“Black Mirror”—Dark Reflections of the Mind

Black Mirror
Black Mirror

I’ve just discovered the extraordinary showstopper, “Black Mirror”, a British sci-fi television series that is part “Twilight Zone” but darker and more bizarre. In six episodes in Season One we are let into a dystopian future narratively thrilling yet outrageous, because of its plausibility.

The season finale, “White Christmas”, is certainly not full of holiday merriment. This bleak episode showcases the handsome and versatile Jon Hamm (the character Don Draper in “Mad Men”), as Matthew, a charming guy who does not possess any moral tentativeness or empathy for anyone. Great choice for a Christmas story, right?

In a high-tech creepy version of the movie “Crazy, Stupid Love” meets the how-to manual “The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists”, we see Matthew, using earpieces and a surveillance camera, confidently guiding insecure guys on how to pick up young women. A voyeur with a sordid past, Matt’s cyber-dating service leads to unforeseen consequences.

The satirical writer Charlie Brooker, the extraordinary talent behind “Black Mirror”, raises questions of what we would do in a similar situation. Perhaps one of his most ingenious “karmic” devices is “blocking,” a sort of real-life, three-dimensional version of blocking someone on Facebook. Taken to an extreme, “blocking” renders the target a non-person, someone entirely alone, without community, locked inside their own heads. “Black Mirror” exacts creative solutions for wrongdoers commensurate with their karma. The outcome of each episode is unnerving if not downright terrifying.

Each episode, like “Twilight Zone”, has a separate story and a different cast. You can view the episodes in any order. More a short story collection than a novel, “Black Mirror” is less a dystopia than it is the dark side of life and the darkest regions of the mind.

[Order it on instant streaming through Netflix.]

“The Theory of Everything”—A Brief History of Love

Theory of Everything

This is a lyrical and magnificent film, adapted from a literary source (a memoir by Jane Hawking). Rich in character and dialogue, “The Theory of Everything” is primarily a romance wrapped around a chronicle of a brilliant and beautiful mind trapped in a malfunctioning body. This film is a narrative of heartbreak, marital and emotional distance, with jagged edges and torn souls portrayed with great subtlety and craft.

Focusing on the courtship and marriage of Jane (the riveting Felicity Jones) and Stephen Hawking (a tour-de-force performance by Eddie Redmayne from “My Week with Marilyn” and “Pillars of the Earth”), we see the two principals portray great humor, courage, and most of all, love for each other. “The Theory of Everything” covers a twenty-five year period from Stephen Hawking’s days as a PhD student at Cambridge (1965), to his best-selling treatise, A Brief History of Time (1988) and recognition as a Companion of Honour by the Queen (1989).

Jane is also a PhD student who is an aspiring scholar in French and Spanish, but sacrifices her own academic career in order to nurture a tender, defiant, and at times imperiled marriage. The decline of Stephen Hawking’s health seems to parallel the decline in the marriage between Stephen and Jane.

Using fireworks and cinematographic images of the star-filled sky to suggest Hawking’s brilliant astrophysics theories , the viewer is given a glimpse of his theoretical physics, a quest for a single elegant mathematical theorem to express the system of the universe in all its glory, from inception to black holes and the beginning of time. A very light touch is given to his theories on cosmology.

The poignancy and painful irony of observing a consummate mathematics genius, who theorizes about the infinity of space and time, crammed into a very confining capsule, wheelchair-bound, is portrayed without pity. As Hawking’s illness progresses and the muscles in his neck fail to hold his head, we see Redmayne appear to do the impossible: a physical performance imitating the paralysis and speechlessness of Hawking, cocking his head to the side, like a fragile bird whose neck is broken. As flaccid as a puppet, the actor nonetheless conveys humor, a confident understanding, and an unflinching empathy in a glance or a subtle postural change. There is an emotional and powerful transparency in Redmayne’s eyes that is at once complex and revealing. With only synthesized computer speech to communicate as his speech slowly curdles into incomprehensibility, Redmayne makes the inexpressible understandable.

