Taste the Nation & Betty

Padma Lakshmi’s new show Taste the Nation on Hulu, is an extremely smart and thoughtful look at American cuisine and the American Experience. She profiles different immigrant communities and how their food shaped our culture. While it very easily could have devolved into stereotypical explanations of immigration, it is really insightful and sincere. She focuses one episode on Mexican immigrants in El Paso and German immigrants in Milwaukee the next. She understands the complexities of the American Experience better than most, and uses that to her advantage.

Trailer for Taste the Nation

Padma is also an excellent interviewer, which elevates the show. She is not concerned with being performative, and focuses on letting her subjects speak. This allows the complexities in each of these communities and situations to come to light, rather than her injecting her preconceived notions into each situation. The nuances and specificity the show gets into with each community allows each to shine. This show is a much needed exploration of the moment our country is in, and the cuisine that inspires it. A-

Trailer for Betty

Very few shows remind me of why I fell in love with skateboarding as a middle schooler. Betty, HBO’s spinoff of Skate Kitchen, does. It is so much fun to be with these girls in New York, watching them skate and navigate a city with surprises on every corner.

It is an ode to living in New York as well as being a teen in a city that is vibrant with activity. It also captures their spirits while also telling important stories. One about police violence and power and another #MeToo story. It does this in a genuine way while still managing to be light on its feet. At six 30-minute episode, it is a low commitment show that is full of excitement. I absolutely love the show and recommend it highly. B+

Top Chef Week 10: Olympics Edition

Last week’s episode of Top Chef was an Olympic theme. I, too, am old enough to remember when we were supposed to have the Olympic games. Melissa won a blindfolded dessert Quickfire challenge, and Stephanie took home the elimination challenge and tickets to the Olympics with an ingenious dessert. Karen was eliminated for a duck dish, and could not pull through in Last Chance Kitchen. Kevin Gillespie, came back in Last Chance Kitchen and re-entered the competition.

Knives Packed

Karen Akunowicz – Although the name Karen became a meme online during this season, Karen bucked the trend. A terrific chef and take no prisoners competitor, she was told to pack her knives and go for a second time this season. She was sent to Last Chance Kitchen once and came out on the other side. Now, she has been sent home again for a good dish. It is disappointing to see her go, as I was rooting for her. Kevin beating her in Last Chance Kitchen is not necessarily surprising, but it still hurts to see her go. It is sad, but I am glad someone on TV could be the Karen we need in our world. Good work Karen! Where she’s from they call her chef too!

Power Rankings

6. Brian Malarkey

I am amazed that Malarkey has managed to make it this far, but he also deserves some credit. He has been able to use his front of house and business skills to make his way further than we expected, but he may be running out of tricks. He did not have a bad week, but it certainly could have gone better. He has only been on the winning end in Restaurant Wars, and has been in the bottom five times, including two weeks in a row. He is the wild card remaining, so it is not impossible that he can come back. I think this next week could be his last.

5. Stephanie Cmar

Stephanie had a huge week. It started at the beginning of the episode with a story about her brother. It was fan favorite material, and she cried through it with Gregory. While that kind of foreshadowing can go both ways, thankfully it went positively. In the blindfolded part of the elimination challenge, she was able to sniff and correctly guess the most ingredients. Even though she did not win, she absolutely killed it in the elimination challenge. Their challenge was to make a Kaiseki meal, and she made a panna cotta inside of a lemon. Did someone say “Chef’s kiss?” Kaiseki is abut simplicity and emphasis on nature. It is hard to nail the challenge as well as Stephanie.

So why is she so far back? Mainly because she has struggled throughout the competition. This week was her first elimination challenge win, and she has only won one other Quickfire. While she certainly has the capability to challenge for the Top spot, she still looks to be on the outside looking in.

4. Kevin Gillespie

We all knew Kevin would be back. After being in top 3 for most of the competition, he slipped up during Restaurant wars for making questionable decisions while running his restaurant. Those questionable decisions and weeks in Last Chance Kitchen are keeping him out of the top 3 for now, but I think Kevin should pick up right where he left off. Kevin is one of the strongest in the competition, and I think he is going to be dangerous as the competition continues.

