My Top Ten Movies for 2011–Reviewed, Not Necessarily New

Happy New Year–the Year of the Dragon in 2012!  Most of all, I want to thank all of you for your comments and email!

With 2011 coming to an end, I wanted to take a look back at the movie reviews I wrote this year.  I am an unabashed cinephile– 500 films (maximum allowed) in my Netflix queue with another 88 in my Instant Queue.  So, when I counted the reviews I have written this year (=26), I wanted to see what would be my top ten favorites.  It wasn’t easy!

This list is not ranked –only my top ten for 2011, grouped by genre.

INDIES:

1) Restrepo (January 24 review)— This was an unforgettable film of Middle East-US conflicts.   No other film–with perhaps the exception of “Hurt Locker”– has portrayed such a visceral view of modern battle.  The cinematographer, unfortunately, died earlier this year while filming in the Middle East for another movie.

2) Departures (February 15 review) (Japanese title: “Okuribito”, lit. “a person sent out or dispatched”)–  This little beauty of a film takes a look into the in-between of life and death.  What Tibetan Buddhists call “bardo”. The humor and pathos are never saccharine or juvenile, an extraordinary accomplishment!

3) Bliss (April 25 review) –This Turkish movie is a beautifully acted cinematic gem that pits village customs against modern urbanization, religion against secularism. Without cultural stridence or judgmental condescension, “Bliss” moved me in ways that other films about injustice towards the helpless have not.

4) The Conspirator (May 23 review)— “In times of war, the law falls silent,” one of the military tribunal commissioners states matter-of-factly in this film  about the unconstitutional acts Americans do when feeling collectively frightened.

5) Rabbit Hole (July 4 review)— Never mordant, though painful, this taxonomy of grief is like no other I have seen in recent memory.  It taps a reservoir of feelings common to anyone who has experienced the reality-shifting vacuum left by a death in the family.

6) The Fall (August 16 review)— Portraits of art in motion in a parallel universe “The Fall” is, above all, visual storytelling but defies easy categorization!  I keep playing with the imagery–in my writing and my art.

BIG STUDIO MOVIES:

Comedies:

7) Bridesmaids (June 20 review)— Comedy is, I think, the most difficult form of scriptwriting and this script proved to be brilliant in the most unexpected moments.   It is vulgar physical comedy that doesn’t appeal to anyone who cannot channel his or her “inner teenage self”. However, if you want to see a comedy that heals wounds while making you laugh, this is it!

Political and Sociological:

8) Ides of March (October 18)— A gripping drama, the “Ides of March” is not a narrative of hope but of the blood sport of politics, especially campaigning.  Every time I see a political commercial, I think of this movie and the lost souls involved behind the scenes.

9) Margin Call  (December 8 review)– Among the excellent films and documentaries about the 2008 financial meltdown, this one humanizes the headlines–through the eyes of a trading floor manager, whose curdling resentment of who he is, results in a deeply tragic, heartbreakingly lonely figure.  Superb acting with Kevin Spacey never disappointing!

Action:

10) The Debt  (September 20)— Pure adrenaline rush, this is no typical espionage thriller.  Helen Mirren is stunning as the sixty-something action hero in this testosterone-drenched gritty film.  I have not seen an action movie as riveting as this one, punctuated even further by the Holocaust back-story.

While celebrating the New Year’s Weekend, why not watch one of my Top Ten? Can’t wait to see what’s in store for 2012!  Cheers!

 

“Becoming Santa”–Home for the Holidays

I saw this delectable morsel of an indie film at the Napa Valley Film Festival last month and had a chance to talk with Jeff Myers, the director, for a few moments afterwards.  The backstory is fascinating but the movie stands on its own. “Becoming Santa,” reveals a lot more about the human spirit and generosity towards the tiniest among us than any Christmas tale or Christmas carol out there.

‘Becoming Santa’ is the story of Jack Sanderson, whose father has just passed away, leaving him with no family members to celebrate Christmas.  He is a forty-four year old bachelor who wonders if he should bother trying to have holiday spirit in Los Angeles with no one to share the holidays with.  Instead of wallowing in self-pity, Jack decides to become a Santa and help children celebrate the season that, after all, is meant primarily for children. His parents liked to celebrate Christmas and Jack wants to honor their memory with a quest for a new home for the holidays.

