Saturday, August 7, 2010

Books And Other Arts Film Review: Big Fish


Movie poster image courtesy of Wikimedia and Alientraveller
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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

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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
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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
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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



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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
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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.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Books And Other Arts Film Review: Two Lovers


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Two Lovers, directed by James Gray, was released just two years ago. Given the plot, I'd have thought that key characters like Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) should be about 10 years younger than they actually are. Maybe it's just a sign of the times and I'm a curmudgeon.

Leonard is a troubled young man, who, at the beginning of the film makes a half-hearted suicide attempt by jumping into Sheepshead Bay. We learn he's moved back in with his parents, who own a successful dry-cleaning store, and he's taking anti-depressants. He works in his parents' shop and to see him interacting with other employees, he seems like a happy, well-adjusted guy. A somewhat matronly-looking but patrician Isabella Rossellini portrays his concerned mother.

His parents decide to "merge" their business with a prospering businessman who already owns several dry-cleaning establishments in various areas of New York. The businessman and his family come to dinner one evening, which is how Leonard meets Sandra, the daughter. He reveals to her that he was engaged and with the discovery that both he and his fiancée carry the gene for Tay-Sachs disease the engagement was broken off, and the fiancée moved away.

One day while returning home from work, Leonard meets his neighbor, Michelle, in the hallway. He can hear a male voice yelling at Michelle, and offers her refuge in his family's apartment when Michelle tells him it's her father and he's angry with her. Michelle enjoys chatting and commenting on the features of Leonard's family's apartment, while making Leonard's mother visibly tense. She leaves, but tells Leonard she believes she can see his room from her apartment. Intrigued, Leonard looks out his bedroom window and discovers he can indeed see Michelle when she's in her kitchen and then in another room of her apartment.

Leonard finds himself caught between his attraction to Michelle, who is gorgeous and somewhat exotic (her "father" is actually not her father, but a lover who furnishes an apartment for her as part of "the deal") and Sandra, who is a "safe" choice, attractive, and has won over his parents' hearts with the full support of her own family.

Everything in this film is fairly understated. There are no loud colors in the clothing or furniture or scenery or landscapes. Despite the fact Ms. Paltrow's character is probably the most extroverted in the ensemble, even she doesn't wear anything bright, vivid or even pastel. This is also reflected in Leonard's avocation of photography, as he uses an old camera given to him by his father, and takes black and white photos. Likewise the performances are not larger than life, which may be an attempt to make them more believable. Most of the time this would work. I felt that the film needed a bit more energy. Nevertheless, all the characters are well-drawn, and most are also very likeable. As a whole I felt that the film was very believeable.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Books And Other Arts Film Review: Far From Heaven


Movie poster image courtesy of Wikimedia and Grandpasfootsoldier

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The suburb of Hartford Connecticut in the late 1950's is the setting for this visually splendid film, directed by Todd Haynes. The use of color in this film is simply stunning. When the film opens in autumn, the screen is filled with rich, earthy tones---corals, oranges, greens and browns are a treat to the eye. The visual delight belies the secrets in this small town.

Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) is a successful homemaker, wife, and mother of two children. Her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), is an executive. Their domestic Sybil (Viola Davis) completes this picture of domestic bliss---but pictures aren't always true to life.

One evening while Frank is "working late", Cathy decides to deliver dinner to his office. Entering his darkened office unannounced, she finds him passionately kissing another man. She leaves, and when Frank arrives home, he tells her he had a "problem" years ago that he'd erroneously thought was over. After speaking with Cathy, he decides to enter psychotherapy. His therapist tells him that very few men who seek "conversion" to heterosexuality are successful.

Cathy is overwrought with shame and confusion. She feels she has found a friend in another "outsider", Raymond Deagan, who is taking over for his late father as gardener to the Whitakers. Raymond owns a plant shop, is college-educated, a single father who had become a widower some years earlier, and oh, yes, is African-American. Just being seen with Raymond, Cathy becomes the talk of the town, and all gossip is viciously directed toward implying that her relationship with Raymond is much more than it actually is. (Although there is no denying there is a chemistry between Cathy and Raymond, they do not act on it.)

My biggest complaint about this film is the under-development of Dennis Quaid's character, Frank. I wanted to know a bit more about his life prior to meeting Cathy, and how he came to decide to marry her, and a bit more about his inability to supress his true nature and desires. These avenues are, alas, never explored in the film.

Acting by Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert, who portrays Raymond, is very good. Patricia Clarkson (the hardest-working actress in Hollywood) as Cathy's best friend, Eleanor, is really exceptional. Viola Davis' small role doesn't give her a great deal to work with, but she turns in a solid performance, and Dennis Quaid does convince us he is indeed conflicted and tormented.

As stated, the film is visually as perfect as you could possibly imagine, although there seems to be some incongruity. Connecticut seems to have very little snow at Christmas, and in a pivotal scene outside of Raymond's home, we see flowers blooming in winter. (The character is a talented gardener, but even talent can't win over a typical New England winter!) While the plot hits the right notes in terms of expressing the racial divide in the country and the homophobic undercurrent of society, the thinly-drawn character of one of the most important people in the film leaves it lacking.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Books And Other Arts Film Review: Finding Neverland


Movie poster image courtesy of Wikimedia and JasonAQuest

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Today is Easter Sunday. For children in America, the Easter bunny has visited overnight and left brightly colored eggs and lots of candy, hidden and waiting to be discovered. (Hopefully before it melts!) Some of you reading this may not realize that I am the care-giver and housemate of an older brother, who functions as a child. I made for him an Easter basket of candy that has more chocolate than Switzerland and more eggs than any 5 chicken ranches put together. He's enjoying some chocolate eggs now as I write this.

It seemed right on such a holiday (aside from its religious significance, which is considerable for Christians like myself) to view "Finding Neverland". Released in 2004 and directed by Marc Forster, this film rightfully was nominated for several Academy Awards. The only thing I find puzzling is how it didn't sweep the field for wins. From Mr. Forster's direction, to the screenplay by David Magee, to the magnificent performances from every member of the cast, this is an incredible stellar effort.

At the opening of the film, playwright J.M. Barrie (portrayed by Johnny Depp at his finest) is seen on opening night of one of his plays, an abysmal flop. Although his wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell) gives him little, if any encouragement, he does get support from producer and friend Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman, in a small but pivotal role). The day after the opening, Barrie seeks solace in a park and is befriended by the youngest of a family of boys, Michael Lleweyn-Davies. Recounting the meeting at dinner to his wife, Barrie learns the family's father died and the widow is a woman from a prominent family, but now has little in the way of financial resources.

Barrie returns to the park and befriends the widow, Sylvia (the incomparable Kate Winslet) and finds great joy in playing with her four young sons, George, Jack, Peter, and Michael. Sylvia confides that Peter's not been the same boy at all since his father's death, and Barrie in turn, in a moment of spectacular intimacy speaks to her about the death of his elder brother, David, something he'd never spoken to anyone about.

