Category Archives: TV and Movies

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!

Whole Pig, A Shot to The Ribs, and Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na

For the 4th of July, I went up to Lisa’s parents’ place in CT for a grand bbq/pool party/repeat celebration of Rog and Lisa’s wedding. And when I say grand, I mean there was non-stop food all day, featuring a whole roast pig, Asian style i.e. with the nice crispy skin. We also had some of the sweetest little mangos ever, corn on the cob, sloppy joes, grilled salmon, tons of grilled skewers and I don’t remember how many other awesome things. There were also these delicious mini egg rolls containing plantain and jackfruit. Man, what an incredible spread. Here’s the glorious pig:

Pig!

In between stuffing our faces, we played some basketball, old folks vs. the young kids. I really don’t remember the last time I shot hoops. Clinton was probably President. That’s how rusty I felt anyway. The old folks team was mainly me, Gar and Rog and the young guns were Lisa’s miscellaneous relatives. We did ok for rusty old farts, losing the first game 16-13 but then winning the next three, but I bet the kids took it easy on us. One kid in particular, Francis, was really talented and I started calling him Superstar because I’ve never seen a young player so good at deliberately waiting for and drawing contact before getting his shot off. More often than not, he’d make his shot and if we had been playing real ball, he would have gone to the line for an avalanche of 3-pt plays. Gar showed he can shoot the rock too and I nicknamed him Minivan because he seemed to swish everything when shooting long range from where the cars were parked next to the driveway. Speaking of nicknames, the older gentleman who was doing the carving of the pig also played some basketball later in the afternoon and since he was still rocking his apron I had to dub him The Butcher. Nobody drives the lane against The Butcher! As for me, strangely enough, since Gar and Rog were en fuego from the outside, I did most of my work in the paint, mainly scoring on rebounds and posting up the younger guys. The last game though, I was guarded by a kid who outweighed me probably by 100 lbs. and as we both went up for a rebound he body checked me and sent me reeling. It was so jarring it felt like all my internal organs slammed up against the inside of my ribcage. I’m still in pain from it, and not sure if it’s a couple of bruised ribs or a muscle pull. I had to spend all day Saturday in a wrap trying not to move too much. I can’t help but think in my younger days I would have been able to absorb a hit like that no problem. It sucks getting old! 🙁

So it had been maybe a decade since I last watched a Bollywood flick, but yesterday I rounded out my holiday weekend by going to see Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na and was very much impressed. I know I’m way behind the times, but I had never seen a Bollywood film in a modern setting before so I was thoroughly engaged right from the start. Wonderfully likable characters, surprisingly zingy dialogue with a bunch of lines that were total knee-slappers, and of course all the kitsch, charm, catchy music and whimsical choreography that makes Bollywood films so darn fun. I think I may have to buy the soundtrack off iTunes. I know the film is probably not in wide distribution, but if it’s playing near you and you are in the mood for a silly good time, I definitely recommend it.

José Andrés Is Everywhere (and it’s about time)

I happened to catch a couple of episodes of Made In Spain on PBS over the last few weeks and I have to say, it is exceptionally good for a cooking show whose format has basically been done to death in recent years. It’s the ubiquitious formula where the host takes you on location someplace to show you the local products, people and restaurants, then returns to the kitchen to show you how to make a few dishes. So what makes this show so much better? The host. It’s José Andrés, owner of several restaurants in the D.C. area, known for his inventive Spanish cuisine and being a part of the molecular gastronomy movement (and he’s no wannabe; his resume includes a stint with Ferran Adrià at El Bulli). I have not personally tasted his food (yet) but have been very eager to, now more than ever. The thing about the guy is that he is incredibly passionate for food but is completely unpretentious about it. He jokes and uses funny metaphors to teach what’s going on in the cooking process, and you can just tell by the way he really gets into what he’s doing that despite working with food for so many years, he is still absolutely enchanted by it. He fawns over great ingredients and when he looks at things as simple as a spoonful of paella, he uses words like “fascinating” and “astonishing”, as if perfectly cooked rice were the greatest wonder in the modern world. That’s a foodie if ever I saw one.

I think I first heard of Andrés when I saw an episode of Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything where first he made a killer giant paella, and then he really intrigued me by taking Bittman to his restaurant Minibar where he and his team do their no holds barred cooking for only 6 customers a night (top that, Momofuku Ko! haha). That’s where he showcases much of his wizardry with molecular gastronomy, but only with the goal of achieving the greatest possible eating experience. If something can be made to be original and dazzling with no scientific technique at all, he will go with that too as evidenced by his “tomato caviar”, which is simply the pure unadulterated jiggly deliciousness of the insides of a tomato, the part containing the seeds. Talk about being simply brilliant!

A few months later I happened to catch José Andrés on tv again, this time on an episode of Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie (note to Nari Kye fans: she’s the production manager for that show). In that episode, we get an inside step by step look at how he and his team brainstorm new ideas and bring them to life in their test kitchen. Very cool stuff.

