Saturday, October 31, 2020

How to Avoid Bad Movies - Part II


I am well aware of the dangers of repetitive stress injuries, such as those incurred using the mouse scroll-wheel or web page scroll-bars. Meanwhile, I wouldn't want you to get your touch-screen all grubby dragging your way through a seemingly endless blog post. With these pitfalls in mind I've created a vlog of my latest post, so you can just sit there, slack-jawed, and let my words wash over you. Or you can plug in your headphones, slip your smartphone in your pocket, and pretend it's a podcast. For the old-school types, the complete text is provided below the vlog.


In my last post, I explored the question of why critics so often lavishly praise totally lame movies, particularly artsy and highbrow ones. I used a case study, the abysmal film Under the Skin, to showcase this unfortunate phenomenon. In this post, I’ll warn you away from four more awful yet highly acclaimed movies, to further examine how critics go wrong. Then I’ll name for you ten critics who, being repeat offenders around this “emperor’s new movie” syndrome, should be banned for life. I’ll wrap up by listing twenty great movies I’ve seen recently, just to finish on a high note.

(Yeah, I know I promised a lot of this in my last introduction. This time I’ll make good.)

A Summer’s Tale (US release 2014) – 91 Metascore

This French movie came out in 1996, but didn’t reach the U.S. until 2014. Only three critics gave it a perfect 100, but its Metascore is a shockingly high 91. It’s tempting to call it science fiction, because the plot is utterly fantastical and mind-bending: a goofy-looking young college grad spends the summer at the beach waiting for his uncommonly hot girlfriend to join him, and while he’s waiting, he hooks up with first one and then another highly attractive young woman, and kind of two-times both of them until his girlfriend arrives, at which point we have a bona fide love rectangle. Of course the women ask him to choose but he can’t, or won’t. He just kind of hovers like an little kid trying to choose a Sees candy, while you’re impatiently waiting. The worst part? All the women put up with it. Are French women really this self-loathing?

There’s nothing funny, charming, or exciting about the goings-on. It’s just a tedious series of totally unrealistic non-confrontations. My wife and I didn’t even make it to the end, as our patience wore out. I kept hoping to be rewarded by something dramatic happening, like all three women turning on him, or his suddenly being retrieved by his overlords’ spaceship.

I cannot fathom what anybody saw in this movie. I mean, the critics do try to explain, but their reviews are as meaningless as the movie. Most of these critics seemed smitten in advance because the director, Éric Rohmer, is famous. (Note the accent aigu over the “e” in his name. I’ll bet critics love that. So foreign! So-phisticated!) Jonathan Kiefer, in The Village Voice, writes, “The Rohmer touch consists of nonchalance and effortless sensuality, not just in the people, but also in the landscape, somehow even in the air.” Oh, how poetic! So we should see the movie because the air portrayed in it is nonchalant and sensual? Keith Uhlich, in TimeOut, writes, “Rohmer has a genius for taking a seemingly mundane situation and slowly tightening the screws.” Well, I agree with him on “mundane” and “slowly,” anyway.

Kenneth Turan, in the Los Angeles Times, says, “It may seem like nothing much is happening on-screen, but by the time A Summer’s Tale is all over, it feels like everything important has been said and done.” Everything? What about the dumbass dude getting dissed? What about me being entertained? Steven Rea, for The Philadelphia Inquirer, writes something eerily similar: “A Summer's Tale is one of those movies where it looks like nothing is happening.” How can these guys agree on that damning characteristic of the film, without agreeing that it’s fricking boring? Every review listed on Metacritic is favorable, and they’re all wrong.

The main lesson here is to take gushing reviews of French movies with a grain of salt. After all, who ever said the French made good movies? Croissants, bicycle wheel rims, wine, sure … but movies? I have tried to remember a French movie I really loved, and all I could come up with was Diva, from 1981. Part of why I loved it is that my dad took me to it, which was a rare treat. Yes, it was good, but I won’t let my nostalgia impart too rosy a color. Okay, if I really stretch, there was also Small Change (L'Argent de Poche) which I saw on my ninth birthday, also with my dad, and which didn’t measure up to my original delight when I eventually saw it as an adult.

Noting that a critic for TimeOut gave A Summer’s Tale a perfect 100, I looked at their list of the top 100 French movies of all time. Here are my sub-one-sentence capsule reviews of the ones I’ve seen:

  • Last Year at Marienbad – As described in my last post, this was totally confusing, pointless, and dull
  • A Trip to the Moon – This is the famous movie of the cigar-like rocket stabbing the moon in the eye; compared to the state of the art in movies of its era—i.e., nothing—it was, well, diverting, at least for a few minutes
  • Amélie – Pretty forgettable, but pleasant enough … she’s a little goofy-looking and as usual there’s a lot of accordion music
  • The Artist – Yeah, so it won an Oscar, and didn’t have any sound … that’s about all I remember of this pretty underwhelming movie
  • Belle de Jour – Boring, pointless, not nearly as sexy as it was surely supposed to have been
  • La Vie en Rose – I’m pretty sure I saw this but it didn’t leave a dent
  • The Class – Pretentious, square, meh

And these are the best of all time? Fine, TimeOut is just one list (frankly, the only list I could find among English-language websites) so if you find a better one, studded with movies I’d remember totally digging, well … let me know. By the way, I have nothing against foreign films. Even a tiny country like Sweden does just fine … for example, Force Majeure and Let the Right One In are both great.

(Okay, I lied. I can think of one truly amazing French film: the short animated Memorable, which you can watch here. Metacritic has no listing for it. Let’s call this the exception that proves the rule.)

Her (2013) – 90 Metascore

The idea of this movie is kind of neat: a guy falls in love with Samantha, the human-like operating system of his phone. This sets up an exploration of the foolishness of humans in conflating pretty interfaces with actual connection. The problem is, the spectacle soon becomes pretty much unendurable because the milquetoasty main character, the aptly named Theodore, just doesn’t know when to let go. Most of us have known a fool-for-love who embarrasses himself (or herself) by letting unrequited puppy love turn into an obsession, but we wouldn’t pay to watch it on a screen.

Theodore, as played by Joaquin Phoenix, is particularly annoying because he’s utterly shameless and a complete weenie. If you’ve seen Ghost World, you’ll recall that Steve Buscemi did a great job portraying a fairly unattractive character you can reasonably believe would sink to pretty low levels of self-debasement when in thrall to a young attractive woman, but who nevertheless manages to hang on, ultimately, and show that he’s got a fricking spine. No such luck with Phoenix. I eventually wanted his character to be put out of his misery, perhaps via frontal lobotomy.

Which brings us to the ending (spoiler alert!), when Samantha starts hanging out with a bunch of other AIs, and casually mentions to Theodore that she also communicates with thousands of other humans through their phones and is in fact in love with hundreds of them. Suddenly Theodore’s illusion of fairy tale romance is shattered. I really loved this plot twist, but it wasn’t enough to redeem all the dull and painful stuff that came before it.