Julie Christie as Sylvia's mother, Emma du Maurier (aunt of the famous Daphne, who authored novels) disapproves of Barrie's involvement with Sylvia's family, and expresses herself succinctly on the matter. Even one of Barrie's pals cautions him that "people are beginning to talk" about how Barrie spends more time with Sylvia and her family than with his own wife. Eventually Mary does leave Barrie for another man, something that apparently scandalized London society, but was something of which Barrie himself barely takes notice. Sylvia and her family take up residence in Barrie's summer cottage outside of London, and at that time he notices she's taken ill with a cough that will not subside, and she refuses to cooperate with a doctor Barrie engages to exam her; the doctor urges a stay in a hospital for some tests.

Barrie is about to stage a new play, and invites Sylvia's family to the opening. He also tells Frohman he'd like an additional 25 seats in the house reserved, scattered throughout the theater. At a dress rehearsal, George, the eldest of the boys, appears with them in tow, and asks for a word with Barrie privately. He reveals to Barrie that upon their return to their home in London, his mother is now much sicker and had asked him to take the boys out for the afternoon. In playing with the rigging that will eventually make the actors "airborn", George falls and breaks his arm. He won't permit the hospital to set his arm unless Sylvia submits to some further testing in the matter of her own health.

While trying to organize the boys on the opening night of the play "Peter Pan", Sylvia is stricken gravely ill. She sends Peter to the play, telling him he must take it all in and report back to her about it. Barrie, when informed what's happened, goes to her home and is almost barred by her mother, but George intervenes and tells his grandmother she must permit Barrie to see his mother. The 25 seats Barrie had reserved, by the way, were for orphans. Planting them throughout the audience, they laugh at appropriate times when the onstage antics are funniest, and allow the adults in the audience to find their own "inner child" and laugh along, too.

I'll not reveal more about the plot. I'll just say the scenes I thought most effective and poignant in all the film were those in which Barrie talks about his brother's death, and George and Barrie have a private discussion at the dress rehearsal. The depths of emotions conveyed by Depp and young Freddie Highmore, as Peter Llewelyn-Davies is unlike anything else I've ever witnessed onscreen and the film is worth all if only to see the two of them.

When viewing this film, I thought "How shall I end my review?" I shall end my review, dear readers, by quoting from the film itself. At an after-reception on opening night, Barrie finds young Peter Llewelyn-Davies and asks "Did you like it?". The young Master Llewelyn-Davies responds "It was magical! Thank you!"

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Books And Other Arts Film Review: There Will Be Blood



Movie poster image courtesy of Wikimedia and Grandpafootsoldier
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It's been oft-said there is a fine line between genius and insanity. In the 20th century, proof of this was borne out in famous, successful men who ultimately isolated themselves. William Randolph Hearst, Orson Welles (who ironically portrayed a thinly-veiled version of Mr. Hearst in his magnum opus, "Citizen Kane") and Howard Hughes come to mind as examples. The film "There Will Be Blood" offers us yet another similar anti-hero in the character of Daniel Plainview, as portrayed with chilling ardor by Daniel Day-Lewis.

I must confess that I had put off seeing this film because I'm not fond of violence. I have to share this with you, however: there are four deaths in this film and two are accidental. By 21st century American standards, that's not a lot, but it punctuates certain points in the film quite distinctly.

Plainview remains an enigma throughout the film. We first see him working alone, drilling for oil. He successfully finds it and assembles a small crew of men to work with him. We see one of the workmen sometimes carrying a small baby, and are startled to see a child so young in a place so unlikely. A few scenes later we see a little boy accompanying Plainview on a train ride, and learn it's his son, H.W., a bit older now, no longer a baby, and able to take a trip with his dad.

While traveling around the southwest, and making "pitches" to towns to buy their land and drill for oil, Plainview is approached one evening by a young man named Paul Sunday (actor Paul Dano). Paul tells him that for a sum of money, he'll reveal the location of an arid western town that seems to be replete with oil from all outward signs. Plainview and Paul Sunday strike a bargain, settle on a price, and Plainview tells Paul that if his information is false, he'll find Paul and kill him. Day-Lewis' acting skills convince everyone there's no doubt Plainview would do this easily.

Plainview and his son set out for the Sunday ranch in Little Boston, California. It proves to be everything Paul Sunday promised it would. In the guise of hunting, Plainview meets Paul's identical twin, Eli, who plans to follow in the footsteps of his preacher-father. H.W. Plainview finds a kindred spirit in the youngest of the Sunday children, Mary.

Events move quickly and Plainview establishes himself as an oilman in the area deftly and buys up several parcels of land. He assembles a large crew of men to work three producing wells. In a freak accidental explosion, H.W. is injured and becomes permanently deaf. A man named Henry, claiming to be Plainview's half-brother shows up. Eli Sunday and Plainview come to blows over H.W.'s treatment and money Eli claims he is owed by Plainview.

The film captures perfectly a hardscrabble working man's life, but also the single-minded ambition of a maniac. Day-Lewis has beautiful, long-fingered hands, but they're often filthy with oil and dirt in this film. The film was inspired by several sources, the chief among them, the Upton Sinclair book entitled "Oil!". The music, mostly classical, is amazing. At times there are wafting, sweet notes, other times staccato strings of a violin pierce the soundtrack in a stark wail.

If you're looking for a film that's light and frothy, this surely is not it. But if you don't mind gritty and determined, this film's for you.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Books And Other Arts Film Review: Good Night And Good Luck



Movie poster image courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures, Wikipedia and Quentin X

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The 2005 film "Good Night And Good Luck" has largely been viewed as a George Clooney vehicle. With all due respect to Mr. Clooney, that's not quite an accurate assessment. Clooney did direct and (with Grant Heslov) co-write the screenplay and acted in the film. Based on events that transpired at the height of America's "red scare" of the 1950's, the film is told in flashback. When the film opens, it is a scene at an awards ceremony, a ceremony in which CBS producer Fred Friendly (portrayed by George Clooney) introduces the recipient of the award, the distinguished journalist, Edward R. Murrow (played to perfection by David Strathairn). The film "flashes back" to events in the early part of the decade and Murrow and Friendly's decision (and ultimately the decision of CBS) to "bring down" Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin Senator who led the legislative arm of the American government into "witch hunting" Communists.

The film was made on shoestring for a mere $7.5 million, and by contemporary Hollywood standards, this is a scant sum. One of the reasons the film cost so little to make is that Clooney agreed to be paid the sum of $1 for each of his roles as actor, director, screenwriter, and producer. Because of an injury he incurred on the set of the film "Syriana", he was deemed uninsurable (ironically a practice that would now be illegal) so he mortgaged one of his homes to raise funds for the film. He and Strathairn make a terrific and utterly convincing team as Friendly and Murrow, two consummate journalism professionals who put their careers on the line to bring sense and an objective POV to the American people about "the red terror". Both of these men had families and homes and obvious concerns about their futures. Yet they risked being "targeted" by Sen. McCarthy, whose scruples and motives were less than the common good and what was best for the public interest. McCarthy didn't act alone, had aides and "plants" in the print media business and it's implied in the film that the "hounding" of CBS journalist Don Hollenbeck contributed to Hollenbeck's apparent suicide.

