Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Top Ten for 2013

I haven't watched enough movies, heard enough albums or read enough books to do a proper Best of 2013 list so I'm going to do something much more personal (or self-absorbed, depending on how you look at it): I'm going to list my ten favorite experiences from the past year. I've already written about several of them on this blog so I'm including links to past posts where appropriate. And yes, Blake Berris makes the list twice, cause he's just that awesome (or I'm just that obsessed, depending on how you look at it). I didn't rank my experiences - that would be too difficult - but they are listed in chronological order. Without further ado . . . 

1. Nick Cave at the Ryman
I almost always think any concert I've just seen is the Best. Concert. I've. Ever. Seen so this might sound a bit disingenuous but, seriously, this is the Best. Concert. I've. Ever. Seen. I knew Cave was a brilliant singer and lyricist but he is also a highly charismatic performer. His stage persona is equal parts Old Testament fire and brimstone and raw, animalistic magnetism. If Nathaniel Hawthorne had been a rock star and injected massive amounts of heroin in his younger years he might be something like Nick Cave. I'm sure part of the reason the show had such an impact on me was that it was my first time ever seeing Cave live. He'll be coming back to the states next summer and I've got a date with him at DAR Constitution Hall in July. Will be interesting to see if the experience packs the same punch the second time around. I'm inclined to think it just might.

2. Frida & Diego at the High
Frida Kahlo has been a favorite artist and personal hero of mine since I was in college. Her private life, especially her tempestuous relationship with Diego Rivera, is the stuff of legend. It was fascinating to see Kahlo and Rivera's work displayed side-by-side at this impressive show at Atlanta's High Museum. While I find Rivera compelling in his own right he does not fascinate me the way Kahlo and her work do. Her self-portraits are so intimate that they are essentially visual diary entries on canvas. Seeing several of them all at once was an indescribably emotional and powerful experience.

3. Leonard Cohen at the Fox
Mom and I saw Leonard Cohen for the first, and second, time in 2009 and this third show at Atlanta's Fox Theatre was every bit as great as those first two. Cohen has seemingly boundless reserves of energy and his shows last longer than many of those by artists half his age. He seems to derive so much genuine pleasure from sharing his music with an audience. And he has one of the best backing bands around. Cohen is an absolute treasure. For my money he is the greatest living songwriter on the planet. And easily one of the best performers.

4. Colorado & ABQ Trip
This was one of the longest vacations my husband and I have taken together and definitely one of the most memorable. Every day was a blast but the highlights for me were our drive through the Rockies, our visit to the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center and our side-trip to Albuquerque, where we were able to see some of our favorite Breaking Bad filming locations. There was so much we wanted to do that we didn't get around to doing so I hope there will be time in 2014 for another trip out to this beautiful and awe-inspiring part of the country.

5. Meeting Blake Berris in Atlanta
After loving and obsessing over Nick Fallon for years I finally had the opportunity to meet the man who brings him to life, Blake Berris. I could never have imagined that Blake would be so charming, kind and gracious in person, which made the experience all the better. I have a lot of celebrity crushes but meeting Blake puts him in a class by himself. I just adore him. 

6. Meeting Blake Berris in Birmingham
And then I met Blake for a second time! And introduced him to my mom! And he was charming, kind, gracious and awesome all over again! 

7. Whitfield Lovell at the Hunter
It's been more than a decade since I first encountered Whitfield Lovell's beautiful, tactile mixed-media portraits at the Knoxville Museum of Art so it was great to finally get an opportunity to see an entire show of his, which included an impressive site-specific installation. Lovell combines his portraiture with found objects and multi-media to create a haunting, immersive and entirely memorable experience. 

8. The Breaking Bad Finale
The greatest television show I've ever seen ended its triumphant run this past September. It was everything I wanted it to be and I feel fortunate that I got to watch it with some dear friends who are also huge fans.

9. Baltimore & DC Weekend
A short but very fun trip up to Baltimore and DC, where Mom and I were able to spend time with some of our very best friends. 

10. Overnight at LeConte Lodge
The only thing better than a day spent in the Smokies is an overnight adventure in the Smokies. It's great to fall asleep in the mountains and to wake up there the next morning. Staying at LeConte Lodge is like staying at Sleepaway Camp. It's rustic but comfortable and everyone is having a great time getting to know each other. This was the first of what I hope will be many stays for us up on the mountain.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas with Dolly

We finally made it up to Dollywood last week to check out their spectacular Christmas scene. The park pulls out all the stops during the holiday season. Practically every building and tree is covered in strands of colorful lights. It is wondrous. We were really excited to see their new stage production of A Christmas Carol, which we enjoyed immensely. Live actors share the stage with holograms, which are used for all of the ghostly roles. The Ghost of Christmas Past is played by none other than Hologram Dolly. And, yes, it's every bit as awesome as it sounds.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Bethlehem in Knoxville

walk through bethlehem walk through bethlehem walk through bethlehem walk through bethlehem Downtown's Church Street United Methodist Church goes all out every December for their Walk Through Bethlehem. They turn a portion of the church's interior into a bustling marketplace scene and members of the congregation dress up as merchants and craftsmen. The effort they put into this annual event is admirable and impressive and the high attendance numbers are well deserved. 

Some years we walk through the marketplace to get the full experience and some years, like this one, we just stop by and visit with the animals on the church grounds. The donkeys are usually the highlight for me but this year the camels made the biggest impression. Usually they are standing and I never get too close to them, because I find them kind of imposing. The camels we saw yesterday, though, were lying down and they seemed very laid back and approachable so, for once, Mom and I went over and petted them. They are really wooly and soft and beautiful. I liked them a lot. I kind of want one of my own.

Monday, December 2, 2013

RIP Nick Fallon?

So, nobody really thinks Nick Fallon is dead. Even before we saw him regain consciousness moments after Sami, Kate and Gabi lowered his presumed-dead body into the icy currents of the Salem River most folks were pretty sure he'd be back. And anyone who follows Blake Berris on twitter and keeps up with the weird months-in-advance shooting schedule at Days knows we'll see Nick in some capacity into early next year. Will he be a ghost? A manifestation of Gabi's guilty conscience? Or, will he return to Salem in a more corporeal sense and wreak havoc on the ladies who done him wrong? I think Nick lives and of course I want him to be alive but at this point I'll settle for anything I can get. All the cryptic, conflicting reports from the cast members are stressing me out. I hate not knowing the fate of my fave, even though I should be used to the uncertainty at this point. And even though I know we'll see Nick again I do think there's a chance that Blake's wrapped taping and we may not have the Fallonator around for much longer. Unless of course the show is really going to make a concerted effort to redeem him, at least a little bit.

