“HIDDEN FIGURES” (2016) Review

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“HIDDEN FIGURES” (2016) Review

In all my years of reading about the men and women who worked at NASA, whether in the air or on the ground, I have only come across two people who people of color. And both were astronauts. Not once did those articles ever reveal the numerous African-Americans who worked at NASA – including those women who worked as mathematicians (Human Computers) for NASA during the Space Race between the 1950s and 1970s. 

Imagine my surprise when I first learned that 20th Century Fox Studios planned to distribute a movie based upon the 2016 non-fiction book, “Hidden Figures”. Written by Margot Lee Shetterly, the book focused on three NASA mathematicians – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Even before the movie was finally released, a NBC series called “TIMELESS” aired an episode set during the Apollo 11 mission that featured one of the movie’s main characters – Katherine Johnson. In the midst of all of this, I found myself anticipating the movie.

As I had stated earlier, “HIDDEN FIGURES” began in early 1961 in which mathematicians Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughn, along with aspiring engineer Mary Jackson; are working at NASA’s West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia with minimum satisfaction. Dorothy, who works as an unofficial supervisor of the black women who served as Human Computers, requests to be officially promoted to supervisor. Her request is rejected by her supervisor, Vivian Mitchell. Mary identifies a flaw in the experimental space capsule’s heat shields. Space engineer Karl Zielinski encourages her to aggressively pursue a degree in engineering for a more substantial position at NASA. In order to attain a graduate degree in engineering, Mary would have to take the required courses in math and physics from a University of Virginia night program being taught at the all-white Hampton High School. After the Soviet Union manages to send a successful Russian satellite launch, pressure to send American astronauts into space increases. Vivian Mitchell assigns Katherine to assist Director Al Harrison’s Space Task Group, due to her skills in analytic geometry. Katherine becomes the first African-American woman to work with the team and in the building. But her new colleagues are initially dismissive of her presence on the team, especially Paul Stafford, the Group’s head engineer. The movie focuses on the three women’s efforts to overcome bigoted attitudes and institutional racism to achieve their goals at NASA.

“HIDDEN FIGURES”, like any other historical drama I have ever seen or read, is mixture of fact and fiction. Some of the movie’s characters are fictional. And Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi may have mixed up the dates on some of the film’s events. But as far as I am concerned, this did not harm the movie. More importantly, Schroeder and Melfi created a screenplay that maintained my interest in a way that some films with a similar topic have failed to do. In other words, “HIDDEN FIGURES” proved to be a subtle, yet captivating movie.

The movie’s subtle tone manifested in the racism encountered by the three women. Katherine Johnson dealt with the Space Task Group’s quiet refusal to take her seriously via minor pranks and dismissive attitudes. She also has to deal with Paul Stafford’s constant stream of complaints, skeptical comments and attempts to take credit for her work. Worst of all, Katherine is forced to walk (or run) several miles back to her old building in order to use the restroom, due to the Space Task Group’s restrooms being off-limits to non-whites. Dorothy Vaughn is determined to become the official supervisor for the segregated West Area human computers. But due to her race, her supervisor – Vivian Mitchell – refuses to consider giving Dorothy a genuine promotion. The most subtle example of racism found in the movie manifested in Mary Jackson’s desire to return to school and attain a graduate degree in engineering. The racism she faced seemed to be internal. Despite urgings from both her husband and Mr. Zielinski, Mary seemed reluctant to request permission from the Virginia courts to attend a segregated school in order to obtain a graduate Engineering degree. Subconsciously, she seemed to believe that her efforts would be wasted.

The fascinating thing about the racism that the three women faced is that violence of any kind was not involved. The racism that they faced was subtle, insidious and nearly soul-crushing. But no violence was involved. The closest they came to encountering violence occurred when a law officer stopped to question them, while Dorothy’s car was stranded at the side of the road in the movie’s opening scene. The cop eventually escorted them to the Langley Research Center after learning they worked for NASA. Yet, I could not help but feel that the entire scene seemed to crackle with both humor, intimidation and a little terror, thanks to Theodore Melfi’s direction.