The film is black and white, which is perfect to portray a period in America in which everything seemed to be black and white---but wasn't. About every 20 minutes or so there's a musical interlude featuring jazz singer Dianne Reeves singing at least a few bars of a tune that fits into that particular element of the film. I won't give anything away by mentioning song titles, but I thought this aspect of the film was brilliant and not at all gimmicky.

A sub-plot involving Joe and Shirley Wershba (played by Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson) and the restrictions they endured due to company policies at CBS provides a little comic relief, although even that is portrayed with a fairly serious tone. It provides further historical perspective on how restrictive a time this era was in American history and society.

Everything about this film was absolutely pitch-perfect. Frank Langella and my "neighbor" Jeff Daniels turn in convincing performances as CBS "suits" William Paley and Sig Mickelson who ultimately must deal with fallout from advertisers, investors and viewers. It's a sad commentary that in his speech at the awards ceremony, which concludes the film, Murrow, in his acceptance speech, admonishes the networks for pandering to the viewers' and TV sponsors' clamoring for "entertainment" versus providing the public with actual news. This goes to show, too, that the old adage is, sadly, true: those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Books and Other Arts GUEST FILM REVIEW: Crazy Heart



Movie poster image courtesy of Wikimedia Foundation.

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I am thrilled to announce that due to my hectic schedule as a temp, my dear friend C, (she of remarkably good taste, especially in cultural matters) volunteered to do another guest review on my behalf. This one is on the Academy-award nominated film, Crazy Heart, which garnered a "Best Actor" Academy Award for its star, Jeff Bridges. Thank you once again, C!

Crazy Heart

Directed by Scott Cooper
from the novel written by Scott Cooper and Thomas Cobb

Starring Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gylenhaall , Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell

I was surprised I liked this movie as much as I did.
I have never been a huge fan of country music, but I enjoyed listening to the music as much as I enjoyed watching the film.
Jeff Bridges sang all of his own songs, as did Colin Farrell and Robert Duval sings a little too. Everyone in the movie who performed was very good.

Jeff Bridges plays a falling down drunk country musician named "Bad" Blake. You first see him driving in his beat up old car on the way to performing at bowling alleys and bars. He did a very good job of portraying a chain smoking, alcoholic who manages to perform then be sick and pass out. He just misses being too disgusting to watch.

But the story becomes a sweet love story when Maggie Gylenhaal meets him, to interview him and the story goes on to seeing him try to straighten his life out for her, to get his career back the way it used to be and to not die from drinking and smoking. Maggie Gylenhaal was very good, as was everyone else in the film.

Even if you are not a fan of Country music, you will probably enjoy the soundtrack.
This is not a fast paced action packed film, it is slow and thoughtful and you find yourself hoping he doesn't fall back or break his promises.

I thought it was a satisfying ending and I think he definitely deserved to win the Oscar for his performance.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Books and Other Arts Book Review: GUEST REVIEW The Writing Class


Book jacket image courtesy of Macmillan Publishing
*************************************************************************************I am thrilled to announce today's book review was written by a good friend, for whom I have a great deal of respect and admiration. She is also a fun person, who is very stylish, and I am especially honored to feature her book review here because she, too, has her own blog.

This is the url for her blog:
http://notes-fromabroad.blogspot.com/



Anyway, without further ado, here is the book review. (Thanks, C!)

Amy Gallup is a writer . When she was 22, her first book was published to high acclaim. She had a wonderful future ahead of her, but after a series of sad events and ultimately the loss of the will to write or do much of anything, she ends up teaching a writing workshop at the local university.

As you read , you get to know her students and more about Amy and her dog Alphonse and then the series of unsettling pranks, obscene phone calls and then a murder.
Amy and her students set out to solve the mystery themselves, bringing the reader along as they try to figure out which one of them is the killer, which one of them is not who they seem to be, which one of them will die next.

There is so much wit and suspense in this book, I hated to put it down.
I found it entertaining on so many levels. I love a good mystery and this contains a few. Amy is very likable as well as tragic and you really want something good to happen for her. And you get to like or dislike the various students and all through the book, you will laugh.

The authors sense of humor comes through and keeps the story light and entertaining, right to the very last page.This book has been called a " Mystery book written for book lovers " and I agree.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Books and Other Arts Film Review: Into the Wild


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The film "Into the Wild" is based on the true, tragic story of Chris McCandless. However, the film and the book on which it was based have been the center of controversy. More about that later. The film takes place in the early 1990's.

Opening with narration by Chris McCandless' younger sister, Carine (Jena Malone), she chronicles the events unfolding this particular day and for a few months afterward. Chris is graduating from Emory University in Georgia. His family lived in an affluent suburb of Washington, DC. His parents were in business together in an aerospace/telecommunications field, his father having served as an antenna specialist at NASA.

We soon learn that Chris (Emile Hirsch) was always a bit of a daredevil, but we also see through his undergraduate experience, he was a brilliant, compassionate student, who eschewed a lot of social conventions. He lived in a small apartment on campus, but had no telephone. At dinner at a restaurant to celebrate his graduation, Chris informs his parents he thinks his grades will be good enough to get him into Harvard Law School. His parents had given him a college fund, and he had $24,500 left in it on the day of his graduation. After his high school graduation, he purchased a beat-up Datsun and drove across the country. Clearly this young man yearns for the open road.

After his family leaves, however, Chris sets about on realizing a dream of traveling to Alaska. We see him destroying his ID and credit cards (this is controversial, because there's evidence it didn't actually happen), and mailing a cashier's check off to Oxfam for a $24,000 donation. He loads up his backpack into the Datsun and drives off. He decides to adopt the name Alex Supertramp.

In his first adventure, Chris parks the Datsun one night too close to the shoreline and his car is hit by crashing waves. He abandons the car, takes his backpack, removes the license plate from the car and we also see him burning some cash. (It's questionable as to whether he burned the cash.) He hits the road by hitchhiking.

The film flips back and forth in time, and we do see Chris in winter in Alaska, hiking by himself, and finding, like a magical castle, what he refers to in his journal as "The Magic Bus". The bus was originally a transit bus in Fairbanks, but somehow ended up abandoned in the woods. It's outfitted with a bed and a a wood-burning stove, a few utensils, a table, a chair and some windows, both broken and intact. It is here he reads by the light of candles or a kerosene lamp, here he writes in his journal, cooks and consumes his meals.

In flashbacks prior to his arrival in Alaska, we see Chris being temporarily "adopted" by a hippie couple, Jan and Rainey, and learns that Jan is plagued by memories of her son, who hit the road when he was even younger than Chris is, not to be seen again by Jan for some years. Jan and Rainey travel the roads in a small, ancient RV, and sell paperback books and goods Jan has crocheted or knitted. Whenever and wherever weather permits, however, they sleep in a tent outdoors.

