Saturday, November 10, 2018

FILM: Boy Erased

Boy Erased is a well done film, tightly written, with strong performances from its leads, particularly Lucas Hedges as a 19-year old Baptist preacher’s son in small town Arkansas who attempts a Christian ex-gay conversion therapy program. It’s hardly a spoiler alert to say that the program doesn’t work, but the core of the film is showing what actually goes on inside those soul-sucking places, interspersed with flashbacks of experiences that lead him there. While it could have easily slid into tendentious exposé, this film avoids that danger by presenting its characters with complexity. The boy goes into the program willingly, wanting to change, and his parents are not monsters, but loving parents who want the best for him. The evolution of their family dynamic provides the emotional frame to drive the storyline. The other participants in the program also provide a thoughtful variety of attitudes and reactions. Parts of this film are horrifying to watch (and could well be triggering for anyone who’s actually been subjected to these programs), but it’s ultimately satisfying and leaves you with hope that even LGBT kids from fundamentalist families in small-town Arkansas can turn out all right.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Dia de los Muertos Festival in Grand Park DTLA

After dinner downtown, George and I wandered up to Grand Park where a Dia de los Muertos festival has been going on. The park is filled with offrendas, altars to departed loved ones piled with photographs, favorite foods, flowers, and memories. The first large, colorful one we came upon was by the local Oaxacan community. A few were personal, to a single person or family. But most of them were made by various civic groups, connecting specific remembrances to general themes, like one from a Latino LGBT group remembering those who had been ostracized by their family and had died way too young. Some extended the theme outside its original cultural roots, like one from a local group of Yemeni immigrants remembering their family members who have died back in war-torn Yemen. It reminded me a bit of the AIDS Quilt, in the power of a large scale built up out of particulars. So many photos of beloved grandparents or those cut off young, each with their own story. And it was also wonderful to see the people wandering the park engaging with these offrendas. Many of them were dressed up, in white skeleton faces, black dresses and suits, women with marigolds in their hair. I saw a father with a young son, the little boy in skeleton face and red hoodie, looking just like the kid from Coco, and the little boy was at an altar reading a placard with the story of the person pictured. It was so sweet. So glad that we came upon this. (View photo album.)

Saturday, September 29, 2018

FILM: A Simple Favor

What a wild ride! A Simple Favor was fun, funny, clever, with good twists and turns, you just don’t really know who’s doing what to whom until the very end. Anna Kendrick is always good, but Blake Lively - wow! And Henry Golding, great performance hot on the heels of Crazy Rich Asians. Think Body Heat, Vertigo, or Double Indemnity for the vlog age.

Saturday, September 01, 2018

FILM: Crazy Rich Asians

What a pleasure to see Crazy Rich Asians. Not only a charming rom com with very likeable attractive leads, some interesting complications, good side characters, and plenty of laughs, tears, and heart-warming scenes, plus the bonus of some good food porn, travel porn, and fashion porn, but on top of all that you get some thoughtful glimpses of tensions between immigrant generations, between old world values and American values, between love and family, between sacrifice and self-fulfillment. Constance Wu is spot on as the Rachel, the heroine, a Chinese-American economics professor at NYU, smart, down to earth, and mostly confident though that is tested. Newcomer Henry Golding is perfectly handsome and charming as Rachel’s boyfriend Nick. Michelle Yeoh is flawless as Nick’s fierce tiger mother, with a nuanced performance that conveys so much with just a look. This film has layers, including nuances of Asian culture that are not elaborated, but add richness to those who will pick up on them. There’s a pivotal scene toward the end of the movie where the heroine confronts her boyfriend’s mother over a game of mahjong. I was very curious about the deeper symbolism that I suspected lay in those tiles and how the mahjong game unfolds. Gotta love the Internet -- I found a great blog post (caution: heavy spoilers!) that explains it, and it does enrich an already wonderful story.