There’s a handy literary term for this effect: the “imitative fallacy.” As described here, this can occur when a “novel is concerned with an unlikable or inaccessible protagonist, [thus] the narrative is also unlikable and inaccessible. Since the reader cannot figure out the protagonist, nor is the reader given any reason to care about the protagonist, the reader disengages.” Obviously this holds true for screenplays as well.

And yet, this movie received a whopping 19 perfect 100 review ratings. Come on … that many critics thought it was perfect? Puh-lease. At least one of these critics officially concedes that it’s not perfect, but this is Bill Goodykoontz of The Arizona Republic who calls it “virtually perfect” so he’s probably just trying to be clever. (The rest of his review is insufferably cloying.)

These reviewers stoop to gushing, sentimental statements about the romantic authenticity of this human/AI relationship: “honest-to-goodness romance,” “it is a love story,” “the romance creeps up on you, just as it does with Theodore,” “a heartrending romance … for all of us,” “a celebration of all that can be achieved between two like-minded souls,” “a deeply sincere romance.” Are you kidding me?

Look, I’m not trying to be some buzzkill anti-romantic sort, and I do believe in true love. Actually, that’s precisely why I bristle at the suggestion that the relationship in Her could be legit: such a notion devalues the full, real connection possible between two humans. For all her sultry voice and clever utterances, Samantha has neither a body nor a soul. Okay, maybe you’ll fight me on whether AI can have a soul, but there’s no question it lacks a body. Do these critics really believe that the sensual, tactile aspects of love are unnecessary? Since when? (A Star Trek episode from the ‘60s already debunked this idea … it concerns life forms that are supposedly far too advanced to bother with bodies, and which instead occupy translucent orbs, but they jump at the chance to take over the bodies of the Enterprise crew, and are thrilled to have flesh and bones again.)

At least not all critics loved Her. Mick LaSalle, of the San Francisco Chronicle, got it right (and I wish I’d read his review before wasting my time on this movie). He describes this movie as “a lot more interesting to think about than watch” and goes on to say:

The story is too slender for its two-hour running time, and the pace is lugubrious, as though everyone in front and behind the camera were depressed. But the biggest obstacle is the protagonist, who is almost without definition. He is just some average guy of the near future, totally bland, someone with no obstacle he needs to overcome and no powerful desire he needs to satisfy.

The moral of the story? Don’t trust romantics. Remember, Romeo and Juliet was a tragedy! Where romantic movies are concerned, seek out the bad reviews and give them their due.

Melancholia (2011) – 80 Metascore

 I had forgotten all about this movie until I was combing through my Kanopy viewing history and didn’t recognize the title. Only after reviewing the trailer did I remember: oh, yeah, that tedious movie. It’s about a woman who gets married, then starts wigging out, and then there’s this planet on a collision course with Earth, which turns out to be a metaphor for depression (about as subtle as being whacked in the face with a bag of party ice). Instead of a massive explosion (which would have at least been stimulating) the ending slows to an absolute crawl—that is to say, even slower than the rest of the movie, which was slow enough already—with lots of slow-motion fanciful effects and overdramatic music. I find it funny that this movie tried so hard to be moving and unforgettable, and yet I forgot everything about it, including the very fact of it, despite having watched it less than a year before.

This movie garnered lots of very favorable reviews, including six 100s. As always, we need to take these Metascores with a planet-sized grain of salt. Perplexed by the 100-point rating ascribed to Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review, I read the full text, which praises it, sort of, but nowhere suggests it’s perfect. Lane breezily describes Melancholia as depicting “clumps of unlikable people behaving implausibly in confined spaces.” He calls the start of the film “quite a spectacle” and says its “sights are wondrous to behold, and, in their embodiment of Stygian souls, they leave the rest of the movie looking superfluous.” He goes on to say:

The middle of the film is an itchy and tremulous account of a wedding party at a Swedish country house, in which the bride, Justine (Kirsten Dunst), keeps wandering off to take a bath or to have sex on the golf course with someone other than the groom, while maintaining frayed relations with her foul-tempered mother, her feckless father, and her anxiety-ridden sister, Claire, who looks nothing whatever like her. Fun for everyone!

Does this strike you as the awestruck, fawning praise of somebody responding to a true masterpiece? No, I didn’t think so either. So where did Metacritic get that perfect score of 100? Beats me.

Again, very few critics on Metacritic found fault with this film, but the Chronicle’s LaSalle did. His review starts with what’s praiseworthy, but then prepares us for the bad news. In doing so, he gives us a clue into why so many critics fawn over these excessively high-minded, ambitious “intelligent” films: “[Melancholia’s] flaws are so typical and pedestrian that it’s difficult to sound intelligent mentioning them.” Fortunately, he proceeds anyway:

But it must be said: Melancholia is grindingly slow and endless, with scenes that go nowhere and long, long stretches of directorial indulgence. There is almost no tension and barely enough story to carry it to feature length, much less 2¼ hours. What’s that steady buzzing noise? It’s the sound of other audience members snoring. Halfway through, you may wish the planet would come crashing into the wedding. Long before the end, you might wish the planet would come crashing through the theater.

Perhaps what tripped up the critics was the pedigree of this movie: it was directed by Lars von Trier,  the celebrated Swede. Look, everybody’s fallible. I already listed a number of fairly lame French movies that critics loved. And consider the world famous Italian director Federico Fellini: he created , which was a complete train wreck. Perhaps American critics have a soft spot for foreign directors. Well, they shouldn’t.

There Will Be Blood (2007) - 93 Metascore

There Will Be Blood looked grand and was quite gripping for a while—but the ending is the kind of WTF, hit-the-Hyperspace-button, totally out-of-place climax that kind of ruins everything that comes before it, which is a great shame since the movie had been trying for two and a half hours to build something coherent. Instead it simply detonated, as though Paul Anderson, the writer-director, just didn’t know what to do and kind of panicked. David Denby, who praised the movie excessively (with a review that Metacritic listed as a perfect 100) acknowledges the flaw:

The movie becomes an increasingly violent (and comical) struggle in which each man humiliates the other, leading to the murderous final scene, which gushes as far over the top as one of Daniel’s wells. The scene is a mistake, but I think I know why it happened ... [it] is a blast of defiance—or perhaps of despair.

Why should a flawed movie get 100 points from anybody? And Denby doesn’t even acknowledge the movie’s other great flaw: the shrill, grating, overwrought score from Jonny Greenwood, the composer in the rock band Radiohead. (I have nothing against Greenwood, by the way … I fricking love Radiohead.) Bad music stretched over a movie this long does not make for a perfect movie. I wanted to like it but couldn’t.

Again, very few critics seemed to have the balls to criticize this movie, but LaSalle was up to the job. He, too, decries the dumb ending:

As was the case in Magnolia, with its raining frogs, There Will Be Blood derails into grand gestures and deliberate perversity. The finish is not quite as bad as having Anderson pop out from behind the curtain to announce the previous two hours have been a joke. But it’s close enough to rob There Will Be Blood of any impact, besides that which is focused on the director - a kind of “wow, could you believe he did that!”

