Monday, March 26, 2012

Vivaldi - the original headbanger

In the fine tradition of Chuck Norris jokes, here comes Vivaldi - the original pimp and headbanger of classical music! Top 10 fun facts about Vivaldi! (see note #1)

1. Vivaldi was the original headbanger. Listen to "La Follia" at 6:30 and 7:30 marks. Vivaldi was the Dragonforce of 18th century music scene.

2. Vivaldi was called the Red Priest. That's because he bathed in the blood of the lesser composers he had slain and absorbed their power.

3. Vivaldi became a priest because he ran out of women to screw.

4. Vivaldi was so physically hardcore half the population of Vienna was destroyed by spontaneous orgasm when he got there. They had to import women from the hottest capitals of Europe to replace the lost female population and sate Vivaldi's appetites.

5. When Vivaldi died, monks gathered his belongings. They then scoured the Earth for his reincarnation, letting little children play with some random crap mixed in with one item belonging to Vivaldi. Only a little boy in Salzburg unerringly picked up Vivaldi's violin and immediately started headbanging.

6. Bach gave all seven of his children Vivaldi as a middle name. That's how jealous he was.

7. "Four Seasons" is a misnomer. Because there is only one season. VIVALDI SEASON. (Thanks to Stefan for this one)

8. Vivaldi invented the electric mandolin 250 years earlier than everyone else thought possible; it's the only way he could take his music to the next level. It was powered by the power of his sheer will!

9. Recent re-discoveries of Vivaldi's work have finally been performed. It's called Bohemian Rhapsody.

10. Only Vivaldi could write a choir piece for an all-female choir with bass and tenor parts. FOR WOMEN. When people told Vivaldi it couldn't be done - he did it! He then impaled the unbelievers as a warning to the future generations not to doubt the power of Vivaldi!

Note #1: facts may not be facts at all

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

John Carter of Earth, Mars, Pandora, Dancing With Wolves, and Middle Earth.

Just returned from watching Disney's "John Carter", based on Edgar Rice Burrough's Martian Chronicles books. Full disclosure - as a kid I devoured those novels, so I was not fazed in the slightest by the setting, the outdated premise, or the character names. Also, this will not be a comprehensive review, but rather a semi-rant about the plot follies - and I don't mean plot holes (there are aplenty), but rather the problems with the way the plot was written and developed.

Every story needs a plot. Most also require at least one subplot. Sometimes an author can deftly weave many subplots together and pull it off. Sometimes the work is dragged down by the weight of needless subplots into the bog of mediocrity. Sadly "John Carter" is a prime example of this. Let's get the good stuff out of the way - the movie is very pretty, the computer graphics are superb and are blatantly obvious in only a couple of scenes, the supporting cast is superb (seeing Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony from HBO's "Rome" series on a big screen was awesome), the male and female leads do a good job of looking pretty and heroic and convincing, the art direction and design are excellent, and the action scenes are competent.

Where the film fails is in the needlessly muddled plot and various subplots that bring the movie to needlessly tedious 2+ hours. The original Martian Chronicles were by no means subtle - the villains were villains, the heroes were heroes, the conflict was obvious, and it was all about rousing action, exotic vistas, nubile Martians, dastardly bad guys, and subtly effective humour. In other words, what Star Wars (heavily based on Martian Chronicles) and other (better) movies are made of. The film needlessly complicates the plot in many different ways. As all English teachers drone on from year to year - every story needs a conflict. Conflict is what creates a story. Otherwise nothing would happen. Let's count the conflicts in the Disney version (working from memory here):
- John Carter vs. mysterious aliens
- John Carter vs. savage yet somehow noble aliens
- John Carter vs. human-looking aliens
- John Carter vs. his troubled past and his guilt over losing his family
- John Carter vs. the United States of America
- John Carter vs. a scheming alien princess
- John Carter vs. himself (in this case over where he truly belongs - on Earth or Mars)
- John Carter involving his nephew in an improbable *REDACTED FOR SPOILERS*
- John Carter vs. giant apes
- John Carter vs. gravity
- Alien dude and his daughter vs. their tribe
- Alien princess vs. her father
- Alien princess vs. bad guy
- A three-way alien war
- Mysterious aliens vs. just about everyone else

OK, obviously some of these get resolved in a scene or two, but quite a few of these drag on for most of the movie, and are mostly irrelevant to the story as a whole or its resolution! Most of the subplots in "John Carter" do not move the main plot along, instead they meander away from it, slow down the film, confuse the audience, and are either dropped or resolved so abruptly that they might not have even happened in the first place.

The subplots seemed to have two major purposes in this film, the first being a justification for action scenes. Personally I thought the main plot - even if trimmed - would have provided plenty of opportunities for action scenes on its own, and probably would have provided opportunities for the same exact action scenes minus the time spent on developing and explaining the subplot. The second purpose was to cut away from the main action, give the supporting cast more screen time and give the main heroes more chances to whine about something. The result, however, is the needless increase in length, an actual decrease in tension (if the audience is fidgeting or falling asleep, chances are they will be confused once the main plot kicks back in), and angst. OK, I get it, nowadays having a straight-cut hero with little to no emotional baggage verges on a parody, but come on! In an action adventure flick like this one we want to see the heroes (and heroines - Deja Toris kicks serious butt in the film) act heroically not brood, self-recriminate, doubt themselves, and gush with insecurity (or at least not for very long). Leave all these things to the Prince of Denmark.

