Saturday, October 31, 2015

Detroit Gloom & Doom for a Happy Halloween

On my first flight to Detroit years ago, I marveled at the skyline. Who knows what could have been had the city further pursued its Olympic aspirations.

A standout structure on the lakefront -- John Portman's GM Renaissance Center -- gleamed even from 5,000 feet, just as it appeared in the film "Presumed Innocent."

After driving through central Motown en route to the fabulous Art Institute -- and realizing more than 1,000 area buildings now stand abandoned -- later bird's eye views yielded "urban graveyard" notions, with each rotting high rise resembling a tombstone for Detroit's heyday. 

Not a great fate for Michigan's largest city (predicted by Michael Moore in his debut "Roger & Me"). 

As you might suspect from the hit film references above, Detroit is the backdrop for many memorable movies. And since last Halloween, two films emerged as future horror classics that double for preserving snapshots of Detroit's plight.

If you're in the mood for a creepy and intellectual vampire feature, check out the clever "Only Lovers Left Alive" with Tilda Swinton as a Tangier-based blood sucker whose centuries-long marriage is enduring change. 

Her husband (Tom Hiddleston) resides in one of Detroit's abandoned mansions (there are thousands of derelict properties from which to choose) writing music inspired by contemporary rockers and memories of hanging out with Schubert. 

At night they Skype about many cerebral subjects before hitting their respective towns in search of an untainted hemoglobin fix. By day, they wring their hands over the world's dwindling supply of plague-free "pure" blood aptly nicknamed "the good stuff."

With Hiddleston in a personal funk, Swinton travels to Michigan to provide moral support. Her younger, free-spirited sister (played by Mia Wasikowska) also arrives on the scene, but quickly reveals her careless ways with a twentysomething victim and the elder couple's expensive supply of rare, clean blood. 

Mortified, Swinton and Hiddleston must work quickly to right the vampire ship before their coven is outed by nosy neighbors and local law enforcement.

I enjoyed the sophisticated banter that foreshadows human fate (for Detroit residents and worldwide). It's a sad future infusing a few lines of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner").

Hiddleston's vintage Jaguar (powered by unknown inventions of the couple's old pal, Nikola Tesla) and John Hurt's cameo as a vampire author Christopher Marlowe also elevate the highbrow environs.

Their body disposal method in an abandoned warehouse is super creepy. Savor and enjoy!

Another outstanding film casting a spooky spotlight on Detroit: "It Follows." What a scary treat!

I first learned of "It Follows" during three March 2015 segments on NPR. This is one film you may not wish to watch alone. More than once I was yelling at the screen "look out!" and "run, dummy!" just like when Jamie Lee Curtis ran for the closet in "Halloween" of 1978 (still terrifying!).

Opening in modern Michigan suburbs, "It Follows" introduces a wide-eyed college virgin, Jay (Maika Monroe) living the dream and considering her first sexual encounters with new beau, Hugh (Jake Weary) a heartthrob who recently transferred from a school a few towns away. 

Upon consummating their relationship in the back seat of Hugh's 1970's Detroit-built sedan, Jay is shocked to find herself knocked out by chloroform only to awaken underwear-clad and tied to a wheelchair inside an abandoned warehouse (the same as in "Only Lovers Left Alive," I wonder). 

Hugh informs her that through their tryst Jay inherited a new best friend "It" which is going to slowly stalk her until she passes the fuck buddy torch to another person.

"It" will follow her and hang around like a bad suit, addiction or lingering STD until "It" kills catches her.

And if Jay is caught and killed by "It" then It" returns, in reverse order, to torment those who previously encountered "It" following them. Get the picture?

Hugh punctuates these instructions by introducing "It" in the form of an expressionless nude female advancing on their warehouse perch. "It" can take the form of a stranger or a close friend -- that's what makes "It" clever.

Hugh drops Jay on her front lawn, leaving her terrified and bewildered as her younger siblings and neighbors watch. The teens (sans Hugh) then embark on solving the many problems "It" brings to their lives. 

This scene provides a peek at "It" appearing for the first time since the warehouse.

I haven't seen too many films this year that made such an impression.

Through its simplicity sans gore, car chases, or many special effects, "It Follows" is terrifying, mostly for letting the viewer's imagination fill in the blanks on what "It" might be or represent (many a spoiler-filled fan theory are now posted online). 

The script weaves in several literary greatest hits, and there's some excellent camera and lighting work. As in "Only Lovers Left Alive," decaying Detroit provides the unsettling backdrop in top form. 

