Monthly Archives: January 2017

THIS IS US – Opinion

This Is Us
Creator: Dan Folgelman (Crazy, Stupid, Love)
Writers: Dan Folgelman and others
Cast: Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore, Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz, Justin Hartley, Susan Watson, Ron Cephas Jones
TV series, NBC, 2016

Life is complicated. This series about one family’s life is a must view for many of us. It’s popularity cuts across generations. The stories, the structure, the acting performances rise to a very high level in this genre and type of entertainment. It has become one of the highest rated shows on television and was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Drama- TV series.

Daniel D’Addario has a by-line as a television writer for Time Magazine. I am an obscure blogger, a mostly unpublished writer. But in spite of that, I would like to take issue with what he says in a recent issue of Time about this series. Here are some quotes: “…a hazy attempt to confront a number of human experiences…”, and worse, “the amount of plot became so great that we no longer really need to recall why each character is sad.” He calls the lives of the characters “an endless struggle, allergic to resolution.” He implies viewers watch only to find out what happens next. He seems to believe this show is more contrived than most. I agree with none of this.

Worse he says Kate played by Chrissy Metz is a character who we viewers “have no idea who she is besides a number on a scale.” This totally denies the excellent work by this actress in bringing her character to life in a way that enables viewers to connect with her, to understand her. Yes, I want to find out what happens next because I care about each character. Each seems so real. I say there’s seldom, if ever, a contrived moment.

The fine acting from every actor, the excellent writing, the humor, the emotions (not just sadness), the surprise, the ideals, the kindness – he doesn’t mention any of this in his recent piece. If he was trying to engage the reader with his piece, if he wanted an argument – he’s successful. He gets an arguement from me!

In my opinion it is a magical show about real life. See it on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. E.T. on NBC. Next time I watch it I will forget about all the things this magazine writer said about this wonderful show. Watch it. See what you think.

FENCES: MOVIE COMMENT

Fences
Director: Denzel Washington
Writer: August Wilson from his play
Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson
Awards: Golden Globe winner best performance by a supporting actress, nominee for best performance by an actor, numerous nominations including BAFTA, Art Director’s Guild, AAFCA, Critics Choice , Screenactors Guild and many others. Just in: Oscar nominations for best picture, best actor and best supporting actress, best adapted screenplay.

During the early scenes of the film, this viewer was blown away by the writing. Such dense sentences, so many words! Denzel Washington delivered these words rapidly and clearly. His character, Troy Maxson, is a talker. He talks and talks. Washington became this man. I can’t think of any performance by an actor ever that compares to Washington’s portrayal of Troy Maxson in 1950’s Pittsburgh. He’s a big character and Washington fills himself up with the character to overflowing. He evokes strong feelings in every scene. I want to liken this film to a piece of cloth, tightly woven, all parts forming a whole. The film leaves the viewer nearly speechless, filled with emotions, unable to take one’s eyes from the screen for a second.

The film/story rests on an examination of family in a particular time and place. All of the roles are finely written and acted with the highest degree of skill. This is a tribute, not only to the actors (Viola Davis as Troy’s wife has received well deserved recognition.), but also to Denzel Washington as the director.

Praise is deserved for several of the films I’ve seen in recent weeks, this season’s Oscar contenders. But this is Washington’s finest hour as actor and director. He, the movie and the writing are at the top of this year’s mountain, by my reckoning. Together these actors, writers, film-makers of all kinds have created a marvelous viewing experience. Do not miss it. A Tony award winning play, a great director, and the finest performances by Washington and Davis of their careers. I deeply hope Oscar rewards them accordingly.

But whether or not that happens, I award the movie Fences, Washington, Wilson and Davis my personal awards for best of the year. It’s not all that easy to do. After all, I’m a huge fan of Jeff Bridges and his sheriff in Hell or High Water, to name another performance I found enchanting this year.

On my list, nothing this year or any other year tops Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson, and that includes Casey Afflect in Manchester By The Sea. Tom Hanks, Leonardo Dicaprio, Bradley Cooper, Bruce Dern, Daniel Day Lewis, to name some well-known fine actors, are clearly also-rans in this race for best. Stories are different, acting ensembles hold a range of supports and requirements, films are cooperative efforts that make for uncertainty of outcome. Given all that, this movie fan is unable to be restrained in any way about what Denzel Washington has accomplished with this movie. He is simply amazing.

