“Silver Linings Playbook”–Behind Every Cloud

The best comedies go for truths, not laughs.  And, although “Silver Linings Playbook” is billed as a comedy, it is more a romance between two young adults with bipolar disorder whose families and friends have to deal with the turmoil that mental illness creates.

David O. Russell, the director of this blockbuster multiple Academy Award winner, wrote the screenplay partly as an acknowledgement of his son’s bipolar disorder and as a message about this form of mental illness. Russell has delivered two sympathetic characters to raise  our awareness.  In this way, “Silver Linings Playbook” is more than a very likable movie with two amazing dramatic performances. Rather it is a journey of a young 30-something man, Patrick Solatano (played by Bradley Cooper)  and a young 20-something woman, Tiffany Maxwell (the Oscar-winning performance by  Jennifer Lawrence of “A Winter’s Bone” and “Hunger Games“) who both suffer from bipolar disorder.

In the opening scene Pat is released from a mental institution after eight-months of therapy.  Slowly and painfully he tries to integrate back into his Philadelphia neighborhood, living with his parents (Robert de Niro and Jacki Weaver perfectly partnered for the family dynamics). Pat and everyone who loves him–friends and family–are determined not to let his condition break them apart.  Then the beautiful and promiscuous Tiffany enters his life. The core of the story is the healing of these two wounded people.

This film is nevertheless buoyant and touching, not depressing, and the essence and heart of the drama is not a comedy but a romance. There are some exceptionally funny scenes, which do not go after the cheap cringe-inducing laugh. The art of “Silver Linings Playbook” is in the balancing act between the bipolar patient who believes he or she doesn’t need medication and the hope that survival in the world of family and friends is still possible. Moreover, Bradley Cooper gives the performance of his career playing against type.  (His claim to fame previously has been for the “Hangover” man-child films.) There is no miraculous cure for bipolar disorder.  It permanently clouds the mind.  But there is a silver lining and that is what makes this movie a charming romantic narrative.  
 No matter what your personal experience may be with bipolar disorder, you will find “Silver Linings Playbook” an entertaining and tenderhearted movie.

 

“Parade’s End”–An Historian’s Downton Abbey?”

 

The five-part BBC/HBO miniseries “Parade’s End” premiered on HBO last week (February 26) and is also available on video-on-demand.  The playwright Tom Stoppard has adapted  Ford Madox Ford’s monumental 900 page, four-novel series “Parade’s End” for television:  the intellectual’s  Edwardian-era alternative to “Downton Abbey.”   Both series take place in the same time period, beginning with the decade before the First World War.  But the view of the British class system, the end of the Empire, and the attitude towards the war could not be more radically different.

Take the British class system as one example.  The mansion of the main character, Christopher Tietjens, is no less opulent or aristocratic than Downton Abbey but is not populated by kindhearted masters who confide in their servants.  Moreover, unlike “Downton,” which used the trench warfare in France mostly as a heroic experience for its young hero Matthew Crawley,  “Parade’s End” is a scathing indictment of the “Great War.” The massacre of an entire generation of young men on both sides of the front, and the distancing of the entire British elite in their club chairs and literary salons is mercilessly presented.

“Parade’s End” tells the story of a bad marriage, in an inner world tiny and self-contained, in  a privileged highly stratified society. Christopher Tietjens (brilliantly played by Benedict Cumberbatch) believes in a code of conduct as well as high ethical standards no longer upheld by the majority of his peers (if they ever had upheld them).  Most of his social class is solely determined to hold on to their positions in society.   The era appears to be dying, and this is the tragedy.  Tietjens is clear-eyed about some of the impending changes and blindsided by others.

A brilliant statistician and analyst, Tietjens is also an anachronistic English gentleman, righteous to the point of rigidity and loyal to a fault towards Sylvia ( an astonishing Rebecca Hall), a haughty beauty who finds her husband’s punctiliousness and moral standards insufferable.  She will inflict any humiliation to elicit a response from her affectless spouse because he is the only one among her many male admirers not to find her irresistible.  Without Christopher’s desire for her, the other lovers are meaningless.

Tietjens’s morals are tested when he meets a lovely, intellectual young suffragette, Valentine Wannop (a winsome Adelaide Clemens), who returns his affections and his wit. He remains faithful to Sylvia, but the two are disgraced by gossip anyway.  Only Tietjens believes that war in Europe is imminent.  He volunteers to fight with the French, out of a sense of honor and duty, only to see that the war is cruel and futile.