Like peer classics "Halloween," "The Shining" and "Psycho," the film "It Follows" includes an outstanding soundtrack that makes the movie with musical effects inspiring hair stand at attention on one's neck and arms. 

The composer, Disasterpeace, built on notes from several horror genre favorites listed above, and I also picked up on possible inspiration he found from Tangerine Dream's work for "Risky Business" as well as Brad Fiedel's compositions for "The Terminator" or "Fright Night." There's even tonal reference to "Danse Macabre" and Trent Rezor/Atticus Ross' Oscar-winning score for "The Social Network."

Happy Halloween!

Images via IMDB

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Habsburg Exhibition = Splendor Shown En Masse

Until a recent press event at the High Museum of Art, Austria was not ranked anywhere on my world travel wish list.

My closest encounters with the nation previously included work with the Austrian Olympic Team in the Atlanta Olympic Village, reruns of "The Sound of Music" and a near-miss day trip visit to Salzburg while on sabbatical in Munich (I cancelled the train ride to the music city due to illness).

The new exhibition "Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna's Imperial Collections" and a presentation by the Vienna Tourist Board and Austrian Tourist Office tied to the Oct. 14 media preview, quickly advanced Austria to the top five dream-worthy destinations, right up there with next year's return to Rio de Janeiro, a Norway visit inspired by locations in the film "Ex Machina," Jordan and a tie between Vanuatu, Fiji and/or Guam.

I did not know until that mid-October day, for instance, that the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna is one building in Austria's national museum collection -- an Austrian Smithsonian, of sorts -- in the city's Museum Quarter. It looks like a must-see that may take several days to experience.

Nor did I know the site in Vienna is home to works by Vermeer, Raphael, Bruegel, Rembrandt and Rubens. The museum's impressive collections extend all the way to Schloss Ambras Innsbruck, near the sites of the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics. 

Visitors to "Habsburg Splendor" will enjoy many eye-popping artifacts and paintings among the 90+ items on loan to the High. 

Objects and art that captivated my attention include:

-- Body armor and all the equipment for a pair of jousting knights (the Central European version, not to be confused with the Spanish joust traditions presented at Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament) on view at the exhibition entrance

-- Several large canvases including show stoppers "Jupiter and Io" featuring a nude female passionately embraced by Zeus disguised as dark cloud, and "Susanna and the Elders," a 450-year-old oil painting featuring a young maiden and two aging voyeurs who, according to Biblical lore, learned a thing or two about what not to say to a bathing nude woman of virtue

-- Smaller portraits including royal family members and/or their subjects, including some individuals who, centuries later, might have appeared in carnival sideshows (i.e. a woman with hair-covered face as part of the royal "collection" of rare and unusual beauty)

-- Giuseppe Arcimboldo's portrait of "Fire" (one of four paintings in the "Elements" set he created); there has got to be some way to incorporate this painting in the next Olympic Torch Relay to visit Austria

-- Rare and exceptional handmade (and priceless) household items including pitchers fashioned from Mediterranean conchs to delicately carved ivory figurines of rhinoceros horn and walrus tusk

-- The 510-year-old painting depicting "The Three Philosophers" (made me wonder if N.C. Wyeth found inspiration in this work)

-- A golden sleigh with matching gold-thread horse blanket covered with dozens of auric jingle bells (I'm told the exhibition audio tour features the sounds of this one-horse open vehicle). Love the wintry Alpine forest backdrop (the display inspired the lyrical rewrite, "Dashing through the snow, in a one horse open sleigh, and the horse is covered in bells, with ostrich feathers everywhere!") and nearby billboard-size illustration of a day in downtown Vienna circa 1760

-- The "Gala Carriage of the Vienna Court" created in 1750-55 with gold and silk embroidery adorning its curved wood and bronze frame

The exhibition also features several imperial gowns, uniforms and other fine clothing from the Habsburg closets. A red silk and velvet Order of the Golden Fleece is displayed not far from paintings featuring men who donned it.

I'm not sure when my travel budget will permit an Austria passport stamp, but the greatest hits presented in "Habsburg Splendor" helped escalate the urgency for a Vienna vacation.

A trip to the High for this exhibition is a great introduction to the treasures on view at Kunsthistorisches Museum. Beide Daumen nach oben für die Habsburger!

Images via, with select photos by Nicholas Wolaver

Monday, October 12, 2015

Atlanta's OK Cafe Reopens, And It's All Good

Welcome news arrived via Facebook this morning as a P.R. peer and friend posted that Atlanta's famed OK Cafe at last reopened over the weekend.

