Friday, April 29, 2022

An actual Cuisine & Screen

It's been quite a while since I did a post featuring both Cuisine AND Screen. For those of you who have been waiting for this - you know who you are - this post is for you.

Cuisine
I have found my absolute new favorite restaurant in the Triangle. I know, I know, I say that a lot. But this time, I really mean it. In fact, this has set the bar so high that I don't know if I'll be able to find a restaurant to top it. Ko-an in Cary is mind-blowing. The Asian inspired menu is playful, plates are works of art and flavor combinations stimulate the palate. Start with sipping the Thai Cooler, which features notes of Strawberry, Cirtus, Habanero and Cilantro - outstanding.

Big Buns fan here, and Ko-an's Steamed Buns feature a rich, sweet Yuzu Lobster Salad - no mayo here folks! Just hearty chunks of lobster tossed in a yummy citrusy sauce, topped with a not-too-spicy Sambal Aioli, Scallions and Sesame seeds. The buns were soft and plump but buttery and cripsy, like a warm lobster roll would be. Only two come in an order, so either order double or REALLY like who you're sharing these with.

I lost my mind for the Thai Red Curry, which features a plump, crab-heavy Crab Cake atop Steamed Sticky Rice, with Carrots, Green Beans and Mango. The curry definitely had a kick, which was mellowed out by the creaminess of the coconut. There was so much crab in this crab cake, I almost couldn't believe it. I loved the sweetness of the carrots and the acid from the mango, too. I cleaned my bowl and asked the server if everyone does that, because the dish is so good. He chuckled and said "no". But I wasn't about to let any of it go to waste!

My husband ordered the Indonesian Duck, which he absolutely loved. A Fried Duck Leg rests on a bed of Steamed Rice, with a Yellow Coconut Curry Sauce, Green Sambal and Cucumber. I preferred my sauce to his, but he couldn't get enough of the moist meat and rich flavors. I thought it was particularly pretty how they "frenched" the leg (exposing the bone underneath the meat).

We were far too full for dessert, but they looked almost too pretty to eat. I cannot wait to return - this is unmissible folks. Run, do not walk.

Screen
Whether you're a fan of Nicolas Cage or not, and by "fan" I mean you've seen several of his cult classic movies and regard him as a decent, not great actor, "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent" will undoubtedly bring you some laughs. From the moment I saw the trailer, I figured this would be a very self-aware film, as Cage plays an exaggerated(?) version of himself. The film's Cage is a narcissistic, burnt out actor, looking for a comeback role (though he never went anywhere), to save him from financial ruin.

Enter Pedro Pascal, who plays Javi, a fan who has written a screenplay for Cage, and flies him out to his compound in Spain. The two have incredible chemistry. Throw in Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz for a few laughs - though not too many, Cage gets all the laughs here - and a chance run-in with the Cartel, and you've got a successful movie. 

Honestly, I figured this film would be good, not great, but I laughed out loud multiple times and it takes a really funny moment to make me do that. I was in good company - the audience at the theater was howling. Keep your expectations low and go in with an open mind. You'll leave pleasantly surprised.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Mandolin

I'd been quite eager to try Mandolin in Raleigh after perusing their Instagram for several weeks. Photos of their famous "Mandolin fries" and a thick slice of Caramel Cake were practically calling out to me. I finally got the opportunity to dine there recently, and it did not disappoint. The atmosphere has something for everyone: the large dining room was quite boistrous with many diners; a warm, inviting bar stretches down the length of the restaurant, perfect to post up with a beer and a burger; and there's a quieter dining room to the side, giving friends a chance to reconnect. (In fact, I was so busy reconnecting that I didn't bother to take any photos of the food! My apologies, readers). I look forward to many repeat visits.

I love a restaurant that offers free bread service (who doesn't?) but Mandolin is super cool because they give you TWO options. Their sweet Corn Muffin had an almost caramelized edge around the top, a perfect contrast to their soft, white Country Bread. Each was scrumptious when slathered with salted butter. I was craving a drink not on the menu - something spicy and sour - and our server delighted my tastebuds with a lemon-lime-jalapeno concoction. It was exactly the refreshing escape I was looking for. So at Mandolin, they aim to please, and if you don't see what you're looking for, just ask!

