Thursday, December 28, 2006

Dreamgirls: Tales from the Motor City

or more specifically, Tales from Motown (or more honestly, What Crossover Hath Wrought). As those of you who've been paying attention (as well as those of us who remember the Broadway show, produced by Michael "Chorus Line" Bennett), know, Dreamgirls is a thinly-disguised story about the birth of the Supremes, the rise of Diana Ross and the dumping and decline of Florence Ballard. Now, after many attempts and go-rounds, David Geffen -- also a producer of the original show, and owner and defender of the rights since then-- has brought Dreamgirls to the cinema, thanks to director Bill Condon.

Dreamgirls has been marketed as an event film; in the three-city exclusive release leading up to its release on Christmas day, the tickets were $25 and you got a souvenir program. (Remember souvenir programs? I have ones for The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins.) On the Cinerama Dome screen at the Arclight, the film reads big, with sweeping gestures, generous run-ups to each big number, and performances that call out to Oscar in a shout, not a whisper.

Which is both Dreamgirls' strength, and its weakness: there's no room for nuance in this musical. It's all show and tell; we're not left to figure anything out for ourselves. Similarly, there's no subtlety in the big performances. I'm not saying they're not good; some are excellent. But in the grand tradition of the American musical, excepting Stephen Sondheim, Dreamgirls doesn't assume its audience would like to bring something to the table, as it were. And as I do with all fairytales, I loved it (girls from the projects find success! Uplifting!) and hated it (all the men behave badly! Still, we all smile! Depressing!). But don't mind me.

On to the performances. Eddie Murphy is phenomenal as James "Thunder" Early, who is systematically deprived of his mojo by every attempt to sound whiter and whiter. When Eddie lets loose on stage, he is a dynamo; when he falls apart offstage, he is moving. Two observations: It's great that he can sing (No, "Party All the Time," which he sang in a girly falsetto, doesn't count); maybe he could be James Brown in the film that Spike Lee has agreed to direct? And, secondly, just seeing him doing well on screen makes all those damn films in which he plays forty characters with all variety of padding seem even more ludicrous. The man can act! Think twice (oops, too late!) before you take on more alimony or child support, Eddie.

Beyonce Knowles does what needs to be done to show Diana's, whoops, Deena's, journey from backup singer to expensive and beautiful object. I can't imagine anyone else being gorgeous enough to play the part, although apparently years ago Whitney Houston was talked about and perhaps she could have done it. Deena is prissy and proper, and Beyonce does that well. Anika Noni Rose hasn't gotten enough attention for her good work as Lorell, who can hold her own with James Early. And Jennifer Hudson has the oomph, the balls, and the power to play the mulish Effie--her pout is magnificent, and her singing voice (she's a belter, not a thrush) blows Deena, whoops Beyonce, away.

Jamie Foxx is fine as Curtis Taylor, the Berry Gordyesque svengali, but he doesn't connect with either of the ladies he's supposed to be devoted to. The character is mostly interested in his own snakiness, but the actor doesn't give us any sense that he might be up for caring, or even pretending that he cares.

By the end of the film, all the Dreamgirls have left is their talent and their own amour-propre; the men have all betrayed them in various ways, although the film doesn't moralize on that. But we get it. One of the original tunes for the film, "Listen," in which Beyonce finally gets to let loose, sums all that up.

So, yes, multiple thumbs up for Dreamgirls. My advice is to see it on as large a screen as possible, since the film was clearly made for that (it'll lose a lot on video).

Final shots: It was a nice touch that Loretta Devine, who created the role of Lorell on Broadway (check out that cast--Candy Darling was in it), played a singer in one scene. One wonders why Condon didn't cast Jennifer Holliday, the original Effie....perhaps JH is a bit too Effie for him. And let's not forget Florence Ballard, either, and the tragedy that crossover meant for many, many African-American artists.

P.S. I went to download a few tracks from the show...I ended up going for the original Broadway cast, not the film. Liked the orchestrations much more; they're a little less bombastic, and since the songs aren't top tier, anyway -- they're thin imitations of Motown -- away from the film the big treatment doesn't hold up for me.

R.I.P. James Brown

Yesterday in Hollywood, on the west side of Vine just north of Sunset, C and I paid our respects to James Brown in the traditional way: by stopping at the memorial on and around his Walk of Fame star.

In this second photo, the "floral tribute" (as they are called) on the right has a card signed Johnny Grant; the one on the left had no card, but the message on the ribbons fabulously reads: "Mr. James Brown/We Lost Someone/You'll Be Missed Hey!" (I think you'll agree that the "Hey!" and its concomitant lack of punctuation makes this verge on a found poem.)
Thanks to C for her photos.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas from Biffles

And how better to celebrate the merry season (if indeed you do) than with our friends (one, sadly, no longer with us) Run DMC?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Let's eat: Oyster night at Lou on Vine

Astonishingly, I haven't previously posted about Lou, which has got to be my favorite new restaurant of the last year. Lou is a wine bar, with premium snacks, that scores high on the Biffles scale all around, not least of all because of two things:
  1. The decor is design-y and chic without that self-conscious too-cool-for-school (or perhaps more accurately, I'm-too-sexy-for-you) vibe that can be absolutely oppressive in L.A.
  2. The Lou menu, from the pig candy through the rillettes, is a tribute to the products of the pig. (I come from a family where the holiday dinner options generally are roast pork OR roast pork.)

This past Wednesday, C and K and I went to Lou's first Oyster Night as a little holiday celebration, and then some. Three types of West Coast oysters were featured; we each started with a mixed half dozen. The Kumamotos were sweet and delicate, as expected; the Hama Hamas were mild and tasty; the big hulking Sunset Beach oysters were the main surprise, as they weren't briny like many large varieties but instead pleasingly flavorful.

Three different flights of whites had been assembled to accompany the oysters. C was very happy with her Zippy French flight, which was dry and minerally. K and I had the Nutty, Nervy flight; the Soave was sweetish but so dry that it didn't cloy; the Riesling was shy, with only a second sip revealing a citrus forward and spicy back that was satisfying; and I cannot report on Nutty/Nervy #3 because I didn't abscond with a menu since they seemed to be short. (What comes first, the needs of the blog, or common courtesy toward restaurateurs? A real question for Miss Manners.)

After the oyster orgy, we found it in ourselves to move on, sharing a green salad, the charcuterie plank (the rillettes and the pate, which featured festive pistachios, were fab and balanced the astringent oysters well), wrapping up with the sticky toffee pudding. None of us had ever had this English holiday staple; I wouldn't call it overwhelming delicious, as was the strawberry crumble that K and I had at Lou last summer, but on the other hand the pudding was tasty in a spicy fall kind of way.

Verdict: No need to ask. I will be back. Check the website, there will be more Oyster Nights as well as varying Monday Night suppers (I missed the cassoulet!).

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

For Your Consideration....give it a shot!

Checking the reviews of Christopher Guest's latest in his self-created mockumentary genre, For Your Consideration, one wonders why the buzz (at least what I've heard) has been so lukewarm. FYC isn't another This is Spinal Tap, but it's still yards funnier than much of what's out there, and has the usual crack repertory company that Guest uses, with special guests, including Ricky Gervais, who could find a home with this clan.

Since FYC was released a while back, I'm not going to post a full review. All I want to say is, it's hilarious. Jennifer Coolidge once again proves that you can be a Boston Brahmin and be funny, and Jane Lynch, Fred Willard, and Harry Shearer are all terrific. Catherine O'Hara is indeed marvelous as a not-terribly-successful actress whose head is turned (and then some) by Oscar nomination buzz.

Guest's script, written with Eugene Levy, is just so literate and funny. In an early scene, John Michael Higgins' out-of-touch publicist says he wants the campaign for the film-within-a-film (originally called Home for Purim) to be "orotund." Orotund? And any film that includes the phrase "It's a mitzvah" (wouldn't that be a great name for a game show?) has me laughing already.

Today's Etiquette Lesson: How to address the Poet Laureate

Robert Birnbaum interviewed incoming U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall. Hall revealed how to address him in his new position:

Robert Birnbaum: How does one address the Poet Laureate?
Donald Hall: PLOTUS. Poet Laureate of the United States.
RB: As in the acronym for the President of the United States, POTUS?
DH: Yeah.

Congrats to PLOTUS Donald Hall. Long may he, er, reign. (And thanks to The Elegant Variation for bringing attention to this important statement.)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Backstage: Please take your hand off my arm. Thanks.

Off to The Backstage (slogan on the bartender's official T-shirt: Dedicated to Pleasure) nestled alongside Sony Studios on Culver Boulevard in the eponymous city. Another dive bar that was way too clean to be a dive; however, the behavior of the male patrons made it seem very divey.

Bartenders were great and poured well. The ambiance of the room was basic rec room; we could have been in New Jersey or Ohio; the upcoming karaoke promised holiday fun. But such was not to be.

Look, I will chat with just about anybody in a bar, and I like to flirt. But I hate being hit on, full force, no preliminaries. It's just annoying, and can be demoralizing -- although such hijinks rarely get to me like that these days. When the first hitter finally went away (I am not going to repeat the dumbass things he said, although they were epically rude and stupid; at one point I was laughing hysterically at the ridiculousness of the entire situation), I thought I was free and clear. But no, another hitter zoomed up, and then another.

There's a special place in hell for the final hitter, who sat and watched and waited until C and I had had a few drinks and, thinking he'd get lucky if we were plastered, buzzed in for what I can only imagine he thought were his just deserts.

A little trip to the Comparisons are Odious Department: At The Chalet in Eagle Rock, I talked to many many men, and some women, too. All were pleasant, some were flirtatious and some pushed it -- but no one hit on me in a crass and crude way. Backstage is beyond on notice with me; it's banned. No more Biffles for you!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Let's eat: Ford's encore

C and I visited Ford's Filling Station on Saturday night. Yes, we had a reservation but there was still a wait for a table....not ten minutes into my martini, however. Notable was that we shared three appetizers and an entree.