Felicity Jones’ role as Jane Hawking is just as striking, conveying the vibrancy and heart-wrenching devotion for a man she admires, loves, and wants to make happy. Her understanding and compassion  make “The Theory of Everything” tremendously moving and inspirational, as well as being a testament to strength of character and human values.  This film should win Oscars!

 

“Peaky Blinders”—A View of Injustice

Peaky Blinders
Peaky Blinders

This BBC television drama series starring the amazing Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby, the leader of the Peaky Blinders gang, is Britain’s answer to “Boardwalk Empire”. Netflix released the first six episodes comprising Season One this past September and the next six of Season Two in November. Taking place immediately after the First World War, in Birmingham, England, the story focuses on making one’s way in the world of brutal street rivalries and competition for money through bars, gambling, and horse racing.

But this series is more family saga than criminal thriller, although it is that too. In the early 20th century, the IRA is beginning to rise up and the minorities (Italians, Jews, Irish, and Gypsies) are fighting fiercely for the territory no one else wants.   The Shelby family is led by the cunning Tommy who understands that alliances with other minorities will give them greater strength and power. Although the promise of alliance and cooperation are brilliantly conceived, the strategies inevitably have unexpected twists due to sibling rivalry, the mistrust of the other gangs, and the greed and corruption of the police and intelligence agencies (under the supervision of the malevolent Campbell, gloriously played by Sam Neill).

The plot is brilliantly realized and meticulously detailed, character development is insightful  and the acting is engrossing. Creation of the world of England on the brink of revolution by the IRA, filled with criticism of the privileged, and the difficulties of finding justice are vivid and unsparing. Crime is not glamorous and has high stakes and terrible consequences for family and friends alike. No one can be trusted. The deprivation of the slums is inescapable,…or almost. Injustice is viewed in all of its ugliness.

The odd name “Peaky Blinders” derives from the practice of sewing razor blades into the peaks of their caps. The first two episodes take patience as the plot moves very slowly and deliberately, to set up each character and some discipline in editing seems necessary to improve the pacing.

Last but not least, there are the strong, tough, and cunning women of the Shelby family and of Grace, whom Tommy becomes involved with.  Each is broken and wounded in ways more visible and understandable by the audience than their male cohort. All that is absent from their participation in the Peaky Blinders is the razor-brimmed cap.   Moreover, some of the more interesting character development in this series is the disruption women created as they assumed roles in post-war society that some of the men resented.

I can’t wait to see Season Three!

“Whiplash”—Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum

Whiplash
Whiplash

For lovers of jazz music and of stories dealing with young artists trying to find their way, this 2014 movie has it all.

A young drummer, Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is accepted into Shaffer Conservatory, one of the best music schools in the country and yearns for the approval of Terence Fletcher, the school’s intimidating and legendary master (J. K. Simmons, in his best role since “Juno”). Fletcher is only interested in the best of the best students and hopes to find the next Charlie Parker, only to be continually disappointed.  

The sacrifices Andrew makes in order to please Fletcher exact a hefty price on his personal life.   He begins to practice maniacally in order to achieve his dream, not unlike the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the little dancer, in the “Red Shoes”. Fletcher turns Shaffer Conservatory into a hellish musical boot camp, cutthroat and ruthless, with resentment and bitter rivalries. One student is pitted against another as if in a percussionist’s coliseum.

J. K. Simmons/Miles Teller
J. K. Simmons/Miles Teller

 

The ferocious lead performances (Teller and Simmons) in “Whiplash” impute a mesmerizing power on the viewer, who witnesses a psychological struggle between teacher and pupil that is both unsettling and riveting. The parameters of artistic sacrifice in the face of a tyrannical teacher are questioned but not answered. Psychologically disturbing and thrilling all at once, we see a young prodigy become enslaved to his own ambition. These performances are not to be missed.

