Monday, March 28, 2011

Netflix Challenge: TV Edition (Mostly British)

Comedy recommendations are hard. What people find funny is so subjective. I totally fit the profile of someone who should like Arrested Development and The Office, but they just don't do it for me. But my friends at Extra Hot Great were very adamant about Archer, and even though we don't always agree (see Arrested Development and The Office), they so had my number on this one. I tore through the first season on Netflix, in a weekend, then caught up with the current one.

On the surface, Archer is an animated parody of 60s spy shows, but it's so much more than that. It lovingly skewers pretty much every movie and TV genre you can think of, especially classic sitcoms. It is deeply fucked up and frequently dirty, and crosses all kinds of lines. As absurd as the plots get in each episode, it has an unexpected continuity that makes its over-the-top characters seem like real people. I love the look of the show - both the animation and the weird world which is somehow both the 1960s (reel-to-reel mainframes, mini sweater dresses, weird desktop computers and the KGB) and now (the internet on those tiny desktops).

The voice acting is also fantastic. It's interesting to hear H. Jon Benjamin on two shows at once playing such wildly different characters (he's asshole superspy Archer and sad-sack Bob on Bob's Burgers). His voice is pretty much his own on both shows, but the characters couldn't be more different. It's fun to see how the acting, the writing and the animation come together to make both characters equally credible. Archer also has Jessica Walter, Chris Parnell, Aisha Tyler and George Coe, all actors I like a lot. And I love that there's an opening title sequence that treats the actors just like they would on a live-action show.

I recognize that it's not for everyone, but for my money this is the funniest sitcom on TV right now. Season one is on Netflix Instant and season two is currently on F/X.

That Mitchell and Webb Look
I have no idea how this British sketch show ended up in my queue, but it's good! It reminded me of Kids in the Hall, Mr. Show and The Catherine Tate Show all rolled into one. It's very silly and Mitchell and Webb are very charming. My favorite sketch was about a What Not To Wear-type show where the woman being made over wore a burkha. The show does that thing where long sketches are broken up and we keep coming back to them throughout the show. In this case, we come back to Mitchell and Webb as "themselves," worrying if the sketch is racist. One of them (I don't know which is which) is still wearing the burkha, presumably because he enjoys it. When he takes it off, he's in blackface. "Blacking up again, I see," the other guy says with a sigh. It all seemed pretty tame to me, and clearly sending up both racists and political correctness, but I'm confident an American show would never dare go there, and it was my biggest laugh of the episode. I only watched the first episode, but I'll definitely come back to it when I need a fun way to kill half an hour.

Downton Abbey
This BBC miniseries got a lot of buzz when it was on Masterpiece Theatre a few months ago, so I checked it out even though my anglophilia generally runs more to scifi and comedy than something this aggressively classy. I mean, I liked Gosford Park but it didn't move me, and I've never seen Upstairs/Downstairs. But I am seriously hooked on this. It's really nothing special - a classic-style British period soap, with all the servants and the lords and ladies and lots of quippy gossip and sneaking around. The plot centers around obscure inheritance laws which I still don't fully understand. And there's a smattering of those annoying "olden times are craaaazy!" moments that drive me so nuts on Mad Men (there it's "pregnant women smoking??" here it's "the Titanic? But it's unsinkable!"). But it has a nice modern approach that feels fresh, and is also set a time when the aristocracy was starting to change (that obscure law is largely wrapped up in the fact that women can't inherit, which several of the characters are rightly pissed about). The writing is quick and clever, and frequently surprisingly funny. It's shot on location and it's gorgeous to look at. The cast is great, led by Maggie Smith at her Maggie Smithiest. It's a delightful way to spend a lazy weekend afternoon.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

What A Big Mouth You Have

...The better to yawn with, my dear!

Okay, so, having weirdly seen both bad teen fairy tale updates in movie theaters this season, I feel like I should write up Red Riding Hood along with Beastly. But I don't have much to say about Red because of the way I was SO BORED.

By all normal markers, Red Riding Hood is the better movie. It appears to have a decent budget, it's mostly beautifully shot, it has B-list actors instead of C to D ones (sorry, NPH). It's a werewolfy take on the story, but not a modern one, so it's set in a vaguely medieval world where talk of demons and witches makes more sense (although I found its sets no more convincing than Beastly's fake New York, which wasn't helped by the way everyone always looked underdressed for the weather, but not enough to justify it by being tawdry).

