Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Catching up on Movies

Here are some of my thoughts on movies new and not so new that i have just seen;

"Zack and Miri Make a Porno"; Probably the weirdest date movie ever.....definitely the only date movie that Katie Morgan will ever be in...Kevin Smith seems to have learned how to get more from his actors than just smart-ass rejoinders...despite the fact that apparently it stays below zero in Pittsburgh from November through March, everything works in this truly funny film...Justin Long had me laughing so hard I thought I was going to need an ambulance...Elizabeth Banks is just great in everything...if it was possible to steal this film, then Craig Robinson (Darryl from "The Office") does just that.

"Atonement"; How many drawing room dramas would not exist if British people would just TALK to each other?....James McAvoy is always believeable and charming and just right....with the exception of McAvoy and Saoirse Ronan, who plays little Briony, the rest of the cast seems to be decoration, even Keira Knightly, who does her best Helena Bonham Carter imitation...the tracking shot at the beach in France is a monumental achievement, and I heard nothing about it in any review that I read....I can't imagine how long the setup was for it, and how much of it was CGI...the score got on my nerves more than once.

"Hamlet 2": Nothing like satirizing a classic film style (teacher wins over students, see "To Sir With Love") only to find that in the end you've actually capitulated to the formula...best spin in the satire was at the home of the most troubled student, where the parents are successful, caring and attentive...lots of great laughs in this film, but I am not big on Coogan's slapstick...the kids from "Spring Awakenings" were really good...there is much to love in this cute distraction.

"Michael Clayton"; described as a courtroom drama, it never actually goes to court...I waited the entire movie for Clooney to crack a smile, and he almost does at the very end..one gets the feeling that he is just too good looking to be this character....the pacing and story-telling are absolutely top-notch...Tom Wilkinson has the juiciest part and he nails it, as does Tilda Swinton in her turn...but tell me someone, why does Michael pull over and look at the horses? Couldn't they have set something up? He's supposed to be a gambler--couldn't it have been the track he was into instead of poker?....the confrontation between Clooney and Swinton at the climax of the film is worth the wait....by the way, a great and subtle score.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Visit to The Inn at Little Washington

For my wife’s 1st birthday as an empty-nester, I figured I’d lessen the blow of separation anxiety and aging anxiety the way Jewish husbands have for centuries; I threw money at it.

My plan was to whisk her away to Virginia wine country, take her out for a four star meal and a lavish B&B. If you know our area, the one place to do that where you know everything will be amazing is The Inn at Little Washington.

Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, the Inn is about as sumptuous an experience as you can imagine. The staff is particularly impressive. When we arrived in the late afternoon to check in, they were ready for us and called us by our names before we had a chance to tell them anything. Either 1) we were the only people checking in (wrong), 2) we were the last to check in (possibly, but I doubt it) or 3) they had googled us and had pictures ready the way reporters will for prospective interviewees. That is a bit creepy, to be sure, but it’s that kind of attention to detail that is so amazing about the place. Chef and proprietor Patrick O’Connell was an actor before he took on the Hospitality game, and he has turned the experience of dining and hosting into a performance; a show complete with prologue, characters, plot development, and denoument.

After being toured through the facility, we were shown our accomodations, a beautiful little palace guest room. All the appointments ( I know that’s the right word but it sounds wrong, doesn’t it?) were luxurious. The bathroom in particular was remarkable but very tight, however, where doors open into each other, and negotiating between sink, toilet and shower was difficult. Still, the fixtures, counters, tiny ablutives, terrycloth robes and slippers were all the best money can buy. So this is how the very rich live, thought I. Treated like celebrities, coddled with the nicest of niceties. No wonder they start to think of themselves as a race apart. What I like about the Inn is that even though they might realize that you are not part of the landed aristocracy, they will treat you as such. No snobbery here, at least not to your face!

