Friday, September 28, 2012

Elvis, Blue Hawaii and the Coco Palms Resort

The Island of Kauai is getting ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the film Blue Hawaii. Don’t worry that it is actually 52 years since the film was shot (1960) and 51 years since it was released - this is Hawaii.
Nonetheless, on Saturday in Kapaa on the island of Kauai, there will be a celebration featuring ‘Elvis’, a showing of the film and a tribute to Grace Guslander.

Grace Guslander was the long-time manager of the Coco Palms Resort (her husband Lyle was the owner) where Elvis and the rest of the movie crew stayed and where the wedding scene was filmed. At the time it was a luxurious resort fronting on the Pacific with a lagoon and a 16-acre, 2000-tree Coconut grove.

Lyle died in 1984, the property was sold and Grace retired. Then in 1992 the resort was all but destroyed in a hurricane. Legal wrangling between the owners and the insurance company left the property vacant and further deteriorating.

Blue Hawaii is celebrated on the Garden Island not just because of Elvis but because it was the first time that Kauai was portrayed in its own right rather than as a stand-in for another location. South Pacific was shot there in the mid-fifties but Kauai was supposed to be, among other things, Bali Hai.

I am always saddened when I see the remains as I pass by on the Kuhio Highway on my way to the north shore, where I always stay around Hanalei. But once again there is hope that the resort will be rebuilt and maybe this time it will happen. Since the hurricane there have been numerous attempts to redevelop the property, all have failed and left Kauaiians, like Cubs fans disappointed but holding out hope for next year. However it is widely believed that this redevelopment will actually happen. Relax Hotels is said to be working with a group of investors to reopen the resort.

Hawaii and Kauai in particular have seen a boom in film and television production. Much of the George Clooney film The Descendants was shot in and around Hanalei as well as Honolulu. The TV series Lost was filmed in Hawaii. Earlier TV’s Fantasy Island – “The Plane, The Plane” - was shot on Kauai. And of course both iterations of Hawaii 50 were and are being shot in Hawaii, primarily Honolulu. And, of course, who can forget Magnum, P.I.

Could we get some of that kind of work here?

So, fifty years or not, on Saturday, as the celebration in Kapaa is going on, rent a copy of Blue Hawaii, make yourself a Mai Tai, enjoy yourself and think of Grace Guslander and hope for the revival of the Coco Palms Resort.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Mike Love: No Love lost

Mike love has fired three Beach Boys and not just any Beach Boys. Two of the founding members, Brian Wilson and Al Jardine and David Marks who joined the band in 1962 will not continue after the 50th Anniversary Reunion tour, currently under way in Britain, ends.

Mike Love, who owns the rights to band’s name, released a statement saying that the three ‘former’ members would not continue with the Band once the tour is over.
"The post-50th anniversary configuration will not include Brian Wilson, Al Jardine and David Marks. The 50th Reunion Tour was designed to be a set tour with a beginning and an end to mark a special 50-year milestone for the band,” the statement said.

The statement, released to the press, was reportedly how Wilson, Jardine and Marks found out they were not to continue.

Holy Good Vibrations!

The tour was reported in December of last year and had everyone feeling warm and fuzzy after years of legal battles and other spats (Love won the legal battles which is why he owns the rights to the Beach Boys name). There was a feel-good CBS Sunday Morning piece on the regrouping of the band, the tour and the new album they made together.
Wilson, who started the band in 1961 with his brothers Dennis and Carl, Al Jardine and his cousin Mike Love, was responsible for some of the bands biggest hits: “Help Me Rhonda” “California Girls” and “Surfin’ USA” said at the time of the reunion announcement that there was real love among the band members and the tour was a way of sharing that love with their fans.

So much for that.

Jardine is backing internet campaign to get the three members reinstated and "preserve the validity of The Beach Boys as a whole".

Love said the decision was financially motivated.


The tour ends Friday (September 28) at Wembley Stadium in London.

Footnote: The Wilson brothers, Love and Jardine were from Hawthorne California, which is where they formed the band. Hawthorne was special to me because my great aunt and uncle lived there and it is there while visiting them in 1960, I first saw Robert Kennedy. He was campaigning for his brother Jack.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why Trader Joe’s would be different from Costco would be different from Safeway

I wrote about my desire to see the prohibition in Colorado on food stores selling wine eliminated. This would take an act of the Colorado General Assembly which to date has not seen fit to do so, but I continue to hope. When I wrote earlier about this in relation to the opening of Trader Joe’s, I noted that I did not believe (and statistics back me up) that this would result in the wholesale destruction of independent liquor stores. I also had people question what the actual market would look like.

Well, let’s talk about that. The assumption (false, I believe) is that the wine shelves in a quality liquor store would look like the shelves in Trader Joe’s, Costco and Safeway (or other food retailer choosing to sell wine) in terms of content, selection, variety, etc.

If that is a false assumption, why and how will they be different?

To begin with, a large liquor store will carry a much larger volume of wine with more selection and variety than any of their food store competitors. This is due in part because of the branding done by wine companies. The theory is, because there is such a proliferation of wines and the wines from each country are branded somewhat differently, it is confusing to the US consumer. That consumer wants to find a reliable indicator of value or quality. That is why the French so zealously guard the appellation and the use of trademark Chateau, or designation and attempt to brand it in the consumers mind. The same is true of US winemakers as well as the other countries. They invest in branding so that when the consumer is standing before the wine shelf, a reliable brand will attract their attention and their purchase. U.S. model is built around brands owned by wine companies. Winemakers big and small seek to establish a brand or reputation that will help them sell their wines to consumers who need a trustworthy indicator of value and/or quality. Building reputation is complex and brands are part of the process, but not the whole story, of course. Americans typically look to brands for quality/value information when shopping in general and so it is natural that wine brands are so important here. Because there are lots of market segments for wine and many competing brands within each segment, liquor stores, stock a lot of wine.

