Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Movies of 2016

2016 is gone, but many of the films are still out or ready to be enjoyed on demand. Here are my thoughts on some of the bigger, commercial ones.

Note: as of this writing I have yet to see "Fences" or "Lion", both of which are supposed to be wonderful.
 

Arrival - 5 stars
Nutshell: A thinking man’s sci-fi film of alien communication leading to manifold perspective changes.  
 
With an opening that rivals “Up” in its unexpected, concise, and utterly heart-grabbing setup, scribe Eric Heisserer’s “The Arrival” proves that original, adroit storytelling is king.  What follows is a woman’s discovery of aliens, communication, and a new way of seeing the world.  Amy Adams is breathtaking as the woman whose world is turned inside out and it is through Heisserer’s words and director Denis Villeneuve’s visuals that our world—and that of the film itself—is turned inside out as the pain, beauty and mystery of life become clear in the film’s final reel…as utterly unexpected as the opening. 

 

Jackie - 4 stars
Nutshell:  Bold performances and direction make a painful tale soar.  


The days surrounding Jackie Kennedy having her husband’s head blown apart in her lap are made immediate and harrowing by Pablo Larraín’s masterful direction and Natalie Portman’s ambitious portrayal. Claustrophobic camerawork—normally abhorrent—is not only appropriate, it’s uncomfortably effective, making us see things as Jackie does:  from a state of shock, nightmarish, everyone in our faces.   The white house tour and interview framing devices are utterly unnecessary but the latter provides a nice Billy Crudup performance. The film is not for everyone: many will be put off by the artistic choices made, but I salute them.  Sometimes film needs to be uncomfortable: we should never be comfortable with murder, with loved ones ripped from us, with lives torn asunder.  If nothing else, “Jackie” reminds us of that.
 


Other People - 5 stars
Nutshell:  Funny and moving tale of a writer’s return home to help his ailing mother.


Rarely is a movie about a death so funny.  But it’s honest, wonderfully offbeat humor, provided by writer/director Chris Kelly and given sincere life by a top-notch cast, headed by a feisty Molly Shannon and a sweet Jesse Plemons.  Plemons’ character has lost his latest career chance, his relationship with his lover and now must deal with losing his mother.  It’s enough to make anyone wonder about life; Kelly and Plemons let us share all the emotions and questions without obvious, manipulative tearjerker devices.   You’ll still likely tear up, but you’ll laugh far more.  One could hope for nothing more from life…or a movie.
 


Rogue One - 3 stars
Nutshell:  Stealing plans of the Death Star takes too long, but provides fun along the way.


A highly uneven film experience from the start, which eschews (and seems to snub) the traditional scrolling prologue; no matter the reason, it disappoints right at the top.  The lead characters are rather one note, one flaw yawns, but some of the supporting characters shine bright—especially K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) and Chirrut Îmwe played by Donnie Yen, whose overdue appearance finally brings some life into the film.  (Though we could have been spared the awful, creepy CGI Peter Cushing.  Just yuck.) The last reel provides a spectacular and exciting (if overlong) battle and so everyone leaves generally satisfied.   Better than Episode One, nowhere near Episode Four.
 


Hidden Figures - 5 stars
Nutshell:  Thoroughly winning tale of three history-making black NASA women.  


Fascinating and frothy tale of three African American women in NASA who each provided skills to help launch the first successful space missions.   The visual details are spot on and the acting is delicious perfection across the board, but the real treat is writer /director Theodore Melfi’s hand who, with co-writer Allison Schroeder has fashioned a film that tells all three women’s stories in a totally engaging way, offering a sincere reminder of the ugliness (and absurdity) of segregation and the importance of math and science--all with hefty doses of humor and heart.  It’s what great movies were meant to be.
 


LALALand - 3 stars
Nutshell: A musical of eye-popping panache trapped in a tepid tale.  

