“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.

Social Networking–A Mixed Bag of Tricks

I received so many public and private comments from readers about my last post on Internet usage (see “The Current Digital Divide”–Instant Gratification Anyone?), that I started to think some more about how social networks have transformed our lives.  People (yours truly included) are spending more and more time on the computer. I set a timer so I don’t spend all day in one never-ending time-suck glued to the computer either web-surfing or social networking.  For discipline’s sake, I look at Facebook only once every other day or so.

I do agree with social network supporters that Facebook, LinkedIn, and a host of more specialized websites not only promote increased communication with friends and family but open new information resources– lesser-known websites, highly specialized associations, and political forums.  Besides the oft-mentioned dangers of exposing the vulnerable to predators and other criminals, or bemoaning the loss of literacy or longer attention spans, there are benefits to using the social networking tools we have available.

One of the most surprising articles I read this summer (Wall Street Journal, “Could Those Hours Online Be Making Kids Nicer?”, August 16, 2011) is a case in point.   Researchers have found that those who have difficulty communicating in person, especially teenagers, are more comfortable interacting via the Internet.  They are not using digital communication to reach out primarily to strangers, but to interact more frequently with those they already know but may feel shy around in face-to-face situations.

The WSJ article implies that empathy and likability increase among young social networkers, even towards those less self-confident and with low self-esteem.  Perhaps more significantly, Internet users are retaining their offline friendships, not replacing them.  Among social outliers, the Internet can increase a  sense of community and belonging.

This made me reflect on how I personally use social networking and email.  I can communicate at off-times–meaning late at night–since I am a night-owl.  That way the early birds can read my email or Facebook while I am still dreaming.  I can send an announcement–for example, a new blog post–to friends and acquaintances with one message, not hundreds. Digital communication also saves me time –a telephone conversation is more fun, video-chatting even more of a blast–but both take much, much longer.  If I am just too frazzled, an email or Facebook message is “better than nothing” and that is fundamentally the motivation behind the less personal means of saying something I really want to say.  Just like snail-mail, before the invention of email, the telephone call has now graduated way up the “food-chain” to having major impact on the receiver of the call as a very personal effort to talk.

However, what if I had trouble expressing myself in person or on the phone?  Would chatting in a chat room be more relaxing, more of my true feelings and opinions, than face-to-face?

Although social networking sites were created to make money, not to improve peoples’ lives, they have changed the landscape of how people relate to each other and there is no going back. Future political and social movements will undoubtedly use these tools to a significant degree difficult to imagine now.  These powerful new technologies are changing  the way we live, but not always in ways that everyone likes.

I am by nature an optimist, believing that the disadvantages of social networking will be filtered out over time and benefits will emerge for users who apply these tools with common sense. But in the early stages of any new technology, the buyer must beware. World-tilting technologies (think automobile, airplanes, telephone, television, computer) do not have predictable and absolute positive or negative effects. Social networking is just such a mixed bag of tricks.

 

“The Help”– “Telling the Truth Can Be a Revolutionary Act”

Based upon the best-selling 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett, “The Help” is a vision of a divided America that is consistent, sometimes terrifying, in its insulting, insinuating dehumanization of African Americans. This movie is also easy-to-like –problematic but ultimately winning–and has now earned a huge $154.4 million in box revenues.

Skeeter (played competently by Emma Stone), a young white journalism major who has recently graduated from the University of Mississippi, has returned home to Jackson to find that Constantine (Cicely Tyson), who raised her, no longer works for her mother. As Skeeter tries to find out what happened to Constantine, she begins to see the reality of life in Jackson for the black residents who are a vital part of the white community’s quality of life. Aibileen (impeccably portrayed by Viola Davis), the heroine of the movie, tells her life to Skeeter who secretly interviews her at night.  Slowly other maids bravely come forth, at great personal risk,  to tell their stories of the  same suffering, the same humiliating circumstances on the cusp of the civil rights revolution.

Irony is often heavy handed.  For example, the Junior League’s fund-raising for the sake of “the Poor Starving Children of Africa” while treating the poor African-Americans of Jackson as if they were subhuman.  Minnie, another black maid, is defiantly humorous.   Played by Octavia Spencer who seems to be paying tribute to the maids portrayed in the 1930’s and 1940’s by notable African-American actresses with few options in theater or cinema, her bravura performance  adds a much-needed comic element.

The cycle of racism spins in too-familiar patterns.  The white babies the black maids raise become the housewives who insult them.  Only Skeeter is motivated to change things for those who have cared for her and her peers. One other young white woman in town, Celia (again, a superb Jessica Chastain of “The Debt” and “The Tree of Life”), seems to see the ugly truth underpinning the superficial beauty of the town.

