Vifon Cháo Thịt Gà (Artificial Chicken Porridge)

I got a 6-pack of this at the same time as the Cháo Cá, because I’d never had it before.

Subjective snapshot

Quality: 1.5/5 stars
Spiciness: 0/5 chilis

Review

I had high hopes after their excellent fish porridge, but this one is actually pretty unimpressive. The “chicken” is onion-flavored TVP, which is texturally and flavorwise a bit unsetting, and the overall flavor is a bit too much of salt and onion; there’s not much ginger or any of the other flavors that made the cháo cá so pleasant.
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Vifon Cháo Cá (Fish Instant Porridge)

I’ve had this before, but I’m always on the lookout to get it for under $1 per bowl, because it’s enjoyable enough to be worth it.

Subjective snapshot

Quality: 3.5/5 stars
Spiciness: 1/5 chilis

Review

Porridge doesn’t get much respect as a lunch in America, but this stuff is unusually good and well-balanced. Instant-rice isn’t quite as satisfactory texturewise as stuff that’s actually properly cooked, but they make up for it in this presentation with lots of excellent flavor. The strongest note is of ginger, unsurprisingly due to the ginger powder and freeze-dried ginger in the packets, and a second spice edge comes from the pepper this is amply provided (but in a separate packet, so you can use less or none if you wish). But the fish carries its weight pretty well too — the chunks of fish in the foil packet have a consistency akin to tinned fish, and while they’re not quite up to par with fresh fish, they add the right fishy notes to this porridge. Unless you’re averse to the idea of a rice-soup instead of a noodle soup, or violently dislike ginger or fish, this is a very nice one to try out. I advise filling it to a little ways below the interior “edge”, as that makes for a thicker and richer soup.

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Lの本当の秘密/Death Note: L Change the WorLd

[Screenshot]Death Note is a hot property, and mostly deservedly so. What I’ve seen of the anime is clever and thrilling; I’m given to understand the manga is on a par with it. The first two live action movies (as reviewed here and here) were authentically enjoyable and mostly lived up to the promise of the preceding works.

This film, on the other hand, is a stupid pizza topped with extra stupid. It involves a competition among the various principals, all of whom are supposed to be fiendishly clever, as to who can behave in the most incongruously ridiculous way. We can start with the primary macguffin, a virus like Ebola, but far more infectious and more rapidly deadly. Incidentally, two things which keep Ebola from being much more dangerous than it is happen to be… its extreme infectiousness and short incubation time. It’s a horrific disease in a small area, but it tends to burn itself before becoming an epidemic.

The dumb things people do when fighting over this virus and its vaccine are mostly not worth mentioning, but two things stand out: first, a very important person ends up changing hands because, AFAICT, one side simply couldn’t be arsed to wonder where she is. Yes, L is supposed to be a bit spacey, but he’s also supposed to be smart. Second, and more damningly, the conclusion of the movie has ecoterrorists hijacking a plane to the US, with the intent of starting an epidemic there. They manage to accidentally infect themselves with the virus before the plane lifts off the ground.

A word of advice to terrorists: if you are infected with a virus which makes you bleed out your eyes and die in less than an hour, you might want to scratch the plan which involves a transcontinental plane flight. Perhaps, instead of flying to the fourth largest metropolitan area in the world, you will settle for the single largest one, which you’re already in?

Of course, one would think L, hearing of this plan, would breathe a sigh of relief as every single virus-carrier perishes in a plane crash, relieved to have foiled the plan at the price only of a single airliner full of innocents (this would arguably be in character). But instead we get a thoroughly uncharacteristic and risky action sequence which manages to save everybody.

This is, needless to say, a disappointing addition to the franchise. L’s mannerisms can’t carry a film, even in conjunction with Near’s equally odd quirks, and I miss the old days when Death Note-related media was intelligent.

(A note on contrasts: this review’s a lot shorter than the last review, also of a Japanese film but a classic. Writing about good film can be hard, because there’s especially if you don’t want to spoil the plot, one can only indulge in so much admiration. Tearing a bad or mediocre film a new one, OTOH, is always fun.)

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

切腹/Harakiri

[Screenshot]This is certainly a self-consciously arty film. Like many Japanese dramatic films, it brings to bear a fair number of stage dramatic conventions which I’m not deeply familiar with, so certain nuances of expression (and of course of language) might have been lost on me, but nonetheless it was impressively presented; it was very long but never felt like it was dragging, laying its story out in a way that left me anticipating its (rather gruesome) revelations and conclusion. It’s very much a period drama, but unlike the many (mostly Kurosawa) films of the feudal period, this one is set in the Edo period, with a strong consciousness of social change, evidenced both in the crumbling of the great houses which forms the primary dramatic backdrop for the story, and the technological change presaged by the appearance of firearms.

It’s a beautiful film, with stark cinematography and dramatic contrasts of shade in the set design; the most obvious criticism that can be leveled at it is that, like so many of its artistic peers, it runs quite long. The story is ultimately pretty slight, spun out in detail which although gorgeous occasionally gets a little narratively thin, and although it’s never dull it does tend towards a certain languidity, lingering on a particularly striking setting or bit of acting. But if you don’t mind a certain leisureliness of pcing, there is enough here that you won’t feel like your time’s been wasted.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Bánh mì in the DC Metro area: Saigonese

Before Thanksgiving, I was talking with my parents on the phone, and the conversation turned, as it is apt to when I’m around, to Vietnamese sandwiches. They were curious enough to see if there were any bánh mì joints near them, and turned up a little place in Wheaton, MD. Fast-forward to the holidays, and my own short visit to the parents out in suburban Maryland. There were many good reasons to come back home and much to do here, but of course, for you, my loyal reader(s), I had to go check out that nearby sandwich shop.

