Five Ways To Escape Hollywood These Holidays

AT A LOSS for something to watch? Sick of formulaic clap-trap with a “plot” you know ends heroically — no matter the title? Stuck at home dodging “festive” crowds, or taking a break away somewhere and looking for something to fill in a rainy day or a bit of solitude in which to catch your breath? They may not be the most recent releases, but here are five viewing choices that may add an “accidental discovery” to your DVD library, and a little lustre to your time off.

If you’re like me (and I say this from a southern hemispheric perspective), the Christmas period is the very worst time of the year to take time off work. People in their thousands, sky-high prices and searing summer heat are, in my view, a recipe that is not conducive to personal enjoyment in any way — no matter how much “Christmas cheer” is consumed to soften the blow.

I have never been much of a fan of what emanates from the Hollywood firmament and the predictable, formulaic methodology that seems to underpin virtually everything it produces, and all of what it produces when it comes to non-fiction material; having said that, and somewhat perversely, my favourite movie of all time is an American production, and for anyone who hasn’t ever seen it I can thoroughly recommend it.

But really, who could be seriously captivated with a formula consisting of:

  • Everything is just fine and dandy;
  • A really big, “evil” problem suddenly appears out of nowhere;
  • A hero (often just some glorified meathead) similarly emerges out of thin air to deal with it;
  • There is a colossal struggle to overcome the “evil” problem…
  • (…and a gratuitous sex scene — because that’s just what happens…);
  • Good triumphs over “evil,” of course — it’s “The American Way;” and
  • Everything is just fine and dandy once again. Hallelujah!

This kind of idiot simplicity might reap the big bucks at the box office, but it is hardly stimulating or mentally challenging.

When it comes to viewing preferences, mine are distinctly British and European; I know a lot of people who think of subtitled content and say “eewww, I couldn’t watch something like that:” these would be people who opt to miss out on some of the best content available, and it’s a shame.

But these unfortunates aside, today I’m sharing five easily-acquired options for watching something far, far better than the standard drivel from Hollywood these holidays; all can be bought from JB HiFi or online from, and — happily — all of this stuff is eminently binge-worthy, so you will be able to shut yourself away for hours if you really want to.

Is there sex and violence? Of course there is. Is there bad language? Certainly. But credible storylines count for an awful lot too, and in any case, the intemperate language and scantily-clad characters in some of these actually sit naturally in those plot lines — rather than the gratuitous inclusion of the “interesting bits” in American material so shallow it’d be impossible to drown in it if it were a wading pool.

Today’s recommendations aren’t necessarily recent, but I am certain most readers will never have heard of them, let alone seen them, so we are on safe ground in this regard.

So here we go. In no particular order, starting with

1. House of Cards (the proper version)

It is hard to believe the first instalment of this was released in 1990, and even harder to believe that its first screening coincided with the day of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; the material has stood the test of time surprisingly well, and while there are a few pointers to its vintage — big 80s/90s hairstyles, landline telephones with dials rather than buttons, and an appearance by “Princess Diana” — this is as relevant today as it was the day it was made.

What is even harder to believe is that so few people (in Australia at least) have ever heard of this, let alone seen it: if you mix in political circles as I sometimes do, “everyone” has long known and loved House of Cards, which is actually a trilogy of miniseries (House of Cards, To Play the King, The Final Cut), but that’s a comparatively small group when you consider the millions who don’t even know it exists.

Yet “everyone” in the broader sense knows all about the American remake featuring the now-disgraced Kevin Spacey and his co-star, Robyn Wright; for something that was supposed to be a sympathetic remake that kept fidelity with its British forebear, the US “version” of House of Cards ran off the rails somewhere in the middle of its third season, and lost all credibility completely within another season or so of that, with its silly storylines of talking to the President of Russia (the quaintly-named Victor Petrov — now there’s a not-so-bright allusion to a real person) through a drain in the bathroom, or the imbecilic notion of a husband-wife team of President and Vice-President of the United States.

“Proper” House of Cards features the devilish, love-to-hate-him, hate-to-love-him Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart — “FU” — at the top of a stellar British cast including Diane Fletcher, Susannah Harker, Colin Jeavons and Nick Brimble, and unlike its unfortunate US counterpart, the storylines remain credible from start to finish. The investment of $20 for a copy of the whole thing at JB HiFi will be money well spent, and an experience that you will revisit again, and again, and again…

2. Maison Close

If it’s sex you want, this thrilling period drama certainly delivers; set in a brothel in post-revolutionary France, this multi-layered story examines themes of the exploitation of women set against a backdrop of the wider struggle for control of French society during a turbulent period in France’s history that is authentically represented in painstaking detail in the execution of this production.

