Sunday, February 26, 2017

THE BEST AND WORST OF 2016: IN DEFENSE OF A LACK OF CERTAINTY

When someone is honestly 55% right, that's very good and there's no use wrangling.  And if someone is 60% right, it's wonderful, it's great luck, and let him thank God.  But what's to be said about 75% right?  Wise people say this is suspicious.  Well, and what about 100% right?  Whoever says he is 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.
--attributed to An Old Jew of Galicia

The above quote appears at the beginning of The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz.  And as a reformed film scholar and occasional movie critic this quote is a solemn reminder of the duties of a critic (and as a citizen, but we'll limit our brief discussion here to the film critic).  Not as the final arbiter of the good and the bad, the quality and the dreck (though there is an element of that, too).  No, it is as a guide to the audience, a gentle (or not so gentle) prodding either toward or away from the film under discussion.

I cannot possibly know what you will or will not respond to, and I can only relate what I have responded to, for good or for ill.  And, to that end, it is my sincere hope that this simple missive may inspire you to see a film you might have otherwise dismissed or to seek out with more vigor a film you wanted but failed to see.  And if I disliked a particulate favorite movie of yours, please keep in mind that there's no accounting for taste.  Especially mine.

All that said, I feel comfortable stating that my opinions are 60% right.  Of course there are many people to thank, but I won’t bore you with all that here.  If you’re reading this, please accept my thanks.  I’m grateful to all of you for different reasons and in different ways.  But I can safely say that your presence in my life has not left me unchanged.  And I mean that in a good way.

Finally, thanks to my always supportive family.  I’m lucky to have you.

  
Brian Pope
February 26, 2017



THE BEST OF 2016
(in alphabetical order)
ARRIVAL  Despite its science fiction trappings Denis Villeneuve’s film is a meditation on endurance in the face of inevitable tragedy and grief.  Eric Heisserer elegantly adapts Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” and Amy Adams’ sensitive performance anchors this profound and often moving drama.
THE HANDMAIDEN  South Korean director Chan-wook Park’s twisted, twisty tale of repressed passion and betrayal, inspired by the Sarah Waters novel Fingersmith, is chock full of crosses, double-crosses and steamy sex.  I double-dog dare you to stay ahead of this one.  Not for the prudish or faint of heart (in more ways than one).
HELL OR HIGH WATER  Two Texas brothers rob banks that stole their family home from them, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  Writer Taylor Sheridan and Scottish director David Mackenzie beautifully evoke the post-financial crisis desolation and desperation.

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO  Raoul Peck’s documentary based in part on the unfinished novel Remember This House by provocateur James Baldwin traces the fight for racial equality in the 1960s but ties in, and is just as urgent and vital, to today.
THE LOBSTER  This bleak black comedy from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos takes society’s notion of ideological purity, applies it to romantic relationships, and carries it to the absurdist extreme.  As the film’s fine line between humor and horror gradually breaks down we find ourselves alternately gasping with laughter and shock.
LOVE & FRIENDSHIP  Even Whit Stillman’s most “modern” films have always felt like the product of a bygone era.  So it should surprise no one that his most entertaining and insightful film in years is this crisp, clear adaptation of the relatively obscure Jane Austen novella “Lady Susan.”  Kate Beckinsale has never been better.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA  Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan has a distinctly Irish sense of tragedy, and this devastating drama is no exception.  The filmmaker refuses easy sentimentality and pat catharsis and instead grapples with inconsolable grief.  Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams are exceptional.
MOONLIGHT  A tender, lyrical tale about a black boy/youth/man seeking an identity and human connection in Miami’s inner city.  Writer/director Barry Jenkins divides this journey into three parts, and each feels like a revelation.  Exquisitely acted and gorgeously shot, this is the year’s finest film.
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS  Tom Ford adapts Austin Wright’s novel Tony & Susan about a visual artist who, while reading a novel written by her ex-husband, reevaluates her feelings about their separation and her life.  Ford brilliantly explores the power of fiction to alter our sense of the past and manipulate our desires for the future.
ZOOTOPIA  This delicious animated confection tells a timely and timeless tale of tolerance and cooperation without feeling preachy.  Instead the film relies on smart storytelling, clever world building, and engaging yet complicated (but not too complicated) characters.  This is a captivating kids’ movie that will delight adults as well.
Runners-Up of 2016
(in alphabetical order)
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC
EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!
FENCES
HIDDEN FIGURES
LION
Honorable MentionsDEADPOOL; DON’T BREATHE; GREEN ROOM; HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE; JACKIE; LOVING; MIDNIGHT SPECIAL; MOANA; ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY; SILENCE; SWISS ARMY MAN; 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE; 20TH CENTURY WOMEN
THE WORST of 2016
(in alphabetical order)
THE BIRTH OF A NATION  Nat Turner’s slave rebellion deserves to be told, just by a more accomplished filmmakerWriter/director/actor Nate Parker believes he's hit a home run only to be thrown out at second base.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR  Is this a superhero movie or a philosophical treatise?  Either way, it lost me at hello.  And yet it kept on talking for over two hours.  Put a sock in it.

