Ghosts of Girlfriends Past

Film (with rating): Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (PG-13)

Studio: Warner Home Video

Summary: A good-looking lothario (Matthew McConaughey) feels no need to settle down, until a few ghosts from his past show him the error of his ways.

Review: Once again, Matthew McConaughey portrays a handsome, Texas-drawling, chiseled commitmentphobe who is found irresistible by the opposite sex. Yeah, he’s really stretching the acting muscle here playing Connor Mead in “Ghosts.” To say he’s typecast in this film is an understatement. But McConaughey fans will find no fault with his performance, however recycled it may be.

The film itself is a bit predictable, and falls flat too many times for my taste, but it does offer a mindless romp into romantic comedy. Director Mark Waters (“Mean Girls” fame) seems a bit confused–does he wants to make “Ghosts” a true comedy, or more of a funny yet moralistic piece about growing up and learning what matters?

In the end, “Ghosts” comes across as a bit of “A Christmas Carol” (sorry, Dickens!) blended with every single other rom-com McConaughey has tacked his name to. Jennifer Garner, who plays Connor’s childhood love, does what she can with the material and helps keep “Ghosts” afloat. But her performance feels secondary, unfortunately. After “13 Going on 30,” I became a fan of her romantic-comedy chops.

Michael Douglas, who has a small yet pivotal role as Connor’s womanizing uncle, shows up as a ghost to help lead Connor down the path of recognition and repentance. Douglas’ performance is a highlight of the film and not to be missed.

Overall, “Ghosts” isn’t going to teach you any earth-shattering life lessons (other than don’t be a jerk), nor is it going to sprain your brain in an attempt to understand the subplots. Just watch it for some mindless entertainment, McConaughey’s abs and a quick escape from this relentless heat wave outside.

Extra highlight: none

What to serve for dinner: Since McConaughey’s voice, dripping with twang, is now linked to the National Cattleman’s Beef Association commercials, let’s grill up some steak. For kicks, say his line with a heavy Southern drawl: “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner.”

Balsamic-Marinated Sirloin and Asparagus (http://www.txbeef.org)

*  1 boneless beef top sirloin steak, cut 1-inch thick (about 1-1/4 lbs.)
    * 1 lb. fresh asparagus, trimmed
    * 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
    * 2 Tbsp. olive oil
    * 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil
    * 1-1/2 tsp. Dijon-style mustard
    * 1 clove garlic, crushed
    * 1/2 tsp. sugar
    * 1/2 tsp. salt
    * 1/8 tsp. pepper

In a small bowl, combine vinegar, oil, basil, mustard, garlic and sugar to make marinade. Place steak and 1/3-cup of the marinade in a sealable plastic bag. Close bag securely, turn to coat steak and marinate in refrigerator 15 minutes to two hours, turning occasionally. Cover and refrigerate remaining marinade.

Meanwhile, bring one inch of water to a boil in a large skillet. Add the asparagus and reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and cook two to three minutes or until asparagus is just crisp-tender. Drain asparagus and combine with the reserved marinade tossing to coat.

Remove steak from marinade and discard unused marinade. Grill over medium heal or medium coals. Grill uncovered for 16-20 minutes for medium rare, turning once. During the last three minutes, arrange asparagus on the grill and cook for three minutes, turning once. Season with salt and pepper. Carve the steak crosswise into slices and serve with asparagus.

What to talk about over dinner: Have you ever needed to be shown the error of your ways? What regretful thing did you do in your youth? Are you or have you been a womanizer? What was the worst way you ever broke up with someone? How about during a conference call? Why do you think Matthew McConaughey keeps getting headlining work? Is he that talented, or just gorgeous? Is it fair that he keeps getting leading romantic roles when he’s nearing 40 when women that age in this industry are not? What do you make of that? What was your favorite romantic comedy ever? Have you seen Bill Murray’s “Scrooged?” What “SNL” alum has or had the best career?

Dirty Dancing

Patrick Swayze Dirty Dancing

Film (with rating): Dirty Dancing (PG-13)

Studio: Lions Gate

Summary: An innocent young woman (pre-nose job Jennifer Grey) on vacation with her family in the Catskills is introduced to the sensuality of dance and love when she meets the dance instructor (Patrick Swayze) at her resort hotel.

Review: “That was the summer of 1963 – when everybody called me Baby, and it didn’t occur to me to mind. That was before President Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles came, when I couldn’t wait to join the Peace Corps, and I thought I’d never find a guy as great as my dad. That was the summer we went to Kellerman’s.”  –Frances “Baby” Houseman

God, I love this movie! It’s campy and simplistic at times, complex and realistic at others. And I love it. Even more now.  Although we knew Patrick Swayze was most likely not going to win his latest battle, it still came as a sad shock when we learned he passed away this week after a 20-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Although he has a huge body of work throughout his decades as both a movie star and dancer, it will always be “Dirty Dancing” that I think of whenever someone mentions Patrick Swayze’s name.