[Photo of a sandwich from Saigonese]Saigonese (11232 Grandview Avenue) is transparently a hybrid of a take-out sandwich shop and a sit-down eatry. The front counter features a menu board, while the same items appear in menus on each of the roughly fifteen tables in the dining room. Stringed instruments and impressionistic prints decorate the walls, so the presence of the dining room isn’t a complete afterthought, although much of their business does seem to be takeout. They have a fairly decent menu of standard Vietnamese entrees and appetizers as well as nine varieties of bánh mì (thịt nguội, xá xíu, chả lụa, thịt nướng, xiu mai, gà, bò viên, chay, and bì), My father and I split an order of gỏi cuốn ($3.95) and each had a bánh mì bì (at the traditional price point of $3).

Saigonese’s sandwiches may be the closest I’ve found to the traditional ideal that I enjoyed in San Diego. The bread is not particularly fluffy, but substantial with a snappy but not excessively crisp crust, brushed very lightly with a nicely fishy mayonnaise. The fillings adequate but spare, layered with the usual accouterments of a proper sandwich: no lettuce or raw onions or anything like that. Not much carrot either; the pickle-mix was pretty much entirely daikon. Apropos of the pickles, the sandwich might have been very slightly overbalanced in their favor, since there was a lot of daikon. That’s not a complaint, since they had a nice vinegary tang and crunch, but it is a distinguishing feature. The cucumber was provided in a thin sliver, as was the pepper (which was something of a departure from the more usual use of pepper rings or half-rings).

Overall Saigonese makes an extremely standard bánh mì, an expression I regard mostly as praise. They don’t deviate particularly from the formula, but they execute the standard form of the sandwich well. It could have used carrots and a slightly thicker wedge of cucumber, but these are very modest failings indeed. I might like the bì a bit nuttier and stringier, but I’m particularly fanatical about my shredded pork texture.

A House for Mr Biswas, by V.S. Naipul

They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Certainly, earlier this year, when V.S. Naipul was getting a moderate amount of flack for saying horrible things about his female colleagues, I was reminded that I never had gotten around to actually reading any of his books, so I settled down with this one, albeit with the thought in mind that Naipul really didn’t like women very much.

Viewed with this preconception, it’s pretty easy to see Biswas as more than a little misogynistic. There is a very strong theme, from Mr Biswas’s marriage on, of Biswas’s persecution by more powerful women (mostly Mrs Tulsi) who despite their despotism are actually incompetent in managing their households. Shama’s character is presented less starkly, and I actually found her rather sympathetic (probably unintentionally, as Naipul seems to regard her as a loveless harridan).

Moving past the kinda distressing gender-presentation, it’s actually a pretty good experience-delivery system. Naipul’s prose is well-crafted, and he describes well a time and place alien to me: Trinidad, in the peculiar genteel poverty of a brahmin of little means. He expansively describes a spectrum of settings from remote villages to cities, and gives a good idea of the economic realities of privation punctuated by certain luxuries. As a character study I found it less appealing, since Biswas isn’t actually a terribly sympathetic character and feels more than a little bit like an unreliable narrator, prone both to overstating his own misfortunes and understating his own responsibility for them.

In all, Naipul wrote in a way I found easy to digest and quite absorbing, in spite of the fact that I was a little bit less than sold on the actual content of his writing. That speaks, I suppose, to his talent as a prose stylist.

See also: Wikipedia.

Rubber

[Screenshot]I thought a movie about a sentient tire going around killing people was a pretty oddball premise, and one that had some promise. I got a rather stranger movie than I expected. I’m not even sure whether it’s supposed to be about the tire or the people watching the tire, and the central horror-element plot ends up as a sidelight to a strange but internally self-consistent set of rules governing observers and actors.

All in all, Rubber is one odd duck of a film. It is more than it might seem but also less than the sum of its parts, and the overall effect is of an intriguing experiment which is something of a stew of not-entirely-cohesive ideas. The whole is mostly clever, teetering on the edge of self-indulgence and only rarely falling on the wrong side, but whether it actually ends up “good” in spite of its flaws is a trickier question. Unmistakably it’s doing something different, and throws out some spoofing of the horror genre with a liberal larding of extradiegesis games and a quasi-Dadaist philosophy. Certainly a lot of the actual individual elements have been done before, and the whole is a splattery ball of unblended bits, but there’s a scale between “individual conceits” and “the whole film” at which a lot of the elements seem pretty imaginative and well-done.

On actual technical issues this movie doesn’t exactly shine, and “low-budget” seems to be the phrase of the day. I’m sure there’s some neat trickery involved in making the tire move around, some of which, I assume involves just plain rolling it in from off-camera, but the sets are pretty bare and the acting honestly fairly wooden most of the time — although a good half of the cast has the excuse, perhaps, that their acting is supposed to be terrible.

On balance, it’s mostly worth the watching. It’s not heinously long, it’s occasionally funny, and at its high points it’s actually rather interesting.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.