Movie Review: Dust of War (2013)

Official-DoW-PosterDirector Andrew Kightlinger has suggested that his film Dust of War is something on the order of “Mad Max meets Terrence Malick”, and if that was what he had in mind, he can call it a success.  It doesn’t disappoint as an action-filled post-apocalyptic adventure following a hero along a rugged quest in the wastelands of the aftermath, but—as in a Malick film—our hero is a strong, silent type, and the film is shot with appropriate grandeur against the stark, raw beauty of western South Dakota.  Unlike Malick—whose first feature in 1973 was titled “Badlands”—Kightlinger actually did shoot in the Badlands, as well as in Pierre and Wall, South Dakota.  Stunning cinematography by Director of Photography Peter Wigand plays a major role in Dust of War’s visual storytelling; it takes its time, showcasing the inhospitable splendor of the rolling open terrain.  In particular, Wigand’s handheld camera work accents the dark edginess of the movie, making fine use of a setting that plays an important role in revealing the intrigue.

The film’s producing trio—Luke Schuetzle, Adam Emerson, and Kightlinger (who together came up with the story for Dust of War)—come into Dust of War on the heels of a successful festival run for two award-winning shorts, Paper People and You Don’t Know Bertha Constantine, and with Dust of War—their first feature—we’re treated to the same attention to detail that made the shorts such favorites.

Dust of war opens on a wispy prairie landscape, and a voiceover by the protagonist Abel (Steven Luke) sets up the story and its ironic premise:

For centuries, the human race looked to the stars, searching the heavens for signs of life, wondering if we were alone.  Then one day, the stars fell from the sky in swords of fire, and an alien civilization invaded Earth, bringing humanity to its bloody knees…

He continues, telling us that the unconquered lands have filled with tyrants and that a ruthless warlord, General Chizum (Shutter Island’s Bates Wilder), has captured a young woman—reputedly a harbinger of peace and the possessor of a secret so powerful even she has been kept out of the loop.  Two bounty hunters, hired by the resistance—the ‘Free Legion’—have been tasked with her rescue.

Dust of War establishes the brutality of General Chizum’s camp within seconds, opening on a guy puking, the biting off of a…well, I won’t tell you… and close-ups of armed children.  Here we see the first of the top-notch ensemble of extras that Kightlinger has enlisted for the hot and dusty days of shooting in the near desert.  We see Abel for the first time, undercover as a recruit for the general, being subjected to a rough and tumble inspection of ears, eyes, and mouth.  The camera doesn’t shy away away from the bodily grossness, rather delights in it, making us feel and smell the swallowing of messages and subsequent regurgitations—you get the idea—and all of it timed perfectly in the editing, enough to make us gasp, then relieving us from the image and moving the story along.  These are harsh times in a world of few loyalties, where civilization has moved on and aliens hold dominion over what’s left of humanity. Manual-Labor-1024x438

Steven Luke communicates Abel’s strength, pain, and transformation throughout the course of the film primarily with his body and to a further degree with his face and eyes—much as he did in playing the lead actor in Paper People, for which he nabbed numerous Best Acting awards—a difficult task since our man of few words doesn’t actually say very much.  He keeps the real Abel at arm’s length from his compatriots—and from us—while at the same time making us curious about his quest and his elusive past, about how he got mixed up in the Free Legion in the first place.  His name—the biblical ‘Abel’—conjures up symbolic suppositions on his role in the creation of the next world and how he might be treated by his brethren.

Jordan McFadden’s charter as ‘Ellie’, the girl—the harbinger, the one who heralds what is to come (hopefully peace)—is to be strong, mysterious, vulnerable, and of course, beautiful—all of which she pulls off with aplomb.  Even out on the godforsaken prairie she manages to provide an element of innocent sex appeal to an otherwise macho canvas.  Within her first few moments on screen, we get a taste of the humor that Kightlinger has sprinkled throughout his screenplay when she pokes fun at Abel, to the effect of “…man of few words…a little overdone, don’t you think?”  It’s a serious film, but yet one that doesn’t take itself that seriously, and that makes it all the more fun to watch.

As a good screenplay should, Kightlinger’s takes us through the ups, downs, twists, and turns of a roller-coaster plotline.  His well-structured script offers much more than a one-dimensional perspective into what could have been nothing more than a bleak passage through dry, dusty scrub.  Plot devices such as the presence of pressure mines give the voyeur something to hang onto as we peer into Kightlinger’s world, one that appears disturbingly similar to our own.  Tantalizing references to place names like Pittsburg, Chicago, Carnegie Hall, and Madison Square Garden reinforce the idea that Dust of War’s reality is our reality.

Kightlinger’s best gift to the viewer, however, comes in the form of the lighter interludes—the reminders of the happier world that came before.  We drop in on a camp of survivors—the good guys—lead by a larger-than-life character called ‘Crispus Hansen’ (played by Tony Todd, in a large performance by a giant of an actor, his character embracing the film within his widespread arms).  During the minutes in the camp, Todd’s Crispus stamps a lost humanity onto the film’s brutal backdrop.  If we ever found ourselves in a post-apocalyptic situation, we’d want to be within his shelter.

