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.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Summer Reading: Bushie weighs in

This week, fellow Jersey native Jon Stewart noted on The Daily Show that the President's summer reading included The Stranger by French existentialist Albert Camus.

I don't know about you, but when I can't remember what L'etranger is all about, I think of the Cure song, and its chorus: "I am the Stranger/killing an Arab."

Did Bushie think that the influential existential masterpiece was about war in Iraq? Was he reading the book to bolster his policies? If so, he sure got more than he bargained for.

The master of the idiot surreal tackles existentialism. Sacre bleu!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Overheard in Hollywood: Choose your shirt carefully

At the Staples on Sunset, between Cole and Wilcox, today:

The scene: Man sitting in a chair next to the copy counter. He has had the misfortune to wear a red shirt just like the Staples staff.

Woman: Can you help me?

Man: I don't work here.

Woman: Well, excuse me (said sarcastically)

Man: I don't have a name tag on. I would if I worked here.

Woman (now angry): Don't fuck with me! I have a genius IQ!

Moral to the story: Some people are beyond help, despite their eligibility for MENSA.

Lost Illusions department

Got back last night from adventures north (more on those later) and of course the larder (what an unattractive word. Surely one kept the lard in the icebox) is empty. Went out to the Mayfair, tuning in to Steve Jones on 103.1. Jonesy was talking to a fellow Brit, who was revealed as Robert Plant, the Golden God himself!

Except that the Golden God, adept of Magick and other cool stuff back in the day, sounded just like another bloke, as he and Jonesy gassed about Cliff Richard and Gene Pitney. Yes, Robert Plant sounds like his feet are on the ground, although I still want to believe that he has his moments of Golden Godness.

Friday, August 04, 2006

R.I.P. Arthur Lee: The everlasting first

Got the news from LAist this morning that Arthur Lee, the founder and moving force behind the band Love, died yesterday in Memphis from leukemia.

If you have never heard either of the Love albums, Forever Changes or Da Capo, don't waste any time in getting them in your CD rotation NOW! Forever Changes is both of its time (1967), with its Herb Alpertesque horn solos and elaborate arrangements, and amazingly undated. Although Arthur Lee was unquestionably the band's leader, his brashness was balanced and transformed by the gentle artistry of Bryan McLean. Forever Changes has occupied the #1 spot in my car's CD changer as long as I've owned the car.

Lee was a complicated guy--when I saw him in 2003 at B.B. King's, backed by Baby Lemonade, I thought at first that his voice was gone, since he started each song in a near-croak. But the voice was there, and he hit all the high notes. He was just messing with us. And with the club's security team, who threatened him when Lee refused to yield the stage at the end of his set. (Also in the concert that night, which was a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, was Noel Redding, Hendrix's bass player. He looked like a kindly science teacher from the comprehensive, and played like an angel. He passed away shortly after that concert.)

A good way to remember Lee is to watch the YouTube videos posted on LAist.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Biffles takes a break...and leaves you with a treat

Having very very recently finished the first draft of a novel (the second I've completed, the third I've started, if you must know), I am itching to get out there and mix it up with other writers and literary sorts. And so I am off for the next week to Squaw Valley, for the annual Community of Writers gathering. Last yearI got a lot out of the week; this year, I'm ready for more--once I adjust to the altitude (caffeine helps).

Because I'll be busy for most of every day and night, I probably won't be posting. Much, much more when I return...when I promise I will start writing about music. For someone whose life was changed by rock and roll when she was a mere 4 years old, I've been strangely silent on an essential aspect of my life. All that will be changed....

Here's a tidbit you cannot miss. Hint: It's Mr. T-related. I pity the fool! Huh!

Moi? Ce n'est pas moi....

Today's LA Times story reveals that the Pompidou Center in Paris "accidentally destroyed" two works in the much-heralded exhibition "Los Angeles 1955 - 1985." The curatrix, Catherine Grenier, says only, "It's not our guilt" (one can only assume this is the best translation they could come up with), meaning that she sees no reason to take responsibility. The two works in resin, one on Plexiglas by Craig Kauffman and owned by LACMA, one by Peter Alexander lent by Franklin Parrasch Gallery in NY, are excused by Mme. Grenier as "fragile."

Most artwork is fragile, especially modern and contemporary work, like that in the exhibition (full disclosure: I attended the opening events as a representative of one of L.A.'s fine cultural institutions). Curators are responsible for the well being of the works in their care. Mme. Grenier says, "it's not something with the installation, not something with the public." Regardless, it's her problem.

Makes me wonder if the Pompidou is a little slack in their procedures...on the morning the exhibition opened, a colleague, an art school dean, and I wandered through the exhibition. No one asked us what we were doing there, and we weren't wearing badges or any official identification. Sloppy, or just gracious toward insiders? Qui sait?

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

My thoughts on Mel...

My first reaction to the Mel Gibson debacle: You can't make this s**t up, can you?

Seconds later: Thanks, Mel, for giving the world a great comedic opportunity to whale on your anti-Semitic ass. Your alcoholism is the least of your problems.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have both been funny in their coverage of the coverage, but the best response is Maureen Dowd's in today's New York Times. She talked to pundit and litterateur Leon Wieseltier.

Unfortunately, the piece is hidden behind the dreaded TimesSelect. If you have it, or have the actual paper today, read it.

After what Wieseltier has to say (e.g. "He has been a very bad goy") I have no more to add, except for props to Amy Pascal at going on the record with her opinion.