This same issue confronts Safeway or King Soopers but to a lesser degree because they are not trying to be all things to all people. Their consumer is looking for reliability but they are also looking for the convenience of combining their food shopping with their wine shopping.

So, Safeway or King Soopers will replicate the variety and selection for the liquor store but on a much smaller scale. You will be able to find a reasonably good selection of wines from the major wine regions of the world: the US, New Zealand and Australia, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, etc. You will be able to purchase a $5 or $6 dollar bottle of wine as well as a $30. When you purchase your New York Strip steak, you will be able to buy a reasonably good Cabernet Sauvignon that fits your budget. What you won’t find is a Chateau Margaux or Lafite Rothschild.
Then, why are Trader Joe’s and Costco different from this model and each other?
The three largest wine markets in the world are the US, Great Britain and Germany, but they are each different and have their own model.

US liquor stores and the Safeways and King Soopers are representative of the US model; Trader Joe’s is a product of its ownership and thus is representative of the German Model and Costco is representative of the British model.

Trader Joe’s is owned by Aldi which is a giant German discount retailer. It is all about price – low price. Germans love their wine but they want it cheap. Aldi does that. They use house brands, including their wine and price them very low. In some cases you can find Aldi wine at two Euros a bottle, though the wine might actually come in what looks like a juice container. Trader Joe’s $2 Buck Chuck fits this model though of course it comes in glass, at least currently. Joe’s does carry other branded wines but it makes its mark with the $2 Buck Chuck and other lower priced wines. Joe’s consumer knows what to expect from Chuck and is comfortable with the price and the expectation of value.

Costco too has a house brand, Kirkland. It also carries other non-house brands from around the world but the selection is much smaller than that of liquor stores or even Safeway. This is similar to what British food giants Tesco and Sainsbury do. The difference from the Trader Joe model is the quality and price point of the house brand. The consumer trusts the house brand for an indication of value and part of that is knowing that the wine is of a higher quality and more expensive. Kirkland Signature does not try to hide the actual wine maker. As I noted earlier, the Kirkland Champagne I purchased in Hawaii was clearly marked Taittinger on the back label.

The other difference with Costco? As with much of what it sells, the inventory changes from time to time depending on what is available. Whether it is the Kirkland wine brand or any of the other wines, what is stocked at any given time depends on what is available in the world market and what kind of deal Costco can make with the producer.

So, let’s let Colorado experience each of these models. And at any given time, I as a consumer will shop at any of them depending on my need at the time. I’m guessing most people will.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Boettcher Bond Redux - Here's an Idea

The Mayor is now proposing to use some of the authorized but unused Better Denver Bonding capacity. Some $57 Million in bonds remain un-issued and used. They were authorized by questions 1G and 1H and the funds were to be used for deferred maintenance or new construction on cultural facilities. Partly because of issues related to the failure to raise private funds for the renovation of Boettcher Concert Hall, the some of the bonds were never issued. The Mayor has formed a committee to solicit proposals for projects, to evaluate those projects and make recommendations to the Mayor.

I don't know which entities may have responded to the committee's RFP (though I did hear that the National Western did respond) but regardless, I have a suggestion for what can and should be done with some of the funds: Do necessary maintenance and put a cover on the pedestrian bridge going from the Convention Center parking garage to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Complex. Some kind of cover or roof, should have been included when the bridge was first built but wasn't.

This cover should be considered preventative maintenance which should qualify. As you can see in the photo, there are real maintenance issues, including the rust you see along the base of bridge rail. Preventative maintenance.

In inclement weather, snow or rain, the bridge is decidedly pedestrian-unfriendly. The bridge and steps can become icy and pose a serious liability to the city in the event someone falls and is injured. Moreover, the bridge being exposed to the elements increases the maintenance cost including snow-removal and deicing each time it storms.

Investing in some kind of cover for the bridge would also encourage greater use of the Convention Center parking garage, as it is extremely convenient to the Arts Complex. This would not only be consumer-friendly but would increase badly needed revenue to the City.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Fences - a powerful family drama that transcends race

As I left the theatre, I could hear the booming of the fireworks display at Coors Field but I knew I had just seen the real fireworks. Denver Center Theatre Company's new production of August Wilson's Fences is fiery, ardent, impassioned, human and an acting tour de force. I don't know what they did at Coors Field but they were swinging for the fences in the Space Theatre.

David Alan Anderson as Troy Maxson is a powerful, volatile, commanding presence but is part of an excellent ensemble. However Kim Staunton stands out as Rose, the very human but equally powerful, stalwart wife of Troy.

The time is 1957. The place is Pittsburgh at the dawn of the civil rights era. Brown vs. Board of Education, the land mark case that would result in desegregated schools, was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1954. The great desegregation battles were just getting under way. Even in northern cities, it was a black and white world. Against that backdrop the play transpires. The play is about race and racism, but as importantly it is about families and generations and fathers and sons.

Troy had been a talented baseball player. But due to a term in prison and the times, his dream of playing ball professionally never materialized. This hangs over him and fuels the anger that is always just beneath the surface; when he can explode in an instant. That anger is particularly focused on his younger son Cory (Calvin Dutton).

But Rose continues to stand by him: the very model of a loving wife, soothing his anger, taking care of him, trying to smooth over his outbursts at Cory. But under this is a steel that so far has not been overly apparent. When the ultimate family crisis occurs though the steel becomes all too visible. She matches Troy's power and outburst with her own. The power she displays just grabs you.

