Thursday, November 19, 2009

Opening Night at Gobi Mongolian BBQ in Silverlake

Let me be perfectly clear: Mongolian barbeque is awesome. Not since Orange Julius has there been such a welcome addition to mall food courts across our great land. That’s why I was thrilled when I was invited to the opening night party at Gobi, Silverlake’s new Mongolian barbeque restaurant. But wait. I’ve driven past Gobi for months and seen that it was open, so why throw an opening night event now? Perhaps because they realize they’re going to need as much help as they can get.
Arriving at the party, attendees were greeted by a line that wrapped around the building and flowed deep into the adjacent parking lot. In an effort to keep cranky waiting patrons happy, small plates and little cups of beer were passed along as dozens huddled in the unusually crisp L.A. air. It turns out the delivery service outside was far superior to the melee inside. Gobi is small. Very small. With room for only about a dozen small wooden tables, there was barely a spare inch to move, let alone breathe, which might have been one of the hidden blessings about hardly being able to get any food.

Upon entering the party, I saw and smelled small plates of pesto-tossed noodles and meat. It looked tantalizing. I’d love to tell you what it tasted like but it seemed to be a momentary apparition because it never appeared again. While waiting and praying for food to appear, there was a bar armed with beer and watered down soju cocktails to keep the hordes at bay. The Ginger Blossom, made with soju, ginger, lemon-lime soda and lime juice, was both refreshing and delicious despite being made with the one liquor guaranteed to give you an instant hangover. Finally, through some jostling, cajoling and a moment of intense begging, I was finally able to secure two small portions of what I was told was the “Traditional” plate which appeared to contain noodles, beef, chicken, mushrooms and broccoli, though nothing seemed to account for the slight but puzzling flavor of goat cheese.
If you’ve never had Mongolian barbeque before, here’s how it works: You’re given a bowl and your choice of frozen, thinly shaved meat, sliced vegetables and several sauces. While most Americanized Mongolian BBQ joints offer simply mild or spicy, Gobi’s big brain moment is that they have more unique, though occasionally unappetizing sounding, sauces on tap. Choices include lemongrass, the aforementioned phantom “Asian pesto,” lemon mint, green curry, smoked oyster and BBQ. Next, Sizzler salad bar style, you cram as much as you can into your bowl, hand it to a technician who throws noodles on top and then cooks the whole thing on a massive circular iron griddle with impossibly long chopsticks. Like I said, it’s awesome. But Gobi, despite having been soft-opened since July 14th and owned by frozen confection genius Michael Buch, the man behind Pazzo Gelato, and his girlfriend, Christina Rivera, has a lot working against it.

The first problem is how DIY everything feels. Sure, when you go to Mongolian BBQ or Korean BBQ, part of the fun is doing it yourself, but that’s not the issue with Gobi. While Gobi’s commitment to all-natural chicken, pork and lamb, and seasonal, local produce is commendable, their execution is surprisingly lacking. With four months to have worked out the kinks, there’s no reason why their food should taste like the Trader Joe’s Kung Pao noodles that come in a box and can be purchased for $1.99. The décor also feels unintentionally simple, as if someone decided to start a craft project, got some stencils and made a pretty cherry blossom tree. If everything Gobi offers can be done at home, why, especially in this recession, do they deserve $13.95, without drinks or a tip? Adding to the “Why bother?” conundrum, Gobi sits just down the block from Rambutan Thai and the venerable Pho Café on Sunset Boulevard. If you need an Asian noodle fix, there are plenty of other, tastier avenues to travel down within yards.

Back at the party, I finally snagged a plate of the curry noodles, which, disappointingly, were identical to the traditional noodles except that they’d been doused in spicy curry powder which left a gritty texture and overwhelming back-of-the-throat kick of spiciness. Yet another Gobi fail. Disheartened and unsatisfied, I struck out into the L.A. night, leaving behind throngs of people battling over the few, tasteless noodles to be found, though not greatly enjoyed. I headed to Pazzo Gelato instead. It was delicious.

Gobi Mongolian BBQ
2827 W. Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90026
(213) 989-0711

Monday, November 16, 2009

Veggie Grill: A Vegan Fail

What’s the point of eating meat without the meat?