As the update on the favorite eatery reached my hungry eyes just before lunch, I trekked to West Paces Ferry Road on the city's northwest side for a return to the dining destination, a first since its closure due to an accidental fire in December 2014.

The "restored" interior is pretty much the same as the dining room ever was, with colorful folk art, vintage curtains and fixtures, carved hardwood booth frames and lamps proclaiming "OK" in big, clunky or stylized letters. Even the "money tree" in the back room looked all spic and span. 

It's my understanding most of the public areas survived with only smoke damage that required extensive cleanup. Crews were still working on touch-ups, especially to the Take-Away areas for "Food That Pleases" to go. 

After ordering a lunch platter featuring turkey with gravy and cornbread dressing and two sides (sliced cucumber and a Waldorf salad), I reflected on many past visits while happily soaking in the new experience.

OK Cafe was one of the first restaurants I visited upon arrival in Atlanta to work at the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. Along with Mary Mac's Tea Room -- another Southern cuisine destination -- OK Cafe was my target spot for comfort food when I missed home cooking.

During the winter and spring of 1996, OK Cafe was a late night dining option when our evening Olympic Village training sessions took place at the nearby headquarters for IBM. 

Later that year, I recall taking several visiting friends from out-of-state to sample OK Cafe's Southern specialties and soak in a dose of "real" Georgians on a spectrum including local celebrities, colorful wait staff, families with folks aged one to 101, politicians, anyone and everyone enjoying a great meal. 

Any time athletes or coaches of Atlanta's Games asked me for a restaurant tip, OK Cafe was my first suggestion. 
My "usual" meal at OK Cafe became their enormous all-beef burger with a dab of Maytag bleu cheese and thick-cut fries, and their milkshakes and cobblers are killer. Their breakfast items are hearty, though I've only enjoyed a.m. dining once or twice for early meetings with clients or colleagues. 

Starting in 1997, I averaged about a quarterly visit to the restaurant, often meeting reporters there, and sometimes taking family members -- my sister, dad and mom visiting from Oklahoma (another place that is "OK") each joined me there on various dinner visits, and the entire Annie Moses Band (my cousin Bill's family, with a new album currently on the Billboard charts) filled a large booth with me after one of their Sunday concerts about 10 years ago. 

Today's lunch also brought back memories of fun conversations with local friends, a few date nights, and meals with two long-time girlfriends. How better to woo someone than with collard greens stuck in one's teeth?

Though it's unlikely any fresh Olympic memories will be forged at OK Cafe, I do look forward to sharing many future visits with family and friends at the reopened hotspot. See y'all there!

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver except the entry photo by HallieAtlanta.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Review: One World Observatory Inspires More Awe Than New Tower It Calls Home

In mid-September I took a late-summer vacation to New York, including a couple of days in Manhattan, which is always fun!

Free time in the city at last afforded me an afternoon to pay my respects at the 9/11 Memorial and to get an up-close look at the new One World Trade Center tower, the new P.A.T.H. rail station (with its fantastic Santiago Calatrava top "opening soon") and other points of interest near the banks of the Hudson River.

With thanks to my friend Amy and her team, we also enjoyed a nighttime peek at the incredible progress in the business district.

This post includes a review of One World Observatory -- Manhattan's newest attraction likely to remain a top memory for any tourist who visits it -- and some reflection on New York visits spanning 21 years.

For this writer, visiting the 9/11 Memorial and new tower was not as somber as anticipated. Rather, the experiences provided many moments of reflection on two decades of living since my first visit to Lower Manhattan (during college) and later as a short-term resident house-sitting for a friend who lived near the George Washington Bridge.

At that time, I jogged or walked the bridge a few mornings and more afternoons, often gazing south to the pair of World Trade Center towers with curiosity.

During these initial New York adventures, I visited the original World Trade Center first during spring 1994, and again in October 1996 just after the New York Yankees' World Series victory parade through downtown.

On the first WTC stop with my friend (then studying at New York University), we only trekked through the lobby before heading to the subway station -- it was a rainy and cold evening after visiting the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, so we decided ascending to Windows On The World would yield no views of the island at night.

Though it was sunny on the second visit two years later, and I did take one of the World Trade Center express elevators to a half-way point (the "free" part of the tower experience, as I recall), I got cold feet about continuing to the top as I felt under-dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt worn to the parade.

Another vague memory of the original WTC was its immense plaza with a bronze globe sculpture I learned, only years later, was"The Sphere" by Fritz Koenig.

