Saturday, January 24, 2015

Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash

The second act sings, but the first act stinks

Upright Bass Player John W Marshall*
     During the intermission of Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash at Playhouse in the Park, upright bass player John W. Marshall seemed to be improvising and then he was in the middle of “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” and the other musicians joined in and the musical craft shook the audience.  Later, drummer Walter Hartman shone in the prison sequence with director Jason Edwards and the rest of the band.  The musicians are terrific with extensive backgrounds as session players.  Most of the second act worked because it was all about singing Johnny Cash’s songs and not being afraid of their darker aspects.  Some of the audience members weren’t so certain.

    The show started well with spotlighted introductions of the principal performers tied to moments from Cash’s life, but then the mediocre lighting washed over the rural hut set and the potential dissipated.  We were transported to something like a dreary episode of Hee Haw when I would wait desperately for the ten minutes when Buck Owens and Roy Clark would play something great before the cornpone humor would restart.  The first act recalled Cash’s childhood but without fully mining the depth of his songs and without the immediacy or poignancy of the same sequences in Walk the Line (2005).

Jason Edwards, Allison Briner, Trenna Barnes and Derek Keeling*
     The female principals did well when they were performing with musical instruments, but were caricatures when acting.  Mostly, they tried to seem Southern sweet and sort of sexy, but just came across as cutesy and unoriginal.  Neither Trenna Barnes nor Allison Briner made a single acting or singing choice that I couldn’t have anticipated.  Jason Edwards and Derek Keeling did better playing the older and younger Cash; their singing conveyed something of his voice and style in the second act.  Johnny Cash was the type of performer (such as the very different Barbra Streisand, Kate Smith, or Frank Sinatra) that could stand, do nothing but sing, and mesmerize an audience because of star quality.  These principal cast members are sloggers – pros that have been in Broadway replacement casts, performed in major regional theatres, and been backup singers, but they aren’t stars.  The show has been around for a decade and they’ve been with it on and off, resulting in a sense of fatigue and a tendency to play for the easy, entertaining effect, rather than for authentic emotion.

The Cast of Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash

     That being said, this will probably be a hit for the Playhouse.  The theatre was packed, the audience was toe tapping and eating up the dumb jokes in the first act, and there was the requisite standing ovation.  We’d predicted this at the intermission because, as Neil observed, “they’re saying this is what they like,” rather than this was something moving or extraordinary.  Oh well, if it encourages some people to become subscribers or attend a couple of shows, good for them!
* Photos by Sandy Underwood

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

SELMA and EMPIRE

     Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay and written by her and Paul Webb, excels in showing the many details, conflicts, and points of view that surrounded events in Selma and culminated in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  DuVernay maintains an understated approach that refrains from grandstanding sound bites.  Due to various disagreements over copyright ownership, the script had to maintain a delicate balance between what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote/said and what could be used in a for profit artistic document.

David Oyelowo and Ava DuVernay
     Neil felt that, at times, the interior scenes were almost under lit.  There does seem to be a chiaroscuro effect, though the umber and black tones are complex, thanks to Bradford Young’s cinematography.  The pacing intriguingly goes long; there are sections where DuVernay and editor Spencer Averick where we see a decision being made or the silent reactions of other characters after something happens.  I appreciated it, but I could feel some restlessness in the audience.  Although the central character is King, a major, welcome focus includes Coretta Scott King, Hosea Williams, Ralph Abernathy, James Bevel, Andrew Young, Bayard Rustin, James Forman, John Lewis, and Malcolm X.  It’s great to see these names reclaimed from history and placed squarely in a movement that has been remembered as, but was not, monolithic.