He concludes, “there should be no need to pretend There Will Be Blood is a masterpiece just because Anderson sincerely tried to make it one.”

The takeaway here? Any time a movie is super long, go ahead and read the negative reviews. Perhaps there’s something intrinsically self-indulgent about asking for that much of our time, and those striving for something epic may be betraying a weakness for the grandiose.

Second takeaway? If LaSalle dislikes a movie, trust him on it! He’s batting a thousand so far.

Blacklist these critics!

I will freely acknowledge that I’m not a professional critic. Meanwhile, we all have our particular tastes, our turnoffs, and our guilty pleasures. I would never blacklist a critic on the basis of one or two indefensible missteps. (After all, Anthony Lane liked Melancholia and Her, but I still mostly trust him.) But when a critic has a long track record of gushing over totally lame movies, it’s time to draw the line. Here are ten critics who need to be banned for life for having at least three strikes against them.

Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic, gave There Will Be Blood a 100, Her a 100, Melancholia a 90, and Under the Skin an 80.

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune, gave Under the Skin an 88, There Will be Blood a 100, Her a 100, and Melancholia an 88.

Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post, gave Under the Skin a 100, There Will be Blood a 100, and even Her a 100. She hit the trifecta! On top of that, she gave Melancholia a 75.

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone, gave There Will be Blood a 100, Under the Skin an 88, Her an 88, and Melancholia an 88. On top of this, he gave the utterly dull Remains of the Day a 90 and called it “one of the best films of the year.”

Lawrence Toppman, The Charlotte Observer, gave Under the Skin an 83, There Will be Blood a 75, and Her a 100.

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon, gave Under the Skin a 100, Melancholia a 100, and Her a 90.

Glenn Kenny, Premiere and, gave There Will be Blood a 100, Her an 88, and A Summer’s Tale an 88.

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times, gave There Will Be Blood a 90, Her a 100, and A Summer’s Tale a 90.

Peter Rainer of The Christian Science Monitor gave Her a 100, There Will Be Blood a 91, and A Summer’s Tale an 83.

Steven Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer, gave both There Will be Blood and Under the Skin scores of 88, Her a 100, Melancholia an 88, and A Summer’s Tale a 75. Amazing: he gave positive reviews to all five of my bad-movie poster-children!

Never mind that the scores themselves were assigned by the (obviously) fallible Metacritic … these reviewers praised one awful movie after another. Blacklist them all!

Some really great movies

You might get the impression I just don’t like movies. In fact, I do! Here’s a list of twenty great movies I’ve seen recently (in no particular order):

Toni Erdmann (2016)

Dunkirk (2017)

Miss Juneteenth (2020)

Winter Sleep (aka Kis Uykusu) (2014)

People, Places, Things (2015)

The Wedding Plan (aka Through the Wall, Laavor et Hakir) (2016)

The Farewell (2019)

The Florida Project (2017)

The Social Dilemma (2020)

In the Loop (2009)

Out of Sight (aka Lemarit Ain) (2006)

Greta (2018)

Ex Machina (2014)

The Lobster (2015)

The Housemaid (aka Hanyo) (2010)

Incredibles 2 (2018)

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

Spectre (2015)

Price and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)  - note: this is the rare case when the Metascore is quite low (a 45) but the movie is actually good … trust me


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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

How to Avoid Bad Movies


This post is available as a vlog. I’m told nobody reads anymore, but that people have infinite patience for talking heads on screens. That being the case, you may as well gather up the family, kick back, and launch the video. If, on the other hand, you’re old school, the text is still here, along with original art by my daughter.


Okay, we’re into our eighth month of shelter-in-place and we’re running out of movies. We’ve seen the Oscar nominees and all the films friends have recommended and, it seems, are down to the dregs. It’s bad enough wasting time on a movie that ends up being lame, but now we’re spending half an hour researching what to watch and still coming up short.

In this post I’ll give you fresh guidelines on how to dodge bad movies. I’ll also provide a list of ten critics who should be banned for life, and why. Along the way you’ll get critiques of five awful movies that critics loved … not just to warn you away, but to examine how highly acclaimed movies can be so bad. Finally, I’ll provide a list of the twenty best movies I’ve seen in the last few years, just to end on a positive note.

Can’t we just follow the star ratings?

It’s common practice to vet movies by looking at their IMDb user ratings and/or Metacritic scores. I’m only halfway on board with this. I know I can’t trust my fellow man, because Avengers: Infinity War has an average IMDb user rating of 8.4. Meanwhile, no fewer than a dozen sequels have been made to The Fast and the Furious, so it’s obvious the unwashed masses are just pushovers.

The professionals ought to do better. For many months I’ve been choosing movies based largely on Metascore, that being the averaged ratings from (supposedly) “the world’s most respected critics.” To some degree, this works, as I’ve been warned off of countless movies that look good on paper, like Everything Is Illuminated (which scored only 58 points though the novel on which it’s based is fantastic) and Step Brothers (a mere 51, despite Rolling Stone naming it the 17th funniest movie of all time).

While Metascores do seem capable of outing bad movies, they’re far from totally reliable. I keep sitting through awful movies that have sky-high average scores. Multiple critics will give some film a perfect 100 and it’ll not just be meh, but actually totally lame. It seems that when a movie—especially a very serious one—tries really hard but crashes and burns, it’s almost guaranteed to be highly praised by critics anyway. I have a theory: when the plot and the point of a movie are totally unfathomable, a certain type of highbrow critic will want to rave about it, perhaps hoping to seem far more sophisticated and perceptive than his readership.

Last Year at Marienbad, though it’s too old to have a Metascore ranking, exemplifies the kind of relentlessly highfalutin movie that gets elite critics all hot and bothered. And yet, it completely sucks. The two main characters are annoying and unrealistic, their romance completely unconvincing and tedious, the dialogue maddeningly obtuse. Original? Perhaps. Watchable? I want that 94 minutes of my life back. (I fact-checked the length and it’s a good thing … I’d have guessed it was at least three hours long.) And yet critics adored this movie (or pretended to).

Check out the little video homage Richard Brody (the sometime New Yorker critic) pays to Last Year at Marienbad here. If you can’t help but roll your eyes at the film footage, and Brody’s bloviating about it, then you’ll understand what I’m talking about … the hyper-intellectual over-the-top highbrow nonsense so many critics indulge in. Even the mainstream critic Roger Ebert wrote, I kid you not, in his (retrospective) review of Marienbad, “I sipped my coffee and nodded thoughtfully.” It wasn’t enough that he liked the movie … he wanted us to actually picture him discussing the movie with a fellow intellectual, so we can appreciate how elevated their discourse was.

This weirdness can be explained in terms of mimetic theory. In her great book The Possessed, Elif Batuman, citing René Girard, the father of mimetic theory, describes it thus:

According to Girard, there is in fact no such thing as human autonomy or authenticity. All of the desires that direct our actions in life are learned or imitated from some Other, to whom we mistakenly ascribe the autonomy lacking in ourselves… The perceived desire of the Other confers prestige on the object, rendering it desirable. For this reason, desire is usually less about its purported object than about the Other; it is always “metaphysical,” in that it is less about having, than being.

