The20: ‘La La Land’ is a nice place to visit…

The Los Angeles skyline as seen from the Getty Center in December 2014.

The Los Angeles skyline as seen from the Getty Center in December 2014.

I’ve seen “La La Land” twice, so I think it’s safe for me to venture an opinion. It’s interesting that jazz plays such a interesting role in the film as one of the life passions that one of the lead characters pursues. If I were to compare “La La Land” to a jazz piece, I would say that there are some interesting themes, but the ensemble relies on the same beat too often. 

The film contains a lot of enjoyable elements, but it doesn’t necessarily gel — especially at the end, when such cohesion is needed.

The film, being set in Los Angeles and providing several fun, brightly colored musical numbers, inevitably draws on artificial constructs of filmmaking. Unfortunately, writer and director Damien Chazelle seemed to lean on these constructs too often and it became distracting.

For example, it’s not an uncommon staging technique (especially in theater) to isloate people by placing them in a spotlight and fading the lights around them. Although there are other ways to reproduce the same effect more naturally in cinema, it’s not a bad way help heighten an emotional moment.

Unfortunately, repeating the technique about 10 times in a two-hour film greatly diminishes its impact and ultimately takes the viewer out of the story.

It may be that Hollywood-centric stories generally draw from a general pool of cliches and expectations that other L.A. films have established, built upon and distorted over the decades. “La La Land” draws on these expectations, but doesn’t seem to exceed them. 

This was especially clear when Stone’s actress character is called into an audition reminded me of the end of “The Muppet Movie” where Kermit and the gang finally gain audience with a studio exec and sign “The standard rich and famous contract.” While Stone is winning in that scene, it doesn’t really go beyond ground tread by frogs and pigs about 40 years ago.

Chazelle can have a deft hand behind the camera. That’s readily apparent in the showstopping opener, “Another Day of Sun,” which was shot in a single, flowing take over two rows of stopped cars on a Southern California highway interchange. The selection of shooting locations is also a fun trip around an idealized Los Angeles, including the Griffith Observatory and the currently closed, but fondly remembered Angels Flight funicular railroad. 

The energy of the opener and the subsequent song helping to establish the female lead lend the film a tremendous amount of energy. This energy seems to fade gradually as the film progresses into the story between Emma Stone’s Mia and Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian.

Although music remains a present campanion through the film, if often takes a backseat to the drama of Mia and Sebastian’s courtship and the ultimate fate of the relationship.

In the climax of the relationship storyline, music plays in the background until it suddenly stops on a critical beat of the dialogue. The song’s sudden silence adds a unique texture to the scene in a way that feels more natural than the camera blocking for the scene.

The camerawork during these scene — an argument — plays up a common filmmaking technique. The scene starts with the two characters in the frame together — even when one character is speaking and facing the camera, the other character is still in the frame.

This shifts as the argument builds tension. The couple stops sharing the frame as Chazelle isolates each character — helping to signify the growing distance in the relationship. I think it was a fascinating decision to show close-ups of Mia and Sebastian’s faces, allowing the emotions on each of the actors’ faces to unfold in grand scale.

Ultimately, I don’t know how effective the scene is because of relying on a standard technique.

I love that Chazelle deploys different camerawork depending on the scene, although I wonder if it wholly comes together. The final number, a medley sequence recounting the events of the film if they had gone differently, is exhiliarating. It makes a play for the viewer’s heart, but it didn’t quite work for me. It relies on there being a great love story at the core of the film and I don’t think that ever fully took root. 

There’s enough to “La La Land” to make me want to visit, but I’m not looking to stay.

3 stars out of four.

Written in 40 minutes.

A procrastinator’s guide to Beer Camp Across America

Beer Camp Across America included a special 12-pack of beers featuring Sierra Nevada collaborations with different breweries. These are those ales.

Beer Camp Across America included a special 12-pack of beers featuring Sierra Nevada collaborations with different breweries. These are those ales.

It’s been more than 13 months since Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. led craft beer aficionados and brewers across the country to its new facility in Mills River, North Carolina. The Chico-based brewery organized several beer festivals under the Beer Camp Across America banner and invited as many craft brewers as possible.

I wasn’t able to make it to any of the festival stops, but I was able to get the next best thing. As part of the celebration, Sierra Nevada collaborated with several breweries on unique one-of-a-kind creations. Twelve of the collaborations were released in a special 12-item case. I waited too long to buy the special case and they were pretty much sold out when I tried to purchase one. Thankfully, I had a second option.

