Thursday, June 14, 2012

Foodie Days and Fjord-y Nights

And here it is: the season 2 finale. My victory lap, as it were, takes place aboard the Holland America Line’s MS Eurodam, and at its twelve days of destinations. I will (eventually) post one last, entry with links to ALL of my photo albums from the last nine months, this cruise included.

But, for now, I figure I’ll do this day-by-day, ‘(199) Days of Europe’-style.

(1) is Saturday, 2 June 2012.

We boarded the ship in Amsterdam. My folks were kind enough to get me my own stateroom, which had everything I could need (no window, but under the circumstances, I’m not picky)… nice little bachelor pad. Plus destinations in the U.K. and Norwegian fjords… this is lookin’ good!

Ah, but just one detail - about 98.4% of the people on this boat are in their 60s or older.

Oh.

(2) is Sunday, 3 June 2012.

We were at sea today en route to Newcastle. It’s a nice ship. Really good food included in the price (and some premium restaurants for an additional reservation fee), fun trivia and karaoke events, good bands performing nightly in the various bars, and gloriously awful mainstage acts every night.

Well, at this rate, we should be getting through the entry fairly quickly.

(3) is Monday, 4 June 2012.

Our first port of call was Newcastle, England, and my mom had made plans for us to take the train to nearby Durham. It’s a lovely little university town also based around a gorgeous cathedral. We sightsaw, we had lunch in a pub (my heart beats – and will one day stop – for fish n’ chips), and we even took a little spin around Newcastle itself before getting back on the boat.

Stopping in the U.K. was also fun because that weekend (extended to four days) was Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, a U.K.-wide celebration of her 60 years on the throne. There were flags everywhere, special displays in the shops, performers and people in the squares, and a good deal of confusion on our part as to why a “Diamond Jubilee” didn’t mean 75 years.

Oh, forget it. She’s the Queen of England. If she says diamond is 60, then diamond’s 60.

(4) is Tuesday, 5 June 2012.

Edinburgh (best pronounced “ED-in-BRUH,” the experts tell me) is one of my favorite cities. In the world. I was there two years prior (to the day, almost) and I had since regretted not spending more time there.

Here’s my shortlist for seeing the town (notice how not-short it is). Start at the top of the Royal Mile, Edinburgh’s historic main street, where you can either see the castle or skip it (it’s cool, but pricey), then walk down the hill and catch the churches and old parliament and judicial buildings. Stop in at The World’s End pub for a great meal (anything you order will be good) accompanied by an Irn Bru (Scotland’s much-loved, not saccharine take on orange soda) and perhaps a local whisky (rotated monthly). If you like fudge, stop in at either The Fudge House or The Fudge Kitchen for a snack, and continue down the hill. Look around for hidden gardens or cool staircases (called “closes”), and finally you’ll arrive at Scotland’s current Parliament building and Holyrood Palace (the Queen’s residence in Scotland). Take tours if you fancy. You'll also be at the foot of Arthur’s Seat, a mountainous burst of land that came about from prehistoric volcanic activity. If the weather’s good and you’re game for a few hours’ (sometimes challenging) walk, climb to the top for some stunning landscapes and impressive panoramas.

I should also note, though, that Calton Hill also offers a fine view of the city and Arthur’s Seat and is a much more reasonable walk. It’s also at the end of Prince’s Street, Edinburgh’s other big avenue, and your best bet for shopping. It’s on Prince’s Street that you’ll find Edinburgh’s main train station and lovely gardens that offer some terrific views up at the castle and other buildings on the outside of the Royal Mile.

(5) is Wednesday, 6 June 2012.

Invergordon, Scotland isn't a thrill, although it was fun to tour Cawdor Castle, which has ties to Shakespeare's 'Macbeth'. Lovely castle, and one of the few I’ve ever toured that actually inspired some desire to actually live there (it's fully furnished, still home to nobility). But I didn’t come to see just another pretty castle; I came to see Macbeth's castle. Oh, well. The Scottish highlands in that area are still pretty, but if you want the best of the highlands (and you do), I recommend the Isle of Skye.

(6) is Thursday, 7 June 2012.

At sea again. I can't tell you how great it is, by the way, to see real bacon again. For a country renowned for food, you'd think France could get that right.

(7) is Friday, 8 June 2012.

Ålesund, Norway (pronounced a lot like “Allison”? Maybe? As best I could tell?) is small but beautiful. I kid you not when I say it looks like Hawaii, but with bigger mountains. Norway is, statistically, the most expensive country in the world. But who cares. It’s fjord country. And all the destinations are gonna’ be (up in) here until we land in Copenhagen.

(8) is Saturday, 9 June 2012.

Geirenger lends itself best to the (eventual) pictures, 'cause it's gorgeous. If you’re in Norway (just, y’know, passin’ through, as one does) then I highly recommend it. I would even go so far as to say that it’s a place you can’t AF-FJORD to miss!

Somebody take this laptop away from me. Please.

(9) is Saturday, 10 June 2012.

Flåm may have had the best fjord views yet. I swear – I felt like I was in a ‘Star Wars’ movie. Any second, I expected a ship (I know a few of their actual names, but I don’t feel like inserting a copyright symbol afterward) to come screaming past, with enemy fighters hot on its tail blasting lasers all the way through these epic ravines.

Well. It’s a good thing that didn’t happen, because this place was breathtaking. The water was so still and clear it looked digitally animated when the ship sent slow ripples through it.

The area around Flåm is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, including its renowned local train ride (about 45 minutes one way). It’s scenic, but I'd sooner suggest the beautiful two-hour boat ride over to Gudvangen and 15-minute bus ride back to Flåm, packaged together by tour companies Sognefjorden and/or Fjord1.

Heh, heh...! Remember the part when I said we'd get through this quickly? Yeah, that was funny...!

(10) is Sunday, 11 June 2012.

Now, the problem with doing the fjords before the end is that they make an impossible act to follow. That’s an added problem that unexciting, touristy Bergen really doesn’t need.

(11) is Monday, 12 June 2012.

Kristiansand is a little better than Bergen: it's a beach/getaway place that owns its touristy-ness better. It's very walkable little town (the map is literally a rectangular grid) with a charming fish market near the port. The only head-scratcher is that there isn't much beach. Oh, Norway.

(12) is Wednesday, 13 June 2012.

You’d think Oslo, capital of the fine nation of Norway, would be a big stop on our cruise. We only got half a day here, which is a shame, since this up-and-coming town is bursting with cool new architecture (like its crazy-angled, opera house with a roof-accessible from the street). There are also a lot of neat design shops – you know, the ones full of cleverly crafted silverware, kitchen and office supplies (maybe a combination of the two???), and neat museums. We paid a visit to their national gallery, which has a handsome collection of all the European crowd, and some of the most famous works by Norwegian great Edvard Munch.

I think it would have been better if the cruise had taken us to Oslo and Kristiansand first, Bergen not at all, and then the fjords as a finale. On the other hand, we had grey weather toward the end, so that may be a toss-up. Also, did I mention that we had sunsets consistently around 11:45 PM? And they were gorgeous?

. . .

…And I know this isn’t technically part of the cruise, but…

(13) is Thursday, 14 June 2012.

Welcome to Copenhagen, Denmark! After getting off the boat and dropping our bags at our hotel, we had one day to explore the city and its environs. My parents had stopped in here before Berlin, so we got to skip normal stuff and get on a train to Hamlet’s castle.

Yes. Jealousy is the right response. The nerdy response, but the right response.

Kronborg Castle is just stunning, and the cloudy weather actually set the tone perfectly. The castle goes by “Elsinore” in the play, but the real one is located in Helsingør (“Ohhhhhhhhh!” the readers rejoice). This is another (deserving) UNESCO site, and I want to give them big props for their very innovative, creative visual aides and displays that really enhance the experience without being annoying or dense. This castle also just feels right -- 'Hamlet' makes sense here (that is, as much as 'Hamlet' ever makes sense... says the actor kid...). One cool thing, though, is that every summer, they mount a full-scale production of a Shakespearean tragedy (usually Hamlet, but it does vary) in the castle's giant, stately courtyard.

Helsingør itself is also very charming. We stopped in at a lunch place that turned out to be tasty, and pastries and tea at Moller’s Conditori turned out to be delicious.

We wandered back to the train, hit Copenhagen, and walked around for a while. It’s a neat city… wish I had more time to explore. It’s like Budapest, in that there’s a lot of neat detail work in the building facades. And as gorgeous as the city is, that is nothing compared to the people (especially women, to be biased) walking around it. We had dinner at Sticks and Sushi, a local chain that serves an excellent meal.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Copenhagen to Reykjavik. Reykjavik to Washington. The end.

. . .

Thanks for reading this year, folks. I hope you enjoyed. And if I go back next year, stay tuned for the third blog (****, will I really have started three blogs?)

Yes, I will. I’m not keeping adorable little French kids’ English mistakes to myself.

