Culinary Segregationists and the Sugar-Frosted Con Job

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 24

February is a strange month. It's short! But this year, it's longer! It's freezing cold! Now it's 77 degrees for no reason! Now, five inches of snow are falling and melting within six hours! When the weather goes wonky, it's time to turn to the world of food for some comfort, and this month's topics have that in spades. Join me and guest host Pamela Merritt by heading on over to the Four Courses website and giving Episode 24 a listen!

Topics include Pho Grand, the immense happiness brought into our lives by peppers, a dive into the homey world of casseroles, and the societal implications of upscale comfort food. Please enjoy!

Return of the King

Well, this is embarrassing. I went looking for my post about the first season of the musical comedy series Galavant so I could link back to it when talking about Season 2, and I guess I just never brought it up. I can't think why, because it was a delightful show, and remains so to this day. Like another show that will appearing on this blog soon, I can't recommend it to everyone, but for those enjoy this genre, it definitely hits the sweet spot.

Galavant is the tale of a medieval hero doing the normal things a hero does in these types of story. Conquer evil, marry his lady love Madalena, etc. Trouble is, circumstances keep getting in the way. Like, oh say... an evil king kidnapping the lady love, who turns out to be more evil than even the king who kidnapped her, and a visiting princess negotiating for her parents' release from prison falls in love with Galavant and then King Richard and Galavant team up to take on Queen Madalena, who's now paired up with King Richard's crony Gareth, and... Well, there's a lot. And that's just the first season!

In the second, Galavant and King Richard have teamed up to rescue Isabella, who's been promised in marriage to her pre-teen cousin, while Madalena seeks to build on her power by learning evil magic, and Galavant's squire Sid accidentally kills him, but that can be undone, and Isabella worries Galavant doesn't love her any more, and there's a gay bar in the middle of the forest, and King Richard's friend Roberta has feelings for him, and Gareth grows a soul, and... Well, there's a lot.

The jokes are pretty spot-on, but where this show really shines is in the music, which is hilarious and catchy. There isn't really much more to say, except that if you like musical comedy, or just like to see Joshua Sasse with his shirt off (which, why wouldn't you?) then you should be watching this show. Or should have been, that is. Its second season was a surprise renewal, and so a third season is highly unlikely. The episodes are still on Hulu, though, so go catch up with them there. Even if this was a brief, fluffy little trifle in the entertainment universe, we could hardly have asked for a better one.

Galavant - Season 1: A-
Galavant - Season 2: A-

They Got the Beat

Oscar season is often a time I'll catch up with the movies I missed that got awards buzz in the previous year. Now that time has passed and the public's attention has moved on, do these movies deserve the praise they got? Or were they a lot of hype with not much substance to back it up? Today's entry is a strange one. Damien Chazelle's 2014 movie Whiplash won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons), Best Editing, and Best Sound Mixing, and was nominated for Best Writing and naturally, Best Picture.

So why is it strange? Because I fully support the awards it won, and fully support the awards it lost. J.K. Simmons really did deserve all the raves he got for his performance, but on the whole, Whiplash is...not a good movie. The story in a nutshell is a journey we've seen several times: Talented student endures hell from a punishing mentor and in the process, hones his art. The specifics here being that Andrew (Miles Teller) is a drum student in the jazz program at a prestigious music academy, and Fletcher (Simmons) is the director who rules with an iron fist.

These two, it soon becomes clear, are made for each other, because they're both so passionate as to become destructive. Andrew has a tense relationship with his family, has no friends, and is both unable and unwilling to put any effort into forging any sort of romantic relationship. All he cares about is the music. Fletcher is physically and emotionally abusive to his students, routinely driving them to tears, to constant states of quaking terror, and in one case, even further. All he cares about is the music.

Sounds pretty interesting, right? We get to watch an unstoppable force square off against an unmovable post, and the result is that artistic endeavors become better and more creative. Hooray! There's just one problem. Actually, strike that. There's just two problems. Let's take them separately:

1) Enough with the Tortured Asshole Genius trope, already. Is it me, or is 85% of film and television based around this now? Nobody can just be talented. Nobody can get where they are through hard work and having supportive friends and family. No, there must be Grand Obstacles to overcome. If you don't suffer to the point of madness or death for your art, nothing you produce can have any worth. This doesn't just go for music. If you want to be a chef, a writer, or even an assistant to a magazine editor, you have to go through THE SHIT. And by the way, having a horrendous personality is not only a reasonable by-product of your suffering, it's actually a necessary component for success.