The Cast Marching to Montgomery
     Reverend Al Sharpton opined that the Oscar acting nominations needed to include performers of color.  He’s not wrong, but I don’t know where the list would end with this cast:  David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King, Jr.) for best actor; Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King) for best supporting actress; Tom Wilkinson (LBJ), Wendell Pierce (Hosea Williams), Andre Holland (Andrew Young), Tim Roth (George Wallace) for best supporting actor.  I realize two of those actors are Caucasian, but they’re extraordinary.  Where the academy went even more wrong was in not recognizing DuVernay in either of the categories she has mastered (and after only two pictures).  She made $20 million look like $80 million or more.  Personally, I’ll supplement Reverend Sharpton’s argument to ask why a gay-themed movie like Pride was ignored for best picture and best supporting actor Ben Schnetzer.  However, I’m not going to boycott the Oscars by not watching them because that doesn’t solve the root problem.

Oprah Helped Fund
and Starred in Selma




     The Hollywood movie industry runs on money first and artistry second.  Special effects linked to superheroes are the raison d’être for commercial movies; personal expression that makes money drives independent and award-worthy movies.  Moviemakers want big audiences – i.e. mainstream audiences – and they pay only lip service to ethnic diversity.  Every few years, Hollywood congratulates itself on nominating performers of color, but the movies have to be funded and cast first.  Oprah Winfrey helped fund this movie.  How much does that tick off the Hollywood establishment, which is mainly white, male, and old?  I guess they liked having Oprah promote their business, but not create it.


     Television, on the other hand, far more progressively includes a variety of performers, though it refrains from anyone plain, unattractive, or overweight unless it’s for one or two specific series in any two to three year period.  Right now, I keep asking people, “Are you watching Empire?”  The backdrop is a music and entertainment corporation, founded by a former hip-hop superstar, that’s about to go public.  The founder has secret health issues and sets his three sons against each other to assume future leadership.  The kicker is that his ex-wife gets released from seventeen years in prison for drug dealing in which he was most likely complicit.

The Empire Family
     Creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong ‘kick it up a notch’ by making the oldest son an MBA tycoon in training who, we just found out, is bipolar and not taking his meds, thereby ticking off his Caucasian junior Lady Macbeth wife; the gay middle son is a gifted musician, whom his homophobic father (he names his club Leviticus) can barely tolerate; the youngest son is a spoiled rapper, who’s only emotionally close to the middle brother.  Dad Lucious (sort of luscious and sort of Lucifer) pushes for the youngest, Mom Cookie has the back of the second son, and the oldest has a wife who’s willing to get on her knees and put on a bib and let your imagination wander.  Yes, it’s an updated The Lion in Winter with three, rather than four, sons.  (Of course, they may find another son a couple of seasons from now like Dynasty).  In both, Mom starts off in prison.  

     I thought Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson made the most of their previous professional experience together to convincingly play a couple involved in a complex relationship for thirty years.  The music is really good and those that sing really pull it off.  My main complaint with Nashville is that I wish executive producer Connie Britton had cast Martina McBride or an actress that can sing in the main part.   The moment where Empire shot into Must-See was when a character I thought was a fixture was suddenly shot and by a character I know is permanent.  The second episode introduced a secondary character, Portia, as Cookie’s assistant.  Tottering in tiny high heels with a roll-top hairstyle that would have turned Joan Crawford green with envy and an attitude somewhere between casual and apathetic, she’s a hoot.  

Entertaining, Empire Style
     Yes, it’s a melodrama, but I can’t name another show where the lead character cogently critiques President Obama’s policies towards the poor, outlines what is happening to the music industry and how it undermines the potential economic aspirations for African Americans, and is treated intelligently by a TV interviewer.  As long as this show stays grounded in where Lucious and Portia come from and what they had to do to get to where they are, this will stay strong.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Girl Singers

Tenderly, Rosemary Clooney, 
Darlene Love, and Bette Midler

Rosemary Clooney
Susan Haefner
     Tenderly:  The Rosemary Clooney Musical played at the Playhouse in the Park, where it was extended for three weeks.  It presents Clooney’s life, as centered around the therapy she received after her onstage nervous breakdown following Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in 1968.  Susan Haefner captured Clooney’s singing style, which was warm, engaging, and unassumingly powerful.  She was very convincing in conveying Clooney’s over-riding impulse to put on a happy face and take care of others as her world was falling apart.

