Movie Review: Chef (2014)

September 16, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Chef-Poster-Movit.net_

Chef is 100%, completely unabashed, unapologetic food porn. Written and directed by Iron Man director Jon Favreau, it tells the story of a master chef (Favreau) who loses his way before rekindling his passion for scrumptious cuisine by starting a food truck. On its face, Chef is a road trip movie about one man’s quest for redemption, but in reality it’s more or less one delicious course after another that will probably make viewers extremely hungry and foodies like myself spray their shorts in uncontrollable excitement (and envy) .

No one will deny that Chef is a vanity project. Favreau clearly loves his food (as evident by his sizable girth) and he has a passion for making it. There are lots of big names in the film, from Robert Downey Jr and Scarlett Johansson to Dustin Hoffman and Sofia Vergara, but you get the feeling that all of them agreed to appear as a “friendly” favour to Favreau.

But as another great self-indulgent piece of entertainment once said, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” In fact, some of the best movies and TV shows of all-time are self-indulgent, and it is in my humble opinion that one of Favreau’s greatest claims to fame lies in his role as Eric the Clown on the show that made the abovementioned line famous.

Anyway, Chef is essentially a very simple, family-friendly story about a guy who likes to make food. While working for a top gourmet restaurant in LA, Carl (Favreau) becomes engaged in a very public spat on social media with a prominent online food critic (Oliver Platt), resulting in a humiliating fall from grace. Then, with the help of his buddy (John Leguizamo), son (Emjay Anthony), his ex-wife (Vergara) and her other ex-husband (Downey Jr), he starts a food truck selling Cuban sandwiches. This time, he uses social media to his advantage in promoting the new venture as he makes a road trip back to LA via some other cities known for their culinary delights.

The story and the script could not be simpler, and you get the feeling watching the film that everything is secondary to the food. I saw the movie after a big meal and I was still getting hungry. Whether it’s gourmet cuisine or basic roadside snacks like Cubanos, Chef makes the food all look scrumptious enough to die for. It’s not as easy as it seems because I’ve seen plenty of food shows where all the grubby hands and sweaty chefs have turned me off. Watching Chef,  however, I felt like I could channel Favreau’s passion and almost smell the saliva-inducing aromas.

If you take away the food (no pun intended), Chef would be a barely passable movie with a cliched message telling everyone to do what they’re passionate about (with a side message about the dangers and powers of social media). There are some poignant moments between Carl and and his son, the core relationship in the film, but apart from that the film’s just an excuse to keep shoving delicious stuff in our faces.

My main problem with Chef is that after Carl’s initial fall from grace there’s almost no tension or conflict the rest of the way. It’s all just one big, smooth-sailing ride back up to the top. Even the ending is too neatly tied up into a perfect bow, and the cynic in me couldn’t help but cringe at all the mushiness. I guess it will work for audiences who are after nothing but a feel-good experience — which the film delivers expertly — but personally I wanted my emotions to be challenged a little more.

At the end of the day, Chef is what it is. Feel-good food porn that should be a hit with families and foodies alike. The foodie in me thinks it’s sensational, while the movie critic in me says “Meh.” My overall impression probably falls somewhere slightly above the average of the two (I am, after all, a pig).

3.5 stars out of 5

TWG Tea Salon (Taipei)

September 15, 2014 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

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The entrance to TWG Tea Salon at Breeze Center

Feeling posh? If so, go check out the TWG Tea Salon, the upscale Singaporean tea seller/diner at Taipei’s Breeze Center. I’m not much of a tea guy, but I do like brunch and I do like desserts, and TWG has both in spades. The store is pretty big, with about half dedicated to selling teas and the other with seats for dine-in patrons. No child seats or boosters, so that could be inconvenient for families.

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Tea. Lots and lots of tea

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A selection of tea-flavored ice creams

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The cake and macaron cabinet!

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Here’s one of their portable dessert cabinets

They also have a dining section outside the store, though it can get a little hot on sunny days despite the air conditioning as there is a sun roof.

