Good Hair

Good Hair is a rambling, genial, free flowing conversation about the phenomenon of African-American hair.  Chris Rock, the producer and narrator explains early on in the film that his interest in the topic was piqued when his oldest daughter complained that her natural hair was “bad hair”.  Thus begins his exploration of the topic, and the film covers a very wide – possibly too wide – range of topics in the field.  Some of these topics include simple motifs of beauty presented to black women – a visit to a place that sells extension hair is particularly revealing – weaves, relaxer and the black hairdressing industry.

How the black hairdressing industry is covered in this movie more or less describes the method of the film overall.  Rock wants to make a point about how seriously black women take their hair, so he is at a black beauty salon, on camera, just talking to the women in much the typical genial Chris Rock persona that fans of his (or people who watch TV) are probably well familiar with.  The discussion about hairdressing and the career path it is supposed to take leads to the Bronner Brothers International Hair Show, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the people in Best in Show.  Indeed a very peculiar feature could be made about Derek J, a prime contender for the crown.

However, this is not the only topic.  Rock then explores the topic of hair relaxer and visits a plant where it is produced.  Relaxer traditionally has been created using Sodium Hydroxide, and we get amusing takes of women and men, and Al Sharpton, describing the burn.  However, there are alternate products on the market, and less damaging ingredients, but the movie does not seem to explore them.  Indeed if there is a criticism to be levied at the film it is that it veers away from poignant points.  While there might not be much poignancy to be had from a performance “haircutting” competition – the amount of chemicals used to look “beautiful” does have some poignancy and is a provocative topic.  Rock indeed is curious and gets some provocative insight, but when it looks like a real thesis could be developed, he veers away.  This is also true in a later segment where he discusses the value chain for weaves, and explores who is exactly actually financially benefiting from the zeal about black women’s hair.

While this tendency will probably make Good Hair more palatable and entertaining for a general audience, it holds it back from having the sort of impact as an essay that it could have.  On the other hand, perhaps that is just as well.  With the film that Rock, and conspirators from his old HBO show (Jeff Stilson, who directed, Lance Crouther co-wrote) put together, the aim was clearly more genial and audience friendly.  Chris Rock fans (like me) will go expecting Chris Rock to do Chris Rock things.  To that end, it is not a disappointment.  Rock is a funny, curious, host and his persona carries much of the exposition through.  The movie is a very entertaining time, but Rock shows flashes of it being a little deeper than that.  The topic and how it weaves into socio-economic issues in the African-American community are interesting, and here Rock shows that a fascinating movie could be made about those issues – even if this one is content to simply be a conversation starter.

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Ceiba

In beautiful Washington, DC, this week is Restaurant Week.  As many cities have, this is when restaurants throughout the area offer prix fixe menus for lunch and/or dinner so diners who might not ordinarily go to a restaurant can have a full experience.  Of course, the experiences vary, as some restaurants offer severely restricted menus or hidden charges that can drive costs up.  My last trip on Restaurant Week took me to Taberna del Alabardero, a renowned Spanish restaurant, which was frankly a severe disappointment.  Spanish aficionados (at least traditionally) might call their flavours muted – I call them non-existent.  However, after much deliberation, I took the plunge again at Ceiba, run by the management group that runs a few other well regarded DC spots. (Tenpenh and Acadiana, to name two)  Ceiba is a sort of pan-Latino restaurant, that offers a good selection, and a pretty solid Restaurant Week deal, as I had a choice of any of the entrees on its regular menu.

If there is one virtue of Ceiba I could be completely smitten with it was the service.  I got to the restaurant at 7:15 for my 7:30 reservation and got all checked in, and got to the bar while waiting for the rest of my party to show up.  One of my friends who was not on the intial list was in the neighborhood, and the restaurant accomodated him with no problems.  The waiter was patient and offered explanations for any item, and while the service was a little slow, for a good conversational meal, it was no problem at all.  It was a wholly pleasant experience.

