Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Caesura Youth Orchestra

Part of the Jewish tradition in the days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is to focus on "tzedakah" (charity). In that spirit, as I'm writing checks, I'd also like to give a shout-out to some special organizations over the next few days. Here's the first: We are proud to support the Caesura Youth Orchestra since its founding just over a year ago. You may have heard how LA's superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel came from a program in Venezuela that brought music education to children in impoverished circumstances. Caesura was created to bring the same model to our local community in Glendale. Music education in the context of an orchestra not only teaches children music, but it gives them the self-confidence that comes from mastery through practice and putting in the time and work, and the value of community and cooperation that comes from being a part of something larger. This kind of program is invaluable especially in the parts of our local community that have less financial and social capital than others. The Orchestra has had a good first year, just finished a Summer Music Camp, and they are starting their second school year. When you're thinking about charitable donations, we hope you'll join us in supporting the Caesura Youth Orchestra.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

BOOKS: Reading Lolita in Tehran

 Reading Lolita in Tehran book cover
When I think back on my school years, it is usually the English teachers who stand out as the most profoundly influential. I think this maxim would be accepted by the students of Azar Nafisi, author of the fascinating memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran. I was transported by her account of her years as a professor of literature at various universities in Tehran in the wake of the Shah's fall and the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The book is a witness to the horror of how a rather liberal and educated society can so quickly transform into a totalitarian theocracy, and of the sometimes surreal life under such rule. I'd had a fairly shallow and monochromatic understanding of modern Iran, so this book was very illuminating for me in filling in rich detail how the Islamic republic first arose amidst a complex mix of Islamists and a more Marxist-inspired revolutionary movement, and later how things changed (or didn't change) through the war with Iraq, and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. But what makes the book work so well is that it is not focused on politics per se, but on literature and the lives of a group of especially motivated students who continue to meet with Dr. Nafisi, even after she is pushed out of the university, in order to study the works of great novelists. Early on, when her students were pressing her for her approval of their urgent revolutionary ideals, she insists that she is neither for the Islamists or the Marxists, rather she is for Jane Austen and Henry James. At one point in her class, they even put The Great Gatsby on trial. The interplay between the themes and characters of classic novels with the lives and struggles of the women in Nafisi's private study group is fascinating, with each providing a mirror that shows the other in a new light. Her students share a common desire to study literature, but little else. Some are married, some are not; some are religious, some are not; and so on. Their varied experiences provide threads of many colors for Nafisi to weave into an exquisite Persian carpet of a memoir.

Sunday, August 16, 2015


We saw some breathtaking theatre last Saturday at the Mark Taper, in their production of Bent by Martin Sherman. The play is a powerful, horrifying chronicle of gay life in Germany during the rise of the Nazis. It begins in the liberal, decadent Berlin of the 1930's (picture Cabaret), but where Cabaret merely gestures at the horror to come, Bent actually takes us there, as the play's protagonist, Max, goes on the run, is captured, and ultimately transported to Dachau. Max does what he needs to do to stay alive in the grip of captors with a vicious talent for treatment calculated to lacerate one's soul and strip one's humanity. There was a moment when Max was broken like Winston at the end of Orwell's 1984, yet this story goes beyond that moment as Max, through Horst, a man he meets on the transport, learns to rediscover and reclaim his humanity and dignity even in the face of evil. The arc of this story is heart-stopping, and the enactment of it that we saw on Saturday night was gripping. The performances were all electric and spot-on, particularly Patrick Heusinger and Charlie Hofheimer as Max and Horst, and Will Taylor as Rudy, and all the rest of the cast. The direction by Moisés Kaufman was fantastic, so creatively realizing this story, and pulling out all the stops of the theatre craft. The stage, lighting, and especially the sound were used to marvelous effect (such as creating a train just from sound and light).

