Meal Plans

Top Chef - Season 11, Episode 11

It's been a fairly convivial season so far! But tonight, a few claws come out, and not from the tiger that LSU inexplicably keeps on campus. Also, feeding college kids is fraught with danger. Who among us did not hit the Cap'n Crunch bin for dinner in the cafeteria, just because we could?

Roasted Pork, Parmesan Grits and Bacon Brown Sugar Gravy

Celebrate a rare gnocchi-less Episode 11 over at What'ere, Jane Eyre, and have a wonderful New Year!

Greece is the Word

Edith Hamilton's Mythology has been a cornerstone of the reference material about Greek and Roman lore since 1942, and for good reason. If there's a myth you're familiar with, she's the one who's probably responsible. Of course, with the number of antics the gods and goddesses got up to, there was only so much space she could devote to each story. When it came to Patroclus, the companion of Trojan War hero Achilles, Mythology only spares him a couple of paragraphs.

Madeline Miller gives him a whole book in 2011's The Song of Achilles, which deepens not only the myths surrounding Patroclus and Achilles' involvement in the war, but their romance. Myths are fascinating, of course, but they can seem a little detached. It's fun to read about women going around sleeping with swans or wars being started because a vain prince threw a golden apple to a vainer goddess, but it's not terribly understandable. Miller makes the smart choice to tell the story from Patroclus' point of view, and suddenly, things actually begin to make sense.

If there's any problem with the book, it's that the world-changing events taking place are sometimes given short shrift in favor of the trials and tribulations of Patroclus and Achilles' relationship. But on the flip side of the same coin, I'm usually not very invested in romance stories, but this one is still lingering in my head. Being in a gay relationship is tough enough now. Imagine it in ancient times. And by the way, your lover is the greatest military hero of his day. And his mother is a calculating goddess who hates you.

Read as an adventure story or an epic journey in the vein of most myths, perhaps this book may feel a little flat. But read as a tragic tale of love and redemption, this story sure beats Zeus and Io into the ground.

The Song of Achilles: B+

The Voice

Lead vocalists always get all the attention. Not to get all kids-these-days about it, but at a casual glance, it sure looks like we're in an era when people want to jump directly to fame and glory, without having to bother with any of that paying-your-dues nonsense. I've never been a fan of the spotlight, so I suppose it's natural that I gravitate towards the people who are carrying a star around on their shoulders more than the stars themselves. I'm interested in the voice-over artists who make cartoons and video games so compelling. I'll sometimes even miss what's going on in the main storyline of a movie because I'm scanning the extras.

So maybe the general movie-going public gets their excitement from a packed IMAX screening of Iron Man 3, but I got twice as giddy over hanging out on my friend's couch for a double-feature about people who often fade into the background. First up was 20 Feet From Stardom, which I've been wanting to see for months now. This documentary about the backup singers that heavily influenced the music industry for several decades while getting little to no credit is on the shortlist for Oscar nominations this year, and it's easy to see why people are caught up in it. It is jaw-dropping to see just how many hits a woman you've never heard of has made possible. Think about "Young Americans". Think about "Sweet Home Alabama". Think about "Walk on the Wild Side". What makes those songs truly memorable? It's the backup vocals, and this movie makes damn sure to recognize the African-American women who invisibly enriched the culture so thoroughly.

I didn't know going in that the movie was going to solely focus on black women, and I wish I had. Not that I would have avoided the movie at all; I just thought it was going to be about backup singers in general, and the thrust of the movie changes a lot when racial marginalization figures in. Only a bygone era of music is explored, and the natural follow-up of how backup singers are used (or not used) in today's industry is relegated to a few sentences. Also, a lot of the movie is devoted to the various successes and failures these singers have had in forging solo careers. Again, I'm thrilled that the women profiled are finally getting their due, but a movie that is ostensibly about the strength and honor of supporting another artist loses some of its punch when that support is assumed to have an end goal of personal fame. It was a good movie, and one I'm immensely glad got made, but I didn't wind up admiring it as much as I thought I would.

As soon as the end credits rolled, it was time to delve into another story of a woman's voice ignored for too long. This was In a World..., Lake Bell's debut in writing, producing, and directing. She also stars in the film as Carol, a vocal coach who dreams of being a movie trailer voiceover artist. Plenty of things are keeping her down, though. There's her famous father (Fred Melamed), whose grasp on his position in the voiceover industry only tightens when he hears anything of a (gasp!) woman wanting to take the reins. There's his protegee Gustav (Ken Marino), an arrogant voiceover artist that's been scooping up all the prime gigs lately. And then there's... Well, her personality. Carol's kind of a twitchy mess of nerves.

The story is actually pretty slight. Carol wants to do trailer work, and her coworkers help her do so. That's about it. Sure, her engineer Louis (Demetri Martin) is love with her, and she sleeps with Gustav without him knowing she's his newest competition, but these aren't really fleshed out any more than they'd be in a half-hour episode of TV. Tig Notaro and Nick Offerman show up, but have barely fifty words between them. That leaves the movie to be filled out by a strange and unnecessary side story about the boyfriend troubles of Carol's sister Dani, though it's always nice to see Michaela Watkins.

I'm griping a lot, but none of this made the movie bad; it was a pretty fun watch. It was just kind of thin. In fact, despite it being fictional, it had kind of a similar sheen to 20 Feet From Stardom. Here's a pair of movies that want to tell a story about talented women who are either ignored or prevented from reaching their true potential. Wanting these women to flourish is a noble goal, and one I think we can all get behind. I just wish a little more thought went into the crafting of the movies, and not just the messages they espouse.

20 Feet From Stardom: B-
In a World...: B-

The State of the Art: Books 2013

Weird. I certainly don't feel like I had more free time this year than I did last year. And yet, not only did I manage to see more same-year-release movies, I've managed to read more books as well; 28 to last year's 24. And that doesn't even count the books I reread constantly, of which there are plenty. Quantity isn't the sole improvement, either. Quality has risen, too. In looking at last year's list, only three books were able to crack the A-range of grades. This year, I have to narrow down the A-range books in order to pick a top five. Good job, team!

As with any other entertainment platform, a lot of the grades are weighed against expectation. Authors whose second book disappointed me after a promising debut may get graded more harshly than some other book I approached warily and wound up pleasantly surprising me. Also, it looks like 2013 was the Year of the Short Story for me. I read lots of story collections, and none of them fell below a B grade. There's something to keep in mind for the to-read list. As before, my top five are drawn from all the books I read this year - restricting it to books published in 2013 is too limiting. Also, unlike the movies or television I consume, which I generally track down on my own, books are the one area where I really rely on recommendations. Got any good ones? Let me know! If you're looking for my recommendations, you need look no further than half an inch below this sentence.

#1: Beautiful Ruins - Jess Walter

What I Said: The Cloud Atlas-style jumps in character, setting, and tone are masterfully interwoven. They all pull together to tell a beautiful, melancholy story of the people in our lives, and how our experiences are richer for having known them, no matter how large the heaps of disappointment we may lay at their feet are.

#2: The Last Girlfriend on Earth - And Other Love Stories - Simon Rich

What I Said: You know you're in for a fun ride when the first story is told from the point of view of a condom a teenaged boy has stuffed in his wallet. And you know you're in for a good read when that same story manages to pull off a lot of emotional resonance.

#3: Seating Arrangements - Maggie Shipstead

What I Said: It would be extremely easy for a book that is related by characters with names like Winn, Biddy, and Dicky to become insufferable, but Shipstead never falls into the trap of making them overly snide or stuffy. None of the characters are wholly good or bad, but relatable people with understandable motivations.

#4: This is How You Die - Edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !

What I Said: The stories vary wildly, from funny to heart-breaking. From fantastical to realistic. From science fiction to romance. Each story is titled with the card's description, but there's no way of telling what type of story you're about to get into.

#5: We, the Drowned - Carsten Jensen

What I Said: We often romanticize the lives of sailors, but this book certainly takes care of any lingering fantasies of the freedom and adventure that a life at sea entailed. From a protracted war, to revenge against a hated schoolteacher, to the precarious position of women both on the ships and on the coasts, this book doesn't sugar-coat how brutal life can be. But buried underneath the horrors of human nature are stories of bravery and love, too.

