Friday, January 20, 2006

Hero: DVD Review

Hero (2002) is the film to watch if you've got one of those home theater flat screen HDTV plasma-driven surround sound mega-systems. It's a visual grand opera in which every shot is a mini-aria.

Hero is a Kung fu epic set in Ancient China, telling the story of four assassins and the king they want to kill. In fight scenes, they float, fly and bounce around temples, lakes, fall foliage, and courtyards. It's all pretty exciting and very cool.

Director Zhang Yimou of the slightly more subdued Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou brings his sharp, precise story-telling skills and outstanding visual sensibility to the action film. The plot is simultaneously spare and complex: as in Kurosawa's Rashomon we're told the same story several different times as the truth - rarely pure and never simple - unfolds. This is the film that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon wanted to be (I'm probably disagreeing with the majority here: for me CTHD was one of those films I was supposed to like, but didn't).

Overall the film is inventive and exciting and not without its larger implications, but there's something a bit slow and unreal about the action, too. Things happen in poofy slow-motion, and there's a weird sort of inconsequentiality to cuts and blows. (The characters are such Kung fu experts they sometimes don't need to fight each other at all: they fight in their minds.) The narrative device of retelling the same story several different ways is great, but after the third or fourth time we've seen a character's death recounted, it loses a bit of its intended weight and significance.

Some might find the visuals a little too perfect, a little too precious and rarefied, like something rare and beautiful and dead displayed under glass. And the movie's theme of the worthiness of a nation's unification through bloody war and the renunciation of personal objectives to that end--while a refreshing change from American action movies--is still more than a little discomforting to those of us who may have wanted to give peace a chance.

All in all, a gorgeous, gigantic epic: an action flick at the top of its game.

FilmStocker Rating: B

Thursday, January 19, 2006

French Toast: Recipe

Nothing says, "Dude, you're awesome," like a plate of homemade French Toast. Make it tomorrow morning for someone you love... or heck, make it for yourself. I made some for myself this morning, and it was absolutely delicious. And it did make me feel totally awesome.

French toast is a vegetarian dish, but it does use eggs and milk. I'm also offering a delicious vegan version, right after the traditional one.

You can use just about any bread, but of course the better quality bread you use, the better French toast you'll have at the end. A crusty French or country loaf is my personal favorite. Brioche or raisin challah are superb. And don't worry if the bread is a couple days old, hard or even almost stale. This is what French toast was invented for: to make use of old bread. That's why the French themselves call this dish "pain perdu" or forgotten bread.

Traditional French Toast

2 eggs
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup milk, half-and-half, or (if you've been REALLY awesome) cream
4 slices bread
Powdered sugar
Butter for the skillet

1. Whisk the eggs, sugar, vanilla and cinnamon together in bowl or pan that's also large enough to hold the bread. Stir in the milk.

2. Put the bread into the mixture and let it soak up the goop. If your bread is very old this may take a few minutes. Just keep turning it every now and then until it's good and wet.

3. Heat the skillet over medium heat. Add about a tablespoon of butter, coating the bottom of the skillet, then brown the French toast well on both sides.

4. Put the "pain perdu" on a plate, sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve with your best strawberry jam and organic maple syrup. Awesome.

Vegan French Toast

4 slices bread
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1. Use a pastry brush to coat each side of the bread with about a tablespoon of maple syrup. Stack the slices on a plate and let the syrup soak in, turning (carefully, it can be messy) and adding more syrup to make sure they're coated thoroughly.

2. Heat the oil in a non-stick skillet over medium heat then add the bread and grill on both sides until golden brown.

3. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve with strawberry jam.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

D.O.A.: DVD Review

D.O.A. (1949) is a film noir whose gimmick--a man has taken a slow-acting poison and attempts to solve his own murder--doesn't seem enough to carry a whole movie.

In addition, the plot device of removing the character from his usual surroundings at the beginning of the film--he's on vacation in San Francisco--is a double-edged sword. It heightens the sense of displacement, paranoia and uncertainty once he discovers he's been poisoned, but it also decreases our attachment to the story: everyone the main character meets and questions is a stranger. We know the murderer isn't someone he knows so we don't have the opportunity to guess or contemplate: we just have to watch the mystery unfold on screen.

The film isn't helped by the fact that the main character isn't that likeable either. He's taking a bachelor's vacation in San Francisco away from his steady girlfriend. As he walks around SF, the soundtrack plays a jokey wolf-whistle everytime he passes a pretty girl. His subsequent change, realizing the value of his girlfriend after being poisoned, isn't moving or convincing. How sad for the "girl at home," too: the only way she can get a man who's faithful and loving is when he's a few hours from being dead.

Things do pick up about midway through when the locale changes from San Francisco to LA, and the main character runs manically back and forth, piecing the mystery together, popping into new locales, with new bits of information about who knew what when. But ultimatey, the film depends on just how exciting the audience finds the far-fetched conceipt of a man solving his own murder. It's not helped that the 'luminous poison' supposedly responsible for the main character's poisoning is pretty ridiculous: a doctor proves that he's taken it by switching off the light so his urine sample glows in the dark.

FilmStocker Rating: D for dead on arrival

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Cheese Fondue: Recipe

I recently came across a great find in a thrift store, something I'd been looking for for a long time: a fondue pot. And not just any fondue pot.

