Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Let's eat and drink way too much: Sgt Recruiter


Not all that long ago, L and I visited Sgt. Recruiter, a new wine bar next to Cobras and Matadors, and also run by Steven Arroyo, in Los Feliz (although some would peg that block as East Hollywood). We drank. We ate. We drank some more, and then some more. At some point onion rings became dessert (I know, highfalutin' tastes).

In any case, my review of Sgt. Recruiter ran in LAist here and was also linked to EatingLA here. FYI, I made the evening sound a lot less bibulous than it was, and left out the mention of staggering home up the hill on Vermont while the ground somehow reeled beneath my feet. But go and try the Gruet Blanc de Blancs, fab bubbly from New Mexico and sold out on the winery's website!

Photo from Gypsy D's photostream on Flickr.

Monday, November 19, 2007

I love Christian Lacroix


No, it's not just his name, which you can repeat sonorously over and over like Edina on Absolutely Fabulous: "Christian Lacroix, Christian Lacroix. It's Lacroix, sweetie."

I love Christian Lacroix's responses to the London Daily Telegraph's questions. On exercise: "I don't do it. It would hurt me. I would die from it, I'm afraid." Exactement!

The rest of the piece is just as delicious. He loves the films of David Lynch...and he designs poofy skirts! Could he be more fabulous? Read the piece and go out and buy one of his pieces, for God's sake, sweetie darling!

photo of Lacroix boutique on the Rue de la République - Arles, France by Kahala via Flickr.

Monday, November 05, 2007

90 Year Old Author Writes a Damn Good Book!

Now that I've gotten your attention, you can find my review of Bowl of Cherries here on LAist.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Let's eat: Sanamluang Cafe



It's not that I haven't been blogging at all....it's just that I've been blogging...elsewhere. Recently I reviewed Sanamluang Cafe for LAist, as part of our "Thai One On" project in which we endeavored to review EVERY restaurant in Thai Town. A noble goal, in which we pretty much succeeded -- and I discovered a new favorite place. Read my review here.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Your favorite chefs are from New Jersey; or, more shameless Garden State flackage

Massive thanks to fellow Blogspotters Amuse-Biatch for linking to this article in the September New Jersey Monthly -- not a journal I normally peruse unless I'm visiting the 'rents and have read every Gourmet in the place.

So, who hails from the same state as me?


  1. Anthony Bourdain, Leonia: You know his badass attitude can only come from a state whose official song almost was "Born to Run."

  2. David Burke, Hazlet: Snooty restaurants from a nonsnooty background.

  3. Tom Colicchio, Elizabeth: quote: "there's nothing on earth like fresh Jersey tomatoes and corn." Amen!

  4. David Drake, Madison: I am sure he is a fine chef, but his restaurant is in New Jersey. He needs to hit the road. See the song referenced in #1.

  5. Alice Waters, Chatham: So often I forget that Alice Waters, the patroness of the American food revolution, grew up in my home state. And here she says she grew up getting ice cream at Gruning's! Excuse me while I have a nostalgic moment.

New Jersey, represent! Yet more evidence that much that is good and strong grows up in New Jersey, then gets the hell out to share with the rest of the universe.

Photo of Alice Waters taken June 2007, from David Sifry's photostream via Flickr.

Death at a Funeral: More like a short nap....

I didn't dislike the recent, Frank Oz-directed Death at a Funeral; dazed by the heat, I felt that seeing the new Jet Li movie War was more than I could handle. I wanted diversion and amusement. I got it, but just.

The film's been out for a while so I won't go into much detail. Suffice it to say that this is British humor, both broad and gentle, and the premise (who has not participated in craziness at a family funeral) is promising. But the main gags -- Valium that isn't, and a dead man's secret -- wear out rather sooner than does the film's running time. The cast is game, with numerous barely recognizable British actors joined by Americans Peter Dinklage and Alan Tudyk, who has a hilarious turn as a solicitor sent round the bend by the non-Valium. Kris Marshall is excellent as the source of the homemade pharmaceuticals. And my day was cheered immensely by the beauteous Jane Asher as the materfamilias; she doesn't have enough lines, but delivers the few putdowns she has with great panache.

Special bonus points to me for: Recognizing the British (excuse me, naturalized Canadian) actor John Neville -- the "Well-Manicured Man" from The X-Files -- among the mourners in the outdoor scenes. He's uncredited, but look carefully and you won't miss him.

I suppose the fact that I got excited about seeing John Neville proves that Death at a Funeral didn't wholly capture my attention. This heat is going to continue; I may spend tomorrow afternoon with Jet Li.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Rock and roll never forgets: The Zimmers

Here, new proof that a heavy sense of irony and a love of rock and roll can carry you forward well into your tenth decade.



Alf, the lead singer, is 92.

I personally am planning an "A" side of "Don't Dictate" by Penetration, b/w "Whips and Furs" by the Vibrators.

Napa Farmers Market: Good morning!

Earlier this month I spent yet another fun-packed week up in Napa visiting L and J, eating, drinking, and listening to music. When I rolled out of bed on Tuesday morning and heard that we were heading to the farmers market in downtown Napa, so we could return with our vegetables and get to Quixote winery for a 10 a.m. tour, I thought, well, OK, whatever, so long as there are snacks. But my casual attitude was totally blown away by the reality. The Napa market, located in a parking lot across from Copia, totally rocks, and not just because I was well fed in a single walk-through.

To start with, the vegetables are, as one might imagine, gorgeous and varied. One man was selling baby corn -- the size of the canned Chinese variety, but fresh and toothsome -- and paused from his reading of the new Harry Potter to give us samples. Later, L stir-fried these after I shucked them (lots of work for an astonishingly small pile of ears) and they were tasty but not mindblowing, although a good base for herbs or spices.

But it was the prepared items at this market that really woke both of us up, especially when handsome young men (L assures me they are different and even more handsome every week) offered us nonstop samples. Bolani, a Concord-based producer of "East & West Gourmet Afghan Food" has a stand that features bolani, which are flatbreads about the size of an extra-large flour tortilla folded in half over vegetable fillings. Along with these bolani, they sell a yogurt-based garlic/mint cheese and a variety of sauces, including cilantro pesto and many varieties of hummus. The young men spread the cheese and cilantro pesto on the spinach bolani; the combination of an assertive green flavor and the snap of garlic exploded in my mouth. Of course, I bought some of each and am using the cilantro pesto as a spread, a sauce, and a marinade. All items are available on their website.

Two more great sources at the market were Ridgecut Gristmills from Arbuckle, where I scored some stone ground cornmeal (they have a website, too, although I don't see the cracked corn there), as well as Humble Beginnings Napa Valley (no website yet), a family operation from Fairfield, where the dad and daughters made a very good case for their hot pepper jelly, which we ended up using to glaze the grilled duck breasts that evening.

Finally, I found nirvana, which foodwise often translates for me into The Products of the Pig: The Fatted Calf Charcuterie. Their Petit Jambon, a tiny ham about the size of a large fist, is flavorful but not oversalty, and has hundreds of uses, as I am working to prove. Their Mortadella is liverwurst-sized and tasty, although not so peppery as I would like. (I was thwarted in my mission to try the artisan mortadella at Dean and DeLuca in St. Helena by the snotty clerks who clearly thought that L and I were not worthy of their fine products -- ha!) The charming and much-tattooed Fatted Calf lad also had small dried sausages, like healthier Slim Jims, that were $1 and irresistible.

As you might imagine, I was practically overcome by the goodies at this market. But wait, there's more -- freshly roasted coffee beans, fresh eggs, and a tamale lady who gave us samples. Is there anything better than a tamale for breakfast at a farmers market in California? I don't think so.

Napa will be getting a higher toned, year-round location for the charcuterie and some other producers when the Oxbow Public Market opens this fall. But there's even more! Fatted Calf will sell Steve Sando's Rancho Gordo beans. If you haven't tried Steve's "New World" beans yet, by all means go to his website and wander around (his recipes are great). L and I visited Steve while I was in Napa and I picked up a variety of beans, including a new one called Pebbles that comes in multiple colors from the same plant. Steve, whose cookbook is in process, threw in some Mexican vanilla and his new "Gay Caballero" hot sauce, which I think he ought to be selling in West Hollywood.

Photo from Metin.Sozen via Flickr.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Summer Reading: Odds, ends, and the last of Harry

When I look at what I recommended last summer -- One Mississippi, by Mark Childress, out in paperback in September -- I feel a little chagrined that I'm not up on the new hardcovers this summer. Or just not yet. Certainly I have ordered the new, the final Harry Potter from my favorite independent bookstore, Skylight Books here in Los Feliz, but other than that, my reading seems to be catchup from the spring as well as from years past.

