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Fake Plants, Real Phở

November 24, 2007

Phở Hung
3120 SE 82nd Ave.
Portland, OR 97266

We say: 

Mmm, phở. That broth, so distinctive and delicious, the soft starchy rice noodles, our personalized amounts of bean sprouts, basil, lime and peppers mixed in: a perfect dinner almost any night of the year, but especially now, as the weather makes the outdoors an enemy and, if you take a drink of hot tea, you can see your breath inside your own house.

As far as we can tell, Phở Hung’s offerings seem pretty authentic, which means there’s no vegetarian option; it’s made of beef broth, period. There is a chicken choice (phở gà), though, and one can get the broth with just noodles and no meat. We like how they set it up on their menu, ranging from “For Beginners” to “The Adventurer’s Choice.” We ordered from “For Beginners,” meat-free for lakelia and phở gà for bakinakwa. This wasn’t the best phở we’ve ever had, but it was damn good. The main things holding it back were the broth being slightly too salty and the rice noodles a little chewy. lakelia also prefers the style, a regional variation, where more vegetables are added to the soup.  As for the phở gà, some undesirable pieces of chicken found their way in, but not enough to spoil anything. bakinakwa also had the egg rolls which come a little too crammed with chicken and shrimp, making for a somewhat strange combination of tastes.  They’re accompanied by an unusual sour dip which packs a strong burst of flavor that subsides quickly.

The highlight of Phở Hung on 82nd is its beautiful decor. It’s not overly fancy or expensive (the plants, for instance, are mostly fake), but it’s lovely and inviting and calm and comfortable. We love the walls, the pale wooden paneling on the lower parts and the woven pattern that covers the tops, the bamboo lattice overhangs, the white paper lanterns gathered in the center of the room. The whole place is filled with warm, golden colors, including the chairs and the marble-topped tables, accented by some small potted palm trees and hanging plants with white flowers. They also play soothing instrumental music at a volume that still allows for conversation. There’s something about the way the space is set up that makes it seem welcoming and pleasantly relaxed even when it’s full of people, conversations all around and the phone behind the counter ringing regularly.

The waiters and waitresses are generally friendly, if a little hurried.  The crowd seems to be a blend of hip, young Vietnamese, some families, a few college students and other phở converts.  Its surroundings on 82nd, one of Portland’s uglier drags, is less than stellar, but we promise you won’t notice from within. As we ourselves are phởnatics, you can bet we’ll get around to all of Portland’s phở spots eventually, but for now we’re content to keep returning to Phở Hung whenever we need a dose of that cheap, warming wonder.

Our rating: 3.5 Stars

What’s Next?

November 24, 2007

West Wing Season One

The West Wing: Season One
Created by Aaron Sorkin
1999

lakelia says:

The West Wingmakes great television, and it makes even better six-episodes-a-night, four-nights-in-a-row DVD viewing. This show is set far apart from the majority of television, and even from many feature films, for the quality of its scriptwriting (both storylines and dialogue), by its acting and direction, by its characters, by its production (even the lighting is compelling and meaningful), and of course by how much I absolutely love it.

I love how fascinating it can be politically, philosophically, and personally all at once, and at the same time be funny and endearing. I love watching the relationships of the characters. All of the actors embody their characters brilliantly, and John Spencer stands out even among this group. He isLeo to me. I love when C.J. finds out her Secret Service code name is Flamingo; when they decide to nominate Roberto Mendoza to the Supreme Court; when Toby and Sam get so intent on producing a phenomenally worded “birthday message” to some assistant secretary. I love learning about the census, guns and drug policy, international issues, political maneuvering and image and retribution and the constant damage-control going on. I love when Bartlet paints a verbal picture of the worst-case scenario to impress upon Zoey how important her Secret Service protection is; when Donna tells Josh she was just looking at him with her regular face; when Leo tells Bartlet about the people so patriotic that they’d kill the President. That moment reveals the depth of their friendship as much as any of the other more emotional ones. After everyone wanting to make sure Bartlet didn’t hear about that comment, Leo brings it to the President as a friend, and makes him laugh. Their other shining, even electrifying, moment, is when the two of them make that decision: Let Bartlet Be Bartlet.

One more thing I love: being provoked to think about how and why policy decisions are made. It’s easy, very easy, to criticize United States policies and paradigms in domestic and international matters, and I do. And it’s very important to think about them from different angles and to develop a better understanding of the interplay of influences, inspirations, and constraints that shape these paradigms and policy decisions – which I don’t always do. I realize The West Wing is not necessarily the best place to learn about these things, but it’s certainly a valid source to include, if for no other reason than that I find it tremendously thought-provoking.