Living about a mile away from the Chico brewery means that I have easier access to some of Sierra Nevada’s releases. The cases were gone, but they had single bottles of each beer, so I could make my own six-packs. I quickly seized the opportunity and grabbed the bottles before they flew off the shelves.

And then I waited to drink them.

I know that I shouldn’t wait too long to drink most beers because they’re not made to stay on shelves and refrigerators forever. I was reluctant to crack open these bottles. I had already tasted some of them before, at the tap room, at festivals and elsewhere, but when I finished drinking these bottles and cans, they would be gone forever.

So over the last 13 months, these beers have been in a relatively cool, relatively dark place (my bedroom). They sat by me waiting for the moment … and now it’s here.

I have just moved and I’ve figured that it’s now or never for these beverages.

After I moved, I placed the bottles in the fridge. I resolved that the next time I took one out, I would drink it.  Over the next few days, I’m going to share some brief notes about each one.

These aren’t going to be full reviews — there are certainly some beer rating sites that have tasting reviews down to a science, putting my earlier attempt to shame.

Also, neither the fridge nor my bedroom are perfect storage places and that will probably affect how each of these taste.

Some of the beers may have held up better than others based on their style and preparation. I shared my tale with a fellow traveler in the tap room. He estimated a third of the 12 beers could probably have been safely stored this long.

Without further ado, here’s the first one I tasted:

1. Yvan the Great

Yvan the Great is a collaboration between Russian River Brewing Co. and Sierra Nevada.

Yvan the Great is a collaboration between Russian River Brewing Co. and Sierra Nevada.

(50 IBU, 6.3% ABV) A year ago, I wanted to save this for last, but now I want it to be first. If I can no longer save the best for last, I may as well start with a blast.

Brewed in collaboration with Russian River Brewing Co., Yvan is a Belgian-style blonde made to honor Belgian brewer Yvan De Baets, according to the label. He was a friend of Russian River brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo and Sierra Nevada’s Brian Grossman.

On the pour, it looked like it had retained a lot of carbonation although the head quickly dissipated. I loved the light, golden hue of the cloudy liquid. I smelled a pleasant floral note.

I could also taste that note when I took a drink, although it also seemed a little pine-y. Repeated sips unveiled some citrus and It had a mildly tart finish. On appearance and taste, it seemed reminiscent of white wine.

I would totally agree with label notes that state the ale blends the yeast character of a farmhouse ale with the citrus taste of American hops. I definitely reminds me of some of Sierra Nevada’s more recent farmhouse ales, although those draw in elements from other nations.

On the bottle neck, it reads that “This hoppy Blonde Ale blends the dry, complex yeast character of Belgian farmhouse ales with the bright, citrus-like profile of American-grown hops.”

On the back, it notes “As longtime friends, Russian River brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo and our own Brian Grossman are no strangers to brewing experiments. For this collaboration, they honored their friend and renowned Belgian brewer Yvan De Baets. This Belgian-American mash-up harmoniously blends Yvan’s penchant for yeast with Vinnie and Brian’s affinity for hops.” (opened Sept. 2, 2015)

2. Torpedo Pilsner

Torpedo Pilsner is a collaboration between Firestone Walker Brewing Co. and Sierra Nevada.

Torpedo Pilsner is a collaboration between Firestone Walker Brewing Co. and Sierra Nevada.

(45 IBU, 5.2% ABV)  My second selection was the hoppy pilsner brewed in collaboration with Firestone Walker Brewing Co. This is a slightly less bitter beer with lower alcohol content, so I’m a little worried that I may not enjoy the full flavor after Yvan the Great. However, I’ve cracked open the bottle so I’m committed.

The label states “This hoppy lager features intense fruity and floral notes from fresh New Zealand hops balanced against a crisp and clean malt body.”

I guess we’ll see how fresh hops fare against Father Time.

The golden color looks similar to Yvan the Great. Still a decent amount of carbonation.

I swirl the sample glass to get a better sense of the pilsner’s smell. I’m not detecting much, maybe a faint echo of the fruity note that it’s supposed to have.

After taking a drink, it feels lighter than Yvan, but it’s still flavorful. A lot of the flavor is toward the front of my palate. It definitely seems more flowery than Yvan.

