Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sleeping Beauty at Ensemble Theatre

Thanks for an original version of a classic tale

     Sleeping Beauty by Joseph McDonough and David Kisor has been remounted by Lynn Meyers at Ensemble and it’s charming.  We saw it five years ago and it’s been modified in some ways so that it feels like a revival, rather than a retread.  Kisor’s score immediately engages the audience and the songs are easily hummed, which is important considering this is a family show with a lot of excited children in the audience.  There’s an original message about brains and heart with a subtext concerning gender equality.

Deb Girdler as Wisteria
     The cast is as strong as in the past, especially Deb Girdler as Wisteria the villainess and Michael Bath as Falcon, her henchman (he actually resembles a raven in his looks and costuming).  They exude delight in their roles, in being integral to an ensemble, and in entertaining the audience.  Girdler also gave a witty and heart-felt curtain speech about the public servant role that Lynn Meyers has emphasized as a major component of Ensemble’s mission to its neighborhood and the city.  

The Fairies—Steele, Mackie and Devlin
     Kate Wilford and Phil Fiorini were spirited as the King and Queen.  Deidre Manning was just off-beat enough to keep Briar Rose from seeming saccharine and Terrance Ganser was a refreshingly unconventional prince.  The three fairies were a welcome comic team, especially Brooke Steele in her delivery and Denise Devlin in her singing.  Thankfully, Sara Mackie refrained from the focus pulling that marred her performance in Hands on a Hardbody.

    Meyers’ direction kept the pacing bubbling throughout.  Although Brian Mehring’s unit set worked well, I wish the lighting in the second act could have been scarier for the enchanted forest.

     Briar Rose and Prince Edward greeting audience members afterwards in support of Ensemble's Fairy Godmother Program.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Tacqueria Mercado

Lo que pasó con todos los elogios 
from a couple of years ago?

Tacqueria Mercado Sangria
      We stopped by their downtown version for dinner a few weeks ago.  Eric and I were looking forward to dining there as we had heard good reports shortly after its opening a few years ago.  Looking at the menu, I was inspired by seeing Goat Soup and Tripe Tacos.  I wasn't interested in ordering them, but I found it a step ahead of a typical Mexican Cantina.  Unfortunately, that's where the originality ended for me.  Looking through the rest of their offerings, it repeated most of the fare you'll find elsewhere.  We joined Katy and Denny who had been there a few weeks prior to that night with their visiting family.  They thought the menu had perhaps changed since that time, a theory which may explain the earlier praise we had experienced from others. 

      We settled in with drinks, chips and salsa.  The hit of the evening was their Sangria, a concoction highlighted with blackberry apricot brandy and Jarritos grapefruit soda.  I've never been to a Mexican restaurant where the chips and salsa were not served gratis, but at last —I have.  The chips were obviously house made, flaky and light.  Unfortunately, our first batch was more crumbs than chips.  Of course, that didn't stop us from devouring all of them and ordering more.  

Fajita Super Especial, Fajita Suprema, Chips and Salsa
      Eric and I decided to share the Fajita Super Especial (for two).  I'm never fond of photos on a menu, but in this case our actual food presentation was much better than the pictorial.  Two skewers of grilled shrimp stood tall atop sizzling chicken, steak, and chorizo with sautéed bell peppers and onions.  Two plates of all of the sides you might expect were served alongside.  It was plentiful and filling! My only complaint was the steak, which I found had a bit of gristle.  Katy and Denny were more practical by sharing the Fajita Suprema, which was basically a pared down version of our dinners.  At almost half the price, it was definitely the way to go in regard to value.

Dining Room and Bar
    The décor was a bit predictable and our server was more attractive than attentive, although she could have used some assistance.  Luckily, we just finished our meals as the entertainment for the night started playing.  They may have been better if they hadn't been miked, which was definitely unnecessary for such a small space and a killer for our dining experience. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Theory of Everything

The reflection of the cosmos 
in a loving relationship

     The Theory of Everything will please those who like movies about English geniuses who develop frightening illnesses such as Hilary and Jackie (1998).   I don’t mean that as disparaging because they also end up in some intriguing, outré romantic entanglements.  In H & J, one sister shares her husband with her more gifted musician sister (Jacqueline du Pré) in the early stages of multiple sclerosis.  In The Theory of Everything, physicist Stephen Hawking and his wife share a loving and physical relationship after his diagnosis of a motor neuron disease related to ALS, but things become more complicated as other potential companions are introduced and I’ll leave it at that.