The extraordinary actress, Viola Davis (from “Doubt”, and the Tony award-winning “Fences”) infuses Aibileen with a dignity and warmth that fully reveals an exceptionally strong female character in spite of some of the caricature that her role could have conveyed.  “The Help” belongs to her. Even when the story drifts to the white women from hell –the Junior League Ole Miss debutantes epitomized by Miss Hilly (fiercely played by Bryce Dallas Howard), Davis’s performance lingers in the viewer’s mind, with  tough, wrenchingly vulnerable scenes with a pudgy, insecure little white girl at risk of irreparable damage. Another story is also a subtext, however.  Inside all these different homes, black and white, women with hearts and souls tended to the urgent matters of everyday life, like the care and feeding of children, and the seeking of approval from their husbands.  The white women are no happier than the black women, only meaner and more frightened by the impending change they can feel subliminally. No one voices their frustration with their circumstances except, in the end, the help.

This movie could have devolved into a cartoon of good vs. evil, but the actresses refuse to demean their characters by mocking them in such shorthand.  Only Miss Hilly and Elizabeth, the two most strident racists among the socialites, are virtually one-dimensional.  But these actresses find every possible nuance to show their neurotic tendencies, their fear of social ostracism and save their performances from being caricatures.

The era evoked in  “The Help” is not even fifty years ago but presents us with the painful recognition of the best and the worst of US race relations.

Update: For an additional article (November 9) about “The Help” which I wrote, go to the website www.womensmemoirs.com.

 

“The Debt”–Did We See the Same Movie?

In this remake of a popular 2007 Israeli movie, the genre label “espionage thriller” is an understatement.   The movie opens in 1997, as shocking news reaches retired Mossad agents Rachel and Stefan (married to each other but now divorced.)  Then “The Debt” moves quickly and chillingly between the 1960’s and 1997, in search for the Surgeon of Birkenau, a doppelganger for Mengele, the infamous Nazi general who masterminded the medical butchery of the Holocaust.

Helen Mirren, playing the courageous Mossad operative Rachel Singer, appears in 1997 for a book-signing celebrating her Mossad exploits retold by  her daughter Sara, who has eulogized her mother in a biography that recounts the heroic capture and slaying of Dieter Vogel,  Surgeon of Birkenau.  This is no typical role for Mirren but she is stunning as the sixty-something action hero in this testosterone-drenched gritty film.  That alone makes this film a groundbreaking example for future roles for actresses of Mirren’s stature and caliber.

The story requires two sets of actors–three actors in their twenties who play the youthful Mossad agents of the 1960’s and the three who play the same agents in their sixties almost thirty years later (1997).  Sam Worthington (as young David) and Marton Csokas (as young Stefan), share an apartment with Rachel as well as romantic inclinations. Jessica Chastain (as young Rachel) is particularly outstanding since the majority of the film holds together centered on Rachel’s heroism.

It is true that the past leads to the present, and each flashback brings new interpretations of events, but regardless of the mixed and negative reviews some of you may read, the mystery behind the Mossad agents and Vogel are clearly laid out. In 1966, three Mossad agents – Stephan (Marton Csokas), David (Sam Worthington), and Rachel (Jessica Chastain) – are brought together in East Berlin for a secret mission: capture Nazi war criminal Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the “Butcher of Birkenau,” and deliver him to Israel for public trial. Nearly 30 years later, these three gather once again to go back into the field after decades of retirement.

The gynecological scenes with the venomous Vogel in which Rachel has her legs in stirrups on the examination table are chilling.  They recall the fear of dentists that “Marathon Man” evoked or the terror of getting into a shower that “Psycho” elicited, but with much more subtlety. In a sneering scene that will be imprinted on the viewer’s brain for a very, very long time, two of the most horrific, unforgivable sentences ever uttered in a movie ring out cruelly from Vogel’s vicious mouth. These excruciating scenes are followed by others. Rachel spoon-feeding the bound Vogel is nausea-inducing in intensity and cunning.   These scenes are not for the faint of heart!

The ending is brilliant, if panned by some critics (not all).  I thought the plot surprised at every turn, keeping me guessing until the very end. What critics could find lame about this movie’s ending  flies in the face of reason to me.  I have not seen a movie about the Holocaust as riveting as this one except for “Sophie’s Choice”,  “Schindler’s List”, and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” but “The Debt” can’t be categorized in the same genre as these movies either.  “The Debt” is also much more than an espionage thriller like “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”.

I can’t believe critics who panned this movie saw the same film I did!  [Warning:  this movie can snap and stretch the nerves of the viewer.]

“The Fighter”–A Knockout

The 2010 blockbuster and critics’ darling, “The Fighter”, won Academy Awards for best supporting actor (an astounding Christian Bale) and best supporting actress (the masterful Melissa Leo).  However, I hate boxing movies, especially the tawdry “doormat turned boxing champion” variety we have seen in movies like “Rocky”.  This movie, however, is more in the genre of “Raging Bull” or “Million Dollar Baby”, movies in which “boxing” is a metaphor for the volatility of punches that life can throw to anyone, especially the underdog.

This time around the story is about Irish American Micky Ward, an actual boxing hero in working-class Boston during the 1990’s.  Mark Wahlberg, who both directs and plays the role of Micky Ward, has said he was inspired by the local fighter and determined to tell his story on the silver screen.  And the story is a remarkable one.

