World Advent : Day 18

The Shows: UK TV – United Kingdom

Television is on the rise both here and around the world. Countries are adapting popular shows from other countries and with streaming platforms looking for more content many international shows are getting the attention they deserve.

This is a bit of a departure but I think it’s a great detour. This article is focused on the UK because the range of shows is so wide, they are more readily available, and whether comedy, drama, or mystery — the quality is freaking fantastic.

SpacedSpaced: By now everyone knows Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright and their Cornetto trilogy which recently concluded with The World’s End but it all began with this show. Written by and starring Pegg and Jessica Stevenson as two London twenty-somethings who meet by chance in a café and pretend to be a couple in order to meet the requirements for renting a cheap flat.

The nerd levels are high here which is what makes this show so unique. It’s a celebration of television, movies, and pop culture. The extended cast of characters includes Nick Frost, of course, as Mike, and a lot of the gags in Shaun of the Dead appear here. You may also recognize the reverse references to the show with characters like the bike messenger Tyres and actor Peter Serafinowicz as a mega jerkface.

Director Edgar Wright’s playful pop style, clearly in development, gives the show its unique charm and the frequent use of fantasy sequences keep every episode feeling fresh. Like many UK shows it’s too short on seasons but with laughs like this all we can do is be grateful.

My favorite characters are the landlady Marsha and the tortured artist who lives downstairs, Brian. What would ordinarily be two side characters good for a few gags are instead developed personalities that take faux-couple Tim and Daisy into some deeply hilarious places that ring with real emotion.

A hoarde of other great UK actors make appearances  and the show does a great job of dealing with that time in your life when your career and love life haven’t quite gotten on track. For that reason it is instantly re-watchable and even over ten years later, still feels modern.

0b1b017b42a0acd99837f110.LThe IT CrowdChris O’Dowd and Richard Ayoade are two more faces that are better known now than when I first started watching this show. This is some more seriously geeky subject matter as the show is set around the IT department of a London office.

Katherine Parkinson is the other third of the IT team and although she does not match the nerd levels of Roy and Maurice Moss, her character is a dork of a different sort. She’s the Elaine Benes type who thinks she has it all together only to fail miserably, hilariously. Her competitive friendship with Roy is a standout part of the dynamic but the show is at it’s best when Moss is naive and Roy is just trying to do something simple — inevitably whatever they put their hand to is a disaster.

With bomb threats, fires, deaths, robots, and Richmond creator Graham Linehan certainly keeps this series from ever crossing out of the comedy genre. It’s a strange and wonderful world where the seminal line “Have you tried turning it off and on again” becomes the best series-long running gag and the exploits at Reynholm Industries always lead somewhere entertaining.

The set is as intriguing as Roy’s t-shirts, each episode has another winner. My personal favorite is about time travel. There was a pilot of an American version with Joel McHale as Roy and Ayoade as Moss. Of course it was horrible but The Office managed to make a go of it and was good for a few seasons. It does seem like Community is a decent ringer for what may have been.

If you’re a standard nerd or you’ve ever tried to watch a movie with a German cannibal, this show gets you. It’s a quotable, memorable, instant classic — a great show to binge watch with friends.

Black Books: C979388o-created by Dylan Moran and Graham Linehan this show feels like it might very well be happening in the same world as The IT Crowd. Maybe just a few streets over and down a couple of blocks from Reynholm Industries, Bernard Black is in his book shop with his perky pal Manny and his drinking buddy Fran, not selling books.

Starring Moran, Bill Bailey and Tamsin Greig, the genius series is a comedy that revolves around Wine, toast, books, wine, absinthe, wine, and Bernard the belligerent and openly hostile owner of Black Books, who loathes most everything and everyone.

As The It Crowd takes on geek culture, working in a large office, dealing with your boss and co-workers, this show takes on the literary world and agony of the retail environment. I’m going to quote directly from Wikipedia here because it’s simply fascinating:

The concept of Bernard owning a bookshop came about because of Moran’s view of bookshops as doomed enterprises. Moran said “Running a second-hand bookshop is a guaranteed commercial failure. It’s a whole philosophy. There were bookshops that I frequented and I was always struck by the loneliness and doggedness of these men who piloted this death ship”, while Linehan said his belligerent personality reflected a sign he once saw in a bookshop stating “Please put the books anywhere you like because we’ve got nothing better to do than put them back”. Moran said of the series, “We just wanted to cram as much elaborate stupidity into a half-hour that could make it be coherent and that you would believe”

Although some of the best episodes aren’t about the store at all. It’s hard to describe why a show with such a central figure works, but it does. I guess there’s a Bernard Black in all of us.

The Office (UK)The Office: This show created a new genre — cringe comedy. I remember watching this for the first time with my hand over my mouth, floored by the dialog and situations that were just so hard to watch and impossible not to.

