Monday, July 6, 2015

U.S. independence & LEGO @ Kenwood

Tiny plastic bricks + 
American iconic buildings = Wow!

U.S. Capitol Building
     We’d planned to go walking at Kenwood Towne Centre and, just as we were parking, Neil said, “Be prepared for a surprise.”  We walked through to the upper level and there was the Lincoln Memorial in LEGO!  There were over a dozen scale monuments on the upper level and three on the lower 
Liberty Bell
level.  The toughest to create would have been the Liberty Bell, which uses no curved bricks at all and depicts the entire description and the spectacular Capitol Building.  Upon seeing this model, we overheard one gentleman say, “Oh wow, there’s the White House.”  It’s great that it was a teachable moment for him.  

The Fantasy Good Earth Mall
     Look closely and you can see the statues of Jefferson and Lincoln in their respective memorials.  There were also a number of fantasy scenes incorporating American landscapes (urban, rural, a variation of Mt. Rushmore) as well on the upper level.  These were created using the full range of bricks and pieces available either through the LEGO store at Kenwood or through clubs.  

The White House
     This free exhibition runs through July 19 and it’s only being seen in select cities.  About a decade ago, Kenwood Mall billed itself as the place “to expect the unexpected.”  It coincided with a beautiful display of gargantuan sand castles.  The LEGO independence exhibit exceeds even that one.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Audience

Is Helen Mirren the Queen, 
or is the Queen Helen Mirren?

     How is it possible for one to catch an evening performance in London's West End and still be home to sleep in one's own bed that night? There's only one affordable way, and that is to view it at the movie theatre during a Fathom Event.  It was my pleasure to see The Audience starring Helen Mirren for which she recently won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for the current Broadway run.

The Young Queen with PM Anthony Eden
     Mirren is best known for her Oscar-winning role in the 2006 film The Queen.  For this stage creation, based on the Queen's weekly meetings with her Prime Ministers, the same writer (Peter Morgan) has broadened our glimpse into Her Majesty's private life.  It's a premise that many like to imagine and the play only solidifies our trust in what those in the know can tell us.  It's all based on speculation, but one still feels a sense of truth after seeing it.  For me, that feeling comes from the convincing performance by Mirren.  

PM John Major,
The Secretary and The Queen
     The play starts with a little history about the Queen and her palace through the eyes (and ears) of her secretary who helps carry the plot from PM to PM.  The other significant device that helps pull one into their world is that it is not presented in chronological order.  That allowed for some rather magical onstage moments with Mirren being transformed from the 1990s back to her first meeting with Churchill.  Costumes, wigs and makeup all assist in transforming Mirren to her teens, but it is her changed voice and movements that are so remarkable.  In the second act, it happens again with her going from the 1950s up to present time right before one's eyes.

At Balmoral with Harold Wilson
     The scenes were sprinkled with several comedic situations, mostly provided by Harold Wilson and Maggie Thatcher.  The inner thoughts of the Queen are handled through conversations with her onstage teenage self offering some of the most poignant scenes of the performance.  The set design subtly changed for the periodic palace remodels and a surrealistic indoor/outdoor scene at Balmoral Castle in Scotland.  The lighting was exquisite, taking a large set and crafting it into a more intimate space.

     It's most likely that this was a one time onscreen performance.  However, look for it in a possible dvd release.  It'll be worth the wait.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

There Are Two Sides to Cheapside Cafe

The one that I liked, and the questionable one

Chorizo Egg Sandwich
     Let's get the likable thing out there first…the food.  We met Katy and Denny there for Sunday Brunch and between the four of us, three chose the Chorizo Egg Sandwich served on a Ciabatta bun with green chile and cheddar cheese.  They all really enjoyed the spicy edge it had.  I'm always attracted 
Muffaletta
to a Muffaletta, the classic New Orleans concoction that is rarely prepared correctly away from the Big Easy.  I can't say this was dead on, but it was a respectable northern version with a flavorful olive tapenade.  

The Interior After the Morning Rush
     Its location is at Eighth Street and Cheapside Alley, hence the name.  Please don't be fooled into thinking this might be an affordable cafe.  Instead, it appears to be a place to be (or be seen) as our downtown continues to unfold into a full-fledged livable neighborhood.  The questionable part hit me as soon as we entered.  It's a simple space that has had much thought put into the design of white walls and weathered wood, but the set up was what I would term "silenced chaos".  Was there a host–something I would expect from a "cafe"? No, it's actually a walkup, order, sit down and hope that you end up with your order dining establishment.  The menu board, although simple, does take some studying and it was inconveniently located on the side wall where people were lined up against it to place their orders.  I only wish there had been more thought put into the space layout.  

