Friday, December 24, 2010

Hollywood Bites Reviews: "The Illusionist," and Crepes to Make You Can-Can

Toy Story 3 is already a lock for the Oscar, but The Illusionist is a worthy competitor for Best Animated Feature.

Beautifully composed and incredibly moving, director Sylvain Chomet ("The Triplets of Belleville") takes animation to a new level through sublime simplicity in "The Illusionist," a bittersweet, melancholy tale about a slight-of-hand illusionist at the end of the vaudeville era, as the performers find themselves becoming obsolete.

Told almost wordlessly, if there was ever a filmmaker to make the case for a return to silent cinema, it's Chomet who adapted the screenplay, which is almost dialogue-less but still stunningly evocative, from one originally written by mime/filmmaker Jacques Tati.

There's been a flurry of controversy surrounding the film, with a number of conflicting reports over the inspiration for the film. Many claim it was written as Tati's attempt to reconcile with his eldest daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, a child he abandoned as a baby, leading some to speculate the film was inspired by his shame and remains the only public recognition of her existence.

Not that any of that matters when you're sitting in a dark theater being carried along on this enchantingly somber ride.

"The Illusionist," or "L'Illusioniste" in Tati and Chomet's native tongue, is such intimate, delicate filmmaking, it makes Pixar fare look downright garish. Hand animated, the film follows a silver haired magician whose tricks have grown dusty and quaint, whose rabbit has diva tendencies and whose appeal is quickly evaporating in a world where pop rock is emerging. But when the Illusionist travels to a remote island off the coast of Scotland to perform in a small village pub, he meets Alice, a young girl dazzled by his magical powers, especially when he produces a new pair of shoes for her. Though they don't speak the same language and have little in common, they forge a tender father-daughter relationship when Alice stows away in his luggage and finds herself in Edinburgh, at a hotel for vaudeville performers, and receiving more and more "magical" gifts, procured by the Illusionist not through magic, but by toiling at a series of soul-sucking jobs.

Using music and gentle touches of character instead of eruptions of dialogue, the story is unfolds visually, with each slumping shoulder or raised eyebrow conveying what some actors couldn't articulate in a lifetime. Every frame of "The Illusionist" feels personal and familiar but somehow transportive as well. With 3D and computer animation, the idea is supposedly to create a more "immersive" experience but "The Illusionist" is one of the most disarmingly engrossing films of the year.
When I think of France, I think of crepes. All you need to complete these is a sprinkle of sugar and a squeeze of lemon (if you're a tangy kid like me).

makes four servings
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled, divided
1 cup whole milk
1 cup Wondra flour
2 large eggs
6 tablespoons sugar, divided
1 lemon, optional

Reserve 1 tablespoon of melted butter for brushing skillet or crepe pan.

Blend milk, flour, eggs, 2 tablespoons sugar, 2 tablespoons butter, and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a blender until smooth, then chill, covered, 30 minutes.

Lightly brush a 10-inch nonstick skillet or crepe pan with some of reserved butter and heat over medium heat until hot. Pour in 1/4 cup batter, tilting and rotating the skillet to create a thin coating that covers the entire pan. Cook crêpe, turning once, until just set and golden, about 1 minute total. Transfer to a plate. Make 7 more crêpes, stacking them.

Brush each crêpe with 1 teaspoon butter and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon sugar, then fold twice to form a triangle.

To serve, heat 2 teaspoons each of butter and sugar with a pinch of salt in skillet until sugar has dissolved, then cook 4 crêpes, turning once, until golden brown. Repeat with remaining butter, sugar, and crêpes.

Serve with lemon if desired.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"True Grit" is Truly Impressive

At first glance, "True Grit" could be categorized simply as a Western, and given its first cinematic incarnation as the John Wayne vehicle that won The Duke his Oscar, that would make sense. But in the hands of the Coen Brothers the classic story blossoms into a soot-black comedy woven with King James Bible-brand dialogue and some of the best performances of the year.

Adapted from Charles Portis' 1968 novel, the film stars beguiling newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, a no-nonsense 14-year-old who recruits U.S. Marshal Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father for a few horses and two California gold pieces, so she can exact avenge. As they set off into barren "Indian Territory," freshly dusted with snow, they're joined by La Beouf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who's spent months on Chaney's trail.

Shot by Roger Deakins (marking his eleventh time as the Coen Brothers' cinematographer) in dusty sepia tones that give way to inky nights spent by the flickering glow of a campfire pockmarked by the occasional muzzle flash, the film looks and smells like a worn leather saddlebag—as does Bridges.

Sporting an eye patch, gin blossom nose and wheezing tobacco-charred voice, Bridges' whiskey-guzzling, sharp-shooting Cogburn is an acting high wire act. Somehow both grounded and grandiose, it's a turn so impressive, it makes you wonder if he could pull a Tom Hanks and win the Best Actor Oscar two years in a row. (Whatdayathink about that, Colin Firth?)

With brief, transfixing appearances by Brolin and the always impressive but hugely underrated Barry Pepper, the other name we expect to hear on the Academy's roll call this year (right after Christian Bale's for "The Fighter") is Damon's, who provides a great deal of the film's unexpected comedy and turns in his best work in recent memory.

The fact that Steinfeld, whose only notable credit before "Grit" was a TV movie called "Summer Camp," goes toe-to-toe with Bridges, Brolin and Damon, driving the story forward with her portrayal of a stoic, stalwart young girl hellbent on vengeance, is proof of an impressive career to come.

Lacking any sentimentality, but somehow full of heart and tenderness, unpredictably funny yet chillingly somber, "True Grit" is a genre-defying, impeccably crafted film that only the Coen Brothers could make.
Watching Bridges and Damon on the trail, I kept flashing back to my Glamping extravaganza with Brian earlier this year, so I figured, why not resurrect that good ol' Cowboy Caviar Soup?
For the recipe, click here...

Searching for "Somewhere" with Sofia Coppola, and Decadent Donut Bread Pudding

Sofia Coppola loves stories of atmospheric ennui. A director of tone poems rather than straight narrative films, her latest offering, Somewhere, delves into the tormented soul of Johnny Marco, a hard-partying actor (Stephen Dorff) holed up in LA’s legendary Chateau Marmont. Adrift in a world of empty adulation, he begins to reassess his life after an unexpected visit from his 11-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning). The movie won Coppola the top honor at the Venice Film Festival, the Golden Lion, earlier this year, making her the first American woman (and only the fourth American filmmaker) to earn the prize, leading many to believe an Oscar could be next.

