27 February 2008

Little Nekkid Man ...

For those of you living under a rock this past Sunday, the 80th Annual Academy Awards aired on ABC. Though advertised as beginning at 8 p.m. EST, but it turned out this was just a ploy by ABC to get you to watch Regis Philbin for half an hour.

Anyway, here are the Oscar winners:

Best Picture:
'Michael Clayton'
'There Will Be Blood'
'No Country For Old Men'

Best Director:

Julian Schnabel for 'The Diving Bell & The Butterfly'
Jason Reitman for 'Juno'
Tony Gilroy for 'Michael Clayton' Joel and Ethan Coen for 'No Country for Old Men'
Paul Thomas Anderson for 'There Will Be Blood'

Anyone noticing some repition here?

Best Actor:
George Clooney for 'Michael Clayton'
Daniel Day-Lewis for 'There Will Be Blood'
Johnny Depp for 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street'
Tommy Lee Jones for 'In The Valley of Elah'
Viggo Mortensen for 'Eastern Promises'

Best Actress:
Cate Blanchett for 'Elizabeth: The Golden Age'
Julie Christie for 'Away From Her'
Marion Cotillard for 'La Vie En Rose'
Ellen Page for 'Juno'
Laura Linney for 'The Savages'

Best Supporting Actor:
Casey Affleck for 'The Assassination of Jesse James'
Javier Bordem for 'No Country for Old Men'
Philip Seymour Hoffman for 'Charlie Wilson's War'
Hal Holbrook for 'Into The Wild'
Tom Wilkinson for 'Michael Clayton'

Best Supporting Acress:
Ruby Dee for 'American Gangster'
Cate Blanchett for 'I'm Not There'
Amy Ryan for 'Gone Baby Gone'
Saoirse Ronan for 'Atonement'
Tilda Swinton for 'Michael Clayton'

Best Foreign Film:

Best Animated Feature:
'Surf's Up'

Best Original Screenplay:
'Lars and the Real Girl' by Nancy Oliver
'Ratatouille' by Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco, Brad Bird
'The Savages' by Tamara Jenkins
'Michael Clayton' by Tony Gilroy
'Juno' by Diablo Cody

Best Adapted Screenplay:
'No Country for Old Men' by Paul Thomas Anderson
'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' by Ronald Harwood
'Away From Her' by Sarah Polley
'Atonement' by Christopher Hampton
No Country for Old Men' by Joel & Ethan Coen

Best Documentary:
'No End in Sight'
'Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience'
'Taxi to the Dark Side'

Best Original Score:
'Atonement' by Dario Marianelli
'The Kite Runner' by Alberto Iglesias
'Ratatouille' by Michael Giacchino
'3:10 to Yuma' by Marco Beltrami
'Michael Clayton' by James Newton Howard

Best Original Song:
'Happy Working Song' from 'Enchanted'
'So Close' from 'Enchanted'
'That's How You Know' from 'Enchanted'
'Raise It Up' from 'August Rush'
'Falling Slowly' from 'Once'

Best Film Editing:
'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' by Juliette Welfing
'Into The Wild' by Jay Cassidy
'No Country for Old Men' by Roderick James
'The Bourne Ultimatum' by Chirstopher Rouse
'There Will Be Blood' by Dylan Tichenor

Best Documentary Short:
'Salim Baba' by Tim Sternberg & Francisco Bello
'La Corona (The Crown' by Amanda Micheli and Isabel Vega
'Freeheld' by Cynthia Wade & Vanessa Roth
'Sari's Mother' by James Longley

Best Cinematography:
'Atonement' by Seamus McGarvey
'The Assassination of Jesse James' by Roger Deakins
'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' by Janusz Kaminski
'No Country for Old Men' by Roger Deakins
'There Will Be Blood' by Robert Elwit

Best Costume Design:
'Across The Universe' by Albert Wolsky
'Elizabeth: The Golden Age' by Alexandra Byrne
'La Vie En Rose' by Marit Allen
'Atonement' by Jacqueline Durran
'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' by Colleen Atwood