But I think the movie's surface "quality" took the fun out of it for me. It wasn't laughably bad, but it wasn't good either. It just stuck in that no-fun place in the middle. It seemed unsure of what it wanted to be. Was it a horror movie? A clever twist on an old story? Forbidden romance? Twilight or Hunger Games? It was kind of all over the place, and the fairy tale felt like an afterthought, tacked onto a run-of-the-mill werewolf movie because somebody thought they needed a hook.

The pace is plodding, and I had a hard time getting a sense of time. Typically, the story is supposed to take place over three nights of the full moon. After the second one I looked at my watch, shocked that we weren't done yet. And even though they say three over and over again, I think there were four. Maybe five. Some nights seemed to last just minutes as required by the plot.

Speaking of plot...there sure was a lot of it! I'm not a total M. Night Shamalyan hater but I worry when a film seems to be emulating The Village. I suppose I should've seen the twist coming, but I was too busy being annoyed by how self-consciously the film kept trying to throw us off the scent (ha!) to the point where I didn't care anymore which of the dozen possible twists was the real one, and the movie actually needed to use flashbacks to remind us of stuff that had happened half an hour earlier.

The actors largely seem to be in different movies. Gary Oldman is having Dracula flashbacks, and Virginia Madsen doesn't do period well. Amanda Seyfried does her best with a lot of staring (insert joke about her giant eyes here) and the boys are pretty, which is pretty much all that's required of them. Michael Hogan basically does Drunk Tigh for an hour, which I always enjoy. Julie Christie knows exactly what movie she's in but was sadly underused.

In the end, I wanted more camp. I mean, have you seen the trailer? It strongly implied camp. And more sex. For the record, Joe, who has apparently become my go-to companion for this sort of film, liked it much better than I did (and better than Beastly...a comparison I should really stop making because they're really totally different movies). Oddly enough, my recommendation is the same as it was for Beastly: If you like this sort of thing, Netflix it. There are worse ways to spend two hours.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Martha, Martha, Martha!

Even though I still haven't even opened some of the many Chrismukah cookbooks yet, I can safely declare Everyday Food: Great Food Fast (From the Kitchens of Martha Stewart Living) the best of the bunch. Say what you will about Martha, the woman knows how to write a cookbook (or how to hire people who know how to write a cookbook). Her reputation for being overly fussy and pretentious is well-earned, but I've only come to be a fan in her looser, post-prison, live TV show years, and find her approach to food is usually pretty straightforward and easy. That's this book's mission, of course, but her Cookies book is the best thing in my kitchen, for the same reason, and I can't recommend it enough for anyone who likes to bake or wants to start. Sure, there are some insane, highly decorated things that I'll never try, and a few overly fussy directions that can usually be ignored, but mostly there are very simple recipes, beautifully photographed, and always delicious.

Unsurprisingly, Martha's books are also very well organized. The cookie book is divided by cookie texture! Everyday Food is broken up by season. Each dish takes up two pages, with the recipe on one side and a gorgeous photo on the other (I prefer cookbooks with photos, as they make it easier to make snap judgments about what I might make). Each chapter ends with recipes for sides, and the back of the book has basics and techniques like roasting a chicken, making "perfect" rice and pasta, salad dressings and sauces.

Except for when it's too hot out to want the oven on, I don't have strong seasonal feelings about food, but I've stuck to the "winter" recipes so far, and they've all been very successful, and as quick and easy as promised. I started with Chicken With Prosciutto and Sage, about which there's not much to say but I like the way the prosciutto fuses with the chicken and makes that pretty red color in the photo. (I love that all these recipes are online.) It's also my favorite kind of recipe: one that teaches a technique and can be easily adapted of modified the next time I make it.

The same is true of the Mushroom Tart I made the following week. The original recipe - puff pastry topped with caramelized onion, mushrooms, spinach and goat cheese - is delicious, and the next week I used the techniques for the puff pastry and the onions, but made sun-dried tomato pesto in place of the spinach.

