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Best of 2015 Pt. 2 (Books & TV)

15 Jan

Last week I posted my favorite films of 2015. Here is part 2 of my ‘best of’ list:

Only 3 of the many books I read this year make the list… but wow, are these three terrific:

A MONSTER CALLS

No other narrative in 2015 affected me as deeply as this heartbreaking, brutal yet beautiful novel. My good friend Shay handed me A Monster Calls, recommending it highly, and, with no other warning from her, I made the mistake of reading it on a plane. I can’t imagine what the passengers in the surrounding 5 or 6 rows were thinking when, during the last third, I audibly fell apart and then could not pull myself together when I finished. And I don’t cry. (Too much a man… you know…) Patrick Ness’ exquisite prose with deep emotional insight and stunning illustratations by Jim Kay create a book, an experience, that will be with me a long, long time. I will return to it often.

A Monster Calls. Patrick Ness.

WEST OF SUNSET

If you love 1) Old Hollywood 2) Movies and/or 3) F. Scott Fitzgerald, you will be in heaven reading this near perfect rendering of the last year or so of Fitzgerald’s his life as he struggles to survive in the film business and the world at large. I’ve read and enjoyed a number of author Stewart O’Nan’s novels but nothing prepared me for the beauty and craft of his latest, and best. The book is fictional, yes, but based largely on the actual facts of Fitzgerald’s life. Peppered with other real life characters such as Dorothy Parker, Humphrey Bogart and Hemingway, this was pure pleasure to read, even though recounting perhaps the darkest era in the famous author’s life.

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THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

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Touted by critics as “this year’s Gone Girl‘, Paula Hawkin’s debut novel is even better and, if you can believe it, even darker. A stunning thriller with one of the most complex main characters I’ve encountered in a while, The Girl on the Train blew me away. I read it in two days then immediately read it again, knowing all the secrets, to appreciate Hawkin’s mastery at deception and the best use of an unreliable narrator I’ve ever encountered. Unsurprisingly, the movie is currently filming with a terrific cast, though the movie’s switch of locale from London to New York is baffling and irritating. Read the book, don’t wait for the movie.

As for television, I wish I had more time to watch shows, given the amazing golden age of television in which we happily find ourselves . That said, I was lucky enough to watch some of the best TV in years:

SHOW ME A HERO

Hands down the best of the year. This critically acclaimed 6 episode mini-series was also the one HBO series no one seemed to watch. I can only hope it will slowly gain traction through word of mouth because this masterpiece absolutely slayed me. Based on the true story of a battle to create public housing in Yonkers, New York in the late 1980’s, Show Me A Hero is an unflinching, complex, thought-provoking drama about politics, race, ambition, betrayal, redemption… well, in its six episodes Show Me A Hero covers the gamut of almost every human emotion, foible and experience. While a period piece, everything in the miniseries has incredible resonance in our current climate. Spearheaded by The Wire’s David Simon, the miniseries showcases some of the best acting I’ve seen by an ensemble in a long time. With so many performers doing peerless work, I hesitate to single out actors, but mention must be made of Oscar Issac, who has become by far the most interesting and dynamic actor alive today. His work here is outstanding and holds the story together. And then there is Catherine Keener. I didn’t even recognize her for a couple of episodes. Her character, a woman fiercely opposed to the housing project, becomes the most fascinating character in the story with a subtle, beautifully realized arc that is one of the more surprising aspects of the series, which contains a number of shocking surprises. Given it is based on real life, nothing plays out as you would expect. I binged all six hours on a 14 hour flight and was transfixed the entire time. Whether you binge the series or, as I might recommend, take it slow to let the weight of the themes settle in before another episode, I encourage you to give this critically acclaimed but low rated series a look.

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THE JINX

Until I saw Show Me A Hero, The Jinx was easily my pick as ‘best of the year’ and, honestly, I might as well give them both the top berth. A six episode documentary about a murder mystery, The Jinx is riveting. I’ve seen it three times and will watch it again. Each time, in fact, I’ve watched it, with friends, in one sitting. Not only is it a suspenseful and shocking mystery, it’s brilliant use of what I call ‘disclosure of information’… how each piece of information in the story is laid out for maximum effect. This is a narrative I will teach in my screenwriting classes for years. The director, Andrew Jarecki, also directed one of my favorite documentaries of all time, Capturing The Friedmans (a must watch) and he builds on his craft to create something even more gripping in this stunner.  You will not be able to turn it off.