There are actually two stories in one:  Micky’s story as the welterweight boxer who dreams of  the championship, and the story of his half-brother, Dicky Eklund (spellbindingly played by Christian Bale),  who  could have been a champion but checked out of the competition because of  a fierce drug habit that none of his family can deal with.

Dicky’s story dominates during the first half of “The Fighter”.  Balding, skeletal, and nearly toothless, Dicky brags incessantly of his championship fighting, particularly against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978, and dreams of a comeback while training Micky for upcoming fights in the bowels of the boxing league. Dicky’s self-deception is so profound — and so impervious to reality — that he fails to recognize who he really has become.  Christian Bale justifiably won the best supporting actor’s role for his scene-stealing performance.   The impeccable supporting cast includes Melissa Leo as the heartbreaking, shrewish mother and Amy Adams as Dicky’s feisty girlfriend.  Without Mark Wahlberg’s  understated acting, which  is the foundation for Christian Bale’s, the latter would have seemed over-the-top or  overreaching.

The story in the second half of the film now shifts to Micky’s ordeal as he slugs his way to the top, in spite of his dysfunctional family and his mother’s lack of interest in his success.  Melissa Leo plays the mother with a wickedness in which the unrecognized damage she has done to her younger son creeps into her face with horror and unflinching sorrow as she finally realizes what she has done to him (and to Dicky). It’s like viewing the scene of an accident.

“The Fighter” appeals to the viewer on several levels.  It is a boxing film, but doesn’t need to be.  It is a film that taps into the narcissistic archetypal mother whose impact on her children is grotesque.  And most of all, it is a story of choices we all face–some at the expense of those we love–in order to move on to another stage in life.  The everyman underdog’s desperation sometimes requires stripping delusions of what family can and cannot do for you. We can understand why both his mother and half-brother imprison Micky and why he can’t turn his back on his brother. “What passion doesn’t blind, it opens the eyes and mind.”  For Micky that isn’t possible until his girlfriend (played in an elusively simple way by the talented Amy Adams) reveals the true dynamics of his family.

The film is not without its shortcomings, but I think all boxing films are prey to these flaws, even while telling a story based on fact. For one, the scenes of the family clan that includes seven young sisters to Micky and Dicky, do not integrate well and sometimes verge on the melodramatic and unbelievable, truth or not.   Still, every scene between the two brothers is riveting and hints at the exculpatory. The love that they feel for each other, even when they realize its destructive nature, is palpable and desolate.  The not-so-simple lesson they both learn is that, even if you run away from your family, they are always with you.

 

Lolo Restaurant–What’s not to like?

  A few weeks ago we dined at a very small Mexican/Spanish fusion restaurant–Lolo (3234 22nd Street, San Francisco)– that had an innovative menu of succulent morsels, aka tapas, that even foodies like us could find nothing to criticize.  This tiny, dark restaurant with cramped tables seating no more than 45 people had friendly service and a quirky, humorous decor–one wall is filled with hanging spoons.

The key for us whenever we order a lot of small plates–appetizers, soups and salads–is to test the chef’s skills.  So, a tapas restaurant is our idea of culinary nirvana!  Lolo’s is a study in transformations! Nothing on the menu is what it seemed–a pleasant surprise to say the very least!

We had about eight different dishes for the four of us. Although tapas are small plates, sometimes it isn’t easy to share a particular menu item four ways.  So, we asked and our waiter guided us in the right direction every time without fail.

We began with a fabulous salad of roasted beets with a dollop of feta mousse and pickled rings of red onions.  We followed that with a double order of ground lamb sliders, double order of crab tostadas with chorizo, leeks, and aioli with avocado puree,  tuna tacon–seared tuna, shellfish aioli, avocado, and roasted tomatillo sauce, and an extraordinary, thinly sliced octopus tiradito–chili flakes, sea salt, and aioli –that tasted like a slightly spicy ceviche.

Our final courses were the heaviest:  double orders of gorditas– blue corn masa pockets filled with braised short ribs, roasted three chile sauce, and pickled onions–and carnitas–shredded pork shoulder with organic blue corn tortillas and roasted tomatillo sauce with guacamole and pickled onions

To top off this fabulous feast we ordered two plates of “taco tropical”, spice-dusted panko-crusted fried shrimp in a jicama, sliced paper-thin instead of a tortilla.  The jicama is marinated in lime juice overnight to make it pliable for bending like a tortilla.  For us this dish is the star turn on the menu, although not highlighted as such.  Go to Lolo’s website —www.lolosf.com— under the “Videos” tab to see the YouTube clip revealing the creation of  this dish and the testimonial by the chef from Specchio who is so addicted to this taco tropical that he visits Lolo every week for his fix!  We probably would not have ordered this dish, if I hadn’t seen it being made on YouTube.  Don’t deprive yourself of this treat–calling this “comfort food” does not do the dish justice!

A word of advice–this restaurant is a sleeper but hardly a secret  to  locals in the know.  Without a reservation, you’ll have to wait.  And, you shouldn’t linger…after all, others are waiting patiently to experience the same mouth-watering delights!