Monday, July 31, 2006

Seeing Stars, or Not Seeing Stars

When you look at the three entries below, do my "star" graphics—my rating system for each nominated performance—appear correctly? Or do you see red, empty boxes, as I did today from an Internet Explorer browser at work? Or do you see red question marks, as I did from a Firefox browser on the same computer, even though my Firefox browser at home recognizes the stars just fine? Let a FlickPicker know if his jelly is making sense.

Also, imagine my surprise in discovering that my very own star has at long last broken down and posted a comment to this blog. And what occasioned this watershed decision? Not my new job. Not the mugging. No. Best Actress. Reader, it's exactly like I'm always telling him, and you: the Best Actress Oscar category is the magnetic pole around which the entire internet rotates.


Sunday, July 30, 2006

Best Actress Update: 5 More Down, 85 to Go

Claudette Colbert in Private Worlds (1935) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Bette Davis in Dangerous)
Precious few actresses of the early sound era were as blithely comfortable before the camera as Claudette Colbert, especially while radiating such innate intelligence and good humor. Her consummate, seemingly unflappable professionalism makes her a smooth match for her role in Private Worlds as a gifted psychiatrist, winning the confidence of patients and colleagues as well as the audience, even as Charles Boyer's chauvinist hospital director can't quite adjust to the notion of a female doctor. The script sputters a little among its various tones and subplots, and one has the feeling that major moments in Colbert's characterization have been dropped, either in the writing or editing stages. Still, she keeps every scene believable, and like supporting players Joan Bennett and Helen Vinson, she thrives under the directorial hand of Gregory La Cava, whose later success with 1937's Stage Door proved how gifted he was at balancing a wide range of fully plausible women within the same film.

Bessie Love in The Broadway Melody (1929) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Mary Pickford in Coquette)
Bessie Love's starring performance in 1929's Best Picture winner gets off to a pretty rough start. Her stiff discomfort as a vaudevillian performer plagues the picture, given that her showstopping "talents" and those of Anita Page as her sister comprise the driving conceit of the story. Their musical numbers never improve, even when the screenplay suggests that they are supposed to, but as the emotional threads of the piece take center stage, Bessie piquantly conveys her distress over Anita's gallavanting, as well as her gradual realization that her lover prefers the other sister. Her best moments verge on the maudlin without quite collapsing into it, and the very idea of a singing-and-dancing backstage musical was so brand spanking new in 1929 that you forgive a few growing pains in the film and the performances.

Geraldine Page in Summer and Smoke (1961) ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Sophia Loren in Two Women)
The good news first: Page's wild mannerisms and almost feral conviction perfectly suited her for her next Tennessee Williams project, the 1962 adaptation of Sweet Bird of Youth, where she duly plays a wild and feral exhibitionist who only thinks she's a recluse. Unfortunately, everything that clicked for Page as Sweet Bird's Alexandra Del Lago makes her grotesquely wrong for Summer and Smoke's epicene Alma Winemiller, who is scripted as a much more delicate creature, even in her most id-driven moments. Instead, Page fusses and snorts through a grandiloquent version of "repression" that is very much the conceit of a struggling actress and a flawed, tricky script—but not at all the stuff of life. Blythe Danner came much closer to the mark in a televised 1976 version of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Williams' apt revision of the almost self-parodic Summer and Smoke. Evidently, Danner recognized that misplaced softness and measured affectation can be plenty abrasive, as the story insists, without veering anywhere near a caricature. By contrast, Page strangles every line and moment, finally tarnishing Williams' reputation as well as her own.