Here's the dish: Garlic breadsticks on the table were OK, but scarily reminiscent in appearance if not taste of.....(cover your ears, young people), the Olive Garden. (Since I've been baking bread from that NY Times recipe (registration required), I've gotten all high-and-mighty about how relatively simple it is to prepare one's own excellent breadstuffs.) The Ipswich fried clams were perfect, crispy and clammy, and tasted like the North Shore of Massachusetts, if such a thing is possible (as a Woodman's fan, I'd go for Essex fried clams, but I guess that doesn't sound as evocative). Warm dish of sliced beets topped with a glob of burrata was also very satisfying, and I was so pleased that some beet greens (highly underrated!) made it into the dish, too.

The special of lamb sweetbreads did not work. Here's why: Lamb sweetbreads, as opposed to the usual mild calf sweetbreads, are rather strong. The sweetbreads were paired with sauteed fennel and chopped apples--neither assertive enough for this strongish meat. So no go on this one. For dinner we shared the beef cheeks....still good.

Wines excellent as before. I went with a light Dolcetto (after my first martini in God knows how long, good thing) and C had a fine French Chablis, nice and dry, never knowing oak or pear.

Ford's has got it going on...I'll be back.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Let's eat: BLD encore

I've had occasion to return to BLD twice in the last week. Last Wednesday, C and I met at 5 for a quick drink and snack and had the BLD charcuterie experience. I would never abandon Lou, but I have to admit, at BLD the charcuterie is primo. One orders each item individually, which is how they are priced, and all items are then assembled on a stone platter, with quince jam and toasted bread, all very civilized. We had the lomo (cured pork loin) and Fra Mani sopressata, with Epoisses and California's own Lamb Chopper for our cheese selections. All were very fine and a good assortment. The sopressata is the apotheosis of salami. Wine selection is great, too.

Yesterday I was recovering from a migraine and needed comfort food. S (who understands, as a fellow migraineuse) and I met for lunch. I ordered the Eggs Florentine, which at BLD come in a cast iron cup (cute!) with steamed broccoli rabe and red pepper underneath the eggs, and topped by hollandaise. So satisfying to dig into that cup o'goodness, not to mention the home fries (with more lomo!) and the chive biscuit. Post-migraine, I always need carbs (macaroni and cheese is a favorite) and this meal hit the spot. Bravo, BLD!

Let's eat: Bin 8945

I'd noticed Bin 8945 when trapped in traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood (it's just east of Robertson) -- when you spend that much time moving at 5 miles an hour, you tend to notice the comings and goings of restaurants. Then S. Irene went there this summer and everybody knew about it.

The menu at Bin 8945 is organized by the size of portion, smallish to largish (the large plates are full dinner portions), which makes a good case for sharing or even just for a nosh. There are 5 cheeses to choose from, and a similar list of charcuterie. The wine list is voluminous, with tabbed sections that made me wonder when the quiz was coming up.

My friend J is meticulous (which I prefer to "fussy") so we shared a cheese plate with Cabrales (very good) and two other cheeses, a gruyere and an Italian soft cheese that was so outstanding that I've completely forgotten its name. She moved on to the 8945 salad, butter lettuce, Gorgonzola, and walnuts, which she liked very much with the dressing on the side, and a roasted garnet yam, ginger butter on the side, which looked delish. I went for the small size (it wasn't small at all) of mussels in coconut milk and red chili paste with spicy sausage made on site. With them, our barkeep suggested an order of the duck fat frites....difficult to resist. The frites alone would probably make a meal; they were crisp, light, and had a ducky wisp of flavor.

Our wines were great: J had Morgon, a light French red, that suited her fine; I had a Parador tempranillo from Napa that packed rather a big round cherry punch, followed up with a Caselle from Italy's heel that went great with the mussels.

The barkeep's wine suggestions were right on, and he poured tastes with great generosity. Sitting at the bar is fun, but the stools are VERY uncomfortable -- one feels as if one's behind is sliding away from the bar, and the backs are awkward, so either one sits up straight without support or slumps. Not good, but extra points for the hooks under the bar for one's items. Also: Make a reservation. If we had, we wouldn't have been sitting at the bar.

Verdict: I'll be back. Vin et frites, here I come!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Cha Cha Lounge: trying just a little too hard

In my ongoing pilgrimage to all bars of interest east of Cahuenga, C and I visited the Cha Cha Lounge at 2375 Glendale Boulevard in Silverlake (diagonally across the street from Gingergrass) on Saturday night. Once again, we arrived just in time to snag prime seats on the far side of the bar.

The bar, an oval full-tiki concept with grass roof, is oddly pushed to the side, so that the inside stools have only a narrow pass-through between them and the wall. Odd. Meant that we made the acquaintance of all who passed, but still odd, since there's lots of room between the other side of the bar and the wall o' red vinyl booths against the opposite.

This is a BIG room, with booths, tables, two Foosball tables in the back, but no pinball (which is OK), no jukebox or DJ (not OK, we'll get to that), and annoyingly, a one-stall ladies room that meant an inevitable lineup. Tchotchkes and gewgaws hanging from the ceiling, walls, and any other surface. Tacky Christmas decor in full force. Bartenders are quick and pleasant. Crowd is mixed, agewise, to a point.

Great people watching and one observation: What's with the Jesus look? We spotted at least 5 guys who were rocking the long hair, beard, mustache combo, and not in a stylized way, but in the unmistakable Jesus configuration. For someone who's still recovering from Catholic school many years later, this is unsettling. Guys, love the hair, lose at least some of the facial sprouts!

My verdict on the Cha Cha Lounge: Good, not great. Unpretentious, but what with the decor and the selfconscious hipsters, too much of an air of trying. One wants to be in a bar with hip people, but not all people who are hip need to assume the hipster persona to get through the night, know what I mean?

And the music: There was a turntable, but nobody personning it. Music was a bartender's iPod hooked up to the sound system....would've been fine if he just put it on shuffle, but no, we had to listen to the "best" of Wings, straight through, and then a Phil Spector anthology. My brain can handle the occasional Wings song in rotation, but a whole procession of that pap? No way. I warned the other bartender that my head might explode...he apologized repeatedly and even once more when I paid up. Points for politeness but do something about the music, please.

Comparisons are odious department: The age spread and ethnicity is more varied at the Chalet, pleasantly so. Also, the Chalet is confident enough in its Chaletness not to need tchotchkes. Will I go back? Well, it's right handy to Gingergrass, so parking the car just once has its attractions...probably.

Friday, December 01, 2006

X-Ray Spex: (Self) Censorship at The New York Times?

So today's New York Times has the requisite holiday CD gift suggestions (subscription required).

I felt such joy to see an anthology of work by earlyish British punks X-Ray Spex, led by subsequent (and now, I believe, reformed) Hare Krishna Poly Styrene.

But, reading Jon Pareles' review, I found something most distressing....censorship. Pareles refers to X-Ray Spex hit single "Oh! Bondage, Up Yours" -- not a cherished sentiment, but surely not obscene -- as a "mocking hit single whose title begins “Oh! Bondage." And he leaves off the rest of the title.

I'd hate to imagine that Pareles censored himself to be polite, but it sure looks that way.

"Pale barbarian rock dude" at the Wiltern: Another triumph for the Garden State

For someone who doesn't own any Misfits albums, at least not that I can locate at this time, I sure am becoming a quasifan of New Jersey native Glenn Danzig. I guess I'm a fan more of his essence, his Glenndanzigness, than of his actual performances. For me, he just has to BE.

However, he makes his living playing music. (Gotta keep that house up.) So what a delight it was for me to read today's review by Steve Appleford in the LA Times of Danzig's concert with his current band at the Wiltern LG last night. "Pale barbarian rock dude," Appleford calls him, "stomping across the stage mucho-macho like" (maybe he's been lifting...bricks).

Bravo, Glenn! The accompanying photo was rather fetching (paleness works on stage; he's a Goth, after all) but wasn't on the website. Use your imagination.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The First Bobblehead Lady's History Lesson

This morning on Good Morning America, first lady Laura Bush welcomed the aforesaid America into the White House for Christmas. The theme is -- and I am NOT kidding --
"Deck the Halls and Welcome to All." (Is that really bland enough?) But Gawker gets an A for the day for highlighting this lovely segment in which Mrs. Bush gets Anjelica Huston, the living actress, mixed up with Angelica Van Buren, long-deceased first lady. See it on YouTube. Please also note the alarming way her head moves, like one of those lawn reindeer.

And I thought people only had this problem with American history in Hollywood. Could be a trend, let's wait six months and then when it's good and over the New York Times can announce that it exists!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Book Review: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

In The Road, Cormac McCarthy tells of a father and son who walk south, through a ruined, dead America. They are heading toward the coast. Few buildings remain. Everything is covered with ash. They are threatened, menaced, by others. They often go hungry. The only sustaining note is the father's protective love for his son.

Much is left unexplained, or half-explained, in this powerful novel. McCarthy scatters clues about what has happened in America; his real subject is the tenderness between the pair, and the humanity each is able to summon despite the horror made commonplace around them:

In a pocket of his knapsack he'd found a last half packet of cocoa and he fixed it for the boy and then poured his own cup with hot water and sat blowing at the rim.

You promised not to do that, the boy said.


You know what, Papa.

He poured the hot water back into the pan and took the boy's cup and poured some of the cocoa into his own and then handed it back.

I have to watch you all the time, the boy said.

I know.

If you break little promises you'll break big ones. That's what you said.

I know. But I wont.

McCarthy's language echoes the blasted landscape, direct and mesmerizing. He communicates fear, and cold, in a way that transmutes directly to the reader (I shivered as I read, in sunny Los Angeles). Like a latter-day Donner Party, this pair struggles through challenges previously unimaginable to the father. The son knows nothing else. But unlike the Donners, these pilgrims have no idea what they will find when they get where they are headed.

The journey of The Road is the point, a journey that McCarthy takes the reader on, step by painful step. Despite its gravity, the tale is not depressing; it is what it is, testimony to what is rare yet endures. The Road, in its plain language and stark narration, is one of the best books I have read this year.

