Friday, March 27, 2015

The Ramen Girl


One of the nice things about inexpensive DVD technology is that you can find all these quirky little movies that nobody has ever heard of and watch them at your leisure. And once Amazon figures out that you like quirky little movies that nobody has ever heard of, it keeps showing you new ones. When I became aware of The Ramen Girl, buying it was a no-brainer for me because I've always liked Brittany Murphy, and because it's set in Japan, for which I have a soft spot. I've only been there once myself but my husband has traveled there extensively and has brought me back stacks of their beautiful children's picture books, and I've taken some beginning Japanese lessons. I hope to go back in the not-too-distant future.

The story begins when Abby is abandoned by her commitment-phobic boyfriend after she has followed him to Tokyo. Wandering around without purpose, she is attracted by a little ramen shop near the apartment in which her boyfriend has left her (a deleted scene indicates that the rent has been paid in advance for six months, which seems a little odd). Abby decides that she wants to be able to make people happy and that ramen is the way to do it, so she pesters the shop owner to teach her, even though she speaks no Japanese and he speaks no English. Over the course of the next year, Abby scrubs the little restaurant within an inch of its life (shades of Mr. Miyagi's "wax on, wax off") and finally learns to put her heart into her cooking.

There are no two ways about it: this movie is a mess. Yet I still quite liked it, which I think is due to my liking of Brittany and Japan, and perhaps also of movies that go for a slightly different setting than, say, the New York/Chicago/Los Angeles bright young professional scene. I think this movie also must have meant something special to Brittany herself, as she's the second named producer on it. What I enjoyed was that the character does grow, and that the shop owner's wife and the shop's regular customers are clearly rooting for Abby to succeed. I also thought that Toshiyuki Nishida, who played the shop owner, was very good.

What didn't work for me is a little more complicated. The first thing is that the movie couldn't decide if it wanted to be mystical or not. When Abby is eating in the restaurant for the first time, she "sees" the large lucky cat statue on a shelf beckon to her. When she eats there the next time, she and another customer, who is also clearly exhausted and depressed, find themselves giggling like schoolchildren when they eat the ramen; it's implied that the chef can magically make people feel better. Later, when Abby "puts her tears" into her broth, her customers all break down into tears themselves. It's a bit like the movie Chocolat, when Vianne puts magic aphrodisiacs and other things into her confections. In addition, when Abby bursts into the shop wanting to work there, the pots and pans start moving as though from the force of her will. The problem is that the movie should have either embraced this supernatural aspect or left it out; it's as though the writers just couldn't make up their mind what kind of movie it was supposed to be. (Remember Exit to Eden, which didn't know if it was a comedy or an erotic film, and therefore succeeded as neither?)

(Toshiyuki Nishida as Maezumi and Brittany Murphy as Abby)

Along those same lines, there was a rather ridiculous sub-plot that absolutely didn't belong in the movie. Early on, Abby meets a couple of American ex-pats, one of whom is a gorgeous red-head named Gretchan who sports a fake Southern accent and who works as a hostess, sometimes providing "favors" for her sugar daddy's friends in return for the apartment he keeps her in. She shows up once with a black eye, implying abuse, and shows up another time drunk and unhappy. But that's it. She has little purpose in the movie, because Abby is bright enough that she doesn't need to be shown how not to live -- we have no indication that Abby's headed down a path that hopeless. There are apparently several deleted scenes involving this character, and I suspect they would have taken out all of them except that they clumsily use Gretchan as the means to get Abby's new love interest, Toshi (played by Sohee Park), to her apartment. Deleting that scene probably would have made things confusing, but they couldn't leave it in without us knowing who Gretchan was, so we get some but not all of Gretchan's story. I would rather have had Abby meet Toshi in a different way.

And speaking of Toshi.... I liked him just fine, but there was a point early in the movie when I actually thought Abby might end up with the slightly chubby, slightly older regular customer at the ramen shop, who is clearly smitten with her. I was thrilled when I thought it was headed in that direction, because that really would have been something out of the ordinary, and there was lots of opportunity for his character development. But true to romantic comedy form, the gorgeous young Toshi, who I mentally nicknamed "Cheekbones," showed up in time to take the romantic lead. His part is actually quite small, which is good because it lets Abby save herself instead of being saved, but I still think I was secretly rooting for that chubby customer.