This is when the documentary becomes fascinating.  Jack applies to Santa School in Colorado (there are others) and begins his journey as a Santa who works in a department store, rides the Polar Express train, waves at crowds on a float in a Christmas pageant, and even makes “home visits”.  In the process, we learn about the history of Santa Claus (St. Nicholas in southern Turkey), the Santa Claus look (red suit, black belt, and white beard) which Coca Cola promoted for their own commercial purposes, and listen to interviews with other Santas across the country.

Becoming Santa is one of the jolliest, most emotional, poignant depictions of Christmas spirit I have seen.  What does it mean to be a successful Santa to children?  What is the training like? What is the feeling one gets making history in a child’s life–for almost everyone who celebrates Christmas has at least one photo as a child sitting on Santa’s lap?

The camera lingers on  Susan Mesco, the owner of the Santa school Jack attends.  First lesson–to avoid the “k” word–“kids”–for the much more respectful word, “children”.  Those who lapse into saying “kids” have to pay a dime in the “transgression” jar. Jack is charismatic– delightfully and cheerfully interacting with children and putting them at ease with his comforting smile.

When I first heard about this movie at the Napa Valley Film Festival, I wasn’t sure if this was going to be one of those cheesy, saccharine Hollywood movies we have to bear with young children who want a movie during the winter break. I hope that “Becoming Santa” ends up being a holiday classic – whether or not you celebrate Christmas–because this movie is an essential narrative of the human spirit and reconnects us with the spirit of generosity and community we all need, starting with the tiniest among us.

Note:  This film does not have a major distributor at the time of this blog post.  You can go to the film’s website at www.becomingsantathemovie.com to see the trailer and read a summary of the story;  order it from Amazon.com; or, watch for repeat performances next year on OWN (The Oprah Winfrey channel).  You can also write the Napa Valley Film Festival and inquire about Jeff Myers’ plans for future distribution.

 

 

 

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers–The Most Famous Whistleblower of Our Time?

Nominated for a 2010 Academy Award for Best Documentary, this past June marks the fortieth anniversary of the release of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, which was forced to stop publishing by a cease-and-desist order mandated by the Nixon administration. “The Most Dangerous Man in America” tells the inside story through the narration of Daniel Ellsberg himself, of this game-changing event that ended the Vietnam war and transformed our nation’s political discourse. This documentary is riveting because of the historic footage of Ellsberg, his colleagues, family and critics and White House tapes of President Nixon and his inner circle of advisors. “The Most Dangerous Man” reveals how the Pentagon Papers were the catalyst that drove Richard Nixon to take the law into his own hands.

The Pentagon Papers are a shattering indictment of America’s role in the Vietnam war, based on decades of lies involving four presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon). “The Most Dangerous Man In America” is a compelling history lesson for those young enough not to know of these events and the rest of us who do not realize what happened behind the scenes.  Ellsberg casts a shadow on Deep Throat, his worthy successor. Every high school student should be required to see this documentary!

A Marine officer with Vietnam experience and a PhD in economics from Harvard, Ellsberg was a “war theory” expert at the Rand Corporation, and was granted the highest security clearance by the Defense Department in the Nixon administration. At first Ellsberg supported the war in Vietnam, but his perspective gradually changed as he saw internal Pentagon documents that described the war as hopelessly stalemated. Encouraged by his girlfriend, Patricia Marx (later his wife) and by student activist Randy Kehler, his change of heart was crystallized when Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, ordered a brutally honest analysis of US military involvement in Vietnam: United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967. Evidence that government officials knowingly and repeatedly lied about the war deeply disturbed Ellsberg. Unsure what to do, Ellsberg did nothing for three years, before deciding to give the “Pentagon Papers” (the informal name for the confidential report) to a reporter at the New York Times, to the Washington Post, and to 17 other newspapers. In the film Ellsberg confesses that he is still haunted by the three years he wavered before leaking the Pentagon Papers, and he wonders how many American soldiers might have been spared if he had started his photocopying sooner.

The USA’s trust in government was shaken to its foundations.  The New York Times demonstrated how four presidents consistently lied to the American people about the Vietnam War, killing millions and tearing the country apart. Henry Kissinger called Ellsberg “the most dangerous man in America,” who “had to be stopped at all costs.” It was not so much the telling of the truth as a revolutionary act that disturbed Kissinger and Nixon, but that the precedent would inspire Americans to question the previously unchallenged pronouncements of its leaders.  In a haunting clip of Kissinger, we see the foreshadowing of Watergate.