“Parade’s End” is a more focused and darker story than “Downton,” as it gazes into its characters’ twisted souls and their self-destructiveness. The viewer needs to embrace the contradictions in human nature– the way one person can be both insightful and hateful (especially Sylvia).  While you always understand the connections among the characters on “Downton Abbey,” you have to piece them together yourself in “Parade’s End.” Critical elements of the characters often aren’t revealed but must be inferred.

This mini-series is much more subtle and moves slowly, as the early 20th century British aristocratic life did, with everything looking good on the surface but simmering with scandal and sensuality underneath.

Cumberbatch can convey volumes by simply curling his unusual Cupid’s Bow upper lip.  As an emotionally stifled Brit  small facial shifts can seem glacial.  He is a shift-changer: moving from nobility to foolish lover to respectful and generous, to broken and surviving.

“Parade’s End” has a different sort of entertainment value than “Downton Abbey”, but no less a visceral and addicting experience, without a shred of unnecessary dialog or emotion.

 

“Water Marks”–What Lies Beneath the Surface

“Water Marks”, the current exhibition at Pacific Grove Art Center (PGAC), features approximately 50 Monterey Bay area printmakers who have created etchings, woodcuts, screenprints, monotypes and mixed media prints focusing on the theme of water surrounding our beautiful Monterey peninsula.   The Monterey Peninsula College (MPC) Printmakers is an association of artists who are passionate about printmaking in all its variety of forms and techniques.

This exhibit is analogous to a “watermark” in that  the artwork requires more than a casual viewing.   Printmaking can be breathtaking in its variety and visual expressivity, even when focused on a specific theme such as water.  Far from diminishing originality, the “Water Marks” exhibit flourishes in its wide-ranging interpretation of water with unexpected embellishments, subtleties, and creative charm.

All prints in the gallery add multi-layered connotations to what water means to our lives.   For example, Evelyn Klein’s “Giverny” evokes the famous gardens of Monet in a photoetching with drypoint and subtle chine collé (decorative paper).  Donna Kooyman uses the solar print to reveal lunar phases in “#1 Blue Moons” and Linda Marcellini uses similar techniques in “Our Vital Resource”, a more abstract interpretation of undulating water. Patricia Colman, in “Dance of the Sea Kelp”, takes the organic plant and creates layers of color and mystery underneath the seaweed with paint. In “Sea Fans”, a mixed media piece including collage, intaglio and watercolor, I suggest not only the hypnotic tangents and curves of water but also the organic material beneath its surface.

A reception with the artists was held last Friday, February 22, and the public is invited to make their own prints on Sunday, March 2, 1:30-4PM. The exhibit closes on April 4.

Regular gallery hours are Wednesday-Saturday, 12-5PM and Sunday, 1-4PM. Pacific Grove Art Center is at 568 Lighthouse Avenue, Pacific Grove. For more information contact the center at 831-375-2208 or go to their website at www.pgartcenter.org.

“Amour”– A Somber Sonnet to Love

This year’s Cannes Film Festival winner is a film like no other on the dissolution and disintegration of life and the toll it throws at love.  As a five-time Academy Award nominee, “Amour“, directed by the Austrian Michael Haneke, is a spellbinding masterpiece. The superb Jean-Louis Trintignant of “A Man and a Woman” fame and the delicate Emanuelle Riva who stunned audiences in “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” are the capstone of this film.

Playing two retired octogenarian music teachers (Georges and Anne), these two masterful actors portray a deep and time-tested loving couple, sharing stories of their day with quiet tenderness and warmth. But Anne’s health declines precipitously after a mini-stroke and Georges becomes her dutiful caregiver, with little emotion towards those who worry about them, particularly his daughter Eva (played by Isabelle Huppert in a beautiful but minor role).

“Amour” demonstrates unsurpassable courage and unflinching honesty in exposing the deterioration of one’s spirit as life starts leaving it.   Riva and Trintignant’s subtle, delicately nuanced performances are classic, transcending linguistic barriers and strongly touching all viewers in the audience.  (The theater was so quiet, this viewer could hear the intake of breath and the quiet sobs of those nearby.) Everyone who sees this film will be affected.

Yet this is an unsentimental look at old age and dying, of decrepitude and the humiliating loss of dignity. Just as the two principal actors are intrepid in their performances, so too must the viewer be in receiving the images from the filmmaker. “Amour” is an epitaph of mourning, of having to face the certitude of death. It is painful to watch: to gaze at ageing and loss.  It will overwhelm; it will be heartbreaking.   Although “Amour” is the story of love and life’s end, the originality and the directness will surprise all who see this haunting film.

“House of Cards” — A Bulimic Buffet for Couch Potatoes?