HACKSAW RIDGE  A thick pudding of jingoism sprinkled with just enough Christian palliative to provide cover for the last hour's non-stop pornographic violence.  Sanctimonious, self-righteous and shamelessly manipulative.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

THE POPE’S 2016 OSCAR® PREDICTIONS

It’s time once again to match wits with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  Below are my predictions the 2016 Oscars®.

Best Picture:

ARRIVAL
FENCES
HACKSAW RIDGE
HELL OR HIGH WATER
HIDDEN FIGURES
LA LA LAND
LION
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
MOONLIGHT

Unless something very drastic happens, LA LA LAND will win Best Picture.  Aside from the unintentionally risible HACKSAW RIDGE it’s the weakest option.  But Hollywood does love to congratulate itself.  MOONLIGHT would be my first choice.  Followed by HELL OR HIGH WATER.

Should Win:     MOONLIGHT
Will Win:          LA LA LAND
Overlooked:    ZOOTOPIA

Best Director:

Damien Chazelle, LA LA LAND
Mel Gibson, HACKSAW RIDGE
Barry Jenkins, MOONLIGHT
Kenneth Lonergan, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Denis Villeneuve, ARRIVAL

Damien Chazelle will win for LA LA LAND, because he loves old school Hollywood musicals.  And Hollywood loves itself.  Enough said.  A better choice would be Barry Jenkins for MOONLIGHT.

Should Win:     Barry Jenkins, MOONLIGHT
Will Win:          Damien Chazelle, LA LA LAND
Overlooked:    David Mackenzie, HELL OR HIGH WATER

Best Actress:

Isabelle Huppert, ELLE
Ruth Negga, LOVING
Natalie Portman, JACKIE
Emma Stone, LA LA LAND
Meryl Streep, FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS

I wasn’t able to see ELLE, so I can’t comment on Isabelle Huppert.  Generally speaking this is a weak category.  As such, Emma Stone will win for LA LA LAND, because Hollywood.  Ruth Negga was wonderful in LOVING.  But it was such a subtle performance in such a small movie, it doesn’t stand a chance.

Should Win:     Ruth Negga, LOVING
Will Win:          Emma Stone, LA LA LAND
Overlooked:    Amy Adams, ARRIVAL
Kate Beckinsale, LOVE & FRIENDSHIP
                        Annette Bening, 20TH CENTURY WOMEN
                        Taraji P. Henson, HIDDEN FIGURES

Best Actor:

Casey Affleck, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Andrew Garfield, HACKSAW RIDGE
Ryan Gosling, LA LA LAND
Viggo Mortensen, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC
Denzel Washington, FENCES

Up until about a month ago, most would have said Casey Affleck was a lock for MANCHESTER BY THE SEA.  Now, thanks to tons of bad press and a less-than-pleasant demeanor, his chances have dropped.  I still think his performance was the year’s best, very closely followed by Denzel Washington for FENCES.  I suspect Washington will win.