Speaking with Coppola at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, a venue she used in her film for a fictional press day, the director is a sea of quiet calm in the middle of a media maelstrom. Wearing a navy and forest green plaid shirt and black skinny jeans, loose shoulder-length brown hair tucked behind her ears and a thin gold wedding band glinting from her finger (she married Phoenix front man Thomas Mars in December 2009 and the band’s music serves as the film’s soundtrack), Coppola says she wanted the film to follow in the footsteps of “Shampoo and American Gigolo. I wanted to do like an L.A. movie of today.” The meant incorporating a number of driving shots, palm trees, mini malls, harsher bright lighting and a 1990s, Helmut Newton version of the Chateau, before it got Lohan-ed and became a paparazzi mecca.

“When I was writing, I was thinking about when I’d spend time there when I was in my twenties,” Coppola says, her quiet, deliberate speech lulling the room into an easy silence. “I feel like in a lot of ways it hasn’t changed, but there weren’t weekly tabloid magazines and so people didn’t go there to be photographed and stuff. I think of the Chateau Marmont as being this iconic Hollywood place with so many interesting people staying there and lots of stories. It has this decadent feel.”

In an effort to fully embodying his character, Dorff moved into the hotel and lived whatever experience the script called for leading into the next shoot day. “He stayed in a room, the same room that we shot in just a floor up, so he was in character the whole time,” Coppola smiles. “It was funny, in the morning he’d come to set and tell me all the Johnny Marco moments that he was living in the hotel. He would stay up late and be kind of trashed in the scenes that we needed him to be. But then, as he evolves, he’s fresher and you can really see it.”

Coppola says, while writing Somewhere, Dorff sprang to mind. “I knew him a little over the years and I just thought that he would be the right guy for this part. He’s such a great actor, but we haven’t seen the more sensitive side to him. I also knew from life that he’s such a sweet guy and the character is so flawed that he could be unlikable. It needed someone with a lot of heart to make you want to watch him for a whole movie.” As for Fanning, Coppola says Elle came in during casting and, instantly, “I was taken with her.”

Asked if she felt the need to direct a child actor any differently than an adult, Coppola shakes her head and replies, “I don’t think so. I think with actors, you want to be sensitive to them because you’re asking them to be vulnerable and she’s smart so I never felt that she was a kid. I guess you’re aware. You don’t want people to be talking about something inappropriate around an eleven year old, so I felt protective, but I felt protective of Stephen and all my actors.”

When the subject of the film’s quiet sense of internal struggle as opposed to overt conflict is raised, Coppola offers a happy nod of the head and says, “A lot of times in movies it takes a big, dramatic event, like a disaster, being held hostage, for the character to change and I feel like in life that there are moments that seem like small things that strike you and motivate you to change.”

Somewhere opens today, December 22.

When I moved to LA, I fell in love with the Chateau. I used to study for finals in the lobby and write letters to my future self sitting in the garden, sipping chamomile tea from antique china before swiping a Granny Smith apple from the front desk which I'd have as breakfast the next day. One of my favorite outings would be when Ana, JP and I would be spend an evening tucked into their divine bread pudding, talking about boys, dreaming of what we'd be when we grew up and praying for a Keanu Reeves sighting.

Here's to the glory days...

Donut Bread Pudding
Makes 6-8 servings
5 large eggs
2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
8-10 stale donuts of your choice, sliced or torn in half (glazed works beautifully but you can substitute croissants, muffins or stale bread in a pinch)
1 cup fresh berries, preferably raspberry or blueberry

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium bowl whisk together all ingredients except donuts and raspberries. In a large shallow baking dish, arrange halved donuts glaze side up and sprinkle with berries. Pour custard mixture over donuts and soak for 15-20 minutes, pressing down gently once or twice.

Place baking dish in a larger one and fill halfway up the sides with hot water. Tent larger pan with aluminum foil making sure there’s room for the pudding to expand. Punch several small holes in foil so steam can vent and bake for 45 minutes, uncover and bake another 35-40 minutes or until custard is set, pudding puffs and is golden brown.

Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly before serving.

Mark Wahlberg Ain't Got Nothin' on Me

Nothing says "Happy Holidays" like beating your friends to a pulp. JMT was the third of my four TKOs that night. The longest anyone lasted (Kyle) was 55 seconds, everyone else went down in 35 seconds or less. Apologies for the foul language, we got really into fight mode.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Critic's Showdown Over "TRON: Legacy," and Light Cycle Margaritas

Scott Ross: “Tron: Legacy” is the grandest cinematic bimbo of 2010: stunning to look at, but gets progressively less attractive the more it talks.

Look, it’s a “Tron” sequel that’s being made largely because technology has gotten awesome and there are toys to sell. There’s no need to muck it up with Joseph Campbell/Matrix gobbledygook. And ironically, in spite of all the silly explication, the film somehow leaves a pantload of questions unanswered. I just wish they’d’ve fired up the light cycles, kicked the bad guy’s ass and called it a day.

Sasha Perl-Raver: You call "TRON: Legacy" a bimbo, and you may be right, but since when is that a bad thing? It might not be the kind of movie you want to bring home to mother, like J.J. Abrams' pitch-perfect reboot of "Star Trek," but it's still compelling enough for a one night stand that leaves you happily spent and already considering a second go-'round.

You can fault "TRON" for trying to be both a sequel and an origin story, flinging far too much expository backstory at the audience, and with one or two more action sequences on the light cycle or in the arena, I think it would bump up from a B+ to an A, but how can you say you'd kick it out of bed?

SR: Whoa there—who said anything about kicking “Tron” out of bed? But seriously, there are some great moments in the film, like when Bridges learns about wi-fi, and the film would’ve benefited from a lot more of those. If only Bridges had fully committed to his Obi Wan Lebowski shtick.

Instead, the film tries so hard to sound smart and deep, that it ends up sounding dumb and shallow. Man vs. God, father vs. son, the Holy Trinity, the nature of perfection… these are not groundbreaking ideas—it’s the stuff you talk about at 4:20 in morning over day-old pizza. Can a brother get a discus battle?

SPR: I'm with you, chief. Another identity disc battle is just what the doctor ordered. But, speaking of 4:20, watching Bridges say things like, "I'm gonna go knock on the sky and listen to the sound," or his brilliantly simple response when Clu asks if he's still meant to create the perfect society ("Yeah?! "), are worth the price of admission.

If you want to get nit-picky, can someone explain to me why all multi-billionaire sons of privilege are disaffected base-jumping, motorcycle-riding whiners? It seems to me life is pretty good for the Sam Flynn's of the world, but I digress.