Stephen and Jane Hawking
     The movie is based on Jane Hawking’s memoir, though I don’t know how close it follows.  It gives every character his or her due and certainly Jane does not paint herself as a saint.  After Stephen physically fails and while trying to juggle two young children, there’s a moment where I could see the spirit dimming in Felicity Jones’ eyes.  
Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones
She delivers a lovely performance that quietly shows Jane’s love and devotion, but also the price she pays for giving care to a superstar physicist physically petrifying before her.  When they first get together, they believe they’ll have two years together, but after fifteen, they’re both agonized for different reasons.

Redmayne Playing Father
     Eddie Redmayne made the second half of Les Misérables (2012) bearable and he’s displayed an elegant, fey presence that didn’t prepare me for the incredible charm with which he inhabits Hawking, especially after he cannot speak.  His eyes sparkle throughout and they draw in the viewer.  Yes, he reproduces the overwhelming challenges of Hawking’s condition, but where he approaches greatness is in showing Hawking’s genius and the way in which he articulates his ideas in an understated, even ordinary fashion.  

     Some reviewers have wanted more of the physics.  I felt the movie got that across through how it folds time back on itself at the end, but also how it keeps suggesting the past in the present.  The characters age over twenty-five years, but it’s done very subtly through lighting and mannerism, rather than gloppy make-up.  However, some of the dreary hairstyles of the late ‘70s and late ‘80s show up with authenticity and without a smirk.  

The Art Direction As It Relates to Hawking's Works
     Director James Marsh paces the movie well, but there is a sense of time passing in the examination of an intimate relationship as it lives and dies.  It’s a simile for Hawking’s work in black hole theory and history of time.  I didn’t care for the lighting at all.  It seemed too strong and underdeveloped, resulting in a butterscotch texture that looks like how aging female news anchors are presented.  I don’t know if cinematographer Benoît Delhomme was trying to suggest a hazy, warm, endless English summer, but the movie didn’t look good until the story moved into the somber ‘70s. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue or Ignorance)

A mash-up (or mix-up?)
or styles in a powerhouse comedy

     We saw Birdman two weeks ago and I’m still not certain how I feel about it.  For one thing, it’s two movies rolled into one.  There’s the tight paced, hyper-energetic backstage comedy that most reviewers have made a big deal about and then the more intriguing mid-life crisis fantasy that keeps cutting in and then finally takes over.  Actually, Michael Keaton is sixty-three, but he could pass for a decade younger.  This is his best work since 1988 when he blew up American cinema with his range in the double-header of Beetlejuice and Clean and Sober and was roundly ignored, except by the National Society of Film Critics.  

Michael Keaton and Birdman
     Much has been made of the similarity between Keaton’s history as Batman – he was the best superhero ever because he knew to play Bruce Wayne with understated wit and that the Bat suit would take care of itself – and Riggan’s, whom he plays, major success as the Birdman, which he’s never equaled.  Keaton has proved himself and he seems like he’d be fine living in Montana.  The role is a coincidence and probably fun for him, but that’s as far as it goes.  What hasn’t been pointed out is that Birdman owes a heckuva lot to Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) and Juliet of the Spirits (1965), which were also mid-life crisis comedies with surreal elements.  

The Opening Scene
     Alejandro Iñárritu has been a primary proponent of hyperlink cinema with disparate characters connecting with each other through various plotlines in Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2002), and Babel (2006).  Missed opportunities and reappraising misspent lives was a reoccurring theme in these and in Biutiful (2008).  It is here as well and the grotty interiors, which set my teeth on edge.  Where Birdman takes 
Backstage Drama
off is the mix between realistic comedy and fantasy becoming an eventual reality.  It left me uneasy, though it’s set up from the very first shot.

Special Effects and Cinematography
     The visual imagery in Birdman is breathtaking.  Again, the invisible cuts and long takes have been crowed about and they are remarkable, but the camerawork including what seemed like 360 degree somersaults and explosions onscreen that look to have actually happened were jaw dropping.  And this isn’t a movie with green screens or obvious CGI exercises.  Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer of Gravity (2013), The Tree of Life (2011), Y Tu Mamá También (2001), and A Walk in the Clouds (1995) may be the best of an incredible generation right now.  He’s probably a genius.