No matter. Here's what's on my shelf:

Alice Munro, The View from Castle Rock
Munro transmutes her family's history, which includes emigration to Canada from Scotland, into fiction in these linked pieces. Her ability to convey oodles of information in a single sentence is, at times in this book, almost overwhelming. You'll read, you'll ponder, you'll have to lie back in your chaise and recover.

Lydia Davis, Varieties of Disturbance
Davis' short stories are untraditional yet not incomprehensible; in fact, she's able to take the simplest of ordinary experiences and make them frighteningly explicit in a few sentences; the story titled "Lonely" begins "No one is calling me. I can't check the answering machine because I have been here all this time," and wraps up in two more astute sentences. There are a few longer stories; all are full of a gentle laughter at humanity and deep understanding of how neuroses affect us all.

Maile Meloy, Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter
Fortunately by the time I got around to reading these two books (Liars was Meloy's first novel), I forgot how they are connected. All I can say is, read them in the order I've listed them for the most enjoyable literary ride you'll have for a while. Meloy creates, in succession, two different worlds with the same characters, all of whom have intriguing, Catholicism-fueled, secrets. Given that Meloy's characters often face considerable challenges or complications, her writing is amazingly easy, almost light-hearted. (And yes, her brother Colin is in the Decembrists.)

Marina Lewycka, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
Lewycka's story, as I read in the Guardian (follow the link, the essay is worth reading), is one to which I'm sympathetic and may eventually be empathetic: first novel when she was over the age of 50, nomination for the Booker Prize, translated into more than 20 languages. But the novel, while diverting, is not so well written or structured as one might wish. Two warring adult daughters deal with an aging widowed father who is being hoodwinked by a zaftig gold digger; there's a subplot involving the younger daughter and narrator's eventual discovery of what really happened back in the Old Country, but somehow it doesn't seem like enough. Possibly a good beach read, but rather predictable and less for it, although the tractor info is captivating.

John Gregory Dunne, True Confessions
No less a crankypants than the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani called this book "pitch perfect." The story of two brothers (maybe you've seen the movie with Robert deNiro and Robert Duvall, truly born to play siblings) in 1940s Los Angeles, this is a compelling and sordid tale of the Irish Catholic power structure and how little it has to give, both believers and nonbelievers. A great book.

Bitten: Yet another thing I do, so you don't have to

Or you might want to. Sarah Jessica Parker, of Square Pegs and, of course, Sex and the City, recently unveiled her new fashion line. Much to my and probably your surprise, the line, Bitten, is not just discounted but cheap, and the designs are rather practical -- certainly nothing you'd ever see Carrie Bradshaw wear: t-shirts, tanks, blouses of Indian cotton in solid colors, little skirts, chinos, and jeans comprise the line and, get this, nothing costs more than $20.

Well, naturally I was skeptical, as a long-ago housewife impersonated by Lily Tomlin would say. So when I saw the Bitten logo in the window of where the Old Navy used to be at the renovated-but-still-inexplicable Beverly Connection, I trouped in, dragging S along after lunch (at the Grand Lux Cafe, the overdecorated diner that supports the possibly-just-as-inexplicable-but-more-successful Beverly Center).

Well, ladies -- this is a women's line only -- the clothes are worth checking out. Stretchy jeans for $14.98 in at least three cuts (low, medium, and up-to-the-waist -- remember your waist?). And they were true to size, not skinny mini as Miss SJP is. T-shirts were cute with interesting detail. Cheap flats and flipflops, and a few jackets, some in denim, round out the line. Sizes seem to go from 0 up to 16.

Here's the deal: Bitten is carried exclusively by Steve and Barry's, which -- for those of you who have spent time in New England -- is rather like Bob's Stores, writ small, meaning jeans, shirts, maybe some skirts, etc. Practical wear. The one in the Beverly Connection is the Steve and Barry's closest to most Los Angeles locations, although there's also one in the Fox Hills Mall in Culver City.

Forgive me for sounding like Daily Candy (I'm not a shill! I bought those jeans with my hard-earned credit!) but these clothes are worth checking out.

Just suppress your inner Carrie Bradshaw long enough to find something that doesn't pinch. You can suffer for beauty tomorrow.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Book Review: I read "The Manny" so you won't have to


Earlier this month, J and I went to a book party in Beverly Hills, at the Ralph Lauren store on Rodeo. As the Lauren employees politely cringed, a select but completely uncohesive -- and therefore uncharacteristic -- group of Angelenos and visitors nibbled snacks and drank champagne. Too much, in my case, but that was a story for the next day.
The book, The Manny, is a supposed must-read for this summer, especially on the beaches of the Hamptons (so we're exempt in L.A. Yay!). I read the book so you won't have to, and wrote up both the tony reception (Dominick Dunne! Downtown Julie Brown!) and the interminable and ill-written volume.
Just for once, I'd like one of these socialites with literary pretensions to write a work of literary fiction instead of, er, that crap they write.
Or maybe not.
Read my review here on LAist.
Photo from Holly Peterson's MySpace page.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Let's eat: The Colony Cafe


The Westside-Pavilion adjacent Colony Cafe is, as famously described in the Los Angeles Times magazine before its demise, a project that Lily Tartikoff conjured up for her daughter Calla. My take: Colony Cafe isn't a vanity project: It's all about the food.
Colony Cafe features sandwiches, burgers, and dogs; its other side, Papa's Porch, features sweets, including a pomegranate limeade that is tart and delicious (I could easily alternate between this and Clementine's ginger limeade like, forever). S and I met there on a recent Saturday; at 12:30, the mostly outdoor tables were not crowded, and we lazed on the front porch, oblivious to the noise of Pico just a few steps away, over our lunch.
S went for the vegetable sandwich: veggies, hummus, and sprouts on whole-grain bread, wholesome and delicious. At the other end of the spectrum, I had a chili dog; the Nathan's dog had bite, the chili was mild but not wimpy, and the matchstick fries I had alongside were difficult to stop eating. They come in a garlic version, too, pictured above -- but that's where I wimped out. There was Nordstrom to conquer across the street, preferably without fire breath.
The Colony Cafe is at 10937 West Pico, near Kelton, across the street and a little west of the Westside Pavilion, and is open daily 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. I will certainly be back; nice to have another choice in that nabe for the weekends when the Apple Pan crowd gets aggressive.
photo from supermod via Flickr.

Eagle vs. Shark: Crazy, in love

In Taika Waititi's brilliantly, hysterically funny Eagle vs. Shark, Lily (Loren Horsley) and Jarrod (Flight of the Conchord's Jemaine Clement) meet cute: She crashes his animal costume party, her older brother in tow. Oh, and she's dressed as a shark; the host, her longtime crush, is dressed as an eagle. When her shark (who uses a great nom de game) beats almost all comers at Fight Man, Jarrod falls in like. Well, sort of.

This is a cockeyed romantic comedy about two oddballs who would seem like total losers if the rest of the New Zealand that Waititi shows us wasn't so weird all around them. Like characters in a song by They Might Be Giants come to life, Eagle vs. Shark and its characters have nuance and rhythm, and a completely nutty logic. All of the homes we enter have images of animals on their walls: Jarrod has a cougar head above his bed, and at his father's house, there's a German Shepherd on the wall like a family portrait (let's not even mention the card-playing dog tapestry). The animals aren't just there for entertainment purposes: Everyone in this film envies their power.

The characters all want to be more than they are; they want to step forward, but they can't. Jarrod takes an ill-advised step but can't back up; he's too committed to the wrong story. Lily can't speak up for herself for the longest time, until Jarrod challenges her with his illogical behavior. Then she is not only able to act, but also gives Jarrod the empathy he doesn't get from his loopy family.

"I'm a loser," he says to her.
"Doesn't matter," she replies.

Eagle vs. Shark makes that one of the most satisfying romantic exchanges all year.

Both Clement and, especially Horsley -- who displays a range of emotions while distractedly chewing her lower lip -- shine in their roles. The supporting cast is fine, too, from Cohen Holloway's porn-obsessed hacker, whose computer appears to be an old 286, to Rachel House's seen-it-all, tracksuit-dealing older sister. The music, largely by The Phoenix Foundation, moves things along nicely.

And, even if the quirky couple's bizarre charms begin to wear on you, Waititi has kept his film admirably compact: it's just under 90 minutes long.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Another New Jersey Moment

On Saturday Night Live last night, host Zach Braff, South Orange native (and, unless I am misremembering, a graduate of Columbia H.S. in Maplewood), gave a shout out to the Campus Sub Shop in South Orange -- home of an excellent cheesesteak (probably the first one I ever experienced).