Remarkably, only two seasons of Maison Close were ever made: the first — released in late 2010 — was warmly received to critical acclaim, triggering a rapid commitment by producer StudioCanal to a second series; by the time the second aired three years later, much of the following garnered by the first had predictably dissipated, as people moved onto other things, and despite better dramatic values than the original, the ratings did not warrant a third.

Forget about the sexual content — this is some seriously compelling viewing, and features masterful performances from French actresses including Catherine Hosmalin, the underrated Blandine Bellavoir, and French-British star Jemima West. The grimy splendour, the suspense and power plays and carefully-constructed characters, well portrayed by a capable cast, make Maison Close an experience that is very difficult to stop watching. Look for this one online at Amazon.

3. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days

Based on the true story of the White Rose resistance movement in Nazi Germany, this film — starring Julia Jentsch in the title role — is a chilling reminder of the paranoia of Germany’s Third Reich and its heavy-handed readiness to smash a nut into oblivion with a sledgehammer.

It is impossible to watch this film without feeling a deep empathy for and affinity with Sophie (or Sophia) Scholl, the anti-Nazi heroine whose words struck terror into the very heart of the Nazi firmament; convicted of high treason for publishing a leaflet, the show trial depicted in this grimly realistic production would almost be laughable were it not forĀ its factual basis. The penalties it doled out were completely out of proportion.

This should be a depressing, almost unwatchable piece; in truth, I am prepared to admit to being haunted by it. But it is also something which warrants repeat viewing: at least once to fully absorb the sheer lunacy of the regime that terrorised Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, and then to marvel in horrified revulsion at just how barbaric and monstrous human nature is capable of being. This film is part documentary, part eminently watchable drama, and part warning: for those who forget the lessons of history are bound to repeat them.

4. The Closet (La Placard)

For something a whole lot lighter, this delightful comedy — featuring Gerard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil and Michelle Laroque — is a quintessentially French take on workplace relations, office politics, and a politically incorrect use of minority status (being a gay man) to get what you want.

For once in his career, Depardieu plays very much a secondary role to the primary hero of The Closet — Francois, played by Auteuil — whose character, set to be run out of his job after a broken marriage exacts its inevitable toll on his performance at work, is the bumbling, awkward star of the show.

This is a movie during which it is difficult to stop laughing, and it’s a testament to the calibre of this French production that the subtitles are barely noticeable. And with an eye to the timeless Laroque, an actress who embodies the stereotype that France has more beautiful women who remain beautiful for much longer, it’s impossible to argue that Francois doesn’t come out on top in this brilliant little tale of how to play the game and win.

5. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (again, the proper version)

Anyone who thinks it’s impossible to get it right the first time should think again — and anyone who believes Hollywood does it better even after someone else gets it right will quickly think twice after watching the original Swedish adaptation of this electrifying piece of crime fiction and its sequels, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked A Hornet’s Nest.

This movie was remade in Hollywood some years after the original, and was quite deservedly a flop; forget the formula: if there is one thing the Swedes (and Scandinavians generally) do well, it’s crime drama. Brutal, confronting and dark, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo offers the refreshing take on a whodunnit investigated not by a policeman, but a journalist (played by Michael Nyqvist); its unlikely heroine — Lisbeth, portrayed by Noomi Rapace — is, with her tattoos and piercings and bad skin, about as far removed from some vacuous bimbette Hollywood stereotype as you could ever find.

If you are looking for a seriously well-spent day in front of the TV, all three of these movies can be purchased instore at JB for about $35 in total and — like the other selections I am showcasing here today — represent money that will be very well spent indeed.

Just to be clear, there are plenty of other options we could be talking about today: even just in keeping with the Scandinavian theme I could as easily highlight any or all of The Killing, The Bridge, the Department Q Trilogy, Kurt Wallander or Borgen (and if anyone is of a mind to go looking for those, they will quickly see that the roster of Scandinavian talent appears on high rotation through these different productions).

What are you watching these holidays? I’d love to know. And if there are other options in a similar vein that people may find truly riveting — feel free to let us know.


“What Shall We Do With The Surplus Turkey?”

ONCE AGAIN, a surfeit of turkey carcasses is jamming up refrigerators across the world this morning; as festive celebrations peter out and the coming year begins to refocus people on a return to normality in a jarringly short space of time, that expensive bird — so commonly the showpiece of indulgent Christmas largesse — risks becoming expensive landfill, and today, we get in quickly with the way to get an extra mile (and festive treat) out of what’s left.

I trust readers had a great time of it yesterday; there is something refreshingly authentic about spending time with family during the ultimate “down time” of the year, as Christmas reminds us of what really matters and what doesn’t: in my own case, still recovering from a minor albeit painful bout of surgery ten days ago, the cooking effort (combined with about a pint and a half of ale) saw me asleep before the sun went down, and awake again in the middle stages of the wee small hours.