(SPOILERS FOLLOW) Pacing, particularly in terms of character development, was another issue for me. There's one of those I'm-so-happy-now-I'm-dancing-in-my-apartment montages quite early in the film, for no apparent reason. And Abby goes from doing nothing but scrubbing to having perfect ramen technique, even though we have not once seen her sensei show her how to do anything. Instead, we see him telling her in Japanese, which she still doesn't understand, that she needs to stop cooking with her head and start cooking with her heart -- but we haven't even seen her doing it with her head yet! The movie then tries to introduce an artificial "deadline" by having the Ramen Master plan to visit in two months' time. His blessing is apparently required before a ramen chef can name a successor, and a rival chef taunts Maezumi by bragging that the Master will test that chef's son at that time. When the rival then mocks Maezumi for training a blond American girl, Maezumi boasts that the Master will also test Abby, and that if she fails, he will stop making ramen.

Suddenly, then, whether or not Abby will succeed becomes dire and pressing, in an extremely contrived way. And here's where it gets a little confusing: Abby does fail (the Master says her broth is good but she needs more experience), but I can't tell whether Maezumi stops cooking or not. I think he does, because later Abby displays a photograph showing Maezumi and his wife in Paris with their estranged son, but for all I know that could just have been a vacation. And Maezumi tells Abby that she is his successor, but she doesn't stay in Tokyo and take over his restaurant; instead, we flash to a year later, in which she has her own little ramen shop in New York -- where Cheekbones finds her again after having learned from her to follow his dreams instead of working in a job he hates.

Since I'm nitpicking, two other things kind of bugged me. First, Abby learns almost no Japansese after a year of working in a restaurant where no English is spoken. I think this was done so that Abby and Maezumi could continue to have their misunderstandings and frustration with one another, but it speaks to a lack of dedication on her part -- if she really was that serious, she would have realized that learning the language was part of the process. Second, only a year to get back to the States and find the money to open a restaurant in New York City? I guess we're meant to believe that her ramen was so good that someone was willing to back her, but after watching a lot of Top Chef, I have the idea that opening a restaurant, no matter how small, takes a hell of a lot of money. Especially in New York City.

Once again, it seems that all I've done about this movie is gripe, but really, I did like it! I just think it could have been a much better movie if it weren't so confused in terms of focus and pacing. I've watched a few of the deleted scenes but not all of them; I suspect the largest problem for this movie was in deciding what and what not to keep. I'll definitely watch this again at some point. If you like Brittany Murphy or enjoy romantic comedies in unusual settings, you might enjoy The Ramen Girl.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Natural Living Food Co-op

I know, this is getting weird, but I did say the reviews here would be eclectic....

I would never presume to try writing a cooking blog, because I'm an inexperienced and messy cook, and there are a lot of things I'm not brave enough to try cooking or even tasting. But I'm so excited about the produce co-op that my husband and I joined a few weeks ago that I have to write about it. It's called Natural Living, and it's located in League City, Texas, which is just a little south of where we live in the NASA area of Houston. I've always been interested in the idea of farm shares, but I didn't think that would quite work for us because you have to take only what's in season on that one farm, so one week you might end up with eight cabbages and no carrots, and another week you might get all celery and no tomatoes, and so on.

But Natural Living is different; it's more of a purchasing co-op for organic produce. There is a $30 yearly membership fee (pro-rated if you join mid-year), and then you have the option each week to buy a "small share" ($24), a "large share" ($36), or a fruit-only share ($16) of what they've procured that week. Everything is organic, and as much as possible is local. And best of all, you opt in for the shares each week, so you are never stuck buying a carton full of produce on a week you're going on vacation or you have out-of-town guests or something else crops up (okay, yeah, that was on purpose....). Specifically, the way it works is that the folks at Natural Living send an e-mail on Monday listing what will be in that week's shares. If you want one, you e-mail them by Wednesday, and then you pick it up on Friday between 3pm-7pm or Saturday between 10am-1pm. (They also do delivery within a certain radius for a small fee.)

