“Blackfish”–A Whale of a Tale

 

Even if you are not a PETA member, you will be moved by  “Blackfish“, in which SeaWorld captures and trains killer whales, also known as orcas, in captivity.  The SeaWorld parks in Florida (with a brief filming in San Diego) are the center of this compelling film.  An unflinching portrayal of the brutal misconduct of the SeaWorld corporation towards the orcas, “Blackfish”   also reveals the betrayal felt by the young, enthusiastic whale-loving trainers.  Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s use of interviews and  archival footage presents almost irrefutable evidence against the company , resulting in several lawsuits.

images “Blackfish” belongs in the same category as “Project Nim”, a 2011 documentary about a 1970’s experiment on a chimpanzee for US academic research and “The Cove”, a film about the slaughter of dolphins in Japanese waters.  All three documentaries deliver  gruesome and horrific details of  the blatant human torture of animals.  While “The Cove” features boats trapping dolphins to slaughter them for market, “Blackfish” and “Project Nim” both feature animals used for human entertainment or purported research.

Cowperthwaite began work on the film after the death of  an experienced trainer by an orca while performing in the popular Shamu show.   Documentaries can still create change — and for SeaWorld the perception of  theme parks is forever changed by this film. Overall attendance at SeaWorld parks and Busch Gardens declined by 5% in the first nine months of 2013.   In response to the film, Senator  Greg Ball proposed legislation in New York to ban keeping orcas in captivity.  In March assemblyman Richard Bloom also introduced the Orca Welfare and Safety Act, a bill in California that would ban entertainment-driven killer whale captivity and retire all current whales, but now the legislation is in jeopardy due, in part,  to the SeaWorld lawsuit against this controversial film.  (http://seaworld.com/en/truth/truth-about-blackfish/?from=Top_Nav)

Note: This film is available through Netflix and on CNN’s website.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” –Hungary for Humor

 

The-Grand-Budapest-Hotel-PosterThis British-German co-production directed by Wes Anderson is  the adventure of Gustave, (a comedic turn for Ralph Fiennes) a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa (the astonishing 17-year old Tony Revolori) , the “lobby boy” who becomes his confident and essential companion.  Together they are determined to prove Gustave’s innocence after being framed for both theft and murder. The story centers on  the theft of a priceless Renaissance painting and the battle for a family fortune — all against the back-drop of a  dramatically changing Europe.

The narrative takes place in three time periods (each indicated by a different cinematic technique):  1) the present in which a teenage girl stands before a stature of “The Author” and begins learning about his story of the Grand Budapest Hotel; 2) 1968, a flashback to the elderly owner Zero Moustafa and “The Author” (Jude Law):  Zero’s remembrance of his youth under the tutelage of Gustave, concierge extraordinaire.   3)  pre- Second World War, circa 1932-33 when Zero is a young “lobby boy” and Gustave is the darling of the wealthy doyennes who patronize the hotel.  One especially wealthy eccentric upon whom he dotes, Madame D  (Tilda Swinton), dies mysteriously and bequeaths everything to Gustave.  Then the wild journey and story really take off  with Gustave and Zero partners in crime.

I am a huge fan of Wes Anderson (ever since “Bottle Rocket”). His films have always been quirky, idiosyncratic and goofy originals. All of Anderson’s trademarks combine to produce the ultimate wackiness in his humor. The absurdity that defines his style makes “The Grand Budapest Hotel” crazy and hilarious!

 

Top Ten Movies of 2013

f19bff75-9126-48a6-a2f0-2cb623dc91e1Every year I have taken a look back at the movie reviews I have written.  When I counted the reviews I have written this year (=18 plus 3 this year about movies released in 2013), I wanted to see what would be my top ten (actually twelve)  favorites.  It wasn’t easy, as both television and cinema have upped the ante on story-telling.

This list is not ranked in order of quality –only my top ten for 2013, grouped by genre, and one additional because I couldn’t help myself.

Independent Studios (Quirky themes):

1)Dallas Buyers Club (February 24, 2014  review): character-driven as well as plot-driven, focusing on the relationship between Woodroof and Rayon, polar opposites who need and want each other.  The performances are remarkable, perhaps as much  for the costumes and physical transformation as for the acting.

2) August:  Osage County  (Jan 29, 2014 review): a disquieting look at an American family with secrets and lies that keep coming and coming, when the viewer least expects them. Some critics disagree, but for me, I couldn’t take my eyes off of the shattering performance by Meryl Streep as a mother from hell.

3) Her  January 19, 2014  review):  part romantic comedy, part sci-fi, “Her” plays with the future and the interface between humans and their computers as well as the problems and pitfalls of communicating feelings in any relationship.