I admit though that I don’t really have any idea how realistic it is. It seems plausible, the show has political consultants, some people on the DVD special features said it was realistic… But still, how can you really say? I do know that it has romanticized American politics for me in an unrealistic way, like any compelling story of beloved characters can do for any way of life. And I do know that it’s something of a fantasy. It’s a fantasy about a White House full of people who, even if they are guided by their egos a fair amount of the time, truly care about public service, public debate, leadership, loyalty, right and wrong, and the continual development of a better and better country, for its citizens and for the world. It’s a fantasy that gives hope, even inspiration and a stronger fighting spirit.

At this point I suppose I can bring up the only two things that ever bother me about The West Wing. One is the music. The compositions themselves are fine, but I don’t like how they’re used. Thankfully we’re not in laugh track territory, but the music is sometimes almost that bad. Strings come in soft and swell just as something profound is about to be said, like a sign held up to a studio audience reading Be Moved. But, usually I am moved, so it’s not too terribly annoying. My other criticism is that sometimes, with “enemies,” I feel that the scriptwriters take the easy route to making them offensive. In the first episode a leader of the Christian right misstates the First Commandment and then heatedly demands to know what the commandment actually is. (This sets Martin Sheen up to make his first entrance, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt into a room full of suits, uttering the words, “I am the Lord your God.”) How likely is it really that a man in that position would mis-cite something that well known with such confidence? And even if it’s likely, doesn’t it seem a bit too convenient, having these people not know what they’re talking about just before we tell them off? The other example is when Charlie confronts the guys in the Georgetown bar who are harassing Zoey, and they start making inanely racist references to various hip hop artists, telling him to rap and such. It’s not totally implausible, but it does seem pretty unrealistic, and it’s an easy way to make sure we know these guys are jerks who deserve what they get. Of course, both of these scenes could happen, and they’re balanced out by plenty of occasions when the Bartlet crew make asses out of themselves or when political opponents are interesting and sympathetic characters with understandable arguments – so these few eye-rollers are not that big of a deal to me.

After every single episode, and especially after the cliffhanger at the end of #22, my sentiments could best be expressed in Bartlet’s own words: What’s next?

lakelia’s rating: 4.5 Stars

bakinakwa says: 

Watching The West Wing‘s first season, it’s hard to believe that this is television, let alone network television.  The quality of this show is easily on the level of most major motion pictures, and many it surpasses altogether.  For starters, there’s the set, which is monstrous.  I’ve never been to the White House, but this set certainly looks the part.  The music and lighting too represent a high-mark for television; these two elements, to paraphrase Martin Sheen, are like secondary characters.  The score, while at times manipulative, does an excellent job of translating what’s really going on inside a character into genuinely emotive music.  The lighting too provides a kind of psychological insight into the heart of a particular scene.  These three things make their presence felt peripherally: you don’t have to pay attention to them directly, but they work their magic on you all the same.

The fourth ingredient that makes The West Wingremarkable is Aaron Sorkin’s writing.  Sorkin has managed to create the most dynamic, compelling and flat-out watchable show on television.  This first season alone makes me incredibly eager to go back and discover Sorkin’s previous writing projects, like The American President and Sports Night.  One of the DVD extras makes a convincing argument for the symphonic nature of Sorkin’s writing, and while that may sound ridiculous it is definitely felt in the fast-paced, layered dialogue he supplies nearly every character with.  It’s almost surprising that the show was allowed to be made, such is the intelligence and depth of the writing.  The West Wing does not pander, does not assume the audience won’t be able to keep up, and those are two major differences to its credit.

The final ingredient, or at least the last one I’m writing about, is the quality of the acting.  I have never seen this level of acting on television, not from The Sopranos, not at all.  The fact that Sorkin and his casting department were able to rope in such quality actors across six co-leads is a miracle.  Much of the attention has focused on Martin Sheen, as well it should: watching him as President Bartlet feels like redemption for anyone who’s ever seen Badlands.  You might not know it from the numerous shitty roles he’s endured through the years, but Sheen is one of his generation’s truly monumental acting talents, and The West Wing finally gives Sheen a worthy outlet for that talent.  Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford and Allison Janney are all stunning as well, so stunning that it’s really hard to believe actors like this are out there, just lying around underused.  I say underused because most television, most films for that matter, are sadly not employing this caliber of actor, and no one stands in contrast to that fact more than John Spencer.  Spencer as Chief of Staff Leo McGarry is the definition of brilliance.  In nearly every episode he manages moments of indescribable emotion with the most economical of means, simple movements and unique phrasing.  A glance sideways here, a dropped syllable there, a pause, a voice barely raised and Spencer has created one of the richest characters I personally have ever been introduced to.  lakelia and I are going to have a John Spencer marathon down the road, such is the excitement with which his performance on The West Wing inspires one to discover his body of work.  Rob Lowe is the weak link among the major characters: a testament to how great his colleagues are more than a criticism of his own ability, which is to say he holds his own.  The reality is this The West Wing is an ensemble piece to end all ensemble pieces, and I’m not just saying that because I’ve already grown extraordinarily attached to each character.

