The Netflix Queue: The Great British Baking Show

The Great British Baking Show - PBSOkay, yes, I know it’s weird for me to be writing about a reality show, of all things, but bear with me for a minute. The Great British Baking Show (actually The Great British Bake-Off, but trademark stuff) is one of the best reality shows I’ve ever seen.

I came across it while poking around Netflix looking for something to watch, and I had heard other people talk about how good it was. And I like baking, so I turned it on and gave it a go.

The Great British Baking Show is about finding the best amateur baker in Britain. Twelve contestants are selected, and each weekend, they head to the baking tent for three different challenges: a signature bake, a technical challenge, and then a showstopper challenge. One person is awarded Star Baker each week, and one person is eliminated. Three bakers remain for the final challenge, where one person is crowned the winner.

It’s the kindest, most uplifting reality show I’ve ever watched, and it’s all topped off by acres and acres of delicious-looking food.

The hosts are silly and light-hearted, and their banter never feels forced or painful. The judges are effusive with praise when they like the food, and honest but not cruel when there are things that need work. The contestants are all supportive of each other, offering hugs and words of encouragement after they receive criticism and excitement after praise. There is so much hugging in this show, it’s glorious.

And the baking. I mean. The baking. Each episode revolves around a theme–cakes, biscuits, pastries, bread, etc.–and all the bakes have to do with that.

The signature bake is the first one in each episode, and it’s one that the contestants know about and can practice at home. It’s so cool to see them take the assignment–for example, a Swiss roll or a savory biscuit–and make it their own. Each person has their own tricks for getting their bakes to do what they want, and it’s really interesting to watch.

The second challenge, the technical challenge, is a complete surprise. The contestants are given a list of ingredients and the recipe, but there are key components missing, like a baking temperature or a baking time or what size you should chop the fruit. It’s up to the bakers to use their baking knowledge to bring the recipe together, even if it’s something they’ve never heard of before. Then, all the bakes are placed on a table and the judges taste them, then rank them from the least successful to the most successful.

In case you couldn’t tell, this is probably my favorite part of each episode. I love seeing how the bakers interpret the recipes differently, how some of them are familiar enough with the bake to make good guesses and how others are flying completely blind. Sometimes they wing it and it turns out beautifully, other times, not so much.

(In a side note, all the recipes for the technical challenges from the sole season on Netflix are available on the PBS website. I’m tempted to give them all a go.)

The final piece of each episode, the showstopper, is another challenge that the bakers can develop at home before they have to reproduce it at the tent. By the name of it, it’s clear this bake has to be as visually striking as it is tasty, and it’s really great to see how the bakers pull out all the stops for it.

It’s just a fun show, and it’s amazing to see the sheer variety of food the bakers have to tackle. In addition to expected foods like cookies and bread and tarts, there are puddings and samosas and entremets. In one episode, they make baklava, and they have to make their own filo dough to do it.

There’s only one season available on Netflix currently, and at this point I’ve watched the whole thing three times. It’s just such a sweet, fun, fluffy show–and I use “fluffy” in many senses of the word–that it makes me feel better just knowing it’s out there. If you like baking (or at least, like watching people bake), then you should definitely check it out.

Movie Review: Deadpool

Deadpool Deadpool was never a character I knew much about or was very interested in. My only introduction to the character had been the whole two minutes that Ryan Reynolds was on-screen as Wade Wilson in Wolverine: Origins (one of the best parts of that movie), and then what I’ve learned from my forays through the Internet in the years since. Honestly, it’s a testament to Reynolds’ acting that I was 100% willing to watch a Deadpool movie after that scene alone.

Although I wasn’t totally sold by the trailers–I was worried it would be too violent for me–I WAS sold by the marketing. Billboards made entire of emoji and a release date, posters that made it look like a romantic comedy–honestly, every bit of marketing for this movie just proved that the people behind it understood the utter ridiculousness and off-the-wall nature of Deadpool’s character.

So while yes, it is a violent movie, it’s also absolutely hilarious, and it’s so different from other comic book/superhero movies that it’s like a breath of fresh, expletive-laden air.

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Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

starwars-tfaI’ve been struggling to write this review for weeks now for a number of reasons, but perhaps the biggest is because it’s STAR WARS. I mean, it’s huge! It’s a cultural phenomenon, perhaps one of the most well-known franchises in the world. It was the series that set me on the path to being a geek. “Formative” doesn’t really begin to cover it.

So putting down the words to describe how I feel about The Force Awakens seems to be an insurmountable task. It’s just so big, and there are so many things to discuss about it, and so much of it comes from who I am and what Star Wars has meant to me.

