Shorties #12

It's the last week before the Oscars, so what better time to take care of some of the dribs and drabs of entertainment? A few of these had been on my radar for quite some time, while a couple essentially fell out of the sky. How did they stack up? Let's find out!

#1: Trollhunter: This is one of those fall-out-of-the-sky titles. I was hanging out with Kyle, looking for a suitable movie to pair with a booze-soaked evening. He suggested this 2010 Norwegian movie, which is styled as a found-footage documentary about some university students discovering, then assisting a grizzled man who hunts down trolls. Yeah, that's a perfect flick to take in when you're knocking back a bunch of cocktails. I'm not usually a big found-footage fan, but it worked well in this framework. The monsters are treated as realistically as possible; you could actually see events unfolding in just such a way if trolls were proven to exist. Lots of commentators compare this movie with The Blair Witch Project, but I had zero interest in that film, whereas this one was intriguing, probably because a wholly Non-American production helped sell it an an otherworldly, dark fairy tale. (Grade: B)

#2: A.C.O.D.: I'd been wanting to see this 2013 movie ever since I first heard about it. The cast has a ton of people I love, and as an A.C.O.D. myself, I was interested in the direction the story would take. Well, all that glitters... Given the talent of the people involved, this was fairly disappointing. Adam Scott does his best to hold together the plot with his usual bemused straight-man charm, but the characters around him are extremely underwritten. Everyone in this movie is pretty two-dimensional, and for a comedy, it didn't deliver a lot of laughs. It wasn't a bad movie, and there were a few wry smiles to be wrung out of it, but the kindest adjective I can apply to it is "mediocre". (Grade: C+)

#3: Kings of Pastry: This 2009 documentary was one I've had my eye on for a while. It follows a disparate group of French pastry chefs, all of whom are competing to attain the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France award. It's a grueling, three-day test, and top prize is only given to the absolute masters of their craft. One of the most refreshing things about this competition is that it's not a zero-sum game; any amount of the chefs may be given the prize, from zero to all of them. That removes the need for puffery, ego, and acrimony. Everyone wants everyone else to do well, including the judges. They're as bummed as the contestants if something goes awry. And there is plenty to go awry, from melting chocolate to delicate sugar structures shattering. Watching the chefs try to move these sculptures from one room to another is more tense than any "CUT THE RED WIRE" scene I've ever seen. I wish the movie had dug a little deeper into the chefs' lives away from the contest, but as a whole, this was a very worthwhile watch. (Grade: B)

#4: Wanderlust: Wet Hot American Summer is one of my favorite movies. So I'm always curious to check out David Wain's other projects, even though none of them has ever even come close to clearing the bar that movie set. The 2012 movie Wanderlust can now join that list of mild disappointments. As with A.C.O.D., I really enjoy a lot of the cast (Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino, Paul Rudd, Michaela Watkins, Lauren Ambrose, etc.), and was more than willing to give the movie a shot, despite its lukewarm reception when it came out. Lukewarm is about right. Where Wet Hot American Summer skewers the '80s summer camp aesthetic, Wanderlust targets hippie communes. An uptight couple (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) stumbles across one, and learn valuable lessons about loosening up and obsession with material goods. Along the way are poop jokes, drug jokes, and sex jokes, all of which are fine if done cleverly. This movie is content to point at a guy's dick and call that a joke. It wasn't a bad movie by any stretch, but if you haven't seen it, you're not missing anything if you skip it. (Grade: C+)

#5: Ready, Okay!: Here's another example of a property pointing out a situation and calling it a day, rather than digging into it. In this case, though, it's the much more serious matter of school shootings. This 2000 novel by Adam Cadre starts off well, with all sorts of foreboding about the violence to come. The character work is terrific as well. The protagonist Allen is believable and relatable, and his peers, from friends to family to acquaintances to foes all come off as individual points-of-view, rather than melding together in one mass, as is sometimes a problem in sprawling casts. I could feel myself steeling, trying to brace for what I was sure to be an explosive third act. When it finally does come, though, it's treated with a shrug. And once the horror is over, no attempt is made to explain or even explore the situation. It may as well have been a local news segment. Though I have no complaints about the writing style, this book would have benefited from a deeper look into its characters' motivations. (Grade: B-)

Everything is Awesome!