Correction o' the day: Bialysearch update

From today's New York Times:

An article last Wednesday about Jim Leff, a founder of the Internet discussion group, misstated the number of continents on which the food writer Mimi Sheraton has searched for bialys. It is five, not two.

Yes, and the pancake-sized thangs they try to pass off as bialys in Los Angeles are unspeakable. Why search the continents? Either bialys are from NYC, or they aren't. I don't know that I'd even trust a bialy from Bialystok.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Chalet: No attitude and a great jukebox

The Saturday Eagle Rock adventure didn't end with Cafe Beaujolais, as C and I ventured just two blocks down to The Chalet (1630 Colorado).

This is the kind of bar that you wonder why you didn't know about, while at the same time you don't want anybody else to know about it (so don't tell anyone). It's like a low-key ski lodge, rock walls and comfy seats, and with a GREAT rock and roll jukebox (3 songs for $1).

We got there JUST in time, probably around 9:30, to get the last seats at the bar. The bartenders, two rocking blonde ladies, kept us happy, and the barback kept us chatting about music all night (my radar for musicians--what is this with drummers?--working spot on). We had many various chats with the rest of the patrons, who were of all ages (gotta love it!) and similarly friendly.

I did all I could to dominate the jukebox, although with the fine selections therein, one cannot go bad. Imagine Serge Gainsbourg, the Cars, the Zombies (yes!), Muse, and many eighties faves including Echo and the Bunnymen all together in one big party. My only complaint: No Ramones.

The place filled up quickly, so if you want a quiet evening, one would probably do best to hit The Chalet on a weekday. Overall a GREAT bar.

Let's eat: Cafe Beaujolais

Venturing forth into Eagle Rock on Saturday night (Hollywood on a Saturday night being too full of people who are NOT locals), C and I cruised into Cafe Beaujolais (1712 Colorado) with no reservation. Appropriately insouciant, C asked how long the wait would be; the waiter was French, as most there are, and provided the requisitely sneering "you have NO reservation?" before quickly moving a party of three (I hope he gave them free drinks) and separating two tables to seat us and the older couple who had been waiting there for a while before we breezed in.

Before I describe our meals, I ought to explain that C and I were recovering from Fake French Restaurant Syndrome. After Casino Royale last week, we somehow couldn't drag ourselves from the Grove to BLD just a few blocks away in the real world, and instead ate dinner at Morels there. The food isn't real French food, the frites were awful, the mussels were just OK, and the endive salad had no character. Only the wine was good (and thank Bacchus for that). Overall, not a great experience especially for us snobby Francophiles (see? I admit it).

So we came to CB (as I will abbreviate it) with a certain set of expectations, and indeed they were met. A traditional French menu, escargots,onion soup and whatnot? Check. Actual French waiters who have attitude, but can be badgered with bavardage to behave like near-humans? Double check.

C started with an endive salad with blue cheese and walnuts; it had the je ne sais quoi that the Morels salad lacked. My spinach soup (yes, eating on the wild side) was a puree and lovely, salted just enough in the French way. C enjoyed her halibut with mashed potatoes and something green that also looked mashed (Message to C: Write in a comment and tell me what that was). I had the special, coq au vin, which was delish -- came with a very fine polenta that was terrific.

The wine list is great, mostly French and California. The waiter informed us that my Pinot Noir was "the best wine ever." He had a thing about superlatives. When we asked him what the best dessert was, he said, "Me." Neither of us really had him in mind at the moment, and he didn't offer to provide selections from the rest of the waitstaff. He did go on to list a few other items, creme brulee, tarte tatin, mousse au chocolat, etc. We had the profiteroles, which were freshly-baked (they often aren't) and had great fudge sauce on top, marred tremendously by the spray whipped cream all over, my only complaint.

Finally, a real French restaurant to cure the Fake Syndrome!

Verdict: I'll go back. Maybe I'll even make a reservation.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Let's eat: Ford's Filling Station

Here I feel I can't do a full post since L and I, tipsy from the Redwood Bar and the unfiltered sake at the Dosa holiday party, went straight for the entrees (plus wine. it's important for good health, you know). Ford's is worth a stop. My Kobe beef cheeks (they are the cheeks on the cow's face, not the others, you scamp) were the essence of beefness, almost overwhelming since the most beef I've had in the last few months is a very occasional burger. The sauce, enhanced with truffle essence, made this a rich meal. L's (and this is yet another L, I must try and differentiate you all) fish 'n' chips was in fact fish 'n' mash since she needed mashed potatoes for the usual comfort food reasons, were an exemplar of the genre.

Menu looked great; would comment more but the link is broken on the Ford's website, and I didn't "borrow" one. I know that I could easily have made a meal from the first courses and/or the salumi and cheese selections. Two of us were seated, without a reservation, between 8:30 and 9 p.m. on a Thursday night. I think much of the hyped hysteria has died down, so now's the time to go. Waitstaff were attentive and had good senses of humor. Wine list is great and well-priced.

Verdict: I'm heading back there soon.

Casino Royale: It's a Man's, Man's, Man's (etc.) World

Here we go with another film I can't really advise you on: Either you want to see the latest entry in the Bond genre, or you don't. Some quick notes:
  • Titles, 'though animated and expensive they may be, just look tacky. Song, by Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, is awful. Bond demands a female singer. Maybe Beyonce is too busy, but what about Mariah Carey or some other songbird looking for the attention? What's Sheena Easton doing these days? Or how about (groan) Kylie Minogue?
  • It's all uphill from there, however. After a needless but entertaining prologue, the action kicks in and doesn't stop. Judi Dench hams it up as "M" while giving her character a sense of depth (plus we get an inkling that, surprise, there's a Mr. M. What does he do? My money's on his being a retired don from Cambridge or Oxford).
  • Daniel Craig nails Bond. He may be the best Bond since Sean Connery. Connery had a working-class edge to him, as if his playboy gloss was something precarious and hard-won, while his ease at killing, regardless of his license, was instinctive. Craig's got the up-from-nothing attitude. (Yes, I know Ian Fleming preferred Roger Moore, but --speaking as a writer -- we don't always know who will work best on the screen. There's almost a sterility to Moore's performances.)
  • And Craig is, to bring this down to the nitty-gritty, a major babe, compact and well-built, as Private Eye might say. Ladies and gentlemen, we get to see him pretty much in the altogether, and sweaty, too. Enjoy.
  • The Bond women (I won't call them girls, as they are all thankfully legal) in this are counter trend; Eva Green rocks some 80s eye makeup that doesn't flatter her. She's far more beautiful without it. But I rather thought the new Bond deserved more glamo(u)rous well as a better song.

The film is about 20 minutes too long; we don't need the prologue, and Bond's oasis of bliss with Eva Green's Vesper Lynd could be a little snappier, since we know this Eden can't last. Action scenes are plentiful and great. We see too little of the always-excellent Jeffrey Wright as an American compatriot. Overall, however, this is a great new installment in the franchise, and good holiday fare -- if exploding and collapsing things and major mortality rates is your distraction of choice.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction: The Authorial Voice Intrudes

What if, one day, you heard a narrator describing your every action, including the precise number of strokes, both up-and-down and across-and-back, with which you brush your teeth? And what if you were not a imaginative sort who'd like to play along--or who, like some of us occasionally, narrate our own lives and thus welcome the assistance--but were instead an auditor for the IRS?

That's the premise of Stranger Than Fiction, in which Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell, discovers that, not only is his dull life a story, but also that he has a narrator, Kay Eiffel, played by Emma Thompson. His discovery of the narrator's voice drives Crick to react, possibly for the first time in his life, and ask for help, surely for the first time. He starts, involuntarily, with the office's Human Resource counselor, played by a determined-to-hug Tom Hulce with crunchy glee. Harold then is compelled to visit the wry Linda Hunt's therapist; when he insists that he's not a candidate for medication, she sends him to a literary scholar played by Dustin Hoffman because, after all, a narrator is a literary device.

Such is the loopy but perfectly reasonable logic followed by this piquant and imaginative film. Zach Helm's script is crisp and fresh; the direction, by Marc Monster's Ball Forster, follows. The film's big revelation is that Will Ferrell can do subtle comedy; he isn't limited to running amok in his tighty whities. In fact, he can ponder the meaning of life (even the Monty Python film) with pathos and NOT lose his sense of humor. Hearing him use the word "ogled" in a sentence, when speaking to the object of his crush Maggie Gyllenhaal, playing an anarchic baker, is a delight. When he picks out a Wreckless Eric tune on her guitar, he transports himself and the audience to another plane.

Ferrell isn't the only one who does his best and clearly enjoys his role here, as well: Thompson, another actress who never lets vanity get in her way, is the strung-out author who writes and narrates Harold Crick's tale. Thompson, who has been known to pick up a pen and acquit herself quite well, positively radiates authorial despair. Hoffman's scholar is a close relative to Bernard, the existential detective he impersonated wholly in I Heart Huckabees. His quirks are many. Gyllenhaal is quirky and charming.

The only one who seems miscast is Queen Latifah, as Emma Thompson's assistant, sent by her publisher to make sure she finishes her manuscript. The Queen seems uncomfortable and never really makes much of, admittedly, not a big role. But it could have been played with character, and she stays as stiff as those pantsuits she's costumed in (tell me, would Queen Latifah button the buttons on a suit jacket? No way!).

I won't describe the plot any more. It's got a satisfying number of twists and turns, along with the terrific performances. Driving home after the film, I found myself surrounded by characters--not from any of my writing, but clearly people who figure in some narrative, somewhere, or perhaps just in their own. Stranger Than Fiction is a fun little meditation on the nature of literary reality.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Avast, ye mateys: The Redwood Bar & Grill

On downtown's Second Street, between Hill and Broadway, the Redwood Bar & Grill has stood for years as something of a canteen for the Los Angeles Times. With a recent renovation, promised as a "pirate theme," the Redwood seemed poised to enter the age of whimsy--a tragedy for a joint in which many fictional detectives (Harry Bosch?) have bent an elbow.

Such is not the case. The Redwood has dark paneling, ship's wheel chandeliers, barrel-shaped tables, furled sails hanging from the dropped ceiling, and a certain amount of decorative brass (the metal, not the cops). But there's no silly pirate gear about, and the booths are covered in canvas, too.

