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Dinner & a Movie: Miso Ramen & “Byzantium”

Last night I made miso ramen with butternut squash and cabbage and Susan and I watched Neil Jordan’s Byzantium. Both were great.

photo-1The soup was a really lovely combination of flavors — the sweetness of the squash with the rich white miso flavor,  the cabbage  crunchy and just a little brown from the oven. Yum.

I made this recipe with udon noodles instead of ramen, because that’s what I was in the mood for, and added a poached egg on top just for kicks.

The whole thing was tasty, definitely a recipe I’d make again, but possibly the most revelatory part of this whole experience was the discovery it’s very easy to poach an egg in the microwave! I read this Bon Appetit microwave poaching tutorial very skeptically, particularly since the instructions are basically just “crack an egg in some water and microwave it”, but it worked really well. I think it may be time to learn how to make a proper Hollandaise.

After dinner, we watched Byzantium, which has been on my to-watch list for a long time, and Susan and I both agreed that we were sorry it’d taken us so long to see it.

This is, in many ways, my ideal sort of movie. It’s a supernatural story but it’s not strictly horror. It’s about powerful women working outside the established system. It’s atmospheric and beautifully shot. And it seamlessly interweaves past and present, dream and illusion and reality. What more could I ask for?

The situation of the characters isn’t much of a secret, but it unfolds in a way that is a pleasure to see, so I won’t spoil too much about it, but in short: Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and Clara (Gemma Artertone) are a small family, immortals surviving on the fringes of society, living on the run. When they’re forced to leave the city they’ve been staying in, they return to the seaside town where their stories began, and their situation quickly becomes increasingly complicated — by love, death, and perhaps the most dangerous force of all, the truth about their past.

Storytelling plays a central role in Byzantium. Eleanor longs to tell the truth about herself, but she doesn’t fully comprehend the potentially fatal consequences that doing so may entail — in part because Clara, who is perfectly aware of how dangerous the truth can be, chooses to keep her secrets and has never told Eleanor about certain parts of her history. Clara lies to protect Eleanor, both to keep her safe and to preserve her innocence, because she cares for her, but ultimately it’s Eleanor’s innocence that puts them in danger. It’s about family histories especially, and the way what one generation can’t bear to remember comes to color how the next generation sees the world. In this way, Byzantium is not just about the lies we tell to obscure the truth and simultaneous fear of and desire to reveal that truth, but also about the way lies of omission can leave us vulnerable, as well.

Storytelling is also central to the formal conceit of the film. The film begins as a story told by Eleanor — she is writing out her life story on the page, narrating it to us in voiceover — but ultimately only Clara can fill in the gaps, and the moment when she steps in as narrator is both chilling and exhilarating.

The casting here is about as flawless as one could hope. Saoirse Ronan is wonderful as Eleanor, but it’s Gemma Arterton who really stands out. She’s sensual and sinister and stunningly fearless as Clara, who knowingly trades on her sexuality for power and refuses to look back with regret. There are moments, as we see the character of Clara come into her own, where Arterton’s self-assurance and strength are almost preternatural, embodying a perfect mix of rage and wonder and delight. Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller, and Tom Hollander also take excellent turns here, though their roles are comparatively small.

The last thing I’ll mention is the cinematography and score, which work together to create a startlingly beautiful gothic atmosphere. The seaside town of Hastings has a strong presence in the film, beautifully run-down, its long concrete promenades and stony beaches lit with the carnival glow of boardwalk neon. There’s a tension here between the natural world and the man-made — dewy fields of cabbages at dawn and murmurations of birds casting shapes on the sky presented in stark contrast to cold, impersonal council flats and hospitals. As Eleanor walks through town, she realizes that none of the buildings she’s passing existed when she was last there, but time can’t quite cover up the past, which keeps rising up to trouble her, memory seamlessly interpenetrating with the present. Sitting on the beach, she sees herself walking past as she once was, and hears the echo of the songs she used to sing. (The use of “The Coventry Carol” here is particularly eerie, along with a couple of other traditional songs and a haunting score by Javier Navarrete.)

I think what I liked best about Byzantium — besides the fact that it’s a gorgeous and unflinching feminist vampire story — is the way it embraces the wonderfully unreal as contiguous with the realities of the present day. The mysterious and arcane don’t disappear into the past, aren’t incompatible with modern-day logic. The unreal coexists with the real, sometimes uncomfortably, sometimes painfully, but never in a way that suggests one is better than the other, or that one will win out over the other. And the truth, when it’s finally revealed, is more mysterious, more complicated, than anyone could expect.

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Review: Girl Most Likely

I decided to see Girl Most Likely on impulse earlier this week and caught a matinee by myself in a nearly empty theater.  Going to the movies alone in the middle of the day is actually, I’ve decided, really nice, but it also probably suggests that I’m about as close to this film’s target audience as you can possibly get.

Which is to say that Girl Most Likely, about a once-promising playwright who has a mental breakdown and is forced to move back home to New Jersey to live with her family, hit kind of close to home.  It’s not that Kristen Wiig’s Imogene and I are exactly the same person (thankfully, for instance, my mother is a lot more reliable than Imogene’s gambling addict mother, played with aplomb by Annette Bening), but there were definitely some similarities.