Though we're living in a fantastic era for kid-targeted movies that include plenty of adult-friendly material, not every movie fits the bill. Sometimes, it's pretty apparent: The Nut Job clearly had nothing that would interest me. Sometimes, it's hidden: The trailer for Frozen made it look like a series of juvenile butt jokes, but it soon became clear that I'd love it. It takes some digging to find kids' movies I want to see.

So when The Lego Movie came along, I was perfectly prepared to skip it. I thought it'd be a mercenary, two-hour toy commercial. But it didn't take long for that preconception to start crumbling. Critics I trust began to talk it up. Friends with children were rhapsodizing about it. Every other post on Facebook was about its earworm of a theme song. Movie podcasts began to ignore Oscar talk in order to chat about The Lego Movie, instead. Obviously, this was something I needed to check out.

Ostensibly, the movie is a pretty standard hero's journey. Everyday guy learns he's the key to saving the entire world, and is joined in his quest to defeat the evil villain by various sidekicks and a love interest. Except in this movie, all those characters are plastic bricks. And blanketed on top of the hero's journey is a morality tale about both the dangers of conformity and the importance of cooperation. You'd think those themes would conflict, but The Lego Movie manages to strike a good balance. It even manages to wedge in a surprising plot addition in the third act that I don't think anyone saw coming.

The acting is superb from top to bottom. I normally get a bit itchy about actor types snagging voice work from the voiceover talent pool, but it worked well here. Chris Pratt is basically Andy Dwyer in Lego form for this movie, and it shines with gleeful enthusiasm. Elizabeth Banks, Alison Brie, Will Arnett, Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, and everyone else embodies the perfect character for their voice. Special mention has to be made of Liam Neeson, who puts his silky purr to good use, and immediately tweaks it playfully a moment later.

I may not have seen this movie if it weren't for all the strong word-of-mouth, which is a good thing. That strong word-of-mouth also built up my expectations, though, which isn't. The movie wasn't as fantastic as I'd been led to believe. Still, it was an extremely solid, entertaining flick, especially for February. And there is certainly one thing the crowd was entirely correct about. That theme song is INFECTIOUS.

The Lego Movie: B+

Fajitas Up!

I did not plan to make three food-related posts in a row on this blog that is ostensibly devoted to entertainment. It just turned out that way. Look on the bright side. I didn't write three posts in a row about my opinions on the capital gains tax or the societal debate about public breastfeeding. You could have stumbled onto a lot worse.

Today's culinary delight isn't a TV episode or a podcast, though. Today, we enter the realm of games. It was more than a year ago that I mentioned a branch of minigame that is so expansive in my gaming experience, it deserved its own entry. The day has come to discuss... Food-Related Time Management!

I always feel kind of silly when I admit how much I love this style of game, because the concept is kind of goofy. Customers appear in your shop (or restaurant or wedding reception or what-have-you), and put in their requests. You complete their orders, collect the cash, and send them on their way, hopefully with a smile on their faces. And that's basically all there is to it. The variations on this are endless. I kicked off this remarkable run of games with the classic Diner Dash series, in which you get bonuses for seating people wearing a particular color in the proper seats. Then came the Cake Mania series, in which you start off baking and icing a simple sheet cake, but which gets progressively more complicated when layers and toppings enter the equation. If old-fashioned decor is more your style, try out The Great Chocolate Chase, in which you sling candy bars and truffles with various flavor infusions to the full gamut of international customers, from hut-dwelling housewives with an infant dangling on their hip to kings and rani. In Go-Go Gourmet, you never even interact with your customers; you hold down the kitchen as the orders stream in from the dining room.

Conveyer belts deliver the components of your customers' meals in Burger Shop, which expands far beyond just cheeseburgers when breakfast items, soup, drinks, and dessert starts showing up. In Wedding Dash, you're more a party planner than a chef, seating guests next to the people they wish to hang out with, and making sure everyone gets all their courses and is having fun at the reception. A wide range of games under the "Papa" banner (Papa's Wingeria, Papa's Pastaria, Papa's Taco Mia, Papa's Freezeria, etc.) puts a roadside cafe in your care, making sure you can balance the demands of taking orders, cooking, and plating. And though the tasks are similar from game to game, the designers are not inept at incorporating story. The Delicious series features a protagonist named Emily, as the games progress, we learn more about her family, love life, and developing career in between the challenge of making sure the turkey stays basted and the cookies aren't burning.

