“Lincoln Lawyer”–More Than an Ambulance Chase

We saw the movie “Lincoln Lawyer” a couple of days ago, and it was a highly engaging–not brilliant–courtroom thriller of a movie in the “Grisham” style. Think the best of the courtroom dramas of the recent past: “Fracture” meets “Presumed Innocent”, for example. This film noir, based on a book written by Michael Connelly, is pure entertainment–with a few twists to keep it original and not the same old courtroom drama we’ve seen done well and also done poorly. Michael “Mick” Haller (Matthew McConaughey in one of his very best performances since “North Star” and “A Time to Kill”) is a slick, charismatic Los Angeles criminal defense attorney who operates out of the back of his Lincoln Town Car sedan–hence, the name “Lincoln Lawyer”.

Having spent most of his career defending down-and-out street criminals, Mick unexpectedly is recommended for the lucrative assignment of representing Louis Roulet (played chillingly by Ryan Phillippe), a spoiled Beverly Hills playboy who is accused of attempted murder. Roulet has been accused of brutally beating a young prostitute he met in a bar. Mick senses there is something incredible about this windfall. If Roulet has unlimited funds and really is innocent, why is he hiring a guy like him, who works out of the back seat of a car? The lawyer has spent all his professional life afraid that he wouldn’t recognize innocence if it stood right in front of him, a caveat from his father. He wonders if he could be staring into the face of evil, not innocence, and is terrified that he doesn’t know the difference.

Fueled by McConaughey’s and Philippe’s bravura, career-reshaping performances, the supporting cast sustains the audience’s attention: Marisa Tomei as Mick’s ex-wife and fellow attorney, Frances Fisher as Roulet’s intimidating mother, and especially William H. Macy, as Mick’s friend and loyal but offbeat private investigator.

McConaughey has brilliantly played the hard-edged law officer before, either as a sheriff or a lawyer with Southern overtones. Returning to that type of role in “Lincoln Lawyer” may indicate that he is heading for a highly acclaimed “Paul Newman”-type of second act (as exemplified by Newman’s Academy Award-nominated performance as a marginal lawyer in “The Verdict”). He effortlessly maneuvers between charm and sleaze as Mick Haller, yet retains some basic human scruples, which will allow him to save his soul. This movie is a delicious two hours’ entertainment, not just another potboiler of ambulance chasers–you won’t be disappointed!

“Swimming with Sharks”–Taking a Dive from the Corporate Ladder

Our son graduated from college about a year ago and has had several internships in the entertainment industry, mainly reality TV and independent movies, while he searches for his next career step. One of his former supervisors recommended “Swimming with Sharks”, for an insider’s view of what working as a low-level assistant for a studio exec is really like. This colleague also stated that the movie did not exaggerate!

While billed as a comedy, this film is anything but funny. Guy (played by Frank Whaley, a vastly underrated TV supporting actor) is a recent college graduate who lands a job as personal assistant–more accurately, “go-fer”–to Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey), an abusive, egomaniacal movie studio exec who withers Guy’s enthusiasm, professional integrity, and most importantly, his self-esteem. Battered by a relentless siege of humiliating and vitriolic attacks, Guy only half-heartedly stands up to Buddy because of his eagerness to climb the ladder of success. This movie is an engrossing but cynical portrait of what soul-selling is required for some individuals to attain their coveted company promotion.

When I first watched “Swimming with Sharks”, the tyranny of Buddy Ackerman was so vile and so over-the-top, that I sympathized entirely with Guy, the poor nebbish trying to please his boss with every cell in his body. Perhaps the most memorable lines are the words of “advice” Buddy gives his young assistant: “I was young too, I felt just like you. Hated authority, hated all my bosses, thought they were full of shit. Look, it’s like they say, if you’re not a rebel by the age of 20, you got no heart, but if you haven’t turned establishment by 30, you’ve got no brains. Because there are no storybook romances, no fairy-tale endings. So before you run out and change the world, ask yourself, ‘What do you really want?'”

Seattle: A Blast from the Past

On a recent trip to  Seattle, in lightly falling snow, I took a  guided walking tour of the city’s mid-19th century “underground” origins: its musty subterranean passageways of abandoned toilets, pipes,  cast-off furniture and windows that once were the main first-floor storefronts of old downtown Seattle.  Like layers of fossils built one sedimentary deposit over another, the city’s hidden foundations are revealed. Approximately 25 square blocks of wooden buildings were either burned to the ground or flooded during the Great Seattle Fire of 1896.  What were once the first floors of thriving businesses are now 25-to-35-feet high tunnels below street level. Pioneer Square, the city’s birthplace, lies virtually forgotten except for this tour. It was very entertaining!