4) Amour (February 18, 2013 review): 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.

5) Page Turner (July 18, 2013 review): A French cinematic sleeper (2006),  this  thriller is subtle as a sonata, fine-tuned and intricately composed.

Political/Sociological Thrillers:

6) American Hustle (December 31, 2013 review) : How far are people willing to go to grasp the golden ring, to try to capture the American Dream? This cinematic marvel digs deep into how much we lie to ourselves, in order to believe what we want to believe.

7) Prisoners  (October 27, 2013 review):  A powerful tale of human nature gone awry.  What are parents capable of in their darkest moment, when their worst nightmare happens?

8) Side Effects (July 31, 2013) By releasing only one detail at a time, we are kept wading through interviews, court hearings, false turns, and psychiatrist visits until, finally, everything comes together. The entire film is very subdued, impeccably structured, and intricate in plot.

9) Shattered   (July 23, 2013 review): Paced to perfection, a cat-and-mouse game in which the clues and menace are only hinted at, but always cleverly hidden.  There are so many curves along the way, with a plot peppered with red herrings, most viewers will be thrown off track.

10) Argo (January 21, 2013 review):  I still keep thinking of this big-studio movie over a year after seeing it.  “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.

Young Adult:

11) Hunger Games II:  Catching Fire (December 20, 2013 review): Sequels are notorious for being a disappointment but this series with the heroine Katniss belongs in the same category as “Harry Potter” and “Twilight”.  It just seems to get better and better!

Psychological/Romance

12) Silver Linings Playbook (Mar 11, 2013 review): Although  billed as a comedy, this 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.

 

Art on Vacation

When we were in Napa Valley recently, the concierge at Bardessono recommended a local artist for a private in-room art workshop. Karen Lynn Ingalls was an extraordinary instructor with a very engaging teaching style.  Her specialty is mixed media in vibrantly charged colors.

KarenLynnIngalls

This delightful painter introduced acrylic painting techniques combined with stenciling and collage, and used a simple paper plate to illustrate the effects from a variety of acrylic media.   These different techniques can be quite confusing, but Karen made them fun for experimentation with different papers and stencils.  We painted with all the rich, happy colors:  yellows and oranges, warm blues and greens, vivid purples and red that glow in an exuberant way, nearly flying off the canvas and paper!  Karen calls her preference for the super-saturated colors “a kind of visual Vitamin C.” And this palate of color would revive the health of even the most anemic composition!

 

photo-5

If you are in the Napa Valley area, try some art in between all the hiking, dining, wine tasting and galleries.  It may not be the first activity to come to mind but art can be so much fun. And I recommend the Bardessono, an eco-friendly LEEDS certified hotel, which nurtures not only its guests but the local artist community in Yountville and the surrounding Napa Valley. The Bardessono art collection in and of itself is breathtaking and I have shared one of my favorite pieces here.

Bardessono

“House of Cards”–Season 2: The Main Course

house-cards-season-3-release-date
House of Cards–season 2

I just binged on the second season of  the Emmy-award winning “House of Cards,” the Netflix-produced political saga starring Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood and Robin Wright as his wife Claire as it continues its narratively complex drama– even better than 2013’s!  (See my February 2013 review of the first season, “House of Cards”–A Bulimic Buffet for Couch Potatoes?)

In this riveting thriller of political ambition, power, and hubris of Shakespearian proportions, we see the Underwoods cement their lethal relationship as the über power couple on the Beltway, energized by each other’s ruthlessness. Determined to leave no enemy unharmed, the two share everything:  strategy, tactical maneuvers, and annihilation without mercy. But both Claire and Frank have backstories, hinting at the damage that has been done to them.  Their wounds remain unhealed.

Claire and Frank Underwood pursue power without any internalized sense of obligation, morality, or responsibility resulting in the viewer’s fascination and fear of the Underwoods’  impending path of destruction. Frank is unmoved by barbecue vendor Freddy’s refusal to patronize a new butcher who tortuously slow-bleeds the hogs.  Slow-bleeding hogs do not even register on Frank’s radar, a  Vice President who wants policies made his way, and only his way.

In episode after episode of this alarming drama, this pair of frightening anti-heroes–nonetheless earn our reluctant admiration for their brilliant understanding of human psychology.  They can visualize motivations and blind spots even their foes are not fully aware of. Consequently, the Underwoods seem to have no worthy adversary except each other.

In the season finale, Frank is alone in the Oval Office –or rather, talking to us, the viewers on camera.  He taps twice with his ring, a lesson his father had taught him: knock once to toughen your knuckles for a fight and once for good luck.

