Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Way Way Back (2013) ✭✭✭3/4

The Way Way Back is a well executed, if somewhat by-the-numbers, teen coming of age film. Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the creative team responsible for The Descendants script, the film features the same sharply written dialogue and off-beat characterizations that distinguished the 2011 Oscar nominee. Liam James, most recently seen in AMC’s The Killing stars as a shy teenager so withdrawn he borders on the comatose. His divorced mom (Toni Collette) has taken up with a perfectly dreadful car salesman (Steve Carell) who seems intent on fulfilling the role of family disciplinarian. This awkward, ersatz family takes off for Carrell’s crumbling Nantucket beach house for the summer, where James will eventually experience a series of small epiphanies that both shatter his illusions and rebuild his confidence.

Perhaps the best way to describe the film in broad strokes - very broad strokes - is a grafting of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander with Ivan Reitman’s goofy summer classic Meatballs. Here, Sam Rockwell assumes Bill Murray’s role as an ultracool hipster who befriends James’ cowering shade of Chris Makepeace. The Bergman side of the equation is supplied by Steve Carell as the meanest potential stepfather since Jan Malmsjö’s turn as the grim Bishop Edvard Vergérus. This role represents something of a breakthrough for the talented Carell; one suspects his middle-age filmography will be littered with an array of villainous jerks. Without The Office’s endearing counterbalances, the man can be truly despicable when he puts his mind to it.

But the picture’s biggest thief is Alison Janney, who runs the table as a slutty, booze-soaked neighbor. Her outsized, over-the-top performance really shouldn’t work, but Janney steamrolls the viewer into full buy-in. And yes, she even leaves Carell shuddering in her wake, as he’s somewhat restricted by his character’s terminal arseholery. It’s not a great film by any means, but The Way Way Back is an enjoyable way to spend a summer afternoon. And frankly, that seems to be the highest aspiration of American movies these days.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Stanley Kubrick's Faves

For Kubrick's 85th birthday, Nick Wrigley of Sight & Sound compiles an exhaustive list of the director's favorite films. Wild Strawberries, Spirit of the Beehive and Citizen Kane make the cut, along with some surprising inclusions...

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Babette's Feast (1987) on Blu-ray ✭✭✭✭✭

Babette’s Feast won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1987 and was the first Danish production to ever take the prestigious award. It started a hot streak of sorts, when the following year Bille August’s Pelle the Conqueror pretty much ran the table, claiming the Oscar, the Palme d’Or and the Golden Globe, further confirming to the world that the Danish film industry had arrived. While the Danes would not win another Oscar until 2010, for Susanne Bier’s In a Better World, this tiny nation of just under six million souls has become a capital of cinematic creativity, boasting such talented filmmakers as Lars van Trier, Per Fly, Anders Thomas Jensen and Nicolas Winding Refn, to name a few. If the grand moralist dirges of Carl Th. Dreyer define Danish cinema of the WWII generation, then Babette’s Feast must be considered the nation’s inspirational exemplar for baby boomers and beyond.

Directed by Gabriel Axel and based on a short story by Isak Dinesen, Babette’s Feast has the feel of an austere fairy tale for adults. Set in a remote village of thatched huts on the windswept Danish coast in the 19th Century, the story tracks the lives of two sisters: Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) who have devoted themselves to performing good works for the less fortunate of their tiny community. Their father, a charismatic minister (Pouel Kern), built and in many ways ruled the hamlet with strict Calvinist sermons that forbade any experience of sensual pleasures. Out of devotion to their father, the sisters dismissed suitors and career opportunities alike, choosing to live out their days in spartan self-sacrifice, delivering bowls of bland soup to the elderly and infirm.

One stormy day, a visitor shows up at Filippa and Martine’s doorstep; a mysterious 35-ish woman in flight from France’s civil war. Her name is Babette and she bears a letter of introduction from a mutual Parisian acquaintance. The sisters, now elderly themselves and their beloved father long dead, take in the grateful Babette who in exchange devotes herself to their modest cottage’s menial chores. As the years pass, Babette becomes a valued and respected member of the community. When she receives a sudden financial windfall, Babette finally has a chance to repay the villagers for their unrelenting love and kindness. She decides to treat the ascetics to a special dinner; a meal so refined and sumptuous it will not only reveal her origins, it will leave the diners questioning their life-long denial of mortal pleasures.

