Social Networking–A Mixed Bag of Tricks

I received so many public and private comments from readers about my last post on Internet usage (see “The Current Digital Divide”–Instant Gratification Anyone?), that I started to think some more about how social networks have transformed our lives.  People (yours truly included) are spending more and more time on the computer. I set a timer so I don’t spend all day in one never-ending time-suck glued to the computer either web-surfing or social networking.  For discipline’s sake, I look at Facebook only once every other day or so.

I do agree with social network supporters that Facebook, LinkedIn, and a host of more specialized websites not only promote increased communication with friends and family but open new information resources– lesser-known websites, highly specialized associations, and political forums.  Besides the oft-mentioned dangers of exposing the vulnerable to predators and other criminals, or bemoaning the loss of literacy or longer attention spans, there are benefits to using the social networking tools we have available.

One of the most surprising articles I read this summer (Wall Street Journal, “Could Those Hours Online Be Making Kids Nicer?”, August 16, 2011) is a case in point.   Researchers have found that those who have difficulty communicating in person, especially teenagers, are more comfortable interacting via the Internet.  They are not using digital communication to reach out primarily to strangers, but to interact more frequently with those they already know but may feel shy around in face-to-face situations.

The WSJ article implies that empathy and likability increase among young social networkers, even towards those less self-confident and with low self-esteem.  Perhaps more significantly, Internet users are retaining their offline friendships, not replacing them.  Among social outliers, the Internet can increase a  sense of community and belonging.

This made me reflect on how I personally use social networking and email.  I can communicate at off-times–meaning late at night–since I am a night-owl.  That way the early birds can read my email or Facebook while I am still dreaming.  I can send an announcement–for example, a new blog post–to friends and acquaintances with one message, not hundreds. Digital communication also saves me time –a telephone conversation is more fun, video-chatting even more of a blast–but both take much, much longer.  If I am just too frazzled, an email or Facebook message is “better than nothing” and that is fundamentally the motivation behind the less personal means of saying something I really want to say.  Just like snail-mail, before the invention of email, the telephone call has now graduated way up the “food-chain” to having major impact on the receiver of the call as a very personal effort to talk.

However, what if I had trouble expressing myself in person or on the phone?  Would chatting in a chat room be more relaxing, more of my true feelings and opinions, than face-to-face?

Although social networking sites were created to make money, not to improve peoples’ lives, they have changed the landscape of how people relate to each other and there is no going back. Future political and social movements will undoubtedly use these tools to a significant degree difficult to imagine now.  These powerful new technologies are changing  the way we live, but not always in ways that everyone likes.

I am by nature an optimist, believing that the disadvantages of social networking will be filtered out over time and benefits will emerge for users who apply these tools with common sense. But in the early stages of any new technology, the buyer must beware. World-tilting technologies (think automobile, airplanes, telephone, television, computer) do not have predictable and absolute positive or negative effects. Social networking is just such a mixed bag of tricks.

 

“The Help”– “Telling the Truth Can Be a Revolutionary Act”

Based upon the best-selling 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett, “The Help” is a vision of a divided America that is consistent, sometimes terrifying, in its insulting, insinuating dehumanization of African Americans. This movie is also easy-to-like –problematic but ultimately winning–and has now earned a huge $154.4 million in box revenues.

Skeeter (played competently by Emma Stone), a young white journalism major who has recently graduated from the University of Mississippi, has returned home to Jackson to find that Constantine (Cicely Tyson), who raised her, no longer works for her mother. As Skeeter tries to find out what happened to Constantine, she begins to see the reality of life in Jackson for the black residents who are a vital part of the white community’s quality of life. Aibileen (impeccably portrayed by Viola Davis), the heroine of the movie, tells her life to Skeeter who secretly interviews her at night.  Slowly other maids bravely come forth, at great personal risk,  to tell their stories of the  same suffering, the same humiliating circumstances on the cusp of the civil rights revolution.

Irony is often heavy handed.  For example, the Junior League’s fund-raising for the sake of “the Poor Starving Children of Africa” while treating the poor African-Americans of Jackson as if they were subhuman.  Minnie, another black maid, is defiantly humorous.   Played by Octavia Spencer who seems to be paying tribute to the maids portrayed in the 1930’s and 1940’s by notable African-American actresses with few options in theater or cinema, her bravura performance  adds a much-needed comic element.

The cycle of racism spins in too-familiar patterns.  The white babies the black maids raise become the housewives who insult them.  Only Skeeter is motivated to change things for those who have cared for her and her peers. One other young white woman in town, Celia (again, a superb Jessica Chastain of “The Debt” and “The Tree of Life”), seems to see the ugly truth underpinning the superficial beauty of the town.