I was really dreading last week's episodes. Even knowing Nick was likely going to survive I did not want to see him knocked out and dumped in a river. And if Nick really is dead then I resent the odd, darkly comedic tone that the show opted for during his "final" moments. Days was more respectful when poor unfortunate Willow Stark met her demise. Nick's done some horrible things and I know a lot of people dislike him but surely his real death would be treated as more than an excuse for slapstick. That's not to say I didn't enjoy the weird humor, I just found it jarring and far less effective than the dark, tormented exchange between Gabi and Nick last Monday. Camila Banus and Blake were absolutely on fire in those scenes, which were heartbreaking and horrifying. I hated seeing Gabi treat Nick like something she'd just scraped off her shoe. I actually cheered when he tried to blackmail her into coming to New York with him. And then the attempted rape happened. I'm taking into account that Nick was absolutely out of his mind at that point. And because he was so broken, betrayed and unbalanced I was still able to sympathize with him. But it was appalling to see Days go there with my fella.

I'm scared to even venture a guess as to where Nick's story is ultimately going. I'll continue to tune in though, so long as, one way or another, I get to see my poor, beleaguered, long-suffering, somewhat monstrous boy. Things can only get better from here. Can't they?

Fantasy of Trees

fantasy of trees fantasy of trees fantasy of trees fantasy of trees Knoxville's Fantasy of Trees has been around for forever but it's a relatively new tradition for Mom and me. It's a great way to kick off the Christmas season and get some inspiration as I tackle (and I mean that affectionately) my own holiday decorations at home. As of right now I have pretty much everything finished except for the back porch lights and the live tree, which we'll purchase this coming weekend. Then I can print up my cards (design is still being finalized) and get them in the mail. What a hectic time of year but it's an awful lot of fun. To be honest I wasn't sure I was up for all the unpacking and decorating and Ho-Ho-Ho-ing this year but now that I'm in the thick of it I'm having a blast. I'm still bitter about missing Rudolph last Tuesday (when has Rudolph ever aired before Thanksgiving? It ain't right) but Charlie Brown is on tonight, which softens the blow a little bit.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Overnight on Mount LeConte

Last year, we hiked to the LeConte Lodge several times but, since we never had a reservation, we only ever stayed long enough to catch our breath, eat a snack and refill our water bottle before making the trek back down the mountain. It makes for a rewarding but exhausting day hike and every time we'd visit I found myself wishing we could stay the night. This past Saturday we were fortunate enough to snag a last-minute cabin reservation. We loaded up our backpacks, dropped the dog off with his sitter and set out for our overnight adventure.

alum cave trail
alum cave trail alum cave trail
The LeConte Lodge sits just below the summit of Mount LeConte. According to their website they are the highest guest lodge in the Eastern United States. Guests who stay at the lodge must do without electricity. Propane heat warms the rustic but comfortable cabins. Kerosene lanterns provide light. There are no showers but each cabin comes equipped with a bucket and hot water is available from a tap outside the dining room. The centrally located privies were recently upgraded and now feature flush-toilets; all things considered, they seem downright luxurious given the lack of other creature comforts. Not that I missed the creature comforts. At all. We actually had cell service at the lodge but I only used my phone to take photographs. I must confess I really enjoyed my brief self-imposed exile from social media. Perhaps I should exercise that kind of restraint more often.  

Time moves slowly at the lodge. That's a good thing. Guests can explore the trails, sip hot cocoa while admiring the views from the dining room porch, or visit with fellow travelers in the lodge office, which also serves as a spacious common area. Dinner and breakfast are served family style in the dining room. The dinner bell rings before each meal and guests are assigned tables. Everybody is friendly. Everybody is happy to be there.  It feels kind of like summer camp. At dinner time the staff informed us that a bear, who had been hanging around the camp for several days, had been captured in a culvert trap. Guests were encouraged to keep their distance until morning, when one of the park's bear experts would arrive to assess the situation.

leconte lodge leconte lodge leconte lodge leconte lodge leconte lodge
After dinner we stopped back in at the office and found it filled with people. Some played card and board games, others opted to sit on their own and read. We sat in rockers near the heater and observed quietly for a few minutes, then retreated to our cozy cabin and turned in for the evening. I think we both woke up every couple of hours (probably owing to the new surroundings and the strong winds that blew throughout the night) but, otherwise, we slept very well.

I had hoped to make the short hike up to Myrtle Point before breakfast to see the sunrise but the mountain top was covered in clouds so it was hardly worth the effort. The weather put a damper on our scenic views but it meant we had time to watch the bear expert perform a health check on the male black bear who'd been captured the night before. This was an entirely unexpected and incredible experience. When bears and other wildlife begin to lose their fear of humans it can be bad for us but it's especially bad for them. The captured bear was sedated, tagged, tattooed and microchipped. The idea is to make the whole experience just unpleasant enough for the bear that he'll want to steer clear of humans. In the past the lodge has had success with the health checks as a form of deterrent. I hope that's the case for this fella.

alum cave trail alum cave trail alum cave trail
This was such a satisfying experience. I can't wait until we have another opportunity to stay overnight at LeConte Lodge. I imagine each visit will be unique and wonderful and offer its own unexpected and delightful surprises.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

November Sweeps or: An Exercise in Masochism

Here's the promo video for November Sweeps on Days of Our Lives. I tried initially to put a positive spin on this. Blake Berris was taping at Days as recently as October 1st, meaning we'll see Nick in some capacity next February. If Nick is, in fact, the major character who turns up dead later this month then why would we be seeing him next February? Is he a ghost? A figment of Gabi's imagination? Does he fake his death? Or is it something much simpler than that? One of the posters over at Daytime Royalty suggested that Blake might simply have been taping some final murder revelation scene. And then that would be it, I suppose. The sad tale of Nick Fallon would finally arrive at its heartbreaking but inevitable conclusion. Inevitable not because the character couldn't have realistically been - at least partially - redeemed but because the writers refuse to see him as anything other than the fuel that stokes the fire under other characters' storylines. He's their accelerant and they seem all too happy to burn him to the ground over and over again if it bolsters the other characters. 

I want to remain optimistic. Really, I do. I want to give the writers and producers the benefit of the doubt. I want to believe that they understand and appreciate the kind of story potential they have with a character like Nick. Not just short term, shock value potential but long term core character who is integral to the fabric of the Days of Our Lives canvas potential. But why would I expect them to see that when it feels like they've never seen the potential I have seen in Nick?

For the record I feel genuinely conflicted over this. Blake Berris does crazy like nobody's business and unstable, living in his own head Nick is truly delightful to watch. But he could be so much more than that. I don't buy the argument that Nick is a more developed and more interesting character this second go around than he was during his first stint on the show. I think he's been consistently interesting but he hasn't really evolved as a character. Prison has toughened him up, made him more ruthless, more unstable but Nick still makes exactly the same damned mistakes he's been making since he first fell for Chelsea Brady. Nick wants the girl. Nick loses sight of everything else in order to obtain the girl. Nick does something dumb, something unforgivable and winds up kicked to the curb. Or in prison. Or dead. Believable? Sure. The actions of possessive, abusive types will often escalate over time. And as much as I hate the fact that Nick, a victim of rape himself, is going to turn into an attempted rapist I can admit that that makes sense, too. Nick never sought counseling after he came clean about what happened to him in prison. He is utterly broken at this point and I guess Days figures it's time they discard him. It's believable, sure, but it's far from the most compelling story that Days could have told with this character. And it makes no sense when you consider that most of the other trouble-makers on the show get away with any and everything, time and again, year after year. Why isn't Nick afforded that luxury as well?

