June 9th, 2007

"Old Blind Dogs," Irish Cultural Heritage Center

On Friday, May 18th, we went to hear Scottish band "Old Blind Dogs" at the Irish Cultural Heritage Center. (yes, I'm catching up, here--). Old Blind Dogs is a group whose repetoire includes both traditional Scottish music alond with new arrangements and pieces of the bands' own composition. The group had very unusual "soft" sound compared with other Scottich bands such as Tannahill Weavers or Boys of the Loch, partly because the group's piper, Rory Campbell, plays the "small pipes" instead of the more familiar Highland bagpipe, when he is not playing various whistles instead. The small pipes are a very unusual instrument, since they incorporate not only the standard bag, mouthpiece, chanter, and drones, but also an elbow-pumped bellows of the type used on ulleain pipes. The player tends to inflate thebag initially using the mouthpiece, but then maintains air pressure while playing using the bellows, which frees up the mouth for singing. The drones are shorter and slimmer than Highland pipes giving the instrument less volume than that of the larger pipes, so the music mellows in with the rest of the band. Other band members included original band member Jonny Hardie on fiddle, mandolin, and guitar; Aaron Jones on bass, bouzouki, and guitar; and Frazier Stone on drums. Interestingly, the drum set included an African-style djembe, something we also saw with Steel Bonnets, the opening band.

The band played two good sets (plus the de rigeur two encores--) which gave us a nice mix of traditional and new music. There was a long thoughtful pibroch-like piece that was very nice, plus an enjoyable soft-rock setting of "The Bonny Earl of Murray," among those I can remember now. It was a very fine show, and we will surely want to see Old Blind Dogs again if we have the chance.

2007 Spaces and Traces Tour, Bayview

We managed to get tickets for this spring's "Spaces and Traces" tour of homes and buildings conducted by Historic Milwaukee Inc. This year's focus was on the Bayview neighborhood, which is located south of the Jones Island and Walker's Point regions along the shore of Lake Michigan. Bay View was Milwaukee's first "suburb", being a community that was developed by and around the Milwaukee Iron Company rolling mill. This business was an iron works that was one of the area's first heavy industries. The company subdivided land around the plant and built and sold homes to the Irish and Italian immigrant labor the work attracted. One area became know as "Little Italy" due to the concentration of Italian-owned buisinesses that sprang up.

The tour include homes and public buildings dating from the 1870's to the 1920's, and ranging from very fine homes to worker's cottages. The tour included the Beulah Brinton House, now the headquarters of the Bay View Historical Society, notable for being one of the oldest houses in Bay View, which belonged to the wife of a Milwaukee Iron executive, who opened her home to the workers' families, taught English and other classes, and established a lending library there. Another fine home was one of those built by the family of Elijah Estes, and early settler. Sadly, Estes' own mansion was razed decades ago to make way for Lakeshore Park.

The real jewel of the tour was the Nordberg house, built by one of Milwaukee industry's pioneering engineers. This home has been meticulously maintained and restored, and included one of the most splendid library rooms we have ever seen. The large airy room at the front of the house had extensive built-in glass fronted bookcases AND drawers for maps and drawings, PLUS included a functional inglenook (a recessed fireplace flanked by settees). Georgie and I agreed that if we had thishouse, this room was where we would spend most of our time.

(no subject)

"Shrek the Third" was fun, but not as good as the prior two movies. It lacked the freshness of the orginal, or the extensive satire of the second. The rather straightforward plot has been mentioned in numerous reviews: King Harold the Frog dies (and I have to admire the fact that the term "croaked" was NOT used--), designating Shrek his successor. Shrek is very adverse to acquiring any sort of additional responsibility, especially since his efforts as "acting king" during Harold's illness have been met with disaster. Instead, Shrek goes in search of young Arthur (Justin Timberlake), the next closest heir after Fiona. Meanwhile, the frustrated Prince Charming rallies the Kingdom's villains to stage a coup. ("You! Frumpypigskin--!" "That's Rumplestiltskin!" "Whatever! Where's the first born child you were promised?")

While the plot is mostly straightforward, there are some oddball bits that don't make much sense. For example, at King Harold's funeral, why is the soundtrack "Live and Let Die"? (Unless it is an oblique reference to the demise of John Cleese's recurring role in the James Bond franchise?)

The quest to bring Arthur back to Far, Far Away seems low risk with little at stake besides some rather heavy handed efforts to establish a mentoring relationship between Shrek and Arthur. Mr. Merlyn (voiced by Eric Idle) isn't all that funny and serves mainly as a convenient plot device. One wonders why the supposedly mercenary Puss in Boots hangs around, since his role is pretty much reduced to being second banana to Donkey.

Back home, Fiona and Queen Lillian lead a jailbreak, but they and the other captive princesses don't really get to do much before being surrounded and dragooned into Charming's over-the-top revenge setpiece.