Friday, August 31, 2018

FOOD: Officine Brera

Eating at Officine Brera in the DTLA Arts District always transports us back to fond memories of our trip to Tuscany. The vast room, an old warehouse space (very Arts District), has a modern vibe, and a nice view of the open kitchen, including their wood-burning ovens. (You can see the wood piled up by the front door.) They make some wonderful grilled meats and fish, and one of the ovens has a big crank / pulley thing for lowering down very large roasts. But they also make some terrific pastas. George often goes for the risotto, which tonight was carnaroli superfino rice with foraged mushrooms and Moliterno al tartuffo (a sharp aged pecorino – sheep’s milk cheese – from Sardinia, with veins of black truffle). I went for a new menu item, a venison ravioli with Nebbiolo-braised red onions and arrosto sauce (gravy from the roast). The meat was deliciously dark and rich, and it took me back to a dinner I had in Monteriggioni (an ancient Tuscan walled town) – that dinner was wild boar, but similar dark rich meat and sauce. We’d started this dinner with a light summer aperitif called “the Roz”, a flute of Plymouth gin, blackberry thyme sage shrub, lemon, and prosecco. And we always start with some farinata, a Tuscan chickpea crepe that we were delighted to discover in Florence, as it’s naturally gluten-free. Here at Brera, it is nicely blistered in their wood-burning oven. (It’s not on the menu, you just have to know to ask.) There was a salad of greens, grilled nectarine, lardon bits, chanterelles, and pistachios. And for dessert, a meringue with macedonia of summer fruit including more nectarines and amarena cherries. And of course an espresso.

FOOD: Pizzeria Mozza

Lunch at the famous Pizzeria Mozza: fennel sausage, mozzarella and cream, with slivered scallions and red onion. Thin crust bed that gets thick with beautifully blistered bubbles at the edge. House-made sausage is dollops of deliciously seasoned and cured ground meat (no need for casing just to put it on pizza). Green and red onions are sliced ultra thinly and lightly roasted, softened but still with a little bite and snap. GTK: reservations are scarce but if you’re content to sit at the bar, you can walk in at noon with no wait.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

FOOD: Orsa & Winston

This evening we were treated to the tasting menu at Orsa & Winston in DTLA. If you imagine how a chef with TexMex roots, trained in the classical European tradition, would prepare a Japanese omakase menu using mostly local ingredients from the local farmers market, that’s what you’ll get at Orsa & Winston. As Jonathan Gold said, “It tastes like Italy, Japan, and Spain. It tastes like Los Angeles.” The meal commenced with an amuse bouche of black sesame tofu topped with kombu and smoked trout roe, a rich dark bite set in a lovely blue-and-white patterned bowl. First course was a kanpachi (amberjack) crudo, fresh and mild, in a light yuzu dressing with red and yellow heirloom tomatoes and a couple little dollops of avocado, making a colorful array across a plain white plate. Next up was a duck foie gras au torchon, garnished with huckleberries, white figs, and labneh, with toast to spread the smooth rich pâté on. The “second course” (as is traditional with tasting menus, a “six course menu” ends up being more like ten) was a chilled summer melon soup, sweet cantaloupe-colored juice poured over some Hokkaido scallops, slivers of jicama, and little pieces of oro blanco grapefruit and cucumber. Third was a piece of seared aji (mackerel) with seared baby corn, malabar spinach, and a chopped walnut bagna cauda. (Yeah, I don’t know what all that stuff is either, and we often consult Google while decoding menus. Bagna cauda is a Piedmontese dipping sauce made from olive oil blended with garlic and anchovy. Don’t let the anchovy put you off. It’s all blended in, just good tasty dressing, here with chopped walnut added.) Fourth up was a “satsuki rice porridge”, like a risotto but with a short-grained plump Japanese rice and seasoning, with slices of abalone, pieces of geoduck (a long-necked clam), and Santa Barbara uni (sea urchin). Fifth, the meat course, was a Sonoma lamb T-bone with cannellini beans, cherry tomatoes, maitake mushrooms, some dark leafy green, and some minced castelvetrano olives. A palate cleanser of coconut sorbetto with passionfruit pulp was a lovely light segue into dessert, which was a peach clafoutis with a hearty dollop of crème fraiche Chantilly. (If you’re again diving for Google, a clafoutis is a custardy batter mixed with fruit and baked, so that unlike a pie or a cobbler, the fruit is baked right into the pastry. To be appropriately decadent, we did the wine pairings, which were really interesting. Though all Italian and French, the varietals and regions were mostly unfamiliar ones: a folle blanche from the Loire was very tart to pair with the crudo, a lagrein from the Dolomites made a dark rosato with berry notes that made a lovely compliment to the melon soup, and a dry white sciaglin from Venezia-Giulia made for pasta and aged cheese paired nicely with the rice porridge and shellfish. The desert wine was a moscato from Sicily where they press the grapes earlier, not letting them turn into raisins as is more typically done, for a light sweetness instead of a more typical syrupy moscato. It was lovely with the light pastry, fruit, and cream. We parted happy from good company and the tastes of Los Angeles in our bellies, feeling lucky to live in this city. (See full set of photos here.)