-Andy

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The End of 'House, MD'

This has nothing to do with anything else in this blog, but ‘House, MD’ ended last month, and since it’s long been my favorite show, I feel something needs to be said about it. Or a few “somethings,” and not all by me; I’d love to chat with y’all if you have an opinion. And, as you might guess, I’m sounding a spoiler alert… stop reading now if you’re behind on the show.

. . .

Are the rookies gone? Cool.

I feel I can’t properly discuss the series finale without taking a broader look first (so bear with me). Despite my ardent fanhood, the show’s declining quality in recent years has not been lost on me. I blame this almost entirely on the House/Cuddy romance, which I feel was handled poorly from the beginning. It also (somehow) turned the once sharp, formidable character of Lisa Cuddy into a two-dimensional love interest (despite Lisa Edelstein’s strong efforts). I just feel that the relationship never made sense, that we never got a clear backstory on House and Cuddy, and that the episodes about the romance just dragged.

So I was optimistic about the final season. Losing Cuddy was a shame, but without the House/Cuddy relationship, the beginning of Season 8 felt more like the show I first took an interest in: zippy dialogue, more compelling patient stories, and even some episode plotlines that were more than just people screwing with each other.

But in the end, I was still disappointed. Two words: “missed opportunities.” To wit:

1.) Adams and Park
I feel like the writers gave up on these two halfway through the season (about when they voiced little more than perfunctory position points). Park’s family dynamics were sort of interesting, but never built to anything meaningful. (I also had a hard time really caring about the sexual harassment suit of an innocent character we’ve known for all of 85 minutes.) And what about Adams and her rich (white) liberal guilt? Where was the episode when she forces the team to take on a second case out of pity for the patient and compromises the care of both patients for lack of sufficient resources? And how about that (unfulfilled) romance with Chase, where the apathetic rich boy and the bleeding-heart rich girl treat a few poor patients and struggle with what their social status really means?

2.) Foreman as Dean of Medicine
Foreman was a lame choice for House’s new boss – the ‘Foreman in Charge’ dynamic has been done to death. It isn’t even realistic. I think the hospital would have much more likely chosen a department head, old friend of Lisa Cuddy’s, and longtime member of its board: Dr. James Wilson. It makes more sense, and it would have added yet another facet to the all-important House/Wilson relationship. At that point, Wilson has been House’s Jiminy Cricket for seven years – always advising, analyzing, and scolding, but ultimately powerless to stop House from making mistakes. But what happens now that Wilson is the big boss and actually has the authority (and administrative duty) to stop, punish, and/or reform House’s radical behavior?

3.) Foreman as Dean of Medicine
And even with Foreman as the new boss, they missed a great chance for an epic story arc befitting the show’s final season. There’s a brief scene one episode where Foreman’s trying to sweet-talk donors, just like Cuddy used to, and one of them mentions reluctance about giving money now that the hospital’s reputation isn’t as solid… and he implies that it’s because of Foreman. This is the one good plot reason to make Foreman Dean of Medicine: he’s not that good at it!

This season, we should have seen a desperate Foreman, one plunged into the deep end of administration, office politics, and risky business decisions: something with which our dear neurologist has no experience (also, do I hear “criminal record”?). Pulling House out of jail, which read as sheer convenience for the writers, could have been totally organic as Foreman’s desperate bid to salt the mine and save a hospital he has failed to manage properly. I would have loved to watch the characters (especially House and Chase) scramble as the hospital starts to go under. And who makes the big, risky play that saves the day for House? House. For once. Will his risky, legally shady gambit (blackmail, I’d bet) to save the hospital fortunes succeed? Or it will it go south, send him back to prison forever, and turn Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital into an HMO clinic?

4.) Wilson’s Cancer
I actually thought they handled this well enough, except they needed to set it up more carefully. I liked that we got blindsided along with House, but we should have had a sense in the weeks preceding that something was just a little off with everybody’s favorite oncologist. A few ambiguously poignant moments between Wilson and his terminal patients. More of Wilson being short with House with no explanation. Even (yet another) episode of House and Wilson playing mind games over Wilson keeping his whereabouts a secret, ‘cause when Wilson would finally give House a satisfying answer, WE would see something that indicates Wilson was still holding out on him. We wouldn't know why or what, even as House and Wilson keep acting like nothing’s wrong. My only other critique is that I think they made Wilson’s cancer too much of House’s problem, but then, the show is called ‘House, MD’.

5.) The Finale

Ah, yes. ‘Everybody Dies’. House faking his death is ridiculous and crazy, but then, so is the character, and it’s a touching gesture for Wilson. Plus, as final images go, their ride off into the distance is fitting enough. I do sort of wonder what shenanigans they’re up to right this minute, and I wonder what House will do with himself after Wilson dies. I think that speaks to very well-developed characters and a closing that respects them.

But as for the final episode itself, take a look back at the show’s greatest segments (which almost all involve a mix of nonlinear storytelling and going inside House’s head). It’s pretty clear that, in terms of execution, ‘Everybody Dies’ is just a faint shadow of what this show could once do. The writing was clunky and forced (except for that one great line about 'Dead Poets' Society'...!). And where’s the conclusion of House’s – and, vicariously, our own – relentless pursuit of absolute truth and meaning? That question needed an answer, or a final acknowledgement that there isn’t one.

And as it stood, this episode’s “to be or not to be” situation wasn’t believable. Unlike every other year, House seemed more or less at peace with himself for the bulk of the season. Even if missing Wilson’s final months has House in a dark place, I don’t buy that he’s debating suicide. (Plus, if he planned to fake his death from the outset, it’s not even a real debate, and then you’re lying to the audience, which is even worse.) The glut of guest stars didn’t much help either (although I was glad to see Sela Ward again as Stacy).

But suppose you’re going to stick with House facing the ghosts of seasons past. Even then, there is one face we absoultely should have seen, but didn't. And it's not Lisa Edelstein as Cuddy.

It's Elias Koteas as Moriarty.

In ‘No Reason’, the Season 2 finale, House is shot and confined to an ICU room, which he shares with his attacker, Moriarty (named in the credits only). Morarity uncannily picks at House’s worst faults and fears, and since all of their interactions are an episode-long hallucination, the Moriarty House argues with is a part of his own mind. It’s a beautiful illustration of a great concept: House is his own biggest antagonist: a Sherlock Holmes who is his own Moriarty.

For fans of Sherlock Holmes (or even just the BBC's modernized ‘Sherlock’), I shouldn’t have to point out that ‘Everbody Dies’ is House’s own Final Problem, his Reichenbach Fall. It’s all there: one-on-one with Moriarty (himself), life-or-death, and faking death. But where was Moriarty? To show House (almost literally) overcoming that internal Moriarty in the burning building would have been a beautiful moment, and a fitting conclusion to his series-long struggle to change.

. . .

This is kind of the end of an era for me. I've been watching since 2005, often in the MPR of Vassar's Raymond House. Season finales always came around the same time as equally emotional ends of school years. Yes, I wanted parts of 'House' and its finale to be a bit better. But the show’s (largely excellent) soundtrack has said it often and aptly: "You can’t always get what you want." But new episodes were always something good to look forward to. I often had the pleasure of watching and discussing them with family or good friends. And in terms of either (mostly good) writing or life philosophy, ‘House, MD’ always gave me something to think about.

I'd say I got what I needed.

Andy, Renee, Roger, Berlin, Bremen, Bremerhaven

The film festival is over. Now for the fun part.

On May 29, I jumped on a plane to Berlin to meet my parents for a few days’ travel. We didn’t do too much in Berlin that I hadn’t already done (which is why you’ll find those photos mixed in with the ones from Bremen and Bremerhaven). Bremen is another big German city (famous for teddy bears, of all things). Bremerhaven was the big emigration port out of Germany in the 1800s and early 1900s, and it’s where my ancestors on my mom’s side traveled from to reach the United States, so there was some sentimental value here. And wiener schnitzel value. Can’t undersell that one.

There will eventually be photos, but I've been working my camera very, very hard recently. It's going to take a while to sort through it all.

So, on June 2, we caught a (rather frantic) train (that smelled like a Vassar TH party) to Amsterdam so we could get on a cruise.

Prepare for the final entry. Right after the next, almost totally unrelated one.

-Andy

All Hectic Things Cannes (and Do) Come to an End

I've got one last movie (p)review for you...

'Mud' (Jeff Nichols, 2012)
Two intrepid middle schoolers become go-betweens for Mud, an intriguing runaway, and his girlfriend, Juniper… who has come to the boys’ Alabama town at the same time as state troopers and bounty hunters seeking Mud.

Finally, something uplifting! 'Mud' is a focused, heartfelt, fairy-tale-ish story told in a refreshingly down-to-earth way. Matthew McConaughey, while not spellbinding, does a fine job as Mud... it's the boys who act their little hearts out: both are endearing and together make a fun, truthful duo. But the real hero here is the script. It’s well-plotted, full of likeable (yet still believable) characters, and it explores love with intelligence, sensitivity, and a childlike curiosity... and most importantly of all (to me), it's an original screenplay. So, no, 'Mud' doesn’t have the prestige picture qualities of 'Amour' [Love] (which won the Palme d’Or), or create a world as strikingly poetic as that of 'Beasts of the Southern Wild', but I think it just might be my favorite movie I’ve seen at Cannes. I highly recommend it.