As for our meal, the show really begins when you take your seats. We had been wine tasting all day, so were not really in the mood for a bottle. I ordered one glass of my favorite wine, Chataneuf du Pape. As we perused the menu (and I was familiar with many of the dishes from looking at the Chef’s books which were coffee-table variety books strewn about our room), the meal began with an amuse-bouche. Three large porcelain spoons each with a little bite of something unmemorable. A little roasted pepper on this one, some grapefruity concoction on that.

Ordering at the Inn is difficult, since you would like to try everything. What you get is 4 courses for a lot of money. When we went there the first time back in 1991 it was $97 prix fixe. Now it is almost twice that! Talk about inflation. We ordered, and I realized that our waitress was probably the least interesting server in the restaurant. There was another waiter, a gentleman who looked like a marionette, bobbing and weaving all over the place in the most exaggerated movements. Why couldn’t we have had him?

The Maitre D’ came over and pinned a white carnation on my lapel, informing me that all male overnight guests at the Inn get one. After ordering, the bread came, delectable little rolls and slices. Quickly we were recipients of a little double demitasse of Cream of Parsnip soup. It was perfect; creamy and flavorful. It made me want to figure out just what parsnips taste like. I don’t believe I have ever had one as the centerpiece of anything.

Our first course arrived post-haste. My wife had ordered the lamb carpaccio, I the lobster salad. Round one went to her. I thought the lamb was better than any beef carpaccio I had tried, plus it was drizzled with some delicious EVOO, and served with a bit of tabouli with just the right hint of acidity to cut against the oil and lamb. My lobster salad was mostly claw meat with a little tail, some fresh grapefruit pieces and frisee. I’ve had better in a shack in Maine. I think with lobster it’s always about how it gets to your plate, and the closer you live to where it is harvested, the better it will be. Those tanks are flavor killers.

The second came out soon after we finished. Timing is everything at the Inn. Two waiters will bring your food and plop the dishes down at the very same moment. It’s one of the flourishes that makes the whole experience seem special. I had requested the “Fire and Ice”, Chef O’Connell’s famous fois gras dish. A seared slab of the glorious foodstuff is placed next to a cold piece of it. If you love this like I do, you try not to think of the process, but only of the result. Hey, I like hearts of palm, but as infrequently as I have it, I don’t feel responsible for the disappearance of the rainforest! Anyway, the birthday girl ordered pecan crusted tempura softshell crab. A very good and meaty crab, but the preparation was not really the right blend. Round two went to me and my fois gras.

Now, the main event was upon us. Rack of Lamb was the lady’s choice, crusted with pistachios (that’s a big thing, the nut crusting). I found the dish a little disappointing. The lamb, cooked rare, was a bit dry and flavorless. The reduction accompanying it was also not remarkable. There were little pillows of artichoke ravioli which were exquisite, but not enough to rescue the dish. My entrée, on the other hand was the Tuna “Masquerading as Filet Mignon”. A large center cut Tuna steak, seared and capped with a slice of fois gras (I told you I can’t resist!) which itself is masquerading as a mushroom cap. It was served with a hoisin sauce and very thinly sliced vegetables. It’s like having the most tender steak with none of the cholesterol. No contest here, my dish was far superior. Score: me 2, birthday girl 1.

Finally, dessert. My wife, evidently stuffed to the gills from watching me eat everything on both plates, ordered the “Palette of Sorbets”. I, in a final act of pure gluttony, ordered the “7 Deadly Sins”, a sampling of their most decadent dulcet delectables. The Sorbets were served on what looked like a glass artist palette, with little brushes made of cookies. It was one of the most visually stunning presentations I’ve ever seen in a restaurant. She raved about the Grapefruit/Campari Sorbet, but I also really liked the Blackberry. All I remember about my dessert was me stripping naked and diving into the plate, fork and spoon whirling together like a speedboat propeller, and then coffee. What was on the plate, I can’t tell you. I know chocolate was involved. Maybe even Crème Fraiche. Probably no fois gras.

