Saturday, March 28, 2009

FILM: I Love You, Man

I Love You, Man is a fun and funny film which can probably stake the claim of being the first "brom-com". This has many of the ingredients of a good rom-com, but renovated around the trendy notion of "bromance". The story centers around Peter (Paul Rudd), the "perfect guy", who is soon to be married to a lovely girl Zooey. (So already, the rom-com formula is upside-down, as we're starting with a perfect happy couple.) But as Zooey is talking to her two BFF girlfriends about everything including wedding plans, they stumble onto the quandary of who is going to be Peter's best man, since he has no male friends. And from there the improbable and hilarious quest is launched of finding Peter a best friend to be his best man. Zooey and her girlfriends and Peter's Mom all set Peter up on various "man-dates", with amusingly dismal results, until Peter stumbles onto Sydney (Jason Segel). Sydney really gets Peter, and it's the start of a beautiful friendship. Until Peter starts spending so much time with Sydney that Zooey starts getting jealous. The whole farce has its finger on the contemporary pulse and skewers it in the style of L.A. Story. The earnestness of Paul Rudd and the natural goofy hipsterness of Jason Segel make for great chemistry. We left with big grins from this fun and original film.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

FOOD: Lou on Vine

It's always fun to discover a new hidden gem of a restaurant. I'd been hearing about a place called Lou, on Vine, specializing in tasting-size pours of interesting wines, complimented by a farmer's market-inspired weekly-changing menu. (On the radio show Good Food, they've often found the chef, DJ Olsen, at the farmer's market and asked him what he's up to. It's always been mouth-watering.) So when we were looking for dinner after a movie at the Hollywood Arclight, I thought it'd be good to try Lou. I knew it was hidden in a strip mall, but this place is practically a speakeasy. Not only is it in an obscure corner upstaged by a dry cleaner, but they have a simple unlit sign, and they keep the front dark and the curtains drawn, given the place the appearance of being closed. Fortunately, we tried the door, fully expecting to find it locked, and surprised to find it open. Thru the door and pushing aside the curtains reveals a smallish space with a long common table down the middle and rows of banquette tables on either side. There's a blackboard listing the wines being poured (by the bottle, the regular glass, or the "taste") as well as the freshly made sausages, cheeses, and other specials. On one part, there's a chalk map of the US, with arrows pointing to the provenance of the various ingredients. There's also a small bar where you can enjoy wine while waiting for a table (which you should expect to do if you get there past 7pm on a Saturday night). The food was as marvelous as all those wonderfully fresh ingredients promised. I savored a Niman Ranch pork loin over mustard greens with wild mushrooms (chanterelles!) and gnocchi. We'll definitely be back here again.

FILM: Duplicity

We enjoyed watching the sparks fly as Julia Roberts and Clive Owen matched wits in Tony Gilroy's smart spy-vs-spy thriller romance Duplicity. Their volatile chemistry called to mind classics of the genre like Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade. The background for the high-stakes corporate espionage was hilariously brought to life by the antics of battling mega-CEOs Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti, with the tone set in an opening sequence of the competitors physically wrestling one another in front of their appalled executive teams and their corporate jets. Gilroy's peel-back-the-onion style of revealing the story works fairly well to keep you wondering what's really going on, and who's really doing what to whom, although I had figured the final wrinkle before the end. Even so, it's a funny and suspenseful way to spend a Saturday night.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

FILM: Sunshine Cleaning

Some movies defy easy description. Sunshine Cleaning definitely falls into that category. When I've tried to give a plot synopsis to people, I'm usually met with quizzical reactions: "Would I really enjoy seeing a movie about a struggling single mom who starts a bio-hazardous waste removal business with her slacker sister?" Yes. You would. It's a fresh, quirky character-driven story with some laughs and a lot of heart that transcends its unappealing-at-first-glance plot. It's kind of like Six Feet Under in that regard, you just have to see it. One big good reason to see the film: Amy Adams. She's been everywhere the last year or two, and we've loved her in Enchanted, Miss Pettigrew, and Doubt. Here she plays a much more down-to-earth character, still optimistic, but definitely not a princess or a nun, and with a lot more dimensionality, a hard-shelled pragmatism alloying her sunny side. Emily Blunt provides a great disfunctional sister character (think Claire, speaking of Six Feet Under) who has a heart buried under her cynicism, and Alan Arkin is charming as the outspoken grandfather full of schemes that never quite pan out. I enjoyed the original story, but what really sticks with me most are the scenes that really show off the characters more than move the plot: the grandfather encouraging his grandson about school, the grandson talking to a shopkeeper (sensitively played by Clifton Collins Jr.) making model airplanes, the sister taking her new friend "trestling", Amy Adams' moments of quiet desperation. And of course Amy Adams' reconciliation with her sister in the end is heart-warming, in a genuine and non-maudlin way. I'm very impressed with director Christine Jeffs and writer Megan Holley (her first film), and their original story with its quirky, genuine, and engaging characters.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

