Thursday, March 26, 2015

FILM: Lilting

Cambodian writer-director Hong Khaou's film Lilting works quiet poetry in its elegiac portrayal of two near-strangers who lack a common language but share a common loss. Junn is an older Cambodian-Chinese woman living in a senior community in London who speaks no English, and with the untimely death of her son Kai, has no one left. Richard, Kai's English partner, wants to reach out to her, but his attempts are complicated not only by their language barrier, but by Junn's unawareness that her son was gay. With the help of an amateur translator, they grapple their way to a common understanding of their shared loss. Cheng Pei Pei perfectly embodies all of Junn's sadness, dignity, simmering resentments, and pluck, while Ben Whishaw portrays powerful emotions with masterful restraint. There are poignant scenes of each of them living with their own memories of Kai, and a perfect mix of lightness and seriousness in their attempts to communicate. Director Khaou visualizes this very touching story with a quiet beauty that is almost haunting.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

FILM: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

It was too much to hope for that the Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel would live up to the first one. It was indeed second best. It was delightful to see all those great actors again, the film had some nice moments, and I did enjoy much of it though more out of warm feelings for the characters carried forward from the first film. Kind of like the sort of class reunion where you enjoy it more for reliving old memories jogged by seeing familiar faces than for the stories of what is going on with the people now. While the script tried to capture the great life struggles and lessons of the first film, most of the new story lines were rather contrived, really strained the willing suspension of disbelief, and at times didn't even make any sense. The direction didn't help either. Dev Patel's character, while exaggerated in the first film, was over-the-top in this one, and addled by some strange relationship between his fiancee and some new character (Sonny's "best friend" who we've never seen before and he doesn't care for anymore, who is maybe part of his fiancee's family, but who can make sense of it?). I don't recall Bill Nighy's character being quite so stumbling and at a loss for words, but that's all he was allowed to be here. Maggie Smith was mostly played up for her Downton-dowager-style tart remarks, and what the heck exactly happens with her in the end? I did enjoy the unexpected turn of Celia Imrie's story line, and Penelope Wilton gets a nice bit of depth in the end. If you liked the first film, you can enjoy the second one if you go in with lowered expectations and don't try to make too much sense of it, just go with it. But it is quite clearly the second best.

Monday, March 16, 2015

BOOKS: Like Water For Chocolate

I'm about 20 years late to this party, but count me a fan of Laura Esquivel's "Like Water For Chocolate". Being a foodie as well as a fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende, how could I not love this book? Each of the twelve chapters in this charming tale begins with a family recipe, and food figures prominently in the story. The way that recipes are handed down through generations (though not always mother to daughter, sometimes aunt to niece, or through loyal family servants), the way that cooking and food are so central to family events, and the wonderful magical device of the protagonist's emotions being transmitted through her cooking combine to make a most flavorful story. Anyone who cooks for their family should relate to that particular magic. I thoroughly enjoyed the characters, the romantic story, and the colorful, magical, mouth-watering descriptions. Now all that remains is to try out the recipes to see if they are actually as good as they sound.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

STAGE: Corpus Christi

On Saturday, we were privileged to see a rare performance of the controversial Terrence McNally play Corpus Christi. When the play first opened in New York in 1998, it was almost immediately shut down by hordes of Christianist protesters screaming that it was sacrilege. Now that I've seen it, I wonder if all of those folks might have been so hostile if they had actually seen the play themselves and given it a chance, rather than just foaming at the mouth at the very idea of it. The idea of it is this: it's a passion play, telling the Christ story, but transported to modern day Texas and portraying Christ and some of the apostles as gay. Just to be clear, it is not a satire or parody of the Passion, it is an earnest passion play. In the latter half of the play, the events leading up to and including the crucifixion are told with great integrity and with, well, great passion. The translation to modern times, modernized characters, and modern prejudices adds tremendous depth and power to the great classic story. I think the greatest iconic stories can certainly stand up to and transcend being adapted into another time, place, and sensibility, and even be enriched in the process. It's like a translation. A translator can strive for a close, literal translation, or go for a looser translation that aims to capture the "heart" of the meaning in modern terms. (Yes, I'm asserting that Terrence McNally's liberties with the Passion story are no more sacrilegious than loose modern Bible translations like The Message. It's certainly no more sacrilegious than Jesus Christ Superstar.) The way that lepers, tax collectors, and centurions were reviled in the first century is abstract for us, an intellectual exercise. People in first century Judea had visceral reactions to those character types that we just don't feel today. By leveraging contemporary prejudices about homosexuality and playing with gender in the casting, McNally makes us feel the impact of the story, of what it meant for God to take human form, with more visceral integrity than a "straight" telling can produce. Personally, I may have been more moved by this than by any other dramatization of the Passion that I have seen.

