Rocketman –Seeing the Light through the Darkness

Rocketman , the recently released biopic of the music superstar, Elton John, will inevitably be compared to last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody.  The two movies are portraits of flamboyantly-dressed gay rock stars from relatively the same era (1970’s and 1980’s) but they also shared the same manager and had the same director, Dexter Fletcher.   (Ironically, music manager John Reid was played by two actors from “Games of Thrones” fame).

In the opening scene, Elton John emerges, dressed in a satanic red “Hell Boy”-like costume with devil horns, wings, and dramatic cape. He marches directly at the camera, –backlit and sinister– as his face, partly disguised by heart-shaped sunglasses, comes into focus.   Theatrically plopping down on a chair in a circle of addicts in  group therapy, Elton John is there to exorcise his demons in a flashback revealing why he is where he is.  The backstory of Elton John’s childhood is the emotional core defining his self-worth and genius.  Although we soon find out that Elton was a deeply lonely child, unloved by his parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh), but nurtured by his grandmother (Emma Jones), he introduces himself with a lie: “I was actually a very happy child.” 

In spite of being afflicted with unhealed wounds,  Elton finds comfort and motivation from recognition by a prestigious music academy and from a developing friendship with Bernie Taupin (a scene-stealing Jamie Bell in a beautifully touching performance). Taupin is an equally unknown musician, whose lyrics would come to inspire a  lifelong collaboration. The friendship between Elton and Bernie –Bernie calls it a brotherhood– is the film’s love story. Since Bernie is straight, there’s no sexual tension but there is such a strong emotional bond, the intimacy is palpable.

Taron Egerton, Rocketman
Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman from Paramount Pictures.

For the closeted Elton the handsome, suave agent John Reid, (heart throb Richard Madden, Robb Stark of “Game of Thrones” and star of  “Bodyguard”) exudes a seductive eroticism, equal parts dazzle and danger. He  triggers Elton’s sexual desire.  They fall in love and then comes the  darkness, manipulation, and opportunism.

The major problem with the narrative arc is that Rocketman seems to want to be a biopic with songs, and inconsistently, also a musical that sings dialogue and dances away the drama. Rocketman becomes giddy and silly, especially earlier, in choreography and staging reminiscent of 1960’s jukebox ensemble dancing.  They distract, at least temporarily, from the demands of the storytelling–a “fourth wall”, namely  confronting the viewer with scenes that break the momentum and pacing using lyrics as dialogue.  [An analogous “fourth wall” occurs when a character talks to the screen and viewer, dislodging time and place of the story.]

A successful example of using the “fourth wall”:  when John’s estranged parents sing “I Want Love”, this interjection of song for dialogue is more effective.

Rocketman ends with Elton in rehab in 1990, singing “I’m Still Standing”, a shout-out to his survival. In the credits, there are facts about his notable generosity on behalf of HIV/AIDS international projects, his family life with his husband and two baby sons. And his sobriety  for nearly 30 years.

There’s  one crucial difference that, in the final analysis, makes Bohemian Rhapsody a more satisfying film, although not by much.  While Rhapsody climaxes with a feel-good stadium-rocking Live Aid concert, maintaining the over-the-top “party animal” style of Freddy Mercury, Rocketman is a more somber psychological study of a shattered psyche, insightfully epitomized in the therapy scene towards the end when the adult Elton John faces his little-boy wounded self in the same Hell Boy costume from the opening scene.  Coming full circle with who he now is, in the redemption he finally achieves, is the true end of this film. Rocketmanwould have been more inventive, adhering to the tone of the drama with such a final scene instead of trailing off to a triumphant burlesque song-and-dance routine at the end.

Dozens of lesser films fail to sustain a dramatic arc from assemblages of disparate hits, but Rocketman soars through both darkness and light in most of the second half .  The  electrifying Taron Egerton gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the gifted, complicated Elton John.  He immerses himself in the role and that is the major reason to see Rocketman.

Go see this movie –a universal story about redemption and survival, an underdog wrestling with his wounds from childhood, his sexuality, and a need for love.  Taron Egerton’s performance and the music are reasons enough to be entertained.