Do not underestimate a restaurant that can do a good chicken dish. I feel like people sleep on chicken at restaurants, but believe me - restaurants know they have to include a chicken dish, and they know they have to make it exciting! And Mandolin's is quite exciting. Their Grilled Chicken Leg is moist and tender and sits atop al dente Freekah (a grain) with Tomato Jus, Pickled Celery for necessary acid and Andouille Sausage for smoky savoriness. The Andouille bites were my favorite thing about this dish. Just when I thought I was getting a bite of tender chicken, SURPRISE! It was a bite of that meaty, unctuous sausage. What seemed like an unassuming dish was actually very stimulating.

I had to try the fries. They were crispy, stacked high in a metal cup, served alongside ketchup and covered in a savory white powder. I had to get to the bottom of this. Turns out, they sprinkle a combination of duck fat powder and tapioca starch on the hot fries, for maximum addictiveness. This side is large enough to be shared, but you may not want to.

My favorite thing from the night was on their dessert menu. My dining partner opted for the showstopping Chocolate Souffle, but I'm a cake and icing kind of gal (more like icing and cake, but who's keeping track). The Caramel Cake stacks a beautiful yellow sponge between equally thick layers of caramel frosting - the perfect cake to icing ratio in my opinion - and it comes with a scoop of Buttermillk Ice Cream and cinnamon crumbles for crunch. The tang from the buttermilk breaks up the super sweet frosting. This dish reminded me of my childhood. My dad's godmother Ruthie had a fabulous recipe for caramel frosting - I've never found one better - but this one comes dangerously close. It was a nostalgic moment.

If you haven't been to Mandolin, what are you waiting for? The staff is gracious and they want you to have an enjoyable evening. And they believe in their menu. What more can you ask for from a trendy restaurant? Check it out next time you're in the Triangle.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Second Empire

The Chef’s Table at Second Empire in Raleigh should be on every foodie’s bucket list. My hubby and I recently splurged and did the 4 course tasting menu, while seated in the kitchen. It's definitely dinner and a show, and every morsel we tasted was absolutely sensational. While we don't feel the need to do the in-kitchen dining again (and I certainly do NOT recommend for a first date - it's a pretty stark and sterile environment in there!) it was an experience we will never forget.


Sitting in the kitchen, you have a front row seat to all the action. We both remarked at how clean the space was – you could almost eat off the floor it was so tidy! We were allowed to walk around the kitchen, but decided we’d have just as much fun observing from afar. Wine pairings accompany each course, but you can order other drinks as you wish. They also take note of any food allergies/aversions you may have. Nice (appropriate) touch.

The first course blew our minds: Sauteed Scallop with Pepsi-Braised Pork Belly, atop Oyster Mushroom and Pea Risotto, with Spinach, Kabocha Squash Puree, Apple Salsa and Brown Ale Reduction. This was the description for ONE COURSE. OUT OF FOUR. These were not humongous portions, but they were incredibly delicious and rich. This was our favorite course. The scallop was seared to perfection and the Pork Belly was smoky and meaty – not fatty at all. I was so enamored with all of the sauces of the night, this brown ale reduction being the best. And the creamy risotto as a bed for the protein? Divine.

Scallop with Pork Belly

Next up, another one of my favorite proteins – Salmon with Fingerling Potatoes, Kale and Parsnip Puree with a Caper Sauce and Smoked Bacon Cider Vinegar. The chef is a flavor magician. Everything on the plate worked together beautifully, and though reading it seemed excessive, the flavors complimented each other so well. The kale was crispy, providing a nice textural contract to the moist salmon, starchy potatoes and smooth puree. Again, that acidic sauce was a home run. I think that’s what I love so much about dining out instead of cooking at home - the incredible sauces!

Salmon

I love a mid-meal palate cleanser, though this truly could have served as dessert and ended the meal for us. A scoop of Mango Sorbet, with Berries and a house made Vanilla Wafer was a burst of acidity to the palate, helping rejuvenate our taste buds. It was bright and refreshing, and I didn’t know I needed it until I devoured it.