Doug Jones (of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy renown) as Jebediah Strumm holds up the other end of this wondrous episode with spectacular zaniness and a sensitivity that makes us laugh one moment and be in tears minutes later.  Jebediah entertains the children of the camp with tea parties and sings them quirky tunes a cappella, all the while endowed with a gift of ‘visions’—another device used effectively by Kightlinger to build enigma into the story.  Again, Jebediah is someone you’d want in your post-apocalyptic camp.

A camp isn’t complete without a campfire, and a film shot in this part of the world wouldn’t be complete without the requisite grilling-up of rattlesnakes.  Happy images around a normal-seeming campfire complete with hoedown-style music and dancing are captured and edited with bokeh blurring techniques and slowed action that achieve the effect of immersing us deeper into the comfort of being with people we can love in an adverse time, displaying well the poignancy and joy of the human condition around something as simple as a campfire.

In many ways, Dust of War is the culmination of everything that’s good about independent filmmaking.  One enormous accomplishment was in rounding up a stellar motley cast of supporting character actors—comic book characters brought to life by impeccable acting.  Kightlinger wrote colorful characters and populated them with experienced, finely-honed actors that nail their performances and make us believe that these bizarre personnages would indeed thrive in such a world.Tony-Todd as Crispus Hansen

Along with Todd and Jones, Dust of War stars David Midthunder as the tracker ‘Dark Horse’—an essential presence in perhaps a stereotypical American Indian role, but one that works.  It’s not an accident that the malevolent General Chizum has exploited a Native American for his vile purposes.  And as General Chizum, Bates Wilder embodies the classic evil villain.  Hank Ostendorf’s ‘Klamp’ and Paul Cram as ‘Gelman’ take the comic hits for both sides of good versus evil, allowing us to chuckle even as they find themselves in the most gruesome of situations.  The darkly handsome and sinister Tristan Barnard as ‘Giger’, quite convincingly in the bad-guy camp, is a filmmaker himself with an already rich cinematography résumé in western South Dakota and beyond, and he double-duties behind the third camera, another example of what independent filmmaking does best.

Gary Graham (Star Trek, Alien Nation) as ‘Tom Dixie’—Abel’s fellow bounty hunter and sidekick—steals the show, his performance bringing much of the humor into the film as well as providing a story-telling cohesiveness to it.  He and his character are all-in, and we can’t help but like the guy and cheer for him at every turn.

The soundtrack and sound editing are as well-balanced as the film’s screenplay, ranging from cowboy music to ethereal, wind-chimy tones that rhyme well with those found in a Malick film.  The placement of cheery, light-jazzy music coming out of a car radio jars us momentarily out of dystopia, then just as we start humming along, it’s juxtaposed with the cranking of klaxons and the underpinnings of an ominous soundtrack peppered with low, heart-pounding drumming reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s 1975 classic Kashmir—an ironic similarity since it was on a road cutting through the desert of Southern Morocco that Robert Plant was inspired to write the lyrics to Kashmir.

Dust of War delivers on intense action sequences, with a crazy car chase across the desert in a vintage Mustang, lots of hand-to-hand clashes—swashbuckling, even—along with wild-west-style down, dirty, and bloody shootouts—and they’re all taken to higher levels with impeccable sound effects, another example of what attention to detail has brought to this film.

And finally, the costumes and military equipment provided by Schuetzle’s own production company lend an unheard-of authenticity to Dust of War’s overall look.  Broad landscapes of military vehicles in desert camouflage caravanning across the open prairie and hundreds of extras appropriately garbed only enhance the artistry of the film.

And art is what Dust of War is—a sometimes disturbing work of art—but art that invites thought as good art should.  Abel’s tale comes to a satisfying denouement for the viewer by way of Kightlinger’s structured writing, yet it leaves us with subtle unanswered questions—and it doesn’t fail to throw in a good twist, one that makes us suddenly wonder about what happens next.  And wonder whether Kightlinger and Schuetzle have a Dust of War 2 up their sleeves.

Sund’ Side Up is under reconstruction…

In the meantime, however, the old site is still available here.

Birthday Cakes, French Lessons, and Tooting

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I don’t have children of my own, thus my nieces and nephews hold the position in my heart that my own kids would have had. They know that they can get away with a lot when they’re with me, albeit different things than their parents would have allowed. I’m not afraid to say no when I feel like it, mixer1-loresthough, especially when they’re beating each other up or screaming. (This happens a lot: high-pitched squeals of delight or shrieks of agony from bonking each other in the head.) During a recent sojourn in Ohio, I found myself in the enviable position of taking care of the three youngest—2, 4, and 6 years old—while their parents were away on overlapping business trips.

 

I’ve managed to build a relationship with them over the last few years, even while living far away. I met Brynn, the youngest, when she was four weeks old, and by the time I left 10 days later, she had started to look into my eyes and smile. Last summer, I saw her take her first steps. Since I’m really quite clueless about kids, I’ve had to invent things to do with Colson and Audra, Brynn’s older brother and sister. I spend my life among adults for the most part while most of the world is involved in the eternal cycle of bringing children in the world, so it’s not easy for me to figure out what to do with them or what to say to them. I didn’t even know what to say to other kids when I was one. Therefore, I more or less treat them like very small adults or act myself like a very large child, and this seems to work. We make videos together, play ‘bake-Catwoman-in-the-oven-and-serve-her-up-for-dinner’ (Hansel and Gretel-style—Audra’s idea), and I teach them to play Carcassonne, the latest in the favorite-family-game category. I indulge them in their favorite word: toot. Toot in its noun forms and as a verb in all of its conjugations. I toot. You toot. We all toot.