     The strong, clear-cut book by Mark Friedman and Janet Yates Vogt smartly linked Clooney’s key hits with events from her life.  Where the production needed some rethinking was in having Michael Marotta play all of the other parts.  He was sincere as her psychiatrist, but having to impersonate so many celebrities as well as female characters lurched towards a tone of camp.  Clooney had a great sense of humor, but she was never campy.  A third actor would have grounded the succession of short scenes emotionally.

Rosemary at Tall Stacks 1995
     Clooney was connected to other major artists of her generation as well as a couple of older singers, but I remember her for promoting younger singers with real talent and lower profiles.  We saw her live at Tall Stacks in 1995 and her tone was still smooth and emotionally complex, though her breath control had weakened.  She was self-deprecating, saying that the novelty songs she was assigned in the ‘50s by Mitch Miller weren’t on the level of those that Tony Bennett sang.

     Clooney referred to herself as a girl singer and, at her pop height in the ‘50s, she was one of many extraordinary female performers.  There were also Dinah Washington, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald (the one most likely to be played as background music nowadays), Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, Dinah Shore, Carmen McRae, Jo Stafford, Patty Page, Betty Carter, Julie London, Nina Simone, and the list could go on.  Those were the solo singers sometimes working with orchestras or jazz combos.  Although there had been trios, such as the Andrews Sisters and the McGuire Sisters, it was the girl groups of the early ‘60s that defined American pop music between Elvis and The Beatles.  Once the boys were back in town with their phallic guitars, the girls were stuck under the thumb of paternalistic producers (as were some of the boys) unless they could write their own material.



Darlene Love
     Darlene Love is an incredibly gifted solo performer who provided back-up vocals to many big names from the ‘50s through the  ‘70s.  She was hired to be a solo singer by Phil Spector, but was manipulated into being listed as the lead singer of The Crystals by him instead.  (Spector decided to focus on The Ronettes and married their lead singer Ronnie instead, though she was smart enough to get out while she 
Love's Last Christmas Performance on The Late Show
could).  Love came back in the ‘80s singing in New York clubs as well as on Broadway before her annual Christmas performance on Letterman.  I saw the first couple of those performances back in the late ‘80s and then Neil and I made it an annual event to watch it the past ten years.  Love performed her last holiday gig on Letterman in December, though she left open the possibilities for touring and performing other songs on other shows.  
Darlene Love's Induction into
the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame


      Bette Midler read the speech to induct Darlene Love into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.   Darlene Love can be heard performing with Bette Midler on her recent It’s the Girls CD, which celebrates the girl groups from the ‘40s (The Andrews Sisters) through the ‘90s (TLC).  Midler experienced 
a recording resurgence in the past decade with her tribute CDs to Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee.  She’s always honored the girl groups back to her debut The Divine Miss M (1972) with “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Chapel of Love.”  

Bette Midler
     Midler has thrived in a variety of media with results that have been great, mixed, and flops, but she still goes on.  Highlights have been her first four albums and the songbooks in terms of her singing. Her most popular pop songs in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s were a little soppy and no match for the rock, country, great American songbook, and R&B selections she usually chose.  

Midler in Gypsy
     As we said a couple of weeks ago, The Rose (1979) has already captured Janis Joplin, even if some of the details were changed.  Midler was phenomenal in that and Divine Madness! (1980), and hilarious in Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) and Get Shorty (1995).  She refused to perform as her idol Sophie Tucker, but she sort of channeled her in Gypsy (1993).  It didn’t work because she seemed desperately vulnerable, rather than monstrous, though she sang it beautifully.  Her concert and variety specials on TV have been wonderful, but her one season series Bette (2000 – 2001) was mediocre and a little generic. However, at this time of year, a couple of weeks after The Kennedy Center Honors, I gotta say that I’d honor Bette Midler and soon.  If some of our readers would go online to The Kennedy Center nominations and throw her name in, then who knows?

