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.