I hope you see it!

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA – MOVIE COMMENT

Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Casey Afflect, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges
Running Time: 2 hrs, 17 minutes
Awards: Golden Globe winner for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama, Golden Globe nominee for Best Picture, Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Director and Best Screenplay, numerous BAFTA nominations and many other awards.

And the Oscar for best picture goes to…….

This is a great movie. Its creator, Kenneth Lonergan has given us a film in which the whole is even greater than the sum of the parts, or however that saying goes.

It is sad, yes. But there is humor, there is inspiration, there is hope. What more can we expect from some of the worst pain life can conjure.

After the sudden death of his brother, Lee Chandler is made legal guardian of his nephew. Lee is an isolated and lonely man. As the movie progresses, between scenes in the present and flashbacks, we learn, at least in part, why this is the case. The story deals with love, forgiveness and responsibility. It is skillfully told.

Acting, pacing of the scenes, photography, story, writing are excellent. I now totally understand why the teen actor, Lucas Hedges, has received such praise even along the giant acting skills of Michelle Williams and Casey Afflect. I urge you to experience this film in all its thoughtfulness.

If like this viewer, you wonder about other Lonergan films, you may remember Count On Me with Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, and a lesser-known more recent film, Margaret, starring Anna Paquin, Matt Damon and Mark Ruffalo. I’ll be checking Netflix for that one.

Having seen this film only a few days ago, at this time I believe it should win every award possible. It’s hard to compare films, they present so differently. But good drama has a depth other genres can seldom match. This is a thoughtful and caring film amidst terrible hurt and tragedy. Watch carefully and you will see the humor, an important and helpful coping mechanism for character and viewer.

BEFORE THE FALL – BOOK COMMENT

Before the Fall: A Novel
Author: Noah Hawley
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (2016)
Genre: Fiction/thriller
Hardcover Edition: 390 pages
Source: Library copy

Critics have been crazy about this book. It’s been on my want-to-read list for weeks. Noah Hawley is a television and movie writer who is responsible for Fargo (it’s kooky, but I liked it) and other successful series. He has won an Emmy, Golden Globe and other awards. He has written several novels, though I have not read any of them. This novel reads something like a movie script.

But for me, that did not make for a mesmerizing, or thrilling story. Some characters are so sinister, the reading so tough, skimming seems the only strategy. There are too many red herrings in this mystery. Some characters seem unnecessary and certainly uninteresting to me.

The main character Scott Burroughs, who along with the four-year-old he carries on his back as he swims many miles, survives this plane crash. All others on the plane are lost. As usual, it is of interest what caused the plane to crash, and that provides the suspense necessary to sustain a novel.

Media suffers a whipping in this story, as is popular these days. The villain is so despicable, and even unbelievable that, for this reader he is the downfall of the book. I didn’t want to read about him. I do not enjoy hating. And he is not the only character who acts poorly or is just uninteresting. Most fall into that category.

Give the critics their due, they mostly agree it’s a very good book. They praise suspense, irony, mystery filled with surprises; they pronounce it readable, complex, irresistible and so forth. This reader checks none of those boxes.

I cannot recommend it as an enjoyable read. Tragedy is filled with sorrow. But that is not what the book is about. It is about just how horribly some people act toward others. And evil (a word I seldom use) seems to win out over decency and kindness. Not my kind of book.

PREPARING WINTER SQUASH CARBONARA WITH BACON AND A HINT OF SAGE

The recipe for this pasta dish appeared on the Food Page earlier this week. This morning, I prepared it. If only I would demonstrate more patience as a cook, things would no doubt go more smoothly.

This dish has much to recommend it, so I’ll share the process. It is mostly healthy and the colors are beautiful. Only a sprinkling of bacon and a healthy dose of vitamin rich winter squash.

I cooked the 2 oz. bacon, drained, blotted and chopped or crumbled it earlier in the day, saving only a whisper of bacon grease.

The recipe as I prepared it would serve two to four people for a main course. It also makes a great side dish for Sunday dinner roast pork or ham.