Both Andrew and Fletcher are objectively terrible people. Which is fine; I don't need movies to contain nothing but pleasant characters. But they, along with all of the other Tortured Asshole Geniuses these days, are actively rewarded for their behavior. Why would I want to see that? If stuff like this just happened a few times, I wouldn't care. But rewarding jerks because we simply can't ignore the burning talent their jerkiness inspired seems to now be the norm instead of the exception, and I don't care for that.

2) Let's hear it for reaching the pinnacle of art! Jazz drumming?!? One of the people I follow on Twitter summed this up nicely: "So this is The Devil Wears Prada except it’s all men and they’re making something no one wants?" Yep, pretty much. The movie tries to lampshade this by having Fletcher complain to Andrew that jazz has been ruined by mediocrity, which is why the general public doesn't much care about it anymore. That's why he's so hard on students, you see. By making them bleed and go crazy, he's just re-elevating jazz, you guys! Totally acceptable!

Indeed, if absolutely everything worked out for Andrew - if he achieved the level of talent and fame he yearns for - he'd still be ignored by 99.99% of the population, which the movie refuses to admit. They repeatedly reference famous jazz names like Jo Jones, Louis Armstrong, and Charlie Parker. All of those gentlemen were fantastic, of course, but they also belong to another era. As the movie draws to a close, we're "treated" to a drum solo by Andrew that lasts conservatively sixteen hours. As the audience, we're expected to cheer for him. This is his moment! All of the blood, sweat, and tears have paid off. Instead, it's excruciatingly dull. Even an audience that likes jazz would be sick of it by the halfway point.

So, congrats to J.K. Simmons. His portrayal of Fletcher is terrifying and raw, and a fine demonstration of some quality acting. If only the movie that contained it was as good about selling its art.

Whiplash: C+

Caesar Salad

I've always been a fan of the Coen brothers' movies in general, but there's no denying that some of them strike a much stronger chord with me than others. I hadn't heard much about their latest one, Hail, Caesar!, until my friend Kyle excitedly told me to check out the trailer. Once I did, I was as giddy as he was to see it, and we caught an advanced screening the day before it opened.

What about it was so compelling? Firstly, it promised to be a goofy romp from writers/directors I trust. Secondly, it's set in the world of Old Hollywood, which I always enjoy. And third, the cast is an embarrassment of riches, stacked to the gills with actors I love. So, did it live up to the expectations that the trailer established? Well, yes and no.

As Tasha Robinson wrote over at The Verge, it almost feels like the pilot of a television show, rather than a cohesive movie. The central character is Eddie Mannix, a studio exec played by Josh Brolin. Ostensibly, the movie is about his attempts to wrangle the difficulties of the movie-making business, from wedging an aw-shucks cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich, who just about steals the whole movie) into a hyper-articulate drawing room drama to covering up the pregnancy of an unmarried aquatic ballet star (Scarlett Johansson) to throwing a couple of nosy twin columnists (Tilda Swinton) off the trail of studio gossip.

And those are just three of what seems like about twelve subplots. Some of the stars show up for the briefest of cameos before they vanish from the movie (I believe the screentime of Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Ralph Fiennes, and Scarlett Johansson add up to about four minutes combined). It makes for some seriously disjointed storytelling. In fact, the only actor who has a hefty chunk of story is George Clooney, who aptly pulls off the role of a slightly-ditzy, easily-persuaded movie star who believes the argument of whoever the last person to speak to him was. Channing Tatum also pops up just long enough to prove that his stardom is no fluke, tapping his way through an ode to South Pacific that made my eyes shine with joy.

If the cast wasn't as talented as they are, I'd likely be a lot harsher on this movie. It's a messy mix of stories that doesn't have a whole lot of connective tissue tying it together. But it's acted superbly, and underneath the silly goofs of all these tangential subplots, a real love of the movie-making process shows through. It also proves that the Coens can make a compelling movie that never gets more violent than a backslap to someone's face.

