Sunday, December 30, 2012

Django Unchained

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Rating: R

People tend to either love or hate Quentin Tarantino: there is no in-between. Personally, I think he is a genius. Just when you think he couldn’t possibly create any more mind-boggling ridiculous plots, he proves to be beyond capable. In a matter of words, “Django Unchained” is a hyper-stylized Western, meets “Roots.” A powerful, exaggerated and at times horrifying story backed by a superb cast proves that Tarantino is still a master of his craft.

In true Tarantino fashion, the opening credits play in their entirety before the film begins. We’re introduced to bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, a language-heavy man who couldn’t have been played by anyone but Christoph Waltz. (He is quickly becoming one of my favorites.) Dr. Schultz needs the help of a slave to identify his next target: enter Django. We see two sides of this tortured man. Foxx portrays him as both a badass and a coward, when appropriate. Dr. Schultz buys Django’s freedom, and the two become partners. Throughout their killing sprees, Tarantino’s absurdity is still present, especially in the scene featuring a cameo from Jonah Hill. However, I’m not sure if the language and humor is quite as good as it once was.

The film is essentially broken into two parts, and I preferred the second. After a profitable winter bounty hunting, Dr. Schultz agrees to help Django find his wife, whom they believe is a slave at “Candyland.” Interesting name, considering the brutality that occurs there. I had to look away on two occasions: it’s hard to imagine that people were truly so heartless. Kerry Washington plays Broomhilda, Django’s estranged wife. She is such a beaut, and I would have liked a little more one-on-one time to bond with her. Instead, we get a terrifying introduction to her life at Candyland.

When we first meet Calvin Candie, played by Leo my love, Tarantino uses a close-up zoom shot, a la “Kill Bill.” His blue eyes are striking, and the attention to detail regarding his smoke-stained teeth is remarkable. This character is unlike any I’ve ever seen Leo portray, and it’s the best I’ve seen him in a while. His Golden Globe nomination is much-deserved. Samuel L. Jackson is unrecognizable as Stephen, Calvin’s butler. The evil he conveys with his eyes is terrifying, though his head couldn’t be up Calvin's ass any further.

In true Tarantino fashion, the film did tend to linger a bit, but it couldn’t end without a gory bloodbath and classic tunes. Such is expected. “Pulp Fiction” is still my favorite of his masterpieces, but “Django” seems to be pulling much more controversy, and rightfully so. Much to Spike Lee’s chagrin, this movie had the audience roaring, and is racking up nominations. Tarantino fans will love it.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Les Miserables

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway
Director: Tom Hooper
Running Time: 2 hours, 37 minutes
Rating: PG-13

Going for the obvious pun, I felt pretty miserable after sitting through this daunting rendition of a classic. If you’re going to tackle one of the greatest musicals of all time, could you at least try to make it awesome? While the singing recorded live was a beautiful touch, the director of photography didn’t aesthetically please me the way I was expecting. Tom Hooper’s direction would have had a much longer-lasting impact had he shortened a few of the songs. Instead, he honored every single note of the musical, and then some. I should have known what I was in for when I checked my watch during Jean Valjean’s opening number.

For those of you who scanned the Cliffsnotes of Les Miserables in high school, allow me to refresh your memory. The story follows ex-con Jean Valjean during the French Revolution. We feel sympathy for this man who was imprisoned for 19 years after stealing a loaf of bread for his starving nephew. It was a nice reminder to see Hugh Jackman play someone other than Wolverine. Even following his parole, Valjean is tormented by Officer Javert, played by Russell Crowe, who is worse than Pierce Brosnan in “Mamma Mia.” In the words of my colleague, anyone, even Usher, would have been better in this role.
Photo Courtesy: Entertainment Weekly
During Valjean’s attempt to maintain a normal life, he encounters Fantine, a woman with no hope of salvation, struggling to provide for her daughter. People are falling in love with Anne Hathaway in this role, and as much as I hate to start a fire, she didn’t lose herself in the role like I wanted her to. Her scenes were “drama for drama’s sake.” She could have peeled back just one more layer. Fantine’s daughter Cosette lives with the Thenardier family, an inn-keeper couple and their daughter. Thank heavens for Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, whose comedic performance as the slimy couple stole every scene. These two made the film tolerable.