While the play must always be seen in the context of race and the time, like all good plays it transcends that. This is a play about people and families; their wants and dreams, strivings and failures. Troy's frustration, for plot purposes, is rooted partly in the circumstances of the time, but Troy makes his own choices. And in many ways blames his circumstances for what has happened to him rather than seeing them in the choices he made. That is true of all of us. This is indeed a play about families, black or white. Troy could as easily be a white man, or Hispanic, or Asian in America. He could be Willy Loman, though not going quietly but battling.

And Rose? She does what many women all do: she is the glue that tries to hold the family together; she is the person who, despite hurt or circumstance always tries to rise above; to put her hurt aside and do what needs to be done.

All of the cast is outstanding, Jerome Preston Bates as Troy's war-ravaged brother Gabe, James T. Alfred as the other son Lyons, Marcus Taylor as Troy's 'best' friend Bono, and alternately Nadia Monet Brown and Emmi Grace Sullivan as Raynell.

This is the second time that Denver Center Theatre Company has staged Fences. The first was directed by the late Israel Hicks, who staged all ten of the Pittsburgh cycle at DCTC. That production was powerful as is this one, directed by Lou Bellamy. It plays through October 14. It should be seen.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Here's hoping Hitchcock

Hitchcock a film about the relationship between Alfred and his wife and collaborator Alma Reville during the making of his classic Psycho, was to be released in 2013, however Fox Searchlight has decided to move it up. It is now scheduled for release November 23. That puts it in the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. It also puts it in contention for Oscars.

With the new release date, I am wondering, hoping, that it might end up at the Starz Denver Film Festival. The festival runs from November 1 – 11, so that would make Denver, in my mind ideal to get a film festival preview. We have had major films before, just before they open nationally.

As for Oscar? Well, how about a cast that includes Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as Alma. There is an ongoing fascination with Hitchcock and interest in his films from the 50s and early 60s (Psycho was released in 1960). Earlier this summer Vertigo supplanted Citizen Kane from the top spot in the Sight and Sound poll.

The film, which has only just recently been finished and in the can, is based the book, The Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello. The film is being billed as a 'dramedy' and not just another biopic. I can't imagine Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren in a 'biopic' It would be like calling The Queen with Mirren as QE2 a 'biopic'.

The cast also includes Scarlett Johansson, Danny Huston, Jessica Biel, Michael Stuhlbarg, Ralph Macchio, James D'Arcy and Toni Collette. Cinematography is by Jeff Cronenweth who was Oscar nominated for both The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Fox Searchlight clearly sees an opportunity for this film as we move into awards season next year, which is why they chose to open this year rather than next. But the November release date is probably due the the change in the Academy awards nomination calendar.

A feature film has only to play commercially for a week in both Los Angeles and Manhattan before the end of the year to be eligible for consideration. A lot of films that want Oscar consideration but are not ready for a general release will simply book the film into a theatre in LA and New York sometime in December and be done with it.

However the Academy has changed the calendar. So while the screening requirement has not changed, the process for viewing and then nominating films has. The close of nomination voting has been moved up from January 13 to January 3. That means there is less time for members to see films and vote. Ten days may not seem like a lot but with the sheer volume of film for members to see, it is. The earlier (to a point) that a film is available to members to see, the better chance it has of getting a nomination vote.

While the film will be available to see in theatres in late November, it would be great – and I think another great coup – for the film to screen at the Festival.

Fox Searchlight, which is releasing Hitchcock, also released The Descendants, which screened prior to release at the Denver festival, so as I've said before – Here's Hoping.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Another French Oscar in February?

Is it possible that for two years in a row a ‘French’ film could win a best picture Oscar?

Sort of.

France has selected The Intouchables as its entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for the 85th Academy Awards next February.

Last year’s Best Picture award went to The Artist, which was technically not a French film (and it competed in the Best Picture category not the Best Foreign Language category). However much of the creative team, including the Director, Michel Hazanavicius and the two lead actors, Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, are French. So, one could say, that should The Intouchables win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, that would be two in a row for France.

The Intouchables is released by the Weinstein Company, they also released The Artist. So far, The Intouchables has grossed $370 Million world-wide, making it the most successful French-language film in history.

The Intouchables is a terrific film that tells the true story of the friendship between a wealthy white man who is paralyzed from the neck down and his black, ex-con caregiver. This unlikely story is funny and warm and thankfully never gets maudlin. The two men appear to be as different as they can be: one is loud and crude and outrageous – speeding and when stopped cons the police and escapes punishment – the other is polished and enjoys classical music and the finer things in life but they share a bond.

The Intouchables is playing in Denver at The Chez Artiste, appropriate, no? See it if you haven’t already.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Trader Joe's in Denver - go next door to get your wine

Trader Joes has now officially announced its Denver location and indicated that it will also operate a wine shop next door. The good news for Trader Joe’s junkies is that they will be able to get their Two-Buck Chuck (really Three-Buck Chuck, it is only $1.99 in California) without driving to New Mexico. The bad news is that they will have to go next door to get it.

Now, it may not seem terribly inconvenient to do your shopping in Trader Joe’s itself, put your purchases in the car and then go to the wine shop for you wine. It may not seem terribly inconvenient but it is pointless.

Colorado is one of only 15 states that prohibit the sale of wine in grocery stores. Wine can only be sold in licensed liquor stores and those stores are restricted to a single location. Interestingly, wine and liquor can be sold in stand-alone individually licensed drug stores – go figure.

Food and Wine Go Together

This makes no sense to me. Food and wine go together. We buy wine to enjoy with our meals, why shouldn’t we be able to buy wine where and when we purchase the food to prepare our meals?

I don’t know what kind of wine selection the new Trader Joe’s will have in its ‘next door’ location and how it will compare with its California and other stores in non-restrictive states but I do know what happens at Costco.

