Tuesday, December 25, 2012


I’ve read in at least one review that Hitchcock is similar to My Week with Marilyn because of the almost over-the-top reverence paid to its central characher; both films also address the cult of celebrity at a two-generation remove from today’s always-on “entertainment” and “news” gossip industries; but while I think that the latter film is more effective as a portrayal of its subject, I think Hitchcock works better overall as a film—which is ultimately more satisfying. Part of this is a function of the place in life of each film’s subject—Alfred Hitchcock’s inner demons are tempered by a selective world-weary wisdom, whereas Marilyn Monroe, who did not live long enough to be truly wise, had only the demons. The self-reflexivity of Hitchcock is a nod to that wisdom, as well as to the duality that Alfred Hitchcock projected, a man as likely to think himself a jester as others were to think him a ghoul.

The film opens with a nice framing sequence of Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) introducing his own film in much the same way that he used to introduce each episode of his television program. He briefly recounts the story of a person called Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), a non-fictional murderer and body snatcher who became the inspiration for a fictional character called Norman Bates, in a novel called Psycho, by Robert Bloch. Casting about for a new project after the highly successful North by Northwest, Hitchcock latches on to the Bloch novel and the story of Gein, in part because he believes he can craft a successful film from the grisly story in a way that no one else can. Director Sacha Gervasi returns to the Gein device several times throughout the film, always indicating a shift from the main narrative to Hitchcock’s inner monologue.

This device worked for me on several levels. First and foremost, it features the villain from The Crow in the role of Ed Gein. That right there would have been enough, but it also lets the audience slide into Hitchcock’s mind—first as he tries to work out problems with bringing the novel to the screen, and then later as he begins to realize that some of those problems have more to do with his personal life than they do with the film he is working on. I’m not enough of a Hitchcock devotee to know whether or not this is how it played out in real life, but it’s an effective device for a narrative film—one that has its tongue planted a bit too firmly in its cheek to really qualify as a biopic. (And it’s certainly appropriate for an obvious MacGuffin to play a role in a film about Alfred Hitchcock—more of that tongue-in-cheekiness.)

Hitchcock explains the Ed Gein story at the start of the film by saying that without Gein, “we would not have our little movie.” The significance is in the use of the negative. There was probably no way to avoid the expectation that Hitchcock would be about the making of Psycho once it came out that the screenplay was based on a book called Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. It’s true that this film is not precisely what comes to mind when you think of a making-of story: very little of the action takes place on the set, and the action that does take place on the set has more to do with Hitchcock himself than it does with the film. I have not read the source material, so I don’t know whether people expecting a film school document on the making of Psycho have a legitimate gripe or not.

What I do know is that Alfred Hitchcock remains one of the most famous directors in the history of cinema. Psycho is probably his best-known film. (AFI has rated it the top thriller of all time, as well as #18 on its 100 Years...100 Movies list. It is #29 on IMDb’s Top 250.) From a remove of almost 50 years, it’s almost impossible to imagine that Alfred Hitchcock was an ordinary person with ordinary problems, and that he was not given a blank check and carte blanche (yes, I know, just go with it—I meant it non-ironically) at the beginning of each new film he embarked upon; and yet that is mostly what we see here—Hitchcock mortgaging his house to secure financing for the film, and the tension between Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), which threatens both his marriage and his career. The commingling of his personal and professional lives, which approaches symbiosis, is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this film.

And if that’s not the most fascinating aspect of the film, then watching Anthony Hopkins nearly disappear into the role of Alfred Hitchcock certainly is. He gives himself to the role fully, as he did for Oliver Stone in the title role for Nixon; but he cannot quite disappear into it. Hopkins left such an indelible mark as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs that I don’t think he’ll ever be able to disappear into a role again; and yet it speaks to his remarkable talents as an actor that he can come awfully close, even playing such iconic figures as Alfred Hitchcock and Richard Nixon. If there is a downside to seeing Hopkins in this role, it is that he appears, for the first time that I can recall, to be making an effort to achieve the performance. There are scenes where his haughty, chin-up delivery is spot on, and others where he’s clearly just Anthony Hopkins hidden under a fat suit and lots of makeup.

