Electra-fying: ‘American Pastoral’ and a society gone mad

Posted on 21 Oct 2016 at 11:19am

AP_D27_10794.ARWI confess to having some trepidation when actors decide to become directors — especially “serious” directors. For every Eastwood or Beatty or Redford, there’s a Jerry Lewis or Sofia Coppola or DeVito (Death to Smoochy): Vanity projects doomed by ego. So when Obi-Wan Kenob… errr, Ewan McGregor, decided to make his feature film debut directing himself in an adaptation of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel American Pastoral, I didn’t know whether to approach it with anticipation or dread. A somber period drama about Jewish Americans embroiled in the tumult of the 1960s, while touching on mental disorders and family discord? What would he bring to the table? An amazing amount, actually, in this powerful heartbreaker that recalls The Prince of Tides, The Deer Hunter, The Help and Roth’s own The Human Stain.

McGregor plays “Swede” Levov, the high school star athlete who marries the gentile beauty queen Dawn (Jennifer Connelly, looking breathtaking) and settles into a stable middle-class life in a Newark exurb. Swede and Dawn happily rear their daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning as a teenager), a sensitive girl with a stutter, in the cocoon of the American Dream. But the discord of the counter-culture revolution seems to impact Merry disproportionately; she becomes a not just a disagreeable teen, but a seemingly unstable one. She rails against her parents — blandly liberal Democrats — as if they personally ordered secret bombings in Cambodia. She misbehaves, taking up with “the wrong crowd,” even though dear ol’ dad is a model of tolerant permissiveness. Something deeper is as work here; Merry seems to be an avatar of all the insanity of a generation gone berserk with racial, social and political upheaval; Swede, meanwhile, cannot accept that the unrest has deteriorated the foundations of the idyllic life he has constructed — his American pastoral existence is just an illusion.

AP_D14_05366.ARWBecause this is Philip Roth, though, the metaphors aren’t as heavy as they can sound, and as a director, McGregor navigates these traps deftly. He’s not afraid to show characters, including his own, as dense, or weak, or self-deceived, but he taps into a humanity that fully resonates. You can’t help but see his side of the equation, even as you suspect he’s making huge mistakes. The love of a parent can be blinding. The performances are uniformly excellent. Connelly, who hasn’t done a lot worth noticing since winning an Oscar 15 years ago, plays the ageing pageant queen with maternal dignity hardening into icy self-absorption with measured steps. Fanning, so infuriating as the contrarian teen, simultaneously morphs into a pitiable figure with an Electra complex. Even Uzo Aduba as the Swede’s protective business assistant brings an urgency to her few scenes.

McGregor gives all of them standout moments, but his quiet unraveling is at the heart of American Pastoral, a serious and poignant story as well as a bright revelation for McGregor’s talents. The Force is strong with this one.

Now playing at the Angelika Film Center Mockingbird Station.


Back to the classics: Chef Scott Gottlich revives some favorites for a limited time

Posted on 20 Oct 2016 at 4:01pm
A reimagined version of steak Diane

A reimagined version of steak Diane

When I was a kid, my mom would sometimes treat us to a delicacy called baked Alaska. The way mom made it, it was little more than a thin brownie with deep-frozen ice cream on top, covered in meringue and caramelized with flambeed creme de menthe, but to me, it was the height of foodie elegance.

But baked Alaska fell out of favor for a long stretch, even in nice restaurants. That’s the way culinary traditions are — something groundbreaking (molten lava cake!) becomes cliche and even evidence of stodginess.

But classics can always make comebacks, which is what chef Scott Gottlich is doing at his Second Floor concept in the Galleria. Gottlich first captured my attention when he opened Cafe Toulouse, complete with savory French bistro fare, and then at his phenomenal Bijoux in the Inwood Village, which turned high-end French-style cuisine into a local event. He enjoys playing with classics for new audiences — which he’s doing, with his new chef de cuisine Ryan Barnett, just through the weekend at The Second Floor.

Not my mom's baked Alaska — better

Not my mom’s baked Alaska — better

The very-reasonable three-course prix fixe ($55) tasting there includes his take on baked Alaska (honestly, way better than my mom’s), as well as familiar items like French onion soup in traditional preparation (rich, with a hearty beef-and-sherry broth, baguette crostini and drippy Swiss cheese), but also modern takes on old standbys. The oysters Rockefeller aren’t overgrow with thick dollops of spinach, but are instead vibrantly finished with a kelly-green puree and aromatic parmesan. Like baked Alaska, steak Diane is one of those dishes everyone ordered in the 1950s and no one has since the 1980s. Gottlich’s vision, though, is a thick-cut filet tip ensconced in a country mustard peppercorn sauce; my dining companion, an experienced foodie, declared it one of the best-cooked steaks he’s ever had. I’m already a big fan of lamb, and the delicate rack here has an intoxicating gaminess (get it medium rare; the medium cook was a little too much).

In addition to the baked Alaska, the cambanzola en croute is a savory baked cheese in phyllo pastry.  And there is, of course, creme brulee  — one of those over-seen classics of the aughts that we can’t get away from. But why would you want to get away from any of this? Good ideas endure, especially when the execution is as thoughtful as here.