At the end of the day, "TRON: Legacy" isn't without its faults, but I'm still a champion for any world where everywhere you go Daft Punk is rocking out, you can tell the good guys from the bad based on the glow of their neon unitards and Jeff Bridges is the savior.

SR: Who’s being too tough now? Did it occur to you that Sam was a “whiner” because he mother died and his father disappeared? Yeesh… And I actually thought the whole base-jumping/motorcycle riding scene made his skills in the arena plausible.

I wholeheartedly agree that the Daft Punk music was dope and you have to love the fact they were probably the only folks in the film who got to wear their own clothes.

Maybe I’m coming off as overly negative, because the sheer spectacle of “Tron: Legacy” is definitely worth the time and money—but only if you’re going to watch it as intended, in Imax 3D, 'cuz I just can’t imagine it being a lot of fun on a regular old movie or TV screen.

SPR: I’m not a proponent of 3D, in fact, before TRON, the only movie where it really worked for me was How to Train Your Dragon, but in IMAX 3D, you’re transported onto The Grid, no psychotropics required. But even without it, I think the spectacle Joe Kosinksi created will stand up in other formats. The fact that the Disney logo alone drew a collective Joey Lawrence-style “Whoa” from the audience at both screenings I’ve attended, says a lot.

Legacy may be a little too tightly wound and overly eager to please, but I think it’s less a bimbo and more like the Victoria’s Secret catalogue; stunning, elusive in its obsessive perfection, occasionally vapid, but worthy of worship and repeat viewings.

written for NBC's Popcorn Biz

Earlier this year, I offered up a recipe for TRON: Legacy Derezzed Soup. This time around, how's about something you might sip at the End of the Line Club while rocking out to Daft Punk?

Light Cycle Margaritas
1 English cucumber, 1/2 cubed, 1/2 thinly sliced
2 green jalapeno peppers, 1 seeded and chopped, 1 thinly sliced
1 cup (8 ounces) silver tequila (you can’t go wrong with Patron)
1/4 cup tripe sec
3 tablespoons Blue Curacao
1/4 cup fresh lime juice plus 1 tablespoon

For garnish:
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon chili powder
lime wedges

In a blender or food processor, combine chopped jalapeno, cubed cucumber and 1 tablespoon lime juice. Puree until smooth.

In a shaker filled with ice, combine cucumber-chili puree, tequila, triple sec, Blue Curacao and lime juice.

Combine 3 tablespoons kosher salt with 1 teaspoon chili powder. Run lime wedge around lip of tall chilled glass and dip in chili salt.

Carefully fill rimmed glasses with cucumber and jalapeno slices. Top with ice and strain margarita mix over ice.

Hollywood Bites Reviews: "Yogi Bear," and Picnic Pockets

It's getting to be the time when people start compiling lists to mark the year that's past. Awards are handed out, successes are heralded, the best and brightest are toasted, but it also means we have a chance to reflect on the low points of the last twelve months.

With Oscar races just beginning to be handicapped, 'tis the season to ordain which films were the worst of 2010.

While we'll never fully recover from the horror of "Sex and the City 2," littered with puns like "Lawrence of my labia," we think the battle royale for the top spot is ultimately between Julie Taymor's ghastly adaption of "The Tempest" and Warner Brothers update of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon "Yogi Bear," opening on Friday.

Since both have so much wrong with them, it's hard to narrow the argument, we've decided the real question at hand is this: What's worse, attempting to make something noble, high-brow and artistic and turning it into a meandering, nonsensical bore that transported us back to the nap time also known as 10th grade English class, or taking a beloved childhood treasure and making it a screeching, blathering disaster that insults the intelligence of children and adults alike and defiles the memory of a cartoon adored since 1958?

Word to the wise; don't screw around with childhood memories! "Yogi Bear" is our official choice for Worst Film of 2010.

A 3D mix of live action and CGI animation, the film follows Yogi (voiced by Dan Aykroyd), Boo-Boo (Justin Timberlake), Ranger Jones with a serious Just For Men dye job (Tom Cavanaugh, who some may remember from the TV show "Ed") and his obligatory love interest, Rachel (Anna Faris, who one of our fellow journalists thought decided to play the role as if she had special needs) as they fight to save Jellystone Park from an evil mayor who’d like to see it sold to loggers.

You know you're in trouble about 20 minutes into the 82 minute movie (including credits, which makes us wonder if it even fully qualifies as a feature film) when you realize you'd rather be watching "Meet the Deedles," a 1998 romp about surfer park rangers defending Yellowstone from a demented former ranger (played by Dennis Hopper), because at least then you'd get to ogle a shirtless Paul Walker and/or bikini-clad A.J. Langer.

Even worse than Alvin and his "Squeakquel," can someone please explain why Justin Timberlake signed on to this mess? From terrible direction, laughably flat CGI, horrific writing and appalling acting, this is a career Boo-Boo for all concerned.

written for NBC's Popcorn Biz

It's been pouring rain in LA this week, which I love but is definitely not pic-a-nic weather. The other day I was craving a taste of summer and came up with these super fast and delicious little bundles of joy which require no more work than pulling a Yogi and going the lazy route by making a quick trip to Trader Joe's.

Picnic Pockets

serves four
1 package Trader Joe's potato salad
1 package Trader Joe's pulled BBQ chicken
1/4 cup cilantro
1 package Sonoma carb-cutting torillas
2 limes, quartered
butter flavored cooking spray

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

In a bowl, combine potato salad, BBQ chicken, and cilantro. Mound small handfuls (about 1/4-1/2 cup) of filling into center of tortilla. Fold ends and sides over filling to create a sealed, rectangular package.

Place pockets on a lightly greased sheet pan and spray with cooking spray.

Bake for 12-15 minutes or until puffed, golden and slightly crisp. Serve with lime wedges.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Fighting Words with "The Fighter"s Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg and David O. Russell, Plus a Fit Frittata Perfect for the Holidays

Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale and David O. Russell aren’t men who shy away from a fight. Each has a haunting tale from the past where their dark side got the best of them; whether it’s Wahlberg’s early prison stint on assault charges, Bale’s notorious on-set rant or Russell attempting to choke out George Clooney while filming Three Kings. But when the three men bound into a press conference to promote their new film, The Fighter, it’s all jokes and hugs and laughs. This time, it seems, all the drama stayed on the screen.