Why wait a week to watch another episode when an entire buffet is available?  A lot has been written recently about “binge-watching” the practice of sitting on the couch or in bed to gorge on an entire season or a majority of episodes of a television series in one batch.  The bulimic viewer was not possible before Tivo, DVRs and Netflix video streaming (aka Instant Queue). Netflix has given us 13 episodes of “House of Cards”, a reinterpretation of the 1990 BBC miniseries which starred Sir Ian Richardson as a conniving Parliamentarian who rose to the level of prime minister before meeting his fate.

This 2013 “House of Cards” is the first foray into developing original television content exclusively for Netflix members. What has been the unintended outcome of the release of all thirteen episodes of “House of Cards” on February 1 is that the critical reviews of “House of Cards” have been more about “binge-watching” and less about the plot of this powerful political minidrama.

With the genius of Beau Willimon, (the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of “The Ides of March”) and David Fincher (Oscar-nominated for directing “The Social Network”) we have a set of twisted plots worthy of Machiavelli or the Borgias. “House of Cards” has been transformed into a contemporary American narrative about a vengeful Beltway insider, US Congressman and House majority whip Frank Underwood.  Hailing from a nowhere town in South Carolina, Underwood masterminds the destruction of all those who blocked his appointment to Secretary of State.

Set in present-day Washington, D.C., Underwood (Kevin Spacey) decides to inflict his volcanic temper and impalpable revenge upon those who betrayed him.  With lethal self-centeredness he is successful in every detail.  Underwood and his wife Claire (exceptionally played by Robin Wright), epitomize an über power-hungry couple who stops at nothing to conquer everything.  Each needs the other in order to be lethal.   Ruthless and cunning, Frank and Claire bask in the shadowy world of greed, sex, and corruption, severing all ties with anyone who stands in their way.  Nothing and no one are beyond their grasp, no matter whom they hurt.  Both exploit even the good qualities in others to set them up for manipulation and debasement.

While I personally like watching more than one episode at a time, if the story is tightly woven and meticulously written, I want to savor every tasty morsel.  “House of Cards” has such biting dialog, stunning character work and a provocative exploration of contemporary politics that an “all-you-can-watch” buffet of episodes may result in indigestion. Use portion control in feasting on this series.

 

Following “The Following”

A Fox television drama series starring Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy (the British actor who brilliantly played Marc Antony in the “Rome” series), “The Following” premiered two weeks ago (January 21).  It is already gaining a fervent, mostly young audience.

A furloughed FBI agent, Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), responsible for the imprisonment of the brutal serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), is brought back into action when Carroll masterminds a series of copycat murders perpetrated by a cult following (think Charles Manson meets Silence of the Lambs).  But Carroll is no ordinary psychopath.  He is a brilliant college professor who knows the power of his charisma and attracts a bevy of young college women to his seductive interpretation of Edgar Allen Poe.  The cult he creates becomes devotees of a perverted, distorted  religion, a version of Gothic romanticism Carroll has authored to encourage the belief that the only way to truly live is to kill.  With obvious references to the “Black Cat”, “The Cask of Amontillado”, “Telltale Heart”, and “Nevermore”, the viewer may have a renewed interest in Poe as reflected in the depraved mind of Ryan.

What follows is a battle between the psychologically wounded (Bacon) and the malevolent psychopath (Purefoy)  who inflicts unimaginable horrors on his victims. Ryan is damaged by the affair he had with Claire Matthews, Carroll’s ex-wife (Natalie Zea–the weak link in the superb cast).  Because he had a romantic connection with the criminal’s ex-wife, Ryan is dismissed from the FBI.  Now the pursuit of not only Carroll but also of his lapsed romance with Claire forces Ryan to deal with his unhealed wounds.

One of the most violent shows currently on broadcast TV, “The Following” is definitely not for the squeamish.  (The series “Dexter” looks edited and censored by comparison).  The horror/suspense nature of the series is underscored by the fact that all the victims in the first episode are young women.  The cult of killers or wannabe killers is made plausible by the quality of the writing and the acting, so that the violence is definitely gory and frightening (I closed my eyes in some scenes), but the psychology of manipulation, betrayal, and exploitation prevents the story from becoming ridiculous.  More back story of the principals (Ryan, Carroll, and even Claire) is required for this program to continue to maintain its fans, however.

“The Following” is a ferocious alloy of  psychology and violence, redemption and deceit.  I can’t wait to see where it’s going next.

“For Independent Minds”–Grey Sparrow Press

The Internet has created vast new horizons for first-time artists and writers–for new voices.  And indie publishers and self-publishing companies help create and reach new audiences for these voices.  But it still is a daily battle to prove that the new distribution channels for creativity are just as good (or better?) than the traditional black-and-white print media.