Much less adaptable but so damn good: Enchiladas With Pumpkin Sauce. This is the most complicated recipe I've tried from the book so far, what with roasting the chicken (you can also just go buy a rotisserie chicken, but what's the fun in that?) and getting out the blender and wrapping the enchiladas and all, but it was well worth it. It certainly wasn't difficult, just a bit more time-consuming and dish-dirtying than the others. It's very rich, definitely not light! It tasted very authentically Mexican to me (though what do I know?), and the heated up leftovers were even better.

There's not much to say about Salmon Steaks With Hoisin Glaze, but it's my favorite food photo I've taken in a long time (sometimes I don't try very hard so I can get to eating quicker!). I was trying to be low-carb that week so instead of rice I served it with some sauteed broccolette with garlic.
If you're not a fish person, I assume this would work pretty well with chicken too.

Last but not least, Tandoori Chicken With Yogurt Sauce was a bit of a disappointment. It's not that it was bad, it just didn't have the tang or the vibrant color I associate with tandoori chicken. And the "sauce" was more of an apple slaw - a side dish rather than a condiment (that might be because I got lazy and used the food processor instead of a box grater). But there's nothing wrong with that and it was all pretty tasty. I'd love to find out what makes real tandoori chicken that amazing red, and try this recipe with a bit more spice. Also, it's basically impossible to buy a small container of plain yogurt, and I have no interest in yogurt on its own. But that's just me.

In possibly related news, my diet is not going well...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

No, wait...

...THIS is my new favorite thing on the internet.

Why doesn't Glee do real show choir stuff like this??

Do you hear the people sing? Well, do you??

This is my favorite thing on the internet right now, and it's three years old. SA showed it to us on New Year's Eve, and I thought of it again last week when people were talking about the Les Miserables concert with the Jonas brother on PBS, and yet again listening today's Slate Culture Gabfest discussion of Rebecca Black and whether or not we have the right to be forgotten on the internet, and I found myself actively seeking out more clips.

I mean, where to begin?

I'm especially curious about the boy playing Marius. Aren't we all? Even in high school, how does casting that astoundingly wrong happen? There seem to be plenty of boys in the chorus who at least look the part, and their singing...well, it can't be any worse, can it? I mean, Motel in Fiddler, Seymour in Little Shop, but Marius? There's "yay, high school, everyone gets a chance!" and then there's...this. What I wonder most is, do you think he knows it's absurd?

I imagine Corky St. Claire directing this. How else to explain the berets (French!) and maybe the best touch, this completely modern sling and "ghostly" choir robes:

Going out and getting that sling is easier/cheaper than tying a dirty dishtowel around his arm? Okay.

But here's the thing. As painful as this is, I'm kind of genuinely in love with these kids. If you didn't make it through "One Day More," go back up and jump to the key change at 2:19. They are GOING FOR IT. If these kids have an ounce of shame, they are good enough actors to completely suppress it. No one is just going through the motions. As someone who cares deeply about the future of musical theatre, I have to admire these kids' passion. This isn't some $2,000 autotuned vanity video. This is a high school with, apparently, a terrible theatre department (but at least it has a theatre department!) doing an ambitious show because they love it. And some parent was proud enough to put it on YouTube (and smart enough to turn the comments off).

None of these kids is going to be a star, clearly (maybe Eponine, who is clearly the Rachel Berry of the group). But these are fans. They're future ticket buyers, and maybe even future producers and directors. I don't know...somehow their awful singing has cracked my heart of stone.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

O hai

Over the weekend, this blog was added to the list of fabulous sites over at Damn Hell Ass Kings (I guess "blogroll" is still the appropriate term here, even though I just mocked MCM for using it to refer to Google Reader), so that anyone who follows them is theoretically now following me. In other words, I now have more than 12 readers for the first time in all the years I've been writing here off and on. So I thought I should say hi!

A lot of these guys are writers whose work I've read and liked for a long time, and I'm delighted to be in their company. Also, since I've been trying to write more here, this is awfully good motivation. (It's also awfully bad timing, as this week is going to be crazy at work and next week I leave town to run a conference, so we'll see how it goes.)

