I have an old friend who grew up in the years before World War II living in the grand hotels of Europe, where his father was a film salesman. He regaled me with tales of his adventures in these fashionable hostelries, with unlimited room service, obliging concierges and lots of raffish characters hanging around the lobbies. I was reminded of this when I watched the wonderful new film by Director Wes Anderson, Grand Budapest Hotel, which opened in Los Angeles this week. I have been a fan of this director for several years, so I was at the Landmark theatre on the first night and intend to see the film again when it plays at the Academy Theatre.
What's so exciting about it? Well, first is the cast. Imagine a movie which is populated by Ralph Fiennes, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Owen Wilson, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Tom Wilkinson, Adrian Brody, William Defoe, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Tony Revolori and Bob Balaban. Then there is the story -- a wild and funny plot involving a crime caper, a chase, a seduction and more. I had the honor of producing Billy Wilder's last film (Buddy, Buddy, starring jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau), and I said to my companions that this is a film which Billy would have relished. My date said it reminded her of the best of Old Hollywood, of Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges. Smart girl, her. It certainly is the most ambitious movie that Wes has attempted, and another friend commented it was enchanting and heartbreaking in equal measure. The setting is a luxurous hotel in a corner of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, in a fictional country called Zubrowka, which is, of course, Hungary.
Again, a personal reference: I once co-produced a Cinerama wide-screen film in Budapest, Hungary (The King's Crown, which starred a hilarious Buddy Hackett and George Sanders; it never was released for legal/political reasons. In the city of Buda, I stayed at a hotel, the Gellert, which may have been a model for the hotel in the movie.)
The new film begins in the recent past when a writer reminisces about his youth, and then cuts to a period in the 30s when a teenage lobby boy/bellhop (played by a very impressive Tony Revolori) is instructed in the hotel trade by a redoubtable concierge, M. Gustave H., played with superb assurance by Ralph Fiennes. This leading part is a tour-de-force for Fiennes, who is depicted as a fey character -- he is the "most liberally perfumed man, ever," who seduces the much-older wealthy women who stay in the hotel, especially the 84-year-old Grand Dowager Countess Madame Celine Villeneuve Desgoffe and Taxis, usually known as Madame D, Tilda Swinton (with pounds of aging makeup to hide her astonishing beauty. It is something of a travesty to make this exquisite creature unrecognizable. Last night on Charlie Rose, the director said that he first offered the role to Angela Lansbury, who was not available, before turning to his friend Tllda.)
Madame D dies and leaves a priceless stolen Renaissance painting ("Boy with Apple") to Fiennes, and that's when the real fun starts. Her family accuses the concierge of murder; he is imprisoned and then escapes, which leads to chases and such. Fiennes never loses his smirking bravado as he barks orders to the youthful Zero, something of the hero of the piece as he slowly sheds his shyness and assumes control of the situation while wooing the town's teen-age baker. The real friendship between the concierge and the boy is the crux of the movie. My Huffington readers may recall my recent rave review of Fiennes as the dynamic Charles Dickens in The Invisible Woman. Here, he even exceeds that.
I must note that Anderson and his cinematographer, Robert Yeoman, shot the various time periods in different film aspect ratios, which subtly affects the feel of the scenes. Wide screen for 1968, 1.85 for the later action, then the Academy ratio of 1.33 for the main flashback to 1932 gives a sense of period to the scenes within a scene. The soundtrack musical score by Alexandre Desplat is perfect for the stacatto action. Visual artist Hugo Guinness contributed to the story, which was inspired by the writings of famed author Stefan Zweig (who committed suicide in 1942 because he thought that European culture had been destroyed by the Nazism). Producers were Anderson, the incredible Scott Rudin, Steven Rales and Jeremy Dawson. The magnificent costumes by the wondrous Milena Canonero, and superb production design by Adam Stockhausen, contributed to the magnificent sense of reality.
The actors, like Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Bob Balaban, appear briefly for quick, amusing cameos as other hotel concierges belonging to the ultra-secret Society of Crossed Keys. Balaban told the Hollywood Reporter that actors love to work with Anderson because he has such a distinctive vision. "Everybody wants to work with Wes as much as possible because you know that whatever movie he's making is going to be something special and unique."
I must note that I lovingly reviewed Wes's last film Moonrise Kingdom, which I said was a charming exposition of youthful coming-of-age; I railed against its being ignored by the majority of critics at award time. And who couldn't roar at The Royal Tenebaums? (Though I dismissed his The Darjeeling Limited as a failed effort). This, his eighth feature, is an elegant action-comedy-farce which, in its colorful period pastiche, is certainly eccentric, an idiosyncratic montage of farcical adventure which is so highly original, flamboyant and inventive (hand-scrawled chapter headings) that I can happily forgive its occasional story lapses and excesses.
As a film producer, I have always been intrigued by the 44-year-old Texan's systematic way of working, storyboarding the whole film through animatics, gathering the cast in one location to have culinary feasts and keeping the camaraderie going. I have read that he shot the film over 10 weeks in Berlin and the small town of Gorlitz, Germany, on the Polish border, and he hired a cook to prepare feasts for the cast and crew assembled in one hotel there. They used an abandoned department store as the interior set for the film.
Fox Searchlight may have its work cut out for it to reach the sophisticated audience which will truly relish this filmic extravaganza, but coming off the success of their 12 Years a Slave, I am confident they can pull it off. I can only urge my Huffington readers to rush pell-mell to a nearby theatre to have a truly wonderful cinematic experience.
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A website called BuzzFeed yesterday paid tribute to
In-n-Out Burger by listing 27 whimsical reasons why they are so beloved. I won't detail them all but some are admirable. It began: "First of all, the burgers, which are handmade by angels."
Then it went on:
Also, the heavenly, freshly cut-to-order divine fries....the Special Sauce, because only mere mortals use just ketchup and mustard. The milkshakes are pretty much nectar from the gods. And The Neopolitan Shake is the most potent of them all. It goes on: The ingredients are fresh [to] death...like, it's so fresh you can only get it in certain states....But if you want to go crazy The Secret Menu is what dreams are made of.
Which is where I come in, 'cause I was the first journalist to detail ALL of the inside possibilities of the secret menu. When I moved to Los Angeles in 1971, there were only 17 In-N-Out Burgers in California. After tasting one of their hamburgers, I made a pilgrimage to Baldwin Park, their home base and location of the first such outlet, in a vain attempt to interview founders Harry and Esther Snyder for an article. I had been told that Harry Snyder loved a movie called It's A Mad, Mad, Mad World for which I had been the Cinerama publicist, but he still would not sit for an interview with me, saying he didn't want any publicity. Over the years, I have become a devoted fan of their fresh, delicious, fast-food burgers and am delighted to see them expand to some 270-plus outlets as of now. They are in several Western states and recently opened in Dallas, Texas. Every outlet must be within one day's drive of their own distribution center so all ingredients can be made and delivered fresh daily. (There's one near LAX airport, which makes a stop there leaving or arriving in town a convenient, even necessary one.)
Why am I such a fan? I guess it begins with their slogan, "Quality you can taste." For a change, it turns out to be true. Every single item on their menu is the freshest, best possible...nothing is ever thawed, zapped or kept warm. (There are no freezers, microwaves or heat lamps in any outlet -- I have checked.) My intense research found that their hamburger meat is made from 100 percent American chuck, beef raised here in the West -- it's pure, never frozen, with no additives, fillers or preservatives of any kind. Their orange, thick American cheese (the only kind I like on my burgers) is real, the crispy lettuce is hand-picked, and the onions and vine-ripened tomatoes are sliced by hand (I've watched them do it.) The buns are baked every day using an old-fashioned sponge dough, again without any preservatives. I have also watched them make their fries, using whole Kennebec Idaho potatoes sliced right in the stores. When I inquired about the oil used, I was told it is 100 percent trans-fat free, cholesterol-free vegetable oil. Their shakes, which I don't often drink, are made from real ice cream with no by-products.
I have a photo of the original 1948 drive-in location in Baldwin Hills, where Harry Snyder first introduced his intercom-speaker ordering system, and there are only four items on the menu: a hamburger for 25 cents, a cheeseburger for 30 cents, French fries for 15 cents and cold drinks for 10 cents. Interestingly, just this Thursday I drove down the I-10 freeway to Baldwin Park where the In-n-Out folks have opened a small replica of the original hamburger stand. It doesn't dispense food but I was fascinating to see an exact replica of the stand which Harry and Esther Snyder opened 66 years ago.
Today the menu has expanded slightly, but not that much. Burgers are $2.10, a cheeseburger is $2.40, a Double-Double is $3.40, a 20 oz. fountain drink is $2.05. The Double-Double on the menu is a bun with two beef patties, lettuce, tomato, spread, two slices of cheese, with or without onions. All burgers come medium-well done by default. But here is where the fun starts. In reply to those Huffington readers who have asked what I order -- here it is.
When I go to my local In-N-Out Burger outlet on Gayley in Westwood, at least once a week, I either park and go inside to eat or speak (shriek) into the two-way intercom: "Ordering a three by three, medium rare, well-toasted bun, animal style, cut in half, with a side order of peppers. And well-done fries." (Sometimes, if I am eating in the store, animal style fries, but not when I am taking them home, too messy 'cause I nibble on the fries in my car all the way home with one hand on the driving wheel and the other holding my burger.)
Which leads to the information which every regular customer knows, there is a Secret Menu which is not very secret. But there are intricacies to this secret menu which may not be well-known even to regulars, so here are some of the exciting details. My three by three is three meat patties and three slices of cheese, though if I am really hungry I will occasionally order a four by four. You can actually get a burger with the exact number of meat patties and cheese slices you want, up to the four by four. Until a few years ago, there were no restrictions on the number of patties and cheese you could order, but when some college kids in 2004 in Las Vegas ordered a 100 by 100 (and got it, I have the picture) the powers-that-be put on a restriction. Animal style is the most popular other secret offering, where the meat is cooked and fried with mustard and then pickles, with extra spread and grilled onions added. The animal style fries are potatoes with cheese, spread, grilled onions and pickles if you ask for them (I don't). The second-most popular secret menu offering is protein style, which means your burger or double-double is wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun. All burgers are put in a suitable paper bag to hold it.
Then there are variations to the above, all of which will be happily accommodated by your server (or intercom connection) without question. Order a double meat and you will get a double-double without cheese. (A three by meat is three patties without cheese.) But when I eat in the store, I will always order an extra something -- a Flying Dutchman medium rare ($2.00), which is two slices of cheese melted between two meat patties, no bun, nothing but the (greasy) paper on which it comes. For pure flavor of meat-and-cheese, this is the ultimate taste treat, especially if eaten with your fingers. A top secret hint: If you order your Flying Dutchman animal style, they will add a scoop of diced onions to the cheese. I pressed my luck yesterday and asked for the spread and pickles also, and got them on the side. (The name "Flying Dutchman" comes from the ranch which one of the sons owned.) I suggest you always ask for your fries well done, a matter of personal taste. I have never ordered a grilled cheese and am horrified by the knowledge that they offer a veggie burger, whatever that entails. (Actually, it's a burger without the meat patty, with all the veggies you can want on the bun; some call it the wishburger. You can also order extra lettuce, tomato and onions in a separate bag. Even a separate package of spread!) You can ask for hot, chopped pickled sport peppers pressed on the bottom of any burger, but if you would like a little bag of two extra-hot chilies, just ask and ye shall receive.
While I don't usually order their famous shake, too sweet too soon, there is even a secret menu item for them: It's called a Neapolitan shake and is the chocolate, vanilla and strawberry flavors mixed together -- quite good, actually. Yesterday, I tried a root beer float, which was a half-glass of root beer with some soft vanilla swirled into it. The wonderfully friendly employees of In-N-Out Burger will take your secret menu order without question and you will be amused to find that the receipt will list each item just as you ordered it. For an added fillip, ask for a paper In-N-Out hat (worn by all the employees); it will come without question, and you can even ask for stickers for the kids. They used to offer bumper stickers, don't know if they still do.
My deep research has resulted in some super-secret options which even most regulars don't know about. For example, when ordering a regular burger, you can ask to have it mustard grilled. After they cook the first side, the "chef" will squirt some mustard on it before flipping it over so it sizzles into the meat on the grill. If you haven't ordered animal style, you can still order grilled onions on any burger, but no one but me seems to know that you can also order a whole grilled sliced onion on any burger. By the way, the tangy animal style spread is similar to Thousand Island dressing. Here it is made with mayonnaise, ketchup and sweet pickle relish, although I suspect a touch of vinegar and sugar is also added. If you choose to go with ketchup or mustard instead, they will accommodate. They will even serve your burger with un-melted cheese, but why would anyone want that? If you don't want plain or animal style fries, just get cheese fries, not as messy. Speaking of those fries, I am not a fan of them because they only fry them once, not the double immersion which makes a great fry. (Ask McDonald's why theirs are so good.)
