Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The five top movies to watch this New Year's weekend

I’ve never been a big fan of the hoopla that surrounds New Year’s Eve. I’ve certainly been to big, loud parties where everyone gets all excited about the countdown to midnight, but what I prefer is a more quiet holiday, perhaps with some good friends, good food, and a good movie. Peter and I were talking over dinner last night, brainstorming what would be the ultimate movie to watch over the New Year’s holiday. Lots of ideas flew across the dining room table, and we debated about the attributes that make the perfect New Year’s movie. For me, it has to be a “big”, lush film with great characters, and a certain sparkle or “edge” to it. 

So if you’re looking for suggestions, here are my top five movies to help you usher in 2011:

Living Out Loud
So many great scenes and terrific character development put this 1998 film at the top of my list. Holly Hunter plays Judith Nelson, a recent divorcee in Manhattan who’s looking for meaning in her life. Along the way, she meets Pat (played by Danny Devito), her high-rise building’s elevator operator who’s down on his luck, and Liz Bailey (played by Queen Latifah), a singer at a local jazz club. The writing is brilliant, the soundtrack is fabulous, and although I’ve probably seen this movie a dozen times, this film never gets old for me. There’s a scene at a restaurant that always makes me cry, and a steamy scene where Judith steps way out of her comfort zone and hires a massage therapist (played by LeAnn Rimes’s new fiancĂ©, Eddie Cibrian) for an in-home session. You can watch my favorite scene below. Judith is ready for some adventure, so after popping some Ecstasy, she has a run-in with Pat and then heads out to a club in New York’s Meatpacking District with Liz. 

Moulin Rouge
I find that people either love or hate this movie. I was bowled over the first time I saw this 2001 adventure, directed by Baz Luhrmann, who is a true visionary. It’s a giant, bright, loud movie set at the famous Moulin Rouge nightclub in Paris. Starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor (they’re both great singers!), the movie is filled with balls-to-the-wall production numbers, over-the-top sets, some wonderful screwball comedy, and a wonderfully touching love story. Watch this scene to see a great take on Elton John’s “Your Song” – gives me chills to see this again!

The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg

Starring a very young Catherine Deneuve, this 1964 film is all in French and is all in song. But don’t let that scare you away. The movie is colorful and beautifully romantic, telling the story of 17-year-old Genevieve, who wants to marry her handsome auto mechanic boyfriend, played by Nino Castelnuovo. Afraid that her daughter is too young to get married, Genevieve’s mother (who owns the umbrella shop in the coastal town of Cherbourg) puts a stop to the relationship. Go watch this terrific film, and just see if your heart doesn’t break. Here’s one of my favorite scenes, featuring the love theme, “I Will Wait for You”.


All About Eve
I’m sure everybody has already seen this classic Bette Davis vehicle, but this 1950 film still holds up. Aging Broadway actress Margo Channing is threatened when a seemingly innocent younger actress starts edging into her life and career. Featuring one of the all-time great movie lines (Margo downs her martini and with a flip of her hair, warns her cocktail party guests: “Fasten your seatbelts – it’s going to be a bumpy night!”), this film earned a “Best Picture” Oscar. Watch Bette Davis utter the famous line here, and see one of the earliest movie appearances by Marilyn Monroe.

The English Patient
When this movie came out in 1996, I saw it in the theater three times! Starring Ralph Fiennes and stunning actresses Juliette Binoche and Kristin Scott Thomas, this film defines the word “lush”. Told through a series of flashbacks, the movie features wonderful landscapes in North Africa and Italy and a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack. Here’s the official trailer for the film. "I promise, I'll come back for you. I promise, I'll never leave you." Sigh…

If New Year’s Eve finds you in the mood to laugh, then you need to check out “Waiting for Guffman”, a fake documentary about the townspeople of Blaine, Missouri (“The Stool Capital of the World”) as they prepare for a stage production in honor of their town’s 150th anniversary. Written, directed by, and starring Christopher Guest (married in real-life to Jamie Lee Curtis), this movie is outright silly and, at least to me, fall-down funny. Like other “mocumentaries” created by Christopher Guest (“Spinal Tap”, “Best In Show”, and “A Mighty Wind”), much of the dialog is improvised. Here’s a wonderful clip of the community auditions for the stage show. It still makes me laugh out loud!