And let me tell you, you get a lot of food in that share. We've been getting the small share for a few weeks and wow! Our main reason for doing this is that our local grocery stores don't have enough organic produce to suit me, and it's a 50-mile round trip to the nearest Whole Foods, on the busiest highway in Houston. But the other reason is that I really, really want to eat a wider variety of vegetables, and I knew I was less likely to do that if I was seeking them out in the grocery store and having to make decisions on the spot. This way, I have a list on Monday of what I'll get on Friday, and I can find recipes and plan a little bit. And the co-op strikes a nice balance: I'm not getting wacky, far-out ingredients that nobody has ever heard of, but I am getting things a little outside of my normal arena. And in just a couple of weeks, I have found some new veggie recipes that I am really enjoying. Here are the new-to-me things that I've made in just the short time since we joined the co-op.

- Cabbage and Onion Griddle Cakes. The recipe, which I found on the Whole Foods website here, was actually for cabbage and leek griddle cakes, but I had mild bunch onions, so that's what I used. They tasted very similar to potato pancakes, even more so because I put a little unsweetened applesauce on top. I will definitely be making these again. And they work for any meal -- I even had them for breakfast.

- Creamy Avocado Dip, from a cookbook called Skinny Dips. The recipe calls for two avocados but I had one so I cut the recipe in half. Conveniently, the food co-op had provided me not only with the avocado but also with the lime I needed for the lime juice. Since I had never cut or peeled an avocado before, I found a YouTube video that showed me how (it was way easier than I expected), then I used my little bare bones food processor to mix everything up. The only unhealthy ingredient in it is sour cream, but it only uses a little, and calls for reduced fat. In fact, if you don't mind the dip a little less smooth, you could easily leave out the sour cream altogether, but even with the sour cream, this dip comes out to only about 100 calories per serving -- which I ate on sliced up cucumber (also from the co-op). It is really good, and if you put the avocado pit into the leftover dip in a airtight container, it doesn't turn brown quickly, so you don't have to eat it all at once.

- Easy Garden Green Beans. Green beans are another vegetable that I have never cooked before, in part because I've always been turned off by green bean casserole recipes that use cans of commercial cream soup as the base. For this recipe, found on AllRecipes.com, I simply cut the ends off the green beans, steamed them for six minutes, then tossed them in a dressing I made from a little olive oil, white wine vinegar, garlic, salt, and grated Parmesan (but not too much -- this is not one of those overly cheesy recipes). My husband and I were both surprised by how tasty these green beans were, and I'll be making them again.

- Fried Rice with Kale and Scallions. Can you believe this is from a cookbook by Gwyneth Paltrow? In any case, this fried rice is not so oily that it becomes unhealthy; you actually cook the rice as normal, steam the kale, then saute them together in a little olive oil with garlic and scallions. Kale is yet another ingredient I had never used and had only tasted once (kale chips -- they were not a success for me). The trick here is to cut it into tiny ribbons so it doesn't overwhelm the rice -- you can put a lot of kale into the dish without it becoming a fried salad. I will admit that 1) this dish is a little time-consuming since you have to do the rice and kale separately to start; and 2) it tastes better when you first make it, as opposed to leftover. But I do plan to make it again, just in a smaller quantity. And I plan to put a lot more ingredients in next time, such as diced bell pepper and maybe even carrots. I eat whole bell peppers at a time, and I've taken to saving the bits from the top that are still good to stick in other dishes later on.

In addition to these "fancier" dishes, I've also been doing simple things like roasting cauliflower (in my toaster oven! in Houston you don't want to heat up the kitchen too much even at this time of year) and just cutting up raw veggies like carrots and celery. I'm really happy about this because I did Weight Watchers a few years ago, and I noticed that when I switched to eating more veggies, I also slept better and got fewer migraines. And that's in addition to the weight benefits.

In a few weeks, the co-op, which is currently operated out of a house, is moving to its own building. They also offer some free-range meats and bulk dry goods, which I haven't taken advantage of yet. I'm looking forward to exploring my options with the co-op even more in the near future.
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Sunday, March 22, 2015

One Teen Story

If you're not familiar with One Teen Story, its website describes it as "a literary magazine for teens and adults who read young adult fiction. Each issue features one amazing YA short story."