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MAKING A MURDERER

Netflix dropped another stunning true crime documentary at the end of the year and as the Christmas holidays rolled into New Years, social media exploded as everyone binged the series and began to post theories about it. The less you know the better, and watch it fast as it is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid spoilers. While I would say watch The Jinx if you are only going to watch one, you really don’t want to miss this either. Both The Jinx and Making A Murderer have created controversy by the manner of their storytelling and the real life implications that have erupted because of the narratives. More power to the filmmakers, I say. Both are brilliant. 

Oh and be ready to get angry. Very angry.

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NOTE: If you, too, loved The Jinx and Making A Murderer, find Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, the best true crime documentary ever made. A movie that, by breaking the traditional form of documentaries, is the grandfather of every modern doc that came after, The Thin Blue Line is another stunner, a movie that truly changed my life when I saw it in the theatre. It, too, was controversial at the time and, like this year’s duo, it had an enormous social effect when it was released. 

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FARGO

Last year, Season One of Fargo astonished most everyone by being the best piece of narrative fiction on TV in many years. Many critics found Season Two even better. While I myself don’t think Season Two quite reaches the dizzying heights of the first, this flashback to the 70’s and the life of one of the characters from Season One was still better than most of the other terrific shows on TV this year. Perfectly cast, audaciously directed and, like all things Fargo, hilarious and gruesome, if you have not seen either season move Fargo to the top of your binge list. You won’t be sorry.

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GAME OF THRONES

Still the best TV show I’ve ever seen. ‘Nuff said.

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Let us know your favorites! And, as always, thanks for reading. Here is to an equally terrific 2016!

The Best Meal I Ever Cooked

26 Dec

Fitting for the last post of the year, this week I cooked hands down the best dish I’ve ever prepared. It was so good part of me thought ‘Stop now, why keep trying?” Perhaps instead it will encourage me to bigger and better levels. Or maybe I will make only one dish now, over and over. Whatever happens, you must try my version of cassoulet.

It may not look like much right out of the oven, but… wow.

Cassoulet finished 1

As we discussed in the last post, cassoulet originated as a peasant dish, a way to combine a lot of pantry items and left over pieces of meat for a cheap meal that puts everything to use, no waste allowed. Great idea, right? Besides, who of us can resist a big old stewy pot of beans and meat?

Particularly when done well.

Over the years, I’ve cooked many versions of cassoulet and sampled other versions at some of my favorite restaurants. I’ve eaten a lot of wonderful cassoulet.

I don’t mean to be immodest, but it’s the truth: this was The Best.

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I have a small dinner for some friends every year the week before Christmas, so I tried it out on them. The consensus at the table was the same. “Felt like pure love”, “otherworldly” and “I never knew food could taste like this” were among the comments. (Thanks to my friends!) All of which is to say: give this a try! It takes some time but if you break it up over days, it is actually quite easy. Lots of steps, yes, but each step is simple. 

If and when you are ready, or for some great photos, click the link below for a page I created with the step-by-step recipe. With a little planning, you will be on your way to one of the most comforting, deeply satisfying meals of your life. 

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A few of the ingredients…

And Happy New Year! I will return soon with my year-end wrap-up posts, more movie and food posts and, as promised, a quick-fire version of cassoulet from by friend Brian Gerritson that deserves a post all its own.

Until then, Christmas and Holiday blessings… and thanks for reading!

Cassoulet: The Recipe

 

 

 

 

It’s called the Game Of Thrones

15 Jun

Game Of Thrones is like standing behind a mean horse who kicks you in the head, over and over. A friend walks up and says ‘What are you doing?”

KICK.

You say, “I’m standing behind a horse who keeps kicking me in the head.”

KICK.

Your friend asks, “Doesn’t that hurt?”

KICK.

You say, “Are you kidding? It’s brutal. I’m dizzy and I can’t see straight. Watch. He’s going to do it again.”

KICK.

Your friend asks, ‘Why don’t you move???”

KICK.

You say, “Because it’s the most beautiful horse I’ve ever seen.”

That’s Game Of Thrones. It pummels you, over and over, with unrelenting harsh brutality yet it is turning out to be the best show that has ever been on TV. You can’t walk away even as it repeatedly kicks you upside the head. It’s filled with amazing beauty and is as grand a narrative as you’ve ever seen.

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NOTE: Spoilers start halfway down, you will be warned before they start. Also, this is written from the perspective of someone who has not read the books. Please, if you have read the books, no forward spoilers in the comments section.

