Friday, April 18, 2014

Personality Chef Carla Hall

Toot. Toot! Honk. Honk! Ah-Ooh-Ga!

Dexter Enjoys Carla's Reading
      That was Carla's call out from her first book Cooking with Love: Comfort That Hugs You.  It's what she says when she wants to give herself a pat on the back.  At the recent book signing at Joseph-Beth Booksellers for her second book, Carla's Comfort Foods: Favorite Dishes from Around the World, her fans were ready to give her plenty of pats and
kudos!  She wowed and entertained as only she can with a literary reading of an excerpt from the book, and then returning to what she does best…just talking about food and how to cook with love.

      We first took notice of Carla when she was our favorite contestant on season 5 of Top Chef.  Her comical spin on things and natural culinary talent made her the front runner to beat.  A win wasn't in the cooking pot, but we continued to follow her whenever she would return to Bravo for special outings and Top Chef: All-Stars.  Then we discovered that she had started a mail-order cookie business, Alchemy by Carla Hall, that pairs savory and sweet flavors.  That still seemed too tame for our personality chef so when she landed as one of the co-hosts on The Chew, we knew she had found her calling.  Fortunately, the cookie company is still in production as well as the popular daytime show.

      Her latest book emphasizes world cuisines and how taking a favorite recipe can be altered to reflect flavors of different cultures by simply replacing a few ingredients.  The emphasis is on spices with one of the handiest elements of the book defining them in a graph by countries and regions of the world.  It's all presented in the simplest possible form in an exquisitely designed book with meaningful shots of Carla and food.  The recipes are completely doable and her sidebar tips explain "why and how" ingredients are used.  This time around it's all hugs and spices!

Carla Signing Our Book
For Carla's cookies, visit:

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Reconsidering The New Hollywood, Part II

The Stunt Man

      . . . if only László Kovács had shot The Stunt Man, which is bathed in that butterscotch lighting redolent of prestige (i.e. Emmy contender) TV movies of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.  (1980’s Those Lips, Those Eyes had the same awful lighting).  

     The Stunt Man has a script by Richard Rush and Lawrence B. Marcus from Paul Brodeur’s novel that probably reads beautifully.  It’s a variation on Pirandello (what is real? what is illusion?) that’s set against the backdrop of post-traumatic stress disorder post-Vietnam War America on what turns out to be a movie set.  The viewer doesn’t know that during the two extraordinarily staged and edited sequences around a bridge and on a beach that start the movie.  Technically, these sequences are as joyfully crafted as the openings of Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) or Altman’s traffic jam sequence in Nashville (1975).   

Peter O'Toole as Eli Cross
     Yes, you can’t have a good movie without a strong script, but you also cannot realize that script without the right actors and that is the Achilles heel in this case.  Peter O’Toole is magnificent and indelible as Eli Cross, the megalomaniacal director.  No other star in that period could have given such a baroque yet somehow naturalistic performance.  Willing to do almost anything, including a number of mind games, Cross can be trusted to finish the movie on schedule, regardless of the human toll.  Steve Railsback as Cameron the Vietnam vet trying to lay low as a conscripted stunt man, believes that Cross may be trying to kill him.  It could look that way, but then your individual, subjective point of view becomes your seemingly objective truth.  That is one major Pirandellian theme, and another is creating your persona to fit that truth.  

Railsback and Hershey
     Persona works on a metaphysical level in Shampoo; in The Stunt Man it tantalizes at first, and then becomes bluntly literal. However, Railsback comes across as feral, desperate, and vaguely psychotic (he couldn’t shake having played Charles Manson), while Barbara Hershey is lovely and sincere, completely missing the quicksilver timing and mercurial nature of her actress character.  Oh, if only John Savage, fresh from The Deer Hunter (1978), could have played the lead.  He could seem frightened, desperate, intelligent, and a leading man.  Oh, if only Brooke Adams could have been in this instead of the misfire Cuba (1979).  She could play levels of acting ‘reality’ simultaneously.

