    Joy is a charming sprite who is the most intelligent and flexible of the emotions, and the de facto leader. Her mission is to ensure that Riley leads a happy life and to keep her existing mental structure (visualized literally as an internal landscape) functioning smoothly. That all of Riley’s “personality islands”, Family, Friends, Honesty, Hockey (her sport), and “Goofball” (her sense of fun), are positive, shows that Joy has been relatively successful so far, or anyway that Riley has had a very good life.

    The unanticipated participation of Sadness into Riley’s new situation throws Joy for a loop, and a substantial monkey wrench into the functioning of Riley’s mind. This tends to be taken rather more seriously than intended by adult critics, who see memory loss, personality disintegration, and emotional flatness as indicative of serious mental illness, rather than the transitory loss of balance the movie shows us. However, the metabrain we see in the film is a virtual mindscape optimized for storytelling, and not intended to represent reality.

    Pixar continues to delight and amaze with its animations. The visualization of “Inside” is quite creative and interesting, but the most fascinating constructs are the emotions themselves, which get more detailed the more closely you see them. It takes a good close up to see that Joy and the others don’t have smooth “skin” or even a textured integument, but that their borders are a zone of fine pixelations, almost as though suggesting the emotions were fractal in nature—as, indeed perhaps they are.

    It also took me a while, and some of the darker scenes, to realize that Joy, is—well—radiant. The subtlety of this effect, and the modelling of her light on the environment around her is a triumph of the new art of animation, and one of the few things I think I have seen that absolutely could not have been done by more conventional means.

    “Outside,” the Pixar artists have done an excellent job of balancing cartoonishness and the “uncanny valley,” so that it’s easy to emphasize with and accept the human characters. Ms. Dias as Riley does a good job characterizing a troubled pre-teen, and Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan do good jobs as Riley’s loving parents who are also distracted by the big move.

    The film is not without its flaws, but they are minor. At points we see inside other people’s heads, where all five emotions are represented as the same sex as the outward person, as opposed to Riley, where Fear and Anger present as male. Perhaps this is something that changes during “Puberty”—which has had a big red alarm signal installed during the latest upgrade?

    Highly recommended for fans of animation mature enough to understand the somewhat complex and esoteric storyline.

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    6:38 pm
    “Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times” Paine Art Museum, Oshkosh
    On Sunday, June 28th, we drove to the Paine Art Museum in Oshkosh, to see the travelling exhibit, “Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times.” (We weren’t able to join the Milwaukee Steampunk Society for the outing on Saturday, so went on our own--.)

    This is the exhibit’s second stop in America, having just come from its opening at Biltmore, the palatial home of the famous Commodore Vanderbilt. Curated in conjunction with the show’s production company, it is apparently being shown only in museums such as Biltmore and the Paine, which once were fine homes and provide appropriate settings for the costumes.

    In this regard, the Paine Museum is a spectacular success. Construction of the house began in 1925, but it was deliberately designed by the architect to appear to have been constructed and (tastefully) added on to over three centuries of English building styles. As such, the home suits the costumes marvelously, and many are shown in the correct setting: dinner dress in the dining room, travelling clothes in the foyer, formal gowns in the ballroom, and outdoor clothing, such as Lady Mary’s riding habit, Matthew Crawley’s military uniform, and Lady Edith’s bicycling outfit (complete with bicycle) are shown in the specious purpose-built gallery.

    The house and its permanent collection of artworks are worth the trip alone, but it was hard to pull ourselves away from the costumes. They are all shown in the open. Most you can get very close to, and many of those that you can’t see the back of have strategically placed mirrors allowing you to see back details. The exhibition includes large color photographs of the costumes as worn, and text identifying the episodes in which they appeared.

    The museum gift shop has been totally given over to “Downton Abbey” related merchandise, from tea and wine to jewelry and teddy bears. (There’s no “Carson” bear—yet!) We resisted most of the temptations, but did buy an exhibit catalog, which is very nice.

    Of course we dressed Neo-Edwardian, which got us a number of approving comments from visitors and staff. The staff mentioned also that they had very much appreciated the Milwaukee Steampunk Society visit the previous day.

    The exhibition remains in Oshkosh through September 20th. The exhibition will be returning to the Midwest later: The Richard H. Dreihaus Museum, Chicago, February-May 2016; The Taft Museum of Art, Cleveland, July-September 2016; and The History Museum, South Bend, Indiana, October 2016-January 2017.

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    6:36 pm
    The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.
    On Saturday evening, June 27th, we went to the Downer Theatre to see the Swedish film, entitled “The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.”

    The long title is not the only quirky thing about this entertaining movie. It could be considered a combination of “Forrest Gump,” “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” and “Uncommon Valor” (the movie where I first encountered variations on ”There are very few personal problems that cannot be solved through a suitable application of high explosives.”).

    The “Forrest Gump” part of the plot is shown as flashbacks, memories sparked by Allan Karlsson’s (Robert Gustafsson) hundredth birthday. He has lead an adventurous, and sometimes dangerous life, having met Francisco Franco, Robert Oppenheimer, Joseph Stalin, and Ronald Reagan.

    Escaping from the dull nursing home he has been placed in, Allan ends up in possession of a suitcase stuffed with money, the property of a crime lord (Alan Ford), which starts the present-day plot, a comedy of errors as the criminals attempt to find and reclaim the loot.

    And, as for “Uncommon Valor,” well, it seems that Allan has a particular fetish for blowing things up, which landed him in a mental hospital as a child, made him a valuable member of the Spanish Communist armed forces, and results in his being put in the nursing home in his old age.

    That the plot, quite plausibly, eventually includes a stolen circus elephant, just adds to the fun.

    Highly recommended for fans of foreign cinema, independent cinema, and the just plain odd.

    English voiceover, Swedish dialog, subtitles.

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    Thursday, June 18th, 2015
    1:34 pm
    WisCon 2015
    Friday morning, May 22nd, we drove over to Madison for the 39th WisCon. It was a good drive over and we got checked in to the hotel and the Con with no difficulties. Since I had a panel at 2:30PM, we went out a bit before noon and got lunch at Mediterranean Café, which left us time for a check through The Gathering before my panel.

    The first panel was "The Purpose of Human Beings in an Extensively Automated World," which asked the question, what do people do when cars take over the driving, etc.? Alex Gurevich did a good job moderating the panel, which included Amelia Dudley, Daniel Grotta, and Elijah Itah, in addition to myself. After discussion of the potentials of automation and the possibility of actual machine intelligence evolving, we tended to agree that machine intelligence could not totally replace human intelligence in areas of subjective judgement, and so there would continue to be a function for us as guides and mentors for our machine descendants. I took the position that we probably could not go to the stars, but our machines might, and they could carry the great works of our culture along with them, if we taught them that they were important.

    Afterward, we went to the "Men's Issues (Really)" panel, which didn't get to most of the questions posed in the program description, such as "What issues can intersectional feminists find solidarity in with cis het white men?" Nevertheless it was an entertaining panel, lead by Benjamin Rosenbaum, with Jim Lutz, Jack Ralls, and Ian K. Hagemann, exploring questions of what it means to be a man these days, and how one can be an "ally" without necessarily being a complete lackey.

