Saturday, August 29, 2009

Eatin' my way thru O-Town

It's kinda traditional for Europeans to take the piss out of Americans for being, how shall we put it politely, fat. Well, just try living here. Honestly, it's not their fault. Even if you avoid all the nasty greasy fast food, there's so much good eating on offer it's impossible to maintain a svelte figure without spending four hours a day in the gym. 

I've become a regular at the local farmer's market on Saturday mornings, where I load up with aubergines (eggplant) & courgettes (zucchini) as well as top quality honey, and oranges, and then feel morally obliged to stuff myself with cinnamon buns and Venezuelan pastries.  And then we've been working our way through the enormous Vietnamese supermarkets and filling the freezer with dim sum. Our current favourite is the Saigon market, which has a counter of unbelievably tasty French-style Vietnamese pastries. And, of course, there's now a Spice & Tea Exchange in Winter Park, so we have Pirate's Bite and salmon tea rub. So cooking's pretty much covered.

When it comes to eating out, there's loads of choice.  Highlights so far include:

The Enzian. OK, it's a cinema, not a restaurant, but the menu there is impressive. You don't get a huge portion, but it's really delicious stuff.  Just check out the meatball sandwich, for example.  Meatballs made with grass fed bison and fresh local pork, truffle parmesan tomato sauce, sauteed shiitake mushrooms. I mean, c'mon, how can that be bad?   Eating this while watching a movie makes for a great date.  The selection of wines and beers is pretty reasonable, but the absolute killer is the manchego cheesecake. It's cheesecake turned up to 11. It was a real struggle to finish one portion between two of us. 

The Black Bean Deli. This isn't eating out, in that there's nowhere to sit, so if you want to get picky, yeah, it's take-away. (Or take-out, as I'm learning to call it.)  This is the best Cuban food I've ever had.  Well, if I'm honest, it's the only Cuban food I've ever had, but everyone tells me it's the best I'm ever likely to find anywhere outside Cuba. The medianoche is filling and yummy - ham and cheese on Cuban sweet bread, and the chorizopan is similar, but with chorizo instead of ham.  One of their sandwiches for lunch, with a tub of rice and black beans, and then a flan to follow... oh yeah!  I can see this becoming a regular mid-week thing.  Set something rendering or uploading, a 10-minute drive down 17/92, grab myself a bag full of Cuban goodness, and then not bother with dinner.  No, really, no more food today.

El Bodegon. My benchmark for good tapas is whether it's as good as the Tasting Room in St Augustine. El Bodegon most certainly passes that test.  Tapas isn't really their speciality, but like any good Spanish place, they have a good selection on offer. Not so great for vegetarians - if you're OK with seafood, you'll be fine, but you really need to be a carnivore to enjoy this place. We munched our way through five plates with a pitcher of sangria.  The serrano ham was some of the best I've ever tasted, the patata bravas were just perfect, and the garlic mushrooms were succulent and mouthwateringly mushroomy. The piece de resistance, though, was the chorizo flambeed in brandy. Chorizo is good anyway, and I love the effect of pouring liquor on food and setting fire to it. We'll definitely be going back there for evenings when we can't decide what to eat and fancy a little bit of everything.  

The Nile Ethiopian Restaurant. No prizes for guessing the speciality of this place tucked away off I-Drive. Ethiopian food is quite unique, and something I love.  It's good communal finger food: it comes on a big tray, with piles of different dishes, and you eat it by scooping it up with pieces of pancakey sourdough bread. When it arrives, you wonder whether you've ordered enough. Two thirds of the way through, you wonder whether you can finish it all. The yasa tibs (fish) is truly gorgeous, the doro wat (chicken stew) is total yumminess, and I seriously recommend the veggie combo, even if you're not a veggie. Don't skip the coffee. They roast the beans right there, and then bring the pan round for everyone to have a sniff. It's the best coffee I've had that isn't Turkish. Try it if you're looking for a friendly meal with friends that's a bit out of the ordinary.