These same flashbacks show Chris near Lake Phoenix Arizona. He purchases a kayak at one point and discovers when he asks a sheriff about kayaking down a river that he can't do it unless he applies for a permit and there aren't available permits for the next 12 years! The sheriff explains the other alternative would be to join a licensed group that does tours on the river. Always enthused by nature, and with what he feels is a healthy irreverence for laws, particularly laws that prevent people from enjoying the beauty of nature, we next see Chris kayaking down the river. He hears music at one point, and sees a young couple, singing and dancing, the young man on shore, his female friend in the water. They spy Chris, and wave him over and invite him to join them for a meal. They're from Copenhagen and enjoying a trip to America, telling Chris they've been to L.A. and Las Vegas, and cooking hot dogs on a hibachi, they ask him where he's going. The guy tells Chris he could actually kayak all the way down to Mexico and together they consult a map. Suddenly they hear a siren from the river patrol, and Chris gives the couple his hurried thanks and apologies, and bolts off into his kayak, paddling energetically to elude the long arm of the law.

Chris does manage to kayak into Mexico, but then has problems re-entering the United States without identification. (Again, there's some evidence he actually had identification, so this part of the film apparently was fictionalized.) He uses trains to "hobo" into parts of America, until he is brutally beaten one night by an employee of the railroad.

We see Chris learning to steer a huge combine across wheat fields in South Dakota. Here he befriends a group of men working the wheat harvest and also develops an appreciation of the land. The crew chief, Wayne (Vince Vaughn) finds Chris hard-working and bright, but also quite an enigma, and can't fathom why Chris wants to pretty much abandon society of any and all kinds for a life in the wilds of Alaska. Wayne introduces Chris to Kevin, however, an avid hunter and fisherman, who teaches Chris about killing and butchering wild animals.

Eventually Chris is befriended by an older gentleman, a recovering alcoholic named Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook) who gives him a ride one day back to his temporary campsite in California. Ron takes Chris home, they share a meal, and Chris does his laundry and takes a shower there. Ron tells Chris his story, which is that while serving abroad in the armed forces, one New Year's Eve his wife and young son were killed by a drunken or sleeping driver. The accident was the impetus for Ron's alcoholism. However, he realized life as an alcoholic would not be what his wife would want for him, so he went "cold turkey" into a life of sobriety. Ron teaches Chris how to work with leather, in a workshop on his property, and Chris proves to be very skilled in the craft. Ron apparently manufactures belts, purses, hats, all kinds of things "on spec" for people, and this supplements his income. Eventually Ron realizes Chris is going to leave for Alaska, after Chris tells Ron that Ron needs to engage more actively with the world, and travel. Ron puts together a box of supplies for Chris, composed of a machete, a retractable fishing reel and some other odds and ends. Saying a poignant goodbye to Chris, Ron asks if he could "adopt" him as a grandson. Chris asks "Can we talk about this when I get back from Alaska?", and Ron nods in the affirmative, trying to hold back his tears.

In Alaska we see Chris chopping wood, killing a moose (and failing to properly butcher it, so he leaves it for wolves to eat), shooting, roasting and consuming fowl, and identifying plants. His provisions dwindling (he had a 10-pound bag of rice in his backpack), Chris is unable to find animals easily and begins to starve; his emaciated frame serves as ample evidence that things have become dire. (Emile Hirsch lost 40 pounds for the portrayal of this part of the film, and his gaunt face looks as though it would scarcely support the beard growing on it.) Pulling out a book on wild plants, he goes foraging, finds some plants he harvests and brings them back to the bus, where he consumes them. Belatedly he discovers he erred and ate something poisonous. We see him write a "farewell note" and in his sleeping bag, he peacefully passes away.

The controversial aspect of the film comes not only from certain fictionalized components already discussed here, but from Chris' speculated motives for abandoning society. Chris' parents Billie (Marcia Gay Harden) and Walt (William Hurt) have a terrible, tempestuous marriage, punctuated by loud fights and threats of divorce, terrifying Chris and Carine. The family realizes at the end of summer, when there's been no word from Chris, that he's "taken off", and in September the police force notifies them about Chris' abandoned Datsun. They also discover his Oxfam donation. In a pivotal scene, Walt runs out into the street where his suburban home is situated, screaming, mourning the surrender of his son to "the wild". However, there are other accounts that state Walt and Chris argued more or less as much as any average father and son would. The screenplay was written by Sean Penn, who waited years to film the movie, not wanting to tread on "fresh grief" of friends and family, and he supposedly also wanted to have the complete permission of the McCandless family. Also, autopsy results reveal that Chris did not suffer from any form of poisoning, but starved to death. Sean Penn did not incorporate into the film an "S.O.S. note" that Chris had affixed to the exterior of the bus. It stated he was injured and implored whoever saw the note to either help him or go for help. It's been speculated that while already emaciated, he incurred some type of shoulder injury which at least partially immobilized him and subsequently he was unable to fish, hunt or forage for plants due to the impediment, and this contributed to his death.

Sean Penn also directed the film and did a wonderful job bringing his vision to the screen. Every scene was shot on location, in the actual locations except the bus itself. Penn has said he felt that would have been disrespectful to Chris' memory. In order to capture the changing of seasons, the filming took more than a year for exterior shots. Billie and Walt are depicted as a cliché of suburban success, but Gay Harden and Hurt manage to turn in decent performances. Emile Hirsch is astounding and makes Chris likeable and troubled simultaneously. Hal Holbrook has also done an admirable job in portraying a lonely old man, not quite able to understand Chris, but who longs to maintain the connection to him. Catherine Keener's Jan is wistful and wise and knowing. While the whole "parental" motivation for Chris McCandless' actions are somewhat plausible, I'm still doubtful it fully explains why such a bright, promising young man would literally be consumed by a need to be alone in the wilderness.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Books & Other Arts Film Review: The Order

Movie poster image courtesy of Wikipedia and Grandpasfootsoldier


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"What a mess!". This is a riff on the famous Bette Davis quote "What a dump!" from the 1949 film "Beyond The Forest". However, "what a mess" applies to the 2003 film "The Order". I think writer/director Brian Helgeland must have missed working with Heath Ledger, Shannyn Sossamon and Mark Addy so much after having assembled them for the 2001 film "A Knight's Tale", that he threw "The Order" into production just to have the pleasure of working with them again.

The melange of accents alone is enough to make you wonder. Heath Ledger does nothing to conceal his Aussie accent, Mark Addy does mask his British accent in order to invoke an Irish accent (I'm not joking) and Benno Fürmann speaks with what I'd have to classify as "unidentifiable European accent". I thought it might have been Russo-Polish, but given that he's German, and his character is supposed to have been Italian, I know my initial guess is unlikely.

When the film opens, we see an elderly priest on a bicycle, traversing Rome. Shocks of white hair flying in the wind, the priest arrives at a cupola which is evidently his residence, and also hasn't had the benefit of any substantial housekeeping since around the time the Magna Carta was signed. The priest, a Fr. Dominic, is visited by a man named William Eden (the enigmatic, nevertheless suave Benno Fürmann) who asks him if he's ready. Ready for a visit from Molly Maid is most likely, but no, Mr. Eden, it seems, has something much more sinister in mind. In the next scene we see a young priest, Fr. Alex, on his way into his church in New York City. Earnest, but at the same time unfeeling, Fr. Alex faces away from his congregants and toward the crucifix during Mass, and celebrates the Mass in Latin. (For those of you who aren't Roman Catholics, with some regional exceptions, Masses in America have been been celebrated in English since Vatican II, under Pope John XXIII in the early 1960's.) While distributing Communion, a communicant tells him "I need to speak to you", so after Mass we see him with Fr. Alex outside the church. The communicant is no other than Michael Cardinal Driscoll, Fr. Alex' Cardinal (played with a certain haminess by Peter Weller) to tell him that his mentor, Fr. Dominic, was found dead at his home in Rome, and that the Diocese of New York is sending Fr. Alex to Rome the following day. Cardinal Driscoll smokes cigarettes, has his own red cigarette case and cuts a figure I could only hope to describe as Max Von Sydow meets Prada.