Despite my admiration of Melfi’s direction of the above-mentioned scene, I have to admit that I would not regard it as one of the best things about “HIDDEN FIGURES”. I am not stating that I found his direction lousy or mediocre. If I must be honest, I thought it was pretty solid, aside from that opening scene, which I found exceptional. “HIDDEN FIGURES”was his third feature-length film as a director . . . and it showed. I suspect that the movie benefited more from its subject matter, screenplay and its cast.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s production values. Despite the movie being set in Northern Virginia, it was shot in Georgia. And Mandy Walker’s sharp and colorful photography certainly took advantage of the location. And thanks to Wynn Thomas’ production designs, Missy Parker’s set decorations, and Jeremy Woolsey’s art direction, I felt as if I had been transported back to Hampton, Virginia, circa 1961. I can also say the same about Renee Ehrlich Kalfus’ costumes, which I felt had accurately reflected the characters’ personalities and social class, as shown in the images below:

Only one cast member from “HIDDEN FIGURES” had received any acting nominations. Octavia Spencer received both an Academy Award nomination and Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Personally, she deserved it. I thought Spencer gave a very subtle, yet commanding performance as the group’s aspiring supervisor, Dorothy Vaughn. I was also impressed by Janelle Monáe, who not only gave a very entertaining performance as the extroverted and witty Mary Jackson, but also did an impressive job in conveying her character’s self-doubts about pursuing an Engineering graduate’s degree. I am surprised that Taraji P. Henson did not received any major acting nominations for her performance as NASA mathematician Katherine Goble (later Johnson). Personally, I find that baffling. I was very impressed by her quiet and subtle performance as the widowed mathematician, who not only struggled to endure the dismissive attitude of her Space Group Task Force colleagues, but also found love again after spending a few years as a widow. Personally, I thought Henson’s performance deserved at least an award nomination or two.

“HIDDEN FIGURES” also featured top notch performances from the supporting cast. Kevin Costner gave a very colorful performances as the Space Group Task Force director Al Harrison. The movie’s other colorful performance came from Glen Powell, who portrayed astronaut and future U.S. senator John Glennn. Jim Parsons was just as subtle as Henson in his portrayal of the racist, yet insecure head engineer Paul Stafford. Mahershala Ali gave a nice and charming performance as Katherine’s second husband, Jim Johnson. But his performance did not strike as particularly memorable. Aldis Hodge, on the other hand, gave an intense and interesting performance as Mary’s politically-inclined husband, Levi Jackson; who urges his wife to overcome her reluctance to pursue a graduate degree in Engineering. This movie seemed to be filled with subtle performance for Kirsten Dunst also gave one as the slightly racist Vivian Mitchell, supervisor of all the Human Computers.

The movie turned out to be quite a surprise for me. Watching the trailer, I came away with the impression that it would be one of those nice, but mediocre live-action Disney films. And to be honest, there were moments when Theodore Melfi’s direction gave that impression. He does not strike me as a particularly memorable director. But that opening sequence featuring the three protagonists and a cop seemed to hint Melfi’s potential to become a first-rate director. In the end, the movie’s superb Oscar-nominated screenplay and the excellent performances of a cast led by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe made “HIDDEN FIGURES” one of my favorite movies of 2016.

 

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“I’LL NEVER FORGET YOU” (1951) Review

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“I’LL NEVER FORGET YOU” (1951) Review

I have seen my share of time travel movies and television programs over the years. But I do not believe that I have never seen one as ethereal as the 1951 movie called “I’LL NEVER FORGET YOU”

A second adaptation of John L. Balderston’s 1927 play, which was an adaptation of Henry James’ incomplete novel, “The Sense of the Past”“I’LL NEVER FORGET YOU” told the story of an American nuclear physicist named Dr. Peter Standish, who is transported to London of the late 18th century. The story begins when a co-worker of Peter’s with the British nuclear program, Dr. Roger Forsyth, expresses concern about the former’s lack of social life. As the two become friends, Peter reveals that he had inherited an old house located at London’s Berkeley Square by a distant relative. He also also reveals that he was a descendant of an American Tory who had immigrated to Britain after the Revolutionary War to marry a cousin named Kate Pettigrew. Not long after this revelation, a thunderstorm sends Peter back to 1784, where he takes the place of his late 18th century ancestor, the other Peter Standish.

However, once 20th century Peter settles into his new life, he is struck by a series of surprises. One, he finds himself slowly falling in love with his fiancée’s younger sister, Helen Pettigrew. Peter discovers that Georgian era London is not the paradise he had assumed it to be for years. He also realizes that his occasional lapses of judgment, in which he uses modern day language and revealing information he could not have known if he had actually grown up in the 18th century. Peter’s occasional lapses and his feelings for Helen lead to growing antagonism toward him from not only his fiancée Kate, but also from Mr. Throstle, the man to whom Helen had been promised; leading to potential disaster for him.

I am usually a big fan of time travel movies. But if I must be honest, my reason for watching “I’LL NEVER FORGET YOU” stemmed from sheer curiosity and nothing else. I never really thought I would be impressed by this movie. And I was . . . much to my surprise. Mind you, the film’s method of time travel – a bolt of lightning – struck me as unrealistic, even from a fictional point of view. There was no machine or vehicle like a Delorean to channel the energy from that bolt of lightning. Instead, the Peter Standish was struck by lightning and transported some 160 years back to the past. That he survived being struck is a miracle.