In a good sized skillet I heated 2 tablespoons of oil to the bit of bacon grease, about a teaspoon, and added the pieces of Kabocha squash, ½ small onion, chopped and 1 large clove of garlic. This was seasoned with salt and freshly ground pepper with a pinch of dry sage. I cooked it for 5-8 minutes until the onions were soft and the garlic just beginning to brown.

Kabocha squash is not easy to cut and peel. Mine was small and it yielded the required 1 pound of squash pieces. If using a larger squash or a butternut squash you may wish to buy squash from the refrigerator counter that has already been cleaned and peeled and cubed.

Next I added 1 cup of chicken broth to the skillet and brought it to boil. Then I turned down the heat and simmered the squash and liquid for about 15 minutes. This reduced the liquid. I used an immersion blender to puree the mixture. You could mash and whisk or use a blender.

I used pasta that cooked quickly in a large pot of boiling salted water. I wanted to save up to a cup of pasta cooking liquid.

Lately it seems I’ve been reading about how to properly drain pasta that you expect to add directly to the sauce, in this case the squash puree. One is advised to use a strainer and dip the noodles using the strainer from the water to the skillet filled with sauce. I got into some trouble here because I at first did find the right size strainer, and simply wasn’t thinking straight. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? After sopping up my water mess and trying to save more pasta water, I finally was ready to proceed.

It is hard to say how much pasta water I added, at least a cup, probably more. I had too much water and so cooked the whole shebang a bit more and let it sit for a few minutes to allow some liquid to be absorbed by the noodles.

To the pasta and puree I added the cheese, more seasoning and the chopped bacon. I was using Bella Vitano Gold, a hard cheese I like very much because the store did not have the Pecorino the recipe requested/suggested. When tasting, (Emeril Lagasse says this is a must!), I discovered the dish was not as flavorful as I had expected. Probably, the Pecorino cheese would have been at least a partial remedy. I added more cheese, more salt and pepper and a shake of cayenne. Be careful. My dish was just on the edge of too much heat.

This dish is colorful. And I think very appealing. It is a dish that needs seasoning at every step. 1 tablespoon of fresh sage, finely chopped would add flavor. I may have not used enough of the dried sage I had on hand. But too much sage can be too much. If possible I advise trying the fresh sage.

In this case, left-overs are a good thing. It was more flavorful on the second day.

LION

Movie: Lion
Director: Garth Davis
Writer: Saroo Brierley, adapted from his book A Long Way Home, with screenplay by Luke Davies
Cast: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara
Awards: Nominated for 4 Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Original Score, BAFTA Film award Nominee for Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Original Music.

This is a magnificent film. This viewer could not take her eyes off the screen. Powerful performances by all of the major actors are an important piece of its success. It seems much credit must go to the director of this film because every aspect seems to add to the totally immersing experience of viewing this man’s story – lost as a child in the vastness of place and people in India and eventually making his way to Australia where he is adopted into a loving family. Later with the help of Google Earth, he retraces his experiences as a five year old and finds his childhood home.

An exciting tale, well-told, this film will make its way into your heart. It has stayed with me. I hold it tight.

Highly recommended!

COMMONWEALTH: A PICTURE PUZZLE IN PIECES. BOOK COMMENT

Commonwealth: a Novel
Author: Ann Patchett
Publisher: Harper Collins 2016
Genre: Literary Fiction
Hardcover Edition: 322 pages
Source: Library copy

At baby Franny’s christening party, her mother Beverly Keating begins an affair with an uninvited guest, Bert Cousins and thus begins a saga of two sets of parents and six children that spans five decades. Dissolutions of marriages, disillusionment of dreams and strange and hurtful episodes are wrapped in humor and heartbreak. This sounds like a story best avoided. And yet, the critics and the press in general continue to rave. It turns out with good reason.

Patchett is more magician than writer. Her scenes are both magic and near perfection. She drops us into different encounters between the characters at different points in their lives, and yet we understand and care about her characters until our reading hearts break for them.

She is the author of a number of books. Bel Canto is a classic mentioned by Jessica Best in her interview posted this past week. Critics and readers love her work. It is hard to believe that even Bel Canto is as good as this book. Family lost and family shared. Never have I read a finer story of a family though I love Jane Smiley’s work. Always, Patchett shows compassion and humanity for her characters and their circumstances.