Perhaps most significant of these is that Imogene and I (along with a lot of other women of my generation), live in what Anne Helen Peterson calls the “postfeminist dystopia”: a world that recognizes the failure of the idea that women can “have it all” through consumption, self-objectification, and romantic coupling. In other words, the era of the romantic comedy “happy ending” has been tested and found wanting.

When the film begins, Imogene seems to be living the kind of life that is the light at the end of the average rom-com tunnel: she’s attending stylish Manhattan parties with her rich friends and her handsome husband.  Everything appears to be perfect.  She’s got the kind of cosmopolitan lifestyle that women who came of age with Sex in the City dream of.  But it’s all, ultimately, a fantasy.  Her husband doesn’t have time for her, and her friends shun her when she’s in crisis. Imogene’s dreams of living an intellectual life in the big city crumble, and she’s sent back to New Jersey with her mother after staging a suicide attempt so overtly performative that it can’t even be called a cry for help. (The scene, in which Imogene primps and puts on her sexiest lingerie and artfully positions herself on the bed beside a spilled bottle of pills, may be one of the most overt call-outs of dead-woman-as-sexualized-object I’ve seen in a while.)  Once Imogene is home, of course, she comes to realize that the life she’s built for herself is not a good fit for her (as she puts it, she was just an impersonator), and once she finally comes to terms with this, she’s freed up to write again — in her own voice.

One thing I especially appreciated about this story was that Imogene’s story isn’t resolved romantically.  She does have a love interest (the slightly-too-young-for-her Darren Criss, who is admirably charming in what may be the most cringe-inducingly awesome use of a Backstreet Boys song in contemporary cinema), but that isn’t the main problem Imogene has to deal with.  So often women’s problems in movies are resolved by hitching their wagon to some handsome man, but for Imogene, what’s much more important is coming to terms with herself, her sense of her own worth, and her relationship to her art.

Like Girls, Bridesmaids, Bachelorette, and Young Adult before it, Girl Most Likely explores the ways in which the narratives of feminine success encountered in the mainstream media are destructive to women living in the real world.  Is this film the most stringent critique of the post-feminist dystopia?  Probably not, no.  But it’s a charming, good-natured film about a woman who’s trying to figure out her place in the world on her own terms, and we can always use more of those.

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Review: Haywire

Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire has been on my Netflix queue for a while now.  Yesterday I finally got around to watching it, and I have to say it was a real pleasure.

It seems appropriate, in a way, that Haywire sat on my proverbial shelf for so long.  It’s the kind of film that sneaks up on you.  It’s understated, almost small, despite being a continent-hopping spy thriller.

Gina Carano stars as Mallory Kane, a spy-for-hire who is burned by her employers and sets out to find out who betrayed her.  Carano doesn’t exactly have superstar verve, but she’s capable and charming and handles herself beautifully in the elaborate fight sequences.

As far as the violence in this film is concerned, it’s pretty intense.  It’s not graphic, exactly, but the fights are inventive and complex and they just don’t stop.  The choreography is not your average jab-jab-hook; nobody is downed with a single expedient blow. Interestingly, though, Soderbergh is fairly unsentimental about these sequences, documenting the carnage extensively without sensationalizing it too much.  It was sort of refreshing to see a woman kicking ass without being overtly sexualized in exchange (with the obvious exception of a scene where Mallory chokes an opponent between her thighs).  Carano’s career as an MMA fighter means that she performs her on-screen bouts in a workmanlike way — with exquisite agility, but also with total comfort, as if this is something she does as a matter of course.  Which is true, both for Carano and her character Mallory.

In fact, it’s this workmanlike quality that appealed to me most about Haywire.  It’s a very stylish film — in many ways, it’s very much an homage to classic ’70s espionage thrillers (a fact that is particularly evident in David Holmes’s gorgeous, brassy score)  — but it’s also devoid of the showboating of some of Soderbergh’s other films.  This doesn’t have the flashy charm Ocean’s 11, nor is it the high camp of Behind the Candelabra.  Haywire is pared down.  It gets right to business.  There’s not much fussing about backstory or psychological explication.  Very little time is even spent explicating the twists and turns of the plot.  It treats the events of the film in much the same way Mallory herself does, as ordinary occurrences.

You might expect this to undercut the suspense in the film.  After all, if Mallory trusts can handle herself, how can we ever really feel a true sense of risk in all the conflicts she endures?  Well, we don’t, really.  There’s never any doubt that Mallory can handle herself in a fight, or even that she’ll come out on top.  But the film isn’t without tension. That tension, though, arises not from the will-she-or-won’t-she anxiety of the fight, but rather from the acute attention to detail, the way the film forces us to linger in the moment with Mallory.  This is especially true of a couple of long chase sequences, one where Mallory is running down a suspect and another where she is fleeing her attackers.  These scenes refuse to gloss over the action, giving us little respite: for what feels like ages, we watch Mallory run (and run and run) after her quarry; later, she walks down a sidewalk while a man tails her, and we wait and wait for the moment she will be able to break away, and it seems that moment will never come — until, finally, it does.  Where another, slicker film might cut straight to the firefight, fast-forwarding to the “good bits,” so to speak, Haywire holds us in place and refuses to let us look anywhere else.

