Hey New York, we’re no shrinking violet!

March 31, 2012 – If you’re an area local you’re probably familiar with the gaggle of celebrities ranging from Kevin Bacon to Jason Segel who boast that, “You’ll love the arts in Philadelphia.”

Their statement is made on behalf of the assortment of arts and entertainment venues available in our beloved city.

If you’re not a local, it may surprise you that Philadelphia is much more than just a stop on the way from New York to Washington D.C. From our Avenue of the Arts, which is home to some of the best theater around, to our world-class orchestra that has been performing for over 110 years, and our famous Museum of Art, which is currently hosting the only American stop on the “Van Gogh Up Close” tour, we can certainly give New York City a run for its money.

In our downtown area alone, on any given night, there are a plethora of live performances that can tickle the fancy of any taste, whether it is of the dramatic, comedic, musical or dance variety.

I was reminded of this on Thursday night when I received an unexpected invitation to attend a performance of “God of Carnage” at the Walnut Street Theater. French playwright Yasmina Reza’s comedy of ill manners about two couples who are trying to settle a playground fight between their sons with a civilized approach, was just what I needed after a long day at the office.

Not only was “God of Carnage” awarded the 2009 Best Play at the Tony Awards, but it also earned a Best Lead Actress win for Marcia Gay Harden. It was also made into a movie last year, although the title was shortened to “Carnage”. Roman Polanski directed the shoot in Paris due to his outstanding criminal conviction in the United States with stars Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet.

As much as I love movies, nothing beats live theater for a nice change of pace. Thanks, Mary, for asking me tag along.

“God of Carnage” is at the Walnut Street Theater through April 29.

The Naked Face Project: Could you do it?

March 29, 2012 –This week, USA Today highlighted the quest of two women from Charlotte, N.C., ages 51 and 27, who vowed to go without makeup – and virtually any beauty product at all – for two months. They call their effort The Naked Face Project, and they urge other women to follow in their footsteps.

Taking on the challenge also means they’ve stopped styling their hair, painting their nails, wearing jewelry and high heels, and shaving. Pretty scary stuff for many women.

After 60 days, both women claim they are pleased with the results. Not only was the experience liberating, they say, but their skin has never looked better. They also say it made them take notice of other women who do not wear makeup, and that it’s much more common than they thought.

So, it got me thinking, could I do the same?

Yes, I could go without makeup for 60 days. I wear much less these days than I used to when I was younger, and often skip it on weekends all together, unless I’m going somewhere dressy. I’ve never been one of those “don’t leave home without makeup on” women.

As a jewelry fan, giving up my baubles would be difficult, but doable. I like funky jewelry, and not fine gems like diamond and emeralds, so at least my habit isn’t too expensive.

I could also ditch the high heels, and while I do like painted nails, it wouldn’t break my heart to give them up.

It would be more difficult for me to stop styling my hair. While I don’t use hair styling products, I color my gray, I’m fussy about my shampoo and conditioner, and I blow dry every day. If I didn’t, I would be stuck with weird waves and flat salt and pepper hair (except in the humidity when it would expand and frizz).

I’d also have a difficult time giving up lipstick/gloss/balm, which is the one product I always carry with me. It may fall into the makeup category as outlined above, but I consider it different because it’s beneficial to the moisture level of my lips, and makes them feel better.

Not shaving may present a problem, too. I’ve never had hairy legs, so you probably wouldn’t even notice if I stopped shaving them, but underarm hair is another matter. It’s a personal preference to remove it, and even though I am from the school of thought that believes if it grows, it must be there for a reason, I feel better if it’s gone. After many years, shaving has become habitual thinking; I realize that many women around the world go au natural and seem to exist just fine. Men also have underarm hair that they don’t remove, so obviously one of those crazy things we inflict on women in our society. A little research indicates that shaving is a beauty routine related to youth. Women began shaving and wearing wear eye makeup to make their eyes appear larger to look like young girls. That’s a little disturbing, isn’t it?

Don’t even think about taking my skin care products. While I’m not naïve enough to believe anti-wrinkle creams will keep me looking 25 forever, they do make my skin feel better in the moment. Dry skin is uncomfortable, so why have it if we don’t have to? Sure, genetics and health habits play a bigger role in the way our skin looks, but I love my skin care products and see no reason to give them up.