I've taken a fair share of guff for enjoying these games so much. Partly, it's because they come off as the chicklit of the video gaming world. Trust me, if you run across another dude who refers to himself as a gamer, he's probably not talking about making sure the hot wings have an even coating of sauce. The bigger confusion comes from people who ask me if playing these games isn't more work than fun. "That looks so frustrating," they say. And I can see where they're coming from, but I honestly get a sincere burst of pleasure when I close out the restaurant for the day with an expert score and happy customers. Some guys get a sense of accomplishment when they crush an opposing army or rescue the princess from the tower. But me? My big sense of accomplishment comes when the bride tells me that everyone had a blast at her party.

Facebook Fury and the Naan of Tears

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 1

Sure, I love the world of entertainment. The movies, TV, books, music, and games I consume bring me great joy. It's why I write this blog in the first place. But there is a love that makes my relationship with entertainment look microscopic by comparison, and that is my love of food culture. I love eating. I love cooking. I love restaurants. I love talking about food. I love pictures of food. I love the science of food. I love watching food trends develop. I love watching food trends wither. I love debating the business aspects of food, from advertising to the fraught relationships between restauranteurs and customers.

So, with that in mind, my friend Kyle and I threw ourselves into a new venture: The Four Courses Podcast.

The first episode has just been released, and is currently available at our website (FourCoursesPodcast.com). We're working to get it uploaded to iTunes as well, but in the meantime, please feel free to stop by the website. Besides the episode itself, you'll find posts with recipes relevant to what we discussed on the show, food research topics that piqued our curiosity, and links to our social media pages.

Food is much more interesting to me as a conversation than as a presentation, so please feel free to leave a comment with your culinary opinions, suggestions for future topics, and general podcast feedback. And please, join the Four Courses community on Facebook and Twitter! An obsession with entertainment and an obsession with food dovetail quite nicely, so whether you're the type to come to movie night and talk about food, or the type to come to dinner and talk about movies, I hope you'll join us.

Spam Alert

Top Chef - Season 11, Episode 16

It's time to start bringing this train into the station, and what better place to do so than the sunny shores of Maui? Or perhaps not-so-sunny, as the chefs battle the elements for their final dishes, which probably doesn't affect your average restaurant entree.

Honey-Glazed Pork With Sweet Potato and Tumeric Puree

Who returns from Last Chance Kitchen? Who moves on to the finals? Head over to What'ere, Jane Eyre for Episode 16, and find out! Also, bring me some fresh pineapple!

The Pantheon: The Basic Eight

My entire family really likes to read. In fact, my sister handles the book section over at The Horror Honeys. We were discussing books of suspense and violence, and she mentioned that I should write a guest post about one of my all-time favorites: Daniel Handler's The Basic Eight. Unfortunately, the honeys don't allow male authors, so my prestigious guest authorship was not to be. But that shouldn't stop me from inducting this remarkable book into the Pantheon.

I was going over my “To-Read” list in Goodreads, and was starting to get a little worried that it was dwindling to nothing. Happily, I stumbled across an article full of Daniel Handler's book recommendations, and my list is back up to fighting weight. For those who don't know the name Daniel Handler, maybe the name Lemony Snicket will ring a few bells. They are one and the same, and his “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books are deservedly one of the most talked-about childrens' book series of the recent past. But those who only know him through the Baudelaire family are missing out, because a lot of the books he's written for adults are equally remarkable, especially The Basic Eight.

The Basic Eight is more psychological suspense than horror, and even the psychological suspense aspect sneaks up on you. At first glance, it's just the journal of Flannery Culp, a teenaged girl who's part of an erudite, somewhat snobby high school clique, and who has an unrequited crush on the school's golden child. But this is no everday diary; this journal is being re-edited for release to the public, because Flannery is currently incarcerated for the murder of that boy, and wants to get her side of the story out. As the book unwinds, confusing passages start to set off the reader's alarm bells. Is Flannery muddling the details on purpose? Is she misremembering? Are the authority figures she rails against truly as moronic and predatory as she claims, or is this a case of the usual teenaged sense of superiority rearing its head?