Today’s post is as much about getting in a lot earlier than I did last year, as it is about a reprise of a post I published a couple of days later than this last December; there were some who contacted me privately after last year’s missive to say that what I had shared on this site would have been just great — except for the fact that the posting date, of 28 December, meant they had already thrown out the remnants of their Christmas turkey out of cluelessness as to what to do with it (a couple of turkey and avocado sandwiches on Boxing Day notwithstanding).


GOLDEN GOODNESS…it’s a shame to waste a festive turkey just because this bird can be so intimidating for those not accustomed to extracting every opportunity to use it in its entirety.

Pictured (above) is the 5.7kg (12lb 7oz) turkey I cooked yesterday; with my parents unable to make the trip from Tasmania this year, and the Jewish friends we often host on Christmas Day unfortunately preoccupied with a family member in dire health, there’s more of the precious bird left over this year than ever: and as has become customary, a good whack of it will be used tonight in a Turkey and Leek Pie, which I thoroughly recommend to readers as the ticket to extracting a second brilliant feast out of the carcass taking up space in their refrigerators this morning.

So let’s get started: you can access last year’s post, with step-by-step instructions on how to transform your leftover bird into a wonderful second act, here.

Being Boxing Day, the supermarkets will be open again today; selected greengrocers and markets, too, so between those there shouldn’t be any trouble obtaining the extra ingredients you might need to turn your turkey into a sensational second billing that makes the wonder of Christmas live on for at least another day.

Just remember — please! — no plonk; treat this with just as much reverence as you would the Christmas feast itself, and buy some decent booze to accompany it rather than some ghastly bottle of goon; be it a red, a dry white or something bubbly, your bird will repay the attention if you perform this transformation upon it, so do it the courtesy and return the favour, and you won’t regret it!

This morning’s post was only meant to be brief, so we will leave it at that: tomorrow is Tuesday and, as ever — for at least as long as I have the additional time to post regularly here — I will be back with a couple of songs (and probably a couple of bonus links too) that reflect some aspect of what’s happening around the place as we speak.

In the meantime, enjoy. Buon Appetit!


Talking Turkey: Adding A Festive Dinner To The Festive Season

THREE DAYS after Christmas, as many people are confronted by the voluminous remnants of a turkey whenever they open the refrigerator, an unpleasant conundrum presents: throw it away and waste it, or do something with it? People who’ve paid top money for a good bird will incline toward the latter but many are clueless. Today I share a solution that can return the bird to the dinner table tonight.

First things first: thanks to the demands of the season, the ordinary course of business and the simple shortage of time, the feature on London restaurants I promised when last I posted has failed to appear, and for this I apologise; even so, I’m mindful that there is a glut of free-range organic turkey carcasses jamming up refrigerators all across the world today, and that unless something constructive is done with them — and quickly — most of that delicious turkey meat will become landfill at the local tip when weekly rubbish collections shortly resume.

We will come back to my selection of London restaurants in the next week or so.

I regret that I didn’t take some photographs this week of what’s become the annual Turkey and Leek Pie dinner in my house on Boxing Day, but I want to share this ritual with readers as it offers both an excellent way to use up the remainder of the lovely turkey meat from Christmas lunch and the addition of an extra festive dinner to the silly season calendar: with the stresses of Christmas out of the way and the clamour of little hands for presents sated, what I share today — despite the input of time required — will provide an excuse to invite a few good friends around on Boxing Day or the couple of days thereafter to share an unctuously naughty feed and a couple of bottles of your favourite vino.

Some years ago, someone gave me a box set of Jamie Oliver DVDs for Christmas. Now I like Jamie, but rarely use him as a source of inspiration for my cooking; somehow whenever I watch his shows, the recipes all seem to end with the addition of piles of rocket (which I thoroughly detest) that may or may not be slathered in litres of balsamic vinegar, and the end effect of that is to lose my attention completely.

But at around the same time — and as I’m originally from a sub-tropical climate, where Christmas is invariably a cold buffet — I dispensed with the practice I’d been shanghaied into of serving up three or four courses on Christmas Day to avoid both the cold buffet scenario and the aversion some in my circle seem to have of the idea of a traditional roast Christmas dinner; I started buying a turkey each year, and only through sheer luck watching the Jamie Oliver Christmas DVDs a couple of days out from the first year I cooked a turkey, I happened upon this excellent way of ensuring that none of the precious bird ended up in the garbage.

There isn’t a recipe as such for this: I couldn’t find an authentic representation of what Jamie did on his show anywhere online, so the steps I share today are basically my transcription of what I’ve seen on the DVD and adjusted through trial and error over the past three years.

