May 20, 2011

‘Pirates’ steals the show again…

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies at 6:40 pm by dinaheng

Ahoy, ye mateys! A new tale of Captain Jack Sparrow is on the horizon with a cast of familiar and new characters that anyone looking for a good summertime popcorn movie is going to love.

 “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” the fourth installment of the Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films’ “Pirates” franchise, set sail into theaters May 20 with Johnny Depp reprising his role as the crafty and humorous Captain Jack Sparrow. 

Joining him in the cast are Geoffrey Rush as Captain Hector Barbossa, Kevin R. McNally as Joshamee Gibbs, Penelope Cruz as the female pirate Angelica, and other newcomers to the franchise.

“I think these films have repopularized the pirate legends,” says Geoffrey Rush, who returns as the devious, self-serving Barbossa. “Before, it was Long John Silver and Peter Pan who kept the history of that period alive. Now that we’re so surrounded by social media, Tweeting and the like, the idea of being free on a boat in the sea, in your own world, is especially appealing.”

Rush, whose portrayal of speech therapist Lionel Logue in “The King’s Speech” helped to propel that film to win this year’s Oscar for Best Picture, relishes the challenge of continually playing disparate characters.

“One aspect of the profession that I enjoy the most is finding diversity in the parts,” says Rush, a multi-award winning Australian actor whose credits include “Shakespeare in Love,” “Quills” and  “Finding Nemo.” “The rulebook is different with different genres to play a character, and keeps you on your toes a bit.

“It’s not often that you get to play a character over a number of films. I like that Barbossa has been able to morph and keep evolving.”

In “On Stranger Tides,” the captain who put together the meeting of the nine pirate lords in the last “Pirates” film has betrayed the pirate brethren and gone to work for King George as a pirateer.

“He’s getting older, is disabled, and looking for a good retirement package, but as always, has his own agenda,” Rush notes. “Barbossa has a fluid control of the English language as a way of controlling people. ‘Being spat out of the mouth of hell ‘ is a vivid image for him.

“In reality, he operates on a level of fear, connivance and deception. He breaks the rules for self-serving purposes, but is smart enough to charm people into thinking they’re special to him.”

Rush says working on a Jerry Bruckheimer film means having the luxury of resources to tell the story.

“These are heavily crewed, big budget films,” Rush says. “There’s been an evolution with the release of the summer movies that’s created heavy competition. Jerry always tries to keep ahead of the game on a creative level, not just on an executive one.

“With the four chapters of this pirate story, he’s done a courageous thing — exploring new characters and cultures, tackling the mythological aspects of sea monsters and sea gods — and not just making it a swashbuckling storyline.”

Bruckheimer, one of Hollywood’s most successful movie and television producers, says every good film starts with a good script. While the first three “Pirates” films brought in more than $2.6 billion at the worldwide box office, the producer says it was time to take the franchise in a new direction.

“We ended our trilogy and wrapped up those characters (played by Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley),” says Bruckheimer, whose films have run the gamut from “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Crimson Tide” to “The Rock” and “National Treasure.” “We wanted to give the audience something fresh and new. I like stories that are intriguing, that surprise you, and that move you emotionally.”

The list of credits at the end of “On Stranger Tides” seem to go on forever, telling the tale of how many people it took to bring this film to the screen. The movie, which was filmed on the Hawaiian islands of Kauai and Oahu, Los Angeles, Puerto Rico, and London, has more than 1,100 visual effects that bring the pirate world to life.

Bruckheimer, who usually has 40 films in development at any given time, says, “You’re lucky if you have two made a year. Some scripts come to the forefront and the studios get excited about them.”

As fans might expect, Bruckheimer’s company is already working on a fifth “Pirates” script. Spoiler alert — If you sit through that long credit roll at the end of the film, you just might see…

But in the meantime, this installment of “Pirates” is a fun swashbuckling ride that’ll make you forget anything outside the theater you’re sitting in. After all, what’s a good popcorn movie for?

