Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Film reviews: "The Spectacular Now" and "Mud"

I recently had the chance to see two very strong additions to the "Coming of Age" genre, Jeff Nichols' latest southern tale, "Mud", and James Ponsoldt's story of a High School alcoholic, "Spectacular Now". These films could not be more different, yet they have many of the tropes of their genre in common, and both take place in the American South.

"Mud" often feels like a period piece. It reminded me just a touch of something I caught on TV a few months ago, a '50's coming of age movie called "Goodbye, My Lady". I started watching this "boy and his dog" movie because the music was written and performed by Laurindo Almeida, the great master of Brazilian guitar. It's a very sad and wistful film, and surprisingly it drew me in with subtle, straightforward acting and storytelling. "Mud" is the same kind of presentation. Nichols' first two efforts, "Shotgun Stories" and "Take Shelter" have a bit more obscurity to them; at times you struggle to understand if what you are seeing is real or not, or what a character's motivation is in a certain situation. This is not the case in "Mud". The central mystery of why the title character is in hiding is revealed early on.

The film centers more around the relationships between the two young friends, the boys and their families, and the boys and Mud himself. The story of Mud and his erstwhile woman, Juniper, becomes more of a learning parable for young Ellis, as he battles his parent's imminent divorce, and falls for an older girl. This is what works beautifully about the film. What seems a bit forced, however, is the plot itself. Much of the film is standard indie style pastorale, slowly paced and small worded dialogue. When it morphs into an action film, complete with heroic rescue, bad guys and a shootout, the result is a feeling that the director is out of his depth. It's not that the action is clumsily done; on the contrary it is quite professional. The film, however, has not been leading us to these moments, and it is reminiscent of the last part of "Adaptation", wherein Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze satirize the arc of popular film with a potboiler ending. Mud goes from being a kind of deluded, pathetic, lovelorn loser to acting like his CIA trained father figure, who just happens to live across the river from Ellis.

Don't  misunderstand--I enjoyed "Mud" very much, and recommend it without reservation. What really shines in the film is the cast, headed by a strong turn from Matthew McConaughey as Mud. He seems to be resurrecting his career by avoiding RomComs and going indie. I have recently enjoyed his performances in "Killer Joe" and "Bernie" very much. The kids, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland are both believable and unforced, and much of the supporting roles are superbly played. Standouts are Ellis' father, played by Ray McKinnon (Vern, from "O Brother Where Art Thou") and Nichols' "house player" Michael Shannon as Galen. The two big names, Reese Witherspoon and Sam Shepard are as you would expect; up to the task of support players without dominating the film.

On the subject of dominating a film, Miles Teller, as Sutter Keely in "The Spectacular Now" is on screen every frame, it seems, from start to finish. This is a good thing. He is maybe the best young actor in this generation. I was made aware of him through the painfully poignant "Rabbit Hole". Without prior knowledge of the film or it's performances, I came away thinking that he was the main reason to watch it. This is only somewhat true of "The Spectacular Now", due to a fine script, perfect casting, and some of the best ensemble acting in recent memory.

The film tackles an interesting subject; what happens to the popular guy in school when he graduates and loses his status? When people begin to look towards their futures, and not just on where the next party is going to be, or who is the hottest guy/girl to date? Now add into this mix that our hero's undoing begins with being dumped by his hot, popular girlfriend for the over-achieving football/academic star, and that one of the reasons he is being dumped is his incipient alcoholism, and we've got an original character study.

Sutter rebounds with the geeky Aimee, who is played brilliantly by the lovely Shailene Woodley. Casting Woodley as a geeky girl is more than a stretch, she is gorgeous and luminous. I kept thinking about Emma Stone in "Easy A", and how hard a time I had picturing her as the high school loser. These girls would have been the Mt. Everest of MY High School. I guess we need to get past this in contemporary film. Regardless, Woodley and Teller have such a natural chemistry and flow, that it seems like we are watching Cinema Verite at times. Their scenes together are as good as this stuff gets. When Aimee is at a dinner party, and offhandedly describes her father's death to a pill overdose, it is done with that understatement of someone delivering shocking news that they themselves have become inured to. The camera shows the shocked reactions of the dinner guests, and never shows a close-up of Aimee. It is unnecessary. Her voice tone and delivery carry the impact. This is where both you and Miles recognize the depth and strength of Aimee's character. We collectively fall for her.

Sutter and Aimee make a pact to stand up to their (single) mothers, and when Sutter finally does by going to confront his absentee father, you find out exactly what is the source of his alcoholism. What follows is a scene between Sutter and his mother (played by one of my favorite actresses, Jennifer Jason Leigh) of tremendous power, wherein Sutter's mom explains how he is different from his father. This is the big moment, and Jennifer Jason Leigh does it justice.