The Fighter is the true story of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward (Wahlberg) and his crack addicted older brother and trainer, Dick “Dickie” Eklund (Bale). It’s a film Wahlberg championed for four years, eventually signing on as a producer, and one that will almost surely land Bale an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Micky’s squirrely, charismatic, troubled but loving other half.

Asked how he got into the role, which required he drop down to an almost Machinist level of emaciation, Bale grins. “I felt so good and calm playing Dickie. I was just running. I could run for hours. Usually I say, ‘Oh, I just did a lot of coke,’ when I lose weight for a movie, but I don’t think it’s so funny for this movie,” he says, causing the entire room to erupt with laughter.

For Wahlberg, he explains he signed on to star and produce the project “out of sheer desperation to get the movie made. It seemed, at first, like a no brainer,” Wahlberg shrugs. “Amazing parts, wonderful story, a new and interesting world you’re not that familiar with, but it just wasn’t meant to be.”

After losing both Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, who would have played Bale’s role, and director Darren Aronofsky, who eventually signed on as a producer instead, Wahlberg says he “had to grab a hold of [the film] and force it to happen out of sheer will and determination.” Though, when it came to casting Bale, the inspiration came in the least likely of places.

“These guys met at pre-school, right?” Russell asks his two leads.

“Yeah, dropping off my daughter,” Bale grins.

“[Mark] looked across the parking lot, saw Christian Bale and was like, ‘BING!’” Russell laughs.

“What I said was, ‘There is the guy who’s not scared of this part,’” Wahlberg corrects. “Everybody loved the idea of [playing a drug addict] but nobody wanted to commit and go there. I’d seen The Machinist, I’d seen Rescue Dawn; he’s a fearless actor. He responded to it immediately and everything fell into place after that.”

When asked about bringing in Russell, who Wahlberg previously worked with on Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees, to direct, Wahlberg has a moment of quiet sincerity, “That’s my brother, man. We’ve been through a lot together and we’re so comfortable with one another, we’re like family. To be able to work with someone you admire so much, and you trust and care for, I just loved it. When it dawned on me that there is a way to get this movie made with David as the director, I thought we have a chance to make something really special. He brought a level of humor and emotion that I don’t think anyone else could have brought.”

“A lot of other people were over-emphasizing the druggy nature, the addiction, as if that was something fascinating to see,” Bale adds. “And we both felt, we’ve seen that in so many movies, and [when you] meet Dickie and Micky, it’s not what you think about.” More importantly, Bale felt it was the director’s emotional nature that made him the perfect choice. “David’s got this great earnestness and complete silliness at the same time, which was perfect,” Bale says. “He’s got a big heart. He’d often be crying with laughter and also just flat out crying. [He’d be] listening to Dickie or Micky, and they had his sides splitting with laughter and then it would segway into tragedy and he’d be bawling his eyes out. You could really see how much he felt it and was going through a rollercoaster of emotions, which is usually what the actors are doing, but David was right there, feeling it as much as any of us.”

The Fighter opens today.

Broke, hungry and looking for something healthy and filling? This "tortilla" (which is the Spanish term for a frittata which is basically just crustless quiche) is just for you. Simple, easy and quick to throw together, it's a also great for last minute holiday guests or party invites. Seemingly effortful and totally unexpected thanks to the surprise of the pickled grapes and carrots, it's a creamy crowd pleaser.

Potato and Onion Tortilla with Spicy Pickled Carrots and Grapes
makes 8 servings

1 tablespoon olive oil
4 potatoes, peeled and diced
2 onions, diced
7 eggs
1/4 cup milk
Salt and pepper to taste

Spicy Pickled Carrots and Grapes:
2 large carrots, peeled and sliced into 1/4 inch thick pieces
2 cloves garlic peeled and sliced
1/2 white onion, sliced
1 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 bay leaf
8 peppercorns
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup pickled jalapenos
2 cups seedless grapes, green and red

In a large saucepot over medium-high heat, bring vinegar and water to a boil. Add carrots, garlic, onion, peppercorns, salt and bay leaf. Reduce heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes. Add jalapenos and grapes, reduce heat to low and simmer for another 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and chill overnight in pickling liquid. They can be made in advance and will keep in the fridge for up to a week.

To cook tortilla, preheat oven to 350 degrees and heat oil in a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add potatoes and onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Whisk together eggs and milk, season to taste and pour over browned potatoes and onions. Reduce heat to medium and cook until tortilla is set around edges, about 3 minutes.

Place skillet in oven and baked until tortilla is cooked through and firm to the touch, about 5 minutes. Slice and serve with pickled grapes and carrots.

Hollywood Bites Reviews: "The Tourist," and Mango Nectarine Bellinis

When a film is screened only 48 hours before release, you have to assume there's something terrible afoot and the studio is doing their best to keep the blogosphere from exploded with bad press.

However, in the case of "The Tourist," which was screened for critics Wednesday, it might be that Sony's delay worked against them, preparing people for the worst and inspiring the current drubbing the film is taking.

Is "The Tourist" predictable? Yes.

Is "The Tourist" occasionally implausible and slow? Yes.

Is "The Tourist" the meandering puddle of dreck that people are making it out to be? No.

In fact, it's far superior to Angelina Jolie's most recent outing, "Salt," an excruciating exercise that left audiences guffawing as the clunker careened through a ridiculous plot and terrible acting. To say "The Tourist" is a better movie might be slight praise, but it is still praise.

Let's start with the good stuff, shall we?

There's a whole lot of pretty going on in "The Tourist." Between Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Paul Bettany, a minor cameo by Rufus Sewell and the backdrop of Venice, it's a veritable gorg-a-gasm.

The movie, a remake of the so-so French film, "Anthony Zimmer," stars Depp as a newly single American math teacher who travels to Venice to recover from heartbreak. But when he meets a beautiful and mysterious English woman (Jolie, naturally) he finds himself caught up in a swirling game of cat and mouse.

From the moment Jolie appears on screen, you're struck by the thought that this woman would only be a movie star. She's too flawless and captivating to occupy any other space in the universe. But she plays the femme fatale with disconcerting distance and a seriously gamey English accent (when is she going to realize that adding a dialect to her action hero roles doesn't lend them any more gravitas or credence?), gliding through the frame in Jackie O sunglasses and chignons or impeccably tailored pencil skirts, recalling a Hitchcock heroine, a portrait of chilly perfection, while Depp is acting in a different movie entirely, gamely flinging himself from befuddled math teacher to unwitting hostage, never fully shaking what seems to be a watered down reincarnation of Captain Jack Sparrow.
It seems director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck couldn't decide if he wanted to make a sexy thriller or a sassy romp and ends up with a film that's a bit of both. In the end, despite the venom critics are flinging its way, we found "The Tourist" to be an innocuous offering that exists in a no man's land between really good or really bad; a film that would perfectly enjoyable to catch one mindless afternoon.