. . .

I'm not quite sure what else I can say about the festival... Annie and I decided to end on a (rare) positive note, rather than going to see Mads Mikkelsen (the villain in 'Casino Royale') in 'The Hunt', which seemed very sobering (though he won the festival's best actor award for his part in it). I saw an even 20 movies in 11 days: all well-made, all for no admission price, most of them depressing, and all but one of them worth watching (that being 'Beyond the Hills', which OF COURSE won best actress awards and best screenplay... really made my blood boil).

A few words need perhaps be said of the awards... no big surprises, except that 'Holy Motors' and all of the American entries got snubbed. Here's the list:

BEST SCREENPLAY: Cristian Mungiu, 'Beyond the Hills' (grrr... 'Mud' totally deserved it more)
BEST ACTOR: Mads Mikkelsen, for his role in 'The Hunt'
BEST ACTRESS: Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur, for their roles in 'Beyond the Hills'
BEST DIRECTOR: Carlos Reygadas, for his direction of 'Post Tenebras Lux' (a Mexican film I didn't see)
CAMERA D'OR (Best Film by a New Director): 'Beasts of the Southern Wild', directed by Benh Zeitlin
JURY PRIZE (3rd place): 'The Angels' Share', directed by Ken Loach (a Scottish comedy about petty criminals trying to go straight by going into the whiskey business... got great reviews)
GRAND PRIX (2nd place... oh, France...): 'Reality', directed by Matteo Garrone
PALME D'OR (Best Picture): 'Amour', directed by Michael Haneke

. . .

So, that's the festival. And that's France. Next stop: Germany.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Holy Motors, Batman!

Let's start with movie talk.


'Holy Motors' (Leos Carax, 2012)
A day in the life of Monsieur Oscar, who changes lives with the ease – and resources – of an expert actor. But where are the cameras?

This one requires a playful willingness to wonder just what the hell is going on (I'm talking to you, 'Donnie Darko' fans). But if you can muster that, you might well enjoy the intriguing premise, strong performance(s) by the lead actor, and strangely compelling, unconnected scenes. It sort of borders on the edge of making sense, and unlike most of the other serious movies I've seen here, there's plenty of comic relief to be had. Also, come on -- doesn't "Holy Motors" sound like the kind of thing Robin would shout in a 1940s comic book?

'7 Días en la Habana' [7 Days in Havana] (Benicio del Toro, Pablo Trapero, Julio Medern, Elia Suleiman, Juan Carlos Tabio, Gaspar Noé, Laurent Cantet, 2012)
Follows seven consecutive days in Havana, each through the eyes of various people, Cubans and non-Cubans alike. Each ‘day’ is directed by a different director.

It's an interesting premise - 7 days, 7 directors - but as such, it's a pretty mixed bag. Basically, you've got seven almost totally unrelated short films about Havana grouped together, and I'd say there are three-ish good ones... the rest are variously bluntly written, bizarre and plotless (there's a bathing ritual... that's all I got), or just uninteresting. My advice is to watch the first and second ones and whichever one Elia Suleiman directs and stars in.

'The Paperboy' (Lee Daniels, 2012)
In the 1960s, Miami reporter Ward James and his posh black associate return to a small town to investigate the unjust trial of a convict with the help of Ward’s aimless brother, who falls hard for the barbaric convict’s devoted girlfriend.

Heads-up: this is from the director who brought us 'Precious', so expect no pulled punches on issues that run the gamut from racism to domestic abuse and reckless (to put it mildly) sexual proclivities. That said, though, I enjoyed this movie -- a compelling plot (even if it's taken from a novel), several strong performances (favorites include Nicole Kidman, an against-type John Cusack, and a hilariously delightful Macy Gray, known for her recent work in 'The Help'). I would also like to point out that 'The Paperboy' gets my vote for the best film editing I've seen at Cannes this year.


'Jaws' (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
A huge, territorial great white starts eating unsuspecting swimmers in a New England town, but the concerned, hydrophobic sheriff’s efforts to close the beaches and hunt the beast meet with opposition from the image- and money-obsessed mayor.

This was another showing in the 'Cannes Classics' category, and to sweeten the deal, they showed it the night I saw it on the beach with lounge chairs and a big projector. I mean, come on -- where better to watch 'Jaws' for the first time? Anyway, as for the movie itself, the suspense in the first 20-ish minutes had to be my favorite part... I loved how they play with your expectations, and once they go out to sea, it got less interesting (I didn't like the two-dimensional fisherman character). But I definitely enjoyed hating the mayor, I always like Richard Dreyfuss, and the shark looked pretty darn good for 1975. It's also so interesting to me to think that this is what a summer blockbuster used to look like... nowadays, it would be a sleeper hit among horror fans, maybe noted for a good line or three and some decent setpieces.

'Cosmopolis' (David Cronenberg, 2012)
As anti-capitalist riots threaten and a presidential visit blocks traffic, young finance genius Eric Packer journeys across New York in his sleek limo to get a haircut. As the day progresses, he ruminates with associates over his sexless new marriage, the nature of finance, and the rising value of the Yuan… which he has bet against with all his fortune.

The sad truth is that I can go on as long as I like about great production design that creates a sleek, clinically calm professional world, how Robert Pattinson's deadpan actually makes him a nice fit for it, how fascinating the movie's philosophy discussions are, and even the thematic tie-ins with the rest of David Cronenberg's filmography... but the fact is, the dialogue in this movie is unbelievably dense. And while it does pose interesting questions and serve to cement the world of the movie, it's very slow, intentionally unnatural, and relentlessly serious... there's virtually zero break in that style for this entire two-hour movie light on plot, and that makes it very difficult to sit through, even if I'm sure Cronenberg took most of the dialogue from Don DeLillo's novel. Cronenberg and DeLillo fans: it's worth a try. Everyone else: you have been warned.

'On the Road' (Walter Salles, 2012)
Eager to write and gain new experiences, Sal Paradise joins his new, reckless friend Dean Moriarty and his free-spirited, promiscuous wife Marylou on a road trip around the country.

This was a very well-made movie, but the whole beat generation thing probably just isn't for me. I didn’t like the terse drum-patter soundtrack, and the color palette – while appropriate – was so bleak I felt nauseous. I didn’t mind the lack of plot, but at almost two and a half hours, some trimming was in order. For what it’s worth, though, I am now curious about Kerouac’s novel. Also, Kristen Stewart really can’t act. And Garrett Hedlund (played Moriarty, and who I dismissed after 'Tron: Legacy') really, really can.

'Elefante Blanco' (Pablo Trapero, 2012)
When he receives a terminal diagnosis, a priest working in an impoverished Brazilian community calls a close colleague to help him… but with gang wars raging and construction money drying up, even two priests might not be enough to save the community.

This was another one in a language I don’t speak with French subtitles, so I couldn’t really follow who was who, what side they were on, or who they were up against. But it was well done, and I think the location really brought out stronger performances in the actors. I felt like I was watching real people in real, sympathy-evoking situations (I didn’t realize until the credits that the new priest was French star actor Jeremy Renier). Several long traveling takes were also interesting. Bottom line: I doubt I’ll watch it again, but I don't regret having given it a try.

'Antiviral' (Brandon Cronenberg, 2012)
Syd March works for the Lucas Clinic, where clients can be infected with their favorite celebrities’ diseases. But when Syd starts slipping in his black market moonlighting gig, he injects himself with a superstar’s newest bug… and starts suffering the deadly symptoms.

Brandon is David Cronenberg's son, and the grotesque apple doesn't fall far from the gory gree. I thought this was a fascinating premise (perhaps because of my background studying David Cronenberg), and it makes for an excellent, piercing commentary on the culture of celebrity obsession. Great, austere production design and some gripping, horrifying imagery. The whole thing is very grotesque, there's a lot of blood, and a lot to do with needles. I'm also not wild about the plotting... pacing droops for a while after the halfway mark, and the plot gets a bit muddled. This one is for a very specific taste.

. . .

So, tomorrow, Annie and I are going to see 'Mud', and maybe another (very serious) movie called 'The Hunt', starring Mads Mikkelsen, who played the villain in 'Casino Royale'. I will fill you in after I see it/them.

So, like I said, a lot of time goes to waiting in lines, but Annie and I have also gotten really good at begging for extra tickets. We have a 5-for-4 record, which is to say we've gotten so good that we get free tickets when we're not even trying. We were between screenings today when a cop flagged us down and gave us his two tickets to this Monday night's gala screening of whichever movie wins the Palme d'Or ('Golden Palm', equivalent of Best Picture). We're really rooting for 'De Rouille et d'Os' (Of Rust and Bone), a French movie with strong reviews and Marion Cotillard, just because we didn't get to see it. I'm fairly sure, though, that it will go to 'Amour' instead (about the old couple - I talked about it last time).