Hail, Caesar!: B

The Lost Generation

My personal blog has long since been decommissioned, but I'll go ahead and share my latest Facebook status update with you: "I'm doing that weird thing where I put a lot of thought into what would be the perfect names for the kid I'll never have and don't want. Like, to the point that I'm thinking up defenses in case someone tries to argue me out of them." Yes, it's true. I have second-guessed every single major life decision I've ever made, with the exception of one: I'm very comfortable in the knowledge that I do not want children. This sometimes puts me at odds with the rest of society, not only in general, but in the specific realm of entertainment. For example, if a character reaches for a "Think of the children!" type of excuse without any other supporting motivations, I am not going to leap to their defense.

The repercussions of human reproduction are on my mind because I just wrapped up a pair of books that deal with the responsibilities we have to our offspring. Though one was a novel and one a series of essays, they both make powerful arguments for taking great care in how you handle the generations of family that surround you in time.

The fictional book was Octavia E. Butler's 1979 novel, Kindred. It's only February, but I can already tell that this is likely to land on my top five at the end of the year. The protagonist of Kindred is Dana, an African-American writer married to a white man living a fairly stable life in California in 1976. One day, Dana feels dizzy and passes out, only to find herself in Maryland just before the Civil War breaks out. She arrives just in time to save a white boy named Rufus from drowning, a white boy who will turn out to be selfish, violent, and oh yeah...her great-great-grandfather.

When she returns to 1976, barely any time has elapsed. Dana figures out that she's called to the past whenever Rufus is in mortal danger, and she returns to the present when she herself feels like she's in mortal danger. Given that she's a black woman who has landed on a Southern plantation, you can guess that danger isn't in short supply. It's really fascinating to watch her attempts to strike all the necessary delicate balances.

She must survive, but she doesn't want to be completely servile. She wants the union between Rufus and a slave girl to eventually happen, but is unhappy with his attitude towards the slaves under his family's watch. It's a really fantastic book, and a much-needed reminder that the horrors of slavery can't just be summed up in a dry recitation of facts in a high school history textbook.

The other book took a much different tack. This essay collection is called Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, and was published in 2015. It's edited by Meghan Daum, and features writers from all over the society spectrum: Men and women. Gay and straight. Single and partnered. People who actively attempted to have children at one point, and people who never even wanted to try. People who agree with the monumental importance and attention that children have taken on in modern society, and people who disdain it.

It's silly that this even needs to be said up front, but it always does when the topic arises, and in fact is mentioned in the majority of the essays: None of these people hate children. They aren't bitter old cranks who sit in rocking chairs on their front porches and yell at kids to get off their lawns. What they are is very introspective and articulate about the thought processes that went into their ultimate decision to forgo the experience of raising children. While some of the authors expect a certain amount of regret to creep in as time passes, others are as sure as I am that children aren't the missing puzzle piece to a full and happy life. The essays also generally incorporate the author's fears about what sort of a parent they'd be. The idea of being responsible for the moral upbringing, physical safety, and financial security of another human being terrifies some of them, while others are fairly sure they'd be up to the challenge.

I also have to point out that it can be highly entertaining to poke fun at the foibles of parents, and the tendency of some of them - SOME of them - to be smug and condescending towards the happily child-free among us. The essayists understand this, and can be amusingly acerbic about the friends and family that assure them that they'll change their minds at some point.

If there's one issue to take with the book, it's one of necessity. Essays are written by writers, and writers are artists, and artists have a particular and specific worldview when it comes to topics like this. They generally need a lot of time to themselves and their financial situations are always precarious, so that informs a lot of the essays. I confess it would have been nice to read something with a point of view that's more universal. There are plenty of mechanics and teachers and scientists who also don't want children, so having so much revolve around the "creative process" did get a bit numbing after a while.

Still, with that said, it was an extremely interesting read, and gave me some really good insight into the many paths other people have taken to reach the same destination I have. We like your kids. Really! We'll just leave the diapers, tantrums, and expenses to you.

Kindred: A
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: B

Small Plate #4: Bloody Mary Vs. Mimosa

Four Courses Podcast

The podcast has been too congenial lately. It's time for a good ol' fashioned fight! Guest host (and Four Courses co-founder) Kyle Kratky was good enough to devote some time to shredding my opinion and hurt my feelings, and let's hope I got some good digs in at him as well.

In Episode 23, Kyle and I talked about the social implications of brunch. But forget all that jazz about the betterment of society! Let's talk booze!

Do you favor the Bloody Mary when you knock back a drink at brunch, or are you in the Mimosa camp? Go check out our debate over which one is better on the Four Courses page, then stop by Facebook to cast your vote!
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