The best part of the night was our commute back to the room. Actually, for me, I needed to walk off all that entrenching. It was a beautiful early fall evening, and I walked all around the town, which took about 10 minutes. Behind the Inn is the chef’s private garden, filled with fresh herbs and beautiful flowers. You can also look in the window upon the kitchen to see the magic in preparation. I stood there for quite some time, enjoying the action. It really was something to watch, kind of like a different reality show; Heaven’s Kitchen.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

This One Only Goes to 11

A new rule in Olympic baseball has appeared just in time for baseball to bow out as an Olympic sport, thank goodness. If you haven't heard, the IOC decided to shorten the game we love, and make a change in the rules regarding extra inning games. If a game is tied going into the 11th, each team will get a weird mulligan....starting the 11th with men on 1st and 2nd and no outs.

NBC commentator and baseball color man Joe Magrane has called this new rule "garbage", probably the only thing he has said worth quoting so far. I must agree. One of the things that makes baseball so interesting is the extra-innings tension, the endless duel of whose bullpen can hold on longest, whose defense will lose concentration and slip up, whose manager will play just the right card in pinch-hitting, bullpen move or non-move. Baseball fans live for extra-innings. Those who don't should just put their damn football jerseys on and watch a clock somewhere.

Well, I think there were some better ideas they should have considered for shortening the games, and i will list them here.

At the start of the 10th inning of a tie game;

1) Make the entire outfield turn their backs to the plate until they hear the crack of the bat. Then they can spin around and try and find the ball. Better yet...wait until an ump blows a whistle, then have their teammates direct them to the general area of the baseball.

2) Make all defensive players switch positions ala volleyball rotation after each batter. Oh yeah...they have to use the same glove no matter where they are fielding (except the catcher, of course...I mean let's be reasonable!).

3) Have Beach Volleyball girls scrimmaging in the on-deck circle....sure to cause lapses in concentration! Hilarity ensues!

4) Put Joe Magrane's comments on the loudspeaker, with a nasty reverb effect. Or, make him sound like Christian Bale's laryngitic Batman. OK, so he probably doesn't need any help sounding awful. Just his voice amplified, and I guarantee players will gladly bobble a ball or serve up a meaty fastball in order to end the game asap.

5) Stop the game, and have an Equestrian Dressage event on the infield. Do NOT have the field crew clean up afterward. Hilarity ensues! Sure gives new meaning to the ever-popular horsesh*t call.

6) Reverse the amount of balls and strikes you need for a result. 3 balls, take your base. 4 strikes, yerrr out!

7) Move all the bases in to kickball distance. Outfit the infielders with hockey masks. Make the pitcher throw underhanded. Oh, hell....let's just put a tee up there and wail away!!!

Friday, July 4, 2008

City (B)lights....A review of "Wall-E"

In the new Pixar feature "Wall-E", the Little Tramp has become a robot. It is the future, but it is also the past, in that our mechanical hero is Charlie Chaplin incarna....uhhh, in-tron-ate? Whatever word you might want to coin, there is anthropomorphosis on a grand scale in this animation.

Contemporary animated features thrive on physical and visual comedy, seemingly much more on the physical side than their TV counterparts. The visual comedy seems about equal in the two media. Director Andrew Stanton ("Finding Nemo") certainly knows his physical comedy, and there is more than a touch of slapstick to this film. Most of it is gentle, reinforcing the Chaplin-esque feel. Of the great silent film comedians, only Chaplin made you laugh at the subtle things. Wall-E's great achievement is its ability to do the same, especially in this age of over-the-top Farrelly/Ferrell/Sandler 'smack you over the head with a cast-iron pan' comedy.

It's not just "ohh, isn't that cute" humor. It's extremely clever, well executed and timed, and very creative. The entire first part of the film is magical, a treat for the eyes and mind. Wall-E seems to be the only functioning robot left on Earth, his job to compact the mountains of trash that we littered the planet with. We are led to believe that the only reason he still works is that he has developed a personality, thanks apparently to repeated viewings of the film "Hello Dolly". A cute idea, which I think for me would have the opposite effect. After about the 5th time, I would become an automodon, monotonously incanting "Before the Parade passes by, passes by, passes by".