That’s what I kept asking myself as I left West Hollywood’s new outpost of the Veggie Grill, a restaurant that’s caused a sensation in Orange County before opening at 8000 Sunset last month, perfectly placed for all those sweaty, fake-n’-baked, taut, toned Crunchaphiles to curb whatever minor cravings they might be willing to indulge after a hard workout.
I am not much of a meat eater and prefer clean cuisine, but Veggie Grill has a warped perception of what “Good for you” means and how it should be prepared. It’s a bad sign when the best part of your meal at a health food restaurant is the fries. The ones at Veggie Grill are sweet potato (the idiot-proof fry, if we’re being honest) and they’re crispy, sweet and salty; you can’t deny their deliciousness. What you can deny is what they accompany. For my first (and probably last) foray into the Veggie Grill, I decided on the Baja Fiesta Salad ($8.95) and the Santa Fe Crispy Chickin’ Sandwich (also $8.95) with a side of the aforementioned fries.

Thrilled at the idea that each salad includes quinoa, an edible seed from South America that is recognized as a perfect protein, has a nutty flavor, and texture similar to bulgur, I dug into the salad first. In a brimming white plastic bowl sat chopped romaine lettuce, a few under-ripe chunks of papaya (the Mexican, blander, cheaper variety rather than Hawaii’s prized, sweet papaya), a few soft, browning squares of avocado, a sprinkling of quinoa, and chopped cucumber. I searched for the roasted corn salsa promised on the menu but all I found were a few sad charred corn kernels strewn amongst the lettuce. For a veggie restaurant, they don’t seem to take much pride in their produce, but that was the least of my concern. Upon first bite, I was struck by the intensely sweet ginger-papaya vinaigrette. It was cloying, viscous, overpowering and had nary a hint of ginger. If they wanted something that tasted like it came out of a bottle, why not use Annie’s Asian Sesame dressing? That’s delicious. This salad was not. From limp lettuce to vile vinaigrette, it was a $9 salad fail.

Next, my “Chickin’” sandwich arrived. On a dense, sweet, whole wheat bun lay a faux fried chickin’ breast topped with mushed avocado, two dried up slices of red onion, a leaf of lettuce and two whitish tomato slices. On the side sat what I discovered to be the prize of the night, the “Southwestern spiced vegan mayo,” which is basically just thin, runny chipotle mayonnaise. Much like the sweet potato fries, if you take chipotle and anything on the mayo scale and put them together, it’s going to taste good. Who cares if it’s vegan? What made less sense was the utterly tasteless chickin’ patty desperately parading as its meaty counterpart. I understand the desire to put lipstick on a pig (not that there would be any pig at the Veggie Grill, but go with me here), but it’s still a pig. Why create a vegan restaurant that serves mangled vegetables next to tarted-up, pretend versions of forbidden foods if they’re not exceptionally executed? M Café de Chaya served a vegan burger called The Big Macro that is the most satisfying, delicious burger in all of Los Angeles. And it never tries to be something it’s not.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Behind the Scenes of Fantastic Mr. Fox

Wes Anderson is a man with undeniable style, a very specific style. But isn’t that the sign of a true auteur? Walking into the SLS hotel in Los Angeles, a property which frantically reaches for coolness but ends up feeling closer to desperate, Anderson, looking every inch the effortless hipster half of Silver Lake wishes they could be, carries a heavy duty metal suitcase, wrapped in tape that screams “Caution: Fragile” in big red letters. Inside, carefully swaddled in black foam, are Mr. Fox, Mrs. Fox and Ash, the three stars of Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s outstanding adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved story. Each doll, standing between one and two feet, is so vibrantly realized; you half expect the voices of George Clooney (Mr. Fox), Meryl Streep (Mrs. Felicity Fox) or Jason Schwartzman (Ash) to pour out of them.

After making a name for himself with off-center classics like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson is tackling animation for the first time. Rather than falling back on the ubiquitous use of computers, Anderson decided to turn to stop-motion, a technique largely abandoned, though, after watching his use of it, audiences will be wondering why. He approached Dahl’s widow, Felicity, and convinced her that he was the right man to finally adapt a story many had wanted to before. Felicity was so won over by Anderson’s passion, he was invited to move into the Dahl family’s Gipsy House estate in Great Missenden, England. There, he wrote the script along with Noah Baumbach (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), walked Dahl’s gardens, absorbed Dahl’s life and even had photos taken of all the home’s furnishings so that miniature versions could be replicated and used in the film.