There's no drink menu, other than a table sign offering a few rum drinks, which made it difficult for L to find a white wine she liked (it took two tries). I went with the Craftsman 1903 Lager on tap, made in Pasadena; liked it, but would've liked to choose from a list (it was the first one the waitress mentioned--guess I'm just that easy). We looked at the bar menu; there are separate lunch and dinner menus, for which you can check the website. Our wings, deep-fried (mmmm!) and soaked in barbecue sauce, with a fresh-tasting ranch dressing for dipping, were above average. We saw quite a few burgers go out to the tables. Each had a steak knife driven through its middle like a stake in the heart of a vampire (not the pirate theme. maybe too much time spent thinking about Glenn Danzig). Next time, the burger.

Verdict: I'll go back, in fact, I'm planning to move in. If they have wireless, I'll be set.

The name's Elizabeth.....Queen Elizabeth

Check out the Queen checking out the new James Bond, Daniel Craig, in this photo from The New York Times. He is being properly respectful: Note that lowered chin. And she looks as delighted as she ever does.

Questions: Where did the Queen get that dress, which might resemble an embroidered nightie if not for the (opera length?) gloves? Is that gentleman to her left REALLY Buck Henry? And, when she attends a premiere, does the Queen stay for the entire film?

Monday, November 13, 2006

Borat: can $67 million gross (domestically) be wrong?

Those of you who know me, even only through the blog, know that I am an enthusiastic fan of sixth-grade boy humor. Talladega Nights? Loved it. Snakes on a Plane? Tolerated it well, and shouted back at the screen frequently. Wedding Crashers? Old School? South Park? Love them all. And I actually like the Three Stooges.

So my reaction to Borat (look it up if you want the full title) was a surprise. Sure, there was some funny stuff; a chicken always makes for laughs. And I like Sacha Baron Cohen, who is clearly a Smart Guy; he made a great fake Frenchperson in Talladega Nights. But there's broad ethnic satire, and then there's Borat.

My chief complaint: the film is dumb dumb instead of clever dumb. The naked fat guy wrestling with Cohen is just gross, not funny. And yes, lot's of stuff is offensive--in a very stupid way. Yes, I know that the anti-Semitic jokes are supposed to be OK because Cohen is, duh, Jewish, but I don't buy that. Plus the jokes are stupid. Yet, the audience -- a goodly number of people for a Monday matinee -- was going wild, laughing hysterically.

Which leads me to wonder: Have I in some way jumped the shark, personally, if I don't think Borat is funny? Have I reached the point at which the leading cultural phenomena no longer amuse or entice me?

Naah. Not yet. I just don't like extended, and extended, and extended jokes that rest on the discomfort of more and more and more people. So Borat shows off about how crude and stupid he is, while speaking what sounds like a fake Slavic language (his greetings are mispronounced Polish). My reaction was a big, so what? I don't feel particularly indignant about this, just baffled.

But I'd go back to see the chicken star in a movie in an instant.

H&M: Shopping review

Numerous readers have requested that I blog from time to time on my shopping adventures, so here goes:

H&M has finally opened in Los Angeles.

To those of you on the East coast, who have gotten accustomed to a) picking out H&M items on passers-by while thinking, "I know YOUR secret," and/or b) enjoying the sweet sensation when some ostensible fashion snob assumes you bought that blouse at Gucci and NOT H&M, this is NOT news. Sure, I've been augmenting my wardrobe with nuggets from the Manhattan and Boston H&Ms for I guess I can easily be found out.

But what I want to focus on is the nitty-gritty. The rest of you can worry about whether the knockoffs are accurate enough to wear to, say Beverly Hills, or whether you ought to keep them in, say, Santa Monica, where people are a little less snobby about these things. What I want to discuss are....tactics.

OK, so I went to the store the day it opened. Turned out not to be a big deal, whether due to luck or my innate hunter-gatherer shopping instincts, I don't know. The line at 3 p.m. was not too bad, stretching across the front of the store from door to door. I estimated I'd be waiting half an hour, but hadn't counted on the fact that the guards let lots of people in at the same time. Total wait: ten minutes.

Inside, there was a fair amount of pandemonium, but not so crazy that I couldn't assume Zen shopping mode and focus only on the merchandise. I immediately got a wrap dress for 9.90, opening day special--Diane von Furstenberg wouldn't be fooled, but I'll be sure and wear Etro or something else pricey the next time she and Barry pop by for tapas. It wasn't too difficult to negotiate the rest of the store. The women's clothing is at either end -- regular stuff, including the feature pieces by Viktor & Rolf, to the left as you enter, the teenier trendier stuff to the right, with the men's department in the middle. In the back of the store is a smallish children's department.

This store, compared to Pasadena, is much better stocked, bigger, and easier to negotiate. The downside is NO lingerie department, which is sad because H&M has great bra/panty combos that are glam, fit decently if not perfectly, AND cost about $20 in toto. I wondered if the V&R "boutique" might become a lingerie department at some point.

So what do I recommend at H&M? You can always, always find an inexpensive, decently fitted t-shirt in a range of colors. My experience is that they last for a few seasons, a real plus for schmattas. Likewise a cardigan, with Lurex thread or not. The jewelry is cheap and fun, although in London last fall I bought beads that fell apart immediately upon contact. Not a place to make a major investment, although it'd be difficult to do that. The pants fit in capricious ways, so not my favorite. I've found cute and funky dresses there on occasion, that no one would suspect came from H&M.

Other advice: Buy it and try it on at home. The try-on line is endless, and the return policy is a decent 30 days (contrast that with Forever 21's policy). And, please, use the cash register against the wall in the trend department. On Thursday and again on Saturday afternoon, this was the absolutely shortest line.

Can't comment on the men's department...too focused on my own needs. Next time...

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Volver: Life among the women

In Volver, Pedro Almodovar continues his ever-deeper explorations into the world of women. Women are the keepers of secrets; they are the dependable workers upon whom the family depends. They support and encourage each other, and are each others' best audiences. All this is explicit in his earlier films, but perhaps never so seriously as in Volver.

Which doesn't mean the film is a weepie without any fun. Penelope Cruz plays Raimunda, whom we meet when she and her sister Sole (Lola Duenas, underplaying skillfully) and Raimunda's adolescent daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo, the youngest of the ladies) are cleaning off the graves of their parents in a country graveyard. The wind blows continously and ominously (in these Santa Ana days, Angelinos can relate). The scene is ironic and funny, as women of all shapes and sizes, many wearing Almodovar's near-trademark polka dots--albeit in solemn black and white--hurry to defy the wind and sweep off the huge marble slabs.

A visit to their ancient Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave, a veteran of small roles in numerous Almodovar films) in their ancestral town nearby raises some questions, and when the trio return to their shabby apartments in a town near Madrid, the story continues to unfold. I won't describe any more of the plot, although some reviewers have, for fear of giving any of the secrets away; they are there for you to figure out or not, or wait to be told. But when Irene, the mother of Raimunda and Sole, appears in ghostly form as a very real Carmen Maura, mayhem of various sorts and intensity ensues.

What I want to comment on are a few notable aspects of Volver:
  • Penelope Cruz is, as advertised, notable in this film. What I saw was that, for the first time--and despite other decent performances--she is allowing herself to play a woman, not a girl. Raimunda is beautiful, but she doesn't flirt; of course, she dresses to enhance her cleavage, but she has deeper concerns in mind.
  • I nearly subtitled this review "Women moving heavy objects," because they do, alone and together, in this film. This is a very real detail that Almodovar depicts in all its tiresome detail. (A friend and I moved her dining room table last summer, up and down stairs and in and out of a truck. Not a pretty sight.)
  • Carmen Maura, reconciled with Almodovar, is amazing. In our first sight of her, she has long gray hair and a complexion made up to look decrepit; after color and a haircut from her daughter Sole, she looks much younger. I will admit that I panicked when I first saw Maura because she looked so OLD--until I reasoned that Women on the Verge, when I first saw her, was made more than 20 years ago. Maura is now 61, and looks it; she hasn't had work done, more power to her, nor has she stopped working. Here, she is so much the master of every scene she is in, her mischievous grin and goggle eyes detracting not a bit from the serious matters she has returned to resolve.
  • There's a lot of food in this film. When Penelope Cruz chops red peppers, they seem dewier and sexier than any red peppers that, say, I have every chopped.

All in all, Volver is a serious but not heavyhearted journey ever deeper into the world of Pedro Almodovar, an excursion that might take a tissue or two, but one that isn't without its quirky amusements.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Not so fast with those bricks...

Well, I guess it was too good to be true. Or, if not good, then too much of a sign of progress at the Glenn Danzig Haunted House. Remember the bricks I saw the guys loading off about a week and a half ago? While the guys and their pickup may have taken a few bricks, the big neatish pile is still in Glenn Danzig's front yard.

Why, oh why? Let's speculate.

1. Glenn still intends to build a patio one of these days.
2. Yes, the bricks will be ballast, but the ship hasn't been built yet. It's coming in. Soon.
3. If the bricks were gone, he'd miss them.
4. Too much change at one time is more than Glenn can handle.

Personally, I vote for #4. Ya know, you come from Jersey, you get used to things a certain way, even here in Sunny California, and then people (and who the hell are they?) want you to move your bricks. Sheesh!

Don't worry, Glenn. Los Feliz accepts you, your fine haunted house (the overgrowth is doing really well!) AND your bricks, wherever you choose to keep them.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Glenn Danzig moves his bricks

On Franklin Avenue in Los Feliz, in between Vermont and Hillhurst, on the south side of the street, stands the Haunted House of Glenn Danzig. (I can't take credit for the name; for that, see Losanjealous.) The house isn't quite the Munsters mansion, but it's close in its decrepitude; it's totally grown over with vines and flowering plants, and encircled by a cast iron fence with spikes.