I don't know--it just lacked spark. And this franchise also seems to have "jumped the shark" most particularly since today's paper announced that not only will there be more "Shrek" movies (number 4 already in development with core cast signed on) but that there will also be a half-hour made for TV "holiday special." Groan! Ogre babies are cute (and I'm surprised I haven't seen dolls--"Skunk Cabbage Patch" anyone?) but they could well be to the "Shrek" franchise what Ewoks were to "Star Wars."

Whether we bother with any more of these will depend upon reviews.

"Miss Potter"

The Weinstein film organization has done a gross disservice to the film viewing community and to the cast and crew of this excellent film by holding it in very limited release. In Milwaukee, it is showing on only one screen, and that at a Budget Cinema, which is unheard of for a first run picture. I had heard that a number of fillms were left in limbo as a result of the Weinsteins' severing ties with their major studio distributors, and I am wondering if something like that is responsible for the movie's ill treatment.

"Miss Potter," as a movie, is, to steal a phrase often applied in the film to Potter's work, "utterly charming." I am sure, as in any biopic, there have been factual changes made for the sake of drama. In particular, the film give the impression that Potter lead mostly a life of leisure until her first book was published at age 36. In fact, her parents (who were both pretty much idle due to inherited wealth) discouraged her intellectual development and appointed her their housekeeper when she became of age. Nevertheless, the facts regarding the publication of her books, her engagement to her publisher, his death, and her subsequent move to the Lake District and involvement in the conservation movement there, are all true.

Renee Zellweger delivers a fine performance as Beatrix. In the first sequences, where we see her trying to get her book (The Tale of Peter Rabbit) published, her features are pinched and she seems emotionally as tightly laced as an Edwardian corset. When she begins to break out of the shell of convention, she relaxes and blossoms. When tragedy stikes, she does not retreat into the tight coccoon of her earlier life, but bears sorrow with a womanly dignity and constructs another new life in the Lake Country.

She is ably supported by Emily Watson, as Millie Warne who becomes her best female friend; Ewan McGregor in a wonderfully low-keyed role as Norman Warne, who gambles his future in publishing on Beatrix; veteran actor Bill Paterson as her alternately doting and repressive father, and Barbara Flynn as her unfortunately narrow-minded mother.

The film is beautifully photographed both as to "London" and the Lake Country, and the brief animations of Potter's art work are well done and not intrusive.

This film will frequently be compared with "Finding Neverland," (also reviewed in this journal). To my mind, it is every bit as good if not better. Highly recommended.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Of the three "3" movies we have seen this season (Spider-Man, Shrek, Pirates) this one is by far the best. A direct follow-on to "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" the film picks up the story of Wil Turner and Elizabeth Swann, now allied with the resurrected Hector Barbossa, as they try to rally the Pirate Lords against the threat posed by the evil Cutler Beckett and the East India Company now that they have Davy Jones under their control. That this film is quite a bit darker than the previous entries is immediately established by the opening sequence: Beckett, under the guise of anti-piracy laws and martial law, is staging mass hangings at a rate the Spanish Inquisition or the French Revolution at the height of the Terror would have been hard put to match. We see that the mass of the condemmned includes a child, who is not spared, although the camera cuts away when the trap is thrown--.

It turns out that our heroes need Jack Sparrow, last seen leaping into the Kraken's gullet, in order to convene the council of the Pirate Lords. So, with Barbosa as example and guide, they set out to bring Sparrow back from the dead (and yes, he is dead), so setting off on what must be the most epic and magical sea story to be filmed since "Jason and the Argonauts."

It must be acknowleged that there is lots about the plot and storyline that don't make any particular sense, but you get caught up in the action and the sheer glory of the effects. For example, Barbossa's return to life is never explained. Tia Dalma says that it was easier to bring him back than Jack because "he was un-dead," but he was pretty clearly sincerely dead at the end of the first film, and no explanation as to why she would have wanted to bring him back, if indeed she was even responsible--. And there are other such flaws, but suspend your disbelief and go along for the ride.

The plot is carried by the core cast, with nicely piratical permutations of alliance and betrayal as the dynamics between Elizabeth, Wil, Jack, and Barbossa shift and work out. Chow Yun Fat is largely wasted in a small role as Malay pirate Sao Feng; we do finally get to see Keith Richards in an understated cameo as "Captain Teague" which comes late in the movie, by which time you are tired of waiting for him to appear: the producers should have done the "Alfred Hitchcock" thing and done it early to get it out of the way.

That said, the story works out to a truly epic conclusion resolving the pirates' battle for freedom of the seas, the fate of Davy Jones and his crew, the Wil-Elizabeth-Jack triangle, and (more or less)the ongoing rivalry between Sparrow and Barbossa. I don't expect to see another picture in this franchise: I think it has been brought to a satisfactory ending. STAY TO THE END OF THE CREDITS!

Recommended, if you liked the preceeding installments. If you did, you will not be disappointed. Very intense action and violence, although no gore.