Category Archives: TV and Movies

Simon Says…Cry At My Movie

Simon Yam at the NYAFF

Simon Yam was in town yesterday introducing his film Echoes of The Rainbow at the NY Asian Film Festival. The guy is a legend, a true icon of Hong Kong cinema. He’s been in the game for over 30 years and played every kind of character but is probably best known for his badass cop and gangster roles. So this movie was a slight departure for him, playing a poor shoemaker struggling to provide for his wife and two sons in 1960’s Hong Kong. In his intro, Simon told us about his own childhood when his father would sometimes hit him seemingly for no good reason, and he couldn’t understand his father’s love until he was much older. This echoes the part of the movie where his character takes a hand to the younger son, and because of that scene and so many others that were really personal to him, he felt that out of all the movies he’s ever done, this one was the closest to his heart. He said to break out the tissues because we’d need them by the end of the film. And yes, he was right.

But it turns out, as strong as Simon Yam’s performance is, the one who really makes the movie is Buzz Chung, the child actor who plays “Big Ears”, the mischievous younger son who walks around with a fish bowl over his head pretending to be an astronaut when he’s not busy misbehaving. Whether he’s making you laugh, making you well up with tears, or just looking adorable going about his business, he absolutely steals every scene he’s in. I think that every great movie you see, you leave the theater with certain images that linger in your mind. Those are the images that will forever spring to mind whenever you think of the film. And if the movie was really affecting, as this one was, recalling those images will instantly trigger emotions in you. In this film, as gorgeous as the cinematography was, I find that all the images that have stuck with me in that way are vignettes of the expressive little Buzz Chung. Perhaps the most memorable for me was the scene of Big Ears running home after school only to find the family shoe store closed. He may have been too young to really understand why, but he knew instantly that something was very wrong, and his look of abject fear and desperation captured the direness of the situation in a very powerful way.

I admit I may have been particularly moved by this film because I see a bit of myself in the Big Ears character. Though I don’t think I was ever that naughty, my family always called me kwai doy which is Toisanese for mischievous boy, so maybe I was, I dunno. And I definitely saw a little bit of my mom in scenes when Big Ears’ mom would say things like “I just wish he’d behave” with a heavy sigh, but also with a little bit of a smirk. I didn’t really understand or appreciate it as a kid, but growing up in a Chinese family, and maybe especially because it was a Toisanese family, I was being instilled with the idea that having struggles are part of what make life rich. And the smirk comes from knowing that dealing with a son that’s a little bit of a rascal is a relatively good kind of struggle to have. It’s actually one of the themes of the movie- that life is supposed to be half good, half bad. And my own takeaway from it is that if you can embrace the bad, well, then it’s all good. And for me, this movie was definitely all good.

No More Food Network (for me)

As of January 1st, I no longer get the Food Network or HGTV because Cablevision declined the rate increase being requested by Scripps Networks, the parent company of the two channels. Cablevision claims Scripps was attempting to raise the fee for those channels by 200% and that they could not accept those terms without passing the increases on to their cable subscribers like me. If you ask me, both sides have a greedy wrongheadedness about the value of their offerings. Cablevision charges too much for their services as it is, so they could certainly eat the price increase if they had to. Though I’m not saying they should, because I think Scripps is pretty delusional about the worth of their channels too. But in this day and age, there’s a way disputes like this get resolved- using the arbitration model just like in sports contract disputes. Get an independent arbitrator to listen to both sides and determine what is actually a fair carriage fee for the channels in question. It should be that simple, and at that point, whichever side refuses to go to arbitration is clearly the one in the wrong. Enough said.

As for me personally, I had lost almost all interest in the Food Network long ago. The good shows are either long gone (Taste with David Rosengarten, Molto Mario, the original Iron Chef), or relegated to very obscure hours (Jamie at Home). People that can actually cook, like Mario Batali, have been replaced by cartoonish personalities who annoy us with forced ebullience. So many of the current roster of Food Network celebrities remind me of used car salesmen. But these charlatans aren’t peddling vehicles, they’re selling themselves. They’re trying to convince you that they are fun, cool, and boy wouldn’t you just love to hang out with them. It’s not about food, it’s about them! Nauseating.