(At The Second Floor, through Oct. 23. Also available with optional wine pairings, or enjoy one of the signature cocktails like a grilled margarita or Kentucky mule.)


CD review: ‘Complete Trio Collection’

Posted on 20 Oct 2016 at 1:32pm

hmo091916trioThe Complete Trio Collection, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. Nowhere in the backstory notes to the The Complete Trio Collection does it say that when Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt finally found time to unify their voices in perfect harmony that lives were healed and Jesus wept. If you’ve heard even pieces of this landmark collaboration, though, you know this to be only a slight exaggeration. After all, we are talking about three singing supremes working their magic on 21 songs across two glorious albums. And now — in addition to both 1987’s Trio and 1999s Trio II — Rhino Records has collected an additional 20 songs from the ladies’ Grammy-winning sessions, some unreleased, some alternate takes of already-released Trio tunes. Among them: “Wildflowers,” Parton’s autobiographical outsider anthem split equally among the three singers, with Parton on the first verse, Harris on the second, and, finally, Ronstadt on the third (Dolly takes lead on the original, included here on the first Trio disc).

“Calling My Children Home” is transcendent, as their voices unite in splendid harmony for a rich vocal experience on this previously unreleased a cappella track, a gut-wrenching song by bluegrass band The Country Gentlemen. Top to bottom, The Complete Trio Collection is a body of staggering beauty. Ronstadt will break your heart as her voice glides through “The Blue Train.” Emmy’s breathtaking lead on “When We’re Gone, Long Gone” will lighten your load. All their voices in collective grace on the stunning “Farther Along” will have you feeling thankful that this project, despite the years it took to get these gals together, has finally seen the light of day.

— Chris Azzopardi




Wolfgang Puck makes surprise visit to Five Sixty

Posted on 18 Oct 2016 at 12:47pm

img_7504So much about life is timing. For instance, I’ve spoken often about the excellent culinary work being done at Five Sixty (as recently as a few weeks ago, chef Jacob Williamson’s lamb sliders were the hit of DIFFA’s Burgers & Burgundy fundraiser; two months ago I bragged about the view). You could go in almost any night and enjoy yourself. But last night, you could have also enjoyed a little TLC from Wolfgang Puck himself. The celebrichef turned up to cook and schmooze following an appearance at the dedication of Union Station, which sit directly under his restaurant atop Reunion Tower.

The prix fixe menu was just three courses, but spectacular: a duo of lobster (cold poached claws and a warm tail with Thai pesto as the opener; a huge, succulent, impossibly flavorful Waygu beef short rib, slow-roasted for four hours at 275 degrees but with the crispiest char you can imagine, pictured; and an Asian pear with spun sugar for dessert.

Here are some highlights. (Read Dallas Voice on Friday for our Tasting notes column about other recent developments in the foodie scene.)


Bill Maher returns to Dallas for January concert

Posted on 18 Oct 2016 at 10:23am

Real Time with Bill MaherThe last time I saw Bill Maher perform live was at the Winspear Opera House more than five years ago. “Your new theater isn’t gonna be clean for long,” he joked, before letting loose on dumbass politicians, especially Sarah Palin. (My review of that show, where I quoted his epithets against Palin and called him — favorably — “the most dangerous person in comedy” — galvanized the right wing … and send web traffic for my piece sky high.) I’m an unapologetic devotee of his HBO series Real Time, because even when I don’t agree with him, he makes audiences think more than any other comedian on the planet.

So to say I am excited — nay, elated — to see that he will return for a live show is muted only by the fact that it won’t happen until Jan. 22, 2017 — well past the current election cycle. On the other hand, it will occur immediate after the inauguration of the next president (whoever she may be), so you know he’ll be primed for politics.

This time he won’t be performing in the 2,200-seat Winspear, but the 3,700-seat Music Hall at Fair Park. That’s a huge venue for a comedian, but even Red State Texas knows the liberals will turn out for it. So get your tickets sooner rather than later — they go on sale Friday at 10 a.m. Here’s the link. And I’ll see you there.


Corky St. Clair returns! Guest & Co. still delight with ‘Mascots’

Posted on 17 Oct 2016 at 1:15pm

mascots1Christopher Guest has long been acknowledged as the master of the improv-inspired mockumentary — first as a cast member/writer of This Is Spinal Tap (which practically invented the genre), then as director in several short for Saturday Night Live and later in the classic features Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration, in which he delved into, respectively, small-town aspirations for fame, dog shows, folk music and Oscar campaigning. At the heart of all of them is the how foolishly grand people can be about the silliest dreams. They are hilarious but occasionally heartbreaking explorations of the fragility of ego.

Guest has returned again, this time with the Netflix exclusive film Mascots which, as its title suggests, is about the world of competitive mascotting: People who dress up in oversized heads and as creatures and even inanimate objects in order to excite and delight crowds in a pantomine of exaggerated enthusiasm.