Best Sound Mixing:
'Transformers' by Kevin O'Connell, Greg P. Russell, Peter J. Delvin
'3:10 to Yuma' by Paul Massey, David Giammarco, Jim Stuebe
'The Bourne Ultimatum' by Scott Millan, David Parker, Kirk Francis
'No Country for Old Men' by Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff, Peter Kurland
'Ratatouille' by Randy Thom, Michael Semanick, Doc Kane

Best Sound Editing:
'No Country for Old Men' by Skip Lievsay
'The Bourne Ultimatum' by Karen Baker Landers, Per Hallberg
'Ratatouille' by Randy Thom, Michael Silvers
'There Will Be Blood' by Matthew Wood
'Transformers' by Ethan Van der Ryn, Mike Hopkins

Best Live Action Short Film:
'Le Mozart des Pickpockets (The Mozart of Pickpockets)'
'Il Supplente (The Substitute)'
'At Night'
'Tanghi Argentini'
'The Tonto Woman'

Best Animated Short:
'Madame Tutli-Putli'
'Même les Pigeons vont au Paradis (Even Pigeons Go To Heaven)'
'Peter & the Wolf'
'My Love (Moya Lyubov)

Best Makeup:
'Norbit' by Rick Baker, Kazuhiro Tsuji
'La Vie En Rose' by Didier Lavergne, Jan Archibald
'Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End' by Ve Neill, Martin Samuel

Best Art Direction:
'There Will Be Blood' by Jack Fisk; Set Decoration by Jim Erickson
'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' by Dante Ferretti; Set Decoration: Francesca Lo Schiavo
'The Golden Compass' by David Gassner; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
'American Gangster' by Arthur Max; Set Decoration: Beth A. Rubino
'Atonement' by Sarah Greenwood; Set Decoration; Katie Spencer

Best Visual Effects:
'The Golden Compass' by Michael Fink, Bill Westenhofer, Ben Morris, Trevor Wood
'Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End' by John Knoll, Hal Hickel, Charles Gibson, John Frazier
'Transformers' by Scott Farrar, Scott Benza, Russell Earl, John Frazier

Lifetime Achievement Award:
Robert F. Boyle for Art Direction and Production Design

21 February 2008

Smile When You're Lying

Chuck Thompson promises in his book Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer to dispense with the usual preaching that you find in books like Lonely Planet. Instead, he says, he wants to share “the most memorable experiences … [that editors say] always seem ‘too negative” to put into print. And for the first half of the book, he doesn’t disappoint. His stories about teaching English in Japan at 22, searching for coke in Alaska at 3 in the morning, helping a friend have “Korean sex” before getting married, all have a charm that’s so straightforward and honest that, though the material is rather frat-boyish with a healthy side of misogeny, it never occurs to you to hold it against him. After all, he's only reporting the reality of his experiences back to you. Rarely, if ever is he a willing, active participant.

You fall for his upfront candor, rejoicing in his successes and keenly feeling his failures. Not only that, but he writes so convincingly that you have to agree with everything he says. You begrudge Alaskans for selling their souls, and America’s “last frontier,” to the oil companies. You want to head to Ensenada and scour the docks for the Slayamahi II (or, by now, possibly III or IV), and ask Ernesto the owner for a ride. You want to meet Shanghai Bob, shake his hand and buy him a beer. And you definitely don’t want to visit the Caribbean again until the place starts to feel a little less like Disneyland on the beach. The whole first half of the book is as rewarding as being a Red Sox fan in 2007 – after years of peddling through the same old disappointments, you’ve finally gotten your money’s worth in gold.

Which is why the shift in the middle of the book comes as such a serious insult. Chapter Seven, promisingly entitled What Lazy Writers, Lonely Planet, and Your Favorite Travel Magazine Don’t Want You To Know, has a different tone than the rest of the book, one that you’re really not interested in after getting so many laughs and great scenes from the first six chapters. After traveling the world with Chuck, the reader now watches him pack up his bags and get ready for the excitement of what we already know will be the doomed venture of Travelocity magazine, operating out of that glorious location of … Dallas.