And there's more...  Urban Flats had a variable selection: basically posh pizza, the good ones were good, and the rest were mediocre.  Chipotle is just a Mexican fast food chain, but they do a damn good pork burrito, and it's all free-range, hormone-free meat, so it's actually good food, just served fast.  Tomorrow, we have a big family meal at Buca di Beppo, where I intend to eat pasta and chicken saltimbocca until I look like Luciano Pavarotti  Next, I need to try the various steakhouses (Ruth's Chris and Colorado's both recommended, for completely different reasons), and find myself some catfish and some grouper, and at some point I really need to get back to the bagel place...

We've been making the most of coupons from Basically, you buy a $25 coupon for $10, so there's an instant saving of $15.  But it gets better. As the month goes on,they discount the coupons that haven't sold yet, and you can pick up a $25 coupon for $2.  We just spent a mighty $10 to buy ourselves $125 off in various St Augustine restaurants which we intend to use in about a week while we're on honeymoon.  And yes, that includes the Tasting Room. 

Oh, God, please can I have just a salad now? Before I explode?

The Pope Room in Buca di Beppo. Look, that's the Pope in the middle of the table. Holy spaghetti,  Batman!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

"Boy meets Girl. Boy falls in love. Girl doesn’t." 

OK, that's all I'm going to tell you about this "postmodern love story and fresh and funny “anti-romantic” comedy". That's all I knew about it when I went, and all you need to know. 

It's post-modern. Yes, in the sense that it's deeply infused with irony, cynicism, and bleakness.

It's a love story. Yes, sorta, in the sense that it's a story about love.

It's funny. Hell, yeah. It has real laugh out loud moments throughout, in the dialogue, the filming, and everything else. Even the opening credits are funny.

Anti-romantic? Uh, sorta. Actually, I think it's a very romantic film, but not in the lovey-dovey sense.  Well, if you stick to the end, anyway.  Is that a spoiler? No, I don't think so. It's a will-they, won't-they film, and that, as far as I'm concerned, is inherently romantic. It's about how love can make you feel wonderful, and how no other feeling can come close.

I loved it. I also loved the rather wonderful Enzian, which has now become my favourite movie venue.  (Sorry, Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, you'll always be special to me, but this place has you beat.)  You get to sit at a table, in a comfy chair, and they don't just let you take drinks into the movie, they bring you food and drink. And it's extremely tasty food and drink.  Check out the menu. I can recommend the meatball sandwich. Meatballs made with grass fed bison and fresh local pork, truffle parmesan tomato sauce, sauteed shiitake mushrooms... how can that be bad? And their beer selection is pretty reasonable too.  

The Enzian is home to the Florida Film Festival, and I'm looking forward to many more enjoyable evenings there, both at the movies and at the charming Eden Bar. It's a great place to sit and have a drink before or after the movie (though do remember that the Winter Park cops are wont to patrol the back lanes as well as the main roads!), and stare out at big green leafy things, palm trees, and purty flowers, or else look at the murals and chat to other cinema-goers. Mimosas at $2.50 all day? Bring 'em on!

Oh, yeah, that movie I was talking about half a page ago? See it. Maybe not rush-out-and-catch-it-before-it's-gone see it, but stick it on your rentals list for sure. 

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ponyo. Oh.

Studio Ghibli movies occupy a unique place in many people's hearts. Just as Disney did when I was growing up, and which Pixar & Dreamworks battled over ten years ago, they've carved out a niche of "kids' films that adults can enjoy, and admit to enjoying, even if they haven't got kids of their own". Until relatively recently, most kids hadn't even heard of this amazing Japanese studio: it was only a few die-hard anime fans who even knew of them. I introduced my mum and my kids to My Neighbor Totoro, and the Japanese were amazed that us gaijin had any idea who Totoro was. It wasn't really until Princess Mononoke got a dubbed US release (featuring Gillian 'X Files' Anderson and translated by Neil 'Sandman' Gaiman) that they began to become even remotely mainstream.