Note: Currently in theaters.

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  1. I watched Bohemian R. on HBO. Pretty good but not great. Didn’t see Rocketman because the previews weren’t intriguing. I did like Lady Gaga’s song to Elton at some big event. She had on his glasses and feathers – her singing was great!

    Just saw great film about a young woman, Scottish, who wanted to sing country music. “Wild Rose.” Worth seeing and reviewing.

Victoria and Abdul (2017)–An Imperial Friendship

Victoria & Abdul

In Victoria and Abdul the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria (the majestic Judi Dench) is about to be celebrated in all its pomp and circumstance.  The year is 1887 and Queen Victoria is  sixty-eight years old. An honorary gold coin– a Mohur– has been minted as a token of appreciation from British-ruled India recognizing Victoria as the Empress of India.   Two Indians are conscripted to deliver the Mohur: Abdul (Ali Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar).   

The early comedic scenes tease with the warm-hearted, kind and generous nature of an elderly queen with her young, handsome Indian clerk.. She  is surprised to find that his company and his cultural differences are a refreshing respite from the hypocrisy of her retinue.

Victoria questions the role she is expected to play as the head of the Indian subcontinent, and as their unlikely friendship deepens, she becomes aware of the cultural richness of India and her ignorance of the country she reigns over.  Devoted to learning Urdu and the philosophy of the Qur’an, and writing in its script, the Queen regains her enjoyment of life in her old age, at the same time soon evoking jealousy and suspicion among members of the Royal Household. Her inner circle–particularly her ne’er-do-well eldest son Bertie (a remarkable Eddie Izzard), who has no affection for her,– wish to ultimately destroy Victoria and Abdul’s friendship or even the Queen herself.  Bertie,  who will become Edward VII upon her death, bemoans that she has lived so long. 

Abdul’s  swift rise to high status, including honorary memberhip in the Royal Household, immediately rankles her son, and other members of court, since royals and British in general never mingle socially with Indians except those who were royalty themselves.  For an Indian to be put very nearly on a level with the queen’s white servants was all but intolerable.   To eat at the same table as the aristocrats and  to share in their daily lives was viewed as an outrage. Racism was intolerable for the Queen, and her “dear good Munshi”–Victoria’s Urdu title of  “advisor” for Abdul– signaled Abdul was deserving of the utmost respect as her trusted confidante.  For  the final fourteen years of her reign, Queen Victoria continued to have an extraordinary friendship with Abdul, in spite of conspiracies and plots to undermine her maternal affection.

In the climax of Victoria and Abdul,  the Queen, despite her advisors’ prejudice and outright lies, insists they  welcome Abdul into their midst.  She gives an extremely moving “insanity” speech  which is  a masterpiece of acting. It serves  as a memorable meditation on her life in her twilight years.

Queen Victoria  is a role made for Judi Dench, who epitomizes both the loneliness and tiresome burden of a monarch ruling for over six decades. Learning a new language, a new religion, and a new role as the mother of a son she always wanted is typecast for Dench,. She plays weary and obstinate with equal believability and effectiveness.  In one poignant moment of dialogue, Victoria announces joyously that she has fallen back in love with life as she fights off  the inevitable “banquet of eternity” (mortality).

And Ali Fazal holds his own opposite Judi Dench in a compassionate, complicated role as the Munshi.  He exudes a purity, warmth, and compassion that seems well-balanced, not obsequious or fawning, towards the most powerful ruler in the world.

 Highly recommended.

Note:   Following Victoria’s death at the age of 82 in 1901, her son and successor, Edward VII, returned Abdul to India and ordered the confiscation and destruction of his correspondence with Victoria. Abdul subsequently lived quietly near Agra, on the estate that Victoria had arranged for him, until his death at the age of 46 in 1909.  The relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul remained  little-known until the discovery of Abdul’s journals a century later.

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  1. I, too, loved this depiction of Queen Victoria and her advisor, Abdul.