There’s no denying the movie magic that writer/director Damien Chazelle’s LALALand embraces and offers up in abundance.  But it’s all flash with little substance: bold and visually stunning cinematic elements consistently dazzle the eye but only sporadically capture the heart.  The cinematography, art direction and lighting all create endless delights, but the score is mostly forgettable and the story is stale.  Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling shine bright, though--the most when the camera is doing the least…and when allowed to do more than the breathy whisper-singing that proves tiresomely tame juxtaposed to the loud visuals.   That tameness makes the film not unlike an L.A. summer day: bright, glorious sunshine--but often with a dull layer of haze.
 


Moonlight - 5 stars
Nutshell:  Utterly original trilogy of one man at three stages of his troubled life.  

Writer/Director Barry Jenkins scores a win with this beautifully acted tale of a boy becoming a man amidst less than perfect circumstances.   Ironies abound:  a drug dealing stranger provides a better sense of home than the boy’s birth mother; a first love becomes a forced bully; the biggest, muscle-bound man has a tiny broken child inside.  The damage of drugs echoes the damage of homophobia; the desire for a safe harbor becoming the thing we all have in common.  Nothing is preachy, nothing is prettied-up, nothing is pretentious: it’s just an unapologetic, open window into one man’s journey.
 

Mini-reviews:

Deadpool  5 stars
An anti-superhero is born and turns to the snark side; stylish, funny shit ensues.  Ryan Reynolds is gold.  So is the writing and directing.  A giant middle finger to all those tiresome superhero movies.

Manchester By The Sea  - 2.5 stars
Superlative acting can’t save this torpid tale of man who's dead inside having to deal with his brother’s literal death and the care of his now fatherless teenage nephew. 

Kubo and the Two Strings - 5 stars
The best, most original animated film of the year.  Blows away all the cutesy, derivative stuff.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Greater Gifts

It’s getting to be that time of the year when the winter holidays begin infesting every corner of your waking thought.  Every store is plastered with trees and twinkle lights, menorahs and mistletoe, snowflakes and Santas ad nausuem.  Every diner and lobby and lounge is cranking out the clichéd catalogue of carols.  Every coworker and colleague is yammering on about presents and plans and puddings.  There is no escape.  

And if it all seems like fun and brings heartwarming joy to you, I say “Great! Be of good cheer and share it with the world!”  But if I could give a suggestion for something greater to share...

Now, if there are small, indoctrinated children involved in your immediate world, I don’t necessarily recommend this.  But if your world is centered around adults, or--for the adults centered around your world--I’d say let’s start acting and treating each other like adults. Don’t get all swept up in the manic “must buy” of baubles and tchotchkes that nobody needs; escalating gift exchanges of charming junk that gets sloughed off in a year or so. 
 
Instead, for everyone on your list, give a donation to a charity in their name.  A shelter, a hospice, a cancer center, a refugee camp an animal shelter.  There are so many in need...and shouldn’t our gifts help those in need?  What better way to honor the true spirit of the season than to touch your friends and family with your heart...and bless others with your money where it is truly needed. 
 
I cannot think of a more beautiful, warmer holiday than to know everyone gave where it truly mattered.  Saving lives, filling bellies, giving hope and, in return, filling our hearts with the greatest gift of all:  love shared. 

Let’s make our holidays full of love shared.  

Some places to make your holiday meaningful:

The American Cancer Society, fighting all cancer forms at all stages: http://www.cancer.org/ 

The ALCU, fighting for the civil liberties of all: https://www.aclu.org/ 

The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention hotline and more for bullied, abused and scared LGTB kids: http://www.thetrevorproject.org/ 

The NAACP, fighting for black equality on all fronts:  http://www.naacp.org/ 

Entirely Pets, a site with dozens of charitable organization for dogs and cats: http://www.entirelypets.com/top-pet-charities.html 

And also see my earlier holiday blog comments at: http://gregoryblair.blogspot.com/2015/11/for-holidays.html
 
Finally, if you absolutely have to buy something, buy something that will last.  Something from a local small business.  An artist.  A friend.  Spend your dollars where they will be a gift, not a sales goal.
 