Teepee Dining Room and Outdoor Picnic Tables
     Given the crowd, we chose a seat outside at one of the picnic tables made from the same wood used throughout.  Now the question was whether our food and drinks would arrive.  They did, very simply presented as the rest of the experience…everything on oversized plates with no garnish.  

      It's all a very simple place.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Hill House Bed & Breakfast in Loretto, KY

A B&B situated perfectly 
on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

The Hill House Bed & Breakfast
     Lisa Marie and her one-eyed, shih tzu sidekick Rudy James were our hosts for two nights on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.  Situated just 3 miles from Maker's Mark distillery, it offered exceptional lodgings for touring the other bourbon headquarters on the trail.

Lisa Marie and Rudy James
     Lisa Marie is a natural for making one feel at home.  So much so that she insisted that I had visited there before.  I had not, but the premise was an opening to a conversation that brought us to realize that we had both worked in the home visual display departments at different Lazarus stores.  Staying at B&Bs are all about connections and we discovered several over our three days there.

     We occupied 3 of the 4 rooms available with all of ours being on the second floor.  Each was nicely appointed and we made our picks as to who got each room as we toured each one.  All have slightly different bathroom facilities and themed décors.  Lisa Marie was a former interior designer, which you'll realize after settling in to her home.  She had prepared a nice welcome for us with wine, cheese and crackers in the kitchen bar area.  It was an added touch that we appreciated as we got acquainted with our surroundings and the large outdoor garden patio that was sunken from the parking area.

A Typical Breakfast Entrée
     Growing up in Loretto (and leaving for many years), Lisa Marie gave us the highlights of the town.  There aren't any restaurants so having her breakfast each morning was even 
For Starters…
more special.  Her culinary talents are abundant.  We noticed her starting preparations on one of our breakfasts the afternoon before.  Her recipes are not the easiest and the smiles around the table each morning were an acknowledgment of that.  This was genuine Kentucky hospitality!




Saturday, June 27, 2015

James M. Cain: The Cocktail Waitress; Robert Benton: The Late Show

A perplexing, somewhat dated 
late career novel and a small, understated gem







     While browsing at Landmark Booksellers in Franklin, TN, I found James M. Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress, otherwise known as ‘the lost final novel’ on the cover.  Landmark Booksellers is worth a look when visiting Nashville; it sells new, used, and rare books and sometimes even has a group sitting around talking politics and philosophy.  It’s in a Colonial Revival mansion with various rooms, akin to The Book Loft in Columbus’s German Village and one of the coolest landmarks in that city, each space housing different books by type and genre.

     Actually, the first time I read Cain was in high school with a four novel collection I found at The Book Loft.  Yes, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Double Indemnity (1943, though first serialized in 1936) are suspense classics that present desperate and down on their luck characters in the 1930s resorting to schemes that start simply and go disastrously wrong.  Neither book is as lurid or sexy as the simultaneously prurient and puritanical movies adapted from them.  Bob Rafelson’s 1981 version of Postman, however, sort of goes over the edge and Jack Nicholson was a little too old and ugly in the lead; he didn’t seem that different from the aging husband that he and Jessica Lange planned to kill.  
Barbara Stanwyck
Billy Wilder’s 1944 version of Indemnity updates the action by a decade, thereby leaving behind the Depression-era overtones, and masterfully casts Barbara Stanwyck in the lead.  Rather than playing the neurasthenic wraith of the book, she is sexy, smart, and kinky.  She is so thwarted in her ambitions by a patriarchal society that she thinks up a complex plan, which just happens to be evil, because she’s so bored.  It’s one of those movies where you think, “if only she’d had a chance at a great career, what could she have done?”

     Serenade (1937) was turned into a Mario Lanza vehicle, which I’ve never seen.  It must have been bowdlerized to make it to the screen in the ‘50s because the main character is a bisexual male opera singer, who’s saved by a selfless South American woman.  Cain had wanted to be a singer, but didn’t possess the talent.  At the time, I couldn’t get enough of the book, but I’m not certain I’d feel that way now.  The one that 
blew me away was Mildred Pierce (1941).  It’s a domestic drama about a working mother who makes it big because of determination, grit, and some luck.  Things fall apart because of her Achilles heel:  her wretchedly selfish – even wicked – older daughter that she protects extravagantly.  The daughter finally pulls something so mean that Mildred’s had enough.  The book makes perfect sense, while the Joan Crawford vehicle has to turn into a memory suspense thriller with a murder in order to adhere to the hypocritical Hays Code and for the movie studio execs to be interested.  It’s one of those movies where I thought, “if only Barbara Stanwyck had played the part, this could have been so much more convincing.”  Todd Haynes hewed much closer to the book in his TV version with Kate Winslet.  We haven’t seen it, but the book is a couple of hundred pages, while Haynes’ version is five hours!