Once again we find a comedy about a workplace but this mockumentary, created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, focuses on one completely inept manager — David Brent. His character is so stunningly unlikeable and so desperately human.

The true heart of the show is Tim, played by Martin Freeman, who hates his job but pines for Dawn, though she has a serious boyfriend. Assistant to the regional manager is Gareth who is at odds with Tim. Around them are a tertiary cast of characters that ground the comedy.

Looking back now the world of this show has become such a part of our visual and comedic lexicon that it’s important to remember how groundbreaking this series actually was. The workplace on was often used on television for drama or sitcoms but not with mockumentary style camerawork and certainly not in this dry tone of comedy.

I don’t use the term cringe comedy lightly. If you’re looking for something a little less cheeky check out the first four seasons of the American version. But it speaks very highly of the UK series that a show about a paper company in Slough has made such a worldwide impact. Make sure you watch the Christmas special. It really is the best of the bittersweet series.

tumblr_m9ksq8viGf1qewwelo1_1280Sherlock: Also starring Martin Freeman along with Benedict Cumberbatch series three of this show is on its way having left us with an intense cliffhanger.

A new telling of Conan Doyle’s stories set in the modern-day where Sherlock uses technologies available to him today in order to solve crimes. The crime drama was conceived by David Moffat and Mark Gatiss and succeeds in being witty and addictive while taking the necessary liberties to make great television.

The modern technology added to the story doesn’t solely bring Sherlock into the 21st century, it also is a whip-smart way to present information to the audience. This is where the show excels. It has created a distinct world for the master detective to thrive in, one that even plays at referencing it’s own literary sources.

The use of characters from the stories as well as some additional liberties taken provides the show with a fantastic cast. Villains, never quite lovers, friends, co-workers, superiors and everything in between — the show is an abundance of interesting personalities like moths to the flame of Holmes.

Freeman plays Watson who is a doctor returned from war, just as the original character. Moffat and Gatiss are aware enough to use this wisely. Gatiss himself plays a character who is a wonderful counterpart to Holmes. My favorite, however, is Molly Hooper. Because she’s a different type of female character.

If you like detective shows this is a winner. The length of each episode is thoroughly satisfying, like a hearty meal. Be sure to make it to the end of the series before the next begins. You won’t want to miss it!

Titles7Poirot: I’ve followed this wonderful series for so many, many years. Agatha Christie‘s fictional Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective, is brought to life masterfully by David Suchet.

Beginning in 1989 the series has worked its way through Christie’s novels some more faithfully than others. Until recently the production has always been of the highest quality. The music is fabulous and the variations of the title theme influenced by the story are nuanced gems worth listening for. The art deco an ever-present reminder of the time period along with the modes of travel and the exquisite fashion. The comedy, the murder, the little gray cells. Absolutely brilliant.

The last few years had fallen a little short. The modern versions of many shows have taken a darker twist where the emphasis was increasingly on the side of the crime and away from Poirot and his wonderful cast of friends including Miss Lemon, Captain Hastings, and Chief Inspector Japp.

But the final series seems as though it may return some to its roots with episodes written by Mark Gatiss, Nick Dear and others. One can only hope. It’s so hard to say goodbye to this cherished series. I’ve watched each episode at least a dozen times through the years. It’s a great companion for those nights when you need a little mystery, a little comedy, a little Belgian.

492911_1LCDeqrmLuther: While most cop shows lean toward utilitarian two-shot directing or shaky “in the moment” camera-work — Luther is art.

The style, especially in the first series, quietly tells you not to notice it. But you do, you have to. Maybe not on the first watch, it’s too compelling to reflect on the visual artistry. But you’ll be left with a distinct impression that you’ve really watched something crafted with style and intention. So when you find yourself back at the beginning again, and you will, knowing how the story happens will shift your focus to the visual way the story is told.

Brian Kirk, Sam Miller and Stefan Schwartz each directed two episodes. The changing eye behind the lens is barely perceptible except upon a repeat viewing. The division of work is camouflaged by the three act structure arced through its six episodes. But each are unafraid of distance, texture, focus, or composition.Brian Kirk gives you the first episodes and pulls you in with a strong sense, not just of the character, but the world he inhabits. It’s mature but unquestionably modern. The style of framing has the sense of proportion, tone, and flesh of a Hopper painting. It’s staggering and brilliant. It’s fearless directing.Sam Miller can see the quiet moments. His sense of atmosphere is sensitive to the beauty and brutality of Luther’s reality, but without the clutter. His ability to show you what’s in an actors eye is only second to his ability to help them make their performances works of art.

Stefan Schwartz brings a sense of rough, a kinetic pulse in direct opposition to the savoring pace of the opening episodes. This fevered pace builds but never loses its footing, never sacrifices clarity for thrills. The final ten minutes of the fifth episode which continues into the sixth episode finale is a satisfying third act that gives you more than you could want seconds before it ends — visually returning to beginning.The music of Luther is never stronger than in that sixth episode and deserves a stand-alone post. It’s that perfect.