Costco is the largest wine retailer in the United States. And if you go to a Costco in a state that allows wine sales with groceries, you will find a consumer’s paradise in price and selection. I have written before about Costco’s Kirkland brand champagne I bought in Hawaii that was actually Vueve Clicquot. But in Colorado the ‘next door’ rule applies and any liquor or wine sales must occur in a separate entity with it separate entrance, separately licensed. I cannot get any Kirkland branded wines or liquor at my Costco.

Over the years attempts have been made to overturn this prohibition but they have been unsuccessful.

Why? Because those that benefit from the status quo don’t want a change and they continue to wield power at the legislature. This is another example of the few dictating to the many and the few benefiting at the expense of the many. Consumer choice and convenience as well as the consumer benefit of competition should win out, but so far it hasn’t.

Those opposed to change always argue that if grocery stores are allowed to sell wine it will drive traditional liquor stores out of business. That argument just doesn’t hold water, much less wine.

A nation-wide study by Stonebridge Research Group regarding the economic impact of allowing shoppers to purchase wine in food stores demonstrates that the actual impact on liquor stores is only about a 2.5% reduction in overall sales, hardly enough for wholesale bankruptcies.

Moreover, their analysis also shows that in states in which food stores and liquor stores both sell wine the liquor stores can and do successfully continue in business. The analysis also showed that in some of those states the number of liquor stores actually increased.

The study also concluded that if wine was allowed to be sold in food stores in states where it is currently restricted the total economic impact would $14.3 Billion with a net increase of 168,000 jobs. I don’t know what the impact specifically would be to Colorado as they did not break the numbers down, state by state.

Suffice to say, it is time repeal this remnant of the thirties. Let me buy my brie, bread and white wine, or my New York Strip steak, mushrooms, salad and Syrah at the same time in the same place.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Shogun and More

Shogun is back. The mini-series based on James Clavell’s novel encores, starting tonight, on the pay-cable channel Encore - nearly 32 years to the day that it was first broadcast on NBC.

The series, starring Richard Chamberlain was a huge hit at the time. It certainly was with me. I had read the novel and thoroughly enjoyed the television version. I am interested to see how well it plays three decades later.

Chamberlain, as James Blackthorne, is a British navigator shipwrecked in Japan. Blackthorne, who comes to be known as Anjin-san (Pilot in Japanese) immerses himself in Japanese culture becoming a Samurai and assisting Toranaga (Toshiro Mifune) in becoming Shogun.

The series was indeed a huge hit. I even remember seeing Toranaga For President bumper stickers, at the time.

Clavell wrote a number of novels set in Asia, including King Rat, about a Japanese prison camp in Singapore; and Tai Pai and Noble House both set in Hong Kong. he also co-wrote the screenplay for The Great Escape.

I met Chamberlain, after he returned from shooting the series in Japan. He was doing a play at the Solari Theatre in Beverly Hills and I was helping my friend Steve shoot publicity stills for the show. We each worked house left and house right with cameras, firing away through rehearsals.

The play was Fathers and Sons by Thomas Babe (there are a number of plays titled Fathers and Sons). The play is set in Deadwood in the 1880s. Chamberlain is Wild Bill Hickok. The story revolves around an attempt by Jack McCall – ostensibly Hickok’s illegitimate son - to kill Wild Bill because he abandoned Jack and his mother and somehow causing Jack to sleep with his mother.

It is Oedipus in the Old West.

Directed by Robert Alan Ackerman and featuring what seemed like every western character actor in Hollywood, it also starred Dixie Carter as Calamity Jane. She was terrific. I had not met her before, but we spent a good part of the afternoon together having a long lunch while we waited for some tech issues to be dealt with before another run-through at which I would again be shooting photos. I think I was a little smitten. It was a great afternoon.

Steve and I shot a number of plays for Rudy Solari, including Simon Gray’s bleak comedy, Otherwise Engaged with William Shatner. It was odd casting and I don’t think it quite worked. Captain Kirk as an urbane London publisher who only wants to spend the afternoon listening to classical music: I think you see my point.

The Solari Theatre is no more, it is now the Beverly Hill’s Canon Theatre and Rudy Solari, who had a long career as an actor on television, passed away in 1991. He was only 56

Friday, September 14, 2012

Pompeii Profound

The volcanic ash and debris that 2,000 years ago destroyed the Roman city of Pompeii is also the reason it can be brought back to ‘life’. And, it is being brought back to life in a terrific new exhibit at Denver’s Museum of Nature and Science.

A Day in Pompeii, which opens today, features 250 artifacts and some excellent computer-generated videos which really help take us back to 79 AD. On August 24 of that year Mt. Vesuvius erupted and in twenty-four hours had destroyed the town, covering it in volcanic ash and debris. But it was that detritus that also preserved the artifacts – in essence freezing that moment in time in the 1st century Roman Empire - that now make up the exhibit.

These artifacts include furniture and other household goods – including portable stoves, statuary, jewelry coins, gladiator armor, even a loaf of carbonized bread. But I particularly liked the frescos. Rich and colorful, they are magnificent to look at and in one case possibly deserving of an R rating.

As you wander the galleries it is easy to get a vivid picture of life of ordinary people in ordinary – though certainly in some cases wealthy – households. The artifacts do that but the computer-generated videos help. One takes you through a ‘typical’ Pompeian house. You move through the rooms as if you were actually walking through them. Another takes you through a garden, which was also a typical component of Pompeian houses. Gardens were important and considered living areas of the house.