So what do you think? Have you seen these films? Do you have others the would make a better pick for New Years?

Monday, December 27, 2010

I feel his pain

Wiped out after the holidays. Luckily, I got a "snow day" at work today, so we've all got a little time to catch up.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A sweet and savory Christmas

To me, nothing says “Christmas” like all of the traditional kinds of food we make each year. Over the past week or so, we’ve spent a lot of time in the kitchen. Both of us love to cook anyway – but at the holidays, we always ramp up to create our favorite treats. This year was no exception.

First up was dark chocolate bark, a base of semisweet chocolate with swirls of white chocolate, all covered with a mixture of toasted walnuts, pistachios, chopped apricots, dried cranberries, and tiny pieces of candied orange and grapefruit peel. I made a huge mistake while candying the citrus this year. After spending almost an hour (!!) peeling and painstakingly removing all of the white pith from about a dozen oranges and grapefruit, I gave the peels two baths in boiling water (helps remove some of the bitterness), and then submerged the pieces in a heavy sugar syrup to simmer. Somehow I got distracted and “forgot” about the project, until I detected the smell of burning sugar. Oops…the mixture was at a fast boil, and big bubbles of black sugar filled the pot. I left the saucepan on the stovetop and went to bed, and when I got up the next morning, the entire concoction had hardened into one giant lump of coal, with little bits of orange and grapefruit peel peeking out. Totally disheartened, I left for work, vowing to scrub the pan when I got home that night.

But when I got home, Peter had a wonderful surprise in store for me. He had added some water to the pot and left it to simmer on the stovetop. The gloppy mess reconstituted into a (dark) syrup and he rescued most of the citrus pieces and put them out to dry. So when I got home, I found my sugared citrus on the counter, ready to add to my bark. A Christmas miracle, indeed!

Vegetarians will want to steer clear of our next dish: country pate, a savory blend of ground pork, bacon, ham steak, good-quality Cognac, onion, garlic, and wonderful spices. Peter calls it his “fancy meatloaf”! A little slice on a cracker or piece of crusty bread, along with some spicy mustard and a cornichon is soooo delicious. Here’s the recipe from Bon Appetit that we use.

And our “piece de resistance” – our traditional devil’s food layer cake with peppermint frosting. Four layers high, this recipe was featured on the cover of Bon Appetit a couple of years ago, and when Peter – a huge fan of good chocolate cake – saw it, he was determined to try it out. Filled with dark chocolate ganache and billowy clouds of heavy cream and minty white chocolate, the cake is covered with a marshmallowy peppermint icing and decorated with tiny curls of dark chocolate. Making this cake is time-consuming – we usually spread the process over two days --  and you pretty much use every pot and pan in your kitchen. But the end result is so tasty and rich, that a tiny slice will suffice. In fact, I’d recommend you find a few friends who appreciate good cake and offer them a slab. We brought it over to our friends Doug and Jo Ann’s house last night for a wonderful Christmas evening dinner, and even after serving six guests and leaving some with our hosts, we still have half a cake left! 

And what's not to like about our traditional Christmas Eve martini?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Visiting a local nursing home on Christmas Eve

Otis, our six-year-old Portuguese Water Dog, made his first visit as a certified therapy dog on Christmas Eve morning. We went to Marion Manor, a nursing home and rehabilitation center here in South Boston. Otis, decked out in his official therapy dog vest and colorful velour scarf, ran up the front steps at Marion Manor like he lived there, eager to report to his first day at work.

