Flicks and Eats

Life is like a box of cupcakes…

The Boondock Cupcakes


The Pink Princess cupcake from Bittersweet Pastry Shop & Café, Chicago

Agus beimid inár n-aoirí
ar do shonsa, a Thiarna, ar do shonsa,
tá cumhacht tagtha anuas ó do lámh
ionas go gcomhlíonadh ár gcosa do thoil go tapaidh.
Sruthóimid ar aghaidh mar abhainn chugat
Agus plódaithe le hanamacha a bheidh sí go deo.

I figured it’d be fitting to reference a movie featuring Irish Catholic twins on St. Patrick’s Day. For those of you who haven’t seen this movie, here’s a one sentence synopsis—After killing two members of the Russian mafia in self-defense, Connor and Murphy (the Irish Catholic twins) become vigilantes and set out to violently rid their home city of Boston of crime and evil, which leaves the people asking, “Are the Saints ultimately good, or evil?” This reminds me of the show, Dexter, featuring a serial killer who kills serial killers. Bittersweet, huh?

Before this post gets too violent, let’s talk about Bittersweet Pastry Shop & Café. Their selection ranges from sweet to savory including cakes, pies, tarts, mousse, soups, sandwiches, quiches, and much, much more. We snagged a $10 Groupon for $20 worth of treats at Bittersweet and were anxious to give it a taste. Upon walking through the front door, we were greeted by a collection of merchandise to the right, a colorful assortment of baked goods to the left, and a sweet aroma. Perusing their numerous trays of macaroons, cookies, and tarts, we found it difficult to make a decision.

At this point, you’re asking, “What about the cupcakes?” Well, the cupcakes seemed like an afterthought since they only had a selection of three, one of which had already been sold out for the day (with hours left before closing). Granted, they are a bakery, not a cupcakery. In fact, they do have a cupcake menu with a wide variety of flavors, but it seems they only make a few flavors each day. Strike 1. To top it off, the staff were visibly annoyed that we didn’t know what we wanted right off the bat. Strike 2. Dude, this is our first time here and we were hoping to buy cupcakes, not a hundred macaroons.

There were only two available cupcakes—the Orange Chocolate and the Pink Princess—which, in my opinion, represented two different extremes. The Orange Chocolate consisted of a velvety chocolate cake frosted with orange-flavored icing and garnished with a few orange peel slivers. The cake was divine. The icing was pretty tasty, but its flavor overpowered the chocolate cake. I would equate this cupcake to one of those chocolate oranges (a.k.a., ball of chocolate shaped like an orange), except with ten times more orange-flavoring.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the Pink Princess cupcake, which was indeed very pretty. However, it was practically flavorless. The cake was moist enough, and I did taste a hint of strawberries, but the frosting was bland. I imagine it tasted something like sugary Crisco. Perhaps, my taste buds were still recovering from the previous cupcake and were unable to receive any more flavor signals.

I have heard rave reviews about Bittersweet, and I don’t doubt they can make a mean cake (among other things), but I wasn’t entirely sold on their cupcakes. I suppose you could say my experience at Bittersweet was bittersweet. On that note, Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Go mbeannai Dia duit.

Rating:  ★★★☆☆ 

posted by Rachael in Cupcakes and have No Comments

Honey, I Blew Up the Cupcake


Tiramisu cupcake from Crumbs Bake Shop, Chicago

Normally, I reference movies that I’d recommend. Not this time. However, pairing this movie with Crumbs Bake Shop is completely apropos and I couldn’t resist the opportunity. Besides the fact that most movies should not have sequels (e.g., Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Land Before Time II through XIII – sorry kids, I like Littlefoot as much as the next guy), no one wants to see a giant baby parading around town with his older brother and babysitter captive in his overalls’ pocket. To make matters worse, Walt Disney made another sequel, Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves. WTF (“what the…fun”), Walt Disney, why can’t peeps just be normal sizes? But, I digress. So if you watch Honey, I Blew up the Kid and think it blows, don’t point your sticky cupcake finger at me. You’ve been adequately warned. Also, sorry if you like this movie.

