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March 13, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wes Anderson’s Latest Is A Hit

By Jocelyn Noveck

AP National Writer

One of the many surprises in Wes Anderson’s rich, layered and quirkily entertaining new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is the emergence of a new comic actor, one with impeccable timing and just the right mix of gravitas and utter zaniness.

Ladies and gents, meet Ralph Fiennes.

You might not immediately think the man who played the tragic count in The English Patient, an evil war criminal in Schindler’s List, a violent Coriolanus, and oh yes, Voldemort, would be a natural in comedy. But he proves a deft, daft partner to Anderson in this, their first collaboration.

The film itself is a madcap caper on one level. On another, it’s a look at a dying world, and way of life, in the period between the two world wars, with the specter of totalitarianism looming. Just like the fictional hotel in the title, the movie is a meticulously constructed confection, featuring the extreme attention to detail that Anderson is famous for.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is set in a spa town in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, somewhere in eastern Europe. It’s a place where wealthy older women come to be pampered.

Jason Schwartzman & Jude Law in ‘Budapest’

That’s where Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes) comes in. An old-school concierge, Gustave lives to please his customers. And so the services he provides (wink wink) go beyond simply making sure the flowers are fresh and the wine chilled.

Gustave is persnickety, pompous and vain. But he’s committed to doing his job as well as it can be done. He’s indeed a creature of a fast-disappearing Old World.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Or rather, behind ourselves, because the film hopscotches between three time periods.

We begin in 1985. A middle-aged writer (Tom Wilkinson) is recalling his stay at the Grand Budapest some 20 years earlier. Suddenly we’re back in 1968, in the hotel, which is a shell of its former glory, it’s an ugly, post-Communist relic, with really bad furniture. That same writer (now played by Jude Law) encounters the hotel’s mysterious owner, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who offers to tell him his story.

Which brings us back in time again, to the years between the wars, when the hotel looked like a strawberry-frosted wedding cake. Mr. Moustafa is now a young lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori) an ambitious lad whom Gustave takes under his wing.

The plot gets going with the death of Madame D, an 84-year-old, extremely rich dowager countess (Tilda Swinton, barely recognizable in amazing makeup) and former lover of Gustave. Turns out she’s left him a priceless painting. But her imperious son Dmitri (Adrien Brody, having fun here) won’t have this smarmy concierge get a piece of the family fortune. Gustave swipes it anyway.

Gustave is eventually caught and sent to prison camp, where, with a fellow inmate (Harvey Keitel, no less), he plots escape. They make it out, leading to more amazing chases, involving motorcycles, a mountain cable car, a ski jump, a bobsled run, and a confession booth in a monastery. There’s a wild shootout across hotel balconies. And there’s the funniest scene in the film, a montage of old-world concierges across Europe, banding together to try to help Gustave.

You’ll spot Anderson regular Bill Murray here, as well as Jason Schwartzman and, in a quick moment, Owen Wilson. Edward Norton is funny as a determined military police chief. Willem Dafoe is Dmitri’s ultra-violent henchman, and Jeff Goldblum the unfortunate lawyer who runs afoul of him. Saoirse Ronan is young Zero’s girlfriend.

But in the end it’s Fiennes who makes the biggest impression. His stylized, rapid-fire delivery, dry wit and cheerful profanity keep the movie bubbling along. Here’s to further Fiennes-Anderson collaborations.

Rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for ``language, some sexual content and violence.’’ Three and a half stars out of four.

This Week In The Civil War: Slaves Freed In Louisiana

This Week in the Civil War - This series marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War draws primarily from wartime dispatches credited to The Associated Press or other accounts distributed through the AP and other historical sources.

Editors Note: Primary sources for the series are historic newspaper databases and other archival records.
By The Associated Press

This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, March 16: Freedom for African-Americans in Louisiana.

The New York Times reported on March 21 that African-Americans freed from the yoke of slavery by federal forces in control of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana constituted a ``new success’’ for the Union government. The Times noted that many of those liberated by the advance of the federal army could not read or write previously. But in New Orleans alone, some 1,900 young African-Americans were already attending day schools and learning both reading and writing. The Times added that adults freed by the Union had also begun finding paid work. ``Facts furnish the best proof of the success of any system; and, when we compare the condition of fifty thousand negroes in this State last year with their condition now, we need hardly allude to a thousand particulars,’’ The Times said.

