Breaking Bad: Too Good

November 30, 2011 in Best Of, Entertainment, Misc, On Writing, Reviews, Shows by pacejmiller

The unfortunate thing about American cable television is that certain shows, certain utterly brilliant shows, can get lost in the mix in foreign countries, relegated to expensive local cable channels (only 6.8% of Aussies have cable), late night slots nobody knows about, or obscure digital stations with little to no advertising and about two seasons too late.  You could always browse the DVD store, but with so many shows out there, just how do you separate them without some serious research?

I recently watched all four seasons of Breaking Bad (the fifth and final season is due next year), undoubtedly one of the best dramas I have seen in years, if not ever.  Shockingly, I had never even heard of the multiple award-winning show until a friend of mine and I were discussing how important it was to have a ‘good concept’ when trying to write a script (we used to think witty dialogue was enough — damn you Tarentino!).  And as soon as he mentioned the story of Breaking Bad — an underachieving chemistry teacher who discovers he has lung cancer and turns to making and selling crystal meth with a drop kick former student in order to provide for his family, with his DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) brother-in-law hot on his trail — I was hooked.

Bryan Cranston in season one

I’m not sure if Breaking Bad is the type of show I would have appreciated in my youth.  It is filled with tension and keeps you on the edge of your seat, but in a slow, insidious kind of way unlike the ‘pure adrenaline rush’ shows (such as say 24 and the first season of Prison Break).  It’s a drama but the unexpected black comedy keeps making me laugh out loud, while the grotesque violence and depravity keeps making me squirm.  It grabs you in with this compelling idea and pulls you deeper and deeper into the world of drug dealing and the horrific impact it has on the lives of everyone around it.  Creator Vince Gilligan said he wanted to follow a character as he gradually descends from a morally upstanding person into a total badass.  And after four seasons, Breaking Bad‘s protagonist Walt is well on his way.

Walt may have gone into meth making because of the purest of intentions — but because of the constant lies and deceit, the dark (and darker) moral decisions and judgments he is forced to make, combined with a massively suppressed ego that is finally released — he finds himself regularly pushing the boundaries and crossing lines you could never have imagined him crossing at the beginning of the show (or even a season ago).  And yet, despite who he is and who he has become, deep down you still find yourself rooting for Walt, which is really at the heart of what makes Breaking Bad so freaking good.

I love this poster of the 'breaking bad' Walter

The show is brilliantly constructed from top to bottom, inside out.  The quality scripts produced by American writers on such shows never cease to amaze me.  Sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrifying, always riveting.  The direction and the pacing are measured, allowing the story to unfold in a deliberate fashion.  The use of cinematography is probably the best I’ve seen in any TV show.

But of course, the show would not be where it is without the characters and the actors portraying them.   Bryan Cranston (prior to Breaking Bad, best known as the dad in Malcolm in the Middle, though I was stunned to discover that he was actually smug dentist Tim Whatley in Seinfled!) deservedly won three consecutive Emmys for his astonishing portrayal of protagonist Walter White (and it probably would have been four straight had the scheduling not precluded the show from this year’s Emmys).

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Cranston grabs the spotlight with his award-winning performance, which makes people forget how magnificent and equally irreplaceable Aaron Paul is as the insufferable yet lovable Jesse Pinkman.  I’m glad to see Paul, whose character was almost killed off in the first couple of episodes, be rewarded with an Emmy of his own in 2010.

This drug-making duo drives the show, but every key supporting character, from Walt’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and disabled son Walt Jr (RJ Mitte) to brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) and sister-in-law Marie (Betsy Brandt), is multi-dimensionally crafted.  And what about sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk)?  Everybody has their own motives, weaknesses and demons.  Special mention has to go out to Walt’s boss and intellectual equal Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), who absolutely ignited the screen in season four.  It’s not often that all the core characters from a show are this interesting, dynamic and ever-evolving.

And now we wait for the final season, season five, which is reportedly going to be 16 episodes (season one had seven episodes, and seasons two through four each had 13).  I for one am eager to see where the show heads after the way season four ended.  Will Walt keep falling deeper and deeper or will he try to turn back around (if he can)?  What will happen to his explosive love-hate relationship with Pinkman?  Will Skyler become an official part of the family business?  And will Hank finally realise the man he’s after has been right beside him all along?

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about an idea for a TV show.  It’s about a meth cooker who, after discovering that his cancer has been cured, decides to quit to become a high school chemistry teacher.  I think it’ll be a winner.