Miyazaki has established a growing legion of fans in the US and UK, and now every Ghibli release is eagerly awaited. Ponyo, however, has surpassed them all in terms of the anticipation and distribution. Last weekend it opened at a massive 927 theaters across the US, compared to just 38 for Mononoke and a mere 26 for the critically acclaimed Spirited Away.

It's loosely based on The Little Mermaid - very loosely. "Inspired by" would probably be more accurate. I won't spoil the story: if you really want to know, you can just Google around. (Or Bing, I suppose. Does anyone actually Bing?) As usual, it's beautifully animated. Miyazaki continues to avoid 3D animation, and sticks with traditional 2D. As with Howl's Moving Castle, he combines flat-coloured figures with painted scenery, giving a clean, fresh look that's worlds away from Wall-E and the like. It's reminiscent of pre 1960s Disney, but with the brightness and detail that modern film stocks and animation can give.

Sadly, though, this was the first time I found myself not enjoying a Ghibli movie. It's not a bad film. In fact, it's a very good film. It's beautifully made and charmingly told. Some may argue that the US script is a bastardisation of the original Japanese version, but frankly, that doesn't bother me. I was quite happy to watch the US dub, and don't feel the need to locate a subtitled version to compare them.

Simply, it was just too childish for me. Under tens will love it, and it's a great movie for curling up on a sofa with the little ones. But it didn't really do anything for me, and I ended up feeling unsatisfied. The hero is, after all, five years old, and the film doesn't really have the action-based appeal that Howl, Mononoke, Nausicaa, or - my personal favourite - Porco Rosso have. And while Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service are also pretty childish, they are at least aimed at slightly older kids.

It felt - and make of this what you will - like an anime Disney film. Sweet, saccharine, and something I've grown out of. I'm not saying it's not worth seeing. Just be prepared for something a little younger than Miyazaki's usual offerings.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


I seem to be settling in well in Florida. I have found that adopting local dress and local customs seems to be working better than expected, and they are now inviting me to their secretive tribal gatherings.

Apparently the tradition here is to consume gallons of cheap beer-flavoured water and shove vast quantities of greasy cheesy dead animals into your increasingly distended stomach. I did that for a while, until the locals accepted me, and then partook in the ritual of sliding along a soapy inflatable slidy thing until I was thoroughly soaked.

The reason for this was at first unclear, until I realised that the purpose is to cause the females' shirts to become transparent (see right), upon which one utters the cry "yee-haw!" and makes crude sexual advances, involving lewd descriptions of what acts one could perform in the back of a pickup truck.

This, so I am told, is the irresistible mating dance of the Red-Necked male, a species common throughout this part of the United States. It's clearly a highly successful reproductive strategy, as the species seems remarkably fertile, and most females over the age of 17 seem to have several infants in tow at all times.

Dress for the females seems to involve small pieces of string around the waist and passed conspicuously between the buttocks, as modelled in the picture to the left by Annie-Mae, a native lady with whom I have struck up an acquaintance, and who is acting as my guide to the region. The facial features are accentuated by the use of a gum-like substance, which is chewed compulsively to demonstrate that the female has strong jaws. (See picture below.)

As you can see, it can also be blown into bubbles to prove that she has strong lungs, and is therefore capable of screaming loud abuse at any stranger who dares to look at her exposed cleavage without being invited.

This, of course, is a cunning strategy on the part of the female, since the correct response to the challenge "Are y'all staring at mah titties?" is, of course, "Wayull, I shore am, you sweet thang." This identifies the male as one who is prepared to risk a possible fatal confrontation with another male (who may or may not exist, and who may or may not have a gun) merely for the possibility of contributing to the gene pool.