And now, for the full list, with books published in 2013 underlined:

Beautiful Ruins - Jess Walter (A)
The Last Girlfriend on Earth - And Other Love Stories - Simon Rich (A)
Seating Arrangements - Maggie Shipstead (A)
This is How You Die - Edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki ! (A-)
We, the Drowned - Carsten Jensen (A-)
My Life in France - Julia Child and Alex Prud'homme (A-)
Who Could That Be At This Hour? - Lemony Snicket (A-)

Tenth of December - George Saunders (B+)
Silver Sparrow - Tayari Jones (B+)
We Live in Water - Jess Walter (B+)
The Song of Achilles - Madeline Miller (B+)
The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - But Some Don't - Nate Silver (B+)
This is How You Lose Her - Junot Diaz (B+)

What the Family Needed - Steven Amsterdam (B)
Machine of Death - Edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki ! (B)
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children - Ransom Riggs (B)
American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics - Dan Savage (B)
Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal - Mary Roach (B)
The Age of Miracles - Karen Thompson Walker (B)
What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures - Malcolm Gladwell (B)
The Chocolate War - Robert Cormier (B-)
House of Leaves - Mark Z. Danielewski (B-)

Film Critic - Laremy Legel (C+)
The Red House - Mark Haddon (C+)
Jo's Boys - Louisa May Alcott (C)
Divergent - Veronica Roth (C-)
Man in the Empty Suit - Sean Ferrell (D+)
You - Austin Grossman (D)

It may seem a slap in the face to fall to that bottom section of grades, but those authors can take heart in the fact that I at least read their books from start to finish. Every year, there's a subset of books that get cast off before I can get through them. Sometimes, it's my fault. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood or didn't have time or couldn't devote the concentration necessary to fully engaging with the book. Sometimes, though, an author just puts out a book so terrible or boring that I refuse to waste my time with it:

A Fistful of Fig Newtons - Jean Shepherd: The one short story collection I couldn't connect with. I thought I'd like it because I'm such a fan of A Christmas Story, but it just never struck the right tone for me.

The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time #1) - Robert Jordan: What possessed me to think I had time to dive into a massive fantasy series? Fortunately, the first chunk of this book was so boring that I happily discarded it with a sigh of relief that I didn't get obsessed with a property that would consume anything even approaching free time.

The Dog Stars - Peter Heller: This one's my fault, and I feel bad about it. It's an intensely deep, complex story, and I just didn't have time to give it the attention it deserved. Maybe I'll try again next year.

Tigers in Red Weather - Liza Klaussmann: After a few chapters of prose so purple it smelled like grapes, I was exhausted with it. I maybe would have continued to struggle through if Klaussmann didn't also embrace all of chicklit's worst characteristics.

On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta - Jen Lin-Liu: When I read a book about the Noodle Road, I want to read about pasta. Its history and different cultures' relationships with it would be a fascinating topic. Instead, this woman takes the opportunity to whine about her marriage for page after page. I should have burned it to spare anyone else from Lin-Liu's trap of using the lure of food to get people to read her insufferably boring memoir.

Still, it was a great reading year, overall. Let's hope 2014 is as welcoming to us bookworms!

The State of the Art: Television 2013

It's been an exciting year in television. Netflix smashed the model of what people watch, and how. The new fall season has been kind of disappointing overall, but the few shows that do work are hard to beat. Shows that I've loved took a tumble into disappointment, and shows I suspected I'd dislike have rocketed to must-watch status. My list may seem to have some surprising omissions, but there's always a method to my madness. Breaking Bad was on everyone's lips, but I've only gotten through the first season. Mad Men and Arrested Development had high-profile seasons, and while I liked both of them, it's the freshmen who have really delighted my eyeballs this year. In fact, only two shows on my favorites list are incumbents.

Also, I don't think I've ever before been in the position where so many of my favorites are still in progress. I suppose it's possible that one of them could take a sudden turn into being terrible, but hey, I think I owe them a little leap of faith after the fun they've delivered so far. I still have a huge backlog to catch up on, but as far as shows that I watched "live" (thanks for making air quotes necessary, Netflix), these are the ones that made couch surfing more enjoyable than actual surfing could ever be.

#1: Bob's Burgers - Season 4

The first episode this season ("A River Runs Through Bob") didn't do a whole lot for me. Then came seven episodes of pure brilliance. Now that the Belchers are so well-established as a family, Bob's Burgers decided to jump into world-building, and it has done an incredible job. No longer are we chained to the restaurant. Bob picks up temp work at a frat house! Linda is marooned on an island with a lecherous pilot! The kids get trapped in a cardboard fort on Halloween! Aside from the broader plotlines, there is simply no better show on the air for background characters. How a butcher who does nothing but sell Bob a series of turkeys or a cop that refuses to take down an accident report can be so hilarious is a testament to the note-perfect writing and voiceover work we get week after week. And no other comedy had a better year in terms of pure zingers. It can be tough to tell when you're in the middle of a show's Golden Age, but Bob's Burgers makes it obvious.

#2: House of Cards - Season 1

Political thrillers are popular, but for me, it can be tricky to nail the tone. There hasn't been one that's completely bowled me over since I, Claudius, and that was produced in the freaking '70s. Between the challenges of writing an appealing political thriller and the challenges of presenting the current divisive political climate in an interesting way, I approached House of Cards with a truckload of trepidation. Trepidation that the show set about blowing into a million pieces. Kevin Spacey is chillingly good at portraying Frank Underwood, the calculating Majority Whip of the House of Representatives, out for revenge against those who passed him over. He and his Lady Macbethian wife Claire (Robin Wright) go about amassing power in any way they can, and their backstabbing schemes are jaw-dropping without ever straying too far from plausibility. The wrinkle of Frank's fragile alliance with a reporter (Kate Mara) adds an additional layer of tension. But these are no two-dimensional villains. I often found myself not only understanding Frank's motivations, but sympathizing with them. House of Cards is a great name for this show. You can see just how easily everything could fall apart at any moment, and I'm constantly on the edge of my seat to see if it will.

#3: Brooklyn Nine-Nine - Season 1

It's a sad fact that some shows get more attention than others, and merit doesn't always have much to do with it. I've seen a ton of internet chatter about all the shows on my top five - except this one. It's a shame, because I haven't seen a comedy come out of the gate so strongly in a long time. It's actually something of a miracle, because I didn't particularly care about the premise, and until this show came along, was actively put off by Andy Samberg. So when I found myself progressing from "I-guess-I'll-give-it-a-shot" to "hey-this-isn't-bad" to "you-HAVE-to-watch-this-show" by Episode 6, I knew I had discovered something special. Any comedy has to be judged by how funny it is, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine provides the highest belly laugh ratio of the year. There isn't a single cast member not hitting it out of the park. Honorable mention has to go to Trophy Wife, which almost shared the #3 honor with Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but which has had a slower build. Still, both of these shows are genuine pleasures, and if you haven't caught up with them, there's no time like the present.

#4: Orange is the New Black - Season 1

I'm only midway through the first season, and I feel like I know more about what drives these characters than I do about the ones in Once Upon a Time after three. This show could have easily been grating and lazy; let's all laugh about the spoiled white lady forced to put up with the inconveniences of prison! Or let's all clutch our pearls about the horrors of the criminal justice system! Instead, Orange is the New Black manages to straddle the line perfectly, being funny and sad and wry by turns. It has a lot to say about the types of women who wind up in jail and what their motivations are, but is never condescending or glib. Taylor Schilling does an admirable job as the naive audience surrogate, but the real meat of the story is in the women around her and the choices that landed them in trouble in the first place. This is one of the most diverse shows on television, not just in casting, but in attitude. Far from embracing the trite stories we usually get in a prison setting, Orange is the New Black can take something as silly as an escape chicken and present it as both a joke and an ironic symbol of freedom.