Next I walked to the historic Panama Hotel, located in Old Japantown,  part of the International District which also includes Chinatown. Built in 1910 by a Japanese-American architect, the Panama Hotel  served as a community gathering place and bathhouse for generations of Japanese immigrants and Alaskan fishermen.  I could see rows of lockers where Japanese Americans stored their belongings before being forced into concentration camps.  Standing on a glass window on the floor of the hotel’s beautifully renovated teahouse, I peered down into the bathhouse, which was not open to the public the day I visited
 Jamie Ford, author of the best seller, The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, (whose setting is the Panama Hotel)   stayed here while writing part of this novel.

My third and final stop for the day was the little-known Wing Luke Museum. Wing Luke, the museum’s visionary founder, had dreamt of a place where the healing power of creativity and art embraced by  Asian American communities would flourish in the Pacific Northwest. As not only the first Asian American to hold elected office in the Pacific Northwest but as a supporter of the arts, Wing Luke established this museum to tell a story for all of us.  Dedicated to the Asian Pacific and Native American experiences the museum collection share their stories of survival, success, struggle, conflict, compassion and hope. A Smithsonian Affiliate, the museum is in a beautifully designed new building in which the cultural and artistic legacies of people who are either Asian American,  Native American or both come together for the first time in an exhibit called “Cultural Confluence.”  Heroic art by well-known artists as well as school children is presented, sometimes side-by-side, in original and colorful displays to celebrate life and its unfinished business.

A Harvest of Images: A Feast for the Eyes!

The Pajaro Valley Arts Council gallery (PVAC) in Watsonville is featuring over 100 images that showcase a wide range of both traditional and experimental printmaking processes, including digital media. The show, “A Harvest of Images”,  was juried by the highly regarded artist Howard Ikemoto, art instructor at Cabrillo College for over 30 years, now retired, who resides near Watsonville. The show opened on February 24 and will close on April 17. Everyone is invited to a reception at the gallery on Sunday, March 13, 2:00-4:00 pm.

The exhibit is an outstanding survey of contemporary fine art printmaking. Located at 37 Sudden Street in Watsonville, on a side street in an old Victorian house.  This ambitious and exciting  show features the work of forty-eight local printmakers from the MPC Print Club (www.mpcprintclub.com), based at Monterey Peninsula College.   Works include etchings, woodcuts, screenprints, monotypes, monoprints, and mixed media prints.

MPC artists capture not only what first meets the eye—the landscapes of great beauty—but also what lies beneath. Some challenge viewers to consider how our fields are tilled and who harvests what and for whom and at what cost. On view are prints that speak to the geography, history, agriculture, labor, culture and habitats of Pajaro Valley. This broad spectrum of new work includes etchings, woodcuts, screenprints, monotypes and mixed media prints.

MPC Printmakers will engage the public in the magic of printmaking, including classical Japanese woodblock,  through artist-led workshops at Pajaro Valley High School and at the PVAC Gallery. The free gallery workshop is March 26, 1-3 pm. A gallery guide (in English and Spanish) will be available for families to learn more about the world of printmaking.

February 24 – April 17, 2011  PVAC Gallery, 37 Sudden Street, Watsonville
831-722-3062; www.pvarts.org

Gallery hours: Thursdays & Fridays 11:00am to 4pm; Sat and Sun 12-4 pm.

Reception: Sunday, March 13, 2:00-4:00pm

Free demo workshop: Saturday, March 26, 1:00-3:00 p.m.

“Departures”–“Between Life and Death”

For a guest lecture I am preparing for a  course, “Philosophy through the Movies”, I decided to select the Academy Award® Winner for Best Foreign Language Film of 2009,  “Departures”,  (Japanese title: “Okuribito”, lit. “a person sent out or dispatched”), a  look into the in-between of life and death.  What the Tibetan Buddhists would call “bardo”.