The story seems a miraculous creation. Oh, I already said that, didn’t I. I guess because there is so little venom and so much love and caring while remaining realistic. I couldn’t stop reading because I cared so much about the people she created. Yes, I had my favorites and at least one unfavorite and yet, they all fit together like pieces of a puzzle, which of course is what families so often are: a picture puzzle, sometimes broken.

READER INTERVIEW – JESSICA BEST

READER INTERVIEW WITH MICHIGAN READER JESSICA BEST

Today’s post is another installment of our popular reader interview series.

Introducing Jessica Best. The interview was conducted via e-mail before the holiday. Jessica is a breath of fresh air in one of the reading clubs I frequent. Her reading life may be younger than such life is for some of us, but it is filled with creativity and passion. Let’s listen in.

What have you been reading lately?

Lately I have been reading textbooks for my Masters of Social Work program! I really enjoy the book club at Northbrook because it encourages me to read for fun, which I might not do otherwise. I enjoyed reading “Waking up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race”.

What’s the last book you read that touched you deeply? Or do you prefer to share a book that helped shape you life and goals.

A book that touched me deeply was “Bel Canto”–I found it easy to read and very enjoyable, which allowed me to connect to the humanity of the characters. There are many books that have shaped my life and life’s work, about how systemic racism impacts our national institutions and how we can imagine life differently. Writing by Dr. James Lowen has taught me a lot about education and housing, and I would like to get more into the work of Octavia Butler to explore the possibilities science fiction presents for social justice.

How do you read? Paper or electonic? One book at a time – or several simultaneously?

I prefer to read paper books, and I generally read one at a time.

Where and when do you most like to read?

I do not have a particular place I like to read–when I do read, I will do it anywhere.

Do you have a favorite genre? Are there types of books you avoid?

I do not have a favorite genre, although I do really enjoy captivating fiction and nonfiction books. I generally avoid period pieces, especially those focused on wartime–I’m not really sure why.

How do you balance professional reading with pleasure reading or is the professional pleasurable?

Some of my professional reading is pleasurable. I don’t do a good job balancing my professional and pleasure reading to be honest! I generally start with other forms of entertainment when I have leisure time.

Do you have a favorite book or literary character from childhood

The first two books that I can think of are Trump-O-Moto and Mirette on the High Wire. Trump-O-Moto was a large book with beautiful illustrations and a deeply imaginative story. Mirette on the High Wire was so fascinating to me because of the unique perspective you would have walking on a high wire–its almost magical!

What books are you thinking of gifting this Christmas?

I am thinking of giving “Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race” to all my family members and anyone who will accept a copy and try to read it!

What do you plan to read next?

I plan to read “Parable of the Sower” by Octavia Butler A few years ago, I attended a workshop facilitated by a collective of writers inspired by Octavia Butler, called Octavia’s Brood. They talked about the potential science fiction has for social justice. One of the writers made a comment about how at one point, slavery was science fiction–someone imagined it and made it happen. Science fiction can be used in reverse–we can imagine a better, more equitable and inclusive world and slowly work toward it. In reading Octavia Butler’s work, I expect to explore the genre of science fiction and imagined solutions to social problems, and reflect on how those science fiction solutions can be mapped onto our current real world experiences.

Note from Paulette:
Yes, if you are true reader, you read anywhere and anytime you can. Sometimes readers with more leisure have favorite times and places for reading that motivate, but for those in the midst of a busy life, it only makes sense to take that reading time wherever one can find it. Sincere thanks to Jessica for taking time out from her busy life to talk with us about her reading world.

La La Land

Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend
Awards: Nominated for 7 Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture – musical or comedy, Best Performance by an Actor – Ryan Gosling, Best Performance by an Actress – Emma Stone, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Original Song, Best Original Score

Some are calling it the movie of the year.

What do you think?

I think – creative, imaginative, beautiful, terrific acting and writing. And yes. I believe it will touch your heart.

Think: old Hollywood, lively music, romance and ambition as good things. Never have I seen realism and fantasy so completely in-sync (I hope that’s a word).

One thing I learned from this movie: sad and happy can co-exist. It’s a great movie to start out your year with thoughtful joy.