Peerless Card Shark & Magician Richard Turner Is Totally Blind

By Kolten Parker

San Antonio Express-News

San Antonio (AP) Seeing is believing. But for Richard Turner, a world-renowned card mechanic who is blind, and the wide range of audiences he performs for, that isn’t the case.

Turner, 59, lives in San Antonio and is regarded as one of the best-known card sharks and up-close magicians in the world. He’s performed his astonishing sleights of hand for more than 40 years, and his movie-script-like life story, which goes far beyond his card skills, is the subject of a new feature-length documentary.

Turner’s magic touch, candid humor and sheer performance skills can awe just about anyone, from movie stars and Fortune 500 CEOs to friends, troubled teens and some of the best in the magic and gambling industry. His balance of finesse, control and power with a deck of cards is unbelievable, regardless of his lack of vision.

``Richard can do things with a deck of cards no other person on the planet can do,’’ said Bruce Samboy, former director of New York’s state division of gambling regulation. ``Picking up a deck of cards in front of a guy like that is like going to the driving range with Tiger Woods.’’

Turner, who has more than 50,000 decks of cards in his home, began his interest in and cheating at cards at age 7 and has put in more than 135,000 hours of practice, he told the San Antonio Express-News.

Magician Richard Turner at work

``I’m kind of hyperactive—my wife would say that’s putting it mildly—so I have no problem practicing day after day and hour after hour,’’ Turner said last week. ``And the great thing about cards being small is you can practice anywhere and everywhere; standing, talking, walking, riding in the car, in church, shopping ... If I’m not practicing, I start shaking.’’

He employs hundreds of sleights of hand, unique shuffles and tricks.

For example, a partner can specify how many players and which position he wants for a game of poker and which hand he’d like dealt. Turner can deal the cards, hand the cards over to have another person to shuffle and even keep some of the cards, then deal the original hand his partner wanted.

In another crowd favorite, Turner asks a person to choose a number between 1 and 52, and within a split second, he is able to separate the exact number of cards with a finger and throw them on the table.

``Richard is an extraordinary talent ... He actually lives with a deck of cards and can destroy one in just a few hours,’’ said Steve Forte, one of the most respected sleight of hand artists in the world, as well as a leading gaming protection researcher and consultant. ``Just like in any other field, you meet people that are crËme de la crËme ... I’ve met the best artists from across the world, and I’m talking about the very best card guys on the planet, and there is nobody like Richard.’’

Although Turner is blind, most people who see him perform do not know because it is not discussed and he learned through theater classes how to appear as if he is looking directly at someone when speaking based on sound.

Turner contracted a retina degeneration disease when he was 9, and his sight quickly diminished.

``One day I could see the chalkboard, the next day I couldn’t,’’ said Turner, who retained blurry peripheral vision for a few years but eventually lost all sense of sight. ``I can see the same thing with my eyes closed as I can when they’re open.’’

In his late teens, Turner began using drugs and, as he describes it, heading down a dangerous path ``mostly because I was feeling sorry for myself’’ because of losing his sight.

Turner was pulled out of the downward spiral by a karate teacher and a church, and after a few years, he got hooked up with Dai Vernon, who is one of the most well-known and influential magicians in the 20th century.

Turner said that from the late 1960s to 1985, he used his card skills to win hundreds of games, regardless of the pot size.

``I couldn’t help it, I had to win every hand,’’ Turner said. ``It wasn’t that I cared about the money, it’s because I liked the thrill of the adrenaline rush that came with the risk.’’

Once he began performing for a living, Turner realized ``you can’t cheat and entertain because eventually you’re going to end up dead.’’

He has performed a number of times at the Magic Castle in Hollywood and at Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth, and he had a seven-year residency during the 1990s at Fiesta Texas, as well as thousands of other venues across the world. Turner also has a passion to perform for military troops and troubled youths, which he does for free.

