“Top of the Lake”–A Top Notch Thriller

While some cable and television distributors fund their own productions (note the excellence of  “House of Cards”, the final season of “Damages”, and the forthcoming “Arrested Development”), Sundance is in the enviable position of previewing thousands of entries for their annual Sundance Festival. “Top of the Lake“is an exciting option from the Sundance Channel, created by Gerard Lee and Jane Campion (who produced and directed the Academy Award winner “The Piano”).

The first episode opens with the disappearance of a 12-year old pregnant girl, Tui, in a remote backwater town in southern New Zealand named Laketop.  The hamlet of Laketop is as much a character in the series as are the main actors.  Laketop seethes with brutal violence, fear and bigoted townspeople, with a history of brutal rapes and missing young girls.  And the plot takes the viewer down slowly as it sinks into this corner of the world which has no place for outsiders, even residents who have moved away and returned.

Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss of  Peggy Olsen fame in “Mad Men”) is  one such former resident.  A furloughed investigator, home to visit her dying mother, Robin  does not want to be in Laketop.   No one else, including her mother, wants her there either.

The incestuous pathology of the townspeople and their dangerous secrets are slowly revealed through seven episodes. Magnificent scenery obscures a cesspool of corruption and brutality. Tui is always the undercurrent that keeps you on the edge of your seat, shocked by her heartbreaking situation.  Brilliant acting with raw emotional nakedness at every turn results in some explosive surprises throughout.

“Top of the Lake” is a remarkable thriller, in some ways similar to the excellent “The Killing”, set in the northwest.  While there is an original storyline in the pre-teen who is at the center of the investigation, “Top of the Lake” has two stories which do not always integrate as well as they could have.  The Paradise commune–a recovery group of middle-aged women with their hippie guru GJ (Holly Hunter)–offers comic relief and some insightful observations that could not have been presented easily in another way.  However, GJ seems wasted in the last episodes and could have been a catalyst for the solving of the crime.  Consequently, there isn’t the dramatic liftoff the narrative should give us.

Nonetheless, I really recommend this as a binge-viewing weekend excursion (available through Netflix).  Enter a dark, sinister world full of menace and deception. The bravery of the women is inspirational and the dramatic energy of a Campion production is a wonder to behold.

“Central Park Five”–Today’s Scottsboro Boys?

In 1989 the “Central Park Jogger” trial had the country’s attention and a media frenzy fed the heightened fear of New Yorkers who saw their beloved Central Park and the city as a whole becoming a dangerous environment simmering with crime and mayhem. The Central Park Five”, a new documentary from award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns, retells the story of the five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem who were wrongly convicted of brutally raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park on April 22, 1989. The film chronicles The Central Park Jogger case from the perspective of the five teenagers whose youth was not only stolen from them as a result of a heinous miscarriage of justice but were also subjected to the brutality of adult prison.

Running through Central Park, harassing, assaulting, and robbing people was not uncommon in the 80’s and some of the five teenagers who were brought into the police station that night for questioning had, in fact, been bullying passersby or standing by and watching. The Central Park Five were said to be “wilding” that night, a term that newspapers coined for the savagery of the brutal attack.

Then the narrative becomes more and more heartbreaking at the same time it becomes more familiar with every turn. This is our generation’s Scottsboro Boys. These were 14-to-16 year old boys who had never been indicted for any crime. The police department filmed their confessions,  allowing the viewer to experience how each suspect incriminated himself.  Each teenager was interrogated individually for 14-30 hours, mostly without their parents and with no legal counsel present.  “Central Park Five” leaves the viewer wondering how these five young people had no legal counsel when they were questioned.  Told by law enforcement that, if they signed confessions, they would be able to go home afterwards–even then, they were reluctant until worn down by lack of food, sleep, or adult supporters. Police are not encumbered by the truth in order to get a confession.  Could anyone, let alone a frightened 14-year-old, stand up to that sort of  psychological manipulation? I don’t think so. These boys were not going home.

In 1990 there was a trial. Any open-minded detective or journalist could see that none of their stories matched up, even when fed the facts by aggressive interrogators but it was easier not to ask questions in order to get a story out to the public quickly.  One juror noted how the videotaped confessions were inconsistent in reporting details, that none of the accused had the victim’s blood on his clothing, and there was no DNA evidence linking any of them to the crime scene. But the lone juror was pressured by other jury members to find the Central Park Five guilty so everyone could go home. So he did. (Think “12 Angry Men”.) The partially recovered victim of the rape appeared in court, although she had no memory of the attack or events leading up to the attack, to ensure that public attention would not wane. The coerced confessions were the only “evidence” used, as well as  being the powerfully persuasive–seemingly irrefutable– tools crucial to obtaining long sentences  and mandatory registration as sex offenders. The boys were sentenced to between six and thirteen years imprisonment for attempted murder, rape, and sexual assault.

