Archive for November, 2009


Movie review: A Serious Man

To the great rabbi in the sky: why?

I’ve never noticed the sublime beauty in a person simply getting up in the morning, until I finished watching Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest endeavor, “A Serious Man.”

The film opens on a quaint enough scene: a man returns home to his wife, escaping from a deadly blizzard.  The couple, possibly Yiddish, banters back and forth about their day, when the husband informs his wife that he’s invited an old friend of hers for dinner.  That can’t be, she tells him.  The old man’s been dead for years.  The husband must have met a dybbuk, Hebrew for evil spirit, the wife decides, but to no avail.  The husband invites the dybbuk into the home, cursing the household.

Whether the two are ancestors of Larry Gopnik, the film’s protagonist, is unknown, but it would certainly make sense.  It seems Larry, a mild-mannered Jewish-American living in 1960s suburbia, is a cursed man.

Larry is a physics professor on the tenure track and can fill an entire chalkboard with complicated theories without ever knowing why they’re relevant. Along his quest to be a serious, or, respected man, Larry has found plenty of questions in his life but no answers.

His son is a pothead, but hey, give him credit; he’s very studious about learning the Torah for his upcoming bar mitzvah. His daughter is counting her pennies for a nose job. His brother is a gambler who may or may not have committed sodomy in North Dakota. Oh, and his wife is in love with another man. But not just any man. Sy Ableman. Oy veh.

After Larry’s wife tells him about their impending divorce and get (a traditional Jewish divorce), Sy invites himself over to comfort Larry with a bottle of wine. Sy approaches this sticky situation as if he were selling funerals services at a mortuary. He embraces Larry as a brother and tells him not to worry.  Everything will be okay.

Sy, played by Fred Melamed, comes to Larry’s house specifically to see Larry. Melamed is a joy to watch, and he’s in so few scenes that he leaves you eager for his next appearance.

The fact that Larry doesn’t throttle Sy for his misplaced sympathy tells us something about Larry. A lyric from Bob Dylan comes to mind:

“In you, my friend, I find no blame

Wanna look in my eyes, please do

No one can ever claim

That I took up arms against you.”

Larry is played with naked honesty by Michael Stuhlbarg.  Largely unknown to mass audiences, Stuhlbarg makes use of the Coens’ material as if it were gold.

Throughout the film, Larry receives two pieces of advice for his troubles: One, speak to Marshak, the wise old rabbi, and two, accept his troubles as life.  Both stick in Larry’s throat like a dried matzah ball, and for reasons of his own, he can’t seem to do either.  At a picnic he is told by a relative that he is blessed to be a Jew.

“We’ve got the well of tradition to draw on,” she says.

She tells Larry that, at the end of the day, these troubles will always be with us.

“This is life,” she says.

Life for Larry is one horrible event after another ripping through the landscape like a Kansas tornado.  But he is allowed a brief moment of clarity when he climbs the roof to adjust the antenna so his son can watch “F-Troop”.  The sky is cloudless, and he looks down on the world around him as if he weren’t a part of it.  He’s deserving of this peace.  While he finds no answers on the roof, maybe it’s enough for him to realize that perhaps order exists in the world.

It’s not enough to call “A Serious Man” the most personal movie the Coen brothers have made to date. True, it is probably the closest thing to a purely autobiographical account of their childhood, growing up as a Jewish-American in the mid-West.  But this is too simple a statement and doesn’t say anything about what the purpose of creating such an account could be.  No, “A Serious Man” is much more than that.  It’s life.

-Jonathan Michels

Guest blogger

Jim’s Famous BBQ: hits and misses

As the second stop in my series of barbecue blogs, Jim’s Famous BBQ ranks just behind the Q Shack. They serve up a variety of pit-smoked meats including pulled pork and chicken, chopped pork, beef brisket and more.

jim's bbq

Photo by Danielle Cushing

I felt obligated to try the pulled pork (on the right) since that’s what traditional southern barbecue is. It was a bit dry for me, but had a really nice smoky flavor. The texture was nice too; it was stringy and easy to pull apart into smaller bites. I chose the pulled chicken (on the left) as my second meat. It was melt-in-your-mouth moist. I couldn’t put my fork down! Both were served with a drizzle of barbecue sauce which was a tiny bit sweet, but had a surprisingly spicy aftertaste.

