Friday, February 03, 2006

A Tale of Two Sisters: DVD Review

Have you ever had the strange feeling that there really is something in that tiny space between the stove and the floor? And maybe it's, like, watching you?

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) is Korean director Kim-Jee Woon's brilliant psychological horror film, an attempt to follow in the footsteps of internationally successful Japanese horror films like Ju-On and Ringu. Tale of Two Sisters is like these films in its imagery and atmosphere, but in my opinion it does them one better.

The movie (unsurprisingly) tells the tale of two sisters: they've recently returned from a mental institution to their new, isolated home (a creepy, old house to end all creepy old houses), presided over by their evil step-mother.

The film's fairytale-like narrative and opulent, creepy atmosphere create a slowly rising sense of dread: strange patterns on the wall, subtle but killing looks between family members, deep dark shadows, all captured in drippingly gorgeous, rich cinematography. By the time the real, jolting scares come--and, boy, do they ever--the director has played his audience like a violin. If you have the surround sound system, plasma screen works, this is a great chance to use it: on the film's rich and detailed masterful visual and sound design.

A Tale of Two Sisters reminded me a lot of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive: it doesn't have a traditional narrative cohesiveness, but rather it's comprised of narrative fragments, a jumbled jigsaw in which the pieces don't necessarily fit together, but the viewer is left to make his own story from a slow accumulation of images and events. The first half of the film is straightforward enough, but as in Mulholland Drive, the film contains a sort of "split" in the middle after which the tale starts to become more fragmented.

As in The Others or The Sixth Sense, you're not always sure who's a ghost or who is haunting who, who is dead, what's real or what's a dream. Unlike those films, Tale of Two Sisters does not leave you with any tidy answers. It leaves you floating in the strange atmosphere of the film, its lingering and haunting images and disorienting relationships. In addition to being a horror film, the film is also an intense psychological portrait of family relationships, the guilt, anger and potential violence that often lie beneath the surface, a warning on the dangers of too much hatred and jealousy, but also of excessive devotion.

It's best not to look for one specific narrative explanation for what you see: rather, just let the film's terrifying images and creepy atmosphere take you where they want to. As in Mulholland Drive, you may be at a loss to explain what you've just seen, but you know it's taken hold of you. A Tale of Two Sisters is a stylish psychological horror film that keeps its biggest secrets hidden, but still somehow knows just how to get under your skin.

FilmStocker Rating: B+

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Baked Olives: Recipe

Here's an easy recipe that smells so good when it's baking, you'll wish you could bottle and sell it. The smell of hot bubbling wine, herbs and olives is so good, it ought to be illegal.

Baked olives are a great little finger-food to serve with cocktails, the perfect appetizer for a Greek dinner of spanikopita and stuffed grape leaves, or just a great little nibbler to set out before any meal.

You can serve the olives at any point after they come out of the oven, very hot to room temperature, but I think they're best if you let them cool and then refrigerate them for at least a few hours so the flavors mingle and combine.

Baked Olives

2 cups Greek kalamata olives
3/4 cup dry red wine

2 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp coarsely chopped garlic

1 bay leaf

1 tsp dry or fresh oregano
1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes

ground black pepper

1 Tbsp minced garlic
1/2 tsp lemon zest

1. Rinse the olives well. If they're very, very salty, let them soak in a bowl of water for an hour. Drain and rinse again.

2. Preheat the oven to 375.

3. Put the olives in a baking or casserole dish large enough to hold them in a single layer. Toss with the wine, oil, chopped garlic, and bay leaf.

4. Cover and bake the olives for about 50 minutes.

5. When they come out of the oven, transfer them to a serving or storing container. Toss them with the oregano, parsley, red pepper flakes, pinch black pepper, lemon zest and minced garlic.

5. Serve as an appetizer with crusty bread, a good goat cheese and plenty of wine.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Contempt: DVD Review

Contempt (1963), originally titled Le Mepris, is a film which details the hopelessly tangled, failing relationship between a playwright--currently contemplating selling out as a screen-doctor for a Hollywood film based on The Odyssey--and his wife. It's a sort of mini-scale odyssey of arguments and miscommunications, revealed and hidden emotions.