The events culminate in the murder itself, which takes place on the evening of a wild party. Out-of-control high school parties are almost never written realistically. Hell, they're hardly ever portrayed realistically on film, which you'd think would be easier. People usually just denote “out-of-control party” with a scene of someone barfing or a punch being thrown. The party scene in “The Basic Eight”, though, is truly unhinged. It goes on for pages and pages. You feel like you're getting as drunk as the characters: Events fly by before you have the chance to fully digest them, and you're simultaneously flummoxed and delighted by the usual polite social barriers completely breaking down.

There's aftermath, of course. Flannery and her cohorts may consider themselves smarter than the average bear, but their efforts to bury the events of the party and the murder soon fall apart. Even that isn't the final knife in the gut. There's one last surprise for both Flannery and the reader that suddenly unlocks all those secrets the book was hiding, and explains all the clues it was laying down.

Besides it being an effective twist, the book is just a ripping good read in general. It's funny and tense and brutally satiric. It portrays the insular world of high school perfectly. It completely nails the tone of an egocentric teenaged girl and her equally self-involved friends. Its scenarios of how general adolescent drama bullshit can turn deadly are scarily realistic. It's one of those books that I discover something new in every time I read it, and definitely belongs in my personal Hall of Fame.

Well, Isn't That SPEEECIAL?

I have a soft spot for books that have a wide scope. We experience time in an evenly-measured pace, so I appreciate the stories that zoom around in their characters' lives, through childhood, maturity, and old age. So Meg Wolitzer's 2013 novel The Interestings had bonus points going for it, even before I cracked the spine. The Interestings centers on a clique that forms at a summer camp devoted to appreciation of the arts and developing the campers' talents. As the kids age, their lives diverge, and their friendships are tested in dozens of ways, from wealth disparity to sickness to sexual awkwardness. As campers, they're so secure in their own awesomeness that they give themselves the eponymous name, but the dreams and identities they hold as teenagers soften into more realistic adult versions.

All of that is great, and Wolitzer does an admirable job of writing a realistic tone for her characters, no matter what age they are. The problem is...the meat is tasty, but it's covered by too much fat. You know those movies that you would have enjoyed more if they were half an hour shorter? This is the book version of that. Once the characters reach adulthood, the litany of problems and issues they confront goes on for far too long. It's like looking at pictures of sunsets from someone's vacation. One is pretty. Ten is tedious.

The core themes of the book are still pretty enjoyable. And I appreciate the message that people aren't as unique and special as they think (and even if they are, that's not always a positive). The point is, no matter how intriguing or dull your relationships or your daily challenges are, life itself is truly interesting. And although the book takes far too long to make that point, it's worth spending a chunk of your interesting life reading it.

The Interestings: B-

Crime and Punishment

I always have a full slate of television shows to follow, whether I'm attempting to keep up with something that's currently airing, or going back to watch something I missed the first time around. So I always feel a nice sense of accomplishment when I finish off a season, and especially so when I can wipe out two in one day. And hey, if both shows happen to be great, that's just gravy. That's what happened this past weekend, as I was able to tick two pretty wonderful shows off the checklist:


I'd been hearing some chatter about an Australian show called Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries that was streaming on Netflix, and decided to give it a whirl. While there are plenty of shows that I like, I'd say it's pretty tough to surprise me these days. And this delightful little show surprised me. Think Murder, She Wrote, but instead of a wise, old spinster in contemporary America, our protagonist is a stylish, fun-loving, wealthy, kind of slutty young woman in 1920s Australia. Phryne (pronounced FRY-nee) Fisher is a free-wheeling woman who manages to balance indulging her hedonistic whims with serving the community as best she can. To her, wealth is useless if it's not put to use buying snazzy outfits, eating and drinking well, and helping the downtrodden out of their jams. Solving crimes is a lark for her, but there's a more serious purpose beneath it. The seasonal arc deals with her attempts to learn the truth about the disappearance of her sister when they were children, and to keep an eye on the man in prison who promises to trade information for leniency. A lot of the show's aspects are standard to any crime-of-the-week programs: Helpful sidekicks, exasperated policemen, a will-they-won't-they love interest, and witnesses who are curiously willing to spill their guts to an interloper. What matters is how a show pulls those requisite ingredients off, and Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries does it with a real sense of fun.