Friday, August 24, 2018

Long Beach: CambodiaTown and Judithe Hernández at the MoLAA

With another off-Friday opportunity to explore my city, I headed down to Long Beach. For lunch, Cambodian food was on the menu. In one of those quirks of human migration patterns, the stream of Cambodian emigrants in the wake of the 1979 fall of the Khmer Rouge regime ended up concentrating in Long Beach, and creating a CambodiaTown along Anaheim Blvd. Arguably ground zero of CambodiaTown has been a place called Sophy’s (or also called CambodiaTown Food & Music), a restaurant but also a bit of market and community center. I’d been tipped off by that a dish called amok trey was a great intro into authentic Cambodian cuisine. Amok trey is made from catfish fillets rubbed with kroeung -- a curry paste, and steamed with red and green peppers -- and some leafy veg with a stalk (similar to Chinese broccoli). The curry paste has similar ingredients to Thai curry - lemongrass, galangal, chili, kaffir lime - but a bit more sour than Thai. This fish was mild, tender, and delicious.

After lunch, my culture target was the Museum of Latin American Art, where a new exhibition of Judithe Hernández had just opened. I wasn’t familiar with the artist, but when I saw some of the striking images of her work, and when I learned that she was a cohort of Carlos Almaraz, whose work I’d really appreciated at a LACMA exhibit last summer, I knew I wanted to check it out. As the only female artist in the art collective Los Four, and one of the few female artists in the Chicano art movement at all, she developed a strong feminist identity expressed in her work. She works almost exclusively in pastel on paper, with figurative depictions of women, with a dream-like quality that conveys these women as archetypes to be read symbolically rather than portraits of specific actual women. A number of her works are set in vivid botanical landscapes, Rousseau-like jungle foliage or desert scapes, and some contain dream-like animals. This sort of magical realism will suggest comparisons to Frida Kahlo, but Hernández has her own clearly distinct style and vision. A number of the pieces express pointed commentary on contemporary events. One set, called the Juarez series, reflects on the spate of random murders of women and girls around Ciudad Juarez. There have been hundreds of these “feminicides” since 1993, with no apparent motive, just women violently killed, their bodies left in the desert. In The Unknown Saint, a ghostly woman on her back seems to float above a stand of cactus in the desert under a full moon night sky, a thin blood-red ribbon coiled around her grey neck and trailing off different directions into the expanse of desert. This large mural is hauntingly beautiful. In another part of the Juarez series, a trilogy of small portraits of women echoes a European Renaissance tradition of aetatis suae portraits, in which families with marriageable young daughters would have portraits painted, annotated with the age of the girl and the year, for circulation around society soliciting suitors. Here Hernández, in a biting riff on the classical form, has painted portraits of young women with their age and year of their untimely deaths. Another very recent work, reacting to then-candidate Trump’s comments on Mexican immigrants, draws on a Spanish Colonial tradition of dressing deceased infants in saintly garments. Her Death of the Innocents memorializes a young child lost to the dangers of attempts to cross the northern Mexican deserts to get the United States. The deceased child is dressed as a saint, with red and green sashes (colors of the Mexican flag), and holding a ribbon that says “we come but to dream”. Though mortality is certainly a prevalent theme in her work, it’s not entirely pervasive. Other works (like Jungle of Fire, The Birth of Eve, and Garden of Dreams) are vivid dreamscapes. Some are provocative in other ways. Les Desmoiselles d’Barrio is her feminist pastiche of Picasso's seminal work, Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon. Her desmoiselles are much more formidable, with luchadora (Mexican wrestling) masks, and some armed with rapiers. For Hernández, women have layers of masks. Even with their luchadora masks removed, these women's faces are identical, and appear stitched onto their heads.