It's also director Jean-Luc Godard's ironic statement about the direction of cinema at the beginning of the sixties: he uses gigantic and dramatic, sweeping Cinemascope to film a petty, domestic argument inside an undecorated apartment, a segment which occupies the majority of the film. Fritz Lang, who plays himself, says at one point, "This cinemascope. It can only film snakes and coffins. For filming human beings it's useless." Jack Palance is spot-on perfect (a back-handed compliment, I suppose) as the shudderingly sleazy, bombastic, small-minded producer.

Bardot looks great, pouting her way though the film, delivering an interesting, layered and intriguing naturalistic performance as the wife who slowly develops an overwhelming contempt for her husband.

But in the end I found the film a little too cinema-world insular and self-reflexive. Bardot is beautiful to look at, but some of the nudity feels cynically exploitative of the audience and, at the same time, cynically mocking film audiences for letting themselves be exploited. And ultimately, I found the "contempt" of the title, the Bardot character's unexplained and unexplainable contempt for her husband, a little too vague and nebulous to maintain my interest.

FilmStocker Rating: C

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Stir-fried Rice with Beet Greens, Tofu and Ginkgo Nuts: Recipe

Jeff and I just got back from vacation and haven't had a chance to go shopping. We threw this together from things we already had in the kitchen and were totally surprised by how awesome it came out.

Ginkgo nuts are available in cans at Asian grocery stores. That's what we used in this recipe, but if you can find them in a fresher form, go for it. If you can't find them at all, substitute baby corn cut into bite-sized pieces.

To make this recipe vegan friendly, just skip the eggs.

Stir-fried Rice with Beet Greens, Tofu and Ginkgo Nuts

2 cups cooked rice
2 eggs, beaten
vegetable or peanut oil
Greens from one bunch (about 3-5) beets, washed very well
One block tofu (12-16 oz)
1/2 cup Ginkgo nuts
1 Tbsp minced ginger
1 Tbsp minced garlic
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper or minced fresh chili or to taste
1 green onion, sliced into 1/2 inch rounds
1 Tbsp rice cooking wine
2 Tbsp Soy sauce

1 tsp sesame oil

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

2. Add the beet greens and blanche them for about 5 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water. Drani again and then set them aside.

3. Heat a wok over very high heat until it is extremely hot.

4. Swirl about 1 Tbsp of oil into the wok and then pour in the eggs. Let them cook omelette style for about one minute, then turn and scramble so they cook through. Remove the eggs from the wok and set aside.

5. Reheat the wok. (You may need to wipe it with paper towels to get it clean). Mix the soy sauce and cooking wine together.

6. Swirl a tablespoon of oil into the wok. Once it's hot, add the ginger, garlic and pepper and sitir-fry for about twenty seconds. Add the beet greens and the ginkgo nuts and cook until they're done: about 2-3 minutes.

7. Add the rice and stir-fry until it's heated through. Pour the soy sauce and rice wine mixture over the rice and stir until it's mixed through.

8. Stir in the eggs, sesame oil and green onion and remove from the heat.

9. Serve in small bowls with soy and chili sauce on the side. Enjoy!

Monday, January 30, 2006

Tybee Time: The Full Report

Jeff and I just got back from our three-day trip to Tybee Island yesterday. What a short, strange trip it's been (I swear it seemed to last all of twenty minutes).

On Thursday, I was all business, getting ready to go. I dropped Jeff off at work early in the morning, came home and packed up all our clothes and all the food I'd been preparing that week. It took me a long time to get the car loaded up (we live on the tenth floor). The cooler was HEAVY, too. I made some green tea for the thermos and packed all the booze in a box. I was finished at about one and then I just had to wait impatiently until Jeff got off at two.

I picked up Jeff and we left straight from his office, heading down Interstate 75. The drive to Savannah is only 4 hours, and Tybee is just another 30 minutes or so from there, but man, I hate a car trip.

I was all tense and jittery by the time we got everything into our hotel room. Don't ask me why, but checking into a hotel is a locus of stress for me. I always neurose that they'll lose my reservation or say the price of the room has gone up or that they'll be all, "We don't allow the gays here," or something.

I was hoping we'd make it to Tybee before sunset, but unfortunately it was already dark. Anyway, Jeff offered to make me a gin and tonic, and I ordered a double. It was really cold outside, so we couldn't go out and I was disappointed by the room: we were facing the ocean and had a view of the beach and could even see the water, but we were on the first floor and I had been hoping that we'd be higher up so we'd really have a panorama.

