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. 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!