So, the festival has been pretty hectic... I'll be relieved to be out of such a crazy, people-packed setting, and hopefully I'll have the chance to see some less serious movies... but this has been a unique experience. I think the ticket begging will make up my favorite memories. And I haven't hobnobbed with too many more celebrities... Nanni Moretti, the notoriously cantankerous Jury President for this year, was at the 'Jaws' screening, and I do keep seeing Alexander Payne (wrote and directed 'The Descendants' and 'Sideways') all over the place. His new nickname is 'A-Payne'. The trouble with celebrity spotting around here is that, unless you stake out a spot near the red carpet hours in advance of a gala screening (before it gets fenced off), you're not likely to run into too many famous folks.

Tomorrow (Sunday, 27 May) is the last day of the festival. One last entry about that, and then I'm off to travel Germany, and then the UK and Norway by cruise liner.

We're almost done here.

-Andy

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Once Upon a Time in Cannes

Movies, movies, movies... so, I'm finding a formula for my days. Get up in the morning, go into town for incidental tickets for the film society (mostly for older, newly-restored movies), and go over to the Unicorn Theatre (actual name) for an evening screening of one of the films actually in the festival this year (specially hosted for the film society that gave me my badge).

So, here's what I've seen, with (Director, Year), a pitch (that's screenwriting talk for a short description meant to hook a reader), and a few quick thoughts that don't give (too) much away.

'After the Curfew' (Usmar Ismail, 1953)
When a freedom fighter in Indonesia returns home from an unsuccessful war, disillusioned and ill-suited to work, he teeters perilously on the edge of falling back into the corrupt old company of his fellow former soldiers.

A classic film in Indonesia, this had a good film noir feel to it. And while the plot was on the thin side, I thought the main character was a compelling 'lost character', and his deadbeat best friend was well-rendered and interesting to watch.

'Kalpana' [Imagination] (Uday Shankar, 1948)
The (largely autobiographical) life story of an influential dancer and artist who founds a cultural center to improve mental and spiritual life in the name of a stronger India. It is an elaborate musical exhibiting Shankar's trademark style of dance, and the influential dancer/choreographer's only film.

This is the grandfather of Bollywood as we know it. Shankar was incredible, moving with uncanny finesse, and the movie has its fair share of nice directorial touches. My only problem, though it is major, was that there wasn't enough of Shankar. He and his subtle technique step aside about halfway through to make room for an overwhelming climax overflowing with an ordinarily talented ensemble in whom we are not as invested.

'The Ring' (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927)
When a champion boxer hires a talented newcomer as his sparring partner, he also kindles the interests of the jealous young fighter's wife. Not to be confused with the 2002 horror film of the same title.

The love triangle is pretty banal; there's nothing to make the relationship between the young boxer and his wife ring true. But Hitchcock being Hitchcock, there are some great visual touches, and the dramatic tension keeps you interested through to the end. This is also the only full script that Hitchcock wrote himself. I should also note that the screening benefited tremendously from a live score played by a musician on keyboard, accordion, and piccolo.

'Mystery' (Ye Lou, 2012)
When two mothers with preschoolers in the same class discuss fears of their husbands' infidelity, unsettling truths come forward... and they may be related to a recent, fatal highway accident.

I saw this Mandarin Chinese film with French subtitles, so I was largely struggling to keep track of who was who and what was going on. But there were some solid performances, particularly from the male lead, who portrayed a less-than-likable man as a complex and bedeviled husband. There was also a nice cast of supporting characters for a varied emotional and thematic tone. Also, the thoroughly innocent and adorable children (who at one point sing 'Ode to Joy' in Mandarin) provide a striking counterpoint to the darker intrigue that ensues among the adults.

'Beasts of the Southern Wild' (Benh Zeitlin, 2012)
In 'The Bathtub,' a poor but surreally jovial Louisiana Delta community, a young girl named Hushpuppy fends against a fearsome storm and its aftermath, her father's mysterious illness, and the coming of newly awakened prehistoric creatures, all while searching for her lost mother.

Is a six-year-old allowed to win an Oscar? She is incredibly adorable and unbelievably capable at the ripe old age of six-or-so. The plot in this movie is not nearly so important as the relationship between her and her (at times) equally childlike father, Wink (played by the also-amazing Dwight Henry). Their tough-love relationship is incredibly nuanced, the supporting characters are delightfully fun, and the level of detail in this world immediately pulls you in. Also, the soundtrack is epic in the most satisfying way (especially around the credits). It's coming out in late June in the States, and I recommend you go see it.

'Beyond the Hills' (Cristian Mungiu, 2012)
Alina, a lonely young woman, reunites with Voichita, her close childhood friend from their orphanage. But Voichita now resides in a secluded orthodox convent, and her beloved faith, along with the convent's strict priest, will make it all but impossible for Alina to convince Voichita to run off with her.

This may be the most boring movie I have ever seen (and that includes 'The Straight Story', which is about a man riding a tractor across Iowa). It just never takes off; they repeat what is essentially the same two or three situations again and again without very much variation or raising the stakes. The contents of the ending are horrifying and nihilistic in theory, but the movie doesn't earn that horror... there is not a sufficient build, either through the plot or the characters. This is supposedly one of the big contenders for awards this year, and that makes me sad.

'Lawless' (John Hillcoat, 2012)
In Prohibition-era rural Virginia, the three Bondurant brothers and their renowned bootlegging ring are shaken by the arrival of a corrupt, merciless federal agent who wants a cut of their profits.

Plot-wise, it's nothing revolutionary, but beautiful scenery, great production values, and outstanding performances abound. Tom Hardy plays a fascinatingly understated and thoughtful bear of a man (perhaps an alter-ego of this summer's Bane in 'The Dark Knight Rises'), Gary Oldman plays a gloriously pinstriped rum-runner, and Guy Pearce is a simply terrifying villain. Even Shia LaBoeuf does a decent job. Despite the rather intense violence, this movie demonstrates a wide emotional range, including sincere romance and plenty of terrific humor.

'For Love's Sake' (Takashi Miike, 2012)
The high school aged daughter of an influential family encounters a thug with authority issues who saved her life when they were children, and she decides to rehabilitate him... by getting him transferred to her elite prep school.

The premise is relatively sound. Then they start singing. And dancing. And fighting. And blowing things up. This movie is equal parts high school anime, Quentin Tarantino, and 'Glee', with an over-the-top campy script and production design that, I would argue, make it as ripe for ritualistic midnight screenings as 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show'. Not for the faint of heart... or sense of humor.

'Killing Them Softly' (Andrew Dominik, 2012)
Jackie Cogan, an easygoing mob enforcer, must investigate and handle the delicate situation surrounding the recent robbery of a mob poker game.

There's a neat thematic payoff at the end of this movie, but that's not the sort of endorsement you want to hear about a mob flick starring Brad Pitt (also including James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, and others). It's pretty darn violent, full of explicit dialogue, and just plain gritty. Not a judgment, although I was underwhelmed because I think it gets lost in its own grittiness... I didn't think they let you get close enough to the characters (or plot) to make it as compelling as it could have been.

'Amour' (Michael Haneke, 2012)
The love between an elderly intellectual Parisian couple is put to the test when the wife shows the first signs of a debilitating neurological disease.

This is the golden child of the festival so far, likely to win at least a few awards. And I can see why. The performances and directing are top-tier; when the action of your movie barely leaves a single (gorgeous) apartment, the whole affair needs strong characters to drive it. Many scenes might affirm France's reputation for slow (and sometimes depressing) movies, but it fits the pacing of these elderly characters' lives. This movie is hard to watch of course, but if you're in the right mood for it, I think it can be very moving.

. . . Last, but far from least . . .

'Once Upon a Time in America' (Sergio Leone, 1983)
David 'Noodles' Aaronson, a Jewish former gangster, returns to New York on a mysterious summons after hiding out for thirty years. Noodles revisits bittersweet memories, from childhood on the streets through big-time bootlegging to figure out who has found him, why... and who made off with the gang's cash holdings from so many years ago.

This is one of my personal favorites... nonlinear storytelling, great acting, gorgeous production design, directing that makes a four-hour movie glide by, and what might be my favorite movie soundtrack ever. That's the short version of why I like it. I was thrilled when I learned that they were screening it at the festival this year as part of the 'Cannes Classics' category, for newly restored prints of older films (like 'Kalpana', 'After the Curfew', etc.). Even more exciting: the addition of 20-25 minutes of never-before-seen footage from cuts Sergio Leone didn't want to make. This is supposed to be as close as we can reasonably come to Leone's original vision (and, for a movie that's been as butchered as this one has over its many releases, that means a lot).

So, I'm really glad I got into this screening -- not only because I found the lost footage offered a few more gems of moments, but because Annie and I watched this movie in the company of Robert DeNiro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Jennifer Connelly, Sergio Leone's children ('Once Upon a Time' was Sergio's last movie), and composer Ennio Morricone. (Also in attendance were Salma Hayek and Alexander Payne, a Cannes Jury member this year, and Oscar-winning writer/director of 'The Descendants'.)