 

Audra, you’re a tooter,” says Colson.

 

I know!” she squeals. “I’m the best at tooting!

 

I like to mess with their heads and teach them French. The first hurdle was convincing them that it wasn’t Spanish. They were under the impression that all foreign languages are Spanish. They ask me how to say different things in French, and I make them repeat it back, jealous of their accents. Even with my imperfect pronunciation as a model, their still-developing vocal cords and tongues wrap around the Rs and dance around the subtle differences in vowel sounds as if they were little French kids. Totally not fair.

 

Dark Chocolate Raspberry Torte

The other day I taught them to say “my name is…”: “Je m’appelle…” In angelic voices, they produced “je m’appelle Audra” and “je m’appelle Colson”. Then I got the brilliant idea of teaching them to say “your name is…” I had them repeat to each other: “tu t’appelle Audra” and “tu t’appelle Colson”.

 

Tu t’appelle?” they echoed.

 

“TU t’appelle?

 

“TOOTappelle?!?

 

Toot, toot, I tooted,” they sang, dancing around the room. “You’re a tooter. No, you’re a tooter. Up, up, and I tooted…!

 

French lesson over.

 

* * *

 

Amy’s birthday was the day before she was to leave on her trip—the kids’ mother, my sister-in-law. I happily volunteered to make her a cake—a Dark Chocolate Raspberry Torte with a Raspberry Chambord Sauce—and enlisted the aid of Colson and Audra. They like to help in the kitchen, pulling chairs over so that they’re high enough to reach and lean over everything on the counter (and the stove). It’s always a challenge to figure out what I can safely let them do, so I opted first to have them break up the chocolate that I’d be melting with the butter. Keeping them from eating every other chunk was the big trick. Ultimately, we sacrificed half a bar to tasting, but it worked out, bringing our ounce count down to that in the recipe. Audra wouldn’t quit eating it until I threatened her (with what, I’ve already forgotten). Colson spit his out, saying it was ‘too spicy’. He doesn’t appreciate dark chocolate yet.

 

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Audra wanted to eat some butter. I shaved a tiny sliver off one corner of the stick I was slicing and let her pop it in her mouth. Then she wanted another. By the time I finished, she’d talked me into giving her all four corners of both sticks. I had them pick the pats off the cutting board and throw them in the pot with the chocolate. When I turned back around from rinsing my knife and board in the sink, I found them both taking pats of butter and pieces of chocolate out of the pot, licking them, and then throwing them back in. I rolled my eyes, thankful that I wouldn’t be serving it to anyone but their mother. At least the pot wasn’t on the stove yet. Once we’d mixed it all up, they asked if they could lick the beater. I said yes, my back unwisely turned. They didn’t wait for me to remove the beater from the mixer before descending on it like a couple of hyenas on a wildebeest. I ran over from the sink to unplug it, well beyond worrying about their drool dripping into the batter.

 

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I had them help me butter the springform pan, cut out parchment paper to line it, and dust it with superfine sugar, and after we’d put the torte in the oven, they asked: “How do you say ‘toot’ in French?”

 

Péter,” I answered, not missing a beat.

 

PEH-TEH,” they repeated perfectly.

 

“But how do you say, I’m tooting?” asked Audra.

 

Je pète,” I told her. “Je pète. Tu pètes. Audra pète. Colson pète. Vous pétez, nous pétons, ils pètent…

 

It was the best French lesson to date. They really paid attention.

 

* * *

 

My brother came home before Amy did, and he, the kids, and I went to their club together—he and I to do the spinning class and the kids to ‘exercise’ in the club’s daycare room. Brynn got punched in the face by another kid when we dropped them off, and I had to admire my brother’s calm. I wanted to take out the rotten little boy who’d socked my cherub-like niece. His mother kept apologizing to me, and I pretended to smile through my inexperienced-with-kids outrage.

 

everybody2-lores

Walking in from the parking lot, Colson and I were ahead of everyone else, and he said, punching me:

 

“You’re a tooter.”

 

“Oh yeah?” I said. “You’re the tooter.”

 

“You’re a bigger tooter.”

 

“You’re the biggest tooter. You’re such a big tooter that your toots are really poop.” (I don’t know why I said that. I really shouldn’t have said that.)

 

“Ew, that’s gross,” he said, screwing up his face in disgust.

 

“Yeah, I know. Don’t tell your mom I said that.”

 

A few seconds later, he said, “I’m gonna tell my mom on you.”

 

“If you tell on me, she won’t let me come back.”

 

“Okay,” he said, thinking about it. “I won’t tell her you said poop.” After a few more steps, he said, “Really, I’m gonna tell on you.”

 

mixer2-lores

I knew he wouldn’t be able to help it. Colson’s so honest he tells on himself, and I’m going to get in trouble one of these times. The other night when he boasted for the hundredth time that he was going to ‘smoke’ me during the Carcassonne game, I knew that I shouldn’t have said I was going to serve him his butt on a silver platter, but the words were out of my mouth before I could help it.