There are things in the story to dislike — an elevation of psychological depravity and a created reality sometimes too in favor of its main character, but the production — the directing, is strong storytelling. Is art.

Miranda: played by Miranda Hart, deals with the kind of humorous situations I find I’m entirely paranoid of personally committing. Sure there are absurd over the top situations but in every episode there’s a moment or two where I completely identify with the character.

Like attempting to take your sweater off and realizing your shirt’s gone with it, trying to be a “new you”, being called sir because of your height, falling asleep in a library, or reading nazi propaganda to children. Alright, well not the last one.

On the DVD cover it says “One of the few recent laugh-out-loud sitcoms.” It genuinely is. Miranda Hart is the smashing combination of Frances de la Tour’s Madame Maxime, Toni Collette, and a wonderful, hilarious, awkward red-headed friend of mine from long ago. So as she talks to the camera, I already feel I know her. It’s nice to watch a show about a woman who isn’t a completely poised, anorexic, wanton stick insect. In fact, Miranda’s rather a spaz. But she’s always in on the joke, or makes it before you do, so the sense of humor never feels too sardonic.

It’s kind of funny how breaking the third wall, as the show frequently does, doesn’t seem to matter. I still very much care about the characters and no episode is a better example of why than Let’s Do It from series 2. It’s one of those hard to watch/can’t look away episodes British shows are fond of and I’ve come to love.

For both shows the second series is better than the first, the best episode is the first one of the second series, and I was sad when it was over. All good signs of a pitch perfect, must own, tell everyone, show. I know they’re not everyone’s taste. But then, some people like CBS programming.

Hyperdrive: The best of both comedy and sci-fi. Forget all the comparisons to Red Dwarf. Hyperdrive refrains from the acid-induced insanity of Dwarf and aims right for Star Trek/Farscape/Stargate/Gallactica parody all while staying broad enough to be a great watch. Even if you’re not a trekkie/scaper/gater/gallactite? frakhead? there’s a lot to enjoy.

Think of Hyperdrive as Star Trek: TNG but intentionally laughable, or as a live-action Futurama where Planet Express is replaced by members of a volunteer force stumbling through heroic missions to protect British interests in a changing galaxy.

Space Commander Michael “Mike” “Lucky Jack” “Hendo” Henderson is an optimistic if not idealistic, space nerd leading his rag-tag crew on low-priority missions with all the vim and vigor of his TV hero Captain Helix.

Awesome. The Commander, as played by Nick Frost, has an insatiably positive attitude. Under all the comedy he actually cares about the mission and the values he’s meant to espouse. That really sets the show apart from other sci-fi series, serious dramas included, as they’re mostly lead by characters with few redeeming qualities and vague patches of motivation in place of actual depth.

Don’t get me wrong, this show is a wacky comedy with snappy self-deprecation (the hero trap joke for example) but they’ve so perfectly crafted a world that while you’re laughing, you’re also genuinely interested. And that’s what makes it brilliant. Once past the Glish characters early in the first episode, the crass jokes mostly taper off and are replaced by comic situations, gut-busting character foibles, parody, and subtle touches like the Commander’s various uses for the word commencify.

You’ve just got to love a show whose view of the future includes karaoke as an Olympic sport. The supporting cast are incredibly entertaining, especially Miranda Hart whose scene-stealing performance as Diplomatic Officer Chloe Teal lead me to find another great series.

91vg8P89iXL._SL1500_Gavin & Stacey: For me, quality storytelling is when I’m able to realize the writers are steps ahead of me, giving the characters what not what they want but what they need, so I can just sit back and watch it all unfold in ways I couldn’t have even imagined.

But many writers feel the need to make their characters edgy and miserable, make them suffer. They think that’s what story is made of. The result is bitter characters with nihilistic world views. Gavin and Stacey is quality storytelling.

The show follows the romance between Gavin, from Essex, and Stacey, from Wales. Over three seasons and one Christmas special, we meet a cast of friends and relatives all surrounding key moments in the protagonist’s relationship.

Throughout Gavin and Stacey the current of optimism wrapped in plenty of drama, laughs, rude and lude behavior, is completely engrossing, touching, and smile provoking. So infrequently do we see images in entertainment of love and family which portray the ups and downs, the arguments and laughs without being so pessimistic you wonder why anyone would even bother.

It’s the job of the writer to think of something beyond what the character wants because they don’t need a perfect ending, just the right one. In episode after episode, that’s just what Gavin and Stacey delivered. It may not be for everyone but rarely are love, friendship, parenthood, relatives, culture, and humor portrayed with sincerity. Rarely do you watch a show that never fails.