Rosalind Russell in My Sister Eileen (1942) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver)
Here's another actress who never gets truly comfortable in her role, thus enervating the audience she is supposed to entertain. The trouble is, Russell looks as though she thinks she's nailing it: for someone who balanced star showmanship and ensemble relations so sublimely in His Girl Friday, Russell could be astonishingly callous toward her fellow players in other movies, and My Sister Eileen catches out her arrogance several times too often. She slings out punchlines and waits for the laughs to circulate, usually while shifting her weight distractingly from one foot to another, or rolling her eyes, or tugging repeatedly at her costume. She waits to speak instead of listening, probably failing to notice that young Janet Blair is showing much more finesse in the sillier but trickier part of Eileen. Russell's physical overstatements almost kill the conga scene that would become so central to Wonderful Town, the 1953 musical derived from the same source material. Still, at least Russell can sell a gag when she's under control and staying in the moment, and her reactions to New York City's urban indignities are often charming. She's too funny to be bad, exactly, but she's too haughty in this part to be legimitately good.

Norma Shearer in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night)
A very pleasant surprise—the kind of performance that snaps you back to attention, even after you think you've got a performer and a genre pegged. No one could accuse Shearer of being the most technically skilled actress, and "serious" projects like this one often froze her up a little, even as MGM banked her reputation on them through most of the '30s. Still, she has clearly connected to the role of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the basis of her performance is not dull adulation for a great lady and her words, but rather Elizabeth's active skepticism about her controlling, almost lascivious father. More and more aware of how dangerously he hems her in, Shearer's Elizabeth wrestles with the confusing stakes of being caught amongst an illness, a parent, and a lover. She lets Fredric March bounce around as Robert Browning without slackening her own performance, and her climactic flight from the Barrett abode works terrifically, mostly because Shearer has so clearly, gradually telegraphed Elizabeth's rational and emotional divorce from her father's influence. Hardly a turn for the all-time trophy case, but both the performance and the movie are more richly shaded than I expected.

The Pick of This Litter: Basically, it's between Colbert and Shearer, both of whom had already won by the time they assumed these roles, and both of whom have been better elsewhere. I'll give the slight edge to Norma Shearer since Barretts hinges powerfully on her work, right at the same moment when Private Worlds starts spinning into a handful of opposed directions.

(Images © 1935 Paramount Pictures, reproduced from; © 1961 Paramount Pictures, reproduced from the Animation Station; and © 1934 MGM, reproduced from

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Best Actress Update: 5 More Down, 90 to Go

Jean Arthur in The More the Merrier (1943) ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette)
Arthur was almost always the best thing in her movies, except when they were as all-around exceptional as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Mysteriously, the Academy ignored her sterling, smart, and infectious work in all those Capra vehicles that they rewarded so lavishly in other categories. The More the Merrier earned Arthur, arguably the ablest comedienne in classic Hollywood, her solitary nod. That's a shame, but the performance isn't: the script errs on the thin side, but Arthur's rising and falling inflections and inimitable timing anchor this comedy of human character, and she's a perfect match for George Stevens' sophisticated but unpretentious direction. She also projects a palpable lust for Joel McCrea's Joe Carter, as well as the dismay of a peppy professional who knows she is selling her personal life short with a stuffed shirt like Charles J. Pendergast. Altogether deserving of a prize, either as a career tribute or on this performance's own terms.

Gladys George in Valiant Is the Word for Carrie (1936) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Luise Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld)
Precious little works in this movie, a strained and moralizing literary adaptation. Several of the surrounding performances are rock-bottom, the direction is sluggish and unshaped, and the second hour's enormous gaps of time and logic are hustled right through as if nothing is amiss. Still, Gladys George adds an impressively mature, knowing presence in the starring role of a small-town prostitute who is clearly preferable to the gossips and bigots around her, and who is further redeemed by the young orphans she adopts into her care. George has a throaty, suggestive voice reminiscent of Blythe Danner or Kathleen Turner, and she modulates her bearing and even her appearance in concise but articulate ways as the character evolves. She's awfully hemmed in by an increasingly listless screenplay, but apparently the picture was a hit, and based on the strength of her work, you wish she'd gotten more good breaks. (Attentive renters can catch her in The Best Years of Our Lives or as Madame DuBarry in the 1938 Marie Antoinette—or, according to IMDb, in The Maltese Falcon, though I must confess I don't remember her in it. And speaking of IMDb, here's a wild curio: Jean Arthur's birth name was Gladys Georgianna Greene!)