Turner was cast for a role in the 2011 award-winning feature film ``Tree of Life,’’ in which he swindled Brad Pitt at a card table.

When he accepted the role, he said the director didn’t know he was blind and he worried how he’d break the news on the set.

``When I got on set, I told him: `I can do anything you want me to do with the cards, you’re just going to have to show me where the table is,’ “ he said.

Now Turner incorporates his card tricks into a motivational speech he gives around the world for audiences from financial firm Morgan Stanley to local schools.

Turner is performed recently at South By Southwest in Austin to promote the documentary on his life, titled ``Dealt,’’ which is scheduled for a 2015 release.

Graham Weston, one of the founders of Rack-space, is executive producer of the film, and Luke Korem of Austin is the director.

``If you were to write a Hollywood script, this would be it, but the difference is that his life actually did happen, he is a real character,’’ Korem said.

``His life is sort of like the magic that he performs: You can’t explain it ... People are going to be scratching their heads the whole time saying, `I can’t believe this guy exists.’ “

The Debate Continues On Safety & Impact,

But Vaping Is Gaining Acceptance & Growing

By Leanne Italie

Associated Press

New York (AP) On the edge of the SoHo neighborhood downtown, The Henley Vaporium is an intimate hipster hangout with overstuffed chairs, exposed brick, friendly counter help, but no booze.

Instead, the proprietors are peddling e-cigarettes, along with bottles of liquid nicotine ready to be plucked from behind a wooden bar and turned into flavorful vapor for a lung hit with a kick that is intended to simulate traditional smoking. A hint of banana nut bread e-juice lingered in the air one recent afternoon as patrons gathered around a low table to chat and vape, or sidled up to the inviting bar for help from a knowledgeable ``vapologist.’’

Places like The Henley are a rarity, even in New York. But ``vaping,’’ itself, has had astonishing growth—in just eight years or so, the number of enthusiasts around the world has grown from a few thousand to millions. Believed by some to be the invention of a Chinese pharmacist, vaping now has its own YouTube gurus, trade associations, lobbyists, online forums and vapefests for meet-ups centered on what enthusiasts consider a safer alternative to the ``analog,’’ their name for tobacco cigarettes.

Vaping may be safer—there are differing opinions—but it isn’t necessarily cheap.

Will Hopkins, a 21-year-old dog walker in black leather jacket and skull ring, visits Henley four or five times a week. He smoked a pack of full-strength Marlboros a day for eight years, until he took up vaping. The same goes for his buddy, 20-year-old photographer Will Gallagher, who has been vaping for two years and is fond of his brass mod, a cylindrical device that’s larger than a cigarette and decorated with a tiger and Chinese lettering.

``I think both of us have poured in probably a little over a thousand’’ dollars, Gallagher said of their equipment. ``I like the exclusivity of vaping. I like to keep changing up my stuff.’’

The Wills are into rebuilding tanks and rewiring coils, scouting new e-liquid flavors and adjusting their devices, which can cost up to $300 at Henley, to allow for more vapor, more flavor. But the co-owners of Henley count older smokers among their clientele as well.

E-cigarettes are usually made of metal parts combined with plastic or glass and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They heat the liquid nicotine solution, creating vapor that quickly dissipates when exhaled. The vapor looks like tobacco smoke and can feel like tobacco smoke when taken into the lungs at varying strengths, from no nicotine up to 24 milligrams or more.

In 2006, sellers of all things vape worked primarily online or via kiosks in shopping malls. Now there are more than 250 brands and devices that can cost mere dollars for a case of ``cigalikes,’’ which resemble the real thing, to a gold-and-diamond unit the size of a fountain pen that was reportedly made for a Russian oil tycoon and cost about $900,000.

Whether vaping is cheaper than a cigarette habit is up to how much is spent on equipment and liquids and how often one vapes. A 15-milliliter bottle of liquid at Henley can go for $12 and may be roughly the equivalent of four packs of cigarettes, depending on the strength of both liquid and leaf cigarette, among other factors like how many puffs a smoker takes in. Rechargeable devices require batteries—another expense—and a starter kit for reuse that comes with a device can run around $66.