When this movie came out in 1987, I was in high school, and my friends and I spent many, many Friday nights at the local theater, swooning over Johnny Castle and wishing we were Baby Houseman. The dance sequences always captivated me, and watching the chemistry between Swazye and Grey never failed to fascinate. I begged my parents to let us vacation in the Catskills, secretly hoping I’d find myself a tall hero who would tell the world, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” The soundtrack, the quotes–all of it reminds me of simpler times and idealistic youth.

One of the reasons I enjoy the movie so much now, all these years later, is because I can see how versatile an actor Swayze was. He danced, did all of his own stunts (much to the producers’ terror), produced a believable character and even wrote/sang one of the hallmark songs on the soundtrack. Sure, he made some poor career choices when it came to movie selection, but in the end, his fans loved and respected him for what he did well: play the romantic hero. T

hank you, Patrick, for making us all believe that anyone can dance, and no one has to put us in corners. As he one said to “Entertainment Weekly:” “No matter what opinion Hollywood has of you, fans never forget you if you never forget them.”

Amen, Patrick. We’ll miss you, and won’t forget you.

Extra highlight: Who cares? Just watch the movie again.

What to serve for dinner: Go with what they serve at a modern-day Catskill’s resort, Mohonk Mountain House: Grilled New York strip steak with potato gratin and steamed baby carrots.

For the steak….(www.thatsmyhome.com)

* 1/4 C. brown sugar
* 1/4 C. soy sauce
* 2 T. Worcestershire sauce
* Juice of half a lemon
* 1/4 t. garlic powder
* 1/2 C. Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey

Stir together brown sugar, soy sauce, Worcestershire, lemon juice, garlic powder and whiskey. Place steaks in a big plastic bag. Pour in marinade and seal bag. Refrigerate at least one hour. Remove meat from marinade and grill over medium coals for five minutes per side for medium-rare.

For the potatoes…(foodnetwork.com)

    *  2 pounds baking potatoes, peeled and sliced paper-thin
    * 2 cups heavy cream
    * 2 garlic cloves, split
    * Leaves from 4 fresh thyme sprigs
    * 3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives, plus more for garnish
    * 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
    * Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients, tossing to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Put the potato mixture into a casserole dish, flatten it out with a spatula and bake for 40 minutes until the potatoes are tender and the gratin is bubbly. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving. Garnish with fresh chives.

What to talk about over dinner: What was your favorite “Dirty Dancing” quote? Scene? Character? How many times have you seen this movie? Did it inspire you to take up dancing? Vacation in the Catskills? What were your favorite Patrick Swayze movies? Who was your first love? Did you ever go away on family vacations like this? What one was your favorite? What have you done that is totally out of character? Or that scared you silly? Did you ever date someone your parents disapproved of? Did you ever fall for someone out of your league? Why did Jennifer Grey get a nose job anyway? Did that have anything to do with her career falling off the radar?

Fringe: The Complete First Season

Film (with rating): Fringe: The Complete First Season

Studio: Warner Home Video

Summary: When three unlikely colleagues-a beautiful and determined FBI agent (Anna Torv), a brilliant and certifiably crazy scientist (John Noble) and his roguish son (Joshua Jackson)- team up to investigate a series of peculiar deaths and disasters, they suspect that someone is using the world as a giant laboratory.

Review: I’ve been following this series since it first aired last fall on Fox. From the start, I loved the mix of slight comedy and massive creepiness combined with likeable characters and a mysterious, yet engaging, plot. Joshua Jackson (hello, Pacey! Nice to see you’re in a decent series for once) is the most well-known actor in the bunch, but Australian Anna Torv is excellent as well.

Yet it’s John Noble–and his quirky performance as the off-kilter, formerly institutionalized Dr. Walter Bishop–who makes each episode a keeper. His one-liners (sometimes unintentional) break the tension of a scene, and Jackson’s dry wit finish the job. But even with this comedic relief, “Fringe” does not go overboard and create slapstick banter or a watering-down of the issue at hand. Bishop’s acting chops see to that. The dialogue feels realistic, not forced, and never overshadows the general dark, ominous tone of the show. The writing is just fantastic. Perhaps that’s why it was nominated for a 2009 Writers Guild Award for best new series.

At first, I thought “Fringe” would be too “X Files”-ish for my taste, too surreal and way too sci-fi. But I quickly learned that while the series has those elements, it’s much more of a mystery/drama/horror/forensics show, with an enjoyable creepy factor thrown in for good measure.  I should have clued in when I saw J.J. Abrams of “Lost” fame was at the helm. This series isn’t as mind-bending as is “Lost,” but it’s just as smart and engaging. In addition, the special effects and visual quality of “Fringe” are amazing, especially for television standards.  