This play originally premiered in 1979, illuminating the previously little-known persecution of gays under the Nazis, and establishing the pink triangle as a reclaimed symbol of gay pride. Thirty-five years later, it remains as relevant as ever. One of the most frightening things was just realizing how quickly a liberal society can be taken over by jackboots. Germany in the early 1930s was not so different from America in the 1970s or even now for that matter, and yet how quickly complacent liberals fell under the boot. (I'm currently reading a book that tells a similar story of Tehran circa 1980.) I know that several memorable scenes from this play will haunt me: the SS bursting into Max and Rudy's apartment, when Max is forced to betray his own love, the amazing scenes of Max and Horst making love without moving or touching each other, and the electrifying end.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

BOOKS: Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring

During the American Revolution, not only were the politics revolutionary, and the military tactics, but the espionage as well. In his book Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring, Alexander Rose tells a fascinating story of how George Washington used spies during the war. Using words like "handler" and "tradecraft", well-known to modern audiences familiar with Tom Clancy novels, he finds the roots of these concepts in the tradecraft of 1777, when best practices were first being worked out. We get a thorough account, not only of more well-known heroes and villains such as Nathan Hale, Benedict Arnold, and Major André, but of a network of spies that ran through most of the war and remained unknown until generations later. Rose brings a historian's meticulousness to his work, carefully identifying each person and not going too far beyond his sources. At the same time, he does a good job giving a rich and full picture of the men in this history, their character and their likely motivations, based on their family history and place in the political, religious, economic, and social tides of their times. It was very interesting to see how the constant struggle to balance security against efficiency played out in the quest for timely accurate information. The spies were constantly worried about exposing themselves to undue scrutiny, while Washington fretted how to get their information faster. The book also provided an eye-opening window on life in New York and Connecticut during the Revolution, places that were deeply divided in their loyalties. It's easy to forget that not all Americans at the time were pulling for the American side. There were many loyalists supporting the British, as well as opportunists playing both sides, and one could never be completely sure where one's neighbors stood. In telling his spy story, Rose also paints a vivid picture of what life was like in such a time and place.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

BOOKS: Plato at the Googleplex

Rebecca Goldstein feels that philosophy is embattled, both by scientists who dismiss it as a pre-scientific pursuit and people in general who don't see its relevance. In her book Plato at the Googleplex, she makes an engaging and entertaining argument that the questions raised by Plato 2400 years ago are as relevant and important today as ever. The centerpiece of the book are imaginative dramatizations of Plato encountering modern people at the Googleplex, at the 92nd Street Y, being interviewed by a Rush Limbaugh-like talk radio personality, and getting an fMRI brain scan. These dialogues are alternated with lectures providing background on various aspects of Plato, setting him in the context of the politics and recent history of his time, and giving a good account of why he was just so challenging to his contemporaries. She is wanting to address a broad audience, and the book sometimes skirts a fine line of being a bit patronizing by trying to be accessible, but I was ultimately won over and found it worthwhile to stay with it. Her characters who are foils for Plato in her dialogues are sometimes buffoonish caricatures. But then I remembered that that's often how it was in Plato's own dialogues, so she is actually doing a faithful pastiche. Not only did I learn a lot I didn't know about Plato, but I found she did succeed in showing his way of thought to be vital today, pondering questions like whether morality can be crowd-sourced, how to raise children, whether followers are your best friends, and what if anything might be left of free will when neuroscience has scanned the entire brain. If you have any interest in philosophy, don't leave this book unexamined.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

FILM: Far From The Madding Crowd

In Thomas Vinterberg's Far From The Madding Crowd, Carey Mulligan does a great job of playing the fiercely independent yet charming Miss Everdene that any man would fall for, and Matthias Schoenaerts is the picture of quiet strength and steadiness as the aptly named Mr. Oak. Anyone who enjoys Victorian period dramas will find much to enjoy in this adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel, a tale of love and passion, as well as perseverence. Not having read the book, I found some of the fundamental elements of the story puzzling, why she makes some of the decisions she makes. But perhaps I should just take the heroine at her word that "she finds it hard to explain her feelings in a language created chiefly by men." As with similar Victorian stories of spirited heroines, things work out in the end. The characters are all very well played, and the film is worth seeing for the cinematography alone. Many vivid scenes of English farm life look like a Van Gogh painting come alive, and will make you want to visit that lovely Dorsetshire countryside.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Want To Do Something About Income Inequality? Start Tipping More.

I've said many times that I despise the custom of tipping. It's a misguided, arbitrary, and capricious economic distortion in the industries it touches. And I welcome the signs of its entrenchment starting to crack loose. But given that it is what it is for now, I wholeheartedly endorse the recommendation of this article. I'm in.