May your holidays be merry and bright.  In your heart.
 
Cheers!
 
 
 
 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

'Tis the Season


I love Halloween.  Probably not a surprise to those who know me: I like horror and the theatrical, so a holiday devoted to both obviously floats my proverbial boat.
On the first Halloween I remember, I wanted to be a witch:  not the typical choice for boys my age who all opted for Spiderman, Wolfman, and Whateverman.  I was enamored and obsessed with “The Wizard of Oz” and I wanted to be a wicked witch. Funny how, of all the colorful characters I could have chosen, I wanted to be the villain.  That, among other things, proved portentous.  My parents likely went back and forth on the idea, but in the end, they conceded to honor my wish, thinking it was probably okay at this young age for me not to have sex roles explained and/or enforced.  Unaware of all of that, I was giddy to get the trappings that would turn me into an evil witch.  My costume ended up not being nearly as glamorous and dramatic as I had hoped.  In fact, it was a fairly tacky, store-bought piece of crap as I look back on it.  That Halloween, though, I didn’t care; I was a wicked witch and the night was glorious. 

And this is the wonderful thing about Halloween.  We can all be free to let our fanciful side out.  We can be witches or princesses, superheroes or demons.  We can be scary or silly.  It isn’t really tied anymore to a major religion like Christmas or Hanukkah, it isn’t specific to a single country like Thanksgiving or Presidents Day, and it isn’t fettered with family obligations. Anyone can partake, however they choose.  It’s a celebration of the freedom of imagination—whether that includes enjoying a fancy dress masked ball where frivolity and laughter echo, visiting a haunted house where ghosts and ghouls scream in the dark, passing out candy to neighbor children, roaming the streets for aforementioned candy…or curling up on the couch watching a scary movie.

And, if the last option sounds like your cup of tea, I’d offer up my homage to the horror genre, DEADLY REVISIONS.  It’s a slow-burn psychological thriller with dark shadows and things that go bump in the night.  And it stars the great Bill Oberst, Jr. as the horror writer who just may be haunted by his own creations.  Here's a sneak peek...

See more at www.deadlyrevisionsmovie.com/         

        In any event, however you choose to celebrate Halloween, I hope it’s  fun and memorable as all good things should be.

Till next time...





Monday, August 22, 2016

Shooting Outlaws. With Style.


       While every film set echoes the next, each one also varies and has its own character.  A faux French new wave shoot earlier this year had a guerilla crew of one: cameraman, director, sound and lighting responsibilities all resting on a single pair of shoulders, making for an easy shoot and an appropriately rough and unrefined looking final product.   On the other end of the spectrum, my latest shoot has a large crew and tons of heavy, bulky machinery--making the process comparatively slow for the necessarily meticulous attention to create a very controlled and pristine stylized look.
Art direction: ranch dressing.
 
        The film is called “Look Back” and it tells the tale of a detective who discovers the serial killer he’s been chasing is from his own childhood home, causing him to look back to see how two boys from the same home could end up on such different paths.  My character is in that flashback story: the leader of a gang of outlaws and the father figure for both boys.  The fresh twist is that the “family” is made up entirely of gay men:  loners and kidnap victims who work the fields of contraband crops on a ranch far from the outskirts of town.  The patriarch I play is alternatively kind but controlling, nurturing but punitive, peace-keeping but prone to sudden violence.  He's a schizophrenic character in a gritty, desolate and insular world.  And he's the nice guy.  It's no surprise that different personalities emerge as a result of the alchemy.  But a cop and a killer?
The house that created a killer.

        The quality and quantity of crew and equipment to shoot each scene is impressive: a slick Alexa Arri camera, curved dolly rigs, jib shots and more bodies than one house should hold—frat parties aside.  On a single day, we only shoot three scenes because the camera and lighting setup is extremely involved.  But the end result is wall to wall, gorgeous footage.  My first day included a poignant moment in a sunbeam-streaked boy’s room, an inauspicious meet and greet in a hazy-shadowed basement and a stark, steamy encounter in a disheveled bedroom—each scene made up of countless, varied shots of design and maneuvering to delight even the most discriminating film snob. Day two's piece de resistance involved three different dolly tracks, rain, lightening and blood: the result a visually sensuous but contextually disturbing scene.
The basement.  Don't ask.