I actually had no desire to watch Game of Thrones.  Season three was over and I still refused. It’s not my genre (snore) nor did any of it sound appealing. I’ve certainly seen enough tits and ass and gratuitous violence over the years to keep the ‘R’ rated factor from being enticing. And dragons? Eh, whatever. Been there, done that as well. I was one of those people who, when fans would go rabid on Facebook, I’d roll my eyes with great patronizing condescension. Then after much bullying one of my best friends, Adam, dared me to watch the pilot. Just one episode and if I didn’t like it, he’d never bug me again.

Honestly, in about 5 minutes I was absolutely transfixed.

ned-beautiful-death What is it about this show? Certainly there is the scope. Nothing on this scale has ever been done on television. Each one hour episode is filled more stunning visuals than just about any summer movie thundering around the cineplex. And, yes, there is the “tits-n-ass and blood-n-guts” factor. The show is incredibly ‘R’ rated, so much so it spawned one of the funniest online videos of the last couple of years:

None of this, however, explains why the show is so popular and why so many of us are saying it might be the best show ever on television. For any narrative to work, the audience has to care about what is happening and George R. R. Martin, along with the creators, writers and actors of the show, have created incredible characters we root for passionately. As another great friend, Chad, remarked tonight after the season 4 finale, ‘I feel like people I know are dying.”

To read more, click the link!

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“Mariachi Band”

30 Aug

If you follow me on Facebook, you know I produced a record that we launched this week. Here is a little background on the project:

20 years ago a close friend of mine, Chad Holley, called from St. Louis to say he was engaged to be married.  Having not seen Chad for a while and wanting to meet his fiance’, I flew to St. Louis to meet Claire Chamblin, soon to be Claire Holley. There began another close friendship that has only deepened since the great day 10 years ago when Claire and Chad moved to Los Angeles.

Claire is a wonderful person and very good friend who, like my closest friends, patiently puts up with my hyperbolic passion. (I’ve written before about the wonderful arguments, um, discussions we have around the dinner table.) Claire is also an extremely talented singer/songwriter/musician. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing her sing often, a few times even in my own home at magical house concerts she performs in my living room.

Two years ago, I went to see Claire at the Cinema Bar in Los Angeles. One of the songs she sang that night was a new composition, “Mariachi Band.” By the time she finished the song, I knew I wanted to produce it. Convincing her of this, however, took a little cajoling.

Tom Provost and Claire Holley

Tom Provost and Claire Holley

Not many people know it but I, too, am a musician. I was plopped in front of a piano at the age of three and forced to take piano lessons for many years. My first piano teacher was an unpleasant old woman who would cut my fingernails way past the point of comfort and rap my knuckles with a ruler. This did not make me initially enjoy the piano, perhaps the understatement of the year. She also made me do volumes and volumes of “Notes”, which was music theory paperwork designed to teach notes and chords and everything musical on the page.  At the age of 5, this was Not. Fun. It wasn’t even playing the damn piano!

Thankfully, she, well, retired in a way and I moved through a few other piano teachers until I was 18, all much more fun. I also subjected my family to learning the saxophone for band. God bless ’em. While I remain merely passable at playing the piano, I was actually kick ass on the sax. Good performer or not, the music theory I learned under the old lady stuck with me and I’ve been a music fanatic all my life. Deep down, I always wanted to try producing.

When I heard Claire play Mariachi Band in her beautiful, haunting style, I had a vision for something a little different: more upbeat, a song that would make people want to tap their feet. I wanted to arrange the song in a way that would highlight her beautiful voice. And as a passionate lover of Los Angeles, truly one of the great cities in all the world, I also envisioned an accompanying video that would be a love letter to East Los Angeles, my favorite part of the city.

It indeed took a few more passionate dinners but eventually I convinced Claire to give it all a try. She helped assemble some of the more talented people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. We then spent a couple of days in the studio recording, then mixing the song.

Click to keep reading and see the video!

Continue reading

Try a.. Fig!

30 Sep

A few years ago, my roommate and very good friend, Adam, found a little sapling in the jungle that is the backyard. He identified it as a fig sapling. How he did this, I have no idea; if I get near a plant, it dies. Despite my near presence, Adam nursed that sapling into a short but incredibly prolific fig tree.