#5: Parks and Recreation - Seasons 5/6

Knope we can! If forced to guess, I'd say that Parks and Recreation saw its best days in Season 4, and won't ever reach those heights again. And it's still better than 95% of the other shows I watched this year. Comedies often thrive on how acidic the characters can be, but this one manages to wring laughs out of warmth, which is almost impossibly difficult. Leslie wants to do right by her friends and her community, and is beset by challenges from every side, from the movement to prevent her from authorizing fluoride in Pawnee's water supply to taking on the financial problems of the Eagleton snobs. Her persistence and stubbornness in giving the idiots in Pawnee what they need, whether or not it's what they want, is consistently and devilishly funny. The recall election threatening to remove her from office hasn't been as much fun as the original election that put her there, but there have been compensations. Devoting more attention to Donna is always welcome, and awesome side-characters like Billy Eichner's Craig have injected some fresh blood into the show. Perhaps its glory days are behind it, but Parks & Rec is still appointment television.

The State of the Art: Movies 2013

Statistics! Everyone loves statistics, right? Why don't we start by comparing the pure numbers between 2012 and 2013? Last year, I saw 54 movies, 21 of which were 2012 releases (~39%). This year, I've seen 59 movies, 20 of which were 2013 releases (~34%). Clearly, Netflix has been getting more of a work out than the theaters. In looking at the list of movies I saw these last twelve months, I should reiterate something I mentioned in passing last time: This is not a list of the best movies of the year.

In comparing my differing grades, I noticed that were I to match individual movies against each other, the results might well be different. Was Room 237 really a better movie than Nebraska? Hell, no. But as you know, grades are a combination of a movie's technical quality, my individual tastes, and how well I think the movie stacked up to expectations. And let's face it, just plain mood factors in as well. I try to be as objective as I can, but who knows? Maybe Identity Thief could have climbed to a C- if my date had gone better. And naturally, I can't count anything I haven't seen yet. So, here they are. Not the five best movies, but my Top Five Favorites of 2013:

#1: Gravity

What I Said: Maybe I wouldn't have been as swept up in the visual beauty [if I had seen it in a less spectacular format], but no matter what screen it's on, this was still a tight, tense, hopeful movie with zero filler scenes. It's a really stunning film that everyone should make an effort to see.

#2: 56 Up

What I Said: Suzy, in particular, keeps agreeing to come back, not because she wants to, but out of a deep-seated loyalty to Apted and the experiment. And all we can do is thank her for it. Both the participants and Apted himself are starting to get up there, so any of these movies may be the last. And that thought makes me misty all over again.

#3: Blue Jasmine

What I Said: Whenever I sit down to write a blurb about a movie I've just seen, I try and stack up the things I really liked about it against any big problems or little nitpicks that may count against it. When one of the biggest issues I can come up with is that I wish filmmakers would freaking put liquid in the clearly-empty coffee cups that characters carry around, you know you've got a good movie on your hands.

#4: Frozen

What I Said: The animation and 3D are top-notch; at one point I actually though water was leaking from the theater ceiling for a moment. The songs are fun and catchy. Olaf has a hilarious ditty about his looking forward to summer, and Elsa's powerful number about her acceptance of the ice magic in her veins reminded my friend and me of Wicked (and not just because she's voiced by Idina Menzel). This is also another much-needed film where the women are strong characters with actual agency.

#5: Much Ado About Nothing

What I Said: The staging within the house of an obviously wealthy but not ostentatious family worked perfectly for this play (HGTV fans, there is some serious real estate porn going on here). Far from ruining the movie, its setting in modern times allowed for some pretty clever adaptation changes.

All five are heartily recommended. As for how the movies of 2013 stack up as a whole, let's go to the full list!

2013 Movies

Gravity (A)
56 Up (A)
Blue Jasmine (A-)
Frozen (A-)
Much Ado About Nothing (A-)
Behind the Candleabra (B+)
Room 237 (B+)
Nebraska (B)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (B)
Frances Ha (B)
Pacific Rim (B)
Star Trek Into Darkness (B)
The Spectacular Now (B-)
This is the End (B-)
In a World... (B-)
20 Feet From Stardom (B-)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (C+)
Rush (C)
Man of Steel (C)
Identity Thief (D+)

It looks like my filter hasn't gotten much better OR much worse. In both 2012 and 2013, about the same percentage of the movies I saw fell below the "good" line of a B-. Am I doomed to dislike a quarter of the movies I see? I guess that's not too bad a ratio, all things considered. So how do the movies released in 2013 fit in with my entire movie year? Only one way to find out! Here's the full ranking:

Gravity (A)
56 Up (A)
Blue Jasmine (A-)
Frozen (A-)
Margin Call (2011) (A-)
Much Ado About Nothing (A-)

Silver Linings Playbook (2012) (B+)
Behind the Candleabra (B+)
Paranorman (2012) (B+)
The Queen of Versailles (2012) (B+)
Room 237 (B+)
Pina (2011) (B+)
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (B+)
A Cat in Paris (2010) (B+)
The Princess and the Frog (2009) (B+)

Nebraska (B)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) (B)
Young Adult (2011) (B)
Premium Rush (2012) (B)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (B)
The Secret World of Arietty (2010) (B)
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) (B)
Sound of Noise (2010) (B)
Frances Ha (B)
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) (B)
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011) (B)
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) (B)
The Pirates! - Band of Misfits (2012) (B)
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005) (B)
Pacific Rim (B)
Star Trek Into Darkness (B)

Holy Motors (2012) (B-)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) (B-)
The Spectacular Now (B-)
This is the End (B-)
In a World... (B-)
Ruby Sparks (2012) (B-)
20 Feet From Stardom (B-)
Despicable Me (2010) (B-)
Idiocracy (2006) (B-)
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) (B-)
Kinky Boots (2006) (B-)

The Impostors (1998) (C+)
Toys in the Attic (2012) (C+)
First Position (2011) (C+)
My Dog Skip (2000) (C+)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (C+)
1776 (1972) (C+)

No Country for Old Men (2007) (C)
Arbitrage (2012) (C)
Rush (C)
Man of Steel (C)
Sleepwalk With Me (2012) (C)
21 Jump Street (2012) (C)
American Harmony (2009) (C)

Twister (1996) (C-)
Mirror, Mirror (2012) (C-)
Identity Thief (D+)
Bachelorette (2012) (D-)

Best Friends For Frances

I've got some questions for you. Some are rhetorical, and some aren't. See if you can figure out which is which! What's the deal with all the black-and-white movies I'm catching lately? Does presenting it that way serve the actual story, or is it look-how-artistic-I-am showing off? Do you recognize the reference the title to this post is making? If not, are you upset that your childhood was so deprived of joy? How is it that one story full of detestable characters can wind up being the worst movie I saw this year, while another wound up being pretty satisfying?

These questions are in relation to Noah Baumbach's latest movie, Frances Ha. In all honesty, this is a film that I probably would have skipped, were it not for all the awards-season chatter. It's popping up on a lot of best-of lists of the year, and I like to be well-informed about the movies people are talking about. Also, it's streaming on Netflix, so I didn't even have to put on pants. Bonus! Frances Ha is about a struggling dancer in New York, whose life takes a tumble when her best friend and roommate decides to move out. Frances wants a certain type of life, and refuses to consider any outside information or advice that would suggest that she cannot. She bounces from place to place, living on the reluctant charity of the other urbane, artistic types in her social circle.

Did you pick up on the code in that last sentence? If you read "urbane, artistic types" as "insufferable New York hipsters", you get a gold star. This movie is populated by a ton of young, entitled white people with chunky glasses, enormous vinyl collections, and over-supportive parents. This one is sure his script will be picked up any day now. That one is addicted to fedoras. Unless this movie were about the heads of the big banks, it would be difficult to find a group to be less sympathetic about. I spent the first third of the movie wanting to punch everyone on screen.

But! Something happens along the way. The cracks in the facade of Frances' lifestyle begin to widen, and she begins to reassess what she wants in life, and how to go about getting it. Nothing changes overnight, of course, and there are plenty of stumbles along the way. Surprisingly, in a movie that had me wishing I could reach through the screen to shake her until her teeth rattled, I suddenly found myself getting very invested in Frances' efforts to hit the reset button. Is this film a triumph of cinema that should win a dozen Oscars? No. But making me care about the self-involved problems of a middle-class Manhattanite is no small feat, so in lieu of an Academy Award, I hope a big thumbs up from me is an acceptable substitute.