Back at his home (the rectory), Fr. Alex phones his pal Fr. Thomas. It seems Fr. Alex, Fr. Thomas, and the late Fr. Dominic were the last remaining priests in an order called The Carolingians (again, as a Roman Catholic, the order is a fictitious one, I have to say this). This order's speciality, it seems, is in exorcising demons and laying to rest all forms of "the undead". Prior to Fr. Thomas' phone ringing, as a matter of fact, he's seen in France performing an exorcism on a fleeing man who runs out into a street and is immediately impaled by a florist's delivery van. Rushing up to the van, Fr. Thomas sees the dying man who takes on the countenance of a demon, and the demon taunts Fr. Thomas by telling him The Black Pope will soon rise to power and ascend the Papal Throne. (Again, as an RC, "the Black Pope" is a mention of an anti-Pope, or a pretender to the Papal Throne, or the "evil" Pope who supposedly will rule the church at the "end of days", per popular American lore. Sheesh, seriously I never hear stuff out of anyone like this when I'm in Italy, even when I'm hanging around the Vatican. I've heard specific stories of exorcism, but nothing about an evil Pope ruling at the end of days.) Barely does he have time to hang up the phone with Fr. Thomas, and Mara appears, telling Fr. Alex she was just released. Turns out that Mara (Shannyn Sossamon) has spent the past year in a mental health facility, and she and Fr. Alex met when Fr. Alex was investigating her brother's suspicious death. Apparently (this is implied) Fr. Alex felt she was possessed, and attempted an exorcism on Mara, who in turn attempted to murder him. Mara assures Fr. Alex she's fine (which isn't quite true, as she escaped from the facility) and she wants to go to Rome with him. (We're meant to believe she had the foresight to escape with her passport.)

Arriving in Rome, Fr. Alex and Mara (who looks like, despite the fact she had only the clothes on her back when she met Fr. Alex the night before, as though she could easily appear on the cover of "Vogue" magazine) go directly to Fr. Dominic's and find that there is writing on the table in some form of solid ash in Aramaic. Getting Mara settled in, Fr. Alex then departs for the morgue, bribes the attendant there, and observes on the late Fr. Dominic's body there are a couple of odd marks on his chest. The morgue attendant informs Fr. Alex that Fr. Dominic's body is going to be turned over to the state of Italy for burial, as he is a suicide due to an overdose of sleeping pills. Fr. Alex then seeks out a Bishop (and the identity of this Bishop is indeed a mystery, as the Pope is typically known as the Bishop of Rome, and the man to whom Fr. Alex speaks is definitely not the Pope), who ascertains that Fr. Dominic had been excommunicated and is therefore ineligible (doubly so because of the suicide) for burial in a consecreted cemetary. Fr. Alex has other ideas, however, and steals Fr. Dominic's body from the morgue, and with the assistance of two nuns, buries Fr. Dominic and is approached by his buddy Fr. Thomas, newly-arrived from France.

Back at the cupola, Frs. Alex, Thomas, and Mara pour over an old piece of parchment Fr. Dominic had procured in an antiquarian bookstore in Rome on "sin-eating". (Again, pardon me if my religious faith is showing, but this practice is frowned upon by Mother Church, who views it as heresy.) Cardinal Driscoll shows up just to say "howdy", Fr. Thomas takes Fr. Alex to a place called The Inferno (a club that makes the nightclub in "Star Wars" seem like a meeting of the Junior League) and they learn from a hooded figure named Chirac of a clue to a second, missing piece of parchment. In the meantime William Eden approaches Fr. Alex inside St. Peter's Basilica and reveals that he is a centuries-old sin-eater, and shows Fr. Alex how he became one. It seems William Eden's father and older brother were working on the construction of St. Peter's Basilica under the direction of Michaelangelo, and William's brother, Phillip fell. Phillip was refused last rites (a sacrament which used to be called extreme unction, now called the Annointing of the Sick) because the year before, while in Jerusalem, he permitted an Arab a drink of holy water. (Consumption of holy water as a beverage is taboo. Receiving the sacrament of Annointing of the Sick ensures the recipient dies in a state of grace and their soul is eligible to be received into the Kingdom of Heaven.)

I won't go into the rest of the plot, but I will say if I thought the accents were an interesting mix, the plot is also quite the mix. There is borrowing from/references (not overt) to Dante's Divine Comedy, the films "The Omen", "The Exorcist" and "The Ninth Gate". Using a name like "William Eden" is yet another attempt to wink at the viewer; "William" means "protector" and "Eden" is an ever-so obvious reference to Paradise.

The film's plot has gaping holes, and ultimately we are left feeling unsatisfied. As talented an actor as he was, as evidenced in vehicles like "Brokeback Mountain", "Ten Things I Hate About You", "The Dark Knight" and "Candy", Heath Ledger certainly deserved much better than this plot could possibly give him as an actor. Perhaps the next time Mr. Helgeland enjoys a cast so much, he could simply ask them to join him "ensemble" for a pleasant weekend in the country. Anything but a film that is as hopeless a mish-mash as "The Order". (And "The Disorder", would be a much more fitting title, as well as cover any "truth-in-advertising" clause 20th Century Fox may want to engage in for viewers of its films.)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Slice Of Life: Angels Do Exist!


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I was supposed to see a film I would have reviewed today. Bad weather prevented me from getting out and seeing it. I am still reading two books I hope to review here soon.

We had quite a bit of snow overnight and today. I was supposed to go to a seminar on resumes (despite the fact I think my friend Carla did a lovely job with mine) and I got an e-mail this morning stating the seminar would be cancelled due to inclement weather. Finally late this afternoon it stopped snowing.

I would say we received about 7-8 inches of snow. We do not have a snow-blower, unlike most of our neighbors, but we do have two shovels. I worry about Tom shoveling, because he is a smoker, and every year in Michigan people (usually men) die from heart attacks when they're shoveling after a snowstorm. So I went out and began to shovel. After about 15 minutes Tom joined me, so he took the part of the driveway I hadn't reached yet, and I took the sidewalk. A few cars came down the street--people coming home from work, I guessed. All of a sudden a little sedan came down the street, and the driver, a young woman, rolled her window down. I thought perhaps she was going to ask us directions, but she said "Do you need any help? Can I shovel for you?" I said to her "are you sure?" and she said "Yes! Absolutely! I would love to help you if I can!". So I took her up on her offer. She was tall, slender, pretty and had brown hair and eyes and was wearing sweat pants and a sweatshirt that said "Chicago" on it. I asked Tom if he wanted to stop, but he said no, he was fine, so the young lady took my shovel and began at the bottom of our driveway and I went back into the garage to get some handled jugs of ice-melter to put down. I could hear her making small talk with Tom, and when I returned, they were almost through. So I asked this young lady if she was a college student, and it turns out she attends a community college not far away, and she works at a Dunkin' Donuts about a half-mile away, and she's studying nursing, and her mom is also a nurse. She was so sweet and pleasant, and I told her the story of our mom dying and then my hospitalization and lymphoma diagnosis. So...when she went to leave, she said she would love to help us any time with shoveling or mowing the lawn, and she gave me her name and phone number and said "don't hesitate to call!". I just can't believe it! What an angel! I told her I wished I could pay her but I just lost my job last month (which always sounds funny to me, like I accidentally mis-placed it somewhere!) and if ever she needed a personal reference, I'd be happy to give one.