But what fun is that for critics to gripe about?

written for NBC's Popcorn Biz

One of the truly great pleasures of being in Venice is drinking bellinis. Though they might never be as delicious as when sipped on the water outside of Harry's Bar, these are a damn close second. But make sure you get the mango nectarines. They're not actually related to mangos, just named such because they're very low-acid and, therefore, taste a lot like the sweet topical fruit.

Mango Nectarine Bellini
Serves 4-6
4 mango (low acid) nectarines (Chef’s note: mango nectarines are only available in the peak of summer, especially in July. Other nectarines or nectarine puree can be substituted if mango nectarines are unavailable)
1 bottle good Italian Prosecco, chilled

Chop mango nectarines and puree until smooth. Add 2 tablespoons of puree to a champagne flute and slowly top with Prosecco. Cheers!

Setting Sail with the Stars of The Chronicles of Narnia: Legend of the Dawn Treader, and Vegan Chocolate Peanut Butter Cupcakes

Pass the Chronic-What?!?-cles of Narnia!

As the weather turns cold and holiday shoppers flock to malls across our great nation, it’s time to return to a magical place where a mighty Lion with Liam Neeson’s rumbling roar rules and wee tykes can escape air raid sirens in London in favor of hand-to-hand combat with minotaurs and a wicked White Queen. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and he’s brought us a new chapter of The Chronicles of Narnia saga.

When audiences last saw the Pevensie kids, Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) was named King of Narnia as the two oldest siblings, Susan and Peter, were told that they’d learned everything they could from the magical land and would never return. In The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third installment of the mega-successful franchise based on C.S. Lewis’ beloved children’s books, the two youngest Pevensies, Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes), find themselves transported back to Narnia with their whiny, nay-saying cousin, Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter), where they meet up with Caspian for a swashbuckling trip aboard Narnia’s royal ship, The Dawn Treader.

Poulter, who made an impressive debut in 2008’s Son of Rambow and is sprouting into a British amalgamation of Leonardo DiCaprio and Lucas Black, will inherit the mantle of Narnia from Henley if a fourth film is made (which it surely will). Sitting down to speak with the two young actors, one at the end of their Narnia tenure, the other just beginning, both are effusive about their admiration for the source material they got to work with.

“I loved the book,” Henley enthuses of Dawn Treader, “It’s my favorite in the series, so that inspired me to work really hard but to take what I loved and try to recreate it on film. I also wanted to use all the stuff I’ve learned on the other two films and use it to give Lucy a good farewell; send her off in style, hopefully.”

“Having not done the first or second [film], I was a bit apprehensive about coming into this new thing and this already tightly formed group of friends,” Poulter begins. “The greatest inspiration for me was the book itself. Everyone stayed very true to the book, the director insisted on that.”

Also new to the Narnia juggernaut was director Michael Apted (Gorillas in the Mist, Coal Miner’s Daughter) who took over for Andrew Adamson, the man behind the first two Narnia films.

Asked how Apted compared to Adamson, Henley replies, “It was different but it wasn’t better or worse. It was great for me to work with a different director because I’ve only ever had Andrew to work with. I think it’s good to experience new directors because that’s the way the acting world works. You can’t work with the same director your whole life.”

“He was a real actor’s director too,” Pouler chimes in. “He really understood the characters and all of our ideas sort of clicked with his. He’s such a prestigious figure in film; the option to work with him is an honor, especially when you’re as young as we are. The chance to work with a director like that is something that most actors would kill for and, as kids, that’s something we don’t take for granted at all. We’re very grateful.”

One of the great things about the Narnia films is, even though there are both covert and the overt religious themes and overtones to the story, they never smack viewers over the head. It’s a fine balance to strike and one Henley is quite proud of.

“It’s what we’ve always set out to do,” she says. “The books are classics and they appeal to so many people. I don’t understand why people would try to think it’s sidelined to a certain audiences. There are themes that if you look for them, you’ll find them, of course you will, that’s the way C.S. wrote the books, but I’m glad they’re not forced on you. My faith is ambiguous and I watch the films and I don’t get any pressure to see something I don’t want to see. I think that’s really important.”

“If anything,” Poulter adds, “it broadens the audience Narnia appeals to. [The films] transcend the boundaries of religion.”

Can anyone not yearn cupcakes when you say the words "Chronicles of Narnia"? 2--no 4--no 6--baker's dozen...Thanks for that Andy Samberg.

Here are some amazing vegan cupcakes to satisfy the craving:

Vegan Chocolate Peanut Butter Cupcakes
makes 12

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup coconut milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder

4 cups powdered sugar, preferably organic
1/4 cup refined coconut oil at room temperature (you can also use) Earth Balance Organic Soy-Free Non-Hydrogenated Buttery Spread
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
approximately 3 tablespoons room temperature water
Optional garnish: strawberry, raspberry or blackberry jam

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a 12-cup cupcake pan with paper liners lightly sprayed with non-stick cooking spray.

Sift flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, and salt into a bowl and set aside. In a separate bowl, mix the coconut milk, oil, vinegar, vanilla, and espresso powder until smooth. Pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture and mix well. Pour batter into prepared liners and bake for about 20 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.

Allow to cool and prepare frosting.

In a large bowl, beat together confectioners' sugar, coconut oil (or margarine), peanut butter and vanilla extract, adding water if needed to reach the right buttercream-y consistency.

Pipe frosting onto cooled cupcakes and top with a spoonful of jam (if desired).

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Oscar Favorites Natalie Portman and Darren Aronofsky Discuss "Black Swan"

In Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s new psychological thriller, Natalie Portman plays Nina, a young ballerina unraveling as she prepares to dance both the pristine, pure white swan and the manipulative, seductive black swan in Swan Lake. As the film’s director and star make their way into the lobby of the Pantages, a palatial art deco RKO movie house turned theater, their own white swan/black swan dynamic is evident.

Portman, long beloved by audiences and critics alike, enters looking poised and regal in an indigo dress, a warm smile captivating all who behold her. Just behind her is Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler), a director who’s earned the reputation of being a gifted but difficult genius, swaddled in a sport coat, a long scarf circling his neck and a 1970s cop mustache winking ironically from his upper lip.

They are the yin to each other’s yang.