The overall menu was solid.  At the bar, I ordered a Batida, a mixed drink served in a surprisingly girly cocktail presentation, with tamarind extract, pineapple juice, passion fruit puree and Pitu Cachaca.  The colour was a not particularly appetizing brown, and the taste was fine but a little too sweet.  The Peruvian Summer (Macchu Pisco, passion fruit puree, ginger ale, lime simple syrup) was more refreshing.  The appetizer was the Bermuda Fish Chowder, a hearty red chowder served with rum and a sherry pepper sauce.  Both the rum and the sauce gave both a good kick and some sweetness.  It was a good soup.  The beef empenadas saltenas, with olives, eggs and raisins, however, was truly outstanding.  It was the one dish that was not just good, but creates that visceral need in my tastebuds, the mental crack that great cuisine offers.  The entree I had was the Slow Braised Pork Shank, which sits in a bowl of Cuban beans and rice and collard greens and is accompanied by a habanero chile, bread crumbs and orange.  The flavor was deep and very strong, and meat had the tenderness and flavor one’d expect.  The rice and beans make a solid pairing.

The only real source of disappointment was the desert.  My Espresso Chocolate Cake was a bit dry.  It did not have the fudgy melt-in-your mouth quality one’d expect, though the flavor was certainly not bad.  However, in a way after thinking about it further, the desert sort of summarized the meal.  The individual dishes were pretty good, the service was excellent, and there is nothing I can really complain about.  However, aside from those empanadas, there is nothing I can praise to the sky either.  It is no orgasm on a plate, that’s for sure.  So while Ceiba is a good restaurant, even possibly very good – it still resides in my mind as a measured accomplishment, and not the transcendent life altering meal I was hoping for.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

After much suspense searching for a sponsor, Screen on the Green, the annual series of movies on the National Mall made its grand return. To debut this season, they harkened back to Steven Spielberg’s 1978/1980 classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Given the ubiquity of Spielberg, some of the more purely commercial movies of the earlier age tend to get lost – I mean everyone knows Jaws but how many free associate that with Spielberg. I remember seeing it on the old ABC Saturday Night Movie when I was something like 8 years old – frankly I barely remember, so I was approaching it fresh. We know the film was made in 1978 and then re-issued in 1980 with some changes – and it is the 1980 “Special Edition” that is the film of today. What I did not know was whether the film, effects and all, still worked nearly thirty years.

But work it does, and the sense of wonder and awe associated with the sheer notion of an alien race contacting us is latent. Along with Contact, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the rare film that has the sort of academic fascination with extra-terrestrials that frankly, you’d expect in real life from actual scientists. The most amazing thing about something like Independence Day is the unusual lack of “holy crap!” sentiment coming from the characters – the most earth shattering site you’ll ever see, and yet it is played as if it is equivalent to a deer crossing (not that that is not exciting – hey, my life is boring too) Here, when the characters (most notably the family man played by Richard Dreyfus) see the UFO and are implanted with the image, they are awestruck and cannot shake what they have seen. Spielberg augments the acting with symbols everywhere – a sound pattern, a ship in the Gobi desert … like M Night Shymalan did in Signs (almost undoubtedly influenced by this film), the resolution of the signs are not important, but they evoke wonder and curiosity.

In fact, the Dreyfus obsession ends up causing his wife and children to leave, and this is where the film is very weak. Like many of the animated Disney fare, our hero needs to ford ahead with their quest (which this kind of is), but how do you get rid of the inconvenient family. The reactions of Dreyfus’ wife and children to his changed mood seems kind of ham handed and is thoroughly unconvincing. It was as if Spielberg did not how to get rid of the family and just picked any ol’ method. However, thankfully, this is just a small quibble, and it does set up Dreyfus’ journey to the site of his vision and the inevitable alien encounter, which is appropriately awesome, even thirty years later.

The site of the UFO is pretty convincing by 1980 standards, much more so than the effects of Superman for instance, which looks quite dated. The aliens when depicted, do work, and when we go inside the UFO, the columns of light and machinery are both amazing, implausible (in a good way) and mysterious. The road to the end is a little rocky, but the payoff is brilliant.

P.S. Yay, if you google “incest, olive garden”, look what you find!