Ultimately, however, The West Wing still somehow manages to be more than sum of its parts.  Its consistency is mind-blowing: episodes like “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” and the season finale “What Kind Of Day Has It Been?” take the cake, but there’s nary a dip in quality throughout the whole first season.  If for no other reason, I know that The West Wing is unique “entertainment” simply for how provocative it is.  Provocative, in fact, is the number one word I would choose to describe it.  Never have I felt more challenged, moved or inspired to really think and feel than I am regularly by this show.  The issues raised through the first season are meaningful enough to warrant deep consideration and thought, but it’s the degree to which I feel inspired beyond watching to go out and get involved in this great experiment known as democracy that says the most about the quality of The West Wing.  Granted, I can see how the show might come across to some as escapism; it is fantasy, the fantasy of hope, the fantasy of wanting and demanding more from government so badly that one is willing to take matters into their own hands.  At the end of the day, it’s less about politics than it is about the fundamental needs and desires that lead one to get involved in the first place and that not only cuts across party lines, it cuts across all lines.  I dare say, it’s universal.

bakinakwa’s rating: 4 Stars

Ha Ha, The Poisoned Bait

November 9, 2007

Brigitta
Directed by Nick Millard (as Nick Phillips)
1967

lakelia says:

This was an odd one. I could call it “bizarre,” but I’m not sure it was enough… enough whatever it was to merit that meaningful a word. At first it seemed to be just a mediocre older movie about a young woman whose boredom and unhappiness might be tiresome to watch (I thought of The Forest for the Trees), but not too far in it turned into a soft-core porn, and then belatedly became, of all things, a morality play. It told the mildly interesting story of a young woman in Munich who is swept off her feet (and enjoyably drugged) by a handsome stranger. After he convinces her to sacrifice her own morals and self-respect to help him pay off a debt, he proceeds to betray her with another woman. She takes this as a good reason to become what men want and expect anyway: a whore. (As in Malèna and Millie, the title character seems to think, “If being good gets you treated badly anyway, why not have the benefits of being bad?” Or maybe the motivation is more, “If I can’t make this injustice stop, at least I can deserve it.” That would be one way to escape the pain of knowing something isn’t fair.) Eventually, the friend Brigitta talks into joining her in her new profession contracts an STD and passes it on to Brigitta’s former boyfriend for revenge. And then Brigitta gets hit by a car.

Okay…

I actually enjoyed the way this story was told: completely through voice-over narration, accompanied by continuous jazz music, while all the “dialogue” between characters passed underneath it like a silent movie. Eventually I got so used to this first-person storytelling – like reading subtitles – that I forgot it was anything unusual not to be able to hear what was coming out of the moving mouths. The story started to plod, though, in the unreasonably extended scenes of watching the stripper from Strasbourg, and of the porn-within-a-porn that Brigitta and her friend watch together. I thought I had the measure of the movie when I saw how much attention these scenes got, but then the last twenty-five seconds made an abrupt (and very weak) attempt to send a message. Maybe the idea was to rope in anyone who likes such sinfulness as prostitution and pornography and then – bam! – let them know the price they too will pay. Or maybe the idea was to have the fun of prostitution and pornography and then do a little rationalizing for anyone who’s offended. Or maybe, I suppose, it wasn’t a message at all but just a tragic ending for a tragic figure.

Who knows.

 

I can say this for Brigitta: it’s nice once in a while to have something to compare the good stuff to.

lakelia’s rating: 1.5 Stars

bakinakwa says:

Brigitta is a film that I was initially attracted to purely for its cover, which, to paraphrase that old saying, is no way to pick a film.  I prefer to go into films knowing as little as possible – plot, personnel or otherwise – so as not to spoil anything.  In this instance, however, wow was that dumb.  This film is absolutely dreadful.  With the possible exception of a few shots of Munich citylife in the 60s, there is nothing to recommend this film.  For starters, there’s no dialogue.  The entire film is narrated by Elke Cole in voiceover against a backdrop of mildly pleasing lite-jazz.  The decision to forgo dialogue is especially bizarre considering that all of the actors appear to be doing quite a bit of talking during several scenes.  Perhaps all of the actors were chosen for their looks and had such horrible speaking voices that the director decided their dialogue was unusable.  I doubt it, but how else does one explain such a stupid choice?