Sitting down to discuss their new project, Portman happily takes the backseat when asked how the two came together on the project, differing to Aronofsky who charges forward, all pistons firing. “I’ve been a fan of Natalie’s since I saw her in The Professional and it turns out her manager is an old friend of mine from college so I had an inside line to meet her,” the director begins excitedly. “We met in Times Square, at the old Howard Johnson’s, had a really bad cup of coffee. I had early ideas about the film, but she says I had the entire film in my head, which is a complete lie.”

“No, it was so close to what you described to me,” Portman pipes up, offering Aronofsky a beaming smile of reassurance.

“We talked a bit about it and we started to develop it, but getting into the ballet world proved to be extremely challenging,” Aronofsky continues. “Most times when you do a movie and say, ‘I want to make a movie about your world,’ all the doors open up. The ballet world wasn’t at all interested in us hanging out. It took a lot of years to put it together.”

Portman says there were a number of reasons she wanted to do the film but Aronofsky’s involvement solidified her interest, something the director still can’t believe.

“I think I’m way too direct and have scared away a lot of A-List actors in my career,” he admits candidly. “In fact, Natalie Portman is the first A-List actor I’ve worked with. Everyone else was like, ‘You want me to do what? For how long? For how little money?’ And they walk away. I’ve lost a lot of movie stars along the way because I’m a little too straight forward.”

Besides working with Aronoskfy, who she says she “would do anything for,” Portman loved the idea of doing a dance movie, having taken classes when she was a young girl, but the role also gave her the opportunity to use the psychology degree she earned from Harvard in 2003 in order to understand some of her character’s destructive behaviors.

“This was a case where something I learned in school did translate into something practical, which is very very rare,” Portman admits with a chuckle. “[Nina] was absolutely a case of obsessive compulsive behavior. Ballet really lends itself to [OCD] because there’s such a sense of ritual.”

In order to embody her character, Portman had to subject herself to a similar physical ritual that involved six to eight hours of training a day, ranging from toning to swimming to ballet, a process she says was the best possibly insight into Nina. “The physical discipline really helped the emotional side of the character, because you get the sense of this monastic lifestyle of only working out, which is a dancer’s life,” Portman explains. “You don’t drink, you don’t go out with your friends, you don’t have much food, you are constantly putting your body through extreme pain. You get the understanding of the self-flagellation of a ballet dancer. It is a devotional, ritualistic art, which you can relate to as an actor. When you do a film, you submit to your director in the same way. Your director is everything and you devote yourself to create their vision. I’m not a perfectionist but I’m obedient. I think it’s important to work your hardest and be as kind as possible to everyone you work with.”

Ballerinas don't look the way they do by tucking into an Awesome Blossom at Chili's. Here's a clean, refreshing dish that's satisfying but will still allow you to look good in your tutu come showtime.

Gazpacho Granita with Chopped Gazpacho Salad, Avocado and Flame Grilled Shrimp in Jalapeno Cilantro Oil
Serves 6-8

8 ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 red bell pepper, roughly chopped
1 orange bell pepper, roughly chopped
1/2 English cucumber, roughly chopped
1/4 cup cilantro, roughly chopped
1/2 cup vegetable juice
2 tablespoons champagne vinegar
salt to taste

Chopped Gazpacho Salad-
1 cup ripe cherry tomatoes, halved
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
1 orange bell pepper, finely diced
1/2 English cucumber, finely diced
1/2 red onion, finely minced
1 green jalapeno, finely minced
juice and zest of one lime
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon champagne vinegar
salt to taste

18-24 shrimp, peeled and deveined
juice and zest of one lime
1 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1 green jalapeno, roughly chopped
salt to taste
bamboo skewers, soaked in water 30-45 minutes
1 avocado, finely diced
lime juice

Puree all granita ingredients in a blender or food processor.

Strain puree through a sieve. Let mixture chill in refrigerator for 30-45 minutes than transfer to a wide, shallow, heavy-bottomed container. The shallower and wider the container, the more room you give the granita to freeze quickly. Cover with foil or plastic wrap and freeze for 1 hour or until it begins appears solid around the edges.

Using a fork, scrape the ice from sides, mixing in from the edges into the center.
Repeat this scraping and mixing process every 30 minutes, until the entire mixture has the consistency of shave ice. Freeze until ready to use.

For the chopped salad, combine all ingredients until well coated in dressing. Refrigerate until ready to use.

To prepare shrimp, begin by making the cilantro oil.

Combine cilantro, lime juice and zest, jalapeno and olive oil in a blender or food processor. Set aside.

If using a gas grill, preheat the grill with high, direct heat. If using coals, allow coals to burn down to glowing white embers. The grill is hot enough when you hold your hand about an inch over it for only a about second. Lightly grease grill with olive oil to prevent sticking.

Lightly salt shrimp and skewer about 3 per person. Grill shrimp approximately two minutes per side, basting with cilantro oil twice. Remove shrimp from grill and place remaining cilantro oil in a small pan, heating on high until bubbling.

To serve, spoon chopped salad onto plate and top with granita. Add a few teaspoons of avocado tossed in lime juice, a skewer of shrimp and a drizzle of the hot cilantro oil.

Serve immediately.

Hollywood Bites Reviews: "I Love You Phillip Morris"

Largely abandoned following a promising debut at Sundance in 2009--presumably because distributors were worried about standing behind a farcical romantic comedy centered on prison breaks and gay lovers--"I Love You Phillip Morris," the true story of super scammer Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) and his beloved Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), finally arrives in theaters after a string of missed release dates.

Adapted from investigative journalist Steven McVicker's book, I Love You Phillip Morris: A True Story of Life, Love, and Prison Breaks by Steve McVicker, Carrey leads the charge as an ex-police officer-turned-produce salesman, happily married to a lovely God-fearin' woman (Leslie Mann, as funny and captivating as ever despite minimal screen time), and living on the down low as a gay man, until a near fatal car accident convinces him that life is too short to be squandered. He comes out of the closet, divorces his wife and starts a fabulous new life in South Beach with his boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro), only to discover that “Being gay is expensive.” The only way to afford his new lifestyle is to turn to a life of crime and fraud, which eventually lands him in a Texas prison where he falls madly in love with a fellow prisoner, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor in all his doe-eyed, dreamy glory), setting off a string of jail breaks and new crimes in the hopes of living happily ever after with his beloved cellmate.

Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the twisted team behind "Bad Santa," I Love You Phillip Morris achieves a rare blend of witty, zany comedy with an unbridled sense of romance minus any sentimentality. Carrey's Silly Putty physicality and bravado performance, one of his best in years, set just the right tone of wackiness as Russell recounts his misadventures from what appears to be his death bed. Narration is rarely a good thing in movies; it's usually what writers throw in when they're at a loss creatively and/or need to cram in as much exposition as possible. But Ficarra and Requa use Russell's narration to deliver some of the best jokes of the film.

Cheeky and irreverent, yet surprisingly emotionally charged, "I Love You Phillip Morris" is a genre defying romp that was worth the wait.

I Love You Phillip Morris is currently in theaters.

If you're living high on the hog, Steven Russell-style, here's a great way to treat yourself:

Grilled Wagyu Beef with Parmesan and Brie Polenta and Quick Creamed Spinach
Serves 8

1/3 cup olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons fresh rosemary
Freshly ground pepper and salt to taste
2 pounds wagyu beef (flank steak can be substituted)

5 cups water
1/2 cup milk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups instant polenta
1 cup parmesan
5 oz. brie cheese, rind removed
Salt to taste

Quick Creamed Spinach-
1 tablespoon butter
2 cloves garlic
2 bunches fresh spinach, thoroughly washed and chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
salt and black pepper to taste

Combine all marinade ingredients and toss steak to coat. Allow to marinate for 20-30 minutes while preheating the grill.

If using a gas grill, preheat the grill with high, direct heat. If using coals, allow coals to burn down to glowing white embers. The grill is hot enough when you hold your hand about an inch over it for only a about second. Lightly grease grill with olive oil to prevent sticking.

Grill 4-6 minutes per side, depending on your well-doneness preference.

Remove from the grill and place on a cutting board. Allow to rest on a cutting board for 10 minutes, tented in aluminum foil to maintain heat.

Meanwhile, bring water and milk to a boil in a large heavy saucepan, adding butter and allowing to melt at the last minute.

Gradually add cornmeal, whisking until smooth. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until thick and creamy, whisking constantly, about 8 minutes.

Stir in Brie and Parmesan cheese.

Season to taste with salt and set aside while preparing spinach. If polenta seizes up, add 1/2-3/4 cup milk and reheat, whisking until desired consistency is reached.

In a large pan over medium-high heat, melt butter and sauté garlic until it softens, about a minute. Don’t allow it to brown.

Add spinach and sauté until dry.

Add cream, Parmesan, nutmeg and cook until thick and creamy. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

If using Wagyu, divide steak into portions per person. If using Flank Steak, carve into thin slices, against the grain, and at a slight diagonal so that the slices are wide.

To serve, spoon a large mound of cheesy polenta onto the center of a plate, top with steak and creamed spinach.

Kate Bosworth Takes on Ninjas and Cowboys in "The Warrior's Way," Plus: Kimchi Quesadillas!

In recent years, Korean cinema has seen a boom in what might seem an unlikely genre; the ninja-cowboy picture. But Westerns have a longstanding tradition in Korean filmmaking, dating back to the 1960s and 70s, with movies like Shin Sang-ok’s The Homeless Wanderer (Musukja), a Korean version of Shane, and Six Terminators (Yugin-ui nanpogja) by Gweon Yeong-sun, which takes after The Magnificent Seven. Following on the heels of 2008’s brilliant Ji-woon Kim film, The Good, the Bad and the Weird, and the news that the Cowboy Ninja Viking comics would be adapted by Zombieland scribes Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese for Disney, The Warrior’s Way finds its way to theaters after eleven years in development.

Written and directed by first-timer Sngmoo Lee, the movie follows the greatest warrior-assassin in the world (Korean star Jang Dong-gun), hiding out in a dust-bowl circus town in the American Badlands after refusing to kill the last surviving member of his sworn enemy’s clan, an adorable baby girl he adopts instead. Playing his love interest, an aspiring knife thrower named Lynne, is Kate Bosworth, sporting a thick southern twang and a head of fiery red hair.

Her hair returned to its corn-silk blonde glory, wearing a royal blue tiered dress and stacked silver bracelets from her new venture,, a subscription-based jewelry line she started with celebrity stylist Cher Coulter, Bosworth glides into a ballroom at the Beverly Hilton to discuss her first film since 2008’s 21. When asked why she was drawn to the role, Bosworth says, “There [are] so few good opportunities out there and even fewer for females. For me it’s about what’s interesting and unique; what terrifies me a little bit to push me and allow me to learn and grow and be better. This was out in the stratosphere, unlike anything I’d ever read.”

Inhabiting a character she describes as “wild and feral,” Bosworth needed her portrayal to stand up in a world of warriors, carnies and gun-slingers. “Because the script was bold and all the characters were bold, I didn’t want to be ‘The Girl,’” Bosworth explains. “[Lynne] was raised by this band of misfits; she’s going to be rough and fierce. One of the moments when I found my character was in costume fittings. We didn’t have shoes figured out yet, but [the costume designer] said ‘Just try on those shoes for shape. They’re men’s shoes.’ And I put them on and I said, ‘I’m wearing these.’ They were like four sizes too big but they had this clomping, boyish effect, a floppy quality and lack of refinement that clicked in that moment.”

But the wardrobe was just one small part of the equation. For Bosworth, the film’s intense Crouching-Tiger-in-the-Wild-West style was incredibly challenging. She says that from the moment she landed in Auckland, New Zealand, where the film was shot on a massive green screen soundstage, she went straight into training. “I wanted to jump in immediately because I’d never taken any kind of martial arts and was completely unfamiliar with it,” she explains. “It reminded me of the training in Blue Crush when I’d never touched a surf board”

Bosworth reveals it was less about handling weaponry than the physical demand of something as seemingly simple as turning which tested her limits. “When you have a sword in your hand and you have to swing around and then center yourself and move the other way, it’s so much harder than you think,” she says emphatically. “It seems so simple and then you try it. It’s really hard! I wish I’d had more of a background in dance. I took ballet a little last year and I thought, ‘Oh, God, this would’ve been so useful when I shot this movie,’ because it’s so much about an inner core strength and a certain balance you have to have. I don’t know that I’m the most coordinated person on the planet, so it was about honing that.”

Asked what skills she was taking away from the role, Bosworth laughs. “I think I’ve sort of forgotten everything,” she smiles. “Yeah, I haven’t really kept up with the whole knife throwing, knife fighting thing. It’s like how I haven’t surfed in so long too. When surfers come up to me and they’re so excited, I feel like I’ve really let them down and say, ‘I’m sorry!’ It’s so disappointing! But I did at the time, I was so into it!”