Ray’s Hell Burger

Ray’s was already on my radar screen before the news.  I mean, I like burgers.  Not McDonald’s so much, but good burgers, whether in Boston, DC or Atlanta.  One of my friend’s daft roommate (as it turns out, but she likes restaurants, so i trust her here) raved about Ray’s the Steaks in Arlington, and said this was the proprietor’s crack at an upscale burger joint.  So Ray’s was on my list, even IF President Obama did not get a burger there with Joe Biden.  Foodies like it, the president (I assume) likes it – and given the long line the two times I have been, the unwashed masses like it – so obviously I was intrigued.

The presentation of the restaurant is simplicity itself – a long line, you pick up a menu and then you order when you get to the register.  Then you find a seat (no taking tables until you have ordered) and wait.  When I looked at the window, I was a little asea with the myriad of burger choices – and the lack of sides (there are some sides available, but really it is about the burger).  Let’s put it this way, you don’t get to put bone marrow on a burger every day.  Confused by the choices, I chose one of their suggested combinations (pepperjack-fiery sauce-jalapenos-onions).  The toppings are excellent, but really the star is the meat.  I am no steak expert, but when I read that the place uses the high quality steak meat as the basis for the ground meat, it shows.  The burger just tastes different – juicier, more buttery (without being a Butter Burger).  The burgers are huge (10 ounces!) but feel light as I ate it.  The bun is not really well built to hold the burger – eating it is a big big mess.  However, the burger is delicious – just a different sport.

Up (and “Partly Cloudy”)

Up grabbed my heart and wouldn’t let go (to clarify, I mean the Pixar movie Up, not the Russ Meyer version which grabs another part of the anatomy).  From the dazzling short that opnened up the proceedings at the theater where I got to see it, to the remarkable opening sequence to the sight of a house being held aloft by myriads upon myriads of balloons, Up is a throwback of sorts to the “big movies” of the past, the sort of thing that is the best of what Hollywood has to offer.

While the common lament of how Rob Schneider gets movies green-lit when so many smaller slice of life pictures in the In the Bedroom ilk are left to rot in distribution is true, that is not the only sadness of modern movies.  I mean, sure, these sorts of films need distribution, but what about the movies that Hollywood do make?  There is slasher porn, movies based on crappy TV programs, toilet comedies.  But really, how many truly rich moviegoing experiences does Hollywood produce these days?

Pixar has succeeded completely on this level – even before the movie starts.  In the tradition of old time movies, the show started with a dazzling short “Partly Cloudy”.  Aside from perpetuating a myth about precisely where babies come from, it is beautifully animated, funny, cheeky, and just impossibly cute.  And then, the movie starts.

I am pretty sure that when the American Film Institute does its requisite specials in 2099 about the second century of film, the prologue that begins Up will be prominently featured – in its own way it should be as iconic as Pinochhio’s famous discovery.  It depicts a boy and little girl who discover a shared love of adventure, and the adventurer Charles Muntz.  The couple will fall in love, get married and she will pass away – leaving Carl (the old man) alone  with a house full of memories and sadness.  This is all done without dialogue, and if it does not move you, well I guess I am a marshmallow.

We pick up with Carl as he sits in his house alone, and not sure what to do with his life.  He is encouraged to go to a seniors’ home (in fact, a bit more than encouraged), but finally decides to visit Paradise Falls, in South America, where he and his wife had set out to live.  How he finally decides to travel there is a flight of fancy that is also a wonder, and certainly homage for anybody who has seen Fitzcarraldo (go figure – Herzog in Pixar?).

While traveling, Carl discovers a stowaway, a boy scout named Russell (who seems Asian-American looking), an earnest 8 year old who is having trouble at home, although in the convention of these sorts of movies, the old man is unmoved at first.  Really, the plot itself is not particularly original.  What is original, is the villain, the villain’s ship and indeed the villain’s henchmen, who are really, really, really funny.  But undercutting the entire movie, all the jovial moments, is the depth of Carl’s love for his wife and her memory – in fact, the movie plays the music under the prologue throughout – provides poignancy that you just don’t see.  Up is a great experience – I cannot imagine having a fuller experience with a mainstream American movie.