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Babadook

Yes, it’s horrifying and terrifying

     The Babadook, written and directed by Australian Jennifer Kent, really is as horrifying as the ads have said.  It achieves this with a minimum of gore and without going overboard with triple ending sequences.  The set up is that a single mother with a six-year-old son has had trouble sleeping and her son misbehaves at school.  
Reading The Babadook
He finds a book for her to read to him one night.  It’s The Babadook and it’s very disturbing.  Kent foreshadows what might happen because of the book’s plot and away we go.  


Daniel Henshall and Essie Davis
     Essie Davis and Daniel Henshall are amazing as the mother and son.  The movie really gets at the fears parents have for their children and what they might do to their children.  Kent never cheats on her premise and the resolution is both realistic and chilling.  I was very angry about one sequence in the movie and found myself yelling at the screen.  Fortunately, I was watching at home and not in a cinema (it played one week at The Esquire).  For anyone interested in thrillers or horror, this is a must-see!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Serena / A World Elsewhere

The Biltmore Estate 
figures in two recent novels

      I came across Wayne Johnston’s A World Elsewhere (2011) in the Olde Niagara Bookshop and picked it up because Johnston has won and been nominated for Canadian literary awards.  A World Elsewhere takes place in the 1890s in Newfoundland and then North Carolina.  A funny, touching, shaggy dog story that has a plot that feels a little like Silas Marner, but with a main character – Landish Druken – that possesses a crazy-ass vitality like Donleavy’s Ginger Man.  

Building the American Dream, a.k.a. The Biltmore Estate
      The relationship between Landish and his ward Deacon is the strongest element of the book.  Where things go in a strange direction is in the character of Van Vanderluyden, the whelp of a family not unlike the Vanderbilts, whose dream and destiny is to build an estate not unlike the Biltmore.  Landish meets him at Princeton and develops a Mutt and Jeff relationship with him that Van later misinterprets.  

      The second half of the book turns into a dark comedy of bizarre manners, predicated on the eccentric and sinister vagaries of the very rich upon those they consider their servants, i.e. everyone but themselves.  Johnston comments sardonically on those who inherit, rather than achieving, great riches.  

      I read a review of Ron Rash’s latest short story collection in The New York Times and his earlier Serena (2008) was mentioned.  Then I saw it was turned into a movie with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper and thought I’d check it out.  The title character behaves as an all-consuming force of nature.  She’s the wife and very equal business partner of logging company owner Pemberton.  

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence
      The plot outline would sound like the verses of a mountain ballad.  Using extensive external detail in the Tennessee and North Caroline region surrounding what would become Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Rash shows the Pembertons and those working for them taking down much of the forest in the early 1930s.  Rash has resented being labeled as an “Appalachian” or “regional” writer because he feels (rightly) that critics don’t consider such writers as being universal and therefore as important.  However, as he explains, realizing an area in specific detail makes it universal.  He hasn’t been ignored; Serena was nominated for the Pen/Faulkner Award.  

A Scene from Serena
      Interspersed between the episodes dealing with the Pembertons and their financial and personal rapaciousness are those involving a crew of lumberjacks who comment on the proceedings and provide some essential plot updates in a couple of instances.  I thought of them as a Greek Chorus, but Rash actually was looking at them as a group of Rustics like something out of a Christopher Marlowe tragedy.  It does have an Elizabethan or Jacobean tone; the murders, assassinations, and revenge also resemble the works of John Ford and John Webster.

      Extraordinary both for its powerful momentum and wry, rugged humor, the book’s one oversight is in rendering Pemberton so opaque until nearly the end.  His eventual fate is not as profound as it might have been because it’s difficult to gauge him psychologically.  I’m not sure there was any way around this because Rash’s very appropriate method does not internalize any of the characters except for the mother of Pemberton’s child.  However, he comments on conservation, environmentalism, the class system of Appalachia, and the later generation of Vanderbilts in their smug, spoiled splendor, all of which is a very tall order and worthy of greater attention.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Imitation Game

A complex, exceptionally realized biopic

     The Imitation Game, directed by Norwegian Morten Tyldum, has a title that works on multiple levels.  Not only does it refer to how computers can imitate thinking, but also how the British had to imitate the thinking of the Germans to break the Enigma code, and also how they had to imitate their earlier losing of World War II by not fully revealing their knowledge and tipping off the Germans.  Most profoundly, however, it refers to how abnormal, gifted people have to try to imitate their more ordinary peers to somehow survive.