     The Stunt Man might have been an art house hit five years earlier or an indie sensation fifteen years later.  The timing was against it, which is a shame because that script resonates thematically and it clips along like a Rube Goldberg device.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Reconsidering The New Hollywood, Part I


     The R rated movie introduced the adult, intelligent “New Hollywood” of the ‘60s and ‘70s that was subsumed by blockbusters and was reasserted by the independents of the ‘90s.  TCM recently showed Shampoo (1975) and The Stunt Man (shot in 1979, but allowed to escape in 1980 and Part II for this article), which represent that initial period, were critically appreciated in that era, and were nominated for Oscars. 

Dexter Examines George's Hair Salon in Shampoo
     Shampoo (1975) made a fortune because it was sold as a Warren Beatty star vehicle, reflecting his reputation as Hollywood’s leading lothario.  As George, a Beverly Hills hairdresser looking to start his own salon while shuttling between a number of different women on Election Eve 1968, Beatty personifies yet another rebel that will be neutralized by the power elite.  It’s one of his few serious movies where he isn’t killed.  Instead, he has to grow up, which in this case means he has to balance commerce with his art.  Lester, an
Warden, Christie and Beatty
avuncular and somewhat shady financier played brilliantly by Jack Warden, represents both a father/mentor figure and the corruptions of power.  Lester, a Republican fundraiser, utters the throwaway line, “they’re all idiots,” while watching Nixon’s acceptance speech.  Tony Bill’s character, TV commercial director Johnny, is smart, competent and ethical (Bill became a successful film director later).  George may seem an idealized image of Beatty, but from what I’ve read he’s more akin to Lester and Johnny.

     Most of Shampoo deals with male-female relationships in which men don’t understand women.  To Lester, women are prizes to be adored and controlled, while George wants to turn them on by grooming them and reaping the rewards.  The only female character with a job is Jill, a model, played by Goldie Hawn.  This part and The Sugarland Express (1974) really demonstrated Hawn’s edginess as the counterpart-antidote to her fallback daffiness.  She wasn’t able to work both sides until The First Wives Club (1996).  
Goldie Hawn in The First Wives Club
    Lee Grant, Julie Christie, and Carrie Fisher play Lester’s wife, mistress, and daughter, respectively.  Christie’s Jackie is George’s ex and Jill’s friend.  (Christie was Beatty’s ex, but they’d also remained friends in reality).  She’s torn between George’s laissez-faire attitude that leaves most women waiting while he moves on to the next one needing his assistance and Lester’s control.  One great sight gag is that when they first meet, they have similar hairstyles courtesy of George.  Although much was made of the love scenes, they’re actually pretty tame and Hal Ashby, who directed, had the good taste to save the female actors their physical dignity.  Viewers may remember seeing more than what is actually shown; though Christie’s backless black lamé dress astonishes and could walk a runway today.  The scene that would have a tough time nowadays is when Fisher’s fifteen-year-old character propositions George and it’s implied – without showing anything – they make it.  Her mother is shocked when she tacitly understands what’s happened, but wants George anyway.  

Lee Grant in The Landlord
     Lee Grant’s career was reinvigorated by Ashby in this and wild race relations satire The Landlord (1970) after she was unfairly blacklisted for over a decade.  Her Felicia, generous, compassionate, and kittenish, is the better person than Christie’s Jackie with her dollar sign eyes.  This was the commercial height of Julie Christie’s idiosyncratic and intriguing career.  

     Authorship clouds the movie.  Beatty produced and co-wrote the script and his public/private persona dominates, but the script reflects the layered, classical construction endemic to co-writer Robert Towne’s vision.  It’s a modern version of a Restoration sex comedy, especially with the corrupt political overtones.  However, Hal Ashby’s contribution cannot be overstated.  There’s a warmth in the tone as well as a looseness to the pacing that makes it seem less plotted than it is.  He epitomized California dreamin’.  Ashby had won an Editing Oscar before he began directing and though he didn’t direct this, the timing is his.  László Kovács shot in a precise, clear style for the night scenes and in a haze the following morning, thereby going against the usual pattern of a clean visual epiphany at the end.  It’s almost as if he was playing the backbeat and it’s evidence of his mastery . . .