Loosely based on Aoki Shinmon’s autobiographical book Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician (納棺夫日記 Nōkanfu Nikki), the movie opens with the main character,  Daigo Kobayashi, preparing a young woman’s body for “sending off” or being dispatched to the next world. After the unexpected happens while tenderly and respectfully cleansing and dressing  the corpse, there is a flashback to Daigo as a cellist in a symphony orchestra in Tokyo.  The orchestra has to disband, for lack of funding, and Daigo finds himself suddenly unemployed.  With his good-natured wife Mika, he moves back to his deceased mother’s house in his hometown in the hinterlands of Yamagata.  (Daigo’s mother had been abandoned by her husband when her son was only four years old and had operated a teahouse or coffee shop in her home to support the two of them.)

Spotting a job listing featuring the word “tabi” (or “trip”) from NK Trading, Daigo applies for the position, thinking he is going to start a new career in the travel industry.  Instead, he is stunned to learn that he will be the Buddhist equivalent of a mortician as well as an embalmer who washes, dresses, and applies makeup to the corpse in front of the bereaved.

Buddhism is  the religion most closely associated with death in Japan. But death is also a taboo or “unclean” subject as it is in the majority of cultures.  This universal fear of death and coming to terms with the death of a loved one are made even more fascinating by the ritualistic preparation of the body in front of the grieving family and friends. Understandably, given the nature of the job, Daigo keeps his new profession secret.  His wife and friends think he is a travel agent.

The theme of karma, the sacred nature of all sentient life, and ritual purification are subtly interwoven.   Death, in all its ambiguity, both a sacred and a profane “departure”, is viewed through Daigo’s eyes as he slowly awakens to the necessity and normalcy of his profession.  “Death is normal”, the movie states, and “Everyone dies”, while the scenes of eating in the office reiterate that “The living eat the dead.”

The themes embedded in every scene of “Departures”–forgiveness, compassion, letting go, and sending off–are about the healing of unhealed wounds.  In the case of Daigo, it is a reconciliation through the stone-letter with his absent father; for his wife, it is the misunderstanding of what death means for the living; and for the NK Trading employer it is the full circle of succession and passing on his experience to the next generation.

“Departures” is a beautifully crafted film, which opened this viewer’s eyes to the essential services that funeral directors, morticians, autopsy doctors and all who handle the dead provide for all of us.  This movie not only demystifies the process of closure, which ritual provides, but also the skillful grace, compassion, and respect for “sending off” the deceased, in order for the living to move on. This cinematic gem is, above all, a profoundly empathetic portrayal of people trying to make peace with the finality of death.

BLOOD LOTUS: Discovering New Voices in Literature and Art

I discovered the online journal, Blood Lotus, while doing a Google search for submitting my short stories to small boutique journals.  While spending hours looking for  an appropriate fit for my edgy short stories about growing up with wounds, both healed and unhealed, I discovered this literary and quarterly gem.  Blood Lotus, established in 2006, with the belief everything has not already been written, has a mission to promote not only distinctive writing but also unusual art. Two poets, Stacia Fleegal and Teneice Durrang Delgado, are its co-founders.

Stacia M. Fleegal (co-founder, managing editor, poetry co-editor) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2009 and 2010. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Fourth River, The Louisville Review, Skidrow Penthouse, Pemmican, Blue Collar Review, and The Kerf. She is also co-founder and co-editor of Imaginary Friend Press. The other co-founder and co-editor, Teneice (Durrant) Delgado is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Flame Above Flame (Finishing Line Press 2006) and The Goldilocks Complex (RockSaw Press 2009).

Each issue is predominantly poetry, reflecting the founders’ own interests but, I think, also the need for high-quality poetry journals since poetry is more difficult to get published than non-fiction, and secondarily, fiction, especially by unknown authors.

I particularly liked issue #17, both the art and the literary articles.  The art is a series of woodcuts by Peter L. Scacco, quite abstract and rich in composition.  The fiction and poetry are not mainstream, in the sense that the unexpected happens in offbeat ways.  I particularly liked “Underwater” by Trevor Houser and “Greater than Y” by Cherri Randall.  Check them out!

The theme for the next issue (#19) is the outsider or outlier, one who walks the fine membrane between mainstream and trespasser/interloper.  While my short stories did not fit this theme, the art I submitted fit Blood Lotus‘s “outsider” theme for inclusion in the forthcoming issue.  I hope you check out the issues on line at:  www.bloodlotusjournal.com for new voices, both in literature  and fine art.  The experimental vision of this journal should not be missed!


“Restrepo” – Dangerously Close to the Action

Movie Review for Restrepo, Diana PaulThis haunting documentary, winner of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary, chronicles very young soldiers (some younger than twenty years old) during their fourteen-month deployment in Afghanistan’s Korengal valley. A visceral view of modern battle, you cannot watch this riveting, real-life “Hurt Locker” without having your heart pulsate, tears catch, and compassion lodge in your throat for these boys and for the Afghan villagers they do not understand.