Hey, it's just a sub shop, but of these moments is New Jersey lore made, and Braff sent up the Garden State amusingly, and -- more to the point -- ironically, as he sang to the tune of Long Island native Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind."

Which reminds me of the time when, in high school, my brother walked into the Seton Hall gym, only to find the aforementioned Billy Joel at the piano doing a sound check for his concert that evening. And what was Billy Joel singing, you ask. Why, he was singing Bruce Springsteen's New Jersey anthem "Born to Run."

Only in New Jersey, kiddies, only in New Jersey.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Once: a musician's life


Once, a new film by the Irish director (and former member of the Frames) John Carney, chronicles a week in the life of a musician, played by the Frames' Glen Hansard, in which he busks in downtown Dublin, repairs hoovers (vacuum cleaners) with his dad, meets a Czech immigrant played by Marketa Irglova, and repairs her vacuum. They fall in love, which neither one of them wants to admit it, and collaborate (she was classically trained on the piano back home; now she cleans houses) on a CD's worth of tracks that he hopes will make his name. We never learn either of the characters' names.

Sounds simple, even sentimental, but it's not. As far as I can recall, Once is the most clear-eyed view of an ordinary musician's life that I've yet seen on the screen. Hansard's character, serious and a bit depressed, is obsessed with making his songs better. When Irglova plays for him, in a beautiful scene inside a music store, she gets the same bug he does. No, there are no cliches about either making beautiful music with the other -- they misunderstand each other but work it out, culminating in a long recording session with musicians they pick up busking on the street. Hansard acts with his soulful eyes and his height, creating a character who wants his work to succeed because it is the only way he can speak deeply; his battered guitar is a external manifestation of his psyche. Irglova convincingly creates a young Eastern European woman whose life is much more complicated than the Irishman can comprehend, despite his genuine like for her. The way she nonchalantly drags a canister vacuum cleaner down the high street in Dublin speaks oodles about what she's been through and how much it takes to ruffle her.

Amazingly, every time Hansard or Irglova plays a song, we hear the whole thing, not an excerpt, nor does their work run primarily as background, although there are some montages. While this is a boy-meets-girl film that will appeal to many romantics, it's also a feature for musicians, and those who love them. Carney hasn't compromised in making it clear that, to these musicians, love and music are essential, even when music comes first.

Hansard and Irglova wrote most of the songs in the film, both separately and together; the soundtrack is well worth checking out.

Photo of Glen Hansard performing in Central Park last summer by Gisele13 via Flickr.


Monday, May 07, 2007

R.I.P. Isabella Blow (updated)


Insofar as hats go, this is mild stuff for Isabella Blow, the style icon who passed away in Gloucester, England, earlier today. Blow was essentially a talent scout for fashion; she could sniff out a fledgling designer from twenty paces. Famously, she bought Alexander McQueen's entire graduation fashion show from Central St. Martin's School of Art; her long and fruitful collaboration with Philip Treacy began when he designed the hat for her marriage to Detmar Blow.
There are many great stories about Ms. Blow, her style, and especially her wearing of eccentric hats. She was the kind of person who turns up completely unexpectedly, as she does, exiting a church, in the film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The Guardian (U.K) describes many of her hats in the three articles devoted in Tuesday's paper to Ms. Blow. Alexander McQueen called her a "cross between Lucrezia Borgia and a Billingsgate fishwife." The Times has a tad more about Ms. Blow, nee Broughton, and her colorful family: her grandmother claimed to be a cannibal, and her grandfather was embroiled in the "White Mischief" scandal in Kenya that was the subject of an entertaining film. The Times also spends a bit more time talking about the hats. Blow's discoveries brought her notoriety, which she enjoyed, but little money, which toward the end of her life is said to left her depressed; she died of cancer at the age of 48. The photo above was taken in March.
Update: Subsequent stories in the British press revealed that Ms. Blow died from ingesting paraquat, an insecticide, that she drank during a weekend house-party at her home. Her father-in-law committed suicide the same way.
Photo by Piers Allardyce via Flickr.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Book Review: The Beautiful Fall: Lagerfeld, Saint Laurent, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris

I know, I've been a little quiet lately. Blame it on the fact that I'm employed again and haven't been roving around as much as I usually do, as I get used to early rising and being in an office. However, as part of LAist's tribute to the L.A. Times Book Prizes, I posted a review of this nominee in the Current Interest category. Alicia Drake's book didn't win (Ian Buruma's book about the death of Theo van Gogh did), but then what chance does fashion have against brutal reality? (Too bad we can't ask Karl Lagerfeld that question.)

I'll reprint the review here, as I can't seem to link to this piece on LAist.

In 1954, two fledgling fashion designers won awards from the International Wool Secretariat: Yves Saint Laurent, age 18; and Karl Lagerfeld, age 21. The tenuous friendship they developed – as exiles, prodigious talents, and gay men at ease with their sexuality – matured into a fierce rivalry, a competition for friends, clients, and in one instance, a lover.

Alicia Drake’s book tracks the parallel careers of Saint Laurent and Lagerfeld from 1954 through 1989 and beyond. She spends most of her time describing the over-the-top 1970s, when work and play in Paris were given over to a dérèglement des sens in which each designer realized his shadow self: Saint Laurent’s overindulgence in drugs and alcohol fueled his bipolar episodes; while Lagerfeld tended to be more of a spectator than a participant, his controlling coldness hardened into the faux aristocratic persona he still affects.

Drake’s book is fashion history and a compelling character study, with some excellent dish served up along the way (think of the film The Damned). Certainly many fashion designers concoct a mythic past (Coco Chanel, Ralph Lauren), but few as entertainingly – in Drake’s telling – as Lagerfeld, who tells a fellow party guest about a nineteenth-century painting his mother gave him when he was a child, neglecting to mention that she gave him a cheap reproduction. Along the way, Lagerfeld snips a few years from his age; although he is allegedly 3 years older than Saint Laurent, as recently as a March 19, 2007 profile in The New Yorker, he claimed an age that is 3 years younger.

Lagerfeld’s focused upward bound activities are balanced against the passionate life of Saint Laurent, from the start a design supernova who lapsed into emotional free fall with each collection, demanding great obedience from his friends and breaking with them when he perceived the slightest disloyalty. One might argue that Saint Laurent’s individual influence on fashion is more definitive (he set trousers in the center of a modern woman’s wardrobe), while Lagerfeld’s work did not achieve wide notice until 1982, when he began to design for Chanel, despite his fine earlier work for Chloé. Drake provides plenty of fodder to examine each of these arguments in detail.

What Drake did not do is interview either of the designers; both agreed to talk to her, but neither ultimately returned her calls. As her narrative is quite personal and specific, one wonders to what extent the reader can rely on the memories of friends and clients, as fabulous as sources like Paloma Picasso and Loulou de la Falaise may be. The book’s text is also full of errors: the director William Friedkin’s 1980 gay S&M film Cruising is inexplicably called Closing; and the ballet genius Nijinsky is twice called “Nijinksy.” Does Little, Brown’s staff lack access to the internets for quick fact-checking? Drake’s descriptions are awkward, at times, e.g. describing a ground floor apartment as having a view of the dome of Les Invalides (if you stick your head out the window and look straight up…).

Despite those drawbacks, Drake’s chronicle is an enjoyable read and a touching portrait of two of fashion’s most distinct and charismatic talents. How closely her tale approaches the truth is known only to Saint Laurent, who isn’t talking, and Lagerfeld, who took Drake to court for invasion of privacy (that age issue again) and lost.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

I Need More: Best music writing of the week

Iggy Pop titled his 1982 autobiography I Need More (out of print; Amazon has it in French). Which of us cannot identify with this feeling, and thus -- in a way -- with the battered yet curiously pumped James Osterberg? He is "the world's forgotten boy" and so personifies the ugly and unpopular side that each of us has but doesn't want to acknowledge. You heard it here: Iggy stalks the dark side so we don't have to.

In this past Wednesday's New York Times, music writer Ben Ratliff got it right. His review of Iggy and the reunited surviving Stooges at the United Palace Theater in NYC was titled "Chaos at the Line Where Performer and Audience Blur." I'll quote extensively, since the piece is now hidden behind the dread wall of TimesSelect:

A show by the reunited Stooges deals with the boundaries of the self; it’s about private-made-public and public-made-private. It airs ideas (and parts of the body) that usually aren’t laid open, and turns the hey-ho communal experience of rock into an inner monologue.

Over tribal drum rhythms and monstrous guitar riffs, it’s also a choreographed re-enactment of chaos, rude and simple and immaculate. It represents a total thesis on rock ’n’ roll — not by any means the only possible one but a great one....Iggy Pop, now 59, is the captain of these inside-outside actions. Try to take your eyes off him. How he re-enacts fear, rage, sex, abject boredom, universal love and lethal cynicism, while dancing with originality, remembering lyrics and maintaining the delicate middle-state between having pants on and not having pants on, is why he is he, and you are merely you.