The extraordinary actress, Viola Davis (from “Doubt”, and the Tony award-winning “Fences”) infuses Aibileen with a dignity and warmth that fully reveals an exceptionally strong female character in spite of some of the caricature that her role could have conveyed.  “The Help” belongs to her. Even when the story drifts to the white women from hell –the Junior League Ole Miss debutantes epitomized by Miss Hilly (fiercely played by Bryce Dallas Howard), Davis’s performance lingers in the viewer’s mind, with  tough, wrenchingly vulnerable scenes with a pudgy, insecure little white girl at risk of irreparable damage. Another story is also a subtext, however.  Inside all these different homes, black and white, women with hearts and souls tended to the urgent matters of everyday life, like the care and feeding of children, and the seeking of approval from their husbands.  The white women are no happier than the black women, only meaner and more frightened by the impending change they can feel subliminally. No one voices their frustration with their circumstances except, in the end, the help.

This movie could have devolved into a cartoon of good vs. evil, but the actresses refuse to demean their characters by mocking them in such shorthand.  Only Miss Hilly and Elizabeth, the two most strident racists among the socialites, are virtually one-dimensional.  But these actresses find every possible nuance to show their neurotic tendencies, their fear of social ostracism and save their performances from being caricatures.

The era evoked in  “The Help” is not even fifty years ago but presents us with the painful recognition of the best and the worst of US race relations.

Update: For an additional article (November 9) about “The Help” which I wrote, go to the website www.womensmemoirs.com.

 

“The Debt”–Did We See the Same Movie?

In this remake of a popular 2007 Israeli movie, the genre label “espionage thriller” is an understatement.   The movie opens in 1997, as shocking news reaches retired Mossad agents Rachel and Stefan (married to each other but now divorced.)  Then “The Debt” moves quickly and chillingly between the 1960’s and 1997, in search for the Surgeon of Birkenau, a doppelganger for Mengele, the infamous Nazi general who masterminded the medical butchery of the Holocaust.

Helen Mirren, playing the courageous Mossad operative Rachel Singer, appears in 1997 for a book-signing celebrating her Mossad exploits retold by  her daughter Sara, who has eulogized her mother in a biography that recounts the heroic capture and slaying of Dieter Vogel,  Surgeon of Birkenau.  This is no typical role for Mirren but she is stunning as the sixty-something action hero in this testosterone-drenched gritty film.  That alone makes this film a groundbreaking example for future roles for actresses of Mirren’s stature and caliber.

The story requires two sets of actors–three actors in their twenties who play the youthful Mossad agents of the 1960’s and the three who play the same agents in their sixties almost thirty years later (1997).  Sam Worthington (as young David) and Marton Csokas (as young Stefan), share an apartment with Rachel as well as romantic inclinations. Jessica Chastain (as young Rachel) is particularly outstanding since the majority of the film holds together centered on Rachel’s heroism.

It is true that the past leads to the present, and each flashback brings new interpretations of events, but regardless of the mixed and negative reviews some of you may read, the mystery behind the Mossad agents and Vogel are clearly laid out. In 1966, three Mossad agents – Stephan (Marton Csokas), David (Sam Worthington), and Rachel (Jessica Chastain) – are brought together in East Berlin for a secret mission: capture Nazi war criminal Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the “Butcher of Birkenau,” and deliver him to Israel for public trial. Nearly 30 years later, these three gather once again to go back into the field after decades of retirement.

The gynecological scenes with the venomous Vogel in which Rachel has her legs in stirrups on the examination table are chilling.  They recall the fear of dentists that “Marathon Man” evoked or the terror of getting into a shower that “Psycho” elicited, but with much more subtlety. In a sneering scene that will be imprinted on the viewer’s brain for a very, very long time, two of the most horrific, unforgivable sentences ever uttered in a movie ring out cruelly from Vogel’s vicious mouth. These excruciating scenes are followed by others. Rachel spoon-feeding the bound Vogel is nausea-inducing in intensity and cunning.   These scenes are not for the faint of heart!

The ending is brilliant, if panned by some critics (not all).  I thought the plot surprised at every turn, keeping me guessing until the very end. What critics could find lame about this movie’s ending  flies in the face of reason to me.  I have not seen a movie about the Holocaust as riveting as this one except for “Sophie’s Choice”,  “Schindler’s List”, and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” but “The Debt” can’t be categorized in the same genre as these movies either.  “The Debt” is also much more than an espionage thriller like “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”.