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Outdoor dining section (that’s actually indoors)

Their menu is quite extensive, with a wide array of breakfasts, brunch sets, all-day dining and a la carte options. I took a photo of the full menu below (hard to see) but you can check it out the same thing at their official website here (note prices are in Singaporean dollars). Price-wise it is not cheap, around NT$1000 per brunch set and meaning that you’re likely to spend about NT$1000 a head when you take into account the 10% service charge.

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We ended up going with a midsummer brunch set, which comes with a massive vegetable quiche, freshly squeezed juice (we chose apple), one of their special teas, two scones or muffins, and a choice of dessert. That’s supposed to be a one-person set, so we also got their mini-burgers set a la carte, which comes with three tiny burgers.

Check it out.

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A visit to TWG is not complete without some tea!

They have about a zillion types of teas, so if you don’t know your stuff it’s best to ask the waiters for assistance. We wanted something that goes with milk, so we ended up a more traditional English Breakfast type. But if you want chai, or if you want fruit-infused tea, they’ve got plenty of that as well.

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Summer quiche

I’m a big quiche fan and a fan of this big quiche. This is a fantastic quiche, with hearty ingredients and chunks of real vegetables. The cheese is also not too strong and the flavour is just right — not too salty. Goes very well with the salad.

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Mini burgers!

These burgers were a little too mini for me, but they still tasted wonderful. The one closest to the camera is a foie gras burger with apple chutney, while the one on the right is a spicy chicken burger with a sauteed shallot confit. The one on the left is a Wagyu beef burger with a special TWG tea cocktail sauce. They were all wonderful in their own way, with contrasting flavours and textures, and really complemented each other well. Apart from the small size, this one was a dominating winner.

Then it was time for dessert, and after some soul searching we went for a lemon tart. We also chose the scones over the muffins (unfortunately you can’t get one of each). Here are the desserts and the jam/cream that came with the scones.

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Lemon tart and scones

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Cream and marmalade

The lemon tart was sour, which is just how I like it, and the meringue on top provided some sweetness to offset it. The tart base was solid and biscuity, the way it ought to be. The scones were quite average, and I think our homemade ones are better.

One final warning — the water is extremely expensive, from memory close to NT$200 for a relatively small bottle.

Overall, it was a pricey meal, but quite a nice and relaxing one too. An apt location for a relaxing afternoon tea or a brunch date. The food is high quality and there are plenty of options to choose from, so it’s not a bad place for a group gathering either.

8/10

Details

TWG Tea Salon

Address: Ground Floor, Breeze Center, No. 39, Sec. 1, Fuxing South Road, Taipei

Phone: + 86 21 3363 1837

Hours: 10am-10pm

Website: http://www.twgtea.com/

Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

September 13, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Little boys just love training their dragons. Following the relatively successful How To Train Your Dragon from 2010, Dreamworks is back to milk that cash cow, or more accurately, that cash dragon, with the sequel, How To Train Your Dragon 2.

I actually really enjoyed the original (review here), which was an entertaining, sweet little story about the friendship between a kid viking called Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his cute but powerful dragon Toothless. It’s not one of the more memorable animated features in recent years, but it’s in the upper echelons in terms of quality, excitement and fun.

In the sequel, Hiccup and Toothless are back, five years older and closer than ever. Pretty much all the old cast is back too, with Gerard Butler playing Hiccup’s father, Craig Ferguson as Butler’s right hand man, America Ferrera as Hiccup’s girlfriend and Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as fellow viking friends. Cate Blanchett also joins the cast as a female viking whom I won’t spoil.

Since learning about prejudice and making peace with the dragons in the first film, everyone in Hiccup’s village of Berk has changed for the better. But of course there is a brand new villain (Djimon Hounsou) hell bent on conquering all dragons for his own benefit, and it is up to Hiccup and Toothless to try and stop him with the help of their family and friends.

I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by How To Train Your Dragon 2, which is as good as its predecessor when it comes to visual thrills and tugging the heart strings. The story itself is relatively stock standard, predictable even, so film’s biggest strength lies in the stunning visuals from all the dragon-riding action sequences that make fine use of some creative and skilled camera work. The dragon designs, and especially all the beautiful mix of colours, really added to the visual feast the film provides.