For my sides, I ordered the collard greens and corn pudding. The collards were unseasoned and bitter. They were so watery that I thought maybe the cook forgot to drain them after they were cooked. I love corn pudding and was excited to see it on the menu, but ended up being disappointed with it. There was too much filler, not enough corn and a little greasy.

I’m not sure why any barbecue restaurant would leave hush puppies off the menu, so I mentally deducted a few points for that too.

Jim’s Famous BBQ

115 S. Elliott Rd. (beside Whole Foods)

Chapel Hill, NC

919-942-7427

www.jimsfamousbbq.com

 

-Danielle Cushing

NBC’s comedy Thursday resurrected

Dealing with Funny Business

Four years ago, television insiders were rocked by a fear that the half-hour comedy genre was on its final legs. The field that was once defined by “I Love Lucy,” “Three’s Company” and “Cheers” could not hold an audience. Take, for example, the case of NBC’s powerhouse block of “Must See TV” Thursday. This block defined sitcoms for the latter half of the ‘90s, thanks to hits such as “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “Just Shoot Me,” “Frasier” and “Will and Grace.”  Once “Friends” and “Seinfeld” ended in 2004 and “Will and Grace” signed off in 2006, however, multi-camera comedies – those taped in front of a studio audience – were suddenly endangered. CBS had launched the moderately successful “Two and a Half Men” in 2003; for the next six years, this would be one of only two multi-camera comedies to make it past three seasons.

With the demise of the multi-camera comedy, luckily, came the rise of the single-camera bracket. Single-camera comedies usually don’t use laugh tracks. The humor is portrayed more subtly and the cameramen have a longer creative rope to zoom in and out and experiment with angles. Popular examples of multi-camera comedies are “The Office,” “Arrested Development” and “Malcolm in the Middle.” While critics love this genre, the broader audience historically does not, hence the cancellation of “Arrested Development” despite its strong cult following. It used to be that networks needed more patience with multi-camera comedies. Whereas single-camera sitcoms either found audiences quickly or not at all, multi-cameras’ greatest strength was word of mouth, and this required time. This fall season, however, is changing all the rules.

2008 entry “The Big Bang Theory” regenerated America’s love of comedy, and this season ABC has miraculously managed to launch a successful two-hour comedy block. While The CW eliminated comedy from its primetime schedule altogether, it’s undoubtedly a strong field for the other networks. So, which honeys bring the funny and which has-beens are wearing thin?

“She doesn’t even know I exist.”

If you’ve never heard of a TV show, it’s understandable. But if Doc Sonya has barely heard about it, you know it’s bad.

  • Brothers
    It’s a new comedy on Fox. Comes on during what TV insiders so fondly refer to as “the Friday night death slot.” The network obviously doesn’t want it to succeed, so why should you?
  • ‘Til Death
    This show is still on? Really??

 

Time to Break Up With…

  • Two and a Half Men
    Why do I feel so revolted by “Two and a Half Men”? It’s not the fact that it’s a “dude” comedy that objectifies women; I actually couldn’t care less about that. My dislike probably stems from “Men’s” lack of comedic class – neither the crude jokes nor the scenes in bed nor the dialogue is refined. There’s a little something called taste, and “Men” leaves one in your mouth comparable to vinegar.Bottom Line: It’s sad that this is still one of the highest rated comedies in primetime.

  • Accidentally on Purpose
    On par with “Two and a Half Men,” this tired concept should never have made it to the air in the first place. “Dharma & Greg”’s Jenna Elfman is wasted here as the “cougar” who gets knocked up by a twenty-something dude. Unfunny dialogue and stereotypical guy humor ensue (if the writers want to discover the proper execution of guy humor, they should watch “The Hangover”).Bottom Line: Bor-ing. Turn off the TV after “How I Met Your Mother” airs.

One-Night Stands:

Ultimately forgettable, but momentarily entertaining.

  • Ugly Betty
    I loved “Ugly Betty” when it premiered as a bright, quirky comedy in 2006. Much like “Heroes,” however, “Betty” fell into a sophomore slump and has since reached only mediocrity. The show now lacks the charm and whimsy that made it so delightful during its first season.Bottom Line: While Daniel has no memorable storyline to speak of and Betty’s romantic entanglements are dull and repetitive, Wilhelmina, Marc and Amanda continue to bring the inspired comedy the show sought its first season. Dump the other characters and give these three their own show.