Sounds gothic and scary, although usually the Jaguar of Lodi, New Jersey native Glenn Danzig is parked outside, and in fact, the flowering plants are attractive. Not everybody has to have a lawn, and just growing up in New Jersey, where lawns are an obsession, is reason enough to let your house go. For me, anyway.

In the five years I've lived in Los Feliz, there has been a large pile of bricks on the dead grass in Danzig's front lawn. The first time I saw them, I thought, ooh, a patio. But the stack stayed there, not moving, not being built into anything.

Suddenly, things are different. Late last week I was moseying by, heading to Alcove for afternoon snacks, when what did I see but Glenn Danzig himself, all pasty-faced and in black, directing two guys with a mini pickup who were....loading the bricks into the back of their truck. I did NOT call out, "way to go, Glenn," or even, "Garden State, represent!" but slithered quietly by.

I figure I have to go back this week and see if the bricks are gone. Maybe he just had them moved around the yard.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Marie Antoinette: What it feels like for a girl

Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola's third feature, is like a cross between The Virgin Suicides, her first film, and a music video. There's one thing she does really well, which is understand and depict certain critical moments in the life of an adolescent girl: the moment when she realizes her power, and the subsquent moments when she learns, over and over, the limitations of that power, how much in her life is really out of her hands.

It wasn't Marie Antoinette's fault that her husband, Louis XVI, didn't consummate their marriage for seven years--but she is made to suffer for it. Kirsten's Dunst's queen is a kicky young Austrian who runs up against grim reality at the court of Versailles, trapped in arcane and seemingly purposeless rituals in an airless society in which every word spoken and not spoken counts. She copes with the help of sweets, clothes, and a Swedish lover; she accustoms herself to French customs; she playacts life as a well-off shepherdess in the Petit Trianon. The court and the French people blame her for the excesses of the monarchy.

Of course they do, because she's an outsider. The outside is always blamed, and in Sofia Coppola's world, the adolescent or postadolescent female is always the outsider. Marie joins those doomed sisters in The Virgin Suicides and Scarlett Johansson's character in Lost in Translation as women who feel too much and can't or won't do enough to save themselves.

Feeling is something Coppola transmits successfully on the screen. Her visuals are all pastel confectionery, with the help of Laduree and Manolo Blahnik, and do most of the storytelling, along with period music and 80s hits, from bands like The Cure and Gang of Four, as well as a more recent cut from The Strokes. Oddly, the music doesn't jar; although many of the visuals approximate historical accuracy, it's clear from the beginning that what we are seeing is stylized, a director's vision, and it's not difficult to embrace that.

What the film is, is too long. The parties with which Marie amuses herself go on just too long on the screen. She can gamble all night, but we get numb watching her. While the story is told with great feeling, there is little depth--more surface emotion and not much reflection on what it all means, even on the small scale. Marie Antoinette is not for everyone, but if you're willing to jump into the cotton candy, it's a fun two hours that certainly left me intrigued as to what Sofia Coppola will take on next.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Prestige: Hey, it's magic!

The Prestige concerns an all-encompassing fierce competition between magicians—Alfred Borden, played by Christian Bale, and Rupert Angier, played by the ubiquitous Hugh Jackman—in late nineteenth-century London. Directed by Christopher Nolan, from a story concocted by Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan, based on a novel by Christopher Priest, The Prestige has the viewer in its grasp from its beginning through to the end of its two hours plus, leaving one breathless and perhaps just a few steps behind the secrets within secrets within secrets.

As is of course not surprising for a film about magicians. Bale, one of Nolan’s favored actors, is brooding and dark, playing a working-class striver. Jackman plays a toff with great ease, who resists performing, until he can’t resist trying to best Bale at his own game. Caught up in their rivalry, we follow, with wonder and amazement, but no real emotional involvement; this is not a film that inspires catharsis.

The story is crosscut between and among the distant past, the more recent past, and the present, but is not difficult to follow thanks to Nolan’s assured storytelling skills. Bale and Jackman do well by their characters, aided and abetted by Michael Caine as an ingenieur (he builds magic tricks) who knows more than anyone else how the story will turn out, and another memorable, quirky performance by David Bowie as electric genius Nikola Tesla (what has happened to David Lynch’s Tesla film?), who figures in the plot, as well. The scenes at Tesla’s hideaway laboratory in Colorado Springs are beautiful to watch; the echoes of his lifelong and real-life rivalry with Thomas Edison echo the plot nicely.

The women associated with these men live lives that are far less magical, including Piper Perabo and Rebecca Hall, both overwhelmed by poetic curls; the latter, especially, emotes all over the place but doesn’t get much from her spouse Bale, which is the point. The also-ubiquitous Scarlett Johansson fares better as a magician’s assistant who functions in the story. This time around, coming off of her Black Dahlia role in tight sweaters, Johansson is perennially costumed in fetching outfits that appear to be one size too small, especially on top. (Something for everyone, I guess; there is also the near-obligatory shot of Jackman, shirtless and hirsute.)

I won’t go into specifics of the rivalry, because that unraveling is one of the principal delights of the film, which I recommend highly.

One comment about accents: The Prestige is set in London, so one would expect a range of upper- and lower-class and perhaps even regional accents. Johansson works hard to maintain her accent, and of course Michael Caine doesn’t have to. But Jackman, who grew up in Sydney and whose parents are English, sounds completely American at this point, and Bale, who is Welsh and English, sounds as if he’s swimming somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. This all-over-the-place isn’t as distracting as it sounds, but it did lead me to wonder to what extent the director ever addressed the issue of how he wanted his cast to sound.

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. I'm working on it.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Do you even KNOW what rock and roll is?

In this SNL video, courtesy of YouTube (soon to be GoogTube?), Lou Reed (Fred Armisen) and Patti Smith (Amy Poehler), remind you that they are much cooler than you could ever be.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Whom does The Queen love?

The Queen, directed by Stephen Frears, purports to show us a crisis in the British monarchy when Princess Diana died in a car accident in Paris in 1997. The crisis is not, however, with the monarchy, but with the monarch, Queen Elizabeth, played with great depth of feeling by Helen Mirren. Diana, to the Queen, is an ex-daughter-in-law; the mother of the heir to the throne, to be sure, but unmissed as an individual personality. The Queen proceeds in the wake of Diana's death as if the personal Diana that she knew is the only one that matters. Her miscalculation leads her to discover that, horror of horrors, she is out of touch with her subjects, and she therefore must change. She listens to the advice of the new Labor Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and commemorates the public face of the "people's princess." Crisis averted.

It may seem odd to note that Mirren plays the role feelingly, but it is not, because the Queen's feelings are at the heart of this very clever, very entertaining film. For whom does the Queen love but her people? It's clear from the outset that her marriage is now a ceremonial matter; James Cromwell adroitly captures Prince Philip's impatience and distance from actual matters of state, although it's always been my impression that Philip is even more of a boor than Cromwell plays him. The Queen's son and heir, Charles, has the temerity to presume that he may take The Queen's Flight to Paris to retrieve the body of his ex-wife. Alex Jennings, although given often to a Bertie Woosterish grimace, demonstrates Charles as a man who is essentially soft of heart.

But the Queen is not. The only one who sees her way in things is "Mummy," as she calls The Queen Mother. Mummy counsels that the stiff upper lip is best. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is a woman who will do anything to keep the love she needs. She returns to London from Balmoral (lovely Scottish scenery in those scenes) and, amazingly, gets out of the car in front of Buckingham Palace to read the tributes to Diana and greet the crowd. This is just not done, as they say, but do it she does, and regains the admiration of her subjects -- which is what she wants.

Tony Blair, a perky Michael Sheen, presumes that the Queen listened to him because she thought highly of his advice. Not really. It was the advice she needed, and for it she owes him nothing. Her power, which Mirren acts subtly and convincingly, is derived from God, hence the divine right of kings. Yes, in this day it may sound a bit daft, but it doesn't matter if you or I believe in it. Elizabeth does, as does Mummy, and this is the reason for her lifelong dedication, meaning in this context that she has given her life to her people until she dies, not that she'll do a nice job and retire to Scotland someday.

An especially moving scene takes place in Scotland when the Queen, driving like a dynamo through a river, hits a rock and disables her Land Rover (interesting and not surprising that she can tell the gamekeeper she phones exactly which part is broken). She fumes for a minute, then relaxes and appreciates the beauty of the natural landscape around her. Tears fall -- probably not for Diana, perhaps for the frustration and loneliness of her role, which is the same as her life. A beautiful stag appears, one that Prince Philip has talked of bagging, and the Queen is transfixed by the handsomeness of the creature. When the stag next appears, he galvanizes the Queen into action. The scenes and the metaphor are beautifully done.

The pomp and ceremony of British royalty are interestingly rendered, as is the immediate post-Diana climate. There is rather too much television news footage to provide context and mood. Overall, however, this is a fine film, and one for which Helen Mirren may indeed receive an Academy Award nomination. Although one does not expect the stiff upper lip to win, as Best Actress is usually rather more given to an hysterical role.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Let's eat: 25 degrees

25 degrees (the name refers to the difference in internal temperature between a rare and well-done beef -- go figure) is a burger bar in the revived hip and happening Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. The menu is quite simple: sirloin or turkey burger or hot dog (no word on its origins) with gourmet add-ons, including a vast range of cheeses like Cowgirl Creamery's Red Hawk. There are a few burgers already composed, but by and large one can put it together oneself, a la Santa Monica's The Counter. Fries and onion rings are ordered separately, and are served in quart-sized Chinese takeout boxes. There are some salads, a grilled cheese sandwich served with tomato soup, and milkshakes that looked, well, properly milkshakey. (Someone can do a comparison with the super shakes at Lucky Devils, a few blocks east, but that person is not me.)

My burger was a little closer to rare than medium rare, but I'm not complaining. I added Neal's Yard cheddar, which was crumbled on top but had not melted -- I like my cheeseburger with melted cheese, thanks. A Russian-dressing type sauce, which was fine, was included. The buns are big, glazed brioche-type items, and the burgers come wrapped in what I can only think of as burger paper, as they do at In 'n' Out. The beef had good flavor, although I still want to go back to BLD to do a comparison study. The fries are thin, and parsley-dusted; they're good but not exceptional.