Bette Midler in The Rose (1979) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Sally Field in Norma Rae)
As an actress, Midler shares a certain off-putting quality with Billy Crystal: even when she's working at her best, she seems to demand our approval, almost impolitely; at the same time, she seems to confuse some of her more grating qualities with her better ones, and as she hustles from Big Acting to Big Singing to Big Speeches, she can really exhaust you. Nonetheless, for all of its attention-grabby textures and character concepts, The Rose is a laudably severe depiction of an erratic rock star's reckless immolation. Though you can see very clearly how Midler is building the performance—straining her voice, winning us back with her wide smile, zonking out in her druggie scenes—she has energy and tremendous push, and she keeps a clichéd character breathing for two solid hours. She doesn't try to steal moments from co-stars as good as Alan Bates and Frederic Forrest, and at crucial times, as when she stumbles into a drag revue starring a doppleganger of herself, her goosey verve and relentless drive are exactly what the movie needs, maybe even what the movies need.

Merle Oberon in The Dark Angel (1935) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Bette Davis in Dangerous)
What use was Merle Oberon, really? Her face has a hard, flat quality onscreen that seems to repel the audience's identification, and she seems insufficiently open to the actors around her. She's a disastrously unappealing Cathy in William Wyler's overrated Wuthering Heights, and even in films where she ekes out some passable moments—as in Wyler's These Three, or in this hoary melodrama about war's disruption of romantic destinies—I always feel like many other actresses could do just as well, maybe better. I'll give her this: Oberon is touching when she's finally reunited with the blind lover she has thought dead for many years after WWI. (Yes, it's that kind of movie.) She makes us eager to see and gauge her character's reactions, but then, she has a typically excellent Fredric March performance to work from. An easy scratch-off in a six-way 1935 race that already had one nominee too many.

Valerie Perrine in Lenny (1974) ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore)
I have already devoted a whole separate post to Perrine's dexterous avoidance of leering stereotype in her role as Lenny Bruce's stripper-lover. Based on Julian Barry's uneven script, drawn from his own play, it's almost hard to imagine that Honey Bruce could possibly have been as interesting or engaging in real life as Perrine makes her here, and it's hard to think of another actress who would have taken such a relaxed approach to the same part: sexy in ways both conventional and not, and wise without being rigid or deifying. Among many other virtues, Perrine's work stands out for recalling European figures like Anna Karina or Monica Vitti, who generated erotic heat simply by looking so comfortable and creative on screen.

The Pick of This Litter: Oberon is the only washout in a roundup of truly memorable and distinctive performances, but Jean Arthur still takes the cake for being such a total person onscreen while keeping all the comic machinery humming, and injecting almost all of the melancholy subtext that bubbles beneath the film.

(Images © 1943 Columbia Pictures, reproduced from Goatdog's review; © 1979 20th Century Fox, reproduced from this French DVD site; and © 1935 Samuel Goldwyn Co./United Artists, reproduced from the Movie Poster Shop.)

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Best Actress Update: Counting Down by Fives

A few months ago, I wrote this update when I watched my 288th Best Actess nominee, meaning that I had exactly 100 nominees left to investigate in that category. I thought now might be a good time to catch you up on the 15 contenders I've since crossed off my list, urging you all toward the best of the lot. Plus, since Supporting Actress Sundays has turned into such an energizing treat, I've grouped these fifteen gals in brackets of five, determined by the order in which I watched them, and I've rated them along the same five-star system that StinkyLulu uses for our Smackdowns. Enjoy!

(This from Derek, as I prepare to write yet another Oscar-themed blog entry: "Is Best Actress, like, its own sexual orientation?" I haven't thought of a way, or a reason, to disagree with this.)

Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939) ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind)
Utterly beguiling. I'd halfway expected to feel like Garbo was being goaded along by Lubitsch and the studio bosses, given how the "Garbo Laughs" premise was such an instant, easy sell. Happily, if anything, she keeps the movie going even when the script and the supporting cast hit a few ruts. Her poker face is somehow a different creation from the familiar, enigmatic mask of her romances and dramas, but her eruption into laughter in the famous café scene with Melvyn Douglas is perfectly timed and pitched. Great line deliveries, too. The movie doesn't allow the performance to grow or deepen as much as it might, but it's still a totally fetching piece of work.

Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver (1942) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Previously, I only knew Garson from her sweet but minor love-interest turn in Goodbye, Mr. Chips and from her spry, sensitive, and charismatic performance in Random Harvest, made the same year as Mrs. Miniver. Her appeal on screen is never to be underestimated, and given how doggedly the Miniver script means to endear us to the character, it's impressive that Garson humanizes and particularizes her. She seizes opportunities like the spendthrift purchase of a silly hat to make Kay Miniver a little more approachable, and she works smartly and generously with all of her co-stars. Still, the notes of tactful pluckiness and unpretentious nobility don't stretch her all that much, and she isn't covering the amount of ground or plumbing quite so deeply as the best nominees and winners do.

Shirley MacLaine in Some Came Running (1958) ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Susan Hayward in I Want To Live!)
When we first meet her on a long bus-ride with Frank Sinatra, MacLaine's character comes across as a pretty standard-issue "free spirit," and it's hard to fix exactly why she hops off with him, uninvited, in his home town. From there, this lengthy, deceptively simple drama will keep MacLaine's character waiting in the wings, and she holds out beautifully until her brilliant closing moments: once everyone else has tied their love-lives into intransigent knots, Ginnie figures it might finally be her turn. Actress and character seize their chances in perfect synch. MacLaine's lovely in her frank prostration before Martha Hyer, and she's truly sympathetic in the film's unexpected finale. All in all, she unearths the human being inside a Kooky Sprite.

Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Susan Hayward in I Want To Live!)
A bull terrier among actresses, Roz is perpetually prone to driving a solid character approach right into the ground. In the early chapters of Mame, especially in the delightful opening soirée, she is grand and fabulous, with gleeful, impeccable comic timing on simple lines like "Knowledge is power." By the end, though—like the film, and in some ways because of the film—she pounds down on all the same keys for far too long. I ended the movie quite eager to escape her rigidly "eccentric" guardianship, especially since she keeps Mame from really learning anything or evolving while the decades swim by.

Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver)
I'm all for actresses having stellar breakout years, and Teresa Wright is such an instantly likeable performer—charming and lovable, while always communicating a sincere thoughtfulness—that I hate to begrudge her anything. She even goes far toward redeeming the "meet cute." Still, this is a supporting performance that, like everything else in Pride of the Yankees, is relentlessly keyed to reflect further glory unto Gary Cooper's Lou Gehrig. It goes down easy but lacks weight and insight, virtually by design.

The Pick of This Litter: Greta Garbo wins for showing us so many untapped facets and potentials in a persona we thought we knew so well. Her Ninotchka is several rungs above the stunt casting it could have been... though MacLaine's careful, delicate managing of another "type" is nearly as impressive.

Images © 1942 MGM, reproduced from this Japanese fan site; © 1939 MGM, reproduced from this Spanish-language Bela Lugosi fan site; © 1958 MGM, reproduced from this Lyonnaise movie site; and © 1942 Samuel Goldwyn Co./RKO Radio, reproduced from Modern Art Reproductions.

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Supporting Actress Sundays: 1961

Nick'sFlickPicks is a little groggy today after a screechy, squealy, hour-long, dead-of-night altercation with a bat flying around our apartment. I, not the bat, did most of the squealing, but I still came out ahead. Note to future victims of pteropine invaders: Resolve™ Carpet Cleaner streams far enough from the can that you can daze the bat from two or three yards away, allowing you to catapult it out of a window with a broom and a dustpan...but not before the bat makes exactly the same face at you that Angela makes in the last shot of Sleepaway Camp.