 

“What?” he said, both eyes wide open.

 

“Never mind,” I said. “It’s your turn.”

 

* * *

 

Dark Chocolate Raspberry Torte

I relaxed and recovered on the plane home, but I was already missing the maniacal imps. They are a handful, and I don’t know how real parents actually do it, but I grin thinking back on those couple of weeks and the cherished moments. When I had arrived in Ohio, Brynn could barely say, “Hi”, and four weeks later she was saying my name. She even wailed for me once when I’d left the room, and I have to admit that I was pleased about it in an evil and sadistic way. Audra didn’t say a word when they took me to the airport—too choked up to risk saying goodbye—and Colson wouldn’t let go when he hugged me for the last time, leaving my neck aching along with my heart.

 

———————-

 

You can find the recipes in this blog at:

Dark Chocolate Raspberry Torte

Raspberry Chambord Sauce

 

 

Proposal in the Barn

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couple-marriedRay and I never intended to get married. For twelve years, we felt that our commitment to each other had nothing to do with the government. It wasn’t necessary to have a document to certify that we meant to spend our lives together. You’ve heard the story. Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell? Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal? Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt?

This all changed for me, however, during Memorial Day weekend of 2002. We’d visited the graves of Ray’s family members, and as I read tombstone after tombstone it hit me that I wanted to be buried with Ray some day, but that I wanted us to have the same name on the marker. I didn’t want to be remembered as the old lady who’d shacked up with him for all those years.

couple-barn

The subject of marriage had come up a few times already that year, and we were both warming up to the idea. Watching the reruns of Monica and Chandler getting engaged on Friends had spurred on a few conversations, but I’d hesitated to bring up the subject for real for fear of spoiling a proposal he might have had in the works. My birthday in September was coming up, which could have been a good time. Then he had Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve—any of which could have been fine dates for a marriage proposal. I wouldn’t wait any longer than that, however. I promised myself that if he hadn’t asked me by New Year’s Eve, I would do it myself on New Year’s Day.

My birthday came and went without a proposal, then Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve. I woke up a little groggy on January 1, 2003, wiped out (hungover) from the night before. We ate breakfast while watching the Tournament of Roses parade, and afterward Ray put on his coveralls and went out to the barn. He was renovating the fifty-year-old structure, working on raising the floor of the loft. Inside the house, I looked at my sorry reflection in the bathroom mirror and suddenly realized it was the day on which I had intended to propose. Not like that, though.

I started some bath water and ran around the house trying to figure out what to wear. I decided on the pink tiara I’d worn the night before, a purple suede knee-length coat with a purple rabbit fur collar, and black suede boots. After the bath, I made up my face and styled my hair around the pink tiara. For the finishing touch, I grabbed a long-stemmed metal rose that my dad had given me on my 40th birthday. I took a breath and marched out to the barn. It was 32 degrees that day, but I wasn’t cold. I was nervous and sweating and praying he wouldn’t say no.

As I entered the barn, Ray grinned and said, “Hey, check this out,” and motioned me toward his latest project. He didn’t notice my tiara or strange outfit.

down-from-barn“I need you to go upstairs with me,” I said, my voice shaking.

“What, right now?”

I didn’t say anything else, but started climbing the ladder into the loft.

“Oh, I thought you meant in the house,” he said, following me. “Hey, you don’t have anything on under there.”

In the loft, I had to work quickly. I hadn’t really thought out how I would do this. Sunlight shone through the two windows near the peak onto the middle of the dusty wooden floor. I hesitated for a second, but then took off the coat and looked for a place to hang it, somewhere where it wouldn’t get too dirty. How he could he say no to me like this?

“I don’t know what’s going on,” he said, helping me with the coat, “but I think I like it.”

I manoeuvred him a few feet in front of the spot of light and positioned myself in the direct ray. I shivered in my boots and my crown, but not from the freezing temperature.

I held out the rose and said, “Ray Sundstrom, will you marry me?”

His eyes opened wide, and he said, “Are you serious?”
“Uh-huh,” I nodded, my heart pounding.

He said, “Okay,” and I about died of relief.

We laughed and talked for a few minutes, joking about my nervousness. He admitted that he’d wanted to ask me over the holidays but hadn’t figured out what to do about a ring. He went back to his work in the barn, and I ran into the house to call my mom. My grandma was on her deathbed, and I wanted her to hear the news before it was too late.

ray-proposal

 

di-proposalWe married the following July in the same barn, in the same loft, with one hundred close friends and family there to witness the vows.  I wore my mother’s wedding dress, and Ray had finished the barn renovation in time for the event. There are many stories to recount from that day and the days leading up to it, but I’ll save them for another time.

I will, however, close with a last remark. We thought that nothing would change in our relationship once we were married. The lifetime commitment had been made years before, and we couldn’t imagine loving each other any more or any less. The big surprise? The relationship did change. Even today, nine years after the wedding and twenty-one years since we started the whole thing, somehow we feel more like a family, and we grew closer even though we didn’t think there was any closer to grow into. I’m happy to be called Sundstrom and will be until the day I’m put beneath a stone bearing that name.

happily-ever-after

Movie Review: To Rome with Love (2012)

When I left the theater after Woody Allen’s magical Midnight in Paris last year, my cheeks hurt from grinning from start to finish. Woody’s love letter to Paris, filled with lavish photography of the city’s most famous sights had me scrambling to book tickets to the City of Light. Could he top it with To Rome With Love, or even come close?