Land ho, me hearty!

Advertisements

May 14, 2011

Listening to yesteryear today…

Posted in Between Us column, Diversity, Entertainment at 8:55 pm by dinaheng

Everything old becomes new again, especially if you’ve never heard it before.

Two new albums have put a delightful twist on classic subjects this month, making the material fresh for today’s audiences, yet honoring the timeless for those who have heard the  tale or sounds before.

I never got to see “Wonderland,” a Broadway musical that turned Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” into a contemporary tale about a woman’s search for self. The show is scheduled to close this weekend after a month-long run and mostly unfavorable reviews.  But I love the soundtrack, and the musical book it was written for.

“We used Lewis Carroll’s story as the template, but instead of a little girl, we used a modern woman coming to grips with all the things she’s facing in her life, being a single mom and struggling to have a career,” explains Jack Murphy, who wrote the book with Gregory Boyd and penned the lyrics to Frank Wildhorn’s music.

“Alice is an author of children’s books who’s having a tough time getting published; has relationship problems with her husband, who’s caught in the economic downturn, and wonders if she has enough time for her daughter, her husband and her writing.”

In the musical, Alice is played by Janet Dacal, an actress of Cuban descent who Murphy says is “not your usual, blonde, blue-eyed Alice.” In this Alice’s journey, our heroine learns from all the characters she meets that she has to find out who she is, and let life unfold.

A moving score with uplifting lyrics make the soundtrack a story in itself worth hearing. The musical is a life-affirming reminder to appreciate every minute of life, for time is fleeting and we must seize every opportunity to grow and be happy on the journey we’re on.

For as Murphy’s lyrics note,

“We move too fast

We miss so much

We seldom see

All the miracles in front of us:

A warm embrace…

A human touch…

And so it goes… I race around

Search high and low for the truth

I used to know

When there was magic to be found

‘Cause finding Wonderland

Is taking time to see

The child within who’s always been there

Smiling back at me.”

Fans of the multiple Grammy-winning jazz legend Benny Carter will smile at a new album by Deborah Pearl, who has put lyrics to some of Carter’s wonderful melodies in “Souvenir Of You… New Lyrics to Benny Carter Classics.”

For those who don’t know his name, Carter’s arrangements were recorded by the likes of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and other greats, and helped to set the course of big band jazz. The jazz performer, whose achievements spanned eight decades, was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000 by President Bill Clinton before his death a few years later.

Pearl, who sings a tribute to Carter’s life through her lyrics, has a very personal connection to the jazz performer and his widow, Hilma.

“I’m a Barnard College graduate, and so is Hilma, though many years apart,” says Pearl, also a screenwriter and playwright. “When I moved out to Los Angeles, I met her through the Barnard Club and became close. The two of them became like surrogate parents to me.”

The amazing love story of Carter and his wife Hilma inspired another song titled “Wonderland” (Isle of Love) on Pearl’s album. The couple met at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom in 1939 where Benny Carter and His Band were playing. It was love at first sight, but interracial relationships were illegal at the time, and both married others.

Carter became one of the first African Americans to compose music for the Hollywood studios, and it was 30 years later that the Caucasian woman who had never forgotten him read about a Carter concert at Carnegie Hall. Hilma wrote a letter to a reviewer, asking him to pass along her regards to the famous musician.

Carter got the letter, and immediately called her, inviting her to the 1975 concert he was conducting at Carnegie Hall. Five years later, they married.

Pearl sings two of the songs on the album to original Carter tracks — “Happy Feet” (At the Savoy) and “Anniversary Dance.”

“In those two instances, I was going to sing the songs in the same key the band was doing them in, so we got permission to use his tracks,” Pearl says. “It gives me chills, hearing him play ‘Anniversary Dance’ as I sing it. He wrote it maybe 30 years prior. I tried to take what he was feeling and put it into words for everyone else today.”

A lot of the songs have to do with the timelessness of emotion.

