Croupier (Mike Hodges – 1998) B+

Clive Owen plays Jack Manfred, we don’t know too much about his background but we learn glimpses of it in the course of the film. He must’ve been a gambler at some point although he does not gamble anymore, he sure knows how to deal cards and maybe his relationship with his father is not the best. He wants to write a novel, he gets assigned by his publisher to write one about soccer. Soon after though he takes a job as a croupier, a dealer, at a London casino. His life there soon starts seeping into his novel, or maybe it is the other way around. Or both. Owen narrates as Jack and as Jake his novel’s protagonist. His girlfriend is a character in his new novel and is his actual girlfriend. He meets various players, some cheats, other are sad gamblers. They make it to his novel. The key character he meets is Jani (Alex Kingston). She is a good gambler but needs help since she owes some bad people some money. It might seem like a cliché story at this point but Croupier does not behave or reach the same conclusions as other similar movies. Jack is more of an observer, an analyst of all that is going on in the casino and his life. It relies on cool subtle style, good performances and trusts in us to follow along.

Man Push Cart (Ramin Bahrani – 2005) A-

Ahmed is a Pakistani immigrant who we watch as he pulls his heavy cart in the busy streets of Manhattan at 3 AM every morning. He is a street vendor who sells coffee, bagels and such to New Yorkers everyday. Many of them seem to like him, they are regulars. He knows what how they take their coffee and if they like cream cheese with their bagel. Very few actually know him. They never ask about his story. Why should they? Ahmed was a rock star at one point in Pakistan, he was married and has a son. He has been a widower for about a year. We see glimpses of his prior life but Bahrani never provides us a full picture of why Ahmed left Pakistan, what happened to his wife and why her parents seem to blame him for her loss. This is not a movie with a plot, it’s a snapshot of Ahmed’s life over a period of a few days and the people he meets. Not everyone (very few actually) manage to realize the fabled American Dream even though we like to think all immigrants come over here, work hard, get rich and buy a house with a white picket fence in the suburbs. Ahmed sure does not.

My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin – 2007) B+

My first ever exposure to “the mad poet of Manitoba” is this movie. Don’t know if it is the ideal entry point but I’m thinking pretty much any other of his stuff is gonna be equally as unideal (I saw some of his shorts also available on Criterion Channel and got that sense). I’ll admit I fell asleep the first time watching this about a third of the way through, yet I kept thinking about it and wanted to see more. He was apparently commissioned by the city officials to create a documentary about his hometown. What we get is definitely not a documentary in any conventional sense, but a strange and surreal combination of documentary footage, re-enactments of Maddin’s life, myths about Winnipeg, it’s topography, how it was founded, its taxi companies and long opinionated segments about past and present Hockey sports’ arenas. Yes, this one has all that and more. It is strange and great.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (Zack Snyder – 2021) B-

I was ready to hate it, but I don’t. Overall I actually liked this and was rarely bored. Is it a great movie that I needed to see or ever see again? No. It is overly long, has a bit too much slo-mo, some really dumb character moments, Superman portrayal kind of sucks and Batman looks bored. To top it off the horrible epilogue almost ruins the whole thing. On the other hand characters like Cyborg and Flash are good. So, not a bad movie.

Burnt Eggplant Salad

We avoid burning things in most of cooking. It produces acrid, bitter and unpleasant textures. Yet, for some things, under certain circumstances “burnt” is good, very good. Heating sugar to just the point of smoking makes for amazing caramel. Those leopard dark spots on Neapolitan pizza give it a wonderful taste and texture. I do think though in this preparation I am posting about now we are taking burnt to the extreme. It is not something I would’ve done had I not tasted this delicious dip at restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia and then found the recipe in chef Michael Solomonov’s book.

Step one, burn the hell out of the eggplant. Well, actually that is step two. Step one would be to season the skin-on eggplant slices with salt, let them sit for an hour or so then rinse and pat them dry very well. Now burn the eggplant. In a cast iron skillet I poured enough oil to have a 1/4 inch depth or so and cooked the eggplant in batches until it is -not golden brown and delicious- burnt. Deep dark black on both sides. This is the most time consuming part of the recipe. Due to the high water content of the vegetable (or I guess the fruit) it takes longer than you’d expect to burn.

The rest is very easy. In the same pan I used to fry the eggplant, I sauteed chopped onions and bell peppers in plenty of olive oil and seasoned with ground coriander. The eggplant gets mashed with the onion and pepper mixture and seasoned with a good dose of sherry vinegar. The flavor is bitter, sweet, tart (it needs the tartness). The texture is creamy, rough and crispy in places. I served it with warm flat bread and extra chopped parsley.

Derek DelGaudio’s In and Of Itself (Frank Oz – 2020) A

So hard to quantify why and how this is so good. It’s a one man show. A magic show. An emotional performance. A biography and story of sorts. A whole audience’s journey to find out what makes them (us) unique and who we are. Seems like a lot of mumbo jumbo but it really works and us like nothing else I recall seeing. I wish I could’ve attended this in person.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson – 2009) A-

I wonder how close Anderson sticks to the original Roald Dahl book? Does not matter to me. This is a wonderful beautifully made animated film. It’s a Fox (voiced by George Clooney) who promises his wife to live an honest life, raise their kid in the den at the roots of a large tree and stop pilfering chickens from the farmer. After all, the farmer could shoot him or trap him. Yet, he is a fox and writing for the local paper is not as exciting. Things escalate as farmers start waging a war against him and all his other animal friends. Funny, sweet and I’ll say it one more time beautiful to watch this works on various levels from straight-up entertainment to a tale about belonging and appreciating everyone as they are.

The Painter and The Thief (Benjamin Ree – 2020) A

Barbora is the painter and Karl is the thief (well, one of two) who stole two of her most precious paintings. From the first 5 minutes of this excellent documentary we know that the thieves are caught and who they are. Thing is Karl cannot remember what the hell he did with the painting. She wants to know what happened to the painting of course but that is certainly not what this extraordinary film is about. It’s about an unlikely friendship between these two different people, about second or third chances and forgiveness.

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