Thursday, January 28, 2010

Mediterranean Triangle in Eagle Rock

Chicken Breast Sandwich

You will like this place.

(I've got to get this review out before all of this leaves my memory: I've recently given up chicken. I'm moving upwards on that busy and productive first week in Genesis. Once I leave behind sea creatures, I'll be up to the third day, just "plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds.")

I've been to Mediterranean Triangle dozens of times now. I had to be sure that I wasn't just falling for it because it was in the Super-A-grocery-store mall next to CVS, Subway, and some other nondescript, non-boutique shops, on the south side of Colorado, down Eagle Rock Boulevard, where the expensive baby strollers rarely go (unless they're parked outside of Auntie Em's).

You'll see pictures of this military-looking guy in the four painting reproductions on the wall in the dining room. The paintings are Persian, and they each feature a Persian woman in a garden; this military guy appears in small medallions once in each painting, in a different location, tiny, and a little out of focus, sort of like the royal parents in Velázquez's Las Meninas. The guy behind the counter told me, after some prodding, that the guy done in miniature in all the paintings was the old Shah. He didn't specify which one -- though it doesn't look like The Shah we think about. (The moustache is a bit too big.)

Mediterranean Triangle is trying hard to be a decent Middle Eastern place in a crappy, soulless shopping center. And they are doing a decent job of it. The restaurant is tastefully appointed, with small touches that I found instilled the dining space with some dignity -- like cloth placemats on the tables, with nice lamps hanging down over each table. Not bad for a place that's next door to a check-cashing center. You feel human eating here.

I haven't had the lamb or beef here (those are from the fifth day, which I left behind many years ago), but the chicken dishes I have had here have been excellent -- moist and tender. The chicken breast plate comes with large chunks of chicken breast, nicely seasoned, not overly marinated or doused in sauce, served on a generous bed of fluffy rice, with a bit of salad and a grilled pepper and tomato on the side. The ground chicken (the luleh) was also nice, with a little bit more of a kick of seasoning. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the chicken breast sandwich they offer at lunch. It was huge, with a delicious sauce, onions and lettuce. It was drippy and messy, but a seriously satisfying lunch.

There's a little bar of side dishes, with Persian equivalents of hummus, baba ghanoush, and some other stuff. I was happy to find that, in addition to the standard soda fountain, they also carry mango juice here.

I have no idea why they call this the "Mediterranean Triangle." The restaurant is run by a family of very friendly Iranians, and the names of the dishes are Persian. Iran doesn't touch the Mediterranean. I guess they didn't want to go with "Caspian Triangle, ""Persian Gulf Triangle," or "Gulf of Oman Triangle." Just another mysterious detail here.

I won't oversell you on the food here: it's good, not fantastic. But for the prices (~$6 for lunch, ~$9 for dinner), you get a very solid meal, with civilized touches. You might even think about eating in here, where the TV hanging near the counter is silenced, and you can sit in peace and contemplate the cryptic paintings, with their Persian maidens, their bowls of cracked pomegranates, and a mysterious old Shah.

Chicken Luleh Kabob Plate

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

View from the Tank: UP IN THE AIR (2009)

Every time there's a scene in a movie where someone runs through an airport, driven by love, I cringe a little. There's a scene like that in UP IN THE AIR, which is a fine movie, but not a great one.

The film is about Ryan Bingham (Clooney), who works for a company that contracts to handle firing employees for employers. Bingham flies around the country to different companies, firing individuals, handing them a glossy packet "that contains the answers to all of [their] questions," and delivering a speech about how everyone who has ever built an empire once sat in the position the person being fired finds himself in. Bingham delivers motivational speeches in various hotel ballrooms about the virtues of living with a metaphorical "empty backpack" -- free of attachments, long-term commitments, etc. All so much dead weight that ties one down -- harbingers of stagnation and death. Bingham loves the regular and standardized comforts of airports, airport hotels, airport lounges, rental cars, etc., and his life goals include reaching a certain astronomical number of frequent-flyer miles.