James M. Cain
     The Cocktail Waitress (published in 2012, but mysteriously written sometime much earlier) is told from the first person point of view of the eponymous character.  It’s a difficult work to place historically because it wasn’t found until after Cain’s death in 1978, but it feels like it’s decades old.  Here’s a sequence from the first chapter between Joan (the waitress) and her sister-in-law Ethel at a funeral:

     I said:  “Ethel, I apologize for my tone.  I’ve been through quite a lot, and being accused of murder, or something that sounds a lot like it, is more than I can take.  So – “
“It’s O.K.  I make allowance.”
“Now, may we get on?”
“If you’re talking about Tad, everything’s taken care of, and there’s nothing to get on to.”
“Then, I thank you.”
But I sounded stiff, and she snapped:  “Joan, there’s nothing to thank me for, Tad’s my own flesh and blood.  He’s welcome and more than welcome, for as long as may be desired.  And the longer that is, the better I’m going to like it.”

40s Hot Pants?
     They sound like hardboiled dames from the ‘30s or ‘40s, but Cain makes reference to the waitresses wearing hot pants, which I didn’t think came into style until the early ‘70s.  So, there’s the simultaneous double-time of Bette Davis’s Dead Ringer (1964), which felt like 1944 and with the twin characters supposed to be at least ten years younger merged with an episode of Charlie’s Angels (around 1977), where Jaclyn Smith’s Kelly would be skimpily clad, stuck in an impossible male controlled situation, but getting out in the nick of time because of Kate Jackson’s Sabrina and Cheryl Ladd’s Kris.  A college friend of mine thought Angels had its cake and ate it too by presenting strong women solving crimes, but also looking pinup sexy.  The older, established writers and producers of Angels made the more mature supporting characters sound like something out of the ‘40s, while the leads sounded like the ‘70s.  

     The cover of The Cocktail Waitress compounds the issue by making the waitress resemble Keri Russell dressed like Jaclyn Smith in ’77 with a side view of her breasts reminiscent of Jane Russell.  She is regarded by an older man, who’s smoking, and the viewer is put in his place.  Again, this feels double-sided, but so is Joan, the waitress, who ends up with two dead husbands and a dead boyfriend.  Is she a black widow or a victim or what?  Two-thirds of the way in, the book reveals a couple of details that place it in around 1960 or ’61, one of those being the original opening of the musical The Fantasticks.  The other has to do with a notorious medication, which plays brilliantly into the end of the novel.  It reminds the reader that Cain always displayed a ‘justice is blind’ attitude towards his characters.

Art Carney in The Late Show
     Another work that deals with the ‘40s noir movie through the prism of a later – in this case, 1970s – lens is Robert Benton’s The Late Show (1977).  It’s a great title because it simultaneously references the old movies that would play after the news in many TV markets in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the main character Ira, played by Art Carney, is a semi-retired private eye who limps, gets worn out easily, and is slightly deaf, so this may be his swan song, and it underlines that the values of the ‘40s have gone out of style, but so have the beatnik values of the early ‘60s and late ‘60s Woodstock that are personified in Margo, played by Lily Tomlin.  She hires Ira to find her cat, kidnapped by an acquaintance because she owes him money.  The acquaintance is up to his neck in trouble with a fence and the movie is off and running.

     It’s also about cheating, greed, corruption, and psychopaths; just like the best of the noirs, but it’s not elegant like them.  These are working, or not so working, stiffs who live in grubby homes and motel rooms and drive vehicles that might not make it to the next gas station.  They’re aware their dreams haven’t worked out, but they keep plugging away. 
Cassidy, Tomlin and Carney
The lighting feels natural – it’s under lit – and the color hasn’t held up well, though that feels appropriate, but the performances by Carney, Tomlin, Bill Macy, Eugene Roche, and Joanna Cassidy cannot be dimmed.  They seem like they’ve lived in this world and paced those streets.  The texture is casual, almost as if it’s a throwaway, but it comes into deadly focus with an original car chase over lawns in a lower-middle class neighborhood and the final image of a bus stop bench underlines the irony of the entire proceedings.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Mammy's Kitchen in Bardstown, KY

Southern through and through

Mammy's Kitchen Front Entrance
     It feels much older than its 2007 beginnings with its quirky interior and diner inspired menu.  Mammy's Kitchen is part barnyard, rainforest, inn, and garden rolled into a café that started as a home accessories, antique and sewing shop. How did that happen?  That's another whole story that you can check out at bardstownmammys.com.