I would be negligent if I did not mention some other reasons why I am a huge fan of this product and company. Their employee policy is exemplary; they were paying their fast-food "associates" (not calling them help) much more than the minimum wage when no one else did so. Now they start at around $10 an hour with some medical benefits. Most of their managers have risen through the ranks and it is a life-time occupation. Some years ago I developed a movie at Universal called Hamburger U (never made) which, quite frankly, was copied from their actual In-N-Out Burger University, where managers are trained and their formula for success is reinforced. The Snyders have been a caring, religious family, and you may be surprised to find Bible verses on the bottom of some soda cups and food wrappers. I know a bit about their family history and some of the tragedies encountered, including a private plane crash at John Wayne Airport in '93 which took one son, Richard. Today the Snyder niece, Lynsi Martinez, is guiding their careful expansion from Irvine headquarters, and I am told they intend to remain a private company for awhile. (Every investment banker in the world would like to take them public.) They now have a party food truck operation (888-700-7774), which I discovered when I stopped by the Vanity Fair Oscar party and was served an In-N-Out burger from the truck. I would go to any party which I knew was serving them! My friend, Chef Thomas Keller, is such a fan that when he celebrated the 12th anniversary of his multi-star The French Laundry in Napa, he shipped in 300 burgers and a mountain of fries for the celebration. Julia Child's assistant once told me that Julia knew where every In-N-Out was between Santa Barbara and San Francisco, and when she was in the hospital she craved and got a bag of burgers. Chef Gordon Ramsey is the latest fan, as is Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain.
So, for a salty, sweet, savory, soft, crispy, massively popular signature treat, stop by the next yellow, red and white In-N-Out Burger you see and remember some of the secret treats I've told you about here. Have a Double-Double Animal Style with Well-Done Fries and a Neapolitan Shake and you will be forever in my debt.
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What was I doing on Friday morning sitting on a bench at a dusty street corner at the original Gateway to Malibu, Rambla Vista, between the singer Sting and the politician Bobby Shriver? We were watching a band of Chumash Indians chanting and dancing in front of a tall shrouded "thing" as a lanky gray-haired music legend smiled in a bemused way and his equally-famous wife looked fondly on. Well, it turns out that the city of Malibu had invited us all to honor nine-time Grammy Award-winner Herb Alpert at the dedication of his totem sculpture, FREEDOM, (which was the object hiding under the shroud until Herb pulled the ripcord and it was unveiled in all its 17-foot high glory). The ceremonial dancers were from the Southern California Indian Center and the Chumash tribe because the totem pole is sacred to their culture.
Herb has a thing for totem poles. He sculpts them all the time and then erects them in appropriate places. I recently wrote on Huffington about the three totems he had erected on the meridian of Olympic Blvd. and 26th street in Santa Monica, standing tall and causing traffic jams. Recently, I am told he erected three totem poles in Dante Park across from Lincoln Center in midtown New York City, probably the only totem in a thousand miles of that city. I also happen to have a thing for totem poles so I am incredibly sympathetic to his efforts to "totemize" the world. This day, I asked him why he had erected the magnificent bronze totem at the entrance to Malibu and he modestly answered that it was the first-ever permanent public art installation in the city... and he believed it was the obligation of every citizen to harmonize and beautify the city in which they lived. So typical of this modest guy, who was recently honored by President Obama at the White House with the National Medal of the Arts for his unparalleled musical accomplishments and his dedication to providing access to the arts for future generations. Which also explains why the students from the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA and CalArts were there to perform. As I drive to the event I was playing in my car the latest album he had released, Steppin' Out, which featured a contemporary version of Irving Berlin's "Puttin' On the Ritz." It won the Grammy in January for Best Pop Musical Instrumental Album. It was so zingy I wanted to stop the car and dance to it.
But I didn't, so I parked at a small Mexican restaurant, La Costa Mission, right next to the corner at 21337 Pacific Coast Highway where the installation was located. I greeted Herb's long-time A&M Records partner, Jerry Moss, gawked at the lovely Daryl Hannah and Linda Thompson, and took my seat. My friend, publicist Caroline Graham, whispered to me that since Herb has first introduced the Tijuana Brass with its signature sound, it has grown into a global phenomenon, selling over 75 million records. I have followed the amazing story of A&M Records, the world's largest independent record label, which Herb and Jerry founded and eventually sold for umpteen millions of dollars. I know that they launched the careers of such iconic artists as The Police, Styx, Al Green, Peter Frampton and the Carpenters.
But what most of the world is only discovering lately is that Herb has spent more than half his life as a respected abstractist painter and sculptor whose work has been exhibited in the U.S. and Europe. Later I cornered Herb and asked, "Why totems?" He told me that he had been inspired by the indigenous sculptural forms from the Pacific Northwest Indians, and his are dedicated to the Chumash Indians, whose sacred lands are now occupied by a vast majority of Central and Southern California. "They got a bad deal, and I create these totems as a tribute to them and their heritage." Now I understand. Good man, that!
Last night, I attended the "Society of Singers" benefit which paid tribute to Mike Love and the Beach Boys. Hey, Ginny Mancini, may I suggest that next year you consider doing the same for Herb Alpert and Lani Hall, for their musical heritage and incredible philanthropic efforts. And maybe he would give every member of the audience a tiny totem pole! To date, the Herb Alpert Foundation has given over $120 million for music and art educational programs in Los Angeles and other cities. (Remember that Harlem Arts School which got $6 million to save it from closing?) On March 15, Herb will be honored at the CalArts REDCAT gala for his 20 year-support of CalArts in Valencia. In May, he and Lani will hand $75,000 checks to each of five Herb Alpert Award-in-the-Arts winners, a program now in its 18th year. (Yes, that was $75,000 each!) I guess that's why I was sitting on that dusty street corner in Malibu on Friday.
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I am a curious guy. No, let me re-state that... I am a guy with a great curiosity. And one of the things which has always intrigued me is stores and shopping -- the whole retail megilla. When I was young and doing financial publicity, I had one of the first big discount store chains, Masters, as a client and spent years developing that anti-fair trade concept. I also repped the Grand Union food chain in their competition with A&P. I love going to food stores and farmer's markets anywhere in the world -- large, small and grungy in between. Any new shop intrigues me, so you will understand why I enjoy spending time at the most amazing shopping center in the world. It's South Cost Plaza in the city of Costa Mesa, which is about an hour down the 405 Freeway from my home in Beverly Hills. There are 250 upscale boutique stores there, along with 30-plus restaurants. Lots of free parking plus three valet stations. I love the fact that they have several concierge locations in the shopping center which answer all my queries, make reservations, arrange theater tickets, give me a complimentary bottle of water, and even hold my packages. My new-mother friend told me they even have a deluxe family restroom with private nursing suites, changing rooms and more. Amazing.
My Huffington readers may recall that I recently reviewed a wonderful Persian restaurant, Darya, in that center -- one of many excellent eating places there. I wrote about the bouillabaisse which was served at Marché Moderne, the most authentic version found anywhere in this country (it actually had the prerequisite rockfish imported from MarseilIes). Wolfgang Puck suggested I try his restaurant there, and I had a superb brunch at Joachim Splichal's French bistro, Pinot Provence. Lucky visitors to SCP will be able to eat the succulent Shanghai soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung when that Taiwan-based dim sum place opens there in late summer. This shopping wonderworld has become a go-to destination for most well-to-do Chinese visitors to California, and the only retail center I know that honors the ubiquitous China UnionPay cards, China's equivalent of our credit card. Chinese-speaking clerks work in most of the major boutiques.
I was gifted last fall with a perfume-like diffuser from a new French boutique there called Diptyque, and I stop by often to replenish the perfume which keeps my office smelling like a nice French brothel (don't ask me how I know what a nice French brothel smells like). My nephew Eric Gantwarg has just become manager of the Van Cleef & Arpels boutique in New York City, so I just stopped by its counterpart here at SCP to see how it compares (quite well). While there I stopped at La Perla to buy exquisite lingerie for a close friend for Valentine's Day. And I treated myself to a pair of fine shoes at the expanded Bottega Veneta. I noted that a shop called Scotch & Soda is opening soon. No, it is not an upscale bar, but rather a famous Dutch clothing company which was founded in the 1980s and has unique garments for men, women and children. I loved a global Japanese clothing retailer called Uniqlo when I visited their San Francisco shop, and was thrilled to hear from Debra Gunn Downing, executive marketing director, that they will be opening at SCP shortly. She informed me that this amazing shopping center, covering 140 acres, with about 2.8 million sq. ft. of shopping and restaurant space, will do some $1.7 billion in volume this year, the greatest in the U.S., with approximately 24 million shoppers visiting during the year.
South Coast Plaza is still privately held by the Segerstrom family. I had the pleasure of meeting the patriarch of the family, Henry Segerstrom, twice in recent years. My Huffington readers heard from me about my journey there in early 2011, accompanied by actress Jackie Bisset, to attend the renaming of the cultural center to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. I wrote about how the Swedish family had acquired a thousand acres of barren farmland, planted lima beans, and built their empire from that beginning. I met Henry and his lovely wife, Elizabeth, on that occasion. Last year, when SCP had its 45th anniversary party at the Hotel Bel-Air, Debra invited me to the alfresco event and I had another talk with the honorable Mr. Segerstrom. I also met his son, Anton, who is busily engaged in running the huge enterprise. When I asked why they were holding this momentous event in Bel Air, they laughed and said that the Segerstrom family does not believe in artificial boundaries. "Our customers come from all over the state, and indeed all over the world. They shop, do business, and enjoy the art and culture at our center."
Henry Segerstrom is the patriarchal owner of this amazing mall.
I have made a note on my calendar that the 25th Annual Southern California Spring Garden Show will take place there from April 24-27, something which I always make a point of attending. It's the premiere garden event on the West Coast, and this year will celebrate the Gardens of Southern California. They have some 70 garden-lifestyle vendors showcasing the latest trends and accessories in horticulture. It features over 35 seminars, some of which I will attend, a display garden competition showcasing the works of prominent landscape designers and architects. Yes, I told you I was a curious guy.
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Who would have dreamed that the best nightclub performance I have ever seen in Beverly Hills would happen at the new Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts? Yes, someone had the brilliant idea to take the smaller Lovelace Studio theater at The Wallis and turn it into a cabaret for two brilliant performers to act and sing in. (The venue actually offers to sell drinks and snacks before the show and during the intermission. So civilized, to sip a cocktail while enjoying the show.) Love Noel: The Letters and Songs of Noël Coward, has opened for several performances, mostly sold out. May I suggest to Ms. Lou Moore, the dynamic Executive Director of The Wallis, that they reschedule this show for a return engagement, 'cause it is utterly delightful, full of juicy gossip, snappy banter and Coward's candid humor. Two stunning Broadway performers, Judy Kahn and John Glover, were imported to provide the entertainment, Jeanie Hackett directed them and David O was the musical director and engaging pianist. Some of the Coward songs featured are: "Mad About the Boy," "Someday I'll Find You," "The Party's Over Now" and the heart-wrenching "I'll See You Again." The performance runs 95 minutes with an intermission. Wonderful.
What was even more exciting was that they coupled this show to run concurrently with The Kneehigh Theatre production of Noël Coward's Brief Encounter, which is running here in the Bram Goldsmith Theatre until March 23. A surfeit of riches. I was rather harsh in my critique of the first dramatic show at The Wallis at Christmastime, but all is forgiven. This week I experienced the full magic of this stunning theatre complex, and can only thank my personal zenJuddhist lord for these little graces.
For those of you who don't recognize the name Noël Coward, listen up. We of a certain age remember the debonair Englishman for his plays, films, songs and personal appearances. A film made from his play, Cavalcade, won the Best Picture Oscar in 1933. In the mid-Thirties, his play, Tonight at 8:30, with his closest female friend, Gertrude Lawrence, was a big hit on Broadway (nine one-act plays in which he and Gert played all of the roles). One of these, Still Life, was filmed and later adapted by Coward into Brief Encounter, which was filmed in 1945 by director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia). He and Lean had collaborated on the World War II drama, In Which We Serve, which featured Coward as star, writer and co-director; it won an Academy Award.
On several occasions, I have seen his plays, Private Lives and Blithe Spirit, and loved the witty dialogue. I first saw him in person in the '60s when he did a successful cabaret act in Las Vegas. (I was there as young Paul Anka's press agent). In 1970, he was knighted by the Queen and he told all his friends to call him "Sir Noëlie." He died in 1973 in Jamaica. TIME magazine wrote that Coward had "A sense of personal style, a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise." His work remains as universal and relevant as ever, and continues to influence pop culture today. He was gay, and I think most of his close friends were famous women.
In the Love, Noel cabaret, Tony nominee Judy Kahn plays all of the female friends -- from Lynn Fontaine to Marlene Dietrich (hilarious), Bea Lillie, Greta Garbo (sad and funny), the Queen Mother, Gertrude Lawrence to Mary Martin. His friendships with the famous were often deep and enduring -- a staggering list, from Lawrence of Arabia to Lord Mountbatten and Larry Olivier, many of whom were guests at his various homes. Tony-winner, John Glover, plays the elegant Noel with great aplomb. (Their banter about Coward's relationship with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine, for whom he wrote the huge hit, Design for Living, in which they all starred, brought back memories of the years I sent trying to film Stagestruck, The Romance of Alfred and Lynn, by my friend Maurice Zolotow.)
Tony and Helen Bill took me backstage to meet Judy Kahn, and she told me that she had only gotten the call to read the play and come to L.A. a few weeks ago -- and they were still working on the piece, which was devised and written by Barry Day. (I was told that Day, who is now an advisor to the Coward estate, was a prime speechwriter for Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher.) This new work is smart, witty, intimate and touching; I look forward to seeing it again.
Brief Encounter was first the Oscar-winning '45 movie. Then, six years ago, the U.K.'s renowned Kneehigh Theatre in Cornwall produced an acclaimed stage production, first in London and then in New York, of which the New York Times wrote:"The most enchanting work of stagecraft ever inspired by a movie."
