Friday, December 31, 2010

Another One Down

Drop the last year into the silent limbo of the past. Let it go, for it was imperfect, and thank God that it can go. ~Brooks Atkinson


So true, but 2010 is a year I will always treasure. A grand year filled with surprises and new experiences. Eh, sounds kinda trite, but it's accurate. It was a remarkable year primarily for three big reasons, two of which I can share with you.

What? No, the main reason why 2010 sparkled is a whopper, but I can't share that here just yet. Some readers know what it is already. It's a very complicated situation. This discovery I made early in the year was Big, a pulling-the-carpet-out-from-under-me kind of big. Something that made me look at myself quite differently. Something that caused a bit of an identity crisis. There will be future entries filled with emotions and pictures, perhaps in the coming year. As I said, it is complex. Sorry, invisible audience!

One big thing was that I finally set foot in Europe. As I've slowly been documenting in the Tourista series, my wife and I visited France and Spain for a glorious nine days. Basque region and Paris. Wondrous. It was an instance of exceeded expectations. I think on it daily. I predicted that while there it would feel like a dream. It certainly did, but yet I felt very much a part of a real landscape. It might have been the rich history all around, the earthiness. I felt like I belonged there. Increasingly, I feel like a simpler life is what I seek. I'm not ready to join the Amish just yet, but I could assimilate without too much difficulty, I think. I've often said that I was born too late. Perhaps later than I had originally thought.

The other? I taught a class this fall (see previous entry). Five students in an audiology lab for the graduate speech language pathology program. It was a deeply satisfying experience. It was nice to be able to put knowledge into action and watch it manifest in others. Readers of the previous post will recall that I had the opportunity to teach a lecture course for one session a few years ago, a great time for me. This time I was able to develop and guide. I hope my students found it at least 50% as valuable as I did.

I also spent another fine year with my lovely bride. I feel I am growing into married life quite nicely. Everyone always said it was work, and that is apt. And worth every bit of it. I'm a much better person than even 1.5 years ago.

I also continue to count my blessings with a great workplace. Every day brings new challenges, often the sorts of cases I only read about in textbooks. When I survey the things I've learned and performed audiologically this year...things that used to scare me because they were unfamiliar. Nothing like getting your hands dirty. Experience breeds confidence and competence.

We continued to volunteer at our church in the hospitality and (me) intercessory prayer group. This Christmas was especially valuable as we were able to deliver a Christmas tree and gifts courtesy of our volunteer group to a single mother and her children. We got to meet and spend a little time with her, listening to some really tragic stories. But what a strong woman. There was no "woe is me" in her demeanor. There are a lot of women like her out there, far from their families, trying to raise a new one. I pray that the coming year is filled with provision and peace for her.

It is time to bid adieu to 2010 (twenty-ten, two-thousand ten, whatever your pleasure), but as it passes into the pages of history it will be savored by this writer. For all of the rest of my days...

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Life is Sweet

Mike Leigh is not out to make you comfortable. When you invest in one of his cinematic essays, you're in for it, awlroyt. You are guaranteed a full fledged tour into not only dingy living quarters and townships, but also a wide-eyed gape into the ugliness people try to keep beneath their surfaces. The basest impulses. Leigh is never dishonest with his works.

That is why I admire so many of his films. NAKED, HIGH HOPES, SECRETS AND LIES: these are far from pleasant movies but they never flinch from the things many other writers and directors do in their works: unchecked lust, bald envy, even a sink full of dirty dishes, for fook's sake. It's there to be examined and felt. 1991's LIFE IS SWEET is no different, except that this time Leigh doesn't quite make it as immediate or involving. It's just downright irritating. A tedious and grotesque exercise in unpleasantness. Here and there, a flash of insight appears. More of the film's running time is filled with events and conclusions that are, at worst, ridiculous and obvious.

A London family with an unidentified surname goes about their dreary lives. The patriarch, Andy (Jim Broadbent), is a chef at a London catering house who seems content with working for the Man and collecting broken junk that he'll get around to fixing, someday. He's almost like a future subject for Hoarders. He and a friend (Stephen Rea) eventually try to break out a bit and run a mobile food truck that looks like hell on wheels. Andy's wife, Wendy (Alison Steadman), is a mostly rational woman trying to keep her odd family from flying to pieces. She has two very different daughters: tomboyish Natalie (Claire Skinner), a plumber who likes to hoist a pint with the guys and desires to visit America, and Nicola (Jane Horrocks), a perpetually pissy waif who does little else than scream at everyone.