BOOKS: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I hadn't read Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel, but we loved the film version of Everything Is Illuminated, so I was intrigued to check out Foer's second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I found it extremely moving and incredibly beautiful. I savored every word of it, often smiling or crying or both. Foer's story centers on Oskar, a 9-year old boy coming to grips with the loss of his father in the World Trade Center on 9/11, and what makes the story so transcendant is Foer's marvelously authentic first-person narrative, making the reader see and understand the world as such a boy would see it. I certainly saw flashes of my godson in him. Just as children sometimes in their innocence, undefiled by hackneyed turns of speech, will come up with superbly fresh metaphors and honest turns of phrase, the prose of Oskar's narrative is brimming with that kind of beauty and integrity. He's a precocious boy who's constantly coming up with inventions, and writing letters to all manner of people from Jane Goodall to Stephen Hawking. As a boy will, his narration occasionally veers into fantasy without warning, only to be regrounded by "well, that's what I wished I had done, what I really did was…" Oskar deals with his grief by embarking on a unique quest to systematically visit every person in New York named Black, searching for the lock that goes to an unusual key he found in his father's closet. His story is interleaved with the story of his grandparents, who both survived the Dresden bombing and re-met years later in New York. Most of their story comes out in letters they write to their son and to their godson, and it is often poignant to hear how two people can recall the same experience so differently. Their lives unfold in a timeline that jumps from their meeting in New York, to the present day, back to their childhood in Dresden, and back again, a chronological jumble that makes perfect emotional sense. In the fullness of the story we come to see how the events in their lives all relate, and how character traits may be a legacy between a grandfather, the son he never met, and his grandson. (It's only been in recent years I've come to appreciate how much of my parents are in me. I just wonder how Foer, who is much younger than me, came to be so wise about these things.)

I gather that the print version of this book made integral use of photos and graphics that I missed by listening to the audiobook. But I have to say that the readers of this audiobook did a splendid job. There were multiple actors voicing the main characters, and I think they really brought the characters to life. That's no mean trick, as Foer's characters are vivid and somehow authentic and slightly surreal at the same time. He has managed to create a world very like New York, but where the laws of time and reality are sometimes fluid, and which is somehow all the more real for that. His work reminds of the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende. And reading this book was certainly a magical experience.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Bulgarini Gelato Artigianale

We are still faithful to our Friday night tradition of Pazzo Gelato in Silver Lake, so I feel a tinge of betrayal, but I must admit I have found an even more superior gelateria. I had been hearing tell for a while of a superlative gelateria tucked away in a rather random location behind an auto parts store in a nondescript strip mall in Altadena. It's not near anything, it's not open every day nor late nights, so you really have to make a special effort to get there. I finally had a good occasion to check it out when, with a burst of new year's resolve, I started riding my bike again, and found that its location made the perfect midpoint and high elevation point of a 36-mile loop from my house, perfect for a Sunday afternoon. My first sampling (and by the way, I love their petit scoops, which means you can try three flavors in the small cup) comprised banana, almond, and lemon custard. Each was an absolutely divine burst of fresh flavor. The banana was so flavorful that I wondered I wasn't eating Earth bananas that had just been pureed moments ago, and the almond had both the flavor and the texture that there was no question that select almonds had been freshly ground. And the lemon custard was a perfect balance of creamy and tart. Bulgarini is legendary for his passion about fresh, specially chosen ingredients, and his flavors change weekly as he obtains the best fruit and nuts from farmers per the season. His milk comes fresh from Broguiere's dairy in Montebello, and the gelato is crafted based on artisinal techniques he studied in Italy. (And he had to hunt around to find an old craftsman to study from, and most gelato isn't made the old-fashioned way anymore even in the old country.) I've had the delight of sampling his famous pistacchio only once. He insists on using only pistacchios that he personally selects from small farmers in Sicily, claiming that the California pistacchios just don't have the same flavor profile. The proof is in the product, with these marvelous pistacchios ground to a coarse meal, such that the gelato gives your tongue a double-delight of flavor and texture, approaching the experience of God revealing the essence of pistacchio through your senses to your soul. Alas, pistacchio gelato is finished until he makes another trip to Sicily.