        It's always a pleasure to be surrounded by a swarm of skilled professionals working together with quality equipment to create cinematic magic.  It's a privilege to be the center of all that attention and a duty to honor that attention by giving a performance that makes the director's vision come to life.   That, in a nutshell, is the actor's job.  And it's what I'm here for.
 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Call me Crazy


I attract crazy.   I do.  Almost every role I am offered is at least a little off.  

Sometimes a lot.

Mind you:  I’m not complaining.  I love it. I love being able to bring these oddballs to life. Whether it’s a dark, disturbing role like the sociopath proctor in Freudian Eyebrow or the comical, kooky neighbor in Love That Girl!, I enjoy bringing the crazy to the table.

So here are a few of the colorful characters I play in upcoming projects you can look forward to…

First, of course, is Link in my own horror/comedy Garden Party Massacre

In a cast of crazy characters, Link is the male nerd twist on the dumb blond trope.  But he’s lovable.  Unlike…

Counselor Skinkle, the vituperative, religious hypocrite in Ugly Sweater Party, a thoroughly nutty horror/comedy from Aaron Mento and Hunter Johnson. 

Skinkle arrives to the party late in the action, but his venomous and offensive behavior will not easily be forgotten.  

The same cannot be said for my character in the instant classic Death House

I play a nameless and forgotten soul among a gathering of nameless and forgotten souls all doomed to play horrific roles within the walls of the Gunnar Hansen/Harrison Smith creation.  The shot above is behind the scenes, not from the actual film; the scene in the film is far more disturbing! 

Finally, I’ll be playing the quirky, beleaguered videographer Horty in Chase Dudley’s Beasts of the Field.  But, as offbeat as he is, Horty proves to be one of the few sane people on the doomed expedition.   That shoots next summer, so no set photos, yet.

So I attract crazy.  Crazy films.  Crazy characters. 

But I love it.  Call me crazy!


Monday, July 4, 2016

Fireworks in Our Hearts


Ah, the pretty pyrotechnics.  So magical.  So colorful.

So overdue to be abandoned.

I'm referring to the literally incendiary man-made creations we set off around the holidays.  Every year, someone loses a finger or an entire hand when a firecracker is poorly constructed or handled. 

Not so magical.

And even if violent bodily harm is avoided, fireworks still do damage:

They pollute the air with smoke and dust that often contains residues of heavy metals and toxic chemicals.  Many also leave behind solid debris, including non-degradable plastics. Most also create noise pollution which is distressing for some people—such as those suffering from PTSD—as well as many breeds of animals, including domestic dogs and cats who suffer greatly.

All this for a passing, cheap thrill.

Yes, they are pretty.  But so are the smiles of good friends.  Let’s fill our festivities with more of the latter. 

One day, 100% clean, silent holographic fireworks will become the norm.  Until then, let the fireworks be in our hearts, our conversations, and our eyes. 

Be safe.  Be mindful.  Be love.

Love and consideration.

Let's explode that stuff everywhere.

Happy July 4th. 


Sunday, June 12, 2016

From Mourning to a Bright Dawn


I am struggling with one of the deepest bouts of depression that I have had in years.  I don’t get them often, but with the shooting in Orlando--the latest in a chain of shootings around the world--I am struck with an almost debilitating sense of melancholy.  This is due to the utter failure of our leaders to do anything sweeping to resolve the two main causes of these events:  raging hatred and guns—a combination that keeps proving disastrous.