And that's it: one story per issue. Each issue comes mailed as a little chapbook with a charmingly simple yet story-appropriate cover. I love this concept. I originally got a trial subscription of three issues for $5.00, but I've just now subscribed for a full year, because I was impressed with the solid quality of the trial issues I received.

The first story I read was "America, Etc." by Michael Kardos, which was the December 2014 issue. This story is narrated by a teenage boy whose father works as a military drone pilot. Unlike his friend's father, who is "boots on the ground" in Afghanistan, Jeremy's dad gets to come home to have dinner with the family every day and even coach Jeremy's basketball team -- but he still technically spend his days bombing places, and possibly people, for a living. Jeremy is a thoughtful protagonist, comparing the vintage videos games he and his dad play (such as Missile Command, depicted on the story's cover) to real life. The story is well-written, and is mainly about the ways in which family members fail to communicate with each other, something that's particularly difficult for teens who are trying to figure out the world around them.

The second story I read was Jonathan Penner's "Amplexus", which comprised the February 2015 issue. In this story, Christopher thinks back on his first love and his first sexual encounter with a girl called Pure, so nicknamed because of the "purity" medallion her parents make her wear everywhere, even to bed. What I liked best about this story were all the small details, such as Jonathan playing ping-pong with Pure's mother, practicing Spanish verb conjugation with Pure, and verbally sparring with his sex-obsessed older brother. It all felt genuine.

The third story, Michael Landau's "Night of the Living Poet" in the January 2015 issue, wasn't quite as successful for me because a lot of the details felt more like stream-of-consciousness than vivid memories, as was the case in "Amplexus". In this story, a high school senior named Andy goes on an after-school field trip to a poetry reading, along with a girl named Crystal, for whom Andy has conflicted feelings. It was difficult to like Andy, who in my mind had a sarcastic, negative outlook similar to that of Holden Caulfield. (For many people, that would be a complimment, but I can't stand Catcher in the Rye.) Crystal is perhaps the most likeable character in the story, but everyone else seems to hang out with people and then call them names behind their backs. The writing itself wasn't bad, but I didn't find as much to relate to in this story as I did in the others.

In any case, I'm excited to see what this magazine has in store in the future. Even though I mainly read science fiction and fantasy, I do like mainstream fiction as well, especially young adult fiction. And there's one other neat thing about this publication. Until recently, One Teen Story published eleven stories by adult authors, and one by the winner of a teen writer contest that they run. Recently, though, they've announced that the teen-authored stories have been so well received that they're going to publish four of those a year instead of only one. I think that's a terrific idea.

Finally, I should also note that this is a sister publication of One Story, which is also a story-an-issue publication but geared towards adults. I'll have to check that out one of these days too.
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Monday, March 16, 2015

Houston Ballet - Modern Masters

This past Saturday night we saw Houston Ballet's Modern Masters, a mixed repertoire performance of three diverse pieces that showed everything this company can do. I personally think that mixed rep programs are Houston Ballet's best-kept secret; these performances are never as well attended as the full-length "story" ballets, but they often have more opportunity to demonstrate technique, creativity, and artistry, and they sometimes fill the hall with a higher level of energy than a full-length ballet can achieve. Last but not least, they allow the company to cast more dancers in featured roles, giving regular audiences a chance to see what some of the up-and-coming dancers can do too.

The first piece was George Balanchine's Ballo Della Regina, a pretty ballet set to music from Giuseppe Verdi's opera Don Carlos. Allison Miller and Oliver Halkowich were very impressive in the lead roles. The program described the piece as the story of a fisherman's search for the perfect pearl; I can't honestly say that I would have figured that out on my own, but the costumes and lighting certainly did suggest a lovely underwater scene, as shown in the photo above. If I can't think of much more to say about Ballo Della Regina, it's in part because there's nothing to criticize about it; it was simply beautiful.

The second act, Jardi Tancat, was a sensual, earthy piece set to a series of Catalonian folk songs voiced by Maria del Mar Bonet. Choreographed by Nancho Duato (his first ballet, in fact, created in 1983), it features three couples, telling the story of "the people who work the barren land, praying to God for the rain that does not come." Although it's very different in tone and mood, for me the experience was somewhat similar to watching Alvin Ailey's Revelations, which is probably the single work most responsible for getting me interested in dance back in college.