So, yes, the star power was fun, but it also occurred to me during this movie's many swelling emotional tides that these (great) actors were probably experiencing this together for the first time in almost 30 years. I could only imagine what that was like for them, but I thought it was cool that I was - however tangentially - sharing in that experience.

. . .

And that's just the first half of the Festival. More on daily routine (HA! Right.) around here next time. As well as more movie talk.

-Andy

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Cannes: Day One

I kinda' like this 'day after' format... My schedule, it seems, would strongly agree.

Let's talk about the badges you need for this festival. Badges, I'm told, make a world of difference between getting into the big screenings and not. Apparently, even if you're tenacious enough, creative enough, or just plain attractive enough to panhandle for tickets to the big screenings inside the Palais des Festivals, without some kind of badge you're dead in the water. The badges are all reserved for professionals - movie producers, distributors, agents, actors, technicians, directors, reporters, etc. (Notice, by the way, the proportion in that list to business-y jobs to "creative" jobs.) Badges are given only to those who have a bona fide professional justification to - as one of my least favorite teachers used to say - "run with the big dogs."

I have no such credentials. As of now, I'm just a guy with a few screenplays, fewer contacts, and not much direct experience with this business. I explain all of this to you so that, when I proclaim that I still got a badge (thanks to a local film society), you understand just how freaking long it's going to take me to count all my lucky stars.

Fortunately, that serves a writing purpose beyond telling you something you already know. It also helps set the tone. Cannes is now crawling with people wearing black lanyards with palm frond logos and names of festival sponsors. That's pretty crazy, but it's nothing compared to 6:15 PM.

That's when the guests to the opening ceremony show up. Star light, star bright. Minus the "star light" part. The red carpet was a pretty star-heavy affair. And fan-heavier. Between all the gawkers and the rerouted traffic for black cars to have room, you should never complain about another traffic jam again.

At any rate, since the opening ceremony was in the evening, there were no movies to catch in the afternoon and I didn't have anything on which to write my humble request for strangers' spare evening tickets. The opening film, by the way, was Wes Anderson's promising new comedy 'Moonrise Kingdom', whose stellar cast includes Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, and Bill Murray). One of the theatres to which I know I have access (space permitting) will screen the movie on Friday night, though, and it's more out of the way. Which is good for me.

So, after the madness of... all that... I showed a Cannes newcomer around for a while. Lena is good friends with one of the assistants I was pals with this year (said assistant, Krisia, being the one who told me most of everything I know about this here festival). We walked around, scoped out screening spaces, and even found our way into the reception area of the Palais des Festivals, which I had heard might throw me and my less-official badge out if I even got close. They didn't... as a matter of fact, most of the security folks seem very friendly (even when they refuse you access to other areas).

We had dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, where one diner, an older French gentleman, got really, really upset because I was carrying a San Pellegrino bottle around (he would have much preferred that, being in a restaurant, I set it down on his table, at least). I didn't get the whole of his rant (neither did the sweet lady at the next table, with whom I traded chuckling glances). But the gist of it was that apparently that's a particularly unclassy, stupid-looking American thing to do. When I started smiling and thanking him for his kind words - because my earnest inquiry as to his concern was getting me nowhere - he decided all hope was lost for my generation.

But that's the film festival for you - you never know what'll happen next. You might even find an iPhone on the street.

Yeah. It was a 4S. I got it back to its owner, some manager-type lady for a business in Marseille (her business card says), who thanked me profusely and promised to put me on the list for a short film series screening next week she's helping to run. (It's apparently a minor competition of its own, whose jury apparently includes the director of 'The Lion King'). Sounds cool to me. I'm glad it worked out okay and that she could keep working (though not half as glad as she was), and I'm glad that after one day I made it onto a list for something I didn't have access to when I woke up that morning.

Networking is a strange, strange thing.

. . .

This morning, I got up early to go into town and wait with Annie (fellow former assistant and festival attendee) to get giveaway tickets from our film society. It's basically like TKTS in London and New York. You go get in line and you get to pick tickets from whatever screenings they have to offer. We had hoped there would be tickets to big-name, in-competition films, but there weren't. And Annie's schedule for the day didn't mesh very well with their offerings.

But (and here's the teaser for tomorrow's entry)... I like to look on the bright side:

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Cannes: Day Zero

Hi, folks-- just a quick note before I put on my nice shirt and shoes and walk down to get my pass at the Cannes Film Festival.

I have a list of screenings where I get priority access. The good news is that they're screening most of the movies in competition at the festival and for free. The bad news is that the subtitles at my screenings are in French, which might make non-English, non-French movies a bit of a struggle. The good news is that there's a strong showing of movies this year, including these ones that I'm most looking forward to:

Wes Anderson's 'Moonrise Kingdom':
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TtxhDIE6Qbs&feature=fvst

David Cronenberg's 'Cosmopolis' (based on the Don DeLillo novel):
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WpEc-rJQ3s

John Hillcoat's 'Lawless':
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Zl7S1LaPMU

...And many, many more. There will also be restored prints of 'Jaws' and one of my personal favorites, 'Once Upon a Time in America'. Each night, they show movies for free on the beach... this year will feature several James Bond movies, in honor of that franchise's 50th anniversary (speaking of that, is anybody else pumped for 'Skyfall', this year's Daniel Craig installment?).

I have heard rumors that extra tickets to showings in the big theatres (to which, alas, I don't have access) may become available from time to time, so I'm going to hope I can get my hands on those to fill in some of the gaps in my schedule's offerings.

Cannes has transformed noticeably in the last several days... billboard ads, posters for the festival all over, suits standing by every entrance that could possibly be mistaken for backstage access, and now lots of people with festival lanyards (soon to be followed by lots of people with lots of money and nice suits and dresses and adoring fans and... yeah, festival lanyards). Photos to follow.

Anyway, I'm off to see what's what. The festival starts tonight and runs through Sunday the 27th. I'm a bit nervous, but ready to get rolling.

And... action.

-Andy

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Coup de Grasse

It's over.

My last day of teaching was April 20th. I'm sorry that my entries have been rather few and far between recently, but I'm not sorry for all the day trips, dinners, vacations, lesson plans (had to mention those somewhere in here), and screenwriting sessions I've been too busy enjoying to write down. Here are links to a few photo albums, to help fill the gaps:

Krakow (My last spring break stop after Budapest, which was very un-cosmopolitan, very historic, and thus very cool. Also, incredibly reasonably priced and full of more good, hearty, meat-and-potatoes kind of food. Also, though you won't find the pictures in the album, I visited Auschwitz.)

Tende (A small town near the French/Italian border (check it out) reached by the aptly named Train des Merveilles ('Train of Marvels'). Erika and I did a day trip up here and found some terrific hikes, cool winding walkways in town, and a terrific lunch at the lovely husband-and-wife restaurant Le Gourmand.)

I also spent a whirlwind week showing my buddy David Adler around Paris and the Riviera. And I just got back from 4 days in Bologna, Italia, where I got to spend time with the wonderful Giulia Petruzzelli.

I would be lying if I said that the end of my teaching wasn't emotional, and I'd be a liar-liar-pants-on-fire (I wonder how you say that in French...) if I didn't mention the outpouring of affection I got from the kids and my fellow teachers. But first, a few general sound bytes to shamelessly build suspense.

Andy: "Do you like pizza?"
Kid: "I love you, pizza!"

Andy: "How are you?"
Other Kid: "I am hot and happy!"

I worked at three schools, and two of them gave me wonderful sendoffs... The first gave me a huge box of local specialty food products (first photo in this oddball album) and came pouring into one of the classes I was teaching to throw me a going-away party with Orangina, cookies, candy (including chocolates from favorite chain Jeff de Bruges), and a lot of adorable, tearful young children.

The other school finished off my unit on food in the best way possible. American breakfast for my three classes. And there were t-shirts. I can't describe them, and a photo won't do them justice. Ask me in person sometime, and if I can, I'll show you.

It was wonderful. Nice to know I'll be missed and that I did okay at the job that had be quaking in my sneakers last September. I'll take that as an exit from Grasse.

Oh, that's right... the teaching is over, but the blog is not. A few other things.

I'm living in Cannes now (for the month) because my folks are coming over to Europe at the end of May to do some quality traveling (there's a cruise... and fjords).

But until then, I'm just looking forward to attending the Cannes Film Festival. I was awarded a pass to attend screenings at a few of the theatres (not the big ones, since I'm not a professional, although word is you can beg tickets off people if you look good and they have extras). I'm pretty pumped about it... I get free access to lots of (hopefully great) movies and I'll be surrounded by film industry. Sweet. It runs from May 16-27.

I'll try to blog a bit about Cannes if I can (pun!), but I predict those days will be a bit hectic, and I'm not sure what internet will be like on the boat. So, for reference, I'm in Cannes until May 29, traveling until June 15th, and chilling in DC for two whole days before starting work at the 'Center for Talented Youth' at Johns Hopkins on June 18 (through August 7). No idea if they're gonna' renew my contract for next year, and -- hooray for France -- they're almost certainly not gonna' tell me before July. I'm not too worried, though.