“My goal was to make it as Dahl as possible,” Anderson, dressed in an olive green version of Mr. Fox’s corduroy jacket, begins. But the film is unmistakably his directorial style, something he’s flustered to hear. “The last movie I did [The Darjeeling Limited], people said, ‘I can see this is a lot like your other movies,’ and I thought ‘But we’ve gone to India, we’re on a train, it’s totally different!’ I have a way of thinking about staging and design and it comes through. But that’s just me picking what I like.” The director is adamant that he was trying to do the material justice, rather than create something that could be seem as “A Wes Anderson Film.” “It ends up seeming that way because I’m making the decisions,” he shrugs, “but not because I wanted it to feel like another thing I did before.”

In fact, according to Jason Schwartzman whose long-standing relationship with Anderson dates back to 1998’s Rushmore, the only constant about working with Anderson is “It’s always an adventure with Wes.” Unlike most animated films which are recorded and mixed with solitary actors in sound booths, Anderson recorded his actors live, on location.

“The way he wanted to do it was unorthodox,” Schwartzman smiles. He explains that Anderson announced that he wanted to get all the actors together and do the film like a radio play. “We got together several times over the course of a couple years and we did it like a play, really acting it out,” Schwartzman reveals. “If there’s a scene that takes place outside, we all went outside. If we had to be digging in the scene, we would all just start digging. The sound was being recorded with just one microphone. That’s when can you get stuff like overlapping, cutting off, mistakes, starts and stops. It was really happening. Even the crickets; that’s real sound.”

Anderson explains that, while he was incredibly grateful to be surrounded by a team of exceptionally talented animators, it was his inexperience that allowed him to reinvent the process. “I had my own ways that came from not having done [an animated film] before. I wanted to shoot it just the way I would a live action movie which, in the end, becomes, sometimes, extremely challenging.”

The challenge came from using a technique introduced in 1898 which has had little advancement since. With stop-motion animation, a three-dimensional object is manipulated millimeter-by-millimeter, frame-by-frame, until it appears to be moving. Since it takes 24 frames to make one second of film, the amount of work necessary to fill an entire 88 minue movie with stop-motion is astonishing, but it lends a real tactile quality to the work.

“When you watch an animated movie, you know humans made it,” Schwartzman says, “But then it’s put into a computer. But this,” he shakes his head in awe, “They’ll work all day and it’ll add up to four or five seconds. On one hand, you know it’s so not real, but I think the thing that gives it a feeling of reality is that humans did it. You just know people touched it.”

Dare Review

Truth or dare? How about neither?

Dare, a new film by first time director Adam Salky which premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, investigates the lives of three intertwined high school students. The problem is, this freshman effort isn’t truthful enough to resonate nor daring enough to provoke and therefore it falls flat.

Broken into a tryptique of narratives, Dare follows three high school seniors who share a drama class and a whole lot of drama. First up is Alexa (Emmy Rossum of Phantom of the Opera and The Day After Tomorrow former fame), a girl who’s so stressed out about her need for scholastic perfection that she has to go on the pill to regulate her period. Sound ludicrous? Just go with it, because that birth control is going to come in handy real soon. Alexa dreams of becoming an actress but when her class is visited by a special guest (Alan Cumming, tossing out a cameo as a high school alumnus and local actor made good), his harsh critique of her performance in A Streetcar Named Desire sends her into a trampy tailspin. She puts a few blonde streaks in her hair, ditches her oversized, boxy sweater, and pretty soon she’s in a pleather skirt seducing the high school’s resident bad boy, Johnny Drake (Friday Night Lights star Zach Gilford).

Their tryst sets off a domino of events leading viewers to the film’s next segment focusing on Ben (Ashley Springer), a tech geek who’s been Alexa’s best friend since childhood but who failed to mention all that time that, oh yeah, he’s gay and in love with Johnny Drake also. His infatuation leads to a champagne fueled, Cruel Intentions-esque game of poolside blowjob chicken and an intro into the life of Johnny, the man, the myth, the mystery.

