Friday, November 04, 2016

Foreign movie Friday: 7 Años

Imagine you are one of four partners of a highly successful technology firm. Imagine that you become frustrated with the government spending of your hard-earned tax money in your country, Spain, and decide to overcome the problem by committing tax fraud and stashing away millions in secure Swiss accounts. Now, the Spanish tax authorities smell a rat and are about to pounce on your clandestine accounts et al. You are all certain to go to jail for at least seven years. But. There is a way out. If one of you takes the fall, not all need to be imprisoned. One can save the other three. 

How do you decide who makes the sacrifice?

This is the premise of the hot-off-the-press drama 7 Años. It premiered on the 28th of October, and thank you Netflix for bringing us this first original European Spanish production. 

So, the four friends and business partners are Luis, Veronica, Marcel, and Carlos. Rather astutely, they hire a mediator to help them solve their conundrum. (Jose the mediator  has a rather thorny task, obviously, but he's offered a cushy sum for his troubles.) The very fact that the four have hired him at all tells us something about them, and as we progress in this tight 77-minute drama, we see more and more of these characters. 

And that's all there is to it. Filmed entirely in the large and modern space of their tech company headquarters/meeting room, the camera pans from face to face, limning gestures, recording voices, extracting motivations and back-stories. In the beginning the camera-work was in fact a little jumpy, leading me to doubt whether I would be able to focus for the duration. But as it went along, the path taken by the characters becomes so engaging and wholly relevant that camera-work is relegated to the background.

All of the actors were unknown to me except for Juana Acosta who plays Vero. (She appeared in the t.v. series Velvet.) And suffice to say, I'm looking forward to seeing more of them. The performances are spot on. Understated but deeply-felt, fully meshing with the realist-minimalist vision of the director. As the minutes pass, the viewer is tempted to form their own hypothesis of the ending, knowing full-well that s/he will probably be thwarted. I had formed my own, and when the ending did arrive I was proven pleasantly off-track.

Not much more one can ask from a film.

Director: Roger Gual
Overall rating: 7/10

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Hazel and buckthorn in the dells

Quite appropriately, J has picked up a book by John Muir to read. Appropriate because he (J, not Muir) is taking me to see the Yosemite valley soon. Finally, I will have seen this legendary place. 

I feel fortunate to have seen a good slice of the national parks in this country. In fact the entire system owes its origins to the passion of Muir. And some 125 years later, the lands remain untouched by interference of any kind, available for all to enjoy and learn from. This is remarkable, especially in this extremely commercially-oriented society. Sometimes I wonder, if not for Muir, what would have become of Yosemite and countless other wilderness areas? Many would be hosting pipelines and townships, I suspect. (But then, Muir himself was in fact a Scot, heh, heh, a fact I poke at J rather unkindly at times.)

Incidentally John Muir is an extremely fascinating figure. Once while watching a documentary on him I became quite taken with him. His writings on nature and botany aside, those eyes! 

Sigh. Someone should come up with a version of Tinder for people long dead. (I borrowed the title of this post from a line in one of his writings.) 

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

When history was the present

My maternal grandmother was 19 when India gained independence from the British in 1947. How I long now to ask her about life then. Of course, being 19 then was vastly more 'adult' than it is now. She'd been married a year and was pregnant with her first child, my mother. Her husband was 11 years older than she was. She was not expected to pursue a career, although she had a razor-sharp brain and came from a long line of distinguished lawyers. 

Sadly, that never-told first-hand account of life in British India is lost to me forever. Why did I never have those talks with her? During the last years of her life I saw her quite frequently. Those were the good days of cheap flights in India (I once got a ticket for a rupee) and it was a short hop away. We developed a friendly, almost mischievous relationship in which I would tease her mercilessly about her various suitors and the effect of her cleavage in obtaining super-fast and efficient home-delivery for her groceries. 

Now I'm finding that I am simply blazing with curiosity to hear about what India was like in the 1940s. It's one thing to watch a glitzy t.v. show or read a well-crafted book, and quite another to hear it from someone who lived it.

Maybe this sense of lost history is another insidious way of realizing that I am now older. History means something entirely different to me now. 

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Sweets for beasts and the kindness of vampires

Last night there was a rather urgent knocking on our door. Now this has happened perhaps just once in the time that I have lived here, so it was quite a momentous occasion. In keeping with the pitch blackness outside and the rapidly-gathering cold, it was a monster who'd come calling. 

Covered in coarse grayish fur with red glowing eyes and an impressive tail, the monster breathed heavily through a large black snout. "Trick or treat?" he then pronounced, somewhat anti-climactic in his tentativeness. 

And we were not even prepared, oh how inexcusable of us. Still I managed to rustle up some dark chocolate in a fancy bowl, of which the beast timidly took just one. Go on, I urged, have more, have it all! "I can have it all?" he squealed, again belying the ferocity of his appearance. If only his father, watching from beneath the staircase, hadn't urged him not to be greedy, the poor creature would have had a good-ish supply of fine dark chocolate flavored with heavenly raspberry. Still, he trotted off quite contentedly.  