Leigh presents their lives in clumsy vignettes that sound interesting when described, but usually just encourage impatience and sighs. Eccentricity is everywhere in LIFE IS SWEET, but for nought. For example, family friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall), is an oafish klutz who does offensive stickwork on drum sets and even worse violence to food. He concocts things like pork cyst and foolishly thinks he can run a bistro, quite amusingly called "The Regret Rien". Of course, it flops due to his ineptitude at every turn, mainly with the horrible things he cooks. These elements promise far more than what is delivered. Aubrey could have been endearing and fascinating, instead, he's a pest, free of interest. He's not even annoyingly interesting. Or vice versa.

That would also apply to Natalie. Her character stalks through the film mired in self-pity and loathing, barking insults at everyone (usually, "Capitalist!" or "Bullocks!"). She's also bulimic, nightly vomiting up all of her hidden swag of chocolate she spends the day scarfing. In one unfortunate scene, we learn that she can only be sexually stimulated when that chocolate is spread over her body. Her anonymous gentleman caller (David Thewlis) tolerates this at first but then becomes repelled and exclaims he feels as if to puke. I felt much the same, and not just during that scene. Again, we have a character with some potent traits who merely becomes didactic. She's a walking migraine. By film's end, it seems she may have a breakthrough with her family. I wish Leigh would've shown more of her awakening, to add some dimension to her. This thing could've easily been a TV series on the BBC.

LIFE IS SWEET also disappointed me by sometimes being dramatically obvious. Andy, while working, slips on a spoon and consequently is laid up at home with a broken ankle. He decides to frame that spoon on the wall. Then he and his wife comment upon its significance. Too much. I was reminded of the finale of a film you haven't heard of called POST COITUM. In that one, a jilted lover dives off a cliff into an ocean to presumably purify herself of her sin. Feh. As a viewer, I like to connect my own dots sometimes. I also complain when films insist on having a big scene where the film's title is explained (RAIN MAN, another wildly overrated film, comes to mind).

Maybe I'm being too hard on this movie. I typically champion independents that dare to ramble, just show life. Alternatively, the New Zealand import ONCE WERE WARRIORS is but one shining example of a film that never lets viewers off the hook with the grime of lower class existence, and meanwhile is powerful and memorable. I really wish I could share film critic Desson Thompson's assessment that LIFE IS SWEET shows "the tragic beauty of the mundane". To me, this film is just tragic. And mundane. And tragically mundane. And really exasperating.

Part III, The Great Overrated

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas '10

So how was Christmas of 2010? A very fine one. Not perfect, mind you, but just swell. As an added bonus, a good portion of December was filled with brisk days and nights. Of course, that did not include Christmas Day itself. Of the 37 or so Christmas Days I've spent in West Palm Beach, I believe 3 of them were chilly to cold. The most memorable was the freeze of 1983, when I was 14. I remember getting up and it was hovering around freezing. The power was out, no Christmas tree lights blinking, but I was in heaven nonethless. My Nordic blood. As I age, I feel it is getting thicker. I told my wife I want to have at least one white Christmas before my time is up.

This year we again logged a lot of miles driving from family to family. Such is life when you have divorced parents. As my father in law has lived in Coral Gables the last 2 years, the driving has become more arduous. I really hate driving to Miami. But, our drive down on Christmas night wasn't too bad. Moderate traffic flow. We had a lovely dinner of rib roast and potatoes and exchanged gifts before a really statisfying sleep. I think my FIL actually liked the fancy shaving tools I got him!

The next day, a fabulous brunch of Indian pancakes (a variation on the adai), fruit, salmon, etc. greeted us. We also visited my FIL's girlfriend's daughter and her family a few miles down the road. We brought their children some nifty (and low-tech) gifts. I mention this for a reason. These kids really loved their presents. You could see it in their enthusiasm. They have not learned the adult art of feigned interest and/or hiding your disappointment.

Quite the contrast from 2 evenings previous, Christmas Eve. That was spent at my mother-in-law's husband's son's place. Gotta clarify these relations, you understand. For the second year in a row, we watched with mild alarm the behavior of their little girl. Spoiled rotten, she is. The gifts we brought her were pushed aside as soon as the wrapping came off. She even made a face! Where's the next one? she all but cried. Ungrateful? About scratches the surface. Her parents, er Santa, had an avalanche of gifts yet to greet her. It is not known if the little tyke was ever satisfied by the Big Morning. Disturbing and sad. Our theory is that she has been overexposed and overstimulated with things and "fun". What would you expect to happen if you take the kid to theme parks every month?! I hope I wasn't as bratty when I was 3. I suspect that if I had been, my old school Norwegian father would've reached for the belt. All he had to do was clasp his hands around it to give me a clue.