And so what if it's believable?  Is this really a story I want to watch on daytime television? A story that makes a character a rape victim so that he can be temporarily redeemed, then promptly drops that storyline in order to make the character wicked and dangerous again? And why, exactly, is Days of Our Lives so obsessed with rape? Is that really the only trick the writers can come up with to create drama and conflict in their storylines? The casual manner in which they've introduce rape into practically every current storyline, and the way they sweep it under the rug when it's no longer useful as a plot point, is lazy and insensitive. Just like their over-the-top depictions of mental illness. They could have given Nick a truly powerful story where he confronts the fact that he's sick and makes an actual effort to get better. Instead Days just turns up the dial on his crazy to eleven and writes him off when they they think he's too far gone to be brought back. I guess that's pretty representative of the way many people in our society view the mentally ill. They'd rather not have to deal with them. Again, it's believable. But it's depressing as hell to watch.

I can't lie. I'm angry. And hurt. And deeply disappointed. I know Blake had a blast taping this stuff but it's all becoming too much for me. I wanted shades of gray. I wanted subtlety and nuance. Blake's acting delivers that but there's only so much he can do when the writing for Nick has all the subtlety of a rock to the temple. I have no one but myself to blame for getting my hopes up, once again, that this time things would be different for Nick. And if it turns out that this whole murder story is an elaborate ruse and Nick is staying put then I will happily admit that I was wrong. But I think it's best if I expect the very worst at this point. I should probably just be thankful that Nick's been back on my screen at all (and thankful that after he's gone I will no longer have to be so slavishly devoted to this maddening show).

Andrew Saftel at Bennett Galleries

andrew saftel - where water meets land

andrew saftel - where water meets land

andrew saftel - where water meets land

andrew saftel - where water meets land
Andrew Saftel is an absolutely astounding (and remarkably prolific) artist. His new show, Where Water Meets Land, currently on view at Bennett Galleries, is comprised of several new paintings, created in his now-recognizable style. Saftel works on large pieces of wood, carving text and images into the surface of each piece, embedding found objects, affixing pieces of ephemera and covering the surface in layer after colorful layer of acrylic paint. His paintings are like visual treasure troves; bursting with warmth and life, these pieces tell stories that are both personal and universal.

Saftel is an artistic Renaissance man. In addition to his paintings he also creates sculptures and prints (and examples of each are also on view in this show). The most exciting additions to this particular exhibit, however, are the large digital photographs that are on display. The images for these pieces were collected on a visit to Bangladesh and they are the most straightforward, journalistic work that the artist has produced. Saftel layers images together, blending his subjects with their surroundings in unexpected and aesthetically pleasing ways. They remind me very much of Dan Eldon's work, which detailed the lives of his subjects but was always filtered through his own artistic vision.

I have had the pleasure of participating in two workshops taught by Andrew Saftel and he is as generous and kind-hearted as he is talented. His desire to collaborate and his genuine enthusiasm for other people's work is heartening. He is a great artist and a great man.

If you are free this Saturday (November 16) please consider attending his artist lecture at Bennett at 3:00 PM. It is sure to be a blast.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Old Sugarlands Trail

old sugarlands trail

old sugarlands trail

old sugarlands trail

old sugarlands trail
We hiked a portion of Old  Sugarlands Trail last year and I was keen to go back and complete it. Early Saturday morning we rounded up a couple of friends and did just that. This trail is just under four miles and runs the distance between Newfound Gap Road and Cherokee Orchard Road. It is a fairly easy trek though there is a portion in the middle that climbed steadily and caught us a bit off guard. But the trail is wide and fairly smooth and the return trip was all downhill, which made for a pretty easy-going experience. The LeConte Creek crossing (towards the end, just before Cherokee Orchard Road) is storybook beautiful.

This coming weekend we will hike the Alum Cave trail up to the LeConte Lodge where we were able, at the last minute, to snag a cabin for Saturday night! We visited the lodge several times last year but this will be our first time staying overnight on the mountain. It will be cold, cold, cold but I am so excited! Better invest in some new long johns before we head out!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Happy Anniversary, Fallonator!

Seven years ago today Blake Berris debuted as Nick Fallon on Days of Our Lives. Even though we lost him to Salem's Statesville Prison for a few years I still think his anniversary date is a cause for celebration. This time last year I was on the verge of disowning Nick. That was before the amazing Smith Island Story this past May. And before I met Blake not once but twice at Days fan events. So it's safe to say that, at this point in time, I'm feeling pretty invested in the character again.

November Sweeps are upon us and things are getting nuttier in Salem by the day. Nick continues to be delusional and duplicitous and his actions will no doubt result in him hurting himself and probably a whole bunch of other people. I don't want Days to lose him but I have to consider the possibility that the show doesn't intend for Nick to be a long-term presence in Salem (and that Blake himself may want to devote more time to other projects). I'm trying not to think about that, though, and just enjoy the wild ride while it lasts. 

Nick continues to be one of the most entertaining and compelling characters on the Days canvas and Blake continues to make him more sympathetic and rootable than he really has any business being. He is such a gifted performer and I am truly thankful for every day that I get to see him on my tv screen.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Baltimore & DC Weekend Adventure

corcoran corcoran corcoran betsy's house betsy's house first baptist church of silver spring reunion first baptist church of silver spring reunion
Last weekend Mom and I took a quick road trip up to Silver Spring, MD to attend the final Sunday service (in this building, before they relocate to a new facility) at her old stomping ground, First Baptist Church of Silver Spring. We also made time to visit with friends and family, eat lots of yummy food and see cool stuff at the Corcoran. I wish we'd had more time but it was a fantastic weekend.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Conjuring

After you read what I have to say please mosey over to Final Girl and see what other folks think about this terrific movie.

Horror movies rarely scare me. When I was a kid, sure, I was frightened by a lot of stuff but I can't think of a single movie I've watched since college (when I first saw The Shining) that has genuinely gotten under my skin. I can think of a handful of specific movie scenes (The Others and The Innocents spring to mind) that have unsettled me but the movies as a whole have not. That's no slight on the movies themselves, mind you, I enjoy being kind of creeped out or grossed out, too. I just think it takes a certain kind of talent to make a truly scary movie. And I think, with The Conjuring, director James Wan has proven that he's got that kind of talent.

I heard great things about The Conjuring before I watched it, so I went in with high expectations. It exceeded them. This is a movie that the MPAA slapped with an R rating not because it's violent or gory but because it's so freakin' scary. For once I am in total agreement with the MPAA's assessment. This movie is scary from the get-go and the tension and fear only escalates as the story progresses. I watched it just after dark, with only my Halloween lights plugged in and only my dog, Charles Edmund, for company and I was a wreck (and by the end, so was Charlie). I jumped in my seat and screamed out loud repeatedly. I was out of breath the entire time I watched. Seriously, this was like a cardio workout. I got so scared I nearly stopped watching. And I was loving the movie! Loving it! But I was so shaken that I really considered turning it off towards the end. That is one of the greatest compliments I can think to give to a horror movie. If the goal is to scare the audience, this one gets an A+.