Once Wall-E ventures up to the space station/cruise ship where the humans are, the film slips a bit into more of what we are used to with contemporary animated features; bad guys (the Auto-Pilot), good guys (The Captain and Eve), and your typical high speed action/chase sequence.

There are some twists on the dystopian theme. People are well cared for and well fed, but basically Manatees, barely able to walk, totally sucked into an E-world that does not give them a chance to see their own reality. It feels possible, this future. In fact it sure seems like it's a lot closer than 700 years away.

There is one strange decision, however. All people are animated except for one live action character, the Bill Gates of the story, portrayed by Fred Willard in his usual hapless, clueless demeanor. Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Paula Abdul aside, I am not big on the mixture of live action and animated characters, with the obvious exception of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit". Most of the time it just points out the unreality of the animations, and ruins my ability to relate to them.

Watching Wall-E immediately brings 2 other films to mind, "Short Circuit" and "Star Wars". R2D2 and Johnny 5 are the obvious antecedents of our hero, but Wall-E does the anthropomorphis in such a touching and gentle way, that you can't help but feel how he feels, and you identify with him the way you would with the best of Chaplin's characters. That is quite an accomplishment.

Monday, June 23, 2008

My First Trip to National's Park

Pretty much on a last minute whim, I ventured to Nationals Park for the first time this evening. They were hosting the Angels in an interleague matchup, what my friend Bill calls “bisexual baseball”. It turned out that the terminology was very appropriate this evening. Yup, it was “Alternative Lifestyle Night” at the old…I mean, new ballpark tonight. The Washington Gay Men’s Chorus sang the anthem, a Gay advocate named Dr. Moobah or some such nonsense threw out the 1st pitch (a 40 foot strike….at least it was a case where you know who the pitcher and catcher were). The only thing missing was a Rep. Larry Craig Bobblehead doll (it comes in it’s own stall!).

My adventure began when I finished a gig at the National Labor College at about 6, knowing that my wife was away covering the California/Carolina league all-star game, and that my daughter was having her usual hang with her boyfriend. The evening was stormy, so I figured there would be a rain delay, and that scalping a ticket would be easy with a lot of no-shows.

But the main problem right now at Nats Park is parking. I passed on the old RFK lot/shuttle system, keen to see if there was a more autonomous method I could work. I remembered that it’s easy to park on the street up in L’Enfant Plaza, and I was correct. I found a spot right near the hotel. Then I spent the next 20 minutes trying to find the entrance to the Metro. Up the stairs, down the stairs, through the hotel, around the hotel. Kids, I was literally standing next to the post demarking the Metro station, without a clue as to where the access was. The area was deserted, and I just tried all these entrances until I found it by sheer luck.

Anyway, 2 quick stops and I was there. Upon surfacing, I immediately ran into a scalper, who offered me a $60 ticket behind the dugout at face value. Not intending to bargain, I merely asked him for a cheaper seat, at which point he began knocking $10 off, and when he got to $40 I bought it. I folded off what I thought was two twenties, then he came running after me to return an extra that had gotten in there. Wow…an honest scalper!

The seat was fantastic, as was the park. The jumbotron is amazing…like having a giant “gameday” display running during the game. Site-lines are as advertised, all the angles seem good. The food booths look great, but are still offering the same old crap. I had a Ben’s Chili Dog, and they are a helluva lot better on U St.

As always, the new parks have borrowed much of the extra crap that goes on at minor league parks; loud music, stupid giveaways, lots of annoying gimmicks that distract from the game. You know, baseball is just such a bad and boring game that you need a Presidential Mascot race to keep people interested. In this one, Teddy and George held down and beat Abe senseless while Tom ran to victory, apparently ending a long winning streak by Abe. I guess Abe should have skipped the game and gone to the Theatre.