3. Bryan Voltaggio

Daddy Bry is starting to find his groove. He moved through the middle for most of this season, but he has started to slowly pick it up. Elimination challenge win last week, and in the top again this week with a nice Kaiseki appetizer. Bryan has the chops for this competition. The question is whether he can beat out those around him.

2. Melissa King

Melissa is truly the Ned Stark of this competition. After winning the Quickfire she was given a huge advantage: she could pick not only the course she would be serving in a Kaiseki six-course meal, but what everyone else was responsible for. Instead of using this to her advantage, she gave everyone what they wanted. She went onto explain that she believed she wanted everyone to serve their best meal and that everyone could be judged fairly she would be okay with going home. This came after last week in the campfire challenge where she let everyone else stomp all over her for ingredients while she just took what was remaining and made a bad salad.

Melissa is one of the most talented chefs in the competition. She might even be the most talented this season. She is going to need to play the game if she wants to win. To quote Herm Edwards, “you play to win the game!” So play it! It comes with the territory.

  1. Gregory Gourdet

Greg had a rough week, but even his bad days are my good days. He continues to be the best in the competition, and is still a lock for me to make it to finale.I just want his jacket. Is that too much to ask?

Best Padma Look

Top to bottom Denim look. I am into it.

Fan Favorite Moment

Stephanie talking about her brother. To see her genuinely shaken by it in the morning and then killing both challenges after that. Just unreal. My pick at the moment.

What I have been reading and Watching

Hi everyone. I have read and watched too much during these past couple weeks to write about, so I thought it would be best to put some of my favorite things I watched and read in a post. Let me know if you have other suggestions.

Movies

The Crying Game – The Crying Game is a bizarre story, but is surprisingly effective. Stephen Rea is the main reason I decided to watch this film. He was married to prominent IRA activist Dolours Price. The film takes some incredibly weird turns, but I am surprised by how affecting I found the film to be. It’s on Netflix and I would recommend if you are really bored. B-

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Ang Lee’s beautiful film about sacrifice and growth is still quite good. The performances here are great, but the film is mainly about the cinematography and choreography of the fights. It is excellent and a really fun watch. I think this movie definitely could have more to say, but it is a really well-made film. B

Television

Hillary – The Hulu docuseries is an interesting look at Hillary’s life. The documentary is divided into two parts: the 2016 election and a chronological look at her past. I found the latter to be more interesting, as they ask tough questions about her time as a first lady and show how important she is as an American figure she is. The 2016 election is less interesting to me, but it is through no fault of their own. It simply has been rehashed and debated too much.

The documentary is certainly biased toward Hillary, but it does a good job of giving counters to many of her assumptions. This is a film that is dedicated to her story, so naturally, she will look more sympathetic than others. However, I think this is a good docuseries, that understands the subject. For anyone with a passing interest in politics, you should watch. B

Devs – This is probably the best show I have seen on the nature of free will. Too often shows that tackle these subjects aim for complexity. This show aims for slow understanding. The showrunner is Alex Garland, who wrote Ex Machina and Annihilation, two films that I adore. Devs is a slow-burn, but it is too the show’s benefit. Its approach gives it time to analyze the ideas behind the show, and give it a melancholic feel necessary to the story. I cannot describe the show without giving away important details, but if any of these topics interest you, watch it. A-

Breaking Bad – The hallmark show is definitely overrated, but is still a great watch. The ending is phenomenal, and while certain sections of this show lag, Breaking Bad really becomes a beautiful study on what lurks beneath. Every performance in this show is excellent, Anna Gunn and Aaron Paul are the two standouts to me. Bryan Cranston is obviously terrific as well. While The Wire is still the best show of all time in my book, this is a great watch and should be on everybody’s list. A-

The Leftovers – This is peak pandemic watching. The premise of the show is that 2% of the world’s population disappears all at once. The story picks up three years later, as people are left to try to figure out what happened and avoid it happening again. This is not a show interested in explanations, but rather in how people deal with and attempt to explain the unexplainable. The Leftovers loves ambiguity and uncertainty, which will frustrate plenty of viewers. Nevertheless, I think it is beautiful. I still have one more season to go, but I cannot recommend it enough. If you are into bleak storytelling, it is hard to get bleaker than this. Damon Lindelof is the head writer, and he does a phenomenal job. A terrific watch and my only regret may not be rating it highly enough after the final season.