I can’t believe critics who panned this movie saw the same film I did!  [Warning:  this movie can snap and stretch the nerves of the viewer.]

“The Fighter”–A Knockout

The 2010 blockbuster and critics’ darling, “The Fighter”, won Academy Awards for best supporting actor (an astounding Christian Bale) and best supporting actress (the masterful Melissa Leo).  However, I hate boxing movies, especially the tawdry “doormat turned boxing champion” variety we have seen in movies like “Rocky”.  This movie, however, is more in the genre of “Raging Bull” or “Million Dollar Baby”, movies in which “boxing” is a metaphor for the volatility of punches that life can throw to anyone, especially the underdog.

This time around the story is about Irish American Micky Ward, an actual boxing hero in working-class Boston during the 1990’s.  Mark Wahlberg, who both directs and plays the role of Micky Ward, has said he was inspired by the local fighter and determined to tell his story on the silver screen.  And the story is a remarkable one.

There are actually two stories in one:  Micky’s story as the welterweight boxer who dreams of  the championship, and the story of his half-brother, Dicky Eklund (spellbindingly played by Christian Bale),  who  could have been a champion but checked out of the competition because of  a fierce drug habit that none of his family can deal with.

Dicky’s story dominates during the first half of “The Fighter”.  Balding, skeletal, and nearly toothless, Dicky brags incessantly of his championship fighting, particularly against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978, and dreams of a comeback while training Micky for upcoming fights in the bowels of the boxing league. Dicky’s self-deception is so profound — and so impervious to reality — that he fails to recognize who he really has become.  Christian Bale justifiably won the best supporting actor’s role for his scene-stealing performance.   The impeccable supporting cast includes Melissa Leo as the heartbreaking, shrewish mother and Amy Adams as Dicky’s feisty girlfriend.  Without Mark Wahlberg’s  understated acting, which  is the foundation for Christian Bale’s, the latter would have seemed over-the-top or  overreaching.

The story in the second half of the film now shifts to Micky’s ordeal as he slugs his way to the top, in spite of his dysfunctional family and his mother’s lack of interest in his success.  Melissa Leo plays the mother with a wickedness in which the unrecognized damage she has done to her younger son creeps into her face with horror and unflinching sorrow as she finally realizes what she has done to him (and to Dicky). It’s like viewing the scene of an accident.

“The Fighter” appeals to the viewer on several levels.  It is a boxing film, but doesn’t need to be.  It is a film that taps into the narcissistic archetypal mother whose impact on her children is grotesque.  And most of all, it is a story of choices we all face–some at the expense of those we love–in order to move on to another stage in life.  The everyman underdog’s desperation sometimes requires stripping delusions of what family can and cannot do for you. We can understand why both his mother and half-brother imprison Micky and why he can’t turn his back on his brother. “What passion doesn’t blind, it opens the eyes and mind.”  For Micky that isn’t possible until his girlfriend (played in an elusively simple way by the talented Amy Adams) reveals the true dynamics of his family.

The film is not without its shortcomings, but I think all boxing films are prey to these flaws, even while telling a story based on fact. For one, the scenes of the family clan that includes seven young sisters to Micky and Dicky, do not integrate well and sometimes verge on the melodramatic and unbelievable, truth or not.   Still, every scene between the two brothers is riveting and hints at the exculpatory. The love that they feel for each other, even when they realize its destructive nature, is palpable and desolate.  The not-so-simple lesson they both learn is that, even if you run away from your family, they are always with you.

 

Lolo Restaurant–What’s not to like?

  A few weeks ago we dined at a very small Mexican/Spanish fusion restaurant–Lolo (3234 22nd Street, San Francisco)– that had an innovative menu of succulent morsels, aka tapas, that even foodies like us could find nothing to criticize.  This tiny, dark restaurant with cramped tables seating no more than 45 people had friendly service and a quirky, humorous decor–one wall is filled with hanging spoons.

The key for us whenever we order a lot of small plates–appetizers, soups and salads–is to test the chef’s skills.  So, a tapas restaurant is our idea of culinary nirvana!  Lolo’s is a study in transformations! Nothing on the menu is what it seemed–a pleasant surprise to say the very least!

We had about eight different dishes for the four of us. Although tapas are small plates, sometimes it isn’t easy to share a particular menu item four ways.  So, we asked and our waiter guided us in the right direction every time without fail.