So, anyway, hi new people! I'll try not to suck.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Netflix Queue Challenge

My friend John has a great feature on his blog called John vs. The Netflix Queue. He recently watched and wrote about the Toy Story series, none of which he'd seen, which led to a discussion about films we haven't seen that we "should" have. My queue is similarly massive, and also full of things that I really "should" have seen. It's funny how we all judge each other on things like this. I was shocked that he'd never seen any of the Toy Stories, but people are similarly shocked that I've never seen Top Gun or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane or Army of Darkness. So, you know, these things happen. I joked to John that if I thought I wouldn't peter out after a month, I would steal his idea of blogging my way through the queue, and he said, "Oh you should! We can motivate each other!" As if we're dieting or quitting smoking instead of watching movies. So, challenge accepted, here we are.

My Netflix queue is a dumping ground. Anything that sounds remotely interesting to me from a review, or a commercial, or a conversation, I just add. (My Amazon wishlist and Kindle samples work similarly.) So there's some deeply random stuff in there, some of which I don't even remember adding, or recognize at all. There are things I have seen but want for whatever reason to see again. I'm always moving things I want to see right now to the top of the queue, so other discs never get the chance to move up. And I don't watch a lot of movies anyway. I almost never see them in the theater (I'm trying to do more of that) and at home I watch a lot of TV and play a lot of video games and my Netflix take a back seat. Boy and I have lived together for over 6 years and still maintain separate Netflix accounts. He gets 5 at a time and watches them very quickly, usually when I'm not home. He often doesn't know what's in his envelopes before he opens them. I get one at a time, and often let them sit, despite almost always choosing to put whatever that disc is at the top of the queue. If there's overlap in our selections, we'll often watch those together, of course, but where our schedules overlap we're more likely to watch the DVR.

My DVD queue currently has 436 discs in it, and my instant queue has 98 (several items are in both). I can't imagine ever getting through it all, unless I made a full-time job of it somehow. So that's the background, and where I'm starting from. I'm going to try to do short reviews as I work my way through. Since so many of the movies are old, I'm going to assume you've seen them already if you're interested. That certainly applies to...

The History Boys
The History Boys has been in my queue forever. I never managed to see the play when it was on Broadway and the talk of the town, and then I didn't make it to the movie when it was briefly in theaters, and then it languished in the queue for years, never a high priority. Somehow it came up in conversation with Joe recently and I was severely peer pressured into moving it up in my queue. And why not? Everyone loved the play. I generally like British things. It's full of cute boys (also British things), some of whom went on to do other things I like very much.

And I kind of hated it. For starters, I always find Richard Griffiths kind of creepy, but I can't fault the movie for that. But mostly I just thought it was boring. So, so very boring. I didn't care about anyone. To some extent this is a flaw of watching movies like this at home, where I am easily distracted, but I didn't quite get what they were supposed to be doing in class. I mean, I know that they were preparing for their university entrance exams, but what did Hector teach, exactly?

There's an obvious comparison to Dead Poets Society, which is one of my all-time favorite movies. It's pure cheese, but it's very active in its inspirationalness. I don't just mean in the running through fields reading poetry way, but in the way the kids actually do things. They're shaken out of their repressive world a little bit. The kids in The History Boys aren't repressed at all. In fact, some of them seem a little too sexually open for the small-town 1980s setting. And they're inspired good test-takers? Interview well? Allow themselves to be groped now and then? I was completely unmoved. I do wonder what I'd have felt if I'd seen it when I was 12 or 13, like Dead Poets, but I didn't, so meh.

I'm told it was much better on stage, but I don't really see how, since at least the film had the benefit of lovely English countryside to look at occasionally. I also have a core problem with the story, in that I don't really think it's okay that Hector touches the kids. Sure, they allow it, and no one is damaged, and they make a big point about how he won't touch the little one because he looks too young, was a strange choice, and I couldn't get behind to speak. And the ending felt totally unearned.

All of that said, Frances de la Tour, who I'd only ever seen in Harry Potter, is absolutely delightful.

Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre: Beauty and the Beast
I don't remember how it came up, but a while back Boy was telling me about his fond childhood memories of Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre, an early 80s Showtime anthology series for kids (? pretentious kids, judging by the spellings), starring an insane hodge-podge of 70s and 80s stars. The guests remind me of The Muppet Show – so deeply representative of the time period, with some who went on to become much bigger stars, and some...not so much. Including Shelley herself.

It was the sort of thing that I put in the queue with no real expectation of ever watching. But last weekend I was home alone and had nothing I wanted to watch, and discovered that it had been added to Watch Instantly. And since I had just seen Beastly I was curious to see a more faithful version of "Beauty and the Beast" to see where some of the weirder elements had come from, and neither the Disney nor the Cocteau is in Watch Instantly. It seemed the perfect way to kill an hour.