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Beck: Morning Phase

Beck brings it on with an album 
that leaves Pop/Rock/Alternative in its wake

     I was a fan of Beck from the first time I heard “Loser,” though to paraphrase Entertainment Weekly, part of the reason I liked it was because I knew Kathie Lee Gifford would never cover it.  Odelay (1996) and Midnite Vultures (1999) were a lot of fun since they took on Hip-hop and Disco, respectively, but Sea Change (2002) sounded sort of drab and unlike anything he’d done before when I first heard it.  When I replayed it, I thought it was one of the great heartbreak albums.  Beck kept on going and I followed, but The Information (2006) took on inventiveness for its own sake and it felt gimmicky.  Beck took a break for about five years and then returned.

     Morning Phase places Beck back in the forefront of contemporary music.   Since the inception of iTunes, we’ve been listening to a singles music scene, but Beck has produced an album that’s practically an update of a concerto.  Though there are thirteen tracks, it’s feels all of one piece.  The introductory track segues into the second and it
immediately recalls Sea Change.  The seventh and the final tracks return to the musical themes of the beginning so there is a sense of specific movements within a cycle.  Plus, the main instrument is Beck’s voice and there’s a small band – almost a chamber orchestra – so there we go.

     I’m making this comparison because other reviewers have made all types of comparisons.  A WNKU DJ thought it sounded like Pink Floyd, which was somewhat apt.  However, Beck doesn’t over-sing or go all Freudian about his childhood or feel terribly guilty about someone close losing his mind, not that I’m trying to be reductive about Pink Floyd.  Rolling Stone thought it was like folk-rock and it does have that ‘70s vibe as do both Dawes and Vampire Weekend, or any other serious contemporary pop artist, whether rock, country, or soul.  However, Beck doesn’t seem interested in a hit pop song because it’s about the entire album.  This feels more like the artistic product of Jackson Browne paired with Phillip Glass.

Beck's Myriad Mix of Genres
     It’s an aurally gorgeous work that reminded me of Debussy’s “La Mer.”  Yes, I know this sounds pretentious (like Pink Floyd, perhaps) and I’m digging myself into a hole, but Beck moves forward contemporary music by going really Old School.  In this case, that means late nineteenth century Romantic or seventeenth century Baroque.  Morning Phase focuses on renewal and re-evaluating the present.  If Sea Change was Beck’s getting over a long-term relationship’s break-up, then Morning Phase may be his coming to terms with middle age.  It’s a classic.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Eagle Food and Beer Hall

Everything one would expect as the string 
of restaurant pearls continue on OTR Vine Street

The Namesake Wall Graphic
      There has been a lot of buzz around The Eagle Food and Beer Hall since it opened in December 2013.  If a conversation comes up about food and restaurants, The Eagle is mentioned with more than just a passing comment.  I had been waiting to go and wanted to experience it with a larger group than just the two of us, so we decided to ask Kris, Karn and Helen if they would like to join us for Sunday lunch.  That would give us the opportunity to sample more things.

1/4 White Chicken with Spicy Hot Honey
       We arrived when it opened, which allowed us to be seated without a wait despite the line outside.  The menu was simple with portions geared toward picking a main plate for oneself and sharing the snacks and side dishes.  Fried Chicken was
Pork Sandwich
the star (its peppery coating made it worth that status billing to most), but the Pork Sandwich was a hit among our group.  Portions are large, and that's especially true for the sandwiches.  The Fried Chicken version was topped with cole slaw (also

Fried Chicken Sandwich
available as a side dish) and garnished with a pickle (also available as a snack).  Eric felt the spicy kick of the chicken came after-the-fact.  

Chopped Salad and Kale Salad (Background)
       We shared a small size portion of the Kale and Chopped Salads, but found the chopped offering to be more satisfying.  None of us felt it needed the roasted chicken, as the other ingredients of sweet and savory seemed perfect with the white balsamic vinaigrette.  The bourbon soaked golden raisins in the kale salad were definitely overpowered by the cider vinaigrette.  As for sides, we chose Succotash, Mac & Cheese and Spoonbread. 
Succotash and Spoonbread
The succotash was an adventurous combination of great northern beans, corn, green beans, bacon, and bell pepper in a slightly spicy sauce. 
Mac & Cheese

For me, the mac & cheese was the least successful, although others liked it. I thought it had all the right fixin's, but it had more of a sauce on top than a casserole and that made it cool off way too fast on the table.  Spoonbread should be their signature item after the chicken.  Thick, creamy and filled with corn, it supplied everything it needed to in its little iron skillet.