We began with a fabulous salad of roasted beets with a dollop of feta mousse and pickled rings of red onions.  We followed that with a double order of ground lamb sliders, double order of crab tostadas with chorizo, leeks, and aioli with avocado puree,  tuna tacon–seared tuna, shellfish aioli, avocado, and roasted tomatillo sauce, and an extraordinary, thinly sliced octopus tiradito–chili flakes, sea salt, and aioli –that tasted like a slightly spicy ceviche.

Our final courses were the heaviest:  double orders of gorditas– blue corn masa pockets filled with braised short ribs, roasted three chile sauce, and pickled onions–and carnitas–shredded pork shoulder with organic blue corn tortillas and roasted tomatillo sauce with guacamole and pickled onions

To top off this fabulous feast we ordered two plates of “taco tropical”, spice-dusted panko-crusted fried shrimp in a jicama, sliced paper-thin instead of a tortilla.  The jicama is marinated in lime juice overnight to make it pliable for bending like a tortilla.  For us this dish is the star turn on the menu, although not highlighted as such.  Go to Lolo’s website —www.lolosf.com— under the “Videos” tab to see the YouTube clip revealing the creation of  this dish and the testimonial by the chef from Specchio who is so addicted to this taco tropical that he visits Lolo every week for his fix!  We probably would not have ordered this dish, if I hadn’t seen it being made on YouTube.  Don’t deprive yourself of this treat–calling this “comfort food” does not do the dish justice!

A word of advice–this restaurant is a sleeper but hardly a secret  to  locals in the know.  Without a reservation, you’ll have to wait.  And, you shouldn’t linger…after all, others are waiting patiently to experience the same mouth-watering delights!

Picasso–Multiple Images of the Master

Opening on June 11 and closing on October 9, the deYoung Museum in San Francisco continues to host an exhibition of more than 100 masterpieces of  Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) from Paris’s world-renowned Musée National Picasso. The Bay Area exhibition is made possible only because of the Musée’s temporary closing for extensive remodeling.  I have seen the collection in Paris, of which there are more than 5000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, and collages, an almost overwhelming experience.   About two percent of that collection is now on view at the deYoung, demonstrating some but not all of the wide range of artistic styles and forms that Picasso mastered.  Missing are some of my personal favorites:  linocuts, woodcuts, and ceramics.  But the exhibit has much to offer.

The pieces, arranged chronologically, are presented in nine galleries covering every period of his career. Celestina (1904), from the artist’s Blue Period, is perhaps his most somber (certainly his most depressing) work:  a portrait of a one-eyed prostitute modeled after an actual madam in Barcelona.  The missing eye looks more like a dense cataract and the gender of the figure is ambiguous.  Other more familiar paintings and sculptures are displayed:  Portrait of Dora Maar (1937), six Surrealist bronze heads of the artist’s mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter; the bronze Goat (1950); the six life-size bronze Bathers (1956); and the late self-portrait The Matador (1970).   One painting that fascinated me the most, however, is less known:  Massacre in Korea (1951), inspired by Goya, is a painting protesting the US involvement in the Korean War.  It reminded me of Jose Orozco’s furious murals depicting the Spanish invasion of Mexico.  US military personnel are shown in Darth Vader-like helmets with the Korean people reminiscent in style and emotion of Orozco’s Mexican villagers.  His bronze sculptures of individual men and women standing in rows are haunting.  The famous “Head of a Bull”, a minimalist sculpture of a bicycle seat with handlebars, has been made a focal point in Gallery 7.

Not to be missed is the complimentary guide for the show.   Co-written by the Seattle Art Museum and the deYoung,  this brilliant analysis of the painted feelings of Picasso is a study of his  infatuation with each of his lovers.  We learn how each of Picasso’s lovers transformed his artful composition of the woman’s figure. His early Cubist years were with mistress Fernande Olivier, his surrealist period with lover Marie-Therese Walter, his political transformation during the Spanish Civil War inspired by Dora Maar and his last two decades of playful experimentation and ceramics were with Jacqueline Roque.

Each of his artistic periods shifted dramatically in accordance with the lover muse with whom he was enthralled.  I can now imagine the rejuvenation of his art–from periods of seriousness (Blue), voluptuousness (Rose, Expressionist, Cubist), political courage (Surrealism), and playfulness through the eyes of Picasso as lover.  Picasso always claimed his erotic life was the stimulus for his creativity and expressiveness.  “Painting is just another way of keeping a diary”, is famously quoted but looking at Picasso’s portraits of his lovers tells all.