The episode begins with Shelley Duvall astride a horse, doing a little introductory host bit. And as she says the words, "Beauty...and the Beast," she leans forward so that she's basically lying down on the horse's neck. It's a deeply weird image (of someone who already reads pretty weird) and it sets the tone spectacularly. What follows is 50-or-so minutes of the most plodding children's television I've ever seen. Even by the standards of the time, the pacing is AWFUL. It's so slow and there's so much padding, it makes you realize how little happens in traditional fairy tales and how masterful Disney is at fleshing them out. Beauty and Beast have no arc together beyond she's scared of him, he's nice to her, she's less scared of him, and somehow that ends up in fairy tale love. Even Beastly lets something resembling an actual friendship develop.

But the production values are decent (especially the costumes), and it's really fun to see a barely-post-Rocky Horror Susan Sarandon as Beauty. Yes, her name is actually Beauty. I realize that Belle means Beauty, but this just sounded silly every time they said it. Angelica Houston plays one of her evil sisters, and seems to be in an entirely different movie. Who knew Angelica Houston and Mary Kate Olsen would ever have anything in common? Klaus Kinski plays the Beast in a surprisingly good mask. Near the end they shoot him from a low angle and you can clearly see his upper lip moving under the mask, and it seemed so odd that no one would notice that, especially when it had looked so good (relatively) up until then. Though between his accent and the mask and the bad writing it's often hard to tell exactly what he's saying. He has the reverse problem of Beastly: After he's made human again he's still pretty ugly. When Beauty says, "I'll have to get used to it, I think I preferred the beast," she might not be joking.

Now that it's easy to sample episodes on the Wii, I'm really looking forward to Robin Williams, Terri Garr and Rene Auberjonois in "The Frog Prince," Hervé Villechaize as Rumpelsiltskin (!), Shelley herself as Rapunzel (with Gena Rowlands as the Witch!), Christopher Reeve, Bernadette Peters and Carol Kane in "Sleeping Beauty," Ricky Schroeder as Hansel, Paul Reubens as Pinocchio, and Liza Minnelli in "The Princess and the Pea." There's just too much crazy there not to at least check them out!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Brownies and Social Networking

You'd never know it from these food posts, but I'm on a diet. But I still love to bake, and I can indulge now and then, but it's important to get it out of the house so I don't, say, eat a dozen cupcakes for breakfast. A few weeks ago the Times ran a recipe for Sea Salt and Olive Oil Brownies, which sounded amazing, and a couple of weeks later a friend was having a party so I decided to make them. I happened to mention this to another friend who was going to the same party, and she said, "Don't do it! We made them last week and they were terrible!" Close call!

But I was still really into the idea of them so I went googling and found these Salted Fudge Brownies.

While the brownies were in the oven I made myself some lunch and bacon was involved. And I tweeted something about how the apartment smelled like both brownies and bacon and it was amazing. This is, frankly, exactly the sort of stupid tweet that people use to make fun of Twitter. No one cares. Except someone did, and she made it awesome. A woman I've become friendly with on Twitter, but have never met and know very little about, replied to me saying that if I liked that, I should try this recipe for Bacon Salted Caramel Brownies. And I did. Almost immediately.

Both brownies were a hit at the party. But for me, the bacon ones were a little too gooey, and there was a bit too much caramel. The salted fudge ones were denser, more fudge-like, and more to my brownie liking.

Fortunately, I had another party to go to the following weekend, so I combined the recipes and came up with this:

Salted Caramel Bacon Brownies
(adapted from Kate Krader, David Lebovitz and Savour Fare)

For the Bacon Caramel:
2 slices bacon
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup sugar
6 tbs salted butter (unsalted will work too)

For the Brownies:
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
2 cups sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon Maldon sea salt

In a small skillet or saucepan, fry two slices of bacon until crisp. Remove bacon and set aside on paper towels, reserving bacon grease in the pan. Add cream to hot pan and let cool. When bacon is cool, crumble or chop finely.

In a larger pan, heat the sugar over high heat until the mixture is liquid and a deep amber color. Add the butter and the cooled bacon cream all at once, and stir until the butter is melted. Add the chopped bacon and let the mixture cool thoroughly.