Under the Espionage Act Ellsberg was the first American prosecuted for passing along classified documents to newspapers, not to a foreign power, and he faced 115 years in prison had he been found guilty. Meanwhile, in an attempt to discredit Ellsberg, the Nixon administration (under John Halderman’s supervision) spread  rumors that Ellsberg was homosexual, and had committed war crimes while in the Marines. White House “plumbers” were sent to burglarize Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to obtain his files. The White House also sent several Cuban CIA “assets” to assassinate Ellsberg at a rally, but the size of the crowd made their mission impossible. An Appellate Court judge dismissed all charges against Ellsberg because of the government’s misconduct. Later, the Supreme Court would rule 6-3 that freedom of the press prevailed over Nixon’s complaints, and allowed the publication of the documents to resume. Would that be the same outcome today? Ellsberg and his Rand colleague, Anthony Russo, were not acquitted of violating the Espionage Act, but were freed due to a mistrial based on irregularities in the government’s case.

“The Most Dangerous Man in America” is a timely documentary indeed. Ellsberg himself notes in the film that he was struck that the publication of the Pentagon papers had not produced the uproar that he expected. Nixon was soon re-elected with a landslide.

There’s sufficient drama to keep your interest–not just talking heads — like Ellsberg’s late-night photocopying when security guards were prowling the office building or the general counsel of the New York Times arguing for management to publish the Pentagon Papers. I hate to think what would have happened had he failed to convince them.  Also striking is the contrast between methodically photocopying each page (which took months,) and then seeking a publisher  with today’s use of thumb drives and  WikiLeaks to disseminate information.

Some viewers will have a depressing sense of history repeating itself, and Ellsberg himself ruefully asks why the lessons of Vietnam and Watergate seemed to fade so quickly.  Ellsberg is a complex and difficult man whose principles, whether you agree with them or not, can’t be denied.  Whether that makes this preeminent whistleblower the country’s “most dangerous man” is a question that seems almost incomprehensible in today’s context!  See this movie to revisit a touchstone of American culture, politics, and government in the twentieth century.

“Margin Call”–Soulless Capitalism at Its Finest

An onslaught of “Occupy Wall Street” movies has been released in the last two years–think “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”, “Too Big to Fail”, “Up in the Air”, The Company Men”–in the wake of the financial meltdown of 2008.  “Margin Call” deserves to be among the classics,  which have focused on greed, power, and the vacuum resulting from gutting regulatory compliance. (My favorite among recent classics is “Glengarry Glen Ross”.)

The brainchild of director and screenwriter, J.C. Chandor, “Margin Call” is a slowly unfolding narrative about a risk management analyst, Eric Dale  (beautifully played by Stanley Tucci), on his way out of corporate America along with eighty percent of an unnamed broker/dealer (=Lehman Brothers??) who must lay off all but the most ambitious (and ruthless) employees.  Tucci’s character hands off a flash drive to a young analyst, Peter Sullivan (the remarkable Zachary Quinto of “Heroes” and “Star Trek” fame).  Sullivan is left with the unenviable task of realizing that the broker/dealer he works for is over-leveraged, based on  faulty assumptions of a proprietary predictive algorithm for mortgage securities. How timely is that?!

In an impeccable cast including Demi Moore as the embittered woman executive who has played by all the rules in a male-dominated company only to be the scapegoat, Kevin Spacey owns this movie.  While there are portraits of a range of power players all trying to survive in a game where only a few can continue to triumph, Kevin Spacey’s  character, Sam Rogers, is the conflicted, morally ambivalent trading floor manager whose curdling resentment of where he is and what he must do results in a deeply tragic, heartbreakingly lonely figure.

John Tuld (=Fuld of Lehman Brothers perhaps), the  CEO, denies that disastrous speculation is the death of his company.  In a brilliant, riveting scene Tuld (the almost-always villainous Jeremy Irons) announces the firm has no choice but to liquidate its mortgage securities by the end of the next trading day — a strategy that will destroy the financial well-being of  millions of Americans in the process.  There is no moral–only a logistical– dilemma for the corporation. How to avoid a devastating margin call translates to how fast can they dump the worthless paper they have been holding before word gets out on the street? They frantically start selling to customers knowing that what they are selling is worthless.

