Friday, August 26, 2011

Books And Other Arts Film Review: The Help

Film poster courtesy of Wikipedia and


As someone who spent a LONG time working in the book industry, I know well the perils of enjoying a book just to find the film a mish-mash of a few vague concepts explored in depth in the book. (Several years ago, as a matter of fact, my favorite book was made into a film. Haven't seen it and won't. It was in limited release, and while not "uniformly panned" by critics, it was, I think, not well understood. So I'm happy to continue to enjoy it as literature, and keep it in my mind and memory as is without relying on a screen adaptation.)

Happily, I am able to report, this is not the case with The Help. While a few minor details, the "toning down" a bit of one character's histrionics, and the inflating of another character's similar attribute, The Help is quite a faithful film, in terms of its reflection of the novel.

The casting and acting are so brilliant that you simply will not be able to visualize any other actresses undertaking these roles. I've always been a huge fan of Viola Davis' work, and in this role she not only doesn't disappoint, she simply carries the entire film. Emma Stone, as Skeeter, is indeed convincing. Bryce Dallas Howard, as Hilly, ALMOST goes "over-the-top" but barely and deftly manages not to, in a role that must have been difficult---I recently saw an interview with her in which she stated she could scarcely believe anyone could be so hateful as the character she portrayed. As "the moms", and despite the fact their roles are smaller (but certainly pivotal) both Allison Janney and Sissy Spacek were equally wonderful. I think Octavia Spencer enjoyed playing Minnie, and it shows in her work--if you see the film, look into her eyes when she is onscreen and you can actually see what I'm talking about. The "senior stateswoman" of the bunch, Cicely Tyson (remember "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman"??) is onscreen all too briefly, but also fantastic during her brief turn as Constantine. Mary Steenburgen, as an NYC book editor, was a hard-nosed, reality-based, elegant reflection of the women who populated that industry and had successfully broken through the glass ceiling in the literary world in those days.

Despite the fact this film is thought of as "a chick flick" and was born of "chick lit", the film grapples with the civil rights cause and how life in the south was in the early 1960's. It takes on the issues of what it's like (whether upper class or poor) to be a woman, what it's like for the poor, and what it truly takes to change your circumstances (whether those circumstances involve being treated as an equal regardless of your skin color, or leaving an abusive husband, or having money, a nice home and a loving husband, but being ostracized as "white trash"), your life, and inevitably change the world at large.

Run, do not walk, to see this movie. Going with a gal-pal will make it twice as much fun. Bring a hankie, buy popcorn, and discuss afterwards. You won't be sorry!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Books And Other Arts Film Review: Big Fish

Movie poster image courtesy of Wikimedia and Alientraveller

In every generation of Irish families, there is a member known as "The Keeper of the Fable". This is because Gaelic language had been outlawed, and the only way a true Celt could chronicle their family history was via an oral account. The Keeper Of The Fable is always a wonderful storyteller, someone who has a way with words, an ability to enchant and capture the imagination of his/her listeners. Those who are entrusted with this role also have been known to have a remarkable ability to "embroider" a tale. In my father's generation, he was undoubtedly The Keeper of the Fable, and it has been said that in my generation, I have assumed this mantle.

The film "Big Fish" deals with a young man's quest to know what his father has relayed to him his whole life, in terms of truth or fables. A writer for a wire service in Paris, Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) is married to a lovely Parisian photo-journalist, Josephine (Marion Cotillard, in her American screen debut). They are expecting their first child when Will receives the phone call from his mom, Sandra (Jessica Lange, poster girl for naturally graceful aging) telling him that his father, Ed (Albert Finney) is ill with a cancer that's now unresponsive to chemotherapy. Will and Josephine hop a flight to the States, where Will hopes to be finally able to discern fact from fiction in his father's life.

In flashback we see the life that Ed has "narrated" for Will and pretty much anyone else who will listen. It centers on his youth in Alabama and how he left his small town, and charmed the world. "Young Ed" in flashback is portrayed by the energetic Ewan McGregor, who embraces the role convincingly and with great enthusiasm. One of Ed's favorite tales is about how he set about to catch the biggest, most ornery and probably oldest fish in his local river and caught it on the day Will was born. Will tires of hearing this story ad nauseum over the years, and makes no secret of his disdain for such a ridiculous anecdote. Other particulars of Ed's life are also very suspicious to Will, such as how he met and married Sandra, and befriended a giant named Karl, worked at the Calloway Circus, became a decorated Korean War veteran, and so on.

