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...