The Bletchley Park Team
     The strong script by Graham Moore – his first and based loosely on Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma presents scenes from Alan Turing’s life (1912 – 1954), but focuses most of the narrative attention to his work at Bletchley Park as he and his team (Matthew Goode, Keira Knightley, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, and James Northcote) struggled to break the Enigma code.  Most significantly, they did 
The Machine
so through the construction of a machine that simultaneously mimicked the German machine and could deconstruct how the code was set.  By showing what he did, which was most important to Turing, rather than who he was, this version is superior to Hugh Whitemore’s Breaking the Code (1986).

     The movie captures the insularity of this group, but also their desperation in ending the Germans’ advances in destroying their food supply.  One of the most significant scenes ethically is whether the team should reveal what might happen to a British naval ship on which the brother of one of the team’s members serves.  I don’t know if those circumstances and the timing concerning the discovery were exact, but as a representation for the many moral decisions they had to make concerning their knowledge, it’s arresting.  Moore’s script presents a flashback structure that doesn’t confuse the viewer while also providing an armature for complex emotional shadings.

Benedict Cumberbatch
     Benedict Cumberbatch gives a technically astonishing performance not only in how he suggests Turing’s speech patterns, but also in linking his behavior to autism.  It’s there in the script, but he goes further by showing that his ‘arrogance’ had more to do with taking people’s speech literally than in his own self-regard.  It’s part of the reason that he determines tragically to be honest, rather than playing an imitation game even though Joan Clarke (Knightley) is willing to go along with it to offer him a chance at conventional contentment.  
Alex Lawther as the Young Alan Turing
Alex Lawther, as the younger Alan Turing, matches up well with Cumberbatch facially, though he must have had a growth spurt later.  He’s extraordinary in a scene with his headmaster where his eyes remain bright, but his body language shows that he has emotionally shut down and, sadly, does not open up again.  

The Bletchley Park Work Room
     The acting ensemble quietly nails the period, helped in large part by both the script and the understated art direction.  I could have done without the sea battle scenes that looked like miniatures from a ‘40s movie.  They looked fake back then as well, but black and white covered them better.  There are times where the color is purposely drained by cinematographer Óscar Faura and it looks great.  How I wish this could have been in black and white (and I feel the same way about Into the Woods).  


Mark Strong
     One side note is Mark Strong’s elegant performance as the mysterious and powerful Major General Stewart Menzies, head of the newly created MI6, and the best game player and master manipulator of the bunch.  Cumberbatch has been building up to what will be a major career, but actors like Strong (this generation’s Trevor Howard or Denholm Elliott) provide quality and competence over the long run.  I remember seeing him in a small role in Prime Suspect 3 (1994), where he was poignant and then he was malevolently intimidating in the mini-series The Long Firm (2004) as a fictional representation of the criminal Kray twins, and tensely real as the sleeper spy in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011).

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Into the Woods

Ambitious, mature, 
worthwhile, but not a home run

     The first miracle is that a movie has finally been released of Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s 1987 musical that has been kicking around for the last couple of decades because Hollywood can only market action movies for 12 year old males and those adults that think like them (and there are far more than one might imagine).  The next miracle is that Rob Marshall has pulled it off, though it’s not perfect and probably there couldn’t be a perfect version anyway.  A number of reviewers that don’t understand/like musicals have already blabbed about how the second half just doesn’t work for them because it’s not stupidly happy like the crappy over-produced superhero movies they’re so used to watching.  Unwittingly, they’ve revealed their own lack of emotional maturity about a work that demonstrates how characters develop maturity.

Cinderella with Her Wicked Step Mother and Step Sister
     The first half of Into the Woods weaves together the Grimm’s versions of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack & the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood with the original story of the Baker and his Wife, who hope for a child.  All of these episodes are pulled together by the Witch, who demands certain articles to complete a spell.  The second half deals with what it means to a romantic relationship to live after the happy ending, the changing relationships between parents and children, and whether individuals will come together as a group to combat an enemy.  It capably achieves this and, best of all, gets Sondheim’s score onscreen.  (There is also a terrific DVD version of the 1991 PBS film that features the original stage cast).

