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 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.