Like all good fairy tales, Babette’s Feast has a moral. Actually it has several morals, some obvious, some buried in subtext. It’s an example of film as palimpsest; charming and engaging on its rustic surface, but laden with deep veins of meaning and nuggets of existential truth for those willing to unearth them. Along its symbolic, candlelit arc, several facets of the human condition are wistfully addressed, from gnawing regret over past decisions to the true nature of Christianity to the ever-changing definition of spirituality as defined by good works. By the final act, the artist’s place in society becomes a central theme and despite its gray skies and cold, biting winds, Babette’s Feast offers a most sunny and optimistic assessment of that uneasy coexistence. It also presciently hints that future divides between artists and audiences – and between deity and worshiper – will be spanned by bridges built of gentleness and respect.

Disc Review

The disc retains the gray, murky moods of the original without the excessive enhancement that distinguishes – or plagues – so many recent blu-rays. Babette’s Feast is a story set in ocean mist and thick walled window-lit interiors perfectly captured by cinematographer Henning Kristiansen, who clearly drew inspiration from classic Flemish painters. Sourced from the original camera negative, the 1.66:1 transfer is meticulously clean and has a welcome lack of grain. The food preparation scenes have a lighting scheme motivated by a flickering wood stove and the shot-to-shot consistency is impressive.
Likewise, the 2.0 surround track was mastered from original elements, rendering the film’s hushed whispers and pounding winds with effective levels and clarity. The film’s thoughtful pauses and meditative moods are free from noisy distractions.

New interviews with director Gabriel Axel and actor Stéphane Audran
Axel, a mere 94 years young at the time of the interview, shows the passionate giddiness of a schoolboy when when discussing Babette’s Feast. He describes in detail his analysis of the film as a story of love and the friendly competition he had with Chabrol in winning the directorial assignment. 8 min. Audran’s interview is called Through Babette’s Eyes and touches on many aspects of the production. Audran recalls her efforts to learn Danish phonetically and a number of creative changes she suggested for the script. She lavishes director Axel with praise, saying his vision and blocking made acting “as natural and easy as breathing.” 25 min.

Karen Blixen—Storyteller, a 1995 documentary about the author of the film’s source story, who wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen
Produced for Danish TV, this program deals mainly with Blixen’s life after her return to Denmark from Africa in 1931. We learn much about her unique persona, including her chronic struggles with spinal syphilis which she contracted from her unfaithful husband in Kenya. Through archival film interviews she granted over the years and contemporary commentary from friends and colleagues, a rich portrait is painted his this singular talent, including her friendships with Chaplin and Hemingway. While little here is specific to Babette’s Feast, fans of Blixen’s work will find this 90 minute supplement enthralling.

New visual essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda
Entitled Table Scraps, Almereyda’s essay is Illustrated by film stills and narrated by actress Lori Singer. The film’s religious aspects are discussed, with an emphasis on universal themes of spirituality. The lives of Blixen and Babette shared several parallels and the piece carefully examines them. Almereyda goes into great, at times amusing, detail on the admiration – you could call it a school boy crush – that Orson Welles felt for Blixen in the 1950s. As a postscript. the essay features a lengthy conversation with photographer Peter Beard, who took the last known pictures of Blixen in 1961. After initial trepidation, Beard got to know her well during the sessions, which were conducted shortly before her death. 25 min.

New interview with sociologist Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson about the significance of cuisine in French culture
A must for foodies, this 17 minute segment deals mainly with the history of French cooking, focusing on the career of Marie-Antoine Carême. In the early 1800s, Carême became the world’s first celebrity chef and is considered by many the father of modern French cuisine. Ferguson also discusses specific dishes prepared by Babette and their historical backgrounds.

In this unrestored teaser, films stills are accompanied by glowing endorsements from a number of prominent critics. It’s a bit nostalgic to see the animated logo of now defunct Orion Classics; it adorned many of the biggest art-house hits of the 1980s.

PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu and Dinesen’s 1950 story
This 64 page publication has credits, film stills and notes on the transfer. Le Fanu’s essay covers a lot of ground succinctly, dealing with the film’s international aspects, its allusions to modern concepts of Christianity and the surreal qualities of Babette’s gourmet dinner to name a few. As an unexpected bonus, Dinesen’s original short story, which first appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal magazine in 1950, is reprinted in its entirety.