Money quote: "Would more generous tipping really have an impact on the incomes of the working poor? Yes: If everyone in the top 20 percent of the income distribution (those with family income over $121,000) upped their tips by an average of only 65 cents per day, an extra $11.6 billion annually would end up in the pockets of the working poor and middle-class."

Saturday, May 02, 2015

STAGE: Immediate Family

We very much enjoyed Paul Oakley Stovall's dramedy "Immediate Family", now playing at the Mark Taper. A lively romp on the themes of race, sexuality, and religion awaits when an impending wedding brings four black siblings back to the family home, and one of the brothers, Jesse, has a surprise for the family: a Swedish boyfriend. Bryan Terrell Clark does a great job playing Jesse's difficulty in figuring out just how to break the news to his family. All of false starts, awkward hinting, and procrastination are so genuine and so familiar to those of us who have lived it. The parents in this family are deceased, but the father's portrait prominent in the living room is a constant reminder of what he, a preacher and local leader through the civil rights era, stood for. The eldest sister Evy (Shanesia Davis), an English teacher, very much feels her father's legacy, and has her students writing essays about black heroes. But certain heroes, like Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, or Bayard Rustin, are conspicuously absent from her list. A much more liberal half-sister (oops, it seems Daddy had another child with someone other than his wife) breezes in from Europe, adding some spice to the stew. And the poor boyfriend Kristian (Mark Jude Sullivan) arrives late in the proceedings to find out that some members of the family think that he's just the wedding photographer. Or at least they pretend to. There is a great scene near the end where most of the others storm out after an emotional explosion, leaving Evy and Kristian alone together. After an awkward silence, they start to speak, not facing each other, not quite ready to face each other, but speaking from the heart and knowing the other is listening. A powerful scene in an engaging play. (And great direction by Phylicia Rashad.) While I can't speak to the racial element from my own experience, I can speak as a gay man who married into a more conservative small-town religious family, and much of this drama really rings true. After the play, we were flashing back to our own experience of coming home to meet the family, and family members' grappling to come to terms. As all good drama does, this play takes a very specific experience and tells its truth in a way that many will connect with.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

STAGE: Newsies

So glad we got the chance to see Newsies while it was here in LA. What a delightful musical, just good old-fashioned, foot-tapping fun. The dancing is a sight to behold, dancers flying around stage, leaping, doing kicks, splits, and other moves that we just watched in wide-eyed, open-mouthed enjoyment. The staging is a dynamic, fantastic recreation of 1890s New York City. The story is sweet and old-fashioned, loosely based in a historical event when the "newsies" (the boys who hocked newspapers, you know, as in "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!") went on strike against Joseph Pulitzer's The World newspaper. We haven't seen a more endearing singing-and-dancing bunch of street kids since West Side Story.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

FILM: Woman In Gold

I don't understand why the critics are so down on Woman In Gold. We really enjoyed it. Fascinating story about a headline legal battle for restitution of Nazi-looted artworks, interleaved with a woman's memories of her youth in a prominent Jewish family in Vienna before WWII and her harrowing escape after the Anschluss. Helen Mirren is flawless in her portrayal of Maria Altmann, determined to achieve justice but understandably reluctant to face the ghosts of her past in Vienna. Ryan Reynolds plays a young family-friend attorney who risks his career taking on the case, at first just for the profit potential but ultimately for much more personal reasons. Sure, there's a moment or two of necessary legal exposition, but I was fully engaged with the drama both in the present and the past. It's also beautifully filmed, with some vivid recreations of pre-WWII Vienna, as well as gorgeous scenery of Vienna and Los Angeles. We discussed the film through dinner afterward, and dove into Google later on to get even more background on the fascinating story. So far as I can find, it seems that much of it is pretty true to fact. Maria Altmann's film escape from the Nazis seems much closer to the truth than was that other Maria's famous escape. And now, of course, we are eager to revisit the real Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I when we are in New York next month, now that we know much more of her story.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Thoughts on Indiana: Balancing Liberty and Civil Rights