The same day I finished Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, I also wrapped up Season 1 of Orange is the New Black. I know, I've been lagging on that one, but the truth is that each episode is so meaty, I often needed time in between to digest them. The need to slow down and really engage is a compliment I don't pay to many shows, but I knew this one was special. After all, I named it my #4 show of 2013 without even having seen the whole thing. Now that I have, I stand by that assessment. This is a show that somehow manages to deftly balance comedy, drama, bureaucracy, sexual orientation, race, gender identity, class, religion, and countless other topics. Every episode feels like a full movie, because so much is layered in. We come to know how these women came to be in prison, and if we can't exactly like or identify with them, at least we get a better understanding of the ways a life can cave in on itself. People love to go on about the spate of male anti-hero shows lately, but Orange is the New Black has an interesting counterpoint: The clueless, spoiled female anti-hero. Piper Chapman may serve as an audience surrogate for navigating the rough and unfamiliar waters of prison life, but that doesn't mean she's the good guy. She can be selfish and manipulative and blindly obtuse. But in her interactions with the best crop of supporting characters on television, we can see her world slowly unfolding. The season ended on a bit of a cliffhanger, and I'm on the edge of my seat for Season 2.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries - Season 1: A-
Orange is the New Black - Season 1: A-

Mystery Weekend

When Sherlock is winkingly self-satisfied, it can be marvelously entertaining. When Sherlock is winkingly self-satisfied, it can be kind of obnoxious. With so much time between each season, fans of the show have had nothing to do but exchange idle speculation after Sherlock's supposed death in Season 2. The showrunners took one look at all the silly internet chatter about Sherlock and Watson's homoerotic bromance, and the increasingly outlandish theories about how Sherlock's death was faked, and thought, "Huh. How about we write a bunch of meta-commentary fan-service scenes that addresses all the media hysteria about this show? That'll be fun!"

And indeed it would have been, had they been able to control themselves. But unfortunately, there's just too much audience nudging, making the third season of Sherlock more about Sherlock than Sherlock. That's not to say the season was terrible; it was actually pretty decent. It just wasn't up to the standard of what I know this show can accomplish.

"The Empty Hearse"

The season opener had to get all the players back into their starting positions. That necessity is probably why of all three episodes, this is the most problematic one. After faking his death, Sherlock has been working for Mycroft as an underground agent. He has been exonerated of the criminal charges leveled against him (charges that I had forgotten all about and had to look up), and is busy trying to dismantle Moriarty's criminal network, and to ferret out the details of a suspected terrorist attack. For no particular reason, Sherlock is allowed to return to public life, which means he can reunite with Watson. Of all the ways he could do so, he chooses dressing up as a snooty French waiter and intruding on the romantic dinner Watson has planned to propose to his girlfriend Mary (Martin Freeman's real-life partner, Amanda Abbington). Sherlock has never had a functioning sense of humor, so dressing up what should be an emotional reunion as a tacky joke was a letdown. Things get more exciting when a shadowy figure arranges for Watson's kidnapping and entombs him under a pyre that is about to be lit. Sherlock and Mary save him, then move on to the terrorist plot; a bomb planted under Parliament. This, too, is eventually treated as a colossal joke. While I was happy to see the show return, and Mary is a welcome addition who blends in shockingly well, this episode was bursting to the seams with meta in-jokes and no-homo jibes that sadly bring the whole enterprise down.

"The Sign of Three"

Six months have passed, and the day has come for Watson and Mary's wedding. The episode centers on this event, which pins two baffling mysteries together and ties it all together with Sherlock's toast at the reception. This was a much better episode, for several reasons. The show dropped a lot of the meta conceits and focused on what people liked about Sherlock in the first place. Sherlock attempts to give the stirring speech his friend deserves, is paired off with an amusingly game bridesmaid, who finds his quirks endearing rather than off-putting, and manages to solve both mysteries while standing in front of a rapt crowd of wedding well-wishers. What really makes the episode crackle is a fascinating scene of one of Sherlock's mind palace fantasies, in which he is interacting via internet with a group of women who claim to have dated a "ghost" (a man who vanishes afterwards without a trace). The way this is filmed was incredible, picturing the women as witnesses in a courtroom, and makes what could have been a boring segment of a character typing into the highlight of the episode.