Mango Sorbet

Our second favorite dish of the night was the Rack of Lamb, served with Butternut Squash, Black Eyed Peas, Chorizo, Asparagus, Beets and a Madeira Raisin Jus. Seriously? Pairing madeira and raisins? Mad scientist flavors going on here. The lamb was succulent, unctuous – all the good words. I loved the bitterness of the beets, the sweetness of the butternut squash and the savory fruity flavor from the sauce. I had made the terrible mistake of finishing my plate on each course, but I was NOT about to stop with this one.

Rack of Lamb

Finally, we had made our way to the dessert course. I loved the Coconut Buttermilk Chess Pie, topped with Berries, homemade Butter Pecan Ice Cream and an Almond Cookie. The tart shell was clearly made from scratch - super buttery - and it was the perfect container for the warm coconutty custard. The tangy Mango Sauce underneath broke up the richness. I hate to admit that I ate off my husband's plate on more than one occasion this evening. We ended up boxing up the rest of his dessert to take out.

I cannot say that either of us slept comfortably after this much outstanding food. It was truly rich beyond belief, and I was not prepared for how delicious everything would be. I am also embarassed at my lack of willpower...but when in Rome (or Raleigh). I am obsessed with this place now, and highly recommend it as your next splurge dining experience when you want to celebrate something special or just get out of the house!

Friday, March 25, 2022

2022 Oscar Predictions

There's no doubt that this year's Oscar ceremony is going to be weird. I'm not a fan of the decision to present a handful of awards during commercial breaks. Makeup & Hairstyling; Original Score; Production Design; and Live Action Short, among several others, are some of my favorite categories. I never minded buckling in for a long night of drawn out speeches, glitz and glamour. Whether you love the Oscars like me, or loathe them (like I know many of you do), it's an exciting night for fans of film. And when we've got Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes hosting the show, I know we're in for some laughs. Hollywood making fun of itself is always a good time. While I haven't seen everything that's getting buzz this year, I've seen enough to share my thoughts with you, dear readers.

Best Picture
Belfast
Coda
Don't Look Up
Drive My Car
Dune
King Richard
Licorice Pizza
Nightmare Alley
The Power of The Dog
West Side Story

Should Win: "Don't Look Up". Read my review for a thorough explanation. (Side note - I'm glad we're back to nominating the full 10 pictures here. If the Academy is going to allow 10 to be nominated, 10 should be nominated! Though 10 is far too many. Let's take it back to 5 pls.)

Will Win: I think "The Power of The Dog" has gotten enough buzz in recent weeks to bring home Oscar gold. Was it the best film of the year? I certainly don't think so, but it's a movie buff's movie. I can see why people are rallying for it. Beautiful cinematography, great storytelling, powerful music, strong acting...I'll be on board if it wins.

Best Actor
Javier Bardem, Being the Ricardos
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of The Dog
Andrew Garfield, tick, tick...BOOM!
Will Smith, King Richard
Denzel Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth

Should Win: Will Smith. It's the man's time. He has been a Hollywood staple (icon?) since I've been alive and this makes his 3rd acting nomination! I haven't seen the film but a source says he's fantastic. And he just seems like an all-around, genuine, good dude. Not everyone in Hollywood is.

Will Win: Will Smith.

Best Actress
Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter
Penélope Cruz, Parallel Mothers
Nicole Kidman, Being the Ricardos
Kristen Stewart, Spencer

Should Win: Kristen Stewart. I know, I know, I never thought I'd see the day. But truly, she was magnificent in this film. This haunting portryal of Princess Diana will be her legacy, not "Twilight". She completely lost herself in this role - physically and emotionally - and the accent was spot on.

Will Win: This is tough. The Academy loves Nicole Kidman (so do I), but I did not care for her as Lucille Ball. I believe Jessica Chastain has earned the right to call herself an Oscar winner, for her body of work. While "Tammy Faye" wasn't my favorite role Jessica has played, I can see the Academy rewarding her this year.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Ciarán Hinds, Belfast
Troy Kotsur, Coda
Jesse Plemons, The Power of The Dog
J.K. Simmons, Being the Ricardos
Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of The Dog

Should Win: I have not seen "Coda" or "Belfast" so this is hard for me to judge. From the other 3 performances I have seen, I will say that Smit-McPhee should win. His portrayal of a timid, bullied, yet vindictive young man is outstanding and haunts me to this day.