Ms. Moore fortuitously saw it at Saint Ann's Warehouse in New York and fell in love with the ingenious, imaginative production. "I knew it had to be one of the centerpieces of our inaugural season at The Wallis," she said. It switches seamlessly between theatre and film using a combination of Noel Coward's original stage play, Still Life, and Coward's screenplay of the classic British film. In the lobby afterwards a film business friend told me that it takes the audience back to a bygone age of romance and the silver screen. The production features some of the original Broadway cast, headlined by Hannah Yelland, and a new addition, Jim Sturgeon, who played Dr. Alec Harvey in the Australian tour. Emma Rice, Joint Artistic Director of Kneehigh and Director/Adaptor of Brief Encounter, later told us: "Jim knocked our socks off when we met him. Charismatic, truthful and dashing in the extreme, we are all thrilled to be working with such a talented, exciting performer."
I must note that my lovely date for the evening concurred with that assessment. The 47-year-old, beautiful Emma Rice, she of the peroxide-blonde hair, told the Los Angeles Times that this was her first trip to L.A.: "In rehearsal, and in the creation of work, I try really hard to make sure there's enough oxygen around the process for surprises to occur." I distinctly remember the first time I saw the film, one of the most haunting love stories ever told. There is this suburban housewife who discovers passion and falls madly in love with a married stranger in a railway station tearoom over a series of stolen afternoons. I still remember that the film featured the score of Serge Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto 2", which I now always associate with illicit love. (Isn't all love somewhat illicit?) I highly recommend that you hie to The Wallis and get tickets to either or both plays now. You will be enchanted.
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I have been a volunteer for Special Olympics for the past 8 years. Each October we have a fund-raising event at the Santa Monica Pier, Pier del Sol, where several hundred individuals pay nicely to dine and play in the company of Honorary Chairman Maria Shriver and her (then) husband, the Governor. I help to bring 38 well-known restaurants there to sample their savory tastes to the VIP recipients. But I was in the dark about the spectacular event upcoming until I was invited to a reception of the Special Olympics World Games Board at CAA last week. Oh, my, this was huge news....at least to me. In the company of Maria and board members: philanthropist and old friend Sherry Lansing, the N.Y. Giants' Steve Tisch, Dreamworks Animation's Jeffrey Katzenberg, Olympic winner Rafer Johnson, CAA's Doc O'Connor and Lionsgate co-chairman Rob Friedman, a smart fellow named Patrick McClenahan introduced himself to me as the President and CEO of the Special Olympics World Summer Games Los Angeles 2015. What? World Games? I got an earful that night.....which I am now passing along with great glee to my Huffington readers.
Patrick McClenahan is the President and CEO of the World Games. all photos by Jay
It will be L.A.'s biggest sporting event since the 1984 Olympics 31 years ago, which were a huge success. It seems that our fair city was bidding against a horde of other communities to host the 2015 games....and we were selected. So I am told that 7,000 of the world's top athletes with intellectual disabilities from 170 countries will be here to compete in 25 different sporting events. In addition to the athletes, there will be some 3,000 coaches, their families and friends, and more than 500,000 enthusiastic spectators. That's a really impressive number of people descending upon our community next summer over the course of twelve days, from late July to early August. It is expected that some $400 million will be injected into the local economy by the event. My new friend Susan Pollack, their Senior V.P., told me that at least 2,000 media reps will also be here. And she smiled and said that, when this event goes off well (as we know it will) , we will be in a good position to win the Summer Olympics Games in 2024.
Special Olympics athletes Paul Hoffman and Susan Johnson were on hand to discuss the games.
Naturally I had a hundred questions. Where will they all stay?....Where will they play? All of my queries were answered in the course of the evening by Special Olympics COO Jeff Carr, Elga Sharp, VP of International Relations, and other staff members. There will be 30,000 volunteers working the games, and 5,000 honored guests. Board Chair Rob Friedman told me that there will be 27 world-class venues, from Special Olympics Athletic Villages at USC and UCLA to the Staples Center, Pauley Pavilion, LA Live and the Convention Center. A star-studded opening ceremony will be held on July 25th at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (site of the 1932 and 1984 Olympic Games). Susan told me that on three days preceding the opening ceremony, the HOST TOWN program will be in effect, where 100 cities throughout California, from San Luis Obispo to San Diego, will serve as host to one or more delegations. Athletes will get acclimated to the environment (easy, with our climate) and prepare for their competition....and will be encouraged by pep rallies and exhibitions. Jeff told me that volunteer healthcare professionals will provide the athletes with free screenings and services in several clinical areas. These athletes will receive referrals for follow-up care, prescriptions for eyeware, hearing aids and other life-changing care. Medical volunteers return to their schools and medical practices with the experience and desire to better treat people with intellectual disabilities. I was astonished to learn that in the world today there are appoximately 200 million people with these intellectual disabilities. They are often the most neglected, vulnerable and marginalized people in every society and culture. Special Olympics is a global movement dedicated to providing this population with opportunities to be healthy, to display courage, to build self-confidence, to experience joy, and to be accepted and included as valued members of their communities around the world.
Maria Shriver is Honorary Chair of the group which her mother founded.
Maria Shriver told the assemblage how it all started, when her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, in 1968 organized the first International Special Olympics Games at Soldier Field in Chicago. One thousand athletes with intellectual disabilities from 26 U.S, states and Canada competed in athletics, floor hockey and aquatics. More than 4.2 million athletes from over 170 countries participated in over 70,000 events this past year....and the signature event has become The World Games held every two years alternating between Winter and Summer events. President Barack Obama and Michelle are the honorary chairs of the upcoming event while Governor Jerry Brown and Mayor Eric Garcetti are Honorary Hosts. Susan told me that the Coca Cola Company, Mattel and Deloitte are Official Partners, and Mark Davis of Davis Elen Advertising proudly told me that his company was one of the Games Sponsors along with Kaiser Permanente. The goal of raising $90 million is well along and new participants are coming in every day. Steven Spielberg and wife Kate Capshaw and David Geffen, for example, have each kicked in a million dollars in cash. The athletes and coaches will pay their own way here but once they arrive the host committee will provide food (360,000 meals) and housing, medical care and even translators for participants. Their official slogan is "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."
I am new to this, but I will report on it to my friends reading Huffington from now on through the games. I will also detail how we all can join in to participate in many ways. Our city is full of movie stars and all-stars, but next summer the true stars will be these Special Olympic athletes....coming from all corners of the globe, they will show us incredible courage, unwavering determination and, yes, sheer joy! As Sherry said, "By living out their dreams in front of the world, they will open hearts and minds and expand our collective sense of acceptance and inclusion."
I suspect the social impact of these games is truly significant and lasting. No question that the awareness created by the Games leads to a heightened acceptance and inclusion of all people with intellectual disabilities....and ultimately to ALL people with differences. This must transform their communities and thus the world. Yes, I get it!
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It was about a year ago that we wrote a rave review of a new Beverly Hills restaurant called Doma (362 N. Camden Drive, at Brighton (310) 277-7346). Since then it has become one of my favorites, a quiet, sophisticated setting which unfailingly serves up delicious food at a reasonable cost. But lately it has exceeded all of my expectations, rising to a level of excellence and excitement which is unexpected and unusual in new eateries. And when Executive Chef Dustin Trani told me that he was introducing a new menu for Spring, with many new items on it, I gathered some friends and spent a fabulous evening there this week, with a meal which was so far above all norms that I felt a need to share it with my Huffington readers.
You may remember that this was the location of Prego Italian for many years, holding the longest lease of any restaurant space in Beverly Hills. It was bought by a charming Croatian woman, Sonja Perencevic, after she had steadied the course of her first restaurant, Dan Tana's, which she acquired from her old friend, Dan Tana, a few years ago. She told me then that she was seeking to open a really elegant, casually sophisticated restaurant in the heart of Beverly Hills -- and she succeeded beyond expectations. Her secret, apart from designing a sleek, comforting room, was in the hiring of a fourth generation American chef, Dustin J.Trani, whom she met when he was recommended by her Tana chef.
A few sample meals and he was on board. A smart move. His family has had a venerable seafood restaurant down the coast in San Pedro since 1925. Dusty, 29, began working there on the line at age 11, and has traveled the world perfecting his cooking skills. What I have realized this year is that he has an equally skilled partner in the kitchen, his imaginative pastry chef, Marissa Sharon. Together, they have forged a menu which rivals that of the finest New York and San Francisco spots. I am tempted to call the cooking Modern Mediterranean Italian, with an emphasis on seafood, but that doesn't really do it justice. And a note: His brick-fired pizzas are unequaled by any other in town (with due respect to my favorite, Stella Rosa).
Another new ingredient in the Doma mix is the General Manager, Jeff Gazzarri. Does that name strike a bell? He is the nephew of the legendary night club impresario, Bill Gazzarri, who ran the top night club spot, Gazzarri's, for many years, originating some of the biggest rock 'n roll bands in history.
One more note about their full bar. I happen to favor an unusual, single-malt Scotch from the island of Islay, Ardbeg -- very very smoky from its infusion of peat smoke. So hard to get, that I have given up on finding it in bars, only drinking it from my precious bottle at home. Last night, I walked in and asked Jeff if, by chance, he had ever heard of Ardbeg. He smiled and walked away. He returned in a minute with a highball glass containing two fingers of Ardbeg. Then I went on to a dinner, which was a highlight of all the meals I have had in the past year -- and my readers know that I am not shy in talking about my wonderful meals. Incidentally, our waiter's name was Igor and he is a true professional, sensing all of our needs and filling them before we knew we had them. The Ardbeg kept flowing, followed by a few glasses of Laetitia Pinot, from the Central Valley, the equal of any from France or Oregon.
Our dinner began with three raw-bar courses: Salmon Carpaccio dressed with chili, lime, cashew and coconut air. It was accompanied by Hamachi, the fish dressed with ginger soy, ponzu, caviar and sesame tuile. At this point my friends and I were beginning to smile, which was followed by squeals of joy as we had the Big Eye Tuna Ceviche, the seafood topped with fermented Thai vinaigrette, Dungeness crab shreds and drops of coconut cream. Oh, yes, this was opening well. Igor brought out a plate of Tempura Shishito Peppers, informing us that they were not too hot. The grilled peppers had been dressed with Thai chili beurre blanc and driplets of feta cheese. These were so addictive, I was tempted to ask for another plate when chef brought out a platter of Calamari, telling us it was local, made with Thai aioli, balsamic reduction and micro-cilantro.
I told my companions that Dustin had worked at the Oriental Hotel in Bangok and cooked with Chef Ming Tsai at the Beard dinner -- thus, the many Asiatic touches to the Italian-oriented dinner. My carnivorous craving was about to be satisfied with an infusion of my favorite meat, for we had a dish of Moroccan lamb belly. The meat has been confitted with lamb fat, served with fingerling potatoes, lemon crème and a sprinkling of smoked salt. I was about to grab an errant slice from my date's plate when Marissa arrived with a platter of Shrimp Sui Mai. The savory dumplings would have done justice to those from Din Tai Fung, the dumpling temple in Arcadia. These were dressed with coconut air and shishito soy consommé. Delicious, and I was becoming full. But Dustin cautioned me that I should pace myself, he was only starting. Now he tells me.
A strange salad followed. I was told it was a tempura micro-beet salad. I was reluctant, until I took a bite -- and then another. There was Humbolt Fog cheese, the ne plus ultra of frommage, with micro radishes, pea tendrils and a shallot-honey Dijon dressing. Unusual, but I noticed that the entire table consumed it all. I had been preaching to my friends that Marissa made heavenly home-made pasta here, which was a reflection of her stay in Italy. She had been interning with Andrea Bianchini of Florence, a world-renowned chocolatier, but obviously had picked up some pasta-tricks from all of the chefs. Here was a house-made linguini served with Spanish octopus, wild Mexican shrimp and Dungeness crab. My buddy across the table rolled his eyes and said it was the best seafood pasta he can ever remember, and he was Italian!
As I scarfed up the last dregs, Igor came out with a platter of Mascarpone Agnolotti, those little hat dumplings, these filled with the mellow white cheese. I asked about the succulent sauce and was told it was made with truffle salt, Parmesan butter and 48-hour veal stock. Nothing I could duplicate at home. Were we done? No way. In my previous review, I had concentrated on the many whole fish dishes our chef was noted for -- and here was a whole Branzino, the fish roasted with olive oil zabaglione, fingerling potatoes and tomato pan sauce, which exceeded any marinara in memory.
The lovely pastry chef smiled as she began the procession of desserts. We had discussed my ongoing lactose-free diet, which I had tucked away for the evening, but she said that she had a dessert which would satisfy any lactose-free dieter. It was a vegan salted caramel pudding. Think dark chocolate ganache, whipped coconut cream and toasted coconut. So good. It was followed by a French vanilla Panna Cotta, the custard served with fig compote, a few strawberries and all drizzled with 35 year balsamic vinegar -- the real (expensive) one from Modena, Italy.
Were we done? Not by a long shot. What Italian dinner would be complete without a homemade Cannoli. The crisp pastry shell was filled with Ricotta cheese with citrus, dark chocolate and pistachio. It would have eased the killing instincts of the Soprano's cast. No more, please. Just one or two more, she urged. Here was a milk chocolate Mousse Tart, the cake was dark chocolate shortbread topped with raspberry "caviar." I sipped my rich coffee and longed for a few puffs on my Padron cigar in my car going home, and Marissa handed me a package of French Macarons in various flavors so I would not suffer any hunger pangs before I went to bed.