"His Last Vow"

More time has passed. Sherlock is kicking back in a heroin den (claiming that he's undercover), and Mary is now swollen with pregnancy. The home fires don't burn happily for long, though, because Mary has A Past. Normally, that would mean she did drugs or slept around. Not here! Sherlock cleans up and rejoins Watson in an effort to combat the powerful blackmailer Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen). Sherlock's flirtation with Mary's bridesmaid is revealed to be a ruse when it turns out she is Magnussen's assistant, and that Sherlock is merely using her. The surprises keep stacking up when Sherlock reaches Magnussen, only to discover Mary holding a gun on him. She actually used to be a spy and assassin, and there are some very clever flashbacks to the previous two episodes that depict subtle clues about her backstory. Magnussen is blackmailing her, too, and she winds up shooting Sherlock, leading to another remarkable Mind Palace sequence. In this one, he is talking to himself in the few moments after the bullet enters to work out the best way to stay alive. His pure intelligence is what pulls him through, and also what allows him to realize that Mary must have missed hitting a fatal spot on purpose. From there the story dovetails into her efforts to repair her relationship with Watson and Sherlock's pursuit of Magnussen, who was responsible for Watson's kidnapping in "The Empty Hearse". The episode is great right up until the final few scenes, in which Sherlock out-and-out murders Magnussen, which is out of character (after an idiotic confession by Magnussen, which is also out of character). The police have no option but to arrest Sherlock, whose debt to society is wiped out five seconds later when the entire British television feed is taken up by a message from the supposedly-dead Moriarty.

And that's it! Now we must patiently wait another year to find out what happens next. Whatever the pop culture chatter is surrounding this show in the months between now and then, let's just hope the showrunners can focus more on what they think Sherlock will do next season, rather than what CumberBitch23 thinks.

Sherlock - Season 3: B-

Foster the People

I get the feeling that I fall squarely in the middle of the Movie Snob Spectrum. There are plenty of silly movies that I unironically enjoy that serious film enthusiasts would look down on me for. And there are plenty of deep, arty movies I unironically enjoy that the general populace would consider me stuffy and pretentious for liking. There's room in my heart for both, so I try to keep something of an open mind, although both camps are correct that the other has its share of stinkers. There are truly movies that strike me as too dumb to waste my time with, and movies so in love with their own artistry that they become unwatchable. So when members from all over the spectrum start putting a movie on their Best Of... lists, I perk up.

That's what happened with Short Term 12, an indie drama that I saw zero marketing for. This movie came to my attention purely through word-of-mouth. Everyone I follow who saw it not only liked it, but went out of their way to set it apart as one of last year's best. So when a friend and I were going down rental options for the evening, I jumped at the chance to vote for this one. He, despite being very knowledgeable about the general movie landscape, had never heard of it (ZERO MARKETING), but was willing to give it a shot. And thank goodness, because I've been seeing some really remarkable movies lately, and this one still managed to rocket up to being one of my recent favorites.

Short Term 12 centers on Grace (Brie Larson), a floor worker at a group home for troubled, at-risk kids. Grace is extremely good at her job, striking a perfect balance between being the authority figure the kids need and the compassionate listener that they want. She works alongside Mason, her secret-but-not-really boyfriend who is similarly capable and adept at the job. We spend some time getting to know some of the residents of the facility and the problems that landed them there before the plot is propelled forward by new arrival Jayden. Jayden's situation mirrors some of Grace's own past issues, and in the face of a girl she feels she can't help, Grace's professional facade begins to crumble.

Brie Larson is just outstanding in this movie. She's one of those actresses that has been quietly building, until that one day she bursts through and you realize that she's not only outstanding in this, but has the range to be outstanding in this AND The Spectacular Now AND Scott Pilgrim vs. the World AND a bit part in Community.