When the Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1964, much controversy surrounded its prohibition of discrimination in "public accommodations", which meant that hotels, restaurants, and theaters would have to serve black and white alike. While it was acknowledged that the law could require governmental actors to treat citizens equally, it was not broadly accepted that the law could mandate equal treatment by private actors. Shouldn't a privately owned business have the liberty to employ and to serve whomever it chooses? Understandably, that was the point of view of the owners of hotels, lunch counters, and other businesses in the south who were being forced by the new law to serve blacks and whites the same. It was also a point of view shared by some for philosophical rather than discriminatory reasons. Some such as Barry Goldwater worried about governmental encroachment on liberty, and that it was unwise for the government to "legislate morality". That view had also been the position of the US Supreme Court nearly 100 years earlier, when it struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 as unconstitutional in its attempts to outlaw discrimination in public accommodations. But much had changed in those 100 years, including the increasingly central role of commerce in our society, and along with that, the Supreme Court's increased recognition of Congress's power to regulate commerce. And enough of a majority in Congress recognized that continued private discrimination in the commercial sphere would have been intolerable. It clearly was not tenable to simply say "if one restaurant chooses not to serve them, they can find another". Blacks were shut out of hotels and restaurants in neighborhoods or even entire towns and regions, effectively curtailing their freedom to travel. Property owners and realtors conspired to keep blacks out of "white neighborhoods". Without mandating anti-discrimination in public accommodations, coordinated private action could (and did) keep oppressed minorities from being able to participate fully and equally as citizens in our commerce-centric society. Now from our point of view 50 years after Selma, it seems pretty clear that the regulations of public accommodation were necessary and proper.

Yet the tension between competing liberties underlying the public accommodation issue remains with us. I think many Americans share a "common sense" instinct that discrimination on characteristics such as race and religion is wrong. And I think many Americans also share an instinct that each person should be entitled to make their own choices about the work they do and who they do it for. No one should be forced by the government to do something against their conscience. These two principles come into conflict when one person's conscience collides with another's notion of unacceptable discrimination. In the area of commerce, Americans have generally come down on the side of anti-discrimination, especially when it involves large corporations or relatively impersonal business transactions, where the involvement of the business owner's conscience can seem rather indirect and abstract. Now we are at a new flash point in the tension between personal liberty and anti-discrimination laws that centers on bakers, florists, and photographers. While there are certainly analogies to be made to lunch counters and buses, there are differences that should be considered. The fact that these are small businesses and personal services with expressive elements bring the liberties in question into sharp focus. I think one must acknowledge that the participation of the baker or the photographer in a wedding presents a level of tacit endorsement not present in providing a hotel room or a restaurant meal or a train ride.

When trying to sort out questions like these, I find it is good to seek out analogies to probe for principles, and to try to eliminate my own partisan prejudices. And it is good to try to imagine how the "other side" sees things. To that end, I've been contemplating thought experiments like these: Imagine a marriage which is legal, but which you would find morally repugnant. For me, I am imagining some religious cult community making arranged marriages between girls at the youngest legal age to the eldest patriarchs of the cult. If you were a baker, how would you feel about baking wedding cakes for those cult people? (And please include nice little figurines of a young bride and an old groom. And could you write some messages about wifely obedience in the icing?) Reject them, and you're practicing religious discrimination and facing legal trouble. Similarly, should a gay baker be required to bake a cake for an Exodus "graduation" ceremony for ex-gays? Should a Jewish tattoo artist be required to take a customer who wants a swastika tattoo? If you want the principle of anti-discrimination above personal liberty in all cases, you need to be prepared to force all of those service providers to serve all of those odious customers. On the other hand, if you think that there needs to be some room for personal service providers to exercise conscience and choice of who they serve, then we've got a trickier set of questions to figure out where to draw the line and strike the balance.