Yes there was a game, and a good one at that, until the Nats’ defense unraveled on them in the 8th. Jason Bergmann dueled with Angels’ ace John Lackey inning for inning, and had a lead after 7. But thanks to Saul Rivera and Felipe Lopez treating the baseball like a bar of soap (bad image for tonight’s game…sorry), the Nats coughed up the lead and lost.

I did leave before it was over, and was shocked to see that I had to wait 10 minutes for a train in the packed and humid Navy Yard station. One thing about NY, you leave anytime from the 7th on, Yankee or Shea, and there are subways lined up one after the other to take the fans.

The Green line finally showed, and two sweaty stops later I was back at the invisible station. I found the elevator up to the hotel, and, dodging the rats on the Plaza outside, found my car unmolested, thank Abner. From the time I left my seat to my car was about a half hour. Not good. But, it was cheap! $2.70 roundtrip on the Metro.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Film Review: Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull

After seeing the new entry in the Indiana Jones series, I have come to two conclusions. Well, probably about 20 conclusions, but two that I find somewhat definitive.

1). Pretty much without exception, I think sequels are inferior. Oh yes, I know you are all going to say - but what about “Godfather Part 2?” What about “The Empire Strikes Back”?

What indeed? Both movies are fine, but had much less of an effect on me than the originals. The original Godfather, the first time a Mafia story had been written and directed by Italians, was the most completely fresh and distinctive effort in the genre since “Little Caesar”. We all know what “Star Wars” did for Scifi/Fantasy. Their follow-ups, while fine films in their own right, just could not have the impact of the originals.

It’s kind of the same thing as when you try and recreate an experience that was wonderful the first time (like a vacation), and it falls way short. It ALWAYS falls way short. Maybe it’s because the expectations are so high. Maybe it’s because the newness is not part of the equation. Maybe that’s just how it is.

This rule has been so consistent in my life, that it even applied to my dogs. I had a wonderful pet Bichon who was the best, most relaxed and loving animal. She died rather suddenly and heartbreakingly. About 6 months later we as a family decided to get back on the horse (how’s THAT for a mixed animal metaphor) and get another Bichon. While I do indeed love my new pet, she is not exactly the replacement we had hoped for. Almost 3, and she still won’t qualify for totally house-trained, refuses to let me watch a game or movie when I want to without bugging me, tears every toy we get her to shreds, and generally terrorizes anybody passing by the yard. To quote Paul, “You don’t look different, but you have changed”.

But I digress (Oh, really?). Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull suffers by comparison to Raiders of the Lost Ark in so many ways that you can’t enumerate them in a blog. It’s pretty much on the level of Temple of Doom. But where is the gross out joke? Oh, Indy has to hold a snake to get pulled out of a quicksand-ish trap.

Most of the stunts are forgettable, with the exception of the triple waterfall gag, which I will deal with in a moment. Even the heavies are no challenge to Nazis. The Commies of the 50’s just don’t give me that same galvanic fear-response that is generated by the Reich. Plus, their motivation is as much in question as is our hero’s. Another item that pales by comparison is the MacGuffin. It''s basically a Visitor’s skull courtesy of Area 51. Certainly not a rival for the Ark or the Grail.

There are things that make it a cut above the usual action tripe we have shoved in our faces; The acting isn’t too bad, the pacing is quite good, the little side and in jokes are mildly diverting. But there are so many mistakes and loose ends, stuff you would never see in a Spielberg or Lucas effort from the 20th century. I remember watching Star Wars with a friend, who turned to me and stated, “there isn’t a hair out of place in this movie”. Well, there’s a whole damn toupee flopping around with this one!

2) (Finally he gets to the second conclusion.) This one will really be a shocker. I have decided that CGI effects are not as convincing as the old fashioned matte method. (Gasps are heard, then crickets.)