The Plot Against America – One of my favorite books is now an HBO miniseries. David Simon and Ed Burns, the men behind The Wire, recreated the alternative history into an extremely real story of not doing the right thing when needed. Simon and Burns nail the characters, and the performers really bring the nuance forward. It is a necessary tale of anti-semitism and of poor leadership in times of crisis. Sounds familiar?

Mrs. America – The first three episodes of this show dropped on Hulu a few days ago, and all of them were excellent. The story about the figures in the women’s liberation movement is a terrific story about how women fought to gain respect amongst their colleagues on both sides of the feminist movement.  I will have more as the show continues, but a great watch as well.

Top Chef – Top Chef is the best. I love it. It’s just so fun. If you need a cooking show fix, this is the one. Fun, fast, and incredibly high stakes, Top Chef is what every cooking game show hopes to be. It is terrific. Watch it. Seriously.

Books

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe – The definitive book on the troubles in Northern Ireland. A searing account of the violence and anger that defined generations of violence. It is a terrific and well-researched story.

A Dance with Dragons – The last of the Game of Thrones books. I have read many books in between when I have gotten bored, but this is one of the most entertaining books of the series thus far. I cannot wait to let you know what I think of the conclusion!

Goodfellas, Avatar & Korra

Goodfellas – Martin Scorsese’s crime masterpiece is the best the genre has to offer. Ray Liotta stars as Henry Hill, a real-life throughout the 70s and 80s. The movie opens with Hill, Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), and James Conway (Robert De Niro) stabbing a man in the back of their trunk. You then hear Hill narrate that he had “always wanted to be a gangster.”

That moment sets the tone up for the film perfectly. This is not about a good man who gets sucked into a life of crime. This about someone who wanted to be a gangster and who enjoyed being a gangster. There may have been less glamourous parts, but he wanted this lifestyle and he enjoyed it.

At no point is Henry Hill a good person. He acts for himself and his own interests, and while you root for him in some sense, it is very clear what type of person you are dealing with. Goodfellas asks questions about what type of people get into this profession and what lengths people will go to protect their friends and ultimately themselves. 

Scorsese is a master at crafting a story about men in power struggles and what that reveals about them as people. The performances from the cast are great, but this is a movie about the writing and it shines. A must-watch that is now on Netflix. A-

I had a twitter thread recently about some shows and things I have been enjoying during the lockdown. Avatar: The Last Airbender (Avatar) and The Legend of Korra (Korra) were both high up on my list. Both are phenomenal in separate ways. Avatar is a kids’ show and can be a bit tough to get through for an adult. The Fire Nation starts out as a bogeyman and it can be exhausting with the dialogue being so kid-friendly. Once you get through the first half of the first season, the show becomes magical. The show matures greatly throughout its three seasons, and by the end is an epic tale of friendship and adventure. This is the type of television I wish I could have watched as a kid.

Korra is for young teens and adults, and the sequel to the series. Whereas Avatar is about defeating an enemy throughout the three seasons, Korra is four different stories about growth and change. Korra is much darker in tone, but still excellent. It also explores political themes in an interesting way and builds on the fantasy world created for Avatar in interesting ways.

Both shows are great examples of fantasy television. They offer great adventure and find time to explore deep themes within the characters. They are both terrific shows and ones that I recommend for anyone looking for enjoyment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stay Safe everyone!