But going back to the other children. They were calmer, more imaginative, more contented with coloring books and Matchbox cars. They immediately began using these toys as portals to another world. I think it is the upbringing, largely. If we are blessed with children someday, we certainly know what NOT to do.

Christmas weekend also included a low key gift exchange time with my wife (she found a hunter green dress shirt! Huzzah!) and a visit to my mother and grandmother. Mom is stable, still in a rehab. Still in bed. This is a complex topic. I've spoken here before about her fears for recovery. The magnitude of this seems more significant as time goes on. Aside from switching her to a better facility, I don't know how to help her find her motivation. Her faith is still strong, but....this story is still in progress. Again, my mother needs to realize that this is not the last stop on her journey.

But Christmas was a fine time with her. I granted her request for pizza by going to a nearby Domino's, the only place open at reasonable distance. My grandmother was happy to see her, too, as she is unable to get to the facility very much anymore. This is mainly because the friend who drove her nearly every day for 3 years lost her driver's license. This is a blessing, actually, as my grandmother voiced concern over the lady's absent-mindedness behind the wheel of late. Perhaps my grandmother not being able to visit my mother every day will be a motivator for my mother to get up, already.

So now I'm back at this familiar place, the blah days post-Christmas, pre-New Year. Christmas really sneaked up on me this year. It came and went in a flash. This is usually the case. It was a good one, I must say. One that has moments I will reflect upon many years from now, Lord willing. How was yours?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Beloved source material often proves to be treachery for the adapting. Usually this applies for books, but also TV programs, poems, songs, etc. Consumers conjure their third eyes with visions known only to themselves. When captivated sufficiently, we hold that work dearly and hiss with suspicion when Hollywood announces a big screen treatment. It is an almost surefire prescription for disappointment. Nothing can match our individualized interpretations. Film reduces the words or music to actual images. Our imaginations prove again and again to be unfilmable. I've said as much in previous reviews.

What did C.S. Lewis himself once say? “Nothing can be more disastrous than the view that the cinema can and should replace popular written fiction. The elements which it excludes are precisely those which give the untrained mind its only access to the imaginative world. There is death in the camera.”

We also grumble loudly when screenwriters and directors dare to change the story around, add and/or drop characters, create new plotlines. All of the above occurs in the latest of the Narnia adaptations, THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER. If you grew up in a (especially) Protestant environment, it is very likely that you read some or all of Lewis' series of fanciful tales of English children entering the alternate world of Narnia, a magical place filled with great creatures and beasts, good and evil. Desparate conflicts that allow our heroes to step up and display the valor they didn't know they had. Imaginations were fired and many a day was filled with detailed musings on romping through this fantasyland and perhaps even assuming the mantle of king. I'm speaking of my childhood self, here, but I'm sure also that of millions of others. The novels were specifically geared for the younger set, but they were filled with insight and wit. How could it be otherwise with Lewis at the quill? Of course, the author's intentions were to create allegories for the Christian faith.

Accordingly, the recent films have been roundly embraced by Christians as spectacular entertainments that proclaim the majesty of Christ and the grace and peace He provides to the faithful. The words "Jesus" or "Christ" are never uttered in the books or films. But, it's clear what Aslan, the Christ-like lion central to these tales, means when he says to the children who are about to go back home (England), “There, I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name", during one of the final scenes of DAWN TREADER.

Liam Neeson, who provides the voice of Aslan, disagrees. He recently rankled the feathers of Christians by stating that he feels Aslan does not necessarily represent Christ exclusively, but could also be a symbol for other deities/spiritual leaders like Buddha or Mohammed. Lewis is on record stating what the Narnia stories are about; there's no mistake. However, I have the opinion that when an artist creates something and puts it out there, it doesn't matter what he or she intended. The art is released from the artist, and the viewer/reader/listener interprets at his or her discretion. Someone who did not grow up immersed in Christianity may take the events and layers quite differently. Recall how Christians embraced GROUNDHOG DAY and THE MATRIX for their supposed divine imagery. Buddhists were saying much the same.