Crumbs is new in town. They first opened their doors in 2003 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, NY and since then, have opened various locations on the west coast and now one in Chicago. It is only fitting that Chicago should have a piece of the cupcake. They serve 50 fork-licking flavors daily (including the Baba Booey, Artie Lange, and Elvis) in four different sizes—taste, classic, signature, and COLOSSAL (the CAPS were necessary). This gargantuan cupcake towers at six and a half inches high. Have a birthday coming up? Bar/bat mitzvah, perhaps? It serves 6 to 8 sugar lovers, or those coming of age.

Now, I’m rarely one who will eat a cupcake with a fork. I like to go the infant route and shove it in my face with my hands. The difference between me and the little tyke is that most of it makes it in my mouth. But Crumbs’ Signature cupcake is six ounces and almost four inches high, which calls for a fork and sharing. They should call this the mini colossal cupcake. Naturally, I ordered two—Blackbottom Cheesecake Brownie cupcake and Tiramisu cupcake. Let the eating commence!

I am ashamed to say that I ate the whole Blackbottom Cheesecake Brownie cupcake by myself. Who am I kidding? I am proud. Then, I didn’t eat for two days straight. Another lie. This work of art consisted of brownie cake with cheesecake baked in, topped with vanilla cream cheese frosting covered with brownie chunks and vanilla cream cheese drizzle. The brownie portion made up most of the cupcake and it was chocolatey and cakey. As promised, cheesecake was baked in for the double whammy. I could have used a little more of the cheesecake. Guess what?! I got a fever, and the only prescription…is more cheesecake! Nevertheless, I was not disappointed. I got my chocolate, vanilla, and cheesecake fix all in one delightfully large cupcake. Don’t even ask how many calories this thing cost me.

Later on, Ian and I split the Tiramisu cupcake during the intermission of Lohengrin at Lyric Opera—just your typical Wednesday night. Everyone else was eating their $15 plain, boxed dinners while we were digging into a gourmet dessert. The Tiramisu cupcake was a vanilla cake filled with vanilla custard and topped with vanilla cream cheese frosting and sprinkled with cocoa powder and soaked with coffee. We inhaled it and left no crumbs.

You can’t eat in at Crumbs but this is a perfect dessert to bring home for two, or 6-8 if you opt for the colossal cupcake. A machine that blows things up to gigantic sizes isn’t even necessary.

Rating:  ★★★★½ 

posted by Rachael in Cupcakes and have Comments (2)

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cupcakes


Rachael's Reese's Peanut Butter Cupcake

For my peanut butter and chocolate-loving friend, Katie.

Quick, name two of your favorite things. Chocolate and peanut butter. I beat you. If your two favorite things match mine, you’re in for a real treat. My baking partner and I are planning to bake cookie-stuffed cookies this weekend (picture above), which inspired me to try a candy-stuffed cupcake. I thought that was genius until I Googled Reese’s Peanut Butter Cupcakes and several links popped up. I’m clearly not as original as I thought. Regardless, it’s a great idea.

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cupcake Ingredients:
⅓ cup shortening
⅓ cup peanut butter
1 ¼ cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 ¾ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
18 miniature peanut butter cups

Directions for cupcakes:
– Preheat oven to 350°.
– Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
– Cream shortening, peanut butter, and brown sugar until light and fluffy.
– Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
– Add vanilla.
– Add dry ingredients to creamed mixture, alternating with milk.
– Line muffin tin with papers or grease.
– Pour batter into cupcake tin (about ¼ cup for each).
– Press a peanut butter cup into the center of each until top edge is even with batter (Do not push peanut butter cup to the bottom).
– Bake for 20–22 minutes.
– Let cool completely before frosting.

I cheated and bought premade milk chocolate frosting. You could also choose to use peanut butter frosting instead. Choose the frosting based on your mood.

I learned two things from this experience:

  • For a few of the cupcakes, I pushed the Reese’s peanut butter cup to the bottom of the liner. Fortunately, I didn’t do that for all of them because those tasted a bit of burnt chocolate.
  • These cupcakes confirmed my love for peanut butter and chocolate.