King of New York, Standoff at Sparrow Creek, & The Outsider’s Effective Horror

King of New York – This was a movie recommended by Quentin Tarantino on The Rewatchables podcast. Quentin Tarantino is someone I will generally take recommendations from. King of New York was a very influential movie for him, as it was revolutionary for its time in terms of how much sex, violence, and profanities it displayed. Frank White is a very good character and the movie is fun and explosive. It just fell flat for me at certain points. I really enjoyed parts of it, so that pushes it into the B-range. However, this is a film that was largely forgettable. B-

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek (Available on Hulu) – This debut from studio Cinestate and Henry Dunham is electric. When an incident of open fire occurs at a police funeral, members of a militia go into hiding. When they discover one of their guns is missing, they suspect each other. Chaos ensues. My biggest complaint about this film is that it is a bit too tight. It is incredibly economical with its dialogue and run-time. The movie is less than an hour and a half long, a miracle in today’s ecosystem of longer and longer films. It is so tight and compact, it can be hard to follow what is happening. However, the more time I have spent on the film, the more I realize how much I like it. Sparrow Creek does so many things right and is pulsating right until the very end. It is a film I admire almost as much as I like, and I am very happy Cinestate took this risk. The product is a thrilling result. A-

When I first heard about HBO’s The Outsider I figured it was something I would avoid. I am generally fairly squeamish, and a show about a shapeshifting killer seemed like a bad idea for my sensibilities. I am now four episodes in and I enjoy it. It is not my favorite thing ever, but its ability to capture Stephen King’s tone of dread and horror works really well. I enjoy how they have turned a traditional true crime genre and given it a horror aspect. Much of the drama rests in the characters coming to terms with a potential supernatural being in their midst. It is quite enjoyable and while it is hard to recommend, if you enjoy horror it is worth a watch.

 

It Comes at Night & Fleabag is so ****ing good

*The following post contains spoilers for Fleabag.*

It Comes at Night – Horror is not generally my cup of tea, but Night is taut and sharp without being over the top. I do enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction and this finds a way to nail a feeling and a moment. While it is a bit lacking at points, the story is quite good. It is told on a small scale and is more impactful than you would expect. If you are not into horror films, this is a good one to try. B

“Love is awful. It’s awful. It’s painful. It’s frightening. It makes you doubt yourself, judge yourself, distance yourself from the other people in your life. It makes you selfish. It makes you creepy, makes you obsessed with your hair, makes you cruel, makes you say and do things you never thought you would do. It’s all any of us want, and it’s hell when we get there. So no wonder it’s something we don’t want to do on our own.” – Hot Priest

Fleabag (Amazon Prime) is an incredible work of art, with terrific writing and innovative style. While Season 1 is excellent, the second season is its best. It is so inventive and heartbreaking, some of the scenes took my breath away.

Where the first season is focused on building the Fleabag character as she tries to live with herself, the second focuses on how she and a priest try to live with themselves together. Fleabag questioning her past choices and the Priest questioning his faith.

Both manage to shake up each other’s faith. The priest even begins to notice how Fleabag addresses the audience. Suddenly, she can no longer escape each moment, she has to live in it fully with the priest. She has to be honest with him. She can no longer hide from others. The priest is the only one who sees Fleabag for what she is and changes her for the better.

The priest also has to live with himself. He loves God and his faith, but Fleabag makes him question it. He also falls for her and breaks his vows, forcing him to live in conflict. How can he preach love to God if he broke his vows?

The conflict and pain within these characters are so beautiful and real. I had not watched Fleabag before the end of the last year but it easily would have made my top 10 best shows of the year and of the decade. It is a remarkable piece of art, and with only 12 episodes of 20 minutes each, it is rather binge-able. Please take the time to watch it. It is phenomenal.

 

Bombshell & My Final Thoughts on Game of Thrones

Bombshell – I was surprised how much I enjoyed this movie. Directed by Jay Roach, this movie explores the Roger Ailes scandal from inside Fox News. Bombshell focuses on three characters to explain how the abuse happened, popular news anchor Megyn Kelly, initial accuser and talk show host Gretchen Carlson, and composite character Kayla Pospisil.  While the other two characters are very interesting, Kayla is easily the best part. Her response to the abuse illustrates the horror of the abuse itself, and how it happens. It is not always about the physical, much of it is psychological.

While this movie is certainly not pro Fox News, it does not get too caught up in politics. While it does illustrate Trump’s rising popularity, the movie is not interested in making a liberal statement. Bombshell’s primary focus is on workplace harassment, making for a better and more straightforward film. It is not perfect, and at times it is hard to care about every part of this film. However, it is plenty of fun and does a great job illustrating how harassment happens in the workplace. B+

“There’s nothing more powerful in the world than a good story” – Tyrion

In the show’s final moments, Tyrion is speaking for the writers. Nothing beats a good story, and while the ending was not perfect, it is really hard to take away from the story of this series.