Mammy's on the Backside
     We were looking for a light lunch and found it in the wildly-colored back dining area.  The menu is classic Kentuckian comfort food with some interesting takes that we were fortunate enough to spot.  Lori and I had the Baby Brown, their version of the traditional Kentucky Hot Brown in a lunch-sized portion - a very nice choice.  
The Baby Brown
Slaw Burger


John had the Slaw Burger, evidently more widely-known to others than to me.  I had not heard of this local classic.  Theirs met with a thumbs up.  
Jalapeño Cheddar Burger
Kaylee and Bryce shared the Jalapeño Cheddar Burger sparked with deep fried jalapeños.  They were wowed!  
Fried Green Tomato Sandwich

Eric had the Fried Green Tomato Sandwich that didn't seem quite as special as everyone else's was.  He was hoping the Butterscotch Pie that we ogled on the way in would change his opinion.  We shared it, as Lori and John did with the Chocolate Cream Pie, which was the clear winner.  Both fillings were nice and creamy, but the crusts were a bit hard and pasty.  Service was young and attentive, a combination that patrons at other tables didn't seem appreciate as much as we did. They may have been looking for Flo.
Butterscotch Pie
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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Rickhouse in Bardstown, KY

Once you find it, you'll remember it as a standout

     It had been a long day of visiting distilleries, so we did what any weary travellers would do–ask our host for a dinner recommendation and then act on her advice.  Lisa Marie sent us to The Rickhouse in Bardstown with the promise of a first class steakhouse.  

The Inconspicuous Entryway to Rickhouse
     We used our trusty gps as we pulled into the parking lot with Siri's insistence that the restaurant was on our right.  It was a middle school building, so we started wandering the parking lot when we saw a small sign on a gate to the left of the street.  We had found it!  The lower level interior rooms carried the theme of a rick house, or bourbon barrel storage area, with its intimate space and barrels throughout.

The Main Dining Room
     There were seven of us so we were seated in an area with larger tables and the promise of a very large party's iminent arrival.  Our server promptly acknowledged us and Kaylee was melting in her seat from his Kentuckian pronunciation of "sweet tea".  It didn't hurt matters that he was very nice looking, but definitely all business and professional.  We settled into our seats and reading menus bedazzled with steaks and tempting side dishes.  After a round of Q&A, we made our decisions.
6 oz. Prime Cut Filet and Brussels Sprouts
Five of us were sold on the 6 oz. Prime Cut Filet.  Our other two diners would have the New York Strip and BBQ Bourbon Chicken Half.  All were tremendous–done to order and tender as they come.  The dinners came with yeast rolls (yum!) and two sides.
BBQ Bourbon Chicken Half
Between us, we sampled all that they had to offer.  The Scalloped Potatoes and Macaroni were especially creamy with an eleven (yes, eleven!) cheese sauce.
Scalloped Potatoes



The Brussels Sprouts, sautéed with apples, bacon, cranberries, and brown sugar and bourbon would hold up on any menu.  

Bourbon Brownie a la Mode





     I couldn't believe we were actually entertaining the idea of dessert, but they had beckoned us since first seeing them on the menu.  One of each for the table would satisfy our curiosity.  We thought the Chocolate and Orange Bread Pudding would be the star, but the Bourbon Brownie a la Mode was the favorite all around.  After all, we were in the Bourbon Capital of the World so what did we expect?


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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd

A good remake of a Hardy classic that still stings

     Plays are revived sometimes because the right star is available.  This happens less frequently with movies, but happily it occurred with the re-make of Far from The Madding Crowd because Carey Mulligan is perfect to play a big, classic part like Bathsheba Everdene.  (The mind reels with what she could do with Portia, Antigone, Hedda Gabler, or Glenda Jackson’s role of Alex in Sunday, Bloody Sunday if anyone ever decided to re-make and update that classic).  When Terence Stamp told Julie Christie in the 1967 John Schlesinger directed version of Madding Crowd that she was the most beautiful woman he’d seen, I believed it because she was (and still is) gorgeous.  When Tom Sturridge says it in this version to Mulligan, we believe it because she radiates intelligence and spirit and because she possesses a regal carriage that looks exactly like that of a John Singer Sargent heroine, which I realize is about twenty-five years later.  She’s also lovely, but she comes across as emboldened and frustrating, whereas Christie came across as tough and bewildering.