  • Gary Unmarrried
    Another uninspired comedy on CBS’ schedule. While “Gary” is certainly more refined than “Men” and “Accidentally on Purpose,” it’s hardly a superior selection. It easily identifies with other marginally successful dad-centered comedies of past years: “The War at Home,” “According to Jim” and “Yes, Dear” come to mind.Bottom Line: Americans have proven that there is indeed an audience for these sub-par shows, and they thus continue to survive. Why not try something saucier, though?

 

Casual Dating:

“You’re pretty funny. Plus, you paid for dinner. I guess we can go out again.”

  • The Middle
    “The Middle” centers on the Hecks, a middle-class family in Indiana. While Patricia Heaton is the star, funnyman Neil Flynn, who previously played the Janitor on “Scrubs,” is my reason for watching. I’d say “The Middle” could be appointment TV, but with so many satisfying comedies out there, a girl can only watch so much.Bottom Line: Reminiscent of “Malcolm in the Middle,” “The Middle” demonstrates how mixing kooky with funny plus a tinge of heartfelt emotion makes for an entertaining half-hour.
  • Cougar Town
    I’m sure you’ve heard of this Courtney Cox show. Question is, is it any good? Answer: Eh… “Cougar Town” tries for the laughs a smidge too hard, and the slapstick bits don’t quite fit in with today’s comedy demands. However, there’s no denying Cox’s charm, and as son Travis, Dan Byrd’s downplayed comedic timing reminds me of Michael Cera’s spot-on underacting on “Arrested Development.”Bottom Line: Not a bad show, but not a standout, either.
  • The New Adventures of Old Christine
    Julia Louis-Dreyfus of “Seinfeld” fame plays Christine, a divorced mom who runs a gym. Her sidekick is the hilarious Wanda Sykes. I’m going to be honest with you: I’ve never seen this show. It’s shameful, because there’s no real excuse for it. But I’m going to endorse it because everyone who’s ever seen this show loves it. Plus, it comes with a top recommendation from my brother, and I’m OK with trusting Doc Sunny on this one.Bottom Line: Whether I’ve seen it or not, this show has Wanda Sykes. Come on, people, watch it. She’s quite possibly one of the funniest comedians ever.

 

Long Term Dating:

Comedy depends so much on personal preference, so it’s hard to figure out which shows to hate on and which to brag about. But the following are keepers. Girl Scout’s honor.

  • How I Met Your Mother
    This year has been a breakout year for “Mother” scene-stealer Neil Patrick Harris. The guy starred in Joss Whedon’s online saga “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.” He finally hosted an episode of “Saturday Night Live,” as well as the Tony Awards and the Emmy Awards, and he garnered an Emmy nomination himself for his work on “mother.” Folks, Doogie Howser has grown up. But Harris, as legendary/awesome playboy Barney Stinson, is only one element that makes “How I Met Your Mother” so fantastic.The ensemble cast includes Alyson Hannigan (“Buffy”! “American Pie”!); Josh Radnor; Cobie Smulders; and Jason Segel, who you probably know as “that guy” from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “I Love You, Man,” and “Knocked Up. Together, these five comedians bring us the multi-camera, next generation version of “Friends.” These friends live in NYC, hang out in MacLaren’s Bar (sorry, Central Perk), and make bold use of flashbacks to bring us one of the most subtly entertaining comedies we’ve seen in years.

    Bottom Line: It’s gonna be legen… wait for it… and I hope you’re not lactose intolerant, because the second half of that word is dairy!”-Barney, “How I Met Your Mother”

  • The Big Bang Theory
    You’ve probably at some point (quietly) laughed at a nerd for something he or she said. “The Big Bang Theory” thankfully allows us to laugh at nerds loudly and proudly, thanks to a stock of sitcom characters who are nutty, naïve and endearingly neurotic. Good for a laugh are Raj Koothrappali, an Indian stereotype with a thick accent, bad dress sense and the inability to speak in front of women; Howard Wolowitz, a short Jewish man who dresses in bold colors and will do anything to be with a woman; and Leonard and Penny, the two characters we can most easily relate to.