Preheat the oven to 350°. Lightly butter a 9"x13" baking pan (the original recipe called for metal, but I used glass with no ill effects).

In a large saucepan, melt the butter with the unsweetened chocolate over very low heat, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat. Whisking them in one at a time until thoroughly incorporated, add the cocoa, sugar, eggs, vanilla and flour.

Pour half of the batter into the prepared pan. Then drop about half of the bacon caramel, in evenly spaced dollops, over the brownie batter in the pan. Spread the remaining brownie batter over the top, then repeat spooning the caramel. Swirl with a butter knife.

Bake the brownies in the center of the oven for about 35 to 40 minutes, until the edge is set but the center is still a bit soft and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out coated with a little of the batter. (The caramel will be bubbling, so be careful! And don't let it confuse you on your tester.)

Let the brownies cool at room temperature in the pan on a rack until the caramel is cooled but still sticky (about 30 minutes). Sprinkle the Maldon sea salt over the top of the brownies. Let cool for another 30 minutes or so. Cut as you like (they're pretty rich, so I recommend smaller pieces) and remove from pan. Enjoy!

Both times I've made these I've completely forgotten to take a picture, so enraptured was I by the process, and new phrases like "bacon cream." I snapped a quick shot with my phone at the end of last week's party, with three brownies left, but it's not even worth posting. Just make them yourself and see!

Friday, March 11, 2011

No denying she's a funny girl, that Belle

I saw Beastly last week, and...I kinda liked it! I mean, I didn't expect it to be any good, and it certainly lived down to that expectation. Half the fun was making fun of it with Joe. But the other half was just the movie, in all its ridiculous glory. I can't argue at all with the critics who ripped it apart, but the film was so sincere in its incompetence that I found it oddly endearing. Like, "Aw, honey, that's not where Brooklyn is, but good try sweetheart."

The plot, such as it is, is an update of Beauty and the Beast. Alex Pettyfer plays an obscenely rich private high school student and he's beautiful and a dick and he's especially mean to Mary Kate Olsen so she makes him "ugly," and his dad exiles him (not my word choice, there's a montage set to a song called "In the Garden of Exile" in case we didn't get it) to a gorgeous Brooklyn brownstone with a maid and a blind tutor (Neil Patrick Harris), and Vanessa Hudgens winds up there too (it's not even worth explaining, though to be fair it's almost as nonsensical in the original fairy tale) and Kyle has to make her love him before the year is up or he'll stay like this forever.

So it's ludicrous, obviously, and there are so many more ludicrous details I haven't mentioned (here's one: Kyle builds a greenhouse all by himself, out of old doors and shit, even though until now he's been able to buy anything he wants…like say new lumber). I'm hardly the first to point out that Kyle's "beast" form isn't really all that unattractive. In fact, in certain circles (granted, not ones he'd want to hang out in) he'd be more popular. In close-up it does look worse than it does in the trailers and posters (which I actually think used a different version of the makeup), with weird open wounds and some burn-looking scars, but couldn't they have made him fat or something? I could claim it's a feminist twist on the "pretty ugly girl" trope of teen movies if the plot didn't also hinge on Hudge being an outcast simply because she's poor and brunette. In one of the film's more preposterous moments (a high standard), right after seeing his transformed (kinda) face, Kyle unbuttons his shirt to, I guess, see the extent of the damage? And sure, the scars (and tattoos!) are everywhere, but the pecs and abs are still very much unbeastly. The words "I'd still hit it" may have been uttered in the theater. I guess it's safe to assume that Kyle's new look is...everywhere, but this is a PG movie.

I didn't really mind the lack of ugly, because, well, have you seen Alex Pettyfer? But on a plot level it's deeply weird that Hudge, who both already knows Kyle and has a crush on him even when he's an asshole (deep flaw in the movie's philosophy) doesn't recognize him, or his voice. And I didn't even realize until I looked at that photo that his eyebrows have words on them! Words that he said in front of her and that Mary Kate then grafittied in the school! It's also made clear that his situation is recent, yet at no point does anyone question what horrible accident might have left him so badly scarred and also tattooed. Although, this is a world in which Mary Kate's character is referred to as "the class witch," as if every high school has one. And it doesn't seem like it's a euphemism for "bitch" or shorthand for "freaky goth chick," so maybe this is just a world in which magic exists? And also face transplants? It's also a world in which Brooklyn has a view that belongs in Queens, fancy private high schools are office building lobbies, local news anchors are gajillionaires*, Manhattan has dead-end streets (but with a Duane Reade on it so you know it's New York), and Mary Kate Olsen, Vanessa Hudgens and Lisa Gay Hamilton are ugly, so maybe!