If you like chocolate and peanut butter (and aren’t allergic to peanuts), you must give this a try. You won’t be disappointed.

posted by Rachael in Recipes and have No Comments

Rachael and Ian’s Oscar Picks

Here are our picks for Oscar Night. I entered these into a contest at work. If we win, hopefully there are big prizes in our future. Or at least candy. Stay tuned for our March Madness picks soon! – Ian

Colin Firth, The King’s Speech 

Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Fighter

Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Supporting Actress
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

Animated Feature Film
Toy Story 3

Art Direction
Alice in Wonderland

True Grit

Costume Design
Alice in Wonderland

David Fincher

Documentary Feature
Inside Job

Documentary Short Subject
Strangers No More

Film Editing
The Social Network

Foreign Film
In a Better World

The Wolfman

Original Score
The Social Network

Original Song
“We Belong Together,” Toy Story 3

Animated Short Film
Day and Night

Live Action Short Film
Na Wewe

Sound Editing

Sound Mixing

Visual Effects

Adapted Screenplay
The Social Network

Original Screenplay
The King’s Speech

Best Picture
The King’s Speech

posted by Ian in Flicks and have Comment (1)

some additional quick reviews…

The Kids Are All Right

Rating: ★★★½ 

Toy Story 3

Rating: ★★★★★ 

The Fighter

Rating: ★★★★½ 

127 Hours

Rating: ★★★★½ 

Winter’s Bone

Rating: ★★★★ 

posted by Ian in Flicks and have No Comments

True Grit

Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys
They’ll never stay home and they’re always alone
Even with someone they love
– Waylon Jennings / Willie Nelson

As a kid, I remember seeing commercials for a Time/Life series of books about the Old West. Those were tough times filled with tough people, like John Wesley Hardin who supposedly “killed forty-three men, one just for snoring too loud.” The Old West probably wasn’t what young fans of The Lone Ranger or even Woody’s Roundup had in mind. It was a harsh, lonely place where even the hardiest men with strong moral codes could lose their way.

This is the setting of the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, an unflinching remake of the 1969 John Wayne classic. The story opens with narration from Hattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl whose father was robbed and shot down in cold blood by outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Hattie (Hailee Steinfeld) sets off to seek retribution, even though she knows she may never see her family again. Hattie is no ordinary young girl. She has seen the worst of what the West has to offer and knows how to play tough. When she asks a local lawman who the best bounty hunters are, he offers up three names, one of which is “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a take-no-prisoners wild card. She obviously chooses to hire him.

Rooster is not one to be ordered around by a young girl but agrees to pursue Chaney. Along the way, a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who plans to apprehend Chaney and take him back to Texas to hang, joins the trail. Rooster and LaBoeuf decide to split the ransom in Texas, but Hattie will have none of it. Vengeance is to be hers, and should Rooster try to back out of their agreement, she will charge him with fraud. LaBoeuf decides the other two will hold up his own plans and sets off in search of Chaney on his own.

I found myself both fascinated by the adventures that follow but also overwhelmed by the conditions they endure. How would you go about tracking someone down in those days? These days I can’t visit a new town without my GPS—back then, a wrong turn in the woods could cost you days. For Hattie, Rooster, and LaBoeuf, men with guns and horses remain a constant threat, but so do the harsh cold of a desert night and the unfriendly species that inhabit the dark corners.

Rooster Cogburn is, of course, the role John Wayne made famous, and when I heard this movie was coming out, I wondered how Bridges’ performance would be compared. Beyond the eyepatch, the similarity ends. This is the type of role Bridges has grown into. Once the pretty boy leading man, Bridges won a Best Actor award last year for his turn in Crazy Heart as a bearded, gravel-voiced, world-weary traveler—kinda like if his “The Dude” character from Lebowski took a turn for the worse. Here, as in Crazy Heart (not to mention this year’s Tron: Legacy), Bridges not only occupies the role, but I forgot I was watching an actor and saw only the character.

