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Okay, so I've been stuck in Los Angeles for just shy of a week, unable to go home because of air travel disruptions caused by Hurricane Sandy.

But I learned young. Life hands you lemons, you make lemonade. So in addition to everything else I did this week, I went to the movies, seeing three films that I suspect will be making a lot of noise when awards season rolls around.

The Master is a movie by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) that follows the seduction into a kind of pseudo-religious cult of a troubled Navy veteran played by Joaquin Phoenix by a charismatic leader named Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The movie is supposed to have some resemblance to the development of Scientology, but it doesn't make a big thing of it; rather than focus on the development of a controversial cult organization, it focuses much more on the interpersonal relationships, especially the mutual fascination between the two main characters.

Now, I have to tell you that the performances are extraordinary. Hoffman gives a bravura rendition of a character who kept reminding me of Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, and Phoenix gives such a taut and revealing performance of a man tortured in body and soul that you can feel his wretched pain. Amy Adams, as Dodd's wife, is a revelation - she is the really strong one in the relationship, providing the narrative and the cult the backbone it needs, and it is hard to say whether it is controlling her or she is controlling it. And, the direction is gorgeous - this is as beautiful a movie to look at as I can imagine.

The problem with The Master, I think, is that the narrative does not support the direction and the performances. I kept waiting for a stronger story to kick in, but it never did, and I was left feeling a little cheated and a little wistful for what might have been. In the end, there was no there there.

To be honest, I expected to have similar feelings about Cloud Atlas. Everything I'd seen and read suggested to me that it would be ambitious in structure and in its use of filmmaking tools, but would not have the kind of narrative that would "get" me. I was wrong ... to some extent.

Cloud Atlas takes place over hundreds of years, with six interlocking stories and actors who play a variety of characters in a wide range of circumstances. It is a hard movie to explain, except to say that it is about fate, and denying fate; about potential and loss; and about dreams and connections that go beyond lifetimes. It stars, among others, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent and Hugh Grant - all of whom are occasionally unrecognizable in one role or another. And it was written and directed by Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski (who made the Matrix movies, and Tom Tykwer, based on a highly regarded and often viewed as unfilmable book by David Mitchell.

Now, to be frank, I feel like I need to see Cloud Atlas again, just to see if I can understand more of it. (Not sure if I actually will - the movie is almost three hours long.) I'm pretty sure that it isn't good enough to support the story's pretensions. But that said, I was captivated by the movie's audaciousness, by its willing to go back and forth between stories and centuries, and by directors/writers who really wanted to do something different. I didn't love Cloud Atlas, but I liked it more than I thought I would ... and I find myself thinking about it.

The real jewel of a movie that I saw this week was a little independent film called The Sessions. No special effects, no multiple roles, no grand scale filmmaking, and a story that takes place over months, not centuries. The movie recounts the real-life story of Mark O'Brien, played in a completely unsentimental fashion by John Hawkes, an accomplished poet who, at 38, because of a childhood bout with polio, has to spend most of his time in an iron lung. While Mark has a big heart and bigger emotions, he's been denied the pleasures of physical intimacy with a woman; feeling that perhaps his "use by date" is nearing, he decides to engage a sex surrogate to help him understand this particular life experience.

It is not a decision he reaches easily. Mark is a Catholic, and he takes his religious beliefs seriously. But a priest friend, played by William H. Macy, tells him to go ahead: "in my heart," he says, "I believe God will give you a pass on this one." And he also understands that there may be limits to what he can accomplish physically, though fewer boundaries on his emotional life.

Most of the movie focuses on the sessions he has with Cheryl, the sex surrogate played with luminous bravery by Helen Hunt. One has to be up front about these scenes - they are enormously intimate, with frank language and a fair amount of nudity. But these scenes are not titillating or exploitive, or really even very graphic - ultimately, they have a kind of emotional delicacy that exposes far more about the two main characters than their bodies.

I really loved The Sessions. It won't be for everyone, and you have to be prepared for it going in. But it is so honest and captivating and even funny about love and intimacy, and so far afield from the over-the-top movies too often produced by Hollywood, that I reveled in its pleasures - a great story, and fabulous actors who make you feel and think with every move, thought and word. The Sessions, in a word, is a triumph.




I also drank some beer and wine this week - more beer, I guess, because I was near the beach and it seemed more appropriate.

Two of my favorites I enjoyed at a terrific place in Santa Monica called Father's Office; back in the seventies, when I went there during my college days, it was pretty much a biker bar. These days, it is a wonderful beer bar with a limited menu, and a chef who does no substitutions and does not even allow condiments - you get the food the way he wants to make it, and if you don't like it, go elsewhere. (I saw a few people get upset by this policy, but they were more than offset by the steady stream of folks who came in to order meals to go ... they love the food, and I guess they figure that if they bring the burgers home, they can use their own ketchup.) This kind of stuff doesn't bother me; I like a chef who feels so strongly about his food.

The beers I enjoyed were Hop Rod Rye, from California's Bear Republic Brewing Co., and the Big Eye IPA, from San Diego. They were in my beer sweet spot - I love substantive amber and red ales, but not so rich that you can't drink them on a warm day. They were perfect.



I did enjoy one particularly wonderful white wine - the 2010 Chardonnay from the Au Bon Climat Winery, located in California's Santa Maria Valley. It has real complexity without being too buttery, and was perfect with spicy fish tacos that I enjoyed at Simmzy's in Manhattan beach.




Well, that's it for this week ... and hopefully, I'll be reporting in from MNB's Global Offices in Connecticut next week. I have a 7 am flight out of LAX today and I'm thinking that this one will be the charm. I'm determined to be optimistic; I like what Winston Churchill once said on the subject:

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

Exactly.

On the other hand, I just checked and saw that the power company is saying that most of my town won't get electricity back until Monday or Tuesday, and the cable company - which provides my internet service - isn't even being that specific. So it is possible that getting MNB out on Monday will be a bit of an adventure ... and I thank you in advance for your patience.

Have a great weekend. I'll see you Monday. (See? Optimism!)

Slàinte!
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