Up to that point, Thompson has pointed out several habits and tendencies of travel writers that, he says, annoy him to no end. Like putting the writer into the center of the story. He hates that. He does, however, make an exception when it comes to his own writing. You raise an eyebrow at his hypocrisy, but by the time he says it, a third of the way through the book, you have to forgive him. He’s just made it too agreeable for you already. Any page that doesn’t elicit a laugh is an oddity. But the one place where I wish he’d followed his own advice would be in Chapter Seven. Before Chapter Seven, you feel you’ve been traveling with Chuck, an arm around his shoulder as he confides in you all the secret stories he’s never confided in anyone before. Then, suddenly, you feel as if you’re being preached at by a minister on Sunday, reaming against the travel writing industry. He promises “a few highlights” of his manual on what to avoid in travel writing, and gives you ten pages. A few anecdotes bring a smile to your face, but for the most part you feel as if you’re watching a car wreck and you can’t possibly stop it. How can the Dallas branch of the Bible Belt compare to Bangkok pussy writing?

20 February 2008

What Won't They Say?

There's a commercial on television for Orajel, a gel that's meant to cure toothaches.

A woman sits in her living room talking about her tooth problem. She says, "It was worse than labor pains."

Already I don't believe her.

19 February 2008

New York Winters Make Me Dream of Mexican Food ...

It takes less than four hours to explore Los Angeles’ Olvera Street in its entirety. Most of it has disintegrated into tourist traps and specialty shops: Augusto’s Leather Shop, Catalina’s Imports, Rudy’s Gifts Imports, Ramon’s Imports, Mexican Imports, … you get the idea. Food peddlers sell the most interesting and (probably) most authentic items there. Taco stands fill the street selling bean and cheese burritos as big as your forearm and crunchy taquitos in spicy chile verde.

As you walk up and down the street surrounded by Mexican kitsch, your eyes – and nose – are automatically drawn to La Golondrina café situated about two-thirds of the way to Cesar Chavez Avenue. The patio sheltered by a wooden roof painted deep maroon, wagon wheel borders and Victorian wired chairs whispers to you of bygone times. It looks more like the stylish 19th century hacienda that it was built as in 1857 than the restaurant it was been converted into during the 1920’s. The second storey goes almost unnoticed from all the bustling activity on the patio, but if you take the trouble to look up you can
see the exposed brick at the windows and cream-white walls that complete the building’s romantic appearance. You can almost see, instead of business men in suits and yuppy moms with cell phones glued to their ears, dark-haired women with flowers in their hair wearing colorful layered skirts, and men with black suits and pristine, crisp white shirts with red ties.

Oh, wait, those are the waiters.

You’re drawn still closer by the waves of cheese and spices flowing at you from the kitchen, making the sad-looking $2 burrito from the taco stand across the way look about as exciting as Sunday night’s leftovers. Golondrina’s home-made tortillas, served in black stone dishes with fitted lids to keep them hot, taste earthy and moist. Dipping sauces range from various red salsas (all the locals will tell you – pico de gallo blows other salsas out of the water), salsa verde, guacamole seasoned with cilantro, garlic, onions and tomatoes, and mole. Make Your Own Burritos, or Burritos A Su Gusto, come with your choice of beef, chicken, pork, vegetables, chorizo (Spanish sausage that can be cooked either hot or sweet). Tacos, tostadas, fajitas and enchiladas come with sides of rice and melted cheese over everything, washed down with horchata, a sweet drink that tastes like a cinnamon milkshake.

Everything smells so delicious that you feel as if you could float up into the air from all the scents. As it is, you find that you’ve floated at least to the entrance of La Golondrina without meaning to. And you don’t even know you’ve done it until the host asks you if you’d like to be seated at a table. Then you realize that you’ve been staring at the plates of food on the patio tables, and you’re pretty much bound by everything your parents taught you about polite behavior to accept the offered table. But, you ask, is it possible to get a seat on the patio?