(Just to add the gravitas of time and place to this production, it meant all the more that we saw it performed in a church, with the full knowledge and blessing of the priest and archbishop, and on the 50th anniversary of the Selma "Bloody Sunday" march for civil rights.)

Saturday, March 07, 2015

FOOD: Elf Cafe



So many brilliant combinations of flavor, all vegetarian, can be found at Elf Cafe in Echo Park. Many of the flavors are drawn from a Mediterranean palette, such as ras el hanout from Morocco or sumac from Lebanon, but deployed with fresh local produce in creative new dishes. I started with a kale salad with cucumber, avocado, and kalamatas in a fantastic dressing of sweet Persian lime with sumac, cumin, and dried mint. Dinner was a socca crepe covered in a spinach ricotta mix, topped with thin slices of fingerlint potato, dollops of truffle cream with almonds, garnished with a bit of kale and shredded Brussels sprouts, dusted with pecorino. My husband had a rich wild mushroom truffle risotto. The flavor combinations were just genius, marvels on the tongue.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

BOOKS: The Churchill Factor

There are probably dozens of biographies of Winston Churchill, to which Boris Johnson, the colorful British politician (currently mayor of London), has added another: The Churchill Factor. While I haven't read any of the others to compare them, I certainly found Johnson's take on this amazing man to be very engaging. Perhaps unique to his offering, his book is a character inquiry rather than a conventional biography, digging in to the question of what made Churchill Churchill. He explores various angles, from his relationships with his father, mother, and wife; his schooling; his love of oratory; his experiences as a war correspondent; his fascination with airplanes; his work habits; the way he treated his staff; his inventiveness; his painting; and much more. Through these various angles of inquiry, Churchill's full story comes to life in rich detail, explored thematically rather than chronologically. Johnson is clearly a huge fan of Churchill's, and unlike more scholarly biographies, his admiration and partiality to Churchill is unabashed. He does try to give some fair due to those who would find some fault or other with Churchill, but the last word is invariably positive. (He does also take some effort to separate the witty quotes that Churchill actually said, to those which have been popularly but erroneously attributed to him.) Despite this, or perhaps even because of it, the book is quite enjoyable, and the author's enthusiasm for his hero is contagious. While I was certainly aware of Churchill's role in WWII, I have to admit I knew nothing of the rest of his very long and amazing career, having made significant contributions in the first world war as well as the second. Just a couple of the extraordinary things I learned: Prior to his political career, Churchill had impressive military experiences, personally facing enemy fire on four continents, and thus giving him unique authority during WWII to ask nothing of his fellow citizens that he wouldn't do and hadn't done himself. His political career was so long that in his last stint as Prime Minister, he had a cabinet member who had been named after him. And who knew that Churchill was personally responsible for the development of the tank in WWI? In addition to Johnson's faithful research in talking to people who knew the man and visiting key places of importance to him, I found Johnson's insight as a politician himself to add some valuable color to the book. If you have any interest England, history, politics, or even just a really good character sketch of an extraordinary man, you will enjoy this book.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

OPERA: The Barber of Seville

Rossini's Barber of Seville is perhaps the world's favorite opera buffa, and with good reason. You have Rossini's delightful music with its hummable, memorable themes (already familiar to anyone who grew up with Bugs Bunny). And you have the classic Beaumarchais comedy of sassy servants helping young lovers outwit pompous elders with disguises, subterfuge, and plot twists, the pinnacle of French comedy drawing on commedia dell'arte traditions. The current production at LA Opera renders this classic splendidly. Some bright young talents enliven the lead roles, with a shimmering golden tenor of René Barbera giving us a handsome Almaviva, the brilliant soaring mezzo of Elizabeth DeShong giving us a spirited and sassy Rosina, and the nimble mellifluous baritone of Rodion Pogossov making a puckish Figaro. Many of the great arias, duets, and ensembles ended to sustained applause from a delighted audience. The set (from a Teatro Real Madrid production) cleverly uses some giant white columns and walls with baroque details and wrought iron gate, all of which move around and reconfigure from a Seville street under a balcony to the interior of Don Bartolo's home. While the architecture is ornate, the furniture is spare, just the essential pieces, plus several chairs that get used in unexpected ways, including being artfully tossed around and pulled out from under people. The costumes and lighting play with color, beginning the play in nearly all white, adding color as the plot progresses, with the finale a riot of bright colors when the lovers take off in an air balloon. (Hey, didn't I just see that balloon the other week in the Ghosts of Versailles? :-)) The direction is lively and playful, layering physical comic notes on an already very funny libretto (like a hyperactive Figaro circling the others when they are "frozen like statues", waving his hands in front of their unregistering faces). When Almaviva sings his opening serenade, the women of Seville step out to see what is going on, and throughout the opera an ensemble of nosy townsfolk are always looking in around the edges of the action. We took our college-age nieces to see this, as it's such a good first opera experience, and we all enjoyed it immensely.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