Sebastian Junger (author of A Perfect Storm) and Tim Hetherington (cinematographer) focus on a remote outpost named in memory of a platoon medic, Juan Restrepo, who was killed in action shortly after arrival in the valley. Considered one of the most dangerous assignments in the US military, the Korengal valley is a hellhole. At the end, Outpost Restrepo is shut down, after many soldiers have been killed in Korengal.

This movie is about the eloquence and courage embedded in the human face: the glowing eyes of red-bearded Afghan elders who are trying to understand—through the words of interpreters—why the US soldiers are there. Their light-colored eyes glisten so much, they seem to glow in the dark. It is an indelible and unforgettable capture of eyes like no others the American viewer has ever seen.

And the tender-skinned faces of soldiers so vulnerable and so bewildered by combat, boredom, and fear, this viewer felt the exposure was almost too much to watch. These young men—teenagers really– heartbreakingly reveal themselves in their down time—wrestling each other, displaying muscular, tattooed bodies, dancing and listening to music with the easy, comfortable physical contact of a fraternity while peril lurks down the hill. What are these guys doing there?

The cameramen (embedded journalists Junger and Hetherington), relentlessly film close-ups of soldiers and the Afghan community –in dangerous cave dwellings so narrow I wondered how the cinematography took place so smoothly and professionally. Sometimes the camera lens is no more than six inches from the jaw line of a soldier, revealing each gulp and emotion trapped in his throat.

The story of Restrepo is told completely without commentary: through photography and the soldiers’ own voices. Interspersed throughout the combat footage is a series of interviews after the tour of duty ends. Each young veteran gives his own take on what has happened–how he has to move on. One talks about how he can’t sleep, even after sleeping pills, and isn’t sure if it’s better not to sleep than to sleep with the nightmares he inevitably experiences. Another soldier, “Pemble”, perhaps the youngest, with the spare, lyrical force of a tragic hero, comments that he cannot forget what has happened to him, however much he would like to, because he doesn’t want to forget what the other men have meant to him. In defining each soldier’s life after battle, through the subtlest changes in each youth’s liquid eyes, twinges, and catches in their voices, “Restrepo” witnesses war in the 21st century through faces not words, allowing each of us to see what we want to see of how war wounds us all.

“The King’s Speech”—A Personal Idiom for All of Us

This is the third of my movie reviews so far.  The first movie review, “127 Hours”, and the  second, “Black Swan”, are two portraits of protagonists who have a daunting obstacle to overcome.  In “127 Hours” the main character has to wound himself in the most barbarous of ways to survive.  In “Black Swan”, the ballerina has to face her demons in order to truly be an artist.  And in “The King’s Speech”, King George VI has to overcome a debilitating stutter of humiliating proportions with a determination, dignity, and courage that can only be called heroic. After the Golden Globes awards I was delighted to read that the producers of “127 Hours” and “The King’s Speech” (a Golden Globe winner for best actor Colin Firth) were surprised critics were comparing their movies not only to each other but also to “Black Swan”.  To me the theme is evident: these characters all have unhealed wounds.  In two of the three their wounds are triumphantly healed and they move forward with their lives.

In “The King’s Speech,  “Bertie” (Colin Firth) who has suffered from severe stuttering since childhood, is suddenly crowned King George VI of England.  Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), his gentle and compassionate wife, encourages Bertie to see an eccentric Australian expat, the self-taught speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). After a reluctant beginning in which the class difference between the king and the therapist seems insurmountable, the two eventually form an endearing and unbreakable friendship. With the imaginative and therapeutic support of Logue, the King courageously overcomes his stutter and delivers the pivotal radio-address in 1939 announcing that Great Britain must wage war against Germany.  Colin Firth, in a truly inspired portrayal of a tortured man, renders this scene heartbreaking.  Finding his voice allows his sense of self to rise from the abyss of silence.

This superb movie is both humorous and emotionally charged.  The viewer slowly comes to the realization that, while we all have to find our voice, for some of us even the vocalization of sound is an act of courage. David Seidler, the movie’s 73-year-old screenwriter, was a childhood stutterer. Colin Firth has said that his inspiration came not only from Seidler but also from his own speech disorder that he had to overcome in order to develop his identity as a young actor.  And while the roots of stuttering are still somewhat mysterious — there’s no single accepted theory of its origins.  Adult stutterers often undergo years of sometimes discouraging therapies before they can feel comfortable with the sound of their own voice. The confluence of voice and self-identity can only be called iconic for those in the performing arts.   This movie embodies the story of a wound that was healed bravely, elegantly, and gracefully.