    If one recalls the movie “Mrs. Brown,” Judi Dench plays Queen Victoria as a recent widow in which she accepts the companionship of her late husband’s servant, John Brown.

    So, “Victoria and Abdul” is a reprisal for Dame Dench as Queen Victoria with a new male companion with the same kind of gossip that she has had to endure before and after her beloved Albert.

    Both movies are delightful, insightful and a little historical, especially if you are a Dame Judi Dench fan.

Chernobyl–An Ignominious Reaction

Chernobyl HBO miniseries

          Chernobyl  is an HBO historical drama  miniseries depicting the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the unprecedented coverup that followed. The  flawed reactor design operated by inadequately trained technicians is jaw-clenching and chilling.  That lack of transparency and flagrant disregard for human life depicts greed, lack of moral integrity, and political corruption.  Chernobyl is a cautionary tale for today’s political climate.

A  tour de force of unprecedented tragedy, Chernobyl is a masterpiece showcasing Russian heroes who have been unknown or forgotten by history.   In some ways, Chernobyl is a horror movie of the bio-disaster kind: the dramatization of that fateful morning when thousands of residents experienced the horror of intense radiation without any warning by the bureaucrats who knew or should have known what was at stake.  More than three decades later, the disaster remains haunting The creeping dread of  the suffering endured is portrayed starkly and brutally. A grim understatement of what can go terribly wrong at any moment, the viewer witnesses  the heroes who bear testimony to the unspeakable errors of human operators ordered to cut corners, threatening public safety. 

Chernobyl is difficult to watch.

Recreating this small city in 1980’s Ukraine, Chernobyl‘s producers carefully evoke the clothes, nuclear facility, hospitals, and  residential life in grim grey light, foreshadowing probably the worst nuclear accident in history.

“We seal off the city,” Zharkov–the manager of the nuclear reactor,– tells everyone in the plant. “No one leaves. And cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation. That is how we keep the people from undermining the fruits of their own labor.”

The Soviet system of propaganda and corruption existed not so much for the purpose of spreading a particular message as for the purpose of making learning impossible, replacing facts with lies, and handing the faceless state a monopoly on defining an ever-shifting reality.

But, unlike Japan’s Fukushima nuclear crisis, Chernobyl  is not only about nuclear-plant safety. Chernobyl is about a coverup of the worst kind: the most egregious arrogance and indifference to suffering  by a bureaucratic brotherhood  pledged to  secrecy.  Consequently, information was  shared only among a narrow elite obsessed with their own interests and survival.

Note:   The former Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant area won’t be safe for human habitation for at least 20,000 years.  Ukrainians are being reminded of the consequences of Chernobyl by a government that has slashed health benefits for the men who heroically fought to contain the Chernobyl disaster, instead reserving funds to develop Chernobyl as a tourist attraction.  For deeper research into the Chernobyl disaster, listen to the podcast, “Uncovering the Story of Chernobyl” on NPR: https://www.npr.org/2019/07/02/738019227/uncovering-the-story-of-chernobyl

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  1. Good review for what sounds like should be compulsatory viewing for all especially the millenials. Our young who depend on social media for info and facts without the least understanding of History and facts. They follow those who yell the loudest and do revionishst history. Too bad its on HBO that I don’t get. Maybe Netflix or Amazon will pick it up down the road.

The Commuter –Train to Hell

The Commuter

Action thrillers are not a staple in my movie-going diet.  Nonetheless,  I like the ones Liam Neeson stars in , and The Commuter fits his murder conspiracy/ abduction genre. 

Insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson’s character) is a 60-year-old ex-cop turned insurance salesman who commutes to midtown Manhattan every day, familiar with almost all of the other passengers. 

On the train home, Michael meets a mysterious woman named Joanna (the always-excellent Vera Farmiga), who claims to be a psychologist researching distinct classifications of personality types. Joanna makes a  proposal:  a  hypothetical situation to do “one little thing”– to locate “Prynne,” the alias of an unknown passenger, who doesn’t belong and has stolen something.  No one will get hurt.  And Michael will receive $100,000 as payment.