I’m not totally satisfied by the finish. Overall, it may not be as balanced as it once was. It’s fine, but I was hoping for a little more oomph.

The back of the bottle states: “Torpedo Pilsner is a hop-forward take on the crisp, classic lager. We and the folks at Firestone Walker share a passion for New Zealand hop varietals, so we loaded our legendary Hop Torpedo with the southern hemisphere’s finest hops for a fruity, floral twist on the pilsner style.” (opened Sept. 2, 2015; bottled May 29, 2014)

3. Chico King Pale Ale

Chico King Pale Ale is a collaboration between 3 Floyds Brewing Co. and Sierra Nevada.

Chico King Pale Ale is a collaboration between 3 Floyds Brewing Co. and Sierra Nevada.

(45 IBU, 6.5% ABV) Chico King is a pale ale brewed in collaboration with 3 Floyds Brewing Co. I actually had a couple tastes of this about a year ago at a brewing festival. If I recall correctly, it was good but didn’t sing to me.

The bottleneck label states “This pale ale stacks plenty of bright, fruit-forward resinous hop varietals atop a robust malt body.”

When I opened the bottle, I definitely got a strong whiff of hops with a sweet scent slowly emerging. It makes me giddy to have a sip.

Tasting it, it definitely tasted like a pale ale. It doesn’t seem to knock my socks off, but it was pleasant with most of the flavor standing out on the finish. Put another way, I seem to taste the malt first and then the hops. There also seems to be a hint of heat from the alcohol.

Overall, it seems well balanced. Nothing seems to knock my socks off, but there’s a lot of flavor there.

On the back of the bottle, the label says “3 Floyds has a reputaiton as the Midwestern kings of alpha (hops), and it seems our flagship beer helped lure them down the lupulin-paved path. Chico King is a mash-up of our mutual passion for hoppy pale ales and we suspect you’ll find it fit for royalty.”

(Tasted Sept. 7, 2015; bottled May 15, 2014)

4. Myron’s Walk
Myron's Walk is a Belgian-style pale ale brewed with coriander.

Myron’s Walk is a Belgian-style pale ale brewed with coriander.

(38 IBU, 5.3% ABV) This is a Belgian-style pale ale brewed with coriander. It was made in collaboration with Allagash Brewing Co. The bottleneck label states “This Belgian-style pale ale combines the best of our two breweries. Intense piney-citrus hop notes counterpoint the complex fruity spice of Allagash’s Belgian yeast.”

It definitely sounds intriguing. When I poured it into the glass, it had a light amber hue. The scent wasn’t fairy strong, but it smelt a little of pine with a bit of spice.

When I took a gulp, it didn’t seem to make a huge impact on my taste buds. There was carbonation, but the head dissipated quickly.

After a couple of sips, I could feel a little bit of the spice. It seemed to blend well with the hops and kind of reminded me faintly of gingerbread.

It’s pleasant enough, but I don’t know if it did enough for me to select it as a standout.

On the back label, it states “This collaboration honors Myron Avery, a founder of the Appalachian Trail which spans our North Carolina brewery and Allagash’s home in Maine. We share a great love of the outdoors, and Avery and the AT are great reminders of the wild spirit of exploration that connects us both.”

(Tasted Sept. 9, 2015; bottled June 3, 2014)

5. Electric Ray

Electric Ray is an India pale lager brewed in collaboration with Ballast Point Brewing.

Electric Ray is an India pale lager brewed in collaboration with Ballast Point Brewing.

(70 IBU, 8.5% ABV) This India pale lager was brewed in collaboration with Ballast Point Brewing. The bottleneck label states “This nautically named India Pale Lager combines intense citrusy, floral American hops with the clean, classic male body of a blonde lager.”

Right out of the gate, I was a little worried about this one — there was some cloudiness on the bottom of the bottle, plus some suspended in the liquid. It’s probably fine, but I’m definitely keeping an eye on it.

When I poured it out, whatever was creating the cloudiness appeared like the burnt orange that I saw when I held onto my Bell’s Oberon for too long. It gave the liquid a pleasant, fiery appearance that made it opaque — probably the most opaque of the ales and lagers I’ve had so far.

My first impression was an oaky scent. It had a heat from the alcohol and it felt heavier than the Myron’s Walk. It seemed like the malt and floral accents had merged together.