Until September 11, 2001, my only other WTC reference point was the 1978 extended-for-TV version of the film "King Kong" starring Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges (an elementary school classmate had a "King Kong" lunchbox for which I pined many times). 

One World Observatory brought back these recollections while forging many new and spectacular memories. I highly recommend the experience.

There's not much to write home about with regards to the building itself -- many other writers (and people in general, including some who work in the building) share my disdain for the milquetoast, soulless architecture and missed opportunities the tower portrays. Just because it's big does not make it "great" design.

There's also not much to say about the One World Observatory queue process (lined up on the tower's west side), ticketing process (save time online in advance) nor the lower level atrium through which visitors experience a world map of visitor stats, exhibits on this site history, a faux-granite tunnel and other features designed to ease the patient wait in line for an elevator.

If there's no rain, I recommend getting up close to the building and looking directly up, and also be ready to see your "spot" on the world visitor map (it cleverly pops up a few seconds after they scan your ticket). 

The real excitement begins by finally entering the lift cars with room for about a dozen guests and floor-to-ceiling LCD monitors on the exterior "windows."

These aptly-named "Sky Pod Elevators" are reminiscent of Roald Dahl's "Great Glass Elevator" owned by Willy Wonka.

Wonderment awaits!

Smart visitors will have their video lenses ready as the doors close -- during the 102 level ascent of fewer than 60 seconds, passengers witness several years of Manhattan urban development (a few years per second from 1500 A.D. to present day). Downtown's skyline takes shape before your eyes in a spectacular manner. I enjoyed most the "views" of the Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge assembly, and requested an extra ascent just to capture it again.

The Sky Pod LCD animation is on par with the outstanding train experience at Universal Studios' Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Upon exiting the elevators, visitors enter yet another dark corridor. As ears pop during another brief video presentation on a 50-foot horizontal panel, guests may be wondering "where's the view we paid to see?"

At last, the payoff in the form of ... Surprise! In a curtain-like motion the panel wall rises to unveil -- to the gleeful gasps of many -- a clear glass wall and vistas of Brooklyn, Long Island and beyond!

I felt lucky my visit took place on a sunny, cloudless afternoon, and spent more than an hour slowly gazing upon the Statue of Liberty, Hudson and East Rivers, the traffic on the bridges, the Lower Manhattan towers below, the 9/11 Memorial site (much further and directly below) and all of Midtown.

But before enjoying the limitless options to "See Forever" (the venue tag line), there was one more pause featuring demonstrations of a hand-held rental device named the One World Explorer which helps identify every landmark on the horizon with touchscreen bells and whistles. Thought I did not purchase this experience, a fellow visitor who did shared its coolness and handiness, and she seemed to be happy with her purchase.
Sadly, the one building for which I sought immediate Explorer details is still under construction and not yet programmed into the device -- 432 Park Avenue, which topped out one year ago today, is the new "world's tallest residential building" (also taller than the Empire State Building) and another Manhattan sight to behold.

I noticed other Observatory visitors lingered for 90-plus minutes like me, soaking in every view, each passing aircraft and the earth's curves in all directions. My camera quickly filled with dozens of images.

It was fun to see the 15-story yellow painting installed near Hell's Kitchen to welcome the Pope with his likeness waving to the south, clearly visible several miles away (see photo below featuring Empire State Building to play "Where's Waldo -- His Holiness Edition").

I also enjoyed looking north to the George Washington Bridge and reflecting on all the change -- for the world and yours truly -- since those autumn walks in 1996. I thought of how the city might have evolved had the International Olympic Committee chosen New York over London to host the 2012 Olympics (as frustrating as it was to stand in the rain at Rockefeller Center and learn Manhattan's bid loss on 6 July 2005, they made the right choice).

With my brain finished wandering the "Capital of the World" cityscape, I noticed the option to stand upon the "Sky Portal" featuring a 14-foot "glass floor views" (real-time video projections) of the busy streets below. This may be a thrill for many or an "also ran" for those who previously stood upon the real glass floors of the SkyDeck hanging out the side of Chicago's Willis Tower.

Noticeably absent from One World Observatory: those coin-operated binoculars and telescopes so popular at the Empire State Building. I guess the new tower's glass skin might skew the lens views, or maybe the attraction management realized no one carries spare change these days.

Is the One World Observatory worth the price of admission? Yes! Just try to book in advance to save time in line, and wish and hope and pray for a clear day so you may see Forever.

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver except lunchbox image via Ebay and The Sphere image via this great blog post.

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