Keith Haring (1958-1990): The Political Line (November 8-February 16, 2015)

IMG_1552Many of the works in this comprehensive exhibit at the De Young Museum (San Francisco) are being publicly presented for the first time, several on loan from the Keith Haring Foundation, Brooklyn, New York, [In March 2012, a retrospective exhibit of Haring’s work, Keith Haring: 1978-1982, opened at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.  See my May 2012 review ]  The imagery of Haring remains vital to the universally recognized visual language of the late 20th century. His enduring vision and critique of global problems is as relevant today as it was almost a quarter of a century ago.

More than 130 works, including large-scale paintings on tarpaulins and canvases, sculptures, and a number of the artist’s subway drawings, totems, and masks yield an extraordinary display of Haring’s responses to nuclear proliferation, racism, violence, the excesses of capitalism, environmental degradation, computer ascendancy, and perhaps especially gay culture. The political is deeply personal.

Haring’s work has long been a part of San Francisco’s culture., including Untitled (Three Dancing Figures) (1989) displayed in front of the Moscone Convention Center, and The Life of Christ (1990) in the AIDS Chapel at Grace Cathedral. New York also provided Haring’s most vibrant venue for subway and mural art.

His career was brief, intense, and prolific. By the time of his death, at age 31, from AIDS he had achieved international fame and celebrity status. His last two years’ work seems to me to reflect a change: dripping paint and dots embedded like blemishes in the solid lines—ominous and heartbreaking.IMG_1583

In an informative video, more of a home movie, we see the artist as a young man literally painting himself into a corner as he spontaneously paints a dramatic and complex labyrinth of lines, angles, and human figures on a room-size canvas while moving on all fours. Using Japanese black sumi ink and without any drawn image as a guide, Haring paints furiously, rapidly, and confidently, never hesitating or going over previous lines no matter how complex or long. The humor is obvious, the anger also evident. His dictionary of symbols and icons is never overdone: lines and dots connecting at angles (influenced by Indonesian and Oceanic tribal art), barking dogs, cartoonish humans and babies, and penises. He also cared greatly about children’s well being, the fight against drug addiction, and bringing an end to the AIDS epidemic.

IMG_1555The collection includes the fiberglass Statue of Liberty, his car covered with his iconic figures and black lines, body parts both male and female, woodcuts, three-dimensional masks, and pages from sketch books and tarps. It’s almost impossible not to be swayed by the heartfelt ethos, political visualizations of injustice, and sexual identity.

See “The Political LIne” before it ends on February 16.

 

 

Ai Weiwei—Without a Trace

With Wind
With Wind

The extraordinary @Large Ai Weiwei exhibit is now part of the daily tour to Alcatraz by ferry (Pier 33). Ai Weiwei, 57 years old, whose art raises questions about freedom of expression and human rights, has served several prison sentences in China.  This major installation invites viewer participation.

Alcatraz
Alcatraz

 

Several of the prison buildings (now in ruins reminiscent of burnt-out inner city neighborhoods or the aftermath of Hiroshima) exhibit a range of Ai Weiwei’s artwork with the most evocative being “With Wind” and “Trace”.

“With Wind” has an enormous dragon kite as its centerpiece, unfurled in sections of smaller kites, each representing a beautiful plant or bird as background for quotations from political activists, including Nelson Mandela, Edward Snowden, and Ai himself. Scattered around the sides of the room are other kites decorated with stylized and poetic renderings of birds and flowers, indicating countries which restrict their citizens’ human rights and civil liberties, scattering hope to the wind.

“Trace” is an even more direct depiction of political imprisonment, giving it a human face: 175 faces to be exact. The viewer peers down at a field of 175 colorful and intricate LEGO images laid out across the floor: portraits of men and women from around the world—“heroes of our time”– who have been sentenced or exiled because of their beliefs or affiliations. Most were still incarcerated like Ai Weiwei at the time “Trace” was made.