The point being: I was extra happy to have something scintillating to wake up to today, specifically the 1961 Supporting Actress Smackdown, chez StinkyLulu. Like all the best Smackdowns—and this one might be my very favorite so far—Nathaniel has furnished a clipreel of the nominees, and Tim R. has added some follow-up commentary on his own site.

Two more things to know about this edition of SAS: it's just about as gay as can be, with Judy Garland, The Children's Hour, two Tennessee Williams adaptations, and West Side Story in competition, and the five nominees, no matter how diverse the quality of their own performances, all share the distinction of being better than someone who is truly terrible in each film: to wit, pugnacious little Karen Balkin as the bad seed in The Children's Hour; jittery Montgomery Clift as a sterilization victim in Judgment at Nuremberg; Warren Beatty as a soul-crushingly accented Italian gigolo in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone; Geraldine Page offering the fussiest possible imago of a "repressed" character in Summer and Smoke; and Richard Beymer somehow landing the lead in West Side Story despite his inability to sing, dance, or act.

That truly hellacious catalogue of thespian miscalculation—and, believe it or not, two of them scored Academy nominations, plus a Golden Globe for Page—makes Bainter, Garland, Lenya, Merkel, and Moreno look like quintuplet Stanislavskis... though, as you'll read, at least two of these women need no extra help in this department. Meanwhile, thanks for another good time, guys!

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Friday, July 28, 2006

Just When You Thought It Was Safe... go back in the water, M. Night Shyamalan drops a narf into the pool. But before I go on to ridicule and castigate this movie completely, say this for it: after seven long months since King Kong, and after a summer of virtual silence even on this blog (blame the move, and the heat, and the lack of much to see), I finally wrote a full-length review for my once-bubbling website. So, even if the only reason I can only possibly thank Shyamalan for getting me back on the movie-reviewing train is that his movie was so goddamn awful I had to write it out of my system... M. Night, your narf has moved me. Thanks for the inspiration, if not for the memories.

More briefly, for those of you who are still trolling the multiplexes for a hot ticket, here are some dispatches from my other pathbreaking excursions into the New World of Chicago movie theaters. (A sotto voce aside to Goatdog, whose delicious-and-not-just-cuz-we-agree review of Lady in the Water is here: I'll be down at LaSalle Bank soon!)

The Road to Guantánamo B+
Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross stunned the Berlin Film Festival and copped the Best Director prize with this concise and searing picture, which might rightly be described as a travelogue of the War on Terror. Appearing as themselves in tightly framed, neutrally photographed interviews are Asif Iqbal, Ruhel Ahmed, and Shafiq Rasul, three Pakistani-born English lads who were seized as suspected terrorists in Afghanistan in 2001 and then detained for two torturous years in the U.S.-operated Camp Delta and Camp X-Ray facilities at Guantánamo Bay. Intercut with the on-camera testimonies of the "Tipton Three" are narrative restagings of their story, with nonprofessional actors both re-enacting and rounding out the dizzy, almost impromptu trip from the U.K. to Pakistan and then to a blood-chilling vision of a bomb-struck, chaotic Afghanistan. The conception doesn't work perfectly; the interview subjects gloss or withhold important information, probably to leave room for the fictionalized version to stand on its own, but it doesn't quite. The actors aren't given enough freedom or distance from the persons they are playing to fully emerge as personas in their own right, and somewhere between the "docu" and "drama" planes of the picture, some major questions and specifics get occluded. Still, the film is muscular, persuasive, and necessary without being exploitative. As in all of his recent films, but especially in the seminal In This World, Winterbottom captures the nervous, dust-streaked placelessness of our age as well as the stories and horrors unique to specific locations. Despite the superimposed captions and geographical markers, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Cuba all appear as interchangeable, dehydrated zones of threat and disquiet, where no one quite seems to know how to get from A to B. Over and over, people hop onto trucks and buses without checking where they're headed, and while such behavior makes sense at each moment, the larger ethical metaphor is suitably sobering. Guantánamo itself is not just an emblem of deliberate martial cruelty—though the movie captures that cruelty more forthrightly and powerfully than any other recent release has had the gumption to do—but an almost inevitable outgrowth of a world where maps, histories, and identities have all been subsumed beneath hasty political fictions.