Jim Parsons, however, steals the show as Sheldon Cooper, Leonard’s socially awkward physicist roommate who neurotically must eat at the same restaurant every night, depending on which day of the week it is, cannot discern sarcasm and always settles a dispute with a good round of Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock: “Scissors cuts paper, paper covers rock, rock crushes lizard, lizard poisons Spock, Spock smashes scissors, scissors decapitates lizard, lizard eats paper, paper disproves Spock, Spock vaporizes rock…

Bottom Line: …and as it always has, rock crushes scissors.”

 

  • Modern Family
    ABC’s breakout comedy follows three families, related in some way or another, over the course of their daily activities. Sound dull? It could be, except “Modern Family” is the first show to successfully mix elements of multi-camera and single-camera comedies, so along with the blatantly hilarious lines, there’s a slew of dialogue so witty that one can’t help but laugh. My favorite part is Ty Burrell as Phil, whose over-the-top attempts at being the “cool” dad mock everything our generation is about. With possibly the most laugh-out-loud moments of any comedy on TV right now, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not watching.Bottom Line: I’m a cool dad, that’s my thang. I’m hip, I surf the web, I text. LOL: laugh out loud, OMG: oh my god, WTF: why the face.” (cut to Phil doing the dance to “High School Musical’s” “We’re All in this Together.”)

 

  • Glee
    I’m sure you’ve heard of “Glee” by now, what with its musical numbers ripping up the iTunes chart week after week. Combining America’s love for undiscovered talent with nutty plotlines and distinctive high school personalities, “Glee” is broadcast television’s scripted answer to reality TV. What I like best about “Glee” is that it’s not a show focused on singing. It’s a character-centered dramedy with musical numbers sprinkled in. While the story about Will’s wife Terri pretending to be pregnant is frustrating, Jane Lynch’s portrayal of maniacal cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester more than makes up for it.Bottom Line: “I’ll often yell at homeless people, ‘Hey, how’s that homelessness working out for you? Give not being homeless a try!’” -Sue, explaining that people should be motivated to better themselves.

 

  • Community / Parks & Recreation / The Office / 30 Rock
    Like I said, NBC’s “Must See TV” Thursday was the place to be in the ‘90s, and its revamped “Comedy Night Done Right” is no different. Each of these multi-camera comedies not only defines but also glorifies the genre. There’s no need to expound on “The Office”; I’m sure every college student has seen it at least once (“that’s what she said!”).“30 Rock” isn’t as popular, but it really should be. Every character is a standout. My favorite is Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy, VP of East Coast Television for NBC (probably because I want his job one day). “30 Rock” never hesitates to mock NBC or television or politics or anything else for that matter. Not only is “30 Rock” bold, it is also smart, never insulting the audience or throwing jokes in our face. Much of the humor isn’t in the dialogue – it’s visual (just when Jack says “I need your guidance” and reaches for a picture of Jesus on his desk, he picks up the one behind Jesus… of Nixon.)

 

  • Parks & Recreation
    When Amy Poehler vehicle “Parks & Rec” debuted last year, it was shaky at best: the scripts weren’t quite funny and the acting was too forced. This season, however, the show has found its legs. Sometime, when America quit watching, “Parks & Rec” got funny. Poehler’s grown into her role, and the standout cast of supporting players now receives the emphasis it deserves.

 

  • Community
  • “Community” is the 2009 entry into NBC’s Thursday night comedy line-up, and if its ratings hold (or grow!), it will round-out the comedy block perfectly for years to come. Like the other comedies, “Community”’s greatest strength is the ensemble cast, led by “The Soup”’s Joel McHale, as manipulative lawyer Jeff who’s back in community college because it was finally discovered that his degree came not from Columbia University, but Colombia, South America. This show is, I kid you not, hilarious. The best comedic pairing is undoubtedly Abed and Troy, and the executive producers have realized this: they now dedicate the final thirty seconds of each episode to an Abed-Troy gimmick, be it rapping in Spanish, taking over the school’s PA system or talking in a Batman growl.

Bottom Lines:
How long have you known about the pregnancy? A week? A month? A year?” –Michael Scott, “The Office”

I haven’t had this much trouble with a book since “Where’s Waldo” went to that barber pole factory.” -Tracy, “30 Rock”

“Whenever Leslie asks me for the Latin names of any of our plants, I just give her the names of rappers.” -Tom, “Parks & Recreation”

“Our first assignment is to make a documentary. They’re like movies, but with ugly people.” -Abed, “Community”

-Sonya Chudgar

Taste of fall

 

fall food variety

Photo by Danielle Cushing

 

Just because Halloween is behind us doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy some fall treats. I visited four Chapel Hill bakeries to test out their seasonal goodies.