Fast-forward a few years, right in the midst of the French Revolution. Cosette has grown older, and Amanda Seyfried’s portrayal of her is graceful, though her songs were entirely too high for her range. She is being wooed by Marius, a key player in the Revolution. We shift back and forth between love and fight scenes, the latter being a bit hokey. Shout out to newcomer child actor Daniel Huttlestone for a heartfelt performance of Gavroche; he was the clear crowd favorite.

The purest performance was Eponine’s “On My Own.” Besides being one of the most famous songs in the musical, your heart can’t help but break for her, as she wants what she can’t have – we’ve all been there. Samantha Barks has a bright future in front of her.

The book and live musical are so much more powerful than the screen version. Though the audience (not me) gave a roaring applause at the end, I was hoping to be floored. If you just can’t “les mis” seeing this movie, be prepared to nod off and leave underwhelmed.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Marisol

The Marisol is one of the most posh restaurants I’ve been to in the Triad, and possibly in my lifetime. Tucked away off High Point Road, The Marisol is a French restaurant known for their sauces and expensive albeit worth-it cuisine. The piano bar just screams for patrons to enjoy a cocktail while listening to the stylings of Ellington or Monk. Unfortunately, I found the Christmas music playing on the radio a bit out of place, though I appreciated the festive idea of it.

If a restaurant receives a 5 star rating from John Batchelor (Greensboro's restaurant reviewer king), they obviously know their stuff. That being said, this was the first time I ever felt slightly uncomfortable in a restaurant for not ordering a 5-course meal. Perhaps it was my bad for not knowing “the rules.” 

The Marisol offers an outstanding and unique wine selection, though it comes at a price – the least expensive wine by the glass is $12. New York City restaurants love offering patrons an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized hors d’oeuvre, and this was the first time I’d seen it done in North Carolina. A single bite of grilled salmon was served on a bed of parsley, drizzled with a lemon horseradish cream sauce. The salmon wasn’t overly fishy, much to my approval - the fishiness is typically my problem with the protein. Appetizers and entrees change daily, which servers read aloud. This would be quite intimidating to non-foodies, but I was very impressed with the thoughtful descriptiveness of each dish. The cute triangle of butter on my bread plate was pleased when a basket came by, offering three options: Focaccia with dried onion, rosemary and Parmesan; Fig and Walnut Sourdough; and an Italian roll.

White Truffle Gnocchi are decadent pillows of flavor. Truffle and gnocchi are two of my favorite culinary items, so I knew it would be love at first bite. The gnocchi are not dense and potato-y, but elegant, obviously homemade and overwhelmingly succulent from the subtle truffle flavor. Chanterelle and Cremini Mushrooms provide a nice meaty texture, and the dish is rounded out with a Marsala cream sauce.

Butter-poached lobster (essentially, lobster cooked in butter) is tender, and rests atop a beautiful pale yellow champagne, citrus and truffle sauce on greens. The tart sweetness in the sauce highlights the beautiful sweetness of the lobster, which provides for an inventive combination that was executed successfully.

Pork Tenderloin is cooked perfectly, tender enough to cut with a fork, and the salty crust takes the meat to the next level. Truffled Mushroom sauce is ladled over (are you seeing a trend? I LOVE TRUFFLE.) and enhanced each of the sides: Rutabagas, Mashed Sweet Potatoes, Beets and Garlicky Kale (my favorite of the bunch). This is upscale Thanksgiving, elevated comfort food, and I don't doubt that each dish they create daily is this outstanding.

I would go to The Marisol on the reg if I could afford it. Though it was worth every penny, I’m bothered by the fact that we felt slightly looked down upon. I’ll be back to visit the piano bar, though maybe for my 50th birthday.

Monday, December 10, 2012


Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Director: Steven Spielberg
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Rating: PG-13

I’m probably going to get some haters for this one. I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as a history buff, but I was very much anticipating Steven Spielberg’s latest so-called “masterpiece,” Lincoln. Unfortunately, the lengthy, wordy scenes, unremarkable acting and overall drab tone left me underwhelmed and almost irritated.

