Free Solo (Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi – 2018) A-

This is a documentary about a guy who wants to free solo climb El Capitan, a sheer rock wall that stands 3000 feet or so in Yosemite park. Free solo means he is going to climb the thing with no ropes. Just upper body strength, chalk, grip and a whole lot of practice. It’s a stunning, terrifying and nerve-wrecking experience. At any moment, as his crew/friends are filming, Alex can fall from the frame to his death. If a bird flies out from the mountain it could cost him his life. One wrong step, one blast of wind…I am not ever going to understand the psychology of what drives someone like Alex. Whether he succeeds or fails at this is only half the experience, the intense drive and practice to excel is the other half.

Dolemite is My Name (Craig Brewer – 2019) B+

I had never heard of Mr. Dolemite aka Rudy, the person who might or might not have invented rap. I’m not even sure how accurate this movie is or how true to life it is. Least of all did I expect it to be a movie about the making of a movie! Then I was so pleasantly surprised with how good Murphy is playing the role of Dolemite. This is a delightful vulgar romp that is both funny and sweet and is so much fun.

Cronos (Guillermo del Toro – 1993) B

His monsters, he loves his monsters. I got around to seeing Del Toro’s debut movie finally. It involves a man called Jesus Gris (interesting name…) who stumbles on a device that can extend his life indefinitely. He’s a good guy, living with his granddaughter and wife in Mexico City. Of course the device comes with a bloody price tag and it is being pursued by a dying rich guy and his violent nephew, played so well by Ron Perlman. We expect that Jesus Gris will become slowly more evil, his granddaughter freaked out by him after he “returns” and so on. Del Toro is much more interested in the humanity of the monster that Jesus turns to though. Even the little girl is not horrified and still sees her beloved grandpa under the skin.

Widows (Steve McQueen – 2018) B+

The widows are the wives of the crew lead by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) whose latest heist goes horribly wrong and they are all killed in a hail of bullets by the Chicago PD. Since Henry had stolen $2M from another Chicago gangster, Jamal, (played really well by Brian Tyree Henry) in Jamal’s eyes his widow, Veronica (Viola Davies), now owes him a cool 2 million dollars. She sets about recruiting the other widows and is intent on executing Harry’s last plan that he documented in his journal. Jamal is also running for alderman of his district against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and everything is sort of connected in obvious and not so obvious ways. Chicago setting, corrupt politics, a heist gone wrong. A good combo in a well-made genre film in the hands of a very capable director.

Sugo and Polenta with Over- Easy Egg

Rustic, but not simple, as it gets and so very satisfying. The combination of tender polenta and some sort of saucy meat is a classic. This one, based on a recipe from the book Hello! My Name is Tasty (I’m loving this book and I wrote about it previously here), is an excellent example of this combination.

The sugo is an Italian sauce usually meaty and usually in my experience on the thinner side. This one is based on a few different proteins. First I cooked down a bunch of bacon pieces to render lots of the fat and get the bacon a bit browned. In the rendered fat I seared a large hunk of pork shoulder. The the same is repeated for boneless chicken thighs in the pork fat.

I added chopped up onions, carrots and celery to the pan along with some sage and some spices- a small piece of cinnamon and a couple of cloves. To that I add the canned San Marzano tomatoes and a few cups of whey. Yes, whey. If you have a restaurant or two and you make cheese -like the folks from the Tasty restaurants do- then it makes sense to waste as little as possible. So the recipe for the sugo uses the whey left over from making cheese as the liquid. It is a bit tangy, it is delicious and makes a lot of sense in this rich sauce. I also love the addition of the spices. They by no means overwhelm but stay in the background adding warmth and edge.

I like to cook these types of dishes in a clay pot if I have the time. So all the stuff went into a large Colombian Champa pot and into the oven for a few hours. When it was done and cooled I put it in the fridge overnight. The next day the thick layer of fat on top is removed and the meat gets shredded by hand. I gently reheated the sugo and adjusted the seasoning.

Now that the sugo is done it can be tossed with pasta, used in a lasagna (I did exactly that with the leftovers actually) or as a perfect comforting topping for polenta as I did here. I cooked the polenta in the oven as I usually do, ratio of about 1 to 4 polenta to water. It cooks gently for about an hour with minimal stirring and stirred in Parmesan and butter in the end.

To assemble the plates I put in a ladle of soft polenta in oven-proof bowl and topped it with the sugo and a couple of slices of fresh mozzarella. These go in a hot oven for a few minutes to melt the cheese, then they are served piping hot with a sunny side up egg. It’s a deliciously warm and comforting plate of food with great mix of flavors and textures.

A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin – 2008) A-

The Vuillard family is an interesting one but not really that dysfunctional. That somehow makes this drama more interesting. They have the black sheep, the estranged, the cold mother and sweet father. The catalyst that brings them all together in the family home is the news that the mother (Catherine Deneuve) has cancer and needs a marrow transplant. Everyone, even the youngest grandchild, is getting tested to see if they are a match. It’s also Christmas so why not get together as well and spend a few days together? It’s mostly subtle in how old grievances (and new ones) and not-so-hidden secrets start coming out. It’s a really good Holiday movie…maybe not an entirely feel good Holiday movie but a good one.

Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker (J.J. Abrams – 2019) C-

The more I think about this one the more crappy it seems. It really maybe means that the entire Star Wars series is not particularly good as a single body of work. There are a few movies in it that work well and introduce cool concepts and character twists and builds worlds with imagination (Yes, Last Jedi is up there with those) but as a whole it’s not that well put together. They repeat themselves, they crack at the slightest question of “why?”, motivations are mostly muddled and I end up caring for almost no one. They are usually fun and spectacular though…as in they have some cool spectacle. This one has the fun spectacle but it so lacks coherence, imagination, intelligence that it ranks among the worst of the bunch.