Frances Ha: B

Million Dollar Baby

I really admire Alexander Payne's career. No matter how his movies strike me, I'd never argue that they're lazy or rote. He always puts forth an interesting idea that's ripe for analysis and fosters good discussion. You'll never catch me arguing about the themes of Transformers over a pint, but there's always so much to be talked about in a Payne film. That's not to say I love them all without reserve. Election and Sideways were fantastic, but I was more equivocal about The Descendants. I haven't seen Citizen Ruth, and though I know I have seen About Schmidt, I can't for the life of me remember a single scene of it. So while I'm never guaranteed to enjoy a Payne film, I'm always guaranteed to be interested in it.

That brings me to his newest movie, Nebraska, which like Payne's other movies, is principally interested in exploring strained relationships. Beautifully shot in black and white, it focuses on Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an old codger edging up to the line of senility. When he receives one of those mass-mailed sweepstakes notices declaring that he may already have won a million dollars, he becomes determined to get to Lincoln to claim his prize. No amount of explanation or fury from his long-suffering wife Kate (June Squibb) or son David (Will Forte) can dissuade him. David sees an opportunity to spend some time with the father who never had much use for him, and agrees to drive him to a jackpot he knows full-well doesn't exist. Complications arise when they stop over to visit some of Woody's family in his hometown. A lot of eyes become dollar signs when people hear about the sweepstakes, and several feel entitled to a portion of the "winnings" for putting up with a man that has been a drunken crank his entire life.

I found the first section of the movie pretty slow-going. The characters and dialogue were stiff, with people simply announcing their feelings instead of demonstrating any of them. But somewhere along the way, I started really enjoying it. Rather than just enduring a series of awkward family conversations, you begin to see why David wants so desperately to understand his father, and why the contentious relationship between Woody and Kate has endured for so long. And oh yes, about Kate... Squibb turns what could easily have come off as an awful, sour woman into an acidic delight. She's never happier than when listing the failings of the relatives she has triumphantly outlived, and never tires of carping about how her family never does enough for her. You'd think she'd be shrill and irredeemable. Instead, she's a bundle of catty fun.

David is a tougher character to get a handle on. His avoidance of commitment and a past problem with alcohol is hinted at, but is never fully expanded. His wish to spend some bonding time with a father that may not be around (mentally or physically) for much longer is understandable in the grand sense, but arrives a bit suddenly. He has, after all, been living in the same town as his parents for his entire life. None of these issues derail the movie, but as David appears in almost every scene, I feel like I should understand him better than I ultimately do.

This is a slow-paced movie, but I was never bored, despite my problems with the opening act. Bruce Dern has been getting all sorts of raves for his performance, though I'm not sure how difficult it can be for an actor to act addled and taciturn. The script is spare, but deep. The actors range from wooden to enchanting. I've been wondering to myself if I'd give this movie some Oscar gold, were I in charge of such things, and I'm still puzzling it over. That's the thing about Payne movies. They sometimes confuse the hell out of me. In all the best ways.

Nebraska: B

Home Cooking

Top Chef - Season 11, Episode 10

People are touchy when it comes to the recipes handed down to them, or ones that they've perfected over years. I'm no exception. If you criticized the beef stew I made for the first time last month, I'd thank you for the feedback, and probably incorporate your suggestions. If you criticized my grandma's sweet-and-sour meatball recipe, I'd sock you in the jaw.

Ricotta Gnudi With Pancetta, Peas, Lemon and Parmesan

So, it's an emotion-filled episode of Top Chef when the contestants are asked to draw inspiration from the food from their homes. Did someone cry? Did someone pick a fight? Did someone make gnocchi, as seems to be a contractual obligation in every episode this season? Wander on over to What'ere, Jane Eyre for Episode 10, and find out! Then maybe I'll let you come over for some of great-great-grandma Betty's matzo ball soup.

Shorties #11

The end of the year approaches! Lists must be made! Culture must be consumed! Wrapping paper with gold sparkles that fall off and turn my dining room table into a glittering nightmare must never be purchased again! Since the holidays always do such an effective job of draining my bank account, let's dive into a Shorties made up entirely of whatever can be streamed, borrowed, or piggybacked.

#1: Toys in the Attic: See if you can follow me on this one. A strange little stop-motion animation film about toys coming to life when there are no humans around is released in 2009 in its native Czech Republic, gets attention at a lot of international festivals, and is then picked up in 2012 and dubbed into an English by an American woman best known for writing and starring in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 cheesefest, Soultaker. Got all that? The plot is a very spare rescue mission story, wherein the placid Princess Buttercup doll is kidnapped by the minions of a giant head. Her friends, including a teddy bear, an inventive mouse, and a wooden soldier band together to set her free. It wasn't terrific, but I like to broaden my movie spectrum when I can, and it's interesting to see what the current state of animation is in other countries. (Grade: C+)

#2: My Dog Skip: This isn't one I'd watch on my own, but was picked as a good movie-night option when I was visiting family. It followed what I'd call a pretty traditional animal-friend story arc. Lonely child. Bonds with animal. Child blossoms. Animal dies. Audience cries. This movie hit all of those notes, with Frankie Muniz as the adorable child who comes out of his shell with the help of an adorable dog. Other storylines are tossed in as well, from a shell-shocked hometown hero returning from war to evil moonshiners staking out a local territory as their turf. I'm happy it kept my nephew entertained for a couple of hours, but this kind of Hallmark Card entertainment isn't really up my alley. (Grade: C+)

#3: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: I'd heard this 2005 movie talked up in a lot of the corners of the internet, but it never seemed to make its way to the top of the to-watch list, until I found myself in the mood for a good potboiler one night. Like Brick, it's set in the present, but has a very noir-ish style. Robert Downey, Jr. plays a small-time thief who gets caught up in the dirty world of Hollywood secrets, along with his childhood crush, and a gay private investigator, played by Val Kilmer. I am emphatically not a fan of Kilmer's work in general, so imagine my surprise when he was not only acceptable in the role, but good. Really good! That alone was worth the viewing, and while it won't be joining my list of all-time favorites, this movie was a fun way to pass the evening. (Grade: B)

#4: Sound of Noise: As with Toys in the Attic, I wanted to watch this one to see what craziness the rest of the world is up to. OK, ready? It's a 2010 Swedish-French co-production, about a group of renegade drummers who illegally play on non-musical objects, like, oh say...a hospital patient they force into anesthesia. They're pursued across the city by a tone-deaf policeman who was born into a family of musical prodigies, and who can't stand the music that everyone else enjoys. Some Holy Motors-style magical realism creeps in when any object that the drummers have utilized in their city-wide symphony becomes utterly silent to him. It's a nifty little film. I don't know that I'd be able to recommend it to general audiences, but for those of us who like some quirk once in a while, it's pretty damned cool. (Grade: B)

#5: House of Leaves: I didn't realize until I started writing this entry how odd a lot of the Shorties are this time around. I just mentioned a movie about drummers staging a fake bank robbery so they can get a distended bass sound out of shredding money, and now we move on to a book about a manuscript about another manuscript about a documentary about a supernatural house that may never have existed in the first place. House of Leaves (published in 2000 by Mark Z. Danielewski) is the densest book I've ever read. I don't mean that as a criticism, necessarily; it's dense on purpose. The notion of a house that is bigger on the inside than on the inside is academically examined from every angle, which leads to explanations that beget footnotes that beget analytical footnotes about the footnotes. I can't imagine how long it took to write this thing. If you are reading this as a thriller, you'll be sorely disappointed, as anything haunting or scary is completely defanged by walls of text. But if you're reading this as an exploration of psychology, it's pretty fascinating. The manuscript's author may be steadily going mad, and his disorientation and confusion definitely shines through. I'm generally more a fan of traditional plotting, but need to shake myself up once in a while, and this was a good way to do it. (Grade: B-)

Bloating Down the River

Last year, when I found that I enjoyed the first Hobbit movie way more than I thought I would, I praised it for avoiding one particular trap: "I was expecting this movie to be a slog. The podcast reviews have been pretty harsh, and I figured that the expansion of a slim book into three movies would make each of them bloated and insufferable." Whoops! Spoke too soon. While The Desolation of Smaug was far from insufferable, it certainly was a bloated slog. The Hobbit never cried out to be expanded into three movies, but now that they've done it, the scarcity of source material means there's even less excuse for failing to tell a tight story, epic or no.

