Friday, December 31, 2010

Coens Stay True to Heart and Soul of 'True Grit'

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) and Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) are unlikely allies on the trail of a killer in the 2010 adaptation of "True Grit." Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

WHEN Yours Truly learned that Ethan and Joel Coen were behind a second adaptation of “True Grit,” I almost dropped a 10-pound weight on my right foot. I don’t normally carry weights around; I was at the gym when I heard it on the tele.

Immediately and inexplicably, I was filled with dread. A huge fan of westerns, am I. “True Grit” I circa 1969, starring John Wayne, Kim Darby and Glen Campbell, is one of my all-time favorites. It and the Coens’ version are based on the classic American novel of the same name by the reclusive Charles Portis. The novel chronicles the odyssey of determined and precocious 14-year-old Mattie Ross who hires crusty, weathered U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn to bring the killer of her beloved father to justice. They would be joined in the pursuit by the loquacious Texas Ranger, only identified as LaBoeuf, who is after the same man for another murder.

Rooster Cogburn, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) and Mattie Ross prove to each other that each has true grit.

“True Grit” I aired last week on TCM – no doubt so movie buffs could compare it with Version Coen, which opened nationwide on 22 Dec. just in time for Christmas. Comparisons are inevitable. (See video:

Reservations about the Coen Brothers were born of what I am not certain. After all, I am a fan of their entire body of public work. My favorite is “Miller’s Crossing,” which they handled with both whimsy and seriousness. They have a reputation for telling authentic stories, albeit with elements of surrealism and subversion. Perhaps, it is owing to these latter and the fact that, heretofore, they had not done a western. I was convinced the brothers would visit a grave injustice upon “True Grit.” Therefore, I was bitterly disappointed in advance. While I had no desire to see what I presumed would be carnage of the worst order, I also could not not see the film.

After a hard day's ride, Mattie and Rooster keep the night chill at bay around a campfire.

How misplaced were my fears! From the start worries were allayed. Now, I simply began to breathe, burrowed myself farther into my cushiony seat and enjoyed the film. Clearly, moviegoers are enjoying it, too. As of 29 Dec., “True Grit” has grossed $55.6 million. It opened in second place during Christmas weekend behind “Little Fockers” with a take of $24.8 million. Partial credit for this success has to go to the Coens, who not only directed and produced, but are responsible for the screenplay. They are pretty faithful to the book, whereas Marguerite Roberts took a few more liberties with "True Grit" I.

Jeff Bridges is like a fine wine, improving with each passing year. How delightful it was last year to see him bask in all of the accolades and honors for his role as Bad Blake in “Crazy Heart.” He won a well-deserved Oscar. It would not come as a surprise if he is nominated for an Oscar as Rooster Cogburn – a role for which the Duke took home his only statue. He is just as crusty, stubborn, lovable and capable as was JW, yet his performance is not derivative. He captures the spirit of the man while also making the role his own. Further, the chemistry with newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie is just as strong as was JW's with KD.

Mattie watches in anticipation as LaBoeuf takes a shot at some outlaws.

Matt Damon is the biggest surprise. It was not at all clear that this man from Massachusetts would be able to pull off a credible Texas accent. He does a fine job and delivers the lines in the proper cadence. He so envelops the role that on occasion it seems that he is Glen Campbell. In fact, a look into his eyes reveals a dead ringer for GC. MD’s Texas Ranger, though, is both a little more pretentious and pedantic as well as more witty than GC’s. The latter’s interpretation of LaBoeuf is more brooding and defensive. At the time he was cast, GC also had less acting experience than MD. In fact, it was his first major film role, whereas MD is accomplished at his craft.

The most crucial role in “True Grit” is that of Mattie, of course. The casting department spent months and saw thousands of girls before unearthing the jewel right under their noses in Los Angeles. It is only because this is HS’s first film and she is a relative unknown that she did not get a credit above the title. Like KD before her, she effortlessly conveys the innocence and fastidiousness of Mattie. She, too, has true grit. Regardless how full of bravery and bravado she is, though, Mattie is a mere girl who circa 1870s in a very uncivilized America journeys into bad country in pursuit of a worse man. She has experiences most won't have in their lifetime. She bears them all with – well – true grit. Where others may have swooned or fainted she maintains her composure in the face of unadulterated terror.

One can almost smell the fear emanating from her in the scene in the log cabin. Rooster kills a man for shooting his already wounded partner whom Rooster will later have to mercy kill. Mattie displays the same steely composure when she is taken hostage by Lucky Ned Pepper’s (Barry Pepper) gang. Alas, there are instances when that wide-eyed, open-mouthed wonder becomes a little one-note. A few different facial expressions or ticks to capture her fright would have done nicely.

"Afeared" she may be, Mattie stands up to Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper).

The film loses a bit of its grit on other occasions, too. An early scene is of Rooster in court defending his heavy-handed actions in the name of the law. It is funny but it goes on too long. Elsewhere, the end is true to the novel, yet it feels like a last-minute, ill-advised addition. At the beginning, an older Mattie in a voiceover recounts briefly that this is a flashback, then the film begins. After Rooster gets Mattie help for the potentially fatal snakebite on her hand, the actions switches to the present.

An older, one-armed Maggie (Elizabeth Marvel) – now a spinster – is on a train to see her old pal, Rooster, who is plying his trade in a Wild West show. He dies a few days before she arrives. Until now the audience has not clapped eyes on this woman; she bears no resemblance in looks or manner to the spirited teen. It is a very brief appearance. “True Grit” I ends in true Hollywood style with Rooster as spry as a young buck riding off into the proverbial sunset with his spry new horse. Today's audiences don't expect this from “True Grit II, but a few more liberties could have been taken with the end. As is, it is the one major flaw in an otherwise good film.