In a dramatic upheaval of the case, the New York Supreme Court finally vacated all five convictions in 2002 when Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer, accidentally met one of the youths serving his sentence for the crime Reyes had committed.  Reyes confessed to committing the crime alone and DNA evidence confirmed he was the rapist.  In 2002 the Central Park Five filed a civil lawsuit for reparations for wrongful conviction.   The city of New York, however, has been stonewalling the case in order to protect the prosecutors and police,  prompting Ken Burns to make this documentary.

“The Central Park Five”, a societal and cultural flashpoint for the times we live in, reminds us that we all must question our certitude when the media gives “facts” about crimes and their perpetrators, and we must entertain at least the possibility that the suspects were set up due to their race, class, lack of knowledge about their legal rights, and public outrage.  What if the rape victim had been black and attacked in Harlem, one minister asks in the film.  Like “Scottsboro Boys”, this documentary is a sober testament to the damage inflicted by a corrupt legal system, sloppy media coverage, and a court of public opinion. (Netflix plans to release the film on April 22 to commemorate the 24th anniversary of this horrendous miscarriage of justice.)  There is no doubt that this could and will happen again.


“Leonie”–The Lioness and the Sculptor

“Don’t bore me by being ordinary” –These are words Leonie Gilmour (exquisitely acted by Emily Mortimer) admonishes her college friend, Catherine (Christina Hendricks) at Bryn Mawr. After graduation, she departs on an astonishingly unconventional life at the turn of the 20th century.

Based on the true story of an American intellectual, “Leonie” introduces the story of Leonie Gilmour, mother of the renowned American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.  Filmed in lush period detail in the US and Japan, “Leonie” is a biopic of a woman who straddles two morally rigid cultures with no room for an independent woman.  She defies convention and law:  interracial marriage, premarital sex, and unwed mother. As the lover of the Japanese poet Yone Noguchi (Shido Nakamura, one of the stars of  “Letters from Iwo Jima”), Leonie is employed as Noguchi’s editor for a novel for the American market.  With implied racism on the part of the US editor, Gilmour cleverly pitches the novel for the editor’s acceptance.  Noguchi responds to her pregnancy by abandoning her to marry according to Japanese customs, but Leonie defiantly moves to Japan to raise their son without the father’s support.

She is a pioneer, a  feminist who loves whom she chooses and lives as she wants. Her best friend, Catherine (Hendricks) illustrates the conventional role forced upon an upper class college woman: a conventional marriage of boredom in a gilded cage.  The film narrative hints at the source for Leonie’s heroic defiance of her generation’s moral code: her single mother (Mary Kay Place), a hippie before the 60’s,  homesteads a dusty patch of Pasadena ranchland.

Understanding nothing of the language or culture, Leonie tenaciously supports her young child by teaching English to young soldiers. The stoicism in her own daily routine, however,  never overcomes her joy in her son’s awakening to the art and culture of life in Japan.

With no formal schooling, her son Isamu designs and builds their first home at the age of 10, learning on the job from skilled artisans and craftsmen.  After the birth of his baby sister (father unknown), Isamu discovers his passion for art.  Encouraged by his mother, Isamu moves to New York  to eventually become one of the world’s most famous sculptors and architects.

The reedited version opened its American theatrical run in New York on March 22 this year after having been first released for the Japanese market in 2011.  Under very limited distribution, it is a shame that more potential viewers will not know of this extraordinary movie about a remarkable and eccentric woman.  Make sure you watch the credits to understand the range of sculpture and architecture Isamu Noguchi created!



Bottega Louie–A Mega Bottega

Bottega Louie opened in 2009 in downtown Los Angeles and is in good company with some of the finest restaurants in the area.   The 10,000-square-foot paean to the good life is more than a marble and brass palatial restaurant/gourmet market/patisserie with 20-foot ceilings.

No detail has been overlooked. More than three years under construction, Bottega Louie also has a European style bakery and about 200 employees. The bakery creates 800 pastries a day and is a destination throughout the city for its pastel-colored macaroons.  In addition there is a counter devoted to 20 kinds of breads and  a brick oven churning out pizzas for takeout. It is a crazy place–exuberant and boisterous–and all the time we had to turn our backs to the sumptuous patisserie for fear of ruining our appetites.

After a ten minute wait to get a table (not bad!),  we selected from the Sunday brunch menu, starting off with two appetizers:  prosciutto and burrata (since we are burrata bingers),  a delicate dish with basil and olive oil drizzled on top, nested on a crispy potato pancake.