Slightly more regrettable is losing HGTV, but only slightly. The only show I watched there was Holmes On Homes, but I won’t miss it too much because it seemed they only had about 15 episodes in rotation and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them all. That’s another thing to gripe about with Scripps- if they are going to charge more for these channels, they should damn well bring the other episodes of Holmes on Homes to the U.S. audience (there are tons of episodes that have only aired on HGTV Canada).

But while the fallout from this battle between Scripps and Cablevision is no big deal to me right now, I do have serious trepidation about the future. You see, Scripps also bought a majority stake in The Travel Channel back in November. Now that is a channel with programming that I do still like a lot. I love No Reservations, Dhani Tackles the Globe, Meet The Natives and sometimes I even find Samantha Brown, Andrew Zimmern and Man v. Food worthwhile. It scares me to think that Scripps and Cablevision could someday upturn this apple cart the same way they took the Food Network and HGTV away from 3.1 million viewers this past weekend. The way I see it, losing the Food Network is just mildly irritating. I’m annoyed only because it has become a part of popular culture and being a typical American with an inflated sense of entitlement, I feel I should have access to it even if I never actually use it. But losing the Travel Channel? Man, I hope it doesn’t ever come to that.

Avec Eric

Eric Ripert’s new cooking show Avec Eric on PBS is a nice addition to the otherwise crowded food television landscape. It’s filmed in vivid high definition which really makes a difference, not just in the food porn closeups, but also the places he shoots on location.

Only three episodes have aired so far, but it looks like every one will follow a three part formula. Things open with a segment in the Le Bernadin kitchen where a different station is featured each week. We get to meet the staff member(s) responsible for that station as they explain the products they handle and how they work with them. In HD, the quality of the ingredients is stunningly apparent and you also get a sense of how clean, calm and orderly everything is in Ripert’s kitchen. It’s so cool to get a peek at the inner workings of the restaurant like that.

The second segment of each episode is filmed on location someplace where Ripert either sources his ingredients or is exploring and learning about new things. So far, two of the three episodes have featured places I’m familiar with from my trips to California the last few years, namely David Kinch’s restaurant Manresa and Hog Island Oysters in Tomales Bay. Both were really interesting segments. I didn’t know that Kinch has an exclusive relationship with Love Apple Farm where everything produced there is for use by Manresa. This frees up the farmer, Cynthia, from worrying about selling her product so she can just focus on her passion for growing things. Also interesting is the process of trial and error they use year after year until they manage to grow things that taste the way they want. Oh and there’s one particularly amusing moment where we watch Ripert’s expression as he tastes one of Kinch’s dishes. It’s as if he’s so overwhelmed by how delicious it is he can’t control himself so he punches Kinch in the arm and euphorically says “gimme a break, this is fantastic!”. Great stuff.

Then Ripert closes out each episode from his home kitchen in Manhattan where he shows us how to make a dish. His home kitchen is of course gorgeous, clean and spacious. And as you’d expect, his recipes have a beautiful simplicity and sensibility to them. More than anything else, it’s this opportunity to watch the master performing his craft (in HD!) that makes Avec Eric so enjoyable. From his obvious respect for his raw ingredients to his deft and delicate touch with every action in the kitchen, it just kind of makes you say, man, that’s the way to cook!

Haeundae

Haeundae   Courtesy of Subway Cinema I was invited to a sneak preview screening of the Korean mega-flick Haeundae last night. Going into it, all I knew was that it was a high profile, big-budget film about a giant tsunami. So basically I was expecting to see the Korean version of The Perfect Storm. Turns out it was a very different kind of movie, unlike anything Hollywood would ever produce.