Stepping into Johnny’s life is sort of like an extended version of the monologues in The Breakfast Club. You realize that even though his life seems perfect, after all, he’s rich, popular and handsome, there are much darker forces at work and he’s really just a lost little boy desperate for love and connection. Poor little rich boy.

Written by David Brind, Dare evolved from Salky and Brind’s student thesis film during the graduate film program at Columbia, the problem is, it never truly evolved beyond the shell of an idea. Thanks to uneven pacing, performances, visual structure and writing, Dare screams sophomoric.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Behind the Scenes of The Twilight Saga: New Moon with Rob Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, Taylor Lautner and Chris Weitz

November 21st, 2008. Twilight opens. Fans go wild.

November 20th, 2009. New Moon will open. Fans will go wilder.

It took just 364 days, a lifetime for most Twi-Hards, a millisecond for anyone involved in the filmmaking process, but the second film in the Twilight saga, New Moon, is locked, loaded and ready to unspool in theaters across the country. You can almost hear the collective cries of “OMG, OMG, OMG!”

Since their unveiling last year, the cast has grown accustomed to constant scrutiny. That’s what happens when you’re involved in one of the biggest cultural phenomenons of the new millennium. But with New Moon, two unlikely heroes have emerged from the massive fame shadow cast by Twilight stars Kristen Stewart and Rob Pattinson; director Chris Weitz and Taylor Lautner, whose role as Jacob Black is greatly expanded.

Weitz was admittedly nervous about taking over the Twilight reins from director Catherine Hardwick, who helmed the first installment in the series. The only way he knew to combat that anxiety was to be extraordinarily prepared once he arrived on set and to make sure everyone involved understood his level of commitment. In order to bring the cast and crew onto the same page, he began by handing out what Stewart refers to as his “syllabus,” a gesture that still leaves Pattinson in awe. “I’ve never had that from any director,” the actor begins, running a hand through his equally famous locks. “It was like forty [or] fifty pages long. And this is in addition to a bunch of letter, emails, everything, trying to show he’s on the same page as us and completely with us in making the film. He is like a saint. I think that shows in the movie. It’s got a lot of heart, especially for a sequel and a franchise.”

“I was the new kid,” Weitz shrugs. “All of the actors knew their characters but what I really didn’t want was sequel-itis or the idea that we were just cranking out a franchise. I wanted everyone to know what sort of movie we wanted to make.”

Stewart explains that Weitz’s gesture was the ultimate set unifier. “It was like inviting everyone onto this project and saying, ‘Please, everyone love it, and please, everyone, be invested and work hard.’ It was very encouraging.” The admiration she had for her director only grew as they spent more time together on set. “I think to be a good director, you have to be a good person and you have to care about people. I don’t know a more compassionate human being [than Chris]. He really loves the project as well. He wasn't just jumping onto the next big thing. He’s incredible. I love him.”

“It’s just a love fest,” Weitz grins.

However, production on New Moon didn’t begin with sunshine, puppies and lollipops. Amidst controversy and reported bad blood around Hardwick’s replacement by Weitz, there was tremendous fan uproar when it was suspected that Taylor Lautner would be swapped for Michael Copon, an actor who was thought to be more believable as the suddenly 6’5, muscle bound Jacob described in New Moon. It was only after intense training and a diet that required him to consume over 3200 calories a day, that Lautner’s position in the franchise was secured, and that’s a blessing because New Moon wouldn’t be the same without him. In fact, Lautner steals the show right out from under his co-stars. If anything, for newly minted Twilight fans, Jacob emerges as the heartthrob, far overshadowing Edward, whose absence is the centerpiece of New Moon, while Lautner’s star is catapulted into the stratosphere.

When asked if he was ever concerned about making Jacob too appealing, Weitz replies, “It’s a balance in terms of how he’s written and how Edward is written. For the die-hard Twilight fans, nothing will ever beat Edward. You’ve got this very strong, simple fact that they know he’s The One which allows you to push as hard as you can and make Jacob as winning as Taylor has been able to be.”