Oh, but what about THE DAWN TREADER film itself? It is a fast paced, enjoyable entry in this franchise. Perfect for families. There are many flaws to point out, perhaps originating in the story itself. The plot is not fashioned with a clear cut antagonist to Lucy and Edmund Pevensie (their siblings don't make this journey, as it is explained that they are now too old for such fantastic adventures) and their grouchy cousin, Eustace (Will Poulter, who almost steals this movie with his amusing grumbles and hilarious shrieking voice). Rather, we follow our youthful trio who rendevous with Prince Caspian and his sea crew as they attempt to locate seven Narian lords who possess swords which must be retrieved to save the world. There is also a mysterious green mist (representing temptation, I guess) that floats about that I don't recall from the book. To wit, It's probably been about 30 years since I read any of the Narnias. The treacherous voyage will lead our charges to the end of the world, to Dark Island, a place where evil eminates and threatens Narnia and everything in existence.

Along the way we meet the sorts of creatures we have grown to love in these stories. There are the Dufflepuds, initially invisible elf-like men who hop around on one big foot. Also, Reepicheep, a very brave, cutlass wielding mouse who fights alongside Caspian and his men and even teaches the irrascible Eustace how to fight (and double teams with him when the kid turns into a heroic dragon). There's also an impressively ferocious sea monster that is all spikes and fangs (f/x team did nice work there). Director Michael Apted, a Brit who has been making movies (GORILLAS IN THE MIST, COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER, AMAZING GRACE) for well over 40 years realizes this fantasy fairly well, more than competently, but it's all so flat. As I said, the story is just not that compelling. It's all pleasant but hardly inspiring. Actors are fine. The denouement does pack an emotional wallop, though, and the final scene nicely sets up possible future installments (Silver Chair, mayhaps?).

There are many other Christian reviewers ready with their bows and arrows to attack the filmmakers for again watering down the Christian imagery of C.S. Lewis' stories (the same happened with the previous entry PRINCE CASPIAN). I'm not one of them. I held the books dearly in my youth but not enough to cry foul now at these liberal adaptations. DAWN TREADER is probably the weakest of the series so far, but taken as good clean fun escapism, it's just dandy.

But DON'T waste your money on seeing this in 3-D; it's some of the worst I've yet seen.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Pageantry

You may have seen the "camel clip" which made its viral way around media outlets over a week ago. A camel loaned out by a company that provides animals for stage and screen productions decided to deviate from stage direction and take a dip into the audience. She was supposed to crouch down at the head of the church aisle and stay still long enough for the rider/actor in a Christmas pageant to safely climb down. Instead, the rider found himself tumbling onto audience members in their pews after the animal fell sideways onto stunned and screaming attenders of the pageant's dress rehearsal perfomance.



One can laugh at this unfortunate event because it turns out that no one got hurt. Thank the Lord. This event is especially interesting to me as it occurred at my former church. Why it is "former" is a long story. But I spent a good chunk of my life there, from age 5-35, with a few off years in between. Duing some of that time, I was involved in the church's annual Christmas program, The Singing Christmas Tree. Real pine branches wrapped around and over fencing and pipe, with ascending rows of wood plank floors that choir members could stand in. There were strands of lights strung on it, too. The tree was almost as high as the church's ceiling.

The costly production was nixed by a recently appointed pastor last year after 37 years. Another story in itself, I'm sure. But my experiences with it began sometime in the 70s when I was in the children's choir. The kiddies had one night to sing secular and spiritual Christmas songs while styrofoam snow shot out of twin tubes in the ceiling. Later, while in high school, I performed in the adult choir for the real shows, spectacles of ornamentation and drama (the performance kind, though there was some of the other to be sure). It was exciting. We'd rehearse all the way from September onward. I was a bass. All the tech was dazzling. I also have warm memories of looking down on the orchestra, cuing in with them for the 5th night on the first bars of "O Holy Night". True "performance", but also a blessing. You know, what it was supposed to be.

After college, I returned to the church choir and for four years I resumed not only singing in the Tree, but videotaping it on alternate nights (I was on the media crew for many years). The production got bigger and bigger. Its purpose was to reach out to the community to display the story of Jesus' birth and the salvation He offers us. In later years, it was decided to also include scenes of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, more typical for Easter pageants. With the more grandiose presentations, it was inevitable that live animals would be included. It started with live sheep and doves. But another church down south was using camels!