The script, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber is original and thoughtful. There are few, if any, false notes. This is the team that brought us "500 Days of Summer", a re-working of "Annie Hall" that was very entertaining albeit a bit shallow. "The Spectacular Now" shows some growth, for certain. The film may not be as funny as "500 Days", but it will stay with you a much, much longer time.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Little Serow-- Komi's much hyped, much cheaper sibling

Our experience at Komi was so excellent, that it seemed a no-brainier to check out Johnny Monis' hugely popular and well-reviewed Thai themed restaurant, Little Serow. Yes it was somewhat a daunting task for two middle-aged foodies. The process is need to arrive about 4:30 to get on line outside the unmarked door on 17th St. Then you wait for an hour or so until they invite you in, party by party. If you want to eat later, you can put your name on a list, and will be seated in the second seating (usually about 7:30).
There are no garages in the area, so you need to find a meter if you want to eat right away, which is what we did. While we waited on line, it drizzled a bit, but we had some nice conversation with a young woman who was right in front of us.
The other daunting part of the meal for us oldsters was the content of the food, which has a reputation for being fiery hot. I happen to love hot food, so I wasn't scared, but my wife was not looking forward to it. I will let her vent her side of the story, but suffice it to say she doesn't like Thai food to begin with, so was truly indulging me. It was a bit of an easy indulgence, since she ranked Komi as a top 5 meal of her life! At $45 per meal, Serow also seemed much easier on the bank account than it's Greek neighbor.

Once inside, we were greeted cheerfully by the hostess, who sat us at a two top nearest the rear of the place. It offered a nice view of the staging area, so we could see what dish was approaching. The seats were raised stools, and the table was barroom table height. Not comfortable at all. The restaurant feels like a dinner party at someone's sparsely decorated home. The music playlist was bluegrass and country music; like Komi, it was selected by Anne Marler, Monis' wife and partner. It seemed kind of homey, and even though I am not a fan, I felt it counteracted the pretentiousness of the table getting process. Our server was happy and informative, but was more like a part of a huge serving organism that seemed to take plates to your tables regardless of assignment. All were very up on what was being served, and my water glass stayed filled all night, thank GOD!

We ordered a bottle of Rose Proven├žal, which I thought would be appropriate for the kind of food and August weather. The Rose came out nowhere close to chilled properly, which made me wonder if they were going whole hog on the Thai thing, where refrigeration is always an issue.
First course and Side dishes

Speaking of hog, our first plate came out, which was basically lighter than air pork rinds and hotter than Hades pepper dip. Accompanying for the full meal was a bamboo container of flavorless sticky rice, and a basket filled with undressed raw veggies. The veggie assortment was interesting, beetle lettuce(?), watermelon radish slices, Thai basil bunches), and also uninteresting, (Bibb lettuce, cucumbers, romaine). As for the chip and dip, it had its pleasures. The dip was reminiscent of Baba Ghanoush in texture, but way more subtle in flavor underneath the heat.

Next came out two dishes representing a salad course. I can describe one as pork candy in cilantro, and the other as corn salsa from hell. They both had a similar sauce, but the pork candy made that dish more enjoyable. Both were hotter than our pepper dip, and had a lasting burn I found difficult to quench until much later in the meal. I don't associate cilantro with Thai food, thinking it more indigenous to Vietnamese cooking, but it seemed a major part of this meal. I happen to love it, but it is quite a divisive herb. My wife detests it, sadly. I finished the pig candy, but left most of the corn salsa, finding it pretty damn boring. After this course, my mouth was pretty enraged, lips stinging and eyes running. That's ok. Nothing wrong with an endorphin rush. The water was being consumed at record pace.

Our next dish was a kind of lettuce cup and chopped chicken take, that was pretty similar to a P.F. Chiang dish, but much more unique in flavor. The chicken was mixed with liver, and I thought it was great. Instead of lettuce, there were cabbage leaves for cupping. Also, Thai basil took the place of Cilantro, making the plate safe for Cilantro haters, but not safe for Liver haters. This was a hot dish, but much less fiery than the three predecessors. Things were looking up!

So far the sauces were consistently redolent of fish sauce, with varying amounts of lime to sour things up. Next came a very different flavor and texture. A mushroom dish topped with a fried egg. The sauce was sweetly rich. I loved it when I could take a handful of sticky rice and dip it in there.
The mushrooms were small and slightly crispy, and breaking the softly cooked egg enriched everything with yolk. This was another fine dish, and a nice left turn in the flavor parade.

Ribs in Mekong Whiskey and Dill
The last plate featured short pork ribs, surrounded by a sauce with Mekong Whiskey (go figure--the Southeast Asian version of Jack Daniels Ribs) and, of all things, dill. Yes the ribs were perfectly cooked, crispy and falling off the bone, but i have to say the sauce was not something that fell under the category of different. The dill was a surprise, but not enough to make the sauce thrilling.

This place won a James Beard award? Critics from the Washington Post and Washingtonian Magazine rank it in the top 10 of the area? I'd trade that whole meal for a plate full of Queen Bee spring rolls. Damn how I miss that joint. OK, that's a bit harsh, but I was expecting something far more exotic and surprising. 

There was one final unannounced treat, coconut custard on a small square of sweet sticky rice. It was good, but not remarkable. Which is pretty much how I'd sum up the entire meal. Of these hottest restaurants in the DMV area, only Komi has lived up to the hype so far. Minibar was a close 2nd. Let downs have been Le Diplomate, Volt 21 and sadly, Little Serow.