There are several outstanding facets to this movie, and one of them is that it successfully portrays "the system" as both a well-meaning entity constructed to do all it can for disadvantaged kids, and as a mess of bureaucratic red tape, revolving doors for residents that never improve, and insufficient mental health care. Grace is content to work within the rules until it becomes clear that those rules are a real obstacle to helping a girl in her charge, and despite (or really, because of) her own traumas, she refuses to put up with it. This is also a film that portrays abuse and its fallout in refreshingly realistic methods. It is by turns heartbreaking, tense, and funny, and I'm not surprised it ended up on so many critics' lists of the best movies of last year. Had I seen it last year, it would have been on mine, too.

Short Term 12: A

Gulf Shore Leave

Top Chef - Season 11, Episode 15

It's time to leave the muggy swampland of New Orleans and head for the sunny shores of Maui, but before they go, the chefs have one more gauntlet to run. Who will get to bask on the beaches of Hawaii, and who will be left behind in Louisiana? There's only one way to find out!

Beef Deckle with Aged Balsamic and Purple Potato Chips

Jump on over to What'ere, Jane Eyre for Episode 15, and enjoy your last batch of Creole cuisine. If it's accomplished nothing else this season, Top Chef has certainly made me crave catfish something fierce.

Pop Culture Homework Assignment #9: Anna Karenina

When tackling gaps in my cultural history for this Homework Project, I should ideally consume the original work as it was intended. I was able to get the source material for things like Wuthering Heights and South Pacific, for instance. But other times, there's nothing to be done but to experience a work through an adaptation. I've never seen 1776 on stage, and likely never will. Today's assignment is the latter situation. I would love to have the time and concentration necessary to reading Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina, but I've been swamped lately, and had to settle for watching the 2012 movie, instead.

I knew a few things going in. I knew it involved a doomed love affair. I knew that it involved suicide-by-train. And I knew that the movie won an Oscar for the costumes, and was nominated for cinematography and production design as well. So, I was in for a visual treat. I've been told that the book can be intimidatingly dense (even a slog at times), and worried that even cut down to film length, it would be a stifling, dry movie. The Netflix disc sat on my bookshelf, unwatched for weeks. Finally, I couldn't put it off any longer, and watched it on an appropriately cold, bleak evening.

For those not familiar with the story, here it is in a nutshell: Anna Karenina (Keira Knightly) is married to a noble, but stodgy Russian government official (Jude Law). She meets military officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and the two are immediately drawn to one another. Anna gets pregnant, and though her husband attempts to save her from ruin, her destructive love for Vronsky ultimately drives Karenin to seek divorce, dooming Anna's social position and limiting her contact with her existing child. She's ostracized from society, she's intensely jealous of any interaction Vronsky has with other women, and faced with what she sees as an impossible situation, she throws herself under a train. There are also a couple of side-plots, one involving Anna's lascivious brother and his long-suffering wife, and one about the agrarian worker Levin and his efforts to woo a high-society woman.

For such a tortured, moody story, the movie is quite propulsive, and moves along at a good clip. It certainly deserved all that awards chatter about the costume and set design; this film is gorgeous. One neat thing about it is that it's set as if the story were taking place as a play - several scenes are set on the stage of a theater with no audience. It certainly fits to present such a melodrama as a theatrical presentation, even if the characters open a door on stage to find a real-life snowfield. It was a smart visual choice, and really helped engage me with the characters.

The back third, though, is a bit of an effort. Having established all the characters' motivations, a lot of time is spent reiterating Anna's tantrums and her subsequent entreaties for forgiveness. On the one hand, it helps explain how both Karenin and Vronsky get increasingly fed up with her. On the other, we the audience are getting just as exasperated. By the time she throws herself under the train, I was thinking "God, finally." The side-plots are mostly well-done, though the stakes of the Levin story don't reach the heights the filmmakers would have liked. Man likes woman. Man asks woman to marry him. Woman puts him off for a while, then says yes. The end. The actors did their best with such thin material, and if you'll forgive me for being a bit shallow, was helped by the fact that Domhnall Gleeson looked goooooood.

Ultimately, I'm glad I watched it. Does seeing the movie (even if I had watched a more faithful adaptation) take the place of reading the novel? Absolutely not. But the purpose of the Pop Culture Homework Project is to get a working understanding of the things everyone else already knows about, and on that front, this film succeeded admirably.

