28 September 2009

District 9

We'd heard mostly good things about this movie, but the string of previews AMC put on before screening District 9 almost frightened us into leaving the theater: a revenge fantasy, a zombie horror comedy, an apocalyptic fantasy, and Saw VI.

I mean, would you find this encouraging?

In the event, though, we were pretty blown away by District 9. With an array of pretty cheap-looking special effects, and a spectacular script, this South African production manages to create a strikingly resonant metaphor for human bigotry and capitalist exploitation while also telling a very satisfying science fiction story about aliens who look rather like 6-foot-tall lobsters.

Recommended! Recommended! Recommended!

12 September 2009

Am I Turning into Julie Powell?

Not really. But Victor came home from a business trip last night to find me cooking with a vengeance. I'd settled on ratatouille, and maybe some broiled chicken. When I decided on ratatouille, I was thinking of it as a sort of sloppy stew with eggplant, tomato, and zucchini, that you sop up with a nice arborio rice...easy. But the recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking is for something completely different: a composed casserole, with each vegetable distinct, in its place--you wouldn't believe the hours that go into making it.

However, the result was quite outstanding. Victor was not sure if it was outstanding enough to go through all that again, but I suggested it might be worth doing it for company (it doesn't just taste impressive, it looks pretty beautiful, too). And then after a few more bites, I decided it really might be worth doing again just for us.

By comparison with the ratatouille, the broiled chicken was a breeze. And its preparation neatly fit in the gaps of the ratatouille routine. Never broiled chicken before. Turned out delicious. But, overall, I have to say that cooking meat is a messy business. (We're not--by any means--vegetarians, but we cook mostly vegetarian at home.) All that grease! I remember thinking the same thing some months ago after I'd made a bunch of chicken stock...

So, what was so tough about the ratatouille? First you peel and slice the eggplant--quarter-inch thick, 3-inch long, 1-inch wide slices. Then you scrub and slice the zucchini--pieces roughly the same size. Toss the slices in a bowl with some salt and let them sit for half an hour, to draw the water out. Drain. Dry the slices with a towel. Then you separate the eggplant from the zucchini and saute the eggplant in olive oil in a single layer at a time, turning to brown lightly. Remove to a plate. Saute the zucchini the same way. I added a step, which was to layer the browned slices between paper towels to blot some of the oil.

All this browning takes a lot of oil.

Then you saute onions and peppers, throw in some garlic, pepper and salt. Meanwhile, you peel, seed, and juice a bunch of tomatoes. Cut them into strips. Lay them on top of the onion-pepper mixture. Season with salt and pepper. Cover, lower heat, wait for the liquid to be drawn out. When liquid has been drawn out, uncover, raise heat, and cook off all the liquid.

Take out a stovetop casserole. Divide your ingredients (fresh herbs (parsley, basil), tomato mixture) into thirds; divide the eggplant/zucchini slices in half. Put a third of the tomato mixture at the bottom of the casserole. Top with a third of the herbs. Then half the eggplant/zucchini (place the slices nicely). Then another third of the tomato mixture and another third of the herbs. Then the rest of the eggplant/zucchini. Then the rest of the tomato mixture and herbs. Cook covered on low heat till there's liquid at the bottom when you tip the casserole. Baste with the liquid. Then cook, uncovered, basting, till there's no more liquid.

When you're done, you have this very elegant, very beautiful, and very delicious casserole. In this case, taking all that care produces terrific results.

11 September 2009


Victor asked me to watch this one--a quasi-sequel to In the Mood for Love--without him. Probably a good decision. This movie has even less narrative drive than the previous one, but I was--if anything--more enthralled.

And are there any beautiful Asian actresses who aren't in this movie?

Recommended for Wong Kar Wai lovers. Others are likely to be annoyed.

Julie & Julia

Though reviews we'd seen were lukewarm (except for universal praise of Meryl Streep's turn as Julia Child) all our friends (and it really does seem like all our friends have seen this movie) told us it was great, so we went to see Julie & Julia last weekend.

We were not disappointed. It's a really enjoyable movie about marriage, finding your life's passion, and--of course--food. Also inspiring. After the movie, we took Mastering the Art of French Cooking off the shelf and started browsing through it again. And found some Julia Child snippets on YouTube. And found Julia Powell's blog, which is still online.

As a result, we ate well last weekend: Victor learned to make a really delicious omelet from this video and I made potage parmentier and a simple vinaigrette for a salad. The most important thing I learned was that adding butter to a boiled soup tastes as good as adding water (or stock) to sauteed ingredients.

But I digress. And that tells you something, doesn't it? It's nice when movies do that: give you an hour or two of enjoyment and then send you back, energized, into your own life.

Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer

This biography by Tim Jeal is sort of a biographer's biography, I think--it's not just the story of a life, but the argument of a man with a mission: to reform the reputation of Henry Morton Stanley (the "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" guy), who made not one but three great journeys into Africa, and died just at the dawn of the 20th century.

For those of us who weren't aware of Stanley's tarnished reputation (he was damaged by his association with men far more brutal and scheming than he) this thick volume is a bemusing read. From the book's Dickensian start, with Stanley--born John Rowlands--growing up in a workhouse in Wales, the author is at pains to do multiple things at once: tell the story of Stanley's life, point out that previous biographies have been wrong, and convince us of why he's right.

It seems that previous biographers have been misled because until recently many primary sources, including Stanley's own writings, have not been available. These cast light on the fact that Stanley lied a lot. He was ashamed of his impoverished, illegitimate background, and gave himself a new personal history as well as a new name. He was also prone to exaggeration. Also, others--for various reasons--lied about Stanley.

One gets the sense that Jeal is very proud of himself about finding the truth, and, indeed, it seems a very impressive accomplishment, but I would have enjoyed a more straightforward biography, I think. Too often it feels like the author is apologizing for Stanley.

Still, the content is fascinating, and provides some keen insights about how the explorations of the past helped create the Africa we see today.

03 September 2009

Vera Drake

I remember when this movie made a big splash (way back in 2004!); it was nominated for a number of Oscars, but it did not win any (however, it won a bunch of awards in Britain and elsewhere). Imelda Staunton plays the title character, a working-class woman who cleans houses for a living, takes care of her aging mother, her husband, her two grown children, and almost everyone else she knows, with a smile on her face and a song on her lips.

Vera is one of those stalwart Englishwomen who think a cup of tea can fix anything--she's sympathetic to other people's problems and helps where she can, but she's so at peace with herself that other people's troubles don't take her down--they're an occasion to help, and also to recall her own good fortune.

Unknown to her family and all her acquaintance except one, her activities include inducing miscarriages in pregnant women who wish they weren't. She takes no money for the service. She sees it as "helping girls out."

Eventually she is caught, and the movie traces the impact of this conflict between personal conviction and the law on Vera and her family. By including a vignette about the daughter of one of Vera's employers, the movie also lets us see that things were very different for the upper class, so we feel that there are multiple levels of fairness (or unfairness).

In the end it's a grueling movie to watch. No one likes to see a good woman--a really good woman--ground down. But you feel it's true. The system has no mercy.

After checking what Vera Drake was competing against at the 2005 Academy Awards, it seems to me that Imelda Staunton was robbed (Hilary Swank won for Million Dollar Baby--she's good, but not that good) and Mike Leigh was robbed (Clint Eastwood can be a fine director--I really admire Mystic River and Unforgiven--but Million Dollar Baby is a tearjerker-and=nothing-but-a-tearjerker--set against Vera Drake, there is really no contest).

So this is the kind of movie Vera Drake is: you not only enjoy the movie--laugh, cry, empathize and all that--but it makes you want to fight for it.