Go to http://deyoung.famsf.org/deyoung/exhibitions/picasso-masterpieces-mus-e-national-picasso-paris for more information.  Three other San Francisco exhibits are also Picasso-related–“Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stores” at the Contemoporary Jewish Museum (closing September 6) www.thecjm.org,  “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant Garde” at the San Francisco MOMA (closing September 6) www.sfmoma.org, “Picasso’s Ceramics” at the Legion of Honor in the Bowles Porcelain Gallery (closing December 1), www.legionofhonor.org.

 

 

 

Perbacco Ristorante– “Good Times”

On our visit to San Francisco last weekend we decided to dine at Perbacco ristorante and bar, specialists in Northern Italian cuisine with a focus on the luxurious and lush regional cooking of Piedmont. Loosely translated from the Italian as something like “wow” or “good times”, Perbacco did not disappoint. We had a sumptuous food extravaganza of traditional dishes presented stylishly with perfection in seasonings and freshness of ingredients.

The space is large and elegant, a perfect choice for any special occasion or just a treat. For us it was our anniversary and we wanted an unusual menu. Perbacco’s menu changes daily–just what we wanted to challenge our palates. As major foodies who take lots and lots of photos of food wherever we vacation, we are not easy to please.

We ordered a lot of food. Our first appetizer was a pesce crudo (the Italian equivalent of sushi)–an Australian hiramasa (Japanese word for the yellowtail kingfish) on paper-thin slices of peach with a charred padron pepper sauce drizzled over it. The second appetizer was vitello tonnato: slow-roasted veal tenderloin with a lemon/albacore tuna sauce on a bed of capers and arugula. Both were works of edible art, delectable with every bite, created from produce, fish, and meats which themselves are natural wonders.

For our main course, we decided to share three unusual pastas: fusilli pepati, agnoli di coniglio and tajarin. Fusilli pepati is hand-rolled seven-pepper duck-egg pasta (like tagliatelli) with duck liver infused with the slightest hint of dark cherry. Agnoli di coniglio is a triangle-shaped pasta (like large tortellini but with the texture of ravioli), stuffed with roasted rabbit in a wine sauce. And last but not least was the tajarin, handcut tagliatelli in a pork sugo with porcini mushrooms. All three pastas were presented on a special plate subdivided into discrete sections. Because the pastas are quite filling, we shared an heirloom tomato salad with charred Tropea onions, basil, anise hyssop, and ricotta. An extremely generous salad to share–a feast of purple/green, red, yellow, green, and orange tomatoes. I think the only color missing was blue!

The New York Times columnist Mark Bittman also seems to be a huge fan of chef Steffan Terje’s pastas, calling the tajarin’s sauce ” the kind of sauce you sop up greedily and dream about later.”

This five-year old restaurant was still packed at 9:30 p.m. on a Thursday night, when we were about halfway through our dinner. The crowd is primarily young but diners were of every age in the spectrum.

We are definitely going back to this sensational Italian restaurant, 2011 recipient of the Birra Moretti Best Authentic Italian Restaurant in North America. Reserve a table, enjoy a fine bottle of wine–we loved the orange (yes, orange) 2009 Catarrato, a very dry Sicilian wine by Girgis. The imagination of the chef and the friendliness of the wait staff make this dining experience a delectable and sensuous delight!

Perbacco is located at 230 California Street (415) 955-0663. For more information, go to their website at http://www.perbaccosf.com and read about the owners at http://www.sfgate.com.

Absolutely heavenly!! If you think I am exaggerating, check out “Pasta Porn: 101 0f America’s Most Delicious Noodle Dishes” at http://newyork.grubstreet.com.

“The Fall” — A Mind-Bending Marvel

The visual splendor and breathtaking imagination of “The Fall” made me actually dream of some of the scenes, an experience I rarely have. Reality and fantasy blur into a magical realism that so dazzles the eyes, it suggests a psychedelic otherworldly, perhaps drug-induced journey. This movie is a magical, mystery tour–“The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen” meets “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”.

“The Fall” (2008) is two movies in one–and I don’t mean the story within a story that grounds the mind-blowing imagery. I mean the visual story: the sumptuous fantasy world of 1920’s Los Angeles. Filmed in Fiji, Bali, Brazil, India, South Africa, and thirteen other countries, I could have viewed this movie on “mute” and still have loved it! Captivating scenes of a butterfly-shaped island; a warrior shot so full of arrows he falls backwards on them like a bed of nails; an Escher-like staircase to nowhere; costumes with lotus-shaped headdresses and fan-shaped veils; russet-colored mountains with Crest-toothpaste aquamarine skies I thought were colorized; faces that melt into the mountainside, with faint, lingering shadows of eyes.