If you haven’t yet seen the series, now is a perfect time to check out all 20 of the first-season episodes. The second season  begins this month, so it’s time to get hooked, and figure out what type of crazy apparatus Walter will plug his head into next.

Extra highlight: The “Behind the Real Science of ‘Fringe’” featurette, as well as the Gene the Cow montage, just for kicks.

What to serve for dinner:  Since all the characters definitely don’t have time to stay home and cook a wholesome meal, do what they would do and order some food to be delivered. Try something totally off-beat, but stay away from beef, in respect of Gene. Perhaps some tea-smoked duck like that served at Fu-Shing’s in Pasadena. Or stick with a tried-and-true staple, vegetable chow mein.

What to talk about over dinner:
Do you believe things in “Fringe” could ever happen? Are happening? Could someone run massive scientific experiments on the population? Will science ever invent a realistic robotic hand? Who is your favorite character? What was your favorite episode? What about the season finale? How would an alternate reality like that be? Do you think Peter and Olivia will get together?  How can Walter be so loveably crazy and annoying and brilliant, all at once? What is the deal with Olivia’s ex? Own up–did you ever watch “Dawson’s Creek?” What do you think is in store for us when “Lost” starts up again next year (yes, folks, it won’t be back until 2010)?

Earth

Film (with rating): Earth (G)

Studio: Walt Disney Home Entertainment

Summary: This documentary featuring three separate stories of a mother polar bear, African elephants and a humpback whale weaves together a portrayal of life on our planet Earth.

Review: If you liked the television show “Planet Earth,” you will not want to miss “Earth.” The jaw-dropping visuals are indescribably beautiful. Just like in the small-screen version, the nature photography is haunting, supreme and beyond memorable. You may recognize some of the more unforgettable shots from the TV show here in the big-screen “Earth,” but it won’t feel like a repeat. These snapshots of life on our planet are worth seeing time and time again. Filmmakers Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield used some of the most innovative tools around to bring these stunning visuals to the screen. It’s hard not to become personally invested in some of the “characters,” especially the polar bears. Disney employs the soothingly bass-voiced James Earl Jones to narrate the movie, and he does a commendable job. It would have been nicer to have a more enriching script for him to read (think “March of the Penguins”), but even with the more pedestrian tidbits, JEJ still made it sound good. I could have actually done with a bit less talk, though, and let the stunning visuals speak for themselves. This held especially true when the narration got more cutesy than informative. Despite being a nature show, it is a Disney movie. That means the more difficult aspects of the animal kingdom are not showcased in high definition. All in all, the family-friendly “Earth” is a gorgeous, unforgettable portrayal of our planet and its creatures.

Extra highlight: “Earth Diaries”

What to serve for dinner: Honor our planet with food designed to be kind to both Earth and its animals: cheesy baked eggplant (allrecipes.com). To take it to a higher level, buy the produce from a local farmers market and use organic pasta sauce and cheeses–especially cheeses.  Remember, happy cows…

    * 1 eggplant, sliced into 1/2 inch rounds
    * 2 tablespoons olive oil, or as needed
    * 1 tablespoon garlic powder, or to taste
    * 2 tablespoons olive oil
    * 1 small onion, chopped
    * 3 cloves garlic, chopped
    * 2 small tomatoes, chopped
    * 1 (10 ounce) package fresh spinach leaves
    * 1/2 cup ricotta cheese
    * 3/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
    * 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
    * 3/4 cup tomato pasta sauce
    * 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush eggplant slices with olive oil on both sides, and place them on a baking sheet. Sprinkle garlic powder over the top. Bake for 10 minutes. Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, tomatoes and spinach. Cook and stir for a few minutes until fragrant and the tomatoes have released their juices. In a medium bowl, mix together 1/2 cup of ricotta cheese, 1/2 cup of mozzarella cheese, and 1/2 cup of Parmesan cheese. Set aside. Place the eggplant slices in a greased 9×13 inch baking dish. Top with the spinach mixture. Spoon the cheese mixture over the spinach, and spread into a thin layer. Pour the spaghetti sauce over the cheese layer. Sprinkle the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheese over the top. Sprinkle with Italian seasoning. Bake for 30 minutes in the preheated oven, or until heated through and the eggplant is easily pierced with a fork. Serve with warm bread and a side salad.


What to talk about over dinner:
What was the most touching scene in the film? Has “Earth” changed your view of Earth and animals? What will you do differently now? What about global warming? True, or overblown? What can you do to help slow it down? How can you live more green? What did you learn from this movie? What nature shows did you love to watch as a kid? Have zoos gotten better in the past decade? How can they improve? How can you get involved to make a difference in the lives of animals? Will polar bears be around for our grandchildren to see? Did you ever go whale watching? How can you help your kids be better global citizens?