Final Thoughts

Among the many riches of Babette’s Feast is a rare and clever parallel drawn between altruism and artistry. According to Dinesen and Axel, the joy bestowed upon the doer of good works stems from the same emotional needs that propel artists to ever higher levels of creativity and craft. Therein lies the secret to the success of Babette’s Feast. Despite the religious trappings, despite the self-denial and dour atmospherics, the film serves up a memorable celebration of all that is good about humanity.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) ✭✭✭✭1/2

Some of the Cold War’s most outrageous paranoid fantasies are given vivid reality in The Manchurian Candidate, John Frankenheimer's glorious and oddly disturbing entertainment from 1962. Successfully navigating the tricky line between satire and thriller, the film’s off-key sensibility creates a world that exists in a singular closed orbit, with each new narrative revelation accelerating its contorted momentum. Hidden within its creepy strata is a thorough – and often humorous - skewering of Washington politics and the manipulative but fragile egos of beltway ideologues. The notion of brainwashing is a conceptual driver and the film contains a biting and resonant message: the most resilient and dangerous form of mind control is invariably self-induced.

The film’s prologue is set during the Korean conflict. A patrol of American soldiers, including the smug and frosty Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) are taken prisoner one night when their turncoat Korean guide (Henry Silva) leads them into a trap. Three days later, the men reappear, tattered and traumatized but crediting Shaw’s extreme heroism for their survival. Upon his return to Washington, Shaw is treated to a festive hero’s welcome and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, much to the delight of his aristocratic mother (Angela Lansbury) and his stepfather, the slow witted Senator John Iselin (James Gregory).

Frankenheimer skillfully conducts this expository sequence with a cartoony elegance that quickly captures the imagination. He and cinematographer Lindon Lincoln were veterans of the burgeoning episodic TV industry of the 1950s, and both men knew the importance of broad-stroke narrative foundations. Viewers are given just enough information to follow the proceedings without telegraphing the extraordinary disclosures to come. All will be revealed in good time but, for the moment, there is a mysterious sense that underneath all the celebratory pomp and brass bands, something is terribly wrong.

When Shaw’s former platoon mates become afflicted with identical harrowing dreams, Major Marco (Frank Sinatra), now an Intelligence officer, begins an investigation into Shaw’s post-military life. Meanwhile, the Iselins commence a campaign of red-baiting, with sensational charges of communists roaming the halls of the Defense Department. Although devoid of evidence – comically, Lansbury and Gregory have trouble deciding just how many imaginary communists there are – the accusations alone are enough to grab the headlines and advance Lansbury’s crafty political ambitions for her malleable husband.

Shaw’s attempts to live a quiet life as a researcher are disrupted one day when he is taken to a shadowy Manhattan clinic for a check up. But his physical health is of no concern, for this secret examination will be conducted by Russian and Chinese experts in the science of brainwashing and post hypnotic suggestion. They must make sure the nefarious ideas implanted in Shaw’s brain back in Korea are still in perfect working order, for he will soon be called upon to execute a task; a task that will alter American history.

Despite the script’s rich plotting – some could say over plotting – The Manchurian Candidate is first and foremost an actor’s picture. The performances here are alive with a fiery vigor. The limits of audacity are stretched, but never exceeded, attesting to Frankenheimer’s impressive sense of just how much he could get away with. The film’s giddy gamut of acting styles is wide ranging, but the diversity works to create an off balance and slightly surreal effect. The bad guys – for lack of a better term – tend to be classically trained, technique driven talents, dripping with tragedy and tension, while the stalwart forces for good evoke a comforting, relaxed naturalism.

Harvey’s turn as Shaw is a memorable, astonishingly effective performance that takes advantage of his innate tendency to ham. Blessed with superb dramatic tools – intense, smoldering good looks and a baritone of sufficient power to shake the pyramids – Laurence Harvey became a fan favorite in the 1960s without, oddly enough, ever earning the unqualified respect of Hollywood. His short career was marked by performances that were supremely calculated and self consciousness, rather than deeply empathetic and organic. Harvey’s highly preened interpretations were the antithesis of the Method, but his popularity proved that significant numbers of moviegoers still found old school, diagrammed acting fun to watch. Lansbury, who received an Oscar nomination for her role, serves as a bridge to the new aesthetic, giving her Lady Macbeth a modern spin replete with media savvy and hinted forays into the taboo.