In the grand scheme of things, this experiment may seem silly, especially with all of the problems in the world. But the premise of the experiment is a good one. Women shouldn’t have to be slaves to beauty or beauty products and we’ve created unreachable goals for ourselves because we often are. I applaud these women for their efforts.

Still, why go to extremes and give it all up if you feel comfortable with it? We need to be happy for who we are and what we bring to the world, and if looking a certain way makes us feel better, go for it.

For me, if I can’t commit to a project 100%, it’s better to skip it.

To learn more about The Naked Face Project, visit their website.

Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows is a loose adaptation at best

March 28, 2012 – All of you faithful “Dark Shadows” fans beware. The new movie from Tim Burton that stars Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins, and arrives in Theaters in May, appears to have little in common with original television series that ran from 1966 to 1971, other than some of its characters.

After seeing the trailer over the weekend, I can only deduce that Burton has turned the premise into a campy comedy that pokes fun at the original television show and the early 1970’s, the decade in which the movie takes place.

Yes, I’m a little disappointed. I was looking forward to seeing “Dark Shadows” even more so than any other upcoming release this summer. I loved the show as a kid, rushed home from school to see it, and even quit the 4th grade bowling team because it interfered with watching it.

After seeing several episodes recently, I realize it was campy back then too, even if it wasn’t trying to be. But it still scared the bejesus out of me. I remember thinking that Angelique’s spell on Elizabeth Collins, the one made her appear dead to her family, but you could still hear her frustrated thoughts screaming that she was still alive as they were about to bury her, was the most frightening thing ever. That will stay with me always.

Burton has been quoted recently as saying about the original series that, “technically speaking . . . you could say it was actually awful.” Considering that all those years ago the special effects were much less sophisticated, I suppose I can understand that without believing he was putting it down. If he felt like it was awful in general, I don’t think he would bother to remake it. But as viewers, we didn’t know what was to come in the future, or how special effects would make movies more realistic, and we loved our gothic soap unconditionally. So, it just seemed like a weird comment to make.

Kathryn Leigh Scott, who played Josette in the original series, recently responded to Burton’s comments on her Facebook page. She wrote, “I can only agree that the technical bloopers were embarrassing at the time, and are painful to watch some 40 years later. However, we produced 1,225 half-hour shows “live” each day, with a single take and very little rehearsal five times a week! Our cutting-edge special effects consisted of a bat dangling on a string attached to a fishing pole.”

Considering what they had to work with, they did a remarkable job making this unique series.

The upside is that Scott and former cast mates Jonathan Frid (Barnabas), Lara Parker, (Angelique) and David Selby (Quentin) all have cameos in the movie.

Will I still see “Dark Shadows” when it is released? Absolutely. It actually looks very funny, and I’ll try to go in with an open mind, not compare it to the original, and take it for what it is. Typically, I do enjoy roles played by Johnny Depp (except for his Willie Wonka rendition, which was downright creepy.) The movie also stars Eva Green, who caught my attention when she played the wonderfully evil Morgan LeFay in the Starz’ series “Camelot”. She’ll play the role of the witch Angelique, who once loved Barnabas, but because he only had eyes for Josette, cast the original spell on him that turned him into a vampire.

That is, if the movie sticks to any part of the original storyline.

Movie review: Jeff Who Lives at Home

March 26, 2012 – I recently read a statistic that claimed more than 25 million adults in the United States live with their parents.

Perhaps that’s why people can relate to the new film “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” about a jobless, 30-year-old stoner, who is obsessed with the movie “Signs” and lives in his mother’s basement.

The film stars Jason Segal and Ed Helms as brothers Jeff and Pat, and Susan Sarandon, as their mother, Sharon. Indy veterans Jay and Mark Duplass of “Cyrus” fame, who wrote and directed the film, give us a unique look inside the lives of three people who are still coping with some heavy baggage after losing a family member several years before.