The first half of the film plays almost like a romantic comedy. We get introduced to numerous characters who all live or work in the beach resort town of Haeundae. The comedy is very campy slapstick and not very subtle, a clear sign that this movie was intended for international distribution. As you grow to like the characters, many of the laughs just come from how over the top some of them behave. You’ll start to think that Koreans are always over-reacting and yelling at each other. In other words, it’s pretty realistic, hahaha.

I was enjoying this part of the film too, but kept thinking to myself “this is what Koreans consider a big budget film? What did they spend the money on??” Ah, but then the second half of the film kicks into gear as the tsunami forms out at sea. Suddenly all hell breaks loose and then you see where the production money went. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone that hasn’t seen it, so I won’t go into any details here. But let’s just say the sweeping visuals are breathtaking as the storm makes landfall and the film becomes a catalog of how many ways there are to get killed by a tsunami.

Yes, the underlying storyline is somewhat formulaic, but aren’t all natural disaster flicks? In the end, it was a very entertaining movie that’s funny, exciting and heartwarming. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s got a gorgeous lead actress in Ha Ji-Won. It’s definitely a big movie and needs to be seen in theaters to appreciate it at its best. If you’re in NY, the movie starts today at Loews AMC Village 7 (66 Third Ave).

Holmes in New Orleans

Kudos to HGTV for bringing the Holmes on Homes series back to U.S. viewers. Even if they have given it a crappy time slot (8am Saturday mornings), it’s great that we can see the show again. It used to be carried on the Discovery Home Channel, but they dropped it when that channel became Planet Green.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it follows Canadian contractor Mike Holmes and his crew as they step in to fix the problems left behind by other contractors. In some cases the previous contractors were inept at best and in others they were outright criminally unscrupulous. It is one of the most informative shows ever produced when it comes to home repair and construction. Viewers learn best practices and what to watch out for when inspecting a home or dealing with contractors. But the biggest difference between Holmes on Homes and other instructional shows like This Old House is the human element. You get to know the crew. You feel for the homeowners and the injustice of what prior contractors have done to their lives. But you also share in the emotional payoff every time Mike’s crew finishes a job and you see the homeowner’s reaction. Every time Mike turns a house back over to the homeowner, it’s like he’s given them their lives back. That’s the real draw of the show for me.

This morning, August 29th, marked the 4th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and its destruction of the city of New Orleans and so it was fitting that HGTV chose today for the U.S. premier of Holmes in New Orleans. In this two-hour special, Mike Holmes takes his crew to NOLA to try and build a prototype sustainable LEED-certified home in 10 weeks, start to finish. The effort was to support Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation (coincidentally named the same as the motto Mike Holmes has been using for years) which is attempting to rebuild homes in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward. The Holmes house would be the very first of the 150 houses planned for the first leg of the Foundation’s efforts.

And what a home it would be. A crazy design with all kinds of funky angles with the main structure raised over 8 feet off the ground so that if another flood ever came through it would just wash under the house. Solar panels, insulation and ventilation designed to reduce electricity consumption by over 70%! Just incredible. Plus you get to see Mike’s workmanship put to the test as the house was just completed as Hurricane Gustav was rolling in.

But as with most Holmes on Homes episodes, it was the human aspect that made this show special and got Holmes in New Orleans nominated for so many awards. Not to give away any spoilers, but from the story of the homeowner Gloria Guy to the trials and tribulations dealt by mother nature, it was quite the emotional roller coaster. For those of you who have watched Holmes on Homes through the years, you’ve come to know the crew like old friends and it is cool to see them here in the States. It’s great to see how much Damon has come into his own, able to keep his cool in a leadership role under intense pressure. Also grown up and contributing in a big way are Mike’s kids, Mike Jr. and Sherry. Mike’s other daughter Amanda also took part, working behind the scenes doing public relations. But it wasn’t all good; it was particularly hard to watch some of the others, especially Pinky, wither under the adverse conditions. As much as I respected them in the past, I think twice as much of them after New Orleans, all of them, but especially the ones that had the fortitude to see this project through to the end. What great people and what compelling television.