This movie is 2 hours and 40 minutes long. WHY? WHY? The second work is sometimes assumed to be the draggiest of any trilogy, and this is certainly no exception. Unnecessary scenes abound, and several of the ones that are integral to the plot are twice as long as they need to be. Every time the story threatens to focus on something interesting, off we go to a scene of Bard chatting with his children or Gandalf having a conversation with Radagast in which he relays the information we just saw his discover on his own. One character is introduced simply to give the dwarf band some horses, which they abandon in the next scene. Ten minutes, right there.

There were plenty of good points, too. Evangeline Lilly plays a character wholly invented for the movie, and blends in well. Lee Pace steals every scene he's in as the elf king. The cinematography is stellar, as we've come to expect from these films. Some of the battle scenes are fun. The Smaug scenes had me transfixed. Casting Benedict Cumberbatch was a good move - his silky voice carries the menace and intelligence that makes the dragon a truly potent enemy.

So I don't want to give the impression that the movie is awful. It's capably acted, the effects are well-done, and Peter Jackson did a nice job making Smaug an actual antagonist, instead of just a big monster. But as an overall film, for every scene that worked, there were two that didn't. A YA-inspired love triangle ripped straight out of Twilight? A corrupt town leader and his lackey going on and on about the pressures of keeping the citizenry oppressed? When I left the theater, I thought I'd grade it on the good side of okay, since there was a lot to like about it. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that I can't really recommend a movie that so desperately needed to have a good forty minutes left on the cutting room floor.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: C+

Morbidity and Mortality

I'm a pretty cheerful person in general, but I have a wide streak of morbidity running through me. It's why I enjoy movies like Series 7 and TV shows like Dead Like Me and books like Battle Royale. Death is scary, but it sure is fascinating. So while I can't quite remember how the "Machine of Death" books came to my attention, when I heard about this series of short stories, I jumped on board instantly.

The books (Machine of Death (2010) and This is How You Die (2013)) were edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !, and the central conceit is deceptively simple: Imagine that a machine is invented and installed in malls and street corners and doctor offices around the world. The machine takes a little sample of your blood and spits out a card upon which is written the method of your demise. No timeline or circumstances are provided. Just CANCER or PRETZEL or HEAT DEATH OF THE UNIVERSE. The machine is never wrong, but there's a kink, in that it's not above manipulating the ambiguities of language. OLD AGE could mean that you pass away in your sleep at age 96, or that you're run over by an elderly driver fifteen seconds after receiving your card. Authors of every stripe and nationality submitted stories with this premise, and the editors whittled them down to two extremely engrossing collections.

The stories vary wildly, from funny to heart-breaking. From fantastical to realistic. From science fiction to romance. Each story is titled with the card's description, but there's no way of telling what type of story you're about to get into. After all, we may all have preconceptions about a person who's destined to die by PRISON KNIFE FIGHT, and in a very clever turn, those preconceptions are what that particular story is all about.

While a little bit of winking rug-pulling is welcome, I wouldn't have enjoyed these books so much if they were all ironic "Gotcha!" stories, like someone with a CANCER card getting shot by someone born on July 8th. The stories are fortunately a lot deeper than that. The different ways one might react to the knowledge of their mode of death are practically endless. Would you want to get tested? If so, how would you treat the results? Would it be a relief? A never-ending source of torment? Would you try and escape your fate? Ignore it? Welcome it? Use it as an opportunity to live out your remaining time in a completely different way? What if your results are confusing? Or embarrassing?

It should be mentioned that not all the stories end with death. Plenty of the characters who receive their cards make it out of the story alive and well. It's the reaction to the card where the true stories lie. Machine of Death firmly established the premise, and This is How You Die built on it in incredible ways. Both books were good, but it was the second one that really shined. I honestly have no idea if I'd want to know the results on my card, if it were available. The only thing I know about my future is that if a third anthology of this series is released, I'll be all over it.

Machine of Death: B
This is How You Die: A-

Rosie the Sniveler

Top Chef - Season 11, Episode 9

They say that 9 out of 10 restaurants will fail in their first year, and whether that's a myth or not, it's certainly believable after watching any episode of Restaurant Wars on Top Chef. Of course, most restaurants aren't staffed by competitors who don't have functioning kitchens. Still, ideas about how to provide capable service should be pretty standard, and not to spoil too much, but... Let's just say it wasn't the food that stood out in this episode.

Roasted Black Drum, King Trumpet Mushrooms, Oxtail, Kale, and Hibiscus Reduction

Teams are never more contentious than they are in Restaurant Wars so check out Episode 9 on What'ere, Jane Eyre, then count yourself lucky that most of your food preparation is done in blissful solitude.

Bad Timing

If I've missed the entry point on something that has taken the pop culture world by storm, I have the tendency to not even attempt to jump in mid-point to catch up, preferring instead to let the entire enterprise conclude, and then consume it in one big block later. Breaking Bad is a perfect example of this; until recently, I'd never seen a single episode. Somehow, despite it taking up 80% of the conversation on every website devoted to television discussion, and being mentioned consistently in friends' Facebook updates, I managed to stay spoiler-free.

Now that the show is over (though I notice websites still cranking out Breaking Bad-related content - gotta keep those clicks coming!), I can finally get started on it, and was happy to see that it's currently streaming on Netflix. It did made me a little nervous at the outset, however, for a couple of reasons. I'd heard this show is extremely violent, which is generally fine with me. I take no issue with violence, but a show's gore level can be an important factor in how much I enjoy it. My biggest concern, though, was the inherent danger in watching something so beloved by the world at large. How can it possibly measure up to expectations?

I'm now through Season 1, and while I can certainly see why the show became such a phenomenon, it's clear that it's still in the world-building stage. That's not a complaint. Mad Men had a waaaaaaaay slower build than this show, and I came to be a big fan of it. I don't see any obstacle to me becoming similarly enamored of Breaking Bad, but as I'm only talking about Season 1 today, all I can really mention is groundwork.

That's not to say there aren't standout moments. Walter White choosing to become a meth-pusher in order to provide for his family after his death is a perfectly valid choice in television-land, but watching how he attempts to deal with moral choices within that criminal universe is where the audience is really thrown for a loop. A lesser show would focus on Walt making drugs and his DEA brother-in-law tracking them. In Breaking Bad, they explore deeper ground. My favorite instance of this was watching Walt forced to contend with how he should treat a captive drug dealer who has already tried to murder him once. His choices are examined from every angle, and the whole thing was extremely suspenseful. Walt is ostensibly supposed to be a noble man, and he's understandably reluctant to kill a now-defenseless thug, but what else can be done?

Aside from Walt's efforts to break into the drug business and to solidify his partnership with the squirrely Jesse Pinkman, there's the matter of his unsuspecting family at home. I rather like Walt Jr., his seventeen-year-old son with cerebral palsy. The aforementioned brother-in-law (Hank) is also a lot of fun. The women don't fare as well. Walt's nagging, pregnant wife Skyler is kind of a chore, and the less said about Hank's wife Marie, the better. Why I'm supposed to care about her shoplifting when there are drug dealers being dissolved with acid two blocks away is beyond me.

Overall, though, I liked it a lot. Certainly enough to continue on with the show. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul are tearing their roles to shreds, and the plotlines get more intriguing by the episode. If I get really involved with it, so much the better. It'll mean less time until I'm caught up, and won't have to read every internet link with trepidation anymore.