Aunt Lee’s Pan-Fried Steam Buns at Shida (Taipei)

November 26, 2011 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

All buns are made fresh on the spot

Just a quick one.  The restaurants and food stalls I’ve been visiting are pulling away from my posts of the places at an alarming rate, so I really have to start picking up the pace.

Shida Night Markets in Taipei is one of my favourite places.  I used to think it was just the various food stalls at night markets but recently I’ve realised that there are countless restaurants and snack stalls and cafes literally everywhere, and they all look so enticing, especially the ones in the back and side alleys.

This post isn’t about one of those places.

Aunt Lee’s Pan-Fried Steam Buns (李阿姨水煎包) (she calls it ‘Fried Dumplings on the Iron Plate’ — which just doesn’t sound right) is one of the super popular stores on the outskirts of the Shida Night Markets.  The buns hand-made on the spot, squeezed into a massive iron plate, drizzled with oil, flooded with water, and then covered up.  The buns are both steamed and pan fried, which is what makes them so irresistible.

Sample bun...mmm...

The lines are almost constant during peak hours and as soon as a batch is completed, the buns disappear before you have time to blink.  The anticipation is palpable.  Fortunately, there are two iron plates, so there’s always a batch being cooked, but if you go at the wrong time you might have to wait for a while.

The buns are sublime.  Littered with sesame seeds, the skin is thick and fluffy on the outside, crispy on the bottom, and the inside is moist, juicy and flavoursome.  There are meat buns and cabbage ones — they taste quite different but both are terrific in their own way.  And at NT$12 each (and 6 for NT$60), you can afford to get a few of each!

The truth is, there are so many pan-fried steam buns in Taipei, and most of them are amazing.  But if you are ever in the Shida area and you have some space left in your tummy, I’d definitely recommend Aunt Lee’s.

With business like theirs, you'd be laughing like that guy in the back too!

Details

Aunt Lee’s Pan-Fried Steam Buns (李阿姨水煎包)

Address: No. 11, Lóngquán St, Taipei (Shida Night Markets)

Price: NT$12 each, NT$60 for 6

Nearest MRT Station(s): Guting and Taipower Building

Naturestar HK Style Restaurant (Taipei)

November 26, 2011 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

We went at around 11am to avoid the rush

The last time I went to yum cha (that’s dim sums for you Poms) in Taipei I wanted to go to Naturestar HK Style Restaurant (天星港式飲茶 — pronounced ‘Tien Xing’) on Nanjing East Road, but due to renovations we had no choice but to go to the below average Plum Blossom Room (click for review).

This time, we made sure Naturestar was open and got there early to avoid the lunch time crowds.  Located a short distance from the Nanjing East Road MRT station, Naturestar is one of several yum cha restaurants owned by the Citystar Restaurant Group, which include the 24-hour Citystar (京星) and Luckstar (吉星), but personally, I think Naturestar is the best of the lot, whether it’s the food, the service or the ambience of the restaurant.

On this occasion, Naturestar did not disappoint again.  The thing with Naturestar that is different to regular yum cha restaurants you might be used to is that you have to order all your food — there are no ladies pushing carts of dim sums around.  It’s kind of good and bad — on the one hand, you don’t get that ‘ooh, I wonder what they’re bringing this time’ excitement, but on the other the food is always guaranteed to be hot and fresh.  Ordering from the menu also prevents you from getting too much food in one hit, though you do have to wait a little while after you’ve ordered.

Here’s what we ordered: pea pods, seafood gratin with cabbage, pan fried turnip cakes, steamed flour rolls with dough fritter and spring onions, steamed flour rolls with prawns, steamed prawn dumplings, pork ribs with black bean sauce, shu mai, garlic vegetables, pan fried squid cakes, deep fried crescents, and of course, chicken feet!

I took too many photos so here’s a gallery/slideshow.

Most of the stuff we ordered from from their yum cha menu, but Naturestar also has a regular menu with stir fries, BBQ meats, vegetables, rice and noodles, etc.

Everything we ordered was good, and because they were all made to order, fresh and piping hot when they arrived on our table.  The highlights included the seafood gratin (perfectly seasoned), the pork ribs (I like all pork ribs, so…) and the steamed flour rolls with dough fritter (which was one of the crispiest I have tasted any any yum cha place), but amazingly there was not a single weak link.

The price is around NT$300-400 per person, which is quite reasonable.  They have a special deal where you can purchase vouchers for the restaurant (and others in the Citystar Group) for NT$2000, which comes with a 10% off platinum card.  Not bad if you are a regular visitor or intend to become one.