But the picture is stolen - at least long term borrowed - by Sinatra and Janet Leigh, who doesn’t let her character’s lack of necessity dampen her spirits in the least. Surrounded by these outsized characters - including the great John McGiver as the Iselins’ liberal neighbor; in one scene hilariously referring to an Iselin costume party as “a fascist rally” – Sinatra and Leigh’s success is a clear example of addition by subtraction. And if Sinatra was intimidated, as off screen gossip suggests, he didn’t show it. He and Leigh strike refreshing tones of clarity and practicality, in stark contrast to the script’s dark, multi-layer subterfuges, and emerge as the only remotely sensible characters in the entire production.

Frankenheimer’s big, suspenseful, nail-biting finish is complete with its own symbols, surprises and subversions, including an unsubtle dig at how the right wing uses religion, and vice-versa, to attain selfish goals disguised as altruisms, along with a chilling opinion of how America’s wealthy and privileged families view their offspring. The film’s lack of total resolution no doubt fed the era’s conspiracy theorists, but Frankenheimer’s goal was to shine an absurdist light on the nation’s high ranking hypocrites, not offer neatly wrapped epiphanies. By the end of The Manchurian Candidate a few of the cold war paranoiacs may have left the scene, but the paranoia raged on.

In 1962, The Manchurian Candidate was a film that cleverly glided along two tracks; it could be appreciated as a subtle political satire, or enjoyed as an exciting, straight ahead spy thriller. Today’s viewer will likely savor both aspects, in addition to being awestruck by film’s amazing predictive powers. One year after its release, an American president would be assassinated by a troubled young man – a young man from a sketchy background; who had once lived among America’s enemies – with the physical circumstances of that crime eerily similar to those depicted in this film. It will probably never be known if the tragedy of November 22, 1963 was a case of life imitating art, but those events, along with today’s nasty, hyper-partisan political atmosphere, lend a startling resonance to the film that it lacked when first released. In the truest sense, The Manchurian Candidate is a classic, for time has only increased its accuracy and immediacy.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Girl on the Train (2009) ✭✭✭✭1/2

The Girl on the Train is a complex and richly observed film all about lies; big ones, small ones, kind ones and dangerous ones. Emilie Dequenne – proving her Palme d’Or winning performance in Rosetta was no fluke – is outstanding as an aimless young woman named Jeanne, who seems to be just marking time and waiting for her life to begin.

She lives with her mother (Catherine Deneuve), who runs a day-care out of their home and scours the internet want ads in search of secretarial work for her unambitious daughter. Concurrently, we meet a Jewish family lead by a successful lawyer (Michel Blanc), his precocious grandson Nathan (Jeremie Quaegebeur) and Nathan’s estranged parents (Matheiu Demy and Ronit Elkabetz). The film is divided into two parts, and the bulk of the first act deals with Jeanne’s burgeoning relationship with a dodgy amateur wrestler (Nicolas Duvachelle), who mysteriously always has plenty of Euros on hand.

The impressionable Jeanne slowly falls under the full sway of her hunky suitor, but an act of violence reveals the shocking true nature of their relationship, and eventually Jeanne realizes that in the most important romance of her life, she has been treated as a virtual nonentity.  The sum total of the lies Dequenne has been told throughout the film begin to seriously affect her psyche, blurring her own ability to judge real from imaginary.

She then concocts a fable that casts her as the pitiable victim of a hate crime, and the news media, being what it is, latches onto the story and transforms it into a nationwide spectacle. When Deneuve turns to her old flame Blanc for legal help, eventually Jeanne meets young Nathan, whose unrelenting frankness gets him barred from the dinner table, and two of them spend an innocent night together that shows her the value of sharply defined truth, and ultimately changes her course in life.

Director Techine is operating on many levels of commentary here, and he does a great job of tangling the narrative threads in such a way that they form a strong rope rather than a hopeless jumble. He uses visual design as a subtle way of depicting not only class differences, but mental acuity as well.

Deneuve and Dequenne dress in garishly mismatched colorful patterns, while Blanc and his family are always clad in muted solid colors. Deneuve’s suburban home is decorated in busy floral prints while Blanc’s office is painted in charcoal and off white. Blanc invariably leaves his window open, letting in the clamor of the street, and while his daughter-in-law complains about the noise, Blanc is so mentally focused the din does not bother him.