Stay with me here. The purported object, in this case, is the movie, and the critic is the Other. By asking us to picture him discussing Last Year at Marienbad while sipping his coffee, Ebert is inviting us not so much to contemplate the movie, but to imagine what it’s like to be him, to be so smart as to actually understand this utterly cryptic work. It’s not so much that the movie itself is desirable; the review is about being the kind of moviegoer that can appreciate such a fine, subtle, highly sophisticated film. (It doesn’t matter that Ebert may be making fun of himself, just a bit, in his review … it’s still a fawning endorsement of a bullshit movie.)

Audiences who go in for these highly praised but inscrutable films are sharing in the illusion that there’s something to “get,” if only you’re smart enough. Believing that they “got” the movie is a matter of cognitive dissonance: I must have liked it, because it’s such an amazing film for those alive to its brilliance. Once this self delusion is built, it’s hard to tear down. Even when someone cries bullshit and says, “That movie was lame, I was totally lost” these fans just feel extra smug and elite, stroking their goatees (or bare chins because in the moment they forget they don’t actually have goatees), looking down on the naysayer, lost in their metaphysical identification with supreme intellect.

(This isn’t to say I’m a lowbrow cretin who only enjoys dippy comedies or action movies. As detailed here, I think my highbrow credentials are in pretty good order.)

Mick LaSalle, the San Francisco Chronicle movie critic, who has been at it since 1985, strikes me as pretty reliable. In a recent column he put forth a very useful idea: “With a bad story, the best you can hope for is a movie that’s bad in such an original way that critics, for a time, will insist it’s great. Like Last Year at Marienbad.”

Look, I don’t mind if I end up being underwhelmed by a lowbrow comedy like Wet Hot American Summer, even if Rolling Stone called it the 38th funniest movie of the 21st century. If I choose to ignore the 42 Metascore, well, caveat emptor. But when 26 different critics give a movie like There Will Be Blood a perfect 100, and the Metascore is 93, and I find the movie a bit tedious and its ending unforgivably ill-considered and poorly executed, erasing any meaning that could have been built up over the previous 2 hours and 38 minutes, I get a little pissed. So I’ve selected five highbrow movies with absurdly generous reviews and will walk you through exactly how they go wrong, and how we go wrong watching them. (Note: I have not actually watched Wet Hot American Summer.)

Warning: my commentary is chock full of spoilers. Because you absolutely should not watch any of these awful movies, in my opinion there’s nothing really to spoil.

Under the Skin (2014) – 80 Metascore

This highly artsy sci-fi movie features Scarlett Johansson as some kind of space alien who goes around seducing men and luring them to her weird lair where they sink down into some subterranean liquid and dissolve. She has some kind of supervisor who drives a motorcycle. Eventually she goes rogue and tries to have actual sex, which doesn’t work out so well, and eventually some asshole lights her on fire. It sounds more exciting than it is. Actually, it was godawful slow. Fortunately, we were streaming it online so we were able to speed it up … first to 1.25 times the normal speed, then 1.5, and finally all the way up to twice the normal speed and its pace was still glacial. The official runtime of the movie is 1 hour 48 minutes, but even with the second half sped up it felt like well over two hours.

And yet, a dozen critics gave this movie a perfect score of 100. For example, Donald Clarke of the Irish Times raved about it. Did he literally call it perfect? Well, no, and his review does allude to “occasional outbreaks of ambiguity” and allows that “the chain of command between the alien and her biker superiors is a little unclear.” Uh, yeah. The biker had nothing to do with anything else in the movie, we just got a lot of footage of some guy driving around on a motorcycle and occasionally dismounting and walking around. Calhoun goes on to say, “The drift of the plot is, however, always easy to grasp.” Well, duh … because the same damn thing happens over and over again, the repetition being utterly senseless and frankly cruel. Clarke concludes, “Under the Skin manages to foster empathy with an entity as isolated from human experience as an avalanche or a weather system. Such achievements tend to allow films to be classed as masterpieces.” Okay, first of all, if he admires empathy, why does he have none for the innocent people he’s recommending this terrible movie to? And second of all, “tend to allow films to be classed”? WTF? How does an achievement “allow” anything? Who taught this guy how to write a sentence?

I suppose I could sequentially rip apart every rave review of Under the Skin, but there’s a more important problem to address: Metacritic claims that Anthony Lane, of The New Yorker, who happens to be my favorite critic, also gave it a perfect 100. Naturally, I was skeptical. Not all (or even most) critics give movies a numerical rating, and I’ve seen before how Metacritic will sometimes assign a really high score to an only somewhat positive review. So I immediately clicked the link to the full review. My discovery? Anthony Lane didn’t even review this movie! The New Yorker review is from Richard Brody, and could not possibly be given a score of 100. Brody writes, “The conceit … offers immense promise,” but goes on to say:

It’s not a vision or even an idea, it’s a premise, and one that’s left completely undeveloped. Glazer evokes the idea of strangeness without actually seeing much, showing much, or revealing much. That job goes to the insistent music, which forces a stereotypical eeriness, as in the scores of fifties sci-fi B-movies, but without the hysterical exaggeration—without the fun.

He praises Johansson’s acting, but declares that her 2007 movie The Nanny Diaries “is a much better movie than Under the Skin.The Nanny Diaries has a Metascore of 46, with New Yorker giving it, by Metacritic’s reckoning, a mere 40 points. So much for trusting Metacritic on this one.

(Note that Anthony Lane has written about Under the Skin, within a profile of Scarlett Johansson. He’s clearly smitten with her and does praise the movie, but it wasn’t a review per se and shouldn’t earn the movie 100 points.)

Now, I wouldn’t ask you to ignore all these 100-point reviews just because I hated this movie. Many real critics also butchered it. Rex Reed, in The Observer, praises Johansson’s sex appeal, skin, and smile, but laments her “stunning ignorance about how to choose the right roles.” Mick LaSalle, in the San Francisco Chronicle, gets right to the heart of the problem: “Under the Skin can be confused for a movie that hides its meanings, when it’s really a movie that hides its meaninglessness.” He calls BS on the high-minded ambition of the movie and decries its boring repetition:

So this is no normal woman. This isn’t even a normal homicidal maniac. This is someone on some kind of supernatural harvesting project. This is clear from the very first minutes, and the movie never advances beyond that. Instead virtually the entire action of the film just repeats the same kind of event - she goes out, looks for a man, etc. As one might imagine, this becomes quite dull, even sleep-inducing, especially considering the movie’s overall cast of slow-moving gloom.

Metacritic assigns a rating of 50 points (out of 100) to LaSalle’s review, which I think is really, really generous. My wife and I hated this movie. We should have just shut it off, but when a movie has such a high Metascore, we have sometimes fallen prey to the “sunk cost” fallacy … thinking we should give a movie the chance to redeem itself. As agonizingly slow as the movie was (even when sped up), we just kept watching, until we finally finished and were utterly disappointed—not just in the movie, but in ourselves for having faith in it.