Will Win: I believe Troy Kotsur has the momentum to take it home.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
Judi Dench, Belfast
Kirsten Dunst, The Power of The Dog
Aunjanue Ellis, King Richard

Should Win: I have to say, I'm a BIG Kirsten Dunst fan (have been for decades!) and to see a Hollywood child star not totally flaked out by now, and in fact doing some of the most beautiful dramatic work of her career, is remarkable. I loved her in "The Power of The Dog." She was broken, pitiful and in a way, relatable. I am pulling for her.

Will Win: NC native Ariana DeBose. She's a triple-threat mega talent and she's just getting started.


Best Director
Kenneth Branagh, Belfast
Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car
Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza
Jane Campion, The Power of The Dog
Steven Spielberg, West Side Story

Should Win: Jane Campion. More females in this category, please! Campion has been around for a long time, and she came out of nowhere, seemingly, with this powerful (get it?), beautiful and bewitching film.

Will Win: Jane Campion.

Friday, March 11, 2022

M Pocha

A few weeks ago, my sweetie and I took a much needed date night to M Pocha, one of the 4 M Restaurants in Durham. I've been to M Kokko (Korean Fried Chicken is their specialty) and I'm dying to try M Sushi and M Tempura. But for an impromptu fun night out, I was pleasantly surprised that we were able to get a table at M Pocha, and the price was right. "Pocha" refers to street food in Korea, and the menu reminded me a lot of the beloved Crafted: The Art of Street Food in Greensboro that sadly closed down a few years ago. Everything on the menu at M Pocha was tempting. The restaurant is a bit small, but they had partitions up and staggered seatings for Covid safety. Service was on point. We left with satisfied and full bellies and I'm eager to return.

The beer list is extensive, the wine list is limited and the cocktail list is creative. I opted for a drink with Japanese Whiskey, Charred Lemon and Miso Caramel, only to find that the charred lemon reminded me of Mezcal (a big NO for me). Thankfully, my hubby preferred this drink over his Negroni, so a trade was made.


I've never met a bun I didn't like. The Spicy Pork buns are DIY, and come with plump, pillowy steamed buns to fill with Romaine Lettuce or Sesame Leaves, succulent Korean BBQ Pork and Pickled Cucumbers. These were to die for. The bun collapses in your hand and becomes the perfect vessel for this crazy seasoned pork (not fatty at all!), crisp and tangy cukes and cooling, crunchy greens. Only 3 come in an order, but for $1, you can get a 4th. That is non-negotiable.


I adore Shrimp Toast and even went to the trouble of making it at home once (NEVER AGAIN - way too much work). But when I see it on a menu, I jump at the opportunity to order it. M Pocha's version is quite different from how I've seen it presented before, but it was an umami bomb - two pieces of Japanese Milk Bread sandwich a cube of seasoned shrimp, and then it's deep fried. Dunking it in the Wasabi Sweet Chili Sauce really makes it, but you have to be careful to let this baby cool off before biting into it! My hubby remarked that they reminded him of crispy pork belly bites. I totally agree.

Meat Mandu are Korean Dumplings filled with Ground Pork, Tofu and Chives in a chili oil. I prefer steamed dumplings over fried, and these were nice because they were steamed with just a little crispiness on one side of the wonton. The sauce was perhaps a bit too oily, but the flavor inside was money.


I grabbed my chopsticks and dug in before I could snap a pick of the Xiao Mian noodles. These were quite satisfying, combining Alkaline Noodles (a new one for me), Ground Pork, Chinese Broccoli, Pickled Mustard Greens, Chili Oil, Sesame Sauce, Peanuts and Cilantro. It reminded me of a Korean version of Pad Thai, with all those tasty, fresh flavors going on. I thought they were a bit heavy-handed with the sesame oil (I'm sensitive to that flavor) but the noodles were perfectly al dente and the pork was outstanding.

