Monday, September 15, 2014

Lauren Bacall

Hi everyone,

The cover that got
her noticed, 1943
Last month, we lost one of the world's great ladies, Lauren Bacall, who is probably best known for the love story she shared with Humphrey Bogart. But that's only one highlight in a full life of many shining moments. She got her start in the movies by chance: The wife of director Howard Hawks saw her on the cover of Harper's Bazaar in 1943 and urged him to bring her to Hollywood for screen test for one of his upcoming films.

This request led her into a fairytale romance and varied career on screen and stage. At 19, the studio molded her persona, changing her name from Betty Perske to Lauren Bacall and developing The Look, that lowered stare and voice that became her trademark. Her first film To Have and Have Not costarred Humphrey Bogart, who was 25 years older and struggling in a tumultuous marriage. Her sparkling screen debut was unforgettable:

YouTube Video:© Warner Brothers 

Despite their age difference, she and Humphrey Bogart fell in love. (Can't you tell?) They married in 1945, had two kids, and made three other great movies together – The Big SleepDark Passage, and Key Largo – before Humphrey Bogart died in 1957.

Yes, I still have my playbill.
Aside from these timeless films, she showed impressive range in How to Marry a Millionaire (with Marilyn Monroe), Designing Woman (with Gregory Peck), Sex and the Single Girl (with Natalie Wood), Harper (with Paul Newman), and The Shootist (with John Wayne), among others. In 1996, she was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Barbra Streisand's mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces. In later years, she worked with more experimental directors, like Lars von Trier for Dogville and Jonathan Glazer for Birth. She was always working and trying something new.

I was so lucky to see Lauren Bacall in person once. In 1999, she was on stage in Boston's Colonial Theatre costarring with Rosemary Harris in Noel Coward's Waiting in the Wings before it went to Broadway. At the time, I felt elated to be in the same room with her. She won two Tonys in her career, for Applause in 1970 and Woman of the Year in 1981.

Her storybook romance and acting talent aside, Lauren Bacall really won me over through her fantastic memoirs, By Myself (which won a National Book Award) and Now. They introduced me to Betty Perske, a shy, funny girl with lots of guts. I was hooked from the early pages of By Myself, where she relived the thrill of being in an elevator with her idol Bette Davis. These books are fantastic – refreshingly candid, honest, and well written. (We were practically friends by the time I finished reading.) By Myself follows Betty as she's swept into Hollywood and goes along for the ride, with wonder, determination, perseverance, and grace. Now continues her journey, spotlighting earned confidence, experience, and wisdom. Put these on your reading lists.

Lauren Bacall was more than The Look and the wife of Humphrey Bogart. In her profession and in life, she always strove for more – learning, growing, and speaking her mind. I will miss hearing that voice.

You can see some of Lauren Bacall's films on TCM this week! Starting Monday, September 15, at 8 p.m., eastern, my favorite cable channel will be celebrating this classy lady with a 24-hour tribute that will wrap up on what would have been her 90th birthday (September 16). Enjoy it! (And, if you don't get that channel, stock up your Netflix queue.)


Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #46–Transcendence (2014)

[What is Johnny Kitties? See Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp for all the details.]

What fascinated me more than anything is the correlation between technology and power–the idea that a guy who is able to download his sentient being into a machine can become god, or a version of god. Religion is a fascinating black hole to me. 
Johnny Depp on researching his role for Transcendence

When I read the first few blurbs trying to quickly sum up the plot of Transcendence, I rarely made it much farther than the first sentence. Passing by terms like "artificial intelligence," "super computer," and "uploaded consciousness." I gave up and decided to wait for it. 

In this movie, Johnny Depp plays Will Caster, a computer scientist studying the point at which artificial intelligence and human intelligence will achieve singularity or, as he calls it, transcendence. About 15 minutes into it, he is shot by an anti-technology activist using poisoned bullets. When Will finds out that he has about a month left to live, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) convinces him to try to upload his mind into the quantum computer he'd invented. About 10 minutes after he settles into the computer, his ghostly voice asks for more power, and his soul ends up online. 

He instructs Evelyn to buy land in the middle of nowhere, and she contracts the development of an underground facility there so that Will can continue his work. With his heightened capabilities, he is able to heal the sick and disabled, which at first seems like  amazing good fortune. Soon, however, it is discovered that everyone Will heals becomes a part of him, inheriting his strengths, and the townspeople become a kind of superhuman army. Morgan Freeman describes Transcendence pretty well: "The whole movie is about the development of artificial intelligence and a situation that gets out of hand." 

It's a leap of faith.
As far-fetched as this movie sounds, everyone involved who researched it thinks that we are well on our way. Some scientists believe we could reach this kind of immortality in the next 30 years. "The combination of technology and biology–I think it's inevitable," producer Aaron Ryder says. "We did a fair bit of research and talked to a lot of different people in this field. What was astounding to us was how advanced technology was and how close we were at things that I always thought were just science fiction as being reality."