In the aforementioned triple waterfall scene, Indy and an amphibious vehicle full of characters plummet down 3 waterfalls, all at least 50 stories high. Let’s forget, shall we, that this would mean certain death for even Greg Louganis, and simply suspend our disbelief. It just did not look real at all….it had a jumpy, metallically fake veneer. Without wanting to, I immediately conjured up the computer screen upon which this action was designed, animated and choreographed.

Here am I, trying to get into the escapist fun that keeps me from thinking about the demise of our once robust society, the lack of good African-American music on the airwaves, the fact that Djavan came on tour to Boston and New York, but NOT to my Washington, DC, the puddle on my new hardwood floors created by my replacement dog….and all I can think of is the process that created this not so special effect. Some escape, right?

I say let’s forget about computer generation altogether, and go back to when real artists ruled the SFX world. Why, I’d even welcome back stop-motion frame by frame Harryhausen effects. I would! I would!

Monday, May 19, 2008

American Idol 2008

It's the eve of the finale on one of the 2 reality shows that I actually follow. Idol is kind of an accompanist's dream come true; singers who think they are all that being shown repeatedly exactly why and how much they suck. Of course, it's also a nightmare, in that it takes place on TV, so singers' looks are even more important than their voices.

This time it's the war of the Daves. Both of my girls (wife and daughter) have been insisting it would come down to this for weeks. I held out that Carly or Syesha would make it to the final, going against ArchuletaDave. But wait...CookDave is much better than he seemed at the outset. He has a mind of his own, it seems. His incessant yarling of every standard he can find doesn't rub everyrone the wrong way. As for that mind of his own, it turns out that all of his original treatments of songs are from somebody else's covers! CookDave is really not so brilliant. Except that, like Taylor the Patrol Officer, he is good at this game! He is also one thing the others really aren't yet...a professional.

As for Archie, he really has done some of the most memorable performances. I particularly enjoyed last week's "And So It Goes". I watched Billy Joel's live youtube afterwards, and I think (the horror, the horror) that Archie's was better. Joel sings it too dispassionately. I think Archie is very marketable, if there remains such a thing in this business. By all rights, he should win this thing, even if he can't sing an up tune.

As for this year being the best crop of vocalists, I couldn't disagree more. In fact 3 of the top 10 were downright awful: Brooke, Jason and Kristy Lee. In fact I would venture to say that Brooke and Jason were so bad, that only Jon Peter Lewis ranks below them in the years I have watched. I also feel that if Melinda Doolittle had been in this year, she would have run away with it.

Of course I will Tivo the damn thing, and watch it speedily, stopping only for the performances, and the occasional Paula pratfall.

Oh..my other watched reality series? Knowing me, you should be able to guess. But if you can't, here's a two word clue:

"It's RAW!!!"

Monday, May 12, 2008

Film review, "The Visitor"

I don’t know about you, but I am kind of a sucker for the “small” film. Not necessarily indie, but small. Small in scope, small in budget, small in subject, usually small in audience. A good example of an indie film is “Clerks”. A good example of a small film is “Sideways”. Of course, “Sideways” garnered a large audience, and rightfully so. Many small films are not as successful.

Actor/writer/Director Tom McCarthy’s 2nd film “The Visitor” is a small film with great depth, superb performances and emotional power that unfortunately will be as ignored by the general populace just as his marvelous 1st film, “The Station Agent” was. Why the majority of filmgoers prefer spending 2 hours in a veritable pinball machine is beyond me. Is life really that boring?

McCarthy seems to gravitate towards the round character; his main subjects change as they come into contact with others, or into new situations. They are damaged by life, it’s travails and injustices. They are healed by being thrust into a different world, and are shown the possibilities offered that they have missed so far. Plot-lines take a back seat to this development, which is fine with me. I’ve heard the great director Alexander Payne quoted that he gets handed lots of scripts, but that he loses interest as soon as the plot kicks in. That being the case I am sure he loves the work of McCarthy.