Bingham's way of life is threatened by two women. His beloved business-class nomadism is threatened when his company hires a young go-getter, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who proposes eliminating the face-to-face method of terminating employees and instead using something like Skype to terminate employees by webcam. And Bingham's "empty backpack" philosophy is threatened when he begins to develop feelings for a fellow corporate road warrior he meets in a airport-hotel lounge, Alex (Vera Farmiga).

A lot has been made about how timely this movie is, how tapped into the current Zeitgeist. There's some of that, sure. And the initial interviews with real-life laid-off people helps bring the pain of the last year and a half vividly to the screen. But there's something glib about the movie's attempt to tap into the pain of the recession. The final interviews suggest that getting laid off is okay, because it helps you realize what's truly important: family, the little things, etc. That may be true, but one wonders how the laid-off feel as the unemployment checks come to an end, as the house is foreclosed, etc. It's just a little too easy for the filmmakers to suggest that, hey, these laid-off people are going to be okay, they've rediscovered their love for their spouses, kids, and pets, etc.

For the most part, UP IN THE AIR does not dwell on those issues -- though it does suggest that the consequences of being laid off can indeed be terrible. But the ending interviews with the non-actors felt a little too pat, and I felt like the filmmakers were, in a way, letting themselves, and the audience, off the hook, by assuring us that these real individuals, whose pain we were contemplating as we sipped our Sprites and munched on our Gummi Bears, had found something deeper and more significant than their former jobs. It all came off as a bit glib.

As did a lot of this movie, which was, undoubtedly, well acted, well edited, and well written. It was a pretty good movie, a fine, mildly intelligent entertainment. It just wasn't a great movie. For the most part, it was predictable and unsurprising. Its main saving grace was a bravely ambiguous ending.

Part of my problem with the movie is that I have a hard time feeling sorry for George Clooney -- and we are supposed to feel, at certain points in this movie, sorry for his character, Ryan. It just doesn't work. Despite the comic antics and grimaces he's picked up from his Coen brothers work, Clooney somehow always ends up playing himself. He's always the same smooth-talking slick guy looking sharp in his suit, whether in MICHAEL CLAYTON, OCEAN'S 11, or UP IN THE AIR. (He did bravely shed his hunkiness and get fat for his relatively minor role in GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. And I should note that I haven't seen SYRIANA.) I have a hard time worrying for him, or feeling that things are not going to work out for him -- because he's George Clooney, and things will always work out for him. So, even during the darkest parts of this movie, I had a hard time sympathizing with Bingham, even though the movie was trying to get me to.

Clooney's a fine actor -- but I feel that he still hasn't been pushed out of a standard comfort zone (a zone that has come to include wackiness, in films like BURN AFTER READING, O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS, etc.). When he's supposed to be crushed, I still end up feeling like his situation is as in INTOLERABLE CRUELTY: he's supposed to be pathetic and sad, but it's cute and funny, because it's hilarious that we're supposed to feel sorry for a purportedly heartbroken George Clooney.

My advice, George, if you're reading this, is to play a truly dark character -- an irredeemable character -- one that doesn't come out as the hero in the end despite our initial doubts (as in MICHAEL CLAYTON). That would be something to see.

OG Rating: B+

Saturday, January 02, 2010

View from the Tank: AVATAR (2009)

This movie, is, in a way, James Cameron's avatar: it's a multimillion dollar product made with the latest technology, funded by huge corporations, which product Cameron uses to (ostensibly) turn against huge corporations and technology. But what is the purpose of Cameron's AVATAR? To advance his interests or the interests of his corporate backers? Their interests are intertwined: it's symbiosis. Here, the corporate interests profit by coopting protest against corporate interests. All resistance is ultimately incorporated and marketed back to the masses. And here, it's the same old shit, but in a fancy new 3-D package.