Blanc is not susceptible to outside influences, be it the rumble of random traffic or the droning of the news media. That trait has been inherited by Nathan, who sees through the clutter of adult lies with wisdom far beyond his years. Or perhaps, like a character from a J.D. Salinger story, it is his lack of years that gives him such moral certainty.

Regardless, Nathan and Jeanne manage to find their way to personal peace, despite the swirling maelstrom of distortions and half-truths that surrounds them. And yes, Nathan’s character does take on religious overtones, as if this young Jewish child has been sent to save the world; and if not the whole world, at least one confused and bewildered soul.


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Friday, July 12, 2013

Bunchie's Kitchen: Lamb and Chicken Biryani

I've been madly in love with Indian Cuisine most of my adult life and Biryani ranks up there with my favorite dishes. The cooking however tends to be quite time consuming and labor intensive. Over the years, I've developed an approach designed for efficiency without sacrificing flavor. My recipe, which is derived from the classic book Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cooking (buy it HERE), will save you a few steps, a bit of fat and at least 30 minutes off the process described in the book. It's still a fair amount of effort, but the results are more than worth it.

  • You will need a heavy covered pot of at least 4.5 quart capacity that is oven safe. I use a Le Creuset "E" dutch oven. 
  • A food processor, blender or - my recommendation - a mini-chopper like THIS
  • A clean coffee grinder 


2 cups long-grain rice

About 3 tbsp salt

1 tsp saffron threads (you can substitute safflower threads from the Mexican spice aisle, much cheaper with similar flavor)

2 tbsp warm milk

3 medium-sized onions, peeled

4 cloves garlic, peeled

3/4 inch cube of fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped

3/4 cup roasted peanuts (any kind of nut will work)

Cooking oil of your choice

1/4 cup golden raisins

1 lb boned lamb meat from the shoulder, cut into 1 inch cubes

1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1 inch cubes

1 cup sour cream (The original calls for yogurt, but I prefer the flavor of sour cream)

2 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces


6 whole cloves

1 tsp whole black peppercorns

1/2 tsp whole cardamom seeds

2 tsp whole cumin seeds

2 tsp whole coriander seeds

1 1-inch stick of cinnamon

About 1/6 of a nutmeg

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper flakes

RAITA (for garnish)

8 oz sour cream

1/2 cup finely grated cucumber

1 teaspoon ground cumin.


1. Wash the rice in several changes of water. Drain it and put it in a large bowl. Add 2 quarts water and 1 tbsp salt. Mix and soak for 3 hours.

2. Put the saffron threads in a nonstick frying pan and set over a medium flame. Toss the threads about until they turn a few shades darker. Put the warm milk in a small cup. Crumble the saffron into the warm milk and let it soak for 3 hours.

3. Put 1/2 cup nuts into mini chopper and pulse a few times to coarsely chop. Set aside on a plate.

4. Put a few swirls of oil into the dutch oven and turn heat to medium high.

5. Chop the lamb into 1 inch cubes

6. Add the lamb cubes to the dutch oven and brown on each side. You may have to do this in a couple batches.

7. While lamb is browning, chop one of onions coarsely, then combine with garlic, ginger, remaining 1/4 cup peanuts, and 3 tbsp water into the container of the chopper. Blend until you have a paste.

8. Remove lamb to a bowl when browned, and add another couple swirls of oil. Reduce heat to medium.

9. Add paste from mini-chopper. Stir and cook until paste turns a little darker, about 5 minutes.

10. Return lamb to the pot with the paste and add the sour cream one heaping tablespoon at a time, stirring well between each addition. Now put in 1 1/4 tsp salt and 1/2 cup water. Mix and bring to a boil. Cover, turn heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes.

11. While meat is simmering, put a nonstick frypan on medium high heat.

12. If chicken breasts are frozen, put in microwave for a couple of minutes (or time recommended by manufacturer) to thaw.

13. Add spice mixture to hot non-stick pan, toss for few minutes until it becomes fragrant and turns slightly darker. Be careful not to burn.

14. Add toasted mixture to coffee grinder and grind fine.

15. Add spice mixture to lamb and stir well. Replace cover and continue simmering.

16. Return non stick pan to medium high heat.

17. Slice remaining onion into thin rings (a mandoline makes short work of this) and add the onions to the hot pan. Fry and stir until the rings turn brown and crispy along the edges. Remove the onions to a plate.