The solid quality across the board is what makes Naturestar a good bet, no matter if you’re having a brunch or a midnight snack.  No wonder the place is packed most hours of the day.

8.5 out of 10!

Details

Naturestar HK Style Restaurant (天星港式飲茶)

Address: Level 2, No. 275, Section 3 Nanjing East Road, Taipei (next to Brother Hotel)

Nearest MRT station: Nanjing East Road

Website: http://www.citystar.com.tw/naturestar/about.php

Opening Hours: 11am to midnight, 7 days a week

Price: NT$300-$400 per person

Movie Review: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn (Part I) (2011)

November 25, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Why God, oh why do I keep watching the Twilight Saga?  Nevertheless, I do, and I just did.  I’m not a Twilight fan and I don’t really get the obsession with vampires and werewolves and the boys who play them, but I remain fascinated by this amazing global phenomenon.

Today I watched Breaking Dawn Part I, based on the first half of the final book in the saga.  Breaking Dawn follows the footsteps of Harry Potter and the Death Hallows in that the final book of the series is unnecessarily split into two films in order to maximise the big fat dollars.  Of course they would.  The first three films in the Twilight series have made $1.8 billion worldwide, and the decision was proven correct by the fact that Breaking Dawn Part I has reeled in over $300 million in a week.  (Hey, at least they didn’t make the movie 3D.)  But what does that mean for the average moviegoer?

Well, for starters, a slower pace and a feeling that stuff is happening when nothing is really happening.  Breaking Dawn Part I pretty much picks up where Eclipse concluded (as far as I can remember), with the long-awaited wedding between Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her vampire loverboy Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson).  Bella’s best friend, werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) is still in love with her, but he has basically accepted the fact that she will never be with him.  It’s hard to go much further than the honeymoon without divulging crucial plot points, but most people who go and watch Breaking Dawn Part I would have read the book.  Even if you haven’t (like me), it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where it’s heading.  Besides, the trailers and previews essentially show everything, as usual.

I didn’t expect much from Breaking Dawn Part I, especially after hearing about the early lukewarm reviews, so I must say it was better than I thought it would be.  Sure, it was slower than the other films in the series (which weren’t exactly blitzing to begin with), but I never found myself bored.  As with the earlier films, the film was strewn with atrocious, cringeworthy dialogue that made me literally squirm in my seat.  I doubt Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro could have pulled off those lines, so that didn’t leave much hope for the likes of R-Patz and Taylor “Abduction” Lautner (who only had a brief shirtless scene this time round).  Plus you know with Part II looming, things are going to remain unresolved by the end of Part I, so there’s definitely an empty feeling when you walk out of the cinema.

Let’s face it.  The real reason these Twilight movies are killing it at the box office is because readers fell in love with the books’ characters, and then the actors.  And Breaking Dawn Part I’s biggest selling point is well advertised — you finally get to see R-Patz and Stewart “get it on”, so to speak.  After all, the sexual tension is what has been driving the films all this time, so it was kind of a reward for the audiences who stuck with it until now.

Unfortunately, after sitting through basically six hours and three films worth of sexual tension, the pay off is disappointingly tame.  There were rumours of perhaps a nipple but for the most part the honeymoon scenes are strictly PG-13 (which is the film’s US rating).  Whatever.  People who love the books, the characters and the actors will lap it up nonetheless.  And they will unreservedly flock to Part II when it is released in November 2012.  At the end of the day, Breaking Dawn Part I was made for the fans and will be enjoyed by the fans.  For a non-fan with an interest in the series, the film was barely passable.

2.5 stars out of 5

PS: The scariest thing about Breaking Dawn Part I is that apparently it utilises two-thirds of the book, leaving only one-third for Part II.

Ramen Kagetsu Arashi (Taipei)

November 24, 2011 in Best Of, Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

Be prepared to line up!

I love ramen.  Did I mention I love ramen?

Unfortunately, having lived in Japan before, I have tasted the best this magnificent invention has to offer, and accordingly, everything else I have tasted outside of Japan pales in comparison.

However, I have heard good things about ramen in Taiwan, especially because a lot of the ramen restaurants are popular Japanese franchises.  One of the best, apparently, is Ramen Kagetsu Arashi (らあめん花月嵐).