There were so many things on this menu that intrigued me, and I looked at other diners with envy, seeing the beautiful dishes they enjoyed. My only wish is that their late night menu (10pm-midnight on Fridays and Saturdays) was available all the time - Kimchi Quesadillas and Spicy Pork Nacho Fries anyone?

Friday, March 4, 2022

Rey's

New Orleans is my favorite city in the world. If you're into food, drink, music, art and culture, aka letting the good times roll, I can't recommend it enough. Unfortunately, it's not just a hop, skip and a jump away, so the next time I'm craving a NoLa vibe, I'll be heading to Rey's in Raleigh. It's a little taste of New Orleans, and an absolute gem. Top-notch service, spectacular food and two ambiances to choose from - the boisterous Voodoo Room or the elegant dining room - this is one of my new favorite restaurants.

At Rey's, you'll want a reservation. Every seat at the bar and every table in the restaurant was full, including their multiple private dining rooms. Our server had been there for 17 years, so they clearly run a tight ship. Multiple maitre d's checked on us throughout the course of the evening and our water glasses were never empty. We even got two types of bread to start - Rosemary Sourdough and a Wheat studded with Walnuts and Golden Raisins. For a busy Wednesday night, service was prompt and food came out fast. All good things in my book.

Upon perusing the ample menu, my eyes went straight to the Grouper Lafayette, a large portion of the white fish topped generously with Crab Meat over a lemony, herb butter. I was immediately transported to the French Quarter. My only complaint is that I didn't have a starch underneath to help absorb all of that delicious sauce, but the sides are ordered a la carte, so I suppose that was my bad. Instead, my hubby and I chose to share the Vegetable Medley which was the sexiest veggie side I've ever seen in a restaurant. I was preparing myself for mostly onions and limp squash, when this boasted Red and Yellow Peppers, Broccoli, Carrots, Mushrooms, Squash, Green Beans, Red Onion and Zucchini. And they were cooked al dente, leaving some integrity to the vegetables. At $10 a side, this is exactly what it should have been!

My husband ordered the Beef Tournedos, two 4-ounce beef medallions cooked a perfect medium rare, served with 4 Fried Oysters. I don't think I've ever seen him eat this fast. The plate was hot, so the butter that finished the steak started to turn brown. And if you didn't know that brown butter + steak = magic, now you know.


My favorite dessert in the world is Bananas Foster. And believe me, I've had a lot of it, so when I say that Rey's does it the best, I mean they do it the BEST. First of all, it's tableside, so you're really paying for the entertainment too. Our server took his time browning the butter (pro move) and sauteeing the banana slices, but didn't let them go too far and turn mushy. He cooked out the rum so that no potent alcohol flavor monopolized the dish, but just the deep sweet, subtle molasses notes remained. Finally, and here's what really sealed the deal for me: he let the sauce cool slightly and went to the blast chiller to retrieve two plates with two scoops of ice cream practically frozen to the dishes. A lot of restaurants have the ice cream sitting there in a room temperature bowl throughout the fosters prep, so when they pour that liquid magma atop, the ice cream totally melts away, and you're left with a bowl of creamy caramel with floating bananas. Not the worst thing in the world, but not how Bananas Foster is intended to be enjoyed. The ice cream remained frozen throughout our consumption of the dish, so I was able to ladle up that velvety, subtly salty sauce and really savor it. I could pontificate about the beauty and joy of Bananas Foster for hours (clearly). Just do yourself a favor and don't get it anywhere other than Rey's. It's heaven on Earth.


I eagerly look forward to my return to Rey's when I can continue eating my way through the menu. It was really difficult for me to decide what to order, but if this first dining experience tells me anything, it's that you can't go wrong.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Parkside Restaurant

For a minute there, I had gotten my hopes up about dining out more regularly. Before I decided to pump the brakes on that again (for obvious reasons), I managed to squeeze in a few visits to Parkside Restaurant. From the moment I saw the "Restaurant" sign lit up outside, reminiscent of the cafe on Seinfeld, I knew it would become a frequented spot. Lunch and dinner are excellent, but most people probably know this joint for its spectacular brunch. The service is great, the food comes out fast, the specials are creative - this is a must-visit restaurant for anyone in the Triangle.