First: the hate.  The Orlando gunman was angered at the sight of two men kissing: pure homophobic rage.  So he went out with an assault rifle later to shoot dozens of people at a predominantly gay club.  It seems illogical and unimaginable and, it would be, if we lived in a society that actually condemned and curbed bigotry, racism and all irrational hatred of groups of people.  But we don’t.  We allow religious leaders and politicians to promote harm and hatred in speech, legislation and more.  We must--as a unified species--move to toward a day when it is unacceptable for an ideology, belief, law or anything to promote hate or harm.  Freedom of speech should not include hate speech; Pat Robertson, the Westboro Church and all those spewing hate should not be protected under the First Amendment.  Freedoms come with responsibilities: the freedom of speech should come with the responsibility to not use it to promote hate or harm.

Then there’s the gun issue.  Whether you think the Second Amendment was meant as a stop-gap until we developed an official set of armed forces or as a decree that all citizens should have the right to own a gun in perpetuity, our weapons have evolved and our Second Amendment rights must evolve as well.  NO CIVILIAN should have access to assault weapons like the AR-15.  Period. There really is no valid argument and it’s preposterous that our country has dragged its proverbial feet on this.  Again: we have to balance each freedom with responsibility.

Finally, in-between writing this out and looking for answers, I have stumbled on a few sites that have helped me remember the person I like to be: the helper, the educator, the force for positive change.  So if, like me, you’re feeling at seas with troubling emotions, join me in using them for good:  let your anger, despair and desire for change drive you towards action and let’s all do something to try to make the world a better place.    Let's start a bright new day...together.  

Here is a list of some things you can do.  If you know of more, leave them in the comments. 

Demand change:  write letters to the White House and local politicians.  Demand no more anti-LGTB laws.  Demand gun control—at least of assault weapons.

Donate money: the GoFundMe page for Equality Florida
to directly help the Pulse attack victims and their families.

Donate blood:
 Equality Florida's site has blood drive locations, counseling options, and vigil information. OneBlood.org also has information on more locations and becoming a donor.

Donate time (or money):
Everytown For Gun Safety 
is a strong voice in the gun control movement.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Beautiful “Ugly” Experience


I’ve been working on a lot of projects and failing to blog about them, but this latest adventure was too exceptional to not share. 

I had the great fortune to be asked to be a part of Aaron Mento’s insane horror/comedy “Ugly Sweater Party”—a film that goes where no one would ever suspect…and one that has no limits to how far it will go.  The term “outrageous” doesn’t even come close! 


The story revolves around two friends who go to an ugly sweater party to hook up with two historically “easy” girls. Trouble ensues when the party proves to be at Counselor Mandix’s dysfunctional Bible camp full of disturbingly crazy characters—including closet case Mandix, himself.  Things only get worse when one of the boys gets possessed by a sweater that hosts a demonic spirit out for revenge.  It’s wickedly funny, gleefully bloody…and quite the yarn! 

(Sorry.)

My character, Counselor Skinkle—in short shorts and an awful orange headband—is the leader of the rival camp that arrives to compete in a few of the more legitimate games that are peppered through the piece.   No surprise, Skinkle is as twisted as the rest of the characters: an arm wrestling match between two campers that he and Mandix oversees turns into a hilariously inappropriate groping session.  (Kudos to Colton Wheeler for being such a good sport!)  

Marv Blauvelt and I goofing behind the scenes.

With formidable writer/director Mento at the helm and a powerhouse crew backing up him—led by Director of Photography Paul Stephen Edwards—the shoot is professional, swift and spectacular.  Glorious drone shots, severe low angles and other camera techniques are all used to maximum effect; the costume design boasts exceptionally ugly sweaters; and the fx makeup is…well…killer!  

Some unfinished, but killer make-up effects

The icing on the cake is the incredible cast, including Felissa Rose, Hunter Johnson, Charles Chudabala, Marv Blauvelt, Tiffani Fest, Kevin Caliber, Berna Roberts, Matt Holbrook, Emily Dahm and many other talented and beautiful people who are as much fun on camera as off.