One busy evening, we went to the new Ramen Kagetsu Arashi store in the B2 food court of the new Hankyu Department Store in Taipei.  The Hankyu Department Store is THE place to be right now because it’s connected directly with the Taipei City Hall MRT Station as well as the Eslite bookstore building, my favourite bookstore on the planet.  And the food court there is one of the most amazing I have ever set foot in.  I’ll be damned if I don’t get to try every single restaurant and piece of cake in that place!

The problem with Hankyu is that it is almost always guaranteed to be jam packed.  We started lining up at around 5pm and got in at 5:30pm, and if you go after 6 chances are the wait will be an hour or more.  You might have better luck at the foodcourt of the Vieshow cinemas nearby.

Anyway, the Arashi menu has four main types of ramen, all of which feature the “genkotsu” (pork fist bone) soup base, loads and loads of garlic and lard!  Healthy!  There is the regular type, which utilises soy; the spicy type, which of course has lots of chilli; the miso type, which uses miso instead of soy; and the white type, which uses natural salt for flavour.  There are always some seasonal specials but I assumed if the specials were that good they’d be on the regular menu, so I passed.

The condiments, and the additions menu behind them

We went with the regular type ramen, which is supposedly the most popular.  There are lots of additions you can pay for, such as extra spring onions, corn, egg, cabbage, sesame seeds and so fort.  You can also get additional chashu (meat) because all ramen only come with two slices of pork, but that was enough for me.  We also didn’t get the meal set, which is essentially a beverage and a small bowl of rice with fried garlic sauce for an additional charge.

Look at that soup!

The aroma from the garlic in the soup was so strong that it made me drool.  On top of that they can also give you extra cloves of fresh garlic which you can crush and toss into the soup, if you want to stink even more.  The size of the bowl is decent — big enough to fill you up but not too big so as to make you get sick of it.

Want more garlic? You got it!

On every table is a range of condiments you can add to enhance the flavour if you so desire — chilli oil, chilli powder, vinegar, soy, special sauce and spices, etc.  For me, the flavour of the soup was strong enough.

So was the ramen good?  Yes.  Very good.  The ramen soup is the key, and Arashi’s is sublime.  The soup is so thick that it is opaque, and you can see the tiny blobs of fat floating in there, but I tell myself it’s just the garlic (some of it is).  The meat is also quite good, soft but not quite to the extent where it melts in your mouth.  The noodles are average because they are not hand made, but then again, most ramen stores don’t make their own noodles.  In all, good enough to rival some of the ramen places I visited in Japan, but not quite in my “pantheon”.  That said, it’s definitely good enough to warrant return visits, once you get the garlic smell out of your system.

But hang on, we didn’t just have the ramen.  We also got a hot plate rice.  This dish is much like the stuff they serve at Pepper Lunch”, another Japanese franchise.  Essentially, they give you a hot plate with fried rice and butter on it, which keeps cooking as you eat.  We got, you guessed it, the garlic flavoured one.  We figured if we were going to stink we might as well go all the way.

Garlic and butter -- an unbeatable combo

The rice was pretty nice — but then again, any time you mix garlic and butter it’s not going to taste too bad.  It was, as expected, a little on the oily side, but still a nice complement to the ramen.

I have to try more ramen places in Taipei, but at the end of the day, I would be very surprised if Ramen Kagetsu Arashi is not one of the better ramen places in all of Taiwan.

8.5 out of 10!

Details

Ramen Kagetsu Arashi (らあめん花月嵐)

Price: around NT$160-250 per person, depending on whether you get sets, additions or sides

Websites: Official — http://www.gone-grp.com/main.php; Japanese — http://www.gbj-tw.com/; Chinese blog — http://www.wretch.cc/blog/kagetsu

Stores (Taipei only):

Taipei Main Station
2nd Floor of Breeze food court at Taipei Main Station (closest MRT: Taipei Main Station)
(02) 2389-1998

Xinyi Vieshow
2nd Floor of Vieshow Cinemas food court at Xinyi district (closest MRT: Taipei City Hall)
(02) 2729-2128

Eslite (Dunhua)
B1 Floor food court of Eslite at 245 Dunhua South Road (closest MRT: Zhongxiao Dunhua)
(02) 2778-5777

Hankyu Department Store
B2 Floor food court of Hankyu Department Store (closest MRT: Taipei City Hall)
(02) 8789-3030

Nanxi Shin Kong Mitsukoshi
B1 Floor of Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Department Store Hall 2 at 14 Nanjing West Road (closest MRT: Zhongshan)
(02) 2562-0011