The Conjuring is the "based on actual events" story of the Perron family, who buy a farmhouse at auction and discover after they have moved in that the place is overrun with spirits. While most of the entities in the house are benign or, at worst, mischievous, there is also something more sinister and dangerous lurking in the Perron home. Something that means the family great harm. Matriarch Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) eventually reaches out to Ed Warren and his wife Lorraine (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), a celebrated pair of paranormal investigators, in the hopes that they can help her distraught family. Ed and Lorraine are an interesting couple. Ed is knowledgable in an academic sort of way but Lorraine is the one who is really "in touch" with the spirit world. Once they are on the Perron property shadowy entities and visions of past tragedies manifest themselves before Lorraine's eyes, even though they are not visible to her husband or the Perrons. Because she is so attuned to the other side, Ed is protective of Lorraine and concerned for her well being. The work the Warrens do affects them both but it clearly takes more of a toll on Lorraine. 

By offering their assistance to the Perrons the Warrens inadvertently put themselves and their own daughter in harm's way. As Ed explains it the Perrons' problems cannot be solved simply by relocating. The forces in the house have latched onto the family and will continue to torment them no matter where they go. Now that the Warrens are in the house as well what's to keep them safe from the same dark forces?

Sound familiar? Sure it does. But while it's certainly derivative of other stories The Conjuring works because it borrows the most effective moments from its predecessors. I saw traces of The HauntingThe ExorcistPoltergeistThe Sixth Sense and The Amityville Horror (The Amityville connection should come as no surprise considering the Warrens investigated the strange things going down at the infamous house on Ocean Avenue just a few years after they helped the Perrons). I think all of those titles are worthwhile but none of them really scare me. The Haunting puts me on edge in a great way but it does not terrify me. The Sixth Sense and Poltergeist have alarming, frightening moments but I consider them to be family dramas with supernatural elements rather than horror movies so it makes sense that they aren't wall-to-wall fright fests. The Amityville Horror has some effective scares too but it just goes overboard towards the end. The Exorcist is deeply unsettling and a masterpiece but the effects, impressive though they may be, strain credulity. I don't for a second believe that's what an actual demonic possession looks like. The effects in The Conjuring are far more subtle and because of that I find it far more effective. Look, I have never ever entertained the notion that demonic possession was something I should be worried about. After The Conjuring I'll confess I thought to myself "Maybe? Maybe there's something to it after all." And that weirds me out.

The more believable something is to me, the more frightening it becomes. Subtle, almost plausible effects will always scare me more than the over-the-top stuff. This movie is loaded with subtle scares and a quiet sense of menace. Sometimes I'll watch a movie like The Haunting or The Innocents and I'll get wrapped up in the gothic romanticism and find myself wishing I could have some sort of supernatural encounter. The Conjuring does not make me feel that way. It is nothing that I'd want to experience in real life. And that, combined with the understated effects approach, is precisely what makes it so effective. And so great. It helps that the acting is superlative and the characters are people I really cared about. Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston are terrific as the beleaguered Perrons. I felt for them and their daughters. I was scared for them. I wanted them to be alright. Patrick Wilson is compelling as Ed Warren. I was really fascinated by his practical, no-nonsense approach to paranormal investigation. And the always amazing Vera Farmiga is completely awesome as Lorraine Warren. She radiates empathy and compassion and strength. She's just wonderful.

The Warrens are much-maligned given their association with Amityville, a case that many people are quick to dismiss as a hoax, but I don't think you have to believe the Warrens were legitimate paranormal experts to enjoy and appreciate The Conjuring. Just enjoy the movie in its own right and appreciate it for what it is: one of the most well-crafted and frightening tales to grace the silver screen in ages.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Underdogs of Salem Unite!

So, I know I'm not the only one who likes the idea of a Nick and Nicole pairing, partnership, friendship, whatever on Days. The first place I ever saw it suggested as a possibility was on the Television Without Pity message boards, during the end of Nick's first stint on the show. Nicole is one of my very favorite Salemites and Arianne Zucker does a fantastic job of creating a nuanced, sympathetic character who, like Nick, is lonely and hungry for love. Even though she's hurt a lot of people with her desperate schemes it isn't any easier for me to see Nicole as a true villain than it is for me to see Nick as one. I think they are both tragic figures and I think they both deserve some small measure of happiness, at the very least.

I will concede that, at this point, Nicole looks much more sympathetic than Nick. She's more forthcoming and repentant about her past misdeeds. Since Eric Brady returned to town, as Father Eric, she's tried to change her ways and be a better person. She's doing it all because she's in love with him, of course, but that doesn't make her efforts any less admirable. It does, however, make her a slightly less interesting character. She's still smart and snarky in her exchanges with people like Victor and Kristen, but most of her scenes revolve around her pining for a man she cannot have. And I appreciate her plight, I really do, but the story moved at a snail's pace and mostly trod the same ground for months on end. Until yesterday, when Father Eric came to the realization that he'd been drugged and raped and wrongfully accused Nicole of being the perpetrator. 

After all those months spent trying to live a decent, honorable life, trying to do the right thing, the thanks Nicole gets is to be wrongfully accused of rape by the man she loves. And her close friend Brady has turned his back on her because she disapproves of his relationship with Kristen, who just so happens to be the one who actually drugged and assaulted Eric. Nicole succeeds in cleaning up her act only to have it thrown back in her face in the most horrific manner imaginable. And this time last year she was enduring her second miscarriage. It seems no matter what she does, Days of Our Lives does not want Nicole Walker to have nice things. No friends to stand by her, no man to love her, no child to call her own. Poor Nicole.

The solution seems so obvious. Nick and Nicole need each other. They both want the same things in life, they can both play dirty to get what they, they are both resourceful and intelligent and they are both insanely gorgeous. I can't see a problem. This needs to happen. They need to get together, fall madly in love, tell all of their detractors to piss off and then steal everybody's kids and raise them as their own. Cause Nicole wants to be a mom and I need to see Blake Berris holding babies on a more regular basis. Please, please Days, let me get what I want.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Another Lament for Nick Fallon

What a relief to see Nick Fallon on my tv screen yesterday. Two weeks is far too long to go without a fix. I love it when Nick shares scenes with his cousin Hope and yesterday's scenes between Blake Berris and Kristian Alfonso were really solid. Hope does the tough love thing with Nick just like his Aunt Maggie does, with maybe a bit more emphasis on the "tough" part. Hope's reaction when Nick told her he was planning to leave town made me sad for both of them. Nick was so disappointed that Hope didn't try to change his mind and Hope was so remorseful about the entire situation. I thought Blake did some really effective and subtle work in this scene, using nothing but his marvelously expressive eyes to convey Nick's emotions. It was like everything Hope was saying chipped away at the happy facade he had constructed for himself. By the time Gabi's name came up near the end of their conversation Nick's mask was slipping but he was struggling to keep it in place. All of his insecurity and animosity was there though, roiling just beneath the surface. It was a quietly chilling transformation to watch. And it was so flawlessly executed that I was giddy by the end of the scene. Acting like that sends me right over the edge. 