You know, what? I think I am going to go back tomorrow night and have some dishes again. Life is good!
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In newspaper parlance, a story that is above the fold means that it is on the front page of a newspaper above the centerfold of the page, indicating that it is important. So the title of Bernie Weinraub's new play, Above the Fold, does indicate that it is important -- and yes, it is. It is also vastly entertaining, extremely provocative and a pleasure to behold.
The Pasadena Playhouse (39 South El Moleno Ave., Pasadena 91101 -- (626) 356-7529) is something of a schlepp from the West Side, but I discovered that the sultry-voiced Siri on my iPhone can guide me unerringly to the front door of the theatre. And once there you will relax in the embrace of the old playhouse, now refurbished and revived under Artistic Director Sheldon Epps. This was a play which I was extremely anxious to see, having read Bernie's intriguing interview in the L.A. Times this weekend. And while I knew the author slightly over the years when he was the New York Times correspondent on the West Coast, I became a fan of his writing when I saw his first play, a chilling The Accomplices at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood a year ago. It dealt with the collective guilt of America during the Holocaust of World War II, and the complicity of our top elective officials in the death of millions of people. I read that the new play dealt with the state of journalism in our country today, a subject which has a particular resonance with me as a journalist in the country today. Does it ever! This play he has fashioned evoked a strong and passionate debate in the car on the way home -- and has remained embedded in my mind as I wrote this.
Weinraub has constructed his work fictionally around an incident which occurred at Duke University eight or nine years ago when three college boys on the lacrosse team were accused of raping a dancer at a frat party. I well remember the furor that erupted, against the rich boys and their cohorts. And I dimly remember that it ended in a lame way, when the victim's story was refuted.
I interviewed Weinraub by phone today after seeing the play, and he indicated to me that the play was not intended to be a retelling of the Duke incident, but rather was meant to be an examination of today's journalism and ethics, and how far one will go when an ethical person is driven by ambition. Directed by Steven Robman, the play stars a wonderful actress, Taraji Henson, whom I gather is a well-known TV (Person of Interest) and film actress, but whom I don't recall seeing before (although she was nominated for an Academy Award for Benjamin Button, which I did see.)
She plays the central role of Jane, a reporter for a major Northern metropolitan newspaper who flies to this Southern city when the incident occurs. She becomes a confidant of the ambitious prosecutor who is running for Congress, and he feeds her much inside detail. Her stories about the party-rape become major discussion-pieces, and incite a frenzy of competing reports. The victim, Monique, a single mother with a two-year-old child just working as a dancer to support her kid is played by another fine actress, Kristy Johnson, whom I have seen in General Hospital and the wonderful House M.D. Another actor, Arye Gross, playing the newspaper editor, Marvin, was reviewed by me in his other acting job in Perfumerie at the Wallis. The oily-smooth prosecutor is played by Mark Hildreth, and the three accused white boys are played by Joe Massingill, Seamus Mulcahy and Kristopher Higgins.
Taking place amidst the shift from print to digital journalism, which I abhor, Above the Fold asks tough questions about the exploitation of tragedy, the cost of success and the dangers which come when ambition collides with truth. I won't reveal too much of the plot, but we watch as Jane pounds out much-heralded story after story about the horrific incident -- and then begins to have doubts about the veracity of the woman victim and the guilt of the boys.
When her executive editor, the unseen "Bowtie," holds out the carrot of a choice assignment in Afghanistan if she will temper for the moment her ardor for a corrective news course, we all feel her conflict. In talking to the author, he made a point of the fact that she is a deeply-moral woman but also an ambitious one. "Here I am, a black woman in a dying business." I replied that I probably would have done the same thing she did. Bernie's inside knowledge of the intricacies of the newspaper "game" are evident in every scene. Director Steve Robman said: "If you've ever wondered how much a news story is affected by the whims and biases of even the most scrupulous reporter, check out the play." Well, Steve, I did -- and you are right, that is exactly what the real message of this fabulous play is meant to convey.
The Executive Director of the Playhouse, Elizabeth Doran, wrote in the program: "As our play tonight explores, we know that truth in media is a mix of what is true, what is assumed, what is attention-grabbing and what can sell advertising." As Director Robman also said, "I know that various news organizations have points of view, ordinarily expressed in their editorial pages, maybe even creeping into their news coverage...but Bernie's play made me realize that not only do most news organizations have agendas, whether they publicly express them or not, but the reporters themselves simply can't escape their own biases and idiosyncrasies, not to mention the skewed judgement created by their supercharged ambition."
Cynical but true. And that is why I strongly suggest that you make the trip to Pasadena before their closing on Feb. 23rd to see this wonderful, provocative and personal play. You'll never again read your morning newspaper or watch your TV news show with the same innocence.
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Isabel Allende is a petite 71-year-old woman who was born in Peru, where her father was the Chilean ambassador, grew up in Chile and then went into exile in the neighboring country of Venezuela, and now lives near San Francisco. She has written some 20 mesmerizing books in 30 years, novels of magical realism (1982's The House of the Spirits), four memoirs, four young adult books, and now -- one fabulous crime novel. She has sold 57 million books, less than Jackie Collins, but more than you or I.
Some months ago, two friends of mine, Richard Sparks and Jenny Okun, worked on an opera which was based upon one of her short stories. It fictionally followed the coup in 1973 Chile when her father's cousin, President Salvador Allende, was overthrown, and the dictator, Pinochet, came to power. I had the pleasure of meeting Allende backstage at Santa Monica's Broad Stage when she was with conductor Placido Domingo. When I recently heard that she had written her first crime thriller, I immediately ordered it from Amazon and, when it arrived this weekend, began reading -- and finished it after a two-day marathon.
Ripper (Harper) is a wonderfully entertaining novel of which the New York Times, in its review this weekend, said: "This thoroughly charming book is the author's own eccentric notion of a murder mystery, and it is a lot of fun to read. Also, it features a teen-age sleuth...idiosyncratic of appearance, timorous of character but magnificent of mind (according to her besotted grandfather)...who is pretty much irresistible." (She, Amanda Martin, could be played by Elle Fanning, Dakota's kid sister, in the inevitable movie.)
My own favorite character is her divorced mother, Indiana Jackson, a beautiful, voluptuous, spiritual adult hippie, gifted healer who practices her curative arts of Reiki massage and aromatherapy in the North Beach Holistic Clinic (think of Cate Blanchett for this great role). Her daughter views the "white magic" of holistic healing as nothing more than hogwash. Allende describes Indiana thusly: "She measured happiness using a simple equation -- one good day plus another good day equals a good life."
At the start of the book, she is carrying on a long-time love affair with Alan Keller, a wealthy, snobbish guy, the scion of a socially-prominent family, while at the same time most of her male patients silently lust after her. Amanda's father is the Deputy Chief of Police, Bob Martin, who realizes that his astute daughter has more insight to the criminal mind than most of his own police force. I must admit that I initially looked askance at the fact that the policeman shared some intimate details of the killings with his daughter and her grandfather, but once I got past that the plot became even more fun and intriguing.
Amanda is game master of an internet group of five brilliant, kids, "a select group of freaks and geeks from around the world who had first met online to hunt and destroy the mysterious Jack the Ripper," and one adult (her grandfather, Blake Jackson) who are playing a game called "Ripper" which began examining the Victorian crime, but has quickly evolved into an examination of current (2012) San Francisco murders, of which recently there have been three.
These have been predicted by her godmother, Celeste Roko, the most celebrated astrologist in California: "There will be a bloodbath in San Francisco." Allende delightfully describes her: "She looked like Eva Peron, with a few extra pounds." Amanda sets out to disprove her: "It's a perfect opportunity to refute the predictive powers of the stars." The male lead in this exciting story is a scarred ex-Navy Seal, Ryan Miller, and his charismatic war dog, Attica. (Since I have spent several years developing a feature film about war dogs, this character really intrigued me). He is a pure-bred Belgian Malinois, "smarter and stronger than German Shepherds, and they keep their back straight so they don't suffer hip problems." Ryan, physically and spiritually wounded, is a patient of her mother and secretly in love with her. One reviewer commented that, "You realize that hatred lurks easily beneath infatuation, and that Indiana, for all her doofy charm, is actually surrounded by the jealous, the rejected and the flat-out insane."
Last night I watched a YouTube of Isabel speaking to the Harvard Book Club, and it was revelatory and very funny. She told of how, when she told her agent she was thinking of retiring, the agent suggested she instead collaborate with her husband, mystery writer Willie Gordon, on a crime thriller. "A bad idea," she realized, when -- after three months of frustrating conversations -- she was ready to begin writing on January 8, the day she begins all of her novels. ("It was the day in 1981 that I sat down to write my dying grandfather a letter which became the manuscript of my first novel, The House of the Spirits," note: It became an international bestseller, a movie, was translated into 35 languages and set her on the path to being the most widely-read Spanish-language author.)
Only her husband was procrastinating and she realized she was on her own, so she began writing Ripper herself. "Someone told me that I had to open a murder story with a murder, so I did," she said. The murder in question is a school custodian found dead and mutiliated in a gym. Amanda, a senior in high school ready to enter MIT in the fall, enlists the support of her five Ripper cohorts to examine the details of the crime. Which is followed by a second, then a third gruesome murder, all examined in detail by the young people as well as the police and public. The kids intuitively realize that the three killings are somehow connected and we have a serial killer. But things take a wild turn when her mother, Indiana, looks to be the next victim. "Mom is still alive, but she's going to be murdered at midnight on Good Friday," is the opening line of the book. The suspense heightens near the end as we hear some passages in the voice of the killer, who desecrates his victim's bodies post-mortem. Bu Allende's wit and wisdom balance this out, and I love the way Amanda and her grandfather say goodbye to each other, she playfully, "You love me, Grandpa?" "Nope." "Me neither."
As Isabel said, she read many of the dark Scandinavian crime novels which have become so popular of late (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) before proceeding. Isabel told her book club listeners that the novel -- like all of her books -- was written in Spanish, came out first in Spain and South America to much acclaim-and was published in English last month. "It was a lot of fun to write," she concluded, and I must add it is a lot of fun to read. As the New York Times concluded: "One by one the characters take their places on a canvas so crowded with life that even death seems to melt into the background." Yes, this is a wonderful, ripsnorting tale by an authentic story-telling genius. And I can't wait to see the movie.
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It came as a shock to the entire Los Angeles theatrical community. Friday's announcement by the Geffen Playhouse's Artistic Director Randall Arney: "Due to unforeseen circumstances, Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party, to be directed by William Friedkin, has been postponed."
The show was to have begun pre-opening performances on Tuesday, and to have officially opened on February 12. Now, another show will be offered later in its stead. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Friedkin said that it was due to the departure of actor Steven Berkoff, and the inability find a suitable replacement in the available time. Friedkin said that rehearsals were underway for about a week before he made the decision to let Berkoff go.
"I have never let an actor go before," the director told the newspaper. "I feel bad about it, but you have to have a great actor in that role, no question." Berkoff was to have played the role of Goldberg, one of two menacing strangers who interrupt the protagonist's birthday party.
Friedkin said he was in talks with actors to fill the role but declined to provide names. "I don't want to disappoint the audience, and won't produce anything that isn't up to my standards," he said.
I had spent the previous week preparing a story about the upcoming show and my long history with it -- and we would have run it today. Lucky for me (and my Huffington readers), the notice of the postponement came just as we were going to file. Rather than let it go to waste, I am taking the liberty of telling you a shortened version of it here:
A mesmerizing and significant theatrical event is coming to the Geffen Playhouse on February 12. It is Harold Pinter's fascinating thriller, The Birthday Party, the first play written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. It will be directed by William Friedkin, the Oscar-winning director famed for The French Connection and The Exorcist. It happens to be a work with which I am intimately acquainted, because I was involved in the filming of it over 40 years ago with Friedkin directing.
In the late '60s, my business partner Edgar Sherick and I were hired by Leonard Goldenson, chairman of the ABC network, to establish a boutique film production company, Palomar Pictures. During the five years we were active in it, we produced/financed a dozen or so films, including the much-heralded They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, and my first personal production, For Love of Ivy, which starred Sidney Poitier. I had known Billy Friedkin since he was directing hard-hitting TV shows in Chicago, and during the time he directed his first feature, a light comedy starring Sonny and Cher filmed in Texas. After an almost-happening picture called The Hostages, we continued to look for an opportunity to work together.
In 1968, at Palomar, we met with Friedkin to see if there was something he wanted to do, and he mentioned his passion for a play by Harold Pinter called The Birthday Party. He told us he had seen it in 1962 in San Francisco, during its first American production, and it had remained lodged in his mind. "It had created sensation in England a few years earlier," he told us, and described it compellingly as "a comedy of menace."
Sherick and I read it and agreed that it offered promise, and if we could make it in England for under a million dollars, it offered little risk. My partner suggested that I go to London to meet with Pinter and his agent about locking in the film rights, and I did so. Harold Pinter by then was an established, successful playwright well on his way to the Nobel Prize in Literature he would soon receive. He was surprised someone wanted to make The Birthday Party, describing to me the initial production of the show. It had not found an audience and was a lost cause, closing, when suddenly the most esteemed theatre critic in London wrote a career-changing review, and Pinter was well on his way to an amazing career.