Emma Stone
     Each cast member has great moments.  Emma Stone actually gets a deep role to play, unlike the mediocre Woody Allen Magic in the Moonlight earlier this year, and she runs with it.  Her eyes are creepy wild and in playing Riggan’s daughter, a young woman who’s both admirable and irksome, she seems to be on the verge of nailing a screen persona.  Amy Ryan brings a resonance to her part as the raisonneur, telling truth to her possibly mad ex-husband Riggan.  Edward Norton nails the subspecies of 

Keaton and Norton
Method Actor.  He displays the character’s incredible talent in the first scene and the fact that he’s an arrogant asshole, who’d probably prefer to direct; his character constantly gives notes to Riggan.  Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galifianakis capture the simultaneous intense focus and ceaseless multitasking of creative theatrical types, but Lindsay Duncan plays yet another hag as a critic.  What happened to Duncan’s career choices?  Her character might as well be Miss Havisham, viciously getting back at a film actor because – why?  She couldn’t act?  She couldn’t write for film?  I don’t know, but though I believe that critics are looking for something new, electrifying, and for sacrifice on the part of artists, I don’t believe that she would speak so outrageously to Riggan.  It would be truer for her to simply walk away from him.

    I wish there was some ethnic or sexual orientation diversity in the characters.  The New York theatre has been way ahead of other artistic communities in welcoming and awarding a variety of artists, but a viewer would never know it from Birdman.  Woody Allen didn’t seem to know it either in Bullets Over Broadway (1994) – the last major backstage comedy movie – but then none of his other movies have displayed any diversity, besides Italians.  Birdman works, but maybe not for the reasons it’s been publicized.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Rachel Kushner: The Flamethrowers

A young woman comes of age on a motorcyle

1970s Art Scene in New York
     Italian Motorcycles, the downtown New York art scene of the 1970s, American youth revolts of the 1960s, Italian worker/consumer/student/kidnapper-you-name-it revolts of the 1970s, the Land Artists, May-August romances, artists whose persona/story reveals their art, a young woman of talent discovering her self-awareness, and the list could go on.  The Flamethrowers (2013) was nominated for a number of literary awards.  The most thrilling element is how Rachel Kushner captures the voice of a young woman pushing herself to her limits physically, emotionally, intellectually, and politically.  I didn’t want this book to end.  I’d love to see it as a movie. 

     Kushner captures various groups of people with the cool, analytical gaze of an anthropologist, even though her main character Reno wants to be both a part of each group and apart from each group.  She nails the artistic impulse and the way in which it can be revealed in geniuses and charlatans.  In some cases, individuals can wear both of those masks at different times.  

     Kushner’s writing feels influenced by Don DeLillo and Shirley Hazzard.  Like DeLillo, she focuses on a protagonist, though female rather than male, relating to various groups of people and connecting social connections to over-riding political philosophies.  Unlike DeLillo, her narrative is set in the past like Hazzard’s novels.  Kushner employs a slightly tricky ending like The Transit of Venus (1980).  The book doesn’t end chronologically.  Instead, the final image shows Reno in a moment of epiphany contemplating what it means to be an aware and intelligent American in Europe at a psychological and emotional crossroads.

Volatile Italian Poltics
    Okay, after waffling on like some nervous graduate student, it’s the best yummy smart romance novel I’ve read in years, maybe since Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone (1992).  Except for one glitch – “Take this Job and Shove it” was released after the New York City blackout of 1977, not before – it’s lovely.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Banana Leaf Modern Thai

Destination dining for us that appeared
to be a neighborhood gem for others

Banana Leaf Modern Thai
     I doubt there are many of us that can remember the streetcar and bustling hotel on Main Street in Mason.  They're gone, but the private residence across the street has stood there since 1877.  Currently, it's been elegantly revamped with simple touches to welcome its guests.  I'm always partial to establishments that can use IKEA accents to pull off a more expensive and detailed look, and Banana Leaf does that effortlessly.  

Our Dining Room
     We had checked out their menu online and had pretty well made our selections before arrival.  I mentioned that I had an aversion to spicy dishes, which shifted my initial choice of a wild boar entrée to a long list recommended by our knowledgeable server.  

Duck Tacos

     We started with the Roasted Duck Tacos from the chef's fall menu.  The house made tacos were nice and crispy, which made them a little difficult to gracefully eat.  The duck could have had more flavor, though it was aided by the mango and grapefruit salsa served alongside.  
Harvest Curry
Eric's entrée of Harvest Curry was also a fall feature.  He chose tofu as his protein, which he found to be smooth and creamy.  The curry was rich with all things fall—pumpkin squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, and red bell peppers.  Infused with orange zest and topped with roasted pumpkin seeds, Eric thought it the best curry he had ever had.  

Pad Thai Goong
I settled on Pad Thai Goong, an artful creation of a traditional Thai dish with four giant prawns enveloped with a crepe "nest".  The flavors were remarkable and the presentation memorable.

