Sunday, June 27, 2010

Mother and Child

Almost nothing of what annoyed me about this movie actually makes it a bad movie; indeed, it may even be that the things I find irksome about the film are things that others will find endearing about it, just as someone else might well find admirable the stylistic…uh, quirks, I guess…that I thought were, I don’t know, distracting at best and downright annoying at worst. And in a way it’s sort of a shame, because the story begins rather well. The script is dry and somewhat leaden, and yet the characters begin to bloom almost at once, which says more about the acting talents of Naomi Watts and Annette Bening than it does about the abilities of Rodrigo García as screenwriter and director.

Karen (Bening) is a middle-aged woman who got pregnant when she was fourteen and gave the baby up for adoption. Elizabeth (Watts) is the daughter. The two have never met and have not the slightest inkling of the other, apart from knowing that there is, in fact, an other. Karen is so unwilling to let other people get close to her that she almost comes across as comical. Elizabeth is a lawyer with her eyes on the prize and the ruthless nature of someone who is willing to say or do anything to get what she wants.

Paul (Samuel L. Jackson) is Elizabeth’s boss, the owner of what is, to all appearances, a rather tony law firm in Los Angeles. He should probably know better than to sleep with one of his attorneys, but to say that he goes to bed with her almost effortlessly less than a week after hiring her isn’t even saying it the right way. It would be more accurate to say that once she decides she wants to fuck him, he gives in without a fight.

Paco (Jimmy Smits) is a co-worker of Karen’s who is obviously - though quite inexplicably - smitten with Karen from the moment they are first shown together onscreen. Their interactions are uncomfortable at first, but eventually she allows herself to hold his hand, and then tell him about the daughter she gave up and how her entire identity now is wrapped up in regretting her decision to give her daughter up for adoption; and then in the next scene Karen and Paco are getting married.


The young black couple going through the process to adopt a baby because they can’t have kids of their own seems like a gratuitous subplot at first - and yet oddly provides one of the few attempts for the film to wrestle with the meaty philosophical issues that should (but don’t) provide the backbone of the story. During their interview with the woman who will give up her baby, the prospective adopting mother admits, under direct examination, that she does not believe in God. The same topic is later raised (and allowed, as here, to just sort of fade away) during a picnic with Paco, Karen, and Paco’s daughter from a previous marriage. I guess we could assume that García meant to do more in these scenes than identify a few token non-believers, but I can’t really imagine that anyone would buy that argument.

Both Bening and Watts play their characters cold and detached, in age-appropriate ways. Karen’s harsh manner toward the daughter of the woman who is both her housekeeper and her ailing mother’s caregiver demonstrates both the awkwardness of someone who has never raised children and a latent resentment of the fact that this woman has a child in the first place. There is little subtlety in this misplaced expression of the guilt Karen still feels at having abandoned her daugher thirty-seven years ago; and if it’s not obvious enough for you, the connective tissue of the scenes when Karen, in voice-over, writes letters to a daughter she has never known should help to wiggle any misaligned blocks into a Tetris.

There are Catholic overtones to the film, though they mostly serve to focus your attention on García’s rather heavy-handed point about God’s plan. I imagine there is more than one Catholic adoption agency in Los Angeles, but for the sake of convenience - a crutch of religion, but whatever - all of the characters whose lives are wrapped up in adoption go to the same one. That makes it easier for all of the pieces to fall together at the end. The film ends happily, of course, though there is a token tragic moment. After all, there would not be Christianity without a carpenter nailed to a wooden cross (ain’t that ironic?) - also without Roman emperor Constantine but again, whatever.

I don’t really want to give away the tragic part, but I can’t say much more about the story without doing so. The story is constructed as a fable, along the lines of the theme that everything fits into God’s plan. Everything works out in the end, except for the parts that don’t work out because they would put an extra wrinkle into the resolution - and might have forced García to come up with a plot point that could not be easily glossed over and swept away by saying it’s all in God’s plan.

The inherent danger in using the God’s plan theme to tell a story is that you can wind up using it as a get out of jail free card in order not to have to deal with issues that would come up in the non-fanciful world. The biggest instance of that problem in this film comes early, when Elizabeth beds Paul. I suppose it’s possible that no one else in the firm ever notices anything even slightly inappropriate going on between them; but I can’t say that for sure, because we never see any of their life at work apart from brief conversations in her office. Most of the action in the film takes place in houses or apartments, closed spaces where García can exert tremendous control over what takes place. Outside influence, of course, would damage the very thin veneer of authenticity that encloses his utopian City of Angels.