So my old church followed suit, eventually. This year, it didn't go so well. If you read some of the YouTube comments, you may see a "God pushed that camel" or two. I confess, that was one of my first thoughts when I initially saw this clip. Shame on me? Well, I worshipped and worked at my old church for many years and I saw plenty. This post is not designed to reveal old dirt. I could post some, believe me. No, but this recent incident should give everyone pause. Can big production and genuine, Christ-directed outreach co-exist? Truly? During the Tree years, sometimes the latter seemed outweighed. I wonder how the many un- or underchurched in those audiences felt about all the flash.

I thought that was why a new Christmas pageant was decided upon. Certainly there were budgetary reasons, but they still brought a camel in there. The Message doesn't need one, in my opinion. Just sing and praise, is what I say. Maybe God did a little pushing after all....

Friday, December 17, 2010

To Live and Die in L.A.

Director William Friedkin's 1985 crime drama TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. is a startlingly, astonishingly bad movie that, like many of its kind, thinks it's really good. Thinks it's a genre classic or something. It had the makings of one. Director Friedkin helmed 1971's THE FRENCH CONNECTION, and I don't think anyone would argue its merit or that it IS a genre classic. That film involved tough NY cops and narcotics peddlers. It was raw, lean, and effective. The storyline in TO LIVE AND DIE... rather breathlessly tracks slimy counterfeiters and their apprehenders. It's a different animal, this movie. It tries to be ambiguous (in a good way) and even existential. It fails awesomely. For many, one problem is that the "good guys" (Federal agents) are almost as dirty as the criminals. The few film critics who actually did damn this movie cited that they didn't know who to root for.

That is never a problem for this viewer. I don't need anyone to root for. I'm more interested in what makes characters tick, good or otherwise. On that level? TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. also fails miserably. Let's see....

William Petersen is Treasury agent Richard Chance. He's been trying to catch master counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Defoe) for some time. Chance fails again and again, and gets really incensed when his partner is killed in yet another botch. And about Chance's efforts: this guy is either really dumb or incredibly sloppy, or both. I can't recall seeing a more inept Agent in fiction or in real life. Was this intentional? If so, how did screenwriters Friedkin and Gerald Petievich (who adapts his novel of the same name) expect us to react to this guy? Chance is not only a slimy jerk, but a seeming moron, too. Right, and I said I didn't care that I couldn't root for him. True, but why is he like this? I don't need backstory or tiresome exposition, no, this is a thriller that should keep moving (we'll get to that). BUT, Chance is so thinly written and duly acted that we can't get a read on him. He's enigmatic, but not in any interesting way. He's quite vapid, truth be told.

Masters is also a shadow, a mystery, and we don't really learn about him either. We watch some (fascinating) sequences as he meticulously arranges his equipment and lays plates to produce the funny money, but other than learning that he is a craftsman, we see little else. Or Chance's new partner, Vukovich (John Pankow) who mainly panics and swears a lot. Under the circumstances, that's understandable.

How so? Our crusaders make some Hall of Fame blunders, including getting an FBI guy killed during an abortive attempt to convince Masters that they are legitimate potential clients. This mistake leads to what should have been a grand set piece for this movie, a car chase down an L.A. freeway. The wrong way. During rush hour. Sounds pomising, like it can't miss. It does. This is one lame sequence, an amateurish melange of poor direction and editing. Every time the chase threatens to become exciting, Friedkin cuts to the wrong thing. I understand that such a scenario is a lot of stop and start, a constant vehiculus interruptus, if you will. But, c'mon, Bill! You staged some amazing (and apparently real) car chases in Brooklyn for FRENCH CONNECTION. Here, it seems as if someone with no idea how to do a set-up or block was given a bullhorn and a DP to (mis)guide. Everyone should've screened BULLITT a few times to remind themselves how it should be done. Or even THE BLUES BROTHERS!

Then there's the dialogue. You expect some colorful speeches in a movie like this. Someone in this movie even utters the old cop-about-to-retire-cliche, "I'm too old for this shit". But TO LIVE AND DIE is rife with tough guy asinine quotes. Too many to list, though my favorites are almost anything by Pepto-Bismol clutching lowlife Carl Cody (John Turturro): "...and the check is in the mail. And I love you. And I promise not to come in your mouth," for example. Now, movies like THE USUAL SUSPECTS and any Tarantinos have swagger dialogue like this, but usually it's tongue-in-cheek. Here, everything is so serious it clashes with the neo-Nietzche woldview of this picture. Yeah, it's bleak, sleazy, nihilistic. The plentiful unintentional laughs work against this movie being a bitter classic.