With Segal and Helms in the lead roles, and without reading any reviews, I expected more comedy and maybe even slapstick at times, but I was completely surprised by the film’s serious undertones. It was a pleasant surprise, and although it does have some humorous moments, it’s actually more of a heartwarming and poignant story of a young man in crisis.

The story takes place over the course of one crazy day, Sharon’s birthday, when all she wants as a gift is for Jeff to get on a bus, go to Home Depot, and buy some wood glue to fix one of the shutters in the house before she gets home from work. Jeff agrees to complete the task, but along the way gets sidetracked by the “signs” that are everywhere that may lead him to his life’s purpose.

Jeff isn’t your stereotypical pothead, at least not in the way that is usually portrayed on screen. A philosopher of sorts, he is a likeable and a gentle spirit with a big heart who sees life in a unique and interesting way. And OK, the pot probably has something to do with that vision. Along his journey he meets up with his brother, Pat, a jaded man who’s marriage is in trouble, and who is the exact opposite of Jeff in every way. Ed Helms is terrific in this role, especially since we’re used to seeing him play more affable characters.

Impeccably cast, these actors, and the supporting cast of Rae Dawn Chong and Judy Greer, play their roles to perfection.

“Jeff, Who Lives at Home” isn’t the best movie I’ve seen this year, but I really liked it … a lot. It was an enjoyable way to spend 83 minutes on a dismal Saturday afternoon. As with many indie type films, it also has a fine soundtrack. You can’t go wrong with it.

“There’s something about an Aqua Velva man”

March 23, 2012 – Forget the NCAA tournament. The real March Madness begins on Sunday, when the long-awaited 5th season of “Mad Men” returns to television.

After a year and a half wait, fans will finally get to catch up with the quintessential Aqua Velva man, advertising extraordinaire Don Draper, and his family and office mates.

When last we saw Draper and the gang, it was 1965. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce had to fight for survival after the loss of the Lucky Strike cigarette account, Joan announced her pregnancy (with Roger’s baby), Betty’s second marriage was falling to pieces, and Don had asked his secretary to marry him after witnessing how well she handled his children.

We won’t know for sure how much time has passed for the characters until Sunday night, but rumor has it that it’s now 1967. In real time it’s been 17 months – way too long – and that is something that concerns the show’s creator Matthew Weiner. With so much time passing in between seasons, he worries that viewers won’t come back. But the cast is remarkably talented and unique, and coupled with excellent writing, “Mad Men” is a huge favorite, so he probably has nothing to worry about.

If you haven’t seen the show yet, you’re missing great TV. They’ve been showing reruns on AMC to build up to the season five premier, but even if you’ve missed those too, there’s no reason why you can’t begin watching now. They always provide a nice recap in the beginning, which won’t get you completely up to speed, but will lay the foundation.

Actor Jon Hamm, who plays Don Draper, normally gets most of the attention, but the cast is a true an ensemble, which makes it difficult to pick a favorite. One character who definitely stands out is Kiernan Shipka, the young actress who plays Don’s daughter, Sally. Though too little screen time is given to the talented child star, she’s believable and impressive when she is on. Not only did she played the troubled child to perfection in seasons past, especially when her grandfather passed away, but she captured the pre-teen years perfectly last season, challenging both her mother and father. I especially loved when her father managed to score her Beatle’s tickets. Her screams, when he gave them to her, were a delight to behold.

I saw Shipka interviewed a few years back, and she presents herself as a mature and grounded child. She mentioned that although she plays the part of Sally Draper in “Mad Men”, her parents won’t let her watch it because they feel she’s too young. Now that she’s a few years older (she was 7 when the show premiered and is now 12), perhaps we will see more of her on screen, and she’ll be allowed to see the fruits of her labor.

Sunday night, 9 p.m. ET/PT, AMC, two-hour premier. Be there or be square. (That’s sixties lingo for must see TV).

An Ode to World Poetry Day

March 21, 2012 – If you’re looking for something to celebrate today, aside from the good things you already have in your life (and I hope there are plenty), you may want to celebrate World Poetry Day.

World Poetry Day is an initiative of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, that set aside March 21 to support and appreciate the world’s many poets and their works each year.