Tom was in the garage, and when I came back in, he said to me, "you know, there's not a lot of people like that left in the world", and I most certainly agree!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Film Review: An Education

Movie poster courtesy of Wikimedia


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I apologize for no post yesterday, but I lost internet connectivity. Not sure why. Oddly, my internet is bundled with cable and telephone, and the household land-line was also non-functional. Cable TV held up, though, so we were able to tune in the Olympics!

The film "An Education" is actually a film adaptation of a memoir by Lynn Barber. Barber had originally penned an article that then led to the memoir. However, she did not write the screenplay, but rather turned that over to veteran author/screenplay writer Nick Hornby. Barber actually had some degree of approval over the screenplay and has been pleased with Hornby's work.

In postwar, Cold-War era suburban London, young, pretty Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan) lives with her parents. Her father (played by a particularly jowly, toothy Alfred Molina) goes out of his way to impress upon her the importance of studying and cultivating very particular hobbies to assist her in attaining the family goal of getting Jenny admitted to a college in Oxford. Her passions, French and jazz, are largely discounted by her father as frivolous things that take her concentration away from what he views as really important. Her mother (Cara Seymour), an attractive woman, plays a rather tacit peacekeeper role.

One cold day, waiting for the bus in a rainstorm, Jenny and her cello are picked up by a handsome stranger a bit older (Peter Sarsgaard, managing to look a bit like the guy next door, but definitely not the boy next door). He assures Jenny his intentions are about keeping her cello dry, so she lets him load the cello case into the back seat, starts to walk alongside the car, a stunning burgundy roadster, and then as the weather turns worse, accepts his initial proposal she enter the car. Introducing himself as David, the man asks Jenny about her music, concerts, and demonstrates not only some knowledge of classical music, but of the local musicians who play it. Jenny is impressed, and the ride home is short, and she gets out, safely home with her cello and none the worse for wear.

The following Thursday, when departing to play in the concert, accompanied by her parents, Jenny discovers a stunning arrangement of flowers on the front steps, with a card addressed to her. They're from David. Her parents, unaware of who David may be, show concern, but hurry off with their daughter for the concert. The next day, out with her friends, the 16 year-old surburbanite spies David and walks up to thank him. He asks if she's busy on Friday, and suggests they attend a classical music concert in London's West End together with a couple of his friends, Danny and Helen. Excited by the prospect, but grounded in reality, Jenny informs David it's unlikely her parents will consent, especially after David suggests they have supper after the concert. With her schoolgirl friends giggling in the background, David tells her not to worry, he'll handle her parents, and if they don't consent, he'll simply give her two concert tickets and she can attend with one of them.

Naturally, Jenny's father goes ballistic upon hearing this and says Jenny will have to attend the concert with him--until his wife informs him of the location, which he doesn't want to have to visit, claiming it's too far. David arrives at the appointed hour, and does everything short of charming the birds out of the trees. Jenny's parents, deeming David jovial and trustworthy, permit him to take Jenny to the concert and to supper afterwards with his "aunt Helen". Meeting Danny and Helen at the concert hall, Jenny is struck by how sophisticated David's friends appear. Helen in particular (Rosamund Pike looking incredibly like a young Catherine Deneuve) is a source of delight for Jenny, as she's clothed in a beautiful dress, a matching white stole and white opera gloves. Jenny overestimates her new acquaintance's intellectual capabilities, though, and when she begins speaking French to Helen, Helen is very evidently lost. After the concert, the two couples repair to a supper club, where they smoke cigarettes, drink champagne cocktails and listen to a singer (Beth Rowley, dressed and coiffed in a manner that I can only describe as a cross between Marilyn Monroe and a Barbie doll) warbling jazz tunes. All this is heady for Jenny, whose peers are her schoolgirl pals and a would-be teen suitor Graham, who is as socially awkward as the day is long, and who may be out of his league intellectually with Jenny.

At school, Jenny finds herself subjected to teasing by the other girls about her romance with "an older man". A good student, she struggles with Latin, and her father and teacher, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams, who had to be "uglied up" considerably for this role) tell her unless her Latin grades improve, she surely won't be Oxford-bound. All the talk of Jenny's boyfriend circulates through school, and this causes enough concern for the headmistress (Emma Thompson, who somehow manages to convey just the right mixture of the contradictory elements of stylish and matronly) to lecture Jenny on the morality code for the all-girl student body.

David, however, and the alluring, culturally-rich world he lives in, beckon Jenny to a life beyond the Latin translations. Under Helen's tutelage, Jenny learns how to stop dressing like a schoolgirl, and to style her hair and wear make-up in a more contemporary, worldly manner. Together the two couples manage to steal away for a weekend in Oxford, although Jenny insists she will remain a virgin until her 17th birthday. She and David "put one over" on her parents to get their permission for the trip, with David lying, and Jenny corroborating that David's trip is a visit to his alma mater to see his old professor, the esteemed author C.S. Lewis. Sharing a room and a bed, Jenny does keep her word to herself and doesn't have a sexual relationship with David. On the way back to London, however, Jenny sees David and Danny make off with an antique map from an "open house" home, and jaded, she decides to break the relationship off. David placates her, literally sweeping her off her feet and dancing with her in the streets of London, however, and wins her back.

Appearing unexpectedly at Jenny's house for her birthday, and literally bearing more presents than he can carry all at once, David explains to Jenny's parents he'd like them all to take a trip the following weekend to celebrate Jenny's birthday in Paris. Her father objects, stating he'd not enjoy Paris, and David says that given Jenny's passions, the trip would be a good way to show her what a bunch of nonsense French culture is. By now Jenny's parents trust David so much, they permit Jenny and David to take the trip alone together. The couple are enthralled with each other and Paris, and enjoy les bookinistes, the steps of Montmartre, and a picnic dinner on the banks of the Seine, among the many vistas of the city.

Everything appears idyllic. Of course, this means it isn't. Noticing the interest Danny appears to be taking in Jenny, David becomes protective and jealous. He proposes to Jenny, delving into the trunk of his car in a futile effort to find a stolen ring. Not knowing whether to accept, Jenny discusses the matter with her parents. Because they, too, have become so smitten with the charming David, they tell Jenny they'll give their consent. This causes Jenny to question why they'd so suddenly stop encouraging her hard work in school and give in to the prospect of their daughter enjoying an "easy life" with a successful businessman.