The final two seasons were not the best this show had to offer. Both had plenty of ridiculous and absurd points that were odd from a fantasy perspective and from a plot perspective as well. That said, the show is incredibly well made, and even with some of the downsides is worth watching.

One episode I was particularly impressed with was the Season 6 finale. As I tweeted, it is one of the best episodes of television I have ever seen. From pacing to storytelling, everything works. The opening scene at the Sept of Baelor is one scene I will never forget.

The actors all give incredible performances, but I was particularly impressed by Sophie Turner. While I was critical of her initially, much of that had to do with her intentional aging in the show in comparison to the book. Her transformation during the show is terrific, and she sells it all the way through.

Also, I understand why many people are upset with the ending. I would have picked Sansa, as she was the best politician and Bran has too many responsibilities as the three-eyed-raven to actually serve as the Protector of the Realm. I once again say that the ending does not ruin the overall quality of the show. It is a tremendous achievement of Television, and one worth watching.

Marriage Story & Some thoughts on Season 4 of Game of Thrones

Marriage Story – Noah Baumbach’s Netflix film is one of my favorite films to come out this year. The movie is about divorce. Divorce is a tough topic, but Baumbach treats his characters with such love and warmth it allows you to get absorbed in the story, and not worry about taking sides in a divorce. This film does a great job of showing how people around divorce can exacerbate the situation, and turn what should be a tough but personal process into a public bloodbath. I think it is pretty clear that Nicole and Charlie should not be together. However, the lawyers and legalese surrounding them make things worse.

Every performance in this movie is terrific. Two standouts are Laura Dern and Adam Driver. While Dern steals every scene she is in, this becomes Driver’s film and he nails it. Driver is so talented and this is one of his best performances. It is also full of small humorous moments to jokes about Los Angeles and New York to chummy lawyers outside of trial. It is a must-watch, full of emotion and brutal truths. A

I am your son, and you sentenced me to die. You knew I didn’t poison Joffrey, but you sentenced me all the same. – Tyrion

I am slowly binging Game of Thrones, and I just finished Season 4. Reading and watching this series unlocks and showcases different pieces of the story and helps you notice things you would not otherwise. Season 4 is probably the best in the series I have watched thus far, and I loved how it brought alive the theme of becoming what people want you to be or say you are.

Throughout the season, Tyrion is repeatedly told he is a killer. While he is not guilty of what he is accused of, he is treated as a villain, a jealous and angry half-man who only knows revenge. While he is not what he is accused of being, he eventually fulfills his destiny. He kills Shae and his father and escapes. Had there been a fair trial, had their been more sympathy for Tyrion, perhaps he would not have lashed out. However, that is now a world of what-ifs.

Tywin and others refer to Shae as a whore. Shae loves Tyrion, but she is a bad look for the Lannister family. So when Tyrion has to tell Shae to leave, he calls her a whore because he is convinced that is what she needs to hear. While she was not a whore at the time, she becomes a whore and sleeps with the person who despises her the most, Tywin.

Shae will be remembered in history not as a Tyrion’s lover, but as a whore who died doing her job. Tyrion will be remembered as a kinslayer. Neither of them deserved the title initially but fulfilled it because of the people surrounding them. Neither of them wanted to be remembered for this, but they will be because of the people around him.

Tywin is a fascinating character as well and gets his fitting send-off. He never truly cared about any of his children and views them as products. Tyrion is a slap in the face to his ideal vision or product, an Imp who has no physical talents. Despite Tyrion and Tywin’s shared understanding of politics, his appearance alone causes Tyrion to view him as a disappointment. He looks at Cersei as his beautiful bride to marry off to a famous house and looks at Jamie as the legacy and fighter that he wants. He views them as ideal products, so much so that he is incapable of believing his children would be capable of incest. Yet they are, and had he paid attention, as Cersei noted, he would have figured it out quickly. But he refused to believe and will die refusing to believe it.