As someone who loves visual, literary, and performing arts on practically every level, I have to admit I am stumped when it comes to poetry. I celebrate it just the same because I appreciate the talent it takes to create a poem, but often the words only make sense to me if you put music behind it and call it a song. Perhaps that’s laziness on my part, or just the way my brain works, but I’d be lost at a poetry reading unless someone was playing a musical instrument in the background, and the poet was reciting his or her work with a little more than just syncopated rhythm in their voice.

Some of the literary (or coffee-house) elite may say that makes me akin to feeding from the bottom of the art chain, similar to appreciating a novel off the New York Time’s Best Seller List over a selection from a list of the best literary classics ever written – and that’s OK. But here’s something interesting I found while researching the origins of poetry; the earliest poems evolved from folk songs (emphasis on the word folk, i.e. the common people of society), so if it wasn’t for music, we may not have poetry as we know it today.

There is one poem I remember well that doesn’t need music behind for me to appreciate it. It was written by my niece with magnetic poetry on my refrigerator.

“Your moon wind is beautiful sweet fire.”

Thanks, Leigh. After all of these years, your witty prose still makes me chuckle.

Movie review: “Salmon Fishing in Yemen”

March 19, 2012 – With Hollywood cranking out remakes and sequels by the dozens, sometimes one needs to look to a foreign film to please their palate.

“Salmon Fishing in Yemen” is a rare find, a refreshingly witty film that tells the story of a billionaire sheik that wants to bring Salmon fishing to Yemen.

The British romantic comedy directed by Lasse Hallstrom of “The Cider House Rules” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” fame, is based on Paul Torday’s 2006 popular novel of the same name. Adaptations can be risky, especially for those who loved the book, but Hallstrom succeeded before, directing the film version of John Irving’s “The Cider House Rules”. And while I didn’t read Torday’s book, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and have read reviews that it stays pretty faithful to his novel, but with a few added surprises.

The film is getting rave reviews from most critics. One reviewer from the Huffington Post went as far as saying, “Salmon Fishing in Yemen has done for fishing what Norman Mailer did for boxing when he brought understanding to the sport by writing The Fight.”

I suppose that’s because it’s not easy to make a story about the quiet, low-key sport of fly-fishing compelling, but Hallstrom managed beautifully with this enchanting film, much more so that even Robert Redford did when he directed the acclaimed “A River Runs Through It”.

The movie stars Emily Blunt as an investment consultant representing a billionaire sheik, who hires straight-laced scientist (Ewan McGregor) to help realize the sheik’s dream. At first, the scientist says it can’t be done, but through a series of interesting twists and turns, he is told he has to try to make a go of it or he’ll lose his job.

Blunt and McGregor light up the screen with their chemistry, even when it is through their proper and sophisticated business communication at the beginning of the film. The story contains undertones of science vs. faith, which is often debated these days, and has a few side stories that are just as interesting, including one with a hilarious Kristin Scott Thomas playing a unique “spin doctor” of sorts.

But the real comic genius belong to McGregor, who may not be known for his comedy, but delivered some of the best one-liners in the movie; no, not side-splitting slap-stick comedic lines that often tickle the funny bone of audiences, but cleverly written, sharp and sometimes biting lines that makes the film’s ticket price worthwhile.

NXNW: The big screen experience

March 16, 2011 – While South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual music and film festival rages on through Saturday in Austin, Texas, Philadelphia celebrated a mini film festival of its own last night when Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller “North by Northwest” came alive on the big screen.

The film, which deals with the consequences of mistaken identities, stars Cary Grant, and was hosted by Turner Classic Movie’s own Ben Mankiewicz and film co-star Eva Marie Saint. It was the headline act at the Prince Theater on Broad Street, as part of TCM’s Road to Hollywood series. The annual event is scheduled to visit 10 North American cities in all, and features “North by Northwest” and a handful of other films and its stars, such as “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “The Birds”,  and “Psycho”.

Standing in line in front of the theater.

The line began forming by 5:30 for a 7:30 showing, and grew quickly around Chestnut Street and onto Broad Street. The festival was free, and seating was limited, which meant approximately 300 or so people were turned away at the door.