“True Grit” is one of the best modern westerns - in company with two other remakes/updates, “3:10 to Yuma” and “Tombstone.” It deserves such praise in part because of the language - another place where the Coens are faithful to the novel. The language is beautiful because it is crafted from commonplace words; often subjects and verbs are inverted. Also, there's such exquisite speech taking place in ugly circumstances and in ordinary matters. When one morning Mattie asks after LaBoeuf who has gone away to wash or to go, Rooster informs her that he is "taking care of his necessary."

Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed Mattie's father, faces his young nemesis for a second time.

There are many hilarious moments, too, as when LaBoeuf needles Rooster during the latter’s drunken target practice. “I thought you were gonna say the sun was in your eyes. That is to say, your eye.”

Another star in "True Grit" is the camera. It brings the audience squarely into the frame. In one scene in particular, Mattie evades the ferryman and swims with her new horse, Little Blackie, across the river after Rooster and LaBoeuf leave her behind the first day on the trail. It is a tight shot. The camera is right down in the water with her and the horse. Will they survive the crossing? Won’t they? The audience sees that this is a difficult, treacherous crossing, hence the ferryman. It is also obvious that the short journey is arduous for both girl and horse. In “True Grit” I in this same scene, a wider-lensed camera it used; it is at their back, offering a panoramic view. The camera is aloof. The danger is not apparent. In fact, it seems that such a crossing is routine.

Credit another pleasure of watching this latest “True Grit” to technological advances. The picture is so clear that grooves in wood are visible; detectable is the plaid on Mattie’s coat, as well as the dirt and debris on Rooster’s well-worn hat.

So defined is everything that the grit is true.

"True Grit" is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence, including disturbing images.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Going Fast: 'If That's All There Is' & 'Haunted'

Lucinka Eisler, above, as Frances Hayes, who may or may not want to get married in “If That’s All There Is.” Photo by Ed Collier.


experimental theater in a jewel of a production by the young London company that calls itself Inspector Sands, “If That’s All There Is” won the Edinburgh International Festival Fringe Prize in 2009.

It is part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, a monthlong series of award-winning British productions brought to New York for the past seven years by 59E59 Theaters. On the mainstage at 59E59 and part of the same festival is Edna O’Brien’s poignant fairytale of domestic life, “Haunted.”

Hurry, the festival shutters on 2 Jan.

"If That's All There Is," opens with Frances (Lucinka Eisler) and Daniel (Ben Lewis) sitting on the open, curtainless stage exchanging loving glances and welcoming the incoming audience members as if they are guests at their wedding. Once the lights dim, Daniel rises to make his wedding toasts. The simple set serves as wedding chamber, the couple’s apartment, Frances’ office and the office of a character only identified as Therapist (Giulia Innocenti). Daniel visits her when Frances’ behavior mystifies and confuses him.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, the scene shifts to a flashback before the wedding. Frances’ ambiguity about her fiancĂ© and over their wedding leads her to act strangely. Her bizarre behavior includes disguising herself in blonde wig and dark glasses to rob a dress on her lunch hour, as well as furtively eating cake from the drawer of her office desk. Daniel, on the other hand, is all organization; he has made flow charts, analyzing the age and relationship status of the wedding guests. As sincere and tightly-wound as he is, Daniel too, will get to unravel – but under the care and guidance of skeptical Therapist.

Among the many charms of “If That’s All There Is” are its drollness and knack for understatement. The actors are expert at subtle slapstick. Costume changes are made on stage with an almost Marx Brothers agility. The actors also move their own props and the furniture around to create a marvelous chaos. The use of multimedia comes with a twist in this funny and heartwarming theatrical pageant. For instance, videos are presented as if they are slide shows at a business conference.

Superb acting is the standard for Inspector Sands, but GI clearly stands out; she is playing dual roles in the cast of three – as the diffident and awkward Christina, an intern in Frances’ office, and as confident and self-assured Therapist.

The company is credited with creating the action and dialog – the entire theatrical production. All three actors are collaborators as Joint Artistic Directors of Inspector Sands.

Oh yes, and there is music – including Peggy Lee’s “Fever” and the nearly eponymous track by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, also sung by PL.

Brenda Blethyn and Niall Buggy in a happy embrace as Gladys and Jack Berry in “Haunted.” Photo by Jonathan Keenan.

“If That’s All There Is” provides a zany take on expectations, while “Haunted” offers a captivating, if disquieting, look at marital disappointments and rekindled desires. It originated in Manchester, England in 2009 at the Royal Exchange Theatre. “Haunted,” directed by Braham Murray, is a much more traditional play but it is far from conventional.

Jack Berry (Niall Buggy) is a pensioner who, in his infatuation, has anticipated his wife’s death. He has begun giving away her wardrobe to pretty young Hazel (Beth Cooke), who drops by his flat looking to buy garments on the recommendation of the proprietor of a secondhand shop. Gladys Berry (Brenda Blethyn) comes home from work and notices the absence of her blue angora cardigan. Gladys is not above yelling at this latest indignity.

BB’s stalwart factory-working wife has no illusions about Jack, whose philandering and grandiosity have caused rifts in their marriage before. Her Gladys displays a supple range of emotions: wronged and loving, determined and earthy, fierce and tender. Gladys shares her feelings freely, and BB’s performance embraces them all magnificently. BB is the “name” in this cast, having numerous accolades to her credit, including an Order of the British Empire and Oscar nominations.

BC gives her knowing innocent and the object of Jack’s affections, Hazel, a delicate quality. She is Ophelia to his Lear.

It is Jack’s story however, and NB’s telling is extraordinary. He, and his alter ego, Quincy, spout poetry and recite the Bard. He is enthralled, enraged, and caught up in a web of chivalry. His chivalry, however, is cavalier and cruel toward the wife he still loves but sometimes can’t abide. Gladys is as much a romantic as her husband, but Jack is more deceitful and whimsical. NB creates a mercurial character, both hopeful and disenchanted.

Visit to learn more about “If That’s All There Is” and “Haunted.”