Eleven Tips for Women’s Memoirs on 1/11/11

Thousands of us love reading of all kinds:  fiction, history, memoir.  Sometimes all three are combined into one glorious book. We all know someone who is writing:  a novel, a blog, a series of poems, a mystery, children’s book, cookbook, screenplay and more.  And everyone knows someone in a readers’ or writers’ group.  Now there is one website which can fulfill the function of writers’ group, readers’ group, and how to get published in one URL.   The website womensmemoirs.com is for everyone who is a writer and/or a reader!

Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler, the authors of the award-winning collective memoir called Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story, have gathered all the information needed for how to write, edit, promote and publish all in one place! Tools and online support are provided. They have essays, excerpts from ongoing manuscripts, book and movie reviews.

I personally am intrigued by memoir, which necessarily has to deal with “coming of age”:  writing down and publishing one’s deepest personal experiences without camouflage or embellishment. Why not write memoir as fiction? What has changed since, say, the 90’s to make people expose themselves, their wounds, their banal thoughts, for perfect strangers to enjoy? Why the hunger, perhaps obsession, to hear about a woman’s terminal cancer, or a youngster’s frightening abusive parents?  There is social networking which touches upon too much information, but there is also the brutal honesty of memoir.

The process of writing is an arcane one, capturing a story that is compelling, pulling the reader in to care about what is being retold.  The same can be said about a great movie, or a play, or even an entrepreneurial idea for the next Facebook. For some, writing is a  process of healing and recovery. For others it is also a work of art, not dissimilar from a painting or sculpture.  All sorts of skills are required to put words onto paper, and www.womensmemoirs.com provides all the tips to getting you where you want to go.  Check out this website today:  for the eleventh of eleven writing tips for the first eleven days of the New Year.  They are wonderful to read!  Check out “Eleven Memoir Predictions for 2011” published on January 1 but read (or re-read) today, 1/11/11!

“Black Swan”—Dancing in the In-Between

This spellbinding movie, routinely described as a psychological thriller,  is not to everyone’s taste but I absolutely loved it:  dancing around the thin membrane between a fantasy/dream world and reality. Starring Natalie Portman as Nina, the beautiful but fragile ballerina who wishes to be the prima ballerina of Swan Lake, the movie opens with a dream sequence from this famous ballet.  Evil Rothbart envelops the White Swan in his arms, but Nina wakes up in her room, a child’s bedroom of stuffed animals with a  classic music jewelry box of a spinning mechanical ballerina twirling around.

In some ways this is not only a story about a ballerina who is striving for perfection in a severe and ruthless competition among other talented ballet dancers.  It is also a story that combines not only Hans Christian Anderson’s “Red Shoes” about a girl who cannot find balance in her life because of her obsession to dance,  but also “Glass Menagerie” which portrays the suffocating, self-destructive mother who lives through her daughter, wounding both.

Without giving away the ending, “Black Swan” is about vulnerability and strength, the virginal and the sexual, dual sides of personality and ego.  Nina’s alter ego is Lily (played very cleverly by Mila Kunis), as beautiful as she is but more daring and more sensuous.    Her back is tattooed with black wings, not exactly subtle, but visually artistic. Both young women are simultaneously attracted to and threatened by each other.  Cinematography emphasizes this point with flashes of Portman’s face substituting for Kunis’s in several pivotal scenes.

There are a few cinematic touches that are over the top and could have used more explanation.  A wall of paintings, for example, in Nina’s mother’s room are surreal, becoming animated—mouths and eyes moving.  The viewer is not sure if these paintings are of Nina or her mother, whose own lackluster ballet career she angrily ended when she became pregnant. The mother, portrayed with terrifying subtlety by Barbara Hershey, dominates and infantilizes Nina as much as the mother in   “Glass Menagerie”.  Her own wounds are deepened in her daughter, both psychologically and physically.

“Black Swan’s” tale of hallucination, obsession and sexual repression is utterly overpowering from the very first dream sequence in the film. For me, at any rate, “Black Swan” was a metamorphosis encompassing a downward trajectory of frightening innocence and loss of self.