Thursday, December 24, 2009

Mini reviews: one restaurant, one book, and one movie

Restaurant: Estragon is a Spanish restaurant in the South End that opened a couple of years ago, and it's become one of my favorite spots in the city. Like most Spanish restaurants, Estragon is known for its tapas and sangria, and also carries a few Spanish beers, including Estrella. But what I really love about the place is the decor- artsy with beautiful decorations but airy and comfortable at the same time. Even the soap dispensers in the bathroom are vintage cool. Like most tapas places, you can rack up a significant bill rather quickly, so I recommend going for the happy hour special- $1 tapas at the bar from Monday to Thursday 5:30- 7pm. The fried artichokes, ham on toast, and Spanish omelet were my favorites. The downside to Estragon is that it's on Harrison Ave, a couple streets off of the main drag, far enough away so there's not much foot traffic around- although it's never been empty when I've gone (probably because of those $1 tapas), it's never been full either, which doesn't bode all that well for its future.

Book: Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill. In this critically acclaimed novel, our narrator is Hans van den Broek, a Dutch financial analyst living in New York City. After 9/11, Hans and his wife and son had to vacate their loft, and Hans is eventually left alone living in a strange hotel when his wife Rachel grows tired of the uncertainty (and her marriage, apparently) and moves back to England with the boy. In an effort to combat loneliness, Hans takes up his boyhood sport, cricket. In America, however, cricket is an immigrant game, played mostly by Indians, Pakistanis, and Caribbean islanders. Hans is befriended by a charismatic cricket official form Trinidad named Chuck Ramkissoon and soon finds himself accompanying Chuck on many of his entrepreneurial adventures, not all of which are of the legal form. The writing is both succinct and descriptive, and Netherland captures the uneasy tone of life after the terrorist attacks in New York City. With a new government and new set of problems (i.e. the troubled economy), we're already living in a different age, and Netherland evokes memories of the early 2000s more than it describes our current world. The novel is at its best when it's an ode to the city itself- a fellow hotel resident dressed as an angel, taxi drivers dining at hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants, the cricketers as a prime example of a hidden but vibrant subculture. In my opinion, the novel is at its worst when it tackles Hans' personal life, and although I liked the book, this is what prevented me from loving it. I thought his wife was kind of a bitch, and their relationship struck me as completely lacking in joy- they seem to stay together because they're both resigned to being married to one another, and I just found that aspect of the book too dreary and mundane for my tastes.

Movie: Sin Nombre is a haunting and powerful film that follows the stories of two characters who meet on top of a train in Mexico. Sayra is a teenage girl from Honduras who is traveling north with her estranged father and uncle, a journey shared by thousands of illegal immigrants who face extreme danger with the hopes of starting a new life in the United States. Willy, or Casper, is a member of a vicious Mexican gang known as La Mara. At the beginning of the film, he is in the process of distancing himself from street life in favor of spending time with his girlfriend- a move that is not taken kindly by the gang's leader, the terrifying Lil' Mago. After a series of events, Willy ends up traveling north with Sayra, only now they are on the run from vengeful Mara in addition to hiding from the police. Sin Nombre does an excellent job of chronicling the journey of the Central American illegal immigrants- in this regard, it reminds me of a modern version of the high school Spanish class staple, the 1983 movie El Notre. It still seems absolutely crazy to me that people would risk their lives to end up working in shitty jobs without any legal rights- and that's the best case scenario. Before filming the movie, director Cary Joji Fukunaga spent time in Chiapas riding trains with immigrants and interviewing gang members, a trip that obviously contributed to the authenticity of the movie. One of the most mesmerizing and horrifying sequences of Sin Nombre is the story of Smiley, a 12 year old inductee into the Mara family. Despite the brutality and shocking violence (Note to self: stay far, far away from anyone with facial tattoos), the seduction of power and a sense of belonging works its magic on young Smiley. Overall, Sin Nombre is a very well-done film, with excellent acting by the relatively unknown cast (especially Paulina Gaitan as Sayra and Edgar Flores as Willy) and impressive cinematography. I'd recommend it, but it's definitely not a movie for the faint of heart (or stomach).


Suldog said...

Sin Nombre sounds like a good one. What is the film's nation of origin?

eileen said...

The writer/director of Sin Nombre is American (he lives in California) but the producers are Mexican- and since it's in Spanish with subtitles, I'd probably classify it as a Mexican film.