Month: January, 2007

Children of Men

Monday, January 15th, 2007 | All Things, Film

I didn’t have to be in the office today, so I finally had the chance to check out Alfonso Cuarón’s film adaptation of P.D. James‘s dystopian novel Children of Men. I’d come across so many raves of the film that by the time I made it to the theater almost a month after it was released in New York City, my expectations were revving pretty high… which unfortunately, is almost always a set-up for disappointment. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

The thought-provoking premise is set in near future London as the human race teeters on the brink of extinction. In a world without hope, city after city devolves into chaos; in the words of one news report, “The rest of the world has collapsed: only Britain soldiers on!” Cuarón has made a richly imagined and stunningly detailed film: from the moving ads on the sides of the double-decker buses, to the disintegrating “London 2012” Olympics logo on Clive Owen’s fleece, to the television ads for suicide drug, Quietus (“You decide when it’s time.”) The bleak mood of the times is brilliantly captured in a fleeting glimpse of crumbling graffito: “Last one to die turn out the lights.”

Without going into too much spoiler detail, the plot essentially distills into a long chase… but what an excellently paced and beautifully shot chase it was. The desaturated colors and high contrast effectively evoke the societal depression of a world gone mad. There are oblique references to contemporary abuses (Homeland Security, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo-esque internment camps.) Also, a couple of truly astounding tracking shots: one filmed from the vantage point of a speeding car interior involved a special two-axis camera rig and a custom vehicle with a removable windshield; even more impressively, the sequence was filmed entirely without using any composite or greenscreen components. The masterpiece is one extended steadicam shot that serves as the film’s climax. In it, the camera transports the audience along on a relentless nine-minute trek, through a hyper-violent ambush in a crumbling, war-torn refugee camp. Even if you’re not one to notice such things ordinarily, the choreography of these shots is simply astounding.

Every article I’ve read remarks on Cuarón’s technical mastery. Likewise, I would recommend the film on the strength of the filmmaking alone. For all the dazzle onscreen, though, the weakest aspect of the film was the less-than-expository script. Despite the generally solid acting by Owen and Julianne Moore, the characters were too sketchy for the political metaphors. I would have liked to see some of the overarching themes (faith vs. chance; salvation and redemption) fleshed out more. I realize I’m in the distinct minority with these criticisms, but perhaps I wanted, or expected, to be blown away by Children of Men, and I just… wasn’t. The key elements were there: an intriguing backdrop, two of my favorite actors, an exciting director whose work I admire (despite on occasion confusing him with his Mexican compatriots)…. but somehow, I left the theatre feeling ever-so-slightly disappointed.

Lincoln Center Trees

Later, lying in bed, I was left with a nagging feeling of emptiness… but that may have had nothing at all to do with the movie.

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On the boardwalk

Sunday, January 14th, 2007 | All Things, Family, Travel

An unseasonably warm Sunday in Atlantic City, on the longest boardwalk in the world:

Steel Pier

Steel Pier

Atlantic City Stand

Atlantic City Stand

Boardwalk Seagulls

Atlantic City Boardwalk

Fralingers

Atlantic City Boardwalk

From New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., Greyhound offers Lucky Streak service to various Atlantic City casinos with fare reimbursement incentives. The refund amounts differ by casino (AC Hilton, Bally’s, Caesars, Resorts, Sands, Showboat, Taj Mahal, Tropicana, Trump Plaza or Trump Marina), and by the time and day of the trip. In NYC, riders pay the full price of the roundtrip ticket (about $30) and receive a casino coupon for some portion of the Greyhound bus fare. Upon arrival, casino representatives distribute coupons for gaming credits (or cash exchange).

Gambling has a long history in China, with some evidence suggesting that wagering on games of chance originated there over 3,000 years ago. Today, social gambling in the form of mahjong playing is common in China and among Chinese overseas. Government-approved lottery games are available to 95% of China’s cities and counties.

Gambling addiction is widely recognized as a major problem in the Chinese and Chinese-American communities. Statistics are difficult to come by, but by some estimates, 2 to 6 percent of the mainstream population are problem gamblers; among Chinese, where gambling is often an accepted practice at home and at social events (even among the young), the numbers are considerably higher. For an immigrant community, gambling offers a form of cross-cultural entertainment with no language barrier.