Nevertheless, I still enjoyed “I’LL NEVER FORGET YOU” very much. At its heart, the movie featured two genres – time traveling and romance. And both seemed to intertwine perfectly, thanks to director Roy Ward Baker, who directed the 1958 classic, “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER”. There have been time travel movies in which the protagonists are slightly taken aback by the “primative” conditions of the time period in which they end up. But I found Peter Standing’s reaction to the reality of 18th century London rather enjoyable on a perverse level. I found it satisfying to watch him come to the realization that 1784 London was not the social paradise that he had assumed it was. “I’LL NEVER FORGET YOU” is also one of the rare works of fiction that pointed out the lack of decent hygiene that permeated Western society before the 20th century. Between Peter’s disgust at London society’s array of body odors and their bafflement at his habit of a daily bath, I was nearly rolling on the floor with laughter. But more importantly, “I’LL NEVER FORGET” is a poignant love story between Peter and Helen. What made it very satisfying for me is that Helen was the only one who seemed to have a bead on Peter’s personality. More importantly, she seemed to be interested in Peter’s comments about the future, instead of repelled by them.

But what really made the romance between Peter Standing and Helen Pettigrew worked were the performances of the two leads, Tyrone Power and Ann Blyth. Thanks to their intelligent and subtle performances, they made Peter and Helen’s love story believable. I was surprised that Michael Rennie had such a small screen presence in the movie, considering that he had received third billing. Nevertheless, I thought he gave a pretty good performance as Peter’s 20th century friend and colleague, Dr. Roger Forsyth. Another performance that caught my attention came from Dennis Price, who gave a very entertaining performance as Helen and Kate’s brother, a dye-in-the-wool late 18th century cad, Tom Pettigrew. Kathleen Byron gave an energetic and brief performance as Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. The movie also featured solid performances from Beatrice Campbell, Raymond Huntley and Irene Browne, who not only portrayed the Pettigrew matriarch in this film, but also in the 1933 version, “BERKELEY SQUARE”.

Although I found the mode of time travel rather implausible – being struck by lightning, I must admit that I enjoyed “I’LL NEVER FORGET YOU”. In fact, I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. And I have to thank Ranald MacDougall’s adaptation of John L. Balderston’s play, intelligent performances from a cast led by Tyrone Power and Ann Blyth, and more importantly, intelligent and subtle direction from Roy Ward Baker.

List of Historical Fiction Series

Below is a list of popular historical novels that are a part of a series:

LIST OF HISTORICAL FICTION SERIES

1. The Forsyte Saga (1906-1921) by John Galsworthy – Nobel Prize winning author John Galsworthy wrote and published a series of three novels and two interludes about members of an upper middle-class English family between the 1870s and 1920s.

2. Poldark Saga (1945-2002) by Winston Graham – Set between 1783 and 1820 is a series of twelve novels about a former British Army officer and Revolutionary War veteran, his struggles to make a new life and renew his fortunes following his return to Cornwall after the war.

3. The Asian Saga (1962-1993) by James Clavell – This series of six novels centered on Europeans – especially the Struans-Dunross family – in Asia and the impact of both Eastern and Western civilization between the the early 17th century and late 20th century.

4. The Raj Quartet (1966-1975) by Paul Scott – Paul Scott wrote this four novel series about a group of Europeans during the last five years of the British Raj in India.

5. Flashman Papers (1969-2005) by George MacDonald Fraser – Journalist George MacDonald Fraser wrote a series of novels about the exploits of a cowardly British Army officer during the Victorian Age, between 1839 and 1894. The Harry Flashman character was originally a minor character in Thomas Hughes’ 1857 novel, “Tom Brown’s School Days”.

6. Beulah Land Trilogy (1973-1981) by Lonnie Coleman – This three-volume series told the saga of a Savannah belle named Sarah Pennington Kendrick and her years as mistress of a Georgia cotton plantation called Beulah Land, between the early Antebellum Era and the late Gilded Age.

7. The Kent Family Chronicles (1974-1979) by John Jakes – Also known as “the Bicentennial Series”, author John Jakes wrote a series of eight novels to commemorate the United States’ 200th Bicentennial that centered on the experiences of the Kent family from 1770 to 1890.

8. American Civil War Trilogy (1974; 1996-2000) by Michael and Jeff Shaara – Michael Shaara wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “The Killer Angels” in 1974, which was about the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. A few years after his death, his son Jeff wrote both a prequel (set during the first two years of the war) and a sequel (set during the war’s last year); creating a trilogy of the three novels.

9. The Australians Series (1979-1990) by William Stuart Long – Set between the late 18th century and the late 19th (or early 20th) century, this literary series followed the experiences of the Broome family in Australia and other parts of the British Empire.