In “The Visitor”, veteran supporting role man Richard Jenkins gets a lead role (Walter Vale) with about as many lines as one of his bit parts. He does the bulk of communication with his physical demeanor. Playing a widowed professor with tenure, he gives every indication that he is a man marking time in jail. A half-hearted attempt at learning piano is his sole foray into change, but it is as successful as all half-hearted attempts are.

What plot there is in “The Visitor” consists of Vale being bullied into presenting a paper he co-authored (but fittingly did not write) at a conference in NYC. He happens to have an apartment there, so he does not need a hotel room. How a college professor can afford to hold onto an unoccupied flat in Greenwich Village in present day NYC is never explained, but certainly crosses the mind. Upon arriving, he finds that there are two illegal immigrants living there, having been subletted the apartment by some unknown person. They leave quietly, but soon Walter realizes that they will be homeless, and offers his place to them for at least another night. The couple (and they ARE a couple) proceed to win over Walter, and become the impetus for his rebirth. Tarek (played winningly by Haaz Sleiman) plays the djembe, an African drum, with small, exotic jazz combos around town. Since Tarek himself is small and exotic, he fits right in. Tarek is also quite charming, and Walter takes to him very quickly. Tarek’s other half, Zainab (Danai Gurira) is a lovely Senegalese jewelry maker, selling as a street vendor. Her principal characteristic is devotion to Tarek.

But it is Tarek and Walter’s friendship that drives the film, and helps to transform and challenge Walter. Tarek teaches the djembe to Walter, which the prof finds far less a challenge than piano. When Tarek is unjustly arrested for turnstile jumping, and subsequently detained for his immigrant status, Walter becomes his only link with the world.

A beautifully understated performance by Hiam Abass as Tarek’s mother adds the perfect mid-movie dynamic. All interactions in this film are believable, as rare as that seems. Not so believable are some of the empty New York City streets, particularly show-time in the Broadway Theatre district. They must have gone during the stage-hand strike. That and the throw-away apartment are the only false notes heard in this sweet and moving film. “The Visitor” packs a lot into a small package; great performances, some wonderfully comic scenes, a serious political message and some real character depth.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Too much film music, or not enough?

I have noticed lately that music is now everywhere. There is no respite from piped in constant recorded music, no matter where your day takes you. Your radio wakes you. Your car plays CD or XM or something as you drive to work. Stop in the Starbucks for their pimped CD of the day. Next it's elevator music up to the office, where someone has your local easy listening/lite rock/best of the 70's/smooth jazz station barely audible in the background. At lunch your favorite cafe has whatever it's ethnic groove is helping with the atmosphere, even in the bathrooms. Your evening run is enhanced by your Ipod playing YOU radio on shuffle and there is NO BREAK.

Recently I watched the British film from last year, "Notes On A Scandal". Veteran composer (and I like to stress the last 2 syllables of that word when referring to him) Phillip Glass did the score, which basically is non-stop throughout the movie. I felt that it undermined what power the film had, by providing little dynamics to the soundtrack. It's constantly there, so it's use has no effect whatsover. I also watched most of "Reign Over Me", and I found that that, too, had a continuous musical wallpaper going on. Adam Sandler's grief-stricken character uses his music on headphones to escape the reality of his situation, so the use of wall to wall music seems to make a little sense, at least. However, if music is constant, then to where exactly is he retreating when he pulls the phones over his ears?

This is why it felt that "No Country For Old Men" had so much more intensity than other recent movies. What music there was in the film was minimal at best, completely unmemorable, and it's absence helped the film have weight. So many scenes from films in the last few years would be naked and weak without the score. The music covers up a lack of real drama, and often a lack of skilled acting! But in "No Country..", the acting, direction and action are so tight, that music is not needed to manipulate the audience.