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

‘A Little Night Music’ for Only a Little Longer


is a swan-song review not because “A Little Night Music” won’t always be a staple of musical theater. In fact, there will be many productions of Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 musical for years to come.

Bernadette Peters in her ‘Send in the Clowns’ solo in a scene from "A Little Night Music." Photos by Joan Marcus.

This one is closing on 9 Jan. after a yearlong Broadway run at the Walter Kerr Theatre and two casts. “A Little Night Music” is based on a classic film and the only comedy by Ingmar Bergman, “Smiles of A Summer Night.” SS, who wrote the music and lyrics, and Hugh Wheeler, who wrote the book, turned this lovely work into an elegant and clever musical play.

It takes place in Sweden circa 1900 and concerns a troupe of provincial actors whose star is aging actress Desiree Armfeldt. Most of the action takes place, though, at a weekend country house where old loves and new passions come to the fore.

“A Little Night Music” also stars Stephen R. Buntrock as prominent lawyer, Fredrik Egerman; Hunter Ryan Herdlicka is his son and theological student, Henrik, and Ramona Mallory is his very young wife, Anne. Elaine Stritch stars as Desiree’s mother, Madame Armfeldt; Keaton Whittaker is Desiree’s daughter, Fredrika; Bradley Dean is Desiree’s lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, and Erin Davie plays the Count's wife, Charlotte. (See video clips: http://http//

Director Trevor Nunn created a very special production of “A Little Night Music,” which originated at England’s Menier Chocolate Factory.

Bernadette Peters as Desiree and Stephen R. Buntrock as Fredrik Egerman in "A Little Night Music."

Broadway’s “A Little Night Music” hit its high point with the casting of Bernadette Peters as Desiree. BP took over from Catherine Zeta-Jones, who was a plausible, charming and glamorous Desiree, but it is not glamour that makes for a great Desiree. When the cast sings “The Glamorous Life,” it is meant to be ironic. CZ-J’s presence on the stage undercut the irony. The older BP, on the other hand, acts out the irony of the song with every breath she takes. She throws all of her tiny frame into her character’s world-weary longing and hits all her self-knowing notes. BP is the consummate Desiree - seductive and wily.

Fredrik, a former lover of Desiree’s, has taken Anne to one of the performances of Desiree’s company. While at the theater Anne realizes the connection and insists on going home. One thing leads to another and love is rekindled between Desiree and Fredrik. Complicating matters, though, is the dim-witted Count. Meanwhile Desiree, seeing the possibility of reuniting with Fredrik despite his new wife, invites him and his family for a weekend at her mother’s country estate. As Act II opens, the Count – jealous and suspicious of Fredrik’s relationship with his mistress – and his beleaguered wife also turn up as houseguests.

Elaine Stritch as Madane Armfeldt and Bernadette Peters as Desiree in "A Little Night Music."

Madame Armfeldt, an aging coquette exasperated that her daughter does not make better use of her charms, has lead an extraordinary life. Prosperous love affairs have left her well-to-do and afforded her a respectable household in which she can receive respectable visitors. She is as eccentric as a hostess as she is otherwise. ES has chosen to be the only cast member without an Anglicized accent, and plays Madame Armfeldt broadly as if she were a gun-toting grandma. It is an interesting choice. ES pulls it off with aplomb, culminating her star turn with a languidly, lustrous version of the classic “Liaisons,” half-sung, half-declared.

Leigh Ann Larkin as housemaid Petra, who enjoys life and does not want to see it pass her by, is outstanding in her solo, “The Miller’s Son.” ED, as the Countess Charlotte Malcolm, is excellent at the opposite end of the hedonistic scale – a tired and put-upon wife to a silly and philandering man.

BP as Desiree shines throughout, but her rendition of “Send in the Clowns” is truly poignant storytelling. SRB, who moved into the role of Fredrik with the cast changes, gives a nuanced performance. Handsome and distinguished and able to laugh at himself as the lawyer Egerman, he also possesses a handsome and distinguished voice.

And the night smiles on “A Little Night Music” for just a short while yet.

Visit to learn more about “A Little Night Music.”

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry/Happy/Joyful/Peaceful C H R I S T M A S

South African Nativity set made from hand-carved ebony. Photo from

IN those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria). And everyone went to his own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

"Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.
From the Holy Bible, Luke 2:1-18 (NIV).

AFTER Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." ...

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.
From the Holy Bible, Matthew 2:1, 2; 9-11 (NIV).

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Is No 'Michael' Preferable to a Flawed Version?

The cover of Michael Jackson's latest album, the posthumous "Michael," above, features a crown in its proper place. Photo from

HEAD’S UP: December again already. It’s the gifting season, which means more things to do with less time to do them in. Don’t despair. At VEVLYN’S PEN, we are here to help. For the next week or so — 12 days before Christmas ending on 22 Dec. — each day we will introduce a product/item, brand or nifty shop that we believe is worthy of consideration for those very special gifts.

Gift Idea No. 12 - the finale:

world, of course, loves and is still mourning Michael Jackson. Is it any wonder, then that the posthumous record, “Michael,” is the word’s No. 1 album at the moment. It was released on 14 Dec.

Last week a few hundred lucky New Yorkers were invited to the Roseland Ballroom where DJ Cassidy played MJ hits, dating to the Jackson 5. The actual reason for the gathering, however, was a listening party to celebrate the worldwide release of “Michael,” the next day.

The release has been the source of controversy because MJ died before it was finished. Critics, including the legendary Quincy Jones and MJ uber-collaborator, believe the record should not have been released for this reason. Many in favor of the release, except for fans, stand to gain financially from its release. Understandably, their sanctioning its release would be questioned by some.

Opinions, notwithstanding, the record is out. To buy or not to buy, that is the question. Surely, millions who haven’t heard it are curious, that includes the more than 25 million who stopped by the MJ Web site ( where before its release they could listen to the whole album, then preorder it.