10. North and South Trilogy (1982-1987) by John Jakes – John Jakes wrote this literary trilogy about the experiences of two families – the Hazards of Pennsylvania and the Mains of South Carolina – between 1842 and 1876.

11. The Savannah Quartet (1983-1989) by Eugenia Price – The four novels that make up this series is centered around a Northerner named Mark Browning who moves to the birthplace of his Savannah-born mother and his relationships with his family, friends and neighbors between 1812 and 1864.

12. Wild Swan Trilogy (1984-1989) by Celeste De Blasis – Set between 1813 and 1894, this literary trilogy focused on a young English immigrant named Alexandria Thaine, her two husbands and her descendants in England and Maryland.

13. Outlander Series (1992-Present) by Diana Gabaldon – This current literary series focuses upon a World War II nurse named Claire Randall, who embarks upon a series of adventures after she travels back in time and fall in love with an 18th century Highland warrior named Jamie Fraser.

“A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” (1989) Review

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“A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” (1989) Review

I have a confession to make. I am not a big fan of Agatha Christie novels written after 1960. In fact, I can only think of one . . . perhaps two of them that I consider big favorites of mine. One of those favorites happened to be her 1964 novel, “A Caribbean Mystery”.

There have been three television adaptations of Christie’s novel. I just recently viewed the second adaptation, a BBC-TV production that starred Joan Hickson as Miss Jane Marple. This version began with Miss Marple’s doctor revealing to one of her St. Mary Mead’s neighbors that following a recovery from pneumonia, she had been treated to a vacation to a beach resort in Barbados managed by a young couple named Tim and Molly Kendal, thanks to her nephew Raymond West. Miss Marple becomes acquainted with another resort guest named Major Palgrave, a retired Army officer who tends to bore not her but others with long-winded stories about his military past. But while Miss Marple struggled between shutting out the verbose major and pretending to pay attention to him, the latter shifts his repertoire to tales of murder. When Major Palgrave announces his intention to show her a photo of a murderer, he suddenly breaks off his conversation before he can retrieve his wallet. The following morning, Major Palgrave is found dead inside his bungalow. And Miss Marple begins to suspect that he has been murdered. Two more deaths occurred before she is proven right.

As I had earlier stated, the 1964 novel is one of my favorites written by Christie. And thankfully, this 1989 television movie proved to be a decent adaptation of the novel. Somewhat. Screenwriter T.R. Bowen made a few changes from the novel. Characters like the Prescotts and Señora de Caspearo were removed. I did not miss them. The story’s setting was shifted from the fictional island of St Honoré to Barbados . . . which did not bother me. The television movie also featured the creation of a new character – a Barbados woman named Aunty Johnson, who happened to be the aunt of one of the resort’s maids, Victoria Johnson. The latter made arrangements for Miss Marple to visit her aunt in a black neighborhood. Aunty Johnson replaced Miss Prescott as a source of information on Molly Kendal’s background. More importantly, the Aunty Johnson character allowed Bowen to effectively reveal Imperial British racism to television viewers by including a scene in which the Kendals quietly reprimanded Victoria for setting up Miss Marple’s visit to her aunt.

More importantly, I have always found “A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” to be an entertaining and well-paced story – whether in print or on the television screen. Bowen did a excellent job in adapting Christie’s tale by revealing clues to the murderer’s identity . . . in a subtle manner. That is the important aspect of Bowen’s work . . . at least for me. The screenwriter and director Christopher Petit presented the clues to the television audience without prematurely giving away the killer. And considering that such a thing has occurred in other Christie adaptations – I am so grateful that it did not occurred in this production.

However, “A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” does have its flaws. Fortunately, I was only able to spot a few. First of all, I had a problem with Ken Howard’s score. I realize that this production is one of many from the “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MISS MARPLE” series. But “A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” is set at a beach resort in the Caribbean. One of those problems proved to be Ken Howard’s score. Considering the movie’s setting at a Caribbean beach resort, I figured Howard would use the appropriate music of the region and the period (1950s) to emphasize the setting. He only did so in a few scenes. Most of the score proved to be the recycled music used in other “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MISS MARPLE” television movies – you know, music appropriate for scenes at a quaint English village or estate. Frankly, the score and the music’s setting failed to mesh.

I also had a problem with a brief scene near the movie’s ending. This scene featured a brief moment in which an evil (and in my opinion) cartoonish expression appeared on the killer’s face before attempting to commit a third murder. I found this moment obvious, unnecessary and rather infantile. But the movie’s score and this . . . “evil” moment was nothing in compare to the performances of two cast members. I have never seen Sue Lloyd in anything other than this movie. But I am familiar with Robert Swann, who had a major role in the 1981 miniseries, “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”. Both Lloyd and Swann portrayed a wealthy American couple from the South named Lucky and Greg Dyson. Overall, their performances were not bad. In fact, Lucky and Greg seemed more like complex human beings, instead of American caricatures in the movie’s second half. But their Southern accents sucked. Big time. It was horrible to hear. And quite frankly, their bad accents nearly marred their performances.