Should Win:     Casey Affleck, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Will Win:          Denzel Washington, FENCES

Best Supporting Actress:

Viola Davis, FENCES
Naomie Harris, MOONLIGHT
Nicole Kidman, LION
Octavia Spencer, HIDDEN FIGURES
Michelle Williams, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

Viola Davis will finally win an Oscar® for her heart-wrenching work in FENCES.  And although Davis deserves it, Michelle Williams’ devastating performance in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA or Naomie Harris’ fearless turn in MOONLIGHT would have won in any other year.

Should and Will Win:   Viola Davis, FENCES

Best Supporting Actor:

Mahershala Ali, MOONLIGHT
Jeff Bridges, HELL OR HIGH WATER
Lucas Hedges, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Dev Patel, LION
Michael Shannon, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

The Golden Globes gave the award to Aaron Taylor-Johnson in NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, but the Academy didn’t nominate him.  The SAG Awards recognized Mahershala Ali for MOONLIGHT.  So the question now is whether Michael Shannon’s nomination will change the calculus.  Shannon is wonderful, as always, but likely won’t pull enough support from Ali to change things.

Should and Will Win:   Mahershala Ali, MOONLIGHT
Overlooked:                Ben Foster, HELL OR HIGH WATER
                                    Sunny Pawar, LION

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Luke Davies, LION
Eric Heisserer, ARRIVAL
Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney, MOONLIGHT
Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, HIDDEN FIGURES
August Wilson, FENCES

Eric Heisserer’s adaptation of Ted Chiang’s slim story “Story of Your Life” raises stakes and expands action without dwarfing its more meditative theme, but Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play turns inner city angst into a lyrical tone poem.  He should and will win.

Should and Will Win:   Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney, MOONLIGHT
Overlooked:                Tom Ford, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

Best Original Screenplay:

Damien Chazelle, LA LA LAND
Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, THE LOBSTER
Kenneth Lonergan, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Mike Mills, 20th CENTURY WOMEN
Taylor Sheridan, HELL OR HIGH WATER

Damien Chazelle’s lead-footed venture into Hollywood nostalgia has a good chance to win, despite being the weakest script in the bunch.  Kenneth Lonergan’s devastating drama is the only one that has a chance against it.  Taylor Sheridan’s modern western about desperate, misguided desperados is a very worthy entry.  However, THE LOBSTER is easily the most outlandish and original screenplay this year but will have to settle for the nomination.  The safer bet is LA LA LAND; the more interesting bet is MANCHESTER BY THE SEA.  For fun I’ll go with the interesting bet.  (For those who listened to the On The Page® podcast, I have changed my prediction; I just couldn’t bring myself to let LA LA LAND win on paper.  Even if it does in “real” life.)

Should Win:     Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, THE LOBSTER
Will Win:          Kenneth Lonergan, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Overlooked:    Jared Bush & Phil Johnston, ZOOTOPIA

Best Animated Film

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS
MOANA
MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI
THE RED TURTLE
ZOOTOPIA

I did not see MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI or THE RED TURTLE, alas.  Of those I did see KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS boasts the most artful animation; however, it suffers in its voice work.  MOANA is terrific in a traditional way, with classic animation and a marvelous musical score.  Yet ZOOTOPIA combines clever animation with a sharp script.  The timely, resonant message is icing on the cake.  It deserves to win and shall.

Should and Will Win:   ZOOTOPIA

Best Foreign Language Film

LAND OF MINE (Denmark)
A MAN CALLED OVE (Sweden)
THE SALESMAN (Iran)
TANNA (Australia)
TONI ERDMANN (Germany)

If the Academy is feeling political they may give the award to THE SALESMAN.  However, TONI ERDMANN made several critics’ Best of Year lists, so let’s go with that.

Will Win:          TONI ERDMANN (Germany)

Best Documentary Feature

FIRE AT SEA
I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO
LIFE, ANIMATED
O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA
13TH

I only saw I AM YOUR NEGRO, and it was remarkable.  A must see.  However, I have heard that 13TH is equally compelling.  Because 13TH was directed by Ana DuVernay, who was snubbed for Best Director for SELMA some years back, there’s a chance the Academy could try to make amends here.  However, despite its imposing length, more people probably saw O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA.  It will likely win.