Inside, we met Christine, who works in the activities department, and she escorted us around the facility for about an hour. Up and down the hallways, Otis made his presence known, often being the first one to poke his head around the corner of someone’s room. He tugged us into the middle of a physical therapy session, where about 10 residents in wheelchairs were doing exercises, and the class came to a screeching halt while Otis made the rounds.  Christine knows every resident, and brought us to visit several dog-lovers who she knew would appreciate a visit from Otis. Most everyone seemed thrilled to see our pooch (“You’ve really made my day,” said one lady) while some were more content to just see him from a distance (“Do you want to pet the dog?” Christine would ask. “No,” several residents replied with a smile.)

We visited one floor that houses just men, where Otis got a little startled when one resident’s hand dropped on his head unexpectedly. Then it was off to the women’s floor, where Otis was in his glory. He’s always been somewhat of a lady’s man, enjoying the cooing and all of the fuss made over him. One lady named Rose seemed more interested in getting to know Peter and me (“I’m not so interested in the dog,” she said, “but you’re handsome!”)

As we left the women’s floor, we could tell Otis was spent. It must be a lot of work wagging your tail and letting people pet you for an hour! All in all, it was a great visit and we’ll make another visit to Marion Manor in the new year. 

Christmas Eve on Castle Island

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Amen to that...

Try these: White Trash Christmas Nuggets

With all due respect to Rachael Ray, some of the food she showcases on her TV shows and in her magazine don’t look so appetizing. I must say, however, that a few year’s ago, I found this recipe in her monthly magazine, and I made a batch to bring to my sister’s house for Christmas. I long ago tossed the recipe, so I don’t know what Rachael really calls these, but “White Trash Christmas Nuggets” seems to fit the bill. My sister asks for them every year, and honestly, they are pretty good: chocolately, crunchy, salty, and sweet.

These are very simple to assemble. Start with a bag of Kraft caramels. Unwrap them, and then roll each one into a flat disc with a rolling pin. Wrap a small pretzel nugget (I used Snyder’s of Hanover’s Sourdough Nibblers) in each disc, using your fingers to stretch the caramel to completely cover the pretzel. Using toothpicks or a fork, dip the covered pretzels into melted, semisweet chocolate chips and place on a foil- or parchment paper-covered cookie sheet. Before the chocolate hardens, sprinkle the pretzels with finely chopped, roasted almonds. Put the cookie sheet in the fridge until the chocolate is set.

So what’s your favorite, white trash holiday recipe?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas comes early for Frosty

We saw this display while walking around my sister's neighborhood last night. Ho ho ho!

A visit from Panty Claus

So we were visiting family in upstate New York for the holidays last weekend. On Saturday morning, I went for a walk with my dad around the retirement village where my parents live. It was a cold, crisp morning, but we had our cups of hot coffee and it was fun to steal a few private minutes alone with my father. Looping back to the house, we made a quick stop at the "clubhouse", the epicenter for all social activities in the village, so my dad could check his mail. I wandered into the main function room, where my dad pointed out the "free table" - a six-foot long, folding table where residents can drop off household items they no longer want. Anyone is welcome to take any item, but it's first come, first served, so if you see something you like, you’ve got to act fast.

On this particular Saturday morning, there were three items on the table: a well-worn copy of "Elle" magazine, an empty egg carton, and a pair of women's panties. Yes, in a retirement village where the average age is well north of 70, one of the items that someone donated to the "free table" was a pair of white panties with little flowers and a little pink bow at the center of the waistband. I have no evidence to prove that I’m not making this up, as I had left my camera back at my parent’s house. Later that morning, as we were on our way out to run some errands, we pulled the car over in front of the clubhouse and ran inside. And wouldn’t you know it? The panties were gone! Perhaps snagged for a Yankee Swap gift or by someone who really, really needed a pair of women's panties. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Snoopy's dance of joy

My favorite scene from the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Missed it on TV this year -- all hail YouTube!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Just asking...