Breaking Bad - Season 1: B

Sleeper Agents

We may be approaching the year's end, but the current TV season is still in full swing. Most of the shows I decided to watch have been going well, and I've been really looking forward to them each week. There are always a couple of stinkers in the bunch, though, and about a quarter of the way into Episode 9 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I reached the end of my tether. There won't be a season end review of this one, because I just can't watch anymore. I have no idea how such a highly-budgeted, highly-anticipated, highly-pedigreed show turned out so.... damn.... boring.

We're always told to give Whedon shows some time to build. After all, Dollhouse took a while to find its sea legs, but once it settled, it was smart, entertaining television. I like Clark Gregg a lot, and the premise of following a team of specialists who live in a world still getting used to aliens and superheroes is a fascinating one. So what the hell happened?

Well, just cause it's a Whedon show doesn't mean it's a Joss Whedon show. He helmed the premiere, and has his finger in the pie, but the day-to-day showrunning has been left to his brother Jed and Jed's wife Maurissa Tancharoen. I don't want to imply that they're bad showrunners, because I suspect a lot of the issues this show suffers from are related to executive interference. This isn't just a television show; it's a television show that is wrapped into the entire Avengers franchise, and I get the feeling a lot of creative control was sacrificed at the altar of focus testing and mass appeal. It's not even bad enough to be fun as a batshit trainwreck (as I'm finding with American Horror Story). It's a shrug.

The result is a show with no soul. The team wanders from place to place, solving a mystery-of-the-week that centers around technology so advanced it may as well be magic. That would be fine if it were also advancing a seasonal arc, or if the character interactions themselves were worth getting invested in. But nine episodes in, and they're all still a collection of bland archetypes. The emotionless toughie. The nerdy science geeks. The badass veteran. The roguish hacker. All of these character types have been played to great effect in the past, but in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., they're wooden and milquetoast. Maybe it's still building. Maybe by Season 2, they'll have worked out how to make a show that works. But until someone tells me that's happened, it's the end of the line for these superzeroes.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Episodes 1-9): C-

Fall Movie Preview: December 2013

Yes, yes. It's weird that December is included in the Fall Movie Preview. It's supposed to snow this week, for cripes' sake! The same movies are written about in the Holiday Movie Preview! What gives? But I'm not here to complain; I like getting a heads-up about the films I'll want to make time for around the holidays, or at least the ones I'll eventually throw on the queue. The list is lengthening. After all, the closer we get to the Oscars, the closer we are to the calendar's dumping ground. So bundle up, load up your coat pockets with a secret candy stash, and let's hit the theater!

December 6

Inside Llewyn Davis: This one is on my radar purely by virtue of the fact that it's a Coen brothers' movie. I'm not terribly interested in the folk music scene in 1960s New York, but film critics that I trust are already chattering about how good this is, so I'm more than willing to walk into this one blind.

December 13

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: The Lord of the Rings trilogy was good, but I'm not a Tolkien geek, so the news that the relatively spare novel The Hobbit would be split into three movies made me grumpy and cynical. But hey, I wound up liking the first one just fine, and since I don't have the baggage of caring about how the book is adapted, why not just sit back and enjoy some spectacle?

American Hustle: The trio of Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and David O. Russell did some great work in 2012, and their re-team this year has also pulled in Christian Bale and Amy Adams, and thrown them all into the grit and corruption of 1970s New Jersey. Yes, please. The movie involves an FBI sting operation, and looks like all kinds of fun.

Saving Mr. Banks: This one is a maybe, as is The Wolf of Wall Street. A movie about Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) trying to persuade a cranky P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) into letting him adapt Mary Poppins his way sounds more appealing to me than another bloated, DiCaprio-fronted Scorsese epic (sacrilege, I know), so this one gets its own entry. What little I've heard indicates that the acting is very strong, which of course it is, given the leads. I've also read that it's a more realistic look at what Disney was like in real life than we're used to seeing. I don't know that it's a strong enough draw to get me to the theater, but if the word-of-mouth is good, I can see this being a choice rental.

December 18:

Her: Hey, didn't I just write about this? I did! I guess it's been rescheduled.

December 25

August: Osage County: I've never seen this play, about a family gathering fraught with tension, but the movie looks interesting. And not just to watch Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts throw down over the dinner table. When the family's father disappears, the remaining family members gather in the rural Oklahoma homestead to work out their issues. It doesn't sound like the most heartwarming holiday tale, but if it's done well, it could be a pretty gripping film.


Aw, what a shame I didn't wrap this and the entry about Frozen into one post; I could have titled it "A Song of Ice and Fire". Ah, well. Thanksgiving weekend is always a good time to catch a movie, and this year, I made it The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I've read all the Hunger Games books, and enjoyed the first movie, so of course I'm in this franchise for the long haul, even if I think it's silly that they're splitting the last one into two films. Francis Lawrence took over the director's chair for this one, and set about fixing a lot of the problems the first one had. Bye, shaky-cam! Nobody misses you!

In fact, a lot of the production's aspects are deeper and more thoughtful this time around. While the first movie is more about the action, this movie is more about the characters. Of course, that also saps a few of the thrills. In Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta are forced to go on a victory tour to the other districts to talk up the capitol and their "love" story. They're terrible at being government puppets, and the spark of revolution in the populace that was lit by their co-win starts to get stronger. In retaliation, President Snow institutes a rule that the next games will be played by victors of previous ones, so Katniss and Peeta have to go back into the arena. This time, though, they've got powerful allies both within and without.

There are plenty of new faces in the cast, including Philip Seymour Hoffman as Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee, who always seems to be two steps ahead, and Jena Malone as the badass Johanna Mason. I was initially very skeptical of her casting; I didn't think she'd be able to handle the role as I understood it from the books. But wow, did she ever win me over. Most of the other roles are acted well, too, though Lenny Kravitz continues to be useless. Stanley Tucci always knocks the role of Caesar Flickerman out of the park, and Elizabeth Banks manages to imbue the vapid Effie Trinket with real dimension and emotion. If there's any big flaw, it's that middle movies like this always suffer from a bit of Loose End Syndrome. They don't start at the beginning, and they have no real ending, so maybe this movie didn't pack as much of an entertainment wallop as it could have, but there's no denying it was very capably done.

The most encouraging thing about the movie is a meta-fact. It has handily won the box office for two weekends in a row, and is setting all kinds of earning records. Frozen is also racking up money and praise galore. Coming on the heels of Gravity, that means three of the highest-earning and most critically lauded films of the year all have women as their driving force (literally in the case of Frozen, which was co-directed by Jennifer Lee). Could there be another revolution in the works? We can only hope so.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: B

Ice Queen

Do you remember that string of massive Pixar hits, and how we all kind of wrote off the traditional Disney film model at the time? The culture essentially decided that a new era of animation had begun, and the old-school type of animation we were all so used to could comfortably be consigned to history. Well, I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but Disney has been doing its damndest lately to prove that assumption wrong, and they've been killing it. The Princess and the Frog was a really enjoyable movie for their 2D division, and while I didn't love Tangled as much as everyone else, I did really like it. And let's not forget Wreck-It Ralph, which wound up being my favorite movie last year.

The streak continues with the latest movie, Frozen, which is very loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Snow Queen". It's about two royal sisters: The elder (Elsa) has ice powers that are growing, and that she doesn't have control over, so she shuts herself away from her sister and subjects. The younger (Anna) is an irrepressible adventurer who wants nothing more than to enjoy the close bond with her sister she once had, and to get out and interact with the people. When Anna meets a suitor and falls in love, the announcement of her engagement causes Elsa to fly off the handle and accidentally cast an eternal winter over the kingdom. She flees into the mountains, and so Anna goes on a quest to find her and undo the spell, aided by a loner ice deliverer (Kristoff), his reindeer companion, and Olaf, a goofy, sentient snowman.

While it doesn't quite reach the heights that Wreck-It Ralph did, this is a terrific movie. The animation and 3D are top-notch; at one point I actually though water was leaking from the theater ceiling for a moment. The songs are fun and catchy. Olaf has a hilarious ditty about his looking forward to summer, and Elsa's powerful number about her acceptance of the ice magic in her veins reminded my friend and me of Wicked (and not just because she's voiced by Idina Menzel). This is also another much-needed film where the women are strong characters with actual agency. None of this mooning around hoping the boys come rescue them; both Anna and Elsa are fully in charge of their own destinies.