As Ed wanes from his illness, Will begins to realize that the "fiction" he felt his father had concocted may not be totally fictitious after all. While organizing his father's "home office" at his mother's request, he finds a deed to a house in a town called Spectre, signed by a woman named Jenny Hill. Will sets off to find Jenny (Helena Bonham-Carter) in an effort to unravel some of the mysterious elements of his father's past.

I won't give a lot more away in terms of the plot, but suffice it to say that Will discovers there was actually a great deal of truth throughout his father's life, and that truth was in every single epic his father recounted. Jenny also tells him that his father had a lot of fables in his life, but that Will and Sandra were always present in Ed's life as the truth.

The film has so many whimsical elements in it, and very much fits a "fairy tale" theme woven into the fabric of the plot. Set designs of Spectre when Ed first visits it, of the circus, of Auburn University where Ed meets Sandra, are really fantastic, with a strong accent on "fantasy". Acting is uniformly wonderful, with Crudup convincing as an earnest but very bewildered Will, Lange as an adoring wife watching her husband slip away, Cotillard bewitched by the legends related by her father-in-law, and of course Finney himself as the ultimate Keeper of the Fable. My only complaint is that Bonham-Carter's character is supposed to be 10 years younger than Finney's character, but even with "aging" make-up, Bonham-Carter still looks (as she is in real life) considerably younger than the age she's supposed to be portraying. (And Lange looks frankly a bit too young for Finney, too, although in the flashback scenes in which they meet, Alison Lohman as the young Sandra just looks a bit younger than McGregor as the young Ed. Lohman and McGregor are actually about eight and a half years apart.)

The mistake people typically make about The Keeper of The Fable is the assumption that the Keeper merely wants to tell a good tale. What these folks most often forget is that every great fable exists to illustrate a particular point. Or a particular life. The truth is always there to be discovered and appreciated. Even if it's only at the very end of the fable.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Books And Other Arts Book Review: Now Eat This!

Cover Image Courtesy of Random House Books


Once upon a time there was a talented young chef. He was a bit of a "mama's boy", but his mama was in her own right a culinary force to be reckoned with named Nicolina. Nicolina's boy graduated from the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park in 1986 and went on to pursue a business degree, graduating from Boston University in 1990. Not only was he a smart, talented guy, but he was "pretty", too. He'd been named "Sexiest Chef Alive" by People Magazine, "Most Exciting Young Chef" by Gourmet Magazine, and "America's Best New Chef" by Food and Wine Magazine. Nicolina's son impressed the culinary world with his wizardry at Union Pacific in New York City, and eventually he began to write cookbooks and started his own restaurant, the foibles of which were chronicled on the small screen.

Legal problems ensnared the young chef in his restaurant venture with a quarrelsome partner, but he forged on with writing cookbooks and making the occasional small screen appearance. I have to admit, he was not a favorite of mine because of the entire TV "reality series" and what specifically was portrayed onscreen. He struck me as a rather spoiled boy basking in the limelight, and fully buying into the PR of "young and sexy and the latest and greatest". His latest book, however, has shown me that he's seen the light, and that alone would be enough to make me recommend it.

Rocco DiSpirito pulls no punches in his latest literary foray, entitled "Now Eat This!", and for that he has my complete respect. In the introduction, he reveals that he was, as so many are, in denial over his weight gain, until the sad truth was made apparent by his performance in a charity triathlon. DiSpirito candidly reveals that his times were bested by a group of women in their 60's, and this proved to be his wake-up call that he was overweight, out of shape and needed to gain better control of his health and eating habits. Crippling back pain had begun to affect him to the degree that he couldn't stand for hours at his beloved stove and he'd resorted to painkilling medication to help him get through the day.

In this book, DiSpirito set out to "re-make" some of America's favorite foods into healthier versions. I would say this is a mixed bag (sorry, Rocco, hon, but after 12 years of Catholic school, there's no one on the planet who could get me to eat tuna, ever), but is mostly successful. DiSpirito embraced the challenge, and states frankly that some recipes (such as Nicolina's meatballs) took multiple attempts to re-make. Throughout the book, toward the bottom of each page, there are values given for fat content and total calories per version both for the "original" version of the recipe, as well as "Rocco's re-made" version of the recipe. Most ingredients are easily obtained at your local market,and all the recipes are indeed America's favorites---mac & cheese, General Tsao's chicken, filet mignon Bernaise. Tex-Mex delights like steak fajitas, and tortilla soup appear with Italian favorites such as chicken Alfredo, eggplant manicotti and spaghetti carbonara. Also featured are salads, sauces, and pizza, not to mention sweet treats like brownies and frozen yogurt pops. Some of the ingredients Rocco advocates using are great and so readily available (Greek yogurt) others a bit more exotic (duck liver pâté for use in Beef Wellington) but at the risk of being repetitive, most are in your local grocery store. One thing I take issue with is Rocco's role as advocate of the use of sweet potatoes. He says this is a wonderful, vitamin-rich vegetable, and while that's hard to argue with, I'm not into "sweet" as a vegetable other than corn in summer and pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. Little tips on cooking are liberally sprinkled throughout the book, and seem like simple enough things to lower calories.