Pinter acquiesced to our getting the film rights, with the proviso that he meet Friedkin before the deal closed. As Friedkin describes in his recent memoir, The Friedkin Connection, he flew to London and met with Pinter to outline his thoughts. "I was 31-years-old and had burned a lot of bridges in Hollywood. The year I spent with Pinter on the screen adaptation of his first play was an awakening and a life-changing lesson in the art of creating serious suspenseful drama." I made note of a quote of a wonderful line from L.P. Hartley's novel, The Go-Between, which Pinter told Friedkin: "The past is a foreign country, They do things differently there."
Under Pinter's watchful eye, they cast it with Robert Shaw in the lead role of Stanley, the actor famous for playing the villain in the Bond film, To Russia With Love, along with a cast of estimable British actors. The picture was a superb thriller, but never found an audience. And Friedkin went on to receive his Academy Award forThe French Connection.
I am not going to detail the plot of the play here, merely saying that The Birthday Party is a mysterious and wry riff on the absurd terrors we face every day. Geffen and Friedkin have assembled an acclaimed cast of British stage and screen actors, with Tim Roth in the lead role, with Frances Baber, Steven Berkoff and Nick Ullett joining him. Remember the gripping Ernest Hemingway short story "The Killing," which was filmed with Burt Lancaster? It may remind you a bit of that, and Pinter admitted to me he was inspired by it.
Here, we open on a rundown boarding house in an English seaside town near Brighton. There is one tenant, a strange fellow named Stanley. Then one day two imposing strangers arrive at the house seeking... Stanley? The unkempt housekeeper proclaims it is Stanley's birthday, and she is going to have a birthday party for him... and the action begins to unfold. Menace arrives and mayhem ensues.
I can only hope that eventually they find their way to put on this engrossing drama, something which L.A. audiences will find fascinating.
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Many, many years ago, like every other college student in the world I read Herman Hesse's novel, Siddhartha...but in my case, it did much to change my life. You'll remember that it was the story of Prince Siddhartha's spiritual journey for enlightenment amidst the temptations of the flesh. It won Hesse the Nobel Prize in 1946. One of the most widely-read books of the twentieth century, it has been translated into dozens of languages including several different English versions. If I recall, there was even a rather trite movie version in 1972. In the nearly hundred years since it was published, it has sold tens of millions of copies and continues to be read universally. What's the attraction? Well, in my case it opened my eyes to the possibilities of another way of living my life....which some years later led to my being receptive to the Buddhist mode of thinking (It was a Chinese doctor who worked with me for a year in 1952 during my stay in Korea during the war there who introduced me to the culture, which I later adopted to the zen Juddhist way of life that I pursue today.)
So when Tim Choy invited me to attend a concert production of Siddhartha the Musical at Vibrato this week, I accepted out of curiosity and confusion. Who would have the spunk to interpret this lovely story to a musical? Well, it turned out that one of the people to do so was a stunning Mexican-born woman living in Milan for 20 years, Gloria Grace Alanis, who told me the astonishing story of how she had come to do so. "It all began," she said:
...in an Italian maximum-security prison in Milan called Opera Jail. In 2006 my friend, singer-songwriter Isabella Biffi, known as Isabeau, was contacted by the jailers to conduct a musical workshop there to help rehabilitate the inmates. During the workshop, she established a musical theatre program where all of the Opera prison inmates, even those with life sentences, participated as cast and crew.
I was stunned and asked her to elaborate.
Four years and three successful musicals later, one of the musicals was so stunning that she asked me to see about transferring it. I thought it was so astonishing that I helped to transfer it with a professional cast to a theatre in Milan to enormous critical and commercial praise. That was Siddhartha the Musical.
I knew that I was hearing a miraculous story which would interest my Huffington and other readers. It is astonishing that a musical which began in the Italian prison system would grow to a full-scale musical, which has toured through Italy in the past year and was here this night. Yes, the power of the Siddhartha story was evident. After the concert performance with six remarkable performers, two of the other Executive Producers, Marc Routh and Simone Genatt Haft of Broadway International Entertainment, took up the story with me:
We joined the team, to develop the show further for the world market, and helped arrange for its North American premiere with special concert performances in New York City, Los Angeles, and Careyes, Mexico.
I asked why Careyes, who was prominently featured in an article in last week's Wall Street Journal, and they explained that Gloria has a house there, and our Associate Producer, Ana Brignone, is from the Brignone family who founded the Careyes Private Resort. I laughed and said it would explain why my friends Michael Solomon and wife (and ex-Bond girl) Luciana Paoluzzi were in the audience, as they too had a house in Careyes.
Because it was not a full cast ensemble, I am not going to review the exciting performance, which I saw at the fabulous Vibrato theatre/restaurant owned by Herb Alpert (who was in New York this night celebrating his ninth Grammy win for best pop musical album). But I can tell you that the thrilling Italian and South Asian-influenced, pop-rock score by Fabio Codega and Isabella Bffi (who also wrote and directed it) was masterful, and had my heart pumping.
I have no doubt that the millions of fans of the novel will flock to see this transformational musical. Executive Producer Fabrizio Carbon told me that the larger version of it will play this August for thirty performances at the Edinburgh Festival. And I am going to recommend to Ms. Lou Moore and Jerry Magnin that they consider booking it into their Wallis Annenberg theatre in Beverly Hills as soon as they have an opening. You can go to www.SiddharththeMusical.com for a preview of the fabulous show. Yes, the power of Prince Siddhartha and his message of Buddhist peace continues to radiate throughout the world, and in my...
Mention the word "Persian," and I immediately think of the Middle Eastern nation (Iran) of 77 million people, home of the world's oldest civilization and the area's second-largest country. It has been the Islamic Republic of Iran since 1979, alienated from most Western nations, but hopefully now we're on a path to a new era. I once visited its capital, Tehran in the early '70s on Cinerama movie business, and have vivid memories of some of the best food I have ever eaten.
In my home area of West Los Angeles/Beverly Hills, there is a very large population of Persian Iranians, people who came here after the revolution and have established themselves as a powerful faction in the community. I go to a synagogue that is primarily Persian, and even helped vote in a Persian mayor of Beverly Hills, Jimmy Delshad. I relish being invited to dinner at the homes of my Persian friends, for I know I will get a splendid, unique meal of their ethnic specialties.
All this leads to the fact that my friends at South Coast Plaza mentioned to me that they have had a long-time restaurant there which serves some of the best Persian food in the world. It was confirmed by many of my local friends who often make the trip there. I immediately made plans to dine there for a meal of house specialties, and after this lavish spread, I suspect I will be making the short trip many times in the year 2014.
Darya Fine Persian Cuisine is located at 3800 S. Plaza Dr. Santa Ana, across from South Coast Plaza. I am compelled to describe it as casually elegant, somewhat sophisticated, but very welcoming to anyone who is seeking a terrific dining experience. Darya's owners greeted me heartedly and made me feel comfortable, asking if I had any allergies, to which I gave my usual smart-ass response, "just bad food." Never fear, that is not going to happen here. Ray Esfahanian, Sam Salout and Ali Abedi are the trio who opened the restaurant in 1996 and have built it to the institution it is today, loved by both the Iranian population of Orange Country and locals who appreciate the delicious dishes emanating from its kitchen. Chef Hamid Vahdati came from the Cordon Bleu in Paris ten years ago and has guided the kitchen ever since. I asked Ray what the name meant, and he said it translated as ocean, as well as being a cousin's name.
A typical meal here will comprise appetizers, chicken, beef or lamb kebabs, Basmati rice, salads and more. I know that the delicate spicing and intriguing dishes will bring me back time after time. Consider a Maust'khiar appetizer, a combination of yogurt and chopped cucumber flavored with mint. My preference is the Borani appetizer, comprising yogurt, eggplant, onions, garlic and herbs -- so succulent.
My companion at lunch one day chose a dish called Fesenjon, fried walnut pomegranate sauce mixed with boiled chicken served, of course, with a side of Basmati rice. I had the Baghali Polo, which is Basmati rice mixed with dill weed and lima beans, served with fresh seasoned boiled lamb shank -- so delicious it will satisfy even those silly folks who don't like lamb. (I loved the lamb shank so much I ordered another to take home.)
Or you can choose from chicken, seafood, beef or lamb combination platters and vegetarian plates on the dinner menu. I was impressed by the extensive wine list, the surprising dessert choices, and the cool cigar patio where I later enjoy my Padron stogie. The restaurant's attractive marketing coordinator, Arezou Hoomshiarnejad, introduced me to a sensational wine called Persian Tradition Shiraz, a red wine from Paso Robles blended especially to match the deep flavors of the unique cuisine.
I have been deeply impressed by the palatial dining room with its dozen faux-marble columns and illumination from wonderful crystal chandeliers -- just stunning. Note the magnificent Persian carpets, of course. The professional waiters know how to make the first-time visitor feel comfortable, presenting a selection of flat breads cut into triangles to nibble on as you peruse the menu. On my first visit we were served by a smiling woman, Lollis, who has been a server here for 26 years, which says something about the owners. She explained the appetizers, from the Hummus (pureed garbanzo beans with tahini, $6.95), tabouleh (chopped parsley, onion and tomato, $6.95) to the Persian Salad ($6.95). Yesterday we had an enormous combination platter so my friends could sample the various proteins. Chicken Barg ($19.95), thick strips of juicy marinated charbroiled chicken breast, Chelo Kebabs ($13.95), strips of juicy ground beef and my favorite, Naderi Kebabs ($27.95), chunks of center-cut filet mignon marinated in their special sauce.
Food just exotic enough to intrigue you, but not different enough to throw you off. For the less adventurous, the Chef's Specials feature more familiar dishes like Tuscan salmon, Roasted Chicken or Seared Filet Mignon. The desserts are all legendary Persian delights: Baklava, Zulbia Bamieh, which is rose-water-infused fried sugar, Roulette, a delicious cake, all luscious.
Yes, this is a three-star experience at incredibly-reasonable prices available every day of the year to those lucky enough or smart enough to take advantage of the many Persian delights on tap at the South Coast Plaza.
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The famous corner on Dayton Way. All photos by Jay.
The entrance and bar of The Grill.
As a restaurant critic, the second most popular question I am always asked (after "How do you stay so thin?" To which I facetiously answer, "I don't swallow,") is what is your favorite restaurant? And invariably I answer, Spago and The Grill on the Alley. Why is this? I explain that I judge a restaurant like a triangle: ambiance, service and food. These two restaurants have always measured up brilliantly to this criteria. I have written a lot about Spago over the years, but realize that it has been a long, long time since I reviewed The Grill, and since it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary on January 31st, this is the perfect time to do so for my Huffington Post readers.
The legendary Chicken Pot Pie, the size of a hubcap.
The New York Steak, with onion rings.
Pan-fried John Dory from New Zealand is the most popular seafood dish.
Bob Spivak is a co-founder and managing partner of the chain -- and a really good guy.
THE GRILL ON THE ALLEY is at 9560 Dayton Way in Beverly Hills: (310) 276-0615. I always get a kick when I write that address, since I love the story about its origins. One day in 1983, the three original partners were wearily walking along Wilshire Boulevard after a trek around town trying to find a location for their proposed new restaurant. They saw a 3x5 for-rent sign in the window of the defunct Bentley's Steak House just past Rodeo Drive, and they went around in back to the rear entrance on the alley off Dayton to get into the space. Bob Spivak said to his partners, "If we can make our entrance here, then this is the perfect space for us. It's right next to Giorgio's and is part of the Dayton-Rodeo Drive-Beverly HiIls environment. If not, we'll keep looking." An entrance on Wilshire Boulevard was out of the question because the zoning laws prohibited cars stopping there before 7 p.m., so there's no valet parking.
Spivak haggled for six months with the Beverly Hills Planning Commission to allow them to have their main entrance in the alley, to no avail. "No restaurant in Beverly Hills can be entered through an alley," was the dictum (unlike San Francisco, which welcomes such eccentricities.) Finally Spivak went to the Building Department to examine the zoning maps and, bingo, he discovered that they had three fifths of an inch of footage on Dayton Way. "I hung a mailbox on the corner and went to the Post Office the next morning and applied for the Dayton Way address for us," he told me. "Then I sent myself a letter to that address. The moment it was delivered the Planning Commission fell into place and we were in business. "We have a brass plaque right at that corner and THE GRILL is proudly spelled out across it."
In January of 1984 The Grill opened its doors at a time when nouvelle cuisine was all the rage 'round town, and small portions of exotic food with big prices were the norm. "We wanted a traditional steak-and-chop house of the kind you find in New York and San Francisco," he added. "We visited 57 places in New York in a few days to see what they were doing, then went to Tadich's, Sams and Jack's in San Francisco to learn their secret of success. It was simple: Give the customers good plain, wholesome food at a fair value, and treat them well."
Chef Izzy Camacho and your reporter. He began here as a grill cook.
Maitre d' Pamela Gonyea has been here for twelve years.
This is the magnicent hamburger, made of meat ground twice daily.
Simple as it sounds, it's not that easy to replicate, and The Grill on the Alley today is simply one of the best, most successful restaurants in this city just because they have never deviated from that formula. I could go on and on about the celebrity customers, and anyone wandering in here for lunch will see more power-brokers, stars, celebrities of all kinds in one noontime than in most places in a year. (Yesterday at lunch, I was seated at a table next to Michael Douglas, just off his Globe victory, and Ronnie Meyer, vice chair of NBC Universal, who told me that has been a subscriber to my restaurant newsletter for 22 years.) But the celebrity quotient is just the icing on the cake, not what makes the cake so delicious. Let me comment, for instance, on the service here; it's inobtrusive but all-seeing, with professional waiters who seem to know what you're thinking before you realize it. They carry a dozen orders in their heads and I've never once been given a wrong dish. How many places can boast that? Unhappy with something you ordered. "No problem, let me get you something else sir." Yesterday, I was waited on by Patricia, who has been here 18 years. This week, at dinner, I was served by the longest-serving waiter in the room, Steve Oliva, who began 27 years ago and worked here together with his late father Ralph for 25 years. Sal Leon, the skilled bartender, started here on opening day as a busboy. Chef de Cuisine Izzy Camacho began then on the grill and became Executive Chef in 2008.