On the back of the bottle, it states: “As ever, San Diego’s Ballast Point looked to the sea for inspiration. A play on the fish’s scientific name—Torpedo californica—Electric Ray pays homage to our Hop Torpedo, the source of much of this beer’s big flavor. Its massive grapefruit and floral notes deliver a high-voltage hit of hop flavor.”

I’m not quite sure I detect the grapefruit, but it’s certainly robust.

(Opened Sept. 9, 2015; bottled June 3, 2014)

Review: Couldn’t fall for ‘Her’ (** of four)

For a movie about the unexpected romantic connection between a man and his computer, “Her” from writer/director Spike Jonze was oddly disengaging.

I must admit that I didn’t enter the film with a lot of energy on a lazy Saturday afternoon, but I was completely checked out and ultimately dissatisfied at the end of the film’s 2+ hours (although my two companions enjoyed it). I was so desperate for something energetic to happen that I was expecting/hoping the protagonist would jump off a building in the final scenes. Alas, no.*

Joaquin Phoenix does a decent job portraying Theodore Twombly, a relatively successful, yet schlubby, man who ironically works as an intermediary writing romantic and touching cards for others, but is unable to find romantic fulfillment for himself since before his marriage ended in divorce.

Enter Samantha, an artificial intelligence “operating system” voiced by Scarlett Johansson, whom Twombly develops a near-instant rapport with. While Twombly appears as a man who desperately needs a connection, Samantha has different motivations, but becomes as smitten as he after she absorbs the emails and other detritus of Phoenix’s life.

While the couple’s love apparently deepens as they explore the frontiers and boundaries of their nascent relationship, I continued to feel on the outside. Perhaps it may have been more engaging if the AI had a physical presence (although the film addresses that in a quirky way). I do not fault Johansson’s performance given what she had to work with.

Oftentimes, creators of TV and film are encouraged to show and not tell. Given the non-corporeal status of the titular character, Jonze has to resort to Samantha telling more often than not. Compounding that problem is that the dialog can be oddly clunky at times, such as in scenes were Samantha says she feels liberated by her lack of a body. The act of showing the development of the relationship falls on Phoenix’s shoulders, but his earnest effort failed to win me over.

The pacing of the movie is often languid, which had the unfortunate side effect of lulling me into a near stupor. Interspersed are rare frenetic and jarring moments — some of them deal with virtual sex experiences that aren’t necessarily obscene, but audibly suggestive. They are blatant enough to justify the film’s “R” rating.

On a positive note, the film is often beautiful and slyly futuristic — 3-D interactive games that work!, a Los Angeles subway that goes to the ocean!, high-speed rail in California!, etc. One of the brightest moments was a puckishly profane non-playable character in the game Phoenix plays.

The film is firmly set in Los Angeles, but occasionally includes other-worldly glimpses that likely reflect the secondary filming location in Singapore (the high-speed train and the Chinese language signs were easy tells).

Perhaps one of Jonze’s points is that people are as likely to succeed in finding unexpected ways to connect as they are to fail. One can see that theme repeated throughout the film, at Phoenix’s job, with the AI and other characters’ relationships.

Even in the end, when I wanted Phoenix’s character to jump off a building, at least he was with someone.

* – Such comments are about fictional characters. In reality, suicide is a serious matter and I wouldn’t kid about it. Know the signs. Go back to previous paragraph.

Two stars out of four.

Taco Bell’s bland Cantina Bowl a ‘wretched hive of scum and villainy’

Taco Bell sign

FILE-This Wednesday, June 6, 2012, file photo shows a Taco Bell restaurant in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

When I hear the word “Cantina,” I often think back to the Mos Eisley cantina scene in “Star Wars.” In the case of Taco Bell’s new Cantina Bell™ menu, the comparison is apt because I also think of Obi-Wan Kenobi describing the town of Mos Eisley as a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” (it’s the town’s motto!).

That’s the most positive endorsement I can give Taco Bell’s newest offering. Instead of trading on a snacky gimmick like the Doritos Locos Taco and its nacho cheese encrusted shell, Taco Bell appears to try something new … and fails miserably.