This happens to be the very day when Michael has been unceremoniously terminated from his job.  So Michael agrees, only to be unwittingly caught up in a criminal conspiracy that carries life and death consequences.

The Commuter is a crowd-pleaser for viewers who want an action-packed drama that will appeal to adults in the family–especially to those who like testosterone-driven action and  impossible leaps and bounds across train cars, simulating Tom Cruise in some of his Mission Impossible scenes and Denzel Washington’s besieged character in The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3.  Entertaining without too much violence. The Commuter held this viewer’s attention until the very surprising end.   

Note:  Available on Netflix (DVD) and Amazon Prime.  There is little  bloodshed but quite a few choreographed fights, both one-on-one physical combat and ammunition firing.

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  1. Hey, well,now I do have Amazon Prime. Only used it for one show. I like Liam Neeson. Maybe I’ll watch this one. Not sure it’s my type of film. I do like trains. Ha.

Fahrenheit 11/9–Fourth of July

Michael Moore’s most recent documentary,  Fahrenheit 11/9, released in September of last year, is an interesting take on the 2016  presidential election .  (The film is named for the day Trump was declared the electoral winner.) This is another film in Moore’s canon of what is wrong with America, not his best but still worth  seeing.  The 39th Golden Raspberry Award for worst actor went to Donald Trump.

Although purportedly about Trump’s election and how the country got there, Fahrenheit 11/9 is also about other issues close to Moore’s heart including the 2014 Flint water crisis, and the local government’s refusal to acknowledge the fact that levels of lead were unsafe to drink.  An unusual scene of Obama’s visit to Flint and how he disappointed local residents is eye-opening.

Moore also compares Trump’s rise to power to that of  Hitler in hate speeches against different ethnicities, religions and sexual orientation. Showcasing recent racial violence, Fahrenheit 11/9 concludes that the  Constitution no longer protects the majority of our citizens from the wealthy and powerful. And, therefore, the American Dream is now nothing but a dream.  Highlighting social and political injustices,  Fahrenheit 11/9  insists that the election of Trump is a wakeup-call to the country for radical transformation. 

Although extremely provocative with multiple political targets–including not only Republican presidents but also Clinton and Obama,– this is not one of Michael Moore’s best documentaries.  It is somewhat scattered and loses its focus on what happened to the country when Clinton won the popular vote but Trump took  the electoral college.

Nonetheless, there is much substantive analysis of the political structure we have in the US, filmed with the director’s characteristic zeal, passion, flair, and wicked sense of humor.  Highly recommend for the 4th of July or when any gimlet-eyed vision of the US is called for.

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Always Be My Maybe–Rom-Com At Its Best

The Netflix Original Always Be My Maybe gives us a reason for watching rom-coms again. A modern riff on “When Harry Met Sally.”

Set in San Francisco, Always Be My Maybe is  a story of childhood sweethearts who go their separate ways only to meet up fifteen years later.  Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) and Marcus Kim (Randall Park) were best friends who, as teenagers,  had sex for the first time and then stopped talking to each other.   Marcus is  now a dorky musician still living at home with his widowed dad,  and working in his dad’s business.  Sasha is a renowned chef with successful restaurants on both the East and West Coasts.  Sasha’s manager-friend calls an airconditioning service to install a system in  their rented mansion and voilá–there is Marcus.

Sasha’s “non-denominational pan-Asian fusion” restaurant “Saintly Fare”, soon to open in San Francisco, caters to the  high-end beautiful people. When the new menus are ready, she tells her assistant to print them on rice paper: “White people eat that shit up,” she says half- jokingly.  And Always Be My Maybe  is rich with biting, laugh-out loud dialogue of a similar vein.

And –will wonders never cease–Sasha is a successful woman pursuing a career without subordinating her professional aspirations to  her relationships with men.  Yet, as is the standard in rom-com stories, Sasha does not realize her heart still beats faster for Marcus.

Sasha is enjoying her friends and her success.  She still has fondness for Marcus’s dad and the memories of her childhood with Marcus.  She’s vulnerable, but no-nonsense, determined, and  motivated to continue her successful trajectory in building a restaurant empire.