SCOOP: Thoughts on late-period Woody Allen, or That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

In Woody Allen’s later, frisking-about-abroad period, he applies his broad brush, stock neuroses, and lotta-yuks approach to tales set outside the U.S. Scoop is set in London, but still has New York, specifically the borscht belt, as a distant reference point. The magician Allen plays, Sidney Waterman, is a New Yorker, as is Scarlett Johansson’s Sondra Pransky, a college student who has chosen journalism over a career in dental hygiene. Her competing interest in those two careers is supposed to be funny.

The reigning it-girl, Johansson plays a character who is largely a stand-in for Allen himself. Made to seem schlubby—which neither the actress nor the character is—and neurotic, she talks fast, her ideas bubbling up in spurts, just the way Allen does when he’s on a roll. She dresses abominably. Allen’s version of what an American college student would wear involves loose, mismatched separates and dowdy dresses. Invited to a party, Sondra says, “I’ll have to buy a dress.” We see here at the soiree in a black shift that doesn’t showcase any of Scarlett Johansson’s considerable assets (I thought the dress made her ass look big).

I wondered whether Allen thought the character would try to dress like her British friends, except that her British friends look better than she does. Of course, the stereotype of the British woman in unflattering clothes no longer holds, and especially in London. One quick trip to TopShop (I recommend the one at Oxford Circus), and Sondra would have had a snappy dress that wouldn’t seem American at all.

But Johansson’s seductive joie de vivre keeps coming through, especially when she’s torn over her successful seduction of Peter Lyman, played by Hugh Jackman: She doesn’t seem so much troubled by her suspicion that he might be the notorious Tarot Card Killer, as eager to forget all that and enjoy herself with him. And why shouldn’t she? She’s not Allen’s bumbling, possessed neurotic. She valiantly tries to seem as perpetually worried as Allen is, but in her early scenes with Jackman, I kept wanting Johansson to let loose. Although her character is meant to hold back, Johansson can’t—it’s one of the most attractive qualities she has on screen besides her looks.

Hugh Jackman doesn’t do much except stride about in suits and appear a few times naked from the waist up, treats that relieved the film’s periodic tedium. Which brings us to the upper class Brits Allen lampoons in the film. Granted, Woody Allen’s universe would never be mistaken for reality; it’s a hyper-reality seen through a particular shticky lens. Sondra’s British hosts are high-pitched cartoons; at his family’s country estate, Peter Lyman seems preternaturally interested in the estate’s gardens, and not just as a way to get Sondra alone so he can kiss her. Allen’s view of the British aristocracy seems taken from satires of the 1960s; he hasn’t accepted the changes wrought by the Thatcher years, or in the aftermath of Cool Britannia. There are smart jokes to be made about the contemporary British upper class, but Allen isn’t interested in them. Clichés are good enough.

Allen’s acting, as such, is fine when he interacts with the other characters in the scene; when not, he takes refuge in old, tired shtick. The dialogue with Sondra approaches snappiness and is often satisfying. But when Sid Waterman does magic tricks at an upper class garden party, and resorts to “I say, old chap” and similar humor he just put me to sleep. Too often, Allen is performing, not acting, and he is performing for an audience of one: himself, in his guise as the supremely neurotic New York Jewish film nerd.

When Allen makes a film like Match Point, in which he doesn’t appear, the problem doesn’t exist. His presence, however, signals that Woody Allen the director will be directing Woody Allen the actor, who will play Woody Allen the character, regardless of the character’s name. This is not an original observation on my part. What really bothers me is that the category of neurotic New York Jewish film nerd doesn’t hold up any more.

Herewith my reasons why the neurotic NY Jewish nerd no longer works:

  • Nerds now rule the world. They can no longer be dismissed as losers. Sure, you can laugh at them, but at their habits, not at their nerd status. No longer is a nerd an automatic punch line. Hell, Jon Stewart is a nerd, and he’s sexy.
  • Jokes about Jewish names aren’t funny in this multicultural world. After Sid meets Sondra Pransky, he refers to her as Miss Mandelbaum. When she corrects him, he says, “Pransky, Mandelbaum, same holidays.” This might have slayed them at the Friars’ Club in 1964. Now it just falls flat. Who would confuse Pransky and Mandelbaum, except an ignorant person? And when Sid repeatedly tells whoever he meets, “you’re a credit to your race,” we are meant, I suppose, to laugh and at the same time see it as an indication of Sid’s narrow world view. This one falls flat, too.
  • Cliché neurotics no longer exist in the quantities that long ago made Allen’s work (e.g. Annie Hall) funny. The pressures of today’s world are such is that, if neurotics weren’t on Xanax or Zoloft, they’d probably have long ago left New York, one way or the other.
  • The borscht belt humor doesn’t work. Sid sees the estate’s library, and makes a comment that Peter Lyman takes to be about Trollope. Does Sid enjoy reading Trollope? Three guesses as to what trollop Sid says he meant.

Yes, there are occasional laughs, and some of the yuks are entertaining (Sid explains that he doesn’t have to worry about his weight: “My anxiety is like aerobics"). Allen as a magician is funny in concept and reality; Johansson is properly spunky as a brash, unprincipled student journalist. Jackman looks good in a suit (the role is limited). The supporting cast is of fine pedigree, including Ian McShane as a deceased reporter, Margaret Tyzack as a fellow traveler in the last scene, Charles Dance as a newspaper editor, and Anthony Head (Giles from Buffy) as a detective. There were times when I laughed out loud. Mostly, I just wanted Woody Allen to get with it. We’ve all heard it a zillion times, and that joke just isn’t funny anymore.