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Month: December 2016

Life’s Too Short: Van Helsing (2016 -)

OMG, They Suck!

There is a learning curve to everything, and apparently Hollywood writers need a bit more time to be able to differentiate vampires and zombis. So after The Strain, please meet Van Helsing, a series one guesses no one bas been waiting for that much, considering its horrendous 2004 predecessor. You know the drill:

– “36 hours earlier” time card, check.
– Confinment of a ragtap posse of misfits in a allegedly inexpugnable place, check.
– Baseball bats and shotguns, check.
– Ethnically diverse casting, if you’re kind enough to gloss over the fact that the black lady is undead and the Asian one survives for five minutes, check.
– Dialogue by numbers (“Open the door!”, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” and “End of discussion!” not once but twice), check.

Add to that the heroin has both amnesia and a little girl, but not only that, she well might be the Chosen One, the Special, the Only, the Cure, and you watch her waking up for a 3 year coma to instantly kick ass with a sleepy yawn. Van Helsing has ugly production values, ugly violence and an ugly way to repeat mistakes that have been already done to exhaustion. And it has been written by Neil La Bute. Oh, rutabaga.

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Keeping Up With The Joneses (2016)

Waiting For Gadot

Although not a good movie by all means, this one has some redeeming features, and the merit of demonstrating that if there is no film to benefit from the presence of Isla Fisher or Zach Galifianakis, there is no material not elevated by Gal Gadot (waiting for a better role) or Jon Hamm; not that they are required to crank up their acting chops in this, her playing a cold bitch and him an efficient fraud. A transparent cover of Mr & Mrs Smith seen from the point of view of their suburban neighbours, KUWTJ (a stupid title anchoring it in instantly dated 2010s) also gives the farce treatment to The Americans, meaning it’s one more entry in the endless list of movies attempting to mix action and comedy to no avail, a soundtrack seemingly uplifted from a Louis de Funès movie not helping the case. John Hamm does his American James Bond, meaning with a wife and a pretend baby; fortunately, not too shabby action scenes and some lines coming out of the blue rather than from the disposable one-liner bin make it a passable viewing for the festive time of the year.

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The Young Pope #3

The Holy Dictator

Childhood is at the core of this episode, childhood and family, or the absence thereof. “Orphans”, says the Pope, “are never young”, alluding to his growing up in an orphanage, under Sister Mary’s tutelage, after his parents abandoned him. This Pope is alone and the only conversation he deems worthy of him is with God; this conversation is more argumentative than beatific though, so unsure is Pius XIII of genuinely believing in the One he’s being an earthly deputy of. He is the only master after God, his papacy making him the absolute spiritual sovereign of a billion Catholics, and there is a growing suspicion, especially among the always well-intentioned media community, that he aspires to divinity himself.

Cardinal Spencer, his mentor, calls him “a vindictive little boy”. “You will be the worst Pope of modern history”, he chastises, before going to Canossa and kneeling down to accepté the job he has been offered, only to meet a stern rebutal. This Pope has his own agenda and he doesn’t take contradiction kindly: his two trademark answers are “Later” or “Too late”. He is a fantastic character, inspiring human sympathy as much as holy terror. He can be a kind man when confering with his confessor or what seems to be the closest he has to a friend, saintly but flawed Monsignore Guttierez (Javier Cámara, excellent), or a block of ice when he uses the blunt force of his papacy to destroy the obstacles to what he calls “his plan”. Is he one or the other, or neither or both? “Absense”, he says, “is presence, the essence of mystery”.

It is fascinating to watch the plot unfold, and one delights at the way Sorrentino adds, with the gentlest of touch, layers of theology to the most eroded of concepts in movie history, family. Becoming Pope, the orphan son has become the father and he longs for another visit of the Holy Spirit. And of course, no Holy Family would be complete without a virgin mother, so there’s Sister Mary, trying to quieten the media uproar during a press conference which is more martyrdom than marketing. “Who are you?” asks an unfuriated journalist. “I am Sister Mary”, she answers, looking like a rabbit in a car headlights. Brilliant.

Sorrentino also hints at the father of all mad dictators caught on film, Chaplin’s, with the help of the giant crystal globe in the Pope’s chamber, playing a prominent role in two key scenes, one about power and one about weakness. A new character is introduced, Esther, played by Ludivine Sagnier (always welcome). It would be very surprising that the character’s name was chosen randomly: the Book of Esther is the only one in the Jewish Bible in which God’s name is not pronounced, she’s an orphan (understand: nothing) and a Jew, who avoids the massacre of her people by seducing King Xerxès. She seems to be the only one to have liked the Pope’s address but, he says, circling around her like a shark, “liking is not enough”. The scene ends up in a completely unexpected way, with one of these jarring contrasts Sorrentino masters so deftly.

As always, hilarious details sugar the bitter political/religious pill. Cécile de France is the only character to giggle at the Pope’s crual jokes; one priest is a philanderer and another an alcoholic; the Holy Father still really wants to get his tiara back from Washington and he tells his confessor, in the opening scene, that during the conclave “I prayed so hard that I nearly sh*t my pants”. What remains as a common denominator between the lighter scenes and the dark ones is the absolute violence of language, of words, from politics to blasphemy. Amen to that.