Portobello Fries and Sliders

And then their famous portobello fries. Forget the mantra about no fried foods.  These were absolutely (and mysteriously) greaseless, in a light flaky batter subtly spiced with rosemary and served with a very small cup of aioli so we couldn’t overdo the fat content. We cannot figure out how to duplicate this dish–mushrooms absorb everything so they should have been limp and soggy with oil, instead of erect and crispy.

For our main dishes we had a salmon millefeuille, delectable smoked salmon with crème fraîche, layered on thin sheets of puff pastry, similar to spanokopita.  A wonderful dance of flavors and colors.

One of my favorite sandwiches is meatball parmesan and the restaurant’s interpretation is a plate of three sliders, each with fresh gooey mozzarella and a light tomato sauce on each giant meatball.


We like to finish with a light veggie or salad dish and chose the Mache,  a green salad of frisée, bay leaf-brined roasted chicken, avocado, celery, scallions, julienned snap peas, Meyer lemon & extra virgin olive oil.  A delicious, super fresh collage of greens with wonderful textures and crunch.

The next day we ordered out a burrata pizza– thin wood-oven baked crust with creamy burrata cheese, prosciutto, and kale,   Bottega Louie has been ranked the #1 pizza place by many food websites, often neck-and-neck with Osteria Mozza (see my last post).  I don’t think you can go wrong with this restaurant! So, for all those of you in the downtown area or just wishing to explore, this is a great find!

A word of warning:  Reservations are not taken, but people-watching is entertainment in itself and makes the time pass quickly ogling fashionistas and more unusually-dressed attention-seekers.  Now next time I simply must taste the macaroons!

Osteria Mozza–A Tongue Thriller

Burrata de Puglia

Last week we had a wonderful gastronomic adventure at Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles on Melrose Avenue (West Hollywood).   We selected this restaurant on a friend’s recommendation (see Mia’s food blog, “Dubu Diaries”) and we definitely were not disappointed.  We would place this restaurant in the top 20 we have been to around the world!

We started with three antipasti, after receiving a complementary amuse bouche (what is the equivalent in Italian?):  delicious little spirals of mozzarella packed with basil leaves, sundried tomato and olives drizzled with sharp, green virgin olive oil.  What’s not to like about beginning a meal like that?!

Then we moved on to a grilled baby octopus salad on a bed of greens with potatoes, celery & lemon.  I must confess that I am an octopus obsessive and order it whenever it is on the menu.


Our other two appetizers were Ribollita Delfina, a hearty Tuscan soup made with beef, bread and assorted vegetables.  Our young friend who had been to Italy explained what the dish was–we were all ribollita virgins eager to try.  Literally meaning “reboiled”, the ribollita arrived in a soup bowl, looking more like a juicy frittata than a soup, with a clear broth surrounding it. Absolutely wonderful!  Apparently, ribollita dates back to the Middle Ages when servants would gather leftovers from the aristocrats and make soup for their own dinners.

What Osteria Mozza is renowned for, however, is their burrata bar, a wide selection of  burratas and mozzarellas, served with or without vegetables.  We had the special fresh burrata flown in from its place of origin –Puglia, Italy (only on Fridays and Saturdays).  A memorable palate pleaser of soft, fluffy clouds of cheese perfection.

Squid Pasta

Our entrees included a flat fettucini-like pasta–Maltagliati  served with a succulent  wild boar ragú; exceptional grilled quail (two of them!) swaddled in pancetta  and braised, honeyed radicchio; braised beef short ribs in a  porcini reduction on a bed of delectable creamy  polenta.  But  the most adventurous and surprising combination:  a squid ink pasta (chitarra freddi) tossed with dungeness crab, spiced with jalapeno and topped with a delicate sea urchin.  What a tongue thriller!  To accompany this food coma we toasted with two bottles of  Ferrari,  Trento Brut Rosé –a fine dry wine similar to a Spanish rosé cava or a pink prosecco.

If someone had told us that this restaurant was owned by partners Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, restaurateurs with far-reaching empires including wineries, we probably would have passed, discounting the hype these two always receive with rave reviews that only served to disappoint at two previous encounters at restaurants they own in New York City and Kansas City.  However,  Osteria Mozza, which opened in July 2007, and was nominated as Best New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation  that year and recipient of one Michelin star, does not disappoint!
  You probably will not find an osteria this side of  Italy that is more fun, high-spirited, and serious about serving only the very best gourmet creations.  Next door is the smaller, more casual Pizzeria Mozza, which we hope to try the next time we are in town.  Perhaps it is because Nancy Silverton has entered into a partnership with the more famous Batali and Bastianich that this is the best riff on Italian cuisine we have enjoyed in a very long time.