Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Quarter Century: I am a selfish yam-eater


It took me about an hour looking through my parents' old photo albums to find a legitimate Thanksgiving photograph. And once I did, well, it was this one.


Thanksgiving 1992, a few weeks after President Bill Clinton's first election, one and one-half months before my 6th birthday and about 8 years before we all realized how awful the 90's were. In case you can't find me, I'm the bright blue Macaulay Culkin impersonator in the bottom left corner.

XGiving 1992, as with all XGivings since then and a few before, was spent with the Wood side of my family -- or to be more specific my father's siblings -- at the home of my uncle Scott. It's actually somewhat fitting that my 25th XGiving fell on this year, as it appears to be the last time the turkey dinner (technically lunch in my family) will be so hosted.

I've always held a particular affinity for XGiving, which I mentioned in my Halloween post. In fact, one of the first things I ever had published was a column in which I professed my love for the turkey and potatoes holiday. It is, in my humble opinion, the Greek ideal of holidays: simplicity, perfection and order. Unlike other celebrations like Christmas and Easter that get all tied up in some boring religious undertone, Thanksgiving is nothing more than a day to gather with your family, eat copious amounts of delicious food, watch football, then eat again. Plus, since it lands on a Thursday, it almost always ends up in a 4-day weekend. Give thanks, indeed.

Perhaps that's why there's really not much to chronicle, as little has changed over the years. I remember when I was a kid, we would eat and then my cousins and I would immediately retreat to either  the back yard (during Indian Summers) or the basement (during early winters) to roughhouse, rabble rouse, and otherwise engage in childlike tomfoolery. My uncle lived in a different house back then, and all I can remember of it is that the basement had a room tucked away in the corner which seems to have had no decorations but a really comfortable couch -- the perfect play room for 6 rambunctious boys. I also remember that they had one of those plastic play-house things in the backyard, the kind with the 3-foot red slide and the yellow Swiss cheese wall. And there was a bumper pool table. I don't think we ever bothered to learn the rules of bumper pool, instead electing to just bounce balls around.


In my adolescent years, my uncle's family -- and the festivities -- moved to a home a stone's throw away from my high school. Between the main course and dessert we would run up to the football field to play a quick game of two-hand-touch. I remember loving how it was the one time of the year when our dumb backyard football games had yardage lines and the possibility of an extra point.

We had maybe 3-4 years of decent games before the elder among us began getting married and, even worse, having children. Our rosters dwindled and we took to just throwing a ball around in the street. Now, we're all old and decrepit so we just find a spot on the couch, eat more pie, and forget about any notions of physical activity.
When I was a kid I loved watching the Macy's parade. I'm fully aware that my memory of this is completely inaccurate, but it seems to me like each year we would wake up at some unholy hour and stand in the kitchen for what felt like ages peeling potatoes. I remember the gross sensation of a kitchen sink full of brownish-grey, opaque water and floating potato skins and the longing that I felt to get the stupid potatoes over with so I could run into the party room and watch the parade.

I was able to go to the parade last year, which fittingly involved waking up at an unholy hour and standing for ages in the cold on some crowded corner of Manhattan sidewalk. Still, there is something undeniably charming about watching giant balloons navigate the canyon-like avenues of New York City. Do it at least once if you get the chance.


The rest of my XGiving in New York consisted of a lovely dinner pot-lucked by my friends and serving as the sober designated walker (we weren't driving), looking after a herd of inebriated cats in a city that was still somewhat foreign to me. For dinner I made candied yams, which has been my favorite XGiving dish since discovering them in my early teens (more on that in a bit), borrowing a recipe from my sister that uses actual sweet potatoes, not the canned stuff, and caramelized pecans. Tres Magnifique!

As for the title of this post. There was once an animated cartoon called "Pepper Ann," -- she’s too cool for 7th grade -- which had a special Thanksgiving episode where a secondary character is found huddled in a ball under the kitchen table surrounded by empty cans of sweet potatoes mumbling "I am a selfish yam-eater, I am a selfish yam-eater". Me and my sister are both selfish yam-eaters and the reference has seemed to stick with us over the years.

It's also become something of a mantra for me because I have Thanksgiving, and specifically yams, to thank for my open-minded attitude towards food.

When I was younger I downright refused to eat the candied yams. "They look gross" I would say. "Ewwww!" I would moan. My mother would try to encourage me, telling me that I would like them, explaining that they were covered in melted marshmallows and pineapple and honestly what's not to love?