Small presses have become  a new and legitimate publishing force. Today these small publishers comprise approximately half of market share in the industry.

One such innovative and dynamic literary journal and press is Grey Sparrow, based in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Grey Sparrow offers a “National Treasure” series in the arts, and features a short story or poem by a Pulitzer Prize writer for most issues.  Emerging and established voices are both presented.  As the recipient of the “Best New Journal” award in 2011 by the MLA (Modern Language Association), Grey Sparrow’s mission is to publish visual art, photography, and literature in print and ezine format.  In addition, Grey Sparrow Press publishes books by first-time authors and announces them on its website  (http://store.thelitpub.com).

If you have art, photography or creative writing you would like to offer to a wider audience, and give voice to your story and interpretation, consider submitting to Grey Sparrow.  (Some of my art is featured in the current January 2013 issue.)

Independent publishing and self-publishing can be the perfect solution for voices yet to be heard, for the poetry of memory and time.  Through language and art, we can make what is small, bigger; what is silent, heard; and what is fleeting, eternal.

“Argo”–An Argonaut for Our Time

Although this movie is nominated for eight Academy Awards and won several Golden Globes (including Best Motion Picture in Drama and Best Director), it has not received the traction or box office success that it so richly deserves.  With Ben Affleck’s masterful direction, production and acting in “Argo” the studio and distributor have decided to re-release this film after the Academy Awards.

Based on a 1979 historical event at the  American embassy in Tehran,  six American  employees manage to escape and seek protection at the nearby Canadian embassy immediately prior to the storming of the US embassy by Iranian revolutionaries., “Argo”  kicks into high gear once Affleck lands in Iran. Affleck, on the other hand, is incredibly sympathetic, and it’s  fear for him that drives the emotional energy of the narrative. With few options, CIA technical operations expert Tony Mendez devises a daring plan: to simulate producing a  Canadian sci-fi film –preposterously far-fetched– on location in Tehran  in order to smuggle the Americans out as its production crew. With the help of some Hollywood industry contacts, Mendez flies to Iran as the film’s associate producer. However, time is running out.  Iranian security forces are zeroing in on the truth while both the Americans-in-hiding and the White House have serious doubts about the operation’s viability.

The story is intense and suspenseful, even though the viewer knows the outcome. Crackling with energy and determination to outsmart the Iranian revolutionaries, “Argo” captures the mood of our country. Affleck plays the quintessential American hero, confident to a fault, who will do anything to protect those he is responsible for–and  it is our fear for him that drives the emotional content of the film.

 

The Year of the Snake (February 10, 2013 – January 30, 2014)–Symbol of a Second Chance

Happy New Year –Chinese Style–is still around the corner. According to Chinese Buddhism, before the Buddha entered Nirvana only twelve animals came to pay homage. So the Buddha honored them by naming a twelve-year cycle after them. The Snake, the most complex and “unsettling” force among the twelve, was the sixth animal to pay its respect to the Buddha. This year is the year of the black (water) snake.

The Snake year has never been tranquil, due to the missteps and excesses rooted in the previous Dragon year (see my earlier post, “Happy New Year”–The Year of the Dragon). As the Dragon (2012) exits, the Snake begins to uncoil.  Both predator and prey, the snake must keep its eyes open, with a wakeful knowing, an omniscient awareness. We must be alert, like snakes.  Feelings will become more intense, so analysis is essential, and opportunities to “see” more, notice more, and fine-tune decision-making will arise.

We are invited this year to slough off old ways of thinking and develop a second skin. Prepare for letting go of old habits, roles and responses, and opening the way for rejuvenation, like a snake shedding its skin.   A source of spiritual healing, a medicine for the soul, 2013 is believed to restore balance in the midst of chaos and disharmony.   Yin must follow Yang for the universe to be in balance. The Dragon Yang, as the cycle’s most powerful positive force, must be balanced by the cycle’s most powerful negative force, the Snake Yin. Snakes are the symbol of a “second chance” in life. 

The Snake seeks protection in the security of safe places. This is not a year to take risks but for cautious preparation and attention to detail. Focus and discipline will be necessary for us to achieve what we want. Reflect, ponder and plan.

Saving money and being thrifty should be top priorities for all of us, in order to gain the greatest benefits the Year of the Snake has to offer.  In the Chinese zodiac the snake is wise but it is also unforgiving. Understand this to prepare for the Year of the Snake and you will not be surprised by the challenges and opportunities in store for you!