Archive for February, 2009

A Despondent “Two Lovers”

February 18, 2009

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Director James Gray has always been somewhat of a Cannes Film Festival sweetheart, though often his films have struck me as too melodramatic and too much of a different age. But this time with “Two Lovers”, his filmmaking style has come to fruition. The old fashioned storytelling along with the melodrama actually works. Hollywood filmmaking of a bygone era is revisited to exceptional effect here. The cell phones are a dead giveaway that the film takes place in the post-2000 world. Basically, our hero, Leonard (played by Joaquin Phoenix in a well-modulated performance) lost his fiancé and makes half-hearted attempts at suicide when we first see him. Uncomfortably, Leonard moved back in with his concerned, doting Jewish parents in their old apartment in Brighton Beach, an unfashionable, firmly middle-class section of Brooklyn, just outside of Coney Island. This novel situation brings him much internal strife. The sepia-toned cinematography and unglamorous atmosphere of authentic immigrant Brooklyn reinforces the somberness and sanguineness of the proceedings. At times, Leonard seems like he’s sleepwalking his way through a lonely existence. And yet, he meets and likes an attractive Jewish girl, Sandra (heartbreakingly rendered by Vinessa Shaw), which has been arranged by his parents, of course. Sandra and Leonard will not just be a couple, but rather a business merger of their respective parents adding an additional layer of stress to the proceedings. No matter, Leonard continues to trudge through life aimlessly.

Eventually he bumps into a very distraught, beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed girl, Michelle (a disturbingly raw performance by Gwyneth Paltrow). Leonard develops an unwavering love, bordering on infatuation toward Ms. Paltrow’s Michelle. At times, Leonard forsakes and distances himself from Sandra, the good girl from a good Jewish family. He misses dinner with her, cancels meeting, and makes fawning, clandestine phone calls to his exotic shiksa lover. Hence, we arrive at the title of this film. The film builds to unexpected though warranted conclusion. All the actors are at the top of their game including an older but still formidable Isabella Rosellini as Leonard’s concerned mother. Much has been made of Joaquin Phoenix’s drastic move from forsaking acting altogether and embracing a career as a musician. Hopefully, that is just temporary. If not, his performance in “Two Lives” will stand the test of time and live as one of the best performances in his limited but impressive oeuvre. Interestingly, “Two Lives” stands alone as one of the few romantic comedies made today without the comedy. Something Hollywood just does not seem to make anymore possibly due to fiscal and feasibility reasons, or perhaps the passage and extinction of a long gone era. Namely, something that does not seem fit snugly into a preconceived genre any longer. After all, we are in the YouTube age where everyone watches downloaded movies on a screen the size of a Junior Mint. Mr. Gray growth as filmmaker (he writes and directs his own films) has been elucidating to watch. Conceivably, he will continue to make films of outstanding merit, even if working against the tide.

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Secrets of the Grain

February 18, 2009

“The Secret Of the Grain” refers to the Tunisian dish of couscous. Couscus makes itself known as the centerpiece of a meal gathering generations of a family at the dinner table every Sunday in Sete, a seaside town in southeastern France feeling the heat in the recession of the shipping and fishing industry. The extended family is presided over by their matriarch, Souad, who prepares the couscous along with vegetable soup and fried, fresh yellow mullet (a small Mediterranean fish) week in and week out at her spartan apartment. Alas, their 60 year old patriarch, Slimane, is never present at these bountiful, boisterous, and highly satiating meals. Slimane and Souad, Tunisian expatriates, divorced years ago and live apart. Souad got the apartment while Souad must settle for a Lilliputian flophouse in a down on its heels hotel peopled by poor, itinerant musicians and run by Slimane’s lover. In fact, his sons look on as Slimane solitarily eats his bowl of couscous and fish in his flophouse. Yet, Slimane becomes the glue that holds the whole family together. He has worked as a boat constructor and rebuilder for close to 35 years and the lines on his wizened face clearly attest to that. Slimane dutifully pays alimony, cares for his doting grandchildren, and drops by his ex-wife’s apartment with fresh mullet on a daily basis. Sadly, he gets the pink slip and must look elsewhere for work. All of which builds up to Slimane realizing his dream of opening a couscous restaurant on a decrepit though arduously retrofitted old ship, which Slimane refurbishes along with his sons.

Slimane goes from bank to bank and permit office to licensing office to fulfill the requirements of opening a restaurant. Alas, he comes up short and ultimately has a free grand opening to show his prospective investors what a superb restaurant it will be where he plans on serving his ew-wife’s justly famous couscous meal.

More than mere plot points and episodic events, “The Secret of the Grain” is simply and dramatically about family dynamics with Slimane as the stoic, static, ubiquitous presence. Astutely, the director- Abdel Kechiche- involves us in the lives of these people not as voyeur but rather as active participants. Whether documenting a mother desperately trying to potty train her daughter or Majid (Slimane’s son) aimlessly philandering with a bevy of women to the constant consternation of his long-suffering French wife, Slimane’s dynamic family could very well be our own. And that really says something about this little though indisputably profound film.

Wurstkuche, what did you say?

February 18, 2009

With a nom de plume that seemingly defies any attempt at pronunciation, Wurstkuche quietly opened along a previously seedy though now fashionable section of downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District. As part of its name would suggest this slender, narrow storefront serves up nothing but gourmet sausages (produced by an artisanal sausage maker), Belgian fries, and a wide variety of tasty brews and unique sodas for the teetotalers. There’s nothing quite like a hot sausage fresh from the grill placed on a toasted roll and Wurstkuche (say that three times faster) fits the bill nicely. Sausages run from a mild chicken Italian sausage to duck and bacon sausages to even a rattlesnake and rabbit sausage that will truly satisfy the adventure seeker or Fear Factor within you. They even have a number of vegetarian sausages as a modest concession to the vegan crowd. Ultimately, the French fries are delicious but they are far from Belgian, even though they are fried twice in the Belgian manner. The fries are more reminiscent of the fries you would get in a bucket at the old Great Western Steak, Hoagie, and Potato Co. stand that would make an appearance at virtually every mall’s food court worth its salt on the Western seaboard. Sadly, most of the Great Western’s locations have fallen out of fashion over the years. Suffice to say, the fries at Wurstkuche are definitely better than good and the variety of dipping sauces from blue cheese aioli to barbeque to curry ketchup easily help matters. If you like, you can even have your fries douse in white truffle oil for about a dollar extra. They may even be better than some of the sausages. And it would be almost sacrilegious not to wash down your meal with a beautifully sour Duchesse de Bourgogne from Belgium, which surprisingly appears on tap rather than in the usually petite bottle.

Most likely you will have to wait in line for a quarter of an hour or so until your sausage is ready. Even though the food items served up here do say “fast food”, they are anything but. Once your sausage and fries are ready, walk along the corridor to the adjacent, minimalist dining room, which seems to have doubled as a funky art gallery in the past. Then you are ready to eat. The sausage parlor has becomes something of a hit with the downtown crowd, though it is a good mile or so south of the main business district and courthouses.