Steinfeld is also a true standout. In her portrayal of Hattie, we see not only an eager, young girl that we want to support but also a confident woman of value and loyalty whom we respect. Even if she doesn’t win the Best Supporting Actress award, I hope to see her again soon.

Worth noting is the bold cinematography that deserves a win, as well. The American West has always lent itself well to amazing visuals. But unlike the blue skies and sweeping vistas of yesteryear, we find ourselves in landscapes both barren and forbidding yet majestic.

The Coen Brothers’ resume is a list of cinematic classics populated by some of the most unbelievable characters out there—Fargo; O Brother, Where Art Thou; The Hudsucker Proxy; The Big Lebowski. This film is unlike the rest. It involves real people in real situations forced to make tough decisions and question their own abilities in the face of danger. In the West of fiction, the hero smiles proudly as he rides off into the sunset. In reality, I can imagine the West took even the most virtuous of men and women, chewed them up, spit them out, and only the strong ones—the ones with “true grit”—survived.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

posted by Ian in Flicks and have No Comments

The King’s Speech

Years ago, I once read somewhere that Prince Charles uses one of those plastic devices that helps squeeze toothpaste out of the tube, and it fascinated me. Charles, His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, and heir to the throne of the United Kingdom, is a regular bloke just like me, who puts on his £1,000 trousers one leg at a time.

This idea, that despite the grandeur and etiquette of royalty, kings and queens are in fact people with the same fears, emotions, and desire for true friendship as the rest of us, is central to Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, one of the year’s best films.

The film opens on a BBC announcer, sitting alone in a studio, going through a preparation of diction exercises and vocal warmups before going on-air. He is introducing a live broadcast from the British Empire Exhibition. Contrast this with what follows. The man delivering the address at the exhibition walks nervously up a flight of stairs, up to a microphone where he is being watched by thousands in Wembley Stadium and heard by millions more over the radio, opens his mouth, and painfully stammers his way through just the first sentence of three pages.

The man in question is Prince Albert (Colin Firth), Duke of York and second son of King George V. It is the 1930s, and all of Europe seems poised for a second World War. The British public will look to its leaders for a strong voice to give them courage in an increasingly anxious environment. King George (Michael Gambon) is a commanding speaker who was a national figure for Britain during the first World War, but he knows his health is in decline. His eldest son, David, is the heir apparent to the throne, but he has recently taken up a relationship with a twice-divorced socialite. Should David become king and marry the woman, he would be forced to abdicate the throne to Albert, who would then be called upon to be the voice for the British Empire.

Albert’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), takes it upon herself to hire the services of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a failed actor-turned-speech therapist. Lionel’s methods are unorthodox, and he requires that he will only treat Albert if they address each other as equals and by first names. Albert will have nothing of it—he is royalty, and… well, it just isn’t done. Lionel makes a recording of Albert reciting Shakespeare while listening to loud music over headphones. Albert is convinced he stammered through the entire thing, but in a fit of depression one night, he plays back the recording. Elizabeth tearfully listens as the confident, pronounced voice of her husband plays—something she has probably never heard before.

Meanwhile, the king passes away, and the throne passes to David (crowned as Edward VIII) who must choose between marriage and the British public. After choosing to abdicate, Albert takes the throne, choosing George VI as his royal name, in honor of his father. The transition is not an easy one for Albert, and we are able to share his point of view in a few key scenes and feel the same trepidation as crowds of people (and even the portraits of his ancestors) hang on his every word.

The friendship between Lionel, a commoner, and Albert, the king, is key to the story. Conflict develops as Lionel continually shows disregard for royalty and tradition. However, it becomes clear that Lionel’s actions are not disrespect for the position but rather a confirmation of Albert’s abilities to lead. That we can share in their struggle is a tip of the hat to the performances of Geoffrey Rush and especially Colin Firth, who seems a sure bet for this year’s Best Actor win.