The scenes at Club TBD were great, too. I was cracking up over Nick "stealthily" wandering over to the bar so that he could listen in on Sonny and Gabi's conversation. I found it amusing that Gabi didn't see her ex-husband come in or recognize the back of his head while he was eavesdropping. I thought Nick's utter disdain for his rival, the entirely dull and undeveloped Cameron, was hilarious. Blake's expression when Nick said the other man's name was a bit of rubber-faced physical comedy worthy of Jim Carrey. And I love it when the show lets me laugh, because so often it makes me want to throw things. I adore Camila Banus but, at this point, the writing has soured me on Gabi. I hate that she has fallen so completely out of love with Nick that she can't even stand to be in his presence for more than five seconds. I hated her entire conversation with Rafe earlier in the episode about how easy and uncomplicated it is for her to spend time with Cameron, how it's such a welcome change after all the drama with her ex. She was supposed to be the one, at long last, who really, truly loved Nick, after the back and forth with Chelsea and his homicidal obsessiveness over Melanie. But now she's discarded him, because it was just too hard to be in a relationship with him. Why does Gabi get a pass from Sonny and Rafe for the questionable things she's done? Or are we just supposed to pretend that they never happened, and that Gabi's a good woman who got mixed up with a bad man who nearly wrecked her life? Once again, Nick Fallon is a means to an end for the writers. He's a character who is so single-minded, so unstable and so delusional that the object of his affection, no matter what she might have done in her past, looks like the wronged party by comparison. 

And yet, I still cheer for Nick. Do I wish he would learn from at least some of his mistakes? Of course. Do I wish he would occasionally act in a more mature and selfless manner? Absolutely. Do I still hope for glimpses of the sweet, nerdy Fallonator that I fell in love with back in '06? I do but not as much as I did in the past. I accept that this is the path that Days of Our Lives has chosen for this character. I accept that there was darkness in Nick pretty much from the start, it was just tempered with lightness and humor when he was younger. And even when everybody complains about how crazy, how frightening Nick has become I still see a deeply-damaged, vulnerable character underneath the villainous exterior. Someone I can empathize with, someone I want to root for, even if it's a lost cause. Someone who is isolated and ostracized in ways that almost no other character on this show has been, so if he feels like retaliating against the people who look down their noses at him I'll understand. Someone who was entirely powerless and at the mercy of his fellow inmates while he was in prison, so if he goes out of his way to gain control, not just of the direction his life takes but of the people in it, as well, I'll know why and I'll appreciate his reasoning, even if I don't agree with his actions.

I have no idea what the end game is for Nick. My biggest concern is not that he will lash out and hurt the people around him, it's that he'll get punished for doing it. If the show never wants to redeem him I'll accept it but they cannot get rid of him again. Nick Fallon is a complicated and layered character and Blake Berris's portrayal of him is so compassionate and nuanced. It's unlike anything else on daytime.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Suspiria

Dario Argento's Suspiria is the ultimate argument for style over substance in filmmaking. I've heard complaints that the plot makes no sense but I've never understood the argument. The plot makes perfect sense, it's just incredibly thin. Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American ballet student, relocates to Germany in order to train at a world-renowned dance academy in Freiburg, on the edge of the Black Forest. After she arrives she discovers that her new school is a front for a coven of witches. That's it. But onto this bare bones frame Argento builds one of the most outlandish, gruesome and beautiful horror movies ever made, a technicolor, art deco wonderland of a movie with terrifically over-the-top death scenes and a chillingly effective musical score that adds to the sense of unease every bit as much as the lurid visuals. It's sensory overload from start to finish and I adore every single minute of it.

I love stories about witches almost as much as I love stories about haunted houses. And have I mentioned that I love unsettling stories about ballet dancers, too? So how could I not love Suspiria? Everything about it makes me supremely happy. I'm basically euphoric the entire time I watch it and I have watched it many, many times. I like that the creepy supernatural vibe isn't confined to the walls of the dance academy. From the very first frames of the movie, when she arrives at the airport late at night and hails a taxi during a horrific rainstorm, it's as if Suzy's surroundings are already conspiring against her. Everything looks brighter, more colorful but also more menacing than it does in the real world. The hypnotic, disconcerting score by Goblin kicks in on the soundtrack and it sounds like a music box possessed by a demon.

Every location in Suspiria ought to feel dangerous considering that the power of the witches extends beyond the academy. Anyone who uncovers their secrets or crosses them in any way meets with a horrible end. Student Pat Hingle (Eva Axen) uncovers the true nature of the dance school and is brutally murdered that same night. The school's blind piano accompanist, Daniel (Flavio Bucci) gets into an altercation with instructor Miss Tanner (a wonderfully creepy Alida Valli) and is killed hours later when his own service dog viciously turns on him. The witches themselves never get their hands dirty but they seem to be able to summon dark supernatural entities to do their bidding at a moment's notice. And these things don't mess around. Although all the deaths in Suspiria are memorable (Stefania Cassini's Sara actually falls into a room filled with razor wire - a whole damned room filled with razor wire) Pat's is the most over the top and unforgettable. Stabbed through the heart, strung up by an electrical cord and plunged through an enormous stained glass skylight, it is relentlessly brutal but also garishly beautiful.

I guess you could argue that the resolution to Suspiria feels a little easy. The witches appear to be all-powerful but wispy little Suzy is able to defeat them fairly quickly in the film's final moments. I think the storybook ending works, though, because the entire movie kind of plays like a dark fairy tale (Argento's color palette for the movie was even inspired by Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves). Despite its barbaric, surreal nature Suspiria ends on a triumphant note. One that is probably as close to a "Happily Ever After" as you're going to get in a horror movie. 

Fabulous Fall Color Near Newfound Gap

newfound gap AT (between newfound gap & indian gap) AT (between newfound gap & indian gap) AT (between newfound gap & indian gap)
As promised, the color in the higher elevations of the Smokies is exquisite right now. The drive from Chimney Tops to Newfound Gap is especially impressive. The trees are aglow in various shades of yellow, orange and gold. It is so beautiful and impossible to describe adequately. When we visited Saturday the park was, quite possibly, the most crowded we'd ever seen it. Despite the congestion it was great to see such an overwhelming show of support now that the shutdown has ended.

We only hiked a mile, on a narrow little stretch of the AT between Newfound and Indian Gaps. The elevation gain, slight though it may have been, was relentless and more than we were looking to undertake, seeing as how we're so out of shape! We'll get back on track soon, though, so that we can hike up to LeConte Lodge before they close for the season. I cannot believe it's been almost a year since our last trek up there!

The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh

Leon Leigh (Aaron Poole) moves into his estranged mother Rosalind's home after she dies. They're estranged because Rosalind was involved in a religious cult (one specifically devoted to the existence of angels) and Leon was a nonbeliever. Rosalind's devotion to her faith is matched by her son's firm belief that it's all a bunch of hooey; since neither will waver they eventually grow apart. Leon is an antiques dealer and he returns to his mother's home to inventory her possessions, of which there are many. Seriously, if I hadn't enjoyed anything else about The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh it still would have been worth watching for the interiors alone. Rosalind's house is a marvel. A fortress-like stone exterior opens onto heavy wooden interiors where every available surface is covered in all manner of religious iconography and knick-knackery. There are Madonnas, Christ statues, Pre-Raphaelite paintings, gilded mirrors, taxidermied animals (the white peacock that adorns the stairwell is especially exquisite), doilies and angels, angels everywhere. This is the little old lady house of my dreams.