To Rome With Love opens with Allen’s characteristically simple credits rolling to the nostalgic strains of Volare. I didn’t mind the cheesy Italian tourist music. It proclaims from the start what kind of movie To Rome With Love is: a fun frolic through Rome, through its ruins, through its romantic traditions as passed down by decades of Roman Holiday-types of films.

Four separate vignettes reveal the plot of To Rome With Love. The unconnected narratives interweave in no particular order, each illuminating a different Italian motif.

Woody Allen’s films attract top actors, and his direction and screenplays tend to bring out their best performances. In To Rome With Love, this is best seen in the sketch involving the American couple Sally and Jack (Greta Gerwig and Jesse Eisenberg) and Sally’s best friend Monica (Ellen Page), visiting them in Rome. Sally constantly frets that Jack will fall in love with Monica, an actress who possesses an uncanny sex appeal. I initially had doubts as to whether Ellen Page could pull this off, but the Oscar-nominated actress (for 2007′s Juno) and actor (Eisenberg, for 2010′s The Social Network) make us believe it when Jack starts to cave in to her magnetic sexiness. The presence of Alec Baldwin’s character John provides an interesting temporal twist to this storyline. He plays an architect that Jack, an architecture student, has idolized. The two run into each other in Sally and Jack’s Trastevere neighborhood and from then on John serves as a kind of Greek chorus to Jack (and sometimes to the women), warning him of Monica’s less-than-authentic cultural qualifications, warning him about blowing the good thing he’s got going with Sally.

The conflicting placements in time between Jack and John’s mini-storylines will bewilder some viewers, but in this sketch Woody leaves us the key—much like he did by opening the film with Volare. At one point, Ellen Page’s Monica gushes over the significance of Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, the quintessential Absurdist work that compares the plight of the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus with the absurdity of humanity. Allen has given us his own Absurdist take with To Rome With Love, not spoon-feeding us a straightforward intrigue, but asking us to suspend logic for several hours and enjoy the human spectacle as portrayed against sumptuous Roman scenery.

In another yarn, Oscar-winning Roberto Benigni (for 1997′s Life is Beautiful) plays Leopoldo Pisanello, an ordinary man suddenly beset with inexplicable fame. There is nothing subtle about Allen’s intention to poke fun at the fickleness and aggressiveness of the paparazzi and at the public that accepts whatever the press feeds it. Benigni’s troubles entertain us as we follow his character cycling through the phases of his notoriety.

Spain’s Penelope Cruz (another Oscar winner, for Allen’s 2008 Vicky Christina Barcelona) shows off her linguistic chops with a role as a prostitute in a third sketch completely in Italian. This one, an outright sex romp, follows the mayhem that ensues when a newlywed Italian couple arrives in Rome. The husband is there to take a position with the family firm. The wife disappears while out to get her hair done and Cruz’s character assumes the role of his wife when the stodgy aunts and uncles misinterpret why she’s caught in bed with the husband in the couple’s hotel room. Sounds implausible? Yes, and silly, but mostly it’s Absurd, and throughout the rollicking action, we explore ideals of Italian love and sex, of the absurdity of star-struck fans hopping into bed with film stars, and we get to peek at the lovely Roman scenery behind it all.

The fourth tale is that of Giancarlo (played by tenor Fabio Armiliato), a mortician who sings like an opera star—but only when he’s in the shower. Woody Allen plays a music producer in retirement that overhears Giancarlo and insists on bringing his talent before the masses. Their respective children Michelangelo and Hayley (Flavio Parenti and Alison Pill) are engaged and Jerry and Phyllis (Woody and Judy Davis, who is excellent) are in Italy to meet Michelangelo’s parents. There are funny moments throughout To Rome With Love, but this was the sketch that had me laughing out loud. The full theater chuckled almost every time Woody opened his mouth (especially when repeatedly mispronouncing “Michelangelo”) and roared at the opera scenes. Stupidly funny, yes, these scenes, but again—pure Absurdity is the point. How refreshing to belly laugh at a musical form like opera, one that takes itself so seriously.

To Rome With Love carries an “R” rating for the sexual references, and there is a lot of hopping in and out of bed, but really there’s not too much to offend the sensitive viewer. I counted only one F-word, and it was appropriately placed. As with Midnight in Paris, there was a bit of foreign language spoken, with subtitles. Two of the sub-stories were completely in Italian. The Italian language, however, adds to the charm as much as do the vistas of the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain, and the picturesque alleys of Trastevere.

I could have done without the bookending of the film with two different characters talking to the camera, explaining that there are all these stories taking place in Rome. The one at the beginning was mildly amusing, a flamboyant policeman directing traffic on the Piazza Venezia. I would have kept the scenery, especially of the spectacular monument to Vittorio Emmanuele II, but cut the policeman’s dialogue along with that of the man on the balcony overlooking the Spanish Steps at the end of the film.