Prepared, with bare-knuckle fighting almost certainly in his future, Frank knocks twice on the desk in the Oval Office.  But will Claire be the one he has to fight, the blind spot for him? The one he can’t overcome?  We’ll have to wait until February 2015 to see how this immorality play unravels, and how the toy soldiers Frank loves to create symbolize a challenge to his game.

“Shake Hands with the Devil”–The Backstory to “Hotel Rwanda”

Shake Hands 2005

A Sundance award-winning documentary, this film  takes the viewer to the  hell experienced by General Romeo Dallaire, who was assigned to lead UN peace-keeping forces in Rwanda in the spring of 1994. In 100 days approximately  800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered, most of them Tutsis at the hands of the Hutus.  The images of heaps of dead bodies, and rooms filled with  skulls, are more harrowing than anything I’ve seen in cinema.

General Dallaire returns to Rwanda ten years after the massacres in  2004, with his wife protectively guiding him through the landscape of his traumatic past like treacherous land mines waiting to explode. Told through this remarkable Canadian general’s eyes in a series of horrific flashbacks and post-traumatic memories, we witness his powerlessness and frustration, and his terrible remorse. Interviews with some of his UN colleagues and BBC reporters support Dallaire accounts: his horror, profound regret, and his shaken belief in human values.   Despite the general’s repeated alerts to the impending bloodbath, UN officials in New York—with European and American disinterest— did nothing. While Dallaire was promised 5,000 soldiers for a scheduled election of a new president,  the soldiers were never supplied, leaving his peacekeeping mission impotent. Refusing to leave the country during the reign of terror, this unsung warrior tried to save as many lives as possible.  And all hell broke out.

Both heroic and philosophical, this Canadian commander remembers “the most evil imaginable” with a heartbreaking vulnerability that is only a thin membrane away from what seems uncomfortably close to  a nervous breakdown.  The anniversary trip was likely  a necessary step in his recovery from post-traumatic stress, in the healing of horrific psychic wounds, which left him depressed and suicidal after his return to Canada.  Some semblance of order and stability returned to Rwanda by the time of his visit in retirement and he is given a hero’s welcome.  Participating in the commemorative ceremonies of the 2004 bloodbath, Dallaire delivers a quiet but searing and devastating speech.

Many reasons are given for the West’s indifference, most conspicuously, there was nothing anybody wanted from Rwanda.   It was convenient to dismiss the civil war as African tribal feuding, with an implied racism.   “Shake Hands with the Devil” is a reminder of the cost of indifference.

[Available on Netflix;  Note–Not to be confused with the low-quality drama by the same name, produced in 2007, the documentary “Shake Hands with the Devil” is dated 2005 .]

Shake Hands with the Devil
Shake Hands with the Devil

 

“Dallas Buyers Club”– Not for Cowboys (or, A Lone Star in the Fight against AIDS)

Dallas Buyers Club
Dallas Buyers Club

 

Jared Leto as Rayon
Jared Leto as Rayon

The true-life story of Texas AIDS pioneer, Ron Woodroof,  set in 1985 Dallas, depicts his battle to fight for his life after being diagnosed as HIV-positive. His search for life-supporting  experimental drugs via Mexico to help fellow HIV-positive people is the heart of “Dallas Buyers Club“.

Part-time rodeo bull rider Ron Woodroof (the skeletal Matthew McConaughey in an Academy Award-nominated performance) is rudderless–smoking heavily, snorting cocaine, having a lot of sex with prostitutes. He is also grossly unsympathetic for his racism and homophobia. While in the hospital on a work-related injury, the doctors inform him that he is HIV+, and that he probably has only thirty days to live.

In denial, and assuming that AIDS is exclusively a disease for “faggots”, Woodroff refuses to give up hope and begins to do research on experimental treatments. Ron begins to smuggle drugs not approved by the FDA into the US. In an unexpected business partnership with a transvestite named Rayon (the striking Jared Leto), the two AIDS patients establish a “buyers club” which does not, theoretically, sell drugs but rather disperses them to its members. Dr. Eve Saks (played by Jennifer Garner), one of Ron’s doctors, is caught between hospital policy and empathy for her patients but decides to help their cause.

“Dallas Buyers Club” is character-driven as well as plot-driven, focusing on the relationship between Woodroof and Rayon, polar opposites who need and want each other.  The performances are remarkable, perhaps as much  for the costumes and physical transformation as for the acting. McConaughey lost over forty pounds, rendering him virtually unrecognizable and painful to watch.  Leto, also nominated for an Academy Award, is wafer-thin, dressing up in over-the-top attire and makeup.  As Rayon, Leto delivers  a much more likable, even humorous, character and matches McConaughey’s intensity scene for scene.