Rosalind is played by Vanessa Redgrave. Though it would be more accurate to say she's voiced by Redgrave since we only catch fleeting glimpses of Rosalind during the movie. Nevertheless her presence looms large because she narrates the story. Leon is the only character who receives significant screen time (he's in practically every frame) and Rosalind's home and garden are the only locations. Leon communicates with the outside world over the telephone. The closed-off atmosphere of The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh primarily creates a sense of melancholy rather than dread, even though creepy things occasionally happen. Rosalind was in the habit of embroidering strange sentiments and displaying them all over her house. Leon spies one that proclaims "If you drop a knife on the floor, a man will come to visit. If a spoon, a woman will come. If a fork, it will be neither man nor woman." After he drops his fork during dinner Leon receives a late-night visit from someone claiming to have known his mother. Although the voice sounds male we never actually see this stranger. Is it a fellow believer from Rosalind's close-knit angel cult, anxious to bring Leon into the fold? Is it an actual angel? Or is the visitor something else entirely? Later in the movie there's mysterious knocking at the front door and two masked figures appear in the yard, then abruptly disappear. And on more than one occasion Leon spies a large, ragged looking creature lurking in the garden. The mysterious animal shows up on the home's security camera footage and eventually find its way inside the house, where it torments Leon while he sleeps.

Is any of this real? Or is Leon's isolation and the overwhelming atmosphere of his mother's home having some sort of effect on him? Up until the last shot I think the movie makes equally compelling arguments for both scenarios. The final moments of the movie would suggest that Rosalind was right to believe and that the soul does go on living after the body has expired. Leon seems to sense this but he still turns his back on his mother, denying her the reconciliation and absolution she so desperately requires, even in the afterlife. But I am willing to admit that I'm getting all of this wrong because the first time I watched The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh I couldn't quite make sense of it. When it ended I felt like I'd seen the first two-thirds of a pretty good movie that abruptly ended in a dissatisfying manner (my take-away after my first viewing was that ghost-Rosalind imagined the entire scenario, which, for me, entirely undermined everything about the story). After I went back and watched the last half a second time I felt differently. I felt much more compassion for both Rosalind and Leon. And I found their estrangement from one another to be incredibly heartbreaking.

This is a movie that I think might become more satisfying with repeat viewings. It's incredibly subtle and I look forward to revisiting it and looking for tiny details that I missed the first time around. Though I was very slow to warm to Leon I think Aaron Poole does a great job with a challenging role. And Vanessa Redgrave imbues Rosalind with so much remorse and regret that I found it impossible not to feel for her. My one problem with The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh is the weird CGI beastie that stalks Leon. Even shrouded in shadow I didn't believe for an instant that he was real so every time he showed up I was taken out of the story. That's a minor quibble, though, considering he's used sparingly. I am really pleased that Stacie Ponder chose this one for Final Girl Film Club. I probably wouldn't have watched it otherwise (I'd never even heard of it) and I'm very glad that I gave it a shot because it's a worthwhile and unique ghost story.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Open for Business

fall color from alum cave bluff
One last picture to celebrate. The government shutdown has ended and the National Parks Service is up and running again. Fantastic news. Cannot Wait to visit the Smokies and check out some beautiful fall color this weekend.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Pact

Adult sisters Nichole and Alice return to their childhood home after their mother dies. When first Nichole and then a family cousin, Liz, go missing, Alice attempts to find them. During her search she uncovers ugly truths about her family and their sordid past. 

The Pact is a decent little movie. It is understated and has some genuinely creepy moments. I liked the acting by Caity Lotz, who plays Alice. She creates a heroine who is guarded, owing to her traumatic upbringing, but also determined and resourceful in the face of adversity. I also enjoyed Haley Hudson as Stevie, a clairvoyant that Alice enlists to help her unlock the awful secrets hidden inside her childhood home. I was sorry we didn't see more of Nichole, because she's played by Agnes Bruckner and I enjoy her whenever she turns up in something I'm watching.

The Pact is part ghost story, part mystery and part crime thriller. My only real problem with it is that it isn't quite enough of any one of those things. This is a feature film that grew out of a short and I wonder if the material wasn't stretched a little thin. I'm not sure, exactly, what it's missing, maybe it's more that the different story elements don't entirely fit together to form a cohesive, satisfying whole. I enjoyed it while I was watching, mostly for the performances, but I wanted more from it.

Day Sixteen

office - le conte lodge
Finally, after fifteen days, a bit of good news: Great Smoky Mountains National Park will reopen this morning and remain open through the weekend. It's a wonderful announcement for park enthusiasts like myself and local businesses that have been hurting due to the closure but, sadly, it's still just a temporary solution.

I wondered whether I should bother with a picture this morning, since some of the park lands are now available to the public, but I think I'll just keep posting each day until this thing is settled and all the National Parks and monuments have reopened for good.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Day Fifteen

midnight hole

The Haunting

Robert Wise's The Haunting is the grandaddy of haunted house flicks. Adapted from excellent source material (Shirley Jackson's brilliant The Haunting of Hill House) it satisfies on every level. Beautifully filmed, terrifically acted by the small cast and genuinely frightening, this is the haunted house movie by which all others should be measured. I have never seen its equal.

The film opens with an introduction to Hill House and its wretched history. The imposing home was built by Hugh Crain, as a gift for his wife, who is killed in a carriage accident in the driveway, just moments before she would have first set eyes on the house. Crain and his young daughter, Abigail, move into the home and Crain remarries. His second wife also dies (after taking a tumble down the main staircase) and when Crain himself dies while abroad Abigail inherits the property. She lives to a ripe old age and dies in her bed, while trying to summon her live-in companion, who was out on the veranda canoodling with a gentleman from the nearby village and did not hear her employer pounding her cane against the wall in distress. The companion inherits the house but eventually hangs herself from the landing atop the spiral staircase in the library. After her death Hill House passes to a distant relative, Mrs. Sanderson, who maintains the property but opts to live elsewhere. 

The strange and tragic history of Hill House attracts Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), an anthropologist and paranormal enthusiast intent on documenting actual proof of supernatural phenomena. Markway asks permission from Mrs. Sanderson for he and a carefully selected team of assistants, hand-picked by the doctor because of their own dealings with the paranormal, to stay in the house and record their experiences for a scientific study. Sanderson reluctantly agrees to the request but insists that Luke (Russ Tamblyn), her nephew and heir, accompany the team. The two men are joined in the house by Theodora (Claire Bloom), renowned for her psychic abilities, and Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), a fragile woman who has spent most of her adult life caring for her recently-deceased invalid mother. Markway tells Eleanor he chose her based on an alleged poltergeist incident from her childhood, when stones rained down on her family's house for three days. Eleanor tries to deny the incident ever occurred, even though it was witnessed by both neighbors and members of Eleanor's family. 