Always Be My Maybe

And then enters Keanu Reeves, Marcus’s competition for Sasha, and his worst nightmare.  In a delicious parody, Keanu Reeves plays himself as a celebrity who knows he is charming and a babe-magnet.  This is  a wild comedic turn for him–bringing back his over-the-top performance in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” from over thirty years ago.

The writing kicks into high gear here, with self-mocking wit that avoids the “saggy middle” of many narratives, but particularly of rom-coms.  Always Be My Maybe  holds on to its central question–can best friends become lovers?  And at times answers in  whispers, uncomfortably close to bruising the  hearts of both Sasha and Marcus. Authenticity isn’t sacrificed for a laugh. 

Minor characters besides Keanu Reeves add to the extraordinary humor and one-line zingers.  There is Brandon Choi, a highly successful restaurateur, more focused on the Silicon Valley zeal of an entrepreneur than on his fiancée. There’s Marcus’s girlfriend Jenny, an Asian American hippie with dreadlocks. 

Always Be My Maybe is simultaneously uproarious and touchingly real. There is no “maybe” about it. This rom-com is just   too good to miss.

Note:  Released on Netflix May 29, 2019

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2 Replies to “Always Be My Maybe–Rom-Com At Its Best”

  1. Thanks Diana. Sounds like the right kind of light-hearted entertainment I crave. Will watch this soon. Would have missed this one and really appreciate your writing a review.

  2. At first glance, I would have passed on this film, however, I’m so glad I just watched it. Very sweet uncomplicated, but lovely movie. I laughed, I cried, I loved it. Thanks for the suggestion.

Which Way Home –Is There One?

Which Way Home review about immigrant children crossing the Mexico-US border in 2005.

In this gripping 2010 Academy Award nominated HBO documentary, Which Way Home opens with something large and bulbous floating down the Rio Grande. The viewer soon learns it is a corpse, perhaps that of a child, and an observer comments matter-of-factly that this happens multiple times a day.

Director Rebecca Cammisa follows the struggles of a handful of young, unaccompanied Central American children (all of them boys except for one nine-year-old girl) who are determined to jump the border to a new home in the United States.  Riding on the top of freight trains nicknamed “The Beast”, these young migrants experience the exhausting, dangerous migration from small villages in Honduras and Guatemala.   Facing an almost unimaginably treacherous trip of thousands of miles before even reaching the U.S. border,  these children sometimes die, survive with amputated  limbs, or suffer from predators (including the police).  At first the children seem clueless, thinking the journey will be an adventure with a materially fabulous life like the ones pictured on television and in the movies. For those who are orphans or running away,  possible adoption at the end of the arduous train ride is their dream.  Their parents don’t know what their children will face either, often paying thousands of dollars to smugglers who promise safety at the end of the road. This is in the year 2005.

We learn that child migrants have many reasons for wanting to get to the United States, some involving helping their families by sending money home, some trying to reunite with parents they haven’t seen for years, and one trying to save his mother from an abusive stepfather. 

Which Way Home is overwhelming: seeing children (and adults) in such grave need, forced to accept life-threatening choices.  The viewer follows small children  into a hostile, lawless frontier.  Sadly, the youngsters have a romantic dream to travel with the expectation that they will succeed.

There’s a scene in which an adult has met two nine-year-olds, Olga and Freddie. And he asks: What do you want to be when you grow up? They both say “we want to be a doctors.” And he responds that anything they  want to do they can do.   And, to me, that was perhaps  the most tragic line in the entire film.  The reality is clear.  What they want to do is unlikely to ever  happen.

As the US continues to fight over building a wall along the Mexican border, Which Way Home  shows the personal cost of immigration through the eyes of these young children who courageously face harrowing circumstances beyond their control.

Stories of hope and courage, disappointment and betrayal, render these children less invisible–if only we will see.  This film is absolutely heartbreaking.  Are they alive? Did they cross into the US? 

Note:  Available on Netflix DVD.

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The Hate U Give –T.H.U.G.