Part of the exhibit is devoted to religion and the gods worshiped by Romans. The Romans borrowed most of their gods from the Greeks, usually renaming them. One in particular was important to Pompeii: Bacchus, the God of Wine. The area around Pompeii was an important wine grape growing region and wine was important. There is one statue of Bacchus in the exhibit that I particularly like. His head is wreathed in grape leaves and he holds a wine cup in his hand. Bacchus is the Greek God Dionysus. Denis, or Dennis, is derived from Dionysus. Enough said.

The last galleries of the exhibition are perhaps the most dramatic. They deal with cataclysmic eruption that destroyed the city. Another computer-generated video takes us quite vividly through the twenty-four hours of the eruption. One literally watches the city being bombarded by the ash and debris and destroyed.

The last gallery features the body casts of those, including animals, which did not escape the volcano: A slave with shackles still attached to his ankles; two women clutching at one another; a man trying to hide his face in his knees; a man trying to crawl on a staircase. These may be the most moving parts of the exhibit.

As the ash and debris washed over people it froze the moment of their death. It eventually hardened, preserving inside now hardened stone, etching a mirror image, like a death mask, of the bodies that had been trapped. The casts were made by injecting plaster into the casings, letting it harden and then chipping away the outer shell. What remains is an all too vivid portrayal of the dying as they writhe and reach trying to protect themselves or escape. It is the most moving part of the exhibition.

The destroyed Pompeii was not discovered until 1748 and it is the excavation over the years that have provided these extremely well-preserved artifacts. Pompeii is today a United Nations World Heritage site.

The exhibition runs daily from today until January 13. More information at

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Ambassador, the film

(It is a tragic coincidence that this film opens in Denver the same week an American ambassador is murdered in North Africa)

Blood Diamonds. Their pursuit and the way they are pursued is the latest vehicle for Danish documentary film maker Mads Brugger. Posing as a diplomat, Brugger documents how one might go about becoming a ‘diplomat’ in Africa with the goal of obtaining millions of dollars in diamonds then leaving Africa with the stones hidden in ‘diplomatic’ luggage.
The locale is the Central African Republic (CAR), a country awash in natural resources but also awash in corruption.

The film is a documentary but it feels like a fictional black comedy made to seem like a crudely done documentary. I had to keep reminding myself while watching it that it really was a documentary and not some knockoff of Borat. But make no mistake this is an excellent film. It is shocking, disturbing, hilarious and very entertaining.
I found myself laughing while at the same time being aware that the situations being shown were not only dangerous but life-threatening. The head of internal security for the CAR is murdered some time after being filmed by Brugger.

Brugger poses as a somewhat naïve but racist white man attempting to buy diplomatic status from Liberia to the CAR. Yes, he is a white man attempting to be a diplomat from one African nation to another but that, apparently is not that unusual. He contacts brokers who specialize in obtaining diplomatic status for someone willing to pay the price – who knew - in this case, 150,000 Euros.

Wearing outlandish ‘colonial’ garb and sporting cigarette holders Brugger arrives in the CAR, though his diplomatic status remains somewhat in doubt.

He throws parties and regales his guests with inappropriate and racist comments and appears very naïve. He comes across to the corrupt officials and others he deals with as the perfect mark.

Under the cover of building a match factory to be staffed by pygmies, he sets about obtaining the blood diamonds.

The film is shot with hidden cameras but also unobtrusively with a Canon EOS 7D. Because the Canon looks like a Digital Single Lens Reflex still camera, it was possible to shoot high-definition video with sound without the subjects realizing it.

The film is disturbing and controversial, but very watchable. It also reveals the terrible circumstances that exist in the Central African Republic (and in Liberia) and is another take on the tragedy of blood diamonds.

Brugger's 2010 documentary, Red Chapel had him entering North Korea posing as a communist theatre director.

The film starts Friday, September 14th at the Denver Film Center on Colfax.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The destruction of Books is an assault on all of us

I don't do politics on this blog but when I read about this assault on the written word I had to share it.

Last Friday, in Alexandria Egypt where the great Library of Alexandria once stood, a government order attack on book vendors in Al-Nabi Daniel street resulted in the wanton destruction of books and the kiosks in which they were housed and sold.

The street was in chaos as piles of books and destroyed kiosks accumulated.

Al-Nabi Daniel Street is an important cultural heritage site in Alexandria

I know that much focus today is on the tragic events in Libya, but this outrage in Egypt deserves attention.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Getting Around in Hong Kong, For Fun

Getting there can be half the fun and in Hong Kong, getting around can indeed be half the fun.

I never rent a car and drive in London (I think you have to be crazy to do so) and I don’t in Hong Kong for many of the same reasons: public transit is very easy and accessible; if driving myself, I would spend half my time lost; traffic is insane and the public transport is part of the adventure.

Hong Kong today consists of more than Hong Kong Island. There are the New Territories and other outlying areas, as well as Kowloon, which is directly across Victoria Harbor from Hong Kong Island. You will undoubtedly stay and spend most of your time on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

The use of public transport starts at the airport. There are taxis of course; the fare to Kowloon or Honk Kong Island is $30-$50 US. Depending on the time of day transit is 30 to 45 minutes.

There is also the Airport Express which runs from the airport to both Hong Kong and Kowloon. Travel time is about 24 minutes. Currently the fare is $13 US. There are free shuttle buses to most major hotels from the station. The station at the airport is conveniently located just inside the terminal. When leaving Hong Kong, the Airport Express offers baggage check-in at the station so you can board the train unencumbered. Bags must be checked at least 90 minutes prior to your flight.

The Airport Express is part of the Mass Transit Railway or MTR, the rapid transit light rail system that serves Hong Kong. You can get pretty much anywhere you want to go on the MTR efficiently and comfortably. The MTR also has bus service.
Three of my favorite modes of transportation in Hong Kong, however, are ferries, trams and escalators. They are as much about adventure as they are transportation – indeed getting around on them is half the fun.

