Wednesday, September 30, 2015

If only SICARIO was as good as I’d hoped

     Denis Villeneuve directed the excellent Prisoners (2013) and I thought Sicario would be an amalgamation of that and Zero Dark Thirty (2012).  Instead, it felt more like a quick overview of The Bridge’s two seasons.  I guess there won’t be a third.  The Bridge went nuts because the writers couldn’t keep the story focused and there were so many subplots and characters that didn’t really figure into the main conflict that it just sort of lost me.  Sicario goes in the opposite direction: once things make sense, the plot doesn’t go anywhere you wouldn’t expect.  Basically, Taylor Sheridan wrote a western masquerading as an action thriller with hot topic political overtones.  The primary failing of the movie is that after thirty minutes where we’re trying to get our bearings, the script doesn’t tantalize us with any reversals or surprises.  There’s one character that I kept thinking wasn’t as good as he seemed, but I was reading more into what was said about him than was intended.

Emily Blunt
     Sicario starts off explosively, both literally and metaphorically.  It also continues an American commercial/artistic movie obsession with gruesomeness that began with The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and I don’t mean that as a compliment.  Roger Deakins, one of the best cinematographers working, really captures the dusty, drab desert atmosphere of the border.  All I could think was why would people want to live there if they weren’t going to be involved in the drug industry or work as extras in movies about it?  Yes, the drug industry is illegal, but it follows most of the cutthroat customs of international conglomerates; they just take them to their logically vicious conclusions.  The primary villain even states the great maxim of business as someone is being axed:  it’s nothing personal.

Emily Blunt 
     We’ve loved Emily Blunt over the past decade because she’s taken on many types of roles in a variety of genres.  Here, she plays an ordinary American, who happens to be an FBI agent assigned to kidnappings.  She does what she can with the main part, but it’s a neophyte stand-in for the audience and I found myself a couple of steps ahead of her character so it was frustrating.  This feeling began for me right after she volunteers for a team assignment to go after drug smuggling.  That’s what she thinks, but I won’t reveal more because it’s the only twist to the story.  

Benicio Del Toro
     It’s Benicio Del Toro’s movie, both in terms of his character and his performance.  He’s like an updated Eli Wallach from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966).  He plays in a more understated manner than Wallach, but I could tell he cared about this character because he actually enunciates his 
Josh Brolin
lines.  Josh Brolin plays the lead cowboy and I’d love to see him ride a horse; it’s a shame such a scene couldn’t have been worked in because it would have brought some much needed humor to a tense, but not suspenseful, movie.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Loveless Cafe: Its History and Recipes Make It a Southern Institution

The Loveless Cafe
     It's been a somewhat bumpy road at times for The Loveless Cafe since its opening in 1951.  That was a time when folks would drop in from U.S. Highway 100 to be guests of Lon and Annie Loveless in their cozy home for some real Southern cookin'.  In spite of many owners through the years, the recipes have been the stalwart for keeping the authenticity and hospitality alive at the cafe.

Sunday Dining

     We've visited three times over the years and each one has been a nice experience.  The biggest downfall is the possible wait time.  Our second visit was over an hour wait on a rainy Sunday afternoon, but the other two were immediate seatings on Wednesday morning and Sunday evening.    

Southern-Fried American Catfish
     Of course, we have some favorites on the menu.  Eric is all about the Southern-Fried American-Raised Catfish.  It's some of the best.  Served with hushpuppies, he chose the Marinated Cucumbers and Onions along with the daily feature, Creamed Spinach.  Simple comfort food down well.  

Smoked Boneless Pork Chops
     I chose the Smoked Boneless Pork Chops that are grilled and glazed with Loveless Peach Preserves, an Annie recipe from the archives. One sees meat and fruit dishes a lot on menus these days, so it's good to know that The Loveless keeps the trend torch burning in the country kitchen.  Did I mention how good they were?  Well, they later inspired fruit marinades, rubs and pankos at my workplace, Alimento Ventures.  I always go for the Homemade Creamed Corn as a side dish.  One taste and you'll know why.  The Macaroni and Cheese is OK, but nothing like some of the other sides.  

Loveless Fried Chicken
The Biscuit Maker
     Another hit among our group was the Loveless Fried Chicken.  Crispy and juicy, it's a Sunday dinner winner.  Let's not forget the biscuits that Annie started making in the forties.  The fact that they still make between 4,000 and 7,000 a day should tell you something!  