This movie comes at a point when it’s been more than 20 years since I saw the original trilogy for the first time, and ten years since I last saw a Star Wars movie in theaters (with the expectation that I would likely never do so again). When it was first announced, I was “meh” about it; given the overall disappointment with the prequels, I found it difficult to get excited for another film even though I knew George Lucas wouldn’t be involved.

And then the trailers came out.

I went from “meh” to “excited” faster than I ever have in my life. I couldn’t wait to see the movie, but at the same time, I was terrified it wouldn’t live up to my expectations (which were getting loftier by the minute, despite every effort I made to keep them manageable).

Fortunately, I shouldn’t have worried. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was easily my favorite movie from 2015, and is on par with the best of the original trilogy.

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Movie Review: Into the Woods

Into_the_Woods_posterHere is what I knew about Into the Woods before I went to see it:

  1. It was a musical about fairy tales, specifically a funny musical.
  2. I’d heard one song from it.

That was pretty much it. I hadn’t seen a trailer, hadn’t paid much attention to casting, and hadn’t seen anything else from the original musical. It was just the only thing showing at that particular theater that I thought my mother and I would both enjoy, so we got tickets.

I think fans of the musical will probably enjoy it more than I did, because while I really loved the first part of the movie, the ending kind of left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

Into the Woods opens with a number of different fairy tale characters—Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of Jack & the Beanstalk), and a baker—all heading into the woods that neighbors their little village, all for different reasons. Cinderella desperately wants to go to the ball at the palace, Red is going to visit her grandmother, Jack is going to the next village to sell his cow, and the baker is looking to break the curse on his house that’s keeping him and his wife from starting a family.

However, they all should be a little more careful about what they wish for, and that’s what they’ll learn in the woods…

The casting is excellent all the way around. Meryl Streep was perfect as the witch (her introductory song is amazing and hilarious), I absolutely adored Emily Blunt and James Corden as the baker and his wife, and Chris Pine was kind of perfect as Prince Charming.

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Movie Review: The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner posterIf you remember why I went to see The Internship, then it should come as no surprise why I went to see The Maze Runner. I made the choice not to read the books before the movie came out, since I was going with Eris and she had, because I wanted to see how it worked as a movie, without any prior knowledge on my part of what was going to happen.

And it did work as a movie. Not perfect by any means, but a well-paced and enjoyable film overall.

In The Maze Runner, Thomas wakes up in an idyllic glade with no memory of who he is or where he came from, surrounded by dozens of other boys who have no memories, either. The Glade is surrounded on all sides by a giant maze, which no one has ever made it through. But Thomas is too curious, and he might be the only one who can help the Gladers find a way out.

I really enjoyed all of the characters. Even though none of them have memories of who they were before getting dumped in the Glade, you still connect with all of them and who they are now. My favorite characters were easily Newt, Minho, and Theresa, though Theresa wasn’t in the movie nearly as much as I would have liked. But when she was, she was pretty great.

Thomas, Theresa, Alby

“Welp, time to run!”

I especially loved how she was treated. There was no forced romance or love triangle; she wasn’t even remotely sexualized. Once the guys got over the whole “HOLY SHIT GIRL” thing (considering none of them had seen a girl in their lives, as far as they knew, it was understandable), they treated her like a fellow Glader/comrade. It was really fantastic.

I was a little worried I wouldn’t be able to see Dylan O’Brien as anyone but Stiles, but once the movie started that concern literally never entered my mind, which speaks to how well he did. From the first moment he was on screen, he was Thomas to me, and that never changed.

The visuals were great within the Glade—beautiful and idyllic, with an underlying sinister sense thanks to the imposing walls of the maze. It was both easy to forget that they all were trapped there, and hard to, if that makes sense.

But my favorite part of the film? The maze itself. It was creepy and freaky and holy shit the Grievers. Just about every scene inside the maze had me on the edge of my seat, and I thought we’d get a chance to explore the maze with the characters. Which is what leads me to my biggest disappointment with the movie.

Honestly, for a movie called The Maze Runner, I was expecting a lot more, you know, maze running. There was only one time Thomas was in the maze as an actual runner (one of my favorite scenes). Most of the movie takes place in the Glade at the center of the maze.

I also wish the previews had given us a better hint at the antagonism between Gally and Thomas, which ended up being a pretty central part of the movie.

Plus, the way that no one would tell Thomas why he shouldn’t go beyond the walls when he first got there confused me. “Those doors lead to a maze. They open at dawn and close at dusk. The maze is filled with monsters that will eat you after dark, so just chill here ‘cuz the doors are about to close.”

The Gladers - The Maze Runner

“Are you sure there’s a good reason we shouldn’t go in there?” “Yes, now be quiet.”