Although the film belongs to Spacey, Irons faces Spacey and indifferently mutters:  “It’s all just the same thing over and over; we can’t help ourselves. And you and I can’t control it, or stop it, or even slow it. Or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react. And we make a lot of money if we get it right. And we get left by the side of the road if we get it wrong. And there have always been and there always will be the same percentage of winners and losers. Happy foxes and sad sacks. Fat cats and starving dogs in this world. Yeah, there may be more of us today than there’s ever been. But the percentages-they stay exactly the same.”

Those may be the most memorable, debilitating and cold-blooded lines to ring in your ears long after the film has ended. I can’t stop thinking about them!

 

“The Descendants” –Decent But Not Great

 

I recently saw “The Descendants” at the Napa Valley Film Festival. I had high expectations. What’s not to like about either George Clooney or Alexander Payne?  Both of them are very talented entertainment superstars.  However, neither George Clooney’s pretty face nor Alexander Payne’s mastery of comedy and pathos (“Election”, “About Schmidt”, and “Sideways”, to say nothing of the hit TV series “Hung”) are sufficient to render this movie anything but mildly entertaining.  It’s decent, but not great comedy or acting.

Clooney’s Matt King, a workaholic, emotionally distant Honolulu attorney and land baron, is descended from royal Hawaiian blood.  His great-great-grandmother was a Hawaiian princess who married a haole (non-Hawaiian).  As the executor of an enormous land trust of beachfront property, Matt must decide to keep the land unspoiled or sell it to developers so that his relatives can reap millions of dollars from the proceeds.

But Matt’s major problem is with his family. A boating accident has left his wife comatose, challenging his negligible parenting skills.  Their two daughters are a ten-year old girl,  Scottie (Amara Miller, a scene-stealing newcomer),  and a stereotypically sullen teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), whose behavior has landed her in boarding school. Matt is blindsided not only by grief, two daughters who need emotional support, but also by betrayal.

What did I like about “”The Descendants”?  First, I liked the lived-in feeling of seeing Hawaii’s real residents–some of whom are scruffy, overweight, and wear muumuus instead of teeny-weeny bikinis.  This is not the postcard version of Hawaii.  The Hawaiian sound track reinforces the island culture.  Second, small roles by some of the supporting actors have the dazzling portions of the dialog, especially the father-in-law (Robert Forster) and Judy Greer, whose scenes are memorable: subtle facial expressions, suggesting a nobility and integrity of spirit. The wise but fragile character portrayed in a disarming way by Amara Miller keeps this film from devolving into TV soap.  Flashes of humor in some of the dialog between Clooney’s character and the two daughters are hilarious.

However, it is the scenes in which Clooney dominates the screen, which shred even the thinnest threads of plausibility.  In one scene Matt King, after saying goodbye to the last of his friends, drops to his knees outside his home’s circular driveway.  This canned acting gesture, purportedly conveying intense emotion, has been overdone and is overwrought– just a lazy shortcut for anguish and grief, like throwing a glass across the room to depict anger.  Clooney and Payne–you are both much better than that!

The Descendants has received widespread critical acclaim. The film scored an approval rating of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert gave the film a perfect four stars.  I would give it two stars– light fluff for the rainy night when you want to be entertained with a forgettable, but decent flick.

“J. Edgar”—Investigating the Investigator

 

Based upon a script by “Milk” screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, and directed by Clint Eastwood, “J. Edgar” is a biopic of the controversial FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover. In this spellbinding movie, Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Hoover, ages five decades, as he grows from an ambitious young law enforcer to the most powerful, controversial,  and intimidating FBI director the US has ever known.  Even presidents feared him.

“J. Edgar” depicts Hoover’s early career (the 1930’s), including raids on Communist “radicals” and organized crime, the Lindbergh kidnapping, and his most brazen surveillance for the purpose of destroying the presidency of John Kennedy, the career of Robert Kennedy, as well as that of Martin Luther King.  However, it is the secret life of Hoover that is the most compelling and successful part of the narrative, because the film tries to humanize him.  For a man whose life was devoted to extracting and exploiting the secrets of other powerful men and women, Hoover’s own secret life as a closeted homosexual takes central stage as the biography moves between his lifelong relationship with his protégé, Clyde Tolson (superbly played by Armie Hammer) and his domineering, demented mother (the always exceptional Judi Dench).

