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, JosuĂ©, 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 JosuĂ©. 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...

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Grey Area

A Happy New Year to you! Here's hoping 2009 will bring peace, health, happiness and (hopefully) prosperity to us all.

I have just finished watching and re-watching an off-beat but highly-engrossing documentary called Grey Gardens. Originally released in 1975, the title references a once grand estate that, like its owners, had fallen upon hard times.

The movie itself is far from grand, being devoid of special effects, voice-overs and sophisticated lighting, editing and camera work. But it is exactly that raw quality that makes it so incredibly real.

The camera (which, at times can be seen along with the cameraman in one mirror or another) is, for the most part, that fly on the wall we hear so much about. It captures the day-to-day lives of two rather eccentric women: Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale ("Big Edie") and her fifty-six-year-old daughter, “Little Edie.” They, despite the title of the film, are the real stars of this film, with their home playing a decidedly supporting – albeit important role.

Had it not been for the fact that the Beales were closely related to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, I doubt that their story would be little more than a footnote to a local squabble between the ladies and the tony village of East Hampton, New York. But they were related to Jackie-O, which catapulted them into the spotlight.

Over close to forty years their story has been told and retold in articles and books, an off-Broadway show, two or three documentaries and a soon-to-be-released motion picture starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore. Despite all of this hubbub I had never heard of the Beale’s until I came upon Grey Gardens while sifting through Netflix's Documentary catalogue.

So what’s it all about, Alfie? It’s about promises kept and dreams quashed, it's about the ties that bind – both good and bad. It’s about having a sense (or no sense) of style. It's about dependence and independence. It’s about living in the past and yearning for the future. It's about love and caring and being caged and comforted by circumstance. But more than anything else, Grey Gardens is about the relationship between a mother and her daughter. Set within the framework of cluttered bedrooms, an antiquated kitchen, wooden deck, overgrown garden and sandy beach, it is a tale worth telling, revealed through conversations between the ladies and the people who weave in and out of their lives.

The movie opens with a series of newspaper clippings describing the trials and traumas these women faced just prior to the start of filming. It seems that "the powers that be" had done everything in their power to evict them and tear down their home, which was deemed to be both an eye-sore and health-hazard. It would take some $23,000 (eventually donated by Jackie and Ari) to bring the home's heating and plumbing systems up to code, along with over one thousand garbage bags full of this and that to save it from the wrecking ball.

Set among a shoreline of palatial retreats, Grey Gardens is, even in its renovated state, in dire need of repair, with raccoons darting here and there through a hole in the kitchen wall that gets steadily larger as the film progresses. This is the insular world of Big and not-so-little “Little Edie.”

We learn a lot about these women as the film progresses, both through what they say, and the way that they say it. There is an affectation in their speech that tells us that they once led a privileged life, where boarding schools,coming-out parties, fine jewelry, antiques and great estates were the norm. During those years,(when Big Edie was still married, and Little Edie was young enough to draw admiring glances from equally affluent admirers) the Beales summered at Grey Gardens and lived as one would expect a family of their lineage and social standing to live.

There are hints as to why Big Edie's husband divorced her, where the money went, and why Little Edie (one of three children) would choose to forgo her own independence in order to take care of her mother, but only hints. And that is, in good part, what draws us into their story.

More than almost any film commentary, the commentary that is included on this particular DVD adds a great deal of insight and revelation. After watching it and hearing what the director and editors had to say about the women, their friends, the reaction of the film when it was released and what they personally took away from the experience, I felt compelled to watch the film again. I can’t remember the last time that happened.

During that commentary and the interviews that accompany it, much is said about the way Big and Little Edie phrased things - quotes people lovingly took away from the film and incorporated into their own vocabulary, where they remain to this day. Phrases like -

“I know exactly where it is. I just can’t find it.”

“I’ve been pulverized by the extent of the latest turn of events.”

“You don’t see me as I see myself.”

And – “You’ve had enough fun all your life.”

I'm sure you'll find one or two such phrases to call your own as well.

It is obvious that filmmakers were very fond of these ladies, though watching the documentary, you may, at times, wonder why, or what they saw that was so exceptional. That’s one of the reasons why watching the commentary after you've seen the piece is so important. It gives you an insight that you – or at least I – couldn’t get just from watching the film.

In the end, I was left with many questions about why the Beales did the things they did, and what had become of them... particularly Little Edie, who so yearned to have a life of her own. I found some of the answers within the commentary, and others on the Internet. Still others, - silly things like why Little Edie always covered her head with scarves, towels and sweaters (often held together by an over-sized broach) remain a mystery.

A final note - If you're a Food Network fan, you'll want to look for what is now Ina Garten's home. It can be found early on, as the camera pans the pricey waterfront properties that made up the Beale's neighborhood.

Grey Gardens is a great way to begin a new year of films. I hope you'll rent it, enjoy it, and share your thoughts with all of us bloggers.

Till the next time...