Yours Truly has listened and listened and listened to the CD that she came into possession of at a certain listening party. Below are my thoughts – track by track – of the 10 songs, featuring three guest artists:

Photo from

TRACK 1. HOLD MY HAND (DUET WITH AKON) – Akon reminds fans in the liner notes that parts of this track were leaked before it was finished. He assures fans that they can now “hear it the way it was meant to be heard.” The lyrics are simple, uncomplicated and intelligible. MJ and Akon harmonize well together. It’s a good song in the spirit of “Rock with You.” Not a bad start. (Listen:; See/hear:

TRACK 2. HOLLYWOOD TONIGHT – Included in the liner notes are what are supposed to be personal notes written by MJ. About “Hollywood Tonight,” he scribbles, “… Runaway age 15 she dreams of fame riches … Her mission is to make it in Hollywood … the obstacles … are unbearable but she makes against her parents will = a true … based on a true story.”

The song starts off with chanting. Then scat-like sounds. A note from one instrument – a guitar perhaps – followed by too many to count. Danny Ray McDonald, Jr. and Michael Durham Prince should take a bow for some extra fine whistling. It sounds like a horn making a whistling sound rather than humans. The spoken word in the bridge by Taryll Jackson (no relation) heightens the drama as he recounts the pitfalls facing those seeking Hollywood fame. The arrangement is fantastic. “Hollywood Tonight” is catchy, engaging and thoroughly danceable. It will be huge in the clubs and on radio. All within earshot will be singing the hook: She’s going Hollywood/She’s going Hollywood tonight/She’s going Hollywood/She’s going Hollywood tonight/She’s going Hollywood/She’s going Hollywood tonight/It’s true, that you, may never ever have that chance again.

TRACK 3. KEEP YOUR HEAD UP – Though it is an inspirational anthem, "Keep Your Head Up" is terribly disjointed. It starts off recounting the travails of a jobless, single mother; from there man is destroying the environment, then all the world needs is love, and finally it is important to make every moment count, as the days are not promised. A mix of MJ’s velvety pop alto and a church choir give it a slight gospel tint as it nears the end, which is the best part of the song. It’s tight and goosebump-inducing with Michael and the chorus overlapping the hook and the last verse: Keeping your head up to the sky/Keeping your mind up stay alive/Gimme your wings so we can fly/ … I need your love/ I need you now/I need your light right here today/I need you now.

TRACK 4. (I LIKE) THE WAY YOU LOVE ME – A perfect companion for “She’s Out of My Life.” Think of “(I Like) The Way You Love Me” as the before and the former as the after. Vintage MJ in ballad mode. One of the best tracks on the record; it sounds finished, too.

Photo from Getty Pictures.

TRACK 5. MONSTER (FEATURING 50 CENT) – This one might have been on “Thriller" or "Bad.” “Monster (Featuring 50 Cent)” would be a perfectly fine funk/soul ditty, but for two poor marks: 50 Cent, whose rapping adds nothing to the track. Nothing! Elsewhere, one lyric in the hook, He’s an animal, sounds cringy-worthy odd with the others, He’s a monster/He’s a monster ... Back to the drawing board.

TRACK 6 BEST OF JOY – This is the track on every CD that is serviceable. It doesn’t stir emotions too much one way or the other. It’s squarely middle of the pack. “Best of Joy” will probably be on Side B of the album.

TRACK 7. BREAKING NEWS – Apparently, MJ didn’t completely have his say with “Leave Me Alone.” Here’s another screed against the media for its intense scrutiny of him. On “Leave Me Alone” he was angry, and rightfully so. With “Breaking News,” he is resigned. He’s rolling with the go. The main instruments, which lend the song a whimsical, teasing quality are the cymbals and the strings of The Benjamin Wright Orchestra. MJ is both amused and perturbed by the media elements that have a beef with him: Everybody watching the news on/Michael Jackson/They wanna see that I fall cause I’m/Michael Jackson/You write the words to destroy like/it’s a weapon. He is aware, too, of how technology has given birth to the 24-hour news cycle, No matter what/You wanna read it again/No matter what/You just wanna feed it again.

Photo from

TRACK 8. (I CAN MAKE IT) ANOTHER DAY (FEATURING LENNY KRAVITZ)I walked away but I was wrong/I can’t make it another day/You’re the one that makes me strong/I can’t make it another day/ You’re the fire that keeps me warm/I can’t make it another day/How did I get through this storm/I can’t live another day without your love … MJ’s vocals. LK’s electric guitar, lyrics and background vocals. The cymbals. LENNY’S ELECTRIC GUITAR. ROCK it ooouuut! The best vocal collaboration on the record and one of the best of MJ’s career … (See/hear:

TRACK 9. BEHIND THE MASK – Most of the songs on the record have a prelude. One of the most arresting is courtesy of Mike Phillips' sexy, sultry, seductive saxophone (with cheers laid underneath) on rocking, pulsing “Behind the Mask” about a woman who may or may not be deceiving a man besotted with her. MP brings the sax sexy back several times, including at the bridge before MJ picks up again with one of the most muscular vocals on the record. Listen for this one, too, in the clubs and on radio ... Who do you love?/Is it me? Well?/I don’t know/Who do you love?/You know me … LOVE it.

TRACK 10. MUCH TOO SOON – The tempo, understandably is downbeat on this ballad, about the loss of love. Speckled with harmonica and accordion, “Much to Soon” is the record’s sole country-pop track. It is engaging, and the lyrics are tender. A stronger closer, however, would have been something like “(I Can Make It) Another Day (Featuring Lenny Kravitz)” or “Behind the Mask.”

Doubtless, MJ would have made some tweaks to “Michael” because he is a perfectionist. The record is not “MJ perfect” but it is good – far and away better than many finished records on the market. Does that mean that fans should not buy it? That is for each individual to decide for him/herself.

Millions the world over have already spoken ... Who do you love? Is it he? Well?