Onions should be nice and dark around the edges

18. Put the golden raisins in the pan and toast until they turn plump and slightly blacken (this only takes a few seconds).

19. Remove the raisins and put the ground peanuts in the hot pan and toss until they toast a bit. Again only a few seconds. Remove to a plate and cut off heat to frying pan.

20. By now, the lamb should be done with its 30 minute simmer. Chop up the chicken into 1 inch cubes, and add to the pot with the lamb. Stir well, cover and continue simmering.

Add chicken after lamb has simmered for 30 min.

21. Drain the rice of its soaking water and add enough fresh water to cover by 1 inch.

22. Microwave the rice on high for 9 minutes to parboil. Turn on the oven to preheat to 350

23. Drain rice, turn off heat to lamb pot and stir contents well.

24. Work fast now. Put the rice on top of the meat, piling it up in the shape of a hill. Take a chopstick or the handle of a long spoon and make a 1 inch wide hole going down like a well from the peak of the rice hill to its bottom.

Make a "volcano" in the rice hill

25. Drizzle the saffron milk in streaks along the sides of the hill. Lay the pieces of butter on the sides of the hill and scatter 2 tbsp of the browned onions over it as well. Cover first with aluminum foil, sealing the edges well, and then with the lid. Bake in the oven for 1 hour.

350 for 1 hour. And my oven needs cleaning.

26. Now make the Raita. Combine the three ingredients into a bowl and stir well. Cover and refrigerate.

27. The cook has a beverage of choice in a comfy chair.

28. After an hour, remove the pot from the oven. Allow it to rest for at least 20 minutes.

27. Add remaining browned onions, raisins and nuts into the pot and stir gently. Serve with raita, a salad and PAPPADUMS.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Woman is the Future of Man ✭✭✭1/2

Woman is the Future of Man seems like an awfully weighty title for Sang-Soo Hong’s delicately populist reality show. The film invites us into a world that feels commonplace at first, but eventually viewers become immersed as long-time friends are stripped of their illusions one by one. Woman is the Future of Man is like a post-sexual coming of age film, examining that rough patch when those about age 30 have their naive dreams and aspirations replaced by the more pressing needs of survival and pleasure.

The film begins with the quiet reunion of Mun-ho (Ji-tae Yu) and Hyeon-gon (Tae-woo Kim), high school buddies who have drifted apart over the years. Hyeon-gon, an aspiring filmmaker, has returned to Korea after an extended stay in America while Mun-ho has settled into the comfortable life of a college professor complete with a townhouse and an unseen but quite vocal wife (Park Bo-yeong). As the two men get caught up over beer and fried noodles at a local cafe, their thoughts turn to their true common interest; the willowy and beautiful Seon-hwa (Hyeon-a Seong), a young woman from the past neither man has been able to forget. As their blood-alcohol levels rise and their inhibitions fall, the men decide to drop in on Seon-hwa, who has made a new life for herself in a neighboring town. Rest assured, the notion that this impromptu visit is good idea is not the only illusion that will be shattered along the way.

Sang-Soo Hong is not afraid to break his austere atmosphere with time-shifting and the film contains several flashbacks without any of the technique’s cliched visual clues. Viewers will need to be on their toes, for these vignettes impart critical backstory that support the film’s final act. As the story moves deeper into the relationship of these three characters, the men’s differing perceptions of Seon-hwa take precedence and shines a spotlight on their delusions and follies. A traumatic event from Seon-hwa’s past has forged an emotional distance and renders her unfit for either man’s preconceptions. Mun-ho and Hyeon-gon’s memories are of situations and circumstances that no longer exist while Seon-hwa has been forced to confront her new realties, for better or worse.

Sang-Soo Hong has a innate gift for cinematic storytelling, plumbing deep levels of character through banal interactions in scenes that appear to occur in real time. His films have the feel of Eric Rohmer productions of the 1980s, building rich portraits through simple, but perfectly placed, details. Martin Scorsese introduces the disc, and professes a strong admiration for Hong’s crystalline way with narrative. Woman is the Future of Man is an intriguing, voyeuristic sojourn with three souls as they realize their childhood is long gone, and the relentless march of time continues.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Quickies: July 2013

Not Fade Away (2012) ✭✭1/2

This ode to the Baby Boomers is a lot like the generation it celebrates: navel-gazing, undisciplined and lacking in purpose. All about a group of New Jersey teens who form a Rock n Roll band, the movie manages to capture not one bit of the fun of 1960s adolescence. Writer/Director David Chase seems to think he’s still doing a TV show for he goes about developing his characters with the leisurely pace of a 13 week series. By the film’s end, we know little about them and care even less. The fact that much of the film’s early exposition is shot in the dark doesn’t help.