Genius for the understatement works its magic from the opening scene and continues through close-ups of a little girl’s hands, her vulnerability and innocence revealed by soft, seemingly boneless fingers. Footage of a massive elephant swimming in the ocean, with the cameramen shooting from underneath causes cognitive dissonance. The elephant had to be “animatronic”, not a living, breathing mastodon-sized pachyderm. But I was so wrong. Astounding, mind-boggling scenes trick both the eye and the mind.

But there is also an epic story to tell. Languishing in a hospital, stuntman Roy Walker (played by newcomer Lee Pace) is grievously injured from jumping off a bridge onto a horse far below. Not only is his body broken, but also his heart. To entertain the little girl Alexandra (the unforgettable Catinca Untaru, a six-year old with a soft whisper of a Romanian accent), Roy tells a fantastical tale of heroes, warriors, and a princess in scenes conjuring “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights”. However, his ulterior motive is not to entertain a little girl in a body cast, but to coax her to steal morphine so he can “sleep”. A free-fall feast for the eyes, Roy’s drug-induced stupor is recreated by the stunning imagery of the tale-within-the-tale. Alexandra’s imagination becomes the catalyst for Roy’s story, and her purity and innocence ultimately overpower him. Roy is her perfect storyteller, she is his perfect listener, and together they imagine a new world–one of beauty and art…and heal.

Catinca Untaru is the heart and soul of this movie! She is so natural as the wide-eyed innocent child, I thought her dialogue was unscripted. Only the out-takes convinced me otherwise. Colin Watkinson, the cinematographer, in some sense shares the director role with Tarsem Singh because his portraits of art in motion are a parallel universe as addicting as the morphine that Roy craves. “The Fall” is, above all, visual storytelling. Without Wilkinson’s evocative visual effects, the narrative would not have flourished.

Unfortunately, due to delayed and poor distribution, “The Fall” did not reach the wider audience it deserves. With less than $4 million worldwide in gross receipts, this is a gross injustice! Treat yourself to this cinematic work of art and relish in its marvel and splendor!

View the trailer

“Blue Valentine” –Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

This critically acclaimed Sundance 2010 darling features Michelle Williams (in an Oscar-nominated performance) and Ryan Gosling in a Generation X’s portrait of a marriage from hell reminiscent of Tennessee Williams’ classic, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence”.

Blue Valentine’s story is simple and straightforward. A young nurse, Cindy Heller (Williams) lives with an abusive father, an adrift mother, and cares for her ailing grandmother. She has endured a violent relationship with a high school boyfriend and has given up her dream to become a doctor. She meets Dean (Gosling) at her grandmother’s assisted living center and they end up rushing into marriage, knowing next to nothing about each other. They are both excruciatingly wounded and searching for an escape. Soon after her young daughter, Frankie, is born, they begin to lose their way.

From the opening scene in which Dean plays with spilled oatmeal, licking it off the kitchen table with his five-year old daughter, we are acutely aware that he is stunted…not quite an adult, but a playmate that his daughter adores. Tellingly, he is siding with his child at the expense of the mother who has wearily thrown together a breakfast for them. With flashbacks between the romantic years and the desperate ones, “Blue Valentine” takes us on a journey of their rapidly accelerating heartbreak.

Not altogether a misfit, Dean is a young high school dropout, working for a New York City moving company and later as a house painter. He is a kind, keen observer, especially toward the elderly and the beloved family dog. Dean’s also a drunk. He tries to make a living, but mostly enjoys being with Cindy and their daughter, his only meaningful goals in life. But he gets it so wrong!

Cindy is trying to keep their family on more firm ground financially. She’s still attractive to other men and Dean can’t contain his jealousy. In the hope of rekindling their sexual life, Dean brings Cindy to a motel with a kitschy, pseudo-sci-fi decor, but there is no intimacy. Their marriage has collapsed in on itself and the sting in their relationship is visceral.

A previous scene, in which Gosling sings “You Always Hurt the One You Love” and Williams dances, foreshadows the wrenching pain to come. Bravely, they both struggle to keep their relationship together in spite of their own best interests. While Dean desperately desires to hold on to his family, his only keystone, he doesn’t know how and neither does Cindy.

Marriages are difficult, precarious, and stressful, and each has its own rhythms and secrets. Not even a deep knowledge of each other can guarantee a long and happy marriage. “Blue Valentine” sometimes succeeds in taking us to this far more honest – and less comfortable – place. One partner’s “best” may simply not be “good enough”.