Gervasi’s direction is more uneven here than it was in his excellent documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil, despite the excellent point-of-view shifts to the Gein story. The montage sequences, in particular, are ineffective (especially the disjointed cross-cut montage of Hitchcock and Reville in their vehicles); but the film works because it effectively conveys how close the world came to never seeing the film that many regard as Hitchcock’s masterpiece. It is said that you can’t prove a negative, but this film nearly does just that. Hitchcock derives its power less from the current perception of its title character than from the current perception of the film Hitchcock almost didn’t get to make—a dose of cinematic sleight of hand of which Hitchcock himself would have been proud.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Forty Five˚

This past Wednesday night was Amy’s turn for a birthday dinner, and I was a little bit surprised to find a note on our message board that morning when I woke up that said, “45˚ for dinner.” She had been looking at some of the same places I had considered a couple of weeks ago, except that she substituted R Bistro for Bluebeard. I had a feeling that she was leaning toward Mass Ave, because she also wanted to pop in at Global Gifts to do some Christmas shopping for her mom. I mentioned Forty Five˚ mostly as a lark, because they feature sushi prominently on their menu—but they also have other things on the menu, including the ever-popular small plates and entrée salads. I got Amy to try sushi one time, from Oishi Sushi, and she didn’t care for it.

Forty Five˚ is on the southwest corner of Mass and College, in the space that was, once upon a time, occupied by the first incarnation of the Abbey Coffeehouse. They work their theme of angles to an almost dizzying degree inside, and the contoured white plastic chairs and black leather booths are strategically placed throughout on multiple levels—making the place feel sort of like it was designed by someone who had spent a lot of time at that burger shop from Saved by the Bell; and then the soft electronica music coming from the sound system gave me the impression that they were trying to appeal to the people who like going to the new version of Nicky Blaine’s, in the basement of the Guaranty building (and a far cry from the swanky coolness of its original location, across the street in the basement of the King Cole building).

Even with a Pacers game starting within a couple of hours, there was almost no one else in the restaurant when we arrived. Our server did not precisely rush us to put in our orders, but I got the feeling that we were taking too long to make up our minds. (And it surely must have disappointed him that all we ordered to drink, apart from water, was one glass of wine.) When Amy asked if he had any recommendations, he parroted the company line about everything being great. The first thing he recommended—and which he called “phenomenal”—was the fliet mignon. Would you believe that the filet mignon is the most expensive item on the menu? Yeah, I know. Shocking that the first thing he recommended was the most expensive thing we could have ordered.

I was set on a sushi roll, and Amy decided that she wanted crab cakes, which live on the “small plates” menu. Actual small plates are different than appetizers, but Forty Five˚ has not gotten that memo. Amy’s 45˚ salad came out first—and surprised her, since the menu did not indicate anything about her meal including a salad. Oddly, though, this surprise item was one of the highlights of the meal. It was a fairly simple affair of field greens, feta cheese, toasted almonds, dried cranberries, Mandarin oranges, and balsamic dressing. The balsamic dressing was extremely bright and fruity, and worked very well with the earthy field greens and tangy feta cheese. The toasted almonds were an especially nice touch, in terms of both texture and flavor—though I’m a sucker for almonds, and this would perhaps not appeal to everyone.

And then it was a strangely long time between Amy’s small salad and the arrival of the crab cakes and my spicy scallop sushi roll. The sushi was also a highlight—for me, anyway—with more fish in the middle of the roll than just about any other place I’ve tried. I had the choice of regular or reduced-sodium soy sauce at the table, and that was a nice touch, since soy sauce, while a necessary part of the sushi-eating experience, can also overpower the other flavors if you’re not careful. The reduced-sodium variety did not have that problem. The crab cakes were more problematic—almost all filler, practically no flavor, and served atop, surrounded by, and under various sauces. I thought that there was something vaguely familiar about the flavor, but it was four or five bites before I placed it—the crab cakes tasted the way garbage trucks smell. (That sounds more repulsive than it actually was.)

Our entrées came out almost on top of the crab cakes and sushi. That, combined with the long wait between salad and appetizers, indicated some timing issues in the kitchen—which is concerning, given the relative dearth of diners. Amy had vacillated over Tiger Shrimp Stiry-Fry, with coconut-curry sauce, fried rice noodles, and stir-fried vegetables; and Pesto Pasta, with sun-dried tomato pesto crème, fresh basil, asparagus, and feta cheese. It being her birthday and all, I offered to get the one she didn’t pick, and then to let her trade if they came out and she wound up liking mine better. Turned out, though, that the joke was on us—neither entrée was very good at all. They sounded like interesting combinations, but this gives me a chance to remind myself, once again, to never order pasta at a non-Italian restaurant.