Key Lime Pie
     You'll want to save room for dessert, especially if you had to wait and stare at them in the bakery case for a while.  They're all homemade.  Martha was the only one of us to save room on our last visit.  Her choice was the Key Lime Pie.  It was a memorable version—tart and creamy as each of our sample tastings concluded.

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Saturday, September 26, 2015

Puckett's Restaurant & Grocery: Which Came First?

     As owner Andy Marshall once said, "I realized what I had here was a restaurant pretending to be a grocery store".  Puckett's Grocery & Restaurant has now grown to five stores in as many towns with live entertainment thrown in on certain days of the week.  Our encounter with Puckett's took place in the town of Franklin, TN.

Puckett's Restaurant and Grocery Store
     There's a certain vibe about the place that makes one want to be a part of it to see just what's going on.  The dining area is contained, but one is never far from the grocery shelves (limited as they were).  We were there on a Sunday afternoon so things were hoppin', but moved fast.  Our server had a likening to Kellie Pickler and attested to the fact that many Nashville stars were a part of their clientele, especially those that live in the Franklin area.

Fried Green Tomato B.L.T.
     Eric and I were immediately drawn to the Fried Green Tomato B.L.T.  Served on sourdough bread with chipotle bacon ranch, it was Southern through and through.  We accompanied it with the Smashed Sweet Potatoes as recommended by our server.  
Smoked Bologna Sandwich
Dale had the Smoked Bologna Sandwich served on country white bread.  I was torn between that and my B.L.T., but it sounded like we both made good choices.  Lori went with the Redneck Burrito, another great pick made with pulled pork, baked beans, BBQ sauce and slaw.  One just doesn't find these selections on every menu.  Martha had the Homemade Chicken Salad and Stan the Grilled Cheese.  Both were mainstays done very well.  Eric and I couldn't refuse the Berry Cobbler of the Day.  We needed spoons for everyone at the table for sampling!  And don't forget the Sweet Tea.  It doesn't get any better than at Puckett's.

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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Alabama Shakes May Be the Weirdest Jazz-Rock-Fusion Band Out There

Brittany Howard on SNL
     We saw Alabama Shakes the first time on Saturday Night Live right as their first album Boys and Girls was hitting nationally.  Brittany Howard, lead singer, guitarist, and co-songwriter, was so obstinately idiosyncratic that it was hard to watch her without getting the giggles even though she and the rest of her band mates are earnestly serious musicians.  Her facial contortions and peculiar upper body movement belied the beauty of her singing voice.  We didn’t give them much of a thought, while other reviewers were falling all over themselves to praise them.  Australian Courtney Barnett, the latest critical darling, sounds to me like an indolent barista on a smoke break talk/singing the first thing that comes into her head.  I guess I’m missing something.

     I heard “Don’t Wanna Fight,” the lead single from Alabama Shakes’ latest CD Sounds and Color and I was intrigued by what Howard was doing with her voice.  It’s the epitome of an instrument that she treats variously as if it’s woodwind, string, or brass.  The song comments indirectly on the current political unrest in American society, but that doesn’t seem to be the band’s actual intention.  Instead, the theme needs to be taken at face value that the speaker just doesn’t want any conflict; it’s the strength of Howard’s vocal and its relation to the setting in which the rest of the band places it that is the real story.  “Sound and Color,” the first song, salutes the more abstract jazz singers like Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan.  I love Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald, but I find Vaughan intimidating because it’s impossible to know where she might go with a song and those are classics from the American Songbook.  On a number of other tracks, Howard sounds like Etta James, as Kaylee pointed out.  Howard could probably sing both the Jagger and the Merry Clayton parts of “Gimme Shelter” as a solo, rather than a duet.

Alabama Shakes Performing Live*
     Howard and Alabama Shakes go all over the place on original songs that aren’t any more familiar or approachable even after multiple hearings.  I mean that as a compliment.  They leap from rock to blues to soul (sometimes on one track like “Miss You”) to jazz and even some of The Temptations orchestral pop on “Guess Who.”  They then turn around on “The Greatest” and knock off a song that kicks as if it’s the first take and something that John Lennon might have recorded and decided not to release but play live.  They are a band that enjoys recording live and that comes across even on some tracks that have a monolithic beat such as “Dunes.”  

Electric and Eclectic
     “Future People” epitomizes the strong beat and ensemble work of the band while Howard plays along as a literal and metaphorical siren; it’s the essence of what jazz from bebop to fusion did, but with electric instruments.  It’s a wild ride and there are a couple of times when it doesn’t quite work such as the soundscape setting of “Gemini” that really gets into the trance state of both harder rock like Led Zeppelin and the down the rabbit hole funk of Parliament/Funkadelic.  The last cut “Over My Head” acts as both a lovely elegy to what’s come before, but also an expression of real fear about what they’re doing.  Yes, Alabama Shakes may be the poster child for eclectic and, yes, after three years, I get them. 