More to come: Vera, A Touch of Frost, Broadchurch, Call The Midwife, The Mimic, Monday Monday, and Trollied

The Food: English Toffee Popcorn

English Toffee PopcornI was recently given some lovely English toffee and was inspired to try to make a similar popcorn flavor.

There are many types of toffee but upon searching “English toffee” the one topped with chocolate and nuts seemed to be the most prevalent.

I’m not a big fan of adding corn syrup to my popcorn recipes so I searched the internet for some idea of how to create the toffee flavor without it. I found this which was very helpful but far more than I intended to make. So the measurements are a little odd because I was scaling down the ratios from this much, much larger recipe.

  • 1/4 cup corn kernels
  • 1/4 cup + 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons water
  • 1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 cup crushed almonds
  • 1/4 cup mini chocolate chips

Make the popcorn according to your favorite method. I prefer a dry pop for this recipe. Remove the unpopped kernels and place the popcorn in a bowl.

Grease a baking sheet and set the oven to 250°.

Place the sugar and water in a pan on medium heat. Let it cook and the sugar dissolve. Add the butter and continue cooking. The mixture will caramelize. Continue cooking as it bubbles up. Continue cooking for 5 minutes or until it coats the back of spoon. Stir in the vanilla and add the baking soda — the mixture will puff up.

Add half the toffee mix to the popcorn and throw in half of the almonds and chocolate chips. Stir the mixture together. The warm sauce should melt the chocolate chips. Add the other half of toffee, almonds, and chocolate and mix again, coating the popcorn.

Place on the greased sheet and back for 40 minutes, stirring every 10 or so. Let it cool and enjoy!

This ratio leaves the popcorn coated by not saturated. If you want even more of a toffee taste, double the sauce ingredients. If you want to double the entire recipe, and you will, I suggest making multiple batches of this size.

Posted in BBC, Christmas, Comedy, Holiday, Netflix, Sci-Fi, Snack, TV Show, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

World Advent : Day 17

The Film: Le Grand Chef 2: Kimchi Battle – South Korea

Le Grand Chef 2: Kimchi BattleTwo siblings, who have grown to be two very different adults, compete in a nationwide kimchi contest. But food is just the entry into their personal stories which makes this sentimental film a good watch.

For the first ten minutes I thought I was in for a frothy cooking comedy along the lines of Simply Irresistible which would have been fine, I was in the mood for that. But then it became something else — additional layers of deep rivalry, motherly love, history, death, and cultural heritage.

In other circumstances I may have tried to watch something else but my popcorn was hitting all the right notes to match the wonderful scenes of cooking and the story was clearly going somewhere. As the story was so unique, I wanted to know the thoughts behind the film. I kept on and became wrapped up in the excellent way the kimchi contest became about other more important matters.

As silly or sentimental as the film became at times I really responded to the way it dealt with identity. You think you are completely in control of what you’re doing and your life is built solely on absolutes but really — life is messy. We need the past to have a solid future. Our personal histories are made of more than the hard times we remember and each part of our life imparts a flavor that contributes to who we are now.

If you’re in the mood for something a little bit different, if you want to dive into an interesting world with a good heart and intricate relationships, that encourages food as a way of bringing people together and healing wounded souls — grab yourself a snack hit play.

The Food: Kimchi Popcorn

Kimchi PopcornI love the spicy complex taste of kimchi in winter. It’s such a switch from the heavy foods of late fall and winter but it fills the belly with the same warmth.

I went to my favorite place, an Asian grocery store where I buy almost all my food, to look for a kimchi ramen to make this popcorn but I ran across JFC Kimchi Furikake rice seasoning.

The first thing I do before anything enters my cart in any store is look at the sodium content. I have not developed the taste for heavily salted products of any kind. I rarely add salt to anything. Compared to the ramen the rice seasoning was reasonable and the ingredients really spoke to me: Kimchi (chinese cabbage, chiles, shallots, onions, ginger, garlic, chives, carrots, radish, apple, fish extract, salt, glutinous rice flour), sesame seeds, potato starch, chiles, salt, sugar, turnip greens, wasabi, seaweed.

Yes. All of that.

The next thought was what to use as a base. I didn’t think butter would work well with the more delicate flavors so I went with olive oil and canola oil to carry a little of a fried taste instead. It’s absolutely unique, it hits just the right spot, and so delicious and I can’t wait to try more rice seasonings!

  • 1/4 cup corn kernels
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons oil such as canola, vegetable, or peanut
  • 3 teaspoons JFC Kimchi Furikake rice seasoning
  • 1 teaspoon low sodium soy sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
  • Siracha, sambal, or red pepper flakes to taste (optional)

Make the popcorn according to your favorite method. Remove the unpopped kernels and place the popcorn in a metal mixing bowl.