I doubt mascotting contests like these exist, or exist in this way, but I don’t put it past Guest to have culled his ideas from real life. Certainly we have seen similar kinds of competitions (baby beauty shows like Toddlers and Tiaras or Little Miss Sunshine, and even at ComicCon events). But Guest is too savvy to go for the overly familiar; he can have so much more fun poking the bear when that bear is actually a furry.

Once again, Guest has assembled his stock of master actors, among them Jane Lynch, Bob Balaban, Fred Willard, Jennifer Coolidge and Parker Posey. But best of all? Guest himself returns as Corky St. Clair, the closeted high school theater director craving his big shot in Guffman. It’s too bad that, in the comparative intimacy of your living room, you don’t get the chance to experience his return with the kind of amazement a theater audience would convey, but who cares!? Anyone who would complain about that are … bastard people!

The climax, of course, is the face-offs between the varying mascots, which calls to mind Justin Timberlake’s brilliant variation as a hip-hop dancing mascot on some SNL skits. You root for some, you pity others, but like the best of experiences, it’s the journey, not the destination, that really resonates.

Mascots, now streaming on Netflix.


Kitchen Dog Theater lands permanent new home (and it’s near me!)

Posted on 12 Oct 2016 at 1:09pm

kd_beckett_projectpr1Kitchen Dog Theater has long produced underground and edgy theater, and for most of its 26 year history, it was performed at Uptown along McKinney Avenue. But earlier this year, that venue — the MAC — was razed for a new development. For the past 15 months, Kitchen Dog has been an itinerant company — first at the Green Zone in the Design District (right behind Dallas Voice offices, in fact), then at the Undermain Theatre in Deep Ellum; its latest production, A Stain Upon the Silence: Beckett’s Bequest (pictured), is playing at Uptown Players’ old stomping grounds: The Trinity River Arts Center in the Medical District. There was talk the company would eventually settle in The Cedars, but that fell through. Now comes the official work: Kitchen Dog will finally have a home of its own… and it’s back in the Design District.

KDT will break ground soon on a 10,000 space near the intersection of Irving Boulevard and Inwood Road, at 4774 Algiers St., co-artistic director Tina Parker revealed today. The complex will house the company’s performance venue, rehearsal space, administrative offices and shop. It will modify the current home of Presidio Tile into a 140-seat auditorium — the largest theater space in the company’s history. The renovation comes at a price tag of nearly $1 million, making it a major development in the Dallas arts scene (especially on the heals of controversies about the funding of the AT&T Performing Arts Center.) KDT will own the space outright.

The move-in target in 2018, meaning the TRAC will probably continue to be KDT’s home through next season,


WATCH: Tyler Glenn’s ‘Shameless’ video

Posted on 12 Oct 2016 at 11:22am

shamelessEarlier this week, I interviewed Tyler Glenn, the out frontman of pop quartet Neon Trees, about his new solo album, Excommunication, which drops on Oct. 21. It was an amazing conversation — look for the interview in next week’s Dallas Voice — and we talked about his dance-y first single from the disc, “Shameless,” which has this electric, Frankie Goes to Hollywood vibe. You can see the video here. And check out the album (and my interview) next Friday.


‘Coming Out’ for National Coming Out Day

Posted on 11 Oct 2016 at 8:50am

rick-peters-left-and-alden-peters-right-in-coming-out-courtesy-of-wolfe-videoAlden Peters is a typical young closeted gay man. He’s been coping with his sexuality — or more directly, hiding it — his entire life. Then, when Princeton student Tyler Clementi commits suicide after being outed, Peters realizes that could have easily been him. So he decides it’s time to tell the people in his life. And being a millennial with a camera, he decides to do it on film.

The 2015 documentary Coming Out, now available from Wolfe Video, tracks Peters’ process — first telling his older brother, then his friends, his mom and stepdad, and finally his dad and younger siblings … all with the camera rolling.

What’s distinctive about Coming Out is how ordinary and undistinctive it is. Peters hand-wrings about what kind of reaction he’ll get, especially from his parents. Will they be shocked? Hate him? Reject him? But first and foremost, they love him. And seeing that love manifest itself in the most prosaic of ways — “That’s cool, son,” a hug, even an awkward conversation with a younger brother who thinks doesn’t “act gay” — have played out for most of us in nearly identical ways across the years.

dvd-cover-coming-out-courtesy-of-wolfe-videoOf course, there are much worse stories of rejection, even violence. Not all coming out processes are as smooth and supportive. But the message is, and should be, that even the “bad” coming outs are ultimately positive experiences for the one coming out. Admitting who you are — not just to others, but to one’s self — is an important, even necessary step toward long-term happiness and acceptance. It’s one reason why gay people refer to each other as “family” — because even when our blood relatives aren’t there for us, there’s an entire chosen family anxious to step in. Even today, coming out can be difficult. But it’s also amazingly important — psychologically, emotionally, politically, socially.

Think about all that when you watch Coming Out, and remember that today, Oct. 11, is National Coming Out Day, a date once each year that says, “Why not come out now? You’ll feel better about yourself.” But that’s not an excuse to wait until next year if you don’t today. There’s no wrong time to come out … whether one-on-one to your mom or on film for the whole world to see.