To reiterate: "maintaining the delicate middle-state between having pants on and not having pants on" -- see the photo above, and ponder on this Deep Thought as you enjoy your Sunday.

Photo of Iggy in Barcelona by frecklescorp via Flickr.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Flashback: Disco Tex and His Sex-O-Lettes



Say it slow, say it fast: Disco Tex and His Sex-O-Lettes. Sounds crazier each time you say it, doesn't it? Back in 1974, when there was money to be minted from disco, Four Seasons producer Bob Crewe formed this "group" as a showcase for hairdresser Sir Monti Rock III, aka 60's teen idol Joseph Montanez, Jr., aka Disco Tex. Here's some more choice play-by-play on the single.

And hey, respectable rock critic Chuck Eddy (scroll down this page) can hold forth admirably on the virtues of Disco Tex, the plastic qualities of a disco album at a time when disco was not quite defined. Thus, Disco Tex/Sir Monti Rock/Joseph Montanez, Jr. and Bob Crewe made an album that was a whole lot better than it had to be to succeed as a disco album, the purpose of which was mainly making money. Can it be that they made....art? Find a download (or the way I found "Get Dancin'," on a cheesy 70s compilation I got at Amoeba) and judge for yourself. And while we're passing the time admiring Monti Rock III, do visit his website. He is still letting his freak flag fly.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Book Review: The Lost, A Search for Six of Six Million



Follow this link to LAist to read my review of this extremely well-written, well-pondered and precise memoir, in which literary critic Daniel Mendelsohn goes looking for what happened to grandfather's brother, the brother's wife, and their four daughters, who perished in the Holocaust in Poland, and along the way finds out a good part of the truth, and learns to live with uncertainty and mystery.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Peeps triumph again!



The considerable Peep Posse is at it again, urging me to post about their favorite seasonal marshmallow friends. And who does not love Marshmallow Peeps? They are sugary sweet; they can be microwaved into a puddle or catapulted across vast distances. They can be squashed flatter than a pancake with, so to speak, nary a peep from them. They are junk food that is easy to love.

Not for me. If I were to be faced with the Peepmobile to the left -- which apparently dispensed candy treats to all visitors -- I would run in the opposite direction. One of the leaders of the Peep Posse once covered my desk, computer monitor and all (this was before flatscreens) in shocking pink Peeps: Very funny. Plus the sugary coating is like gritty sand, and the interior showcases the worst possible quality of marshmallow.

Bah, humbug, you say. However, since I am fond of the Peep Posse, I give you the following, as a special Eastertime gift from me to you.
  • Here's where you can see the newest hybrid, Cocoa Bunny Peeps, via Slashfood.
  • Here is the official site for the purveyors of Peeps, a company ominously titled Just Born. As you might imagine, the Peeps have their own website, with a section called "Featured Recipes and Crafts." Go crazy, Peep-ple.
  • And for those of you who just can't get enough of a) Peeps and b) the late candy confection Anna Nicole Smith, here is a loving memorial sculpted in Peeps.

I hope all you peeps (and Peeps) are satisfied. Happy Easter, Happy Passover, and eat yourselves into a sugar coma that lasts until Memorial Day.

photo by Crowbert via Flickr.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction

Yes, another awards ceremony, this one a bloated (yes, I mean you, Jann Wenner) dinner ceremony. But it's a live feed! And those of us without massive satellite dishes don't get live feeds in Los Angeles. So I watched, and took notes -- all so you won't have to. You are quite welcome.

We begin with Jann, who talks too long (and the mike is so sensitive that we can hear every hesitation, every lick of the lips. Yecch). Then a quick memorial section, with photos, where -- to my ears, or perhaps my imagination -- Syd Barrett and Arthur Lee get the most applause. Until we get to ...Ahmet Ertegun. Filmed highlights; then Aretha Franklin comes out and sings. She's clearly got a cold or something, but she still sounds good. Aretha does a shout-out to Mica Ertegun, calling her "Mrs. Ertegun," and asks her to stand. Mica, who looks uncomfortable, does what the queen tells her to do.

Now here's Keef, Keith Richards, here to induct the Ronettes. First he credits "giant strides in medical science" that allow him to join us. Oh, Keef, you derelict, you! It's not so funny when you're the one joking about it. Anyway, film clips, then Ronnie, Estelle, and Nedra come out. Ronnie is called Ronnie Bennett, not Spector, although Paul Shaffer reads a brief tribute from probable-murderer Phil, to minimal applause. Ronnie and Estelle have coordinated their outfits and are wearing black pantsuits. Nedra is wearing a golden gown, with cape, that looks like she's ready for the Rapture. Ronnie shouts out to Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny, and "Miami Steve" (how many of us remember Mr. Van Zandt that way?) and to Joey Ramone. The Ronettes sing and everything old is new again; they do "Be My Baby," "Walking in the Rain," and "Baby I Love You."

Next, the inductee I've been waiting for: New Jersey native Patti Smith. Great vintage footage. Patti, obviously very moved, thanks Clive Davis; the no-longer-with-us members of her band, Ivan Kral and Richard Sohl; ex-boyfriends (although she doesn't identify them as such) Oliver Ray and Tom Verlaine; her crew; her family, including her son, Jackson, who plays bass in her band; and her present band, including Jay Dee Daugherty, who has played drums with her for 30 years (!) and of course Lenny Kaye. Patti is overcome; I'm overcome. Patti thanks her late husband Fred "Sonic" Smith. She accepts the honor in his name. She thanks her fans for remembering the words to her songs when she doesn't.

Then Patti and her band play, starting with a cover of the Stones' "Gimme Shelter," and moving through an OK version of "Because the Night," with shout outs to Bruce and to Jimmy Iovine for making the song possible. (Yes, this ceremony has some of the lesser qualities of a testimonial dinner.) Then, Patti says she's going to play her mother's favorite song. She talks about her mother, who answered all Patti's (actually, her family seems to call her Tricia) fan mail for 25 years. On her deathbed, her mom asked, "Did they save the Stone Pony?" (Just another New Jersey rock and roll mom.) So this is the song her mother liked to vacuum to: "Rock and Roll Nigger." Lenny is in fine form, as is his hair. The song totally rocks.

Barely 7:15 and I'm exhausted. When I saw Patti Smith at the Wollman Rink in the summer of 1978 my life changed. Sure, I knew women could be professionals or whatever else they wanted. But Patti Smith pissed off the side of the stage, right in front of everybody! What freedom! I have never done it, nor do I plan to --- but somehow seeing her do that gave me a sense that I could do whatever I wanted.

Back to the show. Al Sharpton talks about James Brown, who apparently was like a father to him. Sharpton is good, of course: He's a preacher. Then Van Halen is inducted and I leave the room to make dinner. Sorry, Van Halen fans! As y'all know, Eddie is in rehab and David Lee Roth didn't show, which left one guy and Sammy Hagar.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five are inducted by Jay Z. They're the first hiphop group in the Hall. Melle Mel -- still very buff --appeals for hiphop that does not glorify violence. "I'm 45 and I don't have a police record," he says. Then they perform, and doesn't Grandmaster Flash start by shouting, "New York, just like I pictured it." If you don't get that reference, I can't help you. (Stevie Wonder, "Living for the City") These guys are awesome.

And already it is time (but believe me, we are several hours into this -- I spared you the "highlights of previous shows" interludes while they changed the stage) for our final inductees, REM. Eddie Vedder does the honors. He talks too long, but who cares, because he is intelligent and interesting and just spacy enough to be engaging. I might as well confess that, at this late date, I have developed a crush on Eddie Vedder. I'm late to the party, what can I say?

REM performs, among other songs, "Man on the Moon" with Michael Stipe and Eddie Vedder trading vocals. They sound great! Then Patti Smith comes out and she and Michael Stipe and all sing "I Wanna Be Your Dog." Lenny Kaye has a great guitar solo. As they wrap up, before they start the final jam, Patti yells, "Have a great night everybody! Drink plenty of water! Take care of yourselves!" Jeez, Patti Smith, punk poetess, is telling me to hydrate.

The final jam, not so star-studded this year, but sturdy nonetheless: "People Have the Power" from the Patti Smith album Dream of Life. Patti namechecks Fred again. Everybody's on stage -- even Keef and Steven Stills have strapped on the ol' guitars. Patti sings. Michael Stipe sings. Ronnie formerly Spector sings. Sammy Hagar sings and Patti hugs him -- he's just a big ham, isn't he? -- while Michael Stipe looks askance. While everyone bops, Michael Stipe sits off to the side and watches. He's a Boy with a Problem, to quote Elvis Costello, isn't he? Celebrity I'm-too-sensitive match: Michael Stipe vs. Morrissey.