The Hate U Give is an adaptation of Angie Thomas’s bestseller by the same name (released in February 2017).  Starr Carter,   a sixteen-year-old gifted student, has to adeptly maneuver between two worlds — her poor, mostly black neighborhood and a wealthy, mostly white prep school. Facing pressure from all sides, Starr must find her voice and decide to stand up for what’s right.

Beautiful  newcomer,  Amandla Stenberg, is perfectly cast as the  wounded, courageous high school student who attends an elite white private school because her mother Lisa (a superb Regina Hall) insists she has a bright future, one that most of their neighborhood’s teen residents will not have.  

Shedding her hoodie, swallowing any aggression that might make her seem “ghetto,” and eradicating black slang, Starr endures  her white peers, including boyfriend Chris (“Riverdale” star K J Apa) and friend Kayleigh (Sabrina Carpenter) who have appropriated what they think is “cool” from black youth.  Painful tolerance is evident on Starr’s face.  “If you don’t see my blackness, you don’t see me,” Starr tells Chris in response to his clueless-white-boy pride in  “not seeing color.”  Yet Starr also has to  straddle  differing opinions  of her blackness and suspicions about her elitist classmates.

Starr’s life is carefully compartmentalized. Yet it seems she can only truly relax around her loving family.  In a deeply moving and unforgettable scene, Maverick, her father  (sympathetically played by Russell Hornsby), is sitting at the dining room table giving his elementary school-age son a lesson on how to survive a traffic stop by a white cop.  Maverick insists that his young son copy how he should place his hands on the dashboard, head down, avoiding eye contact.  The little boy has no comprehension why his father’s doing this.

After a raucous and typical teenage party where Starr reconnects with her  childhood playmate and crush Khalil (Algee Smith), the story becomes tragic. Starr will become the  only witness, at first reluctantly, to a night of infamy.

The Hate U Give offers a fascinating portrayal of the inspiration and moral courage of youth,  especially  black youth, who struggle to understand and survive  the racism and brutality they encounter from infancy. Solidarity against the enemy should not have to mean harboring and hating the enemy within.  The lessons to be learned from The Hate U Give and the power of understanding the self-destructive force of hate are nuanced, not dogmatic.

 The Hate U Give deserves wide circulation.   Enraging, heartbreaking, and ultimately deeply moving,  none of the young people should ever have been asked to make these impossible choices.   Although the ending is rather weak,  the true ending IMHO is when Starr finds her voice.  The Hate U Give’s impact lies in using film to  demand concrete social change.

Note: Available on Netflix as a DVD and soon available on HBO.

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Burn This–Blazing Comedy on Broadway

“Burn This”–a Broadway revival of a Lanford Wilson play

Burn This,  a revival of a 1980’s play by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson, well deserves the five Tony award nominations it has received this year. The exceptional performance by Adam Driver will leave you breathless.

The tragic death of a young, gay dancer named Robbie has left his two roommates and his older brother broken-hearted.  Anna (Keri Russell from “The Americans”) and Larry (Tony-nominated Brandon Uranowitz), are shattered by Robbie’s death and wander listlessly around their apartment recalling moments they shared with him.   Having just met Robbie’s family for the first time at the funeral, Anna wonders how she could have known so little about someone she thought she knew so well.  A major theme of Burn This, –that we are strangers to ourselves even more than to the those who think they know us best–sets fireworks throughout the extraordinary and sometimes very funny dialogue.

With the unleashed frenzy of a tornado,–an entrance of sound and fury– Robbie’s older brother, Pale (Adam Driver of “Girls” and the last two Star Wars movies),  opens the door to  Anna and Larry’s apartment in New York City. He has arrived there unannounced to collect his brother’s belongings. He is unhinged, in a drug-induced state of mind, burdened by a  grief that deranges.  In spite of having had little recent contact with Robbie over the years, Pale’s guilt and remorse are obvious.  He is hiding a bitter secret and is oblivious to how he is impacting Anna and Larry’s own mourning for Robbie.