”Michael” is available wherever CDS are sold and also various places on line, including the official Michael Jackson store run by distributor, Sony,; Amazon and Target,, Search: Michael.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Objects From Another Time/Place @Buck House

Revelers, above, at Buck House earlier this year for "Garden Party," marking the first time the shop's window display was created by someone other than Deborah Buck. It was the work of John Danzer for Munder Skiles. Photos courtesy of Buck House.

HEAD’S UP: December again already. It’s the gifting season, which means more things to do with less time to do them in. Don’t despair. At VEVLYN’S PEN, we are here to help. For the next week or so — 12 days before Christmas ending on 22 Dec. — each day we will introduce a product/item, brand or nifty shop that we believe is worthy of consideration for those very special gifts.

Gift Idea No. 11:

too many fits and starts here I am at Buck House on this cold, windy Monday afternoon. To my surprise, in the window is not the latest display I hoped to view. There is, though, a sight for sore eyes in the form of Deborah Buck’s personal assistant, the friendly and uber-talented Miguel. He is superintendng the design of a new display.

The theme of the current Buck House window display is "The First Woman on the Moon." Elements in the display include a huge framed copy of a Time magazine cover, steel and brass etagere with lamb head detail, as well as a Danish swivel armchair in dark green.

As pleasant as Miguel is to look at, one cannot just stand outside in the cold looking at him&helper as if they are the display, can one? I don’t think so, and wisely decide to go inside from the cold and toward some answers. “What’s going to be the theme,” Yours Truly asks?

“You’ll have to come back tomorrow to see,” a smirking Miguel informs me.

French wrought iron wine rack ($165) from 1950s.

Not exactly the answer one wants to hear but there are clues about – namely a framed blowup of a Time magazine cover announcing the walk on the moon by the first woman. Hmm … What new trick does Deborah Buck have up her rather creative sleeve.

American art pottery mottled glaze ceramic bowl ($245).

The artist/designer is mistress of Buck House, a "store" in the Carnegie Hill section of the Upper East Side that is filled with an array of objects - mostly old and ancient - for the home. An extension of her studio, it is a space in which forms, shapes and colors are constantly moving and changing. The nearly decade-old Buck House is popularly described as an antique shop. True, but only in part. It is a gallery, boutique and European-style salon.

Oriental incised marble fragment ($85) can double as a paperweight.

Buck House ( is also a home. Immediately upon entering the warmth is palpable, the welcome sincere. Luxury is abundant. One senses, however, that these things are to be truly enjoyed, not just admired from a distance. There’s a proper place for everything and everything has a proper place. Just about every inch of available space is occupied by interesting objects from near and far. Yet, it does not feel cluttered or stuffy. Have a seat on a sofa or chair.

A 19th-century French cloisanne vanity mirror ($675).

Allow the eye to pass over the various treasures that DB has unearthed during her travels about the world. Get to your feet, if you please, and fondle the whatnot you are coveting with the full knowledge that DB only purchases those things for Buck House that she would display in her own home. This includes the 200-plus-year-old Persian water vessel that someone parted with last month.

Ladder-back chairs ($1,400) with newly upholstered pillows in turquoise trimmed in pink cording.

Buck House is very much a gallery/boutique in that the exquisite objects are for show and, sell. Indeed, this makes a visit both bitter and sweet; stock is constantly changing. As I make the rounds of the showroom, I am listening to seductive Spanish music, courtesy of Pandora. Gil Gilberto is crooning in my ear as I admire an Oriental incised marble fragment ($85).

Today, a number of objects also capture the eye. Among them a pair of ladder-back chairs ($1400) circa 1950s United States and 19th century French hand mirror ($675). The chairs come with pillows in cotton velvet. The hand mirror has a decorative motif around its borders. Both items feature turquoise, DB’s favorite color.

The Buck House Christmas tree ($600).

There is Tiffany Blue and there is Buck House Blue. DB has disclosed that she developed the hots for the hue in part when she realized how easy it is to mix as a paint. It has spread well beyond the boundaries of her paintings. Turquoise is a sort of leitmotif at Buck House. It is used on the Web site; Buck House signage and bags are turquoise, too. Any number of her pieces of jewelry contain turquoise centerpieces; turquoise stone is used as a base for several pieces of jewelry/ornaments in silver.

The Buck House Christmas tree ($600) is aluminum. Its ornaments, of course, are turquoise.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Much on the Mind at 'Brain: The Inside Story'

The interactive exhibit on procedural memory, above, shows how practice makes the difficult task of tracing a shape in a mirror easier. Photos courtesy of AMNH/D. Finnin.

HEAD’S UP: December again already. It’s the gifting season, which means more things to do with less time to do them in. Don’t despair. At VEVLYN’S PEN, we are here to help. For the next week or so — 12 days before Christmas ending on 22 Dec. — each day we will introduce a product/item, brand or nifty shop that we believe is worthy of consideration for those very special gifts.

Gift Idea No. 10:

language acquisition table is doing brisk business.

A woman shyly approaches, looks at the monitor showing images of six different people. Underneath the images is the name of the language each person speaks, i.e., Mandarin, Igbo, Russian and so on. She chooses Spanish; follows the prompts and is now listening to the very friendly onscreen guide/instructor who says in Spanish, “Girl is Pretty.” Now, it is left to her to repeat those words. “Moo cha-cha,” the Luxembourger speaks into the small microphone in a close approximation of what she heard moments ago. She is pleased. The “flatline-like” illustration that appears on the screen after she listens to herself on the recording is very similar to the one that appeared on the screen after the instructor utters the phrase in Spanish.

She now says, “I play the guitar.” Alas, there are too many syllables and intonations for similar success. So involved/intricate/intertwined are the sounds/syllables/intonation associated with “My father’s red car is fast,” they may as well be brain surgery.