On medium heat add the oils, seasoning, soy sauce, and any combination of the optional ingredients. As a note on spice – the rice seasoning has a mild warmth but not a full bodied heat.

When the oil warms and the seasonings begin to sizzle slightly, pour the mixture over the popcorn. Mix to coat.

Enjoy this warm treat alone or add additional snacks to create a unique mix. Nuts, rice crackers, freshly shredded roasted nori, etc.

Posted in Christmas, Drama, Film, Film Genre, Food, Foreign Film, Holiday, International Cinema, Netflix, Snack, South Korea, Spices, Theme | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

World Advent : Day 16

The Film: Les femmes du 6ème étage [The Women on the 6th Floor] – France

Les femmes du 6ème étageI sat down to watch what I thought would be different fare from the deeper films I’ve dived into this month. I was prepared for a light comedy with mainstream production values where traditional comic tropes played out with frothy fun. My plan was to write about the other side of foreign cinema, the big comedies with decent budgets, French stars and light subjects that are great entertainment.

My plan teetered as possibly coming together until half and hour from the end of the film when it was dashed on the rocks with my hope of finding a new French film to completely adore.

I’ve been talking about the ability of foreign film to tell different kinds of stories, hit different beats, carry new notes. I suppose by omission it may have seemed as though I believe all foreign film has the ability to create with such emotional depth, strength of vision,  clarity in reflection of reality, rejection of standardization, and intelligence.

To be clear, I understand completely that perpetuating easy answers and singular motivations is prevalent in all subject matters the whole world wide. At least in independent and foreign film I may have an occasional respite as the films I write about here are most often the excellent or intriguing exceptions. This film finds itself in another category — the intriguing normality.

The Women On The 6th Floor was funny. It had production value, stars of French film, and even charm. What derailed my review was an unexpected split personality — is it the tale of a manic pixie dream girl who sets a rich white man free from the constraints of his richness and whiteness by some cliché cross-cultural sexual enlightenment or is it the tale of three-dimensional characters who are set free from the monotonous and deficient patterns of life from an unlikely source?

If it is the former, then bah — what’s the point. Tropes are tropes no matter what country a film is from. A man discovers his wife is cold while the young foreign woman is beautiful and exciting is hardly original. In fact, in modern filmmaking it’s insulting. To look at the poor man’s wife and wonder, doesn’t she have hopes and ideas as well? If that were at all a worthy point to make in the first place, where is her young foreigner to set her free from a husband who clearly isn’t invested in her?

The young foreign woman, Maria, whose entrance into the story incites the change, becomes nothing more than an object of lust. Doesn’t she deserve to have her own story unfettered by the repressed head of the household she cleans? Was she only created to smile vapidly and be so full of Spanish vida so that this man, who was displeased with his abundance, could have a rather shallow revelation?

The women on the 6th floor are intriguing characters, immigrants from Spain who have left their lives behind. The movie touches history and culture, portrays the women as gutsy as their lives are hard. They are fully formed, distinct women and played to perfection by bilingual actresses who fill the world of the story with the kind of natural quality a director prays for. Their comedic and dramatic timing against against sparks the strightman — Fabrice Luchini, one of my favorites.

The couple who didn’t realize their lives were empty is an intriguing story, their spoiled children fit right in, and all of this I could have enjoyed if writer Jérôme Tonnerre and director Philippe Le Guay had given Jean-Louis a chance to learn something real.

Spoilers ahead. How vastly more interesting this film would have been had his character pursued friendship instead of sex — if you cut out just one scene.

If Jean-Louis had walked upstairs to find Maria gone and pursued her years later to ask why she left without saying goodbye — instead of the reason for his seeking an answer being a cliché love story between a woman who added nothing but her culture and a man nothing but his money —  it would have been a man seeking to restore the first real friendship he’d ever had.

Not despite — but for this very reason The Women On The 6th Floor is worth watching. It’s an education on why tropes dumb down and soil otherwise fertile storytelling.

The Food: Macaron Popcorn

Macaron PopcornI was wondering just how to approach what I hoped would be a marvelous harkening back to my previous works with macarons as I searched my cupboards for ingredients.

I came upon a packet I purchased a month ago for coconut rice and skimmed the list of contents when it dawned on me that I had remaining coconut milk powder which would not bring to mind the flavors of the haystack style macaroon but instead the meringue based style of the dessert which has garnered a whirlwind of attention and presents the taste of coconut in an entirely different texture — spelled as macaron.

They are often colored brightly and range in flavors with the addition of icing as  filling. Google says they are also called Luxemburgerli.

This recipe is delicious and will fill your home with the wonderfully warm parfume of coconut. The end result wasn’t as hard of a coating as I had desired so future batches may be modified. But if you’re looking for a deliciously tasty treat that would mix well with chocolate, nuts, or other goodies — this is très bon. 