 

Hoover’s own obsessive-compulsive tendencies–his hidden psychic wounds– drive his relentless concern with his image and the image of the FBI.  Ironically, the primal image of the name “J. Edgar Hoover” today denotes government investigation gone rogue.

 

The structure of the movie and its cinematography, however, are the weakest elements of “J. Edgar”. The overdone flashbacks disconnect important events by decades–moving from the Lindbergh kidnapping to long scenes of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and then back to the Lindbergh kidnapping and trial. Eastwood shoots this story in a washed-out sepia color palette for most of the scenes from the 1930’s through early 50’s with more color added as the dramatic 1960’s emerge in the story. But these visual cues are not enough to maintain a seamless continuity of events. This is the best movie Eastwood has directed of the last four (the other three being “Changeling”, “Invictus”, and “Hereafter”) but not among the best he has done (“Letters to Iwo Jima”, “Mystic River”, “Million Dollar Baby”). Nonetheless, I highly recommend this movie for the actors’ bravura performances–especially DiCaprio’s, which defines his career to date.

***Possible spoiler alert!***The scene where DiCaprio dresses in his deceased mother’s clothes triggers a similar scene from “Psycho” and is well worth an Academy nomination in itself for DiCaprio’s chilling, wordless performance!


Napa Valley Film Festival–Is this the next Sundance?

Last week (November 9-13) I attended the inaugural Napa Valley Film Festival (NVFF) with a friend who lives in Calistoga and has volunteered in the festival’s planning.  Over 100 films were presented, many for the first time at any film festival, in 12 screening locations from Napa to Calistoga.  Along with viewing films we had the  pleasure of tasting fine wines from local wineries and delicious food at the welcome party (for holders of Pass Plus and patrons).  In the next two or three posts, I will be reviewing several of my favorite movies from NVFF.

While this year marks the 30th anniversary of Sundance,  walking through the Napa Valley circuit of theaters I kept imagining that Sundance was probably a lot like this in 1981, except for subzero temperatures and a smaller geographical area to maneuver.  Since my friend Caroline and I had been to Sundance several times, we had the experience to compare both festivals.  First of all, for those who prefer the autumn splendor of colored leaves, hills, and vines, Napa Valley is incomparable.  The rugged beauty of Park City, Utah definitely has its merits–especially for skiers–but the subzero weather makes long outdoor lines a form of human torture.

Second, the novelty of the film festival in the Napa area resulted in great flexibility among the friendly volunteers in greeting attendees, guiding them to the complimentary wine tables, and allowing the two of us into the theater after the first minutes of the movie’s showing.  Sundance would never let us do that!  We were quiet and moved stealthily to seats in the back near an exit.  Never an option at Sundance.

The films were overall of high quality with some first runs–“J. Edgar”, “The Descendants”, “Butter”, and “Hideaway”–all produced by major production studios.  Several of the indies were charming and original–“Becoming Santa”, about the history of Santa Claus and the training of Santas at a special school, “Jiro Makes Sushi”, about an 85-year old master chef in Tokyo’s only 3-star Michelin restaurant, and “Mamitas”, a coming-of-age film about two Mexican-American teenagers in Los Angeles.  The editing, sometimes a lack of subtitles, and infrequently amateurish cinematography in a scene or two marred some of the indie films we saw. As word gets out, however, there should be a broader selection of fine films to choose from.

There were perhaps two major indicators that the NVFF is just beginning its journey to being a major player in the long list of film festivals across the country.  One is the lack of adequate signage for finding some venues (Elementary School and Gliderport in Calistoga, for example), where anyone but locals would not be able to find the location.  Even my friend hesitated in finding the driveway for the Gliderport venue.  The second indicator was the absence of a shuttle bus system to transport attendees from one theater to another, and some were at least 45-minutes apart from point-to-point (Calistoga to Napa).  While over half of the attendees were locals this year, that will definitely change as the word gets out that this film festival means business about being ranked in the top ten nationally.  With the food (Zuzu, Market, Azzurro, Oxbow Market, Jole) and the wine (unique in comparison with Sundance), the Napa Valley Film Festival is definitely a contender for being a knockout star among film festivals going forward!  Check out their excellent website at: www.napavalleyfilmfest.org. (Sundance could learn some lessons in this department from Napa!)