The Baker and His Wife with the Witch—
Corden, Blunt and Streep
     For the most part, the casting works well.  James Corden and Emily Blunt share a strong chemistry as the Baker and his Wife.  Both can sing as if they’re also acting the songs, which lends a real intimacy to their scenes.  Meryl Streep does well (when has she not?) and doesn’t allow the Witch to turn camp or nice.  Anna Kendrick performs the linchpin role of Cinderella, 
Anna Kendrick as Cinderella
who says, “My childhood was a nightmare.  The palace was a dream.  Now I need something in between.”  This states one of the major themes of Into the Woods.  
The Two Princes
Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen do well as the Princes, but Lilla Crawford has a harsh, one-note tone as Little Red Riding Hood and we need to stop deluding ourselves that Johnny Depp can sing.  He can perform many roles, but not singing ones and no he didn’t really sing Sweeney Todd, either.  It makes a difference, too.  Just watch Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson on Live from Lincoln Center to see a definitive version that relies on singing as well as acting.

Dion Beebe's Cinematography
     Where the movie falls short is in Dion Beebe’s cinematography.  Blue and muddy most of the time, it finally allows in some yellow for a celebration at the castle, but the color and lighting look like a British movie from the early 1950s, like The Magic Box, where they hadn’t quite got a handle on color film.  Here, it feels like Andrew Lesnie’s work for Peter Jackson where there’s always a muddle of grimy actors running around Middle Earth for some greater truth that ends up being less profound than it initially seems.  I usually end up hoping that the art director will just demand they wash up instead.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Annie

By smartly updating an old chestnut, 
this new Annie gleams with real emotion

     Will Gluck has taken Annie, updated it (this is commented upon in the first shot and then cheekily by Annie), added some new songs, re-orchestrated everything, addressed the ethnic and socioeconomic mix of NYC, and re-thought the motivations for the final reversal.  It adds up to a delightful family movie that works except for two numbers.  It’s been criticized for being materialistic and miscast; I disagree strongly and find both opinions specious.

     We never saw Daddy Warbucks’ business concerns in the original, but Will Stacks’s fortune is based on cell phones and telecommunications and that plays out throughout with social media (it saves Annie towards the end), updated political polls since Stacks spends much of the plot running for mayor, and comments upon the characters.  In a twenty-four hour news & entertainment loop, Annie merely captures the narcissism of the power class and the self-regard of New York and its inhabitants.  

Foxx and Wallis
     Quvenzhané Wallis and Jamie Foxx mesh perfectly as the leads, though I didn’t quite buy “I Don’t Need Anything but You” at the end.  It seemed too big of a moment, whereas the actors were working toward something more understated.  The final moments with Annie and her friends are strong because this is a grrrl power movie and they demonstrate chemistry from its first moments. “Opportunity,” a new song, doesn’t work because it doesn’t seem like Annie would get up and sing for everyone (yes, she does in the original for FDR and Eleanor, but this context is different and this Annie feels less theatrical in every sense) at the Guggenheim, though her reaction to a speech works.  

Quvenzhané Wallis as Annie
     On the other hand, the rest of the songs – old and new – have been rethought for cinematic purposes.  The two most famous songs – “Tomorrow” and “It’s the Hard Knock Life” – seem completely current because of how Gluck uses the sights and sounds of New York, but also hip-hop rhythms and references to Stomp.  “Who Am I?” works towards the end 
The Latest Miss Hannigan
because of Cameron Diaz’s Miss Hannigan re-thinking her future.  Diaz comes through with a fine performance, which doesn’t reduce Hannigan to a sloshed harridan.  Instead, her back-story relates to ‘90s pop so there are some clever references to C & C Music Factory.  