And there you have it, folks. A motley crew this year, but all deserving and I am certain that most if not all of them are still toasting their success and God knows what else. Keef has to do it for science, after all.

The Host: Don't go near the water

As The Host (or as listed in Korean in the new IMDB, Gwoemul) begins, an arrogant American military guy (Scott Wilson, best known recently as Catherine Willowes' ring-a-ding-ding daddy on CSI) orders his Korean underling to pour hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde down the drain. "But these drains empty into the Han River," protests the underling. Exactly.

When we flash forward, we're on the river shore in Seoul, where a fractured and amusingly fractious family (Grandpa, Hie-bong Byeon; slacker Dad, Kang-ho Song, with a peroxided fringe; and sweet granddaughter/daughter, Hyun-seo, played by Ah-sung Ko) run a snack stand. But barely have we figured out the family relationships when a huge nasty sea creature that looks like a ferocious polliwog and runs like a lizard on speed crawls out of the ocean, threatens tens of funseekers, and grabs Hyun-seo, diving back into the Han with her in his ugly mouth.

The Host follows what happens to threatened schoolgirl Hyun-seo, who survives being grabbed by the sea monster, while focusing mostly on her family, both grandpa and slacker dad, along with slacker dad's siblings -- his sister the national bronze medalist in archery and his brother the snotty and unemployed college graduate -- as they discover that their beloved Hyun-seo is alive and plot to save her. At top and bottom, The Host is a creature feature, with excellent production values and a scary creature that moves so quickly that we never get a real fix on its appearance, which makes it seem even scarier. This is not Godzilla, except in the beast's origins; this is a very well-made film.

In its middle, however, The Host offers not just suspense but hearfelt family comedy; while this is not Little Miss Sunshine transposed to Korea, this family is both challenged and contentious. A brawl at Hyun-seo's memorial, before her slacker dad discovers she is alive, is dark fun. The clearly focused satire on Korean government officials, who are either bumblers or nefarious plotters, is entertaining and pointed, as is the presentation of the Americans as the people who create the problem, then rush in and take over to supposedly solve the problem. (You think?)

Who is scarier, a mutant river creature or the American military? That's the question that The Host asks, and, given this film's basis in history (a U.S. military official did indeed order the disposal of formaldehyde in the sewer system leading to the Han), it's not difficult to conclude that the latter is a greater threat.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Clatterford: Beyond the Waterloo Sunset

The newest program on BBC America begins, very appropriately, with a cover (by Kate Rusby) of the Kinks' "Village Green Preservation Society":

Preserving the old ways from being abused.
Protecting the new ways, for me and for you.

And indeed, we are in England, in the country, amidst the vicars and jumble sales, looking fondly on the women of a village that is more Ray Davies (existential ruefulness) than Barbara Pym (old-fashioned befuddlement). The first figure we see in Clatterford, pumping away on a bicycle that appears to be perennially out of gear, is a decrepette played by Joanna Lumley, once AbFab's Patsy, whose fineness as a character actor is immediately apparent. (If you saw her in Cold Comfort Farm you know what I mean.) And then we wander on to the meeting of the Women's Guild, and a pop in to see the vicar, followed by an amble into the local doctor's surgery.

Jennifer Saunders (aka Edina on AbFab) created this gentle, yet occasionally sharp, look at village life in contemporary Britain. Saunders plays a harried namedropping mum: "It was a lovely evening [chez Madonna] until Sting played the lute." The men are all professionals, such as they are in any small town; the women seem to be support staff -- a nurse, a grocery clerk, a jill-of-all-trades like Joanna Lumley's character. Most of the women are blonde, or blondish. You've got to pay attention to pick up on the laughs: a moment in church when no one in the congregation seems to know the responses (do they ever attend?), and a counselor from Grief Group (leave it to the English to create a snappy category for everything) who tells a widow that she simply cannot go through the stages of mourning in anything but the prescribed order.

Is Clatterford worth watching? Yes: Joanna Lumley's free-of-vanity expression, Jennifer Saunders' tone of voice, and the other quirks of this really capable cast make the show an easy, amusing, and stress-free 40 minutes.

The only down side is that BBC America now seems to have pulled the Friday night AbFab reruns. Sweetie darling, what will I do?
Clatterford airs on BBC America on Friday evenings at 10 p.m. Pacific time, 9 p.m. Eastern time.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Let's eat: I seafood, I eat it

Recent dining plans have taken me to casual seafood joints on either coast, giving me the opportunity to (drum roll) compare and contrast!

In Hollywood, The Hungry Cat is a venture of David Lentz (that's Mr. Suzanne "AOC" Goin to you) that faces towards the east coast but now seems a little more west-facing despite the persistence of the lobster roll (and that's not a complaint). It's a mini-empire, with a Santa Barbara outpost opening sometime soon.

Recently, C and I had a fishy feast there, beginning with a shared half dozen oysters: Stingray (named because that's what critter likes to eat them) and Old Salt from Maryland, as well as Malpeques from New England (forgive my not remembering their exact address). The oysters were distinctly flavorful, each memorable in its own way; the bartender's description (without reservations, you eat at the bar) was helpful. We then shared the dungeness crab w/ black rice and spicy blood orange sauce. This was my first experience with the western crustacean of choice, and it was a tasty one. We also tried the chorizo stuffed squid, which I'd rate at a B; tasty, but dressing squid up too much is, to me, not worth the effort. Like my grandfather told my brother when he bought his starter house: Don't overbuild.

The dessert of assorted cheeses with walnuts and honey was a great finish. Generally, Hungry Cat has gourmet ambitions that it generally fulfills, with the lobster roll and Pug Burger as delicious exceptions. As it expands into the former Schwab's space, including an oyster bar, we'll see how those ambitions play out.

On the other coast, in Cambridge, Jasper White's ambitions have always been clear -- he is the Cooking from New England guy, an early friend-to-Julia-Child who has long been a presence (both physical and theoretical) on the Boston food scene. Half a decade ago, White opened the first of four Summer Shack locations at Fresh Pond circle, across from the historic former location of Joyce Chen (I know my Boston food history) and in what was for years the Polynesian party joint Aku Aku. With one of Aku Aku's Easter Islandy heads recast as an old salt, White created a casual seafood place that's a cross between Legal Seafood and any lobster pound in Maine.

Summer Shack had a long specials list of raw oysters, with more variety than Hungry Cat, plus littleneck and cherrystone clams. All were fresh and perfect. The steamers, an east coast staple, were sweet and not at all sandy. The fried oysters were very good, as was the lobster roll, and our youngest guest enjoyed his fried calamari (not overbuilt, this squid) after he polished off umpteen raw clams. If the fries were undistinguished, well, the fries at Woodman's, up in Essex, aren't anything to rave about, either; the seafood is the point. The one gourmet excursion, a sauteed sea bass on top of garlic mashed potatoes with lobster bearnaise, was good, but monochrome in appearance (browned fish, white mashed, deep brown sauce) and possibly out of place on the menu. And the dessert selection, which includes soft-serve ice cream, is just what's needed. Summer Shack also offers a full clambake; east coast lobsters of various sizes, from modest to gargantuan, are offered steamed or cooked in less simple ways.

So where's the compare-and-contrast? It's not rocket science: east coast seafood is better on the east coast. West coast seafood places, like the Hungry Cat, like the phenomenally good Water Grill, are their own creatures. All together, class: Comparisons are odious. When I seafood, I eat it, wherever I happen to be.

photo by sooz via Flickr.