When Adam planted the fig sapling, another good friend of mine, Tiffany, who happens to be an amazing chef, told me that I better get ready and learn things to do with figs. She has a couple of fig trees and ‘bountiful’ doesn’t even begin to describe their produce. The upshot? Along with all the other fruit in the backyard, we get a lot of figs each year.

I’d never tried figs. Or, well, my only experience with figs growing up was eating Fig Newtons. Enough said. I eventually had a real fig at some point, but it was ghastly and I never wanted to try eating a fig again.

I think a lot of people are not fond of figs because there are some bad, gummy figs out there. Seriously.

But also there exists …..

One night I was at my favorite LA restaurant, Lucques, which was opened by my favorite chef Suzanne Goin, about whom I’ve written before. She opened Lucques along with her genius business partner Caroline Styne. It was a Lucques’ Sunday Supper, a wonderful night where you basically eat what the chef cooks that day. Late in the evening, dessert came to the table. And it was… figs and pecorino cheese on a plate drizzled with honey. I thought, “Huh, what? Where’s the hell is the dessert??” Thankfully, I was with… my friend Tiffany! (Funny how things works that way.) Tiffany happily dove in. I shrugged and tried the “figs and pecorino and honey” and… wow, oh my goodness. It was incredible. The figs were so moist and tender and full of flavor. Nothing like the terrible fig I’d had before. Combined with the pecorino cheese, with its salty tang, and also the honey… well, it was divine. I learned yet again that simplicity rules with cooking. Just a few top-notch ingredients, simply prepared, can be better than the most elaborately prepared dish.

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A Near Perfect Food

18 Feb

I was raised in the South. Port Arthur, Texas, specifically, a coastal town a literal stone’s throw from Louisiana. Being so close to Louisiana, many people in my hometown were Cajuns, my father’s side of the family included. Throw ‘The South’, ‘Texas’ and ‘Cajuns’ all together and you end up with people who overflow with hospitality and share a deep, intense love for food.

The house in which I was raised was no exception. My parents were two of the most hospitable people I’ve ever encountered. Someone was always in the guest room, on the sofa, borrowing the car, invited to dinner. Additionally, our life as a family revolved around food. What and when we would eat took precedence over just about everything else.

I tend to live by the example my parents set. If someone enters my home, their comfort is my goal and I feel embarrassed unless they immediately have at least the offer of food and drink. Given the house is a bit of a train station, with a parade of people coming in and out the door, I’ve developed some staples over the years I can throw together quickly or, better yet, have sitting in the fridge ready for use. The goat cheese spread below is first on the list, given the ease with which it is prepared. Oh, and then there’s this: it tastes really, really good. No, really. Even people who think they don’t like goat cheese devour this.

This stuff is so good, in fact, most of my friends get irritated if it doesn’t hit the counter soon after they arrive. Where’s the goat cheese? On the rare occasion I’ve been slacking and haven’t a ramekin of this waiting in the fridge, watch out.

Trust me. There is a reason this is the first food item I am posting on this blog.

GOAT CHEESE SPREAD

– 3 cloves garlic, peeled
– Fresh Rosemary  (1 or 2 sprigs)
– 11-14oz log of quality unflavored goat cheese, in big crumbles
– Juice of 1/2 lemon
– Olive oil
– Fresh black pepper

1) In the food processor, chop the cloves of garlic and the fronds off the rosemary sprigs.

2) Add the goat cheese, the lemon juice, and a few grinds of black pepper (don’t be shy with the black pepper) along with a couple of healthy glugs of good quality olive oil. Start the processor and blend, adding olive oil as needed. You want it creamy but not too soft and smooth, not runny. Add more pepper to taste if you like.

3) I put it in small ramekins such as in the picture. This recipe will usually fill three or four 4-oz ramekins. Cover them with foil and stick in the fridge. You can serve them right away but they get even better over time.

4) Before serving, take the spread out of the fridge and let sit on the counter for about 15 minutes so that it softens just a touch.

5) Serve with crackers, fresh rustic bread and/or crudite. Oh, and white wine. Always “serve with wine”, right?

** This keeps in the fridge at least a week. I’ve waited much longer to serve it, once over three weeks, and no one has yet died. It serves many purposes beyond a perfect appetizer. This spread is terrific to have waiting when you come home from a vacation, for instance, and the house is usually empty of good food. Or on a night when you don’t have time to cook and want a light supper. A ramekin of this spread, some olives and some good crusty bread is a great dinner for me. Additionally, some studies indicate goat cheese doesn’t cause the lactose problems of other types of dairy. Give it a try.

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