Rose Byrne, Bobby Canavale and "Annie"
     Rose Byrne did a lovely job (one hates to say ‘as usual,’ though it’s true for her) and Bobby Canavale was strong until his character was turned into the villain about three quarters of the way through.  On a cynical note, one could say that the rich find others to do their dirty work for them until they change their minds.  An up and comer could be Stephanie Kurtzuba, who practically walks off with every scene she’s in as Mrs. Kovacevic, the social services employee.  Her absolute joy at visiting Stacks’s penthouse demonstrates greater appreciation than even Annie’s.  It makes up for her being a kleptomaniac, which was a detail that made little sense to me.

The Finale
     The cinematography spectacularly captures New York City from the street and the sky and the editing keeps things moving.  There wasn’t a sequence that could have been cut and the children with whom I saw it were pretty mesmerized the whole time.  This was a far cry from Les Misérables (2012), where I hoped lunch might be served or that I could have a nap.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Bistro Grace

Where everyone would want to be, 
if only it were kicked up a few notches

Bistro Grace
      This restaurant space hasn't looked this good since the early days of the old Boca at the turn of the last century.  Dramatic lighting along with benched seating and good acoustics all make for a night of relaxed dining.  There's only one interior snafu…the hostess stand.  What was it doing in, literally, the middle of the doorway? There were 5 of us arriving and our entrance was quite the song and dance number working our way between the bar stools and a server attempting to get to the window table.  For a truly welcoming statement, two things must be addressed:  the post needs to be (wo)manned, and it needs to be moved.

      Bistro Grace had been on our dining out list since its heralded opening in 2013.  Everything we read about it seemed to have the makings of something great.  We started by sharing the Braised Duck Poutine and Deviled Eggs.  
Deviled Eggs
The eggs came topped with smoked salmon, a superb saltiness juxtaposed with the slightly sweet creamed yolk mixture.  The poutine was a take on one of our favorite pub dishes that quite simply confused us.  The "fries" were thin shavings of sweet potatoes that were too dry to absorb any of the flavors from the braised duck.  Instead, they just became soggy and limp.  The duck had good 
Braised Duck Poutine
flavor, but there was too little of the cheese curd.  It was an attempt to be different that left us scratching our heads. 

Grace Burger
      Let's start by announcing the winner among our entrées…the Grace Burger.  Jan and Mike both had everyone's choice of the evening.  It was prepared to their requested temperature and topped with fontina cheese, bourbon shallots (yes, you could taste the bourbon) and onion rings.  The accompanying fries were medium cut and light.  Lisa chose the Braised Lamb Shank and she wished she had not.  It had that "old" lamb taste to it that stays with you long after your meal has ended.  It was served with sweet and red skin mashed potatoes (which were nice) and incinerated green (mush) beans.  Eric had Rachel's Stuffed Calamari, a choice he made while reading the online menu.  I wish I had a photo of his face when it arrived!  We would rate this as one of our all-time unappealing entrée presentations.  So much so that we won't embarrass the chef, or Rachel, by showing it.  Imagine going to a bris, and we'll leave it at that.   My selection was the special of Goetta Bread Pudding topped with a fried egg.  In theory it sounded good and, indeed, it was!  The only problem was it was very rich and filling as an entire entrée and would work better as an appetizer or side item.
Goetta Bread Pudding
      Through the evening, we had struck up a conversation with the table next to ours so Eric asked them how their desserts were.  The mother announced that hers was fine as it was a Chocolate Martini and they are always good!  As for her husband…he had the Vegan Apple Pie (from Happy Chicks Bakery), which he rated a 2 out of 10.  Their daughter had the Berry Puff Pastry, which she found disappointing.  It's always good to ask, and our decisions on whether to have desserts were made.

      Service was friendly and attentive, and pricing is right on the mark as a moderate dining establishment.  It certainly has the potential to be a great gathering place if some serious changes are made before it loses its time in the spotlight.  At this point, its creative reach has far exceeded its grasp.  

      It also wouldn't hurt if Grace were to play the gracious host (as her name implies) when patrons are leaving, and ask them to return again.

bistrograce.com
Bistro Grace on Urbanspoon