Should Win:     I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO
Will Win:          O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA

Best Cinematography

Grieg Fraser, LION
James Laxton, MOONLIGHT
Rodrigo Prieto, SILENCE
Linus Sandgren, LA LA LAND
Bradford Young, ARRIVAL

Grieg Fraser won the ASC award but that doesn’t always mean the Academy will think similarly.  Fraser deserves the Oscar®, but I fear it will go to Linus Sandgren as part of the LA LA LAND nostalgia-fest.

Should Win:     Greig Fraser, LION
Will Win:          Linus Sandgren, LA LA LAND

Best Film Editing

Tom Cross, LA LA LAND
John Gilbert, HACKSAW RIDGE
Joi McMillon, Nat Sanders, MOONLIGHT
Jake Roberts, HELL OR HIGH WATER
Joe Walker, ARRIVAL

Did I mention how much Hollywood loves itself?  Even when there’s an hour-long dull stretch through the middle of a movie?  Despite that fact Tom Cross will win for LA LA LAND.  A better choice would be Jake Roberts for the lean and mean editing of HELL OR HIGH WATER.

Should Win:     Jake Roberts, HELL OR HIGH WATER
Will Win:          Tom Cross, LA LAND

Best Costume Design

Colleen Atwood, FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM
Consolata Boyle, FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS
Madeline Fontaine, JACKIE
Joanna Johnston, ALLIED
Mary Zophres, LA LA LAND

Normally one would look to a period piece for the winner of the costume award.  The most obvious choices would be FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS or ALLIED.  Personally I prefer Madeline Fontaine’s subtle work, but I suspect Mary Zophres will ride the LA LA LAND wave.  Hollywood, thou art a narcissist.

Should Win:     Madeline Fontaine, JACKIE
Will Win:          Mary Zophres, LA LA LAND

Best Production Design

ARRIVAL
FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM
HAIL, CAESAR!
LA LA LAND
PASSENGERS

The Coen Brothers’ HAIL, CAESAR! was a puzzling concoction, but its production design was immaculate.  I hope I’m wrong, but LA LA LAND is the likely victor.

Should Win:     HAIL, CAESAR!
Will Win:          LA LA LAND

Best Original Score

Volker Bertemann, Dustin O’Halloran, LION
Nicholas Britell, MOONLIGHT
Justin Hurwitz, LA LA LAND
Mica Levi, JACKIE
Thomas Newman, PASSENGERS

Bertemann and O’Halloran’s sinuous LION score should prevail.  However, nostalgia will have its revenge (again!) as Justin Hurwitz’s tepid music for LA LA LAND carries the day.

Should Win:     Volker Bertemann, Dustin O’Halloran, LION
Will Win:          Justin Hurwitz, LA LA LAND

Best Original Song

“Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” LA LA LAND
“Can’t Stop the Feeling,” TROLLS
“City of Stars,” LA LA LAND
“The Empty Chair,” JIM: THE JAMES FOLEY STORY
“How Far I’ll Go,” MOANA

Lin Manuel Miranda knows how to write musical numbers, and his rousing “How Far I’ll Go” from MOANA deserves the prize.  Once again, however, Hurwitz will triumph with his morose “City of Stars” from LA LA LAND, because, hey, it’s a musical.  (Psst, Academy members, so is MOANA.)

Should Win:     “How Far I’ll Go,” MOANA
Will Win:          “City of Stars,” LA LA LAND

Best Sound Mixing

ARRIVAL
LA LA LAND
HACKSAW RIDGE
ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY
13 HOURS

Whether deserved or not the nominated “musical” inevitably gets the sound mixing award.  Hence, LA LA LAND’s win.  ARRIVAL is head and tentacles better.

Should Win:     ARRIVAL
Will Win:          LA LA LAND

Best Sound Editing

ARRIVAL
DEEPWATER HORIZON
HACKSAW RIDGE
LA LA LAND
SULLY

There’s a good chance this will continue LA LA LAND’s landslide.  However, this may be the chance the Academy needs to give HACKSAW RIDGE some undeserved love.  Me?  I prefer ARRIVAL.