“Love is a great topic for song lyrics, and lot of this is about the loss, gain, and the tenacity of love,” Pearl says. “Benny was such a centered, calm, interesting man, well into his 90s… and I miss him all the time.”

With this album, Carter’s work and life will continue to be appreciated and reach new audiences.

For more information on “Wonderland,” check out http://www.masterworksbroadway.com.

For more information on “Souvenir of You,” check out http://www.deborahpearl.com.

May 5, 2011

Vegas vacation not just for gamblers

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Travel, Women at 6:59 pm by dinaheng

Las Vegas may be the gambling mecca of the United States, but for those of us who would rather not spend every minute (and dollar) on a casino floor, there are other attractions in town to explore.

My sister Linda and I recently decided to spend two days in Sin City, where we did our best to not constantly feed the slot machines. We chose to stay at the Paris Las Vegas, one of my favorite hotels in town, which is roughly in the middle of the Strip.

In the mornings, I love being able to grab juice and a croissant from JJ’s Boulangerie, or at the end of the day, stop in Cafe Belle Madeleine for a taste of something sweet. Linda, who loves crepes, was disappointed that La Creperie didn’t offer a chicken crepe, but settled for a seafood one instead. All three restaurants offer reasonably priced items that can make the tab under $10 for a quick bite.

On our first day, we spent a couple of hours at one of the city’s outlet malls, Las Vegas Premium Outlets-South. There’s also a Premium Outlet-North, but we only had time to walk through one, so choose the one on the south side of the Strip.

Like most outlet malls, this one is huge, filled with tourists and locals looking for a deal from brand name stores. A merry-go-round in the center draws parents and children looking for a reason to get off their feet. While an indoor outlet makes sense in a desert setting, it’s a shame that the design here creates a dark, dense environment for visitors, rather than a light and airy one.

Of the two of us, Linda is the shopper. She can look endlessly for bargains, find great buys, and return things without hesitation if she’s dissatisfied. Walking through malls is great fun for her. I, on the other hand, only set foot inside a mall if I have something specific I need to buy. Luckily, I did need to pick up some lingerie, and Linda found a great suit jacket on sale.

That evening, we headed to The Palazzo at the northern end of the Strip to catch a performance of “Jersey Boys,” a Broadway musical so popular that the show runs 2 hours, 15 minutes — with only 10 to 15 minutes cut from the Tony-winning original — rather than being the usual 95-minute Broadway-to-Vegas condensed version.  (For ticket info, check out http://www.jerseyboysinfo.com/vegas/tickets.html.)

Linda and I weren’t around when Frankie Valli began his professional singing career in 1951, rising from the blue-collar lounge circuit in New Jersey to be the frontman for The Four  Seasons with a powerful falsetto voice that propelled him and the group to rock and roll stardom in the 1960s.

But we loved every minute of the musical biography that showed why Valli and his friends are such icons today. From the sweetness of “My Eyes Adored You” to the sassy “Working My Way Back to You,” the cast delivered rousing renditions, song after song, with  a style that brought the audience to its feet at the end of the show.

So “Walk Like a Man” (or a woman) to the Jersey Boys Theatre at The Palazzo if you want to know what “Oh, What a Night” really means, and “Let’s Hang On” to some of the best music ever written.

Yes, it took a couple of hours for the lyrics to leave my mind. After a late dinner, we moved on to the Palazzo casino where we tried our hand at the slot machines. As you can imagine, the House won, and before we knew it, it was time to hit the sack.

The highlight of the second day was visiting the newest resort on the Strip, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. Set between the Bellagio and CityCenter, this luxurious property creates a magical feel as soon as you step into the lobby.  Several columns turn into an innovative electronic art installation that changes images — and the look of the space — as you stand in place. Digital images range from blooming flowers to library bookshelves, inviting you to linger and watch.

Our destination was a short elevator ride up to the Sahra Spa & Hammam, designed to be an ode to the desert from its polished sandstone in the flooring to the dramatic sandstone slot walls reminiscent of an ancient canyon. As you approach the treatment areas, a two-story waterfall adds moisture to the air and the sound of a desert rain. (“Hammam,” for the curious, means Turkish bath.)