Up front, I will grant that we shouldn’t necessarily expect greatness from a fast-food menu — although the food should at least be somewhat enjoyable. And, unlike Taco Bell’s previous effort to add Fritos to burritos and Kentucky Fried Chicken’s effort to throw everything in a bowl and call it “Famous,” at least Taco Bell appears to make an effort for a more gourmet offering. Unfortunately, my expectations of the Cantina Bowl were buoyed by Taco Bell’s descriptions and they were ultimately and utterly dashed by the final, underwhelming product. The Cantina Bowl is neither enjoyable to eat nor very flavorful.

Taco Bell says the Cantina Bowl contains “citrus-herb marinated chicken [or steak or veggies], flavorful black beans, guacamole made from real Hass avocados, roasted corn and pepper salsa, a creamy cilantro dressing, and freshly prepared pico de gallo, all served on a bed of cilantro rice.” Based on the description and photos, it sounds like something you might get from Chipotle (except if you didn’t have much say on the ingredients).

It would seem like there are a lot of flavors on that list — if only calling something flavorful would make it so. Unfortunately, the flavors never blended into a delicious melange. The end result was so bland, I was rushing for the Fire Sauce to make it palatable.

If the ingredients in the dish didn’t mesh well together, one may hope for some individual elements to stand out. Unfortunately, I opted for the “steak” instead of the chicken and it seemed like the only thing to stand out (and not for the right reasons).

After a few bites, it tasted like I was digging into the meat from a frozen dinner (specifically, the Marie Callender’s Old Fashioned Beef Pot Roast). Unfortunately, the frozen meal provides a better experience at about $3 than the bowl at $7 (including drink).

The similarities were uncanny — the chunks of beef in the bowl had a similar grain and texture and the gravy/sauce was practically identical. It is similar to the steak that Taco Bell uses in its regular burritos, but its flaws stood out more here because it could be isolated from other ingredients.

The rice merely reflected what little other flavors were in the bowl while contributing nothing more than the texture of watery grains to the dish. Again, this is very similar to the rice from a frozen dinner.

As I ate through the bowl, I pondered The Onion’s joking take on the five ingredients in the Taco Bell kitchen. Basically, the joke is that Taco Bell just remixes the same five or so ingredients and calls it something new. In the case of the Cantina Bowl, I believe they added some new items (like the corn salsa), but other ingredients — like rice, lettuce, steak and tomatoes — seemed like the same ones that Taco Bell uses in its everyday tacos and burritos. That’s a problem because the taste expectations were much higher for the bowl and entire Cantina Menu than the regular menu where we know what we’re getting … for better or worse.

The apparent use of stock ingredients plays into the presentation — it looked nothing like the promo photos (but what does?). It looked hastily assembled at the eatery at the Chico Mall and the plain ol’ ingredients were easily discernable. The photos and review from Brand Eating provide some good context.

The lettuce was the same light green shred that you might see in the chain’s tacos and just as paper-y bland. Most of the sauces and salsas glooped up into the lettuce, which could have been an opportunity to get enjoy the sauces on their own merits. Unfortunately, the only sauce that stood out was the creamy cilantro dressing. It had a thin consistency, but had added a little tang of flavor.

I couldn’t really get a taste of the guacamole. The corn salsa and “flavorful” beans added little more than the texture of corn kernels and tiny, firm black beans.

I prefer Mexican food (or Taco Bell’s version of it) to have some spice, but the Cantina Bowl had no heat at all. Reviewing the list of ingredients, there are only a few items that could really contribute spice (perhaps the salsas, the cilantro dressing and the beef) and they failed to deliver.

Adding the Fire Sauce helped perk things up, but it was still a slog getting through the rest of the meal and I was happy when it was done. I probably should’ve stopped eating it, but that’s a habit I need to get back into.

I must give Taco Bell some credit for trying something new to try to compete in a space normally held by Chipotle and similar restaurants. I also liked that they touted that if you don’t like it you can return it for something else (which really should be standard customer service, but is still appreciated).

I was so disappointed by this underwhelming offering that I strongly considered taking Taco Bell up on its offer for a new dish, but I was in a hurry that night (and I wasn’t in the mood for more food).

Ultimately, like the Mos Eisley cantina, Taco Bell’s Cantina Bowl is something that people should probably avoid.

Bottom line — Stay away from this uninspiring, flavorless Cantina Menu offering from Taco Bell that just never comes together. Although it may appear to be fresher and more “gourmet” than other offerings on the restaurant’s menu, appearances may be deceiving and more costly.