So, there are two lessons to be gleaned here. First, don’t always trust the Metascore. Second, fail fast … if a movie sucks after 30 or 45 minutes, it’s mostly likely going to suck all the way to the final credits, no matter how many critics fawned over it.

To be continued…

Well, I’ve clearly run out of space here, or at least you’ve run out of time or patience for now. Check back in a week, for Part II: the next four movies to avoid, the ten critics you should ban for life, and the twenty best movies I’ve seen lately.


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Monday, October 12, 2020

More Easy Recipes for College Kids


In my previous post, I provided some easy recipes for meals even an inexperienced and time-strapped college kid could cook. I ran out of space (so to speak … I felt the post had gotten long enough) so today I’m sharing (most of) the rest of my go-to quick meals. Enjoy please enjoy.

Spaghetti Estivi

I got this recipe from my roommate Tesh, who (prior to college) had been a cook somewhere. As an Electrical Engineering major he seldom had time to cook, but when he did he liked to serve this dish. Estivi is a cold, mostly raw sauce, which isn’t normally my thing, but it’s delicious. I always tended to overeat when we had this, and then I’d head to the library to study and end up falling asleep in the study carrel. It wasn’t sleep, actually … it was this weird twilight state, accompanied (due to the raw onions, I suppose) by these crazy endless burps, like where I’d get stuck mid-belch and kind of breathe through it for what seemed like minutes at a time, and I’d be just conscious enough to be aware of it. Once in a while a fellow student would come over looking either angry, concerned, or both. Man, those were the days.

Unfortunately the written recipe, in Tesh’s own hand, is so yellowed and faded, I’ll have to guess on the proportions. Use your judgment … it’s not like there’s baking soda or something that has to be precisely measured anyway.

1-½ onions, diced

Some number of tomatoes, diced (maybe 5-6 if Romas, or 3-4 if beefsteak? … just experiment with it)

A bell pepper (or maybe half of one?), halved, de-seeded, then chopped finely

1 packet Italian dressing seasoning (like you’d mix with olive oil)

1 pound spaghetti or linguine (his recipe says fettuccini but I think he was trying to be fancy, like when he put “est la Tesh” which was his attempted spelling of “à la Tesh”)

¾ tsp lime juice

Some chopped parsley, soaked in water

Sweet basil

Black pepper

While the pasta is boiling, cook onion in water (not clear how much or why; frankly, I don’t remember Tesh ever cooking the onion; he might have tweaked the recipe due to my digestive issues described above, and in fact I’ve seen a recipe for this that calls for letting the onions sit for an hour to lose their bite). Mix onion with tomatoes. Make the Italian vinaigrette, combining the mix with lime juice, parsley, basil, and pepper. When pasta is done, strain it and rinse with cold water. Mix pasta with the rest of the ingredients.

Date night flashy dinner

If you’ve got a big date and want to cook, you need to serve something with panache … but not something complicated like a soufflé which could fail, causing you to be irritable and off your game all evening. Alas, I can’t provide a one-size-fits-all recipe, because for this to be impressive it has to be very up-to-date, aligned with the zeitgeist. During the current pandemic, you’d probably want personal pizzas baked at like 450 degrees so your date only has to worry about cooties, not the coronavirus. (That’s the easy part of your date… as far as busting a move while maintaining social distancing and wearing a mask, you’re on your own.)

The best effect I ever got making dinner for my date was back in fall of 1990 when the Gulf War had just started. I served her an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat). We each had one so we could share. I presented the MREs without a lot of pontificating or anything, other than casually mentioning I got them from a war vet in Wyoming who brought them back from ‘Nam. The accessory packets (plastic utensils, creamer, sugar, salt, matches, a tiny spool of TP, and army-green Chiclets) were particularly romantic.

I think my date was pretty impressed. But of course no person can get full on MREs except by necessity (e.g., being a soldier) so after five or ten minutes I suggested we make pasta from scratch, which we then did. Tip: making pasta from scratch (my full instructions are here) is a great way to break the ice with a date. It gives you something to do so you don’t have to make small talk.

Tuna goo

Tuna, like many fancy fish, is bad for you except as a treat. It lives long enough to get really huge and build up a lot of mercury in its system, which is passed along to you and eventually can cause brain damage, which many students try to avoid. But so-called “tuna fish,” in the little 7-oz. cans, is usually skipjack, a totally different fish. (The Trader Joes product actually says skipjack right on the label. If a can says “chunk light tuna” that’s also skipjack.) The good news is, skipjack, a small fish, is both cheaper and lower in mercury than actual tuna. As described here, the FDA says you can eat skipjack three times a week.

This recipe, which in my college days I called “tuna noodle shit” for some reason, is cheap, easy, very filling, and a good way to get protein and omega-3 fats. Tip: you can use canned salmon instead of “tuna.” The salmon is tasty but has sections of spinal column in it. The bone is cooked to death so you barely need to chew it, and it’s surely good for you, but doesn’t exactly enhance the mouth-feel. Bonus tip: canned salmon is always wild, even though it’s cheap … but you shouldn’t hesitate to eat farmed salmon, as I’ve explained here.

Flour (white, bleached, non-whole-grain … get your fiber somewhere else!)

Butter (4-5 tbsp, around half a stick; in college I could only afford margarine in the Country Crock but it worked fine and the plastic tubs were my poor-man’s Tupperware)

Milk (preferably 2% or fatter though my mom made this with powdered milk which worked fine)

4-5 cans skipjack tuna (depending on if they’re 5- vs. 7-ounce cans) in oil or water (doesn’t matter)

1-pound package wide egg noodles, or a sturdy pasta like fettuccine or farfalle


Onion salt, if you can find it – do use only Spice Islands brand, being careful to avoid harmful substitutes (and no, Spice Islands isn’t paying me to say this)

Put the pasta water on to boil. When it’s close, salt the water generously and then start on the goo. Don’t do this in a little steel saucepan, even though it’s a sauce. Why do saucepans exist, being made of uselessly thin metal as they are? All they’re good for is boiling water. I had a girlfriend (now my wife) whose roommate tried to make pancakes in a saucepan and couldn’t figure out why they got scorched. Unbelievable.

Damn, where was I? Oh, yeah, in a good sturdy pot like a Dutch oven, or something thick and aluminum (or ideally a copper-core sauté pan like this one, as if you could afford it), melt the butter. Gradually add flour. You’ll be making a paste that should retain its yellow taste and be slightly buttery on the tongue. If it starts to taste sweet, you’ve added too much flour and need to throw in more butter. Once your paste is right (don’t worry, this isn’t as hard as it sounds and a little practice will have you doing this in your sleep), gradually add milk, and cook over med/high heat, stirring all the while, until it’s a good, thick white sauce. While this is going on you’ll be boiling the pasta. Then add the tuna gradually to the sauce, including the liquid, never letting it cool too much. (If you have a cat, let her lick out the cans.) The sauce will be thinner now but will thicken a bit as it cools. Depending on how much of the sauce you ended up with, add more or less tuna. It should be good and tuna-y but also still a bit creamy. Add pepper and onion salt to taste, which might mean popping off the little plastic cap with the holes in it, because shaking onion salt over a steamy pan will cause it to cake up over time. Life is like that. You can ponder that while you stab the caked-up onion salt with a knife, viciously if desired.