The title, of course, refers not only to the king’s disability but also his broadcast declaration of war with Germany in 1939. The film is based on real events, so I’m not giving anything away by letting you know that one of the film’s most dramatic points comes from not only sharing that moment with a tense public who knows their sons will soon be going off to battle, but also our hope that Albert (with Lionel by his side) can successfully make it through his speech at a time when Britain most needs his confidence. The scene itself is a masterpiece of editing and composition and earns its Best Picture nod in just a few minutes.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

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Everyone I know has had some variant of the dream where they realize they’re naked and hope no one else notices. Or, it’s the last week of classes, and you suddenly remember there’s that one class you never attended all semester. Entire books have been written about the meaning of our dreams, but suffice it to say, our mind is an amazing place where our memories, emotions, hopes, and fears are allowed to shine. Defining what is real can be difficult, and what we perceive as reality is merely our subconscious presenting all of our innermost feelings in a way that makes sense to us. That’s why we wake up and look around for clues that let us know it wasn’t real; that everything is right with the world.

This is the idea that pervades Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a labyrinthine journey that challenges our very idea of what is real and how safe we are within our own heads. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), are veteran thieves of the most unusual sort—hired to enter the subconscious minds of others and steal valuable secrets. After testing their abilities, a powerful businessman named Saito (the always intimidating Ken Watanabe) hires them to perform a near-impossible job—enter the mind of a rival and create an idea that the target must believe is his own. Arthur says it can’t be done, but Dom (who has become a wanted fugitive in the States) reluctantly agrees after Saito tells him he will take care of his legal problems and get him back to his estranged children.

At its core, Inception is a heist film, and with any good heist (think Ocean’s Eleven or The Italian Job), one needs to assemble a great team. It is here that we meet Eames (a master of disguise), Yusuf (a chemicals expert to assist with the sedatives), and Ariadne (the architect, played by the great Ellen Page). The architect, as Dom explains and Ariadne learns in one of the film’s most visually creative scenes that challenges the laws of physics, designs the virtual spaces in which the dreams occur.

Saito’s target, a young heir named Fischer (Cillian Murphy), is set to inherit control of a vast energy empire from Fischer Sr. who lies on his deathbed. To allow for fair competition, it is Saito’s wish that the Fischer corporation be split up, but this is the idea that needs to be implanted. It’s determined that the best way to go deep enough into Fischer Jr.’s psyche is to create a series of dreams—a dream within a dream within a dream—and an organized series of “kicks” designed to bring the participants out of the dreams.

But, even a professional like Dom can lose track of what is real and what is a dream. To lose one’s grip on reality could doom one to become lost or become dependent on the dream like a drug. Dom carries around a lot of emotional baggage and guilt that not only threatens every operation but also makes him question every move. To say too much would be foolish—part of the fun of this film is following along yourself.

Inception is easily one of my favorite films of the year. In many ways, it bears the marks of Christopher Nolan’s other films, especially The Dark Knight, and that’s not a bad thing. In addition to being a visual and aural delight—almost surely to win this year’s awards for special effects and sound—it also is full of Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score that makes everything seem epic. You will never see a van fall off a bridge more dramatically.

But more importantly, the strong cast, action, complexity, originality and emotional depth round it all out. The characters are especially successful in explaining everything to us without seeming too “talky.” But even after a second viewing, you may find yourself discussing the plot with others.

I, for one, tend to be someone who usually never remembers my dreams—at least in any detail. Inception is a film that makes me wish I could take this journey but also fear what I might find there.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

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The Social Network

There’s an old saying that goes something like, “Behind every successful man is a woman.” Already a billionaire and still under 30, Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook and TIME Magazine’s 2010 Person of the Year, is a modern-day success story. Like other technological pioneers before him—Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Steve Jobs—Zuckerberg took an idea in college and turned it into one of the world’s top corporations. But in each case, there was that first moment of inspiration that set everything in motion. Was it a woman? Is it possible that an ex-girlfriend is to thank/blame for Facebook?

The Social Network opens on Zuckerberg (convincingly portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend at a restaurant in 2003. There are a few details about Zuckerberg that become evident during this initial conversation—he’s extremely arrogant, has no sense of tact, and he’s completely unaware of it. We wonder how his girlfriend maintained a relationship, while he doesn’t understand why she’s breaking up with him.