It’s not like it was some big secret, literally every other person in the Glade knew what was up (hell, even the audience knew what was up because of the trailers), so the fact that it took a full day for someone to tell Thomas what the hell was going on bothered me. Minho was one of the only people who would talk to him about it (Newt being the other), which probably contributes to why I liked him so much.

Also, dreams/flashbacks to give Thomas clues/plot points? Please, no. I understand that it’s an easy visual way to do that but my God, it’s so overdone. Those bits were probably my least favorite part of the movie.

Some of the fight scenes with the Grievers had really fast cuts, and that made it difficult to see what was going on at times. I know it’s how action scenes tend to be shot these days, especially violent action scenes in YA movies where teenagers are being brutally murdered (see also: The Hunger Games), but I would really like to be able to tell who is getting flung into a wall.

Totally unrelated to the movie: Holy shit it was loud. More so during the previews than the movie itself, but during the Interstellar preview I had to cover my ears because it was too loud.

I know it sounds like I’m picking on the movie a bit, but honestly, I liked it. Even though I hadn’t read the book (at least, no more than the synopsis), I never felt lost, I never felt that I was missing something, the world was intriguing, and I was rooting for all the characters to find their way out.

I really think people who enjoyed the book will like the movie, and people who couldn’t get through the book because of the writing but liked the world will really like the movie.

 

Movie Review – Maleficent

hr_Maleficent_13I’m a sucker for a good fairy tale story, but given that Sleeping Beauty was never one of my favorite Disney movies, I was only passingly interested in Maleficent. That is, until the trailers came out. Then, my interest went from “passing” to “I CAN’T WAIT.”

Thankfully, Maleficent lived up to my hopes, and even surpassed them in some respects. I adored the way they twisted the original story, and overall it was a gorgeous movie, completely enjoyable, despite a few hiccups.

Given the title, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the entire movie is about Maleficent, starting with her childhood (insofar as fairies have childhoods) in the moors, and her friendship with a human boy named Stefan.

However, Stefan has big dreams: dreams that involve him becoming the king of the human kingdom that neighbors Maleficent’s moors. And as we see, he’s willing to do just about anything to achieve those dreams, even if it means betraying someone he’s claimed to love.

His betrayal may get him what he wants, but it also earns him the enmity of the most powerful fairy in the moors. And Maleficent is just as determined to get her revenge as Stefan was to earn the crown.

The christening scene, where Maleficent casts her curse on Aurora, was my favorite scene in the entire movie. It’s one of the most iconic Maleficent scenes from the animated Sleeping Beauty, and to say Angelina Jolie nails it is an understatement in the highest degree. She’s absolutely note-perfect in every aspect of it: her tone, her mannerisms, her facial expressions, the chilling desire for revenge. It’s amazing.

And with the additional backstory between Stefan and Maleficent from the first 30 minutes of the movie, it becomes clear just how much of that curse is designed to strike directly at him. It’s a fantastic scene, and I’m pretty sure that alone is worth the price of admission.

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent

Shush, don’t wake the baby…

After that, we’re in familiar territory: Stefan sends his infant daughter into the woods to be raised by three fairies, orders all spinning wheels destroyed, and then proceeds to spend the next sixteen years slowly spiraling into madness, driven by his own desire for revenge, to see Maleficent utterly destroyed.

Meanwhile, the three fairies raise Aurora, and we also reach one of the few things that didn’t work about the film for me. The fairies are funny, but they’re also horrifically incompetent, to the point that it’s almost stunning Aurora survives to adulthood. It’s one of the largest departures from the original, I think, and there are times when it hurts the movie more than it helps it.

The movie also glossed over why these fairies, as residents of the moors, would be attending Aurora’s christening. We got a perfunctory explanation, but I really didn’t know why they would so deliberately go against Maleficent—even if they had succeeded in making it a gesture of peace, there was no guarantee that she would follow the gesture.

But the core of the movie is Maleficent’s growth: the loss of her innocence, her cold vengeance, and then the slow build of her relationship with Aurora. While the three fairies are bickering, Maleficent, strangely, ends up being the one to ensure the baby doesn’t die. She watches from the shadows, keeping an eye on Aurora as she grows, and that new relationship is the most intriguing thing about this movie. Aurora is absolutely adorable, and you can see why Maleficent starts to have second thoughts about what she’s done.

I don’t want to talk too much more about it, because they do a good enough job of twisting the story that I’d rather not spoil it. Suffice it to say, if you’ve considered seeing Maleficent, or if you at all like fairy tales, I would really encourage you to go. It’s a great story and a wonderful retelling of the Sleeping Beauty tale.