Thursday, March 31, 2016

Worth moving to LA for

City of Gold (opening Friday at the Main Art Theatre), directed by Laura Gabbert, is not about a famous musician, painter or architect. It’s about someone probably no person outside of Los Angeles has ever heard of. It’s about the food and restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, Jonathan Gold. Yet the documentary is fascinating. That’s because of who Gold is. Hardly a pedestrian restaurant critic slapping on three stars to the latest bourgeois-bohemian eatery in a gentrifying part of town, Gold’s reportorial canvas is the almost 5,000 square miles of Greater Los Angeles, a kaleidoscope of a myriad ethnic cultures that have exploded over the last 40-50 years, unfolding in a tapestry on a scale greater than in any other US city. The film’s title says it all. For portraying Gold isn’t just depicting an exquisitely curious writer, fascinated by the seemingly unending variety of food and restaurant culture in Los Angeles. It’s about how his writing about those hundreds of ethnic cuisines – and numerous permutations within seemingly monolithic cultures – transcends the artful descriptions of the meals themselves to portrayals of a city of highly differentiated villages that have knitted LA together. Says urban theorist Michael Dear: “His culinary mapping becomes a cartography of the region, and through leading us we come to understand our city.” In his characteristically southern California pickup truck, the long-haired (and former classical and rock music writer and performer) Gold, heads out on the wide boulevards visiting the often unsung eateries of nondescript blocks and strip plazas, where glorious gastronomic delights await. The variety is profound and astounding – the singular delights of Chengdu Chinese cuisine, Chinese serving up American Chinese food as exotic to fellow Chinese, a restaurant that serves boiled duck with all the fat taken out, Korean street food “previously unimaginable in both California and Seoul,” dishes like hand-cut tonkotsu ramen, Thai pad see ew, and exotica like Oaxacan grasshopper soup and Hagfish or slime eels – “the filets are gelatinous,” he says. In Gold’s love for the city I’m reminded of Randy Newman’s 1983 song I Love LA. Gold believes the city is portrayed wrongly as undifferentiated urban sprawl. But, as exemplified by its cuisine and cultures LA is “less a melting pot than a great glittering mosaic.” But Gold is, after all, a restaurant critic, and explains the tricks of the trade. He makes reservations under different names, and has used disposable phones with different numbers, though recently threw off any pretense at being identified. He doesn’t write a review until he’s visited a restaurant at least four or five times. He’s as much cheerleader as critic - “you want these guys to succeed.” Still, it must be uncomfortable being eyeballed. And what kind of feedback does he get when he’s written a negative review? Have his pieces closed restaurants? The film doesn’t say. I would also have liked the film to continue identifying those it interviews, a common irritant of documentaries. Yet the movie is a stunner: about food, yes, but more about LA and its thriving intricacies of culture.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The 1930s iconic look, defined

Some people binge on Netflix. This week I binged on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), specifically five movies in a row form the 1930s, the earliest, 1930, almost from the dawn of the talkies. All were by early Hollywood pioneer Nick Grinde. The first film was The Bishop Murder Case (1930) starring Basil Rathbone as super sleuth Philo Vance, whose eye for the subtly of behaviour itself is worth watching the film for. This whodunit has a tight plot and it strings the audience along, very suitably, to the rather unexpected end…..Remote Control (Nick Grinde, Malcolm St. Clair & Edward Sedgwick, 1930), is a comedy about a self-centred and absolutely hilarious radio announcer (William Haines as William J. Brennan) who takes over  a radio station but inadvertently hires a member of a mob (John Miljan as Dr. Kruger) for a radio show, and who in turn gives coded hints on air to his crime gang…..Shopworn (1932) stars Barbara Stanwyck as Kitty (Lane) in a romance that is as much about class conflict and the double standard facing women as anything else. Lane is “shopworn,” sniffs paramour Dave Livingstone (Regis Toomey)’s mother (Clara Blandick) to “decent society,” and is banished to jail on trumped-up - what else? - morals charges, only to rehabilitate herself and become a stage star, but nevertheless still considered second class…..In Jailbreak (1936), a mobster going legal is murdered (not unlike Jimmy Hoffa) but the dumb gumshoes (often a theme of Grinde’s movies) are upstaged in the crime-solving department by a reporter (another of his themes), in this case the fast-talking Ken Williams (Craig Reynolds). All signs of guilt point to career criminal Ed Slayden (Richard Purcell) when the real murderer is someone, um, more officious…..Fugitive in the Sky (1937) is an early airplane hijack story, not be terrorists (of a sort) but by criminal thug Killer Madsen (Howard Phillips). Intrigue, romance and humor – also a hallmark of Grinde’s films – interplay. A reporter (Warren Hull as Terry Brewer) again saves the day (ah, the press!) while the airborne cast tosses loads of one-liners during their flight into perilous destiny. “I won’t sit down till I’m good and ready,” says one passenger. “Sit down!” shouts Killer. “I’m ready,” says the passenger…..Grinde’s films define what we think of as movies of the 1930’s, with hard-boiled gangsters, wiseacre reporters, scenes of spinning newspaper headlines, tough dames who usurp their stereotypical roles – often addressed as “sister” - dueling competition for the same gal between antagonists who collaborate in the end, and films which often end with a romantic kiss. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Classic takeaways

I drew these thoughts while watching several classic movies lately…. Luis Buñuel’s L'Age d'Or (The Golden Age) - screenplay by Buñuel and Salvador Dalí – is a subversive comeuppance of the French aristocracy. But employing the Surreal and Dadaist values of that period, so exemplified by Dali, the film’s absurdist humour is anything but didactic. Instead it’s amusingly comic, as when cows casually wander through a formal cocktail party, and a cook gets blown out of a kitchen and the cocktail-swilling swells pay no attention…...In The Lodger (John Brahm, 1944), the story of Jack the Ripper starring Merle Oberon and Laird Cregar (as the Ripper), dance hall scenes set in 1880's London made me think that this is one of the few ways we can access the past. We don’t have time machines but we can live vicariously by being present in an earlier era through movies of another age…..In Sabrina (Billy Wilder, 1954), we catch Aubrey Hepburn again in all her glory. She is often thought of as the elegant fashion icon in her unintentionally patented little black dress. But Hepburn, in this and other films, also exudes a kind of bohemian flair. For example, in a key scene, she shows up at industrialist Linus Larrabee’s (Humphrey Bogart) downtown office building, wearing top coat and underneath, perhaps odd for the times, not heels and dress but ballet flats and leotard……In Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 Lust for Life, the story of Vincent van Gogh (played by Kirk Douglas) and based of course on the Irving Stone novel, the movie is filmed in the softest of colours, Metrocolor (the trade name used by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for films processed in its lab; virtually all films were shot on Kodak Eastmancolor – Wikipedia), with each frame itself like a lush colourful work of art……The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950) (photo above)  is a satisfyingly complete film, in that all the planning, execution, sub plots, and conclusion, come together in great clarity and effortlessly. The classic story is about a jewel heist and stars some of the biggest names of the era – Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, James Whitmore and Sam Jaffe, and in a minor and one of her first roles, Marilyn Monroe.