Anyway, the rant is pretty much over. "John Carter" is a film that would be enhanced by removing scenes, rather than adding more deleted scenes. I almost hope to see a DVD version of it that will actually redact the movie!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Just in time for St. Patrick's Day

This is going to be a lengthy culinary blog, with a few recipes that I've tried out recently and turned out to be pretty good. The overall theme was that of an Irish pub grub (and indeed most of the recipes came from "The Irish Pub Cookbook - a book I cannot recommend highly enough), and it all goes down well with dark ale or whiskey (although we drank Scotch instead). OK, here we go!

Spinach Salad With Pears
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 slices of Irish bacon (see notes at the end)
4 slices white bread with crust removed, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
Freshly ground pepper to taste

4 ounces blue cheese (that's 120 grams for most folks)
2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup of olive oil
1 teaspoon corn syrup (I ended up putting in two to offset the balsamic vinegar)
1 teaspoon of whole-grain or dijon mustard
Pinch of brown sugar
Salt and pepper to taste

5 ounces baby spinach
1/2 cup of crushed walnuts (I used cashews instead and it turned out delicious)
1/4 cup of dried cranberries or cherries
2 firm Anjou or Bosc (Bosc is the most common on in North American supermarkets) pears, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2 inch thin slices.
Salt and pepper to taste

1. To make the croutons
Preheat over to 250F. Grease a bakiing sheet. In a small skillet over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons of butter, add bacon and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, remove bacon and drain in a paper towel, then set aside. Add remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, melt, add bread cubes, toss a couple of times to coat them in butter, season with salt and pepper to taste, cook for 4 to 6 minutes. Remove the croutons, place them on the baking sheet, bake for 15 minutes.

2. To make the dressing
Combine 2 ounces of the blue cheese, the vinegar, olive oil, corn syrup, mustard, brown sugar, and add salt and pepper to taste, in a small bowl. Whisk until the dressing is smooth, then refrigerate for 30 minutes. Personal note: the dressing is really delicious and goes well with any kind of green salad.

3. to Compose the salads
Divide the spinach among 4 salad plates. Sprinkle reserved bacon, walnuts and cranberries or cherries on top. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and arrange the pear slices on top. Spoon the dressing over the pears. Top with croutons and the remaining 2 ounces of crumbled blue cheese.

Beef and Vegetable Pepper Pot
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound beef tenderloin, cut into very thin strips
1 red onion, sliced and cut into thin strips
1/2 Spanish or yellow onion, sliced and cut into thin strips
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 red pepper, seeded, deribbed, and cut into thin 1/2 inch strips
1/2 green pepper, seeded, deribbed, and cut into thin 1/2 inch strips
2 stalks celery, cut crosswise into 2 inch lengths and lengthwise into thin strips
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups beef stock
1/2 cup of dark ale (Guiness or similar ale is best)
Salt and pepper to taste
Minced parsley for garnish
Cheddar scones for serving (see next entry)

In a deep skillet over mideium heat, warm the oil. Cook the beef for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, or until browned. With a slotted spoon, transfer the beef to a plate and set aside - do not drain. Add the onions and garlic to the skillet and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, or until lightly browned. Add the peppers, celery, tomato paste, stock or broth, beer, salt and pepper to tasted. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until the peppers are tender and the sauce is thickened. Stir in the beef and cook until heated through. Serve in shallow bowls, sprinkle with parsley, serve with scones on the side.

Cheddar Scones
2 cups of white all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons of baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup butter
2 eggs
1/3 cup milk
1/2 cup grated Cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 450F. Stir the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar together. Cut in butter and cheddar cheese with two knives or pastry blender until the mixture is the consistency of a coarse cornmeal. Beat eggs until light, stir in milk. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and add liquid slowly to make a soft dough. When all liquid has been added, stir dough vigorously until the dough comes freely from side of the bowl. It will appear to be very dry - do not panic, it'll turn out just fine. Pat to 3/4 inch thickness, cut into squares or triangles, place on lightly-greased baking sheet. Bake for 12-15 minutes.

Bread and Butter Pudding with Hot Whiskey Sauce
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup Irish whiskey (I usually use Jameson whiskey, but it also tastes great with Fireball whiskey as well)
5 large eggs
2 cups heavy whipping cream (35% is best) in liquid form
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 ounces (8-9 slices) of firm white bread, crust left on.
4 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature

Hot Whiskey Sauce
1/2 cup of unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
6 tablespoons of whipped heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup Irish whiskey (see recipe for details)

1. Making the pudding
In a small bowl, combine the raisins and whiskey and let soak. I find soaking for 12 hours is best. Drain the raisins, but keep the whiskey for the sauce.
In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, cream, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla. Spread one side of each slice of bread with butter. Cut the slices in half diagonally and arrange half the break in the bottom of the baking dish (butter side down), overlapping the slices. Remember the croutons from the salad? Feel free to reuse the crusts from the croutons here! Sprinkle half the raisins over the break, arrange the second layer of bread, sprinkle the remaining raisins on top. Pour the custard over the bread and let it soak for 30 minutes
Preheat oven to 400F. Place the baking dish (or glass casserole) in a large baking pan. Add boiling water to to the pan, so that it comes up halfway up the sides of the dish. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until the pudding is set and the top is golden. Remove the baking dish from the water bath and let cool slightly.

2. Making the sauce
In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Whisk in the sugar, cream, and whiskey. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 4-5 minutes, or until the sauce thickens.

3. Serving the pudding
Top the pudding with whipped cream, and spoon the whiskey sauce over each portion, with ice cream on the side!

Note: what the hell is Irish bacon? It is simply cured back bacon. If you cannot find authentic Irish bacon, use fatty Canadian bacon, or Italian fatty pancetta bacon instead.

Enjoy and happy St. Patty's to everyone!