Profile in Scribbles–“All About Me”

I will be reviewing some movies from the upcoming Napa Valley Film Festival in the next few weeks.  But in the meantime, I am posting a recent interview  profiling my background  writing “scribbles” in the newsletter by the same name distributed by my writers’ group, Central Coast Writers.  Some of you have been asking for more information about my future writing plans.  Here it is–“All about me”.

MEMBER PROFILE in the October issue of Scribbles, the newsletter for Central Coast Writers

 From semiconductors to Buddhism, Diana Paul’s writing subjects reflect a diversity that is evident in her employment history.  With a B.A. in psychology, an M.A. in philosophy and a Ph.D. in world religion (Buddhism), it’s no surprise that Diana would write three academic books on Buddhism— books she wrote while a professor at Stanford University (1974 to 1985). Likewise, when she was CEO of OCL Technology Center, “a think-tank US-Japan trading corporation backed by Japanese banks and high-tech companies,” Diana also wrote guest columns for the San Jose Mercury News, the San Jose Business Journal and the Christian Science Monitor “during the ‘semiconductor wars’ era in Silicon Valley (1988-1994) when trade relations were tense,” Diana says.

Though her foray into fiction writing spans only the past three years or so, Diana, also an artist and printmaker, has big plans for her writing future. She hopes to find an agent by the end of 2011, publish Unhealed Wound, a tale about three siblings growing up in the Midwest during the 1960s, in 2012, and have her novel optioned for a movie.

“The worldview of Buddhism has subtly permeated my novel with underlying themes of karma and recovery from injury,” Diana says. “The narrator/main character is a married woman who wishes her mother would die, while reflecting on her family, their past and their wounds. All have injured and scarred each other. The parenting effects they endured are now moving on to their own children’s lives.”

Excerpts from Unhealed Wound have already been published as two short stories, testimony to Diana’s ambition and dedication to her writing pursuits. As one who practices what she preaches, Diana says it’s important to “read and write every day and as much as possible. I also think movies are a great way to refine one’s storytelling skills. . . . And don’t be a harsh critic of your own work. Leave that to others. Just get the story down on paper and polish it afterwards.”

Though she declares herself a night owl, Diana says her best writing time is in the afternoon. “Since I get up around 10:30 a.m., that means I eat my first meal of the day around 11:00 and don’t start writing until around 1:00.”

An avid blogger known for her storytelling ability and movie plot revisions, Diana was inspired by the abundance of talent in CCW’s membership and enrolled in last year’s blog workshop, which changed her life, she says. Posts to her website (http://unhealeadwound.com) include movie reviews as well as commentaries on food, wine and art, “all the discoveries that make life worth living!”

 

[This article was written by Michelle Smith, who publishes for a wide variety of magazines.  Her website is: http://theebonyquill.com.]

 

 

“The Mayor of Casterbridge”–A Victorian Drama for Today

Victorian values seem remote — the language is obtuse, the character development Shakespearean in complexity.  However, I adore Thomas Hardy.  As the master of labyrinthine plots, Hardy surprises when the viewer least expects it.  And the BBC/A & E mini-series, “The Mayor of Casterbridge” (2003),  capitalizes on every deviant turn with brilliant acting, cinematography, and contemporary sensibility.

Hardy’s novel is immensely captivating in cinematic form.  “The Mayor of Casterbridge” is an astringent tale. The dark and mordant Michael Henchard, mayor of Casterbridge, (masterfully played by the underrated Ciaran Hinds) is deeply unlikable, a cruel, selfish drunkard who brutally humiliates his young wife and small child. But Thomas Hardy does not paint his characters in broad strokes of black and white.  His good and evil are much more complicated than that.  Personal failings morph into redemption and insight but devolve again into self-destruction and betrayal.  The pure-of-heart–Henchard’s wife Susan and her daughter Elizabeth Jane (Jodhi May)–can forgive the unforgiveable and love unconditionally. Lucette, Henchard’s mistress (the excellent Polly Walker) has a more guarded affection. Donald Farfrae (the superb James Purefoy), a young ambitious Scotsman, arrives in Casterbridge and soon is taken into Henchard’s confidence.   Wanting to achieve what Henchard has, through cooperation not competition, Farfrae introduces a revolutionary technological invention for mechanizing wheat cultivation, further enhancing Henchard’s reputation as a shrewd and successful businessman. Soon Farfrae is a more compassionate and effective manager than his employer.   When Farfrae wishes to court Elizabeth-Jane Newson, who at the time is living as Henchard’s stepdaughter, the relationship with Henchard begins to unravel, and Farfrae’s own ambitions cast a shadow over his relationship with Elizabeth Jane and Lucette.