Anna has an entitled, scriptwriter boyfriend, Burton (David Furr), who assumes he will marry her. But the anguish and pheromones are palpable and jolt Anna and Pale into love or lust or something more relentless and unexpected.

Failure to connect with one another, fear of intimacy, lack of empathy for another’s aspirations and uncertainty with one’s own feelings of desire and need:  Burn This sizzles with humor, darkness and ambiguity.

Such a crowd-pleaser! I hope Burn This will travel nationwide like “Book of Mormon”, “Hamilton”, and “Dear Evan Hansen”.  There is something for everyone in the audience to relate to!

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  1. Hello Diana.
    I am in love with Adam Driver. Anything he does would certainly bring favorable artistic comments. Will it be coming to San Jose or San Francisco?
    Cordially,
    celeste

    1. It is too soon to tell. But the play sold out almost immediately, so the financial backers want to take it to the West Coast. Will let you know–it is the best work I have seen from Adam Driver, and he was excellent in BlacKkKlansman.

Mendocino–An Artist Haven

Mendocino County is known for its beautiful coastline, redwood forests, wineries, microbreweries and liberal attitudes towards marijuana.  Also, in July of last year the Ranch Fire devastated miles near Clear Lake in Mendocino County.  For my first trip there last week it was for an art workshop at the Mendocino Art Center, a wonderful experience I highly recommend.  There are a wide range of art classes available for weekend artists and friendly, beautiful accommodations within walking distance.  (My friend and I stayed at MacCallum House, and I highly recommend them!)

“Lost Horizon” by Susie Berteaux
Barbara Kibbe

“The Finale” by Diana Paul

I think of Mendocino as Carmel about a century ago:  quaint, historic buildings that are impeccably well-preserved and with history hiding between its lanes and alleys.  For example, there is a cemetery with a Chinese grave site within its perimeter, established in 1863, and segregated from the “mainstream” plots.  Ditto for the Catholic cemetery.  Little known but well-worth stopping by.

The artisanal grocery stores, curated galleries, and wide range of retail clothing and jewelry shops try to represent locals only in their goods.  And an  unbelievably well-stocked bookstore (Gallery Bookshophas an entire table devoted to the local history of Mendocino. And the food (check out Trillium and Cafe Mendocino restaurants) are not to be missed.

For all of you who plan to visit northern California, I highly recommend the Mendocino Coast, and if you are there in May and love flowers, make sure to stop by the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens (on 47 acres).  Last week’s rhododendron show was memorable–and the largest in the U.S.!

Who knew Mendocino had so much to offer?!

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  1. I fell in love with Mendocino on my first visit 5 years ago, and have returned every spring. I teach a class at the Mendocino Arts Center, which is historic and dates back at least 50 years or more. This quaint, quiet and secluded haven is nestled by the ocean with spectacular views and great hikes. My favorite subjects to paint are its unique water towers.
    I highly recommend Mendocino as a stop amongst places to visit.

  2. Mendocino – one of my favorite destinations.
    The location is one of the many reasons I like to attend Evelyn Klein’s Encaustic Monotype workshop at the Monterey Art Center.
    I have vacationed in Mendocino on and off for the last 30 years, finding new things to enjoy and established things, like the botanical garden, to revisit.
    Thank you, Diana, for deciding to attend the workshop so I could share what I love about Mendocino. It was sooooo much fun and a real pleasure.

  3. Hi Diana:
    Bill and I went to Mendocino for our wedding anniversary for many of the years we were at Stanford. That means we knew it during the heyday of hippie artists and laid back lifestyle. I am sure that many of the places we knew are gone, replaced with something much better.
    Thanks for taking me down memory lane.
    –Matilda

In Order of Disappearance–Plowing through Suspense

In this combination of black comedy and Nordic noir, we are treated to a series of scenes involving gangster mobs, drug trade, a father’s revenge, kidnapping, and snow plows. In Order of Disappearance is part “Fargo” and part other Coen brothers’ comedic treatment of snow country.  The main character, Nils (the Scandinavian acting legend Stellan Skarsgard), is a Norwegian government employee, a snow plower,  who has  recently been awarded a Citizen of the Year Award. When his only son is murdered for being at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong friend, Nils seeks revenge. Winning a blood feud isn’t easy, especially in a welfare state with organized crime expertly hidden beneath the radar. But Nils has something going for him: his spotless reputation as a devoted civil servant, heavy machinery that can plow through more than snow, and the strategic and tactical skills required for plotting against a mob.

