Friday, June 29, 2012


Just back from two weeks in the Old World, and I have something to declare: I am in love with Prague!

If you ever get the chance to visit this magical place, just drop everything and go.

Prague's downtown section, Old Town, is a well-preserved, never-bombed medieval city whose ancient buildings (often grafted together from different eras) feature gargoyles, outdoor frescoes and stencil paintings, unexpected statues tucked into odd spaces, and exuberant carvings like this fanciful mermaid, floating serenely above a cobbled side-street.

We traveled with our friend, Donna Mekis, who had spent a lot of time in the city with her husband, Morton Marcus, a trip we had all hoped to take together some day. Donna and Art Boy and I made this pilgrimage in his honor; we visited Mort's favorite haunts, followed his route to Charles University (where he taught a month-long summer course one year), and ate in some of Mort's favorite cafes, toasting him all the way.

With Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral on the hill overlooking the town, and dozens of green patina domes, spires and medieval towers in all directions, Prague has a dreamy fairy tale look—especially when everything is lit up at night.

 Czech history, of course, has been anything but a fairy tale—which may account for Prague's thriving puppet culture. Here are some very cool hand-carved wooden specimens I found in the shop Marionety, in Nerudova Street. (Here's a link to their online shop, although you may have to run it through Google Translator, unless your Czech is better than mine.)

The best, like these, are carved by artisans from families who have been making puppets for generations. You can find plenty of shops and vendors hawking the cheap, molded plaster variety to tourists to take home to the kiddies, but it's not really kid-stuff.

Back in the various eras of repression (in the 20th Century alone, the Czech people were occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazis, the Soviets and the Communists), it was humble marionette shows traveling through rural towns and villages that lampooned the powerful and spread the audacity of hope among the people in allegorical terms only the natives would understand.

No wonder the Czech national symbol is the wily jester, as one puppet-seller told us, and jesters—benign, arch, or downright scary—appear in every puppet shop. Of course these days, along with the usual kings, princesses, clowns, Pinnocchios, devils, and puppets in traditional Czech costumes, you also find Harry Potter marionettes, Captain Jack Sparrows, a smattering of Obamas, and—freakiest of all—Michael Jacksons.

For centuries before the Czechs had their own Republic, Prague was the capitol of old Bohemia, from which we get the notion of "bohemians" as arty iconoclasts. Prague is still a hotbed of spontaneous, interactive street art.

The John Lennon wall near Kampa Island (a couple of blocks from where we were staying in Malá Strana, the Little Quarter) started going up as soon as the Communists rolled out; graffiti artists and passers-by have been layering on political slogans, peace signs, Beatles lyrics, Lennon portraits, and who-knows-what-all ever since.

I decided to go native and leave my own mark on the wall with a handy Magic Marker some previous tenant left in our rented apartment. Two days later, my endeavor was almost completely covered up by another guerrilla artist wielding pink day-glo paint. Ah, the transitory nature of art!

Here's art with a little more permanence: the Love Lock Bridge over the Certovka  (The Devil's Stream), a narrow canal that separates Kampa Island from the rest of the Little Quarter. Nobody knows who started this one, but for about eight years,  couples have thronged to this bridge to declare their love by locking padlocks around the railing.

By now, the bars and cross beam of the railing are so thick with locks, lovers have started padlocking other bridges nearby. But the ever intrepid Art Boy found a space on the original bridge for our lock, which he painted red, and which I decorated with our names and dates.

It was tricky, but he managed to secure it, then he threw the key into the canal. So I'll always feel we left a part of ourselves in Prague—and vice versa!

Monday, June 25, 2012


Gems to look out for in the second wave of summer blockbusters

We're still cleaning up the debris after the first tidal wave of blockbuster summer movies—the one that began last month with The Avengers, and subsided last week with Moonrise Kingdom. But another tsunami is on its way, a second wave of diverse summer movies before the inevitable doldrums of August set in.

In a crowded field, here are some interesting contenders to look out for, from big budget to wildly offbeat; from a stout-hearted Scottish princess and a goofball wannabe time traveler (Brave and Safety Not Guaranteed, both in theaters this week), to the latest from Woody Allen, the beginning of one superhero franchise and the conclusion of another, and the new comedy from the directors of Little Miss Sunshine. (Read more)

Monday, June 4, 2012


Only those whose entire idea of fairy tales comes from sugary Disney cartoons will be shocked by the dark, violent edge in Snow White and the Huntsman, a revisionist reimagining of the oft-told tale. Those familiar with the horrific nature of the original tales from Grimm and Perrault, et al—morality plays with a vengeance—will get the vibe in Rupert Sanders' brooding, often gorgeous-looking film.

Not that Sanders' plot has anything to do with the original Brothers Grimm story that we know; scriptwriters Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, and Hossein Amini shift much of the focus to the Evil Queen and her backstory, while reinventing Snow White herself as an action heroine. But after the slapstick comedy of the season's first Snow White vehicle, Mirror Mirror, this is a refreshing attempt to retell the tale as dark fantasy—and for about two thirds of the film's considerable length, Sanders does a bang-up job of it. True, he falters in a few key areas, including a disappointing finale, but most of the film works as a gripping and imaginative adventure.

 Charlize Theron is marvelously sinister as Ravenna, the predator beauty who beguiles young Snow White's recently widowed father, the King. She weds and dispatches him in short order, takes over the palace and the kingdom, and imprisons the little princess. While the new Queen's draconian policies and ruthless armies lay waste to the realm, she leaves a trail of desiccated virgins in her wake, whose souls she sucks out to maintain her eternal beauty. Theron takes no prisoners in the role, parading about with claws on her thumb and forefinger with which to extract the hearts of her enemies, accelerating her lines from purr to shriek in a heartbeat.

When her molten gold mirror inevitably tells her someone in the land is fairer than she, we meet the grown-up Snow White (Kristen Stewart) just in time for her to escapes captivity and flee into the wood, a place of dark sorcery full of black, scrabbling, scuttling things and tree limbs that claw and catch. The Huntsman (a persuasive Chris Hemsworth), is a dissolute drunkard with a tragic past; the Queen orders him into the wood to find and kill the princess, but he becomes her ally instead.  Then there's William (Sam Claflin), son of a neighboring Duke, and Snow White's childhood friend; when he hears she's loose in the wood, he joins the Queen's hunting party in hopes of finding and rescuing  her.
 The film conveys a powerful visual sense of its own mythos, from the pageantry of a medieval wedding to a profound interlude among a community of women and girls who have scarred their faces to escape the Queen's notice, to an enchanted fairy forest full of flying sprites and gamboling wildlife. With all this going on, it's an hour before the Dwarves are even introduced, stalwart actors all—Ian McShane, Toby, Jones, and Ray Winstone, to name but a few—reduced to dwarf-size via CGI. (Although Bob Hoskins has little to do but look beatific as Muir, the blind visionary in the group.)
But the film could have used a warmer, more empathetic actress than angsty Stewart in the lead. (Muir rhapsodizes that "She is Life!" who will "heal the land," but Stewart doesn't possess that kind of radiance.) And despite its fabulous beginning, the story falls apart in its idiotic battle-siege finale, when Snow White dons armor and leads an army into the Queen's castle keep. Since the princess knows she's the only one who can defeat the Queen, a stealthy approach would have made much more sense, cost fewer lives, and been just as dramatic.

Still, there is much to like in this movie—especially the way the cherished idea of True Love's Kiss is handled, which may not be what you expect.