Yet if you bear with me — and this will take a couple of hours to do — I promise you that not only will your turkey be fully put to delicious use, but that the double-take on your turkey across a couple of different nights may even make having a turkey cost-effective enough to get one a couple of times through the year in addition to Christmas.

So, here we go — apologies for not publishing an ingredient list at the outset, but you can easily compile one for yourself.

Get the bird out of the fridge and pick off one kilogram (a little over two pounds) of the cold turkey meat; a mix of white meat and brown is best (yes! A use for those legs and wings!) and don’t forget the oysters on the underside of the carcass. You want this shredded into little bite-size pieces, and take care to ensure no feather quills or sinews get into the meat you pick. Place into a large bowl and set aside.

In another really large bowl, chop 2kg (4-5lb) of leeks, using both the white and green parts; make sure they are well-rinsed but don’t worry about getting them dry as the water will help steam them later. Halve them lengthways, then chunk the white section, cutting the green ends a little more finely.

Take 4-5 rashers of good, smoky, streaky bacon and dice them up into a small bowl and set aside; in a separate bowl, pick the leaves off about 20 thyme sprigs and have them ready to go as well.

You’ll need a very large saute pan with a lid for this: if you don’t have one, improvise with a roasting tin and some foil.

Place the pan on a low to moderate heat on the largest burner on the stove top and once hot, saute the bacon and thyme in about 80g of butter and a few glugs of good extra virgin olive oil; after 3-4 minutes, add the leeks (I do this in a few stages just so I can stir them a bit to combine and coat in the butter) then cover with a lid or some foil and turn the heat right down. Allow to steam gently for half an hour, stirring every 7-8 minutes, until the leeks have cooked down and everything is nicely combined. Halfway through, season the leek mixture with a couple of pinches of Maldon sea salt and a few grinds of freshly milled black pepper.

At the end of the half-hour, add the turkey meat you’ve picked off the frame, and stir in until combined and warmed through; add two heaped tablespoons of plain flour and stir until the flour is cooked through a little but before it starts to colour.

Now add one litre (just over two pints) of good quality chicken stock and slowly bring up to the boil; allow to simmer gently for a few minutes to bring all the flavours together, then stir in one very generous tablespoon of creme fraiche. Season well with some more Maldon salt and quite a bit more fresh-ground pepper, then stir until everything is nice and smooth and combined.

Next, get a very large strainer — enough to hold the contents of the saute pan — and set this over a clean saucepan; tip the turkey mixture into the strainer and press down. The objective is to get as much of the cooking liquid out as possible: this is your pie gravy. Once you’ve done this, press a layer of cling film onto the top of the collected gravy (this will stop it forming a skin) and set aside until just before serving time.

Place the turkey and leek pie filling into a large pie dish; I use a large Pyrex baking dish (that normally gets used for roasting potatoes in duck fat) and spread out evenly.

Cover with puff pastry: this could be a store-bought block you’ve rolled out on a floured bench, or a couple of ready-made sheets you’ve “crimped” together to form a single piece large enough to cover the whole pie. Don’t waste your time and effort making puff from scratch for this, unless you have a pastry fetish: this recipe isn’t difficult, but it’s quite time consuming enough without burdening yourself with the need to make puff pastry afresh. Store-bought is just fine today.

Cut off any obvious surplus from the pastry, then tuck the edges under the filling so it’s all encased. Carefully score a diagonal or criss-cross pattern on the pastry with the tip of a sharp knife — there’s no need to cut a ventilation hole in the pastry — and brush well with some beaten egg.

Place in an oven preheated to 200 degrees Centigrade (175 degrees for fan-forced) for 30 minutes or until nicely browned all over on top.

While you’re waiting for the pie to cook, boil some potatoes and mash them up to have ready to serve with the pie; about 5 minutes before everything is ready, very gently reheat the gravy so it’s piping hot (but not boiling) and boil some frozen peas to accompany.

To serve, use a cooking spoon to cut out a serving of pie; add some mashed potatoes and peas to each plate, and pour over a little of the gravy, putting the rest on your dinner table in a jug for people to help themselves to more if they wish to.

This will easily feed 6-8 people — even 10 at a stretch — and also goes devilishly well with any leftover stuffing you can reheat and serve alongside.

All that’s left is your choice of poison: a bottle of Shiraz works beautifully with the rich gamey turkey, as does a good medium-dry white served well chilled; alternatively, and especially if it’s a ladies’ gathering, you could buy some Champagne or Montrachet, but remember the adage whichever way you go that good food is dishonoured by bad wine: and for such a fine post-festive treat, I’m sure you can manage something a little better than a bottle of plonk.

Is there a half-eaten turkey sitting in your fridge? If you hop to it, the festive bird can enable you to delight a selection of your friends tonight, perhaps those who don’t enjoy coming to events with your family. But who you choose to share this with is up to you.