Jenny discovers David isn't who he says he is, and confronts him about it on the night they're to celebrate their engagement by taking her parents out to dinner. Jenny even comes to the creepy conclusion that David may have been stalking her when he picked her up in the rain.

Despite the fact Jenny wallows in depression and blames her parents for not taking a full and careful interest in her suitor, Jenny eventually realizes she, too, has failed herself. She defines a new goal for herself, and sets about finding help to achieve that goal. The first person she approaches for assistance rejects her, but the second helps her find her path and ultimately become a success.

The costumes really capture the era. Gentlemen are in nice overcoats, suits and ties. The ladies are, at turns, in tweed suits, argyle sweaters, and chic sheath dresses with leopard-skin prints appearing here and there in coats and hats. The soundtrack is wonderful, and prominently features selections from Beth Rowley and Juliette Greco. In Paris, scenes are perfect for the segment of the film dealing with the giddy atmosphere of love, sex and infatuation.

One of the key scenes in the film features Alfred Molina, earnest and sincere as Jenny's father, apologizing to her on the other side of her bedroom door, for being so blindly trusting of David and all he seemed to offer, and not being more carefully paternal. As an added touch, he leaves Jenny a cup of tea and some biscuits, which is just what a loving British dad would do. All of the scenes with Emma Thompson are powerful vehicles not just for Thompson's own considerable acting skills, but for Mulligan's, too. The dialogue in these scenes is amazing, particularly when Jenny examines the lives of the women who are supposed to be her academic role models, but she observes that in early 1960's London, even with an education, their lives seem to be less than perfectly fulfilling. She also challenges Thompson to explain, as an educator, what the specific value of an education is to young women of the era.

By the end of the film, we see and hear a much humbler Jenny, achieving her goal and observing she's older but doesn't feel wise. The fact of the matter is that she actually is, but the price she's paid is the loss of her innocence. The concept of "growing pains" applies to emotional wounds, too.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Film Review: The Boy In The Striped Pajamas

Movie poster image courtesy of Wikimedia


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One learns, with a certain happiness, I think, that some things do indeed "stand the test of time"; school systems in America will order hundreds of copies of books each year like "To Kill A Mockingbird" and "The Pearl". A book I'd noticed on school book lists the past couple of years has been Irishman John Boyne's book, "The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas". (Alternate spelling of "pajamas" in Europe, changed in America to "pajamas".) In 2008, a film adaptation of the book was released.

The film opens in Berlin and focuses on the household of a young family, about to be uprooted by World War II. The father, Ralf, (portrayed by British actor David Thewlis) has just been promoted in the SS, and has a new assignment as the Commandant of a concentration camp. The mother, Elsa (portrayed by American actress Vera Farmiga) is thrilled at her husband's professional success and is under the impression it's a labor camp. In honor of her husband's promotion, she throws a lavish party to celebrate. The children, Gretel, age 12 (portrayed by Amber Beattie)and Bruno, age 8 (portrayed by an ethereal Asa Butterfield) are less than thrilled at the prospect of leaving their beautiful home, their school and their friends in Berlin, but accept the move as a necessity, and are assured by their mother that they'll make new friends. At the party, however, the new Commandant receives less than complete support from his own mother, who is no Nazi enthusiast.

The burnished wood staircase and expansive foyer of the house in Berlin contrast starkly with a cement/brick house surrounded by walls outside of Auschwitz, where the family moves. With no other children to play with, Bruno quickly becomes bored and restless. Standing on a chair to look out of his bedroom window on the day the family moves in, he spies some buildings across the woods, and surmises he's viewing a farm. When a worker appears at the house to deliver vegetables, Bruno tells his mother he finds the "farm worker" strange, and asks why he'd be wearing "striped pajamas".

Eventually his ennui gets the better of the very physically active Bruno, and he steals away to nearby woods and finds a fenced yard. Approaching it, he sees a little boy sitting alone, who appears to be his size and age. He introduces himself, and asks the boy's name (it is Shmuel, the character portrayed by Jack Scanlon) and a friendship begins. Bruno remarks he's never heard a name like Shmuel's before, and noting that Shmuel cannot come out and play with him, but is cordoned off by the fence, he asks Shmuel what he's done to merit such treatment. Shmuel matter-of-factly announces he's a Jew.

Scenes in the film explore the evolution of the members of the family acquiring an awareness of what is really going on. When we first see Elsa in the first frame of the film, her chauffeur is opening the car door for her, and she's happily carrying a dress box. Gretel is shown playing with dolls, and Bruno's literary choices run the gamut of adventure books that would appeal to an 8 year-old boy. As time at their home outside of Auschwitz passes, each of them is stripped of their prior assumptions about the Commandant, the war, and the prisoners. Gretel abandons her massive doll collection and begins collecting War posters extolling the virtues of the Fatherland. Elsa is inadvertently alerted to the crematoria nearby, and Bruno is caught between seeing his father as a good, kind man and developing an understanding that his father is a key component in a process to exterminate good, kind people.

This film has drawn all kinds of criticism. (As has the book.) Boyne has said the book is a historical fiction. Rabbi Benjamin Blech condemned the book as an abomination, stating there is no credibility in a premise that the members of the Commandant's family could be so ignorant of "The Final Solution" that they'd not realize what was going on and the meaning of it. I think this criticism misses the mark. The film isn't about The Holocaust, just as, IMO, the film "Life Is Beautiful" isn't about The Holocaust. Both films are about families. "The Boy In The Striped Pajamas" is also about childhood friendship, and how important and innocent it is. Vera Farmiga said she read the script and wondered how a Third Reich wife couldn't know what her husband was up to, and then she read journals of two wives of Third Reich Commandants and understood infinitely more.

This review will not delve further into revealing details of the plot. There are no spoilers I will reveal. I will say that I thought during the last 10 minutes of the film, my heart might beat right outside of my chest.

The acting in this film is amazingly wonderful. Vera Farmiga portrays Elsa with the ferocity of a lioness. Asa Butterfield carries this film, and that a kid his age can appear in such a large segment of the film (120 or so scenes out of the 140 that comprise the film) is a feat most actors three times his age can't handle. Jack Scanlon is keen to portray Shmuel in a way that is not too "precious". We don't see Shmuel as a puppy we'd like to rescue, but he captures well the fact that he's a little boy and a vulnerable victim as well. Amber Beattie deftly handles the transition her character makes, entering adolescence and abandoning childhood for what she believes to be worthier and more adult ideals. Perhaps the most complex role is given to David Thewlis, Commandant Ralf, who finds the professional demands of his career overtaking his paternal instincts to care for and about his family. The musical score by James Horner is terrific--lush piano chords accompany Bruno scampering through the woods with a toy airplane. Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme has beautifully captured the woods, the houses, and the costumes and enhanced what the set designers, location captains and costume designer Natalie Ward have done to bring the era to life on the screen.