Then one day, I decided that I was going to try the yams. With one bite I realized how foolish I had been, how I had wasted so many yam-filled years of my life, blinded by prejudice. I had denied myself a decade of sensory pleasures all because I couldn't look beyond my preconceptions.

I would have wept, if I wasn't too busy shoveling spoonfuls into my mouth.

From then on, my entire outlook on culinary self-selection was changed. Never again, I vowed, would ignorance stand in the way of my stomach. And I have this paradigm shift to thank for my love of Hummus, Pad Thai, Ethiopian food, Chicken and Waffles, Capreze salad and those weird asian drinks with the gummy balls in them. Delicious!

In my comings and goings, I've encountered many people who pass judgement on a food they have not yet tried and I plead with them, I beg them to consider what joy they may be depriving themselves. "The YAMS!" I beg, "think about the YAMS!"

Some listen, others don't, there’s only so much you can do. But as for me, I bite first and ask questions later. Yams changed my life, as did the beautiful holiday of XGiving.

And for that, I am truly thankful.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook



When I reviewed The Words in September, I said it was the best performance that we had seen to date from Bradley Cooper. But I added the caveat that we would have to wait until the release of Silver Linings Playbook – in which he stars with Jennifer Lawrence as a man on the other side of a mental health episode – to see if the claim sticks.

It doesn't. Having now seen Silver Linings, I can say to you without a doubt that we have only just begun to see Cooper's potential as a leading man.

In SLP, we meet Pat (Cooper), a history teacher who is moving back in with his parents after a stint in a psychiatric facility. Having found a newfound appreciation for the power of positivity (he shouts "Excelsior" in a sporadically charming, albeit intentionally ad naseum way) he sets out to reinvent himself as a physically fit, emotionally stable man all in the name of salvaging his marriage. Problem is, his mental lapse occurred when he discovered his wife having an affair, which resulted in him beating a naked man to near death – we learn of the event through a series of 1st-person POV flashes as he recounts the story to his therapist – and, subsequently, a restraining order being filed against him.

Pat is also tip-toeing on the verge of another episode, constantly fighting back triggers and outbursts and frequently spouting off inappropriate exposition. Sure, there's obstacles, but with a shout of "Excelsior" – Latin for "Ever Upward" – he shrugs them off, jogging relentlessly to shed the pounds his wife always wanted him to and reconnecting with both family and friends.

It's there that Lawrence enters the picture. Pat is invited to dinner by a friend, whose sister-in-law Tiffany also attends and is also dealing with emotional stress of her own. The two kindred spirits, after a few rocky false-starts, begin a friendship that finds the pair training for a dancing competition in exchange for Tiffany's help in winning back Patrick's wife.

The movie hinges on Cooper and his ability to portray a man at odds with himself. The film is a Dramedy, along the same storytelling tone of quirky ensemble-piece Little Miss Sunshine, and Cooper and Co. deftly and carefully swing from dark to light moments as we see a family longing for catharsis and guarded against disappointment.

Cooper, with a master's hand, portrays Pat's idiosyncrasies with such consistency, honesty, and sincerity that you can't help but question your preconceptions of what 2011's Sexiest Man Alive must be like in real life. His portrayal of mental illness is neither exploitative nor superficial, instead coming across as a shockingly believable human being.

But Silver Linings isn't a great performance, it's a great film. The supporting cast of Lawrence, Robert De Niro and a refreshingly understated Chris Tucker turn in spectacular work while the direction – David O. Russell of I Heart Huckabees – and storytelling pull you into a climax that has the tension of a thriller despite absurdly low stakes that revolve around a dance competition and the Philadelphia Eagles. It trades between moments of laugh-out-loud humor and cringe-inducing discomfort and instills in each character flaws, strengths and humanity.

Lawrence, for her part, returns to the indie-drama roots that put her on the map. It's her first appearance since the over-blown spectacle of The Hunger Games and a welcome reminder that there is so much more to the actress than the melodramatic and two-dimensional Katniss Everdeen. She won her accolades in Winter's Bone but in SLP she exudes an irresistible, enigmatic quality that is nearly intoxicating and completely fascinating to watch.