C ordered the iceberg wedge salad with yellow tomatoes, creamy dressing, Point Reyes blue cheese, red onion, and Nueske bacon. Her plate was nicely composed, and had two (count 'em!) wedges of the berg -- half a head of lettuce. Although she enjoyed the salad, the Wedge (as she called it) was not as crisp as it usually is -- and, frankly, if iceberg isn't crisp, what is it?

Wine list was appealing, to the point that C wondered, what with all the fine cheeses on the add-on list, would they offer a cheese platter? Would be a quite pleasant way to while away some time there. The decor is goth coffee shop -- deep red half round sized booths, dark mirror tiles on the wall. There are not so many booths, but there's a long counter.

Verdict: I'll go back. Gotta try the turkey burger and the onion rings.

Location: 7000 Hollywood Blvd, inside the Roosevelt Hotel. Valet parking in the back for $ , park on the street (good luck) for only an hour, or--as I did--park in Hollywood and Highland and hoof it (validation if you spend any $$ there and it'll cost you $2. you can always get a cream puff at Beard Papa for dessert).

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Jon Stewart on September 28

Of course, it makes sense that Jon Stewart would interview former Governor of New Jersey Jim McGreevey, given McG's book and the previous closet-induced kerfuffle. But did anyone besides me notice that McG is the third former Governor of the Garden State that Stewart has interviewed? He had Tom Kean on a while back (Stewart confessed that he worked in the State House in Trenton during Kean's administration, when--full disclosure--I worked for a major state cultural institution, and thus had truck with the Governor's office), and Christine Todd Whitman, as well (best moment was when he said to Whitman: your successor [McG] resigned under somewhat complicated there something you'd like to confess to us?).

New Jersey is a prime source of entertaining political figures...why not more entertainment from the Garden State? Ugly Betty is set in Queens, as was, famously, All in the Family and various other shows. You could, for example, set a sitcom in Hoboken in the 1970s and call it My Building's on Fire. Or bring back the state tourism slogan from the Kean administration, when the patrician-sounding, r-dropping Governor intoned on endless TV commercials, "New Chuhsey and you--Puhfect togethuh."

Ugly Betty

Biffles, as is evident, is a big fan of the bijou. I've also confessed to an inordinate attachment to the entire Law & Order franchise, as well as to the original version (only; I'm with William Petersen on this one) of CSI. I watch sitcoms but not consistently.

On the other hand, Ugly Betty might just keep my attention. America Ferrara, from Real Women Have Curves, is a pleasure to watch as she struggles to work as an assistant at Mode Magazine, seemingly the only non-airbrushed woman there. She's a gawky nerd, but she has reserves of savvy in a crisis, and she may seem like a doormat, but she's on the verge of discovering her own power. The promos for this show made her seem like a geek freak, but she's not; Betty's experiences on her first job aren't so far off from mine--and I'd guess, any woman's. (If I had a dollar for every actionable remark that has ever been made to me....)

About that fashion sense: In the first episode, Betty is befriended by the few normal sized (and I don't mean fat) women on the staff. The keeper of the closet, where the fashions are amassed for photo shoots, etc., is Betty's new pal--how long will it take until she finds Betty some treats from that closet?

Brava to Salma Hayek, the executive producer of Ugly Betty, for bringing an American version of a Colombian telenovela to the smallish screen. And more points to Salma for appearing in the telenovela to which the TV at Betty's house in Queens always seems to be tuned. It's been a long time since I laughed out loud to a sitcom that wasn't a Seinfeld rerun. Pathetic, I know.

Weird moment at IKEA

Yesterday I slogged over to IKEAon a quest for shelf extensions to my bookshelves. No more silver; I'd have to buy white or beech shelves to be added on top. Though I need the extra book space, I don't think I could live with how this would look.

Anyhoo, while I was fruitlessly searching for more of the black and white salt and pepper mills that look like bowling pins (genius! except that they're out of stock in Burbank), the perky sound system piped up with "I Touch Myself" by one-hit wonders The Divinyls.

Is this really what you want to hear while shopping for oddly-shaped Scandinavian-designed items? I dance to the song all the time at S Factor, but in IKEA?

A woman also perusing the condiment-container shelves cracked to her adult daughter, "I always hear this song when I'm in here." Hmmmm.....

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Jet Li's Fearless...starring Jet Li

This is Jet Li's final martial arts picture -- he will continue as an actor -- so seems to me that he can call the film, directed by Ronny Yu, anything he wants to call it. Fearless is a fit ending to this phase of Li's career, since it's essential a biopic of Master Huo Yuan Jia, a wushu master who founded the still-extant Jin Wu Sports Federation, the significance of which was to establish martial arts competitions as displays of skill, rather than battles to the death.

In Fearless, Huo Yuan Jia learns the hard way, growing up as a hothead who will leap into battle with an opponent at the slightest slight. His hubris brings tragedy (and shame) on his family, and his story is subsequently one of initiation into what constitutes true heroism. The historical context is made clear: in a China pockmarked with foreign concessions, there is little national pride, another achievement of the Federation.

This is not the easiest film to sell to the unconverted, although it would be an excellent place to start, for those who are eager to dive in. Although it does have touching character development, plot, and historical context, the wushu competitions are the recurring high points. But there are tender moments and subtle humor, as well. As a child, Huo Yuan Jia's friend Nong Jinsun does his calligraphy homework for him; when we see Huo Yuan Jia's calligraphed signature, the strokes are broad and artless. He's a fighter, not a writer, is probably what he'd say, but we are shown that in a low-key way, not told.

The film ends with a transcendent scene in which Jet Li practices his wushu moves, dressed in white, against a clear night sky. Although the scene figures in the story, it is also a fitting coda to the enduring career of a great martial arts star.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

DVD Cinema: Le Cercle Rouge

My love affair with Jean-Pierre Melville continues. Le Cercle Rouge is his penultimate film, originally released in 1970; although the original 140-minute version, with subtitles, wasn't shown in the U.S. until a re-release in 2003.

The plot, convoluted in description but not so on the screen, concerns two men, the just-released from prison Corey, played by Alain Delon at his coolest, and the escaped prisoner Vogel, played by Gian Maria Volonte, volatile and loyal. Both are men of honor; Vogel, and consequently Corey, are pursued by the detective Mattei, played by Bourvil, another man of honor. Corey and Vogel resolve to pull off a big jewelry heist (echoes of Bob le Flambeur and his one last job), and they involve Jansen, a failed cop with a serious drinking problem, played by Yves Montand.

Melville's films are mesmerizing to watch, in part, because the characters who inhabit his world are so deliberate and focused. In Le Cercle Rouge, no man speaks any more words than he has to; there is no small talk because these men have no small concerns. Staying alive, with task accomplishment a close second, occupies each one of them.

The color cinematography is gorgeous. Deep colors predominate: the saturated green of a field in the mist, across which Vogel escapes; and the hallucinatory blue and green striped wallpaper of the bedroom in which Jansen has literal hallucinations (this is an incredible scene, with real bright green lizards and other beasties). The caper, pulled off in the early-morning light of the Place Vendome, is suspenseful and astonishingly silent (the men have nothing to say to each other; they know what to do).

All men are guilty, announces the police inspector general to Mattei: tous les hommes sont coupables. But, although his bleak view of the world shadows the film, it doesn't keep each man from upholding his honor (a long-held French ideal, ruptured by all that happened in World War II) as best he can. And each of the men, from Mattei, who loves his three cats and feeds them gently each night, to Corey, who has no fear of robbing a crime boss who stole Corey's girlfriend while he was in prison, has a humanity that endears him to us (all except for the inspector general, who seems no longer human).

As in Le Samourai, Melville uses a made-up quote from the Buddha to begin his film, something about men meeting in a red circle (it even sound fake). What is not fake is the conviction each character in this film has that he must live wholly in the moment, that he must uphold the honor of his chosen profession, be it policeman or thief, and that the world in which he does this will neither help nor hurt him--it will remain indifferent. Le Cercle Rouge is another completely absorbing and rewarding Melville film.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Black Dahlia: all dressed up and nowhere to go

Given that the Black Dahlia case is one of L.A.'s most notorious unsolved murders, you'd think that a director with as sinister an imagination as Brian DePalma could make an interesting and suspenseful film from the material.

And you'd be wrong. The Black Dahlia is like someone with a great wardrobe who can't coordinate or accessorize. The production values are high; some performances are good, and even with those that are so-so, the actors look good; but overall the film is dismal.

I don't want to go into too much detail, for those of you who just have to see things for yourselves, or for those who see it for the one quick shot of Josh Hartnett's cute butt, but (haha) I'll mention a few items to try and discourage you.
  • The Dahlia doesn't even come into the picture for half an hour. Instead we spend way too much time establishing the relationship between Hartnett's Bucky Bleichert and Aaron Eckhart's Lee Blanchard. Then we get an overhead visual of Elizabeth Short's body, a woman runs off screaming, and we never see where she runs to -- we have to endure several minutes more of what BleichBlanch are up to around the corner (relevant to the overall plot, but not to the Dahlia) before we finally go to the primary crime scene.
  • So the Dahlia seems almost beside the point. We find out who did it, and why, and where in a next-to-final scene that is completely over the top. But it's too little, too late.
  • As other reviewers have commented, Fiona Shaw--who is a great actress--seems to be in another movie, maybe a remake of Rebecca as Mrs. Danvers.
  • As another reviewer has commented, and I don't remember who (although I'd gladly take credit for this one), Scarlett Johannsen plays a sweater. Much as I like her in some things, here she's just miscast.
  • Josh Hartnett seems to have one expression, an agonized scrunch of the face. Aaron Eckhart has a few, but all are smirk-based.
  • Hilary Swank is pretty okay, but given the general mess of this film, her performance comes off as better than it really is. It's just that all around her, not much else is going on...
  • One of the only amusing scenes is one in which Bleichert questions an extra in full Egyptian dress. She's played by Rose McGowan, who is sassy and snappy and to the point, everything this film is not. I was sorry she wasn't involved with the crime; at least she would have been amusing company.
  • There are lots of little continuity problems; one especially bothered me. The Scarlett character, Kay Lake, wears red red lipstick; every time she went to kiss someone, the lipstick seemed to magically disappear from her lips in the clinch shot. Is Josh allergic to Cherries in the Snow?
  • Note to Brian DePalma: Atmosphere is great, but it's no substitute for decisive storytelling . I think you could have made a better movie.