After being immersed in the colorful dreamlands of Judithe Hernández, I stepped into the sunlight of the Gumbiner Sculpture Garden, where a collection of modern sculpture by Latin artists is set amidst cactus and palms. A few particularly caught my eye. I liked Gaudi Esté’s Perro Nagual con cara de conejo (rabbit-faced dog spirit), a figurative bronze howling at the moon. In Williams Barbosa’s Danza no 1, the curve and sweep of the two tall red iron abstracts had be thinking “Fred and Ginger” before I even saw the title. Carlos Luna’s comic War-Giro looks like a goofy sheriff from the front with his skeleton exposed on the back. Gustavo López Armentia’s Objetos del Mundo (objects of the world) is a monumental fork and knife with hieroglyphic-like symbology (more worldly objects) carved into them when you look up close. All in all, definitely worth the short drive down to Long Beach. (See complete set of photos from the day here.)

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Difference Between A President And A Dictator

The difference between a president and a dictator is that a president presides over a nation of laws where the power of government can only be wielded with due process, while a dictator is an exercise of power at will, doing whatever he wants merely because he wants to. In our constitutional republic, no president should be allowed any arbitrary exercise of power that allows him to punish anyone he deems to be his enemy. Yet that is precisely what is happening with Trump acting to revoke the security clearance of former senior intelligence officials who criticize him. It is not only retaliation against Trump’s perceived enemies, but it is fully intended to send a message to others. This politicization of the security clearance process must not be tolerated. This is completely Nixonian territory. With Nixon, it was using the IRS to inflict tax audits as harassment, and using federal contracts and grants as the president’s personal tokens of favor or disfavor. A then-secret internal memo from the Nixon White House outlined “how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies”. (Yes, that’s a quote.) This abuse of power was among the articles of impeachment against Nixon. What Trump has done to John Brennan, and is threatening to do to others, is no different. This is behavior one would expect from the leader of Cuba or Zimbabwe or Russia, but not the United States.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

BOOKS: Kitchen Confidential

For some ridiculous reason, I had somehow managed to not really know who Anthony Bourdain was until after his death. The outpouring of praise in response to his tragic end finally motivated me to see what I’d been missing, so I picked up his first big book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. I’m way late to join the chorus, but I will heartily join the voices of praise. As promised, the book is an eye-opening tour of the “back of house” of the restaurant business, giving me a whole new appreciation for what goes on back there. We think of chefs as being all about the culinary creativity, but that’s just a small part of the job, which includes marshalling supplies of food and tools from a network of suppliers of varying scrupulousness and reliability, managing a staff mostly comprised of miscreants and undocumented immigrants, and playing HR, confidant, and motivator to get them to produce a consistent high quality product at intense volume. His description of the pre-theatre dinner rush at a Times Square eatery will make you appreciate a chef not just as a food artist, but also like Omar Bradley planning and executing the landing at Utah Beach. His description of the colorful characters that inhabit the kitchen, and the choreography that somehow emerges from barely controlled mayhem, will make you want to peek behind the kitchen door, but will also make you very afraid to get too close. Bourdain has the rare gift of writing like he talks (and bonus: he reads his own audiobook), and the book is not only a window on the restaurant world, but also a window on this extraordinary man. He is impressed with his own talents, sometimes self-confessedly beyond justification, but he has a deep respect for his craft, and is quick to take his hat off to his peers and superiors. He desires to do a good job for its own sake, and gives restaurant owners their due if not always respect, but he’s fiercely loyal to his employees. His prose is vivid, and I enjoyed the journey from Bourdain as a boy in France tasting his first oyster to the seasoned chef making his first explorations of the Tokyo food scene, or just the chef examining his own hands, their scars, and the stories they tell. I’m sorry I didn’t know him sooner. I miss him already.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Attempt to Neuter the EPA Under Guise of Scientific Transparency