As most people on the planet know by now, AVATAR is about, in part, an alien race called the Na'vi, who live on a moon called Pandora. The Na'vi are ten feet tall and blue-skinned. Humans want a mineral ("Unobtanium") available on Pandora. As part of its attempts to convince the Na'vi to cooperate, the corporation that seeks to extract the Unobtanium finances a hugely expensive research project that grows Na'vi bodies from a hybrid of human and Na'vi DNA. Human "drivers" then "link" to these laboratory-grown Na'vi bodies and control them, like a puppetmaster manipulating a puppet. Think MATRIX, but here, the users aren't jacking into a computer grid, but into flesh -- but the concept is largely the same.

I've been fascinated to see so many smart people twist themselves into contortions in their attempts to redeem AVATAR's story and have been wondering if these people have taken leave of their senses. The story is straight cheese. There's nothing remarkable about it -- other than its slavish obedience to predictable cliches and standard genre tropes.

A lot of virtual ink has already been spilled regarding this story, so I'll try to be concise [I would say SPOILER ALERT, but really, is anyone surprised by anything that happens in this movie?]: Jake Sully, disabled former marine ends up becoming an Na'vi avatar "driver" for the corporation planning to mine Pandora; he meets a Na'vi princess and impresses her; they develop a special bond and fall in love and have sex in a magical glowing forest to an Adult Contemporary soundtrack; the princess's father is killed when the corporation attacks; Jake becomes a great Na'vi warrior, perhaps their greatest warrior (see also THE LAST SAMURAI) and decides he must help save the Na'vi from the rapacious evil corporation he works for, so he turns against the corporation and leads the Na'vi (and all of its animals, which he has summoned) into battle against the corporation and its Blackwater-style military forces; the corporation is ultimately defeated, and Pandora saved; in the end, Jake is able, through the magic of the Na'vi's Magic Tree/Great Spirit/Mother Pandora, to transfer permanently from his human body to his bioengineered, laboratory-produced Avatar body.

Sound familiar?

Yes, the world of Pandora is richly imagined, and the technology is impressive (though the power of the 3-D effects wore off on me after about twenty minutes or so), but the story is nothing better than you'd get in a decent anime film (a genre from which this film seems to have borrowed heavily), or a standard sci-fi flick.

I think what's most fascinating is how, even given this technology that allows the rendering of an alien world in minute detail, with extraordinary 3-D depth -- that is, given the ability to imagine and depict almost anything -- Cameron's alien race are ten-foot tall humanoids with blue skin, who ride horses, thank the animals they kill, shoot bows and arrows (complete with feathers), wear loincloths and headdresses, use warpaint, emit war cries, believe in the Great Spirit, etc. AVATAR displays at once both the potential of imagination, and the very real limits of imagination.

Is this movie so new and radical in its sympathetic view of the Na'vi and its cartoonish depiction of a super-evil corporation bent on devastation and plunder?

Is it so radical and bracing to come out against "shock and awe" and fighting "terror with terror" years after the administration that used these terms and tactics is out of power and national opinion has turned firmly against the preemptive war in Iraq?

Is it so radical and bracing to put out a "green" message when Exxon-Mobil, G.E., et al. are all about being "green" these days (complete with a hip soundtrack from The Postal Service)?

In a word, No. (It's funny how proponents of AVATAR's story will blithely dismiss the comparisons to DANCES WITH WOLVES. One wonders, have they seen that film recently? Do they remember its plot? But that's not really the only parallel, of course.)

It's not really new for a film to present a hero who rebels against his own civilization, or who sides with the natives against encroaching imperialists, etc.

The visual effects were impressive, and the film is undoubtedly a breakthrough in computer-generated effects and 3-D. That doesn't really excite me that much. Regardless of the technology, film will live on or die based on story, writing, and concept. Today's mind-blowing effects will soon become standard and expected, just as we got used to the once mind-blowing developments of sound, color, Smell-o-Rama, etc.

As the story goes, when one of the first motion pictures was publicly screened -- the Lumiere Brothers' 1895 short film of a train pulling into a station -- the audience screamed and fled in panic. I feel like the puzzling attempts to find great meaning in the relatively meaningless AVATAR are a higher-order version of that panic in the face of a terrifying new technology of representation. The technology is powerful, strange, and new, sure -- but we'll get used to it soon enough. Probably by next summer. No need to take leave of our senses.

OG Grade: B-