The Warrior’s Way is currently in theaters.

A culinary Korean Cowboy that's swept the streets of LA, thanks to Roy Choi and his Kogi BBQ Truck, is the Kimchi Quesadilla, a brilliant blending of Korean's ubiquitous table staple and an Anglo-fied Mexican favorite.

Kimchi Quesadilla
makes one quesadilla (serves two)
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup kimchi, roughly chopped
1 12-inch flour tortilla
1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
2 shiso leaves
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds (which Oprah says are really good for you, just FYI)

On a griddle or in a hot skillet over medium-high heat, melt one tablespoon of butter and add kimchi. Cook until the kimchi is caramelized, about five minutes.

Remove kimchi and clean skillet or griddle, returning to heat and melting second tablespoon of butter.

Sprinkle the cheese over half of the tortilla and top with kimchi. Tear shiso leaves and place over the kimchi and cheese. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Fold over the empty half of tortilla and cook until golden, about 2 minutes. Flip the tortilla over and cook until cheese is melted and second side is golden and crispy. Serve topped with additional sesame seeds and extra kimchi.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dishing on Cher and Burlesque on Lips and Ears

The Burning Hannukah Bush, Doused by Manischewitz Sno-Cones

When I was seven, I declared myself a Jew for Jesus. I wasn’t a particularly evangelical second grader and it’s not as if God appeared to me at recess in the form of a burning tether ball, instructing me to lead my people out of the enslavement of Mrs. Finkle’s class; I simply wanted to celebrate Christmas.

My parents promptly rejected my announcement of conversion.

Growing up in New York City, I never faced oppression or prejudice because of my religion; if anything I was frowned upon for not being proudly Jewish enough. But how could I not covet Christianity, knowing it came wrapped in a holiday bow heralded from the moment the last piece of Halloween candy was handed out, replete with Rudolph and Frosty, Charlie Brown specials, Coca-Cola-drinking polar bears, a magical fat man who loves cookies, and the ubiquitous symbol of the season; a glorious, towering, sparkly tree?

Weighed against the feverish build toward one euphoric morning spent clawing at wrapping paper and ribbon until you collapse, elated and spent, on a pile of present booty, Hanukkah’s eight nights seem a slow simmer that simply pale in comparison.
Jewish kids don’t get to sit on stranger men’s laps in malls without the police getting a phone call. There are no movie marathons on TV, no standing date to mark on a calendar, not even universal agreement as to how we’re going to spell the holiday’s name. Until Adam Sandler came along, Hanukkah’s only big crowd pleaser was The Dreidel Song. “Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel/I made it out of clay”--it’s the holiday equivalent of “The Wheels on the Bus.”

But my parents tried to help me embrace it. “Christmas isn’t so great,” my mother, Miki, a woman whose favorite pastime is playing tambourine to “Sounds from the Holy Land” or discussing “the feminine divine” in the Old Testament, told me not long after my failed attempt at a Christianity coup. “Santa Claus isn’t even real, you know.”

A few days later, the smell of pine needles and gingerbread still lingering in the air, mocking me, a little girl asked what Santa had given me for Christmas.

“Nothing,” I shrugged, “because he doesn’t exist.”

She gasped, her Whoville eyes instantly filling with sugarplum tears.

“She’s kidding!” my mother yelped, glaring at me and grabbing my wrist little too tightly.

“Nuh-uh. You told me—”

She yanked me away before I could finish the sentence.

Still, with or without Santa, I lusted after Christmas like a 13-year-old boy with the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, and as I got older, my desire only grew, fueled by images of glossy Yuletide perfection everywhere I turned. Dreaming that one day I too would deck the halls, the top of my Hanukkah list always held the same request--“A Christmas Tree”--until the year Hanukkah and Christmas overlapped.

I was fifteen at the time, and at my most desperate to be like everyone else. As December 22nd and 23rd ticked by, I basked in the excitement of collective anticipation. “So this is what it feels like,” I thought, merrily.

Then, on Christmas Eve, my parent knocked on our front door. “We forgot our keys,” I heard them call, followed by stifled giggles, as I opened the door to a stunning sight. In their arms was my very own Douglas Fir, standing six feet tall with branches outstretching as if offering me a hug. “Happy Hanukkah,” they cheered, giddy and beaming.

Watching them haul what they insisted on calling our “Hanukkah Bush” into the house, I was ecstatic. Hallelujah assimilation! Miki’s one stipulation was “the Bush” had to be decorated exclusively in blue and silver, both her personal favorite and the colors of Israel. We draped tinsel, blue lights and silver Star of David garlands around my pine prize, topping it with a yarmulke instead of an angel. I stood back, admiring our work, reveling in the glory of my very own tree, but within minutes my mother was seething.

“I can’t believe we have this thing in our house,” Miki fumed, as if we’d propped up a life-sized replica of Hitler to hide presents under.
For two days, she avoided the living room, gasping, “Oy!” every time she caught a glimpse of my beloved tree, turning on her heels to stomp away. But on the third day, she snapped.

“I can’t take this anymore!” she bellowed.

Grabbing the tree, still spun in garlands and ornaments, she hauled it into the middle of our street, set it on fire and called it “The Burning Bush.”
Watching it go up in flames, the tinsel shriveling as fire flicked at the branches, the only thing we could do was laugh. It was a fitting end to any semblance of Christmas in our house.

Now that I’m an adult with a home of my own, I suppose I could celebrate the holidays with a tree or “bush,” but it feels too illicit. I guess no matter how hard I try, a cornerstone of my heritage will always remain intact: Jewish guilt.

Happy Hannukah!

Manischewitz Sno-Cones
Makes 10-12 cones
2 cups Manischewitz wine
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen tart cherries, pitted (if using frozen cherries, defrost before making syrup)
1/2 cup dried tart cherries
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped

Combine 1 cup of wine with sugar and the fresh and dried cherries in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes.

Remove from stove and add vanilla bean, seeds and remaining 1 cup wine. Cover and steep for 1 hour. Pour into a jar or other nonreactive container. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 day or up to 5 days. Strain, reserving whole cherries for garnish.

Shave 6 cups of ice using a professional ice shaver, my personal favorite: a Snoopy Sno-Cone Maker, a food processor, or by freezing a large baking pan of water, stirring every 30 minutes with a fork until you have a granita texture.

To serve, scoop ice into a 4-ounce paper cone or glass with an ice cream scoop and top with about a 1/4 cup of syrup. Garnish with reserved cherries on toothpicks, speared to look like the olives in a martini glass.