The wounded and defensive natures of both main characters are powerfully portrayed: Gosling, when his anger is unleashed,–the self-protecting male fighting for what is “his”,–and Williams for the abandonment of her dreams. But these performances do not save this film. Even though their relationship feels real, the story needed to be more specific.

“Blue Valentine” ultimately misses the mark for not revealing both Cindy and Dean’s background. What happened to them in their pre-adulthood years? Why does neither of them have a safety net? These are two young people, tattered and torn, lunging for love as if they were gasping for air. I wanted to know why.

Bridal Shower Anyone?–Do you know what a “laminated list” is?

We hosted a bridal shower last weekend for our daughter Maya and 20 of her young friends. Bridal showers aren’t what they used to be…dreary events with most of your mother’s friends, not yours. They might not be the equivalent of a bachelorette party for wildness, but I learned new vocabulary, which I am not likely to forget!

On a beautifully warm but overcast day, for a mid-afternoon lunch on the deck, we prepared a whole salmon two different ways: one with a spicy paprika rub, one half grilled with cucumber slices. Grilled squid with a spicy sriracha-laced dipping sauce and sardines with horseradish sauce were two of many appetizers. A recipe theme for the shower centered on the seven deadly sins (for those of you who don’t know–they are gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, lust, pride and wrath–but the last has no place on such a happy occasion.) Each of Maya’s friends received a cookbook of the recipes, “Sinfully Delicious Recipes” to take home as a party favor.

After present-opening, playing the usual games of “how well do you know your fiancé” complete with accompanying video of the fiancé answering the same questions, the question rose about the “laminated list”. We went around the room: “How many are on your laminated list?” I can play along too. When it came to my turn, I smiled: “One hundred”.

Maya’s face fell, shocked, utterly disgusted. “Ew, how gross”, she sighed as she walked away to get another cupcake on the cupcake tower one of her bridesmaids had brought. All her friends had said “four” or “five”. I was thinking of “The One Hundred Foods You Should Eat at SF Restaurants Before You Die”, a list I swore I saw on our daughter’s refrigerator door, neatly attached with a sushi magnet. Boy, was I wrong!

This is what I found out about the meaning of “Laminated List”. I learned that a laminated list, sometimes called a freebie list, is a short list –usually no more than five–of celebrities (actors, athletes, definitely NOT friends) who are so attractive that your fiancé, partner, or significant other would give you a “hall pass” if the opportunity arose to have sex with them. The origin for the concept appeared on the hugely popular TV series “Friends”, which we all watched religiously back in the day…but I had completely forgotten about Ross, Rachel, and Chandler’s conversation about their lists. For those of you curious to watch the episode from Netflix, I googled and found out it is in season 3, “The One with Frank Jr.” Ross decides to laminate his list so it is unchangeable and then attaches it to his refrigerator door. (At least I got that part right!) Hmm, how many would I put on my list?

“Game of Thrones” — “Rome” Meets “Lord of the Rings”

Depending upon the viewer’s tolerance for over-the-top nudity and gratuitous violence (albeit infrequently), this Emmy-nominated HBO series created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss can be a guilty pleasure. An entrancing, seductive ten-episode TV miniseries, “Game of Thrones” is a compelling, carefully crafted drama about a mythical, magical medieval world.

Nicknamed the American Tolkien, George R.R. Martin has authored the best-selling fantasy epic series A Song of Ice and Fire. “Game of Thrones” is based on the first book in the series. Episode One opens with one of the most harrowing and genuinely cold-blooded scenes I can remember ever watching, especially for a fantasy drama. Amputated arms and legs are strewn across a stark, snowy forest glen, filmed overhead with slow, gliding camera movements. A man wanders from his two friends to discover the carnage but when the three men return, the body parts have vanished.

As is true for many sci-fi and fantasy novels, I needed an organization chart and a family tree for each of the main characters and his or her families–in this case seven kingdoms or clans struggling for the Iron Throne of Westeros, a medieval world facing an impending forty-year winter.

I don’t know if it was an intentional casting move to feature Sean Bean as a main character in “Game of Thrones” based on his previous role in “Lord of the Rings”, but the comparison between the two epics is obvious. In both epics all main characters are outliers. In “Game of Thrones” one character is a sole survivor of a family massacre, one is a bastard, one part dragon, one a girl who wishes she were a boy, to name only a few.