Grilled scallops are superb.
..and the double-cut Colorado lamb chops are a thing of beauty.
I must admit that I do have a problem with The Grill, but it's a nice one. I want to order everything on the menu, and for someone like me who eats out almost every night, that doesn't often happen. I usually end up ordering the same thing: a perfect Bombay dry martini ($13), a bowl of their soup special or the Chilled Gazpacho ($8), a half dozen Oysters ($18.75), the Pan-Fried Whitefish ($29.75), Creamed Spinach, ($8), one of the potato dishes ($8) and end with a rich dessert like the Strawberry Shortcake ($8.50). But when I deviate, it is for the Braised Short Ribs ($43.75), or if I'm there on a Sunday night I have the Prime Rib special ($54.75), a 26-oz. prime rib on the bone, served with creamed spinach, baked potato and Yorkshire pudding, along with Lawry's the best version of that roast beef in the city. When my sister Ann was last here, my brother Stan and I took her here for dinner and we ordered the magnificent golden-crusted Chicken Pot Pie ($23.75). She was overwhelmed and impressed, as I always am. It's a hubcap-sized monster topped with puff pastry and filled with thyme-scented cream sauce, mushrooms, onions, peas and chunks of white and dark meat chicken. I recall Merrill Shindler's famous line to me: "Never eat anything larger than your head." It doesn't apply to this dish.
At lunch I will deviate from time to time, ordering the best Corned Beef Hash ($19.75) in the world. Or if I'm feeling devilish, it will be that ingenious San Francisco dish, Joe's Special, with ground beef ($22). You've never had it? Oh, my, think of a mess of scrambled eggs, the beef (or chicken), spinach, mushrooms and onions, which tastes far better than it sounds. With all of the new steak houses in town, I suspect the best New York Steak ($45.75) in town may still be gotten here. It is prime Angus Midwestern beef aged 28 days. And they can do it my strange way: black and blue. The Double-cut Colorado Lamb Chops ($48.75) are superb, more than I can finish but love to take home for next day's lunch.
The perfect Bombay dry martini with a twist.
Their wide selection of wonderful fresh fish is grilled over oak charcoal. Waiter Steve told me that the John Dory from New Zealand ($41.75) served with grilled vegetables, is the most popular dish in the house. Spivak tells me: "There are no canned vegetables here, no microwave, no frozen food (except for ice cream) -- everything in our kitchen is the freshest and best there is. Fresh raw comestibles are brought in daily, the menu is determined by Chef Camacho, and our customers taste the results at lunch and dinner." The utterly delightful Maitre d' Pamela Gonyea (one of the only three maitre d' ever to work here) told me how the menu has been tweaked over the years to keep up with the changing tastes of the younger clientele. "For example, we added Ahi Tuna Sashimi ($18.75) to the menu, red slices of fresh fish slightly seared on the edges, and covered with a sesame seed crust. There's a Maine lobster Salad ($19.50). When Soft Shell Crabs are in season, they are a popular special." Last night I started my dinner with the Florida Stone Crab ($33 as an appetizer, $63 as a main dish.)
The Cobb Salad is made exactly as Bob Cobb invented it at the Brown Derby.
The look of the place is truly wonderful, from the front entrance where the smart staff led by General Manager Stephanie Wilson or night maître d' Ben Kruse greets you, seats you at the long mahogany bar with ceiling-high mirrors and promises your table whenever your guests arrive, to the 14 wooden booths with high backs and dark green upholstery, comfortable tables with spacious arm chairs, and globe lighting which compliments while illuminating. One thing which has always impressed me is their reservation policy: Those people with reservations get seated promptly, and those people who don't have them get seated when a table opens up. No one coming in unexpectedly -- and that goes for the biggest star! -- gets seated over a customer with a confirmed reservation. Would that more places follow this lead.
New York Cheesecake is topped with hot fudge.
I first met managing partner Bob Spivak in 1976, when he had just opened a place called Soup 'n Such on Bedford Drive. In the restaurant business since he was nine, when father Eddie ran Smokey Joe's and the downtown Redwood House, which in those days was the unofficial commissary for the Los Angeles Times, Bob had to be persuaded by his two original partners, Dick Shapiro and Mike Weinstock, to undertake The Grill, but once he did they all benefited from his years of experience. "There are no 'adjectives' on our menu," he told me. We don't say creamy mashed potatoes, or tender juicy steaks. When you say 'Grill' you're immediately understood." I'm a stickler for judging a restaurant by its bread (you'd be surprised how many well-known places have spongy tasteless bread) and The Grill's irresistible crusty double-baked, cornmeal-coated sourdough is addictive. (Torture for me to pass up on my gluten-free diet, eight months old this day.) The little touches: water glasses are freshened with lime slices. People with dark outfits get black napkins. If you are into salads, their Cobb Salad ($25.50) is exactly as the original invented by Bob Cobb at the Brown Derby. The Crab and Shrimp Louies ($29.75) are better than those in San Francisco, while the Caesar Salad ($19.75) would do justice to that of Tijuana's Caesar Cardini. There are so many other wonderful dishes here that I am salivating as I write. And although I've forsaken most desserts, when it's on the menu the Grill's famous Apple Pie, baked in an extra-deep pan and filled with cinnamon-laced apples, can make me weep. The Rice Pudding ($7) is justly famous, studded with large raisins, but how 'bout the Grill Fudge-Brownie Pie ($9), or the Hot Fudge Sundae ($9). The New York Cheesecake ($10) drizzled with hot fudge, is a nightmare to dieters.
I am not going to go into detail here about the many Daily Grills around town, there are now 21 of them...also following the dictum of fine food at a great price, only no reservations are taken there. There are seven other Grills in Dallas, San Jose, Chicago, Westlake Village, Hollywood, and Aventura Florida. Bob has been telling me about a new gastro-pub concept they have opened, Public School 612 downtown and Public School 310 in Culver City, for the younger craft beer-drinking crowd.
Where am I going for dinner tonight? You guessed it. What will I eat and drink? I am going to explore the dozen new cocktails they now have on the menu, probably a Blackthorn ($13) made with Irish whiskey. I am craving something simple, so I think it will be their Meatloaf ($19.75) with a side of Yukon Gold mashed potatoes ($7), or the Pan-Fried Whitefish ($29.75) which is slightly coated, sizzled and served with a lemon and butter sauce, with a dish of tarter sauce to spice it up. Then again -- oh, shucks, who knows, but it will be delicious.
For a short period of time, from Monday January 27th to Sunday, February 2nd. diners will be able to order a special 30th Anniversary Prix-Fixe Menu ($68 per person) which was created by John Sola, the original chef here, now V.P. of Operations. You can start with a Shrimp Cocktail or Lobster Ravioli, go onto an entrée selection between Chilean Sea Bass, Pan-Fried John Dory, Veal Chop or Filet Mignon 'Oscar' Style, ending with a dessert of Classic Rice Pudding. With this dinner, guests will get a complimentary glass of champagne and a chef's amuse bouche (surprise).
The Grill on the Alley is open seven days a week, from 11:30 to 9 p.m. on Monday, to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, to 10:30 on Friday and Saturday, and Sunday dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. Did I mention that they have the best gourmet burger in captivity ($16.75), a 12-oz. grilled monster three-fourths inch high, serve with a La Brea Bakery bun slightly toasted, capped with a slice of sharp cheddar cheese, lettuce and tomato? The burger meat is ground twice daily (before lunch and before dinner) from steak scraps, 20 percent beef fat added for flavor, a humongous miracle. Hmm, maybe that's what I'll have for dinner.
There's an extensive wine list including my two favorites, Justin and Laetitia, with many fairly-priced bottles on it. Their bar whiskies are all premium brands, and if you are in the mood for a dry martini (as I always am), it reminds me of the ones I got years ago at Toot's Shor in New York in the '50s, and that says it all.
In an age when perfection is a seldom-realized dream, it is wonderful to see a restaurant that mightily strives for it and seems to actually make it a reality. Here's to their fourth...
The very first thing I did when I moved permanently to Los Angeles in 1973 was to visit the Santa Monica Pier. I had just seen the wonderful film, The Sting, directed by my friend George Roy Hill, which starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford. While the movie was set in Chicago, they had filmed the carousel scene at the Pier, which is located at the foot of Colorado Avenue in Santa Monica. This carousel in the Hippodrome Building is a magnificent artifact, built in 1922 and revamped completely in 1990, it features 44 hand-carved horses which kids of all ages ride while accompanied by the calliope music. A 100-year-old landmark, this Pier was destined to play an important role in my future life in L.A. When I produced the film, W. C. Fields & Me at Universal, we filmed a key scene on the Pier at twilight.... where Fields, played by Rod Steiger, bids a tearful farewell to his midget friend played by Billy Barty. When I co-produced a Lifetime cable movie, Invisible Child, a key scene with Rita Wilson was filmed on the ferris wheel there (while her husband, Tom Hanks, stood and watched on the sidelines.) And every October I volunteer in an event for Special Olympics called "Pier de Sol" where I help get 38 restaurants to participate in the charity event to benefit special-needs children. I have often visited the Pier in summertime to view an outdoor movie there. I have taken several first dates to the Pier to sit at the end of it and romantically drink wine while gazing out to sea. I even ate shrimp at the so-so Bubba Gump place there, owned by the same people who produced that film which was partially shot there. I have extensively reviewed The Lobster at the entrance to the Pier, once commenting that the then-chef was allergic to lobsters. Recently I reviewed on the Huffington Post two restaurants adjacent to the Pier, Blue Plate Taco and Water Grill. Yesterday I visited my kid brother Stan who has just moved here from France and is living on Ocean Avenue in an apartment overlooking the Pier. Yes, the Pier has played a nice role in my California life... and continues to do so.
Boiled 1 1/4 lb. lobster comes with ears of corn photo by Jay
Spicy seafood soup...a revelation. photo by Jay
So when a friend told me about a wonderful new seafood restaurant at the Pier, I immediately gathered my reviewing troops and made plans to invade this new seafood shack. Only it was not really a new place but rather a revamped version of a long-time seafood eatery there. Wonderful story: In 1977 two young Korean immigrants, Hae Ju Kim and her husband, arrived here with almost no money, but somehow they managed to lease a place at the Pier and called it SM Pier Seafood. For some 35 years they ran it night and day, catering to the hordes of tourists who flock here every summer. This year, they agreed to turn it over to their 32-year-old daughter, Yunnie Kim Morena, who took over the business after successfully operating Fred Segal Couture for over 10 years. Yunnie and her husband, Greg Morena, who serves as President of the restaurant's management team, then instituted a compete revamp of the place which is situated right next to the Pier's parking lot. "We modernized and streamlined the look while preserving the restaurant's original atmosphere and character. I grew up in Santa Monica and this restaurant was a big part of my life," she told me.
We asked our friend, architect David Alvarez of Studio Alvarez, to assist, and our clean, white-tiled interior is now accented by pops of turquoise complementing the wooden communal table-and-bench seating. The exterior space is sheltered with strings of lights creating a warms seaside setting.I asked her why the name? Was it named for our former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and she laughed and said "no," it was named for The Albright, the well-known (but not to me) nautical knot, symbolizing the tying together of two paths, two generations. Family friend Bobby Hundreds drew the design of it. It is located at #258 on the Santa Monica Pier (310) 394-9683.
Huge Dungeness Crab, comes with hammer to crack shell. photo by Jay
Fish and chips. Icelandic cod and fresh-cut potatoes. photo by Jay
Chef Francisco trained under Chef Hefter at Spago, imposing credentials. pix by Jay
But most important to me and visitors is that the menu has undergone a complete revamp, reflecting their commitment to using fresh, locally-sourced food while adding a craft beer and California wine program. When we arrived there for dinner last week, I was greeted by an old friend, Vince Zangari, who is the general manager. We had first met when he ran Le Colonial some years ago. He then introduced me to the young chef, Francesco, and I was startled to learn that he had worked at Spago under the tutelage of my buddy, Lee Hefter, Wolfgang's partner. A Spago guy at the helm of the kitchen meant a different perspective... and it turned out to be a remarkable one. That night my three associates, Penny McTaggart, David Rapoport and Jill Kossow, and I enjoyed one of the best seafood dinners we have had in years! Yes, you heard me... here on the Santa Monica Pier we had a meal which excelled when measured against Providence, Connie & Ted, and even The Water Grill down the block.