It was hard to tell based on the texture of the noodles in Amy’s dish whether they had been made from fried rice or whether they were rice noodles that had been fried. Either way, they were gummy and overcooked, which is, I’m sorry to say, how you often find rice noodles around here. The coconut and the curry in the sauce seemed to be engaged in some kind of contest to see which could be less obtrusive—with the end result being that I could barely taste either of them, particularly the curry. I suspect the kitchen feels compelled to cater to the unimaginative and bland palates of Ordinary Americans. The ingredients in my Pesto Pasta were similarly flavorless, and by the time I got around to digging into it—I had to finish the sushi and my share of the crab cakes first—the sauce had congealed into a separated, goopy substance that might have been suitable for masonry work.

Except for the sushi, I can’t really recommend Forty Five˚ for anything. For a place that’s clearly going for that hip, ultralounge vibe, they’ve picked an odd place to set up shop. Maybe the rent on Meridian Street, between the Circle and the railroad tracks, where these ultralounge places seem to thrive, was too steep? Oh, and don’t go in your Pacers or Colts gear. They have a policy on “attire,” to ensure an “atmosphere that is agreeable to all our clients.”

765 Massachusettts Avenue

Saturday, December 01, 2012


I joked to Amy shortly after we sat down that I hoped eating here would not make me want to run right out the next day and buy a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, the novel from which the restaurant got its name; and then, of course, by the end of the meal, I wanted to run right out the next day and buy a copy of Bluebeard. Amy and I usually take each other out for dinner, in lieu of buying presents, to celebrate the anniversary of each of our arrivals on earth. I usually forget to think about it when my turn comes around, and then have to come up with something completely unthought out at the very last second. This year, however, I had three ideas percolating in the back of my mind—Bluebeard, Recess, and Black Market.

There was an article in NUVO recently that was tangentially about the restaurant, but which was really more about the father of the guy who owns the restaurant. The descriptions of the father’s peripatetic life, his rock-star credentials, his ability to work with his hands and fix things up—abandoned storefronts all over the city, especially along Mass Ave, and now the space in Fletcher Place that Bluebeard occupies—made me even more interested in the place than I had been after looking at the eclectic menu and discovering that they have a separate bakery attached to the restaurant—where they bake all of their own bread, on-site.

I also checked the menus for each restaurant on the magic internets the day we were planning to go out, hoping that might help me make up my mind. I was leaning toward Bluebeard, but I wanted Recess and Black Market to have the chance to make their respective cases, since menus for all three restaurants change on a regular basis. The menu at Recess actually changes daily, and is entirely based on what’s in season and what is available locally. Unfortunately, I didn’t write down what they were serving at Recess last Wednesday, so I don’t recall exactly what was on the menu that I thought Amy would either not like or be hesitant to try. Black Market was offering a root vegetable masala that sounded awfully tempting. In the end, though, the intriguing combination of charcuterie, cheese, salads, and small/medium/large plates, combined with the story of the restaurant’s origin, led me to Bluebeard.

The restaurant is tucked away off of Virginia Avenue, right where it makes a T with College Avenue, and the entrance sits at an angle off of the sidewalk. (When Amy asked about the neighborhood, which she deemed “cute,” as we were walking back to the car after dinner, I erroneously placed the restaurant in Fountain Square. We eat in Fountain Square so often that I think I have automatically assigned any restaurant on Virginia Avenue to that neighborhood, even though you’re not actually in Fountain Square going southeast on Virginia out of downtown until you cross the interstate.) The walls are lined with bookshelves and typewriters, including one that is supposedly a replica of the one that Vonnegut used when he was writing Bluebeard. I don’t remember much of the rest of the décor, because it’s been a little over a week since we ate there; and instead of writing about the restaurant right away, I’ve been concentrating on National Novel Writing Month.