Like San Francisco, Hong Kong is built on steep, hilly terrain. To improve pedestrian access to some of the hillier climes on the Island, the Government authorized the construction of the Central and Mid-levels escalator system. The system opened to the public in 1993.

It consists of twenty escalators and three moving sidewalks and is the largest outdoor covered escalator system in the world. The system is over 2400 feet long and rises nearly 450 feet in elevation. It rises past shops and restaurants so you can get off and browse or eat.

Another great way to experience Hong Kong is on a tram. Just get on at one end of a line and ride to the other, then turn around and ride back, or grab the MTR to get back to your hotel or other destination. Be sure to go to the upper deck for the best views of the street life. There is also a tram up Victoria Peak for spectacular views of Hong Kong and the harbor.

Finally there are the ferries that ply the waters of Victoria Harbor. The Star Ferry runs regularly between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. I'm a sucker for ferries and never miss a chance to take one.

Here's a tip: except for the escalators, the modes of transportation all cost. But don't just buy tickets get an Oyster card. It can be used on the trams, buses, MTR and the Star Ferry. You can buy an Oyster card at any of the MTR customer service centers in the train stations or at the Airport. The base card is $150 HK, fifty dollars of which is a refundable deposit An 'elder' Oyster card has recently been introduced for persons 65 years or older. It provides for reduced fares on the various modes of transportation (Star Ferries are actually free with the card).
It is easy and convenient, just pass it over the card reader and the fare is deducted. You can top up the card any time, there are top-up kiosks in the train stations. Be aware, however, that you cannot use a credit card to purchase or top-up a card. It is cash only.

If you go to Hong Kong, take in the sites, eat some Dim Sum and enjoy the transportation options as much as the sites and the food.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Grand Junction not Denver?

What movie by Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, The Big Chill), starring Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, Diane Wiest, Sam Shepherd and Richard Jenkins, opened this spring in a limited release that included Grand Junction, Colorado but not Denver?

Darling Companion.

You don’t know the film? Not a surprise, as I said, it played a very limited release and did not exactly get rave reviews – where it was even reviewed. And while the film is partially set in Denver, it didn’t play Denver but it did play Grand Junction.

I had occasion to see the film recently and while it is not a great film it is not bad. The story revolves around Beth (Diane Keaton) rescuing a dog from beside the freeway in Denver and despite her husband’s (Kevin Kline) objections ends up keeping the dog.

Fast forward to a wedding at their mountain cabin (a very nice ‘cabin’) and the dog disappears. The rest of the film deals with a search for the dog but the search, which involves all kinds of people, is the means for us to watch the interaction of the characters - relationships get resolved, love blooms, etc. Much like the death of a friend in The Big Chill allows for the interaction of all the characters that come together for the funeral.

The film is certainly not at the level of The Big Chill, but it is pleasant and made me laugh. The scenes with Richard Jenkins are particularly fun.

What I found most interesting is that not only did the film not play in Denver it was not shot in Denver or really anywhere in Colorado where it was ostensibly set. The opening scenes were supposed to be Denver and the mountain cabin and the search for the dog was in Telluride. But other than some establishing shots in Denver and Telluride, the movie was shot in Utah – primarily Park City.

I am hopeful that now that we have, what I believe is a competitive film incentive program that that will not occur again. This is exactly the type of project/budgeted film, that the incentive program is designed to attract.

And when the film shows up on cable, as it will, give it a try. You might like it. Oh, and enjoy that great Utah scenery.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Wallander is back, and I'll be watching.

Sunday and it is a four-star night on TV for me. Wallander on Masterpiece Theatre is back. This BBC by way of PBS series about a Swedish detective, Kurt Wallander, starring Kenneth Branagh is in its third season on Masterpiece. This season, like the previous two has three episodes. Brannagh has already announced that there will a fourth 3-episode season, next year.

The episodes are based on a series of novels by Henning Mankell that take place in and around Ystad in Sweden – though certain events occur in Africa and in one novel in Latvia. Brannagh insisted that the series be shot in Sweden and it has a terrific look and feel.

The episodes have not been produced in the order the books were written, so there is a certain amount of jumping around in Wallander's life, but that doesn't make them any less enjoyable. I got hooked on the novels when I saw the first Wallander episode and started reading them, diligently in sequence. Reading a novel after having seen the episode has not detracted and I will see episodes after having already read the book. Again, not a problem for me, the books are that enjoyable.

Tonights episode, An Event In Autumn is actually based on a novella (90 pages) Mankell published in 2004 (the first novel in the series, Faceless Killers was published in 1991 in Sweden and 1997 in the United States). The English translation of the books title is The Grave. The plot revolves around the discovery by Wallander of a dead body in the yard of a house he is contemplating buying.

What is interesting about this particular book is that it was published and distributed as a complimentary gift to readers in the Netherlands who purchased other crime novels during the month of June 2004. It has not been published in the United States.

So I am set for tonight's episode.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Haunting Hong Kong Cemeteries

Colma, a small town south of San Francisco, is known as the ‘City of the Silent’ because of the number of cemeteries there. When San Francisco voted in the thirties to ban cemeteries in the city, Colma became a Mecca for the dead. In fact, the town's humorous motto is: ‘It is great to be alive, in Colma’.

However, Hong Kong too has a great cemetery tradition.

I know that cemetery tourism may not be something usually touted by local convention and visitors’ bureaus, but cemeteries are fascinating places to visit. One can learn a lot of history by ‘haunting’ cemeteries. I have visited cemeteries in the U.S and abroad, including recently Hong Kong.

I went initially to visit the old Colonial (now called the Hong Kong) cemetery but discovered five others in the same location, including Jewish, Muslim, Catholic (the Colonial Cemetery is Protestant) and Parsee cemeteries.