Seared halibut is fresh fish offering. photo by Jay
Fresh oysters from East and West Coast. photo by Jay
What they've done is focus the menu on classic seafood items you would expect to find on the Pier. We began our meal with each of us enjoying a half-dozen of Fannybay ($15) and Kumamoto Oysters ($19). They were accompanied by champagne mignonette and spicy relish, but when they're this fresh only a spray of lemon is needed. Next up were two soups, both a revelation. The New England Clam Chowder ($7.50 for a cup, $9.50 for a sourdough bread bowl of it), was rich and creamy, full of clams. The came a highlight of the evening, Spicy Seafood Soup ($25.75), a huge bowl chock full of clams, mussels, cod, langoustines, squid and crab, on a bed of jasmine rice. I must say that this dish alone would have satisfied me for dinner (and I took home a container for next day's lunch.) World-traveler Jill said that the spicy red broth was the equal of any she had in Italy or France. Fragrant with saffron, it was a huge winner. We had admired the bubbling saltwater tank filled with lobsters, crabs and prawns sitting beside the kitchen, and the chef smiled when he fished in it for our next course. My readers know that I am nuts for lobster, and very particular how it is prepared. (Don't like it grilled as it gets too dry.) Here the pound and a quarter Maine crustacean ($39.95) had been gently boiled for about eight minutes in salted water, then served with a cup of drawn butter. Vince had prepared our table with sheets of the L.A. Times and a few wooden mallets, and we used them also on the huge Dungeness Crab ($39.95) that emerged from the kitchen. David cracked away and commented that it reminded him of the Maryland crab places he had frequented as a kid. I was a happy camper as I gorged on chunks of savory lobster and cracked open the crab for the morsels of meat in the claws.
Were we done? Not by a long shot. After all, every seafood shack has to offer Fish and Chips ($13.25), here hand-battered Icelandic cod served with French fries and coleslaw. The cod was crispy and fresh-tasting, while the freshly-made fries made McDonald's seem redundant. A few samples of Shrimp and Chips ($17.25) emerged, equally delicious. I didn't want to try the Mussels and Fries ($15.75) 'til next time. I also passed on the Seafood Linguini ($22.75) 'cause of my gluten-free diet, but I sure was tempted. There was also a Whole Fried Tilapia ($21.75) for next time. I asked whether they could buy fish from the guys who fish off the Pier every day, and was told that they can only buy from licensed seafood providers who fish there. They do offer Seared Salmon ($21.50) and Seared Halibut ($25.95), served with brown rice, plum tomatoes, summer beans with arugula pesto. This is gourmet fare with the smell of the sea wafting into your nostrils.
There is lots more on the menu which we didn't sample this night... a huge Angus Burger ($11.95) as well as a Pier Club with Salmon ($15.95) and my long-time favorite, a Tuna Melt ($10.95). Vince told us that the Beer-Battered Fish Tacos ($13.25) were a big favorite with the tourists who flock here in summer. "In season we have people lined up at our door from early morning to late at night," he told me. I learned that locals are now beginning to realize the gem on the Pier and coming here more and more. One of the big draws is the Albright's Beer List, an astonishing sample of 50 craft beers and ales. David and I sampled several and delighted in the Goose Island IPA ($6/11) on tap. The Wine List is not that extensive but does have some sparkly choices, including a bottle of Wycliff Brut from California for $15. I recommend the Fresh Fruit Sangria ($9) an iced red wine version.
The Albright is open Monday through Friday from 12 noon to close; Saturday and Sunday 11 am to close. Inexpensive parking on the Pier is right next to the restaurant and there are several adjacent lots. Reservations are not necessary and they have an event space and catering program available at (310) 394-9683.
As I said, the Santa Monica Pier is an integral part of my Los Angeles life, and I welcome this exciting new culinary addition to the mix. Smell the sea air and enjoy the delicious food.
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This past Golden Globes weekend kicked off with a party to celebrate the 40th anniversary of -- a dress! I kid you not, more celebrities showed up on Friday night at the old May Company building at Wilshire and Fairfax to celebrate the unveiling of a spectacular fashion show, than came to many of the weekend movie parties which I attended. This exhibit, entitled DVF 40: Journey of a Dress, Diane von Furstenberg, opened to the public on Saturday. This is the site of the future home of my Academy Film Museum, but it will feature this remarkable fashion show until April 1. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, it is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. One cautionary point: The exhibit is being sponsored by next-door LACMA, and the museum people have really screwed up the show for the public in one important respect.
Let me explain: I had a friend go at noon on Saturday, and she spent 40 minutes circling the building looking for the entrance; there is none off the street. Nothing. Finally, in tears, she called me, and I told her that she must walk east on Wilshire to Ogden, one block away, which is the entrance to the LACMA buildings. Then she goes to the plaza and makes a left turn at the beautiful Resnick Pavilion, and walks a long, long driveway down to the back of the May company building where she can enter. No charge, just lots of walking. Hey, guys, put up some signs on the corner, or at the building, somewhere, to tell the public where the entrance is (the Friday night partygoers were instructed where to enter on their invitation). In fact, parking is at the LACMA lot down below, and I suggest that the LACMA people open up the May building driveway on Fairfax and establish a valet station in front of the entrance. It would be very profitable and make life easier for those attending this great show.
Once you're in, it is magic time. On Friday evening, Diane von Furstenberg and husband Barry Diller were the official hosts, greeting such eminent guests as Vogue's Anna Wintour, Amazon's Jeff Bezos (over his kidney stone attack), Gwyneth Paltrow (in a sexy, sexy low cut gown), CAA's Bryan Lourd, HBO's Anderson Cooper, David Geffen, Gelila Puck and Moby. Let me tell you about this woman, Diane. As a straight guy of a certain age growing up in New York in the '50s and '60s, I dated lots of attractive women. But, just beyond reach was this enchanting woman who was always otherwise occupied whenever I tried. And I did. She is a Belgian-born, Jewish fashion designer.
Her Greek-born mother was a Holocaust survivor, and Diane was born 18 months after her mother left the Auschwitz concentration camp. At 18, in college, she met this dashing Prince Egan of Furstenberg, the elder son of a German prince (his mother was a Fiat heiress). They married in 1969, had two children, and divorced in 1972 (she told us she -- at 67 -- is now the grandmother of four). She continues to use his family name, although she is no longer entitled to use the Princess title. It was in 1970 that she began her fashion company with a borrowed $30,000. Today it is a global luxury fashion brand in 70 countries and 45 free-standing shops.
In 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama wore the DVF signature chain link print wrap dress on the official White House Christmas card. In 2001 she married an acquaintance of mine, film executive Barry Diller, certainly one of the smartest men ever to rule in the film industry (he is now the principal backer of Aereo, which went to the Supreme Court this week). She and Barry founded their philanthropic foundation, which has donated many millions to just causes (I watch Charlie Rose every weekday night, and they support his show).
First, about the May company show. You enter a hallway which is papered with images of our designer, graphic patterns on the floor and walls, and a pink neon sign blaring: "Feel Like a Woman, Wear a Dress." Then you move into a large gallery which features photos of Diane at every age, as well as astonishing artist's renderings by such names as Chuck Close, Andy Warhol and Helmut Newton. There is a room supposedly duplicating Studio 54, with more photos.Then the fulcrum of the show, the culmination of 40 years of development since she invented the wrap dress in 1974. There, on black risers, are 202 versions of the wrap dress, long and short, of ever description and design. All of the mannequins have generic facial features which, I was told, were inspired by the designer's own distinctive cheekbones.
Somewhere in there is the original dress, which the lovely clerk in the DVF gift shop told me was just delivered five days ago, lent by a friend who didn't want to be named. It took them more than a year to collect these dresses from sources all over the world. I believe it -- it is an incredible, stunning, satisfying exhibition of the vast imagination of a fertile mind.
DVF told a press conference on Friday: "I selected Los Angeles to open this show because it is very much pop culture, and that's what my dress is." Over the year I have examined this wrap dress closely, often while trying to unwrap it. It is (or was) a cotton jersey dress wrapped in front, tied at the waist, a drip-dry fabric easy to wash. I remember how it became a popular phenomenon -- women of all ilk clamored to have one or more (now she has a new line of them in elegant fabrics, a different kettle of fish).
She laughed and said: "I was 26 when I created this dress, It paid for everything; my children's education, my freedom. It gave me my fame and the American dream." I saw a quote she gave to L.A. Observed: "At 28 I fell in love with Barry Diller. I slept with a few movie stars along the way. Barry and I finally married in 2001. My dress was in many movies. [Editor's note: Amy Adams wears one in American Hustle.] My life is a movie. Every life is a movie, that's why we love Hollywood." Now that's a cool, cool woman.
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The inimitable Harvey Weinstein had a screening last weekend for some Academy members and celebrities of his new film, Philomena, and after the screening he invited us to meet the real woman who inspired the film. Philomena Lee and her daughter Jane, also depicted in the film by an actress, along with Steve Coogan, the famed British comic/actor who plays the reporter who wrote the book on which the movie is based, were there. They had arrived on their first visit to Los Angeles just hours earlier and were somewhat jet-lagged at the Beverly Wilshire gathering. However, I had an opportunity for a fairly lengthy one-on-one with them to learn a little more of the events behind the film.
By now you are probably well aware of the story of this poignant, beautiful movie starring Judi Dench as Philomena. The real one told me that Dame Judi was in India shooting a sequel to The Exotic Marigold Hotel picture, in which she appeared some years ago. Philomena told me that the filmmakers took some liberties in telling her story, but essentially it was accurate in its basic facts. It relates how an innocent young Irish girl in 1952 meets a fellow at a country fair and was seduced by him. When she learned she was pregnant, her outraged father shipped her off to the nearby Sean Ross Abbey where the nuns put all of the "damaged" girls into harsh labor jobs without much pay. Lee said that she and the other young women like her were treated as sinners who should live in shame for their transgressions. We see her working long hours in the steaming hot laundry until her baby was due. Undergoing a very hard breech delivery, she gave birth to a healthy son, Anthony, and for three years she saw her son only for an hour a day. She was forced to sign an agreement giving up all rights to the child.
Then, in an incredibly cruel moment, the nuns "sold" her baby -- along with many others -- to wealthy American parents seeking to adopt. "It was a week before Christmas in 1952," the 78-year-old Lee related. "He was three and a half, and a beautiful, smiling boy. I loved him to bits. And then he was gone. It broke me, it broke me for a long time." She later learned that the Abbey made a healthy profit from these unholy actions, while the Irish government paid convents and Catholic institutions one pound per week for every unwed mother in their care, and two shillings and six pence for each child. The young women also worked making rosaries and other items, which brought the Abbey an additional income, along with toiling in the greenhouses and gardens. For shame!
Eventually, she left the convent, became a nurse, married in 1959 and had two children, all the while trying unsuccessfully to learn the whereabouts of her son. The nuns claimed untruthfully that all the paperwork had been burned in a fire (in actuality, they deliberately burned all of the records.) For 50 years she kept the secret of this abominable event to herself. She wryly told me that finally, in 2004, "When I had a little too much sherry at a party, I told my daughter Jane this secret story." That's when Jane met Martin Sixsmith, a former BBC journalist, at a party and, as the film shows, convinces him to look into her mother's story. He eventually did so and wrote a best-selling book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, about the mother's search for her child-- the basis for this film. Famed British stand-up comic Steve Coogan co-wrote the script with Jeff Pope, co-produced it with Tracey Seaward and Gabrielle Tana, and played the journalist. It was he who took his script to a garden meeting with Dame Judi Dench and read it to her -- who immediately said yes. The fact that a Dench favorite, Stephan Frears, was directing closed the deal. I must make note of the musical score by five-time Oscar nominee Alexandre Desplat, which is rather stunning.
They create an event in the film where the two of them, Dench/Philomena and Coogan/Martin, go to America to seek the son's whereabouts. Ms. Lee told me that in actuality, the journalist went by himself and learned that her son, now named Michael Hess, had become a prominent legal member of the Reagan and Bush administrations, and was secretly gay. He had died of AIDS nine years before. But the bombshell revelation was that the son had gone to Ireland seeking his mother, and the church/nuns had stonewalled him, also into thinking she was not findable, even though they knew the search was bilateral. And that Michael was actually buried in the graveyard of the Roscrea convent where it all started.
Philomena and her daughter, Jane Libberton, sat with me and, as we sipped Earl Gray tea, she elaborated on the actual story. "My mother died when I was six, and my father sent me to the convent school in County Tipperary. I didn't know anything of the facts of life, and when I was 18, I fell for a young man I met at the county fair. I got pregnant and gave birth to Anthony in July of 1952. The rest of the story is pretty much the film you saw."
The brilliant, irreverent director, Stephan Frears, was not at the Beverly Wilshire party but was in Hollywood this week and gave an interview to the local paper. "There was tragedy and comedy going on at the same time. It was the double thing that I really liked and thought was very, very clever," he said. "I had worked previously with Judi Dench on The Queen and Mrs. Henderson Presents, and wanted to do so again, so she was the only actress I considered for the role." He commented on the fact that the real Philomena Lee had a complete lack of bitterness, which I also observed in our conversation. She told me that most of the nuns were lovely, just a few older ones were "harsh." Certainly, the mean-spirited Sister Hildegarde in the picture was one of those. Frears' frustration with Catholicism and the Irish church was evident in his discussion.
On Jon Stewart's show last night, guest Steve Coogan said that they leavened the script with lots of warm, humorous scenes to open up the audience to the deeply dramatic substance. "My biggest concern was that I could play too broad, and I asked the director to rein me in when that happened. He certainly did." At this writing, the outcome of the film's three Golden Globe nominations is not known. My disdain for this joke-of-a-group, and its splendid show is well known, but I rather suspect that my fellow Academy members will remember the film and its participants at Oscar time.
At which point in the party, I encountered old friend Harvey Weinstein, who praised all of my Huffington writings and said that in one, I had alerted him to the revival of our long-in-gestation (12 years) film project, a remake of the lovely supernatural romantic comedy, Bell, Book & Candle. "Now that I am back at Miramax, we will get it done." From your lips to God's ears, or vice versa, Harvey.