It's too bad, because TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. really did look promising. All of the right elements (cast, director, assorted crew) were there, but somehow it really fell apart (aside from Wang Chung's effective tracks and scoring, surprisingly enough). The movie does succeed as being a thoroughly depressing, hopeless-to-the end downer. A sun drenched, washed out bad trip. Perhaps that was the idea, a diseased poem to the City of Angels. Maybe the city is supposed to represent sin, debauchery itself in this movie. You think that over, then you go watch CHINATOWN and scrub out your brain. Or your soul.

Part 2, "The Great Overrated" Series

Monday, December 13, 2010

Opa!

Each year, I find I must summate the events of the annual Holiday Work Party for the 2 or 3 of you who read this blog. Each gathering has been memorable in distinctive ways and filled with often memorable (sometimes cingeworthy) moments. This year's was no different. Quite a lively one, at that.

We congragated at Taverna Opa, a chain Greek restaurant noted for its belly dancers and tabletop dancing, all while a plethora of napkins are tossed about and patrons (sometimes intoxicated) yell "Opa!" In traditional Greek ceremonies of many stripes, plates are broken. The food at Opa is good, too. I've long been a fan of their hummus, which you create yourself in a wooden morter filled with chick peas for the pestling. That, meatballs, pita triangles, and flaming cheese were brought out while we all sipped "Flirtinis" (vodka, champagne, and pineapple juice) and wine. I also indulged a Jack and Ginger.

A very nice touch this year: employees were given awards recognizing their anniversaries of service. Two of them have been there 30 years and change. That says quite a bit. One of the recipients stated that she still feels like she has "won the lotto" by having the oppotunity to work there. I agree. I've had jobs since I was 15-16 and I can tell you this is only the second time I felt this way. What a great thing to wake up filled with anticipation instead of dread and nausea, like I did for many years with previous jobs. I thought of this while my colleagues laughed, exchanged silly gifts in the white elephant thing (my contribution was a big hit-one of those plastic boys who pees on you when you hoist down his shorts), and shimmied like crazy on the tables (they did get me up there). Another blessed year. Thanks, guys. Opa!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Tourista, Book V

The next day we drove back over the border eastward into Spain. The destination this time: San Sebastián, the capital of the province Gipuzkoa. We headed to the coastline and beaches and the Urumea River before it. Next, we ambled through Parte Vieja and the multitudes of bars serving pintxos, known elsewhere as tapas. We hit 3-4 places, sampling some of the best sausage and octopus I've had, ever. The establishments teemed with what presumably were tourists. I had read that the locals don't really frequent this area, but most places were loaded with character and interest. This area, the "Old Part", is
divided by 2 separate church parishes: the Santa Maria and San Vincente. The picture below is of my wife and I standing in front of City Hall. The day was gorgeous as was the architecture, centuries old.The following day we were back in the French part of Northern Basque country. We stopped at a curious place in the Aldudes Valley called the Pierre Oteiza Boutigue, a restaurant and farm which raises and serves specialty pigs.As was explained to us, a breed of the Iberian Black Foot pig was almost extinct 20 + years ago. Through the efforts of Basque breeders, the pink patched dark swine were preserved and one can stroll the grasslands behind the restuarant (recommended: do this after you eat) to "ooh" at the cute sucklings. They live a relatively idyllic life, in open mountainside enclosures and feeding on a natural diet of fruit and acorns. The pigs will be ready for market at about 18 months. After dry curing, the ham will air for a year or slightly more before reaching your table.And what a unique spread! Pig shaped wood platters were brought out and we sampled several types of pig with all manner of texture and color. Some marbled, some sweeter. There was even pig ear! Chewy! All meats were cold to room temperature, like the most interesting cold cut array you've ever had. Aside from a swarm of flies that annoyed us (we were near a constantly opening front door and it was a very hot day), it was a pleasurable experience. We later went into the bar area to sample some free sweets (my FIL knew a manager there). Then, after watching the piglets out back, we also noticed that some lucky folks were getting burro rides.

Next entries: Paris!!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Eastern Promises

Meester Cronenberg, vy did you make sleazy B-movie?

I couldn't help it. That question rang through my head (and rings still) as I watched David Cronenberg's 2007 film EASTERN PROMISES. The question repeated itself in a caricatured Russian accent as I shook my head in disbelief at the choices the director made with what should have been a strong, sober drama. Well, it is pretty strong at times, and it plays everything fairly straight, but I was laughing in all the wrong places.