Then there was my trip to Las Vegas this past December. I was in the middle of one of those marathon sessions of blackjack where I only leave the table to use the men’s room, and I only do that when the dealer is shuffling the next shoe. I got up from my table and hurriedly made my way towards the restroom. As I was zipping down the corridor in my haste, who do I almost run right into? Yep, José Andrés. I would have stopped to talk to him except for the fact that I really had to piss and I also wanted to get back to the blackjack table without missing a hand.

Fast forward to last month where I catch an episode of that awesome series on PBS, Chef’s Story, and wouldn’t ya know it, there’s José Andrés again. He gives an awesome interview and then cooks an incredibly simple yet fantastic looking paella. Damn that dish looked so good, it was downright inspirational.

A couple weeks later I caught my first episode of Made In Spain on WLIW HD and was delighted to see that José Andrés finally got his own show! I of course immediately added it to my DVR schedule and pre-ordered the DVD thru Amazon. The program is, wonderfully, just José being José. He travels throughout Spain having a grand ol’ time showing us where the country’s various culinary treasures come from and he does it like a proud papa showing off his children. Then he takes us back to his immaculate kitchen where he cooks with all that enthusiasm and profound adoration of his ingredients. It makes for a really great show.

And last but not least, speaking of great shows, who was that on Iron Chef America last week? You got it. José Andrés was the challenger and he completely whooped “Iron Chef” Bobby Flay’s azz. The judges were totally floored by Andrés’ dishes in what was one of the most lopsided defeats an Iron Chef has ever suffered. I think he smoked Flay by a whopping seven points or so. Good for him. José Andrés is a charismatic, talented chef whose turn in celebrity chefdome was long overdue. I’m glad his time has apparently arrived. Now if only I could score one of those 6 seats at Minibar so I can actually sample his creations. Who’s up for a road trip with me? 🙂

What’s on TV

For someone who claims to not watch that much tv, I really watch a lot of tv. Granted I’m usually tuned to something like cooking shows just as white noise in the background while I surf the web or get work done, but just this week I realized how many different programs have worked their way into my regular routine. I’m still catching every episode of Holmes on Homes (Discovery Home channel), the new seasons of Top Chef (Bravo) and After Hours With Daniel (Mojo), High Stakes Poker (GSN) and I still end most days with the Daily Show and Colbert Report (Comedy Channel). And the rest of the time, my TV is usually on WLIW Create for all the cooking shows and Ask This Old House. I’ve also recently started watching I Bet You (Mojo) where poker studs Phil “Unabomber” Laak and Antonio Esfandiari just go around inventing bets to make with each other. Stoopid mindless fun including one episode where Antonio loses a bet and is a little on tilt and decides just for the heck of it to cut for high card with some guy where the loser has to get the other guy’s name tattooed in full on his arm. Nuts. Antonio ended up winning, but I think he was crapping his pants before they flipped the cards when he realized what he was about to do.

Speaking of Top Chef, in this week’s episode, as soon as Manuel ordered the Chilean Sea Bass I knew he had screwed himself. How did I know? Precisely because I watch so much weird stuff on tv. You see, Daniel Boulud was the guest judge for this episode, and in an episode of After Hours with Daniel, he mentions that in all his years, he has never served Chilean Sea Bass in his restaurants. In his words “I think it’s kind of gross, really”. And with the absolute reverential level of respect that he commands, I knew his opinion would influence all the other judges. While they never show Boulud making a negative comment about the choice of fish, Tom Colicchio made mention of the fish being “fishy” which certainly sounded like him wanting to agree with the words of the master. Sure enough, Manuel got the axe shortly thereafter.

Finally, mark your calendars for April 15th. Besides being tax day, it is the start of the next season of The Big Break competition on the Golf Channel, The Big Break Ka’anapali. Featuring the ladies in this season, the one I’ll be watching is Susan Choi who gets my vote as the most likely next-big-thing regardless of how she finishes on the show. Born and raised on Long Island and now living in Natick, MA, the recent Wellesley grad is a rookie with exactly the right elements to become a star in today’s world. Judging from the show’s teasers and her audition material, Susan is a sweet, un-jaded young woman who, unlike most of the other big Asian names in women’s golf, speaks perfect English and doesn’t come off as mean, aloof, awkward or strange in any way. A talented, attractive, normal Asian American with strong religious and family values who will be up against seemingly surly, bitter, ruthless competitors. In clips from the preview, you see people calling her “a snot-nosed little rookie” and “luckiest, stupidest girl in the world”. I think even if Susan loses, she will win her fair share of fans and hopefully that will translate to some real dollars for her at some point because it sounds like her family has some financial challenges they’re counting on her to remedy. She’s gone pro, so she can accept endorsements now. Sponsors, make it happen!