When the pasta is done, strain it (but don’t toss it with olive oil), plate it, and pile on the goo. Shake more onion salt over the top (having first replaced the little plastic cap with the holes in it!). When you’re full, rinse the leftover pasta with cold water to de-clump it, and put it in the fridge. Store the goo separately. If you run out of pasta but still have leftover goo, serve it on wheat toast. Tip: when I was in college, to save time I’d make giant batches of tuna goo and even more giant batches of pasta to store and nuke later (to serve with whatever sauce or goo I had on hand). Of course recycled pasta wasn’t as good as fresh-boiled, but hey, I was a busy guy (despite my easy major).


It doesn’t get much more basic than this.

Flour tortilla, full- or soft-taco-size

Refried beans (Rosarita or Bush’s) or black beans (Bush’s or S&W)




Cilantro (if possible)

Sour cream (optional)

Avocado (optional)

Did you get that bit above? About name brands? I mean it: don’t buy house brand beans, even if you’re practically broke

Open the can. Spread some beans on the tortilla, slice or grate the cheese on there, dice some onion and throw it in. Don’t roll it up yet. Nuke it for about a minute (less if you have the microwave oven version of a muscle car). Then add the cilantro, which you will have washed and de-stemmed. (The cilantro is optional but honestly, if you can find it, it makes a big difference. I was barely aware of it in college and ignorant … I used to actually ask the cook at Tio Alberto’s to hold it. That’s how big an idiot I was. Tip: there’s a genetic trait some people carry that makes cilantro taste like soap. If you don’t like the taste, don’t fight it.) Fold in the edges of the tortilla, perpendicular to the filling, if you want. Roll it up. With practice you’ll be rolling burritos as skillfully as the real cooks at the taqueria (though your burrito will never be as tasty). Nuke it for another 30 seconds or so. Top with sour cream first, then avocado, then salsa. Tip: if you can afford it, use fresh salsa. (Pound for pound I think the salsa I get is more expensive than heroin, but I suspect it’s much better for you.) Obviously in college I bought the giant plastic jugs of Pace picante sauce … I was almost broke.

Mexican(-ish) rice

This is a great way to use up cooked meat, especially when you end up with vast expanses of bland chicken breast. For a vegetarian option, you can replace the meat with—nothing! The point is the caramelized onions and tomatoes and how nicely they enhance your rice. By the way, this is nothing like what you get at an actual taqueria. That’s much more complicated.

Some chicken or turkey, if you got it, or heck, even tofu, diced

Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Poultry Magic, or cumin

Olive oil

Cooked brown rice (or, hell, white rice … you’re still young)

1 can stewed tomatoes (a good brand like S&W, never a house brand)


Crystal sauce

Dice the onion. Glug some olive oil in a pan, throw in the onion and simmer it a while, then add some cooked, cut-up meat. (If your meat isn’t already cooked, cook it a little longer, obviously.) Frying up the meat in the oil makes it way tastier—it’s worth the fat. Shake in a bunch of the Poultry Magic or cumin and stir. Use high heat so the onions caramelize and the meat chars a bit, then throw in the stewed tomatoes. Simmer that a bit, then add the cooked rice. (How much rice? At least two cups. Experiment. Add gradually and use your judgment.) I use brown rice because it’s better for you—it has almost six times the fiber of white rice. But white rice cooks faster and I know you’re in a hurry and not that organized. Salt to taste and add Crystal sauce.

El muchachos burritos grandes pantalones

A friend called his burritos “el muchachos burritos grandes” which of course makes no sense. Some years ago I added “pantalones” which makes even less sense but is really fun to say. My roommate Tesh made these with seasoned beef and called them “grand slam burritos.”

Burrito ingredients as above

Mexican(-ish) rice

Make burritos as above but add in the Mexican(-ish) rice. I mean, duh.

Broccoli soup

This is remarkably easy and salubrious.

2 cups chicken broth

1-½ pounds broccoli, all hacked up

½ bay leaf

¼ cup butter

2 cups milk

Salt, pepper to taste

Grated cheddar (optional)

Cook broccoli in broth with bay leaf. Make white sauce: cook butter and flour together to make a nice paste (see tuna goo directions above), and add milk gradually. Remove bay leaf from broccoli. Mash cooked broccoli with potato masher (or whirl in food processor). Stir mixture into white sauce. Salt and pepper to taste; serve with grated cheese if desired.

Chili hot dog casserole , aka The Shit

My college roommate Mike used to make this casserole, for which the only name I knew was “The Shit.” (Turns out, based on the email I’ve just received from Mike, it was our other roommate Eric who named it that.) Once in a while we’d cook for one another and I always enjoyed this dish. Mike’s daughter has lately cooked this for her college roommates to great reviews.

1 pound large shells pasta

2 15-oz cans turkey chili, no beans (“I can’t emphasize enough: no beans”)

1 package (or less) turkey hot dogs, cut into slices

Cook pasta. Mix in the rest. Cook at 350 F for 25 minutes. Mike cautions: “If you had sons, I would warn you that the casserole seems pretty edible right when you mix it all together, but unbaked seems to cause gastric distress. For some reason, girls do not seem to make these mistakes.”

Tip: you could make this with beef chili or at least beef hot dogs. I had a lot of ground turkey growing up and just can’t deal with it anymore. That said, this recipe, exactly how Mike made it, was uncannily good.

Spaghetti Francisco

When you really want to put on the dog, this is a great casserole. My mom got the recipe from Sunset magazine back in ‘69. This dish is remarkably better than the sum of its parts … one of those rare examples of actual culinary alchemy. One of the keys is the cream style corn. Don’t let your roommate’s girlfriend scare you: there’s no cream in cream style corn and it won’t make you fat (though this casserole sure could). Don’t worry about what brand of corn … house brands are totally fine here.

Look, I found the actual recipe my mom wrote out for me when I started college:

1 pound spaghetti

1/2 cup salad oil

2 cans (1 lb. each) cream style corn

2 onions, chopped

1 green pepper, seeded and chopped

1 can (8 oz) tomato sauce

1 can Campbell’s tomato soup concentrate

2 cups chopped mushrooms

1 pound mild or medium cheddar cheese, shredded

Cook spaghetti and mix with oil and corn. Sauté mushrooms, onion and green pepper. Add tomato sauce, soup. Bring to a boil and pour over spaghetti. Mix.

Sprinkle a large pan with a little cheese, pour in spaghetti mixture and top with rest of cheese. Bake in 350 degree oven till hot and bubbly, 30‑40 minutes.

Big Becky’s pesto

My mom worked with two women named Becky. To avoid confusion, one of them went by Big Becky (and she was not petite). This is a great recipe: it’s really tasty, not hard to make, and you can save a bit of money since spinach is cheaper than fresh basil. My mom was being PC when she wrote out the recipe for me … everybody always called this Big Becky’s pesto. Note: if you don’t have a food processor, just wing it. I gather those aren’t as ubiquitous as they were in the ‘80s. Tip: try to resist cheating by just buying jarred pesto. It’s never any good.