The Dorset Countryside
     This version is much shorter than earlier ones, but what may be lost in texture is made up for in clear character motivation.  Thomas Hardy’s great subject was how the natural world influences his characters and how those relationships then play out.  He generally took dozens of pages to describe physical settings that can be summed up in a couple of ten second shots on film.  Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography beautifully captures the Dorset countryside and the different levels of society with a sharp clarity and deep focus.  Claire Simpson’s editing holds the shot to the exact point of interest.  

Mulligan and Schoenaerts
     Thomas Vinterberg, most noted for directing the controversial The Celebration (1998), practically the thesis for the Danish Dogme 95 movement, has had a tough time with finding the same level of success.  In Madding Crowd, he has quietly triumphed.  He still gets in some hand held camera movement as well as natural lighting in a few scenes, but he’s departed from some of the other rigid rules of that group.  His greatest strength is in getting to the point immediately and casting actors who tell us more about their characters through their physical gestures than in what they say.   Screenwriter David Nicholls has assisted Vinterberg in making the political subtext more manifest, namely in asking what a woman wants, and how the social classes interact in Victorian rural England.

The Final Ambiguous Scene
     The best moments in the movie are the first two minutes when we realize exactly who Bathsheba might become by the way in which she rides a horse, while being watched by Gabriel Oak, and the final scene that is far more ambiguous upon reflection than how it may look while playing.  Matthias Schoenaerts, a Belgian actor I haven’t seen before, was more convincing as a quiet mentor/partner as Gabriel than Alan Bates in the earlier version.  His features are asymmetrical in a way that makes him an intriguing camera object.  
Michael Sheen
Michael Sheen excels in the tragic role of Boldwood, who has a far greater emotional investment in Bathsheba than the viewer may initially realize.  Tom Sturridge doesn’t hold a candle to Stamp.  Who could?  Was any British actor ever better looking in his prime?  Part of the problem goes back to the source material, which is why does Bathsheba, so desperate to realize her individuality, get 
Tom Sturridge
taken in by such a jerk?  With Stamp, it made sense because of his looks.  Sturridge has a weird cast to his black eyes; he seems creepy from the very first shot we see of him.  The abbreviation becomes a problem because we don’t get a full sense of how much Troy ruins in Bathsheba’s life. We’re told rather than seeing it as it was in 1967. Hardy got it right by showing a smart woman going after a beautiful bad boy and wearing blinders until it’s too late.  Rowan Hedley is a hoot as Maryann Money and makes every look count as she learns about what a woman can become from Bathsheba.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Eat The Document by Dana Spiotta

Notes from underground as radicals 
reinvent and the truth lies dormant

     Dana Spiotta’s Eat The Document (2005) imagines the two leaders of a group like The Weather Underground actually going underground in 1972 after a subversive incident goes wrong and proves fatal.  A reader may already have an inkling of how this will turn out, but Spiotta’s smartest move plot-wise is to also focus on teenagers in the late ‘90s and their ‘counter-cultural’ behavior. The radicals of the ’67 – ’74 era wanted to change American society by trying to stop the Vietnam War from outside the system of power.  The teenagers and young adults of the late ‘90s are more interested in commenting, mostly with ironic self-awareness, upon the system in which they find themselves.
     
The Weather Underground
     The course that the female leader’s life followed from 1972 – 1998 proves fascinating history of various political and philosophical views by those living in the American counterculture.  By the ‘90s, they seem like a marketing niche demographic.  The younger generation’s members may seem more articulate and sentient, but they do not lead a physical course of action to challenge – certainly not overthrow – the powers that be.  One computer genius does initiate 
a bold course, but this is to become part of the establishment.  He hints that he might undermine from within, but there’s little evidence he will since he ends up treating his girlfriend in a patronizing fashion.

      Jason, the teenage son of the female radical leader years later, is the only character to be granted first person limited omniscience in his journal.  His observations and longing are sharp and pointed.  They’re also too lucid, almost as if this fifteen year old were writing a position paper instead of a journal.  That’s the only fault I have with Eat the Document.  

    With this and Stone Arabia (2011), Spiotta demonstrates her intense focus on the outsider in American society, whether that may be the outlaw, the obscure, or the eloquent.  She shows that although people may say they want to start over or change their lives, they rarely do unless they have few – if any – other choices.  Her style observes power (corporate, 
Dana Spiotta
governmental, celebrity) in a way that does not distance.  She’s different from Don DeLillo, to whom she’s been compared, in that regard.  Instead, she pulls in the reader to look at the patterns of this era.