Hong Kong was a British Colony from the 1840s until 1997. The vast majority of graves in the Colonial are British and a significant number are military. A history of the wars and battles the British fought in Asia can be gleaned from reading the tombstones: the Opium wars and capture of Canton which led to the annexation of Hong Kong, the battles of World War I and II, etc.

It is interesting how peaceful the cemetery is in light of the fact that it is in the midst of a bustling city. Traffic whizes by just yards from the cemetery, but the silence of the graves and the trees and shrubs seem to shut out the noise. Wandering through the graves, reading the sentiments and names etched on the tombstones; speculating on the lives those names and sentiments represent one is almost unaware of the traffic and noise outside.

Next to the Colonial is the Parsee cemetery. The Parsee or Parsis were some of the earliest settlers in Hong Kong after its annexation. The Parsee were traders and merchants from India. They had previously emigrated from Iran to escape the Muslim invasion. Parsee or Parsis means Persians. They were and are Zoroastrians.
The cemtery is quite small as there are almost no actual graves. Zoroastrians generally believe in 'Sky Burial', offering the deceased to birds of prey.
There are only about 100,000 Parsee world-wide. Most are in Inda. The Parsee population of Hong Kong is estimated to be less than 200.

If you want to visit the Hong Kong cemeteries the easiest way is to take the Kennedy Road-Happy Valley tram to Happy Valley. Cross the street to the Hong Kong Sanitarium and Hospital and walk north. The cemeteries will be on your left across from the Happy Valley Racetrack.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

More thoughts on Marilyn Monroe, the documentary and the book Fragments

Yes, I am excited about the documentary and am hopeful that it will play during the Starz Denver Film Festival. But I do have the book that contains much of the material that is being used for documentary – the two boxes of previously unknown/unpublished material – and I enjoy that. Terry, as she is so good about doing, got this book for me (she is okay with the fact that I have this unfulfilled love affair with Marilyn Monroe and EmmyLou Harris).

Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe.

The book was published in 2010. It is remarkable, certainly for those of us obsessed with Marilyn. What I trust the documentary does, which is what the book does, is take Marilyn from iconic 'sex' symbol and almost a caricature to a real human being - and an actor who wanted to be the best that she could.

I don't know how Marilyn died; I don't know whether it was suicide or an accident. I subscribe to the notion that it was an accident. I will not even credit the various conspiracy theories about it being some kind of gang-land or political murder. As far as I am concerned that is pure BS.

Marilyn will always be Marilyn: the luminescence, the sex appeal; the desire to rise above her beginnings. She relied upon men to complete her when she didn't realize she could be complete without them. It is interesting to me that many of the ones she relied on, were themselves so insecure that they needed her to complete them. The exception, DiMaggio. I believe he truly loved her – and she loved him - and did not need her 'sex' appeal to complete him.

I admire Arthur Millers' writing. He is certainly one of the great American playwrights of the 20th century and his commentary, through his plays, reflects what I would consider a 'liberal' point of view. But his relationship with Marilyn was hardly admirable. Marilyn had an insecurity related to her 'education'. But she was a voracious reader (she read Ulysses, for god's sake) trying to better herself. I am convinced that the attraction to Miller was literary. I am sad that he did not fulfill her needs. Frankly he failed her on the set of her last film: The Misfits.

The jock treated her better and was there for her in the end when the educated literary type was not.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Love, Marilyn - Here’s hoping.

There is a new documentary, Love, Marilyn, about Marilyn Monroe. I know, you say to yourself, why does the world need another documentary about a woman who has been dead for fifty years. It does if the documentary does what this one reportedly does, and I for one want to see it. I have been excited about it since I first heard about it. I am hoping it will make it to the Starz Denver International Film Festival (the line up for the festival has yet to be announced)which opens on November 1, 2012.

The documentary screened this past weekend at the Telluride Film Festival and will screen at the Toronto International Film Festival which begins on Thursday.

Liz Garbus whose The Farm, Angola was nominated for an Academy Award and whose Bobby Fischer Against the World screened at last year’s Sundance Festival used two boxes of previously unknown personal writings by Monroe to craft the documentary. The boxes had only recently been found in the home of Marilyn’s acting teacher, Lee Strasberg.

Marilyn was really part of the Strasberg family – Marilyn famously craved a real family, one she never had as a child. In fact it was often Lee’s wife, Anna who was on the set with Marilyn acting, sometimes problematically, as mother protector.

Lee and Anna’s daughter Susan was also close to Marilyn. Twelve years younger, Susan looked on Marilyn as a sister and wrote about the bittersweet relationship in her book, Marilyn & Me: Sisters, Rivals, Friends. Strasberg, herself died in 1999. I was lucky enough to interview Strasberg on the radio when the book came out in 1993. It is one of my favorite interviews.

Marilyn Monroe remains one of the most iconic women of the 20th century. Fascination with her just never goes away.

I couldn’t go to Telluride and can’t go to Toronto, so I am sending a strong message to the Denver Film Society – bring us Love, Marilyn!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

One Book One Denver - Enrique's Journey

The announcement today that the 2012 One Book One Denver is Enrique’s Journey is a milestone. It is the first time that One Book One Denver has selected a non-fiction book. As a first it is a great choice.

This is a remarkable book of a remarkable story about a remarkable boy by a remarkable writer, Sonia Nazario.

Enrique's Journey is about a 17-year-old boy from Honduras who makes the difficult journey from his home town, Tegucigalpa, to the United States, to be reunited with his mother.

But the book is more than that. It not only tells the story of Enrique and the journey he makes to the United States but a journey retraced by the author herself.
Nazario wrote a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles for the Los Angeles Times in 2002.