*Photo by Philip Cosores

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Could GRANDMA be Lily Tomlin’s EGOT Home Plate?

      Grandma features Lily Tomlin in a go for broke performance that continues her collaboration with writer-director Paul Weitz from Admission (2013).  This is a more linear, classically structured story than that earlier movie with deeper undertones.   It’s also far more assured, in part, because it’s Weitz’s original idea written for Tomlin.  It meets the Bechdel/Wallace rule where two female characters, actually named, discuss something other than a man by offering a wealth of wonderful female actors intriguing roles.  While a funny comedy about a tough subject, namely a grandmother trying to scrounge up the money for her granddaughter’s abortion, it’s also the realization of a joyous and sad life.

Tomlin and (Granddaughter) Julia Garner
     Tomlin plays Ellie Reid, a semi-retired writer-in-residence poet, who’s dealing with her grief over her partner’s death a year and a half earlier.  She breaks up in a spat with her current girilfriend, who mistakenly thought that their relationship was more serious than it turned out to be.  Judy Greer is both sweet and hilarious in the part.  That’s when Sage, played by Julia Garner, shows up with what she needs from Grandma.  
Tomlin with Hardin
Both women want to avoid the girl’s mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) because she’s frighteningly driven and judgmental.  (She’s also right as it turns out).  All three look as if they’re related through their physical gestures.  Tomlin seems ageless because she moves beautifully and she immediately connects to her character’s emotions and can pull in the viewer.  She does everything with abandon, whether being cruel, kind, protective, or desperate.  Harden, a great actress, does wonders with what could have been a stereotypical role.  There’s a sense of historic conflict in her relationship with her mother.  Garner seems wistful and even silly at the beginning, but through cautious discretion, she develops the steel that has been passed down from her female forebears.  Significantly, all but one of the primary characters is intelligent.  The selfish dope gets his come-uppance and it’s simultaneously funny and frightening.

Driving Around LA
     In trying to avoid Judy, Ellie and Sage initiate various episodes around Los Angeles that offer snapshots of Grandma’s life over fifty years, while the clock ticks down to an appointment that Sage arranged.  With a picaresque, odyssey structure predicated on one action that must be completed within the day and an older protagonist giving life lessons to a younger protagonist through what she does, rather than what she says, Grandma should give students of Aristotle an absolute field day.  Weitz never points any of this out; the camerawork presents everything in a casual, fly-on-the-wall manner that seems like it’s hand-held at the beginning, but becomes far more formal as the story moves further into 
Laverne Cox Gives
Lily Tomlin a Tattoo
examining Ellie’s past.  One thing I noted later was about generosity:  the characters that gave money also gave in other ways and all of them are more complex than they initially appear, even if they’re only onscreen for five or ten minutes.  Laverne Cox, Elizabeth Peña (in her last role), Sam Elliott (having a resurgence this year), Lauren Tom, the still luminous Judy Geeson, and even Colleen Camp in a two-line role inhabit characters that I wanted to know more about.

Elliot Confronts Tomlin
     The sweet Grandma, ‘Mama Vi,’ seen once in a photograph, but referred to positively by a number of characters, holds the emotional key to Ellie’s current state of mind and it’s her 1955 Dodge Royal that becomes a major presence since it seems to react emotionally (as well as mechanically) to what’s happening.  (It’s Tomlin’s actual car).  I felt that the conflict was about a late Silent Generationer, who came into her own through the upheavals of the ‘60s, trying to come to terms with her Generation X daughter, who’s more compassionate than she initially seems because she deals in a short-hand of fixing other people’s mistakes, and provide something for her Team Help (my term for the 2000 – 2018 births, sorry Douglas Coupland) granddaughter.  It looks to be a generation that plays well in teams, but always needs help.  Even though it seems to be an elegy to an idealistic age, Ellie is still in control of where she’ll go next in the final frames.