Silver Linings is one of those rare films that celebrates the failure and weakness inside each of us. By showing us a quiet tale of loss, depression and anxiety it manages to find humor and inspiration in the most unlikely and beautiful of places. A

Silver Linings Playbook opens nationwide on November 21.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

How to fix Star Wars

As you -- and likely everyone in the world who's ever watched a motion picture -- are probably aware, Disney recently purchased LucasFilm and expressed their intent to release new installments in the Star Wars franchise beginning in 2015.

Now, I'm going to try to state this as diplomatically as possible: the Prequel Trilogy, and most recent Star Wars films, are a reeking pile of rat garbage.

And it's not just hyper-sensitive fanboys like myself who felt like George Lucas single-handedly crushed our childhoods into dust. Newly-introduced elements like Jar Jar Binks and "Nooooooooooo" have become the stuff of pop culture parody and Phantom Menace got a shameful 57% on Rotten Tomatoes (Revenge of the Sith somehow scored 80%, which I think we can all agree was overly generous...Hayden F*ing Christensen).

But the news of the forthcoming and long-expected episodes 7,8 and 9 have given me pause for reflection, and optimism. As I've digested the thought of new adventures in a galaxy far, far away, I've feel impressed to suggest to the filmakers a few simple tips on how to avoid the mistakes of Star Wars' past and return to the greatness of Star Wars' paster.

1. Give me puppets or give me death (on second thought, just give me puppets)

George Lucas has, by all accounts of perception, a love affair with computer generated imagery. Compared to the tangible, visually impressive characters created for the original trilogy -- which were often operated by several puppeteers or, in the case of the tuskan raider's bantha, consisted of an actual element dressed in a costume. That's right, they put a costume on a freaking elephant!

I got sidetracked, where was I? Oh yes. Compared to that, the prequel trilogy exists in a world where a handful of actors interacted with digitally-rendered characters, in a digitally-rendered landscape, spouting what felt like digitally-rendered wooden dialogue. It was a cartoon, only a cartoon where Hayden Christensen ran around moping in some type of skirt-coat. In other words, it was the worst cartoon ever.

Compare the awesomeness of Jabba the Hut, dripping with slime and saliva, licking his lips and ogling Carrie Fisher in the gold bikini, to the overblown gimmickry of General Grievous. Compare Max Rebo, the purple piano-playing elephant in Jabba's palace to Sebulba, the annoying, dog-like villain who spars with young Anakin Skywalker in the podracer...race, man that really seems redundant when you spell that out: podracer race? Podrace?

Puppet Yoda is superior in every way to jumping dancing cartoon Yoda. Yes, Jim Hensen is irreplaceable but come on, we can do better.

Or forget puppets and just focus on characters that you could actually reach out and touch.  R2D2 with Kenny Baker inside was superior to the fire-spewing, flying R2D2 of the prequel trilogy. Plus, explain to me how R2D2 lost the ability to fly? What?

Or, Compare Chewbacca to Jar Jar. 'Nuff said.



2. Build something

This is a continuation of number one, but from the perspective of the sets. Part of what makes Han Solo's entry into the storyline so awesome is the gritty backdrop of a seedy dive on Mos Eisley, a "wretched hive of scum and villainy." And that's only the beginning. There's the carbonite trap and the tunnels where Vader and Luke fight in the Cloud City. There's the forest moon of Endor, the Sarlack Pit and -- of course -- Jabba's palace on Tatooine that seems to engage all five senses while you watch.

Whereas the prequels, for all their whiz-bang production of colors and lights, pale in comparison. It's hard to care too much about the capitol planet of Coruscant, or the underwater city of Gunga, when it's is so obviously the creation of ones and zeroes on a computer. In Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan's investigations take him to a CG-diner, where he talks to a CG waiter, then to a CG floating city where he talks with, what appears to be, the weird aliens from the end of A.I., also rendered in CG.

Give us something we can reach out and touch. Give us metal bars covered in rust and grime to imprison Solo and Chewbacca behind. Give us dusty shadows to lurk behind and the blinding, seering desert sun of Tatooine. You've got all the money you could possibly ask for, go to hobby lobby and Home Depot, buy some props and build a freaking set for a change.
With CG, less is more. When in doubt, make it real.



3. Bring back the original cast

Sure, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill's stars have fallen somewhat and sure, Harrison looks more like Emperor Palpatine than Han Solo these days, but Luke, Leia, Han and Chewy are precisely what made us fall in love with Star Wars. Even if they were to spout the same nonsense that passed for diologue between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman, it still would tickle any Wars fan blushing pink to see the OGs waltz on screen.