But oh, the food. Or no, wait. The drinks. We both got drinks. Like, ones with alcohol in them. It almost never happens that we both get a drink, but what the hell, right? They had two kinds of Sun King on tap that I had never encountered before. I’ve forgotten one of them, but the one I tried was the El Gallo Negro, which is very similar to the Osiris Pale Ale—very aromatic, with strong citrus notes in the hops. The El Gallo Negro is even more aromatic, with very strong, fruity citrus notes in the hops; and whereas the Osiris is very clean and crisp, the El Gallo Negro is dense and earthy—almost thick—like a rich espresso. Amy had a glass of Sexual Chocolate (at our server’s behest), a California zinfandel/syrah blend that was also very rich and earthy, but had a very high alcohol. I’m not much of a wine person, especially when it comes to wines with high alcohol, so this one didn’t do much for me. Amy, however, was delighted with it.

Okay, so now—oh, the food. In addition to the backstory and décor, another interesting aspect of Bluebeard is the way the menu is structured. It breaks down into Snacks, Charcuterie, Cheese, Salads, Vegetables & Sides, Small Plates, Medium Plates, and Large—with price points from $4 all the way up to $32. Charcuterie and Cheese are each three choices for $14, and everything else is basically what it says it is. You can graze your way through the smaller portions as though you were at a tapas restaurant, or you can go full bore for the meat and potatoes thing—or pretty much any combination in between. We started with a Charcuterie of elk and pork salami, salami picante, and chorizo; and a Cheese of Parma Reggiano, Brick Street Tomme, and some sort of goat cheese I’ve forgotten the name of—though now that I think about it, they may just have called it chèvre. They came to the table all on one big board with orange marmalade, whole grain horseradish mustard, cornichons, and pickled caper buds, with a basket of bread to go with it.

I’m not sure it was $28 worth of food, but it was awfully good. Each of the three kinds of meat we had was hard and dried, wtih subtle variations in taste. I’m pretty desensitized to the heat in spicy foods after all these years, so if there was some heat to the salami picante, I didn’t pick up on it. It had a hint of the zesty flavor of something that had been jacked up with something spicy, but none of the heat. The chorizo had the familiar flavor of the crumbly Mexican version wrapped up nicely in the dried Spanish version. The elk and pork may have been the best of three. The tangy flavor of good hard salami paired well with the slightly gamey flavor of the elk. I was less impressed with the cheeses, though they were still quite good. The goat cheese was the best of the three there, a perfect combination of the creamy and tangy flavors that complement the unique taste of goat’s milk. The Brick Street Tomme seemed to be nothing more than a standard washed rind cheese, except that its rind was washed in Sun King’s Wee Mac Scottish Ale. I wasn’t able to pick up on that flavor, but, again, that doesn’t mean it was bad. The Parma Reggiano was very dry and crumbly, but had a hint of that sweet nuttiness that good Parmesan will pick up as it ages.

The best thing on that board, though, oddly enough, was the whole grain horseradish mustard. I took a bite of that magical little condiment, and it was actually singing to me. The flavor of those mustard grains was bright and clean, even slightly fruity or flowery; and underneath it was an aggressive horseradish flavor lying in wait like a “yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window panes.” I have eaten a lot of mustard in my life, and I don’t think I’ve ever tasted one that was as well-balanced as this one. You could have given me a jar of that mustard and a spoon, and I would have been a happy guy.

After that impressive starter, we moved on to entrée salads. I went with the roasted beet salad, with mushrooms, arugula, feta, almonds, crispy shallots, and balsamic-truffle vinaigrette ($11). This was a deep bowl of beautifully dressed, slightly wilted greens, with an abundance of crispy, crunchy, sweet, and savory flavors. The amount of food for the price was a nice surprise after the $28 meat and cheese assortment. Amy had the frisée salad, with bacon, Granny Smith apples, fennel, red onion, 5 minute egg, Banyuls vinegar, and blue cheese dressing ($14). I tried one bite, and it seemed pleasant enough. Amy said she had trouble locating the blue cheese part of the blue cheese dressing, but was ultimately quite satisfied with the dish.

We dropped an even $100, but you could away with spending far less. We don’t usually have drinks when we go out to dinner, so if we had gone with just ice water, as per our usual, that would have knocked off $19 right there. Amy also tipped a little on the heavy side, to the point that I almost thought she was angling to make out with our server. We don’t repeat very often when we get the chance to go out to dinner someplace nice, but I can imagine that this one will call our names again before long. Next time, maybe I’ll remember to ask about the bakery.

643 Virginia Avenue