Parkside is home to one of my all-time favorite salads: the Steakhouse Salad. And you don't just get any steak with this salad - you get Filet Mignon. And the server asks how you'd like it cooked. AND they always get it right. It sits on a bed of crisp romaine with slivers of Avocado, chunks of Tomato, halved Hard Boiled Eggs, Blue Cheese Crumbles, a sprinkling of Parmesan and the best part - Spiced Nuts! It's insane how many nuts are in this salad. Enough to take home a ziplock bag full and serve them at a cocktail party. Every bite is different and satisfying and I'm utterly obsessed with it. 

The Prime Rib Burger features a number of my favorite burger toppings - Caramelized Onions, Brie, and Bacon Jam. It's quite indulgent and served on a soft, buttery Brioche bun. The caramelized onions and bacon jam provide sweetness and the brie offers its signature funk. The Arugula tries to make you feel not so bad for eating a massive burger. I like to add mustard too, for a little acidity. You get your choice of side and Tots are obviously the right choice.

Their specials are always unique, too, like the Buffalo Chicken Flatbread and the Honey Sriracha Salmon. And their desserts are killer - do not miss their Banana Pudding, and if they're featuring the Raspberry Donut Cheesecake, it's out of this world. It delivers exactly what it promises and it's oddly nostalgic.

You absolutely must visit for brunch, if you can get a table. It's almost laughable how fun their brunch is. Every table is full (within social distance reasoning), and most with the Mimosa Flight. You get an entire bottle(!) of champagne, and the mixers are far beyond standard OJ. In fact, the mixers are spiked. Yes, you read me right. Think Cranberry Juice with Elderflower, or OJ with Orange Vodka. It's best to get a ride from a friend after brunch here. I loved the Bananas Foster Challah French Toast, complete with delicious Rum Caramel Sauce. And the Cheese Grits are exactly what you want them to be - creamy, cheesy and rich.

To mention another iconic NBC sitcom, Parkside makes you feel like it's a place "where everybody knows your name." I cannot recommend it enough - it's one of my faves and sure to be yours too!

Friday, January 14, 2022

Being the Ricardos

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, JK Simmons, Tony Hale
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Running Time: 2 hours, 11 minutes
Rating: R

Fans of "I Love Lucy", like myself, will no doubt love the premise of Aaron Sorkin's latest triumph. We love any chance to be reminded of the wacky, over the top, physical comedic genius that is Lucille Ball. I still watch those black and white clips and laugh out loud at her pronouncing "Vitameatavegamin" or stuffing chocolates in her hat - it is iconic comedy. But "Being the Ricardos" shines a different light on Lucy and her relationship with her co-stars, showrunners and husband. I admit I longed for the goofball Lucy, when instead Sorkin shows a more serious, type-A, control freak version of her. It's worth a watch for the nostalgia, but it was a bit darker and heavier than I would have liked.

The film chronicles a busy week on the set of "I Love Lucy" - not only has Lucy announced her pregnancy, which will no doubt prove to be an issue with the network, but her relationship with Desi continues to make waves in the tabloids. She has also recently testified with HUAC to prove that she is not a Communist. I certainly remember hearing rumors of Desi's infidelities, but the allegations of Ball being a Communist was news to me. Kidman portrays Ball as a relentless comedienne - incessantly picturing jokes and bits in her mind, and gathering the cast at 2am to work on a scene. It's clear that she is burying the stress from her personal life in her work.

Being a big Nicole Kidman fan, it pains me to say that I struggled to fully believe her performance. Bardem does a fine job as Desi, but this is really Lucy's story. I thought JK Simmons was absolutely fabulous as William Frawley, the actor who plays Fred. He reminded me the most of all the cast members to the real actor. There are some light and funny moments from writers (Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat - "Arrested" reunion anyone? - and Jake Lacy) but those moments are limited. 

Give me a magnifying glass to a show that played on "Nick at Nite" and I'll watch it, but I'll need to acknowledge that it could ruin a bit of the nostalgia. "I Love Lucy" is near and dear to my heart, and "Being the Ricardos" definitely made me see it through a different lens. 

Friday, January 7, 2022

Tick, Tick...Boom!