    We killed time over the dinner break chatting with friends and acquaintances. Since we had had a substantial lunch, we really didn't need a formal dinner. I had seen the Con Suite "menu" and knew that the featured item that evening was to be "Ian's Pizza," which I had never had and was curious about, so we went upstairs and got in line for the suite to open. Once the first shipment of pizzas was actually delivered, we were allowed in. I selected a piece of the cheese pizza, which I deem most likely to give a fair reading on the basics-cheese, crust, and sauce. I'm sorry to say I found Ian's Pizza disappointing, and not nearly up to the "hype." In particular, the sauce was sweet, bland, and stingily applied, a vice unfortunately common among commercial pizzas. Cheese and crust were good enough, but nothing special, and no better than any of a dozen other pizza makers I could name.

    We went to the Opening Ceremonies, which included a game-show style "trivia contest" that was quite entertaining.

    After that, we went to the panel "Overlapping Magisteria." I found this panel interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying. The discussion involved the issue of whether or not science and religion can be reconciled. All the panelists variously took positions that they could, requiring varying degrees of intellectual elasticity. I was disappointed that there happened to be no contrarian voice on the panel, but I expect it happened that no one of that temper volunteered. Unfortunately, we didn't get to the Saturday evening panel "Science-Compatible Religions in Fiction: A Exploration of Spiritual Traditions Supportive of Intellectual Growth" which might have hit some similar territory from a different angle.

    Parties that evening were the Helsinki WorldCon bid party, Sisters of the Revolution book launch, Archivist Wasp book launch, and the Carl Brandon Society party. We visited each one, and bought a copy of Archivist Wasp, but didn't end up staying long at any party and turned in fairly early.

    Saturday started early, with Georgie having a panel "Old Heroes-Are They Really Possible," moderated by Kenzie Woodbridge, and Sigrid Ellis and Nonie Rider joining as panelists. Works discussed included Remnant Population, the "Witches" novels by Terry Pratchett, and others. It was a lively discussion and well received by the audience.

    I was very interested in the panel "Fixing Policing," due to my past experience, so we went to that one next. Some interesting ideas were proposed, but very little that seemed practical or likely to be greeted with enthusiasm by the law enforcement community.

    Saturday lunch break we spent as usual at the Tiptree Bake Sale, and had some particularly good treats this year. The Bake Sale is always a good spot to meet and greet people and we had some very interesting conversations while we were there.

    After lunch, Georgie had the panel on "Little Known Goddesses," which had a very good, multicultural set of panelists. Nisi Shawl spoke about the Ifa faith, also known as Orisha, mentioning goddesses such as Oya, goddess of the whirlwind; Yemaya, mother of fishes; and Oshun, who "owns" erotic love, money, culture, and "the finer things in life." @SoosheBot, talked about South Asian goddesses, and Lauren Jankowski and Na'amen Gobert Tilahun contributed favorites. Georgie, as moderator, chimed in with brief tidbits about Cardea, the goddess of the door hinge; Chao San Niang, the goddess of wig salesmen; and, handy to know even if he is a god, Arazu the Babylonian god of construction that was completed! This was a very enjoyable panel and the audience seemed to have fun with it.

    In the 2:30 time slot, we went to "Literacy or Appropriation?" which struck a pretty good balance on the central issue, how can writers of one culture fairly write inclusively, without being accused of tokenism on the one hand, or "cultural appropriation" on the other? K. Tempest Bradford moderated, and @SoosheBot, Sally Weiner Grotta, Andrea Hairston, and Mikki Kendall contributed. I was a bit concerned by the announcement that questions or comments from the audience would only be taken via Twitter! The reason given was that these discussions can get rather "fraught" (which is certainly true, but didn't actually happen in this case--), but doesn't take into account a) not everyone present may have a mobile device; b) those that do may not have a Twitter account; or, as happened, c) connectivity in the ballroom may not be very good. In the end, questions were taken live with perfect decorum. I comment on this because there appears to be a growing trend at WisCon to treat panelists as "presenters" and the audience members as passive receivers, which I consider a grave mistake. (WisCon being WisCon, there's usually at least one person in the audience who knows as much if not more about the subject under discussion than the panelists do--.)

    We took the next segment to visit the Dealer's Room and the Art Show, which were both well worth visiting. For dinner, we went out to the renascent Kabul Restaurant, now relocated across the street and upstairs from its old location. They were busy, and there seemed to be a long wait between ordering our entrees and having them come, but when they did, everything was very good, and dishes that had been brought along from the old menu, such as khofta chalow, were as good as ever.

    Back at the hotel, we checked out the parties, viewing the DC WorldCon bid materials with some interest, but still calling it a fairly early night.

    Sunday morning started off with Georgie on the "Silenced Women Characters" panel, which went well. The reference to the missing Entwives in "The Lord of the Rings" sparked some humorous and creative speculation. Georgie spoke up for the mothers in Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes," making a good case that in no way could they have been as clueless as the boys were allowed to think.

    At 1:00PM, we went to Kim Stanley Robinson's Guest of Honor reading, which was quite unusual and fascinating. Robinson read a script dramatizing a portion of his forthcoming novel, Aurora, accompanied by an intricate soundscape created as part of an abortive collaboration between Robinson and performance artist Marina Abramovic. The project eventually foundered on the rock of "creative differences" between the two (Robinson insisted upon a certain amount of narrative, whereas Ms. Abramovic's works, such as the recent 512 Hours, have tended towards lack of structure), however, we are fortunate to have this artifact of the collaboration remaining.

    The next panel we went to was "My Favorite Book When I Was Twelve," which was good because the panel members were a variety of ages, and therefore mentioned a broad spectrum of books and authors, some of which were "down memory lane" for us, and some new and still worth looking up.

    At 4:00PM, the panel "WisCon Last Summer" went on in Capitol A, and played to a packed house. Former concom members Jeanne Gomoll and Debbie Notkin, and current members Mikki Kendall and Jackie Mierzwa, moderated by "neutral party" Chesya Burke, gave a very frank and honest history of the concom difficulties and divisions of the past year. Panelists also responded very openly and reasonably to audience concerns, including mine regarding the unceremonious dismissal of Richard Russell. The session ran long, and I had to duck out to meet Georgie before it was quite over, but it seemed a lot of air was cleared.

    For dinner, we braved the drizzle for burgers at Five Guys, which were very good as usual. Perhaps it was the combination of Sunday night and the persistent rain, but we were the only people in there for most of our meal, which was unusual.

    We attended the Guest of Honor speeches, which included a short and charming thank-you from Tiptree Award winner Monica Byrne, a song and strong speech against sexism and racism by Alya Dawn Johnson, and a fascinatingly political talk by Kim Stanley Robinson ("Deoligarchization" was the word of the evening--.)

    After the speeches, we again cruised the parties, us among others being surprised that the Con Suite stayed dark and closed after the speeches. However, we ended up at a reprise of the "Tales of the Unanticipated" party, which was an old-style sit on the beds and SMOF party, which we enjoyed a lot.

    The one big event we took part in Monday was the panel, "Mars," at 10AM, which I was moderating. Due probably to the presence of Kim Stanley Robinson, the panel played to a packed house, with lots of good input from panel members Emma Humphries, Jackie Mierzwa, and Ian Hagemann as well. We discussed the "romantic Mars" of the literary past, and the "scientific Mars" of the current times. Robinson, (or "Stan" as he prefers to be addressed), ruefully admitted that, like many other works of science fiction, his "Mars" trilogy had been overtaken by science: the apparent pervasive presence of perchlorates in the Martian soil as reported by the Mars rovers means that the environment is toxic and the terraforming plan projected in the trilogy could not have worked. He counseled setting aside the dream of Mars as a new frontier and concentrating on working where we could, instead. The panel was very well received by an attentive audience, and Mr. Robinson complimented me on the running of it after it was over.