Like I said, I was a totally tense crankazoid after the car trip and I was just trying to do that "I should be satisfied with what I have," yogi thing about the disappointing room, slugging down my not-quite-right (shh. don't tell Jeff) gin and tonic (I'm picky). I turned on the TV to see if I could find a movie, but the only thing I could find was Bridget Jones' Diary, and that seemed just too self-torturing to do to myself on top of everything else, so I switched it off.

The next morning, Jeff and I woke up to the most mind-blowing sunrise outside our window, a performance that was repeated every day we were there. Just gorgeous, almost impossible to describe, so I won't try, but know that it was sunrise double-plus-good.

It was a strange disjunct on Friday because it was so damn cold. From the window, we saw palm trees, sea gulls, white sand, sea oats, the verging sea, bright blue skies, but then stepped outside and it felt like the Arctic.

We bundled up and went down to the beach after breakfast. It was beautiful and empty, but so cold and windy we couldn't even stay long. We just hung out in the room until the afternoon when we REALLY bundled up in layer after layer with hats, gloves and scarves and went on a walk at the beach.

It was still cold, but we managed to make it down to the south end of Tybee where the beach meets the back river. There was only one other person on the beach--even at the pier--which in the summertime, as you may know, is so crowded with people it can be hard to walk through at high tide. It's typically noisy and festive like Coney Island around the pier, so it was very surreal and evocative to be there when it was totally empty, walking to the end of the pier where there were just some addled-looking sea fowl with ruffled feathers. Adding to the strangeness of the scene was the fact that the only other person in sight was a lone woman--I kid you not--in a hooded, red cloak walking slowly along the beach.

I found a sand dollar.

Our hotel was the Ocean Plaza which the locals--I assume--refer to as "the eyesore." It's not so horrible, I suppose, it's just a little out of proportion with the rest of what's on Tybee. The deal we got was great though: just $40 a night for a room that faced the ocean and was a few steps from the beach.

We brought our own microwave--or rather I borrowed it from my parents because Jeff and I don't have one--so we could heat up food in our rooms. We had a cooler, too, which we kept on filling with ice from the machine in the hallway.

Our room came with a total bonus. On Friday, Jeff found a Fantastic Four Invisible Woman doll that some kid had left by the window. We didn't even have to shop for souveniers.

Late Friday afternoon, we headed in to Savannah. It was a little before five so when we parked, I had to put one quarter into the meter to cover that little bit of time until the weekend started.

(It was wierd: when we stepped out of our car, we'd parked in front of a gorgeous old Savannah home. The door to the bottom floor was open and we could see inside from the street this long dining room table all set for a fancy dinner party. There was no one in there, but the stereo was blasting--and I mean blasting--this really horrible music: it sounded like Michael Bolton covering a Chicago song backed up by Yanni and Kenny G. It was so loud I could barely talk to Jeff about how many quarters to put in the meter.)

We walked to Vintage Vinyl on State Street and dug through the record bins. They had a lot of great stuff, but they were more than a little over-priced. I saw things like Beatles albums I had bought at garage sales for maybe a buck with thirty dollar pricetags.

In the end I managed to find a few much more reasonably-priced discs: I got Dinah Washington Drinking Again, Ike and Tina Turner Live at Carnegie Hall and Kay Thompson Party: Let's Talk About Russia in which the eccentric 50s personality, author of the Eloise children's books (think Diana Vreeland meets Liza Minnelli) describes her trip to Moscow at a cocktail party, complete with clinking drink glasses, ringing telephones and background (and sometimes foreground... Speak up Kay!) balalaika music. (Who thinks of these things?)

The guy at the cash register pointed out that the Drinking Again title of the Dinah Washington album was totally ironic, considering her death was drinking related. Thanks, cash register guy, I didn't know that. Now I'll think of that and get depressed every time I put the album on.

Afterwards, we headed over to our favorite Savannah cafe The Sentient Bean, where I ordered a hot chocolate--it was awesome--and Jeff ordered a coffee. Strangely, the girl behind the counter kept trying to give Jeff too much money. He handed her a five to pay for the drinks and she gave him change for a twenty, and when he pointed this out (the difference between me and Jeff illustrated) she gave him too much change again, about a dollar extra, which Jeff left as a tip.

Next we hurried over to a little black box theater at Savannah College of Art and Design where the Performance and Drama students were putting on a little production. Well-known performance artist Tim Miller had been leading a two-week workshop at SCAD and this was the culmination, the students did a little show where they each did a monologue or performance piece about some personal experience or piece of personal history.