Anna Karenina: B-

Big Game Hunt

I may not be the biggest sports fan ever conceived, but I do enjoy certain aspects of sports culture. What's to dislike about gathering with friends, loading up on snacks, checking out the best creative output that marketers can conceive of, and watching a contest that you can immediately discuss with millions of other people? So no, you'll never see me on social media sniffing about how above the Super Bowl I am. I enjoy it, even if the DVR needs to be paused for a moment so the hostess can educate me on what a safety entails.

You can bet that there's plenty of sports analysis flying around about last night's game, but I thought it would be fun to review the Super Bowl as an entertainment experience. They certainly hope to pull in plenty of people each year that don't give a fig about sports, so it seems fair to judge how they did. From the angle of it being an exciting game, there's little that can be done. The players are going to play to win, and if, say, one team excels while the other cannot do a single thing right and the game turns into a giant blowout, DENVER, it's got the potential to be dull. Actually, I rather enjoyed it. I didn't much care who won, so the constant string of humiliations wrought upon the Broncos was pretty fascinating. It was also kind of funny to watch the tone of the announcers slowly evolve over the course of the game, from "Don't worry folks, there's a lot of game to go..." to "Well, they have a lot of work to do, but they can mount a comeback any moment now..." to "God, these people are playing some terrible football."

Aside from that, the commentary was pretty useless. It's not surprising. One of the things that keeps me from being more of a sports fan in general is that inane sideline chatter. Most of it sounds like this. What was it that Erin Andrews said? That if Denver wants to score some points, they should probably stop turning the ball over to Seattle so much? Wow, thanks for that stellar analysis. Sports commentators are terrified of dead air, but I'd rather they contribute when there's actually something relevant to mention than feel pressured to fill every second with babble.

A game so lopsided was fun for some and boring for others, but as I said, nobody can control for the entertainment value of the game itself. What they can control are things like musical performances and the much-anticipated Super Bowl commercials. How did people do on those this year? Queen Latifah sang "America the Beautiful", and looked/sounded like Latifah the Beautiful while doing it. I've actually seen a lot of online debate about opera soprano Renée Fleming's rendition of the National Anthem, which surprises me. I'm not talking about the mouth-breathers who were mortally offended at seeing any opera singer, and loudly agitated for a real 'Murican country singer to spew a puddle of melisma all over the stage. I mean people who are knowledgeable about the more classical arts roundly criticizing the arrangement, and Fleming's embellishments of particular passages. "Why can't someone just sing a straightforward, clear rendition without dipping and soaring and sliding all over the place?" is the gist of several grumbling music student posts I saw. I had no problem with the performance; maybe it wasn't the best arrangement I've ever heard, but vocally, it was lovely. Don't get me wrong, I would totally support a straightforward, clear rendition. But Fleming wasn't up there trying to stoke her ego with wild vibrato or glory notes.

Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers put on the halftime show, and zzz....... Sorry, I nodded off for a second there. What I meant to say is that I really appreciated their zzz...... You get the idea. Here we sit not even twenty-four hours later, and I can't remember a single thing about the halftime show. It was that boring. Now I feel bad for complaining about all that hysteria surrounding Janet Jackson's nipple; a little stupid controversy would be pretty welcome right about now.

That brings us to the ads. They're talked about in as much detail as the game every year, and despite a cute one here or there, they were mostly duds this year. Some weren't too bad: The follow-up to last year's Cheerios ad, Terry Crews partying with the Muppets, Butterfingers suggesting that a married couple would benefit from including a third, and a couple of the beer ads were fairly clever, and brought a smile to my face. Overall, though, the commercials mostly just substituted spectacle for substance. Spending a metric ton of money isn't enough anymore. You can't just have movie stars and fireworks; the concept needs to be interesting. There were only two that stood out to me, both for products/companies that I have no interest in giving my money to. Still, I do need to give them credit. I honestly forgot that Radio Shack was even still in business. They obviously know they have that reputation, and gave us this wonderful, self-effacing ad:

And then, there's Anna Kendrick for Newcastle Brown Ale. This one doesn't need any explanation:

So, despite it being a fairly spare year, entertainment-wise, it was still a fun Super Bowl. I can't recommend not giving a shit who wins the game highly enough.
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