The movie also has a Mickey Mouse short in front of it, notable mostly for its impressive animation, so be sure to catch that in 3D, if you can. It'll be a good excuse to see Frozen in theaters, which you really should do. Olaf will delight the kids, and for us adults, there's a well-written, well-acted story about a love much more powerful than kisses that wake up sleeping princesses.

Frozen: A-

Going Whole Hog

Top Chef - Season 11, Episode 8

It's often said that the biggest roadblock to people becoming vegetarians is that they don't want to give up pork, and after seeing this week's episode, I believe it. I won't be lining up for butchering classes anytime soon, but I'd be more than happy to dine off of any section of someone else's boucherie.

Pozole Verde with Fried Chorizo Tacos

What's a boucherie, you ask? Head on over to What'ere, Jane Eyre for Episode 8 and find out! And while you're at it, let me know if you have any good hot sauce recommendations.

Butterfly in the Sky

It's been a while since I've written an entry for the Books category, but that isn't because I've taken a break from reading. Far from it, actually - I've been tearing through library books at a pretty good clip. There are the usual recent (or at least relatively so) titles that I managed to snag, of course, but there were also one of those cast-off books I'll deal with at the end of the year, and a childhood favorite that I was curious to revisit.

Let's start with that last one, which was Secrets of the Shopping Mall, written by Richard Peck, and originally published in 1979. I'm sure I read it in the early or mid-'80s at my sister's behest. She's also the one who put it back in my head a few weeks ago. All I remembered was that it was about a couple of runaway kids who hide out in a mall, and discover that the mannequins come to life at night. The only one I remember by name was Betty, who liked to cattily gossip about everyone else. It's no wonder she's the one I gravitated to. The story surprised me on the re-read; it's a lot more bleak than I remember. The protagonists are dealing with bullies at school, and with absolutely no protective presence at home, decide to just take off and live in a department store. Spoiler alert: They stay there, happily. Forever. The living mannequins are also runaways who somehow magically acquired the ability to freeze into dummies during the day, though how ostensibly normal kids learned how to do this is never addressed. And that's not even getting into the gang of other children who hang out in the parking lot, and go to war with the mannequin gang. I can see why I liked this book so much as a kid, but I can also see why "You can't go home again" is such a pervasive phrase. This story is definitely of its time.

I rejoined the 21st century by mixing it up with a novel, a collection of short stories, and some non-fiction. The novel was Karen Thompson Walker's 2012 book, The Age of Miracles. As I'm sure I've mentioned, I like books that have an interesting gimmick of taking the world and changing one important facet of it. In this case, it's that the Earth's rotation is starting to slow, making both days and nights longer, and having catastrophic effects on things like crops and power grids. But rather than an omniscient narrator relating what's going on, Walker makes the smart decision to tell this story through the eyes of a pre-teen girl. Sure, the entire world is changing, but her entire world is changing anyway. What the boy down the street thinks about her is as important as endangered foods, if not more so. If there's a big flaw in the story, it's a rushed subplot about societal tears that take place between people who follow the clock and people who follow the sun. Sure, humans will find any excuse to fight, but if your characters are going to exact mob justice against a woman who has the nerve to garden when the sun is out, you're going to have to justify it with something better than an assumption that such a thing would happen.

Up next was Simon Rich's 2013 collection of short stories, The Last Girlfriend on Earth - And Other Love Stories. You know you're in for a fun ride when the first story is told from the point of view of a condom a teenaged boy has stuffed in his wallet. And you know you're in for a good read when that same story manages to pull off a lot of emotional resonance. The other stories are similarly off-the-wall in all the best ways. "I Love Girl" peeks in on a relationship between a caveman and one of the half dozen females he's aware of. In "Center of the Universe", even God himself cannot free himself from relationship drama. There isn't a disappointing story in the whole bunch, and overall, it was a really delightful, clever book. I highly recommend it.

I rounded out this reading binge with Mary Roach's Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. I've heartily enjoyed Roach's explorations of how we deal with dead bodies (Stiff), ghosts (Spook), and sex (Bonk), though I haven't read Packing for Mars yet. It is the title with more than one word that's throwing me? Get your shit together, Roach! Speaking of shit, I was anxious to dive into her latest book, which is all about the glories of our digestive systems, from chewing to pooping. I'm not easily grossed out (at least when things are handled academically rather than for horror effect), so I found passages about fistulated stomachs and the stretch capacity of a rectum fascinating rather than off-putting. Roach is a funny writer, and her breezy style is well-suited to the topic. She makes jokes, but she never condescends. She has a respectful, but frank curiosity about things like the stool hardness scale and the ability to taste differences in various olive oils, and makes for a pretty good read. It perhaps wasn't as good as her earlier books, but that's purely a matter of personal taste. Ha! Taste! See what I did there?

Secrets of the Shopping Mall: B (Averaging the A- I'd give this as a kid, and the C+ I'd give it if I read it for the first time as an adult.)
The Age of Miracles: B
The Last Girlfriend on Earth - And Other Love Stories: A
Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal: B

Theme Music

Top Chef - Season 11, Episode 7

Just last week, I said that this season's chefs missed out on a quintessential Midwestern dish that they could have elevated for their cream cheese challenge. And now I'm forced to say the same thing about this week's potluck challenge. Barramundi and red durum fricassee? Semolina gnocchetti? These are not potluck dishes! These people desperately need to make friends with a Missourian.

Togarashi Fried Chicken with Bee Pollen and Ponzu

Still, there are some items that looked pretty tasty this week, so head on over to What'ere, Jane Eyre for Episode 7, if you're so inclined. See how I'm leaving it up to you? Midwestern friendliness!

Sorry to Burst Your Bubble

In looking at the upcoming movie calendar, I find myself torn about Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese is rightly considered one of the all-stars of filmmaking, but I confess that I sometimes find his more recent movies to be homework. It's not that I dislike The Aviator or Hugo, but I did find them to be kind of bloated, and frankly, over-praised. Still, the premise of a wealthy stockbroker's implosion does appeal to me. No matter what I decide about that film, thinking about it made me realize that I had a couple of other financial-based dramas sticking around my Netflix queue.

Much like what happened with Pina vs. Girl Walk//All Day when I watched them in rapid succession, I couldn't help but compare and contrast 2011's Margin Call with last year's Arbitrage the same way.

Margin Call puts a thin, fictional shell around the real life events surrounding the housing market bubble burst and resulting financial crisis of 2008. Zachary Quinto plays a risk assessor at a large financial firm who realizes what is about to happen to the market. When he informs the company's higher-ups, a scramble to escape with jobs and reputations intact begins immediately. Far from portraying Wall Street fat-cats as straight-up villains, writer/director J.C. Chandor does a terrific job at showing the shades of gray in the market collapse. There's plenty of blame to spread around, after all. Still, the characters who work at the firm are not let off the hook, as they dispassionately end careers with a handful of keystrokes. You'd think a movie made up of nothing but tense conversations would be a chore, but Margin Call is pretty gripping from beginning to end, even though the audience is well-aware of where events must lead.

Soon after I finished Margin Call, I tackled Arbitrage, for which Richard Gere earned raves for his performance as Robert Miller, a hedge fund manager in the mold of Bernie Madoff. Miller is a charmer who is able to bend pretty much anyone to his will, be it his clients, his employees, or his demanding mistress. He's got a lot of plates to spin, and when he's in a car accident that causes his mistress' death, everything begins to crash around him. His attempts to cover both the accident and his financial schemes become increasingly desperate as the net tightens around him, but he does his best to paste it over with the slick charm and glib assurances he's always employed to get his way.