The sheer number of political prisoners, arranged by continent, is overwhelming but the intricacy of the construction is also. Each image was crafted by hand from LEGO pieces, some of which are the tiniest ones LEGO makes. (Some portions of the artwork were assembled in the artist’s studio, while others were fabricated to the artist’s specifications by more than 80 volunteers in San Francisco.) A binder for each geographical section summarizes the charges brought by the government against each detainee. A beautiful tribute to Martin Luther King is included.

Haile Woldetensae
Haile Woldetensae

The exhibit continues at Alcatraz until April 26, 2015 but is sold out through the end of January. Be forewarned: the map and signage for the exhibition collections is confusing so allow enough time for walking to this art space, an exploration of what constitutes liberty and justice. For Ai Weiwei, art is an act of conscience.

FWD—Fishing with Dynamite

Hamachi
Hamachi

I first learned about this restaurant in Manhattan Beach (Los Angeles) in a January 22, 2014 New York Times review. It is amazing that such a tiny restaurant in a beachy little neighborhood received coverage from the premier East Coast cognoscenti.

First and foremost, Fishing with Dynamite is a knockout—East Coast meets West Coast for superb service either at the tiny bar (where we loved sitting) or at a table. The place is lively and even the manager chatted with us, offering his views on this new restaurant’s mission and philosophy in a down-to-earth manner. I really expected it to be good but not phenomenal, a kind rather than an accurate review for a novelty venue.

Seabass
Seabass

 

The menu is divided into Old School and New School with all the expected offerings on the Old School side: New England clam chowder, Maryland blue crab cakes, steamed clams. But the New School—OMG!! Grilled octopus with cranberry beans, a date-tomato ragu, and preserved lemon/olive tapenade. Then hamachi with avocado, serrano, and apple pear ponzu. The grilled sword fish was served with yellow peaches, fennel, capers and mint. Yum, yum and did I mention the oyster sampler platter —and you can name the six oysters so we ordered the small extra sweet ones: kushi, pacific gold, and I forgot the name of the other petite one our waiter suggested. All extraordinary with two sauces: mignonette with a zest of citrus with either sriracha or tapatio as well as a fabulous non-classical ponzu sauce.

The chef, David Lefevre, worked with the famous Charlie Trotter of Chicago fame for ten years before running the fabulous Water Grill in downtown Los Angeles. Now the Water Grill has lost him to Fishing with Dynamite.  Served with a lighthearted flair—we didn’t try the “Mother shucker”, the wine is also served in two glass sizes: 3 oz and 6 oz and the selection is superb, especially for such a tiny bit of heaven. Dynamite indeed!

Make a reservation at Fishing with Dynamite,  1148 Manhattan Avenue, Manhattan Beach, CA 90266   tel.  (310) 893-6299

 

“Olive Kitteridge”—Scenes from a Marriage, or A Bitter Edge

Olive Kitteridge

The HBO mini-series based on Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Olive Kitteridge” delivers big time! With a stellar cast led by the astounding Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins, we see the two main characters Olive and Henry vacillate between love and despair, kindness and absence of human connection. Scenes from a marriage with a bitter edge.

The main character, Olive Kitteridge, is intentionally the most puzzling and difficult to empathize with. She is more an anti-hero than a protagonist you identify with and hope for. There are glimmers of her compassion as the story winds on in this four-hour drama, but the darkest moments are the most unforgettable in the first half of the narrative. Like “August: Osage County”, the mother is a child’s worst nightmare. Olive, like Violet Weston, has been damaged so deeply by the family she loved, that the only ones she can care for are strangers or acquaintances. Those closest to her suffer the most.

Her husband, Henry, is sympathetic at the beginning but a slender bridge between his kind, supportive side and his darker, minefield of neediness slowly reveals itself.