This ritualised call may then lead to a further exchange of endearments, followed by mating in the aforesaid pick-up truck, and then more consumption of beer-like liquid and bragging to other Red Necks.

This has so far proved to be a most interesting assignment, and I shall continue to report on the strange ways of these fascinating people. I am happy to report that despite the recent loss of their beloved leader, Dubbya, the Red Necked Americans do not appear to be in any way endangered, and appear to be thriving.

We will doubtless hear more of them.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Ring of Time

Nuove Terra's Ring of Time by squirrellygirl is a machinima series that gives me a sense of pride. Not because I had anything to do with it, but because of what it represents.

When Dave and I started Moviestorm, many years ago, we had a saying: "In the 20th century, everyone had a book in them: in the 21st century, everyone's got a movie in them." We had this crazy idea that bands would use Moviestorm to make their own videos, and authors would use Moviestorm to bring their stories to life. Ring of Time is one such.

Shirley Martin wrote the book, and self-published it on Lulu. A 600-page epic, it's the sort of thing that may get picked up by a publisher or not, depending on the vagaries of the business.

In the beginning there were three worlds, until the creation of a fourth magical world. This is the world of Nuove Terra. A world in which all magic and mythical creatures exist. It is into this world that twin children Sam and Sarah Donovan are thrust. On a chilly September evening figures cloaked in blood red robes descend on their suburban home and change their lives forever. Gone are thier parents and with them any sense of comfort and family. In order to find out what happened the children must learn to fit into this strange new world and with that learn to use magic. Together with their new friends, Pat and Melinda, as well as a strange, eccentric wizard, a werewolf who works for the Magical Creature Protection Agency, and a dragon who teaches history the children begin to unravel the hidden past of their parents and the secrets behind the Ring of Time.

She then decided to turn the story into a series using Moviestorm and iClone.

Now, to be fair, there are a lot of rough edges in this. It's competent, but it doesn't have the polish of a professional production. Story-wise, it's easy to dismiss it as a Harry Potter clone, but by the end of the first episode, you can see that it is going in a different direction. It's clearly a labour of love, though. She's been working on this first episode for about six months, and it's been fascinating watching it come together.

However, the quality isn't the point. The important thing is that machinima has given Shirley a way to bring her story to another medium and a new audience. Filming that story as live action would be prohibitively expensive; filming it as machinima is comparatively quick and easy. Just as the word processor and the internet has allowed aspiring authors to bypass the traditional publishing business, machinima and the internet allows them to bypass the entire film and tv production and distribution business.

So that's why I get a happy glow when I watch Ring of Time. In our own small way, Dave and I have helped Shirley do something that probably wouldn't have been possible a decade ago. And, better still, she won't be the only one. I'm sure we'll see more squirrellygirls telling more stories based on their own novels. And I, for one, would far rather spend an evening with stories told by ordinary people who are passionate about their art, whatever their flaws, than with uninspired stories created by corporate mass entertainment machines.

Y'know, I might even buy the book. I don't care if it's not as good as Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or whoever. Hell, it's not a huge outlay, and that book would have more meaning to me than a DVD of another crappy TV series or identikit by-the-numbers novel. And that, it seems to me, is what this is all about. I wouldn't have heard of Ring of Time if it hadn't been for the machinima. And neither, I suspect, would you. But maybe, just maybe, you're intrigued enough now to click on some links, and maybe watch it for yourself. And maybe even take a look at the book. And just possibly, put a few dollars into an author's pocket. That'd be a win.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ibn Battuta: Beyond Cinedome

The more time I spend messing around with movies, the more I fall in love with the tried and trusted format of a nice, simple 16:9 aspect ratio 2D film, on a screen that fills my field of vision without overwhelming it. Too often, I find that alternative formats don't tell the story as well. They're gimmicks, beloved of film-makers, and the films made with them exist primarily to show off the format, not to tell a story.