I'm too busy thinking about movies.

-Andy

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

It'sh Pronounched "Budapesht."

I have to be honest, the travel entries aren't my favorites. I love doing the "research" necessary to create them - touring Budapest with Lisa, Molly, Katie, and Ann was lots of fun - but as I said last time, the plot feels a bit thin on these and the pictures tell it best.

So, here are the pictures. And here are a few quick thoughts.

The entry title: In Hungarian, "s" defaults to what English speakers would call the "sh" sound. You need an "sz" to get what English calls the original recipe "s" sound. So, I walked around this city hearing a good deal of words spoken in the voice of a former teacher who used to jokingly swap in "sh" for "s." That was very weird.

Architecturally, Budapest is awesome. All I ever really do in cities I visit is walk around, eat good food if I can find it, and snap photos of cool buildings (and shit that makes no sense... usually in advertisements). Budapest has some very impressive churches and government buildings, but even normal office buildings, banks, apartments, etc. have really cool flourishes. You never know what you'll find next, which is always a fun feeling to have when you tour a city.

I have discovered some karmic balance, I'm relieved to say, in the world of currency exchange. Yes, the Dollar's had a significant disadvantage against the Euro for over two years, and that's not even mentioning the Pound. So, you learn to stop thinking about how many U.S. Dollars you're spending when you buy basic goods and services in Europe, 'cause otherwise you go insane. Until you arrive in Hungary, home of the Hungarian Forint. Coming from the Euro, I can say that it is uniquely satisfying to take a list price in Forints, divide it by about 300, and THEN decide if you want to pay it. And even coming from the Dollar, dividing by 220(ish) is still a lot of fun.

Recommendations include:

--The cafe at the flagship Alexandra bookstore chain (information and location here). It's an impressive bookstore, a breathtaking cafe, and their cake, coffee, etc. are all quite good.

--The Szechenyi baths are a must-do... quite the unique experience, reasonable price of admittance for basic baths/steamroom/sauna/showers access on their extensive, beautiful grounds. Located here.

--The Szimpla ruin bar (here) is a great nightlife spot.

--Centrale Cafe is a very classy old cafe with high ceilings and more good cake. I'm pretty sure this is the address.

--Művész Restaurant and Café (here) had great goulash, a newly renovated room, and taste-bud-opening (that's gonna' be a thing from now on) desserts.

--The Central Market (here) is pretty good for souvenir shopping and good old market-y experiences.

...I also went to the opera while I was there. It was gorgeous, and I had never seen Tosca. It was a good production with great sets and performers. Of course, I probably should have thought more carefully before buying a ticket to an Italian opera with Hungarian subtitles, but hey - the program had an English summary, so it all worked out.

Next stop on this blogging marathon: Krakow.

Tour de Franzia

Big bonus points to anyone who spotted the title reference immediately. BIG bonus points.

I'm combining my visits to Lyon and Paris into a single entry, since I've visited both before, and the photos will probably make more statements more effectively than my writing. This is because - and I'm starting to notice it as a trend for my travel entries - the plot is a little thin.

So, here are the photos for Lyon.

And here are the ones for Paris.

Lyon was right between Grenoble and Paris and I'd be damned if I was going to miss out on traditional Lyonnaise food twice. So, the big draw for this visit was Le Musée, located here. As if the #1 rating on TripAdvisor (my go-to for eating when I travel... get your recommendations from them instead of me, and it's basically the same thing) wasn't enough to distinguish it, this restaurant is what they call an official "bouchon."

I mentioned these last time, but a little history lesson is appropriate (now that I actually know the history). In the Great Depression, a lot of (formerly) really rich households in Lyon had to fire their chefs. But, highly skilled cooks being what they are, they didn't have much trouble finding a new market: the public. So, they started up lots of restaurants - "bouchons" - serving good, hot food and just kept doing it. They're very NOT haute-cuisine, but more about a friendly, communal atmosphere. The food focuses on various... let's say "inventive" cuts of meat, so this is not the place to order "just a salad, thanks."

While Lyon is filled with places that advertise themselves as true bouchons, it's generally only the style and atmosphere they mimic, rather than the quality or price. There's a committee dedicated to going around every year and awarding certain restaurants (just under 20, usually) the title of "vrai bouchon Lyonnais" ("true Lyonnaise bouchon"). Which finally brings us back to Le Musée, where we couldn't get a table back in December, but for which I had a reservation this time.

Here's the restaurant. Very cozy.



First up: a piece of brioche bread with a piece of sausage baked in. It was made with love. Literally: I think they have a jar of the stuff, and they sprinkle a little bit on all of the meat they prepare, it tasted that good.




Main course: pig cheeks with potatoes gratin and a vegetable I've had before, can't remember the name of, and don't really like that much. Pig cheeks were delicious, and apparently are the leanest cut of pig you can get.




Finally, crème brulée:





...

Paris was surreal, as perhaps I already expressed here two years ago. I had a lovely visit this time: seeing good friends, eating good food, strolling, and getting my bearings again.

I also saw Chronicle, which was amazing. A really strong, original story with characters that were so close to real that I had to reassure myself I was walking out of a work of fiction at the end. This is in large part thanks to the cinematography (of which you get a good sense in the trailer above), which was thankfully more than a gimmick. In fact, it posed some academic questions I'm still having fun hashing out several weeks later. If you like superhero movies at all and are ready to be proven wrong in your (mostly rightful) preconceptions about high school movies, their characters, and the issues they explore, then go see Chronicle so we can discuss it.

So, as I toured Paris again, I'd have little flashes of my semester abroad and moments in certain places -- kind of like Ben Affleck in that movie Paycheck -- and by the end of three days, I was ready to go before this short vacation turned into really realizing I didn't really have a life here anymore.

So, I went to Budapest.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Andy's Weird Grenoble

Since many of you have other blogs to read and other links to click on from Facebook, I'm giving you a choice. You can either read each of my next four(ish) entries about my spring break all the way through, or I can give you the summary of what I was up to for two of the (now many) weeks I've been away from this blog. (And for those of you already itching to get back to that blue-and-white stream of web-links - and for the mashup-inclined - this is my new favorite website.)

So, my spring break in six sentences (and a parenthetical clause):

Grenoble looks weird.
I skied an Alp.
Lyon food - real Lyon food - tastes good.
Paris is weird the second time.
Budapest looks cool the first time.
Krakow is... different.

To make this easier on everyone, I'm going to break the trip down to one destination per entry.

So. Grenoble.

Grenoble has a few really salient visual features. It's an Olympic city, it's got a river and typically French buildings, and - oh, yeah! - it's surrounded by the freakin' Alps. These are all very cool things about the city, and you'd think that it would look great for it.

You'd think. So, have a look at these pictures and see for yourself.

In truth, those mountains are pretty impressive, and the high fortress on the river gives some great views of the city, but I felt somehow that Grenoble was resting on its laurels, if that makes any sense. The French buildings were... well, French buildings, but not terrifically maintained. There's graffiti everywhere (although it seems to be part of a thriving underground art movement, so I won't judge). The river and its surroundings look good-not-great, and there was quite a bit of haze (I'm sure Lake Garda is to blame... somehow...). I should also add that the Olympic structures were all from the 70s (which, loosely translated from French, means "concrete").

I'm sorry I can't give this entry more of a narrative thrust, but I can sum up my visit with walking around and hiking up to the top of the Bastille fortress (one of the most rewarding hikes I've ever done, I think, and not just for the view). I also saw Another Happy Day, which was a bit intense, but often quite funny and very well-written and -acted. And I ate well. Oh, and there was a modern art museum in there, too.

Granted, cities like Paris and Lyon are pretty stiff competition as river towns, so I probably shouldn't come down so hard on Grenoble. After all, it's in the freakin' Alps, and there's some very good food to be had. If you don't go in so much for my mealtime descriptions, I might simply suggest making a note of the recommendations and hopping up to the next entry. And I imagine I'm giving that tip to pretty much everyone except my mother.

Okay. Food time.

My first recommendation is La Mandala, located here. I started with an order of 12 escargots that were subtle, but good - they had an onion/tomato/olive oil tapenade-thing that was almost as strong a performance: like a really good supporting role. This is a good part of the world, I should add, for hearty food. Hence my decision to spring for the daily special: a veal T-bone in a deliciously seasoned sauce. The mashed potatoes were flaky yet moist, and flavorful - all without being painfully buttery. It was delicious - not a spectacular delicious, an eye-opening or taste-bud-opening (do they even do that?) delicious - but still some very good food very well-prepared. The regional red wine I ordered was good, and the dining room is very warm and atmospheric. This atmosphere was best punctuated by the chalkboard wine list and sizable window that revealed the chef working over impressively high stovetop flames.