With the rise of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs), it makes religious liberty weigh stronger in the balance, though I'm not sure everyone has really thought through the consequences. I think libertarians will generally like RFRAs, as religious liberty ultimately boils down to freedom of conscience. Social conservatives think they like RFRAs, because they imagine them protecting their own religion. They will, but I'm not sure they yet realize that RFRAs will have to protect any and all religions equally. And my religion is whatever I claim my religious convictions to be. The courts will not be able or willing to adjudicate which religions are proper religions, or which convictions are central to a faith. Some clever stoner has already founded the First Church of Cannabis in Indiana. I also can see an interesting wrinkle where, as more churches are turning to give religious recognition to same-sex marriage, RFRAs will enable gay couples to add religious anti-discrimination arguments to their petitions for equal treatment. Thanks, RFRA! (That would be an echo of Perez v. Sharp, the 1948 California Supreme Court case that declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. Andrea Perez, a white woman seeking to marry a black man, asserted a free-exercise-of-religion claim because her Catholic church was willing to marry her but the state would not issue the license.) The US Supreme Court in 1878 foresaw the problem of giving absolute freedom to religion, writing "To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself." (From Reynolds v. U.S., where they ruled that being a sincere Mormon did not excuse one from generally applicable anti-bigamy laws.) These same fears and very words were cited by Justice Scalia in 1990, ruling that Native American religious regard for peyote did not trump Oregon state law (Employment Division v. Smith). Backlash to that decision triggered the first RFRA at the federal level, with strong bipartisan backing. With RFRA, Congress basically said, "if the Court won't find strong religious freedom in the Constitution, then we shall enact it as law". I think it's only a matter of time before Warren Jeffs or someone like him files a RFRA claim seeking his FLDS church to be excepted from the anti-bigamy laws. With RFRA, they could make a compelling case. There would certainly be a rich irony in that. A favorite jeremiad of social conservatives is that allowing gay marriage starts a slippery slope to polygamy. And yet it may be that the latest RFRAs, pushed by conservatives as a backlash to gay marriage, are what open the door to polygamy. And wouldn't Mike Pence want to bake that cake?

Friday, March 27, 2015

FILM: The Way He Looks

There's something about a good coming-of-age story that never gets old because it taps into our nostalgic recollections of those tender and tempestuous feelings of our youth when we were still figuring out who we were and what our place was in the world. In the Brazilian film The Way He Looks (Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho), we have the classic triangle story of a boy on the fringes of the high school social scene and his girl best friend, and how everything changes when a new boy transfers into the school. The intriguing added dimension to this story is that the protagonist, Leonardo, is blind. So not only is he dealing with more typical teenage angst of wondering what his first kiss will be like, but he also struggles with being teased at school, and he wants to stake out some independence in his life, despite having some unavoidable dependence on others, especially his protective mother. The actors who play Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo), his BFF Giovana (Tess Amorim), and the new boy Gabriel (Fabio Audi) are all genuine and touching in their portrayals of the complex brew of feelings that get stirred up. Writer-director Daniel Ribeiro's film has all the earnestness and charm of The Wonder Years, and even though you probably know broadly how the film will ultimately turn out, it is a warm and engaging story, and a delight to see it unfold.

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.


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.


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.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

FILM: Still Alice

Still Alice features a heart-wrenching performance by Julianne Moore portraying a smart, successful woman in her 50s struck with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The film captures her experience and the impact to her husband (Alec Baldwin) and three grown children (Kristin Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish). Moore’s performance combine with subtle, skillful direction, cinematography, score, and make-up to give subjective impact to the main character’s decline. In some scenes to visualize her disorientation, the focal length tightens so that she is sharp while the world around her blurs. In one scene, where she’s been running and suddenly finds herself lost on what should be the familiar ground of the university campus where she teaches, her panic becomes palpable as the focus tightens and the sound zeroes in on her sharp intakes of breath. In some scenes, the score by a string ensemble subtly deconstructs, to where the strings are just slightly out of synch in time or wavering in tune, not dissonant but kind of the sound of an orchestra tuning before the performance starts. In another scene, where she is viewing a video that her past self has recorded for her future self, the video of her past self is in crisp focus, clear voice, and sharp colors, while her actual present self is subtly muted in color and less distinct. All of these elements of film craft are skillfully combined to great effect to convey her experience. The main character gives a powerful speech at the center of the film, but unlike other works with heavy-handed speeches inserted into the book (Atlas Shrugged, for example), the speech scene is moving and integral to the story. Bring Kleenex, but do see this film (unless the subject is too close to home, in which case a pass is completely understandable). Julianne Moore is squarely in Best Actress territory here, and I’d also call out Kristin Stewart’s performance as one of the daughters, and the co-writer/director team of Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer (who also brought us the wonderful Quinceañera).

My Favorite Films of 2014

So now that the Academy of old white guys have nominated the best films of (the last six weeks of) 2014, I'll throw in my totally idiosyncratic list of films that I liked in 2014. I'm not keen on picking "bests", so I'll just tell you what I liked, in no particular order, other than I'll put up front the ones I think have been unjustly overlooked and get to the bigger names later, making up my own categories as I go along.