This year we simply stayed home in our pajamas. (Next year I really need to come up with a costume.) Last year J and I set out to get ourselves some. And, overcome by the profusion of cheap colorful goods in the store, for no particular reason purchased a couple of frizzy purple wigs and set off for the Carnaval downtown. Only on the bus, crammed between dozens of wizards, ghouls, Incredible Hulks, pumpkins, serial killers, mermaids and jedis, did we begin to realize the shallowness of our planning when asked what we were going as. Finally, a plump, good-natured vampire christened us Thing 1 and Thing 2 and we gratefully latched on to our given identities when we disembarked, in the midst of the half-million strong crowd. 

Maybe we should start planning right away. There may not be a vampire next year to rescue us and we will have to bear the ridicule of all the monsters in the universe. Or in all of L.A. county, at least.

Monday, October 31, 2016


Half of the enjoyment of a festival is the anticipation of it. If there is no anticipation, the day can just come and go like any other. 

I was saddened this year by the realization that I'd been oblivious of the impending arrival of Diwali. In India this is my favorite festival of sorts. The weather changes to a crispness, if not a coldness, in much of the country. Most cities are lit up with a variety of multi-colored lights, people are out shopping or are cleaning house, and on the big night there is a delightful multitude of fairy lights on virtually every dwelling. Still, my favorites were always the rough clay lamps called diyas, filled with sesame oil and lit with simple cotton wicks. In my youth my sister and I would be the ones to prepare the diyas by soaking them in water a few days before, drying them in the sun, preparing the wicks by hand, then laying them out in every conceivable nook of the house and garden, and finally lighting them all one by one. 

This year, I only woke up a couple of days before. Diwali is Sunday, October 30th, Google told me coldly. I had missed the entire window of anticipation and preparation. 

Still, last night, J and I put on some variety of finery and laid out a few cosmetic diyas and a few fairy lights. I made a rice kheer

I'd better be well and truly alert next year. Perhaps we will actually be in India, that would be the most meaningful thing of all. 

Saturday, October 29, 2016

French movie Friday: Dans la cour

How do you take the theme of mid-life depression and anguish and turn it into an intimate little film with sweetness and truth? Ask Pierre Salvadori, who's in fine form here. 

After having watched his matchless Hors de prix a couple of times, I'd decided to watch more films of his. I can't quite review that earlier one though, because the review would come out too sappy. I just liked it too much, enough to re-watch it and keep re-watching well into the future. Well, then. 

Dans la cour is altogether more earthly. So earthly in fact, that true to its title we get to see little besides the eponymous courtyard. But because it is Paris and the building itself is quite old, even a plain old courtyard has its charms. This is where Antoine, a musician who one days walks out of his entire life, ends up as the janitor, or 'le gardien' officially. He mumbles and shrugs his way into the job, somewhat hastily hired by the energetic resident Mathilde who is in charge of all such building affairs, among many other things. 

Mathilde and Antoine slowly develop a hesitant friendship. The other residents meanwhile, run somewhat roughshod over Antoine: his inability to be assertive being an advantage for all. Poor Antoine and his travails! He ends up being clouted with a ripe peach from four floors up, hosts a very large dog in his tiny apartment, endures the ravings of a cult member, and suffers from severe physical problems when he partakes of the drugs offered by one resident. 

Still, all is not misery, somehow, even though everyone has their own version of kookiness going on. These stories are the kind to be found if we scratched beneath the surface of just about anyone's life, anywhere. Meanwhile, Mathilde's slow unraveling is given the most attention by Antoine. This is not remotely about romance or the usual attraction though; rather, it is a slow drawing together of souls caught in the terror of realizing that they are really, really lost, and are on the brink of losing hope altogether. 

Antoine does show a bit of assertiveness towards the end of the story, and then...the ending left me sad and wondering if there could have been other possibilities for him. Still, this is not a bad thing. The whole film has after all been created with a sense of unerring reality, however tenderly. Depression, middle-age depression at that, is still poorly understood and vastly under-diagnosed. In fact, after learning that a friend who recently passed away had in fact been depressed, this  movie hit home rather hard. 

Dans la cour is a gently-paced and lovingly detailed piece of life. I'll have to be on the lookout for more from this director.

Director: Pierre Salvadori
Overall rating: 7.5/10

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Drunken sticks, all over

After a season of plentiful jacarandas, the city has another trick up its sleeve: the silk floss tree. They started popping up a few weeks ago, showy orchid-like pink blooms atop a nondescript tree with ferocious big thorns all down its side. 

I found out that they are called 'palo borracho' in Spanish, meaning 'drunken stick.' Eh? I must find out the origins. But for now I'm tempted to devise a foxy pink cocktail on one of my aimless evenings and name it this. 
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