So see The Black Dahlia at your own risk. Or don't.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

DVD Cinema: Nathalie

My march through French film, abetted by Netflix, took me this weekend to Nathalie, a 2003 film directed by Anne Fontaine. Hmm, I thought, French woman director, could be interesting. Not exactly, or rather, although I watched Nathalie with interest, the film wasn't all that compelling.

To explain: Fanny Ardant plays Catherine, the longtime wife of Bernard, played by (yes!!!) Gerard Depardieu, whom she suspects of cheating on her. Catherine hires a young prostitute from a high-end private club to seduce her husband; she then meets with the young woman, whom she calls Nathalie, to listen in detail to what Nathalie has done with Bernard, where and when. Kind of like Scheherazade, but not.

Nathalie is played by the luscious Emanuelle Beart, here in full slut makeup: red red lips and kohl-rimmed eyes. She's just one or two steps away from resembling a raccoon. Fanny Ardant looks long-suffering -- valiant, brave, crestfallen-- but there's no range of emotion in her acting or the character she's portraying. Why is Catherine setting Bernard up? I came up with several hypotheses (titillation and/or revenge being the primary ones) but it became clear that neither applied, or if they did it was all highly conceptual and above ma tete.

Fanny Ardant has little to do. She's so damn respectable--her character is a gynecologist, which might have offered opportunities for metaphor, non?--that she began to annoy me. Poor Depardieu is the suspected adulterer and has even less fire in his eyes than does Ardant. Beart is slinkily enthusiastic in her role, but her character is the only one who's having a good time--at whose expense, we eventually discover. There's a red theme going on: the club where Nathalie works is all red upholstery and walls, her lipstick is red, and from time to time Catherine wears a red sweater (her clothes are understated but lovely). One might suspect that all this red is leading somewhere (hidden desires? ladyparts?) but it doesn't.

Also, Catherine/Fanny makes so much of her suspicions that Bernard/Gerard is cheating that I was thrown off. I thought the French were cool about adultery, especially since Bernard tells Catherine that he doesn't intend to leave her and he loves her. So what gives? I wanted to interrupt and ask. Before I wrote this post, I checked some of the French reviews of Nathalie, since I figured that maybe something was lost in translation, but their response was pretty much the same: Quoi?

Demicelebrity note: Catherine picks up a cater waiter at a reception and spends the night at his place; the waiter, listed in the credits so gracefully as "l'homme d'un soir" is played by Ari Paffgen, Nico's son with Alain Delon (and not acknowledged as such by Delon). See the documentary Nico Icon for more about Ari's difficult, to say the least, upbringing.

True confessions: Part of what attracted me to the film was the cover photo of Beart clinging to a pole; the copy calls her a stripper. Wow, I thought, French pole tricks. Foreign exchange! Such is not the case. Beart drapes herself around a pole at one point, but her tricks are the other kind (no, not the Silly Rabbit, either). Unless in France all strippers work as prostitutes, she isn't a stripper. I'll just have to keep getting my exotic ideas from the films of Pedro Almodovar.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Blogs for Writers

Occurs to me on a Friday afternoon, when one so easily, so seamlessly, can spend time goofing off on the internets, that I ought to share some of my favorite writing/publishing-related blogs. There's good info, as well as entertainment, to be had on each of these sites.
  • Miss Snark, one of my Blogspot neighbors, is a literary agent who blogs about the publishing process, and rules on matters of etiquette, especially for the unpublished, as well as on grammar and punctuation. In short, Miss Snark is a Miss Manners for litterateurs and litterateuses. She may scare the bejesus out of you, but you will always know where she stands in her stilettos.
  • The Elegant Variation is Mark Sarvas' blog about all things literary, especially new fiction. Based in Los Angeles--the few but high-quality comments on the August 29 reading by latest literary hottie Marisha Pessl are well worth reading--the blog is not overly L.A.-centric. A recent guest blogger was Martha Southgate, who teaches at Brooklyn College, on the Other Coast.
  • Emdashes is wholly New Yorker-centric, for moments when one wants to read the amusing Q&A with the New Yorker's librarians, or to ponder issues raised in the magazine. Emily Gordon is a smart and generous blogger; how I feel about The New Yorker depends on the day and the issue.

That's all for now. More treats in the future.

It's all over but the mozzarella

This seems to be my season for demystification. After the discovery that Robert Plant, a.k.a. the Golden God, is a regular bloke at least most of the time these days, another of my crushes has been demolished with an in-person sighting.

Last night when J and I were standing outside Dominick's on Beverly waiting for our cars, I realized that standing ahead of us in the line was star chef Mario Batali. "Why, Mario," I might have said, "I was just speaking fondly of your dad's salumi." But no, I was dumbstruck, as I have had a crush on Mario since the days of "Molto Mario."

Except that just like my previous illusion perdu, this one was a bit of a disappointment. Everyone knows Mario is largish in volume....I'd assumed he was tall, as well. Well, he's not diminutive, but he's not the larger-than-life person I'd imagined. He is, to quote They Might Be Giants, actual size. Shorts, clogs, and all.

Which scuttled my crush. My relationship with Mario has now entered the platonic phase. All the better to clear the decks, I suppose, so that I may better enjoy Mozza, his forthcoming venture with Nancy Silverton, whenever it opens.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Best album title

of the year so far is the new (New Jersey's own) Yo La Tengo album, released Tuesday:
I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

Favorite album title from 2004 is from Jim White:
Drill a Hole in that Substrate and Tell Me What You See

One might deduce that I like full-sentence album titles that make definitive statements. I'll have to think about that...

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Let's eat: Barney Greengrass (and some thoughts about California produce)

On the top floor of Barney's in Beverly Hills sits the only branch of Barney Greengrass, New York's monument to smoked fish, a.k.a. "The Sturgeon King." Of course, as we are in Beverly Hills, the restaurant would be unrecognizable to any habitue of the Upper West Side mothership, which is a typical deli, unglamorous, clean (but don't look too close), and noisy -- more like a crowded agora, patrons coming and going, waiting for deli orders and sitting to nosh, than ritzy cafe. The B.H. menu, too, is gentrified. No tongue omelet (also known as a heart attack on a plate) for this crowd.

Nothwithstanding the sophistication of this west coast residence of The Sturgeon King, I adore it, because I love their sable. Sable is smoked black cod (yes, the fish that Nobu Matsuhisa treats with miso and offers as a delicacy) and it is silken, with a delicate thrilling taste.

So when C and I lunched yesterday, of course I ordered the sable. As an appetizer, sable costs 50 cents less than the sable sandwich, or $14. This time around, the 4 to 5 slices of fish seemed a little sparse. Seems to me one used to get more fish on the Appetizer, but then again it's an Appetizer. The platter adds several dollars to the tab, along with unneccessary items like cole slaw. With the perfect smoked fish, who needs cole slaw? I need only champagne (West Coast advantage: a liquor license) or perhaps a white wine...yesterday it was a Pinot Gris from Fess Parker called Epiphany. I'm not too fond of winemakers giving their wines intellectually cute names (e.g. the Conundrum juggernaut), but God knows I could use an epiphany.

My sable was perfect. The onion bagel was adequate. C's smoked salmon salad had excellent fish and included other tasty items (avocado, fresh corn kernels) that wouldn't know from smoked salmon in New York, but welcome to L.A., Mr. Nova.

Our slight disappointment was the lack of flying crockery. Thursday's brawl at Barney Greengrass, well documented by Defamer, wasn't repeated. Oh, and there was the dessert, which brings me to the reflective portion of this post.

We ordered Peach Cobbler, to share. There was rather too much of the cobbler itself on top, but that was okay. The fruit inside was another story altogether. "Are these peaches...canned?" C whispered. And indeed they were. At a time of year when fresh California peaches are everywhere, The Sturgeon King opened a can.

As C said, we should have ordered the cheesecake. For truly, why would the King care about fresh fruit? However, if you're going to serve a fruit dessert for $7.50 in a city where there is major access to fresh produce, I expect fresh fruit, not something from a can.

I feel so fortunate to live in California when I go to the Farmers Market. Not just two varieties of avocado, but many; strawberries in April, when people on my native East Coast can't even yet plant their radishes. Fresh greens year-round. While native Californians may take it for granted, the availability of fresh produce is not to be underappreciated. Esteem those fruits and vegetables! And, damnit, use them in your cobblers or don't offer cobbler!

Thus ends today's sermon. Please rise for a chorus of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine."

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Let's eat: Tiara Cafe

Tiara Cafe, the most recent project from Fred "62" Eric, has something for everyone: for me, stylish interior and salad/sandwich menu that isn't run of the mill; for L, today's lunch companion, pastry.

L is the kind of person who reads the dessert menu before she decides on an entree...and bases her selection on how much room she needs to leave for dessert. She is not the only person I know who does this. So far as I know, none of them are yet seeking professional help.

So L ordered a "Fresh'wich": grilled shrimp, apple, papaya, and greens wrapped in rice paper (says the menu, although the waiter mentioned soy. Hmm.) Notwithstanding the questionable use of an apostrophe, L was happy with her choice, which came with a nuoc mam based dipping sauce, a very green sauce, perhaps full of cilantro.

While reserving the right to order dessert, I don't hold back on the main course. Oh no. I had what essentially aimed to be a Cuban sandwich, or media noche, made with duck, which the menu bafflingly describes as "Press'wich with smoked and roasted duck media noche" -- oh no, there's that apostrophe again. But calling it a whatever-wich AND a media noche, is rather like calling them "The La Brea Tar Pits", n'est-ce pas?