Should Win:     ARRIVAL
Will Win:          HACKSAW RIDGE

Best Visual Effects

DEEPWATER HORIZON
DOCTOR STRANGE
THE JUNGLE BOOK
KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS
ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY

I only saw KUBO and ROGUE ONE.  Of the two I preferred ROGUE ONE.  Just about everyone I know who saw it loved THE JUNGLE BOOK.  What the heck.  It’s worth a shot.

Should Win:     ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY
Will Win:          THE JUNGLE BOOK

Best Makeup

A MAN CALLED OVE
STAR TREK BEYOND
SUICIDE SQUAD

This seems like a particularly weak year in the category.  I only saw STAR TREK BEYOND, so let’s go with that.

Should and Will Win:   STAR TREK BEYOND

Best Documentary Short Subject

EXTREMIS
4.1 MILES
JOE’S VIOLIN
WATANI: MY HOMELAND
THE WHITE HELMET

No clue, so I’ll guess.

Will Win:          EXTREMIS

Best Animated Short Subject

BLIND VAYSHA
BORROWED TIME
PEAR CIDER AND CIGARETTES
PEARL
PIPER

I’m guessing.

Will Win:          PIPER

Best Live Action Short Subject

ENNEMIS INTERIEURS
LA FEMME ET LE TGV
SILENT NIGHTS
SING (MINDENKI)
TIMECODE

I’m guessing again.

Will Win:          ENNEMIS INTERIEURS

Friday, February 24, 2017

THE POPE'S PICKS AT ON THE PAGE (2017)

Michael Musa and I join noted screenwriting teacher Pilar Alessandra at her On the Page podcast to discuss the 2016 Oscar-nominated screenplays.  Podcast producer Pat Francis, host of the popular Rock Solid podcast, and YA author Nina Berry join the fray.  Get ready for some fireworks.

Just copy the below link into your browser and click on the Oscar podcast (#494).

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/on-the-page-screenwriting/id262077408

Enjoy.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

TRAVELERS: Croatia/Slovenia Travelogue (Part 4 – Departure)


November 29, 2016 (Tuesday)

The coldest morning yet (-1 degrees Celsius or 28 degrees Fahrenheit).  Neither Doug nor Kay felt well – I guess a cold was traveling around the group (lucky me!) -- so they skipped the city tour that day.  The rest of us bussed to Ljubliana and met Jasmine, our local guide.  She was perky and informative.  However, much of the tour was a cold walk through Old Town with few pockets of sun (the streets were narrow).  By about 30 minutes into the 90 minute walk, I was freezing.  I brought a warm coat, hat and scarf, but forgot gloves.  Big mistake.  I was impressed that Jasmine could remember her spiel (and in a foreign-to-her language).  I was so cold I could barely remember how to speak let alone form coherent sentences.  Ljubliana is a beautiful city, and I would love to have spent more time here.  But about 20 degrees (Fahrenheit) warmer would be nice.

I took shelter from the cold in a nearby coffee shop.  I ordered hot coffee and a pastry Jasmine recommended called gibanica, layered with poppy seeds, walnuts, apples and cheese.  It gave kremsnita a run for its money.

Once I could feel my fingers and toes again I sought out Ljubliana’s 12-story skyscraper to get an aerial view of the city.  (I didn’t take many pictures on the walking tour because my fingers were blocks of ice.)  After that jaunt I had about 30 minutes before rendezvousing with the bus, so I headed to a pizza place recommended by Rick Steves.  Unfortunately they didn’t have pizza “to go,” and I did not have time for a sit down meal.  Instead I found a corner grocery that sold pizza slices.  Problem solved.

Back to Lake Bled for a brief tour of Castle Bled.  I was keen to walk around the lake, so I took the pictures I wanted from the castle and made a quick circuit of the castle’s museum before heading down the hill to the 3.5 mile trail that circled the lake.  The total circumference takes about 90 minutes to walk, so I needed to get going before the sun went down.  It was worth it.  The walk kept me warm, though the shady stretches were challenging temperature-wise.  I got plenty of pictures before the cold forced me to walk with more purpose.  I ran into Kay and Doug heading in the opposite direction around the lake.  Kay insisted that I stop on my way to the hotel and get my picture drawn by a fellow named Bobby.  She showed me the picture he had drawn of her, and the drawing would indeed make a nice souvenir.  However, when I finally reached Bobby further along the trail he had three people waiting to have their picture drawn.  I was getting cold and needed to keep moving.