When I see pieces like this performed by a traditional ballet company, I often wonder how the dancers feel about them. Do they find it a relief to dance this way after so much formality in most of their work, or do they want to get back to the technique they've spent their lives developing? The precision still has to be there in any dancing they do, especially if it involves lifts, but from the audience's point of view, there's a naturalness to this kind of dancing that you don't see with classical technique (which I sometimes think of as the opposite of natural, in spite of how graceful it ultimately looks). I suspect most of the dancers enjoy the variety, but I don't really know. The audience certainly seemed to love it.

As gorgeous as Jardi Tancat was, for me the final ballet was the real highlight of the evening. Titled Etudes and described in the program as "a tribute to dancing," it begins with a dozen ballerinas at barres, with only their lower legs spotlighted as they move through rapid variations of the basic ballet positions. It then progresses through increasingly complex movements and costumes, with the female dancers going from "rehearsal" leotards to formal tutus, half in white and half in black -- which of course brings that most formal and technically demanding of ballets, Swan Lake, to mind. The piece ends with the stage full of dancers -- so many that some companies cannot stage this piece because they simply don't have enough dancers to do so. Karina Gonzalez danced the lead and was exquisite as always; she and the three male leads (Connor Walsh, Ian Cassidy, and Jared Matthews) looked flawless to me as they performed choreography that required unbelievable stamina. A corps of at least 36 other dancers rounded out the cast, and their timing and precision was spot-on the vast majority of the time.


In addition to the ballet on Saturday night, we had also attended a dance talk the night before, during which principal dancer Simon Ball interviewed guest Johnny Eliasen, who staged Etudes for the Houston Ballet. Mr. Eliasen then gave a demonstration in which he instructed three male student dancers in the Bournonville method, which Wikipedia describes as "a ballet technique and training system devised by the Danish ballet master August Bournonville." Although I could not hear everything that Mr. Eliasen said to the dancers and I don't feel that I truly understand what this method is, it was fun to watch how quickly the dancers seemed to understand the nuances Mr. Eliasen was describing, and incorporate them into the same steps they'd just performed a moment ago.

I also note that prior to this weekend, I was unfamiliar with this concept of "staging," which I now understand (hopefully correctly) to mean guiding and coaching the dancers to perform a specific ballet in a specific way. In looking at the program, I see that the other two pieces were also staged by people who I imagine were, like Mr. Eliasen, brought in solely for the particular ballet for which they're listed. Mr. Eliasen specializes in Etudes, apparently, so he has fulfilled this same role for several companies around the world. (He told some fun anecdotes about dancers who wanted to perform the turns in the opposite direction -- and one who actually did so during a performance, without warning. One can imagine what a shock that would be to the rest of the dancers!)

My only regret is not also getting to see Katherine Precourt and Aaron Robison in the same lead roles in Etudes, which they were scheduled to dance on Sunday. Particularly in Katherine's case, it would have been amazing to see how she danced this compared to Karina Gonzalez, as two ballerinas who are physically very different from one another.

I mentioned above that mixed rep performances sometimes result in more audience energy, and that definitely seemed the case here. In fact, the dancers looked almost taken aback at the enthusiastic response to Jardi Tancat. Not so for Etudes; they knew to expect that the audience would be impressed by that ballet's impossibly long sequences of turns and leaps. In fact, I was more moved by simply witnessing these dancers perform so well, without an involved "story," than I was during the tomb scene in Romeo and Juliet last week. That's not to fault that performance, which was also gorgeous, but rather to express how powerful these mixed rep performances can be.

There are three more performances of Modern Masters, on Friday March 20, Saturday March 21, and Sunday March 22. (More information here.)

EDITED TO ADD ON 3/16/15: I just came across this review on Culture Map Houston. It seems the reviewer, Theodore Bale, liked it as much as I did.

Unrelated, I also just realized that I didn't comment on the ballet orchestra.
Jardi Tancat was set to recorded music, but the other two pieces were played live. The music for Etudes was especially gorgeous, and at times I felt that a stage full of tinkling music box ballerinas had come to life.


All photos property of the Houston Ballet.
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