Thai Tiramisu
     Desserts were plentiful with the guest favorite being the Coconut Creme Brulée served in a coconut shell.  We decided to share the Thai Tiramisu of ladyfingers soaked in Thai coffee.  It's one of our favorite desserts to try and this was up there with the finest.

     Running into the chef/owner on our way out, we were questioned about our dining experience and invited back to enjoy the patio and landscaped waterfall.  We thought it an offer we won't be able to refuse.

Banana Leaf Modern Thai on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Miranda Lambert: Platinum

Yet again, Lambert delivers 
tough vulnerability with exquisite precision

     Miranda Lambert’s latest solo album Platinum was released five months ago, which was when I picked it up and I’ve played it about a dozen or so times since then.  It’s an easy collection to hear a number of times because it sums up the past of country and western music, while also placing Lambert in the forefront of where C & W may go next.  Along with Beck on Morning Phase (Alternative Rock/Rock) and Pharrell Williams on Girl (R&B/Pop), Lambert has taken stock of a musical genre and stated why it is and has been important to American culture.  For me, those are the three most significant albums released this year.

     Lambert wrote/co-wrote about half of the songs on this album and performed works by some other top C & W songwriters.  She comes across as Western because of the instrumentation and variety of rhythms on this collection that somehow do not seem like Country-Rock or even Neo-late ‘80s Rock the way they would on an Eric Church album.

     On “Priscilla,” Lambert doesn’t just sing about Priscilla’s relationship with Elvis, but her own relationship with Blake Shelton.  In referring to talking ‘woman to woman,’ she invokes Tammy Wynette’s classic and, therefore, her tempestuous relationship with George Jones.  Lambert and Shelton are on a par with Wynette and Jones as married singing superstars.  We just may not know the complexity of their relationship as concretely as we have been aware of Wynette’s and Jones’s over the decades.  

Lambert with Underwood
     Lambert has always been generous in sharing the spotight with other women, whether that would be her feisty trio Pistol Annies or on “Somethin’ Bad” with Carrie Underwood.  If Underwood comes across as the noble young woman wronged and finding a way to rediscover herself, Lambert’s image seems one of the gritty young woman that sees the world for what it is and will thrive in spite of it.  She can observe how technology has eroded personal relationships on “Automatic,” which is the reason she’s fine with “Old Shit,” but she’ll find strength in her female friendships (“Girls”) and have a smoke and a drink.  

     It’s her vim that compels a listener.  She doesn’t have the strongest pipes or the loveliest tone, but she turns what could be considered weaknesses into an advantage by coming across as an authentic honkytonk girl (“Gravity’s a B**CH”).  However, where she goes deeper than Gretchen Wilson is in showing the darker side of partying, the roles for contemporary women, and life within sight of the poverty line.  

     Lambert’s CD cover visually realizes the work.  She’s stepping out of an Airstream camper in a black evening dress and platinum cowboy boots, her hair almost picture perfect, but not quite, and a look on her face that’s both pensive and critical.

    She’s won practically every major recording award except the CMA Entertainer of the Year.  Here’s hoping she succeeds this year.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Laverne Cox Shops at JCPenney

NKU establishes itself 
on the map for LGBTQ issues

Laverne Cox at NKU
     As one audience member said, it was a historical moment at NKU when Laverne Cox presented.  She's been an Emmy nominated member of the Orange is the New Black cast.  She's also been a spokesperson for the transgender community on a number of talk shows, news programs, and news talk shows.  She's also produced cutting edge documentaries as well.  

     Cox was most compelling in her erudition and analysis of various writers that have focused on Feminism and Women, Post-Structuralist and Deconstructionist theory, and gender, racial/ethnic, and sexual orientation identity.  She's the compleat college speaker - appealing to a wide range of students and community members, an icon of the zeitgeist, and simultaneously funny and intelligent.  

     Thanks to Bonnie Meyer, Director of LGBTQ Programs and Services at NKU, as well as the leadership of Student Affairs and the university.  Students and faculty from UC, Xavier, Thomas More, U of L, and Berea joined the throngs from NKU for the sold-out occasion.  This brightens the future of NKU and was such a relief after the recent regurgitation of the Scott Eaton affair(s).  Please, Cincinnati media, let's call a moratorium on that pathetic story.  

    Oh yes, and Laverne still has the style and wit to admit to wearing a $29.99 dress from JCPenney!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Meatball Kitchen

Simple Italian your way

The Simple Industrial Interior
     Dreary fall evenings call for comfort food so Eric and I dropped by Meatball Kitchen on Short Vine after a movie recently at the Esquire.  I'd been curious about this place since its opening earlier in the year…a build-your-own approach to Italian dining.  It was a quiet evening for dine-in, so we had the full attention of our server for a run through of the posted menu.  