The viewer does not expect the ending that unfolds, hoping instead for redemption, forgiveness, self-knowledge. Hardy’s study of human nature and all its failings is soul-piercing and unflinching. In spite of being loved, can the tormented soul be rescued from drowning in self-loathing? The mood of “The Mayor of Casterbridge” is wounded, ambiguous, and unforgettable.

 

Genealogy–Seeking Connections Past and Future

How much do we know about our own parents, let alone grandparents? To one degree or another the lives of our parents remain a mystery.  Some families assign the responsibility of “family historian” to a designated relative to create and maintain a family tree.  Our daughter, Maya,  has just been entered into her husband’s family tree, immediately after her wedding. We are at a loss ourselves about our family trees.  Keith, for a high school project about family history, found faces on the Internet that remotely looked like us and made up first names (and some last names) for great-grandparents and great-great grandparents on a family tree.   Doug’s brother hired a genealogist/historian from a local university to interview their ailing father and write his biography as a Christmas present for all members of the family.  But, for even those who know the names, places of birth, and names of children of past generations of relatives, that does not mean one can claim to know their essential experiences, only external facts.

Genealogy has become a growth industry.  Partly this is due to fundamental shifts in U.S. demographics, increases in Internet social networking,  primetime television shows like “Who Do You Think You Are?”  and documentaries about remote parents and their “hidden” lives. The target user for family history databases is 45- plus, an  age-group that is growing rapidly.   Advancements in scanning technology and indexing operations have facilitated online-record accessibility and searchable indexes available through websites like USGenWeb.org, Archives.com and FamilySearch.org.   Analysts project that blogging about genealogy will double in growth by the end of this year.

In addition, the seasonal spike in online genealogy searches starts around Halloween and continues through January or February (according to Google search analysts) due to pending holiday celebrations with family.  But family history is an interest to many of us in an ongoing process of seeking meaning. The ultimate need is not a fact or date, but to create a larger narrative, connect with others in the past and in the present, and to find continuity in one’s own life with not only the past but the future.

 We conduct genealogical research not only to better understand our roots and to get to know ancestors as people. Connecting through time with our forebears is a means of personalizing the past, carving out a place for one’s family in the larger historical perspective, a sense of responsibility to our children and grandchildren, and preserving collective memories.

For some of us who can no longer ask our parents or grandparents about their stories, there is a poor substitute for learning about our forebears:  genetic genealogy— a person’s DNA. Websites like 123andme.com, decode.com and navigenics.com promises to provide a complete genome of the customer, screen for the likelihood of developing an inherited disease, and describe information passed down relatively unchanged from early ancestors.  Sites like the National Geographic project trace migratory pathways out of Africa, based upon a cheek swab mailed to their headquarters.  While this is no personal connection with the past or future, it is a more universal signature of how the human race is connected in its birthplace Africa.  Or, is all this interest in genealogy just a thinly disguised attempt to leave a mark after death for future generations– that we did in fact exist, if only as a square on a chart of the family tree?

“The Ides of March”–Beware, Beware!

  Is it possible for any political candidate to win and yet remain true to his or her original values?  Movies about dirty politics such as “Wag the Dog”, “All the President’s Men”, “The Manchurian Candidate”, “Primary Colors”, “Bob Roberts” and “The Candidate” (to name a few) has yet another winner in this category–“The Ides Of March”.  Based upon the Beau Willimon play, Farragut North,  “The Ides of March” explores new ground as well as covering familiar territory about media’s role in politics. (Willimon, by the way, worked on Howard Dean’s campaign for president).

With a star-studded cast, “The Ides of March” focuses on a press secretary, Stephen Meyers (the fabulous Ryan Gosling) as an idealistic media wizard who believes in his boss, Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) currently running in a pivotal Ohio primary for the Democratic presidential nomination.  As the movie opens, Governor Morris is an uncompromising, idealistic liberal who believes he can make a difference. Meyers has obtained his prestigious job due to his friendship with Morris’ seasoned campaign manager, Paul Zara (underplayed subtly by Philip Seymour Hoffman). The  opposing candidate, Senator Pullman, has an equally experienced campaign advisor, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti).  All those who are driving the campaign strategy are pragmatists–cynical and cold-blooded analysts– except for the young Stephen Meyers. Above all, however, Stephen Meyers believes mostly in himself.