Themes of suicide, depression, cruelty, infidelity, desperation, aging and love run through “Olive Kittredge” like a never-ending storm, with bursts of lightning and thunder and an intermittent, quiet drizzle that gives the viewer a needed relief from the piercing agony in this family’s lives and those of other townsfolk in the small Maine town, refuting the belief that small communities care for each other.

This intergenerational saga is a portrayal of a miserably unhappy couple and their son, in which each is obsessed with his or her own happiness but has no clue how to achieve it. The emotional center of the narrative centers on how neither Olive nor Henry is aware of what impact they have on others, nor how they are not always right.

But as twenty-five years of marriage pass, a growing awareness, especially on the part of Olive, surfaces and she slides into a begrudging insight.  The last lines resonate with emotional power and are impossible to forget—A seventy-five year old Olive mutters: “The world baffles me, but I do not want to leave it yet.” Perhaps her unhealed wounds are starting to heal.

This is a powerful, very dark production rich in character and language, adapted from a mesmerizing literary source!

La Balena—A whale of a meal

La Balena

For a town like Carmel, it is exciting to find a restaurant that can really rival a good one in San Francisco.  I think La Balena nails it!

We started off with Polpo Grigliato (grilled octopus with potatoes, anchovy aioli, lemon and parsley).   I have to confess that I am obsessed with this cephalopod. If octopus is on the menu, I have to try it. This is one of their signature antipasti, theirs is a bit salty but having said that, I would still order it again and let them know to be cautious with the salt. Others obviously like the polpo just the way it is.

Then we had the Delicata salad: warm chicory greens, squash, pancetta, persimmon, with a splash of pomegranate and sprinkle of pecorino. A salad is truly difficult to pull off—and this one does not disappoint. More a chopped salad than a tossed one, this was an outstanding blend of the crispest artisanal greens and veggies, the perfectly blended vinaigrette– a definite must! For our main course, we shared a pasta dish: Pappardelle with a wild boar and pancetta sauce. Homemade tender pasta with the most amazing sauce of succulent boar in a rich, dark tomato-based sauce.  The portions are huge, so sharing one entrée was perfect.

We’ll be back—and next time I want to try the bruschetta of burrata and basil, ribollita (a white-bean soup with torn bread and parmesan), and the whole sea bass with buttered artichokes. Our friends had those dishes and we tasted them. Yummy!

I don’t think you can go wrong no matter what you decide to order from this new Tuscan restaurant. And watch for their complimentary wine tastings with apps during the summer season!

TBD–Totally Beautiful Dinner

IMG_2516-2The second San Francisco restaurant in SoMa from the entrepreneurs, Matt Semmelhack and chef Mark Liberman, TBD –“To Be Determined”– serves a very different menu from AQ (their first restaurant located next door). The menu focuses on wood-fired small plates, mostly served in cast iron pans, prepared on a custom hearth and grill in an open kitchen in a more casual setting than AQ.

Each dish was amazing. We started with warm Josey Baker bread with corn, cotijo and espelette, followed by a beet salad with grapes and walnuts just touched by a subtle fresh horseradish.

 

Beet salad with some bites taken out
Beet salad with some bites taken out

Then the heartier plates arrived: arepa (duck) with tomatillo, apples and manchego, roasted sunchokes in a red brick mole and grilled leg of lamb with carrot and mint (both part of the three-dish prix fixe menu), honey glazed brussel sprouts, octopus ceviche with lime and avocado served over a very light bed of hashed brown potatoes, and finally a shared desert included in the prix fixe selection–the lightest, fluffiest doughnuts resembling beignets and more than enough for the three of us.   All the dishes were amazing and made with loving attention to detail, encapsulating all the flavor a recipe could possibly have!