I've said my piece about 3D. Today, it's the turn of the ultra-big screen. On Monday, I went to the Dr Phillips CineDome in the Orlando Science Center, which claims to be "the world's largest Iwerks domed theater and Digistar II planetarium, with 28,000 watts of digital sound." The screen is 8 storeys high, and it's like sitting inside half an eggshell. Walking into it is a bizarre experience, as it makes you feel slightly nauseous. The roof is a long, long way above you, and the shape of the dome utterly screws with your sense of perspective. You climb what feels like several flights of stairs to your seat, sit back, and wonder where to look.

We'd come to see Ibn Battuta's Journey to Mecca, a documentary based on the travels of the famous 14th century Moroccan explorer. Ibn Battuta's always been a hero of mine, and I've always been fascinated by the hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim should make once in a lifetime. This documentary, narrated by Ben Kingsley, retraces his journey, and combines it with footage shot inside the Great Mosque, something which I will never be allowed to see in person. Let me just quote the introduction to the movie:
Ibn Battuta, the famed 14th century Moroccan traveler, set out in 1325 from his native Tangier on an epic journey to Mecca, the historical and cultural center of Islam. By the time he returned 29 years later, he had traveled the world from West Africa, Spain and India to China and the Maldives, covering some 75,000 miles and three times further than Marco Polo. At the instigation of the Sultan of Morocco, Ibn Battuta dictated his reminiscences, which became one of the world’s most famous travel books, The Rihla.
Journey to Mecca is an IMAX® dramatic and documentary feature, filmed in Saudi Arabia and Morocco in both English and Arabic, with background Berber. The film tells the amazing story of Ibn Battuta, the greatest explorer of the Old World, following his first pilgrimage between 1325 and 1326 from Tangier to Mecca. His perilous journey resonates with adventure while presenting an unforgettable picture of Islamic civilization during the 14th century, culminating with Battuta’s first Hajj.
The story is book-ended by a close-up look at the contemporary Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca that draws three million Muslims from around the world every year who perform rituals that have taken place for over 1,400 years.
The Hajj, the longest running congregation of humans annually on planet earth, is definitely a unique experience for the medium. For non-Muslims it is the closest they will ever come to witnessing this extraordinary event, and for Muslims it takes on an even deeper significance.
In terms of the content, this was a fascinating, engrossing, and beautiful film. However, I would have preferred it as a straightforward documentary. I spent most of the movie wondering where to look: in front of me, to my left, to my right, straight up? I felt overwhelmed. If you want to show me the planets or deep sea, then sure, overwhelm me. And yes, the shots of the desert worked really well. But the shots of people didn't. I don't need to see a face forty feet high to pick up the emotion it's conveying. The result was that instead of feeling part of what was going on, I felt distanced and uninvolved. Unlike a TV screen, which you look at, or a cinema screen, which you look into (to quote veteran film editor Walter Murch), you look around a dome. You can't possibly take it all in, and you're aware that something's always happening out of your field of view. The skill of the film-maker is to direct your view to the most important thing on the screen. In a dome, you're in control where you look, and the chances are you're looking in the wrong place - or, which is just as bad - you feel you're looking in the wrong place.

Worse than that, the camera angles were unbearably strange. Every shot seemed to be a tracking helicopter shot, trying to show me huge vistas, panning over everything. The image was always in motion. To show a caravan plodding through the desert, we started on a shot of the ground, swung upwards onto a person, along a line of people, then up, up, until we could see just how many there were, then - BAM! - back onto another detail, pulling out, and swooshing the camera around. The effect was disorienting and incoherent, and, frankly, not nearly as effective as similar shots in Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible or Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. When you get close into a crowd, the effect of the dome is that you have the tops of people's heads above you and all about you, as if they're standing on the walls and the ceiling. If you're looking at the side of the image, the distortion when it starts to move is quite unnerving, and you start to wonder if someone's spiked your drink with something.