But I did not have a problem with the production’s other performances. Joan Hickson gave a marvelous performance as the elderly sleuth, Miss Jane Marple. I especially enjoyed her scenes when her character struggled to stay alert during Major Palgrave’s endless collection of stories. She also had great chemistry with Donald Pleasence, who gave the most entertaining performance as the wealthy and irascible Jason Rafiel. What made the relationship between the pair most interesting is that Rafiel seemed the least likely to believe that Miss Marple is the right person to solve the resort’s murders. Both Michael Feast and Sheila Ruskin gave the two most interesting performances as the very complex Evelyn and Edward Hillingdon, the English couple who found themselves dragged into the messy history of the Dysons, thanks to Edward’s affair with Lucky. I found both Sophie Ward and Adrian Lukis charming as the resort’s owners, Molly and Tim Kendal. I was surprised that the pair had a rather strong screen chemistry and I found Ward particularly effective in conveying Molly Kendal’s emotional breakdown as the situation at the resort began to go wrong. “A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” also benefited from strong performances given by Frank Middlemass, Barbara Barnes, Isabelle Lucas, Joseph Mydell, Stephen Bent and Valerie Buchanan.

There were a few aspects of “A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” that rubbed me the wrong way. I felt that most of Ken Howard’s score did not mesh well with the movie’s setting. I also had a problem with a scene in the movie’s last half hour and the accents utilized by two members of the cast. Otherwise, I enjoyed the movie very much and thought that screenwriter T.R. Bowen, director Christopher Petit and a fine cast led by Joan Hickson did a more than solid job in adapting Agatha Christie’s 1964 novel.

Stargazy Pie

Below is an article about the dish known as Stargazy Pie:

STARGAZY PIE

One of the more . . . uh, interesting dishes that has recently attracted my attention is the British dish known as Stargazy Pie. Created in the county of Cornwall, the dish is also known as Starrey Gazey Pie. The dish is a pie made from baked pilchards (sardines), eggs and potatoes and covered with a pastry crust. Other variations of fish have been used for the pie. However, the dish is unique for having fish heads (or tails) protruding through the crust, so that they appear to be gazing skyward. This allows the oils released during cooking to flow back into the pie.

The pie originated from the fishing village of Mousehole in Cornwall to celebrate the bravery of a local fisherman named Tom Bawcock in the 16th century. According to legend, a particularly stormy winter prevented Mousehole’s fishing boats from leaving the harbor. The villagers were on the verge of facing starvation, as Christmas approached, for they depended upon the pilchards as a primary food source. Two days before Christmas, Bawcock had decided to face the stormy weather and head out into the water. Despite the difficult sea, Bawcock managed to catch enough pilchards and six other types of fish to feed the entire village. Some of the fish caught by Bawcock was baked into a pie, with the fish heads poking through to prove that there were fish inside. Ever since then, the Tom Bawcock’s Eve festival has been held on 23 December in Mousehole. During the festival, villagers parade a huge Stargazy Pie during the evening with a procession of handmade lanterns, before eating the pie itself.

However, there have been rumors that the entire festival was a myth created by The Ship Inn’s landlord in the 1950s. However, an author on Cornish language named Morton Nance had recorded the festival in 1927 for a magazine called Old Cornwall. He believed that the festival actually dated by to pre-Christian times, but expressed doubt that Tom Bawcock ever existed.

The original pie included sand eels, horse mackerel, pilchards, herring, dogfish and ling along with a seventh fish. In a traditional pie, the primary ingredient is the pilchard, although mackerel or herring was used as a substitute. Richard Stevenson, chef at The Ship Inn in Mousehole, suggests that any white fish can be used as the filling, with pilchards or herring just added for the presentation.

Below is a recipe for Stargazy Pie from the BBC Food website:

Stargazy Pie

Ingredients

For the Mustard Sauce
9fl oz white chicken stock
4½oz crème fraîche
1oz English mustard
1 pinch salt
½ tsp mustard powder
squeeze lemon juice

For the pie
5oz piece streaky bacon
16 baby onions, peeled
9oz all-butter puff pastry, rolled to 3-4mm thick
1 free-range egg yolk, beaten
4-8 Cornish sardines, filleted, carcasses and heads reserved
1-2 tbsp rapeseed oil
1oz butter
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
16 quails’ eggs

Preparation

For the mustard sauce, bring the stock to the boil in a non-reactive saucepan. Whisk in the crème fraîche, mustard, salt, mustard powder and lemon juice until well combined. Bring back to the simmer. Pass the sauce through a fine sieve into a jug and set aside.