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Capsule Review: Star Trek Beyond (2016)

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Beyond Stupidity

Deeply philosophical in a Hallmark kind of way and therefore relying on stuff like “Fear of death is what keeps us alive”, coincidence and ludicrousness, not forgetting the “one last mission” syndrom, Star Trek Beyond is based on the timeless question “Where’s the switch?”, in this case the one for a doomsday machine which is a blender. Expect choir music, fisticuffs and attempts at relationships. Get what you didn’t expect: an hologramic albino grunting like a female tenis player, a melted candle girl and a complete waste of Idriss Elba. Obviously Dads are dead, alien architecture is totally inadapted to their planet’s topology, all aliens breathe the same atmosphere and there is an old Starfleet ship at hand once Captain Kirk had a change of pajamas. Simon Pegg’s venture into screenwriting the legend fells flat on his face and lays there, inert, for ages. Oh, Kirk it out already.

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The Crown #4: Act Of God

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Monarchy For Dummies

The life of a Queen is all but interesting in the second half of the 20th century and, one guesses, even less so in the first part of the 21st. But let’s not anticipate: it is December 1953 and a bad case of smog alerts first the National Meteorogical Institute, then the Labour Party, then the public opinion, then the Royal House, then finally the government, Sir Winston definitely not being the mood of adding the weather to the two subjects on top of his agenda: the Egyptian unrest and the fact that His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh takes flying lessons with Princess Margaret’s lover, Pete Townsend. The fact that we all forgot about the 53 fog and remember, however vaguely, Princess Margaret’s affair makes Churchill quite the visionary, but during this episode he’s seen as a leader losing his grip until he turns the table in a twist of fate, namely having the sun rising at a dramatic moment. Just so you know, this episode is bold about buttering heavy symbolism on black bread.

Paradoxically, the fog lifts the veil on a London hardly out of the Dickensian era, all derelict tenement houses and coin-metered heating, Churchill having ordered the factories at fault to burn excess coal to simulate a prosperity that hardly extends its reach beyond Belgravia, Kensington and, one guesses, the City. The Queen, filtered one inch to vanishing by the CGI fog permeating the Buckingham bubble, doesn’t have much to do but weathering (natch) Prince Phillip’s foul mood. To give once more credit to Churchill, His Royal Highness believes he can fly, but his heavenly endeavour is hampered by meteorology, so he frowns and bickers as if it was a State affair, which it could be, not counting fate in.

This episode is so far the most heavily dramatised of the series, hinging like it is on the fate of Churchill’s prefered ornament, his private secretary Viola, acting as a surrogate of common people paying the price of the absurd selfishness and disconnection of the English ruling class. Add to this a dark/light epiphany in a vestibule and you’ve got the essence of what this series pretends to: royalty for dummies. Peter Morgan, the writer of that thing, certainly doesn’t care about the common people, they’re just props in his Windsor puppet theater; the problem is, by extension, the Windsor, absorbed as they seem in lineage and protocol, appear like monsters by consequence. Not to say they’re not, but it’s interesting that such a lavish hagiography takes so little time in generating monsters.

Apart from poor Viola’s pivotal point, not much happens this time around apart one more excerpt from the Churchill’s compendium of bons mots, him calling the Labour leader “a sheep in sheep’s clothing”, and fortunately for the viewer, Queen Mary. One doesn’t know why while US series are so often unable to write interesting roles for ladies of a certain age, British series so heavily rely on them for both comic relief and sagacity, but here we are again after the Downton Abbey‘s Dowager Countess, watching in mirth an elderly British actress stealing the show in every scene she’s in and then some.

From her grammar lesson to an uncautious nurse (the “The Queen is here to see you, your majesty.” answered by a curt “Which one?” being the best dialogue so far, so faithful it is to the absurdity of the European Gotha) to her concluding “Chin up!” lesson to Elisabeth Regina, Queen Mary is the star of the show. “To do nothing is the toughest job of all”, she says, “it will require every ounce of energy you have.” Attempting to the same lofty goal, the series can only pretend to stately boredom and certainly not to sovereign aloofness.

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The Accountant (2016)

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Never Mind The Pollock

They say there are two sure things in life: death and taxes. Well, add to that terrible movies starring Ben Affleck. When he’s not multi-hyphenate and playing in movies he wrote/directed, the man’s filmography is a dumpster. Please consider the latest exhibit for now, a movie with a title so dull Bill Dubuque, the writer, felt compelled to overcompensate its lack of appeal with such a saturation of content that the result feels like a game of checking Hollywood boxes. Shall we?