Bulgarini also has a genius for flavor pairings. One Sunday, his tangerine gin granita and blackberry red wine gelato had me savoring each bite with my eyes closed in ecstasy. The next week, my mouth and mind were blown by an extraordinary marriage of rich dark chocolate and cayenne pepper. The flavors vary day to day and week to week, and I've enjoyed going in without preconceived desires, and just asking the thoughtful young man behind the counter what's fresh and new this week. The hand-written signs on the display case are in Italian, and they don't always match up to the actual flavors on offer anyway. I've learned to just ask him to tell me what I ought to try, and trust his recommendations. He's observed that unlike most regular customers who have favorite flavors they return to, I like to try new things, and when he sees me pull up on my bike, he's eager to tell me about the new flavors I might like. This afternoon, he steered me to a strawberry pepper granita, coffee gelato perfumed with anise, and a yogurt "al olio" which was a wonderfully tart yogurt gelato with fresh extra-virgin olive oil poured on it, an unexpected pairing that was just amazing. (He said the oil won't mix in to the gelato properly, so you just have to pour it on at the moment it's served.)

This extraordinary gelateria has definitely done wonders for my bike-riding motivation.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Prop 8 Challenge - Oral Argument Impressions

I'm wondering whether Thursday's oral arguments at the California Supreme Court in the challenge against Prop 8 set a new "ratings" record for a court proceeding. In addition to the packed courtroom, there were jumbotron TV screens set up for crowds at San Francisco and LA City Halls and an auditorium in West Hollywood, and the proceeding was streamed live on the Internet, where it was watched by countless more. That's certainly a good thing in terms of civic interest as well as court transparency. I'm also wondering how many of those people really understood what the case was about. Contrary to the common understanding, this was not a case about gay marriage. While gay marriage was at stake, it was not at issue. What was at issue was a procedural question about "revising" versus "amending" the constitution, and the underlying crucial philosophical questions about the purpose of a constitution and the meaning of inalienable rights.

All four of the attorneys for the petitioners were very good, but as with their briefs, I thought that Therese Stewart (representing the City and County of San Francisco) most eloquently expressed the core principles at issue. She expounded the centrality of the protection of minorities against the majority in the drafting of the Constitution, and the deliberate distinction between a revision and an amendment as the people intentionally restraining themselves through the Constitution. While the small body of precedent concerning amendment vs revision has focused on "quantitative" or "structural" changes, at least some of the Justices seemed to agree that this was a case of first impression on the question of an amendment abridging a fundamental right with respect to a suspect class (i.e., exactly the sort of thing that would get tossed on equal protection grounds if enacted as statute), and further, that the grounds for revision were not necessarily limited to the categories of quantitative or structural change. I thought Stewart got the heart of it when she stated that the purpose of the Constitution, particularly of its Equal Protection clause, and of its separation of powers (checks and balances) is to protect politically vulnerable minorities, which is why structural changes require the revision process. But to put this safeguard against tinkering with the constitutional protection mechanisms to ensure liberty, but not to safeguard against direct assaults on liberty, would be to "defend the moat while letting the castle burn". (Her written brief presents the argument more eloquently than I can here in a brief blog.)

Unfortunately, the Court seemed pretty skeptical of the revision argument, both from reluctance to forge new ground (which is what they were being asked to do) and from remaining unpersuaded that Prop 8 was such a significant assault on equal protection. That latter was crucially disappointing, as Justices George and Kennard seemed to have forgotten what they wrote so forcefully last year. Both of them made repeated comments to the effect that Prop 8 was not really abridging signficant substantive rights, but that it was really just tinkering with nomenclature. Huh? They spoke as if the decision last year had been about some quantitative disparity between the treatment of marriage and domestic partnership, when in fact the whole issue was whether a difference only in nomenclature was a significant impairment of equal protection. Chief Justice George wrote for pages and pages on why nomenclature matters. And now: eh, it's just a name. I expect it was just seasoned discretion on the part of the petitioners counsel not to quote the Justices own opinions to them (the one time Stewart started down that road, Justice Kennard got very defensive).