R.I.P. Ghost Parking Lot

AFTER: Hamden, Connecticut, March 2007


BEFORE: Hamden, Connecticut, 1978 - September 2003

Once upon a time, the New York design firm SITE was famous for a series of stores designed for BEST products; anyone who's read Learning from Las Vegas (and if you haven't, you should) has seen photos of the decorated sheds, one with a peeling facade, another with a forest growing out of the store. In fact, the firm seems to be thriving and continues to design institutions, restaurants, and residences, as well as Danny Meyer's Shake Shack in New York's Madison Square.
Back in 1977*, the seven-year-old firm created a work of public art called the Ghost Parking Lot, which was both a totally cool thing to view and a perhaps-biting commentary on the domination of car culture. The Ghost Parking Lot was essentially a parking lot full of various old cars (a Chevy, a VW bug, etc.) that had been drenched in asphalt. One could imagine that the road had reclaimed the vehicles for its nefarious purposes, although many other interpretations are possible.
I saw the GPL for the first and only time in 2001 before I moved west; its dreary Hamden, Connecticut location added to the general sense of weird despair that the piece conveyed.
And now, the Ghost Parking Lot is gone. Actually, it's been gone, as noted above, since September 2003. The excuse given was that the "cost of preservation" was too high, approximately $175,000, although one wonders why preservation was necessary. The asphalt was peeling off, and the cars emerging from not primordial, but civilized, muck.
What has replaced the Ghost Parking Lot, you ask? More parking.
*SITE's site lists the Ghost Parking Lot as created in 1977, not in 1978 as Roadside America claims. There's more art in that Hamden Parking Lot of the Damned; further report, with photos, in a later post.
AFTER photo copyright Chris Kopley; BEFORE photo copyright Roadside America.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Literary Oddities: Derrida and the vampire, Wystan's cabbies

1. Derrida and the vampire, in Orange County yet
So...the controversy whereby the family of deceased deconstructionist Jacques Derrida is trying to keep the balance of his papers away from U.C. Irvine, to which he'd agreed to leave them, involves a....vampire?

Maybe not, but the story (detailed in yesterday's Los Angeles Times) is just as strange as that sounds. Derrida was part-time at Irvine for many years. In 1990, he signed an agreement to leave the university his papers, until in 2004, as he was dying of pancreatic cancer, he heard that a Russian Studies professor and Serbian native was under fire for seducing a grad student (with "Transylvanian wine," the Times notes). Although neither student nor prof got UCI's backing, the prof was demoted. The student sued and settled.

In the meantime, Derrida used the case as an excuse to withdraw his papers from UCI. After his death, the family pursued the suit. Looks like UCI will have to share with an institution in France.

Although one of the commenters on this mess asked why a deconstructionist would ever honor an agreement, that elides the point. In the moment that Derrida made the commitment, he believed it. Many millions of moments later, he changed his mind. Oops. For bad or ill, the law tends to value commitments over arbitrary units of meaning.

2. Wystan Hugh Auden and the cabdrivers*
Buried in an article in the Guardian Unlimited about Auden's centenary is the Fun Fact that cabbies in York, England, Auden's birthplace, are memorizing his poetry so that they may entertain tourists to the city. (No doubt most of them are sweatsuit-wearing poetry fans, that rowdy lot.)

York is a lovely city, a refuge of sorts for me while I was at grad school in Leeds. Imagine if you will, however, hopping into a cab at the train station, only to hear "Lay your sleeping head, my love/Human on my faithless arm" before you can tell the driver where you want to go.

*Yes, there's a joke of the general "hello sailor" sort there somewhere, but you can do that for yourself.

The Oscars: Not much to blog about

The most entertaining moment was possibly in the ABC red carpet coverage, when Sally Kirkland (look here), a winner in the batshit insane sweepstakes if ever there was one, literally swooped in, saying that her sheer-dress-with-attached-cape was the meeting of "a reverend and a rabbi," and had been designed by her Kabbalah advisor. Let's just leave the Kabballah free and clear of this -- I think Miss Sally ought to take responsibility for her costume, which indeed it was, all by herself.

Unforgettable: The outsize Andre Leon Talley, on the 5 p.m. preshow, taking Jennifer Hudson by the hand and ushering her around Oscar de la Renta's studio. Why Oscar? Jennifer's dress was OK, but the beam-me-aboard jacketlet on top was not.

What else? The main surprise re: the awards was Eddie Murphy NOT winning. Did the recent premiere of Norbit, Murphy's latest forced comedy in latex, hurt his chances? Al Gore looked about as excited as Al Gore can look. Ooh, now he can move to L.A., and maybe Tipper can get a job in the music industry. (Just kidding.)

When Richard Roeper, on the red carpet and Ebertless, asked Catherine Deneuve what the hell was going on with her dress (it had a rose and a sword on the front), she said simply, "Jean-Paul Gaultier." Sometimes it helps to be able to pretend you are not fluent in English.

On E's red carpet special, the interviewer pointed out to Meryl Streep that she had 14 Oscar nominations. Streep said, "and I'm a size 14, so it all fits, doesn't it?" Great non sequitur (and does she really wear a 14?) Miss Size 12 Jennifer Hudson wants to know! (And p.s., that kinda frumpy outfit Streep wore was indeed Prada. I'm beginning to think she has a subtle yet wacky sense of humor.)

And I'd like to note that the introduction "Academy Award-winning screenwriter Ben Affleck" made me giggle endlessly, 'though indeed the phrase is true. Overall the ceremony was as boring as usual. Ellen DeGeneres was okay, although the constant in-audience shtick was a pain in the arse, and the long filmed tributes, except for the obligatory "here's who died this year," were snooze-making, although by and large well done. Much as I love Pilobolus, the dancers were extraneous, but the one musical number that wasn't a nominated song -- featuring Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, and Jack Black -- was actually funny. Who knew Will Ferrell could kind of sing?

Let me not forget to mention that Michael Musto's nomination predictions were all on target. No fool he -- he'd have to be smart to survive at The Village Voice -- Musto did NOT predict the winners.

Extra added bonus: Get yourself to Go Fug Yourself for hours of merriment on Oscar outfits!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Let's have a beer: The Village Idiot

I hope shortly to review the food at The Village Idiot, the new gastropub in the thick of it on Melrose, but wanted to post briefly about the bar. C and I embarked on a loooong walk on Sunday afternoon. About halfway through our big loop, we found ourselves in need of refreshment...and what is more refreshing than a cold one on a warm afternoon? (That's a rhetorical question.)

Beers on tap include Pilsner Urquell, Guinness, an IPA I don't recall, and something tasty-sounding from Pasadena's Craftsman Brewing....we went for the Pilsner, which (sorry for the cliche) hit the spot. The bloody marys looked good, and so did the food. When the bartendrix asked the guy next to us if he enjoyed his burger, he said it was the best burger he'd ever had. (Which reminded me of the years-ago New York Post in which Marla Maples announced that Donald Trump was the "best sex I ever had," but that's just the convoluted way memory works.)

But that burger comment, Trump or no, will bring me back for a taste test. Fish 'n' chips looked good, too. All indications are good: high ceilings, great raised booths along the open windows on Melrose, attentive service. The Village Idiot is at 7383 Melrose Avenue, at Martel; (323) 655-3331.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Breaking and Entering: Jude Law wants (yet) another chance

What is most interesting about Breaking and Entering, written and directed by Anthony Minghella (Cold Mountain, The English Patient, Truly Madly Deeply) is its setting and the social construct in which the film takes place. The architect Will Francis, played by Jude Law, and his partner are working on an immense plan to redevelop the area around London's Kings Cross station, previously a "marginal" area of warehouses and cheap housing. Francis and co. have recently moved offices to a redeveloped warehouse, with an unfortunate glass roof that leaves them prey to casual thieves -- hence the title -- who twice steal the firm's new Apple computers. The geographical upheaval is echoed by social and class upheaval (the thieves are teenaged Bosnian refugees) and personal upheaval, as Will's half-Swedish longtime girlfriend Liv and her troubled gymnast daughter Bea are both unhappy with Will's lack of presence in their lives.

All could have made for a great film. Unfortunately, centering the film on Jude Law's character Will Francis weighs it down. Will is unhappy with Liv; he is inconstant and can't be trusted with the fragile Bea, who suffers an accident when left in his care. He meets the mother of one of the young thieves and contrives to start an affair with her; the fact that she's played by Juliette Binoche makes their coming together, in the tired logic of this film, inevitable. So what happens? Will eventually does the right thing in a number of ways, but doesn't seem to have changed. He's still a boy who won't or can't grow up. Minghella doesn't give us any evidence that Will wants to change or even recognizes what he's lacking, other than a trite, "I almost lost the love of my life" speech at the end. And Robin Wright Penn's Liv, although strong with her daughter and on her own, takes him back after one final outburst of rage against him. We don't get a sense that he's changed, really, other than he's had some experiences that caused him to 'fess up perhaps for the first time.

There's some annoyingly heavy symbolism. A few scenes after she gives a speech about how she's the one holding the family together, Penn tries to reassemble a broken dinner plate on the kitchen table. In another scene, Penn and Law lean against opposite ends of a mirrored door; we can see half their faces, and half their reflections. Ooh, arty. Also, there's the matter of their names: Liv, with her naturalistic response to life, and Will, who's all infantile urges. Binoche's character is called Amira, which leaves her out of this naming mess altogether. Ironically (that's one heavy iron), Binoche's son is remarkably well adjusted, although he's a thief; Penn's daughter is given to exercising 24 hours a day and doesn't sleep, and she has all the upper middle class advantages. Doesn't that just go to show you.