1. Asperger genius hero, check. Benaffleck is such a wizz kid that he does puzzles face down in completely useless flashbacks and has an eidetic memory for numbers so he becomes a forensic accounting consultant, able to track the one inconsistant line in 15 years of fiscal declarations, providing you let him write on the doors and windows. Also, he has Asperger because he finds his Pollock so soothing he hung it on the ceiling of his secret trailer. Also, he’s a genius because he listens to the Bach cello suites. Also, he’s a sniper and a ninja. Also he has no sex life. Genius.

2. Dysfunctional family, check. You would think that after an Asperger kid or two, an average American couple would stop procreating, but no, this one give birth to a contract killer as the cherry on the cake. This, at least, allows the movie to end up on a bad bromance instead of a happy family reunion. John Bernthal plays a convincing thug, in turns threatening and childish. He’s, let’s face it, much better than Benaffleck, who robotically goes through the moves like he’s holding a fart. “Heavy sigh”, as would say the mysterious female voice on the phone Benaffleck keeps calling. Let’s call her Siri not to spoil the ending.

3. Violence but no sex, check. Benaffleck, for all his big guns and pairs of grenades, doesn’t have genitalia, so cue in mousy Anna Kendrick, typecast, playing, yes, a kooky accountant who first got a whif of the fishy play supposed to propel the inexistant plot. She’s Plain Jane, talking about her prom dress when he brings her in a hotel suite and she gets all titillated, or counter-asking “Tell me it’s not an original Pollock?” when she invades his privacy, overlooking the Renoir as if was a Pirelli calendar. Also, everyone knows everyone else in the fiscal business, proof is there is another woman in hot pursuit of Benaffleck, but didn’t we all know about that already?

4. Vicious villain in power, check. The problem with casting John Lithgow is, there is no big suspense about who’s the rotten apple in the fruit cart. So the movie can hilariously attempt at A Beautiful Mind in the company conference room, bring out the big guns with Jeffrey Tambor in an orange jumpsuit or, even better, JK Simmons uttering the best line of the movie, “I was old ten years ago” (which he could print on his business card as an abstract of his resumé), well, the villain is still John Lithgow. Who got shot in the face for interrupting the bromance between Benaffleck and his younger brother. Take that, evil John Lithgow!

Full to the brim with gratuitous violence and heralding a multiple Oscar winner sex symbol as the anal retentive hero who never gets laid, The Accountant is Hollywood at its best/worst. Ladies and gentlemen, we just got our new Clint Eastwood, may he live long and direct.

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A Diner at Rue d’Or, Osaka, Japan

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Rue d’Or J’Adore

The French gastronomic brasserie of the St Regis hotel Osaka, named after the Golden Street where it is situated, is helmed by Vincent Gadaud, a young chef from Tulle who has a no nonsense approach to traditions. He knows that they are never so interesting than when they are twisted with the inventiveness of culinary talent. He has to deal with the specifics of cooking French in Japan, some of them obvious, like the language barrier, others more treacherous, like the price of butter. He speaks about his cuisine with heart and a great sense of humour: he was happy to speak French with guests and spend a good deal of time at our table, commenting on the dishes and listening to our comments. It was a great diner, even though a couple of things might have been improved, but they were details, really.

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After an amuse-bouche which was rather too sweet to whip up the appetite, we rejoiced at the arrival of hefty slices of good bread, astuciously matched with a red wine salted butter. Now we were talking, and the conversation begun. The first dish, a browned lobster tail with fresh corn, zucchini and vanilla butter was perfectly satisfying and brought some nostalgic memories of the same pairing at Sanderens. With a glass of an honest Orvieto it was a successful debut.

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Followed a smoked haddock fish cake with creamed leeks, a tad too salty, even though haddock was sweetened with the inspired introduction of salmon. Leeks in a Béchamel are always welcome as far as one is concerned. Quickly followed a green pea velouté with crispy lard, that one forgot to photograph, first because it was a bowl of soup, then because it happened to be a tad repetitive on the gustative range. That dish would have fared better after the next one.

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The real treats started with a glazed octopus with green tea tempura, served with a cream of Jerusalem artichokes and chips of sea vegetables. Apart from a couple of carrot slices, bringing color in but adding nothing, the dish was very balanced, including citrus bubbles. Molecular cuisine, used with discretion, enhances very nicely a classic dish.

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The meat dish was the best: a honey roasted duck breast with caramelised endives and cèpes was announced, but it cames… with pork. We joked with the chef about the Alain Passard’s Frankenchicken (reviewed earlier here) but the idea of serving two different types of meat in the same plate was actually great, the duck courting his garniture of spinach and mushrooms and the pork very much in love with endives cooked in orange juice. A glass of a very nice claret and it was heaven.

Another treat was to follow: since dessert was a chocolate fondant, which is nothing to write about, Chef Dannaud made us taste a new dish from the à la carte menu (pictured on top): a pork gently cooked for 13 hours, splendid with green peas, mustard and onion rings. For unorthodox it was a dessert, it made us leave reluctantly. There was a flight the following morning, but as a last supper it must have been better than the one in the Bible.

Obviously service was impeccable and the atmosphere of the brasserie rather comforting, with old French songs played at low volume. Congratulations to Chef Gadaud !

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