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.