FILM: The Last Five Years

I had never heard of the unjustly short-lived Broadway musical "The Last Five Years" until my godson did a phenomenal number from it for a high school cabaret. I was intrigued by the concept. It tells the story of young lovers in an ultimately failed marriage, with him singing scenes of their relationship from first excited date to ultimate parting, and her singing her viewpoint backwards, starting from the split and working back. (Since the story opens with the end of the relationship, that's not a spoiler.) Having seen playwright Jason Robert Brown's other major work, Parade, and been impressed with that, I've long been eager to see The Last Five Years someday. Thus, when I saw it had been done as a film with Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, we rushed out to see it. Happily, it lived up to all my great expectations. Kendrick is "pitch perfect" as Cathy, struggling to assert herself while not being exactly sure what she wants, singing sweetly and powerfully at the same time. And Jordan (recent Broadway star of "Newsies") brings an equally powerful voice to make a compelling Jamie. It's easy to join Cathy in getting swept up in his exuberance. His exuberance is only fueled when his career as an author rises meteorically. Her plunge into acting doesn't meet with anything like his success, drawing the lines for their fatal rift. The film keeps faith with the structure of the play, as a series of alternating solos, although both actors are present in every number (unlike the play) even if only one is singing. This creates an emphasized subjectivity which really brings out her conflicted pride and loneliness at his book readings and parties, and his frustration with her unvoiced hesitance to enjoy his success. Streets and scenes of New York City provide just the right backdrop, and it is realized in a way that the visuals provide lovely settings, while letting the songs speak for themselves. (Which is perfect, as Jason Robert Brown's lyrics are clever and incisive, in Sondheim territory.) I think the conceit of the forward and backward story-telling works wonderfully, as a relationship is something that you live forward and reflect on backward, especially in those moments like Cathy's opening number, stunned and wondering what happened, where exactly it went wrong. The two really only sing together when they cross in the middle when they marry. The way he winds it up in the end is brilliantly conceived and beautifully realized in film. Given that the play is said to be rather closely autobiographical for Brown, it is surprisingly even-handed. Both characters are sympathetic, and the audience is not lead to take sides or fed an entirely pat answer for the ultimate failure. Rather, like the characters, we are left to look back and search vainly for where exactly things went wrong for the beautiful couple that we were all rooting for.

Monday, February 16, 2015

FILM: 2015 Oscar-Nominated Shorts

A few years ago, some friends let us in on a secret. Some of the best films are the shorts, and the Laemmle Theaters run screenings of them every year a few weeks before the Oscars. You can see as many as a dozen great films in one evening! Last weekend, we screened all the live action and animated shorts.

LIVE ACTION

PARVANEH (Talkhon Hamzavi and Stefan Eichenberger) – 25 minutes/Switzerland/Dari and German. Parvaneh, a teenage Afghan girl, is a lone refugee in Switzerland, where she attempts to navigate a cold, unfamiliar environment. When desperate and blocked in her attempts to send money home to her parents, she enlists the help of Emely, a punked-out young Swiss teen she meets on the street. What starts as a quick transaction turns into a night of new experiences and a developing friendship. The film adeptly portrays Parvaneh's initial solitude, desperation, and determination, and their transformation into tentative trust and confidence. We watch as Parvaneh (which appropriately turns out to be Dari for "butterfly") blossoms.

BUTTER LAMP (La Lampe Au Beurre De Yak) (Hu Wei and Julien Féret) – 15 minutes/France and China/Tibetan. This film consists solely in watching a traveling portrait photographer take photos of various families in a remote Tibetan village, posing them, choosing an artificial backdrop, and "click", next. The premise sounds dry on the face of it, but it was surprisingly charming. The village is full of characters, and just in the minute or two that the photographer spends with each of them, you get a glimpse of their character. It will make you smile.

THE PHONE CALL (Mat Kirkby and James Lucas) – 21 minutes/UK/English. A young woman working at a suicide hotline gets a phone call that changes her life. The scope of story and emotion that is packed into this 21-minute film is impressive, heart-breaking, and touching. I think this may have been my favorite.

AYA (Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis) – 39 minutes/Israel and France/English, Hebrew, Danish. Aya is an intriguing enigma, a woman who feels more connected to strangers than she does to her own family and friends. We learn this over the course of a car ride to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv airport, where she has gone to pick up her husband but instead capriciously gives a stranger a ride.

BOOGALOO AND GRAHAM (Michael Lennox and Ronan Blaney) – 14 minutes/UK/English. An utterly charming story of two young boys in Northern Ireland in the 1970s during "the troubles", who attempt to keep two pet chickens. The charm of a good Irish storyteller recalling the earnest innocence of youth with a golden "Wonder Years" patina is a heartwarming winner.