The unique crowd of diverse ages kept me entertained while I waited. The man in front of me was jotting down in a notebook things the people around him were talking about, which was interesting, and then he began asking people for their Comcast usernames and passwords so he could sign in to one of the free hotspots with is laptop, which was annoying. The elderly couple in back of me where charming, and looked as if they just stepped off the bus from Iowa. They had a bag of goodies with them, and both were eating dinner in line that consisted of sandwiches and bottled water wrapped in aluminum foil, which made me wonder how far they traveled.

My feet began to hurt from standing for so long (I wore the wrong shoes), and when an usher came out to ask if there were guests from some film club that was let in early, I was tempted to raise my hand. But I resisted realizing that was exactly how Grant’s character got into trouble in the movie.

TCM Host Ben Mankiewicz and Eva Marie Saint address the audience.

As a Hitchcock fan, I’ve seen “North by Northwest” a handful of times, but nothing compares to seeing it on the big screen, and with the seemingly ageless Eva Marie Saint to discuss its finer moments. She spoke about Hitchcock as a director, and how he didn’t direct like others in the sense that he told actors what to do. He simply laid out the scene on storyboards and let the actors take over. Then he’d watch the dailies (film clips) without sound at the end of each day, as if he were watching a silent movie, and that’s how he determined if they were good enough to go to print. According to Saint, Hitchcock did very little editing.

The big screen also added to the drama of the more famous scenes in the movie, such as Grant and Saint climbing Mt. Rushmore, and Grant being chased by a crop duster on a farm in the Midwest. It also added to the excitement that the well-packed theater was wracked with emotion and reacted with spirit at the appropriate moments.

Cary Grant seemed larger than life as the innocent ad executive Roger Thornhill who is chased by Federal Agents across the country in a fight for his life after he is mistaken for a spy, but that may be because I’ve only ever seen his movies on television prior to last night. “North by Northwest” is not my favorite Hitchcock/Grant collaboration — that honor belongs to 1944’s Notorious — but it is very good; it’s even better now that I know a few of the behind the scenes secrets, such as the producers wanted Cyd Charisse in the female role, and Grant wanted Sophia Loren (in every way, according to Mankiewicz), but “Hitch” (as Saint called him) insisted that she play the part.

It’s a bit more difficult to spot Hitchcock’s cameo appearance in the movie, a trademark move he pulls in all of his films, but if you don’t blink you’ll spot him at a bus stop right after the opening credits.

Here are two other photos from the event:

10 books I vow to read this year

March 14, 2012 – Like most people, I go through peaks and valleys when it comes to reading.

At times I’m an avid reader, devouring one book after another, and then I don’t pick one up for weeks. That’s why I put together a list of 10 books that I want to finish before midnight on December 31, 2012. If it’s written down and out there, I will do my best to make it happen.

1. The Good Earth
I’ve heard wonderful reviews about Pearl S. Buck’s classic novel about the struggles of a poor Chinese farming community for years, but I’ve never read a word. Now that I’m taking a writing class at the Pearl S. Buck Writing Center (her actual home in Perkasie, Pa.), I feel compelled to give it a go. The woman who runs the center continuously tells us that Miss Buck looks over us all when we’re in class, under the same roof where she wrote many of her works. So, I’ll return the favor and look over her most famous novel.

2. The Purpose Driven Life
While I’m not one of those people who is always searching for the meaning of life, do I believe we all have a purpose and it benefits us tremendously if we find it. Make fun all you want about reading a self-help book, but “The Purpose Driven Life” is actually spiritual in nature. Author Rick Warren’s premise that there are no accidents is intriguing and I want to learn more.

3. Breakfast at Tiffany’s
LOVE the movie, but I’ve never read the actual Truman Capote story, which I understand is quite different and a grittier than the Audrey Hepburnized screenplay. I’ve also never read Capote before, so it will be an interesting experiment.

4. Made to Stick
As a corporate communications professional, I’m always looking for good reads about the industry to sharpen my communication skills. However, I typically don’t enjoy those that read like a college textbook; I lose interest too quickly. Whenever I ask those I respect for suggested titles, Chip and Dan Heath’s guide to understanding why some ideas survive and some do not is always mentioned in the mix.