 

carrot cupcake sugarland

Carrot cake cupcake from Sugarland bakery in Chapel Hill. Photo by Danielle Cushing

 

Sugarland

Although none of the items at Sugarland are “seasonal” per say, a lot of their items feature fall flavors. I tried the carrot cake cupcake, which turned out to be a good choice despite my low affinity for carrot cake. The cupcakes were very different from the manufactured carrot cake you buy in the grocery store. The cake was moist, with a strong buttery flavor. The chewy carrot contrasted well with the crunchy pecans and the whipped cream cheese frosting was very light in comparison to the dense store-bought kind.

Other fall-flavored menu items:

  • Creme brulee cupcakes with raspberry filling
  • Vanilla chai cupcakes
  • Pumpkin chocolate chip cupcakes
  • Caramel apple cupcakes
  • Apple pie bars
  • Pecan bars
  • Caramel dipped apples
  • Caramel apple cheesecake
  • Ginger scones
  • Apple spice donuts
carrott walnut cupcake bliss

Vegan carrot spiced walnut cupcake from Bliss Boutique Bakery in Chapel Hill. Photo by Danielle Cushing

Bliss Boutique Bakery

I went for another cupcake at Bliss since that’s their specialty. The vegan carrot spiced walnut cupcake was delicious – a lot better than I expected a vegan cupcake to taste. The texture is more like a quickbread, like pumpkin raisin bread or banana nut bread. It’s moist and sticks to the roof of your mouth like peanut butter. Carrots and walnuts add good flavor and texture. There is also a little drizzle of icing – the kind of icing you put on a Toaster Strudel – over the top.

Other fall-flavored menu items:

  • Carrot Cake Cupcakes
  • Vegan Apple Spice Cupcakes
sour cream apple pie fosters

Sour cream apple pie from Foster's Market in Chapel Hill. Photo by Danielle Cushing

Foster’s Market

Foster’s isn’t specifically a bakery, but they do have a coffee bar with baked goods and a glass case full of cakes and pies. I tasted the sour cream apple pie, but wasn’t wowed by it. I must brag – I make the best apple pie in the world. The apples were tart and crisp, just like they should be in an apple pie, but the sour cream was also tart. I think it would have been better if the flavors had a bit of contrast. The crumb topping was OK – it tasted like oats and sugar and was kind of chewy – but it wasn’t as good as the crunchy, buttery crumb topping on my apple pie. I will go back to try the ginger snap – a huge, molasses colored cookie with a coating of sugar crystals.

Other fall-flavored menu items:

  • Bourbon pecan pie
  • Carrot cake
  • Pumpkin custard pie
  • Walnut orange scones
  • Ginger snaps
  • Pumpkin quickbread
pumpkin swirl bread great harvest

Pumpkin swirl bread from Great Harvest Bread Company. Photo by Danielle Cushing

Great Harvest Bread Company

Great Harvest specializes in bread, but you may also find a few other menu items to calm your sweet tooth. Their pumpkin sugar cookies are perfect. The cookie isn’t too sweet, so the sugary frosting isn’t overwhelming. The frosting isn’t the hard, crispy kind you get on prepackaged cookies – it’s fresh, wet and messy. The pumpkin white chocolate macadamia bar was disappointing. It had a hint of fruit, maybe cranberry or orange, but for the most part, it tasted very commercial. One of the great things about Great Harvest is that they offer you a free slice of fresh bread when you walk in the door. I got the pumpkin swirl bread, but I had trouble getting the whole slice home because I couldn’t stop nibbling. The bread had a hint of pumpkin flavor and tasted yeasty, which I like. It was extremely fresh and the cinnamon swirl was still gooey.

Other fall-flavored menu items:

  • Pumpkin cinnamon chip scones
  • Pumpkin pecan streusel coffee cake
  • Gingersnap cookies
  • Apple crunch bread
  • Cinnamon chip oatmeal whole wheat scones
  • Cranberry orange scones
  • Maple pecan scones

-Danielle Cushing