We have until Thursday, Aug 16, to provide comments on a proposed EPA rule that is intended to neuter the EPA’s ability to regulate air pollution, water contaminants, and toxic chemicals. It’s a parting gift from recently-resigned-in-disgrace EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, whose aim in running the Environmental Protection Agency was essentially to stop protecting the environment. The rule is actually a bit of evil genius. It cloaks itself in lofty aims of scientific transparency, requiring the EPA to consider only scientific studies whose data sets are publicly available for replication. It sounds quite reasonable on the surface, until you realize that medical studies inevitably involve confidential medical information about actual people, and that making their data sets public would mean publishing the private medical info of all those people who participated in the study. That’s obviously a non-starter, and the effect would be that in trying to decide whether certain chemicals and pollutants are harmful to human health, the EPA would be prohibited from consulting any scientific studies involving humans. And if the EPA’s own rules keep it from looking at medical studies to see whether chemicals cause any harm, then they can’t make any regulations enforcing safety measures. This is the dream of those like Pruitt who believe that science itself is just a liberal conspiracy to thwart business growth by making pesky regulations against dumping toxic waste into our rivers and harmful particulates into our air. If you care about clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment, you will want to comment on this proposed rule.

If you want to read more about it, there’s a great article in The Atlantic here:

You can read the actual proposed rule and comment on it here:

Here is the comment that I submitted:
I am deeply concerned about the effect this proposed rule would have on the ability of the EPA to protect human health, as is its charter. As should be well known to the EPA, most large-scale medical studies inherently involve data sets bound up in patient privacy, with specific medical details such that anonymization or redaction of the data would be impossible without compromising either privacy or replicability. The upshot of this rule is that when evaluating policies on air pollution, water contaminants, and toxic chemicals, and their effect on human health, the EPA would be prohibited from consulting any scientific research on actual humans. Even though this rule is written to affect only prospective rulemaking, its effect should be studied by looking at how past rules might have come out differently had this rule been in effect. A good example is the 1993 Harvard “Six Cities” study that was pivotal in establishing EPA policies regulating particulate matter, but which is often cited as so-called “secret science”. This study, which is a model for responsible science, having established protocols to support replication without violating patient confidentiality, has been replicated both in independent reviews of its own data set, and in similar studies of other data sets. Yet, because it cannot make its data public without violating patient confidentiality, it would be excluded by this rule, and if the rule were given retrospective effect, we could well lose well-founded health protections against the harms of particulate matter. I submit that any rule that would exclude studies such as this one violates the EPA’s fundamental charter to protect human health, and must be revised. And it would not be sufficient to rely on discretionary exceptions to allow studies such as this. These type of studies are the norm, and not the exception, and must be accommodated by any EPA rule fundamentally and not just on an exceptional basis.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

STAGE: Waitress

The heroine of the musical Waitress is Jenna, who works at a diner in an unnamed southern town, and has a creative genius for making pies with fanciful names and unexpected combinations of ingredients. This show takes an unexpected combination of ingredients – an abusive husband, an unwanted pregnancy, extramarital affairs, women trapped by hard economic circumstances – and bakes all of that into an unexpectedly delicious feast for the eyes, ears, and heart. The choreography is impressive, with the cast dancing around and the diner’s tables, tray carts, and pantry shelves often playing moving parts in the dance. The Sara Bareilles tunes are charming with witty lyrics that define the characters and propel the story, and Desi Oakley as Jenna does a great job serving them up with impressive stylings like falls and runs near the end of big long notes. Charity Angél Dawson was sassy as Jenna’s friend and co-worker Becky, and shined in her big number “I Didn’t Plan It” at the top of Act Two. And Oakley has some lovely duets with Bryan Fenkart (Dr. Pomatter), particularly “A Really Good Bad Idea” at the end of Act One. Despite some dark and heavy themes, there’s enough sugar in this pie to balance it. I smiled a lot and laughed, including a couple tipping-head-back roaring laughs, at the same time as appreciating its more serious commitments, but it is dessert in the end. If you have a chance to catch this while it’s still at the Pantages (through Aug 26), we recommend it.