  • 1/4 cup corn kernels
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1/4 cup coconut milk powder
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda

Grease a baking sheet and set the oven to 200°.

Make the popcorn according to your favorite method. Remove unpopped kernels and put the popcorn in a mixing bowl.

Put sugar, vanilla, coconut powder and milk in a saucepan on medium heat. After 3-5 minutes the mixture will appear foamy. Add butter. Continue cooking until the mixture browns. Add baking soda and give it a quick stir with a greased rubber scraper. The mixture will puff up.

Pour onto the popcorn and mix to coat.

Place the popcorn on a greased baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes. Eat immediately or let cool — if you can keep your hands off it. Bon appétit!

Posted in Christmas, Comedy, Drama, European, Film, Film Genre, Food, Foreign Film, France, French, Holiday, International Cinema, Netflix, Period, Period Piece, Romance, Screenwriting, Snack | Leave a comment

World Avent : Day 15

The Film: The Scapegoat (2012) – United Kingdom

The Scapegoat (2012)This adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1957 novel begins with the entrance of a television to an enormous manor home. The old and the new converging, a sign of what’s to come.

The gripping theme music plays over titles. It’s 1952 and the country is preparing for the coronation. The first flash of genius filmmaking happens as a professor, played by Matthew Rhys, goes into a pub after being let go from his job. He looks into a mirror and the barman enters with his change. But he hasn’t even ordered. Then, across the bar he sees someone — himself.

I’ve had such a horrible time with modern remakes and adaptations. Cultural concepts are seen through such a strong modern lens the emphasis becomes righting historical wrongs instead of presenting the ideas of being of the time. And while this adaption does feel modern and readers of the du Maurier book will be most likely disappointed, it is a wonderful production, a rich story, and intelligent filmmaking.

I adore movies that understand their audience has seen movies before. They don’t bother to explain themselves to the point they become boring. Nor does this production become a complicated web too wrapped in itself to be enjoyable. Enjoyable is the very would I would use to describe it. There is the light feeling of watching a television production instead of a heavy Oscar-bait drama, and though it deals with abrasive subjects it does not weigh you down. It chimes with tenderness and remains emotionally intriguing without becoming emotionally taxing — which makes it immensely rewatchable.

Matthew Rhys does an excellent job and is equally good in both of his roles. The stellar supporting cast is a fun mix of actors and actresses who also play the comedic and tragic with a delicious balance. Eileen Atkins, Jodhi May, Alice Orr-Ewing, Andrew Scott, Silvie Testud and more. Eloise Webb who plays the young Mary Lou is wonderfully watchable. The women are the real heart of the film.

Writer/Director Charles Sturridge plunges in and the film zings along, equal parts clarity and art — his real talent lies in capturing the emotional core and translating it on multiple levels. There is a true fluidity of thoughtfulness that carries through from title to credits. It never veers off course. Every turn and shift in the story feels like a bend in the same road, and with his gift for subtlety and subtext Sturridge navigates it naturally.

The novel was first adapted into film in 1959 by director Robert Hamer, with Alec Guinness in the main roles and Bette Davis as the Countess. I have yet to lay my hands on it but I’m very much looking forward to it as I love to explore how one idea can be translated. Here I believe they made some wise decisions in the translation for a modern audience, wrapping the film around the time period from start to finish.

With the new year peaking around the corner, self-reflection is inevitable. The Scapegoat is a great period drama with a deeper look at the grass not necessarily being greener, forgiveness, selfishness, and love. The complicated family relationships, layered performances, the intrigue and drama complete with a sharp ending, make this a great watch for Christmas. Add piles of blankets, a cup of tea — with a dash of something stronger — and you have the perfect night in.

The Food: Earl Grey Popcorn

There is no flavor quite like earl grey tea with its distinct bergamot oil warmth that plays on the front of your tongue all bright and calming. A wonderful bloom of scent and taste that seems even more felicitous in this season of cold nights, pine, clove, and orange.

  • Earl Grey Popcorn1/4 corn kernels
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2-4 teaspoons earl grey tea
  • 1 teaspoon milk
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 teaspoon honey

Grease a baking tray and set the oven to 200°.

Make the popcorn according to your favorite method. Remove the unpopped kernels and place the popcorn in a mixing bowl.

In a saucepan combine the sugar and vanilla on medium heat. When the sugar begins to dissolve and bubble, add the tea. Continue cooking 2 minutes. Add the milk and stir in the butter. Continue cooking for 2 minutes. Add the honey and stir. The mixture should be a warm amber brown.

Put the mixture on the popcorn and stir to coat. Place on the baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes stirring every five.

Remove and let cool. Enjoy with a hot cuppa!