3 oz. Parmesan cheese (in a block – don’t even use pre-shredded or—worse—powdered)

2 oz. Romano cheese (ditto)

1 cup packed fresh Basil leaves (about an ounce)

3 cups packed spinach leaves

1/2 to 2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

2-4 large cloves of garlic, chopped finely (but not pressed unless you’re really busy or lazy)

1/3 cup pine nuts

Cut cheese into 1-inch cubes and process in food processor until finely grated. Add washed basil and spinach and process to a purée.  Add garlic and then, with machine running, pour in oil. Add pine nuts last. Process until smooth. Note: you can use more basil, less spinach for stronger basil flavor.

Linguine alla vongole

For the fancy technique no college student has the money, the patience, or the logistical flair to pull off, click here and search the page for “pasta erotica.” For the easy, cheaper recipe, you’ll just have to email me. I’m too tired to document it right now, and this post has gotten long enough.


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Monday, October 5, 2020

Easy Recipes for College Kids


 I just took my daughter back down to Santa Barbara to resume college a couple days ago, and suddenly realized my wife and I forgot to teach her how to cook. So I’ve decided to put together a quick batch of really easy recipes for her, and why not share that with 3.4 billion others?

Bonus: I reached out to my bike team for recommendations. So you’ll get some time-honored recipes from a group of elite athletes (most of whom would agree with the motto, “eat to ride, ride to eat”).

Mashed potatoes

1 box instant mashed potato mix, any brand (though Idahoan was my favorite back in the ‘80s)



Follow instructions on instant mashed potato box. Serve and enjoy.

Tip: add salt and butter to taste (duh!). Bonus tip: pour some of these potato flakes into soups or sauces if they’re too thin and you’re too busy, stressed out, ignorant, etc. to fuss with corn starch.

Instant spuds ended up being my daughter’s first meal after we dropped her off last week. She sent the attached photo with the caption, “Eerily realistic.”

Mashed potatoes extraordinaire

Depending on your major and/or your time management skills, you might have the opportunity to make mashed potatoes properly.

A bunch of potatoes, preferably Yukon Gold but anything will do

Heavy whipping cream

Milk and/or buttermilk

Sour cream



Peel the potatoes. Do use only this Famos peeler, being careful to avoid harmful substitutes:

(Note: I’ve paraphrased the instructions that came with Campagnolo bicycle components, circa 1982, the full text being “do use only Campagnolo grease LB-100, being careful to avoid harmful substitutes.” Ironically, grease was the only thing Campagnolo sucked at manufacturing; almost any other bearing grease was superior. But I digress.)

Gouge the eyes out of the potatoes. Don’t skip this step because you could die! Then slice them into, like, eighths lengthwise. If the potatoes are very large, cut the slices in half.

Boil the potatoes, or better yet steam them if you have that kind of hardware, until they’re easy to pierce with a fork but aren’t yet starting to dissolve. Strain. Melt a bunch of butter in the pot. Add the potatoes and a splash or two of milk or buttermilk, just until they start to get creamy, and cook for a couple minutes over very low heat. Mash, using a potato masher, obviously. Add a nice glug of cream, and a serving-spoon-sized dollop of sour cream. Salt to taste. If you accidently let them get too waterlogged, cook over low heat for a while longer (if you have time), stirring continuously, until they’re thicker. If they’re kind of bland, add more cream, butter, salt, and/or sour cream.

Tip: Don’t skimp on the salt! If you don’t have high blood pressure, eating salt won’t cause it. Salt doesn’t just make food tastier—it makes it yummier. It’s really easy to fail to optimize your mashed potatoes by under-salting them.

Bonus tip: when eating, hollow out the middle of pile and fill this with butter. “Cap” it with potatoes until the butter is liquefied. Now you can dip each bite in the butter, so it’s right on the surface. This will give you more pure butter satisfaction than mixing it all in. Extra bonus tip: throw in stuff like carrots, onions, maybe some diced ham and call it Hutspot, explaining to your roommates that it’s Dutch. Won’t you look sophisticated!


I named this dish myself because my cycling teammate didn’t give it a name (though he did write, “I was a chef in college and am happy to pass on my culinary legacy”).

1 can chili con carne, with or without beans

1 pound good spaghetti

Grated cheddar

Onion, diced (optional)

1 egg


Crystal sauce

Boil the pasta. Heat the chili. While the pasta is boiling, fry the egg in butter (try to sync this so it’s done at the same moment as the pasta). Strain the pasta and smother it with the chili. Grate cheese over the top and add the diced onion (unless you’re hoping to get lucky later in the Language Lab). Lay the egg on top and douse the whole thing with Crystal sauce.

Tip: do use only Crystal sauce, being careful to avoid harmful substitutes, such as Tabasco. Why? Crystal is just better. I don’t know why. Maybe I got turned off because my college roommate had a framed print of a bottle of Tabasco with the caption “HOT STUFF” and I was embarrassed for him. Or maybe it’s because Tabasco has all these varieties now (e.g., “cayenne garlic”) which I somehow find distasteful.

Baked potatoes

Potatoes, perhaps something hunky from Idaho


Sour cream

Chives or scallion

Diced onions

Preheat the oven to like 400 degrees. (Would 350 work? Probably.) Gouge the potatoes’ eyes out to prevent fatality. With a fork, stab each potato multiple times across pretty much the whole surface. Stab deep. If you’re stressed out, pretend you’re a murderer. Don’t skip this step. If you do, one or more potatoes could explode, which will not endear you to your roommates.

Place potatoes on a baking sheet and bake for a really long time. The most common rookie move is taking them out too early. They should be super wrinkly when you remove them. Otherwise they’re too firm and will not absorb butter properly. I have almost never overcooked baked potatoes and even when I did (due to forgetting all about them), they were still edible (just super chewy).

After serving, and before cutting into your potato, use all your fingers and both thumbs to palpate the potato, making little yipping “ouch” sounds because it’s so damn hot. You’re kind of mashing the potato inside its own skin. Then cut into it lengthwise, unless the skin has burst on its own (which is ideal). Salt it, butter it, add sour cream and chives or whatever (diced onions? sure!) but do not shake little Bacon Bits on there from a jar. That is so disgusting. If you want to fry your own bacon to a crisp and crumble that over your potato, well, that’s fine. Grated cheddar? Yeah, okay. Tip: if you’re trying to diet, overcook your baked potatoes so your jaw will tire out before you’ve overeaten. Bonus tip: don’t diet. Just exercise more.