It’s more or less a continuation of both Hiccup and Toothless’s coming of age, and I’m glad to say that the title is not misleading because there actually is more legitimate dragon training in the film. Like its predecessor, it’s not the funniest animated film out there, but How To Train Your Dragon 2 more than makes up for the dearth of laughs with the exciting action sequences and emotional resonance.

Last word: A good film for the family that builds upon the solid foundations of the original by taking things to a new level.

4 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: Lucy (2014)

September 12, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Lucy is a big deal in Taiwan. About half the movie was shot in Taipei, which is why locals have been so supportive by flocking to see it by the truckloads, turning the sci-fi action flick into the No. 2 film at the domestic box office for 2014 (behind — you guessed it – Transformers: Age of Extinction). The film’s reception in Taiwan has been somewhat muted. Some people say it’s awesome, while others have given it the lukewarm “It’s OK.” No one in the country really wants to say it. So I will. Lucy sucked.

Our eponymous protagonist, played by Scarlett Johannson, is a young woman living in Taipei who becomes an unwilling drug mule to some Korean gangsters. During her ordeal something happens, opening up her brain capacity from the normal (mythical) human 10% and accelerating it towards 100%. If you’ve seen the trailers you’ll know some crazy stuff goes down. She doesn’t just become a smart gal. She becomes a freaking superhero who would shit all over the Avengers if they ever met in a dark alley (and yes, that includes the Black Widow).

It sounds like a cool idea, and writer and director Luc Besson (who is also very popular in Taiwan) clearly thinks so too. But for a movie about an unfathomably intelligent being, Lucy is remarkably stupid. Stories about maximizing human brain capacity are not novel — Bradley Cooper gave it a shot in the flawed but vastly superior Limitless back in 2011 — but in Lucy the enhanced brain functions are taken to a whole new level, giving her ever-expanding supernatural powers like telekinesis, super-hearing, mind-reading, shape-shifting, tapping into electronic signals, controlling gravity, expert marksmenship, time travel, etc — you name it, Lucy can do it. And you thought the stuff Johnny Depp could do in Transcendence was ridiculous.

So basically, any semblance of real science goes out the window. The film is more or less a superhero action flick, and everything about it — from the tone of the film and its completely over-the-top action scenes to the way she transforms after gaining her powers — tells us not to take things too seriously. And yet, Lucy lacks the elements of what makes a superhero movie good. The problem lies with the complete lack of character development, or rather, the reversing development in her character. Lucy started off semi-likable, but the more powerful she grew the less human she became. She loses her morals and emotions. She essentially (and quite literally) turns into a machine — and we don’t give a shit.

When a film fails to make any emotional connection we start looking for something else, and in this case it’s the action. Lucy is adequate in this regard but nothing special. There is one scintillating car chase scene through the streets of a major city, but apart from that there’s not much we haven’t seen before. One of the reasons the action fails to truly excite is because Lucy becomes so powerful that she has no enemy who could provide the film with some much-needed conflict or tension. There’s no formidable foe or arch nemesis to give us the type of showdown a movie like this demands.

Worse still, Lucy has a distinct dearth of humour for a Luc Besson film. There’s a little bit of the usual cheekiness, perhaps, but there are no laughs to be found in Lucy, which is strange given the film’s farcical nature and tone. As for the performances, Johansson and Morgan Freeman are about as good as you could have expected, while the special effects are admittedly seamless, though both are things we tend to take for granted these days.

Unfortunately, my gripes go deeper than that. For all the hoopla about filming in Taiwan, it turns out that those scenes could have been shot anywhere. So we see some shots of the busy Taipei streets and various angles of Taipei 101. Big deal (sadly, for some Taiwanese audiences, that’s enough to make the movie great). We actually have no idea what the heck Lucy is even doing in Taiwan. We know she lives there and she appears to be a student, but that makes no sense because she doesn’t know a lick of Mandarin. Moreover, the antagonists in the movie are Korean. We don’t know what they’re doing in Taiwan either. They don’t speak English or Mandarin. It just makes the whole Taiwan setting extremely pointless.