Rigatoni with Spicy Pork Meatballs and Meat Sauce
      Both of us decided on pastas with the other choices being a sandwich or salad.  We added our pick of meatballs (Turkey and Spicy Pork) from others including Beef and Vegetarian.  A line up of 5 sauces tempted us with the Meat and Béchamel adding Provolone Cheese on top.  Wow—thatsa lotta meatball options!  

Turkey Meatballs
with Béchamel Sauce
     The outcome was quite desirable as shown.  Both were tasty, led by cinnamon, chili and clove in the spicy pork ball and spinach, feta and fennel in the turkey.  Below them were a 3 meat sauce with ricotta and red wine, while the béchamel was a creamy mixture of brie and parmesan with garlic bread crumbs all atop mezzo rigatoni that was nicely prepared.  I have a pet peeve about not having enough sauce to compensate for the pasta, but that was not a problem here.  
Seasonal Broccoli
and Side Salad
We chose to have a side salad and broccoli.  Both were unconventional with the side salad winning out.  The broccoli was just too overcooked.

Wine Pairing Wall
     Eric raved about the iced tea.  I thought it had a spicy after taste that was remarkable.  There's also a nice list of beers and wine with entrée pairings visually displayed on the wall.  A very nice touch that takes away thinking for the customer.  All they have to do is enjoy the food…and that's more than enough!

Meatball Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


A mess of vivid characters 
trying to save and change their world

     The economic downturn, which hasn’t exactly turned up yet, resulting in “the new normal,” may be the right context for Americans to connect with Pride.  Yes, it follows in a particular subgenre of working class (mainly) men losing their livelihood and being reawakened by something completely incongruous.  Because of this, there’s both pathos and hilarity.  The British movies The Full Monty (1997) and Billy Elliott (2000) have been regularly cited by other reviewers, but the American movies Invincible (2007) and even the lighter How to Beat the High Cost of Living (1980) share a number of these elements.  

The LGSM Group
     Pride ups the ante by taking a true double fish out of water story that had overwhelming stakes for both groups (striking Welsh coal miners facing potential starvation and London lesbians and gays facing both homophobia and AIDS in the pre-cocktail era), while also teasing out a strong feminist subtext.  Stephen Beresford’s script is multi-layered, authentically textured in the political and cultural era of the mid-1980s, and it genuinely earns the deeper emotions for which it pushes.  

     The strongest part of the movie is in its presentation of how disenfranchised groups confront power.  The Miners’ Union and the LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) face as much strife in their membership about whether to directly confront their oppressors or try to work with the establishment or splinter away.  My only problem was that Beresford felt compelled to add Joe, a fictional character, who seems to be present for the straight audience to feel sad and then uplifted by an archetypal (or stereotypical for detractors) middlebrow coming-of-age/coming out story.

Dominic West with Imelda Staunton
     Dominic West nails a big dance scene and there’s considerable charm provided especially by Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Paddy Considine, and Jessica Gunning as some of the Welsh village residents.  Therefore, it’s already under consideration as a musical and I’m dreading that eventuality.  While I respected the touring production of Billy Elliott, I felt that the stage version neutralized both the despair and the buoyant joy of the movie by expecting a large, professional cast to behave as if they were singing Verdi.   Plus, Jamie Bell, Gary Lewis, and Julie Walters were irreplaceable from the movie..  

Ben Schnetzer as Activist Mark Ashton
     Director Matthew Warchus keeps a number of subplots bubbling along, but his smartest move was in casting a little known or used American actor in the most compelling role.  From the first shot of his face as he hears about the Miners’ Strike on TV, Ben Schnetzer plays Mark Ashton as a smart, passionate, unapologetic leader.  With his bovver boy boots and jeans, New Romantics haircut, and unassuming strut, I assumed he was a new English or Irish actor.  He neither overplays nor begs for sympathy and because of that, he creates a hero and proves his mettle as a potential star.  I hope he doesn’t sell out and get sucked into some jacked up superhero franchise for 12 year old boys and the emotionally simple-minded.  He’s already playing a superhero – a real one, who did change Britain.  

     To capture some sense of the movie’s breadth, a group of Welsh women go on a gay club crawl with their new lesbian sister comrades.  What could seem ‘cute’ actually plays as funny because of the sincere curiosity of the straight women.  However, it cuts to a brief scene between Mark running into an ex and the underlying ramifications are heartbreaking and frightening.  Are some of the most compelling leaders so energetic because they see the clock ticking?