Our beautiful location

Much of the film (my scenes included) were shot on location at a campsite in breathtaking Idyllwild.  (Cheers to Garrett Miller for doing the driving!)  The sweeping tree-lined landscape provided not only a beautiful backdrop, but also a familiar one for a genre where the combination of city folk and isolated woods always ends badly.  So it should come as no shock that, by the end of “Ugly Sweater Party”, the trees are just about the only things left standing.

But, hey:  if ya gotta go, at least go in cashmere!

_______________________

Follow “Ugly Sweater Party” at
https://www.facebook.com/UglySweaterPartyMovie/
________________

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Sheena Metal Experience

It’s not often you go to a comedy club and get teary-eyed at something unexpectedly touching, but Sheena Metal is such a beautiful soul that I was as emotional as she was on the 7th anniversary of her show "The Sheena Metal Experience" which was held live at the Hollywood Improv on January 24th.  Sheena has been in the entertainment industry for a long time, but remains a champion of goodness, charity, inclusion and the sharing of stories, identities, hopes and dreams.  And if all this sounds like a pool of sentimentality and treacle, Sheena’s wit overrides that leaning with abundant humor, providing as many, if not more laughs than your average comedy club show.  The applause she gets is well earned.

One of her talents is bringing other vibrant, funny people to the show who can share their own stories and thoughts with as much humor and panache as Sheena—making the show feel like a warm, laugh-filled party of good friends.  Last night’s show was no exception.

First up was Lee Meriwether of "Barnaby Jones" and Catwoman fame.  Whip-smart, articulate and glamorous as ever, Ms. Meriwether recounted, among other things, the story behind her Catwoman audition; it’s not just a funny story, it's actually a great lesson for actors and shows what a little creativity can spawn. You can listen to the show to find out what I mean. But I give her two paws up!

Next came Richard Hatch of "Battlestar Galactica" fame.  Incredibly humble and congenial, Mr. Hatch, shared lesser-known facts about himself, including his heartfelt love of music theater.  Maybe someone should write "Battlestar Galactica: The Musical”? 

The fearless Rae Dawn Chong ("The Color Purple", “Melrose Place”, etc.) brought passion and fire to the stage with no end of opinions and ideas about how to make our country better.  Not what anyone expected, but she’d have my vote!   I mean, come on: she’s Rae Dawn Chong!

And the ever endearing Dawn Wells (Mary Ann from "Gilligan's Island") came and had everyone in stitches revealing all kinds of little goodies about the iconic show.   She is so grounded and good-natured, you almost want to get stranded on an island with her!

Then we got a double dose of "Little House on the Prairie" with Alison Arngrim and Rachel Lindsay Greenbush, who played Nellie Oleson and Carrie Ingalls, respectively.  I worked with Alison years ago and she hasn’t changed a bit: still as spunky and quick-witted as ever.  And Rachel is as lovely a person as you could hope to meet.

The evening ended with Susan Olsen (Cindy of “The Brady Bunch”) and Patty McCormack (Rhoda of "The Bad Seed").  I had been on set recently with Susan on “Child of the 70’s” and was already aware how down-to-earth she was, but I didn’t know she wanted to be murderous Rhoda Penmark from "The Bad Seed”.  That’s why she eventually started braiding her hair on “The Brady Bunch”!  And despite being an unforgettable monster as the original Rhoda Penmark, Ms. McCormack is charming and warm, with a stately beauty that could stop traffic.  I think I have a crush! ;)


So kudos to Sheena for bringing these wonderful people together to share some of their experiences with the rest of us.   Such communal story-telling and idea sharing is what helps bridge people, making us a little more understanding, a little less fearful, a little less alone.  This is the gift of good radio.  Play on!

You can learn more about the show and listen to episodes at: http://www.sheenametalexperience.com/

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Hobbit Holes and Historic Huts: The New Zealand Chronicles




A giant Gollum fishing in the Wellington Airport.

Been There, Done That

I should mention it’s not my first time to New Zealand, so many sites and experiences previously enjoyed were not repeated.  With exceptions.  So if your favorite New Zealand must-see is missing from what follows, chances are good I hit it before.