To Rome With Love wasn’t Midnight in Paris, but I’m not sure anything will ever match that particular treasure. As with Midnight in Paris, though, I did grin throughout, and I do find myself inclined to get on a plane for Rome. To Rome With Love has received criticism for not acknowledging the current economic woes in Europe and in Italy, but it shouldn’t have—it wasn’t that kind of movie. That movie’s soundtrack wouldn’t have opened with Volare.

Love and Divorce in the Workplace

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When Too Much Fun at Happy Hours and Christmas Parties Leads to Public Shunning

We worked for the same company, in a bullpen of a hundred cubicles, and I couldn’t believe my luck. A fresh college graduate, I’d landed in that rare paradise of a work crowd that liked to socialize. Art was my boss at the beginning. In fact, he’d been the manager who’d hired me. Once the news of our blossoming love affair became public knowledge, however, the powers-that-be gladly scooted me to another middle manager-with everyone’s blessing.

Two years of frolic ensued, filled with happy hours, Christmas parties, ski trips, camping trips, and houseboat trips-an unending revelry of laughter and too much alcohol.

We held the wedding in our backyard-a simple affair and no gifts, since it was his second wedding. I made lasagna for a hundred and wore a form-fitting satiny blue dress with a big, poofy ruffle at the bottom. The work gang attended, and we danced like fools.

Two years later, I realized that it wasn’t working and would never work. I tried to visualize growing old with him and couldn’t. It was like our future couldn’t exist.  [more]

(published in its entirety on Yahoo! Voices)

The 1 and Only: Cruising California’s legendary coastline

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I couldn’t help giggling last night, looking forward to the next day’s adventure: driving to Los Angeles to visit my friend Beth, my cohort in crime in graduate school. We’d spent three summers together at UC Santa Barbara earning our masters’ in French, and I couldn’t imagine a better apartment-mate and friend with whom to share such an ordeal. That’s us in the picture below with all the bottles. We studied very hard—Beth more than I did, I’m afraid—but we managed to throw a party or two. This photo’s from the last of our now-famous chocolate tasting bashes.

I giggled, too, about the last-minute decision to go south on Highway 1 instead of Interstate 5, even though it would certainly take more time. I-5 is the straightforward choice between Silicon Valley and LA—an easy six hours—and while I wouldn’t call it boring, nothing compares to the legendary stretch of winding asphalt on the 1, barely clinging to the cliffs overhanging the Pacific far below. The whole way isn’t that perilous, but enough of it is to make it a truly excellent driving experience.

Ray’s at the wheel now while I write in the car. I drove until Ragged Point, just shy of San Simeon and Hearst Castle, including the 26 miles between Monterey and Big Sur. They’re the famous ones, those 26—the official route of the Big Sur International Marathon—a killer footrace for those so inclined, but I prefer doing it by car these days. They’re not for the timid motorist, these twists and turns. At midday on a Thursday, the traffic’s not as heavy as on the weekend, but even on the best days, you can find yourself behind a few slower drivers. The wise choice is to just relax, relax while gripping the steering wheel, paying attention to every hairpin turn and harrowing drop-off into the Pacific—and enjoy the view! About an hour back, a black Honda Accord zoomed to within a foot of my back bumper and laid on his horn. We were already the eighth car in an uphill lineup. This cracked us up, and we yelled at him through the back windshield: Dude, chill out—you’re on the 1! He leapfrogged our car and started beeping at the next car. Incredulous, we laughed again like idiots, as he wove frantically, looking for a way to pass: If you’re in a hurry, why are you on the 1?

A few moments later, every car found its pace, and the traffic fell into an easy rhythm. We took the curves comfortably, crazily at an agreeable velocity for a 1997 Riviera with a supercharged engine. It’s on days like these when I really love my car, though it’s quickly becoming an ancient relic/grand old classic: lots of road-hugging power for screaming up the hills and yet still tight enough to not throw us around on the curves.

Today the windows are down because the A/C’s broken, and today I don’t mind. I don’t mind that the window’s down or that the A/C’s broken. It would have been 30 degrees hotter on I-5—thus influencing this route—and if we’d had A/C, I never would have agreed to the windows being down. The Grace Kelly ideal of scarf and sunglasses in a sexy convertible on a Riviera roadway sounds good on film, but I’ve never been a windows-down kind of girl. I have long, dirty-blond hair that gets curlier every day—downright frizzy in the ocean mist—and snarls up at the slightest breeze. The scarf would be wrapped around my face and sunglasses whipped from my head before even leaving the driveway. My dad once rented a convertible for a weekend that he and I had spent in Vegas many years ago, back when we’d both been in the Air National Guard, and I’ll never forget his disappointment when I didn’t want the roof down. I’ve felt horribly guilty about it for years, but I’m still not sorry that I didn’t have to rip all the knots out of my hair that night.

But I’m glad the windows are down today at this slow, but aggressive pace, so that we hear the waves crashing and the gulls screeching. My hair’s a mess, but I can smell the ocean and rejoice in the spectacle that will be over too soon even at this speed. It takes forever, yet it’s over too soon.