5. Then Came You
As a fan of Jennifer Weiner, I put her latest novel on my list as a good beach read for the summer. I’m not ashamed to admit that I read other books besides literary novels (and usually more often), nor am I offended by the label chick lit, even though literary snobs condemn it. Still, I’m fairly certain whoever coined the phrase “chick lit” didn’t mean it as a compliment so I don’t label her novels that way. Instead, I’ll  say they are funny and often compelling stories that appeal to women. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

6. The Magic of Thinking Big
The title alone makes this book seem like a must read. We all need a little magic. The book was written by Dr. David Schwartz and first published in 1959. Dr. Schwartz claims – and I believe him – that the only thing holding people back from their goals is small thoughts. Just paging through it in the bookstore gave me confidence that although the premise is similar, this book has much more credibility than “The Secret”.

7. The Millennium Series: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and the Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
I saw the Americanized film version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” a few months back and loved it. Before I see the other two movies in production now, I want to read the trilogy, also known as the Millennium Series, by Stieg Larsson. I’m counting these three books as one, so I hope I get extra credit.

8. More Room in a Broken Heart: The True Adventures of Carly Simon
There’s been plenty of controversy plaguing this biography penned by Stephen Davis, from accusations of plagiarism and poor journalism, to downright lies. Yet, I’m still drawn to this book because I adore Carly Simon. Davis apparently had access to a lot of Simon family information (he knows Carly’s brother well) and while it’s not touted as a scandalous tell-all, I’ve read reviews that it does contain some things that upset Carly. Oh, I keep trying not to buy it, but I’m getting weaker and I know I’ll give in.

9. The Four-Hour Work Week
I laughed out loud when I saw my son reading this book. It seems absurd that you can be successful and only work four hours a week. But he assured me that blogger and author Tim Ferris offers solid advice on finding out what you want, eliminating society’s expectations and perfecting time management, which is key to everything. I’m still not sure if the title is literal or not, but it will be easy to borrow, so I’ll read it and hope it enhances my life as the book jacket claims.

10. Daughters of the Hall
This title won’t sound familiar to anyone because it’s written by the same author who writes this blog. It’s also just a working title at this point. That class I mentioned above at the Pearl S. Buck Center is one that encourages you to write a novel in a year. We meet the fourth Saturday of each month from January through December, and check in online with word counts and questions/suggestions in between. I should be finished the first draft by year’s end (hopefully sooner) and it will need a good read through before the actual editing process begins. And yes, it counts.

I’m always open for new suggestions if you’d like to pass some my way.

A lunchtime tourist in her own city: The Italian Market

March 12, 2012 – As an American woman with an Irish/German heritage and a love for Italian food, I enjoy embracing all that is good about each culture. I’ve attended my fair share parades and drank many spirits in honor of St. Patrick, raised a glass of beer at more Oktoberfests than I can count, and dined at some of the best Italian restaurants around.

That’s why it’s incomprehensible that for someone who appreciates Italian food as much as I do, and who is a lifelong resident of the Philadelphia area, I visited the city’s famous Italian Market for the first time this past Saturday. I drove to the heart of Little Italy where the streets are narrow and there’s nary a chain store in sight, only mom and pop shops and outside vendors. It’s as if the area stood still in time, and visitors really get the feel for how it was back before Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks and Walgreens took over.

Advertised as one of the oldest and largest working markets in the United States, the 9th Street Italian Market is still predominantly Italian, but it now includes some of the best items from other cultures. It’s touted as an outdoor market, but it is actually a combination of outdoor stands and indoor stores along 9th Street between Christian and Wharton Streets. From cheese, pasta, baked goods, seafood and Italian Water Ice, to antique shops, herbal shops, jewelry and more, Philadelphia’s famous market strip has it all. There are also a variety of excellent Italian restaurants and pizza shops, and of course, the famous Pat’s Steaks and Geno’s Steaks at the southern most end.

Movie buffs may recall that it is the famous stretch, aside from the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, that Rocky ran through in the movie of the same name.

Philadelphia’s 9th Street Italian Market may be considered off the beaten path as far as city attractions go, but if you’re looking for a unique way to spend an afternoon and a lot of good food, it’s well worth the trip.