A frequent blogger, Zuckerberg goes home and begins ranting online about his ex, and then… that first spark ignites. The correct combination of alcohol and rejection comes together to make magic. The time appears at the bottom of the screen the same way it does in a film based on a true story that says This is an important moment in history, and we realize we are watching the birth of Facebook.

By hacking into the online photo directories of Harvard’s residence halls, and with the help of his math whiz roommate, Eduardo Saverin, he builds a Web site (“FaceMash”) that allows users to pick the hotter of two random female coeds. (The computer geek in me delighted in listening to Zuckerberg explain to us the techniques he uses to bypass the various firewalls, as well as Eduardo’s method of ranking photos with the same algorithm a chess program uses to rank players.)

The site is an instant success (over 20,000 page hits in four hours), and the drain on bandwidth nearly causes the campus’ network to shut down. Although this results in the first of Zuckerberg’s many clashes with authority (not to mention the female student population), it grabs the attention of the Winklevoss twins—two affluent upperclassmen—and their business associate who hire him to code The Harvard Connection, their idea for a university-based social network. Zuckerberg agrees to help, but the innovator in him decides to build his own site and improve on their concept. After a couple months of work and collaboration with a team of Harvard’s brightest, thefacebook.com becomes a campus phenomenon with half of the student population registered and expansion to other schools before “the Winkelvi” are aware it exists and that their idea is now irrelevant. Drama ensues.

As Facebook’s popularity spreads to other universities across the country, it captures the interest of entrepreneur and Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake playing the smarminess to a hilt) who realizes the once-in-a-generation potential behind the site. His big picture visions appeal to Zuckerberg, and in no time, Facebook makes the move from cool Web site to a presence that brings in such business partners as PayPal and Microsoft. Meanwhile, Eduardo, now Facebook’s CFO, finds himself increasingly left out and estranged from the company’s progress. In all fairness to him, Zuckerberg is never actually shown as a bad guy, and indeed, he wants to include his friend, but business is business, Eduardo is in over his head, and a lot of it seems to be happening even faster than Zuckerberg can control it. More drama ensues.

Based on the book The Accidental Billionaires and directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) from a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, A Few Good Men), The Social Network is a fast-paced, dialogue-intensive story of big ideas, big brains, betrayal, and seduction. The creators have made a point to let us know that this a somewhat romanticized version of real events. I read the account of one team member from the early days who said their lives were much less exciting than their film counterparts. Let’s face it, though—there’s a part of us that wants to believe that the creators of Facebook weren’t just slaving away at computer screens day and night. We don’t mind imagining they lived in a world of pool dives from the roof, all-night parties, and college girls who drank and played video games in their house all day.

More than just drama and partying, though, The Social Networking is a celebration of Zuckerberg’s genius. To hear him explain everything from the visual layout to the status wall is like watching the pieces of a puzzle come together. One brilliant takeaway involves a friend asking Zuckerberg if a certain girl in his class is dating anyone. While remarking that girls don’t wear around signs indicating such information, he realizes people will be more than happy to let everyone know their personal details. Bam! The “relationship status” line in a Facebook profile is born.

Ultimately, though, this is the story of online communication, how it has affected our daily lives, and how the lack of communication, especially in the digital age can strain the closest of friendships—those who can’t keep up with it get left behind. I must admit, I graduated from college a few years before Facebook made its debut, but I often wish it had been around in those days. Back in the B.F. (Before Facebook) years, we always wondered what happened to old friends or significant others. Are they married? Do they have kids? What are they doing these days? I’ve heard numerous firsthand accounts of people (including myself) who have reconnected with others through Facebook after years or even decades. We can instantly share our day-to-day lives and thoughts with anyone who agrees to be our “friends.”