Jude Law's performance is, well, another Jude Law performance; he acts the right shit, then boyishly tries to make up for it. Robin Wright Penn is an interesting actress to watch, mercurial and tricky. Juliette Binoche doesn't have much to do, other than look bereaved or joyful, but she is a high point. Vera Farmiga is over the top, in a good way, as a car-pinching streetwalker who thinks that the English all talk too much. Juliet Stevenson is terrific in a small role as a child psychiatrist who sees through Law's baloney in two seconds.

One regrets that Penn's character didn't do the same. By the end of the film I was daydreaming about Penn and Binoche getting together over a bottle of vino and having a good laugh about what a silly boy Law is. He's so insubstantial that you believe more willingly in the women he attracts, but you can't really believe in them, because they're hung up on him.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Grammys: Postblogging

Here in L.A., I can't liveblog the Grammys. By the time we see the show, it's over, even though it took place this year just a few miles away downtown.
  1. Police reunion: Stewart Copeland, the drummer, is hot, although we've all seen Sting's muscley bod enough times not to be impressed by it any more.
  2. Stevie Wonder towers over Tony Bennett. Who knew? Guess I took that "Little Stevie Wonder" thing literally.
  3. Beyonce, doing "Listen," from Dreamgirls, gets the love that Oscar didn't show her. Good performance, forgettable song.
  4. Quick quiz: What singer's sister was married to Booker T. Jones, of Booker T. and the MGs, here getting a Lifetime Achievement Award? That's right, Rita Coolidge's sister Priscilla.
  5. The idea of putting Corinne Bailey Rae, John Legend, and John Mayer together in a medley may have been a good idea on paper, and I like the first two artists a lot, but in reality this number sent me to the kitchen looking for snacks. Dullsville.
  6. Shakira, showing us her bellydancing chops while Wyclef toasts (and does backflips) is awesome. Unlike Beyonce, she does not give the impression that she is always thinking about how great she looks.
  7. Another mismatched pair: Seal towers over Burt Bacharach, who seems minute. In self-defense, Bacharach asks Seal to write a song with him.
  8. In case we can't figure out how they feel about the Bush administration and/or the Country Music Association, Grammy voters let us know by awarding Song of the Year to the Dixie Chicks' "Not Ready to Make Nice."
  9. Some tots from a TV sitcom announce that the Grateful Dead have won a Lifetime Achievement Award; Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman are in the audience. Where's Phil? I still miss Jerry.
  10. Gnarls Barkley does "Crazy" as a dirge, complete with choir, but Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse rock in airline pilots' uniforms.
  11. "You Don't Know Me: Songs of Cindy Walker" by Willie Nelson does not win for best country album, but you should definitely download the title song if you have not done so already.
  12. Bob Wills gets a Lifetime Achievement Award; Carrie Underwood, backed by fine musicians, barely makes it through "San Antone."
  13. Ornette Coleman! Cooler than anyone there, and wearing an embroidered black satin suit as he gets a Lifetime Achievement Award from Natalie Cole (how many of these do they give out?)
  14. In a tribute to James Brown, Christina Aguilera belts "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World" so convincingly that Jamie Foxx sits up and takes notice.
  15. The memorial segment wraps up with early footage of James Brown doing his moves. As the film fades, one of the members of his band (I didn't know who it was) brought the Godfather of Soul's red glitter cape upstage, held it out for all to see, and draped it on the microphone stand.
  16. James Blunt, who allegedly threw a snit fit when told he'd have to make his long song snappy, dedicates the interminable-at-any-length "You're Beautiful" to Ahmet Ertegun, who minutes earlier was seen on film talking about the primacy of black music -- which this, er, is not.
  17. It's 10:50, here's Jennifer Hudson to announce the talent contest winner, and Beyonce is no longer in the building.
  18. Talent contest winner Robyn Troupe sings "Ain't No Sunshine" with Justin Timberlake. Fun Fact: the original Bill Withers version of this song was produced by Booker T. Jones.
  19. A highly caffeinated, at the least, Quentin Tarantino announces Record of the Year with Tony Bennett, who indeed is compact. Or is QT tall?
  20. Props to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who did their melodic and athletic thing in front of a clearly improvised sign that read "LOVE TO ORNETTE COLEMAN." At least someone else realized he was the coolest dude in the room.
  21. Finally....Al Gore presents with Queen Latifah. They are the same size and shape. I'm not sure which of them this bodes ill for.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

To the moon, Adam Gopnik, to the moon

This week's must-read is Vanity Fair crankypants James Wolcott's review of Adam Gopnik's most recent book, Through the Children's Gate: A Home in New York, published in The New Republic and available on its website (registration required but no obligations are entailed; the piece was posted February 2). Those who are skeptical of the way Gopnik filters the entire world (as he did earlier in Paris to the Moon) through his upper-middle-class colored preciousness will find much to amuse them as Wolcott swipes his paw at just about everything about the book.

Is Wolcott a charter snark, old-school division? Yes, he is. Is much of what he says on the mark and worth considering? Oh my, yes. Plus Wolcott gets megapoints from me for his reference to the Gilbert Sorrentino novel (actually, it's a roman a clef) Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things and its finely-honed portrait of writers and their sensitivities. Don't waste any time, oh ye writers among my readers, at least skim Wolcott's piece for a giggle.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Notes on a Scandal: Trust No One

Notes on a Scandal has been in release long enough, and won enough awards, for me to avoid doing a full-court press review. But I finally saw it (at the Arclight, not via one of the screeners that are ubiquitous at this time of year) and just want to say: Wow.

Judi Dench, uglied up as a repressed busybody-and-then-some of a teacher at a comprehensive (what we would call a public school) in Islington, northish London, is terrifyingly good. She's a totally self-delusional creature. Cate Blanchett, as an upper-middle-class Bohemienne art teacher, demonstrates again her essential bravery as an actress, throwing herself into a part in which she not-so-sympathetically has an affair with a 15 year-old who is younger than her teenaged daughter.

A big chunk of the subtext here is class: Judi Dench's Barbara is clearly a petite bourgeoise who has worked her way up to her basement flat and longtime teaching position. She's resistant, as one would imagine, to the airy charms of Blanchett's character, Sheba, but at the same time attracted by her upper-middle-class trappings: a row house, and a vacation home in the Dordogne (and the different way Blanchett and Dench pronounce that tricky French word is a key to their class differences). Dench envies Blanchett's entitlements, and in a way wants to prove to Blanchett how unnecessary they are to her; the tough life that Dench has set out for herself is much better. Class envy, repressed lust: Notes on a Scandal has it all.

What it also has is a very impressive Philip Glass score that at times overwhelms the action on screen. Glass' music is relentless and, as it tells a story all by itself, the score has trouble standing aside to let the tale unfold through visuals. Much as I like Glass' work, I'm not sure it functions fabulously here.

Even better than herding cats....


If anything could persuade me to move to Chicago, this job listing might just do it.

Monday, January 29, 2007

R.I.P. Charlotte Lesher, Joey's mom


Charlotte Lesher, the endlessly supportive mother of Joey Ramone and Mickey Leigh, passed away on Saturday. From people who had met her, I always heard good things; one friend reported that she assiduously tried to fix his sister up with Joey. According to Ramones, An American Band by Jim Bessman, on the "Heavy Metal Moms" segment on Geraldo, Charlotte appeared with Joey and sang one verse each from "I Wanna Be Sedated" and "Beat on the Brat" (my mom's favorite Ramones song). Given how amazing it was that the OCD-afflicted Joey ever got himself out of the house, Charlotte had much to be proud of.

Catch and Release: When bad things happen to okay people who insist on smiling anyway

In Catch and Release (yes, the title made me grimace, too), Jennifer Garner plays a woman, probably in her late twenties, whose fiance dies in a sporting accident a day or so before their wedding; their ostensible wedding day is thus the day of his funeral. At the funeral, Garner, playing a character named Gray Wheeler, bravely holds back tears, which enables her to act mostly with her upper lip; seeking escape from the sympathetic crowd, she hides in the bathtub to cry in private, and mistakenly witnesses her dead fiance's best friend having a quickie with a cater-waitress.

And from there, we're off. Garner retreats to the house her fiance shared with roomies played by Sam Jaeger and Kevin Smith, and eventually resumes speaking to the quickie-prone pal, played by the toothsome Timothy Olyphant from Deadwood. Olyphant has a nervous grin that seems to appear whether his character is actually grinning or not; he ought to check that, because otherwise, his performance is respectable.