Because of a tightly woven narrative and excellent performances by all members of the cast, this indie film presents the thematic threads of government corruption, big pharmaceutical profits, and homophobia without hyperbole and pandering.  An excellent choice for the Academy Awards!

 

“Falling” —In and Out of Love

Falling, the movie
Falling

A post-Valentine’s Day sleeper about romance with a Hitchcockian twist,  “Falling” is a story based on the real-life experience of the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard.  Howard was courageous in exposing her vulnerability in this absorbing story originally produced for British television and now available on Netflix.

Middle-aged novelist Daisy (Penelope Wilton, the fabulous classical actress of Downton Abbey and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” fame), is  heartbroken by her husband’s infidelity and subsequent dissolution of her marriage. Escaping to her remote country cottage to write and heal her wounds, Daisy soon becomes smitten by Henry (Michael Kitchen, “Foyle’s War”), a charming gardener who lives in a dilapidated barge near the canal facing her cottage.   Despite the suspicions of her literary agent and other close friends, Daisy is in a fragile state and she allows Henry to stay in the house while she is in London.  She gradually falls in love with him, even though his considerable caregiving makes her uneasy.

Penelope Wilton and Michael Kitchen are gifted actors and deliver intelligent,  nuanced performances in a narrative that may otherwise be somewhat unbelievable.  “Falling” is full of surprises, vacillating between mystery thriller and romance.   Just a glimpse in a single scene can radically change your sympathy for a character.  I loved it!

 

Hi from Ojai!

Ojai

We are always looking for a mini-vacation no more than four or five hours drive from Monterey. Several weeks ago we had the wonderful experience of staying at the historic Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, a glorious oasis directly east of Ventura. The wonderful climate of the Ojai Valley draws celebrities and regular folk to  rejuvenate their health in a sanctuary of tranquility at the spa or on the vast grounds where tropical birds in large cages talk to you in hilarious repetitions of whatever you say.

The trails –especially the Pratt Loop–are easy and long, with sweeping vistas of the valley below.  Along the well-maintained trails we picked avocadoes and oranges that drooped  from orchards nearby. Surrounded by hills and mountains, the Ojai Valley Inn celebrates the “Pink Moment” when the sunset casts a pink glow onto the hillside for all to enjoy while drinking a glass of wine from one of the Ojai Valley vineyards.

Although we were at the Inn during the “low season” the concierge service was truly imaginative and helpful.  We were able to take an acrylic painting class at the dedicated “Artist Cottage”.  Ojai does indeed nurture its art and artists with the  Ojai Center for the Arts, downtown galleries featuring both local and international artists, Ojai Studio Artists Tour and Art in the Park. Artist Cottage

A combination of art and wine can be seen on the  side streets and fine restaurants are scattered throughout.   In addition, there are many annual events like the Ojai Film Festival,  a cineaste’s destination (every November).

One of our most enjoyable activities was a private cooking class arranged through PalatePro in the back kitchen of Azu, a Spanish tapas restaurant.  We were lucky to be their first students. Chef Chris supervised our preparation of dates wrapped in bacon and stuffed with chorizo, brie drizzled with honey,  sautéed scallops with lemon and capers, spicy mussels,  kale Caesar salad with polenta croutons, filet tacos, and a pear tart all served in a private dining room. I’ll be posting some food photos soon! Azu was a blast.   Keep that in mind in light of my warning below.  I highly recommend Ojai as a retreat away from home, so close and yet a world away!  One note of caution:  Do NOT go to the hotel restaurant at the Ojai Valley Inn when the chef has his days off (Mondays and Tuesdays).  The food was terrible!

 

“August: Osage County”– Family Secrets and Lies

 “August: Osage County”, the Tracy Lett’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play, has been released as an Academy-Award nominated movie starring the incomparable Meryl Streep and an affecting Julia Roberts, together with a stunning supporting cast.

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTYThe story is a disquieting look at the dysfunctionality of an American family with secrets and lies that keep coming and coming, when the viewer least expects them.

“August” opens in Osage County, Oklahoma, with an alcoholic academic, Beverly (the superb Sam Shephard), who likes to quote TS Eliot, interviewing a young Native American woman as a caregiver for Violet, his drug-addicted wife, who has  cancer of the mouth.  The cancer is most likely symbolic of Violet’s combative nature and the demons who are devouring her from within.