Hitchcock (2012) ✭✭✭✭

Hitchcock is a lot of fun and not just for viewers; the cast appear to be having a great time too. It’s also a love story, but unlike the darker HBO movie The Girl, this film focuses on the symbiotic relationship of Hitch (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife Alma (Helen Mirren), rather than the director’s unhealthy infatuations with his blond leading ladies. Here we learn all about the making of Psycho and the considerable artistic and financial risks the Hitchcock family took to get it produced. Hopkins and Mirren are just what you expect - effortlessly terrific - but if Scarlett Johansen, who plays Janet Leigh, felt any intimidation it doesn’t show. The film is full of behind the scenes lore and subtle in-jokes, including an homage to Helen Mirren’s first big movie role, the teenage beach nymph in 1967’s Age of Consent. The story loses some momentum in the middle reels, but overall Sacha Gervasi does a stellar job with his first dramatic feature.

Albatross (2011) ✭✭✭1/2

A sort of coming of age drama about a failed writer’s strained family life in a small English seaside village and how his teen daughter’s free spirited new friend makes it all come crashing down. A strong cast featuring Felicity Jones, Julia Ormond, Sebastian Koch and Jessica Brown Findley (Lady Sybil from Downton Abbey) make it watchable if not exactly memorable.

The Names of Love (2010) ✭✭✭1/2

Slightly above average rom-com, greatly aided by the presence of the always excellent Jacques Gamblin and the bubbly Sara Forestier, who is kind of like Zooey Deschanel except Zooey never had this much trouble keeping her clothes on. The movie occasionally tries for some kind of meaningful subtext about racism and identity politics, but when one of the principles is so scatterbrained she occasionally walks through the streets of Paris naked it’s difficult to focus on weighty issues. It’s all generally good fun and has enough sense to get off the screen before you’re throughly sick of it.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Bunchie's Dinner Theatre: Fourth of July Brunswick Stew

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about my Dad’s Woodmen lodge and the planning of their annual Fourth of July stew sale. I thought I should go into a little more detail on this customary delight. Brunswick Stew is a culinary tradition in rural Southern Virginia. It is also popular in parts of North Carolina, Georgia and Kentucky, where it is known as “Burgoo." Both Georgia and Virginia have counties named Brunswick, and both places claim to have invented it. It's a controversy that will never be solved to everyone’s satisfaction, just as there will never be an officially accepted “best recipe” for the dish. Ingredients vary from stew chef to stew chef, but the recipe below is fairly typical:

About 70 squirrels, cut up

2 large stewing chickens, cut up

6 gals. water

2 1/2 lbs. salt pork, chopped

2 1/2 gals. butter beans(lima beans)

3 1/2 gals. cubed peeled potatoes

4 gals. chopped peeled tomatoes

1 gal. cubed peeled carrots

2 1/2 gals. freshly cut corn

1 pod red pepper, chopped

3/4 c. black pepper

1 3/4 c. salt

2 1/4 c. sugar

I’m happy to report that squirrels are no longer used, although there are theories that Brunswick Stew originated in the 1800’s as a way of making the arboreal rodents palatable. One ate what one could find in those days, and some very old recipes advocate serving the stew with chopped acorns on top as a garnish. The folks in this picture are probably fixin' to seriously chow down on some squirrel based stew.

Chicken is the meat of choice these days, deboned and skinless in a nod to health concerns, although some old timers will try to slip a few chunks of fat back into the pot when no one’s looking. The cooking technique is simple, provided one has the specialized equipment and a small army of assistants. Basically add all the ingredients in a large - and I do mean large - cast iron pot of at least 35 gallon capacity (50 if you’ve got it). Then you make a wood fire under the pot, bring the stew to boil and stir for 4 to 5 hours until all the ingredients disintegrate, or “cook up” as the stewmakers call it. You should be left with an orange colored, thick and gooey melange, with only the occasional shred of chicken or kernel of corn as evidence of the dish’s components.