I have this fantasy of driving Highway 1 in its entirety—starting in Northern California where the 1 meets the Redwoods Highway—and coursing it south, past wonderful-sounding placenames such as Sea Ranch, Bodega Bay, Point Reyes, Half Moon Bay; traversing the Golden Gate Bridge; beach-bumming in Santa Cruz; touring Hearst Castle; enjoying a sunset at Pismo Beach; waving a salute to my alma mater in Santa Barbara; spying on celebs in Malibu; entering Los Angeles at Venice Beach, hopefully not at rush hour; dipping into the ocean again at Huntington Beach; finishing the journey at Dana Point, just south of San Juan Capistrano—taking my time, camping in the car or my backpacking tent whenever I need to stop. I’ve thought about it a lot and charted the course on Google Maps, toyed with the idea of using my infantine filmmaking skills to make a documentary of the adventure. What should such a documentary look like? I don’t have helicopters at my disposal, so I can’t do dramatic shots swooping over bluffs into heart-stopping dives over the waves, but I’ll try everything else. Any ideas for what you think might be fun? I think I’d like to focus on the lesser-known segments of the route. Monterey to Big Sur is awesome and belongs in the film, but what about Sea Ranch and Pescadero in the north and…? Well, I was going to say several beach names in the south, but they’re all pretty famous, so never mind. They don’t round out my sentence very well.

That’s the fantasy anyway—making a documentary as a justification to drive all of Highway 1 at a leisurely tempo, taking in the sights, sounds, smells, and maybe a visit or two with locals along the way. As if one needed justification.

We made it to Los Angeles that night—Ray, me, and the Riviera—cutting inland from the 1 at Ventura. How lovely to embrace my friend and her husband at the end of the day, welcomed into their home at the foot of Mount Wilson. I’ll most likely write much more about Beth* in future posts. [I’ve included many of our ‘French Camp’ exploits in my upcoming novel. I’m shooting for it to be available through Amazon at the end of 2012!] The only thing that matters tonight, though, is the abundance of wine, chocolate, and laughter among friends after an arduous day sur la route.

* Beth wrote an excellent blog about enjoying “The Journey”. Check it out here.

Why Warren Buffett and Bill Gates will never attend the Kentucky Derby

While we stood in the security line at San Francisco International Airport, the lady behind us laughed to the lady ahead of us: “Gotta protect the hat!” She held up her bulky, octagon-shaped carry-on: “The most important thing!” The two laughed, chattered about the upcoming weekend, and it registered: the Kentucky Derby is always the same weekend as the Berkshire Hathaway meeting in Omaha—where we were headed. We wouldn’t need fancy hats in Omaha, just our ears open, ready to glean every bit of enlightenment that the “Oracle of Omaha” would drop.

On the way to the Kentucky Derby

I suppose we’ll never attend the Kentucky Derby ourselves, not as long as Warren Buffett keeps holding his annual meeting on the first Saturday in May. This year we make our ninth pilgrimage to Warren’s bash along with 35,000+ other fans/investors. Warren and his partner, Charlie Munger, are rock stars this weekend. The first year it amazed us that people would completely pack an arena to listen to two octogenarians field questions all day. On our ninth year, it doesn’t surprise us—we just scramble to get the best seats possible.

Some people camp outside the doors before they open at 7am, but we arrive just in time to join the swell, grabbing a free copy of the Omaha World-Herald on our way. Once in, it’s a veritable Running of the Bulls into the arena to get a seat. Fast-walking past the more civilized investors and getting ahead of even more by taking the stairs instead of the clogged escalators, we get to the portal spilling us into Section 119. The best seats are on the floor, and most early-birds head there, but since we didn’t line at 5am, we go for the next best bet—Section 119 to the left of the podium and up about 20 rows—and claim our positions. The traditional startup track—Pink Floyd’s Money—blares out of every speaker—setting the tone for this, the “Woodstock for Capitalists”.

The objective is to get a seat for the movie that starts at 8:30 and not get stuck in one of the overflow ballrooms. Standard practice is to drape your copy of the Omaha World-Herald over the back of your seat to save it while peruse the expo that showcases the companies owned by Berkshire Hathaway. People tend to honor this seat-saving in small bites, but it’s frowned upon to save entire rows with signs. I’m too paranoid to leave the seats unguarded, so I stay while Ray checks out the expo. There will only be a couple of empty places in the nose-bleed rows once the movie starts.

Ray and Jenny (our niece, a first-timer this year) check out the expo, and while seated in the electric car on the showroom floor, Jenny says, “Hey, isn’t that him?” Yes, it’s a genuine Warren sighting—always a big deal at the meeting. Outside of the official session in the arena, you never know where he’ll turn up. Last year, Ray ran into Bill Gates in the same spot, standing next to the electric car before the mob discovered him. (Bill, not Ray).

Right before the movie starts, Berkshire’s directors—including Bill Gates—take their seats to the theme ofThe Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. They mill around while hundreds of people snap photos just behind the cordons. Before the Q&A, Warren officially introduces each director, and all 35,000+ attendees dutifully follow his request to hold the applause until the end—presumably to avoid an awkward, prolonged reaction to Bill’s notoriety.