For past seasons of Holmes on Homes on DVD or a copy of one of Mike’s books, check them out here.

Gran Torino- Worn Treads But A Decent Ride

I think I’ve been a fan of Clint Eastwood as long as I can remember, and that’s a mighty long time. And while that tremendous span of years seems to show in every wrinkle and age spot on his face these days, he is still unquestionably “the man”. His latest film is Gran Torino and it is perhaps the last one in which he will act, preferring instead to work behind the camera from now on. Fittingly, this last role is one that seems to capture what Eastwood’s screen persona has become in recent years. In Walt Kowalski he portrays a grizzled, grumpy old Korean War vet dealing with life after his wife passes away, living in a neighborhood that has changed, much to his dismay, due to the large influx of immigrant Asians. Eastwood mainly squints, snarls and growls his way through the film like only he can. And really, the character only works in this film because it is Eastwood playing it. America treasures Clint Eastwood, so when Walt Kowalski blithely spews racial epithets it’s funny and we like him, simply because we give Walt the same affection and leeway we give to Eastwood. Admit it, he’s our hero and we love watching him do hero stuff!

To avoid giving away any spoilers, there’s only so much I can say here. But I do want to highlight something awesome Clint Eastwood did in creating this movie- he featured the Hmong people, an ethnic group from southeast Asia that I am embarrassed to say I never even heard of before this movie. Thanks to Gran Torino, Google and Wikipedia I now know a little bit more about Hmong people, but man, it is weird being Asian and discovering that Clint Eastwood knows more about this ethnic group than I did. And that of course is a drastic understatement. I mean sure, we all occasionally see stuff like a caucasian customer speaking Japanese in a sushi restaurant. But man, I didn’t know Hmong people even existed and yet Dirty Harry has made a major motion picture centered around them! This is why we love the guy.

And bonus points for not playing the Interchangeable Asian casting game like others films have done (Memoirs of a Geisha, I’m talkin’ bout you). No sir, Gran Torino was actually cast chock full of actual Hmong actors. Well done. I’m glad they did that, but I have to admit it worked to mixed effect. First time actor Bee Vang (16 yrs old) plays Thao, the kid that Kowalski ends up trying to mentor. I realize the character is supposed to be meek and somewhat awkward, but some of the lines were delivered noticeably off-kilter. But that’s ok because as uneven as his performance was, fellow first time actress Ahney Her’s performance more than made up for it. Ahney (also 16 yrs old) plays Sue, the strong, protective, saucy older sister who befriends Walt and teaches him about Hmong customs. And while yes, this is a Clint Eastwood movie where he does plenty of his tough guy Clint Eastwood stuff, it’s really the delightful scenes between Clint and Ahney that carry the movie. Sue’s charm and playfulness is unflappable in the face of Kowalski’s constant racist muttering and that is just completely disarming, to Kowalski, and in retrospect, to the audience of the movie as well. The only way this movie works from an emotional standpoint is if that connection is believable. And the way Ahney Her and Clint Eastwood interact on screen, it’s more than just believable, it’s fun to watch. Two strong characters with cute verbal exchanges where both sides selectively tune out whatever they want. Highly entertaining, especially the way Sue relentlessly calls Kowalski “Wally”.

In the end, the story line may be formulaic and its character struggles not unique, but hey, for me it was still an enjoyable film. It was one final chance to see Clint in action on the big screen, and in Ahney Her, perhaps we are seeing a future star on the rise. And for Hmong people everywhere, I imagine this is their coming out party. Good stuff all the way around.

Losing My Mojo

First, I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving! I ate a ton as usual but this year was particularly special because it was the first year that my nieces and nephews contributed dishes to the big dinner. They made two different kinds of mashed potatoes as well as some addictive little cookies! Pretty neat, eh? I also attended a pot luck Friendsgiving at Kat and Ricky’s place two days later with more fantastic food, the highlight for me being Ricky’s kimchee fried rice. Mildly spicy with a hint of sweetness, it was exactly my kind of flavor profile. Good stuff.