All guests have access to a steam room and cool mist room, heated pool, sauna, and fitness center.  Special spa suites are available, which include treatment areas, steam rooms and showers, soaking tubs, relaxation spaces, and personal vanity areas.

I love going to spas. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing better than spending time in a calm, peaceful space designed to rejuvenate the spirit, and getting a great massage. For Linda, this afternoon is a special treat because she’ll be getting her first massage.

“I love first-time spa-goers,” says Simon Ochoa, one of the spa’s managers. “Seeing the looks on their faces when they arrive and when they leave, you can see what they’ve received from the experience. I think people forget how much they need to really relax.”

After changing to spa robes and slippers in the dressing area, Linda and I sat in the quiet relaxation lounge, reading newspapers and sampling the snacks as we waited for our massage therapists.

I chose the AromaCouture Massage (a 50 minute session costs $150), which is an interesting blend of personality preferences and aromatherapy. Before seeing my massage therapist, I fill out a short personality quiz on an iPad, choosing a massage that will focus on muscle aches, stress and centering.

After filling out the survey, the iPad tells me, “Based on your state of being, personality, and desired outcomes, your personal essential oil blend includes birch, sweet, grapefruit, rose and damask.” The massage itself is wonderfully relaxing and over all too soon.

Linda had chosen the Essential Massage (also $150 for 50 minutes), which includes oils blended for rejuvenation, energy, balance, detox, or relaxation. She picked the Water blend for relaxation, and when we met after our treatments, I was happy to hear that she thoroughly enjoyed her first spa treatment.

“It wasn’t quite what I expected,” she says, as we dress to leave. “I thought she’d just massage my back, but she worked on all of my body, and it was so relaxing. I almost fell asleep.”

To wake ourselves up, we head downstairs to the casino, which is elegantly designed around The Chandelier, a three-story series of bars that beckon from behind hanging beads of crystal . The chandelier motif echoes across the gaming floor, and as we play various slot machines, the decor reminds Linda of Mardi Gras and me of weddings, both fun and joyous occasions.

For dinner, we make our way upstairs to Costas Spiliadis’ estiatorio Milos, a Greek restaurant famous for its Mediterranean seafood cuisine. A marketplace display of fish, flown in from the Mediterranean, and fresh produce, from the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market in California, make the mouth start to water.

Appetizers and salads here range from about $18 to $29. Plan on $40 and above for most entrees, and $10 for desserts.

We order two appetizers — the Kalamari, lightly fried with lemon, and the grilled mushrooms, a mixture of King Oyster, Royal Trumpet and Organic Shitake Mushrooms. Both are done perfectly, with just the right amount of seasoning.

Linda chooses the Colorado prime lamb chops, and asks to substitute Steamed Potatoes (Fingerling potatoes dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, Santorini capers and sea salt) for the potatoes that normally come with the entree. After a little haggling with the waiter, her wish is granted. I order the Lavraki, a Mediterranean Sea Bass that comes from the island of Kefalonia, with grilled vegetables.

We share a taste of each other’s meal, and everything is delicious. Linda doesn’t care for the Steamed Potatoes, which are served at room temperature, and I have to say I agree with her. Tepid potatoes just don’t go with an entree that’s perfectly done. When it comes time for dessert, we share a Galaktoboureko, semolina custard wrapped in crispy phyllo. The fare here is simple food, prepared really well.

Our last stop for the evening is at the Bellagio, where we roam the gaming floor, looking for that lucky machine. It wasn’t long before I lost my allotted gambling money for the day. Linda, fortunately, did better than I did, and offered to treat me to an eclair back at the Paris.

So we ran into Cafe Belle Madeleine, just as the patisserie was preparing to close. When I ordered an eclair, the saleswoman behind the counter was kind enough to give me two for the price of one.

Now that was a sweet way to end the trip.