    I hope that Tomlin and Weitz get the credit they deserve for this work.  It stands as a bookend (naturally, since Ellie’s a poet and nowadays ‘people don’t read’) to The Late Show (1977), which we looked back at earlier this year, both because it’s a quest story set in Los Angeles that’s deceptively unassuming and also because it presents the hopes and frustrations of an era and generation that didn’t turn out quite the way they idealistically promised.  Tomlin should have received a lead Oscar nomination then; she should receive another one for Grandma.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Taft's Alehouse is a Great Cincinnati Beer Hall

The Former St. Paul's
Evangelical Church

     What does one do with a closed Evangelical (Lutheran) Church in OTR?  What any beer-loving city would do, of course…turn it into a grand beer hall that dazzles on all aspects.  It feels like no expense has been spared with the interior vestments that perfectly meld the period structure (1850) with today.  Huge chandeliers look like they could have been cleaned up originals, but are not.  Dark wood, beveled glass and tapestry wall paper gave it a welcoming flavor that beckon a return visit on a snowy winter night.  

The Grand Interior

The Menus

     We weren't familiar with the craft beers being produced onsite, so our server gave us a run through and suggestions to match our beer tastes.  Of the 15 offered, we chose 4 different ones to pair with our food.  They ranged from coffee to pale ales to chocolate stout.  All were enjoyed.

Taft's Tub of Love
     The food doesn't settle for second place.  Setting the standard was the Tri-Tip Steak that goes through a 5-step process.  It's featured in several of the dishes offered, popping up as sliders in Taft's Tub of Love appetizer that we shared with our dining partners Karen and Tom.  Also on the plate were Sweet Potato Fries, Smoked Wings and Alehouse Onions.  All were good, but the standouts were the sliders and
Cabo Chop Salad
the light onion straws.  Karen chose the Cabo Chop Salad as her entrée.  It didn't have the appearance of a traditional chopped salad, but her reaction while eating it showed that she approved of the jicama, bleu cheese and honey lime dressing that laid out with the vegetables and Romaine lettuce.  Tom went with 
Portobello Sandwich
the Portobello Sandwich with a red ranch sauce.  It was another winner.  Eric had the Salmon Sandwich, which was grilled medium and topped with a tarragon aioli.  Check!  
Hunter Style Stew
I likened my Hunter Style Stew to a Shepherd's Pie.  Our server cautioned Eric about the mushrooms, but I didn't find any in mine that was ladened with fresh carrots and the tri-tip steak. That led me to think that perhaps the "veggies" listed on the menu may change at the chef's whim.  Nonetheless, it was a hearty portion and I enjoyed it just as much the following day for lunch.  

The Balcony Level
     Our night actually started as pizza and craft beer at Madtree, but fortunately we checked and they are closed on Monday nights.  Their loss and our gain.  We all felt right at home.

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Friday, September 18, 2015

Mr. Holmes: Literate, Involving, and Slight

     We wanted to see Mr. Holmes about seven weeks ago when it first opened, but didn’t go.  Finally, we went a week ago and enjoyed it.  We then went out with friends who had, unbeknownst to us, gone to the same showing; that was more fun than the movie.  Middle-class, middle-aged and older viewers will like it in the same way they might enjoy a series on Masterpiece Theatre that they don’t feel they have to see weekly.

Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes
     Sherlock Holmes is ninety-three in 1947, living in Sussex, and afraid that he’s losing his mind.  Although Holmes displays remarkable spryness, I sat wondering if he was going to die.  It’s sort of a suspenseful snuff movie where I hoped he wouldn’t croak.  On the other hand, he’s ninety-three and lived a remarkable life and there are people to look after him, etc., etc., so I don’t know why I was supposed to feel sorry for him, but Bill Condon directed for maximum ‘let him be immortal’ appeal.  Close to the very end, there’s a shot where Mr. Holmes lays spread-eagled face down and I couldn’t tell if it was a visual allegory for martyrdom or death or just weirdly blocked.

McKellen with Laura Linney
     Director Bill Condon collaborated very successfully with Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters (1998), which was about the final days in the life of English horror film director James Whale.  It also featured a friendship with a younger man, played by Brendan Fraser.  A major focus of Mr. Holmes is on the grandfatherly relationship he develops with his housekeeper’s son.  Laura Linney, usually luminous, plays the worried drudge Mrs, Munro and has a subtle, authentic accent.  Milo Parker plays her son with intelligence, focus, and complex emotions.  It’s an excellent performance.  Ian McKellen does very well (why wouldn’t he?), but it’s not much of a stretch for him.  He’s far more entertaining and original on Vicious (PBS on Sunday nights).  I became drowsy and missed Frances de la Tour, who’s wonderful on Vicious as the sexually ravenous best friend.