Indeed, one of the annoying things about the film overall is how brief most of the scenes are - you get the part you’re supposed to see, and then we go on to the next scene. It’s almost as though the characters exist in just enough of a vacuum for García to convince himself that his story is plausible. Suspension of disbelief, however, is for things like ten-foot-tall blue people, cars that transform into robots, and Jim Carrey characters who don’t hurt themselves; for a human drama to work, the characters and situations must be authentic. That is not the case here - at least, not after the first act. In order for this story to work, you have to believe that God works in mysterious ways. Otherwise, it’s just an implausible mess.

It’s also insulting for García to “out” two of his characters as non-believers and then not give their belief any kind of attention or relevance in the story - as though he mentioned them just as tokens. Then again, he’s peppered the film with an almost equal mix of whites, blacks, and Latinos, so it’s entirely possible that he’s playing the quota game with faith, too. It would fit in with the overall theme of this Hallmark Hall of Fame hunk of drivel.

Having said all that, however, I should also say that the film is not without its nice moments. Much of the characterization in the first act works very well, particularly in Elizabeth. Watts is so good in this first third that I found myself thinking Oscar nomination, at least for a bit. Once the film goes off the rails, though, it’s hard to believe that the Academy would sully its good name by considering this film for anything. Even the friggin’ score is derivative. If composer Ed Shearmur wasn’t listening to the score from Revolutionary Road over and over again while coming up with this, then I’m a monkey’s uncle.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Deep Thoughts #35

You disapprove of how Obama handles the oil spill AND you bitch that government interferes. What lives in your head where a brain should be?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Parthenon Gyros

We almost had lunch at Puccini’s today - almost. We actually parked in front of the Puccini’s at 86th and Ditch and got out of the car…and then Amy looked across the way and saw something called Parthenon Gyros and wanted to go take a look. The menu posted on the door looked like pretty much every other menu posted on the doors of who knows how many Greek/Mediterranean restaurants in the city. It seemed to be fairly reasonably priced, which is generally my only complaint about Greek restaurants here in the city, so we went in and sat down.

The whole restaurant is one long dining room with blue walls and exposed ductwork painted black, with a kitchen area in the back and restrooms that you have to pass through the kitchen area to access. There were two other parties in the restaurant when we arrived, and they were already eating. We were seated quickly and had our orders taken quickly - but the food was a long time coming. While we waited on a gyros plate for Amy, a Parthenon souvlaki for me, and chicken fingers for Jackson, four - count ‘em, four - different takeout orders were placed and filled, the customers for those orders in the doors and back out again while we waited on our food.

That might not have been an issue if the food was awesome - or even if it was just very good; but it was neither. The lunch portion of the Parthenon souvlaki is one skewer of grilled lamb and vegetables, over a bed of rice. There was plenty of neon yellow rice, though it was undercooked and had no apparent flavor once you factored out the parsley with which it was dusted; and the lone skewer of lamb was unimpressive. It was reasonably flavorful, but the chunks of lamb were cut unevenly and were therefore cooked unevenly - but even the thickest chunks passed for well done, and the smaller ones were dry.

Amy’s gyros, on the other hand, would have fed her twice; and there was even some left after I sampled some of what she did not finish. They tasted like gyros, but weren’t anything to write home about. Both dishes were served with pita bread that had clearly been microwaved seconds before being served and with their allegedly “famous” cucumber sauce - which might have been more than just chopped cucumbers and sour cream, but probably wasn’t. One dish was $7.50 and the other was $7.75 - I don’t recall which - but the difference in portion size between her massive plate of gyros and my souvlaki was astonishing.

When we got the check, I asked if this restaurant was in any way related to a restaurant called Parthenon that used to do business in Broad Ripple - and I was told that they were both run by the same family. The one in Broad Ripple, which formerly occupied the upstairs part of the space where the Casba lives, closed long ago. We ate there once, and I remember thinking the portions were small, but that the food was quite good. I don’t recall the service. Price and portion size were the problems with the Broad Ripple location, and they’ve solved the price issue at the new joint; but they’ve got a whole new problem now, with the service.

I almost always find something about a restaurant that would make me want to go back a second time - regardless of how bad the first experience was - because I generally don’t think it’s fair to judge a place based on a single experience, whether good or bad; but there was nothing on the menu that I thought I’d like to come back for, and we hardly ever get out to the Greenbriar area. I get the feeling that this place won’t be open long enough for me to give them another go, even if I wanted to do so.

1486 West 86th Street

Monday, June 14, 2010

Why Conservatives Suck #2

So let me see if I understand this…a group of conservative fools in Illinois wants to sue Indiana over our Do Not Call list. The group wants to use robocalls in the upcoming November election and objects to the strength of the Indiana law. They claim that a more lenient federal law trumps the Indiana law.

I thought the conservatives were the ones who were constantly rattling their sabers for states’ rights during the whole health care debate, the ones bleating like lost sheep about the 10th Amendment and sounding like little more than impotent wind socks. Now they want a strong state law to be struck down by a weak federal one.