I consider myself quite a careless viewer in that I don’t usually notice holes in movie storylines, but in Lucy they were jumping out at me because they was so obvious. For example, when Lucy goes into a Taipei hotel to look for a Mr Jang, the receptionist connects her over the phone and acts as a translator between the two. The problem is, the receptionist is speaking Mandarin to Mr Jang and/or his henchmen, and we find out later that they’re all Korean! Or when Lucy is in Taiwan and tells Morgan Freeman that she’ll be at his place in Paris in 12 hours — except a direct flight from Taipei to Paris is 12 hours and 35 minutes, and she’s not even at the airport! And I haven’t even talked about how Lucy apparently loses most of her teeth at one stage, only to have them apparently all grow back (so she’s got Wolverine powers too?) or how she kills a whole bunch of innocent people for trivial reasons (or no reason at all), and yet spares all the bad guys who are hell bent on tracking her down and annihilating her. Just really careless, sloppy stuff.

Having said all that, I didn’t loathe Lucy, or at least not as much as I think I should. The film actually started off relatively strong and was packed with a decent level of intrigue, but the further along it went the more preposterous and — pardon my “political correctlessness” — retarded it became. Apart from all the batshit insane stuff Lucy was doing, the film was filled with trite philosophical BS pretending to give meaning to the story, complete with Terrence Malick Tree of Life-style random snippets of micro-organisms, (copulating) animals and outer space. And if that’s not crazy enough for you, the Akira-esque ending almost makes Muholland Drive seem logical

All of the above combines to make Lucy a trippy, messy, cheesy experience where the enjoyment level is heavily dependent on how much nonsense you can stomach. If you go into it knowing you’re about to see the dumbest action movie of the year rather than the intelligent sci-fi it appeared on paper, you might even find the silliness endearingly fun. For me, however, Lucy was just one big clusterWTF that’s neither clever nor funny, rarely exciting, and only passably entertaining.

1.75 stars out of 5

Shanghai Kitchen (New Taipei)

September 12, 2014 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

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Shanghai Kitchen’s menu

Shanghai Kitchen (上海鄉村) is a relatively well known high-end Shanghai cuisine chain in Taiwan (I believe they have five outlets). They have one in New Taipei’s Banqiao district in the same building as the Eslite building near Fuzhong MRT station. The place is huge, but the couple of times I have been — weekday lunch and weekend dinner — the restaurant had very few customers. That said, I understand that the majority of its business comes from large group meals (they have private rooms) and special functions, especially wedding banquets, for which they have a dedicated section on the floors above.

But anyway, I’ve decided Shanghai Kitchen is a restaurant worthy of review because the food is genuinely excellent. It’s not an everyday-type restaurant, but I’d recommend it for group gatherings or special occasions. Their menu is relatively extensive and offers a variety of banquet sets and a la carte options.

Check out some of the awesome stuff we ordered below.

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This is one of their Shanghainese specialties, the stir fried shrimp meat. It looks simple — and it is — but it’s also simply delicious. Juicy and seasoned perfectly.

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This is their tasty vegetable rice cooked in an earthenware pot. Another simple yet wonderful dish where the essence of the vegetables are infused into the rice because of the way it is cooked. Much better than ordinary white rice when consumed with all their saucy, flavoursome dishes.

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Speaking of saucy dishes, check out this braised dongpo pork. It’s super fatty, but boy is it delicious. It’s a little salty by itself, but perfect with the above rice or these plain white bun pockets below.

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Next up, my favourite dish of the night — stir fried crab with glutinous rice cakes. This sauce is just sensational. The rice cakes provide a nice chewy texture to go along with the succulent crab meat, and if you have any sauce left you can have it with plain rice, or anything else really.

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The sauce goes great with these silk thread rolls we got below.

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And even better with these fried ones.

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To balance the meal up a bit after all that meat and carbs we also got this soupy luffa dish. Nice stuff.

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In all, this was a hugely satisfying meal. No weak links in all the dishes we got, with the stir fried crab and glutinous rice cakes and the dongpo pork being good enough to be the star menu items at any Shanghainese restaurant I’ve been to. A great place to visit for group gatherings and family meals.

8.5/10

Details

Shanghai Kitchen (上海鄉村)

Website: http://www.shanghaikitchen.com.tw/index.aspx

Address: Level 7, No. 46, Section 1 Zhongshan Road, Banqiao District, New Taipei City (inside Fuzhong Eslite)

Phone: (02) 2956 1818

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