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Vanessa Hudgens, Robin de Jesus
Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Running Time: PG-13
Rating: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Finally. A movie musical I can get behind. I'm obviously seeing all the musicals that are adapted for the big screen, but they often disappoint. Not "Tick, Tick...Boom!" however. Maybe I'm biased because "Rent" altered me when I was 15 years old. Or maybe it's just a really touching story with beautiful songs, honest acting and a larger message about the world. Either way, this film is not to be missed.

Andrew Garfield surprised me with his portrayal of real-life musical theatre composer Jonathan Larson, whom we meet the week leading up to his 30th birthday. Garfield's performance is genuine and he has great chemistry with his co-stars, particularly Alexandra Shipp, who plays his girlfriend Susan, and Robin de Jesus, who plays his best friend Michael. Larson is struggling to finish his musical in time for a showcase that will be attended by producers, writers and other influential theatre folk. He's also put pressure on himself to accomplish "something" by the time he turns 30. His creativity seems stunted when he sits down to write, yet we see him frolicking all over his apartment and NYC singing songs about sugar and the bohemian life (cue "La Vie Boheme," anyone?)

Larson stays committed to his art while many people in his life move on to more professional jobs. We also see many people in his life being affected by the AIDS epidemic. His agent, played by the always fabulous Judith Light, encourages him to write what he knows. Thus is the catalyst for his beloved musical "Rent". I also enjoyed the few brief moments with Stephen Sondheim, played by Bradley Whitford, who serves as an inspiration and mentor to Larson. One song in particular features some very recognizable Broadway stars like Bebe Neuwirth and Lin-Manuel himself. Blink and you'll miss Bernadette Peters.

You'll find yourself bopping along to the upbeat tunes and getting chills during the ballads. I'm grateful that Larson never gave up on his dream, though he never got to see it fully realized (Larson died of an aortic dissection the night before "Rent" premiered). His commentary on the world combined with his unparalleled talent for "lyric and tune" as Sondheim remarked, truly made him the voice of a generation. This film is a fitting and beautiful tribute to this creative genius.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Don't Look Up

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Tyler Perry, Cate Blanchett, literally everyone else in Hollywood
Director: Adam McKay
Running Time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Rating: R

This film is a metaphor staring you straight in the face. Rather, it's slapping you in the face over and over and over. I can certainly see why it's not a darling of the critics, but I absolutely loved it. I'm not always a fan of Adam McKay's work, but after seeing this (and being reminded that he produces "Succession" and did "Vice") I need to rethink my opinion on him. The film begins with his signature style - notes and text on the screen to inform the audience, and utterly manic camera shots and edits - but after about 20 minutes, that all calms down, thankfully. "Don't Look Up" really moved me. It was a clear commentary on many things our society is facing right now: the pandemic, climate change and political division. McKay does a good job at making it light-hearted at times, but make no mistake, his thoughts on these topics are evident.

My darling Leo plays a character a bit out of the norm for him - Astronomer Dr. Randall Mindy. One of his PhD candidate students, Kate (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers a comet headed directly toward Earth, which will have a catastrophic impact. In fact, it's a planet-killing comet that will arrive in approximately 6 months. Lawrence plays this role well, but it's one I've seen her in before, many times. A meeting with the President, played by the always remarkable Meryl Streep, doesn't seem to help matters. They just laugh this off as another "end of days" myths. Jonah Hill plays the Chief of Staff and his comedic timing is fantastic here.

Dr. Mindy and his team try leaking the story to different media outlets, thinking it's the public's right to know that the end is near. A meeting with the New York Herald goes nowhere, and a brief TV spot on a daytime entertainment news channel does very little (except offer the audience a few electric moments with Tyler Perry and an unrecognizable Cate Blanchett).

There are so many cameos in this film and each do a wonderful job with the specific character and intentions they've been given. The latter half of the film plays up the dark comedy and mirrors what we've been experiencing in the past 21 months. I won't spoil the ending, but unlike many Hollywood movies, there's not a resolution with a pretty little bow on top. This might be my favorite movie I've seen this year - and I've seen a LOT of them - and I encourage you to check it out. Oh, and I forgive the crazy editing and scene changes because Leo makes great eye candy.