16 February 2008

Rogers & Hammerstein's 'South Pacific' was gloriously adapted from the Broadway play in 1958 with Mitzi Gaynor playing the role of Nelly Forbush the Nurse, which Mary Martin made famous on the stage. I remember watching the movie when I was growing up. I was utterly captivated by John Kerr as Lt. Joe Cable, Jaunita Hall as Bloody Mary (she's the girl I love! Now ain't that too damn bad?) and Rossano Brazzi as Emile de Becque. I still sing 'Dites-Moi' absently in the shower. The first fifteen minutes were enough to keep me watching for over two hours. How can you not love a group of horny sailors, led by a balding, tattooed Luther Billis and a 7-foot-tall baritone named Stewpot, singing:

There ain't a thing that's wrong with any man here
That can't be cured by putting him near
A girly, womanly, female, feminine dame!

Come on, you know you love it. They're just freaky enough to keep you watching. The perfect middle ground between 'An Officer and a Gentleman' and 'Rocky Horror.'

When I was perhaps fifteen, my father gave me the book by James Michener and I fell in love all over again, this time with a richer appreciation of all the characters, of the political and racial nuances of the time. And less than two years later, when I heard a remake was in production with Harry Connick Jr. as Cable and Rade Serbedzija as De Becque, I had to admit that I was curious. Connick had been making me swoon for years with his music, and so I already knew him to be a better singer than Kerr (though he was talented and charming, singing was not his strong suit). And you can't deny that he has a certain charisma that shines when he sings. I couldn't wait to hear him sing "Younger Than Springtime" and "You've Got To Be Taught". The Bosnian Serbedzija I knew from what few films he'd made to be released in America by 2001, which included 'The Saint', 'Mission: Impossible 2', and 'Snatch'. Usually he plays the Eastern European villain; though I doubted he'd be able to drop the accent convincingly, I was looking forward to seeing what he could do in a protagonist's role.

And then I heard the news: Glenn Close was playing Nelly the Nurse. The news was equivalent to jumping the shark, and the film hadn't even aired yet.

Though I'm as much of a Close fan as the next person, she was already over fifty when this new film was made. Nelly the Nurse, in Michener's book, is a young green "cock-eyed optimist" who hasn't yet lost all of her girlish innocence in her outlook of the world. Gaynor was only 27 when she made the original film, though with her hair and make-up she looks closer to 24. But no amount of make-up can keep Close from looking over forty. As soon as you see her, you know she's miscast just as certainly as you know the sun will rise in the morning. If she could have made the film around the time 'Fatal Attraction' was released, it might not have been so bad. But Close is better aged to play Nelly's socialite Little Rock mother than the young naive nurse. Not to mention she wouldn't last five minutes in front of Simon Cowell with that singing voice.

Lori Tann Chinn, in the role of Bloody Mary, suffers more at the hands of the director than anything else. She dives head-first into the charcter ("Grass skirt! Fo' dolla'!") but she's hardly used to her best advantage. In the pivotal scene where Mary first sees Cable, she's meant to be struck with the knowledge that this man will change her life forever. "You make trouble for me?" she says. Juanita Hall and Kerr, under director Joshua Logan in 1958, made your heart skip a beat. In 2001, Richard Pearce can't recapture that energy, despite Chinn and Connick's best efforts.

The Hallmark Channel has begun to air the 2001 film, and I have to wonder why they're having such a hard time finding movies that they must air this one again. It was hard enough to suffer through in 2001.

"French planter stenchy stinker." So is whoever decided this remake be a good idea.

10 February 2008

How Can You Take Anything Called "BAFTA" Seriously?

The British Academy of Film and Television Arts, also known as BAFTA, is the British equivalent of the Oscars, and tonight on BBC America their awards ceremony aired in the US. Delayed only by that nasty little time difference. Here are the winners:

Joe Wright - 'Atonement'
Paul Greengrass - 'The Bourne Ultimatum'
Florian Henckel von Donnersmark - 'The Lives of Others'
Joel & Ethan Coen - 'No Country for Old Men'
Paul Thomas Anderson - 'There Will Be Blood'

Diablo Cody - 'Juno'
Steven Zallian - 'American Gangster'
Florian Henckel von Donnersmark - 'The Lives of Others'
Shane Meadows - 'This Is England'
Tony Gilroy - 'Michael Clayton'

Paul Thomas Anderson - 'There Will Be Blood'
Joel & Ethan Coen - 'No Country for Old Men'
David Benioff - 'The Kite Runner'
Ronald Harwood - 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly'
Christopher Hampton - 'Atonement'