Many casinos recognize the Chinese love of gambling and market aggressively to that sector. Chinese-language newspapers offer their Asian patrons even better deals than the ones available through Greyhound. Several Atlantic City casinos work with Chinese bus companies to charge their patrons a discounted price for the roundtrip fare, and offer more significant rider reimbursements in chips, meal discounts, or in our case: cold, hard cash. The roundtrip bus fare from Chinatown was $15; upon disembarking at the Showboat Casino at boardwalk’s end, we each were handed envelopes with $25 in cash. So yes, even after discounting the mandatory tips to the bus driver, we still made money on the trip.

That is, before factoring in our buffet lunch at the Taj Majal‘s “Sultan’s Feast.” Ah well. When in Agra…

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Still Spicy & Tasty

Saturday, January 13th, 2007 | All Things, Eats, Friends

I’d been wanting to return to Flushing’s Spicy & Tasty since getting my first taste in November, and this Satuday I was finally able to round up a couple of friends to join me. The plan was set. That afternoon, SYB emerged briefly from quarantine for the occasion; unfortunately, though, HYB had to drop out at the last minute. So the two of us forged recklessly ahead, ordering dishes as if he were there with us… plus his three very hungry friends.

We briefly assessed the cold appetizer displays up front: dishes of tendon (or “tender” as it appeas on the menu), Chinese eggplant, shredded bean curd, smoked fish, tripe, seaweed, bamboo shoots, bitter melon, jellyfish…

Spicy & Tasty Appetizers

Spicy & Tasty Appetizers

We could easily have made a meal of the cold offerings, but once seated, we decided to focus on the main dishes. Our meal began tamely with the Sesame Cold Noodles (which for once didn’t taste suspiciously of Skippy peanut butter) and the Steamed Dumplings in Red Chili Sauce. Soon, the other dishes began arriving, raising the heat level significantly. The Bean Curd Home Style (Ma Po Doufu), swimming in red-hot chili oil, Lamb with Chili Pepper (lots and lots of chili pepper) and Chinese String Bean with Minced Pork. We ran out of room on the two-top table! After some plate juggling, the server moved us to another, larger space across the room.

Beads of sweat formed on SYB’s brow, but he seemed to relish the food, which was, yes, very spicy and very tasty. The layered combinations of dried and fresh chilis, rice wine vinegar, sesame and chili oils, Sichuan and black peppercorns, scallions, ginger and garlic set our eyes and noses watering and tongues afire.

Sesame Noodles

Mapo Tofu

Lamb with Chili Peppers

Sichuan pepper (Zanthoxylum piperitum) is native to Northern China.  The species is not related to black pepper (peper nigrum), which is native to India. Sichuan peppercorns are, in fact, not peppers at all, but the burr-like casings of Chinese prickly ash tree berries. In 1968, the peppercorns were officially banned from import by the USDA and FDA as carriers of bacteria that could potentially harm the foliage of citrus crops in the United States. Despite the decades-long ban, the reddish-brown peppercorns remained generally available in most Chinese markets. Grand Sichuan International (the 4-restaurant chain largely credited with repopularizing Sichuan cuisine in New York City) continued to rely heavily on the ingredient in its preparations. The ban was lifted in May 2005 when the governement approved a heat treatment — exposure at 140 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes — that would effectively destroy the canker virus, rendering the berries safe for import.

The peppercorns themselves are highly aromatic with slight lemony overtones, and not nearly as hot or pungent as black or white pepper, or most chili peppers. The berries are characterized by the tingly numbing sensation they create on the tongue, an effect which can be disconcerting upon first experience. The effect is derived not from capsaicin, but from hydroxy-alpha-sanshool (HO-alpha-S), which acts as a mild contact anesthetic and sets the stage for the building heat and flavor of the accompanying red chilis that are the trademark of Sichuan cuisine.

After some cooling dessert, SYB went home with the copious leftovers to recover, while I moved on to sweeter things to end my night: CS’s birthday soiree at Sugar Bar.

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