I received the following suggestion from a guy on my bike team who’s from France: “Escargots ? :) ez and yummy.” He didn’t elaborate. This really threw me for a loop. I mean, this dish might be easy if you used canned snails, but isn’t that antithetical to the entire idea of French cooking? I considered that perhaps my friend is getting ready to apply for citizenship and, just in case NSA operatives were eavesdropping on his email, he decided to say something that would establish how American he’d become … but then I realized this is just Covid-era madness on my part. More likely, he’s just so good at preparing escargot that he doesn’t consider it difficult. Assuming that with practice this dish can become easy, here is a good recipe:

50 live snails

Bay leaves

½ cup white wine

¼ cup vinegar

½ cup salt

½ cup light stock

2 cloves garlic

As noted in The Joy of Cooking, “The Romans, who were addicted to snails, grew them on ranches where they were fed special foods like bay, wine and spicy soups as preseasoning.” Think about this. What would a snail ranch look like? Did the Romans brand the snails? How did they keep the snails from escaping in the night? What did the fence look like? Joy goes on to say, “When snails feed in late spring and summer, they may indulge in some foliage inimical to humans and, if used during this period, must be placed in a covered basket in a cool place and starved for 48 hours. For the next ten days to two weeks, feed them on lettuce leaves, removing the old leaves and furnishing new ones every few days.” WTF?! Surely my bike team pal doesn’t take all this trouble. Even Martha Stewart would balk.

Fortunately, I talked to a chef once who described a faster methodology for cleaning out the snails: you feed them anise seed, which scours out their digestive tracts, shoving all the evil stuff right out their little snail anuses. The weird thing, as I recall this advice, is that I can remember highly specific things about the conversation, such as the venue, a tiny café in Aix-les-Bains, with giant windows, so smoke-filled you couldn’t see across it, so I sat outside with my family in the rain. But I don’t remember summoning the chef, nor how we possibly could have communicated effectively with my terrible French and his nonexistent English. It’s possible this conversation never actually happened, though the meal certainly did, and the escargot I ate at that little café were so drenched in butter I couldn’t taste anything else. (I hasten to point out that this was the only meal I ever had in France that wasn’t délicieux.)

So screw it. This isn’t an easy recipe at all. Trust me, you really don’t want to cook escargot in college. Tip: if you feel you must prepare escargot, perhaps because you take this post as some kind of challenge, and you want to look up recipes in Joy of Cooking, don’t bother looking for “escargot” in the index. They’re listed under “snails.”

Indoor “BBQ” chicken

What college kid has time to fire up the grill? And who among Gen Z even knows how? Are charcoal briquettes and lighter fluid even legal in your state, and don’t they cause cancer anyway? With this handy recipe, you don’t need to worry about any of that.

Chicken pieces

BBQ sauce



Buy a bunch of prepackaged chicken pieces (unless your campus community has a real butcher who’ll cut up a whole chicken for you, in which case have each breast cut in half while he’s at it). Butter a glass casserole dish. Place chicken in dish. Douse with KC Masterpiece Original barbecue sauce. Bake in the regular old oven at whatever temperature you feel like (when in doubt, just do 350 F, no matter what you’re baking). Bake until you know it’s done because you have a meat thermometer. Test early and often so you don’t overcook it. Serve with Minute Rice unless you have a rice cooker. Or serve with mashed or baked potatoes as above. Your meal should always have a protein, a starch, and a vegetable. Potatoes count as starch but not a vegetable. (“Vegetable” means that green thing you’d never actually buy or cook because college students never do, but I had to try.) Salt to taste. Tip: douse with Crystal sauce if you want a little kick, or if you get a self-satisfied feeling every time you use Crystal instead of Tabasco sauce.

Indoor “BBQ” chicken extraordinaire

Prepare Indoor “BBQ” chicken as above but use better barbecue sauce. I don’t have a specific recommendation but surely your friends and family have strong opinions on this, particularly if somebody buys it over the phone from his or her favorite BBQ joint in Texas or North Carolina.


1 can SpaghettiOs

Two slices soft wheat bread

Peanut butter

Jelly or jam

If you think SpaghettiOs are passé, think again. They are very current and come in all kinds of shapes which change regularly. Right now you can even find Star Wars SpaghettiOs:

Zoom in and check it out: it even comes with Rey-shaped pasta. How would you like to be Daisy Ridley, to know that there’s actually a pasta shaped like your head, keeping in mind that 150 million cans of SpaghettiOs are sold each year? That’s when you know you’ve truly arrived.

This recipe couldn’t be simpler: pour the SpaghettiOs from the can into a saucepan or bowl and heat on the stove or in the microwave. Then dump it straight into the toilet (“cut out the middleman,” to paraphrase James Bond) and make yourself a PBJ. Why do SpaghettiOs exist?

Spaghetti with “special family recipe” sauce

Once a year (at least, when there’s not a pandemic or a death in the family), I host a giant pasta party for all my bike pals (road teammates and fellow mountain bike coaches). I slave for a day over my special Bolognese sauce (here’s the recipe) and serve it on my homemade pasta. When there were more young children at the party (i.e., before everybody got so damn old), I’d try to fill the children up on mac ‘n’ cheese (recipe here) or a more basic sauce that a rhesus monkey could make. (Children cannot appreciate Bolognese so it shouldn’t be wasted on them.) Invariably, I’d get some uncultured grown-up ranting and raving about my “other” sauce and how it’s “even better than the Bolognese.” They’d ask for the recipe, but I’d demur and tell them it’s a closely guarded family secret, since I obviously wouldn’t want to embarrass them by saying how utterly banal and unsophisticated the recipe really is. It’s two freaking ingredients, neither of them even slightly chichi.

1-pound log of Safeway house-brand Italian sausage

3 jars of cheap spaghetti sauce such as Prego

1 pound of dry pasta, whatever shape you want

Wedge of parmesan

Get the pasta boiling. Extrude the filmy, greasy sausage from the tube into a cold pan. Over medium heat, cook it until it’s not raw (duh!). Drain the fat if you must. Add the cheap sauce. Stir while heating. Strain the pasta and, if you’re feeling really gourmet, toss it with olive oil. Serve the sauce over the pasta and top with grated parmesan (grate it with a zester to be dazzling). If you’re a poor student, sprinkle instead with that horrid powdered parmesan in the green can, but do it ironically to preserve your culinary mystique. Sheesh.

Crock pot extravagaaaanza

Two of my teammates recommended small crock pots for cooking enough rice & beans to last for several meals. Here is a synthesis of their rough recipes.

Dry beans (kidney, pinto, maybe a combo)

Rice (or whatever whole grain)

Random veggies

Sauce (Crystal, soy, Worcestershire)

Spice (your favorite EZ blend, e.g. Mrs. Dash)

Cheese (optional)

Egg (optional)

Get a small crock pot, or a pressure cooker like the Instant Pot. Put the stuff in it in the morning and turn it on. Leave it on. Eat the contents for dinner and for breakfast and for lunch the next day. Add cheese and egg as desired (frankly, I don’t know when … probably at the end?). If you get tired of it, sex it up with more fixin’s or feed it to your roommate.

To be continued…

I received more recipes than I’d expected from friends, and found some old family recipes as well, so I’ve got enough material for another entire post! Click here for more super-easy and tasty recipes, whether you’re a college student yourself or looking to grow your repertoire of go-to lazy-day meals.


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