Milo Parker with Mentor McKellen
     Jeffrey Hatcher wrote a literate, elegant screenplay based upon a novel in which Sherlock Holmes recalls his final, failed case.  The English countryside looks lovely.  The sojourn to Hiroshima makes little sense (as Neil said, “Should someone that old be traveling overseas to a place with so much radiation?”) and the settings looked like they were meant for an impressionistic theatrical production.  Audiences obviously are enjoying the movie, but I wonder about the reasons for the six-year-old current obsession with Sherlock Holmes.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Technically Cutting Edge Sweet Charity at The Shaw

     The Shaw Festival started producing American musicals a few years ago and they’ve really taken off with audiences.  This season it was Sweet Charity (1966), which isn’t from Shaw’s lifetime, isn’t by one of his contemporaries, and expresses a far more sentimental and pathetic view about female sexual exploitation than Shaw’s pragmatic, capitalist-centric Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1893).  Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957), on which the musical was based, also does not meet any of the provisions for the expanded Shaw Festival mandate.  So, why was it produced beyond being a bittersweet but charming show offering a number of good roles to women and half a dozen excellent songs – that’s a lot for any show that wasn’t written by Rodgers & Hammerstein?

Ken MacDonald's Set Design
The Set Comes to Life*
     Director Morris Panych possesses an inimitable, witty style that meshes with set designer and frequent collaborator Ken MacDonald’s clean Mondrian lines and forward thinking theatrical technology for visually arresting productions.  That was immediate with the screen on which the credits appeared as if they were stops on a subway map.  Screens were utilized continually for projections that complemented the major set piece, which could be used as turnstiles in a subway station, a subway train with lights flashing by, underneath a boardwalk, and the two-story dance hall where Charity is employed.  It was a show that never stopped moving and looked at times as if it were a three dimensional movie.  The playbill cover showing Robert Rauschenberg’s Estate (1963) worked as a simile for the production’s energy.

Julie Martell and Mark Uhre*
     Panych’s interpretation pushed the lead characters into a darker zone than earlier incarnations.  Julie Martell projected a tough quality with a close to middle age resignation that pulled Charity out of the relentless naïveté Shirley MacLaine offered in the movie version.  I said to Neil at the intermission that I’d wondered what Bette Midler would be like in the role in her prime and Martell answered that. 
Oscar and Charity*
Kyle Blair’s Oscar isn’t just a neurotic but decent square; in this version, he’s borderline psychotic.  Charity gets pulled in by Oscar, rather than the other way around, but the emotional and physical dumping didn’t work at the end.  It seemed like a cheap gag that Charity should have seen coming even though it’s supposed to refer to the first scene.  I wish Panych had dropped it.  Even though it has a sharp, funny book by Neil Simon, it’s not an unimpeachable classic because the tension between the sweet and the tough doesn’t resolve itself. 

Phillipson, Martel and Rampersad*
     Ensemble veterans Melanie Phillipson and Mark Uhre shone as Charity’s friend Helene and Italian film star Vittorio Vidal, respectively.  He brought some of Mastroianni’s world-weariness to “Too Many Tomorrows”, but also a sense of delight in discovering the diamond in the rough Charity.  Kimberley Rampersad has the elegant line, dance ability, and singing power of a star as Nickie.  I hope she’s cast as a lead in the near future because I could barely take my eyes off her when she was on stage.  The high points were when Charity, Nickie, and Helene performed “There’s Gotta Be Something Better” in the first act and the poignant “Baby, Dream Your Dream” duet by Nickie and Helene in the second.  It’s a great Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields score, which employs only one reprise unlike other musicals of its era that repeated songs constantly, in which every number is a winner.  That’s probably the reason it was revived.

Charlotte Dean's Costumes*
     The cast was certainly up for seeming like authentic New Yorkers of the mid-1960s and they sang the score very well.  Charlotte Dean’s costumes were both gorgeous and shabby, though the high point for me were the raincoats the cast wore 
Subway by George Tooker
in the subway, which looked like George Tooker’s painting Subway (1950), thereby blending in some paranoia with the musical joy.   I was concerned about the men’s (obvious) wigs falling off in the “Rich Man’s Frug” number, but Neil said that type of hairstyle looked fake back then.  The choreography or its execution could have been sharper during that number, though Parker Esse nailed the hippie movement in “The Rhythm of Life,” where Jeremy Carver-James seemed more at home leading the service than Sammy Davis, Jr., did in the movie.  
Jeremy Carver-Jones and "The Rhythm of Life"*

*Photos by Emily Cooper for ShawFest
Sweet Charity runs through October 31