Tomorrow I leave the hotel for Venice airport at 4:00.  I set a wake-up call for 3:00, though I will probably set my alarm 15 minutes before that for safety.  I have been waking up between 2:00 and 3:00 the whole trip, so I’m hoping the early hour won’t be too traumatizing.

Tonight is the farewell dinner and, I suspect, an early night for most.  One couple leaves for the airport at 2:00.  Ugh!

The farewell dinner was very nice.  At first I was seated at a table with Suzanne and others, but Kay dragged me over to a different table with her, Doug, Sharon and her husband, Phil and his wife, and Sabrina and Ryan (aka “the kids,” an adorable pair of 30-year-olds who were the youngest members of the tour).  I went around the room taking pictures of my travel companions.  I was so distracted by the process I told the waitress I had ordered the vegetarian entrée (I’d ordered the fish).  I didn’t realize my mistake until I had already eaten the first course.  I tried to explain to the waitress, but she gave me the look of death.  Fortunately, Elvis stopped by and was able to explain more clearly on my behalf what had happened.

Elvis gave a sweet speech, then Phil gave a funny speech, and Doug, to everyone’s surprise, gave a touching speech praising Elvis and Mario (our driver), all our tour guides in the various cities, and everyone in the tour group.  To which Elvis profoundly observed that we are not tourists but travelers.  Travelers indeed, seeking understanding of those who are otherwise mostly strangers.

Because of the Lufthansa pilot strike many folks had to change flights.  Thanks to this Kay would no longer be leaving at 2:00 but at 4:00 (the same time as me).  As the dinner ended, emails were exchanged, and Kay invited Doug and me back to her place for a little wine while she packed.  Doug and I left after a drink, as we had to be up in around three hours.

November 30, 2016 (Wednesday)

The nine departing travelers gathered at 4:00.  To my disappointment we were taking two shuttles, and Kay was going with the kids in the second shuttle.  I was stuck with irritating Agnes, the mundane sisters, and a mother/daughter pair.  However, as luck would have it, the drivers were okay with one person from our van traveling in the second van.  I volunteered like a shot.

So, Kay, the kids and I drove with Rudi.  The kids slept most of the way.  Kay and I both tried to sleep without much success.  At the airport Kay and I hung out until our respective flights departed – she on Lufthansa, me on Air France.  Happily there was a very helpful Italian employee that guided us to where we need to be.

Our parting was brief.  We had exchanged information.  Little did I know at that moment that I had lost the small piece of paper with her email and phone and full name.  I meant to send her an email or text to make sure all her rescheduled flights worked out, but that will have to wait until I track down her information.  I did retain Suzanne’s email, so I wrote her on the chance she may have Kay’s information.  She did not, but Doug did.  She and Doug and six others had stayed on in Venice for a couple of days.  Suzanne said that Doug would send me Kay’s information when he could.  I hope so.  Kay and I actually live close enough where we could visit each other on occasion.

The flight home was uneventful, except for nearly missing my connecting flight in Paris and not getting headphones for the long flight back.  I slept most of the way.  And, when I didn't, it was video Solitaire or Who Wants To Be A Millionaire (I was one question away from retiring, alas!) or reading until I fell back asleep.  It was a great trip all told.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

TRAVELERS: Croatia/Slovenia Travelogue (Part 3 – Luggage Out)


November 26, 2016 (Saturday)