Transcendence got mixed reviews, some of which were as complicated as the movie sounds. Overall, I think this movie has too many big, stretchy ideas for a 2-hour story. But I didn't really mind that. Here are my own issues with this movie:
  • As I warned earlier, Johnny starts dying about 15 minutes into the movie, which is depressing enough. Then, he's basically on a TV screen for rest of it. I suppose I'm used to Johnny Movies in which he has more to do. 
  • When I first heard about this project, I was most excited by the prospect of Johnny working with Morgan Freeman. It turns out that they only have a few short scenes together, and one of them is when Johnny is already uploaded. Does that one really count?
  • There are lots of computers, coding, and typing in this movie, and no matter what you do with it, that's just not interesting–unless you're an artificial intelligence scientist, I suppose. 

But just go with it.
There are things I like about this movie too. Yes, the premise is outlandish, and the creepy half-human/half-machine population Will creates is over the top. Yet, whenever I watch Transcendence, I get into it. Its big, stretchy ideas are fantastic and make me think for a long time afterward, which was apparently one of the goals. "This film will force people to ask questions," Johnny says. "How far should any of it go? That kind of intelligence in the wrong hands could be quite devastating." Adding to that warning, Wally Pfister notes, "It's my hope that people will think carefully whether technology can be used for the betterment of mankind or to its detriment." 

Wally Pfister was Christopher Nolan's cinematographer for many years, so the special effects in this movie are impressive. I love the visuals and the starkness and clean lines of the sets in the laboratory. 

While I'm disappointed that Johnny and Morgan Freeman didn't have much to do together in this movie, Transcendence also offers a great ensemble cast. I particularly like Paul Bettany as Max, Will and Evelyn's old friend, who serves as the voice of reason and gets most of the action in this story. Paul Bettany worked with Johnny previously in The Tourist and has already finished working with him on another upcoming film. Whenever interviewed about these projects, he's often asked how it feels to be in a Johnny Depp movie and responds jokingly that the question should really be asking how Johnny feels about being in a Paul Bettany movie. To me, Transcendence really is more of a Paul Bettany movie (and that's not a bad thing). 

What's really going on here?
For this Johnny Kitties tribute, I wanted a scene that included Johnny with Morgan Freeman, which meant I had few choices. I decided against depicting Johnny in dying mode and instead opted for a healthier-looking computer-generated version. Here, Evelyn (Lily) leads Will's colleague Joseph (Morgan Freeman/B.J.) and FBI agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy/Tyrone) into Brightwood Data Center's underground laboratory, where Will makes a surprise appearance.

46. Transcendence (2014) [September 9, 2014]

Don't forget to see For No Good Reason too!
Shortly after the release of Transcendence, Johnny showed up at my local theater in a 2012  documentary called For No Good Reason, which explores the life and work of artist Ralph Steadman. Ralph Steadman is most famous for his collaborations with Hunter Thompson, for whom he provided illustrations to pair with the writer's Rolling Stone articles, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and other publications. In this fascinating documentary, Johnny pays his quiet friend a visit  and serves as interviewer from a fan's perspective. 

I loved this documentary for shining light on Ralph Steadman's amazing talent and artistry, which I always felt was considered secondary to the work of his more outspoken, eccentric friend. In the documentary, someone commented that while Hunter was considered the crazy one, Ralph was actually more fearless in his artwork. Check it out, and you will see what he means. One of my favorite parts of this documentary is witnessing the artist create an illustration from start to finish. He just doesn't see things like the rest of us. As Johnny puts it, "Wow." 

What's next?
Johnny Kitties is going on hiatus again until more of Johnny's movies are released on DVD sometime next year. The movies that are next in line, Tusk and Into The Woods, have to hit theaters first. 

Tusk, a horror flick written and directed by Kevin Smith, is due out September 19! While Johnny's role has been kept pretty well under wraps, here's the trailer to get you excited about the creepy weirdness of this story:

(© Demarest Films–YouTube video: 

For those who are interested, Johnny's daughter, Lily-Rose, appears in this film alongside her friend Harley, Kevin Smith's daughter. You can see them in this trailer as the store clerks. (Lily Rose is the one who doesn't speak.) It was announced recently that these characters will have much bigger roles in another upcoming Kevin Smith movie with Johnny, a comedy called Yoga Hosers! So, if Tusk doesn't freak you out too much, we have another Kevin Smith treat in store for next year!   

But I digress. Into the Woods, a Stephen Sondheim musical directed by Rob Marshall, will be released on Christmas Day! In this fairy tale, Johnny plays The Wolf. I think it's safe to say that all Johnny fans are pacing the floors for this one, and the studio apparently knows it. Here's the teaser trailer that barely gives us a glimpse of what's to come:    

 © Walt Disney Pictures–YouTube video:

It's pretty much all I want for Christmas. 

Photo credits: All Transcendence images © Alcon Entertainment. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


This happens every time we watch The Wizard of Oz at my sister's house.