It's my understanding that Mr. DiSpirito's latest ventures include re-made menus geared toward kids. Well done, that's where it's at--make future generations of Americans healthy while staying healthy yourself. Between DiSpirito and Jamie Oliver, perhaps we'll be able to turn the tide of diabetes, high blood pressure and morbid obesity threatening American kids today.

I can highly recommend this cookbook as a primer for healthy, tasty eating. Really.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Books And Other Arts Book Review: Cheapskate Gourmet

Book cover image courtesy of St. Martins Press

The long days of summer have stretched out like wisps of dried dandelion floating through the air. In my neck of the woods, we're experiencing "the dog days of summer", during which a meal may be cottage cheese, a cold sandwich, fruit, potato salad or coleslaw. In short, anything that doesn't require cooking is a welcome respite to the palate.

Due to my situation as an unemployed person, though, I thought I'd think ahead a bit, and take a look at this cookbook to see what it has to offer this "cheapskate". The book, by Mary Hunt, claims it will help the reader create fabulous meals for a fraction of the cost. (A fraction of the cost of what, exactly??) The book is actually out of print now, but I acquired a copy from the Plymouth Library. (Thank you, all you nice folks at the Plymouth Library!)

Before I really review this book, I guess I should disclose some things about my cooking experiences. My mother was an excellent cook, but had a rather limited repetoire of foods she'd serve. She was somewhat predictable in her menus and presentation. For example, the New Year's Day's menu in our household was always glazed ham, au gratin potatoes, and green beans. There may or may not be minor variations in terms of a green salad or dessert, but the major components of meals were always predictable. The sibling closest to my age worked out a deal with me when pork chops were served, and we'd "swap". (Pork chops were served with mashed potatoes and pickled beets.) As a very young kid, I wasn't fond of pork chops, and Brian didn't like pickled beets. When my mother left the dining room to go back into the kitchen, Brian would shovel his pickled beets onto my plate and spear my pork chop to move onto his own. My older sister proved to be a much more inventive cook and baker, but couldn't always produce items she didn't enjoy eating herself. Having cultivated a pronounced distaste for Jell-O, for example, sometimes when she made it, the end result was rather rubbery. I learned how to cook fairly auto-didactically, as no one had time or patience to mentor me, and thanks to my reading skills and Better Homes & Gardens, I managed to become a decent cook. I managed too, to avoid the Achille's Heel that plagued my sister, in that an allergy prevents me from enjoying eggs, but I spent many a happy hour cooking them, in later adulthood, for our dad's Sunday breakfasts, as soft-boiled, scrambled, poached or in an omelet. In early adulthood, I cooked for housemates and in a cooperative living situation, I actually cooked on a small "team" that would turn out meals for a hundred people. I've had my share of failures in the kitchen, and no decent cook I've ever met has had smooth sailing on every attempt.

Having shared that, I must say that I felt The Cheapskate Gourmet was rather disappointing. I would recommend it possibly for someone setting up their first kitchen and/or the beginning cook. The first part of the book is devoted to what every kitchen should have in terms of equipment and "dry goods", such as rice, canned goods, flour, etc. Some of the recommended items are things that, frankly, I've lived without for some time now, like a food processor.

For what I thought would be a cookbook, the book is a bit short on recipes, and some of the recipes listed have "processed" ingredients like Velveeta cheese. (!!) Practical advice like making and freezing stock as well as uses for "leftover" vegetables will seem, I believe, to more experienced cooks, more like common sense. There are some excellent recipes for sauces, and maybe a few other recipes for desserts which aren't complex and look like fun, but most of the information in this book will be available in other culinary reference books like "The Joy of Cooking" or one of the "Better Homes and Gardens" cookbooks.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Books and Other Arts Film Review: Sylvia

Movie poster image courtesy of WikiMedia and Skier Dude

F. Scott Fitzgerald asserted several decades ago that the rich are different. Sadly, so too, are "The Literati" or any who fancy themselves to be in that set of society. I've worked on a professional level with people in academia, people in the medical profession, people in publishing and authors. Authors win in terms of largest and most fragile egos.