She spent nearly 5 years reporting and writing Enrique’s Journey. After doing months of research, she met Enrique, 17, at a shelter for migrants in Nuevo Laredo. She spent time shadowing him there and hearing about his remarkable trip North. She reconstructed the dangerous trek from Honduras to the U.S. by making the same 1600 mile journey, much of it on top of 7 freight trains, up the length of Mexico. She then retraced his journey a second time. Each trip took 3 months.

When Enrique is five years old, his mother, Lourdes, too poor to feed her children, leaves Honduras to work in the United States. The move allows her to send money back home to Enrique so he can eat better and go to school past the third grade. Lourdes promises Enrique she will return quickly. But she struggles in America. Years pass. He begs for his mother to come back. Without her, he becomes lonely and troubled. When she calls, Lourdes tells him to be patient. Enrique despairs of ever seeing her again. After eleven years apart, he decides he will go find her. Enrique sets off alone from Tegucigalpa, with little more than a slip of paper bearing his mother’s North Carolina telephone number. Without money, he will make the dangerous and illegal trek up the length of Mexico the only way he can–clinging to the sides and tops of freight trains.

With gritty determination and a deep longing to be by his mother’s side, Enrique travels through hostile, unknown worlds. Each step of the way through Mexico, he and other migrants, many of them children, are hunted like animals. Gangsters control the tops of the trains. Bandits rob and kill migrants up and down the tracks. Corrupt cops all along the route are out to fleece and deport them. To evade Mexican police and immigration authorities, they must jump onto and off the moving boxcars they call El Tren de la Muerte–The Train of Death. Enrique pushes forward using his wit, courage, and hope–and the kindness of strangers. It is an epic journey, one thousands of immigrant children make each year to find their mothers in the United States.

As immigration is front and center in this year’s Presidential Election, this is a story worth telling and hearing. It puts a human face on what are sometimes meaningless immigration statistics; it outlines in graphic detail what hundreds of thousands of people face; it makes it harder to dismiss discussion of immigration as political posturing. This is not an easy summer-read kind of book; it is not facile but it is well worth reading and taking to heart.

The book is available in English and Spanish and is available for loan at the Denver Public Library.

One Book One Denver selects a book each September for a communitywide read and discussion. Online voting selects the final book from three nominations. This years nominations were: Denver by John Dunning, The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan and of course Enriques Journey.

More about this year’s One Book One Denver, later.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Summer Box Office Season is Over (tho the heat goes on)

So, the long hot summer goes on – and from a weather stand point on and on and on, but for Hollywood the summer blockbuster season is over. And it is really over. From a box office standpoint it is one of the worst in years.

Ticket sales this summer are down 6.7% from the same period last year, despite more movies being released.

It would have been worse had it not been for the performance of the Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. The Avengers took in $620 Million domestic box office. Dark Knight has grossed over $430 Million. Ironically, the shooting in Aurora, CO at the midnight opening of Dark Knight is being blamed by some in Hollywood for the drop off in attendance contributing to poor ticket sales.

Other reasons cited by studio execs for decreased attendance/ticket sales include the Olympics and the continuing poor economy – both domestically and in Europe.
Certainly, that can be true. But also, it may be that poor product contributes. Despite more movies being released this summer major studios are more and more putting all their eggs into fewer and fewer features in the hopes that the one blockbuster will make their year.

A $200 Million dollar blockbuster with a marketing budget of $150 Million needs to gross at least $350 Million just to break even. The vast majority of films released this summer have failed to reach even $100 Million gross. To be fair many of those films were not budgeted at $200 Million but regardless have failed to break even.
The exceptions? Lower budget quality made films. They may not gross as much but they also did not cost as much.

As I have noted, better product, targeted at a more expansive audience (the older demographic, for instance) can improve a studios bottom line. Indie producers know that, one only needs to look at the performance of the Weinstein Company. Of course even an Indie can fail to pass the break even point but the chances of success are much greater if the one strives for quality and has a realistic budget.

Coming? What kind of film can make a good return on investment? What kind of film and what size budget has the best chance of financial success.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Shrimp on the barbecue and something other than Gin to drink

So if you are barbecuing this weekend, try something other than, Burgers, Chicken or Steak. Shrimp is great on the Barbie as the Aussies know.

I like this version.

Start with the largest raw shrimp you can get. I use 13-15 count. That means 13 to 15 shrimp per pound. This amount of marinade I use for 12 to 15 shrimp. The shrimp should have the shell on but should be deveined.

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup orange juice
1 tbsp orange oil
1tbsp toasted sesame seed oil
1tbsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp Balsamic vinegar (I like white)
1 tbsp Thai peanut oil
3 cloves garlic finely chopped
1tsp onion powder
1tsp Turmeric
Red pepper flakes - as many as you like, I like a lot.

Whisk together the above ingredients and marinade the shrimp for at least one hour. Longer is usually better.

When ready, heat the barbecue to medium high heat. Use a stiff wire brush on the grill to scrape off any previous residue – cleanliness is, after all, next to godliness, or whatever your thing is. Then brush the grill with a paper towel dipped in vegetable oil. Use a tongs not your fingers, otherwise you won’t enjoy the rest of the day.

.Grill the shrimp for a couple of minutes on each side. When they are pink they are done.

I like to serve the shrimp with some kind of fresh fruit salad. If it includes citrus, all the better. I also, like to grill a sliced Boule brushed with olive oil to serve.

Wine? A crisp Pinot Grigio will do, and of course there is always beer.

For drinks before dinner, how about a variation on Gin and Tonic – the usual go to summer drink.

This time of year there is still mint around, I have a ton in my back yard. So I like white Rum and Tonic with some torn mint leaves over ice. Very refreshing.