OK, enough semantics: How was the damn sandwich? Great: the "smoked" duck is better known as duck pastrami, and the roast duck was tasty, as well; the cheese was Monterey Jack, which melts well. One quibble: the menu mentioned "jalapeno butter pickles," which would have made this a proper Cuban sandwich -- not quite proper, but in the neighborhood. "Press'wich" lacked pickles! Somehow I managed to consume all of this largish and, to be honest, rather caloric sandwich.

My iced tea came with a glass, lemon, and a full wine bottle of tea, a nice touch for someone like me who likes to refill her glass when she feels like it, thank you very much. Likewise, my water-swilling companion got her own bottle of the local product, straight from the tap.

And all at once, time for dessert. L ordered the berry cobbler, which comes a la mode, and BARELY offered to share with me. She was obviously planning on hosing it all down herself. So I got her. I ordered my own cobbler. For several minutes after dessert arrived, the table was silent, the only sound the scrape of our spoons on the ceramic plates. All was well.

Tiara Cafe's motto is "Eat healthier more often and diet less." Well, yes, but there's also a burger on the menu, and fries as well (those are for the next visit). It's a good fresh menu, including prepared salads, take-out, and delivery. Tiara Cafe is in the New Mart Building (it's labeled as such; even I, a total spazz downtown, found it) on Ninth Street between Main and Los Angeles. Street parking or find a lot.

Verdict: I plan to go back for the burger and who knows what else; L is clearly anticipating a long-term relationship with the dessert menu. And I am available to discuss punctuation marks with Fred Eric whenever he has time.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Those darn snakes...

Kudos to my friend C -- not her real name -- who agreed to accompany me to see Snakes on a Plane yesterday. We'd each seen everything else that we agreed was of value, and what better way to wind up the summer than with a scary film of questionable quality?

It's inevitable that the buildup would be more fun to savor than the film itself. Films like SoaP (summer thrillers is the category, I guess) are akin to rides on a roller coaster. First, it seems like a good idea. Then, once you get on the ride or in the theater, it seems like not such a good idea -- in fact, you remember ten other things you'd rather do. After the first thrill -- a good long drop or, say, an attacking reptile -- you start feeling like maybe this isn't so bad after all. Then you get all caught up in the motion and come off the ride or out of the film with a big smile on your face.

Thus it is with Snakes. The initial story, necessary though it is, drags. FBI guy Samuel L. Jackson saves Surfer Boy, who witnessed a nasty crime in Hawaii. Instigator of said crime is established as a nasty and connected dude. Time to fly Surfer Boy to L.A. to testify. Ominous music finally starts....we see the cargo hold, but not what's in that mysterious cabinet behind the boxes of leis sprayed with snake pheromone.

After much delay the plane takes off and (groan) so does the movie. A special feature is what I'd like to call Snake-o-Vision, where we see the snake's point of view through what looks like muddy night-vision goggles. That way, alas, we always know who's going to get it, and when. That is, if they don't escape certain death by chance or purpose. The scariest attacks are the ones without Snake-o-Vision because they are total surprises, duh.

Once the snakes get out, mayhem ensues, in several stages. Most of the characters who seemed doomed at the beginning, or who are annoying enough to "deserve it" in the logic of these films, do indeed meet a snakey end. The final scenes, with a unique solution to getting rid of all the snakes, is fun and seems ingenious, although who knows or cares if it would work. Samuel L. Jackson is properly authoritative, Julianna Margulies is game (surely after the E.R., a crippled plane is a piece of cake), and all else acquit themselves well. (No one has to work particularly hard to do this.)

Major disappointment: Snake-o-Vision gives too much foreshadowing before a snake strikes.
Minor disappointment: Samuel L. Jackson doesn't say, to paraphrase, "Get these mofo snakes off this mofo plane" until rather late in the film.
Don't be scared: The snake closeups are obviously all animated fakes; still, next time I see a rattlesnake on a hike I am going to give it even more space.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Let's eat: Napa, Sonoma, San Francisco

During my recent visit north, I had a few culinary experiences worth noting....

Bounty Hunter, Napa. Smack in the middle of Napa's revived downtown, Bounty Hunter is a wine store that became a wine bar with snacks, that became a restaurant of sorts...while remaining a wine store. The menu is limited and often features The Bounty of the Grill -- beer can chicken is a perennial -- all of which goes well with the wines by the glass, the half-glass, or the flight. There are always nightly specials; I went for the grilled sausages with sauerkraut. Hearty fare for the summer, but great with the wines I drank (and next time I'll write them down...memories are hazy, no doubt in part because of the superiority of the adult beverages we consumed). My point is, in the city of Napa, Bounty Hunter is the place to be. It's always convivial, whether or not the room is crowded (which it often is), and you will always feel as if you are the scene there.

El Dorado Kitchen, Sonoma. Plopped right on the square in Sonoma is the recently renovated El Dorado Hotel -- sleek, clean, light -- a contemporary boutique hotel feel and, dare I say it, something approaching an L.A. vibe. Lunch on the patio was great, in the shade of an ancient tree I had a deconstructed Chicken Caesar Salad: hearts of romaine, tossed with dressing, piled in a neat stack at one end of the white oblong plate; a perfectly roasted boneless breast o'chicken at the other end, punctuated by an olive crisp. (See what I mean about the L.A. vibe?) A great "Gazpacho Bloody Mary" -- don't know quite what made it that, but man, it went down nicely on a Sunday afternoon. The menu featured some other stylized treats, including all-day breakfast.

Plouf, San Francisco. Belden Place is now a little restaurant row; Plouf, a bistro, was the pioneer. I'd been wanting to go here for several years. L and I sat in the bar; the high tables are fine, the seats (are they from an old laboratory?) are shaky -- so much so that I wouldn't want to try and balance on one of them after a few too many cocktails. We shared the mussels Poulette (shallots, wine, cream) after the fried fennel and calamari. All were delish, as were the accompanying pommes frites. Considering that half of the approximately $90 bill was wine (we sprang for 4 glasses of the better Cotes du Rhone), a good deal. Just be careful if you sit at a high table.

Ferry Market, San Francisco. Aisles of plenty...I don't know how all these high-end gourmet stores are faring, but while they are there, enjoy! There's a McEvoy olive oil store (we'd passed the farm, with its acres of trees, the day before on the road from Point Reyes Station to Petaluma), a Cowgirl Creamery store, butcher shops, and lots more. Even a bookstore, where I finally bought the biography of Sylvester (!) I'd wanted (and what better city to buy it in!). There's a farmer's market more than once a week just across the street; L and I were too late for it, but an added attraction nonetheless.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Fun Friday entertainment!

Although -- full disclosure! -- I live with a cat (obviously not the way he sees it), I am averse to and immune from the cutesy cat stuff that proliferates wildly on the internet. However, the cats on this particular website, The Official Record Store Cats, seem more akin in spirit to Zippy the Pinhead's martini-swilling cat, Dingy, whose tagline is "Cats are not cute."

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Talladega Nights: If you have to think twice...

I am not going to persuade anyone to see or not see Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. In the immortal words of Samuel L. Jackson, "Either you want to see that movie, or you don't." If you do, here are some highlights:
  • Loud cars zipping around the track for many, many laps.
  • Lots of yee-ha, not to mention hee-haw, humor.
  • Not one but two iterations of Will Ferrell, aka Ricky Bobby, running around nearly nude, in his not-so-tighty whities.
  • Almost more non sequiturs than a film this light can handle. Best example: Ricky B. (R. Bobby?) goes to visit his French rival, Jean Girard. Sitting at a table in Girard's well-landscaped yard: Elvis Costello and Mos Def. Ricky: "Was that Elvis Costello and Mos Def?" Jean: "Non."
  • Speaking of Jean, Sacha Baron Cohen totally rocks as Jean Girard, who races while reading "L'Etranger." (Hey! Maybe that's where Bushie got his summer reading idea!) Girard is so oozy, over-the-top, fake French that he almost steals the show.
  • The film gets slight props for having R. Bobby end up with his former assistant, the brainy one. Slight. (His previous wife is a pit-honey bimbette.)

If Will Ferrell makes you laugh, this will, too. Sacha Baron Cohen is just the icing on the cake, or the STP topping off the tank, or something like that.

DVD Cinema: In a Lonely Place

Directed by Nicholas Ray and released in 1950, In a Lonely Place is a film noir that doesn't doom one or another of its characters to decay, depravation, or death at the hands of a seductive other. Instead, and strikingly, the film depicts two very complicated characters, a man and a woman, and lets us watch their relationship play out. Dixon Steele, played by Humphrey Bogart, is a lonely, angry writer: He's smarter than everyone else, and although he desires women, by and large they bore him. Laurel Gray, played by Gloria Grahame, is an unsuccessful (but in a non-cliche turn, not down-on-her-luck) actress who lives across the way in a Beverly Hills courtyard apartment complex (the building is charming; looks like one of those on Sycamore that David Lynch used in Mulholland Drive).

Dixon is such a cad that he brings a coatcheck girl home to tell him the story of the book he's supposed to adapt into a script. He doesn't want to read the book. She tells him the story, they don't connect in any other way. He says he's tired, and there's a cab stand around the corner. (Sheesh!) So he's in hot water when she's found dead later that night, and his response to police suspicions is to be as flippant as possible. Luckily, he's got an old army buddy on the force, and his neighbor Laurel Gray, who provides him with an alibi (she was on her balcony in her negligee; he was checking her out).

Dixon and Laurel start a relationship: She types his script and provides all other loyal-helpmeet type support. He falls in love with her, poetically. We learn via her thuggish masseuse that Laurel ran away from her fiancee, who built her a dream house in the hills. In the meantime, Dix periodically erupts in fits of inchoate rage. As his agent Mel (Art Smith) says to Laurel, "You knew he was dynamite. He has to explode sometimes."

Yes, they both have issues--he may be a murderer--and neither is especially attractive. But the two leads spar believably, his anguish (but not remorse) over his anger is real, and she's convincing as a woman who might cut and run anytime she gets too scared. In a Lonely Place is compelling, psychologically real (that's what got me), and there IS the matter of who killed the coatcheck girl hanging over everyone's head practically until the final frame. This film is not dated at all, in many ways. See it.