Chef. For me, one of the most enjoyable films of the year. Firstly, it's about food and people who love food, so of course this film had me at amuse bouche. And the shots of the food were absolutely mouthwatering. But more than that, I loved the theme of a guy trying to figure out how to pursue his passion and artistic expression at the same time as meeting the practicalities of doing something that pays. It was a film about finding professional integrity, with a nice side order of father-son relationship. It was a feel good story with a fresh creative angle, inspired in part by the real life story of Roy Choi (who consulted on the film, and don't miss the behind-the-scene shot after the credits of Choi giving Favreau a cooking lesson). I think Jon Favreau, who wrote, directed, and starred in this did a great job of all three. As a foodie, I naturally also really enjoyed The Hundred-Foot Journey. Food, France, and Helen Mirren are a guaranteed recipe for something wonderful, and it was. But for real heart, character, and story, I think Chef was carnitas while Journey was a light air-filled soufflé.

Calvary. A stunning story with a commanding performance by Brendan Gleeson as a priest in a small coastal Irish parish. The film opens with an explosive revelation that colors the rest of the film, as we watch the priest tending to his parishioners over the course of a week that may be his last. The townsfolk are a colorful lot who don't always appreciate the priest's efforts, but the story is an amazing one of faith, redemption, raw humanity, and a priestly calling in the midst of a broken church and real broken lives. Kudos to writer/director Jon Michael McDonagh, who also brought us the outstanding 2011 film The Guard.

Fading Gigolo. Remember when Woody Allen used to put out movies that were fun, funny, witty, insightful, and in love with New York? This is totally one of those movies. Although Woody Allen is in it, and it feels like peak vintage Woody Allen, it was written and directed by John Turturro, who also stars in it. I think Oscar has some kind of grudge against writer/director/actors, but Turturro does a great job of all three in this quirky, very original, very enjoyable film about a middle-aged florist who is pimped out by his friend to call on lonely or bored rich women, and ends up falling in love with an Orthodox Jewish widow. Only in New York. (Ironically, I found this to be a "better Woody Allen film" than the actual Woody Allen film this year, Magic in the Moonlight, which was clever and enjoyable, but no Midnight in Paris, and didn't have any of the warmth and humanity of Fading Gigolo.)

Love is Strange. A wonderfully tender and keen exploration of marriage and family relationships. When an older gay couple suffers a financial setback, they have to give up their apartment, and both temporarily impose on family and friends until they can get back on their feet. Great performances from Alfred Molina and John Lithgow in the lead roles. Director Ira Sachs ("Keep the Lights On") really steps up, delivering a lot of heart while still keeping it real.

Locke. It is absolutely astounding that a film set entirely in a car with one guy driving and talking on the cell phone about pouring concrete could turn out to be a completely gripping human drama, but trust me, it absolutely is. Obviously it's a bit more than just concrete, but that's the backdrop. The night before the biggest day of his career, the foreman of a skyscraper project has to make a life-changing decision that risks his job and his marriage. Tom Hardy's tour-de-force performance is riveting. Great job by English writer/director Steven Knight.

Obvious Child. As one of their poster taglines says, "the most winning abortion-themed rom-com ever made". A fresh original romantic comedy about a one-night-stand, an unplanned pregnancy, and a young stand-up comic in Brooklyn barely keeping it together. Writer/director Gillian Robespierre comes out with a hit (this film, an expansion of a short film she made, is her feature length debut), and lead actress Jenny Slate, in her first big role, is pitch-perfect.

St. Vincent. Great performance by Bill Murray as a sour old curmudgeon who begrudgingly gets dragged into a friendship with the young boy next door and his hard-pressed divorced mother. Also great performances from Jaeden Lieberher (why do kids never get taken seriously when they give great performances?) and Melissa McCarthy. Very funny and full of heart. Nice job by writer/director Theodore Melfi in his feature debut.

The Lunchbox. A charming, bittersweet romance of letters exchanged anonymously between a disaffected housewife and a lonely widower, enabled by a mix-up in Mumbai's famous lunchbox delivery system. The letters go back and forth with the lunchbox, and sometimes as much is communicated with the food she prepares as in the notes. Utterly charming and touching and so much more satisfying than a predictable by-the-numbers Hollywood rom-com. Nice performances from Irrfan Khan ("Life of Pi") and Nimrat Kaur, and kudos to writer/director Ritesh Batra in his debut.