Daniel Day-Lewis’ physical resemblance to Abraham Lincoln is uncanny: he is unrecognizable as the actor from "There Will Be Blood" as he portrays this gentle giant. His embodiment of one of the most influential presidents in United States’ history is powerful, though often he was so soft-spoken that much of the dialogue fell flat. I was surprised to discover that the screenplay was written by Tony Kushner, who wrote “Angels in America,” which I very much adore. Unfortunately, Lincoln’s dialogue did not captivate me the same way. In fact, it didn’t captivate me in the slightest.

The film chronicles the last 4 months of President Lincoln’s life, as he tries to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which would abolish slavery, ultimately leading up to his assassination. The most exciting part of the film was watching the vote being cast in the House, even though we already knew how it would turn out.

Sally Field is exasperating as Mary Todd Lincoln, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt doesn’t get enough screen time as their first-born, Robert. I was excited to count the number of cameos and recognizable faces (I got to 9), which included Jackie Earle Haley, John Hawkes and James Spader. The latter gets all 2 humorous lines in the film. (Actually, the inconceivable suggestion of women being given the right to vote got an uproar in the House as well as wild laughter in the audience.)

(Photo courtesy of Entertainment Weekly; GeekNation)
It takes a lot for me to space out during a film, and I couldn’t begin to count the times it happened during this one. I’d be very interested to discuss the movie with a history junkie, to see if their hopes for the film were met. The Academy loves Daniel Day, so I expect him to receive a nod. The make-up crew should as well, but Google Imaging a still from the film would have totally sufficed for me. (There, I did it for you.) In my humble opinion, unless you’re a history fanatic and have $10 and 2 ½ hours to spare, you’re not missing too much by passing on this one. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Anna Karenina

Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Alicia Vikander, Matthew Macfadyen
Director: Joe Wright
Running Time: 2 hours, 9 minutes
Rating: R

I have a bone to pick with Joe Wright. I believe he went into directing this sad excuse for a film adaptation of one of the most beautiful and tragic love stories of all time without even reading the book. Had he read all 750 pages, he would have known not to cast Keira Knightley as the heroine. Rachel Weisz or even Nigella Lawson would have been more appropriate, as Keira’s youth and under bite got in the way.

I also didn’t dig the production design. It’s set in a theatre, but there are literally only three scenes that take place outside. I wanted to see the beauty and frigidity of Russia, but instead, characters traveled from backstage, to main stage, to the audience to represent scene to scene transitions. This totally ruined the movie for me. They also dropped this in the last 30 minutes.

A little plot for you: Count Vronsky is a ladies’ man – yes, even 1860s Russia had them – and falls hard for the married Anna Karenina after exchanging a few glances and words at a train station. Though he was pursuing Princess Kitty (played by beautiful newcomer Alicia Vikander), he shuns her and devotes all of his time to making Anna his. Vronsky and Anna ultimately succumb to their feelings and begin their affair, though their chemistry was a bit lacking on-screen. The young actors portray Anna and Vronsky as two star-crossed hornballs, not as deep and mature lovers.

Princess Kitty instead finds love with Levin (a creepy Domhnall Gleeson) in a cute scene, actually, where they communicate their feelings for one another with letter blocks. The only other highlight of the film is Jude Law’s strong and understated performance as Anna’s betrayed husband, Karenin. He is embarrassed and ashamed for being the last to know about Anna’s affair, and we sympathize with him when he asks “what did I do to deserve this?”

Humor comes from Matthew Macfadyen as Anna’s brother Oblonsky, whom Tolstoy describes as being “on familiar terms with everybody he drank champagne with, and he drank champagne with everybody.” (So many of Tolstoy’s universal truths are unfortunately lost in this film. In the book, Tolstoy so easily speaks the heart, mind and thoughts of a woman: “She searched his face for signs of the impression she created on him...‘will he feel that I am looking at him! I want him to turn’…and she opened her eyes wider, trying thereby to increase the force of her look.” – classic women! How does he know that we do this! But, I digress.)

The costumes are stunning – I’ve never wanted a fur coat or muff so badly! - and will likely get a nod come award show season. Shots of a train throughout the film are overkill – too much foreshadowing. You’re better off committing to the monstrously thick novel than wasting $8 and two hours of your time sitting in the theatre. Sorry, not sorry.