For the pie, cook the bacon in boiling water for 20 minutes. Drain, then allow to cool slightly before chopping into lardons.

Bring another pan of water to the boil and cook the baby onions for 6-7 minutes, or until tender. Drain and refresh in cold water, then slice each onion in half. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 400F/Gas 6.

Roll out the puff pastry until 3-4mm thick, then cut into 4 equal-sized squares. Using a small circular pastry cutter the size of a golf ball, cut out 2 holes in each pastry square.

Place each square on a baking tray and brush with the beaten egg yolk. Chill in the fridge for 15 minutes.

Bake the pastry squares in the oven for 18-20 minutes, or until golden-brown and crisp.
Remove from the oven and set aside.

Turn the grill on to high.

Place the sardine fillets, heads and tails on a solid grill tray, brush with the oil and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Grill for 2-3 minutes, or until golden-brown and just cooked through (the fish should be opaque all the way through and flake easily).

Heat a frying pan until medium hot, add the butter and bacon lardons and fry gently for 3-4 minutes, or until golden-brown. Add the onions and stir in enough sauce to coat all the ingredients in the pan. Reserve the remaining sauce and keep warm.

Bring a small pan of water to the boil, add the vinegar and a pinch of salt. Reduce the heat to a simmer.

Crack the quail’s eggs into a small bowl of iced water, then pour off any excess (there should only be just enough water to cover the eggs). Swirl the simmering water with a wooden spoon to create a whirlpool effect, then gently pour the quails’ eggs into the centre of the whirlpool. Poach for about 1-2 minutes, or until the egg whites have set and the yolk is still runny. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.

To serve, divide the onion and bacon mixture between 4 serving plates. Arrange the sardine fillets on top, then place four poached quails’ eggs around the fillet. Using a stick blender, blend the remaining sauce until frothy. Spoon the froth over the top of the sardines and eggs. Top each pile with the puff pastry squares, then place the sardine heads and tails through each hole in the pastry. Serve immediately.

Banoffee Pie

Below is an article about the English dessert known as Banoffee Pie:

BANOFFEE PIE

While watching an episode of the British television series, “THE SUPERSIZERS . . .”, one particular dish caught my attention for the first time – namely a dish called Banoffee Pie. The latter is a dessert pie made from bananas, cream and toffee from boiled condensed milk. The mixture is placed on either on a pastry base or one made from crumbled biscuits and butter. Some versions of the recipe also include chocolate, coffee or both. The name of the dessert is a construct from the words “banana” and “toffee” and is spelled “banofee”.

The creation of Banoffee Pie is credited to Nigel Mackenzie (who passed away last year), owner of The Hungry Monk Restaurant in Jevington, East Sussex and the restaurant’s chef, Ian Dowding. The pair claimed to have created the dish in 1971 or 1972 by changing an American recipe for “Blum’s Coffee Toffee Pie”. They created a soft toffee by boiling an unopened can of condensed milk for several hours. After trying other changes that included the addition of apple or mandarin orange, Mackenzie suggested they use banana and eventually, both realized they had made their dessert.

The dessert proved to be so popular with The Hungry Monk’s customers that Mackenzie and Dowding never took it off the restaurant’s menu. Mackenzie and Dowding’s recipe was published in their 1974 cookbook, “The Deeper Secrets of the Hungry Monk” and reprinted in their 1997 cookbook, “In Heaven with The Hungry Monk”. Dowding has claimed that his “pet hates are biscuit crumb bases and that horrible cream in aerosols”. The dessert was Margaret Thatcher’s favorite dish to cook. The recipe for Banoffee Pie was adopted by many other restaurants throughout the world. In 1984, a number of supermarkets began selling it as an American pie, leading Mackenzie to offer a £10,000 prize to anyone who could disprove their claim to be the English inventors.

Below is a recipe for Banoffee Pie from the Epicurious website:

Banoffee Pie

Ingredients

2 cups canned sweetened condensed milk (21 ounces)
1 (9-inch) round of refrigerated pie dough (from 15-ounce package)
3 large bananas
1 1/2 cups chilled heavy cream
1 tablespoon packed light brown sugar
Special equipment: a 9-inch pie plate (preferably deep dish)

Preparation

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 425°F.

Pour condensed milk into pie plate and stir in a generous pinch of salt. Cover pie plate with foil and crimp foil tightly around rim. Put in a roasting pan, then add enough boiling-hot water to reach halfway up side of pie plate, making sure that foil is above water. Bake, refilling pan to halfway with water about every 40 minutes, until milk is thick and a deep golden caramel color, about 2 hours. Remove pie plate from water bath and transfer toffee to a bowl, then chill toffee, uncovered, until it is cold, about 1 hour.