Alain Goldman & Olivier Dahan - 'La Vie En Rose'
Bill Kong, James Schamus, Ang Lee - 'Lust, Caution'
Quirin Berg, Max Wiedemann, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck - 'The Lives of Others'
William Horberg, Walter Parkes, Rebecca Yeldham, Marc Foster - 'The Kite Runner'
Kathleen Kennedy, Jon Kilik, Julian Schnabel - 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly'

Brad Bird - 'Ratatouille'
Chris Miller - 'Shrek the Third'
David Silverman - 'The Simpsons Movie'

Daniel Day-Lewis - 'There Will Be Blood'
James McAvoy - 'Atonement'
Viggo Mortenson - 'Eastern Promises'
George Clooney - 'Michael Clayton'
Ulrich Muhe - 'The Lives of Others'

Ellen Page - 'Juno'
Kiera Knightley - 'Atonement'
Marion Cotillard - 'La Vie En Rose' (was also a presenter of 'Best Supporting Actor')
Cate Blanchett - 'Elizabeth: The Golden Age'
Julie Christie - 'Away From Her'

Paul Dano - 'There Will Be Blood'
Tommy Lee Jones - 'No Country for Old Men'
Phillip Seymour Hoffman - 'Charlie Wilson's War'
Javier Bardem - 'No Country for Old Men'
Tom Wilkinson - 'Michael Clayton'

Cate Blanchett - 'I'm Not There'
Kelly MacDonald - 'No Country for Old Men'
Saoirse Ronan - 'Atonement'
Tilda Swinton - 'Michael Clayton'
Samantha Morton - 'Control'

Mark Streitenfeld - 'American Gangster'
Dario Marianelli - 'Atonement'
Jonny Greenwood - 'There Will Be Blood'
Christopher Gunning - 'La Vie En Rose'
Alberto Iglesias - 'The Kite Runner'

Robert Eswit - 'There Will Be Blood'
Roger Deakins - 'No Country for Old Men'
Oliver Wood - 'The Bourne Ultimatum'
Seamus McGarvey - 'Atonement
Harris Savides - 'American Gangster'

Pietro Scalia - 'American Gangster'
Roderick Javnes - 'No Country for Old Men'
John Gilroy - 'Michael Clayton'
Christoher Rouse - 'The Bourne Ultimatum'
Paul Tothill - 'Atonement'

Guy Hendrix Dyas & Richard Roberts - 'Elizabeth: The Golden Age'
Olivier Raoux & Stanislas Reydellet - 'La Vie En Rose'
Jack Fisk & Jim Erickson - 'There Will Be Blood'
Stuart Craig & Stephanie McMillan - 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix'
Sarah Greenwood & Katie Spencer - 'Atonement'

Jacqueline Durran - 'Atonement'
Alexandre Byrne - 'Elizabeth: The Golden Age'
Marit Allen - 'La Vie En Rose'
Colleen Atwood - 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street'
Pan Lai - 'Lust, Caution'

Kirk Francis, Scott Millan, David Parker, Karen Baker Landers, Per Hallberg - 'The Bourne Ultimatum'
Laurent Zeilig, Pascal Villard, Jean-Paul Hurier, Marc Doisne - 'La Vie En Rose'
Christopher Scarabosio, Matthew Wood, John Pritchett, Michael Semanick, Tom Johnson - 'There Will Be Blood'
Peter Kurland, Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff - 'No Country for Old Men'
Danny Hambrook, PAul Hamblin, Catherin Hodgson, Becki Ponting - 'Atonement'

Scott Stokdyk, Peter Nofz, John Frazier, Spencer Cook - 'Spider-Man 3'
John Knoll, Charles Gibson, Hal Hickel, John Frazier - 'Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End'
Time Burke, John Richardson, Emma Norton, Chris Shaw - 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix'
Michael Fink, Bill Westenhofer, Ben Morris, Trevor Wood - 'The Golden Compas'
Peter Chiang, Charlie Noble, Mattias Lindhal, Joss Williams - 'The Bourne Ultimatum'