Posted in Christmas, Drama, England, European, Film, Film Genre, Food, Foreign Film, Holiday, International Cinema, Netflix, Period, Period Drama, Period Piece, Snack, UK, Vegetarian | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

World Advent : Day 14

The Film: La Pivellina [Little Girl] – Italy

La PivellinaI was sure I was going to write about this film, it seems so small and hard to recommend to anyone who isn’t a diehard cinephile. But then I read a review and I’m going to pull some ideas from there because it was so inspiring about the core of films like these. La Pivellina is exactly the kind of film that should be written about precisely because of what it isn’t.

Co-directors Rainer Frimmel and Tizza Covi present a pseudo-documentary where the story is realistic over cinematic and the production is minimalist versus gratuitous. A minimalist production ethic isn’t about not having things but not needing them. I believe in this style of filmmaking. It allows a story to unfold without distraction.

Here the story of an abandoned young girl found in a park by a circus woman feels raw but not rough. It cannot be confused with the amateur eye of a mumblecore film which seem as though they are fumbling around seeking depth to pacify pseudo intelligence. There isn’t a prepackaged depth presented in this story, the ending doesn’t tell you about yourself, or what to think of the world. You are given a glimpse and then its up to you to dissect. It may be uncomfortable to some to have to put the work, especially as the ending leaves us with some imagining. But then we become the storytellers, which is kind of wonderful.

I’ve been in discussions with a fellow filmmaker about a concept presented in the silliest of places — still, all this time later, I reference it as a genius point of distinction. I’m talking about indie film verses independent film and I’m talking about Strong Bad.

(Really? Yes, bear with me.)

Strong Bad was a character from an a Flash animated web comic, but more importantly the ridiculous comic made a very valid point about the difference between independent films which are artistic, no-budget, and personal. While indie films are greatly nepotistic, feature a-list movie stars working for scale, and use their large budget to make it feel artistically low-budget.

For so long the media arena has been falsely presented as having just two corners — massive budget blockbusters on one side and anything under 5 million on the other. But in fact there is a varied scale which has more to do with content than anything monetary. Indie films follow the same story-beats and blockbusters while independent films do not limit themselves to a specific type of storytelling. They are therefore often viewed as lacking but what they lack is done so purposefully — they lack the sense of narrative that does not fit with the way the world is. They represent reality as it is directly understood either artistically, culturally, or precisely by the person or persons behind the lens.

As I’ve been writing the 2013 advent series, maybe you’ve noticed a pattern. That good stories are not going to always hit the same notes, they may not have refrains, there may not be verse, chorus, bridge, repeat– that’s what makes film good. I hope even more filmmakers will have the opportunity to create with their sense of style and that audiences will be encouraged to share these unique films — no matter the size.

The Food: Warm Parmesan Popcorn

Warm Parmesan PopcornThere are some ingredients that just go together and when you mix that with the perfect movie — ahh è bello!

This popcorn reminds me of my favorite pasta dish, clam sauce linguini. You could even go so far as to make it clam sauce popcorn, but I thought that might be pushing it for most people so I reduced the dish down to the basics. Olive oil, parsley, and Parmesan.

  • 1/4 cup popcorn
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 2 teaspoons dried parsley
  • 1 teaspoon garlic
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Make the popcorn according to your favorite method. Remove the unpopped kernels and put the popcorn in a mixing bowl.

In a sauce pan add the oil and spices over medium heat. When the oil warms and the smell of the herbs blooms, add the Parmesan. Cook for 1 minute, swirling the oil and cheese together.

Pour over the popcorn, mix to coat, and serve immediately with good company and a glass of wine.

Posted in Christmas, Drama, Film, Film Genre, Food, Foreign Film, Holiday, Independent, International Cinema, Italy, Netflix, Screenwriting, Snack | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

World Advent : Day 13

The Film: องค์บาก [Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior] – Thailand

Ong-Bak: Muay Thai WarriorI admit it. The only reason I watched this film is so I would have an excuse to make Pad Thai popcorn. But I was also in the mood for a change of pace. Something big and fun. Ong-Bak isn’t the biggest martial arts film but it is fun.

It’s really great to the classic country boy in the city trope translated into Thai culture. When the the head of a statue sacred to a village is stolen, Ting (played by Tony Jaa) is sent to Bangkok to retrieve it. He meets up with his cousin who has died his hair, gambled his way into trouble and turned his back on his family. Of course the two need each other and team up to find the sacred head.

The tuk-tuk chase was a riot and brought back waves of my short time in Bangkok. What I know of Muay Thai comes from watching MMA fights on television so it was nice to see the core of the style coming out in various fight scenes. The sense of values that comes from Ting are what I really enjoy about the film, the clear sense of good and evil. Insecure bullies pick on women, drugs are for losers, and heritage is important.

It’s very reminiscent of Jean-Claude Van Damme films. Scenes designed only to show you the physical work of the athlete turned actor, the focus of which is geared more toward defense and evasion than brutal beat-downs. It’s not the highest caliber even in the genre, but it’s definitely a fun watch.