It is raining steadily in Dubrovnik with no end in sight, so I’m starting to regret my decision re: Montenegro.  Until this morning the hotel breakfast buffet had been, by and large, a Zen affair.  Calmly munching pastry, sipping coffee, tucking in on eggs and yogurt and cereal.  Today was Satan’s breakfast.  Because I had no timetable I slept in, did some stretching, and went down for what I had hoped would be a leisurely breakfast around 9:00.  I found myself in the Black Friday equivalent of breakfast buffets.  Parents dragging around unruly children.  Autonomous kids fingering the assortment of cheeses.  Long lines for eggs, pancakes and croissants.  The latter began being hoarded.  I saw folks with plates piled with them but none to be found at the pastry station.  To call the wait staff harried would be an understatement.  So I grabbed what I could (I did manage one croissant before they became an endangered species) which meant forgoing the eggs and loading up on cereal and yogurt and any cheese I felt reasonably certain had not been fingered by a recalcitrant child (or adult – let’s be fair to the children).  And, of course, plenty of coffee.  The woman who refilled my cup was pleasant.  She mentioned it had been busy over the past three or four days.  Because it was off season I wonder if the hotel was putting out promotional rates, and parents seized on this for a long weekend in the Pearl of the Adriatic.  Too bad about the rain.

I stayed in my room until nearly noon reading “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman,” an engaging memoir of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, before the rain began to let up.  Off to the bus stop and back to Old Town.  As the bus made its way east the rain returned, so upon my arrival I sheltered at the Dominican Monastery and Museum.  The Dominicans are more ornate than the Franciscans, with three rooms of exhibits and a beautiful but somber church.  Both monasteries were chock full of reliquaries (containers with sacred relics).  There were leg-shaped and finger-shaped reliquaries.  I suppose they cost less than full body reliquaries.  I intended to visit the Cathedral of the Assumption, but it appeared to be closed and the rain had begun to increase again.  By then it was close to 13:30, so I took a pleasant lunch at Konoba Ribar, a family run establishment that serves traditional Dalmatian cuisine.  I had the Black Risotto, risotto with cuttlefish.  They aren’t kidding about black.  I wiped my mouth with my napkin, and it came away positively noir.  While it may not have looked appetizing, the risotto was delicious and filling.  Dessert was at a sladoled that served ice cream, which is closer in spirit to the Italian gelato.  A scoop of Biscoto in (what looked like) a waffle cone really hit the spot even on the rainy day.

It was still overcast but the rain seemed to have let up, so I walked up the steep steps through the Buza Gate to the north of the city and bought a cable car ticket up to Mount Srd.  Had the weather been less spotty I would have bought a 1-way ticket and hiked down.  As it was I paid 120 KN (almost $20) for a round trip ticket.  While the view was impressive, all the viewpoints (except for possibly the restaurant, which I didn’t go into) were partially obstructed by the cable.  For the price one would hope for a more pristine view.  The rain started up again, so I took pictures quickly and headed back down.  Two idiot tourists had climbed beyond the safety fence to get their pictures against the city below while balancing on slick rocks.  In case of a problem I would certainly have called for help, but it was also tempting to let Darwinism take its course.  Mercifully I did not have to deal with that moral conundrum.

Back to Old Town to buy a couple of gifts for co-workers, then a futile attempt to buy a sandwich to take back to the hotel (both of my options were closed for the season).  The rain persisted, and I was getting cold, so off to the bus stop for a return to the hotel.

November 27, 2016 (Sunday)

The long travel day.  I made sure I was well away from the mundane sisters.  Gorgeous scenery from the bus.  The Adriatic.  The mountains.  Sun (on the travel day, of course).

We made a comfort stop in Bosnia & Herzegovina.  I had a black and white coffee.  Then we stopped in Pakovo Selo for lunch and a brief tour of the Ethnic Village there.  Our local guide Anna described what life was like 100 years earlier in this remote village.  She spoke perfect English, with hardly any trace of an accent.  My lunch was polenta.  Most of the rest had the more traditional peka, roast pork or chicken.  Donut holes (or the traditional version thereof) for dessert.

Because there was a delay on the highway (which is the equivalent of a freeway in the U.S.) due to mine removal near the road, we took side roads to meet up with the highway further along.  On this route we saw abandoned homes both bombed out or just hollowed out and empty.