Courage (August 19, 2014)
(Illustration Friday: August 8, 2014)

For all of you who want to sing along and practice the speech in front of your own mirror (it works for Comet), here's the real thing.... Enjoy! 

(YouTube video: © MGM)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Hi everyone,

I just finished this one recently... Tyrone made his way to the top, of course. He's a climber.

Golden (August 9, 2014)
(Illustration Friday: July 25, 2014)

This illustration was partly inspired by another piece of golden artwork that I have on my living room wall, which is made completely of fabric by local artist Jamie Langhoff. 

Check out her website, Seeing in Fabric, to see more of her amazing work. 


Friday, August 15, 2014

Robin Williams

When I read the news about Robin Williams on Monday, I had two reactions: First, this must be wrong. Second, this must be about a different Robin Williams. By morning, reality had sunken in, and it seemed fitting that I woke to a gray, stormy day of unrelenting, steady rain. The world was upset. 

I've been trying to come up with an explanation and figure out what could have been done to prevent what happened. But I'm giving up this pointless pursuit. Everyone can speculate, but no one will ever know what led him to the darkest of moments. Really, it doesn't matter now. As his wife said, the focus should instead be on "the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions." If anything good can come of this, it will be constructive conversations about the seriousness of depression and ways to address it.

Somehow, it's more shocking when something like this happens to a comedian–someone whose job it is to make you laugh–because you have nothing but happy memories with that person. I clicked on a 2-minute Robin Williams tribute that a fan had created and posted on YouTube Monday night. It was a montage of film and TV show scenes, stand-up bits, talk show moments, and other special appearances that made me realized the constant presence this crazy genius had in my life. 

Like most people around my age, I first knew Robin Williams as Mork, the alien from Ork, who showed up on "Happy Days" and graduated to "Mork and Mindy." (I was hooked by age 4!) In the '80s and '90s, I always looked forward to watching the Comic Relief fundraising events for the homeless that he co-hosted with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal. When Christopher Reeve (my first love) died in 2004, Robin Williams helped me feel better by sharing fond memories of his close friend. Having Robin Williams around was comforting and whenever he showed up anywhere, I smiled, anticipating the laughter soon to come.  

I admit, sometimes, my brain freezes in the middle of watching Robin Williams in his element–on a roll of over-the-top quips combined with invented and dead-on impersonations and boundless improvisation, in no particular order. His comedy is simultaneously exhilarating, exhausting, hilarious, and unlike anyone else's (past, present, and future). The other day, someone likened his comedic talents to turning on a fire hose. It's true, Robin Williams could spew jokes at you at that strength and speed, all the while, making it seem effortless. 

Seeing how insane he could be on his own only made me appreciate him more as an actor. His movies showcase impressive versatility. I love watching him in dramatic roles, like Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, and Good Will Hunting (his Oscar-winning performance); it's as though we are specially invited to see a quieter side of him that's not usually caught on camera. I love his cameo appearances in The Adventures of Baron Munchaussen and the Night at the Museum series, the adventure he takes us on in Jumanji, and the animated genie he brings to life in Aladdin. His acting is solid and special. No matter the character, Robin Williams is present, and you never know when that energy of his will burst out and shine. His heart was too big to play it any other way.

Although I didn't studiously follow his career, Robin Williams has always reliably been there, like an old buddy or extended family member. My memories of him are of fleeting moments, jumbled into one big, chaotic ball of affection. Among them, one scene from The Birdcage (another great movie) keeps popping in my head. For those who haven't seen it yet, Robin Williams plays a gay cabaret owner, and Nathan Lane is his drag queen partner in life. Robin Williams is actually the quiet one in this relationship, and the main thing I remember about this movie is how much I love his restrained performance. This scene captures a glimpse of what made Robin Williams amazing. 

(YouTube video: © United Artists Pictures) 

How lucky we are that this great man shared so much of his talent, brilliance, and generosity with us. Wouldn't the world be a happier place if we all carried in our pockets just a tiny bit of his joyful spirit? Let's try.

So long, old friend. I miss you and thank you for visiting our planet. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


An enthusiastic helper, Tyrone adds some flair to Simon's latest contraption. While their project in the garage remains a mystery, this collaboration is bound for glory.

Contraption (August 5, 2014)
(Illustration Friday: June 6, 2014)

Wednesday, August 06, 2014


Hi everyone,

Lately, most of the news is bad out there, so this week's Illustration Friday topic, peace, instantly made me  think of John Lennon's iconic song, "Give Peace a Chance." But I'm more familiar with Sean Lennon's 1991 version, which was produced by Lenny Kravitz and performed by a slew of musicians from varied genres. The video, below, was on MTV a lot at the time, and I was excited that the song was back and updated for a new generation.


Sadly, this song–now nearly 25 years old–is still pretty accurate, but it's a good one! All together now...

Peace (August 5, 2014)
(Illustration Friday: August 1, 2014)

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