Is it wrong to watch the season finale of "The Biggest Loser" while eating a pint of Edy's mint chocolate chip ice cream?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The perfect gift for the busy executive

I had a little time to kill last night before visiting a friend on Boston’s South Shore. So do I go to the mall, or a Starbucks to overpay for some fancy holiday drink, or some posh little gift shop? Of course not! I saw a sign that says “Grand Re-Opening!” on the Family Dollar Store on Route 37 in Holbrook and pulled into the parking lot.

And yes, I did end up buying a few items: a pair of reading glasses ($6.00), a couple of small Christmas gift bags (50 cents each), a box of cinnamon graham crackers ($1.40), and just because chocolate milk suddenly sounded so good to me, a plastic squeeze bottle of Hershey’s syrup ($1.50).

The one thing I didn’t buy, however, was this deluxe 7” Executive Ashtray, made right here in the U.S. of A. And get this – this particular ashtray, a steal at $1.50, is BURN RESISTANT! Yup, says so right on the box! And it’s DISHWASHER SAFE! What well-heeled busy executive wouldn’t want one of these ashtrays on their desk? Comes in two fun colors: red (plastic) and black (plastic). And did I mention that it’s just $1.50? But supplies are limited: run to the Family Dollar Store. As of last night, there were ONLY TWO LEFT! HURRY!!!!!!!!!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Farewell, Mrs. Bridges

Last Wednesday night, we watched the final episode of Upstairs Downstairs, the acclaimed Masterpiece Theater series that ran from 1971 to 1975. When we started watching episodes from Season 1 last summer, I didn't think it would be my cup of tea - I'm admittedly biased against movies or TV programs that I categorize as "English Talky-Talkies". But it didn't take long for me to get hooked.

The series followed the lives of a wealthy British family (the Ballamy's, who lived "upstairs") and their household staff (who lived "downstairs"). It covers events over a span of 30 years at 165 Eaton Place in London and features real-world happenings (including World War 1, the sinking of the Titanic, and the influenza pandemic of 1918) juxtaposed against the politics, relationships, and drama of everyday life.

Throughout all 68 episodes, the acting was top-notch and the writing was superb. There are lots of twists and turns to keep you interested - and some bold moves with character development and demise. The series was nominated for and won many awards, including being named "Best Drama" by the British Academy Television Awards. It also won several Emmy and Golden Globe prizes.

My favorite character? Kate Bridges, played by actress Angela Baddeley, who oversaw kitchen operations "downstairs". Her character was proud, hardworking, and despite her sharp tongue, an old softy at heart. Perhaps I'm fond of Mrs. Bridges because she reminds me of my Grandma Reese, who until the day she died at age 96, was never shy about telling you - unfiltered - what was on her mind. I'm also drawn to the character because, if I ever win the lottery, I'd like to have a live-in cook like Mrs. Bridges. Wouldn't it be great to have all of your meals prepared, served, and then have those dirty dishes whisked away and cleaned?

So if you're looking for a series to get you through the long winter months ahead, I couldn't recommend Upstairs, Downstairs more highly. It's available on Netflix...so it couldn't be easier.

Here's a clip of the show...watch for Mrs. Bridges at about the 1:00 mark.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A lunch fit for "ach-ing"

On a quick lunch break from a business conference today in Providence, I ran over to Luxe Burger Bar. Delicious beef burger with goat cheese, dill pickles, baby lettuce and a side of gorgonzola tater tots. And oh yeah, a big, frosty cold ginger ale. Can't figure it out, but I'm feeling kind of sluggish now.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

For the love of god, people, HURRY. I can't go on without a Tweet from Khloe Kardashian

Associated Press -- Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, and Kim Kardashian are among the celebrities said goodbye to Twitter and Facebook on Wednesday for World AIDS Day. The campaign initiative, called the Digital Life Sacrifice, headed by Alicia Keys, aims to put the disease in perspective with celebrities filming their "last tweet and testament" videos and appearing lying in coffins for ads. Entertainers such as Usher, Jennifer Hudson, Ryan Seacrest, Khloe Kardashian and Elijah Wood, who also joined Keys's initiative, won't go back on social media platforms until they raise $1 million for the Keep a Child Alive foundation.


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