They don't have to be the leads. In fact, it only makes sense that 7-9 would focus on their children, with each trilogy telling the story of a different generation of the Skywalker family. But give us Han and Leia growing old together on some moon. Give us Luke training some punk would-be Jedi, Ben Kenobi style.

And just to be safe, avoid child actors altogether, and if you can round up Billy Dee Williams, even better.



4. No more robot villains (or, in a word: Stormtroopers)

We get it, waging a war against an army of droids makes it easier to have bloodless violence and, by extension, secure the PG rating. But when your antagonists are made of bolts and wires it really isn't any surprise when the tension comes of as superficial and, yes, soulless.

I miss the Stormtroopers, with their clumsy yet threatening monotony. I miss the imperial officers, wincing in terror at Vader's threats and rolling their eyes behind his back. I miss real human beings with real human emotion.

And it wasn't just the nameless armies. Remember General Grievous? The six-armed robot dog with whooping cough that was supposed to be some sort of dramatic precursor to Anakin's cyborg transformation? Sure, Vader was more machine than man but he was also emotionally conflicted, had James Earl Jones' vocal chords and was an interstellar B.A. Plus, he may have been mostly machine but he was played by a living, breathing human being, unlike the digitally-rendered Grievous who made it look like Ewan McGregor was having a lightsaber battle with a local TV weather forecast wall.

Plus, there's no tension with robots. You could drop an atom bomb and it would have the emotional implications of shaking a silverware drawer. How about some moral ambiguity? How about some higher stakes? You don't have to gull full-Nolan but come on, let's not forget how dark Empire got.



5. Never again speak the word "Midi-chlorians"

Seriously never. Ever. Ne-Ver!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Movie Review: Skyfall



A lot of praise has been heaped upon 'Skyfall'. Many respectable, wise critics have dubbed it "The best Bond ever," lauding it for its ability to both incorporate long lost elements of Bonds-gone-by while still preserving the moody, gritty realism of the Daniel Craig ever.

While I fall short of deeming Skyfall the best of all the 23 Bonds -- or even the best of Craig's 3 outings as the titular provocateur -- I could not agree more that what Sam Mendes has produced is a near flawless fusion of old and new and one of the most thrilling adventures in 007's 50-year career.
Skyfall -- as with all bonds since Thunderball -- begins with a pre-credit sequence that is both breathtaking in scope and pulse-pounding with adrenaline. It hearkens back to movies of yesteryear as bond goes from a foot chase to a car chase to a motorcycle chase along rooftops to a backhoe chase on a moving train, all while pausing to straighten tie and cufflinks (as seen in the trailer). It's a piece of exquisite Bond-action joy that sets up the films resurrection theme as bond is injured and struggles to return back to 100% health and active duty.

From there, we jump skip to a series of attacks on Mi6 that are seemingly directed vendetta-style at Judi Dench's 'M', who has played the role since Pierce Brosnan's Goldeneye (another "best"). On the job is Bond, back from some much-needed R&R, who pursues a somewhat-confusing trail of breadcrumbs first to Shanghai (where apparently everything glows, which looks awesome) then to Macau (where everything is dimly lit and floating on water, which looks awesome) and finally to a remote island where we meet our villain Silva, a snake-tongued cyber criminal with an axe to grind played by Javier Bardem.

Once again Bardem shows that he is adept at playing off-kilter evil, trading his bowl cut and cattle gun from No Country For Old Men for flowing blond locks, a laptop computer and just a pinch of homo-eroticism. He is eerie, off-putting and fascinating to watch but his motivations and actions struck me as slightly incomplete.

Back at home in London there are a number of side elements, such as the re-introduction of gadget-master Q and a political threat to M in the form of Ralph Fiennes, which all come to tie together nicely in the film's third act, which I won't describe suffice to say that it was an interestingly low-key way to stage the final showdown, whichbrought back memories of the Man With the Golden Gun era.

Casino Royale remains my favorite of the Craigs, but I admit that some of the criticism of being Bourne-ified is justified. Skyfall looks, feels, smells, and loves like the Bond we all grew up with; a suave Brit cracking wise, seducing women and taking names around the world. For the diehards, Skyfall is peppered with throwback nods and canonical additions that you may not have realized you missed but are nonetheless grin-inducing when they appear. For the uninitiated, it's just one heckuva good ride. A-