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.