Gosling yet again is the touchstone of the film, playing with a ferociousness and intensity we have seen in “Murder by Numbers”, “Lars and the Real Girl”, “Blue Valentine” and “Drive”. In the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the Ohio primary, Steve is obsessively focused on the governor’s campaign victory.   Others do not register on his radar:  the young intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), the New York Times journalist (Marisa Tomei), even his boss Paul Zara except when they  can support his move up the ladder. Personal and political ambitions are inextricably intertwined.  Motives are suspicious.  Mistrust and betrayal are inescapable. Concealment reveals to astonishing effect!

The 2012 US presidential campaign is  a year away, and yet many people seem already discouraged and demoralized.  Which raises the salient question about  political reality in the US today– If you’re too principled to play dirty, can you be a winner or is the game stacked against you?  Paul Zara (Hoffman’s character)–in one of my favorite scenes–complains that Democrats are so worried about being accused of not playing fair that they inevitably lose to Republicans, who are not so scrupulous. It’s why the Democrats perpetually have to play catch-up.  They never figure out how to play the game themselves.  Perhaps a bit polemical, the movie’s theme remains the same:  the winner in the campaign game is the one with the biggest advantage–shaping the media and backroom payoffs for personal gain. Those who do not consider politics a blood sport shouldn’t play.

“The Ides of March” is a thoughtful political drama, which may not result in  box office success.  The story is not a narrative of hope.  However, the last shot of the film is well worth the price of a ticket in itself:  brilliant, chilling, and epitomizing editorial self-control.  No other ending could do so much with so little.  A masterpiece of restraint!

Moss Landing–Cruising around Santa Cruz

Last weekend, driving back from our daughter’s spectacular wedding at Costanoa Lodge, we stopped in Moss Landing to introduce some relatives to a small, going-back-in-time sort of place along the coastline.  Not the typical, tourist-designed site for buying tchotchkes, Moss Landing retains its quaint, historic fishing village vibe!  Located on Monterey Bay at the mouth of Elkhorn Slough, Moss Landing is one of our local best-kept secrets.

First we went to La Galeria, where there is a Monterey Peninsula College printmakers’ exhibit.  Not so easy to find.  You turn onto the main street (Moss Landing Road) from Highway  1 at “The Whole Enchilada”.  Don’t be fooled and  stop there.  Keep on going a few 100 feet and hidden behind The Haute Enchilada you can find this little surprise of a gallery– very cozy and wood-paneled–with approximately 100 prints, some priced between $75 (unframed) and $120 (framed).  The public reception will be on Saturday, October 22, from 2:00- 5:00 p.m. with food catered by Haute Enchilada (www.hauteenchilada.com).  We first went into the gallery to look at the exhibit, and then had a very tasty lunch at the restaurant in front of La Galeria –Haute Enchilada.  We shared poblano chile soup, tortilla soup, guacamole and chips, pork and chicken enchiladas, fish tacos, taco salad, and a delicious rosemary chicken panini.  Everyone loved sharing their food and enjoyed the sunshine on the patio with chilled local beers as well as Mexican ones.

After lunch and art viewing, there are also other surprises: antiques, a small Shakespeare museum (including a chair made from the wood from Stratford-on-Avon’s theater and nearby church), the exquisite Stella Page Design handbag boutique (designs include Japanese koi, Buddhas, and exotic floral patterns). Moss Landing is also home to MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium’s research facility), and Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, the research arm for the California State University system.

We didn’t have time to walk along the pier and look at the boats and the egrets, pelicans, herons  and cormorants who graze and fish everywhere along the water.  Birders would find nearby Elkhorn Slough impossible to ignore, a favorite with naturalists.  Guided tours on kayaks are available on weekends (http://www.elkhornslough.org/visit.htm) and also through the Monterey Bay Aquarium.   But, if you have time either on your way into Santa Cruz to go to one of the First Friday art walks or to Aptos and neighboring beaches, don’t forget to take a glimpse at California’s past and stop for an hour or two in Moss Landing.