A Scanner Darkly B–
The best news about A Scanner Darkly is that is isn't as restive and driftless as Waking Life, Richard Linklater's last foray into rotoscope animation and the Big Questions of Existence. The animation effects here are engaging in their impressionism without smothering the pulse of the film's characters or standing in the way of any trajectory from scene to scene. Speaking of trajectory, Scanner also charts a solid balance between conveying the particulars of its own paranoid, Philip K. Dick-derived story and miming the atomized dispersal of a doomed, drugged-out personality. Motivations, relationships, even the confidence that one is who one thinks one is: they all fray over the course of A Scanner Darkly, and without being quite so distastefully show-offy in its formal devices as Requiem for a Dream—you take the film's look for granted after a while—the film succeeds as a movie about drugs that addicts as well as total non-users will probably recognize and understand. But, the down side? For all of its ambitions and technical complexity, and for all the apt reasoning behind its storytelling decisions, the narrative of A Scanner Darkly is never particularly engrossing. I was never glad I was watching it, or even very appreciative of the fact that it was made. Reeves, Ryder, and Harrelson all bespeak their customary limits as actors, especially in a story as complex as this one, but even the nimble Robert Downey Jr. can't transcend a tale where "dystopian" futures, sinister corporations, and an undercover narc turning into his own target all feel like overly recycled tropes. One admires Dick's prescience in seeing all of this coming, but the world has so deeply corroborated the tones and even the details of his visions that they now feel a tad redundant, and maybe even clichéd.

Two Drifters (aka Odete) B+
Portuguese provocateur João Pedro Rodrigues joins Shyamalan at the fable-spinning table, but unlike Lady in the Water, Two Drifters is about something, it has a plucky and consistent sense of humor about itself, and both its characters and their secrets are allowed to exceed the grasp of the director-screenwriter. When Pedro (João Carreira) dies, he is grieved extravagantly by three people: his lonely mother Teresa (Teresa Madruga); Rui (Nuno Gil), his boyfriend of one year, though no one in the family appears to know about him; and Odete (Ana Cristina De Oliveira), a young and tempestuous gal who lives downstairs in Pedro's apartment building, and who in fact never knew Pedro while he was alive. Rui, whose bereavement has a powerful basis in adoration as well as guilt, can't summon the energy to do anything. By explicit contrast, Odete, whose link to Pedro is either mystical, insane, or non-existent (or all three), finds it all too easy to sculpt a bold new life in his memory: leaping atop his coffin during his funeral, tending to the gravesite, claiming him as the father of her unborn baby, though she may not even be pregnant. As a piece of Iberian queer cinema, Two Drifters fuses the seductive and disturbing metaphysics of Talk to Her with the frank, tacky energy of Law of Desire; not for nothing is "Pedro" the name of the ghost haunting the movie. And yet, Rodrigues navigates kitsch in very different ways. Unlike what we see in many of Almodóvar's women, there is nothing cozy or romantic about Odete's peccadilloes—she's a bit of a crocodile, like Gael García Bernal or Fele Martínez in Bad Education—and the lighting often has a purposefully garish, almost incriminating look, as in Fassbinder. Despite some imperfect conceptions and story patches that don't work, Two Drifters is an arresting and lucid study of how gay men and straight women often compete for the same objects of lust, the same velvety nostalgias for a certain vision of love.

Images © 2006 Warner Bros. Pictures; © 2006 FilmFour/Revolution Films; © 2006 Warner Independent Pictures; and © 2005, 2006 Rosa Filmes/Strand Releasing.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Something Wired This Way Comes...

I am alive, in my new Chicago digs, and the only thing holding me back from this blog is some ongoing confusion about getting my internet connection up and running. (The phone's a little on the fritz, too.)

I can't wait to log back into this project and get back in touch with you all... thanks to all of you who have written, while I've been stealing quick moments of wireless connectivity whenever I can find them. Shouldn't be too much longer now!