      We haven't mentioned the other half of the menu, which is an extended list of beers (over 100), wines and signature mixed drinks.  There's something for everyone, even early bird teetotalers like us who enjoyed their special Root Beer brew.  There were no desserts, which is the regular practice with this restaurant group, but there was Holtman's and Graeters adjacent.

P.O. Boxes with Original Walls
      The interior borrowed trends—unpolished wooden ceiling and walls, sleek, central bar, exposed brick—from other recently opened restaurants, but used the building's original intention as a U.S. Post Office wisely with the eagle motifs throughout and P.O. boxes still intact as wall art.  Service was friendly, knowledgable and well coordinated.  It's well on its way to a long run on Vine Street.

NOTE TO THE EAGLE:  While checking the menus posted on Urbansppon, I noticed that there have been at least two price readjustments on your menu in the less than 4 months you've been open.  I counted 18 out of 26 items and some of them were a 50% increase!  While I know meat prices have been on the rise, most of these were non-meat items.  Come on!  You're experts in the restaurant business, so get it right the first time and stick with it… and don't try to fool the public!  The last time we saw this happen with a cool new restaurant was Wunderbar, and it eventually turned us off to returning on a regular basis.

The Eagle Food and Beer Hall on Urbanspoon

It's an eagle…it's a plane…no—it's a bird!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

New York in the ‘70s: Will Hermes, Martin Gottfried, & Sam Wasson

During an economic free fall, the city 
crumbled, but the performing arts electrified

     When Howard Cosell said, during the 1977 World Series, “The Bronx is burning,” it really was.  Fires in the Bronx and bombings in Manhattan were commonplace in the ‘70s, an era that Will Hermes resurrects with extraordinary detail and an encyclopedic knowledge of the music scenes in Love Goes to Buildings on Fire:  Five Years in New York that Changed Music Forever (2011).  Hermes is a senior critic for Rolling Stone, but he writes in the exciting, all-encompassing style of a top historian that’s accessible.

     He’s amazingly at home in the development of Salsa, the Jazz loft scene, the Minimalist movement in classical music, Soho-Bowery punk, and hip hop Rap.  Rolling Stone has
generally only been strong in the Rock genre, but Hermes revitalizes all of these genres.  His explication of the development of hip hop rhythm and the rhymed talking of DJs at Bronx block parties and rec room hangouts recasts that whole movement completely.  It was about dance and creating a great beat.  The philosophical and political themes emerged much later.  Punk actually started with The Stooges before finding its footing in New York, then being supplanted in London.  

     The other enlightening element becomes the connections that the various composers-performers made with each other, regardless of genre.  This was strongest in the Salsa and Jazz worlds, but also for the Punk and Minimalist musicians.  Hip-hop was practically sui generis and was most emblematic of young people creating an art form almost accidentally with whatever was at hand.  It’s a fascinating book because Hermes keeps referring to other major news and political stories as a background, rather than a context, for the music.  

Signed copy of Broadway Musicals reading
"For Neil—You and I love best these shows
-Martin Gottfried"
     Hermes doesn’t touch upon Broadway, but Martin Gottfried definitively covered the subject in Broadway Musicals – one of the smartest and most beautiful coffee table books ever – and More Broadway Musicals, which showed that the British and money were not substitutes for American ingenuity.  Gottfried was an erudite, accessible critic who died earlier this month.  Neil and I met him when he presented a few years back at the Playhouse in the Park and he was a true gentleman of the theatre.

     Gottfried wrote a number of notable theatre professionals’ biographies, including All His Jazz (1990) about Bob Fosse, who flourished in ‘70s New York.  Gottfried’s book was especially strong in tracing Fosse’s development as a choreographer and describing dance in such a way that a reader with little background in that art could understand it. 
Sam Wasson’s Fosse (2013) pushes further on the agony of creation, especially when overwhelming insecurity can lead to brilliant results.  

     One undercurrent in the three books is that economic adversity motivated invention, but also provided an affordable living environment.  Yes, it was falling apart, but unknown and famous artists could concentrate on creation.  Once New York went upscale and became family friendly, the artistic lightning rod dimmed.