Tywin is a manipulative and terrible person and father. While he has political talent, he got a fitting end. I love his ending more now after watching HBO’s rendition.

 

Parasite, An excellent Joe Biden Article, & Watchmen’s Brilliance

Parasite – Bong Joon Ho’s latest film Parasite does almost everything right. It is an incredibly creative take on how people from lower classes constantly prop up those above, even if they do not know it.

The film focuses on the Kim family, that lives at the edge of poverty. When the son’s (Kim Ki-woo) friend Min offers him a job tutoring English for a girl from a rich family, he accepts. Changing his name to Kevin, he recommends his sister as an art teacher for the rich family’s son, who poses as Jessica. Before they know it, the whole Kim family is posing as different workers at the rich Park estate. Then suddenly the film gets darker.

The director’s take on income inequality and social commentary is approached with humor, but is it at its best when it gets dark. My biggest problem is with the ending of the film, which I do not think works quite as well as the director seems to. While it is creative up to that point, the how and why of getting their does not always fit. Regardless, this is still a film I recommend highly. It swings for the fences, but it comes up just short in my book. B+

It’s a singular episode of television that asks us to consider the nature of inheritance and the ways trauma is etched upon a family, passed down through generations.

*This contains spoilers for HBO’s Watchmen, if you have not seen it yet stop what you are doing and watch it.*

Watchmen’s latest episode is nothing short of brilliant. Damon Lindelof and his team have pulled off the impossible, making a new story in the Watchmen universe while also enhancing the original.

The big reveal in episode 6, was that (SPOILER ALERT) Hooded Justice, the original masked vigilante, was black. It fits in perfectly with the canon, and allows race to become a central feature of the story itself.

I think I have said this before, but Watchmen is one of the best comic books and pieces of literature that has ever be written. Creating this show was an impossible task, but Lindelof and his team are passing with flying colors. If you have not read the novel or seen this show, those are two things you need to change.

 I don’t want to hear Biden say “I still stutter” to prove some grand point; I want to hear him say it because doing so as a presidential candidate would mean that stuttering truly doesn’t matter—for him, for me, or for our 10-year-old selves.

Finally, this is an excellent piece on Joe Biden, and how his stutter might still be affecting him. It is a great example of narrative journalism that I all encourage you all to read. Have a happy thanksgiving everyone!

Game of Thrones Seasons 1-2 & Speaker for the Dead

After plenty of time spent being stubborn, I finally decided to start watching Game of Thrones. The first two seasons are excellent and I would encourage anyone who has not watched the show to do so. The books I find to be more enjoyable in plenty of aspects, but the show is remarkably well done. Some of Martin’s best writing comes when he is character building. Some of those really well written smaller scenes are taken out. It is very understandable, even in a show format it is hard to fit all that Martin has to offer. It is still disappointing nonetheless.

One of the characters I was disappointed with was Sansa. In the first season she is a bit too reserved. In the book she written in such a stuck up way it was hard to even read without getting frustrated. That makes her transition as a character more rewarding. I think Sophie Turner does an excellent job as the show progresses, but I was definitely hoping for more from her in the first season.

The character I think is best realized is Tyrion Lannister. Peter Dinklage is brilliant as Tyrion. It is an incredibly tough role to play, and he is excellent at finding the right balance between clever pettiness and real pain at his circumstances. He is the smallest person on screen, but easily steals every scene he is in.

I really enjoyed the first two seasons and am looking forward to the rest of the show.

No human being, when you understand his desires, is worthless. No one’s life is nothing. Even the most evil of men and women, if you understand their hearts, had some generous act that redeems them, at least a little, from their sins.

I finished Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead a month ago. It is an incredible peace of work, and while it at times is a bit preachy, it is beautifully written and told.

The book is a sequel to Ender’s Game, but it is not necessary to read Ender’s Game to enjoy this book. Ender is the main agent in this book, and his role as Speaker is terrific. While I will not spoil too much, how we handle guilt and how we grieve for those we have lost is the driving point of this book. It is absolutely heartbreaking, but in the end puts forward not only a moving story but a compelling argument for being honest about those who pass. It is a tough read, but incredibly worthwhile.