It’s interesting, then, that the man behind Facebook is able to correctly intuit how people want to interact with each other while lacking his own close-knit relationships. It’s even implied that his lawsuits were settled out of court because a judge or jury wouldn’t be particularly sympathetic to his personality. Mark Zuckerberg is a young man who has it all—wealth, fame, and his own company with cross-generational appeal and more than 600 million subscribers worldwide. But when it comes down to it, he still thinks about that one girl. The one who started it all. The one friend he doesn’t have.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

posted by Ian in Flicks and have Comments (3)

Black Swan

Now that Rachael has covered many of Chicago’s cupcake establishments, she felt it was time to start adding some “Flicks” to Flicks and Eats, and what better time than the month leading up to the 83rd Academy Awards®? As we get to know this year’s Best Picture nominees, Rachael has asked me—much against my better judgment—to provide the reviews. I’m sure you, Rachael’s audience, have better things to do than read my meandering thoughts, but in the spirit of marital cooperation, I’ve agreed to help out. So, grab a box of Jujubes®, some popcorn, and let’s dive in.   – Ian

Black Swan

I’ve been told recently that the ballerina lifestyle portrayed in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is fairly accurate. If so, then count me out—I’ll stay a percussionist, thank you very much. Of all the fine arts, ballet is probably the one with the harshest extremes. At one end, it is about grace, precision, and control—at the other, pain, exhaustion, and torture, both mental and physical.

This duality, between light and darkness, forms the central focus of Black Swan. In the opening scene we see Nina (Natalie Portman), a young ballerina performing alone and vulnerable in the spotlight. She is soon pulled in different directions by opposing forces, chaste and malevolent. This is all just a dream, but it introduces a sense of dread and fear that permeates throughout the film.

Nina is a troupe performer at Lincoln Center, where the star ballerina, Beth (Winona Ryder), is being retired. The ballet director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), is looking for a new ingénue (love interest?) to be the Swan Queen in his upcoming production of Swan Lake. The role is one of ballet’s most revered, requiring the lead to perform as both the virtuous White Swan and her dark counterpart, the Black Swan. Thomas is confident Nina is perfect for the former, but is she too precise, too fragile, to get in touch with her seamier side?

Despite the fact that Nina is one of the premier dancers at one of New York’s prominent companies, she has never performed this role. That’s like a serious stage actor never having been Hamlet. Nonetheless, this is the part she was born to play—even her cellphone ringtone is Swan Lake. Her inability to tap into her dark side, however (despite Thomas’ somewhat lecherous methods of coercing it), threatens her opportunity, especially when the new kid in town, a wild child named Lily (Mila Kunis) is cast as her understudy.

In many ways, Lily is everything Nina wishes she could be—carefree, confident, naughty—while Beth embodies everything she fears becoming—used, washed-up, forgotten. It’s no coincidence that Lily’s wardrobe is all black, in stark contrast to Nina’s bright whites. Lily shows Nina what the other side is like, and something awakens deep inside her. Lily is Nina’s Tyler Durden, except she’s real. Or is she?

Black Swan is full of questions like this that wisely go unanswered. Who is the mysterious girl on the train? What became of Nina’s last meeting with Beth? What will we see around the next corner? The narrative is strictly first-person—we experience everything through Nina’s eyes. As Nina’s dark side begins to assert itself (sometimes violently), we follow her into madness, and each moment becomes more paranoid than the last. Indeed, there is hardly a scene that goes by that doesn’t contain a mirror or a creepy sense of being watched. (A particularly nervous scene involving a faceless winged statue gave me enough anxiety that I was relieved when it was over.)

The casting is one of Black Swan’s many triumphs, especially with Portman and Kunis. Portman has always done fragility well, but here she takes it to a new level while saving enough energy for her bad girl. I’ve heard that to prepare for the role, she lost 20 pounds and underwent extensive ballet training for months. It pays off and rightfully earned her a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination. The cinematography and imagery is often foreboding and disturbing, sometimes unnecessarily so, but it all comes together for an effective, emotional thriller.

It’s worth noting that the musical score is predominantly Tchaikovsky (who also knew a thing or two about having a tortured, dual life) and fittingly so. At the end of the day, the players on the stage hang up their shoes and go home to reality. For Nina, that distinction ceases to exist. She is the Swan Queen, and her own personal soundtrack is that of Swan Lake.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

posted by Ian in Flicks and have Comments (3)