By comparison, the cost of a 20-cigarette pack of regular cigarettes can range from about $5 to about $15, depending on state tax and the type of location where they’re purchased.

The Food and Drug Administration has not yet stepped in to regulate e-cigs, and their amped-up marketing, but that’s likely to happen as some cities and states have already moved to ban public use the way they do tobacco.

Critics believe e-cigs may serve as a tobacco gateway for uninitiated young people. ``It may be smoking e-cigarettes, but it’s still smoking,’’ said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who was one of four senators to fire off a scathing letter to NBC and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association after a spoof on e-cigs aired during the Golden Globes in January.

Proponents argue that vaping isn’t only safe but is helping people quit smoking. The Henley has a white ``wall of doom,’’ where it lists in big black letters the numerous tars and chemicals found in tobacco cigarettes, but absent in e-cig use if one is careful about the liquids purchased.

``What’s so beautiful about this product is we can take people from a high level of nicotine down to zero, down to nothing, so they’re just vaping basically water and flavoring,’’ said Henley co-owner Talia Eisenberg.
She scoffs at the notion that child-friendly flavors of e-liquids—Watermelon Wave and Frozen Lime Drop, for instance—were created to lure teens. And she rejects the idea that e-cig companies should be banned from advertising on TV, as tobacco companies were more than 40 years ago.

While e-liquids and vaping supplies lack oversight and long-term research, they are readily available to all ages online, and at gas stations, bodegas and many drug stores. But Henley doesn’t serve those under 18. Would it make more sense to help people give up nicotine—an addictive substance—altogether?

``Sure, but how’s that workin’ for the country so far? How are they doin’ with that? We’re talking in terms of serious harm reduction,’’ said Eisenberg’s business partner, Peter Denholtz. His mother died of lung cancer two years ago; he himself smoked cigarettes for 36 years, but has been vaping for four years.

Some vapers, like Hopkins and Gallagher, find fun in tinkering with the paraphernalia. Denholtz likens them to older DIY enthusiasts who once whiled away their time on Heathkits, those all-inclusive boxes of parts that could be turned into TV receivers, amateur radios or stereo speakers.

``There’s a whole subculture coming up. They’re very into all of the different devices. They rewire and rebuild and use different materials for drawing up the juice. It’s unbelievable what they’ve turned it into,’’ he said.
Denholtz and others said vaping, to many, is merely a less harmful activity than tobacco smoking that duplicates the most pleasurable aspects and offers a communal feel like hookah use and cigar bars.

Xavier Armand, 25, has been vaping for a little more than three years and owns an advertising and marketing firm that is helping Henley put together a ``liquid of the month club,’’ along the lines of mail-order fruit of the month.

``I always kind of knew smoking was bad for me. My mom was a smoker, but I was never going to look into the patch or the gum or anything,’’ Armand said. ``At the end of the day, the best part about smoking is the smoke part. And that oral fixation is kind of a big thing as well. I consider my agency the 2014 version of `Mad Men.’ We all sit around there and instead of smoking cigarettes everyone is smoking e-cigs.’’

Much as movie stars made tobacco smoking seem glamorous in the 1930s and `40s, celebrities have helped fuel interest in vaping.

At the Golden Globes, Leonardo DiCaprio was shown vaping away in the audience. The actor told The Associated Press recently he vapes to ``relieve the stress of life.’’

Other celebrities have signed on as paid e-cig endorsers, including co-host of ``The View,’’ Jenny McCarthy, and actor Stephen Dorff, both of whom push Blu, a big player in e-cigs that was recently bought by Big Tobacco’s Lorillard.

Dorff, who took up smoking 20 years ago, stuck to Blu’s talking points in a recent interview. He described how vaping offers him the freedom to smoke where regular cigarettes are frowned upon.

But wouldn’t his loved ones like to see him quit nicotine for good?

``Ah, probably yeah,’’ laughed Dorff, ``but there’s a lot of bad things in the world, you know. The one thing that I’ve always enjoyed is smoking. I consider myself a smoker.’’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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