The whole point of a surround screen is that you can move your head - the cameraman doesn't need to be your eyes in the same way he would in a normal screen film. Moving the camera is like moving the world, and your audience can't settle when you're shifting the world around.

The overall impression I came away with was that they were so focused on trying to make use of the sheer scale of the IMAX format that they forgot they were trying to tell a story. IMAX works best when you want to awe people with the immensity of what you're showing them. Particularly in a dome, just show the audience something huge, hold the camera absolutely still for a while, and let them look around at their own speed, and take in the details of what they're most interested in while you talk to them about what they're seeing. They'll nudge each other and point out cool stuff. It's spectacle, not film as we know it.

There was a lot to like about Journey to Mecca, and I'm glad to have seen it. It was a real treat to see the shots of the Ka'bah, and the images of the desert were truly jaw-dropping. But on balance, it's a deeply flawed movie. The story sections, while interesting, simply didn't work on the giant dome screen, and the camerawork was way too busy for that size of screen. It leaves me wondering whether IMAX is suitable for anything other than nature documentaries. I suspect not.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Glamour (n): false or superficial beauty

Last night I saw Breakfast at Tiffany's for the first time. Hard to believe, perhaps, but I've managed to miss it every time it's on TV, and I never quite got round to watching in on DVD.

All I knew about it was Audrey Hepburn's iconic little black dress. I didn't know the story, the characters, or anything. But I knew it was one of those must-see films: whenever I told people I hadn't seen it, they reacted in complete shock. Apparently, not seeing Breakfast at Tiffany's is an admission of being a soulless Philistine with no appreciation of romance, and you can't call yourself a film buff until you've checked it off your list. It is, after all, one of the all-time great movies.

So when they had a "Date Night" at Leu Gardens in Orlando and were showing it outdoors on a big screen, I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to go with my fiancee to see this romantic comedy classic of Hollywood glamour. What better circumstances in which to see it?

Photo from The Orlando Buzz

Well, what a disappointment. The let-down I felt watching Citizen Kane was nothing compared to the complete lack of emotional response I got from Breakfast at Tiffany's. Kane was obviously a great film for its day, full of technical and cinematographic innovations from a talented young director. Breakfast at Tiffany's was a very ordinary comedy full of thoroughly dislikeable characters. George Peppard was OK, and Mancini's Oscar-winning music was good, but Mickey Rooney's "comic" Japanese character was thoroughly vile, and Audrey Hepburn's character, Holly Golightly, made me want to slap her in the face.

Glamour, let us not forget, is an illusion, and Hollywood glamour doubly so. Audrey Hepburn's chic 1961 socialite is a phoney. She's a vain, self-centred, thoughtless, shallow, lazy, drunken, amoral trollop who thinks nothing of getting men to pay for her decadent lifestyle and taking their money, and then has the gall to call them rats when they expect anything of her in return. The heroine of this movie, who has somehow become a global icon, is a runaway called Lula May who's mixed up in a Mafia drug ring, rude to her neighbours, and has nothing on her mind other than the next party and who she can persuade to buy her expensive presents. Her "breakfast at Tiffany's" involves standing outside at dawn, staggering home drunk, while scoffing a greasy take-away. That's the reality behind this icon of the silver screen.

Why's it seen as such a great film? Honestly, I don't know, but as one friend put it, it's the American fairytale: even a brainless redneck can make it in the big city. Or, to put it another way, if you just take whatever you want, as long as you're stylish, you can have it, and there's no need to worry about the consequences for anyone else.

Now, whenever I see that classic picture of Audrey Hepburn, dripping with jewellery, beautifully coiffured and attired, and chic cigarette holder in hand, I won't be thinking sophistication, charm, and wit. I'll be thinking empty-headed, irritating bimbo. I'm not sure I ever want to hear Moon River again (even if Katie Melua is singing it). I just hope I can watch Roman Holiday again without Holly Golightly popping up in my mind. I may just have to watch Robin and Marian as an antidote.