On a blistering hot day in August, Beverly sets out on his small boat and mysteriously goes missing. Beverly’s three adult daughters return to their family home, along with their husbands or lovers and their children, together with Mattie Fae, Violet’s sister, and her husband Charlie with their son Little Charlie (a grown man.)  Secrets and lies surround Beverly’s disappearance, the major plot in “August: Osage County.”

The family’s dark past is painfully brought into the light, not only as it centers on the dying matriarch but also on the three daughters who have tried, and failed, to find loving relationships.  Mattie Fae is as complicated as Violet.  Revelations do not heal but simply damage further.  Each character chooses to hold on to their own lies rather than face reality and all its consequences. The viewer is the silent witness to the family wars.

As in other roles in which Streep inhabits an unsympathetic character (think:  “Kramer vs. Kramer,”  “The Devil Wears Prada,” and “The Iron Lady)” her understanding of each role makes you understand how each of these characters became damaged as well as draconian.  None of them are one-note stereotypes but layered, subtle, and original portrayals. Some critics disagree, but for me, I couldn’t take my eyes off of what I consider a shattering, unforgettable performance by Meryl Streep as a mother from hell. Please share whether you thought Streep overacted or got it just right.

“Her”—A Techno Romance

Her

“Her”, a wistful meditation on where we are and where we might be going in the not-too-distant future, is an inspired film by Spike Jonze who questions how technology will connect or disconnect us.

A lonely recently divorced man, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), develops an emotional connection  with his newly purchased operating system —OS Samantha (the dulcet, sexy voice of Scarlett Johansson).  While Twombly doesn’t understand why his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) fell out of love with him—she accuses him of being emotionally distant— OS Samantha seems to have been engineered to meet his every need.  Siri she is not.

Theodore Twombly who suggests “Your past is just a story you tell yourself”, tells himself a fantastical one about his computer. Set in a near-future Los Angeles, Twombly has developed a skill: writing eloquent imaginative letters for strangers — birthday wishes, love notes — but ill-equipped  to communicate with real people or even make eye contact (with the exception of one neighbor played by Amy Adams).  The strengths and failings of  relationships depend on the ability to talk about feelings and for Twombly the only safe environment appears to be with his computer.  He soon finds he is not alone in thinking that.  While she seems to fulfill his fantasy of a perfect relationship,  the more complicated she becomes, the more Twombly pulls away.  In this respect, the movie “Her” is like “Ruby Sparks”(see my review, November 11, 2013)—raising the question: If you could have your dream  of the perfect partner come true, would that bring you happiness?

One of the most provocative and original movies of 2013, “Her” plays with the future and the interface between humans and their machines as well as the problems and pitfalls of communicating feelings in any relationship. “Her” is part romantic comedy, part sci-fi with the brain teaser that falling in love in a cyber-relationship is not as far-fetched as it would have seemed even five years ago. Enjoy, laugh, and then think about how technology can both alleviate and increase a sense of loneliness!

“Year of the Horse” — A New Year Gallops On

2014-year-of-the-horse

The Chinese New Year doesn’t start until Jan. 31, 2014. but many people start thinking of the animal sign on the first of the New Year.  The spirit of the horse is recognized in the Chinese zodiac as energetic, elegant, warm-hearted, intelligent and able, but also capricious  with a  skittish and anxious nature as well.

The year of the Wooden Horse is supposed to be a temperamental one, so if you feel like horsing around during the upcoming festivities, that may be particularly fitting this year. Just be careful with the fireworks! Since 2014 is meant to be a tempestuous year, prepare for a thrill ride ahead. Green, blue and yellow are all supposed to be lucky colors to wear, and lucky foods include fish and caviar.

The Wood Horse year is a time of victory, unexpected adventure, and an excellent year for travel, and the more far away and off the beaten path the better. But you have to know when to act fast in a Horse year.  Energy is high and production is rewarded. Decisive action, not procrastination, brings victory.  However,  events move so quickly in a Horse year that you don’t want to gallop off in the wrong direction.

In Chinese astrology, a Horse year is considered a fortunate year.  Horses were believed to be magical, to fly (like Pegasus), but with the Chinese Bodhisattva Guan Yin as its rider.  Her white Horse flies through the heavens, bringing peace and blessings.chinese horse year by Cahooodesign

 

So, take a leap and fly. If it’s right, then don’t overthink it.  The Year of the  Wood Sheep (2015) will be one in which you can enjoy the comfort of the arts.  Therefore, make the best of 2014—a year for freedom, adventure, good times.    But impulse control not to overdo it or to overspend is the only boundary for the optimist who thinks everything  will work out.   Enjoy the Year of the Horse!