Some of the subplots are convoluted too, only to pull this viewer into its recesses. For example, one princess is forced to marry a king of a “barbaric” tribe but she is determined to understand her husband’s culture and eventually…and contentedly… fits into his society. The rape and pillage, not even subtly associated with Attila the Hun, allows the viewer not only to sympathize with the princess but also with her husband–no mean feat!

Arguments can be made that this series reduces some characters to racist or misogynist stereotypes. However, if the viewer focuses on the handful of intricately drawn portraits, especially those of the dwarf (Peter Dinklage) and the heir to the Stark clan (Sean Bean), moral ambivalence about the world they fight to preserve yet wish to transcend is clearly maintained.

I have never been a “Dungeons and Dragons”, Tolkien, or “Watership Down” fan but this fantasy miniseries feels more like an epic history of mythological proportions, analogous to the retelling of the generational conflicts, political intrigue and betrayal in the “Rome” miniseries, also from HBO (2005). All the requisite blockbuster devices of bloody battle scenes, nudity, political corruption, and even humor are present in each episode. However, the superb writing, mostly noteworthy acting, and stunning cinematography contribute to the tremendous appeal of “Game of Thrones”. Like “Rome” or “Dexter”, there may not be a socially redeeming, “intellectual” component, but the story is addicting and highly spell-binding. This is no “Mildred Pierce”, also a strong Emmy contender (see my last blog post) yet the white snow and dark shadows of this story made “Game of Thrones” a winner for me!

“Mildred Pierce”–Definitely NOT “Mommy Dearest”

“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” King Lear bemoans in the famous Shakespearean scene. And so does Mildred Pierce as the mother who must suffer the unbearable pain of loving her decidedly unlovable elder daughter Veda. “Mildred Pierce”, the five-part HBO miniseries based on a 1941 book by James M. Cain, is a remake of the Academy Award-winning 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford (of Mommy Dearest fame) and turns Mommy Dearest upside down. Nominated for a record 21 Emmy awards, Kate Winslet mesmerizes in the title role.

After divorcing her philandering husband, Mildred learns to develop her self-worth first through waitressing, slowly understanding and appreciating what the working class woman must endure. Her older daughter, Veda, however, venomously taunts her mother about their lack of money, their reduced social status, and living in Glendale instead of a tonier part of Los Angeles. Veda even assumes a British accent to fantasize about the life she thinks she deserves, not the life she is living.

Mildred is vehemently blind to the sacrifices she is making for her two daughters, forgiving the unforgivable. Desperate to maintain her home and her daughters’ future, her only marketable skill seems to be making pies. I had to suspend my disbelief that Mildred Pierce could be so successful owning and managing three upscale restaurants during the Depression.

The mother-daughter relationship is the heart of this series, with deep wounds on both sides. Mildred encourages the arrogance and self-entitlement in Veda, even against her better judgment. There is a hint that Mildred believes some of the accusations her daughter makes and is ashamed. Veda is angry and resentful, but we are not quite aware of how ugly her sense of abandonment is nor how lonely she must have been. Veda’s mind is irreparably sinister and damaged and Mildred never quite grasps the daughter’s true nature.

Mildred lacks common sense too. Blind to her own neediness, she falls for the slacker, Monty (smarmily portrayed by Guy Pearce), a man of great wealth who seems to enjoy playing polo and drinking, but not much else. Soon Mildred’s life starts spiraling downward in assuming a more lavish lifestyle to please Monty and Veda, now a young and promising singer (played chillingly by Evan Rachel Wood).

Director Todd Haynes explores Depression-era economic hardship and the pettiness of married life, with scathing scenes reminiscent of the intimate detail he brought to the superb “Far From Heaven.” Here he again captures the mood and time of a given period with intricate details and faithful attention to the nuances of life’s options for those of a given social class. After a very slow-paced start we have come to expect from a Masterpiece Theater miniseries or other BBC costume dramas, “Mildred Pierce” becomes increasingly riveting. There are a few unfortunate lapses in dialogue that jerk you into wondering what the writers could possibly have been thinking. For example, “Want to get stinko anyone?”

Winslet underplays the role, allowing the subtleties of her transformation to surface slowly, resulting in startling and powerful responses to acts of betrayal from those she loves so blindly. Evan Rachel Wood is every bit Kate Winslet’s match in scene after scene in their snake-fanged relationship.

This HBO series enters virtually uninhabited territory, the disintegration of a fundamental relationship–between mother and daughter–into one of terror and agony. Far from the commercial blockbuster theatrics we are exposed to over and over again, “Mildred Pierce” deals with the unmentionable and incomprehensible. I loved it!