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A new film, THE INVISIBLE WOMAN, opened this week; it is the fascinating story about British author Charles Dickens and his clandestine mistress of twenty years, Nellie Ternan. Directed by and starring the fine actor Ralph Fiennes, the beautiful 31-year old Felicity Jones plays the 18-year old actress who meets Charles and becomes involved with him for the rest of his life,13 years in all. The remarkable Kristin Scott Thomas plays her widowed actress mother who tacitly approves of the relationship, while Abi Morgan adapted the screenplay from Claire Tomalin's biography. Sophisticated, adult, winsome and intriguing, the film reflects the brilliance and antic energy of the mature Dickens and the charm of the at-first reluctant Nellie. The language is beautiful in its color, doing justice to the vivid imagination which always gripped Charles. There was a recent hour on Charlie Rose TV when a trio of actors and educators who knew the Dickens story intimately told stories about him, much of which was new to me who arrogantly thought he knew much about the Dickens life. (He came to lecture in America and hated much of his experience here, railing against slavery, child labor, and lack of copyright protection.) The film focuses on the romantic intensity of the mature man and the bleak, troubled interior of his life. Married young to a woman he didn't love, with ten children, he is outwardly effervescent and inwardly tortured until Nellie enters his life, but that relationship also has it ups-and-downs. (27 years older than her, a harrowing stillborn birth strains the relationship for awhile.) There is an interesting 'bookends' story of her life after Charles died, when she married a younger schoolteacher who had no idea of her past.
I have been addicted to the novels of Charles Dickens since I was a kid, so I had a particular interest in this film. When I was young and growing up in the small town of Beacon, New York, I was given a youngster's library card...and only received the adult version when I could prove to the librarian that I had read every book in the kid's section.....including many of Dickens' novels. I can honestly say that it was being exposed to Dickens which influenced me to becoming a writer in later life. I still remember the thrill of opening David Copperfield and Great Expectations and knowing I would be exposed to a world way beyond my ken. So I suggest that if you have a youngster or know of anyone who has not yet read these, guide them to the novels and open up a new world which will change their life for the better. I can still vividly picture the spector of the convict Magwitch (played by Finley Currie) rising out of the swamp to confront the young Pip in David Lean's 1946 film of Great Expectations. And when I produced a biographical film about W.C. Fields (with Rod Steiger), I screened the scene of Fields as Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield. So many memories in my head of scenes from the books and the films....Sydney Carton in the opening line of A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Still true today.
I have made a two-fold New Year's Resolution. One is to reread many of the lesser-known Dickens novels, Martin Chuzzelwit, Nicolas Nickleby and Little Dorrit and the like. The second resolution is to expose to the world a new novel which I have just read. At Thanksgiving dinner a close friend handed me an advance copy of a novel by a mutual friend of ours, a writer/director named David Portlock who has had some success with smaller films at Sundance. My friend said, "This novel is so extraordinary that I know you will want to read it." I am not a big fan of science fiction stories, much preferring to read biographies and non-fiction books. So it languished until Christmas eve, when I began reading David Portlock's POLARIS: 10 SHORT STORIES. I read almost all night and then finished it on Christmas Day. Astonished by its sheer brilliance, gripping stories, I went back to it this week to again capture its magic. The book is being published on Amazon this week ($9.95), so it is now available to anyone with a click of the computer key, and I can only suggest that you do yourself a favor and get a copy. (I just ordered six to give to friends.) Methinks here, in a way, is my modern-day Dickens.
David has written 10 short stories which turn out to have a common thread, starting with an eight-year old boy in Kansas during the Great Depression of the '30s who has a vision during a dust storm. We move on to an inventor who builds a troubled robot assistant. Then we meet a female scientist who experiments with a flying force bubble. The sci fi elements arrives in full force with the next chapter, when a government agent caotures a lost alien king. We then meet a 16-year old girl who is kidnapped and turned into a ruthless killing machine, then making her way back home. A soldier volunteers for a suicide mission on a distant planet. An astronaut lost in space for 40 years finally returns to Earth. A woman and a soldier interact in the midst of an interdimensional alien invasion. A man, starving and freezing in the Alaskan outback, stumbles upon an abandoned research lab. Ending with a drug-addled psychiatrist who is introduced to a strange young woman. Unpredictable, beautifully written, just fine. I know, it is science fiction and you are too busy to take the time to read it, but trust me....it is so well written and fascinating that you will be caught up as I was and want to continue reading until it ends. I felt the same thrill of discovery that I did when as a young boy I read my first Charles Dickens novels. And, as I said, they changed my life. Perhaps this novel will change yours. For the better.
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I attend a lot of charity events during the year... for children's health, cancer research, Planned Parenthood, all the rest... and they usually have one thing in common: All seem to feature free Pink's hotdogs and the fixings from a portable stand they have set up. I recently asked the...
There is a certain irony at the fact that the movie, "The Wolf of Wall Street," is opening on Christmas day. It's a day supposed to celebrate extending good will towards all men and women. For here is a film which extolls extending ill will towards all men and especially towards all women. Be warned: this is a three-hour long diatribe about avarice and greed told at a high level of yelling, depicting ugly, despicable men doing horrible things to all people on earth. Ring the holiday bells for director Martin Scorsese and megastar Leonardo DiCaprio....they will need all the good will they can get to overcome the heinous moral failures exalted in this movie.
Martin Scorsese directing two of the stars. All photos by Paramount Pictures
I am not going to elaborate on the story much, just know it is a picture of American capitalism run amok in a dark, drug-drenched way. Based on a non-fiction 2006 book by a convicted con man-hustler, Jordon Belfort, who followed it up with a second book, the New York Times on Friday reported that he received $940,500 for the film rights, half of which goes to a fund set up to compensate his victims. The script was written by Terence Winter, who did such good work with The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. The producer is a woman named Emma Tillinger Koskoff, with whom I commiserate.
Leonardo DiCaprio in an early scene with Matthew McConnaughey.
Jonah Hill and Leo are co-conspirators.
When I got home after the Paramount screening at the Landmark, I turned on my TV hero, Charlie Rose, and there were the two filmmakers for the hour, with the gravel-voiced Rose gently asking them questions about the making of the film that he (Rose) obviously did not much like. I taped the show and went back to review it this morning. Leo told how he read Jordon Belfort's book about six years ago and was fascinated by the tale of the fast-talking, coke-snorting financial con-man. "I thought it was a reflection of everything that was wrong in today's society, his hedonistic life-style, the carnal indulgences, his greed and his obsession with himself." DiCaprio told how this guy had swindled thousands of people out of $110 million as head of a penny-stock boiler room in the 1990s. When he had a draft of the script, he took it to Scorsese, with whom he had made several films. Today's New York Times says that it took them five years to make the $100 million film, as most studios were wary of such an unrelenting story of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. Finally a company called Red Granite stepped up to the plate. I hope the Red in their name doesn't reflect blood shed. Actually, I think the film will find a ready audience of people who are fascinated by the very things I have mentioned above.
Australian actress Margot Robbie is the female lead, and she is very good.
These two stalwart guys, Leo and Marty, went on at length to Rose about how "they made the movie they set out to make" without any interference from the studio or film financiers." If ever there was an argument for not giving directors final cut, especially Scorsese, this was it. Watching the 71-year old Scorsese in all his faux-professorial glory and the supremely confident 39-year old Leo in his two- thousand dollar suit and carefully-cropped beard and moustache, the latter was somewhat apologetic in his explanation that he was now seeking roles outside of the studio system. My best advice, Mr. DiCaprio, stay in the system....it will protect you from such excesses. DiCaprio said to Rose that this was a 'satire' and Marty corrected him that it wasn't, it was 'real.' As the New Yorker review said today: "Satire presented this broadly ceases to have any instructive or cleansing effect. It becomes burlesque-lewd, vaunting and self-promoting.....scene after scene explodes into an obscene fight.....hysteria is not a very productive dramatic mode." I should note here that it has been nominated for a Golden Globe in the category of "Best comedy or musical," which is actually a funny comment on those awards. If this is a comedy, it is indeed a black, black one. Masters of ceremony Tina and Amy, make of it what you can.
Kyle Chandler plays the good cop who eventually takes him down.
I have been cautioned by several friends with whom I saw the film not to write this adverse Huffington review, although as far as we could see coming out of the screening most of the audience were as numb and bewildered as we. Yes, I know, everyone will now be overcome by curiosity about it, but I caution my readers to be aware that this film has a hard R rating; it is not for the young or the squeamish. The movie centers on three speeches which Belfort makes to churn up his employees, with the first one followed by a naked marching band coming into the boiler room followed by a horde of prostitutes. The second speech was filmed brilliantly by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, with his hand-held camera plunging into the sea of brokers like Moses parting the Red Sea. After that we see Gordon indulging in some sado-masochistic behavior involving a lighted candle (ughh). There was a scene toward the end where our 'hero', high on drugs and desperate at the net closing in around him, forceably assaults his despairing wife, who then asks him for a divorce. He goes crazy and grabs their little daughter and runs out to the garage with its score of cars, straps the little girl into the seat, and while the wife hammers his window with a shovel, crashes out of the garage and into a fence, shaking up the child and him. And me.
Terence Winter is the sceenwriter of the adaptation.
Wolf is narrated by DiCaprio in a flat New York accent, much like the narration Scorsese used in "Goodfellas" and "Casino." Leo puts his body, his voice, his entire being into his over-the-top performance. The New Yorker today: "He gives one of the most completely externalized performances in the history of movies. His performance is spiritually restrained, lacks complexity, contradiction, insight. Wolf is delivered almost all through at the same pitch of extreme aggressiveness. It is unrelenting, deafening, and finally unilluminating." It was followed by Variety's assessment: "DiCaprio doesn't just play his part, he inhales it, along with everything else that goes up Belfort's nose and into his bloodstream. The whole thing is a wild party."
I have no question the Leo will be nominated for a "Best Actor" Oscar, though I doubt he will get it over the "Twelve Years a Slave" star. I have been hearing that there is some Oscar buzz about the second lead of Wolf, Jonah Hill, and I am laughing at the thought. Just watch the scene where he organizes a dwarf-throwing contest in the office. Best supporting actor? Listen my fellow Academy members, that's a huge joke. This actor, who was so good in "Moneyball" that he won an Oscar nomination, should next get a director who will simply control excessive behavior. Yes, there was a fine actress in the film, the Australian Margot Robbie, who is both stunning and talented, in a thankless role as the second trophy wife, with some sexual scenes which were just embarrassing. (On Charlie Rose, Scorsese told how the actress came in for an audition and just nailed the role immediately.) Rob Reiner, in his first acting role in ten years, plays Gordon's bombastic father.
My Huffington readers know that I lavished enormous praise recently on Matthew McConaughey for his roles in"Mud" and "Dallas Buyers Club," but here he has only one five-minute scene which is so weird that I couldn't begin to describe it. Just let it be said it is set at a luncheon where he advises the young DiCaprio on how to succeed on Wall Street, with some unusual daily sexual exercises. The editor,Thelma Schoomaker, in Friday's Wall Street Journal, told how he ad-libbed the rest, the thumping on his chest and uttering the bird calls, concluding as he holds up a vial of cocaine: "Never work for the client, always work for yourself. Don't let the client cash in his winnings, argue him into reinvesting his winnings and grab the commission. " Thelma told us how the original version was 4 hours and 10 minutes, and they worked day-and-night to cut it down to be ready for the Christmas release date. I have no doubt that if they had more time, they might have found a way to trim another 20 or 30 minutes out of it.
The real hero of this film is a strong-jawed FBI agent, played very well by Kyle Chandler, from Zero Dark Thirty, who is today's Inspector Javert, persisting in pursuing the drug-crazed Leo character until he takes him down. One of the best scenes in the film takes place on Gordon's 170-foot yacht anchored in New York harbor, when the FBI agent comes aboard at Belfort's invitation, who then tries to bribe him without actually saying the words. It is the most nuanced scene in the movie, with undertones you don't get elsewhere. Later, at the end, we see this nice good guy riding home on the subway (which Leo had derided) looking around and smiling. I watched the extended, awful Quaalude sequence with Leo crawling on his stomach and thought to myself that Buster Keaton was the only one who could have pulled it off. Incidentally, I was appalled that the real-life character whose book they adapted only got a sentence of 36 months for all of his offenses, and served just 22 months. We see him at the end, as a motivational speaker a la Tony Hawk, at a lecture in New Zealand teaching people 'how to sell a pen.' Ridiculous. But then again, so is the movie.
Am I alone in my distaste for this film? Let me again quote from today's New Yorker: "The Wolf of Wall Street is a fake. It's meant to be an expose of disgusting, immoral, corrupt, obscene behavior, but it's made in such an exultant style that it becomes an example of disgusting, obscene filmmaking. It's actually a little monotonous, spectacular, and energetic beyond belief, but monotonous in the way that all burlesques become monotonous after a while." The screenwriter, Terence Winter, was quoted today as saying: The point of the movie is... we don't learn anything. Nothing has changed." How true and how depressing. I realize that I have probably not dissuaded you from going to see it.....au contraire, probably encouraged you to do so. The curiosity factor is too high. So I suggest you bring a pillow for your rear end and a flask of whiskey for the rest of your body and soul.
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Until now the most beautiful restaurant I have ever seen was Maxim's in Paris, which I frequented often in the '60s and '70s and where I hosted the world press premiere of How The West Was Won. This week I have been dining in the most gorgeous restaurant I have...