Like Father, Like Son. Based on a true story of two families in Japan who discover years down the road that their sons were switched at birth due to a hospital mix-up. An engaging and heartfelt exploration of what truly makes a family and what is ultimately important in life.

The Rocket. An engaging story of a boy born in a Laotian hill tribe under a sign of bad luck, determined to prove he is not bad luck after all, amidst the whole family being uprooted by a government project to build a dam that will flood their village. If you enjoy being transported to a very different kind of life, this film delivers beautiful scenes of Laotian village life, their ways and struggles, in a rainforest jungle peppered with old missiles, bombs, and other war detritus. Youngster Sitthiphon Disamoe gives an exuberant performance in Aussie writer/director Kim Mordaunt's first non-documentary feature.

Hmm, are all of the best films done by writer/directors? Seems to be a trend here...  Moving on to more mainstream movies that still escaped the notice of the Academy...

Selma. It is deservedly a Best Picture nominee, but how David Oyelowo was overlooked for best actor is staggering, not to mention Carmen Ejogo for best actress as Coretta Scott King, and director Ava DuVernay. The film was a moving and powerful dramatization of events leading up to a pivotal moment in our nation's history.

The Lego Movie. This should win best animated feature, yet it's not even nominated. If you missed this film cause you thought it was just a kids movie, you really missed out. Sure your kids will love it too, but it is fun and wickedly funny for all ages. I declare this the Best LOL Film of 2014.

Maleficent. Maybe the Academy thinks Disney movies don't count as serious film consideration? I beg to differ, and this is exhibit A. It was a fantastically clever story, doing for Sleeping Beauty what Wicked did for The Wizard of Oz, giving us a fresh creative back story that turns the original inside-out. And kudos to Disney for giving kids more credit and once again smashing the handsome-prince trope and instead giving us a much more mature fantasy. The whole package was beautifully visualized. Shame on the Academy for seeing nothing Oscar-worthy here beyond the costumes. Angelina Jolie was superb.

Into The Woods. A beautiful visualization of the Sondheim musical. Not sure if the Academy actually watched this film, or if they just automatically nominate Meryl Streep for anything she does. She was great as always, but Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick were terrific too.

And finally a few places where the Academy did get it right:

Grand Budapest Hotel. Another brilliant picture from the fantastically creative mind of writer/director Wes Anderson. He vividly creates an evocative forgotten pocket kingdom of the Austro-Hungarian Empire post-WWI, with the appropriate grayness of its present and nostalgia for its past. All this as the backdrop for a tale of intrigue worthy of James Bond, with the hero being the ultimate hotel concierge rather than a spy. Crazy, funny, bittersweet tale. Anderson has been nominated before, but this may just be his year.

Boyhood. Art Linklater has played with the idea of time and real life before, with his Sunrise/Sunset trilogy taking an intermittent look at a romantic relationship, checking in every several years. But this latest film is his most audacious, following a boy from age 6 through 18 in actual years. Like his other films, it's very "real life" like (in a real way, not in a "reality TV" way), all character, no big drama, and minimal plot, but just enough to keep it interesting. The amazing film achievement here is its fluidity. Time moves as it does in real life. There are no typical Hollywood markers where it goes dark and a caption says "A Year Later". Time passes in a simple cut. It's also amazing that he was able to keep such a consistency of style and quality to the film over the 12 years it took to make it. Truly an artistic film achievement.

The two geek genius holiday blockbusters, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game, are both great stories about great men, excellently acted and realized. Eddie Redmayne, in particular, deserves praise for his performance as Stephen Hawking.

Ida. Seems a leading contender for foreign film, and rightly so. An intriguing story of a young girl raised in a convent in Poland, who, just before taking her vows, discovers an estranged aunt and unravels a dark family secret from the darker days of WWII. The black-and-white film does a great job conveying the atmosphere of 1960s Communist Poland.

There are certainly films we still need to catch up on (Gone Girl and Birdman, for example), and we look forward to what 2015 has to offer (including Still Alice, which is only being released for real now, even though the old white men got screeners for it in advance and are counting it as a 2014 film).