My fondue pot is so groovy, so 70s, that just a glimpse of it caused me to be instantly transported back into the era of flares, shag carpeting, clogs, conversation pits, peasant blouses, game rooms and faux wood paneling. It even says "fondue" on the side in a far-out script in case you were wondering what to use it for. Even better is the fact that the fondue pot was still in its original box and all the parts were still unopened and in their packaging. The box had been sitting in someone's attic since the early days of Studio 54. I was the first to use it. It's simply the best four bucks I've ever spent.

I admit that fondue has a kind of cheesey (sorry) reputation. It's not really fondue's fault though. Contrary to popular belief, fondue was not invented in Santa Monica in 1974. The word "fondue" comes from the French word "fondre" which means to melt. Fondue was developed in Switzerland in the 18th century as a way to use old bread and hard cheese in the winter when it was too cold to go outside and get those things fresh.

I had fondue for the first time last night, and I can say unequivocally that I think cheese fondue doesn't deserve its bad reputation. It's a totally delicious, totally easy, totally traditional, super fun vegetarian meal which even buzzkill meat-eaters will enjoy. I've
also offered--thanks to Vegan Lunchbox--a vegan variation.

I feel it's high time for a fondue revival. Fondue is our friend and deserves to be treated with respect. In order to prevent it from
ever falling into disrepute again, I'd like to offer a few of my personal fon-do's and fon-don'ts, which I hope you'll take to heart.

FON-DON'T: Don't serve fondue in July. As much as you'd like to have a hearty cheese fondue at your pool party, fondue is really a cold weather food. It's from Switzerland, where even they served it in the wintertime.

FON-DON'T: Don't get too creative with what goes in the pot. Experiment with different kinds of cheeses, sure, but avoid those fondue recipes that call for a jar of peanut butter, a can of tuna and a box of Ritz crackers.

FON-DON'T: Don't just open a can of cheese soup and pour it into your fondue pot. You'd be surprised at how many recipes tell you to do just that. That's not being fair to fondue. It's like telling someone who wants to try pizza to spread some ketchup on a piece of Wonderbread.

Do use high-quality cheese and good bread for your fondue.

FON-DON'T: Don't serve fondue for more than one course at a meal. As much as you might want an appetizer of cheese fondue, followed by veggie Bourguignonne, with a dessert of chocolate fondue, it's just too heavy. The novelty wears off after a while, too. Fondue is really a meal in itself, but if you feel you must serve it with something go for a light salad or fresh fruit.

FON-DO: Do serve with plenty of stuff for dipping. Although just bread is the most traditional you can also try lightly blanched bite-sized pieces of broccoli, cauliflower, carrot, etc, cubes of roasted potatos, and sliced red pepper.

Vegetarian Cheese Fondue

1 pound chopped cheese (Gruyere or Emmanthaler or combination)
1 loaf good crusty Euro-style country bread, cut into squares
1 1/2 cups dry white wine (plus more for drinking)
Pinch nutmeg
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
2 Tablespoons Kirsch
Salt and pepper

1. Rub the inside of your fondue pot with a clove of garlic. Toss the garlic away. Put 1 1/2 cups white wine in the pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat.

2. As soon as the wine has little bubbles in it, throw in the cheese. Stir with a wooden spoon until melted (the wine and cheese will not blend until you throw in the kirsch)

3. Mix the cornstarch and the kirsch in a small cup and then pour it into the cheese mixture. Continue cooking about three to five minutes or until the fondue is thick and blended.

4. Transfer the pot to your fondue stand and light it. Give each guest a fondue fork and allow them to dip the bits of bread into the cheese. Take a moment to dig on all the out-a-sight compliments from your mellows before joining in on the fun.

Vegan Lunch Box's Vegan Cheese Fondue

½ cup chopped baby carrots
one 12-oz. package soft or firm silken tofu
¼ cup nutritional yeast flakes
¼ tsp. dry mustard
1 TB mellow brown rice or white miso
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
¾ tsp. salt, or to taste
pinch of white pepper
pinch of nutmeg

1. Place the carrots in a small saucepan and cover with a scant ½ cup of water. Bring to boil and lower the heat to a simmer. Cook until the carrots are completely tender.

2. Meanwhile, place all the rest of the ingredients in a blender. When the carrots are done add them and their cooking liquid and puree until completely smooth.

3. Place the fondue back into the saucepan and heat on medium low heat, stirring frequently, until piping hot.

4. To serve, pour the fondue into a small crockpot or fondue pot and serve surrounded by vegetables and bread for dipping.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed: DVD Review

Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed (2004) is an excellent documentary that tells the story of Shirley Chisholm, the first black Congresswoman and the first black woman to make a serious bid for the presidency, running as a candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1972.

One of the films strengths is its strong reliance on footage from the period, rather than contemporary interviews (of which there are a few) and voice-over narration (of which there's none). These images give a real sense of the time in which the story took place, a time that--due to the emerging feminist and black equality movements--was both more politically hopeful and active than ours and, in its own way, equally cynical. Chisholm '72 is ostensibly a study in inspiration and individual courage, but it's also a study in how quickly political progressive momentum can be stifled by the status quo. Even many black politicians and feminist leaders were reluctant to support Chisholm, feeling that she simply couldn't win.

At just over an hour, the documentary is a little on the short side, and many viewers will be left feeling that they wished they'd gotten a better glimpse at the personal side of Chisholm and how she made the transition from schoolteacher to relentless campaigner in the face of such opposition. Some extras--such as some of Chisholm's campaign speeches and some unedited interviews--would have been nice as well, but the DVD has none.

All in all, an excellent portrait of an inspiring person, unflappable in the face of adversity, and ultimately a portrait of a time that is both astoundingly different from ours and simultaneously, sadly, too much the same.

FilmStocker Rating: A