Jan Archibald, Dider Lavergne - 'La Vie En Rose'
Ivana Primorac, Peter Owen - 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street'
Judi Cooper Sealy, Jordan Samuel - 'Hairspray'
Jenny Shircore - 'Elizabeth: The Golden Age'
Ivana Primorac - 'Atonement'

Pearse Moor & John McCloskey - 'The Crumblegiant'
Osbert Parker, Fiona Pitkin, Ian Gouldstone - 'Head Over Heels'
Jo Allen, Luis Cook - 'The Pearce Sisters'

Jane Hooks, Simon Ellis - 'SOFT'
Dan McColloch, Lia Williams, Frank McGuinness - 'The Stronger'
Julien Berlan, Michelle Eastwood, Virginia Gilbert - 'Hesitation'
Diarmid Scrimshaw, Paddy Considine - 'Doc Altogether'

THE ORANGE RISING STAR AWARD (voted by the public)
Sienna Miller
Ellen Page
Sam Riley
Tang Wei
Shia LaBeouf

THE CARL FOREMAN AWARD (for a first-time British writer, producer or director)
Chris Atkins(W/D) - 'Taking Liberties'
Mia Bays (P) - 'Scott Walker: 30 Century Man'
Sarah Gavron (D) - 'Brick Lane'

Matt Greenhalgh (W) - 'Control'
Andrew Piddington (W/D) - 'The Killing of John Lennon'

'Eastern Promises'
'This is England'
'The Bourne Ultimatum'

'American Gangster'
'No Country for Old Men'
'The Lives of Others'
'There Will Be Blood'

*Note: 'Atonement' won only one of the more prestigious categories, but Shia LaBeouf won the 'Rising Star' award. I'm not sure whether to be proud of our neighbors across the pond, or rather ashamed of them.

05 February 2008

Super Bowl - So Super!

I couldn't believe they'd pulled it off. After knocking on wood every time someone in the room said something that could tempt fate, after drowning my sorrows in beer and chicken wings, after holding my breath from the first seconds of the second quarter until three minutes from the end of the game, the Giants pulled it off and upset the favored Pats to win Super Bowl XLII, 17-14.

It was unbelievable. Especially after Eli Manning's throws kept going unreceived by any of his team mates. "Dude," I shouted at the other Giants, who were constantly about five feet away from where they needed to be, "Why can't you get there?!"

Okay, so I deleted some expletives.

And then, when it came time for that touchdown, oh man, they were close. They were so close. And yet it took them about three tries before they finally managed to score. And then that extra point, which, to the TV viewer, looked like it was only inches from not getting counted at all.

Eh, I could have lived with a 16-14 victory. But 17-14 is even better!

And not only that, but they managed to keep the Pats from getting anywhere near the goal line. Though New England attempted to pull off another touchdown before the end, the Giants just kept putting them down. Tackling the QB. Running them out of bounds. Bam, first down. Bam, second down. Bam, third down.

At about thirty seconds to go, I finally let myself believe that they were going to win it. I called up my dad enthusiastically.

Which was a mistake. No Southern California man can ever find it in himself to root for New York. Never.

(Luckily, I have no such compunction. In the last six years I've lived in Philadelphia, D.C., and New York state. In the words of Audrey Hepburn, "If I were a dog, I'd be a hell of a mess." As it is, it's probably better for my personal safety if I just root for wherever I happen to be at the time.)

When, with two seconds left to go, the Pats conceded, the only emotion was euphoria. Beautiful, beautiful euphoria. Go, Underdog! Go!

By the way, Eli Manning won MVP, which I think probably had more to do with the fact that his brother won it last year, and his father won it during his career. If Manning had really been that valuable, a few more of his throws might not have ended up on the ground or in the hands of the Pats.

I'm just saying.

03 February 2008

You Never Forget Your First Time

I've discovered that the old adage of 'You never forget your first time' is true for many things. Most recently for me, it's true for Wagner.

I wasn't raised in a Wagner household. I'm not even sure my parents were overly enthusiastic opera lovers; they usually preferred theater and the symphony. But when I was eight, old enough for my first grown-up night out on the town, they made the mistake of taking me to see an English translation of Carmen. And I've been hooked on opera ever since. Mostly French and Italian operas, but occasionally there's the odd English opera or German Mozart opera mixed in the bunch. But I've managed to avoid, in sixteen years of attending the opera, going to any German operas. The fat ladies with fake armor and horned hats just couldn't compare with the sweet, slight women who, as Mimi, gave a voice to the meaning of melancholy, or to the Carmens who flirted and smiled their way in ecstasy to their eventual deaths, with devastation in their wakes.

Still, not being one to refuse opera tickets under any circumstances, I gleefully accepted a pair of seats at the Metropolitan Opera's performance of Die Walküre. For nearly five hours, I listened to an acclaimed cast of Deborah Voigt, Lisa Gasteen, Clifton Forbis, Michelle DeYoung and James Morris take the demanding score and wrangle it to the ground with a force and authority that Wagner would have admired.

People generally have one complaint about German opera, namely the language. German sounds choppy and harsh compared to the soft, flowing librettos in Italian and French. But this cast managed to smooth out the rough edges to the point where you hardly noticed the language at all.

The costume designer went to town with the armored suits, but held back with the horned helmets. The sets were the greatest deficiency in the production, so dark, and with such poor lighting, that any character not standing downstage couldn't be seen even with a key light.

It's a very beautiful opera, and pop culture's affinity for 'Flight of the Valkyries' certainly speaks to Wagner's credit (though not necessarily to pop culture's). But my biggest complaint, I don't think any production could answer to my satisfaction. I am still wondering days after seeing the opera what the point is. I want to say it's something about family - but what about family? Incest? Filial duty? Infidelity? And what about these things? Are they good? Are they bad? A little guidance, please!

All this aside, I'm stuck in the moral quandary of possibly becoming a Wagner fan.

It's a little scary to think that I have something in common with Adolf Hitler.

01 February 2008

Delivery Disasters: A Cautionary Tale for All

On a dark and stormy night, in a far away land called New York, a young graduate student crashing on the couch of a friend desired some dinner.

Her hostess had plans for the evening, and so the young student was left to fare for herself. Since the land of New York was fabled for having absolutely everything available for delivery, the student did what anybody else at that time would have done. She did a Google search.

In her search she came across a Mexican restaurant called La Hacienda on East 116th Street, a mere twenty-five blocks from the apartment where she was resting her head. The single-paragraph blurbs by critics at nymag.com and timeout.com raved about La Hacienda's pumpkin seed quesadillas and authentic Mexican salsa. And, best of all, the minimum price for delivery was only $10. For our poor, struggling student, this sounded just right.

Hungry as she was, she obediently handed over her address, cross-streets and directions, her phone number, and placed an order for the Nachos Con Pollo and a Chicken Burrito. And then she waited.

And waited.

Twenty minutes later, her phone rang, but not with the food which our young student was so eagerly awaiting. The hostess from La Hacienda was calling to ask for the address and directions and cross-streets yet again. Surely this meant that her food was only moments from leaving the restaurant, and therefore mere minutes from her door. Toes curling with excitement, she recited the information yet again.

And then she waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

As the clock approached the time that would mark an hour since her order had been placed, the student began to get impatient. She called La Hacienda again and was told the driver had left. She asked when the driver had left; the hostess, in her limited English, could not answer. The student hung up and resolved to wait another ten minutes.

Ten minutes came and went, then fifteen, then twenty. It had now been over an hour since she had ordered her food from twenty-five blocks away, and the poor grad student was hungry. Clearly the restaurant had not been up to the hype floating around about it. She called again, and canceled the order. After all, delivery was a luxury that was probably best avoided anyhow.

Ten minutes after that, who should show up but the delivery man, demanding to be paid for his food. The student, suitably annoyed by this time, paid, but asked for change in order to gage the tip accordingly. The delivery man shook his head. "No change," he said, "no change." With anger, the grad student realized she'd been conned into handing over a 20% tip for the honor of waiting an hour. She wished the man a good night, only half meaning it, and closed the door.

Determined to enjoy what might at least be good food, the student settled down and pulled out the tin foil bowls from her La Hacienda parcel. The first, her nachos appetizer, tasted like whole grain bread, and something like that temperature. Nothing spicy and very little authentically Mexican about it, as our young student, who grew up less than three hours from Mexico, might be entitled to judge. The hair hiding in one chunk of chicken was the final straw for the nachos; she rapidly put them down and turned to the chicken burrito instead.

This also proved to be a mistake. The burrito was the taste and texture of cardboard, devoid of any warmth it might have had when leaving the La Hacienda kitchen. Not even sticking it in the microwave could revive this dead bit of gunk wrapped in a flour tortilla.

So now, here our grad student sits; a little poorer and sadder than she was two hours ago when the order was first placed. But at least one good thing has come from this delivery disaster. Her appetite has been abated. Quite possibly for good.

The moral of the story: sometimes, even if a person is a critic, they don't always know what they're talking about.

Oh, and never order from La Hacienda. Because, to put it succinctly (if arcanely), they suck.

Super Bowl Weekend? Not at Williams-Sonoma

There’s nothing quite like a Williams-Sonoma store to make a poor graduate student feel about as big as a cockroach, and just as welcome.

A mere tour around the store can cause spontaneous gasps of incredulity and amazement, usually caused by the store’s admirable attempt to aid inflation (they want $77 for a knife?) while simultaneously drawing the wistful sighs of, “Oh, I wish I could afford that $80 mortar and pestle. I’d use it every day.”

The nature of the chain store is that, no matter where you go in the country, the stores not only look exactly the same, but also feature the same clientele. For Williams-Sonoma, these are elderly grandmothers in Lord & Taylor suits, domestic matrons sporting the cleanest two-year-olds in town, brides-to-be registering everything in sight.

But I enjoy the occasional perusal. The place reminds me of my mother’s dream kitchen. She could spend hours looking at all the different varieties of olive oil alone. When she got a gift certificate to the store this year, she announced it to my dad with her how-great-is-that! smile, complete with perfect-teeth grin and sparkling eyes. I went on her “scoping out” visit where she looked around but didn’t buy anything. She said she needed to deliberate before committing to a purchase. My mother’s worked in courthouses for the last 30 years. Everything requires deliberation.

Personally, I go for the food. Samples are the best part, and in the week before the Super Bowl, the Williams-Sonoma store in the Carousel Center in Syracuse, NY is all about different sauces to go with your party food, all advertised as “just in time for the big game.” A man named Owen talks to some middle-aged wives, a silver-haired woman and her daughter, both toting shopping bags from Lord & Taylor, and me about making the chicken wing sauce that he’s just pulled out of the oven and is serving to us with Tostitos chips.

Owen is clean-cut with bright eyes at what my grandmother would call “a young forty,” which means that he’s about 35, smiles a lot, and doesn’t have a beer belly. He’s friendly, approachable, eager to help. He’s also very surprised to have a young college student with them. In a city as saturated with students as Syracuse, where the university commands all the resources (and parking spaces), I don’t blame him.

The air fills with the scent of chicken wing dip and reminds me of some of the East coast Mexican restaurants; heavy on the cheese, light on the spices. When I share this, Owen tells me the names and locations of the best Mexican restaurants in the area, including one to the north that’s owned by a Mexican woman and her husband. The silver-haired woman chimes in and tells us she hates spicy foods even as she picks up a copy of the wing dip recipe. The spiciness, she says, overpower the other flavors; Owen finishes the sentence with her in evident agreement. They diverge, talking about some of the other recipes in the store (mostly desserts) and their favorite local restaurants – predominately French and Italian ones. She doesn’t invite me to join in, though Owen shoots me a sweet smile as she talks. She leaves out my most common dinner destinations; Coleman’s, Dinosaur, any sushi restaurant in the city. When she collects her purchases (which include the $77 knife) and leaves with her daughter, the disdain with which she passes the guacamole display makes me shudder.

I mention the Super Bowl to Owen; he shrugs and tells me that the class that morning is all about chocolate. My eyes wander to the cake on display in the shape of a Giants helmet only a few feet from where we stand talking.

Apparently the “big game” weekend ends on Saturday at Williams-Sonoma. After all, with this crowd, football just can’t compete with chocolate.