Speaking of brain, the language acquisition table is located in “Your Thinking Brain,” one of seven sections in “Brain: The Inside Story” at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The ambitious, heavily interactive exhibit relies on the latest information, newest findings/innovations and uses state-of-the-art technology to illustrate its main thrust – the brain is the human body’s most complex organ and this is how it works. It's on view through 14 Aug. (Visit: and

The language acquisition interactive exhibit demonstrates that accurately pronouncing particular sounds (as exemplified by the unique sounds of different languages) is more difficult if brain connections are not made early in life.

The language acquisition table illustrates what happens in the brain as a new language is learned. Each time the lady from Luxembourg says in Spanish “Girl is Pretty” and the young Australian who blew into town the night before says “Hello, my friend” in Russian, their pronounciation improves. As they repeat the phrases, the brain begins “rewriting itself” to accommodate the new sounds.

These activities happen in the Broca’s area and the Wernicke’s area. The former, located in the front of the brain near the forehead, helps speakers put words together; the latter, residing around the center of the brain, aids in the understanding of languages. Incidentally, the visual cortex is in the back of the brain. It appears, after all, that it is possible to have “eyes in the back of your head.”

A little girl from the United States speaking Mandarin handled “Thank you” and “Rock and roll music” like a mother-tongue speaker. Her mother outted her, however, disclosing that her daughter had been speaking Mandarin since she was around 3 when the family resided in China. That would certainly account for her fluency. But another explanation is that her Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas are more flexible, as they typically are in children. Think of them as being more open to change, therefore more adaptable to new environments/paradigms/sounds, etc. This flexibility/openness allowed her to learn Mandarin faster than her parents did, and without an American accent.

Elsewhere in “Brain: The Inside Story (various admission plans:, and also in “Your Thinking Brain” is the star-tracing exercise. Sit down at a table; grab the marker; look into the mirror, and trace the shape of the star. At first, it may be more than a notion, but practice make more perfection as the brain relies on “procedural memory,” which allows humans to get better at certain activities the more they do them.

Puzzling. Who/What is this? The answer appears at the end of this article.

Nearby, is an exercise designed to illustrate that the brain works harder to process competing information. The harder the brain works the slower the brain works. One board. Two columns. In Column A are words that spell a particular color i.e., yellow. The letters that form the words are colored in the corresponding hue i.e., yellow. In Column B, the letters that spell yellow are listed in green. A clock times the results. Invariably, it takes each visitor twice as long to get through Column B. A few are rendered speechless for a few seconds before the brain sends the signals that allow them to pronounce the word.

Other sections in “Brain: The Inside Story” include “Your Emotional Brain” and “Your Sensing Brain.” Hanging in this latter section is a grainy image that looks like a puzzle, especially when viewed through glass. It is a visual representation of how the brain processes pieces of visual information into a coherent whole. “Introductory Theater,” is a good starting place because it imparts basic information that will be helpful in the rest of the exhibit. It’s good theater, too.

In the “21st Century Brain” section visitors not only learn that a computer can be connected to the brain, some – like parents – can decode silent thoughts.

Question: Who/What is pictured in photo above?
Answer: Mona Lisa.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A 'Brief Encounter' That Goes a Long Way

Tristan Sturrock and Hannah Yelland, above, as restrained lovers Alec and Laura in "Brief Encounter." Photos by Joan Marcus.


EMMA Rice’s “Brief Encounter”
takes Noel Coward’s 1945 film adaptation of his one-act play about forbidden love, “Still Life,” from the screen to the silver stage!

At Roundabout Theatre's Studio 54 in an extended run through 2 Jan., "Brief Encounter" pays tribute to its cinematic origins in uniquely cinematic ways.

Director ER (she is also responsible for the adaptation) uses film clips, toy trains, and a multi-level stage that serves as train trestle and love nest, to nice effect.

Speaking of effects: at one point the heroine, Laura (Hannah Yelland), steps from the stage into the screen to join her husband, Fred (Joseph Alessi) in a film version of the scene. Later, Alec (Tristan Sturrock) dives through the image of a speeding train and appears at a window as it speeds by on screen.

Laura (Hannah Yelland) seeing her man off - it is her husband or her lover? - in a scene from "Brief Encounter."

Laura and Alec, both respectable, married people, meet by chance at a railroad station teashop. Laura has a splinter in her eye; Alec, explaining that he is a doctor, helps her remove it. Over time they continue to meet, first for a movie, then a row, then a brief affair. Thursdays are marked by the lovers’ meeting - or on one occasion - missing each other except for a brief moment of explanation before a train takes Alec home. As the teashop owner, Mrs. Myrtle Bagot, (Annette McLaughlin) remarks at one juncture, this is going to end badly. (See trailer:

Love, or lust, is in the air elsewhere, too: Myrtle Bagot has a flirtation and a bit more with Albert, the stationmaster, (also played by Joseph Alessi). Her shop girl, Beryl (Dorothy Atkinson), and Stanley (Gabriel Ebert) are also carrying on. But it is Laura and Alec's story that is meant to be the poignant core of "Brief Encounter." Myrtle and Albert are livelier than Laura and Alec. Their animation is in part thanks to a class system that allows “lower classes” to have more fun in matters of love. Laura and Alec are firmly of the middle class, and their decency makes their passion almost decorous – and less than passionate – and them dull.

Annette McLaughlin and Joseph Alessi as exuberant lovers in "Brief Encounter."

That is not to say that the acting and actors aren’t excellent. ER’s Kneehigh Theatre Company is a talented bunch. The actors sing and play a variety of instruments, and in some cases, parts, with finesse. AMcL’s Myrtle delivers two particularly entertaining versions of a love song in which she first discloses that she is not good at love and then that she is.

In theory, “Brief Encounter” is an agreeable way to spend 90 minutes with nice people in and out of the teashop. The "Brief Encounter" for the audience, however, is an uneventful and somewhat bland melodrama.

Visit to learn more about “Brief Encounter."

Tamara Beck is President, Clean Lists Associates, Inc, an association management firm. And an avid theater-goer.