If I had watched Arbitrage in a vacuum, who knows how I would have felt about it? Coming on the heels of Margin Call, though, it gravely suffers in comparison. Miller becomes hysterical whenever he feels threatened, and I began to wonder how this person built a fortune based on a wildly shifting market, since he responds to every obstacle with willful blindness and shallow glad-handing. Several characters agree to his requests and demands based on nothing more than him basically saying "C'mon...trust me!" a dozen times. There are plenty of good stories about the destruction of a financial charlatan and his loved ones - we had a great one just this year - so why did the plotlines in Arbitrage have to be so contrived? Were vehicular manslaughter and police corruption really necessary?

Both of these movies want to make points about the vast class divide in America. In Margin Call, two company executives who have been sworn to secrecy about the firm's plans casually discuss their strategy in an elevator, literally across the head of a cleaning woman who is in there with them. It's not that they haven't taken their pledge of secrecy seriously; to these Wall Street bigwigs, the custodian doesn't even register as a person. It's a subtle and very discomforting reminder about the income gap disparity in this country. In Arbitrage, that point is made by a working-class black character who announces that he's being forced into a bad position because he is a working-class black character. Thanks for explicitly explaining that, sir. I am, after all, dumb. No wonder I'm one of the have-nots.

Margin Call: A-
Arbitrage: C

There's No Place Like Home

Up until not that long ago, video games followed the same dozen scenarios or so. Solve this puzzle. Or kill these enemy soldiers (zombies, monsters). Or win this sports game. Recently, though, there's been an explosion in ideas about the types of things a video game can explore. The lines between gaming and other forms of creative fiction are getting blurrier by the day. It's an exciting trend, and I've stumbled across some great titles that are more like interactive short stories than a traditional game.

I just wrapped up this past summer's release, Gone Home, which is a good example of this wave of games. The game is set in 1995 Oregon, and the player is college-aged Kaitlin Greenbriar, who is arriving back home after a yearlong trip abroad. In Kaitlin's absence, the family (mom, dad, and younger sister Sam) have moved into a big, creepy old house willed to them by a great uncle, so Kaitlin is seeing it for the first time. When she arrives, she finds the place empty, and a cryptic note from Sam begging that Kaitlin not try and find her. For the rest of the game, you/Kaitlin explore the house, tracking down clues that explain where everyone has vanished to.

At first, the game seems like jump-scare horror. A big, empty house. A raging storm outside. Missing people. Flickering lights. As I walked around the ground floor, I kept expecting an undead abomination or crazed psycho killer to leap out and grab me. But no such thing ever occurs. The story unfolds with Kaitlin finding scraps of notes and Sam's journal, which are told in voice-over.

But that main story is only part of the appeal. If there's one thing that this game nails, it's atmosphere. The mid-'90s setting is exemplified not only by the VHS and mix tapes strewn around the place, but by the notes and cartoons and hand-drawn maps Kaitlin collects in the house. This is well before text messages and snapchats, and the game is really enriched by all the tactile remnants of the Greenbriars' lives.

Since this is more of a story than a game, the replay value is not terribly high. Once you discover where Sam and your parents are, is there really much point in going through it again? But replay and big action scenes aren't the point of this game. The point is to immerse you in the deep, complex story of a teen girl's dreams and heartaches, and at that, it succeeds admirably.

Gone Home: B+

Philly of the Valley

Top Chef - Season 11, Episode 6

If you're not from the Midwest (or haven't read Gone Girl), you may not know about the delightful little snack people always bring to social gatherings: Chunks of pickle spear cemented to cold cut meat by a layer of cream cheese. It's not a recipe that will be gracing the cover of "Cook's Illustrated" anytime soon, but they certainly liven up a Superbowl party.

"Philadelphia" Steamed Egg Custard with Macerated Blueberries

If only the chefs had known about that for this week's challenge...they probably still would have blown it. But come on, there's only so much that can be done with cream cheese. To see what was actually attempted, drop on by What'ere, Jane Eyre for Episode 6. The chefs with the ability to adapt to the show's wacky challenges are really starting to distinguish themselves from the pack, but let's not name names. We wouldn't want Travis to know he's not on the list.

Fast Forward

I've been reading some alarming news lately about Netflix's push to do away with their disc rental service. I watch plenty of their streaming offerings, but the catalog isn't terrifically vast by any measure. I'm not too worried that certain titles will become completely unavailable, but whatever the next platform is for getting your hands on titles that aren't available in streaming form, there are going to be some irksome growing pains. All this is to say that I've kicked up the pace on getting through movies I've been avoiding in my disc queue. And that's led to some interesting movie juxtapositions. Normally, I'll watch a movie, let it sink into my brain for a couple of days, then move on to the next one. But with a sudden burst of viewing efficiency, I knocked out an action movie, a drama, and a kids' movie in rat-a-tat succession.

The first was Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, which was released in 2011. I haven't been the biggest fan of this franchise, but haven't minded them, either. They're inoffensive action flicks; the last thing I'm looking for them is any sort of complex, coherent plot. This latest one got surprisingly good word-of-mouth reviews, though, so I tossed it onto my queue... Where I promptly started ignoring it, mostly due to its 133-minute running time. I finally forced myself to sit down and watch, and found myself enjoying it more than the previous three put together. What changed? The director, for one. J.J. Abrams is really good at concepts, but can get bogged down when it comes to execution. This movie was Brad Bird's live-action directorial debut, and though the running time is long, he kept it going at an economical pace. This movie has a compact story that actually makes logical sense, and could be followed. There are still gadgets and stunts aplenty, but the plot isn't being wholly supported by people ripping latex masks off their faces every three minutes.

Next up on the stop-avoiding-this list was Martha Marcy May Marlene, which also came out in 2011. I remember Elizabeth Olsen getting raves for her performance when the movie was released, but I wasn't anxious to dive into a tense movie about cults at the time. But no more procrastination! The movie cuts back and forth between scenes of Olsen's character's days living at the compound of a cult she once belonged to, and scenes in the aftermath of her escape, when she crashes with her sister and brother-in-law and attempts to readjust to a normal life. There are a lot of really fascinating themes that are well-developed throughout. Normally, an audience can't understand why a character would want to join a cult, but this movie shows how magnetic a supportive "family" could seem to a lonely soul. And how a "normal" existence can seem empty and pointless. Still, I wasn't as in love with this film as the critical community was. Maybe I would have felt differently if I had seen this while its praises were still thrumming across the internet, but as it is, I found that it crawled up its own ass a little bit. The script is simple and spare to the point of ridiculous at a few points. Scenes of deliberate ambiguity seem to shout "Look how artistic I am!" when straightforward, concrete resolution would have been more effective. There's more to like than dislike about Martha Marcy May Marlene, but I'm not surprised that I viewed it as homework for so long.

Finally, I wrapped up my week of cinematic gorging by catching up with Disney's 2009 animated offering, The Princess and the Frog. I'd been curious to see how the once-powerful 2D animation studio was doing ever since Pixar redefined what a kids' movie has to be these days. I'm not going to go too much into plot, because it's a standard Disney progression of a girl achieving her dreams and true love after overcoming dangerous obstacles. You know the structure by now. But there are a couple of interesting things that set this princess movie apart from the ones that have come before. Tiana is the first African-American heroine in a Disney cartoon, but beyond a callous jab from an unsympathetic character (a jab that will fly over any youngster's head), her race is never an overt issue in any way. Even though the movie takes place in '20s New Orleans, Tiana's best friend is white, and her intended prince is an unnamed European-ish meld (he looks vaguely Hispanic or Arabic). Tiana is also the first Disney heroine who works, and works hard. Sure, Cinderella had to scrub a castle, but Tiana has to hold down actual jobs. Pocahontas notwithstanding, she's really the first heroine who embodies American characteristics, and I really like how it comes off.

The wild and freewheeling nature of Jazz Age New Orleans is incorporated well into the plot, as is voodoo, used for both good and evil. Unfortunately, the music isn't as memorable or catchy as in other Disney movies, but it's one of the strongest stories in the entire canon. And at the end, Tiana may be a princess, but she's still American; no kicking back on a castle throne for her. It was an entertaining movie, and I think Disney did an admirable job creating a modern character with agency and goals that reach beyond kissing a handsome boy, so kudos to them for that.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol: B
Martha Marcy May Marlene: B-
The Princess and the Frog: B+
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