Friday, April 4, 2014

A Shooting Scene from "Carol"

The new film directed by Todd Haynes 
and starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, 
continues to film around Cincinnati this spring  

50s Cars Lined Up for Action
      We were driving around downtown with our friends from Michigan (Kris, Karn and Helen) and happened on to a shooting scene outside of the old Post (newspaper) building on Broadway.  The movie takes place in New York City in the 50s so there were several antique cars parked and lined up in front of the building.

Broadway Scene

We weren't allowed to get very close, but we waited around for a few takes of the cars moving up and down the street and extras coming out of the doorway. We really weren't expecting much more when during one take a tall blonde appeared in the scene.  Yes, it was Cate!

Our Cate Sighting

          I think that's 
          Rooney Mara 
          behind her.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Pharrell Williams: Girl

Charming Disco Redux

Pharrell Williams Performing "Happy" on the Oscars
     Pharrell Williams blew into the mainstream consciousness last month with his darling performance of “Happy” on the Oscars and his album Girl hitting number one the following week on the charts.  Though he was one of The Neptunes, a group I like, and has been a major producer for over a decade, Girl places him in the position of becoming a household name.  He’s pivotal right now in the Dance/R&B genres because Usher has turned to being a TV star mentor on The Voice, Cee-Lo Green has already been there and is supposedly recording right now, and Outkast has promised a comeback that hasn’t happened.
Williams and Timberlake
     Williams produced Justin Timberlake’s first album Justified (2002) and he duets with him on “Brand New.”  In some ways, this is the album I wish Timberlake had released last year.  It’s both a throwback and an update in its Hip-hop take on Soul and Disco.  Timberlake followed the well-worn path to the Old School we’ve all seen before and I thought we have moved beyond, i.e. The Rat Pack retro that is Michael Bublé’s raison d’être.  Timberlake is in the first rank so it doesn’t make a lot of sense that he would cadge the playbook of a second tier performer.  Instead, Pharrell has subsumed the sexy-cool-raunchy vibe in a way that’s somehow family friendly.  

     Girl takes off from the cover that features Williams and three lovely young women in sunglasses and bathrobes at attention for a group spa massage, perhaps?  He has the most perfectly sculpted head of any contemporary male star so I wish he’d stop wearing that dopey-awkward Lord Baden Powell Boy Scout leader hat, which shows up on the back cover.   The first five tracks buzz along like some of the great Motown songs of the early ‘70s or Philly Soul of the mid-‘70s.  “Happy,” delightfully catchy, may be the main reason that new fans get hooked on Williams, but “Hunter” points back to the last days of disco with a bass line out of Diana Ross’s “Upside Down” and it’s terrific as is the opener, “Marilyn Monroe.”

     The ninth and tenth tracks seem superfluous because they don’t move the album anywhere new, but instead seem like the last songs at a great dance club before the lights come up.  I don’t know if Girl moves contemporary dance/hip-hop/soul anywhere new, but even if it remains in a holding pattern, it’s flying over a place where I really want to land.

I kinda like his hat!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Watching the Detectives, Bang Bang, Shoot Shoot!

Continuing some examinations 
of contemporary detective series

Detail of Jacket Cover from The Cat, the Quilt and the Corpse
Illustration by Jennifer Taylor
     The Mystery/Thriller genre has been split into ‘Cozy’ and ‘Hard-boiled’ for over thirty years.  Cozies usually feature murders in a non-violent manner, focus on one or two related murders, and are set in towns or rural areas.  Their general forebears are the British Golden Age of the 1930s, specifically Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Margery Allingham.  Hard-boiled novels feature multiple, violent murders, not always related, and the authors generally become cultural ethnographers for a specific city.  Although most closely associated with Americans Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, another significant forebear was Georges Simenon.

     Louise Penny’s Still Life (2005) was the début of her Inspector Armand Gamache series that has yielded her a number of Agatha awards (specifically given to cozies) as well as other citations and nominations.  Penny had a big signing last summer at Joseph-Beth, but I hadn’t read her books so I didn’t think to go.  