In Order of Disappearance involves, as the title suggests, a morbid body count. Nils  soon turns ruthless, laser-focused avenging angel. Greven,   drug lord and “godfather ” to a cutthroat Norwegian drug syndicate, is a borderline psychotic.  Nonetheless, and somewhat incongruously, there are some bizarre, comic scenes with Greven’s child who is bullied at school.

Beautifully filmed, In Order of Disappearance brilliantly evokes the white cold and brutal conditions of a Norwegian winter.   With a sense of isolation and desolation of soul in a white-out, there is nothing visible except blood and mayhem.

This irresistibly nasty little film combines snowplowing roads for commuters, with contemplating suicide, and dumping corpses over water falls.  Skarsgard brings a stoic detachment to the revenge he he is determined to see to the end–served cold.   Just as you will never look at a table saw chopping wood in the same way after seeing the movie “Fargo”, you’ll never watch a snowplow with the usual disinterest again.

Well worth seeing.

Note: “In Order of Disappearance” is available to stream on Netflix and was remade as “Cold Pursuit” starring Liam Neeson earler this year. 

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Kusama–Infinity

The art of critically-acclaimed Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama,  now commands the highest price for any female artist alive today.  As an art-world superstar, Kusama has attracted millions of  museum-goers worldwide who wait for hours for the chance to take selfies to post on Instagram in one of her mirrored Infinity Rooms.  Yet little is known of this nonagenarian artist obsessed with dots and the film Kusama-Infinity reveals much about the artist.  She committed herself to a mental hospital in the 1970s, out of fear that she might commit suicide.  Her long arduous road to success was painful and took decades to reach.

Infinity follows a young and beautiful Kusama whose tortuous path not only reveals the artist’s persistence, resilience, and confidence but also her understanding of women’s rights, sexual freedom,  and gay rights in the US.  She symbolically performed the first gay marriage in the US,  in Central Park,  long before most Americans were cognizant of the cultural revolution about to take over the mainstream psyche. 

Endlessly courageous, Kusama aggressively promoted her work in the male-dominated artworld of New York City, only a decade after the end of the Second World War.  Despite staggering odds, this petite, unassuming Japanese woman, speaking faltering English, was determined to exhibit her art as she wanted, not as the gatekeepers of the artworld demanded. 

Infinity suggests that Yayoi Kusama’s mental illness may have stemmed from a traumatic childhood.  Both her parents wanted her to have a traditional Japanese marriage, with an upper class lifestyle.  Instead, the young artist escaped to New York City. While Kusama was waiting for recognition, she had an intimate but nonsexual relationship with the famous artist, Joseph Cornell. Under the mentorship of Georgia O’Keefe, Kusama had her first important gallery show.  Frank Stella became an avid collector of her work as well as a supporter.

Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, among others, “borrowed heavily”from Kusama’s work which was still relatively obscure while these male artists became sensations.   This repeated pattern, with white male artists being recognized for work that seemed influenced by her own innovations, understandably upset Kusama. The theft of her ideas may have been a catalyst for her depression and decision to return to Japan in the late 70s.

Slowly, as Kusama reached her late sixties, her art became fully acknowledged and skyrocketed in value. The 1993 Venice Biennale exemplified the art world’s recognition.

Infinity should have broad appeal as this film is also a condemnation  of the patronizing art overseers and their impact as gatekeepers of  what art becomes internationally recognized.

Note:  Kusama–Infinity is available on Netflix DVD.  “Velvet Buzzsaw” (see my  February 12, 2019 review),  a dramatization of a fictionalized and futuristic artworld is a fascinating metaphor for what Yayoi Kusama experienced over half a century ago.

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