I'll tell you what was a grand slam performance, though - the 'Baba bouchon au vieux rhum': house version of 'baba au rhum' with vanilla custard and delicious homemade (I'm sure) pastry. The Chartreuse digestif on the house - with the manager's insistence I try this regional specialty - was also the touch of a good host. It's a France-famous liqueur made originally by monks in their monastery in the nearby Chartreuse mountain range.

The other great sit-down restaurant I found in Grenoble was La Petite Idée, located here, not far from the river and base of the Bastille fort. It's the perfect choice of a restaurant right after the long hike up to the fortress. I don't think I ordered a starter here (had a late lunch that was good, but nowhere as good as this). No starter, no problem, though, because the duck filet I had...


...was every bit as delicious as it looks. So were the salad and potatoes gratin (I wish there'd been more of that). The sauce on the duck had this slight bitter taste to it that actually complemented the sweetness of the meat very nicely. I was nearly full, but I ordered dessert because I feel I owe that to a restaurant that does such a taste-bud-opening-'cause-here-they-definitely-did-that job.

Also 'cause, hey - what if it's good, too?

It was. Crème brulée.

My last recommendation is for a small but impossibly charming little bakery/tea shop: M. Sarrazin right on the Place Victor Hugo (more specifically, here). They had absolutely delicious breakfast pastries (I had an almond croissant and a pain au chocolat) served in a lovely, calm sitting room. The other, dessert desserts - cakes, canolis, everything but cupcakes, really - looked amazing as well. This one's definitely on my list to explore further on a future visit.

And there will be a future visit, if for no other reason than skiing in Chamrousse.

I spent February 25 and 26 in Grenoble proper. On the 27th, I got on a bus out to Chamrousse, a ski resort about an hour from the city (see here). If you're planning to get here from Grenoble (I'd recommend it), then I highly suggest you check out www.transaltitude.fr for their bus service. For 25 euro, I got an all-day ski pass for the whole resort as well as bus transportation there (and back to Grenoble in the evening). You have to pay more to rent gear (20 euro for boots, skis, and poles at any of the (many) shops), and a lot more for the ski lessons (necessary for me). But the surroundings are amazing (see the second half of my Grenoble photo album) and there are slopes for all levels, reachable by free shuttles that circle the resort.

I actually took to skiing rather quickly (the lesson helped), and I can see why it's so popular - get a good spot and some early confidence at it, and that sport is an addiction. It's like sledding, but on your feet and, if you're good enough, on all the really steep slopes your parents would never have let you sled down when you were a kid! Plus, I'm in the freakin' Alps!

I'd also like to boast out that I did not fall down a single time in the act of skiing. Once I decided I was going to ski down a hill, I did, and I did so without falling, or causing anyone else to do the same.

So, I had to call out "Attention!" a few times... And I probably slipped and fell while walking on the ice, and probably in ski boots, which is probably in large part because ski boots probably suck.

Next stop: Lyon. Which is also near the freakin' Alps.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Fable

Just as a side note, it has occurred to me since I first heard the real version of this story -- well before seeing Charlie Wilson's War -- that the zen master could be either very zen, or a neurotic who never gives up. Food for (nervous) thought.

There was once a zen master, a young man who knew well how to ride the frequently oscillating currents of life. This zen master also wrote screenplays, kept a blog, and (occasionally) taught adorable little French kids to speak English.

One day, the administration told the zen master he would be teaching all by himself. His neighbor consoled him for the hardship, but the zen master simply said:

"Well, we'll see."

It turned out his life was much simpler without having to coordinate unnecessarily with several teachers. "This is wonderful," his neighbor said. The zen master replied, "Well, we'll see."

Then, one day, the zen master's fellow teachers asked him to give his students evaluations, since no one else could. Everyone consoled the zen master, but again he replied, "Well, we'll see."

After grading tests for several hours, camera close by, the zen master returned them to students. He also posted several dozen photos of their funniest mistakes for friends and family to enjoy. "This is wonderful," the neighbor gushed, "These photos are great!"

"Yeah," the zen master replied, "They're freaking hilarious."

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Opportunities

.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

6:53 PM

Snowing. The talkative French woman with the big hair is gone... one or two of the teenage guys are still there, so's that girl with the headphones in.

"There aren't any buses."

Shit.

2:26 PM

Okay, tickets to Grenoble, now how much for Lyon - oh, wait, I need to go back and trim the scene where Murphy persuades Kyle - ...Gah, I need to take advantage of the opportunites. Been in this apartment all week. "Opportunities" - hate it when Mom and Dad use that word... Ahh, they're right - I go to new places, but I just do the same old tourist thing, while - oh, look - Ellen just added more photos to that skydiving album -

Gah! Forget it. Where are the movie listings? 'The Artist', 3:30 in Mouans-Sartoux, take the bus at 2:50. Yup. Done.

6:20 PM

"Bonsoir, monsieur."

"Bonsoir - do you have a room for tonight? One person?"

"One person?"

"What a day for the trains to be on strike, right?"

"Alors, une personne... Sixty-five euros."

"Sixty-five..."

"Oui. Shall I book it, monsieur?"

"Euh... I'll be back. Merci!"

Sixty-five... do I have a choice?

4:00 PM

Student discount with my old ID on the last ticket - YEUSS! I don't care if this is the worst seat in the house - this is a cool movie! Nice visual storytelling, good music - actually, this may be the first silent movie to have the same soundtrack everywhere it's distributed... Yeah, I guess back in the silent era it was all whoever played piano in the individual theater- Ba ha ha! That dog playing dead...!

5:34 PM

Look, just because the big-haired French lady said the buses are cancelled doesn't mean she knows what she's talking about - I mean, her husband pulls up in their car, blasts the horn, and she turns to us wondering what that wacko in the red Renault is going on about.

Who else we got here... girl with the headphones, teenage boys huddling together but still trying to look cool - it is freaking cold in the Riviera this week and I don't know why.

I tell you, if they cancelled the buses for this, I am gonna' be pissed. It's flurrying! We're talking less moisture than a light rain. The question is, can I walk back to Grasse?

*Sigh*

If it were lighter out, maybe... and if I had a water bottle. But it's only gonna' get colder...

...Is that a bus?

5:35 PM

No. It's not a bus.

11:15 PM

"Mmm ! Tug ['Toog'], this is delicious! Thanks again for inviting me over, you two!"

And I'm not usually this big a fan of beef bourgignon.

"Oh, pas de problème ! It's nice - we don't know anyone in Grasse..."

Nice couple, these two. She looks different without the headphones.

"...And, after all that," she continues, "it's good that we had an opportunity to talk!"

Amen, Louise.

6:52 PM

Of course the trains are on strike today. Don't even have the number for a taxi, which I didn't think I'd need, 'cause no sane organization shuts down a bus over a few flakes of snow! Yet, here I am standing in the bus lane watching the oncoming traffic for something tall with scrolling text in its windshield -

"Excusez-moi, monsieur?"

- and I'm this close to paying 65 euro for a hotel room, more for dinner, and the bus tomorr- oh, it's the girl with the headphones.

"There aren't any buses."

Shit.

"Ah, OK. Merci, madame. So, how are you getting home?"

"Euh, my boyfriend looked on the internet, and he saw there are no buses..."

Yeah - great day to 'take advantage of the opportunities'...

"...and he called me a taxi to go back up to Grasse, but it's going to be very expensive."

"Ah, I see... How much, if I can ask?"

"About forty euro, I think."

...

Well, it's not skydiving, but...

"Interested in splitting it?"

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Weekend Things

I think, after this entry, I'll finally be caught up. I've been explorin' a bit...!

Amy Evans and I went to Eze a few weeks ago and took these pictures. Cool place, Eze -- I thought Grasse was isolated up on a hill.

No. That's this place.

But at least it has the views to (more than) make up for it. On a warmer day, I will go back and take the hour-plus hike from the seaside up to the center of town. It's another one of those tightly interwoven cobblestone passage deals, like St-Paul-de-Vence, and it boasts two very, VERY nice hotels/villa neighborhoods. Like, we're talking my entire month's salary for a weekend stay. Amy and I had hot chocolates at the terrace cafe of one of them. You'll see the pictures.

Nice has also been pretty good to me lately... I did a little shopping, 'cause the French government decides when things go on sale, rather than stores themselves. One-euro bus from Grasse to Nice is The Best Thing.

I also had the pleasure of seeing a dance show in Menton a few weeks back. I went with Nice teaching assistant Jenifer Queen (and we ate at Pizzeria Vesuvio, which I mentioned a few entries back) to see this Amnesty International benefit show put together by local dance classes... who were surprisingly good. A third assistant (Jennifer Lindblom) works with Amnesty's Menton chapter, so she told us it was happening. I stage managed dance shows back in high school and always went to Vassar's, so this was a nice throwback as well.

On a separate occasion, Jenifer Queen and I also saw The Descendants and found dinner at le 22 septembre, located here in Nice. Outstanding food on a very affordable 4-course menu (we could barely finish it all). I had a warm mushroom quiche, a steak with (basically) fries, a cheese and salad course, and profiteroles for dessert. 17 euros. And it was all delicious. Plus, they had tables available with no reservation required at 10 PM. We had a great time. A big thank-you to Molly Smego for the recommendation.