While toffee is chilling, clean pie plate and bake piecrust in it according to package instructions. Cool piecrust completely in pan on a rack, about 20 minutes. Spread toffee evenly in crust, and chill, uncovered, 15 minutes.

Cut bananas into 1/4-inch-thick slices and pile over toffee.

Beat cream with brown sugar in a clean bowl with an electric mixer until it just holds soft peaks, then mound over top of pie.

Cooks’ notes:
• Toffee can be chilled up to 2 days (cover after 1 hour).
• Toffee-filled crust can be chilled up to 3 hours.

“TRUMBO” (2015) Review

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“TRUMBO” (2015) Review

I tried to think of a number of movies about the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and the Hollywood Blacklist I have seen. And to be honest, I can only think of two of which I have never finished and two of which I did. One of those movies I did finish was the 2015 biopic about Hollywood screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo.

Based upon Bruce Alexander Cook’s 1977 biography, the movie covered fourteen years of the screenwriter’s life – from being subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 to 1960, when he was able to openly write movies and receive screen credit after nine to ten years of being blacklisted by the Motion Picture Alliance for the Protection of American Ideals. Due to this time period, it was up to production designer Mark Rickler to visually convey fourteen years in Southern California – from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. I must say that he, along with cinematographer Jim Denault and art directors Lisa Marinaccio and Jesse Rosenthal did an excellent job by taking advantage of the New Orleans locations. That is correct. Certain areas around New Orleans, Louisiana stood for mid-century Los Angeles, California. But the movie also utilized a few locations in Southern California; including a residential house in northeastern Los Angeles, and the famous Roosevelt Hotel in the heart of Hollywood. And thanks to Denault’s cinematography, Rickler’s production designs not only made director Jay Roach’s “Southern California” look colorful, but nearly realistic. But one of my minor joys of “TRUMBO” came from the costume designs. Not only do I admire how designer Daniel Orlandi re-created mid-20th century fashion for the film industry figures in Southern California, as shown in the images below:

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I was especially impressed by Orlandi’s re-creation of . . . you guessed it! Columnist Hedda Hopper‘s famous hats, as shown in the following images:

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I have read two reviews for “TRUMBO”. Both reviewers seemed to like the movie, yet both were not completely impressed by it. I probably liked it a lot more than the two. “TRUMBO” proved to be the second movie I actually paid attention to about the Blacklist. I think it has to do with the movie’s presentation. “TRUMBO” seemed to be divided into three acts. The first act introduced the characters and Trumbo’s problems with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, leading to his being imprisoned for eleven months on charges of contempt of Congress, for his refusal to answer questions from HUAC. The second act focused on those years in which Trumbo struggled to remain employed as a writer for the low-budget King Brothers Productions, despite being blacklisted by the major studios. And the last act focused upon Trumbo’s emergence from the long shadow of the blacklist, thanks to his work on “SPARTACUS” and “EXODUS”.

I have only one real complaint about “TRUMBO”. Someone once complained that the movie came off as uneven. And I must admit that the reviewer might have a point. I noticed that the film’s first act seemed to have a light tone – despite Trumbo’s clashes with Hollywood conservatives and HUAC. Even those eleven months he had spent in prison seemed to have an unusual light tone, despite the situation. But once the movie shifted toward Trumbo’s struggles trying to stay employed, despite the blacklist, the movie’s tone became somewhat bleaker. This was especially apparent in those scenes that featured the screenwriter’s clashes with his family over his self-absorbed and strident behavior towards them and his dealings with fellow (and fictional) screenwriter Arlen Hird. But once actor Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger expressed interest in ignoring the Blacklist and hiring Trumbo for their respective movies, the movie shifted toward a lighter, almost sugarcoated tone again. Now, there is nothing wrong with a movie shifting from one tone to another in accordance to the script. My problem with these shifts is that they struck me as rather extreme and jarring. There were moments when I found myself wondering if I was watching a movie directed by two different men.

Another problem I had with “TRUMBO” centered around one particular scene that featured Hedda Hopper and MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer. In this scene, Hopper forces Mayer to fire any of his employees who are suspected Communists, including Trumbo. The columnist did this by bringing up Mayer’s Jewish ancestry and status as an immigrant from Eastern Europe. This scene struck me as a blatant copy of one featured in the 1999 HBO movie, “RKO 281”. In that movie, Hopper’s rival, Louella Parsons (portrayed by Brenda Blethyn) utilized the same method to coerce – you guess it – Mayer (portrayed by David Suchet) to convince other studio bosses to withhold their support of the 1941 movie, “CITIZEN KANE”. Perhaps the filmmakers for “TRUMBO” felt that no one would remember the HBO film. I did. Watching that scene made me wonder if I had just witnessed a case of plagiarism. And I felt rather disappointed.