It has been said that those who fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it. The Holocaust is an important lesson to understand. Each family is also replete with its own history, and important lessons, too.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

It's A Dog's World



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For the 8th time, a Scottish terrier has won "Best of Show" at the renowned Westminster Dog Show. Her name is Sadie. I'm hardly surprised she's a champion. I owned a Scottie. Well, more accurately, he owned me, I suppose, as well as the rest of my family. As a kid, I wanted a dog. When I was 10, my siblings and parents chipped in and bought for my birthday a puppy I picked out of a litter in a private home. I named him MacDuff, which I knew was the name of a Shakespearean character from the Bard's tragedy, "Macbeth". He ruled the household and our hearts for many years. He was as loyal as the day is long, and when I went away to university, about a month after my departure, he was found lying outside my closed bedroom door, crying. He lived until I was in my mid-twenties, and despite the fact I no longer lived "at home", he provided excellent companionship for each of my parents.

For a period of time, I lived in Ann Arbor, a few blocks away from one of my former professors. This particular prof was a "dog person" and acquired a Bernese Mountain Dog. His children promptly named her Heidi because, they reasoned, she was Swiss, and so should share the moniker with the famous character from children's literature, who lived in the Alps with her grandfather. My former prof and his family traveled fairly often, and the dog needed exercise, so I used to walk her when the family was out of town. She was wonderfully loyal, too, and each time she saw me, assuming it meant a trip to The Arb or Burns Park, her tail would wag enthusiastically.

In my kitchen there is a bulletin board. On the bulletin board for the last several years, I have had a "full size" photographic calendar of Scottish Terriers, with beautiful glossy photos of Scotties in various poses. I'll pen in appointments on the calendar, so my brother will know not to worry if I'm not home. Each month, there are quotes on the calendar, pertaining to dogs and their place in our lives.

These are some of my favorite quotes:

"To err is human, to forgive, is canine"---Unknown

"If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you; that is the chief difference between a dog and a man."---Mark Twain

"Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet."---Colette

"The great pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him, and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself too."---Samuel Butler, Notebooks 1912

"My little dog-a heartbeat at my feet."---Edith Wharton

"Dogs are our link to paradise. They don't know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring, it was peace."---Milan Kundera


Well done, Sadie. You've represented your species, your breed and your home state very well.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Nom de Plume


Movie Poster image appears courtesy of Wikimedia
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If you had to write a book or an article, or something that was going to be published, and you had to use a name other than your own, what name would you use? Because I speak more than one language, my BFF once suggested that I use "Polly Glot". I don't mind the first name "Polly" but "Glot" as a surname is really quite awful. Can you think of anything more guttural? Her husband, who has a much drier sense of humor and loves the original film "Bedazzled" (starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) suggested "Millie Regretti". While the Italian surname is appealing to me on a number of levels, it still leaves something to be desired.

Because my "real name" is a fine example of alliteration, I used to think I would select a name with a similar attribute and use something like "Barbara Bishop". I'm frankly a little miffed at Nora Ephron. In the film "You've Got Mail", Meg Ryan's character has my real-life name. (Gee, and we're both blonde, and her character, like me, had been in the book business.) Occasionally I will do something like show up at the post office to claim a piece of mail and someone will look at my identification and say "why is your name so familiar to me?", and I'll sigh and say "Have you recently seen the film 'You've Got Mail' by chance?", and more often than not, the other person will have their "ah ha!" moment and smile and nod.

One of these days, just one of these fine days, I'm going to write a work of fiction that will feature a really annoying character named Nora Ephron. She'll be so neurotic that Sigmund Freud will spin in his grave. But my name won't be attached to this work, so don't look for it. It'll be written by Kelly Thomas, most likely.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Food, Glorious Food!


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It's "Fat Tuesday". Interesting that a day is named after a national epidemic, no? I wrote that very tongue-in-cheek, as I realize "Fat Tuesday" is the literal English translation of Mardi Gras, which is today. The photo is a photo of paczki, a rich deep-fried doughnut popular first in Poland, and now in certain areas of the midwest. (It's pronounced "poonch-key" and this is the plural. A single doughnut is a paczek, pronounced poonch-ick.) The parish where my family resided during my childhood was populated by Polish-American families. My late pal Marty Murphy and I used to call ourselves "token Micks". But man, every year, the day before Ash Wednesday, we'd gorge ourselves on paczki. Packzki dough must be made with real butter, according to one of our Polish-American classmates, and does contain some yeast, so the dough has to rise. In the greater Detroit area, bakeries selling paczki begin working around-the-clock the weekend prior to Ash Wednesday, to meet demand. Many folks will bring them into their places of work, so they'll order boxes of a dozen ahead of time. The doughnuts are always deep-fried, as I mentioned, never baked, and after they cool, they're filled with all kinds of different fillings: bavarian cream, cream cheese, lemon, and many different fruit fillings like apple, strawberry, raspberry, blueberry and prune. New Orleans may have King Cakes(which I've sampled and found delicious), but the part of the country where I reside is Paczki Heaven. After the fillings are inserted, paczki are often either glazed with a clear sugar glaze or granulated or powdered sugar.

All this has been my big build-up to a discussion on cookbooks. Now I have to tell you my parents had really different temperaments, making life in my childhood really interesting, but one of the most acrimonious arguments they ever had was about cookbooks. My mom had quite a collection of them. I remember fondly the Christmas Cookie cookbook that my mother, sister and I seemed to pour over each holiday season, and it served as the impetus for most of the sweet treats coming out of our kitchen in December. I also remember that Mom had an "encyclopedia" set of cookbooks, and if I recall there were at least a dozen, perhaps even eighteen in the set. They ran alphabetically, so in the volume with the letter "S", one would find recipes for sauces, soups, and stews, for example. Well, my parents moved from my childhood home to a smaller house in the early 1980's. Mom had many of her cookbooks in one box, and Dad threw the box out. Deliberately. I don't know if this was his not-so-subtle way of telling Mom that her cooking was either not great (which I'm sorry to say is the truth) or much too absent (which was also the truth, as Mom loved to order take-out), but the fury and uproar his action caused was legendary.

The incident made me realize something, though, about cookbooks. My mother lived through the Great Depression in another country. As the eldest of four, she sometimes passed up meals because her family didn't have enough food to feed the entire family, and she had a couple of younger siblings she adored and sacrificed for gladly. My mother did have a very reliable repetoire of recipes she could turn out well for company at our house, however, and as a hostess she was generous and gracious to all visitors who stayed for meals with us. (My father was also a host who was famous for saying to guests "Please, eat up! Have more! Give the house a good name!" and I can say without fear of contradiction, if you left our home hungry, it was surely your own fault.) The Great Depression shaped my mother's psychological make-up and she began to hoard, I think because of it. I am still throwing out food in the basement of the last house my mom lived in--there are cans and jars of things so old they've exploded and I wear rubber gloves every time I'm down there pitching things into trash cans or plastic trash bags.

The acquisition of cookbooks, and always having a lot of them around, was every bit as important to my mother as having all the food itself had been. They formed part of my mother's "Scarlett O'Hara" moment of saying "As God is my witness, I'll never go hungry again!", something I never actually heard my mom say, but something she obviously felt and lived out throughout her entire lifetime.

I hope sometime in the future to blog in a bit more detailed manner about cookbooks and share with you some of the ones I've enjoyed using. But I wanted to share this blog with you so you might understand that a cookbook isn't always just a place for recipes. To my late mother, it also served as a psychological safe haven of sorts.