We arrived in Zagreb, and it was cold with some rain.  After checking in at the hotel a group of us walked into the downtown to grab some food and a drink at a craft brew house recommended by a bar owner in Dubrovnik.  Doug and Kay were the instigators in this craft beer quest.  To say Kay is outgoing is an understatement.  She and Doug (who is about 15 years her senior) met at the airport a few days earlier and became fast friends and travel buddies.  She’s just that kind of a person.  Doug is a retired public school teacher who currently lives in Thailand.  Kay teaches nutrition and diabetes control at a university in San Diego.  Both are free spirits and somewhat irascible.  Kay “collects” glasses from pubs.  She paid for the ones at the Craft House (the pub we drank at) but apparently she absconded with others earlier in the tour.  I stopped at a sandwich shop called Pingvin before rejoining Kay and Doug, and I’m glad I did.  All they served at Craft House was pub grub, and I needed something more filling (i.e., a veggie burger).

November 28, 2016 (Monday)

Zagreb dawned crisp and cold.  Jelena, our local guide, started the tour on the bus (perhaps to give the outdoors time to warm a little).  Of all the Croatian towns/cities we have visited this is the one I could see myself living in.  Split was a close second.  If the view counted more than the bustle, Split would win.

There was an Upper Town and a Lower Town (where our hotel was).  Lower Town was planned and organized.  Upper Town was more chaotic as it had grown out of necessity.  Old Town is split into two parts – Gradec to the west and Kaptol to the east.  In the early years of the city a river divided the two areas with a bridge connecting them.  The two sides fought, often at the bridge, so it became know as Bloody Bridge.  Eventually both sides threw so much garbage in the river, it stank.  So they filled the river in and paved over it, thus permanently connecting both sides of Old Town.

Often when Jelena discussed the economic status of Croatia she would make her point by contrasting them with their wealthier neighbor, Switzerland.  For example, she would say things like, “70% of Croatia claim to be entrepreneurs.  Many of these entrepreneurs probably smuggle cigarettes from Serbia and Montenegro.  Otherwise we’d be Switzerland.”

After the tour I sought out the Christmas marketplace hoping to find a Santa figurine for Mom.  No luck.  The stand I thought might hold promise took forever to open and, as the merchandise came out, it appeared less and less promising.

I went back to Pingvin for lunch, and the fellow loaded me up.  Delicious, filling and very inexpensive.  After a quick stop to change Kuna for Euro, I headed to the bus for our trip to Slovenia and Lake Bled (pronounced “Blade”).

We arrived near sunset.  The porters weren’t able to unload luggage from the bus right away due to the tight space.  Normally I’d just carry my bag to the room and save the porter a trip.  So I unpacked what I had with me and took a few quick pictures of the lake and the castle.  Even in dusk they looked beautiful.

I headed downstairs to pick up my bag and was greeted by an elevator full of luggage and a harried porter.  He began to unload the elevator, but none of the bags were mine.  As he hefted the bags out Agnes walked up, pointed to two bags and announced the room to which they should be delivered.  Entitled, party of one.  In the lobby I found my bag, took it up to my room and finished unpacking.

I walked over to the restaurant next door and ordered a coffee and a kremsnita, a light pastry filled with crème.  Word to the wise:  the kremsnita is so sweet and rich, a strong coffee is the ideal accompaniment.  I heard someone from the group drank a hot chocolate (which here is so thick, it’s almost a pudding) with their kremsnita.  They probably needed an insulin chaser.  About 20 minutes into my dessert a mass of schoolchildren arrived for a kremsnita treat, and chaos reigned.  I was lucky to get out in time for the country inn dinner later that evening.

We took the bus over to the tiny medieval town of Radovljica.  Elvis gave a brief tour then walked us over to dinner.  We were invited into the establishment with bread and salt, then led down to the wine cellar for samples of red and white Slovenian wine, as well as sausages.  No sausage for me, but the red wine was tasty.

We were also treated to traditional Slovenian music and dancing.  The accordion player was garrulous and funny, and during the meal upstairs he and the dancers would return between courses to provide more music, more dancing, and some historical context.  The end of the evening culminated in first the men and then the women playing the equivalent of musical chairs but with hats.  Elvis won the men’s competition and Sabrina won the women’s.  All in all a delightful evening.  Only sixteen of our number partook, but it was the fun sixteen.

After returning to the hotel, Kay invited Doug and me to her room to continue drinking beer.  We sat around and drank and watched music videos on VH1 until she kicked us out.  Tomorrow is the tour of Ljubliana.