The source of the film's eponymous title, of course, is poet and author Sylvia Plath. As Woody Allen wryly observes in his Academy-Award winning film, "Annie Hall", Plath was an "interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality". There was a great deal more to the late Ms. Plath than that, although I'm not sure how deeply this film bothers to delve.

When the film opens, Plath has already arrived at Cambridge in the UK on a Fulbright Scholarship, after her undergraduate graduation from Smith College in the United States. It is here she meets Ted Hughes, a fellow poet, whom she weds. The visuals in this part of the film are stunning. As Plath, Gwyneth Paltrow, her hair styled in a 1950's page boy, and dressed in shades of pinks, reds, and russets, is lovely. (Note to Ms. Paltrow: perhaps you'd consider adopting some elements of this costuming into your offscreen persona. The raccoon eyes, gladiator sandals and serviette-short skirts really do not accent your natural loveliness. Just a thought.) Daniel Craig as Ted Hughes is really quite unrecognizable as the same guy who was James Bond in Casino Royale. His somewhat foppish mop of dark hair actually makes him look older than a graduate student, but he manages to convey well a certain degree of intensity you'd expect from the man who's about to become the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom.

Plath and Hughes at Cambridge are seen as a subset within a group of "gonzo poets" for lack of a better term. Hughes tells Plath early in their courtship that poetry is not "like magic, it is magic". Plath, basking in the glow of his narcissim, continues to write her own work, but also edits, types and mails off Hughes' poetry. Plath also reveals her undergraduate suicide attempt details to Hughes when he asks about a small inconspicuous scar she has. When he wins a writing contest (into which Plath entered his work), he decides they should marry. They do and then move to America for a couple of years. Meeting Sylvia's mother (portrayed deftly by Blythe Danner, Paltrow's real-life mother), Hughes manages to hold his own. Sylvia and Ted rent a cottage for the summer, and Plath is plagued there by writer's block, channeling her energy instead into baking. Settling back in Boston, where they both have teaching positions, Plath seems beleaguered by her teaching responsibilities, her attempts to be a good homemaker, her aspirations as a writer, and her suspicious nature in regard to "admirers" of her husband, particularly his attractive female students. With the realization that things aren't working out, Hughes suggests they move back to England.

Not long after their arrival, Sylvia learns she's pregnant and gives birth to Frieda, while Hughes continues to enjoy great success as both a writer and a philanderer. The end of the marriage and sudden burst of inspiration for Sylvia's writing come with the revelation that Assia Wevill, a married friend, is pregnant by Hughes. The whole era seems to be one in which Plath, who'd given birth to a son prior to the end of her marriage, is possessed by an almost maniacal ability to write well and prolifically.

The film is controversial for a number of reasons. Both Jillian Becker (who was Plath's best friend) and Frieda Hughes (Plath's daughter and the executor of all of Plath's literary assets) felt this film was not worthy of their cooperation. The film does unabashedly take literary license with certain events--for example, Plath's mother actually did attend her daughter's wedding in England, and did not meet her son-in-law, as the film depicts, after the newlyweds' arrival in America.

One cannot help but think Plath was a woman, in many ways, decades ahead of her time. She subordinated her talent (consciously or not) to her husband's needs and ambitions. Her obvious mental illness would today be interpreted as a chemical imbalance in her brain and be treated as such. And her genius would touch us, perhaps in different ways. Having said that, the acting in this film was highly capable, and if you don't mind overtones that could be depressing, this film is for you.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Books And Other Arts Book Review: Woman Made Of Sand

Joann Kobin, author of "A Woman Made of Sand" actually started the novel, as many works of fiction today, as a short story. The short story is now a chapter within the novel. The title of the book is derived from a short story that is also now a chapter in the book. As odd as this seems, the book is a bit like a mosaic or a work of modern art in that as much as it seems pieces of it are incongruous, they actually do all work together quite well.

The novel is broken, as mentioned above, into different chapters, and also flits back and forth between the past and present. It is told essentially in the voice of protagonist, Harriet Stedman. At the opening of the novel she's remarking on the family she has, as well as the family she's married into, prompted to reminisce because of her father-in-law's death. Harriet is married to Phillip, the scion of a family of wallpaper manufacturers, and together they have two children, Matina, and Eric.

The things I found most interesting about the novel are the way the chapters, which can each stand alone as short stories, manage to blend with each other in a way that seems effortless. Harriet recounts years when her children were young and the immediate family had moved to Virginia so her husband could spread his own wings and test his skills out of the family business, working for an advertising agency. She also recounts moving back to New York state as the family lived a seemingly idyllic life in a more suburban setting.

I was enchanted by the way Kobin captured the concept that a life is comprised of many different "seasons" in which priorities, goals, hopes, dreams, skills, and lifestyles all change. In this novel she weaves us several different tales (chapter by chapter, literally) which demonstrate the only thing we can count on in life is that change is constant; sometimes it's slow, sometimes swift, sometimes of our own choosing, sometimes not. Each of the characters cope with it to the best of their ability. By the end of the novel, Phillip and Harriet have divorced, their children are grown, and even at the end of the novel, one of the characters announces another change in his life. And, like a ripple across a lake, all the characters feel the change.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Books And Other Arts Film Review: Evening

Movie Poster Image Courtesy of Wikimedia and QuentinX
So much talent, so many famous names and such a long, long, long movie to tell a tale that really should not be that complicated. Rest assured, you're going to recognize everyone in the cast. Also recognize there is no bad acting by anyone at all in this film. However the film seems to take an enormous amount of time even given it "flashes back" in time to the 1950's.

Ann Grant Lord (Vanessa Redgrave), a former cabaret singer, is gravely ill and on her deathbed, attended by her two alternatingly loving and warring daughters, Constance (the late Natasha Richardson, Redgrave's real-life daughter) and Nina (Toni Collette, whom I'd like to nominate for worst onscreen hairstyle ever in the history of cinema). Heavily medicated, Ann drifts in and out of consciousness, and in her dream-states, she drifts back to incidences in a summer in the 1950's, when she served as maid of honor to her best friend Lila Wittenborn (Mamie Gummer portrays the young Lila, and Claire Danes portrays the young Ann Grant) at Lila's family's summer home in Newport.

Ann, as a college friend of Lila and her younger brother, Buddy, seems out of her element among the wealthy. Her rather bohemian dress and hairstyle contrast with the preppy clothes, house and friends the Wittenborns embody. Glenn Close and Barry Bostwick portray the well-born, well-heeled Wittenborn parents to perfection. Much is made of the fact that Ann will be singing a song at the bride's request at the wedding reception. I'm still not sure WHY so much is made of this, and the best I can come up with is that the song selection, "Time After Time" is a little wink at us because the film flashes back and forth from this era of the 1950's to the present day.

Buddy (Hugh Dancy, with an American accent and boyish good looks) introduces Ann to Harris. It seems as though everyone loves Harris, and I do mean everyone. Today in loose company I think Harris could qualify as a man-whore. Lila has been in love with him since she was a teenager, Buddy is in love with him, and soon Ann falls under his rather bewildering spell. As Harris, Patrick Wilson is surely a great-looking guy, but I frankly couldn't understand his wide appeal to what seemed to be half of Newport. All that's revealed about him is that he's handy with a boat, is the son of one of the Wittenborns' servants, became a doctor and practices medicine in the small town where he grew up.

In events leading up to the wedding, Buddy becomes more and more inebriated to the point that "YOU KNOW SOMETHING BAD WILL HAPPEN". Ann literally clutches her stomach on the way back to the Wittenborns the morning after the wedding and says this much to Harris. And of course something bad does happen and leaves a void in all of their lives.

Back in the present, Constance and Nina are perplexed about Ann's mutterings and murmurings during her semi-consciousness and take stabs at each other, too for their different natures. Constance is apparently a model of stability and success, a career woman (in what field we have no clue) who's married with 2 chidren, and lives a short distance from Ann. Nina, of course, by contrast, is seen as flightly and non-commital, despite the fact her boyfriend Luc has accompanied her on the trip to see her dying mother. Meryl Streep turns in an interesting performance as the "present-day" Lila, who comes to see her dying friend and reminisce with her.

The scenery was gorgeous, filmed on location in Newport. The costuming was pretty much on the mark, very tastefully done. There are bittersweet notes in viewing Natasha Richardson onscreen, of course, since her tragic and unexpected death. Needless to say she makes a very convincing appearance in loving daughter Constance. And despite the bittersweet, the one very joyful note about the film is that it was the vehicle for the meeting of Claire Danes and Hugh Dancy who have since wed. But as a whole it was a too-long film, and the plot was a bit of an inexplicable mess. So much talent, so little for them to do, and such a shame.