Pad Thai PopcornThe Food: Pad Thai Popcorn

This recipe is genius if I do say so myself.

It all started when a friend and I went out to eat on a weekend. The restaurants were so busy and we were so hungry we ended up at a Thai place in the food court at the mall.

I hadn’t had pad Thai in so long that I got a huge craving for it and went to my local Asian market to get the ingredients. This explains why I have a rather large bottle of pad Thai sauce in my fridge and gives you a great hint at just how easy this recipe is to make

  • 1/4 cup corn kernels
  • 1/2 cup peanuts
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon white sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 limes

Set your oven to 275°

Grease a baking sheet and grind or finely chop the peanuts. The smaller they are the better they will stick.

Put the peanuts into a large mixing bowl. Zest two large limes into the bowl.

Make the popcorn according to your favorite method. I think a dryer popcorn is good here. Something air popped or made without oil in a Nordic ware microwave popcorn popper. Remove the unpopped kernels. Place the popcorn in with the peanuts and mix.

Over medium heat in a nonstick pot add the sugar, pepper, and sauce. Let the sugars dissolve completely and cook for 5 minutes.

Pour the sauce over the popcorn and mix. Put the mixture on a baking sheet and bake for 5 minutes. Turn the mixture. If you can get any fallen nuts to stick to the warm popcorn, now is the time. Turn the oven down to 200° and bake for 10 minutes.

If you have the patience of a monk and can wait until it is cool, or if you get a phone call like I did, it will be delicious. But the few bites I snagged out of the oven were wonderful too. Either way, you may want to double the batch because I guarantee you won’t have leftovers.

Posted in Action, Asian, Christmas, Film, Film Genre, Food, Foreign Film, Holiday, International Cinema, Snack, Thailand | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

World Advent : Day 12

The Film: L’homme du train [Man on the Train] – France

Man on the TrainPatrice Leconte quickly became a favorite director of mine with Man on the Train. The unique story, the masculine but artful direction — a masterful character study. It was my first experience with his work and though I originally watched it years ago, it’s a film I think about often and its impact still ripples into my writing.

Strangers who would never ordinarily meet,  brought together through chance. No one does this better than Leconte. His hand is effortless. It happens because it happens. There’s a matter-of-factness in Leconte’s worlds that makes these occurrences feel natural and never more so than in this film. These two opposite personalities get to know each other and by the week’s end everything changes for both of them.

How different this story would have been if the characters had been younger, if they had been played by less seasoned actors. Johnny Hallyday and Jean Rochefort have been in some other of my favorite films but their paring is brilliant. Their faces, their voices. The film isn’t much more than the two of them and yet it feels like a feast.

You can be sure every detail has been addressed when Leconte is directing. The opening beat of the train tracks married with the music tells the tale long before the credits end. Credit goes to writer Claude Klotz as well for his excellent script. The dialog is tight and the mature sense of humor winks at you as if you’re old friends.

It’s the sign of a great film when you get excited to be back in the world, exploring with new perspectives and ideas. That’s what Leconte does, creates a whole world for the characters to inhabit, for the story to unfold. It’s not a sterile concept to sell tickets. His directing is the very language of film. With well-used fades and an emphasis on natural lighting, it’s hard to underestimate the simple forms before you but nothing is harder than this kind of film. The story is small, the characters are fully steeped in the history of their own lives, the style is real, and it all teeters on a delicate balance of guns and poetry.

Coming back to Man on the Train reminds me why I believe in foreign films, mature directing that allows you to soak in the setting, stories with smaller scopes, and characters that reflect reality. It gets under your skin as if it belongs there, that is the power of Patrice Leconte. As a filmmaker, I can only hope to come close some day.

The Food: Cidre Popcorn

Cidre PopcornCidre is a drink with low alcohol content produced predominantly in Normandy and Brittany.

I first made this recipe for a popcorn buffet at Halloween. It’s the added warm apple note that makes the crunchy caramel taste so delicious.

  • 1/4 cup corn
  • 1 pack instant apple cider
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon butter

Set the oven to 275°

Make the popcorn according to your favorite method. Separate the unpopped kernels and put the popcorn in a bowl. Grease a baking sheet and set aside.

In a pan on medium add the sugars and the apple cider powder. Let it dissolve then add the butter. The mixture should boil down, until it looks  thick 5-10 minutes.

Drizzle the sauce over the popcorn, turning to coat. Place on the baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes. Remove and cool until hard. Yum!

If you’re looking for the alcohol content, try adding some alcoholic cider from Woodchuck Stella Artois or something similar as you add the butter.

Posted in Christmas, Crime, Drama, Film, Film Genre, Food, France, Holiday, Independent, International Cinema, Screenwriting, Snack | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment