Tuesday, December 29, 2009

O'Horton & Schultze Gets the Blues

Some time in the early 1950s, life insurance ads featuring cheery-faced, grey-haired men and women began appearing in digest-sized magazines like Coronet. They were pictured swinging golf clubs, smiling beneath palm trees and posing happily in vacation-like settings. A 1955 headline over a photograph of a man holding a fishing rod, reads, "How I retired in 15 years with $250 a month."

By 1958, this on-going campaign featured a husband and wife enjoying life in sunny California. Above them, a somewhat updated headline read: "How we retired in 15 years with $300 a month."

Eventually, inflation killed the campaign if not the dream of a carefree retirement. Even in these not-so-golden years, there are those who long and plan for a time when they won't have to work. There are, however, others who find the prospect of an unstructured life more than a bit daunting, their identity wrapped snugly in what they do for a living, and how well they do it. Over the years, several films have attempted to capture the transition to life in the not-so-fast lane. Of these, Norway's O'Horton and Germany's Schultze Gets the Blues are two of the best.

Written, directed and produced by Bent Hamer, O'Horton is a quirky film centering around the days immediately preceding and following a railroad engineer's mandatory retirement. Hamer charmed his way into my heart with Kitchen Stories, and I was anxious to see what he could do outside the kitchen.

As it turns out, O'Horton is a good bit darker and more adventurous than Stories, but still in keeping with Hamer’s penchant for keeping things simple, and letting the pictures tell the story.

In case you're wondering, the “O” in “O’Horton" stands for “Odd”—the central character’s given name. Pronounced "owed", it is, apparently, a fairly common name in Norway, and while some critics believe Hamer chose it for its English translation and pronunciation, the screen writer denies it. And I believe him, as Odd is not an odd man. Solitary? Yes. A creature of habit? Perhaps. But odd? No.

If anything, Odd, as portrayed by Baard Owe, is a rather ordinary member of the working class. A railroad engineer by trade, he has always lived by the rules, and in Odd’s world, those rules dictate that he retire at the age of sixty-seven.

We meet him on the morning of what is to be his next-to-last run. As the credits roll, we see a train passing by his modest Oslo apartment building. Cut to his studio apartment, where he is in the midst of a long-standing morning routine: packing his lunch, filling his thermos and covering his parakeet’s cage before setting out on foot for the nearby train terminal.

He arrives just as his train pulls into the station. We see only the front end of the engine. As it comes to a halt, we hear the wheels squeal, the sound of additional cars hooking up, and the slow steady shuffle and eventual acceleration of the train as it makes its way out of the station and into the stark white landscape of a typical Norwegian winter.

Cue the music, and what has to be one of the most beautifully-filmed train sequences I have ever seen. It is a study in black and white, with Hamer using three cameras to provide breathtaking views. There is the overhead shot taken from a helicopter – showing us the expanse of the land and the sure steady path of the train. A second camera is placed just behind Odd, where he sits―trusty pipe in hand, anticipating every twist and turn along the way. A third camera provides ground-level close-ups of the train and surrounding countryside.

The total effect is spell-binding, particularly the cabin footage. Here, we see what Odd sees; the whitest of whites, followed by the blackest of blacks, as the train makes its way in and out of tunnels and snow-covered towns.

Scheduled to make his last run the following morning, Odd arrives in Bergen, where he is honored at the obligatory retirement dinner. This sequence is one of the film’s best: a charming, whimsical piece of folderol, during which he receives a silver train-topped trophy from the railroad, and a wonderfully humorous tribute from his fellow engineers.

It is in these opening sequences that we learn that Odd is a quiet man who is uncomfortable in the spotlight, choosing to be an observer rather than participant at his own retirement party.

When circumstances cause him to miss his last run, Odd's life takes an unexpected turn, trashing the one post-retirement plan he had in place―a return flight to Oslo. What would be a minor snag for most, is, literally, a major departure for this life-long railroad man, and I found myself wondering whether it was, if only subconsciously, an act of defiance: a non-confrontational way of getting back at a company that has no use for a loyal employee of a certain age. Look Ma, no trains!

But ma isn’t listening, as she sits by her rest home window, lost in a world of her own. Yet despite the fact that she no longer has the ability to listen or respond to her son, she remains an ever-present force in his life, her lost dreams infiltrating his own.

With no plans for the future, Odd takes refuge in the faces, places and creature comforts that have been a part of his working man’s routine. Among them, a neighborhood tobacco shop, a local restaurant where, like Cheers, everyone knows his name, and a boarding house, where a smitten innkeeper has kept a room and hot meal waiting for him on the nights when his run ended in Bergen.

Yet even amidst the old and familiar, there are off-putting moments, as one unexpected dilemma leads to another. Before long, the newly-retired engineer finds himself taking chances and making decisions that fly in the face of rules and convention, and are, at the very least, out of character.

After one such predicament in a local gym, Odd comes upon an elderly gentleman named Trygve Sussner, superbly played by veteran actor Espen Skjønberg. Lying on a city pavement on a cold winter’s night, it appears that Dr. Sussner has had a bit too much to drink. Odd helps the old man to his feet and into cab: a kindness that leads to a series of events and givens that are not quite what they seem. As these events unfold, and the givens fall away, we learn the back story that shaped Odd’s life, and will ultimately impact his future.

Towards the end of the film, Sussner confides that as a young man, he had a gift for being able to see with his eyes closed, and would often take to the road blind-folded. Inviting Odd to join him for a pre-dawn drive, the old soul looks around his snow globe of a town and remarks, “Today is a beautiful day for driving blind.” It is a statement that far exceeds its literal meaning, causing the once cautious engineer to do some blind driving of his own.

Like O’Horton, Schultze Gets the Blues follows a man who has been forced into retirement, without a clue as to how to fill in the blanks. Despite the fact that Horton is a Norwegian engineer and Schultze is German miner, their stories, at least at first blush, appear to be quite similar. The engineer receives a silver train-topped trophy for his years of service, the miner receives a rock of salt. The engineer finds comfort in his pipe, the miner, in his accordion. And yet, to say that they are basically one and the same film with different subtitles, would be a mistake, as they each have their own rhythm, look and story line. Fraternal twins, they are alike in some ways, yet totally different in others.

Of the two, Schultze’s tale is a good bit brighter, with a happy dose of Zydeco music, and a trip across the pond to cheer us on. But while O’Horton’s journey may be somewhat darker, it is not without its fair share of humorous moments. Together, they prove that the joys, fears, foibles and challenges surrounding retirement are universal. Underscoring this notion is the fact that, as of last August, O'Horton had been seen by more Americans than Norwegians; the commonality being the milestone rather than the miles.

Are these films for the geriatric set, or can they be enjoyed by all? The answer lies in another question: Do you have to be from outer space, a vampire, animated figure or larger-than-life mortal to enjoy films about them? Surely not. A good movie is a good movie. It's as simple as that.

Here’s to a bright and shining New Year, filled with spectacular moments both on and off the silver screen.

Till the next time...

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Kinky Boots: It's a shoe in

As I write this I'm listening to the Kinky Boots CD sampler. It’s a great soundtrack that includes an updated version of “Whatever Lola Wants”. The song, which has been recorded by everyone from Sarah Vaughan to Bob and Ray, comes from the 1955 Broadway show Damn Yankees, but is perfectly suited to this 2005 film, both for its tone, and title.

The basic theme of the movie is a familiar one: someone’s plans are put on hold by the death of a parent, as in Frank Capra's 1946 classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, where George Bailey is forced to put his dreams aside in order to take over the family business.

In Kinky Boots, that business is Price & Sons, Ltd., a well-respected but antiquated Northampton company known for its well-made but out-of-step men’s oxfords. When owner Harold Price dies unexpectedly, his adult son Charlie’s hopes and dreams appear to be buried along with his dad. For while Mr. Price senior’s heart was stitched into every sole, Charlie’s beats elsewhere, as does that of his pretty young fiancée, Nicola.

As in the Capra tale, the timing couldn't be worse, with the newly-betrothed couple having just arrived at their brand new, London apartment. "The best thing of all is the view" gushes Nicola, as she raises the shade of their bedroom window. "It's not Northampton!" But moments later the phone rings with word of Harold Price's passing, and all too soon the view changes to one of Charlie and Nicola riding in a limousine on their way to the cemetery, looking bleakly out the window as they pass the aging factory, the words "Save our soles" painted in a graffiti-like sprawl across a faded panel of the building.

Accepting his fate, Charlie returns to the factory the following morning, without a clue as to how to run the business. But as he soon learns, there is no business― literally. With no orders to fill, and a stock pile of shoes that no one will buy, it's clear that the factory is, and has been running on empty for some time.

Unwilling to sell, but with few other options, Charlie begins the painful process of letting people go. When a young about-to-be-sacked employee (Sarah-Jane Potts) suggests that he save the company by finding and filling an as-yet unfilled niche in the world of shoes, Price takes her advice, traveling to London in search of an idea.

Shortly after his arrival, he comes upon and thwarts a would-be mugging, an incident that introduces him to a feisty drag queen named Lola. Lola, whose given name is Simon, runs a cabaret similar to one you may have seen in LaCage aux Folles. The encounter sparks an idea, one Charlie believes might re-boot the business and turn the ailing factory around.

What follows is fairly predictable: not quite the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland-esque "We'll build a barn and have a show" scenario, but predictable none-the-less. And yet, it more than holds your attention, as time runs short, emotions run high and people dig in.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lola, is a stand-out, delivering a first rate performance that, in less skilled hands, could have negatively impacted the entire tone of the piece. While he looked familiar, I couldn't quite place him until I read his filmography, which included 2002's Dirty Pretty Things (directed by Stephen Frears) where he starred as Okwe, a Nigerian doctor-turned-cab driver and concierge, and 2003's Love Actually – where he took on a smaller role as Peter, the newly-wedded husband of Keira Knightley.

But it is in Kinky Boots, that Ejiofor truly shines. Inspired by, and loosely-based on an episode of the BBC documentary series Trouble at the Top, director Julian Jarrold's fictionalized version is a good bit more colorful, laced with perfectly-chosen music and a hopeful ending.

And speaking of hope―I hope the title of this film won't cause you to pass it by, assuming that it's filled with salacious sex and x-rated language, as nothing could be further from the truth. For while it's certainly not Mary Poppins, it certainly is a heady mixture of drama and comedy, show-stopping musical numbers and heart-wrenching pathos, with a little romance thrown in for good measure. I think you'll get a kink out of it.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Elsa and Fred

I’ve just finished watching a lovely little film called Elsa and Fred. I must say that at first, I wasn’t quite sure I was going to like this movie, as Elsa appeared to be almost a caricature of a character – wildly and unbelievably eccentric. And yet, before I knew it, like Fred, I was involved.

Briefly, Elsa and Fred is the story of Fred, a newly-widowed, pleasant-looking, extremely decent but conventional man in his late seventies, who moves into an apartment across the hall from Elsa, an eccentric eighty-two –year-old woman (China Zorrilla) with an incredible zest for life and penchant for―well, lying.

As the movie begins, we see Fred (whose real name is Alfredo) through Elsa’s eyes. She describes him as “a bit opaque...like his inner light had gone out. All his life he’s been this boring person. He’s never stepped out of line, had an indiscretion… he loves being sick.”

And so he does. Fred, as adeptly played by Manual Alexandre, is a man who is well dressed, polite, quiet, and grieving. And though his grief is real, Elsa can’t help but wonder if his marriage was as humdrum as the rest of his life, for when asked to describe his newly deceased wife, Fred’s first response is to say that she was “tidy.”

From this we gather that their marriage was, if not a love affair, then comfortable, and he misses that familiarity and its trappings. Afraid of dying, Fred takes enough pills to fill a toilet bowl. When he confides his fears to Elsa, she comes up with a different diagnosis: “You’re not scared of dying,” she pronounces. “You’re scared of living.” And so the story unravels, as Elsa sets out to “make this dinosaur live.”

Like Fernanda Montenegro in Central Station, Ms. Zorilla takes what could be a highly unlikable character, and makes us care about her. Some, no doubt, will even envy Elsa’s spirit, and ability to get to the heart of the matter, without tip-toeing around.

As the credits rolled, and I thought about what I had just seen, I found myself comparing this 2005 film to 1988’s The Accidental Tourist. Totally different in many ways, these two films share one thing in common: they both center around strong, off-beat women who, despite the cards that fate has dealt them, remain full of life, and the men they pull out of the abyss— men who, for different reasons, have been afraid to take chances, make changes, and get on with their lives.

Elsa and Fred is not a perfect film. There is an over abundance of slow-fades, the music is heavy-handed, and some of the supporting characters are a bit too sharply drawn. And yet, there are so many good things about this piece, that I am even willing to forgive the screen writers for its inevitable conclusion.

Why? Because in this film, the story isn’t nearly as important or interesting as the people who inhabit it. To Zorrilla’s credit, we (along with Fred) come to adore Elsa, despite the fact that she is deeply flawed. And the subtly of Alexandre's performance takes us from here-to-there, with great joy and promise.

The sub-plot may hit home with some baby boomers, who have watched their aging, widowed parents find romance, and had to deal with their own feelings about what that means to them. Similarly, those who are of a certain age, and have had to deal with their grown children’s feelings and concerns, will also find something to think about here.

While Elsa and Fred is billed as a comedy, I would put it more into the ‘dramady’ category. Yes, there are funny moments― well-placed zingers and bits of business, mostly executed by Elsa, but for the most part, this is a movie with far more depth to it than say, 27 Dresses, When Harry Met Sally or The Runaway Bride. If you’re looking for light and airy, this ‘ain’t’ it.

I know that there are a good many people who shy away from foreign films by because they don’t want to deal with the subtitles. If you are among them, I hope you will set aside any misgivings, and watch this small but delightful film. Those of you who are Fellini fans will especially enjoy the movie’s nod to Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni, and the famous fountain scene in La dolce vita. For all this and more, I say, bravo!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Mad About Mad Men

It occurred to me the other day that in focusing almost entirely on my favorite DVDs these past few months, I've neglected the other “pics and pans” promised in the launching of this blog. In an effort to rectify the situation, I would like to introduce you to one of the best cable shows on television, as well as a couple of exceptionally delicious food finds.

One look at the title of this latest effort, and a good portion of you are apt to say, “You’re going to introduce me to Mad Men?" Okay, okay. I know. Many of you are already unabashed fans. The AMC series is, after all, about to go into its third season. But if you have not as yet indulged, or if, per chance, have yet to watch it with the accompanying commentaries, “this Bud’s for you.”

Truth be told, I love nearly everything about Mad Men, which is why I have been gearing up for the new season―slated to arrive on August 16th―by revisiting past episodes enhanced by those afore-mentioned commentaries.

While you can watch most of these episodes on AMC from time-to-time, you can only watch the commentary versions and other extras by either purchasing or renting the DVDs. For me, these special features - particularly the commentaries, take the viewing experience to a whole new level, offering reflections and information you can only garner by listening to the writers, actors and behind-the-scenes teams who created them. They are also a great way to clear up any questions you may have about a particular scene or situation.

The show revolves around Sterling Cooper, a mid-sized, second-tier 1960s Madison Avenue advertising agency. At Sterling Cooper, nearly everyone drinks, smokes and sleeps around. Those who don’t, gossip about those who do. It’s typical office fare, but with New York City as its backdrop, Mad Men is filled with intoxicating glimpses of the way it was: the New York restaurants and smoke-filled haunts, forever captured in films like Brigadoon, Designing Women and Lover Come Back, but without the Hollywood glow. For this is a darker look at this multi-layered decade. Doris Day, with her twinkling eyes and closely-guarded virginity, could never work for Sterling Cooper.

And yet, this totally fictionalized version of the way it was, is, in itself, intriguing, and filled with nostalgic nods to some of our favorite products, past times and moments. Those of you who are old enough to remember the decade, will likewise recall many of the brands, campaigns and life-changing events the show uses to take us from here to there. Watching one particular episode the other night, I was reminded of an ad campaign that took over the air waves and newspapers at the time. It featured three little words: We Try Harder.

While the show recently alluded to another ground-breaking 1960's campaign―the famous Volkswagen "Lemon/Small Wonder" ads, Avis Rent-A-Car’s We Try Harder promotion was right up there. I remember collecting a drawer-full of We Try Harder buttons, each printed in a different language. It was a brilliant campaign, and it, along with those Volkswagen ads, made me want to be a part of the madness.

The award-winning series projects you into that world, and a time when men wore suits, hats and skinny ties to work, and neatly-coiffed women were, for the most part, stuck behind their manual typewriters. Smoking, drinking and carousing were, if not encouraged, then tolerated by some, and accepted by others as part of the game.

A commuter train-ride away, shirt-waisted wives held dinner for their self-dubbed “mad men,” as their children fiddled with the new stereo set, or sat patiently with their mom in the family’s station wagon, waiting for dad to arrive on the evening train.

What is, perhaps, most surprising about this series is that it is as fresh as it is retro – a nod to the late Peter Allen’s observation that “Everything old is new again.” The themes, dreams, disappointments and traumas of this often glorified decade are the themes, dreams, disappointments and traumas of today. Then, as now, men and women worried about being replaced by their younger counterparts, both at home and at the office. Technology bulldozed its way into our lives, and world events frightened, shaped and intrigued us. Like the man said, “Everything old is new again.”

Where Mad Men could have been written and played in a camp-like fashion, creator Matt Weiner thankfully chose to take the higher road. From sets to fashions, attitudes to platitudes, child rearing to commandeering, everything―if you’ll forgive the pun— is spot-on.

And then there’s the cast. It is a credit to the make-up and wardrobe team that Jon Hamm, (Sterling Cooper’s Creative Director, Don Draper) and January Jones, as Draper's Grace Kelly-like wife, are barely recognizable away from the set. Hamm—as the mysterious Don Draper, is so good-looking, so chiseled, so cool and distant, you have to wonder if the actor is really the ham fellow cast-members remark about.

Jones is, to my mind, the weakest link in the chain, though a very pretty and adequate addition to the cast. More impressive is Elisabeth Moss, who, along with Hamm, is deservedly up for an Emmy. As the complicated secretary-turned-copywriter, Peggy Olson, Moss is totally believable as a twenty-something secretarial school graduate who appears to be one thing, and is, in fact, quite another.

Other stand-outs include Vincent Kartheiser as Peggy’s off-and-on again paramour, and John Slattery as the agency’s number two man and chief womanizer, Roger Sterling. You may remember him as Eva Longoria Parker’s late and politically-corrupt husband on Desperate Housewives.

But this is an ensemble cast, and everyone on the show is perfectly cast, from office manager Joan Hollaway (Christina Hendricks) to the ever-quirky Bertram Cooper, magnificently played by Robert Morris, who, as a decidedly younger version of himself and his character, lit up the Broadway stage (and movie) in How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying during the very era Mad Men seeks to recreate.

In short, if you have a passion for all things "sixty" and the way that advertising (spurred on by world events and new technologies) impacted everything from race relations to office protocol, you’ll love this unique and highly-watchable series.
And there’s a lot to love, particularly on the Season One DVDs, with their accompanying commentaries, special features and featurettes. Together, they provide an inside track on the way the series was conceived, dialogue crafted, sets designed, wardrobe assembled, music chosen and cast―cast. Season Two offers similar fare, but there is an unbridled enthusiasm in Season One's commentaries (due, in part, to what was―at that point― newly found fame and recognition), that is particularly appealing.

But don't take my word for it. If you haven’t seen this beautifully-crafted piece of television, take the “A” train to Madison Avenue and travel back in time–to a time when network television ruled, and the morning paper was not yet in mourning. Invite a friend along―someone who is old enough to remember those bygone days, and open to sharing their personal memories and insights with you. Go all out; whip up a meatloaf and some mashed potatoes, grab a six-pack of bottled Coke, and enjoy the view. No time and/or interest in cooking? Not to worry. Pick up a couple of the following food finds, and get ready to rock―or should I say, twist?


I ran across this first product quite by accident, at—of all places―Kroger, a store not generally known for its wide array of international brands. But it was at Kroger that I came upon Capilano Natural Australian Honey – the best I’ve ever tasted. I suggest you purchase a package of Wonder English Muffins and some lightly salted butter to go with it. I was a Thomas muffin fan prior to all of this, but Wonder’s version is much cheaper, and crisps up perfectly when halved and toasted, staying remarkably warm and crunchy when lightly slathered with softened butter and drizzled with Capilano. OMG.

Prefer jam to honey? Reach for some homemade peach or blueberry preserves from Pontotoc Ridge Blueberry Farm. The blueberry jam is thin – almost runny, and laced with dozens of small blueberries that spill across a buttered muffin like marbles.

The peach preserves are just as heavenly, with large pieces of fruit throughout. I found the strawberry/fig jam to be too sweet for my taste, looking and tasting more like something you would spoon on top of short cake than your English muffins or freshly-baked biscuits. But, then again, strawberry short cake may be just what you're looking for.

In any case, Pontotoc Ridge offers a wide variety of jams and butters, including honeysuckle and kudzu. I bought a small taster-size jar of the stuff just to see what it tasted like, and found it to be surprisingly bland. My advice would be to stick with the standards,which, in this case, are anything but standard fare. You’ll find them at the Downtown Farmer’s Market here in Memphis, as well as the Midtown Farmer’s Market in Oxford.

More of a dessert person? Look no further than the freezer section of the Fresh Market, and a New England-based product called GaGa. Named after the founder's grandmother, the pint-sized container claims that their product is as “Smooth as ice cream..." [and]"...Fresh like sherbet.” And it is.

So far I’ve tried GaGa's lemon, orange and raspberry flavors, all of which remind me of my childhood Creamsickle days. Of the three, I liked the orange least, and can't wait to try their chocolate and 'rainbow' varieties. Live outside of Memphis? According to GaGa's web site, these tasty treats and their Popsicle off-springs are also available at selected Whole Foods and Wegmans markets.

Incidentally, in case you were wondering―no one sends me free samples or pays me to push their products on this blog site. What you see, is what I get: foods, flicks and TV shows that are just too good to miss. May you enjoy them all.

Till the next time…

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hear My Song

As anyone who loves books, magazines, movies and music can tell you, the main library’s semi-annual sale is a wondrous event. Over the years I have poured through and amassed all kinds of donated and discarded treasures that have made my life richer, and all for a few cents on the original-price dollar.

Friends of the Library get a head-start on sifting through the stacks, and there was one year when I must have carted home at least fifty old magazines to bolster my collection of pre-1960 periodicals.

This year, I waited until the second day of the sale, hoping that there would be fewer items to tempt me, as I realized long ago that if I kept buying these things at my current pace, my collections would quickly take over the house.

I arrived at the library some time around 1 p.m. Much to my surprise, dismay and delight, the tables of were still bulging with bargains. By the time I checked out, I had managed to whittle my stash down to four soft-covers, eight not-so-old magazines, a Wally Lamb audio book I’d meant to read, and a well-worn VHS library copy of the 1991 film, Hear My Song—an eight-dollar-and-change windfall.

I’d watched Hear My Song several times over the years. It's one of those so-called “small movies” that lives up to the old "good things come in small packages" adage. I had a home-taped copy somewhere, but I bought the video because I wanted to share it with a friend, who I know would love it as much as I did. As it turned out, she'd already seen and enjoyed it several times, but she said she knew someone who would appreciate it.

Before I passed it on, I decided to watch it yet again, as it had been nearly a decade since I had last seen the film. I was surprised at how many of the small but delightful moments I had forgotten. Aside from an obvious bit of lip-syncing in a couple of performance sequences, I found it to be as dellightful as ever.

Ned Beatty is the only actor you may recognize, and the only American in this marvelously-cast piece. He plays that part of an Irish tenor by the name of Josef Locke, who, it turns out, was a real person, and quite the celebrity in Europe back in the fifties and early sixties.

After looking Loche's biography up on the Internet, I was surprised to see how much Beatty looks like the tenor, something casting agents tend to ignore. Sought by the government for non-payment of taxes, the real Locke fled England back in the early sixties. It is this fact that forms the basis of this fictionized account, picking up the story some thirty years later.

The film centers around a thirty-something Irishman named Micky O’Neil. Micky is in love, though he just can’t seem to say the three little words his girlfriend longs to hear. He also has trouble telling the truth. His are small lies – white lies if you will, but he is, at heart, a good soul. Played by Adrian Dunbar, who co-wrote the script with director Peter Chelsom, he is charming, sweet, and a bit of a rascal.

Micky owns a night club in Liverpool, booking less-than-authentic (not to mention infinitely cheaper) headliners like Franc Cinatra. Nearly broke and destined to lose his club unless he comes up with some quick cash, Micky books "Mr. "X", a Josef Locke impersonator. Pre-show posters make it appear as if Loche is coming out of hiding for this once-in-a-lifetime concert, filling the club to capacity. But when the ruse is exposed, the town rebels.

Making matters worse is that unknown to Micky, his girlfriend’s mom (Shirley-Anne Field) was romantically involved with Loche shortly before he disappeared. Her anticipation at seeing him again, followed by her (and her daughter's) obvious dismay at being duped, serves as a wake-up call for the lovesick Irishman. Hoping to make it up to her and his patrons, Micky sets off for Ireland in hopes of finding Locke and bringing him back to Liverpool for a long-overdue concert and reunion.

What follows is a whimsical detour from the real story, but it is a lovely detour. To tell you anything more would take away from the enjoyment of this marvelous piece, including a not-to-be-missed ending that will have you cheering from your Barcalounger.

Locke was known for several songs, and they are all included, fitting perfectly into the plot, from the title piece (“Hear My Song, Violetta”) to “I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen” and “Goodbye.” There are also wonderful bits of dialogue – many of which are mightily delivered by perfectly-cast supporting players like Harold Berens, who, as elderly band leader Benny Rose, responds to Micky’s amused query -“Who are you?” with a Jimmy Durante-like, “If the phone doesn’t ring – it’s me.”

Hear My Song is truly a gem of a film. Rent it. Watch it. Love it. Share it, and spread the joy.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Captain's Paradise

I don’t know why, but it always comes as a surprise to find out that something or someone I thought I had discovered, had a prior life. Example? The hauntingly beautiful "Smoke Gets in your Eyes." I heard it for the first time in 1958, when The Platters version of the song topped the charts for weeks on end. Like so many of my friends, I thought it was a new tune, when, in fact,Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach wrote it for the 1933 operatta, Roberta. Bob Hope introduced it, but it was Paul Whiteman who scored with his rendition, as did three other artists. Who knew?

Many people think Nat King Cole introduced the tune (his version of the song was a 1940's hit), while those of you who are post-Platters babies probably discovered it within the body of a movie soundtrack. It’s been on a bunch of them, including Hearts in Atlantis, Smoke, American Graffiti and Four Weddings and a Funeral. So new, it’s not.

Mad Man fans may recognize the song from the AMC series’ pilot episode, which not only borrowed the tune, but the title. All of which is to say that there are a lot of people out there who would be surprised to learn that what they believed to be a new song, is actually a seventy-six-year-old classic.

But surprises come in all shapes and sizes. As a young girl, I was surprised to learn that some of the TV stars from my childhood days had once been big time movie stars― people like Lucille Ball, Dick Powell, Loretta Young and Ralph Bellamy.

A few actors and actresses are lucky enough to have careers that span fifty, sixty, even seventy years. As a result, they may be known for one thing by one generation, and another by another. Case in point: the late Sir Alec Guinness. Twenty-somethings may be surprised to learn that Sir Alec (aka Obi-Wan Kenobi) was a major stage and screen star long before the Wars, appearing in dozens of plays and motion pictures, Bridge on the River Kwai, for which he took home a Best Actor Oscar.

Guinness was said to be the director's good luck charm, and can be seen in some of Lean's most well-received works - Dr. Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia and A Passage to India among them. But Guinness was also in a number of smaller films, like The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers and my personal favorite, a sprightly British comedy called The Captain’s Paradise.

I was just a child when Paradise hit the big screen in 1953, but Pete, my long-time significant other, remembered it well, and would bring it up from time to time when the subject of what to give someone presented itself. Last month, faced with the task of choosing a staggering number of birthday, wedding and graduation cards and gifts, the world's worst chooser of gifts turned to her well-worn VHS copy of The Captain’s Paradise for a fresh perspective.

Sir Alec plays Captain Henry St. James, a ship’s captain who makes his living ferrying passengers back and forth from the British territory of Gibraltar to the Spanish-ruled Tangiers. Believing that no one woman could fulfill all of his – or any man’s needs, he becomes a bigamist, with a wife in every port. When in Gibraltar, he lives quietly with the domestically-inclined Maud, aptly played by Celia Johnson. You may remember her from the previously-reviewed Brief Encounter. Maud is the ideal homemaker, content, it seems, to cook and clean her way into her husband’s heart.

When in Tangiers, the captain comes home to Nita, played by Yvonne De Carlo. Nita is a hot little number, who, it appears, likes nothing more than to party her way through life, dancing, romancing and pleasing her man, without ever having to worry about dish pan hands.

Over the years, the Captain continues to live this double life, each wife unaware of the others existence. A captain’s paradise? Perhaps, but a paradise built on lies and assumptions: assumptions tested when the ever-thoughtful but careless captain unknowingly switches anniversary presents, giving Maud a bikini intended for Nita, and Nita an apron he bought for Maud.

What follows is a clever and thought-provoking conclusion that will have you questioning any pre-conceived notions about people, places, and preferences. To tell you anything more about the plot or predicament would ruin the fun. Suffice to say that life – and people, are unpredictable, because, as the good folks at Almond Joy have been known to say, “Sometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don’t.”

The Captain’s Paradise is a lovely way to discover or rediscover the talents of Sir Alec. Give it a shot. After watching it, you just may want to rethink this year’s Father’s Day gift.

Till the next time...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


I don’t know about you, but sometimes I’m just in the mood for a mindless, totally unpretentious, happy little movie. When I'm looking for that kind of experience,I really don't care if it has a four-star or no-star cast, big time director or unique premise. All I ask is that it leave me feeling good about life and the human condition. A two-star movie on a good (or bad) day can be extremely satisfying.

Outsourced is a perfect example. While 95% of this American-made film takes place in India, Outsourced is no Slumdog Millionaire, nor does it try to be. By that I mean that athough it doesn’t dismiss the country’s abject poverty, it doesn’t wallow in it either. Rather, it shows how so many with so little – be it possessions or personal space, are able to live together with dignity and even joy.

The plot revolves around a young American named Todd Anderson (Josh Hamilton) who is second in command at a novelty company’s Seattle call center. When his boss informs him that the center is about to close and customer service calls outsourced to India, Todd has only moments to decide whether he wants to join the ranks of the unemployed or travel to Mombai, where he will both train his replacement (a sweet-natured soul named Puros) and get the new call center up to speed. His decision drives the plot forward, taking us to an Indian airport terminal just outside the city.

The moment our reluctant hero steps off the plane he's aware that he’s not in Kansas (okay, Seattle) any more. This new (old) world bares little resemblance to the one he has left behind, and it is clear from the first that adjusting to his new surroundings is going to take some doing.

First time co-writer/director John Jeffcoat spent several months in India during his college years, and drew from his experiences there for much of the film's humor and pacing.

A pretty call center rep named Asha is the heroine of the piece. As portrayed by Ayesha Dharker, she is captivating, but not what you would call “movie-star beautiful.” What she is – is smart, and it is this quality that draws Todd to her. I found this premise, in itself, unique and dare I say hopeful?

While Jeffcoat and co-writer George Wing are out to entertain rather than preach or teach, they use humor to acknowledge both the down and up-side of living in a place where so many have so little. Unlike its Slumdog cousin, their India is warm and welcoming, a place where family, community and customs are important and preserved, despite these obstacles.

The humor here is such that nearly everyone can identify with it on some level. Even the not-so-likable characters are likable in their quirkiness, and the enthusiasm and hospitality of the people Todd comes in contact with is catching.

His relationship with Asha is, I suspect, quite plausible–even realistic, while not necessarily delivering the Hollywood ending we Americans have come to expect from our romantic comedies. Then again, Outsourced isn’t your typical romantic comedy. Yes, parts of it are romantic, but unlike the Nora Ephron Meg Ryan/Tom Hank's pairings that we have come to know and love, many of this movie's funniest and most up-lifting moments have nothing to do with their relationship.

Is Outsourced a great movie? No. Not really. But then again, aren’t there times when you would rather have a cold beer on a hot day than a warm glass of fine wine? Maybe not, but you know what I mean. Whether you’re talking gourmet vs. fast food, a great novel or chick lit, epic film or simple indie, sometimes less is can be infinitely more satisfying than more.

In this case, there is a take-home message that lingers long after the rental has been returned, and its title, forgotten. For in putting a face on the Puros and Ashas of this world, Outsourced reminds us that as dissimilar as we are, we are all searching for a way to keep some naan on the table, and our dreams in tact.

When you think of it, it really is amazing that those voices at the other end of the Internet are as calm and pleasant and helpful as they are, given the long middle-of-the-night hours, low wages and constant barrage of questions, problems and verbal abuse they must endure.

Such observations are my own. Writer/Director Jeffcoat only sets the stage and lets the viewer take it from there. No, Outsourced isn't Slumdog Millionaire, or even Norma Ray for that matter. More about satisfaction than dissatisfaction, it is a movie celebrating small kindnesses, gentle people and cultural differences.

A word of caution: do not confuse Outsourced with the similarly-themed 2008 film End of the Line. Though both revolve around a smart young Indian call center agent and an attractive American male, they are a world apart.

In The Other End of the Line, Shira Saran is the ultra-bright Indian rep (Pyria) who works at an American credit card company's Indian-based call center. In Pyria's world, reps can talk to their customers for as long and as often as they like, hooking up with them directly, and chatting about everything from movie stars to getting together for a one-on-one "meet-and-greet" in San Francisco.

Jesse Metcalfe (Desperate Housewives former gardener) is Granger Woodruff, the young American Creative Director on The Other End of the Line,' who drops everything before a job-on-the-line presentation to follow his heart.

I know, I know, this is a movie, not real life. But good romantic comedies - even fantasy-based films, are based on the sensibilities that follow them into Never Neverland. Director James Dawson's Neverland is a schizophrenic world - an unbalanced mix of pratfalls and platitudes. National Lampoon's Vacation one minute, Pretty Woman the next. Dawson even uses the latter's theme song to underscore a 'let's-fall-in-love-in-one-day montage.'

But even a bad movie can serve up a good line or two, and End of the Line is no exception. Close to the end of its one hour-and-forty-six-minute run, there is a wedding sequence, where best-man Granger raises a glass to the happy couple, regaling guests with tales of the groom's life-long penchant for going after what he wants, even if it means taking chances.

Though the words attributed to the groom counteract his on-screen presence as a four-star buffoon, they are well worth remembering. "Nothing should ever hold a man back from his future" quotes Granger, and we can almost see the light bulb of true love shining over his head. Putting down his champagne glass, he makes his way through the tables of wedding guests and heads for the airport in a Pretty Woman/Richard Geer/fire-escape-inspired conclusion.

Well, all this "talking" about India has made me hungry for some home-grown Indian food. Anybody up for some tandoori chicken and a basket-full of freshly baked naan that's second to naan? My favorite Memphis Indian Restaurant is India Palace at 1720 Poplar Avenue. They have a great lunch time buffet featuring all kinds of chicken, lamb, potato, lentil and vegetable dishes, along with a happy choice of desserts that includes a killer rice pudding. And in the summer you've gotta try their mango milkshake-like concoction (I think it's called Mango Lassi). It's just wonderful. Filling - but wonderful.

You'll find several other Indian restaurants around town as well, all of them worth trying. Why not pick a favorite, dine in or out, and top of the night with a little in-home Outsourced entertainment!

Till the next time...

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Golden Door — A trip down to build a dream on

Over the years countless movies have set about to portray different facets of the American immigration experience. Two of my favorites―1982’s Sophie's Choice and Barry Levinson’s 1990 dramady Avalon—focus on the European immigrants of the 1940s. Completely different in nature and tone, Sophie's Choice is the far darker of the two, a tale of lost lives and the emotional consequences of being a survivor.

Picking up Sophie’s less-than-perfect life some time after her arrival, with flashbacks of her horrific concentration camp years, it is light-years away from Avalon—a somewhat candy-coated version of life after Ellis Island.

In between these far-different bookends sits a small 2007 Italian film called Golden Door. Filmed in Argentina, and with nowhere near the star power of either of the above films, it is powerful in its simplicity. Writer/director Emanuel Crialese spent close to eight years researching this courageous film which takes us from the small Sicilian town of Petralia to a freighter bound for America at the turn of the twentieth century.

In the opening minutes of the film we meet Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato), a thirty-something widower who wavers between the security of life as he knows it, and the possibility of a better day for himself, his two sons (one of whom is a deaf mute) and his elderly but strong-willed mother.

After asking for and ostensibly receiving a sign from above, Salvatore barters his few possessions (a couple of goats and donkey) for four third-class passages on a ship bound for America and a bit of used clothing. “These boots used to belong to Giovanni Gramigna: a scoundrel with a heart of gold.” says the trader, as he hands over his second-hand goods. Worn and tattered, they are the first of many firsts the Mancusos will experience as they make their way to the new world.

It is a world they know little about. Illiterate and naïve, they have only heard tales and seen novelty postcards of a place some say has rivers of milk, vegetables the size of wagons and trees laden with golden coins. They have no concept of the vastness of this mysterious new land, having only the confines of their peasant village as a source of comparison.

Their only tie to America is Salvatore's identical twin brother, who left Sicily for the new world some years before. Though the family has not heard from him since, and has no idea where in America he is living, Salvatore is confident that they will find him. “Of course we’ll find him,” he replies to his doubtful son. “He looks exactly like me.”

And so they begin their journey, deep in the bowels of the ship, men in one windowless, cavernous room, women in another—hundreds of people squeezed into a place so dark they can barely see the person sleeping an arm’s-length away. One can only imagine the stench. No wonder they escape to the wet but open deck at first light.

The only scenes I can think of that are even slightly reminiscent of Golden Door’s shipboard sequences are those depicted in the 1997 epic, Titanic, where pre-iceberg footage depicts poor but happy travelers singing and dancing their way across the Atlantic, oblivious to the danger that lies ahead. You will, however, find no dancing on this ship, where the seas are rough and the living conditions close to unbearable. And while this vessel does not wind up at the bottom of the ocean, some of its passengers do, unable to endure the first of what we presume were many alarmingly stormy nights at sea.

Avalon is a much easier movie to watch and enjoy, and I have done so many times. Here, shoes are plentiful, and industrious newcomers can earn a living breaking them in for more prosperous folk. Over some one hundred-and-twenty-six minutes a Jewish immigrant’s story unfolds, and the nation’s along with it. We enter the age of television, discount pricing and suburban life. Opportunities come knocking, but at a price, which, I suppose, is the story behind each of these tales, where some pay far more than others.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Golden Door is the fact that it was written by a contemporary Italian film maker. Just about all of the films I have seen about coming to American and Ellis Island have been told from an American perspective. This piece offers a decidedly different view.

Crialese spent seven years researching the project, reading, among other things, hundreds of letters dictated by the illiterate immigrants to letter writers and sent ‘home’ to their anxious families. His view of Ellis Island is devoid of Kodak moments. It is rather a place that is anything but welcoming, where those who are deemed unfit are unceremoniously sent packing, and loveless, pre-arranged marriages between strangers of disparate ages are the order of the day.

Prior to watching this film, originally released as Nuovomondo or New World, my image of the intake process involved a brief physical examination followed by a Custom’s-like check to see that papers were ‘in order’ and that someone in the US would vouch for them. Golden Door’s depiction is quite different, offering a far more humiliating and degrading process.

Uncomfortable to watch at times, it is a stark contrast to the Statue of Liberty’s welcoming prose. “This is not a holding station” observes one new arrival, “It is a laboratory.” “I thought you were looking for illness and contagious diseases here,” says the sole British immigrant” to her inquisitor. “Unfortunately, m’am,” he replies, “it has been proven that lack of intelligence is genetically inherited and it’s contagious in a way. We are trying to prevent below average people from mixing with our civilians.” “What a modern vision” she replies dryly, and one can not help but think of a similar vision gone awry.

In the end, Golden Door leaves the future of its characters to our imagination. Who will leave? Who will stay? Who will find happiness? Who won’t? The writer offers few hints about life after Ellis Island, save for a final fantasy sequence. Such dreams aside, Golden Door is a dark and lonely tale, and as I watched the film unfold I could not help but wonder what indignities my grandparents and their siblings endured in order to walk through those tarnished doors. Hopefully, things have changed for the better.

Three movies, three different takes on the American immigration experience of times past. Forgive me for not writing more about Sophie's Choice and Merle Streep's incredible performance, or Avalon, which was so lovingly written and performed. Both movies have much to offer, and should be on everyone's 'must see' list. But unlike Golden Door, these movies enjoyed a wide release and subsequent praise here in America, while the Italian film (honored though it was outside "the States")appeared on considerably fewer screens, with far less fanfare.

The object of this blog is share such finds with those of you who enjoy watching the off-beat, small-but-significant movies that didn't have the promotion, distribution or recognition they deserved. Golden Door is, at least in my opinion, is one such film.

Now for a couple of updates—

Wouldn’t you just know it. Days after posting my last entry, GSN pulled “What’s My Line” from its line-up. They do this periodically, moving it to weekends only, then back again for another seven-days-a-week run, then off again, then on again, and so on and so on. Hopefully, this uniquely different time capsule will resurface shortly.

And on a happier note—

HBO is about to premiere Grey Gardens, a dramatized version of the 1973 documentary on April 18th at 8 p.m.. Starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as Big and Little Edie, with Jeanne Tripplehorn as Jackie-O, it should be interesting, in that the movie begins decades before the documentary.

The sets and costumes are supposed to be wonderful, and those who have seen the film say that Jessica Lange did a formidable job in her characterization of Big Edie. They were not as generous with their praise regarding Barrymore’s portrayal of her daughter, who was, by far, the more outrageous of the two women. I suggest that you watch the Albert and David May documentary before taking in the Hollywood update. That way you can make your own comparisons and get a better feel for (to borrow another movie title) the way they were.

One thing is certain - the way they were impacted the fashion industry for years to come. Want to make a bet that a whole new wave of Edie-inspired upside down skirts and sweater scarves is already in the fashion pipeline?

To read (or re-read) my blog on the 1973 documentary, scroll down to my January 2, 2009 entry, entitled "A Grey Area."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What's My Line

The Game Show That Was Bigger Than a Breadbox

About two years ago, after twisting and turning my way through”the wee small hours of the morning,” I reached for my TV’s remote, clicked my way through a sea of infomercials, and landed upon “What’s My Line.”

For those of you who are too young to remember the show, I can tell you that it was, (and may still hold the record as) the longest running prime time weekly game show in TV history. Long before “Wheel of Fortune” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” there was “What’s My Line.”

The original program ran for close to eighteen years, beginning in 1950 and ending in 1967. Outside of some early tweaking, the show remained pretty much the same over the years, as thousands of contestants walked across a modest set to a chalk board, signed in, sat down, and whispered their “line” into host John Charles Daley’s ear, as their generally quirky occupation (“Makes Ouija Boards”) flashed across the screen for the benefit of the studio and TV audience.

Over the next three-to-five minutes, panel members did their best to guess what the guest did for a living. Stumping the panel didn’t make you rich; it just made you happy. The most a contestant could win was fifty dollars, a figure that remained the same despite inflation, from the first broadcast to the last.

Once a night (and sometimes twice) blindfolded panel members would have to guess the name (rather than line) of a “mystery guest.” After a week’s-worth of combing the New York papers, said panel members seldom faltered, despite an attempt on the part of the celebrities to disguise their famous voices. Every now and again a duo, trio or entire team of mystery guests would tiptoe across the stage and huddle over a single mic, taking turns answering questions in in effort to further confuse the panel. The ruse seldom worked, but it was fun to watch the likes of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gourmé, The McGuire Sisters and Rogers and Hammerstein make the effort.

The panel, for the most part, was made up of creative folk: entertainers, writers and publishers who never seemed to tire of asking the same questions show after show and year after year. Among the most popular: “Might I use your services?”, "Was the product ever alive?” and the ever-popular query coined by Steve Allen, “Is it bigger than a breadbox?”

If the questions were familiar, so were the panelists, many of whom spent the better part of the show’s run behind their one-size-fits-all desk. The wittiest of the bunch was publisher Bennett Cerf, who, at his best, was extremely clever. At his worst, he was downright punny.

Panelist Arlene Francis was another long-time panel member. A more-than-minor-but less-than-major Broadway, film and TV actress, she added a bit of warmth and glamour to the show, with trend-setting fashions punctuated by her signature diamond-studded heart pendant.

Columnist Dorothy Kilgallen was the yin to her yang. Known for being a tough reporter, her on-air persona was pleasant but not what you would call "toasty." According to Bennett Cerf’s biography, she was by far the most competitive of the group, there to win the game rather than entertain the troops. Her death, just hours after her last broadcast, was both unexpected, and mysterious.

Another panel member, comedian Fred Allen, passed away suddenly the following year. His seat was filled by Ernie Kovacs, who moved on in a matter of weeks. After that, any thoughts of a permanent replacement were set aside, although some stars like Steve Allen, guested more than others.

In total, there were some eight hundred and seventy-six episodes, providing us with close to two decades-worth of on-going American pop culture. Show by show, hair styles, stars, politicians, references, ‘lines’ and trends moved us onward. Viewed in retrospect, it is a veritable fashion parade, as hoop skirts replace sheaths, the sack gets sacked for the harem dress and teased hair rises above the more perfect dos’s of the fifties. Only the men remain true to their Brylcreem and bow ties.

The show itself is a study in obsolescence, with its corny intros, cardboard sets and outdated occupations. And yet these are the very things that make it so appealing. It is a time capsule filled with diaper service executives, corset models, human cannonballs, gas station attendants, telephone booth makers and no-smear lipstick demonstrators; a place where people who made mustard plasters, bottled cod liver oil, played half of a vaudeville horse or sold false teeth for cows could rub elbows and chalk dust with the likes of Bette Davis.

Throughout its close-to-eighteen-year run “What’s My Line” attracted more “A-list” celebrities than any other show of its time, providing us with a video scrapbook of the movers and shakers of that period. Had you been watching it over the past few weeks you would have seen Esther Williams, June Allison, Claudette Colbert, Hedda Hopper, Gary Cooper, Phil Silvers, Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman.

Tune into “What’s My Line” over the next few weeks and you just may see Maureen O’Hara, George Jessel, Jack Paar, Nelson Eddy, Peter Lorre, Charles Laughton, Peggy Lee, Kathryn and Arthur Murray, Shelley Winters and a very young Jane Fonda.

Please don’t misunderstand. I certainly don’t recommend a steady diet of sleep deprivation. I just thought you'd like to know that, should you have one of those sleepless nights, “What’s My Line” is a wonderful way to lull yourself back to z-land.

If, per chance, you have the ability to record TV programs for later viewing, so much the better. You can, as they say, "have your cake and eat it too." And if like me, you find yourself wanting to know more about the show and its cast, you’ll be happy to know that the library has a book on the subject, written by the show’s executive producer, Gilbert Fates. It’s called What's My Line? : The inside history of TV’s most famous panel show, and it’s a doozy.

I also enjoyed At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf, which I picked up for a song on eBay. Mystery fans will find a wealth of information on the Internet on the thriller-like circumstances surrounding Dorothy Kilgallen’s untimely death.

Well, nighty night, sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite! And be sure and keep that remote handy, just in case. You'll find “What’s My Line?” on The Game Show Network. GSN: your vocation station.

Till the next time...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Dim Sum and then some

A year or so ago I had the opportunity to ask three of the city’s top chefs what their favorite food movie was. I was reasonably sure that the three would agree. I was also sure I knew what their collective answer would be, and I was right on both counts. Care to venture a guess?

The answer was a small movie called Big Night. Professional and amateur foodies love this bittersweet story of two Italian brothers who open a small but authentically Italian restaurant across the street from an extremely successful meatballs and spaghetti eatery. Produced in 1996, the movie takes place in 1954 – long before the word "pasta" became a part of the average American’s vocabulary, or the Food Network taught us about the joys of pancetta, Pecorino Romano, or olive oil for that matter.

I think the thing that so many professional chefs identify with in this movie is how all too often the cream does not rise to the top. That despite the proliferation of food shows and exotic ingredients found in your average supermarket, most people don’t know or appreciate the difference between amazing and sub-standard fare. I suppose it’s true in other industries as well – certainly in the world of music, where a fine musician often finds his or her work set aside in favor of the ‘artist’ with little or no training, ‘chops’ or originality.

Just as in 1987’s Babette’s Feast (another of my favorite food flicks), the movie centers around one glorious meal. So great was the interest in one particular on-screen dish known as timpani, that Stanley Tucci, who, co-wrote, co-starred and co-directed the film, co-wrote a cookbook featuring it and other family recipes. The multi-layered concoction is filled with what amounts to an Italian feast, containing a wide assortment of ingredients. Various versions of the recipe include a wide-ranging mixture of meatballs, pasta, chicken, mozzarella, provolone, egg, salami, béchamel sauce and/or some sort of ragu. It is the ultimate pot pie. If at some point you feel both adventuresome and flush you might want to give it a try. You’ll find a recipe complete with "how-to" photographs at www.angelasfoodlove.com/2008/06/pauls-big-night.html.

Big Night quickly moves from the opening of the restaurant to the brother’s struggle to keep it open and true-to-its roots. When the owner of the wildly successful but highly inferior American-Italian restaurant across the street offers to send band leader Louis Prima their way after a New York engagement, the brothers accept his offer in good faith, sinking the last of their money into a meal so grand that Prima would be overwhelmed, their restaurant, recognized, and their dreams fulfilled. At least that's the idea.

Both Tucci and Tony Shalhoub are wonderful as the two brothers, as is a supporting cast that includes Minnie Driver (once again playing an American), Isabella Rosselini and Allison Janney.

Babette's Feast

Next on my food movie ‘hit’ list, is the afore-mentioned Babette’s Feast. So popular was this movie at the time, that several restaurants opened around the country based on the movies' dishes. Like Big Night, the story is a simple one, though Babette's Feast has a surprise ending that adds a special richness to the tale.

It takes place in a remote, austere and highly religious Norwegian coastal town, where two elderly sisters are asked to take in a French woman named Babette. They know little about their new housekeeper, grateful that she has taken the burden off of their limited culinary skills, providing simple but tasty meals with the little food and funds they have available to them.

When Babette wins a bit of money in a French lottery, the plot unfolds in a most unusual and savory way, and changing the way the sisters and their neighbors view life and those around them.

While Babette's Feast is more of a drama than a comedy, the all-important dinner scene is a joy to behold. Don’t let a fear of subtitles keep you from so much pleasure. Remember, you can press “PAUSE” any time you want to catch up on the dialogue.

And now for some food-related movies that aren’t so much about food, as they are about the people who prepare, eat and enjoy it.

Dim Sum

This 1985 slice-of-life movie takes place in San Francisco’s China Town, where two generations of Chinese Americans co-exist, trying to adjust to the others way of life. There’s not much of a plot here, and yet the actors are so good at what I would call "non-acting," you forget that these are fictional characters.

There is much to smile about in this sweet drama. I loved every part of it, especially the scenes set around the dinner and mahjong tables. Chances are you’ll recognize your own family in some of the interactions.


301/302 refers to the apartment numbers of two facing condos in a South Korean high rise. One is occupied by a recently divorced female chef, while the other is home to a troubled young writer. Both are obsessed with food, but in totally different ways. When the troubled young journalist disappears, the plot heats up. You won’t find any fairy-tale ending in this 1995 flick, but if you like off-beat movies and have a taste for Korean cooking, this thought-provoking film just may be your cup of tea.

My Dinner with Andre

Nearly all of this 1981 movie takes place in a restaurant, and yet I feel a bit guilty including it in a list of food movies, as it is more about what they say than what they eat. Be forewarned that chances are you will either love it or hate it. All I can tell you is that after seeing it for the first time, I found myself referencing bits and pieces of dialogue for weeks―perhaps even months.

Written and starring Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, and directed by Louise Malle, the movie allows the viewer to be the proverbial fly on the wall, as Shawn (an actor and playwright) and Gregory (a director of experimental theater) talk over dinner.

Shawn has instituted this meeting in order to check on his friend, who, some say has 'gone off on the deep end.'

And so the meal begins. They eat. They talk. We listen. A waiter brings one course and removes another and another as Andre tells these far out tales that remind Wally of something, which reminds Andre of something, which causes one or the other to comment, and go on to something else. Aside from a scene or two of Wally going and coming from the restaurant, the entire film takes place at the dinner table.

As I 'said' earlier, you will either find their observations fascinating or ridiculous. Insightful or absurd. I would suggest that you watch it with a small group of friends and then discuss it―where else, but over dinner.

Kitchen Stories

I can’t remember exactly how I discovered this odd little 2003 Scandinavian film, but I am so glad I did. Based on an actual study, this fictional drama is set in a remote section of Norway in the 1950s. At its core it is a tale of friendship, despite all odds.

In an effort to learn how to build a more efficient kitchen, researchers from the Swedish Home Research Institute are sent out to homes all across Sweden to observe people in their kitchens. Our story centers on one such researcher and his subject—an older bachelor/farmer living in a remote part of the country. In order to insure that the researcher doesn’t influence the subject’s behavior, the two are prohibited from talking or interacting with each other. And so the researcher sits in a ‘high’ chair (literally), day after day, watching the farmer move from counter to counter, chair to table, stove to pantry and so on. What happens, and how, makes what may sound like a dull subject, pretty darn interesting.

SIDE DISH - A look at a couple of egg-strodinary moments in film

No discussion on food on film would be complete without a word or two about two scenes involving the incredible, editable you-know-what.

One takes place at the very end of the previously-mentioned Big Night. The brothers have cooked for everyone else, the night is over, and they are alone together in their kitchen. Exhausted, Tucci's character silently removes a frying pan from it's place on the shelf, and scrambles some eggs for the two of them. Not a word is spoken, and yet you know exactly what they are feeling, and saying. And the eggs look so darn good! I have to wonder how many people grabbed the olive oil instead of the butter, and made eggs for dinner that night.

The second egg-strodinary scene comes from 1987's Moonstruck: a movie mentioned in my last entry. While the film is about a baker, there are no beauty shots of crusty loaves of bread, although there is a scene late in the movie, where Cher as Italian/American Loretta Castorini, makes herself a little breakfast, taking a slice of fresh Italian bread, tearing a piece out of the center, and cracking an egg inside it. The fried concoction looks delicious, and I admit to making my own version, albeit poorly, soon after watching the film.

Wikipedia lists about twenty different names for the dish, from Toad in the hole, window or basket, to One-eyed Jacks and Gold diggers. Choose a favorite, watch the movie, and enjoy.

Other favorites

Other food movies on my all-time favorite list include such tasty tales as Chocolat, Eat, Drink Man Woman, Goodfellas and Mostly Martha (which was, to my mind, a better movie than it’s Americanized follow-up, No Reservations). You may have your own list including smart, witty and/or thoughtful titles like Water for Chocolate to Tom Jones, Tortilla Soup and Tampopo to Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe.

Defending Your Life

A final note. If you've never seen Defending Your Life, put it on your 'must see' list. Albert Brooks wrote, directed and starred in this 1991 movie about the after-life, and in the next month or two I plan to devote more time to it and other films dealing with that theme. But for now, let me say that in it, Brook's character dies and goes to a place called "Judgement City" where you can eat as much as you want without worrying about your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, weight or love handles. And everything you eat is the best you ever tasted. What a concept!

Till the next time...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

2nd floor, ladies better dresses...


It was a passing story on the NBC nightly news. Muzak – The 75-year-old company whose name, like Kleenex, became part of our vocabulary, was declaring bankruptcy. The company known for taking pop hits and turning them into bland instrumentals was millions of dollars in debt, despite the fact that they had long ago shelved the mundane in favorite of the original artist's recordings.

I was never a fan of Muzak - not that I paid a whole lot of attention to it - but then, that was the general idea, wasn't it? It was, after all, background music that wasn't supposed to get in the way of our conversations and/or private thoughts.

Like other things that are no more – both good and bad – I will mourn its death – timely or otherwise. Given the music of today, much of it lacking in melody, folding their tent – or keyboard, was, no doubt, a sound decision.


Seeing as Valentine's Day is on its way, I thought I'd take a look at some of my favorite romantic films. Comedies and dramas, I love them all. And why not? A tear here, a smile there, and you're hooked. Years ago many of these romantic tales were labeled “Women’s movies” – doing them a great disservice.

I have tried to stay away from the films that generally wind up on everyone's “Ten Best” list, but you'll find at least a couple of familiar titles. Some are quirky, others tear-jerky, and still others are what you might call toe-tappy or even sappy. But when it comes to love, sappy is good, at least in my book.

We begin with one of my more obvious choices. Politics aside, the script is clever, the acting is great, and you know you're going to get your happy ending. Who could ask for anything more?

The American President
Michael Douglas, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, Michael J Fox
In this 1995 romantic comedy, widower Douglas is also President of the United States. When he meets a lady lobbyist, they find themselves falling in love, but, as might be expected, complications―political and otherwise, arise. Fun to watch.

Bells Are Ringing
Judy Holliday, Dean Martin
This 1960 musical comedy is, by its very subject, dated. It takes place in the 1950s, long before voicemail and even answering machines can into being. Judy Holiday is a somewhat ditzy telephone operator who falls in love with a client over the phone. He’s a Broadway lyricist, facing a deadline. When the words won’t come, Judy rushes to his aid.

Produced first as a Broadway Show, with Holliday in the lead. With music by Julie Style, and book and lyrics by Comden and Green, you can’t go wrong with tunes like “Just In Time,” “The Party’s Over” and a very 50’s, extremely clever song called “Drop That Name.” It’s also great to see character actors like Fred Clark and “All In the Family’s Jean Stapelton doing their shtick. Holliday’s terrific in what would be her last film role.

Captain’s Paradise
Alec Guinness, Yvonne De Carlo, Celia Johnson.
I was introduced to this film by my love-time companion, Pete Pedersen, who was intrigued by the underlying premise of the story. It explores the idea that we tend to categorize people. He’s funny. She’s serious. He doesn’t like surprises. She couldn’t possibly be interested in whatever.

The movie takes this premise and looks into what happens when by chance – or design, such perceptions are challenged. Placed within the framework of a story about a ferry boat captain who literally has a wife in every port, it’s a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. I’d tell you more, but while spoil the fun?

Continental Divide
John Belushi, Blair Brown
Belushi is a Mike Royko-type newspaper columnist who has to ‘disappear’ for awhile to take the heat off of a hot story. The paper does its part by sending him to the Rocky Mountains, where he is told to do a story on the elusive and press-resistant Blair Brown - a woman who studies eagles – way up in the mountains. Romance follows.

Written by Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, French Kiss, Raiders of the Lost Ark) this off-beat comedy’s charm is, at least in part, due to the casting of John Belushi in the romantic lead. Given the set up, it would be hard to imagine Ms. Brown resisting someone like say - Robert Redford’s advances. Belushi, on the other hand, might have his work cut out for him. I’ve seen it several times through the years, and it continues to entertain.

The Enchanted Cottage
Robert Young, Dorothy McGuire.
I love the idea of this little movie, which is all about beauty being in the eyes of the beholder. It’s the story of two lonely people who find each other, love, joy and self-esteem in a modest little cottage tucked far away from the beauty-conscious eyes of the world. Telling you anything more would deprive you of the joy of watching their story unfold.

Hear My Song
Ned Beatty, Adrian Dunbar, Shirley Anne Field
This 1991 comedy is one of those so-called “small movies” with lots of charm, and little star power. It takes place in Europe, where a young Brit tries to square himself with his girlfriend by finding her mothers’ long lost love (a British tenor who disappeared years before. Utterly charming, it is both well written and crafted. Great fun.

Audrey Tautou
Amélie's Tautou plays a sales clerk in this 1991 romantic comedy, who exchanges glances with a young restaurateur on the Metro. It’s love at first sight, but fate keeps the two from meeting. You’ve Got Mail borrowed a bit of the idea, in that Hanks and Ryan kept crossing paths in their NYC neighborhood. Here, the two would-be lovers go through their day just missing each other, until fate intervenes. Add a bunch of seemingly unrelated strangers to the mix, and you’re in for a real treat. I loved it!

A Little Romance
Laurence Olivier, Diane Lane, Thelonious Bernard
Let me say that I am probably one of the few people in this world who does not believe that Lawrence Olivier was one of the greatest actors of all time. I just don’t. That said, if you’re up for a little romance, you’ve got it in this 1979 Olivier vehicle.

Sir Laurence plays an elderly pickpocket who helps a teenage couple get to Venice to realize their romantic dream of kissing while in a gondola under the Bridge of Sighs. Lane plays a 13-year-old, American girl living in Paris while her step-father directs a movie there, while Bernard plays a poor 13-year-old French boy who loves American films. It was one of Lane’s first movies, and both she and Bernard are charmers. Olivier is acceptable, despite his less-than-wonderful French accent.

Return to Me
Minnie Driver, David Duchovny, Carroll O’Connor, Bonnie Hunt, Jim Belushi, David Allen Greer, Holly Wortell
This charming little movie takes place in Chicago, where writer/producer/director Bonnie Hunt got her start. In this very personal effort she has cast both family and friends, many of whom are well known and respected in the motion picture industry.

While most of these choices were choice, some left me wondering. Why, for example, did she cast an American as an Irishman, and an English woman as an American, when there were lots of great American and Irish actors available? Not that there's anything wrong with it, it's just puzzling. And it seems to be a trend, especially on TV, where Australians in particular are often cast as Americans. Whatever the reason, that's the way it goes. And, in this case, it goes well.

Ms. Driver plays a twenty-something waitress who needs a new heart. You have to suspend disbelief in this movie, as both the circumstances surrounding the most-certain transplant, her remarkable recovery, and the situations that follow would certainly never happen in real life. And Carroll O’Connor as her Irish grandfather is not exactly perfect casting, but he gave the film some extra star power, and did an admirable job to boot.

My favorite scene features Holly Wortell, as recent-widower, Duchoveny's date from Hell, although Jim Belushi as Hunt's loveable husband, is a close second. Duchovny, as Driver’s love interest, is very appealing, and I like the fact that both he and Ms. Driver look believable in their roles.

This is definitely a chick flick, with lots of nostalgia and older characters mixed in for the over fifty set.

Same Time Next Year
Ellen Burstyn, Alan Alda
This romantic comedy spans some thirty years, taking us from the 1950s to through the 1980s. Burstyn and Alda meet in the 1951 at a California Inn. She’s a young mother on retreat, he’s a New Jersey accountant who comes to California each year at the same time to prepare the tax returns of a client who moved to California along the way. The unlikely duo meet over dinner, and quickly find that they have little other than a physical attraction in common. And yet, something draws them to each other.

Over the next 25 years the two lovers, who are (more often than not) happily married, but not to each other, rekindle their romance at the same time, in the same place. We watch them grow as individuals and as a couple, with actual national events and attitudes affecting their lives. This feels like a Neil Simon comedy, though it was written by Bernard Slade. Burstyn and Alda well cast in their roles. Enjoyable.

The Thorn Birds
Rachel Ward, Richard Chamberlain. Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Simmons, Bryan Brown
This multi-part saga, ‘torn from the pages’ of Colleen McCullough's best selling novel, is beautifully filmed, handsomely scored and rich in texture. Stanwyck is marvelous. And while I have read that there were a lot of problems on the set with Ward’s acting, it isn’t evident on the screen. The love story of a young Aussie’s love for a priest, and a rich widow’s revenge, are compelling. It takes awhile to see it all, but what the heck. Watch it a little at a time. But watch it.

The Truth About Cats and Dogs
Janeane Garfiglio, Uma Therman, Ben Chaplin
This is another one of those movies where the casting is a bit off, but the movie works in spite of it. I say that because I’m not sure why they cast Uma Therman in the roll of a woman so breathtakingly beautiful, that men crash into cars and literally trip over themselves at first glance. Not that she’s a dog (you’ll excuse the expression) she’s not. She has what I would call ‘interesting’ looks. Exotic? Maybe. I don’t know.

This is, you realize, a case of the pot calling the kettle black. I am no beauty. But with so many really amazing looking movie stars and starlets out there, one has to wonder why they chose her as the unbelievably beautiful but less-than-intelligent fashion model who forms an alliance with her short, bright, witty but―not by Hollywood standards-pretty veterinarian/talk show host neighbor (stand-up comedian Janeane Garfiglio).

When true love literally calls, Garfiglio asks Therman to be her stand-in, as the hostess with the most-ess. Ben Chaplin (no relation to Charlie) is the British photographer who wins her heart. Not exactly Cyrrano de Bergerac, but reminiscent of it, the movie is both pleasant and predictable.

Garfiglio, is a hair too pretty for the role of the less-than-good looking vet, and Chaplin’s character is a bit too oblivious to the obvious clues that surround him. None-the-less, this quirky movie from 1996 is a happy way to spend, if not the day than a little more than an hour-and-a-half, even though you know how it’s going to turn out from the moment Chaplin’s handsome face flashes across the screen. Catch Jamie Foxx in a supporting role as the photographer’s friend/assistant.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnouvo
Don’t let the fact that this is both a foreign film and has no spoken dialogue keep you from renting this gem of a movie. If you call 1964 ‘modern,’ then it is a modern-day operetta, filled with wonderful Michel Legrand tunes like “I Will Wait for You” and “Watch What Happens.” It’s Fanny-like plot revolves around a young woman who finds herself pregnant after her lover leaves to fight in the Algerian War. What happens next keeps the plot moving, and the tears flowing.

The Wedding Date
Debra Messing, Dermot Mulroney
I have no good reason why I like this little romantic comedy. It is cheaply made and looks it, she’s not that engaging, the plot is far-fetched, but never the less, I like it.

He’s a good-looking, cocky ‘escort’ – she is an airline customer service agent who hires him (in NYC) to act as her date for her sister’s wedding so that her ex-finance- who will be there, won’t see her date-less. Did I mention that the wedding takes place in England? It does. Romance blooms. The fact that he’s a high-priced “escort” seems to matter not a wit.

Like I said, there’s no good reason why I should like this movie – but I do. Amy Adams is cast as Messing’s spoiled half-sister in this 2004 comedy. A year later she was cast in Junebug – which basically changed her life and star status.

The Bridges of Madison County
This last movie is far from obscure. Chances are you’ve seen it more than once. But I adored every minute of this bitter-sweet love story, it, like The Way We Were, is about as romantic as they come, bitter-sweet stories that break our collective hearts and warm our souls.

It is, at its very core, a study in timing. Where most tales bring a couple together when the timing is right, this one explores the choices one must make when the timing is wrong. While her family is away at a county fair, a middle-aged farmer’s wife meets and falls in love with an aging photographer. Beautifully played by Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, this quiet motion picture is one of the few over-fifty love stories that doesn’t take place in a nursing home. What’s more, it is the only movie I can think of where the stars don’t out-shine the characters. Worth watching over and over again.

Dark Victory
Bette Davis, George Brent
This one is a tear-jerker. Bette Davis is a fun-loving socialite (a 1930’s version of Paris Hilton) with not a care in the world until the words “Prognosis Negative” come barreling at her. George Brent is the doctor who helps her find true love in the middle of it all. Humphrey Bogart is terribly miscast as an Irish stable man and Ronald Reagan plays a boozed-up party boy. The movie works despite these inane casting choices. I first saw it as a teenager on one of those afternoon "Dialing for Dollars"- type shows. I guess I've seen it five or six times over the years. And while it hasn't aged as well as some of the other movies of its time, it still brings a tear to my eye.

Have a very happy, very romantic, warm and cozy Valentine's Day, and if you have a few moments somewhere along the way, remember someone who may not otherwise receive a Valentine's Day card or call. You'll be amazed at how good it feels to make someone's day.

Till the next time...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Down by the Station

  • Hello again!

    Last weekend I treated myself to a lovely little film that took its name from Rio de Janiero's Central Station. It got me to thinking about other movies that used a train station as a device to take us into the hearts and minds of vastly different people, in vastly different places. Rather than dwell on movies you’ve most likely seen, I’m going for the more obscure, but exceedingly enjoyable movies, one of which dates back to the 1940s. So hang in there; you’re just a recipe away from those movie picks. But first, as my grandmother used to say, we eat.

    A Real Handful

    This insanely delicious mix is the perfect snack for Super Bowl Sunday, Oscar night or any night you're in the mood for something special

    This recipe comes courtesy of my friend Margene, and it is incredibly good. While it boasts an admittedly pricey combination of ingredients, I will tell you that to my mind, similar packaged mixes and home-made recipes pale in comparison. In these belt-tightening times,if you can afford to splurge and buy all of the ingredients listed below without taking out a second mortgage or maxing out your credit card, don’t cut corners, but do go lightly on the salt, as you can always add more, but, at these prices, you don’t want to overdo it.

    Margene’s Super Snack
    You and your guests will go nuts over it.

    10–to-12 cups of various Chex cereals*
  • A can of premium mixed nuts (without peanuts - low sodium if possible)
    1 1/2 cups pecans
    1 can roasted almonds
    2 cups very thin pretzel sticks
    1 stick (8 tablespoons) of unsalted butter
    1 tablespoon McCormick’s Seasoned salt
    2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
    ½ tablespoon soy sauce
    2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
    A sprinkling of garlic salt and paprika

In a saucepan mix the unsalted butter, seasoned salt, Worcestershire sauce, Soy sauce, lemon juice, garlic salt and paprika together. Spread the cereal/nut mixture out over a big roasting pan. Heat the butter mixture slightly and pour it over the mix.

Gently turn the mixture over with a spatula so that everything is well coated, then bake at 250 degrees for one hour, turning the mixture over as before, every 15 minutes. Cool before eating. Enjoy.

* Rice Chex and Wheat Chex work well, but you can also add some Corn Chex if you're feeling particularly flush. Both Margene and I have also substituted Kellogg's Crispix for the Chex cereals, and they work well as well, although the taste is a bit different - a little sweeter, as I recall. Margene says that some people might want to add a little more butter. "It's all a matter of taste, " she says, adding, "It's hard to ruin it unles you turn your oven too high."

Getting Back on Track

Okay, let's take a look at those railroad station movies I mentioned earlier. There are a lot of train movies out there, along with other flicks that have unforgettable train station scenes within them – [Love in the Afternoon comes to mind], but the following three movies are, I think, quite special. They are also what you would call ‘small movies,’ with little or no star power― something that actually works in their favor, allowing you to forget that you’re watching actors at work.

The movie that started me thinking about all of this was Central Station, a 1998 Brazilian film that begins in Rio’s massive and overflowing train terminal. Written by a first-time twenty-something screen writer, it is so richly layered, it’s hard to believe that someone so young could write something so deeply insightful.

The story line is a simple one. Dora, an embittered and totally unethical retired school teacher, scratches out a living writing letters for Rio’s illiterate. Day after day she sits in Central Station, as the poorest of the poor pay her to write and mail their correspondence. She takes their money, carries their letters home and rereads them, taking on the role of judge and jury as she decides which ones will be thrown away, tossed in a drawer, or posted - something, we soon realize, hardly - if ever - happens.

One day, a woman and her nine-year-old son, Josué, appear at the space Dora has carved out for herself in the terminal. The woman wishes to write a letter to the boy’s father, whom he has never met. The man, we are to understand, is, at his very core, a no good, drunken bum, and yet the mother pines for him, just as her son yearns to know his absent father.

Moments after dictating her letter, the mother is killed in a freak accident just outside the train station. It is here that the story begins to unfold, as the letter writer gradually and often unwillingly takes on the task of helping the boy locate and hopefully settle down with his father, who is was last known to have lived hundreds of miles away.

And so we leave Rio and Central Station behind, with the remainder of the film taking place on the road as this unlikely duo travels through to the other Brazil, far beyond the sun-tanned bodies, soft white beaches, bossa nova stylings and travel poster snapshots we are familiar with. This Brazil is punctuated by an endless string of dusty towns and roadside pit stops, linked together by a long and narrow highway.

While there are supporting players in this drama (all of whom are well cast), this is basically a two-person piece, with the principal actors in just about – if not every― scene. Fernanda Montenegro is wonderful as Dora, a woman who lies without thinking, and thinks nothing of tossing other people’s dreams away. Nominated for and winner of several awards in conjunction with this role, she is not always likable, but always believable.

That said, I believe that as good as she is, the film would not work without Vincius de Olivera – the ten year old boy who plays Josué. Prior to filming he had never appeared before a camera, which is unbelievable given the depth of his performance. Many of the crew members were also first-timers as were more than half of the cast. It is a credit to the script, director, and passion of everyone involved that it works as well as it does. And it does work well.

The second film on my list of ‘must-see’ train station movies is also the most well known of the group. Those who love movies and the theater will recognize at least four of the people involved here, including playwrite Noel Coward, whose play (Still Life) provided the basis of the movie's script.

Brief Encounter was directed by David Lean, who went on to direct such memorable films as Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. In this - one of his earliest films, he has two actors who, at the time, were quite popular, although the female lead (Celia Johnson)would drop out of sight after a brief - but well received career in movies like The Captain's Paradise with Alec Guinniss, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brody. Trevor Howard (The Third Man, Mutiny on the Bounty, Superman, Gandhi) is cast as the male lead in this ill-fated romance.

The story begins as the two are brought together by fate on the platform of a London train station. When she - a housewife who truly loves her family, gets a cinder in her eye, he - a married physician who likewise loves his family - comes to her aid. The attraction is immediate, as the two go on to risk everything in order to be together for a few hours each week.

Watching them fall in love, we are (as they are) sadly aware of the underlying futality of it all, and yet pulling for them just the same. This 1946 black and white film is an 'old school' romance, where less is more. For while you won’t find any X-rated scenes or overtly sensuous close-ups, the emotion, longing, desperation and pain are all there on the screen.

The last train station film I'd like to introduce you to is 1993’s The Station Agent. It’s the tale of a young dwarf (“little person”) named Finabar (Peter Dinklage)with an affinity for trains, who inherits a small parcel of land in rural New Jersey that includes a small and dilapodated train depot. Leaving his old life behind, he moves into the abandoned property, looking forward to a solitary life, far from the stares of curious on-lookers. And yet, almost from the first, that solitude is interrupted by a small but diverse group of people who work and live in the surrounding area.

The movie is an interesting mix of humor and drama, taking us into a world we might never otherwise know. Patricia Clarkson (Pieces of April, The Dead Pool, Six Feet Under, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) was―at least for me― the only familiar face in this strange and oddly satisfying wisp of a movie, but you might recognize several of the other cast members, as several of them have had recurring roles on some of TVs most popular series.

Ultimately, The Station Agent is a story about being different, but it is also about the joys and strains of solitude and friendship. And while it may appear to have nothing other than a train station in common with the other two movies, I would beg to differ.

All three films introduce us to characters who appear to have nothing in common with each other, and yet the more we know about them, the more we realize that they have quite a lot in common.

In the same way, we, as viewers, may outwardly seem to have nothing in common with the letter writer, ten-year-old Brazilian boy, ill-fated lovers or pint-sized loner, and yet, I would bet that just about everyone who sees these movies will relate to many of the characters' feelings and life experiences.

And there is still another common thread, as we come to realize that often, when we find ourselves in an unexpected situation, paired with people whom we would have never otherwise met (let alone befriended), we often find our world broadened, beliefs challenged and hearts rewarded.

I hope that you will treat yourself to one or all of the above films, while munching on some of Margene’s marvelous mix.

Till the next time...

Monday, January 12, 2009

A series of series, flicks & food finds

Let me begin by sending out kudos to Gabriel Byrne for his Golden Globe/Best Actor in a Mini Series award. His show (In Treatment) is exceptionally well written, and he does a wonderful job in the role of Dr. Paul Weston, a phychotherapist with an interesting assortment of patients.

Truly a mini-series (the first season was a brief seven weeks from start to finish,) it was so habit forming that I would devour the entire week’s half-hour episodes in one gulp.

The show is built around the old 'fly-on-the-wall' concept, as the viewer gets to sit in with Dr. Weston as he talks with his various patients. Season two is headed for the small screen later this year, so now’s the time to play catch-up, although the only returning characters are the good doctor, his therapist (Dianne Wiest - a Woody Allen favorite) and presumably Paul's wife, Kate (Michelle Forbes.) Produced by AMC, the first season is now available on DVD.

The series is uniquely scheduled for nighttime TV - even by cable standards. Each weeknight, a different patient comes calling, returning each week on the same day of the week for another appointment. During the first season Monday was Laura's day, Tuesday brought Alex, Wednesday, Sophie, and so on. Or was it Sophie who came on Tuesdays? I can't remember now, but you get idea. Seven weeks, seven visits from five different patients (or groups of patients.)

Blair Underwood, Melissa George, Mia Waskikowska (an amazing young actress) and others, took on the roles of these complicated and not always likeable characters who were trying to deal with everything from parental love or the lack of it, to post tramatic stress, adultery, and erotic transference. Some sought help others raged against it, while Paul struggled with his own problems.

The show was originally produced in Israel with a totally different cast, and Americanized for the HBO version, which is interesting in that several of the HBO actors― including Byrne―were born and raised in other countries.

In the past few years, several wonderful TV series have come our way from both here and abroad. There was HBO’s Six Feet Under – the story of the Fisher family and their Los Angeles-based Funeral home. The last few minutes of the final episode were amazing, but would mean nothing unless you were familiar with the characters. That said, the last year of the show got a bit dark for my taste, but the first few years were wonderful, and as I said, it went out in grand style.

Many of the actors in this award-winning series went on to star or appear in other, decidedly more main-stream movies and TV series, including Peter Krause (Dirty Sexy Money), Michael C. Hall (Dexter), Frances Conroy (Maid in Manhattan, The Aviator, Broken Flowers), Rachel Griffiths (Brothers and Sisters), Ed Begley Jr. (Living With Ed), Richard Jenkins (There’s Something About Mary, Rumor Has It, Burn After Reading. The Visitor), Jeremy Sisto (Waitress, Law and Order), Freddie Ridriguez (Ugly Betty) and others, including Rainn Wilson (The Office, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, CSI, NUMB3RS, and, in a blink-or-you’ll-him miss performance, Juno.)

Another great American TV series - Dead Like Me – (are we seeing a theme here?) was funny and odd and just a pleasure to watch. I came across it long after its initial Showtime run. It, like Six Feet Under, is available for rent at NetFlix.

The series centers around an eighteen-year-old girl named George who was killed by a flying toilet seat and brought back to life (sort of) as a grim reaper. The young reaper doesn't look like her old self to the rest of the world, but she feels like herself, despite the fact that she can’t go home again (sort of). If I’m not making much sense, it’s because this quirky little comedy is anything but grim. The cast features veteran actors Mandy Patinkin and Jasmine Guy along with lesser known faces like Ellen Muth as George. I think you’ll get a kick out of it.

If you prefer more realistic fare you’ll want to rent a wonderful British series called William and Mary. It’s the contemporary tale of two everyday, thirty-something Brits who meet via a dating service, and slowly but surely fall in love. This is not a mushy, glossy, Hollywoody series, neither in the way it is filmed or cast. Martin Clunes, who plays William, is no Brad Pitt. He is as average looking as they come, and yet, as in real life, the more you know William, the better he looks. Similarly, Julie Graham, who plays Mary, has a bit of a gap between her front teeth, but she is far from a Lauren Hutton-type.

It is because of this, rather than in spite of it that we are drawn into their lives and the lives of their children, in-laws and co-workers. They looked like an average couple. No size zero’s here. No sex symbols. Just decent people – both of whom are single parents, dealing with the day-to-day challenges that come their way. Did I mention that she is at one end of the life cycle, being a midwife, and that he is at the other?

I definitely see a theme here. But please don't let the fact that William is a funeral director stop you from seeing this really incredible series. William is - at heart - a musician, forced to be a funeral director by circumstances beyond his control. I adored this series, which led me to rent another British series (this one, a comedy) featuring Mr. Clunes in a totally different role as one of several chaps off on a day-trip in the ultimate (sort of but not-really) "buddy" movie, Cheers and Tears.

If you like off-beat, grown-up comedies you’ll truly enjoy this trio of adventures, delivering far more cheers than tears, and lots of chuckles. Mr. Clunes is only in the first of the three episodes, but all are full of good fun and characters you’ll grow fond of in spite of themselves. If, by the time you have seen William and Mary and Cheers and Tears you are not totally won over by Martin Clunes, rent Doc Martin. William and Doc are about as different as - I don’t know – Soupy Sales and Sir Laurence Olivier, and yet both characters have something in them that makes them worth watching and remembering.

AND NOW, A LITTLE FOOD FOR THOUGHT, and some great products that are too good to keep to myself.

My first offering is so common, you’re going to probably dismiss it as being just that- common. And yet, over the past year or so I have introduced at least a dozen people to this uncommon common product, and nearly all of them have gone on to buy it over and over again – stocking up when it goes on sale, which it does, fairly often. It’s by Dole – of canned fruit fame, but Dole Sliced Peaches do not come in cans.

They come instead in plastic, see-through jars that sit on the supermarket shelf beside the usual fare of canned goods. DO NOT look for these jars in the refrigerated section. If you do, there's a good chance you’ll mistakenly buy another similarly packaged product that is vastly inferior. Look instead for Dole's thick, luscious slices of yellow peaches in the canned fruit aisle, where they sit with their not-nearly-as-delicious comrades, Mandarin orange slices, pineapple chunks and mixed fruit. When chilled, these peaches are divine, and unlike their canned counter-parts, they are not immersed in a heavy, overly-sweet syrup, or even worse, bland thin juice just a step or two above tap water.

The wonderful thing about these peaches is that you can eat one slice right out of the jar as a snack, and then screw the lid back on and put it back in the frig for another time, or you can eat the whole thing in one sitting. I’ve done both. What’s more, the price is nice… less than $3.00, and as little as $2.20 on sale. You may even find them for less.

My second food find is a soda/pop/soft drink - (whatever you call it in your part of the country.) This one is by Jones, and it comes in a glass bottle. I say this because Jones also has a line of soft drinks that come in cans. I think Target or Walmart sells them. While they're okay (I've tried the Cream Soda and Root Beer), they're nowhere near as tasty as the bottled Crushed Melon drink I'm talking about.

Tasting remarkably like fresh honeydew, Jones Crushed Melon soda is devoid of the usual sweet, tart or bitter aftertaste found in most melon-flavored products. I think this has to do (at least in part )with the fact that Jones uses pure cane sugar rather than syrup as a sweetener.

Admittedly pricey – about $4.99 for four bottles - Jones Crushed Melon soda is caffeine-free and very delicious, although it may take a few sips to fall in love. I say that because the taste is definitely different.

Where can you buy Jones Crushed Melon soda? The only place I know of here in town that sells it is Miss Cordelia’s. The little Harbortown grocery/cafe sells it both by the bottle or 4-pack. They even keep a few bottles chilled and waiting in the refrigerated section of the store. Jones has this thing going on where you can send them a favorite photograph, and if they like it, they'll put it on the bottle! You can get all the details on their web site.

Well, that's about it. Hope you check out all or at least some of the above flicks, and pics soon. Incidentally, I receive no money or free stuff for mentioning these products or where to get them. I just do it because I like to let people know when something comes along that's truly special.

A final note:

Several folks have written or contacted me via telephone or in person to say that they wanted to comment on something I said, but were'nt sure that they wanted to sign up with Google (which is free) in order to have their comments appear on the web site. If you don't want to go through that process, but would like to share a thought or two, email me directly at picsandpans2@aol.com and I'll pass your comments and/or suggestions on in the next installment. Sound good? Hope so.

Till the next time...