There was also the "novel theory" from the Attorney General, who didn't do anyone any favors by needlessly undermining the petitioners' theory while advancing a novel one of his own, and then sending an inexperienced and not-well-prepared underling to advocate it. Jerry Brown should have had the cojones to defend his theory himself, especially in such a high profile case. This seems like political thinking all around: flip sides to be where he thinks would be more popular with his base, but then send someone else to argue the case so he can distance himself from a failure. It would be one thing if he had a junior attorney on his staff who was a classical liberal zealot steeped in John Stuart Mill and the other classical philosophy in which the novel theory was grounded, who could have argued passionately. But the attorney he sent was clearly not that, and he stumbled painfully in defending an argument he himself seemed not to clearly understand. Some potentially interesting philosophical ground was broached in the question of "inalienable rights", which rights are inalienable, what exactly inalienable means. Alas, no good answers were given. And it doesn't help that the California Constitution, having been amended some 500 times (as was repeatedly remarked), is rather a jumble. As C.J. George noted, reading from Article I, Section 1 (the "bill of rights") of the California Constitution, it identifies liberty, property, and privacy among the "inalienable" rights, but the same section also includes the right to fish, and the right to travel navigable waterways. Do Californians really have an inalienable right to fish?

One thing I was glad for was an affirmation of something I have been saying all along: that Prop 8 does not nullify the Court's decision of last May, and that the findings of sexual orientation being a suspect class, and marriage being a fundamental right entitled to strict scrutiny with regard to equal protection questions -- all of that is still in full force and good law, regardless of what happens in this challenge. That point was made emphatically and repeatedly by several of the Justices (particularly George and Kennard), and was agreed to by the intervenor counsel. The Justices also referred to the "constitutionalization" of the equal marriage rights, which if I understand their meaning, means that even though it was the legislature who created domestic partnership and has given it all of the same rights of marriage, it would violate the Constitution to take any of those rights away.

I was glad to see that the implications of upholding Prop 8 (or more accurately, holding that the voters of California may abridge a fundamental right against a suspect class by a bare 50%+1 majority) were laid bare. Intervenor counsel Kenneth Starr freely admitted that by the theory he was arguing for, a bare majority of the voters could amend the Constitution in practically unlimited ways, including deleting the right of free speech from the California Constitution, or by amending the Constitution to prohibit any legislation protecting the rights of gays and lesbians. Justice George mused that the problem may well be that the California Constitution is too easily amended, but that's a problem that should be resolved politically. (Hello, Sacramento? Can we get a legislative initiative to revise the amendment process? Certainly all the same legislators who earlier this week voted for the resolution that Prop 8 should have been a revision should support the codification of the principle behind the instance.)

There was also some discussion of the "split the baby" proposition offered by Pepperdine law professors Kmiec and Saxer in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle. They ventured that the best way to reconcile the religious liberty interests of Proposition 8 with the equal protection interests of In Re Marriage Cases would be to have the state offer domestic partnerships to everyone and "marriage" (the nomenclature) to no one. Justice Chin was fascinated by this, and asked several of the attorneys whether that proposal would adequately resolve all of the issues at hand, and whether it was the province of the Court to impose that solution. Everyone (including Starr) agreed with the first part, but there was little enthusiasm for the second part (and a clear "no" from Starr).

I suppose we don't really know what the Justices are thinking, or what they will conclude, but for the most part they seemed surprisingly scrutable. It could be that they are merely masters at devil's advocacy, or it could be that they have pretty lousy poker faces. From what I saw, I concur with the consensus of observers that Prop 8 will be upheld, but the marriages that occurred within the legal window will also be upheld. That latter may even be unanimous. Starr seemed to be meeting skepticism all across the panel on that argument. (Just for the fun of prediction, I'll predict that Prop 8 is upheld 5-2, with Werdigar and Moreno in the minority, and the existing marriages are upheld unanimously.)

In the long run, upholding Prop 8 will be a good thing, as it will force us to win the political fight head on (which we're quite close to doing), rather than enabling the distraction of the "black-robed tyrants" complaint. And as a bonus, maybe this will even spur a revision of our state's out-of-control amendment process.