At film festival, Phila. is a leading player

A scene from "Alaskaland," by Chinonye Chukwua.
A scene from "Alaskaland," by Chinonye Chukwua.
Posted: October 20, 2012

From Steven Rea's "On Movies" blog at

Think local, act global, or think global, and act local - either way, Philadelphia Film Fest 21 has a rich program of homegrown movies on its slate. Some have been made here, while others were shot elsewhere by folks who hail from these here parts. Among the titles in the "Greater Filmadelphia" section of the fest: Alaskaland, a coming-of-age story from Philly filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu; The Atomic States of America, local documentarians Don Argott and Sheena Joyce's nuclear power exposé; Detonator, a Philly-shot drama about a family man haunted by his punk past; From the Shadows, a parental abduction documentary by area filmmakers Matt Antell and David Hearn; Future Weather, with Lili Taylor, Amy Madigan, and Perla Haney-Jardine, from Philadelphia writer/director Jenny Deller; La Camioneta: The Journey of One American School Bus, Mark Kendall's doc about an old, auctioned Philadelphia school bus' second life transporting the citizens of Quetzal City, Guatemala; and This Time Tomorrow, an apocalyptic love story set in Philadelphia, from director Shane Bissett.

Also locally connected: A Place at the Table, a haunting documentary about urban hunger executive-produced by Jeffrey Lurie and Christina Weiss Lurie, and featuring among its subjects Barbie Izquierdo, a determined single mother from Philadelphia.

These high-fashion cupcakes are fabulous

From Elizabeth Wellington's "Mirror Image" blog at

Let's end this week on a sweet note: the fashionable confections created by Varatip Johnson, the owner of Sweet Babycakes. The 29-year-old Bala Cynwyd mom makes cupcakes - and big cakes, too - inspired by high-fashion labels like Chanel, Christian Louboutin, and Hermes.

So cute.

Cakes come in basic chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry, but Johnson also offers gourmet flavors including amaretto, red velvet, and pink champagne. She makes her own swiss meringue and butter-cream icings, and her toppers are fashioned from a marshmallow-based fondant.

Johnson's husband, Charles Johnson, is the director of ticket sales for the 76ers, so she's moving in Philadelphia's elite wives-of-the-athletes circles, having filled orders for Michael Vick's wife, Kijafa, and Thaddeus Young's wife, Shekinah.

Cupcakes range in price from $36 to $60 a dozen. E-mail her at v@thesweetbabycakes.com.

Curtis students take on big Strauss

From Peter Dobrin's "ArtsWatch" blog at http://philly.com/philly/blogs/ artswatch

School's been in session just weeks, so a few eyebrows arched at the appearance of Ein Heldenleben on the Curtis Institute of Music's first orchestra concert of the season. The score, treacherous and sophisticated, should come with skull and crossbones and the words nicht für Kinder on the cover.

When Carlos Miguel Prieto led the ensemble in the Strauss workout Monday in Verizon Hall, eyebrows were raised - not in doubt, but with awe. The work features intermittent but extended violin solos, played here by concertmaster Nigel Armstrong. Just getting through the part grants exoneration in the violin world. But Armstrong, 22, a second-year Curtis student, played at a level so highly developed it would have brought honor to any professional orchestra.

It wasn't about technique, though that's firmly in place. His was a real interpretation, with shape and purpose, minute manipulation of pitch and time, and fine gradations of bow speed. And then there was the sound. Armstrong, from Sonoma, Calif., used a Guadagnini willed to the school by pedagogue Veda Reynolds. It was no doubt partly responsible for the throaty low register, responsiveness and penetrating-but-sweet upper notes. But in Armstrong, it had a natural partner able to make it ring.

When one player sets this kind of standard, it throws down the gauntlet for the rest. Of particular pleasure were a buoyant clarinet solo and a warmly reassuring timpanist. The horns - well, for them it was a growth experience. Prieto sped through the opening heroism; he resisted making mountains out of molehills emotionally. Sentiment was present, but only sometimes, which made it all the more meaningful when he did stretch a moment or build to a climax.

The actor John de Lancie - more specifically, his dignified baritone - was brought in to the school once headed by his father to narrate Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. Curtis' orchestra changes every season, of course, and as a guide to the present ensemble, Britten's score let us know that piccolo player Niles Watson, clarinetist Stanislav Chernyshev and harpist Anna Odell are operating on the highest level.

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