Anyway, what I really wanted to talk about is TV. This week brought a couple of unexpected changes to my cable system’s channel lineup. Apparently the MojoHD Channel is no longer. Supposedly the channel was conceived in order to provide all-HD programming during a time when there wasn’t much available. The company line is that nowadays there is enough HD content from so many other sources that there is no longer a need for their channel. We all know that the economy is more likely the real culprit here, but whatever. The bottom line is that we have lost the channel that brought us great shows like After Hours with Daniel Boulud and the pub crawling series Three Sheets, as well as low brow but sometimes amusing drivel like Getting Abroad (the host goes to foreign countries to try and hook up with local women) and I Bet You (Antonio Esfandiari and Phil Laak wander aimlessly inventing ways to wager against each other). Too bad. But on the positive side, there have been quite a few great additions to the channel lineup recently…

The art channel GalleryHD has a couple of shows I particularly enjoy. One is Art of The Heist which relates in great detail various art thefts throughout history. Another is Concrete Canvas which follows sidewalk chalk artist Julian Beever around the globe to let us see how he creates his mind blowing anamorphic 3D drawings. Really fascinating to watch as his sidewalk art comes to life right before our eyes.

But considering my regular viewing habits, the most important HD channel additions came just today- Bravo HD and CNBC HD+. Finally I get to watch Top Chef in HD! Woo hoo! And now that I basically work from home I tend to watch CNBC all day long, so having it in HD is simply awesome. And the “+” in CNBC HD+ is an additional side column of additional charts, data and sometimes an additional video so that you can keep one eye on things like which automaker CEO is currently getting grilled at the Senate banking committee hearings. It’s like picture in picture for financial news junkies!

Watching this new CNBC HD+ makes me think just how far business coverage on television has come in my lifetime. Back when I first really became Money it was because of my precocious obsession with the stock market. It was the early 80’s and the only thing on TV to satisfy my hunger for market info was the half hour Nightly Business Report on PBS. If I missed that, I would actually have to wait until the following day’s newspaper to see how my stock and mutual fund picks were doing! And then once a week, there would be Louis Rukeyser on Wall St. Week. But that was it. Looking back, man, it was like the dark ages; I don’t know how we lived like that. But as the years have rolled by, it brought us CNBC and the internet and now we are awash in more information than we can consume. Hallelujah! One really cool footnote- when I was a kid and first started watching the NBR, it was hosted by Paul Kangas and Dean Shepherd. Astonishingly, Paul Kangas still hosts it! That dude has seen so much and he’s still going strong. How cool is that?

But even CNBC is way different than when it first started and in my opinion, it’s all good. When I started watching CNBC again recently my first reaction was one of surprise. Not at the quality or timeliness of the info, not at the production values and cool graphics, no, even though all those things are in fact there, I was more struck by how they’ve stacked the entire programming day with attractive women! Every business day gets filled with Becky Quick, Maggie Brennan, Melissa Francis, Michelle Caruso Cabrera, Melissa Lee, Maria Bartiromo and of course everybody’s favorite, the workaholic Erin Burnett. Every one of these women knows their stuff and have high financial bullshit detectors. It’s awesome watching them do their thing and not just because they’re attractive. Erin in particular is distractingly good looking, but she’s smart as a whip and likes to have fun with her cohorts on air which makes her seem the most effortlessly hot. Though I will say she looks better in the morning and in my opinion, the makeup person that gets to her after lunch goes a bit overboard. But what do I know, I hate makeup as a rule. I’ll probably write a separate entry on CNBC at some point because they’ve got a lot of personalities and shows that I wanna talk about and it would be a long post in itself. For now, all I’ll say is that this crazy economy has made CNBC every bit as compelling to watch as anything else on TV. And even though I may have lost my Mojo, I look forward to waking up with Erin Burnett every morning!