Despite these jarring shifts in tone, I still ended up enjoying “TRUMBO” very much. Instead of making an attempt to cover Dalton Trumbo’s life from childhood to death, the movie focused upon a very important part in the screenwriter’s life – the period in which his career in Hollywood suffered a major decline, due to his political beliefs. And thanks to Jay Roach’s direction and John McNamara’s screenplay, the movie did so with a straightforward narrative. Some of the film’s critics had complained about its sympathetic portrayal of Trumbo, complaining that the movie had failed to touch upon Trumbo’s admiration of the Soviet Union. Personally, what would be the point of that? A lot of American Communists did the same, rather naively and stupidly in my opinion. But considering that this movie mainly focused upon Trumbo’s experiences as a blacklisted writer, what would have been the point? Trumbo was not professionally and politically condemned for regarding the Soviet Union as the epitome of Communism at work. He was blacklisted for failing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Also, the movie did not completely whitewash Trumbo. McNamara’s screenplay did not hesitate to condemn how Trumbo’s obsession with continuing his profession as a screenwriter had a negative impact upon his relationship with his family – especially his children. It also had a negative impact with his relationship with fellow screenwriter (the fictional) Arlen Hird, who wanted Trumbo to use his work for the King Brothers to express their liberal politics. Trumbo seemed more interested in staying employed and eventually ending the Blacklist. I came away with the feeling that the movie was criticizing the screenwriter for being more interested in regaining his successful Hollywood career than in maintaining his politics.

“TRUMBO” also scared me. The movie scared me in a way that the 2010 movie, “THE CONSPIRATOR” did. It reminded me that I may disagree with the political or social beliefs of another individual; society’s power over individuals – whether that society came in the form of a government (national, state or local) or any kind of corporation or business industry – can be a frightening thing to behold. It can be not only frightening, but also corruptive. Watching the U.S. government ignore the constitutional rights of this country’s citizens (including Trumbo) via the House Committee on Un-American Activities scared the hell out of me. Watching HUAC coerce and frighten actor Edward G. Robinson into exposing people that he knew as Communists scared me. What frightened me the most is that it can happen again. Especially when I consider how increasingly rigid the world’s political climate has become.

I cannot talk about “TRUMBO” without focusing on the performances. Bryan Cranston earned a slew of acting nominations for his portrayal of Dalton Trumbo. I have heard that the screenwriter was known for being a very colorful personality. What is great about Cranston’s performance is that he captured this trait of Trumbo’s without resorting to hammy acting. Actually, I could say the same about the rest of the cast. Helen Mirren portrayed the movie’s villain, Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper with a charm and charisma that I personally found both subtle and very scary. Diane Lane gave a subtle and very convincing performance as Trumbo’s wife Cleo, who not only stood by her husband throughout his travails, but also proved to be strong-willed when his self-absorption threatened to upset the family dynamics. Louis C.K., the comic actor gave a poignant and emotional performance as the fictional and tragic screenwriter, Arden Hird.

Other memorable performances caught my attention as well. Elle Fanning did an excellent job portraying Trumbo’s politically passionate daughter, who grew to occasionally resent her father’s pre-occupation with maintaining his career. Michael Stuhlbarg did a superb job in conveying the political and emotional trap that legendary actor Edward G. Robinson found himself, thanks to HUAC. Both John Goodman and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje gave colorful and entertaining performances as studio head Frank King and Trumbo’s fellow convict Virgil Brooks, respectively. Stephen Root was equally effective as the cautious and occasionally paranoid studio boss, Hymie King. Roger Bart gave an excellent performance as fictional Hollywood producer Buddy Ross, a venal personality who seemed to lack Robinson’s sense of guilt for turning his back on the blacklisted Trumbo and other writers. David James Elliot gave a very interesting performance as Hollywood icon John Wayne, conveying the actor’s fervent anti-Communist beliefs and willingness to protect Robinson from Hedda Hopper’s continuing hostility toward the latter. And in their different ways, both Dean O’Gorman and Christian Berkel gave very entertaining performances as the two men interested in employing Trumbo by the end of the 1950s – Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger.

I noticed that “TRUMBO” managed to garner only acting nominations for the 2015-2016 award season. Considering that the Academy Award tends to nominate at least 10 movies for Best Picture, I found it odd that the organization was willing to nominate the likes of “THE MARTIAN” (an unoriginal, yet entertaining feel-good movie) and “MAD MAX: FURY ROAD” (for which I honestly do not have a high regard) in that category. “TRUMBO” was not perfect. But I do not see why it was ignored for the Best Picture category, if movies like “THE MARTIAN” can be nominated. I think director Jay Roach, screenwriter John McNamara and a cast led by the always talented Bryan Cranston did an excellent job in conveying a poisonous period in both the histories of Hollywood and this country.