What was so funny? Well, first off, and this is my own little problem: I find Russian accents hilarious. Not only when someone attempts the accent, but genuine ones as well. It's my own personal comedy hell. It largely affects my appreciation of what Cronenberg, writer Steven Knight, and a choice cast were trying to do with this film.

Watching EASTERN PROMISES again, though, I thought back to other films and television programs that featured Russian accents so prominently. Surely I wasn't laughing during Tarkovskiy's works?! Closer inspection after a few years of analysis reveals why I think this particular movie is just so silly: it's a sleazy B-movie that thinks it's A-list prime. Classic overreaching.

Now, there are many Bs out there that are head and shoulders above their pack with their thoughtful narratives and uncommon intelligence. Think: ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13(1976 version), PHASE IV, BOBBY JO AND THE OUTLAW, BOXCAR BERTHA, to name a few. All are essentially exploitation pics that dare to have a point of view amongst the naughty content and violence. EASTERN PROMISES announces itself with unapologetic B-movie glee in its opening scenes, when a gangster has his throat slashed in a barber chair by rivals. The camera wastes no time zooming into the vigourous slicing, lovingly presented in a fountain of bloodletting. The scene is so over-the-top it did not horrify me, it made me laugh. Above all, it made me want to applaud the squib department, honestly.

The storyline? An English midwife named Anna(Naomi Watts)discovers a diary left behind by a young teenaged mother who dies giving birth. The words are in Russian, prompting her to have her uncle translate. He's skeptical and nervous about the task. Meanwhile, Anna also discovers a link with the dead girl to a restaurant owner who happens to be a Russian mob kingpin, Semyon (Armin-Meuller Stahl).

Semyon is a cold-blooded, old school iron fist. Like many filmic mob bosses, he's embarrased by his haphazard offspring, this one named Kirill (Vincent Cassell), and his recklessness. Kirill is a bad dude, and none too sharp to boot. Anna will learn that this guy played a very large role in the dead girl's life and death.

Anna also meets Nikolai (Viggo Mortenson), Semyon's chauffeur and all-around dirty work guy. He, on the other hand, is deft with his wits and hands, and catches the favor of Semyon. Anna has a rather adversarial relationship with Nikolai, seeming in every other scene to yell at him as he straps on a motorcycle helmet. Their scenes are straight out of B-television soap opera. Nikolai will go on to be front and center in family (and Mob) politics. We will also be treated to what I considered to be a ludicrous and cop-out plot twist with him in the final reel.

Ludicrous is really the best descriptor I can use for EASTERN PROMISES. While the screenplay offers some fascinating details of Russian criminal life (including the importance of all those tattoos), mostly this is a low grade programmer that seems more interested in being an adult comic book. Do I need to cite the centerpiece, the ultraviolent nude scuffle in the Turkish baths between Nikolai and a would be assailant? Now, admittedly, this is a great tongue-in-cheek scene, but in the context of a film that tries to be serious, it just unscores my point. Its heart isn't in quality storytelling/filmmaking, but in the muck.

I have nothing against using the strong ingredients of violence, sexuality, profanity, and nudity if there is a purpose to the artists' directive. A case needs to be made for a writer or director to incoporate these elements. Namely, does the scene need to be graphic in some way in order to best relay the message? If not, it becomes exploitation. Elements presented for their own sakes. Cronenberg's just previous, mostly triumphant film A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE used all of the above elements to effective ends, to bring across powerful messages. The director's early resume included several lurid gorefests like RABID and SHIVERS that were awash in adult content and were by definition, B-movies, but I never questioned any one scene for its content. As extreme as they were, it all made sense to the story being told. In EASTERN PROMISES, to me, it all just feels like old school grindhouse fare.

Part One, "The Great Overrated" Series.

Monday, December 6, 2010

To Knock Off Thy Pedastal

In the coming months (and likely, years, at my pace) I'll be doing a series of movie reviews devoted to a genre that seems to have been created by overzealous film critic and filmgoer alike: the overrated tripe. Now, that's a bit harsh, as some of the films I'll include in this new series are worthwhile in some way, but all are films that have been revered quite loudly. I've watched them a few or several times and am left scratching my head.