Weirdly, Mary Kate is the best thing about this movie. It's not that she's good (she's not, at all), it's that she totally gets it. She sets a camp tone that no one else rises to (to be fair, the script won't let them). And she has the most fabulous Lady Gaga meets Stevie Nicks wardrobe and wigs. Neil Patrick Harris clearly knows what movie he's in, and just kinda goes with it, seemingly having as much fun as he can. Everyone else plays it very straight, which is sort of too bad, but it's also what makes it all funny.

And somehow, it all kinda worked for me. And I clearly wasn't alone. When Hudge looked deep into Kyle's still-pretty eyes, and of course she wasn't going to say "I love you" yet because the movie obviously wasn't over, and she said, "you're a good friend," a group of teenage (I hope?) girls behind us groaned. It was delightful. Joe and I agreed that it was the best moment either of us had shared with a movie audience in a while.

Not one of us doesn't know how this story ends, so why not just have fun with it? I can't say it's worth $12 in the theatre, but if you enjoy fun trash, invite some snarky friends over, have a couple of drinks, and go to town on Netflix. My one regret: That it wasn't a musical. That might have made it the best worst movie ever.

*UPDATE 7/5/12: Some of local anchor Pat Kiernan's real estate dealings made news recently, so maybe that rich anchor thing is true!

Saturday, March 05, 2011


Time for the twice-yearly "I'm going to try to blog more" empty promise! I've been getting some nice encouragement on both my writing and my photography from some lovely friends (and have been inspired by the work of those same friends), and I had fun writing that Social Network post. So I'm digging up a couple of posts I started but never finished, and I'm going to work on my follow-through! I want to branch out on topics a bit too, so here's a food post:

For Christmas and Chanukah I received seven new cookbooks. Eight if you count the slow-cooker book I bought myself because I also received a slow-cooker. (Back to seven if you count the one I put on my Amazon wish list in 2003 and forgot about which turned out to suck.) When I asked my mother if she was angling for a dinner invitation or trying to fatten me up for slaughter, she pointed out that everything in front of me (including the slow-cooker) was from my wish list. Fair enough! If I had more time (and more inclination to spend 90 minutes in the kitchen after getting home from work at 7 pm) I'd consider doing a Julie and Julia thing (oh yeah, mom also gave me her old, well-worn copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, so nine if we count that!), simply because there's no way to make all of the recipes in my house right now (which include magazine clippings and web printouts) unless I do one a day maybe until I die. That's not a bad position to be in, really, though it might make my attempts to lose weight an even bigger challenge than they already are!

I had the luxury of being off from work from December 24 to January 2, so I used some of that time (and the excuse of holiday gluttony) to make a dent in a couple of the books. I started ambitiously, with the latest Top Chef book. I love these books. They're part cookbook, part coffee-table-book about the show. So as a fan of both food and reality TV, they really hit my sweet spot. They're also gorgeously designed. So even though I'll probably never even attempt half the recipes (I mean, it's Top Chef, shit gets serious) they're a great read. I got the first two (this one is #3) last Chrismukah, and they actually inspired me to go back and watch the first two seasons of the show, which I'd never seen.

The new book has less on the show (though there's still some good behind-the-scenes insight) and more lessons on technique, which I find super useful since I'm generally more concerned with how things taste than how they look and my knife skills are pretty awful. (Digression and exception: One recipe from the first TC book actually had very specific plating instructions, so I followed them to a T and was damned proud of myself:
March 27: Top Chef
I was shocked when I actually got around to watching the episode this came from and discovered it was by dumbass Michael! As I recall, Tom was shocked too.)