Behind the Scenes

The first noteworthy stop was to the Weta Workshop.  The talented folks at Weta are the men and women behind the magic of an impressive catalogue of films from smaller indie offerings like “Dead Alive” and “Heavenly Creatures” to studio blockbusters like “Lord of the Rings”, “Avatar” and “Mad Max: Fury Road”.   The artists in residence
create weapons, costumes, make-up effects and creature suits, full-scale vehicles, miniatures and more. Below is my encounter with a "Lord of the Rings" troll.


Lions and Tigers and...Wallabies?
A day at the Wellington Zoo—a beautifully landscaped place—provided an opportunity to learn more about saving wildlife, becoming more “green” and the animals with which we share the planet.  Impressive and adorable animals everywhere: emus, wallabies, meerkats, monkeys and the ever illusive kiwis, of course! Lots of great photos to be had—including one of these two exceedingly relaxed wallabies.  They took it lying down. 




Art, Culture and History
A trip to the festive wharf included the incredible
Te Papa Tongarewa Museum which hosts an amazing collection of nature, culture and history—complete with many levels of interactive elements, rotating exhibits and more.  Pictured below is a traditional Maori hut.


Hobbit Habitat
We headed upland, passing Tasman Sea coastlines, fairytale forests, desert flatlands, craggy canyons and rolling farmlands smothered with unending cows and sheep.  After lunch at Lake Taupo, we arrived in Matamata and crashed for the night.  Come morning, we were off to tour the farmland where they filmed the Hobbiton sections of “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit”.  They’ve lovingly maintained the entire shire, from Bag End where Bilbo lived to The Green Dragon where all sorts—including us—imbibed hearty grog.  Here I am doing my best grumpy hobbit in front of Bilbo’s house.




Owlcatraz

Don’t let the over cute and kitschy name fool you:  this is a charming, family owned animal habitat/farm with gorgeous scenery in addition to the small but diverse section of wildlife that includes far more than just the nocturnal birds that ask “Who?”.  Magnificent forest, lily ponds and fields surround you as you have up-close meetings with alpacas, donkeys, a monstrous and well-trained hog and more—including many birds in addition to the adorable and mysterious owls.  A very lovely, low-key experience, with time to pet and feed lots of the animals.   The hog pictured below is housetrained, sits on command and is generally smarter than most politicians.




Star Wars

Episode 7 came out while we were abroad and saw it we did.  It was a welcome throwback to the older films where you cared about the characters, the action was focused around them and the tone was frothy and fun. The script was contrived and obvious, but the film delighted in spite of its flaws and earned bonus points for a black man and a woman taking the lead roles.  By the empty seats, it was clear the Kiwis weren’t nearly as crazed to see it as folks in the states were. More of my thoughts on the film in my previous blog entry, if you care.

Christmas

The holiday was spent in what is known as the White Man’s Valley on the sprawling grounds of some of friends of the family.  They have a pool, a duck pond, and a small farm complete with donkeys, pigs, sheep and a very friendly goat who wanted to be pet by me all day.  The human company was delightful as well;  the dinner spread proved beyond spectacular and the desserts sinfully delicious.  The home is also a bed and breakfast, if you’re ever in the area.  Just be sure to tell the goat I said “hi”.



Wine & Waves
We crossed the Rimutaka Range on a steep, winding road with breathtaking views and spent a day in the Wairarapa region to enjoy window shopping in charming Greytown, lunch in wine country at the John Murdoch Winery and a frolic on the beach at Ferry Lake.  The clear blue skies made all three places postcard perfect.  Below is a shot of part of the Rumitaka.




There were, of course, many other dinners and parties, including a traditional Christmas morning round the tree with gifts and a very special 80th birthday party for a favorite feisty matriarch.   We left knowing we had enjoyed ourselves and had plenty of photos and stories to share.  As it should be.  Here’s Smaug at the Wellington Airport, wishing us safe travels.





 Have you been to New Zealand?  If so, where?  If not, where have you been?