Open Wine: Put a New-Fangled Cork in It!

Metrokane, known for devices as beautiful as they are practical, produces the Houdini Wine Preserver, left. It is perfect for those multiple wine bottle nights. Photo from

HEAD’S UP: December again already. It’s the gifting season, which means more things to do with less time to do them in. Don’t despair. At VEVLYN’S PEN, we are here to help. For the next week or so — 12 days before Christmas ending on 22 Dec. — each day we will introduce a product/item, brand or nifty shop that we believe is worthy of consideration for those very special gifts.

Gift Idea No. 9:


you hate it when you’ve got seven bottles of decent wine left open after your dinner party? Does it pain your heart to have to choose between finishing a fine bottle of wine and finishing off your liver?

Well hello world, there’s no need to suffer. In fact, the solution is quite simple: suck the air out of the bottle. Wine tastes old because of oxidation. (Yes, the wine is rusting.) Remove the air and remove the oxidation.

No, no, no, don’t go sucking on the bottle. Instead, check out these gizmos that do the job instead. Manual vacuum pumps such as Metrokane’s Houdini Wine Preserver are easy to use. (

Simply pop the specially designed stopper in the bottle. Place the vacuum on top, and draw the air out of the bottle until you feel resistance. The bottle is sealed and the wine is saved for up to one week. Just remember: Store the bottles upright.

Vintage Vac, the Bentley of wine bottle vacuum savers. It perfectly seals and is digitally temperature
controlled. Photo from

Manual vacuum pumps are inexpensive ($7-$20). The Houdini Wine Preserver is $12 at Some pumps come with as many as three stoppers. Extra or replacement stoppers are available, too. Pumps are also available at wine stores, or even Target where, Houdini is on sale for $10.97. (; search: "wine preserver")

Now truth be told, there’s room for error with manual pumps. On occasion, the stopper
might let air in, especially if it is more than a few months old. To keep fine wines, try Vintage Vac. (

Battery operated, the Vintage Vac device not only seals one bottle of wine perfectly but also maintains it at the precise temperature needed to keep the wine as fresh as possible. Wow! Your own private one-bottle temperature controlled wine cellar. Vintage Vac is available at Sharper Image. ($34.99); http://; search: Vintage Vac)

Savor the wine; save the wine, and drink responsibly.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Gadabouting With Love Peace Theatre

The Peace Love Theatre tote, above, is one of several bags that carry a special message. Photos from

HEAD’S UP: December again already. It’s the gifting season, which means more things to do with less time to do them in. Don’t despair. At VEVLYN’S PEN, we are here to help. For the next week or so — 12 days before Christmas ending on 22 Dec. — each day we will introduce a product/item, brand or nifty shop that we believe is worthy of consideration for those very special gifts.

Gift Idea No. 8:


ballet-class taking sister will have plenty of room for her leotard and slippers; the auditioning actor can carry sides, a bottle of water, props and a lot more.

The bag has drama but also comes bearing peace and love.

The Peace Love Theatre Tote Bags ($20) ( are the tickets for anyone who needs to schlep things around, which means most everyone. Conveniently, they are available in a variety if styles with imprints of the peace, love and theatre symbols – the latter represented by tragedy/comedy masks.

One version of the canvas bag with a white background bears imprints of the symbols ensconced in squares. Peace is green; love is pink, and theatre is b&w. (,472907393)

Another, also with a white background, uses the same symbols but encircled – peace in taupe, love in mustard, and teal masks. (,248468556)

At 15" x 18" x 6," the totes can accommodate paperbacks, an extra sweater to hustle on in a chilly auditorium, oranges for a snack during intermission or whatever whatnots are the necessity of the moment inside or outside the theatre. They are made from 100 percent heavyweight natural cotton canvas, which means they are both sturdy and eco-friendly. The extra long handles also make for easy carrying if they must board crowded public transit or walk mean streets. Note that they are machine washable, too.

The messenger bag is hard to miss in yellow with a becoming photo of the man from Stratford-upon-Avon.

A wipe-down rather than a wash will send the lemon-yellow messenger bags ($30) on their way. The polyester affairs have a flap&clasp closure, as well as a zipped compartment on the front for privacy and security. And, of course, an adjustable shoulder strap in black. Symbols are encircled. One version bears the peacelovetheatre symbols in khaki, mustard, teal. (,248468557) Staring back at the world in b&w from the front of the Peace Love Shakespeare Messenger Bag are the peace and love symbols, as well as an image of the Bard. (,333954962)

Meanwhile, a sure act for theatre-loving beach-goers is none other than the Peace Love Theatre Beach Tote ($31; (,472907396).
Leave the drama behind but take the bag to the beach.

It has many devices in its 12" x 16" x 5¾" dimensions: inside flap pocket and velcro-secured outside pocket for packing a sandwich and a drink, lotion, and even flippers. Its background is white with trim in either navy, fuchsia or mocha. Like the traditional tote, it is 100 percent cotton canvas. The symbols, in green, pink, b&w, are ensconced in the square design.

Wherever goes the “Peace Love Theatre” bag also goes a perfect sentiment for any season.

Friday, December 17, 2010

'Eating' and 'Food Matters' for Good Health

"Eating" (DVD cover at left) makes a persuasive argument for a plant-based rather than a meat-based diet. Photo from

HEAD’S UP: December again already. It’s the gifting season, which means more things to do with less time to do them in. Don’t despair. At VEVLYN’S PEN, we are here to help. For the next week or so — 12 days before Christmas ending on 22 Dec. — each day we will introduce a product/item, brand or nifty shop that we believe is worthy of consideration for those very special gifts.

Gift Idea No. 7:

Q: WHY is there an epidemic of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other diseases in the United States (and increasingly the world over)?

A: We eat too much meat and dairy.

James Colquhoun and Laurentine ten Bosch produced and directed "Food Matters." Photo from

Q: Why will following U.S. nutrition guidelines kill you?
A: They are heavy on meat (and light on vegetable) consumption. Meat is high in cholesterol and saturated fats. The two are associated with various illnesses that can lead to death.