A married couple, the Dudleys, work as caretakers at Hill House. Mrs. Dudley prepares meals and serves as housekeeper for Markway and his team but, as she is quick to point out to Eleanor and Theodora when they arrive, once the sun sets she and her husband head for the village a few miles down the road. Hill House has something of a reputation in town and none of the locals want to be anywhere near it after dark. During the night, our intrepid team of ghost hunters will be very much on their own. From the moment she arrives at Hill House Eleanor senses that something is not right. She fights her recurring urges to back out of Markway's experiment, though, because, frankly, her involvement in his project is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to her. Finally free from the responsibility of caring for her ailing mother, Eleanor is anxious to make a fresh start and create a life of her own. She's also hungry for human connection and longs for the acceptance of Markway, Theodora and Luke. Wise uses voice-over narration extensively in The Haunting and Eleanor's every fear and insecurity is made abundantly clear to the audience. As frightened as she is of Hill House Eleanor also feels as if she belongs there, a feeling that grows stronger the longer she stays. 

Markway and his team begin to experience strange occurances almost immediately after their arrival at Hill House. Some can be explained by the design of the house itself: Hugh Crain, it seems, was both sadistic and misanthropic and intended his house to be disconcerting and unpleasant as opposed to welcoming and homey. All of the angles are slightly askew, creating an off-kilter sensation for the people inside. None of the doors are hinged properly and after they're opened they swing shut of their own accord. But nothing in the design of the house explains the loud, angry knocking sounds that Eleanor and Theodora hear outside their bedroom doors on their first night there. Or the strange, dog-like creature that Dr. Markway spies in the hallway and pursues onto the grounds, where it disappears. Or the chalk lettering on the hallway walls that spells out "Help Eleanor Come Home." Whatever's in the house has set it has sets its sights on Eleanor and it intends to keep her.

In order for The Haunting to be effective it has to work as both a character study and a ghost story and it succeeds, on both levels. The dynamic between the four principle characters is fascinating. Alliances are created and then shift from one instant to the next. The relationship that forms between Theodora and Eleanor is especially interesting. At times they are friendly and affectionate towards one another but at other times they squabble like spoiled children. Although Eleanor's motivations are clearly presented in Julie Harris's voice-over it's harder for me to suss out exactly what's going on with Theodora. I believe that she is genuinely fond of and concerned for Eleanor but I also think she allows her annoyance for the other woman's naïveté to sometimes get the better of her, which causes her to act out in childish ways. Luke, more light-hearted and skeptical than the others, is often her partner in crime, with Markway acting as a surrogate father of sorts to the diverse little group. Eleanor is attracted to Markway almost immediately and, despite the fact that he is married, he does seem to return her feelings to a degree. Or maybe he's just especially fascinated by her because of the way the house reacts to her. Of course all of these relationships might be misrepresented to the viewer, since the story is essentially told from Eleanor's point of view and she may not be the most reliable of narrators.

Eleanor's instability may very well explain away some of the strange phenomena (she could very well have written on the wall with chalk herself, for example) but not all of it can be attributed to her. There is definitely something going on with the house. Markway says it's not so much haunted as diseased. It's a house that was "born bad" and does seem to possess a sort of malevolent consciousness of its own, one that feeds off of the energy that certain people provide for it. People like Eleanor.

This is such a sad, unsettling and fascinating story. The cast is just terrific. It's always a pleasure to see Russ Tamblyn and his Luke brings a few moments of much-needed levity to an otherwise intense story. Claire Bloom is gorgeous and fascinating as Theodora, a role that is celebrated for its positive depiction of a lesbian character. At times aloof she is also warm and highly intelligent. I found Richard Johnson's Markway to be both charming and compassionate. His scenes with Eleanor are especially captivating and sensitive. But the movie belongs, rightfully so, to the brilliant Julie Harris. There's something so genuine and open-hearted about her presence onscreen. I always empathize very strongly with the characters she creates. Eleanor can be frustrating at times but Harris makes her so raw and so genuine that's impossible for me not to feel for her.

In addition to excellent acting the production values on The Haunting are first-rate. Wise is able to create more terror and suspense with well-placed sound effects than any number of lesser horror movies do with overblown CGI bells and whistles. It is a perfect example of less is more. The rich black and white photography creates deep, ominous shadows in the enormous, opulent rooms of Hill House. The film is gorgeously shot but every frame inside the house is oppressive and melancholy. The whole thing feels stifling and claustrophobic. It's a beautifully constructed nightmare.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Dead of Night

Dead of Night is my favorite anthology horror film. It's a movie that can be tricky to hunt down (and it is crying out for a remastered DVD release to clean up that muddled sound) but if you have Turner Classic Movies they are very good about including it in their Halloween line-up each October. One more reason to love TCM! The movie consists of five supernatural tales and a wraparound story to tie them all together. It opens with an architect, Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns), arriving at a country estate for the weekend.  Craig has never visited the house before but he has dreamed about it. Inside he's greeted by the other guests. He's never met any of them, either, but they show up in his recurring dream too. Craig is overwhelmed by a sense of foreboding. Based on the fragments he can recall from his dream he is sure that something horrible is going to happen. Though Craig feels he should leave the other guests encourage him to stay and, in order to assuage his fears, they decide to exchange their own tales of encounters with the supernatural.

The first two tales are the shortest and are both pretty standard ghost story fare (which is not to say they aren't enjoyable, because they are): in the first story a race car driver has an encounter with a spectral carriage which turns out to be the harbinger for a future tragedy, in the second a young woman meets and comforts the spirit of a forlorn, lonely little boy who was murdered by his sister. The third story is about a haunted mirror. There may be other stories out there about haunted mirrors but this is the only one I've ever seen. In it a woman, Joan, buys her fiancé Peter an ornate antique mirror. At first it behaves like a normal mirror should but, over time, it begins to show the surroundings of its former owner in its reflection. This alternate interior is only visible to Peter, who sees himself within the surroundings every time he gazes into the mirror. Joan begins to notice changes in her fiancé's personality and becomes convinced that the vengeful, murderous spirit of the mirror's former owner is attempting to control him. The fourth story, about rival golfing buddies who fall for the same girl, is the most lighthearted offering, even if it does contain a suicide and a visit from beyond the grave.

The fifth and final tale in Dead of Night is the longest and the most celebrated. It features Michael Redgrave as Maxwell Frere, a talented ventriloquist whose dummy may or may not be running the show. Redgrave is spectacular as Frere. His beleaguered showman is both tormented and terrifying. It's likely that Frere is suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, sometimes he's himself and at other times he becomes his dummy, but the story leaves just enough wiggle room for us to consider the possibility that his malevolent doll is acting of its own accord. The movie concludes with a resolution, of sorts, to the wraparound story that is both amusing and unsettling.

In fact, amusing and unsettling pretty much describes the overall tone of Dead of Night. It's not especially scary and at times it's downright playful but it is unsettling, even, I think, in its most light-hearted moments. It's got an incredible ensemble cast, all of whom are delightful, and a beautiful location. I'm probably a bit biased because I have a weakness for English countryside settings and movies made during the forties. If I had to live in a horror movie it would probably be Dead of Night. The malice in the movie is met with a fare amount of merriment and, if that's something you appreciate like I do, this one is definitely worth watching.