Lautner is so disarmingly attractive, both physically (he’s shirtless for the majority of the film) and emotionally, that Bella’s refusal of Jacob in the film seems too obviously born out of loyalty to the book rather than rational. But Lautner defends the series’ love triangle as well as the devoted camps of both Team Jacob and Team Edward. “It just depends on what kind of girl you are, what kind of guy you like,” Lautner says, offering a gleaming smile that makes him vaguely resemble a younger, ethnic Matt Damon. “Edward and Jacob are complete opposite guys. They’re hot and cold. Literally. I personally love Bella and Jacob’s relationship, how they begin as best friends and it starts to grow into something more and more. Both guys are in love with Bella, both guys are always going to be there for Bella and they’re protective. It’s just what kind of guy you like.”

You can decide which team you’re on November 20th when Twilight: New Moon opens nationwide.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Nicolas Cage and Werner Herzog on Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Attempting to launch a film franchise seventeen years after the original movie hit screens to tremendous critical acclaim is a very dangerous undertaking, but that’s exactly what Nicolas Cage and director Werner Herzog are attempting to do with Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. The film follows Cage as Terrence McDonagh, a police lieutenant whose reluctant heroism during Hurricane Katrina leads to a massive drug problem and steady downward spiral, distantly echoing the plot of 1992’s Bad Lieutenant directed by Abel Ferrara and starring Harvey Keitel in an electrifying tour de force performance. Upon hearing the news of this purported sequel or remake, Ferrara was quoted as saying “As far as remakes go,…I wish these people all die in Hell. I hope they’re all on the same streetcar, and it blows up.” In retaliation, at a press conference during the Venice Film Festival, Herzog responded to questions about Ferrara by saying, “I’ve never seen a film by him. I have no idea who he is.”

This war of egos and words seems to still be smoldering. When asked about continuing the Bad Lieutenant saga, Herzog, a stoic, somber German man with a thick accent, immediately bristles. “Bad Lieutenant was the title of the screenplay [by William Finkelstein],” Herzog begins coolly. “It was the idea of one of the producers to start a franchise. I never liked it and tried to have it made into Port of Call New Orleans but now we have a hybrid. But the question of remake is off the table. People even now speak of the original which doesn’t happen when people look at Scorsese’s film about Jesus Christ. It’s not the original and Mel Gibson’s is not the remake.”

Oookay. There’s no reason to drag Jesus Christ into the argument, cranky pants.

Asking Nicolas Cage to offer a little illumination on stepping into Keitel’s shoes is met almost as unwelcomely. The actor, who recently lost his father and is currently embroiled in a multimillion dollar tax evasion scandal, which he blames on his business manager, conducts his duties with the press through gritted teeth. Literally. His eyes rarely rise off the crisp white linen tablecloth in front of him and he speaks as if he was battling TMJ or had just had his mouth wired shut. In response to questions about how it felt playing a corrupt Louisiana cop, Cage mumbles, “I don’t judge him. I don’t think of him as bad or good. He just is. It’s more existential, which is what I think separates it the most from the original film.”

Continuing to rail against comparisons to the original, Herzog jumps in to point out, “I’m not the man to make Rocky 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. I get bored very easily.” So why make a Bad Lieutenant film if he’s so against the idea of repetition? “Because the character is fascinating enough to place him in other situations,” Herzog replies. “It’s fine to have Jesus Christ 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or James Bond in a bunch of set ups. I think there’s something valuable about [this character as well].”

Delving into this world allowed both the director and star to snuggle up with dark, subversive humor. “The more vile and debase the character gets,” Herzog continues, “The more he should enjoy himself. There’s such a thing as the bliss of evil. If you enjoy it, it becomes hilarious.” Sounds like it. A total knee slapper.

And did Cage enjoy getting down with his very baddest self? “I just felt that I was in the zone,” the actor shrugs. “I came in with a vision. I was thinking about things like Richard the Third. I didn’t need to be pushed or pulled. I just came in and did what I had to do and I thank Werner for having the guts to let me do it.”

While he’s less than forthcoming about his feelings about the performance or any history that trails his performance, Cage is at his most enthusiastic (on a relative scale) when discussing his director. “I think Werner and I had a perfect marriage,” he offers. “Werner moves very quickly. My best takes are my first and second. Werner has confidence in what I’m going to do; I have confidence in what he’s going to do.”

So there, Abel Ferrara.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans opens November 20th