The trick is to keep the fire hot and the pot stirred. Back in the 1960's when my Dad worked on stir patrol, he would cut a tree limb about 8 feet long and 4 inches in diameter, preferably from a sturdy oak. He would then skin off all the tree bark, leaving a pristine and formidable stew stirring device of unrivaled efficiency.

On July 4th, folks would begin to gather at the Woodmen camp about 11 o’clock, ravenously hungry and eager to sample the concoction. Farmers would set up their wagons and trailers for use as makeshift picnic tables, often with the stray tobacco leaf or trace of dried cow manure providing an earthy ambiance. The idea of eating piping hot stew outdoors in the middle of a steamy Virginia summer may seem counterintuitive, but eventually the diner’s natural air conditioning begins to kick in. I suppose it’s similar to the Italian tradition of consuming hot beverages on blazing afternoons; once one’s internal temperature is sufficiently raised, the surface of the sun seems cool in comparison. In short, we sweated while we ate, streams of perspiration serving as visual evidence of culinary bliss.

The Woodmen still produce their famous mid-summer delicacy, although there have been a few changes over the years. Boat oars are now used for the intense stirring, in deference not only to ergonomics but to our few remaining mighty oaks. Folks don’t hang around and sit at tables encrusted with agricultural detritus anymore, preferring to purchase the stew in to-go containers to enjoy later in the comfort of their air conditioned homes. The sale no longer occurs precisely on Independence Day but is now held the prior Saturday. The Woodmen have adopted a flexible schedule that avoids competition from local parades and allows its members to enjoy the Fourth with their families at the beach; a decadent luxury unthinkable when the stew tradition began.

In case you’re wondering if the splendors of Brunswick Stew can be replicated by the home cook, the short answer is no. The internet is jam packed with Brunswick Stew recipes, all promising to render delicious results. The ones I have tried make a fine vegetable soup at best, with none of the magical, viscous alchemy that elevates Brunswick Stew to the level of iconic cuisine. It’s simply a matter of physics. A typical home cooktop is not going to generate the blast furnace heat required to alter foodstuffs at the subatomic level. Your overpriced stainless steel stockpot may bear the autograph of a famous Food Channel personality, but it’s not going to conduct heat like an enormous, well seasoned cast iron vessel. Your tightly insulated kitchen doesn’t permit the balmy, humidity tinged breezes of a cloudless Southern morning; vapors that give the mixture a sultry majesty.

Worst of all, your stew will not have been prepared by kind hearted, hard working men who would rise at 3 AM on a major holiday to pluck chickens and pick home grown vegetables by the glow of a summer moon. They did it out of love: love for tradition, for family and for community. That generation of men are all gone now but, despite a few allowances for modernity, the tradition still continues. While we become ever more polarized and fragmented as a nation, amazingly there’s still one thing all can agree on: the taste of Brunswick Stew on a hot summer day is proof of angels among us.

Monday, July 1, 2013

When a Forest Turns Into Hell

Yesterday 19 firefighters from Prescott, Arizona perished in the line of duty. The men were part of an elite squad of first responders, battling a newly erupted blaze near the tiny village of Yarnell. This has been a busy fire season. However, thanks to the efforts of these men 2013 had so far seen little loss of life or property. We live about 40 miles from Yarnell, but last night the wind brought the smoke to us and the air filled with bitter, acrid fumes that made our eyes water and breathing difficult.

We can only imagine what these heroic souls endured in their final minutes. These men were among the very best in their profession and had successfully waged war against nature's hellfires numerous times. This time something went wrong. Someone miscalculated or the wind made an expected shift. We will never know for sure.

Prescott is a charming historic town that at one time was the capital of the Arizona territory. It is set amid great natural beauty with rocky canyons, crystal lakes and stands of towering Ponderosa Pines which, this time of year, can ignite into the furnaces of purgatory. Prescott's population is about 30,000. I don't know how many firefighters the town employs, but suddenly losing 19 must be a devastating blow. At any rate, it is the largest single day loss of first responders since 9/11.

There are many ways to donate money to help the families of the fallen and I will provide links below. But equally important, let's all take a moment to think about those who risk their lives for us everyday and the tremendous gratitude and respect we owe them.


100 Club of Arizona

Prescott Firefighter's Charities