Day Fourteen

hike to rainbow falls

alum cave bluff
And one for day thirteen, too.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Day Twelve

icewater spring shelter

Friday, October 11, 2013

Day Eleven

almost there

Late Night Double Feature



If you have Turner Classic Movies you owe it to yourself to watch the back-to-back showings tonight of Dead of Night and The Haunting. My favorite anthology horror story and, possibly, my favorite haunted house tale. I actually slept in late this morning so I could stay up late for these movies tonight. And, yeah, I have a dvr but watching them in real time is somehow more satisfying. I guess I like the idea of other people tuning in at the same time as me. Y'know, a communal experience.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Day Ten

little river trail

May

Lucky McKee's May is one of the first titles that springs to mind when I think about my all-time favorite horror movies. I make a point to watch it a least once a year during the month of October. Sometimes I bust it out at other times during the year as well. Its influences are easily recognizable (the most obvious being Carrie and Frankenstein) but its quirky characters and visuals, punchy dialogue and kick-ass soundtrack make it a unique and very worthwhile viewing experience.

I found out about May via the late great Roger Ebert, who wrote a glowing review complimenting the movie's many merits. Although other critics were also buzzing about May Ebert was the only one whose site I looked in on regularly. Were it not for his enthusiastic and compassionate reaction to this movie I might never have known about it. His high praise certainly made me want to check it out.

When May came out about ten years ago I was hesitant to watch it, even though I really wanted to see it. The reviews I read suggested a high ick factor and I just didn't know if I could handle it. Just like I did with this year's new Evil Dead I waffled when it came to actually seeking out May and watching it for myself. Instead I did lots of homework in an effort to psyche myself up for it. I'm pretty sure I knew about every bad thing that was going to happen, in great detail, over the course of the movie long before I actually watched it. Fortunately May isn't really the sort of story where prior knowledge of the plot spoils the viewing experience. The outcome is projected in the movie's harrowing opening shot and the resolution seems logical, even inevitable. Plus, like CarrieMay is very much about the emotional and psychological journey of its titular protagonist and her interaction with the somewhat thoughtless but essentially decent people she crosses paths with over the course of the story. 

Like Carrie White, May Canady's had a weird and lonely childhood. We get a glimpse of it during the movie's brief prologue. May is an adorable little tot with one small physical imperfection: she has a lazy eye. Her mother is an obsessive perfectionist (the sort who gets mad when you tear into the paper on your birthday gift instead of methodically removing the wrapping so it's not ruined) and it only takes a few minutes of screen time to figure out that growing up with a woman this tightly wound might cause serious damage to a young person's psyche. May's mother is clearly horrified that her daughter is less than perfect. May must wear an eyepatch at all times, which perplexes her classmates, but that seems like less of a hindrance than a mother who instills in her young daughter the sense that she is flawed and should be ashamed of her physical appearance.

After the concise backstory the movie shifts its focus to May as an adult (played to perfection by the fantastic Angela Bettis). She works at a veterinary hospital and, owing to her lack of squeamishness, is excellent at her job. Her social life, however, is nonexistent. May is a shy, awkward young woman who lives alone and spends her spare time sewing and confiding in Suzy, her childhood doll and only friend. Suzy was made by May's mother and she is kept in a glass display box, because she's special. It's worth noting that May's parents don't seem to have any sort of presence in their adult daughter's life but, even now that she is on her own, May still abides by her mother's rule that "special" Suzy cannot come out of her box. It's sad enough that May's only friend is a doll but it's sadder still that it's a doll she's never even been able to hold in her arms.

Although she only appears in the first few minutes of the movie the presence of May's mother looms large as the story unfolds. As an adult May, like her mother before her, is obsessed with physical perfection and is dismayed by anyone or anything that does not measure up to her exacting standards. One day an auto mechanic named Adam catches her eye. May confides to Suzy that Adam is perfect and she fixates, in particular, on his hands, which she thinks are beautiful. May wants a real friend and she's decided it should be Adam. She visits an eye doctor who fits her with contact lenses to correct her lazy eye and then, through a series of awkward, hilarious, staged "chance" encounters, she gets Adam's attention. 

Adam is played by Jeremy Sisto. Although Clueless is almost twenty years old I still think of Sisto as the obnoxious Elton every time I see him. He does a good job in May, though, of being kind of cool and sexy in a shaggy sort of way. I can see why May would be attracted to him. Adam is a horror movie aficionado. He has a particular fondness for Dario Argento's work. He tells May that he thinks she's weird but that he "likes weird." Unfortunately for both of them Adam's threshold for "weird" is nowhere near as high as May's so it's not long before Adam, initially so intrigued by our heroine, becomes creeped out and breaks things off with her. May tries again and again to connect with the people around her. Her outrageously oversexed coworker Polly (a hilarious Anna Faris) practically throws herself at May but she seems to come onto every attractive woman who crosses her path with just as much gusto. If It's a serious, committed relationship that May wants she won't find it in free-spirited Polly. May thinks she's found a friend in Blank (James Duval), a mohawked punker with a Frankenstein tattoo and a weakness for JuJu Beans but he, too, is easily freaked out and quick to want to distance himself from the offbeat young woman.

Every person May encounters has a perfect part. Adam's hands, Polly's neck, Blank's arms. "So many perfect parts, no perfect wholes" May muses at one point. It's not surprising when this lonely, unstable young woman decides to take the parts she covets and combine them to create one truly perfect friend. That is literally what happens in the third act of May. Again, like CarrieMay plays as an increasingly quirky character study with unsettling overtones for the first two-thirds. After May is rejected, in one way or another, by all the people she reaches out to she finally comes undone and the consequences are, ultimately, tragic for both May and many of the people who've crossed her path. All the ick I was so worried about comes at the end of the movie. There is quite a bit if blood but it's Kool-Aid colored and not especially scary to see. The movie is scary not because it's gross but because Angela Bettis fully commits to the role of a woman who is pushed to the brink and then goes, enthusiastically, over the edge. It is heartbreaking and horrifying to witness. 

Much as she might scare me I identify so much with May. I relate with her obsessive nature and, to a lesser degree, her desire for perfection. I feel for her in her handful of encounters with Adam. She's never had anyone she cares about return her feelings and it's obvious that her emotions overwhelm her when she's around him. When he rejects her it's not surprising that she begins to unravel. I relate with the world of the movie on certain levels, too. The soundtrack features several tracks by the Breeders and The Kelly Deal 6000. The Deal sisters were pretty important to me when I was in college and I get a bit nostalgic when I hear them. I also love the aesthetics in May's crafty little apartment. All her well-ordered sewing materials and doll parts remind me of the types of things I collect around my house for art projects. I guess what I'm trying to say is that even though the world McKee constructs in May is specific and idiosyncratic it speaks to me on a personal level. And May herself speaks very clearly to me. And that is both satisfying and terrifying, which is what you want from a good horror movie. Isn't it?