The show was excellent, and it was surprising how many talented young people there were among the fifteen or so drama students who had participated in the workshop. I couldn't believe how revealing the students' pieces were. They did what I could never do: stood in front of a crowd of strangers and talked about the most embarassing private stuff: suicide attempts or how they didn't feel sad at a family member's funeral or childhood fatness or humiliating break-ups and the like. They managed to make it all funny, original, moving and entertaining, and, on top of it all, the show was totally free. It was a lot better than plenty of professional shows I've paid to see in Atlanta.

I didn't like the fact that the show opened with a bit of audience participation--my least favorite form of theater. We had to wait outside the theater for a long time until one of the student actors led us inside and introduced themsleves and showed us around the theater and up to a little drawing they'd done of themselves. I was tired of standing around and just wanted to sit down and watch a show, but I did my best to be polite and talkative to our guide, Jessica, who was very nice and showed us her little self-portrait and told us about how she broke her arm twice.

It was too cold to walk around Savannah after the show, and although we'd even brought cocktail fixings so we could tailgate and do just that, we decided to head back to the hotel.

The next day it was thankfully warmer. We bundled up a bit and went for a long walk on the beach. From the south end where our hotel was, we walked all the way to the north end as far as we could go, maybe four miles or so.

I found another, even better, sand dollar on the north end of Tybee, where the Savannah River meets the sea, where Sandra Bullock has a home. It was a wonderful walk that took all morning, probably eight miles total. It was totally gorgeous, the reason we came really.

We were pretty tired when we got back, so we just had some lunch and chilled, then at sunset took a walk to find the back pier. We had our daily gin and tonic first then made some cocktails in to-go cups to take with us. I'd never been to the back pier part of the island before, but had always been curious. It took us a while to find it, but it was really cool, this public concrete deck that stuck out into the back river into the sawgrass. The setting sun was so gorgeous we just sat down and watched these kayakers paddling around out on the tidal river. It may have been the light--or maybe the cocktails--but I kept seeing these really interesting, psychadelic, eye-popping, vivid, repeating patterns in the ripples on the water.

When we got back to the hotel room, it was still warm (or rather slightly warmer than the day before). I knew it was now or never. I put on my flip-flops and went down to the water (with another cocktail) to stick my feet in. Incredibly, there were people swimming--I think they must have been high-school kids on a dare. The water was freezing, but felt totally refreshing and cleansing on my feet.

All in all, this short vacation seemed to fly by. I'm sure you probably know the feeling: blink and you miss it?

Before we knew it, it was Sunday morning and time to check out of the hotel. We stopped at a bakery called B. Matthews in Savannah on the way out to get some mocha and a banana nut muffin and spinach-feta croissant, all of which were delicious and the staff was super cute and way flirty--or at least the cute, flirty one was--which was a totally nice way to leave the city and end our small vacation.

Tipping the Velvet: DVD Review

Tipping the Velvet (2002) is the BBC mini-series adaptation of the novel by Sarah Waters, telling the story of Nan--a working class girl in 1890s England--who falls in love with a travelling music hall performer, a male impersonator named Kitty. Nan (played by Rachel Stirling, the daughter and spitting-image of British actress Diana Rigg) eventually follows Kitty to London where they form a double act, and during her journey--from the gutter to stardom and back down to the gutter again--Nan experiences and sees every aspect and level of the lesbian underworld in late Victorian London.

The series that the BBC has produced from Waters' novel is excellent. The budget isn't huge, but the producers have done a lot with a little, making interesting, believable characters.

At just three episodes, the series does feel a little rushed. Events that were developed in more detail in the novel are all but glossed over in the series. I was surprised at one point when Nan said, "I had fallen from celebrated star of the London stage to penniless street urchin." In the television version, the "star of London stage" phase seemed to last about a day or two. (The novel covers a period in Nan's life of about seven years.)

Nonetheless, the mileiu in which the story takes place is always interesting, never ceasing to surprise and interest without ever seeming to exagerate or overdramatize: Waters accurately depicted a subculture that, by its very nature, had very few contemporary documentarians and the series does the same. The series is a fascinating, intriguing and involving soap opera, a mash-up of Masterpiece Theater and Girls Gone Wild, a historical drama that examines the way in which desires that had been sublimated, unspoken by society for so long slowly began to coalesce into a subculture which pushed late Victorian society into modernity.

FilmStocker Rating: B+