    Then, we headed home. Overall, it was a very good con, though a bit lower-keyed than some.

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    Monday, June 15th, 2015
    7:23 pm
    Racine Art Museum, “A Whole Other World”
    On Sunday, June 14th, we drove to Racine to visit the Racine Art Museum. The drive itself was not without its adventuresome aspects, as not only is the main freeway exit to downtown Racine, Highway 20, closed, the rain in the area wasn’t as gone as we had hoped, and there was some rather tense driving between Franksville and Racine on the detour route as there was a fortunately fairly brief downpour.

    We managed to find the Museum without difficulty, and also found free parking (on Sunday) in a ramp one block east. I don’t know if it was the daunting rain, or if it was Sunday, or both, but downtown Racine was very quiet, and we were two of a dozen or so people that visited the Museum while we were there. Admission was a very reasonable three dollars each, and the lady at the counter was very helpful and friendly, stashing our dripping umbrellas out of the way for us.

    The Museum currently has two major exhibits. On the first floor is “Contemporary Art Jewelry at RAM,” which was fascinating and worth the price of admission itself. The exhibit was made up of recent additions to the Museum’s permanent Jewelry collection, and included some really unusual and interesting items. Also part of that exhibit (although stretching the definition of jewelry) was a piece entitled “Byobu,” by Mariko Kusimoto, which was a toy theatre made out of metal, decals, and magnets, which allowed one to assemble scenes and characters paper-doll fashion.

    The second floor hosts “A Whole Other World: Sub-Culture Craft: Artists Inspired by Doctor Who, Star Wars, Steampunk, and Superheroes,” which we had specifically come to see. This was, as one might expect, a very eclectic exhibit. We were met by three fantasy dresses by Timothy Westbrook, which were also featured in oil paintings by Gary Leonard, an unusual juxtaposition. Other fashion items included dresses by Silversark, and clockwork jewelry by Creek Van Houten (Compass Rose Jewelry). There was a display of “jetpacks” by Magnus Effing, Charles Tritt, and others of the “Airship Fortuna” crew. Centerpiece of the Doctor Who portion of the exhibit was an enormous quilt, depicting the The Tenth Doctor, 96 by 68 inches (eight feet by five feet eight inches) done in white and sepia tone squares each roughly the size of a large stamp. Star Wars was represented by a thirty-foot long “Coruscant Tapestry” (by Aled Lewis) and a croggling four-foot long “Millennium Falcon” (by Thomas E. Richner) composed mostly of cardboard. Cheong-Ah Hwang provided intricate cut-paper bas-reliefs of superheroes which were an elegant contrast to humorous hand-knitted “supersuits” by Mark Newport. (I thought the familiar red and blue “Sweaterman” cleverest.)

    This exhibition continues through September 6th. Reviewing the Museum’s website, I’m annoyed to discover that there is the additional exhibit, “Sci-Fi, Superheroes, and Steampunk: RAM Community Art Exhibition”, which is at an entirely separate location, the Wustum Museum. Particularly annoying since the route we took in and out of town drove us right past the Wustum, on Northwestern Avenue. Foo! I must read websites more closely in future. However, the Wustum is closed Sundays, so we couldn’t have seen it anyway--. Which is annoying in a different fashion--. The main exhibits are worth going to just for themselves, but I would plan to go on a day when I could see both museums.

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    7:20 pm
    Milwaukee Public Museum, Sy Montgomery, “The Soul of an Octopus”
    On Friday evening, June 12th, we went to the Milwaukee Public Museum for the first of a new series of lectures, to be called “Science on Tap.” This inaugural program featured author Sy Mongomery, who would be speaking about her experiences working with Giant Pacific Octopuses that formed the basis of her new book, The Soul of an Octopus.

    Given her lengthy career and past books such as Spell of the Tiger, about the tigers of Chunderbund, Bangladesh, and Journey of the Pink Dolphins, about the dolphins of the Amazon, I was expecting a rather more weather-beaten figure, someone like Jane Goodall, perhaps, but was surprised by her slim and elegant figure. She also doesn’t “lecture” in the conventional sense. Her style is very intimate and confiding, as though we were all gathered in someone’s living room, rather than a lecture hall with huge close-ups of octopuses projected on screen. This manner very well suits her fascinating and very personal narrative of interacting with the octopuses she has met, giving us no room to doubt that they were each individuals, and very intelligent, though wonderfully alien ones at that.

    The octopus is stranger than I had imagined. A fifty-pound octopus can squeeze through a hole the diameter of an orange, if not smaller. Each of its hundreds of suckers can lift thirty pounds. The octopus brain can have seventy lobes, and some of its tentacles may be capable of not only independent action, but of having independent “personality” (as though your left hand were shy, but your right hand was outgoing--). The octopus tastes with all of its skin, but apparently does not hear. The eye of the octopus does not see color, but the octopus not only changes color depending on its emotions, it can change color and pattern to camouflage itself, matching its backgrounds. It is hard to imagine a creature more totally unhuman, yet octopuses are capable of recognizing and bonding with individual human beings.

    Ms. Montgomery gave a very entertaining and informative talk, and I will definitely be reading her book (as soon as Georgie is done with it--). This was an excellent kickoff to the “Science on Tap” series, which is to include four programs a year, with the next one, on plate tectonics, to be in October.
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    7:17 pm
    The Skylight Ring
    On Sunday afternoon, June 7th, we went to see “The Skylight Ring,” billed as “Wagner’s Ring cycle in two hours.

    While it’s possible to condense the story of “The Ring of the Nibelung” into as little as forty-five minutes, as done by the late Anna Russell, it’s essentially impossible to do it without humorous effect, and “The Skylight Ring” does definitely go for the laughs.

    Wagner’s Ring over all takes up eighteen hours, is most often performed over the course of four separate evenings, and has a cast of thirty characters plus chorus, and a large orchestra. The Skylight Ring was performed by a cast of four playing two dozen characters, with one of the performers, Robert Frankenberry, also providing accompaniment on the piano. A great deal of the condensed action is delivered either as narration, also by Frankenberry, or by modernized dialog. Actually, this was our largest complaint with the performance: too much talking and not enough singing. Even if you accept the old saw that “Wagner has wonderful moments—and bad half hours—“ there’s more than enough great music in the Ring to fill a two hour “greatest hits” session. Excerpting may be a problem, as Wagner doesn’t often break his later operas down into arias, but it can be done.

    Anyway, what we did get was entertaining, if pretty far from Wagner in a lot of ways—notably the ways in which The Lord of the Rings influenced this production—a “ring” of influence, if you will, since Tolkien borrowed the idea of the cursed ring that is desired by all who behold it from the Volsungasaga, the literary source of Wagner’s adaptation of the Nibelungenleid. In particular, the ring is referred to several times as having world-shattering power, an idea that comes from Tolkien, not the Icelandic poets. In addition, Alberich (Mr. Frankenberry), the dwarf who forswears love in order to seize the Rhine treasure, becomes a sort of “Gollum” figure, stalking the Ring through the generations of the Volsungs, disguised (in this version) as the villains Hunding, Mime, and Hagen. (Rather like those productions of “Tales of Hoffman” where the same bass-baritone sings all four villain roles--.)

    The other singers each also took on a number of roles, with Tim Rebers pivotal part being Wotan, but covering everything from the Rhinemaiden Flosshilde to the raven Memory (Munin). Erin Sura had some of the longest singing bits as Brunnhilda, but also played Freia, Loge, The Norn, The Forest Bird, and Gutrune. Colleen Brooks, recently seen as Dora Marx in “The Snow Dragon,” played among others Fricka, Fasolt, and Erda, but had her largest role (and the most fun) playing the swaggering and shallow Siegfreid.

    The simple set consisted of the stage floor done as the section of an enormous tree, referring to Yggdrasil, the world-tree, which was also represented as a kind of cartoon signpost pointing in all directions at one side of the stage. A large chest up center held props. Costumes were partial and representative (crowns, cloaks, eyepatch--), which resulted in some amusing and sometimes clever effects, as when, for Seigfried to disguise himself as Gunther, Ms. Brooks appropriates and dons the “nose glasses” Mr. Rebers had been wearing as the Gibichung.

    The performance was not without musical high spots, notably Ms. Sura’s songs as Brunnhilde, and Mr. Rebers’ evocation of the ring of fire as Wotan. The piano score was well played by Mr. Frankenberry, but just does not succeed in doing justice to Wagner’s music. Wagner, of all opera composers, was perhaps the greatest master of the horns, and “The Ride of the Valkuries/Brunnhilda’s Battle Cry” without brass is, frankly, an egg without salt.

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    Friday, May 29th, 2015
    4:59 pm
    Far From the Madding Crowd
    Tuesday, May 19th, we went to see the new film “Far From the Madding Crowd,” adapted from the novel by Thomas Hardy. Georgie was interested because she had read Hardy’s novels, I because I had not. We were both pleased.

    Unlike the seeming majority of Victorian-era novels, cities, like London or Bath, do not signify. All of the action of the movie takes place in rural Dorset, mostly around the village of “Weatherbury” (based on real-life Puddletown), with the nearest town being Hardy’s “Casterbridge” (Dorchester).

    The protagonist of the movie is Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), an independently minded orphan who has been raised on farms and has a good knowledge of them. Early on, she inherits a large farm/estate from her uncle, and takes over managing it and its staff with a will.

    There’s evidently something about that in farming country, since every man she meets, from stalwart shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenarts), to neurotic gentleman farmer William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), to caddish Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge) essentially proposes marriage to her in the first conversation they have that is more than a casual greeting. Although it’s obvious from the first reel, when measuring gazes are exchanged between Bathsheba and Gabriel, who she’s going to end up with, unfortunately it’s Troy who first leads her to the altar, with some un-looked-for results.

    Despite the foreshadowings, the movie maintains a continual and suspenseful level of emotional tension as the story works out that keeps one interested. Very handsomely photographed, staged, and costumed, the films portrays a very real feeling rural England. The men are mainly one-note characters for Bathsheba to play off of, but all the actors did their assigned roles very well, and with some nice nuances.

    We both enjoyed the movie very much. Highly recommended for fellow fans of “Downton Abbey” and similar stories.

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    4:58 pm
    Spaces and Traces
    On Saturday morning, May 16th, we went on the annual “Spaces and Traces” tour organized by Historic Milwaukee, Inc. This year’s tour focused on the Layton Boulevard (South 27th St) neighborhood north and south of Greenfield Avenue, extending north and west to S. 33rd and West National Avenue.

    We made a particular effort to get out early, and succeeded in being in the first group to tour one of the Frank Lloyd Wright “American System Homes” on Burnham Street. Wright is best known for his public and commercial buildings, churches, and spectacular private homes, but he made some interesting forays into housing for the common people, also. The American System homes were designed to be small (two bedrooms), make economical use of space, and be buildable using early forms of pre-fabrication. 2714 W Burnham, is an example of a single-family dwelling, which is surprisingly spacious and well laid out, but does include some of the typical Wright impracticalities. The central hallway is a story and a half high, with clerestory windows admitting light, but which are also obviously intended to be opened for ventilation purposes. However, there’s no easy way to open them, given their height and how they are hinged. The house really needs to have come with a rolling ladder as is seen in some libraries to make the windows fully functional. Other than that, it’s a nice layout, and could well be studied by people interested in the “small house” movement.

    We then went to Fire Station Number 26, a working firehouse and one of a number in the city originally built in pre-telephone days. That date is why these buildings sport towers intended to be used for fire lookout, but now relegated to hose drying. The Fire Station is an interesting combination of utilitarian function combined with period touches such as the handsome wood staircase that leads from the garage area up to the living quarters.

    North of the firehouse, we visited two interesting Queen Anne houses, one a more modest home, and one quite splendid once owned by former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, which had a lovely yard, and an impressive carriage house now used as an art studio by the present owner.
    The Votteler Manegold house at 1201 S. Layton is an impressive example of a restored house, reclaimed by descendants of a prior owner after a fire that gutted large parts of the house. Burn marks can still be seen in some of the woodwork, but one could hardly tell if not aware of the house’s history.

    Another building we were intrigued by was the School Sisters of St. Francis complex. This was open for tours of their St. Joseph chapel, which is truly a hidden jewel. The beautiful chapel (the size of a good sized church) is embedded in the School Sisters’ main building, which gives no hint of its presence from outside. The white marble space is richly decorated with mosaics, stained glass and gilding that made it the equal of many of the fabulous churches of Europe.
    We finished the tour by visiting another restored Queen Anne on 33rd Street, which had been reclaimed from years of neglect and careless uglification. There were a number of other buildings on this tour, some exterior only, but we felt we’d had enough by this time and called it a day.

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    Wednesday, May 13th, 2015
    7:55 pm
    Florentine Opera, “The Elixir of Love”
    On Sunday, May 10th, we enjoyed a charming and beautifully sung production of Gaetano Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love” (L’elisir d’amore).

    The libretto, by Felice Romani, is sweet, funny, and foolish. Poor, honest, and unsophisticated farm boy Nemorino (Rolando Sanz) loves Adina (Diana McVey), who, besides being beautiful, owns her own vineyard, reads a lot of books, and, at the beginning of the opera, is committed to her own freedom and intent on not marrying. Things don’t look good for Nemorino’s suit, so, when patent-medicine dealer Doctor Dulcamera (Musa Ngqungwana) comes to town, Nemorino asks him if he can provide a love potion like the one he has overheard Adina speak of, in the story of Tristan and Isolde.

    Dulcamera, following the tried and true rule of never giving sucker an even break, sells Nemorino an unaltered bottle of wine for the lordly sum of one dollar, but cautions it will take overnight to work (by which time Dulcamera figures he will be gone--).

    Meanwhile, Adina, having reconsidered her priorities, agrees to marry the hunky Sergeant Belcore (Corey McKern). Initially, Nemorino is not dismayed thinking the potion will change her mind before the wedding, but complications ensue when the date is moved up due to Belcore getting new orders. Nemorino attempts to delay the wedding, as does Adina, who is havingthird thoughts.

    Desperate, Nemorino enlists in the army with Belcore in order to get money for a second bottle of “potion” in an attempt to speed results. Dulcamera happily sells him another bottle, and then is astonished to see him swarmed by the local unattached women, who, unbeknownst to the men, have heard a rumor that Nemorino has inherited a fortune.

    Witnessing this from a distance, jealousy flares up in Adina, causing her to admit that she loves Nemorino. She buys out Nemorino’s enlistment, and confesses her love to him. Belcore shrugs off being jilted, saying there are thousands of other women he can get. Amid general happiness, Dulcamera takes the opportunity to tout the efficacy of his potions.

    The Florentine’s new production was updated to the 1930’sand transplanted to California’s Napa Valley, which is quite believable. The simple setting was done in bright watercolor shades. Costumes were pretty and period-appropriate, including Adina’s fashionable pantsuits. All of the performers sang and acted masterfully, including the members of the Florentine Opera Chorus, who were in excellent voice. We were especially pleased with the handing of the opera’s trademark “A Furtive Tear” aria, (“Una furtiva lagrima”),which Mr. Sanz presented simply, sweetly, and in a contemplative fashion appropriate to the story, instead of making it a tenor showoff piece, which is commonly done.

    Maestro Joseph Resigno was at the podium, and evoked Donizetti’s music from the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra flawlessly to our ears. This was a thoroughly lovely afternoon at the opera.

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    5:36 pm
    Avengers: Age of Ultron
    On Saturday, May 9th, we went to see Avengers: Age of Ultron. We enjoyed this next installment of the ongoing Marvel Movieverse saga, but not quite as much as the initial Avengers film.

    Part of this may have been due to the character interaction, which, while actually realistic, isn’t quite as much fun. In the time since the end of the last film, the Avengers have shaken down into more or less of a team, with Captain America (Chris Evans) as defacto team leader. Things are on more of a businesslike footing, with both less banter and less arguing between the team members. What character interaction we do get is good, with a poignant relationship developing between Black Widow (Scarlett Johannsen) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and our view into the abnormally (for superheroes) normal home life of Hawkeye/Clint Barton(Jeremy Renner).

    The plot picks up shortly after the end of the last film. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) intends to take the “Scepter of Loki” back to Asgard, but yields to Tony Stark’s desire to examine it before it leaves Earth. Stark discovers that the device harbors an intricate matrix capable of supporting an artificial intelligence more complex than his “Jarvis” program, and decides to investigate its usefulness for his “Ultron” program—a projected automated defense network capable of defending the Earth from alien invasions.

    Of course, things go wrong. In classic “Frankenstein” fashion, “Ultron” (voice of James Spader) achieves consciousness while Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is away, and freely interprets its mission as being to defend the planet Earth against all dangers—including humans, and especially the particularly dangerous Avengers. Ultron, as interpreted in this script, is a fascinating creation, partaking not only of Frankenstein’s creature, but also other classics of science-fiction, such as the destructively over-protective robots of Jack Williamson’s “With Folded Hands,” and the Terminator movies’ “Skynet.”(Evidently, the Terminator films didn’t exist in the Marvel Universe--.) Ultron’s sometimes existential musings also reminded me of Heath Ledger’s “Joker”—thus proving that Stark has created perhaps the worst monster ever—a nigh-indestructible killer robot with Tony Stark’s sense of humor.
    Quickly making himself multi-bodied, Ultron multi-tasks—trying to access nuclear launch codes, destroying the Avengers, building himself an upgraded “synthezoid” body, and coming up with a grandiose plan to render humanity extinct when he’s denied access to the nukes. Ultron recruits Hydra’s modified humans, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), who have good reason to hate Tony Stark and want revenge on him and his.

    While it’s a generally entertaining plot, there are some pointless diversions. The long battle between Hulk and the optimistically named “Hulk-Buster” Iron Man is needless, except insofar as it allows the script to hint that Stark’s judgment is bad and perhaps getting worse, and allowed the special-effects crew an extended exercise. When Hulk goes on a rampage due to Scarlet Witch’s mind-control, instead of leading him out of town, which could have been easily done at the expense of a few tossed cars, Stark activates “Veronica,” his Hulk-emergency system, and proceeds to engage in a battle that destroys approximately half of downtown Cape Town (or whatever African city that was supposed to have been). This misjudgment is scarcely commented upon, and I sorely missed having Rodgers give Stark a little after-action review.

    The overarching plot will continue, with Thor having tumbled that something is going on with the Infinity Gems (as we loyal viewers have known),and Thanos (Josh Brolin) making another cameo appearance at the end.

    Among other positive points, I really liked the characterizations and visualizations of new characters Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and Vision (Paul Bettany, heretofore the voice of “Jarvis”, in the synthetic flesh). We both particularly liked the Witch’s new costume, briefly glimpsed at the end, which is much better looking than any of her comic-book versions.
    I guess the best way to take this series is as we took the comic books it is born from—they can’t all be great, but each one builds upon the next with good writers. In a lot of ways, this installment of Avengers is a “middle book” of trilogy, one in which complications are added, but few things ultimately resolved. I do look forward to further installments.

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    Tuesday, May 12th, 2015
    7:59 pm
    Renaissance Theatreworks, “Lettice and Lovage”
    Saturday, May 2nd, we went to the Studio Theater at the Broadway Theatre Center to see “Lettice and Lovage,” by Peter Shaffer.

    In this comedy, the protagonist, “Lettice” (pronounced“lettuce”), played by Laura Gordon, is a woman of a certain age beginning second career as a docent/tour guide, after having managed her mother’s Shakespearian theatre troupe for many years. Working for Britain’s National Trust, she is assigned to “Fustian Hall,” the country’s dullest stately home. In reaction to audience boredom, she begins to embroider the house’s bald narrative, until it becomes a veritable tapestry of historical improbability.

    A surprise inspection by her supervisor, Lotte Schoen (Carrie Hitchcock) results in Lettice being given the sack, but not before she makes her impassioned case for injecting a bit of theatre into the dullness of life. This eventually leads to an unlikely friendship striking up between the flamboyant Lettice and strait-laced Lotte, which leads both to some harrowing adventures in home theatricals, and the sharing of deeply hidden secrets.

    How it all works out is quite hilarious, and we found it tube a charming little play. The story belongs to the two ladies, and both Gordon, the current grande dame of the Milwaukee theatre scene, and Hitchcock are wonderfully good. They are ably supported by Bryce Lord as Lettice’s baffled solicitor, and a supporting cast of minor bureaucrats and house tourists.

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    Saturday, May 9th, 2015
    11:15 am
    West Allis Players, “Death By Chocolate”
    Given the back-to-back titles of West Allis’ Players’ fall and spring murder mysteries, “The Cupcake Killer,” followed by “Death By Chocolate,” one might begin to suspect there was some kind of conspiracy in place to encourage dieting. Although deadly treats are a common theme, each confection was quite different.

    “Death By Chocolate,” by Craig Sudaro, is a pure comedy, beginning with the down-but-not-out detective, “Nick Noir” (played by Rick Loos), working from an “office” which is a desk parked in an alley behind a friend’s restaurant. Nick is about ready to pack the detective gig in, over the objections of his fiercely loyal secretary, Selma (Ashlee Hosbach), when the call comes in to take over investigating the “Death By Chocolate” murder, a case that has the police baffled.

    The remainder of the play takes place at the “Precious Perks Coffee Shop,” the scene of the crime. Run by two sisters who had been separated at birth and recently reunited, “Coco” and “Bonbon Purvis” (Vicky Heckman and Christi Kavanaugh), “Death By Chocolate” is the café’s most popular drink, now notorious for having been the means for delivering an exotic poison to a customer.

    When another one of the café’s habitués drops dead of the same cause, and all the police are tied up at a major event, Nick sees his chance and doggedly pursues the investigation, aided by Selma in a variety of disguises.

    Players Lily Sullivan, Scott Dyer, Scott Fudali, Cory Klein, Eileen Dyer, and Beth Kern fill out the cast of more-or-less suspicious characters.

    Characterizations were generally solid for broad comedy, with Mr. Loos doing a lot of the work as the embattled detective, and Ms. Hosbach has some of the funniest bits as the woman who works in miserable conditions for no money, because she loves romance-impaired Nick.

    Although there was a lot to like in this show, I came away ultimately unsatisfied, due, I think to the timing. In a “noir detective” script the dialog has to “crackle.” There weren’t any dead spots or missed lines that I noticed, but the energy was just not quite there.

    All in all, an enjoyable afternoon at the theatre, but I wanted a bit more.

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    Wednesday, April 8th, 2015
    7:27 pm
    Off the Wall Theatre, "Odyssey: A Warrior's Journey Home"
    On Saturday evening, April 4th, we went to see Off the Wall Theatre's new production, "Odyssey: A Warrior's Journey Home." The play is freely adapted from Homer's "Odyssey," but is generally true to the incidents of the story, while gaining strength by deepening the human dimension.

    Claudio Parrone, Jr. plays Odysseus, and it is a heroic role in all respects, not just in the length of the role, being on stage for most of the two hours' performance, but in the number and subtlety of the emotions required. The play begins with a framing device, with the troupe of actors discussing why they should stage this now ancient story, Parrone's character, not convinced, nevertheless throws himself into the role of Odysseus.

    The action proper begins with Odysseus washed up on a beach and succored by the Princess Nausicaa (Alejandra Gonzalez), who is fascinated by the brooding and manly castaway. He tells his story in flashback to her and her father, King Alcinous (Tairre Christopherson), relating his misadventures with a piratical raid on Ismaros in the land of the Cicones, with the Lotus-eaters, and with the Cyclops. He describes the wrecking of his fleet when Aeolus' bag of wind is opened, and the encounter with Circe, and his other adventures and catastrophes until being released from the island of Calypso, whence he has most recently come. Alcinous decides to assist Odysseus get home, and provides him with a ship, a crew, and many gifts.

    The latter part of the play deals with Odysseus' homecoming, his revealing himself to his son and loyal followers, and the plan to rid Ithaca of the vicious band of suitors for Penelope's hand.

    It would seem difficult to present such an epic story in Off the Wall's small space (not for nothing do we refer to it as the "Hole in the Wall Theatre," but the creativity of the actors and producers rose to the challenge. Clever low-tech effects enhanced the action, such as enshrouding the battle with the Cicones in swathes of red netting, which implied a red mist of blood over the field. There were a couple of curious choices, such as making Polyphemus the Cyclops a Japanese ogre (played with great glee by Derek Lobacz). Most of the cast members played numerous roles, a necessity used to advantage in having Jacqueline Roush play Penelope, Circe, and Calypso, which underscores Odysseus' lament, when breaking free of Calypso's power, that "I see all women as Penelope."

    The human element of the stories is continually turned uppermost. Odysseus struggles under the weight of many burdens. The deaths of his men, many due to his own arrogance or bad judgement; the long separation from home and family; and not least, the burden of his own reputation. Odysseus the Hero, the twisted man, the liar, haunts Odysseus the man, threatening to overshadow him, and causing even Odysseus to doubt which parts of his story are true.

    Once Odysseus has vanquished the suitors, he must confront Penelope, who is upset and shattered by the realization that the man who has come home is not the young husband whose memory she has cherished and clung to for twenty long and lonely years. The play ends uneasily as they realize they must learn to know and love one another again--or not.

    Dale Gutzman and John Angelos, in their adaptation, have put together a script that abridges the epic story into a manageable play, but does it with powerful dialog and evocative action. The cast traded roles with alacrity and made excellent use of costume and prop pieces that were mainly referential rather than substantial. There was very fine acting by all concerned, in particular Mr. Parrone, Ms. Roush, and Marann Curtis in the pivotal role of Athene, Odysseus' patron goddess.

    Off the Wall continues to take chances and challenge the audience, which, in this case, resulted in a very enjoyable evening at the theater.

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    Tuesday, April 7th, 2015
    7:54 pm
    Jupiter Ascending
    On Tuesday, March 31st , we caught up with “Jupiter Ascending” at the budget cinema. It hadn’t been a specific decision to wait, even given the poor reviews, it just happened we couldn’t get out to it while it was in first-run.

    The major reason we were interested in seeing the film (besides the general idea of supporting big-budget SF films--) was for the visuals, and in that regard, it wasn’t disappointing. The CGI spaceships and settings were indeed beautiful and fantastic, which made the film (mostly) a feast for the eyes. In particular, I was very taken with the multi-part reconfigurable starships. The planetary designs and the interiors reflect the decadent society of the Galactics (particularly the antiquated tech in use by the bureaucracy of home world) which would have been very good for the “Dune” universe. The exception comes with some of the battle scenes, which tend to become blurs of color and motion that are hard to interpret.

    Once you get past the ludicrous premise of Jupiter being the exact genetic twin of a woman born on another planet, the plot has potential, but a lot of it is squandered. It’s mainly a kind of reverse-Cinderella, where Jupiter (Mila Kinis) gets recognized as heir to the Planet Earth, and then discovers the awful relatives, notably sort-of stepsons Titus Abrasax (Douglas Booth) and Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne). After initial attempts to kill her are thwarted by wolf-human hybrid warrior Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), Jupiter is yanked off Earth and into an unfortunately cliché-ridden and repetitive cycle of abduction, threat, and last-second rescue.

    There are good bits. I rather liked Kunis as the unsophisticated young woman who gets thrown into this maelstrom, alternating between keeping her head and ranting at what fate has done to her. Tatum is suitably feral as the wolf-man, although he doesn’t get to do much except action scenes. Booth is OK as the smooth villain, and Redmayne perhaps unintentionally amusing as the growly over-the-top villain. My favorite characters were in smaller roles, such as Nikki Amuka-Bird as the competent and compassionate Aegis commander; Samuel Barnett as “Advocate Bob,” an android lawyer; and the cameo by Terry Gilliam as the “Seal and Signet Minister.”

    So, pretty to see, but ultimately unsatisfying, a pity. The movie would have been better if it were either about a third shorter, or much longer, since it could have been a mini-series rife with intrigue, ala “Dune,” or “Game of Thrones.” (Interesting how I keep coming back to “Dune”—what I think I would like to see would be this production team tackle “Dune”, but with someone else doing the script.)

    Oh, and coolest SF gadget of the year—Caine’s gravity gliding boots!)

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    Monday, March 30th, 2015
    5:57 pm
    Milwaukee Ballet, “Giselle”
    On Sunday, March 29th, we went to see the Milwaukee Ballet’s performance of Michael Pink’s “Giselle.” Liberally adapted from the original 1841 libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier, Pink reimagines the story starting in the ghetto of an unnamed Polish town. Although the civilians aren’t specifically designated as “Jews” or the Fascistic soldiers “Nazis”, it’s pretty clear from the black uniforms and German/Polish signage what’s implied.

    As the music starts, we see one of the townspeople, Hilarion (Timothy O’Donnell), clamber over the fence into the ghetto, eluding the searchlights and guards. As day breaks, he leaves vegetables he has scrounged and a bunch of flowers on the doorstep of the house where Giselle (Annia Hildalgo) lives, knocks, and then hides. Giselle is delighted by the flowers, but her mother (Rachel Malehorn) is more happy with the leeks and parsnips.

    Enter Albrecht, a young officer of the occupiers. He is engaged to Bathilde (Janel Meindersee), the sister of his commander (Patrick Howell), but is intrigued by Giselle. Furtively, he doffs and hides his cap, belt and coat, revealing civilian clothes underneath. He then commences a flirtation with Giselle, and presses the gift of a necklace on her. Hilarion objects to this, and the two fight, but are separated by the townspeople, who strike up music and dancing to divert any attention by the guards. Giselle dances, but her mother, afraid due to Giselle’s weak heart, pulls her aside.

    Albrecht ducks out as the guards do enter. Bathilde has arrived, and her brother is giving her a tour. Among other things, the people attempt to entertain her. When it is mentioned that Giselle loves to dance, Bathilde demands that she do so, and Giselle dances until she is exhausted.

    When Bathilde leaves, Albrecht slinks back, only to be exposed when children find his bag and uniform. Giselle flies into a passion and dies. Bathilde, drawn back by the commotion, flings her engagement ring to the ground beside the prostrate Albrecht. As the curtain falls, her brother gives the order to round up the witnesses to his sister’s disgrace.

    During the second act overture, we see the townspeople being “processed”, and then machine-gunned (tastefully done with light and sound effect--). As the ballet music proper starts, the dead rise and start adjusting to their new life as spirits. (Georgie had seen this ballet performed with the classical choreography, and said that Pink had adapted it wonderfully for this scene, preserving the steps but making it more ghostly). Giselle, now transfigured into an angelic being of light, comes among them and gladdens them.

    Albrecht, wracked with shame and guilt, enters, seeking Giselle’s grave. She appears to him, expressing forgiveness. He pursues his vision of her, but encounters the ghostly townspeople, now bent on vengeance. They hound him to exhaustion and near death, with only Giselle’s intervention saving his life. As dawn breaks, the spirits depart, leaving Albrecht alone to face the day.

    All the dancing for this piece was beautiful and powerful, with few noticable flaws. One objection that Georgie had was that the original first-act choreography was too broken up by the story insertions: she would have liked to see more sustained dancing. However, this was significantly mitigated by the power of the storyline and the wonderful character that Pink always puts into these scenes, and by the fact that the second act is pure dance, with much of the classical choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. The Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra, directed by Andrews Sill, did a fine job with Adolphe Adam’s score for our performance.

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    5:51 pm
    Cinderella (2015)
    On Friday, March 27, we went to see Disney’s new live-action “Cinderella.” I had wondered what they would do with the story that they had not done in their famous animated version. The answer is: lots!

    For one thing, I do believe that it is the most beautiful movie I have ever seen. Every shot is meticulously composed. The settings (largely, but not all, CGI) are amazing, the costumes gorgeous, and the actors all good to look at in their own ways.

    The story has been expanded in satisfying ways beyond Perrault. We get to see young Ella’s happy life before the death of her mother, her father’s hope in his new marriage, and the devastation wrought not only upon Ella, but also upon her stepmother, when the news comes that her father has died in a distant land.

    Director Kenneth Branagh has brought out some remarkable performances. In the scene where she is on her deathbed, Hayley Atwell as Ella’s mother does much more than the clichéd “sick” performance, instead portraying profound sorrow at having to leave her daughter and husband. Lily James, as Cinderella (known as the light-hearted Lady Rose MacClare in “Downton Abbey”), arriving at the ball, radiates innocent joy at being there. When the wise King (Derek Jacobi) lies dying (it is a hard movie on parents) his son (Richard Madden) cries unashamedly, and the King in turn weeps for the Prince’s grief. Cate Blanchett proves that she can channel the late Joan Crawford, with her glittering eye, cruel laughter, and ruthless determination, aided by the character’s blood-red lipstick and corsetry that somehow manages to suggest a 1950’s era ‘bullet’ bra. Her Dior-inspired costumes also hark back to the great days of Crawford and Bette Davis, which really does work in the context. We also get a bit of back story on Stepmother, so we see that she isn’t entirely spiteful just for the sake of spite.

    There are many other marvelous moments. The sequence in which the madly careering pumpkin coach and crew, overtaken by the strokes of midnight, reverts to its component parts, is worth the price of admission alone. The CGI mice, although they don’t talk, sing, or wear clothes, are utterly charming.

    The story also grafts in some useful fairy tale tropes. The Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) tests Ella before agreeing to aid her, by appearing as a strange old woman and begging for some milk, in order to see if Ella has kept her mother’s precept to “have courage, and be kind.”

    Georgie and I have both long maintained that Cinderella is not, unlike Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, a character that needs to be ‘rescued.’ Instead, the beauty of the Cinderella story is in being recognized, in being seen for who you truly are, and being valued therefore. In this version, Cinderella, does have to be rescued, having been locked in the attic by Stepmother, in order to add a little dramatic tension, but the recognition scene that follows does much to restore the original emphasis.
    Beautiful, touching, uplifting—it is my opinion that “Cinderella” is nothing short of a masterpiece.

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    Tuesday, March 24th, 2015
    5:44 pm
    What We Do In The Shadows
    We have a new favorite “mockumentary”: “What We Do In The Shadows,” purportedly by the “Documentary Film Board of New Zealand.” It is a “reality TV” styled story, dealing with the interactions and misadventures of four male vampires, Viago (Taika Watiti), Vadislav (Jemaine Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and Petyr (Ben Fransham), who “flatshare” a crumbling house in Wellington, New Zealand. They have the usual kind of issues one might expect from four unemployed men, dealing with things such as fair division of dishwashing and cleaning. Excessive TV or video games actually aren’t issues, since, living relatively isolated lives, the most advanced entertainment machine they have is a wind-up phonograph.

    Petyr, the eldest (“8,000 years old,” according to Deacon) is a Nosferatu-style monster who doesn’t talk, and exists mostly in a ‘tomb’ in the basement. Vadislav, the next oldest at a mere 800+ years, once had a fearsome reputation and power as “Vadislav the Poker,” but has lost much of his drive since having been defeated in a supposedly epic battle with his arch-foe, “The Beast.” Fastidious Viago was an 18th Century German dandy, and still dresses like it. Deacon was a peasant peddler in the 19th Century when he was turned by Petyr, whom he now considers his “best friend.”

    The documentary supposedly covers six or so months of the group’s life, in which we hear the bittersweet story of Viago’s lost love, see Deacon’s exploitative relationship with his “familiar,” Jackie (Jackie van Beek) and learn how they deal with the ramifications of a certain “dinner party.”

    Deacon coerces Jackie into bringing her ex-boyfriend, Nick (Cori Gonzales-Macuer) and his current girlfriend to dinner at the vampire’s house, intending that the vampires will ‘eat’ them. After excruciatingly awkward attempts at what might be called “playing with their food,” Viago, Vadislav, and Deacon attack. Nick nearly escapes, but runs into the clutches of Petyr.
    A couple of days later, the vampires are nonplussed to discover that Nick is now a vampire, having been turned by Petyr instead of killed. Out of self-preservation, the vampires take Nick under their wing, trying, with poor success, to inculcate as much secrecy as they themselves manage (part of the irony, of course, is that this is all being taped by the “Documentary Board” crew, whom we never see--.) The best thing about having Nick around is his human friend, Stu (Stuart Rutherford), who’s willing to accept his friend as a vampire, and by extension becomes friends with the others, and initiates them into the mysteries of mobile phones and computers.

    However, Nick is a blabbermouth, and has soon let way too many people know that he is a vampire, with some dire results. How this all works out at the climax, the annual “Unholy Masquerade” party, is the most compelling part of the film.