Q: How safe is our food?
A: In the United States our food is not safe, particularly meats, because of the conditions in which farm animals are raised, including what they are fed and how they are warehoused.

Q: Why do U.S. doctors – and many in other countries – treat symptoms of disease, not causes?
A: Because they don’t learn about nutrition in medical school. They do, however, learn about prescribing pharmaceutical drugs that treat symptoms rather than causes.

These and other questions are asked and answered in what are considered two of the best documentaries about food in recent years. Available on DVD, both offer useful, shocking and controversial information – from experts who have no profit motive – about how one can eat one’s way to good health and life longevity.

Simply titled “Eating" (3rd Edition; $9.95), the acclaimed film from Mike Anderson makes the case for a plant-based diet to eradicate cardiovascular illnesses in particular. (See an eight-minute trailer:

"The RAVE Diet & Lifestyle" book offers practical ways to adopt a plant-based diet. Photo from

In “Eating,” MA does a fine job of setting out the problems, which are many, sundry and seemingly insurmountable. Clearly, the medical researcher realized this because he prescribes solutions in the companion piece, “The RAVE Diet & Lifestyle.” ($15.95; It includes recipes to get newbies started on the right foot. Indeed, “Eating” and “RAVE” – (no) Refined foods, (no)Animal fats, (no)Vegetable oils, (no)Exceptions and Exercise – are best acquired as a bundle ($19.95;

Hoeing similar rows is James Colquhoun and Laurentine ten Bosch’s “Food Matters.” ($24.95; see trailer: The filmmakers spotlight what they term the trillion dollar worldwide sickness industry and declare that much of what ails us can be cured – not by pharmaceutical drugs – but by proper nutrition, supplements and detoxification. The claim extends to illnesses as serious as terminally diagnosed cancer. For $4.95, "Food Matters" can also be viewed online for three days. (

Both DVDs are available in several languages aside from English.

"Food Matters" strongly asserts that the cure to illnesses is not in pharmaceutical drugs. Photo from

Collectively, the United States is a fat, sick nation – one of the fattest/sickest on the planet. Some by-now familiar, but no more comfortable, statistics from the Centers for Disease Control:

– One in three children is overweight or obese;
– 68 percent of adults are either overweight or obese
– Obesity is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, Type 2 diabetes and on and on and on ...

Each year around this time millions begin to reflect on the year coming to a close and the new one about to dawn. No one would argue that a good New Year’s resolution would be to lose weight in a healthy, sustainable and informative way.

“Eating” and “Food Matters” may be too radical for many, especially beef steak and beef burger lovers/fish and fowl fanatics/cheese and Chunky Monkey connoisseurs. Yet, the films contain hefty servings of good, whole food for thought worth considering, especially if it promotes good health and a longer life: lentil steak, eggplant burger, "cheese" sauce, monkey bars.

Q: Who said, “Let thy Food be thy Medicine and thy Medicine be thy Food?”
A: Hippocrates.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Peace Love Happiness in a Mad, Mad World

The "I am Love" infant rib long sleeve one-piece with gray love symbol, left, is on sale for $32. Photos from

HEAD’S UP: December again already. It’s the gifting season, which means more things to do with less time to do them in. Don’t despair. At VEVLYN’S PEN, we are here to help. For the next week or so — 12 days before Christmas ending on 22 Dec. — each day we will introduce a product/item, brand or nifty shop that we believe is worthy of consideration for those very special gifts.

Gift Idea No. 6:

love makes the world go around, then Alina Villasante is doing her part in spades through her hot, new Peace Love World collection.

"I am Happiness" cuff links ($100).

While those outside of Miami may not know her name, they may know her brand or know someone who has worn a T-shirt, yoga pant or hoodie bearing the words, love peace, world or a symbol for those words. Keen-eyed TV viewers may have recognized her line on both “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing with the Stars.” Broadway musical lovers might have had a chance sighting at a show on the “In the Heights” tour. Word is that Taylor Swift and Ellen DeGeneres are fans of the line, too.

Black fedora with four red embroidered lines, representing love in English and in Spanish ($30.40).

Every garment in the line ( bears the familiar Peace Love World logo represented by the peace symbol, love symbol and happy-face symbol for happiness, and by extension, world. All garments also bear a quote from AV, “love is not something you look for, love is something you become.” Embroidered into many are two rows of four narrow line that represent the words for love in both English and Spanish.

"I am Peace" black California pullover hoodie in fleece ($56.)

AV is not only talking peaceloveworld she is doing it by supporting a number of good causes, Haiti Relief and Susan G. Komen for the Cure, among them.

"I am Love" black bohemian pants ($70).

The lovefest started when AV was a teen with a passion for people and fashion. The current iteration began to get its legs in 1999 with the debut of “The Love Party,” a soiree the Havana native and Miami (by way of New York/Atlanta) resident organized for the special women in her life. In a moment of creative exuberance she designed an “I Love Alina” T-shirt for guests at the 2006 party. It was a hit, and she went on to design a new T-shirt in each subsequent year.

"I am Peace" Blackberry cover in black ($17.60).

Eventually, word reached the Web, and the Peace Love World collection was launched from a series of "I am" T-shirts to what it is now. Formerly partners in an aviation concern with her husband, AV opened her first store last June in Miami; a second opened at Boston’s Logan Airport in April. Is there any doubt that other major cities will get some Peace Love World?

"I am Chaos" dog bed in black ($99.20)

Other words used in the line are grateful and thankful. Appearing, too, are blessed, symbolized by a cross, and free symbolized by a bird. AV has grown her business from a women's T-shirt line to a lifestyle brand of men’s, children's and women's clothing, jewelry, stationery, party paraphernalia, footwear, yoga wear, gadget accessories - many currently on sale.

Even a bed for the dog to lay its head.
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