The movie itself—produced with the gratis participation of notable celebrities every year—is timely and funny, a conglomeration of digital shorts à la Saturday Night Live. This year’s opening skit spotlights Warren’s secretary, Debbie Bosanek, recently renowned for paying a higher percentage of taxes than her boss. In it, she’s become bigger than Buffett himself, who ends up having to answer the phone for her, putting through calls from Oprah and President Obama. Warren’s nightmare skit ends with his hands at his ears in a scream—and then the film cuts to Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream, which made history three days earlier by selling for $119,922,500 at Sotheby’s. Other notable shorts include Warren auditioning for Glee with his ukulele and singing with Sue (Jane Lynch)—an “alleged lover” from his University of Nebraska days—and a clip with Jimmy Buffett in the role of Warren’s psychologist, playing video games on his iPad while Warren dreams of playing the ukulele.

Warren Buffett drinks a cokeAfter the movie, we come to the main attraction—the Q&A—the reason we are all here. Warren and Charlie come out from behind the curtains to take their seats at a table from which they’ll answer questions and consume See’s Candies and Coca-Cola for the next six hours. It’s hard to describe the excitement. On the surface it seems a little silly to hang on every word these guys say. Sure, they’re seriously rich guys, but if they were boring, we wouldn’t be here. The fact is, they put on something approaching a comedy routine and dispense pearls of investment wisdom while doing so. The room is filled with financial experts, investors, and students anxious to glean precious tidbits. There are tons of websites that attempt to transcribe every word uttered by this pair of investment yogis—the output of feverish note-taking marathons—so I won’t do that here. I’ll continue tomorrow with a recap of the highs as I saw them this year in Omaha, along with photos from the gala cocktail hour the night before.

 

Sund’ Side Up!

Last week, rainy weather in San Francisco kept Delta 1505 on the ground for three extra hours in Minneapolis, and my husband and I found ourselves once more walking “the loop” in Lindbergh terminal to kill time and to get some exercise between flights. As we passed the same newsstands, bars, and boutiques over and over, we complained about politics, fantasized about a world that didn’t always market to us, and tossed around ideas for films and books that we’d never have time to create. Rife with snazzy gadget stores, pyramids of high-end carry-on luggage, and designer scents wafting out of duty-free shops, airports tend to bring out our more materialistic leanings, so the chat migrated to our investments and the futility of the stock market casino. Somehow Ray worked “You’ve been ‘Taken to Task’” into the conversation—the tagline from Aaron Task’s video series on The Daily Ticker. My airport mall delirium dissolved into hysterical giggles over this play on Task’s name—I hadn’t heard it before—and I wondered what might be a clever wordplay on my own name.

I’ve always like my married name, Sundstrom. Happy sounding and—no surprise—reminiscent of sunshine, light, brightness. Cheerful stuff. I’d wanted to start writing a blog for some time, so what about a blog that focused on the ‘sunny side of life’, on positive material, looking-on-the-bright side kinds of topics? I’m into something different every time I wake up and I constantly run into blog-worthy events, places, and people, so compiling accounts of all of it in my own corner of the Internet seemed like the next project to take up. I’ve lacked a focus for such a space, however, and I didn’t want to just toss items out there at random, with no unifying premise.

Gulf Coast Sunset

While we waited for our flight, I did a domain search on Go Daddy, and guess what? Every contortion of ‘sunny side’, ‘sunny side up’, or ‘sunny side of life’ is taken or only available at auction for way more money that I’m going to invest on my Internet presence. Not wanting to give up (and not having anything else I felt like doing), I nudged my domain search toward wordplays on my last name, and ‘SundSideUp.com’ began to grow on me. On a totally impulse buy—and since GoDaddy had .com domains on sale that evening for $2.95—I purchased ‘SundSideUp” for the next ten years. So that I don’t waste the $29.50, I hereby commit to blogging on this site until at least 2022—an eternity in internet years, but maybe enough time to get good at it!

The focus? Positive, positive, positive. ‘Exploring the upside of life’, as my banner declares above. I challenge myself to emphasize the positive in whatever I include. I admit, it’s a broad focus, but one that lets me really just write about whatever I want, as long as I keep it positive. I have to ask myself, though:

Can one create a positive website that’s interesting? Can I talk about negatives while keeping it positive? (Think Carrie Bradshaw voice here.)

I don’t know if everyone else is as weary as I am of the negativity that seems to envelop every aspect of our lives, but I am sick of whining and complaining, snarky feedback, and nasty commentary and reviews masquerading as sharp and witty—as ‘edgy’ writing. Why do we find it so delicious to revel in the misery of others? And even worse, find it so irresistible to dole out the punishment ourselves, especially as faceless internet identities?

I’m writing a novel at the moment, and it’s been a long moment, off and on since the summer of 2008. For it to be good fiction, I’ll need well-placed conflict—lots of it—from beginning to end. I wrestle with it every day, writing juicy, but sometimes horrifying plot twists, and I wonder if my readers will ultimately have a positive read. In my novel and in my blog, I’ll challenge myself to keep the prose upbeat, yet funny, thought-provoking, exciting (we’ll see!), but not with unreasonably optimistic Pollyanna notions. It’ll be a timely, but tricky goal in a presidential election year, trying to maintain a positive stance when talking about both of the major candidates. Still, maybe I’m off to a good start. This blog and the website exist because of a delayed flight. It could have been such a negative.