The problem with Catch and Release is that, on the one hand, the complications that ensue in the plot -- the possible redemption of the quickie pal, the bad, then good, behavior of Garner's to-be mother-in-law, played by premier Shakespearean actress Fiona Shaw (why?), her discovery that she didn't really know her fiance, a suicide attempt -- are pleasingly realistic, supporting a clear-eyed view of life's multidimensionality, which makes sense even more when one considers that the principal characters (Garner, Jaeger, Smith, Olyphant) all seem to be in their late 20s and hence at the time of their Saturn return, a time when, astrologically speaking, the shit hits the fan.

But something happened between the actual story and the film we see, and I'm not holding Susannah Grant (who also wrote Erin Brockovich; this is her first write/direct effort) wholly accountable. Although a lot of things that most people would classify as "bad" happen to these very likable characters, nothing seems to have much of an impact on them. It's not that they're not drama queens; it's that they don't show any hint of the deep emotions that, say, a suicide attempt would bring up in a real person. They bounce back too quickly, with just a bit too much bounce.

The film is set in tie-dyed Boulder, Colorado, which seems like Vermont with better mountains (just substitute Celestial Seasonings tea for Ben and Jerry's ice cream, and you'll get the idea). Maybe there's lithium in the water. Or maybe Susannah Grant allowed her arm to be twisted to get her film made (imagine! could that happen?).

Despite my criticism, I enjoyed the film. Kevin Smith, whose character works at Celestial Seasonings and is constantly spouting quotes from the tea boxes, steals every scene he's in; he's a lively and interesting Big Guy, like Donal Logue in The Tao of Steve. Jennifer Garner is okay, which I think is the best she can do, but she's the right type for the part -- a girl jock who tries not to dwell on things -- so she acquits herself well. I wondered about the names Gray Wheeler (Garner) and Grady Douglas (her deceased fiance). Gray 'n' Grady? Why don't people in films have real names?

In conclusion, if what you need is a feel-good film, Catch and Release is a safe bet. Be warned, it IS a chick flick, despite the presence of Kevin Clerks Smith. But within those limitations, it's entertaining.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Let's have a cocktail*: The Whisper Lounge


When shopping fatigue hits at The Grove, one's drinking options are plentiful. Surely one can have a cocktail at The Cheesecake Factory (a sombrero with that Oreo cheesecake, perhaps?) or Morel's (which has a not-awful wine list). But each of those, for its own various reasons, is a little unreal -- like drinking in a shopping mall.

One's realistic drinking options are these: head to the Farmer's Market and order a pitcher at one of the two bars, have a glass of wine and some very fine cheese at Monsieur Marcel, or stay in the Grove and head for the Whisper Lounge, my location of choice when the Grove's goodwill and fake neighborhood quality (see? we're in L.A., but it's really like New York, sort of) gets overwhelming.

The Whisper Lounge is at the end of the walkway to the left of J. Crew; a secluded u-shaped bar with a marble counter surrounded by banquettes, with some tables and chairs; proper restaurant tables are on the far side of the bar. There's a menu of specialty cocktails (the current menu is NOT on the website) for grownups, e.g. none of them are too sweet. I had a Salty Dog that was essentially a grapefruit-vodka martini, rimmed with salt, that offered the soothing vodka juggernaut with the nutritional advantages of juice. C had a blood-orange cocktail that she liked a lot.

Bar food (some of which is priced lower during Happy Hour, as are beer and well drinks and a few wines) is what you need, priced right and -- again -- keyed to grownup needs. Our artisan cheese platter, new since my last visit, featured three excellent cheeses, all North American, along with fig jam and other pleasant accoutrements. I've had the pizzas and they are good foils to a voluminous and well-selected wine list. The dinner and lunch menus look good and I'd expect good results based on my appetizer experiences.
I always seem to be there in the late afternoon/early evening, so if things get crazy later don't say I didn't tell you, because I just don't know. But the late afternoon cocktail is a fine practice, and the Whisper Lounge is a good choice for it when you happen to be at the Grove. An added entertainment item is that the soap opera casts from CBS tend to hang out here...even if you don't know who they are, they are entertaining to watch, as the drama seems to continue once the cameras stop rolling.

*I'm renaming my bar reviews under the heading "Let's have a cocktail," which will apply perfectly to many of the places I visit and be descriptively generous to some of the dives...but I am nothing if not generous toward dives.....
Photo by Xina at USC via flickr

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Zadie Smith on being a writer and a critic



In two installments in the Guardian, last Saturday and today, British writer Zadie Smith takes on myriad topics especially relevant to writers, as well as writers who critique, whether as book reviewers or in writing groups. This long essay is honest and straightforward, unpretentious and jargon free. Smith addresses issues that writers don't talk about often enough, e.g. how it is entirely possible to complete a manuscript that others rave about but deep inside consider it to be a failure since it is so, so far from the novel we had in our heads. Smith also talks about the responsibility that each reader brings to the text. A great read...check it out!

Photo from Wolf Gang via flickr

Friday, January 19, 2007

Mr. Howell, er, Mr. Magoo, gets delicious

Jim Backus as you've never heard him before.....



This piece is crying out to be sampled!

*more info: the lady is Phyllis Diller, and you can find the lyrics, such as they are, here.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Oscar Predictions: What He Said

The Village Voice, now completely denuded of most of its longtime talent (nice to hear Christgau on NPR now, 'though, isn't it?) has so far retained its "It" boy gossip columnist/social commentator Michael Musto (who has a new book, too). Musto offers his Oscar nomination predictions in this week's Voice, explaining in often-excruciating detail why certain films, actors, and actresses will NOT be nominated. Here's his take on the Best Actress non-Nominees:

Tumbling into non-recognition will be: BEYONCÉ KNOWLES, Dreamgirls (they nominated the real Diana Ross, but she had to shoot up and throw up and give it up for over two hours. Beyoncé's part doesn't allow her to wallow nearly enough); CATE BLANCHETT, The Good German (the bad casting); ANNETTE BENING, Running With Scissors (terrific, but most observers feel the movie collapsed under its own weirdness); MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL, Sherrybaby (she appealingly elevated it from a Lifetime movie, but I'm one of three people who saw it, and the other two weren't thrilled); RENÉE ZELLWEGER, Miss Potter (Are we even sure it is Renée and not Grey's Anatomy star Ellen Pompeo?): NAOMI WATTS, The Painted Veil (tramp finds redemption in China, but is hungry again an hour later)

It's an entertaining read and I agree with most of what he says. Read the whole column for a laugh; page down for his comments on the Golden Globes telecast for even more fun.

Read me at LAist

Apologies for light posting lately; I'm on it. Part of the reason Biffles has been rather subdued lately is that I've begun posting on LAist, mostly about food but occasionally on other subjects. I may begin cross-posting, as well, bringing my LAist stories back to this blog after the statutory 48 hours (LAist's exclusive window) expires. Being on LAist is great for me; the "Ten Best Bistros in LA" list, which I will post here as well, got linked by EaterLA and summarized (in a very funny snarky way) by Gridskipper.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Together again for the first time, the very first time

Cambridge band The Decoders reunited for a special concert last June at the Western Front...fans from across the country, a motley yet distinguished crew that included one Talking Head and Boston's own original scenester Billy Ruane, witnessed the spectacle in all its improvised glory.

And now, through the magic of YouTube, you can too.



Objects on the screen may be far fuzzier than they appear.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Curse of the Golden Flower: Intrigue in the Forbidden City

Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower takes place in what seems to be a 24-hour span preceding the Chrysanthemum Festival in the year 928 A.D. at the end of the Tang Dynasty. We are immediately plunged into action: The empress (Gong Li) is unwell, despire her daily medicine, and the emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) is returning. The crazy psychedelic colors of the palace's jade walls, accentuated with red and gold, swirl us into melodrama: sons in revolt, incest both witting and unwitting, plots and poison, and at the top of the pyramid, an unhappy autocrat.

Despite the lurid story and socko colors, the story plays out as an affecting drama, not as soap opera. The rituals of the court and Confucian mores dictate how the family acts and reacts, even in revolt, and Zhang shows us that. What he also gives us is spectacle: the codified life of the royal court, the sweep of the breathtaking landscape outside the palace, and of course some beautifully-orchestrated battle scenes, as well as some more intimate action moments. The film is pure entertainment served up on a historical platter, with action and intrigue enough to keep a non-Chinese audience enthralled. This is a knights and ladies costume epic, in essence.

Chow Yun-Fat is masterful as the embodiment of absolute power, never letting go or slipping. Gong Li is strong as the empress; she is the queen of hysterics as an actress. The actors who play the threee princes do well, too, although I preferred Liu Ye's beset Crown Prince to Jay Chou's warrior Prince Jia. In essence, Curse of the Golden Flower is a costume epic of kings and queens, creating its own world. And it's an engrossing one.