The best scores are those that provide mood, and an audio hook to the film. I think of "Chinatown", "Taxi Driver", "Vertigo" and "Jules and Jim" as fine examples of this. The zither from "The Third Man" is almost like another character in the film. It seems like filmmakers have lost music's purpose, and now rely on it for a bed on which to lay their pictures, or worse yet, a sort of manipulative cover-up to mask the blemishes of their sub-standard work.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

New Restaurant in Gaithersburg, MANGIARE BENE

Sadly, the town I live in is the black hole of restaurants. I am still waiting for one to open that is respectable and consistent. Whenever a new one finds it's way on the map, my family and I will try it out, especially if it is a cuisine we all like. In other words, if it's Italian. I prefer Asian eateries, since they give you the most bang for the buck. And by bang, I mean flavor. There is one excellent Asian restaurant in our area (Gaithersburg/Germantown, MD), called Yuraku. If this place were open in the District, you wouldn't be able to get in. They give you a ton of fish in their sushi..and it is beautifully prepared. But my family is NOT big on Asian food, so we invariably end up at some crappy chain restaurant. Italian, we can all agree on.

Well, a new Italian place opened down on Clopper Rd., where there used to be a Chili's. Anytime a chain store gets replaced by a Mom and Pop, it is usually a good thing. Well, not this time! The place is called "MANGIARE BENE", Italian for "We have no idea what the f we are doing". From the moment we entered, it was obvious we had made a mistake. As my daughter, born in Virginia, raised in Maryland, said..."It looks like a Southern version of Italian food". Not Southern Italy, but Southern US. She has spent enough time in NY/NJ, where I am from, to know what a decent Italian joint should look like.

Anyway, fearless diners that we are, we went ahead and ordered. The waiter pointed out the specials, which looked like stuff you'd have on any normal menu. Spinach/Artichoke dip (with traditional Italian Tortilla chips) was one, and we ordered it. Maybe 30 seconds later we overheard another waiter, who turned out to be the GM in waiter's clothes, tell the booth next to ours that they were out of the dip. So we attempted to change our order to appetizer salads. When originally asked what the dressing choices were, our waiter listed the usual 6 or 7....balsamic vin, creamy Italian, Ranch, Blue Cheese. However we called the GM over after eavesdropping on him, to explain that we too, had ordered the dip, and would like to change to salads. I changed to a Caeser, but my daughter asked him to reiterate the dressing list, since she hadn't listened when first it was enumerated, having already ordered dip. The GM then said, Vinaigrette and Creamy Italian. My daughter goes, "And?" The GM stands still and does not respond. My daughter goes, "what about all the others our waiter told us about?" At last deigning to speak, the GM replies "That's it."
Later the waiter told us that the guy was the GM, and that he is mixed up. So my intrepid daughter again asks for the list, at the end of which she realizes she did not hear Thousand Island (we called it Russian dressing where I come from, comrade), so he wrote that down. When the order returns, he said, "Oh, we don't have that, what was it? Island? Here's your salad with Creamy Italian" At this point I asked him if we were being "Punked". He laughed but never actually denied it!!

My main course was Veal Marsala, taught in cooking 101. the veal was sauteed with no flour dredging, so the usual velvety texture was replaced by that nasty cardboard of a poorly cooked cutlet. The sauce had as much in common with a Marsala as Iams mini-chunks has with Chef Ramsey's White Truffle Pizza (check out last night's Hell's Kitchen). OK, it was brown and had mushrooms. An added bonus..they poured this bland bodiless concoction all over the side pasta, just in case you weren't impressed enough with it in the first place. My daughter's Calzone was huge, but just an inside out Pizza, and the mozzarella was tough as nails. My wife's Tortellini in Cream sauce (something most of us could make in our sleep) was flavorless and without any redeeming qualities. We didn't try the Taramisu (sic, is that a dessert in "Gone With The Wind"?), thank you very much.

If it's missing specials, mispelled menu cards, blah food and befuddled wait staff you want, then Mangiare Bene is the place for you. Otherwise....avoid at all costs!