ANIMATED

ME AND MY MOULTON (Torill Kove) – 14 minutes/Canada/English. An engaging illustration of a middle daughter's impressions of her own life in a family that's just a little bit different from everyone else. When your father is the only man in town with a moustache, and your architect parents buy you a funky bike that looks different from all the other kids' bikes, it's rough to be a teen. These light-hearted reflections are stylishly and humorously illustrated in colorful line drawings.

FEAST (Patrick Osborne and Kristina Reed) – 6 minutes/USA/Non-dialogue. An endearing dog's-eye view of his master enjoying bachelorhood but then getting married and starting a family, all experienced by the food that lands on the floor. Rich, evocative cartoon imagery and some good belly laughs.

THE BIGGER PICTURE (Daisy Jacobs and Christopher Hees) – 7 minutes/UK/English. A very stylish and impressionistic rendering of two grown brothers dealing with their aging and dying mother, and the conflict when one brother gets stuck with more of the work. A whole arc with emotional nuance is conveyed in only 7 minutes, with skillfully crafted dialog and editing, and the animation is vivid and colorful, in a very subjective, impressionist painterly style. I think I'd put my vote here for most beautiful animation.

A SINGLE LIFE (Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins, Job Roggeveen) – 2 minutes/The Netherlands/Non-dialogue. An LOL funny short short film about a woman and a time-controlling record player.

THE DAM KEEPER (Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi) – 18 minutes/USA/Non-dialogue. A post-apocalyptic Aesop-style fable about bullying and judging others too superficially, with a pig, a fox, and other animal characters going to school and inhabiting a town. The animation is rich and vivid, in a painterly brushed style.

Some "bonus" animations (not nominated, but honorable mention) included "Duet", a beautiful, graceful, sweeping depiction of a girl, a boy, and his dog as they grow up, all done in luminous line drawings on dark background; and "Bus Story", a quirky little cartoon of a plucky woman taking on a school bus route, overcoming the unappreciative kids, the Quebec winter, and a misanthropic old man who owns the bus.

Friday, February 13, 2015

BOOKS: Flash Boys

In his book Flash Boys, Michael Lewis penetrates the shroud of mystery cloaking "high frequency trading" firms, and how they are manipulating the stock exchanges. While the topic may sound dry, Lewis brings it alive by telling the story through the personal perspectives of several key Wall Street players. The main hero is an unusually decent Canadian broker who set out to find out just exactly what high-frequency traders (HFT) were really doing (since practically no one actually knew), and ultimately moved to correct the predatory behavior by creating a new transparent exchange that neutralized advantages of speed. Other characters include an Irish immigrant who became very successful selling technology to the HFTs so they could gain timing advantages measured in microseconds, and a Russian programmer who became the only Goldman Sachs employee arrested in the wake of the financial crisis. Lewis does a good job of breaking down some rather technical details, keeping the story human-focused, and nicely framing it with an artful ending that signals both that the new exchange succeeded and that foiling one game will not end market gaming, it will only change the strategy. I found the tale fascinating, and by the end I was outraged at just how much economic resources and human capital are lost due to the perverse incentives in the current market structure. Fortunately, it seems the FBI has read the book too, and some action has begun to be taken. Now if only the SEC would wake up and read this book.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

FILM: Mr. Turner

It seems fitting to describe the film Mr. Turner as a portrait of the artist. No real action, plot, or dramatic arc is found here, but rather a visualization of the life and character of the early 19th century artist. Watching his interactions with his father, his maid, his daughters and their mother, his mistress, his peers, and his patrons, we get a good sense of this very interesting character who was often curmudgeonly, but also often gentlemanly, and sometimes generous. Timothy Spall does a superb job of capturing this complex and often taciturn man. We get a good sense of his place in society at the time, prominent though also with a few detractors as his style became more abstract later in life. Visually, director Mike Leigh does a terrific job of conveying the grittiness of the times (even the well-off in England in the 1840s lived a rather dirty existence by today's standards), and also conveying the beauty that Turner saw in it. There are some extraordinary scenes which are completely painterly, capturing the natural light of clouds and sky in such a way that it looks like a painting. And sometimes these scenes fade into or out of a painting. The opening scene, of a Dutch windmill, river, and sky, with two nuns walking along the river, looks completely like a painting, except that the nuns are slowly moving, and as the camera pans back, we see the silhouette of the artist sketching the scene, memorizing the light. In another scene, the artist has himself lashed to the mast of a ship so that he can see what light looks like in a stormy sea (and practically gives himself pneumonia in the process). While the film was bit draggy at times (it was nearly 3 hours after all), I did mostly enjoy it. I am not often a fan of plotless films, but I was engaged by this portrait, and found my thoughts returning to it later in the week.