Louise Penny on the Set of Still Life
     In retrospect, I wish I had.  Penny’s series is set in Three Pines, a small town outside of Montréal.  The Québécois background, while intriguing, doesn’t play as important an element in this installment as I presumed it would.  The Three Pines setting is the best element and looks like it may be the major focus in following books.  The friends that seem to comprise the major suspects compel interest as characters, rather than the somewhat desultory plot.  Gamache is ultra-competent and sensitive – some female writers over-idealize the male detective such as Elizabeth George with Inspector Lynley, P.D. James with Dalgliesh, which started with Dorothy Sayers and Lord Peter Wimsey – and this is Penny’s Achilles’ heel.  Gamache has to deal with a surly newcomer to his team and I couldn’t have cared less.  

     No bang bang occurs since the victim is killed by a bow and arrow – she could be a variation on Christie’s Jane Marple and Three Pines a version of St. Mary Mead – yet that’s part of the point since this is a cozy.  Penny’s a sensitive writer, but not the spiritual one that some reviewers seem to believe she is.  Would I check out another one?  Maybe.  

     Mo Hayder’s Gone (2011) won the Edgar so that was a hook right off the bat.  It’s the third or fourth in her Detective Jack Caffery series.  He had a tough case in London and has relocated to Bristol.  So, he has bad memories of bureaucratic screw-ups, I suppose.  It’s a little like David Tennant’s character on BBC America’s Broadchurch last year.  The electrifying element is Sergeant Flea Marley, who leads a police diving team.  She’s hiding a devastating secret that affects both her and Caffery adversely, though the plot of this installment does not depend upon it.

Mo Hayder
     The book tells of a number of child kidnappings.  I had a minor issue with the timing of the first kidnapping that’s shown and the aftermath of events in the first couple of chapters because the details don’t seem to be consistent.  However, everything else works about the plot.  It focuses on two connected cases and doesn’t overburden the reader with three or four initially random ones.  This places it in the more simply plotted police procedural tradition that concentrates on character psychology instead.  Hayder does this with verve and she drops hints very well.  Actually, she does so a little too well since I figured out the kidnapper’s identity about fifty pages before it was revealed.  

     It’s a major page-turner that I didn’t want to end because of what was happening to Flea.  She’s pushed into unimaginably desperate circumstances and, fortunately, the children aren’t treated as sadistically as I’d presumed.  Hayder isn’t as grim as some other writers might choose to be, though I’d type her as hard-boiled.  This is a worthy successor to Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series (high praise from me) and I’ll certainly read another of Hayder’s works soon. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Mazunte Taqueria Mexicana

Inspired by recipes from grandmothers, 
friends, students and street vendors in Mexico

      We were happy to discover that Madisonville has its own (dare I say edgier) version of Bakersfield, and other taco joints that have popped up in the past few years.  The thing we liked about Mazunte (other than the food) was the interior.  I likened it to someone's unfinished basement in the '60s or '70s with cement block walls and handmade touches using recycled wood and glass.  Add to that some splashes of color and one has a look perfect for today's cantina.  

Dexter and Friend
Enjoy the Counter Seating
      The seating and ordering process were not immediately apparent.  We were directed by the "taco lady" to place our order at the register and wait for a table to open up.  We ended up at the counter with log seats permanently attached to the floor.  The countertops are a good conversation topic while waiting for the food to be prepared.

Guacamole and Taco Chips

      We started with the Guacamole—smooth with chunks of pure avocado.  The chips are taco sized and puffed up.  They were a little oily, but tasty nonetheless. 

Eric chose the Enchiladas with pork and a verde sauce accompanied by varied cheeses, spinach, onion and crema.  Presented open face, the freshness was apparent in the look and palette. 

Chorizo and Chicken Quesadillas
My selection was the Blue Corn Quesadilla with one of chicken and the other with chorizo.  Add to that roasted poblano chilies, black bean puree, salsa and crema, and I had two visually different and tasting pockets.  The accompanying rice had a nice sweetness to it that was a great pairing with the complex flavors of the entrées.  We both had a Mexican-Style Fresh Fruit Drink, but there are a lot of non-alcoholic and alcohol drinks from which to choose.

Mazunte Taqueria Mexicana on Urbanspoon