Another thank-you goes to Amy, who introduced me to (the oddly named) Choopy's on the corner of Rue Vial and Rue du Marc in Antibes. You can get a full breakfast (eggs, toast, tasty preserves, hot chocolate, genu-ine bagel sandwiches, and even cupcakes) here in a cozy little cafe with a pal. Nice way to spend a Sunday morning.

My promise to you: the very next entry will bring narrative focus back.

-Andy

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Case of the Randoms

I promise you that, one day, my entries will go back to having some sort of organizing principle.

Today, however, is not that day.

...

Last week, I had my oldest kids playing "Point-To," which is about as simple as it sounds. I put a bunch of flashcards on the board, two kids come up, I say "Point to... 'Raining'!" (or "sunny" or "foggy" or "flunderstorming"). First kid to point to the right answer wins. They love it. Before we started on this particular day, I realized there were exactly 16 kids in the class.

OH SNAP IT'S TOURNAMENT TIME.


'Cause I know y'all just can't wait to see how this ends...


Final round, folks... place your bets.


Ta-da...!

...

A few of my classes had ski lessons scheduled for this week, where they would leave school as a class and go on a bus up to the mountains for their P.E. Those lessons were all cancelled because of unsafe driving conditions on snowy roads.

Ski lessons. Cancelled on account of snow. So French! SO FREAKING FRENCH!

...


This is a brick of peanuts. I bought it. And yes, a brick.

...

A dear friend of mine from back home, one David Adler, is coming to visit from April 21st-29th. It's gonna' be rockin' awesome. If you're reading this and likely to still be in Paris/Riviera during any of that time, let me know.

...

Andy: "What do we say when... *ah-CHOO*?"
Kids: "Bless you!"
Andy: "Good! And what do we say when... *cough*, *cough*?"
Kid: "Not bless you!"

...

G'night, folks.

-Andy

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Disconnected Mess of an Entry

First and foremost:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=edYHlnhxyOI

Now that your day has been brightened, hopefully you won't be as cross that I've got almost no governing principle behind this entry, other than a desperate desire to catch up with the present. Accept my apologies and (forthcoming) stories about adorable little French kids. Also, if you like, check out my updated photo album.



Since starting up again in January, I've introduced the weather as a unit of study. I had a lot of really good classes on it (although I'm getting the sense I need to either change my methods or move on to new material). I even dabbled in arts and crafts this time around, having them make more attractive versions of this thing:


Okay, so it's been riding around in my backpack a while.

But it's fun. They get to draw, they get to write the names of the weather, they have it as a study guide for the test I'll give in three weeks, and they get to turn it to whatever the weather is.

Speaking of weather... Beautiful for about 3 weeks. Then, today:


I had my first snow day in five years... which was fantastic. I want to take a minute to share my flatmate Erika's particularly French story about hers. She goes in, and half the teachers are on strike, half the students are missing because the buses are on strike, and then at 10:30 they close the school for a snow day even though there's no snow on the ground (yet).

French kids? French kids!

...

One day, one of the boys comes in with "an English song" on his flash drive that he wants to listen to it in class. "Oh, cool!" I think. Maybe this is like the kid in my oldest class who had lyrics and dance moves for 'Hello, Goodbye'. "This kid's really getting into English class, and maybe this is something I can use!" I take this kid's flash drive and look for the song. I find the song.

"Party Rock Anthem" by LMFAO.

...

Andy: "Today, it is chilly!"
Class: "Today, it is chully!"
Andy: "Chilly!"
Class: "Chully!"

...

Andy: "Hot and cold are opposites! Now, how is the weather today?"
Boy: "Today, it is opposite."

...

Andy (to one girl): "Chilly!"
Girl: "Chilly!"
Andy (to the girl): "What is your name?"
Girl: "Chilly! Uh, non..."

...

There's a little kid in the CP (ages 4-6) class who always goes to the bathroom around 9:55. I know because, on his way to and from, he spends a minute or two standing and watching from the hall just outside the space where I teach. Maybe it's me he finds different, but I rather suspect that that's how I looked when I was that age watching the bigger kids do what they do.

...

That's all I got for now.

Also, two good restaurants (mostly for pizza) that I've stumbled across in recent weeks (told you this entry was all over the place). Chez Xavier (in Cannes... more specifically, here) makes really good, reasonably priced wood-fire pizza in a charming setting that's secretly really close to everything. Second is Pizzeria Vesuvio, way over east in Menton (here) and thus close enough to Italy that any Italian dish you order will be good (same goes for the complimentary limoncello they served us after). Friendly service, too.

So, I put in to renew my contract for next year. Same region, unless they honor my request to transfer to Lyon (unlikely), but different town than Grasse, unless I don't have the final say in that matter (certain). I like being in France, working with the kids, having writing time (very productive, even if this blog doesn't show it), and riding out the storm of a tough job market back in the States. To my friends braving said hurricane, I wish you bon courage.

But I'm also doing it because I've learned a good deal of things, mostly from my students. Like this: next time you see lightning and hear rumbling afterward, don't be afraid, even if thunder usually scares you. Because, according to one of my kids, that's not a thunderstorm.

It's a flunderstorm.

-Andy

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

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Please sign the petition and encourage others to do so as well. If not, the above may be for real next time.

-Andy

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Only Lyon

So... my screenplay ate my blog. For a while: I met my draft deadline on that last Friday, so now I get to play more catch-up here. Which is nice, 'cause I missed this. Just to give you an idea of how far behind I am, this entry will recount the results of a brilliant last-minute decision I made. I booked train tickets, snagged a hotel room space, and spent the weekend of December 9-11 in Lyon for the annual Fête des Lumières ("Festival of Lights"). I am so glad I didn't miss it.

Yeah. I'm that far behind.

I almost didn't go, but thanks to some last minute cancellations (both mine and another assistant's), I snagged a spot in a hotel room and joined a few assistants from the Toulon area. Toulon is the big city in the 'Var' region of France, which is right next to the 'Alpes-Maritimes' region I inhabit. Regions are somewhere in between the sizes of America's counties and states. Both A-M and the Var are grouped together in the same administrative school zone, that's called an Académie, and that sense of nervous confusion you feel in trying to keep all this straight is just a taste of what it's like when I try to figure out exactly which organization I answer to as an English teacher.

Anyway, I booked tickets and hopped on the train on Friday afternoon, and spent most of the ride grading the tests I discussed (and photographed) at length last time. I got into Lyon around 7 and walked around a few hours before meeting the others back at the station, at which time we walked around some more.

In my walking-around time, I was immediately taken with just how cool this whole thing was. I don't know what you envision when you think of a festival of lights, but the Fête des Lumières is almost more like an art festival than anything else, but with exhibits based on light, color, and sometimes music. Artists with a range of renown do the installations, which you can find on event maps all over the city - in parks, in the middle of a particular sidewalk, by the river, and projected onto the walls of important public buildings.

Here are the photos. They are probably the most important part of this entry.

The festival runs that weekend in December every year, from the Thursday to the Sunday. I'm told the first and last nights are the best, and that includes a local opinion. That probably has something to do with the four million people pouring into the city to partake, mostly coming on Friday and leaving Sunday during the day. There were two times when we all got stuck in a jostling crowd of people so thick that we were packed together and literally could not move apart from the general flow of humans surrounding us, and hardly then. I can't help but think: that's what molecules of Nutella must feel like all the time.

The festival actually began as - and technically still is - a religious celebration in honor of the Virgin Mary (which is why it said "Merci Marie" in lights on the hilltop next to St. Mary's Basilica). The festival of lights began as Lyon citizens (called "Lyonnais") lighting candles in their windows all over the city. I'm told this still happens on the Thursday, but there was a lot of buzz this year about many Lyonnais boycotting that tradition as a protest against how commercial the festival has become. I kind of get that. But at the same time, the festival as I encountered it was pretty sweet. At the very least, you're generating a lot of money for the local economy, and you're doing that via a thriving creative endeavor. That last part isn't so easy...!

While the city was far too busy for us to get a table at a "bouchon," a traditional style of Lyon restaurant, we did eventually find a good dinner at Farfalla Caffè, a stylish little Italian place without throngs of tourists (like us!). Excellent stumble-upon. If you're in Lyon, try to get to one of the bouchons, but if you find yourself in the same position we did, the address is here.

Basically, we spent the weekend walking around. Lyon's a beautiful city, both during the day and during the festival, so we had good old touristy fun. Highlights included the center of town with its quaint shops and restaurants, Saint Mary's Basilica high on top of a hill with a stellar view of the whole city, vin chaud (hot, spiced wine) in the streets at night, and general marveling. We all had a good time and I plan to visit again when the weather gets warmer.

Also, I was just teaching my littlest kids, and one of them spent a good five minutes meditating while the others colored.

-Andy