 

Grilled octopus
Grilled octopus

Moderately priced New American fare, TBD has totally beautiful dinners with a reasonable wine and beer list. (We had a delightful bottle of dry sauvignon blanc by Bodkin of Lake County.) As the acronym TBD connotes, the flavor and style of this restaurant is constantly evolving with an original menu, seasonal and artisanal freshness, and a culinary philosophy emphasizing experimentation!

 

For reservations–TBD, 1077 Mission Street, SF tel. 415-431-1826.

 

 

 

 

“Skeleton Twins” — A Second Chance

 

[Guest blogger Anthony Berteaux is a sophomore at San Diego State University majoring in drama and journalism. He writes a column for The Daily Aztec, (an independent campus newspaper) and his most recent article is “Die-in Protests Fuel the Fire”.]

Skeleton Twins

 

The best kinds of love stories are the ones that aren’t romantic and some can hit a nerve. In a culture of Nicholas Sparks, it is easy to forget that love stories aren’t just limited to romantic relationships, but encompass any authentic and special bond with someone else, whether it is a pet, a cousin or a friend.   The most powerful love stories can be the ones we share with family.

This is where the “Skeleton Twins”, directed by Craig Johnson and powerfully acted by former SNL regulars Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, succeeds in recognizing familial relationships may be the most complex and emotionally resonant stories we can tell.

Wiig and Hader play Maggie and Milo, estranged twins, who begin living together after Milo attempts suicide.  Maggie is his only personal contact. Milo is a struggling gay actor and Maggie feels trapped in a happy marriage. They’re both cynical, somber and suicidal and it becomes clearer as the movie progresses that these twins are equally lost but need each other. They’ve spent ten years apart, but their struggles are analogous.

There’s a plot involving Maggie’s husband, a previous family suicide, Milo’s romantic past, and the siblings’ broken relationships with their parents. While Hader and Wiig look nothing like twins, there’s a chemistry there that isn’t just limited to comedy. They’re a tag team, competing and feeding off each other’s energies without being overwhelmed by the other.

This is a comedic movie, however, that doesn’t negate the very dark tone that comes with a theme like suicide. If you’re looking for a light comedy, this isn’t it.  This film reveals a dark sense of humor, not the type that we usually associate with Hader and Wiig. Again, it’s fascinating to witness the evolution of Hader, who pulls off dramatic even better than he does comedic roles. Perhaps, what the world lost in the genius Robin Williams, we can regain in some form in the gifts of Wiig and Hader.

“Skeleton Twins” is a truly honest potrayal of a powerful love shared between siblings. They are tethered by something larger than themselves. They may fight and bicker, but in the end, love prevails. The film demonstrates blood is thicker than water, for better and for worse.

 

 

“Gone Girl” –Fast and Furious

Gone Girl
Gone Girl

Probably the blockbuster film of 2014, “Gone Girl” has received both critical praise and Oscar buzz since its debut on October 3.

Sometimes, while bringing a book to life in a movie, a lot is lost in translation—-not in this case. Both the book and the film are so damn good, perhaps because the extraordinary author, Gillian Flynn, is also the screenwriter and she knows what is an essential distillation of the narrative.  Gone girl 2

 

 

The movie is a fast-paced dark and dangerous ride directed by the remarkable David Fincher (“Social Network”, and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”). Like the novel, the film leaves you questioning how well you truly know those around you, perhaps especially the person you married. Are there secrets you may never know? Marriages can hide a lot when everyone is watching. “Gone Girl” is about concepts of masculinity and femininity, our ideal partner, the one we fantasize about, not settle for, and most devastatingly, about the compromises we sometimes make. In the case of the marriage between Nick Dunne (a not-so-different role for Ben Affleck) and Amy Elliott Dunne (the impeccable Rosamund Pike of Masterpiece Theater acclaim) the power game is a withering and frightening cat-and-mouse game literally turned into a blood sport.

Every character was cast almost perfectly. The acting keeps you engaged at all times–wondering, could this really happen or is it too preposterous? The music—-very eerie, contributed to making the suspense even more chilling.

See this movie.