Anyway, another nice thing about the new book is that it includes recipes from Top Chef Masters, so there are some serious heavy-weight chefs in there, and that's how I started, with Hubert Keller's macaroni and cheese. Viewers of the show will remember this from the dorm room challenge, and I assume the recipe was modified for the book to make sense in a real kitchen – no shower or microwave involved! There is, however, a whole lot of cholesterol involved! Clearly no one expects mac and cheese to be light and healthy, but honestly, this was a bit much by any standard: It has macaroni (duh), swiss cheese, onion, mushrooms, carrots, two cups of cream, and some half-and-half. Then, you take another cup of cream, whip it, mix in six egg yolks and some parsley (vegetable!) and pour that over the top before baking it. Oh and there's only a cup and a half of cheese. So there's over twice as much cream as cheese, plus all that egg. The end result looked gorgeous, and was certainly tasty, but I wouldn't really call it mac and cheese. It's like mac in cream sauce…with egg? It tasted really eggy. The shrimp is sort of delightful, and neat visually since it's so close in shape and color to the macaroni – it's a nice surprise. The carrot is just weird. I'm a fan of Chef Keller and was super-excited for this recipe (eight new cookbooks and it's the first thing I made!) and Boy and I were both pretty disappointed by it. Looked pretty though (these are not my best photos, sadly):
IMG_0259 IMG_0260

There was a ton left over (I should've halved the recipe), and when I had some a couple of days later, I added more cheese and crumbled in about a slice and a half of bacon. It was almost perfect! The salty crunchy bacon balanced the sweet soft carrot nicely, and more cheese is always a good thing. Far be it for me to claim to have improved on Chef Keller, but my revision was more to my taste. I polished off the (revised) leftovers but I doubt I'll make this one again.

Next up, also from Top Chef, was Stefan's duck with pretzel dumplings. I hated Stefan on the show, but he had me at duck and further had me at pretzel dumplings. Cabbage is a major component of this dish, and I'm not usually a fan, but I was super-interested in the duck and the dumplings, and I wanted to try the whole recipe as written first. Fortunately the cabbage includes two cups of wine, along with apple, cinnamon, cloves, and more, so it smelled more like mulled cider on the stove than cabbage. The cabbage sits under the duck and the liquid serves as a sauce. It cooks for two hours, and one thing I dislike about the Top Chef books is they don't give you any sort of instructions on how to use your time. If I'd just gone through the whole recipe as written, nothing would have been ready at the right time. Especially annoying in this case since that's so often a big part of the challenges on the show, and we see the chefs making things the day before. Fortunately I figured out that I could start the cabbage, then make and boil the dumplings. In the last 20 minutes or so of cabbage simmering, I started the duck, then fried the dumplings while that roasted and rested.

The dumplings didn't really come together properly, which might have been due to sloppy halving of the recipe on my part (when something calls for 3 egg yolks and 1 whole egg, and you're only making half, you kind of have to wing it). They were very tasty, they just didn't photograph well, and there were some texture issues. Not really what I think of as a dumpling, but yummy anyway. The duck breast was clearly larger than the recipe intended, and I should have rendered the fat for a lot longer (which is clear in the photos!). But where I executed the mac and cheese perfectly but didn't love it, this relative mess of a plate was extremely delicious! It won't replace my favorite duck recipe, but I'll definitely make it again (and try to get those dumplings right!).

The slow-cooker was up next. Before I got the book I went online and found the wonderfully named Chicken With 40 Cloves of Garlic. There's not much to say about it, really. It wasn't all that exciting but it was as great as everyone says it is to just throw everything in the crock pot and walk away while the apartment starts smelling amazing. The chicken falls right off the bone and while the garlic cloves stay whole, they get so soft that you can spread them on bread like butter (and we did!).

The book I bought myself was Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook. It is extensive! I haven't made much from it yet, but I wanted to try chili, for which there are a dozen or so recipes. I went for the one with the least amount of work involved, which had a Sandra Lee "Semi Home Made" quality that I normally hate (jarred salsa was involved) but it turned out pretty great. I served it with some cilantro-lime sour cream (also from the book, which has non-crock pot recipes for sides and things too) and baked potato. I'm really only mentioning it because I want to post this photo:

I'll bring this long post to a close with dessert, which makes sense. Nothing to do with the new books, but also made during Christmas week, and presented with minimal commentary: Apples With Candied Bacon à la Mode:

It's super-easy to make, and such a nice winter treat. I used homemade bourbon ice cream instead of vanilla, which I wholeheartedly recommend if you have access to such things. I imagine chocolate would be great too.