Bonus: They want the federal law to apply to an issue that should be handled at the state level, whereas they wanted state law to prevail in health care - which is obviously a national issue that should be subject to federal law.

If there’s any kind of group, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, for conservative people who want to get their lives back on track, I’d be glad to donate to it - or to its founding, if it does not already exist - so that we can get these dolts the help that they need.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Deep Thoughts #34

So people complained and got the car ban on the Circle cancelled. I’m SHOCKED that citizens here could be so lazy, stupid, and shortsighted.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Another Series of Jackson Birthday Pictures

Today is Jackson's third birthday, so here's another batch of pictures from each of his birthdays. I also have one from today where he tried to bite his birthday cake before we had a chance to cut it. I haven't beamed that one from the camera to the computer yet, but it might wind up here eventually.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Red Lion Grog House

We roped my mom into watching Jackson again, and snuck out for dinner - and to get the grumpy little monkey a birthday present. (When he was very, very small, I used to say that he looked like a grumpy little monkey when he would get a grumpy expression on his face; then it turned into a running joke for any time he was cranky; and now that he has started to incorporate identity into his consciousness, he becomes indignant whenever I call him a grumpy little monkey, saying “I”m not a grumpy little monkey! I’m Jackson!” It’s way cuter when he says it.)

A review of this place in NUVO a few weeks back made mention of a stuffed portobello with herbs and mozzarella cheese and roasted red pepper sauce and well…yeah, you had me at hello. They’re going for an English pub look, but I don’t imagine there are many pubs in England that look like the old Gusto! pizza place in Fountain Square, except with a high wooden seat-back/wall thingy added to turn about half the tables into “booths.” I could be wrong about that, though. I’ve never been to England, so I don’t know what their pubs look like. Red Lion Grog House is on Virginia Avenue, where Gusto! used to be in the Murphy Arts Building. (I don’t know for sure that Gusto! closed rather than moved elsewhere, but that looks to be the case.)

The decor is pretty sparse - though the requisite Newcastle Brown Ale mirror sign is there - and I still get the feeling that it’s the kind of place where Michael Corleone could come for a sit-down with Sollozzo and the dirty cop. They don’t nail English pub here nearly as well as the folks at Chatham Tap on Mass Ave, but it was neat and clean; and you can do worse than evoke The Godfather, as far as I’m concerned. It was also early in the dinner hour in the middle of the week, so there weren’t many people there. In such a situation, the service should be excellent - and it was. Our server (unimaginatively described as “Day Bar” on the check - and all apologies if that’s her actual name) was friendly, efficient, non-intrusive, and there when we needed her.

The menu’s not quite English pub either - it’s more like American gastropub, with a nod across the pond that covers a smattering of dishes including bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie, and fish and chips. American fare includes a robust lineup of burgers, plenty of chicken, wings on the appetizer menu, and the ubiquitous reuben. I opted for the stuffed portobello ($11.99) that was talked up in the NUVO review - two mushroom caps stuffed with garlic, herbs, and mozzarella cheese, baked until bubbly, and served atop a roasted red pepper sauce and alongside garlic mashed potatoes and fresh steamed broccoli. The portobellos were thin, and the flavors of the red pepper sauce, garlic, and herbs were so strong that the flavor of the mushroom was lost in the shuffle - but those other flavors were excellent, and the texture was good, too. Perfectly melted cheese, just starting to brown and bubble on top, is the sign of a deft hand in the kitchen.

Amy had the shepherd’s pie ($11.49), which is basically vegetable and ground beef stew baked under a layer of mashed potatoes. My buddy Scott’s mom makes the best shepherd’s pie ever, and I have yet to encounter an example of this dish anywhere else that is even close to what she used to serve up. Amy seemed to like it, though she was only able to finish about half of it. I had one bite, and it tasted vaguely like sloppy joes. Nothing served at a restaurant should ever taste like sloppy joes. Ever.

I don’t know if this place has got the legs for a long run in Fountain Square. Apart from a handful of mainstays like Santorini Greek Kitchen and Peppy Grill, Fountain Square is very much a revolving door when it comes to places to eat. Add in the facts that British food (not to say just English) is well represented downtown and that the bar-and-grill concept has been done to death, and I would think that the odds are not in favor of the Red Lion Grog House. It’s not that they’re doing anything wrong - it’s just that all the things they’re doing right are already being done elsewhere, and are being done there better. It’s hard enough to convince the culinarily non-adventurous citizens of Indianapolis - and that’s the vast majority of them, I’m sorry to say - to bypass the national chain restaurants; making them brave the sometimes sketchy environs of Fountain Square might just be a bridge too far. And that’s too bad, because the food is excellent.

1043 Virginia Avenue