Haywire may lack some of the explosive panache of bigger studio action films, but I think that works to its advantage.  This film is unassuming and subtle, but nothing short of capable.  They say that’s the mark of true confidence, after all: someone who’s really skilled has no need of bravado or showing off, because their skills will speak for themselves.

Haywire (2011), dir. Steven Soderbergh.  Starring Gina Carano, Channing Tatum, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, and Anthony Banderas.  Currently available on Netflix Instant.

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“A Little Party Never Killed Nobody”

Susan and I went to see The Great Gatsby this evening, and I wish I could articulate why I didn’t like it, but I can’t seem to put it into words . . .

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“And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine”

Fala and I went to see Gangster Squad today.

It was a bit more graphic than I expected (although I’m not sure what I was expecting from a movie called Gangster Squad), but it was an entertaining, decently-made movie.  It felt very much like a film right out of another era — straightforward, comfortably formulaic, and not terribly reflexive.  It was a straight-up old school sort of film, as if they’d found the long-lost script for some 50s crime thriller and simply polished it up for contemporary tastes (with more violence and more nudity, obviously).  This meant a lot of stylish retro banter and gorgeous sets and costumes, but it did leave me wondering where to draw the line between paying homage to another era and glorifying the more suspect aspects of that time.  There were some nice little moments here and there, though, and everyone in it was pretty great, especially Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling (who may have gotten his break playing nice but might just make his career playing charming-but-dangerous).  It may not have done anything too innovative with the material, but it knew exactly what sort of film it was trying to be, and, as such, succeeded as a well-executed example of its genre (pun intended).

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Review: Mona Lisa & Drive

Today I watched two movies about drivers: Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa and Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive.

Both were pretty good, on the whole.  Mona Lisa is a sort of anti-Pretty Woman, and Drive is a slightly more realist answer to glamorous hyper-violent car-centric action films (I’m looking at you, Vin Diesel), but both still manage to suffer from many of the same flaws as the kinds of films they seem to be responding to.

Spoilers for both films behind the cut

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Review: Les Miserables

I went to see Les Misérables earlier this week and, I have to say, I found it smug, superficial, and sensationalist.  Admittedly, I’m about as far as a person can possibly get from the target audience for an historical musical, let alone a moralistic, paternalistic faux-realist treatise on the glory of revolution and the transformative power of love and religion, but even so, it was pretty terrible.

Stacy Wolf has already pointed out the creeping misogyny of Les Mis, so I won’t linger on that, except to say: it’s really misogynistic.  When the female characters in an 150-year-old novel have more agency than the female characters in a contemporary adaptation, there’s a problem, people.

But for me, the bigger problem with Les Mis is the way it sensationalizes history to the point of trivializing it.  Obviously, there’s no topic that should be out of bounds to literature — certainly one can and should write about revolution, prostitution, and the moral struggles of the poor.  But a musical?  Really?  ‘Cause there’s nothing I love more than a sentimental solo about a woman being coerced into prostitution.

Essentially, Les Mis is looking back at the pain and suffering of its characters and licking its chops.  It’s nothing short of vulgar. Oh, look how picturesque the poor consumptive prostitutes are!  The costumes are so lavish!  Doesn’t the blood of these dead adolescent revolutionaries match their fallen flag nicely?  The poster is a perfect example — dirty, down-trodden Cosette is an object of our pity, but her porcelain perfect skin shines from within, reassuring us that there’s nothing too ugly or unpleasant in the world, not really.  We enjoy feeling sorry for her because it makes us feel that, like Jean Valjean who nobly lifts her from poverty, we are, at heart, decent and good.  That sort of puerile, prurient fascination with suffering for the sake of self-aggrandizement is, simply put, vile.

All of this might be more palatable if the intention were to raise awareness about social issues or to explore the complex nature of some historical circumstances (though there’s hardly a need to legitimize fiction through ideology).  It might be excusable if Les Mis had anything to do with real life.  I say this as a committed fantasist, who absolutely does not believe that realism is the only path to truth.  But while verisimilitude is optional, honesty isn’t, and Les Mis most decidedly is not that.  In fact, I would say it determinedly avoids any kind of honesty. The film is so stuffed with characters and subplots that no one but Jean Valjean is meaningfully developed even in the slightest.  Instead, we get a lot of broad strokes about big themes — God, duty, love, blah, blah, blah.  But there’s nothing to support it, no humanity grounding all that bombast.  If you’re going to try to tell me that “to love another person is to see the face of God,” you’d better earn it.  Or better yet, save it for someone who cares, because quite frankly that kind of smarmy, sentimental nonsense makes me want to hurl.

That said, it wasn’t all bad.  The film was certainly pretty.  And Anne Hathaway was great, as were Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thénardiers.  But even Anne Hathaway pouring her heart out couldn’t prevent Les Mis from sinking to its level as a self-congratulatory piece of middle-brow Oscar bait.

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