Ms. Cole also acts in the film as the titular character, though I use the word act incredibly loosely here.  Mostly she behaves like someone unaware that she’s being filmed.  Her sex scene with Bize, for instance, amounts to little more than flopping around on the sofa like a dog when its human isn’t home.  For a film that puts gratuitous sex out there as a substitute for anything resembling a plot or characters, absolutely none of the sex scenes are even remotely sexy.  They’re not even titillating, they’re just boring.  I found myself waiting for the film to end halfway through, and that’s with a mere hour and one minute runtime.

To top it off, the ending is a completely bizarre and unexpected attempt at turning the film into a morality play of sorts.  Apparently, getting hit by a car is a perfectly normal comeuppance for turning to a life of prostitution, lesbianism, and drunkenness.  Or maybe it’s payback for having spread a “social disease” for revenge.  Whatever.

bakinakwa’s rating: 1 Star

Maybe We Belong Together

November 3, 2007

Love Is Colder Than Death

Love Is Colder Than Death
Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
1969

lakelia says:

I really have no idea why this film bears its title. There was love, in one or two of the many senses that people use that word, and there was death, more than once, and throughout the story there was definitely coldness. But I couldn’t say why these ideas are strung together this way in the title.

This film, the first one I’ve seen of Fassbinder’s, didn’t offer me much in the way of plot, or dialogue, or ideas. I found the story to be rather boring. Maybe the handful of examples (or has it just been one or two?) I’ve already seen of the they-dabble-in-crime-and-then-go-overboard-and-then-they-pay story have pretty much sated my appetite for the genre.

I did find Fassbinder’s stylistic touches to be interesting, though. From the first scene on, I was struck by the way that the film seemed like a play. There was a series of simple sets, each scene staying put on its own, without much change in camera angle. There was absolutely no blood, despite the numerous gunshot wounds. There were many long holds of close-ups on faces, before or after the character spoke. That touch of directing was probably the one thing I found most unique and interesting about the film – although I can’t say it held my interest very long. Of course, I can get caught up in just about any story while I’m reading or watching it, I am still very much enjoying listening to German and picking up a familiar word or phrase here and there, and it will be interesting to have seen this early film when we see more of Fassbinder, so it wasn’t all for naught.

lakelia’s rating: 3 Stars

bakinakwa says:

Another leftover from German Film Month, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s debut full-length feature also happens to be my first taste of the work of the famed director.  In all honesty, beyond name recognition and the fact that he is considered by many to be one of the greatest German directors, I didn’t know much about him going in.  After seeing Love Is Colder Than Death, I still don’t, but now I do know I’m interested to find out.

Despite the fact that Love Is Colder Than Death is a thoroughly unexceptional film, it at least introduces the elements of his œuvre.  Or, more accurately, what I suppose will be the elements of his œuvre: alienation, oppression, yearning and violence.  In short, everything that makes life great.  Right?  Throw in some sexual tension, some homoerotic undertones, a few unintentionally comic action sequences and a strong attempt at social criticism and we’ve got an ambitious picture on our hands.  I do like it, but Fassbinder’s first attempt comes across primarily as undeveloped.  Love Is Colder Than Death works best when taken more as a collection of unrelated vignettes: Bruno and the woman on the train, Bruno and Franz cruising the streets of Munich and, the crown jewel, Johanna and Bruno shopping (and shoplifting) at the supermarkt.  When the film chases the plot, it’s just another story about three misfits rebelling without a snowball’s chance in hell of getting out alive.

On the plus side, Hanna Schygulla is a pleasure to watch throughout, with or without her blouse.  Humor seeps in through surprising ways: the thrice-fooled attendant at the glasses counter and the secret deal made over pinball, to name two examples.  Also, several of the longer shots, such as the one of the three protagonists ambling down a deserted road, cast visual spells and strike emotional chords at the same time.  In the scene I mentioned in the supermarkt, the camera’s eye follows Johanna and Bruno around the store in one long shot that rises above the plateau the rest of the film exists on.  To me it symbolizes both the sterile infrastructure the three main characters are unwittingly lashing out against as well as the tremendous potential for alienation in the modern world, eloquently conjured by the untold distance between Johanna and Bruno even as they stroll the aisles side by side.  For my money, it’s the highlight of the film.

Other than that, I would consider myself more intrigued than impressed.  It’s easy to see without looking too hard that Fassbinder had the potential for greatness from the beginning.  Word of mouth says he subsequently lived up to it, so I guess that leaves me looking forward to discovering what the world already knows.  If this is what Fassbinder is all about I can see myself getting into it.  I’m alone too.  Maybe we belong together?

bakinakwa’s rating: 3.5 Stars