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.