It's all subjective, sure. But some films are just, so, I dunno, inept that I fail to see merit. The movies in this series are quite distinguished and have legions of fans. I wanted to love all of them but still can't quite seem to. Should be fun!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Hear and Now

Silence is golden. Silence is beautiful. Our frenetic world assaults us with sound, and it's just nice to hear nothing sometimes. It used to be that silence made me nervous. I kept expecting something to ignite, some explosion to shatter the idyll. Paul and Sally Taylor have spent decades appreciating the silence; they've known nothing else. Both were born deaf. Their daughter, Irene, who has the ability to hear, felt that it would valuable to document the life-changing decision her parents made, at age 65, to undergo cochlear implant surgery.

This, of course, is not a light decision. No surgery is. A cochlear implant is an electronic device that artifically stimulates an impaired inner ear system via electrical impulses. The surgery is performed by an ENT or neuro-otologist who drills through the mastoid bone (which houses the inner ear) and places fiber optic-like cables/electrodes into the cochlea (recall that snail-shell looking structure from anatomy or science class). In other words, an invasive procedure with an implantable receiver that attempts to mimic the electrical processes that occur to allow the perception of hearing.

As an audiologist, I have had several occasions to speak with CI recipients. After the surgery, these patients follow up with someone like me who will first activate, then program or "map" each electrode as the journey begins. The initial visit, where a patient "hears" either again or perhaps for the first time, is indescribable, I am told. I have not had the privilege of performing such, but colleagues have relayed heartwarming stories that get me all misty, especially when the stories involve children who are getting a taste of auditory world for the first time.

The Taylors have spent their lives in silence, but have had productive lives, despite the difficult childhood years of having to learn to communicate through American Sign Language and perhaps other methods such as lipreading. Each began in special schools and were later mainstreamed. Tough road, but later each would find success in their careers, particularly Paul, who would go on to help develop telecommunications devices for the deaf(TDD/TDI).

The couple decide to be implanted after 65 years. 2007's HEAR AND NOW follows their journey after the surgery and their very different rates of success. For one, it is a revelation, a new chapter of discovery. For the other, it's noise, interference. What this documentary does not distinguish is pre-lingual and post-lingual implantation. Meaning, some receive CIs early enough (usually before age 2) so that the development of speech sounds necessary for vocabulary building can progress (admittedly slower than that of a child with a normally functioning ear). A post-lingual implant conversely would involve someone who once heard, had normal language evelopment and perhaps now has the benefit of auditory memory. For example, an adult who loses his hearing has an arsenal of speech he recalls and the process of discerning vowels and fricatives ("s", "t", "th") is, while not easy, certainly less problematic than the other pre-lingual group, folks like the Taylors, who've never "heard" anything, speech or otherwise.

That is a big part of the problem, the other noises. For Sally, it proves to be too much. Her beautiful silent world shatters with this influx of stimuli. Never mind using the telephone or listening to television, even live speech understanding is difficult. For Paul, too, though he adapts a bit better. For both, it's tough sledding. This film does not show all of the (hopefully) sessions of mapping with the audiologist and aural rehabilitation with same or others. This is a shortcoming. If Irene had given us more scenes of the rehab, we might've gotten a clearer picture of such a struggle. Hearing is not a passive skill; it takes work if you suffer any degree of impairment. I could preach for hours about this, and have. While comparing hearing aids and CIs are apples and oranges, both require their users to work. One does not get a surgery, slap on a processor and just hear.

Think about six plus decades of no sound. Your entire existence absent of this precious sense; you have no such reference point. I wonder if the Taylors were counseled extensively prior to the surgery to this effect. That is essential. Still, the magnitude of receiving such new, foreign information after years in the auditory void cannot be overestimated. Some will adapt, some will not.

Despite my minor misgivings, HEAR AND NOW is a fine doc. There are many telling moments, especially the recollections of family and friends. Some relay how cruel people were to Paul and/or Sally as they were growing up. Despite the difficulties, though, they were part of a proud sub-culture. Many individuals who are born without hearing have no desire to attempt to correct it. In fact, they see CIs as an intrusion of their being, an erosion of their culture.

For a pointed look at this conflict, pick up SOUND AND FURY. That doc follows two adult brothers, one deaf, the other with hearing, who both have deaf children. One brother wants his child to be part of the Deaf culture, the other has his child implanted. The film raises questions of whether it is cruel to leave a child deaf if the option to potentially provide hearing exists. You'd be surprised of the differing (and strong) opinions on both sides. I would be interested to hear what Paul and Sally Taylor have to say on the subject at this late date.