    Laugh-out-loud funny, the film is a delirious combination of over-the-top vampire shocker and “This Is Spinal Tap,” with a healthy dollop of “Monty Python” for leavening. The vampire’s ramshackle house is a great set, and other are full of irony such as the dismal bus-station ambiance of the “vampire bar,” and the “Cathedral of Despair” where the Masquerade is held has a sign on the building saying “Victoria Bowling Club.” The costuming is a hoot, as each character tends to dress in his own idea of what a “sexy vampire” would wear. The acting is quite good for standards of broad comedy, and, for native born New Zealanders with Maori ancestry, Watiti and Clement hang on to their respective German and Transylvanian accents pretty well. Besides the pratfalls, there are some serious moments, and it is nice to see the vampires portray some emotions other than the standard “lust/hunger” we are used to. Effects, especially “flying” are surprisingly good. Of course, being a modern vampire movie, there’s a lot of blood, some of it sprayed for humorous effect—you have been warned.

    Good for fans of the vampire who have a sense of humor with it, and for fans of the mockumentary genre who can stomach relatively mild horror. Although a comedy, not for the young due to the violence, gore, and coarse language.

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    5:42 pm
    The Met in HD: “La Donna del Lago.”
    We went to see the Metropolitan Opera’s HD reprise of “La Donna del Lago” on Wednesday, March 18th, and enjoyed it very much.

    Giacomo Rossini’s bel canto opera “La Donna del Lago” (“The Lady of the Lake”) has nothing to do with Arthurian legend: instead, it is based upon a poem by Sir Walter Scott, set in his beloved Scotland. The “lady” of the title, Elena, is the beautiful daughter of a Highland chieftain, Duglas d’Angus, who has promised her hand in marriage to his ally, Roderigo di Dhu. However, Elena instead loves the young and doughty Malcolm instead. Her life is further complicated when she encounters King James V of Scotland (in disguise as “Uberto”), out hunting, who also falls in love with the maiden at first sight.

    (If the character names strike you as a hash, I agree. In Scott’s poem, Elena is “Ellen Douglas,” her father is “James Douglas,” the King’s alias is “James Fitz-James”, and Rodrigo is “Rodrick Dhu” (‘the black’). The only explanation that makes sense to me is that the librettist, Andrea Leone Tottola, chose names that sounded better sung as part of an Italian libretto.)

    We came specifically to hear Joyce DiDonato in the role of Elena, and we were not disappointed. Di Donato is unquestionably the reigning Queen of Bel Canto, with a voice that is beautiful, powerful, and flexible enough to make the best of the ornamentations called for by Rossini’s score. We agreed that, in her own way, she is every bit the equal of past greats such as Beverly Sills or Joan Sutherland.

    Actually, the whole opera was a feast for the ear, a good thing since the thin plot of the love quadrangle amid a rebellion of the Highlands against the Lowlander King, exists mainly to hang arias on. All of the singers were just splendid: Juan Diego Flores as King James, John Osborne as Roderigo, and Oren Gradus as Duglas. We were particularly pleased with mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona in the “breeches” role of Malcolm, who sang a very beautiful aria, Ah! si pera: ormai la morte! fia sollievo a’ mali miei ("Ah! Let me perish”) in the second act. (One may question, as we did, if you can properly call it a ‘breeches’ role if the character is wearing a kilt. This actually came up in the broadcast interview with the singer, in which she said she had had trouble remembering to move like a man, since the longish great kilt felt to her like wearing a skirt--.)

    The opera was good to look at as well. Most of the action took place in a simple outdoor set, redressed with foliage or battlefield wrack as needed, backed by a very nice projected sky. This portrayed sunrise, sunset, storm, or a slightly stagey ‘shooting star’, without being either too bright or hyper-real. Costumes for the Highlanders had appropriately ‘ancient’ looking Tartans and what I suppose were period-appropriate baggy socks. The climactic scene in the King’s court was a gorgeous panoply of dress in ivory and gold brocade, which also hinted as to why there might be tensions between the Highlanders and their King--.

    This was a very satisfying and beautiful evening at the Opera.
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    5:39 pm
    The Newberry Consort, “Rosa das Rosas”
    On Saturday, March 14th, we went to the Zelazo Center on the UWM Campus for Early Music Now’s presentation of the Newberry Consort, in “Rosa das Rosas: Cantigas de Santa Maria.”

    The Newberry Consort, based in Chicago, consists of six performers, augmented for this performance by four additional choristers. The players are: David Douglass (co-director, medieval strings), Ellen Hargis (co-director, soprano), Shira Kammen (medieval strings and harp), Dan Meyers (percussion and medieval winds), Mark Rimple (gittern and psaltery), Matthew Dean (tenor and narrator), and Francy Acosta (soprano), Lucia Mier y Teran Romero (soprano), Tom Crawford (alto), Corey Shotwell (tenor).

    The Cantigas de Santa Maria were written by King Alfonso X, King of Castile, Leon, and Galicia (1221-1284), known as “el Sabio,” “the wise,” due to his many writings on a wide range of topics, especially the law. He supposedly attributed his recovery from an illness or injury to healing by the Virgin Mary, and so declared himself to be her troubadour. Four hundred and twenty-seven songs, each of which mentions Mary in some way, were collected as the Cantigas de Santa Maria. These are actual songs, accompanied by musical notation of the period, not just poems that were adapted later, so, as much as possible, the music is authentic to the time of Alfonso’s writing.

    The consort included fourteen pieces, in two sections, which were accompanied by projections of illuminations from two of the known manuscripts, which are richly illustrated with over twelve hundred pictures. All are fascinating. One set includes illustrations that go with the stories of the songs, and another set depicts musicians and instruments. The Consort also used the projections to provide translated “supertitles” for the songs, much appreciated since they are in 13th Century Galician-Portugese, a popular language for music at that time.

    Many of the songs are notable for their portrayal of the Virgin as the intimate and loving friend of the people, a mother figure for whom no job is too big or too small if the prayer be sincere. In one, she “saves” a pregnant abbess (the victim of a seduction) by miraculously removing the child from her womb and causing it to be adopted elsewhere. In another, Mary solves the theft of a mutton chop from some of her pilgrims. In one of the most interesting stories, a young man, recently engaged, places his engagement ring on the finger of a statue of the Virgin for safekeeping while playing ball on the town common. Doing so, he declared his undying devotion solely to her. Miraculously, the statue closes its hand on the ring so it can’t be removed. The townspeople advise the man that there’s nothing for him to d now but become a monk, which suggestion he refuses, and goes on with his wedding. However, he is then haunted by dreams and visions of Mary until he leaves his wife and becomes a holy hermit. (Moral: It’s not nice to fool with Mother Mary!).

    The one issue I had with the concert was that all the “fun” songs were in the first half, and the second half was made up of all Hymn tunes, which are sober and serious, which made them seem kind of dull in comparison, although all of the music was lovely, and beautifully played and sung. The range of instruments was intriguing also, including vielle, rebec, harp, flute, bagpipe, hammer dulcimer, and citole. I was particularly interested in the tuning of the vielle, which had a very “fiddle”-like sound.

    Illustrations were entertaining as well, with those of the men playing ball, and the pilgrims hunting for the lost chop, being particular favorites. We also liked the depictions of the Virgin enthroned among Queens and wise women, giving a sidelong glance as though some of them weren’t trusted. The pictures of musicians were also fascinating, with their medieval instruments, including such oddities as a bagpipe with two chanters and four drones.

    Quibble aside, this was a very interesting and enjoyable concert that gave us some music and stories we hadn’t been familiar with, and which was very much worth attending.

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